By Brian Flood
Chapter 51 - Spelunking We Will Go
The Caves of Chaos
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Early Afternoon, 21st Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Slowly and carefully, the Company of the Silver Claw makes its way through the woods surrounding the hidden vale that holds the Caves of Chaos. Amiel and Seth cautiously and deliberately lead the group, moving a score or more paces ahead of the others in order to put some distance between themselves and those clad in heavier armor – namely Velgardrin and Helios – who produce metallic scrapes and other unnatural sounds, despite their best efforts at stealth.
The two scouts lead the group nearly a half-mile southeast, paralleling the natural contours of the vale’s upper southern lip. Then, the terrain allows the group to turn north and then northwest, entering the gorge at its wider mouth. The stream that formed the gorge runs southeast to northwest, flowing from the direction of the East Way trade road.
Keeping a stone’s throw or so south of the stream, and very near to the southern wall of the vale, the small group picks its way through the underbrush. Those explorers whom were not on the earlier reconnaissance note that a pair of narrow, beaten trails lead from the stream to the cave entrances nearest the canyon mouth along either of its longer walls – one cave on the north wall, one cave on the south wall. Amiel and Seth lead the party along the southern side of the vale, their left shoulders facing the sloped southern face of the gorge, heading for the first dark opening which is conveniently located at ground level.
They come to a careful halt just over a score of paces from the cave opening. Amiel nods to Declan and Malk, who produce or are handed lanterns and flasks of lamp oil. A few heartbeats later, with the aid of flint and steel, both of the lamps are lit, and their shutters carefully lowered to emit only the slimmest slivers of light. Nathan takes the opportunity to quickly work on his working map of the area, adding the footpaths to the outline of the vale and those cave entrances that the group can easily discern.
At the fore of the group, Seth shoulders his bow and readies two metal blades, longer and shorter. Then, when all the rest are ready, Amiel and he slowly lead the group onward. For the brash warrior that he seems to be, the elf has an obvious command of stealth as he follows the ranger with a careful step and watchful eye.
The scouts stop at the edge of the cave entrance. At the rear of the procession, Kerielle and Alain scan the surrounding canyon, guarding their companions’ backs as they enter the cave. The elven archer has an arrow nocked and drawn, while the Cormyrian warrior holds his familiar paired blades – a rapier and an ornate fighting dagger.
Amiel gestures to the bull’s-eye lantern in Declan’s hand and then to the dark opening. The mage takes a step forward, raises the shutter on the lantern and aims its focused beam of light into the cave as Amiel risks a quick glance.
The ranger sees a stone tunnel wide enough for two humans to fight abreast. Six or seven paces past the entrance, the passageway becomes a four-way intersection. Two roughly hewn passages lead away in opposite directions while the current conduit continues south beyond the junction for another ten paces or so, ending in a wooden door. The muddy floor contains bare-footed tracks coming and going in all directions through the tunnels’ intersection.
Having seen enough, Amiel pulls her head back from the cave opening, pushing away the beam from Declan’s lantern, as well. The ranger slings the bow across her shoulder, looks to those lined up behind her, and puts her index finger to her lips, indicating that she wants as much silence as possible from now on. Unsheathing her sword, she grips it tightly with both hands and gravely considers its shiny blade for moments while composing herself.
She nods to Seth and points at the passageway that leads to the left, taking a hand from the hilt of her sword. To Kerielle and Alain, the rearguard, she signals with her two fingers, pointing first to her eyes and then toward the right, meaning “Watch that way!”
Holding his axe against the holy symbol hanging from his neck, Velgardrin offers a silent prayer to Clangeddin Silverbeard as the Claws prepare to advance. Those within a few feet of him catch a barely audible, “May Clangeddin’s alagh be upon us all,” as he returns his axe to a ready position.
Satisfied the others are in the right marching order, and that everyone has the appropriate weapons readied, Amiel heads down the left passageway with Seth. The ranger moves slowly, allowing the rogue to check for any boobytraps, deadfalls, hidden pits, concealed wires as he sees fit.
As the beam of Declan’s lantern illuminates the left passage, Amiel and Seth see that the tunnel branches off to the left, or east, about ten paces ahead of them. Their current passage continues southeast past the branch.
Amiel turns and gives a slight wave to Declan to get his attention. She gestures for him to shine his lantern down the left corridor. She gives the tunnel a quick glance to ensure that nothing lies waiting for them in the darkness in that direction.
Then the ranger touches Seth lightly on the shoulder and gestures down the leftmost branch as she faces down the rough tunnel. She holds up six fingers and then uses two to mimic legs walking – Advance six paces.
