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One mans treasure, p.1
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       One Man's Treasure, p.1

           Jamie Simo
 
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One Man's Treasure


  One Man’s Treasure

  Copyright 2014 Jamie Simo

  Cover art by Janelle Simo

  One Man’s Treasure

  At first, the drunk's tale of the dragon and its hoard of treasure had only mildly aroused his interest. Gorlan wasn't any common thief; he made it a rule never to risk his own neck for mere trinkets. Even if the monster was as "grievously wounded" as the man claimed.

  So, seated in his usual spot at the bar in his favorite tavern, he'd nodded through the drunk's recounting of how he'd tricked a wizard into telling him about the treasure. He smiled and made appropriate awed murmurs when the man held up his arm to mimic striking the monster a terrible wound. He even shook his head in feigned sympathy when the man began to blubber about how he'd been the only one to escape from the dragon's lair.

  By that point, most of the man's audience had lost interest in his tale and turned their attention elsewhere, or, in the case of the regulars, collapsed into puddles of their own drool, but Gorlan continued to listen politely. The pleasant fuzziness in his head was too enjoyable to make him leave the tavern just yet, though his ale had long since warmed to room temperature and the room was so crowded that personal space was limited to what you could carve out for yourself with elbows or shoulders.

  "A mountain of priceless treasure," the man repeated when he'd finished his story, shaking his shaggy-haired head. He lifted his tankard from the counter to take another swig. "But the whole lot of it is worthless when compared to the dragon's real treasure."

  "Real treasure?" Gorlan asked off-handedly, shooting a dirty look at the person behind him who had sunk an elbow into his back.

  The drunk nodded, blinking bleary, red-rimmed eyes, and leaned in close, lowering his voice. "That's the real reason I went, why they all went. It's a ring you see, inscribed with King Altmeir's crest. You know," he drew lines in the air.

  "The sigil that was banned?" Gorlan's ears perked up. Items with that sigil were rare...and valuable.

  The drunk nodded. "That's not all that makes it special though. This ring lets you turn into anything you want! As long as you can see it, you can be it." He chuckled and tipped his head back to drain the last of the ale.

  Now Gorlan sat up straighter, the drunken haze burning off in the heat of his greed. "Changes your shape, huh? How does it work?"

  The drunk set his mug down on the bar, but didn't loosen his grip on the handle. "Well, you put it on," he said, miming the action with his free hand as he went along, "concentrate hard on the person or creature whose shape you want to take, then turn the ring three times." Again he lifted the mug to his lips.

  "Counterclockwise," he added, frowning into the empty vessel.

  Gorlan raised his hand to call for the barkeep. "Here, let me buy you another. Now, where did you say that cave was?"

  A couple more drinks and two-and-a-half days later, Gorlan stood, tapping his feet to keep warm, outside the opening of a cave gouged out of the side of a large mountain. The locals called the cave the Dragon's Den. "Once we're through maybe they can come up with something more original to call it," he said to himself, pulling his cloak tighter.

  His foot slowed its tapping then stopped as he heard the clinking of metal against metal. A moment later, a pair of phantasmal shapes detached themselves from the misty, pre-dawn air, moving steadily toward him.

  As they drew closer, the shapes resolved into men. The first walked with such a long stride that the heavier one was having trouble keeping up. With every step, he lagged farther and farther behind.

  Gorlan watched Hader half-waddle, half-run toward him. Physically, the two of them were like night and day —-in contrast to Hader, who was tall and broad, Gorlan was short and wiry —-but both were smart enough to know they needed a backup plan in case the dragon had survived its "grievous wound." If nothing else, in case things went sour they needed something to keep the dragon occupied while they made their escape. That was why he'd advised his partner to recruit a third member for this expedition.

  While he waited for Hader to catch up, Gorlan turned to look at the stranger who'd stopped in front of him. The man looked young, but he was tall and well-muscled. He wore matching plate too, not odd pieces like Gorlan was used to seeing on mercenaries. The blade in the stranger's hand appeared to be well-cared for and sharp. Strapped to his back like a steel tortoise shell was an unadorned shield.

