Alternatives

“There were fifteen of us at the beginning,” the disembodied voice explained. “One for each tower, each population centre. There was no talk of a Goddess when we formed the first council, we were just the wisest of the wealthiest women that called the nation home. We were just a collection of like-minded women who wanted to make our world a better place.”

Welsley sat cross-legged on the floor of the small chamber. A glass and a bottle of wine sat within arm’s reach. Three flickering torches rested on the chamber walls and provided her a comfortable light. She had returned to gather more information from the voice that claimed to be “the Goddess.” She already had her doubts about the trustworthiness of the Falson’s and the voice’s talk of betrayal had intrigued her.

“The Falson clan controlled the richest mines in the nation; silver, gold, and iron were all in abundance in the lands under their control,” the voice continued. “As egotistical as they were wealthy; they even named the region after themselves: Falson Peak. They were the strongest of the towers, any attempt to change the world would have been harder, maybe impossible, without their support. The Falson’s were not popular outside of their lands, however, so the matriarch took on a support role while I became the face of the movement.”

“It was a meaningless position for me. The council made the important decisions, anything that affected the nation as a whole would be discussed, debated, and voted upon by the council representatives. No one person, no one family would be allowed to determine the nation’s future direction. A glorious design: a nation ruled by the best and the brightest. But we needed to wrest control of the towers from their current occupants.”

“Surprisingly, Falson Peak wasn’t the first tower to change hands. It was the second, the first was Marton. I took it with relative ease, the mix of people from across the globe provided easy access to mercenary groups and weakened the control the rulers had over the population. The exposure to so many cultures and ideas had eroded the loyalty of the citizens and allowed us to transfer the tower into my hands with a minimal of life lost. It was after this that the first tales of miracles and divinity began to be attached to my person.”

“Falson Peak fell within days of Marton. I had sent some of my troops to help other towers as we tried to solidify our control of the nation. We were lucky. Our opponents fought as often among themselves as they did against us. It was slow, but we consistently gained ground. Except across the forest.”

“The towers on the far side of the forest were ruled by a single family. The three brothers fought relentlessly and kept our forces on the defensive. There were no roads through the forest and the towers could only be used to contact another tower. News was slow in coming, by the time we received any it was too late. Our forces had been routed, two of the three council members who led the forces had been killed. We seemed to have lost the towers.”

“I had amassed a number of victories during this time which had earned me the reputation of being unbeatable. It was so pervasive among the people that I had begun to believe it myself. When news of our defeat came I quickly gathered my troops and marched them through the woods. We caught the brothers unaware and had captured the tower of Ravensbrook. In one quick swoop we had gained a foothold and mustering point on the nation’s far side. It was the last victory we would see in that region.”

“We lost battle after battle and eventually found ourselves trapped behind the tower walls. Every attempt to break the siege failed. The promised reinforcements didn’t arrive. It was only a matter of time before we fell. Unknown to me at the time, the Falson’s had decided to sacrifice me while they consolidated their power. They had already begun to spread the myth of the Sister.”

The room fell into silence. Welsley waited for the voice to continue. When the silence dragged on into discomfort she spoke, “And that was when you began to re-animate your dead.”

“The tower at Ravensbrook has an immense library devoted to ancient and dark arts,” the voice explained. “We were facing defeat. Alone. Left to die. I had grown desperate. After I stumbled across the necromantic texts I realized I had a chance to turn the tide. To cheat destiny.”

“It worked. The siege was broken. Our numbers swelled after each battle won or lost. Before too long my undead legions had laid siege to both of the desert towers but it could not strike the killing blow. I had turned the tide of battle and yet couldn’t claim the towers.”

“The libraries at Ravensbrook contained texts that explored more than just necromancy. There were examinations of magics of all flavours and colours. Within this collection of papers there was a ritual that promised control over the desert sands. It was better, in my opinion, to bury the towers than leave them in the hands of our enemies.”

