Sounds of rushing water greeted the pair as they made it past the gate that ultimately barred the path between Majula and the lands beyond. Nabiki had taken the morose knight's advice and led her newfound compatriot down along the cliff side and into what might have once been a guard post. The way down was lined with broken and crumbling pillars, and eventually stonework laid into the mountainside. It might have once been a cavern in the distant past, but the hand of mankind had laid order, brick by brick.
Despite the protective clothing that both wore, there was a chill to the air that caught with each breath. Nabiki's leather boots slid on the slick stones underfoot, echoing in the dim interior as they searched for the means to gain access to the forest. But, thankfully, they didn't have to look far, as they came upon two solid gates set into the farthest wall. "Looks like the same kind of door the statue was blocking," Nabiki remarked, grateful for the light of the torch that Benhart had brought along.
The big man nodded, "That means this here should do the trick," he pointed the flame at a handle set into the stonework near the door. "You want to give it a go?"
Nabiki eyed the wide handle, "You've got the light," she cracked her knuckles and put both hands on the thick switch, giving it an experimental tug, to little effect. "Heavy," she grunted, planting one foot on the wall for support as she leaned back, straining to budge the mechanism. "Who built this," she spit out between tugs, and was rewarded with a loud click coming from within the wall as the handle slid toward her from its housing.
"Never doubted you," Benhart chuckled as the gate began sliding upward to reveal a much darker passage beyond.
"The next one is all yours, big guy," the leather clad woman said as she took a moment to shake off the ache in her shoulders. Beyond the gate, she could hear the sound of dripping water, and the chill was more pronounced. "This better be leading out."
"Aye, though the work might do you a bit of good," Benhart smiled beneath his helm as he headed forward, pushing back the gloom with the help of the flickering flame. "A stiff breeze might well send you flying into the sky, and I'd be without a partner."
The young woman just shook her head, passing beneath the gate as it began to slide shut once more. "I prefer to keep my figure, if it's all the same to you," she paused, pressing at one of her arms. "Could stand a little improvement, I suppose, if I'm going to be swinging this blade around."
"That's half the battle," the heavyset man replied sagely as they continued on down the sloping path. Eventually, the source of the dripping came into view as the tunnel widened, walls giving way to natural rock formations and an underground pool of water that flowed from elsewhere in the cave.
They crossed a rickety bridge over the water, and found the tunnel curving around past the pool toward a point of bright light in the distance. "Think that is the way," Benhart asked, gesturing to the far off light source.
"It's going to have to be, unless you plan on taking a swim," Nabiki eyed the slowly flowing water with distain. It was cold enough in the cave to begin with, and she didn't relish a dip for no reason.
"Onward it is then," the sword carrying man said with more cheer in his voice than the prospect warranted. Of course, the alternative path was a sobering thought, and one he likely would rather avoid as well. "Much as I could use a bracing soak, I'm sure the opportunity will arise again and in more agreeable surroundings."
Nabiki shook her head at his optimism, which he seemed to at least be realistic about. A dank cavern wasn't her idea of suitable bathing accommodations either. Besides, she couldn't even see into the water, and there was no telling what assorted company an intrepid bather might find lurking in the depths. "Come on, let's go. Hopefully, it's warmer wherever this is taking us."
"Aye, I'll second that," the torch bearer said, picking his way along the slick rocks that littered the path they'd chosen. The stones were negotiable, and soon smoothed out into a proper path that had been hewn right into the rock, either by the underground river shifting course, or more likely a lot of human time and effort, given the gated ruin they'd just passed through.
Eventually, the bright light grew in size, until they were close enough to make out what it was, an exit to the caverns leading outside. The flow of water was louder as they stepped into the sunlight, taking a moment to adjust to the change from the nearly dark caves. It was as Saulden said, Nabiki realized from the landscape, which was green with moss covered stones, and bountiful foliage. A lush woodland, long removed from the influence of burgeoning civilization.
The cave mouth opened alongside a shallow coursing river, the sound which had been echoing the whole while, now in plain sight. Along the river, a wide bank curved around to the left, hugging a wooded hillside too steep to climb. The far bank was just as impassable, leaving the only recourse to follow the meandering river.
