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Something hammered Ferras Vansen hard in the back and knocked him forward so that he spilled Jasper and several of the warders like skittles. Vansen lost his spear and was feeling for it when something grabbed his collar and wrenched him another few paces across the stony cavern floor.
“What . . .? ” He struggled to his knees, but before he could turn to see what had grabbed him, a nightmare shape lurched out of a dark place along the wall, a glowing obscenity that Vansen could not even understand, twice as big as a cart horse and with more legs than anything that large should have.
“Perin’s Hammer!” he shouted in sudden fright, shoving himself upright and stumbling backward from the huge creature so quickly that he lost his balance and fell down again. All around him the Funderlings were also retreating, howling in dismay and amazement.
It was a monstrous spider or insect, something Vansen could not recognize and would not be able to see at all except for its own green-blue glow. It lumbered toward them with frightening speed, its armored body making a noise like the creaking of bellows-leather; when he saw it whole, he wished he hadn’t. The indistinct outline had not only spiderish legs but claws like a crab’s and some kind of huge tail swaying above its broad back.
“Have you fire?” a voice said from behind him. “They fear it a little. I chased one away with a torch, but that has long burned away.”
Vansen put a large, round stone between himself and the creature, then took a swift glance backward. The light from his coral lamp fell onto a strange, long-jawed, bearded face—the Qar scout, Spelter. “No fire,” Vansen said. “Where is the rest of your company?”
“Dead or lost.” Spelter spoke the language surprisingly well—one of the reasons he’d been chosen to travel with the Funderlings, no doubt. “We were separated hours ago when the first of these things came out of a tunnel and took the leader and two of the others. Crushed them with its claws. The rest scattered. I tried to get back to Ancestor’s Place, to our temple-camp, but found this thing between me and the way back.”
“That was you who grabbed me, then?”
“Yes. I heard your voices coming. I did not know exactly where it was waiting, and I was afraid to call because it hunted me, too.”
The creaking, whistling monster abruptly tried to clamber up onto the boulder that shielded Vansen and the drow; the monster’s scent, musty and slightly fishy, filled Vansen’s nostrils. Its huge claws clacked above their heads as he and Spelter scrambled backward. Vansen thought for a moment that they might be able to make a run for the passage that had led them to the chamber, but the creature backed down off the rock and began making its slow way around the wide boulder again, searching almost blindly. Then it lurched forward again, astonishingly fast, this time scraping around the side of the rock where Vansen couldn’t see it; an instant later it scuttled back with a screeching Funderling warder in its claw. The little man struggled helplessly, and although his comrades stabbed at the monster with their heavy spears, the blows could not penetrate the thing’s armor. The Funderling was pulled into the dark region at the front of the head. Vansen heard a hideous crunching noise, and the screaming abruptly stopped.
Sledge Jasper had managed to climb up on top of the boulder, where he was stabbing almost dementedly at the creature. It spread its claws and lifted its front section onto the rock, then the long, lumpy tail quivered as if in preparation for a strike. Vansen jumped up and caught at Jasper’s clothing, yanking backward so that the Funderling fell on top of him only inches ahead of a swipe from the deadly tail. Vansen could smell the venom, a sour, hard smell like hot metal. Some of it spattered onto Sledge Jasper, who screamed and began writhing on the floor as if he’d been burned. The Qar, Spelter, leaped to help him.
Vansen stood. “We can’t let it keep us pinned down!” he shouted to the others. “Get out into the center of the cave!”
He led the warders to a spot in the middle of a small forest of stone spikes. He grabbed at one with his hand and was able to break off the very tip, but decided that the spikes were thick enough to give some protection. He turned back to help Spelter drag Jasper into the center of the open space he’d chosen, then quickly set the terrified Funderlings into a tight-packed arrangement, spears pointing outward like the spines of a hedgehog.
The monstrous, green-glowing thing came stilting toward them again but could not immediately pass between the stone spikes. It stopped short a few paces away from Vansen’s side. He leaped out and stabbed hard at the place he thought the thing should have eyes, but his gurodir only skimmed off hard plate. The tail lashed at him. He danced back out of its reach and his coral lamp fell off his head. Strangely, the monster’s glow dimmed, as though some inner light had guttered and almost failed. Vansen snatched up the headband and jumped back into the forest of stones, putting his back against the nearest Funderlings as he pulled his lamp into place. The creature was glowing brightly again. It was too big, too strong, too well armored. Vansen could see no way to defeat it.
But what else could they do except fight? From what Spelter had said, this many-legged beast was not the only one of its kind, and even if they could hold it off, that would only bring more unsuspecting Funderlings out in search of them, no better armed against such a horror than they had been.
What would be useful against this thing? Fire, likely—Spelter had said he drove one away with a torch. But what else? It seemed like nothing short of a rifle ball would pierce it and the Funderlings did not have such things. There was Chert’s bombard, the one that had devastated the attacking Qar, but they hadn’t brought one of those along on this expedition. Still, if they survived, it would be something to think about . . .
So—spears and my sword, and a few rocks. If they couldn’t beat the creature with the long, strong gurodir spears, they certainly weren’t going to be able to kill it with a few small stones . . .
A sudden idea came to him—an unlikely one, but Vansen was growing more desperate by the moment. The many-legged monster had tired of trying to butt its way through the stalagmites and was attempting to climb over them instead, and was slowly, awkwardly succeeding. The faces of Vansen’s Funderling allies were full of hopeless terror.
