Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Shadow of the Raven – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – Traps and Pitfalls

The Present – 532 by the Conclave Calendar

The rope snapped taunt. Kathri, hanging from the end of it, swung into the stone wall of the pit she had tumbled down, hard enough to drive the breath from her lungs and numb her shoulder. She bounced off the wall, spun about on the end of the rope and hit it again, her knuckles white as she gripped on tight. Coming to a halt, her feet dangling over open air, she peered down to where the smouldering remains of her torch could be made out. It lay on the ground a few metres below her, among serrated rows of rusty spikes that thrust upwards. The broken remains of a skeleton lay down near the torch, impaled on a number of spikes, all flesh long since having been stripped from the bones.

At least there weren’t any spikes on the wall. Still, it is going to leave a bruise or two.

Kathri hung there on the rope, the end of it tied about her waist, dangling over the drop. The rope jerked and bounced as her companion made his way down the slope that led to the edge of the pit.

She looked up to where the floor had been, a couple of metres above her head. A light up there grew brighter and a dark haired head looked down the pit trap to search for her. The man, Astiara, held out an amberstone, the almost golden-red illumination from it washing down over her.

“Is everything all right, Kathri?” he called out. A look of deep concern showed on his face.

Either he is genuinely worried or he is a very good actor.

It was not safe to venture alone into old ruins and tombs. There were more than a few in the game who would happily have left her there, or worse, let her drop, greed overcoming common sense. As a result she only travelled with those she knew and trusted. None had been available for this venture and so she had taken Astiara along, the first time she had worked with him. An old friend had recommended him, vouching for his reliability. She had given him the benefit of the doubt for the time but as ever remained cautious, just in case.

Young, eager and willing to learn was how he had been described. Young she had no qualms with, not when older and wiser heads could guide them.

Older, yes, but wiser? I’m still a long way from that, what with me dangling here over certain death.

Eager, on the other hand, to her was little different than being reckless, and in the places she went reckless could get you killed. Many went along simply for the treasure, a mercenary attitude that Astiara had not shown. Of course he was there to make a fortune, as did any who took up the game, but he had shown a willingness to learn, to understand the history of those whose ruins they explored and that, as much as anything, had swayed Kathri in his favour.

“Nothing damaged,” she replied. Except my pride, she added privately. The trap should never have caught her by surprise and only through luck had she survived. So much for being an expert, she added ruefully.

Bracing her feet against the wall, she climbed back up to join Astiara. He reached down as she neared the top with a free hand. She took hold of it and he pulled her up over the lip of he pit.

Luck. Pure luck. She almost shuddered on consideration of how close she had come to death. Just a few more steps… She had only rigged up the rope to help them descend a downward leading slope from the collapsed floor of a naturally formed tunnel above. It had emerged into a man made tunnel, heading deeper into the hills. She had barely set her foot upon the floor of the corridor, waiting for Astiara to join her down the bottom of the slope, when it had given out beneath her.

“That was unexpected,” Astiara noted, peering down into the pit again.

“Unique, I would say,” Kathri told him, brushing at the webs that clung to her. The pit had been full of webs and her fall had sent her through them. “The Emperors of the Hajanri never trapped their tombs with pits,” she added, plucking a strand of web out of hair of a copper shade.

“Then perhaps this isn’t the place we are after then.”

Kathri shook her head, looking across the now open pit. The corridor ahead of them ended with a blank wall directly across it, a wall that seamlessly dropped down into the pit below. Why would you install a pit trap at the dead end of a corridor? she asked herself before speaking aloud. “No, this is King Ajanathad’s tomb, of that I am certain.”

A nod came from Astiara. “You haven’t been wrong about anything else so I will take your word at it. If it is true then we could rewrite understanding on the Hajanri Emperors in that case.”

“It may be a touch tricky,” Kathri observed with wry understatement. “We aren’t exactly meant to be here. We might as well just hand ourselves over to the Mages if we were to do that. It’d save them the trouble of looking for us, and you know what happens to those that drag them away from their studies.”

Astiara chuckled and scratched at the stubble growth on his chin. “True.” He looked around, first at the far side of the pit and then back up the slope they had come down. “We must have missed the way we wanted to go.”

“I’m not so sure,” Kathri told him. She walked across to the wall of the corridor and ran her hands across it. Age had seen many of the stone blocks used to construct the wall forced outwards a fraction through pressure from above, while about others roots twined and twisted. All provided plenty of hand holds. With great care she climbed up the wall and started along it, out over the pit, using what support she could find. Astiara played out the rope, up over the beam at the top of the drop, a support for a fake floor that had collapsed with the rock slide. The other end, tied about her waist, followed after her. Twice as she made her way along a brick crumbled as she took a hold of it. Another came out of the wall as she grasped it, tumbling down into the pit below to crash to the ground with a dull echo.

