Uncertain as to the time when they awoke, the two women had stirred at almost the exact same time. Cinder had been bouncing about already, her whiskers twitching furiously as she explored the area around where the adventurers slept. Belynda prepared a quick meal, and then helped gird Hilde in her armor. They didn’t have much to repack, and soon they were setting off to explore this section of the mine.
There were a number of horizontal tunnels that branched off of this main corridor, and although they headed off in seemingly random ways to follow the veins of gold that were packed into the earth and rock, they still had a measured consistency typical of dwarven endeavors. Supports were spaced evenly apart, and drainage ditches along the sides allowed the natural moisture of the stone to run off without impeding workers. Hilde and Belynda found several mine carts down here, small enough to be pushed by a handful of dwarves even when filled. There were tools here as well, and while the women couldn’t tell if this area was being actively worked on recently, evidence suggested that this was still a workable vein.
They explored every branch of this main tunnel, and came to the conclusion that, at the most, no more than two hundred dwarven workers had been put to work in this mine at any given time. Hardly a major operation by any account but enough to make the owner a hefty income. Hilde doubted that more than fifty had been at work in this mine in the years leading up to the war, and it could have been even fewer. Belynda and Hilde discussed this to some length, but it was not a very interesting topic, so they were happy to let it dwindle out in favor of talking about how deep the mines went into the earth, and what dangers might be lurking there.
Once more taking the elevator downward, they explored seven more primary tunnels, and their various smaller branches. They also located the odd device with which the dwarves had been making those curious bricks. It looked to be steam powered, and used great pressure to push the ground up slag into bricks. Belynda studied the device and announced that it used hydraulic power to create sufficient force, but the term meant nothing to Hilde. She just nodded her head appreciably and moved on to the next task, which was peering down the great central shaft at the pile of broken slag. This had to represent the bottom of that shaft, and sure enough, it was filled with both slag and acid. The bubbling fluid was calm at the moment, but the burning smell was unmistakable, and the top of the fluid was mere inches from the lip of the chamber in which the brick press sat.
Belynda said “They probably formed the bricks here until the need for them was exhausted, then the miners simply made the central shaft deeper, and moved the press down a few more levels. Seems like an awful lot of work.” She looked at Hilde. “They could have just had a shallow pit up at the top, and used the elevators to haul the bricks up and down. This doesn’t seem very efficient for their work.”
Hilde had to admit that it didn’t make a lot of sense to her either, but what she knew about mining could be written on an oak leaf. All she knew was that they must be drawing to the end of the vertical shaft that they had been using to delve into the mine. If the brick press was here, and they had been moving it down as they went, then they must not have gotten much further than this. The women decided to take a rest, and enjoyed a little bit to eat and then slept a little. There wasn’t much more of this shaft to be explored, it seemed, so they might as well have a short break.
Descending on the elevator platform afterwards, Hilde and Belynda both realized they were in new territory. The texture of the rock walls was changing, no longer the same brown color but changing to a dark grey. The shaft kept going beyond the previous distances between horizontal tunnels, and the already cool temperature seemed to drop even more. Rivulets of water ran down the sides of the shaft, and the constant dripping could be heard on the platform as it dropped. “This is kind of creepy.” Said Belynda softly.
Hilde replied, “Yes, it is at that.” She reached back to draw her bastard sword. Belynda cast a soft illumination spell on the top of her little staff, and Cinders curled up defensively on her mistress’ satchel.
When the platform reached the bottom, it did so quite violently. With no warning, Belynda hadn’t slowed the descent or begun to brake, and suddenly the platform just stopped moving with a terrifically loud smash. Belynda was knocked to the floor of the platform, and Hilde was forced to one knee. With a pained grunt, the orc stood up, and readied her weapon in her hand. Belynda held her staff aloft, and the two of them looked at their surroundings.
There was a hole in the wall, large enough to let a fully-grown human enter without difficulty. It was low in relation to the platform, suggesting that in the process of carving down through the rock, the dwarves had inadvertently knocked away the wall of a naturally occurring cave. A slight draft allowed an even colder breeze to slip through the opening, and it chilled the orc and her xvart companion. Cinder shivered, her eyes as big as they could be. Unlike the other tunnels, this opening was neither polished with finishing touches nor was it illuminated by any means beyond the soft glowing light on Belynda’s staff.
The opening was towards where the huge center shaft would have been had it continued down from where the brick-making machine was. Belynda muttered something, and the light on her staff grew stronger, and long shadows were cast into the broken rock wall. There was no debris on the rough passageway, and Hilde stepped carefully in through the hole, her sword drawn and ready.
Even with the light, there was some adjustments to their vision that needed to take place. This was a naturally occurring cave, and the jagged nature of the walls, floor, and ceiling meant that flickering shadows were always changing and seemed to have a movement all of their own. A cursory examination of the ground revealed that there was a roughly hewn pathway here, portions of it being smoothed over with crushed rock, and in other areas well-constructed bricks had been used to make small bridges and even out the pathway. Belynda took a closer look at the bricks, and said “These were made in that same machine, only using different material. This looks like clay, probably a by-product of the digging being done up above in the mine.”
