Plagued

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The Price of Greed

Fire ignited upon a shelf near the ceiling, which must have been filled with oil because the flame traveled as fast as an arrow until it encircled the spacious cave.

Isca was right. Her riches in the shack were nothing compared to the treasure-trove of Mordekah’s vault. Collected from both the witch and years of pillaging, Mordekah’s riches rivaled those of kings.

Gold pieces of every shape and size created islands in the water flooding half the floor. Gems and crystals of all colors dazzled the eye. There were cups, jewels, blades, vases and boxes all nestled among overflowing strings of pearls and diamonds. Along with ornate trunks of fine silks. A pipe organ with its keys buried in sapphires and rubies sat nestled in a nook in the wall and bottles filled the seat of an elegant throne.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” Sarah voiced breathless.

Jethrow scoffed, “Oh yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s also cursed, remember? Don’t touch anything if you can avoid it, especially with open skin. And under no circumstances are we to take anything from this room besides the amulet.

“How are we going to find the amulet among all of this?” Noddie asked, her eyes sweeping the overwhelming room.

Mesha approached the edge of a circle carved into the floor. “There has been no death in this chamber, but I can feel the curse filling this room stronger than any before. I think the plague is attached to the treasure itself and is activated once it leaves the area.” He knelt to touch the crevice of the carving. “This must be the boundary line. As long as the treasure does not pass this point the plague should not affect us.”

“So what exactly does this amulet look like?” Lorance asked.

“A piece of jewelry. Let us look around, I will know it when I see it.”

They spread out, examining the piles of treasure. Sarah went to a corner with clothes and tables of jewelry. Lorance lifted a pile of swords and shields to look underneath, while Jethrow searched around the golden throne. Noddie continued farther, jumping over a stream of water to get to the back of the cavern.

The amulet would probably lie with treasures similar to what she saw in Isca’s hut. She found a pile of rings and golden chains laying amongst empty colored-glass bottles and decided to sift through them first.

They drifted from one area to another, searching the incredible hoard for one specific item. Noddie was beginning to think they would be there for days when Sarah called out, “Mesha!”

Mesha, who was wandering up and down the isles of riches, rushed to Sarah’s side as she pointed to a flat, silver pendant with a long chain, leaning against a black box on a cloth-covered table. The pendant was not as flashy as the other decorations. It displayed a single fiery-red ruby at its center, surrounded by engraved markings.

“That’s it! That is the amulet.”

“Are you sure?” Jethrow called, rising from his knees after looking beneath the pipe organ on the opposite side of the room.

Mesha’s hand paused a few inches short of touching the amulet. “It’s pulsing,” he whispered. He rubbed his fingers together then picked it up as though handling a poisonous snake. Once it was resting in his palm, Mesha nodded in certainty. “This is it. I am sure of it.”

“Very good!”

A gravelly voice made their heads jerk toward the entrance of the chamber. At the door stood Rufus, the scabby-handed robber who locked Noddie up at Terrason, surrounded by several other Mordekah robbers.

“We thank you for showing us the way in. Between you and Mordekah’s instructions we never would have made it this far. Mordekah has wanted to return here for years to release the curse and now we find you’ve done so for him! He will be most pleased.”

Glowering, Mesha closed his hand around the amulet.

The robbers were drooling over the sparkling room with lust-itchy hands, but snapped from their daze as Rufus ordered, “Take them. And bring me that necklace.”

They moved toward Mesha, drawing knives and weapons with a new hunger.

Sarah turned to run as Mesha drew his own sword and their attackers surged forward in a violent wave. In several bounding strides Jethrow crossed the room, splashing through the water to come to Mesha’s aid.

Noddie ducked behind a plinth. She wished she knew how to fight. She had no way to defend herself or to help the others. All that time spent with Jethrow, and she never once asked him to teach her.

Sarah bounded around artifacts and up piles of coins like a squirrel in her retreat, before hiding behind a jade statue of two sea monsters frozen in an epic battle, across from Noddie.

