By Geoff Bottone
The Red Dragon Inn 9 – The Undercity is live on Kickstarter! Today we dive into a tale from the Undercity. Let’s meet Ygella, Beastsergeant for the Runoff Rangers responsible for keeping the citizens of the Undercity safe from the cavern’s natural flora and fauna. This is Chapter 2 of an ongoing story. Follow this link if you missed Chapter 1.
Ygella hunkered down in the back of the cave, tossing one of her axes from hand to hand, and stared at the back of the cage. Inside, her army of mighty ants were working industriously, clambering over themselves to build a heaping pile of leaf shreds and root clippings. The pile’s fresh, wet, earthy scent was already wafting back to Ygella and, though it didn’t smell all that delicious to her, she knew that her prey would find it very hard to resist.
The double doors at the front of the cage were opened wide, spread so that they touched the opposite sides of the tunnel. Hidden just beside them were two other members of the Eternal Resplendent Order of the Runoff Rangers. Ygella couldn’t see them, but she knew they’d do their duty once the time was right. They always had; they always would.
A slithering, shadowy shape undulated across the tunnel floor toward Ygella. It paused just in front of her and raised its head up to the level of her eyes.
“Hey, Coils,” whispered Ygella. “Everything in position?”
The dire worm bobbed their head–or maybe tail–in affirmation.
“All right, good. Tuck in here behind me. Once the ants are done, we’re…ah, here we go.”
The tiny army, having piled up the last of the food, spread out into two wriggling carpets and scurried out between the cage’s bars. Ygella squinted as she watched them, wanting to make sure that every single one of them was out of the cage and safely tucked into the temporary bolt holes they had dug in the tunnel walls.
Ygella nodded to herself in satisfaction as Coils slipped into a crack in the tunnel wall.
Now all they had to do was wait.
Ygella set her axe down in the dust and carefully wiped beads of sweat off of her forehead and out of her mutton chops. Her toes had fallen asleep, and she was getting a rather angry knot in her lower back, but she didn’t dare move. Not after she had been so patient for so long.
Some of the dust at her feet bounced ever so slightly at the sound. Ygella grinned and picked up her axe.
The sounds grew steadily louder, and soon the massive head of a dire groundhog appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, on the other side of the cage. It paused, angled its nose up to the ceiling, and gave a sniff. Its nose wiggled excitedly as it turned its head toward the cage, toward the pile of freshly cut and bite-sized plant matter.
Take the bait, you great fuzzy thing.
The groundhog rounded the corner, sniffing intently now. Its head was just even with the open doors of the cage.
A few more steps, thought Ygella, trying to will the creature into the trap.
The groundhog recoiled with a loud peep, and sprung back the way it came. Ygella didn’t know what had spooked it. Maybe the groundhog was smart enough to sense the trick. Maybe Ygella or the other rangers had done something to give themselves away.
That’s all right, though, thought Ygella. Time for Plan B.
“Viv,” she whispered to the ceiling. “You’re up!”
A long shadow dropped from the roof of the tunnel above Ygella’s head, unfurled silent, leathery wings, and darted off toward the groundhog. Being both a master of flight and echolocation, the dire bat had little difficulty passing between the bars of the cage. Straight as an arrow she flew, until she was right up in the groundhog’s face.
The much larger beast let out another peep of surprise and alarm. Then it let out a squeak of indignant anger as Vivien bit it squarely on the snout.
The groundhog lunged, but Vivien was too quick for it. She wheeled around in the air, flapping her wings as hard as she could. She put enough distance between herself and the groundhog so that the creature’s answering bite only snapped on empty air.
Then, with silent beats of her powerful wings, Vivien carried herself through the cage and out past the bars on the other side. She was already regaining her perch on the tunnel ceiling when the groundhog leaped into the cage to pursue her and slammed headfirst into the bars at the back.
The whole cage shook. The carefully piled scraps of plant matter scattered everywhere. The groundhog flopped back on its haunches, dazed but unhurt, as the other rangers surged from their hiding places to swing the cage doors shut behind it. Ygella stood up, gritting her teeth as her toes and back protested, once she heard the bolts on the cage door shoot home.
“That’s the way, everyone!” she said, hanging her axe from one of her many armor hooks. “Perfect job all round. Well done, well done!”
The other rangers stepped forward, unsheathing their lanterns to shine light on the dire groundhog. They took a few moments to admire the creature—it was a particularly large and healthy member of its species, with a beautiful, glossy coat and bright, shining eyes.
“All right,” said Ygella. “Let’s get the tarp on over the cage. Don’t want to cause this big boy any more stress, do we?”
