“Don’t touch anything,” Matteo said. “At least not until we’ve had a chance to take a look around.”
“Why not?” Pockets asked, the torchlight flickering in dark, greedy eyes that were suddenly as large as the gold pieces strewn about the room. “There’s a dragon’s fortune down here. No one will notice if a few coins go missing.”
“Just ’cause they call you ‘Pockets’ ain’t mean you gotta stuff ’em any time you find something ain’t nailed down,” Marsi mumbled, her words nearly unintelligible thanks to the large bitterroot stuck in her cheek.
“I got my name honestly,” replied Pockets.
“More like dishonestly, if what I hear is true.”
“Man’s got to be known for something.”
“Shut up, all of you,” said Matteo, frowning as he turned away from the full-length mirror he’d been examining. “You shouldn’t touch anything because we don’t know what else is down here. For all we know, this whole room is booby trapped, and will kill us as soon as we take anything. So I would like all of you to keep your hands to yourselves until we can be quite certain that nothing of the sort will happen. We finally took the keep. I’m not looking to die down here. Now pair off and take a look around. Holler if you find anything suspicious or arcane.”
Pockets grumbled, but listened. He was greedy and stupid, but self-interested. He would keep his hands to himself–at least for a time. Matteo suspected he’d help himself to a few handfuls of something on the way out. Maybe he’d search the man’s tunic when they got back to camp.
Matteo watched the squad break up into teams. He was pleased to see that Marsi had partnered up with Pockets, who was less thrilled with the arrangement.
Matteo turned his attention back to the chamber and held his torch aloft. It was an impressive hoard; the largest collection of riches he had ever seen, a massive room piled high with jewels, gold coins, and every manner of ornate finery, all thrown haphazardly into precarious piles that towered like sand dunes as he walked between them. It wasn’t long before the staircase that led back to the surface faded into the darkness behind him. The far end of the treasure room still lay somewhere up ahead. There was no telling how much farther the chamber went.
That was unsettling in its own way. This was a place to put things you didn’t want people to find. Most lacked the creativity to hide anything more valuable than a pile of expensive trinkets. But people with real power—people with secrets—understood that the true worth of something could seldom be measured in gold. These jewels had been cast about without any care. No one would notice if a few went missing. Something else was down here, and he could not afford to be distracted by the shiny lures scattered near the entrance.
He shivered as a cold draft rippled his torch. Matteo was suddenly aware that he could no longer hear the footsteps of his companions. He was sure he would hear the echoes if someone shouted, but the emptiness was still unnerving.
Matteo breathed a sigh of relief when he finally reached the far end of the chamber fifteen minutes later. The stone wall was cold to the touch, but there did not seem to be anything particularly remarkable about the masonry. Matteo started to circle the outer edge, but nothing captured his attention. The wall and the gold still looked the same. Perhaps this really was nothing more than a big pile of treasure hidden beneath a mountain.
He guessed he was about halfway through his survey when he found the rest of his squad huddled around a small fissure in the wall.
“Lemme see.” Pockets shoved Carter aside. “I can still get a better look.”
“I told you to holler if you found anything interesting,” Matteo said.
“Nu-uh. You told us to holler if we found anything suspicious or arcane. You ain’t said nothing about interesting,” Pockets said, apparently quite pleased with his technicality.
“That may well be,” Matteo said, “but it looks quite suspicious when my entire team is gathered around a single crack in the wall, so I’d still say this qualifies.”
Pockets’ smile vanished as he tried to think of an adequate comeback. Not for the first time, Matteo marveled at how out of place the man looked in uniform. His dark grey tunic was plainly the wrong size, and he seemed like he was in constant danger of getting lost in his own fabric, which was also covered in muck.
Matteo, on the other hand, stood tall in a well-tailored robe with sturdy golden pauldrons and an elaborate golden faceplate that marked his privileged rank. He polished his armour and hung his mantle every night before going to sleep. That was why he had been trusted with this assignment. Though he normally wore the standard purple robes of a certified Riftkeeper, today he was leading an enforcer squadron on a mission the guild could not officially sanction and was clad in grey. His charges were of a class that would not normally be associated with the guild.
