The Black Pharaoh Chapter Four
Alteng fell into darkness, but it only felt like a couple of seconds and it was over with. He landed on top of a shrieking Narrinda, which didn't comfort him any since the feeling was similar to sinking into an old couch with all the stuffing ripped out and only the framework holding it together. They lay together for a couple of minutes and groaned their displeasure at the rough landing. Alteng rolled over first, and bumped straight into his sword, which was sticking upright only inches away from their prone bodies. He looked up and saw a square patch of blue sky above, but the opening they had fallen through was now quite a few feet above their heads. If Narrinda were to stand on his shoulders, its height would still be several times out of their reach. His only comfort was that his wife had stopped screaming by now, and was moaning and complaining instead.
They were both partially bundled up within his wife's voluminous white robes, and they were finding it hard to escape. It almost seemed to Alteng like she had her arms and legs purposely entwined around him so that he could remain in her amorous clutches, but after a minute her hold on him loosened and he was free to try and find his way out of the mass of desert-dweller's clothing. Narrinda was the first to finally unwrap herself, and after some fumbling and kicking she managed to completely undress and make it to her feet. "Oh my poor aching bones," she moaned. "I need a massage after this one."
Alteng went for his sword. "I can rub you down with this," he answered menacingly.
"I don't need your brand of leech craft. No wonder you're missing body parts if you're so quick to swing your sword around at every word." Narrinda looked up at the distant square opening. "I wonder how far we've fallen. It looks to be about twenty feet, but it hurts like fifty. How will we ever get out of here?"
"I'm not worried about that now. Since we're already here, we may as well look around and find that treasure." He went to pull his sword out of the ground, and as he did so a loud grating squeal emanated from where the sword's point had entered. "Narrinda," he added, "can you give us some light?"
"Give me a few seconds, I'm still complaining about my shabby treatment at the hands of fate," she replied, but it didn't take long for her to snap her fingers, and instantly a small blue flame was conjured from the end of her index finger and danced as merrily as her mouth.
The light was rather dim, but due to their nocturnal natures it was enough to work with. The area they found themselves in turned out to be more cavernous than they realized. If they spoke too loud, faint echoes emanated from the walls around them. Alteng and Narrinda discovered that they were not standing on solid earth, but on a raised platform which was several feet across and happened to be positioned directly under the pyramid's opening. This scaffolding was made of metal which was beginning to rust in places, and it was the friction of metal on metal which caused Alteng's sword to give off a screech as he pulled it free of the grating. There were other walkways in this chamber connecting to each other in a rat's maze of patterns, with a few stairways and ladders leading to the stone floor far below.
Dominating the central area of the chamber was a huge monument, cylindrical in shape and a dull grey in color, with a top that tapered to a point. Nearly a hundred feet in height, it stood below the scaffolding on which they now stood, as if the construction had been abandoned before it was finished and the builders had not bothered to remove the work platforms. Alteng glanced around for a few moments, and finally back at Narrinda, who was unintentionally giving him that stupid death's head grin, exposing to him her most intimate anatomical structures for his perusal.
Alteng gave her the beginnings of a wicked grin. "You realize you took off your robes and you're walking around naked?"
Narrinda let out with a loud "Eek!", and with a swiftness that belied her age and condition, she scooped up her white linens in a comical and totally wasted display of feminine modesty and embarrassment, and wrapped herself up as tightly as any ancient mummy.
"We need to get down to the bottom," Alteng told her as she adjusted herself and came to his side, "but I don't want to break my neck doing it. Some of this flooring is weak. So, let's be careful."
Narrinda re-lit her finger, and they went forward slowly. "I wish I hadn't lost my staff. I could have used it for prodding around to make sure we don't walk onto a weak spot. Shouldn't I go ahead of you? I mean, if I fall first, it won't really kill anybody, now will it? It will still hurt, but I'll just take it out on you later."
