by Chris L'Etoile
The mouth of the cave moaned piteously at me.
"Are you certain you want to do this?"
Jenavere, my traveling companion of late, leaned nonchalantly against the mossy granite of the mountain, idly tapping her staff against the toe of her boot. She was a Gharu'ndim woman of rangy build, with a raggedly chopped, dusty-red ponytail. Had I not met her while she was cracking an Olthoi carapace with her nabut, much as a Sho cracks the shell of a crab, I would have thought it a weapon unsuited for the endeavor. That was more than a week ago, before I knew that she was an Olthoi hunter of some repute.
I nodded. I had heard just enough about these creatures to be both curious and wary.
Jena shrugged, and hefted the staff over her shoulder. "As you say then. Or rather," she said, grinning, "as you wrote." She pulled a small rag out from her pack, and tied it over her mouth and nose. I pulled a torch from mine, and lit it with the strike of a flint. "Why don't you cover your nose?" she asked. "I'm telling you, the smell in these places is simply unbearable." I shook my head, though not inappreciatively, and waved the torch toward the cave mouth.
"Oh no, after you, noble Hendac." She bowed. I favored her with a wry smile, and ducked into the maw, my free hand on my own staff, a small, swift jo of Sho craft. As much as I disliked the aloofness of the Sho, I had to admit that they made the finest weapons in the world; nimble and well-balanced. Jenavere gracefully turned to march after me.
After only a few furlongs, all the light, save that of my guttering torch, was gone. All I could detect of my companion was her soft footsteps.
That is when it hit me.
Up from the depths of the cavern rolled a warm wind, heavy with moisture. I staggered, as the foulest stench imaginable washed over me, a mix of rotting vegetation and insect droppings. Had I a voice, I should have made a noise of surprise. As it was, I nearly lost my portion of the rabbit we'd shared for breakfast.
"As I said," Jena's muffled voice scolded me. "Here."
A colorful scarf, decorated with geometric Gharu'n patterns, passed before my eyes, and settled over my nose and mouth. A firm tug secured the knot. I turned to her, my eyes still watering from the blast of fetor, and inclined my head in gratitude.
"No thanks required," she replied, her dark eyes betraying far too much amusement. "Hendac, before we go any further, will you please stop and listen to me for a moment?"
I nodded, still reeling a little, and crouched against the wall, setting the torch on the ground before me. She squatted down, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "I've been here before, you know."
That didn't surprise me; she seemed quite familiar with the landscape of the area. What she said next did surprise me.
"I fought beside Strathelar and Cragstone." I looked at her in frank astonishment, and she shrugged fluidly. She planted the butt of her staff against the cave floor, and rested her cheek against it. "When I was younger, I traveled with my father, a silk merchant, to your homeland. While we were there, we encountered one of that cursed mage's portals. You know the end of that story as well as I, do you not? We were both taken by the Olthoi. It was but a few months before open rebellion began, but my memories of that time remain . . . vivid.
"There are those who say that the Olthoi are among the weakest denizens of their own world, but prevail through superior intelligence and organization. I shudder to think of creatures that would make the Olthoi seem weak by comparison. Shortly after Strathelar and Cragstone raided the hive that my father and I were kept in, I had the opportunity to share a meal with them. Elysa talked, briefly and unwillingly, about the time she met Asheron. She had upbraided him for not opposing the Olthoi, and demanded an explanation.
"The wizard said that the Olthoi were well beyond his control, and he could do nothing. He and his apprentices had opened a portal to their world as explorers, and the Olthoi, for reasons that remain their own, decided that the visitors must be destroyed. They slew the next exploration party, and swept into this world like a storm wind.
"There are four known castes of Olthoi. The smallest and weakest are the Workers. These do the rote labor of the hive: digging tunnels, nursing the larvae, and harvesting the fungus on which they live. Though many believe that the Olthoi are carnivorous, this is untrue. They practice a primitive form of agriculture, using fungus grown in the deep hive to make a thick broth. This foul concoction can be found bubbling in huge vats along the halls.
"The next caste is that of the Soldiers. Their digging arms are stronger and sharper than that of the Workers, more suited for use as weapons. Unlike the Worker caste, Soldiers possess organs which generate acid. They often spit this at enemies in combat. These ferocious creatures are normally only seen in the deeper and more important areas of the hive -- guarding the nursery and the chambers of the Nobles and Queen, for example. They attack anything that is not Olthoi. When their armies marched across the land, the Soldier caste was at the forefront of the slaughter.
"Above the Soldiers and Workers are the Nobles -- or so you Aluvians dubbed them. The Nobles appear to be more intelligent, and responsible for certain areas of the hive. One, for example, directed the Workers that harvested the fungal crop, and another oversaw those who minded the human slaves. Unlike the genderless Workers and Soldiers, the Nobles are male, and fertilized the Queen during their breeding cycle, which seems to take place only once every fourteen years. Like Soldiers, Nobles can spit acid at enemies.
"The Queen was the mightiest and most intelligent of them all. There was but one of them on Dereth, praise be, but others must exist on this world, on the far side of the great waters. The One Queen slain by Strathelar laid the eggs of all the Olthoi still found in Dereth, and was attended by a retinue of Workers and guardian Soldiers.
"A Queen leads her brood in several ways. Like all Olthoi, she can click and chitter, and it seems she can move her limbs to instruct them in a variety of tasks, but for more general and urgent messages, she and the Nobles emit smells. The Olthoi sense of smell is far better than our own, or that of any other creature we know of. An Olthoi can literally smell what its fellows are thinking and feeling, and this causes it to think and feel the same way. I confess, I do not understand the principle myself, but the sages of Cragstone are quite convinced that the Olthoi form a single, vast mind, in which thoughts and feelings travel vast distances on the wind.
