Glanderxe – Chapter 21

“Mert Whatley,” though Reuben moved naught but his mouth, it seemed like he had stuck me in place as if pierced by an arrow and pinned against the wall.  “What a surprise to see you here, and still donning that silly tunic from Glanderxe.  How noble of you.” His smile was pleasant, and I imagined him looking over at me before leaving the Great City, that same smile lighting up his face.  “I would wear the garb myself if it weren’t for me not being a Glanderxe knight… but I get my appearances mixed up some times.  How are you, friend?” He walked over from behind the table, looking less like the Duke I knew with each passing stride.  The rust-coloured robes mixed with bear legs beneath them as a slit up one side was revealed mid-stride.  In this place, he seemed more like a smooth-talking sorcerer than a smooth-talking politician… but really what was the difference?  A smooth talker, nonetheless, and the magic he did or did not hold at fingertips was moot compared with the magic which spewed from his lips.  He reached his arm out to greet me, and I reached for Lady Eyes.  She would surely give him a better greeting that I.

Sir Reuben screwed up his face with quizzical appal.  “Friend,” though the word was friendly, I was unconvinced by it, “that is no way to greet a Duke, now is it?”

“You, sir, are no friend and not the Duke I know.” Of all the things to find beneath this crumbling ghost of a castle, Sir Reuben was the last I expected.

“I am still a Duke the same, and it pains me that you do not call me friend.” A frown visibly broke open his face. I was undecided whether or not I wanted my fist to do the same.

“I’ve never liked politicians,” I said under my breath, caring less and less about the words which I guarded.

“Would you direct those same words toward Lady Calwen?  I am no less politician than she.  How did you become a knight at all with such hatred for court?” Though it came out as a question, I knew he desired no answer, but knowledge has never been my strong suit.

“Loyalty.”

“Loyalty,” his hand came up to stroke the unruly hairs on his upper-lip, though it made little difference. “A strange word coming from the lips of a knight of Glanderxe who would draw steel when approached by the Duke of Dete Plych.”  Putting one hand on my shoulder, he raised the other, motioning toward the table. “Come, sit.  How fairs your journey to the Pharosh, my friend? I have a map if you require it. These northern wastes are quite a distance from the River West, but have no fear.  I can set you on the right path in due time.”

“I am come from the River West.  My quest there is complete.  I now seek to accomplish another.” I did not move from my place, and my hand did not leave the hilt of my sword.  She felt cold and inviting against my palm: an old friend comforting me with her presence.

“How good to hear!” His eyes sparkled with the magic of his words.  “Come now.  What did Our Lady say when you told her that they accept our terms?”

“They did not accept, sir.”  Why do I call him sir?  He is no more sir to me than the allmarach he sits a’ table with.  Old habits die hard, I suppose.

That same frown came once again.  “Oh… so sorry to hear that.  And the queen in her displeasure at the news banished you to these frozen wastes?  I wouldn’t have taken her to be so harsh.” He shook his head, exhibiting true sorrow.

“She did not banish me here.  I have been ever loyal to her cause, and there is no need for banishment.” My cheeks began to flush a little with the implication.  The queen would never be so cruel!  How dare this ex-Duke insult her so.

“Ever loyal to her cause, and yet you come here in defiance of the crown.”

“Defiance!  I have been to the Pharosh and now I return to Glanderxe with their answer!  How can you speak of defiance?” A little spittle escaped with the force of my words, but Sir Reuben was unmoved.  He simply wiped the specks off his face with the cuff of his robe.

“I thought you said that your quest was complete?  Hew Majesty certainly would not approve of you taking a northern vacation in the middle it.  I know that you are still green, but I assumed you would know that messengers are prided for their speed.”

I ignored him, still caught up on his former statement.  “You accuse me of defiance, and yet sit and scheme with this allmarach!”

“Oh?  Are the mountain men our enemies now?” the worry on his face almost looked real.  “Why then do you travel with one?” Cargh was visibly annoyed, but less at Sir Reuben than his brother at the table.

I had nothing to say.  What could be said to a man who magicked up words and catch me in my own stupidity?  His tongue was smoother than clear water, and mine was as rough as a sailor.  This game of words was lost, and I was not the only one tired of talk.  With a quick zing, the room burst with a blinding light, beams reflection off of Fioreh from the many torches around.  Cargh almost appeared to be amidst the fire as I drew a blade of my own.  “I may not be your enemy yet, but count me among them now!” Cargh roared at Sir Reuben, but his voice bounced around the whole room, seemingly at no one in particular.

With a quick flash, Sir Reuben knocked Lady Eyes from my grasp before I knew he had registered her presence.  Bolts of purple lightning shot from fingertips at the approaching Cargh, who by now must have been cursing me for making him leave his armour behind… not that it would have made much difference.  He was stuck in place by the shock of electricity.  I turned to run, half expecting the same treatment, but instead was greeted by dozens of allmarach emerging from the stonework in a ring around the scene.  They closed in with weapons of varying sizes drawn.

“I had hoped for better from you, Mert.”

“Sir Mert,” I corrected between clenched teeth.

“Perhaps… though I have good reason to question your loyalty.  You were sent to the Pharosh just as I was sent here.  How are your negotiations any more legitimate than mine?  I have no say over this, however.  Lady Calwen should decide your fate.”  Sir Reuben waved his hand, instructing the host around us to approach.  A pair of them grabbed me, and another took hold of Cargh.  “Lock them away while we wait the King’s orders…” He raised one hand to his mouth in an embarrassed gesture. “Oh, silly me.  I meant Queen.”

***

I was no stranger to a jail cell, however strange that might be.  Knights are tasked to hold up the law, to fight and even die for what is right.  A prison is no place for a knight, and if it were, the other side of the bars were more welcome to his character.  Iron lengths stretching from floor to ceiling locked the knight without and the man within.  I watched myself like peering into a mirror, but the reflection I saw was not my own.  The man looked out, and the knight looked back.  Was it shame or disgust I saw in his eyes?  He had no place within this cell, but did he truly know where his place was?  His eyes never left me, but his feet carried him in great circles around the shallow room of cracked stone and worse looking furniture.  The wandering knight didn’t know where to go… but at least he had options.  Did Sir Reuben speak truth?  Was he here in service to Her Majesty? If so, said path a knight could choose.  What if he spoke with trickery, words being nothing but lies, and intent being the greatest deception.  A knight could choose again, returning to Lady Calwen to accomplish her will and expose Sir Reuben for who he really was.

The man within this cell had no such choices.  Though knight and man were lost, confused, and loyalties challenged, the man had no direction.  The cold stone floor and icy metal walls offered no option, and gave no opinion.  What of the others in this place?  The many cells speckled around the chamber were all empty, though many prisoners roamed about.  That was the thought anyway.  Brynd, or the Rock, sent us here to find the missing allmarach, but were they missing through cruelty, or by their own intent?  The latter seemed true, yet it made little sense.

“Well, we found them.” I stated simply, not knowing what else to say.

“Theirs shells, perhaps.  Those men were no allmarach.”

History had shown me the folly in joking with Cargh, but I had never been one to learn easily from my mistakes. “No? I thought the short stature gave them away.”

“If I take you out at the knees, you too would have short stature.  Would that, then, make you an allmarach?”  At one time I had wished to be one of these mountain men.  They lived by a hard warrior code, but at least it was a code.  Those who have earned respect are given it, and the only politicians are the ladies they hold in hand.  The swords do the talking in that great Colosseum, and their word is final.  In Glanderxe, Lady Calwen does the talking, but her word is only as final as that power may reach.  Apparently, it didn’t reach beyond the borders of her Coessarde.  The Sir Reuben I met in Glanderxe was not under the rule of Lady Calwen, but followed his own code.  Do I not do that same? As soon as I left the main road with Kyra, I turned from her intent.  Keltone held more secrets and lies than I could shake a stick at, and I’m sure if I tried to, they would be more amused than afraid.  I was never known for my ability to cast fear, but Cargh was a different story.

“It would take more than short statue for me.  I don’t have that cross me and die look about me.  Perhaps growing a beautiful mane on my face would help.”

“Perhaps if I cut your tongue out that would help!” His threats seemed less menacing without a weapon to reach for, but his intent was no less evident.  I had been afraid to face him before, but now perhaps I could.  This foolish quest was his, not mine own.  The knight outside the cell could follow him if it wished, but this man was going home.

“Regardless of stature, hair quantity, and having a tongue or not, these allmarach seem happy enough here.  Perhaps the Rock called them back to this castle to serve him in another way.”

Cargh seemed troubled by that statement.  More troubled than I would have expected.  “These stones are of Keltone, and allmarach hands built the castle and dungeons beneath… But this cannot be the will of the Rock.”

“Why not?”  I didn’t mean it as a challenge, but two sharps wraps of my hand on the rock – testing its authenticity, and possibly making a point – made me seem more defiant than I had desired.

“True enough, this is no Pharosh pit, but nor is it an allmarach prison.  The only cell my brothers would use is one of swords, and the only key to unlock it would be blood.”  Surely when Kyra was tried for her crimes that had been the way of it.  “They may not openly defile the Rock, but they serve another.”

Klychawk.  I did not say it, but I knew he was thinking it too.  If these men served the god of the north, whether in spirit slavery or not, Brynd’s fears had become reality.  Cargh told me of the riches and promise of power that had drawn in the allmarach of old, but what brought them here now?  Surely a dead man had no possessions to promise them, and what power could he have?  Power over the dead, perhaps, but these allmarach were still alive.  “Why do they serve him?”

“Bloody my boots if I know!  I would no more serve a dead man than a Pharosh… but perhaps I must.” Cargh had never been one for surprises.  His face often gave away the desires of his heart, and when that mask of hair obscured it, his sword-arm said the rest.

“You mean to serve Klychawk?”

“I mean to serve the Rock!” he stood to his feet, enraged at my suggestion.  “But perhaps some time with these defectors will lead to greater knowledge of the nature of things than time within these iron bars.”

“I guess they aren’t too talkative, are they.” I slapped a hand again one of the bars to emphasize the statement, but the chill of iron bit my flesh so hard, I had to pull away, making me seem more of a child than a clever joker.

***

 They say time flies when you’re having fun.  It’s no wonder, then, that for Farah Bailey, time had no wings but struggled to swim through sand like it was water.  Every hour, every minute, every second, was a painstaking trudge, desperate to reach the surface, desperate for some hope of life.  Mr. Bailey had no such hope.  “I’m sorry,” he had said, that doctor from the Great City.  The Bailey family had no physician of their own.  How could they with the meagre funds that trickled in while a torrent flowed out?  Times had always been hard, but they managed.  How did they manage now, save through charity.

His skin grew paler by the day, and looked ever worse at night.  The bright orange sun made him look more alive than he was, bringing out pigmentation in his skin that wasn’t really there.  The moon played cruel, however, its cool, blue light casting shadows against the white and shrivelling carcass, making him look more dead than alive.  Mother couldn’t see him at night any longer… she hadn’t been able to for weeks.  Now, Farah sat alone: alone in the night, alone with her father, alone with her thoughts.  She kept a low lantern burning on the crooked excuse for table that barely stood by his bedside.  The artificial glow of fire at least made one side of his face look better than the other.  Anything to fight the cruel undead pigmentation was a blessing.

A soft knock at the half-open door didn’t cause her head to rise.  That door hadn’t latched for years now, and even the wind managed to make it croak out in depression while swinging on one hinge.  The knock had a similar effect, but as boots clanked soft and true on the rotting out floorboard, she didn’t know what greeting to add to the depression of the old door.  Her visitor brought the cool air of the night with him.  The harsh bite of it sent chills down her spine when it shrieked through the old slats on the window, but it rippled over her like a cool caress when coming from the lips of Sir Yoyde.  “How’s he doing?”  What more could he say?  What more did she want him to say?

“Not much change,” Farah tried to turn and smile, but couldn’t.  Though she was happy for the company, she couldn’t imagine looking at him.  So many tears had fallen from her eyes that a perpetual film of wet shrouded that vision, and one look at the beautiful man would surely cause them to fall again.  The last time she had cried this much was at the departure of Mert Whatley… but such thoughts certainly didn’t aid her.  A single tear slipped through the moist barrier on her eyes, the warmth of it seeping into every pore on her face, leaving tiny pools of sorrow behind.

“How are you doing?”  She turned to him now, for how much more harm could that face do to her?  Her heart was already broken twice, once by the man shrivelled beneath the sheets and once by the man who invaded the privacy of her mind.  How much more could the sight of this third man hurt her?  A soft and knowing smile spread across his face, adorning his cheeks with small dimples.  This man’s face was not hard like Mert’s or dead like father’s, but it caused her more pain in that moment than the other two put together.  A giant sob ricocheted through her and exited mouth and eyes all at once as she flung herself onto him.  The soft cotton of his coat soaked up each tear with care.  A great tremor of torment involuntarily shook her.  Get a hold of yourself! It said, shaking her again.  He doesn’t want to see you like this!  But no amount of voices in her head could stop the quake of her body which settled to a soft tremor after two violent shakes.

“I’m sorry,” she said, echoing the words of that doctor from Glanderxe which Sir Yoyde had graciously paid for. She had heard that money solved many problems, but it seemed that no amount of money could help her father now.  This problem was too great for even money to fix.

“Shhh…” Yoyde replied softly as his hand almost unnoticeably ironed out the wrinkles on her back.  He patted her slowly and then rubbed as if trying to burp a baby, but no rejected food came from Farah, only spittle and tears.  She didn’t know how long the tears lasted, but when they finally stopped she found herself wrapped in the iron embrace of a man who but weeks ago had been a stranger.  Though his fine hair brushing her cheek and those well-built arms wrapping her made her feel better than she had for some time, she had to pull away, slightly embarrassed.

She repeated her words, while turning her face toward the ground, away from his welcoming eyes.  “I’m sorry, sir.  I don’t know what has come over me.”

“Grief,” he said simply, answering a question which really didn’t require one.  His crusty, rough hands found her cheeks and pulled her face up soft yet forcefully.  “You have nothing to be sorry for,” He continued, while forcing her to look into his eyes.

“I should not bother you so.  Lady Calwen surely burdens you with worries of her own.  Any addition would be cruel.”

His lips were chapped and broken from the cold, night ride and the hair above them was even rougher, but they warmed her forehead with a respectful kiss.  “You should not bother yourself so, my lady.  You couldn’t be cruel if you tried.”

Farah smiled faintly, but then turned her face away again, returning her gaze to the man on the bed.  His chest rose and fell slightly, the only comfort she held onto as of late.  The skin was stretched so thin across his hands that every bone and vessel of blood was visible, and she was almost afraid to touch them for fear of breaking his delicate frame.  She kissed the back of his hand lightly and set it back down on the bed, but her hands remained cupped around the shrivelled up appendage.  Three hands, one decrepit, two soft and caressing.  A fourth hand came, without a sound, this one dirt-caked and speckled with wisps of wiry hair.

“Come,” Yoyde squeezed her hands a little and pulled them away from the wet and clammy fin beneath.  “What does it profit you to remain here?”  It was presented as a question, but he was not asking.  Raising himself from the bed, he led similarly.  “Some fresh air will be good for you.”

