Archive for the ‘Rears Its Ugly Head’ Category

“We just missed the ritual,” Craig added, “another failure. We were faced with a no-win choice; pursue the ghouls or chase the necromancers. No matter what choice was made we lost. There was only the four of us, we couldn’t split up and go after both. We would lose on both counts if we tried.”

The group sat in silence as the fire crackled before them. Shan’s eyes drifted over her companions as the orange light of the fire flickered over their faces. The silence stretched out until Shan could hear the wood hiss and pop. Sparks danced into the night above their circle before fading away.

“We could see no sign of the necromancers’ movements,” Craig continued, his neck bent and face downcast, “the ghouls had made a mess of the area. The necromancers were the biggest threat but the ghouls were the more immediate danger. It didn’t really matter, the ghouls had destroyed any chance we had to pick up their master’s tracks. There was only one path left open to us: follow the ghouls.”

Craig placed a couple logs onto the fire sending a swarm of sparks into the cool night air.

“If we had only arrived earlier,” he continued. “If we had gotten there before the ghouls had been raised, before they could complete their ritual… It was a failure, the necromancers had escaped. We pursued the ghouls with the hope of catching them before they could do any damage. We chased them across the expanse of the forest but we couldn’t gain any ground. We failed to catch them before they killed everyone in those two camps…”

Samuel cleared his throat, “I’m going to check the perimeter.”

“I’ll join you,” offered one of Shan’s soldiers.

Shan watched as the circle broke up, people retired to their bedrolls or disappeared into the dark that surrounded them. When everyone had left there was just Craig and Esther left at the fire with Shan. The druid’s eyes were locked onto the warrior, his eyes stared deep into the fire.

“Seers are rarely accurate on timing,” Esther quietly broke the silence. “Their visions are often confused and clouded even to those who witness them. It is often hard to discern between the past, present, or future. There is rarely any clarity to be found.”

“The Goddess is rarely clear in her messages,” Shan agreed. “There are often conflicting interpretations to her words.”

The old warrior shook his head slowly. “I was a poor choice to guide you. My life has been but one failure piled atop another. I fail myself, I fail my family, I fail my people.”

“Life,” Esther chuckled, “is failure. Every successful meal for the owl is a failure of the mouse to survive. Success does not exist with failure. It is Nature’s will, its design at work.”

“Dozens of men are dead because we failed to prevent the ritual,” Craig pointed out, “because we failed to prevent the ghouls from passing through the forest.”

“And their people are now aware of a danger they could never have contemplated,” Esther countered. “The light of life can only exist beside the shadow of death. It may not be obvious to us, but nature allows no death to be in vain and no life is ever truly wasted. We may not discern the connection but we need to keep faith that it is there.”

“And how do the undead fit into this divine balance?” he questioned.

“Some people choose to twist the natural world for their own ends,” the druid spat. “It doesn’t occur to the same degree in the lesser animals, but is very common among the species that claim the label of ‘intelligent.’ Nature is very resilient, she accepts all her children’s attempts to force their will on her. Even the smallest life attempts to change its environment to suit its perceived needs. This is by her design, change amuses her.”

“She controls these changes through the cycle of life and death. It is why every death feeds a life, why every life ends in a death. Her cycle is perfection,” Esther took in Shan and Craig’s gazes one at a time before she continued, “but some of her children are more determined than others. She has many tricks available to right things; weather, the ground itself, her loyal servants. She can even use her more independent children to police themselves. For every person determined to break her cycle, there are more willing to fight to right it.”

“Life and death. Success and failure,” Esther continued, “these are the constants provided to us by Nature. She gives us the freedom to make the journey on our own. We fill in our own destiny while she observes and quietly guides.”

“And it is her will that everything I do ends in failure,” Craig summarized. “Goodnight, ladies,” he offered as he got up and left to his tent.

“It is not always easy to see our place in nature,” Esther said.

Shan had listened closely as Esther explained her view of the world. There was some sense to the view but it seemed too simple an explanation of the world. There was a guiding hand at work in the world, Shan had been taught this from an early age. The Goddess guided everyone’s destiny, Her influence was obvious and absolute. Shan had no doubt in Her existence.

“And the Goddess?” Shan asked. “Where does she fit into this cycle?”

“You will not like the answer,” Esther replied.

“My Faith is not so easily shaken,” Shan pressed.

“We know a little of the Goddess and her rise to power,” Esther began. “The ruined tower was not always a destroyed relic. At one point it was a beacon of power, home to a civilization that rivalled the greatest among your twelve. Although it fell many lifetimes ago, we still remember some of the teachings from that time. That, however, doesn’t matter.”

“The Goddess,” Esther explained, “was an entity determined to dominate nature and the cycle. She did for a time. She succeeded in binding a nation to her will. She forced thousands to adopt a system of belief that has endured unto this day. It was an amazing accomplishment, to be sure, but she could not break free of the cycle. Death took her, her world view would live on in her people but she could not escape the fate of all living things. Death takes us all and the cycle continues.”

“Your Goddess was an impressive mortal,” Esther concluded, “but she was no deity. Nature birthed her and to Nature she was returned.”

“How does she still speak to Her chosen?” Shan asked.

“Does she?” Esther countered. “Has she spoken with you?”

“Through Her teachings, yes,” Shan answered.

“But not directly?” Esther attempted to clarify.

“No,” Shan admitted.

Esther nodded. “Nature speaks to us constantly. In the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. In the first cries of the newly born, in the final rattling breath of the dying. In all its beauty and its ugliness, Nature speaks to us.”

“You have given me much to consider,” Shan said. She got up and went to her tent. It was late and morning would break before they knew it.

“Sleep well,” Esther offered, her gaze lost in the dance of the fire.

“I suppose my involvement in this started four weeks ago,” Craig began as the group relaxed around the fire that night. He was quiet for a bit and then added, “maybe five. Not more than five weeks for certain.”

He had been on his farm, a small homestead just large enough for a home, a small barn, a garden, and a tribe of goats. He had gotten a good deal on it due to its proximity to the cursed tower, a fact that had the added benefit of keeping people away. His closest neighbours were a day’s travel away, the population centre of Shatterook was a couple of days distance by horse. The edge of the wasteland that surrounded the tower was two days of travel, too close for the comfort of most people.

There was a garrison located on the border of the tower’s dead lands. The men stationed there spent their days monitoring activity within the zone and keeping the border safe from any dangers that might arise. He had served some time guarding the border in his youth, it was during this time he had become enamoured with the land. It would be almost two decades before he would be able to purchase this land.

He explored a lot of different opportunities as he aged, most of which revolved around his skill with a sword. He saved as much of his wages as he could from his stints as bodyguard, soldier-for-hire, or guide but it became more and more evident as time went on that selling his skills to the rich would never earn him the gold he would need to achieve his dream. He would need to make a change, to take a risk.

Craig had struck out on his own to chase his fortune. He spent years running down rumours of forgotten ruins, deciphering tattered maps, and following myths that took him deep into the forest and far into the desert. He never did find the wealth of coin he had dreamt of, but on one of his early journeys he found his wife, Agatha, the jewel of his life. In between his expeditions they would bring a son, Alex, and a daughter, Tara, into the world.

