Return to the Necropolis: Chapter 20 (Day 7)

Michael O. Varhola

Read "Return to the Necropolis: Chapter 19"

When they all awoke the next morning, the party lightly equipped themselves and returned to the landing with the bas relief of dread Thanatos where they had left the mangled figure of the formerly-animated bronze warrior. Paros, Parthenia, and Selene picked up the construct, carried it back to the chamber of the Styx, and managed to mount it back on the pedestal where it had originally stood. Then, one by one, they each stripped and in turn clambered down the steps into the pool at the base of the statue and bathed there.

This activity was prompted by a theory postulated by Paros that the pool was symbolic of the immersion of Achilles, which rendered him proof against weapons within certain limits, and might therefore bestow similar benefits upon whoever bathed within it. His thoughts along these lines were reinforced when Pumayo confirmed with one of his spells that the pool did, indeed, radiate an aura of magic. It seemed impious, in any event, to engage in this pursuit while the likeness of the great hero lay sundered upon the floor, and so they had restored it to its former position as well as they were able, signs of being hacked by swords and axes notwithstanding.

"You believe this will make us immune to the weapons of the Orcs?" Parthenia asked Paros as she performed her ablutions in the pool.

"If my mother were Thetis and my name were Achilles I think that would indeed be the case," Paros replied reflectively. "But that was a sublime, seminal incident that cannot be replicated in this place and time. My hope, rather, is that this pool and our actions here will be a shadow of that event from the heroic age and that we will benefit in some small, commensurate way." Illiterate Parthenia was not conversant in Platonic philosophy or the theory of forms but liked being clean and knew the rogue to be a clever one and so went along with his proposal, her imperfect understanding of it aside.

When they were done at the pool, the party members returned to the embalming chamber, ate a light breakfast, and armed and equipped themselves for the task ahead of them. Initially, the women had considered not wearing their heavy armor and making due with shields alone so that they could cover more ground with Selene's spell of finding, which would only last about five minutes and which she would be able to invoke a mere three times. They had decided, however, that this might unduly tempt the Fates to bring them into contact with the Orcs — which was, indeed, their desire — or some other antagonist for which they would need to be as heavily protected as possible. Pumayo volunteered that he could cast spell that would allow the priestess to move much more quickly even than the unarmored party members, and that this effect would last about as long as the priestess's spell. After deliberation, however, the party rejected this idea, as the wizard could either cast the spell several times on Selene and allow her to range around on her own ahead of the party, or cast it on each of them just once, which would not help during subsequent castings of the priestess's spells.

Finally, the companions donned backpacks that were lighter than they had been for some days. They had, in fact not liked the idea of possibly going into mortal combat while heavily burdened with swag, and Parthenia and Paros had favored caching their recently-acquired treasure somewhere; their bad luck with leaving treasure behind to come back for later made this option less than appealing but they did not seem to have much of a choice. Then, Pumayo pleasantly surprised them by bidding them pack the loot into one of the wooden cabinets in the laboratory, whereupon he cast his spell of shrinking upon it, reducing it to the size of a small case. This they entrusted to Paros and he secured it in his own backpack accordingly.

Weapons at the ready, the party headed up to and through the hall of statues and then out into the early morning sunlight and down to the paved, grassy plaza before the black stone temple of Hades Polydegmon. They had discussed at some length the course through the cemetery they wanted to take. Parthenia had, somewhat inexplicably to the others, favored first going into the rugged hills that formed the western boundary of the necropolis, her rationale being that Orcs were hill folk and thus most likely to be found lurking there. Paros, however, had made a good case for working from easiest to hardest and that they were better off first covering as much ground as possible through the cemetery itself (which was nonetheless itself rough, broken, overgrown terrain that they knew to be fraught with hazards).

