Jungle Juju

CHAPTER 1: Treasure Maps and the Fragrance of Adventure
Lhiam looked up from the beer in front of him and saw another familiar face entering the bar. Nayalla of the house of Kirr was famous in her own right. Not only was she the only daughter and sole heir to the family fortune, she was also an accomplished adventurer who was known for her quick reflexes, accurate aim. Looking around the bar, Lhiam had already noticed Watzeel, a curvy swordswoman with bright red hair that he'd travelled with before. De'urh was sitting at the adjacent table, he was more brawn than brain but he had great strength and a stubborn tenacity that had won him more than one fight. Hiding in the back was Brygh, a quiet mountain adventurer with a keen eye that did not like crowds much. Lhiam's protective instincts kicked in and he motioned for her to join him at his table. It was close to the door leading to the stables and quieter because of the cold that seeped through the cracks.
"Looks like this guy is pulling out all the stops." Lhiam said as Brygh joined him. 
"We'll see what he has to say." Brygh replied calmly.
"You must be abit curious if you came here for the announcement." Lhiam smiled, "The only A-list adventurer missing is Rhamon."
Lhiam's words weren't cold when the door opened and in stormed the charming youth. Rhamon, with his brown curly hair, blue eyes and dimples he was the dream of many young girls. He hadn't committed yet though. Lhiam was reminded of his own situation. His mother had been pressuring again to settle down and give her more grandkids. He had a woman in mind, but his timing to ask her out had been off for the past weeks. And if he took on this job he might be away from home for the near future anyway. 
"Sorry I'm late." Rhamon smiled charmingly and sat down at Lhiam's table.
"Don't worry, nothing's been announced yet. Do you have any idea what this is about?" Lhiam asked him.
"Word among the servant girls is that the lord of their house got hold of a treasure map and that he's hiring adventurers to go find it."
"If he wants to pay all of us he's got to have deep pockets." Lhiam whistled.
"He's going to play us against each other." Brygh said.
"You might be right." Rhamon said giving her a wink that did not have it's usual effect. 
Lhiam smirked and took a sip from his beer to hide his amusement. Rhamon sat down looking a bit confused and ordered a beer while Brygh asked for water. She did not want to be intoxicated when the announcement came. They did not have to wait long. The crowd suddenly became noisier and then everyone was hushed as the guild master ascended a makeshift podium. 
"Thank you all for coming on such a short notice." the guild master started, "Lord Zarad has issued a request to the adventure guild to investigate the treasure of Joer. Long rumoured to be a hoax, the lord has acquired a document that seems to be legit."
Hushed voices discussed this news. Everyone knew about the Juwary Joer treasure. It was a fairytale. Somewhere deep in the jungle was a hidden temple that held immense treasures. The fairytale told of a brave warrior going out to find it, but he never did and ended up on the other side of the world where he met a beautiful princess that needed his aid. He valiantly saved her and they lived happily ever after as such stories usually end. Nobody believed the temple was real, you might as well go looking for a giant beanstalk to reach the castles in the sky. 
The voice died down as the guild master gestured for attention.
"I know it sounds crazy. But this is no stranger request than to go map an area or to manage wild animal populations. Lord Zarad will fund any adventurer setting off. But only one who finds the treasure and brings it back to him will receive the reward of 10.000 gold."
Brygh had been right. The lord had no intentions of funding anyone seriously. But with that kind of reward money, people would try. They could keep anything not in the treasure so even if they didn't find the temple but stumbled on other artefacts or brought home pelts from killed animals, they would be able to sell them. Of course the jungle of Juwary Joer was a dangerous place. 
"It seems like the Lord wants us to fly solo." Brygh remarked.
"Seems like it. Though with that amount of money we could split." Lhiam offered.
"As if. I'm quite confident in my skills." Rhamon smirked, "I'll be going for that treasure on my own."
Listening to the conversations at the other tables, that seemed to be the prevalent opinion. Why set out in groups when it was just a reconnaissance mission? The treasure of Juwary Joer as it was described in the fairytale, was a single gem of magical quality. So it was not like they'd need a lot of people to carry it back. Adventurers had some moral code, but in the face of large amounts of money, not all of them were as morally inclined as was expected.
"What's to stop us from taking the treasure for ourselves?" Lhiam wondered.
"The Lord must know more than he's letting on." Watzeel said. 
She'd made her way to the table of the three others after the announcement had been made. There were only a few people in the room that she considered competition and she wanted to know their opinions. Lhiam quickly made room for her to sit and a bit later had to do the same when De'Urh and Nayalla came over as well.
"I agree, this job reeks." Brygh said.
"But you'll still be going, right?" Nayalla asked. She was raring to go. Just the thought of the adventure had her excited.
"It would be a shame not to try." Brygh shrugged.
"I'll beat you all to the treasure." De'urh said with confidence. 
With his military training and strength he could track without resting much. He figured Lhiam was the rival he needed to keep tabs on. The man was big and strong, though too indulgent with other people. But he could track like the best which would be a huge advantage in the jungle. Nayalla might rival him in speed as she was said to be able to fly over the trees. Rhamon was only a wannabe in his book, a boy playing soldier. He didn't know the other two women as well. They were A-level so they probably had their qualities but De'Urh wasn't afraid of them. 
"I'd like to see you try." Rhamon eagerly accepted the challenge.
"I'll say a prayer when I find your corpses." Brygh supplied.
"I'll see you all tomorrow." Watzeel said, getting up, "If I'm going to go camping in the jungle I'll spend this last evening taking a long hot bath."
"I might as well go pack." Brygh nodded and got up too. 
"That's not a bad idea. See you all tomorrow." Lhiam added and saw Nayalla get up as well.
"The night is still young." Rhamon smiled at them and ordered another beer.
De'Urh grinned and decided he might as well eliminate some of his competition tonight, "How about a little drinking game?" 

CHAPTER 2: Near the Jungle of Juwary Joer
The first light of dawn shone at the edge of the horizon when De'Urh appeared at the rendezvous point. The delegation of Lord Zarad was already present. De'Urh wasn't the only early riser, but the place was still far from crowded. There was a small stall set up where he could pick up the funding the lord had promised, which wasn't exactly enough to cover his equipment, just a week's worth of rations, and the piece of paper that held a copy of the instructions. He wanted to take of right away but was stopped by the clerk at the desk.
"Excuse me sir, you also need to pass by the stables before you can leave."
"Is the Lord providing a horse or mule? Because I don't think they would be much help in the heart of the jungle."
"The Lord has had a few raptors trained. They are fierce and intelligent. We're certain they will help you during the journey."
De'Urh shrugged and walked toward the stables. It was dark inside, but his eyes adjusted easy since it wasn't exactly light outside yet. A few adventurers were also loitering, waiting for someone to bring them their raptor.
"What's the deal with these?" De'Urh asked. 
"They're a new type of pet that was imported. Nobody can tell me where they came from." one of the adventurers told him.
De'Urh watched as one of the handlers returned with a beige creature that would come up to his thigh. It had long clawed feet, large slitted eyes that looked fierce and a set of brown wings. The creature scratched, bit and generally made it difficult for the handler to contain it. The adventurers that were present took a step back, deciding that this one might be too much for them. But De'Urh grinned and took a step forward. 
The raptor relaxed and looked at him. He gave her his baddest death glare and gave her a toothy grin. The raptor grinned back and hopped calmly toward him.
"I guess we can leave now." De'Urh said, satisfied that he had jumped ahead in the queue.
"It is custom that you give her a name, sir." the handler told him.
"A name?" De'Urh thought about it, she would need a name she could be proud of, "Valharpy."
"The raptor will help you, but should you run away with the treasure it is trained to kill you." the handler added matter-of-factly.
De'Urh paused and looked at the little creature that acted very well-behaved in his presence. Given her prior behaviour he could very well imagine she'd hunt him down until the ends of Khylar. He chuckled and gave her a sign to follow him. It was a good thing he wasn't out to steal the treasure. He went outside, looked at the instructions and headed off to the indicated direction. He'd try to make sense of the rest of the clues after he'd found a secluded spot for his first break. 

