About an hour later, the companions were back at the shore of the large pond and had set up camp. They had been very careful not to run into the megaraptors again, not now that they were all covered in blood and grime and probably smelled like good prey to the large reptiles. Also, Kyle was carrying the head of the megaraptor he had decapitated with him, which was just as likely to attract the attention of other predators.
“I still don't quite understand why that other beast didn't just run away,” Ruzzella mused. “Weren't we scary enough, or what?”
“I don't think that was your fault,” Kyle said. “My guess is that the one megaraptor who stayed behind was the second-highest in that pack's hierarchy.”
Emrald raised an eyebrow. “And their instincts tell these megaraptors to help their pack leader when it gets in trouble?”
“Quite the contrary. Their instinct tell them to eat the pack leader when they get the chance.”
“To eat the-”
Kyle nodded. “That's how pack leadership passes on. When the pack leader gets old and weak, or becomes too injured to lead the pack, the second-highest in rank among the megaraptors kills it and eats the red comb on its head. A few days after devouring it, that megaraptor grows a red comb itself and becomes the new pack leader.”
“Fascinating,” Emrald said. “But, say, if we now killed both the pack leader and its second-in-command, and if you're carrying that head with the red comb – what happens to the rest of the pack.”
“It will disband in a few days and be much less of a threat than before.” Kyle smiled. “The megaraptors usually find themselves a small territory to hunt individually. In fact, that's what I believe what happened to that black one you're hunting. A straggler, from a disbanded pack. Probably not much of a threat.”
“Well,” Seyran reminded him, “maybe not for you, since you're trained to hunt monsters.”
Kyle shrugged. “You didn't seem to have too much trouble with the one you had to face either.”
“Yeah, but that time, we were able to ambush the pack, and attack at night, and take advantage of your scouting the place in advance. There's no telling it will be as easy when we face the next one.”
“Then make it that easy,” Kyle said. “Prepare your attack like I prepared mine, and you'll bring down your prey in no time. I mean, you're three people, and I'm only one!”
“What Seyran is trying to say”, Emrald explained, “is that unlike you, we have neither the skills nor the experience to plan out a hunt quite as well as you do. We will definitely need your help.”
Kyle smiled. “And you have it. That was our deal, wasn't it? You help me with my megaraptor, I help you with yours.”
“Well,” Seyran said, “you just made it sound as though you didn't think we needed your help.”
“I wanted you to have a little confidence in your own fighting skills,” Kyle replied. “The three of you brought down a megaraptor without too much trouble. That's quite impressive, trust me. I really don't think you're going to need my help, that's correct. But that doesn't mean you won't get it. I don't mind a little more fighting.”
Ruzzella grinned, showing off all her pointy teeth. “Just help us find our black megaraptor and plan an attack. I don't mind if you leave the actual fighting to us.”
“And let you have all the fun?” Kyle laughed. “Not a chance!”
The next morning, the companions broke camp at early dawn. Even though the hunt for Kyle's megaraptor had taken them halfway around the pond, they still had a few hours of journey ahead of them. According to Emrald's calculations, they would be able to reach the temple in the early afternoon without exhausting themselves too much, but that required an early start into the day.
And so they were on their way, Seyran and Kyle imitating Emrald in stoically ignoring Ruzzella's bothered grumbling about this hour of the day being much too early to be walking. Kyle had tried joking that the morning hours were best for cats to be hunting, but that had only earned him an annoyed hiss and an angry look from her, and he had decided not to push his luck any further.
Her mood improved with the rising sun, though, and she was soon back to her usual cheerful self, humming as she marched ahead as usual and taking in the sounds and smells of the nearby forest. The others walked silently behind her, and while Kyle seemed to have his attention focused on any signs of something unusual on their path, Emrald seemed to be a little lost in thought, or at least his face gave that impression.
Seyran decided to fall back a little and side with him. “Copper for your thoughts, Emrald?”
“Mh?” Emrald looked at him.
“You seem to be contemplating something. Care to tell me what it is?”
Emrald smiled weakly. “I'm just trying to think up a strategy for when we encounter that black megaraptor we're looking for.”
