How many times must I wake? The great expanse between sleep and consciousness is less pleasant than either extreme, no matter how bad the nightmares may be. Night terrors sap the soul and leave the body less strengthened by the aid of sleep, but daymares are worse still. What is a nightmare to a waking man but a fleeting memory, yet what is a daymare to the awakened but the inescapable terror of living? Such is the terror that no amount of pinching or slapping can pull you from. There is, however, one terror greater still, the dreams of the in-between, that place between asleep and awake. It is in this place that I fear the most, not knowing whether to run from the living terror I’m in, or incessantly slap myself until my skin is raw, trusting that it’s a dream.
I awoke yet again. This time was it real, or simply another deception of the mind? Was this raven who stood atop my chest a living terror or a foolish apparition who could be fought by a simple blink, or pinch, or slap. Those eyes seemed real enough, floating inches from my own in the darkened chamber, low light reflecting from the crystal balls. The jolt to my mind was followed quickly by my hand rising to strike the bird from its place while shielding my eyes with the other. It took flight before my swing made contact, soaring into the blackness.
My legs came around to touch the cold stone floor, rising from my place of sleepless rest. This must be a dream, for I had no will of my own to follow that beast into the surrounding night. To direct ones dream would be a thing of beauty. Don’t do it, Mert! Go back to sleep! But of course I wouldn’t listen. My feet carried me across the cold stone, one step at a time, picking my way through the sleeping men around me. A healthy dose of glutinous consumption, whether it be of food or drink, would knock any man off their feet… but not this man. Nothing seemed to hold greater power over me than the mares of night, day, and in-between.
Following the bird to the chamber beyond, I saw it disappear into the shadows which edged the great Colosseum. As I approached, a voice spilt out of the blackness. “What are you doing?” Ravens don’t talk, and I was happy for it. Their eyes say enough to fill a whole nightmare on their own. Luckily for me, this nightmare was not heightened by raven words, but ended by the realization that I truly was awake. These were the words of Kyra the Tallri.
If by day, my reply would have been swift, but how can one speak when awoken rudely by a demon-spawn of the sky? Nothing clever came to mind, nor did I ponder what she meant by her question before responding with the dumbest thing I could have said. “I was chasing a bird.” That would sound stupid if we were still in the forest, but what a greater lunatic I seemed speaking of birds in this mountain tomb.
She revealed herself from the shadows, showing that it was truly her, thus dispelling any fear that might have remained that I was still in a dream. “No, boy, what are you doing with them!” Though she spoke in a low tone, her words bit the air in disgust aided by her accusatory point to the chamber I had come from.
“Well…” I thought, the cloud of the dream quickly fading, but not quick enough for my liking. “I thought I would enjoy a nice meal before we continued on, and they didn’t seem to mind. Though the dried out deer definitely beats that sewage water we drank on our way north, nothing can compare to freshly roasted meat and a cup of warm ale to wash it down.”
“The only thing that would make that meal better is poison.” Usually when Kyra made such outlandish statement they were laced with mockery and jest. This time, however, she sounded more convinced of her words than I.
“No, I like my meat without poison actually.” What a juvenile thing to say, though this time I could blame my quick tongue and slow wit on the rude awakening I had received. She clearly wasn’t in a joking mood. “Why would those men poison me? They seem fine enough and have honoured me more than I have been since becoming a knight. Lady Calwen could learn a thing or two from these mountain men.”
“They are the allmarach, worshippers of the mountain.”
“Yes, I’ve gathered that. Catch up, would you?” Usually I was the one speaking and her the one replying with mockery. I thought it was about time to give her a taste of her own medicine, though she did not take it as I expected, but instead like a child spitting the medicine back out in her mother’s face. She slapped me. Never before had she raised her hand to strike me, and such an act caught me off guard which I’m sure was her intention.
“They are the enemies of the Tallri. We hold beauty and love in the highest order. Those perkoh defile Riul’s creation with war, blood-lust, and destruction.”
“They are the enemies of the Tallri. We hold beauty and love in the highest order. Those perkoh defile Riul’s creation with war, blood-lust, and destruction.”
“Oh, and they also worship the rock. Did you forget that part? I’m sure that Riul is pleased with their worship of the creation over the creator.” She never backed down when speaking in jest, so why should I… but I had never hit her.
“We must leave at once! For all we know, these men could be in league with Klychawk.” Her gestures were so animated that I thought she almost believed what she was saying.
