Story By Matthew Wuertz / Illustration by John Waltrip
Just as Cal raised the wicks from the melted tallow, the door squealed open. In poured bright, midday sunlight and momentary blindness. “Good day,” he said, though there wasn’t anything that particularly good about it.
After Cal’s eyes readjusted, he noticed the person carried a staff and wore a cowl drawn low. “Are you Calvic of Straiverce?” It was a strange voice, devoid of any tone, like a shouted whisper.
Cal hung the wicks on a rack. “If you’re looking for information, I don’t have any – not on missing persons or directions. All I have are candles.”
The stranger took another step forward. “You’d best stop there,” a deep voice bellowed. Ah, yes, the dwarf, Cal thought. He had almost forgotten about Grunthar. Technically, Grunthar was staff, but he didn’t make candles. In fact, Cal couldn’t recall Grunthar doing anything other than drinking lately.
“I’ve forgotten the voice spell,” the stranger said. After a whispered word Cal didn’t recognize, the stranger began coughing.
“Let me try again,” the stranger said in a warm, feminine tone. She then drew the cowl back, revealing the face of an attractive, young woman with black hair.
“Yes, I’m Calvic of Straiverce,” he said with a bow. “And the rumors are true – I’m not married.”
“Your dwarf seems edgy,” she said, casting a disdainful glance toward Grunthar.
“If your pretty green eyes turn white, he’ll take you out before you can utter the first syllable of a spell.”
“You know something of magiceras,” she said.
“I should. My former partner was one. He told me quite a bit.”
“Did he tell you about the wife and daughter he abandoned to join your treasure hunts?”
Cal walked behind a counter and reached down to one of the shelves. His fingers danced along a dagger. “He mentioned it once, when he was drunk. I take it that you’re his daughter, Ellacy.”
“I am.” She turned around, taking long looks at the shop. With only strands of candles hanging from the rafters and sparse furniture spread lackadaisically, Cal couldn’t imagine it was that much to take in. “So this is what you’ve done with yourself? Are your days of adventure at an end?”
“I’ve had my fill of seeking,” he said. “The long periods without a bed, the research to locate anything of value, acquiring the resources needed to accomplish the deed, and trying to survive harrowing dangers. It can age a man quickly, and I wanted to stop while I’ve still got a lot of good years left to me.”
“Liar.” She smiled, but the expression chilled him. “You failed in your last quest – the one that took my father’s life. And it scared you so badly that you decided to spend the rest of your good years, as you call them, cowering away as a lonely candle maker.”
“It was either this or open a tavern, and that seemed trite.”
She reached into the folds of her garment, and Cal gripped the dagger. “Slowly,” he said. “I don’t like sudden moves.”
“It’s not a weapon,” she said, withdrawing a golden pendant with a jewel. She set it on the counter, and Cal stared at it. At first, the jewel appeared to be as black as ink, but after a long moment, it revealed a hint of crimson.
“You retrieved this?” he asked. “But how? I couldn’t devise a way past all of the traps, past all of the-”
“I’m more powerful than my father. And I didn’t care if the rest of my party died in the attempt.”
“Well, if you came here for me to authenticate Murilc’s Jewel, I give up. I’m no good at bluffing. You do know it’s cursed, right? I suggest selling it to the first collector you run across.”
“I will do no such thing. I could sell it for an exorbitant price, but we know this is better used as a key to greater treasure – Murilc’s secret cache.”
“Those rumors are hogwash,” he said with a laugh.
“You’re right. You aren’t good at bluffing.”
He continued watching her eyes, in case they should change. “You still haven’t told me what you want. I doubt you came all the way from… wherever you came from just to gloat about the pendant.”
“I came to form a partnership. You’ve researched Murilc’s treasure for years. You know where it’s kept. You know all the dangers guarding it.”
“It’s more than knowledge of the dangers – there’s skill in avoiding them. If he was alive, Murilc himself could tell a person about every trick, yet he – or she, in your case – would lack the experience in dealing with them. In fact, the secrets around the cache are so well kept that even I don’t know many of them; I’d have to make quick decisions based on my years of practice alone.”
