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I, Dray Prescot, Lord of Strombor and Krozair of Zy, crawled painfully along a narrow and jagged tunnel with dust clogging my mouth and nostrils and stinging my eyes and every now and then my head would go thwack! against a damned rocky outcrop in the roof. By Makki Grodno's disgusting diseased black-fanged winespout and deliquescing dangling left eyeball! I'd wager that clever Na-Si-Fantong hadn't crawled along here. Oh, no! He'd have used his sorcerous powers to create a smooth marble avenue and strolled along without a care in Kregen.
As for me, I'd hared off after the mage when he'd snatched the ruby and--of course--a whole world of rock and rubble had avalanched down at my back, shutting my friends away and shutting me in.
All I could do now was crawl on as best I could. There was a little light, either from some fungus or perhaps some clever magical scintillant stone--I didn't give a damn which it was. I could just about see where I was going--and where that was I'd no idea at all, at all, as the song has it.
"Sink me!" I burst out to myself. "What the blue blazing hell am I doing, scrabbling about miles underground after a stupid magic red ruby when the damned Shanks are organizing a powerful expeditionary force against us?" I moved my right knee up and then my left and surged forward and--thwack! went my head against the roof. I mentioned the Divine Lady of Belschutz and forged on. Oh, no, I should be out in the fresh air and the light of the Suns of Scorpio, planning horrible retribution upon the fishy heads of the Fish Faces and their whiptailed Kataki allies.
The little kris-like curved sword I'd snatched up kept on getting in the way;but I felt disinclined to abandon the weapon. It would come in useful if I encountered any of the habitual nasties frequenting the labyrinth. I'd had no time to snatch up any clothes. In a somewhat turbulent frame of mind I pressed on along the raggedy tunnel.
As San Blarnoi says: "A day short of Eternity is still Eternity." In the end I reached the point where the tunnel led onto a large cavern. Before I plopped out of the opening I screwed my head around checking to see what reception committee might be awaiting.
The universal mellow pearly light shone down from the overhead. The air hung still and breathless. I could hear no sound apart from my own breathing, inaudible otherwise. The floor of the cavern was artificially smooth. Set around the walls stood nine sarcophagi. I stared at them and my heart sank. Now what mumbo-jumbo nonsense was I in for?
When I was satisfied that no one else was around I stepped down from the opening. Lumps and shards of rock in a fanfall indicated that whoever had made the tunnel had broken through into this cavern.
Immediately I moved away I saw one of them. The poor devil lay alongside a sarcophagus with his head stoved in. Now--because this place, this Realm of the Drums, had been sorcerously held in suspended animation for the best part of five hundred years, this fellow might have died yesterday, or five hundred years ago.
He wore a ragged breechclout and his arms and hands were covered in scratches. He was apim, Homo sapiens sapiens, like me. In the dust at his side lay a hefty crowbar.
A foot in a sandal projected past the end of the coffin and on walking carefully around I saw another fellow, a Rapa, whose beak and feathers of his head were scrunched down between his shoulders.
Strewn across his body were portions of two other men, as best I could judge a Brokelsh and a Moltingur. Whoever had slain them must have had colossal strength.
That was the point at which I made up my mind I wouldn't try to open a sarcophagus.
In the opposite wall stood an opening. It had been bricked up with large blocks and enough had been pulled down from the centre to make a hole large enough for a person to duck through.
That looked to be, apart from the tunnel down which I'd crawled, the only way out.
Very very carefully--as you may well imagine!--I went across and squinted through.
The pearly light revealed what could only be a shrine.
Dark stains disfigured the basaltic altar block. The statue above bent its gilded wedge-shaped head forward, narrow jaws armed with rows of needle teeth, its scaly wings wide spread, its lizard-like body crouched as if to spring, its barbed tail extended. The xichun whose aerial domain lay high above the rain forest had led me on to danger before. The flying animal was clearly some kind of totem down here. I gave it a glare; it did not move.
The feeling possessed me that I'd do well to keep the corner of one eye focused on that golden xichun.
Just for the moment I did not venture into the room of the shrine. There were two doors, one each side of the basaltic block, and each had its own gilded xichun above the architrave. These two flying lizards might be smaller than the fellow over the altar; they'd bear watching with the same attention to self-preservation. A gaggle of chests half-covered with rugs to the side seemed as though they might have been used as seats. I turned back to the main chamber and broodingly surveyed the situation.
The narrow, rocky and damned uncomfortable tunnel through which I'd reached here must have been for most of its length a natural fault. The tomb robbers needed only to break through the last few paces, as the extent of the fantail of rubble indicated. To my mind, then, this meant they must have a map.
If the two doors in the shrine room were the only way out, then whoever had bricked up the opening intended the nine sarcophagi to be sealed in. There might be further bricked up doors in there. The more I looked at the situation the less appealing it became.
