They both knew what they were up against now, and neither of them were thrilled about the prospect. Belynda had found several maps of the caverns, caves, and tunnels that meandered out and downward from this settlement. The fortification that Belynda had described in the journals was labelled, and Hilde assumed that the horror remained on the other side of it. Should that turn out to be the case, their explorations would be a lot easier.
The adventurers found an easily defensible room in the settlement, and went over everything they knew. They ate some rations, and after a while got restful enough to sleep. Belynda was excited about what lay ahead, but Hilde was more anxious. She had only heard stories of the terrors that inhabited the underdark, and now, for the first time, she was going to be face to face with one of the most infamous of them all.
Commonly called “beholders”, the huge, fleshy orbs that levitated and floated silently through the deep places in the earth were renowned far and wide as dangerous foes. They had a huge central eye in their globe-shaped bodies, right above a gaping mouth filled with pointy teeth. On the top of their bodies they had little stalks, and atop each one was yet another, smaller eye. These eyes were always looking, watching, seeking out prey. And if that wasn’t bad enough, every eye had a magical property, able to cast a spell unique to the eye. There was no chance of the ladies being able to take down a beholder on their own. The beholder’s large central eye projected a powerful anti-magic field, and would render Belynda’s attacks all but useless. And the smaller eyes were capable of killing Hilde in a half-dozen painful ways. The orc and her xvart companion would have to be very clever to outwit the sphere of many eyes.
Fortunately for them, the ladies were terribly clever. Belynda woke up with a start, and said, “I have an idea!”
This startled Hilde, who blinked sleepily at her squire. “An idea for what, now?”
Belynda clapped her little hands. “An idea for dealing with the floaty monster! I had a dream about building a mechanical something or other, I don’t know rightly what it was that I was building, but it gave me an idea.”
Hilde laid back down, and closed her eyes. “Awesome.” She said flatly. “We’ll get right on that after a few hours more of sleep.”
Belynda was too riled up to go back to sleep right away, but eventually she did drift off. They wouldn’t even need to fetch anything to do what needed to be done. They had it all right here.
When Hilde did waken, she was met with an almost frustratingly enthusiastic xvart. While preparing a meal, helping her mistress get girded up in armor, and repacking their belongings, Belynda talked almost nonstop. She laid out her idea for dealing with the threat posed by the beholder, and Hilde, still trying to wake up and function, just listened. Not everything her squire said made total sense, but Hilde was alert enough to know that the crux of the notion was solid.
Once they had gotten ready, Hilde drew her bastard sword, and they began their explorations anew. Crossing back over the bridge to where the original trail formed a “tee”, Hilde turned to the left, where the trail followed the cavern wall. Belynda looked to the right quickly, to make sure that none of the undead had escaped the rock slide, but there was nothing to be noted out of the ordinary. Cinder bounded along with Hilde, stopping every so often to sit up and sniff at the air.
Belynda held her staff in her right hand, and in her left, she held one of the smaller maps she had found. They had to do some minor climbing here and there, all the while the waters of the river could be heard. In some places, the sound of the water was deafening, as it crashed over little cascades; the echoing off of the cave surfaces made conversation impossible. There were no light sources to be had other than Belynda’s staff. The dwarves had gone to some trouble to carve steps in the rocks where needed to allow the trail to continue, but this was not always the case. And while tight fits abounded, Hilde was able to pass through along the path without too much effort, even in her armor.
The ladies were both glad that they didn’t suffer unduly from claustrophobia, because there were some areas that felt considerably more confined than others. For the most part, however, the path weaved in and out of underground rooms. Some, especially closer to the river, had an abundance of stalagmites and stalactites. Pools of water were found under some of the hanging formations, the liquid colored by the minerals that had been dripping for eons. All of the cavern walls were hued in unexpected color, and when the light hit them, they would practically dance with metallic sparkles and the shine of moisture.