The air certainly was fresh, and as it glided across her face she became more evident of the salty lines drying on her cheeks.  Reaching into a pocket she produced a well-worn handkerchief, which had more holes than fabric.  Balling it up, she struggled to wipe away the lines of sorrow, and soon her mess of cloth was replaced with its holeless twin.  “Here.” Yoyde held out his own and she gladly took it.  Though a small matter, this was one more act of charity from a man who had already given her so much.

“Thank you,” she said while continuing to wipe the tears from her eyes.  No one was about to see what a mess she was, but a lady still had her dignities.  “And not only for this,” she held the cloth out to return it, but he raised a hand in blunt refusal.  “For everything.”

“I have done nothing that another man wouldn’t have.”

“You are too humble for your own good, sir.  How many men do you see visiting me daily and paying for the best doctor in the city to visit as well?” It was not a real question, but it didn’t stem from a real statement either.  Farah could think of many men who wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t do what Sir Yoyde had done.  The men of Coere Ghante were too busy with their own families and livelihood to spend much time at the Bailey house, but she didn’t blame them for that.  No one should stop their own lives for the sake of her.

“Perhaps.”  Who was this man?  He didn’t always have a lot to say, but maybe it was better that way.  She wondered what he might discuss by day with his comrades in the castle, but she knew it was often better to not know what men talked about when there were no ladies around.  He brother had died when he was quite young, but had never been afraid to speak him mind.  Not everyone approved of his mind, however, so maybe it was better to not know what was locked away between the ears of this man who walked with her.  He was little more than a stranger, and any stranger you meet in a tavern is to be looked on with question.  Surely this knight did not act like the others there, making idle passes at women without a thought, though maybe he just acted differently around her.  Could she ever really know?

They made their way around the paths of the town for nearly an hour before returning to the Bailey house.  Conversation was little to none, but the fresh air, as Yoyde suggested, had been good for you.  “Thank you again, sir.” She told him as he untethered his horse to make ready for departure.  Before swinging into the saddle, he took her hand in his and kissed it lightly.

“No, thank you, my lady.”  Gliding onto the leather topped horse, he continued.  “Get some rest, now.  Your father will look brighter in the morning, I promise you.”  With that, he rode away, and she knew he was right.  The pain was always worse at night, but maybe he knew that.  Why else did he come to see her when the moon was her only other companion?

Glanderxe – Chapter 20

Though I wasn’t actively looking for an opportunity to escape, many times I would wake up during the night and wonder what Cargh would do if he awoke and I was nowhere to be seen. It would be certain death if we met again, but what chance was there of that? Cargh lived beneath a mountain far north of the Great City. I was, however, not convinced enough to attempt an escape. These northern wastes were still quite foreign to me, and even if I did leave, how long would I survive? I could pick a direction and hope that it was south. Luck being on my side I might get that right, but then what? I knew there was a pass through the giant pillars of rock which separated this frozen north from the lush grasslands of Glanderxe Coessarde, but that wasn’t much to go on.

I regretted putting away that glorious meal in the forest more and more with each passing day. My stomach longed for real food. If there was anything that I missed about this wasteland travelling, the watery flower stew wasn’t it. At least my loss of culinary enjoyment didn’t alter the bland flavour of the stuff too much. How much worse could it really get?

The trip was fairly uneventful, save for a few clumps of trees which speckled the white expanse like sparse droppings from a dried up paintbrush. The mountains were far behind us, and the further north we travelled, the more dreary the world seemed. Days got shorter, and nights longer. Whether by sun or moon, the whether didn’t change, and sometimes the clear moonlight bouncing off the shiny white made for easier travel than the sun which stuck in the air, mixing with the swirling snow. It was on one such clear night that we reached our destination, though it wasn’t much to look at.

Pillars of stone toppled over, half broken and scathed by years and weather. Snow piled up around the walls, or what was left of them, causing great drifts of unkept mass. The stuff was too cold to hang together and blew across the space where giant wooden doors stretched skyward in rotten decay. One door lay on the ground, snow covering up the expertly traced calligraphic designs. The other wooden panel swung aimless as the wind directed, creaking and groaning in complaint.

Stepping though that less than inviting entry way, I saw that the interior hadn’t fared any better. If this had once been a great castle, all that was left now was a giant stone chair, one arm lying discarded on the ground. Pillars and pieces of wall rose to attention all across that great interior though their superior officer had long since passed on. Some of the stone attempted to carry out its final orders, making something that once resembled a room. Other rocks lay splattered on top of each other like a host of drunkards while the maidens in snow danced around their naked and disgraced bodies.

“What is this place?” I was almost afraid to ask.

“The once great Castle of the North. Back in his day, Klychawk hauled stone all the way from the Keltone range to build it. My brothers chipped away at the rock for years while Klychawk provided them with riches of every kind. No one asked where he got such riches, nor did they ask what he would do when the building was complete. Looking back now, they should have.”

“The allmarach built this?” I’m sure that these remains had once been an awe inspiring masterpiece of masonry. Now it seemed like a childish haphazard mess.

“My brothers built it, but never manned it. No sooner was that stone chair you see complete, that Klychawk sat his cruel backside down and began ordering them around like he owned the stone workers. They had worked the construction so long that it almost felt right for him to continue to be their lord. The payments tapered off until soon they revolted and began leaving. That’s when the slavery started.” Cargh’s spittle mixed invisibly with snow. “He sucked them in one by one until many of my ancestors lost their own will, being forced to serve this self-proclaimed God of the North.

“The allmarach were blamed for Klychawk’s brutality as he sent his horde of spirit-slaves about the land destroying and pillaging any and all poorly defended villages. The wealth he acquired was grotesque, but the things he made them do were even worse. His wealth only grew, as did his army. More and more allmarach turned to his side with the promise of great riches and membership as a Disciple. That’s what he called his vile army, and that’s how he trapped them. Blood-lust lies deep in our people, and it was difficult to refuse such a chance to fight for the Disciples of the North.”

“They left the service of the Rock?”

“Once they were tempted, there was no turning back. You have seen it yourself, the spirit slavery. With no will of their own, they were forced to do his bidding, hating every minute of it. Many allmarach were lost when Klychawk finally fell in the Great War, having no body for their spirits to return to, but at least they were free. The presence of spirit slaves again…” He did not finish the statement, but I knew what he was thinking. Clearly this task was bigger than I had first envisioned. The God of the North was turning allmarach once again. Who knew how many Disciples he had already? I couldn’t answer that or anything else, but stood there in silence for a time before asking a question of my own.

“Where is Klychawk now?”

“Dead.” That simple answer said so much, though nothing I didn’t already know. Where could we go to find a dead man that no grave could hold? Though he was dead, he still worked his evils somehow, and travelling all this way hadn’t brought us any closer to answering ‘how.’ Where was he? What was he doing? I couldn’t answer this, nor could the allmarach who stood beside me… but the voices that I now heard softly in distance might be able to.

Finding a low wall to hide behind, Cargh and I waited as those voiced drew closer. The wind muffled their words and confused their location, but at least it warned us of their presence. Soon a small party of four allmarach came through the crumbling doorway of the castle.

Their approach slowed as they stood together in front of the giant throne, looking up at it as if in worshipful respect of he who sat there. Wind and snow was all that remained of the man who had claimed that chair as his own, but they gathered before it, proclaiming his presence. As if in response to their humble admiration, the great stone chair began to lift from the ground. It tilted back, suspended by giant iron chains, revealing a dim torchlight from some cavernous space below.

The chair began to fall once again as the allmarach disappeared beneath. Cargh rushed from where we hid in a desperate attempt to join his spirit-brothers below. His short legs carried him quickly to the rapidly disappearing opportunity, and he took it faster than I. With a final dive and quick roll, I barely made it beneath the throne before it re-secured itself, hiding existence of the underground from any unlikely wanderers. If I wanted to run before, I wouldn’t now. Now there was no turning back.

***

The soft glow of the interior died away with the quick snap of the stone chair. Just beyond us I could see the torch-lit luminescence of those who had led us here. I feared that the noise we made in our approach would have tipped them off to our presence, but they didn’t seem to notice. Wherw! Chink! Wherw! Chink! The sound of chain links passing through metal slots, as the chair descended, was enough to mask any sounds that we had made. Now, however, we stood motionless, and I was almost afraid to breathe. I could pull Lady Eyes from her scabbard and almost touch the company in front of us.

The icy thought of this was a bad idea gripped me, but it was too late. What’s done is done, and all we could hope for now was survival. Being surrounded by stone trucked in from the Keltone range must have proven favourable in the eyes of the Rock, for our potential executioners or captors continued walking further away as if we weren’t even there. It wasn’t until the faint light of their presence was almost indistinguishable that I dared breathe again. “Praise the Rock!” I almost said, but Cargh beat me to it.

Though he could have pulled Fioreh out to bask us in light, it was more favourable to remain in secrecy, and any amount of light would diminish such intentions. Without any light and with much sound we stepped further down the dark tunnel.

We both stopped as I poked at his steel-clad coating. “You have to get rid of those doorbells your hang around your neck. Why you choose to travel around in such armour is not for me to judge, but it cannot continue here.”

Though he wanted to speak out, the volume of his natural voice was loud enough to wake up the whole place. Stewing for a time, he attempted to cool himself to a whisper. “A gift from the Rock should not be forsaken. I have earned my right, by blood, to adorn myself with glorious steel. I will not remove my spoils of war, forsaking the Rock and my brothers.”

“If you do not remove them, you will become a spoil of war and the only adornment you will have left is a spike through your head.” He knew I was right, but didn’t want to admit it.

“Do not insult me, boy! I know the ways of war far better than you!”

“Then you can face whatever armies lie ahead, for surely they will hear you coming, and I have no intentions to partake in the slaughter. Maybe I’ll take what’s left after these ravens have picked you clean.” I could almost see the steam rising off of his armour as he burned in rage, and I feared that I had gone too far. Maybe if I put it in words he would understand. “The Rock will not stand for a town-crier in the shadows. If his will be that we find the source of your disappearing brothers, that armour works again him. Take it off, or consider yourself a defiler.” I drew Lady Eyes from her sheath and stood stupidly in front of him like a child blocking a giant’s path. I had no intention of fighting him, for I had no desire to die, but the only thing he seemed to understand was rock and steel.

Whether out of fear for his life, not likely, or respect for the Rock, his armour began to fall off one piece at a time. It look much longer than I thought, for every time he took one piece off, another would show itself hiding underneath. “Where did you get all of that?” No wonder this man was so strong, forcing his muscles to work against so much armour both day and night.

“The Rock has blessed me greatly. More steel is left on a battlefield than blood, and my hand alone plucked such spoils from the cold grasp of my victims.”

“Why do you wear it all at once? Layering the plate surely doesn’t help. The gaps between the pieces are all the same.”

“You have already told me to leave these gifts behind, and now you suggest I refuse them outright? Certainly not!” His voice rose enough above a whisper that I was afraid of what the echoes down this long hallway might reveal.

“Alright, alright. Just get it off, already. I’m sure there are more battles to be had, and if the Rock has blessed you once, he will see fit to do it again.”

Cargh only hawked up a spit in disgust and hurled it at my feet. As the last piece of armour was piled in a great heap on the floor I wondered how much better this plan really was. Anyone entered this place would know of our intrusion, but what else was there to do? With nowhere to hide the armour, Cargh and I began to work our way down the hall once again. Two naked warriors in a sea of enemies didn’t sounds very smart, but maybe we would get lucky. Luck had never been in my favour, but perhaps she would smile on me now, though no other woman as of late has done so.

Passing my hand along the rough stone of the walls, I could feel the damp remains of condensation from the chill above. It was certainly warmer here, though not enough to make things comfortable. Though Cargh was used to the north, he was also used to living on top of a giant lava pit. I’m sure that the chill in this underground cavern was less than desirable for him as well.

A soft orange glow hung in the distance from a lone torch. The flames licked at the air, casting shadows on floor, wall, and ceiling. I knew those shadows would be our own once we touched the light, but what other choice did we have. Plastering ourselves against the wall provided less shadow, but not none. I could still see my black twin poking his head around the corner as we travelled further into the light. Soon it was my own head that crept out from behind the corner, and seeing no life there, I passed beyond the light to the shadow of a small room that jutted out off of the hallway but a stone’s throw ahead.

Such work was not my forte, and Cargh didn’t know a whole lot about it either. I would have been more than happy to allow Kyra to lead us in this shadow-dance, but sadly she was not here. Last time I had seen her, was with a knife shoved through my gut, and such memories didn’t give me much hope that she would even help if she was here.

We paused for a time in that shack of a room to get our bearings, not that either of us really knew where we were. A few crudely fashioned weapons hung from hooks set into the stone walls, and a wooden table with one leg shorter than the rest shifted aimlessly, providing a rather crude centrepiece to the room. One lone chair lay on its side, cast away either in a drunken rage or simple laziness. As we progressed further down the hall there were many rooms much the same set off of the long shaft. At the end of the hall, down a short flight of stairs, the space opened up into a large courtyard-like chamber. A swirling staircase on either side of the room worked its way upward, uselessly capped with a stone ceiling. I presumed this place was once something else entirely, and those staircases were the original entrance to this space below. Half frozen-over stagnant water sat in lethargy at the base of a once active fountain in the centre of the room. An exit from the chamber taunted us from each wall, and save for the way we had just come, nothing profited one way over the other. Half broken steel bars hung like jagged teeth in the mighty maw of each doorway, and a low fire sprung to life down each throat. If it wasn’t for the ricochet of voices coming from the left, I would have been all out ideas. The question was, did we want to approach the voices, or run from them?

A dark dungeon, secret passage, unwelcome guests: all of these reasons were enough to want to remain concealed, but one reason over-powered all of these. Recognition was mixed with the bouncing of voices and swirling uncertainty. Where had I heard that voice before? In this place so foreign that even the stone walls looked like something out of a dream, how did I recognize that voice? My curiosity got a hold of me, and I had to at least see the nature of the one who prodded and tempted curiosity. Cargh equally wanted to investigate, knowing that he had seen allmarach enter. He did not say this in so many words, but as he plastered himself against the cold stone and peered over his shoulder into the hallways from which the voices came, it was more than evident.

It felt stupid to shuffle down the hallway against the wall. The light from the room beyond was anything but dim, and the voices grew steadily louder. Luckily the light from behind us was dimmer than that in front. If their roles were reversed, I’m sure that the black fingers that plastered floor and wall as we travelled would have been much more noticeable. Every step was taken with care, and each time my foot hit home, I thought it would be my last. Untrained at the task, we sneaked up to those who any moment could herald a cry and come for us. My only hope was that they didn’t look over at the door which we crept toward, that same door that held our shifting shadows captive, refusing to let us go unnoticed. If doorways had voices, this one would be screaming, “someone is coming!” but its non-existent tongue was held at bay, of which I was grateful.

The room opened before us as we breached the treacherous door who wished so desperately to expose intrusion. Torches were fastened securely by metal bands to every wall, causing the orange glow to focus on the centrepiece of the room. A squat table sat in the middle of the space, all cracked and worn with age, though it looked gloriously new atop the age-old stone construction. Four giant stone pillars held the stone above them in place with defiant persistence against a cave-in. They could provide some protection from being seen, but how to get to them was another question. Two men sat at the table across from each other, one larger than the other. The allmarach with his back to us would be of little trouble to avoid, but the other…? He would surely see us any minute as we crunched low in the doorway, hoping to blend in with the non-existent surroundings.

