The Acid Caverns by John R. Canter
“Remember, we need to reach the bottom of the underground lake,” Len told her companions. “I need to put the catalyst there: it’s the only way it will restore everyone’s water supply, and have us be rid of the acid.”
Asoka nodded and led them on into the tunnels, carrying a torch. Bosu, Lohuan and Fabia followed behind with Len, who would periodically prod at puddles on the ground with the butt of her spear. The cavern walls were wet, and in some places slick with a film of slime. It was not long into their descent into the darkness that their progress was paused by a pool of water that reeked with a sour, biting stench.
“Hold up,” Len told Lohuan, who had started to try to wade across, boots already splashed and wet. He backed away, and Len put her spear into the pool, and then brought it close to the torchlight to see. The seemingly plain wood had magically turned red.
“It’s acid,” Len assessed. “It’s only your shoes that got wet, right?” she asked him.
“Yes,” Lohuan replied, taking them off urgently. “If it’s acid, then why didn’t it destroy the boots right away?” he asked, inspecting them. They looked perfectly normal, if only splashed by what looked like clear water.
“Make no mistake, this is a pool of acid, even though it looks just like water. Non-magical acids normally take time to dissolve, or break down, anything they come in contact with. We didn’t bring much water to wash them off with, so they’re doomed to be destroyed, eventually. We have to save our water for drinking, and for any skin exposure that may happen.”
“Well, I can’t very well walk around this place barefoot, with acid pools everywhere,” he began.
“That’s why Len had me bring along some spare boots,” Fabia added in, offering him a pair. He put them on, finding them a bit large, and left the other pair behind as they covered their faces to protect against the noxious fumes, and tried to find their way around the pool. It was a narrow ledge in the cavern around the shore, and the ceiling was low, but they eventually made their way around to the other side to continue on.
“Why didn’t we use some of the catalyst back there and just wade across?” Bosu asked, out of breath from carrying much of their equipment across the narrow ledge.
“The catalyst is in limited supply, and being reserved for the underground lake, which I suspect has the highest concentration of acidity,” Len answered levelly. “It would be unwise to go wasting it on every puddle we seek to cross for the sake of haste.”
They continued on through the dark. The tunnels twisted in uneven directions, and they had to navigate slippery steep walls and climb sharp-edged slopes. At one point they thought they had double-backed, or were going in circles; the map they had was old and poorly drawn, and they scrutinized it under the torchlight, trying to make sense of their bearings. While they were staring at the maze of tunnel lines, a drop fell from the ceiling onto the paper, burning through it with alarming speed. As they jumped back, more drops precipitated from the stalactites, like a brief thick downpour, pooling on the ground as a viscous blob, which rose up in the quivering movement of a living thing.
“Ooze monster!” Len called out. While she was digging through her pockets, Bosu and Fabia got between her and the creature. Asoka sunk his dagger into it, which harmlessly flowed within, its metal blade dissolving with an eruption of sizzling bubbles and choking fumes. They then took it in turns to batter at it with cudgels repeatedly. The ooze rose up a part of itself, extending a portion like a grasping pseudopod around Bosu, who was pulled bodily, screaming, into the monster’s gelatinous bulk. As they recoiled in horror, seeing the acidic blob devour his flesh and begin to strip to the bone, Len, having found a glass vial at last, struck it with a flask of alkali solution. The ooze rapidly disintegrated as Len’s base neutralizing the monster’s acidic body, but not before Bosu’s death in its gullet.
Bosu’s body was pulled from the admixture of dead monster and weaponized chemistry, and there was not much for them to work with by way of some respectful burial. It would also be quite the hassle, and dangerous, to bring his acid-burned and partly digested corpse back to town. They settled on returning with the glass amulet that he wore around his neck, as a memento to return to his family. Len inspected the recovered equipment, handling it with thick gloves, and after salvaging what was usable for their spelunking they sadly continued on.
The tunnels had rough walls carved by the water’s flow, and more recently the acid. Only rarely were the tunnels very narrow, and in some places the caverns were large and easy to traverse, save the puddles, pools, and ponds of polluted watery acid that they had to skirt around. Len herself nearly fell into one of the more noxious, foul-smelling pools, but Asoka caught her just in time to keep her from going in. They continued cautiously on in this way, under the torchlight through the dark, for several hours, before reaching a massive cave: the underground lake.
The light did not reach the other side. In its glow, they could see the rising fog of foul gases coming off the clearly toxic green surface. They huddled together, the cloth over their faces barely keeping the sour stench at bay, and they consulted the map to be sure.
“We’ve made it,” Asoka said.
Len nodded, coughing. “Then let’s get to work – we don’t have much time.”
Len rummaged through their supplies on the lake’s shore, working to dig it out from beneath other things. As she did so, a rumble shook the underground, and they paused. Lohuan and Fabia reached for their weapons. Asoka passed the torch to Fabia, and he drew his bow and arrow. There was the sound of cascading rocks, and turning in that direction, they saw something moving in the shadows, long and scaly in green and black.
“Interlopers!” the serpent hissed. “This is my domain.”
