“There were fifteen of us at the beginning,” the disembodied voice explained. “One for each tower, each population centre. There was no talk of a Goddess when we formed the first council, we were just the wisest of the wealthiest women that called the nation home. We were just a collection of like-minded women who wanted to make our world a better place.”

Welsley sat cross-legged on the floor of the small chamber. A glass and a bottle of wine sat within arm’s reach. Three flickering torches rested on the chamber walls and provided her a comfortable light. She had returned to gather more information from the voice that claimed to be “the Goddess.” She already had her doubts about the trustworthiness of the Falson’s and the voice’s talk of betrayal had intrigued her.

“The Falson clan controlled the richest mines in the nation; silver, gold, and iron were all in abundance in the lands under their control,” the voice continued. “As egotistical as they were wealthy; they even named the region after themselves: Falson Peak. They were the strongest of the towers, any attempt to change the world would have been harder, maybe impossible, without their support. The Falson’s were not popular outside of their lands, however, so the matriarch took on a support role while I became the face of the movement.”

“It was a meaningless position for me. The council made the important decisions, anything that affected the nation as a whole would be discussed, debated, and voted upon by the council representatives. No one person, no one family would be allowed to determine the nation’s future direction. A glorious design: a nation ruled by the best and the brightest. But we needed to wrest control of the towers from their current occupants.”

“Surprisingly, Falson Peak wasn’t the first tower to change hands. It was the second, the first was Marton. I took it with relative ease, the mix of people from across the globe provided easy access to mercenary groups and weakened the control the rulers had over the population. The exposure to so many cultures and ideas had eroded the loyalty of the citizens and allowed us to transfer the tower into my hands with a minimal of life lost. It was after this that the first tales of miracles and divinity began to be attached to my person.”

“Falson Peak fell within days of Marton. I had sent some of my troops to help other towers as we tried to solidify our control of the nation. We were lucky. Our opponents fought as often among themselves as they did against us. It was slow, but we consistently gained ground. Except across the forest.”

“The towers on the far side of the forest were ruled by a single family. The three brothers fought relentlessly and kept our forces on the defensive. There were no roads through the forest and the towers could only be used to contact another tower. News was slow in coming, by the time we received any it was too late. Our forces had been routed, two of the three council members who led the forces had been killed. We seemed to have lost the towers.”

“I had amassed a number of victories during this time which had earned me the reputation of being unbeatable. It was so pervasive among the people that I had begun to believe it myself. When news of our defeat came I quickly gathered my troops and marched them through the woods. We caught the brothers unaware and had captured the tower of Ravensbrook. In one quick swoop we had gained a foothold and mustering point on the nation’s far side. It was the last victory we would see in that region.”

“We lost battle after battle and eventually found ourselves trapped behind the tower walls. Every attempt to break the siege failed. The promised reinforcements didn’t arrive. It was only a matter of time before we fell. Unknown to me at the time, the Falson’s had decided to sacrifice me while they consolidated their power. They had already begun to spread the myth of the Sister.”

The room fell into silence. Welsley waited for the voice to continue. When the silence dragged on into discomfort she spoke, “And that was when you began to re-animate your dead.”

“The tower at Ravensbrook has an immense library devoted to ancient and dark arts,” the voice explained. “We were facing defeat. Alone. Left to die. I had grown desperate. After I stumbled across the necromantic texts I realized I had a chance to turn the tide. To cheat destiny.”

“It worked. The siege was broken. Our numbers swelled after each battle won or lost. Before too long my undead legions had laid siege to both of the desert towers but it could not strike the killing blow. I had turned the tide of battle and yet couldn’t claim the towers.”

“The libraries at Ravensbrook contained texts that explored more than just necromancy. There were examinations of magics of all flavours and colours. Within this collection of papers there was a ritual that promised control over the desert sands. It was better, in my opinion, to bury the towers than leave them in the hands of our enemies.”

“Understandable,” Welsley replied. “Were you aware of the cost?”

“There is always a price with magic,” the voice answered, “I just didn’t realize how steep it would be. It drained the life from everything around the tower and trapped me within… undying. The desert had swallowed the other towers but I was no longer free to roam the world.”

“But you send the dead at us to wreck havoc?” Welsley accused.

“I will never allow the Falson’s to forget their betrayal of me,” the voice spat.

“Fair enough,” Welsley agreed. She hesitated a moment and then began to relate her life since the arrival of the ghouls.

Welsley held the torch in her left hand. She held the flame above her head and just ahead of her body. The orange light flickered across the stone walls and steps that surrounded her.

The staircase was tight with just enough room for her to turn around in should she want or need to. The passage was dry, stuffy, and covered in dust. There was no indication that the stairs had seen a living presence in a great many years.

She crept up the stairs, her eyes alert for any potential danger. The obvious lack of use reduced those fears to imagination, but the tower was ancient and there was no knowing what state of repair the long forgotten staircase was in. Mindful, focused ascension of the stairs kept her mind occupied and provided her with a much needed distraction.

It had been two days since the Falson’s had shown up at her tower. Light Falson had pushed her way into the daily operations of the tower pushing Welsley to the fringe. The Falson’s separated Welsley from the people of Norasburg and placed armed guards at the archives and the library. Welsley was not a prisoner but they had restricted her movements.

They had barely finished their conference in the archives that first day before Welsley came face-to-face with the reality of dealing with the Falson family. The troops that were promised to reinforce the river garrison, that were to be transferred to her command were all led by Falson family members. On paper they might fall under her auspices but with the officers being of Falson blood it was unlikely Welsley would have any real control. Her exile from the archives and the library underlined the reality of her situation.

There was no one she could trust to discuss her concerns with. Someone was sharing information with the older Light, she had shown up to fast for it not to have been connected to the logger’s initial visit. That meant only Shan and Abeth were above suspicion and they were beyond the forest at this point. She was alone and almost a prisoner in her own tower.

The only place Welsley felt secure and relaxed was in her chambers. Her rooms on the eleventh floor were the only place where they left her alone. Soldiers waited for her just outside the chamber doors, inside they left her to herself.

She was thankful for this peace. When she was out among the tower denizens she was constantly trying to determine who had betrayed her. She had to be wary about her speech and reactions, too much time around the others exhausted her. Paranoia was no way to live.

