The hammer hit the chisel once again, sparks flying off the ancient lock it tried to break. The powerful storm that assailed the city-state of Niparsha suffocated the sound of the working men. Under the hood that did a poor job on both protecting and hiding his face, Icelos couldn’t hear anything but the large raindrops striking his head and the heavy beating of his own heart.
A hard push made him drop his tools in the mud his sandals sunk into.
“C’mon, Icelos! Someone might show up!”
With an irritated sigh, Icelos shook his head. No one ever came to this part of the city. Those buried here had been gone for decades, even centuries. The rich now buried their dead in mausoleums inside the cliff face and the poor… well, the poor hardly ever bothered with their dead. The sewers and the understreets hidden from daylight played the part of crypts for most of them. Rats didn’t complain. At least someone was well fed in Valmedor.
Seclusion and age were what made this particular mausoleum an inviting target for Icelos and his friends. Phaon had found it during his usual midnight scouts through the graveyard several weeks ago, through one of the old mining passages cut into the Shield Mountain. It was a somewhat large granite structure, now darkened by weather and time. Tall faceted columns covered in vines supported a slanted roof that probably weighed several tons. The crypt, made from adobe and stone covered in colorful mosaics, stood out from the abundant red rock that made up more recent graves.
Lighting struck, revealing angry monstrous faces that stared back at Icelos with accusation in their eyes. They were painted around the doorframe in a bizarre style that may have been beautiful a thousand years ago, but now belonged in the lair of some evil sorcerer of legend.
Icelos tried using his soaked sleeve to clear his face of the sweat and rain that stung his eyes. Accepting defeat, he returned to work on the lock. Two more strikes, and the rusty piece broke apart and splashed onto the muddy ground.
Seorsa and Phaon cheered, shaking Icelos violently by the shoulder. The light of their lanterns danced wickedly on the tomb’s paintings. A dozen stone ghuls witnessed their violation, promising vengeance. Icelos closed his eyes, whispering a half-remembered praise for the hero Kidane, the Wise. It was his day everyone was celebrating in the upper levels of the city, drawing attention away from this place. Singers and jugglers would be on the streets and food stalls would serve the very best the land of Valmedor had to offer. Large clockwork thunderbirds and wild gods covered in moving vines paraded down the streets escorted by men and women dressed like imperial warriors and barbarian prisoners, throwing commemorative coins and bright petals to the crowd, all at the Trade Company’s expense. Someone’s rich teenage son was this year’s Lord Kidane the Wise, bringing the rear of the parade in a costume expensive enough to feed Old Town on its own, the clockwork heads of a dozen dead gods in tow.
Wise. Icelos opened his eyes, once again looking at the carvings and paintings. Somehow this didn’t sound like the case.
“What’s wrong?” Phaon shook Icelos again, and then put his arm around Icelos’ shoulder, still grinning. “Pale as you are, someone might think you never raided a tomb before.”
Tomb raiders. Dungeon delvers. Icelos sighed. It sounded a lot more heroic when told by their tutors at school. Heroes of old, those whose statues adorned every Valmedoran city-state, whose names were whispered when people young and old sought inspiration to deal with personal challenges. Monster slayers, treasure seekers, vanquishers of gods and magic.
Icelos placed the hammer and chisel back in his pouch. Another sigh.
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“Bah! It’s just another crypt. C’mon. Let’s open it up.”
Without waiting, Phaon put his shoulder against the heavy bronze door and pushed. Seorsa soon followed suit. It whined and dust fell from the top, but it hardly moved. Staring at the mud covering his sandals, Icelos shrugged and added his weight to help push open the mausoleum’s door.
It protested soundly after centuries of immobility. It tried to resist, but, in the end, it gave way, and out came the deadly fumes of old age.
The trio pulled back, quickly sinking their faces into their cloth masks. The smell of herbs and spices sewed inside the cloth stung and made their eyes watery, but it prevented nausea and possible poisoning from the dead air inside.
Despite the protection, all three coughed violently, stepping away from the open door. They waited, leaning against another crypt, as stale air came out and fresh air went in.
The neighborhood was still silent and dark. They were on the outermost arch of the city, lower on the hill that shielded the city’s center and Northern side. Few in this part of Niparsha had money to spend on keeping lights on this late. Fewer still dared walk the streets where people were known to disappear without a trace. Tales of layers of lost cities underneath Niparsha abounded. If folklore was to be believed, anything from cannibalistic living dead too many-headed serpents had once lived where the Jewel of Valmedor now stood, and maybe still did, in the understreets.
While these tales used to make Icelos hide beneath his bed and stay awake all night, jumping at any sound, it was the real dangers - those he learned to fear after he grew older - that were now cause for caution. Stories of violent muggers, escaped hellpigs, foreign slavers and tinkerers who would kidnap the poor to turn them into clockwork slaves.
There was a flash of lighting, and Icelos suddenly became aware of the twisted dead trees and guardian statues around him. They seemed like an army of the dead poised to attack at some general’s orders.
Icelos was in the dark, realizing Seorsa and Phaon were already making their way into the crypt, carrying their two only lanterns with them.
Behind the bronze door, a narrow staircase descended too steeply into darkness. The light from Phaon’s oil lantern penetrated little, blocked by thick layers of cobwebs. He drew his short sword and started hacking at the web, cursing as the silk stuck to the forward-curved blade, but too eager to reach the supposed treasure to stop and clean it up.
