Home > The Grimoire of the Lamb (The Iron Druid Chronicles 0.4)(6)

The Grimoire of the Lamb (The Iron Druid Chronicles 0.4)(6)
Author: Kevin Hearne

On the other side of the countertop, however, a neat little square of darkness beckoned. There was a set of stone steps leading down to something that was no doubt very naughty.

I circled and took a few steps down, looking for a way to close the door. Elkhashab would never leave it open when he wanted to perform his dirty deeds. There was a rather large button labeled CLOSE in Arabic script, but it had an odd white glow around it, so I hesitated. A few more steps down and I lost all light from the studio, but there was a dim glow from some light source farther down, whether a tunnel or a room I could not tell. I cast night vision and scanned the area carefully with my improved sight. I spied a smaller, unlabeled, and non-glowing button at the base of the stairs and pushed that instead. The door mechanism slid shut and a set of dingy old incandescent bulbs winked on, illuminating what turned out to be a tunnel after all and making my night vision unnecessary. I dispelled it and proceeded cautiously down the passage, which had smooth walls of the same adobe material used in the rest of the house.

I really was walking down the tunnel; there was a fairly steep grade, almost to the point where I wished there had been a staircase instead. Clearly this delved underneath Elkhashab’s moat and continued on from there. After a few hundred meters it dropped again, even steeper, and soon the wished-for steps appeared to ease the descent. Once the tunnel leveled out, a brief three or four meters led me to a stunning room that Elkhashab had very little to do with constructing. He’d put up the lights, no doubt, and his presence was smeared over the chamber like a greasy film, but there was no doubt that this room was at least twice as old as I was. Far beneath the well-documented and preserved ruins of Crocodilopolis, a grand hall stretched before me, supported by massive pillars of stone. Sarcophagi stared at me with four-thousand-year-old eyes, not with the heads of humans or Anubis but with Sobeks, unlike any ever seen before. They didn’t rest prone but leaned upright against the wall. It was an archaeologist’s dream. Or a dark wizard’s. I had never seen a Sobek sarcophagus before, but in this room there were at least twenty, each seven feet tall. I wondered if the mummies still remained inside and if they were well preserved. I paused to take a closer look at one that seemed to be in particularly good shape.

On top of the crocodile head was the tall yellow headdress and red disk signifying Amun-Ra. Instead of the customary crook and flail held by the pharaohs, this carved figure held a was scepter in the right hand, signifying power, and the ankh in the left, held by the loop and with the base pointing up to the figure’s right shoulder. The human body was carved from limestone with tiles of colored stones inlaid, mosaic fashion, to provide color. Some of these were gilded, and jewels still gleamed around the neck. The crocodile head was polished basalt and skillfully carved. The teeth were limestone but had been painted white at one time. Much of that paint had deteriorated, but a few discolored flecks hinted at what it must have looked like when new. The scepter and ankh were not carved of stone but appeared to be gilded bronze.

I wasn’t an expert on Egyptian artifacts by any means, but these sarcophagi couldn’t be older than the Middle Kingdom period—and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were from the time of the New Kingdom, judging by the craftsmanship on display. Normally the limbs and feet on sarcophagi were mere suggestions, painted on or highlighted with the slightest of bas-relief sculpting, but these were fully sculpted.

Miraculous that it hadn’t been plundered—not only by Elkhashab but by centuries of grave robbers. Yet there was no other treasure in the room, so if it was a traditional burial chamber, then quite a bit of stuff was missing. But why take everything else and leave these untouched? Most curious.

I was about to reach out and touch the ankh when I heard the swirl of water and an animal grunt from the next chamber down, traveling and echoing the way sound will when water and stone is involved. I froze.

There was much more than Elkhashab’s handiwork to fear here. Aside from whatever made that noise, untold ancient hoodoo could be waiting to descend upon my head—perhaps from this very sarcophagus. Though my cold iron aura would most likely protect me, prudence dictated that I shouldn’t touch it without checking it in the magical spectrum first, and I let my hand drop. These weren’t going anywhere; I could come back to examine them later. I had much more reconnaissance to conduct.

