A death-like stench woke me this morning, it stained my nostrils, and now; even within the confines of this room it plagues my smell memories.
When my eyes opened, I had to blink hard a few times, just to make sure they truly were open. It was dark where ever I was. I had no way of knowing if I was with Mikado or Czarina. There was a dripping noise behind me, or perhaps just beside me, it was hard to tell. My head was pulsating where it met with my neck. My body felt weak and cold; I was still naked.
Somehow, I had to find my companions and fix the waterfall for Caldera.
I began feeling out the crevices if the walls to map my surroundings. The rock walls were sharp against my fingertips, I knew I was in a cave of some sort. I could feel two conflicting breezes as a wandered around, one was a thicker, stronger version of the original stink that woke me, and the other was warm and fresh. I had to make a choice, follow the putrid waft to its source, or the clean draught to what I could only assume was freedom.
In the pitch black, I deliberated with my thoughts.
I concluded, my friends were likely where the foul wind was strongest. I hovered in the warm clean air for as long as I could, to try and wash my nose before I embarked down the rank tunnel. Slowly I traced down the rotted path, until my vision was getting altered. There was light ahead; flickering on the edges of the cave’s wall. The ground under foot became soft; I was walking on sand. A noise was faintly filling my ears in the background.
Running water? I asked myself. Could this be where Caldera’s water had gone? I pondered. Somehow, I knew that, the shadows in the jungle, this flowing water and Caldera’s problem were all connected.
The cave opened into a larger room; with a domed ceiling, and fire pit in the centre. Three other passageways left the room, the smoke flowed down one; this would be my escape route. The other two were unknowns. I kept looking around, and I noticed the root of the smell. A pile of discarded bones and un-eaten flesh were decomposing in the corner. There was nothing else in the room. That must have been where the shadowy figures ate their prey.
My options were limited, two paths remained to search.
I crept towards the left, but heard some shuffling come from the right tunnel. “Mikado?” I whispered. It was a few seconds before a reply came. “Czarina?” came a soft and definitely Mikado-sounding reply. It’s good to know Mikado cares about someone other than himself. Moments later he tip-toed out of the passage. The instant he did, I stepped out from my shadowed alcove. He jumped. I put out my hands to reassure him, then quickly lifted a finger to my lips to silence any whimper that would follow.
He stepped closer and patted me on the shoulder. Mikado leant in to my ear and asked if I had seen Czarina. I answered by shaking my head. I couldn’t give him any false hope, so…
Silently, I turned his body to face the other unchecked tunnel, I pointed down it. Mikado swallowed a dram of saliva blended with fear. I heard it gulp. He then grabbed a bone covered with tattered cloth and animal fat, lit it on fire and stepped ahead of me.
I think he loves her; truly, if she is the one his mind goes to in such a weakened state. I bet, if she can see past his flaws, their bond will surely grow, in time.
The torch illuminated only a small orb of cave around us, we couldn’t see any further than a stride in front of us. The air grew wet against our face, the smell of decaying flesh diminished, only slightly, and blended with a new scent, one of damp dirty hair, like a dead beast in a swamp. The almost fog like stink wouldn’t quit attacking our senses, we had to breathe through our mouths. But now that I’m thinking about it, the taste was worse than the smell.
We turned a tight corner and the tunnel opened into a large chamber. It had to be bigger than the eating room we were just in, our flame’s light was being swallowed by it’s depths. We had only made one step into the room when we heard the rumble of snarls fill the space between stink and cold. Mikado waved his torch from side to side, trying desperately to find the source of the noise.
Quicker than a blink, a shadow stole the torch from his hands, leaving us with no choice but to cower together in the pitch, as our light danced around the cavern, taunting us. The shadow dashed past many stationary figures, beastly shapes, much taller than Mikado and me. There had to be twenty or thirty in the room with us.
The light stopped, we could see the creature’s face. His long snout was almost entirely mouth, lined with black scales, and black fur. His jaw was longer than my forearm and full of jagged oddly sized teeth.
It’s sly reptilian eyes squinted and darted around our bodies. He stood on two clawed feet, with sharp bone spurs at his heels. His legs were scaled from his ankle to his inverted knee and fur from then up, save for a patch of scales on his torso.
I could only assume the scales were harder than any blade. There were claw and sword marks scattered around his chest and stomach.
