In the morning, the household awoke and began to set to doing the day’s work. Belynda bundled up Cinder, and tucked her into her cloak. Nathalie and Hilde got the donkey into its harness, and then saddled up Tinza. The cart already had all of the baggage on it, so it wasn’t long before they were ready to head out for the final leg of their journey. Vulthar came out to tell them farewell, and invited them to consider using his stable for their animals while they were checking out the mine for the baroness. “Closer than going all the way to Dregladorf!” he cheerfully added.
He offered to send along a man-at-arms or two as an escort, but Hilde declined. Nathalie was young, but more than capable of traveling back to this estate by herself. So, Vulthar bid them good travels, and they in turn thanked him for his hospitality. It was a clear and cold morning, and the sun did nothing to warm up the day. It stayed cold, too, for the duration of their trip northward. They reached the Peklender Mine around midafternoon, and while Hilde knew pretty much what to expect, the other two did not.
Belynda exclaimed “Wow!” and stood up on the cart to get a better look. Nathalie blinked repeatedly, trying to make sense of what she was looking at. Where the fortified mine once stood, there was just a huge hole in the rocky ground. Surrounding it were uniform piles of blocks, cut boulders, and bricks that had once comprised the walls, towers, and what had been the main keep. Most of the masonry had been obliterated by the artillery training drills that Hilde had held here after the war, but what could be salvaged was neatly stacked around the mine opening. The oddly misshapen pillars stood about forty feet tall, and were approximately ten feet wide. There were several dozens of them, and while the intent was to keep the columns orderly and in some sense of a pattern, the execution had left something to be desired. It looked like a kind of pagan temple, or shrine. It certainly did nothing to dispel the notion that the place was haunted.
The iron grill that sat atop the mine entrance was still largely intact. It was worse for the wear, of course, both from exposure to the elements and the powerful acid that is was subjected to in the battle that first introduced Hilde to this place. Subsequent efforts here had meant that workmen had removed what was left of the chains and locks keeping the grill closed. It was a heavy bit of metalwork, but it could be opened if those seeking entry were determined enough.
Hilde and Belynda took a long look down into the huge rectangular hole that had been carved in solid rock. The holes in the grating were only a foot wide and long, enough to allow air and water to flow in but small enough to keep trespassers at bay. Visible was the staircase along the right side of the tunnel that sloped in towards the rocky mountain behind the mine entrance. Alongside these steps were carved grooves that ran parallel to each other, to enable mining carts to be hauled up from below. These tracks came up, just inside the area covered by the metal grid, and made a “U” shaped turn before heading back down the slope. There had been a crane here to hoist the contents of the carts out of the opening and presumably onto pack animals or vehicles for transport beyond this estate.
The gold mine was deep inside the mountain, but the entrance had been built here on the slope of the foothills because it was a more easily defended position. When the mine had been first constructed, these were savage and unpredictable lands. The dwarves that engineered the excavation had to brace against attacks from the humans that they were not fully allied to yet, as well as raiding goblinoids and other monsters from the west, in the abysmal countryside that eventually became Slothjemia. It was a wilder age, and the mine had been working almost without ceasing for hundreds of years. In that time, many things could have settled in and made parts of the tunnels and caverns home. Hilde aimed to make sure that these mysteries did not pose a threat, if in fact anything could be found at all.
Belynda set about to make a crude lever and fulcrum to pry open the grate. Cinder entered without issue through the grillwork, and started to explore on behalf of her mistress. Hilde and Nathalie unpacked the cart, and set out the equipment that the Sergeant-Major had brought for the expedition. Belynda was successful, and soon there was a loud crash as the metal lattice slammed against the bare rock at the side of the tunnel entrance.
This first portion of the tunnel was littered with skeletal remains, their armor and weapons scattered about as a testimony to the power of the attack that had killed these warriors. Hilde said, “These were defenders in the Battle of the Peklender Mine, killed by the acid attacks of the Red Guard’s dragonriders.” The three women carried their stuff down the steps to a large underground room at the base of the slope. This was where crudely refined ore had been loaded onto the carts for the final leg of the trip to the surface. There were a number of carts here, allowing one to be loaded up and dispatched to keep a steady train of material on the move.