Pockets, for instance, had enlisted because he thought being in the army would make it easier to loot the bodies on a battlefield, and regularly complained about the fact that they had to do so much fighting. With any luck, Matteo wouldn’t have to suffer cads like Pockets for too much longer.
He really hoped he’d have something worthwhile to report when they left this stupid cavern.
“What the hell is this?” Matteo asked, gathering all of the stern authority he could muster.
“We ain’t know quite right,” Marsi said, still talking through the same piece of bitterroot. “This git come straight here as soon as we split up, and now ain’t nuthin’ I say can get ’im to listen to nuthin’ else. I can’t drag him away.”
She slapped Pockets upside the head for emphasis. He rubbed his temple and shrunk away in fear.
“Just a hunch,” he whimpered. “A whisper in my ear tellin’ me this is the place to look. Don’t know how I know, but I know there’s something good behind that wall.”
That set Matteo’s teeth on edge. The weak-minded were often susceptible to the allure of dark magic. He’d felt uneasy since the moment they came down the stairs. He should have realized the impressionable idiot would take him directly to its source.
“Stand back,” Matteo said. His troops stepped aside, allowing him to get a better look at the wall. He furrowed his brow. It looked for all the world like a simple crack, though he knew there had to be more to it if Pockets was so fixated that he was willing to ignore the giant piles of gold behind him.
Matteo stepped forward and muttered a few words under his breath. Blue flames flared, and the outline of an elaborate door etched itself into the wall as his spell exposed what had been concealed. The door was ringed with strange runes Matteo did not recognize.
“Told ya there was something good,” Pockets said, jumping over Marsi’s shoulder to get a better look.
“Shut up,” Matteo said. He stepped forward and placed his hand on the door. It was now warm to the touch. The blue glow seemed to emanate from somewhere deep within the wall, as if the magic had been inlaid into the stone itself. He did not know what the runes said, but somehow, Matteo knew the door would open if he asked. He desperately wanted to ask.
“What do the runes say?” Harl asked, his grip tightening around his axe.
“I don’t recognize them,” Matteo answered. He knew it would be prudent to go back to the surface and return with a mage who knew the script. It would be foolish to press forward without knowing anything about the potential dangers. But he was gripped with an unfamiliar compulsion. A cold draft again brushed the back of his neck and gently nudged him forward. He needed to see what lay beyond this door.
“Stand back,” he said. “I’m going to open it.”
He rolled up his sleeves, then paused when something important occurred to him. “Someone hang on to Pockets. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
There was a minor commotion, then everything settled. He didn’t need to turn to see the scowl on Pockets’ face. Satisfied, he exhaled and concentrated his energies. At some level, his own decisiveness should have made him wary. Some part of his brain was suspicious about his willingness to tamper with an unknown seal. The rest of his brain didn’t care, and was triumphant when the door budged, then slowly folded inward as the scrape of stone on stone echoed through the cavern. They were bathed in a soft blue light that spilled through the open portal. The room beyond was cast in the same hue.
Matteo stepped through the doorway. The blue light had a soporific effect that made everything hazy, and just for a moment, he thought he had been swallowed whole. The ethereal glow made him feel like he was in the gut of some giant beast, as if the mountain itself was dormant but alive. A web of blue veins snaked across the ceiling and the floor, an almost anatomical pattern of crystalline sinew that held the rock together.
Matteo was nearly lulled into a trance before he shook the fog from his eyes and tried to keep his wits about him. As he did so, the room gradually came into focus. The moderately sized chamber was filled with more riches, though the collection was far less impressive than the stash behind him. The effect, however, was more hypnotic. The blue lines woven through the room had not spared the objects in it. Gold crowns and silver cups had been infused with strands of the same pulsing crystal that had consumed everything else.
