Though I wasn’t actively looking for an opportunity to escape, many times I would wake up during the night and wonder what Cargh would do if he awoke and I was nowhere to be seen. It would be certain death if we met again, but what chance was there of that? Cargh lived beneath a mountain far north of the Great City. I was, however, not convinced enough to attempt an escape. These northern wastes were still quite foreign to me, and even if I did leave, how long would I survive? I could pick a direction and hope that it was south. Luck being on my side I might get that right, but then what? I knew there was a pass through the giant pillars of rock which separated this frozen north from the lush grasslands of Glanderxe Coessarde, but that wasn’t much to go on.
I regretted putting away that glorious meal in the forest more and more with each passing day. My stomach longed for real food. If there was anything that I missed about this wasteland travelling, the watery flower stew wasn’t it. At least my loss of culinary enjoyment didn’t alter the bland flavour of the stuff too much. How much worse could it really get?
The trip was fairly uneventful, save for a few clumps of trees which speckled the white expanse like sparse droppings from a dried up paintbrush. The mountains were far behind us, and the further north we travelled, the more dreary the world seemed. Days got shorter, and nights longer. Whether by sun or moon, the whether didn’t change, and sometimes the clear moonlight bouncing off the shiny white made for easier travel than the sun which stuck in the air, mixing with the swirling snow. It was on one such clear night that we reached our destination, though it wasn’t much to look at.
Pillars of stone toppled over, half broken and scathed by years and weather. Snow piled up around the walls, or what was left of them, causing great drifts of unkept mass. The stuff was too cold to hang together and blew across the space where giant wooden doors stretched skyward in rotten decay. One door lay on the ground, snow covering up the expertly traced calligraphic designs. The other wooden panel swung aimless as the wind directed, creaking and groaning in complaint.
Stepping though that less than inviting entry way, I saw that the interior hadn’t fared any better. If this had once been a great castle, all that was left now was a giant stone chair, one arm lying discarded on the ground. Pillars and pieces of wall rose to attention all across that great interior though their superior officer had long since passed on. Some of the stone attempted to carry out its final orders, making something that once resembled a room. Other rocks lay splattered on top of each other like a host of drunkards while the maidens in snow danced around their naked and disgraced bodies.
“What is this place?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“The once great Castle of the North. Back in his day, Klychawk hauled stone all the way from the Keltone range to build it. My brothers chipped away at the rock for years while Klychawk provided them with riches of every kind. No one asked where he got such riches, nor did they ask what he would do when the building was complete. Looking back now, they should have.”
“The allmarach built this?” I’m sure that these remains had once been an awe inspiring masterpiece of masonry. Now it seemed like a childish haphazard mess.
“My brothers built it, but never manned it. No sooner was that stone chair you see complete, that Klychawk sat his cruel backside down and began ordering them around like he owned the stone workers. They had worked the construction so long that it almost felt right for him to continue to be their lord. The payments tapered off until soon they revolted and began leaving. That’s when the slavery started.” Cargh’s spittle mixed invisibly with snow. “He sucked them in one by one until many of my ancestors lost their own will, being forced to serve this self-proclaimed God of the North.
“The allmarach were blamed for Klychawk’s brutality as he sent his horde of spirit-slaves about the land destroying and pillaging any and all poorly defended villages. The wealth he acquired was grotesque, but the things he made them do were even worse. His wealth only grew, as did his army. More and more allmarach turned to his side with the promise of great riches and membership as a Disciple. That’s what he called his vile army, and that’s how he trapped them. Blood-lust lies deep in our people, and it was difficult to refuse such a chance to fight for the Disciples of the North.”
“They left the service of the Rock?”
“Once they were tempted, there was no turning back. You have seen it yourself, the spirit slavery. With no will of their own, they were forced to do his bidding, hating every minute of it. Many allmarach were lost when Klychawk finally fell in the Great War, having no body for their spirits to return to, but at least they were free. The presence of spirit slaves again…” He did not finish the statement, but I knew what he was thinking. Clearly this task was bigger than I had first envisioned. The God of the North was turning allmarach once again. Who knew how many Disciples he had already? I couldn’t answer that or anything else, but stood there in silence for a time before asking a question of my own.
