I don’t usually write anything that could be dubbed a thriller, but I tried for this WEP Oct 2022 challenge, Thriller. My heroine Altenay, the Finder, lives in an imaginary country where magic is real. In this story, she is using her Finder magic to search for a fragment of a goddess’s cloak. Of course, when one is involved in the affairs of divinity, the search would turn scary. Everyone knows that.
Altenay rode along the cliff road, the company of four guards and their grizzled captain behind her. The guards belonged to the local temple of Udacha, the goddess of luck. The head priestess of Udacha had hired Altenay to Find a relic, a fragment of the goddess’s cloak, stolen from the temple three days ago.
It wasn’t really a relic, Altenay thought wryly. It was probably just a piece of faded tapestry in a wooden frame, but the priestess had convinced her to accept this job. Now, Altenay fingered the old, broken wooden frame in her satchel, the frame that had held the tapestry for years, before the priestesses had replaced it last month. Her Finder magic buzzed in her fingertips, ready and eager, pointing… down.
Down? So far, it had been pointing true north, along the cliff road. Altenay grabbed her tubeteika to keep the brisk sea breeze from blowing her cap off her head. She sawed on the reins to stop her mount.
The guard captain almost bumped into her. “You lost the scent?” he said irritably.
“I’m not a dog,” Altenay snapped. “My magic shows direction. It doesn’t track scents. And now, it points down. There must be a cave beneath this cliff, and what I’m seeking is in that cave. Right under our feet.”
They both looked to the right, towards the sea susurrating below the cliffs. “We’ll search for a way down,” the captain said resignedly and sent his guards to scout. By the time they found a perilous path to the pebbly beach below and discovered the cave entrance, it was dark.
The captain lit a lantern, but as soon as he and a couple of other soldiers approached the mouth of the cave, a strange arrangement of boulders unfolded into a rough stone statue. Vaguely human-shaped and animated by magic, it swung its rocky arms at the soldiers.
Altenay, behind the solders, gasped in fright and jumped back, her heart pounding. A golem. Her magic pulled her into the cave, towards the tapestry, but the golem was in the way. Drat!
The men ducked the statue’s unexpected attack and tried to fight their way in, but their swords had no effect on the moving rock. Sparks flew as the blades struck stone. The humans had to retreat. The moment they stepped ten meters away from the entrance, the statue stopped moving.
“A golem!” The captain spat a filthy oath. “We can’t fight this abomination. We have to go back.”
“Wait,” Altenay said. “Golems are not too bright. They remember one or two commands and a password to counteract them. We don’t know the password, but what if its command is to fight men with weapons. I don’t have a weapon, and I’m not a man. Maybe I could sneak by.”
“You mean go alone into that cave?” The captain frowned.
“The relic is there,” Altenay said quietly. She didn’t want to enter the cave at all, much less alone, but she didn’t see another way to retrieve the cursed tapestry.
The captain nodded. “We’ll stay outside in case someone human comes along. We could fight those. Be careful, Finder.”
Altenay nodded. Her heart in her throat, she grabbed a small unlit lantern and sidled towards the golem. Ten meters. Five. She tiptoed slowly and tried to breathe inaudibly, but her heart thundered, making her nauseous. There was a narrow space between the living rock, inert at the moment, and the cave wall. The soldiers behind her back kept a tense silence.
Shaking, she gathered her courage and slid past the golem. It didn’t try to stop her, but she didn’t inhale deeply until a bend in the tunnel hid her from its ‘view’. So far so good.
She lit her lantern. It threw uneven shadows around her, as she stomped towards her goal. Her magic tugged at her, while the shadows danced around, each one scarier than the last. Why had she accepted this stupid job? Her conversation with the priestess zigzagged in her memory.
“The thieves left a message,” the old woman had said. “They want a ransom so high it would ruin us to pay. And if we don’t pay or go to any officials for help, they would prove that our relic is… not true. That it never belonged to Udacha. Such a rumor would ruin us.”
“The pilgrims would stop coming,” Altenay said dryly.
“Our temple is small. The pilgrims come here from all over the kingdom. They pray to Her for luck, and She always delivers. The pilgrims’ donations keep us alive. And the village outside too—the villagers provide food and shelter to the pilgrims. If the pilgrims stop coming, both the temple and the village would suffer.”
“And is your relic true? Or is it all a clever ruse?”
The priestess’s gaze had never wavered. “The relic might not be true, but we perpetrate no fraud,” she said proudly. “Every pilgrim receives a charm, like this one.” She put a small pendant on her desk, a piece of gold-embroidered tapestry in a simple oval wooden frame. “It’s a good-luck charm and it is real. Most of our Sisters are low-level magic workers. As they embroider, they infuse their magic into the golden thread. The magic is small; it doesn’t last longer than a year, but it’s helped thousands of people so far. Take it. It will help you too.”
Altenay had taken the trinket. The little embroidered scrap resided in her satchel now. Perhaps its luck spell would help her extricate herself from this crazy imbroglio. She shoved her hand inside the satchel to touch the amulet, her fingers skimming the bulging golden embroidery. She felt its faint benevolent magic swirling around her, calming her down.
Nothing to be afraid of in the cave, she told herself sternly. There shouldn’t be a second golem, should it? As soon as she pulled her hand out of the satchel, her fear spiked again. Her small lantern didn’t really dispel the darkness of the cave. What if there was a human guardian hiding ahead? How could she fight off an armed brigand?
Altenay took a deep breath to strengthen her resolve. Whoever had stolen the relic were cruel people. They preyed on the weak, and Altenay, the Finder, couldn’t let them win. She would Find the cloak fragment, whether it belonged to a goddess or a fisherwoman, and bring it back to the temple.
She tried to firm her steps, but her stomach churned with fear. She had to force her bile down. She wanted to run back to the entrance. The cold damp air of the cave made her shiver. When a flock of bats burst out of one of the side tunnels, she screamed.
Her hand dived back into the satchel, but this time, she didn’t touch the little pendant. She touched the broken frame again. Her magic didn’t change directions. It still zoomed ahead, into the bowels of the earth. Altenay had no choice but follow, even though she couldn’t restrain the whimpers from escaping her lips.
At last, she came out of the narrow tunnels into a vast cavern. It housed a number of crates and cases, probably thieves’ loot, she thought sourly. Right at the entrance, on a rock shelf, lay a small wooden frame with a piece of tapestry inside.
Altenay uttered an obscenity of pure relief, stashed her prize into her satchel, and started back to the cave entrance. When a small snake slithered across her booted toe, she hardly squeaked.
A few days later, she heard in the market that a band of bandits had been apprehended and executed. Among their crimes were listed smuggling and blasphemy.
Tagline: Finding a stolen relic takes guts.