THE HOLLOW DEPTHS

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“It’s only forever
Not long at all
Lost and lonely
That’s underground
Underground”
— David Bowie, Underground

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Down, down our heroes went into the hollow depths of the Well of Dragons. Finally at the depth of 325 feet below the surface, the daïs reached the end of the shaft and came to rest on the sandy floor of a large cavern. The cavern seemed to be a primary cave, probably formed over centuries by lava while the Mountain was still an active volcano. It seemed the lava had forced its way through the cave, carpeting the inside with a thick, shiny coating on the ceiling and walls.  The flickering torch-light held by some of the humans was now reflected in it, becoming a hundred times brighter.

The cavern itself, porous in places, was covered with little round bulbs; crystals of opaque quartz, decorated with clear drops of glass, hung from the vaulted ceiling like chandeliers, and seemed to light up as they passed. It was as if the spirits of the underground were lighting up their palace to welcome their guests from the surface. No wonder the Cult deemed this place a worthy temple … it was beautiful.

The sounds quality was strange here compared to the chambers above. The drums still echoed, now joined by the squealing peals of guitars and blasting horns, and the never-ending thrum of the Drakkhorn. Shouts could be heard, although they were distorted. The word was unmistakable though, the name of the Queen of Darkness: Tiamat. Thousands of voices cried out to her … summoning her from the Nine Hells.

Lava Tube Cavern
Lava Tube Cavern

They continued to walk, making their way deeper into the Well of Dragons, seeking the Temple of Darkness. They knew that this was the counterintuitive way to enter. This was the old temple, abandoned and no longer used by the Cult. After about eighty minutes of walking, Fo called the signal to stop. Some of the party used this time to put on slightly warmer clothes. Going this deep into the Mountain had dropped to temperature to about fifty degrees and it wasn’t getting any warmer.

The torches were hung from convenient pieces of lava. They were in a sort of cavern where there was no lack of air. On the contrary: they felt a wind blowing. What was causing it? What movement in the atmosphere did it arise from?  Brune spread out a few provisions on a block of lava and each of them ate hungrily. Well, most did.

Fo turned to Vrae’ree, motioning for the Dark Elf to come forward.

“Do you hear it,” asked the monk. “The Drakkenhorn?”

Vrae’ree lifted an eyebrow, shaking his head. “No.”

The monk nodded. “The horn has silenced.”

Vrae’ree looked back at the others, and then to the monk again. “Not a good sign.”

They started walking again after about 18 minutes of rest. They were still following the lava gallery, truly a natural walkway, as gentle as those inclined ramps that still replace staircases in old men’s houses. Sometimes a succession of arches unfolded before the like that of a gothic cathedral. A mile further on, they had to bow their heads under low semicircular arches with thick pillars forming part of the rock itself, bending under the spring of the vaults. At certain places, these forms gave way to low crumbled substructures that looked like they had been collapsed on purpose, and they crawled and slid through narrow rubble. It was clear that nobody had used this path in quite some time. And it was clear that someone intended to keep visitors from coming in this way.

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The whole of the next hour, the tunnel lined up its endless arches before them. They walked almost without a word. As they moved along, the pace picked up a little. All the while they heard the music echoing from everywhere at once. They continued to make their way through the lava tubes until finally they reached the middle of an intersection, with two paths heading forward, both of them dark and narrow.

Which one were we to take? We had a problem. A few gathered near the intersection, looking for clues on which way to go. But Alric didn’t appear to hesitate. He pointed to the eastern tunnel, and soon the party trudged with him into it. In any case, any deliberation about the choice of path could have gone on indefinitely, for no clue could possibly find the choice of one or the other—we had to trust entirely to those in the party who were expertly trained in tracking.

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They were following a lava route like the one before, twisting and turning through the darkness. It quickly became impossible to recognise what sort of formations they were passing through. Everything was beginning to look the same. Magnificent marble specimens covered the walls, some an agate grey with white veins standing out in various places, others crimson or yellow with red spots. Further on were samples of crystals in dark colours, but with limestone providing bright highlights. Instead of going down into the bowels of the Mountain, the tunnel was becoming more and more horizontal. At one point, they even thought it was heading back up towards the surface. At one point, Adabon made a comment about becoming lost in the maze, but Vrae’ree quickly shushed him.

It was bad enough knowing that after all this time they were essentially on a suicide mission. Truthfully, if Tiamat had been released from her prison in the Nine Hells what hope did the party have in defeating her? They would die, and the Realms would be a darker place for it. These thoughts began to eat away at their morale as they walked.

The tunnels started to get larger, and that seemed like a good sign. The floor was less sandy and more solid. In places it seemed that beams and supports had been put into place t support the ceiling and walls. It was beginning to look more like human hands had touched the Mountains here. And here and there were the shouts from beyond of “Tiamat!” Constant reminders that they might already be too late.

“The corruption of this place stabs at our thoughts,” mumbled Alric. Brune nodded, beginning to softly hum a tune in an attempt to lighten the mood. Some of them smiled, but they all understood that some aura of darkness surrounded the place. Clearly, they were getting closer to the spot that the Cult was using to worship Tiamat.

And then from the darkness ahead of them they heard a growl. A low grumble like that of a mother bear warning off from its den. The rumbling was joined by a second, and then a third. And then from ahead of them, maybe 200 feet away, the roar of dragons … and a flapping of wings could be heard.

“Dragon,” whispered Tharivol.

“Vrea, ree shook his head. “No,” said the Dark Elf. “Dragons.”

… to be continued …

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