"RETURN TO THE BONEHOARD."
by James Page aka Naartjie
Part 1 - Jevik's Gift
"You are insane"
These were the only words that could escape my mouth as I stood before the desk of my superior. The dark man on the other side sat back into his chair and paused for a long time before speaking.
" Not insane, Yorrick. Think for a moment. It is common knowledge that such fears are unfounded, merely the rumours of those families who wish their dead to remain undisturbed. The Bonehoard, as some foolishly name it, contains nothing of any danger to men. The only danger you face in the tombs of past ancestors is the grip of your own fears. Once you have mastered this, you face no peril and no evils."
I stood dumbfounded. How could he say this to me? I could barely believe that he was serious in his requests. In fact, 'requests' was the wrong word. 'Orders' was more appropriate. Take this job or leave, I was told. If I was thrown out of my Guild, where could I go? I had already been cast out of the Downwinders and the Dark Arm, once for attempting to keep a few ornaments I had stolen, and once simply because the Guild had been 'closed down' by one of the last remaining splinter groups of Hammerites, unwilling to join the Mechanist following but still loyal to their Builder.
"I am afraid I cannot accept any answer but your acceptance of my requests, Yorrick. Your Guild is in need of funds to keep us running, and this job is perhaps the key to our continuation. You know the value of the Horn of Quintus, plucked from its resting place some years ago from deep within the Quintus family catacombs. Just imagine the value of a second Horn, crafted from the same wood, ivory and studded with the same gemstones as its sister."
"A sister horn? How is it possible that something so valuable has never been heard of before, by anybody? And even more so: how is it that it has never been stolen from the Bonehoard?"
" The answer is quite simple, my dear Yorrick. Please observe."
The other man slid backwards on his chair, and reached underneath his desk, where I heard a tiny click, followed by the muffled sound of a heavy, metal plate sliding out of place. He got up slowly, and shuffled over to his massive oak bookcase, where he removed five heavy volumes to reveal a cavity in the wall. Something gleamed darkly inside. He reached into the wall to produce, on a purple cushion, the Horn of Quintus!
"The Horn? You have it here? But how did you manage? The Horn is in the keeping of Lord Forridon, and he keeps it out of even his own sight!"
"My dear Yorrick, I must advise you that this is not the Horn of Quintus. This is its sister, the Horn of Iucundus. There is however one small fault. This horn was manufactured by an associate of mine from the city four months ago, unlike that of the Quintus family, which was created four centuries ago by craftsmen and sorcerers from the First Age. Because of this, it lacks certain qualities possessed by that of the ancient horn. One is its inability to create the enchanting music created by the Quintus horn, powerful enough to send the most ferocious beasts to a deep sleep, and still ward away those who would seek to take it. We can remedy this by a few well placed rumours spread among the gullible aristocracy of Dayport. If we can succeed in creating a sufficient interest in the value of a second horn, we can make the nobles agree to buy anything. When wealth clouds their vision, they will put all else aside to further it."
"But why don't you just sell the horn now? Surely you have stirred up enough interest in it in four months. And what has this got to do with my visit to the Bonehoard?"
" Time, Yorrick, time! You will know soon enough. Tonight it is too late to begin. I will brief you tomorrow about your mission. Go home, rest and prepare yourself. I will see you tomorrow, but this time, we cannot meet here. I will leave you a suitable message about our meeting location - please keep your eyes and ears open. Good night, Yorrick, sleep well."
I didn't say anything after that. I turned and left the Guild buildings by the back way, through the inn, and out into the darkened streets. On my way back to my home, I thought about what I had just been told by my superior. He had asked me to enter the tombs and catacombs reputed to contain the ghosts and spirits of those dead for hundreds of years. I still couldn't understand what was actually being asked of me though. The Guild had a 'sister horn' for the Horn of Quintus, which they planned to advertise to the city's aristocracy by way of rumour and gossip, and then find a suitable buyer, which would generate enough funds to keep the Guild running. But why then, if the Guild already had the horn, couldn't they just sell it now? After four months of publicising the value of such an artefact, surely the upper class must be itching to get their greedy hands on such an item, the owner of which looked upon by the others with envy and admiration. There must be a sound reason for my orders. I realised that no amount of fathoming would give me the answer, so I decided the best course of action was just to sit tight and look out for the signal.
The morning brought no clearing of my mind: still I couldn't work out why I was needed. I watched the streets below as I sipped a steaming drink at my apartment window. People were already up and out in the streets, selling cheap pewter ornaments and trays of bakery produce to the early morning passers by. My eye was caught by one particular merchant: he seemed to be acting rather oddly and out of place. He was not shouting like the others, and didn't seem to notice customers who approached to buy his wares, his eyes seemed to be scanning for something else. Suddenly I realised what it was: he was watching the windows of all the apartment blocks on my side, his gaze moving slowly across to wall to my left. Soon he would see me. I decided to stay still: this could be the signal I was expecting. Abruptly, his eyes jumped from the wall and met my own: I was startled and jumped slightly backwards, spilling my coffee on the table beside me. Cursing under my breath, I looked back down to the street, but to my frustration the man was gone. Setting down my cup gently to avoid further burning of my hands and marking of my table, I hurried to the landing outside and clattered down the stairs, chiding myself for being so noisy. What kind of thief was I to be making so much noise? I fumbled with the key in the front door, and it was several seconds before I was able to emerge on to the street.
