Archive for the ‘Tall Tales’ Category

Welsley lay her head back and closed her eyes. The pool she lay in wasn’t overly deep, its bottom was paved with small, smooth stones; in a lot of ways it was like a man-made bath. The pool was fed with water direct from the river, it swirled lazily through the circular basin before lazily flowing back to the river it had started in. The result was a constant wash of water over the body of Norasburg’s Light. The water was cold, crisp, exhilarating and a prime way to welcome the start of a new day.

She would have preferred more privacy to her morning reset. Her balcony in the tower was far enough up toward the heavens that she felt secure in her privacy, but the newly built garrison was just across the river and within easy visual range. Welsley was less concerned about the possibility of being watched as she bathed, what bothered her was the inability to relax enough to fully commune with her surroundings.

It wasn’t a religious experience, she had never felt the presence of the Goddess or any other deity. It was a personal ritual to wake herself up and prepare herself, mentally, for the day.

The entourage from the tower had chosen to make their camp across the river from the newly formed river fort. The fort was a fort in name only, it consisted of tents surrounded by a partial wall made of dirt and peppered with sharpened logs. It was barely serviceable as a military base and would not serve as a temporary seat of government.

It was certainly not suited as a prison for a captive of the caliber of Light Falson.

Wagons and attendants were an added perk to the camp that was the current, albeit temporary, home of Light Koarl. These were luxuries not often seen in an army’s camp but none of the faithful could go without them.

The Falsons, Welsley had discovered, were no better company as captives than they were as her captors. Arrogant, obnoxious, demanding were all apt descriptions of the two women. Welsley was certain it must be a family trait, they seemed to go out of their way to dissuade people from feeling fondly of them.

Welsley mostly left them to themselves with just enough of her soldiers to guard them as was needed to outnumber the Falson troops. The two Lights met for meals which were either spent in angry debate or silently focused on dispatching the meal. The rest of the time was spent trying to avoid each other while displaying a false friendliness to outside observers.

It was tiresome but not without amusement.

The reaction of her “guests” was priceless when she announced they would be taking a trip across the river. The two Falsons raged at her until she threatened to drag them behind horses to the new outpost. For a brief moment Welsley had worried blades would be drawn, in the end they submitted the fear of losing their cushy seats in a wagon too great. They had been nothing but cold since.

That suited Welsley just fine. She had no interest in revealing the coming attack by an unknown number of undead. She had no desire to get into a discussion on how she knew of the impending invasion. She didn’t know the size of the force that was headed their way, she only knew it was coming.

And it was coming soon.

No. As far as Welsley was concerned it would be better for the Falsons to assume the attack was unexpected. Better for them to assume the Norasburg soldiery was better prepared than they thought. If they repelled the undead with ease perhaps the Falsons would leave with all their troops and leave her tower for good.

One could hope.

The young Light took a deep breath and tried to silence her thoughts. She tried to focus on the spinning of her body, the gentle current of the water spun her slowly round and round. Almost imperceptible waves washed over her body turning her skin into goose bumps.

The faint sound of nature waking could be heard all around her. In the distance she could hear the sound of rushing water from the river. Hidden behind the sounds of nature she could just make out the sounds of the camps: horses, footfalls, pots and pans, orders barked.

The world was waking up around her.

“The sun rises, Your Eminence,” the voice of one of her attendants arrived at her ears.

“Just a few more moments,” Welsley paused, what was her name? “Tara.”

Welsley tilted her head back and opened her eyes. It had been dark when she had wandered down to the pool, her way lit only by the stars and the torch carried by Tara who had accompanied her. The sun had since rose and bathed the world in light.

Light Koarl took to her feet and stepped from the pool into a waiting towel. She dried herself off and dutifully dressed herself in the clothing provided by her attendant; an outfit of supple leather, tan in colour.

“Is that roast pig I smell?” Welsley asked as they walked toward camp.

“I believe so, Your Eminence,” Tara answered.

“Excellent,” Welsley said, “a wonderful way to start the day.”