His fortune grew slowly over the years, even though vast riches eluded him the freedom his choice made for his life made the struggles easier. The use of his skills to increase the wealth of the rich had crushed his spirit, using his skills for the betterment of himself and his family brought joy to his life – even if financial wealth was beyond his reach.

For fourteen years he explored the wilds, journeying wherever the hint of gold would take him. After every expedition he would return to Shatterook and his family. He would stay for a short time, allowing his wounds to heal before he was off on his next adventure. The hunt for treasure brought him into contact with other fortune seekers including Samuel, Thomas, and Esther.

When he had scraped together enough gold to purchase some land and some goats, Craig retired from the adventuring life. He had agreed to do so early in his marriage to Agatha and was more than happy to follow through with the promise once the land was theirs. That was six months ago.

It had been mid-morning, on that day four weeks ago, when the small group of people rode up to the farmstead. He had just finished tending to his tribe of goats and had been leaning against the wooden fence watching them graze and play in the cool of the morning. A sword rested against the same fence just within reach. He was happy to be retired but could not quite break the habit of having a weapon nearby.

He allowed himself a few moments every day to just enjoy the antics of his little herd. The adults were calm and brave, he had watched them hold off a pair of wolves just after they had arrived at the farm. He had been impressed by the billy goats’ willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to give the nanny goats time to herd the kids to safety. The goats managed to drive the wolves away much to Craig’s delight.

The kids were an enjoyable distraction. Clumsy and full of energy they spent their time chasing after each other, butting heads, and bounding as far as their little legs would allow them. The play would always be followed by long, deep naps.

The antics of the goats helped organize his thoughts. He used this morning break to organize his day, plan his tasks, and prepare himself for his duties. The early morning visitors might make this exercise unnecessary.

He strapped his sword to his left hip and rested his right hand on its hilt. He could see eight riders approach from the direction of Shatterook. Two of them looked to be soldiers, two had an air of wealth about them, one was garbed in a dark robe, the final three he recognized as his friends; Esther, Thomas, and Samuel.

“Craig, my friend,” Thomas’ voice boomed as the riders approached Craig.

“What do you want?” Craig demanded. “Don’t dismount,” he growled as one of the better dressed men had begun to do just that. The man paused mid-dismount which brought a smile to Craig’s face. He recognized the two well-dressed men as members of the town council.

“We need your help,” the man pulled himself back into his saddle.

“No,” Craig responded. He could see his wife and kids watching from the porch of their home.

“I would never allow them to disturb your retirement,” Esther spoke from her saddle, “but it’s important. At least hear us out, Craig.”

“Fine. Stay mounted.”

“I have seen necromancers in the darkness. The dead rising from their graves,” the man in the dark robes said. “The undead marched on the town. Their hunger was unstoppable. Many die, many join their ranks. They sweep over the land.”

The robed individual was the town’s seer. He was responsible for divining the future weather for the local farmers. As far as Craig could remember he had never predicted any cataclysmic event. He was of the druidic order, like Esther, but he preferred the comfort of the town to the wilderness.

“Do you believe him?” Craig asked Esther.

“I do,” was the reply. “There is truth to his words.”

“Doesn’t look like enough people to stop an apocalypse,” Craig commented.

“It is our hope to catch the necromancers before they can perform the ritual,” Esther said. “But to have a chance to do that, we need you. Nobody knows the lands around the tower as well as you.”

Craig glanced at the distant tower behind him. Any danger that came out of that land would overrun his home before it got near the town. If it got past the border guard there would be only him to stop it. Preventing the ritual would be better in the long run than defending against an onslaught of the dead.

“Okay,” he mumbled, “I’ll saddle up.”

He couldn’t look at his family as he moved toward his barn. He didn’t even manage six months with them. Reasons why were irrelevant, it was just one more way he had failed them. All he could hope for was a quick resolution.

It had never occurred to Shan that she would ever travel through the eastern forest. She had visited the logging camps numerous times over her life, part of her duties were to inspect the camps, but she had never been more than a few meters in. She could always see out to the camp and the stumps of the harvested trees. She had never dreamed that one day she would find herself midway through the massive expanse of wilderness.

They were retracing the route they had taken when they had originally followed the ghouls to the Norasburg edge of the forest. The route would end at the ruined tower rather than Shatterook, a fact that had caused a bit of friction within the group. Shan had insisted on heading directly to the origin of the monsters while Craig had fought for them to head to Shatterook and his home. In the end, Esther had sided with her and insisted they had to find the cause of the abominations before it threatened their home. Esther’s decision was accepted and the group was on their way.

The result made Shan feel more comfortable with the situation. She had believed that Craig was the leader of the newcomers, a situation that had bothered her. Things made more sense now that Esther was calling the shots. Craig seemed to serve the same function for Esther that Abeth did for her. They were more casual in their communication, but in the end the men were subservient to the woman as the Goddess intended.

Along with Shan came Abeth and two of the soldiers that had been involved with the ghoul battle. Part of her had wanted to leave Abeth to command the garrison at the river crossing, but Light Koarl would have disapproved of that decision so she took him with her. She took the two soldiers with her since they had already been exposed to the strange creatures and would be less likely to panic should they run into more. The rest of the soldiers were to stay at the river crossing camp except for the one that was sent as an eyewitness with her written report to the Light.

She kept her escort to just four. She was loath to leave the river unguarded and it didn’t make a lot of sense to move a small army through the forest. She didn’t want to leave Norasburg short of defenders for an unknown time frame. Matching the other group’s numbers had made the most sense.

Travel under the roof of the forest was different than the journey from Norasburg had been. There was no good road to follow, no trail to guide them. There was an almost imperceptible path that the ghouls and the Shatterook party had made, but it was hardly broken in and would be absorbed by the vegetation within days. There was an earthy, slightly musky smell to the air. All around them could be heard the sound of insects and the smaller animals that called the woods home. There was a dim green light that pervaded the world under the blanket of leaves. There was a coolness to the air they moved through.

Samuel alternated between her soldiers, including Abeth, as he scouted abroad. The rest of the travellers followed the trail of the ghouls back through the trees. Every day the scouts would bring back a fresh kill and a sack full of fruits and berries to supplement their dried rations. They ate the dried food during the day so they wouldn’t need to make a stop. The evening meal would consist of fresh food.

Shan, herself, didn’t partake of meat. She chose instead to follow in the footsteps of the Goddess and only ate fruits and vegetables. Most of the faithful followed this restriction, the men-folk tended not to. Not too surprising to Shan, males were further from the perfection of the Goddess and their actions tended to prove that. She was the only member of the group who showed any dietary restraint.

The routine of the trek consisted of breaking camp just after waking, a leisurely march through the trees during the day, followed by the setting up of camp and cooking of the evening meal. Craig would point out evidence of the ghouls’ passing; broken branches, disturbed soil, dried blood from some unfortunate meal. At other times they would receive instruction from Esther on what vegetation was edible, what was poisonous, and what had medicinal or mystical properties.

The soldiers and the warriors discussed battle and tactics, combat and weapons. They swapped tales of personal glory, the group from Shatterook shared stories that would have sounded more at home on the tongues of bards than soldiers. Fantastic tales of the dead come back to life, insect of gigantic proportions and numerous other tales that Shan would have called “tall” a few weeks ago.

