Horace jerked upright eagerly. “Treasure?”
The rest of them also stirred and sat up with interest.
“Yeah,” Jon said excitedly, warming to his subject. “What if it’s got treasure? It’d be up for grabs now.”
“What kind of treasure are we talking about?” Katrina asked cautiously.
“I don't know, it could be anything.”
“Like what,” she pressed.
Jon crossed his legs. “Anything dropped by people it killed and ate.” He held up a hand and began ticking items off on his fingers. “Coins for one thing; gold, silver, platinum maybe. Gems like diamonds, rubies, emeralds, rubies, and so on.” He grinned at Elric. “Magic stuff too; swords, potions, wands, who knows?”
Horace wobbled to his feet, eyes burning with excitement in his pale face. “If there is any treasure, we’ve certainly bled enough for it. My grandfather started our family fortune with treasure from a tribe of giants he helped get rid of. I say we go check it out.” His interest in money was still as strong as ever.
Jon bounced to his feet beside him. “Second the motion!”
A series of ‘ayes’ ran around the circle and they surged to their feet, gold lust writ large on their faces. They took up their weapons and packs and moved off down the trail of crushed vegetation left by the hydra.
It was surprisingly short.
In less than 200 cubits they came upon a dark, smelly tunnel emerging from a tangle of tree trunks and half-submerged boulders. Aaren cast Art on his hammer and it began glowing with a steady light. Holding it up like a torch they descended into the earth.
The floor of the tunnel was covered with slippery mud and tangled vines. Water dribbled down the earthen walls and unhealthy looking moss grew on the rocks. As they went deeper into the ground, the smell of rotting vegetation was soon replaced by the horrible odor of decomposing carrion.
Katrina wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Ugh. It stinks in here.”
Aaren grinned at her. “It’ll get worse before it gets better,” he assured her.
The bard pinched her nose shut. “Thanks,” she squeaked, trying to breathe through her mouth.
Aaren’s words proved true. A rotting pile of carrion blocked their way, forcing them to clamber over the hideous refuse. They moved with shrinking steps, trying to have as little contact with the noisome garbage as possible.
The tunnel took a sharp turn then opened up into a large empty cavern. Dripping water echoed in the darkness beyond Aaren’s light and the cool smell of wet dirt competed with the odors from above. After a brief discussion, they lit several torches and fanned out to explore the damp cavern. Standing pools of water impeded their search and exposed roots were ready to trip the unwary, but they gradually made progress.
They’d explored about half the cavern when Mira’s triumphant shout brought them stumbling eagerly across the treacherous floor.
They held their torches up to see where the ranger was pointing.
Mixed with the moldering bones of those less fortunate than themselves was a virtual sea of coins and jewelry. They glittered and gleamed in the torchlight, casting back cool shafts of brilliant light to tease and tantalize. Among the cascade of coins were other items; a pair of boots that looked new, several rings and daggers, two potion bottles, and a tightly bound scroll.
They grabbed each other and danced around. Jon dove into the pile of coins, laughing and rolling back and forth, throwing handfuls into the air. They whooped and laughed, pounding each other on the back, their recent trials and tribulations forgotten in the excitement of the moment. In the frenzy, Aaren grabbed Mira and kissed her passionately. Without thinking, she responded for an instant before she remembered. She pushed him away.
They froze, staring at each other in confusion. Mira shook his hands off and turned away.
Aaren stared after her, a pained expression on his face. He turned and wandered across the cavern, his excitement turned to ashes. He cursed low and feelingly, kicking at the ground.
The others gradually began to calm down and take stock of their find, unaware of Mira and Aaren’s new antipathy. Elric caught up the scroll, unrolling it and reading eagerly. He whooped in new excitement and pulled out his spellbook and writing tools. He sat down and began copying diligently, unable to keep a wide grin off his face despite his concentration.
Jon and Horace were bickering over the gems and jewelry, the dapper rogue proving to have an unexpected eye for quality and value. Katrina was trying on the various rings, holding her hands up to admire the look and feel. Mira poked desolately through the pile, more for appearance than from any real interest; the incident with Aaren had robbed her of any excitement over their find.
After a time they settled down to count their money. It turned out to be less than they’d originally thought. Most of the coins were copper, almost as heavy, and certainly as bulky, as gold. Given the limited weight the Wanderer could carry, they discarded the silver coins along with the copper. Still, they totaled up nearly a thousand gold crowns and a dozen gems, mostly uncut rubies. There were also two pearl necklaces.
“Not bad,” commented Horace when they were done. “Not as much as we first thought, but still, not bad.”
“And some magic to boot,” added Elric, gesturing at one of the rings, the potions, two daggers, and the pair of boots, all piled off to the side after he and Aaron had used their Sight to look for enchanted items.
“Yeah, but we don’t know what kind,” Jon complained.
“Don’t worry,” the mage told him. “There were two spells on that scroll, and one of them is for identifying the type of magic something has. I’ll start sorting things out in the morning.”
“What’s the other spell?”
“It’s the attunement spell. It attunes people to the magic frequencies so they can cast Art.”
Aaren wandered back over to the group, careful to avoid Mira’s eyes. “What about the potions?”
Elric shrugged. “I’ll sort them out as well,” he said, “unless you already know what they are.”
Aaren activated his Sight again, squatted down, and picked up one of them. It contained a light, blue liquid. “These look like healing potions.” He pried the cork out of it and sniffed delicately then dipped in a finger and touched it to his tongue. He nodded decisively and corked it again. He stood up. “They’re healing potions.”
Elric nodded, accepting his judgment. He scooped up the rest of the magic-bearing items and stuffed them in a sack. “I’ll start work on these later.”
