Talk of Wraiths II

“This is wrong,” the mercenary called Ron opined from further into the room. “From my time serving with the tower garrison in Morton there were always hot pools of water over there,” he pointed off to his right. He pointed to his left, “and cold over there. In between were pools of varying temperature. There should be steam, but it’s just cold.”

“The water seems fairly clean,” Felix had knelt beside one of the baths and scooped a handful of water in one gloved hand. He took a quick sniff of the liquid before he swallowed what remained in his cupped palm. “Tastes alright.”

“The tower’s destruction seems to only have shattered the enchantments,” David shrugged. There would be splinters of magic throughout what remained of the tower’s underground. The tower itself was gone as was the fertile ground of the gardens. The water of the bathing pools was still pure but the heat was gone.

“It’s good news,” Robert added. “A source of fresh water will allow us to stay almost indefinitely. We’ll be able to make a thorough search of the place.”

The mercenaries quietly separated. They divided to search the far corners of the bathing floor. They left David alone to wander through the chamber toward the stairs to the next level. David was left alone with his thoughts.

He had no experience and only a slightly better level of knowledge than most people had with the process of enchantment. His life spent studying necromancy gave him some insight into the process of enchanting objects. Both types of magic involved imbuing objects with energy, they only differed in the type of object and magical energy used.

David had begun to realize there was another difference between the two: enchantments could splinter when the object was destroyed, necromantic energies dissipated when the undead host was destroyed. Enchantments clung to their existence with a dogged determination far beyond the effort needed to create them, necromancy stole the life from its practitioners and fled into the night at the first opportunity.

It was a complaint David had heard from every necromancer he had studied with: death magic was stubborn about merging with a corpse and yet so eager to flee from the body that housed it. One more reason David was not eager to sacrifice his health animating corpses on a whim. Necromancy was a difficult, disloyal pursuit.

It all came back to the wraith.

David had always had a fascination with death. Not the delivery of death but rather the fruits of its effort. The change between life and death in an animal was dramatic, regardless of the cause of the shift between living and dead the change was always extreme. He had always wondered if life could be removed from a being could it also be added?

From a young age he was attracted to the dead. Where his male peers spent their free time mastering hunting, archery, or swordplay David would spend his time with the community’s medics and priests absorbing all they could teach him of anatomy and death. The priests had a philosophical, hands-off approach to the topic; they discussed souls and the afterlife, they hinted at the existence of the energies of death. The medics had him open up the corpses of animals, they had him observe as they treated the sick and injured members of the community, he was even allowed to tend to the health needs of the livestock.

Not a whisper was spoken to him of the wraith’s existence. As he thought about it now, David was fairly certain they knew nothing about the undead outside of the wraith’s existence. One didn’t question one’s god, after all.

The community would drag all their almost adult-aged children from their beds one night, after the year’s harvest was in, and paraded them half-asleep and confused to the bottom of the quarry. The children would find themselves shivering and unarmed, trapped at the bottom of the pit that had always been forbidden to them. They were locked behind the stone walls that rimmed the top edge of the quarry, the single gate accused against use, and the top of the walls patrolled by armed members of the community.

“It was about survival,” the children were told. The obvious exit, back up the sides of the quarry they had been brought down, was off limits. They would not be allowed out that way. The only way out was through the cave.

It was a poorly kept secret that not all of the chosen group would survive. A fact that caused a great deal of anxiety and fear as the community’s children approached their late teens. The previous survivors were silent on their experience which only served to increase the dread felt by the following generations. All that the younger children knew was that those who returned came back changed: kids no more.

It was different when it became David’s turn. Dragged from bed one summer night, he found himself standing barefoot at the bottom of the quarry. His brother, Robert, stood beside him confused and still partly asleep. David attempted to shake the cobwebs from his head as a group of the community’s adults spoke to the two boys.

“Congratulations,” one of the men said to the boys. “Tonight you will prove yourselves worthy of fully joining the community. Tonight you become men. First you must prove your ability to survive. Your way out of the quarry and back to the village is through that cave. Follow it to the surface and you will be men and welcomed into our community as equals. Good luck.”

The adults started up the ramp that curved along the side of the quarry. The boys were left alone, unsure of what was happening.

The night was warm but dark. A sliver of moon provided the only light to see by. They could see the shadowy figures of the adults as they moved upward toward the gate. In front of them was the entrance to the cave, a dark hole in the side of the mountain.

“I guess we should get started,” Robert broke the silence, his voice quivered with anger.

David nodded in response. He was content to allow Robert to take the lead.

The chill hit them before they could take their first step. It seeped deep into their core freezing them to the bone.

A pair of cold blue eyes shone in the black of the cave entrance.

