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.”