The Isten Baba had been screaming about the Great Below long centuries before she had been born. Rachel was only nine, her birthday just passed, and the Isten Baba were very old. They kept the stories swimming through the generations like remoras attached to the bellies of sharks; always lurking, always listening, the shadow of her people and their collected memories. Her father laughed at the Storytellers, but he came to the gatherings just the same, and didn't laugh where they could see him. Many laughed at the Storytellers. Sister Olivia had told Rachel that the Isten Baba were just too old, now; they were like rushing rivers who, through their long lives, had frozen and become glacial, and now they refused to budge.
Rachel was scared of the Isten Baba. She hated the gatherings. So she waited until the whole of the villages had nestled into the kudzu and soft green beds of moss, carving out a place to rest while the Storytellers wove their yarns from an ancient stone tablet that raised them high and sent their voices carrying over the dark swamps. Before the Storytellers but after the Magistral's speech, Rachel coughed and edged away from the families. She slipped through a few yards of dark, gnarled trees that reached out to tear her pretty white dress, and emerged into a small clearing.
Once, there had been a stone walkway leading to the Eye of the Moon; but the stones were rotten with moss and not a one intact. There was a crumbling stone gazebo carved with angry faces that snarled at Rachel as she walked under them. And next to it sat a giant circle of still pond water with a fountain hovering its center; the water was black and smelly and full of rotted plants. Long hours Rachel had tried to figure out whose likeness had been carved into the fountain, but the rock was chipped and weathered, and to swim in the ancient toxic pond would have killed her. Grandmama swore she saw the fountain working when she was Rachel's age, but all the Magistrals said the fountain had been off thousands of years, before even the Isten Baba had risen. This place was old and evil, they said, made by the truly First Ones, first even before the Isten Baba who always lied and said they were the oldest. They were only the oldest because the First Ones were gone, thought Rachel. It was cheating. She hated the Isten Baba.
But here in the Eye of the Moon, it was quiet. She could only hear the very far-away and deep voices of the Storytellers, but not their words, not their terrifying promises of the Great Below. Here, the swamp sang; the dark trees hummed with birds and bugs and the quiet growl of the lion-lizards. Bullfrogs hopped lazily in the long grass. Once in a while a phoenix fly would lose his way and his fat body would plop into the still pond with a splash. Rachel would watch him squirm and shudder and die.
She hopped along the broken path and sang a song to herself. In the trees around her, she could hear the crows, always watching. She'd never had a day without the crows, just like she'd never had a week without stories of the Great Below. Some days she didn't even notice them, but today, something was different. Their cawing grew louder until she could see the frantic fluttering of black wings in the trees, and then suddenly the murder was hovering all around her, in every tree surrounding the Eye of the Moon. And when she looked at them, they fell silent. They watched her without a sound.
Rachel frowned up at them. Some said the crows were smarter than men, even the First Ones; the thought made her laugh. Big stupid birds; maybe they knew she was skipping out of the gathering, but she wasn't about to let them scare her away. This was her time.
As Rachel approached the pond, a rustle erupted in the bushes that had overgrown the path. Rachel turned and saw scrawny legs kicking out of the bush.
"Rachel, what are you doing here!"
Rachel sighed and put her hands on her skinny hips. "I'm sick of listening to stories. You're going to get in trouble if they catch you."
"So will you," said Katie. Her friend was almost a mirror-image of Rachel herself: Dark long hair, the same white dress and skin eternally paled from centuries within the swamps. Katie skipped over to Rachel's side with a pout. "It's not fair you get to sneak out every week and I don't."
"It's not my fault I'm braver than you."
"You are not," said Katie, but it was a lie, and they both knew it.
Rachel shrugged and began to wander the ancient wooden boardwalk along the pond. Katie followed with anxious steps, her shoes scuffing as she walked. Rachel tried to ignore her and stared down into the pool, trying again to see a fish or pond monster or dead face floating up at her; at least one of the myths had to be right. But all she saw was black; black, disgusting water that even the bugs wouldn't fly over.
