The chill winter breeze swept through the moonlit forest, playing with the last remaining Autumn leaves. The wolves stirred as they detected an unfamiliar scent and moved to investigate.
As they started to cross the clearing they suddenly paused. Their fur stood on end and they crouched low, backing slowly away.
The approaching creature was once human, but was now staggering forwards in defiance of its state of advanced putrefaction. One by one, others of its kind emerged from the forest. Abruptly the scene was plunged into total darkness by a large menacing cloud that followed their advance.
As they headed towards Solace Bridge the lights of a farm cottage could be seen in the distance.
Adam paused for a moment. The task of digging a new well was back breaking work, and he needed a rest. He did not hear as the zombies approached from behind. The last thing he felt was a sudden sharp pain before his world ended.
IN ANOTHER PLACE
Womby studied the insurance claim form. Everything seemed in order. He reflected on his good fortune in landing such a well paying job on Goss, the most beautiful planet in the United Earth Empire. Returning his attention to the claimant's details, he noticed that he was getting close to retirement, and had borrowed heavily to fund his brand new purchase - a Banu Merchantman trading vessel.
This vessel was able to travel between worlds, carrying large quantities of goods for sale or barter. The claimant hoped to pass this down to his children after he had established several profitable trading routes, but unfortunately he was attacked by pirates on his maiden voyage and his ship was stolen. He was lucky to escape with his life.
Womby was about to approve the claim when his manager stopped him. He told him that he had received evidence from the Advocacy that the claimant had colluded with the pirates, and that he should reject the claim. Taking him at his word, Womby did so. Shortly after that the trader committed suicide. Womby’s action had ruined him financially, and he couldn't cope with the resulting emotional and financial devastation.
Later, Womby discovered that his manager had lied to him, and that the claim had been genuine.
Womby reported this to the Advocacy, and they seemed keen to learn everything he knew. A few days passed. Returning from a local tavern one evening, Womby found his home ransacked. His neighbour told him that the Advocacy had arrived with a warrant for his arrest on charges of terrorism.
It was then that Womby realised that the local branch of the Advocacy was corrupt, and working with both the pirates and the insurance company to defraud customers. Hunted by the authorities, he was forced to leave Goss and seek refuge elsewhere. As he headed for the planet Mya in the Leir system he was pursued by the Advocacy, and attempted to hide in an asteroid field. There he encountered an uncharted jump point that transported him to this world.
On exiting the jump point at speed his ship collided with orbiting debris from a shattered moon, and he was forced to eject from his plummeting vessel. Unfortunately he did not have time to gather up any belongings.
As his escape pod descended, he watched his spaceship plunge into a vast lava field in the Blackblade mountains and disappear without trace.
Womby’s pod splashed into a river and sank. Escaping the sinking pod, Womby climbed the river bank and surveyed his surroundings. He was confronted with a scene of absolute carnage, and instinctively crouched low as he spotted a wolf. Incredibly, he could see what looked like armed skeletons patrolling the area, and – were those things zombies? Surely he was dreaming.
Carefully he searched the area for safe passage, but everywhere he looked he could see dangerous creatures blocking his path. He backed away towards the base of a nearby cliff, and was dismayed to see that it blocked his retreat. Following it around, he suddenly noticed an opening, and squeezed through. He had found a cave, and decided to explore. Perhaps there was another exit far away from here.
Turning the first corner, Womby was plunged into darkness and paused while his eyes adjusted. Moss covered parts of the tunnel walls, emitting a soft luminescence, and gradually he was able to make out his surroundings. Finding his way through the winding cave was difficult, but not impossible as he cautiously crept further into the darkness.
After a few more turns the tunnel branched, and Womby was faced with a choice. He had always been deliberate and methodical, a trait that his brother Michael found exasperating. He missed his brother, more so now than ever. Figuring that there may be many such choices, Womby decided to always try the leftmost branch first. Slowly he pressed on, always with his hand touching the cold stone wall, at times shuffling his feet forward when the absence of glowing moss plunged him into total darkness.
The scratching of claws on rock made Womby freeze in his tracks. Slowly inching forward, he stopped when he saw that the tunnel he was in opened up into a large, well lit cavern with several exits.
The source of both sound and light was a terrifying creature that he would later learn was a Kobold. It had apparently been prospecting, and was now loading iron ore samples onto a small cart. After a short while the creature tossed his pick on top of the samples, fixed his torch to the front of his cart and headed off into one of the exits, pushing the cart before him.
Womby feared becoming lost in these endless tunnels even more than he feared the creature, so he decided to follow it at a discreet distance. Maintaining that distance and keeping track of his location proved surprisingly easy, as the creature's cart made quite a racket. Despite the weight of the ore in his wagon the creature kept up a brisk pace, and Womby had to move quickly to keep up. Suddenly there was a loud crashing sound, followed by deathly silence.
A couple of turns later Womby found what remained of the creature's cart.
It lay in splinters, with rock samples scattered everywhere. All that remained of the creature were dark stains on the tunnel walls, and a steady drip of blood falling from a large hole above.
With his eyes fixed on the hole, Womby slowly crept past.
He was starting to despair. He had been wandering through the tunnels for several hours, and was beginning to feel faint from hunger. Thirst was a constant preoccupation. The violent death of the creature that he had been following was unsettling, and he began to wonder if he had made the right choice in entering the cave system. His brother would have said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and pressed on. Womby was now forcing himself to be more like his brother simply to survive, and the strain was beginning to show. In fact, it seemed he had begun to hallucinate. Womby swore he could detect the faint aroma of fried onions. Wasn’t that a stroke symptom?
Following his nose, he broke his rule and turned right at the next junction. A gentle downward slope took him through a couple of turns before the passage ended at an underground waterfall that fed a large stream. The stream disappeared into an inaccessible fissure. Womby was perplexed. Where was the smell coming from? It was then that he discovered a small cave entrance hidden behind the waterfall, and as he explored further it opened up onto a ledge overlooking a large cavern. Down below he could see a stream, glowing mushrooms, strange looking crystals and nestled amongst them a number of small cottages.
Womby half fell, half slid down the rocky slope to the ground below the ledge. Picking himself up, he crept over to a nearby cottage and peered through a window. An old man was standing by a stove, preparing a meal. Suddenly he turned around and peered back at him. He smiled, and motioned for Womby to come inside. Greeting him at the front door, he said “Goodness me, you look starved and exhausted. Please, come inside for a meal and a rest.”
A few minutes later, Womby was recalling his harrowing experiences between mouthfuls of food as he eagerly devoured the shared meal. The old man listened intently, and his brow furrowed as Womby recounted the creatures that he had witnessed above.
The old man paused for a while, with a thoughtful expression on his face. Eventually he spoke. “You have gone through a terrible ordeal, and clearly there is no place safe for you to go. You are welcome to stay with us here in the Caverns. That is, unless you have somewhere better to go.”
Womby shook his head, and decided to stay.