Third Tomb to the Left

At the end of the day, even thieves and grave robbers gotta get paid.

Author: Alex Evans

After traveling around the world, Alex Evans has settled down to juggle an absorbing job, a lively family and the craft of writing. She loves fantasy, folklore, history and hates clichés.

Narrator: Hannah Knight

Hannah Knight is an artist, cat lover, and mother to a rambunctious toddler.

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The steam was so thick, you would have missed a dragon three paces away. A few scattered rays of sunlight filtered between the pillars. Splashes of water and languid talk echoed under the vault. It was just indecent to raise your voice in such heat. About a hundred women were washing, combing their hair, applying oils, chatting, or just lounging in the main hall of the public baths.

The woman crossed the threshold, then stopped for a few moments, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light. Then, she slipped between the bathers and towards the opposite wall. Tall and athletic, she was moving with the fluid grace of a dancer. She spotted an empty marble bench and lay down with the false indolence of a snake. A ray of sunlight played on her golden skin and lit copper highlights in her brown hair. A maid brought her a teapot, a bowl, and a plate of sweets.

Her neighbor, eyed her behind her long, dark lashes, lying on her back. She was about the same age, but much smaller, slender, and as graceful as a small lizard. Green clay covered her tea-colored skin, concealing her face. Long, nocturnal locks spread around her head. After a few minutes, the newcomer whispered from the corner of her mouth: “Is it me, or is it hotter than the Seventh Hell in here?”

“You should have come two hours ago, when they stocked the boiler. Then, the Hells would have felt downright chilly.”

The password having been exchanged, the first woman straightened up and poured herself a bowl of tea, before reverting to slum talk. “Magpie said we could do some business.”

“What kind?”

“Well, he must have told you I want to get into a tomb.”

“Sure, but what’s in it for me there? I’m a thief, not a grave rat!”

This last sentence was tinged with disdain. But the first woman went on, unfazed: “That tomb is located under the palace of a very wealthy money changer who knows nothing of the catacombs beneath his home. Word is you have previously… visited his place several times. I just need you to get us in, my client and me.”

“Your client? Who?”

“A scribe from the Red Island.”

“Why does he want to go down there?”

“He hopes to find the last existing copy of the Hymn to Divine Love.”

The woman covered in clay scratched her head: “You mean it’s a hierophant’s grave? I already keep clear of graves, so one with a holy baggage…”

“My client is willing to pay two thousand ronals.”

“Two thousand?”

“Huh huh.”

“Mmm… That deserves consideration…” She sat up and poured herself a bowl of tea. “For this amount, plus expenses, I would be up for it, if I don’t have to go any further than the tomb’s door. Half to be paid in advance, of course.”

“Sounds reasonable. I’ll send it the usual way.”

“Good. Tell your client to get ready for the last day of the monsoon.”

The tall woman stood up gracefully and glanced at the other one. “I knew we would come to an agreement. May your business be prosperous, Quicksilver.”

The latter replied with a curt nod. “May the God of Thieves watch over yours, Golden Snake.”

The Rendezvous overlooked one of the city’s most exclusive squares. Its marble terrace was shaded by potted palms and oriented so that the sea breeze blew over it constantly. It was the place to go to watch the elegant crowd, investigate the latest fashion trends, debate the thousand and one shades of the setting sun, and, in general, enjoy life. That day, the clouds heralded rain, but the floodgates of heaven had not yet opened, so many idlers were lounging there. The three bells of the temple of the God of the Seas rang the evening call.

Golden Snake warmly greeted her client, Papyrus, and escorted him to the table she had booked. What a handsome man, refined and courteous, she thought again, pushing her way between the elegant ladies and the distinguished gentlemen. Yes, the scribe was very different from most of his countrymen, whose pirate ships terrorized the Sapphire Sea. He was so handsome that she almost wondered if she shouldn’t bend her usual rule of not flirting with clients.

Before sitting down, he handed her a plump purse and an advance on her fees. She didn’t have time to count the money, though, because Quicksilver appeared in front of them as if out of thin air. Golden Snake hastened to slip the purse as discreetly as she could into her satchel. No need to leave such an amount lying in sight of a thief.

“Hello, my dear friend!” said the woman. Then she gave the scribe a smile a little too sparkling for Golden Snake’s liking. “Are you the scholar looking for the scroll?”

The scribe gave a slight bow. “Papyrus, at your service. I guess you are our guide.”

