Glanderxe – Chapter 31

Tiyhak had to admit that Reuben knew a thing or two about politics. Why wouldn’t he, being so invested in such endeavours? There was a reason why Klychawk had suggested that they give the Duke of Dete Plych a more permanent position with the troops. While integrated heavily in the governing of Glanderxe Coessarde, he was a wonderful informant, but he proved to be even more useful at Castle North. Tiyhak could hardly suffer through the ranting and ravings of blood-thirsty allmarach, and had little patience for such things. Reuben seemed to calm even the strongest aversions in Klychawk’s crew of warriors with such grace that it seemed almost easy and natural.

There was still much that Reuben had to learn, but his strengths were evident. It had been his idea to send Mert into Kho Arian in the first place in order to acquire information about the place. If Klychawk had any hope of defeating the Pharosh, or even fighting them, they needed to know more about what lay beyond the Void… and now they did. Tiyhak had explored the entirety of the new internal army base that Cargh and Kyra had so graciously helped them set up… not that they knew that. Mert, the pawn in this game, had been the least useful, but the most painful. Tiyhak could still feel the death of his first spirit-slave as if it happened yesterday. He didn’t see it happen, being too focused on his battle with Cargh, but he almost fell over when that first spirit left him. The pain curled in his stomach, reaching for release up the shaft of his throat to explode on whatever unlucky sod might be in range of the vile fluid. In this case, it would have been Cargh had he not been able to choke back down the vomit.

There was nothing more that Tiyhak could do now. The place was set, ready for Klychawk’s spirit-army of allmarach to be built. Asdeah would keep watch of the ash-laden mountain, giving him a spirit marker to return to. He saw her fluttering like a torch light, licking at a never ending supply of oil. Her spirit shimmered with power, Tiyhak’s power, and he smiled at this new, unlikely friend. His first slave, the allmarach, had never been as precious as Asdeah, and the pain of losing him was almost satiated by her presence. He didn’t really have many options, being tied directly to his will, but friendship was different. She seemed to enjoy following his command… but what is real in the plane of the dead?

Klychawk had fallen when his wife died. He spent so much time in death with his wife that he forgot what living really was. He had captured her spirit upon her death, his very first spirit slave. He didn’t really know what he was doing, but as she lay in his arms, dying, Klychawk saw the strands. His intense grief and anger toward the attackers fuelled his escape to the realm of death where such emotions are encouraged. He saw the strands and reached for them, pulling her in forever… but did she really love him then? Had he just fooled himself into thinking it was love? After all, his wife was now his spirit-slave and had no choice but to do what he said. Does Asdeah have any choice? Perhaps she loved Tiyhak just because he wanted her to, her spiritual bonds to him playing tricks with emotion.

Tiyhak shook the thoughts from his mind and searched for another spirit. Thinking of such things would only cause him pain and drive him further into the undead plane surrounding him. Tiyhak still held onto his sanity, still knew why he lived, still felt the real more than the unreal. He found the spirit he was searching for, his destination. Hundreds of allmarach spirits floated about in Castle North, and Tiyhak couldn’t tell one from the other. They were all thugs, brutes, brainless military power. Reuben, however, was different. He had led many a battle as a Glanderxe knight, then guard captain, then Duke, and the training showed. Tiyhak smiled as he launched himself along that strand toward the red-haired battle master.

Stone walls spoke to him through the blackness, appearing like shadows in the dark. The world materialized around him as the particles rained down like showering pixels from heaven. Rocks fell into place, torches blew life into the room, and there in the centre of it all stood Reuben with… his first spirit slave! He surely was learning quickly.

“Welcome.” Reuben spoke with that sly yet calming tone that always seemed to spill from his mouth.

“Did he put up a fight?” Tiyhak could still see the fresh blood dripping from the murder weapon which Reuben held in his hand. It gather in a crusty pool of death beneath his new allmarach slave.

“Is that not the way of it? If there was no fight, mmm… would we kill them still?”

“A fine question, but it’s irrelevance is plain. An army is an army, regardless whether the victims deserve it.”

“Hmm, but such knowledge aids the conscience.”

“Certainly.” Soon Reuben would learn to draw on the remorse of his victims and claim it as strength in the realm of death, but for now his conscience was satiated by idle logic. The workings of death can only be explained so far. They must be experienced. “Where is the prisoner? I wish to hold conference with the man.”

“Conference, hmm? The only conference he will hold now is with Klychawk.” Reuben spoke the words as calmly as one would pour tea.

“What?” If he was saying what Tiyhak thought he was…

“That knight of ours was found, mmm… escaping. I believe that Cargh was aiding the endeavour, but I sorted that out in my own way.”

That grin on his face was cruel and calming. What did this man do?

“Come,” was all he said as he led Tiyhak from the room. They wound through a few passageways before coming out into a small room at the back of the castle. Weapons of varying shape and size hung on the walls like a store room. In reality, the allmarach were not nearly organized enough to have a storeroom for weapons, but someone must keep up appearances. The castle had gone through a number of changes since Reuben’s arrival, and this was no doubt one of them. This room in particular, however, went through a clear and recent change. Old rusty chains hung from the ceiling, having once held a light source of some kind. It was apparent by the pool of dried blood on the floor that a chandelier was not the most recent thing that hung there.

“These allmarach did most of the mmm… work. I finished the job, and must brag its beautiful brutality.”

“Certainly you didn’t have to flay the man.” Tiyhak didn’t mind a little torture, especially of one he hated so much, but his goods must be protected. Imagine a spirit-slave that looked like death. Someone might think it a ghost and be afeared. “Nonetheless, your entertainment has been had. Where is our skinless friend now?” Tiyhak almost cringed when the answer came.

“Oh, he did not die in this room, but the Wastes most assuredly did the rest.”

Tiyhak prided himself in maintaining his cool with most situations. He could laugh off insults like brushing flies from a horses back… but this. “You had no right to deal with him so!” Tiyhak’s anger begun to flare. He felt the warmth rising to his clean-shaven cheeks. Soon the red of rage would show through the pale of his skin.

Reuben was stunned, taken aback by this sudden burst of emotion. “My lord, his mmm… usefulness had run its course. We learned all we could about the lizard-folk and their secret entrance. What more could he offer us?” His words were not as measured as before.

“He was my prisoner, and not yours to release!” Tiyhak’s hands were still at his sides, but he felt them begin to tingle with power.

“Pardon the correction, lord, but the prisoner was as much mine as yours. You were mmm… detained when I found him… or perhaps he found me.”

“HIS LIFE WAS MINE!” Tiyhak screamed, power coursing down his arms and through those ten digits of extension. He was to be my next. The strands began to form between his fingers and he played with the idea of enslaving the useless fool who stood before him. Would the man fight back?

“Klychawk has him now. No harm was done.” His words shot out quicker than lightning. Apparently his usual calm lilt was not going to sooth Tiyhak now. In desperation he searched for some way to explain things to his comrade.

“He had no spirit, perkoh! He is as dead as the Pharosh will be after we are done with them.” What could Tiyhak do now? True, Mert’s usefulness to Klychawk was complete, but Tiyhak still had other plans. His personal vendetta would forever remain empty and hollow, just like that place inside him left by the death of his first… by the hand of Mert.

With his anger, the strands rose into the largest sparking mass he had ever created. Sheer strength and will could not hold it in place, but it fed off of the emotions within him like a leech, sucking life from a dying man. Tiyhak released the power. Reuben flinched against the attack, but it never came. Tiyhak faded from view with a snap as lightning coursed through his own body. The rage continued to feed, driving him into the realm of death where he took solace in the emotion. He slashed at the trees in the garden with his hands, cutting branches, leafs, and skin. His would-be form was bloodied, in pain, enraged.

He released his anger in a mighty scream. Again and again his roaring shook the garden like a mighty quake of pain. His roars turned wet with a fourth utterance, and tears streaming from his would-be eyes. Tiyhak received the garden’s sorrow which dripped from crying trees, seemingly sharing in his pain. The garden was a sanctuary for the dead, a place of rest for the broken-hearted and a soothing wave for the angered. There was no place in life that he belongs, but this place of death was a perfect compliment to the emotions swirling around within him.

“My son…” Klychawk’s tear soaked words deepened Tiyhak’s sorrow. The pain of father and son joined together as one, and Klychawk surrounded him in a would-be embrace, their spirit’s twitching and flashing against each other. No words had to be said, nor could they be. The pain of loss was the central theme of the garden, and Tiyhak wore the emotion with pride, with sorrow, with bitterness. He felt like ending Sir Reuben where he stood… but his father wouldn’t approve.

“He is too useful still. He must still remain… for a time. Mistakes are to be expected, but the calm is greater after a storm.”

Tiyhak knew his words to be true. He had been spiritually stronger ever since the claiming of his first spirit-slave… and the subsequent death thereof. He knew what it meant to gain, he knew what it was to lose. He now knew what he fought for in a real and tangible way. Death was no longer just a concept, but it was part of his life.

“What is done is done. We cannot change the past, but the future still remains to be determined.”

“Certainly, I know this.” Tiyhak knew that his personal struggle could not delay Klychawk’s plans. The time would come for vengeance, but faithfulness to Klychawk was owed. This was just the loss of his first, but what would Tiyhak do after the loss of his hundredth? Surely their army would face some casualties, every fallen spirit being a strike to his own.

“I promise your vengeance will be satiated, my son.”

Tiyhak basked in the emotions of his father and the garden of death. He would build Kylchawk’s army, and Reuben would help… but what is one less spirit-slave? Tiyhak had lost his first, and if it was a good enough initiation for him, it would be a good enough initiation for another. It was not perfect, but Tiyhak’s vengeance would be satisfied… for a time.

***

When Farah awoke, the sky proclaimed what the day would hold. Where normally an expanse of crystal blue hung above Coere Ghante, the black fingers of death dipped into a darkened pool of grey. Brief flashes of yellowing white fought against the gloom, but did not remain for more than an instant before those fingers grabbed at and choked the life from them. The wind whistled a sad lament through the fields and the trees whispered grief to each other.

Normally Farah would get up early to tend the animals and many other asundery tasks that Coere Ghante would require. The sweet smell of the morning dew that she so enjoyed smelt musty and old today. The cool ground against her bare feet would normally put a spring in her step, and the soft “good mornings” of the wind would cause her to smile. Not this day. The chilly earth felt cold and dead, and the wind did not help as it spoke through clenched teeth, not knowing how to greet her grief. “I’m sorry for your loss.” That was all it could say, and those words would be echoed a thousand times over before the day was out. It caused her to smile a little knowing that the wind was the first to think of her, but that was not enough to bring her heart from that murky pit of despair.

The stabled horses whinnied in the distance, but they would not speak to her today. Grish Wheater had offered to take over her duties: a noble offer, but not necessary. It was expected that Farah Bailey and her mother would be abed with grief later than usual. Mother, perhaps, would be so. She hadn’t risen too early ever since father… but now she surely wouldn’t rise with the sun.

Farah found her solace in the morning and still found the streets, but without duties to attend to she just walked around aimlessly. Her mind was a blank slate, and her heart an even emptier grey to mimic the sky above. The sun finally managed to steal a space between the clouds, and even the grey looked more blue than before, but this life was not mirrored in Farah’s heart. She remained a slate grey, a dead hole waiting to be filled with… something… someone.

Soon that same grey was mixed with black and all the other colours of grief. The whole town dressed in appropriate attire for the occasion. Farah was almost the last to arrive at that place in the field where an empty hole opened in the earth, waiting to be filled. Mr. Bailey would be lain beside the body of his son, beneath the darkened earth, inside a darkened box. There was nothing special about the house that Farah had picked out for her father. It did the job, and that was all. There was nothing beautiful about death, so why dress it so?

Amidst the spots of blacks and greys, the white of the priest’s collar stood out, stark and unwelcome. The only other colour like it was found in the hands of nearly every woman in town, handkerchiefs lifted in remembrance of the loss. Farah pulled a similar cloth from a pocket in her dirty, wrinkled, ashen dress. The man who had gifted it to her stood at her side, barely noticed in the sea of faces. He wore the customary funeral colours, though the money in his clothing was plain. There was a time when Farah would have been disgusted by such extravagance in the wraps of cloth one chose to adorn themselves with, but Sir Yoyde didn’t seem to hold his office with pride. Should a man be judged more fully by his clothing or his heart?

Farah tried to be strong for her mother. Even pulling her from bed that morning had been difficult. Farah faced the day in all its dreariness. Father had been slipping into the realm of death one day at a time, and as she sat by his side through it all, Farah sometimes wondered which realm he inhabited more. Mother had refused to see her dying husband, the pain too great for her to bear. Farah had accepted the grey of sky and cloth, but mother wouldn’t rise. The pain had gone to her head and she kept saying she was waiting for Brion to come home. Brion Bailey wasn’t coming home. He now lay in a box, frail beyond recognition, and the only home he would find now was in the sky or in the ground.

Farah still wasn’t sure about the state of her mother’s mind, but she had finally accepted father’s death enough to at least come to the funeral. Waterfalls poured from her face, and the great moaning sob was almost too much for the occasion. The priest was having trouble making his words heard, not that anyone really cared… at least Farah didn’t care. Nothing anyone could say could bring her father back. That man with the white around his neck was here simply for appearances.

Some say that laughter is contagious. The voice of one will mingle with another, passing through the crowd like a virus. Tears, unfortunately, have a similar effect. There was no staying strong any longer. The time had come to say goodbye, and Farah’s heart answered the call. The emptiness inside spilled out in a single stream down her face before she turned away. The rest of Coere Ghante could say their goodbye’s together, but Farah just wanted to be alone. Her daughterly duty was complete, and she hoped that mother would appreciate her efforts enough to remain… but these thoughts barely entered her mind as she left.

The red earth grew damp with the soft pitter-patter of bare feet and tears. They left a speckled trail to the place a distance away where she finally broke down. Mighty torrents erupted from her every orifice. Mouth, eyes, nose, all created a mass of tears, snot, and saliva which mixed together before dripping from chin. They created a pool in the red dirt below as her hands came to her face. Soon those hands were replaced with a silky cloth of white, and when she pulled it away a finely chiselled face stood before her. No words came from his mouth, but those two lips spoke more than simple words could manage as they came to rest on her cheek. The kisses plastered her face in a soft caress as they worked down beneath her eyes, soaking up the wet which remained.

Sir Yoyde kissed the pain away, two lips at a time. Farah hardly noticed when his hands reached for the sides of her face and his lips found their place atop hers. Before she knew it, she was kissing him back, and the the pleasure which coursed through her body at this unlikely time was mesmerizing. Only this man could turn such a time of pain into one of joy. Tears began to fall again as he pulled away from her, their lips sticking for a brief but lasting moment. His crystal blues mocked the grey of the sky as they peered down at her. Pity mixed with love was all she say before her hand reached for his stubbled cheek.

Her voice caught in her throat amidst to confusing swirl of emotions and tears while she mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

His reply came from tear-sweetened lips, but it was not a reply of words… and she did not pull away from his embrace.

Glanderxe – Chapter 30

The first thing I noticed was the smell. What is death supposed to smell like? Rotting flesh? Damp earth? In a wooden box there is nothing more to smell than memories, but a box was not my fate, nor did a deep grave hold me. The smell of nature brewing tickled those once frozen nostrils of mine. I could almost see the odour dancing around that log-walled cabin. The perfumed maiden twirled in circles from a steaming pot. She smelled of peppermint, and Echinacea blossomed from her swirling form. She curtsied to a short man stirring the pot, before spinning into the air. She played behind a thousand jars on a thousand shelves set into walls of wood. She skirted along tables a mess with flowering plants, herbs, and tools for their manipulation. The maiden dipped low, alighting on chests filled with all manner of trinkets and collections. Her journey was long, but the result was satisfying when she drew in close caressing my face. Her perfume stroked my nose seductively while her tresses fell low, gliding against my skin. Her breath on my neck caused it to tingle with pleasure. My skin was speckled with the cold sweat that only comes with embarrassment or fever.