Shan quietly listened to all that was said. Each tale brought her greater understanding of her new companions.

The druid, a label Esther gave herself, was very knowledgeable about the forest’s flora and fauna. Throughout the journey Esther would slow and speak softly to various plants, insects, and animals. She would listen intently to any response, sometimes laughing to herself, before moving on. Esther had an amazing affinity for animals, Shan was confused by the druid’s willingness to eat animal flesh.

“All throughout the realm of nature,” Esther had explained to Shan as they walked together, “we have entities that survive solely on the flesh of other animals. It is part of nature’s cycle, everything provides life for everything else. Animals eat plants and other animals. Plants use the dead flesh of animals and other plants to thrive. Both animals and plants will feed on humans, why would it be wrong for us to feed on them?”

“The Goddess tells us it’s immoral to eat another living creature,” Shan answered.

“Plants are alive,” the druid had replied.

“They don’t have the same life force as animals do.”

“They provide as vital a function to life as animals do,” Esther commented. “Plenty of life live solely on a plant-based diet. It’s a natural choice in nature, but it isn’t a choice for everyone. In nature we see creatures at both extremes, meat-eaters and plant-eaters, as well as many that partake in both diets.”

There were some similarities between Shan and Esther’s different belief systems.

Both women ministered to the needs of their people. Shan lived to share the vision of the Goddess, to carry out Her will and administer Her laws. Primary interpretation of Her word was done by Her Guiding Lights but the Illuminated were also expected to have a thorough understanding of Her wishes.

The druids also worshipped a mother-figure, one they referred to as Nature. The druids worked with the population to help maintain a balance between mankind and nature’s needs. They lacked the strict structure of the faithful, there were no designated leaders of the religion and no laws that impacted the daily life of society. The druid’s focus was on the natural world rather than the people. They were still considered the spiritual leaders within their communities.

It would be on the third night of their journey that Shan would learn more about Esther’s companions, specifically her martial commander Craig. As the group sat around the warmth of the fire the conversation drifted to why he had made the original journey through the forest.

Reluctantly, the warrior had begun to tell his tale.

Welsley stood on the balcony high atop the tower.  She could feel the midday sun warm her skin as she stood looking over the vast forest that stood on the opposite side of the river.  From this distance it looked like a wide sea of green.  No detail could be made out.

She found no joy in this view, unlike at normal times.  The normal calmness that came when she viewed the world from this distance was gone.  She had no desire to see the big picture at this moment, she wanted to be able to focus on the life within the forest.  One life in particular.

She glanced down at the paper in her hand.  It was the first page of a report sent to her from Shan that detailed the events at the logging camps and her investigator’s recommendations.  Shan had set up a guard at the river crossing, Welsley had already sent two more squads of soldiers to reinforce the position.  Welsley would be meeting with her commanders before the day was out to discuss the construction of a permanent outpost to guard the crossing.  Shan’s report had been complete and exacting, as always; there was a real threat from out of the forest.

From the thirteenth tower.

Welsley read the report’s opening one more time: “Immediate threat eliminated.  Going to Shatterook tower to investigate further threat.”

She trusted Shan’s instincts where these investigations were concerned but in this instance she would have preferred to have been consulted.  The report was filled with talk of the undead, necromancers and cursed towers.  Fantasy and myth.  Welsley would have liked to have met these Shatterook people before sending any of her folk through the forest beyond her land.

It was too late now, Shan would already be well on her way and too deep into the woods by the time even a mounted messenger could reach her.  There were few who knew the forest well enough to catch up with them and none brave enough to venture that deep into the unknown.

Except Shan.  Her safety would have been a secondary concern dismissed in favor of the needs of the Goddess.  She had shown the presence of mind to take Abeth and a couple of the soldiers with her.

“Morah,” Welsley called into her chamber.  The attendant materialized almost instantaneously out of the shadows of the room.

“Your Eminence?” Morah questioned.

“Cancel the rest of my day,” Welsley instructed.  “I need a chance to consider this news.”

“As you wish, Your Eminence,” Morah bowed before she glided from the room.

During her childhood Welsley had been exposed to many a tall tale told by her parents’ staff and visiting bards.  Tales of dragons and giants, dwarves and elves, magic and high fantasy filled the household.  Tales of heroics accompanied her education, as she grew the stories grew more taboo and included unheard of stories of handsome warriors saving fair maidens.  Evil was always vanquished and everyone lived happily ever after.  These tales kept coin in a bard’s pocket and laughter in the kitchens.

Life rarely worked out so neatly for the average person.  People fell victim to the little evils of life on a daily basis.  The evils that humanity inflicted upon itself removed the potential for a “happily ever after.”  The monsters from the stories would be worse.
And now she was told that the monsters were real.  At least some of them.

The stories she could remember that featured necromancy always involved endless hordes of restless, angry dead.  This relatively small incursion could be a precursor to a larger invasion.  If the stories had any truth to them Norasburg would be lucky to survive.

Shatterook was another potential concern.  It was not a place name she could recall ever having heard before.  Not that surprising, Welsley knew, mention of the thirteenth tower were rare, hushed and quick, its fate lost to time.  The forest marked the border of the land controlled by the towers, not much was known about what lay beyond.

From Shan’s report it seemed like the people that lived in that tower’s shadow knew about as much as she did.  Lost in time.

Shan was walking into the unknown and there was little Welsley could do to help.

“My Light,” Morah’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Yes, Morah?” Welsley asked.  She had been lost in thought for longer than she realized.  The sky had gotten darker and a cool breeze had picked up.  He skin was covered in goosebumps.  She could see the light from numerous fires and torches in the village below.  The distant forest was a darker shade of green, almost a black.

“Dinner awaits in your private dining room,” Morah advised.

“Thank-you,” Welsley allowed herself to enjoy the evening breeze for a moment.  “Morah,” an idea came to her, “do you recall the name of the tower beyond the woods?”

“I have only ever heard it referred to as the thirteenth tower,” Morah paused a moment, “but perhaps it was recorded in the histories kept in the tower library.”

The faithful were almost as devoted to recording the minutiae of daily life as they were to the Goddess.  Each tower maintained a library of scrolls and tomes that dated back to the time when the Goddess walked among them, or so the claim went.  The lives of countless Guiding Lights were kept for the use of future generations.  All of the wisdom of the ages stored just a few floors below her.

The rulings, the musings, the wisdom of Light Koarl were already being added to the collection.  Every report ever written for any Light was stored within the tower libraries.  The documents kept in each library was unique to each tower.  Norasburg was the closest to the lost tower, if any record of its name was to be found it would be found here.

“That’s an excellent idea,” the Light agreed.  “Have my meal brought to the library.  We have a lot of reading to do.”

“Might I suggest we start in the underground archives?” Morah offered.  “The oldest logs will be more likely to have the information you want.  The library holds the most recent documents, from the current Light and her predecessor.”

“Fair enough,” Welsley acknowledged.  It was unlikely her predecessor, Light Amoren, knew the last tower’s original name.  Light Amoren was devoted to governing, she seemed unlikely to have been concerned with legends of a ruined township.

“Would you like me to get some more eyes to help with the search?”

