"There you are you damned scoundrel!" Bhergom's voice erupted forth and sent the large chamber ahead of him into a cacophonic whirl of echoes and vibrations. "Are you trying to steal some treasures before we can keep up?"
The squat and shadowed man turned his head slightly at Bhergom as the larger and more robust oracle fully entered the chamber. His eyes glinted the same pale green in the darkness ahead and a flash of slick, yellowed teeth came from his wide mouth as he began to hiss with contempt. Vhoggli's hands were clamped onto a rectangular slab rock ahead of him. He had lifted himself the scant few feet of height he could muster, standing on his very toes, and was interrupted from peering into whatever existed inside.
The room was much darker than the previous and was only lit with diffused, silvery light trickling in from a raised tunnel in the wall of the far end. Huge pillars of ice served as a glittering and semi-transparent natural portcullis at the mouth of that elevated tunnel. The room was much colder than the others the expedition had entered and there was no presence of water anywhere in the room, however some dancing light -- shining off of water somewhere beyond --made its way through the tunnel above and was reflected upon the ceiling of the chamber.
"I have no interest in treasures or trinkets, you old fool." Vhoggli's voice was more of a growl than his earlier chirps. "You know I'm here on a mission from Grandmaster Toulam, as much as yourself." The wide head of the man-creature turned back to the slab of rock and with a protracted grunt, he tried to lift himself up and over the edge.
"What is it that you've found there?" Bhergom crossed his arms and took a few steps further into the room. He could hear the soft footsteps of Isilda entering in behind him and the large clamoring of Tyverus immediately behind her.
"Given the dimensions and workmanship, I would believe it to be a sarcophagus." Vhoggli raised himself into a perch on the edge of the slab and then hopped inside the confines. "Quite weathered and long open to the elements." The squat man's scraggle-topped head peeked over the rim and a bony hand covered in leather rags for a glove pointed further into the darkness. "I believe those stones over there to be the lid. They are shattered, no doubt due to some severe force, and given their age have crumbled significantly."
"Well look at you, pretending to know what you do not." Bhergom took a few more steps towards the sarcophagus and turned on his heels once he was certain that both of his companions were behind him. He saw Isilda taking in the details of the room, and the armored silhouette of Tyverus behind her. "It would do to have some light in here, young man, don't you think?"
Tyverus immediately snapped to attention, passing by Isilda and catching up to the side of Bhergom. The knight gave a nod and opened his left palm. Wisps of energy streamed toward his palm, spinning into a sphere that soon flickered with plasma flame. The orb in his hand was much larger and brighter than his previous one. He used his concentration to lift the light up from his hand and keep it floating near the middle of the room.
"Much better, you are proving to be a useful lad, more and more." Bhergom crossed the rest of the chamber to stand over the stone sarcophagus. "It would seem our pustulant, resident sage on all things has mentioned that the lid has been broken." Bhergom raised his eyes from the stone to see Vhoggli crawling out of the sarcophagus on the other end and then scurrying into the dark recesses at the edge of the room. "Isilda, come here. What do you make of this?"
Isilda made her way over to the sarcophagus and bent her path to pass within an arm's distance of Tyverus. The knight looked to her and then quickly back to the flame he concentrated upon. She let her hand linger once again, and he followed after her. Once she got to the edge of the stone her forehead began to furrow in consternation.
"Vhoggli was correct." Her focus was now consumed by the stone slab that raised up to her waist. She leaned forward and began to run her hands across the stonework. "The remains of the lid are strewn about the other end of the room, yes, and this stone is quite exquisite."
Bhergom leaned in on the opposite side. "How so?" He took a few steps to his right and looked disdainfully at the bits of weathered stone chunks around him. "The remnants of the lid are scattered all over. Surely if a grave-robber got this far, they'd merely shove the lid off of thing. It should mostly be intact; maybe just a few cracks."
