Conscience

David tapped the top of the table with a finger. The beat was chaotic, a mix of fast and slow taps of the finger with no rhyme or reason connecting them. The tapping was hushed, the action was more about the vibration each tap caused than the noise it made. It was an act of anxiety and nerves, it was an act of distraction.

His eyes were focused on the exit to the staircase. Robert had followed the mercenaries further into the depths to see what they had found. David stayed behind in the archives to continue his search.

That was the plan but his distraction had brought his work to a halt.

Whatever the mercenaries had found had barely passed through his mind. He dismissed the mystery as the discovery of some form of wealth. The mercenaries had been searching for the tower’s treasure vault from the moment they had entered the underground floors. David had little interest in material wealth and he knew his companions well enough to know he would receive a share of whatever they might have found.

No. The distraction came from his conversation with Robert.

Robert, as far as David understood it, was driven by the desire to destroy the wraith. A desire that sprung out of a need to protect others from the monster, to keep others from experiencing that horror from their childhood, and to extract vengeance for the attempt to end their lives. Robert seemed unable to move beyond that night so long as the wraith existed. Its destruction was what Robert lived for.

They were both in agreement about the experience itself. The event had been the most terrifying instance in their lives. The exposure to the wraith for the first time followed by the frantic run through the claustrophobic tunnels would stay with them until the end of their days. Neither one would ever be able to forget, or forgive, the betrayal of their friends, family, and neighbours.

Where the brothers differed was their reaction to it.

Robert had been determined to rid the world of the wraith almost from the moment he had awoken on the grass in front of the cave entrance. The discovery of the community’s worship of the beast and the people’s willingness to feed it to their children had only strengthened his resolve to destroy it. It pushed him to improve his martial prowess while it stayed just out of his thoughts and directed his life with quiet, obsessive hate.

David didn’t understand the hate, but he was familiar with the obsession.

Curiosity was David’s obsession. When the immediacy of the fear had passed, David had found himself able to examine the wraith for a short period of time. It had given him a glimpse of the creature that lie underneath the overwhelming rage. More importantly, it had shown him the runes used to trap it within the cave; it had shown him that it could be controlled if even in just a rudimentary way. If you could control it, it only stood to reason that you could destroy it.

If you could destroy it, you should be able to walk that process backward to be able to create it. Creating a wraith held more of an interest for David than destroying one did. Knowing how to bring one into existence might also bring an understanding on how to dominate one, how to break it and hand it to your will.

This difference in approach to that traumatic event was only a passing concern. In the end it didn’t matter if the wraith was destroyed or enslaved as the result would be the same: no more children sacrificed to its hunger. There was little doubt in David’s mind that Robert would feel the same.

It was the Sister that truly showed where their views differed.

To Robert, She was just another member of the undead. Stronger, smarter, and far more dangerous than a common zombie but still just a walking corpse. The idea of subjugating oneself to a creature that was more rot than life went against every thing he believed in. Any thing, or any one, that resisted the natural stage of death was evil as far as Robert was concerned. There could be no exceptions. Serving an undead master, willingly or not, made one the same as the evil creature itself.

Keeping David from that enslavement was more important to Robert than almost anything else.

The problem was that David had already devoted himself to the Sister. It had been done in a secret ceremony many years ago, early in his studies. The ceremony itself was an honour to undergo: it was open solely to those chosen by the Sister. Without the selection, no necromancer, no matter how talented, would be allowed into Her elite circle. In exchange for an oath of eternal servitude the Sister would bestow a blessing on Her chosen acolyte.

For David the blessing was a direct connection to the Sister Herself. A partial direct connection; it only went one way from Her to him. He would hear Her voice in his head with a demand to go here or there and meet that person or search that library. The conversations seemed one-sided and David saw no indication that She could hear him. At best his words were ignored, beneath Her notice as he was but an errand boy.

David saw Her in the same manner as he saw his teachers: as a means to an end. His only loyalty was to the knowledge he had and he desired. If a mentor could no longer add to his wisdom he left them. He planned to treat the Sister no different and as soon as he had learned all She could teach him he would sever his ties with Her.

The bonds of brotherhood kept him connected to Robert but he felt no such attachment to anyone else in his life. He wasn’t sure he could choose Robert over his desire for knowledge if the choice was ever to come down to that.