A song reached for my ears, but it was not the sweet voice of this perfumed goddess. The voice of the man stirring the pot was pleasant in its own rugged way.

Green, the grass that does not die.

Blue, the taste of winter’s nigh.

Red, the smell of sun-kissed sands,

Gold, the colour of maiden’s hand.

 

She kissed me once, she kissed me twice,

Then she spoke to me so nice.

With lips so soft and skin so fair

How could she love this old bear?

 

Riul, Riul, the maiden of life

Loves all creation as a wife.

Her face is seen in tree and stone,

But oft she’s missed e’en when she comes.

The words fell away into a hum, but the tune continued. I tried to rise from the bed on which I had been lain, but it was as if the feathers sucked me into a smothering embrace, not wishing to let me go. My head rose from the pillow, but the rest of my body was unmoved. It felt numb with old wounds and unworked muscles: the paralysis of inactivity.

I heard the giant wooden pallet in my companion’s hand clank against the side of a pot before liquid was poured into a cup. He came over to me, holding the brew like a peace offering. “Don’t be moving too much yet. Sure to be stiff, there.” I’d seen his face before, but couldn’t quite place it. Once he spoke, it was even more clear to me that I should recognize this man.

“Where am I?” My tongue felt heavy and stupid inside that hole of a mouth. Its dry exterior knocked against the roof of my mouth as I spoke. The tea was surely to help with that. He set it on the top of a log which acted as a table for the accompanying pile of feathers I sunk into.

“You’ll be needing some help, there.” I almost didn’t feel his hand against my chest, the other underneath me. Those hands forced me to a sitting position and my joints creaked and groaned with the effort, but I gave no such complaints. My head began to spin as blood rushed around to fill the places where it was needed most. I raised one hand to my head in an attempt to steady myself. “This’ll help there.”

I took the cup from him gladdy, and raised it to my lips. The minty after-taste was glorious as it soothed my dying tongue and trickled down my throat like an April shower. Coughing a little, I lowered the mug from my face. “What is it?” I had so many questions, and the tea was the least of my worries, but what else could I really say?

“That there is your doctor. She’s been checking on you, there, quite regular.” His smile looked warm against the soft skin on his face.

I took another sip of the tea, trying not to gulp it down. The wet was a nice change to the dryness of my throat and tongue, but too much at a time would be less than pleasant. “Where am I?”

“So many questions, there. I suppose they make sense. You’re still in Keltone Coessarde, if that’s what you’re asking there. More particular, this be my home. I heard you blasting that horn there like some crazed lunatic. Good thing you didn’t lose her.” He motioned with his chin the the Horn of Riul which sat atop a low table at the foot of the bed. “A mighty shame it would be to lose such a piece as that.”

I tried not to laugh too hard, but even so, my chest screamed in defiance at the sharp breaths I drew for the hearty exchange. My face contorted into a wince and I clutched at the pain.

“Careful there. You’re still being weak.”

“You don’t say.” More tea filled that hole in my face after the word, but this time I wasn’t so careful. The dry burn of my throat turned into a hot scorch as the liquid spilled down it. I let out a short gasp and thought better of kicking myself at the foolishness.

“Careful there. She’s hot.”

“It seems I have to be careful all around.” I didn’t want to lash out at this man, but my frustration at the pain had to be vented somewhere. He just happened to be the unlucky sod sitting beside me. “Sorry,” I mumbled weakly.

He only gave me a piteous smile in return. “Just let that lady there do her work.” He motioned toward the cup with his chin. His hands went elsewhere, searching among the animal skin blanket that covered me. “Let’s check those wounds there.” He pulled the blanket down and a chill brushed against my skin. Goosebumps rose quick as they could, standing tall on my arms and legs. “Sorry, I’ve been trying to keep her hot in here.”

Judging by the roaring fire beside the bed where the tea was brewing, I was sure the heat was sufficient for a healthy body, but my half-naked, feverish one challenged its sufficiency. I say half-naked not because I wore any type of regular garments, but the cloth bandages holding my frame together covered much of my skin, and a thin sheet had been hung around the more private areas: certainly not the type of clothing one would walk through town in, and it was even less favourable to the chill I knew would greet me outside the hut’s walls.

Most of the bandages were soaked through with blood and mere spots of white stood out from the red and pink. Lifting up my left leg, the man with me begun to unravel the layers of cloth. I could hear the tear of dried blood fighting against the cloth but didn’t feel it until that final layer. He tried to be gentle, but the cloth stuck to my skin in the worst way, and I almost dropped the tea because of it. Surprisingly, most of the skin on my legs was still in tact… but the colouring was off. The old blood on the cloth stuck to my leg hairs more than open cuts beneath, but the purpling, patchy colour of my leg was evidence of the bruises.

He unwrapped the other leg, and it looked much the same. “Most people wear a coat there when it’s cold. Riul isn’t friendly to naked skin in the north.”

I didn’t say anything as he moved to unwrap the bandages around my chest, and I’m sure he didn’t expect me to. On my chest and back is where the cuts were most evident. Some scabs were partially torn off with the cloth. Fresh crimson dots rose from a large blackened scab on my chest, but most of the small cuts remained sealed, and many of them had already scared over. “That one there will be a battle wound the brag about.” He distracted me with those words, pouring a stream of drink on the now-open cut.

I gritted my teeth against the sting. “What is that stuff?”

“Many pour it into mugs and tankards. I find it being mighty on the open wound, there.”

“Ale?”

“Stronger. Drink this there and you’ll burn a brain-cell or three.” I could have used a strong drink right about then, but didn’t say anything. Unbeknownst to me, this man had been caring for me some time now – the fresh scars on my chest evidence of the healing that had already occurred. Surely, he knew what he was doing.

“Who should I be thanking for this help?” The man was familiar, but I still couldn’t place him.

“Riul generally, myself in particular. I suppose you’re wanting my name there?” He began to dab away stray blood and alcohol with a corner of cloth. “Raod.”

“Raod.” I tasted the word for a time before continuing. “I don’t know what I have done to deserve such treatment, in particular, but Riul has done nothing for me to thank her for, in general.”

Dipping the cloth in a bit of water, he continued to clean me up. “Why’d you being found with that horn there, if Riul deserves no thanks?”

“That horn, sir, is a foolish trinket I was swindled into purchasing by a crafting merchant. He told me that I could command the voice of Riul herself with it. How foolish I was to believe it.”

“Foolish is a good description of that man I found being naked in the snow there, but he must’ve thought something of the thing he blew on to no end.”

A foolish attempt to die, perhaps. “If Riul deserves my thanks… you can tell her for me. I screamed into that horn til there was no more to say, yet she never came for me. If she listens to you more than me, my thanks would sound better on your lips, perhaps.”

“Arms up.” He reached for my chest with fresh bands of cloth and began wrapping the new bandages around me. “What do you expect of her?”

“Expect?” That question made me pause to think. “Well… I suppose she could help me when I’m in need. Is that too much to ask of a god?”

“Goddess,” Raod corrected, “And has she not helped you, there?”

“Where?” I mocked his over-use of the word.

Silence.

“I’m sorry,” This man didn’t deserve me snapping at him. “I’ve just been through a lot.”

Raod finished wrapping me up, but remained silent. As he tied off the bands, he spoke, but his words were the farthest thing from what I had expected. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have sold that horn there, being as you don’t appreciate it.”

He continued working the bandages while I stared at him, shocked. “That was you?” It all came back now. I hadn’t expected a merchant travelling from Dete Plych to Glanderxe to be hiding out in Keltone, but the man was the same. I remembered the cart, the pony, the man… the horn. Did he really think it held some kind of power? “Why?”

“That there’s an odd question without context.” Raod watched his work but spoke to me.

“Why would the same man who cheated me out of 150 gold pieces now care for my wounds?”

“120 with a promise being thirty more from the queen… not that I expected to receive it.” He paused for a second before continuing, though still not answering my question directly. “And it was no cheat.”

“You expect me to believe that the horn has helped me?” It was hard not to be angry at a man who had cheated me of so much money, but this man had also saved my life. I was certainly in a strange way.

“I know not of times before, but Riul helped you in the Wastes there.” He seemed to actually believe what he was saying.

“How is that? I had nothing left but death on my plate, and she couldn’t even serve me that.”

“And yet you are being alive.”

“But that was your doing, of which I am grateful.”

“What do you expect of Riul? Should the Goddess come in pillars of fire and be working magic from smoke? Perhaps a spiritual glow in the night, showing you the way to the River West, there? Riul is creator and goddess of nature. Do you fault her for using her creation for the helping?” Raod finished wrapping me up and helped me reposition myself so that my legs hung loosely down the side of the bed. They felt heavy and useless, but my knees were thankful for the change in scenery.

I had nothing to say in response, and Raod took the opportunity to begin singing again.

Riul, Riul, the maiden of life

Loves all creation as a wife.

Her face is seen in tree and stone,

But oft she’s missed e’en when she comes.

As if in response to his own song, the man continued. “Tell me of the horn, there. How have you used it?”

I thought back to all the times when the foolish thing had been blown. “Well, Riul attacked me with wolves and the horn caused an avalanche which almost killed me.”

“But it did not? Is an avalanche not being of Riul’s design? She helped you, there, from a wolf attack, no?”

“Maybe…” the rock fall was natural because of the ridiculous noise I caused with the horn, wasn’t it? “Alright, then what about the attack on the bridge. I was fighting an allmarach and blew the horn. The only thing that happened there is that a wolf – which turned out to be a Tallri – jumped on him and then I lost my spirit.”

“Wolf, Tallri, worshippers of Riul…” I didn’t let him finish.

“Okay fine, well what about now. There is nothing ‘natural’ about you saving me. Rocks and wolves may be of nature, but you are just a guy in the mountains. You could have found me without that silly horn.”

“Oh? And how would that be being? A naked man there in the snow. The sound, there, let me find you. And am I being of Riul creation as well?”

I had no more to say to him. Could it be that Riul had been helping me this whole time, but I hadn’t even seen it? “Why do you care what I think of Riul? You can have the horn back if you want it so bad.”

“Because…” He took the empty tea cup from my hand. “I am Tallri.”

***

“Tallri?” The dumbfounded expression was plain on my face. “But you’re…” what was he? Approachable, quirky, short, not an attractive woman? The only other Tallri I knew was an attractive thief who knew her way around a fight, but her tongue poked at me more often than blade. She was a lying, manipulative trickster. Yet still I care for her… but only in the same way a knight would care for any woman. At least they had one trait in common. Raod had tricked me into buying a useless horn… or was it useless. I wasn’t sure anymore.

“Yes?” Raod looked at me as if peering over the rim of his speckles… not that he wore any. Clearly I had paused for longer than natural conversation allowed.

“I don’t know.” I said, still trying to size up the man in my head. “You’re just different.” That was a good word to describe this man with, whether I was trying to compare him with Kyra or not.

He laughed at that, taking my cup over to the still steaming pot of tea. Setting the glass on a wooden table by the fire, he uprighted an equally fashioned dish then proceeded to ladle out more drink. “Different than you be expecting a Tallri?” He moved to the second glass. “Or different than a hermitous merchant in the mountains, there?” Raod picked up the glasses, holding each one by the rim. With measured steps, careful not to spill, he returned to his place by the bedside and offered me one of the cups. “Careful. She’s hot.”

I accepted the drink by the rim, quickly setting it down on a nearby flat-topped log. The minty violet liquid spilt over the rim a bit, but I managed to pull away before burning the intact skin on my hand. “Tallri, I suppose. You see…” How much should I trust this man? Yes, he saved my life… but still… “I imaged your race different from the stories, that’s all.”

“Stories!” Raod took a sip of his tea before setting it down himself. “Is lore being your speciality now?” His bushy eyebrows almost seemed to lift from his face.

“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve just heard a thing or two.”

“I hope you’re being a better knight than liar… though how I found you, there, would suggest otherwise.” True, a naked form lying on the ground isn’t how most people envision a knight. Perhaps it would fit better by a tavern or brothel, but the naked man wouldn’t be a knight; just an impostor dressed as one, for there is nothing noble or “knightly” about such places.

“It is true, lessons in deceit were never part of my training at Glanderxe.” Leave that to the politicians. There was no use in trying to lie now. It was no secret that the men and women of Glanderxe Coessarde didn’t know that the Tallri or allmarach existed. I had been sent out to seek the Pharosh – the last remaining race of old… or that was the story anyway.

“I don’t suppose ‘History of the Tallri’ was being a class there either?”

“No, I…” he clearly wasn’t going to let this go. “I met one of your kind of my journey west.”

“My kind?” He laughed again, but not the over-joyous explosion that one would hold their stomach in for. His laughs were more that of a mouse, halfway between a chuckle and a snicker. “You say it like speaking of an alien disease.”

“Sorry…” I screwed up my face a little. Was it that obvious that I still didn’t really know a thing about the Tallri?

Raod took another sip of his tea, letting the cup linger by his lips for a time, breathing in the smell of Echinacea pedals and mint leafs. “Who was this Tallri you met there?” He no longer seemed to speak to me, but stared off in the distance through the steam rising from liquid close to his face.

“Umm…” He seemed… disturbed? Distracted? “She stole my money, led me off of the beaten path (in the most literal sense imaginable), and then tried to kill me.”

“Sounds like a right upstanding lady, there. The kind of company I’d expect a knight to keep.”

There’s the Tallri I know. The man certainly spoke, acted, and well… everythinged differently, but the stabbing sense of rumour remained. I took a sip of my drink, opting to give no reply. Though the jesting had a familiar taste, it wasn’t nearly as crude of vile sounding from Raod. If it was Kyra talking, I surely would have snapped at her for that comment.

“Did she leave a name there while stabbing you in the back?” He continued to look into the distance, fixated on nothing in particular.

“Kyra.” What would holding her name back serve? She hadn’t really done me any favours, and I couldn’t really trust her, but could I trust Raod?

He didn’t say anything at first, and I almost thought I saw a hint of surprise in his eyes; but whatever it was faded quickly. “Where is this Kyra being now?”

“You can leave that to Riul to figure out. Last I saw her was in the abandoned castle to the north.” Or was it to the north? I didn’t really know where I was anymore. “She made a pretty good mess of someone up there before turning into a bird and flying away.”

Raod shook himself from the self-imposed trance and set his tea back down. “Riul is not the one to be asking, there. She holds no favour for the Tainted.”

Tainted, I had heard that before, but Kyra was never too open about it. “Some kind of exile?” That’s the best way I could explain it anyway, with my limited knowledge.

“An adequate translation I suppose. Being cast out for rejecting Riul,” then he turned to me, and those copper coloured eyes seemed to smile. “But what am I being explaining to a lore-master like you, there?”

I smiled back, but didn’t dignify the joke with a laugh. Tallri humour had always caused me to lash out in anger, and it would take time to adjust to this more pleasant form of jest.

“Tallri are being the Gifted. So perfectly attuned with Riul’s creation that we can take on its form. The goddess gifts us there with power over her voice, directing creation with her desires.” This was a rather lengthy explanation to give to a lore-master. “The Tainted have been cast off, cursed for being defilers.” He took a sip of tea, pausing long enough for me to ask a question.

“Cursed how?”

“Tallri is perfection. No evil. The tainted spirit is being dirtied, cut off from Riul’s power, there.”

