Tink tink tink
It was a sound he'd heard so many times before. The sound of the mines where Marv spent his days. Countless other Dwarves, not unlike himself, were scattered in the distance, each in a separate passage connected by a central mineshaft. Their picks caught the light of the nearby lanterns as they chipped rhythmically at the cavernous walls. Like ants building their home, the Dwarves dug.
Marv glanced at his pickaxe. Old, and covered in soot, he rose it to strike again at the stone before him. The dust-covered him as well, making the creases on his arms, face, and neck more prominent where the dark powder hadn't settled. His reddish-brown hair bobbed in a knot on top of his head as he worked with a few stray locks dancing past his sad eyes.
Some days were harder than others to swing that pick.
Marv reached in his pocket and pulled something out. A whittled wooden deer of poor craftsmanship sat in his blackened palm. The ridges of it were darkened with age and use.
One more week, he thought to himself. He wrapped his fingers around the deer and plunged it back into his pocket
"Marv. You alright, lad?"
Marv looked up to find the source of the question, but he already knew who it was. A greying Dwarf looked at him with worried eyes that still somehow glimmered with mischief. His wiry hair blended into his beard, making it hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Marv looked up to the Dwarf’s dark eyes set beneath unkempt eyebrows, and then back to the ground. "I miss her, Griff. I miss them both." Marv said with the dampness in his eyes as he continued to stare at his own blackened boots.
"Ay. I know, it can't be easy sending your family off to an unexplored land. But you're almost ready to go yourself, right?" Griff said.
"One more week and I'm out of this pit to join them." Softer and more to himself, Marv repeated, "One more week."
"It sure is going to be boring around here once you leave. Who else is going to help me fill the foreman's office with glow newts once you're gone?" Griff said with a chuckle.
"What do you mean 'with’? You did that all on your own and roped me in when you got caught!" Marv rolled his eyes and couldn’t help but chuckle at his friend's convenient half-truth.
"Fine. Who am I gonna blame then?"
"I guess you'll have to find a new clean-lung to torment," Marv said, jabbing a thumb in the direction of some new hires in a nearby tunnel. His grin grew to a full smile this time, welcoming the distraction.
"Ah. Why hadn't I thought of that? Oh, wait. I did!" said Griff. He laughed a hearty laugh and Marv couldn't help but join in.
Griff continued, "You excited to explore the new land then? Where did it come from anyway?"
"No clue. Sailors from those parts are saying it wasn't there one night, and the next morning it was. They're calling it Daegal. Whatever it is, it's a way out of this place. I just hope it's as safe as that captain promised."
"Well, if I could find the coin to join you, I would. Sure would be an advent—." Griff was cut off by a scream. Both of their heads snapped to look the direction of the sound just in time to see a Dwarf fly across the top of the central mineshaft, slam into the opposite wall, and then plummet into the darkness below, screaming in terror as he fell. All that followed was a guttural shout in an unknown language. Marv's heart sank.
I'm too late.
Shouts of battle and the clanging of weapons echoed through the cavern above.
Marv glanced at Griff and was met with creased eyebrows. "Marv, we need to get out of here!" he said.
"How? If they're up there then they'll be blocking the entrance too." Marv replied.
"That's not the only way out, lad," said Griff with a wry smirk.
"Oh, come on. You've got to be kidding me!"
"You know it's our best shot at getting out of here alive." Griff began jogging toward the central mineshaft as he said it.
"Yeah. Just a hair better than trying to fight the serpents ourselves, I suppose." Marv said, still staying put. He considered his chances as Griff disappeared around the corner, let out an arrghh, and chased after the old Dwarf.
He caught up with Griff and the two Dwarves ran up a few levels of the spiraling stone paths carved into the walls of the central mineshaft. They passed mine tracks and other tunnels that they had explored many times before while the screams of battle and clanging of weapons rang out above them. They came to a platform where several mine carts were lined up outside of a large metal door. Griff began wedging his pick into the door frame and Marv joined after a moment's hesitation.
"One. Two. THREE!" the Dwarves shouted together and the door swung open with a loud metallic screech.
The inside was lit by the familiar bluish-green glow of dreamshade mushrooms, dim enough to make Marv take a deep breath before entering. Powdered stone, coal, and ore covered the floor in a sandy texture. They walked down the corridor into a hallway with recessed jail-like cells lining the walking path — one after another.
Marv looked from cage to cage as they passed. "How do you know none of them were out when the lizards attacked?"
"I don't. That's part of the fun of it." Griff responded like he was enjoying it.
Marv grabbed Griff's shoulder to stop him. "Griff. I want to see my family again. Please. We need to be careful."
Griff looked at the ground. "If I know anything about you, lad, it's that you don't give up." He turned and looked Marv in the eyes. "You're gonna see your family again. I have no doubts about that." He paused, then smiled. "Besides, they never let them out."
A hiss echoed through the narrow tunnel. The sound came from ahead of them in the dark hallway. Both Dwarves startled at the sound.
"That came from one of the cages, right?" Marv said.
Griff walked forward and tapped one of the metal bars with his pick. The hiss echoed again as a creature charged the front of its small prison.
