THE TOMB ROBBER’S TALE



THE TOMB ROBBER’S TALE, by Sean P. Robson:

 

The funeral procession wound like a wailing snake through Mourner’s Row, out the Death Gate, and around the sepulchral neighborhoods of the necropolis to the grand mausoleum of House Torenescu.  As the priests—one each to represent the gods Thanatos, Mithra, and Heka—began the rites of lamentation, two mourners detached themselves from the snake’s tail and slithered out of sight behind neighboring tombs.

Tariq pulled off his robe of bereavement and tossed it aside, unslung the satchel of tools that was hidden beneath, then pulled out a flask and took a long swallow before handing it to his nephew.  “We’ve got a long wait ahead of us, lad.”  He sat down on his discarded robe, leaned back against the tomb wall and stretched his legs out.  “Might as well get comfortable, eh?”

Faysal raised the flask to his lips, eyes bright with excitement, and took a long swallow.  This was his first foray into the necropolis and he was eager to begin his apprenticeship in earnest.  He surveyed the avenues of tombs, which sprawled over the hills and through the mist-shrouded valleys, punctuated by towering moss-covered cenotaphs.

“Quite a view, isn’t it,” said Tariq.  “Nearly as big as Catapesh, itself, but with a hundred times more residents.  You want to keep your head about you in here; it’s easy to get turned around.  You get lost, either the barrow wardens will get you or a gastlich will.”

“What’s a gast lick?”  Faysal asked.  He sneered, but his bravado was betrayed by the tremor in his voice.

“It’s gastlich, you ignorant little trouser-stain; a spirit of the dead.  Six-toed Tirsh reckoned he saw one once.  Got himself all turned around after a job and saw something rise up right out of the mist, all pale and gaunt and grasping.  He ran shrieking and gibbering straight to the wardens with his swag-sack still in hand, the silly bugger.  They sent him up for grave-robbing and he was glad to go, even though they hanged him in the end.  Anyway, they say this here’s their city we’re intruding in, and anyone not under the protection of the priests, like that lot,” he gestured in the direction of the funeral party, “is fair prey for the gastlichs.”

Faysal looked around nervously and then took another long swallow from the flask.  “Here now!” said Tariq, grabbing it away from him, “That’s got to last us all afternoon, you greedy little nose rag.”

“Have you ever seen one?  A gastlich, I mean.”

“Not even a wisp,” said Tariq with a twinkle in his eye, “and I’ve been cracking tombs for going on ten years.”

When the day began to wither with age and tenebrous shadows reached from the tombs like cold, beckoning fingers, Tariq peeked around the corner of the shelter and checked that the mourners were all gone and the neighborhood was deserted.  He pocketed the nearly empty flask, shouldered his satchel then rolled up the robe and stuffed it down the front of his shirt.  “We’d best be about our business.”

Faysal hurried after Tariq and tried to imitate the sense of purpose in his uncle’s stride as they wove their way along the avenues lined with the houses of the dead.  Every now and again, Tariq would pause and examine a brass plaque above an entrance, and then quickly move on.  He was obviously looking for a specific tomb.

“We should just hit that Toronescu place,” said Faysal.  “Everyone’s gone now.  Rich family like them’s bound to have left a fortune in grave-goods.”

Tariq shot a scornful glance over his shoulder.  “Rich family like them’s also bound to have the barrow wardens keeping a close eye on the place, is bound to have trapped the tomb to do for the likes of us, and is bound to find out if anyone tries fencing their family jewels so soon after the funeral.  You some kind of idiot?  This is no business for idiots.  They hang idiots.”

Faysal’s face reddened.  “It was just a suggestion,” he muttered.  “I was only trying to help.”

“You reckon I brought you along for advice?  You’re here to learn the trade, not teach it so keep your mouth shut and your eyes open; this is serious business not an evening stroll along the fucking quay.”

Faysal muttered something under his breath that Tariq didn’t catch, but he let it pass.  He’d never much cared for Faysal, but he had loved the boy’s mother dearly.  Tariq had been only ten years old when their parents died; Farah, just three years older than he, supported them both by selling herself on street corners to anyone with a few coins or some food to trade.  By the time Tariq was old enough to make his own way Farah was worn-out and vacant-eyed.  When Faysal came along, the by-blow of some back-alley paramour, she supported him the same way she had Tariq, and when she died of the pox Tariq swore to look after her boy, half-wit bastard or no.

“You see that mark scratched on the tomb over yonder?” said Tariq in a gentler tone.  “Looks like a pair of horns?  That means the tomb’s cleaned out.  It’s professional courtesy to make the mark after you’ve done a job and let others know not to waste their time.”