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Talk of Wraiths

The mercenaries wore suits of leather armour, soft and supple, dyed as black as coal. The leather armour covered them from head to toe: head, torso, hands, legs, and feet. The armour left only their faces exposed, all other skin was covered from view. Plates of steel, painted the red of fresh blood, were strapped across their chests, backs, arms, and legs. Each man possessed a sword and dagger on his belt, a pack was secured across each man’s shoulders.

David wore his black robes. He kept his head bare, the hood he wore he allowed to bunch up behind his neck. He was armed with a short wooden staff about the length of a sword, a wide bladed dagger hung off his belt. He carried a pack identical to the ones carried by the mercenaries on his back. David was the only one of the group who carried a torch.

They chose to enter into the underground in a group of eight, three of the mercenaries were to stay behind and keep watch on the camp. They were not anticipating much in the line of danger, the tower’s lower levels had been sealed for many centuries and David could sense no sentience among the death that permeated the area: it seemed like background noise and little more. They needed the numbers to cart out any treasures they might stumble upon or David might have made the trip below on his own.

David had little interest in material treasure, shiny trinkets held no desire for him. His interest was in the knowledge kept in the tower’s archives. Among the myriad of texts kept within the towers were rumoured treatises on necromancy; ancient and forgotten lore he hoped were there to be found in the long buried archives.

The archives in the twelve towers were kept a closely guarded secret, off limits to all but a select few people: the Guiding Light and her Illuminated. There was a small amount of give and take between the towers, a visiting Light was normally given unlimited access to the tower, but this courtesy was not extended to the general population. It was almost unheard-of for a man to be given even supervised access to the libraries or archives.

Considering what he was looking for he would need free, unsupervised access. David had no doubt he would never get that access from the Goddess’ chosen people.

Which made delving under the desert a simpler, faster, safer choice.

“It’s cold,” Robert mentioned casually from David’s side. “Not just compared to the heat of the day. It isn’t as cold as the desert nights but it is colder than most caves I’ve been in.”

They had started down the gently curved staircase they had uncovered from the desert sand. They travelled two abreast as they moved down the stairs. The space available only allowed for two people to move comfortably together and fight without getting in each other’s way should the need arise. The brothers, Robert and David, made up the third row. Robert wasn’t expecting any danger, the entrance had been packed with sand, but his warriors lived for the fight and it made more sense to have them in the front lines. The same reasoning applied to the two mercenaries who brought up the rear, on the odd chance someone came up from behind them the warriors would be able to provide protection and earn their keep.

David exhaled slowly.

“I can’t be that cold,” he observed, “I don’t see my breath.”

“No,” Robert agreed, “but still I feel chilled to the bone. It reminds me… do you remember… when we were kids? That miserable hole they threw us in? To expose us to the grace of death, it would make us stronger and weed out the weak. That wraith.” Robert spat the last word out in disgust.

The wraith. David could never forget that wraith. It was such an important point in his life, a turning point. It was the closest he had come to meeting the personification of the primal forces of death. The event had had an equal, though different, impact on Robert.

It was a tradition among their people to send their children into a local quarry as the children approached adulthood as a right of passage. The ritual involved dumping a group of children with no adults into the long abandoned stone quarry. At the bottom of the quarry pit was a cave that led to a system of tunnels that would lead the children out of the pit and back to the surface. The idea was that the children would learn to work together toward a common goal, to create a bond within their community, to hone their survival skills, and usher them into adulthood. It was a tradition older than anyone could remember.

They left out the most important reason for the ritual: to feed the wraith.

The wraith was ancient. Local legend had it that it had been around since the world began. At the very least it seemed likely that it had been there before any man had settled in the region. The first people had discovered the cave entrance after many generations spent tearing stone from the ground. It wasn’t long after that that the wraith made its presence known.

At first it was just the odd transient individual who disappeared, people whose lifestyle made them less likely to be missed or whose work was dangerous and took them away from the community for extended periods of time. Hunters, caravanners, farmers, shepherds were all expected to risk their lives away from the safety provided by the community’s constabulary. The nights were dark and full of dangers; people died. It wasn’t until quarry workers and guardsmen started to disappear that the community took notice that something was amiss.

A wraith was a terrible entity to encounter. A being not quite material yet not quite a spirit either, trapped between the two realms. A wraith was the shadow of a mortal soul, dark and ghost-like in appearance, its only physical aspect was its skull-like head covered in tight, dried skin and long, tangled hair. It adorned its body with armour cobbled together from that worn by its victims. Although a wraith was far more intelligent than the more common undead it was still driven by an undying rage. The wraith was an entity of pure malevolence fuelled by a near uncontrollable rage. As time passed, the wraith’s rage and hatred toward the living would grow, as did its hunger for the souls of man.