My eyes scanned its length, but the man was nowhere in sight. Curses again! If I had missed the signal, I would surely be thrown out of yet another Guild, and the city was rapidly running out of places for me to go. I turned my eyes back to the door, and was startled yet again as the merchant who had spied me was standing to the right of the doorway, arms folded and leaning against the wall.
"I trust you saw me, Mr. Yorrick. I have been sent to speak to you and to pass on a message, one of some importance, or so I am told. Here, take this and be ready."
"I...Oh, thanks...Goodbye," I stuttered as the man turned and merged with the crowd which now thronged the narrow street. I went back up to my apartment and closed the door to read my message.
Y-I strained my eyes to read the coded message: it was written in an ancient, forgotten dialect sometimes used by the Guild when passing information on missions involving data extraction, safe breaking or decoding. The message was quite clear: I was to meet with my superiors at the old halls of residence, in apartment block 10, room 33. The 'fourth period' simply meant at around 10:00 pm, the last shift of jobs thieves were sent on by the Guild. The old halls were located a short walk from my favourite tavern: The Green Burrick. I decided to call in there before going to my meeting: perhaps a refuelling would help me to take in what was being asked of me.
Later that day, I gathered my cloak and gloves, and set out into the streets. A light rain shower had made the flagstones slick and shiny, so I kept to the side of the buildings to avoid being caught in the reflections. Although I was in no danger, it never hurt to practise the skills of remaining undetected. A passer by approached me, and passed within inches without looking up or noticing me. I smiled within my hood in satisfaction: I was still capable of my old thieving talents.
A few minutes later I reached my destination, and checked over each shoulder before melting into the shadows of the doorway. I tried the handle: it was unlocked, and as I stepped inside, I caught the fetid odours of disuse the building had suffered since its abandonment some five years back. The inside was almost completely dark, and I stopped for a few seconds to allow my eyes to adjust. I crossed the main hallway, my footsteps creaking on the moulded wooden floorboards. I reached the stairs, and ascended slowly, even now anxious not to make any noise. The familiar corridor of my old residence appeared before me, once a place where junior acolytes of the Guild sneaked back in late at night after a visit to Madame DeGard's or the Green Burrick. The corridor was strewn with cobwebs, and the floorboards sagged towards the middle, badly in need of repair. I brushed strands of spider webbing from my hair and felt for the handle of room 33.
The door gave easily, and I slipped inside. A hole had been made in the roof, and moonlight streamed in through the gap, illuminating a small patch in the room's centre. Instantly, two figures detached themselves from either side of the chamber, but I was neither surprised nor startled. I knew from the start that they would be waiting for me, and I greeted them with a raising of my hand, and they did likewise. A few seconds after, a third appeared, through the hole in the roof, and as he dropped silently to the floor, I recognised his moon- bathed face. He was Jevik, a veteran of the Guild, and known to be close to the Guild leaders and their workings.
"Yorrick- I'm glad you could make it here tonight. Please be seated."
It was my boss, the same man who had shown me only yesterday the manufactured 'Horn of Iucundus' in his office. He motioned to a chest of clothes behind me, and I pulled it up to the edge of the pool of white light in the centre of the meeting. The other two men sat back on boxes, their dark faces hidden in the blackness beyond out oasis of light.
" Yorrick- this is Jevik, who I'm sure you've seen, and David, a close...friend of mine. I saw the other two nod in the darkness, and I nodded by head back to each of them.
" After our meeting yesterday Yorrick, I informed you of my plan to send you down to the catacombs of the Bonehoard, to recover an item which I need to ensure the continuation of our Guild. I am sure you were under the impression that what I am after was the Horn of Iucundus, but as you saw, I already have it. The Horn is almost an exact replica of the Quintus family's horn, bar one or two illustrations and design differences, but apart from that the two appear as sisters. There is however one difference: The real horn, the horn currently held by Lord Forridon, contains one half of a cut gemstone, encrusted on the horn's body. In order to make my horn appear as the sister horn of the genuine article, I must have the other half of this stone. Unfortunately, this is impossible, as no such thing exists: the other half was most probably used for some other item of jewellery or some trinket, and is long gone by now. No- what you must do is recover a stone similar enough to be cut and encrusted into my horn to make the story about the horn's sisterhood appear genuine. Here is where my friend, David, will come in. David: please explain to Yorrick what is required."
I turned to look at David, sitting to my right in the circle of four. He leaned forward, coming slightly into the light, but not revealing his face.
" Yorrick, hello. I believe we have already met." He reached out his hand, and I took it, straining to remember. Suddenly, the memory of his deep, grating voice told me that this was the merchant I had been startled by this very morning. I shook his hand firmly, and sat back to take in what I was about to be told.
"Mr Yorrick- Please listen carefully, as I will only be able to explain this once. Firstly, I should say that is was I who crafted the Horn whose gemstone you will seek out. The gemstone we need must be of an exact specification, otherwise I will not be able to cut it finely enough to make it match the gemstone in the Horn of Quintus. There is evidence to suggest that such a stone exists, and can be found in a sealed up section of the catacombs in the sp named 'Bonehoard'. The stone is one of three stored in the catacombs; all three stones being named after the one who created them many centuries ago: a character known only as the Mystic. The man's name is irrelevant however, as it is only the stone we want. Three of these stones were created, the Mystic's Heart, Soul, and Breath. The first two stones are easily recognisable: the third not so. It appears as a ordinary rock, small enough to hold in my palm. It does however have one interesting characteristic: upon contact with a sample of Hammerite holy water, the stone will emit a white gas which subsides after a few minutes. You may wonder how all of this is known by us: let me just say that we have been doing over the last four months a great deal of investigating, and have uncovered several convincing pieces of evidence collected from various Hammerite sites of worship. You have your friend Jevik to thank for that." Jevik nodded accordingly. " I continue. Mr Yorrick: we need this stone, and have chosen you as the man to retrieve it. We are able to provide you with a comprehensive map of the tombs you are going to visit, made up of a number of such maps we have recovered from various parts of the city. Rest assured MrYorrick, you will never lose your way once you are down there. The area will comprise largely of tombs from the DeWalden family, a crypt yet unopened by grave robbers, and indeed one of the first families to be interred in the Bonehoard. We have already created an opening in the crypt's seals, but were unable to progress further to the stone."
