Galt climbed the mountainside, inch by inch, tortured by heat and pain.
With his two daggers, Frostfang and Venomblade, he punched into the rock, one at a time. He tied a rope, twenty paces long to each dagger and threw it eighteen paces. Slowly he climbed the rope, a good white hemp rope made by folks down near the Crystal Lakes, hand over fist to the dagger lodged in the granite stone.
If one was to look at Galt’s progress up the mountainside, all you would see is three sacks, rope, and daggers.
Galt, blessed by his god of Shadows, was given three gifts. The first two gifts were the daggers, enchanted by his god, one made to freeze and the other to poison. His last gift gave him the ability to blend in to his surroundings. Galt looked much like the beige granite mountainside he was climbing. Even Galt’s shadow was blended in so no one would notice. He is the perfect hero for a god who loves death, dances in shadows and plays with snakes.
During the climb he thought about his god’s command: “Go find the old sylph, the one who lives in a cave near the top of Thumbstone Mountain.” Why would he go find a cranky old sylph? The old ones are unusually cunning, full of words and themselves. They smelled like musty old leather that needs to be oiled along with whatever strange weed they were smoking. And the teas, always strange, made of exotic compounds such as claw of harpy and eye of Lashon, with some mint for taste, of course. The older sylphs had desks, inks and parchment made of strange leathers and papers so they could write out whatever claptrap they knew. Gold and secrets, it was their stock and trade.
Even at the market the winged creatures made his skin crawl. Galt lead a trade caravan to the Crater of Lugos last summer. The trip opened his eyes to the world. At first he hated the winged monkeys, with their small pointed heads, brown skins, and clawed hands and feet; then he decided it was good to tolerate them for what they knew. Here he was, laboring for an old cheeky bastard who had some strange pact with his god. Three labors will tell you old secrets, he said. Galt wanted no secrets; he wanted to kill for his god. Kill and maybe find a young girl near the wheat field with a large bosom.
Galt threw the sacks onto mountain ledge, kicking up yellow dust. With a groan he pulled himself onto the surface, sweat mixing with sand. “All-right old man!” he yelled, “I have what you want here!”
The old sylph came out of the cave wearing a yellow hemp robe stained with juices. A silver cane made of gems supported his walk, for he limped noticeably. Old wings were folded up like tent flaps behind his back sticking out of the robe. A white haired head poked out of the yellow covering, bald in the middle with dark brown spots. Old white hairs hung down the robe from the top of his head and chin like tree moss. A couple of gnats flew around him. Teeth replaced with gold and silver filled his mouth. The old one walked to the bags, and with small, yellow, clawed hands, he rummaged through the sacks, carefully inspecting each one.
“Adequate.” He said, turning to Galt. “Come inside, human. It is time I held up my side of the bargain.”
Galt wanted nothing to do with this smelly, rotten sylph. He held his breath as he entered the cave. Strange green fires cast an eerie glow in the room. Shelves of scrolls, books, and leather hides were scattered on a desk, occupying one side. The other side held just a few trinkets on a wooden table, made of copper and brass, along with pots and pans that hung from the ceiling. A green fire was lit in the middle at a large hearth, with a chimney going up into rock. The sylph took Galt to the fire and sat upon a heap of carpets and pillows. Galt sat down on the other side near a pot on a table with two cups. After several minuets he exhaled loudly and finally took a deep breath in; smoke filled his lungs, along with strange scents. He could detect cinnamon and cloves amidst a tincture of other queer smells. He felt lightheaded, relaxed.
“Drink from the cup behind you.”
Galt grabbed a cup and drank, in deep gulps. A part of him, deep inside, screamed out, “No! Do not do that you stupid idiot!” but he drank.
“Drink the other cup behind you.” Galt chugged it like a greedy child, slurping with delight. A sweet mixture of grapes and pears blended with honey coursed over his tongue, tickling his taste buds. Some of the drink made its way down his chin.
“Now that you are more open to curious impulses and strange thoughts, it is time.” The Sylph said. “Ask me what comes to mind. Quickly! This draught will only last some time before you descend back to your dull, nitwit self.”
