Chapter 1: Treasure Hoard
“Where exactly are we going, Jade?”
A brown-feathered harpia could be seen from all around, trekking through a wheat field, neon-colored rider atop her back. Jade huffed at Neo, chirping some of the garbled terms that Neo’s dialect spoke. Being a stryx, Jade would normally be unable to communicate with anything but another avian, but having Neo as a rider, both an avian and soul bonded to Jade, had its advantages. Soul bonding connected a rider and stryx on a spiritual level, and allowed them to sense each other’s feelings, and sometimes even understand what one another were saying. Not that it was an exact translation, but it made it easier.
“Big castle…close by…cross the field…” Jade only knew certain phrases and terms to speak to Neo with, but could speak to other stryx just fine. Neo seemed to pick up on Jade’s determined demeanor, that paired with the words she understood from Jade got her point across fine.
“Ah right, you’re really set on finding this old castle those merchants told us about, huh? I honestly paid it no mind.” Jade nodded. Neo leaned back in Jade’s saddle, looking up at the vast, cloudless sky. The stars twinkled far above their plane of existence, really putting their lives in perspective. Neo found herself lost in thought, right up until Jade picked up speed, pushing her way through the stalks of wheat quickly and finally reaching its end. Once they were out of the field, Neo could indeed see a rather large castle off in the distance, one that seemed dilapidated and crumbled in certain areas.
“Hmm, Maybe it’ll look better up close…” Neo squinted in its direction, trying to make out details from so far away. With Neo’s pat on her neck, Jade took off, heading straight for the castle from where they were.
About halfway through their flight, Neo felt Jade tense up. A shadow darted just out of her peripherals, the feathers on her neck and shoulders standing up. She lowered herself down in the saddle, leaning towards Jade’s head.
“Yeah, I saw it too. Keep going, it may just be an animal or something. They’re everywhere this time of night.” Neo whispered, Jade clicking her beak in response. The two continued in silence for a few seconds longer, just about ready to settle down and forget about what they’d seen, right up until something huge cried out, a shadow immediately overtaking them.
“Dive!” Neo instructed, but Jade didn’t need to hear it from her to do it.
“Don’t try to run, you’ll never get away from me!” The stranger called to Jade, immediately giving away that this stranger was a stryx. A hostile one. One who was catching up to them very quickly. Just as the stranger was about to latch his talons into Jade’s rump, she swerved out of the way, just in time to avoid one of the castle’s towers. The stranger, while seemingly cunning, wasn’t a great aerial maneuverer, trying to mimic Jade and catch up, but instead clipping his shoulder on the sharper edge of the tower’s architecture. A screech rang out, surely silencing any nearby insects or nightlife, but Jade’s blood was rushing so fast through her body that it was all she could hear. Once she realized she was no longer being chased, she slowed her wingbeats to a glide, circling back around to the now damaged tower. The balcony below it now held an injured gryph, shoulder oozing slightly from the cut due to the impact. Jade outstretched her talons to perch on the top of the tower, peering down at the gryph who was now trying to push himself upright, but his shoulder wouldn’t allow it.
“Who are you?” Jade breathlessly asked, Neo peering over Jade’s head at the stranger.
The gryph finally managed to get up on his feet, but held his injured wing low.
“It’s none of your concern. If anything, I should be asking what you’re doing on my territory.” The gryph snarled. Jade was unfazed. If this gryph wanted to hurt her, he’d have to climb, with his injured shoulder, up to the roof of the tower, which she was certain he couldn’t do right now.
“Your territory? What, do you own this castle or something? We’re here to explore! Just like anyone else would be doing out here!” Jade exclaimed. She saw the gryph rolling his eyes at her, but chose to ignore it.
“Count yourself lucky I don’t eat you right now.” The gryph huffed. Jade laughed.
“Oh, a cannibal too? What other edgy qualities have you got, big man?” Jade taunted the gryph, who sighed in defeat.
“Listen, I’m just trying to get into this castle. It’s not exactly an easy entrance, and it seems to be guarded by…something, someone, who knows.” The gryph admitted. Jade cocked her head at him.
“Guarded? I thought this place was abandoned?” She inquired. Neo seemed a bit uneasy in her saddle, but Jade missed her shift in posture.
The gryph tapped his talons on the stone balcony, seeming impatient. His ears perked up as a thought seemed to click in his mind.
“Look, you’re here to explore, right? Howe about this; if we find a way in, we can explore together. Maybe there’s something worth money in there!” The gryph seemed a bit too excited, but Jade didn’t pick up on it.
“I suppose, but first you’ll have to tell me your name. Can’t work together if I don’t know how to address you.” Jade smirked.
