Besides finding the messenger waiting for him back at the inn, Daluar heard very little from Jereld. Another member of the Baron's Guard spotted him in the street and shook his hand, unconcerned about Daluar's foreignness, but otherwise, things were quiet. With nothing else to do, Daluar took up his old post watching the Rift. This time, he was happy to see that a fair complement of soldiers watched with him, and ample supplies of oil were available. The Rift was finally being taken seriously.
The city calmed down a little. Rebuilding continued, but it seemed that people were finally settling after the earthquake. There was still a general feeling of anxiety throughout the city. Many of the food stores had been lost, and, despite new demands placed on nearby farmers and requests sent out abroad, the stores were being refilled dangerously slowly. The cost of food went up accordingly, and many of the poorer families had to tighten their belts.
No one was without work, at least.
Ground was broken on the Zioth Institute. Work was proceeding quickly, and the stable already had a solid foundation.
Sahlman had a hard time with the other knights. Those who weren't openly hostile were simply silent, pretending Sahl didn't exist. Even the younger knights whom he'd led at the Rift had gone quiet, following their elders' examples. It was one thing for an unlanded foreigner to show some competence in leadership – any soldier could do that – but to become a knight?
On the fourteenth, Redbelve reported that Sir Benet, who would not depart for a few days yet, was talking about challenging Sahl in the jousting arena. There was no guarantee that the other knight would try to keep Sahl alive.
The fifteenth was the first day of winter, and it started with early flurries of snow, but by mid-morning, the clouds had cleared and the day had warmed enough that jackets were being draped over shoulders. The ground made soft squishing noises as Daluar walked back towards Huerten.
He arrived in the appointed meeting place – the western gatehouse – a few minutes late. Already inside were Sahlman, Kay, Ardith and one man Daluar didn't know – by his lack of armor, probably one of the master climbers the Baron had promised. Shortly, the other climber and two armed men arrived. The men saluted Daluar. The pin they wore matched his – members of the Baron's Guard under Captain Jereld. Last, Melinedbin arrived to personally deliver the flask of ointment.
“Please be careful with it,” he said. “Each dose should last a couple days. I have managed to produce four additional doses, though they are less concentrated than these.” He handed Sahl a smaller vial. “I do not know how long they will last. I also brought you these.” He handed Sahl a padded box containing a dozen tiny flasks of acid, and four small metal flasks of disteloitte. “Good luck then,” he said, leaving in a hurry.
“Sahl,” Ardith said when everyone had sat down. “Andritha has answered my prayers on your behalf.” She upturned a pouch, and the room was suddenly filled with light. When everyone's eyes adjusted, they saw a handful of little disks sitting on the table, each emanating a powerful golden glow, like miniature suns. The guards and climbers stepped back, some with lips moving silently in prayer. “I was able to make five of them for now. You can wear them around your neck. Kay?”
“Yeah, I got 'em.” Kay pulled five silver chains out of her own belt pouch, and took to stringing them through the holes in the disks.
While Kay did that, Sahlman discussed his plan.
The party would travel in an order that offered maximum protection and flexibility. The climbers, while they would no doubt have to move around a lot to help people climb, would tend towards the top and bottom of the line. Inside that, the Baron's two armed fighters would hold the ends, and in the middle, from bottom to top, would be Daluar, Sahlman, Ardith and Kay.
Sahl handed the crossbows to the two best archers, Kay and Daluar. Kay frowned at the mechanical weapon, then shrugged her shoulders and took it, along with her share of the ammunition. With that secure, she handed out the disks as Sahl indicated, one to each climber so the ends would be covered, one to Daluar, one to Sahl and one to Ardith. The climbers trembled, unable to speak, as they took the magical lights, and put them around their necks.
Sahlman recommended against using the alchemist's ointment right away. He suspected they could be in the Rift for quite a few days, so there wouldn't be enough to go around. Of course, once in the Rift, it might be hard to apply it, as taking one's clothes off in an area infested with sh'kurdaru could be dangerous. Rather than use the ointment while climbing, the party would make frequent stops to check one another. Sahl didn't expect to find anything, however; the light should keep the sh'kurdaru away.
Finally, Sahl handed out the alchemist's goods – the ointment and spare disteloitte to Ardith, and the acid to Kay.
They had to wait for the cart full of heavier supplies to arrive, so for a few minutes, they discussed the finer details of Sahl's plan. In the end, it seemed that everyone was basically agreed.
