Chapter 4: Tomb of the Vile Skull

Burmik burst into the infirmary just after the sun's light began to brighten the sky, with Jonathan close behind him. Kalifra looked up from the herbal mix she was preparing. "Did you feel it?" she asked, her hands trembling.

"Yes. It came, last night," Burmik was shaking as well. "I... Couldn't leave my house last night, it was too terrifying..."

"I could barely understand what Burmik was talking about when I came to see him this morning," Jonathan said. Burmik had sent a magical note to Jonathan requesting that he come to see him at dawn. "Do you know why it was here?"

"It was after someone," Kalifra said, tightly clasping her hands before her in an attempt to stop their shaking. "The fear was so strong, all I could do was cower in my room and hope it would go away..."

"You don't think it was after Zehir, do you?" Jonathan asked apprehensively.

Without another word the three rushed out of the infirmary and sprinted towards Zehir's camp, dreading what they might find when they arrived there. Much to their relief they found that not only was the camp intact, it also seemed to be functioning normally. The only members who were not out stretching or tending to their morning duties were the archmagi and Zehir himself.

Jonathan walked over to Zehir's tent and was about to go in when Zehir himself stepped out and almost bumped into the guardsman. "Oh, Jonathan," Zehir said, looking and sounding very tired.

"Had a bad night?" Jonathan asked, eying the shadows under Zehir's eyes, as well as his general paleness.

"How did you know?" Zehir asked halfheartedly. Not only did he still feel as weary as he did the day before, he also had a mild headache that seemed to be getting worse as the morning wore on. He held the book he had been carrying out to Burmik when he noticed the other wizard, "Thanks for lending it to me. I finished it last night."

Burmik accepted the book. "You were the one it came after, weren't you?" he asked.

Zehir looked around at his three visitors, then sighed. "Let's talk inside, I think I need to sit down." He held the tent flap open for them, and entered himself after they were all inside. With his guests seated in light-weight chairs at various points around the tent, Zehir took the last chair himself and tiredly rested his head in one hand. "So, is there something you forgot to tell me? Again?" he asked tartly. "You never told me that a monster would come after me in my sleep." Perhaps he was being a bit harsh on the people of the oasis, but tiredness had lessened his already short patience.

"This has never happened before," Jonathan cut in before Zehir could say anything else. "We didn't even know there was a monster connected to the Bones. They were always completely inanimate."

"It seems that only those who could use magic felt its presence," Kalifra added, clasping her hands in her lap to keep them from shaking. "My husband didn't even wake when it came, and Jonathan didn't notice it either..."

"You know..." Burmik began, stroking his bushy white beard and knitting his pale brows in thought. "The elementals have been touchy as of late as well. Whenever I ask them, they tell me that "they" woke something up that should've stayed asleep. They refuse to tell me who "they" are, though. I swear, sometimes they're as bad as oracles." The last sentence was a grumble, partly because Burmik was annoyed that the elemtentals might be keeping something from him. "But do you think "they" might be the bandits that've been harassing us lately?"

"It's possible," Jon said. "We need to get rid of them anyway, and if they're the ones causing this magical mess, so much the better once they're dealt with." He looked at Zehir, who seemed the worse for wear due to his headache and tiredness. "Will you be able to come with us?"

"Yeah, let's get it over with," Zehir said, rubbing his forehead with one hand; his headache had intensified as they sat in his tent, and it felt like there was a swarm of angry, painful bees buzzing around inside of his skull. "Just give me something for the headache and we can get going."

Two days of hard riding brought the group to the stands of rocks and cacti that Jonathan had guessed served as the bandit hideout. Half the guard of the oasis was present, along with half of Zehir's archmagi and gremlins; he'd left his golems to guard the oasis in case an attack came while they were away. Throughout the entire trip Zehir's headache remained as a constant dull pain, causing him to be slightly irritable, though he tried to hold his tongue when speaking to anyone else. Upon reaching the border of the stands, the group found obvious signs of activity, confirming Jonathan's suspicion that the bandits had at least been there recently. The sand in front of one of the trails that wound through the cacti and rocks had been thoroughly disturbed recently, and Jonathan carefully scouted ahead to see if they were clear to enter.

