Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #13 The City of the Dead


Being dead twice in as many hours can have an affect on a person. As I said before, nephew, the first experience had a profound impact on me, one which I wish to process further before commenting on.

My second experience, which I had as I was pulled down under the mountain, bouncing along the caves with the rushing waters, was far more prosaic. I dreamt, as a floated through the darkness, that I was being carried along by many hands. Then, for a moment, I was flying, to be caught by a beautiful mermaid. She kissed me deeply, and I could feel the fire of her kiss spreading down into my chest.

Again, one need not stretch one’s imagination too far to discern the imagery my mind placed on the events my body was undoubtedly going through. Still, it was a beautiful dream.

It’s a shame then that the first face I saw upon my return to the land of the living was that of Baleban.

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“He’s fine!” Baleban said, following it with that braying laugh of his.

Baleban stood and I could see the monk standing a short distance away, hands tucked into his sleeves.

“Thank you, brother,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied, “don’t thank me. Baleban here has an amazing trick where he forces his own breath -”

“Thank you, brother,” I repeated, getting to my feet.

I took a look around, We were in a cave of some sort, on the edge of a tiled, rectangular pool which stretched off in the darkness. Pillars lined the pool and a waterfall fell from the cave wall at one end. The water had a faint blue glow to it that illuminated the immediate area.

Off in the distance, there was a tall structure, indefinitely formed and lit by a similar hazy blue glow. For some reason it reminded me of the buried city where I’d found the necklace.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“A necropolis,” said Ferguson, appearing in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted to see him, I noticed that the ground around him was covered in rough wooden coffins. “I’m going to have a look up ahead. You three stay here.”

I gladly complied, sitting myself down on the tiles with a heavy thump. I pulled off one of my boots and upended it, amused at the amount of water that poured out and hoping I wasn’t offending some petty minor god by polluting their reflecting pool with my foot water.

“Alphege,” the monk said, taking a seat beside me.

“Ma’att Goelz Fraggile,” I said, offering him my hand. “Call me Ma’att.”

“Pleasure,” Brother Alphege said. “So tell me Ma’att, what brings you out adventuring? You don’t seem like the kind of person normally found in a place like this or Molotok. You must be a powerful mage.”

“I’m not a mage,” I said.

“He’s still low level,” Baleban said. “But he’s got a pretty good hearth daily.”

“Interesting,” Brother Alphege said. “I would expect a low level mage to travel with a larger party, or with more tanks.”

“We’re not a party,” I said. “And I’m no mage.”

“Modesty,” Brother Alphege said.

“No, really,” I replied. “I’m a scientist. I’ve been visiting dungeons to prove a theory of mine.”

“Really?” Brother Alphege said, interested. “What kind of theory?”

I thought for a moment. I realized suddenly that, aside from my letters to you, nephew, and my disastrous presentation to the Academy, I have not put my theory into a definitive form for another person.

“Tell me something, Brother Alphege,” I begin, “what do you think dungeons are?”

“Is this an interview for joining the party?”

“Where do they come from?” I asked. “Do you think dungeons are magically created for the sole purpose of providing adventurers with employment, or do you believe they are structures with more prosaic origins?”

“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything.”

I thought about that for a moment, then dismissed it.

“What if dungeons didn’t just pop up, fully formed, as if built with a couple rolls of cosmic dice?”

“You think they were built by people?”

“Yes!” I said. “Take this place, for example. If this place appeared randomly there wouldn’t be nearly as much symbolism and purpose to the design. Like this pool. It’s shallow, so it was meant to be walked on; I’d wager it was some sort of death ritual. Mourners or supplicants would walk through this metaphorical water into this place of the dead. The columns here suggest places where tribute would be placed to appease the spirits of the dead.”

“Ah!” Alphege said. “Treasure. That I get, we should start looting right away. I’ll be happy to accept whatever loot cut Baleban’s been getting.”

“We haven’t discussed party percentages,” Baleban said.

“Ah!” Alphege said, nodding. “An equitable split across the board then.”

“No no, we’re not a party,” I said.

“We only have one fighter and he’s a multi-classed rogue,” Baleban said with a nod, as if agreeing with me.

“Shame Dozerman’s dead,” Brother Alphege said, nodding to himself. “My last party sucked but Dozerman was a tank and a half.”

“So how long’ve you been on the road?” Baleban asked, sitting down next to us.

“Not long,” Alphege said. “This is only my second party. Before that I had a post in a church in a border town.”

“What made you leave?”

