Today we present The Most Precious Of Treasures by Desmond Warzel. You may remember Desmond from Episode 15 Same-Day Delivery. The Most Precious Of Treasures first appeared in issue #5 of Shelter Of Daylight. Desmond lives in northwestern Pennsylvania, and has had stories published in Daily Science Fiction, the anthology Candle in the Attic Window from Innsmouth Free Press, and at Tor.com.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Most Precious of Treasures
When Cardia entered the Talking Carp, Melorin was situated in the far corner, at a table which already bore two depleted pint mugs and an empty plate. She was the establishment’s only occupant except for old Chen himself, who fussed about the open kitchen slicing various odds and ends of meat and fish for the exotic foreign fare that made up much of his menu. When he looked up from his work, Cardia ordered herself a cup of tea, as well as a third beer for Melorin. A drink in each hand, she made her way across the empty dining room and joined her former colleague.
“I read your note,” said Cardia as she sat down and slid the mug of beer across the table.
“I knocked,” replied Melorin. “Nobody came.”
“The entire house is soundproof. What brings you to my doorstep after so long? A social call?”
“Nope,” Melorin said, and drained half the mug at one go. “I think I found us a big score. Let me show you something.” She retrieved a well-worn pack from beneath her chair and fumbled through its contents.
“I respectfully decline; I’m retired, and money no longer suffices as a reward for risk.”
“Yeah, well, speak for yourself, Car.”
Cardia sipped her tea. “Do you mean to say you’ve spent your entire half of the dragon hoard? In only five years?”
“Not at all.”
“I spent it in two.” At last, Melorin withdrew a paper, heavily-creased and brown with age but otherwise intact, from among the miscellany in her pack. “Time to make another fortune. And I need your spells. Can’t count on anyone else.”
Cardia took the paper gingerly. “What is this?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“It’s a map.” And so it was; an actual treasure map, in fact, like those in children’s tales, complete with carefully-inked depictions of landmarks, a dashed line indicating the path, even a bold X denoting the ostensible treasure. Cardia couldn’t keep from snorting. On the other hand, the writing–annotations, place-names, and a block of text in the margin–presented a set of less-whimsical questions.
“Clearly,” replied Melorin dryly. “What’s it say?”
“It’s in Brillish,” said Cardia, “but I believe I can help.” She took one of Melorin’s empty mugs to Chen and waited while he rinsed it out and poured an inch or so of clean water into it, at her request. She returned to the table and sat down again, meticulously drying the outside of the mug on her sleeve and placing it directly on the map. “Brill was an ancient empire; it fell some sixty centuries ago.”
“Where was it?”
“It was everywhere, Melorin; that’s why they called it an empire.” She whispered a few syllables and passed a hand over the mug; the water in the bottom grew cloudy for a moment, and became clear again. Now the harsh, angular Brillish letters, when viewed through Cardia’s improvised lens, resolved into graceful modern script.
“That’s pretty nifty, Car. What’s it say?”
“It’s in the hand of someone called Cabell, a master wizard. It’s dated in the third year of the reign of Lothan, which makes it just under seven thousand years old.”
“It’s that old?”
“I can feel a minor enchantment on it; that probably accounts for its longevity. Let’s see…’only those of great intellect may enter’…’beware the demon’…’most precious of treasures’…and this passage entrusts the map and this ‘most precious of treasures’ to whomever is hardy enough to reach it, should Cabell perish–which, given the amount of time that’s passed, seems likely.”
“It’s real, then?”
“It’s genuine. Whether the information is legitimate is anyone’s guess.”
“And where’s this a map of?”
Cardia winced; Melorin’s appalling grammar always sent twinges down her spine. “You’re in luck. This,” she said, pointing at a spot in the center of the map, “is where we’re sitting. See the configuration of these mountains, how they stretch down from the north and then divide in two?”
“They look familiar.”
“They should; you rode through them this morning.”
“And the treasure?” asked Melorin. The excitement in her voice was almost juvenile.
“According to your map, it’s down here, hidden in a stronghold about a hundred miles due south of this very table we occupy.”
“It’s really that simple?”
“Oddly enough, yes.”
“Well, it makes sense. No one in her right mind would set foot down there; it’s all badlands and marauding humanoids.”
