At the western edge of the known world, a sheer cliff plunged five hundred feet into a tireless and unexplored ocean. White waves pounded at the cliff, coming a few feet from the top, and then dropping down so fast that the back draft would suck down with it the largest of men, and did. The ocean had a greedy mind of its own. It was the largest beast known, and it held its title with pride and hatred. The ground shook with its gargantuan waves, as though infuriated that the rock had imprisoned it.
The skies were almost always dark with cloud s and rain fell from every direction. As far north and south as anyone could see, plains of tall green grass swayed in the wind as though a massive army were preparing a covert attack. The plains were divided in two by a black, hard-packed road that ended abruptly at the cliff making one wonder if the world had been cut in half by a giant sword.
At the eastern edge of the plains, on either side of the Black Road, two statues rested. Their age and creator were unknown. They stood over a hundred feet tall and were shaped like cloaked monks, except unnaturally tall and skinny. Their cloaks flowed sheerly off their shoulders to the ground. They had no faces, only a smooth spherical surfaces where faces should have been. One of them was pure white, so pure that it was difficult to look at whenever the sun was shining. To those who dared touch it, the stone was smooth and cool regardless of the weather. It was immaculately clean. Not a drop of rain could be found on its surface, even during a storm. The other statue was pure black and rested on the other side of the road. It appeared not so much as a statue, but rather a complete void of light in one’s vision. No one dared go close to it or look at it any longer than a glance. Nothing grew in its shadow. Little else was known about it.
The power of the statues was unquestioned. Neither could be harmed, moved, marked, or even covered. In earlier times, societies would punish their worst criminals by tying them up at the foot of the black statue. After some time, the criminal would become uncomfortable and beg to be let free. Eventually he would panic and thrash about violently. Finally, he would just stop and stare blankly. No one subjected to that torture ever recovered, nor did they ever commit a violent crime again. Even though the practice had been abolished, a criminal would always choose imprisonment or death to the threat of the black statue.
Crow stood on the Black Road, three hours to the east of the Western Ocean and under the gaze of the two statues. He looked up at the black statue and shivered. Every hair on his body stood up and every emotion in his mind turned to dread. He turned away quickly, thankful that his punishment was not to be tied up next to the statue. Instead, he was given the next worst alternative, execution in the Western Ocean. To facilitate this, he held on his back a wooden plank, wide enough for two feet, and long enough for someone to stand on one end while the condemned stood on the other and eventually fell. The ocean claimed the condemned by either wind or wave, sometimes even before plank was set in place. Once a man was claimed by the ocean, it was unknow n what became of his soul. The only certainty was that it could never return, not for redemption, nor for evil.
Crow was to be executed. It was an execution reserved for the worst criminals, for whom redemption was impossible. The high court judge stood behind him. On one side of the judge stood Crow’s King and Queen, on the other were three persons in hood ed cloaks. Behind them and to the north, Crow’s former home, the Kingdom of Calina, lay sprawled among hills and forests. To the south of the road, there was nothing but farmhouses and farmland spread across hills amongst thickets of trees. Standing adjacent to Crow, two guards kept spears trained on him. The judge then yelled into the wind.
Crow turned around to stare at his judges. His face held no expression.
“You have been sentenced to death for treason.”
The judge stopped, wanting to add more, but didn’t know how to say it. Crow was guilty of something that had not heretofore been committed. The judge omitted the remaining convictions and continued.
“You will be executed by banishment, body and soul, into the Western Ocean. Do you have a final statement?”
Crow turned to the West.
That was the last word to leave his mouth. Now the three hour march to the edge of the world would begin. It always took three hours. Crow could feel the disappointment behind him and he was ready to walk away from it. A cold gust of wind hit his back at that moment and he took a step forward. He was poorly dressed and now thoroughly cold. He had no shoes either. All he had left was his broken body and a heavy plank of wood. He was not a threat to anyone, especially not to the robust guards. Crow wondered when it was that he would be eternally judged. After being claimed by the ocean? While standing at the edge? Did it already happen in front of the statues? Or did it all start when he walked into the cave as a boy and came out as… something else.
