3437 words (13 minute read)


In the deepest reaches of the Elder Wood, where even sunlight fears to venture, the broken peak of Sharton’s Tooth pierced the canopy of trees. Said to be the formed of the remains of that accursed dead god, the mountain was shunned by even the foul races who fear the power that still slumbers there. At its base, a jagged crevasse cut into the rock like a wound in the earth itself. At the bottom of that abysmal fissure was a dark opening partially obscured behind an ancient rockfall.

Inside, a long, dark tunnel twisted down and around into the bowels of the mountain. The passage branched off into a maze of dead ends, pitfalls, and fetid pools of brackish water where nothing could ever live. A single path wound through the labyrinth to a chamber far under the surface. The cavern was  empty except for the massive circular door of solid granite set in one wall, etched with runes in an ancient dead language.

Two figures stood before the barrier. The first was the young mage, Ballikanisan, dressed in traveling clothes. He was engrossed in the writing on a tattered scrap of vellum. The other, a woman in a hardened leather vest, skirt, and pauldrons, stood off to one side looking bored and cross.

“Maybe we should knock,” she said. “See if anyone’s home.”

“Nobody’s been here for a thousand years.”

She crossed her arms and huffed as she waited for the man to get the door open. “We’ve been in this dungeon for hours, and we haven’t a single copper to show for our efforts. A third of nothing is still nothing.”

“Patience, Allandra,” said the man. “We’re dealing with a tomb from the Second Empire. This door has kept grave robbers at bay for centuries. One false move and we’ll trip the wards.”

“You pay me to kill things,” said Allandra, “not to be a torch holder. Can’t you just blast it open?”

“I could if you want several tons of rock to come crashing down on our heads,” said the man. “Be quiet and let me think. This is delicate work.”

“Hurry it up. This cave smells like a goblin’s ass.” Allandra kicked at loose pebbles and listened as they rolled off into the darkness. She kept expecting nasty teeth and rending claws to come lunging out and attack her and was a little disappointed when they didn’t. Her mace hadn’t tasted so much as a bandit or a sabre wolf in over a week, and she was beginning to fear she was losing her razor sharp edge. If the wizard didn’t move that rock soon, she might be tempted to forgo the treasure and crush his skull just to get the map back out of this hole.

“Keep the torch steady,” he barked. “I can’t read in the dark.” She was about to make a remark about how he couldn’t read if she plucked out his eyes when he suddenly shouted, “Yes, that must be it!”

The mage reached forward and began to mutter incomprehensible words as he touched each of the symbols in turn. As his hand brushed the last one, absolutely nothing happened. He stood there puzzled for a moment waiting for the stone to roll to one side or shatter into gravel, but it stubbornly refused to do either. He tried the whole procedure again with exactly the same result.

“I don’t understand,” said the wizard. “That should have worked.”

Allandra could feel her blood begin to boil. She stomped up behind the wizard and snatched the dagger he had stuffed in his belt. Dropping the torch to the ground, she grabbed his collar and pressed the edge of the knife to his throat. “I should have known better than to trust a wizard.”

“And I should have known better than to hire a barbarian as a guard, but you were the only one who would come.”

Grabbing him by the shoulder, she spun him around and pinned him against the door. She shoved him back with her forearm and pressed her face close into his so he could see the fire in her eyes. “I should gut you and leave you for the rats for wasting my time.”

“Please,” he begged. “I know I can do this. Just give me a chance.”

“One more chance,” she growled. “Better make it good.”

The terrified man held his hand to his neck where the blade had nicked his skin. When he pulled it away, his fingers were coated with his own blood. “Oh gods. You cut me.”

“It’s just a scratch, you skulk worm,” said Allandra. She laughed and feigned a charge at him, letting out a yelp that echoed against the unseen walls of the cavern. He flinched, but with nowhere to go, all he could do was flatten himself against the rock.

“There,” she said, pointing to his hand with the tip of the knife. “Something happened. The rune glowed for a second.”

