Hadrian discovered the most fascinating thing about plummeting in total darkness wasn’t the odd sense of euphoria from the free fall or the abject terror from anticipating sudden death but that he had the time to contemplate both.
The drop was that far.
The four had plenty of time to scream, which they’d done the moment the rope snapped. Hadrian wasn’t sure if Royce yelled. He didn’t hear him, and doing so wasn’t in his partner’s nature, but Wilmer’s cries drowned them all out. The pig farmer was so loud, his shrieks ricocheted off the stone walls and bounced back before any of them hit the water. A vicious slap and suffocating cold drove any remaining air from their lungs.
The impact would have hurt anyone and was worse for Hadrian given his broken leg. It was possible he blacked out from the pain, if only for an instant, but the plunge into ice-cold water woke him.
Just deep enough, Hadrian thought as he pushed off the bottom with his good leg, hoping to reach air in time. Normally weighed down by three swords, this was the first time he was happy to have lost two. Well, not so much lost as having one shattered and the other devoured. Still, the two-handed spadone strapped to his back was the largest and heaviest he owned.
He broke the surface with a gasp.
“Hadrian?” Royce called.
Turning, Hadrian could barely make out his friend. A soaked hood collapsed over his head, as if a bat hugged his face.
“Still alive,” he yelled back—less a reply than an inward thought that burst out.
The nearby flurry of splashing suggested neither Wilmer nor Myra could swim. Wilmer had never impressed Hadrian as athletic in any way. Given that walking had proved difficult for the pig farmer, swimming might be as impossible as flight. As for Myra, Hadrian imagined her experience with submersion in water would have been limited to lying in a brass tub while servants added scented oils and refilled her wine cup.
“There’s a blue light behind you,” Royce pointed out, after peeling off his hood. “Looks like the pool’s edge is just ten feet or so. Can you make it?”
Hadrian turned and saw an eerie glow coming from the cavern wall. Royce was right. The edge of the little lake was close, but the bottom was distant. The subterranean pond was less a basin and more a stone fissure filled with water—likely with straight sides. The ice-cold pool sapped Hadrian’s strength, freezing his muscles and strangling his breath. A death trap.
“I can try,” Hadrian replied, still struggling to keep his head above the surface. Over his shoulder he called out, “Myra? Wilmer? You okay?”
“Forget about them,” Royce said. “Get yourself out.”
Hadrian struggled to see in the dim light. He could hear both Wilmer and Myra gasping, coughing. “I don’t think they can swim.”
“Not your problem—not mine either. Get to the edge.”
“If you won’t help them, I—”
“You’ll what? Drown with them?” Royce asked. His friend was somewhere behind Hadrian, somewhere in the dark, hardly making a sound. “You’ll be lucky to get out alive on your own.”
Royce was right, but when had that ever mattered? “I’ll do what I can.”
“All right, all right!” Royce barked, the familiar frustration in his voice. “I’ll help them. But get going. I can’t save everyone.”
Hadrian swam as best he could, happy to be wearing leather and wool rather than chain mail. His left arm hung limp, numb and useless. The distance wasn’t far, just a few kicks away, but still a challenge with only one good arm and leg. At least the cold soothed the burns on his back and, if the water wasn’t putrid, it might help clean the claw marks raked across his chest.
Hadrian reached the edge and hung there a moment, catching his breath. Then, using his elbow for leverage, he lifted and rolled himself onto the stone floor, carefully avoiding the burns on his back and the cuts on his chest. He lay on his side, panting and listening to the water drain from his clothing.
Looking around, he saw they were in yet another massive chamber of the never-ending complex.
How many rooms are there? How deep does this cave run? How long can we keep going?
They must have been underground a week. All the food they’d brought was gone. Thank Maribor, Royce still carried some of the wolf meat.
They never would have survived this long if it hadn’t been for Royce. Not that his partner cared about Wilmer or Myra. Those two had lost all importance when the level of danger surpassed the value of the twenty-five gold tenents Myra had offered them for escort. After only the first night inside, Hadrian had become convinced Royce would have abandoned the fee, and Myra and Wilmer as well, if doing so would have caused a magic exit to appear. As it was, Hadrian worried what would happen when the wolf meat ran out.
We must be at the bottom, Hadrian thought. The roots of the mountain—that’s what’s written on the map. That’s how the jester had described the heart of the Farendel Durat Range. Hadrian had always considered mountains beautiful—but he learned that was only true from a distance. Up this close, and from the inside, they proved terrifying.