First thing was for Selene to cast her spell of finding, visualizing the Dwarven waraxe, and they had decided to begin with a circuit of the plaza in front of the temple, which was on the side of the hill and would allow them to quickly scan a wide swath of the cemetery and a little ways up into the hills. Selene stepped over to a wild shrub growing up from the cracked paving stones, drew her dagger, and cut a Y-shaped twig from it. They then moved over to the back right corner of the temple, where it disappeared into the hillside, and Selene uttered the divine words of her spell, upon which she began to walk north, the plaza to her right hand and the rising ground of the hill to her left. Now that the divination was cast, they would want to keep moving steadily until it expired.

"What is the range of this spell?" Paros asked, casting about and wondering how far she was able to extend her supernatural search for the axe. Selene, however, did not appear to understand the meaning of his question and simply shook her head. "How far away can you look with this spell?" he asked, rephrasing the question in a way that he might be comprehensible to her.

"As far as that tree," Selene said, looking up the hillside reflectively and then, as they approached the edge of the hillside shelf and looked northeastward across the necropolis, some forty feet below, "and to that pillar."

"Okay, about two hundred yards," Paros said gauging the distance to the obelisk the priestess indicated, an estimate that the range-oriented and mathematically astute Pumayo confirmed. "In all directions at one time?" Selene nodded. "Alright, a two-hundred yard radius then ..." The wizard chuckled gleefully and Paros shot him a dirty look, knowing his mirth was in response to Selene likely not having any idea was the word "radius" meant.

Once the companions had gone about halfway around the plaza they reached the crumbling path that led down into the cemetery and began to descend, Paros, Parthenia, and Pumayo keeping a careful watch, their missile weapons at the ready, as the priestess remained attentive on her search. When they reached the base of the shelf, Paros directed them forward about a hundred yards and then bore left, so that they would head into the northern quarter of the necropolis; he was trying to plot a route that allowed for some overlap in the area they were scanning, just to be safe, but not too much. It was rough going, as the paths had not been maintained and were heavily overgrown with vegetation, thickets of shrubby prosopis trees choking formerly open areas and once-decorative groves of live oak damaging surrounding mausoleums with their overhanging branches and intrusive roots.

After they had gone a few hundred more yards they began to bear to the left yet again, toward the hills, overlapping the area they had scanned from the shelf by maybe forty yards or so; it was by no means easy to tell this accurately, but better a bit too much overlap than a bit too little and to have gone to all this trouble and overlooked a pocket where the object of their search might be hidden. Soon after, Selene's spell came to an end and they took a brief break on a toppled pillar. As short as the duration of Selene's spell was, it also had an impressive area of effect and Paros believed that they could search the entirety of this section with her three castings. He was not confident that they would find what they were looking for and was reconciled to it taking as much as five days to search the entirety of the necropolis. It would not take long to run through Selene's spells first thing each day, and they could then spend the rest of the daylight hours hunting, foraging — Parthenia was already gathering bean pods from some of the prosopis trees and stuffing them into a sack — and maybe even exploring some of the outside tombs they had been passing. They had not actually explored this area in any event, and so were very interested in the things they were seeing.

When Selene was ready she cast her next spell of finding and the party set out again, moving as close as they could to where the ground rose upward toward the hills and then skirting the high ground and heading roughly northeastward. Here there were many mausoleums built into the side of the hill and the companions saw a number of facades carved from the native stone and even doors set directly into crevices or small cave mouths. At one point, a hillside ravine led down to a narrow cave entrance, and around this rocky slit there were a number of memorials, most of them carved directly into the surrounding stone. This chthonic tomb appeared to be very ancient and Paros wondered if perhaps it was one of the very first to have been established here. There certainly was much more that bore exploring here — and that did somewhat beg the question of why they would put so much effort into tracking down the Orcs to retrieve treasure from them that might be replaced by efforts elsewhere. There was more to it than that, of course, and part of the party's motivation was that the rapacious humanoids were a menace and that by tracking them down they might expiate some of the guilt they had incurred by erroneously slaying the Dwarves.

Selene's spell had run its course by this time and they once again took a short break to assess the ground around them and determine the next segment of their route. They would go just a little further northeast and then, once the fence that formed the eastern boundary of the necropolis was in sight and well within the radius of the spell's effect, they would turn due south and follow the line of iron pickets toward the entrance through it.

