Rough stone, the only bed provided me, was sweat-soaked, the nightmare almost feeling real. I wasn’t sure whether it was the vivid imagery in my mind or the sickness I felt because of it that caused me to slump over in the back corner of my cell. My gut wrenched, but nothing came out. Though Cargh tried his best to provide for me, my stomach felt emptier than a yet to be filled grave, and the lack of mess on the floor showed it. My heart felt even worse. The shackles of the night were no longer around me, but my heart tugged this way and that, fighting for freedom from within my sweat-soaked shell. I had experienced the longing for my spirit before, but not like this. If bars did not surround me, I would have been trudging through the snow in desperate search for that missing part of my being.
At least it can’t get any worse. That is the type of thing you say when you know the opposite is true. I had no desire to voice those words, but fate looked at me from its throne in my mind and laughed. It could get worse, and it did.
“I see that you’re awake.” Sir Reuben’s thick voice leaked into the room soon after the soft click of his feet on the stairs. Two well-armed allmarach followed, like henchmen to a prince.
Not really. I thought, but didn’t say anything. If things could get any worse, such words would surely be the vehicle used.
“I am an honest man,” he began, but I wasn’t sure how good a job he did at convincing me of such. “Knights, lords, dukes,” he played with the rough hairs atop lips while he spoke. “We are all chosen for greatness. Honesty, valour, loyalty. So, when I say that I am honest, it is not with hesitation that I trust you to be of the same mind.”
He paused, looking at me, as if expecting confirmation of such surmising. After seeing that I had no desire to entertain whatever game he played, Reuben continued that stroking of hair and pacing of feet. “You say that you’ve come from Kho Arian, so I ask you with all the honesty that a duke, or any man, should receive from such a decorated knight as yourself. How?”
The only decoration that I carried with me were musty travel clothes. A knight I was, though none would expect so from looking at me now: dressed like a peasant and locked in a jail cell. “How what?”
“Kho Arian is not known for being the most hospitable, especially to outsiders. How do you come to be here?”
“It was you, yourself, who put me here in this cell without food, nor water, for days. You ask me how… I ask why.” I had no reason to answer this man. Whatever his intention, they surely were anything but honest.
Sir Reuben turned to the two warriors with him. “It would appear that three days was not enough to loosen his tongue. Perhaps you can help with that? Hmm?” A two-handed mace was pulled from the back of the one allmarach and I wondered how he carried himself about with such a vast weapon. The other drew a short axe and stepped forward to meet his brother at the bars. “See how they carry those weapons? I wouldn’t want you to be their chosen target, but what is an old man in a robe to do against two hardened warrior, hmm? Tell you what, Mert, if you just share with me the information I need, I will call them off. Maybe even I will release you, but that decision is not my own.” He gave a faint smile, but it meant nothing to me. This man had no reason to be merciful.
“Are whose decision is that?”
“Yours, good sir. You are still a sir, right? For now, I suppose… Mmm, tell me how you escaped Kho Arian and you can go. How is that for a deal, hmm? Oh, and I won’t even tell the queen of your treachery.”
“How kind of you,” I didn’t care whether or not he heard the sarcasm. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I held no allegiance to the Pharosh. They had done nothing but imprison me, made fun of me, and sent me packing. Did the man in front of me now do any different?
“I believe many things that I am told. The allmarach and Tallri exist, and I believe that despite the adamant refusal of such things from those of our same race.” There were not many similarities between myself and this man, and being reminded of the one thing we held irrefutably in common did not sit well with me.
“By boat.” The answer was simple, and also not very informative. If this man wanted information, he would have to fight for it.
His lips spread in a less than amused laugh, and the allmarach with the mace struck the iron bars which surrounded me, supposedly at Reuben’s suggestion. That great torrent of sound rushed into my ears like a hundred shrieking ravens in the dead of night. “Please, you don’t have to make things difficult.”
“I’m not a lying.”