The others crawled out of the inky pool, shivering in the faint glow emanating from a cluster of gems embedded in the wall. Myra looked dead, the blue light draining her skin of color, thin hair plastered flat. Upon first meeting, she was as lively as a rabbit and had spoken so quickly, they needed her to repeat everything. The trip had taken its toll. Lying on the stone, coughing and shivering from the wetness, the widowed wife of a candle merchant looked more her age. Somewhere in her thirties, or maybe older, she was finally sapped of the insatiable drive that had powered her. The exhaustion showed in her eyes, an unfocused stare. She was a dormouse caught too far from her hole in daylight. She wanted it to be over—they all did.
Wilmer lay facedown a few feet away. Never more than a rag, his thin, homespun tunic, blackened on one side and bloodied on the other, became the shredded and stained chronicle of their trip so far. Wilmer was still coughing, still spitting. His scream must have cost a lot of air. He likely swallowed a lot of water.
“Nice place, this,” Hadrian said, then grunted while trying to shift position. “I think we should stay awhile.”
Royce knelt beside him, vigorously rubbing his hands. “I’ll ask the innkeeper for extra pillows and blankets.”
“Tell him I’ll have the special—the special is always the best.”
Royce pulled up Hadrian’s shirt to examine the burns and claw marks. He grimaced.
“Oh—nice bedside manner, pal. Why don’t you just pull my cloak over my face and recite something religious.”
“If I knew anything religious, I might.”
Of the group, Royce showed the least wear. His hood and cloak had survived without a tear, although he did have a nasty looking cut across his forehead. His expression was sullen, but that was normal for Royce. It was only when his partner smiled that Hadrian worried.
“Did we get away?” Myra asked.
No one answered.
Hadrian was afraid to—afraid to jinx what little luck they’d found by hitting the pool instead of jagged rocks. Gods looked for hubris when deciding where to step, and so far, good fortune had been scarce.
Royce turned and cocked his head, like a dog listening. Always the first sign, the early indicator life was about to get ugly again. Over the course of their underground journey, Hadrian had come to see his friend as a canary in a mine. He wished he could have been surprised to see his expression darken, but by then he would have been more astonished to discover they were safe. A few heartbeats later Hadrian heard the distant banging for himself. A long, familiar, striding rhythm that sounded like a god beating out a cadence using rolls of thunder.
“Nope,” Royce finally answered Myra’s question, as he helped Hadrian to his good leg.
“Why don’t it stop?” Wilmer cried. “Why don’t anything in here ever stop?” He was slapping the floor with his palms, fingers spread out.
The banging became hammering and then pounding as the sound grew nearer.
“Go! Go! Go!” Royce shouted, and they were up and running again. Hadrian limped, using his friend as a crutch.
Wilmer also struggled, his side still bleeding. A stain around the snapped arrow shaft had spread up to his armpit and down to his hip. In contrast, Myra made better time. Wet skirt hiked to her thighs, she abandoned modesty in favor of survival. The four ran the only way possible, the only way they could see—toward the light.
“Door!” Royce shouted. Abandoning Hadrian, he raced ahead. Reaching it first, he knelt, as if proposing marriage. Of course it was locked. No point expecting anything else in such a miserable place.
Hadrian had never seen a lock Royce couldn’t pick, but this time he was in a race. The once distant bangs of giant footfalls had become terrifying booms. Hadrian chanced a look behind but couldn’t see anything. The creature was still in the darkness, and he hoped reality would prove less terrifying than his imagination.
“Open!” Royce announced, and they raced through. Shoving the door closed behind them muffled the thunderous steps but also blotted out the light. Hadrian heard Royce twist the lock, followed by the sound of a board sliding into place.
“We need a light,” Myra said.
“You’re the candlemaker!” Wilmer shouted.
“Give me a second,” Royce said.
Outside, the beast closed in.
Sparks flashed several times before a flame developed, revealing Royce. Kneeling on the floor, he blew into a pile of gathered debris. Myra pulled candles out of her pack and began lighting them.
She must have a hundred of them in there.
Before setting out, Myra had possessed eight separate bags of luggage—some with hats, another with makeup, and several filled with luxurious gowns. One entire bag had been devoted to impractical shoes. Hadrian had persuaded her to leave most of it behind. His argument became irresistibly convincing when everyone refused to help carry her load. She kept only a single knapsack with food, water, the map pieces, and candles. As she opened her pack this time, Hadrian realized all that remained were the pieces of the map and candles.
Flickering light revealed an octagonal chamber. Chisel marks revealed the room had been carved out of the mountain—the handiwork of the jester.