“I heard some of this before.” Cargh had explained it some when I was imprisoned in Kho Arian… though it was probably just to spite Kyra. This was certainly a more friendly way to acquire information about the Tallri. “So, how’d you get kicked out?”

“Tainted?” He paused for quite a time before responding. Perhaps it was a painful memory. “I left Mhoarid, there.”

“The forest?” What type of strange religion forbade leaving a forest? I guessed it was no stranger than worshipping a rock… sorry, The Rock.

“Mhoarid is being a sanctuary. Untainted. The imperfect world outside, there, corrupted me.”

I laughed at the prospect that there was a place of perfection. The forest was thought to be haunted by wild beasts, or the dead, or whatever strange story the people of Glanderxe would come up with next. Never before had I heard it described as a sanctuary. “The world will do that to you. No one can stay young forever.”

“…Perhaps.” Raod had that far away look about him again. There was obviously a lot more to this story, but I suspected he wasn’t going to share it all with me. Who was I to him but a near-death survivor, and mostly a stranger? My suspicions were proved true as he shook away that far off look and took empty tea cup from its place atop the log table. “That being enough stories for now. Your wounds still need much healing, there. Rest, rest.”

My head felt almost heavy with the suggestion, but my legs were heavier. As I spun to re-acquire a lying position, my arms aided my legs back into place. I wasn’t paralysed, but my legs weren’t too strong yet, and moving them proved more difficult that I had hoped.

Raod stood up and placed the glasses in a basin he had filled with water that sat beneath the table he’d gotten them from. He walked toward the door to his small shack, and placing a hand on it, he turned to look at me. “You be getting a good rest, there. It’s a long ride to Glanderxe.”

My half closed eyes almost shot out of my head with surprise. “Glanderxe?”

“I’ve got a full cart of wares for being sold. They won’t travel the road there without me.” He gave me a half smile and his eyes laughed at the suggestion. “The Great City is being a mighty market for the long forgotten goods of Keltone there, and it wouldn’t be proper to leave a half-dead man alone in this cabin, there. Now, rest, rest. I being gone to prepare the journey load.”

Glanderxe. I let out a sigh as my over-tired eyes fought with me. After such hardship to get this far, who knew the journey back would be this easy. Nothing about this fool’s errand had been simple so far, and I looked forward to lounging on a cart for the remained on the journey… not that I could do much else, being half-dead and all. Maybe if I blow the Horn of Riul she would heal me up through some natural healing rain or something. I laughed at such foolishness while Raod left the cabin, and my mind left to sleep.

Glanderxe – Chapter 29

Where should I expect to awake? The sounds of empty echoes should be a sad song to my ears, but these echoes were filled with the battle of the winds. The smell of old stone and stagnant water should fill my nostrils. The hairs inside my nose were too frozen for any such smells to come to me. The chill of that prison cell should once again accompany me. No stone floor, no steel bars, no darkness… the only thing remaining was the chill.

As if waking from a dream, I held brief remembrance of that which had transpired. The last thing I saw with waking eyes was the mailed-fist of Cargh as he sought to subdue me, but that was not my final memory. Between the blackness of sleep and unconscious tricks, images trickled, like through slats in a window. I saw myself strung up like meat hanging to dry: kicked, punched, whipped. The tails played deadly games with my skin, exposing life beneath. The slits trickled blood like a thousand crying eyes. The drops ran down my naked form, mixing in a ever-growing pool on the ground below. Darkness took me once again, but I woke with the burn of water on my face.

“You cannot enjoy it if you sleep, mmm?” A fist to my gut came up bloody, as did the face of the man who spoke. The force pushed blood from within, and I noticed it pouring from my mouth. He wiped away the blood, then hit me again. The pain was too great, and I slipped away.

You might think it a dream, and I hoped that was the case. My eyes stung as snow entered the opening slits. The dream was so vivid, so real, but it couldn’t be. I tried to sit up, but could barely manage movement at all. If I thought the torture was the stuff of dreams, the resulting pain defied that fantasy. My arms were weak, legs were heavy, and gut felt like it had been crushed by the mountains themselves. My naked form was raw and exposed in a not so natural way. Skin, muscle, and even bone were bare in spots.

I fought against the pain to rise, but the wind pushed against my face willing my return to the ground. I gritted my teeth to fight the force, feeling them chatter with the cold. The snow beneath my naked form was pink with blood from recently crusted over wounds. Death fought to claim me, but Time would not permit the exchange. I was still alive, though for how long, I didn’t know.

Rising to my knees, I wretched into the snow… or at least I tried. My body wanted to get rid of what ailed me, but my empty stomach betrayed such intentions. The only thing on the snow below was a leather belt, sword, and horn: my sword-belt, Lady Eyes, and the Horn of Riul. I began to cry at the trick they played: to leave me for dead, but taunt me with survival. I could fight the beast of this wild with sword in hand, call out to Riul for help, but the elements would finally take me. There was no hope for me.

I clasped the belt onto my naked form, putting sword and horn in their place, but felt no more prepared for what was to come. Lady Eyes whispered promises in my ear, but I barely heard them above the howling wind. She promised honour, or was it vengeance. She promised peace, or was it death? What could that piece of steal do for me now, but taught of its uselessness within my grasp or cause my final end. I could give in to the call of Death, but irony profited me. Klychawk, the God of Death, had me in his grasp, but now he called for me from the empty plains of Keltone. He had enslaved me, but now I walked free… if this could be considered freedom. Death tortured me with what was to come, the inevitable end that I would face between memories of love and loyalties lost.

Riul called for me from the horn at my side, but what use had she been? When I called on her at first, she nearly crushed me under crumbling rock. My second call had brought Kyra to my aid in the battle at the bridge, but this resulted in the loss of my spirit. The first call had driven me mad, the second call had imprisoned me, I feared what another call to this God of nature would result. What other options did I have? Without any chance of survival, the gods were my only hope, and what hope would that really be? The Rock was nowhere to be seen, and what help would he be? Perhaps he could provide a boulder on my head to end my tortured life. Riul could call the wolves, and I would die beneath their grasp. Klychawk was the only God who offered any hope. The gods of rock and nature both called to him, prodding me toward Death himself.

I pulled the horn from my belt and brought it to my lips. In a cry of desperation, I screamed into the instrument of my death. “Bring the wolves!” I yelled at the sky. The only memory I wanted to have was that of my dying father. At least I could honour him with my death. I would fight every wolf Riul sent my way until I could see my father’s face again.

The wind picked up as if taunting my cry. I blew on the horn again, this time with greater force. The wind almost lifted me from the ground, defying my call. I saw rocks begin to fall away, but no mountains were in sight. As I cried out again, mountains lifted and then fell, causing the earth to shake. With every step I took on the empty blanket of snow that would soon be my grave-clothes, I blew the horn again. Trees appeared before me, green and bright against the death surrounding me. As I approached, they disappeared behind blankets of blowing snow. A cave appeared in mountains ahead, but soon that was gone as well.

Riul taunted me with her mighty acts of nature. She deceived me with the horn’s power showing me what she could offer, but soon all became nothing. The horn’s promises and its God appeared as mirages before me. I blew the horn and saw the Mhoarid lift from its place. Dirt rained down from the trees, blanketing the ground beneath. Riul left a trail for me as the forest flew with mighty speed over fields and mountains before hanging in the expanse above me. The raining dirt mixed with snow as the forest came down. As the roots dug into the snow around me, I reached for the trunk of a mighty tree. Riul’s face appeared in the place I had touched. Her brown hair flowed back in a mighty wave, and eyes looked at me with pity from within the wooden trunk. I reached to stroke her face, but she was taken from me again. The trees disappeared as quickly as they had come.

I saw the River West planted before me, paving my way to some unseen destination. The surface of the unnaturally warm water fought the ice crystals forming on its surface. Finally it could take the assault no more, and returned to its place separating Kho Arian from the rest. I fell to my knees, not knowing how many miles I’d walked. Frozen tears cut my useless face, and snow seared through my naked skin. I would die with one final song on my lips. The weakness in my arms begged me to release them, but I would not give in. I held the Horn of Riul to my cracked and broken face. Sucking in shards of ice an snow, I filled my lungs to capacity as they screamed at me to let them go. I shook the world around me with one final blast on the trinket in my hand. I did not stop blowing until my lungs gave out. My final breath would be a cry to this God who had already taken life from me. I would have the final say, my ears dead to her response.

My death cry was lost in the snow as I fell from knees to face. My lungs sought purchase within the blanket, but no response came. In those final moments of my death, Riul taunted me with the winds. She plucked me from the ground with a mighty up draft. I barely felt the cold against my dying skin as she carried me into the sky. She threw me forward with a mighty force, but I didn’t care where she was taking me. Whatever grave she offered was as good as the snow I had fallen in. The swirling white sky faded into spots of black, a colour I knew all too well. Would this be the darkness of sleep, unconsciousness or death? I knew not the answer and no longer cared to hear it as I left my fate to the gods.

***

Fioreh’s glow reached into the dark corners of the small chamber, seemingly searching for a way out. The room had but one door and even less windows, yet still Fioreh searched: searched for escape, searched for her battle-sister, searched for Lady Eyes. Cargh wouldn’t let it show on his face, but the sword had no mask to hide behind. Their oath was strong, so strong that nothing but the Rock could break it, yet still Fioreh searched. Mert Whatley Lady Eyes was gone, and no oath (regardless of its strength) could bring him back.

Cargh had watched the first strips slice across his chest. He’d heard the man cry out in misery, seen him fading into unconsciousness. Never betray the Rock: the first thing every allmarach learns from very young. The Rock was their home, their life, their God. He was the Great Father watching over his children: the children who stuck together. Never betray a brother: the second thing every allmarach learns. At one time allmarach flooded the Keltone range from east to west, north to south. Now, giant tunnel passages lay empty, caves were abandoned, cairns lost, crypts desolate. The mountain men had lost many in the Great War. Klychawk’s delusions of invincibility had gotten more than himself killed. When he fell that day, his army – the spirit-allmarach – disappeared. Now, the allmarach were a small group, but mighty… when they stuck together.

Cargh didn’t want to betray Mert, but what choice did he have? When Sir Reuben rounded that corner and caught him red-handed, there was nothing left but betrayal or death. He doubted that the man trusted him now. His fist against Mert’s face had provided a rather convincing show… but a show is all it was. Reuben gave him the “honour” of Mert’s first lashes. Perhaps it was a test of loyalty, or maybe it was just the natural outpouring of that cruel man’s heart. He laughed as Cargh struck Mert’s naked form: one, two, three. As his sword-brother’s blood began to trickled from fresh cracks in his skin, Cargh tried not to let tears trickle from the two cracks in his face. Those eyes remained as steel, but his heart was weak and apologized anew with every lash.

All the allmarach in the room took a turn before Reuben himself finished the job. When they were done, more muscle was left visible than man, and Cargh wondered how much more man was left inside himself. He was a Judas in the ranks of the enemy, but his betrayer’s kiss was for his own: his brother.

Othban had gotten away in the commossion of Mert’s re-capture, and Cargh wasn’t sure whether the small lizard had even been noticed. He expected that usual rage to fill him at the thought of the Pharosh, but there was no more room in his heart for emotions. He heard Reuben direct the allmarach to take Mert’s carcass down and dispose of it. The man was almost dead, and whatever life had been left in him, the Wastes would take in short order. The red-haired devil had his affects sent with him out of spite. “Perhaps, if he wakes up he will mmm… kill himself.” Reuben was cruel, but showed a shred of mercy in this. Mert had suffered enough and at least deserved a quick death if he chose it, but what of Cargh? Though his pains weren’t physical, they were still great. What type of death would he deserve by the Rock’s hand?

Cargh had opted out of following Mert to his death, for fear that his resolve would fail, but he saw the still, lifeless form in his mind’s eye. It wouldn’t take long for the elements to flay the ragged strands of skin that remained on his body. Cargh had to leave this place before Klychawk corrupted even him. He had seen enough to report to Brynd, but that was the least of his worries now. Mert deserved more than snow for a grave. He was an honorary allmarach, and though he was green, he was a sword-brother. He had much to learn of the Rock, but Cargh had been willing to give him that opportunity. Now… now he would never have it.

The familiar clink of allmarach armour broke through the barrier of his mind. He hadn’t found any room anger in his heart while thinking of Mert, but when he heard Reuben’s tongue slide from word to word like snakes through tall grass, he found a place for it. The snake and set of armour passed by his room, but paid no attention to their words. He didn’t blame his brothers here. They were not yet Rock-defilers, but soon he knew they’d have no choice in the matter. Even in death Klychawk was sinking his teeth into them. Cargh was no exception from the trickery of this God of the North, but he had yet to give in. He heard too many lies and wished to hear no more from Klychawk or the red demon snake which passed him now.

Cargh sheathed Fioreh. Don’t worry, lady. You will have a turn at the man soon enough. The light would give away his approach… but his overly-noisy armour would not. Mert had forced him to take it off, but no warrior can survive without his armour for too long. This place was a battlefield. Even though Cargh desired stealth while following this snake of a man, the armour was not a hindrance. Reuben travelled with an equally armour-clad man, and the din of one suit masked the approach of his own. Perhaps “equally” is a poor word. He is but a child in that tin! The allmarach took pride in their spoils, and Cargh would not admit that easily that another allmarach had more than him. The only true decider of that would be battle, but Cargh had no interest in the man’s blood. It had been a while since he’d been in a good fight, but Reuben was a far more interesting target.

The two men disappeared into a chamber beyond and Reuben closed the door behind him. Fioreh will burn through that wood to get to you if she has to! No door would stop Cargh from slicing that man to pieces and watching his flesh burn. Fioreh could do a fine job on his skin… maybe even a better job than he had done on Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.

Cargh approached the door and put his ear against the wooden frame. Low voices could be heard from within. Not wanting to be too hasty – that might be a first for Cargh – he tried to discern their position before entering. The door was crudely fashioned and a notching in the wood where it met the frame provided his eyes the information they desired. He still couldn’t hear them, but that didn’t matter. He had heard enough lies, and soon the man’s tongue would burn away with the rest of his body.

Suddenly, the allmarach in the room drew a broadsword from his belt, flashing it at the snake he’d been speaking with. Perhaps I won’t have to fight this demon alone. The short man dove at Reuben and Cargh drew Fioreh, reading to open the door and rush into the fray… but then he stopped. The allmarach hung in the air, frozen by his adversary. That perkoh! The Rock will not stand for this! The allmarach twisted slowly in the air like a piece of meat on a rotisserie. Reuben moved his hands in a similar motion and smiled in a way that looked more like a snarl. Stepping toward the man, Reuben plucked the broadsword from his grasp and Cargh imagined him saying something like “you won’t be mmm… needing that.” The way the man rolled his “Ms” like thinking up his next lie infuriated Cargh all the more.

Reuben took the blade in hand, and with a one-handed slap, the blade struck the hanging man trough the skull. Sir Reuben had been in many battles as a knight, and then a duke, and the lack of his armour didn’t seem to bother the warrior. He dropped the sword and spun his hands around, manipulating the blood fountain coming out of the allmarach’s skull. It formed a thin layer around the man’s body, like encasing him in a shell of his own life. Reuben blasted the blood-egg with an electric shock, and the shell cracked. An allmarach was reborn from within, but not quite the same as before. This allmarach was a spirit-slave.

And so it begins.

Glanderxe – Chapter 28

The morning air was crisp as it wafted in through the open doors. Pausing for a moment, Farah Bailey breathed in to savour the scent: old hay, stale water, and animal dung all wrapped under the thin smell of dampened, dirty wood. These were the smells that most ladies would stay away from: the smells of rural pleasantries and the reality of life. The pastoral perfumes soaked into her plain coloured attire.