They wound their way deeper into the necropolis, and Faysal gaped at statues of strange alien gods, abandoned and long forgotten.  “What’s that,” he asked, pointing at the likeness in granite of a three-eyed, elephant-headed man.

Tariq shrugged.  Catapesh had been conquered more times over the centuries than he could count: ten, at least; probably more.  Each invasion washed over the city like a surging tide and then receded, leaving murky puddles of culture in its wake.  Bloodlines had become so mingled that it was no longer possible to tell who came from where.  Even the noble houses had become so polluted that only their names hinted at their origin.

“Don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe nobody does anymore.  Everyone who ever conquered the city brought their gods with them.  Some stuck, but most of them fell by the wayside, like this fellow here.  Don’t reckon a god that’s so easily tossed aside is much of a god.  Course, the priests say our gods are the true ones, but I reckon someday, some tomb-cracker will look at a statue of Heka and ask the same question you did.  What do you think?”

Faysal shrugged and scratched the scraggly hairs on his chin.  He turned to the elephant-headed effigy and asked it to watch over them in their endeavors.

“Here, now!” said Tariq.  “Don’t go praying to strange gods; they might be long dead, but then again they might only be sleeping.”

“I thought we ought to show respect to the elephant god if this is its ground, and to call upon its blessing; my mother said to always take your blessings where you could,” said Faysal.

“Your mother died raving mad of syphilis; you might not want take her every word to heart.  Best not risk waking things better left aslumber; not here in the necropolis.  Save your prayers for your own gods and let the forgotten ones lie.”

Twilight was encroaching upon the city of the dead when Tariq finally led them to his goal: a long-neglected tomb concealed by overgrown brambles in a mist-shrouded gully.  Its weathered granite walls were encrusted with lichen and overgrown with moss.  A heavy bronze door stained with verdigris hung ajar on twisted hinges and was held fast by rusted iron chains.  The plaque above the door bore the sigil of the noble house of Younes, whose last scion was laid to rest decades ago after the Overlord’s conquest of Catapesh, leaving none to maintain the vault or to safeguard its contents.

“Pick your targets carefully, lad.  This is a big place and there’s plenty of choice to be had.  The charnel pits near the gates ain’t worth the effort; that’s where they toss the convicts, slaves, and the indigent—anyone too poor to pay the priests for a proper interment—with neither grave-goods to bribe their way into Thanatos’s realm, nor prayers to guide them there.  Fresh-laid nobles are tempting, but risky.  No, it’s best to go deep—into the older avenues of the necropolis; there’s hundreds, probably thousands of years worth of noblemen resting in these grounds, from lines gone extinct with no one left who’ll recognize family heirlooms turning up in the bazaar.  These are the ones to go for if you don’t want to wind up doing a noose-dance in the plaza like old Tirsh.”

Tariq unrolled an oilcloth satchel containing a dozen curiously shaped iron picks, of which he broke three while attempting to open the weathered padlock.  “Bloody rust,” he muttered, half to himself.  “Someone should keep these tombs in better repair.  No respect.  No respect at all.”

The lock finally yielded to his deft touch and sprang open with a loud click.  “Aha!” Tariq exclaimed in triumph.  He removed the chains and pulled open the door, which squealed in protest.  “Now open wide, my darling, and surrender your treasure to us.”  He turned to Faysal and winked: “Tombs, like women, demand a soft touch; if you’re clumsy and impatient you’ll never get in.”

Tariq lit a torch and handed it to Faysal, then led him down a short flight of stone steps into the cellar-like crypt.  The stale air was thick with the sickly-sweet stench of spice and decay.  Faysal gagged, then clapped a hand over his mouth and bolted back up the stairs; he returned shortly, pale and with a handkerchief covering his nose and mouth.

Tariq rolled his eyes and made an exaggerated bow.  “Did you forget your pomander, your Grace?”

“It stinks,” said Faysal.  Tariq laughed.

“This is nothing, lad.  The youngest of these corpses was laid decades ago and the embalming spices mask the worst of the stink.  Wait till you smell a corpse-fart: when a belly, swollen with gasses of putrescence, bursts in your face.  Happened to me once, and splattered me with rotting foulness I don’t even want to think about.”

Faysal paled even more.  “How do you stand it?”

“By keeping my mind on the job and thinking about how I’ll spend the swag.  Speaking of which,” Tariq gestured with a sweep of his hand to the burial alcoves that lined the walls.

