Varian Nakul had kept the crypt at Umanath ever since the last keeper had been relieved of his duties for hearing voices in the walls. During the last fifteen years, there was one thing Varian had learned. The role of custodian of the dead was not one suited to the over-imaginative. Or to those whose wits couldn’t bear extended periods of isolation in the cold, dark womb of the earth. That was how Varian thought of Umanath. Not as a tomb for rotting corpses, but as a place for knowledge to grow life.
Because of this practical attitude, Varian didn’t immediately give attention to the distant rumbles that fell on his ears one day. He assumed they were rolls of thunder from some storm raging on the surface. The weather and goings-on of the upper world had little to do with life down here. And so he dismissed the noise.
“Beg pardon, Your Majesty,” he apologized to the stony-faced sarcophagus he leaned over. “I’ll have this bat dung off your noble brow before you can blink.” Chuckling, he scrubbed a cleaning cloth vigorously over the wide forehead of the sculpted likeness that bore the inscription King of the Third Reign. An impertinent nest of bats had taken to roosting between the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, directly above the sleeping king and his queen. Confound the nuisances. Why couldn’t they stay in the lower levels? No one of importance was buried down there.
Another deep rumbling broke through his thoughts, its echo bouncing from floor to ceiling to walls. The sound was coming from below, Varian realized. This wasn’t thunder from the sky but from the earth. The floor trembled, and the trembling quickly became a violent shaking. The frightened crypt keeper was knocked from his feet, his shoulder crashing painfully to the floor.
“First Father preserve me!” he cried out, cradling the injured shoulder.
Ancient tiles broke loose from the ceiling and rained down around him. Varian sheltered his head with his good arm as the pieces of stone smashed to the floor. His ears rang with the crash of effigies and cinerary urns toppling from their pedestals. In moments, the chamber was transformed to rubble.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, the earth shake passed. After a moment of silence, Varian dared uncurl from his defensive position on the floor to look around. The chamber was clouded with dust and rock particles. Most of the torches along the walls had gone out, leaving him in semi-darkness. Varian coughed and covered his mouth with his cleaning cloth. Stumbling over fragments of wall and ceiling tiles and making his way around remnants of columns and splintered statues from fallen plinths, he found a flaming torch that hadn’t fallen from its sconce.
Through the subterranean passages he went, examining the extent of the damage. The crypt was old, its foundations weak. Support columns had cracked, and in more than one place, great fissures rent the floor. One alcove had caved in. Another’s door was blocked by debris. Monuments that had stood proud and beautiful for centuries were reduced to massacred stone. Funerary bowls were smashed, and bone-chests crushed to rubble. Varian’s eyes burned from more than dust. These relics marked the memories or resting places of great souls from bygone eras. Now those souls would be forgotten.
It wasn’t by chance Varian’s route took him directly to the Green Chamber. That oldest area of the catacombs housed the bodies of the first rulers and heroes of Lythnia. Varian prayed the damage there would be minimal. In the past, earth shakes had always left the Green Chamber untouched. But then, Varian had never seen an earth shake this powerful. He doubted anyone in Lythnia had.
Thank the First Couple, the entrance to the Green Chamber was unblocked! The green-tiled ceiling had held strong, and the shriveled corpses shelved in the loculi along the walls were intact. There were broken bits of pottery and funerary art, but the only major casualty was a thick beam near the center of the vault, which had given way to fall across a life-sized figure, knocking the statue onto its side.
Of all the statues that might have broken, it had to be this one. The Unknown Guardian was among the most ancient and mysterious monuments in the tombs, and a special favorite of Varian’s. Even amid the chaos, he found himself rushing to kneel in the debris beside the statue, as if kneeling at the side of an injured friend. But there was little to be done for the Guardian, with its one side preserved and the other tragically smashed. Carefully, Varian collected what could be salvaged—part of a handsomely carved face and one massive outspread wing. And the cloudy crystal that had been clutched in the Guardian’s upraised hands. It must have been heavy once, a solid chunk of rock the size of an infant, but it was splintered now.