“Spelter,” he called to the Qar scout. “How is he?”
The langedy-legged man, as Jasper had called him, looked up. “He’s burned, but most of the venom is on his plate. . . .” He jabbed at the armor with his finger where it lay in a heap beside Sledge Jasper, who was murmuring and twitching as if in a deep fever.
“Leave him. One of the others can see to him.” Vansen told the drow scout what he wanted him to find. “I can’t see well enough, Spelter, but you can. Go, find it for us! We’ll keep the thing’s attention here.”
Spelter went so quickly that he seemed to vanish like a ghost at dawn. Vansen turned back to the rest of the men, who were crouching as far back from the approaching beast as they could. “Spears up and jabbing!” he ordered. “If you can’t find something soft to jab at like a joint or an eye, just whack at the cursed thing as hard as you can! And shout!” He didn’t even know if the creature had ears, but he was leaving nothing to chance.
The monster was almost upon them, teetering on a high spike of rock, legs flailing as it sought purchase to pull itself off the pinnacle. The shouts of Vansen and the Funderlings became louder, fueled by panic. The thing actually caught one of the warders in a sweeping claw, but with the Funderling in its grip it could not pull its claw-arm back. Two more warders leaped at it, prying at the crablike claw until the wounded man fell out onto the ground, gasping and coughing, bleeding in a wide band across his chest where his mail shirt had been crushed against his flesh.
The monster tipped and slid backward a little, then could not get up onto the pointed stone again. Heartened, the Funderlings redoubled their efforts, cracking on the beast’s armor so hard with the ends of their heavy spears that they made a noise like high-pitched thunder in the echoing cavern.
Vansen had his spear in one hand and his sword in the other. Once he even managed to get his spear into the thing’s bizarre mouth, but could not drive it in more than a few inches, and although the monster shied back it did not seem badly hurt. Another moment he saw a black spot that he thought must be an eye on the side of the weird, flat head, but when he tried to reach it with his sword, the beast almost took his head off with a flailing leg and he had to retreat behind a stalagmite.
Vansen was tiring and knew the Funderlings were tiring as well, but the monster did not seem to tire. They were running out of time.
The creature took a few many-legged steps back to find another angle of attack, and as it did, it moved beyond the Funderlings’ reach. The clatter of spear on shell stopped, and in that moment of comparative quiet Vansen heard Spelter calling them: “Here! Here! Come now!”
“Follow his voice,” he hissed to the warders, then bent down to scoop up the small but solid body of Sledge Jasper and toss him over his shoulder. “Go—now!”
The Funderlings ran deeper into the cavern, away from the center where the stone pinnacles sprouted everywhere. Only a moment passed before the monster realized what they were doing and came legging after them.
“Here!” shouted Spelter. He was standing near one of the sloping walls of the cavern, half-hidden behind a large, mostly rounded stone many times his size which looked to have been rolled there when the world was young by some god playing at bowls. “Here, help me!”
Vansen got there last and carefully lowered the senseless Jasper to the ground. “It’s too big. We’ll never move it!”
“Balanced. Not so difficult—if we work hard!” Spelter said breathlessly. He had clearly begun already. Vansen and several of the Funderlings hurriedly clambered onto the curving shelf of rock beside him and jammed their spears into the space between the round stone and the wall.
Vansen set his booted foot against the stone and leaned back hard, testing the flexibility of his spear. If it broke, he might well kill himself or one of his fellows with the shards before the monster even reached them, but for the moment it was holding together.
“Everybody!” Vansen shouted. “Now!” The other Funderlings did their best to find a place to throw their own weight and strength against the perched stone, their spears bending like saplings. Vansen felt blood in his temples threatening to boil and burst out, but the stone was not moving and the glowing, spiderlike monster was moving toward them, in no hurry now that it had them out from behind cover and against a wall with nowhere else to run.
Something was pulling hard at his leg. For a terrifying moment Vansen thought it was another one of the creatures, then he realized it was the half-naked form of Sledge Jasper, with armor and helmet gone and a blistering burn up the side of his face, trying to use Vansen’s leg to climb up and help.
“Give me room, you cursed, gawky upgrounder!” Jasper cried, then shoved the butt of his spear into the crack between stone and floor and lifted his legs off the ground, swinging on the spear until it bent nearly double. The others, too weary now to do anything but keep pulling, leaned back into their own spears. Vansen shoved his back down against the wall so he could use both legs at the same time. The creature lifted its snapping claws, each the size of a fiddler’s bass viol, and reared up on its hindmost legs. Then the stone moved.
Vansen had only a moment to notice that nothing was holding him up before he fell heavily to the floor of the cavern, Funderlings tumbling all around him like frozen sparrows dropping from winter branches. The boulder tottered, then tipped and rolled down the short incline. At first it seemed to move so slowly that Vansen thought it was impossible the monster would fail to evade it, but either the thing’s tiny eyes or its weak wits betrayed it, and it only waved its claws impotently as the rock, three times the monster’s height, rolled over it and crushed it with a dreadful, wonderful wet crunch. By the time the boulder came to a halt again some twenty paces on, part of the monster was still stuck to it, but most lay in a ruined smear of shadow on the cavern floor, only a leg or two that the stone had missed still showing any last, fitful movement.
“Go!” Vansen shouted. “Back the way we came in, before another one finds us! Go now, and stay together . . . !” The indescribable smell of the thing was so strong as they ran past it that Vansen had to stop shouting and clamp his teeth together to keep from being sick.