The wraith, like most predators, preferred to expend as little energy as possible on its meals. This worked in the community’s favour; having no experts to deal with an entity as ancient and powerful as the wraith the community stumbled upon a workable solution. They learned that if someone worked the quarry and disappeared the wraith would not stalk the village streets for days after.

The quarry was shut down and converted for use as a place of sacrifice. At first they only chained criminals and undesirables and outsiders in the quarry pit but after a few generations it became harder to find sacrifices among the people. Another solution would be needed.

A cult had begun to grow around the wraith. It was older than anyone could guess, more dangerous than anyone who had ever lived in the community, you could feel the hate radiate from it even as it lay in wait within the shadows of the cave. It had a lot in common to all the myths of ancient gods: they also desired the sacrifice of innocents.

They started to offer their children to the wraith. They sent them in in large groups, both to sate the wraith’s appetite and to strengthen their population. Those that survived, that escaped through the caves, were considered blessed by the wraith and were adults in the eyes of the community. They were brought into the cult, shared the history and myth that had grown around the wraith, and prepared to repeat it all the next year.

Some survivors chose to reject the tradition. David and Robert rejected the community after their encounter with the wraith.

“I remember,” David shook the memories away. “I don’t feel any presence.”

“I can’t forget it,” Robert muttered. “They betrayed us. Sent us to die without any hesitation.”

“True,” David agreed. “It was heartless. But it made us who we are. Set us down our chosen paths. Doesn’t matter, I sense no such entity. As far as I can tell we are alone here.”

They stopped as the stairs ended and they arrived at the baths.

Talk of Dragons

“It almost sparkles,” Felix said as he examined the water he had scooped into his hand. “Cool as well. I could have pulled this from a mountain lake rather than this puddle.”

“There’s still some enchantment left,” David responded. “I wonder how much. I was always told the enchantments were completely dispelled. They were wrong, these towers’ magics were more resilient than we knew.”

Puddle wasn’t too far off for what they were looking at. It was barely deep enough to cover a man’s foot, it came up just beneath the ankle. It was roughly as wide across as a man’s arm. A broken, leaning chunk of masonry hung over the pool, the stone acted as a shelter for the pool and kept the sand from burying the water. The water was purer than any found in the wilds: clear, crisp, and cold.

It had the added benefit of providing an anchor point they could use, in combination with the piece of wall found previously, to find the tower’s former location. The towers and their grounds were uniform, the waterways of the gardens were found on only one side of the walls. That left only one spot where the tower’s remains would logically be found.

“Good news,” David announced after he made a few calculations in his head. “I think we’ve just found the tower.”

“Where’s that?” Robert asked.

“Over by where you were digging,” David replied.

Even with eight people digging the uncovering of the tower’s remnants was not a quick endeavour. It was true that they could focus their efforts in a single area but they had centuries of accumulated sands to remove. It didn’t help that they had no way to know how much of the tower was left standing. They would need to excavate down to the surface and work out their exact location from any other structures they might uncover. They should be close enough to its location that they could just stumble across it.
“We should have brought some labourers,” Robert offered. He had stopped digging so he could wipe the sweat off his brow.

“That would have been problematic,” David answered. “It would have been a significant initial investment for food and equipment. The shares of any treasure found would be smaller, too many people sharing in the plunder reduces the value of the expedition. A large train of labourers would have drawn attention to us and attracted the curious. We would have been followed for sure. We would have needed to add more mercenaries to the mix for security which would have further diluted our take.”

“More work, more reward,” Robert responded. “I get it. I’m just worried we’ll all be too sore and tired to swing a sword once we gain entry. I worry that we’ll be too weak to deal with whatever is waiting underground.”

David understood that concern, he even shared it. The warriors were exhausted. Days spent shovelling sand for hours in between short, fitful naps during the hottest and coldest parts of the day had drained them of energy. David slept better than the others did but even he felt concern at the thought of swinging his short staff. He didn’t envy the mercenaries, they would need to strap on their armour as well as hold a sword. The leather would increase their body heat while the metal plates would add additional weight to their already strained muscles.

More people would have made the excavation easier, there was no denying that. The size of his portion of any treasure they might find didn’t concern him: he wasn’t here for the riches. The group at its current size was difficult to keep fed and watered in the barren desert they travelled through, a larger group wouldn’t be able to live off of hunting and gathering and still move at a reasonable speed. They would have needed to bring wagons of food and drink with them to support the additional people: it would have been an added expense and a logistical nightmare. Less people was just simpler overall.

“Look at it this was,” David threw a shovelful of sand behind him, “at least you can say you earned your share.”

“I have a confession, brother,” Robert started to dig again. “I’m actually alright with not being able to make that claim.”

