The short tale of a buried treasure, found to contain the most unexpected thing.
A sense of giddy illness seized him from within, pressing his knees into dry, powdery sand and parting his lips to heave against what little he'd eaten since dawn. With vision blurring, he dragged the back of a hand across his mouth, spitting the last of the sourness as he pushed himself back to his feet. There he swayed a moment longer, standing in silent regard of his handiwork.
Blood brimming thick and fresh atop rumpled fabric, eyes staring wide and sightless at the endless expanse of the sky. For years he'd laboured and fought beside them, captain and mate, wetting his sword in their company and swearing fervent allegiance over mugs of reeking alcohol.
Yet even cheering drunkenly over half a dozen drinks, or binding one another's wounds in the wake of an ugly brawl, they all must have known how it would end. Those who came together based on the promise of gold would part just as suddenly when that promise came to fruition.
Gut aching, throat bitter and dry, he sank into a more careful crouch at the captain's side. The blood of the other man was still seeping and pooling about the ugly slash that had laid him on his back, but a glance at his face was enough to confirm that his spirit had left. Slack in the remnants of the snarl that he'd worn prior to his passing, one hand still closed over the grip of the sword that he'd prized so well. The other clenched, stubborn even in death, around the map that had guided their untrustworthy trio so far.
That was the detail on which the survivor forced himself to focus, prying those dark, calloused fingers apart to claim what was folded within.
The promise of a better life, an unprecedented chance. Lines and directions faded by time, and in English nearly old enough to be indecipherable, a guarantee of whatever he treasured most in the world. Tracing a finger along its ancient guidance was enough to speed his heart again, splitting his lips to allow for a half-crazed grin.
Turning to examine that sandy slip of land brought his gaze across his crewmate again, the one he'd struck down even as the captain had fallen amidst curses. She'd been too slow to reach for her knife, perhaps still convinced that he'd do nothing to harm her. Pleading with her eyes even as he'd fallen upon her – she'd always thought better of him than he had of himself.
If the box promised by that map was opened, however, it had to be his treasured desire that was contained. He knew all too well the sorts of things that his companions had wanted, the mean wishes they'd have granted at the cost of his own. They'd had to fall, and he was- without them, he was-
Swallowing back bile again, turning deliberately from the sight. If the map spoke truth, he was no more than twenty paces from a prize that would burn their deaths from his mind like candlelight obliterated by the sun. Dragging heavy boots through the sand, wetting his lips with a sour tongue, he narrowed his eyes in search of the crossed trees that the guide had described.
They could hardly have been missed, leaning at odd angles against one another. Pale, weather-worn bark and not a leaf between them, driving him forward with renewed eagerness to dive at the loosened ground beneath them.
The small shovel affixed to his belt was nearly forgotten, thirty seconds spent clawing the dirt by hand before he recalled that there was an easier way to go about it. His fingers shook against its grip as he levered it into the earth, and the minutes drew out to an unbearable degree as he tossed the obstructive sand aside.
It had been true. It had to be, four words ringing triumphant through his mind as the shovel struck solidity below. Lowering himself onto his belly, he extended eager arms into the hole to retrieve it, a box of metal and wood that his strength would hardly allow him to raise. Too weighted by its contents, no doubt, all that he'd claimed by being the only one left to take ownership.
No intricate carvings, no special adornment. He'd have dismissed it entirely if not for its extraordinary placement, if not for the promises of the map that had led to its resting place. As it was, his heart pounded beyond all control as he set his fingers against the seam of its lid, mind swimming with all that he'd put behind him in order to take hold of such a victory.
Comrades put to the sword, the crews of other vessels laid low. A family left behind in the decaying port he'd once called home, watching his departure with looks of solemn knowing that he'd never quite managed to banish from his memory.
But it would all be made worthwhile in that moment. Arms straining against the lid's surprising weight as it was shoved from its place, sand raining from its edges as it fell aside to reveal what lay within.
Seconds passed in silence as he stared into its opened interior. The smile that had split his face froze, forgotten, and his hands hovered motionless above that empty space.
Empty, all empty. Plain, splintered wood in every dimension, not so much as a tarnished coin as consolation for his efforts. For all that he'd- that he'd given to-
The thought flung him into desperate motion, snatching up the map that he'd abandoned in the sand and stretching it wide against the fading light. There he was rendered still again, searching in vain for the guiding lines that had crossed its surface only minutes before.
Erased as though they had never been. In their place, a scant paragraph's worth of words, penned with far more clarity and recent language than any that had marked that page before.
'For everything, to him, was only as useful as the manner in which it benefited his ambitions. Nothing in the world that he could claim to treasure, no salvation for the soul that strives for nothing out of love. Note: please rebury the box once you've finished.'