by Matt Appleby
Great Pyramid of Kircyn, East Canoc
Year 913, Fourth Age
Cerrard peered at the monitor. The image was even fuzzier than usual, and it was
harder still to see it in the gloom, but after a few seconds of concentration it became
obvious what he was supposed to see. Schweiller had told him that the scanner had
picked up something disturbing, and, in a sense, he was right. Their job was arguably
the most dangerous in the world, as the kind of people who built such places were
also the kind to be highly jealous of their secrets, and could be relied upon to throw
everything they knew at their protection. All who attempted to access these private
worlds, and there were always those up for the challenge, could expect to be under
constant, near-inescapable assault from the moment they passed the front door.
Given the kinds of traps and monsters they could expect to face, the bar for
'disturbing' was set a lot higher for them than it was for most people. And what
usually disturbed them most was, unfortunately, the exact same thing Cerrard and his
team were faced with now: nothing. They'd been in this tomb for 63 minutes, and
they'd seen nothing. All three chambers they'd passed so far had been completely
empty. No spike pits, rock falls, descending ceilings, or anything else at all. Even a
skeleton guard or two wouldn't have been unexpected. But no. They'd been allowed
to proceed entirely unscathed.
They were now stood outside the door of the fourth chamber, and according to
Schweiller's scanner, beyond it lay yet another empty room. The omens were always
bad in this kind of work, but just this once, Cerrard felt he could think so without a
trace of irony. This was not reassuring.
Cerrard turned to the tech expert. "Are you sure about this?"
Schweiller turned, then stood up to his full height. Being an orc, this was
"No." he said. "Most of the image is unreadable mush, like it usually is. So
there's still a lot of magic here, but from what I can tell, it's not being used to power
anything. But I've never had the scanner come up empty before, which could just
mean that it's fucked. I don't know."
"Alright then, can you at least tell us what is in there?"
Schweiller turned back to the scanner. "It's different to the previous chambers.
A pit design, I think. Some bridges across. A few are broken, the rest look to be pretty
stable. Until we open the door, that's all I've got."
"And no traps?"
"Maybe some collapsing bridges, but I doubt it. I think the broken ones are
just down to age. I can't be sure, though."
"Well, it's better than nothing."
Cerrard felt oddly excited by this. The odds of a trap, no matter how slim,
would at least get this job back to normal. This thought was also not reassuring.
He turned his attention to the door itself. It was the same design as the others
in this tomb, and in most tombs across Canoc: large, stone-built, elaborately painted
and, most importantly, with no obvious way of opening it.
"Pryce, your turn." he said without looking round. "The door. Does it give us
Pryce was the team's historian. Over the years, all of the crew had picked up a
working knowledge of Canoc and other places they were likely to go, but this was all
just on-the-job training, and no match for someone who had specifically studied in the
field. All tombs had decorations and inscriptions, detailing the complex's
construction, the life of the emperor interred there, what gods the recently-deceased
wanted to butter up, and whatever else the artists could think of. Whilst no self-
respecting tomb-builder would just paint the tomb's secrets on the walls, the
decorations they left were nonetheless vital insights into their thoughts and working
methods. Any of the team could translate Canoc murals and hieroglyphics, but this
was a task that required analysis and interpretation, and for that you needed a trained
expert, not a gifted amateur. Unfortunately, not many professors or archaeologists
were willing to risk life and limb in a tomb-crack, but Pryce was a much-valued
The historian walked up to the door, and gently ran her fingers across its
surface. After a few seconds, she started humming a little tune. No one knew why she
did either of these things, and they'd never felt comfortable with asking. Then again, a
historian without a few quirks usually wasn't up to the job.
"Sadly, I don't think so." she said eventually. "It's a generic slice of life of the
Imperial court. Not much to say about it, really. I doubt the artist was thinking of
anything more than sucking up to the Emperor."
She paused for a second. "Although..."
The centre of the door was dominated by a large figure. It was a man with a
bird's head, or a helmet shaped like one, carrying a staff and wearing expensive robes.
This was the standard depiction of Emperor Kircyn, and it was perhaps telling that it
was less ostentatious than that of most other Emperors.
Pryce carefully reached up her hand, and pressed at the tip of the Emperor's
beak. There was a brief hissing noise, and loud clanking somewhere in the distance.
