When I die, they will say many things about me. They will say I was reckless . . . that I was rebellious. They will say I was defiant towards my elders and my Gods. They will also say I was a passionate lover and that the women of my tribe wept for me as the smoke of my pyre embraced the clouds. But for all the bad things that may be said of me, they will not say that I was a coward.
That was the thought that went through my mind as I stood frozen before the Serpent Guardian in the catacombs beneath Lyros. Water dripping from its giant head as it emerged from the pool below its nest. It is in my blood to weigh the value of my own death as I stare into the abyss. Perhaps I will live . . . most likely, I will die here. But in the end, they will know I've had a worthy passage. Judging by the size of the beast in front of me, I knew none would dare to call me a coward. I smiled and prepared to receive the gift I was given.
The scales shimmered in the light of my torch and it fixed me with its glowing blue eyes as it slithered from the water and through a large tunnel in the cave's wall. While I threw the torch on a patch of dry rock, it poked its ugly head out of another large hole, closer this time, and flicked its massive tongue at me.
"Come death... "
I began to chant, gripping the handles of my beloved—Adun and Eira—and felt the power surge coming down from my shoulders and into my hands.
"Come death! Come to me!" I shouted.
The cavern filled with my cries, dislodging small rocks from their familiar places. The serpent recoiled at the sound of my shouts, eyeing me with a wariness reserved for beasts of its own size and legend. My heart filled with pride at the sight of it.
I roared, charging for its head with my axes raised. The beast shot up through a nearby hole to my left, exiting through another right next to me, cornering me against the cavern wall partially obscured by a pile of bones and rotting skeletons.
"Clever beast it worked for you before" I thought, crushing a brittle skull beneath my foot as I backed slowly against the wall. The serpent's tongue tasted the air before me and I gave it a warning strike with the flat of my right axe.
"Come on you slithering scum. At me! At me! ".
I lunged forward and struck one of its flaring nostrils with Adun, baiting a snap of its powerful jaws. The lessons of my father ran in my mind as I taunted the beast once more. "It doesn't matter how strong you are, Maruf, " he'd said after knocking me to my ass during one lesson. "If you don't know your opponent's strengths and weaknesses you are as good as dead."
While baiting another attack from the great snake I knew his jaws could sever me in an instant and the green venom dripping from his fangs and tongue could give me a nasty passage to another realm; falling into his coils would mean being crushed to death and Gods help me if I stopped to stare for too long into its mesmeric glowing eyes. A single wrong move and I will die. But with that knowledge also came knowledge of the creature's weak neck and slow recovery after each strike.
Another missed deadly bite aiming for my head.
I shouted, leaping from one side over the serpent's closed mouth and mounted the beast. I locked my legs around its scaly neck praying that I would not lose my grip, slide, and fall. It swung its head in a wide arc, desperately trying to shake me loose. But by that time, I had already buried my sweet Eira into the base of its skull. The bite of my enchanted silver axe is also deadly. It shrieked as I further tightened the grip on its neck.
Sensing death, the desperate beast headed for the nearest wall, turned around, and bashed me into it. My back crushed against the cavern wall as I released my legs from its neck and allowed myself to land on the cavern's rough floor. The thing kept crashing into the walls and made a final desperate attempt to escape through a jagged hole in the cavern ceiling. In its panicked dying state, it quickly came out the other end on the cavern ceiling where I greeted it with my beloved Adun. A powerful and precise final blow separated its head from the body. The giant coiling torso writhed in the tunnel as its detached head gaped at me in confused violence. Then suddenly, it was still.
I soaked my right hand in the pool of blood forming under its body and traced it over the tattoo of power across my chest. Warriors honor, victory must be celebrated with the blood of the enemy. Despite its glorious death, the eyes of the creature continued to shine like stones filled with blue fire. Using my carving knife, I removed the eyes from the steaming head. To my surprise, the light inside them continued to shine. They seemed to take on a life of their own shaking gently in the palm of my hand.
As I made my way through the dark caverns continuing the search for the shrine of Ognarri, the serpent's eyes grew brighter in my hand, allowing me to throw away my used-up torch. Not only that, but they seemed to be shaking more violently the further I traveled into the dark maze.