“Certainly.” Cardia sipped at her rapidly-cooling tea, awaiting the question she knew to be forthcoming. Melorin did not disappoint.
“So when can you leave?”
“Do you mean, ‘when can I abandon my work unfinished, in order to cross a deserted waste so that I can fight a demon with whom I have no argument and win a treasure I don’t need?’ I should have thought the answer was obvious.”
“There’s more than one kind of treasure, Car.”
“What do you mean?”
“This guy was a wizard, Car,” wheedled Melorin. “If he’s anything like you, he’s got books stashed all over the place. Think of it, Car; books of magic, all in Brillish, all seven thousand years old? A young wizard could really go places with that stuff, couldn’t she, Car? She might even get that university post she was always carrying on about.”
Cardia rested her elbows on the rough tabletop and massaged her temples. The survival of their one-time partnership–and their own survival, in many cases–had depended on an unspoken understanding each had of the other’s instincts and motivations; this had made them an ideal, and successful, team. It was clear that the intervening years had not diminished this connection, at least not on Melorin’s part. With a sigh, she finished her tea, then downed the remains of Melorin’s beer. “Three days,” she said.
“How’s that again, Car?”
“We leave in three days. I have experiments that need concluding.” She stood, her chair rasping across the ancient floorboards. “Use the time to see that we’re appropriately outfitted.”
“Will do. And, Car?”
“Can I borrow some money?”
Over the years, the croplands surrounding the burgeoning city had stretched to cover every remotely arable square foot of soil; to the south, they went on for several miles before giving way, almost within a single stride, to a scrubby desert that supported only a few hardy and inedible-looking bushes. A few miles farther, even this gave way to a blasted land of shattered rock, punctuated by rudely thrust-up fingers of granite and seas of igneous glass, dangerously slick when whole and wickedly sharp when fractured. Here and there, a stray fragment of worked metal hinted at more proactive threats. Into this inhospitable place rode the wizard and the swordswoman. Their dual protections–armor for foes, cloaks and scarves for windborne grit–made them indistinguishable, except that one of the pair wore a sword at her waist.
They hadn’t talked much since exiting civilized country. Catching up had seemed unnecessary; Melorin’s tales of slaying and looting all sounded the same, and Cardia’s accounts of her various magical discoveries and innovations would have bored her companion senseless. When Melorin finally did break the day’s silence, she practically had to shout to be understood over the clattering of the horses’ hooves on the stony ground.
“Ever been down this way before, Car?”
“I’m afraid not.” Cardia surveyed the jumbled landscape ahead. Near the horizon, some sort of carrion bird circled lazily. “As a vacation spot, it falls short.”
“How’d it get this way, do you think?”
“I imagine it’s been like this forever.”
“That’s some imagination you’ve got.”
“Well, there are a variety of theories involving ancient cataclysms. And I’ve also heard speculation that this was a section of another world, torn away and brought here for some unknown purpose. No one knows for certain. In any case, an intact Brillish treasure hoard, if it exists, might shed some light on the matter.”
They said nothing for some long moments, and then Melorin broached another inquiry. “I bet it feels good to be out in the world again, right, Car?”
“I’ve long since had my fill of this life, thanks. I thought that was clear.”
“You’re fooling yourself, Car. You were born for this.”
“I find that idea highly objectionable.”
“You really don’t miss the thrill of combat? We slew a dragon; most people have never even seen one.”
“As I recall, you slew the dragon, while I was bitten almost cleanly in two.”
“You’re still hung up on that? I took care of you, didn’t I?” Indeed, after the battle in question, Melorin had swiftly borne Cardia to the nearby temple at Faele, where the healers had worked their mystic ways and dragged her back from the brink–at no charge, out of gratitude at the dragon’s demise.
“And if a similar circumstance should arise, try and get female healers this time. Those men had their hands all over both my halves.”
“Well, from what I hear about the Faeleans, it wouldn’t have made much difference,” leered Melorin. “At any rate, how’s it going? Are you back in fighting trim yet?”
“As much as I care to be. Why so inquisitive?”
“Because we’re being tracked by about a dozen mounted hostiles, so if you’re not ready for a scrap, now’s the time to say so.” Cardia said nothing.
