“This place is awful! How can you come here every night?” Farah sat at an old wooden table, its surface scratched and worn by the many patrons who had visited it before her. The old chair matched the appeal of the establishment, creaking its disapproval. Farah scrunched up her nose, mirroring the chair’s feelings.
Miranda let out a light laugh, her freckled face shifting with a smile. “Oh, it’s not that bad!” She motioned with her eyes to the room in general. “Just takes a bit of getting used to, that’s all.”
The smell of old sweat and dirt mixed with rotting ale was all around: a smell not common in Coere Ghante. “I’m not sure this is a place I want to get used to, Mir.”
Miranda giggled while taking a long draw of her drink. Her mug teetered on the edge of the table as she set it down precariously. “You called on me, remember? You asked to see the Great City, and this is it!” she stretched her arms wide to the ceiling.
“Hey, Lazy Boots! How ’bout a dance!” A man with more beard than face approached the table and sat down beside Miranda.
“How ’bout you give me a song to carry these boots onto the floor!” She jested back. Do random men really just walk up and sit down! How extremely impolite! Farah had almost had enough of this place already. If this was what Glanderxe was all about, how did Mert stand it. She never took him to be a man who would keep such company… though neither did she think him a man to refuse her hand when it was plainly offered.
“Hey boys! Lazy Boots wants a dance! She says, first come, first serve!” He gave out a long laugh, holding his hands against his giant belly. Miranda shoved the giant mass he held back.
“I did not, Tub-gut!” This comment just egged him on, as a few other men approached. They appeared more drunk than the first.
The man with more belly than brains stood to join his approaching comrades. He turned around and called to Miranda. “Come on, Lazy Boots! Where’s my dance!”
She stood up and folded her arms across her chest. “Where’s my song!” Her lips put on a mock pout as she answered in defiance.
Oh! There once was a country lass
Whose breasts were bigger than her class.
She came from the roads beyond,
Her tresses fair and legs so long.
She found a man in yonder town,
But thought him to be a clown.
She raked him through the coals, I say!
… And then he ran away. AWAY!
Oh! There once was a country lass.
Men would flock to her so fast
She would have to call the guard
The song paused until one patron offered up a line. “To chase away that tub of lard!” He pointed at the first man who initiated the song and the room laughed uncontrollably.
Miranda spun around and the clapping started. Keeping the beat with her toes, she began to prance around the room like a deer at play, as men all around joined in the song, clapping or clanking their mugs against table and chair. Ale spewed up in the air as they toasted each other with jovial laughter.
Miranda sat back down across from Farah as the singing died down, patrons returning to their own drinks and conversations. “They are so friendly here! See?” She said between sucking in deep breaths.
“Yes… I certainly can see.”
“They just love my dancing, and those songs are so creative!”
They certainly do love your dancing, Mir, but not for the reasons you might think. “Mir, I was hoping you could show me the castle.”
“The castle! Whatever for? This is where all of the excitement is.” She looked around the room, breathless, seemingly enthralled with the surroundings.
“I was wondering about visiting with your dear mother.” She was beginning to regret asking Mert’s sister for a tour. Clearly she had a different idea of what it meant to live in Glanderxe than Farah had perceived. Miranda had always been full of life and seemed more at home here than she ever had at Coere Ghante, her true home.
“I can show you, sweet lady.” Who, in an establishment such as this would address her as “sweet lady?” she turned to see a tall man, long locks of gold flowing down his back to meet the black tunic that he wore over his armour, the crest of Glanderxe emblazoned on his chest.
She smiled a little at him. “And who might you be?”
“Sir Yoyde, my lady,” he gave a little bow, taking her hand and kissing it softly. “A loyal knight to her majesty, Lady Calwen.” The well cropped hair that dressed his top lip felt rough against the back of her hand, but his lips were anything but: soft and warm. As he pulled away, his hand remained in hers as he lightly played with her fingers between his own, washing away the dirt and grime of the tavern. “Shall we?” he asked her, those soft blue eyes inviting and friendly.
Farah looked back at where Miranda had been, but once again she was spinning around the room in glee, just happy to be alive. “Certainly, good sir.” This was a knight of Glanderxe, an equal to Mert in rank. He would treat her with respect, regardless of how common her birth was. Mert would have done the same if he was still around, and certainly he wouldn’t have taken her into this tavern. Sadly, he was not.
