Welsley waited patiently on the edge of the tower’s audience chamber. She was accompanied by her usual companions: two of the Falson soldiers escorted her from her chambers to where she now waited. She had been summoned by the Falson matriarch early that morning and found herself waiting, seemingly forgotten, throughout the tower’s morning routine.

There was an element of punishment to the wait. Welsley had never been fond of the daily duties of her position, the idea of listening to near countless complaints that amounted to little more than pettiness and sour grapes had never caught her imagination. She had preferred to leave those duties to others. She didn’t mind adjudicating criminal cases but dealing with her citizens’ interpersonal relationships she found to be boring and tedious.

The only thing she found worse was the ministering of her flock’s spiritual needs. Reading scripture, analyzing the Goddess’ words, issuing behavioural edicts were activities to be avoided as far as she was concerned. There were members of her Illuminated that were better suited to the pursuit of spiritual questions.

Welsley saw herself more as a “big picture” type. She liked to surround herself with people whose talents were more suited to the detail work.

Standing by and watching was more painful than participating in it.

The morning’s collection of events needing intervention by the Goddess’ mortal representative did have one upside: it provided Welsley with a chance to survey the gathered populace. There was the usual mix of new faces and regulars all vying for their chance to convince the Goddess’ representative that their side of a disagreement was Her side and was deserving of Her divine intervention. Welsley tuned them all out, she could only listen to so many “this man insulted this woman” stories before she passed out from boredom. People needed to learn to settle their own issues.

Light Falson sat on the seat at the centre of the raised dais on what was once Welsley’s seat. On the right side, just behind the stone chair, stood the matriarch’s granddaughter. Four soldiers stood on either side of the throne with a second group of four at the bottom of the dais’ steps. None of the soldiers were recognized by Welsley; they must all be part of the Falson tower expedition.

Here and there, within the crowd, Welsley could make out faces she thought might belong to soldiers of her tower. The flashes of recognition were quick and fleeting and made it difficult to get an accurate count. They mixed in well with the crowd.

Welsley waited with her guards on the left side of the dais, a willing participant to any casual observer, her imprisonment hidden among the ceremony.

“We are finished for today,” Light Edith Falson raised her right hand and gestured for a halt. She sat on the throne and watched as the assembled people began to shuffle out of the chamber. Light Falson glanced toward Welsley and gestured for her to approach.

“Light Koarl,” the Falson matriarch addressed Welsley, “I apologize for ignoring you. It was unintentional, I have been busy serving the people and Her will. How have you been?”

“A prisoner, Your Eminence,” Welsley bowed her head to the other woman. “I have been a prisoner.”

“Not so much, I think,” the older lady commented.

“Why are troops being reassigned to the river?” the younger Falson demanded from her grandmother’s side.

“How would I know?” Welsley watched the older Light. “I have been trapped in my chambers. I know only what you tell me. I see only who you allow.”

“The garrison isn’t going to relocate on its own,” Molly declared.

“I prefer that my soldiers maintain themselves,” Welsley shrugged, “they know their day-to-day needs better than I.”

“Light Koarl,” the elder Falson replied, “there is no need to make this situation worse than it is. Let’s try to make it easy on all of us.”

“Leave my tower,” Welsley responded. “We can pretend none of this ever happened. It’ll be easy on all of us.”

“An interesting idea,” Light Falson mused. “It won’t happen until you are taught the correct way to rule.”

“I thought I was chosen by the Goddess to rule in Her name,” Light Koarl interrupted.

“You serve Her will,” Molly answered. “There are duties. There are responsibilities.”

“Defined by who?” Welsley shot back. “You? Or the Goddess? You came in to my tower as a guest and forced yourself onto my throne. You decided you knew better than the Goddess when you pushed me aside. What gave you the right?”

“My family has been chosen by the Goddess since She rose into power,” the matriarch snapped. “Your family has spent generations breaking every law they could to generate wealth. That is what gave me the right!”

“You are kept around for the sake of the people,” the younger Falson added, “but you can be replaced.”

“No,” Welsley replied.

Welsley allowed her glance to drift between the two Falson women. There was anger on their faces. Anger that was quickly replaced by surprise.

“We can make this easy,” Welsley offered as the Falson guards drew their swords. She resisted the urge to look behind her at the sounds of footfalls and weapons being drawn, she could see all she needed in the look on the other women’s faces. “Your choice.”

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She should have realized the “the Goddess” was not someone who could be trusted. The hatred of the Falson family was evident in the other’s voice whenever the conversation shifted in that way; which was often. There had seemed to be a constant need for reassurance that the Falson matriarch was still at Norasburg. Abeth’s report on the necromantic army sent to the tower brought everything into clarity: the Lady of the Tower intended to take the Falsons from Norasburg tower.

