Standing with his back against the hard earth of the gigantic mound, Zy’an recalled an earlier memory of an evening that he had spent discussing Ulua’s people. He recalled thinking at that moment, and having an overpowering prediction, as if he had known then, that he would be here. It was frightening and at the same time exhilarating. He knew his journey to find the answers he sought could be anywhere, and may never come. But for some reason, he felt that here, on this isle, he would find something. He knew not why.
Of course, he didn’t trust a path before him, whether it felt right or otherwise. A survival mechanism that like a Celn timepiece needed winding he would sometimes remind himself. And yet here he was chasing after Ulua, for what he knew not. Were there answers to his destiny inside this mound? He doubted it. He knew he shared a kinship of sorts with the native warrior. Used in the light as a figurehead of her people, and used in the dark as tribute to The Seeker. He knew what that felt like. Did he understand Ulua or what drove her? He doubted it. But Zy’an knew that there was a special bond in the kinship of someone seeking answers in both the light and the darkness. And as he brushed along the mound edging closer to the entrance, he figured it was the right thing for him to follow her into the dismal.
When the princess slipped through his fingers and ran over the ridge and down towards the massive tomb structure, he thought he was crazy to follow. But something told him, in the same way he awoke from his nightmare in the hag’s lair, that this was meant to be. In his life, he had moments of extreme darkness, and he had moments of dazzling brilliance. He assumed it was universal. Just as he had learned for himself despite the order’s guidance. Such as it was. Next to him was Thrak, this awkward yet mighty reptilian humanoid from the isles. Zy’an knew not what to make of him. There also, trying to keep his mace from clanking, Frank, the cleric of the flame, still in what they had begun to call his “Lighted” form. This of course was a sarcastic reference to what all Celns strove to be, and were charged to be by threat of Inquisition. Ironically, if Frank were ever discovered not in his lighted form, there would be Ket to pay. Zy’an understood that too, and felt an answer to his own internal shadows would reveal itself through this man. Finally, there was Marcus, the quiet yet stoic warrior, and of course Areia, who blended in perfectly to the shadows. She, unlike any of the others, seemed as if she enjoyed this. Zy’an had heard stories of her childhood in Far Realm. He didn’t feel much sympathy, but he related. He imagined if any of them were true, she might have reason to believe that even tonight this harrowing ordeal would feel like a walk in the moonlight.
Of course, he didn’t think so. But he calmed his mind, and eased his breathing, and just before following the others into the tomb, he thought of that night, when Ulua had told the tale of Umani, the Chief who had died alive.
She had begun as she had with most of her stories. Waiting until the others were sleepy, and the night was late. She was a great story teller.
“Many years ago, the leader of the Ata people was a man named Chief Chowig,” she had began. “He was wise and steadfast and led his people to many victories against the island’s many enemies. Chief Chowig had two sons, one a man of determination and cunning named Umani, the other a younger but altogether calmer soul, named Kimki.”
“The father grew to despise his oldest son, and the eldest boy, Umani knew it was so. He also knew that the customs of the Ata are not to be broken and that the elders would have no say on who would be chosen chief. Umani knew that his father would someday choose Kimki, in spite of tradition. Umani began to grow resentful of this truth and in one particular journey into the island’s interior, it is said that he found the means to exact a plan so treacherous that to this day, it is forbidden to tell the story unless an elder does so.”
Here Ulua paused and seemed to laugh a bit to herself. “I suppose, since I am the last of my tribe, I can tell the tale then!”
She continued, “News came quickly to the tribe one day that Umani had been killed while out hunting the thunder beasts that roamed, or at least once did roam our plains. When his body was returned there was much sadness and despair, for he was a great warrior to the people, despite his terrible demeanor. In those ancient days, the Ata ate the loved ones who went to be with Olorhan. For in this way was the royal lineage’s power passed from one generation to the next. That night, Chief Chowig and his son Kimki ate of Umani’s flesh, and drank of his blood.”
“But little did the chief know that Umani had not died. In fact, he had cleverly prepared his body in such a way that his power, his living presence would flow into those who ate of him during this ritual. Only after Umani had been consumed by his entire family, and most importantly by his father and brother, did he awaken his powers and took control of the chief and of Kimki both.”
“There are other stories of course of what happened, but the story of Umani was always my favorite, even though it is so scary,” said Ulua. “His tomb is still there, in the middle of our isle. But I have never seen it. Others in my tribe claimed they had, but I think they are most likely liars. It is said that Umani, who resided in both bodies consumed the flesh of his victims, leaving their souls empty and hollow shells without purpose.”
“Goodnight Celns!” said the warrior princess. Getting up, she walked down the stairs into the ship.
“Well, that was charming,” said Areia. “Lovely story, really.”
“Indeed,” said Haryk, “Imagine being so nasty that you’d let someone eat you alive, just to have your way with them.”
“I’d rather not,” said Thrak. “I eat too many living things as it is. Best not to think about it while they’re going down.”
Zy’an returned to his senses. The mound, he now understood, wasn’t just a giant hill like the others, it was a tomb. He guessed many of those hills they had traversed in the night were tombs as well. He imagined himself once too, making a choice to die, giving up his life for a cause that ultimately he’d never feel comfortable with. Now, he imagined he was choosing to live. Trying to figure out in what way he best should.
The others were entering a large opening that had been torn out as if a giant had clawed it from the outside in. The inside was dark and the drums were beating loudly, fiercely, more quickly. His eyes, beneath his hood gleamed feintly and adjusted to the darkness. He followed behind the others, creeping along a tunnel. A soft red glow lay ahead and the drums thrummed in his chest, ba bum, ba bum. Faster and faster. He could see the others, crouching behind a pile of rocks and earth, beyond them, in a vast chamber was a sea of undulating bodies, swaying to the rhythm of the drums. He crept slowly to peer behind them, and realized that there was someone else there with them!
She was a Celn, and she had one hand wrapped around Ulua’s mouth and the other around her neck!