Before day comes night. Before night comes day. Time is a swirling mass of unknown without the sun and moon equally informing sanity. I knew that somewhere above me there stood a slapped together collection of crumbling walls and weather-beaten wood, but how long would that knowledge last? What can a man know when the whole world around him is changing? Who should a knight follow when deception lies around every corner?
The screaming of a long forgotten stomach kept me awake those nights. Enraged, it thrashed against my skin, attempting to claw its way out of the dark hole of its existence. Little did it know that the world around me held no more comfort than the death it felt within my body. My skin had long ago forgotten what it was like to feel warmth, the frost building on the metal bars around me testament to my tortuous conditions. Low flames licked at the walls, fighting against the condensing moisture. Empty, black soot covered the stone in uneven columns as the fire fought against the blackness surrounding it. Each pillar of light shared a different story, playing individually unique slow songs for me: that lonely audience of one.
The first flame spoke of power. It promised power over darkness and cold, fighting against that ever-present enemy of two. Some days it surged high in triumph, lashing out in quick spurts like a a sword to challenge the surrounding foe. Today it sputtered barely above a glow, frosty darkness subduing it until power was given over to its foe. The second flame spoke of truth. Some days it cast its light like a fast-growing religion. Prophets, priests, and evangelists of truth would send their sparks into the room in every direction, seeking any desperate and searching soul. I searched for truth in this world of deception. I was desperate for those words of life, but the sparks never reached, even on the best of days. Today was the worst of days, and that one spark against the stone was swallowed by the darkness, forever extinguished.
A third flame usually stood tall and proud like a pillar in the night. Some days the light shared its love with the whole of the world. It bubbled over like a never-ending fountain, giving me hope: hope for a future, hope for Farah, hope for my family, hope that one day my own love would return to me. Today the fountain was cracked and love poured into the darkness who shared no reciprocation, but swallowed it up like a lustful youth in bed with a whore. The fourth flame was so close some days I could almost feel it. Sometimes the adagio of sweet strings would stroke my iron cage with care, setting me at peace while I watch the frost reseed and trickle down, disappearing into the stone beneath. Today the peaceful tune was little more than a pianissimo, and as I strained my ears to listen for its voice, the song ended.
With a quick, chilly burst, all four songs died. All four flames died. I was left with those two enemies of frost and darkness swarming around me, inescapable. A lonely, defeated, weaponless warrior (certainly not a knight) has no escape from such adversaries. Surely I would have wept, and maybe I would have died. Would I have gone insane, or perhaps lost all will to go on? No one will ever know, for out in the darkness there was a light. Out in the loneliness there was another. Out in the silence… there was a song. The joyous whistler floated into the room, as if riding the song it sang. The tune rose and then fell, but never gave up. It carried the whistler down stone steps, across lonely darkness, and to frost-covered bars… then, it spoke.
“Who turned the lights out.” The whistler let out a short giggle. It sounded less the wooed lady and more the young, innocent boy. “Oh, that was me!” His cool breath blew though the bars and hit my face like a playful slap, not aiding the chill which already reached my bones.
“Othban?” It couldn’t be. How – and more importantly, why – had he come here?
“No silly, it’s your mother coming to check on you. I’ve hit the lights, now let me tuck you in before I say goodnight.”
Ignoring his ridiculous sense of humour, I rose to my feet. They barely recognized the thin frame atop them, but were glad for it. Any more weight and they probably would have collapsed in their weakened state. I put my hand against a bar to steady me as my knees began to buckle with the unwelcome change. I cursed under my breath as the chill of the metal shot up my arm. “What are you doing here?” My voice sounded raspy and cheep.
“No matter how old they get” – he said as if speaking to a bystander – “they still need mommy to come and take care of them.” As my eyes began to adjust to the newly darkened room, I saw two sparkling spots on the floor which I knew to be his eyes.
“You blew out the torches?” I was slowly sifting through his words. They came out like an over-grown garden until I weeded them down to the bare facts hidden within like the old life leftover from yesterday’s spring.
“Yes, yes, and it seems like you’ve locked yourself in your room.” I heard the bars rattle as Othban pulled and pushed against them for effect. “Boys,” he spoke like you would, disappointed at a child. “Will they ever learn?”
He paused as if waiting for me to reply, and I heard him scurry between the bars. The distinct clink of metal on stone broke the brief silence as he ran into my bare feet. I almost jumped, startled by the leathery scales and was surprised I could feel anything beneath the numb chill.
“Oops. Clumsy me. Someone should really turn some lights on around here.” He chuckled to himself again. No matter what the situation, Othban had a way of lightening the mood… unless Cargh was around. “Now, we only have one key, so don’t lose it this time.”
“You must have lost it before if you got yourself locked in here, silly.” His conversation turned to address that non-existent bystander once again. “I told you, dear, that he wasn’t only enough to have a key to his own room.”
Stooping down, I felt for the key which he had dropped and pulled my hand back quickly as it touched something sharp. That was not the key. Putting the pricked finger in my mouth, I began to suck as the copper taste of blood tickled my tongue. With my other hand, I searched – more carefully this time – for the key which Othban had mentioned.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with knifes?”
