Somewhere in the Amazon, Present Day
Dark storm clouds, nearly pitch black, rumbled in the night sky. Flashes of lightning streaked from one cloud to the next. The trees shielded much of the wildlife from nature’s fury, but enough of the torrential rain fell through the leaves to give the foliage and ground the sustenance it needed. Each crack of thunder vibrated down the branches to the roots, causing the ground to shake.
Standing amid the forest was a temple. Its stone faded and worn, cracks meandering along the foundation. Chunks of rock and rubble piled up near the entrance, which led to nothing but utter blackness. But what the Tomb of Notna lacked in aesthetic quality, it made up for in power and mystique. The temple had an aura about it, and the native wildlife kept its distance.
But the elderly man approaching was no local.
Cian was of Greek heritage, his bronze skin wrinkled with age. His left eye was missing and he walked with a noticeable limp, the result of a hip injury in his thirties that never properly healed. Cian hobbled along the rugged ground, his boots so worn that he might as well have been barefoot. His wooden cane dug into the soft ground, mud caked on the end. He ignored the thunder as best he could, but as Cian paused to wipe the sweat and rain from his brow, he couldn’t help but notice each rumble was louder than the last.
Catching his breath, Cian stared at the temple in awe. His life’s work stood before him. He had waited half a century for this moment. Nothing — not the wildlife, not old age, not fragile limbs — was going to prevent Cian from seeing this pilgrimage through to the end. He understood what that possibly meant, but as a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to the mystery surrounding the Gem of Notna, he welcomed the thought.
Striking his cane against the base of the temple, Cian flinched when flames erupted from the tip. The fire illuminated the entrance, but little else. Still, Cian took as confident a step forward as his body would allow; it was almost as if he was being pulled inside. Whereas the Tomb of Notna seemingly kept anything else that approached at bay, Cian felt the energy surrounding him doing the exact opposite.
Cian was almost immediately engulfed in darkness. The flame only extended several inches in front of him. A full foot, if he was lucky. He heard what he thought were faint whispers in the humid, acrid air, but Cian figured his mind was playing tricks on him due to exhaustion from the lengthy trip and the muggy conditions. Perhaps he should have refilled his canteen down by the river. Cian’s throat was dry, and it worsened with each step he took.
Cian’s study of the legend of Notna dated back to his college days: specifically, his undergraduate years at Aristotle of Thessaloniki in the 1960s. Professors had thought him a fool in those days, telling him he was chasing fairy tales. But the prophecies within the Narazniyan Scrolls had entranced Cian; so much so that his marriage to Marta, his lifelong love, eventually dissolved.
In 1985, freshly divorced — or free, as Cian put it — he moved to Brazil and took a teaching job at Universidade Candido Mendes. The locals were a little more welcoming of his theories and his obsession, but Cian still didn’t feel completely accepted — which was why, upon translating the Narazniyan Scrolls, Cian had kept their true meaning to himself. But that was fine. Genius was rarely recognized in the moment.
Cian never wanted the gem, or its power, for himself. His only vice was curiosity. He had to know if the Gem of Notna did, in fact, exist before he died — understanding that the discovery itself might be what killed him.
After all, they did call this place a tomb.
At this age, Cian welcomed death. Not because his life had been fruitless. Quite the contrary. But with the hair in his beard ghost-white and far more plentiful than whatever was on top of his head, with every step an exercise in pain tolerance, Cian could feel his body starting to give in.
At this point, the gem was all that kept Cian going.
The deeper Cian traveled into the bowels of the temple, the louder the whispers became. He tried to ignore them, but they pierced into his psyche. It was to the point where Cian was actively listening for them, hoping to glean some meaning. But they were little more than gibberish to the elderly scholar, and he shook his head as he continued his descent.
It felt like hours. Cian had to stop to catch his breath, placing the palm of his hand flat against the stone wall to his left. He felt a cockroach flatten under his palm, ignoring the revulsion of bug guts now slathered on his skin.
He seeks the power. Thinks immortality is his for the taking.
Cian jumped and nearly lost the grip on his cane. But the flame died out, leaving him surrounded by pitch black. The voices continued to echo in Cian’s head, but he could no longer make out what they were saying. Beads of sweat trickled down his temple, and Cian’s hands trembled.
Keeping his free hand pressed against the wall to guide himself, Cian started hobbling down the corridor again. Each step was wobbly, his entire body shuddering with effort and uncertainty. After several steps, sheer exhaustion drove Cian to his knees. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and a flicker of light finally caught his attention.
It was a bright shade of green, almost emerald. The flickers grew more frequent until the light was constant, spilling from the chamber into the end of the walkway. Cian’s heart rate nearly doubled, a surge of adrenaline taking over now that he knew he was near the end of his journey.