They lit a few more torches and placed them in wall sconces and then set to their work, liberating the noble house of Younes of its assorted charnel goods.  From the occupant of each coffin, whose name was engraved upon a brass plaque, they took their bounty: from Lord Omar’s withered finger, a gold signet ring; from Lady Danira’s shroud, a silver brooch; from young master Kaelan’s stiff-clutched grasp, an intricately carved ivory soldier; from mistress Sibilia’s withered brow a gilded coronet.  Then, from between the legs of Lady Shahira, Tariq plucked a jade phallus with silver filigree and emeralds set around its base.

“Now we know where they kept the family jewels,” he said with a wink, thrusting the phallus back and forth between a circle formed by his thumb and forefinger.  Faysal blushed.

“Never had a woman before?” Tariq said.  Faysal shook his head, his face reddening even further.

“Well, we’ll have to remedy that.  With a bath and some new clothes they might even let us into Orchid’s Blossoms, and with what we get from this haul we could even afford it.  Orchid’s prices are dear, but so are her girls.  She buys them from all over the world: dusky-skinned beauties from the Jungles of Zahar, sultry and well-versed in the arts of love; alabaster-skinned wenches from the northern marches who know every way ever devised to keep a man warm at night; tribeswomen from the Kurgani Steppes, as wild and passionate as the four winds.  What do you say lad, how’d you like to be savaged by a she-panther?  It’s like I said, keep your mind on the job and what awaits you at the end of it, and pay no heed to the unsavory aspects of the work.”

Faysal returned to his work with renewed alacrity, jasmine-scented slave-girls dancing in his mind.  He ventured deeper into the crypt and espied the family altar, laden with canopic jars and a golden effigy of Thanatos as its centerpiece.  Entranced by the golden idol, Faysal reached out his hand to take it.

“Don’t touch that!”  Tariq yelled; such obvious treasures were often trapped.  Too late: Faysal had already picked it up.  A sound of stone grinding against stone was the only warning Tariq had.  He hurled himself across the crypt and into Faysal, knocking him arse over tit.  Faysal’s furious protest was cut short as a massive stone block fell from the ceiling and landed where he had been standing half a second earlier.

Tariq threw himself to the ground and covered his head against debris raining down from the ceiling.  When it finally stopped, he looked around, coughing in the cloud of dust, and saw that the block had crashed through the floor of the crypt leaving a ragged hole like a gaping maw.  He crawled to its edge and peered over the side; cold stale air wafted up from the darkness.

Tariq took one of the torches from the wall, tossed it into the pit and reached a slow count of two before it hit the ground below; a large chamber was briefly illuminated before the torch extinguished on impact.

“Sixty feet, more or less,” said Tariq.  He looked at Faysal who was climbing to his feet, still shaken by his brush with death, and continued: “For as long as I’ve worked the necropolis I’ve heard tales of the ruins of Golgotha—the place of suffering—buried deep beneath; older, much older, than even Catapesh and said to contain a trove of Atlantean wealth.  I’ve never paid the stories any heed—old tomb-robber legends were what I took them for.  But now…”  He broke off and licked his lips.

“An Atlantean city?” whispered Faysal, his eyes wide.  “I heard that Atlanteans were sorcerers, dark and terrible; that they bound the spirits of the dead and even demons to their will.”

“Aye, they were terrible, and at the height of their power they ruled the world; all nations paid tribute to them—incalculable wealth, and when they were driven from our shores they left it all behind.”  Tariq ran his fingers though his hair.  “There is a time for caution,” he glanced again at the pit in the floor, “and there is a time for boldness.”

“Let’s just go now,” whispered Faysal.  “Let’s take what we have and visit Orchid’s Blossoms, like you said.”

“Forget Orchid’s,” said Tariq.  “If what lies below is, indeed, the storied Atlantean ruins we’ll score enough swag for you to buy your own harem.  We’ll, neither of us, need to work ever again; we’ll spend the rest of our days at ease, sipping fine wine and eating fresh dates from the hands of naked slave girls.”

Faysal hesitated a moment, savoring the vision, then nodded and joined his uncle at the edge of the pit.  They tied together their two coils of fine silk rope then secured one end around the Younes family altar, and the other around a burning torch, which they lowered carefully to the ground far below.  Then, Tariq leading, they descended the rope, hand over hand into the ruins of a dead city that lay beneath the city of the dead.

***

Tariq retrieved the burning torch that was tied to the rope and used it to relight the one he had earlier dropped, and then handed one to Faysal.  The dim torchlight barely illuminated the full expanse of a huge karst cavern shaped by uncanny artifice into a large courtyard.  The perimeter of the courtyard was surrounded by a series of seven-foot-tall alabaster statues depicting a human-like race with broad high foreheads, long pendulous ear lobes, and slack flaccid lips that drooped from their wide mouths.

