The Lady of the Tower had an ironic view of what ‘free’ meant in Shan’s mind. Every time they had stepped out of their chambers they were met with a selection of undead escorts. Everywhere they went they were accompanied by skeletal guides with disembodied voices. Escorts that were suited up in rusted armour emblazoned with the tower’s former lord’s insignia: a crown pierced by three swords. Each of the skeletal guides had an old sword strapped at their hip.

It had occurred throughout the previous afternoon and evening, and probably the night as well had they made any attempt to leave their assigned room. They had spent an uneasy night attempting to sleep under the ‘protection’ of an enemy, in the midst of her martial might. They treated the night the same as all the nights passed in the wilderness and divided it into separate watched among themselves.
They had separated in the morning. Her four companions had headed to the tower’s kitchens, there was a curiosity about how the dead prepared the food and where they got it from. Shan had chosen to explore the tower grounds, the gardens being her main goal. She had sent Abeth with Craig to bring food to Samuel and the bowmen after a quick visit to the kitchens. Esther and Thomas would be inspecting the tower’s food stores once they were finished with the kitchens.

Wandering away from the group was far from a simple act. Captain Abeth was resistant to allowing her to be too far from his sword; keeping her safe was part of his duties and part of his nature. They needed to connect with their soldiers, however, and in Shan’s opinion it was a better use of his time than his being her shadow. Plus, as Shan pointed out, they were severely outnumbered within the tower and it was unlikely to change their chances of survival to be together. Should the Lady decide to send her minions after them their survival chances were non-existent, alone or together. Begrudgingly they had agreed with her assessment.

Shan had spent the morning walking through the remnants of the tower’s gardens, her sole companion the tower’s former prince, once again serving in the role of escort.

Although there were huge differences between the gardens of Norasburg and the one in which she walked now, there were also some similarities. The layout of the gardens was identical between the two towers; canals led to the same ponds, paths wound their way through in the same manner, the area set aside for the vegetation was equal in size. The gardens of Norasburg were lush and green, Ravensbrook’s gardens were as opposite as Shan could have imagined.

Gone were the sounds and smells of life. Instead there was a silence broken only by the movements of her and the dead around her; no birds, no insects, no animals could be heard. There was a fullness of scents in Norasburg, similar to the smell of life found in most wild lands, that was missing in the ruined tower. It was replaced by a faded scent of decay.

The gardens were not devoid of life to Shan’s surprise. There was an abundance of plants that looked like a mix of short, stout tree trunks and long, serpentine vines. The plant had skin the colour of ash with an oily texture. All along the trunk and the vines were short thorns; razor sharp and thirsty for blood (as Shan discovered while she examined the plant).

“What is this?” Shan asked her escort. She licked the blood off her finger and watched the vine slowly writhe below her.

“I don’t know,” the undead escort known as Stefan replied. “They appeared from nowhere, months after the Lady’s casting.”

“What was it like before her spell?” Shan asked.

He was silent for a few moments before he answered. “It was a paradise filled with life. There were even species that would not grow anywhere but the gardens. This was particularly true in the desert towers. The gardens in those towers were an oasis among the landscape. They seemed to always bear fruit.”

“The gardens at Norasburg do the same,” Shan agreed. “Is there fruit on this plant?”

“I don’t know,” he paused a moment before he added, “I no longer have a need to eat.”

“How do you survive?” Shan asked. “I thought your kind ate the flesh of the living.”

“The undead don’t need to eat,” Stefan said. “Those that experience hunger do so because of a corruption in the magic that animated them, the same magic that keeps us from completely decaying. The simpler kinds of undead are more likely to succumb to the corruption’s hunger. Particularly if there is no outside will to guide them.”

“You experience this hunger?” Shan questioned.

“Yes,” he acknowledged, “but it pales in strength to the hatred that fuels me, that comfort me and brings me focus.”

“Hatred?” Shan prodded.

Stefan turned his gaze toward the rows of the dead that still stood at attention before the tower’s doors. The former prince gave no indication that a response was forthcoming.

Shan followed his gaze. There was no obvious answer among the statues of decayed flesh and bones. There were centuries of hidden history within the walls of this tower and its former prince seemed the natural choice to shed light on it.

“Some of the dead wear the same crest as you,” Shan observed.

“They are my soldiers,” there was a tinge of pride in his voice. “They resisted Her, even after She executed me, and prevented Her from taking my brothers’ towers as easily as She did mine. They were rewarded with the theft of their eternal sleep, forced to be Her slaves. But they are mine.”

“A loyal soldier is a treasure to possess,” Shan added.

“Their bravery was beyond my expectations,” he continued. “They earned their rest. But She wouldn’t allow it.” He trailed off into silence.