Though it was probable that we would be seen if we moved, squatting in the doorway seemed like the worst option before us. Cargh dove for a pillar to the right of him, and I dove for one at the left. Perhaps speed would win over measured steps with a set of eyes that were moments away from rising from the table at which they were set. The brief view I had of the table did not provide enough information for me to learn what the two men discussed, but their words granted me the knowledge that I lacked.

“The pass is well guarded, and my people would let no Pharosh travel through our mountain to gain access to Keltone.” the allmarach assured the other man of something.

“Though all this is true, you forget many things little man. The Pharosh have wings, and can go where they please.” The other man was not convinced, his words spilling from behind the hooded cloak he wore. The words were new to me, but the voice was not. Where had I heard that voice before?

“Only a few have wings, and they are the larger of that wicked brood. It is simple enough to spot a giant lizard in the sky.”

“Is it now? Will it be easier before or after you boil inside that foolish armour from a dragon’s hot breath?” A cruel smile spread across his lips in a cynical reprimand. “Your allmarach may be well suited with axe and sword, but…”

The allmarach cut him off, trying to hide his rage behind well-needed respect. “Axe and sword are good enough against those flying bastards! They will get but one shot at me before I mount them and stick them with said weaponry until more than fire comes pouring out of their mouth! No Pharosh will best an allmarach! The Rock stands firm and has ever since the days of Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, and Freas. He will never fail us!” The little man rose to his feet, breathing heavily while the other watched him stew in his own rage.

“Are you quite finished?” The hooded-man watched the other as he slowly settled back down to his chair before continuing. “Your Rock may protect from the flames when you cower beneath it, but it cannot best them in the open field. I respect your hatred for the Pharosh, but such rage must be guided, not unleashed with stupidity.” He held up his hand as the allmarach began to rise once again. “Your time will come, sir, and I long to watch you best those dragons on the battlefield as much as you or any other of your people, but much planning is ahead of us before such a time. Harness that rage. Hold it inside so that it can explode with even more intensity when the time comes to let their blood speckle the ground.”

“Those perkoh must die.” He spat on the ground with such ferocity that I almost expected the floor to crumble beneath the force.

“In time.” He rose to rest his hand on the other man’s shoulder, and as he did so, the hood which obscured his face fell to his shoulders. His voice was not the only thing I knew, but that face I knew as well. The rustic red sprouting from scalp and face alike left little question in my mind, and those green eyes which travelled the space between us as he noticed me peeking from behind the pillar, gave it all away. Though his garb and castle had changed, that face remained the same. This was the face of Sir Reuben, Duke of Dete Plych.

Glanderxe – Chapter 19

“You saw this yourself?” Brynd eyed up Cargh with suspicion. I don’t know how long I was out, and in fact didn’t even expect to awake. I lost the fight, and by all rights I should have died.  If my wounded leg hadn’t killed me, the knife in my gut should have, but my time dead was short-lived. I woke to the sound of the allmarach conversing in a low tone.

“By the Rock, I swear it,” Cargh answered Brynd with conviction yet still respecting his superior. My head was still swimming a bit from the pain, but I managed to sit up and look around the room, spying the two that spoke, their hands wrapped around the trunk of mugs. Brynd brought the cup to his face and took a long slow draw, his eyes glazing over while lost in thought. Finally he spoke through froth laden lips, replacing the tankard on the wooden surface of the table at which they sat.

“I don’t want to believe you.” the leader of these mountain men began. “If what you say is true…” apparently all of that time in thought had not aided him much, for he couldn’t finished the statement.

“It is.” As I rose to stand, Cargh turned around and spying me, continued. “Mert will tell you the way of it. He saw more than I.”

Faltering on my wounded leg, I slowly made my way to the bench beside Cargh. A thin line of red smirked at me from my cloth-bandaged leg and grew as I moved with pain-staking effort. It went from a smirk to a sly grin and then a full-blown mocking laughter as I finally reached the bench. “What is this now?” I turned my attention to the two mountain men, trying to ignore the pain in my leg.

“Cargh says that you fought a brother in the spirit.” Brynd reminded me of the worst fight I had ever been in, not that I was very experienced. That was the whole problem though, wasn’t it? If I had been more experienced, I wouldn’t have been pinned-down by a wolf for the fight’s duration.

“True.” I wanted to say.  Not really. I didn’t put up much of a fight. Though that’s how I felt, I would never admit it. Brynd had already seen my incompetence with a sword while I fought Kyra. I’m sure he didn’t need a reminder.

“Only one conclusion can be drawn from this…” his words hung in the air ominously. They bounced off of the low ceiling and floated down like harsh clouds promising harsher conditions yet procrastinating such delivery. Brynd took another drink from his mug allowing the procrastination to continue, the clouds building for the oncoming storm. When they finally did rain, it was punctuating but short-lived. “Klychawk is back.”

I didn’t know what he meant by “back.” This god of the north had been chasing me ever since I knew of his existence. I certainly wished that he would take a vacation from this senseless vendetta so that he would have a place to come “back” from.

Brynd was quite disturbed by his own words, and the truth they shared. Such disturbance was heightened when he began speaking of the allmarach who had turned up missing over the past couple of months. As any good leader should, he cared for his men and wanted to find them. “Whatever the case, there must be answers. The voice of the Rock must be heard.” He commissioned Cargh and myself to travel north and find Klychawk.

There was no way that I could even entertain complying with such an insane request. “You do realize that Klychawk wants my life?” These mountain men had, thus far, respected me as a knight (or warrior at least, though I was less of a warrior than a knight) and gifted me with a sword. I felt like this deserved some type of exchange, perhaps in service even, but this was too much.

“Perfect. Then you can find him easier, for he will come to you.”

I desperately searched for a way out of this ridiculous situation. Why me? I had been gone from Glanderxe for much longer than I had initially intended, and the longer I spent in such absence, the more it grated on me. “I am injured, and it would profit you nothing to choose me as a travelling companion.” If I thought such simple logic would convince them, such hope was soon dashed.

“A warrior must endure much for the sake of the Rock.” Cargh talked to me as if instructing his underling.

“Lady Eyes has no desire to visit Klychawk. Her direction leads me to Glanderxe.”

“The Rock gives direction!” Brynd rose from the table, defying my words. “You know not the way of things, Mert Whatley Lady Eyes. You put your mouth before the rest of your head. Be careful, or you may lose it.” Having finished his rant, he stared at me expecting some sort of response. What could I say to him that would not offend? I had no intention of losing my tongue, or any part of my head for that mater, and I doubted that he was speaking in jest.

“My apologies.” And with that it was settled, or at least that’s what Brynd thought. He left the room, expecting us to carry out his will… or the will of the Rock. I didn’t really see a difference. Who is he to discern the desires of the Rock other than the leader of the men who serve such a strange deity?

 

It took a day to set the necessary preparations before Cargh and I ascended the long path that I had walked with Kyra many days ago. I had not known her very well then, but did I know Cargh now any better than I had known her then? Could he also transform himself into some strange beast that I was unaware of? Maybe a rock giant? He said nothing, and I didn’t expect him to. I never truly knew what went on inside this man’s head. His words always seemed to be accompanied with spittle and some complaint about defiance of the Rock. He had been quite vocal about such among the “vile abusers” of the west, and Kyra was certainly no help.

What had happened to the Thief? Did I really care? She had tried to kill me, hadn’t she? I suppose that she was simply protecting herself, for the allmarach would certainly have killed her had I not intervened. I was somewhat proud of myself for standing up for her, but how had she repaid me? It would have been better to die, thinking myself a hero, than be dragged along, not sure about the one whom I had fought for. Goodbye, noble knight. She even mocked my knightly ways in death, even when I turned them in her favour. If those were her final words, at least I was comforted in knowing that it was through me she managed to escape the rock tomb. Surely the mountain men would not have given her such grace. I knew not where she had gone to, but at least I could rest a little knowing that my last interactions with her were knightly in character.

I hobbled along behind Cargh, and the climb did not help matters. Though the pain in my leg and stomach screamed at me, it was an ever-present reminder of my valour. Because of my wounds, Kyra was free. Because of my blood, hers still flowed through those veins. Soon the slow drip of water returned to me, and I knew we were drawing near the mouth of the cavern. Soon the beautiful sight of the forest would greet me once again. Kyra had led me away from such beauty into the dark recesses of the mountain and even further to the urban mess of Kho Arian. Though I did not prescribe to the quest at hand, at least Cargh led me back to the trees, back to the forest, back to that place of beauty. Maybe I would stay there this time. Cargh could carry out his errand and I would wait for him among the trees. This was my hope… though I knew it would never be a reality.

***

Wind whispered through the hollows in the rock, proclaiming the lonely abandonment of the stone walls. Cracks shot from one stone to another, travelling the decay with purpose. Pellets of ice and snow mocked the castle that used to be, striking the walls with the force of their intentions. Tiny pebbles and larger chunks fell from the walls and pillars in defeat, giving in to their fate. Tiyhak’s tears crystallized as they fell down his troubled cheeks gathering in an indiscriminate pile, mixing with the blanket of white below. The garden was so beautiful in the realm beyond, so much so that he sometimes imagined he would never return to this place.

Klychawk told him not to trouble himself with such frivolous things. To father they were unimportant, but not to him. He had to live in this poor excuse of the remains of his life. This was his home so many years ago, Klychawk sitting on that throne in the flesh. Tiyhak was not worthy of the throne and wouldn’t shame it with his presence, but would it really be that bad? The only thing that sat there now were memories and animal remains. Surely he was more worthy of the seat than the excretions of the wild.

Wiping his face, Tiyhak rose, allowing the jet black of his clothes to answer the whispering wind, rustling out their annoyance. He rested a hand on one of the stone pillars which rose into the expanse above for a time before revealing their chipped and cracked exterior. He closed his eyes and released himself to the spirit realm, searching the strands for anything new. Nothing had changed… nothing at all. Those three spirits still sat beyond the void, locked in that dungeon-like cavern unmoved, unchanged, unwanted. They had been seemingly thrown away like trash, yet there was no sign of he who discarded them. Shaking his head, he opened his eyes again.

The voice of an unseen stranger came soft and sweet on the wind. “Troubles?” Tiyhak suddenly snapped to attention, scanning the strands for any sign of intrusion. How had he missed her approach, this voice in the night? No strands played with his snow-blown surroundings but his own. Pharosh, those spiritless spies of the west.

“I would be less troubled if I knew who I was speaking to.”

“And I would be less troubled with my spirit, but we can’t always have what we want.” He could almost see her mockery taking shape in the clouds of breath which formed with every word. Slowly and silently he approached the fog in the night, attempting to keep a fix on her location.

I am not trained for this.  “If it’s a fight you want, face me like a man instead of cowering behind that wall!” But when he jerked forward to spy his visitor, the only thing that remained of her was the cloud left by her breath.

“I could face you like a woman, perhaps, though it is not a fight I seek.” The shadows were thick and the night sky even thicker, pouring like molasses over the castle.

“State your intentions then, Pharosh!” He almost expected the cruel lizard to take flight and torch him from behind, confirming the deceit he heard in her words… but he would be ready. Though he couldn’t see her spirit, he still had eyes. All their blood runs the same: Pharosh, Tallri, allmarach, men.

“You have something I want… or at least you will.”

“If you seek a free trip to the god of death, I surly can oblige. I have nothing else to give you.” Darting behind another pillar where he had seen her hot breath condensing in the air proved as fruitless as his first attempt. Where is this beast!

“A spirit is what I need, and you will get it for me.”

“Will I now?” His laughter was sucked up by the darkness and faded into the night. “And what position are you in to make such demands?”

“It is not a favour I seek, but an exchange.”

“An exchange!” The Pharosh often tried to be funny, but this one was the best he had heard yet. “And what do you have that I want?”

“Only a body. A body without a spirit.”

“So, you wish to be a vessel then? Still I fail to see my profit in this. What do I get by giving you this spirit that you desire?”

“My empty body will give you the means to acquire another, for I only desire my own.” A hooded figure stepped from the shadows in front of Tiyhak and he almost jumped at the sight of two thin blades she held before her. “Take me to where my spirit is held and I will give you all that you seek.”

A gust of wind ripped at her clothes and Tiyhak saw her face between the cloth for but a moment. This was no Pharosh! “And what do I seek?”

“The spirit of Mert Whatley.”

***

Shafts of light filtered through the blanket of leafs and branches above, calling the day to attention. Thousands of tiny voices gossiping together, twittered over the sound of water lapping softly at the shore. The smell of fresh dew on the grass beneath filled me with an unexplainable desire to frolic and play between the tiny blades. Though I was once again in such beautiful surroundings, it felt like a mistake. Opening my eyes, I took in the jovial surroundings, but as I watched, the smiling faces caste in those thousand tree trunks shifted to deceptive smirks. Something called to me from beyond the forest, beyond the mountains, maybe even beyond the River West. The intense pull of emptiness within made the beauty of my lush surroundings meaningless. Even as I sat with Cargh devouring a breakfast of wild-berries and game flamed to a smoky golden exterior, everything left an unsatisfying taste in my mouth. Taking another bite of the bird – which by all culinary right was the best I had ever tasted – I almost felt sick. The juice raining from the berries as they popped in my mouth felt like a river of blood, and the hearty meat turned to ash leaving me raw and unsatisfied.

“Aren’t you going to eat.” Cargh noticed that I set aside the feast in favour of staring aimlessly across the river. “The journey’s long, and such delicacies shouldn’t be wasted.”

“I’ve lost my appetite.” I said, standing up. “Go on without me.” It was a short trip to the river, and took even less time to removing my clothing before drifting beneath the waves. The sun sparkled against my skin as the water touched me, leaving a thin glassy film behind. I could remain in this water-bath forever, but it got me no closer to my destination. No amount of bathing or scrubbing would wash away the emptiness within me, though I desperately wished it would do something. No longer did loyalty and love tear me in different directions, but my they worked as one. All of my heart desired to return to Glanderxe, but my spirit pulled me the other way. If only I had wings like a Tallri or Pharosh, I could fly over the great bath I now sat in and retrieve that which was cruelly taken from me. Then I could complete my quest with body, soul, and spirit working as one, pointing due-north instead of spinning around like a dizzying child.

“Hey, Lady! Let’s get moving. Don’t want to waste all this precious daylight.”

I wanted to respond to him with an equally endearing yet insulting name, but how could one manipulate “Fioreh” into such an address? If Kyra had called me “Lady” I would taken it as an insult, though how a lady calling me a lady could be insulting I don’t know. I had come to like Cargh a little, though his violent outbursts of passion were a bit much at times. I could relate some with him. Though our passions were certainly of a different calibre, we shared similar responses to insult. I say similar and not same because mine usually involved less drawing of steel. Lady: though the word was the same, the meaning was entirely different. Lady Eyes was mine. She was a part of me as much as Mert Whatley was, from Cargh’s point of view.