Varian gathered the pieces with a vague idea of putting them back together later. But a glimmer inside one large hunk of crystal caught his eye. The tip of something ornate and manmade was sticking out of the stone. What was it? A bit of jewelry maybe? He worked the object back and forth until it came loose in his hand. It was a key. Not a typical iron key. This one was made of shiny black stone. Obsidian perhaps? Who ever heard of an obsidian key?
Then he knew the answer. He had. From somewhere in the recesses of his mind floated a long-forgotten verse:
Where no searching mortal eye can see, unknown protector holds obsidian key. Encased in crystal, cold and dark, let neither living nor dead unleash the spark.
Where had he read that? Most likely in one of the old scrolls he enjoyed poring over. Or maybe he’d seen it inscribed on one of the tomb walls. He shook his head and slipped the key into his belt-pouch to puzzle over later.
Returning his attention to the ruins of the statue, he realized there was an irregularity in the floor, one that had previously been concealed by the wide base of the monument. It was a loose, circularly cut tile that didn’t match the others. Compelled by curiosity, Varian wiggled his fingers beneath the edge and pried the round tile up. It was heavy, but with an effort he lifted it and set it aside. Shock rippled through him at what lay beneath the tile: a strong, barred grate only just large enough to admit a man into the dark hole it covered.
Varian held a torch against the bars. Its flames were reflected by a dull sheen in the shadows below. More than that, he couldn’t make out. The trapdoor, if door it was, resisted his effort to open it. It was held fast by a rusted lock. Varian hesitated. Despite his mounting excitement, a voice of caution nudged him. There had long been an unspoken superstition respected by the keepers at Umanath. Doors locked by previous keepers remained locked. Passages abandoned and closed up remained sealed.
But Varian was a historian first and a cleric second. Whatever lay forgotten in this hole might hold historical significance to the kingdom of Lythnia or to the adherents of the First Couple. Besides, the thought of a bit of knowledge escaping him, particularly knowledge regarding his own tombs, was like an itch between his shoulders, begging to be scratched.
So he followed a sudden inspiration and tried his newfound obsidian key in the lock. It fit beautifully. Feeling as if he were opening a treasure chest, he lifted the heavy grate. It came up with a rusty screech, and the cold, dank air from below rose to his nostrils, air that had not been released for many lifetimes.
There was a rustling, flapping sound from the shadows below. A dark, blurry object suddenly shot out from the opening. Varian ducked, expecting a large bat. But after the winged creature fluttered around the room and came to rest on a ledge high up on the wall, he identified it as a raven. The bird’s golden eyes glittered brightly as it looked down on the cleric. How had such a creature gotten into the sealed enclosure? And how had it survived without food or fresh air?
Shaking his head, Varian dismissed the questions and thrust his torch into the black hole before him. The light revealed an alcove too small to be rightly called a chamber. A grown man, entering such a crawl space, would have been unable to stand upright or stretch out.
Maybe that was why the skeleton he found was folded over on itself.
That was all that was down there. A skeleton encased in ornate black armor that glinted in the flickering torchlight. Varian swallowed his disappointment. Corpses this tomb had enough of. He had hoped to discover a hoard of scrolls or religious relics. Such as painted vases dating back to the first reign or an ash-chest holding the remains of the first Speaker himself.
But his spirits quickly rallied. Maybe this mysterious black knight, in his dark ring-mail and spiked shoulder pauldrons, was someone of importance, a long-forgotten hero of Lythnia. True, that begged the question of why his tomb more closely resembled a personal dungeon… Varian felt a flicker of unease, as he noticed the dead knight’s helm was shaped like an immense winged skull with red gemstones for eyes. Hardly the attire of a hero. He shut the grate quickly and backed away. Maybe he shouldn’t have disturbed this particular tomb. Best to examine it no further until he knew what he was dealing with.
