The stone door was closed.
Its sandy block became a natural tan when Eliden Theorycrafter spoke magic words. A summoned mote of light hovered lazily above his head like a curious firefly. Everything beyond its radiance was lost to darkness. Its illumination shone on his sweat-soaked, pale skin.
Eliden was afraid, his lips tight and his eyes wide. Though he could not hear the hungry dead on the opposite side of the stone, he knew they were there. His back pressed against the cold block, reminding him of the brief respite. He took control of his ragged breath.
Cut off from the others, the green wizard’s mind swirled with possibility. Fruitless probability, infinite potential. He could die here, alone. His apprentice, Pasho, may very well be dead already and he had no way of ensuring Grokthnar’s health. Nor could he be certain of the surviving excavators they had encountered when they arrived at Gerez-tuul in the year of the Harkavy Dynasty.
It may be the final year of this world if he failed.
Eliden drew in deep, falling back on his training to compose himself. There was only one way to stop the plague that Behran and his excavators unleashed. Deactivate or destroy the obelisk. Only then would the ravenous dead stop, fueled by that monolith’s dark power. He lamented arriving too late to stop them, yet there was no sense in dwelling.
Eliden Theorycrafter and his entourage had traveled by portal to this pyramid after the first dead turned. It had begun with an argument among the labourers that night, peaking with accidental murder. It ended in horror when the dead Azkambadian lurched wildly from a sheet and attacked the nearest person.
Hell had snowballed from there. With each death came more danger until the thirty-plus archaeologists and excavators were reduced rapidly to a mere ten. The dead rose within minutes of their final breaths, terrorizing those who remained. Not to devour, but to spread their baleful curse. There was no escape. All that dies returns, enslaved by the dread obelisk Behran only spoke briefly of finding.
Eliden’s mind turned to simpler things. He dreamed of chocolate-covered cupcakes, marinaded beef, salt and spiced noodles, and cool, refreshing water infused with vitamins the body needed to maintain peak performance. These were only a few of the delights he had hoped to stock up on when they came to this realm, yet he was given only terror and mayhem to eat. Worse still, his waterskin was half-empty already. He sipped at its contents to conserve them.
He had no scope of how long he would last here in this dark place. Trapped.
No time like the present to put an end to this, old boy, thought Eliden. He pushed from the block and took careful steps upon the sandy ground beneath him. The chamber before him smelled stale. It wasn’t empty. Small scorpion critters skittered away from his light. They hissed like angry cats; it was quite unnerving.
Eliden assumed this chamber was once a private sanctum, judging by the scraps of tapestry and broken clay he stepped on. It bore a stone table in its center, piled high with the dust of ages and sprinkled sand from the cracks in the ceiling above. He circled it, walking to the back wall, and found no other exit available to him. He was left with two choices. Be trapped in here til he starved to death or face the horde beyond and try to end this.
It should come as no surprise that the green-frocked sorcerer set his jaw and stalked back around the table. He faced the block in the only doorway. With a steeling breath, he checked himself to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything on what he expected to be a mad dash. Satisfied, Eliden began to chant. He closed the call to action with one word, thrusting his hands out before him.
His coat was blown back by the burst of air that exploded from his hands. Its full force shoved the brick out of the archway with a sickening crunch as a body was crushed under it. Without hesitation, Eliden began to chant on the run. He sprinted around the block into the sanded hallway. A hand reached for him in the dark, but the mage shied from it with a curve of his body like a footballer avoiding a tackle. He pressed on.
The snarl of deathly fury behind him turned to a chorus. He could hear the shifting of sand as many feet slapped through the coarse grains. It was close, too close for comfort. Once more, Eliden Theorycrafter was afraid. Corrupted human mouths gurgled and growled, snapping at his heels.
He spun suddenly, drawing a crescent shape in the sand underneath him with one booted foot. His right hand shot forward, palm up, and aimed back. “Ignis Iudicii!” He roared, finishing the spell. Angry, red and yellow flames spout from his palm into the open maw of a pale-eyed, dark-skinned human face. It melted, flesh and bone before his hand, and the gout engulfed everything beyond. Seven dead, incinerated at his hand. The flames filled the trapezoidal hallway and charred its stone walls.