If only the circumstances were different, I think I could travel with this man. I imaged us searching about the land for all manners of evil and injustice. With his twin blades and my one true sword we would drive out the rapists from villages, thieves from their pits, and wolves from their hovels. We could be the heroes of the land… under different circumstances. The only thing that this land needed now was for me to return to my love and complete my mission, for how can the heart of a knight track down any evil when his loyalty and love distract him constantly. I had nothing against searching out the source of these disappearances, for that seemed a noble quest enough, but though the allmarach were favourable, my loyalties lay in Glanderxe. Cargh didn’t seem to understand my misgivings. “Your duty is to serve the Rock,” was all he said when I mentioned Glanderxe.

“I served the Queen before I knew of the Rock. Were my duties in Glanderxe complete, I would gladly follow you in whatever mission that guides you.”

“The Rock guides me, as it does you.” Thick headedness: that was one quality that I hoped I didn’t share with this rock dweller, though I couldn’t rightly judge that myself.

“There are many rocks around, and the rocks which built the city of Glanderxe are my guide.” Could I trick him into thinking differently? Not likely, but at least I could try.

Cargh stopped and turned to look at me. A strange fire rose in his eyes which I had seen before, though it had never been directed at me. It almost seemed fuelled by the sword which his hand rested on. “Do what you will, Mert, just know that the Rock calls for the blood of all who defile it.” We stood there for a time, his eyes challenging me as his sword soon could, though it certainly wouldn’t be a challenge. He could cut me down like a tree made out of paper as I stood there stupidly awaiting my death.

“I don’t mean to go against the will of the Rock. We just have a difference of opinion at the moment.” I let out a nervous laugh which sounded more fake to me than I hoped it did to Cargh. “No worries, friend. I will get over it soon enough.” I began to walk away, hoping he could follow with his feet and not his blade. He seemed to be settled a bit once he returned to my side. What would a true knight do? Deliver some silly paper, or go to save some captured men? Certainly the queen would understand. Did I turn a blind eye to Kyra in Dete Plych when those men harassed her? Maybe I should have, considering the consequences. Certainly then, I should help Cargh as well… shouldn’t I? Either way, I would certainly lose in a fight to this man, and how then could I return to Glanderxe – but in a coffin – accomplishing the task set before me by Her Majesty.

It was not long before we had left the forest to enter that frozen wasteland which populated most of the north. I would have been more against travelling the northern wastes if the forest had given me the joy it once did. The beauty, though vibrant, was dull and taunting… not that this snow blanket was any better. The wind never seemed to stop its incessant mockery, and when it did stop to take a breath, the snow beat at my face trying to bore through to find the man beneath. Who was that man now? I couldn’t decide whether I was a more true knight for going along with Cargh or whether I should be defending my loyalty to the queen. Such playing with steel would surely end in my death… but what kind of knight is afraid of death? As we made camp after the long-days journey, I still wondered. Was I a knight going to face the evils of the north… or simply a man afraid for his life.

Glanderxe – Chapter 18

Swirling, spitting, rushing: this is liquid fire. Specks of light from thousands of tiny crystals: these are the walls of the cave. Whistling wind, rising heat, final, lurching halt: this was the journey in that stone cart. Geor gave the word and hardly without option, we were thrown into this mass of chaotic liquid death. Cargh almost kissed the floor when we arrived. This rock was not unnaturally man-handled or altered. It was the real, natural, and powerful presence of his god. That god looked at me from those tiny specks of light embedded in the walls, seemingly amused. I hope he liked what he saw. This rock would soon be an invaluable friend, for the only way out of the land was through it.

I had not noticed it before we left, but the lurching halt of the cart nearly sent it flying out into the rushing liquid fire. A crumpled up piece of warn paper had joined us on the journey, and once unravelled revealed a note and some strange powder. The note was simple and to the point: This may aid you in your escape. Don’t let the dwarf see it. I’m sure that if the Pharosh were in the habit of writing emoticons, this phrase would have ended with a winking face.

I needed no explanation, for Cargh spat in his usual way when spying the contents of the package. “Black powder.” His story of Ahbin the first came back to me, and if it was true, such powder could prove very useful, indeed. Cargh saw only one use for it, however, and snatched it from me. He crumpled the paper back up as tight as he could manage and released his final burst of anger by throwing the wadded up mass as far as he could manage. It landed in the lava-flow beyond, and lasted but a brief moment. The explosion shook the whole cavern, and I thought that the roof was going to come down… and in places it did. Large rocks began to fall from the ceiling into the lava, causing giant streams of the stuff to splash into the air. Those fingers of death reached for me from beneath the pool and I jumped back as they arched down onto the stone where I stood, splashing with magnificent destructive power. I would not be burned by this stuff if I could help it, and I was glad that Cargh had the same mindset, for Kyra would have pushed him into the lake if he hadn’t resisted.

“Foolish bastard of the rock!” I wasn’t that happy about what he had done, and surely it was foolish, but he didn’t deserve to die over it. Kyra apparently had other ideas about what this man deserved. He finally convinced her – perhaps that word holds less force than it should – that he was her only means of salvation now. It was a strange tactic to use as a lifesaver, but it seemed to work… though it wasn’t entirely accurate. Though it was true that the rear end of Cargh’s axe worked well as a pick – and I’m sure that it was forged for such purposes – Kyra, or myself for that matter, could easily just take his weapon and pick at the stone ourselves. Though I was neither bold enough nor had a desire to point out this fact to the little man, Kyra was both. It didn’t effect her actions, however, as Cargh pulled that axe from his belt and, turning it around, began to chip out the rock at our feet.

“What are you doing!” this time it was my turn to be appalled at his seemingly counter-productive ways.

“Our saviour in stone awaits,” he said between swings. He was going to cast off from the edge like a loosened piece of stone was as sea-worthy as any ship. Though it held not much in comparison to the boats I had seen, it had some benefit. A wooden ship of common construction, though naturally better at facing the waves, would have proved fatal here, being burned up by the lake itself. The rock, being non-combustible, had this one advantage, but it wasn’t much of one. The only reason the rock we stood on stayed afloat was that it was attached to a greater mass.

“Do not question me, boy. If there’s one thing I know, it’s rocks.” I knew Cargh was right… or at least I hoped that’s what I knew. Even the tiny air pockets in the stone that Cargh pointed out did not convince me that this rock would float, not that there were many other options, a fact that Kyra was quick enough to explain to me.

“Would you rather swim? I’m sure that the water is quite warm.” Whose side was she on? I wasn’t much for taking sides, but just a moment ago I witnessed her almost throwing Cargh over the edge, and now she joked about doing the same to me. She hated Cargh, and though her feelings for me were not at this same level, she certainly wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to spit out a reminder of my juvenile incompetence. Behind us stretched a vast tunnel that presumably returned to the surface of the mountain. Though that was the safer route, it was certainly not profitable, for we would just be further from the retractable bridge which provided the only safe exit from Kho Arian. We all have to pick our poison I suppose… death by Pharosh or liquid fire? I chose the latter as the rock began to break off.  Though it profited not sanity, at least it provided more company and was quicker. The company was poor, and our “boat” was worse, but a long, solitary trek back to the metropolitan seemed even poorer.

The lava around us bubbled its defiance as we started off slowly. I was happy that Cargh was right about this floating rock, though maybe it would have been better to die here now than to wait for our ship to tip over, holding onto this semblance of salvation.

Our boat rocked, jumped, and landed, death spraying out all around us. The fall had not been far, but it was farther than I was comfortable with. If the Rock is your god, why does he create lava waterfalls to make us squirm. I said nothing to Cargh about these thoughts, but focused simply on staying alive: staying atop the rock. Another lurch knocked me off of my feet, and I stayed there hoping the lower centre of gravity would be my salvation.

The fire began to flow, faster, faster, faster. This ship had a mind of its own, and there was no sense in even trying to steer, no mind the fact we had no oars to guide it with. I had never dreamed of fighting these red-water rapids, but I was sure the evil lake would soon creep into my unconscious life, adding more substance to my nightmares. It reared its ugly head, lashing out with those tongues of fire at every opportunity. “Go back to Glanderxe where you belong,” it screamed, and I felt the heat from its breath. “Why did you even come here?”

I had no response for this demon but, “I came in the service of Her Majesty to deliver a message to the Pharosh.” The more I said it, though just in my head, the stupider it sounded. Wolves, harsh conditions, Klychawk, jail, and now fire: all these I suffered for the sake of Lady Calwen… yet how much did I suffer for the other lady in my life? Maybe Farah had been right. Her words seemed even more true as those tongues of fire licked my skin, “Come for me now or not at all.” The not at all would prove itself soon enough beneath these scorching waves.

Our descent slowed down, much the same as the trip in that stone cart. There was nothing graceful or pleasant about landing at the bottom of that hill in the comparably calm lava. The front end of our boat sliced into the lake like a sword trying to cut the fire. The death-lake screamed in rage and blasted us with hot air. It spat at us, sending a stream of fire over our heads like a blanket on a cold night. A few drops fell from the unwelcome cloud above as my life, or what was left of it, faded around me. This was not my end, and I was glad for it. What type of a final thought was Farah’s sadness. Her tears did not sting the same as those drops of fire, but they hurt just as much. I hoped that when my end finally did come I would have a greater story to tell in the afterlife than, “I abandoned all that I loved, and the passion which once fuelled my heart leaked out, burning me alive.” Everyone hopes to die a hero, but I merely hoped to die a decent fellow. I would rather people not remember me at all than remember me as “the knight who gave up love for loyalty.”

I will save all talk of death for another day, for the only death I received was that of my pride: pride in this job that I once held dear. When I got back to Glanderxe, things would be different. Mother, Miranda… Farah… they didn’t deserve this. The only way back to them was through great metal tubes which came into view in the distance. The screeching and popping of steam was added to the fire choir, and soon they rang together, indistinguishable one from the other. Though we no longer rushed downhill, our pace quickened again. The calm lake at the base of this underground mountain was being stirring by giant steam engines which hung on the ceiling above us. A great row of them grew there like metallic stalactites. These engines on the roof powered giant wheels and rotating disks beneath the lake which stirred up the liquid more than I would have liked. “Pure Genius!” Othban had said, but I saw no genius in it now.

As our makeshift boat rose and fell with the tiny waves of steam-powered motors, those iron maws ushered us in: giant pipes for pumping lava beneath the River West I presumed. I imagined a great row of wheels and gears and the like beneath us, churning the fire continually. We moved forward at a steady pace, and I was grateful that the Pharosh had not felt the need to stir up the lava too much. Though I desired to stay in this death-lake no longer than necessary, I also desired to stay alive, and a steady pace seemed more profitable for the latter than the reckless abandon of our previous descent.

The journey was slow and conversations few. I knew not what excuse my companions had, but I was too caught up in my own thoughts to warrant many words of my own. I imaged that Cargh was happy to be out of Kho Arian and hoped that his anger would subside a little. I saw only two ways for us ever to be separated, and neither of them would be my first choice. Death or defilement of the Rock, Cargh had said, but I saw no difference. I certainly did not wish to die, and if I defiled the Rock, I don’t think Cargh would allow me to live. The best option then stands that Cargh had to die, and though he was not the best of company, that was not reason enough to wish such a fate on him. This, perhaps, was a point that Kyra and I differed on.

She had not been quite as happy to leave the Pharosh as Cargh. It was not her lips I saw kissing the stone beneath our feet before we started this journey on the fire lake. She, in fact, had been defiant that she was not leaving without her spirit. Though I had not been hot on the idea of leaving mine behind, it was certainly less of a problem for me than it was for her. Our slow travel probably infuriated her. In raven form she could fly for hours, and definitely faster than the rock was taking us. I supposed that she would be missing much without this strange magic. Though she had done many things through deception, trickery, thievery, and lies, I had learned to call her a friend… of sorts. I was still unhappy that she did not tell me about her shape-shifting abilities, but that was almost fire under the bridge now. What did she profit by keeping that from me? I could not answer my own question, and didn’t wish to ask it of her, so it remained locked away in my mind, yet one more thing to poke and prod at me.

***

Vision dulled, shrouded by the clouds. They mocked me while I hung, encased in cruel bondage. The impending rain swirled around me, slapping that dew covered hand against my face. Again and again it tortured me, the wind whispering into my ears. “How dare you wax elegance, yet scheme such cruel offence!” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it sounded like a thousand tiny whispers, pecking at me incessantly as if I stepped into a nest of hornets. The wet dripped from my face as another slap came for me. That first drop of water fell, breaking through the clouds. The speed was quick and the descent short.  That insignificant droplet landed in the dirt creating the beginnings of a muddy stew. Another drop and then another, the storm was ready to fall… and so was I. Feeling like a giant water droplet, I splashed onto the earth, drenched through to my very soul.

The rain was pouring now, gushing from the clouds to soak me as I lay there beneath the waterfall. The water came to slap me again, as I attempted to rise. The attack stung my cheeks. I wanted to rub it away, but couldn’t. Somehow I felt like I deserved it. Struggling to rise again, I faced the elements which attacked me. The scene before me was surprisingly familiar, but not at all friendly: the cave’s maw, the fallen rocks, the pinned-down wolf. Those eyes looked at me like pleading for their life. Though I fought against the wind and water, this wolf looked more helpless than I, and suddenly I noticed the sword in my hand. I pitied the wolf, for if anyone suffered more than I, they deserved any help I could give.

Approaching the thing, with sword in hand, those eyes shot through me like a cannonball, wrenching my spirit from me body. Water poured from the deep blue eyes mixing with the mess on the ground, which by now was a sticky lake of darkness. I raised my sword, wishing to put the thing out of its misery, but something held me back. As I stood there, transfixed, those eyes spoke to me between tears. “Come for me now, or not at all.” I wanted to comfort the thing, seeing the intense grief pouring from its face. My sword-arm began to fall, but not with cruel intention. I approached the wolf to comfort her, save her, free her, take her away from the horror all around. As my sword reached out to wipe away her tears, suddenly the scene changed, though the eyes remained. The wolf’s body became like thick black smoke, shifting and changing… but not those eyes. They remained fixed on me, pleading for me to help, pleading for my mercy. A black bird shaped itself around those desperate crying eyes, and like a woman fleeing a would-be lover, it took to the air. I was left standing there stupid, dumbstruck, and alone, but those eyes still haunted me. They remained in my mind as I wandered like an aimless fool. Those eyes were filled with pain, loss, dread, anger, fear, love, desire, want, rejection… so many emotions for so little eyes. Even as I fell in the dirt and lay my head on a rock, those eyes never left, the world around me fading into blackness.

***

I woke, but this time not to the smell of freshly cooked meat. The voice I heard was not that of the Thief, but of Cargh. “Praise the Rock!” He couldn’t stop saying that, ever since we had arrived safely in the belly of the Great Forge. I remembered that day, seemingly so long ago in this same chamber, that I had danced with joy at receiving Lady Eyes as my own. Cargh almost did the same upon our arrival, overjoyed at being free of the Pharosh and reunited with those of the same religious persuasion as him.

Kyra had not been received in quite the same manner. I’m sure that if she had the means, she would have taken flight on raven’s wings and disappeared into the shadows. One Tallri against a host of allmarach: the odds were stacked against her, and she resigned herself to whatever fate might await her. Though Cargh had entered Kho Arian with a predisposed hatred of the local lizard-folk, Kyra did not. Her stolen spirit changed such suppositions immensely, and she could now at least agree with Cargh on one thing… though for very different reasons.