With a sense of urgency, he hurried from the Green Chamber and away down the passages. Ignoring the fresh damage from the earth shake, he was intent on his mission. Something told him he must think of nothing else until he had solved the mystery of the black knight. He would search for answers in the scriptorium, and if none revealed themselves, he would write to the Speakers at the nearest isolatiom. He would have to do that anyway to inform them of the earth shake damage and request workmen for repairs.
In the scriptorium, he rifled through shelves of crumbling scrolls and dusty books until he found what he sought. The rotting cover of the ancient tome was inscribed with runes of the old tongue. Fortunately, Varian had the skills to read it. Laying the massive Book of Sorrows open on the table, he held a candle over the brittle, yellowing pages. Carefully, he turned the crumbling pages, scanning for the entry he felt certain he had seen here before.
And there it was. A sketch of the obsidian key, and opposite it, the inscription he remembered. Below the reference to the Unknown Guardian protecting the key within the crystal were vague portents of doom to befall any who removed the key from its hiding place. There were dire predictions of a dark cloud that would spread over Lythnia and all of Earth Realm if the black key, hidden by the early Speakers, fell into the wrong hands.
Varian wiped his palms, suddenly sweaty, against his coarse robe. Surely his were not the wrong hands alluded to? It was the earth shake that had broken the Guardian and uncovered the key. He was a good man with good intentions, and had only taken the key for safe keeping.
And used it to open a door, he remembered. One that custom dictated should never be unlocked. Nameless dread stirred within him, as he remembered the dark knight interred in his dungeon-like tomb. Clearly the first Speakers had put him down there with the intention he never be disturbed. Varian had been wrong to open the door. Should he do something about it? Lock the grate again and replace the broken Guardian with another statue?
Maybe the book would have some answers for him. He turned again to the tome but was startled by a sharp screeching sound from outside. Echoing down the subterranean corridors was the shriek of a rusty grate being opened, and then a sharp crash as it was thrown back.
Abandoning his book, Varian rushed down the passages, praying he was not too late to avert whatever disaster he had begun. A powerful wind came from nowhere, howling down the dark corridors and tugging with icy fingers at his clothing and hair. Wall torches were extinguished, but he knew the way even in the dark. The gale grew stronger as he approached the Green Chamber, and flashing light appeared ahead. Reaching his destination, he found himself in the eye of a storm. A hurricane swirled in the center of the room. Walls, floor, and ceiling were bathed in blinding light.
Squinting against the glare, he took in the scene before him. The grate lay open. The black-armored knight had ascended from his prison and hovered, suspended, at the heart of the whirlwind. Explosions of green light flashed like shards of lightning around him, currents crackling up and down his suit of armor. His helmeted head was thrown back in agony or ecstasy, and sparks sprayed from his gauntleted fingertips.
Then the wind stilled abruptly. The blinding streaks of light faded to an eerie glow. And the black knight’s massive boots hit the floor with a boom so loud the tiles cracked and the stone shook.
Varian was almost thrown from his feet. He watched, breathless, as the winged helm turned, surveying the room. He couldn’t see the skeletal face within the black helmet, only the fiery eyes glowing like coals within. The dark knight’s shadow loomed large across the walls. He hadn’t seemed so big when down in his tomb.
Varian’s heart almost leapt out of his chest when those glowing eyes settled on him and a terrifying voice thundered, “Who unleashes the spark? Who frees the Raven King of Earth Realm, the bringer of sorrows, the doomer of worlds?”
Varian trembled like a rodent under the scrutiny of a hawk. His voice shook as he confessed in a small voice, “T-that would be m-me, Varian Nakul, the c-custodian of this crypt.”
The dark knight’s response was unexpected. “For your service, you shall be rewarded,” he rumbled. “All of Earth Realm shall know your name and shall call you its destroyer.”
