What is art?

In a word: art is freedom. The freedom to think what we want to think, write what we want to write, paint what we want to paint. It is the connection of one thought, one emotion, one inspiration to the next, all holding hands to form a beautiful chain. Who can say where it begins? Who can say where it should end? Art is the freedom to be inspired, create from inspiration, and inspire in return.

Inspiration knows no bounds, no jail cells can hold it back. It ebbs and flows as desire and nature directs. Who can lock it in a box? Who can slap on a set of rules, regulations to keep it in place, to limit art? The world loves its rules, loves its laws, all those perfect boxes in a row, but art cannot fit in a box. We try to place it there, close the lid, seal it shut, but it slips between the cracks like strands from a steaming kettle. Force it down, seal it up, and soon that container will explode, like a frozen soda can, spilling contents from their shell: spilling art.

Art cannot be locked, controlled, told what to do. It is like a rebellious teenager, acting out simply because it can. You tell it “red doesn’t belong with blue,” and it makes purple. You tell it, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but they can’t make art,” and it creates another Stonehenge, an artist’s monument made of stone, defying those laws. You tell it, “never start a sentence with because.” Because you said that, it chooses to.

What is art? In a word: art is freedom.

Because of the nature of art, I do not believe in Copyright in its truest form, but instead use Creative Commons licensing. For this reason, the following disclaiming is in the credits section of my most recent release Dark Messages. I hope it inspires you: inspires you to create art.

This world is a place of inspiration. Licensing this work under a Creative Commons licence allows me (the author) to share the results of such inspiration freely while, at the same time, allowing you (the reader) to take hold of the magic of these words and shape them, mould them, and make them into something new. Inspiration should not be locked away. Art should not be restricted. Restrictions are rules, and rules go against the very nature of art itself. If you are inspired to create new art based on the existing words here-in, I allow it. No, I encourage it. Art is created on the building blocks of inspiration, and inspiration flourishes through its consumption. From inspiration, to art, to inspiration again, let us make the world a better place one book, one story, one phrase, and one word at a time.

The Other Side

Every road has two sides. A clearing through the trees, a bridged lake, a winding path through fields: all these roads share one thing. Trees on one side mirror those on the other, water left and water right, grass plays sweet tunes with the wind on both sides of the road. Every road has two sides, as did the road before me now… but those memories were taken, vegetation was taken, life was taken by the storm.

Once things were better: the past a dying light in the darkness of my mind. Reach through that blackness, claw through the darkness, talons reach for that speck of light – speck of hope – beyond. Dig deeper. Scratch wildly at the ground’s surface for a wriggling worm, a seed, any life, any food, any hope. All these things lie in the past. I have lost all hope, my talons cracked and broken, yet no sustenance rewarded for their effort. I see nothing but despair, feel nothing but death, wish for nothing but to reach the Other Side. You, however, may find life in this wasteland – hope in this snow-scape – if you dig deep enough.

Dig deeper now. Reach for that light dying behind me. See the past as I once did. See the grass returning, the trees filling in dark and empty spaces in the snow. See branches stretched wide, leafs blotting out the dead sky. See the black terror above fade through the seasons, through the years, back to a time when it was blue. See the purple clouds shot through with electric power fade into puffs of white. Now, see a flock of birds. See me before this time of death, before they all left me, before… too many things happened.

I huddled there, beneath a low-hanging tree branch, the heat of many bodies blocking out the chill of the night. Spring had turned to summer, and summer was loosing its grasp. The flock worked as one, slept as one, lived as one. The sun finally crested the horizon. Warmth tickled my feathers, soaking up the morning dew. I stretched out my span with a mighty yawn, wings touched lightly by morning whispers on soft breezes. The whispers turned to shrieks as the head cock shook the forest to life with his beautiful call. It shot out from yellowed beak, red wattle laughing beneath it. The comb atop his head was the envy of many in the brood. The power of his voice and commanding appearance made all listen to him, follow him, trust him.

The rooster crowed again.

Stretched wings and fluffing feathers passed from one hen to the next like a giant wave. It sloshed one way and then the next, cushion raised, fluff exposed, feet ready to take the first morning steps. Spring was gone. Summer was fading. Autumn had come and soon… winter. Death was around the corner. Two things were on my mind, on everyone’s minds: food and shelter. It was a year of peace, a year of freedom. The barn had been restricting, but it kept us safe. Kept us warm. Too warm. The rooster crowed before those flames even started, but we were a large brood. My singed tail feathers were evidence of that. The barn, our home, died. God finally heard our pain, heard the hens crying in the night. He came to free us with a mighty fire from the sky… but what of that freedom now? The farmer and his wife, they fed us well… sometimes feeding on us.

