Yseult Shadowrun – Dust of Ages Part VI

   So; equipment for exploring a set of ancient, partially-submerged catacombs filled with sinkholes and possibly with deadly, highly-magical, awakened predators from a prior age. A lost world of ancient perils!

   Oh good LORD. NOW she knew why all this seemed so familiar! Ancient Egyptian magic, giant snakes, hidden catacombs, haunts, curses, and lost temples full of undead… You saw the computer updates of all those ancient pre-trideo “b-movies” on late night trid! They were full of this stuff!

   And… those productions had all been – however loosely – based on old stories and myths. Exaggerated to allow for the presence of actual, working, magic. Meant to seem almost plausible to an audience – and successful enough at it that they were still being preserved and watched a century later.

   Just how old were the underlying stories? Was there something to all the stories of racial memories or prior incarnations? Did certain stories or magic seem “plausible” because metahuman minds knew the practical rules for magic on the same instinctive level as they knew the physics of walking and throwing?

   Well, at least that could give her ideas about things to prepare for anyway.

   Lets see; guns, explosives, blades, rope, climbing and spelunking gear, flares, breathing apparatus, food and water, light sources, first aid kit, extra medication for her damned nut allergy. She usually carried some of the survival gear anyway… Inertial mapper and tracker (ah, good, those functions could readily be chipped into her internal electronics; that might be very handy even after this trip)… Satellite Phone! With spare batteries and some relay units for calling out from underground areas. Worthwhile if she was going to keep heading into the mountains and wilderness even if it was bulky – almost too big to cup in her palm. A lot of the rest would be easier to pick up locally, back in Egypt.

   A rigger would probably have to be a local hire. He or she would need quite a few, or perhaps a lot of signal-relays, if they were going to penetrate very far underground. Perhaps The Ninja? One of the group was a drone expert…

   Nah. The Ninja was also notorious for reckless magical experimentation, and THAT was something that she did NOT need on this trip!

   Time to hit up the fixers.

   Fortunately she got back to Egypt with nearly two days left to do some shopping and recruiting in.

   The hard part turned out to be cutting down the gear to what she and her recruits could reasonably carry along. Thank god for enhanced strength. Besides, there was nothing better than providing good supplies for people to make them think highly of you – and anything in the way of survival gear that didn’t get used promptly would keep.

   As far as the rigger went, she offered 50K, with a 25K allowance for any damage incurred to his or her drones, although she was requiring a secrecy clause and a non-looting clause and notification that the job required an acceptance of basic underground hazards, a contract period of up to three weeks, and a few other details to be discussed at the meet… After all, she didn’t want to give away too much information to anyone who wasn’t seriously interested in the offer.

   Those other details, of course, included the location, the possibility of there being a big magical snake to be avoided, and the prospects of possible unknown dangers – even if all the likely traps would probably be several millennia old. Presumably it wouldn’t be like being up against a modern security system.

   She would have preferred getting someone she knew, but runners disappeared and changed aliases all the time. It was pretty hard to say who was who, but her fixers could presumably get her in touch with some reasonably reliable riggers. That sort of thing was, after all, their job.

   She wound up hiring “Sulahafa”, a rigger who mostly used cheap crawler drones – but had a lot of them and a lot of cheap relay units already.

   A trio of other locals – two who’d worked on digs before (one a digger and amateur caver, the other a decent archeologist’s aide and Gaza tour guide), and one magical dabbler Nassor had brought in (a light-duty combatant/lookout with some enhanced senses) – filled out the group.

   Hmm. She had a few minor bids on the auction – but no big bites yet. Still, there were two weeks left – and a lot of people liked to wait until there were only minutes left for some reason.

   So; maps and surveys in hand, well stocked with equipment, and having hired a set of local guides, it was time to start considering access routes for getting into those caves.

   There were some flooded passages near the Nile, several funerary temples near the great pyramid, caves on the edge of the plateau the pyramids were on, and several possible access shafts – albeit mostly sand-choked.

   Well, they had plenty of drones. They simply send some probes down the dozen most likely-looking entrances.

   The underwater passages were pretty mud-choked, but got into the main system the fastest

   The caves were nearest to the higher-magic areas that had been plotted on the maps, but were convoluted and awkward.

