The Dark Wizards

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Golden Dreams

Groad kicked his heels all the more harder into the sides of the mighty tawny-coloured stallion. For the first time he cursed the fact that the Kithian war-horses were bred for their incredible strength and not for speed. Bred to carry the enormous weight of a fully armoured warrior into the glorious throes of battle.

Such were the Kithians themselves, a race bred and refined for the sole purpose of wondrous war and destruction.

The sound of sword upon sword is the sweetest music to a Kithian warrior. The foe’s screams the loveliest of songs. The saltiness of perspiration, blood and leather mingled with the delicate aroma of fear, hatred and anger are heady and intoxicating, like that of a bouquet of freshly picked lavender.

The battle is the dance itself, a palpable sensation surrounding and filling the senses like too much good wine; coaxing the participants of its macabre drunken revelry into absolute ecstasy.

Truly a magnificent banquet of death.

Groad was one of the finest warriors to come out of the Kithian Empire. If he were able to stand erect (a difficult and uncomfortable feat for all Kithians due to their ape-like anatomy which causes their head and shoulders to slouch forward), he would stand approximately seven and a half feet tall.

He was not considered enormous in stature as the average height of the Kithian male was considered to be about nine feet tall.

In fact, Groad was considered to be rather short by his peers, but what he lacked in height he certainly made up for in sheer ferocity, skill, cunningness and, a trait most sorely lacking amongst most of the inhabitants of Kith, namely intelligence.

It was by choice and not some sort of genetic impedance that Groad, apart from his dark eyebrows, had no other hair upon his entire head. He had found that the long locks and beards displayed by many of the Kithians were merely a hindrance in battle and required too much attention to keep properly groomed.

Out of nothing but the purest of respect was Groad nicknamed Gu Tibor* by his fellow warriors.

Although Groad considered the name degrading and an insult to both his physical and mental personality, for some inexplicable reason, he thought it best to remain silent about the matter.

The fact that Groad had survived the Ten Cyclan War against the Artanian barbarians with only so much as a small scar above his left breast was proof enough of his prowess on the battlefields.

Unfortunately, he was not pleased with his situation. After all, were scars not the marks of battles fought? Were scars not the true signs of a great warrior?

The solace he received from fellow warriors sporting their limps, stumps and eye-patches was of utterly no comfort at all.

Groad saw only a dim future where his gruntlings* sat in a circle, the campfire reflecting from their eager, expectant faces, begging for their father to tell them tales of his military exploits. But in how many ways can the tale of a single, small cicatrix be told?

When the war had finally ended, the Artanians forced back across their borders, Groad had returned to his home village in Bryntha. His brave and daring accomplishments had preceded him, making him a legend in his own time. A living legend to be respected and feared.

The expected heroes’ welcome awaited him, as well as a selection of beautiful young nubile maidens vying with each other for the attentions of the handsome warrior.

It is important at this point to note that the human concept of female beauty and male handsomeness, as opposed to the Kithian concepts, differ rather profusely.

For example, the male is primarily attracted to the female by the size and shape of her eyeteeth. The larger the fangs, the greater the attraction. Good strong teeth are a sign of a good strong healthy gruntling-bearing body.

Most females keep their persuasive talents hidden behind closed lips, displaying them only, and ever so subtly, in the company of fair game. Compared to the female, the eyeteeth of the male are relatively small.

Under extreme emotional conditions a Kithians tear-ducts excrete small droplets of blood. This gives the eye a glistening red tinge.

In anger or pain it adds a terrifying ferociousness to the facial expression; in joy or passion it evokes, in other Kithian onlookers, a certain stimulus that promotes sympathy or physical attraction.

Marriage and gruntlingswere soon to follow, but Groad being Groad, and Groad being a warrior born and bred soon felt the insatiable call to adventure. The homely life had begun to squeeze its fist on his physical and mental well-being.

His wife and gruntlings became the constant scapegoat to his frequent outbursts of physical and verbal abuse.

Groad knowing all too well that the fault lay solely in himself, arose early one morning, strapped his battle-armour onto his horse’s saddle and without looking back rode off into the rising sun.

It took him the best part of two moons* to lose his unsightly paunch. It had been an unforeseen necessity due to the fact that he had experienced difficulty donning the custom-made battle-armour.

It had taken even longer before he was able to move about in the armour without feeling faint or winded from its enormous weight.

But it had taken no time at all before he was able to wield his sword again like the true warrior he had once been.

Even Zarkas, the weapons-master, who had been Groad’s trainer and mentor, was amazed and impressed at his uncanny ability to adapt most weapons to become a natural extension of himself.

Groad was truly the ultimate warrior; a death-dealing machine made of flesh and bone.

Four times the snows had come and gone since he had left his family in Bryntha. He at last felt that his appetite for adventure had been appeased, at least for the time being.

He sincerely longed for the company of his wife Lorra and their three gruntlings, Zemth, Groadlid and Lorralel.

Lorralel, literally meaning daughter of Lorra, was Groad’s youngest gruntling.

She would be six cyclans* now, but even at two, the evidence was clear that she was going to be the spitting image of her mother. Groad often smiled, thinking about how the young warriors of Bryntha and beyond, would one day flock to his door with gifts of tiborskulls and mollok sap*. Adolescent female Kithians regarded the extent of their tibor skull collections and jars of mollok sap as extremely serious status symbols. These were, after all, a reflection of the owner’s popularity and physical attractiveness. It was a rare occurrence for a young Kithian warrior to court a female purely because she had a stunning personality.

Quite often the fathers of the less attractive females were obliged to please their daughters by undertaking the arduous task of obtaining these coveted symbols of vanity.

Lorralel would pose no such threat to her father. Instead, the male that wished to marry her would fill Groad’s purse with many golden pieces according to the ancient custom of loballa*.

The price of the loballa is generally in proportion to the size of the daughter’s tibor skull and mollok sap collections, which in turn is usually in proportion to the size of the daughter’s eyeteeth.

Groad with wishful foresight had arrayed the walls of Lorralel’s sleeping quarters with crude wooden shelves that he hoped would one day be filled with an abundance of perfume and putrescence.

Groadlid, literally meaning son of Groad, was the younger of two sons. But younger by only minutes. Lorra had blessed Groad with one of the finest gifts in the Empire. It was a known fact that one of the greatest honours that the elder gods could bestow upon a Kithian couple was the parturition of identical twins. They would be seventeen cyclans old when the next season of warm mists arrived. There were certain physical traits about them that resembled Groad, but already they were showing the natural signs of rapid Kithian growth.

Groad was pleased that they would not have to face the humiliating jeers and taunts about diminutiveness, which he himself had once been subjected to many cyclans ago by the other village gruntlings.

The twins were energetic and stalwartly gruntlings who would have little trouble passing the grueling initiation into savden*. The initiation, also commonly known as the Ana Iram*, consists of three dangerous and trying tasks.

Firstly, the youth to be tested, is taken by raft and under safe escort to the centre of the great Ana Weezi*, a vast swamp lying on the northern border of Kith. Here he would be left alone, weaponless and stripped completely naked. He would then have to find and fend his own way back to the outskirts of the swamp, where the escort would set up camp to wait a quarter cycle of the moon for the young warrior’s return. Should the youth fail to return within this set period, the escort would return to their home village. It is against Kithian law to send out a search party to retrieve any stripling undergoing the trials of savden.

The second task is to procure two large feathers from the aerie of an ana-rod noc*. This fowl, although remarkably large, is rather docile by nature. Its domicile, on the other hand, is not quite as friendly. Having an enormous wingspan, ana-rod nocs are able to soar to great heights and so have a partiality for building their nests upon steep mountain crags; especially on the cliffs of the treacherous Chaxer-ran*.

The magnificent spectacle of the Chaxer-ran mountain range rises abruptly and awesomely above the plains and valleys of central Kith. Only on a clear day is it possible to view the plateau’s ridge, which is more often than not, hidden in the low-lying cloud formations.

Ana-rod nocs have a preference to build their nests where, for someone trying to negotiate the sheer rock-face, it would be a similar experience to that of ascending the side of a steep wall.