The fires dissipated to smoke, leaving burnt skeletons in the sand. Eliden ran as fast as he could back the way he’d come, back toward the foyer chamber where Grokthnar waited. The Hob was too big for these human halls, of course. He had to squeeze his backside through the double-wide entrance as is. Thankfully, he had not been bitten in the rear in the process.
Calling out to the others was not an option. The dead would surely surge for him if he did. He had no way of knowing how many were inside the pyramid. Only that all those who died outside were held at bay by Grokthnar’s mighty hands. Hopefully.
Eliden turned a corner too hastily, sliding in the sand as he tried to stop himself. Ahead of him were two dead servants of the obelisk, hunched like beasts more than men. Their arms were slack and hanging off their shoulders. Each head twisted and jerked about. They were listening. Both whirled around, gurgling an unnatural screech when they saw him. Eliden pinwheeled his limbs and tried to recover his balance.
Hands grabbed him, and Eliden screamed with fright, fearing the end. His body was pulled to the left. He banged his shoulder off hard stone. He looked up as a body smashed into him and wrapped arms around his middle. Men stared at him, men with bright eyes lit by torches held aloft. The largest of them shoved an old tower shield into the doorway, bracing when the dead slammed into it.
Eliden looked down at the messy mop of mousey brown hair under his chin.
“Oh! Pasho! Thank God!”
Pasho Pyr squeezed. Eliden squeezed too. His heart overjoyed. Soon, the older man pried the younger woman off him, and he began to inspect her.
“Are you well? Hm? Let me see.”
“I’m fine, Eliden. I’m fine. I was so worried about you!” Pasho cried, trying not to break down into happy tears. “One of them bit my arm, but my aesilk protected me.”
“And Thank God for that as well,” He said next, interrupted from further cheer by the man holding the shield to the archway.
“Master Theorycrafter,” Behran began, his focus split between the man and his friend. The two monsters pushed on the alloy shield that kept them at bay.
“We are all very grateful for your sacrifice, drawing the monsters away so we could take shelter.” The bearded archaeologist said, his voice rich and thick with Tuulian accent.
Eliden chuckled, knowing full well that he had done no such thing. Rather, he’d gotten turned around when the dead came at them and taken a wrong turn.
“Yes, well. It seemed the thing to do at the time…”
Pasho squinted at him, suspicious.
“Now then! Behran, Tuktami, I require one of you to escort me to the obelisk you found. I am of the mind that this plague begins and ends with it. I should like to see it ended.”
“I, as well,” said Behran again, though his voice lowered. “Tuktami is gone. The dead took him.”
Eliden grimaced, leaning past Pasho to peer at the nearest Tuulian labourer.
“You are not Tuktami, are you? My apologies.”
Eliden ignored her. “And my deepest condolences. I rather liked Tuktami. He was a good man.”
Behran nodded once but said no more about the loss of his friend and labormaster. Instead, he focused on their survival. Sweat soaked his oily black hair and made the light silky fabric of his shirt cling to his svelte frame.
“I know the way. I will show you.”
“Pasho, you stay with the others and brace this doorway. Keep yourselves protected.”
“I will NOT!” cried Pasho, shoving at Eliden’s chest. “You’re not leaving my sight again. We all go. You’ll need us to protect you while you hatch your scheme.”
“Plan. I shall hatch my plan,” Eliden corrected, disapproving of the word ‘scheme’ in any context involving him. She wasn’t wrong. He schemed often. He only sought not to clue the world into it.
“Whatever! Go!” Pasho snapped.
Eliden cleared his throat, pushing past the woman so he could come up behind Behran. The taller Tuulian scientist gave a nod, then hunched down and pushed with a snarl to drive the dead back. “To the left at the intersection!”
Behran bashed the dead men backward, enduring their screams and flailing against the shield. Eliden and Pasho followed behind. The four labourers Behran and Pasho saved brought up the rear. They cowered, muttering prayer pleas to protect them. Their pitched chanting weighed on Pasho’s nerves, the girl clinging hard to Eliden’s coat behind him.
