The sewers were still dank, slimy and unappealing but Orel felt strangely at home down here, more so after whatever the King had done to him. Shying away from those memories Orel looked around for a distraction from the unbelievable potency the rat monarch had displayed. He settled on look at his friends and tried to gauge their moods.
Jay seemed to be acting like normal, the promise of treasure had perked him back up after they left the Rat King's audience chamber. To the sorcerer it would just be another job, a chance to hone his skills and get rich at the end of it. Morty however was a different story, the bard looked nervous but had a determined glint in his eyes. He'd be focussed on showing the group that even in these dire circumstances he was an asset to the group, not a waste of space. He was probably worrying that they'd blame him entirely for this mess. It was his idea to come down into the sewers after all that led to them being sent on this quest by the Rat King.
Opening his mouth to give Morty some reassurance the rat was distracted by the soft, squeaking of the feral rats milling around their feet. Turning he jumped down into the channel of slimy sewer water without even really thinking about it. He paused, waist deep in the water and looked at the feral rat perched on his shoulder, it was weird being able to understand them. Shaking his head in bemusement he splashed across to the far walkway hauled himself out of the water, "We want this tunnel, it leads to the mine entrance."
His companions waded over to join him, each reacting to having to cross the sewer differently. Morty took his boots off and hung them around his neck, pausing to dry his feet once he was up next to orel. Jay's cheap sandals had long since dissolved so like Orel he just plunged his bare feet into the liquid sludge and each step was accompanied by a grimace. He did take the time to heave his robe up and keep it out of the water, it weighed a ton when wet. Aira who was usually the most fastidious about his appearance just jumped down and walked over resolutely, his eyes watching Orel, he'd been quietly watching him since they left the Rat King. Turning away Orel started down the new tunnel leading his little party deeper underground as the ancient sewer tunnel started to show patches of uncarved rock instead of bricks.
Orel acknowledged Aira as he fell in beside him by squeaking softly as they trudged along,the cleric was quiet for a time before speaking. "I'm not going to ask you what happened so you can relax. I'm guessing whatever he did to you was unpleasant enough you don't want to relive it."
Snorting the rat shook his head, "Unpleasant sort of it was something else, I'm not ready to go into it right now. So ... thanks for keeping your nose out of it cleric."
Flashing a quick grin in his direction the fox shrugged, "I can be tactful, occasionally. I was hoping you'd tell us what our..." he paused, groping for a word uneasily as one of their escort rats stood up on its hind legs and regarded him, "Employer is... I've never heard of that kind of creature before."
Orel considered the fox's request as he examined the tunnel ahead. The neat brickwork was broken in patches, rock and dirt showing through. It was a really old part of the sewer and growing scabbier as the tunnel sloped down. Shaking his head the rat hopped over a hole in the walkway and squeaked his denial of Aira's request.
True to his word the cleric didn't pry, he just nodded and followed after Orel as he led the way. They had to cross to the other side twice more over the next hour, wading over the channel that was now running thick with swirling rain water. There was less sludge and the water was even sort of clear, in a pale brown sort of way. Disgusting but less so than the thick sludge they had been dealing with earlier. The tunnels were growing scabbier, brickwork was missing from whole sections and in some places the sewer looked like it had been carved out of the natural rock beneath the city and then left. Then the walkway stopped being bricks and became a ledge of hard packed dirt that crumbled at the edges.
Eventually the ledge came to an end, the rushing channel of water was all that lay ahead and Orel stopped and looked back at his friends, "We should stop here and rest a bit before going on," he pointed ahead, "We have to wade through the stream to reach the mine entrance."
Looking ahead with distaste Morty sighed and swung his pack off and gingerly sat on it, "This mine is going to be soaked isn't?"
Sitting on the stones, back against the curving wall Orel flicked his naked tail from side to side and nodded approvingly at Jay as the otter just sat on the edge of the walkway. "Probably, but you know we are adventurers, getting filthy is part of the job. The big money is in fighting beasts, killing monsters, blood and mud not just being errand boys for fat merchant smiths."