The man touched the rock again and the red glow returned for a moment before fading. “Of course!” he shouted. “I just needed a catalyst. I should have guessed. Second Empire mages were steeped in blood magic after all.”

“Less talking and more door opening,” said Allandra, handing the dagger back to him. “I want to get rich while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.”

“Of course, of course.” Ballikanisan repeated the ritual, but this time the runes remained lit when he touched them. As he brushed the final one, all the writing on the door lit up at once and the cavern began to tremble. Dirt and gravel showered them forcing them to shield their heads from the falling debris. The door began to roll off to one side, and a foul wind stinking of death and rot erupted from within knocking them off their feet. The rumbling subsided only when the door had receded into the wall. Ballikanisan peered through the doorway into a smooth round tube that ran back into rock until its end disappeared in darkness.

“Are you happy now?” asked Ballikanisan.

“Gods, what is that stink?” demanded Allandra, pinching her nose in disgust.

“That’s a good sign,” he said. “It means the seals were still intact, and everything will be preserved. This is very exciting.”

Allandra picked up the torch and held it out in front of her as she gazed down passageway. “No sense in waiting,” she said and started walking down into the inky blackness. “Try and keep up.”

Ballikanisan scrambled to his feet and followed after her. The tunnel was smooth and dark like volcanic glass. After a few minutes all they could see was the flickering torchlight reflecting off the polished walls, disappearing into a void in both directions.

Finally after a half-hour, the passage emptied into a single large  chamber a hundred feet on a side with a domed ceiling that disappeared into the gloom far above them. In the center of the room a large statue rose up, a human figure with its arms outstretched. Before it was an ornate stone throne raised above the floor on dais, overlooking an equally embellished altar with a flat top the size of double bed.

Bones were strewn across the floor. Some were in piles while others looked as though they’d been tossed around the room at random. Ballikanisan pointed out a human skull in one of the nearby mounds. Allandra kicked at the thighbone of a nearly intact skeleton as if daring it to come back to life and kick her back. The ancient remains crumbled into dust at her touch. “I’m not seeing the piles of gold and jewels you promised me.”

“This is the old temple,” said the wizard. “Most objects of worth were plundered at the end of the Second Empire, but what they didn’t know is that the church's greatest prizes were sealed away from the reach of the theives by the priests who interred her remains.” He pointed at the altar. “That is where all the good stuff will be, with the body of K’lu Satal.”

“I always thought she was a myth,” said Allandra looking up at the thirty foot tall granite likeness of the demi-goddess. “I guess you don’t go through all the trouble of building a place like this if you don’t have something worth protecting though.”

“She would say that she was the most valuable thing in here, but megalomaniacs always have an inflated sense of self-worth. Fortunately, they are also very greedy and like to hog all the good stuff for themselves. There’s just one more seal to break and we’ll be rolling in it.”

An intact skeleton lay on on top of the stone slab, its arms crossed in repose. “Is that her then?” she asked.

“No that’s just the poor sod they killed to seal her in.” Ballikanisan slipped his bag off his shoulders and heaved it up on the altar causing the  bones to collapse in a cloud of dust. He reached in and pulled out six long slender candles which he placed in two of the empty candelabras which surrounded the altar. He lit the last candle from the torch, and soon there was enough light to see by.

Glad to be released of her burden stuck the torch in a wall bracket by passageway. When she returned to the altar, the wizard had placed a golden bowl at one end and was chanting softly over it. While she waited for him to finish, she glanced around the room for any treasure that might have been missed.

There were a few weapons among the skeletons, but they were rusted and useless. Coffers that had likely once held the demi-goddess’s tribute were broken and empty. She looked more closely at the carvings in the throne. There were figures of all different races, each one in agony. Elves, gnomes, humans, dwarves, goblins, trolls – each was stabbed, flayed, burned, or dismembered indiscriminately. It was like some vision of hell frozen in time. It made Allandra sick to look at them. She couldn’t wait until she was out of here.