I shuddered as I wondered just exactly why they hadn't been able to continue to the Mystic's Breath gemstone. I didn't have much time to ponder though, as David carried straight on:
" Mr Yorrick, we believe the gemstone you seek to be kept somewhere in the outer sanctum of the crypt layout. It will likely be stored in some sort of container, perhaps even in plain sight if you are in luck. We suspect that there will be no 'traps' to hinder you, as this particular section of the Bonehoard is relatively simple and easy to navigate, and was created long before the technology of complex trap-making became available. Finally, Mr Yorrick, we have made an entrance to he Bonehoard available to you. The standard way in through the graveyard on the city's outskirts has been sealed up by the descendants of the Quintus family after their learning of the horn's retrieval several years ago. However, there is a second way in, which we can access by making use of an underground river the original grave builders used to ferry their materials to the tombs they built. We will supply a ferryman, a boat and means of leaving the area once you have retrieved the stone."
He paused, and I leaned back against the wall to try and take in the sheer volume of what had just been told to me. Now everything was clear, which was a relief, but already a feeling of lurking dread was building inside me. The Bonehoard. How many tales I had heard of eager-eyed thieves, grave robbers and sometimes even ordinary people who had tried to venture deep underground in search of the vast quantities of wealth the dead were said to guard. Very few were said to ever escape once they had descended, there was only one recorded man who was said to have successfully raided the jewels of the dead- the man who recovered the original Horn of Quintus, but who's name eluded me. I smiled wryly, thinking how both of us were loosely connected by the horn.
My train of thought was broken as the three in front of me rose simultaneously. The first two, David and Jevik, left via the door, but my superior remained behind, evidently wanting to talk to me.
"Yorrick- you know why you have been chosen. I have faith in your abilities to recover this stone, and keep me in business. If you fail, the Guild will close, and both I and your brethren will be out of business, perhaps forced to work as freelance thieves and so give ourselves away to the city watch. You may leave for your mission at any time you wish, though you must leave within a week to give me time to sell off the horn once we have the stone. I can promise you now- should you succeed and bring me the Mystic's Breath, I will share evenly with you the profits from the horn's sale. You must come to me when you are ready to leave. Good luck my friend- I am sure you will need some."
With that, he turned and left through the door, his footsteps creaking down the corridor and over the hall below me. I stood for a while, just thinking of the enormity of my task. Still thinking, I left the room, and slowly continued down the corridor. As was about to round the banister and descend the stairs, a voice from behind me reached my ears.
"Hey. I thought I might be able to help you. Take this for your mission- should you run into trouble down there, you will need it."
It was Jevik- he reached out and placed four small vials into my glove, before turning and vanishing into the shadows again. I called out a word of thanks, but I think he was already gone by then. I left the house, and made my way home slowly, still deep in thought.
Part ][ - The Tunnel
I sat and thought almost for a whole day after the meeting with the others. I knew I was going to attempt the mission, and decided that no good would come of waiting and brooding. So on the second day after the meeting, I collected my tools and walked down to the Guild's offices, where I was told to sit in a waiting room before I could see the boss. After a short wait, I was admitted to his office, and sat down opposite him. He sat back in his usual way, and fixed me with his gaze.
" You are ready, are you Yorrick? Do you have everything you will need? If you do not, we can supply you with extra tools or weapons."
"No, I'm fine thank you. I have every tool and weapon I will need."
Every possible weapon, including the four vials of water Jevik had given me two night ago. I put my hand to my waist and felt the small bottles between my fingers. They felt comforting, my only weapon against those who could not be struck down by normal means. I had given quite considerable thought to the undead, and decided that I would do nothing to aggravate any I came across, and to avoid contact with as many beings as possible.
" Then you are prepared. I will take you to your ferryman. He will take you to the drop-off point, just outside the entrance to the tombs you will be searching. I trust you have studied the information we have given you?
" Yes- I'll be fine on navigating down there. I know the map well enough to be able to find my way around, I'm sure.
I had already planned a route that would allow me to investigate the outer sanctum of the crypt where the stone was likely to be kept, one which would take me around the various rooms of the tombs and catacombs, and hopefully find the stone in good time.
"Follow me, Yorrick," he said, motioning me out of a side door to his study I had never actually seen before. I followed him and soon we were out into the street, via a network of tiny passages from the Guild's centre to a discreet back door. I was lead further round the back of the building, where my superior knocked on the side door of a building making up one side of the alley we were in. The door was answered by a small, stocky man who nodded to us before disappearing back into his house. A minute later he returned, wearing a thick cloak and boots.
"Here is where I must leave you, Yorrick. Carsten here will take you to your boat, and will ferry you to your destination. Good luck. I will see you tomorrow." My superior turned and walked away back round the corner, his long cloak swishing around the corner behind him. I turned to see that Carsten had already set off down the alley in the opposite direction, and I hurried after him to walk by his side. I noticed that he seemed to be the more taciturn type, so I didn't attempt to start any conversation. I fixed my eyes on the ground before me, and allowed myself to be lead by Carsten down to the river banks, slightly upriver from the Dayport Docks.