“I thought you were my mother.” I replied, attempting to join the role-play joke.
“Me? A Pharosh with a human child! How absurd!”
I found the key with my non-injured hand and trailed up along the bars until I found the lock. It seemed happy to be home, and I was happy to help get it there. As I twisted, it clinked out a “thank you” and, to reward me for my service, the door swung open. My pricked hand reached down to grab the knife at my feet, more careful this time. The knife turned out to be a sword, my sword: Lady Eyes. Grabbing her hilt I felt a warmth rush down my arm and into my soul. It felt like I was waking up, coming from death to life. My soul was re-enlivened, and I almost expected those four songs to begin again. I looked up at the wall and noticed the flames were still out, but they played on in my heart. Without a weapon my sword-belt had been useless, but as I slid Lady Eyes into her place at my side, she thanked me, making me whole again.
As the man within the cell stepped out, he almost expected to be re-united with the knight without, but that knight was long gone. He took his false loyalty with him and left nothing but a man behind. A man with a sword: a warrior.
“Oo, this will be fun!” Othban’s overly excited voice split through my thoughts.
“Fun?” The Pharosh had always been strange, but he had to be particularly deranged to consider the predicament we were in as “fun.”
“Tag, you’re it!” the little lizard crawled over my foot “tagging” me and rushed off into the darkness. The soft pitter-patter of his feet on the stone sounded like a mouse scurrying for a hole beneath the woodwork. There was no woodwork to hide beneath here, only shadows.
“What?” I said under my breath, more to myself than my fleeing reptilian friend. This was hardly the time for games, but what use would there be getting mad at the Pharosh? It was neither productive nor appropriate, and with his fast moving feet slapping against the stone further in the distance, what better choice did I have than to “chase” him.
My eyes continued to adjust to the surrounding darkness, but they were of little help in identifying where Othban had gone. A hollow emptiness surrounded me, and as I listened more intently I heard nothing but the darkness. I don’t know quite how to explain it to you, for no matter where you are there is always some sort of noise. In the forest the wind whispers sweet songs to the trees, playing amidst branches and spinning around trunks before launching into the sky above. It swoops low again to tickle the grass, or rustle discarded nature on the wooded floor. Birds charm the trees with their songs, some lilting and pleasant, others shrieking out defiantly. Small animals scurry on the ground, stirring up twigs or burying under leaves at the approaching sound of a distant traveller. These are the sounds of the woods.
A city holds different sorts of sounds. Men and women dicker their goods in the streets, horses clap a steady rhythm against the cobbles. The wind whistles through small windows in stone walls or sings a lullaby to the lonely child who calls the dark alleys his home. In smaller towns you may hear crickets or a lone owl sharing its wisdom with the stars. Even in the frozen wastes of Keltone, where all feels desolate and dead, sounds do not cease. I am too familiar with the noise of harsh wind in my ears: the sound of two gods fighting in the skies. Winds north and south, east and west crash against each other like waring deities not caring about innocent travellers they swallow up as battle tragedies.
Darkness. Blackness. Nothing. That is the only way I can describe it to you, for how can I describe something conceptually unheard of. I searched through the hollow emptiness, slowing my breathing to a controlled and shallow wave. There is one thing about hearing nothing… When you do hear something, you know it to be true. It was faint, barely noticeable, but enough. I crept toward the sound, my soft footfalls sounding like thunderclaps in my ears. The sound grew louder now, echoing down the dark tunnels and passageways. I stopped to listen again, but soon found I didn’t have to. My ears grew more accustomed to the sound of my own feet, my breathing, and the stretch of leather as my sword-belt twisted against my clothes. Slowly but surely I began to pick out all those sounds that weren’t my own, all the sounds the emptiness around me could not claim.
The scurrying of tiny feet against stone changed to a low thud… and then nothing. I followed the echos down darkened tunnels and unkempt stonework until I saw a light. That soft glow in the distance drew me in, not only for its contrast to the blackness all around. The final resting place of the sounds I was following led me further into the light until I turned a corner into a well lit hallway. A low shuffling, hardly noticeable yet distinct to my straining ears, came from a nearby grouping of barrels. As I approached the barrels which clumped together, recessed into the wall, I knew that the sound did not come from them. A little lizard sat tall and proud atop some flour sacks which had been haphazardly thrown behind the wooden drums.
“Wasn’t that fun!” I almost felt assaulted by the harsh shriek that shot from Othban’s mouth. His normal voice was grating enough, but to those ears which had been focusing on minute sounds amidst non-existent surrounding, it was almost too much to handle. “Now, it’s time for another game.” He spoke lower this time, almost like a whisper, and I didn’t complain. He ushered me to join him behind the barrels and I agreed, not knowing what other strange tricks the Pharosh hid beneath his scales.
“What is the meaning of this?” If I had been in a better physical condition, well fed and rested, I probably would have been angry with Othban, but in my current state, I had no energy to argue with him. Playing children’s games in dark tunnels beneath a long ago abandoned castle was better than rotting away in a cell… maybe.
