Erica, Treasure HunterbySoebek110©
Erica pressed her back against the crumbling stone wall, its sandstone face broken and scarred with centuries of disuse, and swept a strand of hair back over her ear. Around her, the low afternoon sun cast long shadows across the overgrown courtyard, ancient and undisturbed for generations. The walls marked out the borders of buildings that must have been vast, yet now their innards now stood bare to the elements, their windows long rotted through.
The temple was empty. She had encountered no one since she'd slipped into its confines, but it never hurt to be cautious. Indeed, that very emptiness leant the place an eerie feel, and Erica had to admit she did not feel entirely comfortable there. A sense of foreboding tingled through her, well-honed through years of adventuring, and she made sure her rapier was always within easy reach of her left hand.
Setting off again, she crept forward. The place was silent, abandoned, and she was wary. No one knew what the priests of the temple had worshipped. No books spoke of their deity or beliefs. Erica knew well that silence was usually the most dangerous faith of all; a religion so dark, so depraved, that it was banished from recorded history and doomed to fade from memory. And yet still she persevered.
She was an adventurer by trade, one of hundreds in this world. Yet she was no simple mercenary or sword-for-hire; she was more than a simple warrior who would stand guard outside a fat merchant's caravan for a silver piece an hour. She was an explorer, a daredevil, a discoverer of lost secrets. Hers were the hands that had brought ancient relics to historians across the land, who had returned tomes of lore to the libraries where they truly belonged, who had uncovered secrets the scholars had thought vanished in the mists of time.
And that was why she found herself creeping through these ruins. She had been trying to locate this place for a while, ever since she had seen reference to it in the great libraries of Ferdoria. A long-abandoned temple that held a great secret. Great secrets, she had learned, were not always good things, but they were almost always profitable ones.
She reached the end of the wall she had been skulking along, concealing herself in shadows, and crouched. Slowly leaning round she found the coast clear, and it was then that she saw the domed building. It was pure white, seemingly marble, and Erica bit her lower lip as she surveyed it. Such a quantity of marble would make her a rich woman indeed, but to her great annoyance there was no way she could take it with her. No, she would need to find something more... portable.
She trotted forwards quickly, advancing on the shimmering white dome, casting her eyes about for potential dangers. Seeing none, she skirted the building's walls. It was large, but only as large as a country house. She suspected that if the temple did indeed hold ancient secrets, they would be inside this building.
Erica walked carefully around the outside, keeping herself alert for any danger, until she found the door. She paused a moment to scan the perimeter of the opening for trap. Seeing none, she pushed it open.
It moved with a heaving creak, as if it had not been opened for generations. It was very likely it hadn't, she realised, stepping into the blackness beyond. No light shone here but for the sunbeams that followed her through the doorway, and she was on the shaded side of the building.
She reached into the pouch at her waist, fingering a small gold ring inside. It had been given to her many years before by a fellow adventurer and it allowed her to see in the dark. Yet it was not without its cost - to wear it was to illuminate her to anyone with magical sight, and that was not always a good idea. Debating with herself, she decided against putting it on, and pulled her fingers from the pouch and moved towards the centre of the room.
A staircase ran down, bending around to follow the line of the dome above her head. She placed her foot on the first step, testing it for strength and traps, and then slowly descended. Her leather boots were muffled on the marble beneath them, yet the utter silence that otherwise hung in the air made her footsteps sound like horse hooves.
Soon she found herself in darkness. Feeling along the walls she abruptly came to damp, earthy floor, and she paused. Deciding that her eyes would not adjust, she reached for the ring again. She could not see without it.
Shapes flared into view as she slipped it over the finger of her right hand. Dark, swirling shapes that seemed to crowd around her. And were closing in.
She cursed as she drew her rapier, ignoring the painful flare of light as it burst into flame along the blade. Immediately she was slashing at the first shape as it lunged towards her, the potent weapon in her grip slicing through the black miasma.
An unearthly shriek tore the air and the shimmering cloud of black vanished, but another was already in its place. The demons closed round, incorporeal but no doubt just as deadly. She did not intend to find out. Again she slashed out, again finding a target, and she rolled to the floor to avoid a cloud that swooped straight for her head.
