A deep hall stretched out before Behr and Dust. Two arcades supported by thick square columns flanked the doorway and ran the length of the hall. Between each of the columns, centered under the apex of the arch, a warrior, crafted from terracotta clay, held an ancient spear aloft in a rigid salute. Tangled cobwebs shrouded each and robbed them of any illusion of life that fine craftsmanship may have lent them.
The arcades created a nave of sorts that terminated in a simple dais. There rested an oversized sandstone throne. It was draped with the desiccated remnants of animal skins upon which slumped an emaciated cadaver in a rusted iron crown. Like the corridor from which Behr and Dust had entered, webs clung to the ceiling in matted sheets running down the columns to form something like muslin curtains in the arches.
Dust padded down the nave pausing at the dais. He took a deep breath and released a long, controlled exhale which rippled ever so slightly with his excitement. Mustn’t rush. A thing worth doing is worth doing right. Pausing long enough to conduct a quick but reasonably thorough inspection, Dust nimbly sprung up the short steps to stand before the throne.
Bits of petrified flesh clung to the long bones of the skeleton. The sheer size of the throne may have made the corpse appear small from the door, but this man was enormous. Dust guessed that he would have been seven feet tall had he been standing. Upon a halo of parchment-like flesh, rested a crown of rusting iron above a thick sloped brow and wide eye sockets, now clotted with webs and silt. A greataxe was propped against the armrest so that the leather wrapped knob rested only inches from the stout bones of the skeleton’s hand. Yet instead of laying free and ready, that hand enveloped a crudely wrought iron flask. In the other hand, the once-king clutched a more regal looking vuvuzela sculpted from the horn of some great beast. Much of the carving that covered it was obscured with ages of grime but even through the layer of years, the roaring head of a bear was still visible at the trumpet’s bell.
Meanwhile, Behr strayed between the columns. Holding his torch to the cobwebs, he burnt his way through their mists and into the pooled shadow of the aisles beyond the nave. The air was arid almost chalk dry and great plumes of dust wafted up from the flag stones with every step farther from the room’s central channel formed by the colonnade.
At the side wall stood a second row of warrior statues. Behr wiped away the cobwebs and dust from the face of one and found himself staring into a terracotta visage of such exquisite detail that even pores had been cast into its cheeks. Behr sidled over to the next and wiped its face clean as well. This one too had a wealth of detail. Behr marveled at the skill it took to make one eye appear sharp and alert while the other seemed milky and dead with only clay as a medium. A long, jagged scar ran across the nose of the next statue and Behr felt as though he could almost see the haunted look in the warrior’s eyes.
Magnificent. That was the word for it and with it, Behr’s mind was cast unbidden to the days of his youth when that word had last drifted into his thoughts with such reverence. He had been a boy then, grown enough to think himself a man but still a child at heart. A school trip had taken him to an art museum where they had been introduced to the greats of the impressionist movement. There he had met the barmaid of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. She was on loan from London to the Smithsonian and he had gazed deeply into her world. Only a moment had passed but it had been an hour to the others when his teacher had come and tugged him gently away to the rest of the class. The memory made Behr ache. But that had been Washington, home, and home was very far away. Or perhaps it was very long ago. He had not quite figured out which.
Behr jerked himself back from the past and set his attention back onto the statues. He took a step back to hold all three in his view. Each is completely unique. He cast his gaze to the left and right turning his body as he did to bring the crackling ring of torchlight closer. The blaze of the flame was like a beacon in the gloom pushing back the dark all around him. Yet, these terracotta barbarians extended all along the wall to the very edge of the light. Behr walked the length of them, stopping periodically to inspect one of the warriors, before turning at the far corner of the room. He strode across the width of the space, his brazen footfalls echoing. On arriving at the far wall, he saw exactly what he had expected to see, had hoped to see: another unbroken line of terracotta warriors.
The academic in Dust would have found the warriors fascinating, if not beautiful. However, a different fascination had manifested in his emerald eyes. The great cat crotched low so that his face was level with the femurs of the kingly corpse. Dust filled his chest and blew his namesake off the ancient hands and examined their boney contents.