“Understandable,” Welsley replied. “Were you aware of the cost?”

“There is always a price with magic,” the voice answered, “I just didn’t realize how steep it would be. It drained the life from everything around the tower and trapped me within… undying. The desert had swallowed the other towers but I was no longer free to roam the world.”

“But you send the dead at us to wreck havoc?” Welsley accused.

“I will never allow the Falson’s to forget their betrayal of me,” the voice spat.

“Fair enough,” Welsley agreed. She hesitated a moment and then began to relate her life since the arrival of the ghouls.

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Distraction

Welsley held the torch in her left hand. She held the flame above her head and just ahead of her body. The orange light flickered across the stone walls and steps that surrounded her.

The staircase was tight with just enough room for her to turn around in should she want or need to. The passage was dry, stuffy, and covered in dust. There was no indication that the stairs had seen a living presence in a great many years.

She crept up the stairs, her eyes alert for any potential danger. The obvious lack of use reduced those fears to imagination, but the tower was ancient and there was no knowing what state of repair the long forgotten staircase was in. Mindful, focused ascension of the stairs kept her mind occupied and provided her with a much needed distraction.

It had been two days since the Falson’s had shown up at her tower. Light Falson had pushed her way into the daily operations of the tower pushing Welsley to the fringe. The Falson’s separated Welsley from the people of Norasburg and placed armed guards at the archives and the library. Welsley was not a prisoner but they had restricted her movements.

They had barely finished their conference in the archives that first day before Welsley came face-to-face with the reality of dealing with the Falson family. The troops that were promised to reinforce the river garrison, that were to be transferred to her command were all led by Falson family members. On paper they might fall under her auspices but with the officers being of Falson blood it was unlikely Welsley would have any real control. Her exile from the archives and the library underlined the reality of her situation.

There was no one she could trust to discuss her concerns with. Someone was sharing information with the older Light, she had shown up to fast for it not to have been connected to the logger’s initial visit. That meant only Shan and Abeth were above suspicion and they were beyond the forest at this point. She was alone and almost a prisoner in her own tower.

The only place Welsley felt secure and relaxed was in her chambers. Her rooms on the eleventh floor were the only place where they left her alone. Soldiers waited for her just outside the chamber doors, inside they left her to herself.

She was thankful for this peace. When she was out among the tower denizens she was constantly trying to determine who had betrayed her. She had to be wary about her speech and reactions, too much time around the others exhausted her. Paranoia was no way to live.

Welsley found numerous breaks during the day were necessary for her sanity. She would feign exhaustion and retire to her chambers. It was while she paced her rooms during one of these breaks that she stumbled upon the staircase. It was hidden behind a false wall, unseen for generations.

Her curiosity had gotten the better of her. Her chambers were on the uppermost floor of the tower, or so she had thought. Here she had a staircase hidden within the tower walls that led upward. Welsley felt drawn to determine where the stairs went and what lay forgotten above.

It also served as a wonderful distraction to her current woes.

The stairs curved gently as they rose within the tower. Welsley guessed it must have brought her two, maybe three, stories up from her chambers. She hadn’t realized that there was that much tower above her floor. At the top of the stairs it opened up into a small, unlit, windowless, circular room.

“What, I wonder, do we have here?” Welsley mumbled to herself as she stood just outside the newly discovered room.

There were three torches attached to the walls around the room. Welsley kept close to the wall as she circled around and lit each torch. This room was otherwise empty, devoid of any objects, a plain room made from stone blocks. Not completely sealed from the outside, the smoke from the torches disappeared through the stone ceiling above.

Welsley moved into the centre of the room. This was odd. An empty room hidden atop the tower. Lightless. Away from all sight. It was a surprise. Welsley wasn’t sure what she had expected but this wasn’t it.

“Greetings,” a women’s disembodied voice rose up into the room.

“Hello?” Welsley threw out to the voice as she turned in place searching for the speaker.