Faysal gaped at the statues, inadvertently mimicking their vacant expressions.  “Are these Atlanteans?” he whispered.  Tariq shrugged.  He’d never seen one.  The sinister black barges of Atlantis would sometimes make berth in the harbor of Catapesh, but all commerce was conducted by their human slaves; Atlanteans, if any were aboard, never came ashore.  So far as he knew, none had set foot on Lemurian soil since mankind rose up against them centuries ago and threw off the yoke of servitude.

From the courtyard, numerous passageways extended like spokes from a hub into the depths of Golgotha.  Tariq chose one at random and they proceeded slowly, exploring its avenues and branches, searching for some chamber—a temple, perhaps—in which treasures of the ancient race might repose.  The pair marveled at the ancient architecture, for the buildings that lined the subterranean avenues were not merely built from shaped rock, they were carved into the limestone, blending seamlessly into the walls.  The skill and effort required to build such a city was beyond Tariq’s imagining.

In a dining hall they found a long table set for banquet.  Silver cutlery, golden goblets and crystal decanters lay lonely and abandoned, awaiting a dinner millennia overdue.  The stone walls of the hall were adorned only by empty gilt frames; the paintings they contained had long since crumbled to dust.  Faysal rushed eagerly to the table and began sweeping cutlery into his bag.

“Ease up, lad,” said Tariq.  “Don’t overload your bag with tableware; remember, we can only carry so much, and I’ve a feeling there are more valuable troves than this to be found.”

As they penetrated deeper into Golgotha, Faysal became increasingly nervous, jumping at shadows and at the echoes of every dislodged stone that tumbled from ruined walls and ceilings.  The boy was high-strung and foolish and, Tariq suspected, unsuited to a career in tomb-robbing, but even he, himself, was feeling ill at ease.  Tariq was as comfortable in abandoned crypts and sepulchers as he was sitting by the fire drinking cold ale at The Slippery Vixen.  He was not prone to flights of fancy or excesses of imagination, but he thought he caught glimpses of movement in the shadows, and heard sibilant whispers in the tomb-dark alleyways and buildings.  He knew they must be his imagination, or else stirrings of the long stagnant air from some opening to the surface.  Nonetheless, he had the distinct feeling that they were being watched; and followed.

They entered a vast, colonnaded plaza fronting a jade ziggurat with a gold-domed chamber at its apex.  It towered high above all the other buildings and monuments in the city, dominating them with its eminence and grandeur.

“This is it, lad,” said Tariq.  “I can feel it in my gut; here’s where we make our score!”  They paused a moment to gaze in awe at the structure looming over them.  Unlike the ruins crumbling in the rest of the city, the ziggurat was undiminished by the ages; its cyclopean blocks of jade were unworn and untouched by moss and lichen and it stood sovereign as it had for time immemorial, its magnificence uncontested.

“What is this place,” asked Faysal, softly.

“Don’t know.  Looks like a temple, or maybe a throne room.  Just look at it though; if there’s swag to be had anywhere in these ruins, it’ll be in there.  Mark my words.”

A long flight of steep steps ushered them to the gilded chamber at the ziggurat’s apex.  Tariq paused, hands on knees, to catch his breath while Faysal fingered the golden filigree that ornamented the chamber’s arched doorway.

“After you,” he panted, gesturing for the boy to proceed.  Faysal hesitated and scrutinized the entrance.  “Shouldn’t we, you know, look for traps like you said before?” he said.

“I think we’ll be fine; tombs draw thieves like flies to a dung heap so they’re bound to be trapped.  Wouldn’t make sense to lay traps in a place like this, whether a temple or a throne room—too many people coming and going.  More likely they would’ve had guards to discourage anyone with light fingers back when the city still lived.  But it’s good to know you were paying attention for once.”  Tariq smiled and clapped his nephew on the back.

They entered and were confronted by a riot of decadent opulence: jade walls carved in bas-relief depicting human figures engaged in activities sadistic and perverse, their faces contorted in agony and ecstasy, were adorned with golden censers and silver-chased sconces, and decorated with murals inlaid with lapis lazuli and ivory.  Gem-encrusted golden candelabrums lay scattered on the floor, and nude statuettes carved from ebony and ivory were entwined in contorted positions of coital embrace.  At the center of the chamber loomed an idol of jet and bronze: a four-armed, pot-bellied monstrosity squatting naked before an enormous bronze brazier.  Its lower two arms gripped the edges of the brazier; its upper two held a massive, barb-edged sword above its head.  Its demoniacal, leering face sported a wide toothy maw and two enormous rubies for eyes—each nearly as big in diameter as a man’s head.  It was this last feature that drew Tariq’s particular attention.