Did he do this all himself?
It seemed impossible anyone could hew a hall from solid stone. Dwarves were legendary for their mastery of such things, but Hadrian was convinced the jester hadn’t worked alone. Even so, it must have taken years.
In the center of the room, a chest the size of a wagon sat on a stone dais. Built of steel with brass corners and coin-sized rivets, it was secured by a formidable padlock. On the far side of the chamber stood another door. Also cast from steel, it too had its own massive lock. The last remaining item was an iron lever and thick chain that connected it to a keystone holding up the arched ceiling.
Royce was busy shoving another brace across the door they’d entered. With the light from Myra’s candles, Hadrian could see the wood was old and rotted. The door itself was an even bigger concern. The iron hinges were rusted, the wood grooved from worms and termites. As the pounding grew closer, they all backed away, staring with anticipation at the rickety door that had become their castle gate.
“Better open that other door, Royce,” Hadrian said.
“Wait!” Myra shouted, and all of them froze. “It’s another choice.”
Hadrian looked to Royce.
“I think she’s right. We’ll get to pick only one,” his partner said, shaking his head in disgust. “By Mar, I hate this short bastard. First Manzant prison and now this—I’m really starting to develop a dislike for dwarves.”
“It’s another trap?” Hadrian asked.
“What are we gonna do?” Wilmer’s voice rose a few octaves. The man was a human teakettle always on boil.
Something hit the wooden door, and it shook, kicking up a cloud of dust.
“Shut up!” Royce ordered, and Wilmer clamped both hands over his own mouth.
“This is all his fault,” Myra said, pointing at the farmer. “We were doing fine until he screamed and announced us to everything in the area. He screams at everything! We should never have brought him.”
“We had to,” Hadrian said. “He had the last piece of the map. Besides, Wilmer only started screaming because you turned that statue to the left and made the floor drop away.”
Myra smirked. “I didn’t have a choice. Have you forgotten about the snakes? And Royce wasn’t doing anything about them.”
“I was busy trying to stop the walls from closing in,” Royce said absently. His attention was focused on the chest and, if Hadrian were to guess, the lock. Anything requiring a key must have been like a loose tooth to his partner. “And stopping them was more important than a few snakes.”
“A few? Where’d you learn to count?”
Hadrian felt the impact through the floor that time, and it made one of Myra’s candles wobble. “We’ve got a choice to make, people.” Hadrian leaned against one of the carved walls. “Door, chest, or lever?”
“We came here for the treasure,” Myra pointed out. “We have to open the chest or what was the point of all this?”
“How can you even think that?” Wilmer shouted. He alone faced the wooden door. “That—that thing is out there. A tiny door won’t hold it! But that one might.” He pointed across the room. “We gotta get to the other side, now!”
“You’re just panicking.” Myra dismissed him with a wave of her hand, which the farmer didn’t see. Nothing could pry his sight from the entrance.
“’Course I’m panicking!” Wilmer balled his hands into fists. “Panicking is what a body does at a time like this!”
“Why did you even come?” Myra shook her head in disgust and moved away from Wilmer—or was it the door she was getting distance from? Perhaps she was heeding the old adage that one doesn’t need to outrun a beast, just the terrified pig farmer and the guy with the broken leg you paid to deal with such things. Whatever her motives, Myra followed Royce as the thief approached the chest. She was careful not to pass him and stepped only where he had. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“And here I thought you was a smart lady,” Wilmer responded to Myra’s rhetorical question. “You said you had the rest of a map which led to amazing treasure. Why in Maribor’s name do ya think I came along?”
Hadrian ignored the pair. “Royce?” he called. “What’s your choice?”
The thief didn’t answer. Instead, he tilted his head once more, and Hadrian thought his heart might stop. This time, however, the familiar scowl didn’t appear.
“What is it?”
“It’s quiet,” the thief told them.
They all turned to look at the door and waited. Hadrian was holding his breath without realizing it until he had to take another. By then it was obvious Royce was right. It was quiet. The pounding had stopped.
Hadrian limped closer to the door. Placing a hand on it, he felt the bristles of stressed wood where it had begun to snap. He listened. Nothing.
“What does that mean?”
Royce shrugged. “I don’t even know what the blazes that thing is out there.”
“Well, it don’t like us,” Wilmer said, his voice down an octave. Turning to look at Myra, he added, “And that isn’t my fault. It’s yours.”
Myra looked embarrassed and turned away. Setting her pack down on the stone dais in front of the chest, she drew her wet hair out of her face and softly said, “Well, I don’t like spiders.”