“It has been a long time since I have sensed any other person in a signalling chamber,” the voice responded. “It must be decades… no… centuries since I have last talked to another.”

“Centuries?” Welsley repeated.

“Yes. Who am I speaking with?”

“Guiding Light Welsley Koarl.”

“Guiding Light?” the voice sounded surprised. “They’re still around? I was there at the beginning.”

“Goddess?”

“I was called that once,” the voice replied. “Long ago.”

“You – you’re real?”

“Yes,” the voice confirmed.

“You chose me as one of your Lights. Why?”

“No, child,” the voice grew cold, “I haven’t chosen anyone since the first. Since my betrayal by that council.”

“Betrayed?” Welsely repeated.

“They trapped me in my tower,” the voice responded. “Far from my people. My realm.”

“The Sister,” Welsley gasped as the realization hit her.

“The Sister,” the voice laughed. “Are the Falson’s still telling that lie?”

The Sister’s Tower

The younger Falson stepped out of the shadows and sat down at the table beside her grandmother. She poured herself a glass of water and looked across the table at Welsley.

“I am sure,” the younger woman began, “by now you are aware of how turbulent it was during the shift of society to the Goddess’ way. Power never shifts easily, those who have power cling to it more fiercely than they cling to life. The resistance continued throughout the Goddess’ mortal lifespan and for many generations after. The male ruling class forced the hand of the faithful, made it impossible to live beside them. The only viable option we had was to destroy them, to remove the old ways so we could begin anew.”

She paused her speech and took a sip of water from her glass. She looked up in surprise. “This is the cleanest, purest water I have ever tasted,” she directed at Welsley, “and so cold.”

“It comes from the springs under the tower,” Welsley shrugged.

“The Goddess has truly blessed you.”

“Molly,” the elder Falson interrupted, “focus, please.”

“My apologies, Your Eminence,” Molly nodded her head toward her grandmother. She took another sip of water and quietly sat as she collected her thoughts.

“There were fifteen towers that made up the realm at that time,” Molly began again.

“Fifteen?” Welsley repeated. “I thought there were only thirteen.”

“Along with the ruined tower,” Edith broke into the conversation, “there were two more lost within the expanse of the eastern desert. They fell to the same evil that took the thirteenth tower.”

“What evil was that?” Welsley asked.

“The Sister,” Molly stated. “There is a balance to existence. Day has night. Life has death. The Goddess had the Sister.”

“Her Sister,” Edith added.

“Yes,” the younger Falson confirmed. “They believed that change was needed. They believed that every one would benefit if the violence of men could be reigned in. They agreed that women needed to take over the rule of the nation before the male destroyed it in their mindless pursuit of violence. Together they selected the first Council of Lights and recruited like-minded males into their armies.”

“The revolution was brutal and bloody. If there is one thing men do well its kill each other. For every man willing to sacrifice themselves for the promise of a bright future, there were double that willing to throw their lives away for their so-called kings. Despite the odds being stacked against us we won battle after battle. The light of the Goddess shone on us and provided us more strength than the glint of gold could do for our enemies. Her light, however, could not reach every inch of the realm.”

“Beyond the great forest they struggled to gain any ground. The towers were too far away from the bulk of the nation. Reinforcements were unable to reach them, there was no help to be had from the rest of the nation. The fighting devastated the populations of these three towers. It seemed the faithful were destined to lose the easternmost towers…”

“The Sister had been assigned to the tower just beyond the woods, Ravensbrook. Her kinship with the Goddess had made her too proud and too stubborn. She was not about to fail and allow her sister to claim all the glory. She didn’t have the patience that the Goddess possessed, she wanted what she felt was hers immediately.”