There were also several hundred skeletons in this room, but unlike the remains found on the sloping exit tunnel, these bones indicated that they were of women and children, both human and dwarven. Caught in the rushing river of acid from above, these hapless folks had been given no chance at survival. The acid couldn’t have been contained in this room, as it was reasonably level and there was only one opening on the far side of this room, with another set of grooves to allow different carts to travel from deeper down in the complex up to this point. The slope down that tunnel was considerably steeper than the exit ramp was, and the acid would have washed right down it as it would have gone down a drain. But it would be in this room that the ladies would set up camp. And in the morning, Belynda and her rat would accompany Hilde down into the mine, while Nathalie would take the animals to Vulthar’s estate until the adventurer’s return.
There were magically enchanted glass orbs that gave off a constant and undimming light. The spells cast to destroy the possible defenses of the mine had rendered the similarly imbued orbs in the entry tunnel inert and useless. But down here the lights were still on, and their soft glow could be seen down the next tunnel as well. It was an eerie comfort to the women, unsettling yet oddly reassuring.
The first round of guard duty was done by Hilde, and she spent her time going back and forth from the underground camp to the surface to check on her horse and the donkey. After her, Belynda took a turn, and finally Nathalie. The night had passed uneventfully, and everyone had sufficient rest to make a go of the day. Nathalie bid Hilde and Belynda farewell and good hunting, and hugged them both. They watched her ride off on Tinza, leading the donkey by its reins with the little cart in tow. After Nathalie got out of sight down the road, Hilde and Belynda returned down the tunnel to get outfitted for the day. Cinder kept her eyes out, and her whiskers twitched as she sought to identify the odors in this unfamiliar place.
Hilde and Belynda, who carried Cinder in her bag so the rat could see out, returned to their camp area and took a good look around. There was lots of space in this room for storage, where gold ingots were placed. No gold was here now, of course. Anything that had been here when the war had started had been used to acquire weapons and armor for the mercenaries and renegades that had ensconced themselves in the fortifications up above. There was no way to tell how much gold had been stockpiled here, but it was all gone now.
The door on the far wall of this vast, round room was open, and the enchanted lights that creepily did not flicker as lanterns and candles were wont to do, lured the women with a disturbing sense of insecurity to venture further down into the complex. Hilde gazed down the tunnel, admiring the size and craftsmanship of the construction. It was a good twenty feet across, and just as high. The carved grooves in the tunnel were flanked on each side along the walls by low steps to make access easier for the workers. Hilde toyed with the notion of drawing her sword, but thought better of it. Her backpack, holding most of their food, would have to be dropped off of her shoulders in order to free the bastard sword, but the short swords were easily accessible. For now, that would be good enough.
There were huge double doors at the top of this tunnel, crafted of thick wood and bound by iron. The first two feet or so of the doors were eaten away at the bottom, destroyed by the acid that had been spewed into the mine by the dragons of the Red Guard. Even though the doors had been propped open at the time, the rushing acid still washed up and ate away the wood. It had been so long since the battle, and there was no odor of the acid present, but there was also no vegetable or animal matter present in the lower three or four feet of the tunnel, it had been so thoroughly scoured by the caustic tidal wave.
Belynda followed Hilde fairly closely, doing what she could to sense any hint of danger. Cinder was also on high alert, but there was nothing to be detected in this tunnel except the opening at the bottom. There was light in whatever room was down there, that much was clear. As they got closer to the bottom, all three were straining their ears to try and see if they could hear anything. It was silent.
They reached the doorway at the end of the tunnel, and peered into the cavernous room. It was circular, and had a vast, natural rock dome roof. In the middle of the room were three huge forges, built out of stone and steel. They sat inside of a circular, sunken area, the bottom of which wasn’t visible from here. Around the edges of this room the grooved tracks ran in a great circle, so that the carts could be pushed about and loaded with the freshly minted ingots. There were several dozen carts in this room, and they were all empty.
Along the walls were rooms that had been carved out for living quarters and worker accommodations. There were skeletal remains all over this room, but it was impossible to determine if they had just been laborers or people hiding from the battle up above. As they got closer to the center of the forge room, they realized that the pit in which the forges sat was filled with fluid. Chains, forged of steel, ran up from the pit, to huge pulleys in the roof, and then back down. They didn’t sway.
Cinder jumped down, and her nose twitched nervously. Belynda frowned, and her eyes narrowed as she gazed into the liquid. Everyone could smell it now, but it was not as strong as they expected it to be. “Acid.” The xvart said, her voice sounding louder in the deep silence of this underground factory.
