Passing through the entrance of the sea-battered cave, we find ourselves in the rough equivalent of a small vestibule. And I do mean rough. The cavern walls glisten with damp, but there’s no hint of lichen, seaweed, mushrooms, or any other substance that might lend a yielding texture to the implacable stone. Beneath our feet, the stone floor slopes down toward a wider opening that seems to be leading into the main chamber. It’s also pretty dark in here, but there’s just enough light for us to see. By unspoken agreement, we decide against lighting a torch until we have a better idea of what other creatures we might find inhabiting this place.
Once past the small entryway, the cave opens up dramatically. A velvety green phosphorescence shimmers distantly from the walls around us, and a narrow skylight pierces the roof above an inky underground river. Our path leads us along a wide sandy bank, but in the strange light, the substance beneath our feet appears less like sand and more like soot. It’s an unsettling scene, and for a moment I seriously consider heading back outside and taking my chances on the cold stony beach.
But aside from the gloomy view, the first thing I notice is the noise of the water. It’s a constant cascade of murmur, bubble, and splash, amplified by the rocky walls and startling in its volume. Surprised by the intensity of the sound, I turn to say something to Jenassa, only to find that my hasty speech is echoing throughout the cavern. So much for being stealthy. I immediately stop talking and make a mental note to proceed silently in here, since the ongoing reverberation of even the slightest sound makes normal conversation next to impossible.
Alert, and aware that we’ve likely given away any element of surprise, we continue forward silently with our weapons drawn. At least the sand beneath our feet muffles our steps, allowing us to proceed almost noiselessly. It’s cold comfort, however, as after a few paces it becomes abundantly clear that we definitely aren’t alone in this cave.
Torches, dangling bones, and tripwires — the decor in this place is pretty telling. Somebody here really doesn’t want visitors, and with the cave’s unique acoustics, the slightest rattle would be amplified a hundredfold. Unfortunately for us, it’s getting dark out there, and we need a sheltered place to sleep. We can’t fight the sea-spray and the bitter wind outside, but if we have to, we can fight whoever lives in this cave. And if we die in this desolate hole, at least we’ll die warm and dry. Comparatively speaking, that is.
Jenassa and I have just managed to move past the various traps without setting them off, when the walls start to echo with a frantic scuttling. Merciful Mara, I know that sound. Spiders! Miserable multi-legged Oblivion spawn! Well, you don’t get to spit in my face today, you hairy bastards. Today you get a taste of your own venomous medicine.
At the sudden noise, Jenassa races ahead of me with her crossbow out, and I smile as a warm rush of adoration and gratitude fills me. I know exactly what she’s doing. She knows how I hate spiders, and she’s going to try and kill them before they get anywhere near me. Some couples exchange flowers and gifts and candy to express how they feel, but for us, love means taking point and protecting each other from life’s occasional annoyances. Practical love — the best kind.
Sure enough, a massive spider races out to attack Jenassa. Seriously, this thing looks like it eats sabre cats for breakfast. She plugs it with a bolt from her crossbow, but it just keeps on coming. Reacting swiftly, she draws her blades and starts hacking it into disgusting hairy pieces, when a second — and thankfully smaller — spider shows up. Don’t worry babe, I’ve got this one!
I’m about to shoot the smaller spider in the eye (I mean, they have about a dozen eyes, so it’s a pretty easy target), when a fireball streaks in from nowhere, lighting up the cave and striking Jenassa on the shoulder. What the…? Now we’ve got fire-breathing spiders? Is that even a thing?!
From behind a rock pillar, an ancient hagraven steps out with her withered hands raised, squawking out another spell. With a slice that beheads the massive arachnid, Jenassa adroitly avoids the next gout of flame and attacks the hagraven, her flashing blades dripping with spider guts and venom. Recovering from my surprise at the appearance of this new enemy, I direct my aim toward the hagraven just as the persisting spider raises its front legs and hisses at me.
Curse these bird-bitches and their repulsive pets! A sudden spike of anger lends speed to my movements as I attack both targets almost at once. I release the envenomed arrow, plugging the hagraven square in the chest just as she starts to raise her arms to cast another spell, and she instantly shrieks as my poison hits her system, causing her to double over in pain. Then with a sweep of my arm, I grab two more arrows from my quiver, dispatching the first at the oncoming spider and sending the second at the fatally crippled witch. It lodges deep in her spine and she falls forward with a jolt, dead before she hits the ground.
