pathfinder: beyond the vale

Part 7: Water Flowing Underground

Returning to the Brookman Well at Dusk, Cirice, Duriel and Garren easily found hiding places among the overgrown shrubs and prolific ferns. They were close enough that they could call to each other if they needed but spread wide enough to cover the whole fenced off area. Cirice told Trick, whose feral eyes could see in pitch black as well as in full daylight, to hide right by the edge of the well and to run and alert her if anyone or anything approached.

After a couple of hours, night had well and truly fallen and away from the firelight of the town, Cirice couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face. Despite her best efforts she was struggling to stay awake. When she first sat among the ferns, she had gone through the infernal alphabet in her head, in reverse, to keep her mind occupied. Devils wrote exceedingly convoluted legal documents, so they needed a lot of characters to express them in. That had killed three quarters of an hour easily. Now she was bored and had started nodding.

A soft rusting brought her back to full awareness as Trick’s yellow-orange eyes loomed out of the deep black. He understood her, whatever language she chose to speak to him in, due to the nature of their mystical bond, however, when he spoke to her, she had trained him to use the obscure tongue of the abyss, mainly because so few people could understand it.

The demons of the abyss were the spawn of chaos itself so the fact that they shared a common language seemed like a bit of a paradox to the uninitiated, however, the obscure “words” of the abyssal tongue were abstractions of the speaker’s emotions which were, in a way, the root of all languages. Subtle variations of expression gave rise to a surprisingly rich language which few (sane) scholars took the time to master, Cirice however, had spent her whole life alone with a pile of obscure books so her linguistic skills were extremely advanced. She was multilingual and fluent in at least seven languages, although she often found she didn’t know what to say, even if she had seven ways to say it…

“Someone approaches the well, Cirice” said Trick “a man.”

The fox’s voice sounded like a mixture of short low bestial growls, roars, and grunts, which few bystanders would mistake for an organised language.

“Well done,” she whispered back with a wink.

Cirice summoned lights with a wave of her hand and leapt up, clutching her staff, to try and get a look at the man. She was rewarded with the view of a man’s behind as he leant into the well filling several waterskins he had tied loosely together with rope.

The man noticed the sudden bluish luminescence and straightened up. He looked around poised to run but she, Duriel and Garren closed in from three sides to prevent his escape.

“Halt! Who goes there?” Said Duriel pointing his crossbow at the man’s heart.

The man spun away from Duriel, looking for a clear path to escape. His gaze fell in turn upon Garren, brandishing his hand bow, Cirice with her quarterstaff held threateningly, and finally a bear rearing up on its hind legs, primed to rip him into chunks of meat. He realised he had to fight, or else surrender. He slowly raised his hands, even as his head bowed despairingly. 

They lowered their weapons, relieved that they wouldn’t have to shoot him, and then the man bolted!

He tried snake past Duriel who deftly tackled him to the ground before he managed three paces! Duriel climbed to his feet, hauling the man up by his collar, but keeping him on his knees.

“Who are you?” said Duriel, not unkindly, but still holding his collar tightly.

“I’m Elias Brookman.” He said a little breathlessly.

“As in, Brookman Well?” asked Duriel.

“Yes. My Grandfather dug this well.” Came his reply.

“Keep talking” said Garren.

“My grandfather built half the town, before Gavel Kreed took the place over, and he was going to do more. He planned to build a great bridge to replace that old ferry crossing but Kreed didn’t want that…” he said the name Kreed like there was something foul on his tongue he needed to spit out.

“Where is your grandfather now? Why are you taking well-water like a thief in the night?” asked Cirice.

“Grandfather’s dead. He had an accident in the cut yard and was gravely injured. He died instantly, taken in his prime. Funny thing is he had no reason to be in that yard and Kreed and his cronies had no explanation as to what happened to him.” He said conspiratorially. Duriel let him get fully to his feet.

“In answer to your second question. The river water is foul, and I figure I’ve as much right to this water as anyone else and more than most.”

Cirice tended to agree and had her own ideas about charging people money for things that should belong to everyone, but before she had the chance to speak the guards appeared, swords drawn. The elder one, a man in his fifties with a great beer gut, held a torch aloft.

“What have we here then?” said the elder guard, in the manner of a man who knew exactly what he had, and thought it somehow made him a great wit to ask the question anyway.