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Welsley Koarl stood her ground even as the surprise on the elder lady’s face relaxed into amusement. The result was confusing, particularly because the younger Falson seemed to be struggling to keep the fear from her face. The Falson soldiers, in Welsley’s field of vision, had their hands on the hilts of their swords. The weapons were still sheathed but they were ready to spring into action.

She had heard weapons being drawn behind her. She hadn’t looked to confirm numbers but she assumed her supporters were at least equal in number to the Falson guards: about a dozen. Welsley kept her eyes on the two Falson women, to do otherwise would have been a mistake in Welsley’s mind. She resisted the urge to divide her attention, the real battle was with the woman on the throne; the soldiers only evened out the battlefield.

The two women eyed each other as the chamber around them descended into silence broken only by the sound of breathing.

“You are more of a problem than I could have ever predicted,” Edith Falson broke the silence from her place on the throne. The icy tone in her voice was a contrast to the amused look on her face. There was anger in the matriarch’s eyes.

“Let this be a lesson for you, Molly,” the matriarch tilted her head to the younger woman, her eyes never left Welsley. “You can never tell how someone will react when pushed into a corner.”

“This doesn’t have to end badly,” Welsley offered, “I just want my tower back.”

“Your tower?” Edith questioned. “This is hardly your tower. Your family paid for your position. At best the tower is on loan to you. After this another Koarl will never find herself chosen.”

“You can either relinquish the tower voluntarily,” Welsley threatened, “or I can take it by force. The choice is yours.”

“There has always been a Falson in a tower,” the Falson matriarch continued, the threat ignored. “Since before the Goddess. Since before history was ever recorded there has been a Falson in the tower. As long as there has been a tower there has been a Falson ruling from it. That is why there is a tower named after us. We existed long before the Goddess began.”

“The Koarl family has always been parasites,” the older woman continued. “They made their fortune through theft, smuggling, murder. They broke every law they could, they made money off the corrupt, desperate and immoral. They might try to hide it behind respectable businesses but their gold is made through parasitical practices. No amount of money spent can erase that taint.”

“And yet, that did not stop the ancient and pious Falsons from accepting money from the parasites to secure my appointment,” countered Welsley.

“Yes,” the older woman replied, “an unfortunate mistake.”

“Don’t make another mistake,” Welsley prompted. “Avoid bloodshed. Surrender.”

The older woman was quiet as she considered her options. After the quiet had stretched out a few moments the older Light sighed.

“You are right,” Edith nodded. “We must maintain an outer appearance of solidarity. I will surrender the throne to you, willingly. I will gather my entourage and return to Falsons Peak in the morning.”

“No,” Welsley shook her head, “you will be my guest for a while. Forced, if necessary.”

The soldiers in front of her tensed. For a brief moment Welsley worried they would bare their steel, Edith’s left hand rose up in a halt gesture which stopped the escalation.

“Why?”

“For the sake of unity,” Welsley answered. “For the illusion of unity. We are both Her chosen. We need to part as friends, from the perspective of the masses.”

“I will submit. I see no value to a public spectacle. How long will we be your guests?”

“It shouldn’t be long,” Welsley replied. “You’ll be free to move about the tower and grounds. As long as I have your word you won’t attempt to leave without my permission, you may keep your guards and their weapons.”

“You have my word.”

“Excellent. We’ll be one big happy family,” Welsley relaxed with a soft smile. “We’ll meet tomorrow to discuss the future.”

Welsley turned and walked down the dais’ stairs. She walked slow and purposeful so as to keep from shaking. She could hardly believe things had gone so smoothly, it would have been so easy for things to have slipped into violence. She glanced and looked around her at the bottom of the stairs; there were at least two of her soldiers for every Falson.

Satisfied, Welsley headed to her chambers.

Welsley waited patiently on the edge of the tower’s audience chamber. She was accompanied by her usual companions: two of the Falson soldiers escorted her from her chambers to where she now waited. She had been summoned by the Falson matriarch early that morning and found herself waiting, seemingly forgotten, throughout the tower’s morning routine.