Marv averted his eyes. "Don't look at its eyes! I hear these things can make you blind or something if you meet their gaze."
Griff looked away as well. "Sounds like a dangerous pet."
The Dwarves turned to continue their walk when they noticed that the next cage was open. Marv peeked his head far enough in to see, but there were no creatures. In this cage, there was only a stone statue of a Dwarf carved in amazing detail, one of its arms missing. Marv raised an eyebrow as he gestured to Griff.
“What do you thi—”
He was interrupted by a noise from one of the first cages they had passed. A squeal of metal on metal rang out behind them.
The Dwarves turned and spotted a grey lizard with a blue irregular stripe down its side emerging from its cell. A basilisk. A creature used in some part of the refining process of preparing ore and gems, though Marv knew only a little from stories. If it stood up on its hind legs, it would be about the size of the Dwarves, but it skittered on six clawed feet instead.
The creature turned its head toward Marv and Griff and the Dwarves narrowly avoided the beast's gaze.
“Run!” Griff yelled.
"I thought they didn't let them out!" Marv yelled as they ran.
Griff huffed out between breaths, "That's what you get, lad...huff huff..for trusting a crazy old Dwarf."
The basilisk sounded fast. Its clacking claws on the stone floor grew louder and louder, though the Dwarves dared not look its way.
It was gaining on them.
Fear was building in Marv’s chest. His thoughts raced as he tried his best to keep his pace. He couldn’t accept his fate, to die in the mines while his family was alone on an island. He wouldn’t allow it. They needed him. And he needed them.
Marv glanced up between breaths and spotted a familiar small door in the wall.
"Keep running!" he yelled to Griff.
"I was planning on it!" Griff replied.
Marv slowed his pace and turned down a side corridor as Griff continued straight. Marv stopped running and turned to face the basilisk.
His body shook, still heaving from the run, but in that moment, Marv was calm. He watched the floor just ahead of the basilisk’s chin as it charged toward him. It’s long pointed tongue hung from its mouth, bouncing along with each stride.
Marv was ready for it. He dove parallel to the wall at his back and rolled across the dusty floor just in time to watch the creature plunge itself into an ore chute in the wall.
Marv stared at the still-swinging door with his mouth wide, amazed that it worked. He panted heavily, but he wasn't sure if it was from running, adrenaline, or both.
Griff, after taking a moment to hobble back to the scene, leaned against the wall near the chute and said, “That was some quick thinking there, lad. Now that thing’s off to the cooker. Hah!”
“Aye, but there might be another one around here somewhere. We better get moving.”
The Dwarves continued down the dim stone hallway. Griff was leading the way toward the exit when Marv had a thought.
“Griff, don’t these back corridors connect to the treasury?”
“That they do, lad.”
“And which way would that be?”
Griff pointed down a nearby hallway. “It’s down that way if I remember right. ...Why?”
“Get out of here safely. All right, old man? I’ll meet you in Briqor.” Marv slapped Griff on the shoulder as he said it.
Griff’s eyes went wide. “You can’t go in there. The treasury is back near the fighting. The lizards might even be in there already. They might not care much for money but they do want to cripple us.”
“I know, but there’s no way I’m getting my last pay now. I’ll just ask for an advance” Marv tried to crack a smile and replicate Griff's humor, but his lips still quivered slightly with fear.
“Marv. Don’t do this. You’re gonna get yourself killed. There are other ways to get money.”
“For a Dwarf like me? No. Not enough money to get me to Daegal. It's a three-week journey and I have no skills to offer aside from whittling and breaking rocks. This is how I get to see my family again.”
Griff looked to the exit, then back at Marv. “Then I’m coming with you.”
“Griff. I can’t ask you to—”
“Not another word, lad. Let’s get you back to your family.”
Marv's mouth was a thin line. After a moment, he nodded and turned toward the treasury. The two Dwarves jogged down the blue-tinted passage in silence, their pickaxes at their sides.
At the end of the hallway was a large metal door with a locking mechanism that covered most of its face. Marv waited for nothing and began slamming his pick into it at different angles, hoping to catch some weak point to release the lock.
After minutes of wailing on the door, he stopped — a scowl on his face. He would have to try something else. He leaned on his pick to think while Griff tried prying at a few of the door’s raised edges.
A distant sound echoed through the halls, breaking the silence as Marv thought. It was the hiss of another basilisk. It could be one of the creature’s still locked in its cage, but Marv was pretty sure the cages were too far away to be heard. At any rate, it was enough motivation to get Marv to try anything to get the door open.
He stuck the small end of his pick into the keyhole trying to release the locking mechanism. Several minutes passed with no progress. Then, he felt something that wasn’t there on previous attempts. Marv twisted one way and then the other while Griff pried at the side of the door opposite of its hinges. Several rods in the door clinked open and the door swung free.
“Haha, well how about that!” Marv's excitement faded instantly by the realization that he wasn’t the one to unlock the door. A shadow loomed over him in the door’s wake. He looked up and met the gaze of a 7-foot tall Saurian. Her red scales glistened in the torchlight and highlighted a wound she had recently received. Blood trickled down her arm.