Welsley found numerous breaks during the day were necessary for her sanity. She would feign exhaustion and retire to her chambers. It was while she paced her rooms during one of these breaks that she stumbled upon the staircase. It was hidden behind a false wall, unseen for generations.

Her curiosity had gotten the better of her. Her chambers were on the uppermost floor of the tower, or so she had thought. Here she had a staircase hidden within the tower walls that led upward. Welsley felt drawn to determine where the stairs went and what lay forgotten above.

It also served as a wonderful distraction to her current woes.

The stairs curved gently as they rose within the tower. Welsley guessed it must have brought her two, maybe three, stories up from her chambers. She hadn’t realized that there was that much tower above her floor. At the top of the stairs it opened up into a small, unlit, windowless, circular room.

“What, I wonder, do we have here?” Welsley mumbled to herself as she stood just outside the newly discovered room.

There were three torches attached to the walls around the room. Welsley kept close to the wall as she circled around and lit each torch. This room was otherwise empty, devoid of any objects, a plain room made from stone blocks. Not completely sealed from the outside, the smoke from the torches disappeared through the stone ceiling above.

Welsley moved into the centre of the room. This was odd. An empty room hidden atop the tower. Lightless. Away from all sight. It was a surprise. Welsley wasn’t sure what she had expected but this wasn’t it.

“Greetings,” a women’s disembodied voice rose up into the room.

“Hello?” Welsley threw out to the voice as she turned in place searching for the speaker.

“It has been a long time since I have sensed any other person in a signalling chamber,” the voice responded. “It must be decades… no… centuries since I have last talked to another.”

“Centuries?” Welsley repeated.

“Yes. Who am I speaking with?”

“Guiding Light Welsley Koarl.”

“Guiding Light?” the voice sounded surprised. “They’re still around? I was there at the beginning.”

“Goddess?”

“I was called that once,” the voice replied. “Long ago.”

“You – you’re real?”

“Yes,” the voice confirmed.

“You chose me as one of your Lights. Why?”

“No, child,” the voice grew cold, “I haven’t chosen anyone since the first. Since my betrayal by that council.”

“Betrayed?” Welsely repeated.

“They trapped me in my tower,” the voice responded. “Far from my people. My realm.”

“The Sister,” Welsley gasped as the realization hit her.

“The Sister,” the voice laughed. “Are the Falson’s still telling that lie?”

The younger Falson stepped out of the shadows and sat down at the table beside her grandmother. She poured herself a glass of water and looked across the table at Welsley.

“I am sure,” the younger woman began, “by now you are aware of how turbulent it was during the shift of society to the Goddess’ way. Power never shifts easily, those who have power cling to it more fiercely than they cling to life. The resistance continued throughout the Goddess’ mortal lifespan and for many generations after. The male ruling class forced the hand of the faithful, made it impossible to live beside them. The only viable option we had was to destroy them, to remove the old ways so we could begin anew.”

She paused her speech and took a sip of water from her glass. She looked up in surprise. “This is the cleanest, purest water I have ever tasted,” she directed at Welsley, “and so cold.”

“It comes from the springs under the tower,” Welsley shrugged.

“The Goddess has truly blessed you.”

“Molly,” the elder Falson interrupted, “focus, please.”

“My apologies, Your Eminence,” Molly nodded her head toward her grandmother. She took another sip of water and quietly sat as she collected her thoughts.

“There were fifteen towers that made up the realm at that time,” Molly began again.

“Fifteen?” Welsley repeated. “I thought there were only thirteen.”

“Along with the ruined tower,” Edith broke into the conversation, “there were two more lost within the expanse of the eastern desert. They fell to the same evil that took the thirteenth tower.”

“What evil was that?” Welsley asked.

“The Sister,” Molly stated. “There is a balance to existence. Day has night. Life has death. The Goddess had the Sister.”

“Her Sister,” Edith added.

“Yes,” the younger Falson confirmed. “They believed that change was needed. They believed that every one would benefit if the violence of men could be reigned in. They agreed that women needed to take over the rule of the nation before the male destroyed it in their mindless pursuit of violence. Together they selected the first Council of Lights and recruited like-minded males into their armies.”

“The revolution was brutal and bloody. If there is one thing men do well its kill each other. For every man willing to sacrifice themselves for the promise of a bright future, there were double that willing to throw their lives away for their so-called kings. Despite the odds being stacked against us we won battle after battle. The light of the Goddess shone on us and provided us more strength than the glint of gold could do for our enemies. Her light, however, could not reach every inch of the realm.”

“Beyond the great forest they struggled to gain any ground. The towers were too far away from the bulk of the nation. Reinforcements were unable to reach them, there was no help to be had from the rest of the nation. The fighting devastated the populations of these three towers. It seemed the faithful were destined to lose the easternmost towers…”

“The Sister had been assigned to the tower just beyond the woods, Ravensbrook. Her kinship with the Goddess had made her too proud and too stubborn. She was not about to fail and allow her sister to claim all the glory. She didn’t have the patience that the Goddess possessed, she wanted what she felt was hers immediately.”

“While the Goddess travelled among the people bringing her light to the world, spreading her message of hope, the Sister had taken a different path. She had spent her early years delving into the dark arts. She had trained with masters of the arcane where she learned to manipulate the world around her through ancient ritual and bind it to her will. She learned to do all manner of unnatural things to force the elements to bend to her desires, but it was in the school of necromancy that her talents truly shone.”

“The three easternmost towers were losing their fight to evolve. The old male regime was stronger than expected and more determined to hold onto their power than anywhere else in the realm. The old patriarchs had decided to destroy everything, to make the land a ruin, rather than surrender what they had. They were so sure that no one could win this conflict.”

“The Sister had also decided that if she couldn’t have the towers that no one else would either. She raised the corpses of her failing army and those of her opponents. She performed rituals of massive proportions raising hundreds of the dead to serve her. She sent hordes of restless dead against her enemies driving them into the desert. Every battle, won or lost, increased the size of her forces. Still, she could not break their hold on the desert towers. Her patience was quickly depleting, if she couldn’t have victory she would deliver destruction.”

