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"It's good that you can though." Donovan remarked on Yineffe's basket weaving skill meanwhile they made their way into the woods. "Useful on its own, added to the fact that it can help you keep your mind engaged if you're ever waiting something out. I like to whittle. I'm not very good, but it helps."

There were many usable flora within a few meters of camp, the fire still visible in the deepening light of a maturing afternoon. Birch bark, minty in profile, was in abundance. Dandelion and nettle were equally plentiful, but no doubt the star of the foraging expedition was a patch of red clover, grown into a so neat an arrangement that one could easily assume it had been planted and maintained by sapient hands.

They were back at the camp by the time that Leo finished cleaning his revolver. Donovan left the herbs in Yineffe's care and took it upon himself to boil a pot of water, explaining along the way how its various filters could be used to distill and purify suspect water sources. Cups of hot water poured, herbs steeped, paltry bits of poultry divvied up to supplement their dry rations, Donovan finally thought it appropriate to let them in on it.

From his pack he surfaced and unfurled a sturdy, weatherproofed canvas map. On it was the lake, as well as a spot between the haunted glen and timber creek marked off for their convenience.

"You each have compasses. That's the dungeon we're going to crawl to get our hands on this."

From his pack next came two individual facsimiles of an artist's rendition of a key the length of a forearm.

"A jade key."

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Eyebrow flexed, Yineffe sipped her nettle tea. She took one of the copies of the sketch in hand and studied it. "A key?" she asked, considering the design. To her, it did not appear elven. She took a piece of Leo's quail and ate in silence. It was far better than the sponge-like crane her clan considered a delicacy.

Her curiosity peeked, she began pouring over the map Donovan had unrolled. The dungeon was a short distance from their location, less then a days journey it seemed. She checked the sky. There was daylight yet. 

"Leo," she said evenly, watching him from across the fire. "Thank you for cooking." 

"We could travel now, Donovan." She tested her teeth with her tongue. "We would make some progress before nightfall. It is what I suggest."

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Leo smiled at Yineffe in response to her thanks, bowing his head slightly. "It was my pleasure." He too was sipping the tea, going over the strange jade key but deciding rather quickly he had little idea what purpose it held and tucking the drawing away in his coat pocket.

His attention switched to the map as Yineffe suggested they make haste now, rather then camp for a night and waste half a day. "I concur with Yineffe, it doesn't appear far and I have learned best through action." Leo said, his confident nature pushing him to get the dangerous part started.

However, his curiosity couldn't leave the purpose of the key hanging in his mind without at least asking first. "Does this key hold some significance, or is it merely a good medium to teach dungeoncraft on?" Leo asked.

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"If you're asking me if this is a lab exercise, just something the school put together as a test. Nope. It's the real deal. Real stakes, real rewards. Real hurt, if you aren't careful. That's what the waiver was for."

For Leo it would have been bundled into his registration as well as his acceptance packet; for Yineffe it would have been a standalone boilerplate document handed to her alongside of the clinic's course information – in either case it indemnified the Academy against litigation as a result of grievous bodily harm suffered through academic studies, but had a nice provision indicating their staff would provide competitive medical care.

"The key has some traction in the museum circuit, which means money without hunting for a buyer, and is about at a level that I'd say it'd be nice but you won't be able to retire on it. I'm along to make sure no one dies if it can be helped, but sometimes it can't, and even when it can you can still get plenty hurt. So we'll just try to make the best and smartest decisions we can, just like we would on any other job."

Donovan let that sink in and waited to see what decisions the two of them made. The distance between their camp and the X on the map could be covered in a day, or more appropriately said in a night, but it would take them hours nonetheless, they would be traveling by dark in the Wilds, and getting there was just the start of it. Nothing which made the journey impossible but plenty to think about.

"Who's keeping the map?"

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"I will take the map."

Yineffe took the roll from Donovan lightly and stood, gathering her things before she slid her pack onto her back. As the others prepared she finished her tea. Then, with an effective barrier, Yineffe snuffed the fire and joined her party at the forest edge.

Before she followed she glanced up at the towering pines, their light scent on the air. The tree tops swayed against the sky. An uneasy feeling had plagued her in the wood before, it lingered now...

The party moved for some time, mostly in silence.

That was until they came upon a marshy knoll, the ground soaked. The smell was strong of stagnant water and rot. Disgusted, Yineffe held her breath. She traced the marsh with her eyes. Many trees, alive and dead, reached across the bog and small shafts of light extended through the canopy, highlighting a few areas of open water. Yineffe tucked the map into her coat and started across the marsh using the branches almost like stepping stones.

Though she tried hard, she wavered and wobbled with nearly every step. Gracelessly, she slipped on a wet branch, sinking into the muck past her knee. Of course, she thought, human maps lead through bogs. Why would they not? Yineffe took hold of a large rock nearby and yanked her leg free with a wet pop, losing her left boot to the sludge. “Gross,” she commented under her breath, smoothing her palm over the rock. She paused and studied it a moment.

