Part Three: The One
Cruel fate had both rescued and condemned me in the form of two queens. I was rescued in that I had rediscovered those parts of me that were human, but I was condemned for the same reason. What had been indisputable became all too questionable. What had been enough became too little, and what had been easy became so very difficult.
The Chambers, instead of my kingdom, felt like my prison. Oh, how I envied the living! I wanted so desperately to taste, to breathe, and to feel. I tried, at times, to leave. Yet every time I approached a door I felt repulsion, as though the light of day would no longer accept me. I tried to cry, but I had no tears to shed.
The most frustrating element of those sad months was the fact that I could not fully comprehend my past and future. I grew so frustrated that I spent the majority of my time pacing the chambers, as though I could escape by wearing away the floor.
At one point, I decided that I would test the limits of my confinement. I traveled through tombs so ancient that they had no decoration, and tombs so ostentatious that they looked more fit for deities than mere men. I came to an end eventually, where a stone face rose high above me, seemingly untouched by human hands. Seemingly.
As I looked closer, I could make out an intricate web of thin lines. By waving my hand over the surface, I brushed away the dust that had collected. Underneath was a progression of carved scenes. With a couple more movements, I cleared a good area.
The carvings looked ancient, and their primitive subjects were hard to make out at first. The first box depicted two men. One held a.. stone? A club? No, it was pointed… It was a sword. In the second box, one man had slain the other. I moved down the wall. In the third, there were three men. No, it was two men still, but the spirit had risen out of the dead man.
I kept clearing dust and reading for a distance, in awe of the discovery. Here was the legend of the Grave-Watcher, the story of the ancient tradition. A funeral. A Grave-Watcher guiding the dead. The gates of death.
There were only two images I could not quite understand. In the first, the Grave-Watcher was standing surrounded by people, arms in the air. Was this the choosing of the Next? And yet this scene ended this story, with no further explanation. Perhaps the grave-watcher was serving as an oracle of sorts. I remembered then the words of the Grave-Watcher before me, regarding the Warning, the One, and the End. But what did these seemingly archaic terms refer to?
The second of the pair was a double image of the Grave-Watcher. The two Watchers stood as cloaked twins, their palms pressed together. I dismissed it as artistic whimsy.
I skimmed over the stories of kings and queens, battles and harvests as the scenes deteriorated into the standard carvings of the Chambers.
My fingers stopped, however, when I reached a piece of carving that looked slightly newer than the rest. It was cut deeper into the stone in a different style. The first panel was a child and a man, standing side by side. The child held a cloak and a dagger while the man held a crown in his right hand. His left hand lay empty by his side. In the next scene, two people lay on slabs, crowns decorating their foreheads. In its left hand, the figure on the right held a dagger. As I looked closer, I could tell that this figure was female, a queen. The final box was the most cryptic of all. In it, a cloaked figure and a woman stood on either side of a man. The cloaked figure grasped the man's left hand, while the woman touched the crown in his right hand.
Somehow I knew these panels were the most important of all. The child holding the cloak struck me as particular important, and from there everything began to come together, almost faster than my mind could follow. The child was me, the cloak was the same one that I wore now, and the dagger was the one that had placed me in the Chambers. The king and queen were Albert and Isabelle, the man was the Man of Stone, and the woman… the woman was Katrina, I was sure. The first two scenes were of the past, but that third scene had to be of the future.
I did not know who had carved these panels, but it had to have been a prophecy. I sat upon a rock and stared at them for a long time, absorbing their significance. It was apparent that the Man of Stone wanted the crown, but I had already known this.
In my mind's eye I replayed the visions I had experienced when I warned Katrina. He had poisoned the Queen, first by reputation through foul rumors of demon-worship, and then by a powder in her drink. She had known that the King's cousin was someone to beware, recognizing one who had also studied the ways of old, but hadn't predicted he would take such drastic action.
The Man of Stone had hoped Albert would kill himself after that, but the King held on to life and Katrina instead. Albert's spirit had confirmed this as I led him to the second gate. His spirit was driven mad by betrayal, constantly murmuring the names of his wife and daughter. The Man of Stone, his cousin, had apparently decided to assist the poor mad king with a dagger in the ribs.