“Absolutely. So, you are interested in Early Expansion Period works… Fascinating. Are you into the mystical texts or the rationalist ones?”

“We have to go,” snapped Golden Snake.

“Not yet,” Quicksilver purred, fluttering her long eyelashes. “Our honorable changer is currently having a party that will last until late at night. His steward has recruited an army of servants to keep everything spotless for the next banquet tomorrow. I got the three of us hired. We will be able to enter the commons and then access the entrance to the catacombs. I brought simple clothes to disguise us as day laborers. Rest assured, they are clean and will not offend your sense of smell. I hope they will be your size.” She smiled again, eying the scribe.

Golden Snake took the clothes with a frown while Quicksilver sat down and poured herself a bowl of tea, her gaze still on Papyrus. Obviously, she too was taken with him. Golden Snake had to use all her willpower to remember that strong emotions and business didn’t mix. She was a tomb raider running a serious business, not a teenager drowning in her humors! People like Quicksilver could behave like that. A barbarian and a thief. Barbarians were driven by their baser instincts. Thieves were uneducated plebeians. Grave robbers, on the other hand, were the slums’ aristocrats, versed in literature, ancient languages, and esoteric sciences, people with whom a scribe could have a meaningful conversation.

Totally unaware of that major difference, Quicksilver was still chattering. “Are you attached to the temple of the God of Trade?”

“Uh … Yes. To the ancient texts section. When my masters learned of the existence of this tomb, they did some research and concluded that it was the Blue Hierophant’s—”

“Who was he? I’ve never heard of him.”

“Me neither, I admit. I don’t have the extensive knowledge that priests have. But they provided me with the description of the location, as well as detailed instructions on what to do.”

“Interesting. I would like to know—”

“It’s rude to question clients,” snapped Golden Snake.

“You’re absolutely right, what was I thinking! We mustn’t make our guest uncomfortable. Have you had the time to visit the city and see some shows? They play It’s Always the Same Story at the Small Amphitheatre. At the temple of the Rain God, they are about to start the Mysteries of Fertility. I can take you there, if you want.”

Golden Snake managed to keep a straight face: this upstart was trying to present herself as an educated woman! She had vaguely heard that Quicksilver had once served a great wizard, but many thieves made up a past that was far more glamorous than reality. “We should go,” she said, more sharply than she intended. “It’s a long journey to the changer’s palace.”

“Sure, but there is no rush. If we get there too early, we’ll be noticed.” To mark her opinion, Quicksilver motioned for the waiter to bring them more tea.

“Once inside, how do you plan to access the catacombs?” Papyrus asked.

The thief smiled, pleased to have piqued his interest. “It’s very simple: the entrance is a trapdoor hidden in the floor of one of the tool sheds. We’ll enter with the day laborers, at the height of the crowd, and slip into it.”

“Isn’t it guarded?”

“As Golden Snake has no doubt told you, very few people know about this passage, and none among the… ordinary citizens of this city. Furthermore, the outbuildings are poorly guarded for a thief of my caliber. The part where Glorious, the master of the place, lives, on the other hand, is like a fortress.” She broke off when she saw the waiter returning with a tray.

Once he left, she poured tea as elegantly as a lady in the best society, before resuming: “Once we have passed the trap door, we will be in the dark. So, you should be prepared for what lies ahead: a narrow, slippery, and steep staircase of twenty-three steps, that must be counted, not to miss one. This staircase leads to a passage, and I’m afraid you will have to stoop to walk through it. After about twenty paces, you will come to a higher and wider stretch, then a junction of several galleries. Then, it will be up to Golden Snake to guide us, as I have never ventured farther into the catacombs.”

“Yet you speak of them as if you knew them intimately!”

“Only a small portion. The whole Old City is crisscrossed by a network of more or less interesting underground passages. By the way, how are you going to open the tomb in such a short time? Did you bring any tools?”

The scribe proudly held up a long roll of silk: “My masters gave me a series of magic spells. I will read them at the appropriate time.”

Quicksilver made a slight frown. " Mmm… I don’t like the idea of doing magic there. This can have unpredictable side effects."

“Neither do I,” said Golden Snake quietly. “But this is the best solution, since we have little time. I have brought very powerful amulets, just in case.”

The thief nodded, but did not comment.