By the time we arrived, the gentle rain had stopped, and the small shaded grove of trees we arrived at was bathed in moonlight. Carsten bent down by the river banks, and with a grunt he heaved out from its hiding place a rowing boat and oars, setting it on the water. He waited for me to get in, and I did so, steadying myself on the water. Carsten then got in and fixed his oars to the boat, before setting out across the river.
" Be a while to get there. You might want to rest." I was surprised to hear his first words, but I took his advice nonetheless and put my head in my knees to rest. I found sleep surprisingly easy to attain, and I dozed for much of the journey there. By the time we were nearing the drop-off point, the scenery had changed dramatically. We were now in a deeply wooded section of the river, where almost no light penetrated the canopies above. Carsten seemed to be looking for something over his shoulder as well, and soon enough he seemed to find his marker, and turned the boat to face the right hand bank. With one powerful stroke on each oar, he propelled the craft strongly into the bank, except instead of hitting the side, we kept on going, as if in a underground tunnel. It turned out that that was exactly what we were in, and Carsten reached up to the tunnel's ceiling to find something. He seemed to find it, and a click sound penetrated the darkness, followed by the sound of a lamp powering slowly up...
Suddenly, a light flickered on at the very far end of the tunnel, followed by a second, a third, getting gradually closer to us, and then a fourth, and finally a fifth. There was one light directly behind us, but as soon as it turned on it flared a bright orange and gave out noisily with much sparking and crackling. I turned my eyes back to the tunnel ahead, blinked as my vision was flooded with light. The tunnel walls ahead were smooth and well-laid, and had had the electric lights inserted some years ago by an archaeological expedition to search for fossils of strange beasts behind the walls of the tunnel. On each side of the tunnel there was a walkway, where workers must have moved great slabs of stone to build the ancient tombs, and carried the bodies of the dead to be interred. Carsten continued to row us down the tunnel, until we reached the end of the lights. Here, he steered his boat to the edge of the water, and got out of the vessel, hauling me out at the same time. Tying the boat to a metal stake hammered into the walkway floor, he lit a torch taken from the boat, and led me a small way into the darkness, where he used his torch to light another on the tunnel wall. As soon as the second torch had been lit, I noticed that there was a weakness below on the walls, and it was here that Carsten reached down and shoved in a block of loosened stone, to reveal an entrance to a room beyond. This must be the entrance they told me about, I thought. My assumptions were confirmed when I bent down to peer through the opening, and a heavy, fetid odour of decay and time clung to my nostrils. The room beyond was totally dark, I could just make out the lining of a doorway across the room. As my eyes adjusted, the room became clearer, and I worked out the room's size- about 10 paces across and 20 wide. I also made out the heavy shape of a bulky sarcophagus, set into the ground across the room.
I retracted my head, looked one final time at Carsten, and without saying a word, ducked and crawled through the opening and into the catacombs of the Bonehoard.
Part ]l[ Down In the Bonehoard
As soon as I entered the dimly illuminated tomb, I felt the chill air make contact with my skin. I shivered and pulled my cloak more tightly around my neck. This was going to be difficult, I had no doubts about that whatsoever. I had to overcome not only my fears and doubts, but I had also to retrieve the Mystic's Breath this night, or I would be left alone, as my ferryman could not himself risk two days outside in the tunnel. I closed my eyes for a second and started moving.
As I melted deeper into the room's shadows, I was able to see through the doorway I was approaching. Beyond seemed to lie a second chamber, with another sarcophagus in the far corner. The room was otherwise empty, and I passed through it in much same way as I had the first. However, after this easy start, I encountered through a third doorway a narrow corridor, sloping gently downwards. I peered down through the gloom, but couldn't make anything more out of the shadows ahead. I started to descend, brushing the walls on either side of the narrow passage in the hope of finding another doorway. This section of the tombs was not actually marked on my map, as it was only the entrance to the larger family vaults I was to take the stone from. I had been told that I would quickly pass through this area, and soon enough, the corridor levelled out to conclude in an archway to a much larger area ahead. The area was lit by some strange source high above my head, where several white glowing crystals illuminated the room. The ceiling was far above my head, and the whole room was in the form of a cylinder, walkways circling the cylinder's insides all the way to the top. Behind these walkways, my map told me that there were other, smaller chambers for specific families and their relatives and servants. I checked my map again, and was about to start out across the floor when I heard a noise that chilled my blood and froze my limbs. From somewhere far above me came a heavy, muffled groan, which echoed slightly off the walls before reaching my ears. I silently darted back into the shadows of the doorway, afraid that I would be detected out on the lighted floor.
I had been mislead by those responsible for sending me down to this desolate place. I had been told that the Bonehoard had been silent since the last bodies were sealed in here two hundred years ago. But that groan could not have been my imagination. Something was up in the other rooms, and I dreaded to dwell on the identity of the creature above me. I had heard of the walking dead, but had never seen anything of the sort, or talked to anyone who had. Before today, they were the stuff of ghost stories used to keep trespassers away from sites some did not want disturbed, the place I was in now being just one of them. What was I to do? I could not turn around and leave, nor could I stay here. What if I was to be found? I would never make it out of the crypts alive. I decided that there was but one thing I could do, and that was to confront my worst terrors and carry on up to the top of the outer sanctum to find my stone. The quicker I did that, the quicker I could leave and return to the safeness of the city.