The Pharosh, though seemingly jovial, hid behind this mask, locking us in a cell, their intentions clearly not favourable. Cargh and I received no such treatment upon our return to the allmarach, but the company looked on Kyra with disdain. She was locked in the Great Forge for the night while they decided her fate. The allmarach have no prisons, nor have need for them. They live for the Rock, and steel alone is the deciding factor for all who might oppose him.

The next day when they brought her to the great chamber where I had first feasted with these short men, her fate was decided. Steel against steel would be the way of it, and I was not surprised. Though Kyra fought for her right to live, who would fight for the will of the Rock? Cargh wanted nothing to do with it, though I imaged if the tables were turned, Kyra would have jumped at the opportunity to slay the man in a fair fight.

“Lady Eyes will answer the call of the Rock.” I spoke the words before I knew they were out of my mouth. By all rights, I had earned proper respect to represent the clan and their god, though none expected me to. Truly none were more surprised than myself. The knight within me, whatever was left it, wanted to fight for the honour of this lady who stood accused, though I knew she would never do the same for me. If a knight only helped those who would love him for it, was he really a knight at all? Even evil men would take up arms for personal gain. What could I possibly profit from this exchange?

The fight was set, and the crowd gathered in the Colosseum. None knew, save for myself, how this fight would end. I was far from the best warrior in the room, and no god, whether of nature generally or the Rock specifically, could change that. The only possible advantage I had was the Horn of Riul. I laughed to myself at the irony of this predicament: defending the Rock, but calling on the voice of Riul… the voice of this rival god.

As I pulled Lady Eyes from her place at my side, I saw my end draw near. Though I was no spirit, and in fact had one no longer, nor was I a deer, my fate would be much the same. I no longer stood beside this woman, hunting our prey, but had become the target. If only I could disappear into the spirit realm like the dear had.  Perhaps then I would have a chance at survival, though even with such potential that spirit-deer still fell.  One life for another, that was the way of things under this mountain, the mountain that I defended.

Kyra drew those two thin blades which she concealed so well, and a third thin blade stretched across her face like a cruel dagger prophesying my fate. I would not make the first attack, for I really didn’t want to attack her at all. Yes, she was a thief, full of deception and trickery, but no thief deserves to die… especially a woman. If stealing was her crime, the knight within could at least justify a fight… but not the man. The accusations were simple, though the crime was foreign. She deserved to die because she was Tallri, because she was different. I wondered what Othban of Geor would do in my situation. Would they kill or be killed for the sake of secrecy. Would they engage in this battle or refuse, being exposed as traitors. If I backed down now, the allmarach would simply choose another champion, one who would actually kill in racial and religious brutality. If I died, at least it would be with honour, defending a lady… by fighting her.

The fight was over almost before it had begun. Kyra flew at me, a blade in each hand and took two quick swipes at my face. Slice. Slice. Lady Eyes met this first challenge… but not the second. Slice. Slice. Stab. My leg was on fire, though Fioreh was not the weapon used. My muscled faltered and leg quivered as blood spilled out the hole. Falling to one knee, I flailed my arms wildly, desperately defending the barrage of blows that rained down on me. A final stab in the gut ended the fight… but not how I had seen it. I waited for the blade to be removed, but it never was. The world began to spin and black spots shrouded my vision. “Goodbye, noble knight,” she mocked, then all was black and she was gone.

Glanderxe – Chapter 17

“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.

Glanderxe – Chapter 16

If spirit’s had eyes, they would be crying now, shaking uncontrollably, weeping. His father was there, hovering over the face of the pool that stood in the middle of the garden. Shafts of purple luminescence gave the water an unnatural glow, as the two unnaturals met: Tiyhak and his father.

“My son,” Klychawk greeted him and they shared a would-be embrace, for how can spirits embrace?

Tiyhak cried, his pain entering reality. Ignoring it was easy, shoving it away into the deep recesses of his mind and spirit until he was seemingly unaffected. Now, the full force of his loss trickled down his would-be face. The body affords some luxuries, being so removed from spirit and soul that one might forget themselves for a time… a time, but not forever. Now he faced the inevitable pain of loss that was locked away in the darkest corners of his spirit. Now, his true self was revealed, and who better to share the moment than his father.

“It hurts…” Tiyhak spoke, the pool below coming alive with the soft patter of his tears.

“It gets better…” was all he could say, that consoling father. “He was your first.”

Those days are often cherished… first love. So innocent, so free, so… in love. Nothing in the world could get between you, those juvenile lusts your guide, dictating the does and don’ts. It hurts, those words oft found on the lips of comparable babes, resting on their mother’s shoulders. Heartache. Loss. Pain. Part of you seemingly ripped away, leaving an empty, gaping hole that nothing and no one can fill. It gets better, the mother says, stroking her child’s hair, kissing them atop the head.

First loves are never forgotten… nor are first losses. What is a father to do but sit with his son, provide a shoulder, and cry himself, sharing tears with the heartbroken. Soon a steady pitter-patter of sorrow fell on the pool. Like rain, it sprinkled the glassy water, the view from below like a window pane soaking up tears. The rain fell, bouncing off of the glass, sliding down its surface in sad descent. Ripples broadened, the pool becoming a potential surfers-paradise for water-striders.

Trees around the two spirits hung their heads in respectful mourning, remembering the excitement of Tiyhak on his previous visit to the garden. No longer did his heart burn with passion, but it was torn in two, blood spilling out of the unmendable half that remained. Someday he would find another. One day his heart would be restored, but now was not the time. Like finding a lover at the graveside of your widow, he would not take another slave now. The timing had to be perfect. The man had to be perfect. Who better to fill the hole than the one would caused this pain. Mert Whatley.

***

“Get off!” Cargh fought the Pharosh whose tiny arms held onto the hair which gathered on his chin.

“Oo, it tickles!” the lizard pulled away, giggling, then turned around to face me and my captor as we re-entered the prison. “Look at the short one dance!”

“You want a dance? My lady would surely oblige!” If Cargh still held Fioreh, he would have drawn her then. The pain on his face at missing her was less than evident behind that mask of hair and rage.

“Come on, shorty! Dance with me!” The Pharosh reached for his beard once again, but he ducked and rolled, coming up being his captor and kicked his scaled-tail. “Ow!” the attacked shrieked and began hopping around like a rabbit searching for a mate.

“Get out of there!” the one who led me in this “game” of follow the leader reprimanded his partner. At such direction, the Pharosh slinked out of the cell and sat on the cold stone metaphorically licking his wounds. I was led to the cell, which I entered gladly, not knowing how these over-grown lizards would respond to an escape attempt. “Good,” he said, “Now that you’re out of the way… I can dance!” He reached for Cargh with child-like glee as the man jumped back, dodging his attempt. The Pharosh covered his mouth and let out an embarrassed giggle. “Okay, little man. I can see that you’re shy. We will dance later, wallflower” He wasn’t finished laughing as he closed the stone door to our cell.

Kyra sat in the far corner of the room, thoroughly amused at the “game” the Pharosh were playing. I guessed that she wouldn’t be as amused if she had been the centre of attention. Shaking my head, I sat against the far wall with her, the small steel-bared window high above. I voiced my opinion to her that the Pharosh would no more help us with Klychawk than they would free us from this prison. She responded in the insulting way I should have by now come to expect from her, wondering why I would expect them to. Refraining from lashing out at her as was my norm, I remained silent. She was the one who desperately had sought out the Pharosh, running fearfully like prey in a hunt. If she had no constructive input to offer our situation, I certainly had no desire to speak with her on the matter.

***

If the smooth stone of the cell was cold by day, the night was something else altogether. The moon greeted me with little light from the small window above, the type of light that provided little comfort and even less heat. The weather and wildlife of Coere Ghante dictated the sounds of the night, and in Glanderxe the idle merriment of men and women were my final lullaby, but here is Kho Arian the unnatural hiss of steam and rocketing of stone carts on steal tracks unceasingly tortured me. I cared nothing for the juvenile promiscuity of Glanderxe, but at least mirth and clinking glasses held a semblance of things natural. Those idle songs of men who had more drink than sense would fill the air, the words becoming more muffled with ale as the night waned on. Here the songs of the night were all the same, no twittering of a sparrow, raven’s bone-chilling call, or man’s laughter, but the whizz of one cart after another, carrying the night-life to whatever pleasures the Pharosh amused themselves with.

Irony was my welcome companion as I woke to the sound of another song, differing from all the rest. I grumbled at the sound, for if the metropolitan choir of Kho Arian wasn’t keeping me up, this new song surely would – a joyous whistle from the lips of some creature passing by on the street above. The melody rose and fell as the singer drew closer to the window through which the song reached my ears. As if the background instrumentation of the city and the whistled melody were not enough, percussion was added to the mix as steel clattered on the stone floor in front of me. It was an axe… not unlike the one taken from Cargh on our entrance to this land.

Cargh and Kyra either were unfazed by the voices of the night or deceived me by appearing asleep. The percussion, however, left no room for even the heaviest sleeper to remain so. Jumping to his feet, Cargh rushed over to the place where the axe now lay, cold moonlight revealing its position. As he bent down to pick it up, another cymbal was struck, but the resulting sound was more dull than the drummer had intended. Clutching his axe in one hand, Cargh rose to no sooner be struck on the head by the hilt of a falling sword. A soft orange glow filled the cell from the weapon that now lay on the floor, a weapon clearly not designed for throwing through tiny windows onto defenceless prisoners below. “Oi!” Cargh bellowed up at the window, enraged. “Fioreh is not to be hurled about like some common stone or hunting knife!”

The only reply he received, an ironic one at that, was two small knifes being dropped from above, which would have impaled him had he not jumped back from the place where the weapons were falling. Lady Eyes soon joined the heap of weapons on the ground as did the Horn of Riul. No one moved, for fear that more sharp things would fall from the window, as the whistling began to leave. It returned as if thinking twice. “Silly me,” those first words of the night minstrel broke up his whistling before a set of keys were dropped on top of the pile. “Wouldn’t want to forget those.” The whistling faded once again, the only evidence of its presence lay before me on the stone.

Picking up Lady Eyes I admired her once more. We had been separated for but a moment, but still a moment longer than I ever wished to experience again. Her harsh blue skin stood out even more, enhanced by the cool moonlight.

Cargh grumbled in the corner, rubbing his head, as Kyra and I redressed ourselves. “That fool could have killed someone.”

“And now we can kill someone.” Kyra grabbed the keys from the floor.

I hope that someone isn’t Cargh. Their hatred for each other was plain, and I had no desire to witness a bloodbath… though I was somewhat curious who might come out victorious if they were to engage each other.

Kyra slid the key through a small slit in the stone, and her success was rewarded with the slow release of steam. The door slid out from its place, revealing the small room populated with many other sealed cells, but more importantly, a stone table at which two Pharosh guards sat. I could have hoped all I wanted that they had fallen down on their duties, either abandoning us or falling asleep, but that would have been in vain. If they were asleep before the door opened, they certainly weren’t now, the hiss coming from the cell signifying our escape. Standing to their feet and noticing our drawn weapons, they looked surprised, but drew no weapons of their own, claws and teeth assumed adequate for the job at hand.

Before I knew what was happening, Cargh ran at the first of the Pharosh faster than I would have thought those short legs of his allowed. He plunged right into the beast’s chests, bowling it over onto the ground. Kyra threw one of her knifes at the other guard to no effect, the sharp blade bouncing off the natural armour of the scaled being. The Pharosh made a clicking noise with the tip of his tongue. “Naughty little wolf.” It charged at her, and I swung my blade, attempting to have more of an impact than that dagger from the hands of Kyra. Lady Eyes acted more like a metal pole than the sharp, death-bringer I imaged she would be. She slowed him down, but only a little as he blew through her and launched himself off of the ground, pouncing like a cat at Kyra. She twisted her body out of the way and I watched as Lady Eyes flew from my hand and the Pharosh landed hard against the far wall, smashing one of the gas lanterns.

Cargh was on the ground and on the other Pharosh, pounding pommel of blade and axe interchangeably into its face. “Who’s the short one now!” he taunted. “Stay on the ground where you belong, lizard!” The second Pharosh came at Kyra again, apparently perceiving her with one dagger a greater threat than myself, being unarmed and all. Lady Eyes was on the far side of the room and both Pharosh stood between us, separating me from her once again. I ran to the place where the lizard had first been and snatched up Kyra’s knife. It felt so weak and stupid in my hands, but would have to do for now. Kyra was deflecting the side slashing arms of the Pharosh with her knife. Running over to the beast, I searched for a place between its massive scales to sink my knife and found one, but fighting should not take so much contemplative calculation. These unknown enemies and that unfamiliar weapon caused me to falter.  The Pharosh swung its giant tale for me as my knife found its mark. I was knocked off of my feet and looked up at the beast that now stood over me, having continued its swing attempting to catch Kyra in the same fate that I now faced. She, being more graceful and practised than I, jumped over the tail with seemingly little effort.

I lay there helpless, staring up at my attacker. It let out a great roar which shook the building, exposing row upon row of razor sharp teeth. Soon those teeth would pierce my flesh. I hoped for a quick death as the ominous maw approached me. I have heard of teeth falling out, whether by age or unnatural means, but this being should not be growing any more teeth. It seemed to think so as well, and certainly if more teeth were warranted in that giant mouth, they shouldn’t be made of steel and turned upside down to pierce its tongue. Also, most teeth don’t have Kyra the Tallri attached to them. She stabbed it once, then twice, and its roar turned into a muffled, painful shriek. It turned in an attempt to knock her down once again, but she was no more easily fooled than she had been the first time. She jumped forward, grabbing the blade I had stuck in its back and began to stab it repeatedly, riding it like a dragon.

I had no tact in battle, and barely had managed a single thrust, but Kyra made it look like art. She swung again and again, never missing the soft flesh between its scales, never falling from its back. Once it fell, it did not rise, and neither did the other Pharosh who remained on the ground where it had been ever since Cargh had put it there. Though the first of the lizards did not breathe fire, the second one seemed to with Fioreh plunged down its throat, flames erupting from its mouth, burning from inside out. Cargh left the blade there for a time, watching the slow death of his prey, before wrenching her free. We did not remain there until the inevitable pile of scales and bones was all that remained. Grabbing Lady Eyes from the wall she had been flung against, I followed Kyra and Cargh from that prison which should have held us longer than it did.

***

I had no desire to hold Cargh back from the hatred which had bubbled up inside him when he was atop the Pharosh guard, bashing his face in continually. Such emotions served us well then… but not now. Our night minstrel and weapon retriever was a member of this lizard race, the same as our jailers. I couldn’t say that his motivations held the same similarities. Though Cargh was small, our Pharosh saviour was smaller, and it took me and Kyra both to make the allmarach choose reason over steel. He eventually conceded, lowering his weapons, though I could tell that he was not happy about it and I watched closely for any signs of him going against his word to not harm the Pharosh. Cargh needed no reason other than racism itself to run his blade through this “vile rock abuser,” and he made sure to tell me so, frequently and loudly. I aimed not to give him more reason than he already had.

I reminded him that the little lizard – not as far as lizards go, but compared to the other reptiles roaming these parts – had freed us, but that didn’t seem to matter. I urged him to at least listen to what the man had to say before passing judgement to which he responded, “His judgement is passed and his price is set! The Rock will allow no abusers to live.” Though his tongue lashed out, his sword-arm did not, of which I was thankful.

