Treasure of the Heart
Roland Forzinger gazed gloomily down the long, ancient passage, his lips curling into a frown. The expedition had been a giant success so far, much easier than he’d actually thought possible, but just when he reckoned they’d be home and dry, the world threw something awful and unexpected at them near the final hurdle, something that looked like taking months to pass. That was fate for you, cruel and unreliable, his old enemy.
His travelling partner - a squat purple Bruce with a clunky brown camera in his right hand, a flask of freezing water in his left, and several ill-advised layers of thick clothing on his body, which made him sweat copiously in the blazing Lost Desert sun - waddled to his side and noticed his frown. “What seems to be the problem, sir?” he asked.
Roland shook his bright green Kyrii head, releasing several sand granules from his fur and grey explorer clothes. “Look down the passage, Bert.”
Bert fixed his eyes on the door in the midst of the sand, where an ancient, chipped set of stairs began, and then looked beyond. There, just distinguishable in the concentrated darkness that obscured it, was a great pile of boulders, complemented by great masses of sand packed in between them, making the blockage tighter than a drum. To make matters worse, one of the steps on the crumbling staircase looked to be missing for some reason he could not fathom. Bert pointed this out to Roland, just in case he hadn’t seen it already.
“Aye,” replied the Kyrii. “I’ve come across this before, but only once. It’s a trap for tomb raiders.”
Bert was nonplussed. “How does it work?”
“Long ago, the ancient Sakhmetians would dig deep, diagonal pits in their tombs and treasure vaults to protect the treasure inside,” answered Roland. “Skilled masons would be employed to craft a paper-thin series of steps. One by one the steps would be fitted over the pit, cemented together with utmost care by the masons. When they were finished, you could hardly tell at all how dangerous they were. The idea was that the thieves would see the treasure up ahead and could not believe their luck. They’d push on ahead, but as soon as they had, the ground came out from beneath their feet, and down they went, spiralling to their doom. Of course, this trick was only designed to deter ancient thieves, and not modern explorers like you and me. The fake stairs eroded over time. Most of these things pose no problem to adventurers, because some of the steps have weakened and fallen away. It’s mainly just a question of taking a short leap into the main passageway. There may be other dangers up ahead, of course, and people like my friend Jahi are often hired to bless the finished product.”
Bert nodded. “I see. But the main passage is blocked, so that leaves us in a bit of a sticky situation, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” growled Roland. He hated it when others insisted on stating the obvious. “It does. The ones who built this were obviously extra careful with the protection. Whatever is in there, it must be valuable.”
“Hey, do you mind if I film this, just for the record?”
The Kyrii considered this. Virtually all he had heard from the Bruce in the journey so far were filming requests, most of which were in the pursuit of capturing something completely inane, like a piece of rubbish in Neopia Central or a miraculously floating marshmallow in the Haunted Woods. As a result, Roland’s jaw had become sore from repeating the same two-letter word over and over and over, and eating his stale share of rations had become increasingly difficult. He did not like the idea of someone filming his expeditions, and favoured even less the idea of someone filming him. Having said that, it was Bert’s job, and there was not much point lugging the lump around the planet without him making himself useful, so overall in was probably better to agree; besides, there was naught to do right now, other than sit in the baking sun and consider his options. So he gave a little grunt and left him to it. The Kyrii moved away, digging one booted foot into the ground, but something flashed bright in the distance, and he stopped in his tracks.
The Bruce giggled in glee, like an excitable child in a chocolate factory. Several words of praise and thanks followed, but Roland was not listening. His thoughts were somewhere over the nearest dune, where he was keen to further investigate the bright thing that had shone like a beacon onto the side of his eye. From his position a large spike was visible, wickedly pointed and certainly not of nature, its golden majesty given gleam by the sun, like the treasure he dreamed of finding every night.
Abandoning all his plans to go and wallow in his own self-pity, the explorer hitched up his backpack and ran through the sands, making for the top of the hill. It probably would have made more sense to walk, for he slipped and fell several times, but once a crawling method was adopted he just about managed to make it. Once there he stood up straight, and a glorious sight met his eyes.
The spike broadened out as it went down to form the shape of the glittering dome of Sakhmet palace, regarded unanimously around Neopia as the most beautiful onion-shaped construction ever created, and it was not hard to see why. The dome seemed so graceful, so hypnotically curved and wonderful it rivalled even the elegance of the most skilled dancer, and all without moving an inch. Sparkling like a brilliant diamond, it cast its golden glow over the city, blessing the scene with a veil of mystery and intrigue. It was very clever, really, an excellent tourist attraction. Roland wondered if they had designed it that way.