“Her undead forces laid siege to the two towers trapping the living inside. She could have waited, she could have starved them out, but her rage grew as her patience dwindled. Her fury boiled over and she drew upon the primal forces to end the stalemate. She used the very sands of the desert itself to erase the towers, the defiant men, and her army of the dead from the world. She had won.”

“But there is a cost to sorcery,” Edith took over the narrative. “The spells she cast needed fuel and they took that fuel from the lands around the thirteenth tower. In a circle as wide as the tower’s shadow could reach all life was drained. The region left lifeless save for the Sister. It is said she still lives to this day fueled by her undying rage.”

“You will not find mention of any of this in your archives,” the elder continued after a drawn out silence. “The record was only made at Falson Peak and kept a highly guarded secret. We tell you only so you know what your people might be awakening. We do not cross through the forest for a very good reason.”

“I didn’t know,” was all Welsley could think of to say.

“Now you do,” Edith Falson replied. “This stays between us. No other Light may know.”

“What brings you to Norasburg, Light Falson?” Welsley asked after the initial surprise had passed.

Guiding Light Edith Falson was the Goddess’ chosen ruler of Falson Peak, the largest of the tower cities, capital of the nation, most central of the twelve towers. The Falson family was unique in that there was always a Falson on the Council of Lights, when she passed she was replaced by her granddaughter, a woman who was groomed from birth for the position. The family could trace their line back to the days the Goddess walked the realm. The first Guiding Light of Falson Peak was of the family and the line had continued unbroken to this day. The Falson family seemed to have a very special place in the Goddess’ heart.

“Leave us,” Light Falson commanded. Her voice was soft, but there was no kindness in it. She had spent a lifetime dominating all those around her, she was a person used to barking orders and being obeyed.

Welsley nodded to her attendants and watched as they skittered off. Welsley rose to greet her guest and noted the second, younger, woman standing just beyond the older Light. The family resemblance was obvious, this would be her granddaughter. Whatever brought them to Norasburg must be important if she was willing to take her heir so far from the safety of her stronghold. Welsley couldn’t remember a time when it had been reported that Light Falson had left the comfort of her tower, let alone risking her replacement’s safety.

“Don’t get up,” Light Falson gestured at Welsley to remain seated. The older woman walked over to the table and sat down across from Welsley. The two Lights waited quietly as the third woman poured a glass of wine for the newly seated woman.

“Ravensbrook,” Light Koarl offered into the silence after the younger woman stepped away from the table. She stood a couple steps back from the older woman, hands crossed in front of her, body partially draped in shadow.

“Ravensbrook,” Welsley repeated, “why is that name familiar?”

“What are you looking for among all these dusty old books, Light Koarl?” the older one countered after a sip of wine.

“What brought you here to my tower, Your Eminence?” Welsley responded.

“Why have you garrisoned troops across the river, Light Koarl?” Light Falson replied. “Why have you sent Shan through the forest? What is your interest in the thirteenth tower? What came out of that forest? Why have you kept this information from the council?”

“Why have I kept it from you?” Welsley shot back. “That is what you meant?”

Along with being blessed by the Goddess, the Falson family had long been the nation’s unspoken rulers. Light Falson ruled the council, all decisions made by the council were based on the wishes of the Falson family.

“I did not realize the deployment of my troops was a concern of the council,” Welsley continued. “I wanted to provide some additional security for my logging camps. The forest can be an unfriendly place.”

“Filled with the undead, I hear,” Light Falson replied.

“And where did you hear that?” Welsley wondered.

“Is it true?” Light Falson ignored the question.

“Yes,” Welsley admitted. “A group of what we were told were ghouls. Six of them, all destroyed. The garrison is a precaution, a prevention against another appearance.”

“And Shan?” Light Falson asked after a moment of thought. “Why does she journey through the forest?”

“Shan is determined to discover the origin of this threat,” Welsley shrugged. “I trust her judgement and give her the freedom she needs to accomplish her task.”

“Light Amoren took a similar approach with her,” the older woman responded. “I never understood it.”

“Shan works best that way,” Welsley explained.

“I will be leaving some of my troops with yours at the river,” Light Falson declared. She raised her hand to cut off any protest. “They will be transferred to your command. It is better to be safe than sorry if creatures from legend are rearing their ugly heads from beyond the forest. There is no way to tell what Shan’s excursion could stir up, we cannot recall he and we cannot leave the towers at risk.”

“You sent four people,” the elder Light continued, “you should have sent an army. The myths teach us that the undead are limitless in number. We have no way to know what level of danger Shan and company are walking into. You should have informed the council before sending an expedition.”

“There were only six. Shan made a judgement call. I support it,” Welsley responded.

“You put us all at risk,” the elder raised her voice. “You had no right!”

Welsley grimaced. She hadn’t given a thought to anything beyond Norasburg. She understood Shan’s impulse to protect their people and even approved of the curiosity about what lay beyond the woodland. She hadn’t given much thought to any risks, she was still unsure she believed the ghouls were real.

“What are you not telling me?” Welsley asked. Ravensbrook was the key to this all, she was sure of it. The more she focused on it, the further away the answer felt. She had heard the name before, she was sure of it. “What am I missing about Ravensbrook?”

“Ravensbrook, also known as the Sister’s Tower,” the young woman’s voice broke from out of the shadows. “It has sent its foul armies against us before.”

Welsley rubbed at her eyes. She had spent all her waking hours digging through the tower’s archives in her search for the elusive name of the ruined thirteenth tower. Welsley, Morah and their four companions had sifted through what felt like an endless pile of scrolls and tomes. The handwritten manuscripts varied in legibility from almost an unreadable scribble to nearly perfect lettering. Some of the pages had darkened almost to brown, some of the ink had faded nearly completely. It strained their eyes and slowed their progress to a crawl.

Except for her daily trip to the tower’s baths she had barely left the dry, dusty confines of the archives. She ate all her meals there and even had a small bed set up in a corner for when she was too exhausted to continue her research. She would drop herself into the pile of blankets and pillows and awake to go directly back to her quest. She focused on deciphering faded text and poor penmanship and left Morah to administer to the daily drudgery of the tower.

Delving into the records for Norasburg had yielded no name for the thirteenth tower, there was little mention of any community outside of Norasburg. There was good reason for that.