“Yes,” Welsley replied.  “Four of the faithful.”

“I know just the right ones for the task,” Morah bowed out of the chamber.

Welsley hadn’t spent a lot of time in the archival library while she was in Marton, but the amount of documents stuck in her memory.  This could be a very time consuming project.

Shan watched the smoke rise off the burning pile of bodies.  The smoke was thick and black, oily in texture and stank worse than anything she could ever remember smelling before.  She couldn’t place the foul odour but the description of ‘unnatural’ rung true in her head.

‘Unnatural’ was an apt description of everything about these monsters.

From a distance they looked human.  It was as you got closer that you started to notice the oddities.  The most obvious oddity was the sickly green cast to the skin and the lack of hair on the head.  They were garbed in shreds of tattered, rotted clothing.  They smelled of fresh blood mingled with decay.  Long claws protruded from their fingers.  Their mouths were packed full of sharp fangs.  Their eyes flickered like the flames of a fire.  They seemed to communicate with each other through a series of loud sharp hisses punctuated by the occasional inhuman shriek.

This was their way of celebrating a feast, Shan was told, on a hunt they were silent.

They could hear the shrieking before they ever saw the monsters.

“Use your bows,” Craig instructed the four soldiers that accompanied them.  “Samuel will be moving in from the other side of the camp.  Fire at their heads or their legs.  Knock them off their feet and we can crush their skulls.  They can be killed like people but they aren’t people… they can take more of a beating than the average man.”

Craig, Abeth and the four bowmen led the way to the camp.  Shan followed closely behind with Esther and Thomas.  The hissing joined with the shrieks as the camp came into view.  The smell of decay mixed with fresh blood reached their noses before they saw the first of their enemies.  The stench was so strong that they could taste it as they came face-to-face with their foes.  Shan would learn as they gathered the bodies together for cremation that even the taste of their skin was perverse; a bizarre mix of rough, stiff leather and soft, rotted flesh.

They slowed down almost to a crawl as they entered the camp.  The soldiers kept their bows at the ready as they entered into a world taken straight out of a nightmare.  The ghouls were in a frenzy, oblivious to anything but their feeding.  They hissed and shrieked at each other, their claws slashed and tore at each others’ flesh.  Teeth snapped at anything that got too close.

But they were all together, the six, in a small area.

“Make your shots count,” Craig whispered, “they move fast.  You might not get a second shot.”  He nodded to Abeth and the two men moved toward the distracted creatures.  They had taken only a couple steps forward when the soldiers let loose with their arrows.  Despite the situation the soldiers’ aim was true and their volley dropped four of the monsters with arrows piercing their skulls.  The two remaining ghouls barely had the time to look up before their skulls were penetrated by projectiles fired by Samuel and the soldiers who accompanied him as they arrived from the opposite end of the camp.

“That was easy,” the scout boasted.  He slung his crossbow on his back as he walked to join Shan’s group.

“We need to collect the bodies,” Craig commanded.  “Pile them up, we’ll burn them all together.  Loggers too.  Just to be safe.”

“Bring me any survivors,” Esther added before the group broke up.

They found no survivors.  They didn’t even find any whole bodies.  The ghouls proved to be very efficient at ripping people apart.  There was little wonder in Shan’s mind on what had happened to the occupants of the other camp.  The only concern now was how many other camp’s met a similar fate.

“We got very lucky,” Esther came up beside her.  “They are not normally so easy to dispatch.”

“I still can’t believe what I witnessed,” Shan responded, her eyes were still glued to the pile of burning corpses.  “Goddess preserve us.”

“They are a corruption of Nature,” Esther agreed.  “But this group won’t be spreading its sickness anymore.”

“How many camps did they destroy?” Shan wondered.

“Just the two,” Esther answered.  “We just barely missed the raising.  We may have missed catching the necromancers responsible but we were on these creatures’ trail long before they entered your lands.  They didn’t reach any other camps.”

“That’s… a relief,” Shan admitted.  She felt shaken.  She hadn’t expected the claims to be true and the reality had been worse than she could have imagined.  Her soldiers had been exemplary but they were starting to show signs of shock.  What they had witnessed was beginning to conflict with their common sense.

“Captain Abeth,” Shan called the veteran soldier over.  “Have the men catalogue the valuables in the camp.  Organize it.  We’ll take what we can carry to the main camp and send the wagons to collect up the rest.  No sense letting anything go to waste.”

“As you wish, Illuminance,” he bowed and left to organize the effort.

“What of you?” Shan questioned Esther.  “What are your plans now?  Will you come to Norasburg with me?  The Guiding Light will have questions you’ll be better able to answer than I.”

“No,” Craig broke into the conversation.  “We’ve done what we set out to do.  I wish to go home to my family.

“We have been away for a while,” Esther agreed.  “I am eager to be back to my domain as well.  Perhaps we will meet again in the future.”

“Or,” interrupted Samuel, “perhaps you’d like to travel back with us.  Ghouls don’t travel long distance to eat.  Something, or someone, compelled them to come here.  The questions to be answered are who and why.”

Shan had to admit he had a point.  She had been considering those questions herself.  She knew there would be few, most likely no, answers here.  She felt she knew all she would learn from the camps:  the walking dead were real and they were hungry.  The real answers lay on the other side of the forest.

“I need to send an update,” she said.  “To set up a guard at the river crossing.”

“We can leave in the morning,” Craig agreed.

Esther nodded, smiled, and patted Shan on the arm.  Both women turned back to watch the bodies burn.

“Ghouls are primarily ruled by their stomachs,” Shan was only half-listening to Thomas as they marched toward the second logging camp.  She could see Abeth and Craig at the front of the column talking quietly with each other.  Two of her soldiers marched directly behind the two men and another pair of soldiers guarded the rear.  The last two of her six soldiers were with Samuel scouting ahead of the group.  Shan was accompanied by Thomas and Esther in the centre of the march.

They didn’t delay too long at their base camp.  The strangers were given a chance to grab a quick meal that consisted of dried fruits and hard breads.  While Captain Abeth issued orders to the troops Shan had taken the time to write a brief summary of events to send back to the Guiding Light.  She sent the lumberjack back to the tower with her report, she saw no value in keeping him with them and using him as a courier meant she didn’t need to use one of her soldiers.

She had hesitated at including the mention of ghouls.  The thought of putting to paper what amounted to delusions was not appealing.  Monsters, the ravenous dead, were myths from the time before the Goddess.  They were tales told to amuse and frighten the uneducated.  No one had ever seen a ghoul, these were just nightmare figures from a fevered fantasy.  There was a real-world explanation that just hadn’t been uncovered yet.  She decided, in the end, to include it just for the sake of completeness.

“Although they tend to be found in packs,” the large man was sharing, “they don’t have any pack structure.  There were no leaders, no commanders, no thought, no strategy.  Only hunger.”

“The hunger binds them together,” Esther added.  “It guides them.  Without it they would wander aimlessly, alone.  Ripping open graves to feed.  A single ghoul is a tough opponent, a pack is dangerous.  The longer it has been since they last ate, the more dangerous they become.  Ghouls aren’t rational to begin with, a starving ghoul attacks anything it can with its claws.”

