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Chapter I - Halia's Discovery

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Halia neither heard nor saw any sign of her pursuers after an hour of crawling across the forest floor. They’d probably given up, frightened by the local legends of people disappearing in the deep woods, but she wasn’t about to turn back, Arboreals or evil spirits be damned.
The small village of Hillside had nothing to offer other than a meager meal, which she’d already taken. Besides, she was used to living on her own, having fended for herself since becoming an orphan more than two decades ago. Convinced that she was alone, she rose from the ground and continued knee-deep down a shallow river, hoping she wouldn’t get lost.
As the last fingers of sunlight released their grip from the tree tops, Halia removed a small bundle from her cloak and peeled back several layers of cloth. Inside were a piece of cured venison and a slice of bread, the only food she’d eaten for three days. This was her grand theft from Hillside. If she’d known the village captain was completely intolerant of all crime, she wouldn’t have stolen a crumb, despite her hunger.
While occasionally glancing backward, Halia finished her meal in a few bites. She bent over to take a sip of the cool water and noticed something nearby that wasn’t a natural part of the forest. Keeping her sharp eyes affixed to the mysterious spot, she slogged downstream.
Before long, she came to the ruins of an old castle obscured by vegetation. She waded ashore, pushed her way through an overgrowth of reeds, and found a carefully hidden jumble of logs randomly tied together with strands of rawhide.
Stepping onto the makeshift raft, she stamped her foot a few times and determined it to be in good enough condition for use on the river. There was bound to be civilization downstream, and the flimsy raft would bring her there faster than she could ever walk. It was her lucky day, although she would have traded her last meal for a horse instead.
With darkness approaching, she entered the ruins, glad to have found a minimal amount of shelter. Although she didn’t believe the ghost stories told by the Hillside villagers, she’d heard about sabertooths stalking the woods at night. Unwilling to fall prey to a ferocious beast while asleep, she inspected the surrounding area. One could never be too safe, especially with only a flimsy knife for protection.
Nothing much remained of the ancient castle. A few moss-covered stones marked what used to be the entrance. The northern wall rose twelve feet from the ground, but the other three walls had long since collapsed, their remnants scattered about the forest floor.
Half-buried mounds of rubble separated the rooms, which otherwise blended into a sea of weeds and vines. The ruins fascinated Halia as she slunk back and forth examining the structure in detail. The more she searched, the more she expected to find something of value.
In the fading light, a curious stack of brushwood caught her attention. She dragged away the larger branches and uncovered a stone staircase hidden beneath the debris. Excited by her discovery, she hauled the remaining branches away from the stairs, dislodging a couple of torches—just what she needed to light her way in the dark depths beneath the castle. Once again, luck was with her. She pulled a tinderbox out of a small pouch on her belt, lit one of the torches, and descended the stairs.
Long and narrow, the steep staircase ended in a puddle of water beside an open doorway. What should have been a door was instead a mess of splintered wood and bent steel, having been hacked to pieces in the recent past, judging by the lack of rot. Halia fingered the broken wood. Somebody else had found this room before her.
She thrust the torch forward, illuminating what could only have been the treasury. Her heart beat faster. There had to be something of value inside to satisfy her desire for riches. It wasn’t fair when some were born to wealth, while others had to scrounge for every meal.
Beyond the pile of rubble, a gaping hole opened in the ground, a sprung trap as wide as the stairway and almost as deep. Cautiously stepping over the broken door, Halia knelt at the edge of the hole and peered down. Large spikes littered the bottom of the pit along with the remains of the false floor that had given way when two unsuspecting individuals stepped onto it. Their skeletons lay impaled on the bed of deadly spikes. Halia shook her head. The fools had fallen into such an obvious trap. She gently leapt to the other side of the pit, her feet barely making a sound when they touched the chamber floor.
At first glance, the room appeared to be empty, plundered many years ago by the treasure hunters. Cobwebs crept up the walls and a layer of dust lined the floor, thinner toward the center and thicker at the edges. Two damaged wooden chests proved this room had indeed been a treasury. Halia circled the enormous containers, imagining the vast amounts of gold they once held. The locks, which had protected the substantial treasure ages ago, still performed their duty, forever prohibiting anyone from separating the lid from the trunk. Their function was now moot, however, since all four sides of the chests had been demolished, much the same as the door to the chamber.
Not a single brass coin remained of the original treasure. The men who’d found the room before her were thorough, if unskilled. Fortunately, they left behind a few torches. Halia lit each one and mounted them in the holders halfway up the walls.
With her hands free to perform a more detailed investigation, she continued around the perimeter, running her fingertips along each crack, chip, and crevice. Near the far corner of the room, she dug some dust out of a tiny gap between the floor and the wall that didn’t exist elsewhere. The looters hadn’t been too observant. Perhaps they’d overlooked something of great value.
