Dark Times 4: The Tomb of Elder Blades

Journal of Althas Binder

22nd Fivemoon, 732 DT

After a brief rest and resupply I was ready to set off to find the source of these attacks. I asked around the settlement and many agreed that there were tales of a tomb of the ancients not far into the Darkwilds. It was almost certain that the pillar must have appeared in or around this tomb. Unfortunately, they also told rumours of some monstrously strong beast that roamed that part of the wilds, though could tell me little of it’s nature, only that all had died who had confronted it.

I set off into the Darkwilds, observing closely for signs of the direction the attack had come for that would lead me to the pillar. The was path clear from where the horrors had shambled though, though the wilds already growing to cover the broken and trampled areas. Such rapid growth was a sure sign a pillar was nearby. 

I had been traveling for about an hour, hacking my way through the undergrowth, when I heard a rapid chittering sound moving quickly towards me. Before I knew it a swarm of Chitterlings burst out of the undergrowth ahead of me. 

They are unusual creatures, with hairy body’s the size of a human fist and long spindly legs with gossamer thin webbing between them. Their long narrow tails with razor sharp barbs on them can tear flesh with ease. They climb, jump and glide in swarms, making the high pitched chittering noise that gives them their name.

I leapt into the cover of some nearby undergrowth, covering myself with mud and leaves as best I could to provide some protection against stray barbs as they leapt, skittered and glided around me. Tala keened overhead in alarm but as they passed I got up and dusted myself off, no serious harm done. I was unsure what had spooked them so, for they most often appeared at night.

I continued on, finding the trail again. The path here was flattened and the going easier. Indeed the undergrowth looked like it had been flattened as if by some large creature or creatures. I followed this path some time until I saw the trail left by the previous nights attackers again. I moved off the broad pathway onto the trail again and soon found my destination.

The entrance to the tomb itself had been cleared and torn apart but the surroundings were overgrown. I could not tell how elaborate the aboveground structure would have been in ancient times, but from the entrance, a large stone structure stylised as two crossed swords, it must have been impressive.

 As I found this I heard a deep rumbling coming in my direction and felt the ground starting to shake. On instinct I ran into the entrance way of the mausoleum, thankfully finding it empty other than the creeping vines that had crawled along it’s walls and into it’s depths. I sunk into the shadows and watched the entrance carefully. To my horror, the ground outside the entrance seemed to bubble and boil up and out of it exploded a monstrous entity. It reared up, a thick cylindrical body with a huge gaping mouth dripping saliva surrounded by huge shovel like tusks, a huge horn and many dark orbs I can only assume were eyes. The part rearing up was easily three times the height of a man, and I know not how much more lay beneath the surface. It’s body pulsated and swayed around, looking around the area. I sunk deeper into the shadows, holding my breath. Thankfully it did not see me and dived back into the ground, thrusting up a flurry of stones and dirt.

I let out a breath and moved back, turning towards the corridor leading deeper into the tomb, underground, but clad in thick stone I hoped would keep that monster away. I moved quickly, keen to be away from the entrance lest the beast came back. 

As I delved deeper into the tomb it got strange, the walls seemed to glow with an unearthly light and when I touched them I felt a grainy slime that seems to fizz under my fingers. We know the pillars stimulate and mutate all life around them, and I could feel the dark tendrils of their influence creeping into my mind as I moved deeper. There were vines and growths of the Darkwilds I knew well too, though they all seemed to be coming from outside. I can only assume that this tomb was sealed so long that no plant life as we know it existed to mutate. I proceeded with caution.

After traversing the corridor for a number of minutes I came into an open chamber, perhaps fifty paces across. Frustratingly, the chamber had been flooded with what looked like waist deep water. A strange scummy substance floated in clumps on the surface and I could see writhing tendrils of some unknown lifeforms in its murky depths. I could see where the rubble and earth from a collapsed wall provided a path to the exit at the other side, but there was still twenty paces of water to move through to get there. Behind the collapsed wall a watery cavern loomed.

