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The Tomb Lands (Chapter One)
Whatever man may think, the past is not dead. The past is not a rotting corpse safely locked away in a coffin. Sometimes, the past can reach through its grave and end the present and the future. Sometimes, the past becomes eradication.
That end begins today. Nothing can slow it, nothing can stop it. What is to come will come, and it begins in Garathen.
The city sits quiet beneath the overcast sky, its towers and steeples rising far into the gloom-ridden air. From the top of its spires and turrets, one can view the whole expanse of the city and its surroundingsâ€”the cobblestone streets winding and slicing through the city like veins, the river Concord flowing quietly through the center of town, the rolling, forested hills that surround the city on all sides, the trees turning dead and barren in the autumn chill. It is a magnificent sight but in a very real, pervading sense, it is an exceedingly sad one.
The city is old beyond reckoning, and every building and street corner seethes with the memory of bygone ages. There are signsâ€”remnants decayed and rusted over countless agesâ€”of events both terrible and beautiful, but the city has grown, prospered, forgotten. All through the day and well into the night, the streets are usually loud and bustling with traffic, but this day is different.
It’s quiet, now. The air is still and close; beneath the heavy, low-hanging clouds there is no sound, no movement. Conversation, laughter, the sounds of beastsâ€”all the cries and shouts of city lifeâ€”all seem to be muffled under some phantom weight that bears down on the city like a gauntlet that crushes a skull. The air is tainted, poisoned.
And then, through the quiet and the gloom, bells begin to ring.
They begin slowly at first, only a slight tingling and clanging on the edge of perception. But slowly, surely, the sound of the bells increases to a powerful, booming song that cries out through the autumn air. The cathedrals and bell-towers are Garathen’s oldest structures, and all the memories of the pastâ€”with all its sorrow, its heartbreak, its warfareâ€”have seeped into and seethe through the bricks of the walls and iron of the bells, and the sad song sounding from the bells radiates this dark energy with every swing and every chime. And as they ring over and over and over again, as the great old iron pieces swing back and forth through the chill, dank air, the air grows colderâ€”and the gloom grows tighter.
Few sense the truth in the air. It is not really men who swing the bells, but the city. It is not their own human hearts that cry out desperately in the cold and the gloom, it is Garathen, old and scarred and screaming through the sky.
For, in a way, Garathen is a living thing, an entity, and now its collective memory seethes through the air, groaning and wailing in tune with the bells. A voice is growing deep in the sewers and in the old, dark places of the cityâ€”and it wants to be heard. From the north comes the shrill, pitiful sound of the horn of a train. The cold October wind picks up and howls through the cobblestone streets of the city, sending shivers up the spines of men and beast alike. Leaves are torn from the branches and cast down into death on the ground.
As the wind bears the dead to the ground, the train bears the dead to Garathen.
The ground shakes ever so softly, and from the rolling mountains to the city’s north comes the sad, tattered sight of a train torn open at the sides, choking smoke billowing from the wounds. Its machinery still hums and its engines still cough black smoke into the air, but its wheels are slowing, their energy and vitality forgotten. The torn iron beast wheezes into Garathen along the old railway that cuts through the fine architecture, passing under the cathedrals’s disapproving glare and over the sad, glimmering waters of the Concord.
The gargoyles on the cathedrals seem to grin at the sight, their stone tongues lolling around hungrily in their stone jowls. The dew in the air drips from their manacles like saliva from a hungry beast.
With its last, dying breath, the train pulls into Garathen’s northern train station, its form slowly swallowed by the gaping stone mouth of the massive, foreboding station.
The train takes its final breathâ€”and exhales.
An iron hatch swings open, and from the shadows pours a great wash of blood and smoke. A single black leather boot steps out from the darkness and upon the bricks of the station. A man emerges from the billowing smoke, utterly nonchalant as blood flows out from behind him and onto the cobblestones. Shabby black traveling clothes cling to his sickeningly thin body like skin to a decaying corpse. Perched upon his head is a worn black hat, and from under it falls his weed-like hair, thin and straggly strands that fall to his sallow, protruding cheekbones. Tied around the lower half of his face, obscuring it, is a black, threadbare scarf.
He stands there for a moment as the smoke curls around his frame; his eyes gleam crimson for a moment and then subside. And, without taking even a single backward glance, he begins to walk.
He slowly descends the station’s steps and slips quietly into the city. He doesn’t look around to get his bearings or to take in the sights of the autumn dayâ€”he walks with a sure knowledge of where he is, where is going, where he has been.
His dark frame merges with the shadows of the trees as he walks into an old, quiet park. The trees sway uneasily above him and the few children in the park flee from his presence. At length, he moves deeper into the trees, crossing under the dying, swaying branches and melding into the shadows they cast on the ground. He reaches a small pond encircled by wooden benchesâ€”where he perceives a man sitting alone on a bench staring solemnly into the still waters.
His face contorts into something akin to a smile. It is a hideous look; his gaunt cheekbones and threadbare scarf rising upward is more of a sick caricature of smile than a real one.
The autumn wind howls through the trees.
On the bench, the man is sitting there as though dead, his eyes looking blankly into and beyond the water. Under his old black coat he shivers like a child and heaves a great, piteous sigh. The long black hair that falls to his shoulders is lightly caught and swayed by the cruel wind.
There is a certain kinship in the eyes of the man sitting on the bench and the man with the scarf. The eyes of the sitting man are those of who is, at least in spirit, long since dead and damned, howling and rattling his chains in the endless dark of death. They are the eyes of a man beaten and broken and left in the dirt to dieâ€”of a man who should be dead, and in many ways already is. They are the eyes of a man bereft of his humanityâ€”the eyes of a beaten dog.
Under the red irises of the man with the scarf there is the same base emotion as the man on the bench: the same emptiness, the same desperationâ€”but shining through, ugly and far more hideous, there is bestial rage and a morbid sort of glee. They are the eyes of a man beaten and whipped and left to die, who has crawled halfway around the world trying to find his heart and his soul again, and who has accepted his fateâ€”and now merely laughs at it. They are the eyes of a giggling madmanâ€”the eyes of a rabid beast.
The park is utterly silent but for the whistling of the wind in the trees. The air grows closer and darker as the sun draws down in the west. More leaves drift downward to the ground at the foot of the bench, and the man sitting there stares down at them with a sad, hollow expression and kicks at them with his boot, crushing the dead things underfoot methodically, surgically. They crunch under the weight of his leather soles, creating little cracking sounds that tear through the grim silence. He raises his head upward and gazes at the sky, watching as the cloud slowly tinge with orange fire and hints of crimson blood.
He closes his eyes, bows his head.
Beneath the scarf comes another smile, and scratchy, hoarse voice issues forth, little more than a whisper.
The man on the bench whips his head around, his eyes wide, but sees nothing.
There is only a scarred and weather-beaten crow, perched on a dead treeâ€”gazing at him.