“While the Goddess travelled among the people bringing her light to the world, spreading her message of hope, the Sister had taken a different path. She had spent her early years delving into the dark arts. She had trained with masters of the arcane where she learned to manipulate the world around her through ancient ritual and bind it to her will. She learned to do all manner of unnatural things to force the elements to bend to her desires, but it was in the school of necromancy that her talents truly shone.”

“The three easternmost towers were losing their fight to evolve. The old male regime was stronger than expected and more determined to hold onto their power than anywhere else in the realm. The old patriarchs had decided to destroy everything, to make the land a ruin, rather than surrender what they had. They were so sure that no one could win this conflict.”

“The Sister had also decided that if she couldn’t have the towers that no one else would either. She raised the corpses of her failing army and those of her opponents. She performed rituals of massive proportions raising hundreds of the dead to serve her. She sent hordes of restless dead against her enemies driving them into the desert. Every battle, won or lost, increased the size of her forces. Still, she could not break their hold on the desert towers. Her patience was quickly depleting, if she couldn’t have victory she would deliver destruction.”

“Her undead forces laid siege to the two towers trapping the living inside. She could have waited, she could have starved them out, but her rage grew as her patience dwindled. Her fury boiled over and she drew upon the primal forces to end the stalemate. She used the very sands of the desert itself to erase the towers, the defiant men, and her army of the dead from the world. She had won.”

“But there is a cost to sorcery,” Edith took over the narrative. “The spells she cast needed fuel and they took that fuel from the lands around the thirteenth tower. In a circle as wide as the tower’s shadow could reach all life was drained. The region left lifeless save for the Sister. It is said she still lives to this day fueled by her undying rage.”

“You will not find mention of any of this in your archives,” the elder continued after a drawn out silence. “The record was only made at Falson Peak and kept a highly guarded secret. We tell you only so you know what your people might be awakening. We do not cross through the forest for a very good reason.”

“I didn’t know,” was all Welsley could think of to say.

“Now you do,” Edith Falson replied. “This stays between us. No other Light may know.”

The Visitor

“What brings you to Norasburg, Light Falson?” Welsley asked after the initial surprise had passed.

Guiding Light Edith Falson was the Goddess’ chosen ruler of Falson Peak, the largest of the tower cities, capital of the nation, most central of the twelve towers. The Falson family was unique in that there was always a Falson on the Council of Lights, when she passed she was replaced by her granddaughter, a woman who was groomed from birth for the position. The family could trace their line back to the days the Goddess walked the realm. The first Guiding Light of Falson Peak was of the family and the line had continued unbroken to this day. The Falson family seemed to have a very special place in the Goddess’ heart.

“Leave us,” Light Falson commanded. Her voice was soft, but there was no kindness in it. She had spent a lifetime dominating all those around her, she was a person used to barking orders and being obeyed.

Welsley nodded to her attendants and watched as they skittered off. Welsley rose to greet her guest and noted the second, younger, woman standing just beyond the older Light. The family resemblance was obvious, this would be her granddaughter. Whatever brought them to Norasburg must be important if she was willing to take her heir so far from the safety of her stronghold. Welsley couldn’t remember a time when it had been reported that Light Falson had left the comfort of her tower, let alone risking her replacement’s safety.

“Don’t get up,” Light Falson gestured at Welsley to remain seated. The older woman walked over to the table and sat down across from Welsley. The two Lights waited quietly as the third woman poured a glass of wine for the newly seated woman.

“Ravensbrook,” Light Koarl offered into the silence after the younger woman stepped away from the table. She stood a couple steps back from the older woman, hands crossed in front of her, body partially draped in shadow.

“Ravensbrook,” Welsley repeated, “why is that name familiar?”

“What are you looking for among all these dusty old books, Light Koarl?” the older one countered after a sip of wine.

“What brought you here to my tower, Your Eminence?” Welsley responded.

“Why have you garrisoned troops across the river, Light Koarl?” Light Falson replied. “Why have you sent Shan through the forest? What is your interest in the thirteenth tower? What came out of that forest? Why have you kept this information from the council?”