Rachel's eyes narrowed as she looked against the pond's walls and saw a disturbance in the water's mirror-smooth surface. It wasn't moving, the big black mound stuffed against the wall's mold-covered edges. As she got closer, she saw it was a crow- and probably the biggest crow she'd ever seen. His feathers were muddy and water-logged, beak yawning open and full of blood, his talons shriveled and curled against his body as if he were trying to keep them warm. Poor thing, thought Rachel. Maybe he lost a fight with a different crow and had the rotten luck to land in the pond. Otherwise, he might have lived.
"Oh, gross!" screamed Katie as she spotted the dead bird. "Stupid crows! Don't they know the pond is sick?"
"Of course they know, 'fraidy-cat. He probably fell in by accident."
"Well, they're stupid birds. What's the point of flying if you can't even fly away?"
Rachel thought that was the smartest thing Katie would probably ever say.
She grabbed a big dead branch, one of many that littered the clearing, and leaned over the wall and reached the branch out to fish out the crow.
Katie squeaked. "Don't be gross Rachel, leave him alone!"
"Shut up," said Rachel. She stretched her arm out and the branch made contact with the dead bird, poking its stiff body. Ripples chased each other across the pond as the water's surface was broken. The dead crow slid through the water towards the girls, and the murder of living crows in the trees began to scream and protest.
Katie stared at them with her jaw open, and began to shiver. "Rachel, leave it alone! You're making them angry!"
She ignored her cowardly friend and poked again at the crow. Getting him away from the wall, she saw he was even bigger than she thought; he could have passed for an eagle in flight. The body tipped and a wing like a big black sail came lurching from under the water.
"He's so big
" said Rachel.
"It's wrong, it's all wrong!" said Katie, backing away from the pond. The crows kept screeching. Katie was shaking now, clutching her white little fists under her chin.
But Rachel wasn't listening. She hiked a knee up on the pond wall's edge, and tossed aside the branch. Out over the black mirror of water she reached, fingers swiping the wet feathers of the crow's stiff wing. She strained, afraid to lean too much weight over the deadly pond, begging the wind to blow the crow just a little closer. Suddenly the feathers were cinched between her fingers and she yanked the corpse through the water towards her.
The murder of crows cried into the gray mists. Wings flapped violently, shaking the very trees and vines of the clearing into a shuddering cacophony. Katie cried, pale and sick and scared.
"I got it!" shouted Rachel, and with all her strength she lifted the dead bird from the water by its massive wing. Boy, this thing must weigh a hundred pounds!
She set it on the stony wall, ignoring the ruckus building around her. Despite her terror, Katie couldn't help but creep closer, curiosity momentarily washing her fear a lighter shade of gray. The full size of the dead crow was intimidating, without the water's merciful darkness to hide him. With a torso the size of a cat and a wingspan that looked longer than Rachel was tall, she wondered if anyone had ever seen a crow this big. The Storytellers would surely have a tale about a bird this size- if they knew about him. Where did he come from?
Stiff and still, the dead crow teetered on the pond's edge while Rachel ran delicate fingers over the tips of his feathers. The crows in the trees screamed to the gods. Katie's tears had dried up and now she just stared, hypnotized by the freak of nature. She reached out a hand to pet the soaked feathers.
And before she could, the dead crow lifted his bloody head and cawed, a noise so deep and dark and loud the girls thought the whole world was ending.
They screamed as the crow began to right itself and beat its huge wings, dirty pond water flying off his feathers like acid rain. He lifted off into the air and wheeled around the Eye of the Moon, his monstrous form blocking whatever little gray-shrouded sunlight made it to the forest floor. Frozen in fear, the girls watched him as he dipped behind the big stone gazebo and disappeared.
Rachel's breath came in painful bursts, and she began to search the skies frantically. "Did you see that?!"
"He was dead! He was dead before!" screamed Katie. "How could he fly?!"
"The crows are all quiet now!" pointed Rachel, her eyes filling with frightened tears. "They saw!'