Grabbing a shield lying next to him, Lorance drew his sword. He tried to fight his way to his brother’s side while keeping the advancing robbers from pursuing Sarah. Noddie had never seen him look so serious. His sword flashed with controlled skill as he overpowered two opponents at once.

Although it was obvious Mesha had been trained in the art of swordsmanship he was not as accomplished as his brother. He performed well against one attacker, but became overwhelmed in open battle, concentrating his efforts on blocking blow after relentless blow.

Jethrow made quick work of the first pair of robbers before drawing away the second, allowing Mesha to find an opening with his remaining opponent. With a tricky move, the robber was disarmed and thrown into a table that collapsed under the assault, as gems and silver pieces fell like rain.

Unfazed, the man snarled and grabbed a new dagger from the glittering pile to lunge at Mesha anew. Turning sideways, Mesha averted the blow and rammed his shoulder into robber’s chest, causing him to stumble back several paces.

Mesha readied his sword as the man regained his footing and prepared to strike again. But as the man was about to lunge, he faltered, and his eyes widened as his breath turned heavy. The dagger fell from his grip to clatter on the ground, where he stood outside the boundary line.

Yelling, he fell to his knees, and Mesha watched as dark sores appeared across the man’s skin.

The robbers nearest them retreated.

“What are you doing, idiots?” Rufus roared, drawing a pistol. “I told you to get the amulet! Did you not hear Mordekah’s warning about touching the gold? Now bring me the amulet!”

With renewed vigor, the robbers attacked again.

As he tried to avoid a violent slash from his attacker, Mesha lost his footing and landed in a pile of gold. The amulet flew from his hand, bouncing across the floor before sliding downhill with a cascade of jumping, rolling coins and landing in the water with a low plop.

“Lorance, the amulet!” Mesha screamed as he intercepted a robber trying to pass him.

But Lorance was already engaged in a three-way duel and could not help.

Seeing her friends were in trouble, Noddie tightened her resolve. I am brave. Tripping a robber rushing past her hiding place, she abandoning her shelter and ran forward into the river. Falling to her knees Noddie felt below the surface for the amulet. There were flashes of silver and gold from other submerged trinkets and Noddie discarded a ring and several coins as she searched.

She didn’t see the robber come at her from the side until Lorance appeared out of nowhere and eliminated the threat with one swing of his sword. He had a cut on his arm and cheek and was breathless as he crouched beside her. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

No sooner had she spoken, then a thunderous blast shook them. Noddie and Lorance fell sideways in shock, ears ringing. Rufus was standing ahead of them with a smoking pistol.

Lorance set the shield at her side. “Stay low.”

Before Rufus could ready his pistol again Lorance sprinted forward, tackling the man to the ground. Caught by surprise, Rufus dropped the pistol, which went spinning out of reach.

Noddie continued sifting through the water. At last, her fingers brushed something bigger than coins, lifting the amulet above the surface in triumph. She could not feel the pulse Mesha described, but it did not matter.

Suddenly a thick, hairy arm wrapped around her neck from behind and lifted her from the water. A robber with a ring in his lip hissed, “You can give that to me.”

“Let go!”

Noddie struggled as he tried to force the amulet from her hands. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed another robber charging towards Sarah.

Sarah braced her back against the statue and, using all her body weight, pushed against the cave wall to topple it over. The robber was not able to stop fast enough as the heavy structure landed on top of him, pinning him to the floor.

“Sarah, take it!” Ripping her arm out of her captor’s reach, Noddie threw the amulet as hard as she could.

Sarah rushed forward, her hands outstretched. The trinket bounced against her palms twice as she fumbled for it. Then she ran, but she didn’t get far before tripping over a staff on the ground. With a startled scream the amulet flew from her hands and buried itself in the side of another treasure pile.

