Mistress Of Masks (Book 1)

 

Mistress of Masks

Copyright © 2014 C. Greenwood

Editing by Red Adept Editing Services

Formatting by Polgarus Studio

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Excepting brief review quotes, this book may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the copyright holder. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, real events, locations, or organizations is purely coincidental.

Dedication

For Jacquelin Villamor, who liked the gold lettering. Thanks for reading, Jackie!

 

PROLOGUE

 

Varian Nakul had kept the crypt at Umanath ever since the last keeper had been relieved of his duties for hearing voices in the walls. During the last fifteen years, there was one thing Varian had learned. The role of custodian of the dead was not one suited to the over-imaginative. Or to those whose wits couldn’t bear extended periods of isolation in the cold, dark womb of the earth. That was how Varian thought of Umanath. Not as a tomb for rotting corpses, but as a place for knowledge to grow life.

Because of this practical attitude, Varian didn’t immediately give attention to the distant rumbles that fell on his ears one day. He assumed they were rolls of thunder from some storm raging on the surface. The weather and goings-on of the upper world had little to do with life down here. And so he dismissed the noise.

“Beg pardon, Your Majesty,” he apologized to the stony-faced sarcophagus he leaned over. “I’ll have this bat dung off your noble brow before you can blink.” Chuckling, he scrubbed a cleaning cloth vigorously over the wide forehead of the sculpted likeness that bore the inscription
King of the Third Reign
. An impertinent nest of bats had taken to roosting between the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, directly above the sleeping king and his queen. Confound the nuisances. Why couldn’t they stay in the lower levels? No one of importance was buried down there.

Another deep rumbling broke through his thoughts, its echo bouncing from floor to ceiling to walls. The sound was coming from below, Varian realized. This wasn’t thunder from the sky but from the earth. The floor trembled, and the trembling quickly became a violent shaking. The frightened crypt keeper was knocked from his feet, his shoulder crashing painfully to the floor.

“First Father preserve me!” he cried out, cradling the injured shoulder.

Ancient tiles broke loose from the ceiling and rained down around him. Varian sheltered his head with his good arm as the pieces of stone smashed to the floor. His ears rang with the crash of effigies and cinerary urns toppling from their pedestals. In moments, the chamber was transformed to rubble.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the earth shake passed. After a moment of silence, Varian dared uncurl from his defensive position on the floor to look around. The chamber was clouded with dust and rock particles. Most of the torches along the walls had gone out, leaving him in semi-darkness. Varian coughed and covered his mouth with his cleaning cloth. Stumbling over fragments of wall and ceiling tiles and making his way around remnants of columns and splintered statues from fallen plinths, he found a flaming torch that hadn’t fallen from its sconce.

Through the subterranean passages he went, examining the extent of the damage. The crypt was old, its foundations weak. Support columns had cracked, and in more than one place, great fissures rent the floor. One alcove had caved in. Another’s door was blocked by debris. Monuments that had stood proud and beautiful for centuries were reduced to massacred stone. Funerary bowls were smashed, and bone-chests crushed to rubble. Varian’s eyes burned from more than dust. These relics marked the memories or resting places of great souls from bygone eras. Now those souls would be forgotten.

It wasn’t by chance Varian’s route took him directly to the Green Chamber. That oldest area of the catacombs housed the bodies of the first rulers and heroes of Lythnia. Varian prayed the damage there would be minimal. In the past, earth shakes had always left the Green Chamber untouched. But then, Varian had never seen an earth shake this powerful. He doubted anyone in Lythnia had.

Thank the First Couple, the entrance to the Green Chamber was unblocked! The green-tiled ceiling had held strong, and the shriveled corpses shelved in the loculi along the walls were intact. There were broken bits of pottery and funerary art, but the only major casualty was a thick beam near the center of the vault, which had given way to fall across a life-sized figure, knocking the statue onto its side.

Of all the statues that might have broken, it had to be this one.
The Unknown Guardian
was among the most ancient and mysterious monuments in the tombs, and a special favorite of Varian’s. Even amid the chaos, he found himself rushing to kneel in the debris beside the statue, as if kneeling at the side of an injured friend. But there was little to be done for the Guardian, with its one side preserved and the other tragically smashed. Carefully, Varian collected what could be salvaged—part of a handsomely carved face and one massive outspread wing. And the cloudy crystal that had been clutched in the Guardian’s upraised hands. It must have been heavy once, a solid chunk of rock the size of an infant, but it was splintered now.