She may have seen some sort of logic in her words, but I only saw humour and almost failed to stifle a laugh. Was she truly so afraid of these men that her common sense was failing? “Surely that must be it because before we left that beautiful forest behind we saw one of these men murdered in cold blood by a servant of Klychawk, or were you sleeping for that part?”
“I admit that I know not what happened there, but I do know what will happen here if these men see a Tallri within their sacred mountain. If you choose to stay with these allmarach, I will leave you in their hands. Perhaps with your new sword you can fight off Klychawk yourself!”
“Perhaps so, with this new army of mine!” I stood a little taller with pride. They respected me, and I them. Though at first they were the farthest thing from honourable in my eyes, the naming ceremony had given me an entirely new perspective.
“Army?” She did not even pretend to stifle her laugh. “They are not the organized group of knight you are used to, boy, but simply a band of barbarians with sticks. You are not one of them any more than that sword is part of your arm, though you may like both to be true. You think they respect you, based on a gift given, enough to die for you?”
“They like me more than you ever have!” Was I trying to convince her, or myself. I didn’t want to leave these men. For the first time in a long time I felt at home, accepted, wanted. The Pharosh could wait a few more days… but could Klychawk? Though it was true that I didn’t know what type of danger stalked us, nor whether Klychawk even knew where we were, neither did she. What right did she have to tear me away from my new-found friends based on paranoia.
“Well, when Klychawk comes knocking on the lid of this coffin, and Lady Eyes doesn’t sweep him off his feet with her beauty, you will find no help from me. The only ones who can help us are the Pharosh, and I aim to claim that help before we are no longer in need of it, trapped in coffins of our own.”
She turned to go, but I called out to her, almost afraid to wake the men in the room beyond. “Wait!” She did not turn around, but stood, waiting to see what words I had to convince her to stay. Though her belief that the allmarach were in league with Klychawk was unfounded, she would not see it differently unless an alternative was provided. “How do you expect to leave this mountain? The way forward is well forked and winding. Who better to lead us through than one of these men?”
She remained silent for some time. What was going through her head? I remember many times as a child sitting with Farah, wishing I knew what was going through her head. The mind of a woman is not quickly nor easily traversed, even by those who have the pleasure of spending time there. I did not have such luxury, though I wished now more than ever that I did. “Fine.” She replied simply. “But you will not see me until that perkoh is gone. This rock provides enough shadows for even the worst assassins to remain concealed.” Before she took her last step into the darkness, she continued with just as much bite in her words as before. “Keep that in mind with the allmarach at your side… or your back.”
Brynd stood and addressed the men who waited expectantly. “Mert Whatley seeks an advocate to lead him out of the mountain of god. Though his time here was brief, it is remembered. He carries with him Lady Eyes, the first sword of the Protector. Who would like to honour her legacy by leading her to the world beyond the mountain?”
The room was silent for quite some time. I didn’t know any one of them better than the other, and they certainly knew not a lot about me. What would I do in such a situation? If only I knew what it was like to be part of a tribe of warriors, but alas I could not relate with them… and never would be able to. Curse that Thief. “I shall answer her call and guide Lady Eyes to the land above.” I looked to see the man who spoke. It was the axe-man: Cargh.
He stepped out from the crowd and pulled his newly acquired sword from its sheath. Approaching Brynd and I, he knelt. “May the Rock guide my path, and Fioreh, my arm. I pledge my services to the great warrior, Lady Eyes, and her mission is my own.”
Brynd spoke again. “Lady Eyes, what is your mission?”
Lady Eyes? Oh wait, that’s me! What a strange culture this was. How should I respond to that? Am I to be a representative for my sword? Personifying a sword can only go so far… can’t it? “I have heard from Lady Eyes, and I… uh… she wishes to travel to the River West. Too long has she been trapped, surrounded by rock.” That sounded awkward.
“Cargh Fioreh.” Man and sword stood as Brynd directed them before turning to me. “Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.” If I had known that my sword would become a type of surname for myself, I would have chosen a lot differently. “Go forth, with the blessing of the Rock who stands firm.”
“The Rock stands firm.” The company spoke that familiar phrase, yet this time it was not in joyous cacophony, but in a low and sombre tone.
“… stand firm,” I said with them, mumbling out the last half of the phrase as I was caught unaware.
Cargh turned to look at me while sheathing Fioreh. “Lead on, Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.”
Oh boy. How long will that awful name follow me around. I don’t even want to think of what Kyra would say about that!
The walls sparkled like a thousand stars in a sea of black. The torchlight bounced from one diamond to the next while playing tag with the darkness. The shadows shifted before us like a great pool of ink spilt, waving through the manipulation of the light Cargh held in his hand.