As Faysal hastily emptied his bag of assorted cutlery and began refilling it with the treasures from around the room, Tariq climbed the idol, perched on its head and pried out its eyes with a chisel he withdrew from his tool bag.  After wrapping the gems carefully in sack-cloth and stowing them safely down the front of his vest he climbed down and beamed at Faysal.

“What did I tell you, lad?  We’re set for life, you and me.  Sometimes the reward is worth the risk.”

“Can we go now, Tariq?  Please?  I don’t like this place—I feel like it’s watching us.”

“That’s just nerves, boy,” said Tariq, chuckling at his own earlier apprehension.  “Nothing ever lived here that is now aught but dust with nary even a memory to give it life.  But, yes, it’s time to go home.  Let’s get you a woman.  Hells, let’s get you a dozen!”

They started back down the ziggurat steps, hauling their heavy treasure-laden sacks behind them.

“How are we going to climb back out with these?” said Faysal.

“That part’s easy: we tie the sacks together at the end of the rope and haul them up after us.  The hard part will be smuggling it all back into Catapesh.  We’ll have to cache most of it, then bring it in a little bit at a time.  But I’ve got a few stashes hidden around the necropolis where no one will…”

Tariq stopped short, put his finger to his lips, and looked around the plaza.  The sense of being watched was even stronger now than it had been earlier.  He thought he heard whispering in the darkness beyond, first to his left, then to his right.  Ahead, he heard the soft clatter of stone: litter falling from the crumbling columns?

Quietly, step by step, Tariq advanced towards the edge of the plaza, alert for any sound.  A shadow shifted at the edge of his vision: a trick of the torch light?  The shadow detached from the darkness ahead, then another, then two more from each side.  Whatever was out there had them surrounded.

The dark figures advanced into view, slowly closing the circle around Tariq and Faysal.  They were gaunt and long-limbed; their faces, framed by wisps of lank hair, were pallid, with parchment-thin skin stretched taut over their skulls.  Their mouths were a rotting ruin of stained, broken teeth, and their milky-white eyes, sunk deep in the sockets, gleamed balefully in the torchlight.  They had no noses, just gaping holes in the middle of their faces, and their black, slug-like tongues writhed over thin, withered lips, tasting the air instead.  Their dry, sibilant whispering gave way to chuckling that sounded like the crumbling of dead leaves.

When they reached out towards the pair with emaciated long-nailed hands, Faysal’s paralysis gave way to a paroxysm of fear.  “Gastlichs!” he cried, then dropped his sack and bolted, bursting through the ring of creatures.  He fled screaming into the dark—directly away from their path of exit.

Idiot!  But the gastlichs—as Tariq guessed they must certainly be—were surprised by Faysal’s sudden flight and lunged belatedly after him, opening a gap through which Tariq could escape and flee back the way they had come.

I’m sorry, Farah.  Tariq made for the gap in the circle, then stopped, cursed silently, and turned back toward the creatures massing behind him.  He swung his loot bag and hurled it into the chest of the nearest gastlich, knocking the gaunt creature off its feet; Tariq leapt over the prone figure, batting aside the grasping hands that clutched at his tunic, and sprinted after his nephew.

The gastlichs were close on his heels; their crumple-rasp laughter crawled down his spine and sent icy tendrils of fear trickling from his gut down into his legs, sapping their strength.  He closed tight his mind’s eye, which saw only ragged talons clutching at his shirt tails.  He focused instead on Faysal’s torch, which bobbed, jigged, and weaved in the darkness ahead and, in a feat borne of desperate terror he pulled ahead of the shadows skittering at his flanks and left them behind.

Faysal’s bobbing torch suddenly winked out.  Tariq strained to catch any glimpse of movement in the darkness ahead.  Unbidden, his mind’s eye sprang open again: this time it saw Faysal, ambushed and dragged to the ground then torn open by grasping, dirty, sharp-nailed hands, writhing in agony amidst his spilled entrails.  Next, it showed a gastlich leaping onto Faysal’s back and ripping out his throat with its jagged, broken teeth as the boy silently screamed out his last breath.  These, and similar grisly vignettes, played out in Tariq’s mind in a matter of seconds, overwhelming the more rational but less compelling explanation that the boy’s panicked flight merely took him out of Tariq’s line of sight.