By nightfall, the three of them were standing in front of the servant’s entrance. The money changer had thrown one more lavish party to impress his rivals, allies, and clients. The scent of mouth-watering food filled the air, fireworks streaked the sky, and the fast music booming from behind the walls would keep the neighborhood awake all night. The feast required military organization from the chief steward, and he could have taught many generals a thing or two. Since Glorious was one of those eccentrics who refused to own slaves, the chief steward had recruited several teams of laborers to take turns cleaning the banquet hall, washing the mountain of dishes, and bringing water and wood.

A new brigade stood at the servants’ door, ready to grab brooms, brushes, buckets, mops, and scrapers. Each individual had received a clay tablet to certify his hiring a few days before. The three companions entered among the last. They found themselves in a small courtyard lined with sheds. The newcomers queued to enter one of them to pick up their tools. Quicksilver took advantage of the crush to drag her companions into the nearby shed, where shovels, hoes, trowels, and other tools were piled up. She lifted a corner of the old mat and groped at a mechanism. A narrow, shadowy mouth opened at her feet. She dove into it without hesitation. The scribe followed, then Golden Snake, who put the mat back over the trap door.

At the bottom of the stairs, the thief rummaged through the bag on her belt and pulled out an apricot-sized lightstone. It shone a velvety glow, giving the walls a bluish tone. Then, she took out two tiny oil lamps, which she lit before giving them to Golden Snake and Papyrus. Ahead was a low and narrow passageway where only Quicksilver could stand tall. “We have about three hours,” she whispered. When the stone turns orange, it will mean there is only half an hour before the next change of team. We will have to hurry back."

They stepped into the narrow passage, with Golden Snake bowing her head and Papyrus almost doubling over. After twenty paces, the passage widened into a gallery dug into the rock, smelling of sea and humidity. They came at a fork in the road where several identical tunnels diverged. Quicksilver stopped. “Now it’s your turn to lead. Which way are we heading?”

Golden Snake unfolded an old parchment map. The thief whistled: “I didn’t know there was a map of the catacombs!”

“It’s incomplete. Only the central part, where we are, is well detailed. This way.”

After about a hundred paces, they entered a massive cave, dotted with salt pillars with fantastic shapes. The slightest noise echoed loudly. The reflection of the dim light from the lamps on the crystals made the place look surreal. Stalactites and stalagmites clashed like the fangs of a huge animal. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see fabulous creatures hiding in the shadows. Papyrus was surveying the place, his eyes wide. Quicksilver was casting suspicious glances. But Golden Snake was too blasé to be sensitive to the atmosphere. She just checked her map again. “Let’s see… Turn left after the stone in the shape of a salamander… Here.”

They walked another fifty paces to reach one of the walls of the cave. Vertical, smooth, and with visible joints, it was evidently built by a human hand. As the came near, the outline of several doors closed by stone slabs became visible. Each was eight feet high and four wide, with no marking.

“Did you say third tomb, Master Papyrus?” asked Golden Snake.

“Indeed.” The scribe pointed to the third slab. “It should be this one.” He cleared his throat. “I will proceed to read the tomb opening incantation … It would be prudent to step back.”

Quicksilver scratched her head. “Are you sure it’s here? There is no name, no symbol.”

“This, in order not to attract grave robbers, no doubt.” He took the roll of silk from his satchel and intoned a long and convoluted phrase in High Attalean. At the last word, the slab started to vibrate with a loud rumble, then crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. Behind, was the entrance to a small room with walls covered with inscriptions. Golden Snake entered cautiously, followed by her client. She recognized the writing, even though she could not decipher it. The letters took the shape of plants and were arranged in a series of garlands. Calligrifs. She did not expect to find one of their tombs under the city. These peaceful, highly spiritual people, whose tombs contained neither precious objects nor traps against looters, had lived a good hundred leagues to the north. As for Quicksilver, she crouched down outside, right in front of the threshold. Golden Snake shook her head.

“You really don’t want to come in?”

“No. I warned you: I am against looting graves.”

“Sure. You prefer to rob living people.”

“My religion commands me to respect the dead. Furthermore, they can be far more dangerous to steal from.”

“Come on, the Calligrifs never set traps in their graves.”

“So why this warning written in large letters, on the wall opposite the door: Do not go any further, for a curse worse than death awaits you in these walls?”

“This is just the usual formula to scare off thieves,” Golden Snake’s tone was slightly more puzzled than she had wished. She did not expect to see her new partner decipher the Calligrif. Maybe the thief was pretending? “Anyway, we are protected by the amulets,” she added confidently.

“If you say so … After all, you are the grave expert.”

