Mogan uncorked the last bottle of holy oil took a bulging mouthful of the salty liquid and spat it at the crawling skeleton. A black gas spewed where the liquid met bone and dry skin. The skeleton continued to pull itself along the floor, its fleshless fingertips finding purchase in the gaps between paving slabs.
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Beyond, in the darkening chamber, more pale thin figures staggered from cobwebbed alcoves.
"No hurry, Ruch. But could you try you foot on that door rather than pick at its hole with that pin?"
Ruch sighed as loud as he could and prepared to charge the thick wooden door to the sub chamber. This was no use of his hard earned talents, but then Mogan had fended off more than an innful of skeletal guards while he had made little headway with his now bent precision tool.
He crashed into the door shoulder first, aiming at the point where the metal bar intersected with the framework.
"You realise, Mogan, that after I've completely smashed in this door that it will be impossible to secure it after us?"
He smashed the door again, to coincide with Mogan's cursing. Something snapped and the door gaped, swallowing Ruch. A powerful gust of wind forced its way through the opening, blowing out Mogan's torch flame, and the candles he had found sitting on low shelves in the corridor wall.
"Witchery!" Mogan cried, feeling a bone claw tap against his boot. He kicked out with enough force to shake a large tree empty of its apples, hearing the bones slide away down the corridor. All was dark as he quickly made for the now open sub chamber.
"Ruch? Do you still carry a head on your shoulders?"
"Well get out your flint and light the torch. I'll brace the door."
Movement in the darkness. Ruch swearing as he found his flint set. Mogan slammed the door and leant all his weight upon it. Finally the fumbling of fingers as Ruch sought out Mogan's torch. The door shook with a bang. Clawing noises on the wood. Then the repeated striking of the flint, each time followed by a curse from Ruch.
"You've got it wet, Mogan."
"The holy oil. Wipe it, man."
A black panic shot through them both as the creaking of wood filled the darkness.
"Mogan! Are you keeping them out?"
"It's not the door. Keep sparking."
Mogan unhooked his morning star from the reinforced belt and considered flinging it blindly into the unseen room. He had to strike something, even if the weapon was useless against the magical and the undying.
The creaking continued maddeningly, and culminated in a high pitched squeak that made Ruch cry out and scuttle towards Mogan's legs. And then a rectangle of light sprang from the darkness. A figure stepped into it, its head low to the shoulders.
"You need not fear the bone guards anymore, looters."
The voice was like stone scraping on stone. A growl, yet it held no malice. Its host stepped forth and raised a thin hand. Ruch yelped as the torch he held burst into healthy flame. The sight of the illuminated figure pulled another womanly shriek from Ruch. Mogan thought he had encountered another of the bone guards; such was the thinness of the man. The head was without hair and the skull so close to the skin that he immediately visualised scraping his finger through it as if it were moist dust. Still, eyelids worked over the bulging yellow and red eyes, encrusted around the edges with a blackness that put him in mind of the skin paints of the women of the Black Inn.
When Mogan had recovered his wits he awakened to the splendour of the ghoul's finery; a gold and red gown the likes of which he had spied royalty adorned in.
The thing spoke again.
"You wish to disrobe me? To wear this fabric yourself? Please, do as you wish. I will not raise a hand."
Mogan stared at the man, his heart still beating from battle. He turned some of his strained attention to the door that still bore his weight. All was silent. He quickly opened the door an inch and then, seeing naught, pulled it wide so the torch in Ruch's hand proved the corridor empty.
"I have dispelled my guardians." The stone voice explained.
Ruch pushed past Mogan to check the corridor for himself. Then he pulled the bottle of holy oil from Mogan's hand. He held it out to the skeletal man.
"Get out of our way, fiend. Or I'll corrode you with the spittings of this blessed unction."
"Of course. You have come for the treasure? I shall take you to it."
The creature beckoned them into another chamber, that blazed with the light from dozens of ornate wall sconces. They appeared at odds with the mould scarred tomb walls.
The dead man shuffled slowly to the far end of the room where a throne peered through cobwebs and black fungal flowerings. The red cushion fabric was stained, and split so grey cotton wadding extruded,
The man sat in the throne and it creaked.
"The chest is there." he said, pointing to a mound of black mould flecked with rust.
"Open it. I no longer can." He raised his hands, which slipped from his long red sleeves: bone claws, streaked with worm red tendons.
"Open it. let me see it glint one last time and savour each memory it conjures of its gathering."