   The access shafts weren’t really open, and would take a good deal of digging to pass through; too much sand had sifted in across the centuries.

   The Funerary temples weren’t very magical, but might be a compromise. They might also be a complete red herring; most of them were apparently special-purpose only.

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   She had the drones focus on the underwater passages – even if that did limit them to submersible models – and had them look for better entrances once they were in the main system. Nassor could help them get in underwater if nothing better was found.

   The initial explorations went reasonably easily; some areas had been mapped already, and it wasn’t too hard to link up some of the mapped segments. A fair portion of the caves appeared to be natural; the plateau was limestone after all – and evidently the paleoclimatological people were right and it had used to be a good deal wetter in Egypt.

   It was still eight days before they had a decent general layout: there were rocks to move, passages to unblock, and sand to clear. At least a few areas were almost sealed off by rockfalls – and some cautious personal exploration and mapping had established that high magic sites included the area beneath the Great Pyramid, the Temple of Menakaure, and the Tomb of Hemon. Fortunately, so far, it had only been drones that had been lost in collapses.

   Hm… the Temple of Menakaure was the most easily accessible. The Tomb of Hemon seemed to be built on fairly solid rock, although there might, of course, be passages below it.

   They took in a couple of drones to run point and tried the Temple of Menakaure. Fortunately, the place was open to tourists – although the inner section was usually blocked off. Of course, they had permission to investigate from the Department of Antiquities.

   Oddly, while there seemed to be access to the lower levels of the temple via an old well, there was almost nothing living down there; even the traces of bats were scarce.

   It looked like the cavern had been full of water on and off for quite some time, even if it was currently dry. There were some carvings left, but there were only traces of old paint on them and on the walls except for the parts that were above the usual high water level.

   Most of the inscriptions seemed to be calling on various gods and goddesses for fertility and rain, a strong secondary theme was invoking the protection of the dead and their intervention in daily life for those who worshiped here. That was a little odd – usually it was the gods who intervened, not the dead – but the invocations were even older than the usual run of temple inscriptions and fragmentary to boot. A faith that old could be expected to have a lot of local quirks.

   As for the magic… The entire area seemed to have a slightly elevated magic level, but most of it seemed to come from the floor – at least according to Nassor and his aide.

   She had the drones spread out and look for any nearby routes down – although it was pretty obvious that simply heading downslope into the caverns would get them started. The route was rough and irregular for the most part – although there were some spots that looked odd; most of the route was through limestone bedrock – but parts of it looked worn away naturally and smoothly, while other parts seemed quite rough. The worn parts looked like normal water-wear, but the irregular spots, however, seemed to have been artificially worked. Apparently by primitive chisels and hammers.

   Oddly enough, the chiseled areas ran all around the edges of the room, all in a band about three feet off the floor. They seemed to be spaced fairly regularly, and there were traces of old paint on them where they were above the water. There were a few other items; some bits and pieces of worked stone, a broken lamp, a short rod made of hammered copper, a small statue of Osiris with a brief inscription, and a selection of offering-bowls for food offerings. Evidently some sort of religious ritual was once conducted down here – and probably forgotten when the water rose and partially flooded the chamber.

   Osiris… God of the underworld and of resurrection, the keeper of souls, guide and guardian of the dead, one of the major patron gods of Egypt. Unlike most of the animal-headed gods, Osiris was normally portrayed as a human mummy who rose again from the underworld.

   Blast it; something seemed important about that, but she couldn’t say what. The nebulous thought was going to bother her until it coalesced!

   They kept the drones out ahead. The caverns became much more irregular as they headed down, but seemed to open up into a network of smaller tunnels. Those tunnels were a bit strange though; they looked water-carved, but they were rather too regular for that. All of them were about three feet across, although they went up and down quite irregularly.

   They were trying to locate a path that went underneath the floor of the first cavern – on the theory that they might be able to locate a magical gradient or source of some sort – when they abruptly lost a drone; no signal. It might just have turned the wrong corner though; it wouldn’t be the first time in this confounded maze of twisting little passages, all alike… Not to mention that they were small enough to be a terrible pain to get through.

   They reviewed the last sensor feed while they waited to see if it would pull back after losing contact and come back into range.

