Yseult Shadowrun – Dust of Ages Part I

    The crypt-city had been a fascinating discovery; older than the dawn of history, filled with the bones of a winged, saurian, race unknown to science, it’s ancient magics once more vital – and deadly – with the rise of a new age of magic, and buried a thousand feet below a small temple in the mountains of Egypt.

   She had barely escaped with her life. It was a damned good thing that a high-end party of shadowrunners had owed her some big favors, or whatever-the-hell it had been that had risen from the vault would be ravaging it’s way along the Nile right now.

   How the hell had a simple little missing-persons tracing job turned into such a mess? Even if the missing person was a magician? It wasn’t like being hired by a missing person’s relatives was much of a red flag…

   It’d been easy enough initially. It had taken a lot of computer power – but the transaction records had traced Hitoshi to Madagascar. A visit there had revealed that he’d shown up with a lot of odd scrolls in an unknown language, then acquired a small yacht, had stocked it for a long trip – and had dropped off the network, leaving one of the biggest collections of dead ends she’d ever seen.

   Well, the boy’s sister had been paying expenses and a generous retainer, so she’d started looking into the scrolls. Who knew? If she could find out something about what was in them, it might tell her where Hitoshi had slipped off to.

   Hitoshi had been working in Egypt under a standard licence from the Department of Antiquities – which he’d obviously cheated on – and his last stop had been a small temple, well-explored and notable for nothing except some unusual inscriptions. She’d gone to have a look just in case – and had found out that there Hitoshi had somehow unsealed a pre-human crypt buried beneath the old temple, waltzed in, extracted a dozen specific scrolls from the place’s library, and – with no major magical beings along to trigger the places defenses (apparently his pet shapeshifter-fox wasn’t powerful enough to matter) – had simply waltzed right back out again, slipped across the border, and headed for Madagascar.

   Yseult considered abandoning the chase; she’d barely gotten out of that crypt with her life. Still, the bonus for actually finding Hitoshi was pretty good – and, now that she was thinking about it, there might be quite a bit of profit in that crypt beyond the artifacts, scrolls, and orichalcum that she’d managed to slip off with. She wasn’t going back herself – you couldn’t spend your rewards if you were dead – but the information on the location might be worth quite a bit.

   She decided to trace him Hitoshi back for a bit. Perhaps she could find out what those scrolls were supposed to be – and there might be more salable secrets to uncover along the route.

   First up… She didn’t need to be hauling ancient artifacts around Egypt, and it would be best to auction off the location of that rather remarkable crypt to parties that might be interested, rich enough to afford the information, and capable of handling the place… Would it be better to throw in the antiquities – other than the easily-saleable orichalcum bars – as a package deal? Physical evidence was always better than photos.

   Hm. If she took all due precautions to set things up anonymously, she should be able to give it three or four weeks without any serious risk of someone else locating the place before the sale or sorting out her real identity. Images, of the crypt, of some of the pre-human writing, and of the artifact-samples, a general description of the traces of exotic magic that her companion had been able to make out, and some information on her own discoveries there.

   That should be more than enough bait – especially if she managed to attract the attention of a dragon. There was always the risk that one of her companions would leak the data – but she could probably get them to keep quiet easily enough. Hopefully they wouldn’t leak after the sale either; no one was impossible to find, and she’d get the best price using one of her identities that was known for reliability – and that was a pretty valuable asset in itself.

   She left that to run and got to work.

   According to the Department of Antiquities – who’s data security was not all it should be – Hitoshi had visited a modest, and long-abandoned, dig in the mountains just before the crypt. Ergo, he had probably found something there that had pointed him to the crypt – and perhaps had told him what to look for in it. Before that it had been a minor – and very well explored – temple near the great sphinx and the lower levels (requiring special permission) of the tomb of Ramesses the Great.

   She decided to start with the dig in the mountains – and this time to let a few of her friends know where she was going and to leave instructions to send in the authorities if she was out of contact for sixty hours. Loss of data security was less important than the loss of her life…

   She took supplies too. No more “trapped in an ancient crypt for four days with nothing to eat!”.

   The mountain dig had reported hieroglyphics in an unusual style, but rather fragmentary and very badly worn. Due to danger from local awakened creatures – and the lack of anything all that exciting that could be made of the fragments – the dig was abandoned. If she was going to poke around there legally she’d need a license.

