There is nothing in this dead palace but ghosts and a madman. Food is seemingly spirited to me on trays. A statuette of a twisted beast haunts me with its perverse tapping. An ancient, babbling man gave me an ornate key that is as cryptic as was his spoken nonsense. Do only phantoms hold answers to simple questions such as, “Where is everyone else within this place? Or this city? What waits just outside this structure’s closed doors?”
Something still eludes me that would set me on a path to discovery. What?
From the kitchen window at the back of this expansive building, I could see a large lychgate that the shadowy man had passed through last night. The iron bars looked heavy, and rust crawled undisturbed over its closing mechanism. Beyond this was a cemetery. And further beyond, I could make out a breach in a high stone barrier that opened up to waiting jungle foliage that prowled like a creature ready to swallow up those who ventured further. Someone could exit this city if they could manage to get through the lychgate. But cruel spikes covered a peaked roof and an inner fence that joined the obstacle at both sides.
I stepped outside among the sallow willows, breathing in the rotting scents of decaying wood and hungry tree fungus.
A lavish mausoleum appeared at the far right of the inner courtyard. Somehow, I had missed the tomb from both my bedroom window and the kitchen’s. Thick marble walls ran rich with blue veins. On decorated supporting columns, symbols carved out in convoluted patterns were gilded in flaking gold and silver leaf, casting dull light that made them appear to swirl in the humid air.
And that’s when I noticed the stone three-headed creature mounted above a locked door that could give entrance inside the burial chamber.I pulled the old man’s key from my pocket. The bow had the same three heads. Approaching the door, I saw raised tentacles that embossed the lock plate as if to swallow the hand of anyone who dared to insert the instrument to reveal what lay inside.
I dared, feeling like I had nothing to lose but jerking my hand away after turning the key. A hidden metal bar scratched against something. Hinges groaned and my stomach churned. I almost jumped back when the door swung open. I couldn’t see anything. My chest tightened as I stepped inside.
Surprising me, a black cloud materialized around me, clinging to me and grabbing at my limbs. Within the dark mass, a hundred faceless voices of both men and women implored. We are needing. We are. We are. They whispered in feverish tones. They cried. Some seemed to mutter. It was as if the inky vapor were alive, given life by the fears and desperation of the dead who still needed to be heard by the living.
The damn thing might kill me. When the cloud forced itself into my nostrils and throat, I choked and fell to my hands and knees. The cloying smell of many decaying bodies filled my nose. I tasted oily sweat and dried blood. I tried to shout at it, What do you need? But the words couldn’t come out. I gagged. As I felt something crawling into my gut, I retched all over the cold stone floor. Black vapor rose from my mouth with a steamy hiss. And then, the voices silenced. The dark mass was gone.
Standing back up on wobbly legs and wiping at watery eyes with trembling hands, my vision slowly focused. The tomb’s interior came to life. Excited by fresh air, large dust particles seemed to move about in a giddy dance before softly falling at my unsteady feet. The walls, a blurry jumble of objects, flowered into solid forms of stone placards of countless names and disturbing murals of smiling people that walked into open graves. And as my eyes finally cleared, a shadowy pyramid that stood tall in the center of the building soon revealed what had become of some of the city’s residents: A mass of twisted and entangled bodies reached up toward the ceiling like some macabre statue that symbolized lost hope. At the top point, a book waited in the clawed hands of one of the bony unfortunates.
I’d have to climb the cadaver pyramid if I would claim the book. There was no ladder, and so I clambered over dried flesh and crunching bone, remembering Sonia’s burned and flaking skin and her silent death grin and her empty eyes and how I cried as I held her limp body and had told her that it had been an accident and how I swore that I would find a way to reunite us. Something cracked and I started to sink into the bodies, but calcified limbs and chest cavities compressed to form a somewhat stable support. After several minutes, I manged to reach the top.
The thick tome was bound in bloodied skin. And burned onto the cover was the word Unk’yr, the same name the old man called me. I snatched the bulky and hideous book from a grinning dead woman. When I did, a click sounded from somewhere.
I looked down and toward the back of the mausoleum. A hidden door opened up to the cemetery beyond the lychgate.