The Next Stage

He could feel the eyes of the carrion birds on him as they watched his movement across the sea of sand. He knew his black robed body stood out like a torch in the dark against the golden brown of the sand. The birds were no risk to him, if he died there was no need to hide his body they would find it without too much difficulty.

“They’re really eager to feast on you,” a man joked as he caught up with the robed man at the top of a dune. The speaker shielded his eyes as he looked up to watch the circling birds.

“Vultures aren’t the best taste, but it’ll make a nice change for a meal,” another man had joined them on the dune. “They look well-fed.”

Mercenaries. These men who accompanied him were mercenaries. Along with the two beside him there were an additional seven that trailed slightly behind them. The mercenaries were all dressed alike: light clothing covered their skin shielding them from the sun and coloured to blend into the desert. Each man had a sword strapped to his side and a bow and quiver across their backs. Four of the men pulled sleds of supplied behind them. Every one of them was heavily muscled with hair cropped close to their scalps and a bearded chin.

The man in the robes in contrast wore a heavy robe of black. He was armed with a short, simple staff that was strapped to his hip. His skin was pale, his hair as short as that of the mercenaries, a beard ringed his face, and his body, though hidden, was the equal of any other man with him.

“A meal that wasn’t dried and salted would be a welcome change,” the robed man answered.

“Will,” the first mercenary to speak began, “can turn anything into a meal fit for a king. We’ll set up camp here and wait out the heat of the day in the shade of the tents.”

“Good,” the second mercenary offered, “I can’t wait to get out of this sun. How can you stand to be draped all in black? We have been wandering for days, is it much farther? Are we lost in this godless desert?”

He hadn’t though about that aspect of his clothing in years. Although he cared more for his living body than most of his brethren he still shared some similarities to them. Like all of his brethren, exposure to the necromantic arts had removed his ability to fell hot or cold or any temperature in between. No more did he shiver, no more did he sweat. It was a blessing in that he could wear his robes in any weather without discomfort. The downside to lacking a sense of hot or cold was that some of his brethren died from exposure to extreme temperatures.

“We’re not lost,” the man in the black robes replied. “We’re close now.”

“Are you sure, brother?” the first mercenary to speak asked. “I thought this tower was on the edge of the desert. An oasis wasn’t it? All I see is sand.”

“That was true in ages past,” the black robed man answered. “Where you’re standing, Robert, was at one time as green as any forest. There was farmland, livestock, and a booming population at the centre of which was Thymon’s Oasis and its tower. That was centuries ago, before the Lady buried the tower under the sands. The desert expanded over the ages since the destruction of the tower. It consumed the green and hid the ruins beneath the sands and beyond any maps or the memories of local guides. The mists of time and myth hid the tower’s location from the world.”

“How do you know we’re close?” the man called Robert asked.

“I can feel it,” the robed man smiled. “The dead call to me. The cries get stronger and stronger with each step.”

This was only partially true. The dead were all around him, everywhere and always. Death occurred on every inch of the world and there were always some who were unwilling to quiet and move on. These voices cried out to the necromancers, it allowed the members of his brethren to find new corpses to experiment on or to animate as servants. Robbing graveyards for corpses tended to draw attention to a necromancer’s existence, honing his ability to hear the dead’s calls had an infinite benefit to his practice of necromancy. But it was a passive skill and not useful for long range tracking of a specific corpse or location. All he could really discern was that there was a lot of death that occurred nearby.

It was the voice that had sent him here. The voice that had told him to seek out the former oasis and its buried tower. It had told him where to go and what to look for. The instructions may not have allowed him to pinpoint his destination on a map, but it did put him close enough for him to find his way.

“A mysterious voice told me where to find it” wasn’t really an explanation that would be easily accepted, or understood. He followed the voice’s instructions without question but he wasn’t sure he understood what was going on himself.

“Good,” Robert said. “I’d rather not disappear among the sands. The sooner we can find this tower, the sooner we can return to civilization.”

“I’ll be happy to be free of these overly hot days and frozen nights,” the second mercenary chimed in. “Fresh water, a soft bed, no sand in my clothes, a woman on my arm. I could go on for days on what I am missing out on while being in this desert.”