Pryce scooted back a few feet.
It was a few seconds before anything happened. Then, without warning, there
were thunderous noises: metal cogs and chains squealing into life, the grinding of
stone-upon-stone. The door was slowly, agonisingly pulled up into the ceiling, each
centimetre creating a roar that threatened to crack open the earth.
Eventually, it finished, and the noise gradually died away. The team all rubbed
at their ears. Whilst it was true that every tomb door opened like that, it being the
nature of their construction and all, it wasn't exactly something you got used to.
"Good thinking, Pryce." Cerrard said, once he was sure his senses were back
in working order.
Pryce just shrugged. "Call it a hunch."
There was a grunt from the back of the group. "I swear, that nearly overloaded
the fucking camera again."
That was Whall, their medic and unofficial documenter. As with the historian,
everyone on the team knew first aid and the basics of battlefield medicine, but
considering how dangerous their work normally was, it was essential to keep around
someone who'd actually been trained in the stuff. Accordingly, Whall was the only
member of the team who needed to be kept as far from harm as possible, and like
most medics on tomb-cracks, being shoved to the back only served to make the ill-
tempered bastard even less agreeable. But for all his attitude, he was a long-standing
member of the team, and dependable to the end.
His hatred of the camera was legitimate, though. This particular job was being
financed by the Lancour Museum of Antiquities, and one of their stipulations was that
they get footage of the tomb as they went through it. For 'posterity', apparently. This
wasn't an especially unusual request, granted, but it still meant one of the team
lugging around extra equipment they didn't need, not to mention getting in the way of
everyone else's work. Still, it guaranteed the funding, so for all its problems, and all
of Whall's grumbling, it had to tag along.
Then again, if you were looking for easy work, you wouldn't go tomb-
cracking. There were those who were in it for a love of ancient cultures and
discovering their secrets, but mostly, it was about the challenge and the treasure. And
so it had been for thousands of years.
Of course, for most of this time, those in the trade were just good old-
fashioned tomb robbers. It was only in the last decade or so that it had turned into a
legal and almost-respected profession. Now that technology had finally caught up
with ambition, and death was merely a possibility instead of a guarantee, museums,
universities and collectors alike were falling over themselves to see what treasures
could be reclaimed from the darkness. The ones who did the actual dirty work were
usually ex-thieves or Special Forces, and were just glad to apply their skills in a way
that paid better and was less legally ambiguous.
There were drawbacks, though, beyond the obvious. By their very nature,
tombs could only ever be cracked once: once the treasures were gone, they were gone.
And it wasn't as if there were brochures detailing what treasures were available. It
wasn't unheard of for a team to reach the final chamber, facing cruel and unusual
death every step of the way, only to find that their reward was some entirely worthless
trinkets, or had already been taken by earlier, more successful tomb robbers. But
when you got lucky, the payout would justify all your efforts, and so they accepted
the risks, accepted that their work wouldn't last forever, and grabbed what they could
whilst it was still available.
All of the above was why this job was making Cerrard so nervous. The Great
Pyramid of Kircyn was one of the last world-famous challenges: there were still the
less-known tombs deeper into the Cycanac desert and the jungles of Cuautlan, and the
old eleven kingdoms of Prodroi, Novieri and Shanar were only just starting to give up
their secrets, but in terms of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, Kircyn was pretty much it.
To that end, seven documented teams had gone in there before, not to mention the
innumerable unofficial/illegal attempts, and not a single one had ever been heard from
again. The presumed traps and monsters of Kircyn were already notorious, and a
guaranteed paycheque of £3million each was the only reason Cerrard and his crew
were facing them. But, again, they'd found nothing: no dangers, no secrets and not
even any bodies. Hundreds of people must have come through these chambers, and
there was not a single trace of any of them.
So what the fuck happened?
Now the door was open, chamber four itself looked no less encouraging. Once
Schweiller had gotten the arc-light repositioned, they could see that is was a large
room, narrow but very high and long. Beyond a tiny strip of floor, a pit opened up
before them, its unknown depths easily swallowed by the darkness. The only other
safe ground was seven wide pillars spaced almost at random, linked by stone bridges:
unfortunately, as Schweiller's scanner had indicated, the last two were broken.