Welsley felt foolish. She had been so caught up in the excitement of finding an ally in her battle against Light Falson that she allowed herself to be blinded to the warning signs. The obsessive need for updates on the matriarch’s location was as obvious as it could get. This combined with a relentless push to keep her anger at raging emotional levels should have been an obvious sign that this “Goddess” was trying to keep her distracted.

It was over now. Any doubt concerning the supposed deity of this being was gone. She was neither a god nor a friend.

The brief conversation with Captain Abeth had brought her a sense of peace, a clearer vision, and a path to travel. Her distant soldier had provided her with a way to escape, to move about the tower. He had also provided her with a list of names, soldiers whose loyalties were tied to her and Norasburg. These warriors would bring their own loyal troops, there might be enough troops to wrest control of the tower from the Falsons. Light Falson’s control came from her family’s placement within Norasburg’s soldiery not from an overwhelming invasion force.

The hidden tunnel system was where Captain Abeth had told her it would be. Welsley was pleasantly surprised by this secondary system for traversing the tower. The tunnels were well lit and used by many of her Illuminated. It had been a simple matter to grab one of them and pass summons on to the officers she needed to speak with.

Which is how she found herself deep in the tower’s underground in chambers that were unreachable by the main corridors and surrounded by half-a-dozen of her officers, the most trusted of her soldiers.

“Abeth,” Welsley began after the last of the soldiers arrived, “thinks quite highly of you. He assures me that you can all be trusted.”
She waited, allowed the silence to stretch out as she carefully caught the eyes of each man. She had a passing familiarity with all of them, knew their names and faces, but had never worked directly with any of them. She was about to put a lot of trust into Abeth’s opinion.

“Why are we here, Your Eminence?” The voice was that of an older man, older than the other men to be exact. They were all older than she was. Welsley recognized the speaker as the man in charge of training within the barracks: Edmund Khorat. He had a reputation for being tough on his pupils, but all his students left his care as competent soldiers.

“You are all aware of our visitors?” Welsley asked. She knew they did, she waited as they all nodded in the affirmative. “You have also noticed an adjustment in the command of the garrison? That all orders are coming from the soldiers that accompanied the Falsons? That there are guards posted all over the tower? That they are all Falson soldiers?”

There was a quick glance shared between the men.

“Surely, they are here for Light Falson’s protection on her journey,” Edmund spoke for all the assembled officers.

“Why would they be needed in the tower?” Welsley asked. “She should be safe in the tower. Our garrison should be capable of defending the tower, right?”

They had no answer.

“She used the ghoul problem as an excuse to journey here,” Welsley continued. “She moved troops to our river garrison. She moved into my throne room, assumed my duties, placed guards to restrict my movements and imprisoned me in my own tower. All done so subtly that I am sure you hadn’t noticed.”

Surprise flashed across their faces as they one by one realized what she had suggested.

“Our swords are yours, my Light,” Edmund spoke.

“We need to retake the tower,” Welsley said. “As quick as we can and with as few casualties as we can manage. None being my preference. Fast and quiet. No one outside of the tower need know of this difficulty.”

“We should be able to manage that. We’ll have some troops slip in under cover of the next shipment to the kitchens.”

“Good,” Welsley nodded. “We need to take Light Falson and her granddaughter alive. We need to keep the troops from clashing. Once the tower has been retaken we’ll need to bolster our numbers at the river garrison. There is another, larger, army of the undead on the way. We need to be ready when they arrive.”

“How do you know this?” There was doubt in his voice.

“I have been in touch with Captain Abeth. I believe he reports true.”

“We’ll send more troops to the river garrison immediately. Those who’s loyalty might be questionable.”

“Excellent,” Welsley exclaimed before leaving the soldiers to their work.

This was curious. As far as Abeth knew, the ruler’s chamber was the uppermost floor of the tower. For as long as anyone could remember this floor was used as the tower’s Guiding Light’s personal chambers, her home, her sanctuary. From here she could get a rough overview of her domain. It was the highest point in the tower.

Apparently, they had all been wrong.

Behind this door blended into the wall was a staircase that curled upward into the tower. The stairs showed signs of regular use, the dust was limited to either side near the walls while the centre of each step was dust free. Torches lit the way, the smoke from their burning disappeared into cracks in the ceiling.

There was just enough space to turn around on the staircase. His sword would be useless in such tight confines. Moving into the unknown unarmed did not appeal to Captain Abeth. In his hand he held a full-bladed knife, as long as his forearm and as wide as his wrist. He normally kept it strapped on his lower leg but it felt better to have it out for this search.

He ascended the stairs, knife in hand, he tried to prepare his mind and body for anything. He would not be able to evade anyone coming down the stairs, if he tried to turn and flee he would just expose his back to danger. He could turn to face anyone approaching from behind, but he was headed up into the tower where there would be no escape. He was keenly aware of having placed himself in a potential, inescapable, trap.