The crackle of the lightning jolted his spirit like two defibrillator pads bringing him back to life. His body began to materialize, the spirit-strands coming together to shape him. Eyes shot open from the shock, like waking from death itself. Though he felt alive, death surrounded him. Lungs constricted and he began to panic, looking for a way out. No flashing red sign signified Exit, and no glowing dots on the ground showed him the path. He felt like screaming, but the box held him tight, smothering his vocal chords.
This didn’t make any sense, but there was no time to ponder about it now. He had to get out. As the muscle materialized around his bones, Tiyhak began rocking back and forth. He reached out in front of him, but found a solid wood ceiling, solid floor, solid walls. He scratched and kicked as his body continued to form in this place clearly too small for him. A warm, sticky substance was rising in his throat. He lost all ability to breathe as the red liquid entered his mouth and began seeping out of his parting lips. If the world around him could get any darker, it did. Black spots shrouded his vision as he lost consciousness.
Who knows how long Tiyhak had lain there, but the god of death did not claim him yet. He woke to the smell of blood, stomach beginning to church. “Thank you,” he breathed out between gasps for air. He had never doubted his father’s love, and had no reason to start now. Klychawk longed for him to remain forever in the plane of the spirit, having no body to return to, but would not take him before his time. Many tried to cheat death, but that was only a fool’s game. The god of death takes a spirit when it is ready, never cheating his own system.
Tiyhak knew he wasn’t dead, but almost wished he was. As he stretched his legs out, they screamed in defiance, shooting pain through his whole body. “Father,” he cried out, barely above a whisper. “Give me strength or take me now.”
It is not yet time, my son. He heard the words, reaching through spirit to inner ear. None in the room could hear the voice, save for Tiyhak, not that stone walls had ears. He could tell by smell that the stone was damp, but knew nothing else. Though his spirit could see across the entire land, finding every spirit where they stood, his eyes couldn’t see his own hand as it waved before them.
Finally he managed to rise to his knees and shuffled along the floor until he found a wall. Attempting to reach into his spirit provided him with no more power than a soft purple glow on his palms… but that was enough. The room was small and simple, populated with a single wooden box… or what was left of one. The wood was torn apart and shards of what remained lay soaking up his blood. I was in that! The box couldn’t have been bigger than a few feet squared when it was whole. No wonder he had blown it open. Nothing else significant was evident: no doors, windows, nothing. He knew less about his location than before he travelled. No one but him knew what it was like to travel into Kho Arian, across the void. It was dangerous and forbidden… but that was before there were spirits here. Not only were there spirits, but the spirits of those he sought: Mert Whatley and Kyra of the Tallri. A third spirit was here, an allmarach, but he was unimportant.
In the past, spirit tracking had been flawless. There must be some sort of mistake. He reached back into the spirit-realm, a little stronger now, and examined the room some more. There they were, the three spirits that he sought, the three that had drawn him here… but where were the bodies? They hung there stupidly, aimlessly floating in the plane of death above the exploded wooden box.
It took some time, but Tiyhak finally regained his strength enough to travel, releasing himself fully to death once more. He searched among the strands until he found the one he sought, the one that called to him, the spirit of Klychawk. Zipping along the strand like a high-speed train, he returned to the garden in an instant. “Father, why did you not tell me you had claimed Mert Whatley?”
The god of death raised his would-be eyebrows. “I would not lie to a child of mine. What is this about, my son?”
“I found the spirit, but not the body. If it was not you…” Tiyhak mulled over the situation in his head until horror overwhelmed him. “My Lord, who could steal the power of death from its god?”
“I do not know, my son…” Klychawk shook his head, troubled and bewildered. “I do not know…”
A great clap of thunder pierced the sky as fire exploded into tiny morsels of light before raining down on the earth below. The fire fizzled against the wind in its decent, disappearing in streams of charcoal smoke. Another ball was launched into the air as the Pharosh came swooping low, its broad wings masking the crescent moon like a leathery blanket. I could feel the heat as it sprayed the air with fire, aiming at the approaching ball. Within what seemed like inches of the projectile, the Pharosh banked quickly to the right and shot straight up in the air. The ball exploded, throwing fire of various colours out from the centre. That great lizard of the sky looked like a champion shooting out from the heart of the explosion, fire and moonlight gleaming off of his silky green coat.
Smaller Pharosh of varying colours swirled around this monster of the air, shooting out plumes of fire as he descended in a cyclone of grace. More balls were ignited mid-air above them as the Pharosh shot their fire skyward. The explosions were so close that I thought my ears were going to bleed. Thousands of tiny streams of rapidly cooling fire disappeared into smoke as the big, green Pharosh landed, encircled by flame.