So was this final panel a scene of triumph, or failure? What was the significance of my holding the man's left hand? Was Katrina taking the crown, or giving it to him?
I returned to the panel many times in the months that passed, but the message was no clearer than on that first day. In the meantime, I steadily became absorbed by the darkest of moods. I did not come to the carving anymore. I performed my duties without notice of my surroundings, except the occasional fit of anger. It was the anger of a trapped animal, thrashing against its cage.
It was exactly a year from my last meeting with Katrina when they brought her down on the stone slab.
I had known what poison the Man of Stone would use because it was my duty to know such things. Three sips were enough to induce a coma that so resembled death that only the keenest of eyes could make out the rising of her chest. I was grateful that the Man of Stone had had enough patience to wait for a slow poison. A more violent measure would have put Katrina beyond my aid.
I walked on one side of the slab and he walked on the other. His eyes were as cold as they had been on the day he had buried her mother and father. Still, I could feel no emotion from him; he was like a shell driven by an inner demon. No throne would ever be high enough, no body count ever too large for such a man. He would push the world around him down, if only so he could be an inch higher.
Katrina, meanwhile, had matured much in the year since I had seen her. Where the man's features were hard, hers were soft, still beautiful her death-like state. Atop her head sat a crown, glinting in the light of the torches.
The solemn procession was much quieter than it had been at the burial of her mother or father. Two deaths was a tragedy, but three deaths… three was a curse. Even the most gossipy of the courts ladies had the decency to remain quiet at the laying to rest of the fair young queen. Even the most hard-hearted of lords wiped their eyes as Katrina was placed next to the slabs of her fore-fathers.
Again, it was the Man of Stone who spoke first. I turned, too disgusted to listen to his false remorse. However, the speakers that followed were much more genuine in their praise. They recounted tales of generosity, prudence, and strength that made Katrina appear more beautiful still as she lay upon her cold slab.
Even though I looked for signs of secret pleasure or greed, I could find none. I knew then that these persons meant what they said, and that they experienced true grief at her death.
The crowd began to move away as soon as the last ceremonial words were spoken. The Man of Stone was one of the last to leave, staring down at Katrina all the while. A small, cold smile played briefly across his lips before he turned to follow the rest.
I came down from the rock ledge I had stood upon, and met Katrina's spirit. She rose from the slab, taking two dainty steps off on to the floor. She saw me and grinned, but when she turned back and saw her body still upon the slab, she gave a gasping cough of surprise.
"Oh. Oh my," she said gently. "I had not thought this would happen. Did you plan for this?"
"Yes," I said simply in the voice that was still foreign to my own ears. "You will take my hand," I told her, putting out my right hand.
She looked down at the hand and back at my face again. I could see the sharp intelligence in those grey eyes, and she asked me quietly, "Do I take your right hand, or your left?"
I did not know how to respond.
She smiled again, sadly. "It may sound strange, but Mother always told me that the right hand was the ending brought by death, and the left hand was the transformation. An old saying, I believe."
I looked down at my hands. This dying queen had placed her trust in me, and her fate was now mine to determine. Would I dutifully move her to the second gate? Perhaps then I could return to that mindless state of being, where there was no pain or doubt. Or would I instead follow another path, shrouded in mystery? It seemed like the choice was clear.
I reached out with my left palm, and she placed her ivory hand within my grip. Gently, I raised it and helped her spirit to climb atop the slab once more. Her spirit let out a sigh of relief, a gesture mimicked by her body, and the two merged to become one once more.
She awoke before very long and brushed the hair from her face. Her composure was perfect as she lifted herself down off of the slab, pointedly not looking in the direction of the slabs that had belonged to her mother and father. She looked at me instead.
"Who are you really?" she asked.
"I am the Grave-Watcher," I responded. "I am death."
"No," she replied, her voice sure. "You are not death."
I did not know how to respond to this statement either, so I did not.
She continued, her sharp eyes trained on me. "I thought that the first time too. You are not the true bringer of death. It's as though… It's as though you have a shadow. And the shadow isn't yours. Do you understand?"
Like some missing puzzle piece, it fit, and completed the picture that my mind had slowly been forming. I am not death. I was never meant to be death. Death was something cold and unfeeling, something without mind or reason. I am still human, in part, I am still something warm and feeling.