“Nothing worth doing is easy,” David replied.

“Says the dwarf of legend,” Robert laughed, “deep in the ground, digging out the gold and gemstones with their picks. I don’t want to be the dwarf, that might be fine for you but I don’t want to be the dwarf. I want to be like the mythical dragon sound asleep on his pile of gold, afraid of nothing, wanting for nothing. That’s the life for me.”

“That explains so much,” David laughed.

“What do you mean?” Robert asked.

“There’s a lot of similarities between your chosen life as a mercenary and that of a dragon,” David explained. “Dragons are portrayed as opportunistic, mercenaries are opportunistic. Dragons are obsessed with wealth, mercenaries are obsessed with wealth. Dragons are loyal only to themselves, mercenaries are loyal to themselves… at least at heart.”

“That seems fair,” Robert agreed.

There was a thump as Robert’s shovel hit something denser than the sand.

“What was that?” the brothers’ eyes met over the shovel’s handle. They swept their shovels across the ground pushing the sand to the side. After a few minutes of work they exposed three steps of stone that descended into the ground. Sand still blocked the remainder of the staircase but it seemed as if they had found the former tower.

“Will,” Robert called out. “Get our stuff. We’ve found our way in.”

Digging in Sand

“I didn’t realize I had signed up to dig holes,” Felix, one of the mercenaries that had accompanied David, complained.

“Stop complaining. We’re all digging,” Will shot back at Felix. “Dig more, talk less and the work will be done faster.”

David stopped his digging and shook the dirt from his robes. The robes were black and made of a coarse material. It allowed a body to breathe and kept it relatively warm but it also attracted sand like a rotting corpse collected flies. He could feel the grains of sand beneath his clothes as they rubbed across his skin and grimaced; he felt like he might never be free of it no matter how many times he might dunk himself in water.

He rubbed his hands over his close-cropped hair in an attempt to brush the sand off his head. A single hand was rubbed over his bearded jaw in an attempt to make his face sand free. He knew it was futile, the more sand he moved the more sand got deposited on his person. The act of brushing the sand away made him feel cleaner even if it wasn’t the reality of things.

“Why don’t you call up some of your servants to do this?” Felix tossed a water-skin to him. “You know… let the dead clear the way for us.”

David looked over Felix as he took a pull from the water-skin. Felix was of a similar size and build as the rest of the mercenaries were. His hair was cropped short and matched his facial stubble in colour. He wore the same tan coloured clothing that the others wore; soaked through with sweat and caked in sand. The mercenary looked as exhausted as the rest of them were.

“Have you found any bodies?” David asked. He tossed the water-skin to Will. “I can’t make them out of thin air.”

It was true, but not entirely so.

David had never animated the dead. He had studied the corpses of numerous living creatures during his life, even been involved in a few grave robberies, but he had yet to create any form of undead. He knew the theory behind it, the rituals and magics used, he knew the powers involved in the act, but he had never participated in the process. He had had the opportunity, he was just not willing to sacrifice his body to do so.

That was the core of necromancy: the necromancer used his own life-force as a spark to get a corpse to accept the necromantic energies around it and reanimate. Death was everywhere, its necromantic energy permeated every thing, living or dead. A necromancer trained to feel this energy and to force it to his will. It was easy enough to do, death liked to play, but the real power came at a cost: the practitioner’s life.

Not all at once, death enjoyed the game far more than the final result. Little bits here and there, unnoticeable at first. Hidden overwhelmingly by the thrill of breaking the natural laws of life. By the time the physical changes started to manifest the thrill had become a need akin to eating, drinking, breathing. Breaking the necromantic cycle became impossible as body, mind, and soul corrupted and started to resemble the constructs the necromancer animated.

If he was to sacrifice himself to his art, David was not going to do it creating mindless zombies and skeletons. He wanted to accomplish something spectacular: he wanted to wrest a soul from the grip of death itself. No soulless automatons for him, he wanted to bring an intelligent, feeling undead into existence. The first undead he would animate would not be one of the common, lesser forms.

“I haven’t seen anything but sand in weeks,” Felix griped.

David smiled a little. That wasn’t entirely true. They had found the remnants of the tower’s garden’s walls the day after they arrived. It had taken that day to excavate the small section of wall; it had provided no clues to their exact location but did provide some shelter and security. They moved their camp and used the wall as part of a more permanent base of operations. The towers and their gardens were identical so it wouldn’t take that long to find the spot where the tower used to stand. The time consuming part would be digging it out from the sand.

They had split into three groups: two of four members each and one with just two people. The two largest groups went to the most likely areas for the tower remains to be located. Robert and David each headed one of the groups. The final, smaller group stayed by the originally discovered wall segment to set up the base camp; it would be more secure to threats.