“You won’t be returning to your comforts any time soon,” the robed man responded. “But the hardest part will be done soon. You’ll return a rich man, once it is all done.”

“I like the sound of that,” the second mercenary clapped a hand on a robed shoulder. “For now, I’ll settle for some shade. The tents are up.”

“Come,” Robert addressed his brother, “let us get out of this sun. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll sleep. When it cools down we’ll find the tower and begin the next stage.”

 

 

THE END OF PART ONE…

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Two Lights

“I am going to miss this view.”

“I can see why you were always out here in the mornings,” Shan glanced at Welsley. The two women were together on the balcony of the Light’s chamber in the tower at Norasburg. The morning sun rose over the Great Forest to the East, the reddish-orange light of the sunrise washed over the women as they quietly watched the world come into view.

The dots of light from the fires within the soldiers’ camps across the river had started to vanish, washed out by the sun’s growing light. The soldiers were already beginning their day and it wouldn’t be long before all the fires would disappear, they would return again at day’s end and the sun had set.

They had spent a great deal of their time on the balcony the last few days. It was an ideal spot to discuss the future, the past, and the dangers that lay on the far side of the forest. It had the added benefit of giving them a bird’s eye view of the journey of Commander Mortimer, his troops, and Samuel. The beginning of the journey was easily watched, but at this point all that could be seen was the beginning of the road that was being cut through the trees.

It had been about a week since the expedition had left Norasburg for Shatterook. They had seen Samuel, and Mortimer, off at first light; Samuel was to guide Mortimer and his mounted troops first to Shatterook and then to the edge of the wasteland that surrounded the tower at Ravensbrook. At the wasteland the mounted soldiers would join in with the patrols meant to keep any necromancers from rejoining the Lady.

A couple columns of infantry would follow behind the cavalry. Their job was to escort the army’s support staff and camp followers as well as carve out the initial route through the forest. Repeated journeys along the new road would expand its width and firm up the surface. Travels would also determine most often used camp grounds which would eventually evolve into military outposts and forts to defend travellers. In the future the road would become a major artery for traffic both military and trade.

“Can you feel it, Shan?” Welsley asked. “There is an excitement in the air. An anxiety building all around us. The world has changed. The tower cities, especially Norasburg, are on the cusp of a new world. It is a change as important as when the Goddess first claimed the towers as her own.”

“All I feel is calm, Your Eminence,” Shan answered. “Since I heard the voice calm is all I’ve felt.”

“Call me Welsley,” Welsley replied. “Light Koarl in public or formal situations but never ‘Your Eminence.’ Not anymore. We’re equals now. Friends and allies.”

“Friends and allies, Welsley,” Shan nodded, “but never equals.”

Welsley smiled.

“You’ve been calm for as long as I’ve known you,” she shifted the conversation back to her chosen topic. “Perhaps what you’re feeling is the calm before the storm. Change is upon us but its final form is still hidden.”

Shan nodded. Every quiet moment of her days was filled by the repetition and the analysis of those words: “I have plans for you.” She had turned the words over and over in her mind in an attempt to connect them to the events going on around her. Nothing that had happened to her so far felt like anything more than tangentially connected. The words were a mysterious prophecy.

“Before you even know it,” Welsley continued, “all you will be able to see across the river will be farms and ranches, crops and cattle. The town that surrounds the tower will grow, buildings will be built closer together like honeycombs in a bee hive. Gone will be the lazy, relaxed days you are used to. Norasburg will become a true city, complete with all the challenges of one. Like Morton, Norasburg will be exposed to outsiders with different ways of living and thinking. It will take a leader capable of remaining calm. It will take a leader like you.”

“I have lived my entire life in Norasburg,” Shan said. “I know nothing of large cities. Any advice you could offer would be welcome.”

“You won’t like it,” Welsley warned.

Shan replied with a shrug.

“There is only one thing to remember,” Welsley started. “The Goddess may be perfect but the women who interpreted her will, her mind, her desires, were not. Far from it, they couldn’t agree on even the simplest things. As a result every tower, and every Guiding Light, interprets her laws differently. Moving between tower cities can be a culture shock. It is even worse for people who come from outside cultures.”