I looked back at the small queen, and a smile crossed my cracked lips.
"I am not death," I said aloud.
With that I turned, ready to lead the way to the surface. I was not the right hand, I was the left, and I was on my way to give a people their reborn Queen.
Instinct was what led me, a deep intrinsic knowledge of the Chambers. We passed through cavern after cavern as we gradually moved farther up the mountain. I felt no repulsion as I approached the set of doors through which we had to pass, instead I felt like I was finally clawing my way to the surface of some inky pool. When I threw open the doors, the gust of fresh air wove through my hair and fingers in a delicious sensation
On we marched, Watcher and Queen. From the sides of my eyes I could make out the forms of spirits slowly materializing and following us. Katrina was their leader, her soft features transformed by a look of steely determination.
I was vaguely aware of screaming, servants dropping their loads and standing, stunned. Through fine halls and atop rich carpets we marched, until we came upon another set of doors. These were carved of the finest oak and were decorated with delicately carved scenes and painted shields. I reached forward, but hesitated, and pulled back. I had opened my set of doors, this set was for Katrina. Without a word, she stepped forward and threw all of her small figure into pushing the great weight forward. The doors seemed to respond to her touch, and opened smoothly on to a chamber filled with shocked faces.
It was the throne room, full of lords and ladies still in their mourning wear. Katrina strode in, and the crowd pulled away. Some of the ladies fainted where they stood. More than a few ashen-faced men placed their hands upon their swords when confronted with the specter. But Katrina, sensing the mounting tension, threw a hand up in the air and cried "Hark!"
"I am neither a ghost nor a trick of the light, good people, but rather a sick woman recovered." She declared, standing with her arms held in the air, palms out. "My sickness was a paralyzing poison. But now, I have awakened! I am alive!."
The silence was broken by murmuring among the crowd, their doubt still evident in their terrified faces.
She drew a dagger then, much to the horror of the crowd, and in one smooth motion split the fair skin of her lower arm. It was only a small wound, but a drop of blood beaded and fell to the cold floor.
"See! See the red blood I bleed? Could a ghost do as much?" she asked the assembled. They murmured, still on edge, but their eyes were wide in wonder instead of fear. Could such a miracle be true?
"Good King, perhaps you could come forward and vouch for your people's safety?" She sang in a mocking voice, her tone deceptively light.
The crowd parted as an ocean might, opening up a path of vision to the throne. There sat the Man of Stone, his white knuckles gripping the arms. His eyes were narrowed in disbelief, darting about as though he might see the strings or mirrors that could make a dead woman walk.
"He does not answer me. Perhaps it is because you are not safe, good people, as long as such a man plays at being king," Katrina spat. Her challenge could not have been clearer had she walked over and slapped the man.
The tension was palpable as the crowd turned to hear the Man of Stone's response to such an accusation.
"Guards," he commanded, standing. "Kill this imposter!"
But the uniformed men would not move, frozen in indecision. They had not the faith to trust their own judgments or the judgment of their new leader. The Man of Stone quickly deduced that his force would be no use, and so stepped down from the throne and drew his own sword.
"Am I the only one who cannot be tricked by a fool magician? So be it. I will disprove this performer to you all," he announced as he strode forward, sword at the ready. Katrina held her own dagger, ready to meet his blows, but it was my turn to speak.
All eyes turned to the shadow that I was in. They strained to see past the doorway, peering over the heads of their neighbors. I relieved those eyes by stepping forward into the light, my cloak protecting my face from the harshness of the sun's rays. They burned my delicate skin, and I had to bite my lower lip to keep from crying out. I was rewarded with choked gasping noises from the crowd. I was the new twist in this already complicated drama; the unexpected actor entering from stage left.
As I stood there, surrounded by faces of terror and disbelief, and stared upon the expressionless face of the Man of Stone, I felt a heady rush of emotions. Only now did I know the full extent of his iniquity, the full injustice that he had committed not only upon Katrina and her parents, but myself as well. I was never meant to be the Next, I was never meant to be Death. Impulsively, I raised my hand, quaking with rage, and pointed at him before I continued.
"There stands the murderer of children, women, and old men. There stands the slayer of family and strangers alike," I declared. "I am the Grave-Watcher, and I have risen."