His muscles ached and his legs screamed for relief, but Cian could not stop until he reached the mouth of the chamber. The light was blinding at this point, engulfing the entire room in its bright hue.
His worthiness has not yet been tested. His presence was not foreseen.
The voices caught Cian off-guard, but his vision eventually adjusted to the light. In the center of the chamber, he saw the very thing he had spent his life chasing: there, floating several feet atop a stone slab, shaped as four hands with their palms raised skyward, was the Gem of Notna.
A tiny thing, not even two inches tall. Oblong and impossibly shiny. It hovered above the stone hands and rotated counterclockwise. The light spilling into the chamber originated from the gem, which seemed to throb with intensity. Cian licked his lips, hoping to combat the dryness in his mouth. The light was uncomfortably warm on his skin, but not even that discomfort could keep him away.
“Dios mio,” he muttered under his breath.
This power is not ours to give.
Cian ignored the voices, taking a step toward the display. His knee buckled, nearly causing Cian to fall face-first to the ground. But he kept his balance, managing two more wobbly steps before the voices returned, louder and more insistent.
This one cannot keep the balance within the universe.
As he closed in on the altar, Cian noticed symbols etched into the back of each hand. Having studied every text and scroll related to the Gem of Notna, Cian knew these symbols by heart. He also knew the voices were arguing whether Cian was worthy of the gem’s power.
He wasn’t here for that. Even if Cian wanted to wield the Gem of Notna, his frail body and advanced age would never allow it. The power would overwhelm him to the point of death. But Cian had always known this would likely be a one-way trip, and the smile that crept on his face was one of joy, but also peace.
If Cian was to die tonight, his life was now complete.
He is not fit.
Cian studied the symbols once more. Running clockwise, he mouthed what each symbol meant: Strength. Conviction. Honor. Sacrifice. The four tenets of ancient Narazniyan civilization, ranked from least important to most. The Narazniyans, a race not of this planet, had valued personal sacrifice and collective unity above all else — which was appropriate, considering they had created a weapon capable of killing those it deemed unworthy.
He has come far. Perhaps he is worthy.
“Yes,” Cian whispered before he could stop himself.
Exhaustion, mixed with relief, sent Cian to his hands and knees. He stared at the ceiling in awe, unable to believe he had achieved the fruits of his lifelong labor. Everything he had worked toward for the past fifty years was right in front of him, just out of his physical reach, and the euphoria that came with that was almost enough to override any physical discomfort.
It had not been in vain. He knew he could never tell anyone what he saw; no one would believe him even if he did survive the journey back home. But all the work, the sleepless nights poring over texts, the long travels in search of like-minded academics, watching his beloved Marta walk out the door with two suitcases in-hand…
It had all been worth it.
“Yes, I am worthy,” he muttered. “I am worthy!”
Silence engulfed the chamber. The light dimmed.
No. This one cannot prevent the End of Days. His prime is behind him.
The admonishment, true though it was, hurt like a kick to the stomach. Cian doubled over and shut his good eye, shaking his head. Looking up again, he stared at the gem, watching as black strands of something swirled about and a low hissing sound filled the chamber.
In spite of the gravity of the moment, Cian managed a chuckle. He noticed there were no other bodies in the chamber. No bones, no remains, nothing. If the gem killed all those who were unworthy, shouldn’t the chamber be littered with dead bodies? Cian wasn’t the first to be rejected, was he?
You are brave, old one. Perhaps, in another time…
The emerald light brightened once more, engulfing the chamber and burning into Cian’s flesh. He gritted his teeth clenched his hands. This was pain unlike anything he had experienced before; he felt his insides burning. A loud crash from behind startled Cian. He glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see the passage blocked off by a large boulder.
This is not The One.
Blood seeped from Cian’s ears and his right eye. His grunts morphed into cries of pain as he rolled onto his back. He reached out for the gem, screaming again when he felt the black tendrils slithering over his body. The thorns of each dug into his wrinkled flesh, drawing even more blood. Cian’s aging muscles locked up, and his last scream was drowned out by sinews snaking over his face.
By the time the tendrils snuffed the life out of Cian, his entire frame was covered in the living cocoon. He twitched in the seconds following his last breath, the tendrils wrapped around him glowing a bright emerald before a flash overtook the entire chamber. Incinerating Cian and his cocoon, the light burst through the ceiling, through the canopy of the rainforest, and into the night sky.
Storm clouds parted. The rain tapered off. Birds chirped into the night. But now, the chamber was empty, save the altar and the small crystal hovering above it.