Valharpy (f)

Brygh watched him leave and snickered. Trust the musclehead to take the clues at face value. Though she was certain he'd find the temple, she knew she would beat him to it. She had a good idea as to where she was headed and with that knowledge she'd need to get a few things in town. The Lord's meager stipend wouldn't pay for the kind of equipment she needed, but the look on De'Urh's face when he reached the temple and she was already there was worth the extra investment. She'd felt that he'd not registered her as competition and she wanted to teach him a lesson. 
At her feet the blue and purple raptor yawned and curled up to sleep. Brygh affectionately petted her little girl and told her:
"I'm sorry Sadiceen, but we need to go to town to shop. Will you come with me?"
The raptor growled lazily, stretched and then curled back up. 
"Ok, wait for me here then, I'll be back in an hour."

Sadiceen (f)

Brygh was about to leave when she heard someone whistle. Looking around she saw Lhiam, towering above some of the other adventurers, heading toward her.
"Good thing I caught you." he said, "Are you ready to head out?"
"I'm not giving you any hints." she smiled, "But yes I am."
"I wasn't going to ask." Lhiam said, acting as if he was hurt she'd thought he'd try to get her to share some of her wisdom, "Nayalla and Watzeel are also here. De'Urh must have left early. I haven't heard from Rhamon though."
"De'Urh was one of the first to leave."
"Well I'll let you go. Maybe I'll see you on the way."
"I might just wait at the Temple entrance if I don't like what I see." Brygh promised.
"I honestly don't know if I would like to hope for that." Lhiam admitted, "But it's a possibility."
Brygh nodded and headed for the jungle. The blue and purple raptor followed her faithfully. Lhiam had heard from the other adventurers what the deal was with the raptors and knew they were an asset, but also a poisoned gift. As usual Brygh carried a pack that seemed to defy the limits of what one person could carry, but Lhiam had travelled with her before and he knew she wouldn't break a sweat carrying all that equipment. He himself liked to pack lighter so he could move. He wouldn't take much food since he could hunt along the way. He was quite self-sufficient. 
Returning to the two women, Lhiam joined them in the queue for the map and then followed them toward the stables where they waited for the handler to give them each a raptor.
"I knew there would be a catch." Watzeel said, "at least they might be useful."
"I don't know." Nayalla said, "I like to travel by myself. Will these raptors be able to keep up with me running?"
"I'm sure they will." Lhiam told her, "I've seen some of them move and they look like they're very fast and agile."
Nayalla still had her doubts. She needed this job to end in a success. Her parents were trying to get her to follow protocol again and that meant boring lectures, learning about bookkeeping, human resource management and worse, attending formal dinner parties. Nayalla shuddered at the thought. Her parents were very much against her working as a mercenary, but she loved the feeling of danger and secrecy. She was free to pick the jobs she wanted, she could go anywhere and still have a way to earn a living. And she was good at it. Taking on a more administrative role in the guild was something she wouldn't even consider. Since her parents were high up in the guild they couldn't exactly forbid her from working at the bottom of the guild. They just didn't approve of the fact that she wanted to stay there. 
"We can't decline them anyway." Nayalla shrugged.
"No and that worries me." Watzeel said earning her some disturbed looks from the other two.
"I don't want to steal the treasure." she quickly added, "But what happens after that? Do we have to give the raptors back? Will they stay with us? And if they do what are the consequences the next time Lord Zarad wants something done? Will he just threaten us with the murder command?"
Watzeel felt a cold realisation settle in her mind now that she had openly shared her thoughts. She was alone in the world. Abandoned at birth and brought up in an orphanage where she had gotten love from the proprietors but she'd had to share that love with about two dozen other children. She didn't even have a home, just a room she rented so she could sleep somewhere while she was in town. Truth be told, it wasn't even the worst case scenario that had her worried. No it was the fact that just maybe, she'd be responsible for a living creature other than herself. And she could very much see herself fall for the little raptors. What if she had to part with it at the end of the trip? What if she had to care for it for the rest of it's life? Both possibilities gave her stress.
Feeling her inner strife, Lhiam took his chance and grabbed her hand, "We'll see about that when it happens. If it's possible I wouldn't mind helping you take care of it."
Watzeel looked up and saw the genuine concern in his eyes. She'd known the man for over a year and he had been there for her as a good friend, someone she could always count on. But Lhiam was always ready to help anyone who asked him to. Well she hadn't asked him, maybe he just had a knight-complex and wanted to save as many people as he could. Though that was being unfair, she was certain he didn't help to get rewards or praise, he was just that kind of man. Raised in a big family, with an even bigger extended family that often came together to eat, drink and talk. She'd visited his home once when she'd needed to ask about some mission details and everyone had been there. She hadn't counted but there must have been forty people present. All talking and looking. She'd just managed not to bolt. 
"Thanks." she told him and let him support her a little while longer.
Lhiam let his hand linger but let her go when the raptor handler came out with a small group of raptors. He'd been told by some of the other helpers that the fiercest and most difficult raptors had been handed out early on as they had raised quite a ruckus in the holding pens. All things considering, the group that was brought out now was quite well-behaved. Lhiam suddenly felt eyes upon him and as he turned toward the raptors there was one blue male that seemed to have a peculiar interest in him. 
"I guess I've been chosen." he laughed and gestured for the handler to bring the male raptor over."
"His name?" the handler asked.
"Let's say Gluur since he likes to stare."
Watzeel giggled and pointed at the green and yellow one that appeared to be sleeping.
"I want that one." she said, "Seems like he'll be able to keep cool no matter the situation. And I'll call him Zonkoren." she supplied to the handler.
"I guess I'll go for that spotted blue then. That one looks fast." Nayalla decided.
"It's a girl, her name?" the handler asked.
"Vlekkie?" Nayalla tried, she'd never been good at naming creatures. 
"That works." the handler said, looking very unimpressed with the name. 

Vlekkie (f) - Gluur (m) - Zonkoren (m)

The trio went back out into the morning sunshine and looked at the clues. They were dubious alright. There seemed to be clear directions, but the sentences sounded weird and strained like someone had done their best to hide something. But when you looked at the strained places they didn't make much sense either. Looking around Nayalla noticed some of the other adventurers were stumped as well and had a hard time leaving.
"I'll just go and see where my nose takes me." she decided.
She put the small bag of necessities on her back, checked her bow and quiver with arrows and then called Vlekkie to follow her. She ran toward the nearest tree, jumped and grabbed hold of one of it's branches, swinging herself up higher until she was as high up as she could be. It was a move which she was known for and which had earned her the nickname of treewalker. 
Lhiam turned to Watzeel and asked: "Ready?"
"You can go first." she graciously offered, "I'll start half an hour later."
"You know I can't let you do that. My mother would hold it against me for as long as I live."
"How about we toss a coin to decide."
"I can live with that."
Watzeel won the toss-up and set out first while Liam waited. He didn't mind the wait and looked through the clues one more time. He almost felt like he was reading the fairytale. He was certain that some of these names had been mentioned in the tale he remembered from when he was a child. His grandmother had told him a very vivid, wild and active version that elaborated on the standard story. And her story seemed to be taken straight from the clues they were presented with. If he could believe his grandmother, the valiant knight had found the temple and the treasure, but he had left it all behind to go to the other side of the world and save his princess. While chasing a fairytale maybe he should listen to fairytale logic. Following the river would bring him right at the temple entrance and wouldn't be too hard. 
As Lhiam got up and started to leave, a familiar form ran toward him. Rhamon had shown up and looked a bit green around the eyes. He was wide awake and seemed well enough though. Lhiam couldn't help but grin and say:
"De'Urh won the drinking game?"
"I don't know what we drank at the end but I don't remember anything after that. I don't even know how I got home."
"De'Urh probably carried you back." Lhiam shared his thoughts.
"Is he here?"
"Brygh said he was one of the first to leave.
Rhamon cursed and used very colourful language to describe the military trained adventurer. Lhiam told him where he needed to go so that he wouldn't lose too much time and then bid Rhamon farewell. Rhamon watched as the older man left for the river bank and then went through the process of getting a map, receiving his allowance and then heading for the stables. The crowd had died down and the handler now just lazed around.
"I've come to claim my raptor." Rhamon said.
"Boy, you sure are late." the handler said, "All I have left are the weakest and dumbest raptors. I mean, I doubt these last ones even know their head from their rear end."
"Doesn't matter. I'll take one." Rhamon said.
He couldn't afford to not take this job. It was a prestigious case and just taking part in it would raise his reputation. Still feeling a bit woozy and nauseous, Rhamon waited as the handler returned with a bright red raptor with golden accents. The raptor squawked and tapped his claws on the floor, managing to get one of them caught on the floor. Awkwardly the raptor pulled it loose and fell to the ground.
"A name?" the handler asked.
"Something fierce and proud would do him good." Rhamon said "Vuurklauw."
"Noted." the handler said and left Rhamon to his own devices.
Rhamon hurried outside and with a last look in his backpack - extra set of clothes, rope, firesticks and a bottle of water he could refill - and a tug on his swordbelt to make sure everything was securely fastened, Rhamon hurried after Lhiam toward the river.

