Archive for the ‘Tall Tales’ Category

The thing that stuck out most in Craig’s mind was the dust. Every surface in the tunnel system seemed almost buried under a thick layer of the stuff. It made it easy to see that the passage wasn’t in use and probably hadn’t been for a while. The thick layer of dust also muffled the sound of their footfalls; Abeth had disappeared into the upper reaches of the tower, the sounds of his movements had vanished almost as quickly.

Craig placed his feet carefully as he moved through the hidden corridor. His trip was longer than Abeth’s, their assigned chamber was up a few floors in the tower; closer to the upper rooms the necromancers might be using than those beneath the ground. He resisted the urge toward haste, there was no telling how easy sound might travel in the confined space. There was no need to move recklessly, kick up a cloud of dust and end up coughing, sneezing and choking on it. Patience seemed the better instinct.

At this point there wasn’t a rush. Verify the necromancers’ existence, report back their location. Simple.

The quest combined with the enclosed space made his breathing seem deafening. Craig focused a small portion of concentration on maintaining an easy, gentle rhythm to it. He doubted it was all that loud but a little precaution could go a long way.

It was the same reason he had chosen not to light any of the torches he had passed on his journey. He didn’t want to take the chance that the smoke from the burning torches might be detected within the tower, no matter how slim a chance it might be. His head told him there was no danger but caution was needed to accomplish his goal so the flickering light from his single torch would be his only guide as he searched for the hidden doors he had been told were there.

Shan had been very exacting with her directions for finding the doors. In Shan’s opinion there was no need to check any floor they were allowed on normally. If they were anywhere in the lower tower it would be after the baths but before the archives. There were two floors of rooms prior to the archives which took up the final four floors.

The final floors you could get to through the tower’s main passage. There was an additional floor beneath the archives that was only accessible through the hidden corridor. If the floor was as undisturbed beneath the tower as it has been so far through his journey there would be no point in even considering checking the lowest level. He’d know soon enough.

The floors assigned as living quarters were all laid out the same. The main corridor circled around a central core, there was a sitting room set inside the centre of the circular corridor with five identical suites along the outside ring. The secret tunnel ran along the outside of the tower, a lot of sloping and stairs were employed to keep the tunnel system weaving around the outward looking balcony.

Each of the suites consisted of a large central chamber that broke off into eight bedrooms. A large balcony that opened above the tower grounds was attached to the main chamber, the sleeping chambers were evenly divided on either side of the short hallway that connected the living chamber to the balcony. Across from the balcony was the door that led to the public corridor and central sitting room. Each suite was connected to its neighbours through a tiny hall hidden on both ends by wall-like doors.

In theory, Craig would be able to enter one suite and quietly circle through the other four as he checked for occupation.

He stopped his walk down the tunnel, he had arrived at the first level of rooms. Or close to it as best as he could determine. It took a bit of time but he managed to find the door’s handle, it was remarkably camouflaged, barely a recess the size of a hand in the stone. The door was designed to open into the tunnel, it allowed for there to be no handle on the inside surface. The door’s weight would slowly close it if left unattended.

Craig replaced the unlit torch in a nearby sconce with his. He would need his hands free when he entered the chambers. There was no way to predict what he would be walking into. He loosened his sword in its sheath and stepped up to the door. He held his breath and listened for any hint of sound beyond the door. Everything seemed quiet.

He pulled on the door and felt it rotate open, the motion smooth and silent. He quickly slipped into the room, his hand dropped to his sword’s hilt. The room was dark but empty. Craig glided through the central room and moved toward the adjoining hall. He moved through the other suites one after another. There was no sign of any life on this floor.

The next floor would go faster, Craig thought. He had the layout down, the doors would be easy to find.

He returned to the hidden tunnel and retrieved his lit torch. He followed the passageway down one more level and prepared to repeat the process. The archives started on the floor beneath him. If these quarters were empty he would make a quick check of the archives before he headed to the lowest level.

He didn’t need to worry.

The bed chamber he entered into showed no sign of habitation. He was about to enter the suite’s common area when he heard the muffled sounds of movement beyond the door. He waited at the door and listened until the mumbling conversation reached his ears, too quiet to make out individual words or phrases but definitely had the rhythm of a conversation.

He opened the door a crack and peeked into the larger room. There were three men sitting together engaged in conversation. This was where the tower’s other living guests were homed. He closed the door and slipped back into the tunnel.

It was time to report back to the others.

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One of the benefits of growing up as a ward of the tower was that Shan was privy to more of the tower’s secrets than most of the Norasburg faithful. The life of a Guiding Light and that of her Illuminated was about sacrificing their every moment for the good of their community. The population’s needs were unending and demanding which often resulted in Shan being left to pursue her own education, to follow her own curiosities.

The biggest source of curiosity being how the Guiding Light and her Illuminated seemed able to appear anywhere within the tower seemingly out of thin air.

“I appear where the Goddess wills it,” Light Amoren had answered her demand to know back when she was a child. The older Illuminated, at the time, had kept their answer to a single word: “magic.” The younger among the Illuminated just ignored or shushed her. Shan had found none of the answers given to her to be acceptable; since her teachers could not be relied upon for answers she would need to work it out on her own.

It had made no sense to the young Shan for the Goddess to take a hands-on approach to the whereabouts of Her Guiding Lights, let alone the Illuminated. The Guiding Lights were meant to be a stand-in for Her so Her attention could be elsewhere, personally moving them about would seem to negate their usefulness.

“Magic” was the answer you gave children you wanted to quiet; it was a dismissive answer. At least she had thought so until recently. Events of the past few weeks had changed her mind on that point.