The staircase opened up into a small oval room. Three lit torches were set around the room. The room was otherwise empty.

“This is a bit disappointing,” Abeth slipped his knife back into its sheath. There was only a single exit from the room but there was enough room to use his sword should the need arise.

“Who’s there?” A voice appeared out of nowhere. “What’s happening?” It was a female voice.

“Who is this?” Captain Abeth looked around the empty room. “Show yourself.”

“I know your voice,” the voice retorted. “Where are you? Who are you?”

“Your Eminence?” Abeth stammered, confused. “You’re hear?”

“Captain Abeth! What a pleasant surprise!”

“Where are you, Your Eminence?”

“Still in Norasburg,” was the response. “The towers are all linked by this forgotten chamber, it allows for instant communication between anyone within. How is everyone? How’s your host?”

“We are all good,” Abeth answered. “We have been shown a good deal of courtesy.”

“But…,” Welsley’s voice prompted.

“We are surrounded by the living dead,” Abeth answered. “The tower is in reasonably good shape, but the surrounding land is almost completely dead. What little bit of life that exists is twisted and vile. The Lady of the Tower seems little more than a well preserved corpse. She is not to be trusted.”

“How so?”

“She claimed she had killed the necromancers who were responsible for sending the ghouls our way, but there are necromancers hidden in the tower,” he explained. “She has sent a party of necromancers and zombies in your direction without telling us, quiet and secretly.”

“That’s disturbing news,” Light Koarl responded. “How many?”

“Three necromancers, double that number of zombies at last report. But the number could grow as they march.”

“Why has she allowed you to contact me?” She continued before he could reply, “She didn’t. Shan. What’s she up to?”

“She’s collecting information,” Abeth replied. “She is distrustful of our host and wishes to have a complete picture of all her options. She hopes to be able to reduce the Lady’s influence in the world. I saw the Lady leave the chamber while I was investigating the tower. Thought I’d take a look and see what was here.”

“In our discussions, this Lady has claimed to be the Goddess Herself,” Welsley shared. “Claims she was betrayed by the Falson family.”

“I don’t pretend to be a religious scholar,” Abeth offered, “but she does not seem like a caring, selfless deity.”

“No,” Welsley admitted, “I had already worked that out on my own. Rage and hate are better descriptors. The Falsons have all but taken over the tower. I am a prisoner in my own home, trapped within my chambers. I can’t get near my troops or free myself.”

“She had mentioned.”

“She could be useful to me,” Welsley stated. “The enemy of my enemy and all that.”

“Maybe,” Abeth said. “She is an ancient power. A danger but on her own useless, her power trapped in her borders. Have you tried the tunnels?”

There was a pause.

“What tunnels?”

It hadn’t taken Abeth long to search through the four residential levels in the upper tower. The chambers he needed to search were directly above the floor his assigned rooms were on. He estimated that his search was complete before Craig had even arrived at the first of his floors. That the rooms were empty, and had been for some time, only increased the ease with which the search was conducted.

He saw no reason to rush back once he was done.

They were forbidden to enter the library or the Guiding Light’s chamber. There were guards posted at every door to every room they were not allowed to enter. The hidden corridor had doors to every chamber, none of which were guarded and all of which he had access to. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Find, count, return.

Simple instructions. Since he had joined up with the Goddess’ garrison his life had been one simple instruction after another. He had lived a soldier’s life for decades and there was comfort to a chain of orders keeping your world intact. No need to question, no need to think, just focus on achieving one goal after another.

A simple life, in theory.

Abeth had proven himself to be an extremely competent soldier, capable of carrying out his orders as well as supporting others in their duties. What set him apart from his warrior brothers was his willingness to take charge, he was never content to sit back and wait when he could be leading the charge. This facet of his personality pushed him up through the ranks and before long the simple life of following orders was behind him. His approach to his duties attracted the attention of Light Amoren who assigned him to Shan.

Working with the Illuminated Shan was a unique experience. The difference between Shan and the rest of the faithful was like the difference between night and day. The faithful that Abeth had previously served were careful and slow to make decisions, they were autocratic in their treatment of the soldiers. Shan was different: she was quick to make decisions and, although distant and reserved, fond of considering other opinions.

It was like jumping into a frozen river. He moved from mindlessly following orders to being responsible to handing out orders to others. Added to this new approach to his duties was Shan’s expectation that he take on a fluid, more free form, role in every endeavour they undertook. He was used to making quick decisions, it was how one made it through battle, but the bigger picture was always left to others.

It was more difficult to learn to think for one’s self than it was to learn to follow orders without question.

The struggle had been worth it.