Hilde nodded her head and grunted her acceptance of this theory, but kept her head up and her eyes darted from one place to another in the cave. There were some areas right here near the opening that had deep crevices near the path, and a person, or rat, that wasn’t paying attention could find themselves plummeting to unknown depths or being wedged against the wet limestone in a geologically formed deathtrap. The ceiling was quite high, and while the cave didn’t feel oppressively confining, it was impossible to not think of oneself as being very deep underground, and that wore on a person unaccustomed to such environs.
Belynda pulled a bit of chalk out of one of her pockets, and marked an arrow that pointed off the pathway to the right. Hilde didn’t seem to notice, but Belynda, who was softly humming a song to herself, looked back at the direction they had come from to the broken hole in the wall of the shaft, and seemed to be sizing up the distance. She made another notation on a nearby rock outcropping, and pocketed her chalk. She had to hurry a bit to catch up to Hilde, who was pressing steadily onward.
The cave seemed to meander pointlessly, like a snake looking for nothing in particular. It felt as though the portion they were in was opening up, however, and Hilde was wondering if the part they were in wasn’t just a very small arm of a much bigger cave complex. In their search for more gold, or even greater wealth, the dwarves might have blundered into the vast underdark world. There were no signs of sentient beings having been here except the dwarves, though, and up until now that was just in the bricks and gravel they had used to make the pathway easier. If this was a part of the extended underground realm, it was a tiny cul-de-sac; and once explored by the races that dwelled deep inside the earth, it would have been forgotten because at the time it didn’t go anywhere.
Hilde rounded a corner on the pathway, the cave wall on her immediate right, and a more open jumble of rocks to her left. When Belynda caught up to her with the light, they could both see very plainly a collection of structures in front of them against the far cave wall. The pathway split here, one heading off to the right, following the natural curves of the cavern, and one to the left, towards the buildings built out of brick and melded into the rock. An underground river flowed almost silently here, from someplace to the far left of what looked to be a settlement, across to the right alongside the other pathway. The left path that led to the buildings went over a bridge that arched ever so slightly above the waters. But there were lights in the buildings ahead, and the slightly orangish hue that spilled out of the open windows and doorways created a sense of dread rather than comfort.
“What is this place?” whispered Hilde. “Did the dwarves build this?”
Belynda pondered the question before answering, “I can’t tell from here. They might have. If they had plans to explore the underdark, this would make a fine debarkation point.”
Hilde looked down the path to the right, and it did appear to be clear of any obstacles should she need to head that direction in a hurry. She looked back over Belynda, and saw that their way was still clear if they needed to go back, too. Taking a deep breath, Hilde began to walk towards the bridge that led to the settlement.
The brick buildings were three and four stories high, and butted right up against the cavern’s ceiling. The color of the bricks made the structures stand out, but the way that they were packed together is what really made Hilde take note. It was difficult to tell how deep the rooms might be in these buildings, but this was not a small endeavor. This looks to have been made with the intent of several-hundred people living down here, or at least being bivouacked for long periods of time. As Hilde approached the bridge, there was still no sign of anyone being here now. She tightened her grip on her sword, both hands holding it in front of her, ready for defensive action.
Belynda gasped, and held her little staff up to allow the light atop it to illuminate from above Hilde’s left shoulder, giving the orc a better view of what was ahead of her. They had just begun to cross the bridge, and Hilde could see the crumpled forms that lay on the ground ahead of her on the other side of the underground river. The forms began to stir, as if they had been asleep, and were starting to rouse. There were several dozen of these mysterious figures, and they began to move, as if a ripple in the air had shaken them from a slumber. They were bipedal, and stood shorter than Hilde but taller than Belynda. They looked to be dressed in a tattered clothing, and Hilde could plainly see that they were armed, and the metallic clinking that surrounded their movements suggested that they were wearing armor of some sort.
“Uh oh.” Said Hilde. “This doesn’t bode well.”
Belynda looked behind her, and then refocused her attention on the clanking, shambling creatures on the other side of the bridge.
Hilde stopped walking, and braced her feet in a defensive posture. “Stay back, I need to be able to swing, and this isn’t a small blade.” She whispered. Belynda took a few steps back to be clear of her mistress’ bastard sword.
The xvart readied herself in case spellcraft might need to be employed, and kept looking around to make sure they were not being crept up upon. Cinder jumped from her vantage point on Belynda’s satchel, and stood behind her, watching intently for potential trouble, too.
As the shuffling forms drew closer to the bridge, they seemed to be picking up their pace. Behind them, more forms began to rise from behind boulders, and in the multi-story building beyond. Several dozen figures lurched through doorways and down the many stairways, heading toward Hilde and Belynda. The light from Belynda’s staff showed that the figures were dwarven, or least they had been at one point. Now, they were something else entirely. Their appearance was that of a mummified body, the skin pulled tightly over their bones. Old muscles flexed beneath this pale, taut wrapping of dried flesh, and once finely trimmed hair hung tangled and matted. The figure closest to Hilde began to hiss, his eyes beginning to glow with a fierce golden yellow light that seemed to grow in intensity as he got closer to the pair of goblinoids.
