by Robert Currer
Part 2: Chapter 2
3,000 Words: 12 Minute Read
Perfect dark ruled the world ahead. The lantern swung in Ebrik’s hand as he worked his way down the winding stair, each step taking him deeper beneath the desert sand. Ayders followed a few steps behind with Burshel close at heel and the towering Urwin bringing up the rear. They walked in silence, their long shadows creeping along the sandstone walls. At the bottom, the narrow passage widened to a room cut from living rock that stretched beyond the reach of the lantern light. Stone shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling filled the space at intervals as regular as soldiers.
Ebrik held the lantern aloft trying to catch a glimpse of what lay within the darkened recesses of the broad shelves, but each was curtained by a thick rug of cobwebs. He probed with the blade of his sword, tearing away the dust laden webs. A face of stained bone stared out at him with a sinister grin held together by golden fillings that glittered in the lantern light. The skeleton was arranged on its back with arms crossed in a way that Ebrik thought was supposed to approximate sleeping. It only reminded him of the way he had folded himself to ride water slides as a kid. It was clothed in decomposing rags that had once been dyed leather. Icons of splitting wood and sticks of bone jewelry lined the back of the shelf.
“Keepsakes for the next life,” said Burshel in a hushed, reverential tone. The scrape of his pencils against the paper of his notebook echoed softly through the chamber.
Alcoves like this one were cut into the stone above and below, the shelves stretching as far has Ebrik could see in any direction. He wondered if each held a skeleton like this one. If so, there were hundreds of them stacked liked cellared goods waiting for rebirth. A feeling like icy fingers dribbled down his spine as blood-soaked memories of Hungry Dead blew in like a winter chill. He held his breath, listening for the slightest brush of wind. All was still. So far the dead were behaving, he admitted to himself with a tremble of relief. But that could change. His eyes still tracing the line of alcoves, he hoped these dead weren’t hungry. A prodding from Ayders pulled him back to the present.
The reptilian neutrality on the old scavenger’s face showed no sign of concern for the moldering bones that would soon surround them. “Rotten junk,” he said, turning over a ruined idol as one might examine a particularly ugly vase at a yard sale. He let the idol clatter to the floor, the hollow sound echoing through the dusty gloom. “Let’s get going.” Without waiting for a response, he lifted a torch and continued down the aisle of cobweb crusted tombs.
“Godsdamnit,” muttered Ebrik. The old man was going to get them all killed blundering around like that. The ancients had a nasty habit of leaving surprises behind for grave robbers. Grave robbers. The word left a nasty taste in his mouth, but he choked it down. Karask Rev wasn’t the place to stand on principle. Only thick skin thrived in this desert. He’d see that firsthand. Setting his jaw, he stalked off after Ayders, waving the brothers to follow.
They wove their way among the stone pillars, probing alcoves at random. They were all the same, time-stained bones wrapped in ruined finery for which only Burshel had any appetite. At the back of the chamber, peeling gold halos caught the dim edge of their light. When Ebrik turned the lantern on them for a better look, he almost wished he hadn’t. The halos were part of a mural and encircled the bleached skulls of a pair of skeletal infants. Each was swaddled and held lovingly in the cloaked arms of Odpok, the ghost of a doting smile peeking through the shadows that shrouded his hooded face.
Urwin let out a low whistle. “Well, ain’t that something…”
Burshel’s head bobbed as his pencil flew across the page.
“Now we’re talking!” Ayders licked his lips, creeping closer to the mural as if drawn by unseen strings. The gnarled fingers of one hand stretched out in front of him as he advanced. They caressed the painted plaster, and a small moan escaped his lips. He rubbed his cheek along the wall. “Yeah… That’s more like it…”
Ebrik wrinkled his nose and looked away.
“Did you find something?” asked Urwin without a hint of embarrassment in his voice.
“Come and feel for yourself.” His uncle waved him over, still lingering in the the wall’s embrace. He wrapped a red, swollen knuckle on the mural. “Right there.”
Urwin reached out with a hand that was nearly the size of his uncles head and pressed it to the wall. He screwed his eyes shut as if concentrating. For a moment, he was still and only the rasp of Burshel’s pencils filled the air. Urwin shook his head. “I don’t feel nothing.”
“Not with your hand, boy,” said Ayders. He pulled away from the wall and showed Urwin his palm. “Hands work for a living. They grow calluses thicker than toad hide. It makes them tough, but it robs their senses.” He stroked the thick gray whiskers that clung to the sharp edge of his jaw. “But cheeks stay soft. They can feel what hands never will.”
The hulking boy nodded, his brow thick with focused knots. He leaned his cheek to the wall where his hand had been. His eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Ayders chuckled. “Now you’re getting it.”
“I felt it,” said Urwin, his face glowing with awe. “There’s a breeze!”
“That’s right. It’s faint but it’s there. And why do we care about a little, old puff of breath?”
“There’s something behind this wall?”