There was a more mundane answer to the mysterious appearances by the tower’s elite.

It wasn’t easy for Shan to get to the bottom of the mystery. Light Amoren had proven to be much harder to watch than the child Shan had expected; the elder lady had proven more sly and slippery than she seemed on the surface. The younger of the Illuminated were less careful in their activities; their arrogance made them sloppy.

It was through careful observation of these women that Shan was introduced to the corridors and stairways hidden within the tower’s walls. The access-way that allowed the Light to move quickly and quietly within the tower; the “magic,” the Goddess’ will, the secret.

Shan had spent months exploring the hidden labyrinth of corridors within the tower before she had been caught by the Light. The Light’s response was gentler than Shan had expected. The older lady had seemed more amused than angry; the consequences handed out for Shan’s use of the tunnel system was to assign some of her time for use as a messenger within the tower. Instead of being forbidden from using the tunnels she found herself encouraged to use them more.

The tunnels were attached to each floor of the tower from the Light’s personal chambers at the top of the structure down to the archives buried beneath the baths. They allowed the user to circumvent the public stairs and the near-endless interruptions that accompanied their use. The secret tunnels were wide enough for two side-by-side which allowed for much more private conversations than the main corridors did.

The most curious aspect of the tunnels, to Shan’s view, were the numerous rooms and chambers that could only be accessed through the tunnels, including an almost entire floor in the tower. Underneath the tower there were numerous empty rooms of varying sizes, most of which looked like they hadn’t been visited in decades.

“Most of the rooms, the floors,” Shan explained to her companions, “are hidden behind doors that can be almost invisible to the eye.”

They had decided to limit their excursion into the tunnels to only two of the group: Craig and Abeth. In case the Lady sent for them, they couldn’t leave the chamber empty, it would draw attention to the hidden tunnels. They were hopeful that the tower’s undead population were unaware of the existence of the tunnels. The Lady seemed focused on Shan so she might not notice if a few of the others were gone. Craig and Abeth were the best choice; both professional and experienced soldiers who could be trusted to respond to any situations that arose.

“We have no idea if they know of the tunnels,” Shan continued. “They have had centuries to explore the tower so there is a good chance they are aware of them. Although most of the faithful at Norasburg are unaware of their existence. Still, watch your backs.”

“We’ll be careful,” Craig responded. He lit a torch at the chamber’s fireplace and handed it to Abeth, he lit another for himself. “We’ll split up to make things a bit faster. Do you want the upper levels or the lower?”

“I’ll go up,” Captain Abeth answered.

Craig nodded.

“Don’t engage,” Shan led them into one of the sleeping quarters. “We need to know where the necromancers are but we don’t want to give up our edge.”

“We’ll be like shadows,” Craig agreed, “unless we have no other recourse.”

Shan nodded, leaned against the wall and opened it like a door. The air was stale, the dust on the floor was undisturbed.

“We might have gotten lucky,” Craig nodded and stepped into the wall.

“Watch your step,” Shan told Abeth, “it can be easy to get turned around. There are no markers in the tunnels.”

“I will, Illuminance,” Abeth nodded. “Your directions are very detailed and clear. I don’t expect any difficulties.”

“Good luck, Captain Abeth,” Shan said as he stepped into the tunnels. She closed the door quietly behind him.

“The good news is that our food is prepared by living hands,” Esther announced after Shan returned to their assigned chambers. There was a feast laid out in the chamber’s living room; heaps of dried fruits and vegetables waited on a table, the scent of roasted pig could be detected in the room.

“Our dinner,” Thomas gestured to the supplied food. He picked up a plate and began to load it with food.

“What’s the bad news?” Shan asked. She moved forward and helped herself to a selection of fruits and nuts. She was famished, she had spent the day with a former man who no longer has a need to eat. The day was over before she had even realized she hadn’t eaten. She had gotten so caught up in the remarkable sameness of the towers and the stunning differences that existed that time had escaped her.

“The food is prepared by slaves,” Esther replied. “Prisoners, we were told, but they’re trapped here until death so they’re essentially slaves. No discernible difference.”

“They seem reasonably well treated,” Thomas added. “They are watched by the undead and are even more limited in their movements than we are, but there isn’t any obvious signs of abuse.”

“The Lady treats her prisoners well,” Shan repeated. “Seems at odds with everything I have heard of her: quick to anger, petty, cruel.”

“I doubt she even notices their existence,” Craig’s voice reached her ears from the chamber’s entrance. Shan watched Abeth follow the speaker into the room and shut the door behind them.

“They would be here for the necromancers’ comfort,” Abeth said.

“Seems they’re willing to play with corpses all day long but are uncomfortable with the idea of the dead touching their food,” Craig chuckled. “She doesn’t have need of the servants, I doubt she cares what they do. She wasn’t truthful about the necromancers, though.”

“She didn’t kill them?” Esther asked.

“Not all of them,” Craig answered. “Maybe not any of them. Ah, food.”

“Samuel and one of the archers followed a group of necromancers to the edge of the city,” Abeth added before any questions could be asked. “Samuel had followed them out of the city while he sent the bowmen back. That was yesterday, Samuel still hadn’t returned. There were three necromancers and a handful of zombies, we were told. We don’t know if any of them were the ones we came looking for, the ones our host claims are dead. We just know there are still necromancers here.”

“She needs the necromancers,” Shan mentioned.

“How so?” Esther questioned.

Shan felt all eyes on her. Her companions had gathered their plates and glasses and settled into seats around the room. They watched her as she nibbled on some food but otherwise seemed content to wait for her answer.