Varian swallowed, throat suddenly dry as parchment. “I-I would prefer n-not to take the credit. My part was really very s-small. Only an accident.”
The dark knight’s eyes burned into him. Varian imagined them scorching through his flesh and bone, boring into his very heart. Clutching the medallion around his neck, the one bearing the symbol of the First Couple, Varian prayed for strength.
“You are no follower of mine, Varian Nakul,” the dark knight observed. “But you will be. Bow to me now, servant. It has been long since I have felt the adoration of mortals.”
Varian blanched. “You are u-undoubtedly a powerful s-sorcerer, Mighty One,” he said, struggling to find his courage. “But I bow to none but the First Father and First Mother.”
The dark knight’s eyes blazed so intensely Varian felt their heat on his skin. Sweat broke out on his upper lip.
“I am the only father now.” The dark knight’s voice rolled like an angry thunder clap. “You are privileged to be the instrument of my rebirth.”
Varian’s eyes widened, and he forgot to stutter. “You do not mean you are the First Father reincarnated? The one adherents have waited for these many centuries?”
“Your feelings confirm it,” the dark knight answered indirectly. “You sense my immortal power.”
“Yes, I do feel it.” Awed, Varian dropped to his knees. “Forgive the doubt of this feeble vassal, Mighty One. I am yours to command.”
The dark knight circled him, massive boots ringing hollowly across stone. Varian didn’t dare raise his eyes.
“Good,” the knight said, after a pause. “You are weak now, but I shall fashion of you a worthy weapon. I have a great work to carry out.” He continued his circuit of the room, as though Varian were no longer of importance. Something dark fluttered down from the ceiling to light on his armored shoulder—the black raven that had escaped earlier.
“Yes, First Father,” Varian submitted, trying to remember if the prophecies and scrolls had ever associated the Father with ravens. “Should I call you First Father no longer? It is said you have an older name. One that has been lost to time.”
The knight made a dismissive motion. “You mortals have called me Rathnakar, the Raven King. But I have no true name but Master. A name I shall again teach the world, for this earthly realm has forgotten me.” He examined the bones resting in the loculi along the walls.
“It is true,” Varian agreed ruefully, “that the seclusionaries and isolatioms have fallen into disrepair. And the crown head of Lythnia no longer offers gifts for their upkeep. The number of adherents taking vows grows smaller by the year, and the common people grow irreverent. Many have ceased to entreat the First Couple or provide tokens on feast days. They doubt the existence of what their eyes cannot see.”
“Then we shall restore their faith.” The Raven King picked up an urn of ashes from a wall niche.
“As you say, Master,” Varian agreed. “But by what method?”
The dark king squeezed the urn in his great fist, until it shattered. “By blood.”
Streams of sunshine pierced the dappled shadows of the grove, its light glinting like gold off the surface of the Pool of Tears. Eydis slipped off her sandals and accepted a silver urn offered by a silent, white-robed attendant. As she tipped the urn and trickled the water over her feet, rinsing away the dust of travel, she could feel the purity of the cool sparkling stream. Truly she had done as the First Mother wished. A burden seemed to ease from her shoulders as not only the grime of weeks on the road but her cares and fears were cleansed away.
Clean now and standing in a puddle of the sparkling water, she undressed as the attendant indicated, dropping her clothing carefully over a screen standing nearby for the purpose.
On the edge of the pool she hesitated, toes curling over the stone lip, as her heart fluttered with renewed unease. She was aware of the watchful eyes of the green-skinned guardians lurking at the corner of the water, their hairless skins catching the light like fish scales, their serpentine bodies poised. For what? It was said they would drown any who desecrated the pool, their many hands dragging the sinner down to the depths. But who could say what might constitute desecration in their eyes?
Eydis shook the thought aside, hardening her resolve and stepping into the shallows. Her heart was pure, her motives worthy. The watery guardians must surely sense that.
