Tiyhak waited at the edge of the void in silent meditation, attempting to focus on Kno Arian beyond the River West. Nothing but Pharosh… nothing but nothing. That land devoid of all things spiritual, all things immortal, all things truly alive. The advantage of the Pharosh was plain, but every advantage comes equally yoked with frailty. Their spiritless bodies stalked the land like silent assassins, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. There had not been an attack in the North for many generations, but who was to say that they did not stalk the fortress now while Tiyhak sat at their borders. Not even Emperor Klychawk in all his might could even pretend to perceive their presence, his spiritual eyes being blinded by their physical exclusivity.
What disadvantage could the gift of spiritual silence have… or was it a curse? There was but one way to kill the servants of Klychawk: twice. Piercing their bodies was not enough, for they lived on in the realm of the spirit. Two live, two chances. The Pharosh only had one life to claim. Being vacant of spirit had the advantage of stealth but was coupled with such a great frailty: one life, one death, one chance.
What use was it looking into the void beyond the River West, for unless the Pharosh were suddenly gifted spirits from Heaven, nothing would be found there: no life, no spirit. Tiyhak knew not where they were now nor where they would be, but Mert Whatley and Kyra of the Tallri were not so lucky. He knew they would be here. He had seen it… the only question was when.
Travel within the spirit realm was light and limitless, without time as a factor, but time had some advantages of its own. The spirit of Mert travelled the land from the frozen north of Keltone, to the swamps and deserts of Coaniariam, from the urban lands of Glanderxe in the east, to here – the edge of the Void. Why had Tiyhak picked this place to make a stand? Did Klychawk, the god of death, even know the answer to that? Something had drawn him here. A longing in his spirit drew him to this place, a longing for the death of Mert Whatley. Tiyhak would not kill him twice; once would suffice. His spirit-lust was kindled by the taking of his first slave, the allmarach of flesh. What a better candidate would there be for his second kill, second slave than Mert Whatley of Glanderxe.
It had been so long since I was home. So long since I saw the face of my mother, sister… Farah. They say home is where the heart is. Where was my heart now? I saw it crushed, beaten down by the words of my love, and left to drown in her tears which pooled in the dust outside the Bailey house. I was happy to leave it there until I could return and claim in once again, claim her once again, but the further I got from the home the more I realized how deceived I was.
I could see my heart there in the dirt at Coere Ghante, but reality won over more and more with each passing day. Was it love that pushed me on, striving to reach my goal? My heart was not left behind, but came with me. I could hear it beating inside my chest. Thump. Thump. Thump. Each beat torturing me with the truth: the only thing I had left behind was my loved ones. The heart is said to be the centre of love, but was it love or loyalty that my heart beat for?
As the clear blue sky shot into the entrance of the cave, the stone being chipped away by my companion, I was warmed by its presence once again. My time under the mountains of Keltone had been glorious in its own right, but I didn’t belong cooped up in some cave like a beast. My journey had taken me further than I expected into lands previously unknown to me, but the Great Road once again awaited. “The journey has been pleasant my friend.” Though I could no longer lie to myself, I could still lie to him, this man accompanying me who was barely more than a stranger.
“Has been?” Cargh looked offended. “I have pledged my arm to Lady Eyes. Where she goes, Fioreh will follow.”
“I needed a guide out of the mountains, and you have provided magnificently on that front, but now my journey carries me onward to the River West.”
The man stood obstinate and ready.
“Beyond here, I go to meet with the Pharosh. Is that really a journey you want to take?” I did not want it to seem like I was pushing him away, though I kind of was. Kyra had made it plain that she would not return until I was rid of him. Though I could not explain it, some part of me wished to see her again, to make sure that she was okay. Perhaps without a family to care for, my heart sought another.
“Kho Arian is no place for one of the allmarach, but I cannot return to my people having broken an oath forged in steel.”
“How long do you aim to stay with me?” Though I did not know why, I feared what his answer might be.
“An oath of steel is not easily broken. Never will I leave you until death or defilement of the Rock. If your mission is still true, my arm belongs to Lady Eyes.”
“Very well then, Lady Eyes, lead the way!” I said mockingly, though I don’t think Cargh caught my jest. He seemed content to be led on a journey by a length of steel, a feeling we did not share. Lady Eyes and I held a special bond, but nothing like the bond of the allmarach with their weapons.
Cargh worked at concealing the breach we had made in the side of mountain, hauling stones bigger than a man his size should be able to. I helped him for a time, but was soon distracted by the surroundings. The grass stretched out before us like a blanket of beauty covering the ugly ground beneath. The field before us was greener than I imagined grass could be, fed by the mighty river which flowed before us. Trees poked up here and there speckling the blanket with beams of life, stretching their boughs to the Heavens, attempting to reach their Maker in a gesture of praise and thanksgiving.
