Today we present Part 2 of The Most Precious of Treasures by Desmond Warzel.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Most Precious of Treasures (continued)
Cardia aimed the wand and shouted an arcane word; the jewel at the instrument’s tip glowed and spewed forth a tremendous sphere of fire, which sped across the room and spent itself against the demon’s trunk, leaving the fiend unharmed. As she and the demon circled one another warily like festival prizefighters, she tossed the wand aside and chose another; this time, lightning. The bolt shot forth and found its home, but was absorbed into the demon’s body as if it had never been.
The dance continued, with Cardia barely evading the creature’s clawed hands and whiplike tale while she tried, then discarded, each wand: ice, acid, poison, all were equally worthless. Parts of her clothing were beginning to smolder where the demon’s immolated limbs had passed too close, and she could feel her skin beginning to blister. For her part, Melorin had stood this as long as she could, and she finally charged in and began hacking at the monster’s unguarded back. She knew her blows would be useless themselves, but she hoped to distract their foe and give Cardia time to think and room to maneuver.
She managed three ineffectual strokes of her sword before the demon casually flung back a muscled arm and sent her sprawling into the far corner of the room, smoke rising from her singed cloak. Undaunted, she unslung her bow and quiver. Nocking an arrow, she drew back the string and waited; knowing the demon’s skin to be impervious, she hoped for a clear eye-shot. That plan proved to be for naught, however, as an incidental flick of the creature’s tail sliced the bow neatly in half, leaving her with a pair of intricately-worked doorstops.
Melorin’s muttered curse caught the demon’s attention and it turned to regard her, smiling diabolically as it watched her cast her ruined bow away. Cardia, out of wands but seeing an opportunity, began reciting an incantation and spread her arms wide, making broad gathering motions. There was a subtle stirring in the room, and the air between Cardia’s hands began to shimmer. As the demon turned back to her, she delivered the final word of the spell and thrust her palms outward, releasing a sphere of accumulated energy that struck it in the chest and sent it stumbling backward. Had it not hurriedly beat its great wings to steady itself, it might have left its feet altogether.
This tiny success begat a new strategy in Melorin’s mind as the demon recovered its poise, and she frantically signaled Cardia, first mimicking her spellcasting gestures, then displaying approval with an upturned thumb, and finally retrieving her sword from the floor and miming a thrust. Cardia nodded and readied a second casting of the spell. Melorin crouched against the wall, gripping her sword’s hilt tightly. When Cardia nodded again, Melorin sprinted forward, interposing herself between the wizard and the demon. She raised the sword to strike, and the demon, amused at her persistence, made ready to bat her away again. But before the blow could land, Cardia’s voice filled the chamber, strong and clear, and the pent-up force once again burst forth; this time, however, it carried the sword along, yanking it abruptly from Melorin’s hands and plunging it into the demon’s chest.
The look of surprise on each combatant’s face mirrored those of the other two. The demon slumped against the wall, its gaze fixed on its victorious opponents: Cardia, in her astonishment, backed slowly away, openmouthed; Melorin had been deposited unceremoniously on her backside by the force of the spell and sat rubbing her abraded palms and grimacing. The demon looked down at the sword hilt protruding from its chest, then seemed to shift its gaze to something they could not see. Its flames ceased their coruscations and faded away, and the creature was no more.
“Well. That was something,” said Melorin, getting to her feet. “We’ve finally found a worthwhile use for magic, Car; new and improved ways to stab people.” She examined the demon’s body quizzically, then braced one foot atop its torso and heaved at her sword’s hilt, trying to free the blade from its unearthly prison. A pool of viscous black fluid welled up around the entrapped weapon. “I think that’s about it for this sword, though.”
Cardia had been gathering her discarded arsenal of wands. “Demon ichor is hard to come by; I’ve got some skins I want to fill before we leave.”
Melorin pointed at the opposite door, which hadn’t been there before and seemed to have materialized when they weren’t looking. “With that treasure, you can fill your bathtub with ichor if you want. Let’s go.” She strained at the sword one final time before giving it up for lost.
“This is it,” said Cardia, taking hold of the door handle.
“Yeah. This is it.”
“This is sick.”
“Most precious of treasures, indeed.”
The third chamber was as unadorned as the previous one had been, and it contained none of the gold, jewels, or ancient tomes they had envisioned. Like the second room, it did boast a single inhabitant, though not nearly as imposing as the demon had been.
