TDL BK I, CH 21: The First

Chapter Twenty-one: The First

Nick checked behind him, making sure that the portal was still there. The swirling purple mass of cloud and light hung behind them like a bad decision. He tore his eyes away, focusing on his new surroundings instead. They were standing on a landing of some sort. He could just barely make out the stone steps descending lower to an open archway through the gloom.

“Come on then!” he told his men. “Stay alert!”

It was a short stairway, only fifteen steps, so they were all too soon at the archway. They descended carefully, testing the steps for traps only to find none. Nick made way for his trap checker, a thin fellow named Occet, who swept the entrance with a softly glowing magical orb. The man turned and nodded his way, confirming that the way was clear. With a gesture to the men behind him, Nick took the lead again, shield at the ready.

The soft woosh of igniting flames nearly had him duck behind his shield for cover, but it was just a couple of old lanterns, no doubt magically keyed to detect their presence lighting up. They had to be old or defective because all they did was shed dim light for about five or six metres before falling off. Still, it was enough to see that they had walked into what could only be a foyer. 

Stone benches lined the walls, mouldy old tapestries hung from the ways and at the centre of the room stood a broken fountain that leaked water everywhere, causing shallow pools to run rampant through the room. In the centre of this fountain stood a man on a plinth, sword held out in front of him, tip resting at his feet. The dim light of the lanterns kept his face shrouded in shadow, and the angles made it so that the fountain pool looked more like a gurgling hole beneath him than a stately water feature. Nick had no eyes for any of this. His eyes were trained on the massive set of metal doors to the right of the fountain. One thing was clear to him. 

They hadn’t even entered the damn mausoleum yet.

Forgoing the caution he had started with, he marched up the giant steel doors and gave them a push. They didn’t budge. However, he expected that. It was never that easy. Running his hand over the massive keyhole and lock jutting out at chest height, Nick nodded to himself and called for Occet. The gaunt man came forward and started his checks, only to pause. 

“The lock’s ruined!” he told his boss. 

“What do you mean?” asked Nick with a frown. “You saying we can’t get in?”

“Naah”, Occet said, drawing the word out. “Someone’s broken it”, he explained. “Rough work. Destroyed the mechanism instead of picking it. Lock’s useless; the door should be open!” 

Nick gave it another push to be sure. “The damn thing’s not opening Occet!” he yelled, grunting at the exertion. “CHECK AGAIN!”

“Boss!” his subordinate said stepping away from him. “The insides are ruins, boss! There’s no way the door’s still locked.” 

Nick growled. Lucky for his lockpicker, the solution came to him before things got worse. 

“Wait? The doors probably rusted in place,” the thin man realised.

Nick took another look at the obstacle, this time noticing the rust and flaking. There was even a small rivulet of fountain water running under the door. 

Outside in the Heavenly Cloud Court.

Several of the mercenaries were shaking their heads or chuckling as they watched the giant display above the portal, and yet Howe noticed that very few expressed any surprise at Adil’s poor attitude. The embarrassment on his second in command face was telling. 

“Is he always such a hot-headed idiot?” he asked Guillaume. 

His friend looked around, noting how far away the rest of Adil’s men were before speaking at a low volume. “Adil’s competent, but he’s always running a little hot. Lots of anger management issues, some impulsiveness, but he also tends to go above and beyond on his contracts. His clients like that. However…”

“What is it?” Howe asked in a whisper. 

“I once saw him beat one of his men half-dead with his fists because he broke an item they were transporting”, Guillaume admitted with a frown.

“Damn!” Howe exclaimed quietly. 

“Wasn’t even a precious item or even completely destroyed”, Guillaume added. “Just a piece of cargo among maybe a dozen. A collection of porcelain animals, and because a leg came off one of them, Adil was just about ready to tear off the man’s leg and beat him to death with it. Coloured my view of him ever since.”

Howe said nothing, his eyes flicking back to the display. That was extreme. Issues that serious had to be related to his cultivation somehow. It was either that, or jolly Nick had some sort of severe mental problems. Whatever the case, the man sounded like a powder keg ready to blow. 

Inside the Mausoleum 

It took four of them working together to push the door open, but the screeching and grinding of the metal nearly made them quit. Nick rubbed his ear as he took in the state of the next room. There was a word to describe what he was seeing, and that word was carnage. It was a temple of some sort. The pews and altar made that clear. However, the state of it. He stepped over a broken pew as he walked deeper in, eyes sweeping the debris and counting the bodies. Only the state of them prevented him from marching out to say some choice words to the ‘generous’ hosts who charged them 50 essence stones to enter a mystic realm that had clearly already been looted. 

Desiccated corpses lay scattered through the room, some already reduced to skeletons. Experienced eyes made out stains that had once been blood in the dust of the stone floor. A shiny glint in one of the temple pillars had him walking up to it. His eyes widened. The thing had gold inlays. Unfortunately, some lucky sot had ripped them out ages ago. Noticing a body at his feet, Nick kicked it, scattering bone dust and desiccated flesh everywhere. 

“Fan out and see what you can find!” he yelled at his men. He’d be damned if he did not get his money’s worth. 

Edgar pulled a lantern from a fixture in the wall. The darned thing was so grimy with soot he nearly put it back. Tearing a piece of cloth from one of the skeletons on the floor, he opened it to clean it. Some more light would be helpful when sweeping the place for valuables. He took off the glass case, instantly making his surroundings brighter. Yelling from the other side of the temple had him working quickly. The boss was in one of his moods today. He put the lantern back together. It wasn’t properly clean, but it was much better than it was before. Raising the now brighter lantern, he moved to check the bodies. Maybe one of them still had his loot on him.

There! That one had a haversack.

Bending over, Edgar tried to pull the bag loose, but when he grabbed it, the skeleton grabbed him. Screaming in fear, Edgar scrambled away, falling backwards in his panic, but the skeleton held fast and being so light, all he succeeded in doing was pulling it on top of himself. Screaming and kicking in an attempt to get it off him, his wide eyes never noticed the rusty blade it held in its other hand.

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