They worked through the corridors steadily. Behran led the way while pushing the two dead men like an ancient warrior on the battlefield. The plan seemed to be working until one of the four workers behind Pasho let out a shrill cry. The other three released much the same and shoved her. She tripped against Eliden, yelping. Eliden turned quickly.
They witnessed a gruesome fate. One of the hungry dead dropped upon the screaming labourer. It tore into his neck and chest with its fingernails. as if trying to rip something from the poor man. Blood welled under each clawing scratch. The man flailed about wildly, trying to defend himself in horror and pain.
Rather than help him, the other three pushed and trampled over Pasho to get away. Eliden physically shoved them aside, grabbing hold of Pasho’s robe. He hauled her forward while he inserted himself in the way to protect her.
“Go! I’m right behind you!”
Behran glanced back, acknowledging Eliden’s words. He turned the shield to pin the two dead before him against the wall.
“Quickly! Forward then right!” The Tuulian bellowed, holding the two hungry dead at bay and clearing a path.
Pasho stumbled ahead, looking back. Eliden kicked his booted foot into the dead man tearing at its victim. It was knocked aside, scrambling back up in the dark, bloody sand.
The three charged for Pasho, forcing her to keep going or be trampled again. She rounded the next corner as warily as she could with frightened men goading her. Behran burst from around the darkened corner next, running at full tilt without the shield. Eliden appeared right behind him, coat fluttering wildly.
Four dead were hot on their heels, snarling and whipping their arms around them. They were fast, but not so fast as rational men able to move their bodies appropriately. Pasho screamed despite herself and took off as fast as she could ahead of the others. Behind her, Behran barked directions to guide them.
Pasho’s feet slid in the sand on the ground, throwing her off. She pushed on, circling the next corridor to guide the three frightened men behind her. Behran roared that the chamber ahead was their destination. She waited, letting the Tuulian archaeologist go by. When Eliden caught up to her, he grabbed her hand and pulled her along with him. The dead clamored behind them, but Pasho did not fear. Not with Eliden by her side.
They entered the central chamber as instructed, finding Behran awaiting them. The other three huddled together in a corner, weeping and praying. Only Behran was ready to help them, holding a square, metal pad in his hands. It was the size of a dinner plate and bore a small plate at one of its sides that showed a digital display of its functions. When the two crossed through the threshold, he tapped upon the small screen. He tossed the object down in front of the archway when it hummed.
“That will hold them for now,” Behran said. “Only for now, its battery will not last long.”
The lead archaeologist turned toward Eliden, looked past the man and upnodded. Eliden and Pasho spun around to look up at the obelisk. It thrummed, vibrating with power. Sparks of electrical energy arced from one place on its surface to the next. They moved in sequence downward from the gemstone at its apex. That stone pulsed brightly, bathing the top half of the monolith in its white glow.
Markings were carved into the face. Pictographs and symbols that no doubt dictated its function. The language was lost to ancient mystery, though. It was rounded, tapering from a sturdy, wide base to the very point of it where the gem was embedded. The chamber itself left uneasy, filled with eldritch power and menace.
“If you are going to stop this, I suggest you do it quickly,” Behran warned, dusting sand off himself. He coiled his hands around the binding of his shoulder-length, black hair behind him. With a quick tug, he tightened the strap to hold the mane in place.
Pasho crept closer to Eliden, curling her arm around his closest limb for comfort. She observed the threat yet knew nothing of its origin. Without knowledge, she had no insights to offer.
“It’s ancient,” the girl breathed, recognizing age if not form and function.
“Indeed. Ancient and possessing the power to reanimate the dead. A strange ability,” Eliden began, spurred by Pasho’s words. “No sane arcanist would truck with such unholiness. Look at these..”
The green wizard raised a hand, reaching out for the obelisk’s carved surface. These pictographs showed humanoid shapes in war garb, raising bows, and arrows. The next panel was a carving of the gem atop the obelisk, shining. The panel after that, men without armor attacked those who did. A series of sigils were cut into the base of that panel, some sort of explanation none could read.
“Behran, how’s your linguistic skills?” asked Eliden, glancing behind him.
The Tuulian approached, inspecting where Eliden motioned. His dark brown eyes gazed over the sigil script, the pictographs, then the script again.