Silence made Allandra look up at the wizard. He had stopped his chanting and was standing over the bowl holding the knife. When he didn’t move for several seconds she said, “What’s wrong now?”

“I’m going to need more blood to finish this ritual…”

Allandra grunted in disgust. “And you’re too much of a coward to cut yourself? I can help you with that!”

She started striding toward him, but he waved her off frantically. “No, no, it’s just I’m already dizzy from the last cut you gave me. If I give any more I’m liable to pass out.”

Without hesitation, Allandra ripped the dagger from his hand and sliced her own palm. She squeezed her fist to let the blood trickle into the bowl. “Is that enough?”

“Yes, that should be sufficient.” Ballikanisan offered her a handkerchief to bind the wound.

She snatched it from him and wrapped the cut in a swift practiced motion. “Pussy,” she hissed.

Ballikanisan shrugged and resumed his chanting. He picked up the bowl and poured its contents down the centerline of the tabletop. To her astonishment, the blood seeped into some hidden crack and disappeared. The stone began to shudder and crack. The slab split open into two parts which began to slide apart from each other until they toppled off the pedestal and crashed to the floor.

They both leaned into the open cavity and gasped. Inside was a woman’s body, dried and shriveled with age. It was dressed ceremonial armor and wrapped in a violet cloak with white fur trim.  The workmanship bespoke of the finery one would expect from royalty. The body lay on a bed of gold coins and sparkling gems of every color.

Allandra snatched one of the candle and looked closer. She ran her hand along the breastplate. The design was practical and simple like it was meant to be worn and not just displayed, but it was also elegant with its stylish curves of gold and platinum inlaid on the lustrous adamantine.  Smiled maniacally a wiped away a bit of drool. “Dibs on the armor,” she cried. “It’s just my size.”

The wizard's eyes were only focused on one thing however, the golden sceptre clutched in the mummy’s bony hands. It was what he had come for, the reason for this entire expedition. He reached in and pried it from her fingers snapping some of them them in the process. Now it was his turn to smile as he held the rod out in front of him to admire it. All of a sudden the corpse jerked and grabbed the sceptre to yank it back from the wizard. Ballikanisan screamed and stumbled backward knocking over one of the candelabras.

Allandra didn’t stop to think. She lifted her mace from its belt hook and swung it around once to gather momentum before smashing the flanged edge into the withered face of K’lu Satal. The skull was pulverized and exploded in a cloud of dust. A moment later the entire body quivered and collapsed leaving only the treasure behind.

“Finally I get to smash something,” she roared.

Ballikanisan got unsteadily to his feet. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he said breathlessly. “That really gets the old heart going doesn’t it?”

“You’re lucky I was here, little man,” said Allandra, “or the witch would have gobbled you up. Now let’s start dividing up the loot. It’s going to take both of us a couple of trips to haul all of this out of here, and I want to get started right away. I think the best plan would be to bury it in the forest and come back with some ponies…”

A wind was beginning to stir, lifting the dust and ash in a circle around the altar. It grew in strength until the candles started to flicker and go out. They were not plunged into darkness however as the room began to glow everywhere in a sickly green light. The air rushed past them faster and faster until the force pushed them back. They covered their eyes to protect them from the debris. The howling continued for a full minute before it faded back into nothing.

A black ooze rose out of the bottom of the sarcophagus quickly swallowing up the treasure inside. It continued to bubble up like tar until it overflowed and ran down the sides of the altar. Ballikanisan was frozen in a combination of fear and fascination as the oily mixture began to flow out across the floor. Allandra pushed him back before it could reach him. It was only her quick reflexes that kept her from getting caught in the ooze herself.

Without warning, the sludge stopped creeping across the floor began to flow toward the throne. It was gathering speed like a living thing. When it hit the dais if raced up the steps and coalesced into a pillar which rose up six feet high. The muck took on a vaguely human shape, like someone draped in wet robes coming in from a downpour. A voice, dark and cold like a thousand spiders crawling in her ears, emerged from the hooded figure. “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy did you?”