Noddie succeeded in ramming her elbow into the man’s nose, earning her release. She rushed to where the amulet had fallen near the back wall of the cave and pushed a golden pitcher and a box aside as she clawed through the silver pieces. She caught a flash of ruby before another avalanche of coins covered it. Plunging her hands in, she managed to snag the chain.

Raising her head, she was about to turn back when a mark on the wall caught her eye. Two vertical lines with an upward point between them, encircled in a ring. She had seen this symbol in Mordekah’s book. Along with a word from the northern language. She touched the symbol in recognition. What had been the word?

“Auntem,” she whispered, as she remembered.

As though responding to her voice the rock beneath her fingers trembled and a thin opening appeared as a section of the wall moved away.

Drenched and shivering, Noddie jumped to her feet, thrusting the amulet into her dress pocket. It was a doorway to another cave. And perhaps, their way out.

“Jethrow!”

Jethrow looked up at the sound of his name. His shirt was ripped and the bandage of his injured hand had come loose.

Noddie pointed to the passage behind her and saw understanding sweep across his face. “Get Sarah!” he ordered before turning back to parry a blow from another attacker.

Sarah was crouched where she had fallen, nursing her scraped knees. Their eyes met and Noddie waved her over. “Sarah, hurry!”

Sarah rose to her feet, but before she could take another step a man covered in tattoos locked his arm around her neck. Sarah bit and scratched in a desperate attempt to free herself, and Noddie ran to help, sliding over scattered coins on the way.

Noddie kicked the man in the shin and he buckled with a grunt, but did not release his hold. Pulling at his arm was futile as well.

Then Lorance, having lost his sword and shield, came running towards them. Without breaking stride he picked up the staff Sarah tripped over earlier and landed a blow to the back of the robber’s knees, then the side of his head. Noddie winced as the man crumpled sideways to the ground.

“Thanks for that,” Sarah panted, taking Noddie’s hand to pull herself up.

They rushed to the newly discovered exit and Noddie leaned against the wall to catch her breath. She was alarmed when the rock vibrated again. Her fears were confirmed as she turned toward the door and moved to brace herself against the side of the opening, “Jethrow, it’s closing!”

The door was too heavy for her to keep at bay for long. Even Sarah and Lorance’s added strength made little difference. She repeated the word Auntem, but it didn’t have any effect.

There was a ringing sound as Mesha’s sword was knocked from his stinging hand. The robber who disarmed him forced him to the ground, grinding his chin against the cursed gold, as he swung his own blade over Mesha’s back. The cutting edge came rushing down, and was batted away at the last second as Jethrow came flying out of nowhere and redirected the blow.

Encircling Mesha with his left arm, Jethrow hoisted the young prince out of harm’s way while, at the same time, deflecting another strike with his knife.

The next assault struck hard, disarming Jethrow. The force of the blow pushed him back and gold slipped from beneath his feet. He tried to regain his balance, grasping for leverage, but his hand only closed around the handle of a vase, as he fell back with Mesha on top of him.

By instinct Jethrow’s abused left hand shot out to break his fall and he hollered in pain as it took the weight of the fall. Too late, he realized his hand had fallen outside of the boundary line; jug still clutched in his other hand.

Jethrow released his hold on Mesha to grab the man’s arms as he bore down upon them. Mesha rolled out of harm’s way and the battle between Jethrow and the other robber turned into a struggle of brute strength.

“Oh, please hurry!” Noddie cried as the door slipped several inches closer despite their combined weight.

Mesha stumbled to his feet and ran towards them.

Having forced the knife from the other robber’s hand, Jethrow gave a mighty kick, sending his attacker sprawling back. Jumping up, he bolted across the cavern, slashing an approaching robber out of his way before discarding the knife as he bolted.

Noddie’s hand slipped and the door overpowered them as Jethrow reached the middle of the room.

Mesha leapt past them into the tunnel beyond.

“GO!” At Jethrow’s shout, Sarah, Lorance, and Noddie slipped into the tunnel. Jethrow jumped through not a moment before the heavy door rolled shut behind him, becoming indistinguishable from the cave wall once again.

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