A short story
Nalya reaches over her shoulder and plucks another black, feather-tipped arrow from a leather quiver. In one fluid motion she notches the arrow in her bow, pulls the string tight, and closes one eye.
“Five points if I get this one,” she says, her long ears quivering with the bowstring.
Gorbash knows better than to bet with an elf regarding archery. He closes his toothy jaw and crosses his arms, his steel armor clinking. The skeleton just around the corner pauses at the sound, and turns a head full of empty sockets.
“God damnit.” Nalya lets the arrow fly. It strikes the skeleton square in the ribcage and it falls to the stone floor in a clatter of bones. A steel sword bounces away. Nalya doesn’t gloat for a second. She turns to Gorbash and jabs him in the chest with the end of her bow.
“What the hell? Can’t keep silent for a measly couple of seconds?” She rolls her eyes. “I can’t believe I picked up an orc. ‘Oh, he’s a natural warrior, we’ll compliment each other perfectly.’ Little did I know you wouldn’t have a single brain cell in that big gray head of yours.”
Gorbash grunts. It’s no good to argue with her. Nalya will always win an argument, even if she’s wrong.
Nalya harrumphs, slings her bow over her back, and continues on. She creeps around the corner and rifles through the skeleton’s bones for loot. “Peh,” she says, holding up her arrow and a couple gold pieces the skeleton had stashed away in his eye sockets. “I hate these old ruins. Most of them have already been raided by bandits.”
“Or by people like us,” says Gorbash.
“Shut your trap.” Nalya slinks across the room to a sealed, upright coffin embedded in the stone wall. She rifles through her sack, pulls out a crowbar, and pries the coffin’s lid open. It clatters to the ground. She begins unwrapping the mummy, searching the folds of the fabric for gold and jewels.
Her search is rewarded with a scrap of an emerald and a silver pendant. She winks at Gorbash and tucks the loot in to her bag with the crowbar. He knows better than to ask for his cut now. If they get out of this deadly little catacomb alive, Nalya will lay out three-quarters of the loot, take two-thirds for herself and leave the rest for Gorbash. As she puts it, she “does all of the work, after all.” Gorbash is just for backup.
They hear two voices echo down the next hallway. Nalya freezes. She mouths, “See? Bandits,” and creeps forward to get a better look. Gorbash’s torch flickers and she motions for him to put it out. He pours his waterskin over the torch. It sizzles, and the room goes dark.
The voices come closer, followed by a bobbing orange light.
“So then she says, ‘The baby is yours, Marcus!’ Can you believe it? After she slept with that bard up in Homsgraad?”
“She’s a tavern wench. What do you want? If you were looking for a saint, you should have dragged off that priestess we found sleeping in the temple.”
Two heads appear around the corner of the crypt. Nalya slinks into the shadow and her black clothes and hair seem to vanish, leaving only a speck of white skin that makes up her face. She pulls up a mask over her nose and mouth and even that speck is gone. Gorbash is not so lucky. He looks at Nalya and snarls. He can take them on alone, but he’ll damage his shiny new steel for sure.
The two men enter the crypt and their torch bathes the room in light. They pause when they see the broken skeleton lying in the middle of the floor.
“I don’t think we’re alone.” The men peer around the room. Their light seems to bounce off Nalya’s shadow.
One of the men whistles. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” He jabs his torch at the dark corners of the crypt. Gorbash is about to draw his sword when he sees a streak of red and the first man’s head tips off his body, like a string come loose on a marionette. It topples to the floor.
The second man lets out a scream that turns into a moaning gurgle as Nalya’s knife sinks into his back. She forces it through layers of muscle and ribcage, twisting and angling it until it punctures his heart. He stumbles and she rips the knife free, spattering her black leather tunic with bright spots of blood.
Nalya pulls out a cloth that is copper-brown with old stains and runs it across the knife as the second body collapses to the floor. When the knife is clean, she sheathes it, and glares at Gorbash.
“Come on,” says Nalya, nudging the decapitated head with the toe of her boot. “The Overlord won’t wait forever.”
Gorbash wants to tell her the Overlord has been sitting in the bowels of this stupid old tomb for a millennia and another few minutes won’t kill him—considering he’s already dead—but the orc keeps his mouth shut and grunts.