Maybe I was wrong to think the movement of the serpent's eyes meant that I was getting closer. As I got deeper into the caverns, I was sure of two things:one, that I was indeed getting closer to something and two, that my head was becoming as misty as the narrow hall I had discovered ahead of me.
Staggering through the noxious mist, which had caught me by surprise earlier, and crashing into the walls of the cavern, I felt something slithering around my legs. For a moment, I was sure that it was another serpent. Maybe seeking revenge for its fallen brethren. I reached for Adun, but got nothing for my effort except another serpent around the arm.
"No, a vine" I said loudly as the walls closed in around me. "It's a vine...it's just in your head...just an ...illusion...". My eyes closed and in that moment I was afraid that I would die the death of an animal caught in a hunter's snare.
When I woke, I found myself in a world my mortal senses could not fully understand. At first, I thought it was a cavern much like the one I had been in, before losing my senses—the stone walls stretched up beyond my sight and it was . . . light. But then I noticed that the stone was not jagged or stained by water or green moss, but flat. When I touched it, however, it would ripple like a broken image in a lake. Ahead of me, the caverns were enlarged, leading me to something resembling a great hall of a palace . . . but what a palace, made for giants.
Moving along the great halls of stone, I saw new things that made me question my mind: woven tapestries that came to life; people carved in stone that danced around inviting me to join them; the ceiling high above bathed in pale darkness slowly turning into sun-capped clouds as I looked up. I felt humming in my heart . . . songs I’d never heard before came to life in my mind. Powerful words spoken by frightening voices made their way to my ears. A woman's laugh, no, wait. . .
My senses were blind yet saturated with the surrounding wonders; it would seem that time was irrelevant in this place. After walking for what should have been many days, I saw off in the horizon a mountain holding proud in its embrace a white shining city. I then remembered seeing something similar on a wall in the Temple of Ognarri in Mykos . . . or was it Lyros?!
Warrior statues flanked the way towards the mystical castle and I feared that if I walked farther then they would challenge me. Fear was overwhelming my senses just by looking at them. Some seemed frozen in time, yet somehow alive. Others would move their eyes watching me pass by. The last ones were immense bronze giants moving, shouting, and taunting me. Hearing their threats and insults, fear quickly grabbed my heart—I could not continue . . . not even a step further. My legs were frozen with fear. "Then lay down and die", my father's voice said in my head. "And let them say you died a coward... in a dream, hahaha". His scorn unlocked my legs and drove me forward. As I passed them by they disappeared into thin air one by one.
Looking down, I realized the avenue was made of marble and it was adorned with intricate golden models which were changing shape each time I stepped on them. Amazed by their beauty, I looked into the horizon and realized that the promenade was stretched for miles. I reached an area filled with white mist and I slowed down my pace.
In front of me, out of nowhere, a great portal materialized hanging in the air as if it was held by invisible hands. I stepped through it without flinching and, with a single step, I was shot across the colossal distance that I had thought to journey across.
There I was, standing in front of a throne and perched on it was a being made of colorful mist and shiny metallic parts held together by pulsating light that changed its color every second. It was there and not there all at once; flickering in and out of existence like a chimera. A multitude of massive hands—infinite and finite in the same moment—stretched out and reached the heads of thousands of beings laid down or walking aimlessly at the edge of his towering throne. I looked at their faces and saw all the emotions a mortal soul can experience: terror, delight, lust, love, emptiness, and sorrow—all lost . . . yet all safe.
Suddenly, an immensely powerful voice filled my head, forcing my muscles to respond to an unspoken command. I knelt before the throne in a split second.
I heard while struggling to keep my body from being crushed against the marble floor.
"Maruf of the Takan. What a beautiful sight to my eyes. Your bravery brought you before me today. And your talent... let's not forget about your talent, yes, yes!"
"Who are you?" I mumbled"Where am I? Am I dead? "
"Brave enough to slay my pet, smart enough to solve the snake eyes riddle..." he replied. "Fear not warrior, you are not dead and I, as you can see, one moment I am the next one I am not...complicated eh?! " he continued with a large smile unveiling a set of uneven sharp teeth. "Besides, you are my guest, a visitor in my dominion. Let me see if I was right about... you. The living souls journey here every night yet none of them linger for more than a few hours at a time. Can you solve this riddle too?" he giggled.
Overwhelmed and astonished I gathered my wits and answered.