“A dragon moved into the mountains nearby and took offense to our church’s presence in the town. Swooped in one night and landed right on the narthex. Crushed it flat.”

“What did you do?”

“What do you think I did? I called up a half dozen paladins to kick its ass. Nobody steps on a church in my town.”

“Well it’ll be nice to have a healer in the party,” Baleban said.

“Gear up,” Ferguson said walking out of the darkness. His arms were full of weapons and armor which he dropped down on the ground next to us.

“There’s some sort of ziggurat up ahead,” Ferguson added. “I think our exit is there. These came from a couple mausoleum’s at the end of the pool.”

I picked up a sword from the pile and waved it in the air. Ferguson dropped a heavy leather vest over my head and tied straps on the side. It was far too heavy to be comfortable, but there were metal rings embedded in the leather and I felt that wearing it was safer than not wearing it.

Baleban was dressed in similar gear but added a fur cap. Brother Alphege alone refused the gear.

“It’s dark,” I said.

“Not for long,” Ferguson replied.

And he was right. The further we got from the glow of the water, the brighter the glow ahead of us got. We crossed a marble platform and ascended a small set of deep stairs. At the top, we found another marble platform on opposite sides of which were eight mausoleums, four on each side. Each of them were between eight and ten nongs high, and their fronts were carved in a way that reminded me of nothing more than a small house, complete with front door and windows.

Across the way was a building built on multiple levels of rectangles in a pyramid shape. A narrow set of stairs crept up its face and, oddly, two more identical sets of stairs came back down to the left and right.

Ferguson led us up the stairs. We found a small landing at the top flanked by two statues. Each was vaguely canine, but far larger and more fierce than any dog I’ve ever seen before. Between the statues was a short step up to a landing dominated by a larger, but plainer, mausoleum.

There were three skeletons, dressed in adventuring gear, lying around the landing.

We stepped up carefully. While I cautiously glanced over the edge at the cave below, the others began to explore the landing.

“There’s an inscription,” I heard Baleban say. “I can’t read it.”

Alphege approached. The inscription was a single line above the door of the mausoleum. The monk nodded thoughtfully while he read it.

“I am the Destructor. I am the Architect.”

“That’s it?” Baleban asked.

“I think so, but my Gozerian is a little rusty.”

“Are you sure about that translation?” I asked.

“I am the Destructor. I am the Architect,” Alphege repeated. “Does that mean something to you?”

“It does,” I said. “And we don’t want to be here longer than necessary.”

I wouldn’t expect adventurers to know of Ryt’man’s army as the lessons gathered from the story are mostly academic. The most feared general of his age, Ryt’man led his army to victory after victory. Eventually, his hubris led him to usurp the thrown of his own king, installing himself instead. A coalition of leaders from the surrounding nations, fearful their own militaries would take inspiration, formed a joint army of such size that even Ryt’man’s genius couldn’t deal with the overwhelming odds. Fearing a loss, he turned where many before him had turned - to magic.

In a letter to the generals of the opposing army, Ryt’man said, “I have been the destructor of armies, now I will be the architect of the new warrior.”

He chose two thousand of his best warriors and had them undergo a magic ritual that bound their souls to their bodies, making them immortal. It worked, and Ryt’man and his lieutenants followed suit. But, although they were successful in the initial stages of the campaign, sending entire legions into retreat by their very approach, the cost was too high. For although they couldn’t be killed, they still aged and took injury. Soon they became cadaverous, bloody monsters, and their minds followed suit. Ryt’man and his men degraded into a feral, feral beast-like pack. The list of their atrocities grew.

Unable to defeat him physically, the other nations turned to their own magics. They cast spells that mimicked physical death and Ryt’man and his army found themselves souls trapped in dead bodies.

Their remaining supporters took those bodies and buried them in a secret location to await the day the binding magics wore off.

“Did you just make all of that up?” Baleban asked.

“No,” I said.

“Well,” Alphege said, “as long as we don’t disturb them we should be fine.”

Both Baleban and I looked down at the gear we were carrying.

“Too late,” Ferguson said. He was leaning over the edge of the landing, looking down the stars. “There’s something down there.”

“Is it just a mist or does it have arms and legs?” Baleban asked.

“We have to find the exit,” Ferguson said, turning on his heels and charging the mausoleum.

He attacked the stone door with fervor. Alphege and I came over to help and soon we had the door open wide enough to climb through. Ferguson went inside and I stuck my head in. The room was empty except for a sarcophagus. No stairs or door.

“It has to be here!” Ferguson said, angrily. He kicked at the sarcophagus until the lid shifted. He leaned in to push against it, but it suddenly flew up in the air and shattered against the ceiling.