Another presence filled his mind. Lorthonos, the shadow lord. Calm yourself Galt. I only want to experience what you hear and ask. Make sure you ask the right questions for it will be written down someday, for our tribe.
“Very well then, old one; tell me about our allies and foes. Not just our tribal allies, but all of mankind’s allies. Who are mankind’s foes? Include any important creature or tribe of creatures in the Known World.”
“Figures your mind had more than rocks and balls of Lashon dung in there, eh? Hidden thoughts trouble you. I don’t get paid to fix your messed up mind, do I? The agreement as written in blood by both parties is just a question and answer session. He did not mention I would be talking to a stump with legs either.”
The old man grabbed the pot from the table and threw out the contents into a small gutter leading deep into the rock. After rinsing it with water he put the pot down and turned to the young warrior. “Alright, let’s see if I can get this clarified. Allies and Enemies? Always with the war terms, who is my friend? Who hates my guts? Frivolous! not worthy of deep introspection. Enemies turn into friends and friends turn into enemies, sometimes on the same day. The biggest enemy of man is man! Yes, yes I know that is not what you want. Then learn to ask proper questions. What you should have asked is: tell me what species walks this world and what are their relationships to man? I can make a list for you. Here is a list of all intelligent species on this mud-ball of a world: Gnomes, Sylphs, Undines, Wood Nymphs, Dark Wood Nymphs, Jurelian Giants, Forest Giants Salamanders, Leviathans and Demons. That pretty much covers it. Now for the details. Yes, I will tell you where they live and all that. Unlike humans who spread like locust, and consume everything under the sun these other races, species and entities have their own areas, customs and are not used to brash upstarts rummaging about their lands. You might get killed talking to one the wrong way!”
“Gnomes are pretty much a one-track mind species, always tinkering, making stuff. All of their workshops are loud as a chorus of bullfrogs belching and being stomped on. It’s like they have to put their minds to some type of creative task or they go nuts. Or they burrow deep in the earth for I don’t know how long. Gnomes are rock people, made of stones, ores, minerals and all that. I once thought a beardless gnome was a statue and to my mistake I started to draw a nice beard on him while he sat in a hallway, not blinking or moving. I apologized and the charcoal beard looked so good he kept it, growing grey lead whiskers. They stand about a head smaller than one of you pink fleshies, but are a lot wider. It’s their eyes that always captivated me. I tried to steal an eye from the same guy I drew the beard on, but that did not work out so well. I did, however, retrieve some of his top hair as it was yellow and soft, exactly like gold. Made a profit, too. I did not tell him because then I would have to split my profits. Regarding gnomes and humans, well, they work with humans a lot. Humans outnumber them and are very useful in their ‘creative endeavors.’ One time I saw a gnome make this colossal-sized pump. It took several years and hundreds of volunteers to make. Gnomes and men worked together on this project. I stood off to the side and made sure everyone was getting paid. You should be able to talk to a Gnome. If he will listen is up to him. Might I advise you better have something of interest to them if you desire more than a blank stare. Material possessions deep within the earth are what they crave. Gnomes live for novel cuts of stone, rare veins of strange metals and ideas on how to improve a process. If you want to find a gnome, go to the nearest mountain range or set of hills. If there are gems and ores, there should be gnomes. If not, then there will be gnomes coming in the near future.”
Galt stares at the little old wrinkle faced creature with deep eyes processing everything. Thoughts of the last trade with his tribe and gnomes made him see the folly of giving away tin ore so cheap. Instead of bronze spearheads and ax heads they could have asked for much more! Iron axes, iron spearheads and other metals could be theirs if they had something worthwhile. The next meeting with a gnome will be on better footing. A strange green rock was found by one of the miners. I bet it could fetch a nice price with them.
The winged old man grabs a bowl of sickly sweet smelling rotten meat and un-ripened fruit. With deft claw hands he rummages through the small eyes picking and eating each one. Small berries still green along with bird feet are eaten in one quick scooping action of claw to mouth. Galt’s stomach starts to growl and churn as the smell mixed with the spices he inhaled upon entering the dark, musty cave.