Jenassa approaches the water’s edge to rinse off her soiled blades with an expression of deep disgust, while I step over the dead spiders and start looting the remains of the hagraven. Rolling the corpse over with my foot, I start yanking out my arrows along with some undamaged feathers (also known as reagents to us alchemists) when I hear an unexpected clink as something metallic strikes a stone.
Straightening up, I show off my find to Jenassa, watching as her expression changes to one of puzzlement. The key is scratched, rusty, and slightly bent, giving evidence of its having been in use — but looking around, we can’t see anything else in this cave that’s metal, much less any structure sophisticated enough to require a key. Weird. I suppose there could be a chest hidden in the depths of the murky river, but I really don’t want to know what else might be lurking down there. Not to mention that the water is sure to be colder than an ice wolf’s nose, and I don’t intend to die of hypothermia in this desolate hole.
Shrugging her shoulders, Jenassa flicks water off her cleaned blades, sheathes them, and joins me at the stone pillar where the hagraven first appeared. Behind the pillar, the floor slopes upwards, turning into a curved stone ramp. At the top we discover a wide alcove with a large opening that looks out over the water, providing an unobstructed view of the sandy bank we found when we first entered. Any intruder would be easily noticed from up here, with the tripwires and dangling bones providing an extra layer of security. That explains why the hagraven was so quick to see us entering her lair.
Or possibly because I opened my fool mouth and sent loud echoes bouncing all over the cave. But I like the first explanation better.
Splitting up, my wife and I light up our torches and begin searching the area for any hidden chests or other structures that might need a key to open. We find a sleeping area under a rough-and-ready shelter, just enough to protect the sleeper from the occasional drops of water falling from the ceiling, but certainly nothing that could be locked with a key. Of course, it’s possible that the hagraven simply found the key on a previous victim’s corpse before dumping the body in the water — or feeding it to her spider pets. But that wouldn’t explain why she was carrying it around on her person, as if it were something important.
For several minutes, neither Jenassa or I find anything remotely significant, other than finding out more than I really wanted to know about hagraven toilet habits. Then just as I’m ready to give up, I shine my light in a remote corner of the alcove, and make a very interesting discovery.
Waving my torch at Jenassa to get her attention, I show her the lever embedded in the floor, inwardly snickering as her eyebrows shoot up into her hood with surprise. Extinguishing my torch, I wait until she rejoins me before I speak to her in hushed tones.
“What do you think? There’s a secret door around here somewhere. Maybe it reveals the entrance to the hagraven’s pantry where she kept her spider treats.”
My wife grimaces. “I’m fairly certain neither of us would want to see such a thing. You must have noticed that pile of noxious ordure over by the — ”
“Yes.” I cut her off. “And we will never mention it again.”
She chuckles, a low, musical sound that sends melodious echoes resonating throughout the cavern, as if a choir of invisible sprites were playfully laughing at us. It’s an oddly beautiful sound in such a dismal place, and despite the circumstances, both of us can’t help but smile.
As the echoes fade away, we turn our attention once again to the lever in the floor. (Of course there’s no keyhole, but I check for one anyway.) We could just walk away without pulling it, of course — but since we have no other choice but to spend the night in this place, I doubt either of us would sleep a wink, wondering what might come through from the other side of the rough rock wall. Or crawling up from a concealed trapdoor.
With a gesture of resignation, I glance at the lever. Jenassa, reading my mind, nods and drops to a crouch, warily scanning the walls for any sign of an opening. Grasping the rusty iron handle, I prepare to give it a good yank — and nearly impale myself on it as the mechanism slides smoothly in its groove as if freshly oiled. And as expected, part of the cavern wall opens directly in front of us.
I quickly drop to a crouch to join Jenassa, and feel a chill of trepidation as I look through the gap into a much larger space than I anticipated. This is definitely no pantry. It’s massive and well-lit, and there’s nowhere obvious to hide. Anyone passing through this door is going to be spotted immediately.
But there’s nothing else for it. We have to move forward, take our chances, and do our best to deal with any threats we might find on the other side.
Although right now, I’d almost rather investigate a hagraven’s toilet.