Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Treasure of Agrinothe

by Sharon Partington


Brak of Calmor was the best thief in the Thirty Kingdoms. How then, did he end up in the dungeons of Sgaithe? Easy...it was all part of his master plan.

The Eye of Chaos was kept in the temple of Sharma high in the mountains of Agrinothe. Every thief in the land knew of the Eye, and every thief in the land dreamed of stealing it. Only one person knew where the temple was hidden and that person was living on borrowed time here in these very dungeons.

Brak sat with his back to the wall, peering around the cell. The high, barred windows let in precious little light, and rats chittered as they moved through the filthy straw. Getting himself arrested had been the easy part of the plan, entering the dungeons was always easier than leaving -- there were very few who had managed that particular feat in the last hundred years and lived to brag about it.

His eyes settled on the shadowed figure slumped in the corner. There she was, his reason for being in this putrid place. The only person who knew the location of the temple. She was also the next unfortunate soul scheduled for the gallows.

"Okay, the 'guards, this prisoner is sick!' ploy isn't going to work," he muttered. "It'll just save them the trouble of paying the executioner. Well, letís see if that extortionistís map is worth the money I paid for it."

He walked over to the slumped figure. "Hello, Mordra."

The figure peered up at him. After a moment a glare entered her deep blue eyes and the hood of her cloak fell back to reveal a wealth of coppery red hair.

"Brak," the woman said. "So glad you stopped by. A chance to slit your throat before I die is a welcome last request."

"Ah, Mordra. You'd better be nice to me, or I won't take you with me when I escape."

Mordra laughed. "If you think you can escape this place alive, then you're even crazier than I remember."

Brak shrugged. "I talked my way in here, I can talk my way out. Of course, your only way out is through the Gate of No Return. They open that at dawn if I remember correctly."

"All right," she muttered. "What do you want?"

"The treasure of Agrinothe."

Mordra eyed him suspiciously. "And what's in it for me?"

"I'll break you out of here before they kill you."

Mordra stared at him for a moment, her eyes narrowed. Finally she stood up, wiping her hands on her breeches.

"All right. You get me out and I'll get you to Agrinothe. You do have some kind of plan, I hope?"

Brak looked around the cell. He hadn't really had time to explore but if those drawings were accurate...

He looked at Mordra. "I donít suppose youíve got any weapons?"

She sat back down, pulling her cloak around her. "Now that's just cruel, Brak."

Brak grinned. "Sorry, I couldn't resist. I guess I'll just have to use my own then."

He reached into his boot, drawing out a dagger with a long narrow blade.

"How did you get that in here?" demanded Mordra. "They searched me down to my skin and took all of my weapons."

"I know, Mordra my love," said Brak absently as he looked at the drawings again. "But you were charged with the attempted assassination of the king." He glanced at her with a mischievous smile. "While I, on the other hand, was charged with stealing turnips."

Mordra scowled at him and Brak moved to the far wall, running his hands over the rough stone. Finally he grunted with satisfaction and slid his blade into the mortar. It crumbled and broke away. After a few minutes he'd loosened enough of the stones that he could pull them free, revealing a narrow passageway just large enough to crawl through.

Mordra gaped at him, and he winked.

"Ladies first," he said, nodding toward the passage. She hesitated. "Unless you'd rather stay and face the executioner."

Mordra shook her head and crawled into the passage. Brak glanced at the door to the cell. He wouldn't be able to block the entrance once he was inside, he hoped the bribe he'd given the guard was large enough to keep him away until he and Mordra were safely gone. He dropped to his hands and knees and followed her.

"Gods!," he muttered. "The things I do for women..."

####

The tunnel was narrow and damp and smelled like a hundred years of mould gone bad. Brak strained his ears for sounds of pursuit, but he couldnít hear anything but the drip of water, and the scrabble of their hands and knees on the rough stone.

"Quite a coincidence, your knowing about this tunnel," said Mordra after they had crawled for awhile.

