Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Shadow of the Raven – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – Respite of the Ravens

Kathri’s head was throbbing when she woke, waves of pain pulsating through it like tides upon the shore. A light filtered down from above, mostly blocked by the slab of stone above her. It had been too large to fit fully in the chasm and had instead become lodged in it just above her. She reached up with a shaky hand and touched the surface of it, her fingertips just able to reach. A little smaller and it would have been the end of me.

The smaller fragments had not been stopped. She could feel a numb ache in her right leg where one had struck, while another had hit her head, sending her into unconsciousness.

“Astiara!” she called out in a wavering voice, the act of doing so sending fresh waves of nausea to sweep across her.

No answer came from above, the only sounds that she could hear being the pounding in her ears and the creak and groan of settling stone. The earth had calmed down, no longer shaking, though the statue still could be heard patrolling above, its great heavy tread pounding on the ground. “Astiara?”

There was still no response. Either he had been taken out by the falling stones or had otherwise been rendered unable to answer her. There would be no help from that direction.

She raised a hand to her head, feeling a welt on the side of it where the stone had struck her. Her fingers came away wet. I have not been out that long then, not long enough for the blood to dry.

She sat up gingerly, trying as best as she could to ignore the aches and pains that gripped her body. She did not have the time to give into them, not if she planned to get out. Sitting up was the most she could manage, both due to the state that she was in and the stone lodged overhead. The gap between it and the ground would allow no more than that.

Her pack lay alongside her where it had landed during her fall. She opened it up, fingers fumbling at the straps. She felt out for the statue inside, concerned that it may have broken when the pack landed on the ground or otherwise been damaged. Her questing fingers touched it, searching out for any damage. As best as she could tell it still remained in one path, unscathed. It fared better than I did then.

She recovered the scroll from the ground and tucked it in the pack while looking either way down the chasm she had landed in. The way to her left was blocked, being a mass of broken rubble. To her right she could make out a small gap between the boulder above and more rubble, through which most of the light from above filtered down. It was enough to squeeze through, she hoped, or at least could widen to get out through.

Kathri started to crawl forward, towards the gap, pushing her pack ahead of her. She took it slow and steady due to the throbbing of pain in her head. Each lurch forward caused the pain to stab at her with renewed intensity. Gritting her teeth, she pushed on.

Reaching the gap, she looked up between the wedged slab and the fallen stones. The opening was large enough, barely, for her to squeeze through. She could see clear up to the top of the chasm, directly above.

Twisting herself about, she wriggled through the gap and pulled herself up onto the top of the slab. It shifted slightly beneath her weight, the stone groaning as it bit onto the surrounding walls, lodging in tighter.

Kathri rose unsteadily to her feet, balancing on the uneven surface of the rock. By reaching up to her full height, she could just grasp the rim of the chasm. Taking her pack, she placed it up on the floor of the chamber above, before taking a hold of the rim. With aching arms she hauled herself up and over the top, torrents of pain rippling through her. She collapsed onto her back, staring up at the broken ceiling above, her chest heaving and vision blurred from the pain and effort.

For some time she lay there, recovering both breath and composure. When at last she felt somewhat better, she lifted her head and took a glance across the recently opened chasm that split the chamber in two. On the far side, the giant statue of the king moved slowly, ponderously, tracking a path back and forwards through the disturbed treasures. Many items had fallen over, with furnishing on their sides and jars spilling their contents. The other statue still stood, holding its glowing orb aloft, providing the sole light that illuminated the room.

There was no sign of Astiara or the amberstone he carried.

She pushed herself up to her feet, using the wall for support as she did, leaning up against it. The mystic doorway through which they had gained entry into the chamber had gone, leaving nothing but a painted wall behind. She reached out with a hand to rest it upon the wall, seeking for a means to reopen it. No matter what she did or where she touched it remained solid stone.

So, I am trapped in here with no exits and an active guardian. Mother always did say that there are no difficulties, only opportunities, or at least she used to. I doubt she ever had this opportunity in mind when she said it.