It sounded like the creature was speaking, but more in a raspy, hollow hiss than in a recognizable voice. Belynda whispered “He is saying the same word over and over. Intruders, intruders, intruders. Nothing else.”
Hilde swung her sword back in anticipation of the thing attacking, and when it began to raise its own sword, she snapped her blade forward and caught the creature right in the side above its hip. Her sword stopped short, not against armor, but against the worn clothing that hung loosely on the creature’s frame.
The undead dwarf swung his sword, and Hilde stepped back quickly to avoid the attack. “No good, Belynda! My sword won’t even scratch this guy!” Hilde deftly returned the bastard sword to its sheath on her back, and with a swift motion drew out one of her shortswords with her right hand. Belynda began walking backwards, making her way away from the bridge and back down the trail towards where they had entered this accursed cavern. Hilde followed suit, drawing her second shortsword with her left hand. The mummified dwarf began to speed up in his attacks, but Hilde was able to deflect the blows he was landing. After several moments of this, Hilde struck with one of her shortswords, and the blade pierced the dwarf’s chest, right in the center. The wretched abomination let out a hissing scream that caused Belynda and Hilde to wince in pain. It dropped to one knee, and still clutching its sword, it rolled to one side, and off of the bridge into the fast-flowing river. Hilde turned her attention to the undead that were now approaching with alarming speed.
“Ideas for dealing with this are greatly appreciated!” she said over her shoulder to Belynda.
Belynda began to head back through the cavern towards the hole in the wall that had led them here. “I have a plan, and it might work, but we have to go back this way!” Cinder bounded along as quickly as she could, her eyes leaping from side to side.
Hilde continued following her squire, without fully turning her back on the undead that were now moving across the bridge. Their speed was equivalent to a living dwarf now, and all of them seemed to be hissing.
“I’m right behind you, little one!” said Hilde. The two women hurried back up the pathway, until Belynda stopped and excitedly began to cast a spell. She pointed the staff with one hand at the wall of the cavern, and made a mystical gesture with her other hand. Then, speaking the words of the spell boldly, she thrust her gesturing hand towards the wall as well. There was a loud crack, and the air filled with dust.
Hilde, still looking down the pathway, said “They are heading this way, if that was meant to slow them down, it hasn’t.”
Belynda shook her head, and repeated the spellcasting process. A second, much louder cracking sound echoed through the cavern, and Belynda yelled “Run back to the hole in the wall, Shar Hilde! Run as though your life depends on it!” and with that, the xvart began racing up the trail to the hole they had come through. “Because it really does!”
Hilde took another look down the path, and saw an almost solid wall of undead speeding towards them. “Ah, crap!” she said, and turned to run after Belynda. More dust filled the air, and loud cracking could be heard all through the cavern. A low rumble rolled under the surface of the cave, and with an explosive crash, boulders and shrapnel flew in all directions from where Belynda had cast her spell. Belynda reached the hole into the mine shaft, and only then turned to see what was happening. Hilde arrived a moment afterward, and together they watched as a great rift blew open in the upper corner of the cavern alongside the pathway. The undead looked up, startled, and then they were wholly engulfed in rocks, debris, and several thousand gallons of acid that had settled in the bottom of the central mine shaft, along with several hundred tons of slag.
Belynda had correctly guessed that the central shaft had ended where it did in relation to the shaft they had descended, but she hadn’t realized it was further up than she thought. That is why she had needed to cast the spell twice to create a crack in the rock. But there had been a lot more acid and debris than she had counted on, and as it turns out, it was a lot more than the undead could contend with. Swept up in the avalanche of deadly acid and razor-sharp stones, the hissing creatures were knocked off of the path into the chasms on the other side, or buried in the acid soaked slag. The burning smell of the acid was enough to make Hilde and Belynda’s eyes water, and the tormented hissing screams of the undead caused the goblinoids to put their hands over their own ears to lessen the physical pain it brought them.
The dust was slow to settle, and when it did, Belynda’s light revealed that the path was obliterated. The mound of debris was over ten feet tall, and would have been higher except that it had spread across and into the chasms, and also down the trail towards the bridge. It was no exaggeration to suggest that this was a remarkable mess.
Hilde watched the somewhat oozy mass settle, and aside from the acidic bubbling, there was no other sound to be heard. She couldn’t see over the pile, and there might still be a threat on the other side of it, but there had been a lot of those nightmarish monsters underneath the avalanche, and Hilde was cautiously optimistic that the bulk of them had been subjugated. The stench of the slag pile was almost overwhelming, and Belynda struggled to keep from retching. Cinder’s ears twitched, and her little whiskers seemed to droop. Her little heart had stopped racing now, and the rat was, like her companions, glad this brief panicky incident was over.
“Now what?” said Hilde, her voice sounding relief and amusement.
Belynda giggled. “We go up and get some tarps so we can get over this clutter, and on with our explorations.”
Hilde laughed, and said “Let’s go up and get some rest, before gathering up any material to get across this morass.” She sheathed her shortswords, and put her hands on her hips. “I am a little tired from all of this running about.”