“Wood Nymphs, on the other hand, vex me by their very nature. Talking to one is like talking to a cat. They will only pay attention if you have something unique. They do not believe in possession, so good luck trying to bribe one. I know; I tried it. Metals are out of the question; they will not touch the stuff. These tree huggers can make stuff like necklaces made of acorns which they will give away if you show them something neat, like a magic trick or whatever. Wood Nymphs look for the next experience much like a gutter alley junkie. Except they get high off life. If you have something unique, like a horse dropping shaped like a tree, they would gladly give up their shiny gems for it. Well, if they have any. You never know what they have. I knew one that liked to cultivate mushrooms—on his body! I will not tell you what places they were, either. They are sneaky buggers too, with skin made to hide in the wild areas, mottled and striped, leaves for hair so they blend in well, and they are skinny, too skinny. I offered a turkey leg to one and she turned her nose up at it! They are all Kipthmanish-maat! In your tongue, untrustworthy. They do not believe gods are real, either. Nothing like a bunch of Atheists in a world filled with gods. They believe in each other, that they do, and love to call each other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters.’ Wood Nymphs practice a magic similar to what your god uses when casting miracles. Not sure how it works but the mechanics are similar. I have seen their homes in the trees, shaped using their magic. Pretty neat stuff. I asked to have a table made using their magic so I could sell it and they looked at me like I was the crazy one. Ha! They do trade and hunt with humans, but do not expect them to show up at a proper time or place for anything. Look for them in a forest area filled with lots of fruits and nuts growing on trees. They are all fruits and nuts to me. You are what you eat.”
“Dark Wood Nymphs, the cannibalistic, disgusting, backstabbing sneaks we will not speak of this time. They live in the fungal forest of Baathun and never venture far from their lonely land in Raanon. They pose no threat and would not trade with you. But you would make a tasty snack to them.”
“Undines, the turkey of the sea, too laid back for my taste, never in a hurry. They are shape shifters, going from a humanoid, fishy form with a hole in the back of their neck to a fishy, fishy form like a dolphin or whale. You can tell the shape shifted ones from regular fishes by the plant growing out near its blow hole. Undines like to bond with a sea plant and grow it for hair. I guess if you get hungry you could eat it. Not even going to try. I lived with a whole enclave once, even knew the matriarch, down to the little ones. It usually is a large, extended family. My time with them in Ar-Feyslyn was profitable, yet dull. I shared jokes; they looked at me like a three-eyed fish. We did exchange information, but I did most of the writing. For some reason most folk do not practice writing. Information is memorized. The priests do write, but only seldom. I did like the coral armor they made for me. Fine stuff. Check out the third shelf and you can see my old helmet gathering dust. Unlike the gnomes and their many gods, undines only have two, Plthunlos and Celundynn. They were a couple, in legend, but they are separated. No one talks about what happened either. I doubt it was based on cheating. Honestly I would trade with and work with followers of Celundynn and avoid those who worship Plthunlos. They make for good allies but sometimes it is hard to figure out who is who. You can find undines in the cliffs and shallows near the sea. The cities are gorgeous and you could learn a few things about architecture by studying them. The mean bastards usually hang out deep in the ocean or near areas with no land, so be careful on your next sea voyage.
“My people, the sylphs are much more practical and full of wisdom than all of the other species combined. We value gold, gems and knowledge. In fact we created the first world currency, the Shekel. Our accounting houses can be found in any major city. We ally ourselves with everybody. Everybody needs us. But, it is true that we only tolerate everyone else. Why? Because everyone else is not a sylph! In fact you probably do not even appreciate what I am saying to you right now! All of this great knowledge came at a price. Well, then. A few things you should know about us, besides the fact we represent a great evolution of spirit, is we are descendants of air elementals, shaped with brown leathery wings, round heads, sharp chins and claws. Proudly, we call Lugos, god of Air, Wisdom and Thought our only god. We inhabit many areas in the known world, always close to where the action is but we always call the Crater of Lugos home. We pride ourselves in getting along with every sentient race known. Salamander generals call on us for advice. So do human warlords. We have even given council to jurelian giants and leviathans! You would shit yourself, human, if you had to speak to one, much less give it advice. There are several clans in existence, dedicated to different aspects of our focus in life. The most famous clan of all: The Silver Scroll Gatherers. Every family has someone who dedicated their life to the cause to gathering knowledge for its own sake. You and your god benefit from their hard earned wisdom and truths. So pay attention and pass me that bag of giant brains, will you?”