"Rachel, we have to get out
" and then Katie's words melted into a painful scream. Rachel heard a wet tearing sound and whirled to see Katie's open, shocked mouth. She was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. And from her tiny chest, a pointed branch emerged, thicker than Rachel's wrist. Blood wept down Katie's pure-white dress and pooled at the ancient stones at her feet.
Rachel screamed. Katie swayed on her feet a few moments, blood rushing out of her skin like an angry river. She blinked a few times and let out a moan so sorrowful Rachel thought her own heart was like to explode. Then Katie fell hard on her little knees and pitched onto the clearing floor.
Tears poured, but Rachel was too shocked to kneel and help her friend. She trembled violently and looked up to see the giant crow flapping his wings, silent like a moth, hovering where Katie had stood. In his red beak he held the splintered end of the broken branch now lodged in Katie's heart.
Rachel's eyes became full moons of horror, her tears so thick she could hardly see the black monster waiting there for her. One minute, the crow dropped the branch and cawed and listened to the raucous army in the trees cry back; the next, Rachel was running, stumbling through the kudzu and mangroves that separated her from the gathering, and safety. Branches tore at her hair and face, begging her to stay, but she ignored their stinging cries and pushed through as hard as her jelly-like legs would let her.
She knew the crows would follow.
She reached flat, grass-covered ground and took off sprinting, screaming across the unused field, towards the little shadows of people in the mist and the big black shape of the Ebebu Liber, the only building of stone her village had. They were so far off, she wasn't sure they could hear her; so she shouted louder, ignoring the shooting pain in her legs and chest, afraid to turn and look back.
As Rachel got closer, she saw faces turning to acknowledge her, curious expressions that slowly turned to panic and then terror, and it was then she turned around.
Behind her flew a cloud of black crows, thousands of them, blocking the swamp from the sky's merciful light. Their leader was her dead crow, the eagle-sized beast from the black who killed Katie, after Rachel had fished him from the pond. The entire murder was surrounded by a cloud of foggy green mist, which looked to Rachel like the rare fogs they would get only in the cold months, when the light was just right. But now it was everywhere, and in it glittered red and gold specks as it wafted around the birds like a living thing.
Screams flew into the air as the gathering erupted into chaos. She didn't run into safe arms and brave men, not like she thought she would. Instead Rachel found herself dodging and weaving the frightened people as they threatened to trample her in their own attempt to escape. Suddenly the world got smaller as she dove into the thick of the crowd, people towering over her, blocking her sightlines. She didn't know if she was heading away or towards the crows, now. The screams were so loud she thought she would go crazy. She heard a little boy crying for his mother. Glass shattered somewhere, and wood splintered. A colorful spray of bladder-balloons tied to vines shot into the air as the vines were snapped, sprinkling the hard gray sky with sudden blues and pinks and yellows. The Storytellers were howling from the stone tablet. "The Great Below! The Great Below!"
Rachel emerged from the crowd to see the crest of the hill leading up to the windowless fortress of Ebebu Liber. She tore up the incline and when she turned, she wished she hadn't. All over the clearing, the crows flew like a swarm of locusts, leading the strange green cloud over the frightened people. Those who breathed it immediately stopped running and fell to their knees gasping, like Katie had. Their eyes bugged and they fell, flopping like fish, until their neck whipped so violently it snapped itself. Hundreds of dark bodies littered the grass like leaves on a still pond's surface. The crows screamed victory into the air. Rachel felt sick with guilt.
Some had escaped with her, but no one older than fifteen, and now every one of the orphans ran for the Ebebu Liber. A boy her age with dried mud caked on his face ushered people in with the frantic waving of his skinny arm. "Go, go! Hurry!" When the last of the stragglers had entered, the boy shoved the huge wooden door shut and locked it. Two older boys pushed a heavy reading table against the door.
Ebebu Liber was what the Storytellers called a library. They kept all the books and letters and scrolls of the ages here, safe in a building where the swamp's decaying arms couldn't reach them. The only windows in the whole place were in the groundskeeper's flat; every other level was a maze of shelves and shadows, an eerie tomb of old words lit only by far too few torches. But they would find no safer refuge.