A skeleton in a crown sat up. After a brief moment, it turned its head toward Ferguson. The ranger turned and ran through the door.

I turned as well and found myself almost bumping into another desiccated corpse as it crested the landing. It raised its hand toward Baleban and muttered a spell in a dry voice that reminded me of creaking branches. Baleban’s sword flew from his hand and streaked toward me. I fell backwards against the wall of the mausoleum and the sword missed me by a mere whisper, thudding into the corpse’ hand.

Another corpse was coming up the stairs. I scrambled to my feet and ran toward the other end of the landing.

When I turned to look, the first corpse was moving on Brother Alphege, sword held up. I saw that the second corpse was glaring at me as it raised its hand. The sword in my hand began to tug toward it.

Thinking quickly, I pivoted sideways so that the first corpse was between myself and the second. I fought the sword as long as I could (which wasn’t long, nephew), then let go. The weapon rocketed from my hand as if fired from a giant bow.

The first skeleton raised its sword above its head to strike Alphege, but my sword embedded itself, to the hilt, in its chest. It was knocked backwards and collided with the first, both tumbling down the stairs.

Ferguson stumbled into view with a leap. The skeleton from the mausoleum lumbered after him.

“Get us out of here!” Baleban yelled.

Behind him, there were other skeletons helping the first two to their feet. I reached in my shirt and pulled out the necklace.

And we were standing in the reflecting pool. Around us, the ancient coffins were creaking and cracking as their occupants fought for freedom or, in many cases, rose to take it.

The others looked at me in confusion. I could only shrug. The necklace didn’t function as we supposed it would and we were back at the same place we started.

On all sides they began to shuffle toward us, taking up positions along the tiled edge of the reflecting pool.

But they didn’t come in. They only stood, desiccated flesh-covered skulls cocked sideways as if watching us. In the distance, the blue glow around the ziggurat shimmered. The others were making their way down the stairs toward us.

And then it hit me. They weren’t entering the pool because they couldn’t.

“Of course!” I said. “It’s the pool!”

“We know that,” Baleban said.

“No, the pool! It’s the pool!” I repeated. “Listen, it wouldn’t do them any good to have supplicants come in to leave tribute if they were getting eaten every time, they’d run out of supplicants!”

“OK, so we’re safe in the water,” Ferguson said.

“As long as we don’t leave it,” Alphege added.

“That’s right!” I said, grinning. The others stared back at me blankly.

“Don’t you see?” I asked. “The water is how the supplicants safely bring in tribute.”

They weren’t following.

“And if the water is where the supplicants come in -” I prompted.

“Then the water -” Alphege began.

“Is the entrance,” Ferguson finished.

As a group, we turned toward the waterfall and then back toward the ziggurat. The Ryt’man skeleton and his lieutenants were standing on the first raised area, watching us. Ferguson was the first through the waterfall.

There was a tunnel there, just as we’d hoped. I’d always imagined walking through a waterfall, the way heroes do in stories, would be like walking through a wet curtain - a brief moment of water and then through to the other side. It was nothing like that. First, the “curtain” was actually quite deep and I found myself wishing I’d taken a fuller breath before entering. Second, there was nothing to keep the water from flowing in along the roof of the tunnel on the other side and raining down, which it did in great quantities. The end result was less walking through a curtain and more leaving an upright river and walking into a heavy rain.

Once we were far enough in that the drip fell to a light drizzle, we took a moment to wring out our wet clothes. For the second time, I found myself upending my boots, this time was less amusing.

The tunnel was slick with water for quite some distance, and the air heavy for quite a bit more. It was many hours later that we arrived at sunlight.

We were in the bottom of a valley between two craggy mountains. Rocky hills surrounded us.

“You stashed our gear?” Ferguson asked.

“Yes!” I said, proud of myself.

“Great, where?”

“On the cliff side above the prison camp,” Baleban said.

“Great,” Ferguson again, “and which direction is that?”

All Dungeoning Ma'att posts

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #0 Intro

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #1 The Temple of Shadow

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #2 The Green Ravine

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #3 The Wizard’s Sleeve

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #4 The Marsh Mines

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #5 Shadowhome

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #6 The Nu Chi Compound

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #7 The Haunted Cistern

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #8 Bridgebelly

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #9 Sturdyrock

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #10 Molotok, the Demon Forge

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #11 Agaricus, Lair of the Ants

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #12 The Warren

Uncle Dungeoning Ma’att – #13 The City of the Dead

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