“Thomas,” Craig called out in a hoarse whisper. He had spied the large man emerge from the wall ahead of him. Thomas was alone and had his axe firmly held in both hands.

“I thought you may have passed us by,” the large man smiled at Craig. His eyes took in Abeth’s presence and he nodded an acknowledgement. “I fully expected to find you at the exit waiting for us to arrive.”

“It’s slow work,” Craig shrugged. “Quiet and compassion can’t be rushed. What were you doing in that room? Where are Shan and Edith?”

“We needed to make a detour,” Thomas muttered as an explanation.

“The slaves,” Abeth added. The trio had joined up together and had continued their journey down the hidden flight of stairs. A few more floors to go and they would be in the hall and on the way to the exit.

“Of course,” Craig muttered back.

“It was the right thing to do,” Thomas defended.

“Yes,” Craig snapped. “But now we have a dozen more…”

“A dozen and a half,” Thomas corrected.

“A dozen and a half,” Craig repeated, “more people to feed and protect. Defenceless, slow moving people. People who’s disappearance will be noticed.”

“As will ours,” Thomas reminded Craig.

“We would have been able to put a lot of ground between us and the tower before that happened,” Craig retorted. “Eight people stood a better chance of escaping than twenty-six. We went from eight people who could defend themselves to eight people who have to protect eighteen others. Maybe we’ll get lucky and put some distance between us and the tower before they know we’re gone.”

“They might know sooner rather than later,” Thomas muttered.

“Why were you in that room, Thomas?” Craig asked.

“I was helping to gather the slaves,” Thomas answered.

“Thomas,” Craig pushed.

“We were interrupted by one of those talking skeletons,” Thomas explained. “I ended its grotesque life. It bought time for the people to escape.”

“It wasn’t Prince Stefan, was it?” Abeth asked.

“No,” Thomas replied. “Shan would have been upset if that happened. She seems to have developed an attachment to him. No, this was one we’d never met before.” There was a slight pause before he added, “And eight of its friends.”

“It’s a safe bet they’re aware something is up,” Craig sighed. “And Esther and Shan? Where are they?”

“They took the others to the exit,” Thomas said. “They should be there by now. Probably wondering where we are and when we’ll arrive.”

“Thomas,” Abeth directed toward the large man, “you’re bleeding.”

“I guess their swords were sharper than they looked,” Thomas lifted his arm with a wince. His armour was torn across the right side of his torso. The leather was split and blood seeped through the break.

“Let’s take a look,” Abeth suggested.

They stopped. Thomas, with Craig’s help, carefully removed the armour from around his chest. The wound was long but shallow, the skin was torn and blood oozed from the cut but there was no sign of anything more than surface damage.

“It doesn’t look that bad,” Abeth remarked. He pulled some cloth from his bag and covered the wound with it. “Hold,” Abeth instructed Craig. The captain pulled more cloth from his pack and wrapped it around Thomas’ torso. “This will do until we get out of Her hands. We’ll clean it up when we’re clear.”

They strapped the leather chestplate back into place and began the journey through the tunnel again. They had descended what remained of the stairs in silence, the quiet broken only by their footfalls. They could hear no sounds before or behind them as they shifted from having stairs under their feet to the flat surface of the hallway that would lead them out of the tower grounds.

Shan, Edith, and the others had passed through the passage, there were obvious signs within the dust that layered the floor, but no one could be seen in the hall as they moved down it. The men kept as brisk a pace as the could without straining Thomas’ wound more than needed.

They could just make out the stairs to the exit when the first sounds of footfalls behind them reached their ears.

Advertisements

Thomas gripped the haft of his axe in both his hands. He gave the axe a couple of swings while he waited to hear the muffled click of the door as it closed behind him. His eyes were focused on his foes before him, the axe in his hand was like an old friend: trusted to be there when needed.

The axe had been in Thomas’ possession since early in his adventuring career. A gift from a town he had helped save from a vicious group of raiders. The haft was made of a solid, heavy wood with a soft leather handle. It was topped by a single-bladed head made of a lightweight metal that never seemed to dull. The lack of the need for maintenance made it a perfect weapon to take with him into the wilds.

There were eight skeletal warriors in the room. They wore armour in what could only be described in a piecemeal fashion, although they all wore armour none of them wore a complete suit. They were, however, all armed with rusted broad-bladed swords.

The room was little more than a wide corridor lined with alcoves on either side. Three or four people might be able to fit abreast at any one time, but only two could fit across without getting into each others way during a fight. Something your run-of-the-mill undead wouldn’t realize.

These ones seemed to realize it.

They moved down the chamber two at a time. Up until they had met Prince Stefan, Thomas had never encountered an animated skeleton that had been anything more than a mindless drone. The tower possessed a large number of those typical skeletons as well as a handful of those that retained an ability to speak and think, who retained some semblance of their original personality.
These ones seemed different.

They seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the two: they were smarter than your average undead skeletons but seemed to lack any personality. They maintained their former instincts but little else, it seemed.

Still, Thomas felt confident in his chances at fighting them two at a time.

Thomas eyed the two lead skeletons as they made their way toward him. They kept enough distance between them as to allow them to freely swing their swords, a tactic employed by the duos behind them as well. There was a cautiousness to their movements as they edged near Thomas. They displayed a noticeable concern for their safety, an odd behaviour Thomas hadn’t seen before.

