There was silence in the tomb, the silence of nine hundred years. Only vermin still moved amidst the dust, feeding on the fungi and one another. Generations of spiders – nay, entire dynasties – had woven their webs here, and those webs became dust while the next generation wove their own, building shroud upon shroud in unknowing tribute to the silent dead.
As night fell, as it had done for nine hundred uncaring years, a lightning bolt struck the great stone that had sealed the tomb from prying eyes. Mysteriously bypassing various gnarled trees with branches like skeletal claws, it struck one of the lowest points for miles around and shattered the ancient slab, just as a band of travellers happened to wander past. Moments later, the light rain turned to a torrential downpour that inconveniently made it impossible to travel any further without seeking shelter.
Footsteps thudded softly on the dusty floor as they strode into the tomb: a slender elf who nonetheless bore several hundred arrows on her wiry back; a brawny dwarf in a cape and heavy armour that must have been deeply uncomfortable to wear for the fifty-mile march from town; a scarred man in studded leathers that, considering he hadn’t mentioned cleaning them during the two years of in-game time that had passed since he took them from a dead hobgoblin, were dry, cracked, and stank to high heaven.
“So we put up a tent here and rest.”
“Och aye,” said the dwarf in accents that proclaimed his proud Punjabi heritage, “we’re in a tomb, laddie, so we should probably go and kill a load of undead.”
“Or we could just wait here until the storm’s over and then go.”
The elf shook her head. “I’m pretty sure the storm won’t blow over until everything in the tomb has risen from the dead and been killed again. You know how this goes.”
“I hate skeletons. No backstab bonus.”
“Says you, mister I-have-a-bludgeoning-weapon. What are me and my longbow supposed to do here? Has anyone got a club?”
The dwarf sighed. “Can you even use a club?”
“Everyone can use clubs now.”
The elf briefly examined the room, her sharp elven gaze picking out every crack and beetle, but finding nothing that could be wielded as a single-handed bludgeoning weapon.
“Look, I go outside to one of those gnarled trees and break a branch off.”
“That’s not really a club…”
“Then I sit right here and use Nargrim’s dagger to cut bits off it until it counts as a club. Seriously, after the fight in the dark windy caverns where missile weapons don’t work, and all the oozes in the marsh, I’d like to actually inflict some damage for once.”
After some minutes of whittling, the bold party crept onwards once more, down a dark corridor. Crumbling plaques depicted forgotten battles, and the way before them was thick with cobwebs that lent a ghostly cast to all they saw. Halfway down, their vision suddenly failed them.
“Wait, damn, I forgot to light the lantern.”
“I thought Gorn was carrying a lantern?” said the elf, looking round at the scarred man who she couldn’t actually see. “Gorn, you have the bullseye, right?”
“No,” replied the mercenary, with customary patience. “I can’t use a lantern and a greathammer at the same time. We went through this.”
“Nae problem,” said the dwarf. “To a dwarf’s eyes, it’s as bright as day in here. I’ll lead the way, and if I see anything I’ll light a torch. The noo. ”
“You know that won’t work. Anything down here is bound to be undead, so it can see in the dark anyway.”
Sighing, the dwarf pulled out tinder and flint from the enormous backpack of gear he carried. Naturally, it was at the very top. With lantern lit, they gazed around at the crumbling plaques depicting forgotten battles.
“Didn’t we see this before?”
“No, it was dark.”
They strode boldly down the corridors, stirring the dust of aeons and ripping aside the cobwebs. A crumbling stone archway led into a great hall, and the lantern cast its narrow beam across row after row of stone slabs, where web-covered boxes lay. The far end of the hall was wreathed in shadow, too far to see. The three companions paused on the threshold.
“Shall we enter, and risk disturbing the sleeping dead?”
“Might as well, we’ll have to kill them sometime.”
The elf shook her head firmly. “Look, there’s probably tons of those things and it’ll burn through our supplies. Let’s just keep going and kill whatever’s in charge here. We can come back here later.”
“But what if they come up behind us?” asked Gorn. “I mean, that’s what I’d do.”
“Well, there’s no reason for them to wake up,” argued Iharviel, waving an enthusiastic hand. “It’s only going to be if we go inside.”