Seyran looked surprised. “What was wrong with our last strategy?”
“Nothing, but that time, we were out in the open. Our megaraptor's hiding in the temple ruins, remember?”
“So you think we need another approach?”
“That's what I'm contemplating,” Emrald nodded. “We haven't really done a lot of fighting together, and while I'm quite sure Ruzzella's not going to stick to any battle plan we make anyway, we should at least consider how to use our surroundings to our best advantage.”
Seyran nodded. “I hope we have at least a little space around us when we're in that temple. Both you and I fight best when we have some room to swing our weapons. Ruzzella – well, she can just get into someone's face if she wants to.”
“Ruzzella likes to have some space to move in too,” Emrald disagreed. “Her fighting style revolves around jumps and pounces, and I don't think it's as efficient if-”
“Did someone say my name?” Ruzzella suddenly purred behind them, startling both Seyran and Emrald.
“Um, yeah, as a matter of fact...”
“You weren't trying to talk about me behind my back, were you?” Ruzzella was grinning, but it was one of her grins that showed off as many of her teeth as possible. Seyran was never quite sure whether she actually meant it as a threat.
Fortunately, Emrald managed to remain his usual calm self. “We were just discussing battle strategy for the hunt, and how to best include you.”
“Bah, battle strategy!” Ruzzella laughed. “You really are a worry-wart! We just faced one of these beasts, and we killed it with no trouble whatsoever! That black one won't be different.”
“No trouble whatsoever?” Emrald shook his head. “You had to switch to your full flame-form in order to fight it, Ruzzy.”
Ruzzella rolled her eyes. “I didn't have to. I chose to.”
“Still, you know you can't keep that form up for more than a few seconds before it's starting to burn you from the inside. I really don't want to see you hurt.”
“Then we're just going to have to be quick about taking down our target.”
“And that,” said Seyran, “is why we need a plan.”
Ruzzella grinned at him, and this time, it was a much friendlier grin than before. “Don't you know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy?”
Seyran nodded. “Oh, I do know that. But don't you know what happens to people who don't have a plan?”
“Instead of their plan, it's them who don't survive first contact with the enemy.”
“Aw, man, you're no fun,” Ruzzella complained and returned to marching ahead of her companions.
Around noon, the little party arrived at the pier Emrald had told them about, and from there, the path to the temple was easily visible. The bushes and ferns that grew on the edge of the forest had been hacked down recently, probably by the last group of people trying to conduct the sacrificial rites. Strangely, the boat that they seemed to have taken was still moored on this side of the pond. Shouldn't they have used it on their journey back?
Seyran wanted to point that out to his companions, but they were already standing at the beginning of the path into the forest, discussing walking order, with Ruzzella insisting she take the lead whereas Kyle argued that his greater experience in hunting monsters made him the natural scout now that they were approaching their destination. Eventually, everything worked out as it usually did, and Ruzzella got what she wanted and climbed into the treetops. On the ground, Emrald walked ahead, while Seyran and Kyle took the rear guard.
“Is she always this stubborn?” Kyle asked Seyran after a few minutes into the Darkwoods, when he was certain Ruzzella wouldn't be overhearing them.
Seyran nodded. “She is,” he agreed in the same lowered voice, “but I supposed that isn't entirely her fault. She was raised by a dwarf.”
“Oh – that explains a lot.” Kyle chuckled. “So not everyone of her species is as headstrong, I suppose?”
“Ruzzy's the only one of her species I know,” Seyran admitted.
Kyle raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“That's... peculiar,” Kyle mused.
“Because she's the only one of her species I've encountered so far as well.”
Kyle nodded. “I thought that maybe it was because her people only lived down here, in the south, but then you should have met more of her kind. What is her species called, anyway?”
“Catfolk, I suppose,” Seyran said, “or at least that's how gramps calls them. And if they have another name, I guess even Ruzzy wouldn't know it. I mean, as she wasn't raised among her people.”
“I see,” Kyle said and smiled. “You're an odd bunch, you three, you know that?”