“A curse upon invaders.”
Eliden snapped his fingers! “AHA! A booby trap!”
Pasho jumped when he cried out his elation. “What? Now’s not the time for that!!” She chastised, withdrawing her arm to self-consciously cross both over her chest.
Eliden gave her a squirrelly look. “Wh-No! A booby trap, not…nevermind. It means to trap something stupid, a boob, rube, fool, et cetera.”
“Oh. What an odd name for something so dangerous,” she remarked, slowly unwinding her arms with understanding.
“In most cases, a booby trap is meant to destroy whatsoever falls prey to it. In this instance, it appears the obelisk was designed to not only destroy invaders but turn their fallen against them. Perhaps for the purpose of mutually assured destruction.”
“To kill that which killed them…” Behran offered.
“Quite so, quite so. Your men unwittingly tripped its long-slumbered alarm, and the obelisk performed as intended.”
“How do we deactivate it?” Pasho asked the obvious question.
Eliden’s raised hand lifted higher, pointing to the gem atop the stone. “That.”
All three gazed upon the shining, cut object, much like a diamond, affixed to the top.
“How do we reach it? Magic?” Pasho asked the obvious again.
Behran scoffed. “Magic. Such things do not exist in this world.”
Eliden and Pasho both turned on the other man, eyes wide.
“Magic stands before you and you do not recognize it?” Eliden asked, accusation in his tone.
Behran’s handsome face darkened. “This is not magic.”
“What is it then?” Pasho spat, offended.
“Some chemical system. Magic is only science we have yet to understand.” Behran retorted haughtily.
“Be that as it may,” interrupted Theorycrafter. “It is here, and we must stop it.”
Pasho grinned at her companion then. “More interference, is it?”
Eliden huffed. “Not now, Pasho.”
The wizard motioned for the two to step back, waving with his sleeved arms. “Some room, if you please.”
Each obliged, though Behran seemed reluctant.
Eliden faced the obelisk, reaching out with both of his hands toward the diamond-like
stone at its tip. He began to chant his magic words. The stone glowed brighter. The lancing arcs of lightning that traveled about its surface increased their activity.
“Eliden…” Pasho warned.
A rush of wind blew from the wizard’s hands again. Its backdraft blasted the two behind him and set their garments whipping. Behran gasped, shielding his eyes. He spoke words of the Tuulian dialect that were obvious curses. Pasho drew an arm over her face, covering herself against kicked-up sand. The three cowering labourers were equally awed, though they feared the green-coated man just as much as the dead now.
However, the gem did not budge. The obelisk’s vibrations grew louder.
Eliden grunted. “I fear I may have pissed it off.”
“Well THAT’s great!” Pasho snapped, lowering her air when the winds died down. “So we can’t magick it. Now what?”
Theorycrafter kicked the base of the obelisk with a boot, hard as he could.
“Eliden!” Pasho shrieked. “That’s your grand plan? Kick it?”
“Well no, rather testing to see if its defenses pertained to the physical. It does not. Obviously.”
“What if it had?”
“Does it matter now?”
“You could’ve been electricuted! Idiot!” The girl seethed.
“Indeed. I was not, meaning we may be able to extract the stone atop the…well…stone.”
“Truly. I am awed,” Pasho replied indignantly.
Eliden shrugged off her sarcasm, tucking his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Behran, may I use your shoulders?” he asked, wheeling about to look at the Tuulian. Behran tilted his head, his face twisted with confusion.
“I’d like to stand upon your shoulders to reach the gem.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course.” replied the dark-skinned man, striding forward.
“Let me do it. I weigh less than you and your fat head,” Pasho said, interjecting herself between Behran and Eliden.
Theorycrafter shook his head. “I’d rather you not. If there are other defenses, we're not aware of, then..”
“My aesilk will protect me,” she interrupted.
“...as you wish,” the wizard conceded, stepping aside.
Pasho smiled at her win, motioning to Behran as she stepped up beside the obelisk. It still crackling with energy. “If I die, you’re the first one I’ll eat,” she mentioned to Eliden.
“I would expect nothing less,” he muttered, looking up at the glowing gem atop the stone.