“Water thief, eh?” said the younger man, whose neck Cirice has inspected earlier. With practiced malignity he added, “Stealing clean water from the mouths of your brothers and sisters in Falcon’s Hollow! A heinous crime…” Cirice thought he might be hamming up his role in this to impress the audience, but he was barking up the wrong tree if he thought this would impress her…

“If you don’t pay with copper then you’ll pay with blood! …or maybe if you let us take you in, boss Payday will be merciful and take your hand instead of your head…” they closed in on Elias grinning wickedly, swords raised with fell intent. Cirice stood in the way glowering.

“Is it not a greater crime that families go thirsty for want of a few coppers when this stream flows with fresh water day and night?” She was furious at their callousness, and the fact that they were being glib, enjoying their power, made her more furious still. She looked at the guard the way she might have looked at dog shit on the heel of her shoe – if she had any shoes.

This intervention had the effect of throwing the guards off their game. The younger looked at her and said, “Well, what should we do with him then, eh?”

“Let. Him. Go.” She formed the words slowly and carefully.

“But what would Boss Payday say?” the younger guard said looking at the elder who shrugged.

“He doesn’t need to know.” She said seizing back his attention. “I’ll give you the damned copper if it’s so important.” She said, throwing a brace of copper pieces at him. One struck his helmet with an audible clang while the other bounced off his tabard. Their honour could take no more and they gave up their murderous plans, shamefacedly returned to their post without further comment.

“Thanks,” said Elias. “Don’t mention it” replied Cirice who was still grinding her teeth with rage.

“May we come and visit your family sometime,” said Garren. “I’d like to hear more about your Grandfather and his plans for Falcon’s Hollow.”

“You’d be more than welcome” said Elias. “It would be my honour.”

“Let me check that water out for you,” said Garren. “We think there might be something up with it. That’s why we were lying in wait.”

A greenish blue light was emitted from his small hand, as he cast it over the water skins “They seem to be fine” he said.

“Better get out of here before the guards change their minds” added Duriel.

Elias didn’t need telling twice “I won’t forget what you’ve done for me” he said as he left through the gate with his waterskins.

They decided that after all the commotion it was unlikely any well saboteurs would appear this night, so they left to return to Falcon’s Hollow and to see if Laurel had learned anything from the things they had retrieved from the underwater alcove in the well shaft.

On the way, Cirice asked Garren if his bear had a name.

“Yes, of course,” replied the little man. “He goes by Fall, but that’s short for Cave-beneath-the-waterfall-in-the-glade. Bit of a mouthful in common!” he chuckled. “It’s a lot shorter in bear!” Fall growled a little. “See?” said Garren with a grin.

When they got back to Falcon’s Hollow it was late. Luckily, the guards opened the gates when they explained they had been out on “official business” and they returned to their house for a few hours of rest.

In the morning they breakfasted quickly and set out for Laurel’s shop. The door was still locked.

With growing alarm, they knocked on the door to try and raise someone inside.

At length, the door opened a crack revealing Laurel’s face, but something was terribly wrong. When she let them inside, they saw that one of her eyes was swollen almost shut, her lip was split, and she was walking with a pronounced limp.

“What happened to you!” Cried Duriel.

“Terrence finally… disappeared,” she said. “He complained of being terribly thirsty and when I brought him water, he broke free of his bonds and attacked me! Then he fled.”

“Did you see where he went?”  asked Garren.

“No,” she said, shaking her head slowly “I was out cold for a few minutes at least. Maybe someone outside saw something?”

They looked for witnesses to question and saw a homeless man sitting beside the path.

“Did you see a man come this way from the herbalist’s shop?” asked Garren.

“Maybe…” he said in a husky voice, his hand began to stroke his long straggly beard. “it’s difficult to remember.” He grinned showing the gaps in his teeth.

Garren pulled out a silver coin from his purse “It’s coming back to me!” said the man taking the coin and polishing it on his coarse tunic. “Yes, I heard a terrible crash and, perhaps a woman’s scream and then a man tore out of the door and ran up the street towards the gate!”

They headed out through the gate and called up to the guard post.

“Did you see a man come this way? Possibly covered in blood?” Cirice shouted, conversationally.

“Er… Yes, actually,” said the guard, “He went that way…” the man pointed off to the west “Crashed right into the gates trying to get through the door, he did, I’m surprised he could still walk afterwards but he ran!”

Garren and Duriel looked for a trail. Garren saw wagon tracks heading off up the road to the north and cursed, assuming the man had sped away on in some convenient wagon, however, Duriel did not give up so easily. He reasoned that the man was not in his right mind and might have abandoned the obvious pathway. Duriel checked the dense bramble thicket by the roadside and was rewarded for his imagination.