“Mmm, let’s go with that. A boat you say. I know they wouldn’t have freely let you go, so unless you worked that mouth of your more eloquently for them than you do for me, it stand to reason that your story is missing something.”
“It is.” The bars rang out again, and this time I covered my ears to block out the horrid noise, not that the sound of Reuben’s voice was much better. At least he held some conversational graces, a luxury I was not giving him.
“Strike two, sir. Do you want to know what happens at strike three? Hmm?”
If strike three means I’m out, that could be profitable. This cell isn’t the best of company.
“So, tell me about this boat. Was a war galley? A pleasure cruiser?” he hid a shrewd laugh behind his hand.
“It was a rock.” A rock with holes.
“Wonderful. Well, now we are getting somewhere, hmm?” He motioned for the two allmarach to give me space and approached the cage himself. The smell of old garlic wafted into my cell, and though it wasn’t pleasant, it did remind me of the meals he surely was enjoying without me. My stomach rumbled its disapproval. “Ah,” he gestured, conscious of the noise. “We can fix that as well. Mmm… just a few more questions, sir.” He called me sir, but I’m sure he didn’t think me one. Not that I was complaining, for I thought no less of him. “This rock boat… was it seaworthy enough to brave the River West and its torrents, or did the gods of imagination grant you wings as well, hmm?”
He clearly didn’t believe me, and I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t the most eager crew member at the time. “It had holes for the floating part, and the river wasn’t a problem.”
“Not a problem?” he looked at me, almost with pity. “It is the problem for everyone else. Tell me then, hmm? How did it come to be not a problem.”
“We went beneath.” Why was I telling him this? I suppose it didn’t matter that much. If this is all that Klychawk wanted from me, I would gladly give it in favour of returning home.
“A floating rock beneath the river. Tsk, tsk, tsk. I would have expected more from an honest knight of Glanderxe.” He turned away and motioned for the allmarach to take his place at the bars. A heavily mailed fist rocketed my face, and I landed hard on the ground in the cold pool of sweat my most recent dreamy travels had left for me. Once I gained my feet again, they were moving away, following the robed figure of that man I once knew.
“I will be back tomorrow. If you can’t think how to put it in words… perhaps put it in writing, hmm?” He left me quill or ink so if he really expected me to write it down, what was I to use? A slow dribble trickled down my brow: blood.
Tyhak grabbed at the strands suspended in the maw of the library wall. Pharosh came pouring into the mouth like a bucket of ants tipped over. Some flew from the spilled bucket, wings stretching into the musky air. Others toppled over each other on the ground, writhing in a tumbled mass of tails and scales. Once gathering their bearings, the Pharosh would search but find nothing. Kyra had no sooner been given her spirit that she took flight, happy for the ability to do so again. Amidst the mass of leathery bodies and paper thin wings, another set of wings rose inked and feathered, slipping out of the place between wings of greater proportion that her own. The perfect candidate for a sleuth, thought Tiyhak as he watched her tiny, black, silent wings disappear in the mess of lizards.
Kyra managed to escape the Pharosh, but not Tiyhak. His spirit-informer would follow her trail as he had instructed, using the same techniques of stealth that the Tallri used in that instant. Pulling the strands to him, his physical form disappeared from the library, fading into the stone like a chameleon, only he was not camouflaged. He was gone. The realm of death welcomed him gladly, as he launched himself faster than a steam-propelled cart from the place beyond the Void. There would be no way to get back now… no safe way.
Tiyhak watched three spirits move as one. The trip probably took days, maybe weeks. He didn’t care, watching the whole thing from the place of the dead, the place beyond, that place where time had no meaning. Periodically he partially returned to the realm of life, but not his own life. Watching Kyra’s flight through his own set of winged eyes was both intriguing and delightful. Without her roguish skills, there was no way she could have made the trip. Pharosh fanned out across the land, searching for the intruders, searching for her, but the only one who knew where she was watched her from those same shadows she cloaked herself with. The two birds think alike.
