Chapter 4 Part 3: Momma Worm
Clandestine crawled along the side of the tunnel walls in silence, taking quiet, shallow breaths. It was empty for a while. After their first run-in with the worm, and the goblins, it felt eerily silent, and she was anxious for something to happen soon. She glanced back at Matt, just to see how he was doing... but the look he gave her was hard to read. Mostly, because it was barely a look at all. He just looked... blank. She had to assume that meant he was okay, or something, not that there was any turning back from where they already were.
After a few more minutes of trudging on, the silence was broken by the rising of distant chatter. Goblin chatter, of course. A smile grew on Clandestine's face and excitement rose in her chest as she motioned back at Matt for them to stay quiet, and get low. Her hand rested on the hilt of her sword at her side, and she inched forward slowly until they could see the opening of the tunnel up ahead. Or, rather, that it opened up into what looked like a much larger area - the equivalent of a large room dug out underground.
There was a greater light up ahead, and as she laid on the floor and got as close as she dared to without being seen, she finally saw the source.
The room itself looked like it was the length and width of a house, and she was only able to see so far in because of the massive bonfire in the middle of it. The flames rose high up to what looked like a small tunnel just above it that she could only assume was there to serve as some kind of ventilation. Which made her wonder why they hadn't seen smoke coming out any holes up top before, or if she had only not seen it because she hadn't looked for it. Because, after all, she wouldn't have thought to look for it. She had no reason to. Though in hindsight, it did make sense that they'd need to light up the place somehow. She'd just never thought of anything remotely this elaborate. Especially not coming from goblins.
Around the fire, there were a few dozen little tents set up, which seemed kind of pointless in lieu of them being underground and away from the weather, but at least made sense organizationally. She could see a few goblins coming out of said tents and coming to stand around the fire, where a more wrinkly, older looking goblin stood, acting something like a leader. There were more words exchanged between them, but she couldn't understand with them being so far away. That, and she didn't speak goblin.
Then they surprised her.
The group of goblins, which only totalled to seven, stood around the fire and started making strange waving motions with their hands. But they weren't just random motions. They were intentional. They were moving the flames and making them dance.
The goblins were using magic. Fire magic.
As the fire curved, and swayed, Clandestine was starting to figure out it was a pattern. A very pretty pattern, that would've been mesmerizing if she wasn't so confused about its purpose, and wasn't interrupted by another now somewhat familiar sensation of the ground around them shaking.
Her heart began to race. The shaking felt further away at first as if the worm was travelling towards the goblins. But very quickly she felt it coming closer to them, and she began to panic. This didn't feel like the shaking from the little worm they saw before. This was bigger.
She stood up abruptly, grabbing Matt by the collar and pulling him up in one swift movement, ready to run. But she didn't get the chance.
The ground gave way beneath them and they fell into the queen worm's mouth. As it's floppy flesh petals enclosed around them, it felt like she was getting stabbed by a million tiny, tiny daggers. Matt yelped. Clandestine yelled. And then they were travelling downward, backward, into the ground where the worm had come from, too fast for her to figure out which way was up anymore.
They burst through a thin layer of earth with a powerful push upward. Clandestine could already feel the dizziness as her arms hung down, following the flow of gravity. The worm was holding them upside-down. Or... sort of. At an angle.
As the cloud of dirt that'd erupted around them began to settle, Clandestine could finally make out where they were. They were right in front of that big bonfire, and the goblins were all lined up, looking right at them. The worm had delivered her and Matt right to them.
Clandestine tilted her head a little to try and look at them more right-side up and gave them a forced smile.
"Wow, uh, did you guys train these worms to do that?" she asked nervously, pointing up to the worm's mouth at her waist. For the few seconds that passed, she made eye contact with the older goblin, who stared back, mostly looking angry. It was only after the awkwardly long pause that it finally occurred to her, they probably didn't understand what she said. They did, after all, speak goblin. She blinked, and in a fumble of syllables tried to emulate a phrase she'd heard uttered in their language and tried to remember for moments like this.
"Uhh, I mean, OOG, GRAHG, UHK BAAR!" She smiled again, this time more nervously. They didn't look impressed. They looked offended. Oh no. I probably said something offensive.
"We speak your tongue, human," the older goblin finally replied, emphasizing every word.
"Oh." Clandestine didn't really know what to do with that. She didn't know goblins spoke the common tongue that well. There was another awkward pause. Clandestine could feel the blood rushing to her head.
"Okay then... can you ask it to put us down?" Matt asked, finally saying something. Clandestine looked over at him, feeling horrible that, for a moment, she basically forgot he existed. It had just been her, the worm, and the goblins. She looked at him with a frown, when she realized that his arms were stuck inside the worm's mouth while hers were freed. His arm was already hurt. That definitely wasn't good.
"No," was the old goblin's sharp reply. "You're intruders."
"Okay but what if we ended up here by accident?" Clandestine posed.
"And - forgive me for asking but - aren't you guys the intruders?" Matt corrected.
The old goblin looked miffed at the suggestion. Clandestine noticed that most of the others were watching for his reactions and mirroring it, apart from two of them. She wondered if they all spoke the common tongue.
