I had never experienced death, for if I had, I would not be lying in the dark on this mighty stone bridge which stretched across the River West to meet the far banks of Kho Arian. Can you feel dead without actually being so? Why would I ask such a question when the answer was an inevitable yes. The darkness around me matched the darkness in my heart: not evil but empty. The void spread through my whole body like a sickness leaving my spirit immobile and dead. Like losing someone dearly loved, I felt as if I was at the graveside of… myself. Peering down into the dark hole, I saw nothing. There was no body to be placed in the grave, no physical form to gaze upon. As the dirt was shovelled into the hole I continued to look on aimlessly searching for the misplaced portion of myself that had been forcibly stolen from me.
I stood to my feet, but did not move, not wishing to leave more of myself behind as if my stolen spirit lay on the stone beneath my feet. A great crash filled the air as the stone bridge which stretched toward us from the shores beyond clicked into place, touching the solid yet previously incomplete bridge on which I stood. The slow hiss of steam which had come from the extending bridge subsided as it reaching this final resting place.
Men, and I use that word loosely, of varying sizes stepped out from behind the giant iron barrels which had fired on us. “Pharosh” I heard Cargh’s voice to my left and looked over at his menacing stance. With Fioreh in one hand and his axe in the other, he appeared ready to take on the whole band of them, thirty or so in number. The expression which he held on his face revealed malicious intent even more than the weapons drawn.
The Pharosh drew nearer and the orange glow from Fioreh matched pace with her luminescent intensity. As the first of them reached the orange pool of light around us I saw that the larger of them held strange weapons in their hands, or claws. “Calm yourself.” I didn’t feel like such simple words would keep Cargh from launching himself into the approaching Pharosh, but perhaps they would distract him from his rage for a time. “Lady Eyes commands it.”
Disdainful laughter spewed from his lips like warm liquor. “You know not the ways of the allmarach, Mert. Lady Eyes is not a name to be abused! She commands nothing, but abides by the will of the Rock!”
He took a step toward the oncoming crowd and I knew I would have to think quickly to prevent the bloodbath that would surely ensue. “They chased off our attackers. At least allow me to give them my thanks before you run them through.”
Cargh, ignoring my plea and lunged for the closest Pharosh. A crack of booming thunder and blast of light finished the fight before it had started. The barrel of the Pharosh’s weapon smoked menacingly as Cargh fell backward and landed on the stone, clutching his shoulder.
“Look, what we have here!” The one who had fired spoke, sounding more excited than the situation warranted.
“Well, come on. What is it?” Another one of them asked in bated expectation.
“It’s one of those little guys with the big beards!”
“It’s a dwarf!”
“No, they call themselves the allmarach.”
“What’s in a name? Wouldn’t a rose by any other name still smell as sweet?”
“I don’t know. I still call your mother Rose, and she always smells more like she’s been rolling in manure all night!”
“You call her Rose because that’s her name, you twit.”
“Right, but I thought we were past that? What’s in a name, right?”
From his position on the ground, Cargh stamped his foot down on the scaled toes of the Pharosh who had shot him.
“Ow! You want me to shoot you again?” It was doubtful that he who queried desired a response, but Cargh didn’t seem to mind.
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Cargh said under his breath, clearly not taking the hint.
“Come on! I don’t want to be out here all night. Someone grab the man, the wolf, and the dwarf.”
“Allmarach!” Someone corrected again from the crowd.
“This one’s not a wolf,” another said as they approached Kyra and bound her hands.
“Don’t tell me you have another name for wolf now!”
“No, it’s a woman.”
“A Tallri, eh? Fine, I don’t really care who they are. I’m freezing my scales off.”
Cargh was pulled to his feet and his hands were tied. Kyra and I were not exempt from the same treatment. We were relieved of our weapons and marched off toward the iron drums the Pharosh had once stood behind. Never before had I been a prisoner, and certainly not by some over-grown lizards.
One of the Pharosh pulled a lever beside the canons once we were all together. The sounds of steam rose to my ears once again and the bridge began to move beneath my feet. Now closer to the source, I could also hear metal beams shifting and clanking into place beneath us as the bridge folded back on itself leaving the unfinished stone extension behind. Finally I was going to enter the land of Pharosh, Kho Arian, but it was not at all as I had envisioned.
Stone floor. Stone walls. Stone ceiling. Unnatural tomb. Stolen from Keltone. Stolen from the Rock. Cargh spat, “Vile abuses!”
His disgust reminded me of the tale he had told of Ahbin, the first owner of Fioreh. I’m sure if Cargh still held that sword, he would have attempted to burn his way through the rock to get to the “vile abusers” beyond. “What did we do?” I queried, ignoring Cargh’s bitterness.
Kyra laughed, “You certainly didn’t expect the grand-tour, did you? The Pharosh have never taken kindly to visitors, especially human visitors.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I said, offended. “I suppose they favour wolves.” I had seen it happen right before my eyes. This shape-shifting maniac changed from beast to beauty like something out of an old fairy tale, the shift not being queued by true love but instead a cannonball. “Don’t bother me with your words, beast.” My greatest fear had become a reality. This was no wolf in sheep’s clothing, but in woman’s clothes… or was it a woman in wolf’s clothing?