Varian gathered the pieces with a vague idea of putting them back together later. But a glimmer inside one large hunk of crystal caught his eye. The tip of something ornate and manmade was sticking out of the stone. What was it? A bit of jewelry maybe? He worked the object back and forth until it came loose in his hand. It was a key. Not a typical iron key. This one was made of shiny black stone. Obsidian perhaps? Who ever heard of an obsidian key?

Then he knew the answer.
He
had. From somewhere in the recesses of his mind floated a long-forgotten verse:

Where no searching mortal eye can see, unknown protector holds obsidian key. Encased in crystal, cold and dark, let neither living nor dead unleash the spark.

Where had he read that? Most likely in one of the old scrolls he enjoyed poring over. Or maybe he’d seen it inscribed on one of the tomb walls. He shook his head and slipped the key into his belt-pouch to puzzle over later.

Returning his attention to the ruins of the statue, he realized there was an irregularity in the floor, one that had previously been concealed by the wide base of the monument. It was a loose, circularly cut tile that didn’t match the others. Compelled by curiosity, Varian wiggled his fingers beneath the edge and pried the round tile up. It was heavy, but with an effort he lifted it and set it aside. Shock rippled through him at what lay beneath the tile: a strong, barred grate only just large enough to admit a man into the dark hole it covered.

Varian held a torch against the bars. Its flames were reflected by a dull sheen in the shadows below. More than that, he couldn’t make out. The trapdoor, if door it was, resisted his effort to open it. It was held fast by a rusted lock. Varian hesitated. Despite his mounting excitement, a voice of caution nudged him. There had long been an unspoken superstition respected by the keepers at Umanath. Doors locked by previous keepers remained locked. Passages abandoned and closed up remained sealed.

But Varian was a historian first and a cleric second. Whatever lay forgotten in this hole might hold historical significance to the kingdom of Lythnia or to the adherents of the First Couple. Besides, the thought of a bit of knowledge escaping him, particularly knowledge regarding his own tombs, was like an itch between his shoulders, begging to be scratched.

So he followed a sudden inspiration and tried his newfound obsidian key in the lock. It fit beautifully. Feeling as if he were opening a treasure chest, he lifted the heavy grate. It came up with a rusty screech, and the cold, dank air from below rose to his nostrils, air that had not been released for many lifetimes.

There was a rustling, flapping sound from the shadows below. A dark, blurry object suddenly shot out from the opening. Varian ducked, expecting a large bat. But after the winged creature fluttered around the room and came to rest on a ledge high up on the wall, he identified it as a raven. The bird’s golden eyes glittered brightly as it looked down on the cleric. How had such a creature gotten into the sealed enclosure? And how had it survived without food or fresh air?

Shaking his head, Varian dismissed the questions and thrust his torch into the black hole before him. The light revealed an alcove too small to be rightly called a chamber. A grown man, entering such a crawl space, would have been unable to stand upright or stretch out.

Maybe that was why the skeleton he found was folded over on itself.

That was all that was down there. A skeleton encased in ornate black armor that glinted in the flickering torchlight. Varian swallowed his disappointment. Corpses this tomb had enough of. He had hoped to discover a hoard of scrolls or religious relics. Such as painted vases dating back to the first reign or an ash-chest holding the remains of the first Speaker himself.

But his spirits quickly rallied. Maybe this mysterious black knight, in his dark ring-mail and spiked shoulder pauldrons, was someone of importance, a long-forgotten hero of Lythnia. True, that begged the question of why his tomb more closely resembled a personal dungeon… Varian felt a flicker of unease, as he noticed the dead knight’s helm was shaped like an immense winged skull with red gemstones for eyes. Hardly the attire of a hero. He shut the grate quickly and backed away. Maybe he shouldn’t have disturbed this particular tomb. Best to examine it no further until he knew what he was dealing with.

With a sense of urgency, he hurried from the Green Chamber and away down the passages. Ignoring the fresh damage from the earth shake, he was intent on his mission. Something told him he must think of nothing else until he had solved the mystery of the black knight. He would search for answers in the scriptorium, and if none revealed themselves, he would write to the Speakers at the nearest isolatiom. He would have to do that anyway to inform them of the earth shake damage and request workmen for repairs.

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