Tariq’s lungs burned, and his legs were becoming leaden, and although he had left the gastlichs behind he could still hear them following.  Soon his pace would flag and fatigue would cause him to stumble, and they’d be on him in seconds.  This was a race he could not win.  Worse, his torch was beginning to gutter, its flame dying.  He thought he might be able to face his end bravely as long as he had light for company, but the prospect of stumbling around lost in the dark, awaiting the grasp of unseen dead-cold hands, nearly unmanned him.

The ruins ahead were more dilapidated than elsewhere, as if he was entering a neighborhood that was long neglected even while Golgotha still lived.  Crumbling remains of walls jutted up from the ground like jagged teeth and the ground was littered with debris.  The rocky ceiling hung low, and long dangling roots brushed Tariq’s head as he ran.  Tariq stumbled over a stone block and fell, and as he scrambled to his feet he saw Faysal, cowering in a corner, his torch extinguished.  Tariq ran to him, grabbed the boy by his collar and hauled him to his feet.

“Run, you fool,’ he rasped.  “They’re right behind us.”

Tariq ran, half dragging Faysal sobbing, gibbering, and stumbling behind him towards a narrow gap in a nearby rock fall.  He pushed Faysal through the crevice and into an unworked cave beyond then crawled through, himself.  It was a tight squeeze; they’d be able to hold off the gastlichs here unless there were other ways in.  There’d be time enough to worry about that later, though; in the meantime Tariq crouched at the entrance and watched.  In the dim light of his dying torch, he saw the pursuing gastlichs slow and then halt, almost warily, in front of the shelter.  They tasted the air with their blackened tongues and then melted back into the shadows.

Damned odd, Tariq thought, why give up now?  Unless…

“Faysal!  Scout around, look for any other ways in.”

“Faysal!”  Dammit, where was that idiot boy?  Tariq was torn with indecision; he didn’t want to leave the crevice unguarded, but if there was one way in there might be more, and the bloody things could be sneaking in to flank them.  He peered through the crevice again; still no sign of the gastlichs.  Tariq sighed, took one last lingering look through the crevice then went in search of Faysal.

He clambered over fallen debris and through a narrow passage that opened into an even larger cavern.  Its niter-encrusted walls and the stalagmites that grew up from the floor scintillated from the faint bioluminescence given off by a fungal efflorescence that carpeted the cavern floor, casting the chamber in an eerie glow.

“Mithra’s blessed bosom,” said Tariq, blinking hard and trying to adjust his eyes to the dim light.  For as far as he could see, fungi of every shape, size, and color sprouted from the ground like some unwholesome subterranean forest overgrown with tendrils and hyphae and gigantic mushrooms with pale white stalks as thick as tree trunks.

Tariq stepped into the cavern and grimaced at the sickening squelch of molds and slimes bursting under his feet as he picked his way between massive stalks of hyphae that sprouted like rushes in a marsh.  They swayed toward him as he passed, as if aware that the juice of life was near at hand, and Tariq used his now-dead torch to push them aside so that he wouldn’t have to touch them with his hands.  He also took care to avoid the crops of huge mushrooms with their lurid red and purple caps, and the abundant clusters of puff-balls that were pregnant with spores and waiting to burst.  In the midst of this putrescent bloom was an ancient stone altar, moldy and crumbling.  Faysal knelt before it, beseeching its unnamed god for salvation, while a nearby brain fungus twice the height of a grown man pulsed and coruscated red and pink and blue.  Filamentous tendrils extended from the enormous rugose mass and entwined about Faysal like a jealous lover.

“Faysal, no!”  Tariq dashed forward, slipping and sliding across the slimy floor, heedless of the risk.  He grabbed Faysal by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet and away from the altar.  There was slight resistance and a soft sucking noise as the fungal filaments parted reluctantly from the boy’s flesh.  Tariq spun Faysal around and shook him roughly.

“What were you thinking, boy?  Gods only know what those Thanatos-damned tendrils would have done to you let alone what you might have awakened with your prayers.  What did I tell you about letting sleeping gods lie?”

Faysal smiled beatifically.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “Sapros will watch over us.”

Tariq paled slightly.  “Faysal,” he said, in slow, measured tones, “who is Sapros?”

“You’ll soon find out,” he said.  “Everyone will soon find out.”  He picked his way through the morass of mushrooms that sprouted up from the mold-carpeted floor towards the far wall of the cavern opposite the entrance, stooping every now and then to pluck a swollen puff-ball from its stalk.

“Don’t touch those, they could be dangerous,” said Tariq.