Vuurklauw (m)


Enter the jungle of Juwari Joer
flow north along it's shore
Wind through the eastern trees
but beware the bees
Turn to the west and chase the sky
but keep your eyes close by
Reach back south and you will find
the entrance to the mind
Traverse the vast halls of darkness
face the danger they possess
All roads lead to the fabled prize
though some may end in demise

CHAPTER 3: First Signs of Danger
Brygh set off to the North along the edge of the forest. Those clues might not be entirely clear but all signs were pointing to higher ground with a descent. And she knew mountain terrain. She was used to climbing, wouldn't have to worry about many of the wild animals and traps there were hinted in the piece of paper in her hand. And if all roads led to the fabled prize, then she would pick the one that was most suited to her.
Sadiceen followed close behind her. Brygh was a bit worried about the raptor following her while climbing up and down cliffs. But she needn't have worried, if anything the little raptor floated, using her little wings, or hopped with all the grace of a mountain goat. 
"You seem to be made for the mountains." she said, feeling a bit silly about talking to an animal.
The raptor looked back, her head tilted as if listening.
'You probably don't understand me, but I'm happy you can keep up."
Brygh readjusted her huge backpack and returned to making her way up the slope that would lead her to the mountains and hills in the heart of the jungle. The journey would take her five days at least at full speed, if she was lucky. And while her legs, hands and eyes worked, her mind strayed. Trekking in the mountains always made her think of home. She'd lived with her parents in a small one room hut. Though cramped, the hut was warm and cleverly furnished. Brygh had played on the couch-bed with her puzzles while the fire roared in the fireplace. Her mother cooked over the fire and made her hot milk from the few goats they kept in a nearby pasture. Her father was out looking for food, tending some crops in the small field they had made or leading people across the mountain for money. At times Brygh had joined him and he had taught her the basics of surviving in the mountains. Her own travels later in life had honed her skills. 
Sadiceen chirped and Brygh looked up in time to see that she was nearing a risky patch in the road. The rocks didn't look all that secure and might be displaced by her passing.
"Maybe I should give you a treat when we get back." she told Sadiceen who seemed to stand up a bit straighter. 

Nayalla had spent the better part of the last two days running on the treetops looking for clues. She'd followed the river but hadn't had much luck with that. The other lines hadn't helped much either. While she'd been running around, she'd noticed other adventurers with the same problems. Some of them had already turned back, running into monsters or other trouble that was too much for them. Suddenly a familiar face appeared in her field of view. Watzeel was walking below and was about to head into a particularly dangerous part in the jungle.
"Stop!" Nayalla yelled.
Watzeel froze in her tracks and looked around. She spotted Nayalla and waited for an explanation. Maybe Nayalla needed her help? Not that she'd had much luck in the search department. 
"Anything you need?" Watzeel asked when Nayalla touched down.
"Just warning you that the road up ahead leads to some poison dart traps. I saw some people get hurt there this morning."
"Thanks for letting me know."
"No problem. I owe you for last time."
Watzeel smiled as she remembered the unusual predicament she'd found Nayalla in. Double-crossed by her two party members, she'd been left behind in a particularly difficult cave system without provisions, health kit or map. Watzeel had helped Nayalla back out, but she was certain Nayalla would have managed on her own. It just would have taken longer. 
"I think I owe you one now, you were hardly in mortal danger."
"Neither were you. You would have dodged them easily. Or at least deflected them with your shield." Nayalla shrugged, "But a warning up front is nice."
Nayalla meant it. She knew how hard it was to stay upright in this profession as a woman. And though Nayalla hated to use it, her name had opened doors. Watzeel hadn't had that advantage. 
"Want to try crossing them now that you know?" Nayalla asked.
Watzeel considered that for a moment. She would avoid traps if she could, but the presence of a trap must mean that she was getting closer. Nayalla had probably already explored the region beyond the traps. If she was back here that meant she'd found nothing. But maybe her vantage point had not been right. After all the clues said to chase the sky but keep your eyes close by. Maybe looking from above wouldn't do them any good.
"I think I will. Want to join me?"
Nayalla considered for a moment. Looking from the sky hadn't helped her find the temple. Two minds were probably better than one and some back-up might really make the difference in this quest. She was starting to feel a bit stupid for not going along with Lhiam's suggestion at the bar. And there was worse company for a quest, like Rhamon or De'Urh. Their two raptors also seemed to hit it off. Maybe because they were different genders? 
"Ready to slap some arrows buzzing right by our heads." Nayalla winked.
"Hey, do you suppose they are the bees?" Watzeel asked.
Nayalla's face lighted, "That's probably right!"
"Lead the way." Watzeel rushed her.

Rhamon had been having a horrible time. Because he'd been hung-over and late, he'd rushed out of his house and had forgotten to pack any food. The first day he'd found some fruits and he had managed to catch a bird. But being the man he was, he'd never had to cook his own food. How did one even prepare a bird? Did you need to cook fruit if it came straight from the jungle? He was now almost two full days into the jungle and hunger was gnawing at his stomach. But he would not admit defeat just yet. 
He was about ready though to seek out some fellow adventurers tonight to ask them to cook his bird. Roasted poultry seemed like such a luxurious and tasty meal. His mouth watered at the thought of it. Vuurklauw twitched and whimpered.
"You must be hungry too." Rhamon said.
The raptor however wasn't looking at him, but up in the sky. He ruffled his feathers and suddenly took off running into the jungle. Rhamon was confused at first. Up till now the raptor had not strayed more than a yard from his side. And now suddenly it took off running like it was possessed? Rhamon took his sword and chased after his raptor, hearing his mother in the back of his mind saying: "don't run with scissors, dear."
"Vuurklauw, wait!" he called after the raptor but the reptilian didn't listen. 
As fast as the raptor had taken off running, he now stood perfectly still, feathered arms stretched out in front of him, pointing. Rhamon followed the gesture and saw Lhiam walking in front of them. He was out of range to call him, but if he ran, Rhamon would be able to catch up with him. Lhiam was a hunter more than an adventurer and he would surely know how to prepare something he'd killed.
Rhamon started running, his hunger momentarily spurring him on to a burst of power that he later wouldn't know where it had come from. Just as Rhamon was close enough to call out, Lhiam felt the earth below his feet give way. He stretched out his arms, trying to keep his balance, but there was really nothing that could keep him from falling. Giving a shout, the unfortunate hunter was about to be swallowed by the earth. Rhamon however had quick reflexes and he grabbed Lhiam's tunic. The material held and Rhamon dragged Lhiam back onto solid terrain.
Vuurklauw wobbled closer and butted heads with Lhiam's blue raptor Gluur. The two males hitting it off quite well. 
"Thank you." Lhiam gasped, "I thought I was dead for sure."
"Don't mention it." Rhamon wheezed, "I'm just happy I was there. In fact you should thank Vuurklauw. I'm certain he led me to you."
Lhiam waved into Vuurklauw's direction, who returned to nuzzle the hunter. Vuurklauw then proceeded to sat himself down and wrap himself around Lhiam's chest.
"I think my raptor likes you." Rhamon remarked dryly. 
'I guess he does." Lhiam smiled, "I think I'm very thankful about that."
Vuurklauw managed to snuggle his face into Lhiam's shirt and pulled out a piece of dried meet.
"So he was hungry after all." Rhamon grinned, " forgot to pack food and I don't know how to cook."
"You skin or pluck and put it over a fire." Lhiam said, "There's really nothing to it. I'll teach you for saving my life."
"I'd appreciate that." Rhamon sighed.
"I guess that means we'll be heading for the temple together?" Lhiam asked.
"No objections on my side." Rhamon told him.