Crow felt a sharp pain in his side. One of the guards was prodding him forward with a spear. He started to walk. He was ready for this, but he had no idea what the outcome would be. There would be no chance for ritualistic redemption so he wanted to be sure of where he was headed. And if he was to be damned for eternity, should he not fight it? No, that was impossible. There was no chance he could escape this. So all he had left to do for three hours was figure out what might happen to him at the end. What events got him here? H ow far back did he have to go? To the creation of the statues? Or the prophecy? To his grandfather? To the cave? Or did it start with his boyhood brother? Betrayal seemed to always beget a worse betrayal. So here he was, walking to his death. This was his fate, but he could at least ask why. And what fate would it be? No one knew. Would he cease to exist? Or would it all start over again? If he could answer some of these and embrace any sort of hope that he was not evil, then he would dive into the ocean and let God sort it out. But if he had no light left in him, then maybe he’d try to take a guard out with him.
The three hours had begun. He picked a beginning and let his mind wander back to the last day of his innocence, back when he was a boy named Corvan….
* * *
Corvan stood in front of a dark hole in the side of the mountain. He had walked and climbed all the daylight hours of the past two days at a mad pace. The summer days were long and the weather had favored him. Even the wind had favored him. He had been able to sleep in that morning and have a proper breakfast before beginning the final climb up the steep loose grey rocks. He needed the extra energy for the last part since every step forward was nearly reversed by the rocks sliding back. There were no trees up here and there hadn’t been since camp, nor anything else to provide comfort. There was nowhere to sit and standing anywhere but in the mouth of the cave was precarious. Still, Corvan preferred to not stand at the mouth of the cave.
Th is mountain was one of many that looked exactly the same. He could count a dozen from his vantage point, green hills with grey caps, except vastly larger and steeper than any normal hill. These were the Silvertop Mountains, a vast area. It was a week’s travel from the center to edge in any direction, or so it was believed because no one had been to the center. No one had even seen the center because the mountains there stretched high up into the clouds. It was said to be the highest point unknown to man and it had no name. Corvan had not climbed half that height to arrive where he now found himself, but this was the highest he had ever been. This mountain also remained unnamed for no one cared to dwell upon it again after they had left it.
By all outward appearances, the Silvertops were peaceful but no civilization had cared to inhabit them to any great extent. There were few flat spaces of any reasonable size to allow building a town except at great expense to excavate up an d into the mountainside. Additionally, as one traveled any further than a day into the mountains, there were other entities that made living there undesirable. Corvan was here seeking those entities. His brothers were here for the same. There was no wind today and Corvan could hear the almost metallic clink of rocks sliding from a great distance as his brothers climbed toward him. But other than that small disturbance the stillness made it seem as though the mountain had frozen in a state of heightened alert, preparing for an assailant sneaking toward it in the dark. Corvan and his brothers all felt the same apprehension as they slowly navigated the mountain. Despite the appearance of serenity, there was none here.
Then Corvan felt it, just barely, but he knew the feeling when it came upon him unexpectedly. It was a mix of loss, sadness, and frustration. It emanated from the cave. What he had felt most up until this point was fear, not his own, but fear left by others. That is what guided him here, a trail of fear left behind by countless boys. But he could look back upon the route he took as well, see how it carefully descended through the cliffs, and understand why he had arrived so much earlier while the others followed the trail. They would eventually see this better route and each of them would descend the way Corvan had come up, likely leaving behind another trail of fear.
Of course any woman would have taken the same path as him. They could all sense better than he, fear and other disembodied emotions. Corvan couldn’t admit to having the ability so he claimed only that he desired to visit his grandfather’s grave. The man had been dead for a century, but no one had been there since the burial. Corvan felt like he was the only one who owed respect to his grandfather, so he put some effort into finding it along the way. It was nothing but a pile of rocks that might easily be missed as part of the landscape. He considered not visiting, but he suspected the path was shorter and he needed an excuse to avoid letting others know that he was different.