Then the wagon arrived, with traveling supplies. Each person got two weeks rations, two oil flasks, two torches and a waterskin. Carrying weeks worth of water would not be feasible, so Ardith would create that magically. When Sahl explained this to the climbers and soldiers, each offered up a silent, nervous prayer to Andritha. Then, as a group, they climbed into the wagon and set off for the Rift.
The sun was still low in the sky when they arrived. Good, Sahl thought. They would be well on their way by noon, when the sun would shine down into the Rift and give them time to look for interesting places to visit. While supplies were being unloaded and stashed efficiently into packs, Sahl discussed the best way to go down with the climbers. While a straight route would be fastest, a zig-zagging pattern might be easier to control, and give a greater chance to find caves and other outlets. Also, Daluar could look for tracks over greater ground, possibly figuring out where the large creature had gone.
Packs loaded, the eight of them started down into the Rift. Travel was much easier this time, with master climbers to help, but the weaker climbers, like Ardith, were still quickly tired, so frequent rests were necessary.
Still, by the time the noon sun sent its shadowy light into the Rift, they were well into the area of worked stone, and could stop on a narrow ledge to make a decision as to where to go next.
Below, there was still no sign of bottom. The Rift just continued on and on into darkness. Around them, the walls were pockmarked with innumerable caves – more than the last time they'd come down, probably because they'd made more progress and were lower this time. The air was getting warmer, and a little more humid. Ker, one of the climbers, pointed out that the humidity could be a sign of an underwater river, like one he'd seen in a quarry in the Koril Mountains.
There was still no sign of the sh'kurdaru. Daluar had picked up the trail of the large creature twice already, though it was currently eluding him. It had always been headed down, whether to the depths or to one of the caves was impossible to tell.
They stopped for lunch in one of the larger caves. While it looked like it had been occupied recently, there didn't seem to be anything in it now. The Baron's men stood guard on either end of the cave – one at the opening to the Rift, and one at the opening of a much narrower tunnel leading out the back of the cave.
“Hey, look at this,” Kay said. “Looks like some kind of tree bark or something.” She picked up a wide, flat twig from a pile of the same, and it crumbled a little between her fingers. “Might be a sleeping mat.” Daluar asked to see it, and whether he could keep it. It didn't look like any tree bark he'd ever seen, though it shared the same basic shape and color. It could have been a very light wood, or an unusually sturdy fungus.
“Something else might be worth seeing,” Teulen, one of the climbers, said. He scraped at a piece of the wall with a rock, and blew away the dust. The wall glittered in the light.
Sahl broke off a piece of the glittering rock, examined it, and passed it around the group, for evaluation. It sparkled in the light of Ardith's glowing disks. It looked like there was a vein of crystal in the rock, possibly quartz. While the rock was passed around, Teulen picked at the wall with more and more vigor, using pitons as mining tools. Finally, he stopped. “There's gold here. I'm sure of it.”
“Well,” said Sahl impatiently, “take a sample. Estimate how far these seams go, and mark it on the map. We can't carry a lot of ore with us.”
“Of course,” Teulen said, looking embarrassed.
Soon, everyone had eaten and was ready to go. The climbers took everyone through a series of stretches which smoothed out their cramps without removing the ache entirely. Then, they resumed their climb.
If anything was alive down there, it knew of their presence. They were a beacon in the darkness, especially now, with the noon sun past and day only an uneven stripe of blue above. Even that looked darker from down here, like the depth of the Rift turned day into twilight.
But there was no sign of life. If anything was here, it was avoiding them.
The next hours passed more and more quietly, as the climb became routine and the gloom deepened around them. Fortunately, the climb was becoming easier as well. The ledges were wider now, and extended for as much as a hundred feet along the wall, sloping gently downward, before they broke off. Clearly worked rather than natural, their purpose was still a mystery.
Vanatra circled around overhead, or, sometimes, under foot, occasionally perching on a ledge or on Daluar's shoulder. The deeper they went, the more frequent were these pauses and the closer she circled. Late in the afternoon, she stopped on a protrusion above a cave. She cried out as a long, clawed arm made a sweep at her.
Sahl immediately jumped on top of the situation. Pointing at each person in turn, he directed them to form two lines, with the warriors in the first line and noncombatants, including Ardith, Kay and the climbers, in the second. The rear line held all the new missile weapons. Together, the two lines advanced along a ledge only two feet deep, towards the source of the clawed arm. They stopped short ten feet away. Sahl wanted to see whether there would be a full scale attack before getting too close.