“Not that one in the middle of a blood-lust is a pushover,” Thomas commented.

They were an odd pair, Thomas and Esther.  Husband and wife, Shan was informed.  She had never seen a value in that type of permanent mate pairing.  To be fair, she saw no value in socializing with the male gender at most times.  They were good to work with, she preferred a squad of soldiers to task with rather than a group of the faithful, but her off time was better spent with the Goddess.  Listening to hear Her instructions was a better use of her time than fraternizing with men, even if she had never heard a whisper from Her.

She didn’t doubt the existence of the Goddess.  Shan felt Her presence on a daily basis, in small ways.  She felt her guiding hands as they steered her in the right direction.  Intuition, Shan had heard it called, but it felt like more than that to her.  It was why she had decided to trust the strangers that appeared from the forest.  Their fantastic story aside, the Goddess would not have brought them to her without reason.  She trusted that the answers that she was looking for would come from these people.  Light Koarl would give her as much freedom as she needed to pursue any lead she chose.

“Their teeth,” Shan drifted back to the conversation as Thomas began a lecture on the physical structure of ghouls,” are sharp and broken.  Vicious fangs.  Perfect tools for tearing flesh off of bones.”

“Their claws are the more dangerous of their weaponry,” Esther interrupted.  “Long, curved, sharp.  They are capable of slicing through leather as easily as a sharp knife cuts through paper.  Coated by a toxin that can paralyze a man instantly, allowing the ghoul to feed at its leisure.  If the ghoul doesn’t eat you, the toxin will transmute its victim into one of them swelling the pack’s numbers.”

That didn’t sound good to Shan.  She thought about the lack of bodies at the camp.  Could they be walking into a camp worth of foes rather than a mere handful?

“How many of the camp were turned?”  Shan asked.

“All or none,” Thomas shrugged.

“What my husband means,” Esther glared at the man, “is that there was probably no new ghouls made.  The tracks leading from the camp seem to match those going in.  There was no way the entire camp was turned.  I doubt there was more than one or two abominations added to the pack.”

“How do we stop them?”

“That’s an easy one,” Thomas laughed.  “You just hack or beat them until they stop moving.  Same as anything else.”

“Except,” Esther corrected, “the bodies need to be turned to ash.”

“Right,” Thomas agreed.  “Break the body then burn it so it can’t return.”

“There is a strength, a life, to this land,” Esther commented.  “We didn’t know life could exist this close to a tower.  Not like this.”

“There’s no life near that accursed place,” Thomas mumbled.

“For miles around the ruined tower, life struggles to survive,” Esther explained.  “No animals enter the land.  What vegetation that grows near it is tough, twisted, discoloured and inedible.  A mockery of life.  The soil is hard, angry, evil.”

“Our towers are the centres of our life, both plant and animal,” Shan offered.

“It is a shock to see,” Esther said.  “Where we come from people would rather risk the desert then go near the tower.  It is a true wasteland.”

“The towers are the focal points of the Goddess’ power,” Shan explained.

“There is no divinity in that tower,” Thomas whispered.

“Looks like we’ve had some luck,” Craig announced as they approached where he waited.  Shan saw the three scouts disappear into the surrounding woods.  She hadn’t noticed their return, she didn’t realize they were so close to the camp.

“They are still here, Illuminance,” Abeth filled in.  “The scouts counted six.”

“Excellent,” Shan replied.

“We’ll go in and try to hit them as fast as we can,” Craig directed.  “Stay with your partner.  Keep each other safe and we’ll all make it home.”

“Goddess protect us all,” Shan finished.  She took her war-hammer from her belt and started toward the camp.

Shan watched the strangers approach under the careful supervision of her soldiers.  Six of them had been assigned to search the surrounding woods.  They had been successful in their duties as evidenced by the four strangers they escorted.

She noticed as she took stock of the newcomers that Abeth had shifted position to place himself between her and their surprise guests.  It was imperceptible to the outside observer but Shan knew he had re-positioned himself so he could quickly step between herself and danger.  Shan expected no less from him, as a soldier in the service of the faithful it was his duty and honour to give his life in place of hers.  Both Shan and Abeth kept a hand on their weapons.

The first thing she noticed was the large man who brought up the rear of the group.  He was at least a head taller than those around him, to Shan’s eyes he looked even larger than the lumberjack that accompanied her.  To be fair, this giant of a man looked very similar to the lumberjack; long, wild hair, and unkempt beard, dressed in a muted brown.  The handle of a large weapon stuck up behind his head.  The man walked with more confidence than the logger had ever displayed.

In contrast to the largest of them was the woman, the only woman in the group.  She wore a brownish-green set of pants and tunic made of a heavy cloth.  A small blade hung from her belt and a sturdy staff was held in her right hand.  Long, thick dark hair hung in a loose braid from her head.  She looked well kept compared with her massive male companion.  She was the shortest member of the four.

To the right of the big man was the second smallest of the group.  He was dressed head to toe in dark garb, his body engulfed in a cloak with his head hidden within the hood.  The dark cloak kept most of his physical details from view but a crossbow stock could be seen sticking up over his shoulder.

The fourth individual was at the front of the group.  Physically he was in-between the two other men, closer in size to the smaller of the two.  He was draped in woodland colours like his companions but had a shirt of short-sleeved chain-mail that covered his leather clad torso.  A curved sword was strapped at his side, the only weapon that could be seen on his person.  He had medium length brown hair and a closely trimmed beard both of which were peppered with silvery-grey.

Shan’s soldiers were alert but relaxed.  They didn’t see the strangers as a threat just an oddity to be brought to her presence.  They presented no outward signs of aggression; their weapons were holstered and their hands clear of the handles.  Like her soldiers they seemed relaxed but cautious.  Dust could be seen covering their feet and lower legs, they seemed to have travelled a distance to arrive here.

“That’s close enough,” Captain Abeth declared.  He didn’t wait for the group to stop.  “Where are you from?  Who are you?  What brings you here?”  His voice was distant but friendly.

“We are here,” the man in the chain-mail shirt answered, “to provide some help to you, I suspect.”

“What help can you provide us?”  Abeth asked.

“May we get off our feet?  We have journeyed long and could use a rest,” he responded.  “We’ll answer all your questions.”

“We’ll make camp here,” Shan instructed.  “Have the rest of the tents checked.  Let me know what is found,” she told the waiting soldiers.  She turned to the wagons, “let’s bring our guests something to eat and drink.  We’ll be in the mess tent.”  She indicated the large tent.

They settled in at one of the tables in the tent; Shan, Abeth, and the four newcomers.  There would be soldiers waiting just outside the tent entrance in case of emergency and the wagon drivers would be making use of the kitchens just to the back of the main dining tent.

“It’s good to get off my feet,” a deep rumble came from the large man as he sat down at the table.  His large axe had been taken off his back and now rested against the table behind him.  The woman sat at his left hand, her staff also left to lean against the table at her back.  The man in the chain-mail sat to the woman’s left.  The other man sat alone at another table still hidden within his cloak.  Shan and Abeth sat down across the table from the three.

“I am called Shan,” she opened the conversation, “and this is Captain Abeth.”

