A lone Cursed One loudly cursed as he trudged back through the pitch black tunnel, kicking at the loose rock shards crunching under his feet.
“I worked for months on end to get that damned pathway open, and those greedy bastards send me back to report to Kupotoshwamti.” He drew out his treasured sword from his weapons belt, thrusting it forward in imitation of running through an enemy. “If whatever they face outside that tunnel does not gut them, I will relish the chance to.”
The all-encompassing darkness slowly began to thin, as a faint purple glow issued forth from many cuts into all levels of the rock. The scant light imbued colour on the pure white irises deeply sunken into the sockets above his muzzle. His wolf-like body bordered on skeletal, with the faintest suggestion of muscle under erratic patches of fur, and jaundiced skin that the ore’s emanation made glow. He ignored the source of the light. The weakness of the vein meant that it was useful only for the minimal light it exuded, despite it being a strain of the ore that every Cursed One lusted after, and was willing to kill anyone and everyone for.
As the light began to increase in intensity, a rhythmic clicking began to reach his ears. Jealousy seeped into his eyes, and he began to run towards the sound’s source. Some distance ahead, a passage had been dug off of the main tunnel, narrow enough that even his scrawny frame could barely fit through. Inside, a much stronger violet glow highlighted a pair of shadows frantically swinging pickaxes, the source of light showing webbing from points of impact.
Hissing with rage, he tried to force his way through the entrance. The figures turned, revealing equally emaciated figures, and faces of a hairless tiger and lion. The maniacal gleam in their eyes focused on the intruder, and they stood as one to protect their claim as they wielded their pickaxes. Seeing no chance to escape with the ore and his life, he bared his teeth and began to withdraw. As he did, the corrupted lion deftly swung his pickaxe, the tiger unprepared as the makeshift weapon pierced his eyeball and then his brain.
The lion roared in victory as its former workmate slumped lifelessly to the ground below. Seizing the opportunity, his observer drew a small dagger and threw it at the celebrating Cursed One. It took the lion in its exposed throat, which began to seep blood that glittered with purple dust. The dying animal attempted to attack, but took two steps forward before it collapsed.
Triumph racing through his mind, he entered the passage and greedily eyed the rich deposit of ore. Drawing his blade from the lion’s throat, he cleaned the weapon on the dead challenger’s chest hair. As he sheathed the dagger, he yanked the pickaxe out of the tiger’s face, casually picking off the pierced eyeball and dropping it to the floor. Entranced by the rich mineral glowing before him, he drew the pickaxe back to begin extraction.
The voice like a thousand snakes hissing in unison ricocheted throughout his head, the sharp pain of it making him drop to the floor. Grabbing his skull, he closed his eyes in the vain hope of dulling the agony.
“I wish to know what has happened!”
“Lord Kupotoshwamti, this vein of ore is the largest I have ever…”
He shrieked as the pain in his head intensified, his eyes clenched shut against the pressure trying to force them out of their sockets.
“If you value your life, do not keep me waiting.”
As the pain slowly eased, Kepari rose to his hands and knees, and then rose to unsteady feet. Pondering how to protect his prize, he dragged the dead corrupts to the wall of ore and sat them up against it. Picking up the pickaxes, he drove one through each of their chests. Satisfied it provided some small measure of disincentive to potential ore thieves, he moved on to answer his summons.
The tunnel continued inwards, the purple glow guiding him towards a pinprick of bright light in the distance. Ignoring the many offshoots from the main tunnel and their promised treasures, he increased his pace to a fast run, fearing his master may decide to punish him for any further delay. As the distant source of illumination steadily grew nearer, Kepari began to see what lay beyond it.
As he stepped into the light, he entered a massive hall. A sea of pillars, each elaborately carved and faintly glowing with purple light, stretched far into the distance and high towards the barely visible roof. Continuing his journey to the centre of the Cursed Ones’ subterranean home, he passed the winding stairways that led upwards towards the forest, and the merciless Ursidaean soldiers who sought to keep them imprisoned underground. The sound of flowing water came from regularly placed pillars guiding the liquid into pools placed throughout the Hall. Sporadically, Kepari passed groups of fellow corrupts. Some duelled with each other for sport, ducking and weaving between the stone supports before lunging at their disoriented opponent, dreaming of the glory of being the first to break through the bearfolk’s defences and out of the crater. Others fought to the death, the desire for the ore that another possessed driving them to biting and scratching for any advantage.
At the epicentre of the Great Hall, a group of armed guards, their species ranging from boars to gorilla to rhinoceros, encircled a descending tunnel. Walking up to them, Kepari felt personal shame and jealousy of his Master’s elite guards. All stood a foot taller than he, the same wider, and were as powerfully muscled as he was woefully thin. Each wore armbands of carved ore, lending them greater power, yet corrupting their bodies with weeping sores and disturbing facial growths. He knew that Kupotoshwamti graced them with such items because they were the few who had a greater resistance to the mineral’s corruptive powers.
Approaching the guards, the pair guarding the staircase stepped aside for him. One rhinoceros-like guard’s eye hung from its socket, while a growth from under the soldier’s ear reached forward and manoeuvred the loose eyeball to consider Kepari. The other guard, a hairless boar-like creature, had tusks that curled under its chin and pierced the skin underneath, and continued to wrap around the jawbone several times more.
The rhinoceros spoke, its voice like gravel scraping stone. “Enter. Master is impatient to see you.”
Kepari stepped past them, and began his descent. The feeling of power increased as he continued downwards, the veins of ore in the walls almost blinding in their resonance. Reaching the bottom of the staircase, he entered the Master’s Hall. Despite reaching half the height of the Great Hall, it still stood many times Kepari’s height.
At its centre, the corrupted Ent considered the new arrival. Kupotoshwamti’s branches were tendrils of writhing skin and bone, covered with leaves of hands and fingers and hooves, and its trunk covered in the skulls and skins of animals it had consumed. The centremost face had a mouth with huge fangs pointing in every direction, and deep purple eyes that bored into the soul of those they looked upon.
The thousand snake chorus resonated throughout the Hall. “Have we broken out, Kepari? What do we face on the lands below?”
– C –