"No. It is our mission to commandeer this land. That is all it is," the goblin explained, pounding a fist into his palm.
"Why didn't you just attack Laura and Kaleb then?" Clandestine asked, knowing her question could possibly sound like a suggestion she would want to avoid, but it did seem the simpler solution as opposed to... whatever these guys were doing.
"That is not our way," the goblin replied, insistent. Clandestine furrowed her brows.
"Then what is your way?"
The goblin's greying brows furrowed back as he stared into Clandestine's eyes. "The plan is to drive out humans. Make land barren, and bear no fruit." His yellow eyes squinted at her. "Worms destroy crops, over time."
Clandestine was still getting used to goblins speaking a language she could understand. But their plan, she understood. To an extent. It sounded like... they were going for long-term occupation of the land and trying for a slow take-over. Worms were... a creative way to ruin the crops if they somehow had trained them and had control over them because as soon as Laura and Kaleb would leave, the worms would actually be able to fertilize the land in a way. If they just kind of... started over with a clean slate before planting. Not that she knew the goblins wanted the land for farming though, anyway. Clearly, she didn't know a lot of things about goblins, especially what was going on in their heads.
"But... why do it this way? This just... will take longer," was her weak reply as she tried to come up with some kind of argument to convince them to first, get the worm to put them down, and second, leave Laura and Kaleb's farm alone. But she wasn't used to... negotiating with monsters. She was used to hunting and fighting them.
"No more questions," the goblin snapped, looking like he was turning to leave. "Goblins do not answer to humans."
Matt spoke up loudly before the goblin could take a step. "But we can't just let ya'll stay here and destroy everything they have. This farm is their livelihood. It's their life. It's how they support themselves and survive."
The goblin's head shot back to them, this time glaring at Matt. "They can survive somewhere else. It is not our mission to care."
"So ya'll's mission ain't to drive them out with physical violence but other means of violence."
"It's not violence," the goblin retorted.
"But it is. They could just as easily die by slowly being deprived of their means of providing for themselves for lack of outside resources to help them start up somewhere else. If you were really trying to avoid violence you would've talked to them yourselves and offered to buy their land or give some sort of equal means of compensation, or you shouldn't have come at all."
Was that... supposed to convince them to let them go? Clandestine looked over to Matt, not really sure what he was getting at, but the goblins didn't look happy, and they were starting to back away, whispering in goblin to one another. The whispering continued for a few seconds before the older goblin hushed them up, again, barking something she didn't understand. Then one of the other goblins spoke up, though, from the looks of the others, it was out of turn. She looked at Matt with a hardened gaze.
"Chief has job to get land. Doesn't matter how he get it."
The older goblin, presumably the chief, glared at his underling, but it seemed that the one she-goblin's comment had brought an end to the conversation. It was clear that the goblins weren't open to negotiation. They had to get it for whatever higher goblin power they answered to and weren't going to budge. But she couldn't in good conscience let them destroy the Saint's farm if it wasn't theirs to begin with.
She looked over to Matt's face was starting to turn red from being upside-down, and it was then that she noticed the loss of his hat. And the fact that they'd reached an impasse. And she was scrambling to come up with an idea. She stared at the goblins, trying to focus and think of a way to not die.
"So you won't let us go," Matt said quietly.
"No," was the Chief's sole reply.
Clandestine was trying to assess herself. Her gun and her sword were out of reach, being at her hips, and her hips being in the worm's mouth. She was beginning to feel lightheaded, and the heat from the massive fire in front of them wasn't helping her clear her head...
Clandestine blessed her sweaty head for finally coming up with an idea. She looked at the fire, blocking out the sounds of goblins talking more amongst each other as she centred all of her focus. She deliberately extended her hands. She knew she only had a few seconds before they probably figured out what was going on.
Come on. Move, you big, sparky flame. Move!
She opened her eyes, and with a pulling motion of her hands, drew it near to them like a wall of fire. The goblins immediately turned and pulled back, jumping out of the way as the gust of heat and sparks flew towards them, barely missing the worm, and barely missing her and Matt.
As the flame flew, they could feel the worm shiver in fear. The moment the goblins were out of the way, the worm opened its mouth in a quiet scream and dropped them on the ground. Clandestine didn't catch her fall. She landed in the dirt with a huff as the air got knocked out of her, and the ground beneath them shook. The worm pulled back into the ground with one swift movement, and was gone, leaving only another giant cloud of dust in its wake.
Clandestine couldn't see. She tried to push herself up, but her body was weak. That one move of magic... it drained her. It was like she'd fought all seven goblins, but all she did was throw a flame. Her arms trembled as she tried to push herself up again, and she collapsed back onto the ground with a groan. She was feeling all those little teeth bites too...
The goblins were yelling. It sounded chaotic. She couldn't tell where Matt was. Then she felt the ground beneath her start to give way, and she started sliding down. She panicked and tried to grab for something stable, feeling for an edge, or a rock around her. She thought she found one.
But then her hands slipped, and her heart jumped.