I have to admit that my taste for ancient sepulchres had waned a lot since Pteion, but the other group members except Alcemides were determined in their resolve to visit and loot the tombs of the witch-kings. The pict was very pessimistic about our chances of survival, and I was partial to his opinion, but in my calculations, I was still quite a bit short of the necessary investment for any meaningful title. This would surely be the last time. Once I had the money, I surely wouldn’t risk my life so easily, and the money from the nobility would allow me to copy the sets of scrolls in Belverus’s university library.
Anyway, Dionysos had probed the tombs with his minds eye. The insides of the actual tomb were off limits to his sight, but as we had expected, the way to the entrance resided behind one of the large statues we found while searching for the librarian. Thus, we knew the easy way in and wouldn’t have to wander the streets of Tartarus excessively. A welcome change.
After a couple of days of preparation and planning, we descended into the darkness. Unable to find any opening mechanism from the statue, we were forced to soften the thick and hard stone with the Atlantean Stone Eater before finally breaking through. The broken doorway then revealed an endless, fifty foot wide pit with ledges spaced evenly each sixty feet of depth. About three ledges down was the entrance we were looking for. Corridors extended in both east and west, and since the former one supposedly lead to the tombs, and the other to a chamber filled with treasure. Even though it seemed too good to be true, we decided to investigate the treasure chamber first.
The western corridor was long and narrow, and Alcemides, with his eyes of a cat and sharp reflexes, was advancing first. Dionysos remained in the main ledge to guard our backs (or perhaps just out of cowardice), and Ditrius chose to remain in the inn, choosing not to abandon his charges, should he perish.
Here, even the traps were lavish and displayed elegance. The first one Alcemides avoided, and a whole barrage of demon-fire dropped harmlessly on the floor. The second he missed and I accidentally activated it. My face was sprayed with the maddening gray lotus dust. I remember little of the consequences.Basil and Alcemides later told me that I had lunged around ravenously, almost blinding Basil and killing Alcemides. Fortunately Basil had managed to restrain me, but how the scrawny weakling had managed that, I never found out. Alcemides shrugged at his wounds and we kept on, avoiding a falling slab trap and finding a yet another door, which seemed suspiciously cold to the touch. When thinking about the matter and the validity of Dionysos’s visions in general, the whole door seemed suspicious. Alcemides knocked the slab, and from the echoes, claimed that the room was probably filled with water. Sensing a trap, we struck my climbing cleats into the wall and tied Alcemides to them before returning to the ledge and opening the door.
As expected, a thousand barrels of water rushed through, safely draining to the bottomless pit. Alcemides had weathered the flow hanging on to his rope and came back to inform that the door simply revealed a round room with a modest altar. As if to mock us, on the altar was placed a pile of copper coins, and we found nothing else despite our best efforts. Stranger yet, the room was both dry and nowhere big enough to hold the torrent of water that had supposedly gushed forth from it. The coins were stamped with a face of asexual beauty with a throughly amused grin. Dionysos later speculated the coins to be a jest or a taunt by a guardian demon set to watch over the tombs and had the likeness of the creature.
Back at the main intersection, I chose to descend the ledges a bit. At around two hundred feet, our ropes fell short and the ledges remained plain and uninteresting. When dropped, the waning light of a torch revealed little about the depth. Bewildered by this, I left the matter be and climbed back up. At the time, I understood nothing about the purpose and means of construction of such pits, and it suffices to say that its scale was truly disheartening. It is fortunate that I had other matters to think about, as my present knowledge suggests that spending such a long time in such pits is not the best of ideas.
When I returned, my companions had pried open a couple of coffers that decorated the walls of the crypt entrance. None of them contained any valuables, but did have mummified husks of ancient warriors in deteriorated pitch-black plate mail. When investigated closer, the tongues and eyes of the mummies proved to be in perfect shape and as moist and colorful as they probably were in life. Wary of this discovery, Alcemides pried open all the coffers and threw the lifeless bodies into the pit. We then proceeded to break the crypt door with picks and acid.
The first chamber merely contained a carriage, built of strangely well-preserved wood and generously decorated with gold and silver. At first it seemed that this would be a treasure in itself, but Basil, with his knowledge of alchemy, knew from weight that the metal parts were merely gold-plated steel. There had to be another treasure, and thus we pushed forward.
The next door was easier to open and revealed an extremely large chamber that contained a miniature of an entire city. The phallic architecture led us to believe it to be Tartarus itself, and I must admit that the craftsmanship was extraordinary in both scale and attention to detail. While such a find would be completely invaluable to a historian, even the prettiest temples would be difficult to pry out and transport to the surface, and thus it was without value to us.