“I would like to visit the baths, if that’s allowed,” Shan spoke up after a few moments of silence.

“That should be fine,” he replied as the two of them headed back to the tower.

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The necromancers and their zombie escort stumbled onward until dusk. They had left the ruins of Ravensbrook and arrived at a large depression in the ground. The zombies spread out in a rough circle around the depression while the robed men proceeded to a vaguely altar-like structure that rested at the bottom of the shallow crater.

They hadn’t wavered in their journey’s direction, it had been an almost direct march from where Samuel had first spotted them. It followed the reverse direction that Samuel and company had taken to arrive at the ruined tower. It had seemed, as Samuel trailed the group, that they were headed for the forest and the tower at Norasburg. It was almost a surprise when they stopped at the shallow crater.

Samuel kept his distance from the group. He wasn’t worried about the robed men, they seemed oblivious to what was going on around them, it was the zombies that worried him. The living dead, at least this version of them, were almost blind; they could see well enough when something was within arm’s reach of them but there was no apparent visual focus beyond that range. Their hearing was much better as was their sense of smell. The two together allowed a zombie to pinpoint life at a distance. Zombies were sluggish, as individuals they weren’t dangerous but they were relentless and in large groups could overwhelm even the most skilled warrior.

Samuel would never have considered himself a highly skilled warrior. He had a good understanding of how to use a sword but his skill-set was in the use of the crossbow. He was better suited to watching and tracking than he was to confrontation and fighting. Stealth over brawn. It was why he kept his distance now.

Zombies were not the deepest thinkers among the many species of undead. They could follow simple instructions given by their controllers but were incapable of more sophisticated thought. ‘Is it live? Yes, then eat it,’ was as complex a line of thought as they were capable. They made good alarm systems but were easy to get around in small numbers and open spaces. Wild zombies tended to gravitate towards other zombies, they followed their hunger from meal to meal.

He kept himself at what he considered a safe distance. He calculated that he would be able to take down two, maybe three, of the zombies before he was in any sort of danger. He was reasonably sure he could take the remaining couple zombies by hand if it came down to it. The necromancers would be another story.

Best case scenario: the necromancers flee. They didn’t appear to be well-armed, perhaps they had a knife or dagger hidden in their robes. Their focus and skills were devoted to their task at hand and were not prepared for a fight. In this case a few well-placed bolts would make short work of them.

Worst case scenario: the necromancers fight. Their robes could easily hide a wand. In the right hands a wand could be a dangerous tool. Wands were used to focus arcane power, depending on the user’s innate talent and learned knowledge it could be a devastating weapon. If these necromancers were prepared for a fight it would be short-lived. Samuel would be lucky to kill one of them before his life was ended.

Just one more reason to avoid a confrontation.

The most important reason was his companions in the tower. There was no way to know how the mass of undead in the tower would react to any violence to this group. His friends were outnumbered and currently in the middle of the population of undead. A confrontation could potentially lead them into danger.

Samuel’s curiosity also drove his cautious approach. He wanted to know what they were planning. His instincts told him it was important. The move in the direction of the forest, of Norasburg, told him it was important.

He kept far enough away to stay out of the zombie sentries’ notice. This distance combined with the fading light had the unfortunate side-effect of hiding the details of the necromancers’ work. He could see one of the robed figures sketching a trio of ornate circles into the dirt. Another one was placing items onto the rough altar; Samuel could make out what looked like a heavy tome and a small, deep bowl. The other items were too small to make out. The final man was on his knees, head bowed with his hands folded onto his lap.

Samuel lay on his stomach as he watched the necromancers work. His crossbow lay to his right, ready to fire should he need it. He watched the circles get completed and the bowl get filled with various crushed reagents. He watched the man clap the dust off his hands and light the mixture into a pungent smoke. The two upright figures silently took their place in two of the circles and stood facing their kneeling companion.

The third man stood up and moved into the final empty circle. Words were exchanged between the trio, Samuel was too far away to hear clearly. They raised their arms up to their sides, hands open with palms exposed upwards. More rhythmic mumbling could be heard. Slowly they turned their hands palm downwards and silence descended onto the three.

The trio slowly raised their arms higher, a low chanting accompanied the action. Dark, ropy tendrils rose out of the ground around them, not quite solid they seemed to be made from the ash of the wasteland. The tendrils of ash danced around the necromancers in their hollow, everywhere the tendrils touched a grey mist would rise up.

The mist grew around the legs of the undead sentries, it covered the ground everywhere but within the circles that had been drawn into the ground. The mist grew until its top reached hip level, a low moan arose in the dark fog. The moaning increased in volume and voices, from a lone call to a chorus. A head broke out of the mist, standing up on a body that matched those of the zombies in both age and decay. It was followed by another and another.