When the guardsman returned, his face was grim. "It's clear. Seems we're a bit late," he said.

The group hurriedly followed, with Zehir at the front, to see what Jonathan meant. After winding and twisting for a good many yards, the trail opened up into a clearing. Zehir paled as he fought the urge to vomit at the sight that greeted them; the bodies of dead dark elves littered the clearing, the unrelenting heat of the day causing them to create a stench that was foul enough to make his eyes water. Some had been ripped limb from limb, while others lay in odd positions, their backs or necks twisted and broken.

"Dragon of Light..." one of the guards muttered as he looked upon the clearing. "When do you reckon this happened, Jon?"

Jon grimaced with disgust as he knelt down next to one of the bodies and examined it. "By the degree of decay, I'd say roughly two days ago," he replied.

"There were prisoners," another guard said, striding towards the southern trail that led away from the clearing and pointing at the prominent drag marks that ran through the loose sand.

"Missing villagers?" Zehir suggested, having overcome his urge to be violently sick from what he saw, though the act of suppressing it only made his current headache worse.

"Let's check for survivors," Jonathan said, getting back up. "They may have escaped during the battle, one group per trail." He pointed at the three unexplored trails that led out of the clearing, one to the south, one northwest, and the last to the east.

Their group split, with Zehir and a small group taking on the eastern trail. The path eventually opened up into a smaller clearing that lacked the horrific gore that the first clearing had been filled with. Here the sand was merely slightly disturbed, and there were no other paths leading away from the area. Zehir was about to enter the clearing when a shadow rose from the shelter of the scrub on the far side and darted at him, shoving him into the dense cluster of cacti that he was standing next to.

Zehir let out a yell of fury as he pulled himself out of the thorns and cast about, trying to find whoever was responsible for shoving him into the wretched pointy plants yet again. His eyes narrowed when he spotted the dark elf who had tried to escape by shoving past him, only to be stopped by the fact that Zehir's companions had the trail completely blocked off. "I am so close to blowing you up right now it's not even funny," Zehir snarled, his voice tight over the pain of the cactus thorns that now covered the left side of his body. "You'd better have a damn good reason for pushing me into those wretched plants."

The dark elf—a tall blue-haired female dressed in uncommonly modest clothes for one of her kind—blinked at Zehir, and he noticed that her eyes were cerulean blue, with plainly visible pupils. "Thought you lot were a group of mummies, back to finish the job," she said plainly. "They killed or dragged off everyone else."

"Oh, so you're one of the bandits," Zehir said, walking over to the dark elf. Without warning, he pushed her into a nearby stand of cacti. "And now we'll take you back to Jonathan."

"Lord Zehir! That was completely unnecessary!" one of the archmagi cried as another helped the dark elf out of the cacti that she had fallen into.

"She started it, and I'm in a bad mood," Zehir muttered dangerously, glaring at the archmage.

"It was still awfully petty," the older wizard nagged.

Instead of replying verbally, Zehir scowled, plucked out a particularly annoying thorn that was lodged in his left temple, and stiffly flicked it at the archmage's head. The spine harmlessly bounced off the archmage's turban and fell to the ground. The old wizard sighed through his nose and rolled his eyes, then followed the group as it led the dark elf to the main clearing to wait for Jonathan.

The other search parties returned to the main clearing empty-handed, and were surprised to find Zehir's group surrounding a dark elf woman, with Zehir himself grumbling to himself in the back and pulling cactus spines off the left side of his body; somehow the dark elf had escaped her encounter with the cacti with very few thorns, probably due to the nimbleness that most dark elves were known to possess.