Springing back onto her feet the rapier was a blur, hacking down two, three, four of the shapes. She whirled, a graceful dance of death, and with each outwards swipe another demon was banished from the mortal realm. Soon but a few remained, and she dispatched them quickly.
Erica sank back then, letting the rapier sag in her hands as fight ended. She gulped down air, angry at herself for being taken by surprise, before a flicker of movement caught her eye.
A black cloud began to form in the centre of the room. Then another. And another.
"Shit," she hissed, lifting the weapon once more. She could not stay here.
That was when the gold scroll casing caught her eye. Lying atop a pedestal in the corner of the room, it seemed almost unimportant, but she knew it was not. Someone had wanted any interlopers to gloss over it but Erica had been in too many dungeons to fall for such obvious misdirection. Lunging towards it she plucked it up, and then ran at full tilt towards the stairs.
She heard the shrieking of the demons as they materialised behind her, knew they would be hurtling after her. She bounded up the steps as quickly as she could, sure that the staircase had not been this long on the way down. Three full rings she ran, until at last she stumbled onto flat marble floor.
The doorway loomed large in front of her, the low evening sun seeming a blazing inferno to her magically-enhanced eyes. She took two steps towards it and jumped.
She rolled out into the temple grounds, spinning back behind her to squint at the entrance. The black clouds recoiled violently at the touch of sunlight, retreating into the darkness of the domed structure, and Erica sank down to her knees with relief.
She slipped the magical ring from her finger, the world at once seeming markedly dimmer, and gulped down air. Then slowly stood.
"Can I be of assistance?" a quiet voice said, and Erica spun on the spot, her rapier raised and ready in an instant.
A man stood there, tall and thin, a pointed goatee on his face and astonishingly green eyes smiling at her. A long, dusty coat dropped down to his ankles, tatty and black, and black boots climbed up his calves to his knees. The expression of extreme friendliness on his thin, reedy face seemed forced, lending him a suspicious air. Erica's rapier did not waver.
The man raised both palms placatingly. "I mean no harm," he smiled. "I'm only here to help."
Erica did not relax in the slightest. "Help how? Who are you?"
The man grinned. "I am Jaeron, spellcaster of the arcane and student of the past. These ruins" - he gestured around himself - "have been the focus of my attention for decades. It is rare to see another face in these parts."
"You live here?" Erica asked.
"I do, though not close enough that you would see me. It is too dangerous to live close. There are demons around." Jaeron stared hard at her, clearly expecting her to be taken aback by that statement. Of course, she was not -- she'd just fought a pack of demons moments before, after all. After a few seconds of silence, the tatty wizard continued. "Normally I warn adventurers away, but I did not see you, young lady. Yet I see you have taken something from the ruins." His gaze dropped to the scroll case in her right hand. "I would not recommend that. Everything in this place is cursed. If you remove that scroll case, you will be hunted by the demons."
Jaeron nodded. "Indeed, young lady. For your sake, it would be better if you were to give that case to me. I know that you have probably sought out the treasures here, but those lying amongst these ruins are too dangerous for one without the knowledge to protect themselves." He stretched out his hand, and his green eyes flashed with avaricious glee.
Erica stepped back. "No, thank you. I will keep this one to myself. I am sure I will be quite alright."
"You do not understand, young lady. You are in grave danger. You simply must hand that scroll case over," Jaeron said impatiently, taking an eager step towards her. He was no longer even looking at her, his eyes instead fixated upon the gleaming gold in her hand.
Erica gripped the rapier yet more tightly, pointing it towards Jaeron. She slipped the scroll case into her belt. "Back off."
He paused, a grimace twisting the corners of his mouth. Then he snarled, glaring at her and in a great swirl of his tatty coat raised his arms. "So be it!" he roared.
Blackness shimmered around Erica, tendrils of darkness and evil snaking and slipping across the ground. Then the tendrils coalesced, and for the second time that afternoon Erica found herself facing a demonic foe.