What would happen if someone tried to remove one of the objects? Some part of Matteo wanted to find out, and his hand moved instinctively towards the nearest pile. He stopped himself when a small scuffle broke out behind him. He turned, and saw some members of his team peering in from the edges of the door, waiting for his command. Beyond, he saw Marsi, Harl, and a few others wrestling with Pockets, who was frantically trying to enter the chamber.
“Leggo,” he said, struggling to tear his arms free. “I’m telling you, he’s gonna keep all the good stuff for himself!” Marsi and the others soon had Pockets back under control.
Matteo chastised himself for his moment of weakness, for allowing himself to have anything in common with a man like Pockets. He looked back at one particularly tempting crown. The blue ruined the ruby capstone anyway.
His head clear, he returned to his investigation. As he looked around, he realized that the blue lines—which at first seemed so haphazard—were in fact spreading from a single point of origin on the far side of the chamber, where they gathered in a dense cluster of blue chords. When he approached, he found a crude altar hewn into the mountain. It was plain and unadorned, with no markings to indicate who had carved it or what it was for.
The only thing of note was a small, square box, even on each side, sitting on the altar. The box was smooth and white, decorated only with veins of blue so dark they almost looked obsidian. The bright crystal skeins sprouted from those darker lines, continuing to trace the paths indicated by the unlit markings on the surface. If anything, the box seemed to absorb light. While the rest of the room glowed, the box at its centre was muted and lifeless.
Matteo froze. He felt as if he had just been splashed awake with a bucket of cold water. This thing should not exist, and it was certainly not something that should ever be found. The voice that had been nudging him forward was gone once he realized why it had felt so compelling. He resolved to leave as quickly as possible now that he was back in full control of his mental faculties.
“We’re leaving,” he said as he exited the smaller room. “I’m sealing this door, and the rest of you are going to forget we ever found it. Understood?”
Confusion showed on their faces, but they knew better than to question an order.
“Good. Gather your things and we can—”
Matteo was interrupted by an unearthly wail from the room he had just left. Turning back, he saw Pockets frozen in place, his greedy hands clutching a jewel-encrusted chalice. His head was thrown back and his mouth hung agape, the vessel for a sound that he never would have been able to make of his own accord. It was a shrill, piercing scream that seemed to originate from nowhere and everywhere all at once. His eyes were glazed over with a spectral blue film, while the veins in his face darkened and started to bulge.
“I told you not to touch anything!” Matteo yelled.
“He shook loose while you was talkin,” Marsi said. She seemed apologetic, as if disappointed in her own failure. Normally, that would have endeared her to Matteo, but he did not think she understood the gravity of their situation. It felt like a dam had been broken. Dark energy poured out of the room, and three more people ran in before Matteo could stop them.
“Run, all of you,” Matteo said, panic creeping into his voice. “Don’t stop until you’re back on the surface.”
“What about you?” asked Harl.
“I’m going to close the door.”
“What about them?” Marsi asked, nodding at the soldiers in the smaller room.
“They stay here,” Matteo replied, raising his voice to make himself heard over the endless scream. “Now go!”
The rest of the soldiers hesitated, but did as they were told, breaking ranks and sprinting for the stairs.
Matteo turned his attention back to the door. He did not know how long he had. The three latecomers were under the same thrall that had taken Pockets, but Matteo very much doubted that this was the full effect. He swallowed his fear and tried to concentrate. The door had been eager to open. He did not think it would be quite as willing to close.
But he had to try. He mustered all of his arcane strength, drawing power from the rift to tug at the stone door, bracing his foot against a small ridge in order to give himself some extra pull. The strain was unbearable, as if some supernatural force was actively resisting his efforts.
Fortunately, the thing was still weak. Matteo held firm, and was soon rewarded with the scrape of stone on stone as the door slowly swung shut.
The scream surged with frustration, then ceased entirely. The silence was unnerving. Matteo almost let his guard down, until the thing released its physical hold and Pockets dropped to one knee. Then he lunged toward the door, his eyes still corrupted with blue light.
Matteo’s heart skipped a beat as he approached, but the gap was too small for anyone to pass. Pockets—was it Pockets?—could only extend an arm, scratching and gibbering as he tried to force his way through the opening.