De'Urh knew that just following the directions wouldn't get him anywhere. Other than that he had no real idea. But as long as he kept to an appropriate search pattern he should be able to find the tunnel. The army man figured that a well-hidden temple would probably be somewhere in the heart of the jungle with heavy vegetation and some other natural defences that kept people from finding it. So his plan was to head to the heart of the jungle and then do a thorough search through sectors he'd determined in advance. Putting his life on the line thinking a few lines of cryptic text would help him find the temple was not his style. He figured the search would take days, but if it was easy to find there would be actual records of it. And not just in fairytales. 
His raptor Valharpy was sometimes running in front of him, at times next to him and sometimes behind him. De'Urh didn't pay her much attention at the moment. It was her job to follow him and make sure he did a good job of his own. As far as he was concerned he shouldn't bother her during work. And as long as she didn't get in his way he'd let her be. Although, when she was in front of him, he found it easier to advance, letting her pick the route. Valharpy seemed to know where he was going without him having to tell her. He probably could trust her to get him closer to the temple, that was her true master's aim after all.
"Lead the way, pretty girl." he told her as a way to show his appreciation.
Valharpy seemed to not care for his choice of words and kicked up some dirt that was aimed at his face. De'Urh was quick enough to dodge and grinned. Better let her stew some more before he tried again. Just in case, De'Urh kept track of Valharpy's movements to make sure she wouldn't lead him astray. But she kept going due north until they finally came out on a rocky outcrop. The trees gave way and the sky came back into view. The water of the river thundered down beside him. 
"Now what?" he asked Valharpy.
The raptor looked unperturbed and hopped toward the edge of the cliff... and dove off. De'Urh cursed and rushed to the edge. What would happen if he lost the raptor? He was pretty sure they'd have to return with them for the quest to be successful. To his surprise though the raptor sat on a ledge a bit lower than the cliff. And then he saw it, a glimmer in between the green. White stone that reflected the light of the sun. 
With a shout of excitement, De'Urh started to descend toward the water of the river below. 
"Race you!" he called to Valharpy.
He should have known better than to try to beat her. 

CHAPTER 4: At the Temple Entrance
De'Urh reached the bottom of the cliff and found Valharpy already sniffing around the temple entrance. It seemed like he was first in the race to the temple. There were no traces of camps, nor did he see people running around. The door was also closed. But then, maybe it would close after every person that went in. It never hurt to be cautious so De'Urh decided to do a sweep of the perimeter first and then go all the way around the temple. Maybe there was another entry that was open. 
Valharpy stayed at the temple entrance, not bothering to follow him. He had put down all his equipment so that could be why she felt she should stay. Maybe she was on guard duty. About an hour later he'd returned none the wiser. The outside complex of the temple didn't seem that big but the clues spoke about vast halls of darkness. With nothing left to do, De'Urh went to the door and started using his hammer.
And that's where Brygh found him. She had reached the mountains that overlooked the waterfall just three hours ago and had noticed De'Urh making his way down on the cliff face. She'd looked down but had not seen anything peculiar, the light of the sun had shifted and she hadn't seen the reflection that had lured De'Urh down. But her desire to bring him down a notch urged her to follow his lead and go taunt him. Sadiceen hopped over the edge without her having to be asked or baited. 
"That's not going to work." she smirked.
De'Urh turned around and looked back at Brygh. She had gotten here right after him, that meant she had to have some skills. 
"Do you have a better idea?" he asked, stepping back to let her have a go.
Surprised that he let her try so easily, she moved closer to the door and looked at it. Taunting De'Urh was one thing, actually opening the door was something else entirely. The door was strong, De'Urh must have been pounding it for quite some time and she didn't even see a scratch. There were some grooves that formed patterns. She examined them first. She also looked for drawings, paintings, symbols, buttons... but nothing like that seemed to matter much. There was no crack in the center so that must mean the door moved either up or down. 
"It's not that easy, right?" De'Urh said.
"I guess. Give me some time."
"I'll be setting up camp." he acquiesced and turned away.
Brygh returned to the door puzzle. She'd be damned if she was going to give up now. She took a few steps back to get a bigger picture. Looking at the size and pyramid-shape of the temple she was certain the door would drop down. It was probably held up with some latches. and would drop down if she found the appropriate latch, incantation, lever or whatever it's trigger was. She ran her fingers down the grooves but found nothing.
"Whatever triggers the door to open isn't here." she called to De'Urh. 
"So you admit defeat?" he asked, picking up his hammer.
"Never." she grinned back, "It just means it'll take time to find the solution."
"I went around the temple and didn't see anything different."
"I'll go check now that we know what we're looking for."
"Have it your way."
She walked around the temple, climbed the edges, dropped down to inspect the ground around the steps..; and still came up empty. Well she supposed this wasn't going to be easy. Why put the temple all the way here and then bail on the lock? That wouldn't be very logical. But if it was a lock, then they would need a key and who knew where that was. The people who'd built this temple wouldn't be so stupid as to leave the key nearby. Maybe it was an incantation? Something they could pass on orally? 
A sudden thought occurred in her mind and she walked back to the front of the temple, took out her copy of the clues and recited the text. The door trembled and started to sink.
"I did it!" she said triumphantly.
"Now I admit defeat." De'Urh answered, "But I'll beat you in the next part. Defeating monsters and danger sis my thing."
"I wouldn't be so sure." she met his challenge head on.
"Hey, you guys are already here" they heard Nayalla call behind them. 
Nayalla and Watzeel ran up the steps as the door descended and they saw stairs emerge that led into darkness.
"I guess those are the halls of darkness." Watzeel sighed, "They don't seem very inviting."
"Well we'll need to traverse them anyway." De'Urh said.
"Maybe we could start tomorrow morning? The sun is about to set." Brygh suggested.
"I like that idea." Nayalla said.
They returned to their camp, Nayalla and Watzeel making sleeping places for themselves and creating fires for warmth, light and general comfort. Fortunately for two other adventurers, the fires also worked as beacons. This time it was Gluur that had insisted they'd follow him. Vuurklauw had happily pranced behind the blue raptor, acting like a wildly-coloured flag for Lhiam and Rhamon to tell them where they needed to go. And that was down a cliff in the waning light of the day. Time was of the essence and luckily both men had been able to complete the trip down before they'd gotten stuck in the dark.
"Fires!" Rhamon called and was already headed there before Lhiam could caution him.
Lhiam had no other choice but to follow Rhamon who by now had recognised the others and was elatedly calling out their names and blessing all kinds of gods for the good luck of running into them. After setting up their own tents and sleeping bags, Lhiam and Rhamon joined the others around the fire to share the food and their stories.
"Where exactly are we? Is there even a way to tell?" Rhamon asked.
"We're right at the middle of the jungle." De'Urh answered, "I can tell by the stars."
"With the cliffs on all sides and the dense vegetation, I don't think anyone's been here before." Watzeel said.
"Of course someone was here before. They built the temple." Nayalla remarked.
"And don't forget the fairytale and the clues." Lhiam commented.
"Will there even be treasure left?" Brygh wondered, "Maybe the guy from the fairytale took it with him."
"It is possible." Lhiam shrugged, "And the storyline about the treasure being too big to carry back could have been just a ruse."
"I seriously don't think we can get any decent treasure out of here. Just look at those cliffs we'd have to scale." Watzeel sighed.
"We just have to make a few round trips." Brygh shrugged.
"Let's first try and find it." Nayalla shut down the discussion, "How do we start?"
The adventurers got up after diner and walked back to entrance. All six of them looked toward the black hole that was the entrance. There seemed to be stairs leading down. Sconces on the wall denoted that torches would probably be something they'd need. Though the entire outside of the temple was covered in plants, the inside was free of creepers and weeds. 
"I think we need to make sure we have enough provisions to last us a couple of days inside." Rhamon said.
"And a way to mark where we've gone." De'Urh added.
"So we hunt tomorrow and start the day after." Lhiam said, planning to return to their camp to rest for the tasks ahead.