David looked at his fingers as they drummed against the tabletop. The pace of the tapping had increased significantly since it had started. Fitting considering his breathing had become ragged and his heart beat fast enough to match his fingers’ rhythm. His hand had a dull ache and his vision was slightly blurred. This was always his response to not having a definite answer to the question: Robert or knowledge?

He wouldn’t be alive today if not for Robert. The choice should have been easy.

David closed his eyes and focused on steadying his breathing. He ignored the beating of his heart, the sound of blood thumping in his ears, the beat of his fingers on the wood; all of these were secondary to the work his lungs were doing. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. Three simple steps, repeated until control was achieved. Focus on one and the rest would follow.

His breathing slowed. His heart calmed. His fingers relaxed. He opened his eyes and let go a soft sigh. The future would bring what it would, there was no sense worrying over it.

He opened the next book that awaited him.

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Endless Research

“I may have underestimated the magnitude of this endeavour,” David grudgingly admitted. It had seemed like a simple task when he started: find the tower’s buried archives and retrieve any texts it held on necromancy. In and out of the depths of the ruin before anyone missed them, their arms loaded with ancient knowledge. It had never occurred to him that he might have to examine each and every piece of writing held within the multi-floored archives.

Thousands upon thousands of scrolls and tomes filled the half-dozen floors that made up the archives. If the tower had been intact there would have been an equal number of floors devoted to the library with a near matching number of more recently written articles. Invoices, histories, commentaries, and various records of the tedium of life in and around the tower made up the bulk of the documents. It showed that the tower had had a bizarre need to keep records long before the Goddess and her daughters took power in the land.

“It’ll take me a lifetime to get through all these documents,” David declared. He rubbed his tired eyes with his fists as he fought the desire to drop his forehead onto the table. To make matters worse he didn’t know what he was looking for or if it was even here. There was another tower that had been ruined by the Sister and swallowed by the desert.

All he knew was that it wasn’t to be found in a list of incoming or outgoing inventory.

“I could have the men quit their activities and devote their time to sorting through their papers,” Robert offered. He tossed a scroll onto a growing pile of rejects and grabbed another off the table in front of him. “They won’t like it, though.”

The mercenaries had been filling their time searching the lower levels for anything of value. They sorted through the numerous pieces of armour and weapons for any that were still in usable shape. They rummaged through the living quarters for the remnants of treasures collected by the former occupants. The collected treasures were brought up to rest in the baths.

They had not discovered any treasury yet, but it was only a matter of time. There was a limited number of floors left to be searched. It seemed unlikely that anyone had made it out of the tower after the destruction let alone managed to remove the kingdom’s wealth.

“No,” David sighed, “we tried that already. I spent more time answering questions than reading documents. It was essentially like going through all the documents myself. It’ll be faster with just the two of us.”

“Should they find a vault full of riches it’ll make our efforts worthwhile,” Robert agreed.

They went back to their work: Robert to his table of scrolls and papers, David to a table of books and tomes. The brother’s took different approaches to their review of the written documents: Robert barely glanced at the documents before him prior to tossing them into a pile of potentials or the much larger reject pile while David paused with each item to give it a much more detailed viewing before making the same judgment.

“How many libraries,” Robert suddenly asked, “how many books have you gone through since we left that place? Roughly.”

David closed the book he had been looking through. “That place,” was a reference to where they grew up, to where the wraith resided. It was his brother’s preferred reference to their childhood home. David could not recall a time since they had left that Robert had referred to it as “home.” Now that he thought about it, it had been a while since he had thought of it as home himself. A long time.

David thought of the libraries he had almost lived in as he learned his craft. They were much more like a home than the bug-ridden cots supplied by his masters and far more a home than the secluded community that had been willing to serve him up as tribute to the local monster. Life as an apprentice to a master necromancer was a thankless position; the average necromancer was more concerned with the dead they surrounded themselves with than their living apprentices. It was a life of servitude and study that still felt more like a home than from where he had come.

“A couple dozen collections at least,” David responded after some thought. “At least ten times as many writings.”

“How many mentions of wraiths?” Robert asked.

“A handful of references. Rumours, innuendo, cautionary tales,” David replied. “Typical campfire fables.”

“So nothing in-depth?” Robert continued.

“No,” David answered. “Sometimes they include a description, the detail varies with each record but it generally matches what we saw. More often than not it’s just the name used as a placeholder for an unknown monster.”

“Any mention of where they come from? How they came to be?”