She touched the bridge of her nose and exhaled sharply. “What would it take for you to take up this quest?”
He smiled. “You share your father’s temper.”
She looked at him coldly. “Don’t ever compare me to him, understand?”
He nodded. “That’s fair. As for what it would take – I’d need the lion’s share of whatever we find. Rumors of the cache are all I have to go by, so I don’t really know what’s there. It could very well be empty – a final, wicked jest on Murilc’s part.”
“There is enough wealth there to purchase a mountain of tallow.”
“Beeswax is superior; that would have been a better analogy. What do you say, Grunthar?”
The dwarf coughed into a handkerchief. “When do we leave?” he asked, carefully wrapping the handkerchief. But Cal spied the drops of blood on the cloth before the dwarf tucked it away.
“Give me a day to gather supplies,” Cal said. “Then we’ll go.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Cal kicked at the ashes of their campfire in the pale dawn and called Grunthar. The dwarf chuckled in his sleep, a kind of greedy-sounding laugh, if Cal could attribute anything to it. “Get up, you old mole,” Cal said.
Grunthar’s eyes shot open as wide as possible. Then they slowly eased into a baleful stare. “Can’t a dwarf wake on his own?”
“I let you do that the whole week we’ve traveled. But not today. We’re almost there. And I want to get that treasure and be rid of her as quickly as possible.”
Grunthar sat up. “I thought you might try to woo her a bit. She seems your type.”
“Angry and bitter? That would be a woman right after Mother’s heart.”
The bushes rustled, signaling her return. “Nesum yóss valk,” Cal said. Watch your beard.
Grunthar gave a curt nod. “Don’t mind us,” he said to Ellacy. “We’re just talking about you.”
She emerged onto the path with her hands out. “What else is there to talk about?” She gave Cal a coy smile.
— ♦♦♦ —
It was almost midday when Cal dismounted. Within a field of wild grass that came up to his waist, a stone monolith rose twenty feet into the air, capped by a pearl the size of an ogre’s head. He took a breath and tried to still his shaking hands.
“Seems unassuming to me,” Grunthar said.
The monolith had grooves etched into it that spiraled nearly to the top. Cal reached out toward the structure, but as he was about to touch it, he turned away. “This opens the gate.” Looking at Ellacy, he said, “This part is up to you.”
Ellacy and Grunthar dismounted and approached the monolith. The grass hissed around their movement.
Ellacy held her staff in one hand and the pendant in another. As she began the incantation, her pupils and irises disappeared. Cal looked aside, suppressing a shiver.
As soon as she finished, the pearl glowed a menacing red, and there was a deep rumble. As it grew in volume, the ground shook. It became so violent that Cal fell to his knees.
Dirt and grass showered the three of them as a large stone disc rose from the earth, centered on the monolith. It spun toward the pinnacle, following the grooves.
Just before the disc reached the end of the grooves, four iron spikes swung out of the monolith. Each was a few feet long, and they pointed north, east, south and west. The disc rested atop them, reminding Cal of a parasol. When all was still, the giant pearl emitted a green glow.
Cal dropped his eyes to the base of the monolith where there was an empty circle in the earth. As he drew closer, he found a spiral staircase of dark stone steps.
“Let’s go,” Ellacy said.
“Not yet,” Cal said. “Grunthar, let’s make some glop.”
The dwarf used a spade to dig a shallow, square hole. “Are you planting a garden?” Ellacy asked.
He then removed his pack and withdrew a sack. He dumped the sack’s contents – a grey, clumpy powder – into the hole. Without warning, he then unfastened his belt, dropped his pants a little and began urinating on the powder.
Cal stepped beside him and contributed in like manner. “Nice weather today,” Cal said.
“Not bad,” Grunthar agreed.