Keeping flat against the more dimly lit sides of the cylindrical hall, I edged my way to the opposite side where a door faced my hiding place. My eyes scanned continually for signs of movement far above, but I saw nothing. As I reached my shadowed doorway, I darted inside and looked for the beginning of the staircase that could lead me to the top. The stairs would around the inside of the area, through various rooms, sometimes stopping and then restarting several rooms later. I began to ascend the steps, treading carefully to avoid making any sound that could alert anything that could be here. After passing through several bare, unused rooms unhindered, I began to gain a small measure of confidence, and started to climb more quickly. I found myself wanting to run up these steps, to grab the stone, and flee from the Bonehoard and back to my apartment in central Dayport. I even had to restrain myself from skipping steps and running upwards, but after several more rooms I found the slowness unbearable. I was barely a fifth of the way up by now, and I decided to up the pace slightly. I soon realised my mistake when I heard a second noise that sent a chill through my legs and spurred me to dart into the darkest corner of the room I was in. The same sound as I had heard before echoed through the rooms and back down the stairs, and again I had an urge to leap from my hiding place and chase the sound down the stairs and out of the Bonehoard. I kept my ground however, and pressed my body back against the wall, determined to wait out the creature in the next room above.
I waited for what seemed to me to be several minutes before any more sound came from above, but this time the sound was different. The thing above was actually moving, and I could hear the laboured dragging of feet and the creak of worn bones. The creatures breathing could now be heard, a vain sucking of the stale air into rotted lungs, followed by a heavy exhalation speaking pain in every breath. I heard it groan again, trying to form words out of nothing, but managing only an incomprehensible note from long dead vocal chords. I stayed totally still, and I froze in my place as one foot became visible descending the stairs from right to left a few metres ahead of me. A pair of sinewy legs soon followed, and in a full thirty seconds the whole body of the zombie was silhouetted against the grey wall in the dim light from outside. It didn't seem to have been alerted to my presence, and continued painfully down the stairs, stumbling several times on the worn flagstones. I waited till I could no longer hear or indeed smell it, as I noticed that the zombie did have a very distinctive smell, and then caught my breath, exhaling deeply and sinking back against the wall. I was sweating freely, and wiped my brow. If I was quick from now on, I could avoid the creature's returning, and be out of here quicker. I carried on up the stairs.
I laboured my way further and further towards the top of the spiral, each room containing its own section of the ancient, winding staircase which wove its way around the outside of the massive cylindrical chamber. Sometimes, some of the rooms would contain small windows, allowing me to check my progress and look for movement in the windows above. So far, I had seen nothing but the solitary zombie and a few spiders. I hoped my luck would hold out. By now, I had reached nearly three-quarters of the way up, and the structure and contents of each room was starting to change. As I got closer to the top, each chamber started to become more and more richly decorated, some with long, dusty tapestries displaying a family crest, some small monuments to mark the vaults containing bodies set into the walls, and now and then even some jewellery. I didn't see what use the dead had for their trinkets and gems, so I decided to help myself and cover personal expenses of my own. I had a very good idea of what I could spend some of it on should I find the Mystic's Breath, and the name 'Green Burrick' seemed to feature heavily somewhere. I realised that I was allowing my mind to wander, and snapped out of my daydream. I was getting closer to my goal now, and I had to stay alert.
As soon as I had thought this, my eye caught something in the room just up the winding stairs ahead. It was outlined in the pale white light streaming in through the window from one of the crystal lighters I had seen earlier. The metal structure was some sort of tomb marking- in the shape of a huge forged hammer. I had a sudden recollection, and crouching in a dark corner, I took out my map. Sure enough- there it was. I had obviously reached the small Hammerite where the body of a high priest was laid to rest. What was more was that according to my diagram, the room containing the stone was only a few more chambers ahead! Fumbling to put the map back in my cloak, I peered into the Hammerite crypt, and seeing nothing, progressed up the stairs. I reached the top and looked for any more signs of movement in the next room. Nothing. Fuelled on by the promise of my task being nearly half-done, I hurried as silently as I could up one more flight of stairs, to be confronted by a heavy iron door. My heart sank into my stomach. I had no lock picks with me- I hadn't reckoned I'd need them for a job like this. I tried the door just for the sake of it, but to no surprise it was locked. What was I to do? I had come so far that to turn back would have undermined the efforts of everyone involved in this. Besides, I couldn't just go back and tell Jevik and the others that I had failed them because I couldn't open a door.
I knew that I had to get past this barrier, and my mind raced as I tried to mentally open the door with ideas and suggestions to myself, all of which I soon found fault with. I searched dim room for a key, but found nothing. There were several chests in the room, but each only contained useless pieces of paper and accounts, so frayed and eaten away that they crumbled in my gloved hands. What was worse was that I had begun to hear things again- but not from behind the door. They were coming from down below, on the other side of the main chamber. I strained my eyes through the small slit of a window, but couldn't see any movement. I cursed my luck as I continued to search for anything that might aid me, but still found nothing. I knew the Hammers' crypt couldn't help me- from what I knew about Mechanists the Hammers were unenthusiastic about the general populace, especially nobles, and would never agree to help by concealing the key to the tomb of a wealthy family. Still, I found myself going back down the steps into the crypt to see what I could see.