I crept down the hall in front of the line of sarcophagi, my eyes toward the center of the room. Elkhashab’s string of bulbs, spaced at odd intervals, created puddles of yellow like streetlamps, allowing the edges of the room to languish in shadow. Past the first set of pillars, I saw some familiar markings on the floor: a circle enclosing another circle, and inside that not a pentagram but a mixture of lines, Hebrew characters, and mystical symbols straight out of The Greater Key of Solomon. The White Knife and the Black Knife were there, the Sickle, the Sword, and all the rest too. Elkhashab was definitely more than a crocodile priest. He dabbled extensively in the dark end of the magic pool, like Nebwenenef before him.

A supporting wall forced me to move toward the center. A doorway there led to another room, decorated with bas-relief doodads heralding Sobek’s spiffiness. At least, I inferred as much from the gaping maw of a crocodile sculpted at the top.

The next room was poorly lit. A single light made a half-assed effort at fighting the darkness from the edges. The scent of water and fetid rot twitched at my nostrils; something had died in there. Maybe many somethings. The pervasive miasma was enough to make me draw Fragarach from its sheath.

Two steps into the room, I heard the water gurgling again. Cursing the weak effort of the token bulb, I recast night vision to better see what I was missing. The chamber was of a similar size to the one I had just left, except that in the center of the room there was no floor with mystical symbols scrawled across it; rather, a black pool with ripples betrayed recent movement. Pillars rose out of it to support the ceiling.

There was no great mystery about what awaited me in the gloom. Elkhashab, that pantweasel, had left me with one or more crocodiles to deal with. A faint electric hum drew my attention over my left shoulder.

A large old-fashioned freezer lurked there, a thick cable snaking from underneath it to the room I’d just vacated. He must have run the electricity behind all the sarcophagi. I opened the lid and saw that it was full of steaks and roasts. Oberon would have approved. I took a few out and threw them to the edge of the pool, then tossed a final one into the pool itself. Something responded in the dark, and I slid along the wall counterclockwise, holding my sword point in front of me. Anything that wanted to eat me had to eat my blade first. Once I’d started to move along the longer wall, a splash sounded from the space I’d vacated, followed by serious macking noises. I saw gold glinting in the dim light, and then an enormous pocked back stretched sinuously into the water: It was the largest crocodile I had ever seen, festooned with enough metal to make reestablishing the gold standard plausible. I hurried to the next supporting wall and another doorway. There was nothing that I could see to keep the crocodile from entering the next room, but perhaps it didn’t want to leave its comfy mini-swamp with easy-to-hunt rump roasts.

The subsequent chamber was fairly well lit, like the first one, allowing me to dispel night vision, but its contents were entirely different. Instead of sarcophagi along the walls, there were boxes—the wooden kind you used to see a lot of before the planet started to run low on trees and people figured it might be better to use recycled cardboard instead. They were probably full of the treasures missing from the burial chamber. I left them alone, figuring it was best to leave it all conveniently packaged for the Ministry of Antiquities. I was much more interested in the creeptastic vibe coming from the far side of the room.

Elkhashab had repurposed an ancient stone worktable, perhaps originally intended as an embalming station, by turning it into a makeshift altar. It was stained with fluids that were supposed to stay on the inside of bodies, and there were a couple of smallish skulls on either end. Around the altar itself he’d drawn a couple of large circles, symbols of invocation and protection written along the circumference and ritual materials placed carefully inside. Adjacent to these were other circles—the summoning kind. Circles of binding with pentagrams. A telltale whiff of sulfur confirmed that he’d successfully summoned physical demons here, not just the spirits suggested by the first room’s circles. He had the seals of calling, binding, coercion, submission, and banishment painted perfectly between the points of the stars. Almost too perfectly.

I scanned the altar again with a new suspicion. The two skulls were facing at exactly the same angle. He had some bowls full of ritual ingredients—salt and salamander tails, that kind of thing—and those bowls were precisely equidistant from one another. The candles were brand new and of the same kind. The ritual knife was placed perpendicular to the edge.

I thought back to the guest bathroom with the air freshener and the primly folded towels. The order of the library. Even the studio, meant to look sloppy and spontaneous, had been carefully arranged that way. This guy was an obsessive–compulsive.