It is strictly forbidden for a competitor, under penalty of death, to remove more than two feathers from a nest. The price of obtaining these feathers could literally cost an arm and a leg. Many times it has cost more.

The third and final task is for the youth to hunt and slay an ana desh-gla*.

These beasts’ habitat are chiefly amongst the close stifling foliage of the humid and oppressive Kriti Dakur*. The ana desh-glas are primarily nocturnal hunters, making the task of finding, capturing and slaying these powerful predators the most difficult feat of the Ana Iram.

Once the final task of savden is passed, an honourary feast and ceremony is held, wherein the young warrior discards all possessions related to his past into a raging pyre.

This is considered an outward symbol of bidding farewell to the weaknesses of youth and gruntlinghood.

The stripling next presents the pelt of the ana desh-gla to his father as a token of gratitude for past services rendered and as a symbol that he is no longer dependent upon his parents for advice or security.

In return, the family of the new warrior gives honour by presenting him with a number of gifts. These gifts are mainly in the form of weapons that the young warrior can use in battle or hunting excursions.

Finally the father presents the young warrior with a necklace made from the ana-rod noc’s feathers and the teeth of the ana desh-gla. The two large fangs of the ana desh-gla are considered to contain mystical properties that can enhance the virility of the wearer. In the centre of the necklace is hung a small scroll, fashioned from thinly beaten metal, onto which the father is obliged to engrave a written blessing concerning the future of his son. The small metal page is then rolled into a tube that is sealed at both ends with molten metal.

Not is it only against Kithian law, but it is also considered to be extremely unlucky to ever break these seals. This makes it possible, for any father harbouring a contemptuous attitude towards his son, to engrave instead of a blessing, a curse upon the beaten metal. This practice is not too uncommon amongst Kithian fathers who have suffered constant regret in the wake of a son’s over-egotistical behaviour (A practice not too uncommon amongst Kithian sons).

The feathers of the ana-rod noc are believed to produce pleasant dreams. It is also alleged that these feathers, symbolic of flight, will carry the warrior’s spirit form to the other side in the event of his demise.

All Kithian warriors wear their Ana Iram necklaces with exceptional pride and possessiveness.

The most convenient opportunity to safely remove this hard-earned symbol of savden from a Kithian warrior’s neck is only after being absolutely certain that he is entirely deceased.

With the completion of the feast and ceremony, the lid part, should there be one in the warriors name, would fall away. Groadlid, for example, would then become Groad.

It was just shortly after Groad himself had passed the Ana Iram that he experienced a great tragedy that would haunt him for a very long time.

Zarkas, the weapons-master, who had become Groad’s best friend, had decided to take him along on his annual hunting trip. A journey which Zarkas normally endeavoured alone, enjoying the solitariness of the rugged Kithian panoramas.

It was said that Zarkas was proficient not only in the use of over thirty different types of weapons, but also in five different forms of martial arts, which he had studied in his many travels around Baltrath.

He had also painstakingly constructed a unique suit of armour for himself. The armour had long metal spikes that were strategically placed on the helmet, shoulders, elbows, gloves, waist, knees and boots. This enabled him, when in battle, to not only use his sword as a weapon, but his entire body as well.

To allow himself to become one with the armour, he would wear it as often as possible, removing it only to bathe or sleep.

He too received a nickname from the other warriors of Bryntha. They called him Gu Shora*.

Once a cyclan Zarkas went on a major hunting expedition. The walls of his enormous log cabin in Bryntha were decorated with the heads of many of the most dangerous beasts that roamed the world of Baltrath.

This time he had decided to take his protégé along, not only for the learning experience, but also for the sheer adventure as well.

Their travels took them to the northwesterly quarter of Kith, half a day’s ride from an area known as Grimwald forest.

The forest had become notorious as the domicile of the zin-zas*.

The zin-zas are renowned for their ferocity as well as their stupidity. They are not partial or prejudice about who or what they eat. It is their lifestyle. Simple, yet effective.

They get hungry. They eat whatever is available. They get tired. They sleep. They wake up. They get hungry. So on and so forth.

Whether their prey is dumb or intelligent makes no difference. The zin-zas themselves are too dim-witted to make any distinction. All they are interested in doing is appeasing the anger of their primeval god, the rumbling in their bellies that frequently wake them from their serious and laborious slumber.

The fact that these creatures are able to procreate is a mystery to many of the learned biologists of Baltrath.

“Why do you not have a zin-za’s head on your wall?” Groad had asked staring into the campfire.

Their journey so far had been rather fruitless. Apart from the few animals that they had killed for sustenance, there had been no real challenges. No prize worth taking back to Bryntha as a victory trophy.

“I would not waste the time or the effort on one of those useless beasts!” Zarkas had answered with a sneer. “We hunt only dangerous game. For it to be dangerous, it has to be intelligent.”

“I do not agree with that. When a creature’s actions are motivated by pure unthinking rage, then it is more unpredictable and therefore more dangerous.”

“So then, you believe those dumb beasts to be dangerous?”

“Yes!”

“And you would not mind hanging a zin-za’s head upon your wall?”

“A head would be too big to haul all the way back to Bryntha, but I would proudly hang its horn over my fireplace.”

“Well I would certainly be too embarrassed to do something like that!”

“I think you are scared!” Groad had said in a serious tone whilst hiding a smile.

“You know what they will say back in Bryntha?” Zarkas had replied, ignoring Groad’s remark. “Zarkas is getting too old for hunting real game. So now he amuses himself by slaying the poor, dumb defenseless zin-zas. Next he will be nailing insects to his wall.”

“You are definitely scared!”

Zarkas had glared at Groad. “Very well, young Groad! We will go and get you a zin-za’s horn, but on one condition only!”

“Which is?”

“You must never tell anyone that I helped you to get it.”

“Am I allowed to tell them what happened if you should get killed?” Groad had asked barely able to conceal his mirth.

“By the elder gods!” Zarkas had exclaimed chuckling. “That would be tragic. Gu Shora, Baltrath’s finest warrior, slain by a zin-za. I will be bashing on Dakur’s* golden gates for all eternity!”

Through the ages and through circumstance, the Kithians had developed into a nation of thanatophiliacs, worshipers of Death and the dead. It was more than just a belief in ancestral spirits. Dakur, in all his forms, represents only that which is good and positive. Death to Kith’s enemies means victory. Death to a Kithian, especially in battle, is the glorious uniting with the all-powerful Dakur himself.

Grimwald forest consists mainly of high trees that are widely spaced. This made it possible for fast and easy traveling on horseback. It is probably also the reason why the zin-zas took up residence in this particular woodland. They are able to move their enormous bulks around without much encumberment.

Groad had been first to see the zin-za. It was male and was obviously hungry because it was awake and sniffing the air. Pulling back on his reins, he had given a silent prayer to Dakur, not only thanking him that they were down-wind, but also for the fact that zin-zas always hunted alone.

“Do you see him?” Groad had whispered.

“Yes!” Zarkas had said in a brazen tone. “Now let us put a quick end to this foolish and unnecessary excursion so that we may renew our quest to hunting something more worthwhile and challenging.” Dismounting he had removed the crossbow strung across his back and marched off between the trees. Without looking back he had shouted, “Come on, young Groad, or it will all be over by the time you get here!”

Groad had quickly jumped down off the horse, and stringing an arrow into his bow, followed after Zarkas. His blood had turned cold at the sight he had seen before him.

Zarkas had reached the edge of a clearing, in the centre of which, its back towards them, towered the enormous zin-za. It had obviously picked up Zarkas’ scent as it was now sniffing the air in a state of frenzy.

Zarkas stepped forward into the clearing, and raising his arms shouted, “Ho, stupid! Here I am!”

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” shouted Groad taking refuge behind a large tree.

Zarkas spun around. “What are you doing all the way back there? Do not tell me the beast frightens you?”

“Be careful! The zin-za has seen us!”

Us? I doubt even with such a large eye he could see you cowering so far back there in the shadows!” smirked Zarkas turning to face the zin-za. “Come, you vile, ugly brute! If you want me, you are going to have to come and get me!”

The zin-za stood there blinking and frowning. Its head leaned to one side as it studied the small noisy creature. It could not understand why its next meal was just standing there yapping instead of trying to flee. Then with a snarl that revealed a set of jagged yellow teeth it began to advance on Zarkas.