The priestess cast her final spell of finding and the party moved on, quickly coming within sight of the wrought iron fence. Paros paused to gauge the distance to it and to plot the optimum route back along it when suddenly Selene called out.

"I can sense it!" she said, almost in surprise. "The axe — it's somewhere over there." She gestured directly toward the northernmost section of the necropolis, a largely undeveloped area that from the grave markers present appeared to have had a relatively modest clientele. There did not appear to be much there, other than a scrubby meadow leading up to a little stand of forest, and it was inauspicious enough that he would not likely have thought to investigate it had it not been for the priestess's spell.

The party spread out into a V formation, with Parthenia leading and Paros and Selene behind and to either side of her; Pumayo came last, behind and to the left of the rogue, his snake slithering through the grass beside him. The party moved at a saunter, keeping pace with Selene, the slowest in her heavy armor (Parthenia was just as heavily armored but was also naturally very fast and not impeded to the same extent by her panoply). As they reached the woodline, they slowed their pace even more, cautiously moving through the gnarled boughs of the unmanicured live oaks and briars, holly, and other vegetation growing amongst them. After just a few minutes they reached the far edge of the stand and found themselves looking across a narrow band of grass and shrubs at a rough and aged, seven-foot-tall limestone wall, one end of which met the rock of the hill and the other end of which connected with the iron fence. At its center was a wide entryway and, laying on the ground before it, the remains of a pair of rotting wooden gates that had likely fallen off of their own volition sometime in the preceding decades. They could see that there was some sort of an open area beyond the gateway but could not make out too many other details from where they were. They paused, scanning the area for signs of movement or anything else of note, and listening for any sign of what might lay beyond the wall. Selene's spell had run its course and so she could not sense whether the item she had sought lay within the area they were looking at, but nothing else looked more promising.

Spotting nothing of note, the companions moved forward, two of them to either side of the gateway. Peering around the edges of it, Paros and Parthenia could see an enclosed yard and that it was filled with several big stacks of limestone blocks, organized according to size, along with several piles of rotting timber and a large, reddish mound. Toward the rear of the area a dark cave mouth opened up into the hillside and, with her lowlight vision, the Elf was able to see a large iron door set about ten feet back within it.

Cautiously, the companions stalked into the yard, alert for any movement or signs of danger. Curious about what the reddish pile might be, Parthenia and the two men moved over to examine it and discovered it to be a stack of iron ingots that over a century of neglect had rusted and fused into a single mass. They shifted their attention to the blackened metal door and began to move toward it.

Several timbers had been wedged into the sides of the passageway and against the ceiling, presumably with the intent of shoring it up, and at a glance Paros could tell that the door did not have any sort of a built-in lock. He also noticed, however, that two heavy iron wedges had been jammed under the door! The companions could see signs of heavy foot traffic in the dirt around the cave mouth but had no expertise in determining how many or even specifically what sort of people had created these tracks.

"This would seem to be a crude means of locking this door from without," Paros said quietly. "That suggests that we should be very careful about whatever is trapped within." He moved forward and pressed his ear against the metal portal and listened carefully. "I can't hear anything, but be alert for anything when I pull it open."

The rogue positioned himself so that he would be behind the door when he opened it and then gingerly began pulling out the iron wedges. Parthenia, meanwhile, stood in front of the door and about five feet back from it, her archaic hoplite shield in one hand and her spiked morningstar in the other, and Selene moved up behind her and just inside the passageway leading up to the door. Pumayo himself stood just outside the entryway, somewhat exposed but able to both support the others and, with Kidna, keep an eye out for anything that might creep up behind the party while they were preoccupied with their entry procedures.

The wedges removed, Paros grasped the iron door of the handle, depressed it, and pulled the portal open. As he did, a simple trigger made from a splint of wood was dislodged and the ceiling collapsed, raining timber and other things, some of them alive and squirming, down upon the surprised companions. 

Read "Return to the Necropolis: Chapter 21"