The storm came out of nowhere. It swept over the caravan, turning day into night. Through the hiss of sand, I could hear the screams of horses, the shouts of men. I had taken shelter in one of the wagons. The last thing I recall, before the darkness swallowed me, was the groan of wood as the wagon came apart.
Miraculously - and that is a word that I don’t use lightly - I survived the storm.
I woke up in the baking heat of the desert sun. There was no sign of the caravan. The wagons were gone, torn apart by the storm or buried in the shifting sands.
There were other survivors. The halfling, Tyla, an elf called Hal and another human, named Salazar. We were the only survivors and none of us were in great shape.
We searched for supplies but found none. The four of us only had what we had been carrying. Granted, the halfling was better prepared than the rest of us, but she played her cards close to her chest.
The desert extended around us for miles in every direction. We discussed our options. To say they were limited would be an understatement. After a brief talk, the four of us continued west. Perhaps we would find usable supplies from the caravan? Or maybe an oasis?
We marched abreast and what a sight we must have made. The halfling and the elf in plate mail, me in my leathers and Salazar in his dusky cloak and slouch hat. I would not have said we were friends, but chance had made us companions.
After a while, Hal brought us to a stop.
"There!" He pointed to the north. "Do you see?"
We followed his finger and could see something dark in the distance.
"A town?" said Salazar, a note of hope in his voice.
Tyla was incredulous. "Out here in the middle of nowhere? Ruins more likely."
"There might be a well," I said. "Maybe an oasis."
"There’s nothing else around and night will be on us soon," said Hal. "At the least, even ruins might offer some shelter."
We agreed and headed north.
As we grew closer, it became apparent that the structure rising from the desert was, indeed, some kind of ruin. At first, it appeared to be a pyramid, but as we drew nearer it became obvious that it was a ziggurat. A ziggurat made of black stone.
It became equally obvious that most of the ziggurat was buried beneath the shifting sands. Had the storm uncovered it, I wondered? Or had it buried it?
At the base of the pyramid, we found a pathway leading to its crown. Salazar immediately began to climb it, ignoring our protests and calls for caution. Tyla, scowling a little, went after him, her plate armor gleaming in the sun.
Halatoid and I stood at the base of the pyramid. I was scanning the area around the structure, hoping to spot some sign of life that might suggest water. Hal, however, was looking behind us.
"There’s something following us."
I turned and saw nothing.
"Are you sure?"
He said nothing, merely unsheathed his sword and stepped away from the black stone.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
I was torn between following the others up the pyramid and accompanying Hal. This place, it gave me an eerie feeling.
That was when I saw it. A yellowish fin, emerging from the sand, very briefly, before vanishing again.
"We should go," I said to Hal.
The elf just grinned. That should have been my first warning that he wasn’t quite right. He shifted his grip on his sword.
"You go if you want to," he said. "I want to see what that is."
Perhaps the gods were listening. There was an explosion of sand in front of us and the beast emerged. It was large and weirdly blunt, standing on four thick legs. It had large, evil eyes on either side of its head. Its gaping maw was full of serrated teeth and it had a stub-like nose.
I stepped back, the handle of my warhammer slick in my hands.
Hal stepped forward.
With a cry, he performed an elaborate acrobatic maneuver that somehow landed him astride the beast’s back. I’m not sure who was more surprised by his actions, the beast or me.
The beast was definitely surprised by what Hal did next. Laughing, the elf raised his sword and drove it down, into the creature’s back. It opened its mouth and roared, more in anger than pain. The creature began to thrash about, trying to dislodge its small tormentor.
I was terrified by the beast, but impressed by Hal’s self-confidence. Sense said that I should have left him to his fate, but there is a reason I chose to serve the Burning Heart. Bellowing, I rushed forward and slammed my warhammer into the beast’s nose.
My hammer shattered like glass. I staggered back, shocked but unhurt. The beast seemed more annoyed than anything else by my attack. I unslung my shield, got ready to defend myself.
On the creature’s back, Hal seemed to have come to his senses a bit. I saw him, one hand still grasping his sword, raise his free hand. Eldritch energies flickered around his fingertips and he lay his hand upon the beast’s stony-hide. Whatever spell he had been trying to cast had apparently failed.