She exhaled, letting the scents linger as she opened her eyes again. Father was still abed, and getting worse by the day, but things still needed to be done. Mother was certainly in no state to do anything about it, and Farah didn’t mind. The work kept her mind off of things. The horses were well fed, well watered, and healthy… unlike father. Farah could do nothing for his health, but maintaining the livestock – that she could do.

“They told me you’d be hear.” High-born accented tones of the Great City struck her almost as sharply as the man’s dress. She fumbled with the water bucket in her hand, startled by his approach.

“Where else.” She tried to hide her embarrassment, swinging the bucket to and fro as if by intent. She dropped the liquid into the designated trough, trying to regain her composure. Watching the swine fighting over old cobs was great entertainment for her as a girl, but now it served equally as well as a way to refocus herself for this new company.

“How are the horses?” He said simply as if not noticing the startle his presence had caused her. Maybe he didn’t notice.

“They are quite happy.” The chocolate mare closest to her whinnied approval at that.

Sir Yoyde chuckled in that charming way he did when he thought she was being witty, or cute. He chuckled more often these days. “Oh, Farah,” he finished her name, hollowing out the “ah” sound. He lingered there for a time like savouring the taste of it on his lips. “Are you quite happy?” Apparently the time for small talk was over. Usually such a forward question would make her uncomfortable, but not from this man.

“I’m alive.” That was the best she could do. What sense was there in lying to him? Besides, he would know if she did. Of course she wasn’t happy, but she was managing nonetheless.

The rough hands of this Glanderxe knight came to rest on her delicate fingers as they leaned against the wooden beams of the swine pen. His paws felt monstrous, strong, and comforting as they hugged her own in a bear-like embrace. “Care for a distraction from all of this?”

She looked into his eyes and thought for a second that she was falling, falling through the blue expanse depicted therein. His golden locks were rough like straw brushing the chin of his rugged face. You certainly are a distraction. But that’s not what he meant. She let out a shy smile, embarrassed at the thought. “What did you have in mind?”

He led her by the hand to the doors of that wooden shack which houses the animals of Coere Ghante. The village was silent under the blanket of morning dew. The sun had barely crept out of the secret places of the night. In the bliss of dawn it caked the earth with a ruby glow, and sparkled off of the finely brushed coat of a blond stallion.

“I have already been for a ride this morning,” his eyes grinned more than his mouth as he turned to look at her, “but perhaps I will be worn out enough that you could keep up to me.”

“Sir,” she faked insult, “I have pick of the finest mounts in town. Not only do I take after the animals, but I ride them with equal frequency. I fear that the pride of the Great City has gotten into your head.”

“I hope your horse can ride as fast as that tongue.” He pulled his hand away from hers and placed one on each hip in challenge.

“Faster.” Farah mimicked his posture, but thinking again, stuck one hip out for effect.

He pulled up a foot and pointed at the glistening leather garments it wore, chocolate coloured to match his riding gear. Apparently Yoyde had come dressed for the occasion. “These boots have kicked the rear of the of the finest riders in the lands. I might have to take them off to give you a fair fight.”

“Now who’s tongue is faster than their horse!”

 

The doorway of the stable was filled with the red dust from the road as eight feet – four chocolate, four blond – kicked off. Sir Yoyde road ahead of her at a canter until the street turned left from town. Leaving the rough construction of her rural home, Farah kicked her mount into a gallop. Feeling the muscles of the beast tense at her direction, she launched past the cocky man from the City. This was her true home: wide open fields. No matter the state of things at the house, she could almost forget herself with the freedom of the ride. The Great City was a distant memory, barely visible behind the riding pair in the clear morning. Forests speckled them to the right, with farmer’s fields to the left. That globe of light laughed at them, barely visible through the trunks of pine and maple.

Sir Yoyde came up beside her, having sped his mount appropriately to catch her. “Alright, m’lady. You’ve had your head start. Now, allow me to show you how we ride in the City.”

“Ha,” Farah didn’t fight down the urge to laugh at him. “A horse can’t find its way through cramped and busy streets! Watch and learn.” The mass of her dress billowed up behind, laughing with the excitement as she raced ahead of him once again.

The road curved further from village and field, disappearing into closely knit trees. The crunch of freshly fallen leafs added themselves to the game. They chuckled with glee as the riders glided over them. Some jumped into the air and sang a sweet melody as they brushed against her face. Farah imagined them slapping the man behind her and laughed, though she knew they probably treated him with the same respect.

Farah looked back to see Sir Yoyde right on her tail. Her chocolate almost looked as if his tail slapped the chasing blond in the face. Even with his fancy clothes and well dressed horse, the knight couldn’t catch her. His legs hung in the stirrups and boots kicked wildly against the side of his mount, but it was in vain. Farah’s bareback escape was liberating. The horse knew its true potential not the man or woman atop.

She lost all thoughts of Coere Ghante amidst the trees. The wind beat against her face and drove her memories away: memories of father, mother, Mert. They held no consequence here. The only thing that mattered was the road ahead, and the man behind. Farah slowed her mount and pulled it off the road at the approaching stream. The crystal waters trickled across a low bridge up ahead, but Farah preferred this clearing. It was out of the way, and it was hers. There was nothing there but the rushing silver line and memories: good memories. Memories of picnics with her brother, talks with mother, and both with her lover… There was some pain in remembering him, but as the two horses lapped up the wet and the two riders watched each other, that pain no longer mattered. Here there were happy memories: and she hoped to have many more such memories in this place, with this man.

***

The tunnels had been dark, populated by nothing but the sparkling of little lights bouncing from wall, ceiling, and floor. Cargh had walked ahead of me telling stories of glory, of hatred, of history. Ahbin the First had been the tale, and our journey west had been the trail. Now, the only tale these stone spoke was one of deception: the castle above depicted the Rock no longer standing firm, the hearts of his followers beneath showed it. Shaken from all sanity, skewed by their lust for blood, they turned their sword arm on each other and hearts against their people.

Cargh didn’t show it on his face, but I knew what he must be feeling. This mask was solid and strong, standing firm like the Rock he served, but underneath I saw sorrow. If only striking a rock would pour forth the water that welled up inside him. He hid us in the uneven folds of the walls, or behind vacant doorways into empty room, but that didn’t stop me from watching him. While we hid behind stray barrels, loose boxes, and creaking doors, he hid beneath his armour. Having no need for secrecy now, he had gone back to fetch those spoils of war, but they couldn’t hide the man beneath them. Beneath the harsh words, hard iron, and harder face I saw a broken man. I saw a man whose friends were now enemies. He gave a respectful nod and shared customary courtesies with his brothers here, but with each one that passed, I saw a little piece of him slip away. I wanted to comfort him, but first that mask of stone had to be removed. I had already made Cargh remove his armour onces, and he surely wouldn’t do it again.

Not everyone would have been able to see his pain, but I could. I saw myself mirrored in his eyes. Each passing allmarach looked more and more like Sir Reuben, my own personal defector. Finely crafted helmets turned to hooded robes. Curt nods from one to another showed the glisten of red hair beneath. Their courteous grunts turned smooth and I heard Reuben’s malice spill forth. He soothed me with those passing words, and I could do nothing but back away in response. Those green eyes spoke of loyalty, alive with approval. My own eyes had no loyalty left, killed by this red-haired monster. He shot unnatural daggers from outstretched hands. They circled around me until I was a sparking immobile statue. He approached me slowly, whispering lies in my ear and calming me with his voice. I could do nothing to stop the madness, but stood stupid and helpless before him.

No sooner would he release me then another allmarach would come. Cargh hid us again, but he couldn’t hide me from what I saw through his eyes. He couldn’t hide from those personal demons, ever with me, swirling around in my head. They took on the voice of this Duke turned defector. “Ever loyal to her cause, and yet you come here in defiance of the crown.” His voice sounded calm, but the words lashed at me with electric power. They left me shocked and silent. I wanted to pull our Lady Eyes and slice the man to pieces, but he knocked her away and continued to circle around me, speaking lies.

One Reuben became two, became three, became four. “You are not a loyal knight. Nothing but a mmm… warrior without a sword.”

I saw Cargh’s axe dig into that helpless man’s chest. “What is a warrior without his sword.” Blood poured out from the wounds along with my sanity. One after another the images flashed through my head: brief and wretched memories. Those Reubens spun around me faster and faster. I wanted to fall over, but couldn’t. Dizziness overtook me, but the lightning storm from dozens of Reubens held me fast, swimming in a cloud, lost in a dream, surrounded by demons.

“I am disappointed.” The taller Reuben said as I tried to steady myself.

“He is escaping!” I heard myself say in desperation, but it wasn’t me any longer. I was back in the room with Othban and Cargh. Guards stood at the door.

Sir Reuben smiled at me with sorrow in his eyes. The band of shorter Reubens – turned allmarach warriors – stood around him. No more red hair, no more cloaks, no more paralysing lightning from their hands. The hair was replaced with helmets of steel and iron, the cloak ever-shifting armour, and the hands filled with weapons.

Cargh turned and rushed at me before I knew what was happening. He had been caught with an escaping prisoner and he played his part well. One mail-covered fist and the game was over. I had seen this man kill one of his own. The axe-man came for me, but with no weapon in hand. He struck me down, but not a killing blow. Sir Reuben watched from behind, pleased at what he saw. The only thing I saw were Cargh’s eyes as the world around them faded away. They floated in a sea of approaching darkness. Many emotions were in those eyes: fear, anger, pain, loss, loyalty, promise. The eyes faded into black, but I knew he had a plan. That promise stuck with me, even through unconsciousness.

***

The land was glorious and strange. Trees stuck out like sore thumbs in the distance against the purpling sky. Rocky fields stretched the distance where hills and mountains used to be. The great mountains in the far west were nothing but a sliver of their former existence. Ash rose from gravel in billowing clouds. It spun around like desert cyclones sporadically and then sputtered out. It shot into the air as from a geyser, leaving that shadow of death behind as it fell back to the ground.

The Great Quarry of Kho Arian wasn’t so great any more. Few mountains stuck out from the field like fingers of death stretching from a long lost grave. Below the fingers there was a hand, and below that a body: the body of the living dead.

Tiyhak fazed in from death itself, skin glistening with its power. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of molten ash. A normal person would have coughed and spat at the taste, but Tiyhak was used to death. This place smelled of it, was born for it. He saw a single strand stretch to his bird who sat beneath ash-covered leafs. Soon that strand would be two, then three, then many more. Here, the army of death would be born. Tiyhak could think of nothing more appropriate. The place was already dead, long forgotten, cast away like some abandoned project.

He reached down into the ash and the cold remanence of a long lost forest filled his trembling fingers. Bringing it to his face, he filled his nostrils with the musty old scent before launching it into the air. He laughed and watched it fall in a cloud around him. His bird came down from the tree above to rest on her master’s shoulder, knocking more ash from branches and leafs.

“It all starts with you, my friend.” Tiyhak reached up and stroked the side of the bird’s face. The greasy feathers held that strange unnatural feel of the dead, like touching a shadow of what once was or reaching through a cloud to touch the rain. The night informer cawed out a response, and Tiyhak smiled. “Certainly, though you would not make the best of generals.” He laughed again, sucking in ash as he did. The stuff coated his tongue and inside his mouth turning saliva grey like old mud or dying hair.

The bird was not his first, in truth, but that seemed to matter little now. He still felt the raw emptiness inside when thinking of that day on the bridge, but it was better now. Old wounds take time to heal, and that friend on his shoulder helped. “I think you deserve a name,” he said as they walked through the cloud of ash like two lovers in a garden.

The bird fluffed her wings, shaking off some ash, then relaxed again on his shoulder. Great low-hanging pools swirled around them as Tiyhak kicked up the mess with his feet.

“Ash.” Tiyhak chuckled to himself, but the bird didn’t seem so amused. “What, you do not like the name?”

The bird looked over, daring him to call her that.

“So cute when you pout, dead one.” He brought a hand up to stroke the bird. “Look, you are all covered in the stuff.” Tiyhak tsked as he brushed the bird with his backhand. “Nothing to you but ash and death.” He stopped stroking then let a smile crack open his face.

The bird didn’t seem to like that look, cocking her head to one side while scowling.

“Ahsdea.” Though the bird could easily see where he got the name, she didn’t seem to mind. Ahsdea raised her head and cawed an approval. She almost looked regal with head held high, eyes sparkling with joy.

The army of two reached the nearest mountain by Ahsdea’s direction. Amidst the ash it was hard to see, but this close up it was evident that the Pharosh had cut giant sections of the stone away. The unnatural right angles of the thing almost looked amusing. In one such artificial corner there was a small crevice through which the bird now flew. Tiyhak had to squeeze himself through the barely visible slit in the rock. Ash hung heavy in the opening and Tiyhak closed his eyes to keep the sting away. Once through the entrance, a tunnel opened up a bit, but his cloak didn’t seem to care. The now ash-covered garment tore up one seam, having caught on a sharp protrusion.

“Ahsdea. That ‘doorway’ is smaller than would be my preference.” He raised the tail of his cloak in defence. “Look.”

Ahsdea looked back in apology before flying on ahead. Tiyhak gathered her strand into his hand to provide some light in the cave. The crevice was naturally formed. There was no smooth precision in the walls, a trademark of Pharosh construction. As they descended, it opened into a type of central hub where passageways of varying length and girth joined together. Some were barely more than a dance in the wall of the crude chamber, but others stretched out farther than Tiyhak could see. The chamber rose to a point where a shaft of light spilled down its centre. The shaft was smooth and straight, like someone had drilled a hole in the top of the mountain to form it. Rusty metal pipes and busted open contraptions were strewn around the opening: the only thing that remained of the lift that was once there.

“Certainly that would have been famously useful.” Tiyhak scowled as Asdeah, but she offered up no response. The longer shafts from the chamber had the familiar punched-through look, set in the stone for some purpose at one time. Tiyhak found the more “natural” passageways less than useful, but the others… They opened into small chambers and larger expanses where the stone had been cut away with cold precision.

Ahsdea led him down the widest tunnel, which arched in slow but determined angles, into the depths of the stone. As they travelled into the heart of the mountain, Tiyhak found his spirit-light to be of little use. Soon a bright red glow shone in the distance, brighter than he could manage with only one strand to play with. The walls lower down speckled with life as the light played with tiny crystals therein. Eventually the light-source was revealed. A giant river of lava flowed out directly in front of them. It was as if the staircase – or sorts – had been ruined with a lava spill. It fed out from the sides of the rock and from beneath – that liquid fire pouring down.

Tiyhak smiled. “Perfect.” The liquid death proved Cargh’s story to be true, not that Tiyhak had ever doubted him. The man seemed eager enough to fight the Pharosh, as any good allmarach would be.

Ahsdea came to rest on his shoulder. Again he stroked her fine wings which almost seemed to steam with the heat from the lava. “Perfect for father’s army.”

Glanderxe – Chapter 27

The world was spinning, but the garden was calm. Life leaked from gnarled and twisted holes each with a hand of their own, but life had no meaning beneath the shadowy trees: shadows of what once was. Some found death, hanging from their limbs by their own devices. Some came to the garden, rising from the lake that was its centrepiece. They drowned in life, but death holds no grudges. Some were old, coming only when it was their times; others held weapons in hand, swinging them wildly only to realize their enemy had not died with them. Tiyhak arrived with blood-caked hands and a saddened heart.

