Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Shadow of the Raven – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Among Crystal Sarcophagi

The journey down the rest of the corridor, cautious due to the need to be mindful for any further traps along its length and slowed by the need to clear the webs from along it, proved uneventful. No matter how many times Kathri had descended into tombs, Hajanri or otherwise, she had never got over the nerves of half expecting a trap to go off at any moment.

The moment I stop being cautious is the moment I die, she reminded herself. She had seen those who had gone in overconfident before. They seldom lasted long. Either they learnt to respect the ruins or they never came out.

The first indication that they were nearing the end of the corridor came when the light of the amberstone spilt out into a larger open space.

Kathri motioned towards the opening to Astiara. The dark haired man nodded, tightening his grip on his hiasta, an unnecessary action Kathri felt. Any problems they ran into would be beyond a knife to deal with.

They halted at the entrance to the opening, looking out into a large chamber, the roof arching up into the dark above. Astiara started to take a step out into it until Kathri held up a hand to block him, indicating to him to remain outside of the room for the time. A cleared walk lead down the centre of the chamber, all the way to set of large doors in the far wall. The light of the amberstone glinted off the golden panels of the doors while the wall itself was painted in barely seen murals, the most imposing of which was a dark skinned man who bestrode the doors, one leg on either side.

On either side of the walkway were raised ledges, standing at about knee height. On each ledge were six heavy blocks of crystal, running along its length towards the far wall. The crystal blocks were flat topped, while the sides and ends were multifaceted, all sight into them broken up and fractured. The vaguely translucent blocks each held a body in them, shrouded in cloth from what could be seen, though their nature made it hard to make them out exactly, and features impossible.

Behind each crystal sarcophagus a niche had been built into the walls, reaching up to the roof. Each niche was occupied by a stone statue, at least three metres in height, which looked down upon the crystals. The statues were burly in form and appeared as a subtle blend of man and hound, with long muzzles and alert, pointed ears, their faces radiating watchful intent. They held in their heavy hands oversized swords that forked towards the tip into three prongs much like a trident, a wholly impractical design Kathri felt.

“The forechamber,” Astiara said, looking across the room,

Kathri nodded, ochre shaded eyes studying the chamber for any signs of danger. The forechambers of the Hajanri tombs were notorious for being trapped or defended, and she was no hurry to walk into it until she was certain as to what was out there.

The forechambers were also known for another thing, that they held other bodies, unmarked so no identities could be obtained, contained within crystal sarcophagi. The popular theory going around was that they were either servants or close family members of the Emperor whose tomb it was. When they were buried, that was the great debate. Some felt they had been buried at the same time as the king, sacrificed to accompany him into the afterlife, others that they had been placed to rest both before and after the king’s death, entombed close to his final resting place as befitted close members of the family.

“So what do you think?” Astiara asked, looking up at the towering statues. “Guardians?”

Kathri’s eyes narrowed as she considered it. “That would be my guess,” she replied. Guardians were the tried and true method of tomb and ruin defence the Five Lands over, both by the Hajanri and all other ancient nations, back when the magic still functioned enough to construct them. They were used because they are so effective, she reminded herself. Why would they change what works?

She continued to study the room with great intent for some minutes more before a sigh escaped her. She shook her head, a frown across her brow. “I see nothing,” she told Astiara.

Astiara nodded in agreement. “It looks clear to me as well, which only makes me more suspicious. Whatever triggers are out there, they are well hidden. From what I recall, the Hajanri Guardians are brought to life via three means; light, life or proximity.”

“Normally,” Kathri replied, “But there were always tomb architects that were prone to experiment, to test out new and unusual means. From what I’ve seen so far of this tomb, it is anything but normal. I would not be surprised if it was also the case here. It is best not to risk it though. We must test everything.”

Once more Kathri took out her pouch of glyphstones and extract from it the greenstone that bore the glyph of life. A rub of her finger and a whisper of the command word brought it to life, pulsating with red and green light. Taking aim she tossed it out into the chamber, towards the feet of the nearest of the giant stone statues. It bounced across the dusty floor, coming to a rest against a sandalled foot. They stood there watching as the stone cast its waxing and waning light through the chamber. There was no reaction to it from the statue.

