It took quite a while for the great device clicking away in the bowels of the earth to complete its task, but when it did, Hilde and Belynda were both duly impressed. A great iron cauldron sort of bowl rose up from the pit, and on one side was a large platform apparently for workers to stand on and operate the elevator device. There were a series of levers that were mounted in this platform, and Belynda began to examine them closely. She guessed that they were to brake, raise, and lower the bowl, giving the dwarves a means to bring up ore and to travel up and down this particular mineshaft. A very clever engineering feat. Hilde was feeling restless, but she allowed her squire ample time to figure out what the levers did before they committed to leaping onto the platform on the edge of the elevator bowl and delving into the darkness below.
Tossing their gear into the huge cauldron, the women stepped onto the side platform. Cinders jumped into the bowl atop the luggage, and Belynda squeezed the handle on one of the levers, and carefully pushed the lever away from her. Somewhere in the depths of the mine, enormous gears began to move and with a very low rumble, the entire platform began to descend. By adjusting the lever, Belynda was able to control the speed at which the platform travelled, and before long they had reached the first branch tunnel.
There was a magically enchanted light orb mounted in the roof of the branch tunnel entrance. It was held in place by a small metal cage, no doubt to prevent it from being broken or dislodged by workers and equipment. Being at the top of the mining complex, this branch tunnel must surely have been cleared of any useful ore centuries ago. It had since been backfilled with an interesting sort of brick wall, leaving less than twenty feet of the corridor clear. Hilde and Belynda examined the bricks, and Hilde was baffled by their texture and composition. Belynda expressed a sort of “hmmm” sound, and then said “This must be what they do with the slag. They grind it up, and somehow compress it into these bricks. And then they take them and fill up the old mining tunnels.” She clicked her tongue and shook her head in admiration of the dwarven ingenuity. “They aren’t structurally useful, but they can sure fill up a useless space. These old tunnels just don’t serve a purpose once the gold is fully extracted.”
Hilde took her dagger, and poked at the bricks. Bits of black, glassy sand broke off and crumbled down the face of the strange brick wall. “This is what is left from the smelting?” she asked, intrigued by the odd substance.
“Yes.” Replied Belynda. “It is kind of like broken glass, isn’t it? The extreme heat from the forge does that. In goblinoid mines, the slag is tossed out of the entrance and left to blow away, or get washed away in the rain. This is a genius solution to getting rid of the waste. Pack it right back into the tunnels that you aren’t using anymore.”
The xvart collected a sample of the granular powder to show others when this adventure was done, and then the women stepped back onto the platform and continued their descent. They stopped at four more branch tunnels as they went down, finding each one to be just like the first. The mining work here must be finished, and slag powder bricks had been packed into them, except for maybe twenty feet or so. There were tools stored in some of the tunnel openings that now more closely resembled alcoves. And each one had one of the enchanted lights casting a nonflickering glow that eerily emitted no warmth whatsoever, nor any real sense of comfort. The only sound was that made by the women, and by the clacking of the chains and gears that operated the platform when it was in motion.
The next tunnel entrance they encountered wasn’t lit at all, and was placed facing toward the mining complexes’ central shaft, where Belynda had guessed the slag was dropped from up above in the forge room. This was a new development, and Hilde found herself on high alert. Anything unexpected would have that effect on her, but the inky darkness in the tunnel made the hairs on her arms and neck stand on end. Her goblinoid infravision wasn’t of much use, and Belynda whispered an incantation. The carved face on the top of her staff began to glow with a greenish white hue, and soon provided more than enough illumination for the women to see down the tunnel.
It wasn’t a long tunnel, and Belynda surmised that all of the vertical tunnels in the mine must plumb straight down. That would mean that for the entire length of the shafts, they would be no further apart than their openings were from each other in the forge room. Hilde led the way, and Belynda held her staff in such a way to light the path from her right side.
The short tunnel ended at the slag shaft, a much larger diameter pit. A walkway had been carved around it here, and they could plainly see the other two tunnels that connected to the other two vertical shafts. Hilde looked at the walls of the pit in front of her, and sniffed the air. Traces of acid were here, but it was only traces. The overhang above the walkway had prevented more of the acid from spilling in to this area than a few splashes. To their left they could see a dark area that might be a room carved into the rock between their shaft and the next one in the circle. Hilde grunted “Let’s see what’s over here” and headed for the shadowy chamber.
Cinder bounded along at Hilde’s feet, her little ears and whiskers twitching like mad. Belynda stepped around Hilde inside the large chamber, and looked around. The one side was open to the pit, and the walkway that encircled it. There was no other exit, and the room was mostly empty. There were things stored here, machinery for mining judging from the appearance of it, and some hand tools. Among the items were three enormous metal springs, gigantic coils that were at least five feet wide and twelve feet tall. They were laying on their sides, though, and were probably leftovers from some part of the operations. There were also signs that some bulky machinery had once sat in this very large niche, but it was long gone.
Belynda approached one of the huge springs, and gave a low whistle. “Would you look at this?” she said, her voice filled with incredulous wonder. “I’ve seen things like this on a much smaller scale in gnomish workings, but nothing this big.” She set down her staff against one of the other springs, and placed both of her little hands on the one she had been looking at. Casting a spell, the spring began to shrink, creaking as it did so, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Soon it was only a couple of inches tall, and she picked it up with a giggle. Belynda tossed it in the air, and caught it. “This might come in useful.” She said with a laugh, and tucked it into one of her pockets.
Finding nothing else of any real interest, the women returned to their mineshaft to continue their journey. Cinder led the way this time, making funny little grunting sounds as she ran. Once more atop the platform, Belynda pushed the lever and down they went. They paused briefly at the next ten tunnels, nine of which were bricked up, old mining passages, and the other was another inwardly facing short corridor just like the one they had explored and found the gigantic springs in. They did a quick search here as well, and found another large open space just like the one they discovered with the giant springs in it.
But their interest was focused on the unbricked tunnel. For this vertical shaft, it must represent the topmost workable mining area. But they felt the need to recharge themselves before delving into what this tunnel had to offer. It was difficult to ascertain how much time had passed in their explorations, being underground had a tendency to fool the mind and body into thinking that day and night ceased to exist. But they were tired, and although they had been eating off and on during their reconnoitering, Hilde and Belynda decided to stop and take a more serious restful interlude before continuing. Belynda fixed a nice meal from the food they brought along, and cast a dweomer to ward off any intruders larger than a cockroach. Hilde loosened her armor, but didn’t fully remove it. She fell asleep after her meal, her sword on the ground next to her, and her hand firmly on the grip. Belynda likewise dozed off, wrapped in her blanket, and cuddling Cinder.