The cavern was shifty with yellow sand, shot through with quartz and altogether malevolent. The air was redolent with a wisp of resin, the legacy of the small smokes that wafted from the small spire that centered the room.
Jarlebanke examined that same spire intently. It emitted but small thaumaturgy – enough, perhaps, to generate the vapors that even now scented the clammy cavern air, but no more than that. Of more interest, at least to the young provincial scholar, were the runes emblazoned in the pale stone. Three interlocking triangles, ruby against the blanched basalt.
“Those symbols are old, but there’s no mistaking them – I’ve seen the like in my books,” Jarlebanke said, his brows furrowed. “They are Asmodean.”
Pastor William looked surprised: “Asmodean, you say?” he asked rhetorically. “Suitable, perhaps, for these louts…” he gestured at the bodies, still in the robes, laying nearby. “… but a bit much for goblin and bugbears, don’t you think?” Jarlebanke shrugged, then nodded.
Beyond the spire lay the slime pool, from which the “mud tigers” had come. They were large lizards, reptilian in nature but also capable of delivering electric shocks and exerting strange magnetic fields that hindered movement. It had been a tough fight, and Izmet now passed the time methodically severing their heads from the mud tiger corpses, then dumping the portions into the pool. They sank beneath the oily surface, lending a slick of dark blood to the fetid pool.
By a rough escritoire, Sonja and Simon took a quick inventory of the portable loot:
Three silver urns
Two robes with Asmodean symbols
Two silver holy symbols, presumably Asmodean
260 gp, 18 pp, six bloodstones
Six vials, filled with liquid
Simon beckoned Jarlebanke over to examine the vials. They came in two sets, each of three vials. The mage inspected them for magic and found that three of them emitted small conjuration dweomers, divine in nature – likely curative potions, small but useful. The others required Jarlebanke to consult one of the small quartos that he carried with him, a portable alchemical primer. “These…” said Jarlebanke, holding one to his eye to take advantage of some torchlight and gauge the color of the contents, “… these are, unless I miss my guess, a preventive against the ill effects of spores and pollens. See the grains within?” He gave the vial a small shake, and particles in the fluid swam about in a brownian ellipse. “There is an aphorism in the alchemical arts: ‘Like influences like.’ Those small bits there are likely the same scintillae that this draught is designed to protect against.”
Simon frowned. “Spores?” he asked.
“It’s not unheard of, for fungi to grow in the depths of caves,” Pastor William observed.
It was deep into the night when the party moved on. They passed several passages that bore the mark of the miner’s pick, but no miners. Eventually, the group found it’s way back toward the way they’d come… or at least, the way they believed they’d come. For now, the entire area was covered in rockfall, and passage was blocked to the ceiling above.
Sonja approached and eyed the rockfall with the critical eye trained by a life underground. “It’s a cave-in, nae question, but I heard nae squeak nor clatter – ‘tis damned unusual, to hear naught doon the airshafts at least.”
Simon’s eyes, however, were upon the dusty, carved stone floor. “Something’s amiss here,” he said thoughtfully. “Sonja, see these tracks? Goblin, unless I miss my guess. Look here: they approach the rockfall… and here as well. The tracks are everywhere.:
“Aye, gobs. What of it?”
“Tracks go to the rockfall, and they come away from the rockfall… but there is none that I can see of a single goblin upon the rockfall.”
Sonja’s bushy eyebrows rose, and he approached the forbidding stones. Gently, he reached his thick fingers toward the broken rock. And, after a trepidatious paused, passed through them.
“Jarlebanke! Come take a look at this,” Simon called out. The wizard approached. “Could this be a figment, an apparition?”
Simon used the common terms. “An image? Possibly.” Jarlebanke drew some symbols in the air, leaving bluish afterimages that he leaned forward and scrutinized.
“Bah, fook it,” said Sonja gruffly and, screwing up his face in a grimace, walked forthrightly into the rockfall. He disappeared.
Simon and Jarlebanke looked at each other, then stepped through themselves. Past the illusionary cave-in, carved hallways went in each direction. The clear sounds of minework could be heard, and Sonja shushed the two newcomers and bent his ear toward the sound. “Those be miners, aye,” he said at last. “And unless my eyes be deceptive, these be the same tunnels that I worked myself only three days ago.”