This room was occupied by a young woman in the early years of adulthood, seated in an ornate, high-backed chair. Her simple dress obeyed no fashion with which they were familiar–though neither Cardia nor Melorin paid attention to courtly trends–but seemed more suited to times gone by, the sort of attire depicted in old portraits or tapestries. She was completely enveloped by an intangible, translucent sphere, which made her shimmer like a desert mirage. This was, however, no illusion. Though stilled for centuries, she was very much alive. Her melancholy, unseeing eyes haunted the room.
“So the treasure’s…what? Beauty? Love?”
“No matter. Cliché is the least of the crimes being perpetrated here.”
“We should get her out of there.”
“Naturally. But I need to think.”
“Love.” Melorin spat on the stone floor. “This is why I usually stick with lust.”
“This is why I usually stay indoors altogether,” said Cardia absently.
Melorin sighed and paced the room, making several revolutions around the chair and its occupant. “I can just picture the bastard, getting older and grayer and watching his treasure stay young and beautiful for his amusement. What kind of a twisted mind came up with this? You wizards are something else, let me tell you.”
Cardia, deep in concentration, heard none of Melorin’s rant. “A spell like this usually lacks ontological inertia,” she mused.
“Spells bound to objects last as long as the object does; the enchantments on some weapons, for instance, or the spells that concealed these doors. Other spells require continuous concentration, whether conscious, unconscious, or subconscious. They die when the wizard dies.”
“Got an explanation, then?”
“Well, a spell can be maintained indefinitely by channeling energy directly from certain parallel planes. Look for a conduit, something to transmit and focus–ah, there it is.” She indicated a blue crystal the size of a fist, set into the wall above the doorway they had just come through. A dim light pulsed within it.
“So what’s the procedure?”
Cardia shrugged. “Smash it.”
“That’s it? There isn’t some spell on it?”
“If there is, we’re out of luck anyway.”
Melorin withdrew a small, heavy mace from somewhere in her cloak, took a running start, and swung the weapon, delivering unto the jewel all of the frustration that had been building in her since she had been denied a treasure she had been hoping would allow her to settle her life down. The blue stone shattered, scattering tiny fragments across the floor like sparks. The light inside it flared and then died. Behind her, the sphere surrounding the chair winked out of existence like a giant soap bubble.
The woman started, blinked several times, and looked frantically about the room. Her gaze lighted on Cardia and Melorin, and her face fell. She regarded them sadly, and said something in an unfamiliar language.
“What was that?” asked Melorin. “Brillish?”
“I’ve never heard it spoken aloud,” said Cardia, “but with that consonantal placement, it can be nothing else.” She searched her pockets and brought out a twist of paper containing a pinch of yellow powder. She recited some arcane words over it and placed a few grains on her tongue, letting them dissolve. She bade Melorin draw a pinch of the powder and do likewise, and then approached the woman, who drew back uncertainly. Cardia placed a hand on her arm. “Be calm, my lady. We are friends.” The woman regarded Cardia for some moments, then allowed her to administer the remainder of the powder. “Speak, my lady,” Cardia said gently. “We can understand one another now.”
“I am Sirris,” the woman said. Cardia and Melorin introduced themselves in turn.
“Is Cabell with you?” asked Sirris, her voice laced with hopeful tones.
“No,” Cardia assured her. “Cabell is long dead; he can no longer harm anyone.”
“Harm anyone? Oh. I see you do not fully understand. Have you the map?”
“The map? One second, my lady.” Melorin slid it from a pocket and presented it to Sirris.
She regarded the ancient paper. “It is Cabell’s hand.” She turned it over, and indicated a matrix of strange sigils on the back. “You must do what this says.”
Confusion evident upon her face, Cardia glanced at Melorin, hoping for an explanation. “That wasn’t there before,” said Melorin.
“It must have been concealed; perhaps that enchantment was tied to the spell that imprisoned Sirris.”
“Can you read it?” asked Melorin.
“But…your magic,” protested Sirris.
“This is not a known language, my lady. There is no spell for it.”
Sirris closed her eyes and let out a shuddering sigh. “Then you have killed me.”
“How can that be, lady?”
“I have a sickness. Cabell–my beloved–knew its deadly nature, but not its cure. He pledged to search the entire world, if need be, for the magic or medicine that would make me well. He brought me here, out of harm’s way, and enchanted me–just moments ago, it seems to me, though of course that cannot be.”
“Many years have passed.”
“When I saw you, I knew that must be so. My beloved told me that he would entrust the cure to another if he found it but was unable to come to me himself. The ‘treasure map’ was a means of compelling a stranger to come–anyone who could defeat the demon could surely administer the cure, no matter how arcane.”
“The map was lost for a long time, lady Sirris.”
“I see this now. Better I should have lived out my years, however few, with Cabell, than be reborn in a strange world, and no less doomed.”