The next day they did as planned. Lhiam and Nayalla hunted and gathered, Watzeel and Rhamon guarded the camp and the entrance while Brygh and De'Urh scouted out the first part of the dungeon. After a few hours Brygh and De'Urh resurfaced without having run in to major problems. They waited for Lhiam and Nayalla to return with their spoils of the hunt. They'd been quite successful in this secluded part of the jungle where the animals weren't wary of humans. 
"We went down without problem and haven't run into any animals or monsters yet." De'Urh rapported.
"Up ahead the dungeon splits into three hallways though."
"All roads lead to treasure." Watzeel mused.
"But there might be an easy path and a hard path." Nayalla said.
"Also, what if we need to find some items along the way to make it through to the end?" Lhiam asked, "This seems like it could be such a dungeon."
"We divide and conquer?" Rhamon suggested, "Though I'm not that keen on heading in alone."
"Pairs isn't going alone." Brygh remarked.
"It's a lot less than a group of six." Rhamon challenged.
"But it is the most efficient." De'Urh supported Brygh's suggestion.
"Which pairs?" Nayalla asked.
"How about we draw straws?" Watzeel suggested.
Nayalla pulled six twigs from her pack and numbered them one to three twice. She rolled the sticks around and offered them to the others with the numbers obscured.
"Pick one and that's the route you take from left to right.
De'Urh picked first, "One."
"Two." Watzeel followed.
"One." Brygh added, seeing a grin spread on De'Urh's face.
"Ready for our match to continue?" he asked her.
Rhamon wormed in between them and a twig out of Nayalla's hand, "Three." he said.
That left Lhiam two twigs to chose from. Letting his fingers linger a bit above the twigs, he said a small prayer to get the two. Meanwhile Nayalla was hoping he'd pick number three. Rhamon had been getting into her space a lot lately and she'd rather keep going with Watzeel than have to brave the dark halls with Rhamon. But luck was not with her as Lhiam declared: "Two."

CHAPTER 5: Down We Go
After descending the stairs and following the first straight corridor, the six adventurers and their raptors made it to the antechamber that Brygh and De'Urh had explored the day before. Like most places that had been closed of for some undetermined long period of time, the air was dank. Although it was chilly and the air felt moist, the floors and walls were dusty and dry. The humidity must be coming from below. Not a pleasant thought. The six paired up and headed for the tunnels they'd picked during the draw. After their passing the antechamber returned to quiet darkness, waiting for the next people to come through. The door on the outside closed and aside from an abandoned fireplace, no traces of their passage were left. 

De'Urh rushed forward, leaving Brygh to follow him. The two raptors ran in between them, both females being happy to follow De'Urh as he rushed ahead. Though Saldiceen looked back every so often to check if Brygh as still with them.  The raptor needn't have worried because Brygh had no problems keeping up and ran with them through the tunnels, dodging debris and uneven spaces in the floor with ease, even in the low light from the torches. De'Urh finally stopped when the path split. 
"Which way do you want to go?" he asked, offering the choice to Brygh.
Brygh looked at the two roads before her. They could go straight, the floor hardly noticeable sloping downward. Or they could go left, turning further away from the other groups. Going forward would probably be the most logical route, but Brygh didn't like leaving an unchecked route behind them.
"Let's go left and see where that leads. We can always come back." she said.
"My thoughts exactly." De'Urh agreed and put the first of their signatures on the wall. A small arrow with a circle attached to it. 
"After you." Brygh motioned and let De'Urh take the lead again.
Brygh was getting wary about what might be up ahead. Until now the tunnels had been quiet and reasonably clean, but places like these just didn't stay empty. Though the absence of edibles like plants and funghi was probably why they hadn't crossed paths with some monstrous creature yet. If De'Urh wanted to take the lead and face something like that she'd gladly let him. Of course now an attack at their rear was also possible. Brygh kept her sense focused behind them and listened for the telltale sounds of movement behind them. 
De'Urh lived for these kind of thrills. Running around in the dark, not knowing what might come up, facing everything without prior strategies, just his usual gear and his own strength. He'd figured Brygh was one of those people who'd get stuck trying to prepare for everything with her big backpack but she was surprisingly fit. Why she still carried all that load was something he might ask her in the future. 
They turned another corner, De'Urh only slowing enough to get a quick look, and then he stopped in his tracks.
"Dead end." he said, "So much for all roads lead to treasure."
"Maybe there's a hidden passage?" Brygh said.
How amazing would it be if they'd open a door and would end up in the treasure room just like that? Though she wasn't holding her breath for that to happen. De'Urh let her search the wall, but nothing happened. 
"Let's return then."
Brygh nodded and they returned to the crossroads. Putting a cross through the first mark they'd made and adding a new one that pointed ahead, they followed the corridor leading deeper in the ground. Valharpy and Saldiceen sniffed the walls and licked, tasting the stones. The area was definitely getting more humid and a little while later Brygh started to see the first signs of life, a colony of mushrooms. Probably poisonous by the look of them.
"We'd better cover our mouths and noses." Brygh said to De'Urh.
She opened her pack and whipped out the appropriate mouth masks.
"So you really keep everything in there."
"I hope so, but I add to the gear if I come across something I haven't seen before."
So it was different from what he'd thought about her. Maybe she used her pack like he used training to overcome setbacks. De'Urh started walking again and soon noticed the tunnel widening. Maybe they'd finally reach the damned halls of darkness. As he took a look inside, he stopped in his tracks again and turned to Brygh.
"I don't suppose you have something that deals with golems in there?" He asked.
"A book on magical creatures." she offered.
"I suggest you start reading." De'Urh said hurriedly as the massive stone ogre started to move.
Valharpy and Saldiceen jumped to attention and ran in behind De'Urh, one on each of his flanks, forming a pincer. But a pincer wouldn't do much good to crush rock. Maybe his hammer would though. He took hold of the weapon with his two hands and swung it in the air to give it momentum. When the golem got close enough, he hit it and got knocked back from the impact. Jumping back to his feet, barely dodging the golem fist that flew down, De'Urh called:
"You'd better hurry, I don't think we can keep this up for long."
Brygh hurriedly leafed through the pages of her book. Golems were ancient magic and hardly seen in present time. She hoped there'd be a chapter on them and that the information would be useful, but she really didn't know. The encyclopaedia she carried was supposedly the best. With a cry of relief she saw the appropriate section in the book. She started reciting:
"Stone creatures, impervious to pain, very strong..."
"I know all that, get to the useful part." De'Urh called back.
"Let me read!" she called back and continued, "Crafted with magic... AHA! They need a source of magic in their vicinity. If we can break that the golem stops moving."
De'Urh looked around but saw nothing that looked remotely magical. Valharpy and Saldiceen had managed to climb on top of the thing, but the golem swatted at them and soon they wouldn't be able to keep holding on. Brygh appeared beside him and helped distract the golem's attention. She ran from one side of the room to the next, making the golem turn and twist. De'Urh nearly got nauseous as he was keeping track of her, but he did realise she was looking for whatever it was they needed to destroy.
"It's not on the ground or walls." She called, "Any other places you checked?"
"There's nothing on his body that seems like it contains magic." he answered.
"What about the celing?" 
"I'm not that big on jumping.'
"The raptors are great climbers though." Brygh called back and added, "Saldiceen get on the ceiling and destroy anything that can come loose!"
De'Urh was certain that wouldn't work, but to his surprise the blue and purple raptor that always seemed to be ready for a nap, jumped up and ran along the ceiling, defying gravity.
"How is she doing that?" De'Urh asked.
"No clue, I saw her do that while climbing the mountains to get here."
Only a few seconds later a good-sized crystal rained down from above and shattered on the ground. The golem twitched and then stopped.
"I take back everything bad I thought about your bag." De'Urh said.
"I accept your apology." Brygh grinned.
"Let's move on."