Her lips moved with a soft entreaty. “Look upon me, First Mother, and if I be worthy, grant me your sight.”
One step. The emerald water, curiously warm, lapped at her ankles then her thighs as she descended the stairs deeper into the pool. It was at her waist now.
Another step. The bottom of the pool dropped sharply away. Instead of struggling to stay afloat, Eydis allowed herself to sink until the surface closed over her head. Through the crystalline water, shafts of sunlight pierced to the depths. Tiny air bubbles danced past, tickling her skin. Eydis’s hair swirled like red-gold moss before her eyes. Holding her breath she floated, weightless, in this silent watery world. She was utterly at peace, listening for the voice of the First Mother.
Only no voice came. Instead there was a sudden flash of light and a rushing sensation of speed. The pool and everything else receded, and her mind’s eye traveled to another place.
She found herself standing in a familiar room, her partially translucent feet dripping very real water onto the cold stone floor. The surrounding furnishings were simple. A sturdy, unadorned desk and chair and an engraving of the First Mother hanging on the otherwise empty wall. The room’s only light slanted from a small window high above. It did little to penetrate the gloomy atmosphere, but at least it revealed the face and form of the woman seated behind the desk.
The Head Hearer of the Shroudstone seclusionary glanced up but betrayed no surprise at the soggy apparition that appeared before her. She merely marked her place in the open book on her desk and set the tome aside.
“Child Eydis, I see you have arrived safely at Silverwood Grove,” she said. “I had no doubt you were equal to the dangers of the road.”
“Yes, Hearer.” Eydis shivered in the shadows, goose-bumps pimpling her arms. She might be only an insubstantial ghost in this place, but she could still feel the draft wafting up from the floor. She pushed a clinging tendril of hair out of her face and glanced around. “Why have I come here?”
“A pilgrimage to Silverwood and the Pool of Tears,” said the Hearer, “is part of the test every adherent must face before dedicating her life to the First Mother.”
“I meant, why has my vision in the pool brought me to your study back in the seclusionary? It has been only eight days since I stood here in the flesh.”
The Hearer shrugged. “The First Mother transports you where she wills. Who can know her reasons?”
“Does that mean she has chosen me? Because she grants me this vision?”
The Hearer didn’t meet her eyes, and Eydis could sense her reluctance. “It means she has not rejected you. She has chosen to acknowledge you. But there are more ways than one to serve the Mother. Dedicating one’s self to a lifetime of solitude in a seclusionary requires sacrifices for which few are suited.”
Eydis bit back her frustration, saying, “I stand prepared to make those sacrifices.” Hadn’t she lived alongside the adherents for the last ten years? Hadn’t she eaten the plain food and slept in a cold, hard bed in a tiny cell, identical to those of the adherents who had taken their vows? She knew the life and the work. What made the Hearer so reluctant to accept her?
The Hearer seemed to follow her thoughts. “No one has said you are unfit, Child Eydis. You have done all we have required of you, and you have much to offer the seclusionary. But if you are to be an accepted adherent, you must learn to squelch your anger and hold your impatience in check. Tumultuous emotions are indicative of a soul at war with itself.”
Eydis winced. The other woman knew her too well. “I understand, Hearer. I will learn to command my feelings.”
“I don’t doubt you will try,” said the Head Hearer dryly.
Her words barely reached Eydis’s ears before both the Head Hearer and her study slipped away without warning, receding into the shadows. Eydis was alone again, floating at the murky bottom of the Pool of Tears. Only this time her lungs were aching. The surface seemed a long way above. How long had she been under? She needed air! She kicked and flailed in an effort to get back to the top.
But the First Mother wasn’t finished with her yet. As a new vision took hold, her head jerked backward, her body arching painfully. She was transported again. This time when the dizzying rush stopped, she opened her eyes to find herself in unfamiliar surroundings.