Brak smiled at her rear appreciatively. "Not at all," he said. "Cost me a bundle, those plans, but it'll be worth it once we get that treasure."

"Any idea how far this goes?" she asked.

"Oh, we should be coming to the end..." suddenly Mordra's behind disappeared. A moment later he heard a loud splash. "about now."

She sputtered as she came to the surface, glaring up at him in the dim light. Brak jumped down and landed in the murky water beside her.

"Where are we?" she demanded.

Brak looked away. "Umm...the sewers," he muttered.

"Sewers?" The question began as a whisper, then slowly built its way into a scream. "You got me out of that cell, so you could dump me in the sewer?"

Brak put on his best smile. "I said I'd get you out. I didn't promise it would be easy. Or clean."

"I should kill you for this," snarled Mordra. She slapped his offered hand away, and got to her feet.

"Why Mordra, is that any way to talk to your savior?" He nodded to where the sewer tunnel bent to the right up ahead. "The exit's that way if you're interested," he added. "We should come out just below the north wall of the prison."

"And then what?" demanded Mordra. "We certainly wonít attract much attention walking through the middle of the city smelling like this!"

"I rented a room at The Dog and Duck, we can clean up there. I bought a couple of horses too, weíll sneak out of the city tonight before they close the gate."

Mordra peered down the tunnel to where it disappeared into the gloom.

"I should have taken my chances with the executioner," she muttered.

####

"One room? You only rented one room?" Morda whispered fiercely as they entered the inn.

"I only needed one room," shrugged Brak, "and If itís not to your ladyshipís liking I can always return you to the dungeon."

"Don't tempt me," muttered Mordra. "I don't suppose you have anything clean that I can wear?"

"I'll see what I can manage," he said as he led her up the stairs. He pushed open the first door on the left and they entered a small room, with a single, narrow bed, a rickety wooden washstand holding a chipped clay bowl and pitcher, and a scratched and dented wardrobe.

Brak reached beneath the bed and drew out a leather bag.

"Have a look in there."

Mordra opened the bag and pulled out several shirts, a couple of pairs of breeches and some dirty socks. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she chose the cleanest of the dirty clothes in the bag.

"Great. Clothes can be washed you know. What about weapons? Iím not riding off into the wilds without some way to defend myself."

"Thereís a weapons shop at the end of the street," said Brak. "Iíll pick you up something. Any preferences?" he added with a grin.

"A dagger, and sword will be fine," said Mordra. She held up the clothes. "Now, if youíll excuse me, a little privacy would be nice."

Brak held his hand over his eyes and Mordra sighed.

"Real funny, Brak. Outside, if you don't mind."

Brak sighed. "Know what your problem is, Mordra? No sense of humor."

####

The streets were busy as they rode toward the South Gate. It was almost dusk and Brak intended to pass through them before they closed for the night. They kept their hoods up, shrouding themselves in their cloaks as they approached the gate. Brak muttered a curse under his breath. An imperial patrol was checking the papers of all those entering and leaving, there was no way he and Mordra could avoid them without drawing additional attention to themselves.

He looked from one soldier to another.

Every man has his price.

Brak smiled, shifting into the line that would take him past a young, bored looking trooper.

"Papers?" the trooper asked, holding out his gloved hand.

Brak coughed slightly. "Papers? Hmmm....yes, well, my wife and I had our papers stolen."

The trooper glanced from Brak to Mordra with a small smirk.

"Sure you did. No one leaves till I see their papers."

"Itís imperative that we reach Drai as soon as possible," said Brak. "Perhaps we could reach some sort of...compromise?"

The troopers eyes narrowed and he glanced over to where his commander was checking another line.

"What sort of compromise?"

Brak shrugged. "Oh, I donít know. Perhaps I could make a...monetary contribution to...to..."

"The Imperial Guardís widowís and orphanís fund?" suggested the guard helpfully. Brak smiled at the greed in the manís eyes.

"Yes! Exactly!" said Brak. "Such a noble cause."