   She got one; if she did need the authorities to rescue her, there was no need to set herself up to be arrested afterwards. That would mean that she’d have to turn over any major finds to the Egyptian government and keep records – but she wasn’t planning on any major digging anyway. The chances were that if she did find anything, it wouldn’t be in what they’d call the dig anyway…

   It wasn’t too long a trip, even if the tail end was a half a days hike into the mountains – but the site was singularly unimpressive. The granite shards were very old and weathered, but there was something wrong about it…

   Ah. She still had that high-end geology skill program loaded – and it was saying that the stone was a deep-growth granite: the crystal sizes were notably larger than wis typical for the area. That indicated that it had come from a formation that cooled very slowly. There were thousands of tons of rock here that didn’t belong in the area. It was all granite of course – so the archeologists probably wouldn’t have noticed – but why would ANYONE haul thousands of tons of granite up into the mountains when there was perfectly good granite all around them? It wasn’t like there was anything special about the stuff. It seemed to be just granite. It would have spent a very long time very hot and deep in the earth – but that would have been millions of years ago.

   That was life. No matter how well equipped you were, you never had the gadgets you turned out to need along.

   Yseult headed back to pick up a high-end geological test kit. She’d never had to put something like THAT on her expense record before…

   One trip and several thousand nuyen later, Yseult had a rock hammer, reference chips, a selection of test reagents, mohrs scale test stones, a flame tester kit, a grinder, a spectral analyzer, a microscope, UV lights in several frequencies, a density tester, a radiation meter, various minor photographic systems, some good magnifying lenses, and various other bits and pieces. If she needed electron microscope scans, crystal micrograph comparisons, or gem synthesis she’d just have to rent a lab. That kind of gear wasn’t too portable.

   She’d turned down the prospectors guides though. That wasn’t what she was after…

   She went to work on the granite. It was rich in feldspar, and matched with a section of the alps – but the radioactivity dating was oddly skewed. More radioactive than it should be, and yet it still showed as many millions of years older than the main mass in the alps that it matched by composition and crystal structure.

   Either a lot of magic or someone had taken the damned stuff time traveling – and she wasn’t going for that one until there was NO other explanation possible.

   Digging a bit turned up quite a few small chunks – but it didn’t look like normal weathering. The stratigraphy suggested anywhere from eight to twenty millennia: there wasn’t much to go by in a heap of rocks.

   She went looking for larger piles and pieces that looked like they were more intact. There were quite a few boulders, and when she started prying some up (thank goodness for cyborg strength!), some of them seemed to have oddly-smoothed undersides – although a lot of he others were just hunks.

   Hm… a roughly oblong pattern: possibly the remains of a really large chunk of material which had been shattered by a massive impact. What would do that thousands of years ago – much less haul thousands of tons of granite here and do it – was a very good question!

   Well, several piles of rubble near the dig had been cleared a bit judging from the color of the rocks where the darker undersides had been turned up. Some might have been refilled as well.

   So she was going to be digging after all!

   One massive chunk was oddly light; it turned out to be curved so that it was mostly hollow – and it seemed to be laying over a mostly-intact skeleton. A winged quasi-human and recently familiar, she’d seen quite a lot of those quite recently, down in the crypt. Well outside the limits of the original dig though – although not of the more recent poking around. No apparent magical symbols – but there were a few bits of metal, the signs of something long and thin having been recently pried out of the ground, a few recently disturbed bones, and some small canine paw prints – almost certainly Hitoshi’s shapeshifter companion.

   Something long, thin, and probably magical, since it had apparently drawn the attention of a mage and his shapeshifter-pet through the covering of stone. Another magical spear? There had been enough of those down in the crypt.

   Wait, hadn’t they been designed to draw power from the crypt? That would require some sort of astral link. It might explain how Hitoshi had found the crypt – but for that kind of investigation she’d need a magician of her own.

   With perhaps ten thousand tons of chunks laying about, there were plenty of other places to have a look. There were even other hollows… one had a bit of old wood under it, another a splintered mass of crystal – and the crystal had been, once again, disturbed by a small canine which had managed to get underneath without superhuman strength.

   Now she found herself wishing for seismic surveying equipment – sensors, the special-purpose computer, and the explosive systems.

   And a mage.