I still held the handle of my hammer. It was a meager weapon, but probably would be more effective against the creature than my whip. If I was quick, perhaps I could drive the handle into one of the beast’s eyes? Might that not hurt it enough to convince it to flee?
On its back, I saw Hal clinging for dear life. I thought he was trying to pull his sword free, perhaps to plunge it back into the creature? Perhaps he was trying to saw its spine out? I never found out.
Gripping the remnant of my warhammer, I jumped forward, aiming for the beast’s eye. But the creature was thrashing so badly that I missed its eye and, much to my horror, struck my companion.
The sharp ends of my hammer pierced Hal’s ankle and the creature’s skin. Instead of helping, I had effectively pinned him to the beast. The beast thrashed about and knocked me to the ground. I lay there, eyes wide, and began to pray to pray to my goddess for help if she were so inclined.
Perhaps she listened and acted. More likely the beast simply chose to leave, tired of the thrashing figure atop its back. With a roar, it bounded away, diving headfirst into the desert sands. On its back, I could see Hal, flailing like a rag doll.
Then beast and elf were gone and I was alone, lying on the sand, mortified by my failure to help my companion, but thrilled to still be alive.
After a few moments, I cautiously climbed to my feet. There was no sign of the beast. Nor was there any sign of our companions. Had they not heard our battle? Had something happened to them?
Quickly, I ran to the black pyramid and sprinted up the path to the top. I arrived at the ziggurat’s apex to find an unexpected scene. Three colossal metal statues stood atop the pyramid. One appeared to be a sorcerer with a wand, another was a warrior and the third was a woman holding a flower. Some kind of priest? Or were the three of them meant to be gods? I had no idea.
Of greater concern to me was the body lying in an open doorway. Had disaster struck my remaining companions? I rushed over and was relieved to see that the body was old and desiccated. It had been lying in the sun and air for a long time.
I looked into the room beyond the corpse. It was dim and smelt musty, like dust and death. Black pillars supported a low ceiling. There was a curious grinding noise I could not identify and, in the far corner, a hatch leading, presumably, to a lower level.
Cautiously, I stepped into the room.
From the hatch, I heard Tyla’s voice. "Here, Killian!"
I moved over to the hatch and peered through it. Below, I could see Tyla standing besides a prone Salazar. The other human appeared to have three arrows lodged in his leg. I could hear his harsh breathing from where I stood.
"What happened?" I asked.
"Booby-trap," explained Tyla. Then, "Look out for the ceiling."
Frowning, I looked up and realized that the room’s ceiling was lower. Tyla’s pack was open and I caught a glimpse of rope.
"Tyla, throw me some rope!"
She did not hesitate. She threw me the entire coil of rope. As I looked around, trying to find something to tie it off too, I realized that the ceiling was dropping too quickly. I could not get my companions out in time.
Very briefly, I considered abandoning them. I thought about rushing back out to the pyramid’s roof and leaving Tyla and Salazar to their fates. But then I pushed such thoughts aside and dropped the rope back through the hatch. I heard Salazar grunt as it smacked into his chest.
"Look out! I’m coming down!"
I had meant to drop through the hole, but the ceiling was so low by that point that I had no choice but to dive through it, head first. Like the rope, I landed on Salazar. He did not so much grunt this time as gurgle.
As I rolled off of him, I heard the crunch of splintering wood as the hatch was crushed by the ceiling. Immediately, the room we were in was plunged into darkness.
Tyla muttered beneath her breath and, a moment later, she had produced a small lamp, the kind popular with dwarf miners. By its feeble light I could see that the room we were in was small and unadorned. There was no furniture, no decorations, just smooth black walls. In one corner was a pile of what appeared to be refuse, in another was a stone stairway leading down into darkness.
"Bones," said Tyla, seeing my gaze.
I nodded and turned to Salazar. The arrows were jutting out of his thigh. By the lamplight, I could see his skin had taken on a waxy hue.
"That’s not good," I murmured.
Among his possessions, Salazar had a knife and a collection of what turned out to be thieves’ tools. I took the knife, which felt strange in my hand, and tried to remove the arrows from his leg. Unfortunately, the arrowheads were buried deep and the best I could do was cut away the shafts.
