Nanoc paused just outside the chamber. He peered into the space, rough-hewn from some ancient system of caverns. Although the space was only dimly lit, and that only within the radius of light Nanoc’s flickering torch, the barbarian could sense that it was vast, extending both far upward, and far into the distance. He could smell it in the stale air. Gripping his sword firmly with his right hand, pine torch outthrust with his left, Nanoc stepped within. His boots were soft-soled, and his step as light as a cat.
From high overhead, something round and pale reflected the torch’s ruddy light. As Nanoc paused to consider the thing, the flames of his torch ignited a pocket of resin with a loud pop. The pale thing – like a great disc or saucer of bone, darted upward with a hiss of air. At the same time, a stream of foul-smelling liquid, black and sticky as tar, squirted from the thing. Nanoc dodged away with the reflexes of a great cat. He could smell the thing’s foul ichor. The reek made him almost nauseous.
Nanoc caught a glimpse of white tentacles, writhing like long strings of sinew, and a cluster of dozens of thin, bony needles as the creature floated upward, out of the torchlight. That thing was up above him somewhere now. Considering the possibility of it dropping on his head, encasing him with piercing spines and clinging tendrils of flesh, made the barbarian’s skin crawl. He beat a hasy retreat down the already explored tunnel.
Where he had cursed the tunnel’s low height before, he now ducked his head thankfully. Somewhere within this ruin, long abandoned by its original makers, he would find the treasure he sought. Nanoc was as brave as any man, but he preferred to face foes he knew would fall beneath his sword. Let eldritch monstrosities await other victims if they must. It was in his mind to return to the fortifications of the hobgoblins. Aye, hobgoblins he knew would fall to his blade.
Two weeks later, Nanoc met a cowled wizard in the taproom of the Hook & Horror, and told the learned one of his encounter.
“It is well that you left when you did,” the magic-user said. He paused to draw smoke from a long-stemmed pipe with a curiously carved bowl. “Such creatures know well how to defend themselves. Their needle-like spines can inject acid into their victims – mild for other work, but strong enough to eat away muscle and bone. Moreover, they are not inimical to man, and have even been known to aid human explorers against more alien foes.”
The barbarian drained his cup, banging the leather tankard onto the table. He called loudly for another cup of wine, displaying one of the gold coins he had recovered from the ancient dungeons beneath Dagoth’s Hill. No sooner had Nanoc turned toward the bar than one of the wizard’s hands darted out, sprinkled some powder within the cup, and withdrew again.
“Be that as it may,” Nanoc said grimly as he turned back, “such creatures can stay far from me. I need no help against vermin like goblinkind.” Noting the wizard’s smile, the barbarian added, “I have slain my share of sorcerers as well.”
“I am sure you have, my friend,” the wizard said calmly. He waited while a plump serving girl brought the pitcher, and poured another measure into Nanoc’s cup. The powder dissolved into the liquid, odorless and colourless within the Hook & Horror’s sour wine. “Just as I am sure that such exploits have been noticed.”
“Noticed? What do I care of that?” Nanoc the barbarian laughed, and drained his third cup.
“It may interest you to know that powdered flumph is poisonous, if taken in sufficient quantity,” the cowled wizard said. “Let me by you another drink before I go.”