The further we progressed through the winding passages, the more gems glistened to life as if conjured up by the torchlight itself. Such untold treasures lay beneath this rock, but despite having no tool to pry it from the mountain’s maw, I didn’t know what Cargh would think of me using the rock as a means of personal gain. If I am tempted by the treasure within these walls… I laughed to myself, thinking of the the Thief and how much she must be struggling not to pry each and every gem from the stone.
“You will not see me until that perkoh is gone…” she had said. I peered into the shadows behind us hoping to spot a glint of light bouncing off her eyes or see the shadows shift differently in revelation of her position. How great a distance did she follow us from? Did she follow us at all? This new companion of mine was strangely silent and it almost made me miss the way she would criticize my naive juvenility. Almost.
Turning around, I watched my silent company as he led me past another corner, yet another winding path into the unknown caverns of this fortress. I had no trouble believing that Kyra could remain hidden from eye and ear alike. Not only did the shadows provide ample cover, but the sound of metal clanking as Cargh’s armour rubbed against itself with every step shrouded any noise the Thief might have made. He was not outfitted as amply as Brynd, but a fair amount of armour hung from his every limb, glinting in the low torchlight. Not only did his armour reflect the light, but Fioreh’s orange glow could be seen from within the open sheath on his back she now called home. “Why does she glow orange?” I thought to myself before realizing that I had said it out loud.
Cargh turned his head back to me and made to reply. “Fioreh?” He asked simply. This man was eloquent when in the company of his own people and knew all the right words to say, but without ritual to direct his tongue he seemed awkward and hesitant.
“Yes. Lady Eyes glows a clear blue, but Fioreh is orange.”
“Indeed.” He turned back, concentrating on the route before us as if to make no more comment on the matter. Time seemed to stop. The next few moments, remaining silent, felt like a lifetime. “She is of firestone.”
I suppose that is some form of explanation. It wasn’t my intention to merely learn about the sword but perhaps start a conversation. Clearly such intentions did not translate. “What is firestone?”
Cargh remained silent once again as if contemplating whether to answer me. Soon his words broke the air like soft thunder from a distance, rumbling for a time before dissipating once more. “It is of a time before me from the depths of the mountain, long ago buried by the lake of fire. Below the fire-flooded passageways, there were many a stone exotic and unique. One of these was firestone.”
“Fire-flooded…” I trailed off into thought before finished the statement. “…by the Pharosh?”
Suddenly, Cargh turned on me as if spoken to by a demon, eyes mixed with fear and hate. “Where did you hear such things!” The thunder of his voice drew closer, rising in volume and rumbling the walls of the rock for longer before fading beyond in idle echoes.
Clearly I had done something to offend him, though I knew not what. “I am sorry, man, I meant no offence. I speak out of ignorance, simply guided by what the Tallri told me.”
Spittle from his mouth was launched to the floor where it formed a bitter pool or disgust. “Those servants of Riul have no place speaking of the Rock! None is greater than that in which we stand, and not even fire could penetrate her mighty stance! The Rock stands firm!” The rumbling grew closer as his words battled with each other in the air.
“The rock stands firm,” I replied, without really knowing what I was saying. Perhaps that customary response would calm him some, though I knew not its meaning.
“And don’t you doubt it!” He said with finality, his voice settling a little.
I did not wish my next phrase to come out as a challenge, or even be perceived as such, so I waited a while, letting the silence between us calm his nerves a little. “What is the true origin of the lake of fire?”
“The great forge was brought to us by the Rock, mighty in strength and wisdom. The fire in his heart burned so great that it spilled over, rising from the depth of the mountain. The fire was given to us by the Rock to craft mighty weapons with which to vanquish all who defile his name.”
“The Tallri?” I said, almost to myself, but no words could be kept secret with walls of rock all around that ricochet and twist speech to greater heights than intended. Kyra may have seen advantage in the shadows, but such amplification left no room for secrecy.
“They defile the name of the Rock calling him just a creation of Riul. The Rock stands firm beneath such cruel accusations.”
“I’m sure it… uh, he does” was all I could say. I had no place in this battle of the gods, for I subscribed to neither one or the other. As my hand sunk down to my belt I could feel the cold surface of the Horn of Riul, almost wishing I could hide the trinket from the man. Whether it truly held power over nature, I was yet to be convinced, but I didn’t want to offend this man any more than I already had. Alas, having nowhere to put the horn save for where it was fastened, I left it alone. What cause did I have to worry? In my time with the allmarach none had mentioned or even noticed the horn. If it did hold any power or meaning, these men were ignorant of it, and I had no desire to cure such naivety, though the silence did provide ample time for conversation. Too ample. What could I talk about with this man that would not offend? “Tell me more of Fioreh.” If I had learned one thing in my time beneath this rock it was that these men had no shortage of words when it came to swords.