His time working with Shan left him with no doubt she would approve of his plan. Shan was at least as interested in the results of a “failed” choice as she was in the results of a “successful” choice; every choice yielded information, information led to more options and better future choices.

They had been forbidden from entering the tower’s libraries, the common doors were heavily guarded and blocked from entry. The question was why. The only way to know was to find a way in. The tunnel entrance was not guarded, Abeth was betting the libraries were devoid of guards as well.

He followed the corridor through the walls of the tower, climbing stairs as needed and noting the locations of the doors hidden in the walls. The dust that covered every surface was undisturbed except for where he walked. His feet were the first to touch the stone floor in what could be centuries.

He moved swiftly past the last of the library doors. Investigating the libraries were important to him, but there was something more important for him to check first: the Guiding Light’s personal chambers, the chambers used by the tower’s ruler.

He continued rising up through the tower, his eyes jumped between looking for disturbances in the dust and hidden doors on the walls. The corridor ended abruptly, the door he was searching for was not along the side but at the end of the tunnel.

There was no sound of occupants as he listened at the door. Satisfied that it was safe to proceed, he stowed his torch in a nearby sconce and opened the door wide enough to glance into the chamber. The door opened into the small passage that joined the main chamber with the balcony. From his position in the tunnel it looked as if the balcony and the main room were both empty.

He was about to step out into the short hallway when a movement near the fireplace caught his eye and froze him in place.

It was the Lady of the Tower.

She appeared out of thin air. Abeth held his breath as he watched her glance lazily around the room. He waited, muscles tense, sure she would see him and ready to attack if needed. Far better to risk death for a chance to remove the danger she represented than to flee and have her set off an alarm. Better his companions can react in shock at his actions than be caught as co-conspirators.

He watched, still as the stones that made up the walls. He didn’t dare move his hand to his sword, any motion, no matter how slight, might attract her notice.

Her gaze appeared to linger on his hiding place and then her focus shifted and she moved out of the chamber.

“Bring Shan to the throne room,” Abeth heard her order.

“Yes, My Lady,” he caught the former prince’s response before the doors closed.

Captain Abeth cautiously crossed the room to the point where the Lady had appeared. He kept one eye on the chamber’s doors as he searched the wall before him. He was not surprised to find a door that blended into the wall.

He was surprised to find a circular staircase leading further upwards into the tower.

Craig slipped unnoticed from the tunnels into the bedroom he had left from their assigned suite in the tower. The small room was empty, as Craig had expected, they had had no way of knowing how long the search would take so there was little value in anyone waiting on his return. He reached behind him and slowly guided the tunnel door closed. Softly, gently, almost noiselessly.

He wondered, as the door shut, how Captain Abeth had made out. Craig had found a nest of necromancers in the underground but that didn’t rule out there being more in the tower’s upper floors. There were six he knew of, three he had found and three Samuel stalked; there could always be more.

He moved to the door that led to the main chamber and stopped. In his eagerness to share his discovery, he had almost charged out into the large room, blindly and with no thought. He had gone for a bit, anything could have happened in that time. His companions could be gone, there could be an army of walking corpses waiting for him beyond that door. He was too old to be making such a rookie mistake. Craig smiled, shook his head, and placed an ear to the door.

He could make out the sound of talking, feminine voices; Esther and Shan would be his guess. The voices were familiar to him, he listened as they discussed life within Shatterook and how it compared to life within Norasburg’s tower. The conversation sounded relaxed and friendly, Craig listened long enough to be sure there were no strange voices before he opened the door and stepped through.

Esther and Shan were seated on the floor a few steps away from where Craig emerged. Thomas lay on his back, hands under his head, his body within arm’s length of his wife. The two women stopped their conversation and turned their heads toward him, the larger man never moved.

“Abeth hasn’t returned yet?” Craig asked. There was no sign of the other soldier in the room.

“You’re the first to return,” Esther replied.

That seemed odd to Craig. There was less ground to cover in the upper level of the tower, the captain should have been back before him; even if there were more necromancers to be found. Find them, get a rough count, return; that was all he was sent to do.

“Did you find anything?” Shan interrupted his thoughts.

“Yep,” Craig replied. “Right where you expected it. The residential level right above the archives. At least three necromancers have taken up residence. It would be easy enough to dispatch them. We’d just need to catch up with the ones Samuel is tracking and the Lady’s living help is gone.”

“Assuming Abeth hasn’t found more,” Esther added.

“True,” Craig replied, “but I doubt there’d be so many as to make things that much more difficult for us.”

“We’d need to split up,” Shan said. “We won’t want to set off any alarms. We would want to hit every group in the tower and get out before the Lady’s forces could rally against us.”

“Agreed,” Craig responded. “Once we’re out in the courtyard the archers will be able to provide cover. We’ll just need to get free of the tower first.”