The crowd roared, cheered, and laughed. Some in the crowd shot their own plumes of fire skyward, expressing their enjoyment. This was a party: a celebration of grace and beauty, a celebration of life and wonder, not a drunken brawl like the “parties” of Glanderxe. I knew not what we were celebrating, but did not care, and nor did the crowd. I was enjoying myself so much that I almost didn’t notice Othban coming up beside me. “Geor will see you now.”
I had briefly forgotten why we’d come here, enjoying the scene around me. Geor was another member of the separatist sect, and apparently a higher-up. They didn’t seem to function from a “home-base” or even meet together often, but everyone knew where to find Geor and he knew where to find everyone.
The stone slab wasn’t more than a few inches tall, just enough to make it visible. To one side of the slab there was a small metal tube jutting out, smoke rising out from some heat source below. Othban pulled a small glass ball from the pouch he had slung to one side and dropped it down the pipe. After a brief moment the steady stream of smoke ceased, but began pumping out in great gusts, punctuating each word. “Who is it?” came a voice from the pipe.
“The girl scouts come with cookies” Othban replied, amusing himself.
“Ooo! I love cookies! Come on in then.” The ground began to shake, loose stones playing among the sand. I watched as the dirt to one side of the slab gave way, revealing a set of stone stairs. We followed Othban down the dirt covered stairs to a wooden door which seemingly led into the stone slab, now a mighty pillar underground. Cargh spat, but said nothing, keeping his grumbling to himself.
As I stepped through the door, the smell of a charcoal fire greeted me with more cordiality that I though possible from a simple smell. The words of our patron weren’t as friendly as the fire. “Stop squirming. Bloody buck of bolts!” Geor stood behind a table strewn with metal parts of every shape and size: plates, hooks, gears, nuts and bolts, and many others I could not put a name to. He had two scaled paws around a small metallic device that lay resting on the table… well, not really resting. It struggling beneath his force clearly not fond of being held down by this lizard with a row of sharp horns running down his back-bone. “There” he said with finality, releasing the little thing who was more than happy to scurry away to some dark corner of the room where dust, no doubt, had been gathering for some time.
“You know, cousin, you should really make one of those contraptions clean up around here. There is dirt all over your front steps!” Othban teased.
“That’s better than the dust that collects on yours. When’s the last time you had a woman visit you?” Geor and Othban shared a strange embrace, the smaller of the two scurrying up Geor’s leg and rubbing against his face before returning to the ground. “Who do we have here?”
Othban introduced us, and when he got to me I raised my hand to shake that of our patron. After it hung loosely in the air for a while I let it drop. How do you shake a lizard’s… paw? We were ushered into another room and seated on a long wooden bench that populated the far wall. Little metal crab-like creatures scurried around the room, cleaning up dirt, straightening furniture, and generally keeping themselves busy. A few came in from the adjacent room carrying tankards filled with warm mead. I hesitantly, but gladly, accepted the drink. It almost spilt at the sound of a giant clock standing in the corner which rang out that monochromatic tune a few times before falling silent, having done its duty.
I would have imagined this underground shack to be cold and dark, but a charcoal fire won the fight against my imagination. The stone did not hold much heat, but the thick carpets which plastered the room from wall to ceiling held it quite well. Gas lanterns hung on every wall, providing more light than was natural. The whole place felt surprisingly homey and safe.
Othban spoke with his cousin about our predicament, but seemed to leave out the part of us having no spirits. Wasn’t that our predicament? I maybe should start calling these Pharosh “the Thief” instead of Kyra, for she had stolen mere coin while they held captive something of much greater value to me… to anyone.
“If it’s freedom they seek, there is a way.” Geor said to his cousin and then looked over at us like examining a specimen. “There is one entrance, but two exits.” He walked over to the far wall as if such actions would explain what he had said. Reaching his hand behind a tall bookshelf, he fumbled with something, the various trinkets there housed shaking and bouncing. The soft hiss of steam signified that he was finished. Beside the clock, the stone wall began to move, and soon revealed a dimly-lit tunnel with seemingly no end. The tunnel was furnished with a stone cart atop of steel track, reaching it’s finger out into the blackness. “I use this for mining, but it may prove useful for something more, today.”
