Chapter #1080

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                         +                       +
                       +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                         +                       +
                           +       Epic VI     +
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                               +           +
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+     Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and other     +
+   terms used in these stories are the property of Wizards of the Coast  +
+   which has in no way endorsed or authorized their use.  Any such       +
+   property contained within these stories are not representative of     +
+   Wizards of the Coast in any fashion.                                  +
+     The player characters depicted in these stories are copyright       +
+   1991-2021 by Thomas A. Miller.  Any resemblance to any persons        +
+   or characters either real or fictional is utterly coincidental.       +
+   Copying and/or distribution of these stories is permissible under     +
+   the sole condition that no money is made in the process.  In that     +
+   case, I hope you enjoy them!                                          +
+   Halbarad       15th level human ranger of Ehlonna                     +
+   Rillen         18th level human warrior monk                          +
+   Songa          13th level human huntress                              +
+   Date:          11/9/580 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+   Time:          midday                                                 +
+   Place:         an undiscovered continent far to the east              +
+   Climate:       cold and wet                                           +
+   "Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance."     +
+                                              - old British Army adage   +

                   MLXXX.  The Maker's Mark

  Having found the source of the small river that flows out of the base
of the mountains into the central basin, the party has done some further
exploration.  After swimming into a pitch-black, submerged passage, the
ranger Halbarad discovered a sturdy metal grate blocking further progress
into the heart of the mountain.  He also found a stone hatch in the roof
of the water-filled tunnel...a hatch which the group is preparing to
examine further.

Halbarad:  Let's review this again.  For any weapons and equipment that
  aren't waterproof, we'll have to either leave them here or hope they
  have time to dry before we need to use them again, once we're through
  the water.  I'm mainly thinking about bows and arrows.
Rillen:  What about light?  You said it was pitch-black in there.
Halbarad:  I've got a couple of small pouches that are waterproof, so we
  can have dry flint, steel, and tinder - enough to make a small fire once
  we're through the hatch, which will allow us to look around and see what
  we're dealing with.
Songa:  We'll also have to worry about certain types of armor, and some of
  our supplies that would be ruined or rendered useless by water.
Halbarad:  (nods)  I'd suggest leaving those things here, concealed under
  brush; without any intelligent creatures wandering about, there's little
  danger of our things being taken.
Rillen:  But there is danger of us being caught without weapons we need.
Halbarad:  That will happen anyway, if we can't use wet bows and arrows.
  I suggest we make a quick scouting trip to try and get an idea of what's
  down there, and then we'll use that new knowledge to make a better plan.
Rillen:  (sighs, and sets his bow down)
Songa:  Tell us about the route, again.
Halbarad:  We'll be moving through chest-deep water, then neck-deep, and
  then the final thirty feet or so are fully underwater, save for a few
  inches at the top - not really enough to draw a breath.  And since the
  passage takes a gradual turn before that point, there's no light.  It
  will be more than a little scary when you consider those two things
  together.  It sounds easy now, but it's not once you're underwater and
  can't see a thing and you're thirty or forty feet in.  It can be easy to
  panic.  So we need to stay together and you need to trust me.  Whoever
  is behind me, keep one hand on my shoulder so you know where I am at all
  times...and the third person will do the same with the second.  It will
  help if we all know where the others are throughout the journey.
Rillen:  What about air?  Will we be cutting it close, as far as how long
  until we need to draw another breath?
Halbarad:  All of us are in excellent health and can hold our breath for
  a good long while, so I think we'll be okay.  Before you go completely
  under, take several deep breaths, then hold one and proceed.  We'll all
  need to do this at the same time, so we'll go on a count of three.
Songa:  Sounds good.  And once we're underwater and moving along together,
  what then?
Halbarad:  Thirty feet, no more.  Since I found the hatch once before, it
  won't take me long to find it again, especially since it has a handle.
Rillen:  We'll be counting on you to move quickly, and work quickly once
  you find the door.
Halbarad:  Right.  The person behind me will know when I move up through
  it, and can then follow, and the one behind them will likewise know.
Songa:  Will you be able to lift the hatch yourself?  Or do you need one
  of us to help?
Halbarad:  I will, because I already did.  It's heavy, but I was able to
  push it up before; it was clearly on a hinge of some sort.  I then put
  my head up there and took a breath, and the air was fine..a bit stale
  but safe to breathe.  And to answer the next question that you may ask,
  we needn't worry about the space above being a long vertical tunnel
  that we can't climb - I felt around and found a couple of metal rungs,
  which suggests the presence of more above.  All we have to do is get
  through the underwater passage, climb out of the water, and then we
  should be able to make some light and see what we're up against.
Rillen:  Let's hope it's not monsters.
Songa:  Even without the bows, I feel pretty good about our fighting
  ability.  We have spear, staff, and axe - and we know how to use them.
Halbarad:  I could have done this exploration myself, but I figured that
  having all of us there would be safer - and also that you'd both want
  to be there anyway.
Rillen:  You figured correctly.  I just hate to leave some of my things
  behind, here, unguarded.
Halbarad:  It won't be for long.  Let's just have a look, see what's up
  there...and then we can figure out what to do next.  It may be a small
  chamber that we can check fairly quickly and easily, or it may instead
  be a sprawling underground dungeon that we need the others to properly
  explore, or it may simply be a dead end, an empty shaft.  (he shakes
  his head)  But I doubt that last possibility.  Nobody builds a secret
  underwater hatch - and puts rungs in the shaft above - without a good
  reason.  Just like nobody creates a huge outdoor basin a couple dozen
  leagues across, and fills it with wildlife and dinosaurs, for no good
  reason.  Same for the mist barrier and the magic-killing field and the
  water that eats wood.  All of this is part of some grand design, and I
  for one want to know what it is.
Songa:  I do too, if for no other reason than to learn the mysteries of
  this place where we've wasted so much time and effort.
Rillen:  (nods)  We came here to get away from civilization, but it turns
  out that this entire place still has the mark of people all over it...
  even if it's not obvious.  (to Halbarad)  Like all those things you just
Halbarad:  Well, we won't know until we explore further.  (he regards the
  other two)  Are you ready?
Songa:  Ready.
Rillen:  Let's do this.

