Fight, Swear, Loathe; Chapter 25

The distance along the shoreline seemed further than Hilde remembered, but she credited that to the fact that she just really wanted to be back in Romilmark. They reached the end of the rocky beach area, and paused for a few moments before beginning the climb up through the fallen boulders and rock formations ahead. True to form, Polk slung his shield across his back to make climbing easier, but he still held on to his mace. Hilde took every chance to look around at her surroundings, but the helm she had on restricted her vision enough that she had difficulty noticing anything that seemed out of the ordinary for this setting. Belynda was the only one not at all encumbered by armor, and she and Cinder took turns watching and listening while the other moved.

Cinder was the first one to sense trouble, and she used her connection to Belynda to alert the group. Belynda could tell that her familiar detected a threat, and she whispered to the others, “Something isn’t right!”

Just then, a flickering arc of electricity danced on the tip of Polk’s mace. He stopped his movements, and looked around him, up and down. A small crossbow bolt bounced off of his little spiked helmet, and a second one thunked into the shield on his back. A third bolt ricocheted off of Hilde’s shoulder and shattered on the rocks in front of her. A fourth bolt went right into her backpack, but she wasn’t aware of it. She was aware of the fifth bolt, however, as it had lodged in Belynda’s left side, causing the xvart to scream in pain.

Everyone ducked down and did their best to group together among the craggy outcroppings and rocks. They could hear their attackers descending, perhaps some sort of magical flight being employed. Polk held his mace aloft, and with a mighty shout, a powerful blast of light erupted from the end of his weapon, as though the sun itself had been released inside this dank, confining space. Hilde was momentarily blinded, but the effect was much more traumatizing to their attackers. Five dark elven warriors shrieked in agony, covering their eyes from the blast of unexpected illumination.

Hilde took the opening, and leapt up at an elf hovering in the air a few feet above her. She skewered the would-be assassin with her bastard sword, and yanking the blade back, his lifeless body landed almost on top of her. Hilde looked for the next target, and saw a flailing dark elf, slowly descending through the air, one arm over its face and the other waving a long dagger. Hilde jumped off of a rock, and using both hands, sliced her sword over her head and through the stricken drow, severing his head and one arm. She turned back towards her injured squire, and saw another elf trying to regain their senses not far from where Belynda lay.

Polk saw the same elf, and before the elf could fully regain their functionality, Polk pointed his mace at it, and with a spoken phrase that Hilde could not understand, a powerful pulse of energy, like a sudden gust of wind, bowled the elf off of the rock he was standing on. Howling in pain and fear, the elf plummeted down into the rocks below, landing with a snapping sort of crunch.

There were still two elves to be dealt with, and with a nod, Polk took one, and Hilde the other. The one that Hilde targeted disappeared in a magically summoned cloud of darkness, but the overwhelming light from Polk’s first incantation was still lingering, rendering the darkness little more than an annoyance. Plunging into the darkness as it tried to flee, Hilde used her free hand to grasp about until she had a hold of her prey. Using her greater weight to force the elf off balance, she slammed the creature into the rocks repeatedly until it stopped struggling. Only then did she take a step back, and using both of her hands once again, began stabbing her sword into the body of her attacker.

Polk, meanwhile, leapt from rock to rock until he met his foe, who used an innate levitation ability to try and get away by floating upwards. Polk was too tall, however, and he slammed his mace right into the elf’s chest, the weapon making a sound like an explosive had just gone off. The elf’s black, magically imbued chainmail shattered as if it were made of glass. Polk grabbed the elf by its boot, and held it in place as he smashed it again, almost as a brutally comical piñata, and he was expecting it to burst open with candy spilling out. The magic being employed by the elves dissipated when they died, so the elf dropped suddenly at Polk’s feet, and while a good deal did in fact spill out, none of it was candy.

The darkness faded around Hilde’s last opponent, too, and she discovered that prior to being stabbed several times, the elf had been bludgeoned to death against the rock walls of the cavern. She left the corpse, and raced to her squire. Cinder was already there, chittering nervously over her mistress. Hilde set down her sword, and removed her helmet so she could get a better view.

Belynda was in agony, but seemed unable to move. “They used poison. Can’t….” the xvart tried to speak, but her jaw refused to cooperate. Hilde looked at the wound, and tried to assess the damage. The bolt had entered Belynda’s side cleanly, and had almost gone all of the way through without stopping. The point was sticking out below the xvart’s ribcage in the back. Hilde wasn’t sure what to do.