It wasn’t going to be so simple as breaking bones as his enemies lined up conveniently for him.

Thomas lunged at the skeletal warrior on his right, the axe head thrust forward like a spear. The skeleton backed away from the thrust axe, its companion lunged at Thomas. The large man easily sidestepped the clumsy attack, swung his axe in an arc and slammed the blunt end into the left skeleton’s skull. The result was spectacular as the skeleton’s skull shattered throwing pieces of bone everywhere. There was no time to celebrate as another foe moved forward to take the fallen one’s place.

Thomas moved away from the newcomer and into the path of his foe on the right. He swung his axe and caught his opponent’s legs, the force of the swing broke through both legs and dropped the skeleton to the floor. A quick blow crushed its skull and Thomas turned his attention to his left. He could see another skeleton move forward on his right.

He was just in time to deflect a swipe from his opponent. The sword bounced off the axe, Thomas reversed his swing and drove the butt of the handle into the centre of the skeleton’s face. It dropped lifeless to the ground.

Thomas felt something brush against his right side. He dropped his arm and pinned the item against his side. He turned to face his opponent, the sword clung to his side and was wrenched from the skeleton’s grip. The axe was swung upward, it hit the exposed skull and knocked the undead warrior backward into the ground. The sword clattered to the floor.

He stepped over the scattered bones all around him. Thomas brought his axe up above his head and brought it crashing down through the brittle bones of the skeleton on the left. He kicked out at the one on the right knocking it into the wall. He finished it off with a forceful hit to its head. One more skull crushed by the back end of his axe.

He moved back to the left side, the axe lashed out to smash a skeletal hand, it dropped another sword to the floor. One more swing and another skull was crushed. He could hear the bones snap underfoot as he moved to his last opponent.

Thomas deflected a blow from the skeleton and stepped into his opponent. He used the weight of his body to knock the skeleton to the ground. A swing of his axe removed the head from its body.

He stopped moving and stood long enough to take a deep, somewhat pained, breath. He crossed through the debris of bones, armour, and swords as he made his way back to the hidden door. Thomas took one last look at the carnage he had left in the room, he nodded to himself before backing through the door and into the tunnel.

“We can’t leave the slaves,” Shan repeated an opinion she had shared many times before. “There’s no telling what Her reaction will be. These people don’t deserve to bear the brunt of Her rage. She has no need for them without the necromancers, if we leave them here we doom them.”

“Agreed,” Esther confirmed. “The kitchens are on our way. We can slip in and grab them as we go. There’s only a half-dozen or so. They won’t slow us down that much. They can travel with us to Ravensbrook.”

It was a conversation they had had many times since they arrived at the ruined tower. As distasteful as it was to agree to end the lives of the tower’s necromancers Shan felt it would be a far greater stain on her conscience to leave the slaves to the not so tender mercies of the Lady. With the necromancers dead and Shan’s group removed from the tower there would be no need for the slaves. Shan’s time with the Lady had shown her a creature of rage and hate with no capacity for forgiveness.

“This is taking far too long,” Thomas grumbled the observation in his deep voice.

“Calm down, husband,” Esther responded, “let them gather their possessions. We’ll be on the way before you know it.”

“At this rate Craig will be waiting for us to arrive,” Thomas mumbled. He stood half in the barracks and half in the hidden corridor, his body kept the door from closing.

It was less a collection of possessions than a collecting of people. They had discovered only a small number of the tower’s slaves when they had arrived at the kitchens. There was some resistance to the idea of fleeing the Lady, but after a bit of convincing they had agreed to go; they did have to make a slight detour to retrieve the rest of the enslaved people.

They had quickly gathered as much food as they could before slipping into the hidden passages. The barracks that housed the captives was a converted store room one floor beneath the kitchens. The floor was normally used as a store room for food and also as a slaughter room for livestock. The current population of the tower had little need for either function and had instead taken to using it to house the people needed to prepare the meals for the necromancers. There was enough storage in the kitchen proper for the small amount of food that was kept on site.

There wasn’t much to be seen within the makeshift barracks; a few blankets that served as every possible type of furniture for the dozen and a half people trapped within. Outside of the clothing draped over their bodies there seemed to be little else in the room. Whatever there might have they wrapped in the blankets as they worked as fast and with as little noise as they could manage.

“It won’t take that long,” Shan offered. There were more people than she had expected. Half a dozen, a dozen at a stretch, they would be able to protect but eighteen would be difficult if they ran into a problem. These new additions were basically defenceless; they weren’t armed and they didn’t look like they were in any shape to wield them if there were. Shan found herself in agreement with Thomas: Speed was their ally. They needed to be free of the tower and away from the wasteland before the Lady knew they were gone.

“I’ll guide them through the tunnels,” Esther offered.

Thomas stepped aside to allow the first people ready to slip past him out of the barracks and into the tunnel. There were seven of them ready to go, the rest could still be heard elsewhere within the former storage chamber.

“See you in a bit,” Esther said as she moved through the doorway.

“We’ll be right behind you,” Thomas promised with a nod. “In theory,” he mumbled after she had left. He nodded as two more people brushed past him on their way out.