“Not triggered by life then,” Astiara noted.

“No, it seems not. It is possibly not triggered by proximity either, though it is hard to say. It can be triggered by the stones on occasions, depending on how it was designed. Try the amberstone on it.”

Astiara threw the glowing amberstone out into the chamber, the stone, its light much brighter than that cast by the greenstone, bouncing to join the other one near to the statue. Once more the room remained quiet. “Proximity it is then,” he said.

A grimace crossed Kathri’s face. “The hardest to test, at least without physically endangering yourself, and even harder to counter. Any decent design would have it cover the entirety of the room so even if we stick to the middle path they will still activate.” She sighed and shook her head. “There is nothing for it I guess.”

She stepped out into the chamber, one tentative step at a time, holding her breath as she did. The further she edged into the room, the tighter her nerves grew, waiting for the inevitable to happen. She was prepared to turn and run at an instance, yet nothing happened. Kathri stopped about halfway into the room, frowning as she looked about. None of this makes any sense. Why are the Guardians just sitting there?

Leaving the central walk, she climbed up onto the ledge to the right. Passing by the crystal tombs with their half seen bodies, she approached the base of the statue where the glyphstones sat. There she stood, looking up at the statue, her frown deepening. Finally, with a shrug, she reached down and recovered the stones.

“Odd,” she noted.

“Very,” Astiara agreed, leaving the corridor to join her on the ledge. Kathri passed him back the amberstone.

Putting aside the mystery of the Guardians, Kathri deactivated the greenstone. She stored it away as she began to explore the chamber, starting with the nearest of the crystal sarcophagi. They were unique to the Hajanri, just being one more unlocked mystery of their fallen civilisation. Formed of magic itself and harder than diamonds, they were unbreakable by any means known. They could not even by scratched. Not even the use of magic had been of use against them for they simply drank it in and grew with each casting upon them.

Standing at the foot of it, she looked down at the shrouded body within. The vague shape within hinted at rather than gave away any features. Little in the tombs and ruins that she had explored unnerved her and yet she always had a vague unsettled feeling when looking on the crystal sarcophagi and their contents. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was that caused it.

You have no problems with bodies, she reminded herself. She had seen more than a few, in various states of decay, from skeletal to desiccated and all the states in between. Perhaps it is that the bodies show no signs of decay. Most were bound away in burial shrouds, made more obscure by the nature of the crystal as well. Some, however, were not completely covered by the shrouds and hints of features could be made out, untouched by time and decay. The crystals did not provide enough of a view to get a good look at them, to see what they had looked like, when they were alive, but enough could be made out to remind her that they were once a real person, now preserved forever. I hope that at least they were dead before they went in.

Astiara walked across to the nearest of the crystals. With the hilt of his hiasta, he tapped on the flat top of it. The crystal sang in reply, a note of the purest sounds that filled the darkness with its sweet song. It echoed through the tomb and a low hum came from the other crystal sarcophagi in response. Astiara bore a slightly embarrassed look as the sound died away. “Looks like it wasn’t sound either,” he said.

“It seems not.”

Reversing the hiasta, Astiara tried to scratch the surface of the crystal with the tip. Not a mark showed up. “Whoever first figures out how to replicate these will make a fortune.”

“I’d prefer that no one did,” Kathri responded. “That last thing we want is an indestructible substance in the hands of anyone. Could you imagine if it was?”

“Problematic,” Astiara agreed. “It does bear asking one question though. If the Hajanri had access to it, why did they not use it for other purposes than to bury the dead?”

“There is a rumour that someone did find a crystal spear and shield,” Kathri said.

Astiara nodded. “I’ve heard that too, but there has been no sign of it. Any warrior with access to that would be unstoppable so why hide it if you had it?”