The vuvuzela was exceptionally ornate, flowing with finely detailed engraving. With the grime removed, it did not appear to have suffered at all from laying uncared for in this buried vault. Not a speck of tarnish blemished its surface and, to look at it, one might have mistaken it for freshly polished or even newly made. Indeed, its gold still glittered whenever it caught an errant strand of torchlight.
The iron flask did not. It was a dull thing with flecks of rust, a dried-out cork stopper topped with more lifeless iron, and a chain that connected it securely to the body of the flask. All in all, it looked like a thing one might buy off a junk peddler for no more than a silver schooner. This of course made it irresistibly interesting to Dust. Now then, what could be so important about this horrid little thing that a king should cling to it even in death? Dust purred a deep, rumbling satisfied purr knowing the answer to his own question. Then without a second thought, he snatched up the flask and shoved it into his pocket.
Not more than a moment later, a grey cloud darted in from the hallway. Heralded by a dry leathery flapping, it looked like puff of dust, but it moved like a hummingbird dashing staccato distances before abruptly pausing, hovering a moment, and then sharply changing direction for another clipped flight. As its erratic path brought it closer, features began to resolve themselves from the grey plume.
Frantic bat-like wings supported a body that was little more than stretched boney limbs linked by a distended belly and capped by an overlarge, angular head. A long sharp nose hung prominently over a sinister grin that ran literally from ear to ear. It paused for a moment in the center of the
chamber for two or three heart beats, and then shot straight up toward the high vault of the ceiling.
As if on cue, a grating sound like great millstone rumbled through the air and streamers of silt rained down from above. A shout from Dust alerted Behr just in time for him to make a spinning dodge to the right. He narrowly avoided the rusted spear tip thrust at him from the pox-scarred terracotta warrior that he had been examining when the dust mephit had made its appearance. Behr tossed his torch to the side and drew his sword and shield in a seamless series. What had been a rigid, artificial thing now brandished spear and shield with deadly fluidity. It padded in a wide arc trying to circle Behr like a panther might and moving with just as much strength and grace.
Behr retreated past the arcade and into the comforting light of the nave. He moved with slow deliberate steps keeping his eyes on the stalking warrior and his shield between them. Even as he tread beyond the line of warriors saluting between the columns, they as well as the others had begun to pull free of their cobwebs. There must be dozens of them. Fuck. This is going to hurt.
In a burst of blurring speed, Dust cleared the distance from the throne to Behr’s side. His own short sword drawn and one of his daggers gripped in the other paw. He squeezed the hilt of the dagger and felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder from the spider’s bite. “I do believe we have worn out our welcome,” he said to Behr in a low, controlled tone.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Behr growled through gritted teeth never taking his eyes off the methodically advancing line of spears. There was something almost predatory in their movement, more like wolves than the bear icons they wore. Their glazed eyes even held that same neutral look of professional predators that called for death out of hunger instead of malice. Semantics. The why won’t matter when we’re dead.
“If you insist: the ones from the opposite wall are advancing as well,” said Dust. Behr could almost hear the morbid smirk his companion was wearing from the lilting tone of the cat’s voice.
The pock marked warrior made a slow, prodding jab with his spear. Behr batted it away and stepped back towards the exit. The rest of the terracotta pack was subtly gaining speed, the edges of their line bending to encircle the two adventurers before they could arrive at the door. The crafty little bastard! It’s trying to slow us down while the others block us in. The thought came to Behr in time with a second exploratory jab. Behr batted this one as before but, instead of continuing his retreat, he lunged forward just as the flat of his sword struck the spear shaft. His momentum carried him inside his opponent’s defenses and passed the edge of its wooden shield. The sword point found home and bore into the chest of the earthenware man running him through with a crack. The warrior opened its mouth to scream or shout, but nothing escaped. Instead, it simply shattered like a dropped pot.
There was a breath, a sudden silent drawing of air as before the sky darkens, and the heaven pour forth a mighty storm. Then the clouds burst. A mighty, unnatural wail like the screaming of thousands of crystal goblets erupted from the pack. The terracotta barbarians surged forward and fell with all their might upon Behr and Dust.
Tomb and Tome is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.