Eyes strain against the darkness, and ear against the silence. Only Nithauk’s vision is unimpeded, and even he can see no more than an easy dagger-throw into the gloom. The booted strides approach, moving with purpose and disciplined haste. Whoever it is knows their way in the dark mine. Faral spots the flickering torchlight first, but soon they are all aware of it. The ghosts of the mine apparently need light, a fact that is somehow reassuring. That their foe is no more at home in the darkness than they are ameliorates the threat a little. Soon the light divides into individual torches, a half dozen, casting wild shadows as the flames gutter and flare. The burning brands are held aloft by gauntlets of leather and chain, carried by men of flash and blood. Hard men, clad in high quality armor and armed beyond the means of miners. Or bandits. Save for the lack of insignia or standards, these could be military scouts.
Their leader carries no torch, and wears no helm. Six feet of lean muscle clad in scale armor, the man is a human in his prime. His hair is a red-orange, strikingly fire-like in appearance, especially by the uncertain light of torches. He hangs back slightly from the front line, his gaze darting about, fixed on the edges of the light’s reach. He sees Nithauk’s traps where his men do not, and has time to utter a single warning. “Ambush, ’ware!” The first two men stumble in the snares, and the noise makers attached send up a clatter of metal on stone. A pair of arrows fly, the second following a split second after the first. With an agile twist, the leader of these mystery soldiers evades the first arrow. The second scrapes a furrow in his armor, glancing off his torso. It draws no blood, though he winces in pain at what will surely become a wicked bruise. His hands fill with steel in a blur, a long sword in his right and a shorter blade in his left. Just in time, as Scir’s charge carries him through the line and forces the leader to stagger back lest the barbarian’s axe cleave him in two.
All around, the pandemonium of battle breaks out. Nithauk looms suddenly on the enemy flank, appearing from the gloom like a hulking shadow which fears no light. His blade flashes and a soldier staggers away from him. A lick of red spills down the blade and drips off. Before the man can mount a counter attack, the Goliath has faded back into the dark. Ezio raises his blade, and murmurs a prayer to his Saint. A translucent copy of the glowing weapon appears, wielded by an invisible hand. It spins through the air to menace the leader with Scir. Cuts meets the ragged charge of the soldiers, turning aside a mace blow with his shield and parrying another with his sword. His counter attack sends a man reeling, the corner of his shield broken clean off. Standard to the back, Kane Raziel has only for the fire-haired man, hot hate naked on his face. A death curse spills from his lips in the secret Cant of the Vistani, assuring the spirits that this man was doomed. The warlock’s visage holds only mortal emotion, save to the leader himself. That man sees the true darkness in Kane’s intent, and knows the full promise of gypsy vengeance in his heart. A spell lashes at his eyes, attempting to rob him of sight. He blinks and spins away from Scir, narrowly avoiding the harmful magic.
Shouts and ringing blows, hissing arrows and crackling spells. The battles rages for a minute… two… cries of battle turn to those of pain, grunts of effort give way to final gasps. At last only Scir and the leader battle, back at the every edges of available light. The glow from Ezio’s mystical weapon show the blood lust and certainty of victory on the Dragonborn’s features; the fanatical rage and growing desperation on the leader’s face. A large dagger comes whistling out from beyond the light and punches through a thin point in his armor, below one arm. The man staggers, struggles to draw breath, and cries out “Slave Tlathak, may Vecna aid me!” Whatever outcome the man was expecting from his religious invocation, it is clear in his shocked expression that it was not to have his head burst into flames. For an instant, he pain and confusion are there to see, and then they melt away with his flesh and hair. A scream dies in his throat, as flames rush down into his lungs and seer away his voice. His body falls limp, the fires spreading with unnatural speed. That which does not burn is rendered to ruined slag, and even bone is consumed. All but the skull.
This floats back up until it is hovering eye level with the startled Dragonborn. A voice speaks in his head, mocking and cruel. When it has finished its monologue, a ghostly hand appears to reach from behind and grip the skull, snuffing out the flames. The hand is from a corpse, withered and bony. Its thumb hooks into the corner of the skull’s mouth, and its middle two fingers slide over the scorched crown to fill the eye sockets. The first and fourth finger point upward, granting the skull demonic “horns”. The apparition fades then, leaving Scir with the fading battle rage and a sick feeling in his gut. He drops his axe beside the still warm ashes of the slain leader and staggers away. Leaning against the wall, he slumps down and covers his face with blood-soaked hands. The others quickly strip the soldiers of anything worth keeping, and begin discussing their next move. Most favor withdrawing to make camp. Nithauk sits in the darkness, deeper into the large cavern, ears peeled. Once or twice he thinks he hears a foot fall, or the brush of leather on stone, but he cannot be certain. Eventually, he agrees that a meal and rest would do him good as well.
Later, seated around the campfire, Scir relates his conversation with the apparition of the burning skull. Long after the others have bedded down, or taken up watch, Scir and Nithauk talk about the Dragonborn’s reaction to the battle. It is a revelation to Nithauk, but he offers no judgement or any indication of his thoughts on the matter. Each man makes his own luck, forges his own destiny, and it was up to Scir to find his. The Goliath could not find it for him. He listens, the story slipped away into a pouch in his mind. A rogue need not steal only coin. Secrets were more valuable than any bauble, and these Nithauk collects with greater passion than any wealth. Secrets would keep his dreams company when next he faced the Long Sleep. And unlike coin or gem, he could carry as many as he could learn. While some might have a burden all their own, they would not slow him in combat.