The hostilities commenced an hour later with a single arrow that parted the air between them and splintered against one of the ubiquitous granite formations. In unison they turned their mounts and faced their pursuers, twelve figures of uncertain, but inhuman, pedigree, each astride an emaciated, miserable-looking horse.
Melorin unshipped a bow and a small quiver of arrows. With barely a sideways glance, she and Cardia charged their antagonists, and in moments the combat was ended. Cardia’s left hand described wild calligraphic shapes in the air, nudging aside the most treacherous of the missiles that now flew at them; from her right hand came great white streaks of flame, each of which struck a marauder and sent it hurtling, lifeless, to the ground. For Melorin’s part, her archery was nearly impeccable, easily penetrating the many gaps in their enemies’ scavenged armor. When they had finally closed the entire distance, only one humanoid still remained upright and alive, and in its panic it was dispatched with a few well-aimed strokes of Melorin’s sword.
Afterward, they shooed the sickly horses north toward civilization in hopes that some of them might find nourishment or a new master before they succumbed. Melorin neatly stacked the foul bodies as a dual warning: to adventurers, that danger abided here; to humanoids, that indiscriminate attacks invited mortal consequences. Cardia sorted through the armaments of the fallen; their poorly-maintained blades she tossed aside, but she gathered a healthy supply of arrows to replenish Melorin’s store.
“Just like old times, right Car?” grunted Melorin as she heaved the final body into place. “You haven’t lost a step. I’d almost think you’ve been sneaking out on jobs and not telling anyone. If I didn’t know any better. Which I do.”
“An agreeable beginning for a final adventure,” conceded Cardia, stowing the arrows in Melorin’s baggage.
“You love this.”
“I love my continued existence more.” Cardia pulled the ancient paper out of her saddlebag and scanned the horizon for some landmark that could be reconciled with the figures on the map.
“If you call that existence.”
Cardia reddened, but stopped short of from lashing out. Their prior association had been harmonious; now that they harbored contrary outlooks, she found cross words rising all too easily to her tongue. “Go on,” she said, affecting a calm she did not feel.
“Car, you’re holed up in that tiny house, visited by nobody, helping nobody, doing research no one cares about to write monographs no one will read, all the while sitting on more wealth than most of the nobility, and never spending a cent…” Melorin trailed off, anticipating Cardia’s reaction, but none came. “I mean, am I right?” she finished lamely.
“Right as always, Melorin. The last five years have obviously been a waste. I should have spent them selling my hard-won skills to anyone with gold, fornicating my way across the continent, and remembering none of it thanks to pouring half a dragon hoard’s worth of cheap beer down my gullet. That’s a life.”
Melorin’s mouth hung open. “Sounds like you’ve given this some thought, Car.”
Cardia closed her eyes and sighed. She didn’t feel up to finishing this debate, and changed the subject. She held up the map. “Where did you find this, anyway?”
Melorin ruefully began cleaning her sword. “Fell in with some bandits near Sylaria, raiding those slave caravans they have up there…”
“That was good work you were doing.”
Melorin bit her lip. “Well, we hit them after they left Sylaria. For the money.”
“One of the bandits–Gavonn–he and I started sharing stories and meals. And eventually a bedroll.” She paused, awaiting Cardia’s retort, but none came. “Gavonn had been hired by a freshly-minted baron to clear the squatters out of an abandoned tower within his new borders, and he’d found the map in the topmost chamber.”
“It’s a rare swordsman who rifles papers first and strongboxes second.”
“He said he’d always meant to have it translated, but he could never get the funds and the expertise together in the same place. After he caught a slaver’s spear in the gut…”
“You took the map and headed for my front door.”
“I trust you completely, and everyone else not at all.”
“I suppose I would be wasting my breath if I asked whether you’d learned anything from all your experiences.”
Melorin sheathed her sword. “I suppose you would.”
The pair remounted and continued their trek south, their horses’ hooves raising no dust but only sending up small sprays of gravel.
The country they traveled through over the next several days was as varied as it was treacherous. Fortunately, several of its more permanent features–a crescent-shaped ravine for instance, or a grouping of mesas–still resembled their depictions on the map. Others had to be puzzled out. Some of these were simple: the map indicated a river, which was long gone, but the faint ghost of the riverbed still persisted. Others required more thought: a mass of sandstone, which had resembled a great cat at the time of the map’s making, had been scoured into an unrecognizable form, and they were forced to extrapolate.