A more through search of the whole room revealed a lot of writing in the south wall and more on a terrace circling the whole chamber. Suspecting it to be important, both I and Dionysos spent some time investigating the acheronian writing. Such it was, indeed. The engravings confirmed what the scrolls had previously hinted about the insignificance of the brief rule of man in this world, and the true masters of cosmos that would come both before us and after us. Even though this was merely writing on the wall by long-dead madmen, through the connection with the scrolls, I was filled with utter certainty that it was true. Such knowledge shook me to the very bone, but for some reason I can’t really understand, the revelation did not make me lose hope. In Dionysos’s eyes, I saw the comforting and engrossing gleam of madness, as surely the same knowledge had crushed some of his humanity.
The young pervert snapped out of his trance when Alcemides came to tell us that he had found a new path. In the east wall, there was a concealed door that opened into a surprisingly large, well-preserved corridor lined with torches, which still proved to be in operational condition. The corridor led to a smaller door, behind which bellowed the noises of a lively ball with countless nobility chattering and dancing to their hearts content. This insanity stopped us on our tracks, but Alcemides braved the mirage and soon instructed us to follow. While inside the room, its reality was revealed, and the mummified corpses of an acheronian court were found sitting in tables and benches on the walls. the room was large, but again seemed to just have a single exit to a narrow stone corridor, whose ending finally revealed what we were looking for.
The tombchamber of the witch kings was a septagon-shaped room with one face relief-encrusted door on each of the walls except for the entrance. The center of the room was decorated by a man-sized phallic obelisk the likes of which we had already seen in the city miniature. All seemed to be in order and soon the whole entourage was inside discussing the next move and deciphering the names of the six witch-kings. A moment later we were again surprised by a trap.
In my recollection, we had taken the utmost care in our each step, but alas, I was not swift enough to notice the lowering door. Alcemides dove to safety, but the rest of us were trapped when water – yet again – begun to pour from the ceiling. As if to mock us, the trap had been designed to kill slowly and minutes would pass before we would be left out of breath. We searched for an exit feverishly and Alcemides tried everything he could to break the door. However, it was extremely thick and even the stone eater would not help him to save us in time. Suddenly Basil formed an idea about pushing the images of the witch-kings in sequence, and guided by some clues neither I nor Dionysos saw, proceeded to guess the combination and disarm the trap. The water drained away almost instantly, and Alcemides joined us in looting the tombs.
We decided that it would be best to be as quick as possible. Each chose a chamber and grabbed as much as he could. For some reason, I seemed to draw the short end of the stick, as the tomb I chose was simply filled with utility articles made out of bones and human skin. Despite feeling that such items would be almost completely without value for everyone except the most deranged collectors, I grabbed numerous examples and managed to find precious stones lodged into some of the most delicate ones. There was also a small locker that contained a silver box with a large black pearl. Unable to find anything else, I took another door and saw a completely bare chamber with an incredibly large set of armor and weaponry resting behind three barrels. The armor was worn and way too large to transport, but the set had two jewel-encrusted scabbards – one for a poniard and one for a longsword. The poniard proved to be missing, but the longsword was present, though broken in half. It still seemed incredibly decorated and valuable, and the blade was made of strange metal. Even with half of its length missing, the blade was long enough to be used by a man of my size.
Delighted with finding the pretty scabbards, I broke the barrels which would surely be full of valuables. Unfortunately, I found just ash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and dug inside the ash for anything, but found only child bones and more ash. I broke the other barrels and fell them to the floor, but the contents were similar. The room had no sarcophagus, no lockers and nothing else of value. Almost furious by such mocking trickery, I ran to a third door, but opening it revealed a revolting mess of mummified human organs and bones knit and molten into impossible constructions. I again use these strange words, but they are the best ones I can fathom as behind the door was the tomb of the Boneweaver. She had apparently built a lot more than the Ankh, as the chamber was filled from ground to roof with such contraptions. In the light of my lantern, I saw many precious gems and trinklets, but simply couldn’t bear to enter. An unnatural sense of dread and despair forced my shaking hands to reseal the door. The others found me collapsed from its base and motioned for departure. I saw Basil open the door slightly and reach for the darkness, but even he seemed unable to enter the room and recoiled shortly thereafter. From what I gathered, the others had been luckier than I, with the three other chambers practically filled with riches and elegant art objects. Dionysos was also carrying three large tablets of gold that were completely covered with small, strange inscriptions.