When she reached the end of the corridor, she shifted across to the wall on the far side of the pit. Her arms were burning with fatigue from gripping tight to the wall, to small finger holds along the edges of bricks and to roots that flexed and bent as she took hold of them.

It must be here. There had to be another way through, else nothing make sense. Her fingers sought out each small nook and cranny until, just as she began to despair of finding it before she could no longer hold on, her questing touch happened upon a brick different to the rest. It, unlike the others, had not been mortared into place, instead sitting loose. She slid it free and let it drop into the pit. A small alcove lay behind where it had been in the wall. With care she slid her hand in. It touched an old, rusty lever. Grasping it, she eased it down. At first nothing happened but then a dull rumbling started behind the wall.

The whole back wall began to grind upwards into the roof, carrying Kathri with it. At the top of the pit, level with the corridor on the other side, an opening began to appear, the corridor continuing on, Kathri suspected. She climbed down the rising wall as it continued to retract, her feet finding purchase on the edge of the newly revealed opening. Once the wall had risen high enough, she let go and ducked beneath it, standing up in the now open corridor. She let out a deep breath and began shaking her arms and hands. They ached with a heaviness that left them almost numb.

The newly revealed corridor extended out before her. From the faint light of the amberstone held by Astiara she could see a dust covered floor, one undisturbed except for the faint tracks left behind by rodents and lizards. Strands of webs stretched out across the corridor, thick enough to restrict vision beyond a short way, at least not enough to make out any more details. They swayed slightly in the draft of the now opened corridor.

Iron sconces lined the walls of the corridor. They bled rust, staining the walls below. She tested one, pulling at it with numb hands. It broke free in her hands, weakened by decay. She dropped it and moved across the corridor to the one on the other side. Despite a firm pull on it, it resisted her efforts to break it free.

She untied the rope around her waist, fumbling at it as her grip recovered from the effort of the climb. She wrapped the rope around the sconce firmly. Once secure, she took hold of the end of the rope and braced her feet.

“Come across,” she called out to Astiara.

The light dimmed as Astiara stowed away the amberstone, to keep it safe as he made preparations to come across the pit. The rope stretched out over it and up to the top of the broken slope where it hung over the exposed beam. Astiara released the other end of the rope. He took a hold of the rope stretching across the pit and pulled on it. The other end of the rope slid upwards, over the beam, and fell down the slope to Astiara’s feet. He picked it up and threw the end over a thick, exposed root that thrust out through the roof above the pit, forcing its way between two sagging stones. The rope dangled down into the pit. Reaching out, he took hold of it and pulled it back. Stepping back as far as he could, Astiara took a running leap, out over the pit, swinging on the rope.

The root sagged under his weight, dust and small clumps of earth falling down as he did. Kathri held her breath, half fearing it would tear loose. It held. Astiara landed lightly on the other side, kicking up a small cloud of dust as he did. The amberstone came back out, once more shining its illumination along the corridor.

While Kathri unwrapped the rope from around the sconce and started to coil it up, Astiara drew a heavy bladed knife that was sheathed at his side, one with a forward curving blade, concave nearer the hilt and convex towards the point, of a type that the Iliati of the north called a hiasta. He cut down through the first strands of web sweeping across the corridor, opening up a path for them.

“Be careful that you don’t cut through any wires,” Kathri said, pulling the rope so that the other end passed over the root and fell free.

Astiara paused in mid stroke, the hiasta hovering in the air. He stood there unmoving for a few moments before shrugging his shoulders and continuing the downward sweep of the blade, cutting through the webs again. “The Hajanri didn’t go for that kind of thing,” he noted. A short moment passed before he added, “And if they did any wires would have long since rusted away.”

“It is true about the Hajanri not doing that,” Kathri replied, finishing rolling up the rope. “Others did though, utilising gold wires, which don’t rust, or wires augmented with magic so as to survive. Some used even stranger things in place of wires.”

Astiara continued cutting his way through the webs. Each downward hack with the hiasta snapped strands of web in twain and sent the ends snapping back to the walls. “Meanwhile all we have to deal with are such pleasantries as Phase Walls, Arcane Coils, Soul Reavers and Mirror Beacons.”

“I hope not. If we do run into those it really does mean we are in the wrong place.”

Astiara turned about and raised a brow in Kathri’s direction.

“Those are found in Late Dynasty tombs,” she explained, “When the Haja were their most imaginative and devious when it came to dealing with looters, and only in the tombs of the rich and powerful.”

“I think you could count King Ajanathad as such,” Astiara noted, turning about to once more deal with the webs.