“Very good, just act natural, that’s it. You’re just strutting along, calm as you like... now, I want you to imagine a rival has come, and he’s challenging you to a fight. Suddenly, you’re angry and ready for battle...”
Roland sighed and shook his head. “Bert,” he said, craning his head around for a better look at the Bruce, who was striding around and about the mouth of the impassable passage, his eye to the bulky camera mounted on his shoulder. “I’ve told you on several occasions, I don’t want to be filmed. Whatever you’re doing, keep it to the passage and the desert scenery, will you?”
“Ah,” replied Bert. “But I am, my good friend, I am.”
“What on Neopia do you mean?”
Roland padded down to the opening in the sand, to join the Bruce once more. Roland cast his eyes over the vast, lonely Lost Desert, but it revealed nothing of whom Bert might be talking to. Then he looked down... and groaned. Scuttling sinisterly across the sands on jointed legs was a Pyon, searching greedily for scraps beneath the hot desert ground.
“What?” said Bert, undaunted by the incredulous look his companion was giving him.
“It’s a Pyon, Bert, a Petpet, not exactly likely to have a master class in acting - especially out here - let alone understand a word you’re saying.”
Bert just shrugged.
“Come on,” urged Roland, “I’ve just seen something very interesting while I was on the next dune over.”
“And what was that?”
“It seems that we’re a lot closer to Sakhmet than I originally thought. In fact, we’re probably no more than twenty minutes away. Jahi lives there. He’s a shaman, one who calls and controls spirits. I have a feeling that he could come in very handy in our current plight.”
Bert gave him a strange look. He wondered just who this Jahi character was, for his companion had been talking about him all the way to the desert unrelentingly. At first he thought he was some kind of famous explorer of high repute, but when he’d asked about this, it turned out that he was nothing more than a native of Sakhmet, a Lupe. He found that rather strange, and wondered if there was more to the story.
The company of two duly closed over the door in the ground and covered it over with sand, just to make sure that no explorer came along and found a way to get through before they did. Then, sighing, they hitched up their backpacks and began to make tracks, on their way to Sakhmet.
Upon leaving, Bert could be heard to say, “I’m very much looking forward to seeing the great city. It’ll present the most wonderful opportunities for a bit of urban filmmaking. You know, shots of the buildings and marketplaces and stuff. Hey, I could even do interviews, yeah! You aren’t a friend of Princess Amira, are you? ‘Cause if you are it’d be great. Just think of the movie posters: The Bold Adventures of Roland Forzinger, and then at the bottom, in even larger print: Featuring Princess Amira. Studies have shown that films with royals in them sell staggering amounts of tickets. Plus, you’ll have added publicity when you bring the treasure back home. We could rake in the cash!”
Roland groaned. It was going to be a long walk.
* * *
Just over an hour later Roland and Bert came back, but this time there was someone else with them. A tall, sullen-eyed desert Lupe, he was garbed all in a flowing robe of brown, and an electric-blue amulet encircled his wrist. Around his neck was an old, worn chain, and from it hung an ugly network of spirals and loops, like the roots of a tree. At the end of each line hung a cylindrical bell, from which emanated a high-pitched yet rasping sound, which proved to be quite unpleasant to the ear. He was arguing with Roland in harsh, accented tones, waving his hands about urgently. Bert stood to the side, unusually quiet and evidently nervous. Having finally met the famous Jahi, he felt that the saying ‘larger than life’ must surely have been made for him. He had a personality the size of an ocean, and every so often he let off high, fruity laughs, despite the tone of the conversation being not exactly joyful. Some people might have found him pleasant company, but to the timid Bruce he was just plain intimidating.
“I am warning you, Roland,” said the shaman, in a voice that had a texture like rich spices. “There are powerful forces at work in the desert. If you disturb them... who knows what vile things they could do to you?”
Roland was unfazed. “Stuff and nonsense, my dear friend; we live in a modern world, a Neopia where sense and science prevail over quackery—”
“Oh, so the supernatural world is nonsense, is it?” interrupted the Lupe. “I figure that makes me a peddler of lies, then. As to why you require my services, I have no idea...”
He raised his eyebrows almost to the top of his face, knowing that his friend was trapped, or so he thought. Roland paused awkwardly before saying, “You owe me a debt, Jahi. Do not forget the day I saved your life!”
