This post is also my entry in week one of Dave's Fantasy Challenge, in which we have to write 500-2,000 words of fantasy using two voted for prompts in a non-trivial fashion. This week we had 'skeletons' and 'gelatinous cube'. I went a little over the suggested word count, and I have to admit I copped out a little on the cube.
As the oily rags stuffed in the stone mouth caught the flame from the torch, the great stone doors shuddered; shaking off the dust of unknown years before sliding into the surrounding rock. Anix looked down the revealed corridor, his thin tail twitching with excitement, a slight grin playing on his lips. "You've done it, Caro. Fire opens the seal, as the crone told us!"
"I know for you it might seem like a homecoming, Fiendling, but we are staring into the open mouth of hell".
"If you think some forgotten temple is hell you'll have a rude awakening when you die, my friend," countered Anix, his smile dancing across his handsome face.
Kalia stepped up behind Caro to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You worry too much, old thief. Nagal guides plunderers like us and will hide us from the sight of the Flame!"
"But in Koln's own house, priest? Don't get me wrong I'm taking the chance, for a prize this great, but leave me my worry. It keeps me alive." Caro tugged at his greying beard as if for emphasis, the colour marking him as the elder of the group.
The fourth member of the party gestured to the opening with one delicate hand and a questioning look on his cruelly scarred face.
"You are right Janesz, let's go!" Anix was visibly eager, patting at his hatchets. The other two nodded, Kalia shouldering a stout pole about ten feet in length, Caro a thick wooden cudgel the length of his legs, wrapped with a cloth grip and a loop of leather to go around the hand.
Caro looked to the silent elf. "If you would speak us some light...?"
Janesz nodded, and opened his mouth. It could not be said that he spoke, as he said nothing that could be called a word in any language, and the sound made the rest of the party vaguely uncomfortable. Two balls of light appeared at the fingertips on his left hand. One he placed on the tip of Caro's cudgel, staining it as if with illuminating ink. The other he plucked with his right hand and placed in the air by his shoulder, where it bobbed merrily, shifting behind his head from shoulder to shoulder with a slight buzzing as if an insect.
The entrance corridor was unremarkable, a straight tunnel leading slightly downward into darkness. The floor was carefully cut squares of stone, the walls and ceiling solid rock worked nearly to a flat plane by many hands. Although four could easily walk abreast Caro led the way, carefully inspecting the path ahead with his lit cudgel, occasionally pausing to carefully inspect a crack in the stone, or have Kalia tap at the paving with her pole. Janesz was third, and Anix brought up the rear, occasionally peering behind them. It was always safer to follow in Caro's footsteps.
After around two hundred paces they found themselves in front of a large stone door, this decorated by a flame wearing a crown, the ancient symbol of Koln's priesthood. On each side of the door was an unlit brazier set into the wall, and empty seats in which guards would once have sat.
After declaring the door safe, Caro motioned Anix forward to push it open. The chamber on the other side was large, and they could not see the far wall. Janesz motioned to his little bobbing light, and it buzzed toward the centre of the room. With an arcane whisper from its master it brightened for a moment, illuminating a large circular chamber with seven doors around the wall, one of which they were peering in from. Five were of wood, some smashed, some simply open. One other, on the far side of the chamber, was of stone with a matching flame motif. Hung from the ceiling were a number of braziers which would once have lit the chamber brightly.
The floor was strewn with smashed furniture and the remnants of a long ago violence. Dried blood stained the stone near the skeletal remains of a few slain acolytes in faded red robes, and an armoured Knight of Koln, burnished steel breastplate deformed as by a heavy strike from a mace, lay slumped against the far door, rotted hand still clasping a the remains of a sword by his side. Some now unidentifiable beast the size of a bull was dead nearby, the floor stained a strange blue from where it had bled out. Four arrows jutted out from between its ribs, and its head was battered into a mess of bone fragments and dried skin.
It didn't take Caro long to clear the chamber, as any traps in an area meant for regular habitation would have been improvised after the battle, and soon they were all looking around. "It looks like you were right, Janesz. The marauders took what they could when they couldn't open the door to the inner sanctum."
Janesz acknowledged this with a slight smile.
"I know we'll find more of the same, but shall we check the other chambers anyway?" asked Anix.
Beyond the first door was a store-room of some kind, stripped bare. Beyond the second door was a bathing chamber, in which bronze plumbing had once carried water through from beyond the wall, in the direction of the next chamber. Much of the pipework had clearly been stripped and taken. A side chamber contained a number of pit toilets, one with the corpse of a Knight of Koln stuffed in head first.
The third door gave way to a series of chambers that had once been a dining hall, a kitchen, and a storeroom for food. Against one wall was a ladder leading up to a large cistern set higher than the chambers, and a two-person pump. The cistern was now empty.
Within the kitchen was a smashed trapdoor leading downward, with steps carved into the stone below as rungs on a ladder. "Should we see where it leads?" asked Anix. Janesz sent his light down in response. Peering through the hole Anix could make out a few objects. "There is some sort of slime on the floor, but I can't see what. A suit of armour, not Kolnite, I think, and an axe-head. A metal helmet, a bowl, a handful of coins?" He made to clamber down the ladder but was stopped by both Janesz and Caro. Janesz shook his head meaningfully and made his hand-sign for danger.
