by Paul Lukasewych
The air was stale and silent in the dark passageway. Cale crept forward slowly, careful to avoid any traps the ancients may have left to greet intruders. The faint light given off by his torch illuminated the strange patterns and symbols carved into the stone walls, but did little to reveal what lay ahead. No one had ever returned from these halls, and if Cale was to be the first, then caution must be his ally. One wrong step, and he would join the skeleton he had passed only moments earlier.
He gripped his battleaxe tighter as he approached what appeared to be the end of the dusty corridor. A pair of rotten, worm-infested wooden doors separated him from the mystery and danger beyond. Almost falling off their hinges, they looked ready to collapse at the slightest touch. Cale pushed on one, and it fell to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust. He covered his face and stepped back, waiting for the dust to clear, and hoping that the noise would not invite his doom.
When things had settled, he moved through the door. The air seemed more alive on the other side, and Cale thought he could feel a breeze. The room he had entered was bathed in light which shone through a circular hole in the ceiling, at least thirty feet up. Strange statues inhabited this place, some toppled over and broken on the floor, others marred only by a thick cover of dust and debris. Cale walked among them, awed by the skill of the sculptor, who seemed able to capture the living spirit of his subject. He turned to explore a darkened corner of the room.
Cale immediately wished that he had not. A low, feline growl rose quickly into a mighty roar, and a hail of arrows shot out of the darkness. Cale dove behind the nearest statue as the projectiles embedded themselves in the statue and the ground all around him. They were not arrows after all, but some kind of spines. The sound of leathery wings beating completed the dreadful image that had formed in Cale's mind. With the body of a large lion, the wings of a dragon, and a tail that could launch and re-grow deadly spines, the Manticore was a nightmare.
Acting on instinct, he dropped to the ground and rolled away, rising just in time to see a massive paw knock the head off the statue. The Manticore beat its wings savagely and roared again, but did not move to attack. Cale knew it was waiting for its spines to grow back. That gave him time, but although he was a skilled and experienced warrior, he had never faced so deadly a beast.
The second volley came quicker than Cale had anticipated. He dove again behind a statue, just a little too late. He stifled a cry as a spine lanced through his thigh, and another would have finished him had it not been turned aside by the blade of his battleaxe. This time the Manticore showed no mercy, and charged towards its wounded prey. Cale brought his axe up quickly to deflect the creature's paw, and circled around the statue. He was behind the beast now, and launched an attack of his own. The Manticore's roar rose in pitch as Cale's blade severed its deadly tail.
The enraged beast spun around, smashing the statue, but Cale was ready for it. Leaning back on his good leg, he swung his axe in an arc aimed for the Manticore's head. The beast opened its maw, and the axe sliced its way through the back of the creature's throat and up into its brain. The Manticore dropped thunderously at Cale's feet.
There was a door in the dark corner where the Manticore had been. It was still in excellent condition, but Cale wasn't sure he was ready to open it just yet. There were many bones scattered near the door, and he was in no hurry to face another creature that could make a meal of him. He slumped down to the ground and leaned against the door, listening carefully. Satisfied that there was nothing audible on the other side, he slowly worked the Manticore's spine from his thigh. Its removal did nothing to relieve the pain. He rested for a while until his curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the door.
The first thing Cale noticed was the gold. The second thing he noticed was the man staring at him from the doorway across the room. He carried a bloody sword, and his other arm hung limp at his side. Cale was confused.
"Well now, we seem to have a bit of a dilemma here," the stranger said, figuring out the situation. "It seems we each found the same treasure at the same time."
"That's not supposed to happen, is it?" Cale asked.
The stranger paused to think for a moment, then replied. "No, this never happens. Funny. How do we decide which one of us gets the treasure?"
They pondered that question for a while until Cale broke the silence. "What's your name?"
"Gareth. What's yours?"
Silence returned until Cale spoke again. "We could fight for it," he suggested with a shrug.
Gareth shook his head. "I'd really rather not. I'm too tired to fight. And besides, I only have one good arm."
"Yeah, I'm exhausted too," Cale agreed. "And I only have one good leg."
"Then let's give the treasure to the bravest one of us," Gareth said. "What obstacles did you overcome to get here?"
"Well, I avoided many traps, and I slew a Manticore," Cale said proudly.
Gareth laughed heartily. "A Manticore! Very impressive!"
Cale clasped his hands behind his back and looked down, blushing.
"I too avoided many traps, and I killed an ogre."
Cale made a disgusted face. "I sure am glad I didn't take your route," he said. "Ogres really smell awful."
"Indeed," Gareth said. "You slew a monster and I slew a monster. I think we're tied in bravery."
Cale nodded in agreement. "We must find another way to decide then," he said.
"How about the treasure goes to whoever needs it most?" Gareth suggested. "What do you do for a living?"
"This is what I do," Cale said. "I'm an adventurer, and I'm not very wealthy at all."
Gareth shook his head. "No, I don't imagine you are," he said. "This is what I do too."
"Are you married?" Cale asked suddenly.
"Me neither. Any kids to support?"
"I don't have any either. Any sick relatives?"
"Actually, my family is in pretty good health," Gareth answered with disappointment.
"Yeah, mine too," Cale admitted.
The two adventurers sat down and thought of another way to decide who deserved the treasure. Finally, Cale had a mental breakthrough.
"Hey," he said. "Why don't we share it?"
"That's a great idea!" Gareth agreed.
"Okay," Cale said, gathering up the pair of gold coins. "One for you. One for me."
Story copyright 1998-99 by Paul Lukasewych <Xanaxus@aol.com>
Artwork "Born Innocent" copyright 1998-99 by Billy Tackett <firstname.lastname@example.org>