This was one thing I enjoyed more about my current companion than my last. The Thief had led me from the lush lands of the surface into the dark dampness of the Keltone dungeon. Cargh brought me from the cold dark caverns back into the light and beauty of Glanderxe Coessarde. We would not remain here forever though, for the Coessarde of the Pharosh was my goal: Kho Arian across the River West.
We reached the road quickly which had been visible from the breach we made in the mountainside. I remembered that last time upon this road, riding atop my horse, the Tallri riding beside me on an animal not rightfully hers. The journey would be much slower without my stead. She had probably long been torn apart by wolves at the place I left her. Though I hadn’t had her for long, she was a good horse and served me well. If the wolf attack that night hadn’t left me so crazed, she might still be with me. What a cruel trick this trip had played on me thus far. Stolen from by Kyra, attacked by wolves, lead north by trickery, hunted by Klychawk, trapped beneath the mountains, and now reminded of the one grief I had forgotten: my horse.
Though we had travelled along the water’s edge before, our trip under the mountains had sent us backward on the trail… not that I was surprised. Nothing about this trip had gone as I intended: always two steps forward, one step back. By the time the sun began to set, the river was visible in the distance, that glowing ball of light in the sky sinking beneath the shimmering waves. In the low light I saw a mighty bridge extending from the great road across the river. The bridge appeared to be fashioned entirely of smooth-topped stone. How many men had it taken to carry all of that stone down from the mountains and suspend it in such a way that it bridged the land-gap but did not dam the water? Giant pillars of rock extended from the belly side of the bridge like legs on a monstrous beast.
As we drew closer, I noticed that the bridge was not entirely of stone as per my original perception. Wide bands of metal stretched around the rock, seemingly holding the stone sections together in a semi-organized fashion. The stripes of steel on the rock behemoth stretched out for miles, farther than my eyes could see. Giant rock formations sat atop each metal strip like doorways into a portal, transporting the traveller to a distant land.
I knew that Kho Arian lay somewhere in the void beyond this unlit path stretching across the water, but something was holding me back. I didn’t want to enter the land without Kyra. She, though deceptively so, had been my guide, and it almost felt like I was cheating her. As I took my first step up onto the great stone bridge, I felt dirty. Where was Kyra? Could she not put down her difference of religious opinion for the sake of her life? I was not the only one hunted by Klychawk. He hunted her as well. If her words be true and the Pharosh were the only ones who could help us, she may very well die by stubborn religiosity.
These thoughts did not leave my mind as we progressed along the cold stone, the low-light of the sun now distant with the rising of the moon. With the darkness came new lights, not of the sun or moon, but what looked like giant fires in the distance. As we drew closer, I saw that these flames stood atop giant stone pillars which stretched out across the horizon like the wall of a great city. The water subsided as it touched the low beach of the Kho Arian shores before the rising walls took over the land. As I continued on, awed by the masterpiece before my eyes, I would have walked right into the water if it were not for Cargh. Holding out his arm to block my way, he forced me to refocus on… nothing. The bridge we had once been travelling on abruptly ended but a stone’s throw away from the walls. A black bird swooped low, bridging the gap, and I shivered, not from the cold but in remembrance of the nightmare I had experienced yesterday… or had it been a daymare?
“We can go no further.” His word provided no extra knowledge to me, for my eyes could see plain enough that the bridge had ended.
I looked at him confused. “Why… this bridge doesn’t make any sense. Who would build a bridge out into the water, but not finish it?” I was a little bit angered, having come all this way just to be turned back by a deceitful masonry defect.
“This stone and ironwork has the mark of the Pharosh. Surely they built this bridge.”
“Surely, but they clearly don’t use it. What purpose could this possibly serve?”
It serves my purposes quite well. A voice reached for my ears from out of the wind.
“Cargh…?” I said in hesitation. This voice did not sound like my armour-clad friend, but who else could be speaking?
“That was not me.” The man drew Fioreh from his back and grabbed for the axe at his belt with the other hand. Though he held no torch, the great fires in the distance, and the soft glow of Fioreh provided ample light to see by. “Show yourself! I can fight no coward!”
I drew Lady Eyes from my belt and watched the bridge behind us before the voice spoke again. “If it’s a fight you want…” I saw a soft purple glow emerging in front of me… “then a fight you shall have!” As the being continued to materialize before me I saw a purple ball of lightning begin to form in mid-air. Soon the hands which fashioned it were fully evident as the body of the man who had attacked that allmarach in the forest so many days ago emerged. Not wishing to be stuck in that state of paralysis I had seen the previous victim of this magic in, I ducked. The lightning launched over my head in a steady stream, crackling and sparking through the night. I heard the “caw” of a bird, but no longer cared about its idle threats. This terror that stood before me was real, and it was trying to kill me.
Cargh used the opportunity afforded to him by the attacker’s poor attempt to stun me and charged toward him. Before Cargh could reach the man, he was stopped up short by a long blade coming out of the night, seeking to do him in. His momentum forward was so great that his duck under the swing led into a roll before he came up and turned around to face this new assailant.
