The shifting shadows within the cave became imagined monsters.
Henrik started, jostling his lantern. Which made the shadows jump again. Which scared him again. Even his echoed gasp sounded to his panicky ears like a cavern crawler inching closer on its hundred scuttling claws.
“They don’t really have a hundred legs,” Henrik whispered to himself. Even six-foot-long giant centipedes didn’t really have “centi-” legs. Scores maybe, but not a hundred. “Get a hold of yourself, Mazeweaver.”
He swept the surrounding cavern with his lantern light again. Irregular limestone walls, a scattering of drippy stalactites, a small stand of knee-high stalagmites. Like the shrubbery his wife tended in front of their modest home.
Home... Would he ever see Margorie or that cramped little luxury shack again?
“Get a hold of yourself!” he echoed. “You’re not lost. You’re Henrik Mazeweaver, for Zyurr’s sake!”
Of course, Mazeweaver was not his actual surname. His parents were not “Mazeweavers,” they were Branigans. But how would the master of the mining and minerals guild ever be thought of as a hero with a name like Henrik Branigan? He was renowned for his instincts and natural affinity for earth, gemstones, and precious metals. The man could practically smell a new vein! And his ability to blindly navigate the treacherous traps of cave-realms was the stuff of legends.
“Bah!” he scoffed. “Mazeweaver, my ass. You’re lost, Henrik.”
He peered into the light of his lantern, stinging his eyes to measure how much oil was left to burn. Of course, he’d brought several vials, but he’d also planned on being home hours ago.
“Not lost,” he denied, “just exploring.
“Just explorr-ring...” he singsonged.
When he gazed around the gloomy cavern again he saw nothing but a blur of red fog, the aftereffect of staring into the light. Luckily for him, his peripheral vision was still intact: he was able to see something move on the ceiling ten feet above him.
Henrik jerked his head, cocked his mace arm, and stumbled a bit. Now the red blur was between him and the black space above. Had his eyes just played tricks on him again, or...?
A chitinous, segmented beast snaked down from the darkness!
Gravity dropped it through the haze in his vision, right on top of him. The monster’s pincer-like mandibles locked around his helmet, its sinuous body wrapped around him, and scores of two-foot-long insect legs latched on where they could. Henrik screamed and fell to the stony floor.
The light fell from his grasp too, rolled and flared as the remaining oil inside spilled and caught fire.
But that was the least of his mortal worries! The iron helm wiggled on his head as the cavern crawler wrestled to devour him.
In a burst of strength, Henrik exploded from the beast’s grasp, slipped out of his helmet, and scurried backward away from his attacker. A hundred tiny claws (it certainly felt like a hundred!) scratched his skin and scrambled for purchase against his iron breastplate. And never did he lose the multi-flanged mace clamped firmly in his right hand. The mace struck now to cover his retreat and smashed a hole in the creature’s exoskeletal belly.
The double stingers of its poisonous tail clanged against his armored flank. He swung backward with a panicky yelp, knocked the two-pronged tail away, then bashed it with the flanged mace against the cave floor, again and again.
Henrik paused, huffing and puffing for breath.
The lead half of the elongated creature separated, dragging sticky strands of bug guts as it crawled away for safety. The wicked beast had changed its mind about its meal and was trying to scuttle away with what was left of itself.
“Oh no, you don’t!” he cried, spittle flying from his frenzied mouth. “You messed with Henrik Mazeweaver, monster! Now you get his mace!”
Several more savage blows finished the crawler, leaving a mess of fractured exoskeleton and glistening intestines.
Henrik stood catching his breath, bent over and panting, for what felt like several minutes. The smoke that stung his nose barely registered. Then he chuckled to himself. “They laughed at old Mazeweaver... going into the caves with all his... expensive armor on.” He tapped his lost helm where it lay on the floor with his now gory mace. “But are they brave enough to come exploring the depths? No! And this...” He knocked at his breastplate with his left hand. “‘You come into the dark prepared,’ I told them. Ha!”
With the safe reach of his weapon, Henrik dragged the lost lantern from the spread of burning oil on the cave floor. That flicking firelight wouldn’t last long and wasn’t much good to him as it was. After allowing time for the residue to burn off and the lantern to cool, he fished a new vial of oil from his pouch and lit the lantern anew.
“Now that the excitement’s over, I’m back where I left off: thrice-damned and lost!”
Henrik shined his light at each of his two options. “I came from that way,” he reasoned aloud. “And it came from this way.” Deliberately going into a potential nest of cavern crawlers sounded like an incredibly bad idea. “Although... the sticky beasties tend to roam where they can find prey, and there’s always more food toward the surface, rather than deeper beneath it. By that logic, I should go toward the source of the crawler... So, I guess we’re going this way. Stay alert!” he told his trusty mace.
Mazeweaver did just that: wove through the rocky labyrinth, crawled low, climbed high, and slid sideways, following a trickle of water that he reasoned might be coming from the sun-blessed surface.
It wasn’t long before he discovered a large open chamber, at least thirty feet wide, its ceiling outside the reach of the lantern light, with smooth walls and right angles. And the noise of babbling water was stronger here.
“Manmade for sure! Or Dwarf-made, more likely. I’m on the right track. I can almost taste Margorie’s biscuits and gravy now. I don’t care if it’s breakfast time or not when I find my way out of here, that’s what we’re eating!”
A few yards further into the darkened chamber revealed an irregular carpet of thick moss, or perhaps furry black mold. Maybe both.
Henrik moved carefully, slowly, with his lantern held in front of him and his mace arm cocked at the ready. Then he stopped.
His feeble light etched out shapes several yards ahead. Human shapes. Or human-like, anyway; could be hobgoblins, especially tall kobolds, or Zyurr-knew-what.
His heart began pounding. His lungs sped up. His fingers tightened on the haft of his weapon. He licked his dry lips while his forehead broke out into drops.
Still, those shapes in the dark ahead did not move.
“Hello?” he whispered. Then a little louder: “Hello there?”
No response. No movement.
Not real, he thought. Imagining things in the stalagmites again.
Henrik relaxed just slightly and shuffled forward.
The light revealed more of the chamber’s secret occupants. They were man-like, certainly, but statues. Just statues. Eight of them. Some standing, some kneeling, more than one with hands or weapons held up in a defensive posture.
“Creepy,” Henrik breathed. He nudged one with his mace, tapped another. “Solid stone.” Then he leaned in closer, felt the texture with his guild master’s sensitive fingertips. “Not limestone, though. Or anything else I would expect to find here. I’m not quite sure what kind of stone this is...”
That was perplexing. He was Henrik Mazeweaver, after all! There wasn’t a rock that the god Zyurr squatted out into the world that he couldn’t identify.
Henrik shined his light close, really scrutinized a couple statues. The details were fantastic, the faces so real. Even the clothes carved into them...
“Pilgrims,” he gasped in awe. He ran his hand over the chest of one stone person, feeling the design on what looked like leather armor carved from unknown earth. It was the familiar symbol of a small bird with a pointy beak and a long, stiff tail standing within a circle: the icon of the Wren, fabled hero from the Hand of Six and legendary patron of the city Overlook. The Wren, who disappeared over two-hundred years ago along with his retinue of warrior-priest followers, known as The Pilgrims.
“By the Nine Remaining Gods, where am I?”