Smells of rich leather and old paper smothered the still air, and the darkness itself seemed alive as the torches on the wall sent shadows dancing. Rachel had never seen so many books in her life.
"We have to hide! Hide!" screamed the mud boy, and just like that, the group of children scattered like roaches, leaving Rachel with nothing but their fading footsteps.
She could hear the crows getting closer outside, surrounding the building. She knew she didn't have long.
Rachel ran as fast as she dared down the wide middle aisle. Piles of books and dusty shelves flew by in the shadows. She saw the flashes of skin from her fellow refugees as they burrowed into wooden carts and tossed books from shelves to make a good place to hide. Mud Boy found a duct covered by a water-stained bronze grate, and when Rachel passed he was wriggling his way into the wall.
She could hear angry banging on the library door. The table-barricade's legs screeched along the stone floor. The heartbeat pound echoed through the vast room.
Rachel found a staircase when she reached the rear wall, and shot up the stairs two at a time. She paused a moment on the second floor when she heard the deafening splinter of the door being shattered, the sound of the reading table slamming against the unmerciful stone wall. Crows cawed, and some in their hiding places began to scream.
Fear gripped Rachel in a numb vice, but somehow her legs were moving, pushing harder than ever, climbing the next set of stairs, and the next. She didn't stop until she reached the groundskeeper's flat, the very top floor of the library.
Rachel slammed the front door shut and turned every lock. The light from the meager windows felt blinding as she careened through the apartment, to the furthest corner, which held a small, dark office. She locked this door, too, and frantically piled books and side tables and anything mobile in front of the door. Gray light passed through the room's window, and looking out, Rachel could see across the clearing and to the Eye of the Moon. She could see the pond, the deadly pond where Katie died.
She couldn't be sure at this distance, but Rachel thought she saw the fountain shooting black water from its rusted, ancient spouts.
The thought dissolved into terror as she heard banging footsteps arriving on her floor. Rachel scurried and wedged herself between two thin cabinets under the window, praying that she could just sink into the floor and never come out. Crows' caws sounded, echoed, from the stairwell. But the footsteps were closer now, in the flat. They seemed to be coming right for her, without pause, without searching or hesitation. It knew right where she was.
Her mind knew, now, and her body stopped shaking. Her bladder released, urine warming her exhausted legs. Her eyes drooped in slow, heavy blinks, and tears dried up.
At the office door, footsteps stopped. After a pause, the door pushed open as if made of cloth, and the tower of trinkets up against it cascaded across the floor in noisy avalanche. Rachel watched the darkness with slow breathing.
Scrawny legs shuffled in, attached to a white dress soiled with a bib of dried, black blood. Her arms were dirty, and her face was dead.
" wailed Rachel as their eyes met. She vomited onto the hardwood floor.
Katie's corpse came forward with fluid movements and bent to grab Rachel's hair. She lifted her with enormous strength until she hung an inch off the ground. Rachel didn't struggle, despite the pain. She saw the gashes and bruises on Katie's hands and knew instantly: The crows had brought her back to help them break down the door to the library. She had given them the key to her only salvation.
Katie's dead eyes stared at Rachel. Rachel felt her heart slowing, too afraid to go on.
" she couldn't finish. Her lungs were empty. She gasped for air.
Katie raised a clammy hand wet with blood and dirt and placed it over Rachel's tear-stained face. Rachel began to panic, to take in every sight and smell and feeling because this would be her last, she knew.
When Katie's fingers scraped the vision right from her eyes, Rachel's mind could still see the big black crow from the pond. He was on the fountain, watching the water spill, and now the fountain was restored, not old and weathered, but in the form of a woman with the head of a lioness. A snake curled across her arms and hands. Rachel screamed, but never heard her own voice.
The crow looked right at her mind's eye and she heard a voice with no body:
No one ascends from the underworld unmarked.