“That is it!” shouted Zarkas bringing the crossbow in to his shoulder. “Just keep glaring at me with that big, soft eye, because behind that eye is your small, soft brain.”

Zarkas was one of the finest archers on the face of Baltrath. His skill with both crossbow and longbow were legendary. He could remove the tail-feathers from a small bird at fifty paces.

The zin-za was a mere twenty paces and closing.

“Now, Zarkas, now!” shouted Groad, his heart racing loudly in his ears.

“Not till I see the white of his eye!”

“I can already see the white of his eye from back here.”

Zarkas smiled. He was going to savour this moment for a very long time. Friend or not, he would enjoy embarrassing Groad on many occasions, repeating the story of how he had killed this asinine animal, whilst Groad was busy voiding his bladder behind a tree. This would also be a lesson to Groad that he should never again question the judgment of the great and learned Shora.

Zarkas’ aim was true, but nature has a marvelous way in its multitudinous designs. Should it give a creature but a single eye, it will no doubt grant it the instinctive knowledge to safeguard that valuable solitary organ of sight at all costs. It will also, most likely, confer the beast with a means to protect it as well.

The reflex action was so fast that Groad had hardly seen the actual movement. The zin-za bent its head forward and the once deadly bolt ricocheted harmlessly off the hard fibrous substance of the horn. In the same movement the beast had closed the gap between itself and the weapons master.

Zarkas’ brain still had not comprehended the gravity of the situation when the zin-za’s left paw closed tightly around his torso and lifted him off the ground.

He was helpless. His arms were pinned at his sides and he felt himself losing consciousness as the brute squeezed the very air out of his lungs.

The spikes on Zarkas’ armour bit into the tough flesh of the creatures paws, but the pain was nothing compared to the pangs which it felt deep inside its belly.

Groad’s fear was quickly replaced with unthinking rage. He rushed from his place of concealment towards the zin-za. He pulled back on his bow almost to the point of breaking before letting the arrow fly straight at the creature’s chest.

The shaft struck the left breast, but did not penetrate deep enough through the tough hide and thick hair that covered most of the beast’s trunk.

Still holding onto Zarkas with one paw, the zin-za brushed the shaft off its chest as one would do to an annoying insect. Content with its catch for the day, it turned and lumbered off between the trees with its prize.

Groad chased after it, sending shaft after shaft into the creature’s hind.

The result was always the same; they had no more influence than the irritating bite of some small insect.

Groad cursed, wishing the zin-za would turn around once more so that he too may try a shot at the beast’s eye.

The zin-za entered another clearing. Groad saw that the opposite side of the clearing did not contain more trees, but a wide ravine.

He hoped that this would force the creature back towards him, but with uncanny ease the beast leapt across the gorge, landing solidly on a wide ledge. Without hesitation and still clutching tightly to its prey, the zin-za trudged off along the ledge, moving parallel with the ravine, its back still towards Groad.

Groad surveyed the length of the ravine. It was too wide and too deep. There was no way he could cross it in time to save his friend.

In the distance the gorge curved inward. If he could reach there in time, and if the zin-za remained on the ledge, he would be able to get a clear shot at its eye as it entered the bend.

Groad’s lungs burned from the crisp air as he sprinted across the clearing. He would have to enter the forest again to reach the bend in the ravine.

In between the trees he would have no visual contact of the zin-za. He would just have to hope and pray that he had guessed the beast’s route correctly.

It seemed to Groad as though it had taken him an eternity to reach the bend in the ravine. He had fallen along the way, losing his quiver and arrows amongst the long grass. There had been no time to search for them. Holding on tightly to the bow and arrow in his hand, he had continued the race.

Standing on the edge of the chasm, his view blocked in both directions by thick foliage, he could not tell if the zin-za had already passed or if it was yet to come around the curve on the opposite cliff-face. Now he could only wait anxiously, hoping for the beast to appear.

He studied the ledge on the far side of the gorge. It was narrower at that point than where the creature had leapt across. This would probably slow the zin-za down, making the shot less difficult. It also meant that if he managed to fatally wound the beast, it would most likely tumble into the ravine, taking Zarkas with it.

These thoughts were still rushing through Groad’s head when the zin-za began to round the bend. Groad went down on one knee, resting one end of the bow on the ground. He had always found this position most suitable for a difficult shot that needed steadiness. Taking a deep breath, he pulled back hard on the bowstring.

A trickle of blood ran down out of Zarkas’ nose and formed a pool in the corner of his mouth. His eyes flickered open.

Even across the distance, Groad could see the intense anguish that filled those bloodshot orbs.

A wave of nausea passed over Groad, and in that same instant it became clear to him what had to be done. Adjusting his aim, he slowly exhaled until there was no more air left in his lungs. Then with one last prayer he released the arrow.

Time seemed to slow as the shaft flew across the ravine on its deadly mission.

The shot was perfect, entering the brain through the middle of the forehead, exactly where Groad had wanted to place it. Zarkas would have been impressed with Groad’s excellent marksmanship, but Zarkas was dead. His head hung limply to one side, the back of the missile protruding just above the bridge of his nose and just below the rim of his helmet.

The deed done, Groad collapsed to the ground in a sitting position. He was still sitting there, long after the zin-za had ambled off into the distance, trying to rationalize his thoughts into some form of coherent order.

This had not been some sort of mercy killing, a quick means to ending pain.

Surely Zarkas would understand that and forgive him? In fact Zarkas was now in his debt.

Groad could not have allowed the great Shora to enter the hallowed halls of Death in such a degrading manner. Zarkas himself had said that he feared he would be bashing on Dakur’s golden gates for all eternity.

Zarkas’ life may have abruptly ended at the hands of a fellow warrior, but this was more acceptable than a humiliating demise at the paws of a dumb beast.

Now he had died respectfully, a warrior’s death.

Zarkas had taken Groad along on the hunting trip for the adventure and for the learning experience.

There had been no doubt in Groad’s mind that the journey had been venturous enough. As for his education, well, Groad had learned more than one invaluable lesson.

A dumb, unpredictable creature is far more dangerous than an intelligent one of predetermined behaviour. Also, never be over confident or underestimate the foe. Most importantly, he had learned how to lie extremely well. He would never tell the truth to anybody as to what had happened that fateful day on the outskirts of Grimwald forest.

Groad’s wife Lorra was considered by Kithian standards, to be a female of superior breeding.

Her mother, Leesha, was a large jovial female who was pleased with her lot in life, which was serving her husband’s every need.

Although Lorra’s father, Ublar Tar, had never accomplished any truly great heroic deed, he was still regarded with much respect and envy amongst his fellow warriors. He, after all, had sired no less than sixteen gruntlings, of which only the last was a daughter.

This was deemed to be a remarkable achievement, and demonstrated clearly that the elder gods, especially those whose forte lay in fertility, smiled most favourably upon him.

Sons represented blessings on the father as well as the whole Kithian nation. Sons represented future service on the battlefields of tomorrow. Sons, therefore, represented increase to the Kithian Empire.

Daughters represented blessings and help for the mother alone. Daughters represented future service in the kitchens and bedrooms of tomorrow. Daughters, therefore, represented mere vessels for increasing the Kithian population.

Unfortunately, not all Ublar Tar’s sons had seen those battlefields of tomorrow. The ten ana desh-gla pelts that hung above his large fire-place were a constant reminder of his family’s loss.

Although Lorra was certainly one of the most beautiful females in Bryntha, if not the most beautiful, Ublar Tar had asked Groad a very small loballa price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He had felt it would be payment enough that his daughter wed one of Kith’s mightiest warriors.

Groad truly loved Lorra and sensed that her love for him was just as strong. He knew that she would consider it an insult were it ever made public that she had been purchased for a rather meagre sum. The other females of the village would not fail to use this information to their advantage. It would be an ideal weapon to use in their frequent skirmishes of vanity.

Groad had accumulated much wealth during his lengthy service on the Kithian border. He had felt that it was the right time to put his hard-earned gold to some good use.