The winged scholar grabs a large brass kettle and puts it over the green fire in the center of the cave room. After several minutes the old sylph pours liquids into the pot from water skins lying on the ground. Galt hauls the first bag over, green and red thick liquids ooze from the brown cloth sack. The old sylph motions for the bag to be emptied. A fizzing sound with several cracking noises comes from the pot. With the silver cane in hand, the winged scholar stirs the pot around. Galt stares at the floor, deep in thought.
“Wake up, you! I am not even close to being done, It is time to speak of those whom you would call foe. Salamanders.”
Galt turns his head up from the floor and glares at the old sylph, “I supposed you will tell me how good they were to you, right?”
“No, they let me live because I was too valuable to them alive. Knowledge is power, boy. Even a god can be thwarted from scrying into our minds. Lugos blessed us with such fortitude of mind.”
“Go on then, old bat, tell me are they as vicious as people say?”
“Even more. Salamanders embody their fiery ancestors. Always fighting, they live for the struggle, consuming like a forest fire, always seeking more trees to burn.. Salamanders are ruled by nine dragon gods, each one vying for power from the other eight. If they ever united for a cause, I would shudder. In my life I have never seen them come together. This goes true for their followers. Now, what they have in common is pretty simple. They worship and respect power. If you are powerless, you are nothing but a servant. Might is right. Salamanders seek to rule over the world and each other. The struggle or “Nniss-thok” is what they live for. I have seen salamanders that lose the will to live or kill themselves. If there are no challenges, they will invent something to overcome. Lugos help those who lack imagination. Better yet, Lugos do not help them. Women rule their culture as queens of a colony. The men fight and so do the barren women. Females that can have children rise up in status. I am sure you have seen Salamanders, but you can tell the difference between a male and a female by the frills. Males have them and females do not. You, of course, know they are taller than humans yet leaner, with tails and hard diamond scales for skin. They call the desert and its harsh environs ‘home.’ The salamander economy is simple. It comes down to slaves. The more a matriarch has, the higher her status and the more her male consorts can accomplish. Yes, we sylphs do engage in helping to transact and quantify this, but please, we do not advocate slavery. Gnomes oppose them and their practices. Hatred between the two species is high and battles have been waged over a mere sighting between each race. My advice is to never trade when near a gnome and a salamander at the same time. Oh, one more thing—gnomes can create wonders, but salamanders are the true masters of metal. Exotic metals able to split brass like dry twigs exist and are worth their weight in gold. I would not take the whole slavery issue personally, human; it is their nature. They have even enslaved each other to a limited degree. Often the slave masters of a house are former slaves themselves.”
“As your tribe lives in Kathonia on the land mass we sylphs call Naalgrom, I must tell you of another race, the jurelian giants. Not the forest giants who live in the lands of Raanon way on the southside of the world. Giants from the land of Jurel, which lies in the north, are unique with four arms, three eyes, shaggy and huge, twice as tall as a man. If you want chaos and destruction, they are the people you seek. Jurelian Giants worship ancestor gods and their primal god, Thuun Lord of Destruction. Destruction is their very nature and if you need a place, tribe or even a field of crops destroyed get yourself a good and strong one. Bribe him with simple pleasures of fat pigs, large bushes filled with ripe fruit and Lashon’s milk and you can keep one loyal to you. In the cold lands of Jurel, they live for the fight, seeking rival tribes and other challenges. I have been there myself and witnessed two clans fighting. I never knew those shaggy beasts could throw each other so far. One thing I will say is their eyesight is poor, along with their speed. They are accurate mind you, but I have dodged a few blows in my life, and I am still alive thanks to my quickness. They do have a language and heritage but it involves seeking stones deep in the ground and killing. Lots of death and destruction. I worked with one in particular over the years. You can see the remains of his foot in the corner. Yes, it holds up the corner table. I kept it as a souvenir when he was dismembered by a tribe of wealthy humans. He never cried out or screamed; he just kept fighting until his last breath.”