  They finished sizing each other up and the stranger sheathed his sword, addressing Gorlan. "I assume you're the associate this man spoke of?"

  Gorlan inclined his head and held out his hand. "Gorlan Marone. I trust the map was decent?"

  They shook, and the man seemed to ease up some. "Sir Betain D'Balvos. We didn't have any trouble." He looked at Hader who had finally arrived. His pudgy face was dripping with sweat, plastering his dark hair against his skull. "Mostly, anyway."

  Gorlan couldn't keep the delight from his face. What good fortune! A knight! He had advised Hader to leave out any mention that the two of them were partners. They'd even gone so far as to meet up separately so whomever Hader found wouldn't realize they were more than just passing acquaintances. That way, they'd get two thirds of the loot.

  The fact that Betain was a knight, though! Maybe he'd be content with just the dragon's head or some other vile token like that, leaving them with the whole treasure instead.

  "I've fulfilled my end of the bargain," Hader said, having caught his breath. "Here's your dragon-slayer. Now where's my money?"

  Gorlan, in full theatrical mode, smiled his most charming smile. "Patience, my good friend. You'll get your share after the deed's done." He turned to the knight, following his gut instinct. "But you know, Sir D'Balvos is the one taking the most risk here. It would be more than fair for him to get the largest portion of the treasure."

  Hader's startled grunt wasn't phony. He shot Gorlan a sidelong glance, trying to catch his eye, but Gorlan didn't respond. Instead, he focused on Betain, his mirth nearly spilling over as he saw that he'd judged right.

  Betain shook his head. "I didn't become a knight for the riches. I accepted your associate's proposal because I want to finish this monster off once and for all. You don't know the damage it's done to the surrounding villages."

  Gorlan put on his most disappointed face. Next to him, he heard Hader sigh with relief, which the big man covered unsuccessfully with a cough.

  "Well, I wish you'd reconsider, sir, but if that's truly your desire, I can't force you to change your mind."

  Hader loudly cleared his throat. "Can we go?" he demanded. Without waiting for either of them, he started up the hill. Gorlan and Betain followed, eventually overtaking him.

  Before them, the darkness of the cave mouth was a deeper shadow cut in the night. Gorlan drew his long knife. To either side of him, Hader and Betain drew their own weapons. Hader brought out one of the torches and lit it. Its ruddy glow revealed a quick glimpse of the mingled anticipation and fear on his face before he passed it to Betain who moved on ahead of them into the darkness.

  Though the entrance was wide enough for six people to march abreast, gradually the walls narrowed, forcing them to walk single-file. Ahead of him, the light of the torch bobbed up and down with every step Betain took, but as the last of the three, Gorlan couldn't see anything in front of him but Hader's broad back.

  He strained to hear over the pulsing of blood in his ears. Other than the scuff of their boots on the loose gravel, the clink of Betain's armor, and Hader's loud breathing, there was no sound, only the smothering silence of cool, damp air. Gorlan let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Maybe the dragon had died of its wounds after a
ll. He licked his lips and smiled.

  The tunnel began to widen again, eventually opening onto a large chamber, and Gorlan noticed it was easier to see. Looking up, he realized that was because there was a large hole overhead. As he watched, a few small, dark shapes took wing and flew out into the night. Bats.

  He stepped out from behind Hader and scanned the room eagerly. Its corners were hidden in shadow, but it was obvious that it was empty. He stamped his foot in irritation, ready to curse the drunk who'd tricked him, when a sudden loud scraping made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

  Hader was in the midst of walking toward the farthest wall. "It looks like there's another chamber beyond this one."

  "No, wait!" Betain held up a hand to caution him, but it was too late. An enormous shape emerged from the darkness in front of Hader, who came to such an abrupt halt that he nearly fell onto his face.

  Betain shoved the torch toward Gorlan to free a hand for his shield, but Gorlan's nerveless fingers refused to grip. It fell to the floor and went out. His knees buckled. The dragon didn't look "grievously wounded" at all.

  The thing was huge, much bigger than the man in the tavern had said. Before the torch had gone out, Gorlan caught a glimpse of rough, scaly hide, and long, wickedly curving claws. The sound of them scraping the gravel floor
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