‘What does he do?’ The goblin’s clipped tones dragged Pogmorton’s attention from the parchment on which he was checking details of the latest incoming gold shipment.
‘Do? What does who…’ Pogmorton looked up to see Swazzle leaning against the tunnel wall, a blissful look on his face, traces of gold at the corners of his mouth.
‘Oh, him,’ Pogmorton waved his quill absently in Swazzle’s direction, ‘Captain Swazzle reckons gold, particularly Swiss gold, has the most marvellous flavour; he has a bit of a weakness for it.’
The goblin pulled a face, ‘but, the gold, isn’t it…’
‘Yes. Gnome droppings.’
Further discussion was cut short by the distant thump of an explosion. Dust drifted down from new cracks that appeared in the ceiling as the tunnel rocked with the blast.
Pogmorton dropped the parchment, thumping Swazzle on the back as he nearly choked on a mouthful of gold nugget. A momentary look of alarm flitted across the goblin’s face, replaced with one of determination as the snail shell clipped to its ear barked urgent, guttural orders.
‘Fairies,’ the goblin growled and loped off up the tunnel.
Swazzle and Pogmorton exchanged glances.
‘We’d better get out of here,’ said Swazzle, ‘I’ve never been terribly fond of summary execution if caught.’
A soft popping sound interrupted Pogmorton’s reply. They both turned to find a wild-eyed Flaarti leaning on the tunnel wall for support, blue blood dripping from an ugly wound in his scalp.
‘Here,’ he urged, thrusting something into Pogmorton’s hand, ‘Take this and run for it.’
‘Wha…,’ began Swazzle.
Flaarti waved the question away, ‘Fairies assaulting the tunnels. They’re nearly through to the lab. I must go back,’ and with that he vanished.
An iron bullet slapped the wall next to Swazzle’s head, a puff of dirt blossoming like a flower as he and Pogmorton dived into the darkness of the loading bay alcove.
'Bugger me, that was close!' muttered Swazzle.
Pogmorton did not reply, instead he pointed back into the tunnel. A fairy in full combat gear was slowly advancing towards their hiding place, her beetle carapace body armour glinting in the lantern light. Just as she swung the ugly looking banshee rifle towards them, the tunnel walls seemed to ripple, growing first arms, then legs and heads as a squad of goblins climbed out of the earth and fell upon the fairy.
Within seconds the fairy was merely a bloody stain on the floor and the goblins scurried off up the tunnel whooping with delight, gore still hanging from their teeth and claws. Swazzle snatched up the discarded banshee rifle and swiftly retreated back into the shadows.
Pogmorton watched the goblins bounding away down the tunnel, ‘You know,’ he whispered, ‘those Black Crocus paramilitary units scare the crap out of me. You never know where they’re going to pop up next. There’s no talking to them either, they’re complete fanatics.’
‘Wouldn’t you be if most of your family was in the camps? We’re lucky the few who escaped decided to join us,’ hissed Swazzle, ‘Now we really ought to be leaving.’
A pack of slavering weasels scampered past, dragging their grim-faced Pixie handlers behind them on long silver leads.
‘Things must be bad if we’re committing weasels so early on,’ muttered Swazzle.
As they stepped from the alcove, Swazzle and Pogmorton were almost bowled over by another detachment of goblins thundering past, and only just had time to flatten themselves against the tunnel wall. The first three goblins carried a large, orange pneumatic nail gun between them. The rest of the platoon bringing up the rear with bandoliers of nails and what looked like a heavy video camera tripod. One of the goblins grinned as it passed, revealing a mouthful of razor-sharp fangs.
‘Fairies,’ it chortled, ‘Kill fairies. Lots of fairies. Very good.’
‘Time to go,’ urged Swazzle, ‘Now!’
* * *
Amid the ruins of Flaarti’s lab, a small group of fairies crouched over the remains of an iron cage. Twinkle cradled her sister’s head in her lap.
‘I’m sorry,’ Saffron whimpered softly as the Healer examined the stump of her left wrist, ‘I told them about The Book.’
‘Hush now,’ soothed Twinkle, ‘It’s alright. We’ll get to The Book before they do. At least the Key’s still safe.’
‘It’s not though,’ Saffron wailed, ‘I told them where to find that too. I held out as long as I could but,’ she glanced towards her where her left hand should have been, ‘they weaselled it out of me.’
A collective shudder went through the fairies as each contemplated the poisonous, acidic bite of a weasel, one of the few non-magical things to which they were not immune.
Twinkle turned to a large male fairy with a battle-scarred face, ‘Lieutenant, I want Flaarti alive, we need to know exactly what he has planned.’
‘And the rest?’
She smiled thinly, ‘You know my orders.’