By EM Malachi
The damp air on the ship had brought out the mildewed smell of Rankin’s spellbooks. The mage struggled to cram the last tome into his pack. He eventually gave up and removed some clothes to make room. As he dragged the heavy bag to the rowboat, Rankin looked at the others who were preparing to go ashore. Two porters were doing inventory of cured meats and hardtack for the expedition. A bulky gargoyle named Forskis was staring up at the sky. Hook was giving some last minute orders to the crew of the Crown Jewel. The pirate lord was excited. If this expedition went well, the secret that the Guild’s leadership had kept for generations would soon be in his hands.
The expedition had made good progress on the first day, but on the second, disaster struck. They had felt tremors all morning, but thought nothing of them. Hook heard the roar first. He shouted a warning as a river of lava flowed through the jungle around them. Rankin’s panic led to a hasty teleport spell, while Hook and Forskis scrambled out of the way. The two porters had nowhere to run. Only one of them managed to scream.
As the survivors caught their breath, they took stock of the situation. The lava flows cut off the most direct route to their destination. Studying the map, Rankin considered the alternatives. “Not good. We’ll need to go days out of our way, and the safest route will take us at least a week. “
“That’s unacceptable. Even if we had the provisions, I cannot be off ship that long. An unwatched crew is a mutinous one.”
“This path is shorter, but it might be blocked as well. Can your gargoyle scout ahead?” Rankin made flapping wings with his hands.
Forskis shook his head and pointed to jagged scars along his wing patagium.
“Hook, you brought a winged gargoyle that can’t fly? Of all the things! A wingless would have been a stronger porter.”
Forskis snarled and took a step forward, but Hook put a hand out to stop him. “Don’t insult my friend. Like you, he has unconventional value.”
Forskis picked up what remained of the dead men’s supplies and trudged into the jungle.
Rankin was complaining about wanting a clean shirt, when Forskis held up a fist. The path in front of them came close to a brackish stream. At the edge was a giant blue-green creature with the shape of a salamander. Forgetting his complaints for a moment, Rankin exclaimed, “A Triton!”
The triton’s eyes followed their movement, and opening its maw, the beast started to slither toward them. Hook and Rankin prepared for a fight, when Forskis stopped them. “Mine.”
The gargoyle drew a pair of curved knives and charged forward. His first stab took one of the eyes. The triton tried to close its jaw around Forskis to crush him, but the flurry of blades left jagged cuts along the creature’s flank. In agony, the triton gave up and tried to retreat, but Forskis wrapped an arm around its body and kept stabbing until long after it was dead.
Hook laughed. “See why I brought him?”
Staring at the rock face, Hook scowled. “The map says it’s right here.”
Rankin closed his eyes and focused for a moment. “The mana in this location feels strange. There is an entry here, but a spell is concealing it.” Opening his eyes, Rankin sat on the ground and started removing the library in his bag.
“How long is this going to take?” asked Hook.
Rankin already had his nose in a book. “Let me work.”
Rankin had tried several standard counter-spells and poured water on the wall, but nothing at all had happened. Impatient, Hook had Forskis smashing large rocks against the wall. Consulting his books again, Rankin took a length of golden cord from his pack and started chanting.
He whipped out the thin cord, and BOOM! Where the end had struck the wall, explosive magic was crumbling rock and burning away the spells there. When the smoke cleared, there was a cave mouth.
Lighting a makeshift torch on a dying ember, Rankin gave a sweeping bow. “Fire cultists are such passionate teachers.”
They followed the narrow stone tunnel to a chamber which contained a large stone box. On its top was etched the inscription: “A Lawless Lord is the Crooked Key.” There was also an indentation in the shape of a keyhole. Forskis reached to pull off the stone top, but jumped back in extreme pain.
Rankin examined the reliquary. “A minor magical trap. Give me a minute to disrupt it.” He read a chant from a book and focused the spell toward the stone chest. The mana from the spell rebounded onto Rankin. The mage fell to the ground as the arcs of energy wracked his body with pain. Forskis grabbed a bedroll and smothered the mana sparks, thumping the mage against the hard stone floor.
Catching his breath, Rankin thanked him. Forskis tossed the singed bedroll away and shrugged. “Hook said you can’t die. Yet.”
Hook read the inscription again. “What does it mean?”
Rankin picked himself off the ground. “I think it’s a bloodline key. Budo the Second wanted only his line to be able to open it.”
“It mentions a lord. Rule of the Den is not passed by family, but by vote.” Hook took out a knife and made a cut. He smeared his blood against the lock. The stones of the reliquary opened, revealing what was inside: the Rune of Valor.