"Cactus again, Zehir?" Jonathan asked, rubbing the back of his head as he looked at the young mage. "How'd you fall in them this time?"

Zehir scowled and wordlessly jerked a thumb at the dark elf, then continued removing the cactus spines; anger had made his headache even worse, on top of the intense stinging caused by the cactus spines. She stood calmly in the center of Zehir's group, having pulled out the few thorns that stuck to her on the way to the main clearing. A slight, disgusted wrinkle of her nose was the only sign she gave of noticing the carnage that littered the clearing. She sighed. "His group startled me and I knocked him into them while I was trying to escape," she explained.

"So why haven't you run off now?" Jonathan asked. "The eastern trail is completely clear." Zehir glanced at Jonathan, unsure of what the guardsman was suggesting.

The dark elf shrugged. "It's nice to have some living company," she said, gesturing to the group that surrounded her. "Perhaps a chance to kill off the undead that made life so difficult..."

"Ah, problem with that is, you're part of the bandit group that's been bothering the oasis lately," Jonathan said, crossing his arms over his chest. "We can't trust you. In fact I'm pretty sure that Zehir over there would blast you to kingdom come at the first opportunity," he added, pointing at Zehir.

Clearly hearing Zehir's name for the first time caused the dark elf to pause. "Zehir? First of the Circle from the Silver Cities?" she asked.

"The very same," Zehir grumbled, removing a thorn that had lodged itself in the membrane between two of his fingers.

An expression of relief briefly passed over the elf's face. "Then you know Ylaya, she can vouch for me."

"Really? It worries me to hear that Ylaya is supporting bandits who prey on Ygg-Chall's allies now," Zehir said coldly, not bothering to look at the dark elf and instead checking his left hand to see if he missed any thorns. "Doesn't sound like her at all."

The dark elf sighed; it was obvious that Zehir was going to continue being difficult with the mood he was in. "I'm one of her agents. Contact her, tell her that Kylara is reporting in. My mission's pretty much over now that this group is dead."

Zehir left off checking his lower left arm for cactus spines and pulled out his scrying mirror again, rolling his eyes as he did; with it he would be able to talk to Ylaya if she was near a reflective surface, or alert her to Zehir's call if she wasn't. Since Ylaya was a friend and Zehir knew her fairly well, he didn't need a piece of her to focus his spell. His dark brows furrowed with worry when the mirror revealed nothing but a gray fog. "That's odd," Zehir said, his foul attitude having been temporarily dissolved by the discovery. "I should be able to reach her easily."

Kylara clenched her hands with worry as she looked over Zehir's shoulder at the small round mirror; she had moved over to watch while he was focusing on the spell. She was a few inches taller than him, to his added annoyance. "Is she alright? Can you tell?"

Her tone suggested that she was genuinely concerned for Ylaya's well-being, though Zehir didn't trust her completely just yet. "No, I can't. This has never really happened before," he said.

With a sigh the dark elf walked back to where she'd been standing before, the long braid of her hair swinging back and forth with her gait. Jonathan had been watching the events silently, and now he raised his eyebrows. "What do you think, Zehir?" he asked. "Should we tie her up or let her come with us?"

Zehir glanced at Kylara, then he looked back to Jonathan and shrugged. "We can always capture her if she tries to run," he said. "What can you tell us about what went on here?" Zehir asked, gesturing at the bodies.

"A big group of mummies showed up, tried to drag the prisoners away," she held up her hands when Jonathan scowled at her. "The prisoners weren't my idea. I tried to dissuade them from taking them, and if I'd protested too much they would have gotten suspicious," Kylara explained. "The leader of our group had been carrying around this... Weird medallion made of crystal, I swear that's what made him start acting strange, ever since he took it from that damn pyramid—"

"Pyramid?" Zehir interrupted, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "What did it look like?"

"Big, pointy, made of blue and white stone, with a courtyard," she said, waving a hand dismissively. She frowned when she noticed how pale Zehir had become. "What's wrong?"