“Half way there,” Shan smiled. She walked toward the door on the far side of the main chamber. The people were in the smaller alcoves that lined either side of the main chamber. Shan had decided to see if she couldn’t speed up the packing process by her presence and, if necessary, her hands. They needed to move, sooner rather than later.

“Don’t you get lost on me,” Thomas complained.

“I’m going to attempt to impress a sense of urgency on our remaining charges,” Shan explained. Another person rushed past her toward the previously secret exit.

Shan had looked into the first three alcoves on her left when she heard Thomas announce, “Not without me.” She turned to watch as he used his massive axe to jam the door open. He moved across the open floor to join Shan as she neared the fourth alcove.

“I’m fairly certain there’s no danger,” Shan laughed. “They seem more afraid of me than I of them.”

“Perhaps,” Thomas admitted, “but I am betting they’re even more afraid of me.” Three more people scuttled off toward the tunnel entrance as if to punctuate his statement.

Four more alcoves and two more evacuees brought them to the end of the left hand row of storage rooms and a handful of steps from the chamber’s door. They turned to follow the right hand line of alcoves back to the tunnel exit, three more stragglers and they were free to leave.

“Why is there nobody in the kitchens?” a deep, disembodied voice rang out from behind them. They turned to find the door flung open and a skeletal warrior dressed in ancient armour crossing the threshold. There were at least six more similar figures in the hallway behind it.

“How did you get in here?” it demanded to know as it focused its glowing eyes on the two people in front of it.

“Run!” Thomas grabbed the creature by the front of its armour and dragged it fully into the room. He kicked the door shut while at the same time he used his muscled arms to pull the undead warrior’s head from its body. The light quickly faded from its eyes as Thomas swiftly used the skull to jam the door shut.

“Run!” he yelled again as he turned to follow his own instructions. Behind him came the sound of banging as the other undead attempted to break through the door. Shan had gotten to the tunnel and was ushering the remaining slaves through the door.

“Thomas!” Shan yelled. She pointed behind him: the door had shattered open and more armour-clad skeletons had begun to enter the room.

“Go,” he grabbed his axe from the door. “Get these people out. I’ll be right behind you.” He pushed Shan through the doorway and turned to face his still growing collection of foes.

Abeth used the weight of his body to keep the man beneath him from thrashing around. One hand was clamped firmly over the mouth and nose while the other used a knife to pierce the arteries on either side of the neck. He tried to make the act as fast and painless as possible. Death was painful, there was no avoiding that, but Abeth didn’t want to add any unnecessary pain to the process.

There was no way to predict what they would go through once the Lady reanimated them. A fate they would certainly endure.

“That’s it for this nest,” Craig said from the room’s doorway. He used the same approach as Abeth and it showed, his hands and forearms were stained with blood while the rest of him showed only a few droplets.

“It feels wrong to leave these people here for Her to add to her forces,” Abeth mused. He cleaned his blade on the bed’s blanket before he stood up and flexed his shoulders.

“It does,” Craig agreed, “but the only way to prevent it is to burn the bodies to ash. We can’t set them on fire without drawing attention to ourselves. I don’t like our chances if we have to fight our way out of this tower.”

“Yeah,” Abeth could understand that. It didn’t make what he was doing any easier: ending a man’s mortal life and leaving him to be cursed with an eternity of un-life. He found it difficult to believe that this was in the best interest of his people. It felt dirty.

It wasn’t that he had never taken another life nor that he was reluctant to do so, he had spent a lifetime as a soldier, but this was different. There was almost a sense of honour to his regular duties for the towers, there was none in this.

Life for a soldier of the tower cities was not easy. Depending on the day one could find oneself policing the city, patrolling the countryside, escorting travellers along the roads, guarding the local Light or her tower, or any other task that might arise.

The cities were generally safe for the people who lived in them. The more populous of the cities had thriving criminal elements, the port and border towers had zones that were outright dangerous to set foot in. There was an element within the tower cities that was obsessed with contraband and those that supplied it had no resistance to using violence.

The more dangerous assignments were those that took the soldiers away from civilization. Between the tower cities were vast expanses of wilderness within which pockets of humanity survived. These people lived apart from the gentle guidance of the Goddess, some were peaceful but most were not. Travel between towers was dangerous, people who left the safety of the tower were preyed upon by these hostiles.

Abeth’s duties involved him in many battles with these groups, both defending travellers on the roads and hunting them down in the wilderness. These battles were on a more even footing, man against man, the winner: the man with the most skill, or the most luck.

There was a risk involved for both parties. In this instance there was no true risk involved. It was just murder, regardless of the danger the necromancers represented it was still murder.

He had no issues taking a life in a fight but he was a soldier not an executioner. He had trouble coming to terms with this action being Her Will even with the positive result in the end.

“It’s dirty work,” Craig’s voice interrupted Abeth’s thoughts, “but necessary. We have to cut off the Lady’s power to influence the world outside of Her lands. These necromancers are little better than the monsters they create. We’ll all be safer for this.”

“I’d prefer a more honourable approach,” Abeth replied. “It would sit better with me if it was a face-to-face fight.”

“There’s honour in keeping your people safe,” Craig said, “no matter how it’s done.”