“We can use the private passage,” Shan said, “there’s a door into the main hall. We can bypass all the guards and wait for all of us to gather. We’ll have to push our was past the door guards but that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“What about the Lady herself?” Craig asked. “What sort of threat does she pose?”

“She had a lot of power at one point,” Esther answered, “or so the myth goes. She destroyed a nation with her magic, two cities swallowed by the desert sands. That’s a lot of power. But that was centuries ago, there has been no hint of her for so long that she was almost forgotten. The land she inhabits has been a wasteland for a long time and she has never made any improvements to it. Everything is still in ruin. That suggests she might have significantly less power than she did. She could either destroy us in the blink of an eye or watch us impotently as we leave, or anything in between. We can’t predict.”

“It’s probably best we avoid her,” Shan offered. “We know her influence can’t affect the world beyond her land. She needs the necromancers for that. We kill the necromancers and escape her land, preferably without running into her. She is effectively harmless trapped in the wasteland.”

“Which just leaves us the problem of keeping new necromancers from joining her,” Esther finished.

“It won’t take much to convince the ruling class to increase the size of our militia on the borders, to build some more outposts and increase the amount of horseflesh in each fort,” Craig smiled. “The nobility have a lot more to lose if she frees herself than anyone else. The poor will always be poor, it doesn’t matter who the ruling class is. Only the wealthy have anything more to lose.”

“I should be able to convince Light Koarl to contribute,” Shan added. “We’ve already been attacked once so the threat is known and real.”
“Where is Abeth?” Craig wondered aloud.

There was a knock on the chamber’s main door. The single rap against the wood of the door brought all of those gathered to their feet, including the previously slumbering Thomas. They glanced at each other in surprise before Craig walked over to the door and opened it.

“Prince Stefan,” Craig nodded at the former man. He stepped aside and gestured for the tower’s former ruler to enter.

“The Lady,” the deep disembodied voice announced, “desires an audience with your Illuminance.” He bowed slightly toward Shan.

“Of course,” Shan responded.

The thing that stuck out most in Craig’s mind was the dust. Every surface in the tunnel system seemed almost buried under a thick layer of the stuff. It made it easy to see that the passage wasn’t in use and probably hadn’t been for a while. The thick layer of dust also muffled the sound of their footfalls; Abeth had disappeared into the upper reaches of the tower, the sounds of his movements had vanished almost as quickly.

Craig placed his feet carefully as he moved through the hidden corridor. His trip was longer than Abeth’s, their assigned chamber was up a few floors in the tower; closer to the upper rooms the necromancers might be using than those beneath the ground. He resisted the urge toward haste, there was no telling how easy sound might travel in the confined space. There was no need to move recklessly, kick up a cloud of dust and end up coughing, sneezing and choking on it. Patience seemed the better instinct.

At this point there wasn’t a rush. Verify the necromancers’ existence, report back their location. Simple.

The quest combined with the enclosed space made his breathing seem deafening. Craig focused a small portion of concentration on maintaining an easy, gentle rhythm to it. He doubted it was all that loud but a little precaution could go a long way.

It was the same reason he had chosen not to light any of the torches he had passed on his journey. He didn’t want to take the chance that the smoke from the burning torches might be detected within the tower, no matter how slim a chance it might be. His head told him there was no danger but caution was needed to accomplish his goal so the flickering light from his single torch would be his only guide as he searched for the hidden doors he had been told were there.

Shan had been very exacting with her directions for finding the doors. In Shan’s opinion there was no need to check any floor they were allowed on normally. If they were anywhere in the lower tower it would be after the baths but before the archives. There were two floors of rooms prior to the archives which took up the final four floors.

The final floors you could get to through the tower’s main passage. There was an additional floor beneath the archives that was only accessible through the hidden corridor. If the floor was as undisturbed beneath the tower as it has been so far through his journey there would be no point in even considering checking the lowest level. He’d know soon enough.

The floors assigned as living quarters were all laid out the same. The main corridor circled around a central core, there was a sitting room set inside the centre of the circular corridor with five identical suites along the outside ring. The secret tunnel ran along the outside of the tower, a lot of sloping and stairs were employed to keep the tunnel system weaving around the outward looking balcony.

Each of the suites consisted of a large central chamber that broke off into eight bedrooms. A large balcony that opened above the tower grounds was attached to the main chamber, the sleeping chambers were evenly divided on either side of the short hallway that connected the living chamber to the balcony. Across from the balcony was the door that led to the public corridor and central sitting room. Each suite was connected to its neighbours through a tiny hall hidden on both ends by wall-like doors.

In theory, Craig would be able to enter one suite and quietly circle through the other four as he checked for occupation.