“It does defy understanding if it is true, yes, much as the Hajanri not using it for other purposes. They must have had their reasons.”

“Which they failed to leave any mention of.” He touched the crystal sarcophagus again. “Even if no one can replicate them, learning to unlock them would be lucrative.”

“I would not like that either,” Kathri replied, a trouble look appearing on her face. “It would seem wrong to disturb these people, whoever they were.”

“An odd sentiment for a tomb robber,” Astiara said, speaking softly, “And yet I know what you mean.” He looked down at the crystal again, only to stumble backwards, his face going ashen. “That one just looked at me and blinked,” he exclaimed.

“It was just the light,” Kathri told him. It had to have been the light. No one could be alive in one of those things. “Let us move on. There is nothing more to see here and the statues may just be statues after all and not Guardians.”

Kathri stepped down from the ledge and walked down the middle of the chamber towards the far painted wall, where the golden doors led beyond to hidden parts of the tomb, followed by Astiara. The images that marched across the wall swam into sharper focus the closer she came and the more the light of the amberstone shone upon them. A giant image dominated it, that of a man, dark of skin, who bestrode the door. Red of hair and of eye and clad in armour of flowing silver scales, it was of the Emperor who was buried within. Over him arched flowing Hajanri script and one word in it stood out to Kathri; Ajanathad. She smiled at the confirmation that this was the place she had sought.

The image of Ajanathad grasped the hair of a smaller figure while raising a club on high with the other hand, ready to strike his victim down. The features of the victim had a vague feline cast to them, hints of cat blended in with the human, much as the statues inside the chamber had a touch of hound to them. There were others of the victim’s kind represented in different sections of painting, also falling prey to lesser images of the Emperor and his followers, being hunted and struck down. Standing around, smaller yet, and subservient to the Hajanri, were subjects of the Emperor, these too featuring animalistic features, though of different kinds of animals. Only the feline kind, though, were falling victim to the Hajanri.

The Hajanri were a people unlike any others known in the Five Lands. Kathri had heard all the tales of them, of how they had marched out of the east and founded a powerful empire, one that had flourished and ruled for twelve centuries before mysteriously collapsing, leaving behind only ruins and questions. As the images showed, they were a dark skinned people, ruled over by an elite of Fireblooded. The features of Ajanathad showed that he was one of them. A chill flowed through Kathri at the prominent display of one of the Blooded, as it ever did. There are reminders that I do not need.

None could withstand them on their march as they conquered their way to the Western Shores. One by one nations had fallen to them until at last only the tribes of the High King of Brianath remained. Long she had studied the Lament of the Last High King, searching for clues as to his final resting place. The search had been fruitless but still there were lines from it that she could not forget.

They come for me with their bright tipped spears, upon a tide of blood. The fierce eagle has fallen from the sky, to rise no more. Woe has come to the lands, woe has come to the living.

The descendants of the Brianath still sung of him more than a thousand years later, calling him the King who Never Fell. More words of those ancient songs came back to Kathri, memories rising unbidden.

At last they came to him, Freest of the Free, and bade him to subservience swear.

Into their faces he cast the broken crown, swearing but one vow, that never would a knee he bend.

Yet last and alone he could not stand the path of freedom he trod, a path of blood and darkness.

None now knew the meaning of the final parts of the song. The pragmatists claimed that he had chosen death rather than servitude and killed himself. The romantics, who grew ever in number as the years rolled on, were of the view that he took up Agolnach, the Spear of the High Kings of Brianath, and gone into lonely exile in far off lands where the Hajanri would never find him. It would be nice to think it true, but I have seen too much of the world to believe it.

Hajanri art had one peculiarity about it. Only the Hajanri themselves were shown as true humans. All other people were displayed with hints of animal in them, shown as being different to their masters, with the cats always shown as the foe. They were never named, not as such, leading to much speculation as to their purpose in Hajanri art. The generally held theory was that they were not a single people but stood as a representation of the enemy of the Hajanri, whoever it was at any given time. Why cats though? Kathri asked herself. Surely there are other animals that would better fit to indicate an enemy.