When I asked the Pharosh to explain himself he would reply with things like, “just for fun” and other seemingly meaningless phrases. He seemed to be quite enjoying this game, watching Cargh’s face turn red with rage and laughing hysterically while he spoke more riddles and explained even less, until Cargh picked up the little guy and held Fioreh to his neck. At this point, such uncontrollable rage paid off, me not being the only one who feared for the minstrel’s life. He promised to talk as Cargh released him, setting him back on the ground. The little lizard, who we soon learned called himself Othban, explained that he was a member of a certain non-conformist sect of the Pharosh, having nothing in common with the rest other than form and heritage. “No one can help what they look like, but everyone can help who they are.”

Racism had been the way of the Pharosh, “ever since the Great War,” he said, a point I could not argue. Othban and the other members of this “sect” of his held no such beliefs considering it juvenile to judge a whole race based on a single event in history. I agreed with his “can’t we all just get alone” mentality, but was alone on this, Cargh and Kyra holding their own seemingly pointless and uninformed racial and religious animosities. They did, however, agree on a personal level, for not even they could hold to such racism completely which allowed and even condoned the Pharosh to lock them away in a cell. I’m sure, though, if the tables were turned, they would employ no such restrictions.

Being of such anti-cultural persuasion seemed reason enough for Othban to help us, though Cargh was unconvinced by his argument. He did, however, allow this “vile abuser” to live, which I considered progress enough. “The Rock is not heartless. If he wishes to use an abuser as a spy in the midst of the vile, who am I to argue.” As long as Cargh was happy explaining away his reasoning for letting Othban live, I cared not how he did it.

Kyra didn’t say much, but seemed happy enough to be out of the dungeon. She focused less on Othban and more on the world around us, watching every dark corner either for potential threats or simply to find the best hiding spots, should the shadows be needed. I asked what she was looking for, but she gave no response. “Don’t worry about Klychawk. We are with the Pharosh now.” These were the words I chose, though they didn’t really mean anything. Kyra was the one who was here to obtain the “secret of the Pharosh.” I simply came to deliver my message, and that was done. As far as I was concerned, the next thing on the list was the long journey home to deliver a sad refusal to the crown.

One thing still troubled me, though. Don’t think about trying to run, unless you don’t care about getting your spirit back. What did Mr. Big mean by that? Such a question didn’t need asking, for the void inside of me was answer enough. Ever since that cannonball had hit me, something had been missing. Othban started laughing when I questioned him about it. “Spirit cannons,” he said. “I wouldn’t be too concerned, though. I’ve done just fine without a spirit for as far back as I can remember.” The wink he ended this statement with was less comforting that he had intended it to be. “What is it they say? One life, one death. Two lives, two.” His eyes glazed over recalling the words before that familiar Pharosh smile returned to his face. “One death would seem bad enough, eh? Why die twice?”

“I assure you, a spirit affords more to a man than two deaths.” It was the first time that Kyra had spoken since leaving the prison.

“For you perhaps, wolf-lady. Not everyone has special magics like you.” She looked at him disdainfully. “Pardon me. I mean no disrespect. Just… what use would I have for becoming a wolf, or a raven? Is not a dragon the good things of both, having wings for flight and claws and teeth for action?” He hopped up and down, baring his teeth and slashing at the air like a kid fighting his imagination. Who knew a Pharosh could be cute? “And besides, I have no access to such things, nor could you have them back until you leave, if we did happen to retrieve them.” He said it like happening to retrieve them was as simple as finding a penny in the cracks of the sidewalk. “Not even the clan would permit that.” Making a clicking noise with the tip of his tongue, he went on. “Too dangerous. Too dangerous.” His head shook.

What could be dangerous about having a spirit? If you asked this question to Othban, he would tell you that no spirit means no spirit-tracking, making Kho Arian completely invisible to prying eyes. No spiritual travel was safe without a solid destination, nor was it profitable, and the Pharosh had taken care of any physical travel. “It’s quite a system it is,” he said with pride. “Pumping that lava beneath the river. Pure genius, I tell you! I don’t care for many of the customs of my people, by our obsession with security really can’t be argued with… just the motive behind it. I’ll help those who get through, but the boiling water and spirit canons keep the baddies away, by George they do!”

“I could get through as a raven.” Kyra was still a little on edge from his dragon comment.

Othban laughed once more, which certainly didn’t help matters, though I knew he had no intention of angering her. “Oh yes! One blast from those cannons and your spiritless body would fall to the boiling water below! What a sight!” He laughed again, amused at the picture. “Thousands of Tallri, falling like flies… I mean ravens. Haha!” After dodging a kick from Kyra he continued. “And besides. You’re not a baddie anyway!”

Glanderxe – Chapter 15

I had never experienced death, for if I had, I would not be lying in the dark on this mighty stone bridge which stretched across the River West to meet the far banks of Kho Arian. Can you feel dead without actually being so? Why would I ask such a question when the answer was an inevitable yes. The darkness around me matched the darkness in my heart: not evil but empty. The void spread through my whole body like a sickness leaving my spirit immobile and dead. Like losing someone dearly loved, I felt as if I was at the graveside of… myself. Peering down into the dark hole, I saw nothing. There was no body to be placed in the grave, no physical form to gaze upon. As the dirt was shovelled into the hole I continued to look on aimlessly searching for the misplaced portion of myself that had been forcibly stolen from me.

I stood to my feet, but did not move, not wishing to leave more of myself behind as if my stolen spirit lay on the stone beneath my feet. A great crash filled the air as the stone bridge which stretched toward us from the shores beyond clicked into place, touching the solid yet previously incomplete bridge on which I stood. The slow hiss of steam which had come from the extending bridge subsided as it reaching this final resting place.

Men, and I use that word loosely, of varying sizes stepped out from behind the giant iron barrels which had fired on us. “Pharosh” I heard Cargh’s voice to my left and looked over at his menacing stance. With Fioreh in one hand and his axe in the other, he appeared ready to take on the whole band of them, thirty or so in number. The expression which he held on his face revealed malicious intent even more than the weapons drawn.

The Pharosh drew nearer and the orange glow from Fioreh matched pace with her luminescent intensity. As the first of them reached the orange pool of light around us I saw that the larger of them held strange weapons in their hands, or claws. “Calm yourself.” I didn’t feel like such simple words would keep Cargh from launching himself into the approaching Pharosh, but perhaps they would distract him from his rage for a time. “Lady Eyes commands it.”

Disdainful laughter spewed from his lips like warm liquor. “You know not the ways of the allmarach, Mert. Lady Eyes is not a name to be abused! She commands nothing, but abides by the will of the Rock!”

He took a step toward the oncoming crowd and I knew I would have to think quickly to prevent the bloodbath that would surely ensue. “They chased off our attackers. At least allow me to give them my thanks before you run them through.”

Cargh, ignoring my plea and lunged for the closest Pharosh. A crack of booming thunder and blast of light finished the fight before it had started. The barrel of the Pharosh’s weapon smoked menacingly as Cargh fell backward and landed on the stone, clutching his shoulder.

“Look, what we have here!” The one who had fired spoke, sounding more excited than the situation warranted.

“Well, come on. What is it?” Another one of them asked in bated expectation.

“It’s one of those little guys with the big beards!”

“It’s a dwarf!”

“No, they call themselves the allmarach.”

“What’s in a name? Wouldn’t a rose by any other name still smell as sweet?”

“I don’t know. I still call your mother Rose, and she always smells more like she’s been rolling in manure all night!”

“You call her Rose because that’s her name, you twit.”

“Right, but I thought we were past that? What’s in a name, right?”

From his position on the ground, Cargh stamped his foot down on the scaled toes of the Pharosh who had shot him.

“Ow! You want me to shoot you again?” It was doubtful that he who queried desired a response, but Cargh didn’t seem to mind.

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Cargh said under his breath, clearly not taking the hint.

“Come on! I don’t want to be out here all night. Someone grab the man, the wolf, and the dwarf.”

Allmarach!” Someone corrected again from the crowd.

“This one’s not a wolf,” another said as they approached Kyra and bound her hands.

“Don’t tell me you have another name for wolf now!”

“No, it’s a woman.”

“A Tallri, eh? Fine, I don’t really care who they are. I’m freezing my scales off.”

Cargh was pulled to his feet and his hands were tied. Kyra and I were not exempt from the same treatment. We were relieved of our weapons and marched off toward the iron drums the Pharosh had once stood behind. Never before had I been a prisoner, and certainly not by some over-grown lizards.

One of the Pharosh pulled a lever beside the canons once we were all together. The sounds of steam rose to my ears once again and the bridge began to move beneath my feet. Now closer to the source, I could also hear metal beams shifting and clanking into place beneath us as the bridge folded back on itself leaving the unfinished stone extension behind. Finally I was going to enter the land of Pharosh, Kho Arian, but it was not at all as I had envisioned.

***

Stone floor. Stone walls. Stone ceiling. Unnatural tomb. Stolen from Keltone. Stolen from the Rock. Cargh spat, “Vile abuses!”

His disgust reminded me of the tale he had told of Ahbin, the first owner of Fioreh. I’m sure if Cargh still held that sword, he would have attempted to burn his way through the rock to get to the “vile abusers” beyond. “What did we do?” I queried, ignoring Cargh’s bitterness.

Kyra laughed, “You certainly didn’t expect the grand-tour, did you? The Pharosh have never taken kindly to visitors, especially human visitors.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I said, offended. “I suppose they favour wolves.” I had seen it happen right before my eyes. This shape-shifting maniac changed from beast to beauty like something out of an old fairy tale, the shift not being queued by true love but instead a cannonball. “Don’t bother me with your words, beast.” My greatest fear had become a reality. This was no wolf in sheep’s clothing, but in woman’s clothes… or was it a woman in wolf’s clothing?

The Thief answered my unspoken question. “I merely can take on the shape of a wolf or raven. Nothing more.”

“Nothing more?! As if that makes everything better. Are you also the one who haunts my dreams in these forms?” And then I continued as if speaking to myself. “I thought I could trust you.”

“And what gave you that impression? Was it my thievery or incessant mockery? If these flaws are no cause for alarm, clearly shape-shifting would tip the balance.”

“Piss on the both of you!” Cargh interjected. “I should have requested a separate room if I knew this type of company was in order.” Turning to address Kyra, he continued. “The sooner you tell him the sooner we will have some peace.”

“Tell me what?” How many more secrets was I to learn about this woman.

Kyra glared at Cargh but remained silent.

“She is of the tainted ones, cast out from her clan for rejecting Riul, that cruel demon the Tallri serve. Restricted to forms of wolf and raven she seeks to do penance for her crimes.” Cargh turned to Kyra once again. “There, how hard was that, really?”

“Harder than this rock on which we stand.”

“The Rock stands firm!” He roared in defiance of her words. “How dare you insult the Rock.”

“Riul is no demon, rock-for-brains!”

“Rock-for-brains!” A voice from outside the cell started laughing hysterically. “Good show! Come see the wolf-lady and little man fight, and don’t forget the snacks.  Come on little guy.  Don’t let her insult you like that!  You can do better than her.”

“Get the snacks yourself, you lazy mooch!” Came the voice of another, closer to the door of this stone prison in which we were held. I heard a click and then a steady flow of steam spewed into the air as the door popped open. The Pharosh who stood in the doorway was quite shorter than some of the others I had seen. He stood on his hind legs and turned back to his companion, swinging that cedar trunk of a tail. “Does he want to short one, the harry one, or the pretty one?”

“Isn’t the short one hairy?” His companion responded.

“Aye, but how would you differentiate them?”

“The tall and the short?” The other offered.

“The pretty one stands just as tall as the hairy one! Why is he the tall one?”

“Because he’s not short like the short one, twit!”

As he turned back the me, light glistened off of his ruby coloured scales into our dark cell. “Tall hairy, Mr. Big wants to see you.”  Apparently he had compromised in his mind, deciding that “tall” and “hairy” were fair descriptions of me.  I wasn’t sure whether “tall hairy” or “Mert Whatley Lady Eyes” was preferable.

I knew not what Kyra and Cargh would discuss, or even whether they would both be alive when I got back, but who was I to argue with this over-grown lizard? Leaving the cell, I followed him into the room beyond before hearing the door close behind me. Steam-powered lanterns hung on the walls of the smooth-stoned room, showing it to be rather small and plain.

“Do you like games?” The lizard, who I presumed was a jail-house guard of some sort, addressed me.

“Uh… I guess.”

“What do you mean? Everyone likes games.”

“Why did you ask me then?”

“Ah, we got a smart one here. Okay, fine. The game is called follow the leader. You be the follower, I be the leader.” He picked up a pair of handcuffs from a near-by table. “Because if you don’t play, I will have to use these… and neither of us wants that.” He paused to let me respond, but I had nothing to say. “Well, come along then, or do I have to explain to you the rules?”

 

The buildings were all the same here. No castle walls pieced together with stone and mortar or cobblestone streets. Giant stone fingers rose into the air, the sun shining off of their smooth continuous surfaces. The streets below were of the same material, polished to a fine sheen. The rock no longer looked natural, but was stripped of its gritty, rough appeal. Steel tracks stood atop the stone streets, stone carts moving along them. Pharosh gathered in the carts before they launched themselves along the tracks, the hissing and popping of steam all around.

I joined in this unnatural form of locomotion as the Pharosh guard directed me. We travelled faster than a team of horses galloping in the open fields. Such wild beasts were beautiful against the backdrop of a clear summer’s day or the snowy white blankets of winter, their manes blowing in the breeze as they run carefree, alive. This stone horse I sat on lacked any type of beauty, as did the surrounding Pharosh land. The lush greenery of Glanderxe was replaced with this grey-against-grey monochromatic prison. A small-town boy turned world traveller was far from home in this land. It was worse than urban, bordering metropolitan.

The cart came to a halt in front of a giant stone cylindrical building capped in a sea of crystals. Ushered from the cart, I was led to the giant steel doors of the building which opened voluntarily as we approached. Above the doors, a row of firearms stared down me, daring a challenge. I couldn’t answer their call, Lady Eyes no longer at my side, not that I would have risen to the challenge had she not been cruelly taken from me upon my imprisonment.

As we stepped through the doors, I found myself standing in the largest library I had ever seen. Stone pillars, lined with books, appeared like spiral staircases reaching up to the sky. None of my previous ideas about the Pharosh were accurate, not even these great libraries, which I had known about, matched the pictures in my mind. Thousands and thousands of tiny lizards scurried up the book spirals counting, rearranging, reading: keeping the library organized.

In the centre of the great library stood four blue-green pillars of a scaly complexion. No books spiralled these pillars, for they were the four legs of a mighty monster, a Pharosh larger than I had ever seen (not that I had seen many to date). Atop the giant pillars was an even larger body. Its tail swung fore and back like conducting this orchestra of tiny Pharosh minions. The neck of this great behemoth rose tall and slender, topped with a head the size of the Pharosh which had brought me into the Great Library.

“Mr. Big. Yoo Hoo!” I would have imagined that this great beast deserved to be addressed with a more respectful tone. “You have a visitor!”