David shook his head. “No. The wraith is always just there waiting in the shadows. No mention of where they came from, why they are there, or how they came to be. Their existence is just treated as fact like the ground or the sky. A regular part of life.”

“And any information about how to defeat them?” Robert asked. “How to destroy them, I mean.”

“The stories are always about outsmarting the monster. Trapping it in a manner to the one from our past. It is never destroyed. Trapped like the one we ran into, but never destroyed. The stories are not about destroying evil only overcoming it,” David shrugged. “No necromancer I have ever met knew any more than these fables. The start and end of these wraiths has been lost to the mists of time. The tower archives are our only hope of finding answers.”

“I hope you’re right,” Robert glanced at a scroll before he tossed it into the pile of rejected papers. “I have spent years honing my skill with weapons and strengthening my body. I feel that I have the strength and ability to face it, even defeat it. I just need to know how to destroy it so I am not just swinging my sword at shadows. Time is passing, brother, and with it my strength, my speed, my endurance. That monster must be destroyed before I am too old to do so.”

“If the answer is here, we’ll find it,” David agreed.

“And if it’s not? What then?” Robert asked. “Do we spend more time searching for the other tower lost to the desert? Do we spend more time scouring ancient writings just to come up empty?”

“I want to know that creature’s weaknesses as much as you do, Robert,” David began his answer. “But if there are no answers to be found here we have only one option left to us: the pilgrimage.”

“The ruined tower,” Robert stated.

“Yes,” David nodded. “The Sister is ancient. She might know. She might even be willing to trade her knowledge for my service.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Robert stated.

There was a commotion at the room’s entrance. A handful of their companions rushed into the room.

“We found something.”

Silver and Scars

The cave opening was dark and empty when David woke. Gone was the glowing blue eyes, the aura of cold that pierced to the very core, and the relentless rage. The sun had risen and bathed the boys in a soft and comforting warmth, in the light of the sun the night’s events seemed as distant as a bad dream.

That illusion was shattered once David looked over to where his brother lie.

Robert was still in the place he had fallen, face-down and unmoving. His breathing was slow and steady but he still hadn’t moved in the time David has spent resting. The mark on Robert’s back shone like the purest of silver under the light of the morning sun.

David looked at the clawed handprint that had been fused into his brother’s back. The shirt had burnt away and left a hand-shaped hole that exposed Robert’s skin. Behind the burnt hole in the shirt was the silver claw, twice the size of David’s own hand. Despite the burnt shirt the silver scar radiated a slight aura of cold.

The mark was smooth, unlike a scar the mark was flush with the surrounding skin and smooth as David’s finger ran across it. The claw-shaped mark could have been there from birth, there was no sign that it had been burnt into Robert’s back just hours before.

Even over a decade later, David knew, the wraith’s mark was still on Robert’s back, as shiny and cold as the day it was made. It was never mentioned by Robert, not since that day. They had stumbled back to the village, David supported his weakened brother until they arrived back into town. Their return was treated with surprise and then they were quickly shuffled into a chamber beneath the townhall where the town’s secrets were shared.

Robert was not the first youth to be branded by the wraith’s clawed hand. Throughout the years others had been “touched by the wraith” to various degrees: a scratch here, a poke there. Robert was the only one known to have a complete handprint fused onto his body. The mark was seen as a sign of greatness, as if the individual had been chosen by a god. The marking guaranteed the former child a life of luxury, wealth, and power.

Robert and David left town the next day. They had never even discussed returning. They barely discussed the events of that night despite the effects it had on their lives. David would spend the next decade of his life pursuing the study of necromancy, obsessed by the monster he had encountered that night: the wraith. Robert followed his brother across the land selling his sword to any who wanted his services and amassing his own band of mercenaries along the way.

The brand was hidden from sight after that night and rarely mentioned by the brothers.

David moved his fingers absentmindedly through the water at his side. He watched the ripples trail behind his hand as he moved it slowly back and forth across the surface of the pool. Was it warm or cold? There was no sign of steam so it couldn’t be that hot. There was no ice around so it couldn’t be that cold. It had been so long since he had been capable of noticing differences in temperature by touch. It was only the extremes he could recognize and only through external signs.

David’s obsession drove their travels. Robert’s contracts might take him away from time to time but he always returned and always moved to wherever David’s studies took him. No complaints were ever uttered by Robert.

