Where should I expect to awake? The sounds of empty echoes should be a sad song to my ears, but these echoes were filled with the battle of the winds. The smell of old stone and stagnant water should fill my nostrils. The hairs inside my nose were too frozen for any such smells to come to me. The chill of that prison cell should once again accompany me. No stone floor, no steel bars, no darkness… the only thing remaining was the chill.
As if waking from a dream, I held brief remembrance of that which had transpired. The last thing I saw with waking eyes was the mailed-fist of Cargh as he sought to subdue me, but that was not my final memory. Between the blackness of sleep and unconscious tricks, images trickled, like through slats in a window. I saw myself strung up like meat hanging to dry: kicked, punched, whipped. The tails played deadly games with my skin, exposing life beneath. The slits trickled blood like a thousand crying eyes. The drops ran down my naked form, mixing in a ever-growing pool on the ground below. Darkness took me once again, but I woke with the burn of water on my face.
“You cannot enjoy it if you sleep, mmm?” A fist to my gut came up bloody, as did the face of the man who spoke. The force pushed blood from within, and I noticed it pouring from my mouth. He wiped away the blood, then hit me again. The pain was too great, and I slipped away.
You might think it a dream, and I hoped that was the case. My eyes stung as snow entered the opening slits. The dream was so vivid, so real, but it couldn’t be. I tried to sit up, but could barely manage movement at all. If I thought the torture was the stuff of dreams, the resulting pain defied that fantasy. My arms were weak, legs were heavy, and gut felt like it had been crushed by the mountains themselves. My naked form was raw and exposed in a not so natural way. Skin, muscle, and even bone were bare in spots.
I fought against the pain to rise, but the wind pushed against my face willing my return to the ground. I gritted my teeth to fight the force, feeling them chatter with the cold. The snow beneath my naked form was pink with blood from recently crusted over wounds. Death fought to claim me, but Time would not permit the exchange. I was still alive, though for how long, I didn’t know.
Rising to my knees, I wretched into the snow… or at least I tried. My body wanted to get rid of what ailed me, but my empty stomach betrayed such intentions. The only thing on the snow below was a leather belt, sword, and horn: my sword-belt, Lady Eyes, and the Horn of Riul. I began to cry at the trick they played: to leave me for dead, but taunt me with survival. I could fight the beast of this wild with sword in hand, call out to Riul for help, but the elements would finally take me. There was no hope for me.
I clasped the belt onto my naked form, putting sword and horn in their place, but felt no more prepared for what was to come. Lady Eyes whispered promises in my ear, but I barely heard them above the howling wind. She promised honour, or was it vengeance. She promised peace, or was it death? What could that piece of steal do for me now, but taught of its uselessness within my grasp or cause my final end. I could give in to the call of Death, but irony profited me. Klychawk, the God of Death, had me in his grasp, but now he called for me from the empty plains of Keltone. He had enslaved me, but now I walked free… if this could be considered freedom. Death tortured me with what was to come, the inevitable end that I would face between memories of love and loyalties lost.
Riul called for me from the horn at my side, but what use had she been? When I called on her at first, she nearly crushed me under crumbling rock. My second call had brought Kyra to my aid in the battle at the bridge, but this resulted in the loss of my spirit. The first call had driven me mad, the second call had imprisoned me, I feared what another call to this God of nature would result. What other options did I have? Without any chance of survival, the gods were my only hope, and what hope would that really be? The Rock was nowhere to be seen, and what help would he be? Perhaps he could provide a boulder on my head to end my tortured life. Riul could call the wolves, and I would die beneath their grasp. Klychawk was the only God who offered any hope. The gods of rock and nature both called to him, prodding me toward Death himself.
I pulled the horn from my belt and brought it to my lips. In a cry of desperation, I screamed into the instrument of my death. “Bring the wolves!” I yelled at the sky. The only memory I wanted to have was that of my dying father. At least I could honour him with my death. I would fight every wolf Riul sent my way until I could see my father’s face again.
The wind picked up as if taunting my cry. I blew on the horn again, this time with greater force. The wind almost lifted me from the ground, defying my call. I saw rocks begin to fall away, but no mountains were in sight. As I cried out again, mountains lifted and then fell, causing the earth to shake. With every step I took on the empty blanket of snow that would soon be my grave-clothes, I blew the horn again. Trees appeared before me, green and bright against the death surrounding me. As I approached, they disappeared behind blankets of blowing snow. A cave appeared in mountains ahead, but soon that was gone as well.
