Deep down in the darkness of the roots, extending below the bark of Atys, many workers were busy mining. They brought valuable amber, tons of it, to the surface and their profession was valued and respected by everyone. Deep down below the desert of the Coriolis Empire, many men worked hard, day and night, to multiply the fame and fill the treasury of the reigning house.
It was a day like any other in the routine of the mines. The men were sweating in the damp air of the deep, and in the light of their torches they lifted amber pieces as big as their heads from the dark wood of the branches. Today they hoped to close a mined-out section of the tunnels, so that the animals and plants down there could recover. In this section of the roots were no aggressive animals, so there were none of the usual guards present. All precautions were taken, and the Matis-trained botanists already had their tools and strange liquids ready to inject into the plants. They wanted to let a few strong rootlets and a bed of moss grow over the entrance to serve as a cover for the tunnel until nature itself had reclaimed the area. Even today nature would claim its right, but in a totally different manner than that which they had anticipated.
Overseer Benodir Nussami looked down on the working homins. With great skill they threw ropes around a strong branch in the ceiling of the cavern, so that they were able to use these as winches. “Careful that the ropes don't slip. If the branch snaps back, it can mean the death of us all!” he yelled down to his subordinates. They briefly turned and nodded back at him. He knew very well that he was getting on their nerves with his constant warnings. The workers had done this a thousand times already and never had anything really bad happen. Still, he thought to himself, it was always better to keep one's eyes open and not succumb to the carelessness of routine. One small moment of inattention could destroy the whole cavern and with it everyone standing in it. As soon as the branch had been connected to the moss and the floor of the cavern, they would no longer need to be careful, but until then, he made his people check everything twice.
Rabur shook his head in anger and flexed his muscles as he pulled with all his strength on the rope which he and his brother Medrik had just thrown over the branch. This Nussami was an overly careful idiot who loved to boss around his workers. He should try installing one of those winches himself. Then he would see what kind of work this really was and that one had to know exactly what he was doing, or the branch would not be your only concern. The Fyros now refocused on his work. While his skilled brother was busy attaching the main rope to the winch, he struggled to hold the tension of the rope that had removed a single branch from the ceiling. Slowly, he pulled it down as far as he could, allowing Medrik to throw the thicker main rope over it. Later, the whole mesh of branches could be pulled down in turn, allowing the botanists to do their work. When they started to inject their strange brew into the roots, these would start to grow wildly. It was a matter of timing, to pull the branches down and connect them to the rampantly growing moss, allowing the gap to close completely. Medrik nodded at him, Rabur pulled one more time, as hard as he could, and his brother threw the roll of thick rope over the branch. There it stuck in place, its end rolling towards the ground. “Let go", Medrik said, and Rabur let the thinner rope glide through his gloves. With a sudden jerk, the thick branch snapped back into the mesh of entwined roots. Now, all the two Fyros had to do was climb up the rope and to attach it, as best as they could, to as many root branches as possible. The brothers grinned at each other; they enjoyed this part of their work.
Those crazy brothers were again holding their climbing contest! Mydix Bedax ran to his colleagues and joined the cheering, which served to drive these two up the ropes even faster.
“10 dappers on Rabur! - 15 on Medrik!” sounded through the torch-lit cavern, and Benodir let his workers enjoy the fun of their bets on these two crazy guys. They tried to gain an advantage over each other when the lower one pulled on the pants of the higher one or by shaking the other's rope, much to the laughter of their colleagues. The fall was not a deep one and both of them had had many of them, so he was not too concerned about the health of his men. Even he had found pleasure in these contests of the brothers, who left no opportunity out to find out who of them was the better and faster climber. It didn't matter to him who won since this all meant that the job would be done much faster. Smiling on the inside, but stony-faced, he watched the spectacle on the brim of a slope. Mydix looked up and cheered on his favourite, Medrik. He liked both brothers, but Medrik wasn't as quiet as his brother and he preferred him. Both brothers were level and there was no telling who would reach the ceiling first, which was still a good 15 meters above them.