I spotted a column that lay at an angle against the wall and took my rope from the backpack and knotted a loop in it and affixing a cross of iron strips to make a rudimentary grapple. I moved forward a little into the shallow water to give room to swing and flung the grapple out. It fell wide, splashing into the water. I drew it back quickly and started to swing it again when the water rippled violently and a dark shape lunged out of the water. I leapt back just in time as flat head with serrated teeth snapped where I had been a moment before. 

I dropped the grapple and drew my bow in a smooth movement firing one arrow after the other at the broad headed reptile wriggling out of the water. One skimmed its face while another two lodged in its body but as I went to draw again I slipped on the slimy stone floor of the corridor and went down. I rolled quickly, coming up ready for a strike as the beast lunged at me, it’s toothy maw opening for a strike. I loosed the arrow that took it right through the roof of its mouth and it reared in pain and anger. It began sliding backwards, it’s small feet spinning madly on the slick stones to get back to the safety of the water while I advanced, launching more arrows at it, noticing it’s long slender body and brightly marked skin. It would be beautiful if not so deadly.

The beast reared one last time trying to turn and dive into the water for safety and my shaft penetrated deep into the base of its skull. It splashed down into the water, drifting out in a spreading pool of blood. I caught my breath, I was incredibly lucky to be alive. One misstep there would have seen me dead and lost, no doubt risen again by dark powers to attack Cryptwood Watch that very night if not fully consumed by the water beast. The danger, it seemed, had passed and I cast my eyes about for my grapple. To my horror I could not find it. I realised it must have been knocked into the water during the fight. I had no choice, I had to wade through the water to cross. I took a deep breath, steeling myself against what else lurked there, and set forth.

Thankfully the beast had clearly long disposed of any other predators in the area and while I felt the watery weeds grasp and tangle at my legs I was able to pull myself through them and clamber up onto the rubble. I lay on my back for some time until my breath levelled out and my blood stopped pounding in my ears.

Thankfully the next few passages were dry and I encountered nothing stranger than the softly glowing slime coating the walls. As I move deeper though the prickling sensation in my head became more intense, I could feel the dark pull of the pillar getting stronger. My mind was becoming distracted with thoughts of failure and despair. I gritted my teeth and preserved, focusing on my training to overcome the mind altering effects of the pillar. I stumbled on through the passageways and chambers until I came to the largest chamber yet. 

I could tell it was once well appointed. The centre of the floor had once been an elaborate mosaic, though was now so warped and cracked the pattern could not be discerned. What looked like faded murals covered the walls, giving strangely coloured hues to the glowing slime that coated most surfaces. Scattered around the room were large pits with stone borders. They had been recently disturbed by the amount of earth, dust and long corroded bronze armour and weapons scattered about the chamber. I surmised this was the source of many of the undead that sallied forth each sunset. Ancient rulers would often have dead retainers buried in their tombs to prepare the way for them and protect them in the afterlife when their time came to join them.

At the centre of the room lay a large stone sarcophagus, still sealed and decorated with the same crossed swords motif I had seen at the entrance and several places behind it stood the black pillar.

Even in the dim light given off my the luminance of the walls the emptiness of the pillar stood out as a stark contrast to its surroundings, as if some reckless god had simply cut out a tall tapering shape from the wall and forgotten to fill the space with reality. My eyes burned to look at it and my mind seared with the rejection of what it was seeing. As I tore my eyes away from it to prepare for the task ahead, my reverie was disturbed by a low menacing growl that churned my guts to ice. Slinking round from behind the sarcophagus was a large, gaunt looking hound with its teeth bared and its deep red hackles raised. It had an otherworldly quality, like it was both very much there and also not there at the same time. As its glowing scarlet eyes bored into me the stench of corpse-rot assaulted my senses.

