Skirting the lake, they spread out, trying to cover as much ground as possible. A short time after the lake disappeared from view, they came to an area with old stumps and much younger trees.
“Someone logged this area in the last century. These trees are much younger here.” Adran ran his hand over the bark of one of the trees. “Look close, this may be a sign of another entrance.”
They began to search more intently, spurred by Adran’s discovery. They were spread from lake shore to the steep hillside. The younger trees allowed far more sunlight to reach this area and the brush was even thicker and more difficult to move through.
Seraphina was the first to cry out. “I think I found something!”
The others hurried to her and found her clearing brush and heavy tree limbs. Cut lumber seemed to have been placed deliberately in a pile.
“There is an opening behind this mess. A tunnel, I think. Help me.”
Pulling downed limbs, and hacking at new growth, they made quick work of a makeshift barricade. Behind the pile was a crudely dug tunnel, hacked out of earth and stone. Roughhewn logs supported the ceiling and walls, darkness stretching before them.
“This isn’t dwarf-made.” Jarek studied the crude excavation. “I wonder if this is how the hold fell? The orcs tunneled in and caught them unawares. Told ye, they kin be cunning.”
“These aren’t orc prints though.” Seraphina was tracing a clawed, four-toed print in the damp earth.
Striking a flint, Malark lit a torch. “Kill more greenskins.” With those words he headed into the dark.
“Big guy has spoken.” Lia tossed her hair and chased after the always angry barbarian.
Sighing, Seraphina jumped up and headed into the dark as well.
“You cannot find your sire out here, dwarf.” Adran motioned towards the tunnel.
“Nay, I cannae find him out here.”
The last two headed into the damp, dark tunnel one after the other.
Hurrying to catch the others, Adran called up the narrow tunnel. “Hold, Malark, wait for us!”
If he heard the elf, he didn’t reply. His desire to kill greenskins, or just be in battle, drove him on. Heedless of danger, he plunged into a large cavern, large enough his torch could not light the far side. Halting, he glanced around. A flash of movement to his left caused him to swing his torch like a club, connecting with… he wasn’t sure what.
“Attack!” is all he could think to shout, swinging his axe towards the nearly unseen threat.
Lia and Seraphina ran from the tunnel, alert, but unable to avoid being attacked. Grey-green skinned creatures seemed to materialize from the dark, bumpy skin camouflaging the creatures against the stone cavern walls.
Lia took a hard blow, then smashed the stock of her crossbow into the face of her attacker.
Seraphina was able to parry slashing claws, but the creature’s snapping jaws clamped on her arm. With her free hand she stabbed deep, punching her blade deep into leathery hide.
Jarek came barreling out of the tunnel, seeing a fourth creature running towards a makeshift barricade across a cave mouth. Hurling a small axe, the bit buried deep in the creature, but did not stop him. Adran stepped up next to the mail-clad dwarf, drawing an arrow back. Exhaling, he paused then sent the arrow flashing across the cavern, planting the arrowhead between the creature’s shoulder blades, sending it head over heels into an unmoving heap.
Malark dueled with one of the creatures, axe held in two hands. He was bleeding from deep scratches across his torso. Letting the creature come close, he swung his axe in an arc in front of him. The blow smashed aside one arm of the lizard-like creature, then opened a gaping wound across its torso, entrails spilling out. The speed of the creature brought it in close, and Malark bit the creature on the face, snarling and spitting.
Locked on Seraphina’s arm, the creature raked its claws across her, slashing the little halfling. Twisting the embedded blade, she ripped it out, opening its abdomen. Smashing her fist in an uppercut blow, she drew the blade across its throat, a gush of dark blood rushing out. In a moment the malevolent light in creature’s eyes dimmed.
Holding her crossbow with both hands, Lia was able to fend off her attacker. With her hands occupied, though, she couldn’t fight back.
Jaws snapping, Malark’s attacker was slowing as its lifeblood ebbed away. Weakening blows failed to hurt the big man. In turn, Malark pushed the creature away and swung his axe in an overhang stroke, smashing the creature to the cavern floor.
Lia struggled to stay upright, the creature outweighed and outmuscled her. Seraphina hurried to her aid, twin blades flashing in the dim light. Both blows cut deep, killing the creature.
Panting, they had their guard up, waiting for more of the creatures to appear from the darkness. Turning and staring into the nothing, they waited. Malark finally picked up his torch, holding it high.
“Troglodytes. Disgusting creatures.” Jarek spat on one of the corpses.
“Capable foes, though.” Adran stalked along the cavern wall, an arrow drawn and ready. “Able to hide nearly anywhere. Stay alert my friends.”
Searching the cavern took a few minutes. The creatures wore no clothing, and carried no coins.
“Over here!” Lia called. Standing near the log barrier, the others heard an animalistic roar.
Gathering near the barricade, they could see it was made of stout logs and heavy vines. Beyond the wall was a huge brown bear, huffing and roaring. With each roar it stamped its feet, making false charges at them.