“Are you concerned with your move to Falson Peak?” Shan wondered.

“I’ve done what I could to make the transition easier,” Welsley sighed. “Mortimer is too far away to be a danger. The Council of Lights supports the change. I’ll travel with a force composed of a mix of soldiers from every tower to punctuate the point. I suspect the only real resistance will be from the family itself. In the long run, the Falsons will be little more than an inconvenience. The people will accept the will of the council.”

There was silence as both women considered their futures.

“What concerns you?” Welsley asked Shan.

“I was just thinking about the stories I heard growing up,” Shan answered. “In those tales the monster is always defeated by the heroes. The world always returns to normal.”

“The heroine meets her love and they live happily ever after,” Welsley finished with a laugh. “I grew up with the same stories. The truth: the monster often wins, true love rarely meets, and the world changes… not always for the better. The Falsons are removed from power, the Lady cut off from the world. It’s close enough to a happy ending.”

Welsley sighed and stretched her arms above her head.

“I am going to miss this view.”

Walls

Esther stood back and examined her work. It was incomplete but time would fix that. At this point it was a test of what might be used to lock up the wasteland from entry or exit.

There was no way they could build a wall of stone or wood fast enough to seal the wasteland fast enough to keep a new generation of necromancers from slipping in. Stone would take too much time to quarry and transport to the wall’s location. Wood, although weaker than stone, would be faster to build but the quantity needed would devastate the Great Forest. The lost trees would take centuries, maybe millennia, to replace and leave the denizens of the forest, human and animal, without homes. The damage caused might never be reversed, it was an unacceptable risk as far as Esther was concerned.

A living wall seemed a better option: brambles and thorns made useful fences. It wasn’t hard to convince the vines and brambles to grow along the edge of the border shared with the wasteland, the plants on the living side of the border were happy to cooperate. The wall was three people deep, rose to the height of three men, and ran along the border for about a mile.

There was an identically sized wall built on the wasteland side of the border. It was built from the greasy black thorned vines that were the only life found in the wastes. The bloodthirsty vines were willing to help but not without a cost: fresh blood. Just a token sacrifice; a few drops here, a few drops there. Enough to whet the plants’ appetite but not enough to cause lasting harm to the donor. It was a price Esther was willing to pay.

The sheer amount of thorns would make it a daunting task to break through: slow and painful. The bloodthirsty, almost sentient, vines of the wastes would further impede progress as they fought for a chance to taste warm blood and living flesh. The wall would only grow thicker and more impassable as time went by.

A solution that could be accomplished without the need to damage nature.

It was not a job Esther would be able to complete on her own. Not in a reasonable time period at any rate. For that she would need the help of her order.

Order was probably too structured a term to apply to her brothers and sisters of the faith. There was no structure, no hierarchy, among this order. There were no holy dates, no organized assemblies, no ritualized training, no connection between adherents except for a love and respect for the natural world and a willingness to protect it. More of a loose collection of like-minded people than an ideological order.

They had been willing to come together for the task: a chance to keep an abomination from spreading its evil through the world.

Not all members of her order were graced with nature’s favour. Those that were were not all blessed in the same fashion. There were only a handful, maybe two handfuls, who possessed similar abilities to her. Talking to and control of vegetation was just one form that nature’s favour could take. Those that possessed it were already at work on different points around the border supported by their own guard of Shatterook soldiers.

“Impressive as always, my love,” Thomas offered from just behind her.

“It will serve its function well,” Esther replied. “When our side blooms come spring it will also be a monument of beauty. Reborn year after year. Once the wasteland is surrounded it will be a testament to the power of nature. A vision easier to look at than the desolate wastes.”

“They’ll add towers on this side of the wall,” Thomas added, “at regular intervals. Throw in a handful of forts to house the troops, stable the horses, and provide general maintenance and the Lady and Her followers will be cut off from each other. Permanently, with a little luck.”

“The abomination will be sealed away by the nature She would corrupt,” Esther smiled at the thought. “It’s almost poetic.”