“A pleasure.  I am Craig.  My large friend is known as Thomas.  Esther is our druidic priestess.  Samuel is in the back.”  Shan nodded in greeting to each as they were introduced.

“You said you could help us.  With what exactly?”  Shan asked.

“Let me ask you a question first,” Craig responded.  “Have you found any bodies?”

“We’ve only just started the search,” Shan answered.  “We haven’t found any so far.”

“And you won’t,” Craig declared.

“How do you know that?”  Abeth asked.

“Let me start at the beginning,” Craig started.

“We come from a hamlet named Shatterook, far to the east through the forest, on the edge of the endless desert,” Esther added.  “We have journeyed for weeks, tracking a group of the undead through the trees until we arrived here.”

“The undead?”  Shan asked.

“Ghouls,” Esther spat out.  “A grotesque parody of humanity.  Corrupted through the dark arts that raise them from the grave.  They possess none of the grace of the living, their bodies are twisted into almost animalistic proportions.  They are a perversion of life.”

“We had caught wind of a planned ritual to animate about half-a-dozen of these monsters,” Craig took over.  “We arrived too late to prevent it.  The ghouls were raised and on the move by the time we arrived.  Ghouls are tireless, ravenous hunters that we couldn’t allow to disappear and potentially prey on our people.  We followed them through the forest and, to our surprise, away from Shatterook.  Their choice of travel is confusing.  Ghouls are opportunistic killers, moving away from a large source of food is bizarre.  We followed them with very few breaks to rest until we finally ran into your soldiers.”

“We didn’t see anyone but you,” Abeth commented.

“No, they would have been gone by the time you arrived,” Craig agreed.  “Off to their next meal.”

“Another camp,” Shan replied.

“The closest one,” Craig agreed.

“There’s only a handful,” Thomas put in, “it’ll take them time to consume the people.  We should be able to catch up with them before they leave the next camp.”

“We’ll set up our base camp here.  We can guard the river crossing from here,” Shan directed to Abeth.  “We’ll take six soldiers with us.  Choose your best, we leave in an hour.”

Shan had decided that they would make camp on the Norasburg side of the river.  They would have had to stop for the night regardless and crossing the river would not reduce their travel time enough to make any real impact.  They were moving into an unknown, potentially unsafe, situation in Shan’s mind and one more night on safe ground would boost morale and only have a positive impact on her mission.

Shan spent the evening staring into the fire.  She could hear the muffled conversations of the men who accompanied her.  The wagoners quietly prepared a meal at the fire while tents were set up by the soldiers.  She knew there would be more soldiers patrolling the area around the camp and sentries would be posted to ensure safety throughout the night.  Across from her the lumberjack sat silently, his eyes downcast.

She wanted to take the evening to get her head together.  Shan knew they would be heading into an uncertain situation.  The only thing they could be sure of was that there was potentially an entire camp that had been killed.  The logger had fled before he could gather any useful information so they were heading in to the situation effectively blind.  She needed to be prepared for anything, it would not do for her underlings to see her caught off-balance.

If she could quiet and still the worry and uncertainty in her mind she could bring herself in line so she could commune with the Goddess.  Communing with the Goddess would be her a sense of serenity.  Serenity of her mind would bring calm to her body and actions.  Her calmness would relax the servants that accompanied her.  There was little that couldn’t be solved through clear, unemotional thinking.

It was a process she had been taught as a child.  Part of her spiritual lessons learned at the foot of the previous Guiding Light was how to prepare her mind for communion with the Goddess.  To create a blank slate in her mind in preparation to receive Her Light.  To look at events from a distance, from beyond the emotional landscape of the situation.  She was taught to be aloof, distant, clinical, analytical, detached.  She was taught to operate from intellect over emotion.

“Illuminance,” Abeth’s voice quietly interrupted her thoughts.

Shan glanced up from the fire to see Abeth offering a bowl to her.  She accepted the offered food and watched as Abeth filled another for himself.  She nodded in thanks as he sat down to her left.

“What are we expecting, Illuminance?” Abeth asked after they had eaten.

“We know only that there was an attack on a logging camp.  We think there was only one survivor,” Shan answered as she watched the logger across the fire from her.  “We won’t know for certain until we arrive.  We don’t know who the attackers were or how many of the camps were attacked.  We should go in prepared for anything.”

“I’ll make sure the men are on alert.”

“Excellent.  We leave at first light.”  Shan rose and retired to her tent.

They arrived at the logging camp just after midday.  The sky was clear and the sun shone down warm and bright on their journey.  The woodsman displayed an increased level of nervousness as their trek brought them closer to the logging camp.  The man’s growing unease migrated first to the wagon drivers before it infected the soldier escort.  Shan and Abeth were the only two of the group who showed no outward sign of anxiety.

Shan could understand where the anxiety was coming from.  They were just minutes away from the camp when the sounds of nature vanished.  They entered the circle of tents to the sounds of hoof beats, creaking wagons, and their own footsteps.  The camp was devoid of any signs of life.

Shan waited as Abeth divided his troops; half to guard the perimeter, half to scout the nearby forest.  She noticed that neither the drivers nor the woodsman were willing to dismount with her.  The soldiers, although visibly on edge, performed their duties as instructed.

The centre of the camp looked as Shan expected a large, albeit temporary, camp to look.  It had been built at the forest’s edge, it hadn’t been there long based on how few trees had been chopped down around the camp edge.  There were three paths that exited through the makeshift wooden barriers that surrounded the numerous tents that were the only buildings in the camp.

She walked toward the largest tent in the camp.  The wagons had stopped in front of it, the three paths into the camp met to form a worn circle at the camp’s centre.  The trodden dirt provided a central point to the camp.  There were tents spread out all around which provided the homes for the camp’s workers.  The largest tent provided a dining area with what passed for kitchens located just behind.

There were tables and benches filling the internal space.  The tables were empty, the benches bare.  The place had been cleaned after the last meal served and showed no sign of being used after.  Without thinking about it Shan’s hand drifted to the war-hammer at her side.

“Where is everyone?”  Abeth wondered in hushed tones as he entered the tent behind her.  “Where is the noise of the camp?”

Shan glanced in his direction.  He was controlled, calm, the only outward sign of discomfort was the hand on his sword’s handle.

“Even a logging camp should have some support staff.  People who cook and clean, who wouldn’t be out in the trees,” the soldier continued.  “We should be smelling the evening meal being prepared.  There should be people hurrying around to get everything ready before the men return from the woods.  We should hear the horses.”

“Something happened,” Shan replied.  “We need to check the other tents.”

The tents of the camp were close together only broken up by the occasional campfire, all long burnt out.  The horses would have been tied up between the trees on the forest side of the camp.  The overall silence of the camp suggested no horses remained in the area.

“The horses were probably taken by the attackers,” Shan offered as they approached one of the tents that served as sleeping quarters.  She knew there wouldn’t be much in the tent; a bedroll for sleeping and a pack for personal belongings.  The camps were for work and there would be little in the way of comfort to be found.

From the outside the tent looked worn but in one piece.  The interior told a different story.  The occupant’s bedroll was torn to pieces and drenched in not-quite-dried blood.  Evidence of more blood was splattered across the dirt and walls of the tent.  The blood was all that could be found of the tent’s occupant.