The Thief answered my unspoken question. “I merely can take on the shape of a wolf or raven. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more?! As if that makes everything better. Are you also the one who haunts my dreams in these forms?” And then I continued as if speaking to myself. “I thought I could trust you.”
“And what gave you that impression? Was it my thievery or incessant mockery? If these flaws are no cause for alarm, clearly shape-shifting would tip the balance.”
“Piss on the both of you!” Cargh interjected. “I should have requested a separate room if I knew this type of company was in order.” Turning to address Kyra, he continued. “The sooner you tell him the sooner we will have some peace.”
“Tell me what?” How many more secrets was I to learn about this woman.
Kyra glared at Cargh but remained silent.
“She is of the tainted ones, cast out from her clan for rejecting Riul, that cruel demon the Tallri serve. Restricted to forms of wolf and raven she seeks to do penance for her crimes.” Cargh turned to Kyra once again. “There, how hard was that, really?”
“Harder than this rock on which we stand.”
“The Rock stands firm!” He roared in defiance of her words. “How dare you insult the Rock.”
“Riul is no demon, rock-for-brains!”
“Rock-for-brains!” A voice from outside the cell started laughing hysterically. “Good show! Come see the wolf-lady and little man fight, and don’t forget the snacks. Come on little guy. Don’t let her insult you like that! You can do better than her.”
“Get the snacks yourself, you lazy mooch!” Came the voice of another, closer to the door of this stone prison in which we were held. I heard a click and then a steady flow of steam spewed into the air as the door popped open. The Pharosh who stood in the doorway was quite shorter than some of the others I had seen. He stood on his hind legs and turned back to his companion, swinging that cedar trunk of a tail. “Does he want to short one, the harry one, or the pretty one?”
“Isn’t the short one hairy?” His companion responded.
“Aye, but how would you differentiate them?”
“The tall and the short?” The other offered.
“The pretty one stands just as tall as the hairy one! Why is he the tall one?”
“Because he’s not short like the short one, twit!”
As he turned back the me, light glistened off of his ruby coloured scales into our dark cell. “Tall hairy, Mr. Big wants to see you.” Apparently he had compromised in his mind, deciding that “tall” and “hairy” were fair descriptions of me. I wasn’t sure whether “tall hairy” or “Mert Whatley Lady Eyes” was preferable.
I knew not what Kyra and Cargh would discuss, or even whether they would both be alive when I got back, but who was I to argue with this over-grown lizard? Leaving the cell, I followed him into the room beyond before hearing the door close behind me. Steam-powered lanterns hung on the walls of the smooth-stoned room, showing it to be rather small and plain.
“Do you like games?” The lizard, who I presumed was a jail-house guard of some sort, addressed me.
“Uh… I guess.”
“What do you mean? Everyone likes games.”
“Why did you ask me then?”
“Ah, we got a smart one here. Okay, fine. The game is called follow the leader. You be the follower, I be the leader.” He picked up a pair of handcuffs from a near-by table. “Because if you don’t play, I will have to use these… and neither of us wants that.” He paused to let me respond, but I had nothing to say. “Well, come along then, or do I have to explain to you the rules?”
The buildings were all the same here. No castle walls pieced together with stone and mortar or cobblestone streets. Giant stone fingers rose into the air, the sun shining off of their smooth continuous surfaces. The streets below were of the same material, polished to a fine sheen. The rock no longer looked natural, but was stripped of its gritty, rough appeal. Steel tracks stood atop the stone streets, stone carts moving along them. Pharosh gathered in the carts before they launched themselves along the tracks, the hissing and popping of steam all around.
I joined in this unnatural form of locomotion as the Pharosh guard directed me. We travelled faster than a team of horses galloping in the open fields. Such wild beasts were beautiful against the backdrop of a clear summer’s day or the snowy white blankets of winter, their manes blowing in the breeze as they run carefree, alive. This stone horse I sat on lacked any type of beauty, as did the surrounding Pharosh land. The lush greenery of Glanderxe was replaced with this grey-against-grey monochromatic prison. A small-town boy turned world traveller was far from home in this land. It was worse than urban, bordering metropolitan.
The cart came to a halt in front of a giant stone cylindrical building capped in a sea of crystals. Ushered from the cart, I was led to the giant steel doors of the building which opened voluntarily as we approached. Above the doors, a row of firearms stared down me, daring a challenge. I couldn’t answer their call, Lady Eyes no longer at my side, not that I would have risen to the challenge had she not been cruelly taken from me upon my imprisonment.
As we stepped through the doors, I found myself standing in the largest library I had ever seen. Stone pillars, lined with books, appeared like spiral staircases reaching up to the sky. None of my previous ideas about the Pharosh were accurate, not even these great libraries, which I had known about, matched the pictures in my mind. Thousands and thousands of tiny lizards scurried up the book spirals counting, rearranging, reading: keeping the library organized.