He watched as Pasho pawed at the stone, lifting a leg as Behran crouched down. She planted her boot on the man’s left shoulder, hoisting upward. Behran did the same without a grunt, rising up to give the girl height. She wobbled, setting her other boot on Behran’s right.
Halfway up, reaching for the gemstone, Pasho’s hand grazed an arc of lightning from the stone downward. The sizzling arc snapped at her hand as it jerked back, and Pasho flew from atop Behran to the sand.
Pasho Pyr twitched amidst the sobbing echoes of the three men huddled in the far corner. Eventually, she regained control of herself to sit up. Her mousey brown hair stood up on end in every which way. Her brown eyes were wide with shock behind the askew spectacles dangling off her small nose.
“You were electrocuted,” Eliden stated blandly.
Behran rushed to the girl’s side, bending down to grasp her arm with one hand and tuck the other’s limb behind her back. He helped her stand. “Are you injured?”
Wisps of smoke trailed from Pasho’s aesilk robe. “I think so,” she said, cowed. Soon, her gaze hardened and fixed on Eliden standing idly by.
“You could’ve warned me!”
“How was I to know for sure? I intended to take the risk myself, you know.”
Pasho scooped up a handful of sand and threw it at the green frocked wizard. Eliden deflected the spreading pile with a sweep of his coat’s length then snapped the fabric behind him. It gave him an oddly regal affectation. Behran laughed despite himself at the two.
“All is not lost,” Eliden went on, glancing down at the base of the obelisk again. “We take a cue from our dear Grokko and upturn this apple cart, I think.”
Pasho shuddered, her muscles still twittering under her skin from the shock. With Behran’s help, she found her footing and stood up as straight as she could.
“Knock it down,” she clarified.
“Quite right. Top marks as always. I’ll clear sand from its fore, you and Behran push from the back.”
Behran looked to the three in the corner, speaking the Tuulian dialect to the men. It was a melodious and oddly staccato speech, full of brief pauses amidst musical tones. At first, the men were reluctant. As he went on, they began to uncurl from each other and take tentative steps forward. Behran patted at the base of the column monolith, speaking his words again. Soon, the others joined them.
“They will lend their strength,” Behran told the two. Eliden nodded, though Pasho eyed the cowards critically while straightening her glasses.
A moment later, all was prepared. Eliden chanted his spell, the others crowded behind the stone. Behran took command there, watching the pattern of the arcs that danced down from the gem.
When the green wizard called the last word, wind blew from his hands. He aimed the gust down at the base of the obelisk, watching its force push the sand aside. This revealed more of the stone base it rested on.
“Ready!” Behran called out, waiting for a break in the spiderweb of current. “PUSH!”
All five slammed their shoulders to the stone and shoved, but the column held fast. Eliden continued his air burst, crouching down to focus the gust into the hole he’d already made.
“A little more, I see the bottom! Push!” he bellowed.
With the five behind it, the obelisk leaned when pushed at. As they let up, it rocked back to a stable stand. Behran roared again, and the five pushed, rocking it forward once more. Twelve times, they pushed while Eliden blew the sand away deeper and deeper before it. At the thirteenth shove, the monolith lurched forward and hesitated. Sand began to well up around the back of the base, the stone below the surface driving it upward.
“Timbe-oh bollocks!” Eliden groaned, watching the obelisk fall. He sprinted forward, running into the cloud of sand that exploded when it struck the ground. The pane of protective force blocking the archway had failed at the same time. The dead charged forward.
“Eliden!” Pasho screamed from behind, covering her eyes to protect them from the spray.
In the obscuring sandstorm, Behran, Pasho, and the labourers heard the keening screech.
“Be on guard!” Behran ordered, backing away to defend himself. Pasho wanted to run toward the sand cloud to help her mentor and dear friend. Behran snatched her back and shoved her behind him chivalrously. The girl glowered but relented to it and began to chant her own spell. The cowards ran for the far wall to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the dead.
They waited, breath held, for the sand to clear or for the monsters to come for them. Only the debris stilled. In its settling, Behran and Pasho saw Eliden sitting on the silent obelisk’s tip with the gemstone in hand.
