Weird Tales Winner: Legends of Immortality Surround an Ancient Chest
"Are we there, Ma'am?" the older man asked tremulously.
"Nearly," she replied, her velvet contralto stirred by only a hint of irritation. "Do you know your task?"
He replied with a hesitant cough, alternately dropping his gaze to his feet and running his eyes up her clinging red dress to her flawless oval face and sun-golden hair. His desire was palpable, underneath the thick layer of fear. "Y-yes, Ma'am."
The golden-haired Sorceress nodded slightly. "Good. Use the ring if I'm followed. If it starts to glow, I want you waiting in the Jaguar with the engine running."
She rolled her eyes as her servant swallowed audibly, and stepped between the grand columns. A tall man in a gray suit scrutinized them as they arrived, his brows crinkling in surprise above his dark glasses, his hands reassuring themselves of his hidden gun. "Miss Gladstone," he murmured, "we're honored to have you."
Cassandra's ruby lips curled into a smile as she entered, stepping between the great bronze doors, only slightly tarnished with age. Inside, treasures of light and color graced marble walls in every direction. Paintings of fantastical beasts with human eyes looked down upon long buffet tables, where grazed dozens of the most powerful men and women in the city. Above, great kings with bearded wisdom judged philosophers, pale nymphs scurried naked before watching satyrs, and angels in faded halos wept for the innocence of man. Not for her: heaven knew she wanted none of their pity, not after tonight.
The Sorceress stepped briskly to the back wall, where David crouched sling in hand before Goliath. To either side, the marble was obscured by thick curtains of royal blue. "Go," she said.
In only moments she heard the crash of shattered plates and precious goblets, and the shocked gasps that followed. Cassandra whispered an incantation, then stepped toward the curtain as her body grew thin and unsubstantial. Then she was through, past not only the curtain but a secret passage into the wall itself. So easy! Yet the wealth she had spent, the hidden temples she had explored, for even this small magic.
Darkness. She banished it with another word, a forbidden word hard-won from a Sufi mystic high in the mountains above Parthia. But those were stray thoughts, distractions. Below stretched a spiral staircase into the catacombs, where immortality waited. She began to hum a mantra of concentration and embarked on the long descent.
Avoiding the first trap was child's play. The poisoned dart was obvious, and she stepped past the triggering footstone with scarcely a glance at it. The pit of venom was nearly as simple to detect, as it glowed before her vision. Still, it filled nearly the entire stair, and so she edged around it carefully, her spiked heels placed precisely on the safe points hidden below the sand. It seemed she walked for miles, down and forward, with traps every dozen feet, though she knew that was impossible. How could even the ancient kings tunnel so far through solid rock?
At the bottom, a maze stretched into the silent dark. The rough-hewn ceiling pressed heavily from above. Millipedes and scorpions skittered in all directions, and poisoned thorns reached for her from the enclosing walls, with the cold dry air seeming to draw the very breath from her lungs. She pressed on, threading among the walls, small bones crunching beneath her heels. Her heart beat fast with anticipation even so. The chest was growing close.
After timeless navigation through narrowing walls of webbed and grimy stone, the gloom finally parted to display a distant golden light from two tall braziers, with an oaken chest between. That was when the assault hit. From two hideous gargoyles formed of onyx, psychic screams erupted to pierce her mind and threaten her very sanity. Cassandra raised a hand, its wrist encircled by the golden bracelet of A'olum, and spoke a word of Power. The voices only surged louder, to a cacophony beyond mortal imagination. Bracing her feet, Cassandra thrust both hands before her and embraced the storm, struggling in agony against its will. It wrestled long against her, its power ebbing and rising until finally, she felt it stumble. She raised her voice, and unleashed a single shout. The pressure broke, leaving her weak and gasping.
And yet ahead the chest awaited. The Sorceress drew a deep breath, then after a quick cantrip unbuckled the thick padlock. It creaked open slowly, to reveal an unearthly stench.
Cassandra jerked backward, aghast. Before her in the chest stood a hideous creature, whose foul breath and yellowed nails were the stuff of nightmares. Every inch was covered in matted hair, green with age. She shrieked her rage, and her eyes flashed, ready to face one last guardian before the treasure.
Reddened eyes blinked. "Oh, God be thanked! another human being!"
Cassandra had banished ghosts, fought dragons. Her jaw fell slack. "What?"
The pitiful creature stretched, then slouched again before her, weakened by age and captivity. "The wizard Morandrar deceived me, maiden. He vowed he would halt age itself, supposing I foreswore travel! True enough, but I never knew the boundaries of immortality would be so small: the size of a single wooden chest. I've been here for a very long time..."
"You can't leave?" she asked in horror.
"I already have," the old man replied cheerfully. "Now it's been unlocked, the spell is broken. Fair maiden, might you take me with you?"
"Great," Cassandra muttered. "Just bloody wonderful".