Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Shadow of the Raven – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – The Crown of the Emperor

Total darkness enveloped Kathri, along with a chill that sleeted through her, piercing skin and flesh and bones. She could feel herself seeping through the wall, as well as the wall seeping through her, all at the same time. In some way it felt like swimming through water, if water was pitch black and flowed through you. Her heart skipped a beat and a moment of panic began to rise in her throat.

Then she was through, the experience gone in the blink of an eye.

Rather than the dark she had expected to be greeted by on the other side, instead a light bathed across her, a soft glow, almost golden in colour. Blinking her eyes, she took in the surrounds. She stood in another chamber, one larger than the burial chamber she had just stepped out of. In the centre of it was an object that first caught the view, a statue in the form of a man. Of polished red stone it had been made, and through it crawled veins of gold and of shades of stone of dark green, blacks and whites. One arm of the statue was raised on high and in it she saw a sun formed of crystal. From the sun came the glow that illuminated the chamber.

Behind it, at the back of the room, stood another statue, this one massive in form, twice the height of the ones that had been present in the forechamber. Unlike those, this one bore no features that resembled a hound. Instead it was purely human in appearance, and bore a striking resemblance to Emperor Ajanathad in his crystal sarcophagus, except in this case he was clad not in robes but in armour of scales and he held in each hand a hefty mace. He had been painted, his skin black, his hair red and his armour silver.

The rest of the room was filled to overflowing, with many containers, chests and jars, each richly painted and decorated. Scattered among them were the furnishing of the Emperor; beds and chairs, stools and tables, all of fine woods and many gilded. There were lesser statues among it all, of hounds and horses and servants, and models of boats, chariots and more besides, cunning crafted and richly painted. Everywhere the light of the orb set precious metals to glistening and precious stones to flare with inner light.

Before her sat the grave goods of a Hajanri Emperor, in quantities and value beyond any found before. It appeared undisturbed, without sign of any grave robbers having previously discovered it and looted it.

She looked behind her, to the wall where she had come through. The swirling portal still existed on this side, once more corresponding to a doorway painted upon the wall. Bordering it were images of the Emperor entering the afterlife. The wal rippled and Astiara slipped through, holding the amberstone out before him. Barely had he stepped out of the wall than he stopped, eyes widening and mouth opening in wonder at what he saw, scare able to take it in.

They stood there in silence for how long they did not know, trying to come to grips with the enormity of the treasure that they had found. When at last the silence was broken, it was Astiara who spoke first.

“I don’t…” he began to say before the words failed him. “I am not dreaming, am I Kathri?” Kathri shook her head, still mute with wonder. “I never dreamed that there was so much treasure to be had,” he added. A trembling hand reached out and took hold of a chair from among the nearby goods grave goods. Made of gold, or at least gilded over with gold, Kathri couldn’t tell which, it was inset with the deep green of jade and the rich blue of lapis-lazuli. The back rest of the chair had been decorated by precious stones so as to look like the tail of a peacock fanned out, while the arm rests were made to look like the necks and heads of a peacock. Astiara let his pack fall down beside the chair and all but collapsed into it, resting his arms upon his knees. Kathri felt somewhat light headed and her own knees as weak as Astiara’s were. She followed his example, sitting upon the lid of a chest. Made of a deep red wood, it had been carved and decorated with scenes of a hunt, inlaid with ebony and ivory, polished and varnished to a brilliant finish. The little figures upon the lid were amazingly detailed, of hounds crashing through bushes in pursuit of a proud stag, and of men on horseback riding after them.

Astiara sat there for a while, simply staring ahead, still wide eyed. After a while he reached for his pack and rummaged around in it, drawing out a clay pipe and a pouch. A shaking hand thumbed leaf into the pipe from the pouch. Flint and steel sparked and the leaf within the pipe began to smoke. Leaning back in the chair, pipe in mouth, he stared ahead again.

More silence followed. Finally Astiara removed his pipe from his mouth and pointed at the treasure with the stem of it. “How do we get this lot out?” he asked.

“We don’t,” Kathri replied, finding her voice again. “There is far too much, and most of it is too bulky to move, even if we could figure a way back passed the traps. More so, there aren’t merchants enough to sell it to and not attract the attention of the Mages. This amount and variety of such distinctive Hajanri furnishing appearing around the place would raise many questions that we don’t want to answer. We take what we can from that which is easily carried and won’t attract attention. Coins are good as there are a plentiful supply of them already out there. Gems and jewellery are better. They are worth more and still difficult to trace.”

Still seated, Astiara reached across to a nearby chest and pulled open the lid. It was a large, heavy looking thing, plain in comparison to the one upon which Kathri sat. The wood that it had been made from had aged and appeared as dark and tough as the iron bands that bound it.