Samuel counted three dozen before the night became too dark to see.

The buildings that comprised the town that was once Ravensbrook had fallen into ruin. To Samuel’s eyes it looked as if the buildings hadn’t been used in centuries. Walls of stone were all that were left of the building materials used in the former homes and businesses that made up the town. The wood and other materials had turned to dust after centuries of neglect and weather. Iron and steel, what little could be found, had rusted to the point of uselessness.

“Where are all the valuables?” the bowman who accompanied Samuel asked. The other two archers were off searching the ruined town on the other side of the tower. “I can see the remnants of weapons and armour but where are the precious stones and metals.”

“It’s an oddity,” Samuel agreed. “The legend I grew up with was that all life within the region, plant or animal or man, was drained at the same time. Anything that didn’t decay should have been found where it lay. My guess is that it was looted.” Samuel indicated the tower beyond the township.

“What would the undead need with treasure?” the archer wondered.

Samuel shrugged, “Your average zombie wouldn’t care. But the necromancers and the more intelligent of them might use them in their arcane arts, same may just be following their more selfish natures.”

“They might just be hoarding it?”

“Why not?” Samuel responded. “People do it all the time. Necromancers are just people. The undead were at one time people. I could see them holding onto their old, familiar habits.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Quiet,” Samuel whispered as he grabbed his associate’s arm. They knelt down behind the remains of the building’s wall. They could hear footsteps in the distance, up to this point they had been alone in the ruined town. The tower grounds had been packed with the undead but there seemed to be none outside the walls.

They pulled their cloaks tighter around their bodies, they kept any bright colours and reflective metals covered beneath the grey fabric. They watched the ruined landscape for signs of movement. Their eyes moved across the broken streets, their bodies as still as the stone wall they knelt behind.

“There,” the archer pointed to a mass of slowly moving figures that were a couple streets away. The figures were moving away from the two huddled scouts.

“I count eight,” Samuel whispered in agreement. He carefully pulled his crossbow from his back and prepared to bolt. “Let’s see what they’re up to.”

Samuel moved after the figures, the archer followed closely behind him. They matched the pace of the larger group and made sure to keep as many obstacles between them and their prey. Caution needed to be taken at least while daylight remained, Samuel felt that knowing their plans was too important to take chances of being noticed or sparking a confrontation.

Five of the figures were zombies. They had a slow, unsteady gait that set the pace of the entire group. Old, tattered clothing hung off the bodies of the five stumbling corpses. The rags they wore were coloured grey to match the wasteland.

The other three were different. They stood taller, their balance was stable, their pace more steady. They were draped head-to-foot in black robes that were tied around the waist by red sashes. The difference in clothing was obvious, the robes were clean and whole compared to the tattered rags worn by their zombie companions. The robed figures clustered together and whispered together in hushed tones.

“The robed ones are alive, I bet,” the archer whispered in Samuel’s ear. “Some sort of monk?”

“Definitely alive,” Samuel replied in the same hushed tones. “There’s no stiffness in their movements. They’re not monks, I would guess, most likely necromancers.”

“They need guards in these lands?”

“I wouldn’t think so,” Samuel answered, “we saw no evidence of danger coming in. My guess would be they’re a precaution for whatever ritual they are planning to perform. The rituals require all their focus, the zombies will provide some basic protection. I doubt they’re going that far or there would be more undead with them. They feel confident of their safety, it’s unlikely they’re leaving the wasteland.”

“They’re leaving the town,” the archer remarked after a few more moments of quiet stalking of the group.

“We need to fins out what they’re up to,” Samuel decided. “But we can’t leave the others without backup should they need it. Go back, join the other two scouts. Make sure you can provide any support our friends in the tower might need. I’ll rejoin you when I’m done.”

“What are you planning?”

“Don’t know,” Samuel admitted. “I’m going to follow them to their destination and see what their plans are. I’ll have to play it by ear after that. I’m not expecting a confrontation, there’s only one of me, but if the opportunity allows I’ll take it.”

“Okay,” the archer replied. “Stay safe.”

“You too. I’ll rejoin you as soon as I can.” Samuel patted the other man’s arm and slipped off in the direction of the necromancers. Behind him the archer moved back toward the tower.

“You are free to move about the tower and grounds as you will,” the former prince informed them as they climbed up the stairs. “The libraries, the archives, and the Lady’s chamber are off limits but the rest of the tower is open to you. I will have food and drink brought to your rooms at regular intervals.”

“Thank-you, Prince Stefan,” Shan offered as they arrived at their assigned quarters.