Well, at least I know they can bleed, Marv thought.
The creature hissed and swung its dull bone sword and the two Dwarves rolled to either side. While the lizard recoiled for another strike, Marv darted past into the treasury behind it.
The lizard turned and clawed at Marv while launching Griff into the wall with its tail in the same motion. The claws tore into Marv’s shoulder as he dove behind a table.
He looked around the room. To the right was a corridor with an open door at its far end. Beyond it, Marv could see blades and hammers crashing against each other. To his left was an ornate metal desk and a series of bookshelves containing what looked to be records.
The lizard stomped around the table and belched words in a tongue he did not understand. It was guttural and terrifying.
Marv ran past the bookshelves looking frantically for some stash of coin but only found more records.
The one place that should have piles of valuables and it was empty. There was nothing.
Temporarily lost in his search, Marv had nearly forgotten about the towering red lizard stalking after him. He turned. There was no sign of Griff and the monster now had Marv cornered.
The red Saurian moved slowly as if toying with a mouse caught in a trap.
She pulled a javelin from her back and launched it at Marv. Marv dodged and the weapon came so close that it lopped off a lock of his dirty red hair before it clattered against the stone.
Marv looked down at the javelin. He moved to grab it, but another flew just passed his nose. He was no match for her.
His chest burned with fear, but not fear of death; nor fear of the Saurian herself. It was a terror that he might not ever see his family again. He wouldn’t ever feel the warm embrace of Talia again. He wouldn’t get to hear Abigail’s childish giggle, or see her grow up.
Marv set his jaw and clutched the wooden deer in his pocket.
He looked the lizard straight in the eyes. Then he did the one thing he assumed the lizard wouldn’t expect.
Marv charged her and watched the swing of her bone-sword carefully; the whittled deer still in his hand. He pivoted as swung his pick to deflect the sword into a nearby bookshelf and he slid along the floor out of the warrior’s reach. An explosion of jewels and coins spilled out where the sword impacted the base of the bookshelf.
Of course. They keep it hidden.
Marv got back to his feet and looked at the money. It was enough to build a safe home on Daegal; enough to bring Griff with him too. But standing between him and it was a towering enemy of his people.
The wound on his shoulder throbbed; the blood running down his back and making his shirt slick. A stinging pain began to radiate through him as he heaved for breath. But he knew that giving up was not an option.
He clutched the wooden deer tightly and pictured Talia and Abigail’s faces. He remembered them vividly and centered his thoughts on why he was here—why he was facing down this warrior serpent twice his own size. He needed to see his family again, and he would.
Marv heard yelling coming from the corridor where Griff had been slammed into the wall. The yell was followed by a familiar hiss.
The Saurian warrior pulled her sword free of the shattered bookcase and stalked after Marv with a new look on her face. Marv thought it might be anger, but he had heard that the lizards don’t feel emotion. Maybe embarrassment?
The creature stomped over the central desk like it was a single stair. Marv tossed books at her and she swatted them away, with reptilian eyes bent downward into what looked like a scowl.
He heard Griff's quick footsteps growing louder and Marv ran past the doorway. The lizard charged after him but stopped short as it turned to see Griff running into the room, in a full sprint.
The Saurian stabbed her blade at him. Griff tried to duck, but she had learned from her attacks on Marv, and Griff was slower. The blade pierced Griff's gut and lifted him off the ground.
“No!” Marv screamed — the life now draining from Griff.
The warrior let out a laugh as she looked from Griff to Marv. Then, Griff's pursuer came running into the room just behind him. It caught the Saurian off guard. She looked and met the basilisk's eyes. In seconds, she turned to solid stone.
The Saurian statue still held Griff aloft; dying and tears rained down Marv's face.
Griff choked on the blood in his mouth, and said, “Give little Abby a kiss for me, lad.” At that, he turned his head and met the basilisk's gaze, and he too turned to stone. A statue of the bravest Dwarf Marv had ever known.
Marv wiped the tears with his sleeve and the basilisk began to take bites of the petrified Saurian warrior. Each bite seemed to turn the material soft again in the creature's mouth.
Marv ran to the pile of wealth on the floor and gently scooped jewels, coins, and an odd-looking stone into a sack. He crept past the snacking basilisk which seemed preoccupied with its meal and bolted down the hallway. Marv found the exit Griff had pointed out earlier and didn't stop running for some time.
He escaped Hallum through long-forgotten back passages and reached the surface world. He walked through forests, swamps, and grasslands for over a week, blaming himself for Griff's death the whole way. The thoughts broke him, but they drove him forward too. Griff died for this. He died to get Marv back to his family—and he would see his family again.
Marv reached Briqor and secured passage to the new land, having plenty of jewels to spare. He spent the three weeks of his journey whittling a block of wood to look like Griff, to the best of his memory. The old Dwarf who saved his life, and made it possible to see his family again.
As the ship approached the new land and Marv was able to make out the tents and huts of the colony, Marv stood on the deck smiling, with tears in his eyes. He looked down at the wooden Griff clutched in his hand and then back to the Dwarven settlement.
Thank you, old friend.