I took a step forward and the crowd slowly melted away from my vision. I focused on one man and one man alone. He had recognized me from my first appearance. Already I could tell he was considering his next move.
"I have been the Next," I continued, stepping forward once again. He took a step back without realizing, as he recoiled from my advance.
"I have delivered the Warning." Step. The distance between the Man of Stone and I was now no more than two arm's lengths. His eyes were flickering about desperately now, and a speck of foam had formed at the side of his mouth.
"And brought the One." Step. I knew now what had to happen, and whether he saw it in my eyes or simply acted as a cornered man, I'll never know. But even as I opened my mouth to speak the final, fatal words, he rushed at me, sword raised to strike.
The next moments seemed to span a lifetime. I only saw his face, but in those stone eyes I saw Katrina's reflection. He had run at me with his sword grasped in his right hand, and I unflinchingly grabbed a hold of his left as soon as he was close enough. I felt, rather than saw his body spasm as Katrina's dagger hit its mark.
II closed my eyes, and a second later I heard the clatter of the dropped sword upon cold tile. When I opened my eyes again, his face was within inches of my own, and I could feel his warm blood upon me. Slowly, his life force began to drain, and I channeled it as I knew I must. I was not Death, but I was the inevitable fate he had once sacrificed a street child to avoid.
The dead swarmed from beyond the doorway now and engulfed him, their hands grasping and pulling at the dying man. The sound was like the rustling of a thousand pieces of crumbling paper. I felt them brush by me, and my skin crawled.
I held on until I knew the transformation was complete. All that was visible of the Man of Stone was his now ghostly hand, which I promptly released. The tide of spirits swept past me, blown away by some invisible and unfelt wind. From within the tide, I caught a glimpse of a open mouth and a desperately reaching hand, and that was the last that I saw of the Man of Stone.
I stood there for a minute or two to regain myself. The transfer had left me light-headed, and my eyes would not fully focus. My left hand still tingled, and I could tell that I was shaking.
The room was deadly silent. No one moved, no one so much as breathed. It was as though that ghostly wind had replaced courtiers with statues.
As my eyes refocused, I saw the glint of metal. I leaned down to pick up the crown, the only remainder of the man who had so briefly worn it. It shone, untarnished by the darkness it had rested upon. I fingered the precious stones and traced their outline with a single pale finger.
I stood, and walked to the wary Katrina, who still clutched the bloody dagger in her fist. She recognized me, and dropped the dagger to her side. Silently and ceremoniously, I delicately placed the crown upon her raven locks.
Silence. Then, a single clap rang out in the throne room. Another followed. Then another, and another. Soon the lonely chorus was joined by others, until the room echoed with the sounds of a people rejoicing. They hollered at the top of their lungs, and cried tears of joy. They swarmed forward, bowing before the Queen and begging her forgiveness for their doubt. They touched her clothing in awe, crying "miracle!" They carried her to the throne and sang songs of triumph.
I silently slipped back into the shadow--where I would always be most comfortable--and watched the scene before me with a smile. Katrina would be a kind and virtuous ruler, and beneath her rule and the rule of her children, the people would experience a golden age. She would herald the return of the old ways, with me at her side. I would advise her as best as I could, an oracle and healer for the rest of my uncountable years. This was what had been foretold, and enabled by my actions.
I understood finally the dual nature of the Watcher; the forgotten secret hidden in the panel deep within the Chambers. The title Grave-Watcher reflected this two-sidedness: "grave" referring to the bringer of death, and "watcher" referring to the teller of futures. Once, long ago, these two sides were two different spirits. I cannot say when or why they became one, but as one they could not function. How could one whose eyes were turned to the skies keep full care of the dead? How could one who tended other worlds fully tend this one as well?
Now we are two once again. Deep within the crypts is Death, previously the king of the living. He now gifts underneath the earth what he gifted so well atop it. He was always meant to be the Next, but in an effort to escape fate he had sacrificed myself instead. Fate, however, is not so easily duped.
I might have remained there, had Isabelle not given me the gift of life with which to save her daughter and kingdom. I have now claimed the position that was always meant to be mine. I was never death. Quietly, I finally mouthed those final fatal words that Death would have kept me from pronouncing.
"I am Rebirth. I have brought the End."