"How big a contribution?" asked the guard.

"Well now," said Brak. "That would depend. I wouldnít want to entrust my donation to just anyone, now would I? Iíd have be sure it was placed in the proper hands."

"Iím uh...Iím sure I can take care of that for you," said the guard, glancing once more toward his commander.

"Excellent!" beamed Brak. "Would say...twenty gold pieces be sufficient?"

The guardís eyes widened as Brak pressed a small, leather pouch into his hands.

"For the poor widows and orphans," said Brak with a wink. The guard grinned and tucked the pouch into his shirt as he waved them forward.

"Are you crazy!" Mordra hissed as they passed through the gate. "Twenty gold pieces?"

Brak chuckled. "Donít worry, I lifted the purse of one of King Edricís tax collectors a couple of days ago."

"What?!"

He glanced at her with a small grin. "This is an expensive adventure, Mordra, my love. And getting you out of that prison didnít come cheap. Beautiful as you are, you donít think Iíd fork over that much of my own money, do you?"

He ignored her scowl as he mounted his horse, and together they rode west along the kingís road toward the grey peaks of the Range Break.

####

They rode until they could no longer see the city walls, then Brak led them off the road into a small stand of trees. Mordra unsaddled the horses while he got a fire going. She sat, staring into the flames, while he went through his pack drawing out a loaf of dark bread and a small wheel of cheese. He broke the bread, and sliced the cheese in half, offering her a share. Mordra chewed the bread thoughtfully as she stared at him. The light from the fire cast flickering orange shadows through his dark hair, and his brown eyes watched the flames. Heíd gone to a lot of trouble to break her out of that dungeon, like it or not she owed him.

She shifted uncomfortably. Damn, but she hated being beholden to that man!

"Thanks," she muttered. "For getting me out of that hole."

He glanced at her and grinned. "Youíre welcome."

She returned her gaze to the fire. "So. Howíd you hear about Agrinothe?"

Brak chuckled. "The Eye of Chaos rests in the Temple of Sharma at the heart of Agrinothe," he recited. "Isnít that what the legends say?"

Mordraís eyes flitted to him, then back to the flames. "The legends donít tell everything," she said softly.

Brak reached to place more wood on the fire. "I was sorry to hear about Jarret."

Mordra looked up, then away. Jarret. She closed her eyes and sighed.

"He knew the risks," she said. "He was a better thief than both you and I put together."

"Aye," agreed Brak. "That he was."

They fell silent for a long moment, the only sounds coming from the crackle of the fire, and the chirp of the crickets.

"So," said Brak. "Assassination, Mordra? How much were you paid for that bit of idiocy?"

Mordra chuckled. "Not nearly enough," she admitted ruefully. "I might have got away with it if that rat, Kassen, hadnít sold me out to the commander of the imperial garrison at Highet."

Brak shook his head. "Youíre not an assassin, what were you thinking?"

"I was thinking Iíd take the money, kill the bloody king and get out of Sgaithe before they knew Iíd done it." she snapped. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"No doubt," said Brak. "Stupidity always does." He grinned at her. "Lucky for you, I happened to get myself arrested when I did."

Mordra shook her head, chuckling in spite of herself. Bloody Brak. Dragging her through the sewers of Sgaithe, bribing King Edricís guard with coin stolen from his own tax collectors. All in the hopes of liberating the Eye of Chaos from the temple in Agrinothe.

He must be out of his mind.

####

They pushed themselves hard, traveling from before dawn each day to well after dusk before resting for what was left of the night. Brak had purchased enough supplies to see them to the village of Dorsin at the entrance to the passes, once there they would rest and resupply before continuing on to Agrinothe.

They traveled in silence, Mordraís thoughts locked in the past. On the last time she had visited Agrinothe and the Temple of Sharma. With Jarret.

Her mind rebelled at the memory, but she forced herself to relive it anyway. He had been so sure of himself. It would be easy, he assured her. In and out. And it had been easy, right up until the moment he had fallen to his death after taking the Eye.