“There is a right and a wrong way to do things,” Abeth responded. “Any man should be given a chance to defend themselves. This is a slaughter. There is no humanity to it. No honour.”

“Your Goddess disagrees,” Craig pointed out. “Shan understands the necessity of what we do. Surely that suggests you Goddess sees some honour to the act. We may not like it but the truth of it is that not all battles are fought on a field. Some are fought around tables, some are fought in the dark of the night. Honour can be found in any arena.”

“Look,” Craig’s voice softened, “we have one more floor to clear. Watch my back and I’ll handle the dirty chore.”

“No,” Abeth answered. “I’ll shoulder my responsibilities. I don’t like it but I’ll follow my duty through. Thank-you, though.”

“Good. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”

Abeth followed Craig into the tunnels hidden within the tower’s walls.

Escape Plan

Posted: May 16, 2018 in 4. The Ruined Tower, Tall Tales
Tags: ,

Craig felt fairly certain they had explored the tunnels of the ruined tower as completely as anybody could. Their exploration might not have been one hundred percent complete but it had opened up an alternate way out. Under the tower, among the many chambers, there was a wide, seemingly forgotten, corridor that wormed under the ground and away from the tower.

Four people could fit comfortably side by side in the corridor. The corridor ran a relatively short way before it transformed into an equally wide staircase that led back to the surface. It had seemed to be that way, a journey up the stairs had quickly told a different story: a cave-in had blocked the way up to the surface.

Along with Thomas and Abeth, Craig had spent days digging out the rubble that blocked the stairway. It was a slow process, but they only needed to open up enough space for one person to get through. They could build supports as they went to keep their tunnels from collapsing in on themselves.

The stairs opened up within the ruins of the surrounding town, it was within the shadow of the walls that surrounded the tower grounds. Hidden behind half-broken buildings within the crust of a decayed warehouse, it would have allowed anyone housed in the underground rooms to come and go unnoticed. It would now provide an escape route from the tower. The archers that had stayed outside the walls were moved over to guard the now uncovered exit.

They were, as far as Craig was concerned, as prepared as they would ever be.

“The more time that passes, the more likely our hosts will discover the tunnels. We are in their homes, they could hear our activities at any moment. Catch us entering or exiting a hidden tunnel at any point. We shouldn’t delay much longer,” he voiced his opinion to Abeth as they returned from a visit with the archers. He kept his voice low, it was hard to judge how much sound carried in the recesses beneath the tower. There were times when you could hear distant footfalls as clear as a bell beside your ear and other times when it was a struggle to hear a voice right beside you. There seemed to be no consistency in how sound travelled in this underground.

“I agree,” Captain Abeth replied in equally hushed tones. They were all very careful about the level of noise they made while in the tunnels. There were no indications that the Lady or her minions, undead or living, knew of the tunnels’ existence but there was no reason to risk changing that.

“It’ll be nice to be away from the stench of decay,” Craig offered as they walked. “It has been too long since I’ve smelled anything else. Some clean fresh air will be a welcome change.”

Abeth gave a grunt that was noncommittal.

“I’ve seen where you come from,” Craig went on, “lush and green. Pure, clean running water. A veritable paradise. Surely there is something you miss. Something that calls you back.”

“I serve the Goddess,” Abeth replied. “I go where She pleases.”

“When she’s finished with you, come see me,” Craig shrugged. “There is always a place for a man of your skills and loyalty. Having you watching my back would be a comfort to myself and my family.”

They climbed the stairs hidden in the tower in silence. It was a trek they had taken many times. The route had been burned into their brains to the point that they could accomplish the journey in complete darkness.

Their return to their assigned quarters found their comrades waiting for them. Shan and Esther sat together on a couch, locked in a hushed conversation. Thomas stood on the balcony that overlooked the entry court of the tower’s grounds. Behind the large man the sky had begun to turn orange as the day drew to a close.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” Craig offered as greeting, “but I am ready to leave. Just give the word, Shan.” He settled himself comfortably onto an empty sofa.

Abeth quietly leaned his back against the chamber’s door.

“I am ready to return to the forest as well,” the deep voice that belonged to Thomas came from the balcony. The large man had moved to the balcony’s doorway.

“I am tired of being called to meet with the Lady,” Shan spoke, “multiple times a day. I have learned all that I can from her rambling, bragging rants full of hate, spite, and anger. How soon can we do it?”

“Just give the word,” Craig replied.

“Let’s do this tonight,” Shan decided. “Remove the necromancers and get out of this wasteland.”

“Abeth and I will handle the necromancers,” Craig instructed. “We’ll meet you at the exit. Thomas, guide Esther and Shan to where the archers wait. We’ll meet you there once we are done. If we don’t arrive shortly after you… leave. Get home. Let people know what’s happening. Get patrols set up to keep new necromancers from making the journey here. Cutting off her supply of assistants has to be out priority.”

They all nodded their agreement.

“Let’s go,” Craig looked over to Abeth. The two men moved toward the chamber’s hidden door.

The soldiers that exited the bush were more orderly then the first batch. It was a retreat rather than a rout. Men helped their wounded comrades while others watched for attack. They moved steadily past the scene of carnage, their eyes widened as they recognized the figure of Light Koarl covered by blood and gore.