Here, the sunlight was ample, though filtered through the thin canopy of foliage overhead. The result was dappled shade, which flickered and wavered along the ground as a mild breeze rustled the top of the trees high above. That very same shade acted as natural camouflage Nabiki discovered, her eyes nearly skipping over a very important detail as she stood marveling at the picturesque landscape. "What the hell is that," she hissed, grabbing at the fur ringed armor around Benhart's shoulders, tugging to get his attention.
Benhart kept quiet as he spotted what had alarmed the young woman. It was standing nearly in the middle of the river, looking so much as a hefty gray boulder, or easily mistaken as such if it weren't slowly rising up and down, expanding and contracting with long slow heavy breaths. The beast was easily twice the size of the swordsman, in girth and height. It was hunched over, facing away from the duo, thankfully.
Even from a distance, he could just make out a terrible crunching sound, and soon enough the behemoth moved one of its slab-like arms, tossing away a chunk of metal that glistened red and wet in the few shafts of sunlight playing across the surface of the water. "We should go, while it's occupied," he said out of the corner of his mouth, lest anything louder disturb the ponderous bulk from its meal.
Hand tight on the dagger at her waist, Nabiki nodded, more than fine with the suggestion. Thankful for the supple leather boots, she crept along the embankment watching for any sign that the beast might stir.
As they reached the beginning of the curve in the river, she could make out more of the gargantuan bulk's features, catching it in profile. It became apparent then, how even nearby they'd escaped the thing's peripheral vision. Engaged as it was, chewing into what had probably once been an armor clad human torso, the creature's single cyclopean eye was closed in concentration as it teased out whatever scraps it desired.
Loathsome as the sight was, the Japanese woman found familiarity in the beast's appearance, more akin to a bipedal hippopotamus than anything else. She drew little to no comfort from the mental comparison, especially given its meal of choice.
Breathing a sigh of relief as they rounded the curve, still cognizant of the threat to their rear, the pair's caution ultimately led to them walking right into danger of a different sort. Benhart's sword was in hand sooner than Nabiki could do more than give a startled gasp upon nearly running smack into a group of figures, all human to outward appearances.
The quartet stirred at the interruption, two rising from what had to be uncomfortable seated positions amid an upturned root jutting from the bank, and the others merely standing slack jawed. All four of the figures were clad in quilted armor, in various states of disarray. The best looking of the bunch would have passed for a derelict in more civilized times. All bore graying bloated flesh, and fixed the two unwitting intruders with cataract white gazes.
"Hollows," the swordsman bit out, swinging his blade before the first decrepit soldier had the chance to do more than stumble forward on one stained and worn out boot. The glowing blade whistled through the air, shearing a great furrow in the chest of the undead figure, knocking it spinning to the ground with the force of the blow. That succeeded in riling up the remaining trio, two of whom were armed with rusty hatchets, while the last was barehanded but not seeming to care as it flexed bony fingers in anticipation of rending the duo limb from limb should it get the chance.
Roaring inarticulately, the second hollow charged, axe high in hand as it leapt forward with all its weight bearing down to chop at the helmeted warrior. Benhart stepped back nimbly for a man his size, narrowly avoiding a blow that buried the head of the axe into the soft loam of the bank. Taking advantage of the opening, the great blue blade hummed through the air a second time, as its wielder thrust it into the exposed head and shoulder of the axe man.
For her part, Nabiki drew steel to defend herself from the advance of the other two hollows, moving to the side to keep the undead bumping into one another as they ambled toward her. The one holding the axe apparently grew tired of his fellow's perceived ineptitude and shoved blindly at the unarmed hollow, sending it rolling down the embankment to fall into the river with a splash.
"Shit," Nabiki winced, not willing to risk a glance over her shoulder to see if the great beast had noticed the commotion. The possibility hammered at her heart, and she elected to finish her foe off before worse came. The axe that whipped at her chest was parried with a stiff arm as she slid inside the hollow's swing, leading with her dagger aimed at its unguarded throat. Even with the rotting cloth armor, she didn't want to trust her fate to strength that might not be up to the task of penetrating into the thing's gut. Assuming that such a wound would prove fatal to decayed flesh in the first place, though Benhart's sword seemed to have no issue felling the former humans.