The initial rise of the Goddess was not as peaceful as they taught in schools. The written histories from the tower’s initial Lights described less of a common sense revolution and read more like a bloody coup. Welsley could remember being taught of the irrational violence the male was prone to and how the Goddess came and brought peace to the land by removing the males from power and replacing them with women. Women nurtured and built, men could only destroy.

Here she had documents in the Lights’ own handwriting that contradicted that teaching. There were numerous tales of executions, floggings and public massacres of any group that so much as looked at one of the faithful “wrong.” It spoke to an attempt to consolidate power rather than bring enlightenment to a people. The violence committed by the initial faithful was equal to that committed by the men of prehistory. Violence seemed to be the only tool used to claim power over others. If it had been this bad in Norasburg, Welsley had no doubt it would have been worse at the other towers.

This consolidation of power went on through the first six generations of Guiding Lights. Each one dealt with uprisings and protests in the same brutal fashion. The spilling of blood was the only response to any questioning of their authority, divine as it was. As the population’s memory of the brutality faded the myth of a peaceful enlightenment was created and repeated for centuries until it was accepted as fact.

There were still remnants from these days around if you knew what to look for. Every tower kept a standing force of men to ensure the people’s safety, this despite there being no conflict with any neighbours in many lifetimes. The faithful were quick to condemn men for their baser impulses but more than happy to use these same men as disposable pawns on the battlefield. Welsley could remember being regaled with the exploits of dozens of sister-warriors but not a single tale of male heroics came to mind. A woman’s memory of an event was taken as gospel while a man’s recollection was questioned on every detail.

And yet Welsley had just spent days reading testimonials from the Goddess’ chosen ones that contradicted what she had been taught about the nation’s birth, what countless generations had been taught.

None of this came as a surprise to Welsley, she had long suspected the Goddess was less about divinity and more about power. The division of society along the line of gender was a useful tool to distract from the grab for power, the drive for dominance and control. The revelations from the first Lights convinced her that her appointment was a result of coin changing hands and not divine selection.

Welsley raised her arms above her head and yawned. The information was dry, the writing tedious. It was interesting from an historical, even a political, view but had no connection to her search. These events had occurred centuries ago, whether influenced by a deity or a lust for power made no difference to today’s world. The Guiding Lights ruled by Her will and no revelations about past violence was likely to change that.

It did open up questions about the council of Guiding Lights.

How many believed in the Goddess? In Her words? How deeply did their belief go? How many saw the Goddess as solely a way to wealth and power?

Her predecessor, Light Amoren, had been a true believer. Welsley was sure of this, the faithful of Norasburg described a woman of unwavering faith. Amoren had lived and breathed the word of the Goddess. Light Amoren had devoted her life to studying the scriptures, to wrestling with the nuances of Her word. She had ruled Norasburg with a pious, iron fist; a reputation that had reached Welsley while she still served in Marton.

Welsley found the scriptures to be preachy. Philosophy was best discussed late at night over a bottle of chilled wine. There needed to be freedom and flexibility to life, punishing a man for the use of a poorly chosen phrase went against all she believed in. Wisdom was found in the study of the past, of histories, fables and myths. Divine laws were dangerous, used more often as a tool of subjugation rather than a path to freedom.

There would be others on the council who had similar views toward the Goddess or Welsley would never have been appointed. The better question might be how someone like Light Amoren might have been chosen.

“Your lunch, Your Eminence,” Morah interrupted her thoughts. Platters of various fruits and vegetables had been placed on a table with pitchers of water and fruit juices. There was enough to feed all the researchers, Morah had outdone herself as usual.

“How do you always know when I need to eat, Morah?” Welsley asked.

“It’s nothing special, Your Eminence,” Morah replied, “just a little magic.”

They shared a laugh as they all sat down to eat. A week ago they would not have been able to do that, Welsley’s companions were far too anxious in her presence. Spending a week with their noses buried in parchment had eroded that anxiety. They now joked, gossiped and waxed philosophical with each other throughout the day. It was a casualness that was new to the Illuminated, an approach Light Amoren would not have allowed to develop.

“Have you had any luck finding the name?” Morah asked between bites.

“Not in my era,” Welsley answered. Negative shakes of the head were the only reply from the other women around the table.

“Ravensbrook,” a strange voice announced from the doorway. “The name you are looking for is Ravensbrook.”

“We just missed the ritual,” Craig added, “another failure. We were faced with a no-win choice; pursue the ghouls or chase the necromancers. No matter what choice was made we lost. There was only the four of us, we couldn’t split up and go after both. We would lose on both counts if we tried.”

The group sat in silence as the fire crackled before them. Shan’s eyes drifted over her companions as the orange light of the fire flickered over their faces. The silence stretched out until Shan could hear the wood hiss and pop. Sparks danced into the night above their circle before fading away.

“We could see no sign of the necromancers’ movements,” Craig continued, his neck bent and face downcast, “the ghouls had made a mess of the area. The necromancers were the biggest threat but the ghouls were the more immediate danger. It didn’t really matter, the ghouls had destroyed any chance we had to pick up their master’s tracks. There was only one path left open to us: follow the ghouls.”

Craig placed a couple logs onto the fire sending a swarm of sparks into the cool night air.

“If we had only arrived earlier,” he continued. “If we had gotten there before the ghouls had been raised, before they could complete their ritual… It was a failure, the necromancers had escaped. We pursued the ghouls with the hope of catching them before they could do any damage. We chased them across the expanse of the forest but we couldn’t gain any ground. We failed to catch them before they killed everyone in those two camps…”

Samuel cleared his throat, “I’m going to check the perimeter.”

“I’ll join you,” offered one of Shan’s soldiers.

Shan watched as the circle broke up, people retired to their bedrolls or disappeared into the dark that surrounded them. When everyone had left there was just Craig and Esther left at the fire with Shan. The druid’s eyes were locked onto the warrior, his eyes stared deep into the fire.

“Seers are rarely accurate on timing,” Esther quietly broke the silence. “Their visions are often confused and clouded even to those who witness them. It is often hard to discern between the past, present, or future. There is rarely any clarity to be found.”

“The Goddess is rarely clear in her messages,” Shan agreed. “There are often conflicting interpretations to her words.”

The old warrior shook his head slowly. “I was a poor choice to guide you. My life has been but one failure piled atop another. I fail myself, I fail my family, I fail my people.”