Caro elaborated further "There'll be a jelly cube down there. A slime creature that eats wood, flesh, bone and leather and leaves only metals and stone."
Anix looked sceptical.
"It's how they got rid of their trash, lad. That pit probably connects to the dunnies too. No point going down there and asking for more trouble than we already have coming." The scarred elf nodding emphatically at that.
Anix sighed at the two of them. "Spoilsports. I suppose you agree, Kalia?"
"No need for me to say it", she smiled.
The last three doors yielded only looted living chambers and a few more corpses. In the last, Janesz stood for a moment, before holding up a finger as if exclaiming. He pointed to four beds in turn, making a count on his fingers. With a theatrical flourish he counted two of the corpses on the ground in the same manner, then made a sweeping gesture indicating the surroundings.
Kalia frowned. "Yes. Yes! Too few bodies for so many beds! You are wondering where they are?"
Janesz smiled and shook his head, leading the way back to the central chamber, where he gestured to the inner stone door.
After clearing the body and other debris away from the door, and a thorough examination of the outside, Caro took out the cloth-wrapped bundle they had obtained from the crone. It contained an ornate steel key the size of a long dagger, inlaid with gold at the base in the familiar flame motif of Koln. They key had cost them a hefty sum, but the rumoured prize was worth it.
It fit easily into the lock in the centre of the stone door, but turned with great difficulty, the mechanism it drove having long been dormant. Eventually a loud clunk was heard, and they pushed the door inward. It took Anix and Kalia both, as there seemed to be some obstruction. Caro stood to the side, ready to poke his cudgel inside to see what would be revealed.
"It's a body". Caro could see an arm through the foot they had managed to open. He carefully slid through, eyeing the passage beyond for any hint of danger, and dragged it away from the door, allowing the others to get it open the rest of the way.
When they were all beyond the door, Kalia examined the corpse, another dead Knight of Koln, with armour and sword. "These markings. It seems he was burned in places."
"Look here!" Caro called them further down the corridor. "Bones. Clean and blackened". The complete skeleton of a person lay only slightly scattered at his feet, one humerus broken, ribs nicked, and the skull sheared in two. There was no evidence of clothing, or items of any kind.
"Be wary of the dead from here on out", said Kalia kicking the parts of the skull away from the rest of the bones.
The corridor extended only some ten paces beyond the door before a set of stone steps plunged down into blackness. On Caro's advice, Kalia's pole led the way, checking the steps and the space above them, though she needn't have bothered. They reached the bottom and found themselves at the open threshold of another large chamber into which Janesz sent his light. Thirty blackened skeletons, standing around the circular chamber, turned to regarded them as flames filled the stair behind them.
The heat of the fire forced them forward as with the clicking of bone on stone the skeletons ambled toward them, exhibiting an unnatural grace.
"Buy me time!" cried Kalia, as she grasped at the icon hanging from her neck before beginning to mumble prayers.
Caro and Anix stood at the fore, cudgel and hatchets at the ready. Kalia behind them, with Janesz who simply watched and waited. The nearest two skeletons charged, arms outstretched, pinpricks of eldritch light in their eye sockets. Anix ducked under the grasping arms of the first, bringing both hatchets into the skeleton's sides, one shattering part of the ribcage and the other neatly shearing the spine. Caro was slower, batting off the first grasping bony hand but the other grabbed his forearm, causing him to cry out in pain. "They're burning!" Anix saved him with a quick kick to the legs of the skeleton, knocking it off balance and allowing Caro to bring his cudgel down with a heavy two-handed swing which shattering the skull of his foe. "Don't let them touch you," he warned, nursing his arm, as Kalia continued to mumble.
The remaining skeletons had gathered into a group, a shimmering distortion of light evident around them as of a great heat as they closed in. Janesz spoke unwords of power and Caro and Anix felt a chill as their skin took on a blue, icy hue.
Anix grinned and leapt at the nearest skeleton and shouted, "Thanks Elf!" Caro more cautiously moving to back him up. Anix was a wild dervish, delivering whiplike strikes to bone while dodging most attempts to touch him. Those few that did connect did not burn him, steam instead rising from his skin. And so it was with Caro as he battered stoutly at the throng of grinning skulls. The two were still receiving cuts and gashes from the sharp bone for their efforts, but held back the throng.
Kalia strode into their midst, icon of her order held forth. "Dead bones moving, bound to this place by the shackles of Order, disperse! Disperse unto the dust of Chaos! Go now to the final fate of all living things! Disperse!" With a burst of multi-hued brilliance, power slammed outward from Kalia into the surrounding skeletons. The nearest turned to dust instantly, those further away crumbled to the ground in splinters of bone, the unnatural heat vanishing as they fell.
Kalia slumped to the ground breathing heavily from exertion. They were safe again for the moment.