“Exactly!” Ayders clapped his star pupil on the shoulder. Urwin’s cheeks swelled red with embarrassed pride as he toed the dirt. “Now, we’ve just got to find how to get to it.”
Burshel’s pencil ceased its dance. He turned his huge amber eyes to Ayders and Urwin, blinking as if only just processing what was said.
“There’s got to be a door,” said Ayders.
“We could follow the wall until we find it,” said Urwin.
“We’ve already walked the walls.”
“Maybe there’s another entrance from the surface?”
The younger of the brothers listened as his brother and uncle debated their options and then swung his attention back to the wall. The light from Ebrik’s lantern spilled over it in an oblong beam that held Odpok in the hot center. In the dim halo that surrounded the beam, the skeletal infants looked like the larva of enormous moths. Burshel’s head cocked, and he stared at the mural unmoving for a while. Not for the first time, Ebrik found himself wondering what it was the young man saw when he looked at the world. What details found him that eluded everyone else?
Burshel turned to Ebrik. Without a word, he repositioned Ebrik’s left hand so that the beam was now focused on the grinning skull of the left infant. It stared back at them like some monster caught in a car’s headlights. Burshel took a few hesitant steps as if weighing every angle of what he was about to do. Then he reached up and touched the upper arc of the skull’s hollow eyes. Ebrik saw it then. There was a thin-cut rind of stone separate from the smooth continuity of the rest of the carved face. It was a switch of some kind. Burshel’s fingers hooked the edge, preparing to pull.
“Burshel! What in the hells are you doing?” Ayder’s voice bowled through the silence, shattering the trance of discovery that had gripped Ebrik and, apparently, Burshel.
Burshel blinked several times before answering as if shaking away some mental fog. “There’s a switch here. Perhaps, it opens a secret door of some kind.”
“Well don’t touch it!” Ayder’s bowlegged stride carried him to his nephew’s side. He leaned in close to examine the switch, his whole face squinting with the effort. Burshel looked like his uncle had just asked him to drink drain cleaner. “Gods, boy! For being so smart you sure are a dummy sometimes. If someone took the time hide a thing, they probably took the time to ward it too.”
His eyes roved along the crests and the troughs of the carved skull before settling. With a gnarled finger, he traced the lines of the teeth until he came to a gap that was only just wider than the others. “Urwin, hand me my kit,” he said reaching back towards the bigger of his nephews with the other hand. Urwin rummaged through his pack and withdrew a roll of leather. He placed it in Ayders’ outstretched palm.
The old man unfurled the roll at his feet and withdrew a pair of long thin metal instruments. As he inserted the instruments into the gap between the teeth, his eyes fluttered closed. He worked by feel. The soft scrap of the tools against stone was the only sound beyond the rattle of their breathing. The hush stretched on for an eternity.
At last, a near silent click boomed through the chamber. Ayders’ eyes opened and he wiggled the instruments as if trying to tease something out of the gap. The tip of his tongue poked through the corner of his lizard lips as he worked. Eventually, a small glass ampule emerged. He plucked it from the gap with two fingers and held it in the light. The inside was filled with grains of a greenish-white powder.
“Take a good look, boys,” he said, turning the ampule over. “This powder is nasty stuff. When it meets air, it turns to poison gas. Inside that there hole was a tiny hammer that was poised to crack the glass on this here ampule and drown us in gas.” Turning to Burshel, he continued, “If you had pulled that switch without disarming the trap, you would have died choking on your own blood.”
Even in the dim light, Ebrik could see Burshel blush. Ayders must have seen it too because he patted the boy on his shoulder and then delicately deposited the ampule in a nearby alcove. When he returned, he dusted off his hands and said, “Now, we’re ready. Burshel, would you do the honors?”
Hand quaking, Burshel touched his fingers to the thin rim of the switch and pulled down. The stone slid over the hollows of the infant’s empty eyes like eyelids, giving it a look of quiet repose. There was a pause as they clicked into place and then a quiet rumble like distant thunder as a mechanism moved somewhere out of sight. The whole mural shook and begrudgingly rose into the ceiling, streamers of sand falling to the flagstone floor. A stench like musk and formaldehyde wafted from the opening.
The mural settled into place and the chamber stilled, revealing a cavity of endless dark beyond. Ebrik squinted trying to pierce the veil. The stillness raised goosebumps along his arms. The air stirred and a pair of torches within the chamber sputtered to life, followed by another pair, and then another. They shed a living, golden light that cavorted among tall iron shelves that lined the sandstone walls. Hunched urns crowded these shelves, ominous despite their finery like filigreed crows. A layer of dust and cobwebs did not stop their gold detailing from catching flashes of light.
The center of the chamber was occupied by a slab of obsidian set at table height. It was lined by a rim, an inch or two high, that tapered to a channel at the foot which drained into a basin of solid gold. A standing tray was set at a convenient proximity to the table upon which an array of dust-caked surgical instruments awaited practiced hands. They were untarnished despite the length of neglect and as Ebrik’s eyes fell on them he shuttered to realize that the whole of the room was laid out like the operating theater of a morgue.