As it rose up they saw the creature was some kind of dragon-like snake, its lithe coils making it hard to gauge its huge size, but it seemed to be thirty feet long, or perhaps longer. Its body was covered in thin armor scales, and it had an overbite that exposed long curved fangs from the top jaws. Drops dripped from the tips, falling on the shore’s stones, pocking them with caustic holes as they dissolved through.
“Len?” Asoka asked.
“Working on it,” she replied worriedly.
“Do we try to reason with it, or …” he began, before Lohuan, in a nervous lack of self-control, accidentally let fly a crossbow bolt, missing the beast. It hissed an angry shrill, spitting roar.
“So much for that,” Asoka remarked. Len’s search became focused in haste as the others battled the monster. It had reared up to make itself as large as possible, towering over them nearly to the height of the low ceiling. It suddenly struck out like a viper, trying to bite at Asoka, who dodged just in time. Fabia and Lohuan continued shooting at it, many of the bolts largely bouncing off its rocky scales. The serpent swiped its tail across the ground; Asoka again dodged acrobatically just in time, but Fabia was swept up and pinned against the wall. She fired point-blank directly between its scaly armor plates, and the beast shrieked a painful hiss as blood sprayed out over Fabia. She began to scream in pain from the red shower, for the serpent’s blood too was a magical powerful acid, and had begun burning her eyes and face while she was trapped, pinned.
Lohuan retaliated, his shots missing in his nervous fury. The dragon-snake released Fabia from the wall after she went limp, and with a quick strike bit Lohuan. The monster’s giant head completely grasped the man’s body, and he screamed in pain as the fangs pumped awful venom into him. Asoka shot the beast in the eye, and it recoiled, but Lohuan’s poison-bloated body was already dissolving from the inside out. Within seconds the terrible acid had reduced him to a mere puddle of caustic steaming liquid.
The serpent shuddered for a moment from the muscles in its throat, and then belched forward a breath of obscuring gas that filled the cavern. Asoka and Len’s eyes watered, making it even harder to see through the toxic opaque vapors. Len held her breath, eyes burning from the acidifying tears while she felt blindly through her pack. Asoka coughed as he tried to run away, and the serpent turned its head in his direction, having risen up over the fog to scan for him with its one good eye. Slowly, undeterred by its own breath, it slithered over the rocks along the shore, hidden within the fog. Asoka had an arrow ready to put to bowstring, but his eyes still stung as he tried to keep what he thought was distance between himself and the approaching predator. It had raised its head and shuddered from its throat again: just as it opened its mouth, Len’s flask struck it in the side of the head with the blinded eye, and as the vial flared bursting into alchemical fire, the serpent spat out a long stream of liquid acid, a beam of death that blasted Asoka’s cloak but missed his body. He tore it off as it burned, and the beast turned to look towards Len, exposing his good eye to Asoka. Through tears he fired, and the arrow landed true in the dragon-snake’s other eye, fully blinding the monster.
The serpent roared its sharp hiss as it swayed back and forth in pain. Vitreous frothing spittle splattered every which way, raining randomly across the shore in dangerous droplets. The serpent stopped, head drooping, and as it raised it to roar in anger again, Len hurled another glass vial. Down its mouth, it shattered inside the creature’s muscular throat, and it swallowed reflexively, the gagging creature too late to guess the danger. It began to shudder, then writhe and screech violently, and finally fall to the earth, its whole length twitching as Len’s alkali agent neutralized the acid monster’s acid. Eventually it burst forward from the limp creature’s stomach, who was no more.
Both Len and Asoka had retreated back up the tunnel, around a bend that had remained largely clear of the serpent’s acidic belch. After they caught their breath, and realized they were alright, Asoka hazarded, “What was that?”
Len said, still panting from her crouch, “I think it is a seps. A serpent of acid, perhaps a regular snake mutated by the pollution, or crossbred with some kind of dragon …”
“No, I don’t care about that,” Asoka interjected, leaning against the wall with his hands on his knees. “What did you use to kill it?”
Len looked up at him. “The catalyst.”
Asoka paused. “You used up the catalyst killing that thing?”
“No, only a small amount of it. It’s an extremely potent reactant,” she began explaining before she lost her breath and Asoka cut her off.
“Can we get the job done? Can you fix the lake with what’s left?”
She nodded; it was still easier than speaking, throat raw from the fumes. “Assuming there’s not more of them.”
They both quietly recovered from their exposure to the toxic breath. After many minutes they felt well enough to hazard a glance back towards the lake. The vapors had cleared, and they could see the carnage the battle had wrought to both man and beast. Len went over to the large container of catalyst and together she and Asoka heaved it as far into the lake as they could throw. Asoka shot the floating container with an arrow to break it further, and from a distance they watched the lake bubble and froth as the chemical reaction took place. Periodically Len would check the lake with her magical spear, which turned less red with each measurement over time, and eventually as the fumes cleared and the smell dissipated, the marvelous alchemical catalyst had made the polluted lake clean again. They washed their eyes and drank deep from the fresh water, rejuvenated. A balance had been restored.