“Avanti. Just Avanti.” The gryph replied. Jade kept her distance from Avanti as she watched him make his way to the lower level of the tower’s outside perimeter, onto a larger platform that would allow him to reach the ground with little trouble. Jade swooped down next to him, but still stood several feet away. Avanti eyed her warily as well, but eventually let her in on his plan.
“Alright, I have a basic idea of what’s going on with this castle, and how to get in too. There’s a main entrance, but it’s guarded. Something or someone is there, just out of sight, but they don’t hesitate to scare off anyone who gets near. Trust me, it gets violent.” Avanti lifted the feathers on his neck to reveal a nasty bite wound, somewhat old but still fresh within the last couple weeks or so. Jade’s jaw hung open slightly, and Neo began to feel even more anxious. She tried not to let Jade in on these feelings.
“Anyway, what I’m saying is, I know someone around here who might be able to get us in. They should be here in approximately 2 or three minutes.” Avanti explained further. Just as he finished his sentence, a branch rustled in the forest next to them. Jade’s head instinctively snapped towards the sound, trying to narrow down what it had been. Nothing came into immediate view, right up until Jade was practically squinting to find something. Then, a pair of golden horns poked out of a concealed bush, followed by a pair of golden eyes staring right into hers.
“Ah, Mischief, I thought I told you, no more tricks.” Avanti chuckled. The culprit in the bushes, Mischief, a rather small royal chiro, made himself apparent. He blended in nearly perfectly with the forest foliage, save for the yellow-ish streaks of color throughout his body breaking up the subtle greens.
“Hello. Who’s this?” The chiro’s voice was silky smooth, but it unsettled Jade for some reason. She felt Neo lean up in her saddle, curious about the newcomer. The chiro approached Avanti confidently, clearly the two had an alliance of some sort.
“So, care to let us in on how to get into this establishment?” Avanti flashed Mischief a toothy grin. Mischief’s expression shifted into a more cheeky one.
“Not for free.” He simply said. Avanti sighed, rolled his eyes, and leaned towards the chiro to whisper something into his massive ears.
“Alright, how’s 50,000 baubles sound?” Avanti huffed.
“60,000.” Mischief responded.
“55,000.” Avanti reluctantly whispered.
“And 15 tokens.” Mischief countered, earning a grunt of resignation from Avanti.
The two turned back to Jade and Neo, Avanti shifting to face the castle. Mischief cleared his throat and began to explain his plan.
“Alright, as you guys know, the entrance is not exactly an entrance anymore, more of a trap for that thing to feed.” Jade had no idea what that thing was, but the more she heard about it, the less she wanted to know. “So, this means we’ll have to break in. But, not exactly window-smashing and all that. There’s a loose part of the stone wall nearby. I've tested it quite often in the past few years, and I think it’s finally ready to crumble. Follow me, with Avanti here it should be easy to bust it open.” Mischief patted Avanti’s leg confidently. Avanti didn’t seem too happy with being touched.
“Alright, let’s get going. Mischief, lead the way.” Jade allowed the chiro to take the lead, her following second and Avanti third. Mischief led the group over to the wall he’d been talking about, and it did indeed look very frail after years of wear and tear.
“Avanti, just try and push it over.” Mischief instructed. Avanti motioned to his injured shoulder.
“My stronger side is injured.” He said, sounding rather pathetic. It was Jade’s turn to roll her eyes at him.
“Oh let me do it.” Jade said, crouching down so Neo could hop off the saddle, the rider seeming anxious to stand next to Mischief. Jade stood back up and took a few steps back, suddenly running full speed into the wall and ramming her shoulder into it. The wall bowed inwards, but didn’t fall. Yet. As soon as she readied up for another impact, the wall collapsed, sending dust and debris into the air. Everyone covered their eyes, Jade standing with her wings out and around Neo, until the air was clear. Neo peered around the edge of Jade’s wings, revealing the fallen wall creating an entrance into the castle.
“Hurry, inside. Whatever’s guarding this castle probably heard that, and it’ll be looking for intruders to eat.” Avanti ushered the group into the pitch black hole in the wall, Jade following behind a surprisingly non-apprehensive Mischief.
Upon entering the castle, the air felt damp and cold, and it smelled a lot like mildew and mold. Mice could be heard squeaking and scurrying around in various places. Jade felt Neo climb back up into her saddle, the weight making her feel a bit less scared of what might be lurking in the dark.
Outside, something could be heard moving.
“Go, go!” Avanti hissed, taking the lead into the darkness. Jade followed as best she could, right up until she tripped and ended up falling flat on her face, pitching Neo out of the saddle and onto the ground. The group’s footsteps got farther away, until they couldn’t be heard anymore.