As they caromed from one landmark to the next, their silence gradually gave way to reminiscence. The old stories, the ones that ended with them standing triumphantly side by side, sprang forth unbidden and filled the gulf between Cardia and Melorin like a foot slides into a well-worn shoe. At night, they each took their turns on watch especially seriously; there was no kindling here for campfires, so extra vigilance was called for.
They found themselves in fortune’s good graces for the rest of their southward journey and were not further molested. The reason for this–whether the macabre monument they had fashioned from their prior assailants, or simply the sheer paucity of life, hostile or otherwise, this deep in the badlands–was the grist for a friendly debate in which they happened to be engaged when they crested a steep ridge and spied the object of their quest.
The other side of the ridge sloped sharply down, and at the bottom was an edifice of large stones, constructed in what Cardia knew as the classical style. It was vaguely templelike, essentially a long box with a flat roof that overhung the front of the building and was supported by four columns. The front doors and the surrounding wall were decorated with simple abstract designs carved into the stone. Beyond the edifice, a flat sandy desert stretched to the horizon, almost reassuring in its familiarity after the alien nature of the badlands.
“That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a building nobody’ll ever see,” Melorin remarked.
“It’s rather eccentric, isn’t it? Still, consider the magic involved; it may have been built in a day, for all we know.”
“Car, you always told me magic didn’t work that way.”
“It doesn’t work that way now. Seven thousand years ago, who can say? Shall we?”
The first chamber was illuminated by wall-mounted torches that sprang magically to life when they entered. Its floor was painted in sixty-four alternating squares of black and white. They had encountered this arrangement any number of times in the past, but even Cardia was surprised to see no knights or bishops, no ranks of identical pawns, and most strangely, no black pieces at all; only a single rank of eight life-sized queens, sculpted from some unknown white stone. After some experimenting–and much sweating and straining–Cardia reasoned that the only unique arrangement was one in which each queen was safe from capture by the other seven.
As she and Melorin muscled the eighth piece into position, a door shimmered into being in the wall opposite the entrance. “That seemed rather perfunctory,” remarked Melorin.
“This was a test of sentience, not intelligence; it was meant to guard against some mindless creature blundering in and wrecking the treasure.”
“I’d think the demon would do for that. If it’s still there.”
“It is; or if it’s not, something else will have taken up residence in its place. It’s practically axiomatic.”
“Well, leave it to a wizard,” said Melorin. “Can’t even pick out floor tile without making a big production out of it.” She drew her sword, and checked the readiness of the numerous other weapons secreted about her person. “Maybe we can take the thing by surprise. The longer we draw out the combat, the worse for us.”
Cardia pointed at the newly-materialized door. “I think it knows we’re here.”
“Good point. Well, best get on with it, then.” Melorin seized the brass door-handle and pulled. The door swung open easily and a great jet-black fist, big as a boulder, thrust through the doorway, its demonic nature betrayed immediately by the curlicues of crimson flame that danced across the ebon flesh. It narrowly missed them both.
Melorin swung her sword in a broad overhead arc and brought it down on the monstrous wrist. The reverberations practically numbed her hands as the blade rebounded without penetrating the skin. The fist withdrew; Cardia gritted her teeth and slid from a leather thong on her belt a collection of slender ivory wands, each tipped with a different tiny gemstone. Signaling that Melorin should keep behind her, Cardia selected a wand and leapt through the doorway.
As in the first room, torches guttered momentarily and came alive, revealing a bare chamber, remarkable only for its inhabitant, the gargantuan, flame-ridden demon whose fist had already made their acquaintance. Shaped like a man but many times larger, it undulated its barbed tail in threatening gestures and unfurled enormous bat-wings, which were useless to it in its confinement but made it seem all the more imposing. Its red eyes were cunning and wise, but it was a wisdom gone sour after millennia of imprisonment.
About the Author
Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories, four of which (including this one) have been featured at Cast of Wonders. He’s also particularly proud of his appearances in venerable magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, at nifty websites like Abyss & Apex, and in other quadrants of the vast podcasting galaxy, such as The Drabblecast. In his spare time, he roots for the Cleveland Indians or engages in other, equally futile, pursuits. He lives in northwestern Pennsylvania.
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.