Mordra shivered, pushing the remaining memories away. Maybe, when they reached Agrinothe, she could finally put Jarretís ghost to rest. She glanced at Brak, riding in silence beside her. Brak of Calmor was just as confident as Jarret had been, he thought he could steal anything too, and Mordra didnít know how to tell him that there were some things better left alone.

####

They followed the kingís road as it wound through the lowlands towards the peaks of the Range Break. Brak thought about all he had heard about Agrinothe and The Eye of Chaos. The largest diamond in the world, it was as big as manís fist and polished to perfection. Over a dozen men had died trying to steal it, all of them falling to their deaths after they had taken it from the statue of the goddess; Jarret had been the last.

A month from Sgaithe, the kingís road dwindled to little more than a dirt track leading into the foothills. A chill wind blew and the sky was heavy with cloud. The snow was just beginning to fall as they rode into the village of Dorsin. They dismounted before the only inn, tying their horses to the rail outside.

"Weíll replenish our supplies in the morning," said Brak. "I didnít expect the snows this early."

Mordra hesitated, then nodded. "You know, Brak...itís not too late." she said softly. "We can still go back."

Brak shook his head as he untied his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. "I havenít come this far to give up now. Whatís the matter, Mordra? Losing your nerve?"

She glared at him. "You forget," she said, "I know whatĎs up there. Trust me, Brak, itís nothing you want to play with. Letís quit now, while weíre still breathing."

He grinned at her as he pushed the door to the inn open. "Come on, Mordra, whereís your sense of adventure?"

"It died with Jarret," she whispered as she brushed past him, into the smoke-filled room.

Brakís smile faded as he followed her inside.

####

Mordra stood on the front step, staring at the mountains that loomed in the darkness. The night air was cold, and she wrapped her cloak more tightly about herself as an icy wind ruffled her hair.

She closed her eyes, following the trail in her mind as it wound through the rocks. It had been five years, but she remembered every turnóevery plateau.

She heard the door open, felt Brak move to stand beside her.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She nodded silently.

"Tell me about Jarret," he said softly.

Mordra chuckled bitterly. "Why? Will knowing how he died stop you from climbing up to that bloody temple?"

"No," admitted Brak.

"Then what difference does it make," sighed Mordra. "He died because he had to prove that he was the greatest thief in the world. And thatís a really stupid reason to die. Tell me something," she added. "What are you going to do with Eye once youíve stolen it? Itís a little big to hang around your neck on a chain."

"I know a dealer in Rajiset whoís promised to cut it up and sell it in pieces. He gets 20 percent and I get eighty."

"You get forty," corrected Mordra, "and forty comes to me."

"All right. But first we have to steal it."

Mordra returned her gaze to the mountains. "Stealing it wonít be a problem," she said softly. "Itís getting out of the temple alive afterwards."

####

They left Dorsin just after dawn. Brak shifted his pack higher on his back, following Mordra as she moved up the narrow trail that wound through the rocks. The wind cooled the sweat on his face, and his breath steamed in the cold air. The way was steep, and they had to skirt the edges of a recent rock fall before continuing their climb.

They reached the summit just before dusk, and Mordra nodded towards a dark cleft that split the rock.

"Through there," she said. "The temple of Sharmaís on the other side."

Brak stared at the narrow fissure doubtfully. "Doesnít look to be very wide," he said. "Are you sure thatís the way in?"

"Itís wider than it looks," said Mordra, "and it isnít something Iím likely to forget."

Brak nodded. "All right, then. Letís go."

####

Mordra shivered as she looked upon the Temple of Sharma again. The sheer mountain walls rose on three sides, and the entrance had been carved directly from the rock face. She caught the flicker of torches within, brief orange flares against the dark.

Jarret had died here.

Mordra felt dread settle around her like a cloak. She should have stayed in Sgaithe. She should have refused Brakís offer of escape, if she had sheíd be safely dead now, and wouldnít have to enter this cursed temple again. She started when Brak touched her arm.

