Fight, Swear, Loathe; Chapter 17

Hilde and her squire took the elevating bowl contraption all the way back to the smelting room, and set about making camp. Cinder went immediately back to exploring the rooms around them, and Belynda made quite a meal from the food they had on hand along with a generous dose of magical summoning. It wasn’t as good as if Trangdor had been here to do the cooking, but it was filling all the same.

After eating, Hilde hiked up the corridor that led to the surface. The air was cool and refreshing, a relief from the stale, stagnant air of the mine. She gazed about and filled her lungs with deep breaths. It was shortly after sunset, and the sky had already turned to a velvety deep blue. The stars shone brightly in the heavens, and Hilde was reminded of the wondrous freedom that surface dwelling offered. Those who lived trapped below the earth would never know such beauty as this, such unequalled width and breadth of movement in any direction. Hemmed in by walls, and ceilings, and floors, the people of the underdark existed in a self-imposed confinement that Hilde could scarcely understand. She was one orc that could never feel at home in such a setting. To her the world beckoned, and she would never be content with such containment.

She returned to the smelting hall, and settled in for a good rest. Cinder spent the evening snoozing and poking around, while Belynda slept happily in her little bedroll. The three of them awoke feeling much better, and after going up to the surface to get fresh air, and realizing it was still nighttime, they headed back to the mine. This time they filled the elevating bowl with canvas tarps before heading back down the shaft. Belynda helped Hilde get suited up in her armor, and the ladies were off for more adventure.

They piled as many burlap sacks and tarps as they could into the elevating bowl, and headed back down to the bottom of the shaft. It took quite a while to descend the entire way, and Hilde drew her shortswords just in case somebody, or something, was waiting to pounce on them when they reached their destination. As Belynda slowed their progress, they all steadied themselves for action. Even Cinder was on high alert, the hair along her spine bristled.

At the bottom of the shaft, Belynda held aloft her little carved staff with the continual light spell on the top. She stayed behind Hilde, doing her best to keep the light where it could illuminate her mistress’ path. Hilde stepped through the jagged opening in the rock, and carefully made her way towards where Belynda had caused the cave-in. Holding her swords, the orc watched warily for any signs of movement. Every so often she paused so that Belynda could adjust the light. The shifting shadows were playing havoc with Hilde’s senses.

At the pile of rubble, the adventurers took stock of what they were up against. The debris was heaped a good twelve feet high, and while the smell of the acid still tingled in their nostrils, it was clear that everything had had a chance to settle somewhat. Cinder’s nose was especially sensitive, and she sniffed out the best route over the rockfall. Belynda threw down tarps and burlap bags wherever her familiar indicated, and after they were put in place, Hilde cautiously ascended and took a look around. Slowly, but safely, they made their way over the obstacle.

Once on the other side, Hilde and Belynda spent more time looking around at what had happened. They found a number of crushed bodies, and peering off into the crevasse in which much of the rockfall had spilled, they could see more of the carnage. The acid had eaten away all traces of flesh from the undead, and now the broken bones strewn about twitched unnaturally, still animated by unknown forces. It was creepy, one of the spookiest things any of them had ever seen. The bones didn’t seem to have anywhere to go except down if they twitched the wrong way off of the ledges in the crevasse, but they didn’t have any way of knowing that. Whatever was motivating them to continue trying to function, it was not a sentient force.

Hilde continued down the trail towards the bridge, and Belynda jogged along beside her. Nothing threatening seemed to be hiding here now, and Hilde was feeling good, despite the memory of those convulsing, broken skittles in the crevasse. At the bridge, Hilde paused again, and took a good long look at the brick buildings in the cavern.

“Let’s have a look around. Be careful, we can’t be sure that all of those things are under the rocks back there, or in that pit.” Hilde wasn’t exactly whispering, but she wasn’t keen on talking normally, either.

Belynda nodded her agreement, and Cinder skittered on ahead to see what she could find. A rat was going to draw a lot less attention than an orc and a xvart, so Belynda concentrated on what Hilde was doing. Hilde was going from one room to the next, and bit by bit, the ladies were working together what had happened here. There were some diaries and journals in some of the rooms, but the real find was in some notes that had been kept documenting the official day-to-day duties of the people that lived here. Belynda piled all of these written materials in one room, and continued following Hilde through the complex.

The rooms joined together in a disturbing manner; doorways in odd places, stairs strangely placed, and openings in roofs and floors that were meant to have ladders, but often didn’t. Hilde spent a lot of time moving the same two ladders from place to place, and Belynda did her best to draw a map of the place. She also did some rough sketches, trying to capture the eerie beauty of the rooms, cavern, and underground river. They found a cache of valuables, an armory, and an immense, but empty, pantry. Broken crockery, shattered barrels, and busted crates were everywhere. All of the clothing they found was in reasonably good condition, but it was all fitted for dwarves. Belynda found some clothes that must have belonged to young female dwarves, and she happily made a mental note to see if there was anything there that she might like, once they were done exploring.

In one of the rooms they made a sobering discovery; it was a mausoleum. Belynda read the inscriptions, and from what they could determine, this was where all of the women and children had been entombed. It wasn’t clear how they had died, but Belynda believed that would be revealed in the journals. Hilde said a prayer for the dead, but couldn’t find any candles. They left the crypt as reverently as they could, and finished their prying into what had transpired here.

There was too much to sort through in just one of the rooms, so they set up operations in two adjoining places, and went over everything they had found. Hilde took stock of the equipment, and counted the coins. Belynda sorted through the written material, and afterwards, looked at some of the clothing. Hilde happily announced that they had found a small fortune, and Belynda showed her what she had discovered in the journals.

Laying out the papers and tomes, Belynda went over what had happened to the people here. “According to these records, this was a guard garrison for the mine, to protect the workers from monsters down here. They settled in with their families, and patrolled the caverns further down. Somewhere down there, they established a fortified redoubt to seal off these caverns from encroachment from below.” Belynda flipped through the official records. “They knew that there were horrors down there, mistress. Things terrifying enough to justify all of these mercenaries.”

Hilde nodded her head, and waited for more information. Belynda turned to the end of the book, and using her finger to show where she was reading, even though Hilde couldn’t be reading along, the xvart continued, “When the war with Slothjemia broke out, and the Count of Pek-Shtandern began to organize an insurgency, the mercenaries down here were tasked with finding a way through the underdark, an escape route in case Slothjemia attacked the mine above. Well, they didn’t have a chance to find that exit. Slothjemia attacked, and the acid-filled smelting hall prevented the garrison from getting out that way, either. One by one, the women and children died of starvation. The men must have crossed into undeath, a cursed existence fueled by their devotion to their duty, and their hatred for foreigners.”

Hilde’s eyes were as big as they could get, and all she could manage to say was, “Yikes. Any mention of what is down there in the caves?”

Belynda didn’t smile as she said, “Yes, there is. They call it the ‘sphere of many eyes’. That’s all they say.”

Hilde just muttered, “Aw, crap.”

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