  They quickly entered the river, moving against the current and entering
the rocky passage.  Everything Halbarad had said was accurate: it took
a turn to the soon grew dark and then pitch black...and the
space between the water's surface and the stone ceiling seemed to shrink
with every step they took.  Rillen now understood why the ranger had taken
the time to give such a thorough description of what they'd be facing, and
how to face it.  The big warrior was both brave and strong, but without
the preparation offered by Halbarad, he was fairly sure that he'd have
been gripped with panic at some point in this journey.
  Fortunately, he and Songa were both quite disciplined and determined,
and by following the ranger's earlier instructions, they had no problems.
After moving underwater and waiting for him to open the hatch, they soon
found themselves crowded in the vertical shaft above the stone hatch, all
of them hanging onto the lowest of whatever unknown number of metal rungs
led up into the total darkness.  In this way, they were able to keep their
heads above water and communicate.

Rillen:  (wipes water from his face with his free hand)  What now?
Halbarad:  Now, we need light.  And this is going to be tricky.  (he moves
  about in the darkness, though the other two can't see what he's doing)
Songa:  What are you-
Halbarad:  I'm climbing up a few more rungs, so I can get some space and
  retrieve my supplies from my pouch.

  The ranger did the first thing - almost kicking Rillen in the head in
the process - and then, once he had a bit more room to work, he set about
finding what he needed and striking flint to steel.  Next, he got a small
bit of tinder lit...and then, suddenly and surprisingly, a torch blazed
to life!

Rillen:  How?!?
Halbarad:  I prepared this earlier while you two were shedding weapons and
  supplies.  We've got plenty of oil from the ship, and I always keep one
  of these small torches with me, as well as highly flammable tinder...(he

  To be sure, the torch was little more than a small, compact brand - but
it would surely provide light enough for a quick exploration.

Halbarad:  We should hurry.
Songa:  Lead the way.

  The vertical shaft extended up as far as they could see (which wasn't
a lot, given the limited light from the torch) so they got underway.  The
stone hatch was closed and its handle turned to seal the passage.

Halbarad:  No reason to leave it open.  I can't imagine the river rising
  enough to flood this shaft, but we don't need to take any chances.
Songa:  Mind the embers from your torch, as they fall.
Halbarad:  (climbing quickly, he finds that the rungs mounted to the wall
  of the shaft are rather thick, perhaps two inches in diameter, and also
  spaced further apart than he would have expected)  Watch the rungs, as
  their width and spacing is unusual.
Rillen:  (having already discovered the same thing, although he isn't too
  hampered by it due to his height, his correspondingly large hands, and
  his immense strength)

  About fifty feet up, the rungs ended as the shaft opened into a large
chamber cut from the surrounding rock.  Roughly forty feet across and
domed in shape, this new area possessed a number of noteworthy features.
First, there was another hatch at the top of the shaft; fashioned of some
dull and unknown metal, it bore no rust, and was in the open position,
right next to the opening in the chamber's floor.  With a start, the trio
of adventurers realized that not only were this hatch and the associated
hinge fashioned of metal, but so was the entire vertical shaft they'd just
ascended through!  More, that metal shaft was a perfect cylinder save for
the rungs that led up the one side.  As with the top-side hatch, the shaft
and rungs had no rust whatsoever.

Halbarad:  Which is odd, considering how close all this is to the river
  below, and the moisture from its water.
Songa:  Maybe this metal doesn't rust.  It's certainly not iron.