Cargh stood and threw his ale against the wall as metal crab-like contraptions rushed to clean up the mess. “Mining indeed! The Rock will stand for this no longer! You take nothing from the Rock but what he gives you! How dare you abuse that right, taking advantage of his benevolence!” He drew Fioreh from his side, her soft glow adding some ambiance to the room. “You are all guilty!” he pointed her at Geor and then Othban. “Come, Mert Whatley Lady Eyes. We must vanquish these abusers. The Rock calls for their blood!” Before I could respond, he began rushing at Geor who stood there stupid and unarmed. Soon, however, Cargh kissed the stone as his feet came out from under him. Hundreds of metal crabs latched to his feet and he shook wildly, trying to get them off. Rolling over, he started slashing at them with his sword-arm, but soon they put a stop to this by scurrying up and sending talon-like legs into his wrist. Fioreh went clattering to the floor as Cargh screamed in pain and shook violently, dislodging few of his assailants. Geor picked up the sword, and found the axe at his other hip. He took them both back to the clock and threw them in the cart which stood ready and waiting in the stone maw. The crab-things swiftly departed, returning to whatever duties they had before Cargh’s aggression.
The allmarach stood up, still fuming, his face red as blood. He thought twice before running at the lizard again, suspiciously eyeing the metal contraptions. Though they seemingly paid him no mind, I knew they were ready and waiting to defend their creator.
“My, my. What a show! Their defensive mechanic has never had an opportunity to be tested.” Geor’s face lit up as he laughed a little. “Thank you, good sir. A design is one thing, but seeing it in action is another altogether.” Picking up one of the crab-like creatures, he began to admire it, patting it on the head like one would a puppy. After setting it down, he spoke again, but this time on a different subject. “This tunnel will lead you beneath the mountains to the far western borders of Kho Arian. From there the lava is pumped beneath the river and the Keltone range.”
Such a prospect seemed ludicrous. Were we to be smuggled out like some underground slaves? I laughed to myself at this thought, for we certainly were underground. Cargh evidently was not happy with the arrangement, and I didn’t know how pleased I was myself. Surly the Pharosh were trying to help, but it felt more like they just wanted to be rid of us. While I pondered all of this, Kyra showed her displeasure. “I will not leave without my spirit.”
Geor laughed. “If I had that mindset, I would never leave my house!”
“You never do, cousin.” Othban poked at him.
Before Geor could respond, the sound of breaking glass was heard from the other room. He left to answer the call of a visitor. Setting his mouth against a valve, he pulled a level and spoke. “Who is it?”
A muffled reply came through the pipe from above. “It’s your mother, now open up.” The voice was distinctively not female.
“Mother, you should really call before coming to visit. My room is such a mess.” Geor spoke in jest, but a stroke of worry spread across his face.
“Let us in, Geor.” Apparently the owner of the voice was done playing this game.
Geor paused. “… Just a second.” He rushed back to where we were seated on the wooden bench. “You must leave now, if you wish to leave at all.”
Though my feet answered him favourable as they stood, I was still confused and unmoved. “What are you talking about?”
“The guard has come. They must have seen you at the festival.”
I told him not to let them in, this seeming like a simple enough thing to do, but he refused. Apparently, though he did not agreed with their ways, he did not want to make himself an enemy or target by refusing the demands of the royal guard. He pushed a button on the wall which revealed the stairs above that we had previously used. “The choice is your, my friends. You have two exits: through that tunnel or in shackles.” Neither choice would have been my preference. Though I didn’t agree with Cargh’s rageful distaste, I had no idea what lay at the end of the ominous tunnel. Kyra also spoke truth, and I was no more ready to leave without my spirit than she was. Clearly these spiritless lizards didn’t understand. Like being torn in two, I approached the passage. The void inside me screamed its defiance. Would putting more distance between me and my spirit cause this emptiness to grow?
The wooden door to the little shack opened and I didn’t see who entered, for I was already climbing into the cart. “Mother, it has been ages since we last spoke!” Geor greeted his guests and I saw that their presence was enough for Kyra and Cargh to join me in the cart. The stone wall began to close behind us. Soon the light would fade. Soon the cart would move. Soon the blackness beyond would approach. I wanted to leave Kho Arian, but not like this.
Soon we were flying. Kyra doubtless didn’t considered this flying, as ravens wings were not involved, but to me it was the closest I would ever get. The cart fought against the track as it zipped along with incredible speed. I closed my eyes and prayed, whether to Riul or the Rock, I didn’t know. I prayed that I would get my spirit back, but more importantly, I prayed that we would make it out of this place alive.