Welsley, Samuel, and the four surviving guards watched the second wave of retreat from their position around the body of the undead bear. She knew they looked a sight: torn and broken bodies all around them, armour trashed and bloodied, the exhaustion evident in their stances. But there was a defiance to them as they watched the other soldiers emerge from the trees, their weapons at the ready.

The newly arrived soldiers from the front did not seem to pose much of a risk. They were all at least as exhausted as the Light and her group. Half of them, Welsley estimated, were horribly injured while the remaining half showed signs of minor trauma. Not a single one of the soldiers Welsley observed didn’t show signs of a battered morale.

“Help them,” Welsley ordered the remnants of her guard. This group of fleeing soldiers were from Falson Peak, she realized, the emblem of that tower was everywhere among the wounded and tired men. It was a little disturbing to think that her army had broken so much more completely than the Falson’s had.

She couldn’t deny the discipline on display. The officers had already begun assigning men to tend to the wounded, collect and burn the dead, guard the perimeter, and setup a basic camp. This was a decision made solely by the presence of the light.

“Why are you stopped here? Who gave the order?” Welsley heard Commander Mortimer’s voice boom out.

“Light Koarl,” Mortimer’s voice changed to surprise and then to concern, “are you hurt?”

“I am unharmed, Commander,” Welsley answered. “What happened?”

“We’ll make our stand here,” Mortimer informed the men around him. “See to the defences.” He crossed over to where Welsley stood and stared down at the bear’s body.

“Good job,” he said after a moment, “these beasts broke our lines. We lost a lot of soldiers in their initial attack. They’re fast, vicious, and strong. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Not luck,” Samuel nodded toward Welsley, “it was Light Koarl. She brought the monster down. We would have died without her.”

“Really,” the commander arched one eyebrow in surprise. “No simple feat, Your Eminence.”

“Indeed,” Welsley nodded, “you were telling us what happened at the front, Commander.”

“We came across a large field late in the morning,” Mortimer’s gaze shifted between the soldiers, hard at work as they prepared the defences, and his two partners in conversation. “It was there that we saw and organized force waiting for us, something we hadn’t seen since that first day. An army making a stand! Finally we could stop crawling through the woods picking them off one by one. We could finally fight like soldiers again.”

“I allowed myself to imagine we might finally be through their lines,” Mortimer smiled for a brief moment. “I was elated. The troops’ spirits were high as well. It looked as if we might finally be able to gain some ground on our enemy.”

“Commander Roberts and I agreed to let my men take the lead,” he continued. “My soldiers were more heavily armoured and very eager to land the killing blow on our enemy. I led my soldiers across the field, our enemies in our sights. We never managed to engage.”

“The land around us exploded,” Mortimer explained. “We found ourselves suddenly swamped by large, feral bear-things. We went from marching toward our enemy to swimming in an ocean of danger. I could hear the sounds of battle all around me, but my focus was limited to what was directly in front of me. By the time we had defeated the beasts and reassembled the bulk of our troops were dead or gone. The undead line was unmoved and untouched.”

“There just wasn’t enough of us left to launch an attack,” he went on. “We gathered our injured and made an ordered retreat. We collected soldiers and destroyed any undead we encountered on the way.”

“What happened to Commander Roberts?” Welsley asked.

“I lost him when the battle started, Your Eminence,” the Commander responded. “I don’t know where he wound up.”

“Thank-you,” she replied. “Go. Finish with your troops. Try to get some rest.”

Mortimer bowed and left Welsley and Samuel.

“You and a handful of men?” Welsley turned to Samuel.

“Just myself at this point,” Samuel answered.

“Go kill the necromancers, they cannot be allowed to return to the Lady,” Welsley declared. “Bring Shan home.”

“And the Falsons?” Samuel asked.

“I don’t care,” was the reply.

They didn’t encounter any real resistance until late into the fourth day. By the start of the fourth day they had settled into a routine that, although slow, was ordered and efficient. They stretched their front line as far off to the sides as their numbers allowed, they moved forward while they checked anywhere a person might hide. Behind the front lines roamed squads of soldiers whose entire job was to catch any of the undead that slipped through any holes in the line.

Welsley, Samuel, and her bodyguard had been busy scouring the bush behind the bulk of the army since the sun had risen. It had been an easy task compared to the previous day, not only were there few animated enemies to be found there were also fewer bodies.

“Maybe we defeated the bulk of their numbers,” Welsley mused aloud.

“Maybe,” Samuel replied. His eyes roamed across the bush on the lookout for signs of movement. “They have a four day advantage on us. It could be difficult to catch them.”

“Light Falson is old, she moves fairly slow,” Welsley said,” it should still be easy enough to catch them.”

“Give me a handful of sharpshooters with crossbows and I’ll hunt them down. An army is too slow,” Samuel froze in place.

“What is it?” Welsley asked.

“Surround the Light,” Samuel barked.

The soldiers in her bodyguard moved fast and had her in a protective circle almost before she could react. There was a rumbling sound coming from the forest ahead of them, a sound that seemed to be building in intensity.

“The tree,” Samuel pointed behind Welsley. They moved quick, pushing Welsley until her back was against the tree’s trunk. The soldiers arranged themselves in a half-circle with weapons at the ready.