It made sense. The precision required to be a practicing magician was no joke.

I decided to mess with him. A fingernail’s scratch across the seals of coercion, submission, and banishment would drive him crazy. He’d spend hours repainting just to make sure everything was perfect. That is, if I didn’t kill him first.

Golden figurines of Sobek, Amun, and Amun-Ra stood impassively on the altar, their dead painted eyes calmly awaiting tribute and sacrifice. I smirked; Elkhashab appeared to be hedging his bets on which form of Amun would get all the love. Amun had been a headliner in the early Egyptian dynasties, but he had to share top billing with Ra later on, and Sobek was considered in some tales to be a manifestation of the combined god Amun-Ra. Elkhashab must be harboring doubts about which was to receive sacrifices from the Grimoire of the Lamb.

This room was the last one. Nestled in the corner behind the altar, off to my left, a spiral staircase twisted up into the ceiling. If it led all the way up to the surface, that was how he smuggled stuff out of here. He would never leave his house with contraband when he was under surveillance; he would choose to emerge elsewhere.

It also explained why he never went for the big score with a sarcophagus; never mind that it would invite too many inconvenient questions, there was no way he’d get one up through that wee well. I doubted he could get one up through the steep tunnel that led to his studio either. I wondered why he hadn’t installed a rudimentary lift instead. Too conspicuous?

The staircase bore investigation. It was probably my best way out, after all. But the altar needed a closer look first. I circled it and discovered a small table nestled against the far side, almost like a hallway desk, yet lower in height so that it was invisible while looking at the altar from the direction I’d entered. Stacked on it were two sheaves of paper—no, parchment. Incredibly old stuff too, mostly illegible, the ink having faded and flaked away after centuries. In the magical spectrum, the writings were quite clear, however; they glowed with ancient hoodoo. I’d bet five biscuits that these were the writings of which Elkhashab had spoken—the writings of Nebwenenef.

My immediate impulse was to destroy them, but I decided against it, figuring that Elkhashab would notice right away and know that someone had been there. Like everything else around the altar, the sheaves were placed and organized with attention to detail, and I didn’t want to give myself away yet. I’d definitely come back and take care of them before I left, however.

I turned my attention to the staircase. It was a sturdy metal one; it didn’t creak or shiver as I ascended, and my inner ninja approved. My stomach, however, began to rebel as I got closer to the ceiling. Something smelled foul up there—but it was a different stench from the one in the chamber of the crocodile god.

Once I got my head in the space between the ceiling and the floor, I paused. The smell was definitely coming from the room above, but I couldn’t see very much. Silently, I withdrew a dagger from my satchel and poked it up through the hole to see if it set off any kind of trap. I wiggled it around. I swirled it all around the edges. Nothing.

I did a quick peekaboo, feeling silly, but whatever—I didn’t want to end more than two thousand years of existence as a victim to one of Elkhashab’s booby traps. No reaction, and I didn’t see much of anything. It was fair-to-middling Stygian darkness in there.

Casting night vision, I took a longer peek and did a complete survey, three-sixty. There was a break in the railing of the staircase so that one could enter or exit on this floor. It appeared to be a single chamber, smaller than the ones downstairs. There was a lone sarcophagus here, but a more conventional type rather than one of Sobek. It was situated conventionally as well, resting prone instead of leaning upright against the wall. Three large cages filled the rest of the room, and it was from them that the stink emanated. Behind me, there was just the bare stone wall, and the staircase continued to wind above into farther unknown levels. I put my dagger away.

I climbed and left the stairs to check out the cages. The first one held a small skeleton without a skull. The next held a rotting corpse, also headless, dressed in tatters of once-white linen that had been chewed on by rats. Or maybe by those flesh-eating scarab beetles from The Mummy, which still gave me nightmares. I couldn’t tell if the body was male or female, but it was young. I remembered the two skulls resting on the altar; I’d thought them there for gravitas or a sense of theatre, but the bastard had actually sacrificed kids. Sure, demons would let themselves be bound for one of those.

Another still form lay in the third cage. The legs faced the door and the rise of shoulders concealed the head—if there was one. The reek was awful; there was a bucket filled to the brim with waste in one corner. Strangely, it gave me hope.

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