"By emitting the proper smells, the Nobles lead the lower castes, and the Queen the entire hive. The Queen's scents were a constant presence in the corridors, forming the cornerstone of their society. The loss of a Queen disrupts all the Olthoi -- for a time.
"This has been muddled in the course of much retelling, such that the common folk now believe the death of the One Queen left the entire race without any direction or intelligence. I will tell you, Hendac, and I pray you do believe me -- this is a false hope. The Olthoi were affected by the powerful burst of fear-scent the Queen emitted upon her death, and dissolved into blind panic. Once they recovered from that, the bewildered creatures focused on trying to find her, sparing only the barest of attention to the humans who harried them.
"Now, they begin to recover. The scholars of Zaikhal believe that the Olthoi have retreated underground to regroup . . . and to brood a new Queen, surrounding one of their few remaining eggs with the One Queen's royal jelly -- the same foul-smelling ichor Elysa's soldiers smeared themselves with to infiltrate her chambers. It is not inconceivable that there they are growing multiple queens. Should this come to pass, may the heavens help us all -- hundreds and thousands of new Olthoi may flood the land.
"I will tell you what lies below us," Jena continued, interrupting my own grim musings. "There will be no light, save that which we bring. The vision of the Olthoi is extremely poor, and they rely on their exceptional sense of smell to track prey. To find their way through the darkness, they use touch and hearing. Sound travels far in a hive, due to the substance they coat the walls with, a mix of fungus and their own droppings. They find their way, it seems, by making their strange chittering noises, and listening for the echoes.
"The halls will be long and twisting, and virtually featureless. Since the Olthoi are not tool users, you will find no trace of the decorations other races leave behind them. In the deeper levels, you will find the barren nurseries. While no one has seen an egg or a grub since the slaying of the One Queen, there may be dozens of hungry, adolescent Nymphs eager to devour you after their long pupation. Several months after the wormlike grubs hatch from the Queen's eggs, they spin a cocoon around themselves. They may remain in this state for years, before emerging as small, soft-skinned Nymphs. Eventually, these grow into members of the lower castes.
"You will find the vats of fungal soup, which humans were once enslaved to stir. Workers perform this task now, as they did before our captivity. On the lowest levels, there are huge rooms filled with the Olthoi's fungal harvest. There you may find some edible mushrooms, but it is more likely you will simply be choked by clouds of spores.
"A hive is the most alien and inhospitable place you can go," Jena concluded. "If you still deem your scholarship worth the trouble, I shall take you further. I would not have you go alone." I looked up at her, and saw an unexpected softness in her eyes.
I drew forth my jo, which crackled with violet-blue electricity, and we continued down the winding passage. A chitter ahead of us brought me up short. Jenavere and I exchanged glances, and slid to either side of the hallway. The only sound was the sputtering of my torch -- I could not even bring myself to breathe.
An insect lurched into view, filling the entire hallway. Jet-black it was, save for a pair of glowering red compound eyes, which bobbed as it swung its sleek head this way and that. I could see small appendages at its mouth working the air -- smelling, if what Jena said was true. I turned, and saw her, grim-faced, mouth the word "Worker."
Cautiously, it approached, its massive digging limbs polishing each other as it tasted the air to identify us. Perhaps, as nearly blind as Jena claimed it to be, it was dazzled by the unexpected light of my torch.
Without a sound of movement, Jena slammed the end of her nabut into its eye. It trilled and reeled away, striking limbs flailing madly, bleeding green fluid. I dropped the torch. Ducking under a foreclaw, I swung at its belly. As my jo grazed it, electrical bolts crackled and sheeted across its carapace, drawing forth another unearthly screech. Again, Jena's staff leapt out, sweeping low. With a hideous cracking noise, one of the insect's legs gave way, and it crashed to the floor, limbs flailing.
Between the two of us, we managed to batter the creature to death. It took an alarmingly long time. Finally, as the insect's last remaining limb twitched, Jenavere stood over it, her face an unleavened mask of hatred, and thrust her nabut straight down into its chest. The obsidian carapace shattered, exposing a quivering, unsavory mass of alien organs.
Gasping for breath, I used the butt of my jo to write in the dirt, "Weakest?"
Jena, flicking green slime off her hands, nodded. I could barely see her in the purple violet dim of the tunnel. Against the light of the torch, still burning on the floor behind her, I noticed her hand trembling in silhouette.
"Let's leave," I wrote.
Olthoi are a scourge upon the land: insectoid engines of death standing from seven to eight feet tall. They are responsible for the Empyrean's flight from the world, and until recently ran rampant across Dereth. Their numbers have diminished since Elysa Strathelar and Thorsten Cragstone overthrew them, but they can still be found deep in their dark, underground hives.
Olthoi are fast, vicious fighters, impaling victims with their huge digging claws and eviscerating them with their smaller, razor-sharp talons. Once they choose a foe they continue to attack until that foe is dead. To them, anything that is not an Olthoi is either prey or a potential slave.
Like ants and bees, Olthoi come in different forms, each suited to a particular role in their society:
Nymphs are immature Olthoi. They are relatively weak and easy to kill, but can still slaughter an entire party of inexperienced adventurers. Deadly
Workers are sterile drones, responsible for digging new tunnels and other menial tasks. They are the most common form of Olthoi. Lethal
Soldiers have but one purpose: to find threats to the hive and destroy them. Their barbed claws can slice through the strongest armor. They can also spit streams of acid. Lethal
Two other forms -- Nobles and Queens -- are now believed to be extinct. There are always rumors, though, that more still dwell far underground, waiting until the time is right to conquer the surface once again.