His hands were the size of my head, with gangly fingers that had claws half way down them on the palm’s side. Only now can I marvel at the sight of this beast, part reptile, part rodent, totally alien to me, but at the time I could see only an incarnation of fear. I watched on as he ripped a craggy grin, and threw the torch at Czarina’s feet.
I had missed her presence altogether in the black room. She was barely conscious and groggily looking around.
A pile of twigs and bone ferociously combusted, as though it were fuelled with fat. I flinched, despite my best effort not to, when I returned my gaze to Czarina, Mikado had already left my side. He was five paces in front of me when I snapped out of my daze.
He was so fast, not even when we fought did I think he was capable of such a speed. He leapt into the air and dove shoulder first at Czarina, he contacted with her stomach and toppled the pole she was tied to. They crashed to the ground and Mikado fervidly extinguished the flaming rope wrapped around her ankles.
After the fraction of a second I spent wallowing over my inability to act. I had to redeem myself. As the beast stepped closer to Mikado and Czarina I swooped down and stole a rock from the cave floor, dashed closer to him and threw it at his head. It smashed into the creature’s eye, causing him a temporary blindness. It is there, in his blind spot I stayed, as I moved in for my attack. I threw wild punches to every part of his body that didn’t have scales. I had to find a weakness.
He spun to see me with his good eye, flailing his claws at what he thought to be me, but I’d shifted, constantly staying out of sight. His perception had been disrupted, he could no longer judge distance, but my advantage was slipping, I could see him blinking his hurt eye back to health.
My attacks were for the better part futile, until I kicked his knee; it crumbled under the force. I punched him in the snout and elbowed the crown of his head. The beast howled, the noise was impossible, a booming deep roar but also a high pitched shrill. It broke my focus and crippled my mind.
“RRAARRGHENOUGH!” He blurted at the end of his scream, drool dripping from every tooth down his knotted chin hair. He threw me easily at my companions. “No Hûm has entered the realm of the aging shadow for a lifetime. You have come to claim the sphere for yourselves. What makes you think I, Varmint Khan and my Varm will allow you this honour?” He asked us. I stood and rubbed my ears, moving my jaw strangely to try and remove the odd ringing stuck in my head. “You haven’t stopped us yet” I said, hoping my honesty would earn me some of his respect.
The Khan snarled and scurried the few paces of distance between us to look me in the eye. His eye; still twitching from my attack didn’t give in to a blink. I scanned him as much as he scanned me. “A clever Hûm, your tongue is quick, but speed won’t cover the stink of your words.” Varmint Khan said as he began to circle me and the two on the ground beside me.
His sayings were odd, ‘the stink of my words?’. Could he smell a lie? I wondered. Is that his game? At the time, it felt right not to lie to the beast, even though we fought each other, his people didn’t stop me. They seemed to have a sort of honour about combat, but I felt if I tried to deceive them in any other way, they’d pounce.
“We have come to claim the sovereignty our births give us right to. But, right now, we serve a different purpose.” I said as I helped Mikado and Czarina to their feet “You must know of the Sphere Scar…” Czarina said, still befuddled by her horrible awakening. “…The people of the Scar are in dire need of water to grow their food and quench their thirsts. We came here to restore their waterfall’s flow” She continued.
Varmint Khan played with his chin hair, enthralled by our plight “Perhaps you are worthy to rule the sphere” He said, before abandoning his beard to throw his hand to the side and scoff “Humph, it is an honourable pursuit Hûm, but you are leaving something out, a piece of your story still lingers in your mouths.” He knew, his senses were highly tuned, he knew if we lied and he knew if we were deliberately leaving out a truth. I was astonished at this point, but before I could tell him the fragment that was left out Mikado piped up.
“They took our stuff, all our supplies and our clothes and gear” He informed. “TRINKETS?! Things?! You help them because they hold your petty items hostage? When the trees of the aging shadow gift you all that you need, you lament over curios?” Each of us were offended. “Sure, some of our possessions we could do without, but some items are irreplaceable.” I told him. Czarina stepped forward with a new-found strength “Yeah like my neckless was hand crafted by the all of the elders of my village, they toiled for months to honour me”
“And I’ve got the first money sack I ever stole…” Said Mikado. Czarina and I looked at him with a curious repugnance. Even the Varm looked at him oddly “…What? It’s brought me luck so far. I mean, I’m not dead yet, am I?” Varmint Khan sniffed the air and pointed to me “And what bauble of yours compels YOU to do another’s bidding?”
