Swirling, spitting, rushing: this is liquid fire. Specks of light from thousands of tiny crystals: these are the walls of the cave. Whistling wind, rising heat, final, lurching halt: this was the journey in that stone cart. Geor gave the word and hardly without option, we were thrown into this mass of chaotic liquid death. Cargh almost kissed the floor when we arrived. This rock was not unnaturally man-handled or altered. It was the real, natural, and powerful presence of his god. That god looked at me from those tiny specks of light embedded in the walls, seemingly amused. I hope he liked what he saw. This rock would soon be an invaluable friend, for the only way out of the land was through it.
I had not noticed it before we left, but the lurching halt of the cart nearly sent it flying out into the rushing liquid fire. A crumpled up piece of warn paper had joined us on the journey, and once unravelled revealed a note and some strange powder. The note was simple and to the point: This may aid you in your escape. Don’t let the dwarf see it. I’m sure that if the Pharosh were in the habit of writing emoticons, this phrase would have ended with a winking face.
I needed no explanation, for Cargh spat in his usual way when spying the contents of the package. “Black powder.” His story of Ahbin the first came back to me, and if it was true, such powder could prove very useful, indeed. Cargh saw only one use for it, however, and snatched it from me. He crumpled the paper back up as tight as he could manage and released his final burst of anger by throwing the wadded up mass as far as he could manage. It landed in the lava-flow beyond, and lasted but a brief moment. The explosion shook the whole cavern, and I thought that the roof was going to come down… and in places it did. Large rocks began to fall from the ceiling into the lava, causing giant streams of the stuff to splash into the air. Those fingers of death reached for me from beneath the pool and I jumped back as they arched down onto the stone where I stood, splashing with magnificent destructive power. I would not be burned by this stuff if I could help it, and I was glad that Cargh had the same mindset, for Kyra would have pushed him into the lake if he hadn’t resisted.
“Foolish bastard of the rock!” I wasn’t that happy about what he had done, and surely it was foolish, but he didn’t deserve to die over it. Kyra apparently had other ideas about what this man deserved. He finally convinced her – perhaps that word holds less force than it should – that he was her only means of salvation now. It was a strange tactic to use as a lifesaver, but it seemed to work… though it wasn’t entirely accurate. Though it was true that the rear end of Cargh’s axe worked well as a pick – and I’m sure that it was forged for such purposes – Kyra, or myself for that matter, could easily just take his weapon and pick at the stone ourselves. Though I was neither bold enough nor had a desire to point out this fact to the little man, Kyra was both. It didn’t effect her actions, however, as Cargh pulled that axe from his belt and, turning it around, began to chip out the rock at our feet.
“What are you doing!” this time it was my turn to be appalled at his seemingly counter-productive ways.
“Our saviour in stone awaits,” he said between swings. He was going to cast off from the edge like a loosened piece of stone was as sea-worthy as any ship. Though it held not much in comparison to the boats I had seen, it had some benefit. A wooden ship of common construction, though naturally better at facing the waves, would have proved fatal here, being burned up by the lake itself. The rock, being non-combustible, had this one advantage, but it wasn’t much of one. The only reason the rock we stood on stayed afloat was that it was attached to a greater mass.
“Do not question me, boy. If there’s one thing I know, it’s rocks.” I knew Cargh was right… or at least I hoped that’s what I knew. Even the tiny air pockets in the stone that Cargh pointed out did not convince me that this rock would float, not that there were many other options, a fact that Kyra was quick enough to explain to me.
“Would you rather swim? I’m sure that the water is quite warm.” Whose side was she on? I wasn’t much for taking sides, but just a moment ago I witnessed her almost throwing Cargh over the edge, and now she joked about doing the same to me. She hated Cargh, and though her feelings for me were not at this same level, she certainly wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to spit out a reminder of my juvenile incompetence. Behind us stretched a vast tunnel that presumably returned to the surface of the mountain. Though that was the safer route, it was certainly not profitable, for we would just be further from the retractable bridge which provided the only safe exit from Kho Arian. We all have to pick our poison I suppose… death by Pharosh or liquid fire? I chose the latter as the rock began to break off. Though it profited not sanity, at least it provided more company and was quicker. The company was poor, and our “boat” was worse, but a long, solitary trek back to the metropolitan seemed even poorer.