His neck swooped down, those beady eyes staring into my soul. What could I possibly say to this beast whose eyes, though proportionately minuscule, were the size of my hand. Flecks of green peered at me from within a sea of darkness. Those eyes laughed before his mouth did. “I think you’ve scared him.” Mr. Big said, after regaining his composure.

I scared him! Are you sure it wasn’t the elephant in the room?”

His great laugh shook the building and the tiny lizards scurried about, trying to keep those towers of books in place.  “Speaking of the elephant in the room, where in that letter?” Mr. Big appeared to search among the book shelves. “Ah yes, here it is.” He giggled a bit as he read it back.

Greetings in the name of Lady Calwen, queen or Glanderxe Coessarde to the Pharosh of Kho Arian Coessarde.

Long has it been since our two lands called each other friends. Too long have your borders been closed to us, being turned away like enemies. No longer shall we remain enemies, nor do we wish to fight. An exchange of knowledge and exchange of wealth, this is our goal, so that one day the people of Glanderxe Coessarde can pass freely across the great River West into Kho Arian Coessarde as before the Great War. It is our desire to meet a political agreement that would allow such an exchange. Consider our offer as we await your response.

Not only were the walls and pillars painted with books, but the Pharosh themselves wore knowledge like a garment for the mind. The men of Glanderxe knew of but one race of old: the Pharosh. They, however, spoke of four: Men, Pharosh, Tallri, and allmarach.

Before the Great War: open border, open minds… open war.
Allmarach enslaved.
Tallri subdued.
Pharosh ran.
Blood ran.

Mountains became tombs, the allmarach their keepers. Forests became sparse, burned by men. Tallri disappeared behind the flames, fleeing for the swamps of Coaniariam. Pharosh fortified the River West, hiding from destruction.

Klychawk, once a man, a man no longer. Klychawk at the front lines, reduced to a spirit.
Canons shot.
Men fell, spirits ripped from bodies.
Klychawk fled.
Body dead.

Men hated by Pharosh.
Tallri forgotten by men.
Allmarach forgotten.
Men not forgiven.
The Great War.

“Pardon me if I do not accept such a request from Glanderxe.” Mr. Big concluded his tale.

“Klychawk…” I began. “A spirit?”

“You, a man, know nothing of the leader of the spirits of men?” He laughed. “Or perhaps you know nothing at all.” Many tiny voices rose from many tiny lizard lips. Like hyenas, all the Pharosh in the room laughed, sharing this joke which I found less than amusing.

Attempting to reign in my rage at their blatant disrespect, I ignored the laughter. “I never said I knew nothing of him. He, in fact, wants to kill me. That man… or spirit… who was attacking me when your men arrived seeks my life at his request.”

“Leave us out of your political wars. What one man wished against another is no concern of mine, or my people.”

“You misunderstand me. We share a common enemy, Klychawk, for I can count no one, whether man or Pharosh, who seeks my life a friend.”

Mr. Big stood, seemingly deep in thought. “Tell me, Glanderxe man. Why did you come here?”

Whether he had asked for a grand tale or not, I was prepared to accommodate. It all started with Lady Calwen, Glanderxe, the message: such a simple task that had morphed into the beast it now was. Some unknown spirit-man sought my life, and the key to my survival was before me: the Pharosh. Kyra seemed to think they held the key to defeating Klychawk, but what did that truly mean? Kyra the Tallri, The Thief that she was, had already deceived me more than once. I came to deliver the message, which I had done, but held no hope that they might have the answer to my Klychawk problem.

“You have delivered your message, and my response is no. As for Klychawk, I have nothing to offer you, Glanderxe man.”

“Mert.” I corrected.

“Alright, squirt,” the room erupted in laughter once again.

“Mert,” I repeated, this time more firmly.

“Mert the squirt it is!” More laughter.

“You are the one who called me here. If you plan on insulting me, I have no desire to remain, for at least the walls of the cell I came from keep silent.” I could hold my anger in no longer. I was a loyal knight of Glanderxe. What right did these glorified lizards have to treat me this way?

“Oh, we’ve got ourselves a live little squirt.”

“Live squirt, live squirt!” a mocking reply was chanted throughout the library.

The chant carried on for some time while I let my anger simmer. “What do you plan to do with me.” I said, after the chanting had died down, and my anger subsided enough for me to speak once again.

“That is yet to be decided, squirt.” Mr. Big smiled at me: such a cruel, demeaning smile from those large seductively jovial lips of his.  As I was escorted from the library he concluded with these words.  “And by the way… Don’t think about trying to run, unless you don’t care about getting your spirit back.”

Glanderxe – Chapter 14

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.

Glanderxe – Chapter 13

How many times must I wake? The great expanse between sleep and consciousness is less pleasant than either extreme, no matter how bad the nightmares may be. Night terrors sap the soul and leave the body less strengthened by the aid of sleep, but daymares are worse still. What is a nightmare to a waking man but a fleeting memory, yet what is a daymare to the awakened but the inescapable terror of living?  Such is the terror that no amount of pinching or slapping can pull you from. There is, however, one terror greater still, the dreams of the in-between, that place between asleep and awake.  It is in this place that I fear the most, not knowing whether to run from the living terror I’m in, or incessantly slap myself until my skin is raw, trusting that it’s a dream.
I awoke yet again. This time was it real, or simply another deception of the mind? Was this raven who stood atop my chest a living terror or a foolish apparition who could be fought by a simple blink, or pinch, or slap. Those eyes seemed real enough, floating inches from my own in the darkened chamber, low light reflecting from the crystal balls. The jolt to my mind was followed quickly by my hand rising to strike the bird from its place while shielding my eyes with the other. It took flight before my swing made contact, soaring into the blackness.
My legs came around to touch the cold stone floor, rising from my place of sleepless rest. This must be a dream, for I had no will of my own to follow that beast into the surrounding night. To direct ones dream would be a thing of beauty. Don’t do it, Mert! Go back to sleep! But of course I wouldn’t listen. My feet carried me across the cold stone, one step at a time, picking my way through the sleeping men around me. A healthy dose of glutinous consumption, whether it be of food or drink, would knock any man off their feet… but not this man. Nothing seemed to hold greater power over me than the mares of night, day, and in-between.
Following the bird to the chamber beyond, I saw it disappear into the shadows which edged the great Colosseum. As I approached, a voice spilt out of the blackness. “What are you doing?” Ravens don’t talk, and I was happy for it. Their eyes say enough to fill a whole nightmare on their own. Luckily for me, this nightmare was not heightened by raven words, but ended by the realization that I truly was awake. These were the words of Kyra the Tallri.
If by day, my reply would have been swift, but how can one speak when awoken rudely by a demon-spawn of the sky? Nothing clever came to mind, nor did I ponder what she meant by her question before responding with the dumbest thing I could have said. “I was chasing a bird.” That would sound stupid if we were still in the forest, but what a greater lunatic I seemed speaking of birds in this mountain tomb.
She revealed herself from the shadows, showing that it was truly her, thus dispelling any fear that might have remained that I was still in a dream. “No, boy, what are you doing with them!” Though she spoke in a low tone, her words bit the air in disgust aided by her accusatory point to the chamber I had come from.
“Well…” I thought, the cloud of the dream quickly fading, but not quick enough for my liking. “I thought I would enjoy a nice meal before we continued on, and they didn’t seem to mind. Though the dried out deer definitely beats that sewage water we drank on our way north, nothing can compare to freshly roasted meat and a cup of warm ale to wash it down.”
“The only thing that would make that meal better is poison.” Usually when Kyra made such outlandish statement they were laced with mockery and jest. This time, however, she sounded more convinced of her words than I.
“No, I like my meat without poison actually.” What a juvenile thing to say, though this time I could blame my quick tongue and slow wit on the rude awakening I had received. She clearly wasn’t in a joking mood. “Why would those men poison me? They seem fine enough and have honoured me more than I have been since becoming a knight. Lady Calwen could learn a thing or two from these mountain men.”
“They are the allmarach, worshippers of the mountain.”
“Yes, I’ve gathered that. Catch up, would you?” Usually I was the one speaking and her the one replying with mockery. I thought it was about time to give her a taste of her own medicine, though she did not take it as I expected, but instead like a child spitting the medicine back out in her mother’s face.  She slapped me. Never before had she raised her hand to strike me, and such an act caught me off guard which I’m sure was her intention.
“They are the enemies of the Tallri. We hold beauty and love in the highest order. Those perkoh defile Riul’s creation with war, blood-lust, and destruction.”
“Oh, and they also worship the rock. Did you forget that part? I’m sure that Riul is pleased with their worship of the creation over the creator.” She never backed down when speaking in jest, so why should I… but I had never hit her.
“We must leave at once! For all we know, these men could be in league with Klychawk.” Her gestures were so animated that I thought she almost believed what she was saying.
She may have seen some sort of logic in her words, but I only saw humour and almost failed to stifle a laugh. Was she truly so afraid of these men that her common sense was failing? “Surely that must be it because before we left that beautiful forest behind we saw one of these men murdered in cold blood by a servant of Klychawk, or were you sleeping for that part?”
“I admit that I know not what happened there, but I do know what will happen here if these men see a Tallri within their sacred mountain. If you choose to stay with these allmarach, I will leave you in their hands. Perhaps with your new sword you can fight off Klychawk yourself!”
“Perhaps so, with this new army of mine!” I stood a little taller with pride. They respected me, and I them. Though at first they were the farthest thing from honourable in my eyes, the naming ceremony had given me an entirely new perspective.
“Army?” She did not even pretend to stifle her laugh. “They are not the organized group of knight you are used to, boy, but simply a band of barbarians with sticks. You are not one of them any more than that sword is part of your arm, though you may like both to be true. You think they respect you, based on a gift given, enough to die for you?”
“They like me more than you ever have!” Was I trying to convince her, or myself. I didn’t want to leave these men. For the first time in a long time I felt at home, accepted, wanted. The Pharosh could wait a few more days… but could Klychawk? Though it was true that I didn’t know what type of danger stalked us, nor whether Klychawk even knew where we were, neither did she. What right did she have to tear me away from my new-found friends based on paranoia.
“Well, when Klychawk comes knocking on the lid of this coffin, and Lady Eyes doesn’t sweep him off his feet with her beauty, you will find no help from me. The only ones who can help us are the Pharosh, and I aim to claim that help before we are no longer in need of it, trapped in coffins of our own.”
She turned to go, but I called out to her, almost afraid to wake the men in the room beyond. “Wait!” She did not turn around, but stood, waiting to see what words I had to convince her to stay. Though her belief that the allmarach were in league with Klychawk was unfounded, she would not see it differently unless an alternative was provided. “How do you expect to leave this mountain? The way forward is well forked and winding. Who better to lead us through than one of these men?”
She remained silent for some time. What was going through her head? I remember many times as a child sitting with Farah, wishing I knew what was going through her head. The mind of a woman is not quickly nor easily traversed, even by those who have the pleasure of spending time there. I did not have such luxury, though I wished now more than ever that I did. “Fine.” She replied simply. “But you will not see me until that perkoh is gone. This rock provides enough shadows for even the worst assassins to remain concealed.” Before she took her last step into the darkness, she continued with just as much bite in her words as before. “Keep that in mind with the allmarach at your side… or your back.”
***
Brynd stood and addressed the men who waited expectantly. “Mert Whatley seeks an advocate to lead him out of the mountain of god. Though his time here was brief, it is remembered. He carries with him Lady Eyes, the first sword of the Protector. Who would like to honour her legacy by leading her to the world beyond the mountain?”
The room was silent for quite some time. I didn’t know any one of them better than the other, and they certainly knew not a lot about me. What would I do in such a situation? If only I knew what it was like to be part of a tribe of warriors, but alas I could not relate with them… and never would be able to. Curse that Thief. “I shall answer her call and guide Lady Eyes to the land above.” I looked to see the man who spoke. It was the axe-man: Cargh.
He stepped out from the crowd and pulled his newly acquired sword from its sheath. Approaching Brynd and I, he knelt. “May the Rock guide my path, and Fioreh, my arm. I pledge my services to the great warrior, Lady Eyes, and her mission is my own.”
Brynd spoke again. “Lady Eyes, what is your mission?”
Lady Eyes? Oh wait, that’s me! What a strange culture this was. How should I respond to that? Am I to be a representative for my sword? Personifying a sword can only go so far… can’t it? “I have heard from Lady Eyes, and I… uh… she wishes to travel to the River West. Too long has she been trapped, surrounded by rock.” That sounded awkward.
“Cargh Fioreh.” Man and sword stood as Brynd directed them before turning to me. “Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.” If I had known that my sword would become a type of surname for myself, I would have chosen a lot differently. “Go forth, with the blessing of the Rock who stands firm.”
“The Rock stands firm.” The company spoke that familiar phrase, yet this time it was not in joyous cacophony, but in a low and sombre tone.
“… stand firm,” I said with them, mumbling out the last half of the phrase as I was caught unaware.
Cargh turned to look at me while sheathing Fioreh. “Lead on, Mert Whatley Lady Eyes.”
Oh boy. How long will that awful name follow me around. I don’t even want to think of what Kyra would say about that!
***
The walls sparkled like a thousand stars in a sea of black. The torchlight bounced from one diamond to the next while playing tag with the darkness. The shadows shifted before us like a great pool of ink spilt, waving through the manipulation of the light Cargh held in his hand.
The further we progressed through the winding passages, the more gems glistened to life as if conjured up by the torchlight itself. Such untold treasures lay beneath this rock, but despite having no tool to pry it from the mountain’s maw, I didn’t know what Cargh would think of me using the rock as a means of personal gain. If I am tempted by the treasure within these walls… I laughed to myself, thinking of the the Thief and how much she must be struggling not to pry each and every gem from the stone.
“You will not see me until that perkoh is gone…” she had said. I peered into the shadows behind us hoping to spot a glint of light bouncing off her eyes or see the shadows shift differently in revelation of her position. How great a distance did she follow us from? Did she follow us at all? This new companion of mine was strangely silent and it almost made me miss the way she would criticize my naive juvenility.  Almost.
Turning around, I watched my silent company as he led me past another corner, yet another winding path into the unknown caverns of this fortress. I had no trouble believing that Kyra could remain hidden from eye and ear alike. Not only did the shadows provide ample cover, but the sound of metal clanking as Cargh’s armour rubbed against itself with every step shrouded any noise the Thief might have made. He was not outfitted as amply as Brynd, but a fair amount of armour hung from his every limb, glinting in the low torchlight. Not only did his armour reflect the light, but Fioreh’s orange glow could be seen from within the open sheath on his back she now called home. “Why does she glow orange?” I thought to myself before realizing that I had said it out loud.
Cargh turned his head back to me and made to reply. “Fioreh?” He asked simply. This man was eloquent when in the company of his own people and knew all the right words to say, but without ritual to direct his tongue he seemed awkward and hesitant.
“Yes. Lady Eyes glows a clear blue, but Fioreh is orange.”
“Indeed.” He turned back, concentrating on the route before us as if to make no more comment on the matter. Time seemed to stop.  The next few moments, remaining silent, felt like a lifetime. “She is of firestone.”
I suppose that is some form of explanation. It wasn’t my intention to merely learn about the sword but perhaps start a conversation. Clearly such intentions did not translate. “What is firestone?”
Cargh remained silent once again as if contemplating whether to answer me. Soon his words broke the air like soft thunder from a distance, rumbling for a time before dissipating once more. “It is of a time before me from the depths of the mountain, long ago buried by the lake of fire. Below the fire-flooded passageways, there were many a stone exotic and unique. One of these was firestone.”
“Fire-flooded…” I trailed off into thought before finished the statement. “…by the Pharosh?”
Suddenly, Cargh turned on me as if spoken to by a demon, eyes mixed with fear and hate. “Where did you hear such things!” The thunder of his voice drew closer, rising in volume and rumbling the walls of the rock for longer before fading beyond in idle echoes.
Clearly I had done something to offend him, though I knew not what. “I am sorry, man, I meant no offence. I speak out of ignorance, simply guided by what the Tallri told me.”
Spittle from his mouth was launched to the floor where it formed a bitter pool or disgust. “Those servants of Riul have no place speaking of the Rock! None is greater than that in which we stand, and not even fire could penetrate her mighty stance! The Rock stands firm!” The rumbling grew closer as his words battled with each other in the air.
“The rock stands firm,” I replied, without really knowing what I was saying. Perhaps that customary response would calm him some, though I knew not its meaning.
“And don’t you doubt it!” He said with finality, his voice settling a little.
I did not wish my next phrase to come out as a challenge, or even be perceived as such, so I waited a while, letting the silence between us calm his nerves a little. “What is the true origin of the lake of fire?”
“The great forge was brought to us by the Rock, mighty in strength and wisdom. The fire in his heart burned so great that it spilled over, rising from the depth of the mountain. The fire was given to us by the Rock to craft mighty weapons with which to vanquish all who defile his name.”
“The Tallri?” I said, almost to myself, but no words could be kept secret with walls of rock all around that ricochet and twist speech to greater heights than intended. Kyra may have seen advantage in the shadows, but such amplification left no room for secrecy.
“They defile the name of the Rock calling him just a creation of Riul. The Rock stands firm beneath such cruel accusations.”
“I’m sure it… uh, he does” was all I could say. I had no place in this battle of the gods, for I subscribed to neither one or the other. As my hand sunk down to my belt I could feel the cold surface of the Horn of Riul, almost wishing I could hide the trinket from the man. Whether it truly held power over nature, I was yet to be convinced, but I didn’t want to offend this man any more than I already had. Alas, having nowhere to put the horn save for where it was fastened, I left it alone. What cause did I have to worry? In my time with the allmarach none had mentioned or even noticed the horn. If it did hold any power or meaning, these men were ignorant of it, and I had no desire to cure such naivety, though the silence did provide ample time for conversation. Too ample. What could I talk about with this man that would not offend? “Tell me more of Fioreh.” If I had learned one thing in my time beneath this rock it was that these men had no shortage of words when it came to swords.
“Forged of firestone, she burns the flesh of her foes. Many tales could be told of her might and valour in battle.” Pride seeped through his words.
“Tell me a tale then.” Finally, something to keep this man talking. It would be a dry journey, indeed, if he remained as silent as he had been.
His eyes went glassy like recalling a memory. “Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, Freas” he recited the first four names of his sword from memory while pulling her from his back, a low orange glow passing through the shadows. “These were the first four arms of Fioreh. Ahbin was a brutal man. They say his blood ran colder than that of the enemies he left in his wake. Lacking family or friends, no manner of love or mercy held him back from his trek to rid the world of evil. With the Rock as his guide and Fioreh, his strength, he would venture beyond the mountain each night to hunt out those that plagued the land.
“One night, while on the hunt, he heard voices in the distance behind a great rock. As he drew closer, he saw quickly the cause of the commotion. A small band of Pharosh had come across the River West and were mining the rock from the low-lying hills. Their large machines could be seen by the light of the moon.”
“Large machines?”
“Indeed. The Pharosh used to fashion giant machines which bore into the rock before placing that vile black powder in the deep holes. Through this defilement they would blow large chunks of rock from mountains and hills before carrying them away to use for whatever vile schemes they would conjure up.” I could tell by his tone that he was getting agitated again. “The rock is to be honoured, not abused! We mine rock with rock, nothing more. This has always been the way.
“Such monstrous contraptions angered Ahbin and the fire in his heart fed the flame of Fioreh. Man and sword, warrior and warrior, charged into the fray, catching the Pharosh off guard. The machines were destroyed as Ahbin struck at their limbs until they began to fall apart, one piece at a time. Soon the battlefield was littered with the dead, machine and Pharosh alike. As Ahbin reached for the final Pharosh that day he shouted, ‘You cannot crush the Rock! The Rock stands firm!’ before plunging Fioreh through his enemy. She reached her flaming hand through his back and into his chest, burning the flesh around the wound. It was a slow death for the Pharosh that day as their flesh burned with every wound inflicted. Ahbin left many of them writhing in pain, the flame of Fioreh torturing them as the burn spread through their bodies.” Cargh was breathing hard when he finished the tale. He swung his sword as if reliving every moment of the brutal battle.
“Firestone…” my thoughts trailed off with the possibilities. What magic was this that could burn flesh with steel? Such a great sword deserves the respect of those names there inscribed… but in the end it is still a sword; nothing but a tool in the hand of a warrior. What can a sword do without one to wield her but burn the ground she lies upon, hoping that some unlucky enemy would trip over her. I did not speak such thoughts of course, for I did not wish my flesh burned by the wrath of Cargh. Not wanting my thoughts to take over the conversation I was eager to get my companion talking again. “And what of Lady Eyes?”
The little man gave a laugh, putting Fioreh back in her place upon his back. “She is but a trinket compared to Fioreh. A silver sword, that is all.”
“Do I not hold the first sword of the Protector?” How did this man have the right to talk so fondly of his own blade yet call mine a trinket? “She must have some great tales of her own?”
“Nay. She is but a child in the warrior’s ranks.”
“I will make a name for her then!” I said with pride, eyeing her like a precious gem.
“Your arm is hers to direct. You make no name for her, but she will carve a path herself through the enemies of the Rock.”
“Certainly…” Though my words agreed, my heart did not. A sword would never control me, no matter how beautiful she may be.
The silence that followed was now welcome. If this man was simply going to insult Lady Eyes, I would hear nothing of it. I covered every inch of the blade with my fingers as we continued down the winding path through the mountain. She would prove greater entertainment than Cargh. The things we could do together! What adventures we would have. I imagined Klychawk himself standing before us, and me plunging Lady Eyes into his heart, breaking it forever. Beautiful women… breaking hearts seem to be their employ. Why could Farah not wait for me? Why must I continue on this journey in a strange land with strange people instead of living in Glanderxe with mother, Miranda, and Farah at my side. The more I thought about this mission, the worse I felt. My longing to return home was growing by the day, and it seemed like every corner I turned reminded me of Miss Farah Bailey. My heart was warmed as I saw light up ahead, seeping through the cracks around a giant bolder which blocked our path out of this mountain. Soon I would reach the Pharosh, and soon I would return home.