In the centre of the great library stood four blue-green pillars of a scaly complexion. No books spiralled these pillars, for they were the four legs of a mighty monster, a Pharosh larger than I had ever seen (not that I had seen many to date). Atop the giant pillars was an even larger body. Its tail swung fore and back like conducting this orchestra of tiny Pharosh minions. The neck of this great behemoth rose tall and slender, topped with a head the size of the Pharosh which had brought me into the Great Library.
“Mr. Big. Yoo Hoo!” I would have imagined that this great beast deserved to be addressed with a more respectful tone. “You have a visitor!”
His neck swooped down, those beady eyes staring into my soul. What could I possibly say to this beast whose eyes, though proportionately minuscule, were the size of my hand. Flecks of green peered at me from within a sea of darkness. Those eyes laughed before his mouth did. “I think you’ve scared him.” Mr. Big said, after regaining his composure.
“I scared him! Are you sure it wasn’t the elephant in the room?”
His great laugh shook the building and the tiny lizards scurried about, trying to keep those towers of books in place. “Speaking of the elephant in the room, where in that letter?” Mr. Big appeared to search among the book shelves. “Ah yes, here it is.” He giggled a bit as he read it back.
Greetings in the name of Lady Calwen, queen or Glanderxe Coessarde to the Pharosh of Kho Arian Coessarde.
Long has it been since our two lands called each other friends. Too long have your borders been closed to us, being turned away like enemies. No longer shall we remain enemies, nor do we wish to fight. An exchange of knowledge and exchange of wealth, this is our goal, so that one day the people of Glanderxe Coessarde can pass freely across the great River West into Kho Arian Coessarde as before the Great War. It is our desire to meet a political agreement that would allow such an exchange. Consider our offer as we await your response.
Not only were the walls and pillars painted with books, but the Pharosh themselves wore knowledge like a garment for the mind. The men of Glanderxe knew of but one race of old: the Pharosh. They, however, spoke of four: Men, Pharosh, Tallri, and allmarach.
Before the Great War: open border, open minds… open war.
Mountains became tombs, the allmarach their keepers. Forests became sparse, burned by men. Tallri disappeared behind the flames, fleeing for the swamps of Coaniariam. Pharosh fortified the River West, hiding from destruction.
Klychawk, once a man, a man no longer. Klychawk at the front lines, reduced to a spirit.
Men fell, spirits ripped from bodies.
Men hated by Pharosh.
Tallri forgotten by men.
Men not forgiven.
The Great War.
“Pardon me if I do not accept such a request from Glanderxe.” Mr. Big concluded his tale.
“Klychawk…” I began. “A spirit?”
“You, a man, know nothing of the leader of the spirits of men?” He laughed. “Or perhaps you know nothing at all.” Many tiny voices rose from many tiny lizard lips. Like hyenas, all the Pharosh in the room laughed, sharing this joke which I found less than amusing.
Attempting to reign in my rage at their blatant disrespect, I ignored the laughter. “I never said I knew nothing of him. He, in fact, wants to kill me. That man… or spirit… who was attacking me when your men arrived seeks my life at his request.”
“Leave us out of your political wars. What one man wished against another is no concern of mine, or my people.”
“You misunderstand me. We share a common enemy, Klychawk, for I can count no one, whether man or Pharosh, who seeks my life a friend.”
Mr. Big stood, seemingly deep in thought. “Tell me, Glanderxe man. Why did you come here?”
Whether he had asked for a grand tale or not, I was prepared to accommodate. It all started with Lady Calwen, Glanderxe, the message: such a simple task that had morphed into the beast it now was. Some unknown spirit-man sought my life, and the key to my survival was before me: the Pharosh. Kyra seemed to think they held the key to defeating Klychawk, but what did that truly mean? Kyra the Tallri, The Thief that she was, had already deceived me more than once. I came to deliver the message, which I had done, but held no hope that they might have the answer to my Klychawk problem.
“You have delivered your message, and my response is no. As for Klychawk, I have nothing to offer you, Glanderxe man.”
“Mert.” I corrected.
“Alright, squirt,” the room erupted in laughter once again.
“Mert,” I repeated, this time more firmly.
“Mert the squirt it is!” More laughter.
“You are the one who called me here. If you plan on insulting me, I have no desire to remain, for at least the walls of the cell I came from keep silent.” I could hold my anger in no longer. I was a loyal knight of Glanderxe. What right did these glorified lizards have to treat me this way?
“Oh, we’ve got ourselves a live little squirt.”
“Live squirt, live squirt!” a mocking reply was chanted throughout the library.
The chant carried on for some time while I let my anger simmer. “What do you plan to do with me.” I said, after the chanting had died down, and my anger subsided enough for me to speak once again.
“That is yet to be decided, squirt.” Mr. Big smiled at me: such a cruel, demeaning smile from those large seductively jovial lips of his. As I was escorted from the library he concluded with these words. “And by the way… Don’t think about trying to run, unless you don’t care about getting your spirit back.”