He walked between the shimmering limbs a while before going to see Klychawk. When times were especially difficult, the sorrow leaking from the dead life of vegetation comforted him. He floated under low branches, sucking in those emotions they emitted like breathing through ink. Tiyahak’s pain was great, and his body would be healing for days… maybe weeks, but his soul would not take so long. There the pain was hard. He focused on the cold steel piercing through muscle and bone and the twist of the knife as it tore through him like parchment. The pain shot up his arms and into his chest as the blood pumped faster, desperately trying to right the wrong. He focused on the sharp chill of cold air rushing through the gaping hole left by that fleeing set of knives. Cringing, he remember the worst pain of all: charred flesh.

The strands floated above his outstretched arms, calling to him. Blood dripped down his arms as he raised them in submission to the call. His muscles worked against him, screaming at him to die. As the strands were gathered, Tiyhak focused on their cry as it grew louder. He felt the edges of his wounds begin to burn as the electric power of death was gathered. In that final burst of light that spilled into the low stone room, his hands went numb from the pain. They died like a man cast into the heart of a fire, writhing, screaming, flailing aimlessly.

The pain to his body had been immense, and as Tiyhak walked he remembered it. He knew the burns had stopped the bleeding, and he knew they would heal with time, but nothing was further from his mind. Each level of pain in that memory brought the limbs of sorrow ever closer around him. They gathered his spirit in a tight embrace and calmed his soul to little above a tremor. The grass moaned in desperation as the wind guided it, and Tiyhak tapped into the shared pain. He let himself be carried this way and that with the slow sad song of the wind, blowing him aimlessly like a single blade of grass amidst a thousand.

When he finally reached his father at the pool, it was like in a dream. The pain so soothed him that he forgot all else. “My son.” The words reached for him as the limbs let go, making room for their master.

“Father.” Tiyhak had almost forgotten why he’d come. The pain of his surroundings so healed his spirit and calmed his soul that the physical pain was nothing but a distant memory.

Klychawk laughed, amused at his son’s distracted state. “Someone’s been playing in the garden too long.”

“It cannot be too long.” An ear-to-ear smile stretched his would-be face into contortions of every kind. Imagining those burnt hands in front of him, he laughed with his father. “How wonderful.”

“You have done well, son.”

“But I did not claim her for you.” Tiyhak spoke what was on his mind, and tears of sorrowful joy mixed with his smile, healing him even more.

“It was not her time.” Those simple words washed over him like he had dipped his head beneath the vast pool at the would-be feet of his father. That single truth soaked into his spirit and he swelled with the wet.

“What would you have of me, my king?” He knew what Klychawk would say, yet still he addressed him so. Even a father deserves respect from a son.

“Please, my prince…” Klychawk mocked him playfully, mirroring the respect “I am your father and nothing else. Your task remains the same as always: avenge my death.”

“I may have found a way.” Tiyhak was so excited to share the news that he had almost forgotten the pain he held onto. It began to slip back into the trees, but he clutched at the limbs once again, savouring the warmth of sorrow. “Through the Great Forge there lies a path of fire.”

“Small and dangerous for an army-”

“But not an army of one.” Tiyhak knew it would be dangerous, but what better sacrifice was there?

“My son. You cannot travel there alone. The Void is off-limits to us.”

Tiyhak ignored what his father was saying, playing with the strands swirling around his would-be head. He pulled and pushed them, like a cloud of smoke he shaped them. Two long wings. A hooked nose. Small, beady eyes. Feathers. Rough, stick-legs. His spirit informer, that sleuth in the night, entered the realm of death as he called it, shaped it, made it. “I will not be alone.” He smiled again, as if he he had ever stopped. “The bird will guide me down the path. It has travelled there before.”

Klychawk looked confused for a second, but as he played with the strands, he realized what his son said was true. Three spirits followed by one had travelled this path together. “Send you servant forth.”

The winged informer took to the air, following Tiyhak’s will. Soon it would reach the Keltone mountains, soon the passes beneath, later the Great Forge, and in time Kho Arian. Soon, later, in time: such silly words to use in that plane of death, a place beyond such concepts. Soon, Tiyhak would awake in the plane of life, later he would feel those wounds in his hands, and in time he would gather an army. Such use of those words is certainly more appropriate.

***

“So soon… they aren’t very good at this game.” If you have never seen a lizard pout, it is not easily described. No bottom lip protrudes – for lizard anatomy doesn’t allow for this – nor does it quiver. It’s all in the eyes which are unusually large for the tiny head they are pressed into. I say unusual from a human perspective. I am sure that other Pharosh would consider this face and the display there on to be perfectly “usual.”

“You’re a strange one.”

“Strange, strange, strange! But not deranged!” Othban chirped and raised one arm as if to hold a solitary finger in the air. “Come, come. We must be going now.” He stepped out from the place we had been hiding and scurried into the chamber where blood still cooled on stone.

“Wait.” Othan turned back to look at me and cocked his head to one side. He looked like a dog reaching curiously with its ears, though he had no ears himself… none that I could see. I’m sure that lizards have ears somewhere, but I am no the expert on lizard anatomy.

“Yes, yes? What is it?”

“First off, don’t move so fast. How am I supposed to keep up with you? Second, It doesn’t seem smart to walk right into a battlefield.”

“True, true. Pharosh legs four. Human legs two.” He let out a laugh that sounded more like a snort. “But there is no battlefield.”

I pointed down at the pool of blood that Tiyhak had left behind when he mysteriously disappeared. The Pharosh looked at me quizzically for but a brief moment before his expression became hard. Looking stern, he poised himself on the precipice of the blood spatter and bobbed up and down a number of times. I had never had a practise of befriending lizards, but had seen them on and off. I always thought that bobbing movement was strange, as if they would scurry around for a bit just to stop and do a few push ups. Whether that was the case or not, Othban mirrored the action, working his muscles as if getting ready for a fight. After this brief warm-up, he raised himself onto his hind legs and began to swat at the air, pulling punches with an invisible opponent.

He circled around the pool of blood, kicking and punching like a fool until I had to laugh. If I didn’t know any better, I would think him a little boy. “Okay, you’ve made your point.”

“Have I?” Othban tilted his head to one side again and then charged at me, circling around my legs and giving them a few quick strikes in the process.

“Hey! Watch it!”

Othban stopped, pouting again. “Ruining all my fun. What are we going to play now?”

“Can’t we just walk like regular people? Where are you taking me anyway?”

He defied the first question as if there was no reason to ask it, and ignored the second. “I know. Follow the leader! That’s a game even you won’t grow tired of.”

I scowled, but said nothing.

“This is how the game wor-”

“I know how to play follow the leader.”

“Okay. Go ahead.” He held one hand out, directing me.

“Umm… go…?” What did he want me to do? I didn’t know where we were going. He had led me around this dark empty expanse until I was turned around… not that I knew much of my surroundings to begin with.

“Useless. I thought you said you knew the rules. Now, listen up. This is how the game works.”

I rolled my eyes.

“One person leads, and the other follows. Simple!” His raised two hands and begun to clap. The odd slapping of his scaly fingers together sounded more stupid than appraising. “So, I’m the leader. You follow.” With that, he darted away in the direction Kyra had fled.

“What did I say about moving too quickly?” I hollered after him, but what use was it. If he really wanted to lead me, he would just have to wait for my two legs to keep up with his four. The path before us was well-lit, unlike the emptiness that the previous “game of tag” took us through. Othban led me from jail hopefully to freedom, for the second time. That first cell back in Kho Arian was cut smooth and polished, almost like an otherworldly box. That was the way the Pharosh built everything, a truth that Cargh wasn’t too fond of. That first cell stank of perfection. Perfectly square walls, perfect corners, perfectly set windows. Everything in Kho Arian was built to depict a crude beauty that only a master builder could appreciate.

Cargh had said that this place was build by allmarach, and there was no reason to doubt that. The Pharosh cut their way through stone to suit their purposes, manipulating it to their will. The allmarach had more crude construction methods. I marvelled at the way the stones fit together, not perfectly, but functionally. The edges were rough, uncut, and natural in this place. There had to be a lot of planning when building a place like this, categorizing and arranging stones for the best possible fit. No stone would have been cut to fill a space, but the space was fashioned to fit a particular stone. It was perfect in its own way, almost like moving a mountain and shaping it once again.

This newly shaped mountain was surprisingly empty, though I couldn’t count the number of stairs we had descended when first imprisoned. It was darker, wetter, and colder in the bowels of this castle shell, and I presumed that the lower levels weren’t used very much. A lone lizard stood at the top of the set of stairs that I climbed now, practising his “push ups.”

“Come, come.” He said as I approached, and it seemed like he would dash away again. Being locked in a cell without food or water in acceptable portions had sapped my strength more than I’d thought, and our previous “game” had already tired me out enough.

“You’re going to lose.” If I could keep Othban talking, maybe he would stick around longer before scurrying off ahead.

“What, what?” He stopped bobbing up and down just enough to look at me as if my words were foreign to him.

“You’re going to lose.” I repeated, more to give me time to reach him than anything else. “This is follow the leader, not tag. A good leader doesn’t leave followers behind.”

“Oh…” he seemed to ponder that for a minute. “I wouldn’t want to lose. What would that prove?”

It was customary to consider follow the leader a game without winners or losers, but that was not a point I had the energy or desire to argue with. I had brought it up, in fact, and anything that would keep my “leader” from rushing off ahead was to my benefit. We walked in silence for a bit, Othban measuring his steps to line up with mine. Soon the stone around us was singing an echoing chorus to the verses that Othban whistled to them. He blew out a little tune before pausing for a second, listening to the rock’s reply. This carried on for a while, and he seemed perfectly content to signal any “seekers” up a ahead that we were no longer hiding and they could come get us. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of that, though. After all, we weren’t playing that game any more.

“Why did you come here?” I interrupted his whistling, or at least that was my intention. He kept on singing for a time.

After a final cocking of the ear to listen to the fading echos of his song, he replied. “Invaders. Thieves. Spirit stealers. They’re planning something.”

“Who? What spirits?” Sometimes he could be less helpful by speaking.

“Yours silly.” He slapped me on the shoulder… or he would have if his height allowed such an exchange. He apparently thought my leg was good enough.

How could someone steal my spirit? Questions were spinning around my head, and I tried to catch the appropriate ones, making sense of things. As if answering my question, memories of the fight I had just witnessed came back. One party had disappeared in a puff of purple wisps, while bleeding on the ground. The other had flown away on wings of a spiritual conjuring. Kyra. But why? How?

“The Thief took my spirit?” I said, almost not believing the words myself.

Othban laughed. “The Thief! What a nickname! Especially appropriate in this case, don’t you think?”

I was still trying to sort through all the information. “So, why are you here?”

“Information. The game is simple. Sneak and listen. Sneak and listen.” He lifted his legs more cautiously as if stocking some sort of prey, darting his head back and forth. His eyes were so wide I thought they would pop out of his head.

“And that somehow includes freeing me?” Not that I was complaining. It just didn’t make much sense to me.

“That’s just a little game I was playing. A trick. A trick!”

Was Othban planning on getting me out the castle? I never really knew what went through his head. Everything was a game to him, but does that imply that he is less sincere with his intentions? We walked silently once again, winding through paths and passing through chambers. The underground of this castle was huge, and largely unused. Every room we entered seemed to have a purpose, though what it was I couldn’t tell you. I wondered what might have gone on in this these caverns when the castle was first built. Some were more obvious than other. The three legged chairs and half-missing tables were ghosts of long forgotten banquet halls. Small rooms nearby spoke of the type of entertainment patrons might have enjoyed after one too many tankards. Rusty chains hanging from high ceilings rattled out disapproval at fallen chandeliers, and lose stones cried at the walls they had come from. Tears of loneliness poured around them in pools of musty oil and water mixtures.

As we continued to climb up stairs and shuffle through hallways, the construction got more refined. Maybe it wasn’t the construction. Perhaps the lack of habitants in the lower levels allowed for such disarray, but the allmarach bustling about near the surface maintained things a little better.

Our game of “follow the leader” often changed to “hide and seek” once again as the castle came alive. Without the natural light of the sun, torches provided many dark corners for us to disappear into. Othban had an easier time of it because of his size, but I found my way around easily enough. The allmarach were not looking for an escaped prisoner, and probably never would. I hadn’t received many visitors when in jail, and they probably wouldn’t notice for some time that I was missing.

The only visitor I had on a semi-regular occasion was Cargh. He blended in well here, but I could see the soft glow of Fioreh coming from the sheath on his back. He walked slow, but with purpose passed a cracked open wood-panelled door: that same door I hid behind. Finding a rock a my feet, and seeing him walking alone, I threw it into the walkway behind him. The footsteps stopped. I heard him turn around and approach the door. I allowed it to creak open and backed away from the opening. The allmarach stood in the doorway, soft torchlight embracing him.

“Mert.” He almost screamed in surprise, but his voice was low. He quickly came into the room and closed the door completely behind him. The latch clicked into place as he turned back around.

“Don’t forget about me!” Othban showed his disapproval at not being noticed. Perhaps it would have been better for him to remain silent.

Cargh looked from me to the lizard, and back to me, his face turning red with anger. “What is he doing here.”

“The same thing as you. Helping out a friend.” I knew this exchange would be difficult.

“That perkoh is no friend of mi-”

“But he is my friend.” Cargh’s mouth bobbed open and closed as if to say something, but I didn’t allow it. “He saved us from imprisonment in Kho Arian, found us a back way out, and now he has freed me from that cell in the basement of this wretched place. The least you could do is tolerate him.”

Cargh scowled, but did not reply. He looked at Othban and spat. They shared a long, hard stare for a time before Othban broke the silence. “We’re playing hide and seek. Want to join?” He smiled, but Cargh was not amused.

“This is no game, Pharosh.”

“Everything is a game!” He raised his hands in glee and began clacking them together in his version of applause.

Cargh did not respond to him, but instead turned to me. “Tolerate him, I must.”

Glanderxe – Chapter 26

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.”

“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.

Glanderxe – Chapter 25

Rough stone, the only bed provided me, was sweat-soaked, the nightmare almost feeling real. I wasn’t sure whether it was the vivid imagery in my mind or the sickness I felt because of it that caused me to slump over in the back corner of my cell. My gut wrenched, but nothing came out. Though Cargh tried his best to provide for me, my stomach felt emptier than a yet to be filled grave, and the lack of mess on the floor showed it. My heart felt even worse. The shackles of the night were no longer around me, but my heart tugged this way and that, fighting for freedom from within my sweat-soaked shell. I had experienced the longing for my spirit before, but not like this. If bars did not surround me, I would have been trudging through the snow in desperate search for that missing part of my being.

At least it can’t get any worse. That is the type of thing you say when you know the opposite is true. I had no desire to voice those words, but fate looked at me from its throne in my mind and laughed. It could get worse, and it did.

“I see that you’re awake.” Sir Reuben’s thick voice leaked into the room soon after the soft click of his feet on the stairs. Two well-armed allmarach followed, like henchmen to a prince.

Not really. I thought, but didn’t say anything. If things could get any worse, such words would surely be the vehicle used.

“I am an honest man,” he began, but I wasn’t sure how good a job he did at convincing me of such. “Knights, lords, dukes,” he played with the rough hairs atop lips while he spoke. “We are all chosen for greatness. Honesty, valour, loyalty. So, when I say that I am honest, it is not with hesitation that I trust you to be of the same mind.”

He paused, looking at me, as if expecting confirmation of such surmising. After seeing that I had no desire to entertain whatever game he played, Reuben continued that stroking of hair and pacing of feet. “You say that you’ve come from Kho Arian, so I ask you with all the honesty that a duke, or any man, should receive from such a decorated knight as yourself. How?”

