Screams echoed through the caverns, muted through miles of stone, vibrating the dark, rushing waters of an underground river before stilling into silence. The anguished sounds invaded Dako's dreams, an edge of fear stealing rest from his sleep. The wizard struggled to wake, groggy and sore. His head hurt and his eyes were dry and grainy as he blinked at the feeble candle light. Dako could taste bile in his throat, and his skin was hot and clammy. He looked around carefully before sitting up, letting his senses adjust to this place. The last he remembered, Dermott was climbing from a pit and then a sharp pain. Nothing after until now, where he lay on filthy furs that smelled of rotted meat and bodily humors. Sweat, blood, piss, and vomit, the wizard thought, lips twisting in distaste. Some of it was probably his.
The candle flickered nearby, a stub set firmly into a rock on the floor. A piece of canvas was stretched above him like a tent, but tied off to the stalagmites along the floor instead of stakes. Dako sighed at this undeniable evidence that whatever had happened, he was still trapped in the gods forsaken cave. He was naked but for the furs that thankfully covered him.
Another pile of furs lay nearby, lumped over a large, snoring form that was likely Dermott. The barbarian burrowed further into his bed as another heart rending scream tore the air. Dako winced at the sound, wondering what kind of hell he had woken to. As silently as he could, the wizard slid out of his coverings and stood. The canvas was high enough that he could stand straight, though Dermott would have to stoop. The air was warm and damp, with an odd tang in the air Dako could not place. It was strange given the last several days of chill, but he could worry about that later. He looked around, hoping to spot clothing or equipment.
Near the opening of their odd tent, the wizard spotted the edge of his robe poking out from a pile of other fabric. He crept across to it and crouched down to sort through the garments. Many were bloodstained and belonged to neither him nor his companions. He did recognize Dermott's shirt and a pair of familiar trousers that were likely Jon's. That meant the rogue was here someplace too, though not in their tent. He froze at scuffling sounds outside, a dim outline briefly pressing against the canvas followed by the scent of wet dog. A yipping hiss followed the motion and then garbled speech. Dako thought it sounded vaguely draconic, a language he knew in writing but had never yet heard spoken.
On the heels of that thought came a wellspring of panic. Dermott had found kobold signs and now this. It meant the kobolds had them and probably Jonai too. A crocodilian head poked in the opening and looked around, orange gaze settling on Dako, confirming his conclusions. The creature said something, leering at him with a pointy toothed grin. The wizard shook his head and the creature tried again, its speech vaguely elven in sound. Dako nearly jumped when Dermott grunted a reply in kind and sat up, rubbing his face. The barbarian looked worse for wear, bruised and scraped, dried blood crusted above one ear.
Whatever was said, the kobold left looking satisfied. "What did it want?" the wizard asked, curious and horrified all at once. He had heard tales of those captured by kobolds and kept alive for sport, tortured each day until they could take no more. Death he could face, but years of pain? Dismemberment? Dako tried to keep his expression calm and level as he waited for a reply.
"It asked if you were hungry. I said yes." Dermott yawned and scratched himself, standing. The barbarian was as naked as the day he was born, and seemed not to mind one bit. Dako was too confused by his reply to care.
"Hungry? I don't understand. Do kobolds feed their victims?" He grabbed his robe and tugged it out of the pile, then shrugged it on. It made him feel a little less vulnerable and a little more in control.
"Nah, not usually. But uh . . . hey are my clothes over there too?" Dermott gestured to the pile.
"Probably," the wizard replied, not willing to be dissuaded. "So why are they feeding me? Us?"
The barbarian grinned and went to the pile, making Dako wait as he sorted through. The clothes he pulled out were not his, but of a much finer quality if blood-spattered. "These 'll do." He dressed slowly, admiring the cut and adjusting the fit. The pants were short on him, but long enough that it looked right when he rolled the cuff.
"Quit taunting me, damn it! I need to know what's going on," Dako demanded, voice rising. Another kobold poked it's head in, startling the wizard. It looked from one to the other of them and then asked in almost understandable Common speech, "What it do?"