Warrior faced warrior, blade faced blade, allmarach faced allmarach as the previous victim of our attacker’s power emerged. Cargh’s eyed grew wide as if seeing a ghost and I charged at the man who had caused his change in demeanour. The spirit-allmarach spun around to block my swing. Steel hit steel in an impressive display of sparks that looked like fireworks in the night sky. I took on a defensive stance, attempting to learn the techniques of my enemy before engaging fully. He attacked and I parried, being pushed back toward the edge of the bridge. I hoped that Cargh would come to my aid, but then thought better of such hopes. My companion had an attacker of his own, that voice in the night that had first emerged.
Though I was a knight of Glanderxe, my arm was untrained, and the lack of training showed. I barely was able to keep my limbs attached as the spirit-slave’s sword-arm swung with brutality and violence, seeking to accomplish the will of his master above all else: my death. As if things couldn’t get any worse, amidst the cacophony of the battle, I heard a wolf cry. A chill went down my spine and fear manifested itself in bumps rising from my skin. My thoughts turned to the Horn of Riul which bounced about in the movement of battle, fastened to my belt. If I could only get a break from my attacker, perhaps I could reach for the horn and give it a blow. Though I was not entirely convinced of its effectiveness, in my last encounter with wolves it had proved beneficial.
I was not a religious man, but even if I had not made prayer a common practise, now was a better time than any to start. Cargh would kill me himself if he ever found out I prayed to Riul, and Kyra would do the same if I called upon the Rock. I held no favours either way, but simply wanted to remain alive. Whichever god could provide for me better concerning my life, that would be the god that I chose. As if answering my unspoken prayer, someone came to my aid, though it would not have been my first choice. Which was the worse monster, the allmarach with the sword, or beast which now jumped upon the back of my attacker, claws slashing and teeth digging into spirit flesh?
I fell backward onto the rock as the allmarach was launched into me from the wolf who had attached itself to his back. During the fall, I peered over the shoulders of the wolf and saw Cargh, paralysed in a hold of purple lightning. Was this the end? I had seen it before, and soon Cargh would be resigned to the same fate as the spirit who had been besting me at sword-play. Myself? After the wolf was finished with its spirit-dinner it would have want of real flesh, me being its next victim.
My back hit the cold stone and my head hung aimlessly over the water below. I watched the wolf ripping at the allmarach on top of me and watched our first attacker approaching Cargh, one step at a time, eager to replace his dying slave. No sword would save me from this death, not even Lady Eyes, for what could battle a spirit but spirit alone? Reaching for the horn at my waist, I held onto one final hope that Riul would come through for me. Grabbing the horn, I ripped it from my belt and, bringing it to my lips, let out a blast that I feared might even shake the very foundations of this bridge, sending the whole battle tumbling into the waters below. Perhaps that would be best. If I was die, at least I could die knowing that I took my enemy with me.
I heard a mighty boom from behind me moments before what seemed to be a giant boulder came whizzing over my head, landing just inches in front of me, finding its target in the beast who ravaged its prey atop me. The boulder split into a thousand tiny pieces, like glass touching intense heat, sending the wolf reeling backward. I wriggled backward in haste, not willing to remain beneath the carcass of my attacker any longer than I had to. Rolling from beneath the dead weight, I got up and faced the direction of the noise. A bridge now stretched toward me like a great stone tongue from the shores of Kho Arian. Atop the stone was a line of giant barrelled contraptions, sparks flying from atop the steel casings. Humanoid shapes stood behind the canons of varying girth and height. Though it was hard to make out in the low light, they appeared to have reptilian features.
Though the sight intrigued me, it may have been better for me to have remained hidden beneath the dead man. As if answering my call to attendance, a mighty glass ball came toward me from one of the mighty cannons. It hit me squarely in the chest, knocking me backward to join the wolf on the stone floor. The beast beside me was struggling to rise as I landed on top of it. There I was, face to face with my greatest fear, the fangs of the canine inches from my face.
No man would believe what happened next if they had not seen it. Before my eyes the wolf began to change, taking on a new shape and form: the form of Kyra the Tallri. I had no time to think long of this strange occurrence, however, before noticing a change of my very own. All at once I noticed a void, like part of me was missing. As far as I knew I could still walk and talk, but something unexplainable, deep within me was gone.
“You do enjoy wrestling me to the ground, don’t you boy? There are better ways of getting attention from women, you know.”
Normally I would have responded, but I was too dumbfounded for any words to form, and if I had said anything, my words would have been drowned out by the crack of another cannon, and then another. I looked up to seem the first boulder crash into Cargh, breaking him from his trance like state and toppling him onto the ground. The other boulder aimed for the only one remaining standing, but did not reach its mark. At the sound, the man ceased approaching his prey and vanished into the same night from which he had once appeared, leaving nothing but purple wisps of smoke behind.