Cerrard decided to worry about that later: they needed to focus on getting that far first.
He turned to Haagen, their engineer. "What do you think?"
The dwarf rubbed his beard thoughtfully. As one of a species whose natural
habitat was doing dangerous work deep underground, Haagen revelled in his work. In
this case, his usual role was to survey the structural integrity of the tomb itself: traps
were usually magically enhanced by their builders, and could be expected to last for
thousands of years, but the structures around them were still likely to fall apart after
all that time. This was something all tomb-crackers needed to deal with, as a natural
rock fall would kill you just as dead as a deliberate one.
In this case, Cerrard was concerned with the bridges that still remained as
much as he was the ones that had collapsed. He needed to know if they were still
stable, or even if they were built to collapse, before anyone crossed: the all-purpose
scanner was good for this, and Schweiller was already doing so as a matter of course,
but it was still a good idea to have a trained engineer look it over. Granted, Haagen's
usual response to such issues was "just blow it up", but that was dwarves for you.
Haagen crouched down by the first bridge, and started running his fingers
across the stonework. Rather than just copying Pryce's trick, this was something most
dwarves could actually make use of.
After a little while, he stood back up. "I don't know. Seems pretty stable to
me, but I'm more suited to taking stuff apart than keeping it together, know what I
mean? I think this is a question for Schweiller."
Haagen was of course referring to the scanner. As the technician, Schweiller
was responsible for its use and interpreting its results.
The orc's skills in this area often surprised those who didn't know him. The
feud between humans and orcs had been buried some time ago, but nonetheless, it was
still hard to avoid picturing orcs doing more than just tearing apart everything in sight.
The truth was only gradually making itself known: Ensturg's near-inhospitable
climate meant that orcs were tough and uncompromising, yes, but they were also by
nature incredibly innovative. They had to wring every last drop of resources out of
their country, and you couldn't do that by being a savage.
That was why Cerrard had an orc working the scanner, which was actually an
orc invention anyway. It was a combination of x-ray, radar, infra-red, heat vision and
a whole number of other things, and could give you an absurdly comprehensive
picture of whatever you pointed it at, right down to the atomic structure. Of course,
the magic inherent to most tombs played hell with its sensors, but it was still by far
the best way to tell what the next chamber was packing.
Even if, like today, it kept coming up blank.
Schweiller looked up from the scanner. "The third bridge doesn't look too hot,
but I think that's just age, and I doubt we'll do anything to it. In terms of traps, I'm
still not picking anything up. I agree with Haagen. Given the lack of evidence to the
contrary, I'd say we're safe."
That was the kind of thinking that usually got a tomb-cracker killed, but just
this once, Cerrard was inclined to hold the same opinion. They could stand around
testing this chamber all night, but it made no difference in the end. The sooner they
got moving, the sooner they could get the treasure and go home.
"Sounds good enough to me." he said. "Let's move."
The seven crackers slowly walked across the room. The third bridge did
indeed creak a little, but they kept their nerve: running would just make things worse.
Eventually, they reached the sixth pillar, and could go no further.
Cerrard looked at the gaps across from him, and at the wall to the right. No
one surface was more than ten feet away from another, and the wall itself was covered
in ornaments and exposed masonry. It looked do-able, but then again, it wouldn't be
"Monturi." he said. "Think you can do a Monkey Bridge?"
The Monkey Bridge was a standard, if risky method of crossing gaps. Two air
rams would fire grappling hooks across to the other side, pulling a simple rope bridge
across with it. The catch was, the hooks would need to be securely fastened before the
bridge was safe, which usually meant that some poor bastard would have to find
another way across the gap first. In this case, the responsibility would fall to Monturi,
their acrobat. He was a Parkour expert in his previous life, and death-defying leaps
and climbs were what he did best.
"Looks good to me." Monturi said. "The next platform is closer to the wall, so
just jump across, jump to the wall, shimmy over to the far side, then you fire over the
"I'll need a lift, though. If you could do the honours, Blanchard."
Blanchard was their strongman, or rather strong-woman. She was a Hulder, a
rare, very-nearly-human creature who normally lived in the Neveau Mountains. As a
species, they all appeared to be weak and frail women, but could massacre even adult
orcs with their bare hands, and were not shy about demonstrating this to anyone dumb
enough to pick on them. If you needed some monsters battered with a sledgehammer,
and no self-respecting tomb was without a few mummies or an army of skeleton
warriors, then Blanchard was your woman.