“The most beautifully crafted poem I have ever heard,” Thomas agreed.

“Indeed it is,” Esther laughed.

“Let’s sit and eat,” Thomas gestured to a small table set up among the tents of the camp. There were plates of dried fruits, vegetables, and meats as well as a pitcher of water and one of wine set up for their enjoyment. A couple of chairs waited to be used at the table.

“Maybe a quick break,” she agreed. “I’d like to get another section up today. Two, it possible.”

“You’ll need your strength,” Thomas agreed. “Eat.”

“How are you faring, husband?” Esther asked.

“The wound is healing nicely,” Thomas smiled. “The boredom will be cured when we start construction of our first tower in the morning. It beats standing before a group of the wealthiest families arguing for gold to support a military presence along this border indefinitely. I would not trade places with Craig or Abeth for anything.”

“I wonder how long that will last,” Esther mused. “Once we have sealed off her influence, how many generations will it take before people forget the danger that lurks behind the wall? Will it happen all at once or will if be a slow siphoning of gold away from the wall’s garrison? It will happen. People forget. Out of sight, out of mind.”

They both focused on their meal. Silence accompanied them.

Changes

Shan would not see the council the next day or the day after that. It would be a week before the Council would summon her and hear her report.

She filled her time waiting at a table in the archives; quill in hand and surrounded by parchment. She recorded her experiences with razor sharp detail. The only breaks she took was for sleep and bathroom breaks; she took her meals in the archives normally joined by Samuel and other members of the Illuminated.

Her days ended with a visit for Welsley Koarl, the Guiding Light of Norasburg. The young Light would drift into the room and read a handful of randomly selected pages and then leave. Throughout the visit, Light Koarl would ask about Shan’s day: “had she eaten?”, “taken the time to stroll in the gardens?”, “taken a break just to chat?”, “slept?” The Light laughed off any attempt to shift the conversation to the Council of Lights and their seemingly endless meetings.

Shan was summoned early on the morning of the seventh day to present her experience to the Council.

There were twelve sets of chairs and tables set in a ring about the room: one for each tower, including the missing Light of Falson Peak. Each table sported a quill, some ink and a stack of paper for note taking. A pitcher of water and one of wine rested on every table along with a pair of cups. The meeting was closed to all but the Lights and anyone who might be called to provide testimony, no servants were allowed in during the day.

In the centre of the circle was a podium and a stool. A pitcher of water and a cup to drink it from waited on the podium; the wine and the writing tools were absent. This was intended for short-term recounting of information, for questioning by the Council, it was not intended to be used by a long-term participant in the discussion.

The sun had just begun to rise when Shan found herself in the centre of this chamber. She arose before sunrise and had snacked on dried fruit while she planned her day. She had collected an armful of candles and a pitcher of water and was just about to ascend the stairs to the archives when she ran into Morah. Her fellow Illuminated took the burden from her arms and sent her on her way to the Council of Lights.

She stood behind the podium and waited as the Lights slowly trickled into the room. The Lights were quiet as they took their places at their individual tables. No greetings, or other acknowledgements, were offered by anyone as they took their seats.

Shan had never been to a Council of Lights. To the best of her recollection there had never been a Council held at Norasburg, most certainly there had never been one at the tower in her lifetime. The tower cities were basically kingdoms unto themselves and cooperation between them was only grudgingly given. It took a major event, like the death of a Guiding Light, to bring these ruling women together.

“Good morning,” Shan felt the hand of Light Koarl softly touch her shoulder. “There is no need to be nervous. Once we begin, you’ll share your experience as detailed as you can. When you are finished the Lights will ask questions to clear up any confusion they might have. After that you’ll be released. You might be called back if the Council needs further clarifications. We’ll begin soon.”

Shan nodded as Welsley smiled and left to take her seat.

“We are all here,” Welsley announced. She took a quick look around the room before she continued, “close the door.”

There was silence as the guards exited the room and closed the doors behind them.

“Shan,” Welsley looked at the Illuminated, “you may begin when you are ready.”

