The walls glowed with an eerie crimson light, worn and eroded carvings looming out of the darkness. Whoever they had once depicted, their faces had been hacked off long ago, and time had taken care of most of the other details, leaving nothing but jagged-edged figures in the shadows. The place had a dark aura, setting Stathis’ nerves jangling, half-glimpsed shapes seeming to shift just out of sight, before they drew closer and were revealed as more worn and eroded stone shapes. There wasn’t even any loot, just countless empty stone chambers, endless tunnels twisting deep into the earth.
Something in the darkness moved, and Stathis lunged, sword swinging through the air. The shock of the impact jarred her arms as the blow bounced off solid stone.
‘You killed the hell out of that wall.’ Semari kicked one of the shards that had been knocked off, the stone shooting into the distance.
‘This place creeps me out! It’s just something about the aura of it.’ She shivered.
The light suddenly vanished, sense of doom along with it, replaced with the usual dry, musty scent of a tomb, the oppressive evil vanishing, even as they were plunged into darkness. Janaxia cursed. ‘My apologies. Please give me a moment to renew the magic.’
‘Actually, how about you use a lantern instead? This place is far too quiet, it may be better to keep your reserves for when something attacks us.’
‘That may be wise. Very well, Semari, I believe you have a lantern?’
Various clanking and cursing ensued, as Semari dug through her pack, looking for the lantern. After the continual, creeping sense of doom and despair, mere impenetrable darkness came as a relief! Then, with a sharp hiss, the lantern was lit, casting its mercifully mundane light against the bare stone walls.
Without starting at shadows all the time, exploration went faster. More empty tunnels, more featureless, boxy rooms, as they abandoned tight marching order in order to make faster progress, even if it meant moving in vague twilight rather than clear light.
There was a yell, echoing against the stone, distance hard to gauge. Stathis turned and ran, trying to find the source of the noise, quickly finding the others, all gathered in one of the myriad identical chambers, Parth fiddling with a stone outcropping, as Semari punched part of the wall. With a screeching, scraping sound, part of it pivoted and turned.
‘Hidden door, huh? Good for spotting it, Parth. Semari, you’re up, try not to get too hurt.’
For someone hired for her thieving skills, Semari’s trap-finding technique was rather lackadaisical. She entered the room with a forcefully heavy step, as Janaxia angled the lantern and swept the light around, revealing an assortment of intact statues, brightly painted, and regrettably bereft of jewellery or anything valuable.
There was a click, something flicking through the air. Semari’s hands moved, catching and flinging it back into the darkness, something unseen shattering. It seemed a somewhat haphazard way of finding traps, not to mention risky, but she’d survived thus far. Although the occasional acid traps were invariably unpleasant, for Semari’s clothing as much as anything else. She advanced further, before a glyph flared into life, sharp-angled runes flashing into existence. Two of the statues moved, swords slicing through the air. Semari jumped, flipping through the air between them, before kicking out, pulverising a stone arm.
As the most heavily armoured, Stathis was the next to enter the room, carefully poking the first trap Semari had uncovered with her sword. Traditionally, rogues were meant to disarm traps via careful probing and testing rather than just triggering them and then surviving long enough to smash them, but Semari was very much not a traditional rogue. Something clicked in the walls, followed by a harsh snapping noise. Well, that one was likely permanently disarmed.
Up ahead, Semari grunted as a spear flew out of the wall and stabbed into her, but too slow in retracting, as she shattered the shaft. While Semari probed ahead, Stathis looked around – the hidden chamber was a long, wide hallway, lined with countless statues, painted with bright colours, probably whoever the rulers or upper class had been, from how fancy their clothing looked. While a few had jewellery, it was only painted on, rather than something that could be taken. The detailing on the faces and hair was impressive, each one different, and even a number of different ethnicities. Maybe the place had once been more central, rather than an isolated backwater dungeon?
She kept a wary eye on them in case one turned out to be a golem, guardian creature or anything else that could attack them, ignoring the occasional grunts and yelps coming from Semari ahead, as she forced her way through other traps, stopping to chug down a healing potion. Then she dropped from view, a pit suddenly opening up beneath her.
Stathis ran forward, an unfound trap slinging something at her, attack bouncing off her armour, looking downwards into the pit, unable to see into the darkness. Parth arrived at a run barely behind her, before Janaxia casually approached, shining the lantern downwards, the light gleaming off metal stakes, razor-harp. Stathis let out a sigh of relief as she saw Semari, having managed to drop between several stakes, somehow uninjured.
Semari waved. ‘Chuck us a rope! There’s a chest down here as well, might get something worthwhile!’