The other rangers brought up long poles with hooks on the ends and, with deft movements, dropped a thick sheet of canvas down over the cage. As they fastened the corners of the sheet to the bottom of the cage, Ygella could already hear that the alarmed groundhog, plunged abruptly into a smaller, quieter pocket of darkness, was beginning to calm down.
“Ah, now, that’s a good boy.” Ygella looked over her shoulder to where the other rangers were gathered. “All right, now, let’s get the wheels on this thing! Be gentle!”
Ygella stepped away from the cage and joined the others around the levers and the jacks. In the space of a few minutes, they had lifted up the cage, popped on its large, removable wheels, and were ready to roll it back along the tunnels to ranger headquarters.
“Good job, us,” said Ygella, “Why don’t you start transporting our large, fuzzy boy. Give me a minute to round up the menagerie and I’ll join you in a few.”
“Sounds good,” said the other ranger. “Thanks again for taking point on this, Ygella. Those animals of yours sure do come in handy.”
“Aye,” she said. “They do, indeed!”
Coils had settled themself around Ygella’s neck like an oozy, pink scarf. Vivien still clung to the ceiling, resting until Ygella finally gave the order to move out. The ants, meanwhile, were crawling toward the multi-sectioned, earth-filled compartment in Ygella’s pack. She counted and named each one as they burrowed into the ant farm, making themselves as cozy as they could for the return journey.
“Zariah, Zachary, Zoe. Huh. Any of you lot seen Zebulon? Always the straggler, that one. Ah, there you are. Found a tasty morsel for the road, have you? Good on you then. Scurry on in there, now. We’ve got places to be.”
Once the tardy Zebulon had vanished beneath the earth, Ygella placed the lid on tightly and slung her bag over her shoulder. She was just about to give the call to Vivien when Coils, very gently, but very deliberately, gave her neck a squeeze.
“Who’s there?” said Ygella, as she unhooked her axe.
“Just a member of the grateful Underpublic.”
The voice that came from behind Ygella was feminine, deep, and as smooth and as cool as a well-worn passageway. There was a hint of mirth in it, and maybe twice the hint of trouble.
Ygella turned around and surveyed the voice’s owner. Being a dwarf, just about everyone was tall to Ygella, but the woman behind her was especially so. Medium-sized horns, polished to a satiny sheen, protruded from just below her hairline. Her skin was a pale reddish hue, with hints of purple on her ears and cheeks. Her eyes were covered by a pair of black-tinted spectacles that looked to Ygella like the unblinking gaze of a doll.
The horned woman wore clothing that was somehow practical, unmemorable, and stylish at the same time. Tall boots with thick soles, padded leggings, a long tunic belted with a cord dully glinting with beads, and a longer, well-tailored coat over the top of it. She had her hands in the pockets of the coat and was leaning somewhat rakishly on the tunnel wall.
“Hello,” said the horned woman, smiling an easy smile that was filled with slightly pointy teeth. “I was just passing by and happened to catch the tail end of your little operation. I must say, I’m impressed. Very neat. Very professional.”
“Thanks,” said Ygella.
She stared at the horned woman for a moment, but the dead glass of the spectacles gave her no insight into their wearer’s motives. For her part, the horned woman continued to smile.
“Anyhow,” said Ygella. “I’ve got to go and help the others. If you’ll excuse me.”
Ygella motioned for the horned woman to step aside, but she didn’t budge.
“Is it all right if I walk with you for a bit?” said the woman. “You seem to be an expert on the local fauna, and I was hoping you would be able to answer a few questions I had. If it’s not too much trouble.”
Ygella squinted. “No, I suppose it’s all right.” Then, to the ceiling, she called, “Vivien!”
The bat flew over both women’s heads and down the tunnel. Ygella followed, with the horned woman silently falling into step beside her.
“Thank you ever so much, Ygella,” said the woman. “I promise I won’t take too much of your time.”
“Appreciate it,” Ygella replied. Then she frowned. “Though it seems like you’ve got me at a disadvantage, seeing as you know my name and I don’t know yours.”
“Yes,” said the horned woman.
They walked on for a few paces.
“Well?” said Ygella.
“It’s…Well…call me Petra.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ygella sort of hoped that Petra could tell that it really wasn’t.
They walked on some more.
“Anyway,” said Petra, eventually. “I’ve just moved to the Undercity from the surface and I’m looking to get a pet for my new home. Something appropriate to the unique environment. I’d like something friendly. Easy to manage. But also, something to protect me, you know. Just in case.”
Ygella hoped that Petra didn’t notice her bristling. Traditionally, topsiders who moved down into the Undercity could be separated into two groups. The first group covered a bunch of subgroups of people you’d expect to live down in the Undercity: Folks looking for cheap rent, or who were running from something, or for whom Greyport society was a little bright and a little much, or who were up to one or more nefarious things. The second group contained the people who thought it might be fun and exciting to live underneath Greyport, who moved to the Undercity “for the culture and nightlife,” and who absolutely didn’t know what they were getting into.