“Life,” Esther chuckled, “is failure. Every successful meal for the owl is a failure of the mouse to survive. Success does not exist with failure. It is Nature’s will, its design at work.”

“Dozens of men are dead because we failed to prevent the ritual,” Craig pointed out, “because we failed to prevent the ghouls from passing through the forest.”

“And their people are now aware of a danger they could never have contemplated,” Esther countered. “The light of life can only exist beside the shadow of death. It may not be obvious to us, but nature allows no death to be in vain and no life is ever truly wasted. We may not discern the connection but we need to keep faith that it is there.”

“And how do the undead fit into this divine balance?” he questioned.

“Some people choose to twist the natural world for their own ends,” the druid spat. “It doesn’t occur to the same degree in the lesser animals, but is very common among the species that claim the label of ‘intelligent.’ Nature is very resilient, she accepts all her children’s attempts to force their will on her. Even the smallest life attempts to change its environment to suit its perceived needs. This is by her design, change amuses her.”

“She controls these changes through the cycle of life and death. It is why every death feeds a life, why every life ends in a death. Her cycle is perfection,” Esther took in Shan and Craig’s gazes one at a time before she continued, “but some of her children are more determined than others. She has many tricks available to right things; weather, the ground itself, her loyal servants. She can even use her more independent children to police themselves. For every person determined to break her cycle, there are more willing to fight to right it.”

“Life and death. Success and failure,” Esther continued, “these are the constants provided to us by Nature. She gives us the freedom to make the journey on our own. We fill in our own destiny while she observes and quietly guides.”

“And it is her will that everything I do ends in failure,” Craig summarized. “Goodnight, ladies,” he offered as he got up and left to his tent.

“It is not always easy to see our place in nature,” Esther said.

Shan had listened closely as Esther explained her view of the world. There was some sense to the view but it seemed too simple an explanation of the world. There was a guiding hand at work in the world, Shan had been taught this from an early age. The Goddess guided everyone’s destiny, Her influence was obvious and absolute. Shan had no doubt in Her existence.

“And the Goddess?” Shan asked. “Where does she fit into this cycle?”

“You will not like the answer,” Esther replied.

“My Faith is not so easily shaken,” Shan pressed.

“We know a little of the Goddess and her rise to power,” Esther began. “The ruined tower was not always a destroyed relic. At one point it was a beacon of power, home to a civilization that rivalled the greatest among your twelve. Although it fell many lifetimes ago, we still remember some of the teachings from that time. That, however, doesn’t matter.”

“The Goddess,” Esther explained, “was an entity determined to dominate nature and the cycle. She did for a time. She succeeded in binding a nation to her will. She forced thousands to adopt a system of belief that has endured unto this day. It was an amazing accomplishment, to be sure, but she could not break free of the cycle. Death took her, her world view would live on in her people but she could not escape the fate of all living things. Death takes us all and the cycle continues.”

“Your Goddess was an impressive mortal,” Esther concluded, “but she was no deity. Nature birthed her and to Nature she was returned.”

“How does she still speak to Her chosen?” Shan asked.

“Does she?” Esther countered. “Has she spoken with you?”

“Through Her teachings, yes,” Shan answered.

“But not directly?” Esther attempted to clarify.

“No,” Shan admitted.

Esther nodded. “Nature speaks to us constantly. In the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. In the first cries of the newly born, in the final rattling breath of the dying. In all its beauty and its ugliness, Nature speaks to us.”

“You have given me much to consider,” Shan said. She got up and went to her tent. It was late and morning would break before they knew it.

“Sleep well,” Esther offered, her gaze lost in the dance of the fire.

“I suppose my involvement in this started four weeks ago,” Craig began as the group relaxed around the fire that night. He was quiet for a bit and then added, “maybe five. Not more than five weeks for certain.”

He had been on his farm, a small homestead just large enough for a home, a small barn, a garden, and a tribe of goats. He had gotten a good deal on it due to its proximity to the cursed tower, a fact that had the added benefit of keeping people away. His closest neighbours were a day’s travel away, the population centre of Shatterook was a couple of days distance by horse. The edge of the wasteland that surrounded the tower was two days of travel, too close for the comfort of most people.

There was a garrison located on the border of the tower’s dead lands. The men stationed there spent their days monitoring activity within the zone and keeping the border safe from any dangers that might arise. He had served some time guarding the border in his youth, it was during this time he had become enamoured with the land. It would be almost two decades before he would be able to purchase this land.

He explored a lot of different opportunities as he aged, most of which revolved around his skill with a sword. He saved as much of his wages as he could from his stints as bodyguard, soldier-for-hire, or guide but it became more and more evident as time went on that selling his skills to the rich would never earn him the gold he would need to achieve his dream. He would need to make a change, to take a risk.

Craig had struck out on his own to chase his fortune. He spent years running down rumours of forgotten ruins, deciphering tattered maps, and following myths that took him deep into the forest and far into the desert. He never did find the wealth of coin he had dreamt of, but on one of his early journeys he found his wife, Agatha, the jewel of his life. In between his expeditions they would bring a son, Alex, and a daughter, Tara, into the world.

His fortune grew slowly over the years, even though vast riches eluded him the freedom his choice made for his life made the struggles easier. The use of his skills to increase the wealth of the rich had crushed his spirit, using his skills for the betterment of himself and his family brought joy to his life – even if financial wealth was beyond his reach.

For fourteen years he explored the wilds, journeying wherever the hint of gold would take him. After every expedition he would return to Shatterook and his family. He would stay for a short time, allowing his wounds to heal before he was off on his next adventure. The hunt for treasure brought him into contact with other fortune seekers including Samuel, Thomas, and Esther.

When he had scraped together enough gold to purchase some land and some goats, Craig retired from the adventuring life. He had agreed to do so early in his marriage to Agatha and was more than happy to follow through with the promise once the land was theirs. That was six months ago.

It had been mid-morning, on that day four weeks ago, when the small group of people rode up to the farmstead. He had just finished tending to his tribe of goats and had been leaning against the wooden fence watching them graze and play in the cool of the morning. A sword rested against the same fence just within reach. He was happy to be retired but could not quite break the habit of having a weapon nearby.