Reaching the doors set into the wall, the pair stopped. They were great heavy things which were largely bare in comparison to the walls around them. All that they displayed was a great sunburst image emblazoned across them. Rays of sunlight beamed down upon them, playing across a figure at the base of the door, bathing them in flames. Kathri had not see the likes of it before. The doors had no handles nor any other visible means of opening them.

Astiara set a hand upon the gold plated door and gave it a push. The doors budged not an inch. He set his shoulder to the door and braced his feet, giving it a solid shove, straining unto he went red in the face. There was still no give to the doors.

“Stuck shut,” he announced, breathing deeply as he recovered from the effort. “It feels like it is being barred or blocked from the other side.”

“There shouldn’t be,” Kathri told him, “Unless something has fallen over inside and is obstructing the door. As devious as they were with trapping their tombs, for whatever reasons they left the burial chambers of the Emperors and Emperesses open, unlocked and untrapped. Anyone who reached this far could simply enter, if they were able to evade the perils that came before.”

“You would have thought that the burial chamber would be the most tightly guarded,” Astiara noted with a shrug. “We still need a way to get in. Any ideas?” Kathri shook her head. Astiara sheathed his hiasta and slung his pack from his shoulder. “Luckily I am prepared for such an eventuality.” Placing the pack down on the ground, he went down on one knee beside it and began to rummage around inside. What he brought out was a small red clay pot, one no larger than a clenched fist. A wax seal stoppered the top. A short length of cord ran through the seal and into the pot. On the side of the pot a glyph stood out, a brighter red in colour. The glyph was mata; fire.

Kathri’s eyes widened as she saw what it was that Astiara held and she took a few steps backwards. “You have been carrying this the whole time we have been together? Are you mad?”

“It is safe,” Astiara told her patiently. “The glyph has not yet been activated.”

“The Fettered One take you for a cursed idiot, Astiara,” Kathri exclaimed, her mouth going dry. “The glyph merely heightens the power of the resulting explosion. It does nothing for the firepowder which is active at all times, and unstable as well.” She shuddered at the thought of what could have happened, and of all the times during their journey, both to the tomb and while delving into it, that it could have gone badly wrong.

“I know what I am doing, Kathri,” Astiara replied. He had a ring of confidence in his voice that gave Kathri a moment’s pause. She wouldn’t have touched it for all the gems in the Towers of Huesta yet he seemed assured around it. “I’ve used them before.”

“How did you come by it?” she asked. “The Mages placed a ban on the manufacture of them and went out of their way to destroy any that they came across.”

“I came across a hidden cache of them,” Astiara explained, setting the clay pot down at the base of the doors. “They were left over from the Wars of the Taitagin, in the ruins of Boadia.”

“I’m surprised that they survived that battle given it was the driving force for the Mages to enforce the ban on them.”

Astiara began to mound dirt around the clay pot, scrapped up from off of the surrounding floor. “If you have any other alternatives I’m open for suggestions.”

Kathri sighed. “I wish I did.”

Astiara nodded, putting the final touches to readying the pot. “It would be best to seek out cover in that case.”

Kathri needed no second warning. She hurried back down the chamber, along the central walkway. Towards the back she scrambled up onto the ledge, taking cover down behind one of the crystal sarcophagi. She peered over the top at Astiara. The dark haired man rubbed a thumb across the glyph on the pot. She didn’t hear him activate it but she saw the glyph begin to glow, a deep almost blood red. The colour in itself was foreboding enough without knowledge of what it would do. She watched as he took up his pack and fished out tinder and steel. A flash of sparks followed as he struck them together before the length of cord flared into light, hissing and shooting sparks.

Astiara span about and raced back down the chamber, leaping up onto the ledge and throwing himself down behind one of the crystals ahead of Kathri. Shutting her eyes tight, Kathri ducked her head down and covered it with her arms, squeezing into a tight a ball as she could, waiting for, and dreading, what was to come.

~~~~

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