Royce, who was on the dais studying the lock, turned. “Are you joking?”
“No. I’m deathly afraid of them.”
“Anyone is,” Hadrian said, “when they have teeth and are as big as a river barge.”
“There you have it. I’m vindicated.” Myra sat down and began pulling more candles out of her pack. They were all identical. She must have had a backroom filled with the things.
Myra was even odder than Wilmer, who Hadrian felt could best be described as challenged. A well-to-do widow of a candle baron, she’d packed up the family carriage and headed off for fame and glory by spelunking for treasure. Chandlers—especially wax chandlers—supplied the rich and the church with light, making them both wealthy and respected. He couldn’t imagine why she would trade all that for their current insanity. Early on, Hadrian had called her the Queen of Wax and received a nasty glare. Maybe Myra wasn’t happy with her inherited candle empire, or perhaps she simply wanted to try lighting one at both ends.
“You shouldn’t have run,” Wilmer told her.
With an armload of candles, Myra moved deeper into the room, bringing further illumination with her. “I’m sorry, okay? But I had no idea crossing that blasted river would make the wolves attack.”
“It didn’t,” Hadrian said, feeling the pain in his back. “They were just trying to get away from the fire, and of course you were still holding that cursed amulet.”
Myra turned. “We don’t know for sure if it was cursed,” she said, drawing sharp looks from all of them. “Okay, maybe it was.” Myra paused, one arm cupping a host of beeswax sticks to her breasts, the other hand holding a lit candle. “Oh—but wait. Then I don’t understand. What woke that thing up?” She gestured toward the door with the lit candle, which went out. She sighed miserably and began walking back to the nearest flame.
“I would suspect the explosion did,” Royce said, then added with remembered frustration, “proving me correct about never feeding ravens no matter how much they beg.” He glowered at Wilmer, who looked away. Turning to Hadrian he asked, “How’s your leg?”
He just shook his head. “Hurts.”
“Listen,” Wilmer pleaded, raising his arms in desperation. “Can we just decide what we’re gonna do? I don’t understand why we can’t just have Royce unlock this big, beautiful, iron, Maribor-blessed door. Wouldn’t you rather have that standing between us and whatever that thing is?”
“Might be a demon,” Myra offered as she delicately placed a candle on top of the treasure chest.
“Demons aren’t real,” Royce said.
“You’re so sure, are you?”
“Allow me to rephrase. It would seem unlikely.”
Exhausted, Hadrian sat on the floor and continued watching as Myra placed another candle, this one on a ledge near the metal door. The room was almost bright.
“We won’t get outta here alive—I just know it,” Wilmer grumbled.
Myra made a clucking sound that was audible even from the back of the room.
Royce finished examining the chest and moved through the rest of the chamber, nimble as a cat and peering in every corner. Granted, he didn’t have a broken leg, nor had he been burned or clawed, but still, Hadrian marveled at Royce’s stamina. He’d even outlasted Myra, a feat Hadrian had once thought impossible.
How long has it been?
Hadrian straightened his back and felt the pain in his shoulder and the stab in his leg. This job was feeling much too similar to the Crown Tower, the first job he and Royce had done together. It had nearly killed them both. More than six years had passed since forming their thieves-for-hire business, which they had named Riyria—an elven word for two. This mission felt a lot like that one, and it wasn’t the first time Hadrian suspected they wouldn’t live through the ordeal. It wasn’t even the first time that day the thought crossed his mind.
Wilmer sat only a few feet away, hunched on the floor, his head between his knees. He rocked and muttered to himself—maybe singing, or possibly praying. With Wilmer, it was hard to tell. The farmer’s hair hung in the way, obscuring his face. When the farmer wiped his cheeks, Hadrian realized Wilmer was crying.
Wilmer was an easier clam to open than Myra. They’d seen his home. Calling the hovel a shack would be flattery. A more accurate assessment would be to say he had two pigsties. He lived alone, not just in his hovel but because his farm was in the middle of nowhere. From what little Wilmer had said, Hadrian guessed he, his mother, and the pigs used to live somewhere else but were driven into the wilds—something Wilmer had done. Then his mother died, leaving him with only his pigs. Hadrian imagined they became more like children or siblings than livestock. Wilmer must have been in dire straits to leave them. Maybe he expected they would only be gone a day or two.
“Wilmer, how in the world did a pig farmer from the middle of nowhere get one of the map pieces?” Hadrian asked. “I thought only nobles of the old empire received them.”