Jade quickly pushed herself off the ground, scooping Neo up and placing her upright.
“Guys?” She whispered, receiving no answer. They were all alone, and something could be heard climbing over the tumbled rock wall into the castle.
Avanti skidded to a sudden halt once he deemed them deep enough into the castle and away from the entrance they’d made, turning around and expecting to see Jade following closely after. No one was there. Not even Mischief was with him. What the…?
Avanti frantically looked around, hoping he hadn’t lost his only chance to find something in this damned castle. Nothing. Not even he could track the companions he’d entered with, and while it didn’t exactly make him afraid for their safety, it made him scared for his own.
Avanti eventually gave up on waiting for them to return to him, heading off in search of something valuable or that could give him a clue as to where the valuables were.
He searched down the long corridors and hallways, in the various rooms attached to those hallways, and the only really interesting thing he found was a rusty key that looked like it’d disintegrate if you used it. He stashed it anyway, carrying it with him as he looked for more stuff. He ended up finding an old photo in another room, one that had long since faded from being left on the damp stone floor for so long. Couldn’t really make out who or what the picture was of, but there seemed to be vague shapes of a stryx and a humanoid.
Mischief chuckled to himself as he darted away from Avanti’s fleeing shape, knowing it would all be fine in the end. He was really only in it to wring some more money out of Avanti for his knowledge, plus he’d be given a chance to distract Leviathan while those two boneheads were tripped up back by the entrance, leaving her treasure hoard unguarded. He knew exactly where it was, and wasted no time in making a straight trek towards the deepest portion of the castle. Along the way he encountered various random shinies that he couldn’t help but take for himself, even if they weren’t as valuable as the real prize. Soon enough, the chiro came upon a deep staircase, descending way down into the castle’s dungeon. That’s where Leviathan kept the treasure hoard, the one he’d been waiting to go after for years. He quickly descended the staircase and began his search through the various dungeon rooms below the castle.
The sound of talons scraping against the stone floors made every feather on Jade’s body prickle up, taking extra care to hide Neo from the monster approaching. A small, glowing light could be seen in the distance back towards the entrance, bobbing back and forth, highlighting faint features of…something big as it approached.
“Listen, we don’t want a fight. We’re just here by accident.” Jade tried to sound calm, but the shake in her voice gave her intentions away.
“Then why did you collapse a wall to get in here? And what happened to your no-good scummy friends? Seems they left you behind to get eaten by the monster.” As the light approached, it began to glow brighter, revealing something with a jaw full of teeth, piercing white eyes, and striking blue head fins. Their body was a dark mottled blue color, skin seeming shiny and wet.
“W-who are you? What are you?” Jade asked, stuttering. The monster…laughed?
“Hah, oh I’m just like you! Well, not entirely, as you can see, but I’m pretty close!” The monster smiled at Jade, revealing its wide jaws and shimmering teeth. Jade felt so uneasy she might faint. Neo peeked out from behind Jade’s leg, eyeing the monster with surprising confidence. Jade didn’t have the wit to stop her partner as she approached the monster, holding her hand out.
“...What are you? Where did you come from? You’re clearly aquatic, but also…airborne?” Neo gestured to the various features of the monster, receiving a strange low rumble from within its chest.
“My name’s Leviathan. I am indeed both aquatic and flighted! And this is my castle, so I must ask you to retrieve your rotten friends and leave.” The monster took her eyes off of Neo as Jade approached her rider, explaining herself to the harpia.
“Rotten friends…?” Jade cocked her head, letting her feathers lie flat now that she knew Leviathan wasn’t a major threat. Was Leviathan referring to Avanti and Mischief? Sure Avanti was a bit off putting, but Mischief seemed fine. What was so bad about them?
“Uh, I don’t exactly know where they are. They ran ahead and I lost them when I tripped.” Jade admitted, gesturing behind her. Leviathan sighed at that answer, but didn’t seem angry.
“Alright, let’s go get them. I think I left a pretty nasty bite on that gryph guy some time ago, he’s a real piece of work that one.” Leviathan remarked as she pushed gently past Jade and flicked her tail in signal to follow her.
Wait, if Leviathan wasn’t aggressive, why did she have to bite Avanti? What had he done to provoke her that badly? These were all questions to ask them when everyone was back together again.
The two stryx and rider, who was now comfortably back in Jade’s saddle, made their way through the various castle rooms, Leviathan almost unable to help herself from giving little tidbits about the place. As they went the aquatic chiro had also been collecting various little trinkets and items she forgot she’d left in these rooms, telling Jade all about her treasure hoard and how she’d be putting these things into it after she eventually escorts the group of intruders out of her territory. Jade only ended up seeing one thing of interest during the whole trek, and she shielded Neo from view as she grabbed whatever it was and stashed it in one of the saddlebags.