Papyrus took a few steps towards the walls. “Uh… I cannot decipher these texts, unfortunately. However, I need to be sure that we are in the right grave, before I go any further. You said our time was limited.”

“Quicksilver!” called Golden Snake. “If you have read that warning, can you read the rest?”

“Can’t you do it?”

She shook her head, a little embarrassed. “No.”

“I thought the great Golden Snake can read all the languages pas and present, from the square ideoglyphic to the curvilinear naviform?”

“Not the Calligrific. It has been dead for a long, long time, and their graves contain nothing of interest.”

“No,” Quicksilver replied sarcastically. “Just a few moldy papyri.”

“Look, you can do us this favor!”

“Unfortunately, I can’t see the letters from here.”

“You just have to come in. Come on, this is only the first antechamber; there must be at least two more before we get to the funeral room.”

“Hmmm… This requires a little extra payment.”

Golden Snake swore. Much more diplomatically, the scribe threw her a purse. Its melodious tinkling echoed on the walls. “Good!” said Quicksilver, crossing the threshold. Here is what is written: This is the tomb of the Blue Hierophant—"

“We are in the right place!” Teeth clenched, Golden Snake led his client into the second chamber. She would never do business with this pretentious and greedy upstart again.

“Don’t forget the return. You have one hour,” said the thief. She crouched down on the floor, without paying them any more attention, and began to examine the other inscriptions that ran along the walls.

The next two rooms turned out to be as empty as the first. Not the slightest little trinket, and the walls were devoid of any inscription. Indeed, the Calligrifs’ culture was too spiritual for her tastes. Golden Snake was beginning to doubt they would find a book in that grave. If there had ever been one, it would probably be unreadable. The fourth room was taller than the first three, square, and about twenty paces wide. Like the previous ones, it was empty, except for the big, rectangular stone sarcophagus standing in the center. No ornament, no inscription, brightened its surface.

“Here we are,” Papyrus whispered, his voice shaking.

She made an indulgent smile. A walk in the catacombs must have been a great adventure for him. He took out his silk scroll again to recite the incantation for the opening of the sarcophagus. This time the lid cracked like thunder and slid to one side, then fell to the floor with another crash. They went to look inside. At the bottom, lay a mummy shriveled by centuries. This was a little surprising, as the beliefs of the time did not recommend this process. The shroud and bandages once covering it had crumbled to dust. A simple, large round stone lay at its feet. Golden Snake carefully scanned the inside: there was no scroll, nor was there any indication of a hidden compartment. “Well, Master Papyrus, I’m afraid…”

The scribe paid her no attention. He was still leaning over the sarcophagus, muttering something, and pouring a dark liquid from a tiny vial into the mummy’s half-open mouth. A familiar smell tickled her nostrils and sent waves of panic to her fingertips: the necromantic potion! She threw herself at Papyrus, trying to snatch the vial. What remained of the liquid fell on the stone, which made a hiss. The scribe pushed her back with surprising strength, and she fell on her bottom in the dust: “But what are you doing?”

“I resurrected the First Necromancer! Our revered master! The one who will bring back the Empire of the Dead—”.

He was cut off by a scraping noise. The mummy’s parched body was standing up. Its eyes, wide open, yellow, and shining, stared at them. It stepped over the edge of the sarcophagus and turned slowly towards Papyrus, who fell to his knees. “Revered Master, we have found you after so many centuries …”

The mummy walked past Golden Snake and stopped, its attention fixed on the scribe. Its foot rested near her oil lamp. It was lying on the ground, but i still making a little flame. Fire! The purifying fire! One of the few things that could destroy a resurrected mummy. She grabbed it and brought the flame to the bony legs of the living dead. The millennial resins imbibing it caught fire immediately. The mummy turned into a torch under the horrified gaze of the scribe. Golden Snake shot up to her feet. Taking advantage of his inattention, she plunged her long knife into his belly. He collapsed without a word.

Soon all that was left on the ground was a bloody corpse and charred debris. She heaved a long sigh. Perhaps she had lacked judgement in this matter. But hey! These were the risks of the job, and all was well that ended well. She took a step towards the door. A noise made her whirl around. Papyrus was standing by the sarcophagus and smiling at her with all his teeth. Black blood dripped from his wound and his eyes gleamed like two flames. “I am hungry… You have come just in time to quench my millennial hunger. This worshipper has thought of everything. The fire destroyed my body, but it could not destroy my soul…”

Golden Snake leapt for the door, but the undead was faster. He threw his arms around her and grabbed her neck. She managed to free her cocked arm and plunged her knife into his side. The blade sank to the hilt without the slightest effect. She kicked desperately, but he clenched her throat. She was choking, and stars were swimming in front of her eyes… The pressure abruptly disappeared. The necromancer’s arms dropped, and he sagged to the ground. She collapsed on top of him, eagerly gulping air.