He stopped his walk down the tunnel, he had arrived at the first level of rooms. Or close to it as best as he could determine. It took a bit of time but he managed to find the door’s handle, it was remarkably camouflaged, barely a recess the size of a hand in the stone. The door was designed to open into the tunnel, it allowed for there to be no handle on the inside surface. The door’s weight would slowly close it if left unattended.

Craig replaced the unlit torch in a nearby sconce with his. He would need his hands free when he entered the chambers. There was no way to predict what he would be walking into. He loosened his sword in its sheath and stepped up to the door. He held his breath and listened for any hint of sound beyond the door. Everything seemed quiet.

He pulled on the door and felt it rotate open, the motion smooth and silent. He quickly slipped into the room, his hand dropped to his sword’s hilt. The room was dark but empty. Craig glided through the central room and moved toward the adjoining hall. He moved through the other suites one after another. There was no sign of any life on this floor.

The next floor would go faster, Craig thought. He had the layout down, the doors would be easy to find.

He returned to the hidden tunnel and retrieved his lit torch. He followed the passageway down one more level and prepared to repeat the process. The archives started on the floor beneath him. If these quarters were empty he would make a quick check of the archives before he headed to the lowest level.

He didn’t need to worry.

The bed chamber he entered into showed no sign of habitation. He was about to enter the suite’s common area when he heard the muffled sounds of movement beyond the door. He waited at the door and listened until the mumbling conversation reached his ears, too quiet to make out individual words or phrases but definitely had the rhythm of a conversation.

He opened the door a crack and peeked into the larger room. There were three men sitting together engaged in conversation. This was where the tower’s other living guests were homed. He closed the door and slipped back into the tunnel.

It was time to report back to the others.

One of the benefits of growing up as a ward of the tower was that Shan was privy to more of the tower’s secrets than most of the Norasburg faithful. The life of a Guiding Light and that of her Illuminated was about sacrificing their every moment for the good of their community. The population’s needs were unending and demanding which often resulted in Shan being left to pursue her own education, to follow her own curiosities.

The biggest source of curiosity being how the Guiding Light and her Illuminated seemed able to appear anywhere within the tower seemingly out of thin air.

“I appear where the Goddess wills it,” Light Amoren had answered her demand to know back when she was a child. The older Illuminated, at the time, had kept their answer to a single word: “magic.” The younger among the Illuminated just ignored or shushed her. Shan had found none of the answers given to her to be acceptable; since her teachers could not be relied upon for answers she would need to work it out on her own.

It had made no sense to the young Shan for the Goddess to take a hands-on approach to the whereabouts of Her Guiding Lights, let alone the Illuminated. The Guiding Lights were meant to be a stand-in for Her so Her attention could be elsewhere, personally moving them about would seem to negate their usefulness.

“Magic” was the answer you gave children you wanted to quiet; it was a dismissive answer. At least she had thought so until recently. Events of the past few weeks had changed her mind on that point.

There was a more mundane answer to the mysterious appearances by the tower’s elite.

It wasn’t easy for Shan to get to the bottom of the mystery. Light Amoren had proven to be much harder to watch than the child Shan had expected; the elder lady had proven more sly and slippery than she seemed on the surface. The younger of the Illuminated were less careful in their activities; their arrogance made them sloppy.

It was through careful observation of these women that Shan was introduced to the corridors and stairways hidden within the tower’s walls. The access-way that allowed the Light to move quickly and quietly within the tower; the “magic,” the Goddess’ will, the secret.

Shan had spent months exploring the hidden labyrinth of corridors within the tower before she had been caught by the Light. The Light’s response was gentler than Shan had expected. The older lady had seemed more amused than angry; the consequences handed out for Shan’s use of the tunnel system was to assign some of her time for use as a messenger within the tower. Instead of being forbidden from using the tunnels she found herself encouraged to use them more.

The tunnels were attached to each floor of the tower from the Light’s personal chambers at the top of the structure down to the archives buried beneath the baths. They allowed the user to circumvent the public stairs and the near-endless interruptions that accompanied their use. The secret tunnels were wide enough for two side-by-side which allowed for much more private conversations than the main corridors did.

The most curious aspect of the tunnels, to Shan’s view, were the numerous rooms and chambers that could only be accessed through the tunnels, including an almost entire floor in the tower. Underneath the tower there were numerous empty rooms of varying sizes, most of which looked like they hadn’t been visited in decades.

“Most of the rooms, the floors,” Shan explained to her companions, “are hidden behind doors that can be almost invisible to the eye.”

They had decided to limit their excursion into the tunnels to only two of the group: Craig and Abeth. In case the Lady sent for them, they couldn’t leave the chamber empty, it would draw attention to the hidden tunnels. They were hopeful that the tower’s undead population were unaware of the existence of the tunnels. The Lady seemed focused on Shan so she might not notice if a few of the others were gone. Craig and Abeth were the best choice; both professional and experienced soldiers who could be trusted to respond to any situations that arose.