“True, but he is more of the early Middle Dynasty,” Kathri answered. Stowing the rope away she began to follow Astiara as he made his slow way along the corridor.

“So what are we looking at then?” he asked.

“Guardians, most like, as well as Soul Whips and Thresher Flares.”

Astiara grunted as he swung the hiasta. “Not much of an improvement there. We are looking at probably death as opposed to certain death.”

Kathri laughed. “You are such a pessimist.”

A chuckle came from Astiara, one that cut off sharply. He stopped his actions and went down on one knee, holding up the amberstone in his left hand while the right leant on the hiasta, the tip of which was set on the ground. “Up ahead,” he said, voice all serious, gesturing ahead with the amberstone.

Kathri moved up alongside him and stared along the corridor, to where Astiara had gestured. Through the shroud of webs, a few metres ahead of them, one patch of dust and dirt sat lower than on either side.

“It looks as if the accumulation of dust has triggered a trap plate,” Astiara noted.

“Possibly,” Kathri replied. “Or it could be a false trap to lure the unwary.”

“Paranoid lot, the Hajanri.”

Kathri responded with a wry smile, little more than a flicker of her lips. Eyes the shade of ochre were intent on the trap, her thoughts bent upon it. “Just mildly. They had their reasons though.”

She slung the pack she carried to the ground and unbuckled it. She fished around inside until her hand closed on what she sought, an oiled leather pouch sealed by a drawstring. The pouch contained a collection of glyphstones, one of which she needed. Untying the drawstring, she opened the pouch and sorted through the assorted stones within, most no larger than a walnut. She plucked out from among them one, a greenstone, a polished stone of mottled shades of green that ranged from near white to almost black. She would have preferred a jadestone, for they held their charge much longer, but they were beyond her means. Not many Mages made glyphstones that were available for general use, preferring to hoard their power, but there were always a few, for whatever reason, that made some for sale. You have to take what you can get, she reminded herself.

Across the front of the greenstone had been inscribed a single glyph, one that meant life. She ran her fingers across the glyph, softly speaking the name of the glyph; maro. The stone trembled in response, a faint vibration that ran through her fingers. From within it a soft, pale green glow came, set off by the harsher pulsing red of the glyph itself.

She bounced the greenstone on her palm a couple of times, judging the distance. Then she threw it down the corridor in an underarm motion. It bounced and skittered across the dust and over the depressed section of the floor. The moment it had passed over and continued on, a bright flare of white light erupted from the walls on either side, a light that billowed down the corridor in both directions. Tendrils of translucent light lashed out from the wall, grasping at the stone and starting to wrap around it.

Kathri sighed softly. “There are times that I hate being right.”

“What was that?” Astiara asked, watching the writhing tendrils of light envelope the greenstone, a roiling mass that sought to crush the life from it much as a constrictor did to its prey.

“Something nasty,” Kathri told him, sounding grim. “It should be safe to pass it now while it is occupied.”

Astiara nodded, standing back up. He set out forward once more, hesitating only slightly. The last of the webs cut away, he reached the depressed section of floor. With great care he set his foot across it and ducked beneath the heaving tendrils, emerging unharmed on the other side. Kathri followed after him.

On making it through safe, Kathri turned back towards the tendrils, once more speaking the name of the glyph. The light of the greenstone faded before dying out. The tendrils, no longer attracted by the pulse of life coming from the stone, unwrapped from around it and retracted back into the wall. The greenstone fell to the ground with a dull thud.

Kathri opened up the pouch of glyphstones again and selected one from it, this of black shot through with flecks of red. “You may wish to maintain a tight grip on the amberstone,” she told Astiara, her own hand clenched about the pouch of stones.

Astiara looked at her curiously but nodded anyway, shifting his grasp on the amberstone.

Kathri held up the lodestone towards where the greenstone sat on the ground. She whispered another word, rubbing a thumb across the glyph on the stone she held. It flared with power and light and she felt a solid tug on the pouch of other stones in response. From Astiara’s surprised look, she could tell he had felt the same on the amberstone he held.

On the ground, the greenstone trembled and bounced before flying through the air towards her, into the hand that held the lodestone. Once more she spoke its command word, deactivating it. The pull on the other stones cut out.

“Handy,” Astiara noted.

“It has its uses,” Kathri admitted, putting both stones back into the pouch. “I lost any number of stones before I obtained it. The greenstone here would have been the same. There was no way to get it back without activating the trap, and that would be a mistake we wouldn’t have a chance to repeat.”

“How does it work?” Astiara asked. Kathri fished out the stone from the pouch and tossed it across to him. He held it up to the light of the amberstone to read the glyph upon it. “An attract glyph? That shouldn’t work on other stones from what I know.”