Quicksilver’s quivering voice rose, two rooms away: “Uh… Golden Snake? Are you here?”

She stood up and painfully croaked: “Yeah …”

“What happened?”

“This … this Papyrus resurrected a mummy. I burned it, and killed the bastard, but the mummy’s spirit took possession of his corpse. And now, it looks like they’re both dead for good, but I don’t know why.”

“Ah, yes, indeed.”

To her surprise, she saw the grave-avoiding thief walk into the room. She seemed to search for something with her eyes on the ground before grabbing the oil lamp from the mummy’s ashes and putting it inside the sarcophagus, muttering unfamiliar words. Golden snake eyed her suspiciously. “What … what are you doing?”

“You see, while you were chatting, I was deciphering the inscriptions in the anteroom.”

“So, what?”

“Well, they said that during the time of the High Calligrif Empire, there was a necromancer known as the Blue Hierophant, who set out to kill all the living to resurrect them as his slaves. He was so powerful, that all the wizards who existed on earth back then had to band together to fight him. Finally, Seven Caligrifs mages eventually defeated him at the cost of their lives. They rest in the other tombs we passed on our way. However, they failed to kill him. They only managed to lock his soul inside a stone. So, their companions hid the necromancer’s body and the stone in a secret and inaccessible place: this cave was far beneath the sea’s surface at the time. Of course, all necromancer cults worship him and seek his grave with zeal… just like your client.”

“Then, why did he die again?”

“He is not dead. On the wall was written the spell to capture his soul again, just in case … I read it, and it was locked in the first object that was nearby: the lamp. You see, dead languages sometimes have their uses …”

Golden Snake shook her head. “How come you can read Calligrif?”

Quicksilver dusted her hands. “Let’s say I worked for a mage in a previous life. All that business stealing grimoires from competitors… I learned a thing or two. But we have wasted enough time. Let’s get out.”

Swallowing her pride, Golden Snake uttered: “Thank you. I’m grateful. You saved my life.”

The thief smirked. “You’re welcome.” She lifted her lightstone and headed for the door. “By the way, this Papyrus is not going to pay me the rest of my fees. Business is business, dear: apart from your gratitude, you owe me a thousand ronals.”

Golden Snake almost choked. She hoped wholeheartedly that Quicksilver had not paid attention to the purse Papyrus had given her at the Rendezvous. She managed to answer evenly as they left the burial chamber: “Uh, it’s going to be a bit difficult right now. I wouldn’t be paid either.” There was a short pause. Golden Snake glanced furtively at the thief, but it was too dark to see the expression on her face.

“All you have to do is sell the necromancer’s grimoires, which are hidden under this stone,” Quicksilver offered. It will largely recoup your losses and mine." She pointed to a paving slab near the threshold of the next room.

Golden Snake squatted and peered over it. Indeed, its outlines seemed slightly more rounded than those of the others, and there was even a tiny gap between it and the neighboring slabs. For the first time, there would be something to loot from a Calligrif tomb! A necromancer’s cursed grimoires must be worth way more than a thousand ronals. Puzzled, she looked at her partner. “Did you read that on the wall too?”

“There was a hint about it. Then a series of puzzles to determine the precise location.”

She would have to reconsider her stance on some thieves. “And … Are you suggesting looting a grave? I thought you were against it?”

The thief ’s face split into a smile. “Technically, you are going to loot it, not me. Then you’ll sell the grimoires and give me back my thousand ronals.”

That was pretty hypocritical, but what the heck? Golden Snake took a trowel from her bag and slipped it into the gap between the slab and the nearby stone, trying to pry it up.

She did not hear the trap click until it was too late. The ground vanished under her feet, and she fell, before painfully making contact with another stone floor. She jumped to her feet, too scared to feel the pain in her ribs, and looked around in bewilderment. She was in a room no larger than a cell.

Quicksilver was peering from the ceiling ten feet above, her smiling face bathed in the glow of the lightstone. “As you said, the Calligrifs did not set traps in their tombs. However, they made an exception for the Blue Hierophant. I think I have a rope here… So, about my thousand ronals?”

With a deep sigh, Golden Snake opened her satchel.