“Hide and seek.”
“Okay,” I said, hoping to catch the lizard in his own game. “I will hide, and you seek. Go on, count to 100 or something.”
“No, no, no!” He tapped my foot with a playful swat. “We are hiding…”
“And who is seekin-” the words were barely out of my mouth before I heard the soft padding of feet in the distance. Normally I would not have heard such a low sound, but having forced my ears into submission for the past… I don’t know how long, had awaken them to new levels I didn’t think possible.
“They’re seeking… they’re seeking…” Othban mumbled to himself, and I almost hushed him, but thought better of it. In order to hush someone who is speaking, you must speak louder than them, and that would certainly not help the “hiding” party in this game of hide and seek.
After some time, the soft sound of feet was added to by a conversation. None of the words had much meaning to me as I listened to rise and fall of the language. That is not to say that it was a foreign language. I just had no interest in eavesdropping. I was listening more for the who of the voices than the what of the words. Such efforts were rewarded, but not with the expected voices. Sir Reuben, Cargh, any variety of allmarach… these were voices that I expected, but not the voices I heard.
“Your end of the bargain was… incomplete.” Tiyhak’s words mixed with the air like a sea of pudding.
“I brought you the spirits as agreed.” The sweet and cynical voice of Kyra almost made me gasp. What was she doing here?
“Certainly… but your actions made my life… inconvenient.” The slow determination of his words were sly at best, and menacing on the worst sort of day.
“The only inconvenience is that you lost me, and now I am here. You can blame no one but yourself.”
“Myself? That is an interesting suggestion.”
“I only suggest that you now hold up your end of the deal.”
“Certainly… you think yourself to be on top, holding power over my suggestion?”
“A woman has more power over a man than you might think… especially when on top.”
“If you claim my suggestion as your own, perhaps we can aid one to another. With such womanly power over suggestion, what suggestion would you give a lowly man for a new spirit vessel once I extract them from your womanly figure?”
Kyra paused as if taken off guard by the question, or maybe she was spending more time thinking up some witty response. “It’s true. I don’t suppose many womanly figures cross your path. What a sad and lonely life.” I did not see her eyes glisten, but knew that twinkle all too well myself.
“Certainly…” I didn’t imagine that he was agreeing with her suggestion, but merely using the word as a place-holder while his next statement formed. “Is it not you who seek help from me once again? Why do you fight the process so?”
“I don’t need your help, but your lack of ladies in these parts might leave you needing me more than you think.” I could no longer sit idly behind those barrels. My curiosity got the better of me and I peered out to see the scene I had been listening to. Ears can tell you many things, but if a picture is worth 1,000 words, it is worth at least 100 sounds. However, no amount of listening could have prepared me for what I saw.
“Certainly. I have need of you. Perhaps, then, I should not let you leave again.” A mass of electric power formed between Tiyhak’s palms. I had seen this before, and knew what was going to happen, but was powerless to do anything about it. Why I still felt some sort of connection to this woman, I cannot tell you. She had stolen from me, lied to me, tried to kill me, and now she makes some sort of deal with Klychawk. Regardless of all these truths, I saw a woman in need, and despite my less than perfect physical state, I wanted to do everything in my power to save her. The knight without flew past me in a rage, to fight for the damsel in distress, but the man and warrior stayed motionless behind the barrel. As it happened, Kyra needed no help from knight, warrior, or man.
The strands shot out from Tiyhak’s palms toward the centre of her form with perfect precision… but missed. Where that beautiful woman had been, with dark tresses flowing, there now was a puff of smoke. The electricity sparked and danced around as it hit the far wall of the chamber, spreading a new crack up the already over-warn stone. A raven flew into Tiyhak’s face, pecking at his exposed eyes like worms in a deep hole. His hands flew wildly about, slapping at his face, but the bird wasn’t there any longer. Kyra flew over his head and landed behind the man, changing into a more menacing form. Wolf’s teeth bit into the flesh on his leg, and Tiyhak let out a scream as he whirled around and kicked the snout of the animal. The force landed him on the ground which would have left Kyra exposed to another electric blast, but she took on wings and disappeared into some dark corner.
“You fight like a girl!” He spoke through clenched teeth while fighting for breath. Sweat poured down his face with the effort of the fight and I saw his eyes glaze over. Raising his arms, he shot into a dark corner above him, where I assume Kyra had disappeared to. His efforts were rewarded by a woman falling from the sky, drawing a knife for each of her hands. She launched one knife at his left hand and the other at his right before landing hard against his chest. Her hands pushed against the knifes, and Tiyhak winced with the pain and she twisted them back and forth, boring holes in those once perfect palms.
“You’re right. I am a girl.” She brought her face close to his and if they hadn’t been fighting I would have thought she was about kiss him. Her lips brushed his as he lay there, crucified against the stone floor. “Oh, and I am on top.” She no sooner puller her knifes free than she disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. My finely attuned ears heard the flapping of wings caring her farther and farther away.