He allowed himself a few moments every day to just enjoy the antics of his little herd. The adults were calm and brave, he had watched them hold off a pair of wolves just after they had arrived at the farm. He had been impressed by the billy goats’ willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to give the nanny goats time to herd the kids to safety. The goats managed to drive the wolves away much to Craig’s delight.

The kids were an enjoyable distraction. Clumsy and full of energy they spent their time chasing after each other, butting heads, and bounding as far as their little legs would allow them. The play would always be followed by long, deep naps.

The antics of the goats helped organize his thoughts. He used this morning break to organize his day, plan his tasks, and prepare himself for his duties. The early morning visitors might make this exercise unnecessary.

He strapped his sword to his left hip and rested his right hand on its hilt. He could see eight riders approach from the direction of Shatterook. Two of them looked to be soldiers, two had an air of wealth about them, one was garbed in a dark robe, the final three he recognized as his friends; Esther, Thomas, and Samuel.

“Craig, my friend,” Thomas’ voice boomed as the riders approached Craig.

“What do you want?” Craig demanded. “Don’t dismount,” he growled as one of the better dressed men had begun to do just that. The man paused mid-dismount which brought a smile to Craig’s face. He recognized the two well-dressed men as members of the town council.

“We need your help,” the man pulled himself back into his saddle.

“No,” Craig responded. He could see his wife and kids watching from the porch of their home.

“I would never allow them to disturb your retirement,” Esther spoke from her saddle, “but it’s important. At least hear us out, Craig.”

“Fine. Stay mounted.”

“I have seen necromancers in the darkness. The dead rising from their graves,” the man in the dark robes said. “The undead marched on the town. Their hunger was unstoppable. Many die, many join their ranks. They sweep over the land.”

The robed individual was the town’s seer. He was responsible for divining the future weather for the local farmers. As far as Craig could remember he had never predicted any cataclysmic event. He was of the druidic order, like Esther, but he preferred the comfort of the town to the wilderness.

“Do you believe him?” Craig asked Esther.

“I do,” was the reply. “There is truth to his words.”

“Doesn’t look like enough people to stop an apocalypse,” Craig commented.

“It is our hope to catch the necromancers before they can perform the ritual,” Esther said. “But to have a chance to do that, we need you. Nobody knows the lands around the tower as well as you.”

Craig glanced at the distant tower behind him. Any danger that came out of that land would overrun his home before it got near the town. If it got past the border guard there would be only him to stop it. Preventing the ritual would be better in the long run than defending against an onslaught of the dead.

“Okay,” he mumbled, “I’ll saddle up.”

He couldn’t look at his family as he moved toward his barn. He didn’t even manage six months with them. Reasons why were irrelevant, it was just one more way he had failed them. All he could hope for was a quick resolution.

It had never occurred to Shan that she would ever travel through the eastern forest. She had visited the logging camps numerous times over her life, part of her duties were to inspect the camps, but she had never been more than a few meters in. She could always see out to the camp and the stumps of the harvested trees. She had never dreamed that one day she would find herself midway through the massive expanse of wilderness.

They were retracing the route they had taken when they had originally followed the ghouls to the Norasburg edge of the forest. The route would end at the ruined tower rather than Shatterook, a fact that had caused a bit of friction within the group. Shan had insisted on heading directly to the origin of the monsters while Craig had fought for them to head to Shatterook and his home. In the end, Esther had sided with her and insisted they had to find the cause of the abominations before it threatened their home. Esther’s decision was accepted and the group was on their way.

The result made Shan feel more comfortable with the situation. She had believed that Craig was the leader of the newcomers, a situation that had bothered her. Things made more sense now that Esther was calling the shots. Craig seemed to serve the same function for Esther that Abeth did for her. They were more casual in their communication, but in the end the men were subservient to the woman as the Goddess intended.

Along with Shan came Abeth and two of the soldiers that had been involved with the ghoul battle. Part of her had wanted to leave Abeth to command the garrison at the river crossing, but Light Koarl would have disapproved of that decision so she took him with her. She took the two soldiers with her since they had already been exposed to the strange creatures and would be less likely to panic should they run into more. The rest of the soldiers were to stay at the river crossing camp except for the one that was sent as an eyewitness with her written report to the Light.

She kept her escort to just four. She was loath to leave the river unguarded and it didn’t make a lot of sense to move a small army through the forest. She didn’t want to leave Norasburg short of defenders for an unknown time frame. Matching the other group’s numbers had made the most sense.

Travel under the roof of the forest was different than the journey from Norasburg had been. There was no good road to follow, no trail to guide them. There was an almost imperceptible path that the ghouls and the Shatterook party had made, but it was hardly broken in and would be absorbed by the vegetation within days. There was an earthy, slightly musky smell to the air. All around them could be heard the sound of insects and the smaller animals that called the woods home. There was a dim green light that pervaded the world under the blanket of leaves. There was a coolness to the air they moved through.

Samuel alternated between her soldiers, including Abeth, as he scouted abroad. The rest of the travellers followed the trail of the ghouls back through the trees. Every day the scouts would bring back a fresh kill and a sack full of fruits and berries to supplement their dried rations. They ate the dried food during the day so they wouldn’t need to make a stop. The evening meal would consist of fresh food.

Shan, herself, didn’t partake of meat. She chose instead to follow in the footsteps of the Goddess and only ate fruits and vegetables. Most of the faithful followed this restriction, the men-folk tended not to. Not too surprising to Shan, males were further from the perfection of the Goddess and their actions tended to prove that. She was the only member of the group who showed any dietary restraint.

The routine of the trek consisted of breaking camp just after waking, a leisurely march through the trees during the day, followed by the setting up of camp and cooking of the evening meal. Craig would point out evidence of the ghouls’ passing; broken branches, disturbed soil, dried blood from some unfortunate meal. At other times they would receive instruction from Esther on what vegetation was edible, what was poisonous, and what had medicinal or mystical properties.

The soldiers and the warriors discussed battle and tactics, combat and weapons. They swapped tales of personal glory, the group from Shatterook shared stories that would have sounded more at home on the tongues of bards than soldiers. Fantastic tales of the dead come back to life, insect of gigantic proportions and numerous other tales that Shan would have called “tall” a few weeks ago.

Shan quietly listened to all that was said. Each tale brought her greater understanding of her new companions.

