Silver and Scars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talk of Wraiths V

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

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

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

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

“It sounds like it,” David agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The comfort was replaced by fear once the wall vanished.

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

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

“Let me think,” Robert whispered back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Run!” Robert pushed David ahead of him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of Wraiths IV

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

“Don’t stop moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David felt himself pushed forward again.

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

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

“Climb,” Robert yelled down at David.

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

Could the creature climb?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of Wraiths III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” David answered.

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

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

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

“Don’t stop moving,” David repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of Wraiths II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all came back to the wraith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of Wraiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David exhaled slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s that?” Robert asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing worth doing is easy,” David replied.

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

“That explains so much,” David laughed.

“What do you mean?” Robert asked.

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

“That seems fair,” Robert agreed.

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

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

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

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