One morning in the bustling Bryntha market place, Groad had spotted Ublar Tar examining a fine young stallion that was to be auctioned off in the market square. It was clearly evident by the gleam in Ublar Tar’s eye that he thought the beast to be magnificent, and coveted its usefulness for his breeding stables.

“Do you think the seller is going to get a good price?” Groad had asked stepping out from behind the stallion.

Ublar Tar was surprised and pleased to see his future son-in-law. “Too good for me. I would have to sell two of my best mares to have a chance at the bidding.”

“Just one,” said Groad with a mischievous grin.

“What do you mean?”

“Be at the auction,” said Groad walking away. “I guarantee that it will be to your benefit.”

At the auction Groad had climbed over the stockade and walked boldly to the centre of the small arena. After beckoning to a puzzled and reluctant Ublar Tar to join him, Groad had started a very long and very loud speech in front of an inquisitive gathering crowd.

A speech about what a hard bargain Ublar Tar drove, demanding an enormous and ridiculous loballa in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The speech concluded with Groad agreeing that the price, although high, would certainly be worth every gold piece paid, and that he would have paid even more, had Ublar Tar been bold enough to demand it.

Groad had next produced a leather purse from which he slowly counted out forty gold pieces into Ublar Tar’s cupped and trembling hands; twenty times the actual price asked.

Groad left Ublar Tar standing dumbfounded in the centre of the arena, but not before whispering a warning to the older warrior that he would be sure to incur a lifetime of Groad’s wrath and displeasure if the true nature of this transaction were revealed to anyone.

The villagers returned to their homes with a story that would heat many ears and many tempers for many cyclans to come.

Ublar Tar returned to his home with a prize stallion to add to his collection of thoroughbreds.

Groad returned to his home with an empty purse but a heart filled with happiness.

The price for Lorra had been heavy, but well worth it, just to see the shocked faces of the Bryntharian women.

Groad considered the expression of absolute joy that later radiated from Lorra’s face an added bonus.

Zemth, Groad’s oldest son by a matter of minutes, had inherited Groad’s father’s name. Groad’s father had been one of the coveted few who had managed to attain special burial privileges.

During his final and most glorious battle, a shaft from the crossbow of an Artanian marksman had found an opening in his battle-armour. The arrow had entered his body just below his left armpit, piercing both lungs.

Even through the cacophony of the fray, his fellow warriors had heard him scream and immediately noticed the extreme nature of his predicament.

For an instant it seemed as though the whole battle ceased, focusing its attention on this single combatant. The battle held its breath waiting for this nine foot bulk to collapse to the bloodied ground like so much useless rubble, his last breath expiring amongst the leather-clad feet of his hated enemies.

But no, his final breath was no death rattle at all. Instead, it seared his throat like a belch of liquid flame, surging forth from his mouth in the most fearful of battle cries.

Then, sanguine sword raised high, he rushed forward once again to meet the foe.

The result was devastating, causing a wave of anxiety to ripple through the once mettle-wrought lines of the enemy.

One man had caused this amazing effect, and as one man the enemy was routed. In a fit of terror and confusion they turned on their heels and fled like whipped bog hounds*.

The Kithians were quick to press their advantage. They pursued the fleeing scattering horde, mercilessly cutting them down in their fruitless retreat.

By the end of the day the Artanians had managed to reach the outskirts of Grimwald forest. Here it was futile and dangerous for the Kithians to pursue any further.

The enemy could lick their wounds, regroup and plan new strategies for future battles. But more important, they would have to be wary of the zin-zas.

The Kithians, content to let the remaining Artanians find sanctuary amongst the foreboding foliage of the forest, returned to the battlefield to plunder the dead of their weapons, armour and goodluck charms which were frequently encrusted with precious metals and stones.

When the victors reached the main battlefield (here the pickings would be best), a lone warrior of tremendous proportions stood, silhouetted against an enormous red setting sun. It was the discernible figure of Zemth.

Still clutching his sword, which was driven deep into the breastplate of an Artanian barbarian that lay at his feet, Zemth stared indifferently at the approaching warriors.

The sight of the lone warrior amongst the carnage was both magnificent and ominous at once.

The Kithian forces rushed forward, encircling their hero with a roar of jubilation and approval. Never before had the Kithians experienced a victory of such vast proportions. Never before had the acts of a single warrior caused such devastation.

Ten cyclans ago, the Artanians had encroached upon the borders of the Kithian Empire, sparking what seemed to be a war that would last an eternity. But now, total victory was something tangible.

The story of Zemth, the Kithian warrior that could not die, would spread like wildfire amongst the Artanian forces. A seed of doubt would be sown about their hopes of total victory, causing a substantial breakdown in morale.

Without hope of winning, they could never win. Why, even many cyclans from now, the Artanian mothers would chastise their misbehaving offspring with the threat of a visit from Zemth the indestructible Kithian.

The Kithians, on the other hand, would evoke more positive emotions of pride in their gruntlings with tales of one of Kith’s mightiest warriors, Zemth the Immortal.

“Zemth! Zemth! Zemth!” chanted the Kithian army raising their swords and spears into the darkening sky.

“Zemth! Zemth! Zemth!” they chanted whilst a silent yet universal thought swept feverishly through the ecstasy-thick atmosphere.

From these unspoken thoughts wafted a stench of insurrection and treason most foul. “At last a true leader. At last a warrior worthy of the crown. Yes, Zemth will be our new emperor.”

It was quite some time before the frenzied crowd came to realize that there was something seriously wrong with Zemth.

The chanting gradually died down to be followed by an uncomfortable silence.

A short, broad shouldered, boyish-looking warrior in the front of the gathering lowered his sword and gingerly advanced on the all too still figure of Zemth.

Groad stopped three feet from his father and stared into the dull unblinking eyes. Eyes that were covered with dust. Eyes that should have been staring back at Groad, but instead seemed to stare right through him. The eyes, in fact, saw nothing at all.

Groad turned slowly to face the bewildered horde. “He is dead!” he exclaimed, “Zemth …is dead.”

Zemth had died in a most bizarre fashion. By chance his body armour had locked at strategic joints, preventing him from collapsing to the ground. The whole framework of flesh, bone and battle-armour balanced intricately against the sword that he clutched in a death-grip.

Groad felt more envy than remorse as he stared upon the ultimate monument of the dead. A prickling of goose flesh crept up his arms as he drank in this masterpiece of pure genius, allowing it to permeate his very being. The sheer beauty of it almost made him weep.

His father, in dying the way he had, had created without words, an epitaph of unequal proportions. After all, how many great warriors had died, not only standing tall and proud, but also watching the backs of the enemy as they fled in sheer terror and amazement. Above all, as the last few seconds of life ebbed away, knowing that the victory belonged to you and you alone. A true warrior could ask no more.

Groad was furious. A son was meant to follow in his father’s footsteps and eventually equal or surpass the deeds of the father. Groad saw only a bleak future where he would be perpetually sustained in humility by the overbearing shadow of his father’s fame. Groad would cease to exist, destroyed in the conflagration of endless praises that would be bestowed upon him in his father’s name. Words meant to extol and comfort the family of Zemth would instead be as fiery coals heaped upon Groad’s head, burning him into an insignificant pile of ash.

From these ashes, so unlike the magnificent Phoenix, would arise a replica of Groad. Not Groad, but instead the Son of Zemth, a title that left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth.

It was primarily this reason that pushed Groad to become the fine warrior he became. It was an obsessive quest to live a fuller life and eventually and hopefully, die an even better death. To be the ultimate warrior he would have to die the ultimate death.

Unfortunately Groad had absolutely no idea of how he was going to accomplish this final action of supreme commitment.

For the moment it was decided to leave Zemth standing where he was. The fact was, nobody really had the fortitude or sheer guts to disturb what must surely have been a tribute to a most worthy recipient, even if the tribute was constructed by and with the recipient himself.

It could have been the vibrations caused by the great wooden wheels of the wagons transporting the dead, wounded and plunder from the battlefield. It might have been the contractions of rigor mortis. Maybe it had been a combination of both, but just after the moon had risen full and purple above the horizon, Zemth collapsed to the ground like so much useless rubble.