I remember the screaming, the fighting, the clucking, the biting. Feathers were in a flurry, we began to scurry… and when it was all over. One of our sisters was gone. Still, a few losses a year was better than… this. Where would we go? The barn was just a pile of ash, the feed bags therein reduced to death instead of giving us life.

The rooster crowed again.

He would protect us. He always did. He saved us from the flames, fed us in the spring, provided in the summer, and led us in the fall. Surely winter would be no challenge to him. The days passed into weeks. Red leafs turned to crusty browns beneath our feet. Nights fell colder. Food grew scarce. Still, we pressed on. We passed through the dying trees, passed over dying blades of grass. They were dry and tasteless in my mouth, but at least filled my stomach… until they disappeared.

Strange noises came from up ahead. The wind whistled sharp and intense before fading. Then it came again. Whoosh. Whoosh. The sound filled my ears with hope. Hope for change. Hope for… something. Then another sound came.

The rooster crowed again.

It was not a morning call. I knew that sound well. It was not that three-times shout that shook me from slumber, shook me from warmth, ready for a long journey ahead. It was not that call that promised my legs more fatigue and my pallet more dry, tasteless grass. It was a new call, one none of us had heard since those days of morning feedings at the barn. A cry of hope: food.

Another sound passed through the brood, from one hen to the next. We cackled with glee and clucked with pleasure, almost tasting the food… whatever it was. I grabbed at the wind and pushed it under my wings. Frantic flapping gave me a short burst of flight, a burst of speed that my sisters mimicked. We all wanted to reach the rooster first, all wanted to share in the joy he promised us with his voice.

The rooster crowed again.

Whoosh. The noises grew louder. They were closer. Whoosh. A clearing stretched between lengths of dying trees. The rooster stood atop that strange floor. The black mass broke forest in two. Atop it stood the rooster… and the food. Whoosh. Strange beasts rushed behind him, but he was not afraid. They gleamed in the dying light, hummed in the distance, and rusted his feathers in passing. He stood like an immovable God, unshaken by their presence. Bread from Heaven lay before him: a feast for the brood.

He picked a piece off one hunk and crowed again, encouraging us to approach. We gave no hesitation. My sisters rushes ahead of me with giant leaps of joy. They fell on the bread like hawks to a carcass. The scene was a mess of feathers. Whoosh. They gave a brief pause as another beast went rushing by. A few feathers blew free with the hot breath of the thing, but soon it was forgotten. I struggled forward with the remaining brood, mouth watering with the promise of life just beyond my reach… and then it happened.

Whoosh.

Every road has two sides: bread on one, beasts on the other; life on one, death on the other. Whoosh. The two sides matched. Screams of terror broke out. Feathers flew. The beast screeched, enraged. Wind rushed ahead. The thing slammed to a halt, but not fast enough. It took off again a moment later. The beast roared with life, leaving nothing but death behind it. Death and terror. Death and feathers. Death and the rooster. The damage was done.

I wanted to scream, but found no voice. His body lay atop Heaven’s gift, blood soaking through the food. It added a new kind of warmth to that black scar through the trees. Lights above made the tar hot to the touch, made the blood boil. It bubbled with the last remnants of life, passing from one discarded piece of bread to the next, spelling out our fate. One by one, the bread was spoiled, and one by one, the brood fled.

I know not how long it took, nor why I even stayed. Nothing remained of that host of hens… nothing but me. Nothing left of autumn’s beauty, the trees dead and shaking. Nothing left of the tired grass, dead and covered with snow. The storm hit strong, came in a flurry from above, but I couldn’t move. The only warmth I saw was in the rooster’s blood… the blood that was now cold. The storm came. I remained. Winter came. I remained. Death came. I remained.

Now I sit to one side of the road, no warmth in my bones, no warmth in my heart, no warmth in the blood… the blood of a long-dead rooster. His carcass is long discarded, and no hawks came for the kill. I can find no food beneath the snow, nor find his body buried beneath the great stormy rifts. Snow piles high to either side of that black scar through the trees.

Whoosh. The beasts come rarely now, but I hear them in my mind. I see them in my head. See them on the road. Hear them laugh. See the feathers. See the death. See the blood soaked bread. My stomach reaches for it, but I know it is not there… or do I? The storm plays tricks with my mind, playing my memories out before me like macabre entertainment. I witness the death again and again, but have nowhere to go. No food. No shelter. No life. It trickles through my veins, barely keeping me in this place: on my side of the road. The trickle does not comfort me, but laughs at my pain. I see another trickle before me, dying between breadcrumbs.