Clattering to the ground from loose fingers, the falling axe gave some indication as to the effectiveness of her chosen target, and the hollow rolled off Nabiki's shoulder as it too collapsed from the grievous wound she'd inflicted. Three sets of souls floated into the air, the departed bodies collapsed lifeless once more as sharp blades did their job. The third hollow floundered in the water, almost righting itself before a dark shadow eclipsed the shaded sun. A chest thumping roar split the air, signaling the ire of the roused beast, as it thundered through the ankle deep water with ease, layers of rotund flesh shuddering as it trampled over the hapless soldier, rendering it a stain on the riverbed in an instant.
"Might be able to outrun it," Benhart shouted, as the beast was already rounding on the surviving pair of interlopers. Clearly it had no qualms mashing anything and anyone that entered its territory, be they friend or foe. The swordsman felt a hint of sweat trickle down his brow as a single fist sized eye alit on his person, and the beast's wide fleshy maw trembled with another bellow. "Shite, the beastie is quick on its toes," he said, rolling to the side away from the water as the Ogre thundered out of the river, clearing the space between before the man could do more to react.
The ponderous weight of the creature smashed into the steeper hill before it could stop its gathered momentum. Stunned, the cyclopean behemoth fell back onto its rear, mildly dazed from the impact.
Nabiki was already dashing toward the beast before it could recover. Seated as it was, she came at it from behind, planting her knees on its shoulders and steadying herself on the broad neck, all so she could drive the dagger hilt deep into the Ogre's unguarded eye. The move sent the thing into a frenzy, as it thrashed about, eventually rolling flat on its back. Luckily, the sudden commotion tossed the slight woman clear off.
Hitting the ground hard, Nabiki managed to limply slide down toward the water, only suffering a few bruised ribs for her effort. The dagger was still lodged where she'd left it, as she found while coaxing the air back into her lungs. Coughing, she got halfway to her feet to see the swordsman chopping mightily at the floundering animal as it tried to dig out the offending metal from its head. Thrashing about as it was, the handle of the lost weapon made for a tempting target, one that Benhart struck with the flat of his heavy heirloom blade, driving Nabiki's weapon past the pulpy mess of ocular nerves and into the recesses of the beast's skull.
The thrashing stopped almost immediately upon contact, and only a few tremors and muscle spasms remained as a huge blob of beast soul slid free of the mortal coil, splitting in the quiet forest air to drift unerringly toward the two victors.
"Well, this old heart's beating like a drum," the swordsman bent over to retrieve the errant dagger from its grisly sheath. "Nothing like a bit of afternoon exercise to get the blood pumping proper." He wiped off most the gore from the blade, and went over to check on the winded woman.
Weapon retrieved, Nabiki finally stood up of her own accord, and cast about the river, making sure there were no further threats lying in wait. "That was dumb luck, and we both know it. But, it's done now, and I'd rather things turn out the way they did, than have that damn thing chasing us all over the forest." Taking a moment's breather, she cleaned her blade off in the running water, drying it on one of the hollow's quilted shirts for good measure before sheathing the blade properly at her hip. "You know, I don't blame Saulden for not wanting to come here."
"Aye, and it seems we've still got quite the ways to go," Benhart replied, as he pointed to a moss and vine encrusted tower on the far side of the river. Just up the way, they could see a wooden footbridge spanning the shallow waters, one that led right to the base of their supposed destination. High above, even reaching over the walls of the top of the tower, the canopy of a huge tree hung ominously, as good a landmark as anything else. "We should go before we start to lose light."
"It actually gets dark here?" Nabiki asked as they crossed the bridge, and clambered along the twisting slope that led to the base of the tower.
"In some places it seems to," Benhart said, shouldering the heavy blade, as he too anxiously watched the top of the tower for further sign of trouble. They reached the end of the path upward, and found that the base of the tower was open to the elements, a hole caved into the wall, just big enough for them both to enter side by side. It was dim in the interior, but empty aside from a few busted wooden crates, and a ladder secured to the wall that led upward through another gap in the masonry overhead. Sunlight streamed down, filtered through the hole and the treetop they could just make out through the high gap. "After you," the swordsman insisted, "in case the way up becomes the quick way back down under my hefty boots," he said to assuage any forthcoming complaints.
The scarfed woman shook her head at the mental image that particular outcome generated. It wasn't pretty, and would end up with her likely crushed on the ground under the bearded man's armored bulk. Not a pleasant way to go in the least. "Guess that leaves me to make sure it's at least still stable," she said, grasping the lowest rung she could easily reach at eye level.
