Excerpts for Pyramid of Souls


Spring Garden District, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1844

Prologue

Edgar Allan Poe sat at his wooden desk and stared out the window at the starless midnight sky. His jumbled study reflected the scattered state of his mind. Books competed for space on shelves and had tumbled to the floor in small piles, their spines cracking. A lantern burned, its flames creating a flickering glow on the plain white walls.

His wife, Virginia, was in the small back bedroom, coughing in her sleep. Consumption was ravaging her health, and Poe was even more desperate now for success. He was weary of fighting for every penny, every scrap of recognition. Though he'd made a living-barely-as a literary critic, he longed for success as a writer. He needed a poem or short story that would capture the imagination of both an editor and the nation: one that would make him wealthy, famous, and able to care for Virginia.

But inspiration would not come.

He stared down at the paper, quill pen in his hand. The white page taunted him with its blankness. He clutched his temples, urging words to spring into his mind...then reached for the snifter on his desk. He took a deep, long swallow of amber cognac. More than he cared to admit, his inspiration flowed from the burning liquid-but tonight, the muse did not come. And if not now, then...would the muse ever?

"Please," he whispered desperately; it was almost a prayer.

"Inspiration. That is what I need."

From the back bedroom, he heard Virginia's rattling cough. He felt as if his own lungs shuddered. He winced, then dropped his head in his hands, anguish etched in his pale face.

Tat-tat-tat.

Poe jumped nearly out of his skin at the sound. He stared at the cognac bottle. Its color was so alluring, like a jewel. Was he now having hallucinations?

But then he heard the sound again.

Something was at the window.

He felt a tingle, as if a cockroach skittered up his spine, and then a chill filled him with dread. How could something be at the window? He was on the second floor.

Shaking, he stood and crept toward the panes of glass, peering out into the darkness. He wondered if a tree branch could have broken free from the oak across the way.

Tat-tat!

It was a more insistent sound. The pecking of a beak. Squinting in the lamplight, Poe cautiously opened the window. A large, black bird stared at him inquisitively from the sill. Blinking twice, it stepped in and alighted on the floor. Poe's heart thudded in his chest. The bird was not small. With its head erect, turning in nearly a full circle atop its neck, the bird easily stood taller than his knees.

"Once upon a midnight dreary," the bird spoke in a voice as clear as Poe's own.

Poe blinked. That voice! It was deep, familiar...but entirely alien at the same time. He took three steps backward and fell into a chair.

"I am hallucinating," he muttered to himself. "Nothing of the sort," the bird replied. "I am here to bring you your deepest desire."

"A raven...to answer my deepest desire? How do you propose that?" Poe asked. He scarcely believed he was talking to a bird, still half-certain it was all a dream or a bad batch of cognac.

"My name is Miranda. I have come as an answer to your prayer. Write down what I say, and you will be rewarded." Poe stared. Miranda. Her beak was ebony and forbidding. Its point appeared dagger-sharp.

"Your pen. Begin writing," the bird insisted. She took several hops and preened her feathers, which shone like mica in the lamplight. She spread her wings, blocking the light, casting Poe in shadows.

Poe returned to his desk, still not certain of anything- including his own sanity. He dipped his quill in ink and began copying down the raven's words.

"While I nodded, nearly napping..." the bird spoke. Her voice was throaty, clear, and haunting. Poe scribbled as the bird dictated.

"But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling..." She flitted and hopped toward the long-cold fireplace. The log Poe had burned was now nothing more than ash.

"What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore...meant in croaking 'Nevermore.'"

As Poe wrote down "Nevermore," he felt a spark of recognition. Nevermore...sounded precisely like a raven's autumnal call. Brilliant! he thought.



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