"It wants food and it's treasures," Dermott answered. "And it wants them now." He made a shooing gesture at the kobold, which it didn't seem to like.
"It have them, it have them," the creature barked. "You not be cocky to Ixenjaxo soon, big-big," it growled, baring its teeth before ducking back out.
"What in the seven hells is going on?" Dako stared after the kobold, exasperated by this latest nonsensical exchange.
"It's complicated," the barbarian shrugged, settling back onto his furs. "See, they caught Jon. Caught 'im sneakin' near their mines, if I un'nerstand 'em." Dermott motioned toward the opening. "The bastard stabbed their leader good. Got 'im right in the gut, just so -" the barbarian made a stabbing gesture to emphasize his point.
Dako frowned. "I fail to see what that has to do with our situation."
"I'm gettin' there. Hold yer ponies, huh? So anyway, they caught Jon and trussed 'im up like a turkey and drug him back here. Our bad luck was, they figured Jon wasn't alone'n came lookin'. Found us o'course." Dermott grimaced. "Took us too easy too. My fault fer findin' that hole with m'legs and not m'eyes." The wizard nodded agreement and sat down on his own pile of furs as Dermott continued. "They brung us back here to face punishment - the usual torture an' maiming. They got Jon held in another hut, already workin' 'im over."
"So we will be tortured and killed? But you said-" Dako began but the barbarian interrupted.
"Yeah, yeah, I know what I said. When I woke up t' angry kobolds n' heard that screamin'," Dermott's hands fluttered, giving away his unease despite the barbarian's otherwise calm demeanor. "They were tyin' me and pullin' out . . . things. Well, I started babblin' . . . told 'em you was a mighty wizard, powers o' tha gods . . . ya know. Stuff. An' I am yer manservant. Valued. Anythin' I could think of ta keep 'em off me a little longer."
Dako considered this with as objectively as he could. Dermott had made gods-only-knew what kind of promises to these evil, elf eating lizards, promises made on Dako's own behalf. Promises he would likely not be able to fulfill. But on the bright side, those ill-considered lies allowed the wizard to wake in relative comfort rather than on a torture rack. Dermott had postponed the inevitable, which was more than Dako managed. All he had to do now was . . . "So wait, after what you told them, what do they want from me?"
The barbarian looked at his hands, fiddling for several long breaths before answering. "Tha kobold Jon killed was their god's ah - chosen. Her favorite. So they ah - they want ya ta bring 'im back."
"What?" Dako knew his voice sounded shrill but he couldn't control it. The man promised the impossible. Only a cleric could return the fallen from the grave. For wizards, there was only necromancy and he had no intention of touching those arts. He wanted to crawl back under the furs and just pretend that he had never woken up.
"When yer makin' a deal, ya gotta offer what the client is buyin'. I figured ya would think o' something." The barbarian said it with a wry grin, as if he was being funny.
Dako closed his eyes, rubbing his temples. "You realize I can't raise the dead, right?"
Dermott shrugged, "Ya can't fake it?"
"You want me to fake raising the dead? Should I make the corpse dance? Or conjure an illusion from the air and hope they don't see through it? Or perhaps We could dress you up as a kobold instead?" The wizard shot his companion a withering look. "As if magic was so easy."
"Don't yell about it er we'll have company agin. Look, if we can't do it then we're in tha same boat, just with a little more time." Dermott shrugged again. "Til then we get fed an' treated like guests. Be glad I bought ya a few days, right?"
"A few days to anticipate my excruciating end. Thanks, Dermott. Gods, I really really appreciate that. I don't know how I can ever repay the kindness." Dako's words dripped with venomous sarcasm but the barbarian just laughed, immune as usual to the wizard's ire.
Dermott's voice lowered and he leaned toward Dako. "Don't be such a pissy maid. Anythin' can happen in a few days. I thought we might try ta get Jon out n' make a run for it. The tunnels 'll go right up to the surface. We jus' gotta get to 'em, right?"
There was no response Dako could muster. He just bowed his head, imagining all the horrible ways a kobold might kill him.