“Why have I kept it from you?” Welsley shot back. “That is what you meant?”

Along with being blessed by the Goddess, the Falson family had long been the nation’s unspoken rulers. Light Falson ruled the council, all decisions made by the council were based on the wishes of the Falson family.

“I did not realize the deployment of my troops was a concern of the council,” Welsley continued. “I wanted to provide some additional security for my logging camps. The forest can be an unfriendly place.”

“Filled with the undead, I hear,” Light Falson replied.

“And where did you hear that?” Welsley wondered.

“Is it true?” Light Falson ignored the question.

“Yes,” Welsley admitted. “A group of what we were told were ghouls. Six of them, all destroyed. The garrison is a precaution, a prevention against another appearance.”

“And Shan?” Light Falson asked after a moment of thought. “Why does she journey through the forest?”

“Shan is determined to discover the origin of this threat,” Welsley shrugged. “I trust her judgement and give her the freedom she needs to accomplish her task.”

“Light Amoren took a similar approach with her,” the older woman responded. “I never understood it.”

“Shan works best that way,” Welsley explained.

“I will be leaving some of my troops with yours at the river,” Light Falson declared. She raised her hand to cut off any protest. “They will be transferred to your command. It is better to be safe than sorry if creatures from legend are rearing their ugly heads from beyond the forest. There is no way to tell what Shan’s excursion could stir up, we cannot recall he and we cannot leave the towers at risk.”

“You sent four people,” the elder Light continued, “you should have sent an army. The myths teach us that the undead are limitless in number. We have no way to know what level of danger Shan and company are walking into. You should have informed the council before sending an expedition.”

“There were only six. Shan made a judgement call. I support it,” Welsley responded.

“You put us all at risk,” the elder raised her voice. “You had no right!”

Welsley grimaced. She hadn’t given a thought to anything beyond Norasburg. She understood Shan’s impulse to protect their people and even approved of the curiosity about what lay beyond the woodland. She hadn’t given much thought to any risks, she was still unsure she believed the ghouls were real.

“What are you not telling me?” Welsley asked. Ravensbrook was the key to this all, she was sure of it. The more she focused on it, the further away the answer felt. She had heard the name before, she was sure of it. “What am I missing about Ravensbrook?”

“Ravensbrook, also known as the Sister’s Tower,” the young woman’s voice broke from out of the shadows. “It has sent its foul armies against us before.”

Truths

Welsley rubbed at her eyes. She had spent all her waking hours digging through the tower’s archives in her search for the elusive name of the ruined thirteenth tower. Welsley, Morah and their four companions had sifted through what felt like an endless pile of scrolls and tomes. The handwritten manuscripts varied in legibility from almost an unreadable scribble to nearly perfect lettering. Some of the pages had darkened almost to brown, some of the ink had faded nearly completely. It strained their eyes and slowed their progress to a crawl.

Except for her daily trip to the tower’s baths she had barely left the dry, dusty confines of the archives. She ate all her meals there and even had a small bed set up in a corner for when she was too exhausted to continue her research. She would drop herself into the pile of blankets and pillows and awake to go directly back to her quest. She focused on deciphering faded text and poor penmanship and left Morah to administer to the daily drudgery of the tower.

Delving into the records for Norasburg had yielded no name for the thirteenth tower, there was little mention of any community outside of Norasburg. There was good reason for that.

The initial rise of the Goddess was not as peaceful as they taught in schools. The written histories from the tower’s initial Lights described less of a common sense revolution and read more like a bloody coup. Welsley could remember being taught of the irrational violence the male was prone to and how the Goddess came and brought peace to the land by removing the males from power and replacing them with women. Women nurtured and built, men could only destroy.