The lava around us bubbled its defiance as we started off slowly. I was happy that Cargh was right about this floating rock, though maybe it would have been better to die here now than to wait for our ship to tip over, holding onto this semblance of salvation.
Our boat rocked, jumped, and landed, death spraying out all around us. The fall had not been far, but it was farther than I was comfortable with. If the Rock is your god, why does he create lava waterfalls to make us squirm. I said nothing to Cargh about these thoughts, but focused simply on staying alive: staying atop the rock. Another lurch knocked me off of my feet, and I stayed there hoping the lower centre of gravity would be my salvation.
The fire began to flow, faster, faster, faster. This ship had a mind of its own, and there was no sense in even trying to steer, no mind the fact we had no oars to guide it with. I had never dreamed of fighting these red-water rapids, but I was sure the evil lake would soon creep into my unconscious life, adding more substance to my nightmares. It reared its ugly head, lashing out with those tongues of fire at every opportunity. “Go back to Glanderxe where you belong,” it screamed, and I felt the heat from its breath. “Why did you even come here?”
I had no response for this demon but, “I came in the service of Her Majesty to deliver a message to the Pharosh.” The more I said it, though just in my head, the stupider it sounded. Wolves, harsh conditions, Klychawk, jail, and now fire: all these I suffered for the sake of Lady Calwen… yet how much did I suffer for the other lady in my life? Maybe Farah had been right. Her words seemed even more true as those tongues of fire licked my skin, “Come for me now or not at all.” The not at all would prove itself soon enough beneath these scorching waves.
Our descent slowed down, much the same as the trip in that stone cart. There was nothing graceful or pleasant about landing at the bottom of that hill in the comparably calm lava. The front end of our boat sliced into the lake like a sword trying to cut the fire. The death-lake screamed in rage and blasted us with hot air. It spat at us, sending a stream of fire over our heads like a blanket on a cold night. A few drops fell from the unwelcome cloud above as my life, or what was left of it, faded around me. This was not my end, and I was glad for it. What type of a final thought was Farah’s sadness. Her tears did not sting the same as those drops of fire, but they hurt just as much. I hoped that when my end finally did come I would have a greater story to tell in the afterlife than, “I abandoned all that I loved, and the passion which once fuelled my heart leaked out, burning me alive.” Everyone hopes to die a hero, but I merely hoped to die a decent fellow. I would rather people not remember me at all than remember me as “the knight who gave up love for loyalty.”
I will save all talk of death for another day, for the only death I received was that of my pride: pride in this job that I once held dear. When I got back to Glanderxe, things would be different. Mother, Miranda… Farah… they didn’t deserve this. The only way back to them was through great metal tubes which came into view in the distance. The screeching and popping of steam was added to the fire choir, and soon they rang together, indistinguishable one from the other. Though we no longer rushed downhill, our pace quickened again. The calm lake at the base of this underground mountain was being stirring by giant steam engines which hung on the ceiling above us. A great row of them grew there like metallic stalactites. These engines on the roof powered giant wheels and rotating disks beneath the lake which stirred up the liquid more than I would have liked. “Pure Genius!” Othban had said, but I saw no genius in it now.
As our makeshift boat rose and fell with the tiny waves of steam-powered motors, those iron maws ushered us in: giant pipes for pumping lava beneath the River West I presumed. I imagined a great row of wheels and gears and the like beneath us, churning the fire continually. We moved forward at a steady pace, and I was grateful that the Pharosh had not felt the need to stir up the lava too much. Though I desired to stay in this death-lake no longer than necessary, I also desired to stay alive, and a steady pace seemed more profitable for the latter than the reckless abandon of our previous descent.