Simon looked back as the remainder of the party came guardedly through the illusionary wall. “The floor is brushed,” Simon added. “Any tracks left here have been purposefully erased.”
Sonja turned to face the group. “This is the mine I work in,” he said. “I don’t know who is working the mine right now – it’s third shift and I work first shift.”
“Well, who works third shift?” asked Izmet.
“I don’t rightly know.”
“Well, third shift, they’re from the guardhouse.” Sonja explained. “We asked questions about it, sure, but in the end, it was what it was. Third shift stayed at the guardhouse, that was that. Who was going to quiz ol’ Bazill about it? Not me. I like my job, and the boss… well, he’s a good enough boss, a fellow dwarf, and he’s done a lot for the Cove, yeah? Pays more in tax than anyone. Ear of the council, known by all and liked by most.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. “Well, let’s have a look at this third shift,” said Simon in a low voice. He stole away, silently, down the passage toward the sounds of the stone being worked. He returned, equally silently, a few minutes later.
“Your mine’s third shift is made up of humans in shackles,” Simon said grimly. “A couple dozen at least, plus scads of goblins skittering about.” He paused. “They’re in pretty bad shape, some of them.”
Sonja was nonplussed. Finally, he said: “My first reaction is to go to their superiors… but now, we don’t know what side they are on. Only one thing is for certain: there is an enemy amongst us.”
They talked for some minutes after Simon’s revelation. Should they attack in force by surprise, scatter the goblins and release the captives? Or should they sneak through somehow, approach the guardhouse and attack the slavers themselves? Neither plan had much to recommend it – Simon was unsure how many goblins were down the passage, and the tight quarters would give them an advantage. At the same time, sneaking past the gobs to the main mine entrance, trekking across the open quarry and laying siege to the guardhouse was also fraught with difficulty, not the least of which was trying to sneak past a working mine with several men in armor. But all agreed that time wasn’t on their side – before dawn, third shift would end and the destruction they’d wrought in the previous hours (not the least of which was the killing of two Asmodean priests and a gaggle of goblins) would be discovered. Alarms and heighted security at the guardhouse were sure to follow. At last, it was agreed: they would repair to the room containing the spire (most likely to be left unvisited by the goblins returning from the mines, they surmised), wait until third shift had ended and left the mineshafts, then sneak out into the quarry in the interim period and lay siege to the guardhouse. A few hours rest beforehand would de everyone good, especially the spellcasters.
Back in the priests’ room, before any can rest there are bodies to be removed, and after about an hour of heaving corpses into the slime pool, everyone is exhausted. A few hours rest was a welcome respite.
Sonja gave William’s shoulder a shake. “Time to move, Pastor,” he said quietly. The others were already packing what belongings they had loose. “There was a bunch of gobs came through the wall-that-ain’t a few minutes ago. No time to dally, soon they’ll be squeakin’ bloody murder to report that their mates ran into trouble.” The dwarf gave a feral grin.
The mines were preternaturally quiet between shifts, and the party crept through the dim halls, kicking up small clouds of rock-dust as they passed. “Wait,” Simon halted. Nearby, a doorless cave held coils of rope, picks and shovels, alongside other gears. Simon waved them in, and everyone grabbed coils of rope. Jarlebanke, after a moment’s thought, picked up a small hammer and a selection of large metal spikes as well.
False dawn was just filling the sky as the party emerged into the comparatively fresh air of the quarry. Simon paused to kneel and examine the ground: “Aye,” he said with a nod. “The slaves came this way. Footprints aplenty, and manacles in the middles. They passed this way.” His head turned to follow the tracks, and his eyes immediately lit on the squat tower of the guardhouse.
The guardhouse glowered down upon the quarry, silhouetted against the southern stars and clearly visible even with their torches extinguished. “It’s but an hour before the next shift will arrive, and it’ll be full daylight then as well,” Sonja whispered hoarsely. “If we’re to beard old Bazill in the guardhouse and find the evidence that will prove he’s been trading slaves, we need to move sprightly.”
