Ruin Explorers: The Million Bright Ambassadors
By Six-string Samurai (S3Cubed)
The windswept landscape at the base of the mountain was a tableau of silent gray and white. Not a single sign of wildlife anywhere, yet, the mountain was thick with spiritual energy. The frigid air was restless, and for the first time in a long while, Fam was beginning to annoy her taller companion with her complaints.
"I don't think we're supposed to be here." The bundled up blonde's words were almost completely muffled by the layers of cloth that was supposed to be keeping the freezing cold at bay.
Ihrie could hear her just fine, mostly since Fam had nearly plastered herself to Ihrie's side. Ihrie had almost lost the warmth of her cloak earlier because Fam had tried to fit inside too. "I'm not giving up, just because you have a bad feeling. That map was expensive, and it hasn't led us wrong yet."
The raven haired explorer was about to expound her point when a particularly sharp gust tore at her cloak. Pulling the cloth tighter about herself, she moved closer to the face of the mountain where she hoped the wind would be obstructed by the jutting rocks. "We should be close to the path."
"You said that back when I could still feel my toes."
"Stop complaining and help me look. The faster we find that path, the quicker we can get inside. It's bound to be warmer in the cave." Ihrie pressed on, doing her best not to lose her footing on the larger rocks that were haphazardly strewn about. With the ground as uneven as it was, Fam ended up putting a little more room between herself and the nearest source of warmth.
It didn't take much longer before the two literally stumbled upon the maps so called path. Ihrie smirked beneath her scarves, and shot Fam an I told you so look. Not that it was much of a way up, or even that clearly marked. But, it was certainly not natural. If anything, it appeared as if someone had hewn a horribly uneven stairway out of the mountainside, a very thin and windy stairway at that. "Let's go Fam." Both girls carefully started up into the mountain, hoping the cave wasn't too high up.
The entrance to the cave was barred by a large wooden door that stretched several hand spans above Ihrie's head. Luckily, the staircase had eventually worn a deep enough path into the mountainside to block out all but the bitterest chill, with the wind itself nonexistent. This gave the girls a small reprieve and let them warm up enough to check the entry thoroughly.
The worn oak was fairly plain, and the only bit that caught their attention was a depression in the wood near the center of the door, where it appeared something once had been inlaid. The shape of the missing piece looked vaguely familiar to Ihrie, but it wasn't until Fam started jumping up and down excitedly that she recalled just what it reminded her of.
"Ihrie, it's the," Fam started to interject.
"Don't you dare touch that!"
It was an outline of the Satori Dragon. But, where was the three-eyed effigy?
"I wasn't going to touch anything Ihrie," the cat-girl's pout was obvious even through the layers of cloth. "It's just the spot where it goes anyway."
"Maybe. I just don't want a repeat of last time," the taller girl grumped in return. "We do need to find a way in though. It's not getting any warmer out here."
Fam's slight form wobbled as if she were nodding affirmation. "I can't feel my tail."
Ihrie paid the complaints little attention as she attempted to give the door an experimental shove. The wood creaked a little, but otherwise showed no sign of budging. There wasn't any handle, or place to get a good enough grip to pull on the door, so she left it at that. It didn't look like they were going to just force their way in, and she wasn't going to risk casting a spell. It was cold enough in her current form; she didn't even want to consider the short work the weather would make of her in a tiny rat body.
There was Fam of course, but asking her was pretty much out of the question as well. The Wiggan had been going on about the upset spirits the whole trek up to the mountain, and Ihrie had been around the girl long enough to know that Fam was very rarely willing to even risk upsetting the spirits with outright destruction.
"I didn't come all this way for nothing," Ihrie mumbled to herself, as she pulled a satchel out from beneath her robes, and dug for the map.
"Ihrie!" Fam's eyes widened as her partner held the map up nearly to her own nose to read it in what little daylight remained. Tiny words were scrawled on the back of the thick leather parchment.
"Quiet, I'm trying to read this. You can see it when I'm done."
"No! Ihrie, there's words," Fam reached out and tapped the back side of the map.
"Yeah, and I can't read 'em when you're poking the map. Hey!" Ihrie blinked as the map was snagged out of her hands. "What do you think you're doing Fam!" Her outrage was short lived as the cat-girl shoved the map right back in Ihrie's face.
"See! There's more on the back!"
Pulling it from her face, Ihrie was about to start yelling, when she found the other girl was right. "Hmm," she skimmed the glyphs, nodding to herself.
"Does it say how to get in? Maybe there's a secret passage."
Ihrie nodded a few more times, before handing the map over to the blonde. "I thought so."
Fam eagerly took the map, but found that the tiny script might as well have been scribbles for all that she could make out. "But, what does it say?"
"Why would I know, if you can't read it? It looks like some kid got a hold of the map and drew all over the back."
"But, Ihrie, you said you could read it," Fam was confused.
"No, all I said was I thought so. I thought it was just a bunch of doodles and I was right," she sighed, slumping against the wall.
"Now what are we supposed to do?" Fam's ears drooped in exasperation.
There was a soft click from the wall behind Ihrie, whose eyes widened as she slowly turned around. "Tell me that wasn't a trap."