Alteng made his way to a nearby railing. "There may not be a need for you to inconvenience yourself like that. These kinds of structures should be more stable at their edges. As long as we stay away from the center of the walk we might be okay, and we have these rails to grab onto if anything happens. Just take it slow and stay a few feet behind me."
Their progress was slow, and they remained apprehensive the whole time, knowing they were trying to navigate a series of age-weakened structures that were suspended above a hard and unforgiving floor many feet below. The metal planks and gangways creaked and grated ominously and regularly, and rusty colored grit stained their hands from gripping the oxidized railings. Narrinda could only use one hand because the other was thrust forward towards the back of Alteng's head in order to cast the best light, and Alteng could only use one hand because that's all he had left. At times they came to a ladder leading either up or down, and these had been reinforced with loops of iron which encircled the climber. Alteng would always go first since he was heavier than his overly-emaciated wife, and if his weight didn't bring it down then she should be able to descend without any trouble.
They had been moving about for some time and were a little over halfway to floor level, when Narrinda pointed to the large obelisk on their right. "Look at the markings on the side. They look like the script on the back of the map. Maybe it tells who this monument was dedicated to. They must have thought he was very important to make the hieroglyphics so large like that. I wish we had more time to sit here and crack the code."
"I wish we had the map" mused Alteng.
"What, you lost the map? Oh you blundering oaf, how could you? Now we'll get lost in here!" Narrinda would have started stomping around in her tantrum if she wasn't so afraid of putting a hole in the floor.
"It's not like I had time to put it away when we fell" replied Alteng, obviously irritated by her childishness. "Besides, the map was only good for the outside world. It didn't have a floor plan for this place."
"Maybe it did in that old script, but we hadn't deciphered it yet. Oh well, wishing and worrying won't do us any good now. We'll have to figure some way to get that treasure out of here. I thought we'd just blast through a few walls, ignore a few ancient curses, and haul the stuff away as we please. I hadn't counted on the pyramid being built upside down. This really is like robbing a grave."
It was at about this time, as they were descending a long metal ladder, that they both became aware of lights from below. At first each thought they were seeing an illusion, but there was no mistake because they both commented on it at the same time. They were faint multicolored dots like little fireflies signaling to their mates. Some of the lights blinked in a rhythmic pattern while others flared and pulsed in a seemingly random way, and Alteng was worried about having to solve a difficult puzzle to save their lives should they become entwined in some devious ancient graverobber's snare.
"Beware" he advised Narrinda, "natural lights shouldn't wink in and out like that. I don't like this. There's bound to be a trap somewhere."
Narrinda thought for a minute. "What if the floor has pressure plates? I can go first because I'm lighter and may not activate them, or you can go first just because you're supposed to be the brave one." She cuddled up to him and tried to bat eyelids that she no longer had.
"Or you could go first anyway because, as they say, 'Age before beauty'".
"In which case you'd just be left standing."
Alteng gave a snarl and whipped his sword out, and with irritation swatted her on her bottom, though it was also meant to get her behind him. Narrinda got the hint and scooted beyond his reach.
They began to hear a noise from the depths, something that to Alteng was both pleasantly familiar while at the same time like a memory out of the distant past, for he had not heard it in many days- the slow plunk of dripping water. For the time being he continued to ignore how thirsty he really was and kept his guard up in this strange place. If he had expected to meet an enemy, however, stealth was not an option because not only had they entered the pyramid in a loud uncouth fashion, but Narrinda's continued chattering dispelled the possibility that they could ever have a chance to get the drop on anybody.
Alteng continued on cautiously, with Narrinda pointing forward with her flaming finger to give them light. They wandered from one walkway to the next, down ladders, around corners, sometimes backtracking when they came to bad spots that couldn't be leapt over without risking a fall into the darkness below. The faint chirp of an occasional insect could be heard, which was usually silenced as they passed. One particular type of chirping droned on and on though, much to Alteng's annoyance.
"We've been bumbling about in here for longer than we should, and I'm getting bored" Narrinda whined. "Are we done yet?"