“We have no idea if they know of the tunnels,” Shan continued. “They have had centuries to explore the tower so there is a good chance they are aware of them. Although most of the faithful at Norasburg are unaware of their existence. Still, watch your backs.”

“We’ll be careful,” Craig responded. He lit a torch at the chamber’s fireplace and handed it to Abeth, he lit another for himself. “We’ll split up to make things a bit faster. Do you want the upper levels or the lower?”

“I’ll go up,” Captain Abeth answered.

Craig nodded.

“Don’t engage,” Shan led them into one of the sleeping quarters. “We need to know where the necromancers are but we don’t want to give up our edge.”

“We’ll be like shadows,” Craig agreed, “unless we have no other recourse.”

Shan nodded, leaned against the wall and opened it like a door. The air was stale, the dust on the floor was undisturbed.

“We might have gotten lucky,” Craig nodded and stepped into the wall.

“Watch your step,” Shan told Abeth, “it can be easy to get turned around. There are no markers in the tunnels.”

“I will, Illuminance,” Abeth nodded. “Your directions are very detailed and clear. I don’t expect any difficulties.”

“Good luck, Captain Abeth,” Shan said as he stepped into the tunnels. She closed the door quietly behind him.

“The good news is that our food is prepared by living hands,” Esther announced after Shan returned to their assigned chambers. There was a feast laid out in the chamber’s living room; heaps of dried fruits and vegetables waited on a table, the scent of roasted pig could be detected in the room.

“Our dinner,” Thomas gestured to the supplied food. He picked up a plate and began to load it with food.

“What’s the bad news?” Shan asked. She moved forward and helped herself to a selection of fruits and nuts. She was famished, she had spent the day with a former man who no longer has a need to eat. The day was over before she had even realized she hadn’t eaten. She had gotten so caught up in the remarkable sameness of the towers and the stunning differences that existed that time had escaped her.

“The food is prepared by slaves,” Esther replied. “Prisoners, we were told, but they’re trapped here until death so they’re essentially slaves. No discernible difference.”

“They seem reasonably well treated,” Thomas added. “They are watched by the undead and are even more limited in their movements than we are, but there isn’t any obvious signs of abuse.”

“The Lady treats her prisoners well,” Shan repeated. “Seems at odds with everything I have heard of her: quick to anger, petty, cruel.”

“I doubt she even notices their existence,” Craig’s voice reached her ears from the chamber’s entrance. Shan watched Abeth follow the speaker into the room and shut the door behind them.

“They would be here for the necromancers’ comfort,” Abeth said.

“Seems they’re willing to play with corpses all day long but are uncomfortable with the idea of the dead touching their food,” Craig chuckled. “She doesn’t have need of the servants, I doubt she cares what they do. She wasn’t truthful about the necromancers, though.”

“She didn’t kill them?” Esther asked.

“Not all of them,” Craig answered. “Maybe not any of them. Ah, food.”

“Samuel and one of the archers followed a group of necromancers to the edge of the city,” Abeth added before any questions could be asked. “Samuel had followed them out of the city while he sent the bowmen back. That was yesterday, Samuel still hadn’t returned. There were three necromancers and a handful of zombies, we were told. We don’t know if any of them were the ones we came looking for, the ones our host claims are dead. We just know there are still necromancers here.”

“She needs the necromancers,” Shan mentioned.

“How so?” Esther questioned.

Shan felt all eyes on her. Her companions had gathered their plates and glasses and settled into seats around the room. They watched her as she nibbled on some food but otherwise seemed content to wait for her answer.

“When she destroyed the two desert towers,” Shan began, “she was fused to the land. Unable to die, trapped within its borders.” She paused to pour herself a drink. “It isn’t just her physical presence trapped within this realm. Her mystical influence is limited to this dead land as well. She cannot leave and neither can her magic, or anything that results from it.”

“But those animated by the necromancers can travel freely?” Craig asked.

“As can the necromancers themselves,” Shan nodded.

“Without them, her abominations would be trapped here where they would be of no danger to anyone,” Esther added. “These necromancers provide her with her only means of affecting the larger world.”

“Except for that communications chamber,” Abeth offered.

“But if we eliminate the necromancers we can contain her evil,” Craig responded. “We increase our patrols around the wasteland’s edges and maybe prevent more from joining her. With some well planned raids we might be able to destroy some corpses and weaken her enough to nullify her threat.”

“I don’t think many of the faithful are aware of the chamber’s existence,” Shan mentioned. “There are a lot of secrets within the towers.”

Abeth’s only response was a nod and a shrug.

“We don’t even know where they might be,” Thomas spoke up.

“We could try to get the information from the prisoners in the kitchen,” Craig suggested. “They’ll have no love for their captors, I am sure.”