Kathri let herself slid back down the wall with her back resting against it, taking a moment to recover further and to consider her options. The guardian was not approaching her, due to the chasm blocking its path, or perhaps her no longer being a threat. Either reason was good enough for her. The tremors that had shaken the earth were gone as well. She was safe, for the time.

Taking up the canteen she carried, she removed the top and took a sip of water, swishing it around in her mouth before swallowing it. A small amount she splashed into her hand, using it to wash down her face. Closing it up, she returned the canteen to her side.

What she needed, she decided, was another means out of the chamber, now that the phase wall was closed, one that did so without attracting the undue attention of the guardian upon her. Looking beyond the guardian and the statue, her eyes fixed upon the crown. It still sat upon the pedestal, glowing with its iridescent frozen fire.

Proximity activated. She shook her head, stopping as a lance of pain struck fire through her brain. Looking back upon it, the warning on the map all made sense now. It was pride and not arrogance after all. And what was the pride of a Hajanri Emperor? Their crown.

Made for one emperor, and one emperor alone, it was the symbol of their reign that went beyond how it was seen in any other nation. No other was allowed to wear, and few to touch it, for to do so was seen by the Hajanri as an act of treason almost as bad as the murder of an emperor. To do so was to attempt to usurp their power and authority, an attack on the essence of who they were.

It did warn us not to approach. If only we had understood. Still, what is done, is done. I can’t change what has happened.

She returned to her feet and made her way to the edge of the chasm, looking down into it and along it. To her right, the chasm ended near the wall of the chamber, filled with the rubble of shattered stones. Off to her left, though, the chasm continued through the wall, the opening reaching up almost to the ceiling. While there were rocks in it, they did not fill it and there was room enough to make her way along it. With the guardian still active on the far side and no other exits to be seen, she could see no other option but to try out the opening, to see if it led anywhere, trying to ignore the outcome of what would happen if it led nowhere.

Collecting up her pack, she dropped back down into the chasm and made her way forward, towards where it broke open the wall. The broken earth jagged back and forth, leading into the dark. Without the amberstone to light the way, she could rely on the light from the statue for only a little way. Strapped to the outside of her pack was one last torch. Taking up the torch, she lodged it between two fallen stones so it stood upright. Taking out her flint and steel, she struck them together. Sparks flared, touching the torch. It smouldered into reluctant life before the flames caught, sending drifts of smoke curling up towards the roof. Picking up the torch, she thrust it ahead of her, slung her pack over her shoulder and started forward.

She twisted her way into the chasm, the floor of it rising upwards. Ducking under one stone, she saw the chasm bend away ahead of her, around a corner that was a tight fit. In that direction she could hear, above the crackle of flames of her torch, the sound of dripping water. That she had not expected.

She forced her way around the corner, the stone walls pressing in tight to either side of her. Her journey was slow, the ground beneath her uneven. It resulted in more than a few scraps from squeezing through narrow gaps and potential bruises from where she struck shins, legs and arms on outcrops that thrust out. More than once she had been forced to crawl through a small gap or to push her pack ahead of her and follow after it. Apart from the light of her torch, all around her was pitch black, the illumination from the statue having long faded from sight. Somewhere along the way, the chasm had broken through into a natural cave system.

She had known that there were caves about, having used them to gain access to the tomb in the first place. It now seemed obvious to her that the ancient Hajanri builders of the tomb had utilised those caves in the process, walling off sections. The region was prone to tremors as well, such as the one near the entrance that had broken the hallway. Whatever had triggered the most recent one had broken open the cave system to her, allowing her the possibility of a way out she had not expected. I have been lucky. Far too lucky.

The drip of water grew louder yet, echoing through the narrow tunnel that she followed, a persistent, regular drip. When it sounded to her as if she was almost upon it, the tunnel opened out into a larger cave. The light of her torch played across long, needle thin stalactites that clung to the ceiling, giving them an almost orange tinge. They formed a cluster in the middle of the cave, fragile and exquisite. From the tips of them water dripped, a slow, methodical drip, the water falling into a milky pool below. The pool took up around half the floor of the cave, shallow and ringed by a wave of creamy stone.