“Works for me,” shouted Allandra. “Now I get to kill you all over again!”

She started to charge with her mace raised high over her head, but the strange form raised one of its arms and she stopped in mid-stride.

“What do we have here?” said the figure. “A couple of grave robbers or something more? You have the smell of violence about you.”

“Forgive us, K’lu Satal,” begged Ballikanisan, falling to his knees. “If we knew that it was your temple, we never would have come. We beg for your mercy.”

“Hmm. I find it unlikely that you opened the Great Seal without knowing exactly where you are, as my name was part of the unbinding spell.” She raised another arm, and the golden bowl and jeweled dagger flew toward the throne. They stopped short and hovered in the air just in front of the ooze. “Also, you have my ceremonial bowl and dagger which you could have only gotten from that fool gnome priest of mine. But please, beg some more. It’s been a while. It feels good.”

Ballikanisan prostrated himself on the floor. “Oh mistress, you have seen through our lies…”

“Your lies, you mean. The woman has been refreshingly honest with all the yelling and smashing of things. Don’t include her in your excuses.” K’lu Satal looked at Allandra again. “Did he promise you untold riches? Speak!”

“One third of any treasure found,” said Allandra.

“Not half? Explain yourself, worm.”

“Well, there was the initial capital expenditures to cover,” said Ballikanisan, “as well as my travel expenses…”

“Boring!” pronounced K’lu Satal, and she raised her arm again. A lighting bolt shot from her fingers straight to Ballikanisan’s heart. His body crumpled to the floor. The small flames licking at his chest were the only sign of movement. “A thousand years and men haven’t changed. Always quick to tell you why a woman is worth less than a man. That’s one of the reasons I conquered three quarters of the civilized world. Just to prove a point.”

“You mean slaughtered,” said Allandra. “They still tell your tale to frighten children from misbehaving. Go to bed or the witch queen will steal your soul.”

“That’s sweet, but flattery will not help you.”

“Just kill me and get it over with!”

“You don’t understand,” said K’lu Satal. “You're the last person in the world I want to kill.”

“What do you want with me?” demanded Allandra.

“Since you broke my old body, I figure you owe me a new one.”

“What do you mean? The only body I have is my own.”

“And it’s just my size.” K’lu Satal laughed. It was a wicked and haunting sound. She extended her arm again, but this time the ooze began to flow, launching itself toward Allandra. The black liquid struck her face and forced its way down her throat and up her nose. The stream continued unabated until the entire figure of K’lu Satal had washed into Allandra and she was standing there alone. Only she wasn’t Allandra anymore.

K’lu Satal took a deep breath for the first time in a thousand years. She swung the woman’s mace and enjoyed the heft of the weapon in her hand before placing it back on its hook. “I like this body,” she said. “It’s so full of anger.”

She looked around and frowned at the what she saw. “My minions have really let this place go.” Walking over to the altar, she drew the sceptre out and held it toward the ceiling. She spoke a Word of Power and the cavern shook as it echoed off the stone walls. “Arise my subjects and live again. Your mistress commands you.”

The skeletons on the floor began to move. Most of them collapsed into dust before they could even get up off the floor. A few managed to stand upright before toppling over into a pile of bones again. In the end there was only one body standing, the miserable man that she killed moments before. He was a little milky-eyed and singed, but otherwise no worse for wear.

“I suppose you’ll have to do for now,” she said. “What is your name, slave.”

“I was called Ballikanisan, mistress,” he moaned.

“Balli…Ballika…” She waved a hand at him dismissively. “That’s too hard to remember. Your name’s Bob now.”

“Yes, mistress.”

“Now, Bob, where has my little gnome gotten to?” she asked. “I don’t see him here.”

“I last saw a gnome in the city of Rotham, many days north from here.”

“Then gather up as much gold and gemstones as you can carry,” she said. “We’ve got to find the Five Hands before the fools figure out what they have.”