"It'd be my pleasure." she said.
Blanchard put her hands under Monturi's arms, then lifted him up with
seemingly no effort whatsoever.
Blanchard threw Monturi across the gap. It was nearly ten feet to the next
pillar, but he made it comfortably, landing on his feet and stopping himself with a
"Much obliged!" he called back.
The jump from there to the wall was much shorter, and he easily made that on
his own. He began to climb across to the chamber's exit, where the bridge would have
to go. It wasn't entirely monkey-like, but nonetheless, he went from exposed slab to
stone carving and back again with the speed and simplicity of a life-long expert.
There was a brief, beyond-terrifying moment when a slab proved to be less stable than
he expected, pulling away his right hand in a cloud of dust, but he was able to recover
quickly and keep moving.
After a few minutes, he got to the far end, and pulled himself up onto a ledge.
Behind him, down a short corridor, was the door to the next chamber.
He took a few moments to get his breath back, then turned to the others.
"Send over the bridge!"
By this point, Schweiller had got the air rams set up. It was just over twenty-
five feet in total between them and Monturi, and the angle and power had been very
carefully calibrated to make the gap.
"Fire in the hole!" he called out.
The rams fired with a loud hiss, made louder still by the quiet of the chamber.
The two grappling hooks made the gap perfectly, landing just in front of Monturi's
feet. They dug hard into the masonry with a resounding clang. The acrobat kicked at
them at few times, then Schweiller gave the bridge a hard tug. It held.
Cerrard smiled. "Perfectly done, both of you. Good work."
Schweiller nodded, and Monturi called across his thanks.
The team went across the bridge one at a time, crawling as carefully as they
could. It was nothing more than short ropes stretched between two longer ropes, and
without any handrails, it and any who crossed it would wobble alarmingly. The team,
however, made sure to keep steady, and eventually all of them made it across. Whall
had to sling the camera around his neck, and nearly fell off because of it, but no
damage was done beyond soiled underwear all-round and a torrent of swearing from
the medic. Once they were done, they left the bridge as it was, ready for when they
had to go home.
The team turned to look at the door to the fifth chamber. It had clearly once
being decorated, but unlike the others before it, the images had faded to the point of
being unrecognisable. Schweiller immediately set to work on scanning, and Pryce
went up to get a closer look the door.
"Could be another court scene," she said after touching it a few times, "but
there's not enough here to say either way. I don't want to guess."
Schweiller looked up. "I think the next chamber might be the last. I can't tell
you what's in the treasure room itself, but it shouldn't be far now. The chamber itself
is the biggest yet, and pretty empty. A lot of rubble, or something like it, but that's all.
Still no traps."
"Still?" Blanchard blurted out. "What's wrong with this place?"
"Maybe the builders had budget cuts." Whall deadpanned.
"I don't like this either." Cerrard said. "But speculating won't get us
anywhere. Maybe the next chamber or the treasure room will give us something, but I
doubt it. So let's just accept that we don't know anything, get this done and go home."
Everyone just nodded. Cerrard hated having to crack the whip like that, but
when it came to unknown dangers, discussing them just made things worse.
After a few seconds of silence, he turned to Schweiller. "Anything on the door
itself? How do we open it this time?"
The technician briefly peered at the scanner. "I don't know, and I don't think it
matters. From the looks of things, the mechanism has broken. Probably just rusted."
"Great." He paused for a moment. It struck him as about time the team did
"Haagen, just blow it up."
The engineer grinned like his birthday had come early. He opened his
backpack and pulled out a small disc, looking a little like a green bin lid. It was a
standard det-pack, designed to merely weaken a structure rather than destroy it
wholesale: Haagen liked explosions, true, but in this environment bigger wasn't
better, and a bang of any sort would satisfy.
He walked up to the door, ran his hands across it for a few seconds, then
placed the det-pack just right of centre. He walked back to the group and pulled a
detonator out of his pocket.
"Hold onto your knickers." he said.
Whall groaned. "You are such a child."