“When she destroyed the two desert towers,” Shan began, “she was fused to the land. Unable to die, trapped within its borders.” She paused to pour herself a drink. “It isn’t just her physical presence trapped within this realm. Her mystical influence is limited to this dead land as well. She cannot leave and neither can her magic, or anything that results from it.”

“But those animated by the necromancers can travel freely?” Craig asked.

“As can the necromancers themselves,” Shan nodded.

“Without them, her abominations would be trapped here where they would be of no danger to anyone,” Esther added. “These necromancers provide her with her only means of affecting the larger world.”

“Except for that communications chamber,” Abeth offered.

“But if we eliminate the necromancers we can contain her evil,” Craig responded. “We increase our patrols around the wasteland’s edges and maybe prevent more from joining her. With some well planned raids we might be able to destroy some corpses and weaken her enough to nullify her threat.”

“I don’t think many of the faithful are aware of the chamber’s existence,” Shan mentioned. “There are a lot of secrets within the towers.”

Abeth’s only response was a nod and a shrug.

“We don’t even know where they might be,” Thomas spoke up.

“We could try to get the information from the prisoners in the kitchen,” Craig suggested. “They’ll have no love for their captors, I am sure.”

“That only works without the abominations around,” Esther said. “It is too risky for all of us if the dead hear our queries.”

“True,” Craig admitted. “It’s the same reason we can’t just trail the slaves to them. These creatures never sleep.”

“This tower seems to be identical to the one at Norasburg,” Shan said. “If they’re in the tower there are only a few places they might be. There are three more guest chambers above us and a couple more below the baths. One way gives easy access to the libraries, the other to the archives. Both excellent locations for them.”

“Okay,” Craig responded. “That narrows things down a bit but we still have the problem of our escorts.”

Shan grinned.

“There are a lot of secrets within these towers.”

The Baths

Posted: September 26, 2017 in 2. Ravensbrook, Rears Its Ugly Head, Tall Tales
Tags: ,

“This is surprising,” Shan offered as they walked among the baths in the tower’s lower levels.

“In what way?” Stefan’s voice rumbled.

“Except for the lighting,” Shan explained, “we could be in the baths at Norasburg. I expected more ruin.”

“There are few in the tower who have need of the baths,” the former prince said, “we don’t think about keeping the torches lit as a result.”

It was almost as if she had walked into the baths underneath the tower at Norasburg. It wasn’t as well lit, the usual noise that accompanied the socialization of the faithful was missing, and her only companion was an undead former prince. Aside from those notes the place was identical.

The baths were in a large open area underneath the tower; below the kitchens and above the archives. The room was broken up by stone pillars and arches that created enclosures for the pools themselves. There were twelve pools: six hot, six cold. Steam could be seen rising from half the pools making it easy to determine which was which. The water in the pools was fresh and clear; a purity that seemed at odds with the state of the rest of the tower.

The pools were laid out in four columns of three rows. The two columns at either edge were filled with cold water, the two central columns were steaming, heated pools. Shan had devoted a great deal of thought and curiosity to the puzzle of where the water for the pools came from. The river was too far away from the tower at Norasburg; the waterway that Ravensbrook was named for had long ago dried up. Assuming the desert towers possessed a similar setup it made the mystery all the more intriguing.

Shan walked between the heated pools and breathed the steam in through her nose. Within this honeycomb of chambers there was a distinct lack of the mild scent of decay. The scent was everywhere within the tower except in the baths; the air here was clean and pure, it tasted of life.

“I used to look forward to sinking into these waters at the end of every campaign,” Stefan commented. He followed a few steps behind her. “I always imagined that they were infused with healing properties.”

“I feel the same way,” Shan responded. “The baths are my first destination once my duties are complete. There is nothing better to remove the stress of the road than a soak in hot water.”

“More rejuvenating than sleep,” Stefan mused.

Shan smiled. She could almost agree with him on that point. The only issue, in her mind, was having to share the waters with the faithful. They chattered incessantly, a journey to the baths meant being inundated by tower gossip, ribald tales, backstabbing, tears and laughter. During the day the noise was endless, it could almost be deafening. At night, while most of the tower slept, the baths more closely resembled the former prince’s assertion.

“I wonder how much of my brothers’ towers survived Her attack,” Stefan mumbled.

“These chambers are pristine,” Shan said, “I wouldn’t be shocked to find their baths in equal shape. Buried under the sands.”

“I wonder if there are any survivors?” he spoke aloud. “What my brothers’ fate were? Was it quick or did they linger? Trapped underground without food, waiting to starve, to die. A horrible fate for a warrior.”

“A horrible fate for anybody,” Shan didn’t want to consider the chaos and the desperation that would result.

“An even worse possibility,” Stefan seemed almost to be talking to himself, “is that Her magics were a corruptive of their towers as it was here. They could be slaves to Her will, trapped forever in a mockery of mortality.”

“I’m surprised,” Shan offered, “that in all these years you have never gone to check on their fate.”

“She would never allow it,” the former prince said. He added after a pause, “Not that it really matters. I am bound to the tower and its land, as much a prisoner as She. I can not venture beyond the borders. I can only hope they avoided my curse and were allowed their final rest.”

“Goddess willing,” Shan agreed.

“Not all of the dead are bound here,” Shan commented after a moment.

“Sending an army of the undead to check on the well-being of people who were devastated fighting a war with the undead seemed problematic,” Stefan responded. “No, I will go on believing my brothers died at the time of her casting.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Shan responded. “My people were attacked by a group of ghouls on the other side of the forest. They came from here. Not all are bound to this land.”

“No,” Stefan agreed, “only those reanimated by the Lady.”