Soon after, one of the creatures brought food, sparing him any need to speak to the barbarian. The kobold exchanged a few words with the barbarian and kicked him in the side before slinking back out. Dako was curious what had been said, but Dermott offered no explanation and the wizard didn't want to ask. It was probably something as horrible as everything else he had learned since waking.
The food was decent fare, some roasted meat and tubers, though the wizard did not think too deeply on where the meat came from. It was at least hot and filling. Dermott dug in with a will taking Dako's continued silence as a resounding yes to his mad proposal. The wizard would not dignify it with the name 'plan.' Plans had contingencies. Plans had information. Plans did not involve running pellmell through a kobold den while being chased by said angry lizards and carting the (probably) severely damaged body of your companion along.
Several kobolds poked their head in during the meal, but said nothing, confirming for themselves that the wizard was indeed awake before going on their way. Dako was beginning to feel like a sideshow and it rubbed him raw on top of all his other anxieties. At the seventh interruption, he could take it no more. He stood up, glaring at the short, dark scaled kobold that had come to stare at him. Its red eyes peered back, mouth gaping in what looked like a grin. "I am trying to eat in peace, which is the least thing I could ask for when you and your . . . your friends are asking me for miracles! I want quiet! I want to be left alone! I want my things! And I want to see the sun! Now - now get out!" The wizard picked up a roasted tuber and launched it at the kobold's head.
The creature ducked down, easily avoiding the missile and scooted out of their tent. Outside they heard a quick, quiet conversation start up between the guards and the intruder. Dermott grinned at Dako, chewing on a bit of fatty gristle. "That's quite a temp'r tantrum, wizard. Hope they don' take it wrong."
"Maybe they will and the end will come quickly," the wizard replied, fists on his hips. He took a deep breath, trying to calm down. That outburst felt good but he supposed the barbarian was right. It might have pissed them off and that wasn't wise. He ought to be laying actual plans for an escape instead of angering their captors. Something more useful than 'grab our friend and run.' The problem was, they had no information. To plan, he needed to know how many kobolds there were? Where was the exit tunnel? When did the kobolds sleep or go out to hunt . . . He shook his head and sat back down.
Dermott grinned. "Might be they expect a might wizard ta shout'n throw things." He shrugged, settling back onto his pile of furs as if he was not the least bit concerned. The barbarian's nonchalance was shattered as another ear piercing shriek shivered the air of the cave.
The wizard felt a cold spike of renewed fear at the sound but it cleared his head. Escape was not impossible, just improbable. And any attempt was worth it if it got them clear of the torments Jon was enduring even now. Dako looked at Dermott, lips thin, brows lowered. "If we want to get out of this, there are things I need to know."
The barbarian scooted closer, shoulders hunched as he leaned in conspiritorily. "I wunder'd when you'd get to it. Now I get ta see if yer worth a copper, huh?"
"I'm worth at least a gold," Dako shot back, only half joking. "Now, when you woke up first, where were you?"
"In a small cavern, northwest and down 'bout two hundred paces, kobold length," Dermott answered crisply. It surprised the wizard, being the first time in their acquaintance that the barbarian had not sounded like a complete idiot.
"Good. Did you note anything of interest between here and there?" Dako's estimation of the barbarian rose considerably as Dermott detailed the parts of the cavern complex he had seen, the number of kobolds he could remember, and even the direction a slight breeze had come from. It was entirely more than the wizard expected though not as much as he could hope. By the end of it, they had a fair idea of where Jon was being held and how many kobolds likely lay between them. Beyond that, they had only a vague suspicion of which direction to go to find a way out, which could as easily lead them to a dragon's lair instead.
The confirmation that these kobolds were the servants of a dragon didn't surprise Dako, but it did lend their efforts a certain desperation. Dragons were proud, vicious creatures. Intelligent and old beyond belief, they were much harder to escape than just kobolds. Dermott felt fairly sure the dragon god of this tribe was a red beast, territorial and greedy as the rest of its kind. If the adventurers had drawn the attention of this dragon, their situation was likely hopeless. The wizard's only reassurance was that dragon's fire was swift and terrible, a much cleaner death than torture.