"Ready?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Donít do this, Brak," she whispered. "Please, donít do this..."

"Iím not leaving without the Eye," insisted Brak.

It was like Jarret, all over again. Mordra looked at him, sighing at the grim determination in his eyes.

"Let me lead, then," she said. "I know the way to the Sanctum."

He nodded and she moved across the deserted courtyard toward the entrance. They paused in the shadows before the doorway to draw their weapons, then Mordra led him inside.

It was hot in the temple after the chill outside, and the air was heavy with the scent of incense. Torches flickered on the polished stone walls, reflecting on the black tiled floor. There were no guards that Mordra could see and she led Brak, quickly and silently along the deserted corridor towards a light at the end.

The heavy golden doors to the inner sanctum were open and they slipped inside, concealing themselves behind one of the massive stone pillars supporting the domed ceiling. In the center of the room stood the statue of the goddess, an effigy in solid gold, seated upon an obsidian throne. The Eye of Chaos glittered from the diadem she wore, casting flickering patterns across the ceiling. Mordra glanced at Brak. He was staring at the statue thoughtfully.

"How do we get it down?" he whispered.

"One of us will have to climb up and get it," replied Mordra.

"Is that what Jarret did?"

Mordra flinched inwardly at the reminder. Yes. That was exactly what Jarret had done. She nodded.

She clamped the lid down on her memories, pushing them deeper within. Not now.

"Stay here," she said. "Iíll climb up and get the bloody thing."

Before he could reply or stop her, she slipped from behind the pillar, running quickly through the shadows towards the far side of the statue. It towered above her, a golden menace glittering in the torchlight. She crouched next to it for a moment, listening to the sound of echoed voices drifting from deeper within the temple. Had Jarret felt this same rush of fear and excitement? Had he questioned the wisdom of this venture, as she was doing? Mordra willed the unwelcome thoughts away and began to climb.

She did not dare think of Jarret now.

####

Brak held his breath as he watched Mordra scale the statue. She was halfway up, when the priests entered. Brak hissed a curse, and ducked back behind the pillar as their voices echoed through the sanctum. He ventured a look; Mordra was pressed against the statue, she was very still, partially hidden in shadow.

Brak moved around the pillar as he followed the sound of the voices. The red-robed priests were heading toward a small door to the left of the statue. He prayed for them to move faster, but they didnít appear to be in any great hurry. He looked back to Mordra. She was trying to ease further into the shadows. The priests entered the room, one of them remaining outside. Brak drew his dagger and crept silently toward him. He couldnít kill them all, but he could kill this one, and lock the rest in the room. Then Mordra could resume her climb to the Eye.

####

Mordra watched from her perch as Brak crept toward the priest. She silently willed him to hurry, she wasnít sure she could remain in this position much longer. He disappeared from sight for a few minutes, when he reappeared there was blood on his dagger and he motioned for her to continue. She climbed until she reached the shoulders of the statue, then moved carefully around the front and climbed up the face until she could reach the diadem. She drew her dagger, and pried the jewel from itís place, when it was free she placed it in her pouch and began to climb down.

She felt strangely detached, as though she was watching herself from below and climbing at the same time. It was an odd, eerie feeling and she closed her eyes tightly against the wave of dizziness and disorientation that washed over her. Was this what Jarret had felt just before he fell? Was this what had caused him to slip? Mordra pressed herself, hard, against the statue, feeling the solidity of it. How was she supposed to climb when she couldnít open her eyes without the room spinning.

Her arms and legs ached and she felt the Eye, a heavy weighted presence against her hip. She was afraid to move, but common sense told her she couldnít stay where she was. Jumbled images flashed through her mind, a dizzying rush of thought and feeling that she knew did not belong to her. They belonged to those who had attempted the theft of the Eye, before her. She felt their exhilaration and fear. She would join them, soon. When her strength and will failed and she fell as they had fallen.