"Yes, grave-robbers would likely crack the lid while it was still sealed, or find some method of pushing it off, causing it to impact the ground and crack as well. Yet..." Isilda's voice trailed off as she ran her fingers over the stone some more. She lowered into a crouch to see the edge of the stone at eye-level. "You see these here. These weather marks? And these cracks in the foundation of the stone?" She looked up to smile at Bhergom. "This sarcophagus was sealed quite well."
"Well, yes. Trapped air beneath heavy stone would do that. Once a body begins to decompose, the flora growing within would eat up all the oxygen, creating a sort of vacuum." Bhergom began to trail off as he quizzically looked over to Isilda. He hoped his words could cover for his confusion at her fascinated reaction.
"Yes, you're correct, in most instances that is what happens. There are instances where improperly treated bodies can burst due to gases, yet they've never been severe enough to cause damage to their confines. Hmm, it wasn't merely a natural vacuum that kept this lid on." Isilda lifted the trailing edge of her robes and took a step into the stone. She straddled the edge for a moment and pointed to the rock. "You see these grooves? Truly magnificent workmanship. They're weathered down due to all the water and ice in here, but these ribs fixed the lid directly to the foundation. There must have been small wooden slats placed every few inches or so, as well as some resin, creating a natural seal and method of forcing out the air inside." Isilda looked behind her to give a wide-eyed smile back to Tyverus. "Whatever body was inside, didn't have a chance to grow any flora that might create a natural vacuum or cause any gases. The body would have been perfectly preserved."
"Truly?" Bhergom scratched at the stubbled edge of his chin and leaned to look inside the sarcophagus once more. "Such a shame nothing is left. No doubt that grave-robbers took the corpse and whatever else was sealed inside." The old oracle gave a ‘harrumph’ and kicked at one of the heavy chunks of stone near his feet. "The lid would have been sturdy. How in the world would they have gotten it off?"
"They didn't, you old fool." The voice of Vhoggli echoed throughout the room from some dark place that no one could see. "As the young lass mentioned, the lid was broken into chunks and the foundation has cracks in it. The force came from inside the sarcophagus." A growling hiss and wail reverberated in the room as the man-creature simulated an explosion with his voice.
"Surely not!" Bhergom stood and looked around the room in an effort to find the source of the ominous echoes. He took a few steps towards some nearby stalagmites and peered around them hoping to find Vhoggli squatted there. He didn't find him and marched back towards the center of the chamber.
"He's right, Master Bhergom." Tyverus' voice was broken and distracted. He was leaning in beside Isilda to examine the stone foundation. While Isilda was fully inside the sarcophagus and busy running her hands along the right angle edges at the bottom, the large knight was focused on several indentations in the rim's edge. The blue eyes of the knight flashed up to Bhergom and then back to what his gloved hands had seized upon.
"What is it, lad?" Bhergom crossed the chamber to get in beside the knight who took a step back to make room.
"Do you see these scrapes along the rim?" Tyverus kept his left hand aloft, but pointed with his right. "They seem to start within the sarcophagus and get deeper and harder as they come up to where the lid would have been. From there I believe the lid was shattered due to some extreme force on its inside edges." Tyverus gave a sideways glance to Isilda who nodded up to him. "Once broken and the shards of rock blasted about this chamber, the same claw-like marks continue around the rim's edge. To here, on the outside, these deep gouges. They look like claw marks actually breaking into the rock, possibly to lift itself up."
"Are you telling me they kept a beast inside this?" Bhergom scratched at his neck and his brown eyes squinted harshly while trying to make sense of this information. "Why would the ancients bother to try and trap a beast in such a place? Would not the vacuum that Isilda mentioned suffocate such a creature?"
"I don't think it was a beast." Tyverus' words were curt and dry. "The indents on the outside, well Master..." Tyverus made a claw out of his right hand and placed it to the side of the stone. His gloved fingertips entered into the holes in the rock. "If this were a beast, not only can it survive a vacuum, shatter stone, but it also has the hands of a human."