She had not been the first to visit the cave, though perhaps had been the first for a long time. The walls of the cave were decorated with primitive artwork using ochre paints. While they may have been ancient, they were done by skilled hands and had a simplistic beauty to them. Stencil outlines of hands covered much of the wall, done by spraying ochre paint across a hand set against it. They were interspersed with the images of men hunting beasts, of bison and mammoth and deer and more. The men were little more than lines holding spears. The animals were outlines done with graceful curves, many of them utilising the natural contours of the stone on the wall so as to stand out, being able to be viewed from multiple angles and still to maintain their shape and form. It had taken one with a great artistic eye to bring about the effect.

Higher up on the walls, above the men hunting beasts, were the paintings of birds in flight or perched on ledges looking down. Some were of ochre colours while others were pure black.

That there had once been people in the cave meant that there was a way out. Or had been, once, she reminded her self. In the long ages since the cave was decorated it was easily possible that cave ins or rock slides could have blocked the way out.

For a while she wandered around the cavern, circling the pool, taking in the detail of the artwork and admiring the skill of the hand that had painted them. Her path brought her around to an exit from the cave, another narrow tunnel with a low roof that forced her to duck her head to walk down it. The sound of the dripping water faded as she left the cave chamber, following a tunnel with a sandy floor. The sand remained undisturbed by any footprints until hers marred its surface.

The tunnel led a slow, rising path upwards, the flicker of her torch casting long shadows upon the rough walls that closed in around her. Only a short distance from the first cave she had entered, the tunnel broached out into another one, larger than the previous.

Like it, this cave had seen people in it too, once. Laying around on the sandy floor were the bones of many animals, of a variety of shapes and sizes, yellowed with age. Old circles of blanked stones marked where once fires had burned. In the centre of the room there sat a crude construction, formed of a pile of stones into which was thrust an effigy made of wood and cords of reed and sinew. It had a shape that more hinted than explicitly showed, yet remained unmistakable in what it was; a bird with its wings spread wide. Kathri could not tell exactly how long it had been down there, only that it was very old and yet had survived intact for all that time.

It must be magic at work, primitive but effective.

That they had utilised magic upon it to preserve it spoke of the importance of the effigy to them.

She walked around it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. As she moved in closer she could see feathers had been attached to it. Black feathers, still as glossy as the day they had been taken from a bird and attached. The feathers of a raven.

Ajanathad must have known of this place. Why would he have attached his tomb to it otherwise?

Looking away from the effigy, she sought a way out of the cavern. She had seen no exits when she had first entered and it seemed as if she had come to a dead end. Only when she looked up did she see an opening in the ceiling, one off to the side near the wall. It had been hard to spot until she stood almost directly beneath it, a narrow hole that would be a tight fit. In the wall beneath it she found rusted iron spikes driven in, added at a later date by the Hajanri she suspected. That suspicion was confirmed when beneath dust and webs she spotted Hajanri writing. Sweeping the dust and webs aside, she read through it as best she could. Certain words stood out, among them being the name Ajanathad as well as a phrase; Mahret jagoda vahaj. Respite of the Ravens.

An odd name, if I am reading it correct. Did he choose this place for his tomb because of the presence of the effigy? Kathri wondered. Or did his association with ravens come about after finding this place in a search for a location he could build his tomb?

She doubted any would find out and it mattered little in aiding her escape. Taking another sip of water, she readied herself to climb up and out of the chamber. The torch she could not carry while climbing at the same time. She could not afford to leave it behind though. Uncoiling her rope, with one end she fashioned a sling for the torch, positioned so that the flame was kept far away from it. Setting her rope alight would not help her. She set the torch down on the ground carefully, making sure the flames did not go out.

After testing the strength of the iron spikes, and finding them still firmly attached, she began to climb up them, one at a time, the other end of the rope tied about her waist and trailing behind her. The climb was an easy one. Reaching the hole, she pulled herself through it and onto a passageway, one with a low ceiling, forcing her to crouch down. Taking the rope, she raised her torch up slowly, and with great care, trying to avoid letting the flickering flames touch it.

When it had reached her, Kathri removed it from the sling and set it down ahead of her. The rope she coiled up again and stored it away.

Picking up the torch and holding it in one hand, she began to crawl along the tunnel, heading deeper into the darkness.

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