Now it was Seyran's turn to raise an eyebrow. “Odd? How so?”
“You're a young warrior, naturally gifted but not really trained in a specific style of combat-”
“Is that so obvious?”
Kyle nodded. “It is, from your movements and your posture. You've never been trained in how to properly hold a weapon, but you've found a way that works for you.”
“And about your friends,” Kyle continued, “Ruzzy is from a species I hadn't even heard about, and Emrald is a goliath, right?”
“There can't be more than a hundred goliaths living all throughout Moentes,” Kyle said. “They are a dying race.”
“Dying?” Seyran looked towards Emrald walking ahead of him, then back at Kyle. “What from?”
Kyle shrugged. “No one knows,” he said, “but apparently, there are hardly any goliaths born any longer. It's a real tragedy. For many centuries, goliaths were among the greatest monster hunters in the world.
“I see,” Seyran said.
“So,” Kyle concluded, “when I say you three are an odd bunch, that is because you're three people from three different species of which two are really rare to encounter. And what's even stranger is that you even seem to be good friends.”
Seyran laughed. “That wouldn't seem so strange to you if you knew them better.”
“If you knew Emrald better, you'd understand that it's impossible not to like him. He's the most reliable, loyal and trustworthy person in the whole wide world. And if you knew Ruzzella better...”
“You'd either be best friends with her, or you'd have killed her for being a huge pain in the-”
“Hey, I can hear you!” Ruzzella yelled from above, and Seyran decided not to finish his sentence.
Though the companions were able to pick up a good walking speed, the path to the forest temple was longer than they had expected. It was obvious that ages ago, people had lived here; the trees were younger than those on the other side of the pond, and between them, there was sometimes an old rotting stump left, signs of someone cutting lumber many, many years ago.
The good thing was that this part of the Darkwoods wasn't quite as dark as the one the companions had come through the day before, and even someone with worse vision than Ruzzella could easily see the path ahead of them. The bad thing was that the forest around here seemed eerily quiet in comparison. Where bird voices had accompanied them as soon as the rain had stopped, it was as still as in a crypt here, and only the rustling of the wind in the leaves (and Ruzzella in the branches above them) joined the sound of their feet on the forest ground.
After over an hour, Ruzzella suddenly called to them. “I see it! There it is!”
Seyran looked up, trying to spot her. “The temple?”
“No, the great pyramid of Ar-Akask” Ruzzella scowled. “Of course it's the temple! What did you expect?”
The companions increased their pace, and a minute later, the forest opened into a large clearing, and before them, a massive stone wall rose from the ground, at least twenty feet in height, and in that wall a large gate opened, its sides flanked with crumbling statues that seemed to resemble ugly, grimacing faces. The grayish rock of the structure was overgrown with mossy green, and a multitude of plants grew out of the gaps between the stones.
But what impressed Seyran most wasn't the height of the wall, or its apparent age - it was its size. The wall stretched several hundred feet to either side, and behind it, the crumbling tops of larger buildings could be seen. Right behind the gate, there seemed to be a larger open space, and then something that looked like a really elaborate, though equally mossy, stone structure.
“Wow,” he said. “That's not just a temple. That's an entire temple city.”
Above in the treetops, there was a rustle of leaves, and then Ruzzella landed next to him. “Quite impressive, isn't it?”
“It is,” Seyran agreed. “I had no idea there was something as big as that in the Darkwoods.”
“I saw drawings of it in a book once,” Emrald said, “but I hadn't expected these dimensions either. This is truly impressive.”
Kyle skeptically looked at the structure and scratched his head. “So, this is a temple?” he said. “For what kind of gods?”
“Ancient gods that were worshipped in these lands before settlers from the north founded Vael”, Emrald explained. “Their names have been forgotten, but by the traditions of our village, we still bring a yearly sacrifice to them.”
“That's not what I meant when I asked what kind of gods this temple was built for.”
“Mh?” Emrald turned to him.
Kyle pointed to the statues of grimacing faces. “I mean, look at that. Are these the kind of gods you worship so they bring you good luck and fertility, or are these the kinds of gods you worship so they don't eat you?”
