Steadfast despite Thardin's best efforts at excavation, the black shining rock pile before him would not be moved. He looked back at Ingrid who was panting from the effort of her spell. It was simply too much debris to clear. She shook her head at him and sat down dejectedly. Thardin was reeling mentally from the shock of the event that had suddenly stymied their whole rescue attempt. He held his torch up higher trying to get a glimpse farther into the tunnel.
"Come. Let's keep moving."
Ingrid nodded and he helped her to her feet, she fixed her hat and the sound of her light feet soon patted along behind his boot-clanks on the dusty rock floor. Musty cavern air wafted thick and cool around them. Water still dripped down as they worked deeper underground making the rock shiny as the orange glow touched and illuminated them.
"Thardin. . . Would they have. . . been able to escape that rock collapse?"
"I Don't know."
"Well you ought to act like you care a bit more." Ingrid grew cross suddenly.
"We can't help them."
Her tension deflated and silence ended his statement resolutely. She sighed. Small black insects scurried away from the lightsource and the noise of the two intruders in this underground world. Ingrid studied Thardin's axe, slung over his back its green and black and gold metal-work glinted like the rest of the cave and the weapon itself was nearly as long as she was. The cavern seemed to grow taller and wider as she walked. She followed Thardin as he edged around towering pillars of rock formed by ancient stalagmites. He was so single minded. She mused over this in a hurt way. But then she thought how little she had cared for anyone at all before all of this happened. What had changed about her?
Thardin stopped her suddenly. "Do you see light up ahead?"
She peered over his brutish shoulder. "There's been mighty spells cast in this cavern; I can feel the magic trapped here." She said quietly.
Thardin scowled and moved towards it. He thought about the Illyrian princess. He found he thought of very little else lately. . . But this was his whole reason for setting out. This cave system would take them to the dungeons of Castle Norhook where the tyrant Gregorio had imprisoned the woman to whom Thardin had sworn to defend at the cost of his life: Princess Theresa.
The blue glow could be seen emnating strongly from around the corner of a small arched entranceway. "She's close, Thardin. I smell her soul." Ingrid wrinkled her nose behind him. . . But something didn't feel right. Thardin was unhesitant, he dropped down from the low ledge where they stood and made a bee-line for the blue light. As he met the small passageway the glow was pulsing slowly and a faint and steady hum droned from within.
Thardin enterred first. A vast, dome shaped underground cavern met his eyes, totally illuminated by the blue light of towering underground fungus. spores floated about in the air like tiny snowflakes and water dripped from the edges of spire-like mushrooms as well as the walls themselves. Thick carpeting of blue moss covered the ground that squished when he stepped on it. Across the forest of underground flora he spotted a narrow, but enormous stone staircase that extended from the center of the room to an aged, dark-wood doorway cut into the living rock half-way up the lichen-encrusted walls.
"There." He pointed it out to Ingrid who was glancing around the fungal undergrowth warily "The door to the dungeon."
"Thardin this place is--"
"Come; we're almost there." He walked quickly down a small clear path that skirted the outside edge of the room for some length and then turned towards the center. The thickest parts of the grotto were completely obscuring and he soon lost sight of the staircase in the dense fungus, but his sense of direction told him correctly he was headed towards it.
Ingrid looked behind them, frowning at the fungus, one of which, about as tall as her seemed to shiver as she passed dropping a snow-like sprinkling of spores to the ground slowly. She looked ahead, walking quickly to keep up with Thardin's pace. The room was cold, it seemed. More of the mushrooms rustled. A voice could be heard from the door now. It called, faint, wavering, and feminine "Ohh. . . Is someone there? Please, rescue me. . . "
Thardin perked up, drawing his axe from his back. "I'm coming Theresa!" he roared, breaking the chilly silence of the lush primeval cave, charging off for the staircase as a great jet of air and moisture ripped from the ground across the room like a geyser in response to this.
"Thardin, wait!" Ingrid called. she flitted after him on the moss path. legs kicking up behind her as she ran. The soil groaned throughout the whole cavern and still her partner clambered hastilly up the slippery steps. She stepped onto the first wet stone behind him.
The whole fungus forest shook for a moment as the beast became fully awake. Lifting itself from the ground, the core mushrooms of the forest suddenly swayed and rose high above the rest. A face appeared reproachful of those that had awoken it, sunken, wet-weed-bearded, with phosphorescent eyes. It opened its mouth and groaned bellowingly. An elemental so ancient that it had forgotten its own name. Ingrid shook at the sight of it, and Thardin who was halfway up the steps turned and stared. The beast stretched its sinuous blue-green arms up above its head and the twin geysers of cold steam erupted from its nostrils. each arm was topped by a seething myriad of tentacles. The blue eyes fixed themselves on Ingrid and in a flash the arms plunged forward and the tentacles wrapped around her as she tried to turn and run.
"Thardin!" She screamed, her eyes locking with his as she was lifted up into the air.
Thardin moved quickly, dashing down the steps, readying his axe, but the voice rooted him in place. "Oh, someone please. . . I've been captive for so long." it floated towards him from the door and he hesitated. . . He was so close. . . he looked up again and saw Ingrid's face as she screamed again. It pierced and resonated in the cavern and shook him from his stupor.
"NO!" He roared charging toward the beast again It was immensely larger than the axe-weilding warrior. But Thardin leaped ferociously, swinging his axe hard and digging it into the soft fleshy thigh of the monstrous creature. It screeched in pain, staggering backwards on its stubby, tree-like legs. Thardin latched on and began to climb the knotty, earthen body.
Ingrid grimaced as the tentacles squeezed her midrift. Her hands glowed with a sharp orange flame and she pointed at the beast's forearm which erupted in a magical conflagration. It screamed in pain a second time as its back ran up against the cavern wall, bending the mushroom stalks that grew from its shoulders and the tentacles unfurled, dropping Ingrid roughly onto the cap of another large mushroom. She grunted, landing face-down and rolling almost to the edge.
Thardin weilded his axe like an icepick pulling himself up the monster's chest. It spurted blue fluid from every swing and scowling furiously it swung its unburnt arm toward him tentacles ready to rip Thardin from his chest and crush him. Ingrid acted quickly, pushing herself upright and pointing a finger at the arm. "Xivash!" she yelled and a black shadow-shape like a razor shot from her hand and sliced deep into the beast's wrist which exploded with thick blue juices.
Thardin pulled himself up onto the shoulder of the behemoth and steadying himself on the swaying creature arced back his axe and burried it deep into its head. The axe dug deep into the soft flesh of the earth-elemental.
Ingrid fired another jet of flame into the creature's chest that began to engulf the screaming giant as Thardin ripped out his axe and lept off onto another mushroom. The beast swayed for a moment, arms stiff tentacles writhing in pain. The eyes flickered and went dull and it teetered forward falling slowly to the ground as its tentacles dropped off one by one. Thardin eased off the edge of the mushroom and dropped down onto the fallen monster's back, walking towards the base of Ingrid's fungal perch.
She looked over the edge at him. He stretched his arms out and smiled faintly. Nodding, she let herself hang by her hands from the edge of the mushroom, first, Ingrid let go and allowed herself to be caught and looked Thardin in the face and frowned again. "I suppose your expecting a thank you." She muttered.
"Not really." Thardin set her on her feet and made for the staircase again.
Ingrid looked after him, still panting a bit from the exertion, and fixing her hat, moved to follow him towards the gently tempting voice. . . She hated the smell of that soul.