The druid, a label Esther gave herself, was very knowledgeable about the forest’s flora and fauna. Throughout the journey Esther would slow and speak softly to various plants, insects, and animals. She would listen intently to any response, sometimes laughing to herself, before moving on. Esther had an amazing affinity for animals, Shan was confused by the druid’s willingness to eat animal flesh.

“All throughout the realm of nature,” Esther had explained to Shan as they walked together, “we have entities that survive solely on the flesh of other animals. It is part of nature’s cycle, everything provides life for everything else. Animals eat plants and other animals. Plants use the dead flesh of animals and other plants to thrive. Both animals and plants will feed on humans, why would it be wrong for us to feed on them?”

“The Goddess tells us it’s immoral to eat another living creature,” Shan answered.

“Plants are alive,” the druid had replied.

“They don’t have the same life force as animals do.”

“They provide as vital a function to life as animals do,” Esther commented. “Plenty of life live solely on a plant-based diet. It’s a natural choice in nature, but it isn’t a choice for everyone. In nature we see creatures at both extremes, meat-eaters and plant-eaters, as well as many that partake in both diets.”

There were some similarities between Shan and Esther’s different belief systems.

Both women ministered to the needs of their people. Shan lived to share the vision of the Goddess, to carry out Her will and administer Her laws. Primary interpretation of Her word was done by Her Guiding Lights but the Illuminated were also expected to have a thorough understanding of Her wishes.

The druids also worshipped a mother-figure, one they referred to as Nature. The druids worked with the population to help maintain a balance between mankind and nature’s needs. They lacked the strict structure of the faithful, there were no designated leaders of the religion and no laws that impacted the daily life of society. The druid’s focus was on the natural world rather than the people. They were still considered the spiritual leaders within their communities.

It would be on the third night of their journey that Shan would learn more about Esther’s companions, specifically her martial commander Craig. As the group sat around the warmth of the fire the conversation drifted to why he had made the original journey through the forest.

Reluctantly, the warrior had begun to tell his tale.

Welsley stood on the balcony high atop the tower.  She could feel the midday sun warm her skin as she stood looking over the vast forest that stood on the opposite side of the river.  From this distance it looked like a wide sea of green.  No detail could be made out.

She found no joy in this view, unlike at normal times.  The normal calmness that came when she viewed the world from this distance was gone.  She had no desire to see the big picture at this moment, she wanted to be able to focus on the life within the forest.  One life in particular.

She glanced down at the paper in her hand.  It was the first page of a report sent to her from Shan that detailed the events at the logging camps and her investigator’s recommendations.  Shan had set up a guard at the river crossing, Welsley had already sent two more squads of soldiers to reinforce the position.  Welsley would be meeting with her commanders before the day was out to discuss the construction of a permanent outpost to guard the crossing.  Shan’s report had been complete and exacting, as always; there was a real threat from out of the forest.

From the thirteenth tower.

Welsley read the report’s opening one more time: “Immediate threat eliminated.  Going to Shatterook tower to investigate further threat.”

She trusted Shan’s instincts where these investigations were concerned but in this instance she would have preferred to have been consulted.  The report was filled with talk of the undead, necromancers and cursed towers.  Fantasy and myth.  Welsley would have liked to have met these Shatterook people before sending any of her folk through the forest beyond her land.

It was too late now, Shan would already be well on her way and too deep into the woods by the time even a mounted messenger could reach her.  There were few who knew the forest well enough to catch up with them and none brave enough to venture that deep into the unknown.

Except Shan.  Her safety would have been a secondary concern dismissed in favor of the needs of the Goddess.  She had shown the presence of mind to take Abeth and a couple of the soldiers with her.

“Morah,” Welsley called into her chamber.  The attendant materialized almost instantaneously out of the shadows of the room.

“Your Eminence?” Morah questioned.

“Cancel the rest of my day,” Welsley instructed.  “I need a chance to consider this news.”

“As you wish, Your Eminence,” Morah bowed before she glided from the room.

During her childhood Welsley had been exposed to many a tall tale told by her parents’ staff and visiting bards.  Tales of dragons and giants, dwarves and elves, magic and high fantasy filled the household.  Tales of heroics accompanied her education, as she grew the stories grew more taboo and included unheard of stories of handsome warriors saving fair maidens.  Evil was always vanquished and everyone lived happily ever after.  These tales kept coin in a bard’s pocket and laughter in the kitchens.

Life rarely worked out so neatly for the average person.  People fell victim to the little evils of life on a daily basis.  The evils that humanity inflicted upon itself removed the potential for a “happily ever after.”  The monsters from the stories would be worse.
And now she was told that the monsters were real.  At least some of them.

The stories she could remember that featured necromancy always involved endless hordes of restless, angry dead.  This relatively small incursion could be a precursor to a larger invasion.  If the stories had any truth to them Norasburg would be lucky to survive.

Shatterook was another potential concern.  It was not a place name she could recall ever having heard before.  Not that surprising, Welsley knew, mention of the thirteenth tower were rare, hushed and quick, its fate lost to time.  The forest marked the border of the land controlled by the towers, not much was known about what lay beyond.

From Shan’s report it seemed like the people that lived in that tower’s shadow knew about as much as she did.  Lost in time.

Shan was walking into the unknown and there was little Welsley could do to help.

“My Light,” Morah’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Yes, Morah?” Welsley asked.  She had been lost in thought for longer than she realized.  The sky had gotten darker and a cool breeze had picked up.  He skin was covered in goosebumps.  She could see the light from numerous fires and torches in the village below.  The distant forest was a darker shade of green, almost a black.

“Dinner awaits in your private dining room,” Morah advised.

“Thank-you,” Welsley allowed herself to enjoy the evening breeze for a moment.  “Morah,” an idea came to her, “do you recall the name of the tower beyond the woods?”

“I have only ever heard it referred to as the thirteenth tower,” Morah paused a moment, “but perhaps it was recorded in the histories kept in the tower library.”

The faithful were almost as devoted to recording the minutiae of daily life as they were to the Goddess.  Each tower maintained a library of scrolls and tomes that dated back to the time when the Goddess walked among them, or so the claim went.  The lives of countless Guiding Lights were kept for the use of future generations.  All of the wisdom of the ages stored just a few floors below her.