Soon enough, a flicker of yellow eyes could be seen at the end of the hallway, leading Jade and Leviathan to rush down there to meet up with Avanti.
“Hey, dude! You left us behind, and look! The monster’s not a threat!” Jade called as she caught up with the gryph. He turned around, narrowing his eyes at the chiro behind her. Leviathan did the same as soon as she made eye contact with Avanti, her fins pushing back on her head in defense. Jade felt the uneasy tension in the air, but tried to keep things lighthearted.
“Hey, where’s Mischief? Wasn’t he with you?” Jade suddenly asked, just now noticing the royal chiro’s absence. Avanti smirked, but quickly dampened his expression to a neutral one.
“Oh, I think he went off a while back, maybe he’s still back there?” Avanti tried to divert the attention from himself and Leviathan, but that sentence only made Leviathan seem more upset than she had been.
“Hmm. Interesting. Let’s all go back to the entrance, I’ll go get your little trickster friend, alright?” Leviathan nearly growled. Avanti’s ears fell back at the mention of her going to find Mischief on her own. She was much bigger than the little chiro, despite being the same breed, who knows what she could do to hurt him if she wanted. Not that Jade believed she would, but you could never be too sure.
“Hey, how about we all go together? Then you may lead us out of here, no harm done.” Jade stepped between Avanti and Leviathan, who both looked like they were about to snap at each other’s throats.
“Sure. Why not.” Avanti said through gritted teeth. Jade said nothing, but made sure to keep herself between the two as Leviathan led the way down the hallway with Avanti in tow.
Soon enough the three (four counting Neo, who had been silently watching this mess unfold) of them reached a spiral staircase descending deep below the castle’s first floor. Avanti’s eyes lit up and his ears perked, but he tried not to let anyone notice. Jade had, however. Maybe Avanti had ulterior motives…?
“Wait here. I’ll go get your little friend.” Leviathan practically purred those last words in a sly manner. She left quickly, making her way down the staircase and leaving Jade and Avanti in darkness.
“Avanti…?” Jade asked quietly.
“What’s up?” Avanti sounded…different. More ambitious.
“Why did you really want to get into this place?” Jade asked hesitantly. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
Avanti paused for a moment, and said nothing during that time. Just as he opened his beak to speak, a loud crash came from deep within the castle dungeon, rumbling the floor beneath them. Yelling could be heard, and then someone’s shadow came darting up the staircase, coins tumbling backwards down into the depths.
Mischief appeared from the shadow of the staircase doorway. In his teeth was a leather bag filled to the brim with all kinds of coins, treasures, oddities, trinkets, and more.
“I found the hoard, come on!” The chiro called as he darted away. Avanti wasted no time in following, leaving Jade and Neo behind. Leviathan could be heard cursing the group out, including Jade. Oh she was pissed.
Jade quickly turned tail and fled, hoping Leviathan wouldn’t follow. Her fears were confirmed when she turned around and saw an aggressive white light floating after her, lighting up the snarly, toothy expression on Leviathan’s face as she began to catch up. Jade, with all the adrenaline in her body, sped up her movements, eventually reaching the hole in the wall they’d entered through. She blasted through it, not bothering to look around for Avanti and Mischief. She took off, making sure Neo was still holding on. Neo simply watched as Leviathan became a small fuming speck on the ground below as Jade ascended higher and farther from the castle.
Up ahead, two other figures could be seen fleeing. She instantly knew who they were, flapping harder to catch up. Once she did, she heard the two…laughing?
“Ahaha! That was great! What did you end up getting?” Avanti asked the royal chiro beside him, who now had the bag full of treasures clutched in his talons.
“All kinds of things. Coins, lockets, jewelry, you name it! She had a ton of stuff down there, so I just scooped from the better of the piles and bolted.” Mischief chuckled. “Oh, and once we return to a safer location, you still owe me our agreement.” Mischief said, the smile instantly falling from Avanti’s face.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Let’s just get out of here dude.” Avanti became snappish, and that was when Jade realized she had gone unnoticed the whole time. She veered off in a different direction, not looking back as their voices faded.
“Hey Jade, look!” Neo suddenly got her partner’s attention by patting her on the head.
She held up a shiny, flat object, one that seemed organic yet tough and durable. It could only be one thing; a dragon scale. It would fetch a high price in most shops, meaning they’d have some extra money this month. Well, at least they weren’t leaving empty-handed.
Extra stryx (Avanti)-3
Total= 93 AP
Extra stryx (Jade)-3
Total= 83 AP
Extra stryx (Jade)-3
Total= 33 AP
Extra stryx (Jade)-3
Total= 35 AP