Halia set both hands firmly on the wall and gave it a slight push. Nothing happened. She moved her hands lower, took a step backward, and pushed harder. The wall trembled faintly as more dust fell from small fissures appearing in the stone. She stepped away and traced the new set of cracks with her finger. Just as she expected, they formed the outline of a large door. Placing her hands in the center, she threw all her weight against the wall.
With a low grumble, as if it were upset at its discovery, the secret door swung inward, revealing a passage that led deep into the darkness. Halia grabbed the nearest torch and waved it around, illuminating a long corridor. The flickering light faded in the distance without yielding any further clues, but a dull reflection from the ceiling worried her.
She tossed the torch onto the ground beneath the reflection. The flames brightened a small section of the corridor, beckoning her to step through the doorway. The darkness must have been hiding something of value, but a flicker of light bouncing off the ceiling convinced her to remain wary. She needed something heavier, and with a peek at the room’s entrance, she knew just who could help. Returning to the spiked pit, she climbed over the side, held on to the rim with both hands, and dropped to the bottom. With a momentary shudder of disgust, she hoisted one of the skeletons off the spikes and heaved the bones out of the pit. The skull came loose, hit the ground with a dull thud, and rolled along the floor between the spikes before coming to rest with its empty eye sockets fixed on her.
“You don’t need those bones,” she said, eyeing the smoothly chiseled walls of the pit.
Escaping up the sheer sides might be difficult. She jumped twice but came up just short of the rim each time, needing a little more height on her tall frame. With a glance at the other skeleton and a vow not to remain in the grave with riches so near, she placed her feet on a couple of the duller spikes. Leaping upward, she caught hold of the edge of the pit and pulled herself out.
She lugged the remains of the body back to the secret passage and threw it into the corridor. No sooner had the skeleton hit the floor than a heavy iron plate fell from the ceiling, crushing both the bones and the torch with a sickening crunch. Her eyes darted from the floor to the ceiling as visions of gold and jewels filled her mind. Treasure was closer than ever. She snatched a pair of torches from the wall and stepped into the corridor.
Halia inched her way along the dark passage, throwing a torch to the ground, placing one foot in front of the other, and retrieving the torch. Her caution paid off at about two hundred paces, when the torch landed with a peculiar thump. The ceiling appeared to be solid rock, but when she stomped on the ground near the torch, the false floor collapsed into a pit. Her front foot slid out from under her body, but she hopped back just in time to avoid falling to her death. That was too close. She leaned against the wall, gasping on the dusty air.
The newly uncovered pit spanned the width of the passageway and was twice as deep as the first. Halia had no choice but to jump across or turn back. She considered retrieving the other skeleton in case there was a trap on the other side, but her curiosity overpowered her caution at the last moment.
Backing up a few feet, she ran as fast as she could and sprang over the hole, landing in a circular chamber three paces in diameter. She hit the slick marble floor, slid across the room, and smacked into the far wall. A smile spread across her face as she rose to her feet.
This was no ordinary treasure chamber and was sure to hold a reward worthy of her efforts. The polished walls held no dust, but a set of engraved symbols encircled the chamber at eye level. Halia ignored the writing, partly because she couldn’t understand the strange language, but mostly because a beautifully carved dais in the center of the room had caught her attention. Atop the small platform was a chest no larger than a plump tomcat, the perfect size for holding a golden crown or a bejeweled necklace. It had been well protected for ages but would soon yield its treasure to her.
Halia knelt beside the chest. A Terun padlock, nearly unbreakable and frequently booby-trapped, secured the lid. She dropped her torch and leaned in for a closer look. This one was definitely booby-trapped, but she knew she could spring it safely.
A snarl crossed her face as she remembered her ex-friend Nerv, the Terun thief who taught her how to pick this type of lock. She’d learned much from Nerv but never enjoyed the subterranean lifestyle of the Teruns. Their friendship lasted several months, ending when he framed her for a series of thefts in the surrounding settlements—no wonder he was willing to give a fledgling thief such specialized knowledge. Halia realized then that the only person she could ever trust was herself.
On her knees, she edged around to the side of the chest, removed a small metal file from her belt, and prodded the lock. Within seconds, a needle flew out of the keyhole and hit the wall behind her with a slight ding. She pulled a metal lock pick from her belt and inserted both the file and pick into the keyhole. After a few expert twists of her hands, the lock snapped open and her face brightened. With the riches from this chest, she’d never be hungry again.
Halia yanked off the lock and threw back the lid. She imagined herself wearing a jewel-encrusted crown, dressed in the finest silk clothes ever made, and carried on top of a gold-trimmed chair by four porters. She saw all the townsfolk crowding around her, fawning over her, and asking her for favors. She pictured herself receiving invitations to the grandest balls in the land, mingling with nobles and royalty.
When she finally peered into the chest, her head slumped and her jaw dropped in severe disappointment. Once again, her dreams had been shattered.
Regaining her composure, she reached into the chest and lifted out a solid crystal sphere about the size of a kitten.
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