   The signal quality was poor – all that stone again – but Sulahafa ran some image-enhancement on it… It looked like there might have been something moving towards the drone – small and fast, but not bulletlike – just before the signal went out.

   The drone didn’t come back into contact. It was either down for the count or it’s return route had been blocked by a collapse.

   Trouble was, it wouldn’t be the first time for that either. A good thing the blasted crawlers were so cheap. ON the other hand, there might really be something alive and dangerous in the tunnels.

   Well, they had some spam and some jerky; perhaps they could put out some bait? It was meat of a sort – and they had lots more drones.

   They set up a relay chain, with each one further back keeping the one ahead under constant observation and with the recall signal ready to go.

   It took a good deal of careful probing around before they caught a momentary glimpse of something large and grayish shifting around in one of the tunnels. The view from the next drone showed the one that had gotten line-of-sight on the gray thing pretty much disintegrating – the central core of the unit seemed to simply vanish and the rest rapidly collapsed into liquid.

(Yseult) “Does anyone know what might cause that?”

   The amateur archeologist/tour guide was muttering something about “Apep” – but hopefully the thing wasn’t the incarnate deity-principle of destruction, even if the reports DID indicate some sort of giant snake!

   They pulled back a bit to review their information.

   They were roughly beneath the causeway to the pyramid of Khafre, just above the Mastabas and the Rock-Cut Tombs.

   They had one glimpse of a gray serpent-like thing, which didn’t show much detail even under magnification. Of course, light-amplification tended to wash things out a bit, and thermal imaging wouldn’t show much on a presumably cold-blooded creature. They got to work on image-enhancement and continued looking at their data in the meantime.

   Hm… the few higher-magic areas they’d mapped seemed to form a (very) rough circle – well, OK, you could draw a circle around the irregular blobs, which was universally true, but it still gave her that impression. Could the magic be radiating from a central point? The Eye of Ra?

   No; if it was doing that, there would be a gradient with a highest point nearest the center. There had to be additional factors.

   The high magic areas continued beneath the Pyramid of Khufu, Queen Hetephere’s Tombs, and the Village of Nazlet. Still one hell of an area to search.

   They sent the second drone back up after the first one, keeping it very quiet and slow so as not to attract the serpent-things attention.

   There are a few bits of the first drone left – mostly special-alloy components. There was also a hole drilled deeply into the rock; if that was a trace of whatever-it-was that the gray thing had used, it had gone straight through the drone and into solid stone like a bullet through cheese. The remaining bits of the drone appeared to be slowly continuing to dissolve, but didn’t show much in the way of thermal traces. Some sort of supernatural acid? Nothing natural would dissolve metal and rock so fast that it would bore through them instead of splashing.

   Image enhancement showed that the serpent-thing had almost filled the tunnel. It might or might not have eyes, but it definitely seemed to have fangs. It moved reasonably fast, but a hoverdrone or rotordrone (if there had been room for one) could easily keep up with it unless it was capable of a lot more speed than it had shown. Whatever had struck the first drone would have been much faster.

   The tour guide was still muttering about Apep.

(Yseult) “Nassor? Can you set up a barrier together at the entrance of this tunnel that would trap anything physical that tried to get out of it?”

(Nassor) “Yes – although any barrier can be broken, and my assistant here is a fairly minor mage. We can certainly slow most things up though.”

   She had them work together on that, and got ready to try and chop the bloody things head off with her sword if it did pop out – but, for the moment, that was pure precaution. They needed more data, and the easiest way to get that was to expend a few of the cheaper drones – even if her rigger did want an extra fee to cover that.

   Well, she couldn’t blame him for that. Incidental damage was one thing, this was likely to use up a lot of drones.

   It cost them a dozen drones – and apparently irritated the creature – but they got some good shots eventually. It was some sort of giant serpent, about three feet across, probably a good hundred feet long – and apparently somehow capable of boring through rock almost as quickly as it moved through an existing tunnel.

   They found that out when it emerged from the rock next to one of the drones and apparently destroyed it on contact. Well, at least that explained why it fitted the tunnels so neatly. It wasn’t good though; the damned thing could take out armored drones in a fraction of a second, both at range and by merely brushing against them, and it could pop up anywhere at all.

   Oh joy.

   Yseult asked for ideas.