Climbing up, Nabiki reached the top of the ladder and levered herself onto flat ground with a grunt and some small effort. Peeking over the top before committing herself fully, she'd seen nothing immediately worrisome. She crept away from the opening and gave Benhart room to make the ascent as she took better stock of the surroundings. The tree they'd seen from below was much more massive in person, towering above the encircling walls that formed a rough enclosure.
As she waited, Benhart clambered up, huffing and puffing as he maneuvered his girth through the hole in what was now the ground from Nabiki's point of view. The space here was littered with fallen leaves, more mulch than whole remnants from the huge tree. Like down below along the river, there were bodies strewn about the roots of the tree, victims or participants of some pitched battle judging by the few weapons and arrows pricking the soil here and there.
"Unlucky bastards," the big man swore, following Nabiki's train of thought as he plopped himself onto solid ground once more.
The two sat there for a bit, resting from the earlier battle and the long climb afterward. They weren't there long before the first of many arrows began peppering the ground far too close to their resting limbs. Scampering away from the hole, Benhart pulled his shield from where it was slung across his back, raising it up to ward off the faintly whistling projectiles. "Ambush," he grunted, skirting sideways to provide cover to his partner as they looked for a way out.
Nabiki ducked behind the protection that Benhart offered, realizing just how much trouble she would have already been in if she'd tried to set out on her own. From her position, she took a moment to spot where the assault was coming from. "Up there, on the wall," she directed the big swordsman, pointing over his right shoulder. A single hollow soldier was standing on the rampart, almost behind the cover of the thick tree trunk, readying another salvo with a bow and what looked to be a full quiver of arrows at his emaciated side.
Off to the left, along the wall of the tower, a gaping doorway shrouded in thick fog caught her attention, and she informed her human shield of the potential egress.
It was a decision that proved easy enough to make, as the supposed corpses littering the roots and grounds about the tree began to rise, one by one, stirred awake by the presence of the cursed undead not yet fallen victim to the hollowing. "It better be clear on the other side of that mist," Nabiki deadpanned in Benhart's helmet covered ear. She didn't like the look of the rolling fog seemingly held in place as it was, but the alternative she could see, well she opted for the unknown rather than the assorted collection of rusty swords and hatchets headed her way.
"Here's to hoping," the big man replied, "Because we've got little choice in the matter when the odds are in their favor. Hope you're up for a run, lass. Just stick beside me, and maybe we won't be stuck in the arse with a flight of arrows," he gathered himself and made to rush the fog shrouded gap in the wall.
So, they ran. Into what proved to be a short tunnel beyond the fog, the sound of stumbling boots and unsheathed steel ringing in the dim corridor at their heels. A corridor that wasn't quite empty as Nabiki might have wished, though a couple of lone hollows ambling aimlessly in the dark were better odds than the troop trampling after the pair of fleeing travelers.
Breaking through the far end of the tunnel, they ran up a short flight of steps and out into the open once more. The sun was lower in the sky already, but not yet set over the far horizon. The area they ran up into wasn't unoccupied either, as a spear wielding hollow and a slightly better armored mindless knight roused themselves to battle the swordsman and dagger armed woman.
Clearing the way, neither Nabiki nor Benhart heard anything else approaching from the tunnel steps. "Must've tired out," he guessed, not seeing helm nor ripe head of their former pursuit.
"They're not the only ones then," Nabiki said, hand on her aching side where a slash from the spear had nicked her good. It didn't feel fatal, but still hurt something fierce when she bent at all, or took a breath for that matter.
"Aye, this is thirsty work," Benhart countered, kicking the plate armored hollow hard in the chest before laying into it with his great blade. "A man could use a drink about now," he grinned, ducking under the hollow's notched longsword. The slower knight had managed to land a few blows that the bearded warrior turned aside with his thick armor, but it would certainly bruise from the weight of the contact.
Once the hollows were properly felled, and their souls collected, Nabiki was free to examine just where they'd ended up after the mad dash. "Looks like we've made it to Saulden's fort," she said with a wince, the spear having given her more problems than she cared to have in the end.
The view from the top of the tunnel housing was actually quite spectacular, she found. Looking over toward where they'd emerged, she could see the tops of the forest, far more vast than she'd expected. There was a small clearing leading up to the base of the building they were standing atop, a series of wooden scaffolds, likely for repair work, was snug against the masonry, planks and boards all forming a series of ramps that could potentially be scaled to reach the ground if one were thus inclined, but that path led away from the center of the fort.