“We came down here for treasure, didn’t we?”  Faysal looked over his shoulder at his uncle and grinned.  “We mustn’t go home empty-handed.”

“Treasure?  What are you talking about?  What in the seven hells do you want with those things, Faysal?”  The boy didn’t reply; he just stood fondling the spore-laden balls with a rapturous expression on his face.  Tariq wondered if terror had unhinged the boy completely, sapping away what little sense he’d had to start.

Near the back of the cavern a huge, fleshy stalk grew out of a mass of pustulose sacs on the floor and up through the crumbling ceiling far above.  Without a word of explanation, Faysal began to climb, using the numerous shelf fungi growing along the length of the trunk for hand and foot holds.

Tariq paused a moment, mouth agape, and watched Faysal ascend the stalk.  The fungal growths bent slightly under his weight, but they held.  He sighed, then shrugged and followed the boy; at least he was heading in the right direction.  He placed his hand upon the stalk and shuddered; it was smooth and soft like a fish’s belly, and it pulsed like some huge pallid artery.  He repressed his revulsion and started to climb towards the ceiling high above, cringing each time one of the fungal shelves bent as he put his weight on it.  He was high enough now that a fall would surely kill or cripple him, and he didn’t fancy the idea of lying, dying and helpless upon the fungal carpet below, feeding the greedy, grasping tendrils with his life blood.

Finally, he reached the cavern ceiling and climbed into the darkness above.  Though he could see nothing, his nostrils were immediately assailed by an all-too-familiar scent: the stench of decay.

“Faysal?”

“I’m right here,” the boy replied calmly.

“Hold up while I get us some light.”  Tariq fished a candle out of his satchel.  He always carried some to test the air quality of old tombs, a habit he was doubly glad of now.  Lighting the wick in complete darkness was harder than he expected, and the scrape of steel on flint echoed loud in Tariq’s ears, but after a few minutes a spark caught.  The small candle was a poor ward against the oppressive darkness, but even the tiniest flame helped to hold panic at bay, and by its light he was able to assess his surroundings.

Dead bodies, clad not in rich funereal finery, but in tattered rags, were heaped, one atop another, in huge mounds.  Tariq knew that he and Faysal must be in a charnel pit, a long trough quarried deep into the ground, located far from the mausoleums of the wealthy.  Each day the human detritus from such neighborhoods as Hope’s End was swept up, dumped into the pit, and covered over with rock and soil, creating a long line of partitioned chambers.  It was into one such chamber that Tariq and Faysal intruded, but they were not the first to do so; feeder tendrils extended from the main stalk and permeated the corpses.  Most of the bodies were now just withered husks, and Tariq saw that the tendrils had penetrated the walls into neighboring chambers, too.  The charnel pit, he realized, was a huge feeding trough.

“Come on, lad,” said Tariq.  “Let’s try to find a way out.”

They made their way slowly through the narrow confines between the mounds of desiccated bodies as Tariq searched for an exit to the surface.  The flutter of his candle flame alerted Tariq to a wisp of breeze from some nearby opening.  Yes, there!  Soil had eroded away revealing a small gap between stone blocks; it wasn’t much—only the size of his fist—but if he could shift the rock slightly and widen it they might be able to squeeze through.

Tariq withdrew a hammer and chisel from his satchel and set to work with single-minded determination.  He chipped, and hammered, and pried, and little by little the opening grew until it was nearly wide enough to fit head and shoulders.  He looked over his shoulder to share his progress with Faysal and saw pale, milky-eyed revenants crawling amid the corpses towards them.

“Mithra, fuck me,” he whispered.  “Not now.”  He looked desperately at the opening then turned and flung his hammer at the nearest gastlich.  The creature skittered aside, and the hammer vanished into the darkness.  Tariq half slid down the pile of bodies he was perched upon, to the floor where Faysal sat, unperturbed.

“Time to go,” he said.  He grabbed the boy by the back of his vest, dragged him to his feet and shoved him up the pile of bodies toward the gap and freedom.  The boy’s languid indifference to their peril was confounding and inexplicable.  Was he so caught fear’s grasp that he’d completely given up hope or care of escape?

“Move your body, you fermenting sack of pig piss!  I’ll not die in this stinking pit, nor shall you.  I promised your mother I’d look after you, and by the gods I mean to do it; now move…your…arse!”  With a feat of strength born of desperation and fear, Tariq pushed Faysal all the way up the shifting corpse heap.  His exhortation appeared to have jolted Faysal out of his languor, for he began to wriggle through the narrow opening of his own volition.  Tariq shoved hard on the boy’s backside, trying to hurry him through.  He was absolutely certain that at any moment clawed hands would clutch his leg and pull him back down into the pit to join the nameless corpses in the pile; a juicy morsel to feed that which dwelt below.