“No. Not prince,” Stefan shook his head. “The tower belongs to the Lady. I serve at the Lady’s pleasure. I will return with your meals.” Their former escort-turned-host bowed his head slightly and backed out of the room.

“What did you make of that, Illuminace?” Abeth gently closed the door and leaned his back against it. “Do you think she has talked with Light Koarl? What of the Falsons? Could they have taken the tower? Would they?”

“That abomination is lying. She can’t be trusted,” Esther spat out in disgust.

“I’d agree where the necromancers are concerned,” Craig agreed. He crossed the room to stare out the balcony. “Convenient that they were killed and destroyed. We can’t even raise them to ask questions. She can sense the ritual that created the ghouls but did nothing to stop their leaving her lands. Either she isn’t as powerful as she seems or she wanted them to attack your people.”

“I would guess she wanted it to happen, it served her ends,” the druid offered. “We have seen far too many incursions into our lands by the undead. Seeing a mind behind it makes sense. I believe she is connected to all the dead in her realm. Their actions are guided by her will. Of this I have no doubt.”

“So why,” Craig mused, “after years of amusing herself by raiding Shatterook did she decide to launch an attack on another tower?”

“It must be connected to these events at Norasburg,” Esther turned to Shan, “Why would this creature talk with this Light Koarl?”

Shan felt lost. She had no answers only confusion. Light Koarl was young, she had not been in her position for that long. The Koarl family didn’t even have a history within the faithful. Welsley was the first in her family to serve the Goddess in the position of a Guiding Light. There wasn’t even a connection between the family and Norasburg, the Koarl clan had called Marton home for generations. They were a sea-faring family used to large population centres rather than the small, provincial region that was Norasburg.

“The Falsons are an ancient family,” Abeth answered. “They controlled the tower at Falson’s Peak before the arrival of the Goddess, or at least that’s what the stories tell us. It was the Falson’s who provided the bulk of the military forces that helped secure the towers for the faithful.”

“There has always been a Falson on the Council of Lights since,” Shan added. “A reward for their loyalty.”

“And Light Koarl?” Esther asked.

“She’s a newcomer,” Shan answered. “The first of her family to be raised to the council.”

“What’s her family’s connection to the Falson family?” Esther questioned.

“Nothing,” Shan considered what information she had. “The Koarl’s are a family of merchants. They possess no political or spiritual power. They make money through trade and seem quite happy to do so. I would guess Light Koarl’s joining the faithful would have been a surprise but it wouldn’t impact their business. Her being raised to the council would have only been a positive.”

“Within the barracks, among the soldiery, their is no mention of the Koarl family at all,” Abeth added. “Falson soldiers are mentioned in many war stories, the Koarl’s are absent.”

“Light Koarl would have only met Light Falson when she was welcomed to the council,” Shan finished.

“Any animosity between the two?” Craig asked.

“Not that I am aware of,” Shan answered. “I don’t think they have met more than one time. She’s never mentioned any issue or concern, she’s never mentioned any other member of the council that I can recall.”

“And the soldiers?”

“Within the ranks?” Abeth considered. “There are squads of Falson family soldiers assigned to every garrison. You cannot find an outpost without at least one member of the family present. Distant relatives, maybe, but no less loyal to the family above all else.”

“How is that possible?” Shan asked. “A soldier’s oath is to the Goddess.”

“The Goddess has always chosen a Falson to interpret her will,” Abeth shrugged. “The distinction between the Goddess and the Falsons is blurred for your average soldier. We live to serve and die for our nation and the Goddess, we don’t question if our orders come from Her chosen or from Her mouth directly. We don’t have the luxury.”

“Why would she mention this?” Craig wondered. “This random element. A lie that serves no purpose.”

“Except to distract and confuse,” Esther offered. “To move our thoughts away from the necromancers and their ghouls. To stop us from considering her role in all this. Maybe to convince us to run back to Norasburg and target our mission here.”

“Or,” Craig added, “it’s the truth and we’re just too far removed to see the connection.”

“So what do we do?” Shan asked.

“That,” Esther replied, “is up to you.”

“We’re here,” Shan replied. “We can’t worry about what may or may not be happening at Norasburg. We need to deal with the undead threat.”

Long, brittle hair hung from the Lady’s head, the strands were kinked and broken with a washed out grey colour. Some care had been taken to try and force the hair into a semblance of order but the underlying damage was too great and follicles stuck out at random across the surface. The skin on her face and arms was pulled tight across her bones, no sign of muscle or fat could be seen. The skin was a mix of ash and white in colour and had a waxen sheen to it. The bulk of her person was engulfed in a dark purple robe, a golden belt hung about her waist, her wrists were adorned with bracelets of similar make. Rings of various makes were on her claw-like fingers.

