Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Fifty-six

Chapter Fifty-six
The Crypt of Kelmarane

Santon pressed the key into the metal plate, covering up the glowing lines and grooves. It glowed brightly in his hand for a moment and then fused onto the door. The glowing stopped. Santon removed the bars from the door and pushed. The door swung open with a ‘whoosh’ and a shifting of the air about them. It smelt stale and musty, but of nothing else.

Beyond the door were more stairs and darkness. Tempest let off a soft blue glow, but not enough to act as a light source. They listened together for a moment, at the top of the stairs, but heard nothing over each others breathing.

“The way looks clear,” Kelesteir stated.

“I can’t see a thing,” Santon complained.

“Neither can I,” Bree added.

Behind her, Husk squawked loudly.

Bree frowned. She wasn’t sure she liked that bird.

She heard a grating sound and saw a spark fly. Santon was lighting a torch. She heard the sound again – flint against steel – and saw more sparks. This time the torch flickered to life.

“I’ll carry it,” Bree offered, holding out her buckler arm. “You’ll need both of your hands to swing that sword of yours.

Santon nodded and handed it to her. “You can carry my torch anytime.”

Bree rolled her eyes. That was more pathetic than suggestive. Santon must be nervous. Perhaps Almah had told him more of what they would face in here than she had told to her? They did have a pretty long meeting together the other day. Or perhaps he was still shaken from the cleric’s corpse?

Bree moved to the front of the line and walked down the stairs. It led to a large, oval shaped room. In the center stood a ten foot wide circle of mortared stones – like a rather large well. Next to the well, on a small pedestal, was a bronze gong. A short stick capped with a round pad of mouldering leather dangled from a cord attached to the gong’s platform.

Bree peered into the well, but found it empty. It ended in solid stone. Curious.

The gong was emblazoned with an image of a flaming sun. Across the room she found a solid stone door. Santon came up behind her and pushed against the door. It didn’t budge.

He kicked it, and then cursed in pain.

Bree shook her head.

“Here,” Kelestair motioned at the gong. “It is some kind of key.”

“A key?” Bree asked.

“Looks like an instrument to me.” Santon teased.

“Old magic is clings to it heavily. I believe it will open the way ahead, but that it will also summon a guardian bound here by the Priesthood.”

“Guardian?” Santon asked at the same time as Bree spat the word “Bound!”

“Yes,” Kelesteir stated, apparently answering them both at once. He clutched the mallet gently in his delicate hand. He raised it high and then struck the gong once. It rang clearly, echoing around the room. Husk squawked angrily in response.

Bree heard the sound of stone grinding against stone from both the doorway and the well. They waited a moment and then two.

A gout of pinkish, whirling smoke spiraled out of the gong. Kelesteir backed up with Husk, allowing Santon to stand in front.

The smoke grew and grew, and then burst into flame. The fire crackled, split in two, and then both fireballs shifted and morphed, taking on the shapes of angels.

Santon held his sword ready, although why he thought the fire would be hurt by a sword, Bree wasn’t entirely sure.

The angel shaped flames flickered forward and flailed their arms at Santon. He raised his sword to block, but the flames tore right through the sword and searing into his flesh.

Santon screamed and staggered back.

Bree smelt burnt hair but, thankfully, nothing else.

One of the fire angels reached out for Santon, who dove out of the way this time. The other reached for Bree.

Bree cursed and swung at it. To her surprise, Tempest flashed with light and tore a blue line across the flames. The frost sizzled as it hit the creature, turning it to steam in an instant. Tempest had never been this cold before! She swung again, slicing another freezing line across the flames. The fire retreated slightly, but beside her she heard the other closing in on Santon.

“I’m being cornered!”

Bree glanced behind her, but the flames chose that moment to leap forward. She slashed wildly.

Finally, Kelesteir moved. He strode to the center of the room and held his holy symbol of Sarenrae in the air. “I am of the Dawnflower’s church!” He announced confidently. “You have done your duty, but now you must allow the faithful of Sarenrae and his guests to pass freely.”

The fire angels flickered, dimmed and then went out in a puff of smoke.

Kelesteir tucked his holy symbol back into his shirt.

Santon sighed in relief. “You’re a life saver, Kel.”

The corners of Kelesteir’s lips turned up slightly. “Yes, well…”

Bree smiled.

Santon turned and peered down into the well. He whistled appreciatively. “Some key.”

“Let us proceed through the doorway first,” Kelesteir instructed. “We might not need to descend the well.”

Bree nodded. She liked that idea. She raised her torch and walked through the doorway.

It led to a long series of crypts. Most of them appeared full and – although they had already faced some undead creatures – the crypts had a strange tranquility about them. These dead rested peacefully. They would not rise to harm them. Bree marched confidently down the hallways until the room opened up into a reliquary. Religious objects and jewels glittered in urns and vases. Santon examined some of them with hungry eyes, but he didn’t touch anything. Finding no further doorways or secrets the trio backtracked to the well.

Bree raised her torch above it and peered down. It was around forty feet to the bottom.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a spell to get us down there, Kel?”

Kelestair shook his head. “Regrettably, I know no spells of that nature.”

Santon nodded and took off a bag slung over his back. Bree brought the torch closer. Santon dug through the bag for a minute or so, before finally pulling out a rope. He looped it around the nearby stone pedestal and tugged on it hard. It looked sound enough. Santon threw the other end of the rope over the well and then took the torch from Bree.

