The heat was nearly unbearable. As the two continued their hike, it threatened to overwhelm them. They had stopped to rest several times, but it wasn’t enough. As they paused in the shade, the girl suddenly perked up.
“Do you hear that?!” she exclaimed. “Water!”
She darted off the path towards the sound. Bursting from the trees she found a stream flowing merrily into a large pond. She laughed and dropped her pack, immediately striping down to her underwear. By the time the boy had caught up, she was already ankle deep in the pool.
The water was cool and refreshing as she slipped in. Closing her eyes, she rejoiced in the relief it brought. Her companion had removed his own pack and was unbuckling his belt, but he kept glancing around nervously. No one had mentioned this pond to him when they told him about the hike.
“Now this is fun!” she exclaimed. She disappeared for a moment under the water’s surface, then popped back up with a laugh. “Get in already. This is amazing!”
Finally, he pulled off his shirt. She was topless, after all. Maybe this trip would pay off more than he had hoped. She swam towards the bank, standing up in knee deep water so he could see her. A coy smile graced her lips.
He was distracted a moment too long. As his eyes trailed down her curves, something stirred in the water. Helpless, he watched a slender tendril fasten around her ankle. It yanked at her so suddenly that she didn’t have time to scream before she hit the water. As the tentacle dragged her deeper, she flailed in a futile attempt to swim away. Through the greenish water, he could see the wide-eyed panic in her eyes.
And like a fool, he ran in after her.
What Lurks Beneath the Surface
Corpse Collectors are purely aquatic creatures, unable to move or communicate. Their stationary existence means they do not need much food to survive, usually feeding only once or twice a week on unwary animals or carcasses that tributaries carry into their pools. Corpse Collectors have strong self-preservation instincts and view anything that does not naturally inhabit their waters as a threat. They will attack a perceived danger without hesitation, grasping with long tentacles and pulling the victim into their large, toothy mouths.
This defensive behavior is not entirely unwarranted. From their gaping mouths sprouts a single, large flower. The flower is referred to as the Gilded Lotus, named such for its enticing and unsurpassed beauty. The Gilded Lotus petals, stamen, and pistil have many rare and powerful alchemical properties. There are many potent enchantments that require parts of the Gilded Lotus to produce. Its pollen gives off an alluring pheromone to attract prey and lower their inhibitions. As such, it is also marketable as an aphrodisiac.
When a Corpse Collector dies, the flower’s roots grow beyond its decaying body, burrowing into the ground below. Because the Gilded Lotus flower can survive for years until the Corpse Collector’s body has fully disintegrated, the allure of substantial profit draws many adventurers to the brink of dangerous waters.
There is no way to tell from the surface if the Corpse Collector of a particular flower is actually deceased. The Gilded Lotus emits a cloudy sap from its stem that obscures the view of the Corpse Collector to all but those who are dangerously close to the creature.
Corpse Collectors grow in forest waters and swamps. They are carnivores that sprout in the deepest part of a body of water. The filth that Collector’s Lotus emits is not only used as a natural protection mechanism, but is also vital to the survival of many aquatic creatures. Without the nutrients provided by the Collector’s Lotus many of the animals, fish, and plants die off. Because it is so valuable to the wildlife it benefits, aquatic life instinctively protects the Corpse Collector from outside threats.
Not only are Corpse Collectors formidable foes on their own, they have many monsters that respond immediately to aid in its protection. If the creatures protecting it do not eliminate the threat, the Corpse Collector will defend its territory and flower. The Corpse Collector’s tentacles can grow and retract according to its need, and will pull anything it can reach into its mouth with terrifying speed.
Nightingale crawled through the narrow tunnel, the faint light of her spell showing her the way. She could hear Kufu’s heavy breathing as he followed close behind her. With every twist and dip her horns scraped the stone walls. She tried not to think about what would happen if they got stuck. At last the tunnel opened up into a large cavern. She stood, stretching her back and dusting off her knees. She could see a soft green glow across the cavern. Striding forward, she found herself standing on the edge of a narrow canyon, illuminated by the glowing eyes of a limestone statue carved into the opposite wall.
Lowering herself carefully to the ground, Nightingale assessed the situation. The opposite wall was several yards taller than the one she sat on. Looking down into the slot canyon, she couldn’t tell how deep it was but she could hear the rush of water below. The face of the statue was still intact but most of its body had crumbled away during the decades it had sat, hidden in the cavern.
Kufu approached Nightingale. She took the equipment bag he had been carrying and began rummaging through it. She pulled out a small hand drill, some bolts, a length of rope, and a couple of carabiners. She walked a distance from the edge of the canyon and drilled two holes into the rock floor. Kufu helped her screw in the blots and clip on the carabiners. Kufu carefully checked the locking mechanism on each of the carabiners before threading the rope through them. He grabbed his harness out of the bag and stepped into it while Nightingale checked her own harness and then secured herself to the rope.
The various devices Nightingale carried on her harness jingled as she walked back to the edge. Kufu joined her and threaded the rope through the belay device attached to his harness. Facing away from the crag, Kufu planted his feet firmly on the ground while Nightingale coiled the rope neatly on the ground, checking that there would be enough slack to make the jump.
“On belay?” she asked.
“Belay on,” Kufu responded.