The room was oddly silent as Shan relayed her story. Throughout her retelling the only sounds outside of breathing was the occasional scribble of a quill, the shuffle of some papers, or the pour of a liquid into a cup. No voices interrupted, no questions were asked as she spoke of her journey across the river to investigate the disappearance of the woodsmen. She shared her journey through the forest and her sojourn at the ruined tower. She left nothing out about her rushed exit from the wasteland and her return to Norasburg.

“She claimed to be the Goddess?” one of the Guiding Lights asked after Shan had finished speaking.

“Yes,” Shan answered. “She claimed to be one of the members of the group that overthrew the old tower kings.”

“Light Falson referred to her as the Sister,” Welsley added.

“Was the voice you heard as you left the same as Hers?” the same woman asked.

“It was definitely a different voice,” Shan answered.

“Do you think She will release Light Falson?” This question came from a different Guiding Light.

“Never,” Shan shook her head. “Light Falson’s only hope is that the Lady’s rage will be so great that she’ll be killed immediately. The Lady’s obsession is too great, She would never be able to release either of the Falsons.”

There was silence.

“No more questions?” Welsley asked. She waited a moment then added, “Thank-you, Shan. You have given us a lot to discuss. You are free to leave.”

Shan found herself back in front of the Council of Lights the next afternoon.

“We have spent a great deal of time debating among ourselves,” Light Koarl explained, “as a group we agree with your opinion: Light Falson is lost to us. We can only hope the Goddess grants her a swift and painless death. We have little time to mourn, however, as the tower cities face a danger we have never faced before.”

“To that end,” Welsley continued, “we will be adding contingents from every tower to the garrison across the river. These troops will be permanently hosted, we’ll adjust numbers as needed but the garrison is there to stay. Commander Mortimer and his soldiers will be sent to bolster the border guard set up by the people of Shatterook. They will be under the command of the Shatterook forces but it should provide the Falson forces with a small measure of vengeance.”

“I will be taking control of the tower at Falson Peak,” Welsley added.

“You are leaving Norasburg?” Shan asked.

“Yes, it is the Goddess’ will,” Light Koarl remarked.

“Who will be overseeing Norasburg?” Shan wondered aloud.

Welsley smiled, “You will, Light Shan.”

The Return to Norasburg

They had had another discussion about Shan’s safety after they had taken some time to rest. They were, as a group, completely exhausted. Shan saw no need to add more risk to the journey by attempting to cross through the woods with dulled senses. A rest was called for, the debate at the morning meal had not been part of the plan.

She didn’t budge on her decision of the previous day. She understood Abeth’s concern and appreciated the soldier’s dedication to his duty, but she felt it was unnecessary. Shan had no intention of entering into battle: avoidance was key to her planned journey. Through the forest directly to the tower without any delay was the goal.

“I have plans for you.” The words had emboldened her. Shan could not shake the feeling that her fate didn’t end in the forest.

Only two members would separate from the group to make the trip to Norasburg: Shan and Samuel. The trip through the forest was mostly uneventful. Samuel kept them moving at a brisk pace as they worked their way under the cover of the trees. There was a cautiousness in the approach he took, less for their safety than as a way to be sure no undead were left wandering along the route they took back to the tower.

They followed the same route back as Samuel had taken while he stalked the necromancers. There was always a chance he had passed by some groups of undead as he had trailed after his prey. He wanted to leave as little danger free to wander the forest as he could. They could make a swift journey back to Norasburg while still scouring the area for undead stragglers.

Shan could see the value in this action and the little bit of time it would take to accomplish. There would be very little delay involved, they would just be retracing the steps Samuel had taken to arrive at the wasteland. Stopping to do an occasional search wouldn’t add much time to the journey. The benefits to the people who lived and worked in and around the forest would outweigh any delay in arriving at the Norasburg tower.

They didn’t find any undead during their journey.

Their first contact with anything beyond the denizens of the forest was a group of scouts as they got closer to the edge of the forest. The soldiers had been out performing the same type of search that Shan and Samuel had been doing when the two groups met. It was a pleasant surprise to encounter a friendly, living face.

They were tower soldiers but not from Norasburg.

