2nd day of the 3rd ride, month 6 , 1262
We are standing at the edge of a large pool at the entrance to the aqueduct that used to feed it, but is now run dry. Behind us, on the pool, the light of summer dances playfully on the water. In front of us beckons a dark, dry, but mostly dark tunnel. I have just finished drying out my belongings and refitting my attire. I suggest we look for tracks in the tunnel, but it is self-evident that there is only one way to go, and that is up the aqueduct.
My compatriots proceed into the darkness soaked to the skin.
The darkness dulls my senses and I become anxious. I am left with only one thing to do, and that is keeping upright and not fall over in this tunnel with the sparing light from the two lanterns we brought.
James has taken point and proves himself impatient and arrogant: in other words a city-dweller. His sharp tongue takes no care to hide his impatience and to offer blistering critiques of the others. He gives me the impression that we are but an unwelcome hindrance in his path towards a pile of Golden Crowns. This, together with the overwhelming darkness makes the mood quickly grow oppressive and tense.
I fear this one’s sharp tongue will suppress the best in us.
After an hour of struggling we come upon a human body. Clearly a member of the Sheridan House Guard. His neck and face is purple and swollen, and pus-filled lesions occur near his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. But the man is alive!
A tense discussion follows and we realize that the man is likely carrying a terrible disease and is beyond saving. Astrid suggests a mercy killing and burning the remains. Reluctantly we all agree and Luca suggests we burn the remains immediately. Given that we are in a confined space an immediate cremation is impractical and under Luca’s protests we must wait with the cremation until we return. James by this time has already lost his patience and has disappeared into the shadows ahead.
Astrid looks to me as someone with some moral authority to assist those departing the realm of the living. I take the long sharp knife in her hand and kneel over the dying man. After muttering a prayer beseeching Sedna to show mercy on the soul of this man I carefully plunge the blade into the man’s chest and heart.
The blood turns out to be much more viscous than it ought to be. Deeply revolted by the deed I just committed and the horror of the scene in general, I recoil. To complete the absurdity of this horror I notice a morbidly fascinated Luca crouching over the corpse to collect some of the viscous blood. He is assisted by James who emerged from the shadows to provide a flask for the purpose. Evidently having discarded a good amount of precious oil for our lanterns.
I return the blade to Astrid, visibly shaken, and exclaim that I will not make the fire. Astrid places the corpse on the ledge next to the main channel of the aqueduct to await our return.
We proceed. After another quarter or a third of an hour we come to a collapse behind which there is running water. It seems as though something tunneled, or burrowed into the aqueduct from the side and that the water is now diverted into that tunnel instead.
Here we find numerous stone-working tools that evidently belonged to the dwarven engineers. I collect the tools and place them on the ledge. These include three earthenware jars with waxen seals. Luca and Astrid open one to find a substance reeking of rotten eggs inside. They close the jar and leave it with the rest of the tools.
We decide that we must climb over the collapse and enter the new tunnel. I use some of the dwarven tools to affix a rope to the top of the collapse, so that we might more easily climb up or down on either side. I also take a chisel and a hammer so as to be able to carve markings on walls, should we need to.
Over the collapse I can wade in a small amount of the cleanest running water. My heart rejoices in greeting the Mother of Springs and Protectress of Wells.
James once again impatiently takes the lead as we plunge into the dark unknown. After another quarter or a third of an hour we come upon another body: another house-guard. This one was clearly dead, judging by the multitude of entry-wounds, lacerations and bite-marks. The bite-marks, Luca suggested, appear to come from unnaturally large rodents.
When we continue I have my shield readied and my mace close at hand. Will we run into red-eyed horrors soon?
Some time later we come to the end of the new tunnel. It was begun from yet another tunnel, but one that comprises impressive ancient, vaulted masonry. Covered by strands of bioluminescent moss. I have come to my dreamscape at last. It occurs to me now, that it is not unlike the Sacred Baths of Sedna in Kingsport, albeit without the marble and stucco facings. Is there a whole world of darkness hidden under our very feet?
James suggests we have done enough and that we might as well return. Despite his continual posturing and dismissive behavior towards us it seems that he too is scared. And he too knows that Lord Jonathan will hardly be impressed by what we have achieved so far. Ultimately, he tries to reclaim dominance be conceding to agree to continue for half a day onwards. How he will measure this in this forsaken darkness is a mystery to me.
Should we go left or right? Emrys, who had been remarkable quiet throughout the entire endeavor so far decides by flipping a coin. Left it is. Luca insists that, from now on, we will keep going left whenever we can. Supposedly that is the most intelligent way to approach a ‘labyrinth’.