The noise became thunderous; a cacophony of pounding feet and cracking wood. Soldiers burst out of the woods in a state of panic. They seemed not to see anything in front of them. Welsley watched her bodyguard push the running soldiers away from her. She was immediately thankful for her men’s stoicism.

Still, her fleeing army was a concern.

“What’s going on?” Welsley asked Samuel, her voice raised to cut through the din.

One of her guards grabbed a man as he ran past and pulled him into the safety of the semi-circle. Samuel grabbed the soldier by the arms and looked into his eyes. The man’s eyes were wide and unfocused, no weapons were in his possession and his armour was ripped and bloodied.

“Soldier!” Samuel yelled into the man’s face. “Report. What happened up there? What do you flee from?”

The man’s eyes blinked slowly: open, closed, open. His mouth moved as if he was speaking but no sounds could be heard.

“Look!” one of the bodyguards interrupted.

Welsley watched as Samuel pushed the frightened soldier away, almost tossing him off to the side. Quicker than she would have thought possible for anyone to move he had pulled his crossbow off his back, dropped to one knee, and loaded a bolt.

Welsley felt a body slam into her and knock her into the tree behind her. She slumped to the ground; her vision blurred, the breath knocked out of her, a body on top of her.

She tried to make sense of the noises around her as she attempted to right herself. The sound of fleeing soldiers were dissipating into the distance. The sounds of battle were all around her: flesh being torn, bodies falling, the cries from wounded men, the twang of a crossbow being fired. Over all of it was a deep, guttural, bestial sound that seemed a strange mix of a roar and a growl.

Welsley pushed the body off of her and forced herself to her feet. She used one hand against the tree to steady herself, she drew a deep breath and took in the view in front of her.

There were bodies all around with deep gashes and missing limbs. Broken and discarded like old toys. In the centre of all the blood stood a massive animal, akin to a bear, it stood on three feet with its back to the Light. To its side was one of its front paws that had been hewn from its body. There were four members of her bodyguard, as well as Samuel, standing in front of it.

There was no hair on the beast. Its skin was cracked and torn across its body. The leathery surface was tinted a pale green. A thick, dark ichor dripped slowly from its wounds. Welsley counted three quarrels stuck in its body.

Welsley kept her eyes on the beast in front of her as she slipped her mace from her hip. The loss of its paw seemed to have made it wary of its foes, it stared them down, growling and snarling as it waited for an opening it could use to push its attack.

Her bodyguard, what remained of it, had formed a barrier between the creature and Samuel. He had used the distance they provided to prepare his crossbow and take a more careful aim. He had managed to hit the beast a number of times but had so far failed to score a head shot.

Perhaps, Welsley considered, she could help with that.

She gripped the mace’s handle in both hands. Her heart raced but her breathing and vision had steadied. The beast didn’t seem to pay her any mind, it focused its attention on the threat in front of it.

Welsley moved cautiously to the side of the creature with the missing paw. She moved in toward its side, the mace raised above her head. The mace was slammed into the beast’s rear knee with all the force she could put behind it. The result was spectacular as bone shattered and skin broke under the blow.

The creature whirled on Welsley, its roar pure rage. Death shone in its eyes. It bared its teeth as it turned its head toward her. A crossbow bolt exploded through its head; bone, brain, and ichor splashed all over. The beast howled in rage and pain while it turned back to Samuel and the guards.

It stumbled.

Welsley threw herself at the beast. She drove her mace into its head, a double handed swing with her full weight behind it. The sound of the bone as it was crushed by the blow was almost as satisfying as the thud the massive body made as it hit the ground.

“What,” the Light asked between breaths, “was that?”

“A bear at one point,” Samuel answered as he collected his quarrels from the beast’s body. “It looks like some type of ghoul. Smarter too. I’ve never seen its like.”

“Sorry about the bolt,” Welsley offered as she pointed to the smashed skull.

Samuel just shrugged.

The bushes ahead of them shook again.

Welsley flicked her mace at the ground in a futile effort to clean its head of the gore it had collected. The action was a reflex, she was covered from head-to-toe in what, at one time, was another person. The downside to dressing all in white was that everything stained easily.

Her arm was sore and tired, she could barely move it enough to shake the mess off. She had a new respect for her soldiers, she had only been out for a short time cleaning up stragglers and her arm felt dead, her soldiers had been fighting for hours with heavier weapons and armour. Welsley wasn’t a stranger to using a mace, but short practice sessions had not prepared her for actual combat.

Welsley glanced around her. She had been accompanied by her standard bodyguard of a dozen soldiers. They had been handpicked by Commander Roberts who insisted they never leave her side while she was near the front lines. Samuel also stuck with her, a habit she had begun to look forward to.

The cavalry had made quick work of the undead that had stood on the grassland before the forest. The undead, without a leader, would not flee or give any ground. Despite their fearlessness they were no match for the thundering hooves that rode down on them. They had been efficient, by the time they were finished not a single zombie was left standing.

It was when the infantry entered the forest that the battle changed. The closeness of the trees prevented the horses being used in the conflict; the shelter of the trees provided a shield from arrows, archers were no longer useful en masse. The foot soldiers had to search tree by tree as they pushed their lines forward. Zombies and skeletal warriors hid behind every tree accompanied by worse monstrosities.