“Which is why we hadn’t ever seen the undead before,” Shan added.

“She devoted centuries to overcoming this weakness,” Stefan continued. “But there was no lore to be found in the archives, no rituals that could break it, no spells that could overcome it.”

“Which is why she needs the necromancers,” Shan finished for him.

Stefan nodded in agreement.

The Lady of the Tower had an ironic view of what ‘free’ meant in Shan’s mind. Every time they had stepped out of their chambers they were met with a selection of undead escorts. Everywhere they went they were accompanied by skeletal guides with disembodied voices. Escorts that were suited up in rusted armour emblazoned with the tower’s former lord’s insignia: a crown pierced by three swords. Each of the skeletal guides had an old sword strapped at their hip.

It had occurred throughout the previous afternoon and evening, and probably the night as well had they made any attempt to leave their assigned room. They had spent an uneasy night attempting to sleep under the ‘protection’ of an enemy, in the midst of her martial might. They treated the night the same as all the nights passed in the wilderness and divided it into separate watched among themselves.
They had separated in the morning. Her four companions had headed to the tower’s kitchens, there was a curiosity about how the dead prepared the food and where they got it from. Shan had chosen to explore the tower grounds, the gardens being her main goal. She had sent Abeth with Craig to bring food to Samuel and the bowmen after a quick visit to the kitchens. Esther and Thomas would be inspecting the tower’s food stores once they were finished with the kitchens.

Wandering away from the group was far from a simple act. Captain Abeth was resistant to allowing her to be too far from his sword; keeping her safe was part of his duties and part of his nature. They needed to connect with their soldiers, however, and in Shan’s opinion it was a better use of his time than his being her shadow. Plus, as Shan pointed out, they were severely outnumbered within the tower and it was unlikely to change their chances of survival to be together. Should the Lady decide to send her minions after them their survival chances were non-existent, alone or together. Begrudgingly they had agreed with her assessment.

Shan had spent the morning walking through the remnants of the tower’s gardens, her sole companion the tower’s former prince, once again serving in the role of escort.

Although there were huge differences between the gardens of Norasburg and the one in which she walked now, there were also some similarities. The layout of the gardens was identical between the two towers; canals led to the same ponds, paths wound their way through in the same manner, the area set aside for the vegetation was equal in size. The gardens of Norasburg were lush and green, Ravensbrook’s gardens were as opposite as Shan could have imagined.

Gone were the sounds and smells of life. Instead there was a silence broken only by the movements of her and the dead around her; no birds, no insects, no animals could be heard. There was a fullness of scents in Norasburg, similar to the smell of life found in most wild lands, that was missing in the ruined tower. It was replaced by a faded scent of decay.

The gardens were not devoid of life to Shan’s surprise. There was an abundance of plants that looked like a mix of short, stout tree trunks and long, serpentine vines. The plant had skin the colour of ash with an oily texture. All along the trunk and the vines were short thorns; razor sharp and thirsty for blood (as Shan discovered while she examined the plant).

“What is this?” Shan asked her escort. She licked the blood off her finger and watched the vine slowly writhe below her.

“I don’t know,” the undead escort known as Stefan replied. “They appeared from nowhere, months after the Lady’s casting.”

“What was it like before her spell?” Shan asked.

He was silent for a few moments before he answered. “It was a paradise filled with life. There were even species that would not grow anywhere but the gardens. This was particularly true in the desert towers. The gardens in those towers were an oasis among the landscape. They seemed to always bear fruit.”

“The gardens at Norasburg do the same,” Shan agreed. “Is there fruit on this plant?”

“I don’t know,” he paused a moment before he added, “I no longer have a need to eat.”

“How do you survive?” Shan asked. “I thought your kind ate the flesh of the living.”

“The undead don’t need to eat,” Stefan said. “Those that experience hunger do so because of a corruption in the magic that animated them, the same magic that keeps us from completely decaying. The simpler kinds of undead are more likely to succumb to the corruption’s hunger. Particularly if there is no outside will to guide them.”

“You experience this hunger?” Shan questioned.

“Yes,” he acknowledged, “but it pales in strength to the hatred that fuels me, that comfort me and brings me focus.”

“Hatred?” Shan prodded.

Stefan turned his gaze toward the rows of the dead that still stood at attention before the tower’s doors. The former prince gave no indication that a response was forthcoming.

Shan followed his gaze. There was no obvious answer among the statues of decayed flesh and bones. There were centuries of hidden history within the walls of this tower and its former prince seemed the natural choice to shed light on it.

“Some of the dead wear the same crest as you,” Shan observed.

“They are my soldiers,” there was a tinge of pride in his voice. “They resisted Her, even after She executed me, and prevented Her from taking my brothers’ towers as easily as She did mine. They were rewarded with the theft of their eternal sleep, forced to be Her slaves. But they are mine.”

“A loyal soldier is a treasure to possess,” Shan added.

“Their bravery was beyond my expectations,” he continued. “They earned their rest. But She wouldn’t allow it.” He trailed off into silence.

“I would like to visit the baths, if that’s allowed,” Shan spoke up after a few moments of silence.

“That should be fine,” he replied as the two of them headed back to the tower.

The necromancers and their zombie escort stumbled onward until dusk. They had left the ruins of Ravensbrook and arrived at a large depression in the ground. The zombies spread out in a rough circle around the depression while the robed men proceeded to a vaguely altar-like structure that rested at the bottom of the shallow crater.