“Where is Klychawk now?”
“Dead.” That simple answer said so much, though nothing I didn’t already know. Where could we go to find a dead man that no grave could hold? Though he was dead, he still worked his evils somehow, and travelling all this way hadn’t brought us any closer to answering ‘how.’ Where was he? What was he doing? I couldn’t answer this, nor could the allmarach who stood beside me… but the voices that I now heard softly in distance might be able to.
Finding a low wall to hide behind, Cargh and I waited as those voiced drew closer. The wind muffled their words and confused their location, but at least it warned us of their presence. Soon a small party of four allmarach came through the crumbling doorway of the castle.
Their approach slowed as they stood together in front of the giant throne, looking up at it as if in worshipful respect of he who sat there. Wind and snow was all that remained of the man who had claimed that chair as his own, but they gathered before it, proclaiming his presence. As if in response to their humble admiration, the great stone chair began to lift from the ground. It tilted back, suspended by giant iron chains, revealing a dim torchlight from some cavernous space below.
The chair began to fall once again as the allmarach disappeared beneath. Cargh rushed from where we hid in a desperate attempt to join his spirit-brothers below. His short legs carried him quickly to the rapidly disappearing opportunity, and he took it faster than I. With a final dive and quick roll, I barely made it beneath the throne before it re-secured itself, hiding existence of the underground from any unlikely wanderers. If I wanted to run before, I wouldn’t now. Now there was no turning back.
The soft glow of the interior died away with the quick snap of the stone chair. Just beyond us I could see the torch-lit luminescence of those who had led us here. I feared that the noise we made in our approach would have tipped them off to our presence, but they didn’t seem to notice. Wherw! Chink! Wherw! Chink! The sound of chain links passing through metal slots, as the chair descended, was enough to mask any sounds that we had made. Now, however, we stood motionless, and I was almost afraid to breathe. I could pull Lady Eyes from her scabbard and almost touch the company in front of us.
The icy thought of this was a bad idea gripped me, but it was too late. What’s done is done, and all we could hope for now was survival. Being surrounded by stone trucked in from the Keltone range must have proven favourable in the eyes of the Rock, for our potential executioners or captors continued walking further away as if we weren’t even there. It wasn’t until the faint light of their presence was almost indistinguishable that I dared breathe again. “Praise the Rock!” I almost said, but Cargh beat me to it.
Though he could have pulled Fioreh out to bask us in light, it was more favourable to remain in secrecy, and any amount of light would diminish such intentions. Without any light and with much sound we stepped further down the dark tunnel.
We both stopped as I poked at his steel-clad coating. “You have to get rid of those doorbells your hang around your neck. Why you choose to travel around in such armour is not for me to judge, but it cannot continue here.”
Though he wanted to speak out, the volume of his natural voice was loud enough to wake up the whole place. Stewing for a time, he attempted to cool himself to a whisper. “A gift from the Rock should not be forsaken. I have earned my right, by blood, to adorn myself with glorious steel. I will not remove my spoils of war, forsaking the Rock and my brothers.”
“If you do not remove them, you will become a spoil of war and the only adornment you will have left is a spike through your head.” He knew I was right, but didn’t want to admit it.
“Do not insult me, boy! I know the ways of war far better than you!”
“Then you can face whatever armies lie ahead, for surely they will hear you coming, and I have no intentions to partake in the slaughter. Maybe I’ll take what’s left after these ravens have picked you clean.” I could almost see the steam rising off of his armour as he burned in rage, and I feared that I had gone too far. Maybe if I put it in words he would understand. “The Rock will not stand for a town-crier in the shadows. If his will be that we find the source of your disappearing brothers, that armour works again him. Take it off, or consider yourself a defiler.” I drew Lady Eyes from her sheath and stood stupidly in front of him like a child blocking a giant’s path. I had no intention of fighting him, for I had no desire to die, but the only thing he seemed to understand was rock and steel.