The journey was slow and conversations few. I knew not what excuse my companions had, but I was too caught up in my own thoughts to warrant many words of my own. I imaged that Cargh was happy to be out of Kho Arian and hoped that his anger would subside a little. I saw only two ways for us ever to be separated, and neither of them would be my first choice. Death or defilement of the Rock, Cargh had said, but I saw no difference. I certainly did not wish to die, and if I defiled the Rock, I don’t think Cargh would allow me to live. The best option then stands that Cargh had to die, and though he was not the best of company, that was not reason enough to wish such a fate on him. This, perhaps, was a point that Kyra and I differed on.
She had not been quite as happy to leave the Pharosh as Cargh. It was not her lips I saw kissing the stone beneath our feet before we started this journey on the fire lake. She, in fact, had been defiant that she was not leaving without her spirit. Though I had not been hot on the idea of leaving mine behind, it was certainly less of a problem for me than it was for her. Our slow travel probably infuriated her. In raven form she could fly for hours, and definitely faster than the rock was taking us. I supposed that she would be missing much without this strange magic. Though she had done many things through deception, trickery, thievery, and lies, I had learned to call her a friend… of sorts. I was still unhappy that she did not tell me about her shape-shifting abilities, but that was almost fire under the bridge now. What did she profit by keeping that from me? I could not answer my own question, and didn’t wish to ask it of her, so it remained locked away in my mind, yet one more thing to poke and prod at me.
Vision dulled, shrouded by the clouds. They mocked me while I hung, encased in cruel bondage. The impending rain swirled around me, slapping that dew covered hand against my face. Again and again it tortured me, the wind whispering into my ears. “How dare you wax elegance, yet scheme such cruel offence!” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it sounded like a thousand tiny whispers, pecking at me incessantly as if I stepped into a nest of hornets. The wet dripped from my face as another slap came for me. That first drop of water fell, breaking through the clouds. The speed was quick and the descent short. That insignificant droplet landed in the dirt creating the beginnings of a muddy stew. Another drop and then another, the storm was ready to fall… and so was I. Feeling like a giant water droplet, I splashed onto the earth, drenched through to my very soul.
The rain was pouring now, gushing from the clouds to soak me as I lay there beneath the waterfall. The water came to slap me again, as I attempted to rise. The attack stung my cheeks. I wanted to rub it away, but couldn’t. Somehow I felt like I deserved it. Struggling to rise again, I faced the elements which attacked me. The scene before me was surprisingly familiar, but not at all friendly: the cave’s maw, the fallen rocks, the pinned-down wolf. Those eyes looked at me like pleading for their life. Though I fought against the wind and water, this wolf looked more helpless than I, and suddenly I noticed the sword in my hand. I pitied the wolf, for if anyone suffered more than I, they deserved any help I could give.
Approaching the thing, with sword in hand, those eyes shot through me like a cannonball, wrenching my spirit from me body. Water poured from the deep blue eyes mixing with the mess on the ground, which by now was a sticky lake of darkness. I raised my sword, wishing to put the thing out of its misery, but something held me back. As I stood there, transfixed, those eyes spoke to me between tears. “Come for me now, or not at all.” I wanted to comfort the thing, seeing the intense grief pouring from its face. My sword-arm began to fall, but not with cruel intention. I approached the wolf to comfort her, save her, free her, take her away from the horror all around. As my sword reached out to wipe away her tears, suddenly the scene changed, though the eyes remained. The wolf’s body became like thick black smoke, shifting and changing… but not those eyes. They remained fixed on me, pleading for me to help, pleading for my mercy. A black bird shaped itself around those desperate crying eyes, and like a woman fleeing a would-be lover, it took to the air. I was left standing there stupid, dumbstruck, and alone, but those eyes still haunted me. They remained in my mind as I wandered like an aimless fool. Those eyes were filled with pain, loss, dread, anger, fear, love, desire, want, rejection… so many emotions for so little eyes. Even as I fell in the dirt and lay my head on a rock, those eyes never left, the world around me fading into blackness.