I took out my holy symbol and kissed it, then called upon my goddess’s favor and lay my hands on Salazar’s wounded leg. There was a rush of warmth as divine energies poured through me and, as I watched, the arrow wounds closed as Salazar’s flesh knit together.
I thought his breathing changed a little, but the waxy sheen to his flesh did not improve. He grunted and moved feebly, pressed something into my hand.
Looking down, I saw that Salazar was passing me a vial filled with a smoky, gray liquid. There were glyphs on the stopper, identifying the vial as a potion of gaseous form.
"Take it," he managed to grunt, then his eyes rolled back into his head and he was unconscious.
I had been so focused on Salazar that I had been unaware that Tyla had made a discovery of her own. Among the bones and refuse, she had found what appeared to be a sprite of some kind. It was small, one-armed and possessed the burned nubs of wings on its back.
Its name was Bernadette and it was an offensive, traitorous little creature. We took an instant dislike to each other.
Tyla, however, seemed to form an almost maternal attachment to the wretched thing. Even going so far as to defend it when, moved by righteous anger, I tried to smack the little bitch with my whip.
"Stop that," said the halfling. "Maybe she can help."
"How?" I demanded. "What can a one-armed, wingless sprite do to help?"
"Maybe she knows a way out of this pyramid. Maybe she knows what we’ll find."
"Death," said the sprite. She seemed distracted by Salazar. "Worse than his. Death all in feathers."
"Oh yes," I said. "That’s really useful."
Tyla scowled at me and turned back to the sprite who was sort of craning her neck toward Salazar.
"I can help him," said Bernadette.
"How?" I asked, instantly suspicious.
"I can help him," she repeated.
"How can you help him, sweetheart?" asked Tyla.
The sprite either couldn’t or wouldn’t give us a straight answer. In the end, Salazar was dead anyway so we didn’t really have a lot to lose. Tyla took Bernadette over to our poisoned companion.
As we watched, the sprite opened its mouth and a ripple went through its flesh. Its head morphed into a gray wormlike thing with a mouth full of pinkish suckers. As we watched, appalled, Bernadette thrust her mouth against Salazar’s exposed thigh and, leech-like, began to suck his blood.
Tyla and I shared a look of disgust, and then something unexpected happened. A swarm of shimmering golden lights erupted from the feeding sprite’s body, enveloping Salazar in blinding radiance. There was a flash of light and a clap of displaced air.
When my eyes cleared, I saw that Salazar was gone. In his place, lying on the floor, looking confused, was a dirty and dusty Hal. Bernadette was snuggling against his foot, licking his wounded ankle.
"Holy gods," I muttered.
Hal blinked and looked around. "What happened?" he asked, groggily. He looked down at his foot, at Bernadette. "What’s going on?"
"What do you remember?" I asked, kneeling next to him.
Hal’s eyes flashed. "I remember you pinning me to that . . . that land-shark!"
"That was an accident!" I protested.
"So’s this!" shouted Hal and punched me in the eye.
I reeled back, startled more than hurt. I couldn’t really blame him for taking the swing. I had pinned him to the land-shark.
"I like him," said Bernadette.
"Boys!" said Tyla, standing over us, hands on her hips. "We don’t have time for this! Bernadette, what happened to Salazar?"
"Sent him away," said the sprite. "To a better place."
"It looked like wild magic to me," I said, rubbing my eye. "Logically, if Hal is here, then Salazar must have taken his place on the back of the land-shark."
"I’m not sure logic applies to wild magic," said Tyla.
At that point, I was starting to wonder if logic had anything to do with any of this.
* * * * *
Exhausted by the day’s exertions, we passed the first night in that room. Tyla kept watch, sitting near the stairwell, talking quietly with the sprite. Hal kept giving me dirty looks. I did my best to ignore them and curled up in a corner of the room, my back against the wall.
I woke up, hours later, to the sound of Hal pissing in the corner. Tyla was standing, swinging her pack onto her shoulder.
"Wake up, priest," she said. "We’ve places to go."
"Where?" I asked, yawning and stretching.
"No place to go but down," said Hal.
"Before we go anywhere, I need to pray," I said.
Tyla shrugged and Hal grunted and produced a small book of spells. As I prayed, I felt my goddess’s favor wash over me. In my mind, divine spells glimmered like fireworks.