No end, no end, no end to this road. It stretches left and right, grinning at me from blackened lips, taunting me with its infinity. There is no hope there. I work that trickle of blood into my tired legs. They scream a taunt of their own with each plodding step. My wings provide no aid. No wind rushes beneath them. They are too tired to flap, too tired to live. I reach the edge of that black scar and lean over the smirking lips. Infinity: left and right. No end, no end, no end to this road. No end to those images. No end to the macabre entertainment depicted thereon. I want to lash out at the face, scratch those taunting lips with my claws, or maybe lash out at my own face, scratch those deceiving eyes from their sockets. Would the memories still play in my mind? There is no fighting this face before me, no besting the infinite smirk. I have but one hope amidst this dying world, one hope to shake the images from my head. I must leave the road behind, must leave the face with its memories, must get to the other side.

I raise one leg to place in on those blackened lips. They shout at me – whoosh – and I pull back. There is no beast, no sound, just memories of that day. Each time I lift my foot to take that first step I hear the beast, see the death, and cower back in fear. I cannot cross the road, cannot get to the other side, cannot leave this face behind.

A feather shakes free from my dying skin. The wind gusts, twisting it, twirling it, taking it. It flies with the sky’s locomotive force, taunts me with the journey, laughs at me from the other side. It lands unharmed on the snow, briefly turning back to torture me, then takes off again. The wind carries it beyond the snow cleft, beyond my sight, beyond the road before me. There is no power in my tired wings. The wind fights against me as I raise them and begin to flap: a slow and desperate plea. There is no hope in the act, just despair. I raise one foot and then the other, pleading with the sky, reaching for those heights I know it can take me to… but never will.

Finally I give up, settle back in the snow and – whoosh – the images come again. I can almost feel the hot blood as it sprays the front of the beast, shoots into the sky, filters through dying breadcrumbs. There seems to be more life in that dying replay than my own tired body. No food. No shelter. No life. No hope. Just one thing, one desire, so close yet so far… get to the other side.

I lift my foot again, forcing myself to go on. Whoosh, but I am not afraid. The black scar laughs at me again as I take that first step. Whoosh. There is no beast. Step one. Whoosh. The beast screams at me, but then is gone. Step two. Fear chases me, swirls around me with the snow. The ground seems to open up. The rooster’s blood seeps into the crack, disappearing between those smirking lips. Step three.

The other side is closer now. Whoosh. The phantom beast shrieks at me, tries to get me to stop, tries to stop itself before slamming into the carcass already on the ground. The lips open up again, a yellow line of teeth cracking them open. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with yellow. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with breadcrumbs. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with blood. Dotted with death. Whoosh.

The beast comes for me again as I cross the yellow line, as I cross to the other side. I hear the familiar sounds, see the familiar feathers, feel the familiar blood. This time I can taste it. The hot mess rushes up my throat and out my beak, landing on the smirking lips below me. It speckles those yellow teeth with the taste of death, not the rooster’s death, but my own. That phantom beast put the real thing in its place… and I didn’t notice the change.

Every road has two sides. One side black, the other a mirror, yellow teeth in between. One side a dead chicken, the other a mirror. Once the sides differed. Once a rooster lay dead, the other side still holding hope. The two sides are now one, like an inevitably cruel trick of fate. Rooster dead, hen dead: the two sides meet. However, there is some hope in this scene of death, a shred of decency in the macabre entertainment there portrayed. I passed to the Other Side.

Shadows Scream

Comfort. Peace. That’s what I wanted. I longed for it. Lurched for it. Cried for it. My tears matted the top of the dog’s head: the dog who gave me what I wanted, longed for, lurched for, cried for… comfort.

Shadow. It was such a common name for a dog… yet so appropriate. I didn’t name him such because of his black colour, although he was pigmented so. He followed me everywhere: always watching, always protecting, always loving, always comforting.

Another tear fell.

Shadow swallowed my sorrow, the pain disappearing into that mess of matted fur on his head. I didn’t notice him at first – my eyes welling up, body lurching, heart threatening to shoot up my throat – but he soothed me even then. He lifted one paw, resting it on my knee, and tilted his head to one side. He peered at me through sad eyes, not understanding what was wrong… but maybe he understood more than I did. I reached out, pulling him close, wrapping my arms around his frame.

Like a child in the body of a man, the tears would not cease. The pain was too great. The screaming voices in my head were too wild. The words were just a roaring wind, a crashing wave, a cacophonous mess: one indecipherable from the next. The screams of rage came first. I saw it plain on his face. My boss was red, blood fuelling his pigmentation, fuelling his words, fuelling the pain. There was no reasoning with the man. No explanation. I had to get out, had to chase the screaming from my mind.