  Second, while the stone of the chamber was indeed roughly cut, it bore
signs of having been done intelligently.  The room was far from a perfect
hemisphere; it was flared somewhat at the outer edges, making it more like
the top of a cake-platter than a round dome.

Songa:  (runs a hand across the rock of one wall)  This place was made
  using high-quality tools with large blades...think trowels instead of
  picks.  The cuts are smooth and efficient.

  Third, a thick layer of gray dust covered the floor, which suggested
that the chamber had been still and quiet for a very long time.

  The fourth thing was indirectly related to the third:  there were three
skeletons in this chamber.

Rillen:  That's not ominous.

  One of the things was lying on the floor next to the hatch, the second
was sprawled out at the far end of the chamber, and the third was in a
sitting position on the other end, much closer to the hatch and shaft.
All three were covered with the same thick layer of dust as the floor.
The skeletons were definitely not human in either their size or their
characteristics.  All were at least ten feet tall, which suggested that
they might have once been giants or giant-kin, but the bone structure
wasn't quite right.

Halbarad:  I've seen ogre and giant skeletons, and they looked nothing
  like these.  (he points to one of the things)  Their bones are slender,
  just like those of men or elves.  Giants and their kin have thicker,
  much less refined bones and skulls.
Rillen:  (frowns, having never thought about this sort of thing)
Songa:  So what are they?
Halbarad:  They seem almost like us, except...taller, almost twice our
  size.  Which would explain the size and spacing of the rungs in that
Rillen:  (noting the skull of the nearest skeleton)  They're not like us.

  This was certainly true, for whatever they were, these beings' skulls
were longer than those of men, appearing stretched out to almost twice
the length of a human skull.  Their eye sockets were larger and oval in
shape, and their teeth were somewhat longer - as well as pointed.

Songa:  Okay, that's just creepy.
Halbarad:  These very much resemble that bit of jawbone I found in the
  riverbank, outside.  Maybe one of these...things was out there and died

  None of the three skeletons bore any marks of damage or battle; the
only unusual thing about them was their complete lack of clothing or any
other garb, but that mystery was solved when a closer examination of the
skeletons revealed small piles of dust and fabric around each skeleton.
These were most likely the decayed remains of whatever clothing these
strange beings had once been garbed in.  While examining the other two
skeletons, the adventurers found the fifth and sixth things of interest.
Beyond the nearer of the other two skeletons, mounted in the stone wall
on that end of the domed chamber, was a large metal door.  Well over ten
feet in height, it had a massive handle that appeared to also be a locking
mechanism, meaning that it was sealed from this side.  Next to the handle
were a couple of large, round gemstones which were a dull gray in color.
  And beyond the furthest skeleton, on the far side of the room, a large,
rectangular metal plate was mounted in the coarse stone of the wall.  Its
lower edge was about five feet above the floor level, while its upper edge
was five feet higher; the plate was about twenty feet wide and appeared to
be fashioned of the same metal found in the shaft, hatch, and other door.
To the right of the plate, about seven feet high, a huge metal lever was
mounted in the wall.  It quite clearly had two positions, up and down, and
was currently in the lower state.

Songa:  What the hell is this place?
Rillen:  I don't know, but it's strange.
Halbarad:  (looking around at everything in the chamber)  I think we've
  seen enough.  Here's my suggestion:  we don't touch this lever, and we
  don't touch that door, and we don't bother those skeletons.  We know
  how to get in here, and we know we can breathe here, and we also know
  that we could lay wet weapons and supplies out to dry here.  We should
  go back and let the others know what we've found, and then return here
  with the full group to continue with our explorations...properly and at
  our full strength.
Songa:  Fine by me.
Rillen:  (thinking about what the two druids, the priest, and the ranger
  might be able to contribute, he quickly realizes that if nothing else
  they will double the party's fighting strength - which will be critical
  given the lack of magic)  Agreed.
Halbarad:  Very well, then.  We'll leave this place as we found it, make
  our way back to our companions on the ledge, a day's march to the north
  of the river mouth...and then return here, to undertake further delving
  into this complex.

next:       the group is reunited and ready to explore
released:   6/25/2021
notes:      That entire bit where Halbarad previewed the underwater
  journey was unplanned, it just flowed out of my mind as I sat here
  and tried to imagine how scary such a trip (even a short one) would
  be to make.
    As for the shaft and chamber, I've obviously been watching a bit too
  much _Ancient Aliens_ lately...but I've been thinking for months now
  about exactly what the hell was going on within this island/continent,
  and it was never going to be anything close to normal/boring.
    In other news, I had originally intended to end this arc by episode
  1080 (this one) but I've fleshed things out, and written more content
  for the arc, than I first expected.  One lesson I learned a while back
  is not to bind myself to particular episode numbers.  If the process
  of writing means that this goes to 1082, or 1085, or even 1090...then
  so be it.  I'm not in any rush, nor am I on any schedule.  It's all
  about having fun and entertaining you, the readers.
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