Lugging the chest up was hard work, Parth and Stathis grunting and straining, as Janaxia ‘co-ordinated’, a process that largely involved standing back, holding the lantern and letting everyone else do the work. Semari scampered up behind it, hauling herself up the walls.
The chest was impressively crafted, thick wood with heavy metal bands and stamped with geometric patterns. Stathis poked it with a sword, without anything exploding, but found it locked. From the weight, there must be something inside it, and anything hidden at the bottom of a pit trap must have some value.
‘Think you can pick the lock?’
Semari’s non-traditional rogue skills extended to lockpicking as well – she felt around the edge of the keyhole, lightly stroking the wood, before drawing her hand back, taking a deep breath and slamming her fist forward, the strike powerful enough to slide the chest backwards. Surely lockpicks or something should be involved, rather than brute force? Still, it worked, something inside the chest popping apart, the lid opening slightly.
Everyone backed away, letting Janaxia summon her mystical energies, crimson light flickering, a crawling sense of evil making the hairs on the back of Stathis’ neck stand up. A pale, washed-out hand appeared, floating through the air and pushing the lid open. Almost disappointingly, there was no explosion or burst of dark magic, simply the dull creak of old hinges. Semari darted forward, sticking her hand into the chest.
She screamed, pulling her arm out, something flapping through the air as she stumbled towards Janaxia, who wasted no time in blasting her with bolt of energy, sending Semari flying, backward into the pit. With a yell, she vanished from view, sounds of laughter trailing through the air.
‘Dammit Janaxia! We need her alive, to walk into traps, if nothing else.’
A few moments later, Semari dragged herself back into sight, apparently having managed to catch the sides rather then being impaled.
‘You should have seen your face! Looked like you’d wet yourself! It was hilarious!’
Stathis sighed. ‘Semari, try not to get yourself killed, at least by us. Janaxia, try not to kill Semari, no matter how annoying she’s being. Now, what was that in the chest?’
It turned out to be a plain, sturdy cloak, well-crafted and much-patched. Stathis shook it out, a few coins falling to the ground, but nothing interesting. ‘Is it magical?’
‘It has some dweomer on it. Nothing I can recognise though’, said Janaxia.
‘Well, if you want to wear it. We’re all armoured up.’
A look of disgust rose over Janaxia’s face. ‘Oh no, I really couldn’t. It’s hideous, and dirty.’
‘It’s probably magical protection or something, and you could do with some armour.’
Janaxia shuddered. ‘I would rather risk it, than wear something like that. Some standards must be maintained, after all.’
‘Your funeral. Semari, can you fight in it?’
Semari flung the robe on, spinning around. She didn’t vanish from sight or burst into flames, so it probably wasn’t cursed, and the speed with which she charged forward was actually fairly normal, for her. Crashes and smashes sounded as more traps were triggered, leaving the rest of the group to edge around the pit and try to catch up.
They finally came to the end, a large circular chamber with only one exit. Semari was struggling, held in the over-sized fist of a massive stone statue. With eerie smoothness, it walked towards them, putting Semari down (admittedly, on her head) before reversing back into the centre of the chamber.
‘Damn thing grabbed me! Come down here and fight fair!’ Her rude gestures had no effect on the creature, which was presumably just a guardian, rather than truly aware. As art, it was quite impressive, finely shaped and unaffected by the ravages of time, depicting a perfectly proportioned and well-shaped warrior in the prime of life. As a guardian, it was something of a problem, being immune to their attacks.
Stathis moved forward slowly, the thing remaining steady and unmoving until she was about a third of the way across, where it burst into movement, a giant fist grabbing her, as she was carried back to the entrance and dropped. Several attempts at sneaking past met with failure, and cautious attempts at attack were met with bland indifference. Even trying to blind it from a distance had no effect, arrows shattering on impact.
Even Semari was looking dispirited, having been picked up and neatly deposited countless times, her fists bruised from trying to attack it. None of their attacks had achieved anything, other than to establish that it didn’t seem to attack, just prevent them crossing. In the end, they had to use Janaxia for a solution – while highly resistant, it wasn’t immune to magical blasts. Standing outside its activation boundary, it took a few hours to blast it into rubble. Everyone else took the chance to rest, tuning out the continual low-pitched screaming of her infernal spells, Stathis taking a quick nap. When she woke up, the once-fine statue was barely recognisable, a battered and shapeless lump of stone, surrounded by heaps by dust and shrapnel.
They crossed the chamber, the tattered heap scraping and grinding as it tried to move. With the amount of damage it had taken, it could barely manage a few steps, as they casually stepped around it, heading for the exit.