"Ah, just a bad feeling," Zehir said.

Kylara eyed the wizard for a moment, then shook her head and continued from where she'd left off. "Our leader actually went with the mummies willingly, along with around half of the others. The rest fought the undead... You can see how well that turned out for them," she gestured at the nearest corpse.

"And you can take us to the pyramid?" Jonathan asked.

"Yes. I followed them for about a day before I saw it again, it's definitely the place they were headed to," Kylara replied, nodding. "It's about two days south of here."

"Could be a trap..." one of the guardsmen murmured, with a rumble of agreement running through the rest in the crowd.

Jonathan nodded. "Could be, but we need to rescue those people. There are ten of them missing right now, and I suspect that all of them are prisoners of the undead now," he glanced at Kylara as he said this, as if asking her whether the count was correct, and the dark elf nodded; the bandits had brought in ten hostages altogether, and they had all been taken by the mummies. "Well, Zehir?" Jonathan asked, glancing at the young wizard, who had finished cleaning the thorns off himself and was tiredly running his fingers through his hair. "You still up to it?"

"Of course," Zehir said, looking up at the rest of the group. "If anything, I need to pay that monster back for giving me this wretched headache, and I have a very strong feeling that it will be waiting in that pyramid." He sighed and looked around at the corpses littering the clearing. "But first we need to clean this up, it feels wrong to just leave them sitting out in the open for anything to pick up."

Jonathan looked like he couldn't disagree more with Zehir on that fact, since the bandits had been harassing his home for weeks, but he assisted in digging the graves and settling the corpses into them anyway. The clearing looked much nicer after they finished, though it was still covered in dried puddles of blood. After they finished Jonathan shaded his eyes, looking to the west as the sun made the final leg of its journey across the bleached blue sky. "We'll set up camp here for the night, there's another large clearing farther north that we can get our mounts into," he said.

Silently the group filed out of the clearing and walked back to the entrance, where they'd left their mounts. The guard that had been keeping watch gave a short wave and assisted in untying the leads. Kylara craned her neck, looking around the dunes and cacti, then put two fingers to her mouth and whistled loudly. The rectangular head of a large blue raptor popped up above a nearby grove of cacti, and the beast pulled itself from its hiding place before trotting over to nuzzle its master.

"Ty, did you miss me?" she cooed to him as she scratched the crease between his neck and jaw. The raptor grumbled in pleasure and relief, then crouched to allow her to mount more easily. "Good boy," Kylara said, gently scratching his neck. The large reptile had hidden itself away with all its gear on, and Kylara was ready to go as soon as the group moved out.

The members of the group went about various activities once they'd set up camp, some sharpening weapons, others napping after such a tiresome day. Zehir sat outside his small tent, the scrying mirror held in his lap, and tried to contact Ylaya again. He tried this until it made his headache worse, at which point he sighed and tucked the mirror away before entering his tent to turn in early.

Little did Zehir know, there had been a lone spectator watching his attempts throughout the evening. Kylara leaned back against Ty's scaly flank and drummed her fingers against her kneecap. It disturbed her greatly that Ylaya could not be reached, and she wondered—not for the first time—if something awful had happened to the Keeper of Law. She looked up when Jonathan approached her.

"Something wrong?" he asked nonchalantly.

Kylara shrugged. "Ylaya used to talk about Zehir, I didn't expect him to be such a grouch," she said, half-joking with her reply.

Jonathan waved a hand dismissively. "He's had a nasty headache for a few days now, so he's been short with everyone lately. Zehir's a nice fellow, once you get to know him. And once his headache's gone." Jonathan chuckled. "The sooner we fix this mess the sooner he'll feel better."

Earlier that same day...