“Speaking of which,” Ruzzella said, “it's definitely past lunchtime now. Let's have a quick snack and then get in there and kill that megaraptor.”
“I agree about that snack,” Seyran said, “but we should first make sure this is a safe place to make camp. Or maybe we should even go in there and see if can't find some shelter behind this wall.”
Kyle shook his head. “I'm afraid we won't be going in there,” he said. “At least not through this gate.”
“What?” Seyran blinked at him in confusion. “Why not?”
“Take a closer look.”
Seyran did as Kyle suggested, and then he saw it too: the archway was blocked with what looked a little like a spider's web, though more circular than that of a typical cellar spider, and definitely much bigger. It covered the entire gate, with definitely not enough room for someone to slip through the gaps in the web.
“What kind of spider makes webs this size?”
“Who cares?” Ruzzella laughed. “It's just a web! Let's get it out of the way and move on.”
Kyle shook his head. “That's not an option, really.”
“Oh, it isn't?” Ruzzella snorted and walked towards the gate. “Watch me.”
But Ruzzella had already lashed out at the web with a clawed hand. And gotten it stuck.
Kyle sighed and walked towards her. “When I tell you it's not an option to go through here, it isn't,” he said. “That's the web of a wainwright spider. The people of Quel'ar'din spin these threads into ropes less than a finger thick but strong enough to hold up entire treetop villages.”
“Oh, that's really interesting lore,” Ruzzella hissed. “Just what I need now – a geography lesson!”
“Whoa, relax,” Kyle said and stopped out of Ruzzella's reach, showing her his open palms. “No need to get upset.”
“Especially since this is your own fault,” Seyran added.
“Oh, shut up!”
“Now,” Kyle explained, “to get out of that web, what you want to do is to very slowly and carefully pull your arm backwards and away. The threads are going to stick to your skin, and it's probably going to hurt a lot, but if you continue pulling slowly, you'll eventually get free. And what you absolutely need to avoid is-”
“...listening to any more of your blathering,” Ruzzella groaned, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A second later, her hand burst into flame as she drew upon her elemental, and the web shriveled away, freeing her.
Kyle shook his head. “That's not what I was trying to say.”
“Well, it worked, didn't it?”
That moment, a strange sound came from the wall. It sounded like a thousand little nails scratching on stone.
Ruzzella turned around, trying to find the source of the weird sound. “What is this?”
“This is what happens when you don't let me finish my sentences,” Kyle said and slowly walked backwards, away from the gate.
And then what looked like a wave of blackish brown mass flooded out of the cracks in the walls and towards the web, and Ruzzella jumped backwards in surprise. “What is this?”
“These,” Kyle explained, “are the young of the wainwright spider. If it builds a web that size, it has recently laid its cocoons, and it's hoping to trap some large creature for its children to feed. Usually, they won't come out until after their prey has stopped struggling. However, if something is actually strong enough to damage the web... well, you see what happens then.”
“And the spider that laid the cocoons?” Emrald asked. “Won't it come to the help of its young either?”
Kyle shook his head. “It's already dead,” he explained. “Laying eggs and spinning cocoons is the last thing a wainwright spider does in its lifetime. And that's a good thing, or we'd be facing a spider the size of a large wardog by now.”
“Can't we just burn the entire web now,” Seyran asked, “together with all the little spiders that are just swarming it?”
Kyle nodded. “You could, but these spiders you see right now? That's only a fraction of them. There's ten thousands more of them, in these walls, and if you burn the web, they will come swarming out and look for whatever creature destroyed it. And their bite is poisonous.”
“They can't poison me if I'm burning,” Ruzzella hissed.
“Ruzzy, think,” Emrald softly said. “How long can you keep up your flame-form? What if it isn't long enough? Neither of us has anything against poisons with us, let alone something as exotic as wainwright spider poison.”
Ruzzella glared at Emrald, scowling, but it was obvious that he had convinced her, even if she didn't like the idea. After a few seconds, she sighed. “Ah, well, then to the underpits with those spiders! How do we get into the temple if not through here?”