   In fact, more importantly a mage. Hitoshi was a mage, and he’d obviously found more than this. In fact, it looked like he’d dug up five or six other locations, although there was nothing remarkable about them that was apparent to her – and the hole sizes seemed to be fairly random. More traces of magic perhaps?

   Well, she’d never tried to work her way through a puzzle that might be twenty millennia old before, and it was proving a unique challenge. As long as Hitoshi’s sister was willing to pay and the clues held out, she’d keep on digging.

   So; back to inform the Egyptian government that she had indeed found something kind of odd at the dig site – that the granite was the wrong type – and to ask for an official ruling on whether or not items found outside the dig site and clearly not Egyptian in origin had to be handed over. Sadly, that was a definite “yes” (they’d do the evaluating and decide what was really Egyptian, thank you) – but another skeleton wouldn’t have been a very big addition to her little auction anyway (which already seemed likely to turn a pretty good profit). Secondarily, she could reset the countdown on her little emergency alarms…

   So. Mage or trained paranormal animal?

   She came down on the side of “Mage”. Trained nonsapient paranormals were too limited, unreliable, and expansive – and the sapient ones had all the disadvantages of a full mage and few of the advantages.

   So; yet another trip. Fortunately, it would probably be years before the government followed up on her report; she’d reported finding a strange skeleton and a lot of apparently out-of-place granite – and it would go on the list of weird amateur reports along with hundreds of others.

   Hell. She could get some academic credit (which would be a definite first for her) AND perhaps boost the auction price too! She got a good picture of the skeleton published in a reputable news source. That might draw additional investigation in a few months – but by then she’d be long gone and the auction would be over anyway.

   She hired one “Kepikhait”; he seemed competent enough – and her expense report acquired yet another odd item.

   All of the alpine granite showed traces of very old magic, and so did the mass of splintered crystal. The areas where recent holes had been dug mostly didn’t – and, in the two that did, the magic seemed to be coming from a scattering of crystal splinters (just like in the crypt again) and was pretty far gone. One area showed more magic, but getting to it would take some major digging. There were a few bits of human bone here and there as well, although they were badly smashed.

   Hm. Move a couple of hundred tons of rock, or look around some more. She could do it – but it would take a couple of days and would be a real pain.

   She decided to look around some more first.

   Sadly, the area was granite, not limestone: no cave networks, just areas where block-slippage had opened cracks and crevices. None of them were very deep, although she did turn up one with enough room to for a few people to get out of the sun. That one showed some traces of corroded metal, very old broken glass, and some shards of crystal. Of course, she only found those shards because she’d brought along a mage; the crystal showed magical traces, but it had been under five or six inches of compacted windblown dust. Centuries old at the least, and possibly dating back as far as the rest of the mess.

   The registry didn’t show much in the way of nearby temple locations either. There was a small fort that had once guarded a pass, an old quarrying operation, the inscribed stone slab that originally started the dig here, and a bunch of stuff closer to the Nile. None of the other sites matched the small temple that the crypt had been under, although there might be something similar near the fort but not yet found. That area was pretty rough.

   Well, the slab was handy to have a look at. It was really badly worn though: the few traces left were pretty much illegible… At least to her, however, the one or two symbols that could be made out looked more like the lizard-peoples picture from the crypt than classical hieroglyphics. The slab itself was of the local stone, but it had been intentionally smoothed on one side and set up on another slab. Quite near the pile of foreign rock, but not on top of it.

   Well, moving the slab without further damaging it was also within her strength – and it had already fallen from it’s original position anyway.

   Back upright, and in it’s original position, it looked rather like a marker to her.

  Moving both slabs revealed a small collection of human skulls, very old, fragile, and already half-crushed. The slab wasn’t indented – there had just been an area scooped out under it, which had apparently been filled long ago by soil creep, and the crushing might just be due to settling.

   A grave marker? Why just skulls? Marking the scene of some triumph or victory? Perhaps against some giant construct? But skulls alone… That sort of thing was usually for enemies. Two groups then, with humans on the losing side, probably against the winged things. But why the stone?

   No choice. She was just going to have to do some serious digging. Perhaps fortunately, Hitoshi had been more of a social specialist than an earthmover; whatever was down there probably hadn’t been disturbed since whatever had happened – and it had to be pretty powerful to show up through that much earth and stone.

   Well worth a look.

   Hm. She’d never really considered archeologists as fellow-detectives before.