Jahi frowned, for it was true. He had worked in a market once, as a day job, a way to earn some extra money for the bare living necessities. For he was guaranteed nothing as a shaman, and the only way to live was the charity of the desert people, which came few and far between. Even as soon as he had started, he heard rumours from colleagues that an old tomb was placed nearby, but that it had been sealed off long ago. Things had ways of getting out, however...
Jahi had had a job at an olive stand, working with several others. Sick days were rare with the workers in the market, and there was almost always someone else to help him out, but there did come a day when he was the only one to turn up. Business was bad that afternoon, and he was about to shut up shop something struck from behind.
It was a terrible dead thing, with eyes like dull coals, and bandages hanging from its body. It dragged him to the tomb, and brought him deep down, into his home. Jahi thought he was doomed, but all was not lost. By a bizarre stroke of luck, Roland had taken to exploring the tomb, in search of treasure as always, and came upon the scene. He fought the creature tooth and nail, and after a long struggle finally one out. That was when a bewildered Jahi made a pledge to his saviour, to always deliver any favour that was required of him. This privilege had not been for want of use in recent times.
“Alright, I will do it for you as a friend, but not because I owe it to you,” he conceded. “But the danger is great!”
Jahi scowled once more, and went to perform the ritual. Stooping down gently, he jammed a weathered paw into the sand, rummaged around for a bit, and came out with a good handful. It was almost wet sand, Roland noticed, most definitely darker than all the rest. The desert was a master of excess and depravity, side by side. During the night, the rains would break loose, following a day deprived of moisture. Floods would cover the valleys between dunes, and soak into the sand to turn it by bit into watery mush. But the sun would come up the next morning, and soon that would all be gone, the land deprived of moisture once again. Some survived, however, in places so deep and dark that the sun could not parch them. It was permanently damp beneath the dry, fertility surviving against the grasp of the bleak wasteland. Jahi brought the wet granules into his line of sight, and then hesitated. “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this, my friend?” he mouthed. “The spirits are volatile, and do not take kindly to conflicting with others of their kind. If there are supernatural things in this chamber you speak of... then Fyora help us all. I will repeat: the danger is great..”
“Yes,” said Roland.
Jahi sighed, but continued.
With a mighty throw, he released the sand into the air, to fly into a broad swooping arc, up towards they sky, reaching for the heights, ever more ambitious, and then all the way down again, falling, falling, but never to reach the ground. In less than an eye blink it had passed through the open door in the sand, and hit against the wall of rocks and hardened sand with a faint squelch. The glob slimed slowly down the face of the blockage, leaving a trail behind it, like a Slorg. But its work was not done.
Jahi sprang to his feet with a cry, his eyes glowing red, and a gush of ancient language flew from his tongue at a lightning pace. Even from far off, Roland could see the ball of sand contorting and pulsating, as if possessed by something. Fire flared up around it, the flames stretching into odd, twisted shapes, almost like cackling faces. Jahi shuddered slightly, and groaned, trying to bite back the pain from the effort of the spell. There was a world of activity in the shaman’s head now, invisible to all but himself and the spirits. He was trying to strike a deal with them, but they were not listening...
And then there was a pause, stark and silent after all the noise. It was terrible and otherworldly, like nothing Roland or Bert had ever experience before. Pure cascading white lay in front of them, and ghastly faces floated in front of them, for it was their world, the spirits’ world. They were trying to tell them that they were sorry, that it was their nature and couldn’t do anything about it, but they had no voices, and the explorers never heard them speak. And then, in a moment, they were done, and the features of the real world came back to them, sharply defined in the fading light.
They arrived suddenly, just in time to here a deathly wail and a tremendous crash, as everything in the passage fell away. It was all over in an instant. Dust settled around the hole in the sand, Jahi lay face down in the dirt, and the world was quiet again.
Roland would allow himself a little time to smile at his success later, but his first concern was the shaman. Rushing to Jahi’s side, he took him by the shoulder and turned him gently, to reveal a sand-flecked, peaceful face. Strands of hair lay plain across his face, lush black tendrils that flowed like the cool wind and the summer breeze all in one. His mouth was smiling, like he finally understood something that had ailed him for many years. Roland shed tears of his own, then, as he gazed into the empty eyes of his friend. He looked up to the heated breeze, and it was full of sorrow. The world had too much sorrow. “Too much sorrow!” he roared, as if someone would hear him, besides Bert. There was a slight recognition in the sound of the wind, but that was it. Mother Nature had seen too many sad scenes to count. When another one came around, it was just another note in the sad song that she played, nothing more, nothing less.
”Turn the camera off, Bert,” sobbed Roland. “And give me a moment to be at the side of my friend. My... best friend. My only friend.”