My dagger is precious to me, but, I couldn’t lie to Varmint Khan, especially since I couldn’t defeat him in one on one combat and his Varm were looking at us hungrily.
“My grandfather’s dagger; made from a shard of the first diamond gate, given to me by my father…” I saw the beast’s eyes squint, only slightly, when I mentioned the diamond gate. “…And a gauntlet built by my great grandmother; the last strider to make it to Sovereign City.”
As I concluded I could sense a change in the cave. Initially it was very hostile, like they would eat us at a moment’s notice, as though this were all a game to satiate their egos before quelling their hunger, and I was surprised that they didn’t. Maybe our fighting spirit spurred a contest within them. Maybe we were lucky. Whatever the reason, the cave’s energy was different, it felt like we had changed their minds. It felt like they would help us with our mission.
“The Hûms of the Scar? Do they follow Sovereign law?” The Khan asked. Czarina took her weight from Mikado’s shoulder to stand straight. “No, they live in peace, the pressures of Sovereign law caused them to flee to the Scar, to run from their lives, but they found a new life with others like them. Just as everyone outside of Tor has, just as my village has. Every person has searched for a place to belong, and each of their reasons has had something to do with Sovereign law; good or bad”
Mikado couldn’t hold his tongue “The Calderans are dying, because their water has been cut off, they took our stuff because they don’t trust anyone, and you know what? I wouldn’t trust us either. The Sovereign laws have twisted everyone on the sphere; some don’t know it but most have accepted the rules.” I agreed with both of my companions, they were right in their own ways, but Varmint Khan needed something else to come off our tongues; something bitter.
“It has twisted you the most Varmint Khan!” He snarled and waved his hand dismissively, I continued “Sovereign law has restricted you to the confines of the aging shadow, forced you to horde resources, pushed you to eat whatever comes into your midst. Instead of roaming the land in the sun and the fields of Maru, you skulk in the dim under the false pretence of a bountiful jungle, when really you are eating the scraps of the last King’s rule.”
“YOU THREE ARE NOT SCRAPS, WHAT IF WE EAT YOU?” He bellowed in frustration, showing all his teeth. I tried not to flinch “Then you will once again fall victim to the whim of Sovereign Law. Help us Varmint Khan! We can change the laws. We can change the Sphere, for everyone.” He flared his nostrils and I think he smiled from one side of his mouth, before shooting some snot onto the floor.
“Your words make sense Hûm, you wish to abolish Sovereign Law, and then what? There will be chaos before there is peace. All of Tor will hunt you down for taking from them what they are born for and die for. What then?”
“I will let them hunt me; if that’s what peace costs, they can take my life, but that will be their choice. It won’t be thrust at them straight out of the womb, it won’t be drummed into their heads through childhood, and it won’t be a choice that plagues their mind day and night as the hours count down to their eighteenth birthday. It will be a pure choice of defiance against tyranny, and I will gladly meet those who would seek to reclaim their birth right.”
“A Hûm that will use his birth right to gain a dictatorship, and use that absolutism to free the Sphere from the oppression that he and his predecessors so vehemently fought for and clung to with their lives, and then you will cast this Sovereignty away… What is your name Hûm?”
“I am Reks Twelve.” I told him sternly, my heart was beating so fast. I was uncertain of what Varmint Khan would do, knowing my true intentions, so I kept my guard up.
“The Varm will help you on your mission, we too wish to see the old ways abolished, and new paths forged in prosperity for all.” An eruption of roars echoed through the cave. I think, the Varm were expecting a fresh meal, and not a laborious task. I also got the impression that they don’t like ‘Hûms’ as Varmint Khan has so dubbed us.
Despite their blatant opposition to their leader’s decision, I was surprised to see how fast the Varm mobilised. We left the cave and headed straight for the river. It was a short, determined walk to the river and when we arrived, the cause of the problem was obvious; the Varm had rolled a giant boulder into one side of the river, making it divert in the direction of their cave instead of over the cliff to Caldera.
In his native tongue Varmint Khan ordered his Varm to remove the boulder, although it sounded more like a gargled howl. The three of us watched on in amazement as the Varm displayed their brute strength and teamwork, flawlessly they rolled the giant stone sphere out of the water.