Nonetheless, everyone held their ears. Haagen pressed the detonator. The
explosion was tiny, but it was still the loudest they'd heard so far. Cerrard felt himself
scream from the pain of it. After what felt like decades, the echoes faded away,
though the loud buzzing in everyone's ears wouldn't be going away for a while.
The door had a roughly det-pack-sized hole in it, with a spider's web of thick
cracks stretching all the way to the walls. Blanchard pulled her sledgehammer out of
its scabbard, then took the largest swing she could at the door. With another hefty
crash, it finally broke apart, the pieces tumbling to the floor.
Cerrard liked those kinds of moments. Tomb-cracking wasn't a job that called
for much subtlety.
The team climbed over the ex-door and into the chamber beyond. It was
indeed massive: a hall that could probably swallow most entire buildings, and almost
completely empty. Paintings and decorations covered the walls from ceiling to floor,
depicting scenes of such a wondrous variety that even Pryce could spend a lifetime
figuring them all out. The team were at the top of a wide staircase that curved round
both walls, and they were level with the top of the final door, an enormous double-set
that was painted with a huge depiction of Kircyn himself.
Between the bottom of the stairs and the doors was the rubble pile that
Schweiller noted. And this was the problem. Even from this height, they could tell
that it wasn't rubble at all.
They were skeletons. Hundreds of them. Maybe even a thousand. All sat
calmly in rows, as if waiting for Death's parade. And looking closer, a few of their
number were not actually skeletons, not yet: they had died recently, and the flesh had
not finished rotting off their bones. This, arguably, was worse, because it made it clear
what the macabre display was.
Monturi was the one who voiced everybody's thoughts.
"Well, at least we know what happened to our predecessors."
"No, not quite." Cerrard added. "We know where they are, but we don't know
why. This changes everything."
Schweiller looked at him. "Are you saying we should turn back?"
"No. We've already come too far for that. But I don't think we've got the
equipment to figure this out. There's no point in scanning any further. We'll get to the
treasure room and go from there. Everyone agreed?"
There was a chorus of "ayes". The team began moving down the stairs, slowly
and cautiously. They'd lost the chance to plan ahead, yes, but they weren't cavaliers,
and there was still a need to be watchful. Especially so now. An army of the undead
wouldn't have gone unexpected, but this was not an army. What it was, no one knew,
and the lack of certainty was the worst thing of all. This was not the time to wing it.
They were about halfway down the stairs when they were proven right. There
was a loud scraping, the sound of many bones being dragged across stone. As if
pulled by the hand of an invisible puppeteer, the thousand skeletons got to their feet.
As one, they turned to face the intruders.
Blanchard breathed out. "Finally, something I can relate to."
She moved to the front of the group, taking out her sledgehammer as she did
so. It was a good weapon for the job, chosen with care. Bullets and swords were
precision weapons, designed to target limbs and vital organs: the undead required
neither to function, and for them, raw brute force would have to suffice. Blanchard
readjusted her grip, getting ready to fight.
But, again, things did not go as expected. The skeletons did not fight. Instead,
they pulled back, calmly opening a corridor between the team and the grand doors.
The seven crackers stopped dead. No one spoke.
Eventually, there was the sound of clanking in the distance. Deep within the
tomb's masonry, giant chains and cogs were being turned. There were low rumblings,
then grinding. The invisible puppeteer acted again, slowly pushing open the doors.
Once they starting moving, the giant slabs were eerily quiet, only the sound of their
machinery to be heard. There was another grinding and a heavy clunk, then
Beyond the open doorway was the treasure room. The object of everyone's
dreams and labours.
The team moved forward, between the ranks of skeletons, until they were
inside. The treasure room was octagonal and relatively small, but with a ceiling nearly
the height of the previous chamber. At the centre was a low column, and on top of this
column was the treasure itself.
It was an orb of unknown material, perhaps a jewel of some kind, about the
size of a bowling ball. The orb gave off a pale blue light that flowed like water,
shimmering off the sides of the room. It looked as if it had a value beyond anything
they'd ever seen before, and was beautiful beyond measure. The team gazed at it in
wonder, lost in it.
"What do you think it is?" Cerrard eventually said, in a faraway voice.