"Hal, come here."
He came to me, reluctantly. I lay my hands on his wounded ankle and called upon my goddess’s blessings. Instantly, one of the divine spells grew brighter in my mind’s eye and I felt the Burning Heart’s power course through me.
Hal shuddered as his wounded ankle was made well. He looked down at me with sea-green eyes.
I just nodded and stood.
Tyla and Bernadette were waiting by the stairs. The sprite seemed uneasy.
"What do you think is down there?" I asked.
"Let’s find out," said the halfling and began to descend the stairs, her plate armor clanking with every step. Hal followed and I brought up the rear.
The stairwell ended in a gloomy corridor. Belatedly, I realized that there was barely enough light to see by in the place. It was grayish and had an unearthly feel to it, dim to the point I’d be grateful for a proper torch.
The corridor stretched forward into darkness. There was a door to the left of the stairway. As Tyla moved to examine it, the sprite left her side and retreated to the stairs. Hal crept down the corridor and returned soon.
"There’s a door at the end of the corridor," he said, "and another about halfway down its length."
"I think," said Tyla, "that there’s something alive behind that door." She pointed to the door she had been examining. "I thought I heard breathing and movement."
"Well," I said, "there’s only one way to find out."
Hal reached out and grasped my hand. "Wait."
He lay his hand against the door and muttered something beneath his breath. Arcane energies blazed, briefly, in his eyes and were gone.
"Okay," said the elf. "Now."
We opened the door and discovered a large, torch lit room. There were several small, furry bodies lying insensate around the room. Rats, I realized. Caught in Hal’s sleeping spell.
Searching the room, we found no one inside it or the adjoining corridors. Which was odd and a little disturbing. Who had lit the torches? Who had Tyla heard, moving about inside? Had it just been the rats?
At some point, we lost Bernadette. The sprite had lagged behind in the large room, eying the helpless rats and, literally, licking her lips. As the rest of us explored the corridor that branched off from that room, we heard the sprite utter a short, sharp scream. Then silence.
"Should we see if she’s okay?" asked Hal.
Tyla’s face hardened. "No."
We continued in that vein for a while, exploring the surrounding corridors and rooms. At one point, Tyla witnessed a procession of sorts make its way down the gloomy hallway. She described the figures as small, smaller than a halfling, wearing elaborate feathered masks and carrying spears. They did not spot her and we departed that area, finding another stairway that led us down, deeper into the black pyramid’s depths.
At one point, we discovered a dungeon. It was occupied by the fresh corpses of a kobold and an orc. They appeared to have died from starvation.
Beyond the dungeon lay a pair of doors, firelight gleaming around their edges. Carefully, Tyla tested the doors and found them unlocked. They opened silently, on well-oiled hinges. Using her natural halfling stealth, Tyla peered into the room.
"There’s about a half dozen of those featherheads in there," she whispered, after carefully closing the door.
"What are they doing?"
"Working on those weird masks," said Tyla.
"What do they look like without them?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I couldn’t see, they had their backs to me."
We debated the situation and eventually decided to attack the featherheads, as Tyla had named them. My offensive talents were limited at that point, but Hal still had a few effective spells at his command. Once again, he cast his sleep spell through the door.
Only this time, he did not get everyone. A single featherhead remained awake, caught by surprise when we burst into the room. As Hal and I rushed him, Tyla secured the doors behind us with rope from her pack.
The featherhead squawked something in an unfamiliar tongue and dodged Hal’s first thrust with his sword. I followed him, lashing out with my whip to no real effect. Then Hal struck again, his blade skewering the little creature, killing him instantly.
As soon as the one creature was dead, Hal went to the others and methodically cut their throats. While he did that, Tyla and I searched the room. There was a brace of spears against one wall, a couple of tables and that was it. The featherheads had nothing of interest or value on their persons.
Tired and frustrated the three of us settled into that room for a rest. We left the bodies where they lay and took solitary watches through the ‘night.’ At one point, Tyla thought she heard movement from behind one of the room’s two doors, but she did not investigate. She told us about it the next morning.