As I entered the room, I was caught in a beam of bluish white light coming from the window, and an idea suddenly occurred to me. I hurried over to the window, crouching on one step to get a better look out. This window was much wider then the others I had seen, so I craned my neck out of it and looked up and to my right to see what was above. Almost immediately, I noticed how close to the roof of the cylindrical chamber I was - the locked room must have been the last room of all, I also noticed how close we must have been to the surface- as a thick oak tree root was poking through the roof, having cracked the stone roof and grown through. What was even more interesting was that the root passed by the window to the locked room-which was also big enough for me to get through! If I could just manage to get a hold of that root- I could climb upwards and into the last room via the window- and claim my reward. I received a rush of energy in my legs, and I quickly brought out a special Guild issue arrow with an extending rope device fitted to the end. I fitted the arrow to my crossbow, and raised my arm to aim and fire at the thickest part of the root. I fired, and the arrow shot from my bow and embedded itself into the wood of the root, the long rope shooting out behind and back to my arms. I quickly checked over my shoulder, and then refitted my crossbow back to my body. Closing my eyes and gritting my teeth, I swung out over the gap.
The rope held strong, and as I swayed back and forth over the huge drop below me, I clung tighter to the rope in my fists. Looking upward to my target, I began to climb the rope hand over hand, my long cloak swaying with my body motions as I ascended to the root. I let go of the rope with one arm, and quickly grabbed around the top of the main root with my other arm, before heaving with all my strength to pull myself upwards and around the root's body, I left the rope where it was, figuring that I would need it a little later. I began to climb the root, my body hugging the wooden body, slowly shifting myself upwards. With just a few more movement I would be able to reach the sill...finally, I was able to touch the rim of the window, and I hugged the tree with my knees, reaching out with my hands to grab the sill. I briefly looked down, and fought down the urge to panic as I saw just how precarious my position was. I was so high! Hundreds of feet below me, the floor of the chamber was illuminated dimly by the bright crystal lighter set into the roof just above my head level. My eyes swam and watered, and I gritted my teeth again before letting go of the tree with my legs, and pulling myself into the window with my hands and arms. I was in -I could almost feel the presence of the stone I had worked so hard to claim.
I drew my body into the room, and sat back against the window, my back against the cool stone. I was sweating all over now, partly from the effort in getting up to the window, partly from the fear of falling a few moments ago, and partly from the excitement which was also making me shiver. I opened my eyes properly to take in the room's surroundings. I was further amazed to discover that this room was also filled with Hammerite artefacts and objects! Of course- that was why the stone could be recognised by the application of holy water. It had belonged to the Hammers, not to the DeWalden family. My mind began to untangle the situation a little more. Was the Mystic to whom the stone was named after in association with the Hammers? Or was he a Hammer himself? Why had they decided to bury it? Perhaps they had seen no use in it- maybe it promoted greed among acolytes and so they decided to dispose of it in a place none would dare to retrieve it from. Except me, of course. I made a mental note to ask the Guild leaders about the stone's origin after I returned.
After I had spent some time adjusting to the room's darkness, I got up and slowly made my way around the place. It was similar to the last room- only on a larger scale. There were more heavy stone sarcophaguses, more tapestries, an alter with the Builder's sign, and even a small collection of holy texts. I did not however find any evidence that the stone was in this room. It was definitely the room behind the door- there it was itself, the original obstacle blocking my path. I searched again, and realised that I would have to look a little harder. I had been trained to do this, to be able to discover the location of secret compartments and cavities, so I decided that this couldn't be too hard. Allowing my eyes to settle, I scanned the room for anything unusual or slightly abnormal. At first I noticed nothing, but after a while I picked up on something that was strange with one of the main sarcophaguses - it seemed to contain a tiny section that was higher than any other. I walked over to investigate, and sure enough I discovered that the eye of an engraving on the lid of the giant stone coffin was actually a minute button. I put my thumb to it, and pressed. Off to my left, the sound of a heavy grating of stone against stone brought a smile to my face. I rushed over to see where the sound was coming from, and saw that the altar with the Builder's symbol was moving directly sideways. Concealed beneath was a leather bag, which I reached in and got out, feeling something heavy inside. Excited, I kneeled over and emptied the bag into my lap, one of the contents being a small, palm- sized stone! I felt a rush of euphoria as I unscrewed the cap of one of Jevik's four bottles- and could have jumped in the air as the stone emitted a small cloud of white gas into the musty air of the tomb. I put the stone back into a pouch, and, still feeling the results of my excited rush of joy, reached into the leather bag to produce a rusted, iron key. I could escape now, I had everything! I turned to get up and leapt back in reflex terror as a figure stood shadowed in the opened doorway. It carried a sword, and its face was shadowed in the half-light. I backed away sharply, my eyes widening in horror at the sight. I heard the whispers of Hammerite fathers come to claim my soul, taunting me and mocking me now that they had me in their own tomb. The figure began to advance, and I saw as its face became illuminated that it was undead, for it had no features but that of a terrible, naked skull. The socketless eyes seemed to bore into me, to take a hold of my stomach with a grip of ice, never to let go, to drag me down and keep me in the desolate tombs for further centuries. Just as my terror seemed ready to overwhelm me, I remembered my last parting with the Guild, and the gift Jevik had given me. I shook off the panic and fear, and as the Hammerite undead creature was about to raise his sword to strike, I threw the half empty bottle as hard as I could at his face. It smashed, and drenched the whole of his front in holy water. Then I threw a second, not bothering to unscrew it. By now the figure was soaked down its front. I saw the water begin to fizz and steam, and then to burn. The figure shuddered, and staggered backwards, tripping over a chest and falling on its back, a terrible cry of anger and pain sounding from the air around it. It writhed on the ground, clutching its chest and face, before simply evaporating in a burst of steam and water.