Closing the door of the room behind me only muffled the words. I didn’t even stop to gather my things. Just walked, ran, tears beginning to well. A failure, and fired for it. I couldn’t remember what I had done, couldn’t remember… anything. Couldn’t hear anything, anything but screaming. The roar filled my ears, filled my head, crashed over me like a giant wave, drenching me in its wake. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered. I wanted to curl up on the floor and cry, but that wouldn’t stop the screaming, wouldn’t stop the voices, the accusations, the ringing in my head.

Feet shook, climbing the front steps of my house. What would Larah say? What would we do? No job, no severance, no money… just screaming. That’s all there was left. Hands: cold and clammy. Door knob even colder with the winter chill. The keys had all but frozen together in my pocket, and I pulled them out, shaking the congealed frost loose. The lengths of metal broke apart, shivering on their ring. My hand reached for the door, shivering on its frame… but it was not the cold. I couldn’t feel the cold. I couldn’t feel anything, anything but shame. A failure. Those screams paralysed my mind, heart, and almost my hand.

The key bounced. I closed my eyes against the tears that started again. Hands shaking. It bounced again. My knees threatened to buckle beneath. I pressed a free hand against the door frame for support. The key bounced, but then found its place, sliding into the lock. One twist, one push. I stumbled into my home. Shadow sat waiting at the door, a question in his eyes. He tried to catch me as I fell to hands and knees. The screaming loud again in my ears. Pain shot through my head. I closed my eyes, sucked in a breath. I tried to breath. Shadow licked my downcast face.

The screaming came again. This time it was more real. More alive. It was not just in my head, not a simple memory. The shrieks were coming from inside the house. Shadow walked away as I rose to my feet. His head slunk low, tail between legs. He lay back down where he had been when I staggered through the door: at the foot of the stairs. His eyes peered at me, then glanced up the steps. The screams came again.

I’m sorry, Shadow seemed to say… but I hardly heard it. My senses came alive all at once, adrenaline rushing through me. Blood rushed to hands and feet. Feet rushed up the stairs. Someone was in my house! Someone was yelling! It was my wife.

The banister almost broke as I whipped around it in a mighty charge for the bedroom. The door was locked, but gave little resistance. Splintered wood speckled my shoulder as pain shot up to my head. A new pain. Physical pain. The door smacked against a bookcase, the wide-arc reaching only so far. So far, but not enough. Not enough to help me. Not enough to hit the man in the room, the man with my wife.

The smell of sweat and fluids mixed together as I stood there. The screaming came again. The screams of rage followed me home, screams of pleasure met me there, screams of shock followed. These three voices rattled through my skull, threatening to crack it. The pressure built inside my head, mimicking the pressure of sex I’d interrupted.

Sheets were raised with the cry of shock from Larah’s lips. I had seen her naked before without shame, but there was shame in this. She tried to hide the image from me, wrapping herself in bands of cloth, but the damage had been done. I still heard that second scream in my mind: the scream of pleasure.

One scream, two screams, three screams. The fourth was a scream of rage, followed quickly by the fifth: terror. Larah’s voice hit me, as I hit the man. He tried to rise and strike me back, but I was on top of him… as he had been on my wife.

Mouth bloody. Face split. Bones cracked. Wife screamed. The man was long unconscious when I was done. My hands were red and ruined. The sheets were red and ruined. His face… red and ruined. Those hands began to shake. The screaming came again. One scream, two, three, four, five. They fought for my attention, tortured me with the noise. There were no words: no words hidden in my boss’s scream of rage, no words in Larah’s scream of pleasure, no words in her shock, no words in my rage, no words in her terror, no words from the man… laying dead on the sheets. No words from the cops as they rushed into the room – nothing but screaming, yelling, voices shrieking at me.

I did my sentence; did my time. It passed by in a blur: a mass of screaming faces. In the corner of my cell there was me, me and a mattress stained with urine. It blocked out the others, blocked out the prisoners, blocked out the voices. With mattress on top and pillow pressed into my skull I could forget them, flee from them.

The pressure in my head grew, but not from pillow or mattress. Prison guards took those luxuries from me, leaving me with an empty metal bed-frame, and head filled with voices. I tried to fight them, but could not. The guards yelled, rushing in, ripping away my shield. They froze me with their voices, paralysed me with their screams: too many screams to count. Too many voices. Too many voices.

The rocking calmed me some, like a cradled child: the rocking and the drugs. They calmed my senses, calmed my nerves, left me dead and shaking. The voices dulled, the raging sea calmed to lapping waves… until the drugs wore off. The voices shot through my skull, bringing memories, cacophony, pain. Nightmarish blips popped through the drug-induced haze, breaking the static of my mind.