The lid fell back, creaking in protest at being opened for the first time in long centuries, to reveal a pile of scrolls contained within the chest. They were yellowed with age but beyond that appeared intact. Some bore wax seals that bound them shut while others were tied up with nothing more than simple cords.

Astiara took one from the top of the pile. Untying the knot of the cord that bound it, he let the cord fall away and began to unroll the scroll. He held it up to look at it and then flipped it over as if it had been upside down. Then he turned it back around again.

“Anything of interest in it?” Kathri asked.

Astiara frowned as he continued to wind through the scroll. “Couldn’t rightly say as it it nothing but text.” He held it out towards Kathri to take. “You are the expert on their language.”

Kathri took the scroll from him, half smiling. “Hardly an expert, Astiara.”

“Given I can’t read their language and you can to a degree, that makes you the expert here.”

Kathri started to read through the scroll, as best she could. While she knew Hajanri after a fashion, and could in part read it, much of what was written in faded ink upon the scroll was beyond her capabilities. A few words and phrases here and there did stand out, enough to get a feel for the text. “It would appear to be a poem,” she told Astiara. “Or perhaps a song in praise of the Emperor. They that rise shall fall, to rise once more,” she quoted.

“Not very praiseworthy, that,” Astiara noted, sorting through the scrolls in the chest.

“This bit further on does. Then shall the Great One bring down fires upon them, and the blood of the fallen shall sweep the skies. Who shall stand before them?

“Now that sounds much more like the boasting of Emperors.”

Kathri nodded slowly as she continued to read on through the scroll. One word further on leapt out a her, one she knew well, the Hajanri for raven. Another reference to a raven. What was it with Ajanathad and ravens? She had heard no mention of the Emperor in anyway being associated with the raven before and yet it seemed obvious that there was some connection.

“Go through the rest of the scrolls,” Kathri said to Astiara, almost absently, her focus on trying to read the poem she held. “Leave the ones with the seals. It is possible that they may be trapped in some way. The others should be safe.”

“Should be safe,” Astiara repeated, deadpan in tone. “You fill me with such confidence, Kathri.”

A brief smile played over Kathri’s face. “I try. Look for any scrolls that have maps or charts upon them. They can be of use later on if they led to any other lost Hajanri ruins or tombs.”

A questioning brow raised from Astiara. “With all the riches on offer here, enough to never need to work again, and you still consider more exploring.”

Kathri started to roll the scroll up, intending to keep it for a later time when she could read it in more detail. It had intrigued her and she wanted to wanted to know exactly what it said. “When you have been as long at this game as I have, Astiara, then the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving concern. It gets into your blood, the need to find new places before any others do, to match wits with the designers, to defeat their guards and wards. It is a thrill that little else can match.”

Astiara looked up from the chest and gave her a quizzical look. “You look no older than me. Just how long have you been at this?”

“I started young,” Kathri replied, her tone indicating it was a topic she did not wish to get into. Young, among other things.

Astiara simply shrugged and returned to his work. Leaving Astiara to it, Kathri stood up from where she sat on the chest and began to make her way forward, picking a path through the accumulated treasures, looking from one thing to another. Nearby sat a small wooden table, one supported by a single central leg that flared out into bronze clawed feet. The rim of the round table had been carved with exquisite details, of vines woven together from which hung bunches of grapes. The surface of the table was set with polished stone, half of a rich red and the other a deep green which together formed a grid like pattern, one that narrowed to one side and expanded to the other where it was twice as many tiles across. On the narrow side a half dozen tokens made of gold had been set up, each stamped with a Hajanri number, from one to twelve. Opposite them were two dozen smaller silver tokens, also stamped with numbers.

Kathri recognised the game table, though never one of such fine make before. The Hajanri called it Bhagodri. The rules of it had been forgotten, lost in the long years since the fall of their civilisation. There were many who had claimed to have discovered the rules, or at least what they thought they were. All anyone knew was that the larger tokens defended the smaller side of the board against the more numerous, and presumably weaker, smaller tokens. Kathri picked up one of the gold tokens, feeling the familiar, reassuring heavy weigh of it. She set it back down on the board in the place it had initially been. The board had been set up with what appeared to be a game in mid progress and she felt no need to disturb it.

Leaving the Bhagodri board behind, Kathri pressed on through the room. Another nearby item caught her view, one of a long model boat, its length around the height of a grown man. Built in the Hajanri style, being narrow and double masted, with rowers to both sides, it had been made of individual planks of wood that had been carved out and fixed to the frame with tiny bronze nails. A pronged ram at the front of the ship appeared to have been made out of gold. Leaning forward she could see the small figures of the rowers were men with stag like features to their faces, most prominent being a set of antlers. The rest of the crew walking the deck and soldiers on guard were dark skinned Hajanri. At the stern of the boat, where tillers to either side were manned by sailors, stood a tall Hajanri man, one with red hair, pointing forwards along the deck to some unseen location. That would be Emperor Ajanathad with his boat, Kathri concluded.