Once they leave the crypt, the torch is re-lit. Nalya makes quick work of another skeleton waiting in the hallway. She rifles through unopened urns and pries open tombs looking for valuables. At the end of the catacomb, she dislodges a pair of rubies from the eye sockets of a statue and pockets them.
In response, the floor grumbles.
“I don’t think it was a good idea to take those,” Gorbash says as the stone begins to shake all around them like the walls of a funhouse. Nalya grabs his arm to steady herself, but it’s too late. Gaps appear in the rock floor, widening, gaping upward.
Then they are falling.
“Oof!” Gorbash groans, the wind knocked out of him from both sides as he lands a dozen feet below with an elf using his chest to cushion her fall. Nalya scrambles to her feet and dusts herself off. The orc lies prone, gasping, one hand feeling for the silver-crusted sword hilt at his side. He closes his eyes when his hand tightens around the pommel.
“Get up, you big lout,” says Nalya, aiming a kick. Before the toe of her boot can leave a dent in his armor, Gorbash grabs her foot and squeezes it hard enough he could almost break her toes. Nalya howls and curses and rips her foot free. “What the hell?” she shouts.
Without a word, Gorbash gets to his feet and looks around. The torch is missing. He crouches and feels along the floor until his hand wraps around something long and cylindrical. He tries to light it, but it won’t catch. He feels the end and realizes he’s holding a bone.
“Don’t you have some kind of spell for this?” he asks the elf. She snorts. Then a light appears in the palms of her hands, bathing the room in a dull blue glow. A layer of milk-white bones cover the floor. Gorbash spots the torch and snatches it up. Once it’s lit, Nalya lets her light fade and eventually dissipate in a puff of smoke.
“Damn,” she says. “Couldn’t have brought an extra, could you? Why can’t you ever think ahead? Now my magic is drained.” She spits into the bones and looks up. “And you should have warned me about that statue.”
“Sorry.” That’s all he ever says to her, now that he thinks about it. Her frail little body belies her skill as an assassin. Now that he’s seen her in action, he knows better than to cross her. She could slit his throat in the time it takes a moth to flap its wings, and he’d never see her coming.
Gorbash plods through the blanket of bones to a doorway on the far end of the room. There are no tombs or urns or crypts here; just empty gray walls covered in moss and rot. The door is a door, there’s no doubt about that, but nowhere on it does he find a handle or a latch. A face etched in the bronze grins insanely back at him.
“You’re so inept. I can’t believe we’ve even made it this far.” Nalya shakes her head and pushes past him to the door. She places her hand on the mouth of the face and pushes. The door creaks. Then, beneath her hand, a crack appears. The door seems to break. The gap widens and each half of the door swings open.
Gorbash follows her through. Immediately he knows they have entered the Crypt of the Overlord.
“Holy hell.” Nalya stands motionless, staring at the abyss before them. Ten feet away, the floor drops into nothingness. A razor-thin rock bridge crosses the chasm and widens into a raised dais at the opposite end. Atop the dais is a great stone tomb with the statue of the Overlord carved into the lid.
Nalya trots across the bridge, bow hanging from one hand. Gorbash follows more slowly because a single misstep could be his infinite death. He imagines falling for an hour before hitting the bottom.
At least it would be painless, and kind of thrilling.
“God, what are you, a newborn goat? Come on.” Nalya taps her toe on the stone on the opposite end of the bridge. Behind her, Gorbash sees the lid of the tomb start to slide open. He opens his mouth to say something but he is too focused on getting across the bridge.
A shadow rises from the tomb. Gorbash stops walking and points.
“What is it? You have a mouth, don’t you?” Nalya rolls her eyes. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you to use your words? Or do orcs not even have mothers?”
“The Overlord,” Gorbash manages, just as the shadow leaps down from the dais. It is a huge skeleton, the size of a troll, wrapped in gold and silver and bronze. In one swift movement the Overlord buries an ancient broadsword in Nalya’s pearly-white flesh. Blood pools in her mouth, spilling from her lips like so many insults.
Gorbash can only watch as the Overlord pulls the sword free. Nalya crumbles to the stone in a pile of limbs and gore. The skeleton sighs, sheathes the bloody sword, and looks at the orc standing on the bridge.
“God,” says the Overlord. “Took you guys long enough. I didn’t think she’d ever shut up.”