A heavy twist of vines kept a makeshift gate closed. An old spear lay on the ground near the barricade.
“Me thinks the runner was coming to let their pet out.” Jarek mused.
Nodding in agreement, Adran slung his bow, slipping the arrow into his quiver. Approaching the barricade, he murmured on soft tones.
“Hold there. Stay. Not going to hurt you brother bear.”
Roaring still, the bear pawed at the ground.
“Shhh, we are friends.”
Roaring still, but quieter, the bear slapped the ground once, then stood still.
“That’s good. Be still bear. Be still. I will set you free.”
“Set him free?” Jarek’s voice rose in pitch.
“Yes. I am going to set him free. Back up, slowly. Away from the tunnel.”
“Yer mad, ye crazy elf.” Jarek was shaking his head but slowed moved away. All the way across the cave.
The others followed him, making a clear path from the side cave to the tunnel.
“Stay, stay.” Adran murmured, slipping a knife from his belt. Cutting the vines securing the gate, he sheathed the knife, and put both hands on the gate.
“Ready?” he asked.
“If we say no?” Lia backed further away.
“I will open the gate, brother bear, and you will be free.’
“Does he understand you, Mr. Elf?” Seraphina held her blades low, watching the curious encounter.
“He does. In his own way. Ready?” He repeated, then tugged the gate open. Pulling the gate fully open, he hid behind the logs.
The bear charged towards the others, roaring and growling. It rose to full height, bellowing a roar. Dropping to all fours it stamped its forepaws, and feinted at them. Feinting again, it turned and rushed towards the tunnel. Pausing for a moment before entering, it looked at Adran and growled softly. Hurrying into the tunnel, it disappeared.
“Warn us the next time you try and make a huge bear a pet, will you?” Lia tossed her hair, shaking her head.
“He was a prisoner. Fighting out of fear and pain. No real threat to us.”
“Says you, elf. Hungry bears eat anything.” Jarek watched the tunnel like he expected the bear to come rushing back into the cavern.
“I think he left,” Seraphina giggled. Then moaned in pain. “Oww, that lizard thing bite me hard.”
“One got me good, too.” Lia put a hand to her ribs. “And Malark got cut pretty bad.”
Wiping the blood away, Malark nodded. “Bad creatures.”
Digging in his pack, Adran pulled some rolled cloth out and a small bottle of healing balm. Dabbing the balm on the deep scratches caused Malark to wince. Finished, he wrapped his torso in clean bandages.
Jarek stepped to Seraphina and took her arm in his hands. Murmuring low, she felt her arm heat up, then the pain ebbed away.
“Thank you, Mr. Jarek!” She smiled big, stretching her arm out, twisting and flexing it. “Much better!”
Nodding, the dwarf pulled a small bottle of red liquid from a pouch and tossed it to Lia.
“Drink that. It’ll help.”
“Hope you brought more of these.” She shook the bottle, the unstopped it and drank a portion.
“Aye lassie, ah did. Hopefully enough.”
Adran was by the tunnel, crouching and looking closely at the ground.
“I think these troglodytes use this tunnel frequently. These four probably get relieved at some point. Must be a tribe den in here someplace.”
“They cannae be the downfall of this place. The orcs dinnae know they are down here?” Jarek stroked his beard.
“Could have been here before the fall, dwarf. Or moved in after your kin were gone. Did this place have connections to the Underdark?”
Shrugging, Jarek looked away. “I dinnae know, elf. Me sire never spoke of any connections.”
“Regardless, we have troglodytes to worry about as well. Be on your guard.”
“We. Are. Underground.” Lia shook her head as she headed deeper into the cavern. “I see, three, no four tunnels. I say we go left.” She pointed to one of the tunnels.
“Right. We should always go right.” Adran protested.
“Which is why we are going left.” Lia pushed Malark. “Come on. Let’s go find more stuff to kill.”
Grunting, Malark led her down a passage. They were back before anyone could follow. “Dead end. That one,” Lia pointed and Malark headed into the darkness.
Adran sighed, watched Jarek and Seraphina leave, then unsheathed his sword and followed the others.
Passing a side tunnel, Lia stared into the darkness. “I think that goes back to the cavern we were just in. Keep going.
This tunnel zigzagged a bit and opened into a huge cavern faintly glowing with phosphorescent light. The ceiling soared above, stone formations hanging from the ceiling and rising from the floor. Little glittering spots reflected Malark’s torch, the stone gleaming and sparkling. Across the cavern little spots of light glittered like stars in the night sky. Patches of glowing fungi dotted the floor amid man-sized capped stalks and huge puffballs.
Gasping when he entered the vast cavern, Jarek murmured soft amazements and blessings.
“By Moradin’s hammer, The Glitterhame!”
The little party stood in silence for a long while, taking in what they could see. The formations stretched into the darkness beyond vision. Glittering sparkles shone all around. They could hear the soft plops of dripping water, and a soft sigh of wind. Seraphina knelt and cut a piece of a tall specimen of mushroom.