So far David’s group had had no luck in their search.

What they had found was sand, and a lot of it. They found a small number of stones among the grains of sand, none larger than a man’s head, but they were too few to mean anything. They hadn’t found anything like a structure and the sun was rising swiftly, they would need to take a break while the sun baked the sand.

“We should head back to camp,” David announced after he glanced at the sky. “We’ll rest and resupply before we get back to it.”

“I can’t wait,” Felix offered. “Warm stew and warm water. Sounds like paradise.”

“We’ll get a chance to rest,” David responded. “We’ll catch up with the others. See where they are in their search. Maybe they’ve had more luck at their site.”

“Do you think we’re digging in the wrong spot?” Will asked as the four men started back to camp.

“I can’t say for sure,” David replied. “I don’t know how much of the tower was left standing. We may have to dig down to floor level. The only thing I can say with any sort of certainty is that, using the wall as a reference, we are digging in one of the two most likely places to find the tower. It’s just a matter of time and luck at this point.”

There was a sense of excitement throughout the camp when they arrived. Robert’s group had already returned. Robert rushed up to David’s group the moment they came into view.

“Did you find the tower?” David asked his brother.

“No,” Robert handed a mug to David. “Something better. Drink.”

David accepted the offered drink while he shot a confused look at his brother. His confusion only increased as he took a sip: water. It was just water: cool, clear, crisp. He had had plenty of water as he worked under the watchful gaze of the sun. He may not have been able to properly gauge the temperature around him but he could tell when he was hungry or thirsty.

The water was fresh, crisp, cool, and clean.

“Show me where you found this!” David’s eyes sparked with excitement.

“Follow me,” Robert smiled.

The Nap’s the Thing

The buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the bleating of sheep, and the gentle barking of dogs helped to sway the young man to sleep. The gentle rustle of the wind through the leaves and the soft gurgle of the nearby brook gave him an illusion of safety. The shade of the trees kept the sun’s rays from directly touching his skin and would keep him from burning as he napped.

If there was one thing he was good at it was napping. There was nothing better, in his mind, than a good nap. He knew all the best places to nap around the village.

He had been attached to his regular naps since he was a child. It had been his focus for life to ensure there was always a time for a nap every day. It was a goal he had so far managed to achieve despite the community’s belief that he was lazy, uninspired, and lacked ambition.

He spent his days away from the village and its people. He preferred to be alone, it was easier to be by himself than to deal with the constant questions about his future plans and judgments on his life choices.

He was happy, content, and satisfied with his life.

He had a place of his own: a one room shack he shared with his four hounds. Four large collies he kept as much for companionship as they were or their talents at animal husbandry. All female, they were a wonderful mix of black, orange, white, brown, and golden-red fur. Their markings varied though the colours and length were similar in nature. They provided him with comfort year round and warmth during the colder periods.

The dogs were gifts from his father. They were sisters born in the same litter. Their mother and father were both descended from long lines of sheep and cattle herders; champions both. The girls were naturals at the job, at least a match for their parents, and needed very little in the line of supervision. It was a talent he was happy to take advantage of.

He made his living as a shepherd.

It was an easy job and one that fit well with his world view. The hardest part of the job was guiding the three dozen or so sheep from the barn they slept in to the pasture they would spend the day in as well as the return trip. Once they arrived the sheep were pretty docile and spent the bulk of the day eating, sleeping, and playing. The dogs did most of the work, he just chose their destination and the collies directed the sheep in the right way.

They weren’t his flock, the sheep belonged to his parents. They had recognized his lack of desire to participate in the village’s social niceties at an early age. Along with the dogs they offered a lifetime job for him watching over their flock: one ram, a couple dozen ewes, and a dozen or so lambs.

They were all around him as he prepared to start what was the best part of his day: the nap. The sheep were all about him; the lambs were at play, the adults either eating or sleeping. It was what he liked most about sheep: they shared the same love of napping as he did.

There was a stream that ran through the pasture just beside the small grove of trees he lay in. It was wide but shallow, the water easy going and cool. He made sure to keep some water close to the flock: they would wander less when they were thirsty and it made a good place to store his beer and keep it chilled throughout the day.

He would eat a lunch of dried fruits and vegetables and some salted jerky. He rounded out his food choices with some hardtack and cheese. Although a rarity, he sometimes liked to include a selection of nuts and seeds, whatever were readily available. There were none in the mix of treats in his lunch sack today.

He had remembered to bring his jacket.

It was a woollen jacket that was stuffed with handfuls of thick wool. It was far too heavy a piece of clothing for the current summer weather. Folded up it made a good pillow on which to lay his head, a better solution than using one of the sheep. They had the tendency to get up at seemingly random intervals which disturbed the nap.