“That’s true,” Myra answered for him. “His piece was given to Governor Hilla, whose descendants are now the Kenward family. Turns out his mother worked for the Kenwards once.”
“Lord Kenward thought me mum was special,” Wilmer said.
“I bet he did.” Myra smirked. “When he died, Kenward left his piece to her. Maybe he thought it was funny.”
“It weren’t funny. That map is cursed.” Wilmer sighed, then turned so the lights illuminated the arrow in his side. “That fall snapped the end off. Don’t really hurt much now—not if I don’t move.”
“Then don’t move,” Royce said.
“Shouldn’t we pull it out?”
“No.” Hadrian held up a warning hand. “You’ll bleed like a spigot, and we don’t have any more bandages. That shaft is working like a cork in a bottle.”
“That’s another thing,” Myra said, returning from her lighting expedition to look at Wilmer. “Why aren’t you dead? Anyone else gets hit by an arrow, they die—you don’t even stop talking.”
“I’m sure I will be soon. We all will.” Wilmer looked at the ceiling, which appeared ready to cave in. “I don’t think our chances are very good. None of us are gonna survive this place. Thing is—it’s all a joke, ain’t it? What I mean is that dwarf made jokes for a living, right?”
“Well, he was the imperial jester,” Myra said.
“If this is a joke, it isn’t funny,” Royce said as he walked back to them. “I can’t find any other way out besides that steel door. No way to continue forward, at least. We could go back the way we came, but I don’t think that’s wise.”
“So, the choice is still the door, the chest, or the lever,” Hadrian said.
“The door is the only thing that makes any sense,” Wilmer insisted.
Myra shook her head in frustration and pretended to pull her own hair. “What in Maribor’s name do you know about sense? The door isn’t the answer. It’s way too obvious.”
“Oh, so you think pulling that lever and bringing the roof down is the smart thing to do?” Wilmer asked sarcastically. “Because that definitely isn’t obvious.”
She glared at the farmer. “That’s also obvious—obviously stupid. Although I’d almost like to just to see you crushed under a mountain of rock.”
“But what would be the point of opening the chest?” Hadrian asked. “We’d still be trapped. All the gold in the world won’t help.”
“No one said a thing about gold,” Myra replied. “The legend says the emperor’s jester stole, and I quote, ‘the most valuable thing anyone could ever possess.’ You people have such small imaginations. We’re talking about the ancient Novronian Imperial Palace here. The greatest empire the world has ever known. They conquered the dwarves and elves and subjugated them for centuries. The jester was probably once a dwarven king. And dwarves—as everyone knows—are thick with precious gems. The old empire also had wizards so powerful they could move mountains and redirect rivers. The bloody Rhelacan itself might be sitting in that chest.”
“What’s that?” Wilmer asked.
“No one really knows. A weapon of some sort that won the war against the elves. I’m just saying whatever is in that chest might be magical and could give us the power to escape these caverns. We might be able to lop the whole top of the mountain off and just walk away.”
“What do you think, Royce?” Hadrian asked.
“I’m wondering where the battering ram went,” he said. His partner was focused on the wooden door and seemed more bothered by it than before.
“Back to that hall of scary lights, I hope.” Wilmer was walking now, not heading toward anything, just pacing in a circle. His wet feet left a damp trail. He stopped in his orbital trek and glanced around. “When you think about it, this is the nicest room we’ve found so far.”
“That’s what bothers me,” Royce said, and then once more tilted his head.
“Not again,” Hadrian muttered. “What is it?”
“Water,” Royce said before running off to the far side of the room, grabbing one of Myra’s lighted candles on the way.
They all watched as he climbed the rear wall. From that distance, Royce appeared to be little more than a shadow. His trek was so fast and fluid he could have been some dark liquid spilling up hill. When he reached the top corner, he set the candle on a ledge, and they all saw the problem. Water was leaking from a crevice near the ceiling. A column of dark streaks discolored the stone below it. The room looked like it was weeping.
“So?” Wilmer said. “It’s just water—right?”
“Yeah,” Royce replied. “But it wasn’t there before.”
This time the impact didn’t come from the wooden door, and they heard a pop near the rear wall which turned the trickle into a spray.
“Oh, how nice, Royce,” Myra said. “Your friend’s back. Must have heard you were missing him.”
“Not my friend,” Royce replied. “But it looks like he was off causing mischief. Maybe you’re right. Perhaps he is a demon.”