The next day, Scir was mostly back to himself, and the rest of them were more than ready to exorcise any remaining “ghosts” in the mine. These bandits, like those at the keep in the Tanglewood, were equipped with excellent gear and training. Moreover, they stank of rotting fish (though Scir was dead certain the leader had not). They were on the trail, and it was past time they put an end to the blight these criminals represented. Allying themselves with goblins, kidnapping spellcasters, slaughtering pilgrims… justice would be swift and final. And they might finally find Jalenna. The wizard’s scrying indicated she was farther away than the Belstone Mines, but perhaps the spell was misled by the iron and quartz in the hills. With optimistic spirits and no shortage of courage, they forged once more into the dark mine. Nithauk, with his growing affinity for darkness, struck out on point. Ezio forms the center of the party, his sword casting its radiance as bright as any torch, and without the flickering vagaries of flame.
Once or twice, where the floor of the mine has a build-up of sediment or moisture, they find boot prints. The soldiers’ path is easy to follow back into the depths. Nithauk and Faral both note a couple sets of prints that are not booted. One looks to have been formed by a barefoot child, albeit a chubby one. The other is the smooth print of a softer soled shoe, a sandal or moccasin. As such, they are on high alert as they explore. It becomes obvious the miners had exhausted all the worthwhile Belstone veins, as they find many a cavern and all are empty of anything but chips and shards of the blue mineral. In one chamber, they find a truly strange phenomenon, egg-shaped deposits of smooth white quartz, shot through with golden yellow specks. They range in size from a robin’s egg to some as large as Nithauk’s fist. They are perched on stalagmites, some only as high as their knees, and others at eye level. Water drips from above, flows around the smooth surface, finding no purchase on the quartz. The lime-rich flow slows on the supporting stalagmite, depositing sediment and growing the natural structure slowly. The wet egg-shaped stones seems fused at their base to the stone of the stalagmites, and reflect their light about in a strangely liquid fashion. Muting the glow of Ezio’s sword, they find that the stones actually shed a faint light, almost imperceptible save in pitch darkness. The yellowed specks are luminous, some sort of phosphorescent mineral, by Cuts’ reckoning. Why the minder’s never harvested such a unique treasure is unknown. Perhaps it was superstition. They do look an awful lot like eggs.
Eventually, the draw of the mysterious geological formations fades, as one by one they remember the reason they are down here. Promising themselves to investigate further once the bandits are vanquished and Jalenna returned home, they press on. Eventually they find a dead end, a large cavern which clearly yielded a fortune in Belstones once. Two thirds of the cavern are dominated by a massive stope that looks to have provided enough blue quartz to panel the walls of a cathedral. Here then was the first truly profitable strike in the mine. At first they discuss backtracking, certain they have missed something. A side passage hidden by shadows perhaps, or concealed by arcane means by the ritualist who laid the warding trap at the mine’s entrance. It is Faral who notices the way down, drawn by the slight breeze. His senses are honed for the wilderness, not spelunking. However, his devotion to the goddess of the winds has made him alert to changes in current and pressure in the air, beyond anything he’s noticed before. He leads them to the sinkhole tucked away in a corner of the cavern. The scents of torches, men, water, and death can be discerned drifting on the flow of air. Here is the way.
Nithauk finds the remnants of an iron ladder, rusted away. Rope fibers cling to it, revealing that the bandits climbed in and out of the sinkhole. There is no rope now… but the bandits were all slain. Who untied the rope? Nithauk thinks back to the soft sounds that might have been retreating footfalls. Faral mentions once again the tracks they have seen which do match any of the bandit’s footwear. The mine has ghosts alright, but apparently more in the manner that their roguish comrade is a ghost. Which means these ghosts can bleed too. Kane puts voice to the thought they all have. In a voice as cold as naked steel on a winter morning, he promises the darkness below that death is coming. No amount of stone or shadow can protect those who have earned a Vistani oath of vengeance. Knowing that the Goblinoids of the Bloody Claw and the Vecna cultists are in league, and suspecting that this is their last redoubt, the warlock’s blood sings for the shedding of theirs.
Watching Kane’s gloved hands flex, and seeing the savage light in his eyes, one might guess that his quest to find Jalenna is secondary to his need for revenge, at least for the moment. Not that any of them are immune to the hunger to right the wrongs the region have suffered at the hands of these bandits. Cuts mutters that it is not death they bring, but justice. If the bandits surrender, they can serve a prison sentence. Scir grunts his agreement, ever one to balance battle lust with fair thinking. Nithauk says nothing, though his raised hands forestalls whatever retort Kane would have made. Ezio actually laughs, softly. His Eladrin voice is musical, but it is the cadence of a battle march he uses to sum up their various sentiments. “Whether it is death or justice they see in us, by Saint Altais’rin of Kord, war coming.” He is the first on down the rope, the glow of his sword spilling from its sheath. Nithauk smirks at the rope, and climbs as he prefers, naught but the rock and his own skill. It is rotten stone, powdered iron ore and minute quartize veins rendering the limestone prone to crumble. It is the most challenging climb the Goliath has had in weeks, and he nearly falls twice. Let the others talk of war, death, and justice, these are merely different labels for the same thing. What it really is… is a challenge. And challenge is always good.