Droplets of fresh blood on the tips of bramble thorns and several broken branches showed someone had passed over the rough ground off to the west of the beaten path. He followed the blood trail to some promising gouges in the ground where it looked as if a someone had skidded over in their haste and then got up again. These marks led to a fully formed footprint in a damp hollow, and then he picked up a firm trail in the mud of an all but dried-out stream bed which must have been the original course of the stream before it was dammed to make the Brookman’s Well. The stream bed led to a basin that would have once been a natural pond, but now was empty save a small, stagnant pool, breeding mosquitoes.

They soon found themselves standing at the far end of the basin, outside a cave entrance. The now muddy trail led inside. Duriel took the lead, stealthily following the stumbling footprints into the darkness, while Garren and Cirice followed behind at a discreet distance so their magical lights would not give him away to any enemies that may lay ahead.

Duriel advanced through the cavern as it turned to the left. He stopped and hid to one side of the tunnel, taking cover behind an outcropping of rock, and peered into a larger chamber ahead where the cave opened out. His powerful eyes wrestled grainy images from the blackness, to reveal a body of stagnant foul-smelling water and the earthen floor ahead sloping into it. The stench was stomach churning, and fat insects buzzed and darted over the water creating occasional ripples in the otherwise unmoving surface. Duriel began to feel weak and wondered if he ought to sit down.

In the meantime, Cirice and Garren had caught up, and as the dim blue haze of Cirice’s light fell upon Duriel’s back she saw a bulbous winged insect sat on his back, twitching rhythmically at it sucked out his very lifeblood! It was as big as a cat and she fairly shrieked her warning to Duriel who nearly jumped out of his skin before unsuccessfully trying to bash into the wall beside him to scrape off his unwanted passenger. The sound, or perhaps the motion, alerted more of the creatures who flew closer to challenge the would-be intruders.

Cirice, gritted her teeth and fired an electric bolt from her right-hand fingertips at the insect on Duriel’s back and watched with satisfaction as the insect fizzed with electrical energy, its carapace cracked open spilling its stolen fluids. The still fierce energy of the spell arced through empty air to strike the creature’s approaching companion, which flew away, wings smoking while the first fell twitching onto the earthen floor.

Cirice prepared to attack another of the horrid insects with her quarterstaff but began to feel the effort of exertion growing. She sagged in her growing weakness.

“Cirice there’s a couple on you too!” she heard Garren’s shout, but she was already drunkenly swinging her staff at an airborne insect, she didn’t hurt it much but felt the wooden staff connect, the thing squeaked at her in irritation. Fall’s jaw clamped shut on empty air as her swing spun her out of his reach.

“Hold still Cirice!” said Duriel who grabbed her and turned her around. She couldn’t help but stand still now, she felt so weak. Duriel burst the fattened blood seekers with his fist, splattering them both with the blood they had drunk from her.

They were safe for now but Duriel and Cirice both felt dog tired. She used a charm to clean the blood and filth from hers and Duriel’s clothes which made her feel a little less wretched, but not much. Her lips felt very dry and cracked as she licked at them.

Cirice and Garren then left the cover of the tunnel to sent boiling globs of acid flying over the water, destroying the wounded blood seeker, and watching with great pleasure as its disintegrating body disappeared into the still water.

The trail they followed ended here, with deep footprints left in the sodden earth, disappearing into the water.

Garren began to survey the cave, testing the soil between his fingers and looking carefully at the ground. He found the remains of several creatures, desiccated husks, sucked dry.

“Hmmm, boggy ground. Perfect conditions for worms, and… giant centipedes!” he said excitedly “They can’t swim but they’re excellent climbers” Cirice looked at the cavern ceiling in a sudden panic expecting giant centipedes to fall on her head but was relieved to see none.

“If we’re going to cross this water and follow where Terrence went, we ought to build a raft” said Duriel.

“Come on,” said Cirice. “We’ll need vines and branches.” Garren and Duriel look at each other uncertainly but they followed her outside, nonetheless.

The precocious girl had not lost her ability to surprise them. They watched her construct an excellent raft from raw materials scattered about, which they had split up to collect.

“Granny had a book on seafaring” she said as if this explained everything.

They carried the raft back to the waters edge. “I don’t think it’ll take all our weight and stay afloat. You two get on with Trick.” She said. “The water isn’t that deep. I’ll wade and push you along.”

As Garren enchanted a pebble to emit a glowing yellow light to steer by, Cirice waded into the foul water. With a queasy expression on her face she began to push the laden raft along…