Burmik woke to the sound of large boulders thumping the grassy ground just outside his front door; the earth elementals were on the move for some reason. He hurriedly pulled on a coat, tripped into a pair of slippers, and ran outside to see what all the fuss was about. Dozens of elementals of all kinds flowed from the elemental conflux and split evenly as they approached the central lake of the oasis, one headed north, and the other south. Once they reached the southern and northern entrances of Tajra Oasis, the elemental beings formed up in a defensive line and stood waiting.

A low rumble was now barely audible in the quiet morning air; the birds had stopped singing. Burmik, rightfully guessing that something horrible was coming towards the oasis, ran to rouse his fellow wizards and any able-bodied fighters that were left in the village. Soon all battle-ready residents had congregated around Tajra Lake, preparing for the worst as Burmik scaled one of the paths leading to the eastern plateau-top. The view that greeted him once he reached his vantage point made his stomach twist in fear.

Several hundred mummies approached the oasis at a shuffling jog, followed by something that moved under the sand like a fish just below the surface of the water. He turned to go back and tell the others of what he saw, and was surprised to find a fire elemental smoldering just behind him. Carefully it slipped past him to take up an offensive position near the edge of the cliff, where it would be able to rain fire down on any mummies that attempted to scale the small mountain. A quick glance along the plateau revealed that other fire elementals were doing the same, readying themselves for the coming assault.

"I whill take you to the grhound," an air elemental that had appeared before Burmik whispered in a voice that sounded like a light breeze.

"Uh, alright," Burmik said hesitantly; he'd never flown anywhere by elemental before.

Luckily the elemental was completely serious in getting Burmik to the ground safely, and soon his feet rested on the cool grass of the oasis once again. He ran over to the group of humans gathered near Tajra Lake. "There's a massive horde of mummies coming this way," he said breathlessly as he reached them.

Expressions of fear and apprehension appeared on the faces of the villagers. They left off wondering about their fate when Grittchit arrived with every one of Zehir's golems in tow, as the wizard had left the gremlin in charge of caring for them and directing them in case of an emergency such as this one. "I'm sending these to reinforce the elemental lines," he said before waving his instructions to the golems, who immediately broke off to assist the elementals.

Within minutes the mummies reached the entrances to the oasis and threw themselves at the defenses, smashing against the front line of earth elementals while the fire, water, and air beings behind them attempted to pick off the attackers before they could break through. One by one the earth elementals fell as the mummies focused on them, temporarily banishing their physical forms back to the elemental plane of earth. The undead then began to make short work of the remaining elementals as Zehir's golems slashed through their seemingly endless numbers with their blades.

The northern lines broke first, and mummies flooded past the struggling elementals to attack the people of the oasis. Soon after this, the southern line broke as well, and soon the entire oasis was overrun with undead. Burmik and Korjev stood back to back, firing off spell after spell as the mummies advanced on them.

A small girl's shrill scream cut through the air, followed by what sounded like a huge explosion. The two wizards watched in amazement as something sent several dozen mummies flying through the air, causing them to crumble into dust as they struck the ground. Seconds later a hulking mass of rock appeared behind the undead that assaulted the two men, and a huge stone fist made short work of clearing them out.

Burmik gaped at the huge being standing before him. "A grand elemental!" he shouted in disbelief. Such beings were only theorized about, even in the higher circles of the Silver Cities, as the spells and knowledge required to summon them had been lost during a war long ago.

Tulia grinned gleefully at her teacher from her perch the elemental's shoulder. "Rocky saved me!" she shouted happily, doing her best to hug Rocky's massive head.

"How..." Burmik began, but he stopped himself; explanations would have to wait until after the battle was over.

The mummies' forces dwindled as the fighting wore on, until midday when an unearthly shriek split the skies over the oasis. Humanoids and elementals alike flinched at the awful sound, while the undead paused in their attack and abruptly pulled back, taking captured villagers with them. The retreating undead left the oasis with surprising speed, even as the village's remaining forces attacked and destroyed them from behind. Soon the only remaining evidence of the battle were the piles of dust from destroyed mummies and magical scorch marks and craters that had been caused by the wizards' spells as they fought.