They hadn’t wavered in their journey’s direction, it had been an almost direct march from where Samuel had first spotted them. It followed the reverse direction that Samuel and company had taken to arrive at the ruined tower. It had seemed, as Samuel trailed the group, that they were headed for the forest and the tower at Norasburg. It was almost a surprise when they stopped at the shallow crater.

Samuel kept his distance from the group. He wasn’t worried about the robed men, they seemed oblivious to what was going on around them, it was the zombies that worried him. The living dead, at least this version of them, were almost blind; they could see well enough when something was within arm’s reach of them but there was no apparent visual focus beyond that range. Their hearing was much better as was their sense of smell. The two together allowed a zombie to pinpoint life at a distance. Zombies were sluggish, as individuals they weren’t dangerous but they were relentless and in large groups could overwhelm even the most skilled warrior.

Samuel would never have considered himself a highly skilled warrior. He had a good understanding of how to use a sword but his skill-set was in the use of the crossbow. He was better suited to watching and tracking than he was to confrontation and fighting. Stealth over brawn. It was why he kept his distance now.

Zombies were not the deepest thinkers among the many species of undead. They could follow simple instructions given by their controllers but were incapable of more sophisticated thought. ‘Is it live? Yes, then eat it,’ was as complex a line of thought as they were capable. They made good alarm systems but were easy to get around in small numbers and open spaces. Wild zombies tended to gravitate towards other zombies, they followed their hunger from meal to meal.

He kept himself at what he considered a safe distance. He calculated that he would be able to take down two, maybe three, of the zombies before he was in any sort of danger. He was reasonably sure he could take the remaining couple zombies by hand if it came down to it. The necromancers would be another story.

Best case scenario: the necromancers flee. They didn’t appear to be well-armed, perhaps they had a knife or dagger hidden in their robes. Their focus and skills were devoted to their task at hand and were not prepared for a fight. In this case a few well-placed bolts would make short work of them.

Worst case scenario: the necromancers fight. Their robes could easily hide a wand. In the right hands a wand could be a dangerous tool. Wands were used to focus arcane power, depending on the user’s innate talent and learned knowledge it could be a devastating weapon. If these necromancers were prepared for a fight it would be short-lived. Samuel would be lucky to kill one of them before his life was ended.

Just one more reason to avoid a confrontation.

The most important reason was his companions in the tower. There was no way to know how the mass of undead in the tower would react to any violence to this group. His friends were outnumbered and currently in the middle of the population of undead. A confrontation could potentially lead them into danger.

Samuel’s curiosity also drove his cautious approach. He wanted to know what they were planning. His instincts told him it was important. The move in the direction of the forest, of Norasburg, told him it was important.

He kept far enough away to stay out of the zombie sentries’ notice. This distance combined with the fading light had the unfortunate side-effect of hiding the details of the necromancers’ work. He could see one of the robed figures sketching a trio of ornate circles into the dirt. Another one was placing items onto the rough altar; Samuel could make out what looked like a heavy tome and a small, deep bowl. The other items were too small to make out. The final man was on his knees, head bowed with his hands folded onto his lap.

Samuel lay on his stomach as he watched the necromancers work. His crossbow lay to his right, ready to fire should he need it. He watched the circles get completed and the bowl get filled with various crushed reagents. He watched the man clap the dust off his hands and light the mixture into a pungent smoke. The two upright figures silently took their place in two of the circles and stood facing their kneeling companion.

The third man stood up and moved into the final empty circle. Words were exchanged between the trio, Samuel was too far away to hear clearly. They raised their arms up to their sides, hands open with palms exposed upwards. More rhythmic mumbling could be heard. Slowly they turned their hands palm downwards and silence descended onto the three.

The trio slowly raised their arms higher, a low chanting accompanied the action. Dark, ropy tendrils rose out of the ground around them, not quite solid they seemed to be made from the ash of the wasteland. The tendrils of ash danced around the necromancers in their hollow, everywhere the tendrils touched a grey mist would rise up.

The mist grew around the legs of the undead sentries, it covered the ground everywhere but within the circles that had been drawn into the ground. The mist grew until its top reached hip level, a low moan arose in the dark fog. The moaning increased in volume and voices, from a lone call to a chorus. A head broke out of the mist, standing up on a body that matched those of the zombies in both age and decay. It was followed by another and another.

Samuel counted three dozen before the night became too dark to see.

The buildings that comprised the town that was once Ravensbrook had fallen into ruin. To Samuel’s eyes it looked as if the buildings hadn’t been used in centuries. Walls of stone were all that were left of the building materials used in the former homes and businesses that made up the town. The wood and other materials had turned to dust after centuries of neglect and weather. Iron and steel, what little could be found, had rusted to the point of uselessness.

“Where are all the valuables?” the bowman who accompanied Samuel asked. The other two archers were off searching the ruined town on the other side of the tower. “I can see the remnants of weapons and armour but where are the precious stones and metals.”

“It’s an oddity,” Samuel agreed. “The legend I grew up with was that all life within the region, plant or animal or man, was drained at the same time. Anything that didn’t decay should have been found where it lay. My guess is that it was looted.” Samuel indicated the tower beyond the township.

“What would the undead need with treasure?” the archer wondered.

Samuel shrugged, “Your average zombie wouldn’t care. But the necromancers and the more intelligent of them might use them in their arcane arts, same may just be following their more selfish natures.”

“They might just be hoarding it?”

“Why not?” Samuel responded. “People do it all the time. Necromancers are just people. The undead were at one time people. I could see them holding onto their old, familiar habits.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Quiet,” Samuel whispered as he grabbed his associate’s arm. They knelt down behind the remains of the building’s wall. They could hear footsteps in the distance, up to this point they had been alone in the ruined town. The tower grounds had been packed with the undead but there seemed to be none outside the walls.