That was why they journeyed into the desert with only a vague destination and the shaky promise of unknown riches. It was why they were in a forgotten bathhouse beneath the desert sands.

“We’re alone here,” Robert informed David. “Water closets are clear. Nothing in the pools but water. Room temperature water: not hot, not cold. Are you sensing anything?”

“No,” David shook his head, The shake was as much to punctuate his statement as it was to bring his mind back to the present. “We’re alone, no undead I can sense.”

“We’re not alone,” Robert answered. “Where to next?”

“The floor beneath us holds the dining hall and the private eating rooms,” David replied after a moment of thought. “The kitchen is under that followed by the storage chambers and the tower servants’ quarters. After that should be the archives, six levels, I believe.”

“And the treasure?” the question came from one of the mercenaries.

“The vaults and armouries are just underneath the archives,” David answered.

“We still have a way to go,” Robert said. “Let’s get moving. We’ll call it a day once we make it to the servants’ quarters. Keep your eyes open, we don’t want to get trapped underground.”

David watched Robert’s back as he headed toward the stairs down to the next floor. The red plate of metal covered the black leather tunic and provided an additional layer of protection to the warrior’s spine. Beneath it all, in the centre of that back, was a claw print of the purest silver: the brand of a monster; the symbol of change.

Talk of Wraiths V

“What did you do to it?” David exclaimed. Another burst of shrieking rose from the bottom of the shaft.

“I threw some rocks at it,” Robert answered. “Distracted it and tested its resolve. It doesn’t seem very fast but I think it’s just holding back. It has no physical body to slow it down, I think it chooses to move as slow as it does. I think for all the rage it displays it is actually enjoying itself; playing with us, stalking its prey. Which is why we need to move before it traps us on this ledge.”

“There’s a tunnel behind us,” David noted after a quick glance around the ledge.

“I saw it,” Robert nodded. “It’s our only option. There’ll be other tunnels attached, we’ll need to be careful. I don’t think it can fly or climb so there is likely a tunnel it can use to get up here. I doubt it would be laughing as much if we had escaped. At least I think that’s what it’s doing.”

“It sounds like it,” David agreed.

“We just need to move upward. Always upward,” Robert advised. “Remember that. Safety and freedom is above, up the mountain not below it. No matter how confusing it gets we’ll be safe if we keep heading to the top.”

The tunnel was too dark to allow the boys to make out any details, there was just enough light for them to make out rough shapes of uneven ground and roughly hewn walls. They could hear the crunch of small stones underneath their feet as they cautiously followed the tunnel away from the ledge.

With a little good luck it would bring them further from the laughing fiend and to safety.

Every sound seemed to echo in the darkness. Each step they took sounded like an army marching all around them. Their breathing was thunderous to their ears. The creature’s hissing laughter surrounded them like a fog, it would make locating the monster by sound virtually impossible; it would need to be close enough to touch before they could locate it by sound.

Dim light stunted their vision. Echoes in the tunnel hampered their hearing. There was no noticeable smell that accompanied the creature, the strongest source of odours was the blanket of bones in the cave’s entry. That odour was all but gone once they had reached the ledge.

The only thing that hinted at its nearness was the aura of cold that seemed to surround it. That cold that seeped into their bones was the only thing they could use to detect its presence.

“Stay alert,” Robert warned, his voice was a whisper. His voice was kept low to prevent it from echoing within the tunnel.

They inched their way through the darkness. Robert kept his hand on one wall, David’s hand glided along the opposite wall, as they moved away from the ledge. They stayed close to each other for protection: a comforting dark shape in the dim light. There was comfort in the setup: a friendly shadow at their side and a solid wall by their hand.

The comfort was replaced by fear once the wall vanished.

They saw the opening to the connected tunnel before they felt it. A dark hole that sat on the wall ahead of them; dark and foreboding. It could be a way to salvation or a passage to their doom.

“Do we take it?” David whispered to Robert. The tunnel they were in continued passed the new tunnel. It was too dark to tell how far it went or which path might be heading up to the top of the quarry.

“Let me think,” Robert whispered back.

David watched the dark shape of her brother as it knelt at the front of the tunnel. Robert moved in a slow fashion, he was carefully examining the newly found tunnel. Both boys had stopped walking, their breathing the only sound they made, but still the sound of boots crunching on rocks could be heard all around them accompanied by the ever-present sound of hissing.

“Robert,” David whispered, “which way?”