Shan tried to take in as many details about her host as she could. The piercing stare of the Lady’s darkly red glowing eyes was hard to look away from. This distraction made it difficult to be certain but Shan didn’t believe she had seen her host take a single breath.

“Welcome to Ravensbrook,” the Lady offered.

The voice was almost musical to Shan’s ears, pleasant and gentle. The voice seemed to float about her although her host’s lips moved in unison with the words, the origin was uncertain. The disembodied aspect of the voice destroyed any comfort given by its pleasing tones.

“Thank-you, Your Eminence,” Shan nodded her head in respect.

“You must be Shan,” the Lady decided. “I have been expecting you.”

Shan felt her body tense at that. She could feel her companions react in a similar manner. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Abeth move forward, his hand dropped to his sword. Shan reached her hand out to halt his movement.

The Lady hadn’t moved throughout the brief display. Her eyes were locked onto Shan, her body didn’t move but her glowing eyes followed every motion in front of her. Her servant, the escort, remained on his knees with his head bowed almost oblivious to the going-ons around him.

“How do you know me?” Shan asked.

The Lady leaned back on her throne, her back moved to rest against the chair’s spindle while her claw-like hands drifted to the arm rests. She crossed her right leg over her left, it didn’t happen but one could easily imagine her drawing in a deep breath.

The throne was carved from a block of stone, dark grey and cold. It was all right-angles and flat surfaces, in a word: plain. No cushions or pillows were in evidence for comfort. There were no adornments, there were no details that broke its smooth surfaces. It was a seat built for function rather than comfort, a twin to the one that sat in the tower at Norasburg.

“Your Guiding Light, Koarl, informed me of your journey,” the Lady answered. “Your numbers are smaller than I expected, but I recognize you by your manners and Captain Abeth by his protectiveness. I don’t recognize the others, I assume they are the group from my neighbours.”

“Light Koarl?” Shan asked. She had been surprised by the answer but tried to maintain a calm demeanour.

“Yes,” the Lady replied. “A wonderful, fascinating woman. She advised me of your journey. She wanted to avoid any potential conflict between us. She filled me in on your mission and I am eager to lend a hand.”

“How did you speak with her?” Shan asked.

“All of the towers are connected,” the Lady explained. “Every tower has a chamber for communicating with the other towers. These chambers seem to have mostly been forgotten over the centuries. Light Koarl stumbled across the chamber in her tower a few days ago and we had an interesting meeting, which we continued over the next couple days.”

“Things have changed since you left,” the Lady declared.

“What has happened?” Shan felt alarmed, she didn’t feel like she had been gone long enough for there to be any changes of note.

“It seems your excursion has attracted some unexpected, and unwanted, attention,” the Lady answered. “The Falson matriarch arrived with a legion of her troops. She forced her way into control of the tower and Light Koarl was made a prisoner in the tower. She is free only in her chambers, she may not leave the tower and has an escort at all times she is not in her chamber.”

“Why would the Falson’s do this?” Shan wondered.

“The Falsons are a family of betrayers,” the Lady answered. “They can’t help themselves, it is in their blood. Like any serpent they strike fast and deadly, a most poisonous family. They will use any weapon at their disposal; arms, politics, money, whatever manipulation might be available. They have controlled the tower at Falson’s Peak since long before even my existence. By imprisoning Light Koarl the Falsons have effectively gained control of another tower, another community, and more wealth. Your journey allowed them an excuse to move their troops into another territory. It was a situation they had been waiting on.”

“This makes no sense,” Shan mulled over the news, “the Lights are chosen by the Goddess. Why would She allow this to occur?”

“I don’t know, but She did.”

“What of the necromancers?” Craig interrupted. “Where can we find them? How are they connected to your tale?”

The Lady’s eyes shifted focus to Craig.

“No one,” she replied, “animates the dead in my lands without my notice. All that lay dead in my realm are mine. I tolerate no theft of my property. The necromancers are no more, their bodies destroyed, their trespass avenged. They will no longer be a threat to anyone.”

“So we can’t question them?” Craig demanded.

“Prince Stefan,” the escort’s head looked up, “show our guests to their quarters. Bring them some food.”

“Yes, My Lady,” the undead prince rose to his feet. “Follow me.”

The group left the Lady alone in the tower’s audience hall as they headed further up into the tower.

“It’s like we’ve arrived back at Norasburg,” Shan whispered in awe.