Other than some small lizards, that skittered away whenever any of them got close, Hilde didn’t see anything alive down here. Belynda kept the light where it was the most useful, because they both knew that in the underdark lurked creatures that were very adept at camouflage. When they were close enough to the water to peer in, they noticed small fish, but they were very small. Several of them wouldn’t qualify as a snack. There was plenty of growth on the surfaces of the caves, and a wide variety of fungus. How these things gained their nutrients was a mystery to the women. Neither was trained in such things, but Hilde did wonder aloud, “What does this stuff grow on?”
They trekked for what seemed like miles, but the caverns and passages didn’t stay in a straight line for more than two steps at a time. The map that Belynda had was not, as it turned out, accurately scaled. The artist had just done what they could to cram the entire route on to one page of parchment. Huge rooms took up very small space, and conversely, smaller passages were drawn out to appear several times longer than they were. Here and there were landmarks noted, such as a particular rock formation, or a waterfall in the river. It was enough for Hilde and Belynda to know where on the map they were, but it made judging distances impossible.
At the last noted milestone, a cave that had some luminous fungi all across the ceiling, Hilde and Belynda took stock of their situation. It was not a small room, but it had steeply angled walls that confined all movement through here to a narrow pathway. The river filled the bottom of the chamber, and Hilde and Belynda had to hop across rocks to zig-zag to the edges where the dwarves had carved the slightest of paths to walk. At the end of the twisting, curving room, there was a hole through which the river ran out. The hole had a large metal grate over it, presumably to prevent interlopers from entering via that route. Above the grate was a sort of outcropping, probably natural to begin with, that the dwarves had built a fortification onto. A ladder was set up, allowing entry into the small defensive structure.
Hilde took a good look around, before ascending the ladder. Belynda followed her closely, trying to keep the light where it was useful. The ladder entered through the floor of what was essentially a bunker placed right above the river as it exited this naturally occurring hall. The fungi glowed softly in the dark, not enough to make much visible, but enough to make anyone moving through here to feel more at ease. Hilde clambered up into the room, and got her bearings. It was quite a curious sight.
Along the inside wall, which was natural rock, were half a dozen holes that had been bored out. In each of these holes was mounted a medium sized ballista, pointing into the darkness beyond. Hilde moved one of the unloaded crossbow-like weapons so that she could see out herself. She felt a cool breeze, but all she could see was darkness.
Belynda looked at the ballistae, and noticed that there were three of them on either side of a large device that resembled a lantern. It too, had its own opening in the wall, but a metal funnel connected the device directly to that hole. The xvart found a stool she could stand on, and set about trying to figure out the function of the dwarven item. Hilde continued looking around, and found another level above this one that seemed to be for sleeping and storage. The dwarves must have had rotations of this outpost, four to eight at a time, to make sure nothing ventured up these winding caverns to harass the miners.
With a happy exclamation, Belynda discovered how to turn on what turned out to be a very powerful dwarven spotlight. She cast a light spell on to the wick inside, because there was no oil to be found, and the blast of light that erupted was enough to shock the senses. Light poured in through the other windows, and whatever space existed on the other side of the natural rock wall went from eternal night to blistering daylight in a split second.
It took several minutes for Hilde’s eyes to adjust enough to take another look out of one of the windows. When she did, she could hardly believe what she was looking at. Directly below her was the metal grate, and the river flowed out of it and plummeted for at least a hundred feet, one of the most impressive waterfalls she had ever seen. The windows all peered out on to a massive cavern, the biggest one that Hilde had encountered in the underdark. At the base of the waterfall was a large pool, and the water flowed out from it into four smaller streams. They ran in different directions, pulled by gravity towards the unknown depths. There were countless rock formations here, but no visible paths or trails. Where the windows were located was near the roof of this bewildering chamber, and it was so large that Hilde could just barely make out the other side.
Belynda pushed her little stool to see out one of the other windows, and stood on tippy toes. She blinked uncomfortably in the light. “How do we get down there?” she asked.