The ghost of Eydis crouched in the shadowed corner of a dimly lit chamber with a high vaulted ceiling and green-tiled walls. There was a dampness in the air and a smell she associated with earth and old stone. Where was she? Torches flickered along the walls, and there was a lit brazier in the room. But neither was the source of the eerie green glow cast over the floor, the sculpted monuments, and the funerary relics arranged on shelves around the room. She caught a glimpse of what looked like a bony hand inside one of the shelves. Were those skeletons resting in the long niches?
She became suddenly aware of unfriendly eyes on her. Looking up, she found herself under the scrutiny of a pair of gleaming golden eyes, belonging to a large raven perched on a wall ledge above.
Her gaze darted away from the bird, drawn to the room’s other occupants. A giant knight in dark armor, his eyes glowing red from inside a massive winged helm, loomed like a monster over a smaller man on the floor. The slender human with wild, dark hair and plain clothing knelt on the floor, his pale hands sifting clumsily through what looked like a heap of ashes and broken pottery.
“I’ve found it, Master! It is here!” he exclaimed suddenly. Eager as a dog for the approval of its master, he passed the item he held to the black knight.
“Good…. Good….” The master’s voice was at once wind and thunder, a whisper and a roar. Eydis heard the walls shudder, felt the cold stone floor vibrate beneath her feet.
“For all these millennia, the amulet has slept, undisturbed,” the dark master rumbled, holding aloft a thick golden chain, upon which swung a disk the size of a saucer. “Take it. It will give you the authority to wake my army.”
At his feet, the servant fidgeted. “I am no sorcerer, Great Raven King,” he said, and Eydis sensed he was trying to summon his courage. “Surely this t-task would be better suited for another. What p-powers have I that the undead should answer my command?”
“Power?” The dark knight growled scornfully. “You shall have what power I give you, mortal.” He thrust out a gauntleted hand and took hold of his servant’s face, metal-clad fingers encompassing the servant’s skull as if he grasped nothing larger than an apple-white fruit. His hand glowed hotly, turning the color of brass touched by flame.
The scream that tore from the servant’s throat reverberated around the chamber and down distant passages until its echo bounced back like the answering cries of a thousand shrieking souls.
Shuddering, Eydis crept backward until she was pressed against the wall. She didn’t know if her transparent form would be visible to them if either the dark master or his servant turned their eyes her direction.
But thankfully, they did not. The Raven King withdrew his hand, leaving behind a fiery print of splayed fingers and palm on the other man’s cheek. The side of his face was melted now and twisted into the tortured features of some creature out of a nightmare. Where the master’s fingers had spanned the back of his servant’s head, strips of hair were burnt away, exposing red scalp. But the other side of his face remained untouched and piteously human.
“Now,” the Raven King rumbled over his servant’s groans. “You possess what power lies in my right hand. Use it and summon me an army of corpses.”
The servant’s moaning and writhing stilled instantly, as if all pain and fear had fled at some invisible command.
“As you command so shall it be, Great Master.” His mouth twisted in a hideous effort at an ingratiating smile. His right eye now glowed like red coals in a furnace above the ruin of his cheek. The dark master placed the heavy gold chain around the servant’s neck.
Then the scene shifted and Eydis felt herself being sucked away, like a wave pulled back from the shore.
She was drowning! She dragged in a hungry breath—or tried to. But instead of air, her lungs filled with water. Choking, she convulsed, lungs afire, everything a dark watery blur. She could not tell up from down. As she struggled desperately to flail toward the surface, her arms felt weak and heavy. Her chest was about to burst.
The darkness faded to grey, and her eyes rolled back. Dimly, she was aware of scaled hands grabbing her from all sides, long fingers digging greedily into her flesh. She couldn’t understand who was trying to drown her, only that many hands held her down. The last thing she saw before fading into oblivion was a pair of milky-white eyes in a green-scaled, elongated face.
The world dropped away.