David was anxious. He could hear the creature moving somewhere in the tunnel system. He was uncertain of where it was but what he was certain of was that if they weren’t moving then it could onlt be getting closer. They needed to be moving or they would become its prey.

“I don’t know,” Robert whispered back. “I can’t tell which way heads up. They both look alike.”

David shuffled forward as quiet as he could to join Robert. Even without a close examination of the tunnel floor David could see there was no obvious change in elevation in either fork in the tunnel.

“Let’s take this new way,” Robert decided. “It feels warmer, I think. I don’t know, it just feels right.”

It seemed that Robert’s hunch was correct. The tunnel twisted and turned around itself, it opened at numerous points to other tunnels. They stopped long enough to look for any obvious signs of an upswing in elevation but ultimately they continued down the first fork they had chosen. As they moved forward down the tunnel they could feel a breeze and a clean scent reached their noses. Around them they could still hear the crunch of stones and the hiss of laughter.

“Do you feel that?” Robert asked. “A breeze, fresh air. The exit is near.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when the chill overtook them. It was sudden and unexpected. Almost before the renewed cold had registered with the boys, a shriek broke out behind them. “I have found you!” it seemed to say.

“Run!” Robert pushed David ahead of him.

David ran. His legs propelled him as fast as they could through the tunnel. He kept his eyes ahead of him, he didn’t look back or to the sides. He followed the breeze until the exit opened up suddenly in front of him and he tumbled out onto the grass and under the clear night sky.

David heard a scream of pain from behind him and then Robert fell on the grass beside him. His brother lay face-down, unmoving but still breathing, a hand-shaped brand had been burnt through Robert’s shirt and into the flesh of his back.

He turned back to face the cave he had just escaped from. To David’s surprise the monster had stopped just inside the mouth of the cave. There was no sound coming from it; no shrieks of rage, no hiss of laughter. It just stood within the dark of the cave and fixed its cold blue eyes on the two boys.

“What are you waiting for?” David wondered aloud. “We’re easy prey for you now. Why aren’t you finishing this? You can’t get through this opening can you?”

There were runes and sigils running up, down and around the mouth of the cave. They were subtly woven along the edges of the cave mouth, David only noticed they existed because of a faint reflection of light from the moon and stars; silvery in appearance.

David dropped his head on the ground. He could afford to rest a bit, they were safe.

Talk of Wraiths IV

David’s panic increased as he attempted to get up only to have his feet fly out from underneath him. Another round of clattering was sent up into the air as his face fell into a pile of hard, loose items. He grabbed out blindly desperate to gain a solid purchase and regain his feet. He felt his hand close around a cylindrical object.

“Don’t stop moving.”

Good advice. It was the advise he would have offered to anyone who found themselves in the same position he was currently in. It was advise he was desperate to take, advice that had eluded him since he had entered the cave.

He pushed himself up to rest on his knees. His breath was ragged, his heart pounded loud enough that David was sure it could be heard up at the top of the quarry. He knew he should keep moving but he needed to catch his breath and to allow his eyes to adjust to the cave’s shadows. Running on unstable ground while blind seemed more of a risk than stopping for a short bit did.

David could hear the clang of rocks hitting armour followed by the shrieks of rage and frustration. The noises seemed muffled and distant to his ears. As long as the noises continued he was safe to take a moment to orient himself. It also meant that Robert was still alive.

The cave wasn’t as dark as it seemed from the outside. It was darker than the quarry bottom had been but there was a soft, ambient light that allowed David some vision once his eyes became accustomed to it. That provided a little relief, running through a darkness he couldn’t see through would have made escape essentially impossible. Trapped in the dark waiting on some monster to find him was one of the least appealing ways to die he could think of.

He could make out walls in front of him and to either side, the cave was not large but rather close and tight. There were no passengers, no tunnels, that he could see. The only exit was the same way he had come in: the entrance from the quarry.

But people survived every year. There had to be a way out.

The floor of the cave was buried under a carpet of bones. The bones varied in shape and size and seemed to have come from a mix of animals and people. The detritus of the wraith’s former meals was so thick that it would be impossible to safely move across the room at any speed beyond a walk.

The walls rose up and disappeared into the darkness above him. Tall and imposing, there might be hand and footholds trailing up the wall but the dim light made it hard to see for a certainty. Where else might the way to escape lay? There were no avenues of escape on the ground level so there has to be one somewhere up in the darkness.