After some minor adjustments to the river’s bed, they forked the river instead of diverting it. We chased the water as it flowed eagerly down the trench to Caldera. When we reached the edge of the cliff, the water launched over, misting into the air, painting the wind with colour, and pouring down to the thirsty villagers below.
It was hard to see the villager’s reactions, at that distance all we could see were dots, but we could see Caldera Kaiser’s massive arms waving and dancing. His beard covered his mouth, but I bet he was smiling. He stopped his jig for a moment to pick up something and throw it. It was a spectacular throw, landing right at our feet.
We unravelled the crudely wrapped package as the Varm watched curiously, they could smell something, their mouths were dripping with saliva. Before I donned my gear, I found a satchel of Maru leaves and handed them to Varmint Khan. “Here, taste one of these” I offered. He sniffed at the bag cautiously. I began to dress. “That’s the Maru leaf, it smells sweet, but has a mostly savoury taste to it, with a hint of spice at the end. Oh, and one or two leaves will fill your stomach.”
Varmint Khan scoffed, but curiosity over powered him. He nibbled at it intriguingly. Within seconds his eyes widened and he threw the rest of the leaf into his drooling mouth. “It tastes like meat, why does it taste like meat?” He asked passionately, throwing the bag to his Varm for them to see for themselves. They passed the leaves around to share, each of them surprised by the flavour. “This food is like magic, one taste and my hunger is quelled” one said.
“Tell me! Tell me how this leaf works, I must know” The largest of the Varm, next to Varmint Khan asked me. “When I was in school, they taught us that when the Maru leaf breaks down inside you, it expands. Because it’s dense with nutrients to begin with, it gives you all you need to feel full.”
The Varm next to V.K. Who I later would know to be the Beta Khan; the one who constantly saught to lead, stepped right up close to me “Give us the leaf and we will safely escort you through the aging shadow.”
I was confused, so were my companions. Czarina pushed the Beta “Do you mean to say you weren’t going to take us the safe way through?” I looked straight at Varmint Khan “Do you aim to deceive us Varmint Khan?”
“No Reks, the truth is plain, traversing the aging shadow is perilous no matter which way you travel, but the Varm are more likely to protect you if there is an incentive.” Mikado, Czarina and I looked to each other with worry strewn across our faces, but even knowing their original intentions, we couldn’t do anything but trust them. We were in their territory, and slowly we were learning their rules. I was just glad we had something of value to them now.
The conversation dulled awkwardly as we finished getting dressed. Our situation took a comical turn when the Varm had looked at Czarina’s dress. “You look like the flower of the great round tree…” A young Varm pointed out. He leant in for a sniff. “…But you do not smell like one.” The group cackled a husky snarl of a laugh as the young Varm tried to scratch the smell from his nose. I thought they were about to cough up some fur. “Enough talk!” Varmint Khan ordered “The day is dying, we leave tomorrow at first light.” He concluded.
We trudged back to the cave, where we were taken through another entrance. To a less sacrificial looking chamber. I think the Varm use this newer section for rituals of another kind. I got the feeling it was to bond with each other and anyone friendly who would come their way.
The Varm sat us down in a triangle, Varmint Khan at the head, his two most trusted Varm at each other point; one of them included the Beta Khan. The others brought out the reserves of meat they had cured and stored away for dire circumstances. We all shared in the feast of Maru leaves and dried, seasoned meat of unknown origin.
Once we had finished, a shorter, scruffier looking Varm came over and handed us a bowl, it looked like a tree trunk that had been clawed into shape. We leant over to see the contents. The liquid was viscous and swished around the bowl like hot slobber on ice, but oddly it smelled pleasant. The Varm urged us to drink by sipping some for himself before pushing it at us again.
I drank first; it’s consistancy puzzled me, it was gooey in the centre but where it touched my mouth and tongue it was watery, and the taste was better than any sweet fruit I’ve ever had.” Mikado and Czarina could tell by my face that I was enjoying it, so they too had some.
Only a moment passed and something felt wrong, the room began to blur and ripple like heat in the distance. After that I passed out and came here, to this room. I’ve been scared that the Varm are going to do something nefarious to us. Something about Varmint Khan gives off this sincerity that makes me want to trust him. I think he genuinely wants prosperity for his people, and may even set aside his obvious distrust of Hûms, to set up trade.
WAIT! SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT, I, I THINK I’M BEING WOKEN UP, ARGH MY HEAD.