The attack didn't come.
After a couple of minutes, a creature just like the one Sahlman had fought outside the Rift climbed cautiously out of the cave, and stood crouched on the ledge, facing Sahl. It looked down frequently, perhaps shying away from the light, but otherwise was still. Then it made a soft, high-pitched cry, and continued to stand still.
Daluar watched the creature carefully, saying softly, “Assure you are not bit. Could be calling smaller ones.”
No sh'kurdaru came. Instead, after a while, the creature swung out, missing by over a yard. It made no attempt to come closer. It stepped into its cave, and came out holding some sort of mesh or loose cloth in one hand. Then it made an almost human gesture, waving at the party and pointing at its cave, then taking a step back, away from the opening.
“Looks like we have a chance to parley,” Sahlman said. “Who wants to go in? I have some diplomacy skill and I would guess Ardith, but I don't want to risk Ardith as she is essential to this mission. If no one else is skilled in diplomacy then I will try to talk to the creature.”
No one objected, so Sahl went into the cave. This one, like the other, had a pile of that strange, flaky substance, but unlike the other, it also had several holes bored into the walls, where unidentifiable objects were stored. Some of the holes were covered up by something hard-looking.
But the creature stayed in the doorway, ignoring Sahl, and repeatedly pointing to the people outside, and then at the cave. Again, it emitted a high-pitched, nearly silent squeal.
Sahl took a look back to see if all was well with the party. They seemed okay, so he tried to talk to the creature, asking, “Who are you” in Rouche, then in his native tongue, then by pointing and sign language.
But the creature ignored him, continuing to point at the party and the cave.
Sahlman gave in and told everyone to come into the cave, but cautiously, with the warriors at the front, ready for action. Kay hung back warily, her bow at the ready. But the creature showed no sign of aggression, and soon, everyone was inside.
Instead of entering with them, however, the creature pressed the balled-up mesh it was holding into the top of the doorway. It stuck there, and unrolled quickly, until it reached the bottom of the cave. Then the creature climbed down and out of sight. The pale white mesh, whatever it was, was now firmly affixed to the outer edges of the cave. It was some sort of woven plant matter, Daluar suggested, or perhaps a form of silk, with frequent holes, a quarter of an inch wide, arranged in a chaotic pattern. He touched it and found it to be slightly sticky, and quite firm. It was much stickier around the edges, leaving a residue on his fingers that he had to scrape off.
Sahl asked everyone to search the cave. Like the other cave, this one narrowed into a tunnel at the end, and went on for an unknown distance. The tunnel, at least at its entrance, was just high enough to slide through on elbows and knees. There were no concealed exits that anyone could find.
They examined every object. The pile of flaky substance was identical to that in the other cave. There were also several cubbies, most of which were closed off. One had a sticky residue in it, from the mesh that now covered the door. In another was a pale, translucent ball, about six inches thick, attacked to the end of a short, crooked stick. Two others, high up, had piles of unidentifiable reddish slop in shallow bowls. One contained flakes of crystal in a little cup.
The rest of the cubbies were blocked off by a hard, almost wood-like substance.
Sahl tried to investigate the nature of the mesh without damaging it too much. While it was firm to the touch, resisted opening, and seemed difficult to tear, a small piece of it was easily cut away with a knife. That piece burned fairly readily when Sahl lit it with a spark.
“Ok. We can get out if we have to,” Sahlman said. “Just burn it. Let's rest a couple of hours. If our friend doesn't return by then, we'll leave. Set a guard at the tunnel mouth and another at the cave mouth. Flint and steel ready at all times to light a torch and burn our way out.”
Oloic, one of the Baron's soldiers, was the first to hear anything, nearly an hour later. Moments later, everyone saw the creature, looking in through the mesh. It made another quiet squeal, and another creature, identical as far as anyone could tell, appeared. The soldiers had their swords drawn in an instant.
“Wait…. Fire Crossbows ready….” Sahl moved forward to try to communicate. Kay readied her bow, but held fast, while Ardith stepped forward to help Sahlman.
Kay whispered, “It seems strange the creature returns with only one other. Could it be that the new one is the leader - or king - or whatever they call him – er, maybe her? Anybody want to venture a guess as to the gender of these creatures?”
Ardith motioned to Kay in sign language without speaking, “Good point – don't know – let's see.”