The only decoration that I carried with me were musty travel clothes. A knight I was, though none would expect so from looking at me now: dressed like a peasant and locked in a jail cell. “How what?”

“Kho Arian is not known for being the most hospitable, especially to outsiders. How do you come to be here?”

“It was you, yourself, who put me here in this cell without food, nor water, for days. You ask me how… I ask why.” I had no reason to answer this man. Whatever his intention, they surely were anything but honest.

Sir Reuben turned to the two warriors with him. “It would appear that three days was not enough to loosen his tongue. Perhaps you can help with that? Hmm?” A two-handed mace was pulled from the back of the one allmarach and I wondered how he carried himself about with such a vast weapon. The other drew a short axe and stepped forward to meet his brother at the bars. “See how they carry those weapons? I wouldn’t want you to be their chosen target, but what is an old man in a robe to do against two hardened warrior, hmm? Tell you what, Mert, if you just share with me the information I need, I will call them off. Maybe even I will release you, but that decision is not my own.” He gave a faint smile, but it meant nothing to me. This man had no reason to be merciful.

“Are whose decision is that?”

“Yours, good sir. You are still a sir, right? For now, I suppose… Mmm, tell me how you escaped Kho Arian and you can go. How is that for a deal, hmm? Oh, and I won’t even tell the queen of your treachery.”

“How kind of you,” I didn’t care whether or not he heard the sarcasm. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I held no allegiance to the Pharosh. They had done nothing but imprison me, made fun of me, and sent me packing. Did the man in front of me now do any different?

“I believe many things that I am told. The allmarach and Tallri exist, and I believe that despite the adamant refusal of such things from those of our same race.” There were not many similarities between myself and this man, and being reminded of the one thing we held irrefutably in common did not sit well with me.

“By boat.” The answer was simple, and also not very informative. If this man wanted information, he would have to fight for it.

His lips spread in a less than amused laugh, and the allmarach with the mace struck the iron bars which surrounded me, supposedly at Reuben’s suggestion. That great torrent of sound rushed into my ears like a hundred shrieking ravens in the dead of night. “Please, you don’t have to make things difficult.”

“I’m not a lying.”

“Mmm, let’s go with that. A boat you say. I know they wouldn’t have freely let you go, so unless you worked that mouth of your more eloquently for them than you do for me, it stand to reason that your story is missing something.”

“It is.” The bars rang out again, and this time I covered my ears to block out the horrid noise, not that the sound of Reuben’s voice was much better. At least he held some conversational graces, a luxury I was not giving him.

“Strike two, sir. Do you want to know what happens at strike three? Hmm?”

If strike three means I’m out, that could be profitable. This cell isn’t the best of company.

“So, tell me about this boat. Was a war galley? A pleasure cruiser?” he hid a shrewd laugh behind his hand.

“It was a rock.” A rock with holes.

“Wonderful. Well, now we are getting somewhere, hmm?” He motioned for the two allmarach to give me space and approached the cage himself. The smell of old garlic wafted into my cell, and though it wasn’t pleasant, it did remind me of the meals he surely was enjoying without me. My stomach rumbled its disapproval. “Ah,” he gestured, conscious of the noise. “We can fix that as well. Mmm… just a few more questions, sir.” He called me sir, but I’m sure he didn’t think me one. Not that I was complaining, for I thought no less of him. “This rock boat… was it seaworthy enough to brave the River West and its torrents, or did the gods of imagination grant you wings as well, hmm?”

He clearly didn’t believe me, and I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t the most eager crew member at the time. “It had holes for the floating part, and the river wasn’t a problem.”

“Not a problem?” he looked at me, almost with pity. “It is the problem for everyone else. Tell me then, hmm? How did it come to be not a problem.”

“We went beneath.” Why was I telling him this? I suppose it didn’t matter that much. If this is all that Klychawk wanted from me, I would gladly give it in favour of returning home.

“A floating rock beneath the river. Tsk, tsk, tsk. I would have expected more from an honest knight of Glanderxe.” He turned away and motioned for the allmarach to take his place at the bars. A heavily mailed fist rocketed my face, and I landed hard on the ground in the cold pool of sweat my most recent dreamy travels had left for me. Once I gained my feet again, they were moving away, following the robed figure of that man I once knew.

“I will be back tomorrow. If you can’t think how to put it in words… perhaps put it in writing, hmm?” He left me quill or ink so if he really expected me to write it down, what was I to use? A slow dribble trickled down my brow: blood.

***

Tyhak grabbed at the strands suspended in the maw of the library wall. Pharosh came pouring into the mouth like a bucket of ants tipped over. Some flew from the spilled bucket, wings stretching into the musky air. Others toppled over each other on the ground, writhing in a tumbled mass of tails and scales. Once gathering their bearings, the Pharosh would search but find nothing. Kyra had no sooner been given her spirit that she took flight, happy for the ability to do so again. Amidst the mass of leathery bodies and paper thin wings, another set of wings rose inked and feathered, slipping out of the place between wings of greater proportion that her own. The perfect candidate for a sleuth, thought Tiyhak as he watched her tiny, black, silent wings disappear in the mess of lizards.

Kyra managed to escape the Pharosh, but not Tiyhak. His spirit-informer would follow her trail as he had instructed, using the same techniques of stealth that the Tallri used in that instant. Pulling the strands to him, his physical form disappeared from the library, fading into the stone like a chameleon, only he was not camouflaged. He was gone. The realm of death welcomed him gladly, as he launched himself faster than a steam-propelled cart from the place beyond the Void. There would be no way to get back now… no safe way.

Tiyhak watched three spirits move as one. The trip probably took days, maybe weeks. He didn’t care, watching the whole thing from the place of the dead, the place beyond, that place where time had no meaning. Periodically he partially returned to the realm of life, but not his own life. Watching Kyra’s flight through his own set of winged eyes was both intriguing and delightful. Without her roguish skills, there was no way she could have made the trip. Pharosh fanned out across the land, searching for the intruders, searching for her, but the only one who knew where she was watched her from those same shadows she cloaked herself with. The two birds think alike.

He grew tired of watching her hide by day and travel by night, knowing where she would soon end up. Soon. A funny word to use in that timeless realm, but old habits die hard. Tiyhak finished his instant travel, knowing Kyra would still be flapping for her life amidst angry, lizard locals. That dead castle in the north stood shackled and lost in the snow. How ironic it was, tall in parts and short in others. What was once his home now housed nothing but ghostly memories. In the realm of life, but staring at death. The old castle-shaped carcass was an irony, the cracked stone defying death but all the while depicting it. Klychawk felt more alive in the Garden of Death, glowing with spiritual intensity, than those stone walls did in that wasteland of snow. Standing in that ruin would only make things more difficult, the memories of what was left of his life taking physical form in that broken wall, this rotten door, that shattered window. Tiyhak allowed a single slow tear to drift down his cheek before descending to the fortress beneath. Without constant pounding by the snow-monster above, those walls looked new in comparison. While fists of snow and ice rocked walls and towers above, the monster of the north fighting against that structural intruder, the world below seemed still and silent.

Gathering power in his hands, Tiyhak launched electric death down each side of the dark tunnel. Sparks showered down from the stone, lighting the previously naked sconces on the walls. They saluted him with flickering hands of flame while he took slow steps down that long hallway. Though he could travel in an instant to anywhere his spirit desired, sometimes he found comfort in the soft pad of his feet on stone. His father had lost himself to the realm of death almost entirely. Forgetting his mortality, Klychawk had foolishly attacked the Pharosh, losing the mortality that he shunned. Too much time in the realm of death could make you feel more dead than alive, a condition Tiyhak wished not to inherit.

The musty odour of the stone brought life to his senses. He breathed in deeply, savouring the smell of dirt and old, burning oil. Every foot pad reminded him of the body those feet supported, the physical form he still possessed… and cherished. Warm caress of flame. Icy chill of stone walls. Warm caress of a woman’s touch. Cool grass on a spring morning. All these were lost in the realm of death; joy, peace, love: all swallowed up by pain, sorrow, loneliness. Klychawk loved him, shared tears with him, embraced him, but it was not the same. In that garden, sorrow was as joy, hatred masked by love, pain a peaceful respite… but it all seemed like a lie. Death had only death, and made the best of it. Life was full of disappointment, loss, tears – the wet trickled down his face again – but also full of happiness, excitement, love. All so raw, all so real, the pain worse but the joy better. Real joy, not masked in sorrow. Real love, not deceived by lies.

Turning a corner, Tiyhak heard voices, reminding him of what was. The loss of his wife had been too great for Kylchawk. Disappearing into the realm of death to be with her was how he had survived. Tiyhak had not known him then, but he knew him now. Whenever he visited the garden of dread, he could still feel the pain of that day hanging in the trees like a blanket of sorrow, blacking out the truth. The truth that she was gone. The truth that she was dead. He’d held that dying corpse, but refused to hold the truth. Tiyhak would not forget the truth; the smell of the place, the feel of the floor. The sound of those voices up ahead reminded him of what was true, what was real.

Shaking the memories from his head, Tiyhak tried to focus as the room opened up to him. Reuben sat at a table, shooing off the northern warrior he had been talking to. The sight of his rusty robe, rickety table, and cloth map made the truth return to Tiyhak fully. Sometimes in the loneliness he would forget – when he walked alone amidst the snow, or sat in that crumbled shell of a castle above – but now he remembered. He remembered who he was, Tiyhak son of Klychawk and prince of Keltone Coessarde.

“Though I don’t know about the integrity of your work ethic, at least you keep up appearances.” The robed man stood when he heard Tiyhak’s words.

“My lord,” he said, masking surprise with his smooth tongue. “What would I be without my… mmm, appearances.” His words, smooth as honey, warmed the room. Tiyhak knew of two appearances, life and death. Klychawk’s new apprentice might be of lesser power and class, but in that area he was surely the master.

“But a snake in man’s clothes, I would say.”

“Would that not still be an… appearance?” He did not end the statement sharply, but let the “s” sound linger longer than word required, taunting the accusation that he was a snake.

“Certainly,” Tyhak replied in his usual agreeable way, but not really caring for the man’s words. “If you be such a snake, what news have you of those brothers of yours.”

“Cousins…” Sir Reuben played with the correction in his mouth. “Friend, snakes and lizards are not the mmm, same beasts.”

“Beasts all the same, and scaled ones to be sure. I knew you not to hold interest in bestiary?”

“They practise, mmm, animal husbandry in Glanderxe, and bestiary is more suited for Kho Arian. A, mmm, General would be more fit a title for myself, friend.”

“Certainly. On that we can agree.”

“Well then, speaking as a General, I should say that the progression is… slow. Though our borders are maintained – more geographically than militarily – threat by air is still a factor.”

“Threat? Our aim is the offencive.”

“If I may… mmm, what use is a mobile army without a place to return. Burned from above while the men are out… tsk tsk. That certainly wouldn’t do.”

“Certainly…” Tiyhak was less agreeing than not so patiently awaiting the point.

“And as far as offence goes, our guest has proved, mmm… unique with his information.”

“Guest?” It wasn’t that Tiyhak knew nothing of the imprisonment, but was unpleasantly intrigued by the singularity of Sir Reuben’s word choice.

“Yes, the allmarach has joined our ranks. Though I consider myself the most courteous of hosts, the guest-rooms aren’t in the best condition.” The stone was in the same condition it had been in almost since its construction, but describing the prison as a “guest-room” made it less agreeable than the norm to be sure.

“If the agreeability of the place matches the tongue of our guest, can we not find a more agreeable subject?” Tiyhak held up his fingers one at a time. “I count three who managed an escape from those lizards, yet you only question one? Per your information, the more agreeable of them counts himself a friend… of sorts.”

Some rather strong words came pouring into the room from a hallway beyond. The allmarach Sir Reuben was talking to upon Tiyhak’s arrival had been sent to fetch Cargh, and it was now apparent that he had answered the call.

“A friend, perhaps. Though not, mmm… friendly.”

Cargh stormed into the room, mumbling to himself. “Bloody thick-skulled bastards.”

“Friend.” Sir Reuben addressed the allmarach, attempting to draw him out of whatever was on his mind, causing such visible and equally verbal frustration.

Cargh held his axe in one hand and shook it in the air like someone he was trying to strangle. “I thought these men were the best the Rock could offer, Reuben. They don’t even know a plank of wood from iron! That perkoh you had tending my steel dropped them in a heap with all the other firewood you consider weapons around here.”

“An honest mistake, friend, I assure you.” Reuben’s words were soothing, but the spit that dried at Cargh’s feet implied he was not so convinced by the smooth-talker.

“Cargh, is it?” Tiyhak raised his hand in a greeting and the allmarach took it, though not too gladly. What would you expect of a man whose weapons had been wronged? “I sincerely apologize for the abuse your weapons have suffered. As prince in this castle, I take such offence personally.” This seemed to calm Cargh a little bit, though he still stood rather rigid. An allmarach bends knee to no one except the Rock, and Tiyhak expected no such etiquette from this man. He had dealt with enough allmarach before to know their ways.

After the respectful introduction, Sir Reuben cut to the heart of the matter. “How did you escape Kho Arian? Sir Mert told me of some, mmm… floating rock or some such nonsense.”

Cargh answered Reuben, but looked at Tiyhak. If anyone knew about respecting authority, it was the allmarach. Though the red-haired man at the table spoke the question, it was Tiyhak who truly asked it. “Those rock abusers gave us black powder to blow out the stone in the western mountains. The unappreciative-”

Tiyhak cut him off. “How is it that the western mountains aided your escape?”

“Pumice stone down the fiery river. Came out in the Great Forge… but I didn’t use any vile black powder to do it.”

“Certainly…” Tiyhak mused for a time, and if he had a beard, he would have stroked it. A second entrance to Kho Arian beneath the River West. “Yes.” That would do nicely.

Glanderxe – Chapter 24

Tiyhak felt the blast of heat against his skin. He felt like slapping the bird, and probably would have if it didn’t fly out of reach as he appeared. The burning wet of steam stung his eyes and he rubbed at them wildly, biting back a scream. The pain did not go away as he bent over in frustration, knocking his head again the pipe which had just blasted his in the face. The clank of metal again skull was soon swallowed up by a brief but forceful cry of pain.

“If you want me that bad, just say so. You don’t have to skulk in the corner watching me like a pervert.” Through the murky cloud of tears he saw a vaguely human form.

“If you are so eager,” he grunted, padding his eye with the sleeve of his cloak, “You have chosen your profession poorly.” Finally her form became clear, his eyes rubbed dry. Stupid bird. It may fit well behind metal pipes, but I do not. Upon hearing the cavalry arrive at the Great Library, he followed the strand of his spirit informer to Kyra. Apparently it hadn’t thought to find a hiding spot that made equal sense for a small bird and a larger man by comparison.

“Are you any better at your job? I slid in here, doing my job. What of yours? Could you find my spirit in that dark room of yours? Perhaps you should bring a torch next time.”

“For your information, I have completed my assigned task.”

“And your first thought was to play with hot pipes? Let’s go then, and try not to yell again. There are Pharosh about, and I don’t imagine they think your voice any more welcome than mine.” There wasn’t much to fear from being heard. Giant metal basins roared with action as the water in one battled with the next for the most profitable boil. Pistons worked at each other, pressurized steam pouring from every joint. Mammoth gears shifted and clanks as contraptions of every size and variety roared to life in the steam pit. A handfull of workers walked the grounds, but none of them paid any mind, seemingly there for show. The Pharosh no more saw them than they could hear them, or anything, over the noise of the place.