The rear wall cracked, and more water surged in. It hissed under pressure, kicking out a rooster tail far enough to spray the side of the metal chest. Hadrian wondered if there might be some river or lake above them. Perhaps they’d traveled far enough west to be under the ocean. The force of the water looked likely to win the battle against the stone. Even if no further breaching occurred, the floor was solid, and there was no drain.
Hadrian said, “We have almost an inch of water here.”
“No—not funny at all,” Royce said.
“All right, that settles it. I’m ordering you to open that chest,” Myra told Royce, who looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “Look, I hired you—so do what I say. You two were supposed to be an accomplished pair of thieves—”
“Technically, he’s the thief,” Hadrian said. “I’ve never made that claim.”
“No—you’re right, Viscount Winslow assured me you could fight. ‘Good with a blade,’ I think he said. Only I haven’t seen anything out of either of you to justify his praise. You couldn’t even steal the map piece. How hard could that have been? He’s a pig farmer, for Maribor’s sake. He lived in a shack on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t even have that many pigs! You had three swords, and you’re twice his size. You should have just killed him and taken the map.”
Royce looked at Hadrian and raised both hands palms up as if to say, “See?”
“Is that how you got the other pieces?” Hadrian asked Myra.
The woman stopped. The rush of the water was loud, but he knew she’d heard him. Still, Myra hesitated, turning slowly. “What?”
“You said that old man gave you the other pieces, but did he? Did he just give them to you?”
Hadrian could see it on her face—she was considering lying. Any other time, anywhere else, she probably wouldn’t have hesitated. He’d long suspected Myra was a good liar, but buried deep under a mountain in a sealed room filling with water she must have realized there wasn’t much point.
“He was an old man and a cheat,” she replied. “Figured I could be persuaded to be his arms and legs for a quarter of the recovered treasure—a quarter! He didn’t even have all the pieces. And I would have to procure the last one from Wilmer using my own funds. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think that’s right?”
“Did you poison him?” Royce asked. There was no accusation in his tone, merely professional curiosity.
“I run a candle shop, not an alchemy store.”
Royce shrugged. “Poison is just a common choice for women.”
“Maybe for women in your social circle, but all I had on hand was vats of hot wax.”
This made Wilmer grimace, shocked Hadrian, and elicited an impressed expression from Royce.
Myra rolled her eyes. “What kind of person do you think I am? I smothered him with a pillow while he slept.”
Royce nodded his approval. “That can do the trick.”
She folded her arms and huffed. “Why couldn’t you do something like that to Wilmer?”
“You know, I’m right here!” the pig farmer yelled.
The room shuddered once more. Dust rained from the ceiling, and all of them looked up to see if some new and more immediate disaster would befall them. When the stones hanging over their heads remained unaffected, the group shared a communal sigh.
“That was my decision. I asked Royce not to,” Hadrian said.
“He’s annoying that way,” Royce added.
“It wasn’t necessary. Wilmer offered his piece in exchange for a fair share. His only condition was to come along. That seemed reasonable to me.”
“And Maribor’s beard was that ever a mistake,” Wilmer said. “Might have been better if you had killed me.” He looked at the thief. “Would have been quick and painless, right?”
Royce shrugged. “Sure, why not.”
“At least it would have been over and done with. These last few days have been the worst of my life.”
“Coming from you, that’s really saying something.” Myra sloshed toward Royce through ankle-deep water. The tight bun on top of her head had come loose, and her hair cascaded over her shoulders, making Myra look like some kind of fairytale swan princess. Lines of gray frosted darker locks, lending her a mystical quality.
Maybe I’ve lost more blood than I thought.
“I should have hired someone else. Viscount Winslow told me about Royce escaping from the Manzant salt mines, and I got too excited. You just don’t find many people experienced with dwarven structures. But this whole trip has been a complete disaster. You’ve done a pathetic job.”
“We’re here, aren’t we?” Royce said. “And you don’t even have a scratch.”
“Oh, I have plenty of scratches. I can assure you.”
“What are you complaining about?” Wilmer asked, pointing at the arrow in his side.
“And if Hadrian hadn’t killed those wolves, you’d—”
“And don’t forget that other—whatever the heck it was—lizardy thing,” Hadrian added.
“Right, and the giant serpent that nearly swallowed Wilmer whole. Not to mention that time I had to swing out and catch you just before you were blown out of that tunnel. You remember all that, right?”
“And how about when I caught your shoe?” Wilmer said. “You’d practically be barefoot if it weren’t for me.”