After they finished, Grunthar used the spade to mix the material, producing sounds Cal likened to giant toads belching. “Hey, Ellacy,” Cal said, “why are you over there? We could use a bit more for the mixture.”
She walked briskly to the pit and thrust a long finger toward him. “I am not about to do such a thing.”
“I’ll turn around,” Cal said.
“I won’t,” Grunthar muttered.
She opened her canteen and poured out the water. “That will have to do. Oh, that reeks!”
The mixture turned into a gelatinous mush. “Perfect,” Grunthar said. Then he used the spade to coat the base of the monolith.
“A bit higher up than that,” Cal said.
“Who do you think I am?”
Cal took over the job, smearing the glop as high up as he could reach. It stayed in place for the most part, and Cal nodded when he finished. “That should hold it.”
“Hold what?” Ellacy asked.
“You would have just plunged down those stairs, eager to get at the treasure. But something down there might release the hold for that giant disc, and I doubt we’d be fast enough to escape once that happens. But this buys us more time.”
“How much time?”
Cal and Grunthar shrugged.
“Do we need to wait for it to dry?” she asked.
“It cures quickly,” Grunthar said. “Just give it a few moments.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Cal descended first, followed by Ellacy and Grunthar. The light from Cal’s torch seemed insignificant as they left the daylight above. Beneath the ground, there was nothing but endless darkness.
The walls and steps matched the color and texture of the monolith. If not for the occasional seam, Cal would have thought it was all carved out of a single stone.
“My kin built this,” Grunthar said, his voice echoing. “But there are flaws. Like they were in a hurry.”
“They were forced,” Ellacy said. “Murilc enjoyed slave labor, even if it lacked the fine polish of master craftsmen. In fact, those errors gave him all the more reason to inflict pain on those who completed the project.”
“May he burn forever in sulfuric flames,” Grunthar said.
“Perhaps, but not yet,” she replied.
Call stopped. “90,” he said, tapping his foot.
“Yes, and who knows how much more to go,” Grunthar said.
Cal rummaged around in his pack and pulled out a piece of chalk. He wrote the word “stop” in large font. Then he cast the chalk toward the lower steps. Except that it didn’t clatter down the staircase. It went straight through.
The chalk struck something far below, then again at a greater distance. After that, silence.
“Dwarves didn’t build that illusion,” Grunthar said.
“There should be a door here,” Ellacy said, touching the curved wall. “Ah. I found one of the cracks.”
Cal leaned into the wall with his shoulder. “It won’t budge.”
“Stand back,” she said, raising her staff.
“Don’t even think about blasting it open with magic,” Cal said. “As confined as we are, we’ll all be killed. Grunthar, hand me the hammer and chisel. Ellacy, keep the torch steady.”
Once he had the tools, Cal felt for the cracks in the wall and began hammering the chisel toward one corner. When he had driven it in several inches, he wiggled it back out and repeated the process lower down on the crack.
“For a door this size, I’m guessing the dwarves used four hinges. I’ve knocked one out already. I just need to get the rest.”
Moments later, Cal stood up. Then he leaned against the wall again. It pitched forward, and he fell on top of it.
“A bit ungraceful, but well done, sir,” Ellacy said as she stepped around him.
They were inside a cavern. Stalactites hung from the ceiling far above, dripping water onto tiny stalagmites along the floor.
“No one’s been here for a long time,” Grunthar said. He bent down. “These aren’t the original stalagmites. My kin likely cleared those away to make a smooth surface. But the cave is reforming them.”
“It’s cool down here,” Ellacy said. “Where do we go now?”
“From this point, things are less clear,” Cal said, taking the torch back from her. “You’ve got to remember that this was Murilc’s treasure cache. Rumors have overshadowed anything that may be true. Just tread carefully. I expect he left other traps.”
But Cal didn’t see any other traps. No matter where they wandered, he found only more of the natural cave. A disturbing thought came to him that he tried to dismiss: that Murilc wanted them here.
“I sense that what we’re looking for is just up ahead, left of that rock column,” Ellacy said.