The nap was the priority.

His head rested on his folded up jacket. His back was flat against the ground, his legs crossed at the heels. His arms were folded by his sides, his hands rested on his chest. Eyes closed to the world he breathed deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth. He allowed the gentle sounds of nature to wash over him as he focused on the rhythmic in-and-out of his breathing. The earthy smell relaxed his mind and eased the stress his body held, before he knew it he had left the waking world and drifted off to sleep.

Within moments it felt as if his body was floating above the ground. Gone was the pressure of the ground against his back, no more grass scratched at his skin, all that was left was the mild chill of the wind as it brushed against his exposed skin.

He was rocking gently in the breeze. It was as if he was in an invisible hammock, his body free of all attachments yet still held in a gentle, invisible cradle: safe and protected.

There would be no dreams, he would not be surrendering that completely as he would still need to monitor the sheep as they grazed. The bleating of the sheep and the barking of the dogs followed a consistent, albeit random, pattern he could latch onto and observe for changes as he napped, half asleep though he was.

It wasn’t as if anything happened most days. When things did occur that was out of the ordinary it had never been beyond the abilities of the dogs to handle it. The odd wild animal that got too close to the flock, a lamb who stumbled too far into the nearby water, a sheep that had wandered a little too far away from the group were the typical emergencies the collies had to deal with. But there was always a chance that something more serious could occur and he needed to be on top of it.

So he kept his ears open and his mind attentive to any changes in the sounds around him.

Like the almost complete silence that had just dropped on him. There was a sudden, distinct lack of animal noises: wild or domestic; insect, bird, or mammal. The sound of flowing water and the air as it blew through the leaves could still be heard but no sounds of life.

He slowly opened his eyes, careful to keep his breathing even and his body still. The sudden silence was alarming but it also suggested a lack of immediate danger. If he didn’t draw any attention to himself he might be able to assess the situation and devise a plan rather than just react.

The first images to hit his eyes confused him.

The ewes stood in a semi-circle of two rows. In front of them stood the lambs, the young ones shifted slightly from foot to foot as they struggled with their natural overabundance of energy. The ram stood as still as a statue behind the second line of ewes.

The four collies were seated behind the sheep. They were arranged at regular intervals in an arc that matched that of the sheep.

Every one of the animals’ attention was caught by the horse which stood in the centre of their half-circle.

The horse towered above his audience. He was tall, lean, and packed with muscle kept just beneath a thick hide that was as white as freshly fallen snow. It was almost blinding in the afternoon sun. His tail and mane were long, thick, and was a shade of white just a smidgen darker than his body was. His hooves were like polished ivory, his eyes the colour of the deepest ocean.

It was the horn in the centre of the horse’s forehead that drew the observer’s eye. The horn was a long as a man’s forearm, it spiraled from the size of a fist at the base up to a razor sharp point at the tip. It sparkled golden every time the horse moved his head.

“Unicorn” was what popped into the shepherd’s mind as he watched the scene in front of him.

The unicorn was beautiful. There was an aura of majesty that emanated from the beast as almost a physical force. His chest was puffed out in pride and strength; he had a regal bearing. Overall the unicorn filled the napper with a sense of awe.

A feeling that was duplicated among the sheep and the dogs.

The unicorn caught the eye of every member of his audience individually. He held each one’s gaze until their tails wagged and then moved on to the next one. He moved through each and every one, including the lambs. When he was finished meeting each one eye-to-eye he turned and walked across the brook. He took one last look at the assembled animals before he sprang into motion and disappeared at a run across the open plain.

As quick as the silence had descended on the shepherd it was gone. Back was the quiet bleating, the hushed growls and barks, the chirping of birds, the buzz of insects, and other sounds associated with nature’s life.

He blinked and blinked again.

He couldn’t explain what he’d just seen. He wasn’t asleep, he wasn’t dreaming. Perhaps a daydream? Maybe he was on the verge of losing his mind?

He blinked one more time. The action reminded him of what was important: the nap.

He closed his eyes and allowed himself to fall back into the comforting embrace that was the nap.

Beginnings

“Eat,” Robert thrust a bowl into his brother’s hands.

It was a small, wooden bowl that was filled to the rim with a dark, steaming liquid as thick as mucus. The contents looked unappealing but the aroma was savoury and hinted at a delicious, filling meal. Beneath the surface would be chunks of fried vulture and various bits of vegetables that had previously been dried.

“David,” Robert pushed the bowl forward, “it will warm you.”

“Fine, Robert,” the one called David took the bowl offered to him. A spoon carved from bone was passed into his hand before his brother settled down on the sand beside him.