The rulings, the musings, the wisdom of Light Koarl were already being added to the collection.  Every report ever written for any Light was stored within the tower libraries.  The documents kept in each library was unique to each tower.  Norasburg was the closest to the lost tower, if any record of its name was to be found it would be found here.

“That’s an excellent idea,” the Light agreed.  “Have my meal brought to the library.  We have a lot of reading to do.”

“Might I suggest we start in the underground archives?” Morah offered.  “The oldest logs will be more likely to have the information you want.  The library holds the most recent documents, from the current Light and her predecessor.”

“Fair enough,” Welsley acknowledged.  It was unlikely her predecessor, Light Amoren, knew the last tower’s original name.  Light Amoren was devoted to governing, she seemed unlikely to have been concerned with legends of a ruined township.

“Would you like me to get some more eyes to help with the search?”

“Yes,” Welsley replied.  “Four of the faithful.”

“I know just the right ones for the task,” Morah bowed out of the chamber.

Welsley hadn’t spent a lot of time in the archival library while she was in Marton, but the amount of documents stuck in her memory.  This could be a very time consuming project.

Shan watched the smoke rise off the burning pile of bodies.  The smoke was thick and black, oily in texture and stank worse than anything she could ever remember smelling before.  She couldn’t place the foul odour but the description of ‘unnatural’ rung true in her head.

‘Unnatural’ was an apt description of everything about these monsters.

From a distance they looked human.  It was as you got closer that you started to notice the oddities.  The most obvious oddity was the sickly green cast to the skin and the lack of hair on the head.  They were garbed in shreds of tattered, rotted clothing.  They smelled of fresh blood mingled with decay.  Long claws protruded from their fingers.  Their mouths were packed full of sharp fangs.  Their eyes flickered like the flames of a fire.  They seemed to communicate with each other through a series of loud sharp hisses punctuated by the occasional inhuman shriek.

This was their way of celebrating a feast, Shan was told, on a hunt they were silent.

They could hear the shrieking before they ever saw the monsters.

“Use your bows,” Craig instructed the four soldiers that accompanied them.  “Samuel will be moving in from the other side of the camp.  Fire at their heads or their legs.  Knock them off their feet and we can crush their skulls.  They can be killed like people but they aren’t people… they can take more of a beating than the average man.”

Craig, Abeth and the four bowmen led the way to the camp.  Shan followed closely behind with Esther and Thomas.  The hissing joined with the shrieks as the camp came into view.  The smell of decay mixed with fresh blood reached their noses before they saw the first of their enemies.  The stench was so strong that they could taste it as they came face-to-face with their foes.  Shan would learn as they gathered the bodies together for cremation that even the taste of their skin was perverse; a bizarre mix of rough, stiff leather and soft, rotted flesh.

They slowed down almost to a crawl as they entered the camp.  The soldiers kept their bows at the ready as they entered into a world taken straight out of a nightmare.  The ghouls were in a frenzy, oblivious to anything but their feeding.  They hissed and shrieked at each other, their claws slashed and tore at each others’ flesh.  Teeth snapped at anything that got too close.

But they were all together, the six, in a small area.

“Make your shots count,” Craig whispered, “they move fast.  You might not get a second shot.”  He nodded to Abeth and the two men moved toward the distracted creatures.  They had taken only a couple steps forward when the soldiers let loose with their arrows.  Despite the situation the soldiers’ aim was true and their volley dropped four of the monsters with arrows piercing their skulls.  The two remaining ghouls barely had the time to look up before their skulls were penetrated by projectiles fired by Samuel and the soldiers who accompanied him as they arrived from the opposite end of the camp.

“That was easy,” the scout boasted.  He slung his crossbow on his back as he walked to join Shan’s group.

“We need to collect the bodies,” Craig commanded.  “Pile them up, we’ll burn them all together.  Loggers too.  Just to be safe.”

“Bring me any survivors,” Esther added before the group broke up.

They found no survivors.  They didn’t even find any whole bodies.  The ghouls proved to be very efficient at ripping people apart.  There was little wonder in Shan’s mind on what had happened to the occupants of the other camp.  The only concern now was how many other camp’s met a similar fate.

“We got very lucky,” Esther came up beside her.  “They are not normally so easy to dispatch.”

“I still can’t believe what I witnessed,” Shan responded, her eyes were still glued to the pile of burning corpses.  “Goddess preserve us.”

“They are a corruption of Nature,” Esther agreed.  “But this group won’t be spreading its sickness anymore.”

“How many camps did they destroy?” Shan wondered.

“Just the two,” Esther answered.  “We just barely missed the raising.  We may have missed catching the necromancers responsible but we were on these creatures’ trail long before they entered your lands.  They didn’t reach any other camps.”

“That’s… a relief,” Shan admitted.  She felt shaken.  She hadn’t expected the claims to be true and the reality had been worse than she could have imagined.  Her soldiers had been exemplary but they were starting to show signs of shock.  What they had witnessed was beginning to conflict with their common sense.

“Captain Abeth,” Shan called the veteran soldier over.  “Have the men catalogue the valuables in the camp.  Organize it.  We’ll take what we can carry to the main camp and send the wagons to collect up the rest.  No sense letting anything go to waste.”

“As you wish, Illuminance,” he bowed and left to organize the effort.

“What of you?” Shan questioned Esther.  “What are your plans now?  Will you come to Norasburg with me?  The Guiding Light will have questions you’ll be better able to answer than I.”

“No,” Craig broke into the conversation.  “We’ve done what we set out to do.  I wish to go home to my family.

“We have been away for a while,” Esther agreed.  “I am eager to be back to my domain as well.  Perhaps we will meet again in the future.”

“Or,” interrupted Samuel, “perhaps you’d like to travel back with us.  Ghouls don’t travel long distance to eat.  Something, or someone, compelled them to come here.  The questions to be answered are who and why.”

Shan had to admit he had a point.  She had been considering those questions herself.  She knew there would be few, most likely no, answers here.  She felt she knew all she would learn from the camps:  the walking dead were real and they were hungry.  The real answers lay on the other side of the forest.

“I need to send an update,” she said.  “To set up a guard at the river crossing.”

“We can leave in the morning,” Craig agreed.

Esther nodded, smiled, and patted Shan on the arm.  Both women turned back to watch the bodies burn.