“Take the lead, then,” Cal said, stopping.
The torch flickered when she took it from him. “Yes, this is it,” she whispered as she approached the column. Then softer, “I know.”
Cal glanced at Grunthar, but the dwarf was slumping against the wall. With a gurgled cough, Grunthar pushed himself back up and moved forward.
The thick, natural column had a mixture of hues, including traces of green and pink, but it was primarily a dull, earthy color. Cal felt small next to the immense formation. And that this underground world, forged in mystery, was not his own.
Past the column, the cave floor tilted sharply down. There were narrow steps carved into it along the far wall. Ellacy was already descending them heedlessly.
“Be careful,” Cal said, but he kept his words low. She made no response.
Cal rushed down the steps after her, losing the torchlight she carried ahead. The descent was greater than the spiral staircase above. But this time, there was a firm floor at the end.
The roof was beyond the reach of their crude light, and the area was so immense that Cal struggled to process his thoughts. A faded red liner parted a crowd of dead soldiers. They lay face-down in long rows like penitent worshippers. They were short for men, if they were men at all.
Cal knelt next to one, noting a serrated dagger in the decomposed hand. He looked to another body and found the blade next to its neck. “These deaths,” he said, hating how loud his voice was. “This was a mass suicide.”
Ellacy wasn’t looking at the bodies. Instead, she was walking down the aisle. There were torches on poles lining the aisle, and she lit each one. At the end, there were steps leading to a dais with an opulent, silver throne. Upon it sat a sunken figure dressed in a flowing robe, tattered and discolored.
At the foot of the dais, four immense chests of gold coins and diamonds lay open; the overflowing wealth spilled onto the floor. As Cal came to them, he scooped up some of the excess, examining it for a moment before shoving it into his pack.
Ellacy stood beside him, staring at the figure on the throne. Cal looked at it again and noticed a weathered book upon its lap. The shriveled hands lay upon the pages as though the person continued to read, even in death. There was a ring on one of the fingers that emitted a soft, green glow, and Cal wondered at its value; it also reminded him of something – but what?
“Behold Murilc, Master of Magic, Lord of Gaedryn, great, wise and powerful,” Ellacy said, her voice echoing in the vast chamber.
“And dead,” Cal added, scooping more of the gold into his pack.
“Not in spirit,” she said. Smiling, she whispered, “Yes, master.”
She began to climb the steps, but Cal caught her arm. “Stop.”
“Don’t you dare touch me,” she said, her eyes full of hatred.
Then something crashed upon Cal’s head, and he fell to the floor.
— ♦♦♦ —
“-to move, Cal.” Cal’s vision cleared on the dead soldier next to him. He felt his writs bound together by a hemp rope.
Cal turned his head to the other side and looked up at Grunthar. “Why did you hit me?”
“Nothing personal,” he said. “Just doing business.”
“We met weeks ago, Cal. She needed your assistance without any interference. That’s where I come in. So just lie there until she gets what she came for. Don’t make me hurt you more than that light tap.”
“Wait. You actually left the shop for something other than to buy drinks?” Cal chuckled for a moment; then his mouth contorted into a deep frown. “How much did she pay you? I’ve got money, too. I’ll pay you double to give her a light tap on the head.”
“Are you going to heal me twice, Cal?”
“So that’s the cost of our friendship?”
“Can’t be friends when I’m dead. But if you forgive me this one betrayal, maybe we can be friends later. I still like you, Cal. But I like this more. Haven’t had a good smoke in a long time. My lungs can’t take it.”
“What’s she doing right now?”
“She’s been standing on the dais for a bit, talking to herself while looking at the book.”
“If she touches that thing, we’re done. We won’t have time to grab all of this treasure and escape. Look at the ring; it’s emitting the same color of light as the pearl on the monolith.”
“Treasure doesn’t matter if I’m dead. Once I’m healed, I’ll find new treasure.”