“I'd suggest climbing the walls,” Kyle said, “but I'm not certain if that's an option for you, Emrald.”
“It isn't,” Emrald agreed. “It's not that I can't climb, but walls that ancient? They could collapse right underneath me.”
“Well, then at least we'd have another way in,” Ruzzella snickered.
“And have damaged a place of worship Vael holds dear,” Seyran said. “Definitely not an option. Let's go looking for another entrance.”
No one had any objections to that, and so the party started circling the entirety of the temple complex. For something so old, the wall had stood remarkably strong, and there were no places where it had naturally collapsed over the course of the centuries. In one place, a tree had even grown right through the gaps in the wall, and still it had remained firm.
“What about here?” Ruzzella suggested, pointing at the tree. “Can you make that climb, Emrald?”
“These branches are never going to support my weight,” Emrald shook his head. “And besides, don't these white things up there look like spider cocoons?”
Ruzzella squinted her eyes. “Meh. Could be butterfly cocoons too. Don't they all look the same?”
“Over here,” Seyran suddenly called and started walking towards the wall. “Do you see that? Doesn't the wall look a little... smooth over here?”
Kyle was the first to join him. “Good call”, he said. “There's a lot of moss here, but this looks like there's a metal plate embedded in the wall – right up to the bottom.”
“Some kind of door, maybe?” Emrald asked.
“Quite possible.” Kyle ran his hand over the moss. “Come, help me get this off here, and let's see what we got underneath.”
Working together, the companions quickly managed to clean the moss off the smooth part of the wall, and as Kyle had speculated, there was indeed a metal plate underneath, or rather a metal slab in the shape and size of a door, though there were no visible hinges, or even something like a doorknob. Instead, the door seemed to be covered in what looked like engravings, both lines and symbols, forming a complex pattern, though it was difficult to recognize considering the age of the door and the patina that had formed over the many years.
“What do you think that means?” Seyran said, pointing at a single, large shape at the center of the metal slab.
The others bowed over the shape and looked at it as well. It was hexagonal in form, and it was divided into six triangular segments. The uppermost segment had what looked like a snowflower in it, the one right of that a stylized flame, the next in line a cloud, the next a circle and the fifth one a lightning symbol. The last one was empty.
“That looks like the elements of magic to me”, Ruzzella said. “That one's ice, then fire, the cloud's probably water, then a circle – uh, earth, maybe...”
Emrald shook his head. “Water isn't usually symbolized by a cloud but by a hanging drop, and earth by a square, not a circle. The fifth one could be lightning, yes, but I doubt that's the meaning of that entire symbol.”
“There are more than six elements anyway, aren't there?” Seyran asked.
“Exactly,” Emrald said, “which is why this cannot just be a representation the elements of magic. Though you were right in pointing out that its central location on this plate probably means something.”
“Maybe the gods that were worshipped here?” Kyle suggested. “Six gods, acting in union as one?”
Emrald pondered that for a moment. “Possible,” he eventually said, “though without any knowledge of what these deities exactly were and what they represented, that suggestion probably won't help us open this- Ruzzy, what are you doing between my legs?”
The others looked down and saw Ruzzella kneeling on the ground, looking at the door through Emrald's legs and running her paws across the smooth metal.
“Have you guys noticed,” she asked, “that this little thingie over here looks somewhat loose?”
Ruzzella fiddled around at the metal slab a little more, and suddenly, a thin part of the surface slid sideways, squeaking a little as it moved. It was a small triangle, and it seemed to be fitted to slide within the indentations of the entire door.
“Ruzzy, you're a genius!” Seyran laughed. “You probably just found the locking mechanism for that door! Now, all we got to do it make it open!”
“If it still works after all that time,” Emrald reminded him. “This door hasn't been opened in centuries, for all we know.”
“I'd rather go with 'Ruzzy, you're a genius',” Ruzzella said and continued moving the little triangle along the surface of the door. After a few moments, the engraved line it was set in went upwards, and so did Ruzzella slide the triangle, until she eventually reached a corner of the large hexagonal symbol at the center. She moved the triangle even closer, and then it suddenly spun in place and eventually covered the lowest segment of the hexagon, the one with the circle on it.