Lhiam walked next to Watzeel down the middle path. They took their time, checking and listening for noises. But the dungeon was quiet and desolate. They only heard their own footsteps and the ticking of the raptor claws on stone. Both boys seemed content to follow behind them. After a while they started talking to diminish the silence.
"You got here fast." Lhiam said.
"I got help from Nayalla, truth be told." she said.
"I bet you would have gotten here just as fast without her."
"Maybe." she said, "But I'd have slept less. Travelling with Nayalla was easier. How about you?"
"Rhamon saved my life. I nearly fell in a common pitfall trap, I'm embarrassed to admit."
"Nayalla stopped me from walking into a poisoned dart trap."
"What a sorry excuse for adventurers we are." Lhiam laughed.
Watzeel giggled and nodded, "But we have good friends and that counts for a lot."
The two of them continued on, talking about their journey to the temple but also about their lives and families, or in Watzeel's case, the absence of her family. She'd grown up in an orphanage and felt like she lacked something even if the caretakers had done a lot to make the children feel at home. Having to share the adults with 30 odd other children made you fix your own problems. Before her thoughts could bring her down, Watzeel felt Zonkoren's snout nuzzle her hand.
"Hey there sweetie, need something?"
Zonkoren chirped and went back to walking next to Gluur. 
"I swear these raptors can read minds." Watzeel said.
"It isn't impossible I guess." Lhiam said, having his own ideas about them.
At that time Gluur let out a squawk that made them stop. Lhiam looked around for something that could have spooked the raptor but saw nothing. When he lifted a foot to take the next step Gluur made the same sound. Watzeel looked around and suddenly saw the small holes in the wall.
"I'm getting tired of dart traps." she sighed. 
"Good boy." Lhiam rewarded Gluur.
"Any way to disable these?" he asked Watzeel.
"Shields." She said, "Get behind me and look for holes in the wall."
With Watzeel's shield in front and Lhiam's pack in his hand, they advanced, stopping the darts as they whisked toward them. Suddenly Watzeel lost her footing, she put her weight back and knocked into Lhiam. They went down with a thud and it took a while for Lhiam to register what had happened.
"I'm so tired of pitfall traps." he joked.
"Let's hope the dungeon isn't repetitive." Watzeel said dryly.
"Let's find out, shall we?"

Nayalla and Rhamon took the tunnel to the right and found themselves in a narrow passage that forced them to walk single file. Nayalla walked first, followed by the two raptors and the swordfighter guarded their backs. Rhamon would have preferred to be in front but he hadn't been able to find reasons against her plan. She was the fastest and had a longer ranged weapon so she could attack before any enemies got close enough to do damage. If their enemy was a long-ranged fighter as well that wouldn't give them an advantage, but then, Rhamon didn't have a shield so he wouldn't be an advantage in that case either. Rhamon felt frustrated to not be on the frontline. He was used to protecting women and had been raised to do just so. But Nayalla wasn't a helpless damsel, which was what he liked about her, but it also had him stumped. 
Nayalla's raptor Vlekkie suddenly put down her snout and nibbled on something crunchy. 
"What did she just eat?" Nayalla whispered.
"I didn't see, but I think it had many legs." Rhamon said.
"A bug?"
"Must have been, what else would live here?"
Nayalla kept quiet. She had a bad feeling about something actually being down here. But there was no way to go except forward. They had crossed some arches that suggested there would be branches in the path, but those roads hadn't been opened up. Maybe construction had stopped on this corridor? That thought didn't exactly make her feel better, even if it meant that they wouldn't waste time mapping every possible opening. 
A tickly sensation on her head made her comb her fingers through her hair. They got stuck on something. As she pulled it out she heard that crunchy sound again. A sticky substance spread across her fingers. When she looked at them she saw a half-crushed centipede stuck between her fingers. It's head was still alive, it's antlers twitching as it tried to get away.
Nayalla tossed the bug to Vlekkie who happily ate it. She got a sad look from Vuurklauw.
"Catch your own." she told the raptor, "or ask your owner."
Vuurklauw looked up at Rhamon hopefully. Rhamon shook his head, "I don't see any more."
His words weren't cold when little crinkly sounds sounded all around them. More centipedes appeared from between the cracks and crags in the stone. The creatures were pitch black and eager to find out what was happening. 
"I think this might be why this corridor didn't get finished." Nayalla stated.
"Run?" Rhamon asked.
Nayalla shrugged and shot forward. The raptors and Rhamon followed on her heels. Behind them an army of centipedes gave chase, the fastest of the bunch crawling over their slower brethren, crushing them and adding more of that sticky goo to the ground. The air started to smell sweet.
"I think it's the goo that's calling them." Rhamon said.
"I must have some on my hair." Nayalla sighed, "Do you have something to wash it out with?"
Rhamon thought, "Only water and my cape."
"I didn't bring soap either." Nayalla cursed, "I'll try to wash it out with water, it can't hurt to try."
But before she could try it, a large shadow blocked the way up ahead. A centipede who knows how many times bigger than the smaller creatures behind them was coming toward them and looking mighty interested. Nayalla readied her crossbow but had the feeling that shooting the centipede might not be the wisest thing to do.
"Let's try to avoid it, I don't want more centipedes on our tail."
Rhamon nodded and took out his cape. The men in his family told tall tales about them being descendants of bull-fighters. Drawing the attention of the centipede Rhamon called:
"On my count, jump and flip over it."
"Ready." Nayalla called back. 
The centipede charged, Rhamon twisted his body sideways and twirled past it as best he could in the tight corridor. It was a good thing he was fighting a centipede and not a bull. Nayalla caught his moves before he actually shouted and was already over the centipede when he regained his posture.
"Run!" he called and took off. 
Vuurklauw guzzled up a few centipedes but then followed, catching up to the others as they finally entered a wider room. They'd just gotten past the doorway when a fountain of fire burned the centipedes that had followed them. The other creatures seemed to give up and scurried back into the walls.
"Wow." Rhamon said as he looked back.
"Don't count your chickens yet." Nayalla said. 
She was looking forward and saw several more fire geysers up ahead.
"What now?" Rhamon asked.
"We time them." she sighed. 

CHAPTER 6: Getting Closer
Brygh took a few deep breaths as she readied herself for the task at hand. They’d followed the passageway and had stumbled upon quite a few more dead ends. They were now alternating who took the lead and who guarded their backs and that seemed to work out to keep them advancing. The tunnel was still leading them down into the earth, Brygh had noticed that the air grew damp and she could actually see water oozing from the walls. It was said that Khylar’s core was a vast reservoir of water, but there’s no way they’d be able to travel there.
De’Urh wondered what the hold-up was and tapped Brygh’s shoulder to get her to advance. She looked up and motioned for him to come join her. He walked up to her and then looked down in a seemingly bottomless abyss. Looking forward he could see that there had once been a bridge. Some platforms remained that hung from the ceiling but they were few and far in between. Ledges hugged the cliff wall but they were barely a foot wide and the cliff had hardly any places that could serve as anchor points.
“Fun.” He said and meant it.
Brygh looked at him and said: “I’m not that fond of smacking dead on the cold ground below.”
“You won’t live to feel the ground when you fall here.” De’Urh answered truthfully.
“Thanks for the help.” Brygh retorted.
“Want to make a wager to see who can cross fastest? You could always turn back, no-one will think less of you.”
Except he would of course.
“Don’t you have anything in that bag of yours that could give you an unfair advantage?”
“Maybe I do.” She retorted and went about looking through her backpack for her climbing equipment, it was what she did best after all.
“I’ll see you on the other side then.” De’Urh grinned.
He walked back, and ran, taking a running jump toward the first platform. He made it safe and sound and looked around. The next platform was far away so he believed there would be some other way of going on. He didn’t see anything, but it was Valharpy who offered him the solution. She’d hover-jumped after him and now jumped again, landing on a hardly visible pillar that extended from the cliff wall.
“Seems there are stepping stones.” De’Urh called back.
“Yeah, I’ll stick with the Cliffside.” Brygh told him.
Sadiceen preened and ran across the cliff-face toward the other side. She chirped victoriously and waited for Valharpy to join her.
“What I wouldn’t give for that talent.” Brygh sighed as she started the climb, a rope fastened around her waist that would secure her. She only hoped it would be long enough to see her through to the other side.
De’Urh was the first to reach the other side of the chasm, jumping from platform to outcrops. Brygh wouldn’t have been able to with her backpack though and he understood that. Seeing her inch her away across the ledge was a spectacle as well. She was advancing steadily.
“You could jump toward me from there.” De’Urh told Brygh, “I’ll catch you.”
To his amazement, Brygh hardly hesitated and didn’t even make some snide remark, but launched herself into his direction. Scrambling to catch her, she crashed into him and they both toppled backwards. De’Urh got the wind knocked out of him but could not help notice how Brygh felt quite nice to hug.
“You can let go now.” She said.
De’Urh took a breath to steady his heartbeat and then released her from his grasp.
“Right, let’s go on.”
Brygh looked up ahead, trying to keep the emotions from showing on her face. It was the confined spaces that made her heart beat this fast. Looking ahead though, she grimaced. The tunnel took a dive and vanished into water.
“Maybe I should tell you that I don’t like water.”