Something touched his cheek and he brushed it away. Soon after, something fell down into his eye from above and he ducked instinctively and was cursing. It hurt! Rubbing his watering eye, he looked to the ground until a frightening thought hit him. Ignoring his pain and fighting back the tears, he looked into the twilight of the cavern ceiling. Still there were small particles touching his face. He brushed one of them off his cheek and had a closer look. Dry wood; covered with traced of a grey fluff. Mould! Again, he looked up and through the haze of his watering eye he saw something that made him freeze. He rammed his elbow into his neighbour's side, and when he turned to him in anger, he only shouted: “there!!!” A shimmer of light was showing in the ceiling, small at first, but growing quickly. The wood creaked and cracked and began to break. His straining eyes could just see that it was covered with mould as it slowly broke up under the weight of the two sturdy Fyros, dangling from their tightly-woven ropes.
Benodir's eyes followed the worker's extended arm and at that moment he became fully aware of the danger. “The ceiling is collapsing!!! The ceiling is collapsing!!!", he screamed at the top of his voice. The group scattered. Everyone ran for their life and the brothers, who were joyfully climbing up the ropes just moments ago, descended as quickly as they could towards the ground to join the others in trying to avoid the pieces of wood falling from the ceiling.
The spores had affected the base of the root node that the workers were going to use, and now it was breaking from the ceiling with deafening noise. It rained branches and pieces of roots as the heavy base crashed to the ground, leaving a large hole. The ground was shaking as if hit by a giant's fist, dust, spores of fungi and moss were whirling around in the dim light and there was a huge crater in the ground, where the power of the impact had penetrated a relatively thin layer of the groundwork. Within seconds it was all over and Benodir got up from where he had thrown himself down onto the ground, dusting off his clothes.
A remarkable chasm had appeared in the cavern's floor. The edges showed clearly that it could easily support the weight of a Homin, but had no chance of resisting the weight of the falling wood. He looked around and saw that none of his workers were injured and were already, like himself, carefully getting on their feet again. His workers gathered around him and they glanced curiously down into the lightly glowing darkness below them.
Just like everywhere else in the roots; there was not complete darkness down there. Glowing moss and fern had claimed the ground and were spreading greenish twilight. But there was something else shimmering down below. Embedded deeply into the intertwined roots lay a huge shield. A polished plate, decorated with strange signs, such as none of the workers had ever seen before. Next to it, lay the wood node that had fallen through and left a small pit.
“What kind of thing is this?” Rabur asked finally.
“The shield of a giant. Anyone can see that.” his brother replied. There were a few quiet giggles from the relieved workers. Relieved, that none of them were hurt. Benodir looked at each in turn, the hearts of his workers were clearly burning, like his own, with curiosity.
Quickly he decided to get to the root of this mystery:
“The two climbing artists of you. Get yourselves a rope and get down there first. I will follow later with anyone who also wants to join. Let's see what that is down there."
Rabur and Medrig looked at each other, grinning. “And no silly bets this time. You have caused enough trouble already.” the overseer added quickly.
The cavern was not very big, maybe 20 meters in diameter, its ground covered with a thick layer of moss that silenced each step. The air was filled with a stench of damp and something else indefinable. Mydix let go of the rope and caught his colleague Barnus, who had climbed down with him. Ahead of them, the overseer and the brothers were already circling the strange object. It really did look like the huge shield of a warrior. He advanced towards it and sat down. Its edge connected with the surrounding wood almost seamlessly, but as he touched it, he discovered that this was no wood. The material was cold and even. There was no moss on it and the roots were covering it, but didn't seem to be able to attach to its surface. Only in the engraved deepening of the strange symbols there was a little water, where a few delicate young shoots could be found. The dark surface was flawless, but its shimmer in the dim light told him that it would surely shine silvery in sunlight. Strange. What could this be? And what was it doing here? Who had left it here?
While Mydix was following these thoughts, Rabur had reached the fallen root base and was inspecting it. A disgusting stench awaited him. That must be the dratted spore, he thought. He walked around the big node of roots and almost fell into another hole when his foot slipped on the wet moss.
“Over here! There's another hole!"
The Fyros gathered around the opening, which was around three meters in diameter and had jagged edges, trying to look down. A shadowy movement made them jump briefly, but then only a small glowing bubble came up from the darkness and slowly made its way towards the ceiling. Soon after, there was another bubble and the Fyros looked at it curiously.
“There's got to be sap down there, judging from these bubbles.” Benodir exclaimed and sunk onto his knees. “Hand me a torch.” Barnus passed one over and Benodir lay on his stomach to shine it down the hole.