Cal saw Ellacy descend the final steps, clutching the ancient tome under one arm. She stopped to lean her staff against her body while she reached for something in the folds of her cloak. She handed a vial to Grunthar. “As promised,” she said.
“All this for a book?” Cal asked.
She gave him a wan smile. “This book is the key to a better world.”
Grunthar unsealed the vial and drank the contents, leaving a blue film on his beard. He took a long breath and made a terrible noise of hacking and gagging, capped by an expulsion of a black, oozing clump of matter that splashed onto the runner with a wet plop.
“I can breathe!” he said.
“Yes, you’re healed,” she said. “But watch out for the side effects. You may soon find your friend quite delectable. Farewell.”
“What was that?” Cal asked, but she was hurrying off.
Cal began unknotting his bonds, which wouldn’t take an extreme amount of effort – the dwarf had been lazy with his knots. “You should have told me, Grunthar. We could have staged this and found a way for you to get that elixir while also getting this treasure out first. I already heard that stone disc rumbling down the track. Who knows how long the glop will hold?”
“I couldn’t tell you about her plan. If she saw me taking one step against her, she would have destroyed that vial. And then where would-”
The dwarf doubled over and cried out in a deep wail. His body shook with spasms.
The dwarf turned his face toward Cal, but the skin was twisting. In the wavering torchlight, it seemed to be turning to a sickly white. Grunthar snarled and then collapsed on the floor.
Cal hurriedly untied the knots and then stood up. A long arm sprang toward him, and before he could leap out of the way, he felt the hand gripping his ankle with astonishing strength.
Looking down, Cal saw that the dwarf’s fingers had sprouted claws. When Grunthar’s face lifted from the floor, it was elongated, bearing jagged teeth within a drooling mouth.
Cal kicked it in the head, and it released him.
Cal grabbed his pack, hurriedly pushing his arms through the straps. Then he stole a torch from one of the poles and ran. Behind him, the noises became coarse and unnerving – such awful howling, like a wounded animal.
Before leaving the chamber, Cal pilfered a buckler from one of the corpses. “Better than nothing,” he muttered.
He climbed the narrow steps as quickly as his legs would pump, but he heard the Grunthar creature running: slap-a-lump, slap-a-lump. He looked back from the top of the stairs; curiosity drove the core of his being, even though he knew he should keep running.
The creature was an albino mass of hair and muscular flesh. It no longer stood upright but stooped, and its arms reached the ground. The knuckles of its fisted hands smacked the ground together, swinging it forward. Then its thick legs would add a quick gallop to continue the surge forward.
When it reached the stairs, it stopped to look up at Cal. Its eyes were dark and cold, no longer knowing Cal. Its jaws opened as it howled, shaking the ragged beard beneath its chin.
Cal ran, though his throat and chest burned.
The creature was gaining on him. It would be impossible for Cal to climb the spiral staircase without being caught. And even if he could reach the top first, there was no way he could fight the creature and live, not with two knives and a buckler.
Just as he came to the staircase, it was almost upon him. He stood firmly on the steps, holding the buckler in one hand and a dagger with his other. Then he yelled, surprising himself with the noise.
The beast charged through the opening and leapt toward Cal. One of its hands raked across Cal’s shoulder, but Cal smashed the buckler directly into its face.
The beast fell backward into the staircase. Except it was still an illusion of a staircase. Cal heard random scratches and growls that grew fainter and fainter.
Cal turned and lumbered up the staircase. He was halfway to the top when he heard a light crumbling sound from above, followed by a deeper rumble.
He raced upward, feeling his entire body protest. A moment later, he saw daylight along with the descending disc.
Cal crawled through the gap, and only the heel of his left boot caught momentarily beneath the descending disc.
The disc sealed the entrance, and Cal was alone. He turned around in the grassy field, unable to process everything that had taken place. He checked himself twice to ensure his body was intact.
“What a waste,” he said. When he found his horse, he unstrapped his pack and set it on the saddle. He heard a muffled clink and smiled. Peering inside, he added, “Well, maybe it wasn’t a total waste.”