Nightingale took several steps back before sprinting towards the gap. Her stomach lurched as her feet left the ground. She seemed to hang in the air for several moments before she hit the cliff face, scrambling for a hand hold. Nightingale let out a long sigh and closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the fact that she was a bit banged up but not falling into the deepness below her. Her hand was jammed into a crack in the rock while the other clung to the nose of the statue. She slipped her hand out of the crack, shaking a little as she let go and grabbed a cam off of her harness. She jammed it into the crack and gave it a hard tug before clipping a carabiner onto it and then clipping in her rope.
“Up rope!” she called, her voice echoing through the cavern. Immediately she felt the rope tighten as Kufu took up the slack. Nightingale found herself with her feet planted on the statue’s cheek, the glowing eye within easy reach.
She pulled the knife from her belt and gripping it with both hands she tried to slide it between the smooth stone and the gem. The space was tight and it was hard to wedge in the thin blade of the knife. One hand slipped across the blade of the knife leaving a shallow cut. She fumbled with it in her surprise and almost dropped it. She wiped the blood on her pants and went back to working the gem. Gradually, the gem began to wiggle in its socket. As she lifted it out of the eye socket she heard a small “click” and then a rumble.
She could just hear Kufu yell, “Trap! Hold on!” before an avalanche of dirt and rocks rained down on her. She clutched her prize and pressed herself against the cliff waiting for it to be over. She lost her footing and hung for a moment, held up by the cam she had stuck in the crack, until the quaking dislodged it.
It was almost like being on a carnival ride. She fell until the rope went taut and she swung toward the other cliff face. Nightingale threw her hands over her head as she crashed into the rock with enough force to knock her out.
When Nightingale came to Kufu was kneeling over her, dabbing something sticky and smelly onto her aching head. Miraculously the gem was still clutched in her hand. Looking back towards the statue she could see that the face was completely gone, as well as the other gem.
“Well at least we got one,” Nightingale said weakly.
Kufu shook his head. “It’s worthless.”
“You said this was an incredibly rare and powerful artifact!” she snapped angrily.
“It is. But it only works if you have both of them.”
Nightingale swore under her breath. She looked over the side of the cliff, imagining the other gem being swept away by the current below. Letting out a string of curses, she chucked the gem into the crag to join its brother.
Nightingale was adopted by parents who didn’t know her origin. They didn’t have much money and poured what they did have into adopting Nightingale as a baby. Her parents were the managers of an old but tidy motel in Seattle. It was near the zoo and Nightingale would often take the bus there with her mother on days when she didn’t have school.
The family lived in a tiny apartment located on the premise. Nightingale spent most of her summers cleaning hotel rooms so she could have pocket money. She went to school with a lot of people who had a lot more than she did. She wasn’t close to most of her classmates and was often teased for being a cleaning lady.
The one person she was close to was Kufu. His family was wealthy and occasionally he would try and convince her to accept extravagant gifts. He seemed to think that if she had an expensive purse maybe things would be easier for her at school. Nightingale knew better. She told him that if they didn’t bully her for being poor, they would find something else to bully her about.
Nightingale took the money she earned cleaning rooms and used it to fund her adventures. Her first major purchase was an old gray truck that had no power steering. She dragged Kufu all over the state in it. She loved anything that got her outside and was at least a little bit dangerous. Rock climbing was her favorite. She loved terrifying Kufu by launching herself upwards, covering great distances and leaving Kufu swearing as he scrambled to take up the slack in the rope.
Harbingers came for Nightingale just after her high school graduation. Two girls had come to stay at the motel. They said they were on a road trip and befriended her. They asked her to show them around the city and during one of their excursions they pulled her down an alley and through a portal into Middara. Kufu had just happened to be in the city and caught a glimpse of the girls taking Nightingale down the alley. He immediately took off after her.
Nightingale was made very uneasy by her sudden wealth. She wasn’t used to being constantly surrounded by people to serve her. The one bright spot for Nightingale was that Kufu had somehow managed to follow her through the portal. There had been a lot of talk about sending him back but eventually it was determined that he could stay.
The Arsen Family dynamic was very unsettling to Nightingale. As an only child she had been doted on by her parents. Her parents didn’t have much, but they gave her all their time and did everything they could to make her feel loved and happy. Her new parents seemed to think it should be the other way around. Nightingale was expected to try and please them, and her siblings had set the bar high, especially Shayliss who could do no wrong in their father’s eyes.
Nightingale didn’t resent Shayliss, she could see why Balthazar so clearly preferred his very capable daughter. Nightingale used the situation to her advantage. With so much attention turned towards Shayliss, Nightingale could get away with more and she certainly pushed the limits of what her parents would put up with.
One thing that delighted Nightingale about Elenia was the many ruins of failed civilizations that had come before. She felt that her whole life she had been simply pretending to be an adventurer and here was her chance to be a real one. All she needed to do was learn a few skills first. Shortly after her arrival, Balthazar sent her to the Elenian Academy and where she met Zeke. She had known that their families were close so it made sense that she would be invited to stay at a mansion owned by the Jeong family while attending. She did think it was a little odd that the two of them had the entire place to themselves but she liked Zeke. He was laid back though rather on the cautious side and not a very willing participant in her schemes. He was very good looking and played the guitar. She secretly thought that if they were back home in Seattle all the girls she had gone to school with would be vying for his attention.