Step by step they progressed, Tiyhak in the lead. Kyra’s roguish qualities made her the better candidate for their stealthy intentions but Tiyhak knew where they were headed. He also didn’t want Kyra making some carnal suggestion about him watching her back. There were plenty of places for man and Tallri alike to hide in the industrious cacophony, and Tiyhak had no issue dodging behind a basin or hiding in the shadow of a giant metal pipe. Though he knew their final destination, getting there would be the challenge. Exiting the steam pit was the least of their worries, for soon a stone cart rocketed out of the industrial underground and flew along a metal track in the steam-powered land above. The cart jerked to a halt at the nearest station, and luckily not many Pharosh worked the night shift in the Pit. The station was empty, and the lack of rapidity allowed Tiyhak to get his bearings. He had seen the stone carts from above, but it was anyone’s guess how far they stretched. Would it be all that profitable to hop from station to station until they got to their destination?

Releasing himself to the realm of death, he pulled at the three strands that he searched for, traversing their winding paths to the source. It was some distance away, but at least he knew they were headed in the right direction. Upon his return, Kyra was ready to hear what he had to say. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Plan? Your seat-of-the-pants approached worked wonders. Perhaps I should take a page from your journal.” He pulled a lever and the cart began to move again. In reality the plan was simple enough, but she didn’t have to know that. Why should he share his plan, if she neglected to do the same.

It took a little longer than expected, but eventually they reached the Great Library. The locals presumably knew how the cart-way worked, but when he wanted to go one way, it seemed the carts did something else. Along the way he continually checked their position against the spirits in the tower until they were close enough to walk. Sticking to the shadows, or whatever shadows there were, they found their way through the streets until the library could be seen up ahead. The alarm had died down, but Pharosh still scurried around the base of the building like ants searching for a lost food trail.

“I do not suppose you could provide a distraction.”

“Don’t insult. I can be quite distracting… but that kind of distraction wouldn’t serve us very well here.”

“Certainly…” Tiyhak found his spirit informer perched atop the tower, looking down at the commotion. An idea came to him, and he took flight. The bird flapped violently pulling high into the air before dropping like a stone. Its wings lay in wait against its back, ready for a command. The ground came up to meet it, closer, closer, closer. Lights began to go off all around, those green-white flares of discovery. The wings were out, and the bird levelled off, dipping under a barrel, light glistening off the metal guns like a fireworks show. In an instant, the real fireworks started, lead balls sprouting from wildly flying weaponry. A bullet grazed the birds wing, ruffling its feather more than desired as it ducked behind the building, preparing for another pass. Again and again it dropped into play, caused a spray of bullets to fill the scene as the little bird twisted through the air. The Pharosh began to spread out, searching for the attacker.

Kyra, seeing the opportunity, ran for the library. Normally Tiyhak would have reprimanded her, or anyone, for such rash action, but not this time. She had read him perfectly. Tiyhak reached into the realm of death and gathered a small ball of power into his hands. With pin-point accuracy, he shot the beam at a lamp in the distance. The electric bolt shattered the glass, and a loud bang shook the ground as the pieces flew aimlessly into the air. Pressurized steam exploded from the lamp post in great gusts, obscuring the Pharosh which ran toward the destruction. Perfect. Lamps began to explode all around the tower as Tiyhak shot again and again. The cloud of steam grew with intensity, and when Kyra disappeared into the mess he had created, there was no way she would be seen.

Though some fear did grab him at the possibility of her being spotted and apprehended, such fears subsided as he shot across the distance with greater speed than any stone cart could ever manage. Materializing beside the spirits he had revealed beneath the library was not nearly as rewarding as spying the Tallri rushing through the doorway toward him. Three Pharosh jumped out of the steam cloud after Kyra, but there was no need to worry. Tiyhak shot an electric field at the doorway, sealing it behind the fleeing Tallri. Lizards of every size threw themselves at the opening, only to find that the way was barred. Their scales hissed and sparked with the electric shock they received. “Now, it’s time to work.”

***

Darkness. The inky, empty smoke surrounded me blocking out… nothing. Reaching into that death expanse, I couldn’t see my arm, nor could I feel it. The colour of death swallowed me whole, and I slid down its throat like a ghost in the night. The cruel wetness of its throat slithered against my skin as muscles expanded and contracted, pushing me down that death-hole like rejected waste thrown down this chute into the impenetrable blackness.

My heart began to beat faster and faster, a beat not my own. I felt it rocking against my rib cage, looking for purchase amidst the bones. Escape. I felt the tremor from within, but knew it wasn’t complete. The darkness around me pulsed with every beat, and I swam inside the inky mess. It strobed with purpose, like a long dead soul, awakened, enlivened again by some supernatural exchange. The blackness throbbed as blood pushed through my veins, desperate to be heard, crying out from the loneliness of death. Those wiry vessels of blood shot across my vision, red flashes from a piercing light. The white knife stuck through the darkness, and I felt like a newborn watching as my mother’s womb is cut for the unnatural extraction. The world around me burst into life as I was launched from the darkness through that rapidly growing slit in the distance.

Shielding my eyes against the light exchange, I searched for what this new world would offer, squinting and straining from behind those cruel vessels which still plagued my vision. Blinking my eyes hard, I tried to wash the lines from my face. When I closed those new eyes, darkness ensued once again and the red lines of life were ever evident.

The scene around me slowly broke through the delirium of rebirth. I was back at Coere Ghante, but not in the shack I had once called home. My screams of life had been added to screams of childbirth as I awoke for the first time in my mother’s bed, but this was different. The lowly shack was replaced with a wide-stretching field. It was just after harvest, the fields being bare except for the soft caress of golden leafs, discoloured with beauty from their tumble to the ground. Those beast-warding torches, which speckled the field, were void of fire, the sun breaking through thin clouds in a glorious exchange: ample light for the occasion. The orange flames of design had been replaced with beautiful bouquets of crimson and lavender speckled with white like snow-kissed flowers.

An equally majestic blanket stretched like a frost-bitten river between lilac rows. The rows were chairs, beautifully adorned and set up behind with a bow. Atop the chairs sat suits of blacks, greys and blues. Amidst the masculine garments were dresses coloured bright, contrasted and beautiful. However, none could compare to the white-coated bride, that dress shining brighter than them all.

Suits and dresses rose as the bride floated above the river laid out for her, leaving a long train of white behind to tickle the water with beauty. The river spread into a little pool ahead where a regal suit stood, waiting to receive that gift the water brought him. This suit was not like the others, coloured and pressed, but battle-hardened. The sun glistened off of the iron and filled in the “G” of office emblazoned on his chest.

The scene pulsed with life and happiness as my heart thumped greedily at the exchange about to occur. The bride turned to face her man, a light breeze tickling her golden tresses. They tapped her lightly freckled cheek and played with her lashes until she brought a hand up to pin them back in place behind tiny ears, crafted by a master potter. As her eyes became visible behind the brushed away hair, the rapid pulsing of my heart stopped as quickly as it had begun. My blood slowed and begun to cool as that man and his lady began exchanging vows. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t, the horror of what was happening too much for me to bear. I stood beside the groom, the crystal eyes of the bride almost looking at me. I wanted to launch myself at him, punch him, wrestle him to the ground, but try as I might, it was in vain. My ceased heart flowed no blood to the appendages required for such a fight. They hung at my sides stupid and immobile.

“Do you have the rings?” My hand moved then, like directed by another. The wet of my life rose in my throat as my heart broke free, sliding up the tunnel of my throat. How to protest when you cannot breathe? I spat out my heart. It landed in that hand directed by some unseen force. Blood poured over the edges of my palm, and I watched my life spill over the edge, colouring the blanket below. Crimson seeped into the lake, the ink spreading through the wet. It clouded through the whole expanse, spreading down the shaft of the river with vile intent.

The groom nudged me in the shoulder like an old friend, but when I looked up that face betrayed him. He reached out his hand to take the “ring” that I unwillingly offered him. I almost expected shafts of lightning to shoot from every digit as he clutched my heart. As he offered it to the bride, I saw she was different than before. No longer did golden locks dress her face in beauty, but dark cropped hair bled from her scalp.

I fell to my knees gagging, gasping for air, but it would not change the scene before me. My heart began to spit, sparkling with electric power as the groom played with it between his fingers. The heart turned as a mighty ball of power, and the man fought against the lightning coursing over its surface. It almost seemed like he could hold it in no longer when he forced his hands outward, shooting the mess at his awaiting bride. She shook with the force, and fell to the ground. She sunk beneath the waves of blood that spilled around the alter.

The priest raised his hands and said in a triumphant voice, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” A form rose from beneath the crimson pool, white dress sparking with electric energy. The lavender power speckled her body and lifted her face to the sky… that face now capped with golden ringlets. That body, that face, my love… She took the hand of another man, and with it took my heart, my soul, my spirit. The knight, turned sorcerer, turned knight again led her down the bloody path away from me. I followed, without desire, but my heart beat inside that body. It called to me from beneath the ripples of cloth.

The scene began to fade as I fell to the ground, crying out in pain. The loss of my spirit effected my soul, and my carcass showed the results. What remained of my life poured out of that whole in my face, blood from an empty space inside. Re-awakened to die again? The white train of the heart-thief’s garments dragged me with her like a chain around my neck. I tried to fight again it, but the Thief now had my spirit… my soul. I wasn’t sure what made it end, too many wounds to ascertain cause of death. Was it the empty space within me? The grief of losing her? Choked by the chain of slavery? Either way, the darkness came again, but it was not complete. This time I saw my heart, but nothing else, that heart the Thief had taken. I chased after it in the night, but it evaded me, led me, directed me. I was ever lost is that sea of blackness.

Glanderxe – Chapter 23

Same stone slabs, same metal bands, same bridge. The night was not as dark as before. The moon no longer hung full in the sky, but appeared no larger than the tip of god’s thumbnail. Perhaps the denser blackness would aid their plans… though, perhaps not. Kyra was adamant that her plan would work, but still failed to share it with Tiyhak. Through the many days they had spent together on the road, the Tallri had not learned to trust him any more than she had upon his commissioning. Not that she should. If I knew my intent, I wouldn’t trust me either. She had played no less a part in the death of his first spirit slave, and such a quick return to the bridge where it had happened did not aid his mood any.

“You just plan to walk up and ask for them to grant you entrance?”

“No… only a fool would come up with such a plan.” Those crystal green eyes peered at him, and the implication within was plain.

“Certainly.” Ignoring his reversal of the insult, she walked ahead of Tiyhak down the stone bridge. “Well, let me know when you have need of my services, and make sure to do so before you get thrown in jail again.”

“Stay out of my way, and everything will be fine.”

“Out of your way… Absolutely. I have no desire to impede your well thought out plan. My involvement would only distract.”

“You couldn’t distract me.”

“A challenge that I most graciously accept.”

“It would be challenging, wouldn’t it? Almost as hard as finding out where my spirit is?”

That dark room came back into his mind. “I know full well where it is, and such knowledge I have freely shared. Perhaps you could grant me with the same courtesies.”

“Perhaps… but that wouldn’t be any fun.” She mirrored his words, but with less jovial acceptance than Tiyhak had said them. The path had come to an end, water stretching out all around them as the bridge finished the incomplete path it forged. A hiss of steam rose from the horizon, though the approaching stone was shrouded by the night.

“Well, I must be off. You may no longer possess a spirit for the Pharosh to steal, but I most certainly do. If you ever acquire access to these lands it would be helpful to inform me, though communication seems to be a part of teamwork that you fail to grasp.”

“We are not a team. A business exchange is all that we have. Once you fulfil your end of the bargain, I will do the same.”

“Certainly. No need to trouble yourself with companionship along the way.”

“I have no trouble with companionship, though a room with a bed is my preference. This hard stone just wouldn’t cut it.”

Tiyhak shook his head. “Who hurt you, child, that you would give yourself to any man?”

“Or boy.”

Tiyhak began to play with the strands in the night, searching for the ones he desired. “Well, this boy will remain no longer. I must capture some spirits. Certainly you understand.”

“Certainly.” That insulting imitation of his words reaching for his ears was her last comment before the purple wisps surrounded him, leaving nothing but a quickly dispersing cloud. Tiyhak pulled at the strands, and he flew along them like a bird in the night air. His own bird swooped low and perched beneath the stone bridge on a low-hanging metal bar. This night informer of his creation remained ever vigilant and watching. Tiyhak was with the spirits in that dark room almost before he had left, but his feathered friend remained in place, per his intention. Soon the stone tongue approaching came into view, the canons he wished to avoid a tangle with sitting in that darkened mouth like bad breath. The water below spat and boiled, enraged that the bridge would dare block out its view of the little moon there was.

Tiyhak’s bird launched itself into the air, surveying the scene below, like any other bird taking a stroll through the clouds. A band of Pharosh were armed and ready behind the cannons, and a lone Tallri stood vulnerably poised in front of them. Does she plan to battle them all? Tiyhak laughed to himself. No matter. If she dies, I have lost nothing. Tiyhak looked around the room at the three spirits resting by the remains of the broken box. Another vessel will aid me after her demise. As he refocused on the spirit of his winged spy of the night, something in the scene had changed. In the brief moment that he had spend surveying the unchanged room before him, the bird had lost Kyra! How is that possible! The bird swooped low, to the place where she had been and began to peck at the stone like looking for dropped seed. The crash of stone on stone was deafening as the two halves of the bridge came together. The Pharosh stepped from behind their cannons, guns raised at the empty spot where the Tallri had been. A barrage of bullets was hurled at Tiyhak’s creation, but it anticipated their reaction, and took flight, disappearing into the clouds above. Stupid! They think the thing is Kyra! It wasn’t that stupid, for what else could be thought of a woman turned raven?

Tucking wings tight against its oily feathered body, the bird dropped like a stone through the darkness, returning to its place beneath the bridge. In the distance, Tiyhak saw movement and the bird did too. He flew forward, dodging the metal bands and gear-work around him. Sneaky. Kyra was swinging from gear, to metal pipe, to the next available hand-hold, flowing with grace through the steelwork like a monkey swinging from branches. The movement was so fluid that it seemed like the gear-work was designed for her travel, not the great stone bridge above her. She had more trouble progressing once the pipes grew hot with steam, and the bridge began to move.

The metal teeth of gears snapped at Tallri and bird alike as the two dodged between the openings in the metalwork, searching for safety among the craftsmanship. Kyra grabbed hold of a lone pipe which shot out from the gear-work, acting as an exhaust for the steam-powered behemoth. With a great swing, she launched herself into the approaching hole where metal and stone disappeared together. Tiyhak’s bird followed her descent, fighting against hot blasts of air and slowly shifting steelwork. Kyra had gained entry to Kho Arian. Now it was time for Tiyhak to do his part.

 ***

The spirit of his night informer was plain as it hid beneath the retracting stone bridge, but Tiyhak was more interested in the spirits that hung motionless and bodiless in that stone prison. They had gotten there somehow, and he intended to find out, but no matter his intentions, he hadn’t yet been successful. The smooth stone walls represented Pharosh construction, but that was the only indication that he was in Kho Arian. Searching amidst the strands was useless, save for the soft violet light it provided him. The spirit realm was usually filled with wisps of smoke from every variety of being imaginable. They swirled about like he was in a cloud rising from the ends of a thousand pipes, forming rings and slithering out like slow snakes reaching for the sky. Now, the strands were simply three, and manipulating them provided less light than he was used to… and less comfort. There is something disturbingly unnatural about a spiritless being, but it was this lack that gave the prehistoric beings an upper hand.