Since Samuel had left there had arrived contingents from the other towers. These new troops had accompanied the Guiding Lights of the other towers who had been summoned to the tower at Norasburg. The bulk of the soldiery were sent across the river leaving only a handful of guards for each of the visiting Lights. While their leaders debated the Goddess’ will, the soldiers cleaned the forest of their enemy and got first-hand experience of a prior myth.

The forest side of the river had been converted into a camp. Tents were scattered across the plain divided into a dozen discrete sections: one for each tower. By the bridge across the river they had erected a fort made entirely of wood. The walls were complete but the internal structures were still in the process of being constructed.

“That’s impressive,” Shan commented as they passed the fort. “I hadn’t expected such a quick result.”

“Soldiers can be very efficient,” Samuel replied. “Fortifications in particular tend to be an area of expertise. We have a welcoming committee.”

Their escorts nodded and left them to continue on their way. They had arrived at the bridge and begun to cross when they noticed a large group of people approaching from the other side. Shan could see soldiers arranged in an arc to the sides and the rear of the central group. The core of the other group was made up of members of the tower faithful. There were a healthy mix of attendants and Illuminated based on the colours of the robes that Shan could see.

“I knew I could rely on you,” Shan watched Light Koarl separate from the group in front of her. “Samuel, you brought Shan back. And the necromancers?”

“They are dead,” Samuel responded.

“Light Falson was taken by the Lady,” Shan added. “There was nothing we could do.”

“That’s alright,” Welsley replied. “Light Falson’s fate is in the Goddess’ hands. The rest of the Council of Lights has gathered. We have been deliberating for days about our future, our safety. We eagerly await a first-hand account of our enemy. Tomorrow, after you’ve rested and cleaned up. Where are the others?”

“I sent Captain Abeth to Shatterook to help with the rescued captives and prepare the border defences,” Shan replied.

Welsley raised a single eyebrow. “Sounds like you have a tale to tell. But not today. Today we celebrate your return with a feast. Tomorrow you’ll share your story with the Council. Come, let’s get you home.”

A Partial Parting of Ways

Shan blinked in the dim light of the chamber. The light of the sun had long ago fled from the room’s windows. There were torches ensconced throughout the room but were too far away to provide anything more than flickering shadows. A couple candles kept her company but they had burnt down almost to the level of the table they stood on. The day had escaped from her while she watched.

Getting her recent experience down on paper was important, too important to let too much time pass between the events and her recording of it. Memory faded and these events needed to serve as a warning to future generations.

There were already piles of vellum stacked around the table; they would eventually be collected and bound for long-term storage. There would also be duplicates made to be sent to the other towers, the originals would be kept in the Norasburg archives.

Shan leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms above her head. She had reached the point where they were forced to leave the Falsons in the clutches of the undead. It didn’t sit right with her but the numbers had not been in their favour.

Her mind drifted back to that day…

“He’s right,” Esther spoke softly from behind her. Shan felt the older woman’s hand lightly brush her elbow. “None of us like it but it’s a fight we can’t win. Our deaths at the moment would serve nothing. It would be nothing more than an unexplained disappearance. Our survival could serve as a warning to our people and potentially save countless lives.”

Shan’s eyes were locked onto the glowing red orbs that were Prince Stefan’s eyes. The undead prince’s gaze never left her gaze, even when her hand caressed the handle of her war-hammer his eyes never left her eyes. Shan was aware of the former man’s eyes, the feel of the war-hammer’s handle against her fingers, and Esther’s hand as it brushed her elbow. She could hear her companions shift behind her, in front of her she watched Samuel appear at Abeth’s side: both men appeared ready to throw themselves into battle.

Not once as she stared down the prince did she consider the situation. Not once did she weigh the pros and cons, never did she calculate the odds of victory. Her mind was blank, she was aware of the going-ons around her but her mind was silent. She had slipped into a meditative state, her mind calm and open to inspiration.

It had never worked before.

Still, desperation pushes people to strange actions. There was no chance of a martial victory, no chance of a compromise, and nothing that could be done by hook or by crook. Perhaps inspiration would strike if she made her mind into a blank slate.