Corvan’s grandfather had no songs about him, no poems, no stories. Corvan couldn’t even think of a single reference to any group or army that his grandfather had been in. He probably hadn’t ever been in any group or army. He had been sensitive like Corvan, but that was known. Consequently, his grandfather had served in the stables all his life. He never gave Corvan anything valuable, neither reputation nor credentials. He did not belong in his time. His kind earned no respect, inspired no envy. Corvan knew he had barely escaped the same stigma. Corvan’s father, on the other hand, was already legend. He rose up like the phoenix from his father’s legacy of booze and horse manure. Corvan had his father’s reputation to keep wind in the sails of his destiny and keep suspicion at bay. His father’s name was never unknown, Hawk Whitetalon. He was the epitome of all great hero stories and Corvan never felt comfortable with that, but he respected his father.
Corvan’s father had risen to greatness in his younger days and earned the respect and trust of the king. He had retired from a high ranking position in the military to become the king’s right hand, which was a retirement that afforded very little time for leisure. Corvan truly did have any path he wanted open to him, but no career known to him fit the enormous drive he felt at times. He felt like society hadn’t yet created his profession. Or that perhaps there would be no profession to fit with what he was meant to become. Worse yet, he seldom felt hope of finding his purpose. He had contemplated so many options, even explored some in depth, only to find that they would not fulfill him. Priesthood seemed viable for a long time, but he rebelled at the thought of telling people how to live or sitting in meditation for hours. He wanted nothing to do with the unseen world either. It was best left to priests and children as far as he was concerned, even though he was generally fascinated by the stories.
At the grave, Corvan had stared down for a few minutes at the grey pile of rocks. They barely appeared to be a grave and bones were visible between the stones. Whoever had been tasked to give last rights had cared very little to perform the ceremony in the proper form. Most likely some younger priest begrudgingly took on the duty and gave it as little time as Corvan’s grandfather deserved. The decision to do the ceremony at all was probably debated. It was a suicide, a result of the Ritual from which he had been forbidden. The burial wouldn’t have been considered if not for the growing reputation or Corvan’s father. Corvan felt guilty for thinking of his grandfather in the way that his culture told him to. He felt it was all backwards. He knew his cursed gift was an asset to him, yet it remained a dark secret. He felt no shame at having it, only a slight paranoia that he might be discovered. He knew that time would one day change the ways of men and his kind would be revered as it was rumored they were many thousands of years ago. But today, Corvan’s kind, though there were maybe only a few in the known world, worked the stables and other meaningless jobs. But they received a decent burial, whereas Corvan’s grandfather was only a pile of bones by the time that young priest had come to throw some rocks on them.
Corvan stood at the cave growing cold and more uneasy as his brothers approached. What he sensed from the mountain was slowly growing as he waited. His brothers’ presence did not go unnoticed by the entities there. He could feel their energy, even hear faint conversation at this point, but from whom he was not sure. He could feel now more evil than he had ever before, more than when he had witnessed a priest exorcise the demon from his sister’s dead body nearly a decade ago. He was terrified, but he turned back to face the black hole so as not to be betrayed by emotion. It was about to start, the right of passage, the Ritual.
Vespin was the first brother to reach Corvan. He was breathing hard and making a lot of noise. He finally came to a stop as a big rock slid out from under him and he landed on the ground. He sat panting for a moment.
“Hey, you got any water?”
Corvan was startled out of his focus on the cave. He turned, now capable of appearing something other than terrified. He answered meekly,
“Oh hey, Vespin! It’s over there.” he said and gestured toward his water bag.
Vespin didn’t move. Instead he sat a few moments, recovering from the final sprint up the mountain. Corvan relaxed a little. It comforted him greatly to not be alone in the cave. Eventually Vespin got to his feet and went over to Corvan’s bag. Corvan knew Vespin had pushed himself hard the last hour of the trip so that he could be the first one up. He was also the only one of the brothers who would shamelessly ask for someone else’s water. But this journey wasn’t a competition. It was intended to push the brothers hard, to distract them from frivolous concerns and let them begin the Ritual with a clear mind. But Corvan had arrived with extra time and his mind had wandered into the mess of his imagined possible futures.
Vespin had undoubtedly continued chattering along the remainder of the journey after Corvan had parted. Ursin had probably told him to shut up countless times, but he’d be silent for only so long. Ursin, the eldest by a few weeks but many years by his demeanor, was the next brother to arrive. He walked right into the mouth of the cave and stared into it alongside Corvan. He remained silent and eventually sat down with his back against the wall to watch the others come up. He was always in charge and had guided the rest of them along for two day, deciding when to stop and where to camp.