Tiyhak walked the walls of the chamber for the hundredth time, hoping for some form of discovery. The minimal strands wrapped around his hands as he ran them along the stone with meticulous investigation. The light provided was merely physical, for no intellectual illumination was brought forth by the endeavour. Around and around he circled, searching the corners with particular care. No door seams were evident by sight or touch, but he continued to search. There had to be something! Lowering himself to the ground, he cast the strands out to encircle the room’s interior. They rested in the crevice that joining floor and wall provided, casting a luminescent glow to aid his inspection. Squishing his fingers into the cold, unmoving stone, he worked his way around the room until he again was where he had started. “Open you eyes.” He scoffed. That’s what Kyra had told him to do next time he visited this place. “I will bring you here, Tallri, and I will enjoy a laugh while you search. Perhaps you are a greater sleuth than I?” That was the whole problem, wasn’t it. If he could bring her here, he could easily re-fit her spirit where it belonged and they’d have no need for this foolish act.

Moving the room-bordering strands to the ceiling seam, he began to work it with care. Sometimes the senses can deceive. Ears hear what they will in the night, mouths whisper their own desires before brain can instruct, eyes spot hallucinations between the shadows, but fingers cannot lie. Though there was nothing to see or hear, halfway around the top of the room his fingers sunk into the stone like it suddenly became soft. Pushing at the indentation, he found that the rest of his sense came back to reality. A slow hiss of steam following the crunching of stone on stone revealed the purpose of the cleverly concealed button. A slit of light broke through the ceiling and expanded with lethargic intent. The light seemed harsh against the previous soft glow in the room, but to normal eyes not adjusted to the darkness, it would have been the soothing glow of a low flame.

Tiyhak ascended a smoothly crafted staircase that had fallen into place, once the room was completely exposed from above. Torches were not the only inhabitants of the great chambers, but row upon row of books hung from the walls. No longer did the soft glow of spirit-strands encircle him, but an equally complete border of leather-bound pages. The room looked ridiculously mammoth compared to the tiny pit from which he had come. A great shaft of airy expanse rose in the centre of the room, sparsely gathered by book-covered pillars. Luckily for him, books and torches were the only things that populated the room in the dead of the night. Knowing what he did of the Pharosh, he assumed there would be some sort of security, but it remained as concealed to him as the button in that cellar had.

Finding a staircase carved into the outer wall, he climbed, uninterested by the books acting as banisters on either side of the path. Tiyhak ascended to the top of the building, vigilantly watching for a guard of whatever type of security this place might have. No obstacles stood in the way, and soon he was looking out of the glass windows at the top of the towering chamber. The moonlight was not so prevalent outside, as gas lanterns hung from stone pillars which illumed the streets like it was mid-afternoon. Stone carts on steel tracks zoomed around the metropolis, some filled with the native lizard-folk, some without. Pistons pumped up and down at stations where the carts came to rest, amidst the high-rises and street bustle. It was certainly not as fast as spirit travel, but the locomotive ingenuity inspired him.

Tiyhak craned his neck to see the exterior of the building from which he spied. Green-white lights encircled the thing and flashed with ever-increasing intensity. Guns spun wildly around, but fired no bullets. They seemingly searched for something, someone. A stone cart stopped at the base of the tower and a company of Pharosh holding weapons in hand rushed for the building. Steam compressed and hissed below him as a great opening appeared and soon filled with more weapons and scales than Tiyhak considered friendly. He had tripped a silent alarm.

 

Glanderxe – Chapter 22

The fire was warm and bright.  Had Tiyhak been able to sleep, the fire would be his greatest enemy, yet it gave him a warm welcome in the ink of sleepless night.  The low cry of a distant wolf and squawking and hooting of birds above enlivened the air with the sounds of sunless familiarity.  Kyra slept across from him, her golden skin glowing with the orange of firelight.  Such an unlikely companion she was.  Just days ago she had been with Mert Whatley on the bridge, fighting by his side against… against…  One slow tear broke free and smoothed his cheek as it fell.  What little comfort it provided was not enough.  It still hurt to think about his first… as it would for some time.

Tiyhak played with the strands in the air, holding tight in a hand’s embrace before releasing them to the god of death once again.  They floated in wisps of smoke all around, and he worked at them like a master artist, letting the shapes take form amidst the smoke as he herded them in like a caring shepherd.  He was so young then, that day in this smoke depiction.  Klychawk hadn’t even greyed… nor had he died.

“Try again.” His father’s words were cushion by the smoke, soft and caring.

Young Tiyhak reached for the realm of death, finding nothing but blackness, nothing but darkness, nothing but death.  Closed eyes, open eyes, it didn’t seem to matter.  He saw Klychawk drawing in the strands and forming a ball of sparkling glory in hand, but couldn’t find where they came from.  The ball of lightning, ball of power, seemingly materialized in the air before his father launched it a deer grazing close by.  It glowed bright with the force, but did not move.  Father brought him close to the thing, and knelt beside it, almost touching the shimmering beast.

“Focus on the strands.” He said, motioning toward the animal.  Tiyhak glared at the beast in disarrayed confusion.  The shimmering glow came to life with the strands of death, hanging above the body like fog on a lake.  The lake shone crystal, its slow methodical waves shot through the fog like a host of purple worms, dripping down the live carcass.  As he focused, the fog around them faded into blackness, darkness, death.  The purple, smoky tendrils gathered together, forming around the deer, and for the first time, Tiyhak could see.  “Good.” Klychawk shared his approval.  “Now, catch them.”  Suddenly the strands launched themselves from the carcass like lost children, scattering in all direction, searching the expanse for a host.  Tiyhak concentrated on each one, drawing them in with his will.  Some responded quickly, and he embraced them in his hands at their arrival.  The other’s took more time, but soon enough they responded to his call and he held them close, caressing his new-found treasures.

Trees began to fade in through the blackness, their shadowy limbs blowing in the cool morning breeze.  The sky turned from pitch to azure, working its way through navy and cobalt.  The scene around him was unchanged… mostly.  Fresh blood coloured the grass at his feet, the same red mess that dripped from a knife hanging in Klychawk’s hand.  The deer was motionless, as before, but it would never rise again.  Released from the realm of life, it entered the darkness of death.  Tiyhak stood above the body with its remains sparking between his hands.  Stray flashes shot outward as he fought to contain them.  “Steady,” Klychawk urged, but such a concept was foreign to the mess between Tihak’s fingers.  The outward force was too great, and he released the lightning into the air.  It exploded in a shock wave of sound and light, knocking both men from their feet.  The grass, wet with morning dew, slapped Tiyhak in the face, making him feel even more ashamed of this failure.  When he rose from between the taunting, wet blades, Klychawk stood, drawing in the remainder of the strands once again.  He launched them with controlled force at the animal carcass, raising the blood from the ground beneath it.  It dripped down from the lightning cloud, coating the body in a thick grotesque film.  Blood dripped down, like rain sliding from a glass pane.  Once the final drop had fallen, the deer rose from the ground, but not the same as before.  It stood and grazed in the grass again, the body of purple, translucent smoke.

“Your time with come, my son.” Klychawk placed a hand on his shoulder, admiring the spirit deer before him.

“What happens now?” Young Tiyhak queried after a long pause.

The smoky strands of the scene began to fade, appearing like whisps of hair atop Klychawk’s head.  Before his response came, the strands had all but disappeared.  “Now we rest… then try again.”  Blackness fell around him as the scene dispersed, but not the blackness of death.  This was the blackness of sleep.

***

I had never known Cargh to be much of a schemer… not that I really knew the man that well at all.  Fioreh seemed to do most of his talking, and his lips were merely there to hold back the saliva that would surely come flying out of them if “the Rock” disapproved.  How he maintained such a close connection to the Rock, or if he just bluffed his way through life, I will never know, but I learned that his lips were useful for more than just disproving excretions.  From time to time the mountain men would roam past us and glance over, just to make sure that we were still there… though how it would be otherwise was a mystery.  The only times I knew of people escaping from prison were when a guard was involved, or someone who had access to the keys.  They, however, didn’t seem to believe in guarding their prisoners, nor did they believe in feeding them.  I’m not sure exactly how many days it was that we remained in that cell, for underground the sun and moon both look the same, but eventually it was different.  Cargh had somehow convinced the mountain men that he was on their side.  If only I was shorter and had more hair, maybe I could have done the same.  These allmarach were never known for being the smartest of creatures, thinking more with steel than brain-matter.

Things weren’t so different without Cargh around, because he never really talked that much anyway.  For the amount that he now visited me without the cell, I could swear he never left.  He had become a sort of guard to me, though I’m not sure he knew what role he really played.  The allmarach have no jails, and thus no guards, and his actions proved a lack of knowledge about prisons.  Most guards didn’t fraternize much with the prisoners, and often they stay close at hand in case anything went wrong.  Cargh spent his time wandering about the underground fort and when I found him “guarding” me, he was sharing information.

Klychawk had been drawing in the mountain men with promise of conquest.  The allmarach have a sort of blood-lust about them, and if they have no one to fight, they will fight each other, just for the thrill of battle.  The Tallri and Pharosh, both being enemies of the Rock, had been promised to the mountain men.  Though they hated them, it was only when one chose to cross the path of the allmarach that they would bother.  How could they turn down a fight, especially against such an agreeable foe.  Much scheming of war was about, and everyone had their own ideas about how to go about it, but the allmarach fought with heart and arm, not with their head.  Klychawk had the final say in the planning, not that he seemed to say a whole lot.  Most dead men have a similar limitation.  A man by the name of Tiyhak was apparently the spokesperson for this dead leader of theirs, and he was currently on some sort of extended vacation, but no one knew a whole lot of details.  Sir Reuben had been brought up from Dete Plych to take his place leading the mountain defectors while he was away.  I’m sure that the only way to learn why Reuben was really hear was talk to him myself, though that would prove difficult.  I now knew one thing… he had lied about being here by order of the Queen.

Many days passed while I sat pondering my life in that cell, maybe even a week.  Cargh sometimes managed to slip me little morsels of food from the table.  Though the meals were meagre at best, they kept me alive.  Apparently my captors hoped to starve me to death.  If this was an act of Klychawk, and he had been chasing me this whole time, it seemed like quite a waste.  Why would a man, a dead one at that, chase me down just to lock me up and starve me out?  None of this made any sense, and I almost wished I could talk to Klychawk myself and straighten some things out, but that was not possible.  Only the dead could speak to the dead, and I didn’t want to talk to him that much.  Though Tiyhak was not dead, somehow he could talk to Klychawk, he alone.  The whole thing sounded a bit fishy to me, almost like Brynd directing us in his own will, claiming it to be that of the Rock.  Perhaps Tiyhak, when he got back, could answer some questions, though I doubted he would.

***

There they sat, those three spirits, huddled together like a band of survivors trying to keep warm.  It was so silly in his mind that, in an instant, he could be with her spirit across the river, arriving at their destination unharmed, but they had already been a number of days of the road.  The journey to reunite body with spirit was a slow one, and Tiyhak wasn’t used to the roads.  Dealing with harsh weather, scavenging for food, water, shelter: such foreign concepts to a man who can be anywhere in an instant.

The recently posted guards at the mountain pass had been simple to thwart.  He told them that Klychawk had ordered him to transport the prisoner south…  Kyra the prisoner.  She was nothing more to him than a bag of flesh along for the ride, and the allmarach guards were little more than that.  Though his story wasn’t strictly true, what was the matter?  These grunts of war that Klychawk had chosen for his purposes were good for one thing… fighting.  Anything else seemed too much for them to comprehend.  Not so for Kyra.  The woman might have even had more whit than he, but that isn’t something that one readily admits to himself.

Days were spent travelling, and nights were spent planning.  Getting to the spirits would be simple, and in fact it was.  Tiyhak spent many nights returning again to that dark cavern populated by nothing but a shattered wooden tomb and three bodiless spirits.  He knew they were in Kho Arian, but where was still a mystery.  Getting the flesh bag he carried with him to enter the unknown place where the spirits lay would be the challenge.

“Tell me of their place.” Tiyhak ran over the images in his head once again, for Kyra’s amusement.  Surely more description of the nothing in the room would aid her.

“A dark stone chamber with no doors or windows.” How else was there to explain it?

“Here’s what I want from you.” She turned the spit slowly, allowing the golden glow of the fire to creep around to the other side of her most recent kill.  The rabbit looked less like a furry friend of the forest and more a hearty meal for hungry travellers at this point.  “Next time you go, open your eyes.  I’m sure it would help immensely.”

“But that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?” A slow grin shifted on his face.  “I am not some witless grunt for you to amuse yourself with.  You came to me for help… or does my memory fail me as well as my eyes?”

“I’m sure you’d love to amuse yourself with me.” She peered up at him from across the flames, soft light enhancing her every feature.  Suggestive intent sparkled in her eyes for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the fire-roasting.

Tiyhak got to his feet, never losing demeanour.  The dust fell from his flowing black robes as he patted at them with civility.  “I will allow you to amuse yourself for a time.”  His leather-strapped sandals padded softly against the damp earth as he departed, grass curling around the edges to touch his dirt-caked feet.  Tiyhak walked for a time among the sentinels of the woods.  Dark, low-hanging branches, reached for him, but he refused their tempting gestures.  Wolves were baying in the distance and owls sat at perches on high, sharing their wisdom with the night sky, but none of them were what he sought.  He was searching for something shrewder, faster, and more cunning.  These criers of the night could only share wisdom with those who would listen, and Kyra had already proved to be a poor set of ears.  Amidst the baying and hooting Tiyhak heard a single caw… that caw that he desired.  Reaching into the spirit realm, he swam amidst the smoky threads of beast and bird alike until he found the one he sought.  There it sat, on a low branch in a distant tree, obscured by the surrounding darkest.  Its black exterior matched the deadness of night, a perfect candidate in the realm of the living.

As he drew closer, another caw seeped from that black hook on its face, pushing aside the purple wisps of other forest dwellers.  Tiyhak raised his hands and pulled at the smoky tendrils, forming them into a swirling cloud between his palms.  The cloud began to spit and fight against his power, but as it grew, he pushed harder, containing the raw power of death.  Finally the smoky cloud gave way, launching shafts of electric power into the night.  The violet lightning hit its mark, holding the bird in place.  Tiyhak approached the tagged twilight informer and plucked it from its place atop the branch.  Soon blood was dripping down his chin as his fangs sunk into the feathered sleeper.  Red juice slithered down the oily carcass, encasing the body like a sticky glove.  As the final touches were painted on the gooey coffin, Tiyhak reached for the escaping spirit strands.  They formed a shimmering casing around the bloody mess before sinking back into that body they had once known so well.  The blood fell away, but the bird did not.  Its span stretched and snapped with life as it rose into the air, testing those wings new yet familiar.  After circling for a time, the bird rested on his shoulder and a caw reached into the night, but the trees shrunk away from the eerie voice of their dead companion.

“Kyra the Tallri is your target.  Never will you leave her side, but never will she see you, oh agent of the night.  Fly swift and true.  May the god of death be ever with you.”  His watcher cawed out in response before taking flight.  The soft crackle of spirit-life was soon lost in the surrounding blackness, but never left Tiyhak.  He watched the bird swoop beneath thin lines of purple smoke and curl around others with the joy of serving its master.  He followed the raven until it came to rest in a familiar location.  Though it was spiritually visible, his eyes betrayed its existence as the clearing materialized before him.  The sweet smell of roasted meat wafted into his nostrils as he saw Kyra take the spit off of the fire and pull out her knives for the surgery.  “I see that you did something while I was gone instead of simply amusing yourself.  Excellent.” He took a seat where he had been and watched the Tallri slice into the meat with practised precision.  “My stomach cannot wait to be filled.”

Kyra scoffed.  “If only we could wish the same thing for your head.”

Or my spirit.  If you only knew, Tallri.  Tiyhak split a smile in two with his thin lips, but said nothing in return.