“It is time to go,” Shan swore she heard a voice tell her. It was a feminine voice; soft yet firm, strong but gentle. “You can do no good here. The Falsons’ fate doesn’t need to be your fate. I have plans for you, child. You need to leave now.”

The unfamiliar voice she heard in her head was a shock to Shan. Throughout her life she had been taught to clear her mind and calm her emotions, a centred mind makes better decisions. The ultimate goal, Shan had been taught, was to create a calm, pure state to invite communion with the Goddess. It was an even that had never happened.

Until today.

Shan knew she had no way to definitely prove that it was the Goddess choosing to speak with her. An argument could easily be made that it was just her mind making the decision without her direct guidance, an argument Shan would normally have made herself. It would not be the first time a thought appeared unexpectedly during a meditation, a big part of meditation for Shan was to allow her mind to sort out her life’s difficulties. But the voice used by these thoughts was always recognizable as her own.

This voice was not her voice. Shan’s thoughts tended to be of a direct nature: “do this” or “don’t do that.” They were less verbose and less prone to flattery. “I have plans for you” was a phrase she had never heard within her head before.

“Light Falson,” Shan broke her silence, “my apologies. I cannot help you. Goddess be with you.”

“A wise choice, Lady Shan,” Stefan nodded. “May your journey take you safely home.”

Shan watched as with a wave of his hand the ranks of the undead began to move back toward the ruined tower. The undead prince turned and fell into step with his army. The zombies ushered their prisoners forward directly behind the prince. One last plaintive look was thrown in Shan’s direction before the Falsons disappeared in the mass of undead soldiers.

“I would feel more comfortable out of this wasteland,” Thomas announced from behind her.

“I think that’s something we can all agree on, husband,” Esther responded. “We can rest when we reach the edge of the forest.”

Shan allowed Esther to guide her to the trees. A gentle hand on her back moved her across the dust of the wasteland and through the green grass. They were joined by the freed slaves who all but collapsed when Shan and Esther sat down in the shade of the trees.

“I think we should take these people directly to Shatterook,” Craig said as he sat down beside the women. “They should be able to sway any doubters and our requests for patrols and outposts around the wasteland should be granted. After that we can work on convincing your people to support our efforts.” The last part was directed at Shan.

“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Samuel leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, “they experienced the danger She represents first hand.”

Shan listened as Samuel described the events at Norasburg. She listened as he passed on news of the Falsons’ treachery, a recounting that did nothing to ease her guilt at leaving the Falson women in the Lady’s hands. She was relieved to hear of Light Koarl’s successes even if total victory had not been achieved. The bravery and determination of her leader was a joy for her to hear. The recounting of the subsequent turn in the battle made it easy to determine her next actions.

“Captain Abeth and my soldiers will accompany you,” Shan spoke up, “but I need to return to the tower at Norasburg as soon as I can.”

“I can’t let you go alone,” Abeth responded. “I’ll go with you.”

“No,” Shan shook her head. “I need you to represent Norasburg. Help these people to safety and make sure we secure the borders and prevent new necromancers from joining Her.”

“At least take a soldier or two,” Abeth argued, “for safety’s sake.”

“I’ll be going with her,” Samuel jumped in. “I promised to return to Norasburg.”

“Done,” Shan nodded. “We leave in the morning.”

Loose Ends

“What is going on here?” the robed figure spat into Prince Stefan’s face. “I demand you stop those people and return them to the tower.”

“The Lady has granted them their freedom,” Prince Stefan addressed the newcomer. “Her guests are leaving and, as such, She has no need of a kitchen staff.”

Shan watched the exchange between the two men. She noted the former prince’s intense gaze that locked onto what she assumed was a returning necromancer. She saw the undead warrior’s eyes shift to a deeper red, almost the shade of blood. His voice remained level but the amusement seemed to have dropped from it.

The necromancer spoke in a hoarse whisper, his version of a shout it seemed to Shan. Arrogance, anger, and ego dripped off every word he uttered. His voice was the only thing about him that hinted at life.