Seyran looked at it expectantly. “Well, it seems to fit.”
“Sure it does,” Ruzzella smiled.
“Then why doesn't the door open?”
“If I may offer an opinion,” Emrald said, “it's probably because this is only one part of the locking mechanism.”
Ruzzella looked up. “And what makes you think that?”
“I just found another triangle like the one you discovered,” Emrald said, and then he was already moving it along one of the lines indented into the large plate, just like Ruzzella had done earlier.
“Seeing this whole hexagon-thing, there must be six of these things,” Seyran said to Kyle. “Let's see if we can't find the other four.”
A few minutes later, they had indeed discovered them all, moved them to the center of the metal slab and rotated them into place. Now, they were all looking at the door, waiting for something to happen.
“Aw, come on!” Ruzzella complained. “That must have been it! Six segments, six triangles, and we got all of them! What are we missing?”
Wordlessly, Emrald walked towards the metal slab and tried pushing it, first on one side, then on the other. When that didn't work, he tried sliding the slab upwards, gritting his teeth as he pushed with all of his strength. It didn't budge.
“It seems it's still locked,” he eventually concluded, panting heavily.
“Or it's just rusted in place,” Kyle suggested. “Wouldn't surprise me, after those centuries.”
“It can't be rusted in place,” Ruzzella objected, “or we couldn't even have moved those small triangles. I mean, none of them were rusty, or something!”
That made Seyran suddenly look up. “You know,” he said, “they really weren't rusty. Not at all. But they still looked different from one another. As though they were made of different materials.”
“Different materials?” Now, Emrald looked up too and walked towards the door again. “You're right, Seyran – these are different metals! Anyone have a knife for me so I can scratch them a little?”
“Allow me,” said Ruzzella, pushed herself between Emrald and the door and then raked her claws over the triangles. “There. Scratched.”
Emrald took a closer look. “Your intuition was correct, Seyran,” he said. “This here is copper, this one's... leaf-ore, I think. This must be silver, this is shadowvein, this here's gold...”
“Gold?!” Kyle looked up. “Of that size? That triangle alone's worth a small fortune!”
“And the last one is mytheril,” Emrald concluded. “Even more valuable than gold.”
“But what does it mean?” Ruzzella asked. “Why use different metals for the triangles?”
“Obviously because each of them belongs into a specific place in the hexagon,” Seyran said. “Look, there's this one groove that goes all around the central symbol. You can probably swap out the triangles for one another.”
Kyle scratched his head. “But which one goes where? We can't possibly try out all combinations – there must be hundreds of them!”
“Seven hundred and twenty, to be precise”, Emrald said. “But we may not have to.”
“No. See, all of these metals here have a distinct color, and if we find out how this color pertains to each of the segments of the hexagon...”
“Copper goes over the fire symbol,” Ruzzella immediately said. “Copper is red, and the dwarves learned to tame fire when they first started melting copper.”
Emrald nodded. “Let's try that, then. Any idea about the other symbols?”
“Mytheril's lightning-proof, isn't it?” Seyran said. “Let's try it with the lightning symbol.”
“How do you know about the properties of mytheril?” Emrald asked, quite a bit of surprise in his voice.
“Gyorgo taught me once.”
Kyle suddenly snapped his fingers. “Now I know what that circle symbol's supposed to mean!” he said. “The sun! I've seen it on the sun temples, and it's always laid out in gold! Put the gold triangle over there.”
“Alright,” Emrald nodded, “and while I'm at it, I think that snowflake should be covered in silver. Silver's almost white - that makes more sense than something greenish or blackish.”
That left only two of the symbols to cover, and Emrald got it on the first try by putting the shadowvein triangle over the empty segment and the leaf-ore one over the cloud symbol. There was an audible click as he rotated the last triangle into place, and immediately after that, the metal stab started rising upwards, sand and grime crackling out of the walls where it moved.
“May I present to you,” Ruzzella grinned, “the back-door to the Darkwoods temple.”