Riul taunted me with her mighty acts of nature. She deceived me with the horn’s power showing me what she could offer, but soon all became nothing. The horn’s promises and its God appeared as mirages before me. I blew the horn and saw the Mhoarid lift from its place. Dirt rained down from the trees, blanketing the ground beneath. Riul left a trail for me as the forest flew with mighty speed over fields and mountains before hanging in the expanse above me. The raining dirt mixed with snow as the forest came down. As the roots dug into the snow around me, I reached for the trunk of a mighty tree. Riul’s face appeared in the place I had touched. Her brown hair flowed back in a mighty wave, and eyes looked at me with pity from within the wooden trunk. I reached to stroke her face, but she was taken from me again. The trees disappeared as quickly as they had come.
I saw the River West planted before me, paving my way to some unseen destination. The surface of the unnaturally warm water fought the ice crystals forming on its surface. Finally it could take the assault no more, and returned to its place separating Kho Arian from the rest. I fell to my knees, not knowing how many miles I’d walked. Frozen tears cut my useless face, and snow seared through my naked skin. I would die with one final song on my lips. The weakness in my arms begged me to release them, but I would not give in. I held the Horn of Riul to my cracked and broken face. Sucking in shards of ice an snow, I filled my lungs to capacity as they screamed at me to let them go. I shook the world around me with one final blast on the trinket in my hand. I did not stop blowing until my lungs gave out. My final breath would be a cry to this God who had already taken life from me. I would have the final say, my ears dead to her response.
My death cry was lost in the snow as I fell from knees to face. My lungs sought purchase within the blanket, but no response came. In those final moments of my death, Riul taunted me with the winds. She plucked me from the ground with a mighty up draft. I barely felt the cold against my dying skin as she carried me into the sky. She threw me forward with a mighty force, but I didn’t care where she was taking me. Whatever grave she offered was as good as the snow I had fallen in. The swirling white sky faded into spots of black, a colour I knew all too well. Would this be the darkness of sleep, unconsciousness or death? I knew not the answer and no longer cared to hear it as I left my fate to the gods.
Fioreh’s glow reached into the dark corners of the small chamber, seemingly searching for a way out. The room had but one door and even less windows, yet still Fioreh searched: searched for escape, searched for her battle-sister, searched for Lady Eyes. Cargh wouldn’t let it show on his face, but the sword had no mask to hide behind. Their oath was strong, so strong that nothing but the Rock could break it, yet still Fioreh searched. Mert Whatley Lady Eyes was gone, and no oath (regardless of its strength) could bring him back.
Cargh had watched the first strips slice across his chest. He’d heard the man cry out in misery, seen him fading into unconsciousness. Never betray the Rock: the first thing every allmarach learns from very young. The Rock was their home, their life, their God. He was the Great Father watching over his children: the children who stuck together. Never betray a brother: the second thing every allmarach learns. At one time allmarach flooded the Keltone range from east to west, north to south. Now, giant tunnel passages lay empty, caves were abandoned, cairns lost, crypts desolate. The mountain men had lost many in the Great War. Klychawk’s delusions of invincibility had gotten more than himself killed. When he fell that day, his army – the spirit-allmarach – disappeared. Now, the allmarach were a small group, but mighty… when they stuck together.
Cargh didn’t want to betray Mert, but what choice did he have? When Sir Reuben rounded that corner and caught him red-handed, there was nothing left but betrayal or death. He doubted that the man trusted him now. His fist against Mert’s face had provided a rather convincing show… but a show is all it was. Reuben gave him the “honour” of Mert’s first lashes. Perhaps it was a test of loyalty, or maybe it was just the natural outpouring of that cruel man’s heart. He laughed as Cargh struck Mert’s naked form: one, two, three. As his sword-brother’s blood began to trickled from fresh cracks in his skin, Cargh tried not to let tears trickle from the two cracks in his face. Those eyes remained as steel, but his heart was weak and apologized anew with every lash.
All the allmarach in the room took a turn before Reuben himself finished the job. When they were done, more muscle was left visible than man, and Cargh wondered how much more man was left inside himself. He was a Judas in the ranks of the enemy, but his betrayer’s kiss was for his own: his brother.