They pulled their cloaks tighter around their bodies, they kept any bright colours and reflective metals covered beneath the grey fabric. They watched the ruined landscape for signs of movement. Their eyes moved across the broken streets, their bodies as still as the stone wall they knelt behind.

“There,” the archer pointed to a mass of slowly moving figures that were a couple streets away. The figures were moving away from the two huddled scouts.

“I count eight,” Samuel whispered in agreement. He carefully pulled his crossbow from his back and prepared to bolt. “Let’s see what they’re up to.”

Samuel moved after the figures, the archer followed closely behind him. They matched the pace of the larger group and made sure to keep as many obstacles between them and their prey. Caution needed to be taken at least while daylight remained, Samuel felt that knowing their plans was too important to take chances of being noticed or sparking a confrontation.

Five of the figures were zombies. They had a slow, unsteady gait that set the pace of the entire group. Old, tattered clothing hung off the bodies of the five stumbling corpses. The rags they wore were coloured grey to match the wasteland.

The other three were different. They stood taller, their balance was stable, their pace more steady. They were draped head-to-foot in black robes that were tied around the waist by red sashes. The difference in clothing was obvious, the robes were clean and whole compared to the tattered rags worn by their zombie companions. The robed figures clustered together and whispered together in hushed tones.

“The robed ones are alive, I bet,” the archer whispered in Samuel’s ear. “Some sort of monk?”

“Definitely alive,” Samuel replied in the same hushed tones. “There’s no stiffness in their movements. They’re not monks, I would guess, most likely necromancers.”

“They need guards in these lands?”

“I wouldn’t think so,” Samuel answered, “we saw no evidence of danger coming in. My guess would be they’re a precaution for whatever ritual they are planning to perform. The rituals require all their focus, the zombies will provide some basic protection. I doubt they’re going that far or there would be more undead with them. They feel confident of their safety, it’s unlikely they’re leaving the wasteland.”

“They’re leaving the town,” the archer remarked after a few more moments of quiet stalking of the group.

“We need to fins out what they’re up to,” Samuel decided. “But we can’t leave the others without backup should they need it. Go back, join the other two scouts. Make sure you can provide any support our friends in the tower might need. I’ll rejoin you when I’m done.”

“What are you planning?”

“Don’t know,” Samuel admitted. “I’m going to follow them to their destination and see what their plans are. I’ll have to play it by ear after that. I’m not expecting a confrontation, there’s only one of me, but if the opportunity allows I’ll take it.”

“Okay,” the archer replied. “Stay safe.”

“You too. I’ll rejoin you as soon as I can.” Samuel patted the other man’s arm and slipped off in the direction of the necromancers. Behind him the archer moved back toward the tower.

“You are free to move about the tower and grounds as you will,” the former prince informed them as they climbed up the stairs. “The libraries, the archives, and the Lady’s chamber are off limits but the rest of the tower is open to you. I will have food and drink brought to your rooms at regular intervals.”

“Thank-you, Prince Stefan,” Shan offered as they arrived at their assigned quarters.

“No. Not prince,” Stefan shook his head. “The tower belongs to the Lady. I serve at the Lady’s pleasure. I will return with your meals.” Their former escort-turned-host bowed his head slightly and backed out of the room.

“What did you make of that, Illuminace?” Abeth gently closed the door and leaned his back against it. “Do you think she has talked with Light Koarl? What of the Falsons? Could they have taken the tower? Would they?”

“That abomination is lying. She can’t be trusted,” Esther spat out in disgust.

“I’d agree where the necromancers are concerned,” Craig agreed. He crossed the room to stare out the balcony. “Convenient that they were killed and destroyed. We can’t even raise them to ask questions. She can sense the ritual that created the ghouls but did nothing to stop their leaving her lands. Either she isn’t as powerful as she seems or she wanted them to attack your people.”

“I would guess she wanted it to happen, it served her ends,” the druid offered. “We have seen far too many incursions into our lands by the undead. Seeing a mind behind it makes sense. I believe she is connected to all the dead in her realm. Their actions are guided by her will. Of this I have no doubt.”

“So why,” Craig mused, “after years of amusing herself by raiding Shatterook did she decide to launch an attack on another tower?”

“It must be connected to these events at Norasburg,” Esther turned to Shan, “Why would this creature talk with this Light Koarl?”

Shan felt lost. She had no answers only confusion. Light Koarl was young, she had not been in her position for that long. The Koarl family didn’t even have a history within the faithful. Welsley was the first in her family to serve the Goddess in the position of a Guiding Light. There wasn’t even a connection between the family and Norasburg, the Koarl clan had called Marton home for generations. They were a sea-faring family used to large population centres rather than the small, provincial region that was Norasburg.

“The Falsons are an ancient family,” Abeth answered. “They controlled the tower at Falson’s Peak before the arrival of the Goddess, or at least that’s what the stories tell us. It was the Falson’s who provided the bulk of the military forces that helped secure the towers for the faithful.”

“There has always been a Falson on the Council of Lights since,” Shan added. “A reward for their loyalty.”

“And Light Koarl?” Esther asked.

“She’s a newcomer,” Shan answered. “The first of her family to be raised to the council.”

“What’s her family’s connection to the Falson family?” Esther questioned.

“Nothing,” Shan considered what information she had. “The Koarl’s are a family of merchants. They possess no political or spiritual power. They make money through trade and seem quite happy to do so. I would guess Light Koarl’s joining the faithful would have been a surprise but it wouldn’t impact their business. Her being raised to the council would have only been a positive.”