Katrina and Horace fell to, dividing the gold into six evenly sized piles. “Here, everybody take their share.” They handed out empty sacks for them to fill. They tied off the jingling money sacks and put them in their backpacks.
Aaren felt himself coming somewhat back to life again as he swung his pack on. “Are we ready to get out of here then?” he asked as he cinched the straps down tight.
Everyone nodded and he led them back up to the surface. Emerging from the smelly confines of the tunnel with relief, they backtracked to the sight of their battle with the hydra. The dead bulk of the monster was already swarming with black clouds of insects. They gave the corpse a wide berth and pushed on into the jungle.
The rest of the day passed without incident. The muggy heat and the strain of the battle took its toll however, they moved ever more slowly as the shadows grew and lengthened. When they were forced to backtrack for the fourth time around a stagnant lake, Aaren called a rest. They shrugged off their packs as they settled wearily to the ground. “I think we’ve gone far enough for one day,” he said. “Why don’t we stop here? I think we’re just going in circles.”
Mira nodded agreement with him, too tired to care about their personal feud. “We are, there’s that stupid volcano again.” She pointed off to the north where a smoldering mountain poked its head above the humid jungle, black ash staining its crown. “I think we keep running into the same lake,” she concluded, referring to all the backtracking they’d been doing.
“Phooey on it then,” Katrina sighed. “Let’s get some rest and figure it out in the morning.”
A round of weary mutters agreed with her and Aaren accepted that as consensus. “Alright,” he said, “clear a campsite and we’ll turn in. I’ll take first watch.”
They kicked at some bushes, pulling them up by the roots to make room for their blankets. After a few minutes, they had a small area cleared, large enough for them to stretch out. They ate a cold meal of trail rations and were fast asleep within moments of laying their heads down.
The next morning dawned gray and overcast. Dark clouds scudded overhead and a cool breeze heralded the onset of a storm. The shared atmosphere of Heraup often carried moisture from the water worldlets to others, creating violent storms with little or no warning. The Knights ate breakfast hurriedly and broke camp, moving fast to find shelter from what looked to be the granddaddy of all thunderstorms.
The whole jungle seemed to be doing the same thing. Once, a crocodile 15 cubits long plunged by, close enough to touch, without paying them the slightest mind. Mira didn’t like the implications of it. “If a reptile is afraid of a storm we should be afraid too,” she told them seriously. “We better hope there are caves in that mountain or we’re in trouble.”
“Why would a crocodile be scared of rain?” Katrina puffed, short of breath from the harsh pace Mira was setting.
“Because,” Aaren paused to duck under a tree that had fallen across the trail they were following, “of lightning.” He helped her crawl under it. “A storm that size is sure to have a lot of it.”
As if to punctuate his words, a brilliant bolt of lightning lit the sky, followed by an earth-shaking roll of thunder an instant later. They felt their flesh vibrate from the sheer power of the sound.
Horace blinked his eyes to clear away the afterimages from the searing bolt. “Wow! Better hope one of those babies doesn’t hit you. You’d be fried on the spot!”
“That’s what the croc is afraid of,” Mira assured him. She broke out of the jungle at the base of the rounded mountain and paused, looking for signs of caves or tunnels, any possible safe haven from the building storm. It was a dead volcano, there had to be something –
“There! Up there,” she pointed, her sharp eyes picking out a tiny oval of darkness against the gray of the volcanic ash littering the mountainside. She set off across razor-edged obsidian and crumbling granite. The rest of them followed more slowly, cautious where she was sure-footed. The cool wind picked up speed on the bare flanks of the mountain and the temperature dropped rapidly. Lightning began to flash more often and fleeting drops of rain started to fall. “Come on!” Mira shouted above the gathering fury of the storm. “We’re almost there!”
They redoubled their speed, the wind whipping their cloaks up around them. The random drops of rain turned into a steady patter and the wind picked up even more. Lightning crashed directly overhead and the heavens opened up.
The deluge began in earnest.
Gale force winds screamed across the rain-slicked rocks, driving them back, hurling stinging rain in their faces. They leaned into the teeth of the storm, straining forward. Elric, smaller and frailer than the rest, was almost blown away, saved only by the strength of Horace’s powerful sword arm. He snagged Elric’s cloak and hauled him up the mountain.
Mira reached the shelter of the cave, glanced briefly inside then turned to help the others inside. They almost fell when they stepped in, no longer needing to lean against the driving winds. They stumbled in and threw themselves on the rocky floor, panting with effort and the sudden cold.
Lightning crashed just outside and they felt the mountain shiver beneath them. A hail of rocks fell on them, dislodged from the roof of the cave and they tensed, waiting for a cave-in. After a long moment, nothing happened and they relaxed again.
Elric rolled over and sat up, quivering from exhaustion, and looked around the cave they found themselves in. Lightning flickered, momentarily lighting up the cave and his eyes widened in alarm. “Uh oh.”
Katrina lifted her head wearily. “What’s ‘uh oh’?” she asked.
The rest of them sat up and followed his pointing finger toward the back of the cave. Illuminated by the flashes of lightning was an iron-bound door, nearly six cubits tall and wide enough for three men to walk abreast. Standing in front of it was a wide-eyed pirate staring at them in frozen shock.
As they scrambled to their feet the ragged pirate recovered his wits and hurled a dagger at them. Without waiting to see if it struck its target, he turned, pulled the heavy door open, darted through, and slammed it behind him.
“Don’t let him get away!” Horace yelled, whipping out his sword. “If there’s more he’ll warn them. After him!” Suiting actions to words, he sprang after the disappearing pirate.
The rest of the Knights pounded after him.
Jon was the last to follow. He pulled out his daggers, looked imploringly at the heavens, and sighed, “Here we go again!”