That morning, as I completed my morning prayers, I was surprised to discover new divine spells gleaming behind my eyes. Apparently, my actions had won the fickle favor of the Burning Heart. I wondered what she made of all of this? Of the three of us stumbling through these dusty, dark corridors searching for . . . what exactly? What were we searching for? A way out of this pyramid? Back into the desert? Treasure? Glory?
I shook my head, trying to clear it. I knew what I wanted: to survive, to escape this black tomb with its queer inhabitants and return to the green, wet lands of the south. I touched my holy symbol, cool against my chest, and swore that I would survive. That I would get out of this devil-cursed place and see the tall spires of my homeland again. No matter what I had to do or who I had to kill to get there.
With that in mind I rose to my feet and walked to the wall. Tyla and Hal watched me as I lay my hand against one of the stones. Their eyes widened in surprise as cold, wet water began to gush from the stone, streaming across the stone floor.
Quickly, Tyla produced an empty wine skin from her pack and filled it. Hal did the same. I merely shoved my face into the enchanted fountain and drank until I could drink no more.
When the three of us were sated, the water still flowing from the stone wall, we turned our attention back to the room. The bodies had started to smell and we were eager to be away from this place. It was a small miracle that no one had stumbled upon us during the night.
Besides the doors we had come through, there were two other doors in the room. One seemed to have a faint current of air flowing from beneath it. The other did not.
Thinking it was possibly a closet, secretly hoping it was a pantry, we opened it. On the other end, a short corridor and another closed door.
"This place is nothing but closed doors and dark corridors," I muttered.
Tyla chuckles and said something about that being a metaphor for her entire life. Hal slipped down the corridor and lay his hand against the shut door.
"It’s warm," he reported.
"Maybe it leads outside," said Tyla.
"Maybe it leads to a kitchen," I said, my stomach grumbling.
"Or maybe it leads to a forge," said Hal. "We won’t know until we open it."
"That should be our group’s motto," I joked.
"Do we want to go that way?" asked Tyla. "There’s air coming from the other door. It may lead outside."
"Or not," said Hal. "We can’t afford to ignore any door in this place, I think."
Reluctantly, we agreed with him and walked down the corridor. Tyla took the lead and Hal brought up the rear. I marched between them, clutching my whip in one hand and my holy symbol in the other.
After a brief examination of the door, Hal pushed it open. I moved past him, into another large room. It appeared to be L-shaped with a fireplace dominating the wall ahead of me, to the left. There were two large, ornately carved pillars on either side of the fireplace and, as we walked into the room, Hal pointed out the presence of scat on the floor.
"Animal?" I asked.
"Let’s hope so," said Hal. But his green eyes narrowed and he swept the room with his gaze.
I moved toward one of the pillars, and, as I did so, we heard a sort of whuffling sound coming from the darkness. Tyla had pulled a small crossbow from her pack, which was looking mostly empty now, and Hal had his sword at the ready.
Looking at my companions, I nodded at them and stepped out from behind the pillar. Immediately, a low growl emanated from the darkness at the far end of the room, from the base of the ‘L.’ It sounded canine.
Perhaps it was the heat or the lack of food, but I stood there and began to call to the creature as if it were a favorite pet.
"Here, boy! C’mon, boy! C’mon!"
The growl was replaced with a kind of puzzled grunt and luminous golden eyes appeared in the darkness. As they drew nearer, I could make out what appeared to be a large dog, about the size of a wolfhound.
"Oh! Who’s a good boy, then? Who’s a good boy?"
I made little kissing noises at the canine which looked genuinely puzzled. As it drew nearer, I could tell that the light in its eyes was not reflected firelight.
Who knows what would have happened next if Hal hadn’t stepped into the canine’s view. Its puzzled grunts turned to hostile growls and it opened its mouth and fired a blast of fire at my elf companion. The flame rushed past me, hot enough to scorch my flesh, to drive me back.
Hellhound, I realized.
Hal dodged the flame and rushed forward, shouting, his sword extended. As he rushed forward, Tyla stepped forward and fired an arrow from her crossbow. Unfortunately, her aim was off and the arrow slammed into Hal’s back. His armor took the brunt, but his charge was thrown off and his blade landed only a glancing blow to the hellhound.
It snarled and spun, eyes blazing, flecks of foam on its maw. Opening its mouth, it shot another stream of fire at Hal.
He never had a chance to avoid it and shrieked in agony as his body burst into flame.