The biggest loss of life among her troops came from the pockets of ghouls that were hidden among their slower brethren. Little bubbles of rage that exploded onto the searchers with almost no warning. The melees were fast and furious, over before any of the men realized it. Those soldiers caught in the initial attack were, most often, torn to pieces by the vicious teeth and ragged claws of the ghouls. Those that survived were left with large, festering wounds.

These collections of ghouls made advancement through the woods slow. Every inch taken driven by a relentless Mortimer and his contingent of Falson troops. Their desire to break through the enemy lines and rescue their Light pushed them to their limits and beyond. The majority of the casualties came from their camp.

They had erected a makeshift hospital on the edge of the forest after the first day of battle. Welsley’s attendants, along with those of Light Falson, scoured the sites of battle and brought the wounded back to be tended.

The bodies of the undead were thrown onto a pile and set alight, the smoke was dark and greasy. The bodies of the fallen soldiers were also burned, but in a more solemn, respectful ceremony. With the bodies destroyed it was hoped that no more corpses could rise up to oppose them. There had been no sightings of any of the necromancers.

Welsley’s gaze fell onto Samuel. He had knelt down beside a body to pull a quarrel from its skull. He wiped the crossbow bolt on the body’s tattered clothing in an attempt to clean it off. He gave it a quick examination before he slipped it into a quiver hidden in the recesses of his cloak. It was a routine he followed after every combat. He wasted nothing.

“I suspect none of the necromancers stayed behind,” Samuel offered as he rose to his feet. “The undead we encounter seem to be staged to slow down our advance but there is no indication that new ones are being animated.”

“I think you’re right,” Welsley responded. “Every battle allows them to put more distance between us and them. Allows them to get closer to the Lady with their prizes.”

They were on day two of their attempt to smash the undead. The day was already getting long, it was unlikely they had cleared the way up ahead. With her arm as tired as it was there seemed little point, to Welsley, to push on. It would be better to attempt to get a solid night’s sleep and continue on in the morning.

“We should call it a day,” she offered to Samuel, “my arm is numb. I don’t think I could possibly swing it again.”

“It’s late,” Samuel replied, “they’ll be digging in for the night at the front fairly soon. If we head back to the field hospital we should be able to eat and rest a bit before the runner arrives with an update from the front. Maybe we can even clean up a bit.”

“A warm meal, a hot bath, a soft bed, clean clothes…,” Welsley trailed off as they began the walk back to the hospital. The soldiers that made up her bodyguard fell into step in a circle that surrounded her and Samuel.

“You should be able to get half of your wishes,” Samuel responded.

That was true. Welsley had additional clothing stored at the camp. There would be a hot meal prepared for the wounded that were able to eat as well as the soldiers who pitched their tents nearby. There was no real way to accomplish a hot bath or a soft bed.

“That will have to do,” Welsley sighed.

They walked in companionable silence the rest of the way to the camp.

“I take it things didn’t go well,” Commander Roberts greeted them as they returned to the river fort. “Wait. Where’s Light Falson?”

“I need you to draft a summons,” Welsley addressed one of her waiting attendants, “I need to convene a Council of Lights. Here and without delay. We’ll need a copy for each tower. Eleven… no, ten. We don’t need one for Falson Peak. Go. Hurry.”

She watched the attendant hurry off to do her bidding.

“I’ll need your best riders on your fastest horses to deliver these messages,” Welsley addressed Commander Roberts.

“Right away, Your Eminence,” Alister Roberts gestured to one of the many soldiers around them sending one of them off to make the arrangements. “What happened out there?”

“Light Koarl!” a man’s voice rang out above the noise of the camp. It was an angry voice that belonged to the highest ranking member of the Falsons’ bodyguard. He pushed his way through the crowd on a direct route to the Light. Behind him trailed a handful of his men.

“You handed Light Falson over to those monsters?” he accused. He stopped in front of Welsley. “You held spears at my men’s throats?”

Welsley only half-listened to the man demanding answers from her, her mind was lost within itself trying to see every aspect of the situation and plan for every eventuality she could see. Her priority was to remember what this man’s name was.

Out of the corner of her eyes she could see Samuel shuffle about, he cradled his crossbow in his arms but had adjusted it so he could fire it in a moment should he need to. He had also quietly moved his body between her and the angry man.

“Watch your tone, Mortimer,” Robert admonished. “You are addressing the Guiding Light of Norasburg, chosen of the Goddess. Best you be remembering that before you speak again.” There was a tone of warning in his voice.

Mortimer. That was the name. Not only was he the commander of the Falson bodyguard but he was also related in some way; a cousin or a nephew. He had not just failed in his duties but lost two members of his family as well.

“I serve only one Light,” the man called Mortimer replied, “and she betrayed her to those monsters.”

“I chose the safety of all of the tower cities over that of a couple individuals,” Welsley faced down Mortimer, a man twice her size. “A Light is chosen to serve her people, even if that means sacrificing her life. Light Falson knows this and accepts it.”

Lies. All of it. The words seemed to placate the man. It gave an almost heroic lean to the story, Light Falson would be seen as bravely sacrificing herself for the people. Not entirely true, but it was an acceptable lie.

His voice was calmer when he responded, “Why do I still see them lined up at the forest edge? They show no sign of leaving.”