She cast her eye over the beasts. They looked like dogs, low and hunched, four legs stretched towards the ground, each ending in a viciously-clawed foot. Their snouts were pointed, their breathing heavy, and smoke rose from both their nostrils and their glowing red eyes. Fear seemed to try and grip her even as she looked upon them, and Erica had to steel herself from dropping to her knees in terror. Hellhounds! her mind screamed.
Moments later, the closest lunged towards her, and Erica barely had time to react from its charge. She dropped to her right, swiping upwards with her rapier as she did so. As the palm of her right hand impacted on the dirt, the rapier was almost jolted from her left as it pierced the demon's thick hide. The enchanted blade flared at the impact, but sank deep nonetheless.
She pushed herself to her feet, watching the beast writhe in pain, and turned to face the remaining two hellhounds, which had begun to circle her. She stepped back, keeping them in front of her.
It was then, taking advantage of her rapt attention, that a winged shape blurred in front of her, snatching the scroll case from her belt and darting out of reach before she could grasp it back. She watched it with horror as it swooped back to Jaeron, landing deftly on his shoulder and dropping the gold casing into his hands. She recognised the creature as an imp, a common familiar for wizards who had become warlocks, and it did not surprise her that Jaeron had kept it out of sight when he first introduced herself -- it would have given him away in an instant.
As she ducked from another lunge by the closest of the two remaining hellhounds, Jaeron cackled. Why do evil wizards always have to cackle? she grimaced, before shielding her face from a blast of heat as a great surge of fire surrounded the man.
Moments later, the flames receded, leaving nothing but a blackened patch of ground. The wizard, his familiar, and the golden scroll case were all gone.
Erica could not focus on that for long, however, distracted as she was by the two hellhounds who remained behind. They circled her, and she whirled in place, preparing for any attack. It came moments later, both beasts surging forwards simultaneously, their jaws parting as they tried to tear her apart.
She jumped, flipping towards the demon in front of her, landing on its back and thrusting down with her rapier. It met flesh and bone, cutting through both, and the hellhound jerked violently as the blade severed its head.
The movement threw Erica from the beast's body, and though she landed with a grace that could not be expected from someone tossed from the back of a dying demon, it was not enough to prevent the third demon from sinking its teeth into her leg.
She screamed, feeling the beast ripping flesh, and brought the rapier down hard. Again, it cut flesh, the third and final hellhound spasming as her weapon ended its life, and yet that only seemed to cause it to bite harder. She almost passed out from the pain.
Suddenly, the demon was still. Its jaws went slack and she pulled her bleeding calf from its mouth, watching as all three hellhounds sizzled and dissolved, their corporeal forms useless and broken.
Erica gulped down air, sitting a moment to recover her breath, before reaching into her pack. Glancing around to make sure she was not in any further danger, she fumbled around inside. A small sigh escaped her lips as she withdrew a small figurine. It was shaped like a woman in a long dress, her arms raised to the sky, and was made from a pristine white stone that she did not recognise. She had found it in ancient ruins many years ago, and had made use of it many times since. Decades spent as an adventurer tended to allow one to build up a collection of useful magical artifacts.
This one was decidedly useful indeed. Cool to the touch and about three inches tall, Erica tightly wrapped her fist around the figurine. Then she closed her eyes, reaching out with her mind to find the figure, and tapped into it. Inside was a well of energy, glowing bright in her mind, and though she had no magical talent that she knew of, she had been assured by a learned friend that these figurines had been created so that anyone could use them; they were blank slates with which to fill with any sort of magic one desired, allowing those who normally could not cast spells to have limited access to a form of sorcery.
In Erica's case, she had asked a priest to imbue it with holy energy, and that was what now flowed liberally into her limbs, soothing the pain of her wounded leg and knitting shut her wounds. Her tiredness evaporated, too, the aching in her limbs caused by an afternoon's vicious fighting seeping away as the holy energy invigorated her.
When she felt substantially better, she released her grip on the figure, holding it loosely as she inspected her leg. The leather had been punctured in numerous places by the hellhound's powerful jaws, but the skin underneath was healed and smooth once more. She grinned, dropping the figure back into her pack, and then pulled out a scroll case.