No, she was more interested in the nearby ladder that led ever upward, and the building that towered overhead, one with twin doors larger than any she'd seen as far as she could recall, which wasn't that impressive of a feat considering the muddled state of affairs between her ears. "That way," she gestured toward the doors with her bloodied dagger.
"Ever upward, sounds like a plan to me," Benhart agreed, securing his sword for the thankfully short climb up the much sturdier iron ladder that led to the next destination.
The great doors budged from the combined effort of the duo, as even Benhart was forced to dig his boots into cracks underfoot to get proper leverage. Straining, and sweating, they managed to push open the twin doors enough for even the sword wielder's bulk to fit comfortably through. Benhart adjusted his helm as it had slid nearly sideways off his head from the leaning he'd had to do to use his shoulder to help widen the crack.
It had been quite a flight, Benhart decided, feeling the ache from the blows that had managed to land here and there. Too many hollows to handle outright, and with arrows raining down from the parapet of the tower, discretion was the better part of valor. Still, neither he nor his partner had escape the ordeal unscathed, both taking a cut or two, and the woman fairing worse if only for her lighter garb. As they pushed at the exceedingly heavy doors, he could see dark spots welling up on her side and along her leggings, where the blood was still flowing from gashes right through the leather.
Beyond the oversized doors, the pair were rewarded with a very welcome sight. "Is that," the thinner figure took a wobbling step forward into the hall beyond the doorway.
"That it is, lass. As joyful a sight as any for these weary bones," Benhart answered, following after the dazed woman. "A bonfire."
Twisted metal poking out of the ashen pile beckoned the travel worn pair, and Nabiki stumbled toward it like a moth to a flame, ignorant of the hall's surroundings, at least until her outstretched fingers brushed the charred metal, kindling the brilliant flame from its slumber within the sacred ashes. She could sense Benhart's approach only because she had grown used to his constant presence at her side. Making room, she collapsed in a jumble of limbs, seating herself near the warmth of the flames as her companion did likewise. Both could feel the tension and fatigue of the long climb slough away, shedding like old worn skin.
But, the respite was not to last, as a rough aged voice cut into the otherwise pleasant reverie. "Oh, don't you two look cozy. Can't be bothered to greet an old woman? Tired from playing with all those Hollows, are you?"
Nabiki and Benhart turned as one, discovering that they weren't alone in the hall. Just behind the large pillars surrounding the bonfire, a shape lurked in the shadows cast by the flickering light, little more than a bundle of robes and ragged cloth tucked inconspicuously among the remains of a wooden cart laden with odds and ends. In the shadows, the figure blended in with the ruins of the building, little more obvious than a pile of discarded junk.
"Who's there," Benhart called out, hand resting on the grip of his great blade.
Wary from the hollows that liked to pretend to be corpses, Nabiki sat up a little straighter, putting her back to the comforting flame so that she was facing the stranger.
"You've no need of that. Nothing to fear from the likes of me. Plenty enough to worry about away from the bonfire, eh?" The ragged figure slid herself and her cartload a little closer to the light, revealing a wrinkled visage, with the unmistakable pallor of the undead. "Name's Melentia, merchant by trade, as if the goodies on my cart didn't rightly clue you in." The woman was already unrolling a woven mat just in front of herself, arranging various wares for easy display even in the poor lighting. "Do an old woman a favor and buy something, would you?"
Curiosity getting the better of him, the armored warrior moved over to take a better look, followed by Nabiki. The pair had amassed a fair amount of souls between them, courtesy of the hollowed soldiers, and the filthy beast that they'd managed to fell along the riverbank.
The collection of items on the worn and tattered mat were of better quality and condition than the seller displaying them, which provided some assurance to the doubt that had crept up on Nabiki. She recalled the prices in the armorer's shop, and wondered if the old woman was open to haggling. The look in the undead merchant's face was proof enough that she wanted the business, and would more than likely try to strike a bargain. At least that was the impression that Nabiki's gut was giving her.
"And these are," the brown haired woman asked, indicating several black orbs wrapped in twine, around the size of tennis balls.
"You've an eye for the fun things, don't you dearie. Firebombs, those are, just as likely to light up a careless undead, as a clambering group of hollows. Take a care, and they'll surely prove just the trick in a pinch."