Bhergom took two steps back from the sarcophagus while shaking his head profusely. "You're mistaken. I've heard of great feats of strength, but shattering a seven-inch-thick slab of rock while confined is too much. Let alone the ability to break a vacuum, or survive one for any length of time..." Bhergom's voice trailed off as he looked away.
"Tyverus is correct." Isilda stood up and began to clap the dust and dirt from her hands. "Someone or some-thing was trapped and sealed inside this tomb. Sometime in the last thousand years or so, it erupted forth. Who knows how long it was trapped inside. The weathering on the rubble and inside the sarcophagus places it to about a thousand years. Maybe a few centuries more."
"Do you think it was a Thaekkuz?" Tyverus looked over to Isilda and held her eyes for a moment. The young oracle broke contact and shook her head.
"No, but if it was, it's an entirely different kind than any I have heard of in lore. Revenants that return to their bodies from the hells of Gehemol usually aren't nearly as strong as this." Isilda lifted herself over the edge of the sarcophagus while Tyverus quickly reached out his free hand to help her the rest of the way. "Thaekkuz are notoriously strong, and they don't seem to need air or rest like the living." She pursed her lips once her feet hit the ground. "No, if it was a Thaekkuz it would still be inside the sealed tomb, scrabbling at the stone for all eternity. They're strong, but not that strong."
"Then what in Tolesh's Light do you think it is?!" Bhergom's voice was getting frantic as he began to pace about the chamber. It seemed to be more than an unresolved conundrum that was pulling at his nerves. Perhaps a gnawing fear was growing at him that whatever foul thing this was, it might still be in the catacombs somewhere.
Bhergom, Isilda, and Tyverus remained quiet in the room for several moments. The reflected light from beyond continued to shimmer and dance on the ceiling. Tyverus' orb of light continued to shine and waver among hidden breezes near the ceiling. A growing sense of worry seemed to pass from the old oracle to his apprentice and then over to the knight as each looked at each other.
"It was Merithault." The voice of Vhoggli was distant and echoed throughout the halls and chambers of the catacombs. "This is her domain, and that was her resting place."
The words stirred Bhergom into a silent rage as he bit his lip and turned red. Isilda looked at her teacher, her blue eyes growing wide, and then over to Tyverus. Tyverus stood silent with his arms crossed and a gloved finger pressing beneath his bottom lip. His gaze was cast downward in heavy contemplation, but a twinge of worry showed through his features.
Isilda knew the dangers that Vhoggli's words presented. From what she had seen thus far of this accursed place, she fully believed that the legends of the mad oracle might be true. She could see and feel through her sympathetic energies that Bhergom was afraid of this. He was stubborn and did not want to give into superstition and conjecture, but the evidence was mounting that something unnatural had transpired here. She gave an inward chuckle at Tyverus, as she could feel that he was blissfully unaware of the dangers they had just walked into. He was cautious and on edge, she could feel his awareness reaching out, but his mind was filled with worries about tactics and defensive strategies more than unholy horrors from ancient times.
"I know the old and clueless one doesn't believe me, despite the evidence." Vhoggli's voice continued to echo as it got even more distant. "Perhaps you all should follow me and see this for yourself. I believe what I have just found proves it once and for all."
Isilda looked back to Bhergom to see him clench his fists at his sides. He rolled his brown eyes and stomped through the chamber to head in Vhoggli's direction. She watched him move into the darkness and disappear. She stood for a moment until she felt Tyverus' armored form behind her, pressing in on her back.
He raised an arm around her shoulders and with a wave of his uplifted hand, the plasma fire returned to his palm. The orb grew small and the light in the room diminished to a wane glow. He gave her a soft push and together they stepped forward. Isilda careened her neck to give one last look at the sarcophagus at the center of the chamber. From there she and the knight stepped from the room and into the new catacombs beyond.