"A dream!? Am I dreaming?"
"Indeed you are." he replied. "But this is no ordinary dream. Think of it as an audience. You are my guest, this is my world, and I am its master, the Master of Dreams."
A silhouette resembling the majestic being sitting on the throne detached from the main body and came down toward me. "Let's discuss your future mortal, away from my guests. Rise and follow me." the shade whispered.
I jumped back to my feet and quickly pursued the shade.
"From time to time, I have the habit of offering great gifts to exceptional mortals. You are one of them. I will be quick because the night is almost over and most of my guests are about to leave... What do you know about Darva? Death!?" he asked raising one of his shiny metallic limbs in a gesture that would reinforce his question.
"She's awaiting my return. Each time I fight, she is there, waiting for me...!" I replied.
"A true answer, yet irrelevant for us. She is clever and unforgiving, reigning over the flesh of mortals... encumbering their dreams...taking them away from me before they can finish their work. She almost took you away from me not very long ago. If I am to prosper, she must diminish... "
Death. So many times I called her before a battle, so many times I turned her away empty handed.
"How do you diminish Death?" I asked.
"You need to know her name first. Her true name. The Maker's most trusted henchman is a complicated being. One of his first creations, he bound immortal canvas to mortal flesh and gave her the power to rule over both. Capricious and restless, she always seeks to renew life. If only you could see her true beauty . . . anyway, to stop her, you need to first learn her name and then seek and slay each mortal element she has hidden in the lower realm. Once those are defeated, I can continue my work unhindered until she regains her powers and . . . returns. There's a prize for you too. Should you manage to find and defeat the monsters, then collect their essence in these magic vials. All you have to do is fill them up with their blood. Bring them back to me and I shall grant you free passage to the upper echelon of existence . . . where only Gods may live."
I knew about Gods, I also knew they were treacherous and selfish beings. "What will a mortal do among the Gods?" I asked, smiling.
"Hmm, riddles again?, are you smart or simply lucky?! I wonder... Ascension means you will become one of them Maruf. Do you think you are up to the task?" he asked, suddenly turning his face towards me, making me gaze into the shiny reflections of the molten metal trapped inside his mask.
"...become a God." his words stuck in my mind. "What do I have to do?" I asked.
"My first gift to you. Her true name is Darva Os Arkal Ti Zarit. Seek and destroy every element hidden in the lower realm bearing the names I gave you. Beware, for they are the most vicious creatures known to any living being" the shade said.
"What do you want in return?" I asked prudently.
"Your deeds are my payment, great designs on the tapestry of time . . . you will inspire people to dream impossible dreams. The pinnacle of my creation is the birth of impossible dreams. Go now, Maruf!" said the Master of Dreams.
I bowed my head in sign of respect and turned to leave.
"Ah. One more thing, I almost forgot!" the powerful voice filled the space again. "You carry with you a token of importance. A piece from your past."
I knew what he spoke of. I reached into my purse and pulled the bundle of cloth that held a piece of my father's skin. Unwrapping the token, I looked at the time eroded black tattoo of might that had been embedded a lifetime ago in my father's chest.
"Kneel and hold it firmly above your head." the shade demanded. I raised the last remaining piece of my father above my head, like he asked. A great wind blew down on me, forcing my eyes shut, burning my fingers, my arms, and my forehead. I felt myself lifted from the ground and shot back through the impossibly long corridor and its strange sights.
When I opened my eyes, I was back in the catacombs. The stone tunnel was no longer a massive corridor and the walls no longer shimmered to the touch. I was back. But I was not the same. When I got a grip on my bearings, I realized that I was only a few steps away from the chamber of the Guardian Serpent, its corpse still oozing the foul black blood. But I wasn't alone in the catacombs. Voices reached me, coming from the entryway.
"I fought enough for one day ". I decided to creep along the serpent's tunnel and let them pass. But just as I reached the tunnel's entrance, something wrapped around my legs and sent me face down to the catacomb's rough stone floor. A damn bolas—a pirate’s weapon.
I rolled onto my back and looked into the face of a legend. Shrouded in smoke, dressed in the dainty garments of a 'civilized' pirate, stood Verhatt. Legend had it that he tricked Darva and remained hidden from her eyes. Seeing him now, how his skin faded to reveal a shambling corpse only to pulse to life once again, sent cold chills down my back.
