The screams were matched only by the roar of hollow flames and burning wood. The rest of the world had come to take its revenge on the Shadow Clan. Even the shadows could not save them. The fire cast its light against the blood that soaked the ground of the planet Lyreane. From one end of the planet to the other, every Lyreani who could hold a sword had joined to stomp every man, woman, and child under prejudicial boots. They had ridden through their planet like a deadly wave, hunting the Shadow Clan to extinction.
Up high in the mountains, the members of the Black Council, the elders of the Shadow Clan, stood overlooking the chaos from the top of their sacred temple. Though their eyes were dulled to the violence they witnessed, their hearts were still filled with the promise of retribution. Their cities were long gone and now their people with them. They had been hunted men; now they were defeated men. In the darkness of the night, vengeance filled their old hearts.
Plans and plots for how to exact their retaliation began as vague echoes of whispered words, until one rose up in a storm among them. All of their thoughts turned to this word and this word alone—Croatoan. It scratched at the inside of their skulls until it became a carving upon their bones as they watched the last of their people burn and their screams died into deafening silence.
Gathering around the circle as one, they chanted as one, and the word “Croatoan” seared deeper, beyond all physical reaches of their being. They enacted an old curse, one their ancestors had feared and never used—a curse to take the souls of many and bind them into one. They feared it because they could not direct the curse’s choice; any of their blood could become the savior. The risk seemed less now that the elders believed themselves the last of their kind. They chanted until the early light painted the black sky with colors that made the ground come to life with the rusty shade of old blood of their fallen people.
By the last of the light of the twin moons, the souls of their dead gathered together. The dawn was filled with the chaos of their screams as they were pulled, like veils upon a strong wind, into the top tower of the temple where the Black Council waited. In response, the wind became enraged and bombarded the elders around the circle, causing their robes to pull thin against their skin, but the elders would not be easily dissuaded from their task. Lifting their arms, they called out the final incantation in the lost language of their ancestors, and then silence fell.
Shaped like an arrow, the searing white incorporeal souls of the dead shot around the room in an erratic dance. The men looked on in anticipation. Suddenly, the pale mass rocketed out the top of the tower, shattering stone in a deafening explosion and opening the ceiling up to the sky before it arced down toward their lost village. With debris still raining down, they hurried as well as old men can hurry to the edge of the temple and looked down upon the carnage once more. When nothing stirred below, they thought their last hope had just ended in failure. Had the members of the Black Council been able to cry, tears and blood would have mingled together on their faces as they scratched at their cheeks in desperation. Instead there was only blood.
Slowly, they walked down the sacred steps to the world below, where the crackling of the fires was the only sound left. When the hidden mountain stone door was turned aside and the first light of dawn stretched her fingers across the sky, they emerged. At the edge of their town, the smell of death loomed like forgotten rotting fruit. Silence and smoke met their hopes with an unforgiving weight.
The first man fell to his knees, his words an indistinguishable whisper. Another fell, his words matching the first. One by one they knelt until all twelve were on their knees save one. Only the crumpled bodies of the dead remained to meet their desperate cries; their enemy had fled this cursed place, and few who had joined the Wild Hunt were willing to admit the misery they had wrought.
The one man still standing closed his eyes and listened with every fiber of hope and desperation. He believed that their ancestors and their dead would not lead them astray. Then he heard it, a stifled crying.
For a moment he thought it was the trick of the wind or perhaps his own hope turned to imagination. But when another member rose and leaned forward, listening, he knew in his heart that it was a true sound.
In a flurry of black cloaks, they hurried past the village and into the woods toward the source of the sound. On the ground lay a woman with a babe in her lap, partially swaddled in the woman’s shawl. Her arms were loose and lifeless; her eyes were open and glossy. Blood gathered between her breasts from a sword wound, and her skirts were soaked in blood. The newborn, still slick with blood, squirmed and whimpered.
When the man stepped forward, the child went quiet and turned its head, seeming to hear his footsteps, but its eyes remained closed. He bent down and picked him up, noticing as the shawl fell away that it was a boy, and held him. The infant kicked a little at the sudden cold but kept its eyes closed.
Everyone on the planets knew that the horrors of the Netherworld waited for baby killers. This child had been spared by their enemy because it was new to this world, and the Black Council’s curse had found its way to him. He pushed the cloth back. Using his thumb to wipe the bloody membrane from the infant’s chubby shoulder, he saw the infinity mark; the child was the chosen. He was their savior.
The man looked down at the woman then, admiring her determination to save her child. She would be the first they would bury and give final rites.
He spun toward the others. Holding the child up in both hands, he declared, “The undying!”