It was later discovered that Zemth’s sword had mysteriously vanished from the Artanian’s breast, as well as from the battlefield. This gave birth to a secondary rumour; wherein it was believed that Dakur himself had spirited the great hero’s weapon away to his personal hall of trophies. It now hung upon Dakur’s wall in the most respected of positions, above the golden throne.

The Kithian warlords had presented the facts of the Artanian massacre before the Royal Kithian War Council.

The decision of the council had been unanimous; Zemth was granted the highest of honours, special burial privileges known as The Golden sleep.

This was a long and meticulous process lasting almost a full cycle of the moon. Zemth was stripped naked. His shoulder-length hair and red beard were shaven off and his eyes scooped out of their sockets. Excess liquid was drawn out of the body and replaced with embalming fluid. Strips of cloth were soaked in a mixture containing preservative properties. These were then carefully wrapped around the corpse, making sure that as far as was possible, most of the detail of the warrior that lay beneath these bandages was retained on the surface of the mummified figure.

The Royal Kithian Treasury donated gold. The value of it being equal to one tenth of the spoil taken at the great Artanian slaughter. This was melted, refined and then beaten into the finest gold-leaf. From this was cut a multitude of small scale-shaped segments. These were then painstakingly imbricated onto the body using fine gold wire to join the segments together. Once again care was taken to preserve detail. This was done by rubbing the gold-leaf until the impression of the hero that lay beneath, formed itself onto the surface of the skin of the fine gold scales.

All Kithian warriors have two large rubies encrusted onto each side of the handles of their double-edged broadswords. The principal goal of all Kithian warriors is to attain the honour of The Golden Sleep. Should a warrior be granted such a privilege, the large orb-shaped gemstones are removed from the sword and securely fixed into the hollowed out eye-sockets of the deceased champion.

For the majority of Kithians who fail to earn this coveted glory, it is customary for their swords to be inherited by the first-born grandson of their first-born son. The grandson receives the sword only once he has passed the grueling initiation into savden (considering of course, that the grandfather has no more use for the item himself).

Groad’s son, Zemth, would receive no such gift. It was also Groad’s obsessive desire that this first born son’s first-born son should also fail to receive the customary inheritance.

The fact that Zemth’s sword had been miraculously spirited away was no problem at all. A new sword was duly commissioned. It was to be fashioned from purest solid gold. Also, two of the treasury’s finest and largest rubies were donated.

The rosy gleam in Zemth’s newly acquired eyes gave him a terrifying hint of animation. It created the impression, that no matter where one stood, the ruby eyes would always seem to look right at them; accusing them of crimes both remembered and forgotten. Especially those crimes, no matter how trivial, that had been committed against Zemth himself. One lacking in mettle-substance could easily disintegrate beneath that ever-accusing stare.

The heads of ten Artanian invaders killed in the battle were severed from their now useless bodies. After being picked clean and polished were also embellished with gold. These golden skulls would later be placed around Zemth’s mummified corpse in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. It was believed that they would keep constant vigil over the sleeping warrior in order to guarantee that the passage to the other side be peaceful and undisturbed.

Zemth’s boots, loincloth, leather belt, gloves and helmet were likewise all covered in a fine layer of gold. These were then replaced on his preserved and gleaming corpse.

Strand for strand, Zemth’s shaven hair was worked into the gold-leaf on the inside of the helmet and across the chinstrap. When placed in position and neatly combed, the hair appeared to be growing from the golden chin and scalp beneath the helmet.

With these final touches completed, Zemth was ready to be displayed to the adoring public and to those who were just idly curious.

This had been a period of great embarrassment and humility for Groad. Maidlin, his mother, on the other hand, reveled in the atmosphere created by her husband’s demise; gladly receiving and welcoming all verbal gifts and blessings; receiving even more willingly the material gratuities which had made her the wealthiest female in Bryntha. This in turn, despite her rather small stature and even smaller eye-teeth, had nourished a stream of greedy suitors clambering to her doorstep. An all too hasty marriage to an all too handsome elderly warrior, who had managed to hide his vices well whilst courting, paved a path to sorrow and destruction. He was killed during a drunken brawl at one of the local drinking taverns, but not before he had managed to evenly distribute all of Maidlin’s wealth amongst the brothels and gambling dens of lower Bryntha.

At her death, Maidlin had been poverty stricken. The legacy she left to her only offspring was a large debt and her genetically short stature.

Zemth was taken by cart, under full military escort to the great Kithian crossroads known as Gu Kazor Dee*. It is here at the centre of the Kithian Empire where most of the main highways meet, that a huge circular pavement has been constructed from large flat stones. The circle is of such dimensions that it is near impossible to throw a stone clear across its diameter.

In the centre of this paved circle lies a rectangular altar carved from a single chunk of marble-like stone. Onto this altar was placed the reclining figure of Zemth.

A temporary tent was then erected over the altar. Here Zemth lay in state for a single cycle of the moon.

By the end of the moon’s first quarter, the outer circumference of the paved circle had become a teeming market place and entertainment fair. Dealers, merchants, artists and of course an assortment of thieves, confidence tricksters and pickpockets had all made good use of this prestigious event. Many of the stall owners had even been so bold as to sell carved stone and wooden effigies of the mummified hero.

The hustle and bustle and general hubbub of the market place and fair were a contrary reflection of the stifled solemnity that took place within the tent of honour.

Groad and his mother, being Zemth’s only immediate family, were expected to remain at all times within the canopy to receive the praises of the Kithian nation that had come from far and wide to pay their final respects to the great warrior.

The line of inquisitive mourners, to Groad’s displeasure, seemed endless. The ceremonial actions of the bemoaners became as pedantic and predictable as their fruitless, mincing words of consolation. The procedure was as follows: Ascend the altar steps. Gaze in awe at the sleeping giant. Gently kiss the golden cheek. Spit upon the death dealing crossbow shaft that had been removed from Zemth’s chest cavity and now lay at the foot of the altar. Descend the altar steps. Offer words of praise and comfort to the hero’s grieving wife. Lastly, before exiting the tent, offer words of praise and advice to the champion’s grieving son.

By the end of the moon’s cycle, Groad had eventually succumbed to the constant barrage of words. He had felt worthless and all but drained of his self-esteem.

This relatively short period of time had seemed an eternity. He had felt old, near to death himself. To add to his frustration, the news coming in from the Artanian border was good. Too good. It seemed that by the time he was finished with the necessary formalities involved in honouring the golden sleeper, the war would be over, the peace treaty signed and sealed. It was going to be one of the Kithian Empire’s greatest moments in history, and he would not have had a part in it. At least not the part that he would have liked. He decided that even with the war over, he would not be returning to Bryntha for a long while. If it were now possible at all, he would seek fortune and adventure in areas where he was unknown.

Zemth was then carted a short distance from Gu Kazor Dee to the imperial metropolis of Tar Ta Rus*. Tar Ta Rus is a veritable impregnable fortress with its spires rising and disappearing into the lower cloud formations above the Chaxer-ran mountain range. The only safe possible access to the city is across a lowered drawbridge which spans a seemingly bottomless ravine.

Beyond Tar Ta Rus’ enormous wrought metal gates, lies the nerve-centre of the vast and powerful Kithian Empire.

Firstly, there resides there the Royal Kithian Family, direct descendants of Kith, original father of the Kithian nation. The main purpose of this royal family being to inspire a sense of unity and patriotism amongst the Kithian masses. Although this deed was accomplished with little effort, its influence did not permeate deep or strong enough to affect everyone. Groad, like many others, harboured a contemptuous attitude towards this group of overfed weaklings, especially towards Karta Kithlid, the cowardly emperor who had never dared to venture further than the gates of his own Tar Ta Rus.

Secondly there resides there the Royal Kithian War Council. This was comprised of an elderly group of wise and learned males. Their prime objective being to instill fear, not only into the nations that refuse to bend to their iron-will, but primarily into the Kithians themselves. Fear being a delicate emotion, is capable of fashioning a nation into a mighty war-machine. Fear, unlike other secondary emotions, is capable of being molded, ever so subtly, into hatred, envy or yes, even love. With almost absolute control of these powerful emotions dangling from the fingertips of master puppeteers, it was a simple task to subdue a nation to do the will and bidding of the authorities.