Polk raced over, and knelt beside Belynda. Setting down his mace, he removed his gloves, and tossed them to one side. He grasped the xvart in such a way that the ends of the crossbow bolt were between his fingers on the front and back of her. He looked at Hilde, and in a low, calm voice, he said, “Pull the bolt out, tip first. Just yank it right out.” He could see the uncertainty in her eyes, and in as soothing a manner as he could muster, he said, “Trust me.”

Hilde took a deep breath, and grasping the tip of the bolt in her gauntleted hand, yanked it out of her noble squire. Polk said something, again unintelligible to her, and his hands began to glow with a soft, orange light. The orog looked at Hilde, and said softly, “The poison they use merely causes temporary paralysis. She’ll be just fine. Give her a few minutes to recover, and she will be good to go. Sore, but otherwise fine.” He looked at Cinder, and with a chuckle, told the rat, “Your mama is going to be ok. Don’t worry.”

Unsure of what was happening, Hilde laughed uncomfortably. “What do we do now, then?” she meant about Belynda, of course, and Polk knew it. But he just laughed, and pointed to the dead elves scattered around the area.

“Start searching them for any clues. They are bound to have on their person, somewhere, a brooch or some other item that bears the mark of what house they belong to. They certainly are not members of Vaanmer Kaht, we know that much. But somebody doesn’t want the Vaanmers to have access to this potential trade route, and we need to know who.” Polk picked up his gloves and mace, and stood up. Belynda was still covered in blood, but the wounds had been completely healed. Hilde couldn’t disguise her shock.

Pointing at her squire, Hilde asked, “What did you do? What kind of warrior are you that can harness such power?”

Polk just waved his mace impatiently. “Let’s get these guys searched, we have time to discuss all of this later.” With that, he began to search the bodies of the elves he had killed.

Hilde followed his lead, and started with the broken elf that had been pushed off of the rocks by Polk’s mystical blast of energy. The elf was dead, but it had not been a quick and easy passage to the netherworld. He had tried to crawl away, but the injuries he sustained were far too great. Hilde found a small belt purse on him, and took the contents. There were some gemstones, some platinum coins, and a small pin with a crest of some sort emblazoned on it.

A search of the other two elves on this side of the cavern revealed similar results. More gemstones, some coins, a pin and a signet ring. The emblems on the pins and the ring all matched, and these had to be the marks that Polk had been talking about. They meant nothing to Hilde, but hopefully they would provide Polk with the information he was seeking.

The great light that Polk had unleashed began to fade, gradually but steadily. When Polk returned from searching the last two corpses, the only light in this chamber was from the top of Belynda’s little staff. The xvart was beginning to show signs of movement, and was trying to sit up. Hilde helped her get herself upright, and Polk showed them what he had found.

He produced two more pins, identical to the ones that Hilde had found. “These are from the House of Polmeer Kaht.” He said, snickering as he did so. “Real skunks.” He chuckled again.

Belynda blinked a couple of times, and began to giggle. She clutched her side, and groaned as she snickered. “Pole cats!” she exclaimed. “Oh, that is very clever!”

Hilde startled laughing too, and any attempt at being quiet gave way to her howls of delight. She was so glad that her friend was ok, the relief washed over her like waves on the ocean. The imagery of skunks, and drow elves with their dark, ebony skin and white hair was too much for her. It was so silly, and so refreshing. “You are a witty man, Polk. A wonderful, witty man that is just full of surprises.” She said between laughs.

The would-be assassins didn’t have much else of note on them, so the trio gathered up their own luggage and began climbing anew. Cinder spent more time, and further ahead of the adventurers, looking for any signs of trouble. The climb up was not much more taxing than the climb down had been, and fully armored, Hilde was able to keep pace pretty well. She kept an eye on her squire, who was right in front of her, and more capable of hearing or seeing danger. Polk had taken up position at the back of the group, mostly because he didn’t know where exactly they were headed, other than upwards. He kept a wary eye out for anyone, or anything, sneaking up behind them. Up and up, ever onward they climbed. Sometimes it was just a casual stroll around a rock formation, other times it was like navigating gigantic stone steps. It seemed like it was several miles worth of distance, and it did take many hours, but at last they made it to a point where they could see the light spilling out from the great cavern up ahead.

Hilde turned to Polk. Pointing at the lighted doorway of sorts, she said, “Up ahead is the cave where we encountered the beholder. It must have spent a good deal of time in this area, too. Keep alert, without it around, who knows what might be lurking here now.”

