The tunnel came to an abrupt end, opening out into a vast empty space.
Kerik sensed the change immediately and stopped. An outstretched hand touched his back in the darkness and, in rapid succession, he heard his companions stumble to a halt. A few mumbled comments were quieted with a quick shh, and then all he could hear was the breathing of the five people behind him and the ominous, rhythmic rumbling that had drawn them here.
The previous night they had made camp near a cleft in the rock, and during the night had sensed something too deep and too distant to be heard that left them feeling uneasy. A quick examination of the cleft showed that it led to a tunnel which descended deep into the mountain.
As they explored the tunnel, both the sound and their unease had grown until, soon enough, they had extinguished their torches and allowed Kerik to lead them on in darkness. The sound continued to grow, until an abrupt change in the way it echoed off the surrounding rock alerted Kerik to their arrival in this enormous cavern.
He reached back to touch the person behind him, signalling a move, then stepped gingerly forward. The soft leather soles of his shoes, the tools of his trade and secret of his silent movement, allowed him to feel the texture of the ground as he walked forward with tentative steps. The smooth rock of the tunnel gave way to rougher ground and a few steps later he felt something round and hard under his foot.
Kerik stooped and picked it up without breaking his stride. It was a coin, gold by the size and weight of it. He slipped it into his pocket and kept on walking wishing for just a glimmer of light.
His next stride touched a larger pile of coins and he just managed to pull back before dislodging any. He turned to warn the others, but it was too late. One of the party had already wandered off course and chose that moment to trip over yet another pile of gold.
Coins flew everywhere, ringing as they bounced off the rocky floor. The man let out a stream of invective that was only cut short by Kerik’s urgent shh, but by then the damage had already been done.
Kerik was silent, but somehow the shh was continuing by itself, like the escape of steam or... dry scales sliding over rock!
With mounting terror Kerik realised that the deep rumbling had stopped. He turned toward the sibilance and looked up. In the darkness he could just make out two malevolent red eyes, illuminated by a dim inner glow. An overpowering smell of sulphur and rotting flesh washed over him and he saw giant fangs silhouetted against a growing red flame.
No time to shout in warning, instinct took over and Kerik dived forward just as a ball of flame descended on the place where he and his companions had been standing a moment earlier.
Kerik lay still as screams subsided to moans and eventually silence. The gentle shh of the great creature moving seemed to mock the emptiness for a moment, then there was nothing.
Hardly daring to breath, Kerik strained with every sense to understand what had just happened. Five lives, it seemed, had just been snuffed out of existence with little more than a casual burp. And now where was the creature?
A blast of foetid air rolled over him, and it took every ounce of his self control not to gag.
His dark vision returned to reveal two glowing eyes glaring at him from no more than a few feet. He realised that this creature could swallow him whole and he wouldn’t touch the sides, even if he stretched out his arms.
He bit back a whimper.
You don’t steal from a dragon he remembered and, carefully reaching into his pocket, he removed the gold coin he had found earlier and dropped it.
The eyes blinked once and the enormous head withdrew. Dry scales slithered over rocks and piles of gold and silence returned. In the depths of his mind, as distant as the memory of a memory, words formed.
– Shh, we’re trying to sleep –
Kerik climbed carefully to his feet and, making as little noise as he could, he made his way back up the tunnel.
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