“Pass me that bag of bones now…here help me lay out the bones. We are making a pattern here.” The old sylph scratched out a wing shaped pattern with charcoal on a large wooden table. One by one, bones are removed and put on the table, making the winged sketch come to life.
He looks up from the table at Galt. With a steady gaze he looks deep into the human’s eyes. “Boy it is time to discuss matters of spirit and the second world we all walk in. I saved talk of demons and leviathans for this discussion. First I need to lay down some framework for you to think about. Your body is just a vessel, a mount for your spirit to experience this world on. You have been blessed by Fate to have a body and keep your sanity. There are spirits coming from the well that have no home, no body, just a conscious. Give me the third bag. Yes, the harpy feathers. Hurry now, quickly, quickly!”
The old sylph starts laying the feathers down on the winged bone outline, a bit at a time. He grabs a ladle of the giant’s brains, cooked down to a soup, and pours a bit with the feathers to keep them in. Soon a proper harpy wing shapes up on the table.
“Everyone, man, god, demon, salamander, gnome and even I come from the well of souls. It is where the spirits comes from and where we go to when we die. Some spirits manage to avoid the cycle of the well and life, usually the few blessed by their god, and gods.
Demons are special. Imagine a pot full of water boiling at the rim. The splashes of water which escape are the demons that make it out of the well before their time as a spirit inhabiting a body. What is even crazier is the fact other escapees, or demons, lie in wait for the “pot to boil over.” Most, if not all, demons are whisked away to start “spirit life” as a free, amoral spirit learning arcane secrets on the demon plains. From the demon plains, these twisted souls make their way to the known world, the veil of dreams or the celestial gardens. It is up to them after their period of indoctrination on that infernal plain if they become good or bad. Demons are not always bad, in fact some become gods after they prove themselves to Fate. Oftentimes they become villains, leviathans or worse, enemies of Fate. Demons have their own magic, too. I worked with another sylph for ten years before I found out he was a demon. He would do most if not all of the talking. He has the queerest eyes now that I recall him. Glowing purple eyes and his nails were always black. Those ten years were quite fascinating. Too bad I killed him and bound his demonic soul to this rock over here. Yup, the purple crystal rock right there on the table. Pick it up and listen closely, you can speak to it a question and I am sure he will answer, out of boredom, probably.
“Quick fact: our sense of smell still works when we die. In fact, it is sharpened and emotions turn into those smells. The most succulent smell (so I am told) is fear. Imagine a roasted side of beef, flavored with salt and garlic.
“Leviathans feed off of and are addicted to fear. Their tortured souls, who were once spirits, demons or gods, live life for the next fix of fear. Leviathans come in all shapes and sizes for they are a reflection of our nightmares, the worst of our imaginations. I even worked with one once, a gnome sailor who hid his alter ego. We sailed into three harbors only to see the ports wiped out from the carnage but we were left alive. He was discovered later on and I was the only one to escape alive. He might still be sailing the world for all I know. Boy, you have to prepare yourself to fight a Leviathan, for they fight with terror and kill with miracles designed to create more fear. Bravery can only get you so far. Imagination and cunning are your two best weapons to defeat these fiends. Baesop, human god of the Hracians, defeated the first leviathan, rallying the gods to the first war of the Leviathans. You would do well to seek his council. Morgis, the Lion-headed god of man also knows how to defeat leviathans and has celebrated several victories.
“Now that you understand what terrors lie out there I will speak to you of the realm of the gods and the path of the dead.”
“There is a cycle of the spirit one you must understand in your dealings with life. As a representative of your god, you have some of his innate abilities such as seeing demons, spirits and being able to affect them. The average sentient being cannot touch them, nor can a spirit touch a living being. But they can communicate through dreams and whispers on the wind. So pay attention to this cycle I speak over, boy!”