I walked over to check the remains- but there were none. However, his dying cry seemed to have awakened fellow undead creatures, for now I both saw and heard movement from the chambers below me. I knew I was trapped - but I couldn't work out where the undead were coming from. By the noise they seemed to be zombies- of course- as the Hammerites would never leave undead guards to watch over the tombs of heretics. I heard below the groans and cries of walking corpses awakening, and some were even close enough for me to hear their footsteps. I quickly shut the door again and locked it- I was at least safe for now. However, I was barricaded in to this crypt with nowhere to go, as it was the last room in the spiral complex. I listened to the increasing groans of the undead-some must have reached my door now, and I heard the noise of decaying bodies pushing themselves against the barrier. I hoped that the door would hold against the undead long enough for me to devise an escape. I set my mind at work again- I had got in here by thought power- now I had to simply get out, with the added problem of the zombies. I taxed my brain hard as I thought for a further five minutes, before the beginnings of an idea formed in my head. The tree root outside had taken several decades to break through the thin stone. That tree connected to the surface. If I could do the same- I knew I was not far from the ground. I looked up, and noticed a bulge in the ceiling where the root must've been pressing against the stone ceiling! Sensing I was not far, I looked frantically for something to break me free. In the corner stood a rack of hammers- I raced over, took one from the rack , and swung it upwards with every ounce of strength I possessed at the bulge.
At first it made no impression, but after a few blows tiny cracks started to form where my hammer hit the stone. Soon, I managed to widen the cracks, enough to make the stone start to crumble. I checked around me, as the sound of the zombies on the other side was beginning to become deafening, coupled with my efforts against the stone ceiling. Ignoring the sounds of their groaning and cries, I repeatedly hammered on the ceiling, widening the gap. I felt yet another rush as I hit wood- the tree root! Abandoning my hammer, I drew my short sword, and began to madly hack for all I was worth at the tree. I soon hacked off a chunk, then a second from the root- and then - bare soil! My hope infused with the promise of light and air, I dug upwards, not caring about the dirt and soil pouring over my face. The soil was coming free off its own accord now, and I had to pull up a chest to stand on to continue my efforts. I realised now that the undead could not only smell me- they could hear me, and were pounding on the iron door as hard as they could , making it creak and groan with every assault they made on it. I looked anxiously upwards to my hole, and continued the digging. I could tell the texture of the soil was changing- it was becoming finer and lighter- it must have been broken up by the tree's roots I concluded. Still, I continued to attack the hole, but I was becoming to far away to be able to dig fresh soil away! The undead were coming closer, the door would surely give way soon.
I began to jump madly upwards , each time embedding my sword into the soil to break my way our of this place. After what must have been my fifth jump, I felt a movement in the ground above. I let go of my sword, and looked cautiously upward. Gingerly, I took hold of the hilt, and twisted violently, wrenching the blade into the earth before retracting it and retreating to the far wall as a great clump of soil and stones fell through into the crypt. I raced back to my hole, and looked upwards, climbing on to my chest again to see the night sky, and the moon and stars radiating cool, white light on to my face! I looked down one final time, and was startled to see that the door had lost a hinge- now two! I saw one rotted, flailing had reach round the door to grab at the human within. I un-strapped my third bottle, and sent it spinning over the top of the inwardly collapsing door, where I heard it shatter and hiss as it came into contact with undead skin. I looked back at the door one final time, before launching myself upwards towards freedom, and planting my sword firmly into a section of exposed root. I flailed with my free arm, trying desperately to grab a handhold that would pull me out of the crypt and into the night air. I clung on for my life, but couldn't find anything to secure myself on, and so consequently slipped back down and landed heavily on my back on the stone floor. At the same time, the door gave way and crashed in, and the mass of groaning shapes in the threshold began to stumble in, towards me. Furious at my denial of freedom, I took off my last bottle of holy water and hurled it at the zombies with a shout of fury, before picking up my sword and hacking away at anything that stumbled through the screen of white steam as the holy water met the zombies' unholy skins. For a second, the wall of flailing bodies shrank back and disintegrated as the holy water took effect, but even more zombies were straining to get in from behind. Using this time, I fitted two fire crystals to my crossbow, and backing down to give me more time to aim, fired the bolt at the nearest zombie. It broke apart on contact with the fiery explosive, falling backwards and knocking down those behind it. Seeing my chance, I ran towards the zombies and my hole, and leapt upwards one more time with a roar of determination. I was lucky enough to discover a previously unseen knot in the tree's roots, and I used it to pull myself upwards with one arm, using the other to support my weight along with my sword. Soon, I was able to touch the ground above, and I have one final, exhausted heave upwards, pulling myself out into the night air. Exhausted, I lay back on a bed of crisp, damp grass, feeling the coolness of the air on my skin and face, still listening to the desperate moans below me. I closed my eyes, and felt nothing but sheer relief and ecstasy at the thought of being out of the crypts and vaults of the Bonehoard..
I soon realised that I couldn't leave a hole full of starving zombies on the side of a hill frequented by travelling merchants, so I began to look for a means of filling it in. Nearby, there was a small group of boulders, but I didn't think I had the strength to move them. Instead, I saw nearby some sections of log from a recently felled tree, partly rotted and decomposed. If I could move them over the hole, they would cover it well and allow the growing of plants and soil deposition to occur, maybe sealing up the gap into the underworld below. Getting up, I went over to the logs, and rolled them slowly, one by one, till they effectively plugged the hole and drowned the moans of the undead back to the earth, where they belonged. Having finished my task, I set off back to the city, realising that by now Carsten and his boat would probably have given up hope on me.