To have this abomination stand above me, leering at me with flaming eyes one moment and a death head grin the next, filled me with rage.
"Traveler, did you dispatch of this nasty beast yourself?" he said, pointing with one of his hands towards the body of the dead serpent. "Much obliged," he continued, without waiting for me to answer, flicking his hand in sign of respect. His shambling crew laughed, poking at me with their moldy boots and rusty blades.
Outnumbered or not, I refused to let a thief send me into oblivion without a fight. Channeling my strength through my legs, I broke the bonds and leapt to my feet, tightening the grip on the handles of Adun and Eira.
"Come death! " I cried, spinning my two lovers in my hands. "Come to me! "
Verhatt laughed as he stepped back into the darkness, allowing his decaying crew to fall beneath my axes. One by one, they came and, one by one, I removed heads and limbs with clean deep cuts from their bodies. Their laughs continued from their severed heads as I pulverized them into a pulpy mess.
"Oh! Horrible..." Verhatt chuckled while applauding with his skeletal hands. "I like it. You'd make a fine addition to my crew. Care to join?"
"You've no crew left, monster" I said, pointing Adun at his ghastly form. "And you'll soon join them."
Verhatt laughed. "Very well. Then let's have a civilized discussion about your future...maybe you will change your mind!" he replied. "Are you ready?" he shrieked at me, almost laughing.
Then he was gone and a something sharp sliced across my arm. Verhatt's deep chuckle filled my ears and the entire cave. I turned fast enough to block another slice from his cutlass and leapt back. He moved with wicked speed, as I attempted to cleave him in two, my axes missing, narrowly, with each swing.
It was when I finally struck him that my heart sank. It was a killer strike—a cleaving blow directly into the shoulder. But instead of yielding flesh, the axe shattered dusty bone, tearing through it like rotten wood only to have the bone rebuild itself once he stepped back into the shadows.
"I bet you are thinking seriously about my offer now!" Verhatt said while his entire face turned into a half rotten skull.
I tried again and again, but each time my axes landed a hit, his flesh would vanish and his mummified bones would take the blow.
"Nice try, savage" he said. "But I grow tired of your little game."He disappeared again before my eyes.
Within seconds, he carved me up like a piece of game—arms, legs, chest, all dripping blood from several deep cuts onto the cold rugged stone floor. I fell to my knees before him, outraged that my journey was about to be so short . . . right when I was embarking on a quest to become a God. How foolish of me.
"Is this my punishment for going against Darva?" I wondered. All these thoughts ceased abruptly as his cutlass plunged into my chest and out my back. I gasped, feeling the cold of the catacombs seeping into me, claiming me as its next resident.
"Now tell me " Verhatt said with a rotten smile,"The treasure. Did you find it? "
"He would deprive you of your glorious death" my father's voice shouted loudly in my head. "My son deserves the death of a warrior. Use what was given to you and die on your feet not on your knees!"
"What was given to me?" I wondered aloud. With my remaining strength, I touched my belt, finding the piece of my father's preserved skin . . . The mark of might glowing and warm to the touch.
"Come... " I muttered. "Come...death... "
"What?" Verhatt hissed, stepping back. "What are you doing?"
The magical piece of leather turned liquid, spread on my hand, and vanished through my skin. I felt it charging through my veins with each heartbeat. A burning sensation filled my body, driving away the cold. The hideous wound from my chest erupted into flames, melting the saber inside of me as it began to heal.
"Forgotten magic!" Verhatt hissed at me.
"Come Death!" I shouted back. "Come! Come!" I chanted, as I rose to my feet, holding tight the handles of my beloved Adun and sweet Eira. Immense power coursed through my veins like never before. I saw fear and wonder on his shriveled face as I charged him; imbued with magic, down they came once again meeting bone and dust. But the faster I cleaved, the less the shadows could regenerate. Moreover, deep hits cauterized the flesh as soon as I removed the axe from the newly formed wound . . . not allowing him to regain his strength at all.
"You look much better! I think Death will surely notice you now" I said to him between two hits while he was trying to creep away from me.
He died crawling like a maggot—my axes sinking into his back and ripping him asunder as he tried to get away from me, his ghoulish screams the last sound the catacombs would hear for the next thousand years.
To be continued...