On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The last few hundred metres had been the hardest, but the end of her journey was in sight.
Elaine Wright had been waiting her entire life for this, and her father had died unfulfilled while looking for the same thing. She had been raised on the stories, and until the age of about ten, she barely had a father at all. He had always been travelling, and on the rare occasions when he was at home, he was usually sealed behind the doors of his study, pursuing his endless quest.
Then the young Elaine had realised, consciously or otherwise, the great lesson of life: to adopt the interests of another person is to add oneself to that person’s interests. So she had badgered her father to share his work with her, and in time, the man had discovered a protégé in his own neglected daughter. The next fifteen years had been the best of Elaine’s life, going all over the world with her father, becoming a worthy substitute for the son he had so clearly wanted, and ultimately of course, being swallowed up by the man’s zeal and taking his quest as her own.
Her father’s failing health had been sudden and a shock, but the process was both brutally and mercifully brief; a matter of a couple of years of suspicion, a diagnosis, and then a handful of months. He had been dead for four years now, and she missed him every day, but today took that feeling of bereavement to an entirely new level.
How he would have loved to be here, she thought.
Even with the altitude, and the cold, and the dangerous terrain, and the very evident snowstorm that would be upon her within the hour, her father would have given anything at all — including his life, without question — to be at her side.
The final breadcrumb on the long trail followed first by her father, then by both of them together, and now just by Elaine herself, had been hiding in plain sight in a monastery only a couple of hundred miles from here, in the lowlands. A landscape oil painting donated to the order two centuries earlier, capturing a surprisingly detailed and wide-angled depiction of the mountain range Elaine had recently ascended, with the only in-frame vanishing point of the painter’s perspective falling upon a distinctive overhang only a short distance below an unremarkable peak. Inscribed on the rear of the canvas, hidden for generations and thus perfectly preserved by the original frame, was a symbol she had come to know very well indeed.
It was a story erased from history by political expeditiousness and embarrassment. A vast treasure, stolen from a royal family by their most trusted guards and spirited away in the night, never to be seen again. The men themselves had vanished too, and hearsay and rumour had become legend. The symbol of the royal guard was that of a double-headed axe encircled by a crown, and the traitorous men had kept it as their own mark, leaving clues for their descendants to help them find the hoard. But the royal family had been as thorough as they were brutal, killing everyone related to those who had robbed them, and ending many family lines forever. The treasure was lost to time.
Elaine trudged onward, mindful of the diminishing visibility, dropping temperature, and the fading light. Her heavy pack had everything she needed to survive overnight, and she had the emergency option of a satellite call for evacuation via her GPS transponder flare, but she was loath to give away her location to anyone else. What was here belonged to her and to her father; she had long since come to utterly believe so.
She was in the area alluded to by the painting, but the scale of the artwork still left a fair area of ground to search, and she didn’t have much time until she would have to prioritise shelter. Elaine put herself into the minds of those long-ago fugitives, bearing a heavy load but in warmer months, doubtless with beasts of burden but no local guides. She looked around, and at last she spotted the overhang. It looked very different from this perspective, and she recognised the wisdom of its choice; a geological feature that would survive for hundreds of lifetimes, and which could be seen from far enough away to aid in navigation, but still remote and inhospitable. She pressed forward, sticking to areas wide enough to admit laden animals and small carts. The ground was partly frozen, and it was treacherous going, but Elaine made good progress and finally she reached the shelter of the formation.
If nothing else, it would make a good place to camp and see out the storm, but it took only a few moments for her to realise that she wouldn’t be pitching her tent just yet. Dull but readily visible, the symbol of the royal guards was carved deeply into the bare rock, hidden around a corner from the wind or any effacement. There was nothing else there, but it was enough. She searched along the interior perimeter of the overhang, and it didn’t take long to come upon the large boulder, a little taller than Elaine herself, not just propped but slightly embedded into the rear wall. There was no wind here, but the flame of her lighter flickered as she held it near to the boundary between the surrounding surface and the boulder.
Ten minutes later, sweating despite the cold, the pry bar she’d wisely packed had done its job, and the boulder lay at a new angle, not entirely dislodged but shifted enough to allow her entry to the natural fissure behind. It was barely a metre across, and she would have to stoop a little to make progress.
It would have taken solid days of effort to carry everything in here on foot, she thought, and that’s assuming it doesn’t go too far back.
For a moment, Elaine considered using the satellite phone, so she had some hope of rescue if things were to go wrong once she went inside the mountain. There would likely be traps, as well as natural dangers. But she dismissed the idea. The discovery was hers, in her father’s honour, and she’d come this far on her own. She wasn’t about to falter now, at the final step.
She strapped on her headlamp and set it to medium illumination, dozens of white LEDs lighting up the rocks around her in a dazzling blue. She slung a reduced pack onto her back, leaving the rest of her gear a short distance from the uncovered entrance, but out of sight of anyone or anything passing by. Hopefully she wouldn’t be gone for too long before coming back to finally contact the outside world.
More than forty men had been involved in the original theft, and no trace of any of them had ever been found. Was there a chance she’d find some of them inside, or at least what was left of them, undiscovered until now? It seemed unlikely, but you could never be sure.
She had a hunting knife sheathed and ready on her thigh. Beyond the reach of the light, the farthest depths of the recess ahead of her were pitch black.
This is for you, dad, she thought, and then she went in.
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