The third and last main organization that resides within the stronghold of Tar Ta Rus is the Order of Dakur Priestesses. This group, although small in number, hold sway to the most influential power. They, after all, represent the focus point of the Kithian religion. They represent the worshipping of Dakur, the great god of Death. Where patriotism and fear failed to reach, the priestesses were certainly able to evoke unbridled subservience from the plebeians. What better quality can be expected from loyal subjects, other than a feverish willingness to die for their god and country?

Just beyond the gates of Tar Ta Rus, the leading representatives of each major organization welcomed Zemth and his cortege. Karta Kithlid, the emperor, Bel Shedor, the chief overseer of the war council, and the extremely beautiful high priestess, Leeja Fay were all gracious, yet dominant in receiving the honoured burial party.

Three smallish, non-Kithian, servants, wearing loose flowing white robes embroidered with golden thread, attended to the representatives. Each lackey brandished a golden mace in his or her white-gloved hands. These sceptres were all similar in design, having large ring shaped handles on one end and an incomprehensible and intricate design on their other extremities.

Groad sensed that a certain mutual contemptuousness flowed between himself and the emperor. Groad despising Karta Kithlid’s weakness, Karta Kithlid despising Groad’s brutishness.

The praises from Bel Shedor were all too similar to those endless murmurings that Groad had been subjected to for a full cycle of the moon. Even before such an authoritative figure, Groad had lacked the emotional energy to produce the desired and expected reaction of a grateful subject. This negative attitude was not so cleverly disguised as to go unnoticed. Fortunately many suspected that Groad was merely exhausted after the arduous journey up the steep mountain pass. These suspicions seemed valid, for Groad miraculously regained much of his virility before the presence of Leeja Fay. Groad was amazed at his own transformation. Even the words of the high priestess seemed original, refreshing and above all, sincere. Groad literally radiated in her company. He later dismissed this phenomenon as an uncontrollable prejudiced, yet natural reaction of his subconscious male ego. After all, Leeja Fay, although high priestess was, or seemed to be about the same age as him. Her manner, although overbearing at times, was pleasant and mature, and when she smiled, Groad had found himself confronted by the greatest eyeteeth in the Kithian Empire. Once he was even embarrassed when he realized that there was a faint hint of blood in his eyes.

Groad’s mother, understandably, found the high priestess’ mannerisms to be rather flagrant and somewhat irritating.

After the formal preliminaries had been completed, the funeral procession proceeded towards the Temple of Dakurthat lay on the far side of Tar Ta Rus. Here the priestesses would perform an extravagant funeral ceremony prior to Zemth being taken to his final resting-place in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.

Many cyclans ago, an enormous tomb that lay beyond the temple of Dakur, had been hewn into the mountainside. Here, through the ages, only a few privileged Kithians had been laid to rest. These favored few had not all been outstanding warriors such as Zemth. Why, some had never even passed the ordeal of savden. Yet through birthright and through death, all Kithian emperors automatically inherit the ceremonious privileges of the honoured Golden Sleep. Groad and many others loathed and considered this tradition to be somewhat unjust, but for fear of being accused of spreading harmful and treasonous ideals against the authorities, were never able to publicly declare their inner discontentedness.

Never before had Groad ventured to the Kithian capital. He was certainly awed at her magnificence.

The dwellings in Bryntha, his home village, were constructed mostly from wood, as were many of the implements, idols and general paraphernalia. The dirt roads were formed by the constant flow of trading traffic that passed through her. In the wet season the roads became near unusable. The garments worn by his fellow villagers were fashioned mainly from the skins of wild or domesticated animals. The inhabitants were also rarely concerned about their personal physical appearances. They did not dress to look good; they simply wore what they felt would be the most practical apparel for whatever vocation they might do.

Tar Ta Rus was an extreme contrast compared to the many rural villages that dotted the Kithian Empire. Here, all the buildings were fashioned from stone, carved into the very mountain itself, as were the statues that lined the precise, pristine paving that ran the length and breadth of the city. It was cleansed and sustained by a crystal mountain stream that was diverged and carried to all residential compounds by means of an ingeniously constructed aqueduct.

The authorities claimed sole ownership to this immaculate citadel. All subjects that resided within Tar Ta Rus did so only by permission of the emperor. The influential requirements needed when applying for citizenship is an untainted record of subservience to the authorities and an impressive accumulation of wealth. Many were eager and willing to pay the enormous rates and taxes demanded of them in exchange for the security offered by the city.

All indications showed that the lifestyle within the safe confines of Tar Ta Rus to be one of luxury and comfort. The raiment worn here is fine and delicately woven. The inhabitants are meticulously groomed. The females all wear make-up and Groad was shocked to notice that a number of the males were also utilizing cosmetic enhancement.

Prolonged security and luxurious lifestyles, it occurred to Groad, soon emasculated those that dwelt within this city. Tar Ta Rus was a mighty fortress inhabited by fragile weaklings. Groad was impressed, but far from proud. He had been told many disturbing tales of this city, this festering sore that prevailed in the midst of the glorious Kithian Empire. Now, with hard physical evidence before his own eyes, he could no longer deny the validity of their truth. He felt nauseous, irritable and uncomfortable. He was a foreigner amongst his own people. A stranger in a strange place. His contemptuous attitude towards the emperor now changed to one of sheer disgust and loathing. He would leave this place as soon as was possible or he too may succumb to its evil degrading influence.

Within the temple of Dakur, Groad felt an inner calm restored to his knotted nerves. The temple was gloomy, thick with incense and safe. Yes, this was Groad’s sanctuary from the disinfected degradation that abounded without.

The funeral ceremony, although lengthy, was pleasing. Groad could do little more than gape in feverish excitement as the priestesses undulated their half-naked forms to the rhythmic, hypnotic and haunting sounds of the hymns of death. Although disappointed when these rituals ended, Groad was intensely eager and curious to behold the inner chambers of the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers. For once he was actually pleased about his father’s disposition. Only immediate family members of the honoured deceased hero, Tar Ta Rus’ leading authorities and their lackeys, as well as a selective group of robust temple eunuchs are permitted entrance to those hallowed premises.

Access to the tomb, like the city itself, can only be gained safely by crossing a lowered drawbridge which spans a wide, deep moat between the rear exit of the temple of Dakur and a narrow ledge which juts out in front of the tomb’s sealed entrance. Although the huge chains that lower or raise the enormous drawbridge are attached to a system of gears and pulleys, it still requires the strength of ten mighty temple eunuchs to complete the task. This is achieved by the requirement of each eunuch to take hold of a large spoke that is part of an enormous wooden wheel. The huge chains can either be wound or unwound from the central hub of this great wheel. Were the descent of the drawbridge not held in check, the momentum of its tremendous mass would crush the narrow ledge to rubble. With no support for the drawbridge, it would collapse into the deep moat below.

The drawbridge safely lowered, the burial party proceeded to cross the threatening gap. Groad noticed that Leeja Fay was studying him. Perhaps she had some sort of attraction towards him. Perhaps she was inquisitive about whether or not Zemth’s bravery coursed just as strongly through the veins of his only son. Perhaps she was merely wondering how such a large warrior could sire such an extremely short scion.

Groad found himself possessed by an inner desire to impress the high priestess with an act of male courage. Some way he had to prove his own worth to this vision of sensuality. He could not help but notice how the eunuchs bearing the reclining figure of Zemth showed signs of extreme nervousness. They were exceptionally cautious about staying as far from the edges of the drawbridge as possible.

Halfway across, Groad unflinchingly strode to the edge of the drawbridge and with his boots protruding partly over the edge, gazed down. It was not possible to tell the exact depth of the moat as it was filled with obnoxious slime-caked water. Now and then a large gaseous bubble would lethargically break the surface with a sickening, regurgitating sound.

“That surely cannot be the reason for instilling such fear into ten very large eunuchs?” thought Groad to himself. “Surviving a fall into the moat should be no problem at all.” Groad noticed more movement in the dungy water. This time the movement had been more substantial than that of a large gaseous bubble breaking the surface.

Slark*,” breathed Leeja Fay into Groad’s ear.