Hilde knelt and wondered how to test the strength of the acid, and determine the depth of this pit. “There doesn’t seem to be any other way forward. Those chains must operate some sort of waterproof doors to the mines below.”
Belynda took something out of her pocket, and tossed it into the perfectly still fluid. Instantly, it began to bubble and churn as it dissolved the object. She looked at Hilde. “Jerky. If it is still that strong, we’re in for a bit of difficulty.” She sighed. “Let me find something to measure the depth.”
As the xvart and her rat searched the rooms that were carved into the rock walls around the forges, Hilde took a good look at the chains. There were several near each of the forges, and in the middle, between the three great melting ovens, there were several grouped together. Hilde couldn’t see any easy way to reach these chains, either. Even if they did operate some sort of door device, it was impossible to see, with this light anyway, which of the chains to pull. Without knowing what the chains did, or how they were supposed to function, it would be folly to just begin tugging on them.
Belynda returned with a wooden pole, and after laying it on the ground and seeing how long it was based on the uniform markings along the grooved tracks, she very gingerly took the pole and lowered it into the acid. It was a good four feet down into the pit before she hit the acid, and she pushed the pole downward into the broiling liquid until she hit the bottom. She then stepped back with the pole, dragging it up on the floor without risking touching the acid coated pole. She laid it down where she had placed it earlier, and Hilde and Belynda watched as the acid dissolved the outer layers of the wood. The acid pool was apparently about ten feet deep. That made the pit close to fifteen feet deep. There were three staircases, one near each of the forges. But they would have to drain the acid before they could venture deeper into the Peklender Mine.
They both watched the acid as it fizzled out on the pole. Hilde took a deep breath and said “It isn’t full strength, is it? Must have been watered down with rain and snowmelt since the battle. Nothing to prevent the runoff from just making its way down here.”
Belynda nodded her head, and said “Makes sense, but it is still very toxic. Any suggestions?” she looked at Hilde hopefully.
Hilde said “We have to figure out what those chains do, and if any of them will allow us to drain the pit.” She looked around at the area around the forges. “Maybe there is something in these rooms that will give us a clue.”
Belynda went to the closest room, and worked her way clockwise around to the next. Hilde went counter-clockwise, and Cinder just ran around sniffing and poking into debris on the ground. None of them found much that proved useful to the task of figuring out the mystery of the chains. They found some clothing, plenty of tools, and a bunch of ledgers written in Romillian.
Belynda looked at the bound papers, and after some perusing told Hilde “These are the records for the mine when it was operating. They marked down every ingot, and when it was smelted. The last time they made any ingots was a couple of months before the battle up above.” She looked at Hilde, and added “They were shipped out, but the record doesn’t say where they went.”
Hilde thought about it, and then asked, “Is there anything to indicate what those confounded chains do?” While the records might have been interesting to somebody like Trangdor, Hilde didn’t care for the details of how this place functioned as a mine. She wanted to actually get into the mining tunnels, and to do that they had to get beyond the acid pit.
“Not a word.” Said Belynda, who put the ledger back with the rest of the records, and went back to look at the forges again. “Ok. This is an engineering problem. Let’s see if we can figure this out.”
The forges were huge, and apparently identical. They stood about fifty feet tall, and had brick vent stacks that ran straight up to the ceiling. That meant that somewhere up there on the mountain were openings to allow the smoke to escape. That didn’t help the acid issue, but it was an interesting tidbit. The forges each had a release slough through which the molten gold would flow, to be cast into ingots on the area above the pit. There was also a trough that ran to the center of the pit, to release the slag back into the mine where the dwarves must have had a means of disposal for it.
Belynda sat on the ground, and with a frowny sort of look on her face, studied the forges, the chains, and the pool of acid. Softly she said, almost to herself, “So, we know they have acid-proof coverings over openings. They are closed, and this is why there is a pond now. Some of those chains must operate those coverings. If not, we’ll have to figure a way to open them. So, what else might they control with those? Perhaps a lifting device for bringing up ore to the furnaces? There has to be a way for the miners to get down. Maybe there are more than one openings in the floor per forge.”
Hilde sat down next to her squire, and took a long look at the scene before them. Pointing to what looked like debris chutes aimed at the center of the circle, she asked “If the middle has the hole for the slag removal, should we start with those chains?” Hilde was not in her comfort zone, and she hoped that she hadn’t said anything ridiculous.