No, Mordra. I wonít let you die.

The words whispered through her and she shivered. She knew that voice, she also knew it was impossible.

"Jarret...?"

Trust me. Trust me and Iíll help you.

Mordra shook her head as she clung more tightly to the statue. "Youíre dead. I watched you die..."

Your strength is failing, Mordra. I can help you, if you let me. If you trust me.

Mordra felt the tears on her face as she clung to the promise in his voice. He had never let her down before. Never lied to her before.

"All right," she whispered.

You have to drop the Eye.

Mordra shook her head. "I canít. I promised Brak...I owe him my life."

Brak doesnít understand. The power of the Goddess lives within the Eye. She will never allow it to leave the Temple.

"But...if I drop it from this height, it will shatter..."

Yes. And those she has bound within will be free to pass through the Spirit Gate. Please, Mordra...release us...release me...

Mordra slid her hand down, her fingers fumbling with the ties to her pouch. She pulled it open, drawing out the Eye. She felt it in her fingers, the facets cutting into her hand.

Drop it.

The voices and images in her mind suddenly cleared and she saw only Jarret. The familiar smile, the laughing gray eyes, the tousled blond hair. A ragged sob escaped her lips as she released her grip on the Eye, feeling it slip from her fingers.

Now. Let go...

####

Brak watched in outraged horror as the Eye of Chaos glittered briefly in the torchlight, then broke into shards of brilliance upon the stone floor of the Sanctum. His heart lurched, as a moment later Mordra fell from the statue. He closed his eyes, when he opened them again, she was laying at the foot of the statue.

He ran to her and knelt, taking her in his arms. She stirred and opened her eyes.

Not dead. She wasnít dead.

The ground trembled. Brak looked up, the domed ceiling of the Sanctum was beginning to crack, raining dust and rock down from above. He looked to the broken pieces of the jewel strewn upon the floor. Leaving Mordra for a moment, he scrambled about picking up as many of the broken pieces as he could, stuffing them in his pouch. The ground trembled again, and the foundation of the statue was beginning to split. Brak hurried back to Mordra and carried her toward the doors. The floor shuddered and he stumbled as he was thrown into one of the pillars. Pain exploded through his shoulder and down his arm.

"I can walk." he heard Mordra say. He set her on her feet.

"We have to get out of here," he said.

"Youíre hurt."

"Iíll worry about it later," said Brak with pained grin. "If the ceiling falls on us, my shoulder wonít matter much. Letís go."

He took her hand and she led him through the falling debris. They raced along the tiled corridor towards the exit as smoke and flame billowed from the Sanctum and the crash of falling pillars, echoed behind them. They stumbled through the temple doors into the moon-washed courtyard; there came a distant rumble and the entrance to the temple collapsed as a portion of the mountain wall slid down to seal it, forever, beneath tons of stone.

Brak fell to his knees in the falling snow as he stared at the shattered doorway. He looked to Mordra, she was staring at the ruined temple, tears shining in her eyes.

"Are you all right?" he asked, when he could breathe again.

She nodded. "He saved my life, Brak," she whispered. "Jarret."

Brak closed his eyes. "Jarretís gone, Mordra."

"He is now..."

Brak shivered at the certainty in her voice. What had happened to her up there? He struggled to his feet, holding his injured arm against his chest.

"Letís go," he said dully. "before this snow turns to a blizzard and we freeze to death."

"What will we do now? The Eye is gone"

Brak glanced at her with a mischevious grin as he emptied the diamond shards into his hand. They glittered in the moonlight.

"How about we see my friend in Rajiset," said Brak, "He should be able to give me a coin or two for these."

"And then what?" laughed Mordra. "Itís not like we can go back to Sgaithe."

Brak chuckled as he dropped the diamonds back into his pouch.

"I was thinking I might head west," he said. "Into Lydia. Ever heard the legend of the Dragon Stone?"

THE END


© 2003 Sharon Partington

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