“Perhaps a reward with more materiality would whet the appetite of my compatriots,” Cang says. “As pleasant as your domain no doubt is–” he adds, through clenched, clattering teeth, “–we have no wish to rule it.”
“What my friend means is we’ll help you,” Shyan says. “And afterwards I trust that you’ll help us.”
Cheers, woops, and general merriment spring up from the taciturn creatures. They slap their fleshy podlike fingers with one another in celebration. Some Jiko sing.
“Thank you, most marvelous surface dwellers,” the leader says. “I will show you to our grim house of horrors, where the evidence of Grumalla’s deviance is kept. Come.”
The Jiko shows them bloodied, broken cribs, shredded clothing, masticated toys.
“Grumalla big,” Abia says.
Spreading his arms to get the length of a plaster cast bearing the giant print of a taloned creature, Fassn says, “I don’t want to live as a god.”
“So do we,” Fassn says. “We’re trapped in an icy cavern full of slimy tadpole folk.”
Shyan slaps his shoulder.
“Consider your manners when a guest in the home of another,” Cang says.
The Jiko ignores the interruption, holds its arms aloft, fleshy, webbed fingers splayed. In a rich baritone — tough to imagine such a voice coming from such a runty creature — it extols the virtues of the Jiko society, deep in the frosty underground, with an air of repetition, like this exhortation is standard-issue.
“But,” it says, letting the word fall heavily.
The crackling of flames seems all too loud. Abianarin takes a hesitant step away from the fire.
“Then came Grumalla,” the Jiko says.
The others, watching intently with their wet, blank eyes, take up a hushed chant: “Grumalla, Grumalla.”
“It slays our young in the night,” their leader continues.
“It takes our children!” another shouts.
“Silence!” their leader suddenly booms. Again, only the sounds of kindling fill the cavern. After another dramatic pause, it continues. “So, surface dwellers. Is your courage a match to the task? Will you find Grumalla, and end the terror of the Jiko? When the deed is done, you shall live as gods under the ice.”
“Gods?” Fassn asks.
Shyan and the others take refuge by the fire. Its warmth is welcome, melting the crystals of ice that have made homes in their veins.
The Jiko eye them patiently. Some, away from the fire, play instruments: drums and flutes and primitive harps, producing an eerie, staccato music that hangs low in the cavern.
Several of the creatures bring a steaming cookpot off the fire. It smells of rosehips. They offer scoops of lumpy meat with limp, tasteless vegetables.
Fassn can’t contain his distaste for the stew. “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill,” he mutters, swallowing another mouthful.
When the group has had its fill, the lead Jiko — the only one with whom they have directly spoken — approaches once more.
“Esteemed visitors, it is good to see you have regained your vitality by taking small solace here in the home of the Jiko.”
The crowd of creatures murmurs agreement. The music stops.
“But now,” the Jiko continues, “we have great need of your help.”
The creatures blink only rarely: rapid, nervous movements that ripple through the crowd. Their eyelids are vertical, closing over the centre of their pallid eyeballs.
Some of the bigger ones scuttle closer. Their bodies are fat sausages, with four limbs, each ending in a hand-like appendage with four fleshy fingers. At the end of each finger is a sticky, sucking pad — a ripple of audible pops follows the creatures’ movements.
One of the things gets within a stone’s easy throw of the party, and halts. It stands uneasily upon its hind legs, and in a strained, gurgling voice, speaks. “Well met and welcome,” it says. “This is our humble home beneath the ice. Please, stay with us through the night, for it is so very cold.”
“We’ve been doing pretty well with camping, thanks,” Fassn says, though his gaze betrays his words, lingering lasciviously as it does upon the fire.
“Please, warm yourselves,” the creature says. “We are the Jiko, and we have lived in these caverns for age upon age. You are our guests. We live to serve.”
The other creatures stay perfectly still and silent, save for the cascade of unsettling blinks that make fairy lights of their eyes.