A movement so fast, that none of the men could really follow it with their eyes. Something greenish flashed briefly from the hole and the foreman was pulled down into the dark depth. His cry stopped with a dreadful gurgle and the remaining Fyros stared in horror at the opening at their feet. Before anyone could move again, they could hear that something heavy was being dragged over the ground. Rabur was the first to react:
“A young Vorax!!” he yelled. He held his torch in front of him and jumped into the hole with a wild scream on his lips. His brother and Mydix followed him closely. Meanwhile Barnus called for the others to bring weapons.
The tunnel was just big enough so that the Homins could walk upright, and wide enough for three of them to walk next to each other. Its walls were smooth and polished, and nothing grew inside it. As they travelled quickly through it the realised that one end was exactly underneath the strange shield on the ground. They could still hear their foreman being dragged along the ground, but they also knew that even a young Vorax would be a serious opponent for them. They only carried torches and their small daggers, and these beasts were rarely afraid of fire. They followed the noise deeper into the darkness, passed forks and crossings in the tunnel system, until it suddenly stopped. As they passed through the passages, they could hear faint groans, and finally a bloodcurdling scream that suddenly stopped with a tearing sound.
As one, the Fyros stormed ahead and into a small cavern. As quickly as that they came to a halt, since what they now saw went far beyond their wildest imagination.
Something similar to a huge spider was chewing on the foreman's flesh and was drinking his blood, making disgusting sounds as it fed. Its body was green with white speckles, and stained with fresh blood. It had six legs and a slim body and on its back, which was drawn underneath its torso, it had a vicious looking sting. A second being, exactly like the first one, joined the scene and also started chewing on Benodir's dead body, tearing large chunks of flesh from his thigh. Then, the second creature noticed the men and briefly reared up to its full size. It was almost as tall as a man. A threatening hiss left its mandibles and blood sprayed towards the men.
This was too much for the proud Fyros. They stormed through the cavern and a wild battle began. Medrig took a painful sting to his leg, which went numb right away and made him fall over. Only with much trouble did the men manage to defeat the creatures and Rabur helped his brother up immediately, supporting the weight on his strong shoulders. None of the Fyros spoke a word. Mydix lifted the foreman's corpse onto his shoulders and they began to head back the way they came. When they had made it half way back, passing one of the many crossings, they heard the clatter of fast legs. Many legs…. There were more of these beasts!
They ran towards the exit, where Barnus and the others awaited them. They were carrying swords and shields, weapons they were able to find in all haste. The fleeing men climbed out of the hole as fast as they could when the first claws hit their legs. One of them cast a small fireball into the depths below, giving them a little room to breathe. But no one was prepared for what happened next.
A flood of giant insects appeared from the hole and the men fought desperately over the rope to climb up to safety. Rabur tied the rope around his injured brother's hip, while around them the battle waged. Men cried; creatures screamed and hissed. A second rope was thrown down, then another one. As Medrig was hastily pulled up, he could only look down at his brother trying to ward off tens of the evil creatures simultaneously.
Then his eyes fell onto something unbelievable. The heavy wood node that had created this mess for them slipped and swayed. It started swinging wildly, and finally flipped over leaving another hole in the ground. From this hole came a horror that noone had ever seen before. A brown insect, gigantic in proportion, as tall as three men, climbed out of the hole into the narrow cave and started to lash out with its enormous claws. It threw down the men like blades of grass on a field. Lightning bolts surrounded its gruesome presence, numbing everyone who was hit. Then it continued the bloody massacre of the brave Fyros.
Medrig yelled down into the hole as he was dragged up from its edge. He watched in horror as all the other ropes came up empty.
Some time after that, a team of experienced warriors started from Coriolis to clean the mine with rocket launchers and rifles. They would surely get rid of the strange insects, the hysterical men were talking about. The warriors all agreed on that. A decent battle would be good for morale. As they left the city towards the mine, they saw a cloud of dust on the horizon. A sandstorm! That would make things a little more difficult. There was to be no turning around now though, and the company rode cheerfully on. After a few minutes however, they became aware of a strange trembling beneath the ground. The desert was quivering as if Atys shook itself in disgust, and when the squad of 50 men and women reached the peak of a high dune, they suddenly became aware that they had never been so wrong in their lives.
The Great Swarm had begun.