My shakes were violent. My screams were worse. Those voices had faces, the faces memories, and the memories… My own screams did not over-power those in my head. Instead, I added to the mess: the mess of screams, the mess of pain, the mess of torture. The guards forced me to the ground, forced the drugs down my throat, forced the voiced from my mind. I fought them, shook them, spat out those pills, bit the hands that tried to feed me. I desperately wanted the voices to stop, the screaming to stop, the torture to cease… but not like this.

Bile filled my throat, threatening to spill on that dirty hand in my mouth, dissolve the nasty pill it held. My teeth crashed against each other, knocked into submission. One hand pressed against my chin. One hand plugged my nose. Waves screamed in my mind, flashes of high-looming water crashed down on me. Those dirty faces that peered at me couldn’t help. The bile-covered drugs in my mouth couldn’t help. The rough hands holding me down couldn’t help. Nothing could help.

I swallowed.

The men released my mouth and nose. Crusty air rushed through now open passages. I gulped for it. My lungs cried for it, screamed for it, added another voice to the storm in my mind… that storm that soon would break me. My shaking grew violent, like a spasmodic epileptic, but the guards still held me down. The screaming waves reached their peek, crashing down on my helpless form. Held in place and drowning: drowning in voices.

The waves began to settle, screams began to die, leaving me shivering in the aftermath. I went numb with the chill, skin prickling with the loss of life. I wanted to shake the blood back into my hand, snap my mind back into play, but no amount of shaking brought me life again. With life came screams, with screams came pain, with pain came the will to die.

I watched the ocean in my mind settle to a low hum, the guards leaving me in my stupor. The shaking and screaming left, transforming me into a rocking, mumbling madman. Knees pulled to chest, face pressed to knees, I rocked. Rocked with the waves. The mesmerizing scene spilled from my mouth in a low drone, a quick succession of words… or at least noises. I tried to mimic the waves with my voice, translate their words for my friends in the cell, those friends of my divination. They did not scream, did not speak, just rocked with me.

The days got easier as I made a friend. He mumbled replies to my own water-mimicking voice, and we shared that sense of peace. There was a reverence about the friendship, a special place, a near silence, low hums, still waters, and peace. We fought together when the waves threatened to rise. When screams blasted holes in our safe-haven, we shot back. Our voices rose continually until more drugs filled the holes: holes in mouths, holes in the sea, holes in our peace. The patches were magnificent. My comrade and I worked to fasten them in place, to block the water from screaming out, to block out the voices. Soon we were brought more patches before the holes even came, before the screaming even started, before the threats became a torturous reality.

Shadow. That was his name. He stayed with me as we fought by day, and followed me into the darkness of sleep by night. My ever-present watcher and friend. Ever-present shadow. When they moved me from that place, I was packing enough drugs to make a suit. Shadow and I strung the patches together, covering me with a waterproof encasing. We said goodbye to that shack on the rock. It wasn’t much – leather over sticks in my mind, stone floor and metal bars in reality – but is had been our home. Shadow and I shared a look, shared a rock, shared a murmur, before plunging into the deep.

That drug-induced suit of armour kept me calm. It kept the water from rushing in, kept the chill from shaking me, kept the voices at bay. The walls of that white van were nothing but water around me. I swam through the waves, diving suit in place. Shadow splashed beside me, pressing me to go on. He encouraged me with a water-mimicking hum. We rocked back and forth together: right arm, left, right arm, left. Our legs kicked up soft froth behind.

Eventually we reached the shore. The sandy paradise spread out with wonder, battling back the fatigue in our minds, arms, and legs.

“Come on, Shadow! We can make it!” I was tired, but excited nonetheless. Freedom stretched its mighty fingers toward me, and I reached for it, longed for it, swam toward it. I fought with Shadow again the final lapping waves: right arm, left, right arm, left. We rocked together, and sang together. Our voices lifted in triumph before settling to a low hum, resting on the sand.

The soft lapping of waves brushed against my feet, and I mimicked its voice. Tears of joy spilled from my eyes and across my cheeks, wetting the drenched sand below. Shadow lumbered over, licking my face, licking away the tears. I pulled him close for a mighty embrace and let the joy flow. It matted the fur atop his head, pulling together water-logged strands. We rocked together until the sun started to fade. That ball of fire in the sky melted away, leaving behind a sea of reds and oranges.

Shadow rested his head in my lap. We watched the sunset together. The screams would not touch us here. The shaking would not come. The sun warmed my once shivering form as I got up off the glowing sand – glowing beneath the touch of heaven’s flame. In my mind, this was a place or beauty, a place of peace, a place of comfort. Reality showed the men in doctors coats, the drugs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the man who walked the ward halls.