Othban had gotten away in the commossion of Mert’s re-capture, and Cargh wasn’t sure whether the small lizard had even been noticed. He expected that usual rage to fill him at the thought of the Pharosh, but there was no more room in his heart for emotions. He heard Reuben direct the allmarach to take Mert’s carcass down and dispose of it. The man was almost dead, and whatever life had been left in him, the Wastes would take in short order. The red-haired devil had his affects sent with him out of spite. “Perhaps, if he wakes up he will mmm… kill himself.” Reuben was cruel, but showed a shred of mercy in this. Mert had suffered enough and at least deserved a quick death if he chose it, but what of Cargh? Though his pains weren’t physical, they were still great. What type of death would he deserve by the Rock’s hand?
Cargh had opted out of following Mert to his death, for fear that his resolve would fail, but he saw the still, lifeless form in his mind’s eye. It wouldn’t take long for the elements to flay the ragged strands of skin that remained on his body. Cargh had to leave this place before Klychawk corrupted even him. He had seen enough to report to Brynd, but that was the least of his worries now. Mert deserved more than snow for a grave. He was an honorary allmarach, and though he was green, he was a sword-brother. He had much to learn of the Rock, but Cargh had been willing to give him that opportunity. Now… now he would never have it.
The familiar clink of allmarach armour broke through the barrier of his mind. He hadn’t found any room anger in his heart while thinking of Mert, but when he heard Reuben’s tongue slide from word to word like snakes through tall grass, he found a place for it. The snake and set of armour passed by his room, but paid no attention to their words. He didn’t blame his brothers here. They were not yet Rock-defilers, but soon he knew they’d have no choice in the matter. Even in death Klychawk was sinking his teeth into them. Cargh was no exception from the trickery of this God of the North, but he had yet to give in. He heard too many lies and wished to hear no more from Klychawk or the red demon snake which passed him now.
Cargh sheathed Fioreh. Don’t worry, lady. You will have a turn at the man soon enough. The light would give away his approach… but his overly-noisy armour would not. Mert had forced him to take it off, but no warrior can survive without his armour for too long. This place was a battlefield. Even though Cargh desired stealth while following this snake of a man, the armour was not a hindrance. Reuben travelled with an equally armour-clad man, and the din of one suit masked the approach of his own. Perhaps “equally” is a poor word. He is but a child in that tin! The allmarach took pride in their spoils, and Cargh would not admit that easily that another allmarach had more than him. The only true decider of that would be battle, but Cargh had no interest in the man’s blood. It had been a while since he’d been in a good fight, but Reuben was a far more interesting target.
The two men disappeared into a chamber beyond and Reuben closed the door behind him. Fioreh will burn through that wood to get to you if she has to! No door would stop Cargh from slicing that man to pieces and watching his flesh burn. Fioreh could do a fine job on his skin… maybe even a better job than he had done on Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.
Cargh approached the door and put his ear against the wooden frame. Low voices could be heard from within. Not wanting to be too hasty – that might be a first for Cargh – he tried to discern their position before entering. The door was crudely fashioned and a notching in the wood where it met the frame provided his eyes the information they desired. He still couldn’t hear them, but that didn’t matter. He had heard enough lies, and soon the man’s tongue would burn away with the rest of his body.
Suddenly, the allmarach in the room drew a broadsword from his belt, flashing it at the snake he’d been speaking with. Perhaps I won’t have to fight this demon alone. The short man dove at Reuben and Cargh drew Fioreh, reading to open the door and rush into the fray… but then he stopped. The allmarach hung in the air, frozen by his adversary. That perkoh! The Rock will not stand for this! The allmarach twisted slowly in the air like a piece of meat on a rotisserie. Reuben moved his hands in a similar motion and smiled in a way that looked more like a snarl. Stepping toward the man, Reuben plucked the broadsword from his grasp and Cargh imagined him saying something like “you won’t be mmm… needing that.” The way the man rolled his “Ms” like thinking up his next lie infuriated Cargh all the more.
Reuben took the blade in hand, and with a one-handed slap, the blade struck the hanging man trough the skull. Sir Reuben had been in many battles as a knight, and then a duke, and the lack of his armour didn’t seem to bother the warrior. He dropped the sword and spun his hands around, manipulating the blood fountain coming out of the allmarach’s skull. It formed a thin layer around the man’s body, like encasing him in a shell of his own life. Reuben blasted the blood-egg with an electric shock, and the shell cracked. An allmarach was reborn from within, but not quite the same as before. This allmarach was a spirit-slave.
And so it begins.