She hadn’t quite figured out Petra’s angle, yet, but right now it was hard not to toss her into the second group. Just moved to the Undercity. Looking for a new pet. Oy.
“Uh huh. Well, I think that depends on a lot of things. How big your place is, for instance. How much time you spend at home. Whether or not you have the time and the energy to take ‘em out for walkies and what not. You know, the usual.”
Warming to the topic in spite of herself, Ygella gestured down at Coils. “Tyrannos worms, for instance. Smart, hardy, and quick. Never find a more loyal or more vigilant protector, to be sure. But you have to give them a lot of exercising and enrichment, otherwise they’ll destroy your house and make your life a living hell.”
“That wouldn’t do at all. I have some experience with that sort of thing and it’s not pleasant.” Petra looked over and down at Ygella for a long moment. Then she sighed and shrugged. “Anyway, what about that…ah…mole you just captured? How would they be as a pet?”
Ygella snorted. Petra was looking more and more like a candidate for group three.
“You don’t want one of them. With a lot of work—and I mean, a lot–you could maybe break one and use it as a mount. I’ve heard tell of a few people managing that. But you’d need a lot of wide-open caverns for that sort of thing, and you’d have to give it more or less constant attention. Otherwise, you’d wake up one morning and find that you’re missing a couple of walls and floors. Or worse, that your neighbors are missing them. That’s never good. Undercity’s got ordinances about that kind of thing.”
“Sure, sure it’s just they’re so adorable and, you know, squishy.”
“So are bears.”
“Yes.” Petra strode on in silence for a moment. Then she said, “Is it true that they dig very quickly?”
Ygella nodded. “Quicker than lightning. They can dig a hundred-foot-long tunnel in a couple minutes. Faster, even, if you really get them going.”
“That’s pretty quick,” said Petra. “And people can use them as mounts, you said?”
“I did say, but I also said you gotta put a lot of work into training them before they’ll let you ride them. And even then, if you’re not careful, you don’t know where they’ll take you. Sometimes they’ll bound through caverns and down tunnels just fine. Other times, they’ll get spooked and dig you right down to the Depths, or deeper.”
Petra stroked her chin and tilted her head forward. “Still, though, it would be possible? And you can ride them while they tunnel?”
“If you don’t mind getting a face full of muck, sure.”
Petra brightened. “Excellent. So, all it would need is the necessary control, like what you have with your pets, and then—”
“Now see here.” Ygella stopped abruptly and turned to glare up at Petra. “You have some notions that I have to disabuse you of regarding animals. Firstly, these animals aren’t just my pets. They’re my friends. We have a very unique working and living relationship, you see. One built on years of trust and respect. They do things that I ask them to do because they know that I am always looking out for them, and because I would never ask too much of them. And sometimes, when they don’t do what I want them to do, I just have to hike up my short pants and accept that decision, because these are thinking, feeling creatures here, not something that you can just control.”
The black glass of the spectacles reflected Ygella’s face and anger.
“I apologize,” said Petra at last, her voice deep and quiet. “I never meant to denigrate the bond that you have with your friends, and I should have chosen my words more carefully. I see now that I have a great deal more to think about before acquiring a pe…a friend…to share my Undercity abode with me.”
Petra smiled and, for the first time, took her hands out of her pockets. She extended one across the narrow gap between them, for Ygella to shake.
After a moment’s consideration, Ygella took it. The skin of Petra’s hand was warm—almost hot. If she had been anyone else, Ygella would have been concerned that the horned woman was burning up with fever.
The two women stared at one another, eyes to spectacles, as they locked their hands in reciprocal iron grips. Ygella could have exerted more pressure, but she suspected that Petra could do the same, and so she soon relented, returning her hand to her side.
“Thank you very much for your time, Ygella,” said Petra, with a nod that brought the sharp tips of her horns just a bit too close to Ygella’s head. “I hope to see you around sometime.”
“Likewise,” said Ygella, though she didn’t feel it. She said nothing else, and merely stood still and waited while Petra walked down a side passageway and into the murky gloom.
Coils squeezed Ygella’s neck another time.“I agree. I definitely agree.”
By the time Ygella had gotten back to headquarters, the other rangers had already locked away the dire groundhog in the quarantine section. She stripped out of her armor and settled herself into a bath of hot, soapy water. Then Ygella grabbed a stiff brush and got to scrubbing.
She was working the grit out from between her toes when Marshall Budecca, a half-orc with a famously long and ornately braided mane of hair, came in and began stowing her gear in her heavily-varnished wooden locker.
“Ygella,” said the marshall, in her customarily emotionless and gravelly voice. “Good work out there, today.”