Deb-Lu-Quienyin had negated the spell that held everyone down here in stasis only in a local aura around us--that is, my companions and me. So when I came across a living person standing stock still in suspended animation I woke him, her or it up. So that meant these four dead tomb robbers must have died just before the spell was cast five hundred years ago. I walked across--carefully!--and looked at them again.
The apim wore a torn mustardy breechclout. The Rapa wore a green lap-lap, a thigh-length wrap-around. That was fastened by a leather belt with a cheap brass buckle. The Brokelsh and the Moltingur had also worn mustardy breechclouts. After a careful search I found no map.
Again I stared at the torn down brickwork. At first, because the brick blocks spilled into the cavern I'd assumed the wall had been pushed in from the other side. Now it began to look as though it had been torn down and pulled in. Why?
There was, undoubtedly, something highly nasty in that shrine room.
The tunnel at my back was blocked. That left the two doors in the shrine room as the only ways out.
"By the Black Chunkrah!" I said. "Trust that vosk skull of a Dray Prescot to drop himself in it!"
Well, as they say, you must accept the needle, and needs must when you come to the fluttrell's vane. If that was the only way out, then, By Krun! that was the only way out.
Before I came to push of pike I had another look at the sarcophagi. Each was about five feet high, fashioned from marble with rather pleasant patterns. Each lid was adorned with an over-life-size effigy of a warrior. There were an apim, a Fristle, a Rapa, a Chulik, a Hytak, a Pachak, a Brokelsh, a Relt and an Och.
Each one's armor was carved in considerable detail and their weapons were as carefully represented. Of those nine carvings, one of the races of diffs intrigued me by his unexpected presence.
There were no signs I could make out along the junction of lid and coffin to indicate the crowbar had been used. If whatever had destroyed these four men had emerged from the sarcophagi then it had returned and closed the lid or lids without a trace.
Or, perhaps, by Vox, it had torn the brick blocks down and escaped into the labyrinth! That was not a pleasant thought.
Well, then, it must be a damned tidy monster, for it had replaced its lid neatly enough. If one monster had risen and escaped perhaps there were eight more undead waiting for some unsuspecting wight to release them. I felt a prickly itch down between my shoulder blades.
With great care I removed the dead apim's mustardy-colored breechclout and the Rapa's leather belt. They were dusty but clean enough, so the men had died quickly. The power of the blows that had destroyed them was once again reinforced in my mind.
Picking up the crowbar in my left hand and hitching up the belted breechclout with my right, I took up the little curved sword and started for the jagged opening in the brick block wall.
One, two, three cautious steps brought me into the room of the shrine. Nothing happened. I took a breath. The air hung flat and stale. The feeling of pressure on my temples increased. Menace threatened, I could feel it tangibly, a sensation of imagined horror I had to push away.
Now, then, which door? Left or right?
Both doors were built of balass wood, hard and black, beautifully inlaid with ivory of Chem in geometric patterns. There appeared not a whisker of difference between them.
Neither had a handle, so you were supposed to push them open. If, that is, they weren't locked and bolted from the other side.
Standing midway between those enigmatic doors directly before the altar I made another careful inspection. The dark stains looked most unhealthy. The glint of gold just above the surface of the stained block in the back wall of the shrine took my attention.
An inscription had been carved there and the letters filled with gold. Instead of the beautiful Kregish script, the letters were blocked out in a style used in ancient documents for important headings. Now, of course, I must give the letters in terrestrial form, and have translated the words.
The golden inscription read:
U Q M K B Q
H L R H U O
For some time I stared at the inscription, summoning up the letters of the alphabet in my mind. Then I gave a little nod.
I'd never liked the idea of those two doors. This offered what I considered a better chance. Of course, if I was wrong, then whatever fearful thing had emerged to wreak devastation on those poor devils might well leap out to deal with me.
Anyway, the presence among the warrior effigies of that one particular race of diffs had caught my absorbed attention. I went back into the main chamber. If I was right, there was not a single sign of the person or persons who had attempted to push open the doors. Mind you, there were the stains on the altar...
This was where I had to summon up the blood and harden the sinews all right, by Krun! I positioned myself at the side of the sarcophagus I'd selected. I put my hands on the lid. I took a deep breath. The marble face with its exquisitely carved beak and surrounding feathers looked calm and relaxed, quite unlike the look of ferocious power on the marble face of the Relt's cousin the Rapa. I pushed.
The squeal of marble against marble held an unusual soft sound. The lid slid aside quite easily, and held and did not topple to the ground. I was pleased about that, not being in the business of desecrating tombs.
I looked inside.
The pearly light of the chamber was washed away and eaten up by a pale green glow. The inside of the coffin held no wrapped corpse, no skeleton. The crowbar and the sword in my fists struck me as particularly inappropriate, singularly out of place in that moment of revelation.
There appeared to be no bottom to the sarcophagus. Just that pale green glow radiating up from an immense depth.
Nothing stirred in the chamber.
"Here we go!" I said, cocked both legs over the coffin and dropped plumb into the radiant greenness below.