"Well yes, perhaps there is some merit in what you say," Aira muttered as he cast a spell and filled a bowl with water with which he could wash his hands, "But the fat merchants won't hire a bunch of mud smeared ruffians, there is nothing wrong with appearing neat when going for a job."
"Never said there wasn't," Orel muttered, "Wear your fancy togs for the meeting with the employee. Just you know when we actually leave to do a job maybe wear something you don't care about. That's half of why we are going to a coal mine, the King was amused by my memories of you and Morty and all your frippery."
"It could read your memories?" Morty gasped, "What is he?"
"I'm not talking about him,!" Orel snapped and jumped down into the stream of running water and stared off distractedly down the tunnel.
Aira shrugged at Jay and handed out some beef jerky to the dog and otter, "Let's leave him alone for now, whatever happened was clearly unpleasant." standing up the fox made as if to adjust his habit then just gave up, it was already ruined, "I suspect this mine is going to be unpleasant."
Gathering his rapier and lute Morty flashed the cleric a cheeky grin, before swallowing his jerky hurriedly, "Can't be as bad as that haunted cloister at Far-Dell Bridge I remember you getting a bit up close and personal with that plague skeleton. Besides it'll be an actual adventure, not just a boring courier mission."
"If you say so," Aira replied stiffly, "that plague skeleton had been a noble priest once. I was only trying to recall his former self. So Orel where are we going next?" Aira asked as he clambering into the channel of cold, swiftly flowing water.
"We've got a quarter hour walk to the mine entrance,” Orel said soberly, he lowered his hand and placed the feral rat that had been guiding them back on the ledge. He then squeaked at them and the large creature waddled off back the way they had come, “Be careful when we get closer, the water runs straight into the mine and could carry you off if you slip. We need to climb up to an old side tunnel we can’t use the main shaft."
Stepping into the water, his robe tucked into his belt Jay grinned excitedly, "At least this will be an adventure, more exciting than transporting cargo."
The trip down the turbulent stream was unpleasant in all manner of ways, the water was cold, dirty and every now and then some large item of best forgotten matter swept past. It was with some relief that Orel clambered out of the water and up onto a rocky ledge that cut back at an angle away from the mainstream. Ahead the water poured into a dark, rough cut hole and plunged into the main shaft of the mine with a thundering roar.
Pulling his tail out of the water Orel leant down to help pull Jay up then shuffled backwards into the side tunnel to give the others space to join them on the ledge.
"So now what?" Morty asked as he sat on a rock and started to dry his feet, "Rat King is just abandoning us here?"
"We go up this tunnel," Orel gestured behind him, "It avoids the main tunnels that are full of water and winds down to the next level through an old gallery."
"Fair enough, what then?"
"We're on our own after that, the King has never got a minion any further then that, he believes there are only five levels and we'll likely find the Rogue Stone at the bottom."
"And if we try to go back?" Aira asked pointing up the tunnel down which they had just waded, "We could make a break for the surface and forget about this."
"You can try if you want," Orel replied with a shrug, "He'll be watching and his swarm will eat you before you get anywhere near the surface."
Aira sighed, "I thought as much, well then let's be off," he gave his tail one last squeeze to try and get the water out of it then set off down the side tunnel. Orel hurried to join him whilst Morty and Jay brought up the rear. They paused long enough for Orel to activate his lantern, it was a small, wood and iron thing with tight shutters. Though the source of its light was a small chunk of smoky quartz that had been ensorcelled to glow.
Aira frowned at it, "That's a thief's lantern isn't it?"
"Of course not," Orel said defensively.
"Why else would a crystal lantern need shutters."
"Because it didn't always have a magic crystal in it, I paid good money for this crystal. I didn’t see any point in wasting money on a new lantern to put it in."
"Oh give it a rest, he's a rogue! You do know what that means yes?" Jay snapped as he shook his staff and ignited the tip with a pale white orb, "Lets go do this."
