With a torch constructed from lard-soaked strips and found wood, Tric leads the way into the cave system. They begin wending their way down and generally back towards the bog. He locates an underground river that they follow for a while. Tric reflects that his father would be proud that he did manage to find some water after all. Heppa looks around with great interest, never having been in such a place before. She wonders whether it is a natural cave, and Tric cannot resist the opening. “It certainly could be a natural cave…” He rambles on, distracting both himself and his cousin from any potential threats. Thus they are both surprised when forward progress is halted by a swarm of bats that come streaming at them from deeper in the caves.
Hepalonia does not find them as scary as the walking corpses or the arrows from the moonshiners. However, the bats are not simply continuing past the elves; they are swooping in with sharp little fangs. Rather than run or scream, she considers the situation. Maybe a sudden snow squall will dissuade them. She pulls out the blue shard and concentrates on it, hoping that it does not also draw undead. As it did last time, the crystal conjures a vortex of frozen precipitation. Enough bats collide with the mix of ice, snow, and hail that the spell dissipates, leaving no trace of itself behind except for the dazed bats slumped on the ground. The analytical corner of Heppa’s mind is pleased to see that she does not need to figure out a way to get rid of the frozen vortex, though she is also a little disappointed that it is not a potential source of fresh water. Maybe I can use it to make things slippery, too… she thinks, making a mental note to experiment more under calmer conditions. Enough of the creatures are still circling and biting at her with their tiny sharp teeth that she summons forth the snowy wind again and pulls out her sword to try to swat them away.
Tric, meanwhile, waves his torch around with one hand while batting at the teeming swarm with his other. The fire could be effective against the creatures, but he has put about as much effort into learning swordplay as he has water dowsing. He tries to watch the flight patterns in order to land a well-placed punch, but the only reward for his efforts is a face full of glowing embers. He backs away from his cousin some, protecting their light source from the winds that accompany the snow squalls and hopefully leading some of the bats away. Heppa seems to be having a worse time of the encounter than he is, given the thin streams of blood trailing down her face and arms, but she also seems far more effective. “I can’t get a handle on them, Heppa, and I can’t take a shot with my bow while you’re in there. But don’t worry,” he encourages her, “you’ve got this! Ice and blade!”
I thought we’d just go through the woods finding artifacts for Daddy, and here I am, sword in hand, being a fighter. These bats are eating me alive! Hepalonia concentrates on the shard in her hand, despite all the pricks of pain, and the frozen clumps and pellets smack down more of the flying creatures. Some of the bats still in the air scatter down the tunnel past her. “You’re right, Tric Manu! I do have this.” Through the bats that remain, she sees her cousin menacing those on his side with his torch.
“Yeah! Hit ‘em again, Heppa!” Tric thinks about making a quip about Hepalonia being as icy cold as her mother, but he does not think she would appreciate such a comparison. Instead he calls out, “Yeah, show them what an elvish sorceress can do!” Behind him, he hears rapidly approaching footfalls. Did Kachen follow us here? Does Hezzis think we can’t take care of ourselves? No, wait, that sound is coming from deeper in the cavern.
A female figure with a sturdy torch in hand comes around the bend in the tunnel. She runs purposefully past Tric. With the increased light, he can see more easily—not just the bats but also the mysterious stranger. She is a little shorter than he is and clad in simple brown leathers with a slingshot tucked in her belt. Her orange hair hangs to her shoulders with the front sections plaited into two small braids, one on either side of her olive face. The torch she carries is constructed well enough to withstand being used as a cudgel, and indeed she swings it at the bats with skill.
“All right, now we’ve got Fire and Ice! Show them the might of the four seasons!” Tric exclaims. “I’ll be doing double-duty on fall and spring,” he continues, springing forward to wave his torch menacingly at some bats and then falling back out of the way.
