At least twenty rooms in this unoccupied “palace” sat silent and dark. Silver plates of moldering food waited on bedside tables for unseen ghosts to return to unfinished meals. A yellowing bust of a crowned man rested on a hallway pedestal, empty eyes gazing at nothingness. My bare feet pattered on marble tiles and violated a vacant waiting room. Layers of dust stirred as I ventured into a nursery that hosted several empty cribs. The silence and emptiness almost seemed alive.
Except for the old man and the beautiful woman I had met earlier, no one resided here. The place was like a tomb without the obvious sepulchers and sarcophagi. That made the empty rooms even more unnerving, as if some sort of life could reside here.
I’d explore for a short while longer before giving up. But there were no clocks anywhere, and I couldn’t tell how much time passed. Should I just leave? Did that beast that almost killed me still wait in the jungle? I wasn’t sure of anything. I began searching for an exit when a flickering light down another hallway caught my eye.
I peered around a carved door frame.
The study contained several wood shelves of large tomes. Symbols, like the ones on my bedroom wall and elsewhere, marked the wide leather bindings. Bottles, desiccators, and cylinders littered a corner bench. A padlocked box sat in some sort of ornate cage. Several clay cups of wax and burning wicks cast dancing shadows on the walls and a seated figure.
It was the old man that had greeted me at the city gates. He hunched in a leather chair, staring at the wall and babbling nonsense to himself, “Was it right? Should I have? Of course, I should have.” His withered fingers tightly clutched something in his right hand.
“I should thank you for saving me,” I said.
He cocked his ear as if straining to hear something subtle. He leaned forward, looking away from me, staring at an empty wall.
“I should thank you, great king. I’m humbled,” he said.
I shook my head.
“My name is Lanning Chebb. A beast nearly killed me. By the city gates. Do you remember?”
He chuckled, throaty and dry.
“Do not be so modest, great king. I wait for the call.”
“Don’t you remember the beast? I was on an expedition. It killed everyone but me.”
“Are you testing me, great king? I still wait for T’hal Kyun.”
The words T’hal Kyun froze my body and stopped my breath for a moment, opening the scab of my wounded memory of my search for a ceremonial relic in a suffocating jungle, how several of us had hacked away at seemingly impossible overgrowth to clear an insignificant path toward some ancient and still undiscovered archaeological site and stinging insects devoured our blood for weeks and one man died of sickness along the way but we failed to find the key of T’hal Kyun.
And then that damn beast had appeared.
My nostrils flared. I stomped over to the old man and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“The key of T’hal Kyun. Where is it?”
A disoriented head bobbled as unfocused eyes darted about. His old hands reached out and touched my face. “Oh,” he declared. For the first time since entering this room, the old man looked at me.
“You are not the king,” he said.
“The key. Where is the key of T’hal Kyun?”
“Key? Here is a key, Unk’yr.”
He opened my palm and placed in it a metal object that he had been gripping. The metal instrument was scored and weathered. A three headed creature formed the bow of the key. Engraved tentacles covered the shaft. Two jagged bits ended the tip like fangs.
The old man stood up and pushed me away, surprisingly strong. He walked to the room entrance and turned to me.
“Unk’yr, you will soon find what you are looking for.”
He laughed and then he was gone.