Hilde shook her head. “I have no idea. It doesn’t look like the dwarves ever bothered to try. If they did, then they certainly didn’t waste any time making it difficult for anything to pass from this part of the caverns into the next.” Both of them tried to look straight down, to see if there was any way to climb it. The walls were inconsistent, being neither uniformly smooth or bumpy. It was not going to be an easy endeavor.
They were distracted by this development, when Cinder began to chitter loudly. The rat had climbed up on Belynda’s shoulder, and was also peering into the extremely well-lit grand cavern. Belynda looked up, and tried to spot what her familiar had noticed. When she saw it, she gasped, “Hilde! Look what is down there!”
Hilde diverted her attention from thoughts of rock climbing, and quickly she spotted the object of Belynda’s attention. On the far side of the chamber, down low, moving slowly, and in complete silence as near as the women could tell, was a fleshy, brownish-pink orb about five feet across. It hovered around two to three feet off of the ground, and turned from side to side, looking at its surroundings with that huge, awful eye. The smaller eyestalks on the top of it were squirming every which way, looking and blinking. The mouth of the thing just hung open, like a fish, but drooling in a most disconcerting manner. From this range it posed no threat, but it must have been drawn into this colossal cavern by the light. The beholder bobbed up and down ever so slightly as it looked around. The light seemed to vex it, and it didn’t appear to want to look either at the source of the light, nor to draw much closer.
Belynda laughed uncomfortably. “Having a continual light spell in this lantern might be enough to keep that cursed creature at bay.”
Hilde snickered, and added, “And nothing is going to try and get past it, either. Like having a wild wolf pack patrolling outside of your castle.”
Laughing a little more easily, Belynda said, “We created an impasse. Do we call this good enough?”
The two women giggled for several minutes, pausing only to make sure that the beholder was, in fact, not going to get any closer. It didn’t. After bobbing curiously for several minutes, it seemed to think that nothing was prowling in the cavern, and it turned around, and bobbled out of sight behind some stalagmites.
Hilde noticed something where the monster had been, and said to Belynda, “Did we bring a spyglass?”
Belynda dug in her backpack, and pulled out a pair of well-worn opera glasses. “I have these.”
The orc took them, and raised an eyebrow. “Why did you bring opera glasses?”
Belynda looked back in mock surprise. “What? Is that so odd? You need them, don’t you? The real question is, why didn’t you bring your own pair?”
The two of them laughed uncontrollably for several minutes. Hilde did a fair amount of cursing, and Belynda had to sit down because her sides hurt from all of the levity. Every time Hilde almost got herself under control, she’d mutter, “Smartass”, and break them both up again. The monster was long gone before she was able to focus her thoughts, and peering through the opera glasses, she whistled.
Passing the glasses back to Belynda, she said, “Look down there. Where the thing was at, the closest it got to us. What do you see?”
The xvart looked and looked, and finally she exclaimed, “Aha! That thing knows how close it can get before it runs the risk of being hit with these ballistae. That area is littered with shattered bolts.”
Hilde smiled. “Exactly.” She peered out of the window again, and said, “It is smart enough to know that even if there is activity in this cavern, it doesn’t dare risk getting any closer than where those bolts have hit. If it was an owlbear, it would have just charged in heedlessly. But this thing is smart enough to learn from past experiences.”
Belynda tucked her opera glasses back into her bag. “So, now what? Do we press on, try and subdue that thing, and see what lies further down? We have already determined everything we need to know, and were obligated to find out, about this particular branch of the mine. Remember, we have two more mine shafts to clear.”
Hilde sighed. “You’re right, of course. But if that thing is clever enough to know how close it can get, it is also smart enough to figure out that the lights being on don’t equate to anyone being home. If there aren’t occasional shots fired from these ballistae, it will sooner or later test the defenses. Any idea how high that thing can levitate? It can’t truly fly, right?”
Belynda looked at her mistress. “I have heard of them being able to reach very high altitudes. Sometimes they lurk among stalactites and surprise their prey from above. I don’t see any reason it couldn’t make it up here.”
