Thanks again to everyone who gave a review or spread the word about Glory’s Gauntlet.  Here’s a brand-new short story featuring our not-quite-noble heroes!

The Gold Equations

With a final howl of rage and pain, the beast died on the tip of Incisor. When it fell limp, Joachim pulled the magical spear from the thing’s heart, and stared down at it. He watched the still form and weathered the rush of emotion and sensation he always felt after a battle. The Filcher did not seem quite so monstrous now, clearly visible under the torchlight. It was not a creature made for fighting.

It was a chimera, a monster created by magic from the parts of several beings. It had the mottled wings of an owl, patterned in gray, brown and black. Its teeth and claws had a rodent-like quality, for climbing and gnawing through any obstacles. It had the delicate limbs and body structure of a great cat, and the face and hands were distinctly humanoid.

The creature had never spoken, but Joachim could sense the intelligence in it. The Filcher was something of a local legend. As the name implied, it was a tool created for the purpose of sneaking into villages or country estates and stealing valuables. Over the years, many attempts had been made to track down and kill the beast, but even sightings of it had been rare enough that it was still considered a myth by most. One nobleman, the Duke Hideikon, was so certain he was plagued by the beast that he had hired the Freelance Hunters to bring back the creature’s head. But the small retainer he had offered was nothing compared to what they found in the beast’s underground lair.

They had tracked it though fens and swamps to a chamber hollowed out beneath a pair of huge, skeletal trees. The tiny entrance was nearly impossible to spot, but Glory moved the earth with her magic, and Bingo had secured a rope. Joachim had climbed down and finished the beast. His surprise at finding such a huge space under the swamp was nothing compared to what filled it.

Everywhere Joachim shone his torch, the flame was reflected in gleaming gold. Coins of every denomination had once been scrupulously piled against the cave walls, but their sheer number had collapsed them into massive heaps. There were other precious things as well: Statutes and carvings, bits of gleaming dress armor, paintings rotting and mildewed in gilt frames, an armory’s worth of ceremonial swords and daggers inlaid with silver, and a small pile of gems, in an endless variety of color, cut and clarity. And in the center of the room, a skeleton in tattered robes. Glory stood over it, making notes. She had the faraway look in her eye that told Joachim that she was examining the corpse with a wizard’s sight.

“Judging by the amount of residual ley connections between the corpse and the chimera, I think we can assume he was its creator,” she said.

“Can you figure what offed the sparker?” Bingo asked. He paused in his inspection of the cave. The space was a hollow of earth and rock, probably not all-together naturally formed. It was nearly invisible, and almost dry when the Filcher was using it as a lair, but they had widened the entrance, and a steady stream of water and mud had begun to collect in the basin.

“I think he was killed by his own creation. Look at the rough treatment of the clothing. The chimera stripped him of anything valuable and then continued with its programming.”

“Wait,” Joachim said. He had never been quick to grasp the workings of magic. “Are you saying this was a mage-made creature?” Glory sighed and dusted off her hands on her coat.

“Obviously. Just look at it. It was clearly a creature stitched together for the purpose of creating a perfect thief. And the bastard used a Hillfolk to do it. I’m almost sad I didn’t get my hands on him myself. This is the grossest misuse of magic.”

“So he flashes up this side-show attraction, trains it to prig, and then gets owned by his own monster? Is that even legit?” Bingo asked.

“I’m no expert in Chimerstry, but from what little I’ve studied, I’d have thought it impossible. Chimeras aren’t technically alive. They’re basically golems made out of different animal parts and patched together with healing magic. So most would be programmed not to harm their creators, but this one obviously had some very specific programming as well.”

“Such as, ‘Defend the horde from anyone who enters?'” offered Joachim.

“Quite so. And when he came to collect the treasure the Filcher stole, it must have been unable to resolve the contradiction and went berserk. Foolish, really.”

“But his loss is our gain, right?” Joachim said, rubbing his hands together in excitement. There was enough treasure here to set all three of them up for life!” His companions shared an embarrassed look.

“Joachim, I don’t think you’ve considered the Gold Equations,” Glory said. A new fall of mud and earth splashed to the cave floor, as if to punctuate her sentence. Monsters and traps brought many would-be adventurers to an early end, but nothing killed one surer than greed.