“Within the barracks, among the soldiery, their is no mention of the Koarl family at all,” Abeth added. “Falson soldiers are mentioned in many war stories, the Koarl’s are absent.”

“Light Koarl would have only met Light Falson when she was welcomed to the council,” Shan finished.

“Any animosity between the two?” Craig asked.

“Not that I am aware of,” Shan answered. “I don’t think they have met more than one time. She’s never mentioned any issue or concern, she’s never mentioned any other member of the council that I can recall.”

“And the soldiers?”

“Within the ranks?” Abeth considered. “There are squads of Falson family soldiers assigned to every garrison. You cannot find an outpost without at least one member of the family present. Distant relatives, maybe, but no less loyal to the family above all else.”

“How is that possible?” Shan asked. “A soldier’s oath is to the Goddess.”

“The Goddess has always chosen a Falson to interpret her will,” Abeth shrugged. “The distinction between the Goddess and the Falsons is blurred for your average soldier. We live to serve and die for our nation and the Goddess, we don’t question if our orders come from Her chosen or from Her mouth directly. We don’t have the luxury.”

“Why would she mention this?” Craig wondered. “This random element. A lie that serves no purpose.”

“Except to distract and confuse,” Esther offered. “To move our thoughts away from the necromancers and their ghouls. To stop us from considering her role in all this. Maybe to convince us to run back to Norasburg and target our mission here.”

“Or,” Craig added, “it’s the truth and we’re just too far removed to see the connection.”

“So what do we do?” Shan asked.

“That,” Esther replied, “is up to you.”

“We’re here,” Shan replied. “We can’t worry about what may or may not be happening at Norasburg. We need to deal with the undead threat.”

Long, brittle hair hung from the Lady’s head, the strands were kinked and broken with a washed out grey colour. Some care had been taken to try and force the hair into a semblance of order but the underlying damage was too great and follicles stuck out at random across the surface. The skin on her face and arms was pulled tight across her bones, no sign of muscle or fat could be seen. The skin was a mix of ash and white in colour and had a waxen sheen to it. The bulk of her person was engulfed in a dark purple robe, a golden belt hung about her waist, her wrists were adorned with bracelets of similar make. Rings of various makes were on her claw-like fingers.

Shan tried to take in as many details about her host as she could. The piercing stare of the Lady’s darkly red glowing eyes was hard to look away from. This distraction made it difficult to be certain but Shan didn’t believe she had seen her host take a single breath.

“Welcome to Ravensbrook,” the Lady offered.

The voice was almost musical to Shan’s ears, pleasant and gentle. The voice seemed to float about her although her host’s lips moved in unison with the words, the origin was uncertain. The disembodied aspect of the voice destroyed any comfort given by its pleasing tones.

“Thank-you, Your Eminence,” Shan nodded her head in respect.

“You must be Shan,” the Lady decided. “I have been expecting you.”

Shan felt her body tense at that. She could feel her companions react in a similar manner. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Abeth move forward, his hand dropped to his sword. Shan reached her hand out to halt his movement.

The Lady hadn’t moved throughout the brief display. Her eyes were locked onto Shan, her body didn’t move but her glowing eyes followed every motion in front of her. Her servant, the escort, remained on his knees with his head bowed almost oblivious to the going-ons around him.

“How do you know me?” Shan asked.

The Lady leaned back on her throne, her back moved to rest against the chair’s spindle while her claw-like hands drifted to the arm rests. She crossed her right leg over her left, it didn’t happen but one could easily imagine her drawing in a deep breath.

The throne was carved from a block of stone, dark grey and cold. It was all right-angles and flat surfaces, in a word: plain. No cushions or pillows were in evidence for comfort. There were no adornments, there were no details that broke its smooth surfaces. It was a seat built for function rather than comfort, a twin to the one that sat in the tower at Norasburg.

“Your Guiding Light, Koarl, informed me of your journey,” the Lady answered. “Your numbers are smaller than I expected, but I recognize you by your manners and Captain Abeth by his protectiveness. I don’t recognize the others, I assume they are the group from my neighbours.”

“Light Koarl?” Shan asked. She had been surprised by the answer but tried to maintain a calm demeanour.

“Yes,” the Lady replied. “A wonderful, fascinating woman. She advised me of your journey. She wanted to avoid any potential conflict between us. She filled me in on your mission and I am eager to lend a hand.”

“How did you speak with her?” Shan asked.

“All of the towers are connected,” the Lady explained. “Every tower has a chamber for communicating with the other towers. These chambers seem to have mostly been forgotten over the centuries. Light Koarl stumbled across the chamber in her tower a few days ago and we had an interesting meeting, which we continued over the next couple days.”

“Things have changed since you left,” the Lady declared.

“What has happened?” Shan felt alarmed, she didn’t feel like she had been gone long enough for there to be any changes of note.

“It seems your excursion has attracted some unexpected, and unwanted, attention,” the Lady answered. “The Falson matriarch arrived with a legion of her troops. She forced her way into control of the tower and Light Koarl was made a prisoner in the tower. She is free only in her chambers, she may not leave the tower and has an escort at all times she is not in her chamber.”

“Why would the Falson’s do this?” Shan wondered.

“The Falsons are a family of betrayers,” the Lady answered. “They can’t help themselves, it is in their blood. Like any serpent they strike fast and deadly, a most poisonous family. They will use any weapon at their disposal; arms, politics, money, whatever manipulation might be available. They have controlled the tower at Falson’s Peak since long before even my existence. By imprisoning Light Koarl the Falsons have effectively gained control of another tower, another community, and more wealth. Your journey allowed them an excuse to move their troops into another territory. It was a situation they had been waiting on.”