“We all come from the Well of Souls. Our newborn spirits float on spirit streams to our destinations, through the veil of dreams to a newborn body coming into the world. We live, experience life, and then we die. Afterward, we go back on a spirit stream, through the veil once more, this time to the Celestial Gardens, a place where souls reside until they meet Fate or their god. Some spirits do not feel the urge and stay here. The pull is much gentler, and more powerful minds are able to stay in this world. So you either stay here in the afterlife or go to the gardens. After that place of holding, you move on, either back to the Well of Souls or to your god’s realm in the Celestial Spheres.
“You need to know a bit more about the Veil of Dreams, the first odd place before you come into this world and on the way out. Dreams are the stuff of reality here. Every night when you go to bed, you visit this place, taking part, willingly or not, in a fantasy or nightmare. Usually it is good you forget what happens there. But sometimes the place leaves a mark on your soul. Make sure you talk to your god about all dreams. Leviathans and hungry demons play here as well, seeking weak spirits to use and cast aside. Strengthen yourself before going here. Make sure your goals are clear and you know yourself. The last thing you need to do is wind up lost in the Veil of Dreams. Some spirits do and never escape. My cousin Lem was one of those poor souls. His body lived on like a vegetable, nobody home. I think they finally let him die, starved to death.
“The Celestial Gardens comes up next in places of weird. It is a ‘hang out’ for the gods, and the occasional living soul wanders in and out of there. You best stick right close to your god or Fate will see you right back to the Well of Souls. Seven unique gardens exist within this place with a secret eighth garden rumored. These are: the Courtyard of Fate; the Orchard of Knowledge, Reason, and Madness; The Floral Garden of Vigilance, Paranoia, and Sloth; The Fungal Garden of Charity, Gluttony, and Greed; the Herbal Garden of Fate, Revenge, and Trust; the Tropical Gardens of Lust, Adoration, and Revulsion; or the Frost Gardens of Joy, Pain and Sorrow. Each one is a place filled with delights and perils. What you practice in life, echoes into the afterlife. More on this can be found through your god and in books such as The Celestial Gardens written by my second cousin.”
The old sylph fastens leather strips to different parts of the bone structure with brass rivets. A few sharp hammer blows fall as each one is carefully put into place. “Help me with these wings; I will lie forward and you must spread my old wings out. I will tell you which ones to fasten.” The night is spent with the old man hunched over with Galt tightening the new harpy wings. Both men sweated and cursed until finally, near the dawn, the wings were fully attached. Words and symbols decorated the old sylph in dark green ink. Galt sat down and thought of nothing.
“Lorthonos, it is time.”
A wind blew open the outer cave door rushing inward swirling around the room. Sheets of parchment and leather strips danced in the air. The old man changed, expanding bone and flesh, grew into a being not quite sylph and not quite harpy. Large black wings grew in place of the attachments; bones stretched while the spine crackled. Legs stretched forward. Pain shot through the old man as he cried out in agony. Galt watched on in horrific fascination as the sylph became something more.
Something new, crafted by his god, stood in front of Galt—a tall, slender humanoid man, young with sylph features, harpy wings and human limbs.
“Ahh, I am renewed again! Now to leave this dusty place. You may have it, Galt, as a workshop for you to learn about the world. This morning I will fly towards my new goal, Frinth and the gnomish city of Arador. I will give you some parting advice as anointed champion of your god. How your god fares is how you will fare. If your god gains more followers, you will gain more in power. If you want to live forever, you must make sure your god succeeds. Make friends with other gods but understand where you belong. Your god puts a mantle upon you, a cloak of brilliants for the whole world to see. You are his vassal in the world, go forth and be worthy of his patronage.
“War is coming between men, for there can only be a few gods among any group of people. We sylphs had several but were reduced to one. You humans have thousands of gods. Know that as you struggle with outside threats, tensions between your tribes will be less, as all of man focuses on common enemies. Soon you will turn inwards. Make sure you and your god are ready.”
The old sylph on the mountain flew off after his last statement, flying on the wind to his goals.