Ayders was the first to cross the threshold, the fingers of his free hand bicycling as if unable to contain their anticipation. He made an ambling circuit of the room, passing first along the numberless urns. Puffing up his cheeks, he blew the dust from the busty curve of one, groaning with pleasure when the light caught the luster beneath. Then he turned his leathered neck toward the obsidian slab, the deep grooves of his wrinkles holding their shadows as the torch light added their honey gold to the sunburned weathering of his face. He paced the slab looking it up and down, from the rim to where it melded into the flagstone floor. The facets danced, darkened foils to the torch light. When he had made three full passes around the slab he turned his attention to the instruments, again blowing hard so that a plume of bone white dust billowed free. His eyes gleamed dark and hungry as he loomed over the warming splendor.
Ebrik cleared his throat and Ayders blinked as a man returning from a daydream. “Should be alright,” he said with a twang. “Urwin, bring me them sacks and the rope from the pack. Burshel, you be quick with your sketching now. There’s a lot to load.” He ran a hungry tongue along his lizard lips.
Returning his sword to its sheath, Ebrik crossed the threshold with a slow, calculated gait. He followed the route of the shelves along the wall, eyes sweeping each urn and crevice for anything that might give him that cold feeling of warning in his gut. It wasn’t that he thought Ayders a fool. The old man wouldn’t have lived this long in this profession if he didn’t know his trade, but Ebrik didn’t trust that the lust for gold wouldn’t overcome Ayders’ better judgment. And there was much that glittered here.
The urns themselves were made of fine black porcelain, coated in delicate patterns wrought in gold. There were hundreds, nearly overflowing the shelves that housed them, and each would turn a tidy profit at the border town markets. The thought brought Ebrik little comfort. For such wealth to be hidden by so few safeguards felt far too easy. If Karask Rev had taught him anything, it was that the deadliest things wore the friendliest masks.
He continued his slow inspection to the music of Burshel’s rasping pencil and the murmur of conversation between Urwin and Ayders as they prepared to begin packing up the surrounding treasures. At the back corner, he stopped, his brow furrowing. One shelf, sandwiched among the others, stood empty save for a tarnished brass spyglass. It was an odd place to find such a thing but that wasn’t what made Ebrik’s breath catch in his throat. From the greening metal, an etching of a coyote stared back at him. He blinked, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him but the coyote remained. He couldn’t be sure but something inside him screamed that it was the same coyote from the divining rod they had pulled from the sands by The Mist the day Zo had run, and Corbin had lost her arm. The rod had tingled all the way up his arm when he touched it. Would this do the same? His hand was reaching for it, trembling fingers outstretched while the world fell away like petals off a dying blossom. The only sound was his heart galloping in his chest. The dusty pads of his fingers no more than a whisper away.
“’Bout damn time, Burshel,” said Ayders. “Urwin, let’s get to packing. We’re burning daylight, boys!”
The spell broke. Blinking, Ebrik withdrew his hand. It must have been his imagination, but he could have sworn the coyote looked almost disappointed. His eyes lingered on the spyglass. He knew he should pull away and help Urwin pack up what would be their haul. But it was just so odd to see that same icon after all these years.
“Burshel,” said Ebrik. “What do you make of this?”
The young man strolled to Ebrik’s side, polishing his glasses on his shirt. He replaced them and leaned in to examine the etching. The frown that spread across his features made him look like an especially consternated owl. “How remarkable,” he said. He licked a finger and leafed through his notebook, the sketches flying by like a wondrous carousel. When they stopped, the page laid open to a page of hieroglyphs arranged around a central pictograph, the coyote.
Ebrik’s blood chilled but as Burshel opened his mouth to elaborate a gust of frigid wind howled into the chamber. It sent the notebook pages fluttering and Ebrik had to crush his hat to his head to keep it from taking flight. Then just as abruptly the gale ceased. He looked at the others. Ayders was hunched, beard frazzled and beady eyes darting from side to side. All the color had drained from Urwin. The giant had the first urn carefully gripped between bear-paw hands, having only just been lifted from its resting place on the shelf. He had frozen to the spot when the wind hit, and beads of sweat were forming like condensation on his forehead.
“Wh-wha-what did I do?” stammered Urwin, his whole body clenched.
No one spoke. Ebrik floundered for some answer to give. He looked to Burshel, hoping to find some clue written on the savant’s earnest features. They were as empty and stunned as his own face must have looked. He flapped his mouth a couple of times like forcing it open would turn over its motor and the words could flow. As syllables sputtered on his lips, a sound like bone scrapping across rough stone dragged itself to their ears. Ayders’ scaly face scrunched with confused concern. Then a low mournful call echoed off the stones and was answered by another. The sound of shifting bone filled the air.
The words found him. “You’ve raised the dead, Urwin. And I’m not sure they’re happy to see us.”
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