“Slark!” choked Groad, the word sticking in his throat.

“Slarks! The moat is full of them.”

“There are only two things that I dislike more than Artanians. One is zin-zas, the other slarks. I once lost a very fine war-horse to a pack of slarks,” said Groad stepping back from the edge with a look of disgust more than fear.

“And I have lost many a careless eunuch,” replied Leeja Fay, a sly smile caressing her full red lips.

On the far side of the drawbridge, the burial party was confronted with the carved megalith that sealed the entrance to the tomb. In the centre of this colossal rectangular block of stone were three orifices of approximately the same size, but varying slightly in shape.

It was only then that Groad realized the reason for the odd shaped maces that each of the attendants brandished. They were not maces at all, they were intricately designed keys which had been fashioned many cyclans ago by a master craftsmen when the tomb had first been hewn into the mountainside.

Karta Kithlid, Bel Shedor and Leeja Fay all appropriated one of these keys from their particular lackey. Stepping forward, each placed their respective key into the appropriate opening in the megalith. At a signal from Leeja Fay they all turned their keys half a twist in a clockwise direction, removed the keys and took a step backwards.

At first nothing happened, but then a rumbling sound as the system of massive weights, counter-weights and gears within the tomb began to operate, lifting the great stone away from the entrance.

There was a hissing sound as the tomb sighed a long cool breath of fetidness. This was no reek of revulsion. This scent was familiar and all too common amongst the Kithians. It would not be borne along the air with a promise of subtle nostalgic nuances. No, this was the delicate fragrance of death. Death, after all, was a way of life to the Kithians. They did not think of it as being odious. On the contrary, they willingly sucked it in, filling their lungs to bursting; teasing it; tempting it; and incessantly embarrassing it with their flagrant displays of worship to it. With the same zeal in which they gave of it generously, so too did they willingly accept it to their bosom. It was a known fact amongst Kithians, that at the moment of conception, all are thrust head first into the raging waters of life that rush unerringly towards the maws of oblivion. Yes, life is nothing more than a masquerade of death-throes. Life is simply one long slow death. Life is death, and death is life. Contrasting similarities. Contradicting yet harmonious. Truly paradoxical. The ultimate ambiguity.

Groad often pondered on what lay beyond that final bend in the river. Nobody knew for certain. If they did, they were not telling, but the knowledge of what life was, was enough to sustain Groad’s quest for the ultimate death.

Torches were lit and the burial party entered the tomb. From the main entrance to the first inner chamber, it was necessary to proceed along what seemed like an endless maze of narrow inter-connected corridors. The darkness fled before the torchbearers, but with equal speed and cunningness followed behind them in mocking silence.

The thought of willingly entering the jaws and bowels of some horrible monstrosity flashed through Groad’s head. The sensation was surely equal to that of passing through the digestive system of some enormous beast. This gave rise to a feeling of absolute impotence. This was definitely not the result that Groad had anticipated. He had looked forward with much eagerness to beholding the inner chambers of the Golden Sleepers. Now it was almost as if an uncanny, giant invisible hand held him in a claustrophobic grip. His fear did not stem from the unknowns that may be lurking in the constantly receding darkness, but from within himself. It was a paranoiac sensation of being totally helpless in the event of it becoming necessary for him to react against unknown enemies with unknown powers. Powers that could do hideously marvelous things to his body yet deny him the sweet satisfying pleasure of death. Once finished with him, he would be spewed from this place, all worth drained from his once meaningful existence by the digestive process of this unbeatable foe. He would be useless to everyone, especially to himself.

The first burial chamber opened up before them. Groad felt relief as the claustrophobic grip was slightly eased from his confused mind.

The eunuchs proceeded to light large bowls of lamp oil that were permanently fixed onto the lengths of the sidewalls. Only once the entire chamber had been illuminated was it possible to take in the full splendour of what lay before them.

This first chamber is reserved for warriors who die brave deaths in battles glorious. It is rectangular in shape, being about two hundred feet in length, fifty feet in breadth and has a very high ceiling carved away to a height of about sixty feet. The walls and ceilings are smooth, and apart from the oil lamps, void of any detail or decoration.

To reach the base of the inner room it is necessary to descend a steep flight of steps. Standing on the top step it was possible for Groad to touch the ceiling due to the fact that the narrow corridor makes its entrance at the chamber’s highest point.

Twenty large altars had been carved into the floor. These were evenly spaced; ten on either side, forming a passage down the length of the chamber.

At the far end was another sealed entrance. It was similar to the one that blocked the outer entrance to the tomb. It too had three orifices of varying shape. This was the portal to the Royal Burial Chamber and main storeroom of the Royal Kithian Treasury.

Zemth and his family would not be allowed access. Only the privileged leaders of Tar Ta Rus were admitted entrance to that hallowed hall of plenty. Groad and his mother would just be permitted to witness this first chamber of deceased heroes who, it is rumoured, will return to life if the Royal Burial Chamber is ever breached by unwelcome visitors. Dakur in a rage of fury will use his magnificent power to resurrect the chosen few to amend the blasphemous desecration of his tomb.

Groad stared down the length of the chamber. On his right side, all the altars were empty. To his left, all but one remained barren of a golden mummified corpse. These corpses were not near as splendoured looking as Zemth. Time had patiently and rudely taken away their luster. Now they were merely tarnished and near-forgotten heaps of dried flesh and bone.

Groad wondered if anybody knew who they had been and what final heroic feat had granted them entrance to this cold place. Were all their names and deeds recorded in the great Kithian history books? For an instant, but only an instant, Groad wondered if the striving after greatness was really worth the time, pain and effort. One day he too may lay tarnished and forgotten on a cold slab of stone. Would it not be better to direct ones energies towards simply enjoying life? To revel in it without spoiling it by trying to dissect and analyze that which the living could never even begin to comprehend. Was it not best to flow with that raging river of life? To swim against its current was futile and tiring. To make for the bank was to be crushed against the jagged rocks of useless knowledge. Either way beckoned towards a premature death. Surely it is better to stay in the middle where the water, although fast and deep, was safe. Yes, one should simply enjoy the miracle of being. Nothing more…nothing less.

Zemth was laid upon the open altar. The golden sword placed lengthwise on his chest beneath his folded hands. The ten golden Artanian skulls were removed from a large wooden chest and placed around the base, two at the head, two at the feet and three on either side of the altar.

The three leaders stood at the head and sides of the altar with their mace-keys raised above Zemth, whilst Leeja Fay mumbled some sort of arcane incantation.

With this rather anticlimactic ceremony completed, Groad and his mother were allowed a few moments to wander about the great chamber. They were strictly cautioned not to touch anything or any body.

Groad walked slowly past the row of ancient warriors, studying each one intently. It was quite clear from the gradual changes in degradation from warrior to warrior that Groad was walking down a path that led into the mysterious past of the Kithian nation. An ever-vigilant circle of golden skulls surrounded all the altars with mummified figures, except for the last. The last figure (first from the stair-way) was the largest warrior that Groad had ever laid eyes upon. The enormous bulk covered just about every inch of the ten foot long, four foot wide altar. The hands were large enough to fit over Groad’s head, and if alive, probably crush it like an egg.

“This is not possible,” thought Groad walking around the altar. “No Kithian could grow to such incredible proportions.”

On the far side of the altar, Groad was again confronted by something strange and incredible. It was a gigantic gold-embellished skull of some unknown beast. It was almost the size of the altar next to which it lay. Its lengthy jaws were lined with several rows of immense razor sharp teeth. From where the nostrils had once been, to the rear of the skull, ran a row of lethal spikes. The eye-sockets were set high on either side, adding an overall impression that this had once been a beast of sheer menace and ferociousness.

“It is a ratchamonga*,” said Bel Shedor stepping round the altar.

“Ratchamonga?” frowned Groad, “I do not believe that I have ever…”

“They are extinct,” interrupted the old warrior, “And judging from the looks of that one, I think we should all be very grateful that they were exterminated.”

“Exterminated by whom?”