“That only works without the abominations around,” Esther said. “It is too risky for all of us if the dead hear our queries.”

“True,” Craig admitted. “It’s the same reason we can’t just trail the slaves to them. These creatures never sleep.”

“This tower seems to be identical to the one at Norasburg,” Shan said. “If they’re in the tower there are only a few places they might be. There are three more guest chambers above us and a couple more below the baths. One way gives easy access to the libraries, the other to the archives. Both excellent locations for them.”

“Okay,” Craig responded. “That narrows things down a bit but we still have the problem of our escorts.”

Shan grinned.

“There are a lot of secrets within these towers.”

The Baths

Posted: September 26, 2017 in 2. Ravensbrook, Rears Its Ugly Head, Tall Tales
Tags: ,

“This is surprising,” Shan offered as they walked among the baths in the tower’s lower levels.

“In what way?” Stefan’s voice rumbled.

“Except for the lighting,” Shan explained, “we could be in the baths at Norasburg. I expected more ruin.”

“There are few in the tower who have need of the baths,” the former prince said, “we don’t think about keeping the torches lit as a result.”

It was almost as if she had walked into the baths underneath the tower at Norasburg. It wasn’t as well lit, the usual noise that accompanied the socialization of the faithful was missing, and her only companion was an undead former prince. Aside from those notes the place was identical.

The baths were in a large open area underneath the tower; below the kitchens and above the archives. The room was broken up by stone pillars and arches that created enclosures for the pools themselves. There were twelve pools: six hot, six cold. Steam could be seen rising from half the pools making it easy to determine which was which. The water in the pools was fresh and clear; a purity that seemed at odds with the state of the rest of the tower.

The pools were laid out in four columns of three rows. The two columns at either edge were filled with cold water, the two central columns were steaming, heated pools. Shan had devoted a great deal of thought and curiosity to the puzzle of where the water for the pools came from. The river was too far away from the tower at Norasburg; the waterway that Ravensbrook was named for had long ago dried up. Assuming the desert towers possessed a similar setup it made the mystery all the more intriguing.

Shan walked between the heated pools and breathed the steam in through her nose. Within this honeycomb of chambers there was a distinct lack of the mild scent of decay. The scent was everywhere within the tower except in the baths; the air here was clean and pure, it tasted of life.

“I used to look forward to sinking into these waters at the end of every campaign,” Stefan commented. He followed a few steps behind her. “I always imagined that they were infused with healing properties.”

“I feel the same way,” Shan responded. “The baths are my first destination once my duties are complete. There is nothing better to remove the stress of the road than a soak in hot water.”

“More rejuvenating than sleep,” Stefan mused.

Shan smiled. She could almost agree with him on that point. The only issue, in her mind, was having to share the waters with the faithful. They chattered incessantly, a journey to the baths meant being inundated by tower gossip, ribald tales, backstabbing, tears and laughter. During the day the noise was endless, it could almost be deafening. At night, while most of the tower slept, the baths more closely resembled the former prince’s assertion.

“I wonder how much of my brothers’ towers survived Her attack,” Stefan mumbled.

“These chambers are pristine,” Shan said, “I wouldn’t be shocked to find their baths in equal shape. Buried under the sands.”

“I wonder if there are any survivors?” he spoke aloud. “What my brothers’ fate were? Was it quick or did they linger? Trapped underground without food, waiting to starve, to die. A horrible fate for a warrior.”

“A horrible fate for anybody,” Shan didn’t want to consider the chaos and the desperation that would result.

“An even worse possibility,” Stefan seemed almost to be talking to himself, “is that Her magics were a corruptive of their towers as it was here. They could be slaves to Her will, trapped forever in a mockery of mortality.”

“I’m surprised,” Shan offered, “that in all these years you have never gone to check on their fate.”

“She would never allow it,” the former prince said. He added after a pause, “Not that it really matters. I am bound to the tower and its land, as much a prisoner as She. I can not venture beyond the borders. I can only hope they avoided my curse and were allowed their final rest.”

“Goddess willing,” Shan agreed.

“Not all of the dead are bound here,” Shan commented after a moment.

“Sending an army of the undead to check on the well-being of people who were devastated fighting a war with the undead seemed problematic,” Stefan responded. “No, I will go on believing my brothers died at the time of her casting.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Shan responded. “My people were attacked by a group of ghouls on the other side of the forest. They came from here. Not all are bound to this land.”

“No,” Stefan agreed, “only those reanimated by the Lady.”

“Which is why we hadn’t ever seen the undead before,” Shan added.

“She devoted centuries to overcoming this weakness,” Stefan continued. “But there was no lore to be found in the archives, no rituals that could break it, no spells that could overcome it.”

“Which is why she needs the necromancers,” Shan finished for him.

Stefan nodded in agreement.

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.