This was a fair assessment, and everybody knew it. The beholder was one of the toughest monsters to be found anywhere in the underdark, certainly enough to keep the dark elves from coming up and the dwarves from going down. There could have been other nasty critters in here as well that grudgingly gave the floating nightmare a wide berth, and might now be looking to move in to its former territory.

As they approached the transition from this part of the caves to the next, all of them took time to look around really well at their surroundings. Where the water cascaded down, it was clear that the jagged rift they had just climbed up continued upwards, albeit more sharply than it descended. It didn’t look like an easy climb, but it was possible. The beholder would have had no trouble simply floating up there. In fact, it seemed likely that it might have had its lair up there. This possibility made all of them consider the exploration, because beholders liked to amass treasure in their lairs.

Cinder was able to scale the walls with relative ease, and Belynda relayed to the others what her familiar was sensing. “Cold and dark, mostly. Like a chimney, only wider.” The xvart settled down on a rock, and rested while her rat scrambled about in the darkness overhead. “She found an outcropping or hole. Big enough for that thing to have nested in, but we’ll have to verify it.”

Belynda called for Cinder to come back down, and gave her one end of their rope to take back up with her. The rat was supposed to loop it around whatever might be up there to secure the rope, and then bring it back down so that they could climb up. The rat chittered away cheerfully, and climbed back up into the darkness. A few minutes later, she came back down, tugging on the rope. She had managed to get it around something, but was it strong enough to support any of them as they climbed up?

Hilde took off her helmet so she could see better, and grasped the end of the rope that Cinder had brought back down. Polk took a hold of the other end of the rope, and held it firmly as Hilde began to draw in the slack. There was some resistance, but not a lot, and Hilde was beginning to wonder what Cinder had managed to wrap the rope around. It almost felt as though the length of it had been draped around something heavy, but not immobile. She wondered aloud under her breath, “What the heck did she snag up there, anyway?”

Belynda, who was gazing upward, suddenly shrieked, “WATCH OUT!” and both Hilde and Polk instinctively leapt back, away from the ropes they had been holding. There was a dull thud as something hit the ground at their feet, followed by the smashing of glass and fumes rising from whatever had fallen. There was plenty of light here, thanks to the powerful light that poured out of the great cavern just beyond this point, but everyone’s eyes were burning and they had trouble seeing what was going on. Polk started coughing, and Hilde grabbed her skirt hem and held it over her nose and mouth. Belynda was choking, and stumbled towards the running water to wash off the liquid that had splashed from the broken glass. Cinder raced from the room altogether as if her tail was on fire, and disappeared into the well-lit cave beyond.

Polk staggered backwards, and slipped right into the underground river, sitting down hard with a splash and a grunt. Hilde bent over trying to open her eyes, and was met with a burning, stinging sensation. Feeling along the ground with her hands, she made her way on her hands and knees towards the water to rinse off her face. Within moments, all three of them were in the cold, running water trying to wash off whatever had spilled.

After getting themselves washed up, the three of them tried to assess what had happened. Cinder had run the rope around the beholders accumulated loot, and Hilde had then pulled it straight down on top of them. In the treasure had been several potions of indeterminate types, and these had been kept in glass bottles by whoever had first owned them. When the bottles broke, the potions mixed together, and the reaction produced a noxious, irritating gas. Furthermore, it had given Belynda the hiccups. Polk extricated himself from the river, and took stock of what else Hilde had pulled down from the beholder’s nest.

There were several moldering leather bags filled with coins, six-hundred and seventy-seven to be exact, all of which were clearly dark elven in origin, and made of platinum. A small, ornately carved box, made of some sort of bone, contained a myriad of delicately cut gemstones. There were also some curiously made items, and not all were of drow origin. A large platter, made from some silky black metal and inset with turquoise clearly was dark elven, as was a stunning silver goblet with tiny spiders engraved on it, each one having a little ruby for an abdomen. But there was also some sort of bizarre, grotesque statuette of what looked like a squatting illithid clutching a globe, and that was definitely not a dark elven theme. An amulet made of gold, with a built-in case for holding tiny treasures, and a beautiful copper chain with a dangly carved head that looked like a leering gnome rounded out the eclectic collection. The beholder had taken what was available, and not done a lot of planning in the art department.

Belynda rifled through the motley collection of goods, and found four rolled up bundles of parchment. She spread them out, with Cinder sitting on one side of them to keep them flat, and took a good long look at what they had found. The writing was indecipherable, but there were plenty of illustrations and drawings to indicate this was a series of maps. Given that one of the parchments was incomplete, Belynda concluded that the maps had been a work in progress of this part of the underdark. It would have to be more fully examined under better circumstances than here before anyone knew for sure.