Wearily the villagers took stock of their numbers; twenty of their number had been carried off by the mummies, and none were dead. Tulia sobbed quietly as both her father and Rocky tried to give her comfort; her mother had been one of the residents that the mummies had carried off.

Burmik's hands shook with exhaustion as he helped to prepare healing salves for the minor injuries that several villagers had sustained during the fight. Kalifra had been kidnapped by the undead as well, leaving the less-skilled healers to tend to the people of the oasis. All they could do at this point was bandage people up and hope that the mummies wouldn't come back, and that Jonathan and the others would be able to rescue those who had been carried off.

Once all the villagers were seen to, Burmik's curiosity drove him to approach the grand earth elemental, who was now standing sentry outside of Tulia's house; the girl's father had put her to bed early that night, with the hope that she would be able to sleep. "Hello," he said uncertainly as he approached the massive being.

The grand elemental's glowing stone eyes fixed themselves on him. "You are going to ask how Tulia summoned me," he said plainly, with a deep voice that bore the sounds of grating boulders with it.

"Oh, well... Yes, I was," Burmik said truthfully.

"We do not come when called. Only when asked." The elemental rumbled quietly, then looked away; it would say no more.

Another two days of travel brought them within sight of the pyramid, which Zehir watched with no small amount of apprehension. Along the way Kylara had revealed that the bandit group responsible for the current mess had been under suspicion by Ylaya for quite some time, and the Keeper had sent Kylara to keep an eye on them. Unfortunately spying on the group had not been enough to keep them away from the tomb, and she also revealed that there was an even larger group that the troublemakers had originally split from.

As the party drew within a few miles of the structure, Jonathan called their attention to a quickly-approaching dust cloud that came from the west. The guardsman paled visibly as he looked at it through his spyglass.

"They're mummies," Jonathan said quietly.

Zehir muttered a sight spell that would allow him to see farther into the distance in order to confirm what Jonathan had spotted. Dozens of mummies ran over the dunes, some carrying bound and gagged prisoners over their shoulders. "They must have attacked the oasis while we were away," the young wizard said in dismay. "We can't let them get to the pyramid!" Zehir didn't know why he said this, but for some reason he had a hunch that things would take a turn for the worst if the prisoners were taken into the building before the mummies could be stopped.

Jonathan led the group in a hasty march, quickly eating up the last few miles of their journey and engaging the mummies in the courtyard of the pyramid itself. Zehir blasted the undead with fire spells while his elephant trampled any who came near into dust; though they rarely fought enemies at close range, each mount had been trained from an early age to protect its master in combat. Kylara leaped from the back of her raptor soon after they entered the fray, in order to put the knives that she had drawn from within her folds of clothing to better use. Ty fought alongside his master, ramming mummies into the sand and slashing at them with his sharp claws.

A few mummies carrying prisoners managed to make it into the pyramid during the confusion, and Zehir looked up from the enemies that he was currently setting aflame in time to see the last of them disappear inside the vast structure. He cast about, trying to find anyone close enough to signal to come with him, but he had been separated from the main part of the group in the heat of battle; the closest combatant was Kylara, and she was far out of earshot at this point. Zehir knew that something truly awful awaited the prisoners inside, but he hesitated after quickly guiding his elephant over to the entrance. Despite his apprehension, Zehir jumped down from his saddle and dashed inside, hoping to get to the villagers before something else did.

Kylara glanced towards the pyramid—checking to see if there were any more enemies in that direction—and spotted a flash of golden fabric as Zehir entered the shadows of the entrance, leaving his elephant to guard the door against any mummies that might try to enter after him. Without a moment's hesitation, the dark elf sprinted after him, whistling for her raptor to follow. Ty took up a guard position on the front archway as Kylara dashed after Zehir, hoping to catch up soon enough to give him some solid backup in case of a fight. Tracking Zehir was easy enough, since there were no side passages of any sort running off the main hall and he left quite a few incinerated mummies in his wake, and soon Kylara found herself in a massive room, the farthest reaches of which were obscured by shadow. Zehir stood frozen just inside the room, as if he had been trapped within an invisible block of ice. He had been caught in the act of taking a step back, seemingly because he had set his eyes on the horrible object that occupied the center of the room; a massive dragon skull. She stood and stared at the skull for a few moments, then turned to Zehir when it did nothing.