“Thanks, marshall,” said Ygella. “Couldn’t have done it without the others.”
Budecca only grunted in response. She sat down heavily on one of the room’s numerous benches and worked her light green feet out of her muddy boots.
“What are you doing this coming Shalnsday?” said Budecca at last.
“Dunno. I’d have to look at the schedule, but probably routine stuff. Patrols. Rescuing baby alligators that the topsiders flushed down from Greyport. Paperwork. That sorta thing. Why?”
Budecca grunted. “Thieves’ Guild is throwing their annual masquerade ball in their upstairs HQ that day. It’s partly a celebration of their successes in the Undercity, partly a meet and greet with the movers and shakers from Greyport. Anyway, I was thinking it would look good if we had a representative from the Order attend. Show that we’re good with what the Guild’s doing on the Undercity’s behalf. Remind them that we do good work of our own down here, as well.”
Ygella meditatively scrubbed the brush along the back of her neck before finally saying, “I’d prefer not.”
Budecca leveled a gaze at her. “Why not?”
“I don’t have a problem with the Guild or what they do,” Ygella said. “Nobody can say that they haven’t done good work down here in the Undercity. But I don’t like topside, I don’t like politics, and I don’t like parties.”
The marshall nodded. “Don’t much blame you,” she said. “But that being said–”
Fortunately for Ygella’s Shalnsday night plans, the perimeter alarm went off, loudly clanging in the hallway outside of the bathhouse. As marshall Budecca shoved her feet into her boots, Ygella reached for her towel.
“What do you mean, you didn’t see anything?!” Marshall Budecca roared.
While the rangers outside the quarantine section tried to explain what had happened, Ygella strode past them to more closely inspect the swinging security door. The metal of the door had been warped, so much so that it could no longer be closed properly. The heavy padlock that had once held the door closed lay on the cavern floor in smoking pieces, blackened and twisted from extreme heat.
Ygella pushed the door open wide enough for her to pass through it, and entered the cacophonous cavern on the other side. Rangers were running this way and that, trying to calm the dozens of rescued animals that needed to be rehomed. Flightless underbirds squawked. Landsharks roared. Lionmoles hissed, spit, and lashed their barbed tails against the reinforced bars of their cages.
She took in the whole scene at a glance. The animals weren’t angry. They weren’t being territorial. They were terrified. Someone or something had come into the quarantine area and had spooked them, badly. And it didn’t take Ygella any time at all to figure out what it was.
The cage that had once housed the dire groundhog lay open and empty, its latch and bars melted and warped by the same intense heat that had destroyed the outer door. Ygella stared astonished at the lock, which looked like it had been squished and twisted like soft clay. She was fairly sure she could see fingerprints in the metal.
Immediately to the right of the cage, a humped ring of dirt marked the opening of a hastily dug tunnel that bored through the hard-packed earth of the cavern’s floor.
The skin of Petra’s hand had been warm—almost hot.
“Anyway, what about that…ah…mole you just captured? How would they be as a pet?”
Is it true that they dig very quickly?
“You can ride them while they tunnel?”
“All it would need is the necessary control.”
“Hell and damnation!” shouted Ygella, adding her voice to the throng of croaks, roars, whistles, and squeaks. “Should’ve put that horned girl in the first group after all!”
She turned to a startled ranger. “We need to get a group together and get down in that tunnel.”
“Styntan is already on it,” came the reply.
As if summoned by someone saying his name, Styntan, a halfling ranger, poked his head up from the hole.
“It’s no good,” he said apologetically. “Tunnel’s clean for maybe fifty feet or so, then it’s all caved in. It’d take us hours to clear the breach. Maybe more, depending on–”
Ygella was already walking away, Coils rasping nervously at the skin on her neck as she stomped out of the quarantine section and up to Marshall Budecca.
“–and that’s all we saw. We swear.” The terrified rangers, having just finished up, turned to regard Ygella nervously.
“It’s not their fault,” she said, barely keeping her anger in check. “It’s mine.”
Then she told Marshall Budecca everything.
“Hnn,” said the marshall. “Well, that’s hardly your fault. This Petra person was already hellbent on making mischief, despite your warnings. Still, we can’t let a beast like that groundhog continue to run loose, especially if it’s in the hands of some fool of a relocated topsider looking to play exotic pet owner.”
“That’s true,” said Ygella. “And that’s why I’d like to be the one that goes after her and the groundhog.”
The marshall considered this for a moment before nodding. “Done. But just remember that I’m not blaming you for this. Not even if it’s a convenient excuse to get out of going to a masked ball.”
Ygella felt Coils’ steadying grip on her neck as she choked back some choice and sarcastic words.
“I appreciate it,” she managed to finally spit out. “Thank you, marshall.”