“This makes no sense,” Shan mulled over the news, “the Lights are chosen by the Goddess. Why would She allow this to occur?”

“I don’t know, but She did.”

“What of the necromancers?” Craig interrupted. “Where can we find them? How are they connected to your tale?”

The Lady’s eyes shifted focus to Craig.

“No one,” she replied, “animates the dead in my lands without my notice. All that lay dead in my realm are mine. I tolerate no theft of my property. The necromancers are no more, their bodies destroyed, their trespass avenged. They will no longer be a threat to anyone.”

“So we can’t question them?” Craig demanded.

“Prince Stefan,” the escort’s head looked up, “show our guests to their quarters. Bring them some food.”

“Yes, My Lady,” the undead prince rose to his feet. “Follow me.”

The group left the Lady alone in the tower’s audience hall as they headed further up into the tower.

“It’s like we’ve arrived back at Norasburg,” Shan whispered in awe.

They stood at the gate to the tower grounds and took a few moments to appreciate the scene before them. In place of the flowing water and well-tended gardens of the tower at Norasburg the grounds within the walls were empty and barren. Absent were the sounds of life; the birds, the insects, the babbling brooks. In its place was an eerie silence made more noticeable by the ranks of corpses that stood at attention along the road from the gate to the tower doors.

The display of military might was meant to send two messages; a welcome to honored guests, and a taste of the power the Lady possessed. Looking at all the bodies in varying states of decay and armament cemented the second point firmly in Shan’s mind. This Lady was dangerous.

“Norasburg is home to the dead?” Samuel asked. “Sounds like a pleasant place.”

“You have to imagine it with a little more green,” Abeth responded. To Shan he offered, “All of the towers are laid out basically the same, from the grounds to the innards. The tower builders preferred uniformity to creativity.”

“That’s something in our favor, at least, if we need to make a quick getaway we at least know the layout,” Shan shrugged.

“Yah,” Abeth scanned the barren ground in front of them, his mind quickly categorized and counted the undead.

“Are we ready to proceed?” their undead escort asked.

“Samuel,” Craig turned to the scout, “I would feel more comfortable if we weren’t all within the clutches of our host.”

“Same,” Samuel responded. “I’ll take the bowmen and we’ll go see what we can see. Be careful.”

Shan found the ranks of decayed corpses fascinating. As they walked through the parody of military organization she marvelled at the faux-discipline on display. There were many soldiers who spent their lives attempting to achieve just an inkling of the solidarity these undead corpses displayed. The discipline in the ranks was not evident in their outfitting. The armour and weapons on display were in various states of disrepair; rusted, rotted, dented, chipped and broken.

“What a waste,” Abeth commented as they passed further into the lines of the undead. “All these armaments allowed to fall apart. So much wasted metal.”

“Don’t let the quality of their equipment fool you,” Craig said. “Their strength comes from their numbers, their re-usability, and the ease at which their numbers grow. Speed, strength, equipment are all meaningless when you’re fighting the same man you killed yesterday… and the day before… and the day before that. Only today your former friends are fighting with him against you.”

“These zombies and skeletal warriors,” Thomas indicated the creatures around them, “are slow and unskilled at arms but they are relentless. They never tire, they don’t feel pain or fear. They wear you down by their sheer numbers.”

“Strictly from a logistics point of view, this particular collection of the undead are easy to maintain. They don’t need sleep. They don’t need food. They march together with no training,” Craig added.

“How long have they been around?” Shan wondered.

“Necromantic magic is wonderful at preserving dead flesh,” Esther answered. “The fleshy ones are probably the oldest of them, maybe even as old as our friend here. The walking bones were probably raised more recently after the flesh had rotted and fallen from the corpses.”

“Could they be disrupted?” Shan asked. “The magic dispelled?”

“In theory,” the druid answered, “but you would need the time to perform the ritual. Breaking enchantments consumes a lot of energy and time. You need a small team of mages, it is very rare to hear of a single caster capable of breaking a minor enchantment let alone one as powerful as the raising of the dead. I have never heard of a disenchantment that was instant they are normally hours-long rituals. To disrupt the numbers we see here would require legions of mages, more than exist in this region.”

“It’s a possibility,” Shan mused. “Not a good one, but if we get desperate…”

“This tower looked better from afar,” Abeth noted as they approached the structure.

Shan had to agree. From a distance it had looked like the tower she had grown up in. That tower had been tall and strong, the blocks of stone fit together flawlessly. It stood as a beacon to the community far and wide. By contrast this tower had cracked and chipped. It wasn’t noticeable from a distance but up close it was obvious that whatever arcane influence that kept the towers pristine had weakened. Even the massive wooden doors to the main chamber showed signs of rot and ruin.

The doors opened inward as their escort approached it. Two more of the restless dead stood beside either door as they entered the chamber. The chamber took up the entire floor of the building, large and round with a number of pillars scattered throughout the chamber. Torches burned in sconces on every pillar. A staircase sunk into the ground along the left wall, along the right wall another set of stairs rose into the ceiling. A small dais was raised on the far side of the room upon which sat a large chair. A lone solitary figure sat on the chair, the rest of the chamber was vacant.

Their escort continued their journey down the centre of the chamber his living companions one step behind him. The silence in the chamber was broken by their footsteps as they approached the figure on the dais. The figure that awaited them was unmoving with its head downcast.

Their escort dropped to one knee as they reached the bottom stairs. He bowed his head before his deep voice spoke, “My Lady. Your guests have arrived.”

The figure’s head snapped up and levelled its gaze on the party. Its eyes flashed red as fire.