She looked at him incredulously, then turned to glare at Royce. “Okay, fine, but none of that matters if we drown down here.” Myra looked down to where several of the map pieces and an armada of candles had escaped her pack and were floating on the surface. “I’m telling you, the way out is some sort of magical item hidden in that chest. So, once more I’m ordering you to open it!”
The creature had returned to the wooden door, and the two braces bucked and threatened to splinter. The water was nearly knee-deep and rising faster than before.
“Okay, forget it,” Myra said. “I’m begging you to open it.”
“We don’t need the treasure,” Wilmer yelled. “We need to get out! You’re just letting your greed get the best of you. If we open the chest, there could be some kind of explosion that traps us. This time for good.” He looked at the ceiling. “Maybe kills us too.”
“You know, there’s really no reason to believe we have just one choice,” Myra said.
“You were the one who suggested it,” Hadrian reminded her.
“I know, and maybe it’s true, but maybe it isn’t. Those other tests could have been designed to make us think a certain way. We might be able to just open the chest, grab the treasure, unlock the door, run out into the beautiful meadow where we left our horses, and live happily ever after.”
“Are you still drinking that stuff?” Royce asked.
“No!” she shouted, then a melancholy look crossed her face. “Hadrian threw away the last bottle the faerie king had given me.” She shot Hadrian a wicked look.
“How many times must I tell you?” Hadrian said. “That thing wasn’t a faerie king, and whatever you were drinking wasn’t wine.”
The room shook, and a good-sized chunk of rock punched out of the rear wall. The spray of water became a torrent.
“Time’s up,” Royce said as the water began to rise at an alarming speed.
“Open the chest!” Myra shouted.
“For the love of Maribor, open the door or we’ll all die!” Wilmer cried.
Royce turned to Hadrian and, in a low voice, asked, “What would you do?”
Hadrian looked at the chest, which supported one of the few remaining undisturbed candles; most of the rest had been snuffed out by the rising water. Then he glanced at the giant steel door and finally at the lever and the chain leading to the ceiling where the keystone held everything in place. “I think Wilmer is right.”
“The door it is,” Royce said.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Hadrian shook his head. “I mean he was right about not opening the chest. Only a greedy person would do that, and I’m starting to think the jester set this whole thing up to make a deliberate point. So, the answer won’t be greed.”
“Right—so we open the door.” Royce waded a step through waist-deep water, reaching for his tools.
“No, not the door. Only a coward would choose that door.”
“What then? You’re not planning to fight that thing out there, are you? Because I don’t think you’re up to it.”
“No, that’s not what I’m suggesting.”
“Well, what are you suggesting? We’re running out of time,” Royce said.
Wilmer and Myra nodded their agreement as they waded closer to hear Hadrian over the frothy roar.
“Think a minute. The dwarf stole the treasure, tore the map into eight parts, and had the pieces delivered to the nobles he’d been forced to entertain. I suspect dwarves know a bit about revenge…and greed. I’ll bet most of those nobles and their descendants collected the pieces by hunting down and killing one another, just like Myra. But think about what it would take to build this place. Consider what kind of mastermind created it. Do you think the jester was just some clown? Wouldn’t he need a legion of dwarves to do all this?”
“No time for questions, just tell us, okay?” Wilmer’s pitch was rising again.
“I think Myra was right. The dwarf was special—a noble or king perhaps. Maybe he’d been hauled to the imperial court to be humiliated by a bunch of greedy cowards—and this—all this is his revenge. The right choice isn’t the chest or the door.” His eyes shifted.
Royce followed Hadrian’s gaze to the chain that led to the lever, already below the water’s surface.
Royce smiled. “Only a fool would pull the lever.”
Royce moved to where the chain disappeared. Hadrian joined his friend, which was easy now that he was floating.
“Wait!” Myra shouted. She was looking up and waded deeper into the shadows of the room. Hadrian lost sight of her. “There’s a key hanging from the ceiling right above the chest now! Look! The banging must have made it slip down.”
“There’s one above the door too!” Wilmer shouted, swimming away and disappearing into the growing darkness as another candle hissed out.
Royce ignored them and reached down.
“Wait,” Hadrian told him. Then he shouted, “Come back! We’re pulling the lever!”
They waited as the water level rose, inching up the chain links. Hadrian peered into the darkness. He couldn’t see either of them through the murk.
“Can you hear me? Come back. We’re pulling the lever!”
“They aren’t coming,” Royce said, looking impatient as the two bobbed closer to the ceiling.
“Do it!” Hadrian shouted.
“No, but do it anyway.”
“Good enough for me.”
