Fight, Swear, Loathe; Chapter 20

Hilde and Belynda went back through the cavern to fetch their bags, and the two unknotted ropes, then returned to where the gigantic spring was wedged into the opening. Nothing was getting through here, unless it was Cinder-sized or smaller. About a foot worth of rubble had been broken down from the top, and there wasn’t much more than six inches of space on either side on the spring. Cinder went through, and gave Belynda a sense of what was beyond this point.

Belynda shrank the spring again, and spit on it. Rubbing it on her dress, she tried to clean it up as best she could. Normally, she would have been delighted, as a sorceress, to have had a chance to remove the magically useful parts of the beholder that all spellcasters treasured. However, there was no way to discern what was what in this pile of glop. Even the blood of a beholder can be used for magical means, but the blood was hopelessly mixed with other fluids and pulverized bits, rendering it all useless. Without the spring in place, the bulk of the monster began to droop, and then fall to the ground. Some of the bits, however, had been driven into the ceiling with such force that they would never fall. They would just dry right there, and become part of the landscape.

Hilde and Belynda stepped gingerly through the morass, and went after Cinder. This opening was a short, natural tunnel, and on the other side was a dark, treacherous canyon. Like the one before, the stream ran down the rocks and fell deep into the darkness. The light from the dwarven lantern flooded through the opening, like a beacon, but the darkness of the cavern was unsettling. Belynda held her staff aloft, and they could see that the roof was very high. They could also see that the floor was nonexistent. Craggy rocks, jagged outcrops, and random ledges dropped down for what could be miles. Straining to hear the waters, all they could tell was that it wasn’t hitting a pool, at least for a very long time. There might be other exits in this chamber, unseen in the inky shadows, but they could be certain that the water had found a way out.

They didn’t need the ropes, as it turned out. Navigating the rocks was pretty easy, even for Hilde in her armor. It was not a quiet means of travel, but they didn’t feel a particular need for silence. Cinder was well ahead of the ladies, and was providing Belynda with a sense that nothing seemed amiss. A couple of times they crossed the stream as it cascaded down, trying to find the best way to descend. The overall course of the stream was something like a corkscrew, but with bizarre hairpin turns that led it the opposite direction. Hours were spent trying to navigate the climb, and they all stopped to rest. They ate, and Belynda set up magical wards to alarm them if something came close by. Hilde slept a little, and so did Belynda, and Cinder snoozed the entire time they were stopped.

After some rest, they continued on, working their way through the maze of formations as they descended. More hours passed, and finally, Hilde reached a wide, mostly flat space. The stream had formed a small lake here, but around the edges was a wide, gravel beach. There was no top to this chamber, just jagged rocks going up and up out of sight, closing in at a sharp angle, but never seeming to connect.

Belynda was wary of what might live in such a lake, and Hilde thought that a prudent consideration. They stayed away from the water’s edge, and enjoyed being able to stroll instead of climb for a change. It was oddly quiet here. The further they walked down the beach, the quieter it got, as the sound of the cataracts above ceased to echo, the sound dampened by the random outcroppings.

Time didn’t mean a lot in the underdark, and that realization was pressing into Hilde and Belynda. They were both a little lost in thought when Hilde stopped suddenly, and held out her hand to stop Belynda. The xvart held up her staff, and the light fell on an obviously unnatural structure. It was a round building, made of rocks stacked and held together with dried mud. It had a couple of large, flat rocks as a roof. Hilde drew her bastard sword again, and the adventurers advanced cautiously. Hilde saw the door of the hut, and she stopped again. She pointed, and Belynda saw what had given her pause. It looked as though there were two sticks poking out from inside. Only those weren’t sticks. The women shuddered.

Cinder stood up and sniffed from between Hilde and Belynda, and Hilde stopped down to grab a rock. She threw the rock so that it landed near where the stick-like things were poking out of the hut, and nothing happened. Carefully, Hilde began approaching the hut again.

As they got closer, they moved so that they could see inside the hut, but working to keep a safe distance between themselves and the underground lake. The hut opened facing the lake, and it was a tad nerve-wracking to keep an eye on both the water and the hut. At last the light from Belynda’s staff shown into the structure, and they shuddered again.

Inside the hut were the naturally mummified remains of a drider. These outcast drow elven abominations had the torso and upper body of a male dark elf, but the lower body and legs of a gigantic spider. Cursed beings, these wretched monsters are driven out of drow society, and are forced to live in exile. Something had killed this one, or maybe it had died on its’ own. The possibility existed that the beholder had killed it, but whatever had done the deed, or however it had occurred, Hilde and Belynda were just glad to have it dead.

Cinder was the only one willing to poke around inside the hut, but she didn’t linger in there. The dead drider took up most of the space inside, and it had very little in the way of material goods, although the rat did drag out a moldering leather pouch filled with gemstones. Belynda clapped her hands, and danced happily. Hilde just shook her head. After appreciating the fact that drow elves had to be close by now, the group continued onward.

In this crazy, upside down canyon, where the walls went up and in, Hilde marveled at how beautiful it was. She had never imagined this kind of scenery down here. She only wished that there was more light to be had. It did, of course, give her an appreciation for her kin that preferred the depths.

The lake kept going, curving ever so slightly to the right. They could see the other side, and it wasn’t clear if it was deep or not. The gravel crunched beneath their feet in a strangely satisfying fashion. The cavern seemed to widen, and away from the gravel beach, the walls began to slope outward, instead of inward. There were unsettling splashes in the water from time to time, so being able to get further away from the water was reassuring.

Hilde spotted another branch to the cavern, off to the left, and the gravel headed that direction, too. It wasn’t obvious that the water had ever run this direction, but it may have been ages ago that the water level rose high enough to have washed the rocks up there. No matter the reason, though, it seemed perfectly natural to follow the gravel road.

The cavern branch was huge, but not as big as this one. It was a couple hundred feet wide, though. The slope was gentle, and deceptively welcoming. Hilde paused, and said, “See if Cinder will run up there and see what is beyond the opening to that branch of this cavern.”

Belynda motioned to Cinder, and nodded her head. The rat scampered up the rocks, and at the point where the wall turned and ran down the other direction, she stopped and sat up.

Belynda said, “She feels apprehensive, but there is something, or somebody, up ahead.”

Hilde sighed. She looked at her squire, and said, “Maybe we should have just stopped at the grated waterfall.”

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