To Sahlman she whispered, “Kay makes a good point. If the new one is their king – or whatever they call their leader – we should treat him/her/it correctly. Maybe we should have our people carefully lower their weapons. After all, they have made no moves against us down here. I don't understand why they attack us on the surface, but seem benign down here. Unless you disagree, Sahl, I think we should also present a benign front.
“I just had a thought! Perhaps there is more than one 'tribe' or whatever down here. The aggressive ones we fought on one side, and these more docile ones on the other. Let's bear that idea in mind as we try to communicate.” With that, she turned her attention back to the cave entrance.
“I agree,” said Sahlman, “Much is unclear. That is why I am not being aggressive. Our drawn weapons are just proper caution and will remain drawn until they give us more reason to trust them. I just hope that we can talk to each other. If there is no common language or writing then we can achieve little.”
The mesh curtain was removed, and the creatures stood at the entrance, one holding a chain made of a similar-looking material. At the end of the chain was a loose loop, about a foot in diameter. The creatures made squealing noises at each other, and then the one with the rope advanced on Oloic, whistling softly and tonelessly. The whistle was strangely calming.
Still, when the creature tried to put the loop over Oloic's head, he dodged out of the way, and moved so that the creature couldn't come any closer without running into his sword point.
In response to that, the creature stared at the sword, then reached out to grab the blade.
Sahl moved quickly to pull Oloic back. He took the soldier's place and pointed to the loop and then to his own neck. “May the goddess protect me,” he muttered.
The creature hesitated a moment, turning its head to look at the other creature, and made another soft squeal. The other creature didn't respond in any obvious way, so the first creature put the loop over Sahl's head, and tightened it around his neck, not enough to choke him, but enough to secure him – that is, if Sahl hadn't known the rope was easily cut or burned.
Once Sahl was secure, the creature fed out a few feet of rope until it came to another loop. With this in hand, it slowly advanced on Ardith. At this point, it was clear that there were enough loops in the rope to tie the entire party together.
“I want a vote now,” Sahlman said. “I think we will learn more if we allow ourselves to be led away, but only if most of us agree.”
Daluar shook his head slowly, not to vote against, but simply to express his reservations. “Do not like this. But I suppose we would do equal, if they visit us on top.” He kept his rapier unsheathed, but pointed down.
“I don't think they care one way or another about our vote,” Oloic said, watching the creature slip the loop around Ardith's neck. “If it matters, I vote to get the hell away from these things.”
Despite Oloic's reluctance, the majority was willing to go with Sahlman, and soon, they were all chained together.
Climbing with their necks restrained proved to be exceedingly difficult. This seemed to surprise the creature that led them (the other one had remained in its cave), and it kept trying to get them to move faster. Before long, it gave up on climbing, and let them rest on one of the ledges. Then, it pulled them along the ledge, allowing them to walk.
This ledge didn't end like the others had. It formed a steadily declining walkway, leading down into the Rift. Daluar, who had the best sense of direction of the group, realized that they were spiraling downward, and that the Rift here was an ellipse, only about three hundred feet or so wide on its major axis.
It was obvious that this part of the Rift had been deliberately constructed a long time ago. Caves, each entrance covered with opaque mesh, were spaced almost evenly, about sixty feet apart. There was even some extremely worn carving in the wall, that Ardith thought looked like writing of some kind, but she didn't have time to examine it.
In some places, growing along the edge of the walkway or on the walls, was a dense, fuzzy substance. The largest and thickest clumps, about eight inches in diameter, formed around crumbling rock.
After a few minutes, everyone could hear the unmistakable sound of flowing water, and a little later, they could see the light from their necklaces reflected off of something far below. They were approaching the bottom of the Rift.
Exhausted from the long climb and long walk, the party still had another five hundred feet or so to go down, which translated into over a mile on the path. This was made worse by the increased speed of the creature, and the chafing on their necks.
Closer to the bottom, they started to make out dim lights here and there, perhaps even enough to see by if they let their eyes adjust. They could also see a dark outline of the chamber they were about to enter, an elliptical cavern two hundred feet long and fifty wide, with an underground river running through it. Surrounding the river was rocky terrain, quite unlike the smooth, worked stone that now formed the walls.
Several minutes more and they could see that dozens of tunnels opened out of the main chamber. Then Daluar stopped in shock, almost tripping when the rope tugged at his neck. The floor of the Rift wasn't rocky after all. On either side of the river were several of the large creatures.
And hundreds of sh'kurdaru.
I played Ardith and Kay in the beginning of the turn.