They stood at the gate to the tower grounds and took a few moments to appreciate the scene before them. In place of the flowing water and well-tended gardens of the tower at Norasburg the grounds within the walls were empty and barren. Absent were the sounds of life; the birds, the insects, the babbling brooks. In its place was an eerie silence made more noticeable by the ranks of corpses that stood at attention along the road from the gate to the tower doors.

The display of military might was meant to send two messages; a welcome to honored guests, and a taste of the power the Lady possessed. Looking at all the bodies in varying states of decay and armament cemented the second point firmly in Shan’s mind. This Lady was dangerous.

“Norasburg is home to the dead?” Samuel asked. “Sounds like a pleasant place.”

“You have to imagine it with a little more green,” Abeth responded. To Shan he offered, “All of the towers are laid out basically the same, from the grounds to the innards. The tower builders preferred uniformity to creativity.”

“That’s something in our favor, at least, if we need to make a quick getaway we at least know the layout,” Shan shrugged.

“Yah,” Abeth scanned the barren ground in front of them, his mind quickly categorized and counted the undead.

“Are we ready to proceed?” their undead escort asked.

“Samuel,” Craig turned to the scout, “I would feel more comfortable if we weren’t all within the clutches of our host.”

“Same,” Samuel responded. “I’ll take the bowmen and we’ll go see what we can see. Be careful.”

Shan found the ranks of decayed corpses fascinating. As they walked through the parody of military organization she marvelled at the faux-discipline on display. There were many soldiers who spent their lives attempting to achieve just an inkling of the solidarity these undead corpses displayed. The discipline in the ranks was not evident in their outfitting. The armour and weapons on display were in various states of disrepair; rusted, rotted, dented, chipped and broken.

“What a waste,” Abeth commented as they passed further into the lines of the undead. “All these armaments allowed to fall apart. So much wasted metal.”

“Don’t let the quality of their equipment fool you,” Craig said. “Their strength comes from their numbers, their re-usability, and the ease at which their numbers grow. Speed, strength, equipment are all meaningless when you’re fighting the same man you killed yesterday… and the day before… and the day before that. Only today your former friends are fighting with him against you.”

“These zombies and skeletal warriors,” Thomas indicated the creatures around them, “are slow and unskilled at arms but they are relentless. They never tire, they don’t feel pain or fear. They wear you down by their sheer numbers.”

“Strictly from a logistics point of view, this particular collection of the undead are easy to maintain. They don’t need sleep. They don’t need food. They march together with no training,” Craig added.

“How long have they been around?” Shan wondered.

“Necromantic magic is wonderful at preserving dead flesh,” Esther answered. “The fleshy ones are probably the oldest of them, maybe even as old as our friend here. The walking bones were probably raised more recently after the flesh had rotted and fallen from the corpses.”

“Could they be disrupted?” Shan asked. “The magic dispelled?”

“In theory,” the druid answered, “but you would need the time to perform the ritual. Breaking enchantments consumes a lot of energy and time. You need a small team of mages, it is very rare to hear of a single caster capable of breaking a minor enchantment let alone one as powerful as the raising of the dead. I have never heard of a disenchantment that was instant they are normally hours-long rituals. To disrupt the numbers we see here would require legions of mages, more than exist in this region.”

“It’s a possibility,” Shan mused. “Not a good one, but if we get desperate…”

“This tower looked better from afar,” Abeth noted as they approached the structure.

Shan had to agree. From a distance it had looked like the tower she had grown up in. That tower had been tall and strong, the blocks of stone fit together flawlessly. It stood as a beacon to the community far and wide. By contrast this tower had cracked and chipped. It wasn’t noticeable from a distance but up close it was obvious that whatever arcane influence that kept the towers pristine had weakened. Even the massive wooden doors to the main chamber showed signs of rot and ruin.

The doors opened inward as their escort approached it. Two more of the restless dead stood beside either door as they entered the chamber. The chamber took up the entire floor of the building, large and round with a number of pillars scattered throughout the chamber. Torches burned in sconces on every pillar. A staircase sunk into the ground along the left wall, along the right wall another set of stairs rose into the ceiling. A small dais was raised on the far side of the room upon which sat a large chair. A lone solitary figure sat on the chair, the rest of the chamber was vacant.

Their escort continued their journey down the centre of the chamber his living companions one step behind him. The silence in the chamber was broken by their footsteps as they approached the figure on the dais. The figure that awaited them was unmoving with its head downcast.

Their escort dropped to one knee as they reached the bottom stairs. He bowed his head before his deep voice spoke, “My Lady. Your guests have arrived.”

The figure’s head snapped up and levelled its gaze on the party. Its eyes flashed red as fire.

“Do you recognize the sigils on the armour?” Abeth asked Shan as they sat at their fire that first night in the wasteland.