It took me about an hour to return to the city's main gate, and once I had passed without much notice by the city watch, I headed for my apartment in the North Quarter. The Guild could wait till tomorrow- I no longer cared if they thought I was dead and now one of the walking dead I had so narrowly escaped from. I passed through the city streets with almost no notice from anybody, and arrived at my apartment. Once inside my room, I stripped off, and fell into my bed, not even caring what the time was, and fell into a deep sleep.
Part IV The Mystic's Breath
I woke the next morning, neither bright nor cheery. I opened my eyes to the morning sun, a shaft of which was shining through the open window and on to my face. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and sat up in bed. I decided that my neck hurt, and got up. Within the next five minutes, I had washed, dressed, picked up my prize from the previous night, and left the apartment block, picking up a piece of fresh baked bread from a baker in the street (paying him, of course). I made my way through the early morning crowds of merchants and people travelling to work, much in the same way as I had a few days earlier, before my trip down to the Bonehoard. I arrived some minutes later at the Guild buildings, and discreetly entered through the front door, giving the guard no indication of who I was. I passed through the hall, past the hangings on the walls and the portraits of past Guild masters, and arrived in the waiting room for my superior's office.
I could hear voices inside, and I sat down in a chair to wait for a while before I was allowed in. I decided to listen to the conversation as best I could while I waited.
"I just don't know what to do anymore, Jevik. We can't continue to run this- the funds wont hold! By the Watchman- what am I to do? I still have people of my own to support- Jennivere for one, as well as an entire Guild..."
"Do not worry, my friend - we win survive, we always have..."
"I suppose so...I suppose...I should have learned from my days in Cragscleft and left the business then, but no..."
I decided that this was as fitting a moment as would be presented to knock, so I walked quietly up to the door, and knocked three times on the double doors leading to my superior's office.
"Come in, come. Could you see who's there Jevik? I have to try and work out what I am to do..."
I opened the doors myself, and entered, noticing that the two still didn't know who I was. I walked up to the desk behind which my superior was reading from a file, and placed the Mystic's Breath on the file in front of him. For a few seconds, he didn't move, but then slowly his head moved upwards to meet my gaze. I saw a smile threaten to break on his bearded face, and then was taken aback as a full on laugh escaped his lips.
"Yorrick! You have done it! How? You didn't escape the normal way! Carsten waited...and then we went to...and...but then we found out that you had gone in..."
I had never seen him like this, and I looked over to Jevik, who was standing in the corner, a sly grin betrayed him as it lingered on the corners of his mouth. My boss was still fairly speechless, so I decided to leave him alone until my mission briefing, which was in about fifteen minutes, after he had composed himself. I left him with the Mystic's Breath, and strode out of the office, closely followed by Jevik, who caught up with me.
" Did you find use for my gift?"
" Yes- I have to say that it saved my life twice. How did you know I would need it if he told me there was nothing down there?"
"I have...experienced enemies of that kind down there before. I was once commissioned to enter the Bonehoard and search for a stone similar to the Mystic's Breath, but we failed, and only a few of us survived, the rest were taken either by the zombies, the traps or the burricks. I found that the water had an effect on the undead like no other weapon could achieve, and I still had reserves left after my trip.I am surprised that the water still had that effect- it must be some years old by now"
"It did work- I must thank you for helping me."
"Never mind me- you are the one to be congratulated, Yorrick. You have succeeded where so many others have failed, and have been damned to walk their places of falling for many centuries as a consequence. Even after you left we debated the soundness of our choice. But you defied the curse of the place- and lived to tell us your story. That is something to be proud of. I will leave you now- I have business I must attend to. Go to your de-briefing- receive the congratulations you deserve."
With that, Jevik turned and left via a small side door. I continued to wait for the next ten minutes, before returning to the office to be de-briefed by my superior. I went in, closed the door behind me, and sat down to listen to his words. There really was not much he could say- the main discussion was my question about why the Hammerites had come to possess the stone in the first place.
"Ah yes- a good question. There is some legend surrounding the stone, and its two sisters, the Mystic's Soul and the Mystic's Heart. All I know is that some time ago, many centuries I believe, a powerful character known as the Mystic was 'at large', you might say, and found himself enemy of the Hammerite Order. In bygone centuries, the Hammerites wielded far greater power and influence than they do now, and even some magic I believe. They decided that this Mystic fellow was taking up too much space, and undermining them as the most powerful presence in the city. So, they forged three stones, and infused them with power. Their power was that of the ability to 'trap' the Mystic, in three ways, thus stealing his breath in one stone, to kill him, his heart in another, to remove his presence from the world, and his soul in the last, to banish him from the world. The myth says that each part of him was stored in a powerful gemstone, and buried deep into the bowels of the earth to prevent him ever returning. We have the Mystic's Breath, but I doubt very much there is anything extra-ordinary about this stone. I myself believe that the stones' legends are simply stories invented by he Hammers to keep grave robbers like yourself away from Hammerite burial areas. Besides, I think that the Mystic's Soul and the Mystic's Heart have already been removed from their places, maybe even by an old associate of mine. Anyway- you are dismissed , Mr. Yorrick. Go and celebrate- this is just the beginning."
"I'll see you later, sir.." I said, not knowing how else to put it
"Mr Yorrick- we can be on first name terms now, I believe You have been through much, and deserve to have certain privileges."
"I'm sorry...but I don't actually know your first name, sir."
"Just call me Basso."
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