“Perhaps we can still help,” offered Cardia, though no remedy sprung immediately to mind.
“I fear your hopes are in vain. You may as well leave me and be on your way,” sighed Sirris, slumping back into her chair.
They compelled Sirris to return with them; she didn’t resist, but neither would she aid them. In the end, they dragged her bodily from Cabell’s edifice. She rode behind Cardia without complaint, and ate when they proffered food, but remained quiet. Cardia and Melorin tried to maintain a jovial atmosphere, once again swapping their doubly-exhausted store of reminiscences as they had during their ride south. But what pleasure had lain in the telling was now diluted, and Sirris remained oblivious in any case.
For two days the three women rode north in total silence. Both the swordswoman and the wizard were well aware of the obligation they had assumed, but Cardia couldn’t bring herself to discuss aloud how they might go about discharging it. Melorin was similarly reticent. Instead, they withstood the weight of the problem as long as they could; but by sundown of the third day, it pressed down upon them like the wide desert sky itself. That night, after Sirris was asleep, they withdrew, by mutual unspoken assent, to the edge of the campsite.
“Have you given any thought to what we should do?” whispered Melorin.
“I’m afraid I’m at a loss as to what we can do, apart from making her comfortable.”
“I thought you might try whipping something up once you were back in your laboratory.”
“Whipping something up? I wouldn’t even know where to begin. That’s not–“
“Not how magic works, yes, I know. Then what good is it, Car? Is all that knowledge and power worth checking your humanity at the door? Where’s your compassion?”
“This lady, if she truly must die, will die in comfort, tended by me, rather than starving in a desert hell and being desecrated by scavengers. There is my compassion. I accept the responsibility; forgive me for also accepting my limitations.”
“That’s the easy way out.”
“Magic is what magic is, Melorin. Have you got a better idea?”
“No. This lies outside your expertise. It’s a problem that can’t be solved by decapitating someone and looting his corpse.”
Without any further words, Melorin stalked back toward where Sirris lay. Her footsteps in the gravel echoed in the empty night. Cardia sighed and trudged after her.
Sirris’s spirits elevated when they entered the city, and she enjoyed gawking at the unfamiliar buildings and strange fashions. As they wended their way through town–first to the Talking Carp for a substantial dinner, then to Cardia’s house–her unusual manner and archaic dress drew their share of reciprocal attention as well. Her beauty, remarkable in her own era, was enhanced by her displacement in time, which lent enigmatic otherworldliness that was not lost on those fortunate enough to see her. She could only converse with Cardia and Melorin, but men were what they were no matter what, and she managed a few sad smiles in response to what she perceived as the more gallant and chivalrous of their comments.
When they reached Cardia’s house, Melorin saw Sirris safely ensconced in the spare bedroom. She was a long time in taking her leave of the grand lady from eons past, but finally rose and departed when Sirris’s eyelids began to droop. She swung the bedroom door closed with a gentle hand and wandered through the house in search of Cardia. She finally found her friend in the laboratory, busily arranging scrolls, powders and glassware in preparation for an experiment.
“What are you doing?”
“Starting some spells. They should be ready when she wakes, and then I can draw some blood.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know where to begin.”
“One begins at the beginning. And you?”
Melorin smirked. “Beginning at the beginning.”
“How do you mean?”
“I showed old Chen the back of the map while we were eating. He said he remembered seeing similar writing when he was a boy, back in the old country. So I’m getting a new sword and bow and I’m heading east. Maybe I can find someone to translate it. Help you out a little.”
Cardia raised an eyebrow. “I guess there are still a few surprises left, even after all these years.”
“For you and me both, Car.”
“Do you need money?”
“No, I’ll find someone to decapitate and loot along the way.”
“Never mind that. If we start apologizing to each other, that poor woman will have expired by the time we’re through.”
“You’d best be careful. They’re not so enthusiastic about foreigners in Chen’s homeland.”
“Thanks for the tip. Now back to work. It’ll be good, making yourself useful for a change.”
“And likewise for you.” They left the laboratory and strolled through the short hallway to the front door. “Though I always suspected you had something of the hero in you.” Cardia held the door open for her friend.
“Back in a flash.”
“I’ll settle for fewer than five years this time.”
“No problem.” Melorin gave a jaunty wave and strode off around the corner to reclaim her horse from the stable.
Cardia went to the kitchen and brewed some strong tea. Her spells would take hours to bear fruit, and would require constant supervision in the meantime. Cradling her cup in both hands, she peered in on Sirris, who was already fast asleep, and returned quietly to the laboratory, pulling the heavy wooden door closed behind her.
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.