“The Lady’s representative believes we will betray him and attempt to rescue Light Falson,” Welsley explained. “His lack of trust has proven him right. I will not have an army of the dead standing on my border indefinitely. We will destroy the undead, burn their bodies so they can’t be raised again, track down the necromancers and free the Light. But I need your help to do this.”

“What do you need, Your Eminence?” Mortimer asked.

“I need your soldiers to fight with mine. To join Commander Roberts forces in the coming fight,” Welsley explained. “I also need you to summon reinforcements from Falson Peak. Horsemen, archers, whatever can be spared. We need to be able to take this fight through the forest and to the lost tower.”

“My troops are yours, Your Eminence,” Mortimer agreed.

“Excellent,” Welsley replied. “Commander Roberts will let you know what he needs.”

The mass of people broke up quickly after that. Before long she was left with only Samuel at her side. She had dismissed her remaining attendants. All around her the soldiers moved around busily preparing for the upcoming battle.

“Was this your plan?” Samuel asked.

Welsley shook her head. “Everything just fell into place,” she said. “Giving up the Falsons bought us time. Their lack of trust separates the undead from at least some of the necromancers. It is an opportunity to destroy their army. We’ll pursue the necromancers and with a little luck catch them before they reach Her land.”

“And the Falsons?” Samuel asked.

“She wants them alive,” Welsley shrugged. “If we catch up with the necromancers we should be able to free them.”

“You don’t approve?” Welsley responded to Samuel’s frown.

“You don’t seem very concerned with their well-being,” he answered.

“They can be replaced,” she answered. “It is vital we eliminate the necromancers before they get back to the Ruined Tower. Without them She is harmless, Her creations can’t leave the wasteland.”

“How do you know this?”

Welsley smiled in answer. “The Goddess provides.”

“What?” the younger Falson exclaimed.

Welsley could almost feel the shock radiate from the people around her. She understood the reaction, it would have been hers if positions had been reversed, but she needed her soldiers to react before the Falson troops did.

It was Samuel who recovered first. He moved his body swiftly between Welsley and the heavily armoured soldiers, a bolt loaded in his crossbow which was now pointed at the nearest man. At this distance the bolt would punch through not just the front of the breastplate but would exit through the back as well.

“You can’t do this,” Light Falson snapped.

“I can,” Welsley replied. “Two lives are not more valuable than tens of thousands. Even if one of those lives is one of the Goddess’ Guiding Lights.”

The Falson soldiers were frozen in place. They had been unsure of how to react, an issue quickly overcome by the Norasburg soldiers. They had followed Samuel’s example and pressed their spear points against the necks of the other soldiers.

“You would make the same choice,” Welsley turned to face the other women. “We save many lives in exchange for your sacrifice.”

“Do we have a deal?” the necromancer’s hoarse whisper interrupted.

“Yes,” Welsley answered.

“No,” the younger Falson offered her own answer.

“Welsley…,” Light Falson began.

“Light Koarl,” Welsley corrected. “Light Falson, there is no need to attempt to manipulate me by pretending a friendliness that doesn’t exist. The proper form of address is Light Koarl.”

“Light Koarl,” the older lady forced the words out,” think about this, please. We can work together. I can use my influence to get you the support of every tower not just that of Falson Peak. As a nation we can work together to defeat these invaders.”

“How many of my people die before reinforcements arrive?” Welsley asked. “It would take days for troops from our closest neighbour to arrive, months for our farthest ally. That’s assuming they sent soldiers today. Norasburg could fall before any help arrived. You would find the undead installed in the tower, their numbers swelled by the corpses of my soldiery and citizens. Each victory will only bring them greater strength and swifter wins.”

“No,” Welsley continued before anyone could reply, “the people of Norasburg will not be sacrificed so the other tower cities can prepare their defences. There is little chance of victory as the undead numbers grow and the tower numbers fall. My people would die in vain, that I will not allow. Not when I can sacrifice two people and remove the threat to everyone.”

“Well said, Light Koarl,” the necromancer applauded. “Very well reasoned.”

“We won’t just go willingly,” the younger Falson promised.

“Not a concern,” the necromancer smiled, “my servants will drag you if necessary, although they won’t be gentle.”

“Our guards won’t allow it,” the youngster declared. “When they’ve finished with you they’ll take Light Koarl into custody.”

“I doubt that, little pig,” the necromancer shot back. “Those spears at their throats tell a different story. I doubt they’d manage two steps before they’d be ready to join the ranks of my army.”

“Enough,” Welsley broke in. “I give you the Falsons and you take your army and go home. Do we have a deal?”

“We do, Light Koarl.”

“Take them.”

The necromancer gestured and the two women were surrounded by a dozen zombies. They acted in an almost respectful manner, they encased the women in a prison of animated flesh, trapped but untouched.

“We will treat them with as much kindness as we can. The Lady will want them in as close to one piece as possible. You have brought great comfort to the Lady this day, Light Koarl.”

The necromancer bowed respectfully before he fell into step behind his zombies as they moved toward the forest. The remaining undead had begun to close in around him when he stopped.

“Light Koarl,” he turned back to her. “In case you change your mind on the deal I will be leaving my army at the forest’s edge. They will cause no problems for you unless you attempt to take the Falsons back. They are, however, there to stay.”