The bones rattled behind him and David felt hands grab him under his arms. He was pulled roughly to his feet and propelled forward with a forceful push.

“Move,” Robert barked in David’s ear. “Keep moving. It’s right behind me. Which way do we go?”

David felt himself pushed forward again.

“Up,” David replied. He couldn’t hear the shrieks anymore. He had no idea where the monster was or how much danger they might be in. How close was it? How fast was it? He wanted, needed, to look back.

“Climb,” David felt himself pushed into the cave’s back wall. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Robert pull himself up the wall. Behind him, David could hear the same hissing laughter the beast had used before.

“Climb,” Robert yelled down at David.

David followed his brother up the side of the wall. He could hear the crunch of bones being crushed beneath metal boots. The hissing rose in volume with each step that he heard. The sounds drove both boys upward. They seemed to have gotten lucky as the wall had plenty of crevices for their fingers and toes to find.

Could the creature climb?

“Gimme your hand,” David felt Robert grab his wrist and pull him up. “There’s a ledge here.”

“Thanks,” David rolled onto his back as soon as he made it onto the ledge. He was tired. He was winded. He was sore all over. He needed to soak in a warm bath and at least a week to sleep. Robert seemed less affected by the climb. “How are you not dead-tired?” David asked his brother.

Robert stared back down into the darkness they had just left. They had climbed quite a distance, the wraith’s eyes were little more than blue pinpoints of light in the distance. Its constant hissing echoed off the walls of the shaft and seemed even louder than it had before.

“No time to rest, brother,” Robert replied. “We keep moving, we get out, otherwise you won’t be tired… you’ll be dead. Come on, I have no doubt it has a way up here and I don’t want to wait to see if I’m right. What is that in your hand?”

“What?” David looked down at his hand. He still hung onto a piece of bone, he had somehow managed to climb up to the ledge with it in his hand without realizing it. Did it belong to someone he had known? He examined it as closely as the dim light allowed, shrugged to himself and threw it into the shaft they had just climbed up. A faint clattering could be heard as it landed among the bones that covered the floor of the cave.

A sudden silence engulfed the boys. It was broken by a series of high-pitched shrieks of fury.

Talk of Wraiths III

They stood frozen, caught in the gaze of those pale blue eyes.

It was one of the last times David could remember the feel of the temperature against his skin: It was an event he would never forget. The night air was warm against his skin and yet he felt chilled to the bone. It was almost as if his skeleton had frozen within his body, it was a surprise to him that his breath didn’t crystallize, the cold that emanated from the cave felt that intense.

But it wasn’t only the chill that struck the two boys. In addition to the cold, a wave of what David could only describe as a wave of hatred mixed with rage. David had dealt with angry people, had experienced people driven by hate, but they couldn’t compare to what he felt looking into that cave with its glowing blue eyes. The hate, the rage, smashed into him like a wave against a coast line. David found himself involuntarily forced to take a step back.

“What is that?” David asked. His whispered query sounded loud and hoarse in the silence that had come over the pit. From the dark above him David could hear the adults as they scrambled to get to the safety beyond the gate. The hushed clank of metal brushing against metal could be heard from the cave entrance.

“That thing is our death,” Robert answered, his head turned frantically as his eyes tried to look everywhere at once. “They left us here to die. They fed us to that thing.”

David started to take another step backward. He could hear the sound of the gate slam shut in the distance but his mind still insisted that was the only way out. The townsfolk couldn’t have known this monster had taken up residence in the cave, they would open the gate and let the boys out as soon as they realized the danger. Wouldn’t they?

“Stop,” Robert’s voice commanded as David started to turn. “If you turn your back to it, it will kill you. They brought us here to die, our only chance to survive is beyond that creature. The gate is locked to us, our hope is that there is more to the cave than its den.”

“What if it’s a dead end?” David stammered.

“Then we are no worse off than we are now,” Robert laughed. “But I doubt it’s an issue. Every grownup in the village survived this at some point.”

David swallowed. His eyes blinked. He knew Robert was right but every instinct he had was telling him to run as fast as he could back up the ramp along the side of the quarry and out the gate. The adults were their guardians, they’d keep them safe.

But they left them in the pit, alone with the glowing eyes and the overwhelming pressure of anger and hatred. How could the adults possibly believe anyone, especially a child, could survive an encounter with this thing?

