THIRTEEN: TROGLODYTE FOOD
TROGLODYTES ARE SCAVENGERS, THE hyena of the monster world.
They don’t go looking for fights, preferring to come in after it’s over and pick off the remains of what lost. But they can look after themselves when necessary. They ain’t no wilting flower that’s to be sure.
Yet, at the same time, they startle easily and when given the choice, will run rather than fight. Which is why, when I fired, I aimed low and the bullet struck within inches of the thing’s big webbed feet.
It screamed and ran off through one of the side tunnels, it’s feet flapping against the slime-hardened floor.
I levered another round into the chamber and followed it on into the tunnel, sending another shot its way. But again, the purpose was to frighten, not kill. The thing didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t hurting no one. So I let it run and returned back to the room with the cages.
Sure enough, in one of the cages, I found a cat. It was fat, like it had been eating well. Which made sense. If a goblin pack had been using these cages to hold cats to eat, they would’ve been fattening them up. We do the same thing with cattle, so I ain’t judging.
I had no idea if this cat was Mrs. Whiskers, Meowzers, or any of the other foolishly named cats of Clem’s. It could’ve belonged to one of the neighbors. Regardless, it was why I was down here so I needed to get it free.
The trouble was the big iron lock on the cage’s door. It was like something King Arthur would have used to keep his round table locked up for the night. It was big, it was old, and it looked dern near impenetrable.
In the movies, or on TV, when faced with a lock and no key, the hero of the tale would often just shoot the thing off. I try to avoid that if I can. It works if you know what you’re doing, and I do, but I didn’t want to come all this way and accidentally shoot the one cat that seems to have survived.
I stared at the lock for a moment without any ideas. So I switched my headlamp back on and took a look around the room. The fire pit contained the bones of what I figured were the former residents of the empty cages. That was news I wasn’t looking forward to taking back to Clem.
I bent to get a closer look at the lock. I’ve been known to pick a lock or two in my day, but the few times I’d been successful had come more from luck than skill. I sifted through the contents of my bag, thinking maybe I’d brought along something that might help me out. I’ve collected a number of artifacts over the years, objects of power that have been known to come in handy from time to time. But I had nothing on me that could get me through that lock, not without killing the cat in the process. Which, again, I didn't want to do.
Then something struck me in the back of the head. My vision blurred and the ground rose up to meet me as everything went black.
When I could open my eyes again, I was on the floor with something large on top of me.
“Human not steal food!” It bellowed into my face, coating me in spittle.
It reared back and I could see a rock in its hand.
It brought the rock down on my head before I could think to move. Everything went aquatic at that point, like moving underwater.
“Lolm hungry!” It shouted.
It reared back once again. I brought my arms up in time to stop the third blow.
“Pretty kitty is for Lolm!” It hammered at my arms as it had done with the lock. “Not for human!”
I pushed and managed to roll, taking the thing with me. It fell to the floor but was back on me before I could so much as blink.
“Lolm stop human! Lolm eat pretty kitty!”
Once more, it reared back, preparing to bring the rock down on my head. I threw my hands out, clawing at the dirt around me, searching for anything I could use as a weapon. The cat yowled and hissed behind us.
The monster swung. I managed to move my head enough that the rock only grazed my temple. I barely felt it, I was beyond pain at that point. All I could think about was not dying in some dern goblin tunnel, and certainly not by a troglodyte. I had my pride, after all.
The troglodyte threw the rock aside and opened it’s wide, catfish mouth. Then, with a roar, it bit me where my neck and shoulder meet, it’s yellowed teeth sinking into my flesh.
I screamed and threw a fist into the side of the monster’s head. It grunted but didn’t let go.
I hit it again, and again, but I couldn’t dislodge it from my neck.
I tried going for my guns, but I must have dropped the rifle when I fell, and the creature’s knees kept me from my pistols as it straddled me.
I searched with my hands along the dirt floor as the thing tore a chunk from my neck. It threw its head back and swallowed.
A troglodyte had just eaten a piece of me. I’d never before been so offended, disgusted, and afraid all at the same time. I clung to the anger as my life poured from the hole in my neck. I would heal, probably, but I couldn’t let the thing take another bite.