Hilde frowned. “That is disappointing.” They both looked out at the cavern. “Unless this place is going to be manned, and consistently, that beast is going to be a problem. We can only surmise that it has easier prey, deeper in the earth, or at the very least, more attractive distractions. Someday, it will be bored enough to knock down this grate, and if it does, it can reach the surface with nary a hindrance.”
Belynda smiled, and said, “My maps do not go beyond this point. We will have to get down the waterfall, and figure it out as we go. I already have a plan, if you’re up for it.”
Hilde sighed, and started laughing again. “I know you do. You woke me up with it, and that is all I heard for the first couple of hours today. Ok, start getting the rope together, and I’ll see about getting that grate moved, so we can slip through.”
They had enough rope, and Belynda set about tying knots at regular intervals to make climbing easier. Hilde found a couple of pickaxes in the storage room, and removed her armor, before trying to gauge the power of the river prior to getting in. She had no desire to exit this cavern the easy way, by plummeting down the waterfall into the next one. She had at least thought ahead to tie a rope around herself, and secure it to some boulders nearby. Now she could try and dislodge the grate.
Using one of the pickaxes, she was able to pry away some of the side supports. The water was unfathomably cold, having never seen the light of day to warm it. Hilde shivered as she worked, and being cold motivated her to get this grate moved as soon as possible. It was only seven feet across, and for that, Hilde was thankful. She managed to get the grate pushed enough out of the way to allow her to fit through the opening, but it wouldn’t move any further unless she broke the supports all the way around even further. She liked it this way, though, because for the descent down, they had something to hold on to, and tie off from. The grate was bigger than the hole, so even if it broke free completely, the ropes tied to it were going to be securely anchored.
Belynda tossed the ropes to Hilde, and Hilde ran them through the edge of the grate. One was knotted to allow Hilde to climb, and two others, tied together, would serve to allow them to raise and lower their baggage and Belynda. Hilde gave it an approving look, and still shivering, she said “I’ll go down, with what I can carry. You tie the rest to this other one, and I’ll lower it down. Then you tie it around yourself, and I’ll lower you down.”
Belynda giggled and said, “I can use magic to get us down, too. We don’t have to do it the hard way.”
Hilde rolled her eyes, and responded, “We need your spellcraft to deal with that accursed critter, we can’t afford to waste it on floating down a waterfall.” With that, Hilde swung her bastard sword over her back, and began to climb down the rope, through the waterfall. She couldn’t use her legs to hold herself away from the wall, because the wall curved away from the water, so it was an excruciatingly cold, wet, exercise that followed. She sputtered almost the entire way, trying not to laugh as she pondered the very real possibility that she was going to drown sixty feet or more in the air.
The pool at the bottom of the waterfall was deeper than it looked from up above, and Hilde was glad that she hadn’t worn her armor. She paddled to the side of the pool, and found her footing. She tossed her swords up on the bank, and went back to grab ahold of the unknotted rope. She waved to Belynda, and the xvart waved from up above. It took two loads to get all of the baggage down, and it was of course soaking wet on the outside. Belynda had taken the chance before their journey even started to cast waterproofing spells on the backpacks, so the contents were dry, but Hilde was chilled to the bone from being in the water. By the time she had lowered Belynda, Hilde was done being soggy.
The xvart was now just about as soaked as her mistress, and the two of them climbed out of the pool to do what they could to dry out, and changed their clothes. Cinder had come down tucked in Belynda’s tunic, and while the women changed the rat sat atop a rock and watched intently for any sign of the beholder returning. After getting Hilde all trussed up in her armor, the ladies stashed most of their belongings in a crevice, and with as few encumbrances as possible they set out to find the beholder. Cinder took the lead, doing her best to blend in and find taller vantage points in order to keep everyone apprised of their surroundings. They were now further in to the caverns than the dwarves had ventured. What lay ahead was a mystery to them all.