“Ladies first.”

Bree frowned, but took hold of the rope and slowly lowered herself down.

It took only a minute, but Bree reached the ground without trouble. It was more scary than difficult. The flickering torchlight made it difficult to see and when she did reach the ground she could see nothing of her surroundings. She waited nervously in the dark for Kelestair to descend. Husk perched upon his horns for the trip. The vulture was either too lazy to fly, or didn’t have enough room.

“Toss down the torch!” she called up after Kelestair had reached the ground.

Santon shook his head and smiled. “No need.” He climbed up onto the ledge and then jumped off, into the well. Feathers sprouted below him, cushioning his fall, until he landed softly on the ground beside them.

Bree frowned.

Santon smiled. “You should have kept the ring.”

Kelesteir quirked an eyebrow up slightly.

Santon handed the torch back to Bree.

They were in a smaller oval shaped room which continued off ahead in a wide hallway as far as the could see. The followed it, but found a portcullis barring their way. It was old, heavy, and stuck.

“Froth and foam.”

Santon pushed against the gate, and then tried pulling it up. He frowned.

Kelstair stepped forward and placed a hand on Santon’s shoulder. “Sestorious lesahownem.”

Santon’s muscles bulged and rippled. He flexed once and then shook his shoulders. He reached down and tried pulling up on the portcullis. It gave, but slowly, inching its way upwards with a groan. “You know,” Santon grunted as he lifted. “I almost died last time you cast that spell on me.”

“It was no fault of mine, nor of the spell.”

“I’m sure Cayden Cailean will watch over you, Santon. You won’t meet such an ugly fate today.”

Bree slipped under the portcullis, followed by Husk and Kelestair. After another moment Santon had raised the gate over his head. He stepped forwards and let the gate shut behind him.

The hallway turned out to be lined with more burial niches.

A slight chill ran up Bree’s spine. These crypts certainly didn’t share the tranquility of those above. Slowly, the chill turned into a palpable foreboding. It was as if they walked through clouds of fear.

“We are close,” Kelestair stated.

Bree nodded. She could tell.

They turned a bend and saw a stone doorway at the end of the hall. A scraping came from one of the burial niches nearby. Bree jumped back, wary of more moving corpses.

The finger bones on a nearby skeleton twitched. Then the a jaw on another. Bree held Tempest out before her. None of the corpses made any move to get out of their niches. They simply lay there in their rotting funeral garb, twitching.

“It is some kind of necromantic echo.”

“You mean they’re not undead?” Santon asked.

“No. But whatever lies beyond the door – this Xulthos – he seems to be giving off enough… corruption to cause the dead to stir.”

Bree frowned. Was that a hint of awe she had heard in his voice? “You mean Xulthos is corrupting the dead?”

“No. Some of the dead – likely the most pious of them – are stirred to action by the corruption. They are reacting to it from beyond the grave and trying to send themselves back.” The corners of Kelestair’s mouth tilted up at the corners.

“Wait.” Bree gasped. “They’re trying to will their bodies into undeath to fight the corruption?”

Kelestair nodded. “Yes.”

Bree was stunned.

“I told you undead can have their uses.”

“Can they help us?” Bree blurted.

Kelestair’s smile disappeared. “They will not win out over death. They have been gone for far to long.”

“So we’re alone, then?” Santon asked.

Kelestair nodded.

They walked down the hallway and up to the last door. The surrounding feelings of fear had become thicker. Heavier. Bree’s hands shook.

“Prepare yourselves,” Kelestair reminded them. “Xulthos is beyond.”

Bree willed her quivering arms to still. How could Kelestair be so calm? She handed the torch to him. He took it with little more than a raised eyebrow. For once, Husk was silent. Apparently he was too scared to complain.

Bree lifted the wineskin from her side and raised it to the roof. “This is it, my Lord. Lend us your luck. Lend us your vigour. Most of all, lend us your courage. We’re going to need it. Cayden’s will be done.” Bree raised the wineskin to her lips and took a deep drink. Her hands ceased their shaking. Her body warmed up slightly, chasing away the chill of the stone tunnels. Bree smiled and then offered the wineskin to her comrades. “A little liquid courage?”

Santon practically grabbed the wineskin from her and took three deep gulps.

Kelestair declined. “I need my wits about me.”

Bree nodded and took her wineskin back from Santon. She grabbed the torch from Kelestair and turned to the door.

“Ladies first?” Santon asked with a shaky smile. He was nervous and obviously afraid.

Bree frowned. Santon was never afraid. What had come over him? Apprehension crept into her thoughts. She waited for a breath or two, trying to shrug it off, but the longer she waited the more Santon fidgeted beside her.

Oh, gods. What had they gotten themselves into?

Kelesteir reached for the handle on the door and gripped it tightly. He pushed on it and the door swung open.

A strange, droning, buzz sounded from within the room. Bree felt a wave of absolute terror race through her. Beside her, Santon dropped his sword. It clattered to the ground with a discordant clang. Then he turned and ran.

Bree tightened her grip on Tempest and grit her teeth.

Almah was wrong. Xulthos was not weak. Xulthos was strong. Xulthos was angry. Xulthos was terrifying.

They shouldn’t have come.

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