Elaph followed soon after, nimbly climbing around making his own route, carefully stepping on larger stones that did not give under his weight. He seemed at ease in his surroundings. His eyes almost always seemed to smile. He perched himself on a rock above Corvan and cheerfully asked,
“So how long have you been waiting?”
“A little while.”
“Did you go in yet?”
“Of course not.”
Elaph curiously wandered into the mouth of the cave, purposefully looking while his eyes adjusted. He seemed ready to keep moving, but three more brothers were still making their way up the mountain.
Corvan noticed that everyone else was either too tired, or in the case of Ursin, simply unconcerned to care about where they were and what they were about to do. Vespin had been excited about the Ritual. He s peculated constantly about what he would find, his new name, what songs he would learn. Would he learn sword fighting or archery? Ursin assured him he would never be proficient in archery and his swordplay wouldn’t be mastered overnight. But Vespin rambled on about winning tournaments and joining the king’s private security. Corvan thought Vespin should consider himself lucky to get knighted at all, but he would be knighted if he wanted to be. For once though, Corvan expected to get a real and believable story out of Vespin after the Ritual was over.
Tam, Ceter, and Felin, the remaining brothers, arrived and everyone sat down in the mouth of the cave to rest. Corvan had grown up with these six boys. They played together, had all their lessons together, and they went on adventures. Corvan was his father’s only son, but he was closer to these six boys than he was with his sisters or parents. They were a privileged group of boys, each one the son of a distinguished father. They were well educated by the best instructors. They were afforded privileges and connections that guaranteed a place of importance in the Kingdom, or great power from the wealth they would inherit. They could pursue whatever life they wanted, their father’s permitting of course. All of this kept them somewhat isolated from other boys and the normal way of life and they were also heavily scrutinized by authority.
Corvan knew their days together would become fewer. Except for Vespin who wanted to pursue all careers, they all had plans and goals. Corvan did not. Ursin’s father was the king’s military commander, so Ursin had already started elective education for military leadership and strategy. Corvan didn’t think Ursin had ever considered that other options were available to him, but he already played the part expertly. He was always calm, authoritative, unquestionable when he made a decision, and he was the last brother that Corvan would go to if he wanted to talk about something personal or emotional.
Elaph had great interest in the elements, clockwork, and tinkering. He was also very practical. The patch on Corvan’s water bag was evidence to that. He also wore an odd-looking utility belt wrapped around his waist, crossed over his back, and down his shoulders. Attached to it were various useful items. His long flat blonde hair also told you that he didn’t care a lot about his appearance. Elaph would go on to some fascinating career, but Corvan did not know exactly what that work would entail other than involving fire, potions, and very strange gadgets.
The other three brothers, Tam, Ceter, and Felin, would choose careers in business, the culinary arts, and the priesthood. Corvan felt a special, although precarious, closeness to Felin. They had equally strong feelings toward the unseen inhabitants of the world. But Felin’s curiosity about it far exceeded his fear, if he even had any. Felin’s ideal adventure always involved some forgotten place, ruins, or places where you would never find any women. He was perhaps too devoted to care about women anyway. Felin was ready for this day more than his brothers, and you could tell he was excited despite his contemplative silence on the journey.
Despite dreading what he would endure today, Corvan’s hope had been rekindled. The right of passage was perhaps his last opportunity to discover where he belonged. Generations of boys had journeyed through these mountains. Most came back changed, stronger, or more determined. It was almost guaranteed that there was something to be gained from the experience. While there were exceptions for those who emerged homicidal, suicidal or insane, all societies held sacred this right of passage. It enriched cultures and improved prosperity. It made men who respected the nature of life and death and who understood their place in the world. It renewed the memory of the past which was a man’s most cherished possession. And of course, there would be a celebration to welcome the new men back into the community.