"I have no idea." Pryce responded. "I've never heard of anything like it. It's
Cerrard turned back to the still-open doors. The skeletons had moved, and
were now stood across the entrance. They didn't seem to be malevolent. Expectant,
possibly. He turned back to the orb.
Cerrard stepped forward and reached out his hands. He gently took hold of the
orb, and began to lift it off the column. The orb suddenly glowed with pure light,
brighter than anything any of them had ever known, a whiteness that burned away
everything else. Then, for a brief but eternal second, a blinding pain shot through their
heads, cracking them open.
Cerrard was stood by the plinth, holding the orb. It no longer glowed, in either
white or blue. It was a milky colour, like a giant pearl, and felt lighter than his hands
The skeletons had gone back to their original posting. They were sat down
again, waiting for whatever might come next.
The team, one at a time, blinked and shook their heads.
"What the fuck was that?" Schweiller asked to everyone and no one.
"I don't know." Cerrard said, then nodded at the orb in his hands. "But this
seems to be what we came for. Let's go home."
Lisiore, South Elterrion
Year 914, Fourth Age
Cerrard pressed the doorbell, still confused as to what was going on. Whall was
always off-radar between jobs, content to see no one and be seen by no one. He'd
been like this all the time Cerrard had known him. So why, barely a year since
Kircyn, did the medic suddenly want to get in touch? And why specifically request a
face-to-face conversation, at his own house? He'd never told anyone where he lived
before, not even in what country, so why the change?
It was a few minutes before Whall answered. He silently opened the door and
gestured for Cerrard to enter. The medic looked unusually thoughtful.
Cerrard hung up his coat on a hat stand in the hall, and followed Whall into a
study. The house was well furnished and expensive, but not flashy: it looked like the
house of a rich, retired academic, and despite Whall's famous attitude, it felt entirely
appropriate. If only because he was a rich, retired academic.
Kircyn had been nine months ago, and everyone's lives were totally different.
The orb, once it was delivered to civilisation, was revealed to be a metal compound
previously unknown to science, and nigh-impossible to categorise. In the end, the
Gentura National High-Energy Research Facility had paid an officially undisclosed
fortune for it, and after each of the seven crackers had received their standard 3% cut,
combined with the £3million base pay, they all now had more money than they could
ever possibly spend. Blanchard and Haagen had decided to stay in the business, but
everyone else retired to whatever life they thought best. Cerrard, for his part, had
bought a cabin deep in the Nordale forest and learnt to fish. After the excitement of
his various former lives, the quiet suited him, and he was glad to be done with it all.
At least, until now.
Once they were both inside the study, Whall closed the door and turned on his
"You might want to sit down for this." he said.
Cerrard did so, taking one of the two mahogany chairs by the desk. Whall took
the other a second later.
"What's this about?"
Whall rubbed his chin for a few seconds before responding.
"It's best if I just showed you."
He turned to the computer and starting clicking through various folders.
"I finally got the camera footage back from the Museum." he said as he
worked. "I was curious to see what my efforts lugging it around had achieved. As
soon as I started watching, I knew to call you."
Cerrard sat forward in his chair. This was going to be bad.
Whall clicked on a final icon, and brought up a video file. It showed the final
chamber of the Kircyn tomb, facing the entrance staircases. In front of the camera
were two rows of skeletons, with three living, fully-clothed figures amongst them.
Cerrard began to feel ill as he recognised the back of his own head.
"This isn't pre-recorded footage." Whall told him. "This is live."
Cerrard really didn't want to say it, but he forced the words out anyway.
"We never left, did we?"
"I doubt it."
"Anything we can do?"
"Again, I doubt it. Maybe Schweiller could find some way of sending the
footage out, but I think the background magic would just fuck the signal. And even if
it didn't, help wouldn't get to us in time. According to the camera's clock, we've been
there for just under a day, and it takes three days to die from dehydration."
"So that gives us, what, another two years stuck here, from our perspective?
Then we just die?"
"That looks to be about it." Whall sighed. "Shall we tell the others?"
After a few seconds, Cerrard realised he was being asked to make a decision.
To his surprise, he'd kinda missed it.
"No. Let them lead out the lives they want. We just got out-smarted by a guy
who died over three-thousand years ago. If there's nothing we can do about it, then
there's nothing we can do about it."
He stood up. "I don't know about you, but I intend to go fishing."