She shook her head. It was an odd question for Abeth to ask her, he had known her long enough to know his knowledge of military history was far superior to hers. She knew law and scripture, she knew Norasburg recent history, she did not know much ancient history and little of that was military in nature.

“The armour is battered and rusty, disrespected, but its not a common soldier’s armour. I don’t recognize the sigils but the quality and the workmanship is obvious despite the disrepair,” Albeth explained. “I have seen similar quality on display at different towers. The three swords in a crown sigil is new, but the detailed display, the pride, is evident in older suits of armour. It is the armour of a general, maybe even a king.”

“It is very possible that he is,” Craig added. He had decided to journey with them to the tower despite his desire to return home. The appearance of the undead escort had forced a change in his plans. He was unwilling to selfishly walk away while his friends and companions walked into their enemies stronghold. His attitude had returned to its old manner with the new, obvious threat to be faced.
There were five of them around the campfire; Esther, Thomas, Craig, Abeth, and Shan. Samuel had taken one of the archers and set up a patrol around the camp, despite their escort’s insistence that it was unnecessary, that they were under the Lady’s protection and nothing would attack them while they were within the tower’s domain. The other bowmen had retired for a bit, they would replace the sentries part way through the night. Their escort stood just at the edge of the fire’s light as quiet and still as a statue.

“Do you recognize the symbol?” Abeth asked.

“Yeah,” Craig answered, “I’ve seen it before. Remnants of flags and heraldry among the dunes of the desert, buried for centuries under the sand. I have come across this symbol a number of times while I hunted down rumoured riches. It has a large presence in the desert.”

“It should be,” Esther said. “That is the royal sigil of a state that existed many centuries ago. A small nation ruled by three brothers. Legend has it they, and their armies, were swallowed up by the desert sands in one devastating moment and subsequently lost to time. They should be found in the sands. It shouldn’t be found on this abomination.”

“It is an odd thing to see,” Thomas rumbled his agreement.

“Who is this Lady of the Tower?” Shan asked.

Craig shrugged, “I had always assumed the tower was as empty as the rest of the land.”

“It has seemed empty for as long as I can remember,” Esther agreed. “But it makes sense that it wouldn’t be left empty. It would make a good location for a group of necromancers to make a nest.”

“And what about him?” Shan indicated the motionless escort.

“He could just be a tool this Lady raised to guide us,” Craig offered. “He might not be more than a few days old.”

“It could also be hundreds of years old,” Esther corrected. “That would be my guess. The style of armour is ancient. The creature’s flesh is well preserved, too well so and that stinks of magic. That armour was probably its in life. It would have been buried in it and raised in it. There’s no value in dressing the undead in armour, even the ones that can talk.”

“No,” the druid continued, “this thing has been around for longer than any of us. A mockery of true life, a corruption made of foul magic.” She spat the last phrase out in open disgust.

“We could just ask him,” Abeth suggested. “He talks, he might have answers.”

“Hey,” Craig shouted at the escort, “how long have you been around?”

The creature turned its head to face the fire, its dead eyes reflected the light of the flames. It stared silently at the group.

“Yah, I meant you,” Craig repeated, “how long have you been around?”

“Since my demise,” the creature’s deep voice drifted across the campfire.

“Which was when?”

“I was captured, wounded, when the tower fell,” it replied. “The Lady held me prisoner and used my life as a threat against others. They refused the ransom and would not surrender. She ended my mortal life and gave me immortality on the same day. Many centuries ago.”

“The Lady has been around for centuries?” Shan asked.

“She took the tower from me.”

“She’s immortal?” Shan asked.

“She is fused with the land. She cannot die.”

“What do they call you?” Shan asked. “What was your name?”

“My name?” the creature hesitated for a moment. “I had a name. A long time ago. They called me…” It drifted into silence and turned its head to look into the dark of the night. “I can’t remember,” it whispered to itself.

“So we’re heading into a ruined tower that’s home to an undying necromancer whose life is connected to the dead land she occupies,” Craig summarized.

“Yes,” Esther smiled. “An ancient power that none of us has ever heard of.”

“Excellent,” Shan responded. She watched the creature for a moment and then left to her tent.

“I think,” Craig said as they relaxed for a quick meal at the edge of the forest, “that I’ll part ways with you and return home when we hit the edge of the wasteland. Samuel can guide you through the wastes. I want to see my family, to be at home.”

“That should be fine,” Shan acknowledged. She had noticed a withdrawal from Craig after that evening in the woods. He had stopped conversing with the rest of the group outside of what was immediately needed. At night, around the fire, he had started to keep to himself, he had become quiet and taciturn. His mind seemed to be elsewhere, in Shan’s view it reduced significantly his contribution to their task. He could be a danger to himself and the rest of them, potentially.