The road back to the corridors of the buried city was uneventful. Dionysos kept on hurrying us, as he had experienced a vision of something rising from the pit. Nothing came, however, and when ascending, we also saw that the roof was designed to be able to crush climbers, but it remained as still as the pit. Either the mechanism had rusted shut, or we had somehow failed to activate it, which seemed a welcome twist of fate. However, it seemed as if misfortune accompanied good fortune as readily as itself, as our troubles seemed to be far from over. The corridors above were crawling with ghouls.
At first, we were able to avoid the corpse-eaters even though they blocked our original exit route. We tried a couple of staircases and uncertain corridors, but each seemed to be a dead end. Desperate, we settled on the other route to the sewers that had previously been used as the docking place for the feeding raft, and miraculously the ghouls were not present. However, once we begun to scale the actual sewer corridors, we noticed that the place was crawling with bandits from the sewerworkers’ guild. Dismayed by the discovery, we weighted our bets and chose to face the ghouls, as they were both unorganized and fearful of light. If we killed a few, the others would probably flee, and such a route would be much less risky than facing two dozen men with crossbows.
How wrong we were. Immediately after facing the scouts in the wine cellar entrance, we knew that these ghouls would not be just some rabble. They fought ferociously, with great skill and without fear. We couldn’t hold our own against their superior numbers, as they forced us to retreat back downstairs, and soon thereafter, into the far rooms of the cellar. We managed to block the doorway with some debris and hold a defensive line in a narrow entrance, but the ghouls were relentless and completely oblivious to their losses – we must have killed more than a dozen before they finally retreated. The reason for their restraint soon became apparent, as an old ghoul clad in tattered silken robes approached with an imposing guard of hulkish ghouls clad in ophirian gold-plated ceremonial armor. Deep down, I was certain that this would be the end of us, and considered a prayer to Mitra, that my parents used to worship.
We endured the stalemate for a while, as the ghouls seemed content to smirk and howl at their cornered and wounded pray. The sorcerer seemed reluctant to sacrifice any more of his kind, and eventually, to the revel of its subjects, it spoke the first words of great necromancy. I recognized the spell that beckoned the bodies of the recently dead, and instantly knew what to do. Placing a bolt on my crossbow, I took quick aim and pulled the trigger. The bolt hit the ghoul in the shoulder, causing it to lose control of its conjuration. The revitalizing energies of the words turned against their speaker, and the sorcerer and its nearest guards were putrefied and turned to ash in an instant. We were hit by a black shockwave that tried to desecrate our bodies and snuff away our breath, but further from the focus of the blast, we survived. The ghouls, seeming to lose heart, turned tail and fled.
It was a bitter victory. Our skin was black where the shockwave had swept over it. My hair was falling off in tatters and Dionysos’s fingernails were brown and rotting. Nothing but the surface mattered now. We ran and leaped through the corridors in the familiar route, wishful of rest and care. Yet there seemed to be no respite for us, as in the sewers, we were ambushed by the men of Kostokos. We repelled the first scouts and staggered back into the sewers, but hope was scarce.
Kostokos had accompanied the men himself and demanded everything we had in exchange of our lives. Granted, we were wounded and tired, completely without a chance of victory. The sewer king outnumbered us greatly, but Basil’s bitter resolve saved the day a bit. Not willing to give up his newfound riches, he screamed that if the sewer whore wanted everything, he would get nothing. We would rather throw everything in the sewage cleft or the ghouls than give up now. So sincere was the bargain, that to this day I do not doubt his resolve, and neither did Kostokos. He settled for the gold plaques Dionysos and Basil had found in the other tombs. To my utter surprise, the king was a man worth his word, as after given the plaques, we were allowed to leave in peace.
Rarely have I felt that the bed of an inn would be as welcome, and as rarely have I felt my life to be as cheap. Countless times in the last days could I have lost it, but somehow I still had it. Such happiness could not be bought with money, but perhaps my newfound wealth could buy what I truly wanted. I would be happier still when the blackness would peel off to reveal pale and healthy skin, and in a couple of days, I could brush my head to find fresh stubble.
More trouble would follow us, eventually. Especially the evil of the witch-kings would reach much further than we expected. I wouldn’t know of it until later, though, and for the first time in a long while, it felt as if everything was locking into place. I was content.
I was bitterly disappointed that whatever was guarding that accursed tomb would manage to frustrate me so, even distorting the dreams brought to me by the Blossoms of the Black Lotus. In retrospect, I should have spent more time researching what Amenkhun had used to subdue the demons bound to the site. And I shall not rest until I have feasted on the soul of Sergio Kostokos. Oh yes, Messentia has not seen the last of me.