The first tunnel was cramped, only Jay could walk freely, Orel's ears continuously brushed the ceiling whilst Morty and Aira had to crouch to get anywhere. The walls where a mixture of basalt streaked with veins of coal, the air was saturated with moisture and the humidity slowly rose as they walked deeper. "Didn't spend much time on this tunnel did they," Jay muttered darkly as his staff struck an outcropping of coal in the ceiling, dusting the ground ahead of him, "What was it for?"
"No clue," Morty replied from behind the otter, "But it's been heading up for the last few minutes."
"This might be why," Orel called from ahead, he motioned the others to join him and carefully sidled out of the way. The tunnel opened out into a roughly hewn cavern, the centre was covered in the rotting remains of a wooden platform with dilapidated machinery positioned to one side. Aira cautiously edged past the rat and peered through a hole in the wood.
"What's it for then?" Morty asked as he pressed himself against the wall next to Orel, reluctant to get any closer to the clearly unstable platform.
"I can just about make out the main tunnel and all the water pouring over the edge,” Aira called back to them as he knelt on all fours and stuck his head through the hole. “I think this must have been some contraption for ascending and descending the shaft, see the pulley system?" Aira waved a paw toward a block of mouldering wood and metal.
"That's nice, which way do we go from here?" Jay called from the back, "I hope you're not suggesting we absail down a mine shaft that has it's own waterfall."
Orel raised the lantern and edged around the platform, "Fuck no, there is another tunnel..." he crouched and wormed his way through a crack in the stone. It was a narrow, low path that none of them could hope to stand up in. But it wound down in a long spiral and Orel followed it confidently. The biggest drawback however was that the walls were clammy; rivulets of moisture ran down them and the four friends had to squirm their way between the rocks brushing against them constantly. The party followed Orel, with much grumbling, the odd curse and banged head but they followed! Damp, slimy, cramped and uncomfortable they squirmed their way deeper into the earth.
After twenty minutes or so of unpleasant crawling the party squeezed their way around a right-angled bend and clambered out into a slanting tunnel. It looked like the end of a tunnel, with pick marks visible in the coal in their lantern light and was mercifully dry. With his bandana tied over his muzzle Orel pushed on, the roof was higher but in places the walls narrowed. Jay got his staff stuck twice which extinguished it's small light meaning they had to stop and wait for him to re-cast the spell. It was indeed dry but the group soon found that this was not really a blessing, with coal dust on every surface and their bodies soaked they soon started to pick up a disgusting layer of grime. By the time the passage joined a larger, regular mine tunnel they were all somewhat of a mess.
Free of the confining passageway Orel set the lantern on a rock and took a long drink from his canteen to clear his throat. The others followed suit though Aira made a half hearted attempt to brush the coal dust out of his fur. After their dip in the sewer channel followed by passing through the slimy tunnels the dust had formed a black ooze. It was impossible to brush out and clung to fur and cloth stubbornly, it wasn’t going to shift for anything other than soap and hot water. Muttering and swearing Aira pulled off his habit, he started trying to fold it so he could put it away but the fabric stuck to itself and hung heavy and shapeless between his hands. With a curse the fox threw it to the ground in disgust and slumped against the wall, his mail shirt clinking against the rocks.
The others weren't much better off, everyone was smeared with slimy ooze. Orel now looked like black rat and he'd given up on wearing his sash over his torso and just tied it back and forth around his waist. Morty's usual vibrant red mohawk was a lank, greasy black colour and his insultingly flamboyant clothing was drab, smeared and probably ruined. Jay was the least affected, his robe was heavy, he'd managed to keep it dry and he had clearly used some sorcery as he just gave it a firm shake and the dust cascaded off around his feet. It was by no means perfectly clean but it was better than being covered in black ooze. His exposed fur hadn’t escaped however, it was as black and grimy as the others.
"I think... I hate this job," Morty muttered, wiping his paw ineffectually against his trousers, "I mean... really hate. Who hides things in a flooded coal mine of all places."
"Just remember this is your fault," Jay growled, "You're the one who took us into the sewers before checking there wasn't an insanely powerful Rat King lurking in the dark."
"How was I supposed to know! I didn’t even know a monster like him could exist," the dog barked back.