“They’re all dead, he told us,” Shan murmured as she shifted through the torn bed.

“No one could have survived this much blood loss,” Abeth agreed.

“So where is the body?” She questioned.

“Captain!”  A call came from outside the tent.

“We have guests,” a soldier greeted them as they stepped out of the tent.  He directed their eyes to the trail that led to the forest.  Coming toward them, surrounded by soldiers, walked a group of unknown people.

It would take until just after noon for the expedition to get under way.  Even for a group as small as this one there was a lot of preparation to be done.  It was never so easy as just packing a bag and going.  There were two wagons loaded up with supplies; food, maintenance equipment, extra gear.

The wagons were pulled by four large horses.  They were well suited to hauling cargo but were worthless as steeds.  The horses required care so in addition to the soldiers there were two stable hands added to the party.  They doubled as drivers for the wagons which allowed them to keep their numbers relatively lean.

Twenty-four soldiers were assigned to the project.  No mounted troops, the garrison used what cavalry they had to maintain a presence among the widespread rural population.  The few that weren’t out with the patrols were needed to defend Norasburg proper from any unforeseen events.  The first logging camp was not that distant and they would be able to reach it by mid-afternoon the next day at a brisk march.  The soldiers were geared out for maneuverability over brute strength and were armoured in leather reinforced with metal studs.  They were evenly divided between bows and spears but all were armed with short, thick bladed swords.

They were handpicked by their captain, a veteran named Abeth.  He had been a devoted soldier of the faithful since he had reached adulthood.  A native of Norasburg, he had signed up as soon as he was able and served two decades defending his nation.  He had transferred between towers at the needs, and whims, of the Goddess’ Guiding Lights.  He had been fortunate enough to have been transferred back to his home a few years back and had served there ever since.

The lumberjack was to accompany them to his camp.  There were a number of different camps at the edge of the forest that they would visit on their excursions but they wanted to visit the scene of the attack first.  They would visit a selection of the other camps afterwards.

Shan would fill out the expedition as its leader.  It was a position she was used to filling.  It was the Guiding Light’s duty to facilitate the day to day concerns of her citizens, applying the Goddess’ judgment to the concerns of the population.  This kept the Light in close proximity to the tower and limited her ability to travel to view situations first hand, except in rare cases.  She would rely on the observations of the faithful assigned to her, in particular her attendants the Illuminated.

The Illuminated were normally handpicked by the Light from the body of the faithful.  When a Light passed her replacement would keep the current attendants in place as a sign of respect to her predecessor.  The Light would have plenty of opportunity in the future to move her own people into positions of trust.  It made for a smoother transition to keep those familiar with the tower’s needs in place.

It had been Shan’s duty with the old Light to investigate any concern that couldn’t be satisfactorily solved just through eyewitness reports.  Sometimes a first-hand view was required to get to the truth of a situation.  It was a role she filled under Light Koarl as well.

Shan had used the time provided by Abeth’s mustering of his troops to ditch her robes for an outfit more useful for travel.  The robes did a good job creating an air of uniformity and authority but were a poor choice for travel.  They stood out too much and could easily be seen from a distance, they also tended to gather dirt far too quickly.  She chose instead a soft leather tunic and breeches of a muted brown color.  It allowed for freedom of movement while providing a basic level of protection.  The outfit was completed with a dagger strapped at her ankle and a war-hammer hung from her hip.

The weather had held nicely throughout the day and it looked like the sun was going to shine on their departure.  A good omen, nothing ruined a journey faster than a march in a downpour.  Shan would take warm sun beams over cold drops of rain any day.

“We are ready to go whenever you wish, Your Illuminance,” Abeth stood beside her, his hands folded behind his back.

“Excellent,” Shan noticed the approach of the Guiding Light and her entourage of attendants and faithful.  “We’ll be leaving momentarily.”

Abeth nodded and moved to his position at the front of the ranks of soldiers.

“I am glad I caught you before you left,” the Light separated herself from her crowd and moved to grab Shan’s hands in her own.  “The morning has been so tedious.  So very many people who can’t make simple decisions on their own.”

“I’m sorry, Your Eminence,” Shan stammered in confusion.  Light Koarl was different than the previous Light had been.  The previous Light had lived to serve the Goddess unquestioningly while the new one seemed almost bored by her duties at times.

Shan had grown up among the faithful.  It made her an oddity herself, the faithful normally accepted new members when they were in their mid to late teens but Shan had been raised almost since birth in the Goddess’ light.  Shan had been born to unknown parents and found abandoned days after she entered the world.  The infant Shan had been brought to the old Light who took her in.  The Light and her Illuminated, her attendants, raised Shan as their own.  Shan was provided food, clothing, shelter, and education by the primary members of the tower’s faithful.  She was educated in martial activities by the Illuminated and spiritual activities by the Guiding Light herself.  By the time she reached adulthood Shan could manage the tower’s needs as well as the Light could.

It was a natural progression for Shan to be brought into the ranks of the Illuminated.  She quickly became the Light’s most trusted and devoted attendant.  When the Light passed her duties continued under the chosen replacement:  Guiding Light Welsley Koarl.

The old Light was devoted to the Goddess and her teachings, as was Shan.  Light Koarl treated the Goddess’ teachings like they were guidelines rather than gospel.  Yet, despite their different interpretations of the Goddess’ intent, their short time together had built a bond of trust and mutual respect between them.

“No apologies needed, dear Shan,” Welsley confided.  “It’s a burden that comes with the job.”

They stood in silence, Shan waited while Welsley inspected the expedition forces.  Abeth was a capable soldier and leader, Shan was satisfied with his choices.

“Good.  Good,” Welsley nodded.  “Move fast.  Find out what happened, Shan.  See how widespread the danger is, deal with it and report back to me.  Make sure whoever is responsible learns the consequences of harming our people is swift and unforgiving.”

“I will, Your Eminence,” Shan replied.  She walked to the first wagon and climbed up beside the driver.  Shan nodded to Abeth that the march could begin.

“Captain Abeth,” Welsley directed to the soldier, “bring her back to us safe and sound.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

Shan felt the wagon jerk forward as the expedition began its journey to the forests to the east.

She could just make out the red glow of the sun on the horizon as it crept into the morning sky.  The light from the rising sun shone through the leaves of the forest to the east giving it an ominous orange glow.  A river separated the forest from the farmland that occupied the majority of the local’s time, when the sun broke over the tops of the trees its light would sparkle across the crystal clear waters.

This was her favourite time of day.  It was a time of renewal, the detritus of the previous day had been washed away by sleep and the new day was still a dream full of hope and promise.  The day’s potential was almost palpable, especially from her overlook in the tower.

There was a bit of a mystery to the tower.  No one knew who had built the tower, one of at least thirteen known to the nation.  This one that Norasburg had grown up around, eleven others that made up the country’s population centres, the last was a ruin far to the east beyond the forest.  The towers were identical in layout and stood twelve stories above the population that sprawled around it.  Each tower was the home of a Guiding Light and served as the centre of both the spiritual and governmental needs of each region.

The Guiding Lights were the political and religious leaders of the people.  Twelve women were chosen from among the faithful, chosen by their closeness to the Goddess, they ruled for the length of their respective lifetimes.  The twelve were the ultimate voice of their respective regions, their influence in the larger nation based primarily on their region’s population size.