I woke, but this time not to the smell of freshly cooked meat. The voice I heard was not that of the Thief, but of Cargh. “Praise the Rock!” He couldn’t stop saying that, ever since we had arrived safely in the belly of the Great Forge. I remembered that day, seemingly so long ago in this same chamber, that I had danced with joy at receiving Lady Eyes as my own. Cargh almost did the same upon our arrival, overjoyed at being free of the Pharosh and reunited with those of the same religious persuasion as him.
Kyra had not been received in quite the same manner. I’m sure that if she had the means, she would have taken flight on raven’s wings and disappeared into the shadows. One Tallri against a host of allmarach: the odds were stacked against her, and she resigned herself to whatever fate might await her. Though Cargh had entered Kho Arian with a predisposed hatred of the local lizard-folk, Kyra did not. Her stolen spirit changed such suppositions immensely, and she could now at least agree with Cargh on one thing… though for very different reasons.
The Pharosh, though seemingly jovial, hid behind this mask, locking us in a cell, their intentions clearly not favourable. Cargh and I received no such treatment upon our return to the allmarach, but the company looked on Kyra with disdain. She was locked in the Great Forge for the night while they decided her fate. The allmarach have no prisons, nor have need for them. They live for the Rock, and steel alone is the deciding factor for all who might oppose him.
The next day when they brought her to the great chamber where I had first feasted with these short men, her fate was decided. Steel against steel would be the way of it, and I was not surprised. Though Kyra fought for her right to live, who would fight for the will of the Rock? Cargh wanted nothing to do with it, though I imaged if the tables were turned, Kyra would have jumped at the opportunity to slay the man in a fair fight.
“Lady Eyes will answer the call of the Rock.” I spoke the words before I knew they were out of my mouth. By all rights, I had earned proper respect to represent the clan and their god, though none expected me to. Truly none were more surprised than myself. The knight within me, whatever was left it, wanted to fight for the honour of this lady who stood accused, though I knew she would never do the same for me. If a knight only helped those who would love him for it, was he really a knight at all? Even evil men would take up arms for personal gain. What could I possibly profit from this exchange?
The fight was set, and the crowd gathered in the Colosseum. None knew, save for myself, how this fight would end. I was far from the best warrior in the room, and no god, whether of nature generally or the Rock specifically, could change that. The only possible advantage I had was the Horn of Riul. I laughed to myself at the irony of this predicament: defending the Rock, but calling on the voice of Riul… the voice of this rival god.
As I pulled Lady Eyes from her place at my side, I saw my end draw near. Though I was no spirit, and in fact had one no longer, nor was I a deer, my fate would be much the same. I no longer stood beside this woman, hunting our prey, but had become the target. If only I could disappear into the spirit realm like the dear had. Perhaps then I would have a chance at survival, though even with such potential that spirit-deer still fell. One life for another, that was the way of things under this mountain, the mountain that I defended.
Kyra drew those two thin blades which she concealed so well, and a third thin blade stretched across her face like a cruel dagger prophesying my fate. I would not make the first attack, for I really didn’t want to attack her at all. Yes, she was a thief, full of deception and trickery, but no thief deserves to die… especially a woman. If stealing was her crime, the knight within could at least justify a fight… but not the man. The accusations were simple, though the crime was foreign. She deserved to die because she was Tallri, because she was different. I wondered what Othban of Geor would do in my situation. Would they kill or be killed for the sake of secrecy. Would they engage in this battle or refuse, being exposed as traitors. If I backed down now, the allmarach would simply choose another champion, one who would actually kill in racial and religious brutality. If I died, at least it would be with honour, defending a lady… by fighting her.
The fight was over almost before it had begun. Kyra flew at me, a blade in each hand and took two quick swipes at my face. Slice. Slice. Lady Eyes met this first challenge… but not the second. Slice. Slice. Stab. My leg was on fire, though Fioreh was not the weapon used. My muscled faltered and leg quivered as blood spilled out the hole. Falling to one knee, I flailed my arms wildly, desperately defending the barrage of blows that rained down on me. A final stab in the gut ended the fight… but not how I had seen it. I waited for the blade to be removed, but it never was. The world began to spin and black spots shrouded my vision. “Goodbye, noble knight,” she mocked, then all was black and she was gone.