“And what of Her necromancers?” the robed man hissed at the undead warrior. “Are we now expected to work the kitchens as well as conduct our studies? Are we expected to toss aside our intellectual pursuits to sweat over ovens? Is She willing to have our progress slowed for these people?”

“I don’t think She’ll be overly concerned,” Prince Stefan responded. “There are not enough necromancers left to require a staff. Where are your brothers? You left with two other of your kind.”

“They gave their lives in Her service,” the necromancer dismissed the question with a wave. “What do you mean there is not enough left?”

“You are all that remains of your brotherhood,” replied the former prince. He pointed to the necromancer’s prisoners, “Who are they?”

“I’m all that remains,” the necromancer repeated, “what happened to the others?”

“They died,” the undead warrior answered, “and who are these people?”

“What!” the necromancer’s voice almost reached the volume of polite conversation. “How did they die? When did it happen?”

“Painfully. Recently,” Prince Stefan replied. His voice dropped in volume and took on an icy tone. “Who are these women?”

Shan looked at the women that had accompanied the necromancer. They had definitely seen better days. Their clothing was ragged and dirty, stained beyond anyone’s ability to discern the original colour. The women seemed in worse shape than their clothes; their journey had been longer and harsher than Shan’s own had, she supposed. The two women, one older and one younger, seemed oddly familiar to her.

“Tell me what happened, you miserable corpse,” the necromancer snapped.

“Light Falson,” Shan burst out involuntarily as she recognized the older woman. She had seen the Light a few times, met her once when she was a child. Shan remembered Light Falson as a stern and humourless figure compared to the caring and concerned figure that had been Light Amoren. Shan remembered Light Falson as a frightening, powerful figure whose strength was more obvious than Light Amoren’s had been. The woman before Shan seemed frail by comparison and it had taken a moment for Shan’s brain to connect the woman before her with the woman she remembered.

“Your Eminence,” Shan moved to the side of the Guiding Light. She had taken the action before she had even had a chance to think about it, a lifetime of training had kicked in and all that mattered at the moment was the welfare of the Guiding Light.

A wall of zombies moved between her and the Light.

“Falson?” Stefan asked, his disembodied voice took on a questioning air.

“Yes, yes,” the necromancer interupted. “They traded them to us in exchange for us letting them keep their tower. I felt it was a better prize for the Lady than a place She could never visit.”

“I am sure you are correct,” the prince responded. “Where are the rest of Her soldiers? Surely you needed more than twelve to accomplish this feat.”

“We animated hundreds of your kind,” the necromancer sneered. “We left them to enforce the terms of the deal.”

“Not my kind,” the prince snapped back. “You and your brethren don’t have the power to steal from death. You animate bodies, you don’t enslave souls. You created drones and left them to be destroyed like your brethren. You can only dream of forcing a soul back to this world.”

“I can do one thing you can’t do,” the necromancer shot back, “I can cross into the green. All your power you believe you have and all you can do is wait at the edge of the wastes for someone to cross over. I brought Her a treasure She can enjoy for an eternity. What have you done besides allow Her devoted servants to die?”

“For centuries your brethren have sought out the Lady in an effort to steal Her secrets and bask in Her power. There have always been necromancers vying for Her favour, but,” the undead prince drew his sword and swiftly planted it into the necromancer’s chest, “that will no longer include you. The Lady thanks you for your gift.”

Shan watched the necromancer fall to the ground. Prince Stefan knelt beside the body and used the robes to clean the blood from his sword. He stood and returned the sword to its sheath.

“What are you going to do with Light Falson?” Shan asked.

“I’ll present her to the Lady,” Stefan shrugged. “It will amuse Her for awhile. Keep Her distracted. It’ll give you some time before Her thoughts return to the outside world.”

“You can’t do that,” Shan responded. “The Lady will torture her, maybe turn her into an undead creature so she can do so for eternity.”

“This is not negotiable,” the ancient warrior answered. “It is the price of your freedom and the safety of your people. You have removed the necromancers from Her land, but ask yourself how many of the undead were animated by Her and how many by the necromancers. She can still reach beyond Her land. Go home, Lady Shan. Go home and make sure your children, and their children, never forget the danger She represents. There is nothing left for you to do here, go home.”

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