Belynda nodded her head. “Yes, that would make sense. If those chutes carry garbage, then wherever the garbage goes has to be safe for us. I doubt our searches in here will have to take us through a slag heap.” She squinted at the chains. “I don’t suppose it matters what chain we try in that group, either. We have ascertained that at least one of them opens a cover, and that is the one we want. As long as none of them cause an explosion that sprays acid all over this room, we are going to be fine.” She looked at her mistress. “Any suggestions as to how to get at those chains?”
The ends of the chutes were about ten feet away from where the chains were hanging. But to reach the forges that the chutes were attached to meant climbing along the other chute, the one that the melted gold poured down. It was a ten-foot distance, not by any means a significant span, but it was all done over the acid pool. Once they reached the body of the forge, they would have to climb up another ten feet and work their way around the body of the device, which was about twenty feet across, to reach the slag chute. Quite a bit of climbing. Hilde began to remove her armor, because this wasn’t going to happen while she was wearing all of that.
While Hilde was getting ready, Belynda set about preparing their rope and grappling hook. They hadn’t brought a lot of rope, figuring that this mine would already have plenty of access. The hook wasn’t very big, but it was more than enough for snagging a hold of those chains.
Hilde coiled the rope over her shoulder and across her body, to keep it from slipping off. She put on a pair of gloves that she had found in one of the storage rooms along the wall, and made sure her boots were firmly tied. Having a mishap and taking an impromptu acid bath was not on her “to-do” list.
As she grabbed a hold of the gold chute, and began to pull herself up, Belynda helpfully called out “Don’t die!” Hilde tried to not laugh, and failed. She managed to get on top of the chute, and sat there laughing until tears ran down her face.
“That’s terribly helpful, Belynda. Thanks for that.” She said as she wiped her eyes. After regaining her composure, Hilde began crawling up the chute. It was built of stone, and supported by a sweeping arch that connected to the side of the forge. Designed to hold a great deal of weight, the chute was plenty solid, and Hilde didn’t even bother peeking over the side. She kept her eyes on the start of the chute, and kept moving.
Once she reached the body of the forge, she caught her breath, and slowly stood up, her arms outstretched around the huge kiln-like device. The climb up was pretty easy, all things considered. There was a small arched opening that the gold flowed through, and standing atop of it Hilde was able to reach a good place to grab hold of a small lip that ran around the circumference of the forge. She pulled herself up, her boots giving her just enough traction to allow her to scramble atop the lip while hugging the body of the forge that tilted slightly inward. This device was carved from solid stone to prevent any gold being lost in the cracks of brick construction. Unfortunately, this meant limited hand holds. She could shuffle her feet on the ledge, and she made pretty good progress as she scooted to the right. Quite a bit of dust had settled here, and Hilde fought the urge to sneeze. “HOW FAR AWAY AM I FROM THE SLAG CHUTE?” she called out.
Belynda hollered back, “TWO MORE ARM LENGTHS!” the xvart watched her mistress, high above the acid pool, and tried to breath normally. The tense situation caused her breathing to be even more shallow and nervous than Hilde’s.
Hilde tried to get a look, but wasn’t comfortable moving her face that far away from the wall of the forge. She was, for the first time in her life, upset at her ample bosoms. Her proportions were not conducive to this sort of thing, although her strength was more than up to the task. Unable to see where she was stepping, she used her right foot to feel around for the start of the slag ramp. It felt like more than two arm lengths to Hilde, but she finally found the goal. This ramp was wider than the first, and Hilde could stand comfortably with both feet on the ramp. But it also sloped a little steeper than the gold ramp, and she was uncertain about her footing. She looked at the chains dangling in front of her, and toyed with the notion of trying to rope one of them from here. But the length of this ramp was at least twenty feet, and the chains were a good ten feet away from the end of it. To guarantee any sort of success at hooking one of the chains, Hilde was going to have to get closer.
Hilde squatted down, and with her hands on the edges of the chute, slid down until she was straddling the stonework. She looked at Belynda, and the little xvart waved enthusiastically. Hilde began to scoot down the spillway, and tried to avoid looking down. Instead she studied the chains that hung tantalizingly in front of her. There was no real risk of falling, and the construction of the channel was, as is typical of dwarven design, solid beyond reproach. Had this been built by goblins, it would have been thin metal on a rickety wooden scaffolding, and it would never have held up to decades, or even centuries, of use.