Lhiam pulled the last arrows out from his backpack and tucked them away for future use. He’d be stupid to waste good poisoned darts. The stretch of trapped wall had been ludicrously long. You either fell for dart traps in the first few yards or you didn’t. Why the builders of this place had wanted to trap over 50 yards was something else.
“I wonder if these reset.” Watzeel mused.
“Can’t be, there’s no-one here to arm the new darts.” Lhiam answered
“I’m not so certain. It might be the atmosphere but I feel like we’re being watched.
“We’ll just have to be careful on the way back.”
The two of them continued on, Watzeel sticking closer to Lhiam who didn’t mind in the least. After this the warrior woman might agree to go for dinner with him sometimes. Inviting her to the family home should probably wait until she was more comfortable with him since he sensed she had trouble adjusting to rowdy crowds.
They jumped another pit trap that got Lhiam to sigh and then started going up. The incline was definitely noticeable but not enough to slow their pace. After a while though, the floor gave way to another pit after which the incline got steeper. With nowhere else to go, Watzeel and Lhiam crossed the chasm with a well-placed jump and started on the incline that had both of them panting.
"You'd think they'd put in stairs." Lhiam huffed.
"This might have been a natural tunnel." Watzeel said over her shoulder.
The walls were weathered smooth but weren't made from brickwork like the lower level. Maybe they were no longer in the temple but somewhere in the cliffside. They climbed on until a Watzeel saw the telltale sticky webbing that made her skin crawl.
"Spider." she hissed.
Lhiam felt his heart freeze. Spiders often made their home in narrow tunnels like this. They were very agile, vicious and tenacious. With the tunnel sloping like it did, fighting wouldn't be easy.
"Head back?" he asked.
"Where to?" Watzeel shrugged, "We didn't pass any branches. The only way is forward."
Lhiam nodded but readied the poisoned darts just to be ready. But that was hoping the venom on the darts was still potent and something the spider was vulnerable to. If not he could always try to aim a few rocks at the eyes and hope that would give them time to escape. Careful not to touch the webs, Lhiam, Watzeel and their raptors carried on. After another few minutes they could hear the soft ticking of claws on stone echoing toward them. 
"It's coming." Watzeel said and took on a fighting stance.
She watched as the spider crawled into view. It's multi-faceted eyes reflected the light of their torch and seemed to sparkle with glee. Watzeel knew that was her own interpretation, but the spider looked like evil. Behind her, Lhiam threw the darts and at least one of them struck the spider as it let out a screech. The poison didn't seem to have much effect because the spider started to run straight toward them. Watzeel managed to prick the spider, but her sword deflected. The spider pressed on and got closer. 
Lhiam took a few steps back to give Watzeel room to counter. He kept his hands on the wall to prevent a fall but felt his fingers snag on some kind of latch that tripped. A low rumble sounded and the floor started to vibrate.
"Run!" he yelled and started sliding down the incline. 
Watzeel followed, looking over her shoulder to see what was coming. A large round boulder, too perfectly round to not be man-made, rolled down and now even the spider was running. 
"Get ready to jump." Lhiam called to Watzeel.
They were sliding toward the pit they had had to jump and now it was obvious that the pit would stop the boulder from blocking the doors. They only needed to jump to the other side to keep from getting flattened, but that was easier said than done. Lhiam got his feet under him and pushed himself in the air, keeping the momentum of the slide to launch him toward the other side. He barely made the jump and caught the edge of the other side. Watzeel crashed into him a few seconds later and clung on with all her might. Behind them the spider wasn't so lucky and they heard the bones crunch as the boulder hit it and dragged it down into the depths of the earth. 
"Can you climb up?" Lhiam asked Watzeel, "I don't know how much longer I can hold on." 
Watzeel opened her eyes and looked up, "Probably." she said and started working to get her weight of Lhiam.
She shimmied to the side and then dragged herself up, leaving Lhiam to pull himself up. His arm and shoulder muscles had been taxed to the max supporting both their weights and Watzeel had to help him get up. Back on solid ground, he lay for a bit to catch his breath. They'd just been incredibly lucky. Beside him, Watzeel realised the same and started laughing. It was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard.
"I want to take you out to dinner." he blurted out.
"We first need to get out of here." Watzeel giggled, missing some of his intention.
Lhiam sighed, "We better get going again then."
"At least we won't have to worry about the spider anymore." Watzeel said.  

Nayalla and Rhamon had made their way across the firetrap room with relative ease. The forced wait had even helped them relax a bit. Vlekkie and Vuurklauw had taken the opportunity to nap a bit, and had seemed not at all frightened by the fires. Who knew, it was possible they'd be impervious to burning. Though as the raptors hadn't run through the fountains of fire, Rhamon figured they were smart enough to avoid injury. Vuurklauw had ruffled his feathers at the fire though, as if he was challenging the fire to try and look better than him. Every time the fire disappeared, the red and yellow floofy raptor had lifted his head in victory. 
On the opposite side of the room was a short hallway that led them to another room. This room was larger than the first and the walls were lighter. White stone walls, white tiled floor and a black stone ceiling gave the impression of an open box with an endless night above them. Blue runes adorned the walls and floor. There was no exit.
"A dead end?" Rhamon asked, "Did we miss a fork in the road?"
"Not a chance." Nayalla said.
"Then this must be a puzzle." Rhamon concluded and started looking for levers and latches.
"Be careful while you touch the walls." Nayalla told him, but started examining the floor.
At the opposite side of the wall, Rhamon noticed a change in the smell and feel of the air. He'd always had a good sense of smell and the faint odour of decay that reached his nose was without a doubt coming from somewhere else. His eyes and skin picked up a little draft when he moved across certain lines between the tiles.
"Here is the door." he told Nayalla, "There doesn't seem to be a lever though."
"There also wasn't one at the entrance." she shrugged.
Nayalla went to check out the door but wasn't so sure that Rhamon had found something.
"I don't notice anything." she told him.
"Come closer." Rhamon said.
He got her to come between his arms and directed her face and body to be directly in the path of the draft. His breath hitched as he finally got her close to him. He took a deep breath to take in her scent and held it. Suddenly Nayalla felt the draft and jerked as she blinked her eyes.
"A little warning would have been nice." She said.
"You wanted to know where the door was." he defended himself.
Nayalla took a few steps back and Rhamon reluctantly gave her her space. She looked at the wall with the door and saw a sequence of 8 runes right in the middle of the door. Could it be a passcode? She ran her fingers across the runes but did not feel anything unusual. But she had seen some of these runes on the floor when she'd been examining it.
"I'm going to try something." she told Rhamon and returned to where they'd entered.  
Stepping on the tile corresponding to the first rune, she felt the tile click down under her weight. Nothing else happened. She jumped to the next rune and that one clicked as well. She finished the sequence but nothing happened. 
"We might need to keep the tiles pressed down to make the door open." Rhamon said, "I noticed the tiles coming back up when you jumped to the next."
Rhamon traversed the floor and stepped on a runetile that clicked even if it wasn't one of the code. He had just enough time to roll sideways when pieces of the ceiling rained down on him.
"Now we have weights to keep the tiles down." Nayalla said, "Good job."
"Thank you for being worried about my safety."
"That wouldn't have killed you."
The two of them set to work, placing the fallen rocks on the first four tiles. With a little effort they got their raptors to stand on the next two though Vlekkie didn't exactly look happy to be there. Vuurklauw took it all in stride and struck a pose as he waited. Nayalla and Rhamon took their places on the last two runes, being careful not to step on any of the other tiles. The door opened and they ran toward it, certain that the door would close when the tiles clicked back up. That happened right after the two raptors had crossed the threshold, earning them an indignant squawk from Vlekkie. 
"We weren't trying to lose you." Nayalla told her, "I knew you were fast enough to make it."
Rhamon looked around and said, "I don't think we should linger here."
Nayalla looked away from the raptors and saw the abundance of mushrooms and fungi that covered the walls. The floor was covered in a wet slime that made it slippery. Walking on it released a foul smell that took away her breath.
"Let's get moving then." she nodded and followed as Rhamon took the lead. 
They walked on and finally reached a set of stairs that led them to a higher level of the temple. Happy to leave the dank cellar behind them, Nayalla, Rhamon and the raptors ran up the stairs, ending up in a dark and gigantic room. 