Here she had documents in the Lights’ own handwriting that contradicted that teaching. There were numerous tales of executions, floggings and public massacres of any group that so much as looked at one of the faithful “wrong.” It spoke to an attempt to consolidate power rather than bring enlightenment to a people. The violence committed by the initial faithful was equal to that committed by the men of prehistory. Violence seemed to be the only tool used to claim power over others. If it had been this bad in Norasburg, Welsley had no doubt it would have been worse at the other towers.

This consolidation of power went on through the first six generations of Guiding Lights. Each one dealt with uprisings and protests in the same brutal fashion. The spilling of blood was the only response to any questioning of their authority, divine as it was. As the population’s memory of the brutality faded the myth of a peaceful enlightenment was created and repeated for centuries until it was accepted as fact.

There were still remnants from these days around if you knew what to look for. Every tower kept a standing force of men to ensure the people’s safety, this despite there being no conflict with any neighbours in many lifetimes. The faithful were quick to condemn men for their baser impulses but more than happy to use these same men as disposable pawns on the battlefield. Welsley could remember being regaled with the exploits of dozens of sister-warriors but not a single tale of male heroics came to mind. A woman’s memory of an event was taken as gospel while a man’s recollection was questioned on every detail.

And yet Welsley had just spent days reading testimonials from the Goddess’ chosen ones that contradicted what she had been taught about the nation’s birth, what countless generations had been taught.

None of this came as a surprise to Welsley, she had long suspected the Goddess was less about divinity and more about power. The division of society along the line of gender was a useful tool to distract from the grab for power, the drive for dominance and control. The revelations from the first Lights convinced her that her appointment was a result of coin changing hands and not divine selection.

Welsley raised her arms above her head and yawned. The information was dry, the writing tedious. It was interesting from an historical, even a political, view but had no connection to her search. These events had occurred centuries ago, whether influenced by a deity or a lust for power made no difference to today’s world. The Guiding Lights ruled by Her will and no revelations about past violence was likely to change that.

It did open up questions about the council of Guiding Lights.

How many believed in the Goddess? In Her words? How deeply did their belief go? How many saw the Goddess as solely a way to wealth and power?

Her predecessor, Light Amoren, had been a true believer. Welsley was sure of this, the faithful of Norasburg described a woman of unwavering faith. Amoren had lived and breathed the word of the Goddess. Light Amoren had devoted her life to studying the scriptures, to wrestling with the nuances of Her word. She had ruled Norasburg with a pious, iron fist; a reputation that had reached Welsley while she still served in Marton.

Welsley found the scriptures to be preachy. Philosophy was best discussed late at night over a bottle of chilled wine. There needed to be freedom and flexibility to life, punishing a man for the use of a poorly chosen phrase went against all she believed in. Wisdom was found in the study of the past, of histories, fables and myths. Divine laws were dangerous, used more often as a tool of subjugation rather than a path to freedom.

There would be others on the council who had similar views toward the Goddess or Welsley would never have been appointed. The better question might be how someone like Light Amoren might have been chosen.

“Your lunch, Your Eminence,” Morah interrupted her thoughts. Platters of various fruits and vegetables had been placed on a table with pitchers of water and fruit juices. There was enough to feed all the researchers, Morah had outdone herself as usual.

“How do you always know when I need to eat, Morah?” Welsley asked.

“It’s nothing special, Your Eminence,” Morah replied, “just a little magic.”

They shared a laugh as they all sat down to eat. A week ago they would not have been able to do that, Welsley’s companions were far too anxious in her presence. Spending a week with their noses buried in parchment had eroded that anxiety. They now joked, gossiped and waxed philosophical with each other throughout the day. It was a casualness that was new to the Illuminated, an approach Light Amoren would not have allowed to develop.

“Have you had any luck finding the name?” Morah asked between bites.

“Not in my era,” Welsley answered. Negative shakes of the head were the only reply from the other women around the table.

“Ravensbrook,” a strange voice announced from the doorway. “The name you are looking for is Ravensbrook.”

Beliefs

“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 without 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.

Craig

“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.

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