They ate together in a tent. The sun had set long ago and the temperature had dropped to the point where the mercenaries were wrapped in layers of furs and hides. They were huddled in a handful of tents that ringed a small cooking fire. The group’s day was done, the cold and dark made any attempt to continue their search to be little more than wasted effort. The search would continue at daybreak, taking a break during the heat of midday.

“How sure are you that we’ll find the ruins?” Robert asked between sips. “We have limited water. I’d like to make it out of the desert before we run out.”

“Our wandering is over,” David answered. “We just need to uncover the ruins. A few days of digging and we’ll be done.”

David set the bowl and spoon down at his side. He had his legs folded beneath him as he knelt in the centre of the tent. He absentmindedly smoothed the black robes along his legs as he watched Robert sip the last of the broth from its bowl. David waited as Robert grabbed two mugs and filled them with a sweet smelling wine. They shared a glass in silence.

“All I see is sand,” Robert refilled both glasses. “I can’t fathom how you took ancient maps that no longer match the surroundings and determine this to be the location. Everything just looks the same.”

David smiled. “All I see is sand as well,” he replied. “But I can sense the death around me. It’s focused here.”

“Maybe it’s just animals,” Robert suggested, “insects, even. Life exists in the desert, the cycle still ends in death.”

“No,” David answered. “Death has different flavours. The remnants of an insects life tastes different than a man’s does. Weaker, more diluted, and harder to sense… except in extreme circumstances. The echoes of sentient life are louder and easier to find. It’s like a whisper in your ear, a tap on your shoulder, a shadow in the corner of your eye. More intuition than anything else.”

“What’s waiting for us?” Robert wondered aloud.

“Legends tell us the tower was shattered, swallowed by the desert sands,” David answered. “We should find the ruins of the tower grounds, the basement of the tower should be mostly intact. We may or may not see the rubble that was the tower itself, it’s hard to say. The force needed to destroy a tower is beyond imagination. I have never seen one of the twelve in any state of disrepair, even the ruined tower is just a bit scratched and blackened… or so I am told. There is every possibility that it was reduced to dust and the desert that swallowed it up was actually the remnants of the tower as it disintegrated. There is no way to know, that even took place millennia ago.”

“What dangers?” Robert asked after a moment of thought.

“We could get caught in a sandstorm,” David shrugged. “The structure could cave in under the weight of the sand and trap us underground.”

“What sort of opposition do we face?”

“None,” David took a sip from his glass, “in theory. Anyone who might have survived the collapse of the tower and the burial in sand that followed will have died long ago trapped beneath the desert. They might have survived for a bit but air, water, and food would have run out long ago. Continued survival would only happen if they dug themselves out and moved away.”

“And the dead?” Robert refilled their cups.

“Hard to say,” David admitted. “They could be little more than dust and bones at this point. They could be better preserved, more fleshy, as well. Seems unlikely, I would assume they would have made quite a few feasts for the local insects and vermin.”

“So there won’t be a danger from them?” Robert asked.

“The towers are infused with magic,” David mused. “Old magic. Far older than we realize, far stronger than anyone is capable of harnessing today. Even in the days when the tower fell there was no sorcerer capable of harnessing the power needed to create such a structure. Even the Lady needed to sacrifice the lives of Ravensbrook’s entire population as well as some of that tower’s power. She had to sacrifice the lives of the people and the land to shatter the desert towers. Even that wasn’t enough: the Ravensbrook tower was corrupted and She was imprisoned in the tower for eternity.”

“The enchantment that is entwined in the towers has to have gone somewhere,” David continued after a deep breath. “The nature of magic is destruction and chaos. It takes more skill, more practice, more patience to use the energy to build than it does to cause ruin. The energy that was stored in the tower might have just dissipated into the air. It might have animated the dead or created some other form of life. Or any number of other events, limitless possibilities thanks to chaos.”

“I know there was a lot of death in this area,” he continued. “I can taste it. A tragic loss of many lives in a short span of time. Bodies buried in the ground but without the rituals required to put the essence of life to rest. To bring peace to the dead. But what I don’t sense is any intelligence or deliberation in the mix. If there are any undead waiting for us they’ll be little more than animated corpses: mindless and hungry. Nothing dangerous.”

“Good,” Robert responded. “An easy delve would be a pleasant change.”

“Who said it would be easy?” David laughed. “I never said easy. We have no way to know what shape the underground passages and chambers are in. We don’t know what the air is like. We have no way to know how much sand has seeped into the tunnels or how far down it goes. There might not be any of the more dangerous undead but there is no way to know what else might have moved in. We have no way to know what awaits us in the ground.”

“You couldn’t just let me have this?” Robert complained.

“Not a single time,” responded David.