“Come, Shadow,” he said from time to time, running, skipping, playing. Sometimes he sat on the floor, rocking and mumbling to himself. He mimicked calm waters with his voice, mimicked the lapping liquid with his movement. Whether seen as ward or beautiful paradise, this place was his home. His new home. A place of comfort and peace. A place without screaming voices, left to drown in the waves of the past.

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.

Know Not What They Do

Know Not What They Do

The demon’s voices were thick: thicker than the blackness of the night, thicker than the clouds shrouding the stars, thicker than the death itself. They laughed at the sight of that broken body: the man on the tree. One beam tall, one beam wide. One arm right, one arm left hung gnarled, grasping at the mists floating beneath them. Hundreds of voices spilled from hundreds of mouths: shouting, jeering, laughing. Demons shrieked out from the many faces: faces he came to save, people he came to free.

The devils inside them approved. His enemies caused the pain while friends shared in it. Crying, weeping, screaming: clawing at the ground in their grief. Blood mixed with water dripping down his side. It mixed with the fog, crawling through the inky black before wetting the dust of the ground.

“King of the Jews.” That is what the sign said, that sign hammered into those rickety beams, but it meant nothing to the man hanging there. No label could hold him down; no name could cause him pain. He had heard his true name from above thousands of times… but not today. Today, his father was silent. The clouds hung like a thick blanket blocking him from father, lover, life. Sin weighed heavy on his shoulders, the heaviest weight he’d ever had to bear.

“My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” It was a cry, a plea, coming from cracked lips and a broken heart.

Jesus lifted his face. The shadow of death hung heavy, pushing him down: anvils on shoulders. Finally, through the pain, through the fire of blood ripping a course through his head, he managed to peer at the crowd that had formed. Through beaten, bruised, burning slits – slits that were once eyes – he saw them.

Spittle hit his face, stinging eyes, blurring vision, cutting his heart. Through the creamy mess he saw the demon. It peered out at him from a woman’s face, eyes glowing, piercing the surrounding darkness. The entire hoard was depicted in her eyes. The Son of God was dying. Father God was absent. Salvation broken. The demons rallied together, toasting their good fortune… but Jesus saw the pain behind their eyes. He saw the broken soldiers rolling dice, fighting for his clothes. The jeering and hooting of the crowd eclipsed the true pain beneath their masks. Some wore their pain openly, weeping for his death, his pain, his crucifixion: the hanging of an innocent man.

“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” The sky remained silent, that thick blanket of death sucking up his words and spitting them back in his face. The crowd did not know him – they did not understand – but Jesus knew the crowd. He saw murder in the demon’s eyes. The woman shrieked at him. Helpless, trapped in a body that would not bend to her will. A little girl sat weeping and dejected deep inside her, deep beneath the demon. The girl cried, shook, pulled at her hair to block out the images of what she had done. A demon tortured her by day with images of her nightly prowl, images of the killing.

“No! It’s not me!” The girl screamed at herself, convulsing, bodily functions attempting to shake off the memories.

I know, my child. Jesus tried to speak to her, but she was not listening. The demon overtook her, screaming, mouth frothing, lips spitting again at the man on the cross.

One of the Roman soldiers stood, holding the royal garment his dice had just won. The purple cloth was streaked with sweat and stained with blood: the remains of the beaten king who had once been draped in the fabric. Jesus saw the cloth and the lie it was, saw the man and the lie on his face. A shadowy figure spun around him, laughing and jeering with the rest. The demon whispered in his ear, prodded his arms, deceived him into this life he now knew. A family man at home. A loving man. A different man when eyes were watching, when his own personal demon came for him.

“Sssssscared little boy…” the demon taunted. “Nothing but a child.” The voice was hollow and dead, echoing through gaping ear canals and into his broken heart. He fought against the demon with the only weapon he had, proving the voice wrong. He slapped the demon across the face with his authority, power, and unrelenting ferocity. The whip of nine tails slashed the air, slashed the flesh, ripped at the royal garment. The taunting demon drove him to such an act, chided him until he had to prove himself. One lash, two lashes, three. The demon laughed, circling around tortured man and fallen saviour.

“Again!” It shrieked. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, the lashes continued to come, shredding skin, shredding cloth, and breaking hearts. The broken saviour now peered down with pity at the broken man, the man shaking that shredded garment, his mask depicting joy but heart depicting shame.

Demons rushed in and out, laughing at the mighty throng that gathered there. Jesus pressed his legs tight against the tree, wincing at the pain shooting up them from holes in his feet. He sucked in a breath, air mixing with bile and blood on the way down. His hands burned as the breath was released, pressure moving from feet to hands: one holey appendage to the next.