"Look let’s just get this over with, we need to find a way to go deeper," Orel waved a paw at the tunnels leading away from them, "We're kinda on our own down here... the sooner we find this thing the sooner we can get out of here."
"Well no point standing here then is there," Aira picked up the lantern, cast it from side to side to shine light down the tunnels, "Which one leads toward the main shaft?" Orel pointed and Aira walked in the other direction, mail shirt jingling loudly now it was no longer muffled beneath his habit.
What they found however was more coal dust, stone, puddles of icky black water they had to splash and on one occasion wade through. Every tunnel was nearly identical, grey or brown basalt with remnants of the coal seam that had been hacked out of the earth. The tunnels were irregular, the ceiling height varied wildly and the wooden support struts were in varying different states.
The only thing they found that was in anyway different from abandoned mine tunnels was the tunnel filled with horrendously foul smelling slimes. About eight of them attacked, flopping, wriggling and oozing their way out of the tunnel, hurling globs of sticky goo at their faces. It wasn't a hard fight, the slimes were not that hard to dispatch there were just a lot of them. A couple of lucky shots smothered the lantern with goo blocking the ensorcelled quartz's light. But between Jay's light spell and Aira's prayers there was enough magic to see byl. Morty and Orel had to wade into their midsts however and lay into them in meleé which was no easy task. They had to literally hack and smash the slime into pieces until it stopped moving. Their outer membrane was tough, their goo slightly acidic and if you didn't smash them enough you just wound up with two slightly smaller creatures attacking you.
Aira's armour prayers and sanctuary ward against acid helped protect them but the dog and rat quickly wound up coated in gunk. They did a pretty good job of smashing the slimy monsters into pieces though one or two got past but Aira's mace splattered them. Jay also got a goodly number; using a scroll he peppered a group of reinforcements oozing up the tunnel with a magic missile spell that exploded once lodged inside them. When it finally fell silent and it seemed nothing else would come slithering out of the darkness the party retreated out of the dangerous tunnel and regrouped.
Washing the acidic goo off Morty and Orel was a challenge, they had to do it before the protection Aira had cast wore off. After a brief discussion the two knelt side by side and Aira used summon water to give them an impromptu cold shower. It worked though Morty grumbled a bit about a lack of prestidigitation spells on the part of their mage.
"I'm not wasting time and energy on a spell to clean up your clothes after battle," shaking his head he grinned at Orel who was tying a fresh bandana around his head, "I'm beginning to agree with our ratty friend here, we need to maybe focus on the job and less on appearances, when in the field."
"Told you so," the rat squeaked as he ran his clawed fingers through his damp fur, spiking it up in all manner of interesting ways, "I've had an idea of where to go, this little shower gave me an idea."
"By all means lead on," Aira sighed, "You're the one with a sense for underground navigation after all."
It was a familiar path Orel chose, one that led toward the rumbling roar of the main shaft. He stopped just short of the opening peered ahead before sighing. "I think... this level doesn't go down, not properly. All the tunnels end after a few hundred feet. I bet they mined out the coal here but soon had to go deeper to get to the real seam."
"Fuck... no way," Jay protested, levelling his staff at the cascade of water ahead, "No fucking way are we climbing down that."
"We might not have to," Aira mused staring ahead, "Wait here," he took the lantern and moved ahead, vanishing in the darkness leaving the party huddled closer around their remaining light. Just as Orel was about to start worrying Aira emerged out the darkness and grinned at them. His mail coat glistened with a layer of water and his fur was soaked but otherwise he was unharmed.
"There is a trail that runs around the outside of the main shaft, we can walk down it. I suspect it was the original way down before they installed the elevator platform."
"Show us the way then," Jay sighed, "Let’s get this over with."
"Yay! Then we can go back up to the sewers!" Morty grumbled then yelped as Orel twatted him around the head, "Heeeeey come on it's not all my fault!" grumbling the canine followed his friends out onto the spray drenched path Aira had found. It curved away to their left and with a feeling of trepidation Morty moved after Jay along the narrow path deeper into the earth.