He grew tired of watching her hide by day and travel by night, knowing where she would soon end up. Soon. A funny word to use in that timeless realm, but old habits die hard. Tiyhak finished his instant travel, knowing Kyra would still be flapping for her life amidst angry, lizard locals. That dead castle in the north stood shackled and lost in the snow. How ironic it was, tall in parts and short in others. What was once his home now housed nothing but ghostly memories. In the realm of life, but staring at death. The old castle-shaped carcass was an irony, the cracked stone defying death but all the while depicting it. Klychawk felt more alive in the Garden of Death, glowing with spiritual intensity, than those stone walls did in that wasteland of snow. Standing in that ruin would only make things more difficult, the memories of what was left of his life taking physical form in that broken wall, this rotten door, that shattered window. Tiyhak allowed a single slow tear to drift down his cheek before descending to the fortress beneath. Without constant pounding by the snow-monster above, those walls looked new in comparison. While fists of snow and ice rocked walls and towers above, the monster of the north fighting against that structural intruder, the world below seemed still and silent.
Gathering power in his hands, Tiyhak launched electric death down each side of the dark tunnel. Sparks showered down from the stone, lighting the previously naked sconces on the walls. They saluted him with flickering hands of flame while he took slow steps down that long hallway. Though he could travel in an instant to anywhere his spirit desired, sometimes he found comfort in the soft pad of his feet on stone. His father had lost himself to the realm of death almost entirely. Forgetting his mortality, Klychawk had foolishly attacked the Pharosh, losing the mortality that he shunned. Too much time in the realm of death could make you feel more dead than alive, a condition Tiyhak wished not to inherit.
The musty odour of the stone brought life to his senses. He breathed in deeply, savouring the smell of dirt and old, burning oil. Every foot pad reminded him of the body those feet supported, the physical form he still possessed… and cherished. Warm caress of flame. Icy chill of stone walls. Warm caress of a woman’s touch. Cool grass on a spring morning. All these were lost in the realm of death; joy, peace, love: all swallowed up by pain, sorrow, loneliness. Klychawk loved him, shared tears with him, embraced him, but it was not the same. In that garden, sorrow was as joy, hatred masked by love, pain a peaceful respite… but it all seemed like a lie. Death had only death, and made the best of it. Life was full of disappointment, loss, tears – the wet trickled down his face again – but also full of happiness, excitement, love. All so raw, all so real, the pain worse but the joy better. Real joy, not masked in sorrow. Real love, not deceived by lies.
Turning a corner, Tiyhak heard voices, reminding him of what was. The loss of his wife had been too great for Kylchawk. Disappearing into the realm of death to be with her was how he had survived. Tiyhak had not known him then, but he knew him now. Whenever he visited the garden of dread, he could still feel the pain of that day hanging in the trees like a blanket of sorrow, blacking out the truth. The truth that she was gone. The truth that she was dead. He’d held that dying corpse, but refused to hold the truth. Tiyhak would not forget the truth; the smell of the place, the feel of the floor. The sound of those voices up ahead reminded him of what was true, what was real.
Shaking the memories from his head, Tiyhak tried to focus as the room opened up to him. Reuben sat at a table, shooing off the northern warrior he had been talking to. The sight of his rusty robe, rickety table, and cloth map made the truth return to Tiyhak fully. Sometimes in the loneliness he would forget – when he walked alone amidst the snow, or sat in that crumbled shell of a castle above – but now he remembered. He remembered who he was, Tiyhak son of Klychawk and prince of Keltone Coessarde.
“Though I don’t know about the integrity of your work ethic, at least you keep up appearances.” The robed man stood when he heard Tiyhak’s words.
“My lord,” he said, masking surprise with his smooth tongue. “What would I be without my… mmm, appearances.” His words, smooth as honey, warmed the room. Tiyhak knew of two appearances, life and death. Klychawk’s new apprentice might be of lesser power and class, but in that area he was surely the master.
“But a snake in man’s clothes, I would say.”
“Would that not still be an… appearance?” He did not end the statement sharply, but let the “s” sound linger longer than word required, taunting the accusation that he was a snake.
