Down in the deep, the dead kings dreamt.
Jenora knew they should not have been there. It was cold and dark in the tomb under the mountain, but at least the timeworn caverns sheltered them from the summer storms. Outside, raindrops drummed against ancient steps of sand and stone while lightning split open the skies. War horns of thunder sang their song to all who would listen. Gusts of wind howled and screamed, as if nature itself was begging them to turn back from the shadows ahead….
But they would not, for the men who hired Jenora were just as stubborn as they were brilliant.
Scholars, they called themselves. Students of the Academy, oathbound in their devotion to the endless pursuit of knowledge. They were beholden only to the gods of logic and reason. Not one could wield a sword or an axe, no, for their battles were won with ink and parchment. So it was Jenora they relied on should they run into trouble. Jenora Bonnard, they called her. She was Ninth Warden of the Four Kingdoms, loyal to the ancient order sworn to rid the world of any who sought to harm the innocent. Wardens were the best fighters in the land; their status and prestige went without question. Kings and queens knelt at their command. They were warriors and diplomats who answered only to the laws of men. She remembered the old saying: Wardens know no pain. Wardens know no fear… But Jenora did. Jenora was afraid.
It was the the stories that frightened her. Tales of the Corlaathi tomb were as old as she was. Elders spoke of ancient warlords who donned crowns of bones and drank from the skulls of their enemies. These warlords ruled the valley of Old Corlaath with an iron fist long before Jenora’s people, the civilized folk, sailed from across the ocean and brought an end to their savagery. The last of the barbarian kings who knelt before their conquerors were given their own lands and their own halls, far from the shores of the civilization their invaders were hoping to build. It was in these lands and in the halls where those exiled tribes plotted their revenge against the outside world. The Corlaathi remnants knew their line was at an end, and in a fit of desperation they resorted to a sacrament so vile that even the Gods themselves could not overlook: Blood magic.
The fallen Corlaathi kings assembled in the last tomb and called upon spirits to aid them in their quest for vengeance. The absentee Gods had abandoned them in their hour of need, so the warlords took matters into their own hands. They sacrificed children, maidens, even their own families with fire and steel. They sought ancient texts and sang praises to any dark creature who would hear them. They learned the secrets of binding shadows and eternal life. In their lust for power, the Corlaathi hoarded treasures untold and kept the mysteries of immortality guarded within their vault. The Gods sealed them away in the mountain and had forbidden all from entering. None were allowed to know their secrets, as the Gods declared that such power would be too dangerous for mere mortals. The tomb had been abandoned ever since. Some claimed that legions of dead soldiers were said to wander the halls, never to sleep, never to find peace. They were to stand guard until the world’s end.
Jenora was growing uneasy. This was supposed to be a simple job. Her colleagues in the order were out halting peasant uprisings and settling border disputes between the nobility. Part of her hoped this guided tour would all be over soon. Wardens know no pain. Wardens know no fear, she reminded herself. She was just there to make sure none of the bookworms got hurt while they bumbled about in search of clues as to what really happened to the tribes of Old Corlaath. Unlike her, they were not scared. They were not concerned with desecrating the final resting place of warlords who dabbled in the dark arts.
There were four of them, each possessing a wealth of knowledge in their respective fields of study. One was shorter than the rest. Rounder, too. He fancied himself as the self-appointed speaker of this little group. He had written many books dedicated to dispelling common legends, and delving into the untouched Corlaathi Tomb would likely be his magnum opus in the academic world. The speaker assured Jenora that no logical force in this plane of existence could reanimate the dead. A plump little man offering reassurance to a Warden must have been quite a curious sight.
Still, there was something about the silent void that frightened her. If the tales were true, the tomb would be teeming with terrors. In some ways, she would have preferred that over whatever this was. Their shadows grew in torchlight, stretching far back as if their very souls were trying to escape from whatever dwelled within. Two of the men were quietly bickering over translations of the Old Tongue engraved into the walls. Another was scratching away at his journal. They rarely spoke on the road to Old Corlaath. They may have seen Jenora as nothing more than a grudging chaperone. She was fine with that, as she herself had little desire to converse with them at the time. The round one, however, stuck close to Jenora, nipping at her heels like a child tugging his mother’s skirt for attention. She decided to break the tension to ease her own mind.
“So,” she started, “I thought this place had been around for centuries. How come it wasn’t already picked clean by treasure hunters?” The round man smiled. He, too, must have been waiting for something to lighten the mood.
“Ah, yes. We always knew where to find the tomb, it was getting into the vault that troubled us,” he said. “As for why this place remains untouched, well… Superstition can make as fine a guard dog as any. People think this mountain is demon-haunted and crawling with ghosts. We in Aldessa’s royal Academy have no room in our lives for such folly. After years of research into the lives of the Corlaathi, we believe we may know how to reach the crypt where the savages stored their treasures.” Jenora should have known that greed was just as much a motivator to them as intellectual curiosity.
Further and further they walked, their footsteps echoing within the temple’s winding passages. Clack clack clack against stone floors. Clack clack clack, they marched like criminals before the hangman’s noose. The vault slept behind a sea of black, and beyond that door, the treasures of the crypt sat in wait. There were chambers branching off in a dozen different directions, each leading to separate rooms that housed all sorts of dusty tomes. It would take years to collect and comprehend everything they found, and it was a shame they had precious little time.
They knew when they reached the end, however. Darkness retreated as the flames of their torches reflected on the the final door to the vault. It could not have been anything else; the door was surrounded by stone carvings, perhaps idols to heroes from the Corlaathi golden age, if there ever was one. Intricate etchings along the columns depicted creatures from the furthest bowels of the underworld. Some were winged terrors, others were shown towering above worshipers and priests. There were no levers or handles, one could have surmised that it was a dead end.
The round man pulled out a blade from his cloak and recited words in a tongue unfamiliar to Jenora. The others joined him, each chanting ancient psalms of some sort. Once they had finished, the round man drew the blade across the palm of his hand and smeared his blood on the door. The ground started shaking in an instant, bits of rock fell from the mountain’s ceiling as the door opened with a savage bellow. The shadows returned as their torches fell, and the darkness swallowed them whole.
Jenora clutched at the hilt of her sword, her hands were shaking and her legs fell numb. Her eyes slammed shut, unmoving. She saw nothing, but she heard the screams. Then she heard the pacing. Steel against stone. It was armor clinking towards them. Clack clack clack, metal boots crashed on the floor. Then she heard the growling. Then the silence. Wardens know no pain. Wardens know no fear.
She opened her eyes to see pale shambling corpses scuffling to her, barely able to march in their armor. Some were buried under the weight of their own shields, yet still they inched forward. The scholars were all dead. Like the other creatures, their flesh turned alabaster. Behind them, more shadows rose while gemstones gleamed against their rusted steel. Some corpses were crawling out of piles of gold coins while others let out piercing cries of agony. These things were no longer human. Primordial. Not dead, but no longer alive. Their eyes were red and their scarlet veins twisted throughout their skeletal bodies like tree roots soaked in blood. Jenora swung her sword at one, then another. Then one more. She hacked away at anything within her reach, but she knew she could not take them all…
When Jenora turned to leave the vault, a familiar face stared back at her. It was the round man, his skin was pale and his eyes turned red, and it was then she realized the horrible truth: The vault was not sealed to keep them out. It was sealed to keep the Corlaathi in.