"You'll get your toilette when we reach the bottom" mocked Alteng.
"So have you a clue as to how much of this great treasure there really is?"
"I have my theories, but I won't say any more just yet. But I hope you have some kind of useful magic in you to help make all this gold a lot lighter."
"Aren't you worried about calling down some kind of curse upon yourself?"
"How bad can it be? I already have you."
"I'm not talking about my problems, I mean that you could end up in worse shape than me for robbing a rich dead man's tomb. What if we end up trapped here and never get out?"
"Don't worry, I'll think of something. I always do. But I worry more about marking this place in some way so that we can find it again if we can't take it all with us the first time around."
Narrinda didn't answer for a few seconds. They were both working their way down another ladder, and off to their right the monument to the Black Pharaoh loomed above, cutting off the feeble light of the opening at the top of the chamber. Alteng lowered a leg, and it dipped into what proved to be nearly a foot of cold water which reached about mid-thigh. He took a sniff, then a tentative taste of a few drops from his wet hook, and decided it was safe to drink.
Alteng may have been perfectly happy to play in the water right now, but Narrinda was having none of it. She had no desire to get wet and insisted that Alteng be a gentleman and carry her on his back. He grumbled quite a bit. "It's not like she'll catch a fever" he thought to himself, as he stayed near the ladder so she could climb aboard. Once she had wiggled around enough to get comfortable, she urged him on in the way of a typical backseat driver. Alteng had half a mind to just dump her into the water for sheer meanness, but he resisted the temptation. He figured that she was already cold and dead, she didn't need to be wet too.
"Take us over here, Teng" she ordered. "Let's have a closer look at these lights."
"Alright already, but I still don't like it" Alteng grunted.
There was enough light cast from the many flickering multicolored points to cast dim shadows when they were in close proximity. They had come to the wall of the chamber, and there was what appeared to be a very long table of about twenty feet in length. Built into the top of this table were an innumerable count of various buttons, switches, dials, meters, cables, and levers. To both of them the thought of any ancient civilization possessing the knowledge to construct equipment like this seemed impossible, yet here was the evidence in front of them. That the lights on most of the buttons were blinking proved that the apparatus was still operational, but what was it for? Alteng wondered if there was any more of this kind of gadgetry laying around, and if it wouldn't in fact be more valuable than gold. The first thing Narrinda noticed (other than the lights), was that they were not the only living things down here- numerous beetles and bugs of different sorts, both large and small, roamed over the top of the table, across banks of lights, up and down the wall behind, and some even skated across the water as if it were capped with ice.
"Well," said Alteng, "I found water, and now I have food, so now I think we should find a dry spot and get some rest." He set Narrinda down on top of the table so he could catch a couple of large tasty beetles.
Narrinda fidgeted nervously while Alteng hunted down a large black water bug. "Don't take long, I'm not happy here. I don't like anything that creeps nor crawls, especially lots of them at once."
"They can't hurt you" Alteng reminded her. "Give me a minute, then we can look for a doorway out of here. Just stand there and don't touch anything."
But Narrinda couldn't keep herself from almost dancing on the tabletop to avoid the traffic of various insects that threatened to run across her bare feet. She was yelping and crying for Alteng to hurry and pick her up again. He had to forget about his survival instincts and made to let her climb onto his shoulders. But as she moved to get off the table, she stepped one of the thick rubbery cables that lay coiled across the table's surface. As she stumbled, the cable suddenly came to life. It was at least twice as long as they were tall, and on the end of the large rope-like mass a pair of orange eyes with slightly slitted pupils came into view, and with a blur of speed the cable darted forward. The end widened and two long sharp teeth were seen for just a split second before they struck at Narrinda's femur. There was a sound like a hammer striking a chisel, and the menace recoiled. Alteng didn't even see the attack, for he had his back to the table to allow his wife easy access to his backside, but her scream put him into action. He turned swiftly as the thing darted forward again. He was only halfway around and barely had time to recognize the snake for what it really was, when it struck with lightning accuracy.