“Certainly,” Tyhak replied in his usual agreeable way, but not really caring for the man’s words. “If you be such a snake, what news have you of those brothers of yours.”
“Cousins…” Sir Reuben played with the correction in his mouth. “Friend, snakes and lizards are not the mmm, same beasts.”
“Beasts all the same, and scaled ones to be sure. I knew you not to hold interest in bestiary?”
“They practise, mmm, animal husbandry in Glanderxe, and bestiary is more suited for Kho Arian. A, mmm, General would be more fit a title for myself, friend.”
“Certainly. On that we can agree.”
“Well then, speaking as a General, I should say that the progression is… slow. Though our borders are maintained – more geographically than militarily – threat by air is still a factor.”
“Threat? Our aim is the offencive.”
“If I may… mmm, what use is a mobile army without a place to return. Burned from above while the men are out… tsk tsk. That certainly wouldn’t do.”
“Certainly…” Tiyhak was less agreeing than not so patiently awaiting the point.
“And as far as offence goes, our guest has proved, mmm… unique with his information.”
“Guest?” It wasn’t that Tiyhak knew nothing of the imprisonment, but was unpleasantly intrigued by the singularity of Sir Reuben’s word choice.
“Yes, the allmarach has joined our ranks. Though I consider myself the most courteous of hosts, the guest-rooms aren’t in the best condition.” The stone was in the same condition it had been in almost since its construction, but describing the prison as a “guest-room” made it less agreeable than the norm to be sure.
“If the agreeability of the place matches the tongue of our guest, can we not find a more agreeable subject?” Tiyhak held up his fingers one at a time. “I count three who managed an escape from those lizards, yet you only question one? Per your information, the more agreeable of them counts himself a friend… of sorts.”
Some rather strong words came pouring into the room from a hallway beyond. The allmarach Sir Reuben was talking to upon Tiyhak’s arrival had been sent to fetch Cargh, and it was now apparent that he had answered the call.
“A friend, perhaps. Though not, mmm… friendly.”
Cargh stormed into the room, mumbling to himself. “Bloody thick-skulled bastards.”
“Friend.” Sir Reuben addressed the allmarach, attempting to draw him out of whatever was on his mind, causing such visible and equally verbal frustration.
Cargh held his axe in one hand and shook it in the air like someone he was trying to strangle. “I thought these men were the best the Rock could offer, Reuben. They don’t even know a plank of wood from iron! That perkoh you had tending my steel dropped them in a heap with all the other firewood you consider weapons around here.”
“An honest mistake, friend, I assure you.” Reuben’s words were soothing, but the spit that dried at Cargh’s feet implied he was not so convinced by the smooth-talker.
“Cargh, is it?” Tiyhak raised his hand in a greeting and the allmarach took it, though not too gladly. What would you expect of a man whose weapons had been wronged? “I sincerely apologize for the abuse your weapons have suffered. As prince in this castle, I take such offence personally.” This seemed to calm Cargh a little bit, though he still stood rather rigid. An allmarach bends knee to no one except the Rock, and Tiyhak expected no such etiquette from this man. He had dealt with enough allmarach before to know their ways.
After the respectful introduction, Sir Reuben cut to the heart of the matter. “How did you escape Kho Arian? Sir Mert told me of some, mmm… floating rock or some such nonsense.”
Cargh answered Reuben, but looked at Tiyhak. If anyone knew about respecting authority, it was the allmarach. Though the red-haired man at the table spoke the question, it was Tiyhak who truly asked it. “Those rock abusers gave us black powder to blow out the stone in the western mountains. The unappreciative-”
Tiyhak cut him off. “How is it that the western mountains aided your escape?”
“Pumice stone down the fiery river. Came out in the Great Forge… but I didn’t use any vile black powder to do it.”
“Certainly…” Tiyhak mused for a time, and if he had a beard, he would have stroked it. A second entrance to Kho Arian beneath the River West. “Yes.” That would do nicely.