“Forged of firestone, she burns the flesh of her foes. Many tales could be told of her might and valour in battle.” Pride seeped through his words.
“Tell me a tale then.” Finally, something to keep this man talking. It would be a dry journey, indeed, if he remained as silent as he had been.
His eyes went glassy like recalling a memory. “Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, Freas” he recited the first four names of his sword from memory while pulling her from his back, a low orange glow passing through the shadows. “These were the first four arms of Fioreh. Ahbin was a brutal man. They say his blood ran colder than that of the enemies he left in his wake. Lacking family or friends, no manner of love or mercy held him back from his trek to rid the world of evil. With the Rock as his guide and Fioreh, his strength, he would venture beyond the mountain each night to hunt out those that plagued the land.
“One night, while on the hunt, he heard voices in the distance behind a great rock. As he drew closer, he saw quickly the cause of the commotion. A small band of Pharosh had come across the River West and were mining the rock from the low-lying hills. Their large machines could be seen by the light of the moon.”
“Indeed. The Pharosh used to fashion giant machines which bore into the rock before placing that vile black powder in the deep holes. Through this defilement they would blow large chunks of rock from mountains and hills before carrying them away to use for whatever vile schemes they would conjure up.” I could tell by his tone that he was getting agitated again. “The rock is to be honoured, not abused! We mine rock with rock, nothing more. This has always been the way.
“Such monstrous contraptions angered Ahbin and the fire in his heart fed the flame of Fioreh. Man and sword, warrior and warrior, charged into the fray, catching the Pharosh off guard. The machines were destroyed as Ahbin struck at their limbs until they began to fall apart, one piece at a time. Soon the battlefield was littered with the dead, machine and Pharosh alike. As Ahbin reached for the final Pharosh that day he shouted, ‘You cannot crush the Rock! The Rock stands firm!’ before plunging Fioreh through his enemy. She reached her flaming hand through his back and into his chest, burning the flesh around the wound. It was a slow death for the Pharosh that day as their flesh burned with every wound inflicted. Ahbin left many of them writhing in pain, the flame of Fioreh torturing them as the burn spread through their bodies.” Cargh was breathing hard when he finished the tale. He swung his sword as if reliving every moment of the brutal battle.
“Firestone…” my thoughts trailed off with the possibilities. What magic was this that could burn flesh with steel? Such a great sword deserves the respect of those names there inscribed… but in the end it is still a sword; nothing but a tool in the hand of a warrior. What can a sword do without one to wield her but burn the ground she lies upon, hoping that some unlucky enemy would trip over her. I did not speak such thoughts of course, for I did not wish my flesh burned by the wrath of Cargh. Not wanting my thoughts to take over the conversation I was eager to get my companion talking again. “And what of Lady Eyes?”
The little man gave a laugh, putting Fioreh back in her place upon his back. “She is but a trinket compared to Fioreh. A silver sword, that is all.”
“Do I not hold the first sword of the Protector?” How did this man have the right to talk so fondly of his own blade yet call mine a trinket? “She must have some great tales of her own?”
“Nay. She is but a child in the warrior’s ranks.”
“I will make a name for her then!” I said with pride, eyeing her like a precious gem.
“Your arm is hers to direct. You make no name for her, but she will carve a path herself through the enemies of the Rock.”
“Certainly…” Though my words agreed, my heart did not. A sword would never control me, no matter how beautiful she may be.
The silence that followed was now welcome. If this man was simply going to insult Lady Eyes, I would hear nothing of it. I covered every inch of the blade with my fingers as we continued down the winding path through the mountain. She would prove greater entertainment than Cargh. The things we could do together! What adventures we would have. I imagined Klychawk himself standing before us, and me plunging Lady Eyes into his heart, breaking it forever. Beautiful women… breaking hearts seem to be their employ. Why could Farah not wait for me? Why must I continue on this journey in a strange land with strange people instead of living in Glanderxe with mother, Miranda, and Farah at my side. The more I thought about this mission, the worse I felt. My longing to return home was growing by the day, and it seemed like every corner I turned reminded me of Miss Farah Bailey. My heart was warmed as I saw light up ahead, seeping through the cracks around a giant bolder which blocked our path out of this mountain. Soon I would reach the Pharosh, and soon I would return home.