“IT IS FINISHED!” His voice was surprisingly strong against the backdrop of death. It boomed from shredded lips, spilling from the sky with a crack of thunder. The ground shook; lightning flared; the crowd fell silent. The sky began to cry, Father God grieving his son. Rain poured forth from gaping holes in the night, drowning out all the silent voices and all the raging thoughts. The mountainside became a soupy mess: mess of mud, mess of grief, mess of death.

All at once the demons left. A woman dropped to her knees, adding to the wet spilling from the skies. Where a demon once stood, a little girl now cowered: lost, broken, alone. Her clothes soaked up the mud, face splashed into the pool of grief, leaving a mask of its own. A soldier fell to his knees, face tired, heart dead. He stared at the man, turned carcass, on the tree. With royal garment in his hand and lashes before his eyes, the memories were too fresh. There was nothing left to say, nothing left to do, no demon left to fight.

Jesus’ blood soaked into the muddy mess, working like water-colour strands against the flow. It pierced the ground, spilling through layer after layer after layer. The fire of earth’s core approached the bloody mess that fell. The host of demons watched it, flew with it through the layers. They laughed at each other with glee, filling their hearts with fire. Earth’s core bubbled and spat, giant waves of lava warring with each other for the first lick of a king’s blood, the first taste of Jesus’ death: the failed Saviour of the world.

The host of demons gathered, feet burning on the fiery floor. Satan stood on a great dais: steps formed of molten rock, throne cracked with age. A giant goblet stood at the centre, defying the decay around it. Defying death. Light from the surrounding fire bounced off that glassy surface, the obsidian polished to a shine.

The Devil raised his arms, remnants of charred cloth hanging from bony limbs. A wave of hot death shrieked from the pool below, seemingly directed by gesture alone. It burned his fingertips as it fell, fiery pleasure coursing through his body.

“It is finished.” Satan spat the words. He mocked that form on the tree, laughing at the failure. “It is finished.” He croaked, but the sound defied his charred throat, wreaking havoc on the surrounding cavern. The tremor of God’s remorse punched through the ceiling, leaving a gaping hole of grief behind. Demons clawed at the forming canyon, desperate for their prize. With the tremor came the blood, filling up that blackened darkness in the sky of Hell itself. The red ink gushed forth, a cascade of death from above. It filled the obsidian bowl, spilling over edges of the finely crafted fountain.

With goblets drawn, Satan’s minions rushed for the alter. Every last drop was sought out, all of Hell drowning in that moment of victory. The freakish brew filled cups and throats, demons toasting and dancing in praise. The Devil laughed with glee, his eyes darkened with lust. Every drop of blood spoke of promise: the promise of freedom, the promise of victory. God tried his best, and failed. The Saviour came. The Saviour died. His blood rushed down the Devil’s throat.

Three days. No sleep. No peace. The partying was a glorious cacophony in his ears. Long had they fought. Long had they cringed under the weight of Heaven. Now, the Son of God died: day one. The people cried: day two. The demons won: day three.

His body was placed inside the rock. A giant stone sealed his fate. Day one: the soldiers sat alone, guarding his place of death. Day two: the stone sat alone, immovable, defeated.

Day three.

He guarded the place, protected the body, but who protected him? The corpse within was empty, but what of the man without? What of the Roman soldier standing duty by that giant stone? Tears fell in his heart, streaming down the outer surface, but his face remained dry. The demon came for him again on that third day.

“Failure!” It screamed, laughing through blood-laden lips. “It is finished.” The demon mocked Jesus, mocked the dead, mocked the living. The soldier had nothing left to give. No more tears to cry… but his mask began to crack. The demon lashed him in the face, dressed in purple robes. He whipped him once, twice; three times the torture came.

“You killed him!” The demon laughed, striking him again. The royal robe was tattered, blood-caked, finished. The man once beneath it was tattered, blood-caked, finished. The demon taunted again from within that purple robe, wrapped inside those tassels of deception. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, the lashes continued to come, shredding skin, shredding mask, exposing the man beneath. Finally, the soldier cracked.

Dry tears fought with wet blood on his face: head in hands, hands clawing the mask beneath them. One crack, two cracks, three. The man’s grief shook him like that mighty tremor of three days past. Those all-encompassing convulsions wracked his body, ripped his skin, tore giant caverns in his mask. At first they lay black and empty, like that death of three days past, but then they began to fill. Red streaks covered over the black of death and white of bone, the man’s cries of pain piercing the night air.

One more crack.

There was no more mask: no more room for cracks therein. This final crack came from the sky, shooting down with power from on high. First the skies split apart, the rupture filling with a shout not unlike three days past. The ground shook. The tears fell. That scene of death was repeating itself, tears of God pouring from the heavens. Lightning shot from cracks in the sky, causing another crack below.