It is the fullest of moments before comprehension blossoms onto Serethaniel’s face and he nods seriously, advancing swiftly and stealthily. Amiel follows the rogue, sword at the ready.
As the light from Declan’s lamp more fully illuminates the left passage, the two scouts see that the tunnel extends ten or so paces to the east before coming to a dead-end. At the far end of the tunnel, a chest sits in a small niche.
Meanwhile, at the rear of the procession, Kerielle realizes that she and Alain are still virtually in the mouth of the cave – potentially visible to enemies outside. Furthermore, no one seems to be paying attention to the western passage.
Gesturing to Alain to move in as far as possible so as to stay out of sight, the archer slips past Velgardrin and Nathan, who stand in the first intersection. She stations herself in the western passage, covering the company’s right flank. Unfortunately for her, the ambient heat from Malk’s lantern prevents her from using her elven sight. But before the bard moves along the eastern passage, taking the visible radiance of this lamp with him, Kerielle is able to see that the western tunnel proceeds some ten paces or so and then continues on into the darkness.
At the fore of the group, Seth’s eyes brighten at the sight of the chest and he rushes away from the group to investigate. Amiel hisses angrily as the rogue darts off. Twit. She holds her hand up to the rest of the party indicating that she wants them all to stop and wait for Seth.
Declan patiently stands a handful of paces behind Amiel, watching for a signal to aim his lamp in a new direction. He watches with some consternation as Seth bounds down the hall toward the chest. Casually, he notes the weight of the lamp, and thus the oil he has burned through.
When he reaches the far end of the eastern corridor, Serethaniel examines the chest with careful precision. After a few long minutes, during which time the other companions remain rooted where Amiel told them to stop, the elf concludes that the container does not appear to be booby-trapped.
Helios watches the dark surrounding shadows suspiciously. “This does not feel right somehow. Allow me to gather my senses.”
With that, the paladin takes a few steps forward so that he can see down the eastern passageway. He returns his sword to its scabbard and raises his right gauntlet in front of him, the palm facing away from this body. He points his outstretched arm down the dead-end tunnel as his eyes close and his brow furrows in concentration.
From her sentinel position at the rear of the group, Kerielle recognizes an error on her part. In order to use her elven sight, she will have to move a few steps further from the ambient heat provided by Malk’s lantern. She looks briefly back at the party, indicating with a nod of her head that the company of a strong warrior would be welcome on her self-appointed guard duty.
Knowing she is about to move away from the relative safety of the party, the archer goes to full alert, an arrow nocked and partially drawn, ready to release at the slightest hint of a heat signature. She wryly acknowledges to herself that the brilliant glow of the lamplight behind her will already have alerted any creatures used to dwelling in darkness. Then, as quietly as she is able, Kerielle takes a few more steps down the western passage, taking her out of the light provided by Malk’s lantern and thus out of sight of the other adventurers.
Concurrently, at the other corridor intersection, Amiel waves to Declan to shine his light down the southeastern passage. The mage complies and shifts his lantern’s beam toward the southeast, plunging the eastern passage – as well as Seth and the chest – into darkness. That simple action heralds several near-simultaneous events that occur in the space of the next few heartbeats.
“I sense no evil – ,” Helios begins before being cut off by a sharp intake of breath from Amiel.
The impetus of that reaction is a fleeting glance of movement down the southeastern corridor as the light from Declan’s lamp penetrates it. The person or creature disappears out of sight to the east – apparently the passageway widens in that direction further down its length. Whatever it was, it was clad in dark garments and had its eyes reflected the light as two bright yellow pinpricks. It was also shorter than an adult human… if it was human. In its wake, Amiel and Declan notice a wooden barrel situated against a section of stone wall near the farthest extent of the lantern’s beam.
At the same time that the ranger and the mage notice the movement, Seth is fantasizing about chests of sparkling gold and wondrous jewels. He throws open the chest as a subconscious but familiar voice – that of a teacher from past times, perhaps – suggests he leave it alone. As the lid swings open, the elf hears a faint snick.
A fraction of a second after that, a huge iron portcullis, accompanied by the cacophonic screeching sound of rusted mechanisms, falls from a well-concealed recess in the cavern’s roof. With a shuddering crash, the barrier slams into the cave floor at the entrance to the eastern passage, effectively cutting off that corridor – as well as Seth and the chest – from the main tunnel.
Time seems to stand still for several long seconds. Then the silence is broken by a high-pitched voice that screams from somewhere nearby to the southeast, emanating from the darkness and shadows beyond the light of Declan’s lantern.
“BREE – YARK!”
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