Perhaps I could have saved him, if I’d called upon my goddess’s divine favor. Perhaps. I’ll never know.
Instinct kicked in and I backed away from the hellhound and the burning corpse of my companion. It ignored me, growling at Hal’s body.
The beast was so intent on Hal that it did not notice Tyla fire. This time, her arrow struck true, burying itself in the hound’s flank, up to the fletching. It barked in surprised pain and then rushed past the halfling toward the corridor that connected its chamber to the featherheads’ chamber.
Tyla, snarling, had shoved another bolt into her bow and cranked the string back into place. As the hellhound darted past her, she fired at it. Her shot went wild, the arrow bouncing off the stone wall, to clatter uselessly on the corridor’s stone floor.
The hellhound turned and breathed its hellish breath once more. Flames washed over Tyla. I watched her scream and fall, breathed in the stink of burning hair and flesh. For a moment, she seemed to beat frantically at her hands, but then she fell to the ground.
My companions were dead.
The hellhound stood in the corridor, bleeding from its wound, blocking the only way out of the chamber. I had leather armor and a whip. Even if I’d had time to get to my companions, to grab Hal’s sword or Tyla’s crossbow, it would incinerate me before I could use them.
I had nothing.
Nothing but . . .
My hand went to my pocket, where Salazar’s potion lay, still stoppered. With desperate, clumsy fingers I grasped the vial, tore the stopper free and downed the potion.
A curious sense of lightness enveloped me. I heard the clatter of my possessions falling to the ground and looked down, saw that my body had vanished. My armor, my holy symbol, my whip. All lay in a heap on the floor.
The hellhound looked confused.
Out, I thought. I want to get out of this mad place!
I surged forward, swirling around the confused beast, and backtracked our route. We had taken so much time, exploring the rooms, on guard against the strange threats this place housed. Now, intangible and invisible, I rushed down the corridors, passing through doors like a wind until I emerged from the top of the pyramid. It was sunset.
No sooner had I stepped into the sun’s rays than the potion’s effects vanished. My flesh returned, solid and pale and too, too vulnerable.
The dead goblin was still there. I looted his corpse of its clothes and, exhausted, sat beneath one of the large, metal statues. I shut my eyes and muttered a prayer of thanks to the Burning Heart, but felt no sense of connection. When I fumbled, tentatively for the divine spells that usually resided in front of my mind’s eye, I encountered nothing but darkness.
Obviously, I had displeased her. How? Who knows? The Burning Heart can be a fickle bitch of a goddess.
As I sat there, in the fading sunlight, far to the west I saw a familiar, monstrous form erupt from the sand. Pinned to the land-shark’s back was the corpse of Salazar.
I hoped that he and my other companions had managed to find their way to a good afterlife. I suppose they deserved it, considering how horrible their deaths had been.
I did not see the land-shark again.
As for me? I survived, obviously.
I sat atop the pyramid and prayed and won my goddess’s favor. As I said, the Burning Heart is a fickle bitch, but she forgives as quickly as she angers.
Nothing emerged from the pyramid to kill me. No tiny assassins in feathered masks. No hellhounds. No irritating sprite.
Between my water spell and the goblin remains, I survived. It wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t easy but I did it and I thanked my goddess every damned day.
Eventually, another caravan came along. We were near a trade route after all. I rushed out to meet them and warn them away from the Black Pyramid. It took some convincing, but they believed me and we crossed the desert in relative safety.
In the west, in the city of Misha, I found a temple to the Burning Heart. After several days of thought and prayer, I left the goddess’s service. I left my holy symbol on her sacred altar and walked out into the city, just another man.
The first place I went was an armory where I bought the best godsdamned sword I could afford. Then I went to a pub and got drunk off my ass for three days straight.
Sometimes I dream about the Black Pyramid. In the dreams, my companions are still trapped there: Tyla, Hal, Salazar. Their ghosts watch me with cold, gray eyes beseeching me to help them, to come free their spirits.
I don’t care much for sleep these days.
And that’s my story, friend. The story of a lapsed cleric from the South, working as a sellsword in the west. If you’re still interested in hiring me, you can leave a message for me at the pub. Just know that if you plan to go into any godsdamned pyramids, you can count me out. Okay?