“When it was made, it was modified to attract the thuamaturgic signatures on other glyphstones.”

“Cunning. There can’t be many who could manage a modification like that.” He flipped the stone over to read the maker’s mark on the back of it. His eyes widened upon looking at it. “A Rotti? You have an actual Rotti?”

“That is what the mark says.”

Astiara shook his head slowly. “It is genuine?”

“They say that the mark’s can’t be faked.”

A wry smile played across Astiara’s face. “That is what they say, but you hear stories.”

Kathri nodded. The Mages claimed that the marks could not be faked, that with each there was a thaumaturgical signature unique to each individual, as unique as a fingerprint. Not every glyphstone had a maker’s mark upon it though, and she had heard the stories of fake marks being placed upon them, both by Mages and by others. While the physical mark could be forged, the thaumaturgical signature could not and any other Mage could detect it as a fake, if they knew what the signature should be. Rumours had it they came down hard on those that tried it. And on everyone else who crosses them, she reminded herself.

“You can test it if you want,” she told him.

Astiara touched the maker’s mark on the back of the stone. “Rotti,” he said. The mark began to glow beneath his hand. A swirl of soft green light wrapped about his hand, sparkling with tiny shards of brighter light, like stars shimmering in the night sky. Repeating the name, Astiara shut off the display. “How did you come by it?” he asked, passing the stone back to Kathri.

“Not by any legal means.”

Astiara laughed. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

There was no way she could have afforded a Rotti. Rotti of Ciosala was the most renown of all glyphstone creators of the last century, attempting, and succeeding at, designs that no other thought possible, such as the lodestone she possessed.

Kathri looked ahead along the corridor, not seeing anything beyond the dust and the webs. She placed the lodestone back in the pouch with the other stones and stored the pouch away in her pack. From among the contents of it she took out another item, a scroll case of hardened leather. She took the cap off the case and slowly, and with great care, took out an old parchment from it, one quite fragile. Unrolling it revealed a much faded map upon it, as well as a large section of the parchment missing towards the middle. As it opened, voices began to rise from it, whispering words. They sounded distant, hollow, voices without emotion. The voices spoke just one sentence, repeated over and over, spoken in the ancient Hajanri language. She had only a rudimentary understanding of Hajanri, though enough to know roughly what the words said; We are the voices of the unboxed. From time to time the words skipped or broke up, the result, she assumed, from damage to the map.

Astiara shivered, a touch dramatically Kathri felt. “I can never get used to that,” he said. “It is made worse by not knowing what exactly it means.”

“Just another secret that the Hajanri took to the graves with them,” Kathri replied. She ran her finger along a section of the faded map, following a line marked upon it, one that led into the missing section in the middle of the map. “We are somewhere around here,” she said. “Near as I can tell.”

Astiara looked over the map with her and shook his head. “Just the spot that we don’t want to be blind going into.”

Kathri’s smile was dry and without much humour. “No, not really, but it looks as if we are close to the burial chamber. Or should be.” She pointed to a chamber marked on the map. The missing section of the parchment ate into half of the marked chamber. “It should be this one if I am reading the map correct.”

“What does this say?” Astiara asked, pointing to some words written alongside the chamber, written in the flowing script that marked Hajanri. Graceful, it was almost more work of art than language.

“As near as I can read it, it says ‘The Arrogance of Lords approach not.’ I am still not entirely certain if it is arrogance or pride. It could even be kings instead of lords. There aren’t many experts on Hajanri, especially of the Middle Dynasty dialect, who could translate it properly for me and not alert the Mages as to the existence of the map. There should be more to the message but you can see it runs through the torn section of map.”

“Any thoughts as to what it means? They wouldn’t have written it if it wasn’t of some importance.”

Kathri shrugged, rolling the parchment up again. As she did the whispering voices cut out, filling the corridor with silence once more. “Who can really tell with the Hajanri. They are so frustratingly enigmatic, one of the great mysteries of the ages. The attitudes of the Mages in seeking to bar any delving into the ruins and tombs they left behind makes it more so.”

“Give some of what has happened with past discoveries, there are times I can understand their attitudes,” Astiara said, frowning slightly. “We don’t want a repeat of the Golden Reaper, nor whatever it was that wiped out the town of Cartala.”

“True,” Kathri admitted, “But there is no trouble if you are careful, and in those cases they weren’t.” The parchment went back into the scroll case. Kathri closed the case and stored it away into the pack again. “Plus there is plenty of value to be found that isn’t dangerous in any way, left to moulder away in the dark of the earth because a few old men and women are too cautious to seek them out.”

~~~~

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