The dwarf coughed. “Isn’t that what ye said about the kobolds? Lass.”
“Yeah, well, I should have been right then too.”
They stood for a few minutes bickering in the flickering torchlight. Eventually, the dwarf stood watch while the others wandered back to the entrance to fetch some rubble. They returned bearing a broken timber, only to find the archway webbed by fifty feet of hemp rope, carefully wrapped around ten pitons that had been tapped between the stones.
“There you go, much better than trying to block it with stones!” exclaimed the dwarf, looking very pleased with himself. “Plus, this way we can get in later. Aye?”
“Won’t they just cut through the ropes?” asked Gorn, cynically. “I bet they can do that silently too.”
“Well, maybe, but it’ll hold them off for a while, anyway.”
“And then we won’t have any rope. In fact, we don’t have any now. What if we need rope?” asked the elf, tossing her fine silvery locks in what should have been a forceful way, but looked like an unsuccessful pitch for a shampoo campaign.
“It’s fine. We can just come back and get it if we need rope.”
“Then we might as well block the doorway with stones.”
“No, because it’s already blocked now and it’s a waste of time.”
“Yes, but not time time, only game time. You can do anything in basically the same amount of real time. And the storm won’t stop until we’re done.”
“Well no, it’s a waste of time time too, because I just blocked the doorway already. I mean, all the time we’re arguing about this we’re actually using up more real time, even though no time is passing in-game.”
While the demi-humans argued, the mercenary was gazing thoughtfully at the doorway. “You know…” he mused, “…didn’t we run out of gold before we got the climbing gear, because we needed a longbow?”
The rope, which Nargrim had in fact absent-mindedly balanced on some protruding corners and had just happened to stay there, fell in a sudden heap as gravity overcame friction. They all looked at it.
“So we should block the doorway with stone,” said the dwarf at last.
To his irritation, Gorn frowned slightly and shook his head. “Actually, better not. When we kill the whatevermebob in charge, they’ll probably all crumble to dust.”
“Exactly. And we can loot the place without going through a fight.”
“Or getting any XP.”
“You know,” said the elf with sudden spirit, “Gorn is right. I actually feel quite strongly that we should strike down the evil right in front of us before going any further. Who knows what fiendish plans they might get up to while we’re not looking? Also, I have this feeling that I'm just on the verge of mastering some more spells.”
Clutching weapons, they advanced slowly into the room, gazing around. Their booted feet raised clouds from the floor, thick with the dust of centuries. The boxes were each a little under six feet long – exactly the right size to hold a vaguely human corpse of average height for the period, considering the rampant malnutrition. The party were all deeply impressed when they noticed this detail, which greatly enhanced the verisimilitude of their experience.
“Should they nae be waking up?” asked the dwarf, suspiciously. “I was expecting to be surrounded by now.” The gentle lilt of the Valleys lent his words a charming innocence.
His companions shrugged. “Depends, really,” said Iharviel. “If it’s just an HP sink, they might stand up any time. But sometimes they wait until you touch a coffin.”
“That’s, like, punishment for your greed,” said Gorn. “It sort of discourages people from tomb-robbing, except not really. I mean, we wouldn’t be in here if we weren’t supposed to loot it.”
The elf gestured towards the far end of the hall, which remained more shadowed that you might expect given the strong lantern being pointed at it. “Alternatively, they might not animate until we get over there. There’s probably an altar or something, and a ghost that mutters about intruders and defiling, and then we can have a set-piece battle where we’re surrounded.”
Gorn looked thoughtful. “You know, in that case we might as well start breaking coffins open. I mean, if they’re going to animate anyway it’ll make no difference, and if they don’t animate until we get to the altar we can smash them up now.” He grabbed the nearest coffin, wrenched the lid off and raised his vast hammer to shatter the bones within. Iharviel gasped and hurled herself at him, and the mercenary reeled as his heavy blow swung wide.
“Don’t do that, idiot!”
Rubbing at a strained shoulder, the man glared. “What? Sudden religious qualms?”
Earnest emerald-green eyes stared back at him, with mingled pity and rebuke in their jewelled depths. “Somehow I feel like we probably wouldn’t learn anything by smashing these bones as they lie peacefully in their coffins. It would be better to wait and test our mettle against them if they do awaken.”