As Hilde reached the end of the ramp, she took a good look around her. She stayed about three feet away from the very end, just in case. Her boots swung freely in the air, but if she bent her knees she could clasp the sides of the chute easily, and it gave her a good solid feeling. Hilde took the rope off and began to work at getting it laid out. She didn’t have far from here to throw the hook, so she didn’t let out a lot of slack. Placing the bulk of the coil right under her so that she could sit on it and make sure the rope didn’t fall into the acid, she let out about twenty feet. Holding the rope in her leather-gloved hand. She swung it back and forth, and got a feel for the weight of the grappling hook on the end.
The easy swinging motion set a nice rhythm, and the rope made its way closer and closer to the chains. All Hilde would have to do is to get the hook out past one of the chains, and then yank it back sharply. Tightening the grip that she had on the chute with her legs, she swung the hook out, and then, with a loud grunt, pulled the rope back with as sharp a motion as she could muster. The hook didn’t connect, and came rocketing back towards her, hitting the end of the chute with a loud clang.
Belynda shouted to her, “So close! You almost had it!” Cinder watched as Hilde got the swinging motion back in gear, and twitched her little rat whiskers in worried anticipation.
Hilde swung the hook out, and again yanked it back. This time, it caught in the targeted chain, and Hilde pulled it in towards her. Belynda clapped her little hands excitedly, and exclaimed “Now remember, this chain might be the wrong end! We might need the other half!”
Hilde looked at the xvart. “What?” she hollered. “What do you mean, the wrong end?” Hilde continued pulling the chain towards herself.
Belynda pointed at the pulley mounted in the ceiling. “Each one of those pulleys represents something functional. One end of each chain is connected to whatever functions, and the other end, I think, just dangles there where somebody can pull on it to make stuff function. If you pull the wrong end of the chain, the loose dangly end will come up out of the acid, and if the weight on the other end is too great, it will slip right through that pulley and fall off the other side, and we won’t be able to use it at all!”
Hilde finally got the chain in her hand, and placed the hook on the side of the chute in front of her. “So, if I tug on this, and it feels like I am just pulling slack chain, then I should stop and try and hook the other half dangling down from the same pulley?”
Belynda called back with an enthusiastic “Yes! You’ve got it!” and again clapped her hands.
Hilde took a deep breath, and began to pull on the chain. The pulley in the ceiling swiveled to make the task easier, and almost instantly there was resistance to her efforts. She pulled harder, and the chain refused to budge further. “This seems to be the business end!” yelled Hilde. “It just isn’t doing anything!”
Belynda pondered this information. “Could be the weight of the acid is preventing a door from opening upward.” She said aloud. “Or this might not be the chain that controls a door at all.” The little xvart sat down on a small crate, and contemplated.
Hilde wasn’t sure what to do, but she thought maybe pulling harder was a viable option. She clenched the slag chute tightly with her legs, and leaned backwards, pulling on the chain with all of her strength. Hilde groaned as she pulled, her muscles straining with every fiber of their being. The chain remained unmoved by her exertions.
Relaxing her efforts, but still clutching the chain, Hilde called to Belynda. “Anything your magic can do to help?”
Belynda looked up, and a smile crossed her face. “Yes! I can!” she dug into her pack, and pulled out her spellbook. “Just a minute!” She quickly turned the pages, and finding the one she was looking for, began reading semi-audibly to herself. Finishing, she set the book back in her pack, and began her incantation.
“When you feel the spell take effect, pull with all of you might!” she called to Hilde.
Hilde could feel the enchantment settling over her, and she began pull with renewed vigor. The chain began to give, ever so slightly, and the pulley creaked with the exertion being made. Belynda peered over the side of the pit, and looked for any sign of something happening. Nothing. If this chain did something, it wasn’t going to be the something they needed.
Belynda shook her head, and shouted “No good! Whatever it does, it isn’t the right one! Try another chain, and we’ll do the magic stuff again!”
Hilde nodded her head, and let go of the chain. It swung slowly back, causing ripples in the acid below. Taking the rope and hook once more in her hands, Hilde began swinging, targeting the next closest set of chains. She had the hang of this now, and all they needed was to snag the right set. She said a silent prayer, and let the hook fly out again, and then swiftly jerked it back towards herself. It caught in the targeted links of the chain, and once more she began to pull the rope towards her.
“I sure hope this is it,” said Hilde, more to herself than to Belynda, “because this is turning into more work than I was anticipating.”