Their journey through the forest had been uneventful. The time between stops for rests was spent sharing knowledge, primarily the Shatterook group sharing their hunting and tracking skills with the Norasburg group. Philosophical discussions broke out over the evening meals and often carried on into the early hours of the day. Breakfast and lunch were spent preparing for their arrival at the lands that surrounded the thirteenth tower.

They were now mere moments away from crossing into the tower’s shadow. They were at the edge of the forest sitting in the shade of the trees. Samuel had made a trek over the hill that rose up between them and the wasteland. They were relaxing in the cool of the day while Samuel scouted ahead in an effort to get their bearings.

“I think we should make camp here,” Thomas rumbled from his place at his wife’s side. He was stretched out on his back in the grass watching the clouds drift by above. “The fewer nights we spend on that ground the happier I’ll be.”

“I agree. The land is death, I’d rather keep my feet immersed in life for as long as I can.” Esther sat beside her husband. Her eyes were closed and she breathed deeply as her fingers absentmindedly played with her husband’s hair.

Shan glanced around at her soldiers. The two bowmen that had accompanied her were quietly listening to the conversation while they nibbled at their meal of salted meat and pieces of fruit. Captain Abeth shrugged as her eyes met his, he stood just within the tree line watching the hill top Samuel had wandered over.

“Agreed,” Shan offered, “one more night of relative safety will be nice. We can spend the rest of the day planning the next phase of the journey.”

Shan sat and focused on her lunch, a mix of dried and fresh fruits and berries. The group broke up into conversations; the bowmen chatted about home, the wedded pair discussed the clouds above. Abeth kept his eyes locked onto the hill behind her.

Shan closed her eyes and drew in her breath. She pulled in as much as as her lungs would allow, held it for a brief moment, and then slowly let it out. She would repeat this cycle over and over, her mind conscious of the entire act of breathing, her focus on every element of taking a breath. Only the act of breathing mattered, everything else she allowed to fade away.

“Your Illuminance,” Abeth’s voice broke her focus, “Samuel is returning.”

“That was quick,” Thomas commented.

Shan turned her head to watch the scout’s approach. Samuel made hie way down the hill in what she could only call a casual manner. There was no panic in his movements and no rush in his step.

“Good news, Samuel?” Thomas boomed as the other approached their position.

“Not so much good or bad news, my friend, just odd,” Samuel smiled as he joined the others.

“What did you find?” Esther asked.

“Just one solitary corpse waiting patiently at the border,” he answered. “It holds a white flag and claims to be waiting for you, Shan.”

“Me? What?” Shan was astonished.

“It talked?” Esther asked.

Samuel nodded and answered, “The white flag and the position at the edge of the wasteland intrigued me. It watched me as I approached, it waited in what I can only describe as a patient manner. It waited until I was a couple steps away from the edge of the wastes before it offered me a greeting. It explained it was waiting for Shan and asked if I knew her and could relay the message. So there you have it, there’s a talking member of the undead patiently awaiting you over the hill.”

“That’s all,” Shan responded as she stood up, “it didn’t say what it wanted?”

“No,” he replied, “I’m sure it will tell you if you ask it.”

“Be careful, Shan,” the druid offered as she and her husband rose. “Speech is rare among these abominations and those that possess it are significantly more dangerous than the rest.”

They could see the figure waiting as they crossed over the top of the hill. The figure looked out of place; lonely and odd. It was dressed in ornate armour that seemed ancient in its decay. The metal was dull and rusted, more for show than for practical use. A sword hung by its side, based on the condition of its armour it was a safe bet that the weapon wasn’t in any better shape.

The former man was a mix of leathery skin and exposed bone. The skin was stretched tight over the bones of its face, cracked in places but otherwise served as a grim reminder of its former humanity. A few scraggly patches of nearly white hair were speckled across the top of its head.

The most glaring visual was the difference between the land Shan stood on and the land the creature waited on. Under Shan’s feet there was lush green grass that was sprinkled with a rainbow of flowers and weeds. The creature was surrounded by a land that consisted of varying shades of grey. Shan could see no signs of life across the all too obvious line that divided the two regions.

“Would one of you happen to be known as Shan?” a deep voice arose from the waiting creature. There was an odd, slight echo in its speech.

“I am,” Shan stepped forward.

“Well met,” the creature bowed slightly. “I have been instructed to escort you to the tower.”

“Me? Or all of us?”

“You are all welcome to accompany me to the tower,” it replied. “She awaits your arrival.”

“Who awaits?” Esther demanded.

“The Lady of the Tower, of course.”

“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?”