"Zehir?" Kylara asked, waving a hand in front of the young wizard's eyes. She frowned in annoyance when this produced no reaction, and took a few brief moments to examine Zehir more closely; now she could see that every muscle in his body was tense, throwing his bare neck and hands into especially sharp detail, and that he seemed to be breathing very little. "Zehir!" the dark elf snapped, this time placing herself squarely between Zehir's staring eyes and the skull. Now she jammed her thumb into a sensitive place between two of his ribs, hoping to get a reaction from him as a result of the pain.

Much to Kylara's relief—and brief amusement—Zehir's previously tense expression turned to one of comical agony as he tried to flinch away from her hand. This sudden movement caused him to lose his balance and fall to the floor, stirring up dust that had collected there over the years. "Ow..." he said, wincing as he rubbed the area that Kylara had hit.

"You were stuck," Kylara said, offering Zehir a hand up.

The wizard took it and allowed her to help him stand. "Thanks. It was trying to get me again," Zehir said, carefully avoiding the skull with his eyes. "It gets you when you look at it directly. Wait, don't!" he tried to grab her before she looked over her shoulder at the skull again, but she seemed immune to its terrible power.

"I looked at it earlier and nothing happened. Maybe it's because you use magic," she suggested. Further inspection of the room revealed the villagers that they had come after; some huddled together in fear while others stared blankly at the skull.

Zehir followed her gaze and noticed the prisoners as well, noting that those who were staring at the skull wore the clothes of wizards or healers. "I think you're right. Now we need to figure out how to get all these people out of here before any minions show up," he said, using a hand to shield his eyes from the skull as he jogged over to the villagers with Kylara.

One of the captive men jumped to his feet as they approached. "You came for us!" he said, obviously relieved by the sight of them. Upon hearing this, those who were not staring at the skull rose as well, murmuring thankful prayers or phrases of relief.

"Is anyone hurt?" Zehir asked, glancing quickly over the assembled villagers; they all seemed to be physically unharmed.

"We're fine, but they won't stop staring at that thing! I can't get Kalifra to move at all!" one of the women said in dismay, shaking the blank-faced healer's shoulders to prove her point. "They don't react to anything, even pain."

"It must have overwhelmed them already," Zehir said, thinking quickly. "Let's try removing them from the chamber and see if that helps."

The group moved toward the doorway, only to find that it was now blocked by an invisible wall of some sort. The prisoners began to panic, each wondering if they would ever escape this nightmare, while Zehir tried to find where the blocking spell was rooted. He tensed when he felt the power in the room shift, as if the monster were watching them closely.

"Kylara, help me," Zehir said, beckoning for the dark elf to come with him. "I need to find the focus for the blocking spell before that thing takes us all."

"Right," Kylara said, attempting to calm the prisoners one last time before going to Zehir. "What do you want me to do?"

"Just keep me from looking at it while I work," Zehir replied, turning to the heavily engraved walls and scanning them for traces of magic. He squinted as he looked further down the wall, having noticed an oddly-shaped patch of shadow on the ground. Kylara matched Zehir stride for stride as he hurried to the strange shadow, and showed some brief shock when she realized what it was.

The body of a dark elf warlock lay on the ground, clutching the chain of a strange crystalline amulet in his right hand. "That's our group leader," Kylara said quietly, reaching down to pick up the amulet.

"Wait," Zehir said quickly, seizing her hand with a surprisingly strong grip before she could touch the object. "That thing's part of the skull, don't touch it."