“Goodnight, brother,” Robert stood up and ducked out of the tent.

The Next Stage

He could feel the eyes of the carrion birds on him as they watched his movement across the sea of sand. He knew his black robed body stood out like a torch in the dark against the golden brown of the sand. The birds were no risk to him, if he died there was no need to hide his body they would find it without too much difficulty.

“They’re really eager to feast on you,” a man joked as he caught up with the robed man at the top of a dune. The speaker shielded his eyes as he looked up to watch the circling birds.

“Vultures aren’t the best taste, but it’ll make a nice change for a meal,” another man had joined them on the dune. “They look well-fed.”

Mercenaries. These men who accompanied him were mercenaries. Along with the two beside him there were an additional seven that trailed slightly behind them. The mercenaries were all dressed alike: light clothing covered their skin shielding them from the sun and coloured to blend into the desert. Each man had a sword strapped to his side and a bow and quiver across their backs. Four of the men pulled sleds of supplied behind them. Every one of them was heavily muscled with hair cropped close to their scalps and a bearded chin.

The man in the robes in contrast wore a heavy robe of black. He was armed with a short, simple staff that was strapped to his hip. His skin was pale, his hair as short as that of the mercenaries, a beard ringed his face, and his body, though hidden, was the equal of any other man with him.

“A meal that wasn’t dried and salted would be a welcome change,” the robed man answered.

“Will,” the first mercenary to speak began, “can turn anything into a meal fit for a king. We’ll set up camp here and wait out the heat of the day in the shade of the tents.”

“Good,” the second mercenary offered, “I can’t wait to get out of this sun. How can you stand to be draped all in black? We have been wandering for days, is it much farther? Are we lost in this godless desert?”

He hadn’t though about that aspect of his clothing in years. Although he cared more for his living body than most of his brethren he still shared some similarities to them. Like all of his brethren, exposure to the necromantic arts had removed his ability to fell hot or cold or any temperature in between. No more did he shiver, no more did he sweat. It was a blessing in that he could wear his robes in any weather without discomfort. The downside to lacking a sense of hot or cold was that some of his brethren died from exposure to extreme temperatures.

“We’re not lost,” the man in the black robes replied. “We’re close now.”

“Are you sure, brother?” the first mercenary to speak asked. “I thought this tower was on the edge of the desert. An oasis wasn’t it? All I see is sand.”

“That was true in ages past,” the black robed man answered. “Where you’re standing, Robert, was at one time as green as any forest. There was farmland, livestock, and a booming population at the centre of which was Thymon’s Oasis and its tower. That was centuries ago, before the Lady buried the tower under the sands. The desert expanded over the ages since the destruction of the tower. It consumed the green and hid the ruins beneath the sands and beyond any maps or the memories of local guides. The mists of time and myth hid the tower’s location from the world.”

“How do you know we’re close?” the man called Robert asked.

“I can feel it,” the robed man smiled. “The dead call to me. The cries get stronger and stronger with each step.”

This was only partially true. The dead were all around him, everywhere and always. Death occurred on every inch of the world and there were always some who were unwilling to quiet and move on. These voices cried out to the necromancers, it allowed the members of his brethren to find new corpses to experiment on or to animate as servants. Robbing graveyards for corpses tended to draw attention to a necromancer’s existence, honing his ability to hear the dead’s calls had an infinite benefit to his practice of necromancy. But it was a passive skill and not useful for long range tracking of a specific corpse or location. All he could really discern was that there was a lot of death that occurred nearby.

It was the voice that had sent him here. The voice that had told him to seek out the former oasis and its buried tower. It had told him where to go and what to look for. The instructions may not have allowed him to pinpoint his destination on a map, but it did put him close enough for him to find his way.

“A mysterious voice told me where to find it” wasn’t really an explanation that would be easily accepted, or understood. He followed the voice’s instructions without question but he wasn’t sure he understood what was going on himself.

“Good,” Robert said. “I’d rather not disappear among the sands. The sooner we can find this tower, the sooner we can return to civilization.”

“I’ll be happy to be free of these overly hot days and frozen nights,” the second mercenary chimed in. “Fresh water, a soft bed, no sand in my clothes, a woman on my arm. I could go on for days on what I am missing out on while being in this desert.”

“You won’t be returning to your comforts any time soon,” the robed man responded. “But the hardest part will be done soon. You’ll return a rich man, once it is all done.”

“I like the sound of that,” the second mercenary clapped a hand on a robed shoulder. “For now, I’ll settle for some shade. The tents are up.”

“Come,” Robert addressed his brother, “let us get out of this sun. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll sleep. When it cools down we’ll find the tower and begin the next stage.”

 

 

THE END OF PART ONE…

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