It was heavily damaged but cut flat at the top and smooth on all six sides. Lines and loops ran through it in a ripple pattern, each one crowded with moss. Yineffe brushed away some vines and mud, finding a few jade shards arranged in a wave pattern interrupted by a deep square whole. The symbols mimicked Donovan’s mysterious key.

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Leo wasn't doing much better with the unpleasant terrain, his movements slow and focused more on not losing a shoe then it was anything else.

Eventually Leo came up next to Yineffe, watching with curiosity as she moved vines and underbrush aside to get a better look at the unnaturally shaped object. It looked all too similar to their end goal to be a coincidence, the jade shards giving it a distinct glow in the fading sunlight.

"Well, at least we know it's the right direction." Leo said with an exasperated tone. "Any idea what it's for?" Leo asked no one in particular as he traced a hand across the pattern painted by the jade shards, his growing exhaustion forgotten for the moment in the mystery of the moment. 

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Deeper into the swamp, more and more pillars rose out of the muck. The party worked through quilts of thick vines and moss. They passed under an archway. And another, the pale stone eerily standing against the willows overhead. The feeling of trepidation rose up Yineffe’s spine.

It was then they came upon a stairway so narrow the group was forced to descend in single file. Yineffe cast a small spell to light the path. The once smooth walls where pitted with age, capped with mud and dead grass. Water dripped down over the lip, forming shallow puddles on each step. Tired of her awkward gate, Yineffe shed her remaining boot partway down, tucking it into her pack.

At the bottom the tight passage opened into a cavernous room, plain walls on all sides save one. A wide door, nearly twice as long as it was tall, claimed the far wall. It was a mixture of rusted iron, stone, and large square embellishments of jade tiles.

The party approached. 

A dense protection ward gathered as they came close. Yineffe could sense it strengthen, the atmosphere in the room suddenly defiant. She glanced to her companions and wondered if they could feel it too.

Yineffe paused, examining the strange runes carved into each of the tiles. She did not recognize them. They could have been human, a tomb of some variety.

She reached out, only her fingertips interrupting the ward. It rang out high, the sound soft but gaining strength. A warning.

Suddenly, there was a loud crackle as the ward came down, followed by a flurry of muted purple lights. Triumphantly, Yineffe cocked her head with a cheeky grin. “After you.”

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The pair surprised Donovan. They managed an hours-long trek through the Wilds without being attacked, which had to do more with chance than anything else, but on the merit-side of things they managed to do so for miles and miles without losing their way or their fortitude. In due time they came upon the temple entrance – here he would have expected one of them, Leo perhaps, to suggest a break, but the sight, the promise of what lay if one were to venture just a little deeper, managed to draw them in. Donovan kept a close watch on the two, checking his impulse to help against his greater duty to teach.

"Underground crawls are the more dangerous." He offered. "Very few ways out unless you have a certain skillset or the right equipment, and that way is usually the way you came."

They came in sight of the main entrance. When Yineffe felt the change in the air and turned to see if the others did also, she'd find Donovan looking at her and smiling. He was no telepath, but judging by Leo's uninterrupted gait and forward-focus, it was an easy leap to think that he lacked this arcane sensitivity. Looking back to Yineffe he found her forward-focused as well, likely absorbed by the prospect of shorting the ward.

When she brought the ward down, Donovan held up a hand.

"Wait." He checked their advancement.

"On a team, even of two, communication is key. Yineffe, the moment you became aware of the ward you should have let Leo know. For you Leo, until you get experience with some of the tells you need to supplement your senses. There are some general detectors that can tell you if there's anything operating on common magical spectrums in a defined range. Really pricey ones can usually decipher the school, too. There are clever magicians that can obscure or morph signals, which is important to remember, but they're reliable for the most part.  

"Let me show you something."

Donovan brought himself down into a semi-squat and motioned around a barely perceptible perimeter in the mud and dead grass.

"There's life around here. Some birds, squirrels, weasels looks like. Most of them are on this side. A few are on the other side and those are all older, more filled in. The animals tripped the ward and learned to keep clear of it. No little bodies around here, so the ward is probably a sensor and not an attack.

"Of course this is much easier to explain looking back, already knowing about the ward thanks to Yineffe, so don't take that as gospel. They're just clues, a way to think about stuff you probably see all the time."

Donovan straightened up, offhand coming to rest on the hilt of his sword, casual but alert.

"And if you can feel and heart that sort of scuffling? We're about to meet a natural predator or a guard dog."

From the ground directly inside of the ward's perimeter, right in front of the main entrance, there erupted a sleek and bullet-shaped body[1] – it clawed its way through the air towards Leo and Yineffe, Donovan already feet distant.

1 – Landshark; 5 feet and 250 pounds.

Edited by supernal
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