Whether out of fear for his life, not likely, or respect for the Rock, his armour began to fall off one piece at a time. It look much longer than I thought, for every time he took one piece off, another would show itself hiding underneath. “Where did you get all of that?” No wonder this man was so strong, forcing his muscles to work against so much armour both day and night.
“The Rock has blessed me greatly. More steel is left on a battlefield than blood, and my hand alone plucked such spoils from the cold grasp of my victims.”
“Why do you wear it all at once? Layering the plate surely doesn’t help. The gaps between the pieces are all the same.”
“You have already told me to leave these gifts behind, and now you suggest I refuse them outright? Certainly not!” His voice rose enough above a whisper that I was afraid of what the echoes down this long hallway might reveal.
“Alright, alright. Just get it off, already. I’m sure there are more battles to be had, and if the Rock has blessed you once, he will see fit to do it again.”
Cargh only hawked up a spit in disgust and hurled it at my feet. As the last piece of armour was piled in a great heap on the floor I wondered how much better this plan really was. Anyone entered this place would know of our intrusion, but what else was there to do? With nowhere to hide the armour, Cargh and I began to work our way down the hall once again. Two naked warriors in a sea of enemies didn’t sounds very smart, but maybe we would get lucky. Luck had never been in my favour, but perhaps she would smile on me now, though no other woman as of late has done so.
Passing my hand along the rough stone of the walls, I could feel the damp remains of condensation from the chill above. It was certainly warmer here, though not enough to make things comfortable. Though Cargh was used to the north, he was also used to living on top of a giant lava pit. I’m sure that the chill in this underground cavern was less than desirable for him as well.
A soft orange glow hung in the distance from a lone torch. The flames licked at the air, casting shadows on floor, wall, and ceiling. I knew those shadows would be our own once we touched the light, but what other choice did we have. Plastering ourselves against the wall provided less shadow, but not none. I could still see my black twin poking his head around the corner as we travelled further into the light. Soon it was my own head that crept out from behind the corner, and seeing no life there, I passed beyond the light to the shadow of a small room that jutted out off of the hallway but a stone’s throw ahead.
Such work was not my forte, and Cargh didn’t know a whole lot about it either. I would have been more than happy to allow Kyra to lead us in this shadow-dance, but sadly she was not here. Last time I had seen her, was with a knife shoved through my gut, and such memories didn’t give me much hope that she would even help if she was here.
We paused for a time in that shack of a room to get our bearings, not that either of us really knew where we were. A few crudely fashioned weapons hung from hooks set into the stone walls, and a wooden table with one leg shorter than the rest shifted aimlessly, providing a rather crude centrepiece to the room. One lone chair lay on its side, cast away either in a drunken rage or simple laziness. As we progressed further down the hall there were many rooms much the same set off of the long shaft. At the end of the hall, down a short flight of stairs, the space opened up into a large courtyard-like chamber. A swirling staircase on either side of the room worked its way upward, uselessly capped with a stone ceiling. I presumed this place was once something else entirely, and those staircases were the original entrance to this space below. Half frozen-over stagnant water sat in lethargy at the base of a once active fountain in the centre of the room. An exit from the chamber taunted us from each wall, and save for the way we had just come, nothing profited one way over the other. Half broken steel bars hung like jagged teeth in the mighty maw of each doorway, and a low fire sprung to life down each throat. If it wasn’t for the ricochet of voices coming from the left, I would have been all out ideas. The question was, did we want to approach the voices, or run from them?
A dark dungeon, secret passage, unwelcome guests: all of these reasons were enough to want to remain concealed, but one reason over-powered all of these. Recognition was mixed with the bouncing of voices and swirling uncertainty. Where had I heard that voice before? In this place so foreign that even the stone walls looked like something out of a dream, how did I recognize that voice? My curiosity got a hold of me, and I had to at least see the nature of the one who prodded and tempted curiosity. Cargh equally wanted to investigate, knowing that he had seen allmarach enter. He did not say this in so many words, but as he plastered himself against the cold stone and peered over his shoulder into the hallways from which the voices came, it was more than evident.