Nabiki withdrew her hand, as she considered the warning. Yet, the explosives held her interest. Anything that kept harm at a distance was a good thing. The dagger she'd been given, while extremely sharp, was a very personal weapon, leaving her in harm's way more than not.
Among the other wares, she eyed a few small crystals that felt similar to the calming heat of the bonfire even without directly holding them, and a curious stone block just slightly bigger than Benhart's closed fist.
The swordsman leaned over and whispered to his partner once he noticed what she was appraising, "I've seen the like before, some right weird invention. Supposed to open hidden doors, and operate tricks of all kinds. Bet it costs a small fortune."
Nabiki only nodded faintly, concealing her own interest further, lest it weaken her position. The value of souls was hard to grasp, and that was already to her disadvantage, though eliminating monsters did seem to be a quick way to gather more as the need arose. "Those crystals, what do they do?"
Benhart answered for the merchant, "Helps out if we're in a spot of trouble, patches up the odd cut or scrape easily enough, bit weaker than a few sips of that swill."
"How much, for the bombs, and that stone," Nabiki asked, making up her mind.
"Seeing as you're first time customers, I could put these in your hands for, oh," the old woman chuckled, "this many souls," she said holding up a thumb and forefinger.
Nabiki felt her lips draw into a tight line, unsure of the counting method, and nearly boggling if it was similar to what she felt was familiar. "Two hundred," she hazarded, figuring it was better to guess on the low end.
The merchant shook her head, "The stone alone is worth five times as much."
The wanderer opened her hand, palm face up, taking stock of the souls that flickered into being. Two thousand was just about all she'd managed to gather, and certainly more than she was willing to part with for an item of dubious use. "And just the firebombs?"
Melentia held up a single pinky, "Six hundred for the lot of them, and that's a steal," she winked.
"And if I throw in this," Nabiki dug out the pitted blade she'd scavenged off a corpse back in the passage. It was heavy, and weighing her down more than she'd expected on picking it up in the first place.
"Hmm, that's not half bad, might find a use for it. Fine, five plus that knife, and you're still getting the better of me."
Frowning behind her scarf, the young woman nodded, feeling that the hag was humoring her. "It's a deal then," she held out her hand to transfer the souls, and placed the dagger on the mat in exchange for the three dark spheres.
The merchant addressed Benhart when she was satisfied with the transaction, "You there, big fellow, you look trusting enough. I've something for you, seeing as you lot were kind as to buy my wares," Melentia dug around the depths of her robes, finally happening on what she was searching for. "Be a dear and take this to that fool of a smith. The one in Majula. Can't rightly miss him for all the grumping he does. Left it in the door he did, and gone of wandering about who knows where. Fool he might be, he's not ever done me wrong, so I says to me self, why not lock the place up good and proper and keep an eye on the key. So I did, and now you can give it back to him," the old woman's eyes glittered humorously in the firelight.
Benhart took the proffered key and glanced at his companion, who shrugged. "I've seen the smith. Seemed to have most his wits about him, but I suppose he could be the forgetful sort, seems to be the case more often than not in these parts," the big man said, pocketing the key. "I'll get it back to him, soon as we head that way again."
Melentia grinned, "Oh, I don't doubt you'll reach Majula long before these old bones. Never gets easier, lugging around one's livelihood on a back as crooked as mine," she sputtered out a raspy chuckle. "High time I took leave of this place. Thought there was a good chance for business," her hood shook back and forth, "Almost no one comes by though, aside from you two, and that handsome fellow a while back," she pointed past the bonfire. "He's gone down that way, and like as not won't be coming back if I was a betting woman. There's no luck to be had down that hole, just fire and death."
"That's comforting," Nabiki replied, her words muffled by the heavy scarf. She looked around the hall, squinting in her attempt to pierce the long shadows cast by the pillars. Behind the merchant, a set of stairs led to an upper floor. To the other side of the bonfire, where the hole in the floor was, thick twisted roots rose up toward the ceiling, each easily the width of her body. She pointed to the stairs, "What's up there?"
The old withered woman craned her neck, a disturbing sight all considered. "These legs couldn't be bothered to make the climb," she lamented. "But, that young lad went up, curious as you, and came back down quick enough. Something about a jammed door, if memory serves."