Glanderxe – Chapter 12

What is a man to do when given a gift and asked to feast with cowardly barbarians? Refuse the gift? Reject his own wants and needs by turning up nose at a hot meal? Though the company had not won me over with their hospitality, they were a necessary evil to endure while enjoy meat and mead. I had been seated to the right of Brynd as his guest of honour, and though his feelings toward me were not reciprocated, my time at Glanderxe – forced to entertain the juvenile ramblings of Sir Yoyde – had taught me how to endure the company of those less honourable than myself.

As I sat there enjoying the food – not sure where they got meat underground – I felt like a spy infiltrating their ranks. A Judas. An outsider. How could such men survive beneath the Keltone mountains? It seemed from their pale skin that many years had passed since they’d seen the sun (if they ever had), their faces appearing like ghosts behind thick unshaven beards.

Though I was the guest of honour they mostly left me alone, too busy with their own partying to bother with “the outsider” from Glanderxe. I thought that perhaps I would get away with grabbing a nice warm meal before continuing on my trek, but those plans were quickly thwarted as Brynd stood up beside me. (Not that I minded, because did I really even know where I was going? These barbarians most likely know more about the rock and path beyond than I did. Could it be that they would prove useful not only for filling my belly with a nice meal, and hand with a beautiful sword, but also my head with knowledge of my surrounding, not only aiding my soul but my quest?) “Men!” The words struggled to release themselves from behind a mighty mask of hair, but once penetrating the perimeter blasted the surrounding area with strength and power. “We gather this day to celebrate!”

Arms shot into the air all around the chamber: some holding mugs, others weapons, and still others finely roasted legs of the animal they had been devouring. The raised arms were coupled with raised voices in reply to their leader.

“To celebrate the strengthening of one,” he signalled over to the axe-man of the Colosseum fight, who stood as if directed to do so, “and the birth of another!” Was his other hand gesturing toward me? What could I do but stand in response? If I was to blend into the crowd, this was not the way to do it, but refusing his gesture could be perceived as yet another defilement of their customs (of which I was still quite unaware). As I rose the cheering began once again for a time, before subsiding to allow Brynd to continue. “Cargh, step forward!” the axe-man left his place at the table and came to stand in front of Brynd. “You have won a great victory this day. Have you any words?”

Cargh bowed his head slightly to Brynd before turning to face the company which now fixed their gaze on him. Pulling his newly acquired sword from his back and turning it slowly in hand to reveal an orange glow reflected in the metal by the torches in the room, he spoke in a low, respectful tone. “He was a good man. A good man… with a good sword.” He ran his gloved fingers along the edge of the sword caressingly. “She has served us many years, and served us well. Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, Freas…” His fingers moved along the edge like reading from a scroll. The names continued as his digits glided along the steel, stopping at the final name Fior. “It is in his memory that I stand here today: the memory of a warrior and the sword he held. She is a blade, forged within the fire of the mountain of god by those who have gone before us. Her swing is sure, this warrior. Directed by the fire within, she seeks out all that challenge to quench her flame.” His voice rose higher and higher, cascading over the crowd like a mighty torrent as he screamed those final words. “In memory of the arm she directed before mine, I name her Fioreh!”

The crowd cheered as he stretched the blade out in front of him and slashed the air a few times with great finesse and might. “The rock stands firm!” Cargh shouted as he danced around, sword in hand.

“The rock stands firm!” came the reply from the crowd as the shouting turned to joyous laughter caused by the bonding of warrior with warrior – man with blade. The undisturbed din continued for some time, weapons of every kind stretch to the rock-face above in celebration while others clanked mugs and glasses, drinking in joy. Finally Brynd lifted his hand, silencing the room once again. “Mert Whatley of Glanderxe. You have become a warrior this day, sacrificing your blade for another. Though no blood was spilt, a price was paid, a price greater than many would pay. Have you any words to say?”

What did they expect me to say? I knew nothing of their customs but what I have seen. Was I to dance around like a lunatic as Cargh did before me?

Pulling the sword from its sheath as I had seen the axe-man do, I gave the blade a thorough inspection. When first gifted it by Brynd I noticed the warn blade shone blue with the light’s reflection but paid little attention to its intricacies. Running my finger along the blade, as I had seen Cargh do, I felt every notch and inspected every scratch. I followed the edge of the steel from tip to pommel before noticing the sole name etched in the fine blade. “Brynd.”

“You hold in your hand the first blade the Protector,” Brynd spoke of himself in a hushed tone like referencing another. “I forged her myself from the ores found in the depths of the mountain.”

“The first sword of Brynd, gifted to me by the Protector himself.” I repeated his words for the whole company to hear. “Forged from the ores of the mountain of god. She is Lady Eyes, her blue eyes piercing the heart of any man who dare look into them. She rushes into battle like a mighty torrent, knocking men off their feet with her beauty.”

There was a brief pause before the gathered company began to cheer. “The rock stands firm!”

“Right, the rock stands firm.” I said with half-hearted stupidity. Luckily the cheering was so loud that no one heard my blundering words. I gave Lady Eyes a dance through the air for the amusement of the crowd, though I was not as graceful as Cargh. She was much lighter than my previous sword, and though short in comparison, what she lacked in reach she made up for in speed.

The little dance was short-lived as I felt stupid swinging my sword without an opponent to test her against. Joining Cargh in front of Brynd, I waited to see how this strange ritual would progress. The crowd died down as we made our way out of the great hall through twisted, until passageways. Surely I would not have known how to proceed through the mountain, for the route forked many times past this great hall and getting lost would have been inevitable.

Though I had many questions, including our destination, I stayed silent as the company around me. We continued to descend deeper and deeper into the rock until a light glow could be seen ahead. Approaching the chamber, the path grew brighter as if we stalked the sun itself.  Soon torches were no longer needed and I could feel a great heat rising from below. A mighty sea of fire stood before me bubbling and spitting. Though I had no desire to draw any closer to this pool of liquid death, I followed Brynd and Cargh at the head of the company until they stopped at the edge of the lake. Brynd turned to the crowd and said in a low, respectful tone, “The mountain forge awaits.”

Cargh stooped down, dipping the tip of his blade into the fire. After a moment he lifted it out and I saw the heat rise half-way up the steel from the bright red hue that was eminent on the surface and surely hot to the touch. Taking the blade over to a large, flat-topped rock he placed it down and began to scrawl something into the hot, soft metal with a white gem he had taken from atop the stone. I watched him concentrate on his work, not only out of curiosity but also knowing that I would soon be mimicking his actions. A great cauldron stood at the far end of the chamber we had descended into, encased on three sides by rock, one side by fire. After finishing his work, he approached the cauldron and dipped the glowing blade into the cool water-bath. Steam rose from the sword as it touched the water, cooling quickly. Once receiving the blade from beneath the waves he inspected it and spoke, listing off all the names there inscribed for a second time. This time, however, he did not stop with the name of the blade’s previous owner Fior, but read one final name, the name he had thus inscribed into the blade, “Cargh.”

The blue-glow of Lady Eyes turned red as I dipped her beneath the fiery waves, following suit. Heat from the pool travelled up the length of the blade, through the pommel, and into my hand. I did not let go, I couldn’t. The burning of the blade matched the burning of my skin. We felt the pain together – man and blade, warrior and warrior. One fused into the other to create one being, one arm, one sword. The-red hot glow of Lady Eyes matched the burning that crawled up my arm as I drew her from the fire and set her down on the stone. With my other hand I grabbed the white stone and placed it on her skin, pressing in lightly being careful not to damage her smooth complexion.

Man was bound to sword through fire, and now bound by name. Having finished my inscription, I brought her to the cool waters within the cauldron and dipped her beneath the waves. I felt the chill crawl up the blade and into my arm, returning the feeling to my once singed nerves. Drawing her from beneath that wet salvation I lifted her for the company to see, a smile spreading across my face. Lady Eyes was mine, and I was hers. Never before had I been so proud to claim a sword as my own. “Brynd,” I began, reading the names, though they weren’t many. “Mert Whatley,” I finished, my smile growing broader if that were possible. The partying company of before now stood sombre and respectful before us, acceptance in their eyes and excitement in their hearts, but none were more excited than myself. A sword, a sword of my very own. This one held meaning, a name, an inscription. I danced around, much like Cargh had done in the chamber above but I had been afraid too. Nothing held me back now, no fear or shame, feeling like a husband with his new bride, no care in the world. Laughter erupted from the crowd around me as they watched me make a fool of myself. “The rock stands firm, indeed,” I heard from within the crowd, though I knew not from who, nor did I care.