It felt stupid to shuffle down the hallway against the wall. The light from the room beyond was anything but dim, and the voices grew steadily louder. Luckily the light from behind us was dimmer than that in front. If their roles were reversed, I’m sure that the black fingers that plastered floor and wall as we travelled would have been much more noticeable. Every step was taken with care, and each time my foot hit home, I thought it would be my last. Untrained at the task, we sneaked up to those who any moment could herald a cry and come for us. My only hope was that they didn’t look over at the door which we crept toward, that same door that held our shifting shadows captive, refusing to let us go unnoticed. If doorways had voices, this one would be screaming, “someone is coming!” but its non-existent tongue was held at bay, of which I was grateful.
The room opened before us as we breached the treacherous door who wished so desperately to expose intrusion. Torches were fastened securely by metal bands to every wall, causing the orange glow to focus on the centrepiece of the room. A squat table sat in the middle of the space, all cracked and worn with age, though it looked gloriously new atop the age-old stone construction. Four giant stone pillars held the stone above them in place with defiant persistence against a cave-in. They could provide some protection from being seen, but how to get to them was another question. Two men sat at the table across from each other, one larger than the other. The allmarach with his back to us would be of little trouble to avoid, but the other…? He would surely see us any minute as we crunched low in the doorway, hoping to blend in with the non-existent surroundings.
Though it was probable that we would be seen if we moved, squatting in the doorway seemed like the worst option before us. Cargh dove for a pillar to the right of him, and I dove for one at the left. Perhaps speed would win over measured steps with a set of eyes that were moments away from rising from the table at which they were set. The brief view I had of the table did not provide enough information for me to learn what the two men discussed, but their words granted me the knowledge that I lacked.
“The pass is well guarded, and my people would let no Pharosh travel through our mountain to gain access to Keltone.” the allmarach assured the other man of something.
“Though all this is true, you forget many things little man. The Pharosh have wings, and can go where they please.” The other man was not convinced, his words spilling from behind the hooded cloak he wore. The words were new to me, but the voice was not. Where had I heard that voice before?
“Only a few have wings, and they are the larger of that wicked brood. It is simple enough to spot a giant lizard in the sky.”
“Is it now? Will it be easier before or after you boil inside that foolish armour from a dragon’s hot breath?” A cruel smile spread across his lips in a cynical reprimand. “Your allmarach may be well suited with axe and sword, but…”
The allmarach cut him off, trying to hide his rage behind well-needed respect. “Axe and sword are good enough against those flying bastards! They will get but one shot at me before I mount them and stick them with said weaponry until more than fire comes pouring out of their mouth! No Pharosh will best an allmarach! The Rock stands firm and has ever since the days of Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, and Freas. He will never fail us!” The little man rose to his feet, breathing heavily while the other watched him stew in his own rage.
“Are you quite finished?” The hooded-man watched the other as he slowly settled back down to his chair before continuing. “Your Rock may protect from the flames when you cower beneath it, but it cannot best them in the open field. I respect your hatred for the Pharosh, but such rage must be guided, not unleashed with stupidity.” He held up his hand as the allmarach began to rise once again. “Your time will come, sir, and I long to watch you best those dragons on the battlefield as much as you or any other of your people, but much planning is ahead of us before such a time. Harness that rage. Hold it inside so that it can explode with even more intensity when the time comes to let their blood speckle the ground.”
“Those perkoh must die.” He spat on the ground with such ferocity that I almost expected the floor to crumble beneath the force.
“In time.” He rose to rest his hand on the other man’s shoulder, and as he did so, the hood which obscured his face fell to his shoulders. His voice was not the only thing I knew, but that face I knew as well. The rustic red sprouting from scalp and face alike left little question in my mind, and those green eyes which travelled the space between us as he noticed me peeking from behind the pillar, gave it all away. Though his garb and castle had changed, that face remained the same. This was the face of Sir Reuben, Duke of Dete Plych.