"I could give it a go," Benhart suggested, potentially up to the task of dislodging a door, provided it wasn't as sturdy as the double doors leading into the hall. That effort had sapped much of his gusto, bonfire rest aside.
"Leave it for now," Nabiki thought aloud, turning her attention to the hole, and the only other visible egress aside from the way they'd entered. "Fire and death, sounds charming," she stared at the old woman. "Can't imagine you made the climb down that way either."
"You wouldn't be wrong there, dearie," the undead woman chuckled wetly in her throat. She leaned in toward the leather clad traveler. "Surely, you can feel it, deep in your bones," one crooked finger pointed to the hole. "Power, old thought it might be, still dwells in the depths beneath our feet. Lost for years, but not quite forgotten. That's what sleeps there, and what draws the poor mindless fools to their doom, left to wander about with nothing but empty craving in their hollow heads. It calls out to you too. Wouldn't be here searching for something otherwise, now would you?"
"Maybe you're right," Nabiki acknowledged, staring at the top of the ladder that she could see sticking out of the hole near the growth of roots. It wasn't power she craved though, but answers. Answers to questions she couldn't quite yet grasp, unspoken things waiting on the tip of her tongue. "Whatever it is, sitting around here won't get us any closer," she levered herself up, securing the newly acquired bombs to her belt with the loop of twine that was wrapped around the top of each round canister.
"Seems a bit of rest was just the thing," Benhart agreed, rising to his feet and stretching next to the orange blaze.
"Don't go trying too hard down there, or you'll have a time making it back to Majula," the merchant warned, waving a farewell to the duo as they negotiated the wide hole and disappeared one at a time down the ladder.
As they reached the bottom, the swordsman and the wayward traveler found themselves on a narrow span of stonework with the bonfire and thus the ceiling left high above. "Seems the old woman wasn't spinning tales," Benhart said, overlooking the drop off beyond the other side of the ladder.
The pair were greeted by a sweltering haze of smoke and steam rising up from a vast open space over which their perch made a rough circuit should they choose to follow the stone bricks that formed a rectangular walkway barely two meters across around the ruinous caldron below.
To the right of the ladder, just behind the duo, a reinforced wooden door barred entrance to the other half of the circuit. While the side they faced eventually led to an arched stone bridge spanning the gap across the pit down below. Carefully, using the ladder as a support, Nabiki leaned over to peek at the open space into the pit.
Gouts of flame spurted from cracks in the earth some dozen meters down, far enough that a fall would certainly be fatal. It was hard to tell through the haze of steam, but she thought she caught shapes moving about on the ground. Apparently she wasn't the only one, as Benhart's rumble cut in, "Let's not get too close, no need to risk a tumble. Big fellas pawing around down in that blasted place. Stinks something fierce."
Nabiki nodded, pulling back to the cooler surface of the wall. "Sulfur," she guessed, crinkling her nose at the pungent smell wafting up on the steam. "Let's keep going, I'm starting to get all sweaty just standing here."
"No complaints from me," Benhart said, moping his helmeted brow, as he took up the rear. "Might do to check that though," he thumbed toward the door just behind them.
"Be my guest," Nabiki replied, loosening the scarf so it hung about her shoulders rather than covering the lower half of her face. It blocked less of the smell that way, but made the heat more bearable in exchange.
Benhart made no bones about giving the ringed handle on the door a firm tug, then putting more weight behind his efforts to ensure it wasn't just stubborn from disuse. "Seems locked to me," he said, giving one last rattle on the handle, turning back to Nabiki. "Maybe one of them has the key," he announced offhand, drawing his blade as a pair of hollowed soldiers rose from the far side of the bridge and began moving toward the closest living thing, which happened to be his partner. "Suppose we're about to find out," he said, with a grin as the scarfed woman brandished her own weapon, taking care to stick close to the wall and not the side of the walkway close to the pit.
"I'm sure we can work out a compromise," she said, preparing herself to meet the incoming hollows, one bearing what looked to be a halberd, and the other with a sword that was hardly longer than her dagger. Both foes were heavily armored, rattling and clanking as they crossed the bridge. It would certainly be more of a challenge trying to make sure her dagger found its mark between the creaking rusted plates. But, there was no real alternative, and she began to contemplate the shield that the blade wielding shambler bore in its off hand. It would be more useful in her own grasp, she decided, before making her move.