But they hadn’t moved swiftly enough – emerging from the mine entrance were squawking angrily as they made their way toward the guardhouse. The noise covered the party’s about-face, and almost as quickly as the fight commenced, it was over. But goblins – and quarry-fights – are nothing if not loud. There was no chance the men atop the guardhouse parapet had not heard the fracas.
“Hand me one of those robes, lad,” asked William of Simon, who dutifully gave it up to the cleric. William donned it. “The rest of you, hoist those coils to your shoulders, high up as you can to hide your faces. If we can’t strike from stealth, we’re going to assay a ruse.”
And as such, the new plan seemed to work. The suspicious eyes of the guards looked down upon them as the party trod the stone path and passed underneath the parapet around to the only ground-level door. The guards’ eyes bored into the tops of their heads as the party walked by, but they gave no challenge.
The guardhouse itself was a strange – and somewhat unpleasant – looking building. It had a mottled appearance, due to the color of the stone used to build it and the moss which covered substantial portions of the facade. The crenellated parapet surrounded the building like a collar around the second floor. Simon stole ahead and did a quick lap, hidden from the guards above. “No secret doors that I can see,” he admitted.
“Front, then,” said William. He slammed his fist against the strong oaken door. “Open up!” he yelled. “Hurry, damn you! The next shift will be here in half a turn of the candle!”
There was no response at the door, but a guard peered over the side. “You know the rules,” the guard admonished.
“Bugger your rules!” William shouted. “We’ve got a serious problem in the mine, so either un-bar this door and let us in or fetch Glytheriel to do it!”
William’s ire was enough to make the guard waver – it was the break the were looking for. Acid sprang from Jarlebanke’s hands, arrows sprang from Simon’s bow, and Izmet climbed the mottled stone to gain the parapet. Once above, Izmet tossed down a rope to Simon, all while taking fire from the guards, now incensed like a roused nest of hornets.
Simon reached the parapet, went over the side and took hold of the rope, freeing Izmet to carry defend them both against close-quarters attacks from the guards. Jarlebanke reached the top next, but Sonja’s armor weighed him down – the dwarf was no climber. And all the while, Izmet and Simon engaged the ever-increasing number of guards, while William waited with trepidation for the front door to finally open. William, it seemed, was no climber either.
“Jarlebanke!” Simon yelled as he feathered another guard. “Find us another way in!” The woodsman loosed another arrow, catching a guardsman high in the chest. He slid against the crenellation with a groan. Jarlebanke turned and began running the other way around, hoping there might be an opposing door that could be exploited.
Instead, Jarlebanke’s eyes rolled upward into his head, and he fell forward onto the stone. Nearby, Izmet fell as well, and the rope he was hauling upward – a rope upon which Sonja clung – fell back heavily to the ground.
Glytheriel, the elvish captain of the mine, had arrived, with spells and reinforcements. Guardsmen moved forward, and one raised a longsword over Jarlebanke’s prostrate body – poised for the coup de grace. Simon pivoted and shot the guard, then pivoted again to continue the fight in the other direction. Arrows flew, and guards dropped, until Glytheriel stood alone.
Alone was not a strategy that Glytheriel felt was to her advantage, and she beat a hasty retreat. Sonja, who had finally summitted the parapet and gave chase, but the dwarf, though incredibly dangerous over short distance, could not match the speed of the fleet-footed elf.
Simon and Sonja woke Izmet and Jarlebanke, everyone hauled up Pastor William, and they split up, planning to come at the remaining enemies from either side – a classic party-split pincer movement.
Inside were bugbears, Glytheriel’s front line enforcers, and one notable new face: Bazill the dwarf, chief of the mine. Battle devolved quickly in a chaotic scrum. Bugbears, spells and arrows flew around in profusion, but in the end, it was Glytheriel and Bazill that lay on the ground.
The party hadn’t forgotten about Sonja’s cautions – the sun was fully up now, and the morning’s miners would be arriving soon. Upon closer inspection, the dwarf Bazill turned out to be, of all things, a hobgoblin in disguise. Sonja sputtered with anger. An investigation of the south wings turned up cadres of slaves wavering on their chains, locked to the floor. All were thin and bedraggled from working in the mines. The other rooms were bedchambers, empty now that their inhabitants were killed.
Evidence of Bazill’s treachery, it seemed, they now had in quantity.