“By him of course,” said Bel Shedor pointing at the enormous mummified warrior. “Legend has it that a ratchamonga savagely attacked and killed his wife. In a rage of hatred and unquenchable fury he swore an oath, never to rest until the last ratchamonga had been wiped from the face of Baltrath. With a small and highly efficient army at his command, he exterminated forever, what had once been a dominating life form on this planet. Ironically he did only rest once the last ratchamonga had been killed. The story goes that there was a final and glorious battle between him and the last of the ratchamongas, a behemoth named Krawl-Gla*. In the battle, Krawl-Gla was eventually slain, but the warrior had sustained mortal wounds and died soon thereafter.”

“Is that Krawl-Gla?” asked Groad pointing at the ratchamonga skull.

“So I am told.”

“How long ago did all of this take place?”

“The Golden Sleep, as you are surely aware, is not easily attainable. Between each one of these great warriors,” said Bel Shedor gesturing with his mace at the row of Golden Sleepers, “Exists an average time period of a little more than one hundred cyclans.”

“Impossible, that would make this warrior’s remains almost one thousand cyclans old?”

“This tomb is free of moisture and perpetually cool. When sealed it is perfectly airtight. When we leave here the lamps are allowed to remain burning in order to use up the remaining air. It is the ideal environment for preserving that which would otherwise naturally deteriorate.”

“Tell me,” asked Groad stepping closer to Bel Shedor, “When exactly was this tomb carved into the mountainside?”

“Well,” said the old warrior pursing his lips, “The legend goes that after this great warrior’s death, his small army of loyal followers arranged for his body to be preserved by the early alchemists and medicine men of that time. The process was rather crude compared to our standards, but as you can see, effective none the less. His mummified corpse was then brought here to the Chaxer-ran mountain range.”

“To Tar Ta Rus?”

“At that time, Tar Ta Rus did not yet physically exist. It had, for many cyclans, existed in the mind of this deceased warrior. He had on many occasions explained to his commanders the enormous potential of an impregnable fortress amongst the clouds. Were it not for his rather time-consuming exploit to rid Baltrath of every ratchamonga, and woe to the one who might have tried to dissuade him from that delirious quest, he would probably have personally supervised the construction of Tar Ta Rus. Instead, his son was to rule in his place.”

“Rule?” frowned Groad.

“Yes. This great warrior was once looked upon in the same light as a king. To some, even a god. The high-ranking commanders and strategists were wise enough to realize that for anybody else but this warrior’s first-born son to rule in his stead would be disastrous. There would surely have arisen division amongst the army’s finely disciplined ranks.”

“Was this first-born son of his a great warrior as well?” asked Groad with more than just a subconscious pricking of his own state of affairs.”

“I am afraid not,” came the voice of Karta Kithlid from behind Groad. “I believe they say he had a rather weak character. No charisma at all. Had to rely on the commanders and strategists to make all the important decisions. Then relied on them to impose these rather demanding decisions upon the multitude. He soon became nothing more than a focus point, a powerful tool in the hands of the newly formed war council. You might say he was the mascot of the masses. He found his newly acquired role undemanding, embarrassing and simply quite boring. To relieve himself from the monotony of these mundane chores he took to studying and practicing sorcery and magic.”

“I thought it was strictly forbidden by law to practice any form of the dark arts?” queried Groad glancing from Karta Kithlid to Bel Shedor and back again.

“The Kithian Empire was very young then,” yawned the obese emperor. “That particular law was only to be enforced much later on. However, the war council was quick to recognize the dangers and embarrassment that would be involved if the populace were to receive word that their emperor was dabbling in matters that were unrelated to the extension and glorification of his father’s dream. So whilst they took it upon their shoulders to supervise the construction of Tar Ta Rus, they duly appointed the youth to oversee the construction of one minor facility. A simple, single-chambered tomb which was to be carved into the mountainside. He was reluctant to leave his studies, but with subtle persuasion, soon began the task of constructing a place for storing the mortal remains of his father.

“The builders that were placed at his command were to suffer a constant barrage of verbal and physical abuse from the emperor who deemed it fit that his heated frustrations be cooled in the blood, perspiration and anguish of his subjects. If not for the constant and timely actions of the council, there would surely have arisen complaint and rebellion.

“Then one day it happened that there was an accident within the almost completed tomb. It is said that the builders had inadvertently released a pocket of trapped gas. When the dust cleared, except for the emperor and a single tomb builder who emerged almost unscathed from the tomb’s entrance, all the rest had been killed. The large gold medallion that hung over the front of the emperor’s chest had been damaged. He claimed that it had taken the brunt of what would otherwise have been a fatal impact.

“The council, being understandably concerned about the emperor’s welfare, decided it best for him to discontinue the supervision of the tomb’s construction. But the emperor was now determined to complete what he had started. It was as if a new person had emerged from the tomb. He claimed that Dakur had surely smiled on him by sparing his life. In return for this favour he would construct a most fantastic monument to the dead, a place where warriors who had shown true courage in battle could be honoured for all eternity.

“It was the emperor’s wish as well, that the dead warriors be adorned with the finest of gold.”

“A tomb this size must have taken ages to complete,” said Groad gazing down the length of the mausoleum.

“The chamber beyond is even larger,” said Bel Shedor raising his eyebrows. “The exact time taken to complete these chambers as well as the labyrinth leading to them is unknown, but we do know that when the emperor died he was the first to be lain in the Royal Burial Chamber.”

“Why was this warrior not the first?” puzzled Groad. “Surely he was considered to be much greater than his son?”

“Two reasons,” answered Bel Shedor. “Firstly, after the completion of this, the first chamber, a ceremonious function was held, whereby the great warrior was covered with gold and placed where he now lies. Obviously much later, when the second chamber had been completed, it was felt it would be sacrilegious, an act of profanity, to disturb the resting hero yet once again.”

“And secondly,” said Karta Kithlid continuing the history lesson, “The commanders and close friends of the hero who had known him well, decided that he would have preferred to be remembered in the thoughts and tales of the generations to be, as the greatest of warriors. To remember him as the greatest of emperors would detract from the true essence of what he had once been. After all, tales of great warriors are eternal, and with each telling, the heroes become more powerful, more cunning, more daring. Yes, to be remembered as a great warrior is to attain immortality. Great warriors live forever. Great emperors turn to forgotten piles of dust.”

“So it was more appropriate that he be the first of the great warriors,” said Leeja Fay walking up the pathway whilst running her fingertips along the sides of the smoothly polished altars. She stopped and gazed into Groad’s uneasy eyes, “Whilst his son became the first of the great emperors.”

“I was told and taught to believe,” said Groad irritably breaking away from Leeja Fay’s stare, “That all our emperors were directly descended from Kith, the father of the Kithian nation.”

“You were taught correctly,” smiled Bel Shedor.

“Are you saying that this warrior is a descendant of the great Kith?” queried Groad.

“No, but his son was,” smiled Bel Shedor.

“I understand,” said Groad. “So this warrior’s wife had been a descendant of…”

“Wrong again,” interrupted Leeja Fay stretching out her lithe form onto the unoccupied altar opposite the great warrior.

“I am confused,” said Groad frowning.

“Either you are too stupid to realize the truth,” mocked the emperor, “Or you just simply refuse to believe it.”

It was only then that Groad fully comprehended the fact. It was as if an invisible metal-gloved fist had abruptly and rudely struck him between the eyes. His jaw dropped open and he stood like an imbecile, gaping down at the enormous figure.

“My honoured friends,” said Bel Shedor to his colleagues. “I believe that our young guest has finally grasped the true nature of what lays here before him.”

With much difficulty, Groad forced his legs to carry him to the side of the altar where he could study more intently the facial features of the sleeping giant. Slowly he stretched out a trembling hand towards the tarnished face. The hand froze in mid-air. The desire to touch the face of a god was being weighed against the fear of the wrath that may be incurred through such a blatant act of selfish worship by a pitiful and worthless creature. Groad’s whole body was a mass of tingling nerves. Cold droplets of perspiration ran down his back, whilst muscle spasms made a counter attack all the way up into his scalp. At this point his legs denied him their use. He collapsed to his knees, his hands covering a mouth void of any moisture. Then with all his might he forced out the name that was stuck in his throat. Only a stuttered whisper managed to creep out from between the pale lips.

“K…K…Kith.”

4
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