As they slowly descended the stairs, Icelos took his time in the rear to look at the walls. Unlike more modern tombs, ancient ones - especially those dating to the Golden Age of the Holy Empire - were richly adorned. This one was no different. The story of those entombed below decorated the walls in faded paint. Warriors in full armor astride mighty warbirds lead armies against monsters of myth. Dragons, manticores and sorcerers fell under the blades and arrows of these icons of the Age of Heroes. Color and, in some places, entire sections of plaster were gone, but enough remained to tell a vivid story like those told by their tutors in community school.
It all looked surreal in an age of colonial exploration, roads infested with displaced barbarians and entire cities stricken with famine and disease. Maybe the rich still buried their dead with pomp and opulence, but hardly anyone still trusted their treasures to something as visible as a mausoleum. It was a miracle no one had found this one in all this time. Come chaotic times after the fall of the Empire and most became easy prey to the desperate, like Icelos and his friends.
Icelos had the impression that he recognized parts of the story told on these walls. A tale of the Great War, just before the fall of the Holy Empire of Valmedor following the war against the Green Gods of the East. In fact, some paintings resembled those in schoolbooks. Not for the first time, Icelos regretted dropping out of school the year before. While he could not understand the language of old, carved out of the stone blocks, its geometric shapes and curves seemed familiar enough.
Could this crypt belong to someone who has fought the Great War? Maybe someone who had met the paragons themselves?
Icelos became aware he could no longer hear the rain or thunder. How deep had they descended? He looked back up the stairway. Faint light was visible when lightning struck. Icelos felt a knot in his throat and cold sweat washing down his face. What if someone locked them inside? What if rain poured down the stairs, and they drowned?
Phaon’s voice startled him, but also made him feel safer.
“Bottom, at last. Looks like this place is larger than we figured.”
“Watch out for traps,” added Seorsa, reaching the end of the stairs and examining the walls and floor.
Phaon smirked and slapped Seorsa on the chest.
“What do you think we’ll find down here? Blades coming out of walls? Fireballs conjured out of thin air?” With a humorless laugh, Phaon walked ahead carelessly. “C’mon. We don’t have all night.”
“Maybe Seorsa is right. You remember that stone block last year.”
“It wasn’t a trap. It was a loose stone.”
“But it almost crushed you.”
“It hardly brushed by my arm!”
“Shut up. Look, the walls.”
At first, Icelos thought Phaon meant the paintings, but his friend wasn’t interested in art, just as he hadn’t been interested in history or really any lessons from back in school. Of course it was something else. At each wall of the hallway there were three alcoves, one above the other. Cobwebs protected what was inside like a veil, but none of the robbers needed to move them out of the way to know what was in each alcove.
Phaon brought the lantern up to one of the holes and cut through the spider silk with his sword. A swarm of tiny black spiders spread out, furious at the disturbance. Phaon crushed the ones he could with the pommel of his sword, smiling at each death. Thick dust fell from the alcove and a skull became visible. Moldy linen had been wrapped around it. Whatever other bones were there had either turned to dust or crumbled into a shapeless pile.
After scraping the blade on his boot and replacing it on his belt, the larger young man stuck his hand inside the alcove. Icelos’ heart slammed harder in his chest. Someday Phaon would end up dead thanks to his own carelessness.
Phaon looked at Seorsa and laughed, the sound echoing down the hall, as he drew out a small pouch. Its leather was stiff and the cord that once tied it closed had rotten away. Seorsa placed his lantern on the floor and opened his hands. Phaon turned the pouch over in his hand. Two large silver coins came out.
“Icelos. You’re the smart one. What you say?”
Icelos picked one of the coins with a mix of greed and reverence. Each was larger and thicker than current silver coins, which themselves were rare in the poorer district. He examined the design on the coins in the lantern light and was instantly overwhelmed. Their surface had a fortress atop a hill surrounded by trees on one side, the face of an emperor on the other one. The same ancient runes were carved on them. Such coins could be sold to collectors or even to the Great Academy for ten times their weight!
Icelos looked down the hallway. As far as light allowed there were similar alcoves. If each one had two such coins, they could live off of this loot for months!
“We’re rich,” he whispered.
His companions looked at him uncertainly. Maybe they did not understand. Maybe they did not realize what this was. So Icelos grabbed them by their soaking tunics and repeated it, this time shouting, his declaration echoing down the crypt.
Phaon and Seorsa laughed and hugged each other. Centuries of peaceful silence were broken.
The trio didn’t care. They immediately worked on the other alcoves, eagerly taking what coins they could find. And, as expected, each skeleton held two more silver coins.
Their bags were already heavy when Seorsa moved down the end of the hall where it ended in a stone archway. He stopped there for a moment, testing for any imaginary traps, reaching ahead with his lantern. Then he went into the chamber before any of the others could say anything about it.
“Great Kidane…” he whispered.
And, though it was a whisper, it got the attention of the others.
“What is it?”
Phaon didn’t wait for an answer. He placed two more coins in his bag and chased after Seorsa. Realizing he would once again be left in darkness, Icelos followed close behind.
The lantern light danced on pure gold and gemstones.
They heard their collective breaths.
There, ahead of them, was a warrior’s sarcophagus, man-sized carving on the lid and everything, and a king’s hoard surrounding it.
Mouth agape, Phaon emptied his bag on the floor, the silver coins rolling away from his muddy boots.
“Clear up some space, boys. We got a lot of gold to carry out of here.”