“Capped Butters? But huge!” She sniffed the piece, then took a bite. Smiling, she closed her eyes, savoring the flavor. “It is, it really is.”
Slicing off another piece she passed it to Lia. “Try it, it is delicious.”
They gathered around the tall mushroom and cut pieces to eat. Eating and enjoying the stunning panorama of the cave, they took advantage of a quiet moment.
“The descriptions dint do this cavern justice. The beauty is beyond compare!” Jarek’s eyes glittered, a mad smile on his face. “Tis meant to be, me kind need to be in places like this.”
They explored a little, trying to gauge the true size of this massive space. The ceiling soared almost fifty feet overhead. Several high ledges stood against the cavern walls, with passages leading away from the north and south. Meandering through the fungal garden, the party stumbled across a path crossing the cavern.
“Still going left.” Lia nodded to Malark. “Let’s go check that ledge.” She shot a little ball of flame from her fingertip, the light sailing up over the edge of the ledge and lighting a space beyond before it faded out.
“More cave.” Malark flexed his grip on his heavy axe and stalked forward, eyes on the ledge, torch held high.
Approaching the ledge, they discovered a loose rockfall. Malark began to climb, leaning forward, each step sending small rocks tumbling. Halfway up the wall, tentacles lashed out, striking the big human. He smashed his torch into on tentacle, slicing at the other with an axe stroke. Before the others could react, another tentacle lashed out, wrapping around his arm. Lia moved closer, staring into the darkness trying to see the threat. Seraphina had her bow up and aimed, deliberate steps in the loose stone.
Jarek was the first to react, hurling an axe up, striking a beaked monster crawling over the ledge, tentacles grasping at Malark. The creature squealed and growled. Malark has batting at tentacles with his axe, deflecting each darting strike. On the defense, he wasn’t able to effectively attack the strange creature.
Adran began to sprint up the loose rock face, light steps bouncing from rock to rock, then leaping atop the ledge. With a vicious overhand stroke, he severed the tentacle wrapped around Malark’s arm. Finally free, the barbarian used the flaming torch to burn another of the tentacles.
Lia was carefully climbing the rock fall when another creature slithered over the edge, tentacles lashing at Lia. One struck her hard, causing her to slip. The creature was on her in a flash, a beaked maw snapping at her, slicing cloth but missing her flesh. Seraphina jumped atop the creature, burying an arrow deep in its scaly body. Thrashing, it threw her off, sending her tumbling down the slight slope.
Adran and Malark battled the first creature. Deflecting tentacles, and quick riposte slashes at its thick body. Poking the torch at the beak, Malark buried his axe deep in the creature, a gush of thick blood pouring out. Twisting the axe free, he sliced a tentacle off, stomping on the slithering appendage.
Jarek ran to help Lia, bellowing threats and curses. He hurled another axe at the slithering creature, then smashed a heavy hammer onto the beak. Crushing the bony mouth, another heavy blow ended the thing’s life.
“Filthy gricks. Ne’r a cave without the blighters.” He spat on the quivering, snake-like creature. “All tentacles and beaks, ‘n bad attitudes.”
Helping Lia up, he looked up at Adran and Malark. “Is ‘e all right?”
Malark nodded, rubbing welts on his left arm, left by the grick’s grasp.
“He will live.” Adran looked down at the long creature, then headed deeper into the cave beyond the ledge. Malark followed, picking up his axe, holding the torch high.
The other three waited below, on edge after the sudden attack. Before long, the elf and the human were skidding down the ledge, holding sacks jangling with metallic clinking.
“They had a little treasure laying around. Left when they consumed their meals, I suppose.”
“Coins and armor.” Malark held up a sack before slipping his pack off and stuffing the loot inside.
“Plenty of bones. Human, animal, and others.”
“Gricks will eat any meat they catch. There may be more, they kin den like rats.”
“The cave up there was empty, save a few eggs.”
“You smashed them, yea?” Jarek slipped his small axes back into his belt as he looked up at Adran.
“I wasn’t going to…” Adran began.
“Malark smash. Bad eggs.”
“…But he had other ideas.”
“Good on yea! Filthy creatures. Good fer nuthin’ blighters.” Jarek was mumbling, looking up at the dead grick hanging over the ledge.
“We should keep moving. The cave up there might make a place to rest if we need it.”
“I’m okay. Ready for more.” Seraphina was scanning across the cave,
“Me, too.” Lia flicked flames across her fingertips.
“Off we go then. I see some worked stone ahead; we kin check it out. Might be the way to the forge.”
Jarek headed off, axes in both hands.
Malark followed, torch in one hand, axe in the other.
Falling in line, the others followed. The cavern narrowed and ended at a small tunnel hacked from the living rock. It was narrow and short, maybe five feet wide and less than six feet from floor to ceiling. Jarek led the way, Malark ducking to follow. The torch light glimmered off an iron door not twenty feet away. Heavy rivets dotted the surface, a tarnished silver rune gleaming in the flickering light.