He wanted to run, anywhere, but he couldn’t leave Robert alone with this thing. If his brother wouldn’t flee than neither would he.

“David,” Robert’s whisper interrupted David’s thoughts. “Stay with me. We need to draw it out of the cave mouth. Do you understand? It’s blocking our entry. The cave is too dark and too small to try to dodge around it. We need to draw it out. David!”

David nodded. He knew he didn’t have anywhere near the calm that his brother’s voice seemed to display. It was taking all of his effort to remain in place and not to bolt like a scared rabbit. He tried to focus his attention on his brother’s voice; it was strong, sure, and calming. He kept his eyes on the pale blue globes that seemed to float in the dark of the cave mouth.

“David,” Robert addressed him again. “We need to separate, to divide its attention. You circle to the right, I’ll circle to the left. We need to draw it out and give ourselves an opening to get into the cave. You see the opportunity you run. I’ll be right behind you. You understand, David?”

David nodded. “Yes,” he responded. His voice sounded squeaky, unsure and weak. It was everything his brother’s wasn’t. He swallowed and repeated his answer, this time a little more sure and a little less scared.

“Once in the cave,” Robert continued, “don’t stop running and don’t look back. You run as far into that mountain as you can, as far away from this thing as you can. Find the way out. I’ll do the same and catch up to you. Understand?”

“Yes,” David answered.

“Good,” Robert nodded. “Repeat it back to me.”

“I am to circle to the right,” David answered. “Watch for a chance to get by the creature and into the cave. Run as far from the cave entrance as I can and find the way out.”

“And don’t stop moving,” Robert added, “for anything.”

“Don’t stop moving,” David repeated.

The brothers separated: Robert to the left, David to the right. They moved apart in a sideways fashion, their eyes firmly on the creature just inside the cave. Their safety only allowed the rare flitting glance at the other as they moved further apart. Progress was slow, the distance between them increased at a snail’s pace. Neither boy was willing to expend more energy than necessary, each one prepared to run as soon as they needed.

At first glance the eyes seemed content to just watch them from the darkness of the cave. The cold, hate, and rage washed over the brothers like the water from a bath. The initial change in its demeanour was a slight movement of the eyes as it moved its focus from one boy to the next and back again. Shortly after the eyes began to move forward and the creature broke out of the shadows of the cave.

It had the build of a man, at least the metal armour that shrouded its form seemed to suggest a man’s build. The suit was made of random pieces of varying ages and quality. It covered the creature from head-to-toe except for numerous gaps where the pieces didn’t quite fit together. These gaps revealed nothing but empty air. The only exception was its helm.

It was an open-faced helmet, plain and unadorned. Its head was the only physical part of a body it had left. A grotesque reminder of its former life; its skin like ashen leather, a nose that had fallen off long ago, and pale blue eyes that shone like lanterns.

It moved slowly into the quarry. Each step was slow and purposeful, every movement was accompanied by a hushed clanging of the armour’s mismatched metal pieces as they rubbed against each other. The chiming continued until the creature stopped moving just a few steps out of the cave.

Its head turned to the right side of the quarry to look directly at David. A hissing sound escaped the creature’s decayed lips. It was a sound that seemed very much like laughter.

David froze under the gaze, his mind and body trapped by fear. He was looking at a creature he had never dreamed existed. He was looking at his death. He was more certain of his end when the creature took a rattling step toward him.

There was a loud clang and the creature’s head jerked forward. It let loose a shriek of rage and turned around to face Robert. There was another clang and the creature stumbled. A second howl escaped from its mouth.

“Come and get me, freak!” Robert yelled from across the floor of the quarry. He punctuated his demand by flinging a stone at the creature. The stone bounced off an armoured arm.

The creature ran toward Robert. Its run was loud, its path straight as an arrow. A well-aimed rock thrown by Robert collided with the creature’s leg and knocked it off balance.

Without a thought, David found himself running toward the cave. His eyes were locked on the dark opening before him. He needed to get into the cave before the creature noticed him and gave chase, before it turned its deadly focus on him. He could hear the rocks thump against its armour, he could hear the creature’s screams of frustration. He didn’t dare look at what was going on, he accepted the sounds as a sign of its distraction. His sole concern was to make it into the cave.

His breathing was ragged, his legs sore, when he crossed into the darkness of the cave. He continued to run but only made it a couple steps before he lost his footing and fell face first into a pile of something that sent up a loud clattering from the cave.

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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