Alongside the model of the boat were six carved wooden statues of horsemen, the wood a rich red-brown with paler veins running through it. The artists who had made them had captured the horses in gallop, the horsemen upon them crouched low, carrying spears in one hand from which banners flowed, and shields in the other. Upon the shields they bore the image a raven in flight. Kathri had half expected it yet even so it still surprised her. The horsemen were all Hajanri, with once again a the flame haired Emperor leading them, wearing a coat of silver scales.

Her path led towards the centre of the room, to where the polished red stone statue stood supporting the crystal sphere that represented the sun, illuminating the room. Up closer, the flecks and veins of other colours within stood out even more vivid. At the base of the statue, unseen from where she had earlier stood, sat a slab of black stone. Into it was engraved more of the Hajanri script that had then been filled in with gold. A quick look over it revealed most of it to be beyond Kathri’s immediate understanding beyond a word here, a phrase there, which, without context, meant little to her. Only one phrase really stood out to her; ‘And the stars wept in the skies at the coming of the Great One.

While she stood their looking over it, Astiara moved alongside her. “There is nothing much to report about the scrolls,” he told her, staring up at the statue. “At least not in the way of maps.”

Kathri nodded absently. “It was too much to ask for I guess. I will look through them later to see if there is anything else of interest. They are light enough not to be a burden when we leave.”

“How old do you think this is? Astiara asked, inclining his head towards the red stone statue.

“Ajanathad reigned around three centuries into the Haja rule, eight centuries before they collapsed. No one knows how long passed between then and the adoption of the Conclave calender. A century or two perhaps. Add in another five centuries that have passed since, so we are looking at fifteen hundred years probably. More, perhaps, depending on when exactly it was made during the time of the Hajanri.”

“A millennia and a half down here and it still gives off light.” Astiara shook his head in wonderment. “That is some potent magic that they had access to.”

“True. The Hajanri’s knowledge of and mastery over magic was far beyond our knowledge, a fact that annoys the Mages no end.”

Astiara chuckled almost maliciously. “I feel so sorry for them,” he replied, sounding anything but.

“It would be best not to mention it to them though,” Kathri added, giving a faint smile. Best not to at all. They really are touchy about it.

What do you think the orb is made of?” Astiara asked. “Diamond maybe?”

“Hard to tell,” Kathri replied. The brightness of the light given off by the orb made it impossible to focus on. Looking indirectly at it, there were scintillating hints of reflection and scatterings of illumination that were not out of keeping with diamond. It could just as easily be something else entirely, she reminded herself. “Perhaps, or it might be of that crystal that they used to make their sarcophagi from.”

“If only we could get this out,” Astiara noted, a wistful, if touch covetous, look in his eyes. “Image how much it would be worth, a light that never expires, all wrapped up in a work of Hajanri art. The nobles would be falling over themselves to acquire it.”

“I’m sure the Mages would be quite happy to let us sell it,” Kathri noted dryly.

Astiara sighed. “You take all the fun out of dreaming, Kathri.”

Kathri chuckled and glanced beyond the statue, a chuckle that was cut off short by what she beheld at the back of the room.

At the foot of the giant statue of Ajanathad stood a small stone pedestal, one of soft red marble. Upon the pedestal rested a crown. Not just any crown. Made of the finest red gold in the form of a circlet, it was set with numerous black opals. In the centre was a large one, as big as a fist, with smaller ones to either side of it. Frozen fires were trapped within the stones, a scintillating display of greens and reds set against the deep blue of the stone itself. They caught the light from the glowing crystal orb and drank it in, burning with an inner illumination that almost had a life of its own.

Astiara looked to see what had attracted Kathri’s attention, and distracted her so, only for his eyes to widen with almost disbelieving amazement. “The Crown of the Emperor,” he said, almost whispering. “The Crown of Fire.”

Kathri nodded, rendered almost dumbstruck, words failing her. The crown that Ajanathad had been buried with in his sarcophagus was not his true crown, being a mere burial crown, if such could be said of so valuable an item. The true crown of a Hajanri Emperor was one such as sat before them, set with the opals that they treasured above all else, for they saw in them a stone in which fire was locked, waiting for release. Unlike with most nations, the crown of the emperor was not inherited by his successor, being a symbol of rulership. Instead each emperor had his own Crown of Fire, one made for them alone and buried with them upon their deaths. Most had been lost in antiquity, even during the time of the Hajanri, looted by grave robbers. Kathri had heard of only four ever having been found, all of which were in the keeping of the Mages. No other treasure contained within the chamber would be worth near to the value of the crown, nor would attract the attention of the Mages half so much. Kathri felt her fingers itch as she gazed upon so valuable and exquisite an item. Even if she could not sell it or even openly display it, it was not an item that she could leave behind.