He tossed it upward once, going to catch it flamboyantly. The glittering jewel bounced off his grasping fingers and pitched to the sand.
He bent down to reach for it but couldn’t. The man then slid off the fallen monolith and retrieve its power source from the sand then.
Pasho exhaled, storming up to cuff the older man against the back of his head with a clenched, small fist. “Jerk!”
Eliden flinched at the strike, hunching his shoulders. “Ow!”
Behran’s full-bellied laugh echoed off the stone walls surrounding them.
“Well done, Master Theorycrafter!”
“I thought so. Twas either make the mad dash or fight off the dead to reach it,” Eliden explained, turning around to face Pasho. He rose up to his impressive six-plus feet. “And for that, you hit me,” he added, staring down at Pasho.
Her cheeks reddened, hidden by the low light, and she smacked him once more for good measure. Her open hand slapped at his dusty chest this time and kicked up a small cloud.
“You deserve it.”
Pasho turned her attention to the bodies sprawled face down in the sand. They were inert and unthreatening. Still, they were corpses, and corpses unnerved her. Eliden smiled.
“We are safe. The threat has been neutralized,” he announced, offering her the jewel in his hand.
Grokthnar makes a friend
Grok growled, swatting a living corpse back out into the night. He crouched just inside the pyramid's entryway. His knees were bent up, and his belly hung low between them. It had been over an hour since the others left him behind to seek answers. He was growing bored of smacking the invading dead men.
Something small and furry skittered over his left foot. It stopped on the second middle of five knobby toes. He looked down slowly, squinting in the vague moonlight provided. A rodent looked back up at him, whiskers twitching. Grok smiled.
It was long and plump at the middle. Its tail was bare of fur like most rats, but its ears were round and satellite-shaped like its cousin, the mouse. Jagged buck teeth protruded from under its chittering snout that ended in a small black bulb.
“Hulloooooooo,” Grok boomed down at it cheerily, seeing movement from the corner of his eye. He immediately slapped at the dead man. It sent the reanimated corpse spinning through the air beyond the doorway.
“No worry, friend. Grokthnar protect you.”
The rat-like critter keened once, sitting up on its bigger back end. Small paws with long, sharp claws raised up against its breast. The creature’s tail whipped once and then curled.
“You good mouse. Hungry?” Grok asked, even though it didn’t have the capacity to speak. His free hand reached behind him, awkwardly picking at the endless packs on his back. He unstrapped one, dug two fingers in, and pried a half loaf of bread from inside.
“Here. Eat.” Grok cooed, bringing the loaf around between two fingers. It was tiny to him, barely a morsel. To the creature, it was a feast. As soon as Grok brought it down onto his foot, the rodent lurched forward and began to devour. It ate right through the soft middle, burrowing.
“Good boy,” Grok lilted, which was an odd sound for a giantkin Hob to make. Though no one witnessed it, Grokthnar tried to emulate Eliden’s gentle tone when he spoke to the critter.
Corpses screamed beyond the doorway, and more flailed and ran toward them. Grokthnar snarled spittle from his thick lips, hammering a fist down on the first to crush it. He smacked the next back into the rest. They recovered. Even the crushed one jerked and tried to wiggle like a worm through the sand.
The Hob tried not to move, to not disturb the creature dining on his foot. Hampered as he was, Grok continued to fight back the tide of the hungry dead. His left hand doing much of the work, and his right only motivated if needed.
Fed up by the constant onslaught, the fat Hob snatched up a crushed, wriggling corpse by its broken foot. He began to club the rest with it. Wide swings smashed through each wave of undead that reached the doorway. Suddenly, they all dropped. Grokthnar lifted the stump of the one in his thick-fingered grip. He shook it a few times and watched for movement. It hung limp, stretching on weak ligaments and flesh.
“Heha Yay!” The Hob cheered.
“See? Friends win.” He said down to the rodent curling up inside the chewed-out husk of the loaf. Grok dropped the corpse in the sand, picking up the loaf carefully between his finger and thumb. He worked it until it nestled in his palm.
“Call you…Munchy!” he declared with a grin.
The wide-eared rodent pushed its head up out of the loaf, chittering. It curled back up inside contently.