Hepalonia’s confidence soars. She has a sword in one hand and an artifact in the other. It might be the shard that is conjuring all the magic, but she feels like a sorceress. Plus, help has arrived. The rush of battle, combined with the loss of blood, gives the whole experience a surreal feel. Another snow squall swirls up around her, and the bats back away to avoid it, getting out of her face for a bit. When it dissipates, she sees the newcomer swinging her flaming club about. Some singed bats fall to the ground, and the stranger chases the rest for a little bit as they fly away down the tunnel.
Tric steps up to his cousin. “Howling wind, that was impressive, Heppa!”
“Thank you.” Hepalonia holds up the shard, which still faintly glows blue with its own inner light. “I really like this crystal!”
Tric looks closely at Heppa. They are still not sure whether this is a necromantic control crystal or not. He knows she is interested in artifacts, but it worries him a bit that her comment was focused on the crystal and not on any of the events that just took place. As he watches her, she puts a hand back against the tunnel wall, and with a groan of pain, slides down it to sit on the ground. “We’ve got to treat those wounds,” Tric says, crouching down next to her. It must have been the rush of battle, he decides, not anything creepy related to dark magic.
The other woman comes back up the tunnel. “Oh!” she exclaims, seeing how Hepalonia looks. “Elvish sorceresses know healing magic, right?” she asks.
“Among their many talents, elvish shamans can indeed regenerate torn flesh, broken branches, broken bones. Limbs of either kind,” Tric cannot resist boasting.
“I think I did this once,” Heppa mutters, trying to remember what the druids showed in class. She closes her eyes and focuses, but she cannot tap into that same sense of primal energy she managed yesterday with the branches.
“How long does it take for them to regenerate?” the woman asks.
Heppa tells Tric she does not think it worked, and he starts making excuses related to how far the caves are from forests. He tells her to sit still while he fishes out her poultices. As he dabs at all the small bites, he once again compliments his cousin on how amazing she was during the fight.
“Oh, I can help you with this,” the stranger offers. From her small pack she pulls out a mushroom. “Here, chew this.”
Heppa is just about to put it in her mouth when Tric says, “Wait! Did you see any rats eating this type of mushroom? Is it a mushroom or a toadstool?”
“Oh goodness, no. I would never want rats to get at these. These are too valuable.”
Heppa thanks her and eats the mushroom. As promised, it dulls the pain she is feeling, and soon crusts of blood seal up her small wounds. Her cousin turns to their helper. “Are you all right, Miss… Fire?” Introductions follow, and the woman tells them her name is Mari-Elin. She advises them that they will need more torches to deal with the cave system. “How much farther does it go?” Tric Manu asks.
The woman laughs. “All the way to the Southern Outpost.”
“South Tower?” Tric suggests.
“Yeah, that’s the fancy name for it these days.”
Heppa asks, “Do you live down here? Are there villages?”
Mari-Elin shrugs. “I don’t know, do dwarves call their places villages? I wouldn’t really consider them villages.”
“Oh, are you a dwarf?” Heppa asks. “I would have thought you too tall for that.”
“No,” the woman replies, giving her an incredulous look. “I’m a human.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re called fortresses,” Tric inserts. “Wherever seven or more dwarves are gathered is a fortress.”
Eyebrows raised, Mari-Elin looks back and forth between the elves. “Do you two know what you’re doing down here?”
Tric replies that on the surface there is a bog nearby. Mari-Elin has not been out of the caves in that direction, so she is not familiar with it. He tells her that the water there has gotten tainted, and it is somehow related to earthshocks which they are now investigating. They are trying to find what the source of the problem is so that they can keep it out of the water.
“You want to put a stop to it?”
“Ideally, yes,” Hepalonia interjects.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Tric asks.
Although she has no answers for them, Mari-Elin offers to take the elves to the dwarven fortress if they can help her with her own problem. Her handcart has gotten caught in one of the underground rivers, and she has been unable to free it herself.
“It is the least we could do,” Heppa tells her. “You just met us and look at all you did!”