The problem was that I was losing strength fast. Fortunately the anger over being eaten had pumped a fistful of adrenaline into my system and I was able to rock to the side once more. But this time, the troglodyte managed to stay atop me. However, it had moved just enough that I was able to pull one of the Peacemakers, and, as it went for my neck for the second time, I thumbed back the hammer, jammed the barrel into the side of its head, and squeezed the trigger.
The gun crashed and the creature rolled to the side, carried by the force of the bullet. It rolled off me and lay still.
I blacked out, I ain’t gonna lie. I’d had a hunk bit out of me and I needed to heal. When the wound is bad my body tends to shut down so that it can divert all of its energy into the healing process.
When I woke the cat was purring. Everything had gone dark but for a red glow nearby. The fire had gone out. All that was left were the glowing embers.
I sat up and felt at my neck. It was tender and raw to the touch. It still bled a little, but most of the hole had closed.
I checked my head and found that I still wore the lamp, so I switched it on. The light hurt my eyes.
I pulled myself to my feet. I was a little unsteady, but all in all, considering I’d been gnawed upon, I felt pretty good.
I scanned the floor around me with the headlamp and soon found both the rifle and the pistol. I replaced the spent shell in the pistol and returned it to its holster. Then I checked my watch. It had been coming up on Eight when I had arrived at Clem’s earlier. The watch said it was now half past Nine. I hadn’t been out that long. But still, Clem was probably freaking out. I needed to wrap this up.
I went to the cage and had a look at the cat. Around its neck, hanging from a leather collar, hung a metal tag. The tag had the name Biscuit engraved into it.
I smiled. This was Clem’s cat.
But how to get the dern thing out of its cage.
The cat only looked up at me and purred.
“You and I got one thing in common,” I said to the cat. “We were about to be a troglodyte’s dinner.”
I laughed which got my head to swimming. My vision clouded and I fell to my knees in the dirt, one of them slamming down onto something solid that tore through my pants.
I grabbed at the thing, thinking to toss it aside. But I didn’t.
As with any foreign object that we, as human beings, step on, fall on, or encounter in such a way that it causes us a moment of pain, I took at look at the thing. I wanted to see what it was that hurt me. We all do it, and I’m glad that I did. The thing that I had pulled out of the dirt was a large, iron, key.
I gave it a try and, sure enough, it fit perfectly in the lock. Clem wasn’t going to be happy about the others, but knowing that I’d be able to bring one of his cats back to him, knowing that he would find comfort in the fact that one of them survived, brought some comfort to me as well. It almost made up for being chewed on by a dern scavenging troglodyte.
But as soon as the cage door swung open the cat was out like a shot. The only thing that stopped it from getting too far was my face, which it clung to with a fairly strong set of sharp claws.
I reacted the way most folks would react to having a furry ball of claws and teeth attack their face. I screamed, back peddled around the room, and tried to swat the dern thing off with my rifle. It eventually let go and took off down one of the tunnels.
Once I’d caught my breath and wiped my own blood out of my eyes, I thought about letting the dang thing go. But then I thought of Clem and how he was gonna feel knowing that he lost all his cats. I couldn’t do anything about the ones that had been eaten, but could certainly go after the one that still had some juice left in its tank.
My face itched, an unpleasant feeling that was like a colony of ants crawling all over my skin, but it meant that the healing had begun. Luckily it was only a few scratches otherwise I would have blacked out yet again. But I didn’t, so I pushed the feeling out of my mind and set off after the cat.
I’ve made many mistakes in my life. A fella who’s lived as long as I have is bound to make their share. But looking back on it now, going after that cat was certainly one of the dumbest.
I followed the cat for as long as I could. But, as most of you know, cats are fast. Of course, this one was rather fat, so even after it took off ahead of me, I eventually caught up to it sitting there in the tunnel cleaning itself. But then, once I’d gotten close enough to grab it, it was off again. This happened several times and it chose tunnel branches at random.
I ran out of glow sticks fairly quick as I chased the cat down this tunnel and that. Left fork, right fork, then right, left, two more rights, another left, and then… well, I lost track. After a while I couldn’t even see the cat anymore. It wasn’t long before I hit upon two very important realizations.
Important Realization Number One: The cat was gone.
Important Realization Number Two: I was lost.