Matteo gritted his teeth and finished the job, slamming the door shut with a final pull. The runes flared, then disappeared. The outline of the door similarly vanished. The wall looked as smooth and clean as it had when they first arrived, with only one small, seemingly innocuous crack in the stone marking the spot where the portal had been. There was also a splash of blood where the heavy stone had crushed Pockets’ elbow. The severed right forearm sat limply on the ground.
Exhausted, Matteo fell backward and collapsed into a small pile of gold. Given the circumstances, it was far more comfortable than he would have expected. He took a few moments to catch his breath, then gathered his things and prepared to follow his troops back to the surface.
A movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. With horror, he watched as Pockets’ arm began to twitch and flop about, like a fish that finds its way to land. Then he saw the threads. Thin blue wisps of smoke drifted out of the stump and reached through the wall, solidifying and becoming more tangible as they found purchase with something on the other side. It was like watching a puppet come to life, the strings made of muscle new grown from the wound.
Soon, the movements became more purposeful. Matteo climbed to his feet and prepared a spell. He was about to incinerate the thing, but a small whisper in the back of his mind made him hesitate. He cursed when the arm shot forward. Matteo dove out of the way, barely avoiding the greedy fingers grasping at his robe. The arm landed with a plop, then scuttled sideways like a spider and jumped at him again.
This time, Matteo was not as quick. A long, dirty fingernail grazed the back of his hand as he twisted out of the way. Determined to end this quickly, he released the spell he had been holding. A jet of fire poured from his hands, pinning the arm against the wall and holding it there until the flesh melted away and the bone turned to ash. Without anything to animate, the blue tendon fizzled and turned to vapor.
Sweat pooled on Matteo’s brow. Then he ran. He did not know where he was running to, nor did he want to see what he had left behind. He was somewhere in the middle of the treasure room when a cramp doubled him over against an old antique desk. He could feel the fatigue at the edges of his mind, telling him it would be okay to stop and take a rest. He indulged his body and closed his eyes for a few deep breaths.
When he opened them, his cramp was gone. His looked down and saw that he had a small nick on the back of his left hand where Pockets had scratched him. Matteo wiped it against his robe. In the dim light, his blood almost looked blue. He shook his head and tried to stay awake. There would be time enough for sleep after he made his report.
Matteo’s pace was not as frenetic when he began moving again, but he nevertheless reached the staircase in short order. The torches still lined the steps leading back to the surface, and he had never been more relieved to see another source of light. It felt like it had been centuries since he had last seen the sun. There was no sign of the rest of the team. With any luck, they had already made their escape, so Matteo decided to make sure he was presentable, pausing in front of the oval mirror he had examined when he first entered the vault.
Everything was as it should be. His grey robe was slightly rumpled, but that was to be expected following a fight. His golden pauldrons and his golden faceplate looked like they could have been stolen from this vast collection. The dark lines crawling up his face spoke to his terrible influence, while his eyes blazed like bright blue stars that spoke to his awesome power.
But he knew that men were weak, and did not comprehend such things. He sighed, and watched as the blue lines faded, as if the ink had been drained from a tattoo. Soon his skin bore no traces of corruption save for the afternoon shadow that sometimes grew on men who shaved.
The light in his eyes followed. The solid blue glimmer withdrew, revealing the two human pupils that lay beneath.
Satisfied, Matteo turned and began to climb the staircase. It had been so long since he had seen the sun. He wondered how the world had changed in his absence.
Help Nomnivore Games release more free lore stories for the EMBERWIND role-playing game through our new Kickstarter for EMBERWIND: Core, live now!
This week’s Archive story comes from Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. In addition to his work with EMBERWIND, he is the current Associate Editor (and former Games Editor) for ThatShelf.com, as well as the writer and co-creator of the stage play Not All Fedoras.
Special guest art by Nino Vecia, a freelance Illustrator creating artwork for book covers, comics, tabletop, and video games. He is also the creator of the illustrated novel The Warden’s Call.