Kylara drew back as Zehir released her hand, relieved that he had told her that before she had a chance to touch the artifact. Instead she touched her hand to a strange black soot that covered the surrounding tile in intricate patterns and symbols. "A magic circle?" she mused.

The pair stood back to examine the patterns from a better angle, and Zehir paled as he realized what it was for. "That artifact allowed the skull to take him. He sacrificed himself to it, and removed some special bindings that were on it..." he said. "That's why it's able to keep us from leaving now, but if I can reverse the spell we should be able to get out..." Zehir knelt beside the blackened magic circle while Kylara positioned herself between him and the skull. After a few minutes of study the young wizard nodded and stood. "I can remove the barrier and free the villagers from here, the rest I can do once we're out."

"Good. Hurry up," Kylara said, shivering. Even she could feel the wrongness of the place now, as if the monster at the room's center was constantly growing stronger. She glanced at the prisoners near the exit every now and then, to make sure that they were still safe; they seemed fearful about their predicament, but they were still relatively unhurt.

Zehir quickly drew up a simpler magic circle—with Kylara mirroring his movements to keep the Skull out of his view—and stood at its center, focusing his magic as he performed the spell. One of the villagers yelped as her hand fell through the doorway—she had been pressing against the invisible barrier at that moment. Those who had been mesmerized by the skull shook their heads and blinked, their trance finally broken by Zehir's spell. "Alright, let's get out of here," Zehir said finally, after breaking the circle by rubbing his shoe over part of its perimeter.

The air in the chamber became heavy with anger as Zehir and Kylara followed the villagers out, and the young wizard noticed the monster coiling for one last strike just before its attack hit him. Zehir stumbled in mid-stride and fell forward, bruising his knees and hands as he caught himself before his face could hit the floor. He gritted his teeth in pain when the skull began to consume his magic, and he knew that it would begin feeding on his very life if he didn't shake it off soon. Kylara helped Zehir to his feet and half-carried him towards the exit as the wizard fought the monster off, forcing it back out of his head before it could devour him from the inside. A crazed howl rang through the pyramid as the monster's power fell away from Zehir, leaving a series of broken emotions and memories behind.

Blinding sunlight greeted the pair as they staggered out of the pyramid, Kylara still supporting Zehir as he tried to recover from the monster's last attack. Finally the young wizard managed to get his legs under control and walked the rest of the way to his elephant, waving Jonathan and Kalifra away as they came to help him. He'd seen the monster's intent when it invaded his mind that last time, and he had to finish the binding before it could get loose again—the fact that he now knew that it could feed off of souls and magic strengthened his resolve. Zehir's elephant trumpeted a greeting to his rider as the wizard approached, then lowered himself and offered a bent leg to help Zehir climb onto his back. "Come on, you can't be near the pyramid when I finish this," Zehir said, motioning for the group to follow him to the top of the nearest massive dune.

Once he had reached the dune's summit and ensured that everyone was well away from the pyramid, Zehir gathered the last remnants of his power and completed his spell, slamming his open palm into the sand before him to punctuate his will with action. People staggered as the ground shook, and they stared in awe as the pyramid and its courtyard began to sink beneath the desert sands. Within minutes there was nothing left of the tomb, with only the recently-stirred sand to show that there had ever been anything there at all. If you have even the tiniest ounce of compassion left, you'll stay buried beneath the sands, Zehir thought as his body sagged from the overexertion required to use such a powerful spell. He had reestablished the bindings that had previously held the creature captive, and sank the pyramid to keep people like Kylara's late group leader from allowing the monster to come unbound again.

Zehir distantly heard the soft rustle of Kalifra's skirts as she came near him. "Burnout. I'd think you of all people would know better..." he lost consciousness before he could hear the rest of the healer's lecture. Looking back on the memories he'd glimpsed from the monster, Zehir could only wonder at how a creature could be twisted and broken in such a way that there was nothing left afterward but insanity and vicious malice.