Norasburg was a provincial region.  The town had grown up around the tower and its grounds as all the cities had but it had yet to achieve critical mass.  The people of the Norasburg region were rural in nature; farming, hunting, fishing, and forestry were the careers pursued by most.  The town itself had few amenities, it was too far away from the more densely populated lands and sat at the edge of the wilderness.  The occasional caravan would arrive to purchase wood and food surpluses but the locals were too wide spread for the growth of a luxury district.  The people were hard working and simple folk with simple needs.

There was a quiet to this time of day that just didn’t exist at any other point.  Even from her balcony, eleven stories up, there was a constant murmur throughout the bulk of the day.  It was only now after the late night revellers had retired and the early morning workers had yet to rise that the world entered a hushed state.  It was a phenomenon that was missing in the larger cities, it was her favourite aspect of her current home.

She had been born into a wealthy family in Marton, a larger and more cosmopolitan city than Norasburg.  It had been a world filled with innumerable sights, sounds and smells.  There was constant excitement and newness to the world she grew up in.  Her family’s wealth provided the education and freedom to pursue whatever struck her fancy.  She had decided at a young age that she had no desire to live under anyone’s rule other than her own.  The logical choice to her mind was to join the Temple and become one of the faithful.

It had worked out well for her.  She had spent a couple years as a faceless devotee to the Mother Goddess when she was called in front of the council of Guiding Lights.  One of the Lights had been taken into the Goddess’ embrace, they were only mortal, and they needed to fill the vacant position.  They informed her that she had been personally chosen by the Goddess to be the Guiding Light to the people of Norasburg.

She suspected a donation of gold from her family had more to do with it than a closeness to a deity she had never felt particularly close to.  Being chosen would allow her family to add a Guiding Light to their history, sending her to Norasburg would remove what they saw as an embarrassment from their immediate lives.  They had never approved of her joining the Temple, they would have preferred she enter the family business, but they were never unwilling to turn anything to their advantage.  Whatever the reason for the selection she now had more freedom than most people would ever see in their lifetime.

She shivered as the chill of the early morning breeze caressed her skin.  She was draped only in a thin silk robe, a luxury she had brought with her from Marton.  She felt invigorated by the chill, it was a shock to her system that immediately woke her and made her alert.

Among the various smells of a small town brought to her by the breeze she was sure she could smell the fragrance of the river that marked the edge of her domain.  There was a hint of life and death to it, a pungency that was stripped from the bath’s underneath the tower.  The ponds in the gardens that surrounded the tower had a milder lived-in scent but lacked the sense of privacy a swim in the river brought with it.

It had been some time since she’d been to the river.  The thought of visiting the river for an afternoon brought a smile to her face.  She would need to make that happen.

A muffled knock came from the door to her chambers.

She sighed softly and took one more moment of peace before leaving the chill of the balcony for the warmth of the tower.  She had crossed halfway to the door when it opened and a woman appeared.

“Good morning, Shan,” she greeted the newcomer.

“Your Eminence,” Shan nodded from the doorway.

“You’re so somber this morning,” she observed.  “I take it the day is starting out poorly.”  She shuffled absently through her wardrobe, so many outfits and yet there never seemed to be anything to wear.

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

She selected a white tunic with matching trousers, a simple solution.  It would match her attendants who, like Shan, would be clad in unadorned white robes.  She straightened her outfit, shook out her hair and exited the room.

“Fill me in,” she instructed, without looking she knew Shan would be following behind her.

“There was an attack on one of the logging camps during the night,” Shan explained.  “There was only one survivor.  He arrived at the tower early this morning.  He is waiting for you in your audience chamber.”

“Do we know who attacked the camp?”

“No, Your Eminence, he was escorted to your chamber immediately.  He hasn’t spoken to anyone.”

“Bring us food and drink,” She instructed the attendant waiting outside her audience chamber.  Shan followed her into the chamber as the attendant left.

“I present Her Eminence Welsley Koarl,” Shan announced as they entered the room.  The waiting man rose to his feet and bowed to the women.

“Your Eminence,” he stumbled out while he kept his eyes averted.

“Sit,” Welsley gestured to one of half a dozen chairs that sat around a solid wooden table.  She seated herself at one end of the table while Shan took a seat by her right hand.
She patiently examined her guest as he nervously fumbled for a seat.  She expected a certain degree of nervousness from her subjects, her word was essentially the same as if the Goddess had spoken.  Men tended to be more nervous than other women, but the Goddess’ words were very clear on just how little value there existed in the male of the species; breeding and dying were all they were good for.

He looked like a typical woodsman decked out from head to toe in animal hide, both treated and untreated.  There were signs of wear and tear on the clothing that included stains of dirt and blood.

The man himself was massive, his body more muscle than anything else.  It was a body built from many years of swinging an axe, felling trees and carting logs.  It was a solid body suited to a lumberjack’s hard life.  The hair on his head was matted and unkempt, his beard fared no different.  His sweat smelled of exertion and fear.

She waited silently with Shan.  She was in no hurry, she could let him have the time he needed to collect himself.  She didn’t really want to being a conversation with him until she had had a chance to eat.  From the look of him he’d probably appreciate a meal as well.

The attendant arrived with a large platter of fruit and a pitcher of cold water.  She quietly poured a glass of water for each person who sat at the table.

“Thank-you, Morah,” Welsley acknowledged.  “Please wait outside the door for further instructions.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.”  She shut the door behind her as she left.

“You must be famished,” Welsley observed.  The man seemed unable to decide what to do first.  “Have something to eat and then tell me what happened.”  She took an apple off the platter and took a bite.

“Thank-you, Your Eminence.”  He cautiously pulled some fruit from the platter and tested it on his tongue.  He thrust a larger piece into his mouth and chewed it slowly.  “We were attacked last night after most of us had put down for the night.  It was a slaughter, blood everywhere.  I managed to escape with a horse and rode straight here.”

“Who attacked you?” Shan asked.

“I’m not sure,” the lumberjack shrugged.

“Was it bandits?” Shan prodded.

“I don’t know,” he replied.  He paused before adding, “Bandits rough us up but don’t normally kill.  They just want the valuables.  People died.”

“Okay.  Thank-you,” Welsley raised her voice and called for Morah.  “Please bring this gentleman to the baths and get him a change of clothes,” she instructed the attendant.  She waited until they had left and she was alone with Shan.

“Care for a trip?” She asked Shan.

“My time is yours to command, Your Eminence,” Shan responded.

“Good.  I need to know what happened at this camp.  You are to act as my eyes and ears.  Go with this woodsman and see for yourself.  Take some soldiers with you for safety.  Make a circle of the other camps and check on their well being.  Bring me back as much information as you can.  Dismiss nothing as beneath notice.”

“How many soldiers?” Shan asked.

“We are operating blind,” Welsley replied after a moment’s pause.  “Let’s err on the side of caution.  Take two dozen footmen.  If it is bandits that should be a strong enough show of force to cow them.”

“I’ll leave immediately.”

“Be careful,” Welsley nodded.  “Safe and speedy travels,” the Guiding Light walked from the chamber to begin her day.