« part 1
When Li came to, the chamber was lit again. Several torches burned in bronze holders set around him. He tried to raise his head, tried to sit up, but his body would not obey. His hands and feet were bound by hemp rope, the kind the workers used to haul stone blocks away from the excavation site.
"Extract of hemlock," a voice came from beyond the circle of torchlight. Out of the shadows, the Baron stepped into the light. His face was impassive. "A diluted solution: too much of it would stop your breathing, and that simply won’t do. This way, you are merely weakened; the ropes will hold you in place but you won’t put up much of a struggle even once I take them off."
Li made a sound like a cow lowing. His eyes rotated from side to side.
"Why do this, you ask?" The Baron leaned in close to Li’s face. "An excellent question."
With his right hand, he pulled up Li’s shirt. A large birthmark in the shape of a septagram was visible on the Chinaman’s stomach.
"Remember when I hired you, my dear Li? Do you remember the advertisement you have replied to, the one in the Nanking Times, all those years ago? It was unusual, wasn’t it, a man looking for a servant with some very particular physical characteristics? But I found you!” The Baron’s face contorted into a grimace. He leaned in closer still and breathed with demented intensity into Li’s face: “I couldn’t tell anybody; for so, so long I couldn’t utter a word about my plans to a living soul. There are seven keys, just like the vertices of this septagram, one on each of the Earth’s continents. You are the Key of Asia. It took decades before I could track one of you down!”
Li writhed on the ground and moaned again. The Baron laughed. “You want to know what it is you open? That’s understandable. I would be curious, too.”
He waved in the direction of the niche in the inner wall. “That’s the keyhole. The legend promises unearthly powers to the one who enters—and, by Jove, I shall be that one! My companions… those bloody imbeciles! They really thought I’d let them be present at the opening.”
The Baron circled to Li’s head, bent down and grabbed him under the armpits. Slowly, he dragged his servant to the wall and laid him in front of the keyhole niche. Two flicks of the knife—and the restraints that bound Li’s limbs fell to the floor.
"I wish I could say this wouldn’t hurt," the Baron said. "Unfortunately, it is my understanding that the opening will extinguish the key. Not my fault, really; I’m not the one who put this door in. Any last words, my friend?"
Li’s breathing, already labored because of the poison, became fast and erratic. He let out a stifled scream.
"I didn’t think so." The Baron chuckled, pleased with his joke. "And now, my dear Li, if you don’t mind—"
Grunting with effort, he lifted the Chinaman off the ground and propped him against his own body, ready to shove the helpless servant into the niche. At the last moment, Li shifted his balance to the left, pivoted around the Baron and used his master’s weight to propel him forward.
Baron von Riesenschnautzer went into the niche back first. He growled in surprise and anger and tried to come out. The rock held him fast, as if by glue. A low, ominous hum rose in the air; it seemed to originate somewhere in the depths of the pyramid and reach the surface by traveling through the walls.
"What is this?" the Baron hissed. A new expression distorted his face, that of impotent fury.
Li picked up the knife from the ground. The pyramid was shaking perceptibly. Dust began to scatter from crevices overhead; the fire of the torches flickered wildly. Wordlessly he approached his master. The Baron closed his eyes in anticipation of the deadly stab.
The Chinaman cut open the Baron’s shirt. A septagram birthmark bloomed like a brand on the captive man’s stomach.
"You knew?!" The Baron’s voice was hoarse with horror.
Li leaned in close to his ear and said: “You did not find me. I found you!”
The howl of the Key of Europe was buried in the rumble of the waking elemental force. A vertical crack appeared in the wall. It started at the ceiling and ran into the floor in a straight line along the Baron’s spine.
"No," he screamed, eyes coming out of their sockets. "Please, Li, no! Help me!"
The separating halves of the great gate tore his body in two.