The same idea appeared to occur to Astiara, for he started towards it, all else in the chamber forgotten in the dazzling light of the Crown of Fire. Kathri took half a step after him, only to be brought up short by a sudden tingle of warning that swept through her, some instinct for danger that kicked to the fore. Her eyes swept around for hidden danger. “Astiara, wait!” she called out. She could not see what it was that had triggered her subconscious attention, only that something felt off.

Astiara half faltered in his stride and began to turn about to face her. Even as he did, the crown blazed with brighter light and a long, slow groan echoed through the chamber, the grinding of stones one upon the other. Behind Astiara, the giant statue of the Emperor shuddered. From deep within its eyes a red glow emerged and its head turned about, focusing down on them, a baleful light sweeping over the pair. Creaking, it lifted a ponderous leg and began to step forward, over the Crown of Fire, headed towards them. As the vast foot hit the ground, the chamber shook from the impact.

“Astiara, run!” Kathri yelled out.

Astiara needed no further encouragement and took to his heels, racing back towards the portal out of the chamber. Kathri turned about as well, a crimson flare springing to her eyes, her heart pounding.

The room shook as the statue took another step. Treasures shuddered and furniture shifted its position. Dust settled down from the roof. A low table slid into Astiara’s path as he ran. He tried to leap up and over it, unable to do more to avoid it, only to clip his foot on it in the process. Landing heavily on the other side, he staggered a few paces, arms flailing about as he sought balance, only to crash into a large red clay pot decorated with gold trim, knocking it over and sending himself tumbling to the ground. A wealth of silver coins spilled from the overturned pot, ringing as they bounced across the floor, sparkling in the light. Even in falling, Astiara kept a tight grip on the amberstone.

Kathri turned at the sound of the crash and Astiara’s fall. She raced back to help him regain his feet even as the statue continued its methodical advance towards them, readying its maces to bring them down upon the intruders to its domain, brushing aside anything in its path. Kathri extended a hand down to Astiara who snatched at it, hauling himself back to his feet, wild eyed with concern. He could see the worry in her face, a disturbed look to her eyes as she looked back behind him at the statue.

Again the two sprinted for the exit, Astiara taking the lead, down the centre of the room, the treasures of the king flashing passed them, unheeded.

Once again the chamber shook, more fiercely this time. From the roof above flakes of stone broke free and began to drift down. Cracks opened up across it, a web spidering across the roof as the shaking continued. A chip of stone struck Kathri on the shoulder, bouncing to the ground.

The floor ahead of them heaved as a paroxysm gripped the chamber, tumbling all about with its fury. A dreadful groan rent the air as the ground ahead of them nearby to the portal out began to open up, growing wider with each second. The floor beneath them dropped, while on the other side of the chasm it rose.

Astiara leapt as he neared the gap, landing awkwardly but safely, almost stumbling through the portal as he did. He righted himself as Kathri prepared to jump to join him. At the moment she gathered herself up, ready to launch, the floor lurched beneath her feet and the edge of the chasm began to crumble away. Kathri flew, though not as she had intended, arms flailing in the air as the far side of the gap drew near. Rather than land on the floor on the other side, she instead hit the side of the gap, her hands scrambling for purchase to keep her from falling.

Astiara staggered towards her, unsteady on his feet as the reverberations of the earth continued, growing yet stronger. Her grip began to slip and she started to slide down into the chasm. Fingers snagged at the edge of the chasm, leaving her dangling over a drop. She hung on for grim death while the earth continued to shake as if an earthquake was tearing the chamber apart. All rational thought had left her as the chaos of the tomb’s fury swirled around her. Astiara had almost reached her when the rock beneath her fingers crumbled and her grip snapped, sending her tumbling backwards.

She bit back a scream that rose in her throat.

The drop went only for a short distance, yet she still landed on her back with enough force to drive the air from her lungs and set her head spinning. The scroll she held in one hand fell from her hand while her pack twisted from her shoulder to land beside her.

“Kathri!”

Astiara’s head appeared in the opening of the chasm, framed by it and the light that glowed. Even half dazed she could make out the concern writ large across his features.

Kathri raised a weak arm to indicate she was all right, trying to compose herself as she did. The statue of Ajanathad above still marched towards them, the chamber still shook and she knew that they did not have much time to make it out safe.

As she looked up, she heard another tearing noise, one far louder than any that had come before. A large part of the roof directly above her gave out, sending large shards of stone crashing down. One large slab hurled directly for the entrance to the chasm. Astiara hauled his head back only just in time to avoid having it taken off by the stone as it crashed down. It continued on, surrounded by lesser stones, tumbling into the chasm and for Kathri everything went black.

~~~~

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