Corvan wasn’t ready to think about celebrating. The celebration wouldn’t happen for at least another week. After the mountain would be the second journey. It was this transformation period that boys often feared more than entering the cave. The celebration always centered around the story of how each boy became a man during the second journey. No doubt, Vespin would tell the best story of all, even if some of it were embellished. For now, none of them except Felin could feel anything but anxiety about what road lay ahead. As brothers, they always had someone to watch their backs, but the second journey would force them to rely on their own abilities. While Corvan had little concern for his own survival, he worried about some of his brothers and how well they would endure the trial. They would all endure of course. They were the sons of the kingdom, the only boys going through the Ritual that everyone would ask or know about. Corvan’s father told him the king had asked about the date of the naming ceremony a while ago, but perhaps that was not out of interest rather than annoyance at having to attend. The king didn’t have a reputation for being friendly.
Ursin stood up authoritatively. The Ritual was about to begin. He walked to one side of the cave and removed a small pouch full of white sand from his belt. The sand came from the field south of the Black Road and adjacent to the Western Ocean. Corvan stood up and pulled out his pouch full of black sand obtained from the other fie ld, the one north of the Black Road. Ursin turned toward the other five who had also stood up and formed a line along the entrance. He began to speak the words of the Ritual spoken in a thousand different languages by millions of boys over thousands of years.
“Today we honor the dead. As our fathers gave life to us, we give it back to their fathers. We must humbly accept their guidance, knowledge, and wisdom so that we may become men worthy of the gift they gave us. But we also take on this responsibility as it is the greatest gift from God, a promise of redemption. We accept this task wholeheartedly knowing that we may one day need the Ritual for the redemption of our own souls.”
Crow continued his part in the ritual.
“We alone are responsible for the balance of good and evil. So that our women and children may live and prosper, we devote ourselves to this task and He who bestowed it upon us. We enter sacred ground with pure hearts lest evil should attach itself to us and again take reign over the world. It is better that you should die as a boy than remain here for eternity or be cast into the ocean.”
Ursin lifted his bag of white sand and started to pour a line from one wall of the cave to the other. Corvan did the same with the black sand. It was believed that the sand held spirits, good or evil, in place in the fields. In this case, it kept them from following the boys out of the cave and back into the world where they’d be lost and disturb the living, which they were known to do. Of course they could cross if joined to a person.
Ursin stepped over the line and into the darkness of the cave. The brothers followed. Corvan stepped over the lines last. He felt something change as the darkness closed around him. He felt sick with anxiety as his every thought told him that something was about to go wrong.
It was believed that the Silvertop Mountains were a holding place for the souls of men waiting for redemption. When most men died, their spirits were free to wander the earth without purpose, reason, or understanding. Eventually, some force would draw them toward the Silvertop Mountains. They seemed to be guided or awakened most on full moon nights or in the presence of other astrological events. On such nights, girls and women would avoid being outside or anywhere near burial sites. It was a favorite pastime for young boys to venture outside to exactly these places in contradiction to their mothers’ demands. It was a childhood pastime for most boys, even Corvan’s brothers, to wait outside and try to spot or even entrap these lost spirits. Nothing ever happened, but Corvan did his best to avoid his brothers’ taunting to go out with them.
All cultures present and past considered the Silvertops as sacred, although it was known that inhuman entities also made the mountains their home. It may have been by design that they were all forced to inhabit the same mountains, each making the other suffer. Whether the spirits knew where they were, or why, was unknown, but only there, in the cave, did they have a chance to leave the Silvertops. Via the ritual, a tradition upheld for all recorded history, boys entered the mountains with the expectation of becoming adults in return for the promise to redeem one of those souls. It was only in the dark claustrophobic caves that a boy could invite in one of these suffering spirits to accompany the boy into manhood and begin a process of cleansing the spirit through the boy/man’s good deeds. The man and spirit would try to live as one in harmony and often, once the bond was strong, the man would benefit in some way.
The joining was often a horribly unsettling experience. The spirit, who had once been a man himself, would have to adjust to the confinement in, and to the will of , his host. The host had to cope with an enraged, scared, or insane spirit rattling around in his mind. The process of peaceful coexistence could take many days, sometimes weeks, or sometimes it didn’t happen at all. The host would have to fight his new symbiont, commonly referred to as a sym, for control over his thoughts and feelings. He woul