“Who disturbs my rest?” The voice seemed to come from far away yet reverberated around the room. The language was archaic and spoken with a harshness modern forms lacked. A figure stood behind the hound, ethereal but with an intense presence. I struggled to focus on them with the searing weight of the pillar so close but made out someone in what appeared to be a tall bronze skull cap with horsehair plumes and a guard of overlapping ivory segments hanging round her neck. A large cloak was affixed with two enamelled broaches inlaid with the crossed swords motif over her leather and bronze armour. A large shield bearing the same design was held in one hand and a long, broad tipped spear in the other.

I knew instinctively that this was the spirit of the long dead Queen who must be entombed here. The hound remained at bay, clearly awaiting the order of his mistress. I dropped to my knees and bowed my head in reverence.

“Great and mighty Queen of our revered ancestors I beg your mercy. It was not I but that monsterous pillar of darkness that stands over your resting place that aroused you from your slumber and drove off your loyal guards. I seek only to end it’s evil influence so that you may return to the halls of your ancestors in peace.”

I made the speech earnestly, using my best understanding of the ancient forms of speech as my training had provided, but the figure was unmoved. 

“I have had many men proposition me over the years and have no use for pretty words. Do oaths still hold the same weight they once did?”

“Indeed, we swear them on precious iron so they remain unbroken.” I replied solemnly.

“A strong oath indeed. I will not impair your task, but I require you to make an oath to me on your precious iron. I was slain by my rival, my husband, who no doubt has had himself built a grand tomb to rival my own nearby. He had a bronze sword he was ever so proud of, about the only thing he was ever any good at thrusting with, he would have certainly be buried with it. Swear that you will find it and lay it on my tomb.”

“I will see it done” I pulled out my iron falchion and laid my hand across it, “I swear it on this iron.” I said solemnly, though how I would find such an item after all this time I knew not.

She stared at me a moment then nodded. She muttered a command to the hound and they both faded into the shadows. I raised slowly to my feet and steeled myself for what was to come next. I prepared my tools and advanced on the pillar, feeling the force of darkness lashing out from it, calling out to the wilds to protect it. It had only had a short time to establish itself, less than a moon cycle as best we could tell, and had not had time to build the layers of defense around it that those pillars deeper in the wilds had done. Yet I had been long in it’s presence now and the mental impact was showing.

My hands shook and my vision blurred as I set to my task. As placed the first strip of iron against the pillar I felt a dark energy lash out, driving me to the ground and splitting my head against the stones. My vision was blurry and the rushing in my ears drowned out even my hammer strokes but I persevered, hammering strip after strip around it. I felt tendrils of the glowing slime mould work their way up over my feet and legs, the fizzing turning to an intense burning sensation and still I hammered on until the last strips was in place and I felt the darkness vanish leaving a hollow emptiness, like a raging storm had just been instantly replaced with a clear summer day.

I slumped into unconsciousness for I know not how long before gathering my things and making my way back to the settlement. I stumbled through the wilds in the dusk light, heedless of the risk before collapsing into the village. They tell me I slept for two days yet I still feel exhausted and can feel the tendrils of darkness wrapping themselves around my mind even as I write this. 

One thing I know for sure, I cannot return to that tomb, regardless of what I swore. It is no small thing to forsake an oath made on the iron, but I will never set foot there again lest my mind break entirely. Indeed I know not if I may ever set foot underground ever again. Even the stone walls of this room feel like they close in on me as the shadows lengthen. I must take some time to rest and recover my wits.

That ended up getting quite intense towards the end. Althas ended up with less than zero spirit and being quite low on health and supplies too. He has left with the corrupted trait and a fear of confined spaces and a particular phobia of being underground.

I suspect I will leave him to recover for some time and focus on other adventures with others for the time being and give him time to come to terms with the trauma he has undergone.

You will have noticed I started including doodles of what he encountered. I am wanting to find a good balance of digital and analogue for these and while I found writing them out by hand was not as enjoyable as typing them, I do enjoy throwing physical dice and the doodles give some purpose to the pencil and paper I had sitting with them. I am no great artist as you can clearly tell but it added an enjoyable extra element to the sessions.

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