She puffed out her cheeks in hopefulness, then popped off the cap and slid the parchment from within. Unrolling the paper, the grin widened on her face. The case had been a gift from an old friend of hers many years before, and had been enchanted so that any other parchment that it was placed next to was replicated inside near-instantaneously. By hooking the gold scroll case onto her pouch, this copy had been created immediately.
The writing was almost nonsensical to Erica, but she could make out some. It seemed an ancient form of demonic, which unsurprisingly she neither spoke nor understood, but enough similarities existed with the modern forms that she was able to pick out the basics. A lifetime of adventuring required at least a passing knowledge of numerous languages, and Erica certainly had that.
Scanning the parchment, it became apparent to her that what was displayed was a map of sorts, and the writing pointed her towards a sealed cavern in the mountains south of here. Tilting her head, she could see those peaks -- they were already in the foothills -- and it made sense that the priests of this abandoned temple might have hidden their most precious treasures outside of the temple grounds, but still fairly nearby.
What caught her attention the most, however, was the nature of the treasure itself. It seemed, from her basic translation, to be a very powerful demonic amulet, and she pursed her lips at the realisation. Had she known that beforehand, she would likely have left the scroll case undisturbed -- such demonic amulets could usually fetch very good prices, but those who bought them almost always intended ill once they had the artifact. Good or money or not, Erica would not aid evil in its quest to harm and destroy.
Yet, unknowingly or not, she had aided evil. Jaeron had clearly been unable to enter the temple himself, otherwise he would have taken the scroll case himself many years before. She did not doubt that he had been studying the ruins all that time; likely he had been desperately waiting for someone just like her to remove the scroll case so that he could take it from them.
What he would do when he obtained the amulet did not bear thinking about, and with a new resolve Erica pushed herself to her feet. She tested the limb, pleased to note that it felt as healthy as it ever had, and then began marching towards the edge of the temple grounds. She had to stop Jaeron; any evil he committed once the amulet was in his hands was as a direct result of her actions. She could not allow that to come to pass.
She would not.
Erica stared at the scroll once more, reassuring herself that she was on the right track. She was well and truly in the Ilosp Mountains now, the location of the cavern somewhere fairly close. She'd been riding flat-out for almost two days, grateful for the stamina her horse displayed in that time. Most other mounts would have collapsed by now, and Erica could not afford to delay. Jaeron could already have his hands on that amulet.
The track beneath her mount's feet dwindled to nothing; any traces of the lingering dirt path becoming overgrown with grass and reclaimed by the wilderness. Erica had no doubt that this had been well-travelled centuries past. She was approaching her target, of that she was sure.
A rocky outcrop came into view on her right hand side a few minutes later and she pulled out the map once more. The views from here were spectacular; great valleys stretched away to her left, the mountains rising further on her right. Forest dotted the lower reaches of the mountain range, but at her height only a few sparse trees remained. The air seemed thinner; it had been a hard climb.
Two things were obvious: her horse needed to rest and she needed to approach the cavern stealthily. With that thought in mind, she climbed down, leading the animal to the outcrop. There, she let it loose. The beast would not travel far - she had done this many times before and always returned to find her horse waiting for her - but it would not be trapped by rope, either, were the worst to happen to her. Then she made her way back to the overgrown path and walked briskly forwards. She was minutes away.
Surely enough, a looming rock formation soon came into view. Erica flattened herself to the ground, her fingers flexing in case they needed to grasp her weapons at a moment's notice. Edging forwards, she took in the sight. The ground sloped away beneath her, the track seeming to wind it's way like a serpent down towards a stretch of flat ground. A great cliff rose up beyond that, and set into its face rested the opening of a cavern.
It looked natural enough to her eyes, although figures and runes had been carved into the rock around it. No doubt the priests of the temple had added those decorations after discovering the cavern already formed. It would not surprise her to learn that they believed the system had been created especially for them by their demented gods; such delusion was common amongst the more crazed cults she had encountered.