“A treasure hunter can only leave with as much as he can carry safely,” he said, as though quoting from a shared text. “Of course, but look at it all! We can’t just leave it here!” Glory brushed some mud from her sleeve and fixed him with a hard look.

“How do you expect to get it out of here, then? Our only exit is up a long rope tied to a dead tree.”

Bingo pulled a foot-long sword with a saw-like blade out of his pack and handed it to the wizard. Then he took the warrior aside.

“Joachim, We’ve been out here bug-hunting for a week. Going crow-wise back to the apple-sellers will take at least to days. The rainy season’s coming on, and we Jemmied the area but good getting down here. We’re out of time, mate.” He splashed his boots in the ankle high water to emphasize his point.

“But there has to be another entrance. The filcher got this much treasure in, after all,” Joachim protested.

“A kennuck a time adds up over forty years. It busts me, too. If there was another seeker out of here, I would’ve Palled it.” Glory carefully handed the short sword over to Joachim. The blade was glowing white hot. Raindrops sizzled where they struck it. He stared at it for a moment before starting to work freeing the head from the Filcher’s neck.

“Alright, what about magic, Glory? Can we shrink it all down, maybe? Or make it lighter than air?” Glory rolled her eyes behind his back.

“That’s not really an option. First of all, Gold is an element. That’s much more difficult to alter than a compound substance.”

“What, like Earth and Fire?” She sighed.

“It’s a different kind of element. You know what, never mind. I could do it, but we don’t have the time, and besides, the gold would be worthless afterwards.”

“Why?” The idea of worthless gold had no place in Joachim’s head.

“Alchemy, man! She wasn’t the first magician to try and get rich quick through magic. It’s not exactly honest, but turning base metals into valuable ones is one of the cornerstones of the discipline. Bankers started looking for the signs, and an honest one wont touch so much as a coin if there is magic on it.”

“But, gold is gold, isn’t it?”

“Would you trust coins a magician gave you?” He didn’t have to think about that one.

“I see your point, but we’ve got a few minutes, surely?”

“This place was kept dry by spells tied to the Filcher. Now that it’s dead, everything’s gone unstable, and water will go the path of least resistance.”

“You mean, we’re about to be flooded down here.” He sighed, and went back to work removing the head from the Filcher’s shoulders.

“Exactly. How’s that head, coming. We can carry that out, at least.” He finished chopping the head off of the monster and shoved it into a sack. At least their reward would cover the trip’s expenses.

The earth was dripping and sliding all around them, now. Piles of treasure were swallowed up one after another, and Joachim found himself unable to do a thing to stop them. He let his companions, being much shorter than himself, climb up the rope out first. The mud was up to his waist by the time he started his own escape. He heard the groan of roots slipping in the mud under his weight, smelled the damp rushing of water and soil. He felt his dirty hands slip on the wet rope several times. It was as harrowing an escape as he had ever attempted in his days as a mercenary, and by the time he reached the surface as was back in the storm with the other Freelance Hunters, there was nothing left but a watery sink hole beneath a pair of dead oaks.

Joachim stared down at the hole for a long time, knowing it was impossible to go back, but unable to leave the treasure behind.

“There was enough down there to live a soft for a dozen lifetimes,” he said. Bingo came up beside him and clapped him on the back. It was a long reach for the Hillfolk.

“Like you’d be able to settle down,” he smirked. That got him to smile, at least.

“Maybe,” he admitted.

“You win some, you lose some,” Glory said. “Those are just the way the Gold Equations play out. You can’t spend what you drown trying to carry. We completed the mission, and we’ll be set for a little while when we get back to the Duke. He’ll show us his gratitude, and I have a few things I can look up when we get back to the city. It wasn’t a total waste.”

“True, but there was an entire fortune down there,” Joachim muttered petulantly.

“I wouldn’t say an entire one,” Bingo said. He reached into his jacket and with a flourish like a stage conjurer, produced an emerald the size of an apple. “I pulled this while you and the wizard were debating the Gold Equations.” He winked.

While the Duke was not as quite as generous with his gratitude as they hoped, the Freelance Hunters still managed to winter very comfortably that year. When they passed by his estates the next spring, the swamp was completely unrecognizable, and they could not find the site of the Filcher’s nest. To this day it has never been found, but it remains a topic of local interest, and occasionally an old coin is discovered in a stream or under a field. They are considered practically magical by the villagers, and are said to change the fate of whoever finds one.