CHAPTER 7: Treasure
Brygh surfaced and gasped for air. She'd never been a confident swimmer and swimming through a dark submerged corridor, in the dark, with only a lifeline that bound her to De'Urh and the raptors had taxed her energy to remain calm. De'Urh was already wringing the water out of his clothes. He reached out a hand to help her out of the water. Behind her the two raptors jumped up as if they'd gone swimming for fun. She'd hardly felt any movement coming from them, but then she'd been the one to flail the most, she was sure. 
De'Urh got up and let Brygh dry her clothes. She had left her pack on the other side, not knowing if she could swim with it through the tunnel. She was missing it already because she had extra clothing in a water-tight pocket in there. De'Urh looked around. They were standing on a small platform. The entry to the submerged tunnel was in the middle and the walls shot straight up with a variety of cracks and footholds. Apparently they were expected to climb up.
"Maybe I should go back for your climbing gear." De'Urh told Brygh.
Brygh unwound a rope from her waist and tucked a couple of hooks out of her bra.
"I wouldn't leave those behind." she told him and winked when she caught him staring.
"Let me start." he said and tried climbing to a spot where he could fasten the rope. 
He got about two holds up when the next one crumbled below his feet. He fell back down and landed on his back. Luckily he hadn't fallen far. Brygh checked and realised that the wall was marked with runes. She had seen some of these before, but she had no clue about their meaning. De'Urh looked just as puzzled, leaving them no choice but to feel their way to the top. 
For a moment they discussed sending the raptors up first, but when they checked, the animals weren't heavy enough to cause the false holds to crumble. In the end, De'Urh just whacked the handholds near the bottom so they could figure out which runes marked where things would collapse. It was as good a strategy as they could use and they managed to make it to the top. De'Urh pushed open the metal grate that covered the shaft and they could crawl out.
They were greeted by a soft glow, light reflected by mirrors and a large crystal that stood in the center of the room. Nobody else was around. 
"Do we wait?" De'Urh asked.
"Let's see what else we can find out." Brygh shrugged, "That doesn't seem like it will be easy to transport. 
She let her fingers trail across the crystal's surface and felt an odd pull and then she was gone. De'Urh saw her vanish and jumped up. Valharpy let out a sad keening sound and he noticed that Sadiceen was also gone. 
"What now?" he asked Valharpy.
The raptor headed straight for the crystal and crashed in to it... or she would have if she hadn't vanished. Within seconds of seeing her disappear, De'Urh felt himself being pulled behind her. And then he was somewhere else. 

Lhiam and Watzeel had climbed up again, careful not to trip any more latches. They'd gone by several barred boulders that were just waiting to be released onto unsuspecting explorers. Finally they neared the end of the tunnel. It looked like a dead end, except there was a clear outline of light to guide them on. Lhiam put his shoulder against the square slab of stone and pushed. Watzeel put her back against his and threw her own weight and strength in to helping him. Suddenly the slab of stone pivoted and they spilled out into the next room. 
Getting up they found themselves in a room full of mirrors. One single beam of light shone down from the ceiling and that was enough to illuminate the entire room. Walking through the beams of reflected light, Watzeel felt amazed at how warm the room was after the cold from the tunnels. 
"Where should we go now?" she wondered. 
Lhiam looked around and saw a single beam headed toward the wall.
"There." he said and went to investigate.
The wall was indeed a door, locked by some unknown mechanism. The beam of light shone dead center of the door and they could make out squares on rails. One of them had a hole.
"This seems pretty straightforward." Watzeel said.
"Let's get sliding." Lhiam agreed. 
The puzzle wasn't hard, just time-consuming as the piece they needed was of course as far away from the center as it could be. They had to guide it forward place by place until it finally fell into place. As the beam of light traversed the stone wall, a soft whirring sounded and the wall started to swing open. It was impossible not to notice the large hunk of crystal first. Like a huge beacon it stood at the center of the temple, It seemed to pulse and beckon them to come closer. 
"Is that the treasure?" Watzeel asked.
"Has to be." Lhiam whispered, afraid to break the spell.
Together they went closer. Their raptors followed silently behind them. As they raised their hands to touch the light, a strong force pulled them apart and suddenly they were gone.

Nayalla followed the wall and counted over 1000 steps to reach the other end of the room. The room was huge. It should be about as big as the temple base though she hadn't checked since both De'Urh and Brygh had already gone around it. Holding her torch higher, she spotted no ornamentations, no runes, no nothing. Crude stone walls, flat stone floor and the same black stone ceiling they'd seen before. 
"Do you see anything?" she called to Rhamon.
His voice sounded closer than she expected when he answered: "Nothing unusual."
"Looking for clues in this giant room is going to take time." Nayalla sighed.
"We've got nothing better to do." Rhamon shrugged and continued exploring. 
Suddenly though a faint glimmer appeared in the darkness. It was hardly visible at first but it grew in strength until they could clearly see a bright rectangle outline. 
"That has to be a door." Rhamon said and went toward it.
"Be careful." Nayalla called after him, remembering the danger floortiles could hold. 
But the rectangle held too much promise to wait for Rhamon. After just a few heartbeats, she hurried after him and caught up when he noticed a set of circles set in the floor. Being mindful not to step on the circles, he tracked around. The geometric patterns within were a bit misaligned and realisation tugged at his mind. Nayalla crouched down beside him and pressed on the circles. Rhamon ducked, protected his head and kept his body over Nayalla to shield her, but no stones came falling. 
"These move." she told him and proceeded to turn so the lines corresponded to the next circle. When she let go of the circle though, it almost immediately started to twist back to it's original position.
"Can you help?" she asked and proceeded to give him instructions about what circle to move and where to hold it.
Vlekkie and Vuurklauw inched closer and were likewise instructed until all circles aligned perfectly. Without a hitch, the wall dropped down and they could enter the treasure room. For what else would you call a room that held a crystal so big it would take a dozen men to lift it? Light reflected from it's surface and illuminated the room enough to see that there was hardly anything else inside. Rhamon gazed at the crystal and felt the promises it held. Fame, fortune, success. He couldn't tear his eyes away from it. Stretching out his hand, he touched it and got pulled inside. There was no other way to describe the feeling. Faintly he felt Vuurklauw's presence close by andhe could just hear Nayalla's voice as she ran after him.
And then she too got sucked in and they both went elsewhere.


Lantessama Isle
raptors were a gift at Nexus Discord
Background images found with a google search long ago.