We press on, and quickly I lose track of our path and direction. Although I mark every corner we take with an arrow that I chisel into the wall. James has taken point again and has disappeared from sight.
After a while James reappears to warn us that if we take another left, we will miss something that is making sound ahead. It sounded like rodents. We went there instead.
We come upon another body, evidently a dwarf, covered by a swarm of rats, which are gnawing on the remains. We carefully approach when the rats turn on us and try to overwhelm us.
Emrys sets off a dazzling display of light that appears to startle a great many of the rats. We start picking off the rats one by one, but we will undoubtedly be overwhelmed when they recover from the lights. So I use my gifts to mimic the baying of hounds, hoping to scare off the critters, but to no avail. Emrys, shows quickness of mind and assists my effort by producing an illusory image of a large hound. Our combined efforts halts the swarm in its tracks.
Meanwhile, James had thrown a good deal of oil in the midst of the swarm of rats and used their moment of hesitation to throw one of the lanterns so as to ignite the pool of oil.
While many of their kin writhe in agony from being on fire, the remainder of the swarm scurries away. James complains that we have now forewarned all of our presence in this forsaken place. I am distressed to have even less light available from now on, and that we might run out of oil before our return. I voice not these concerns, since I feel that James’ arrogance is quite enough strain on our collective morale.
Death by fire is unusually cruel.
We inspect the body of the dwarf. His hands are bound behind his back and there are no clear signs of the way he perished, other than being gnawed on by rats. Could he have been left to be killed by rodents?
After a short while we were alerted by soft sounds further ahead. Possibly the scuffling off feet. James asked if Emrys would like to take the rear. When Emrys hesitated, James eagerly positioned himself in our rear, while he sarcastically urged ‘someone with heavy armor and a shield’ to take point.
Given the visceral logic of James’ taunting suggestion I was left little choice but to take point. My refusal would have broken the group’s teetering cohesion, a cohesion which James had so carefully been picking down to a thread.
I know now how a heifer must feel when it is led to the slaughter. There was darkness and dread in the eyes, there was the hint of death and decay on the nostrils. I could feel my heart thumping so loudly, I swear by Sedna the others must have heard it!
I inched forward hesitantly and clumsily seeing next to nothing in the darkness that lay ahead. All I could do is to take comfort in the proximity of the tall and powerful Astrid by my side.
Up until that point we had been following vaulted tunnels, but we now opened into a much wider room, with, as far as I could discern, endless pairs of columns, at an equal width to the tunnels, stretching onwards. In between the first set of columns were positioned a handful of small rat-like creatures, including a taller white one. These were the red-eyed horrors from my dreamscape. What by Sedna were they? Kobolds? Goblins? Gnomes? At any rate, they were here to kill us, judging by the jagged knives and swords readied in their hands.
I was stunned by the sudden revelation, but Astrid showed no hesitation: she charged headlong into our opponents and skewered one on her spear. Emrys meanwhile produced an illusory image of a House Guard in front of our adversaries, convincing enough to distract two of them. The white one, evidently their leader, dismissed it easily with a wave of its scythe.
James fired arrows from behind but to little effect. Our enemies bore down on Astrid and were sure to cut her to shreds unless we would intercede.
All I managed was to make use of my talents in the most feeble way.
Then I assumed that taking out their leader would likely dissuade these foul gnomes from further battle, so I beseeched Lady Sedna to mark the leader for death and I struck it with a Guiding Bolt. It recoiled and became illuminated in eerie green light, which assisted James in finding his mark with a satisfying thud.
Meanwhile, Emrys had used another display of light to confound two of the gnomes. Astrid had gone in to some sort of primordial rage and slew yet another of the little monsters.
All the while Luca had been throwing dark bolts of raw power from the tip of his staff that made our enemies writhe in pain and agony, and could snap their joints or spines with a sickening snap.
If magic is like a dog and takes after its master, then this one might well house a depraved soul indeed.
The efforts of mine and James proved effective: their leader cowered and withdrew. Although I seem to have caught a complaint by James that it had escaped, I was more than happy to see the back of the foul gnome. I had advanced forward to assist Astrid and Emrys, and found that Emrys made use of the opportunity to withdraw, letting the remaining gnomes bear down on me. They cut me terribly, after which, I won’t lie, I cowered behind my shield. Astrid slew yet one more while the last one scurried off into the shadows.
I quickly turned to Astrid and poured water on her many wounds, uttering prayers to Sedna. Although she had to restrain herself in her rage, she allowed me to proceed. Her wounds healed before our eyes, with steam coming from the erstwhile shredded skin.