Heavy boulders and piles of rubble blocked the nondescript door near the submerged docks of Annúminas. A handful of men—dressed in roughspun tunics and leather and armed with daggers and clubs—worked diligently to clear the way to the door.
“Watch that pile!” a man ordered harshly. The pile in question teetered dangerously. A few smaller stones shook loose and fell to the cobblestones. One struck a man on the foot and he let out a disgruntled and pained shout as he hopped away.
“Told you,” muttered the man who had issued the warning. His partner grinned as they stooped together to roll away a particularly large boulder with a series of grunts. It was the last of the major impediments blocking the entrance to the Hidden Vault where Parmanen had disappeared the day before. They had stayed away as ordered; a full day’s time passed before they began excavating the site. Now, the door resisted with a groan as the men pulled it open. The man, who the others called Matt, though none knew his true name, grimaced and muttered about how difficult it was being. Finally, it pulled open.
A stale, heavy smoke poured out into the afternoon sun and the men looked around warily. The last thing they wished to do was alert the patrolling Angmarim of their presence in the city.
Matt squinted and waved a long, slender hand in front of his face to dispell the smoke cloud hanging in the air. Stepping around the remaining rubble, he peered into the long dark tunnel that stretched beneath the city proper. He exchanged a furtive glace with his partner and then said, “C’mon, Gil,” before grabbing a torch and plunging into the darkness.
Gil, along with several other men, followed Matt cautiously as the tunnel steadily rose beneath the city. None save the lead man had ever before ventured into the caves and tunnels. The reward did not keep them out; spells and artifacts and secrets of the fallen kingdom always lured these men. Parmanen alone had kept them from braving the close tunnels. Even the fact that these men alone of dozens stayed by his side after taking the girl did little to sway his mind when it came to the vault. It was far too dangerous, Parmanen had said.
Matt’s sensitive nose, which meant his bedroll was always downwind of the latrine, sniffed the stale air. A fire had burned itself out not too long ago. Old wood and dust. Bracken and mold. No flesh, though, tarnished the smell of the remaining scents of the smouldering flames. Bookshelves were half cinders. Equipment of various types still glowed hotly as they picked their way through the ruins. The heat scorched the delicate skin of their nostrils and most covered their noses and mouths with their tunics.
“Fan out. Look for any sign of him or his enemies.” Matt stepped away from the group and began searching among the remains of the laboratory for any evidence of Parmanen—or his passing.
“What exactly are we lookin’ for?” a man asked. “They ain’t nothing ‘cept smoke and ash left.”
“Any sign that Parmanen lives,” Matt answered gruffly. “His magic is strong; surely a little fire could not end a dark lord such as himself.” He did not like that he did not smell death if only because that left a mystery. Matt greatly preferred no loose ends.
But there was still no scent of burning flesh on the stagnant air. No sense of death, only centuries of knowledge lost. Their torches flickered dully; the thin air vents to the surface slowly replenished the wholesome air in the vault, but breathing was still difficult.
“Matt! Over here!”” Gil’s voice came from the little alcove off the main room.
Hurrying over to the doorway, Matt barked, “What is it?” He felt a chill even as he drew close.
Gil pointed into a corner where his torch barely revealed a figure huddled in on itself. Dark red and black robes dripped steadily into a puddle that body lay in.
“Master Par!” Matt rushed over to the body and turned it over onto its back. Parmanen’s eyes were closed and his face seemed frozen in a peaceful sleep. “What’s wrong with him? Is he breathing?”
Gil lingered in the doorway. “Matt, don’t,” the man whispered hoarsely.
Ignoring him, Matt pried an eye open. It was vacant and partially rolled back into his head. But the body didn’t feel dead. There was a presence in the little room. It surrounded him and urged him to feel the body’s too cold cheek and try to move it’s stiff, no, frozen arm.
The body was thawing steadily.
“What in the…” Matt pulled back in shock at the realization that the body had been frozen as the air had been sucked away.
“Matt, let’s get out of here, there ain’t nothin’…”
Suddenly, Matt felt as though his entire body was being torn in every direction. The scream from his mouth pierced the ears of all who searched the destruction of the vault. His mind protested as something invaded it. Took over his thoughts and his will and his heart…
Gil watched in horror as his friend screamed and threw out his arms. He hovered just like that for what seemed to be an eternity until he collapsed to his hands and knees beside the body of the Black Numenorean. Matt panted for a moment with his head down and his hair brushing the dusty stones.
“M-mate?” Gil asked hesitantly. He did not step toward his fallen friend.
Matt did not need any assistance. Slowly, he raised his head to gaze at Parmanen’s body and then he gracefully climbed to his feet. With a wave of his hand, he gestured to the body.
“Please. We should get out of his gloomy place, don’t you think? Fetch the others. Carry the body out—gently.”
Gil stared at his friend with his mouth gaping. “M-Matt?”
“Matt” turned his head slowly and gave Gil a commanding look that dared the man to question him. “There is a process that must be done quickly if we are to save the body. I could go about in this suit, but I would much rather rejoin with my kin. After nearly fifty years, I have grown rather accustomed to the length of his arm. This man’s arms are much… bulkier.”
Completely bewildered and thoroughly terrified, Gil nodded and called out to the others. Quickly, they picked up the body and carried it down the long tunnel and into the fading sun.
Matt, Delostor, squinted up at the bright orb with a frown. “Into the water,” he ordered. The men lowered the body into the water and Delostor knelt at its edge. “Out.” The men scrambled out of the water as Delostor held Parmanen’s shoulders and closed his eyes to focus. The water around the body froze instantly, trapping the man’s arms up to the elbows.
Delostor began murmuring a spell and the water slowly thawed. Colour returned to the body’s skin and When the ice broke above Parmanen’s face, Delostor raised his mouth and nose above the surface. Shallow breaths stirred the water and suddenly, his arm and legs thrashed wildly.
Matt’s eyes blinked and suddenly he was dropping the body and backing away so quickly he lost his footing and fell to his rear. He watched, eyes wide, as the body floundered in the water before sinking slowly beneath its surface. The murky image floated at the bottom obscured by the mud stirred up by the flailing.
“What happened?” Matt gasped.
Gil opened his mouth to answer, but a huge splash erupted from the lake as Parmanen shot to the surface. The man gasped as the figure rose to its feet and stood there for a moment simply dripping.
Parmanen turned and gazed at Gil and Matt with dark, amused eyes.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I knew I could count on you.”
As Parmanen stepped from the lake, a hot wind wrapped around him and dried his hair and clothes. The men felt the edges of it and backed away.
“Yessir,” Matt said with as much courage as he could muster. As the restored lord advanced on him, he tried not to cower or pull his boots back.
“They will be attempting to contain the spirit of my apprentice in the Dragon statue,” Parmanen said without a trace of emotion. “We will let them. It will be easier to let them think they have won. But Faethril is strong, and will be stronger once she’s whole again.” A soft smile finally curved his lips. “And then we will find Anyatka and her brothers and they will be sorry that they did not kill me when they had the chance.”