One more crack.

The electric fire of God struck that mighty stone set in place by human hands. The sealed tomb was no more, defied by hands of God. The giant stone fell apart, one piece at a time. One of the soldiers fled in fear, but the other remained – the one with a cracked face and broken heart. The ground sucked in his convulsions, spilling them about the place, before relaxing with a sigh of relief.

All at once, the world relaxed. The sun shot through those heavenly blankets above. The soldier stood on shaky legs. He cringed against the pain as he walked to the open chasm, the open tomb, the discarded rock. Where there should have been a body – rotting with decay – where there should have been a man – dead – where there should have been a failed saviour… there was nothing. Peering into the maw of that mighty stone, there was nothing but darkness, the sun driving it away. Light cascaded through the shadows, brightening up the world, brightening up the tomb, brightening up the soldier.

He turned to shrieks of pain. His demon knelt in purple robes: nothing but tassels left on its back. The sun shot beams of power through its shadowed form. It screamed. It riled. Convulsed. The demon disappeared. Nothing but purple threads remained. As shadow and cloth fell away, the sun revealed itself. Those shafts of light did not come from the sun above, but Son that lived.

Jesus, the Son of God, stood before the soldier. There was no purple robe. There was no dead body. Holes in hands and feet showed where he had been hung, where he had been pierced. Stripes on his back showed where he had been whipped.

“I’m sorry.” The soldier fell to his knees. It was the demon, he wanted to say. His plea for forgiveness spilled from his eyes with new-found tears.

Jesus approached the man. He knelt before him, hand resting on shoulder. The soldier looked up, seeing tears in Jesus’ eyes. “I forgive you,” the Saviour said. “You knew not what you were doing.” The words seemed to come from all around him, swirling around the place. They floated down from on-high: from the mouth of God. They touched the lips of Jesus like feathers on a lake. They touched the heart of the soldier: a heavy burden lifted.

“King of the Jews.” He had pegged that sign above this man’s head, but it was not true. A new sign hung, hammered in by the voice of God. “Saviour of the world.”

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.

A Storm is Coming

A Storm is ComingThis story won third prize at The Cult of Me August 2013 Short Fiction contest

Wind whipped through the grass at the base of the old shack. It played with each strand like tuning an orchestral throng before mixing with the clouds in a cacophonous storm. Greys covered the fading blue, the wind pushing them toward their destination. Corrugated tin popped out from old wooden beams like the patchwork of an amateur’s quilt.

“A storm is coming,” came the warning from above, but the field was not listening. The neighbouring blades of brown-tipped green screeched against each other with laughter as the wind took up their song. They gossiped with each other, excited at the prospective clouds. The wind carried their words to the old shack.

“A storm is coming.” The words were gossiped from sky to field to lonely shack, but it gave no reply. The old piece of shelter stood erect, defying the would-be danger. The wind buffeted the siding, rippling between steel sheets and wooden posts. Rubber-sealed nails began to lift from their homes on the ridges. Rusty nails creaked against the decrepit construction like being dragged against a board meant for chalk.

“A storm is coming.” The wind spoke louder now, desperately pleading with the building. It blasted through windows on either side, crashing against the rafters above. Loose shingles spilled onto the ground, and the grass from beneath it laughed.

“A storm is coming!” The blades cheered, twisting around the asphalt coated plates, consuming them with glee. God’s voice shook the field in a thunderous clap, but the shack remained mute against the assault.

“A storm is coming.” The wind swirled faster and faster around the little hut, attempting to raise it from poor foundations into the air. It repeated the words with each revolution, tempting its victim to give in. A length of tin sputtered into the air, screaming in pain as it mixed with the impending storm before joining its shingle-brothers.

“A storm is coming.” The building was shaking now, like a child beneath his covers: those covers being ripped off one at a time. The monsters of the sky loomed low, hands clutching at the frame, sending nails flying, tin shrieking, boards creaking. Snapping. Falling. The wind gathered for a final assault. The shack breathed out a cry. First. Final. Never before had a voice sounded so lonely, in that mighty field.

“A storm is coming…” Tears fell from the sky and trickled down the building’s cheeks, working between the slats of tin, landing in a pool on the ground. The grass reached up to claim its prize. The building acquiesced to fate. The wind joined with the clouds and released a final sigh at the shack… the field… the world.

A bolt of lightning shot from the mouth of God, blasting a hole through broken tin, crushed timber, and grass left askew. That field of green gossiped a new and final message as orange flames licked from blade to blade. Their warning travelled the expanse, but not fast enough. “A storm is coming.”

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.”