Mogan exchanged a glance with Ruch. Ruch nudged his partner and nodded towards the black shape.
"Go on then."
Ruch handed the unnecessary torch to Mogan and kept his eye on the dead man as he approached the chest. Before touching it he slipped his rowing gloves on.
"Is it trapped?" he dared to ask the corpse lord.
"It was. I have drawn back the nefarious cloak for good."
Ruch glanced at Mogan and probed the chest. It was so covered in mould and rust that it could pass for a beach rock. He pushed this way and that until something gave. The lid flopped open and slumped to the floor. Blackness massed within.
The dead fiend leant forward in his decaying chair.
"Has it been that long since I ran my fingers through those gems and coins? The signs of time passing so...sicken me."
Ruch poked the black jagged booty with a gloved finger. Gold shone through, flickering with the lights. He backed away.
"It is as he says, Mogan. At last."
The fiend fought his way up back onto his hidden feet.
"Touch it." he offered. "Like this."
The skeleton crouched over the casket and stabbed his bone hands into the moulden booty. He clutched as much as he could and held the golden clusters to his parchment face. The treasure trickled through the gaps in his bones as he kissed his wealth. When his claws were empty he dug them into the casket again, over and over until all the gold and jewels shone, free of mould.
"It was this that wore away my hands. The years of burying my once fleshy fingers deeply into these trinkets. My skin, my muscle...came away...away."
The fiend laughed.
"Oh. I am being discourteous. I should explain why I am not sucking the life from you as you stand there."
Mogan let his eyes widen as he listened.
"You are not the first party to find this tomb, in this region of small islands. I thought it safe from such people as you. For years I have sat here staving off the final stages of death...with my magical art."
The fiend returned to his red throne and smiled, lifting his eyes to the mottled ceiling, where his memories crawled.
"Some years ago a colony of people arrived on a land mass north of here. Took root. Fished the waters. I watched them in my dreaming state, at first. Wary of their prying. For a time I managed to influence them with my prayers. I kept them from these islands with visions of such terror."
He shifted in his chair, smiling a different smile.
"Then I became too curious, which was always my major flaw. And I ventured out into the inky night...in a more solid representation. The fisher folk had made my cold wasteland their home and they were here to stay. I knew this final truth...when their woman began to swell with offspring. Perhaps you came here because of the disappearances? And the tales of some monster haunting the smaller isles? Was it a giant spider? A black serpentine creature? How did they personify the superstitious fear I cast their way?"
There was a pause, as the dead man stared into Mogan's eyes. Mogan shrugged and urged himself to speak.
"We came because a friend passed through this way a few seasons ago, and he and his mates fell foul of your sorcery."
"Indeed? I recall many such intrusions."
"Our friend survived, with only one hand and a story. It is well true that where magic is found treasure is not far away."
The fiend nodded.
"Yes. I would have fared better if I had paid that fact its due. Back then my conjurations gave me such pleasure."
There was another silence as the candles flickered all around.
"Well." the sorcerer said." The treasure is yours now, and I will be beholden to you if in exchange you could pass on the news that these tomb isles have been plundered of all they held of worth to man. And if you could also, in your heroic tales, put about that the evil that lurked here has been vanquished? I can assure you that no more of the little ones shall go astray. It will be as if I had been slain."
Mogan nodded and looked at Ruch, who repeated the agreement.
The sorcerer closed his blackened eyelids at that, and moved his fleshless hands through the air in a complex and swift motion. He began to rise from his ancient throne, his gown dangling but not reaching the stone floor.
"A simple enough trick, but a draining one. I shall see you both out to the surface. Take the chest. It is yours now, and my solitude is mine again."
Ruch was glad of his rowing gloves as he hefted he casket up the slippery stone steps to the tiny square of grey sunlight. The salty air was the smell of home. Mogan followed, and in the rear, the levitating form of the sorcerer.
Once in the open, Ruch began to feel his trepidation lighten. The boat waited, the tide lapping at the shingle.
The sorcerer followed them to the water's edge and watched them push off into the black water. In both their stomachs a sickness told their hearts a truth blacker than the ripping waters. When they were out of sight of the tomb isles, and hopefully beyond other means of viewing, Mogan and Ruch both took up the casket and tipped it into the sea. The gold fell away like frenzied scattering sunfish, and then vanished into the tireless gloom.
And they rowed in the direction of the setting sun.
Get used to it? No, you never get used to it.