   Sulahafa suggested that – given the things evident destructiveness – they move back a bit and send in more drone-chains to see if there was more than one. After that, rigging some self-destruct charges on the drones might be in order; it did seem to be a living, physical, creature – so enough large explosions should do it in quite nicely.

   The tour guide was still muttering about Apep – and he suggested calling on Osiris, god of reborn life, Set, god of darkness and warriors, and Thoth, god of knowledge. since they escorted Ra safely past the great serpent in his journey through the underworld.

(Yseult) “Great idea I suppose, but just how would we go about doing that? And please keep in mind that we need it simple, short, practical, and with some way of telling in advance if it worked or not”.

(Guide) “Urm.. Call the museum or get a priest? I mean, the thing does seem a lot like Apep.”

(Yseult) “Ok, what’s ‘Apep’ anyway?”

(Guide) “Apep is one of the main menaces of the underworld: a giant snake that inhabits the darkness, passing where it will. Each night it challenges the passage of Ra to resurrection, and each night it is defeated by Thoth, Set, and Osiris. It’s gaze is annihilation. Set, of course, is a mighty warrior, who cannot die. Thoth brings magic and strength through wisdom. Osiris simply provides his blessing as lord of the underworld.”

(Yseult, after considering) “Well, hmm. It seems to me that we have magic. The information from the drones might be considered a blessing, along with possibly trying to blind the thing before it gets to us.. I am probably capable of fighting blindly if it is its gaze that kills.”

   OK, even to her that didn’t sound convincing.

   Nassor was just as doubtful.

(Nassor) “I wouldn’t bet on the “gaze of death” being too literal; the dissolving drones and the small and high-but-not-bulletlike speed approaching object suggests a spitter. It’s probably supernatural, but that might also be how it burrows through rock; limestone does dissolve easily in acid. Perhaps chemical-protection suits? They might help some.”

(Yseult) “Hmm, it would take a long time to go and get some though… How well could you replicate the effect of chemical protection suits with magic?”

(Nassor) “I’m afraid that doing that would take a rather specialized spell, and it’s one that I don’t have. Perhaps we could fall back a bit and try to go around the thing? Personally, I’d rather not get dissolved by some giant awakened snake.”

   Well, there was some justice to that position.

   (Yseult) “Could you draw it to this (indicating the tunnel opening) opening with your magic? If you could entice it or infuriate to the point where it was moving too fast to dodge I might be able to stand to the side and split the thing in two with it’s own force of movement. If that worked it would never even see us. Would you like to try it? Perhaps with a bit of basic telekinesis to float some food down the tunnel? Do you feel safe with that plan?”

   It rapidly became apparent that no one felt safe with that plan. They might be willing to give it a try with some persuasion, but in the dark, in cramped tunnels, and up against an unknown paracritter that might have inspired stories about a malevolent god for thousands of years, it was kind of hard to feel “safe”.

   They opted to try for more information instead. Nassor had that short-range clairvoyant spell and they could send back to Cairo for some snooper-drones. It would take a few hours to get them, but they were cheap and reasonably effective.

   They had a better report the next day.

   It looked like the creature somewhat resembled a worm; it both spit some sort of super-acid and secreted it from it’s skin – which was what allowed it to move through rock. It’s digestion seemed to be external; it moved over the puddles it’s acid left to absorb nutrients. It seemed to be an effort for it to secrete enough acid to move through the rock though, and so it seemed to prefer sticking to the existing tunnels. It was probably elementally linked, most likely with water.

   Well, if it absorbed nutrients though the skin, it should be vulnerable to external toxins. Could they hurt it by simply strewing salt or some such junk in it’s path? Divert it with a pile of food? Simply map around it and see where it hung out and if there was more than one? Perhaps put an opposing elemental effect on her blade?

   Another day worth of careful mapping gave them a number of good places – where it spent the most time – to try and poison it. At the moment, it looked like it mostly hung out in or near the flooded sections, where the river water washed food into the caves. It had to need magic though, since it never left the general high-magic area.

   OK, they should at least have a way to make it uncomfortable and make it move – it had to have some equivalent to a sense of taste – and with any luck they could push it into a place of their choosing, where it would at least be uncomfortable or tired.

   They began to set up their hunt.

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