“Thank you so much for accepting this job, Mr. Brooks,” the middle-aged man says as he hands over a cloth-covered bundle. A salty breeze forces him to curl his cloak tight around his body. “That package holds some special tools for your journey. My family has guarded them for centuries, so know that my trust and respect in you goes further than your contract. I’m sorry that I can’t stay here and await your return. I need to get back to my father, but we’re just over that hill. As I explained in the message to your wife, he is very ill and has always wanted to see Zaria’s Kiss. He was one of her most devout until the age sickness took his mind. Now, all he talks about is that artifact. Maybe it can cure him or, at the very least, let him pass on in peace. As his son, I want to make his final wish come true, but I lack the skills and strength to reach the lost temple. Please do your best, Mr. Brooks, and I will understand if you return empty-handed. If I’m unwilling to risk my life for my father then I shouldn’t expect you to go beyond what makes you comfortable.”
“Focus on your family and leave this to me,” Ichabod proudly declares while he opens the bundle. Pocketing a small key and a leathery map, he politely hands back the gold coins. “I have enough of those to get me through the next few days. Besides, this is dangerous and I should only take what I need. Extra coins will only be more weight down there. Honestly, I was hired to find Zaria’s lost temple when I was younger. Always thought it was underground, but never thought it had fallen into the ocean and was still being protected. Never had any luck and my employer ended up going to jail for murdering his business rivals, so the contract was nullified. Always wanted another crack at this challenge. If I had to name the job that got away, it would certainly be this one. So, thank you for trusting me with this. I promise not to let you and your father down.”
Patting the man on the shoulder, Ichabod heads toward a nearby cliff that he would never have picked out as a safe way to the coast below. From the landside view, the spot looks like a crumbling edge that curves downward with no safe handholds. The dark-skinned adventurer remembers passing by the area by boat and how the cliffs appeared to be sheer walls of smooth rock. Repeatedly tapping the ends of an amber torque on his neck, Ichabod stops when his vision is enhanced for distance. He can barely make out the faint outline of a glowing star, the Purity Goddess’s symbol, in the weatherworn edge. Returning his eyes to normal, he is sure that even if a person found the way down, they would fail without the tools he was just handed. With a wide smile, the adventurer slips on his breathing ring and checks to make sure the bluish green coral is not cracked.
“Get back in your cave, boulder brain!”
“Go kiss a sea urchin, bilge breath!”
“At least they’re nicer to look at than you.”
“Better conversationalists than you.”
“Don’t you have a pile of dirt to roll in?”
“Shouldn’t you be home splashing in a bathtub?”
Ichabod groans as his two companions begin to wrestle, neither of them noticing that their mutual friend has arrived. Being stockier and taller, Dex Guzbern quickly gets the upper hand and pins his opponent to the ground. The red-bearded dwarf grunts when he is kicked in the stomach, but his toned body is able to take the blows. It is when the female gnome flashes a pair of shark-like teeth and bites into his glove that the mountaineer backs away. It takes him a moment to realize that he fell for an illusion and he tries to tackle Meg Velringer again, but the blue-haired inventor has already clambered onto a large boulder. As soon as Dex fuses his grappling hook to the stone, she brandishes two daggers that are covered in barbs that resemble shark skin. Her dark red eyes never blink as she crouches and threatens to destroy the dwarf’s beloved tool. Wearing a strange suit that squeaks whenever she bends and shoes that fan out at the front, the gnome has trouble looking menacing and frowns when she sees that Dex is trying not to laugh at her.
“I assume you two know each other,” Ichabod says as he approaches. Tossing breathing rings to his friends, the adventurer cannot stop himself from grinning. “You two aren’t going to bring me down. This job is very important to me because I’ve wanted it for so long and it’s technically a birthday gift from my wife. Now, are we going to have a problem?”
“Of course we are!” Dex shouts while recoiling his grappling hook. Taking a long sip of ale, he growls when Meg lands next to him. “This woman is rude, abrasive, and totally disrespectful to those of my trade. I don’t care if water can eat away at mountains. That takes time while a boulder can stop a river in an instant. Not to mention we use metal to get through rock and not spitting on it. When you can make a tunnel through a mountain with buckets of water in less time than it takes for my people to use their pickaxes then you can tell me my trade is useless.”
“All of that is far too stupid for me to argue with,” Meg replies with a sigh. Getting a new idea, she pulls out a waterproof notebook and makes a few coded scribbles. “For the record, I never said your trade was useless. Mountains exist and people need to explore them or help others get over them. I simply stated that what you do is not as important as my research. Do you know how many mysteries are in the ocean? More than we can ever count and maybe even some that the gods don’t know about. We can’t even reach most of it without the help of merfolk or sea elves. So much more difficult than climbing a mountain that doesn’t move. You ever fight against a strong riptide while examining a new type of octopus? I’d rather deal with one of your piddly avalanches than that. Why is he even here, Ichabod? We’re going into my world where he’ll only be a hindrance.”
“I sense that I made a mistake,” the adventurer mutters, his head beginning to ache. He rubs his eyes and waits until the pain is gone before facing his companions. “The simple answer is that I need both of you for this job. Dex knows mountains and it doesn’t matter if they’re above ground or in the ocean. He also has more experience with lost ruins than I do. Now, you are here because of you are the best person I know for an undersea adventure. This is an area that I’m sure you will want to investigate, which means you’re just as invested as I am. You wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I didn’t ask you to join me. All of that being said, I asked both of you here because you are two of my most trusted friends. There is nobody else that I would want on this job than you two. Now, can we be friends?”
Dex is the first to extend his hand for a shake, the dwarf refusing to look the gnome in the eye. “I promise to behave, but I maintain the right to verbally defend myself. It isn’t her blades or fists that worry me. This woman has a tongue that is sharper than obsidian. Seems only fair that I get to throw insults back.”
“Like I would waste my-” Meg begins to say. She stops when the mountaineer clears his throat and nods to where she has her fingers crossed. “Fine. I’ll do my best to restrain my blade-like tongue and treat Mr. Guzbern with respect. All I ask is that he do the same to me. Once we get in the water, it will be my world. Do we have an understanding?”
“Oh, this is going to be a very long journey,” Ichabod groans while gesturing to the cliff. He gives Dex the map and lets the dwarf take the lead while he checks his light blue longbow. “We have to go down this way. I have a key for something, but I figured the map would be better in your hands. Anything there that will help us?”
“It’s a curious one, but I can figure the path out,” Dex replies, turning the parchment around in his hands. He realizes that it is a vertical picture instead of showing a path along the ground, which causes him to whistle. “Haven’t seen one of these in a while. Takes a little time to get used to the scale, but I can see how we get down. Hope nobody is wearing gloves that they’re attached to.”
Chuckling at the confused looks he receives, Dex tucks the map into his sleeve and crawls to the cliff’s edge. He wipes some dirt away from the holy symbol and traces it with his finger in case he has to activate the path. Nothing happens, but he whispers a prayer to Zaria to assure the Purity Goddess that they are not enemies. Satisfied with his preparations, the dwarf slides his hand around the curved edge and pushes into the smooth underside. Letting his stocky body slide over, Dex feels his arm get sucked into the thick mud and grabs a handhold. He does the same with his other arm and swings to plant his feet against the stone. He can feel the surface adhere to his boots, but not with the same stickiness as the mud that he struggles to free himself from. It takes a minute for him to figure out that it is easier to escape when he relaxes his muscles, but the dizzying height makes it difficult to erase all of his tension. Whistling to his friends, the sweating mountaineer leads the way down the strange cliff face.