Polk’s eyes were still bloodshot, and he had to hold his hand up to shield himself from the intensely bright light emanating from the colossal cavern beyond the small passageway. In the passageway itself, the rancid body of the dead beholder lay on the ground. Tiny carrion eaters had been busy, picking away at the obliterated remains of the monster. Polk stepped gingerly around the foul-smelling glop, and almost slipped into the small river. He looked at the cavern, and let out a low whistle.

“This place is amazing!” he declared, his voice filled with reverent awe. His eyes adjusted to the light from the dwarven device far up and away on the other side of the cavern. He looked at the waterfall, the pool into which it spilled, and the three other rivulets that worked their way out of this place by other routes than the one they had just climbed up. Polk removed his little metal cap, and stood quietly, gazing about at this hall of naturally formed beauty.

Finally, he turned towards his companions, and called out to them. “What is this place called?” he asked.

Hilde shrugged her shoulders, the pile of loot from the beholder’s nest crammed into her backpack. She replied to the orog with, “I’ve no idea what the dwarves called this place. Probably the end of the line, thanks to this beastie floating about.” She side-stepped the dead beholder as she said that, and Belynda pinched her nose shut as she did the same maneuver.

Putting his cap back on, Polk said, “Then I shall name it. Henceforth it shall be called the ‘Grotto of the Shar’ and be noted as such on the documentation indicating the route of the proposed trade route.”

Belynda giggled her approval. “Pretty big for a grotto.” She whispered to Hilde.

Hilde giggled in return, and said, “Well, I’m a big girl.” The two of them snickered at length as they made their way towards the waterfall. Polk was so absorbed in the scenery that he scarcely seemed to notice.

Hilde and Belynda made their way to the edge of the pool, and set down their baggage. Polk eventually did the same, and sat down on a rock. Hilde took off her helmet, and Cinder scrambled up a nearby boulder to keep an eye out for trouble.

Perching herself against another rock, Hilde wiped her brow. “We should camp here, at least to eat and rest a little. The next portion of our trip is to climb that rope dangling in the waterfall.”

Polk gazed at the waterfall, and sure enough, hanging right in the midst of it was the knotted rope. He muttered, “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

Belynda giggled. “The water is nice and cold, too. You have to remove your armor, and we can use magic to float our stuff up, nice and dry.” She then added, “But you have to take one end of a rope with you. I can float stuff, but you have to haul it in. Like a fish.”

Polk looked at Belynda and smiled. “Like a floating fish.” He said.

She grinned, and replied, “Exactly!”

The three of them set up a small fire, and Polk and Hilde removed their armor. Belynda bundled up everything together with their second rope, and tied the third rope to the bundle. It would be the other end of that rope that would have to be carried up through the waterfall. Once that was done, they settled in to enjoy a meal.

While they ate, Hilde couldn’t hide her curiosity any further. “How is it that a warrior knows so much about spellcraft?” she asked Polk. “That was some pretty good casting back down those rocks.”

Polk chuckled. “I used to be a cleric.” He said, rather matter-of-factly. “I was looking to become a constabulary chaplain. I always found it satisfying to solve crimes, or at least to help the process along.”

Hilde nodded her head thoughtfully. “So, what happened?” she asked.

Polk shook his head. “I decided that being a chaplain wasn’t for me. I like being able to get right in the thick of things. Chaplains are more often than not put behind a desk, and sit around waiting to be needed. There is so much need out there, it feels like a waste to wait.” He took a drink from his water-skin. “Plus, I earn a good more amount of money by doing what I do now.”

Hilde smiled slyly. “And what exactly do you do?” she asked.

Polk chuckled. “I get my hands dirty.” He said simply.

Belynda furrowed her brow. “He’s told me that before. I think he should be the one to get his hands wet, too.”

Hilde laughed. “Whoever climbs the waterfall earns a pickled mushroom.”

Polk laughed, and leaned back against a stalagmite. “Let me just have a quick nap, and I’ll do it. I do love pickled mushrooms.”

Everyone took a little nap, and enjoyed the peace and calm of the poolside atmosphere. The falling water was soothing, and Cinder spent the time running about and keeping an eye on them. In her rodent manner, she liked this cavernous hall. She managed to catch and eat a few beetles, and did a little grooming. By the time everyone had awakened and was ready to travel again, Cinder was raring to go, too. For somebody, it was about to be shower time.

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