With one final hard push, Faysal was through the opening, and then Tariq frantically squirmed through, heedless of the cuts and scrapes he suffered in his haste to be free.  The kiss of the cold night air on his face as he emerged from the stifling, fetid confines of the charnel pit was just about the best thing he had ever felt; better than his first time with a woman; better, even, than a good long piss after a night’s hard drinking.  But there was no time to relax and enjoy its cool caress.  He scrambled out of the breach and away from it as quickly as possible, fearing the gastlichs that might follow him out.

Moments passed and there was no pursuit.  Why?  They’d been keen enough to chase Faysal and himself through the ruins of Golgotha; why not now?  It was damned odd, but Tariq reckoned it was better to accept the rare boons that Mithra handed you without putting them to the question.  He sighed deeply and felt the tension of the past few hours drain from him.

“We did it, lad.  We’re out, safe and clear.” He put a fatherly hand on Faysal’s shoulder.  “Come on, let’s go home.”  They moved quickly away from the charnel pit and back into the necropolis proper, aiming for Death Gate.  Faysal remained uncharacteristically silent.

“I know you’re thinking about all the loot we had to leave behind, but we aren’t going home completely empty-handed,” Tariq said with a smile.  “This’ll put some spring back into your step.”  He reached into his tunic and withdrew one of the enormous rubies he’d chiseled out of the idol.  “This gem alone will set us up for the rest of our days.  We should thank Mithra for her blessings—by all rights them gastlichs should’ve had us in the charnel pits.  We got lucky, lad.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it, uncle, nor did Mithra.  You said it yourself: those not under the protection of priests are fair prey for the gastlichs.”

Tariq stopped short and stared at Faysal.  Suddenly everything started to make sense.  “What did you do, Faysal,” he whispered.  “What promise did you make before that altar in the cavern?”  Faysal’s reply was cut off as four barrow wardens stepped out of the shadow of a nearby tomb and leveled their crossbows at the pair.

“Look what we’ve got here, lads; it’s either two lovers out for a moonlight stroll in the necropolis or we’ve bagged ourselves a pair of thieves for the Overlord’s dungeon.”  Tariq spun around, surprised, and cursed himself for his inattention and for this sudden bad turn of luck.  It seemed that what Mithra gave with one hand, she took away with the other.  The sergeant stepped forward and plucked the ruby from Tariq’s hand.

“Looks like we won’t be going home empty-handed, either, eh, boys?  A couple of fine ornaments for the gallows, and a nice tip to boot.”  The sergeant chuckled and held up the ruby for the men behind him to see.

“Here, now, what’s that you got,” the sergeant asked, seeing a curious-looking sphere in Faysal’s outstretched hands.  “Give that here,” he said grabbing it and holding up to examine it more closely in the moonlight.  “What do you lads make of this,” he asked his men.  The puff ball suddenly burst, filling the air with a cloud of spores.  The sergeant and his men dropped their crossbows, blinded and choking, and began to claw at their eyes.

Faysal reached out and grasped the sergeant’s head with both of his hands and pulled him in close as if for a kiss.  The warden’s mouth was penetrated by something that Tariq was certain wasn’t Faysal’s tongue; he fought desperately to escape Faysal’s grasp for a few moments, then his struggles began to weaken.  The man’s cheeks became sunken and his eyes bulged from their sockets; his face started collapsing in on itself, as if was being sucked dry from the inside.  After what felt like an eternity, Faysal broke his embrace and let the withered husk fall lifeless to the ground.  He stared hard at the three other wardens who stumbled frantically away from him, their crossbows forgotten on the ground.  There was an uncharacteristic sense of focus and fierceness in his gaze.

“You are the first,” he told them.  “Now go forth, and multiply.”  The three men, still coughing and wheezing, turned and fled without a backwards glance.

Tariq stared in horror at what his nephew had become, and wondered what it portended for himself, for Catapesh, for the world.

Faysal looked over his shoulder at Tariq with a feral gleam in his eye. “Now, uncle, let’s get me a woman.  Hells, let’s get me a dozen.”

 

_____________________________________________________________________

Sean P. Robson is a palaeontologist with a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Saskatchewan.  When not studying the chitinous, scaled, fanged, tentacled, and multi-appendaged monstrosities that inhabited Earth’s distant past, he writes dark fantasy fiction while listening to Dead Can Dance and drinking way too much coffee.  He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife, daughter, and alarmingly smelly cat.

 


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