Bert turned off the instrument, and waited as Roland began to cry, first a small whimpering noise, then a wail, and then and full-blown, wounded howl. He pounded the sand beside him over and over and over, until there was a sizable hole, stretching more than a foot across.
Bert turned away, deciding that in the circumstances he should definitely not be there. He sat on a rock, and remained for over an hour, occupying himself in the only way he knew how: by filming more of the beautiful desert landscape.
* * *
When he came back, it was without a sound. Roland slipped up to Bert, hat in hand, and proclaimed, “Let us go, Burt. Let us enter the tomb, and find the treasure, in all its great masses. Let us do it for Jahi.”
Bert’s own eyes welled with tears. It did not bring him much pleasure to see his friend in such a state. It was something he recognised; Roland was compressing his emotions, bottling them up and storing them away somewhere deep, and comforting himself with the thought of the unfound treasure. Secretly, he had half a hope that there was something in the tomb that would cure Jahi.
Bert did not like it, but something in Roland’s eyes told him there was no stopping his ambition. So he merely nodded, and they set off.
The Kyrii bounded away, and the Bruce had to waddle behind him, causing the camera to move all over the place. Roland leapt over the fake stairs and into the darkness. Bert sighed and followed, despite nearly falling into the trap. It was no easy task to jump over a wide hole while seeing through a camera.
Once inside, Roland was in his element. As darkness fell and cascaded all around them, he reached into his backpack to fetch a large torch and some matches. There was a rasping sound, and then a light flared into existence. It moved slowly left, stopping every now and then, and eventually reached the point where it came into contact with something. That thing was the torch, and as it ignited it illuminated the path in front of them, which ended abruptly in a wide circular chamber. Roland made for it immediately, following the dancing glow of his light, and by ways they came to the place where the treasure must surely be: atop a wide, grandiose podium.
There rested a large, ornate chest, bound under an old lock. Roland removed a hammer from a tool belt at his waste, and with one blow it was smashed to pieces. Greedily, he threw to top of it open, and looked inside, to see...
...Toys, and lots of them. Spinning tops, dolls, toy chariots, even ancient yo-yos. There were woodcarvings too, of kings playing with little children, upon their grand thrones. They looked so... happy. Roland inhaled sharply, and closed the chest again, was that it? He saw a line of ancient text on the lid of the chest, then, which aroused his interest. “Bert!” he called, and the Bruce came to him. “You are learned in the ancient tongues, are you not? Read this for me.”
Bert leaned in closer to the chest and squinted. In a voice that seemed barely to be his, he read, “When you have lost a friend or loved one, it is so sad to part. That is why, as treasures come, the best are treasures of the heart.”
Roland did no speak. He leaned against the chest and cried, cried for all he was worth.
* * *
The little cemetery in Neopia Central lay still and open, caressed by a gentle wind. Green leaves blew hither and thither, like the ghosts of the past, telling little stories in their patterns of flight, accompanied be the wail of birdsong, a chill requiem for the dead. Roland and Bert stood by the grave of Jahi, clad in long grey waistcoats. Tears streamed freely down the Kyrii’s face, while Bert just stood in respectful silence. They had been there ever since the funeral ceremony had ended, some hours ago now. This was to be their final speech to him.
“You were like a brother to me, Jahi,” began Roland. “Though I never really realised it, my life had been so devoted to exploring that I had never had a real friend before, and you were always there for me. To tell the truth I did take you for granted on occasions, I must confess, and even abused the privilege of your oath of commitment a little. In the end it was I who cost you your life, pushing you too far in my own pursuits, for nought but a king’s family treasures. For that I will be eternally sorry, and beg for forgiveness. That is why I give to you this, my friend, as a gift.” Roland placed the chest on Jahi’s grave. He knew it was not much, and the memories inside were neither his nor the shaman’s, but it was something, and if the spirits of desert became angered, he didn’t care in the least. Roland nodded his head respectfully, and turned away.
Then Bert stepped forward, and opened his mouth to speak, but quickly shut it again, for there was nothing he could say. Limply, he tossed a film canister into the air, and watched it settle near the headstone. It was his entire movie, beginning with the iconic sight of a Pyon scuttling through the desert, and ending with the chest of treasures. He hoped it would be enough for Jahi.
Bert sighed, knowing that was that, shrugged his shoulders heavily and walked away. He did not look back, nor did he ever want to, but if he had he would have noticed something strange: his gift was gone, and so was the chest. In their space there was nothing, only the air. It was not exactly clear, but just for a moment the leaves in the air seemed to form an odd shape: a saddened smile.
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