Royce disappeared below the surface. A moment later the chain stretched taut. The keystone yanked free and fell into the froth. Hadrian braced himself for the collapse, but none of the other stones moved.
“It’s an exit!” Royce shouted the moment his head broke the surface. “Take a breath and swim!”
“Broken leg, bad arm, and I can’t see in the dark the way you can. Maybe you should just—”
“Oh, shut up and take a deep breath.”
The water rose and snuffed out the last candle. In the darkness, Hadrian struggled to find the hole left by the fallen keystone, his fingers fumbling over chiseled stone. Two hands grabbed him from behind as Royce shoved him through the opening, where their heads broke the surface. With the room below topped off, the water had nowhere else to go and surged up the narrow shaft, lifting them.
“Did you see them?” Hadrian asked. “Did you see Myra or Wilmer?”
From somewhere above, a white light shone bright enough for Hadrian to see Royce’s face. He was grimacing.
“Well? Did they get out?”
“In a way, I suppose. Wilmer’s head was smiling at least.”
“What about Myra?”
“You don’t want to know.”
They spilled into another chamber, where the water filled a basin that formed a small pool. When the water rose high enough to reach the chiseled edge of the basin, it stopped.
Light came from the full moon overhead. They were in a beautiful domed chamber with a crystal roof that allowed moonlight to illuminate its interior. In the center was the unmistakable shape of a stone coffin. On the far side stood a door, which lacked any sort of latch, lever, or knob. In the center was a tiny keyhole.
The chamber—vast, flat, and spartanly adorned—evoked an unexpected sense of tranquility. Unlike any room they’d visited since descending into the jester’s cave, this space felt safe, even hallowed.
The pair made their way to the basin’s edge and climbed out. Despite Royce’s comments, Hadrian couldn’t help looking back at the center of the pool they’d emerged from. He waited. The surface remained undisturbed except for a single floating candle listing to one side. Beyond that, not even a bubble. It could have been a mirror.
“If either of them had been at the lever while we were at the door or chest, they wouldn’t have hesitated,” Royce said. “Myra would’ve jumped at the chance to rid herself of us, ensuring she got all the treasure, and Wilmer didn’t have the courage to wait.”
As much as Hadrian wanted to deny it, Royce was right. They’d made their choices.
With his partner’s help, they moved to the coffin.
“Look.” Royce pointed out magnificent carvings in the stone walls surrounding the chamber. Similar etchings adorned the side of the coffin. Some of the markings appeared to be writing, but not in a language Hadrian could read.
“Yeah, it’s amazing. I don’t suppose you can read dwarfish, can you?”
Royce shook his head. “You?”
“Not a word.”
Royce ran his hands over and around the chest before lifting the dust-laden lid.
Inside lay a small body, wrapped and decayed. At his head was a multicolored hat with bells, at his feet a silver box. Royce carefully removed the container, took a step away, and set it down beneath a shaft of moonlight. The box had no lock, just a simple clasp and hinge. Tilting the lid back revealed a lining of fine blue velvet, a small stone tablet, and a key. Royce picked up the key and Hadrian the tablet. Carved into the stone were four sentences he was able to read.
Cowardice and greed will drown one’s soul.
The greatest treasure a person can possess is freedom.
I stole mine by playing the fool.
Now, so have you.
With Hadrian in tow, Royce made his way to the door and placed the key in the lock. A single click echoed, and the door swung open, revealing a mountain trail and a starry night.
Hadrian looked behind them, then at the stone tablet in his hand.
“What?” Royce asked, annoyed.
“We should put it back and reseal the coffin.”
Hadrian shrugged. “Just seems right. After all we went through with the jester, I feel we owe it to him.”
Royce shook his head. “The little monster tormented us for days—tried to kill us—came damn close.”
“He just wanted justice, or to put it in your language…revenge.”
“I can respect that. Only we never did anything to him. We weren’t even after the treasure. It was just a job.”
“Maybe that’s why we got out.”
Royce sighed. “Give me the damn thing.”
He replaced the items and the box, closed the coffin, and rejoined Hadrian, who had waited at the door. Outside, the night air was sweet with the scent of pine. Hadrian gave Royce a surprised look.
“I didn’t expect you’d put it back,” Hadrian admitted as he wrapped an arm around his friend. The two stepped out, letting the door close behind them.
Royce shrugged. “I owed you.”
“Owed me? For what?”
Royce pulled his hood up, covering his features as the two made their way into a lovely summer’s night. “I would have picked the chest.”
Copyright 2014 © Michael J. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved. The Jester was previously published in the anthology Unfettered.