"Fam," the swordswoman cried out as the young wiggan dropped out of sight into the hole that opened up in the middle of the ground in front of the door. She ran over to the edge in time to see her friend tumble headfirst down the stairway that had been uncovered. "Only stairs. I thought it was a pitfall," Ihrie consoled herself as she started down into the darkness. It was a relief to know some things did change over time. "Fam, are you okay? I'll be there in a second."
Unfortunately, her words rang true as she found out the hard way that the stairs were worn quite smooth, causing her to mistake her footing and tumble the rest of the way down. When she finally rolled to a stop at the base of the stairway she found herself looking up at a likewise battered Fam.
"Hey, it's a lot brighter in here than I expected. Warmer too."
Fam was too busy gingerly extracting her tail from her clothes to notice. "I think I broke it," the cat girl cradled her tail while trying to locate the source of the pain. "Owie. Ihrie, I landed wrong on my tail."
Ihrie pulled at her scarves, undoing the wrap so that she could breath. It wasn't just warm in the cavern, but stuffy and humid. "Let me see," she went over and inspected the injured appendage. "I don't think there's a right way to land on your tail, Fam."
"It's not funny. It really hurts."
"I wasn't trying to make a joke. But, if it makes you feel any better, I don't feel any breaks. Maybe you just sprained it. Try not to wiggle it around so much." Ihrie really didn't see a way to keep Fam from accidentally doing so, and decided the wiggan was just going to have to deal with it. She told her as much.
Ten minutes and not a little bellyaching later, found the girls wandering down the main corridor of the cavern. They'd discovered that the source of the ambient light was a soft fungal growth on the walls of the cave, probably due to the abnormal warmth and moisture present in the air. Fam had decided to run her hands along the fuzzy wall, and found that her fur came away faintly glowing, which amused her enough to take her mind off her sore tail for a few moments. Ihrie hadn't found it quite as funny, since Fam kept trying to ruffle Ihrie's hair with the glowing powder.
Eventually, the novelty wore off and the pair continued in silence, doing their best to watch for any sign of danger.
The cavern seemed to stretch on forever, and considering the size of the mountain, it was likely that they might end up walking a few miles before reaching the end. But that wasn't the case, as the corridor eventually widened considerably, and the sight stopped the girls in their tracks.
They found themselves staring out at a huge underground lake. The bed of the lake must've been covered in the same fungus as the rest of the cavern since the steaming waters pulsed a bright orange hue.
"It's so pretty," Fam broke the silence.
"Now we know why it's so warm down here," Ihrie looked out across the water, squinting to see through the clouds of steam that obscured most of the surface. "Looks like some kind of giant hot spring. What do you think?" She turned toward her companion, who was painstakingly trying to shed the outer layers of thick garments without stressing her tail any more than necessary. "Uh, Fam, what are you doing?"
"I'm all stuffy in these things." Fam wrestled for a moment with the scarves that were caught around an arm and one of her ears.
The swordswoman shrugged, figuring it was probably because the other girl was covered in a fine layer of fur. Ihrie herself was fine, once she'd loosened her heavy cloak. It wasn't that bad. That's when some of the distant clouds of steam thinned out, providing a brief glimpse of rocky ground too close to be the other shore. "Did you see that?"
"What? Was it the treasure?" Fam finally untangled herself, but missed seeing anything.
"Maybe. There's something out there, an island, or it could just be a big rock."
They waited a little longer, just in case the steam thinned again. If anything, it was harder to see across than before.
"How're we supposed to get over there?" Ihrie watched as Fam knelt down close to the water's edge.
"I don't feel any magic coming from the water. And it doesn't seem to be very deep. Look, it's clear once you get the steam out of the way." Fam demonstrated by waving her arm out over the water.
And she was right. The glowing fuzz on the rock bed was clearly visible, and was at most only a meter deep. Not that there was any way of telling if there was a sudden drop off hidden within the rolling haze.
"Think there's anything swimming around out there Fam?"
"Like fish? Seems kind of hot for that."
"Hmm, you're probably right. I've never seen fish in a hot spring before. I'm surprised there's that fungus, or moss, whatever, growing in there." Ihrie turned toward the cat-girl, who was starting to laugh. "What's so funny now?"
"Ihrie, think we'll turn orange if we go for a swim?" Fam recalled how her fingers had retained a bit of the glow for a little while after she'd brushed the wall. She'd wanted her friend to try it too, since it appeared a harmless bit of fun, but now the image of an Ihrie glowing orange from head to foot was almost too much to bear.
Ihrie, for her part, was thinking along the same lines, now that Fam had mentioned it, and found the image much less amusing. "I hope not. That crap didn't come off your fingers right away, and I don't want to walk back into town like some kind of overgrown firebug.
That only set Fam to giggling harder.
"Okay, when you calm down, think you can do away with these clouds so we can see where to go?"
Fam nodded as her eyes sparkled with tears of laughter.
Once Fam's wind spell died down, the girls were able to see across the lake almost in its entirety. It was very wide, and looked about the same depth all the way across, save for one bit. An island rose near the middle of the lake, barely breaking the surface. However, it was what stood on that island that decided their course of action.
Three stone columns flanked what appeared to be some kind of table or pedestal in the center. Neither Ihrie, nor Fam was able to see clearly enough if there was something of value there, but at this point, the possibility alone was worth it.
"All right, let's get going Fam!"