There was an element of punishment to the wait. Welsley had never been fond of the daily duties of her position, the idea of listening to near countless complaints that amounted to little more than pettiness and sour grapes had never caught her imagination. She had preferred to leave those duties to others. She didn’t mind adjudicating criminal cases but dealing with her citizens’ interpersonal relationships she found to be boring and tedious.

The only thing she found worse was the ministering of her flock’s spiritual needs. Reading scripture, analyzing the Goddess’ words, issuing behavioural edicts were activities to be avoided as far as she was concerned. There were members of her Illuminated that were better suited to the pursuit of spiritual questions.

Welsley saw herself more as a “big picture” type. She liked to surround herself with people whose talents were more suited to the detail work.

Standing by and watching was more painful than participating in it.

The morning’s collection of events needing intervention by the Goddess’ mortal representative did have one upside: it provided Welsley with a chance to survey the gathered populace. There was the usual mix of new faces and regulars all vying for their chance to convince the Goddess’ representative that their side of a disagreement was Her side and was deserving of Her divine intervention. Welsley tuned them all out, she could only listen to so many “this man insulted this woman” stories before she passed out from boredom. People needed to learn to settle their own issues.

Light Falson sat on the seat at the centre of the raised dais on what was once Welsley’s seat. On the right side, just behind the stone chair, stood the matriarch’s granddaughter. Four soldiers stood on either side of the throne with a second group of four at the bottom of the dais’ steps. None of the soldiers were recognized by Welsley; they must all be part of the Falson tower expedition.

Here and there, within the crowd, Welsley could make out faces she thought might belong to soldiers of her tower. The flashes of recognition were quick and fleeting and made it difficult to get an accurate count. They mixed in well with the crowd.

Welsley waited with her guards on the left side of the dais, a willing participant to any casual observer, her imprisonment hidden among the ceremony.

“We are finished for today,” Light Edith Falson raised her right hand and gestured for a halt. She sat on the throne and watched as the assembled people began to shuffle out of the chamber. Light Falson glanced toward Welsley and gestured for her to approach.

“Light Koarl,” the Falson matriarch addressed Welsley, “I apologize for ignoring you. It was unintentional, I have been busy serving the people and Her will. How have you been?”

“A prisoner, Your Eminence,” Welsley bowed her head to the other woman. “I have been a prisoner.”

“Not so much, I think,” the older lady commented.

“Why are troops being reassigned to the river?” the younger Falson demanded from her grandmother’s side.

“How would I know?” Welsley watched the older Light. “I have been trapped in my chambers. I know only what you tell me. I see only who you allow.”

“The garrison isn’t going to relocate on its own,” Molly declared.

“I prefer that my soldiers maintain themselves,” Welsley shrugged, “they know their day-to-day needs better than I.”

“Light Koarl,” the elder Falson replied, “there is no need to make this situation worse than it is. Let’s try to make it easy on all of us.”

“Leave my tower,” Welsley responded. “We can pretend none of this ever happened. It’ll be easy on all of us.”

“An interesting idea,” Light Falson mused. “It won’t happen until you are taught the correct way to rule.”

“I thought I was chosen by the Goddess to rule in Her name,” Light Koarl interrupted.

“You serve Her will,” Molly answered. “There are duties. There are responsibilities.”

“Defined by who?” Welsley shot back. “You? Or the Goddess? You came in to my tower as a guest and forced yourself onto my throne. You decided you knew better than the Goddess when you pushed me aside. What gave you the right?”

“My family has been chosen by the Goddess since She rose into power,” the matriarch snapped. “Your family has spent generations breaking every law they could to generate wealth. That is what gave me the right!”

“You are kept around for the sake of the people,” the younger Falson added, “but you can be replaced.”

“No,” Welsley replied.

Welsley allowed her glance to drift between the two Falson women. There was anger on their faces. Anger that was quickly replaced by surprise.

“We can make this easy,” Welsley offered as the Falson guards drew their swords. She resisted the urge to look behind her at the sounds of footfalls and weapons being drawn, she could see all she needed in the look on the other women’s faces. “Your choice.”

She should have realized the “the Goddess” was not someone who could be trusted. The hatred of the Falson family was evident in the other’s voice whenever the conversation shifted in that way; which was often. There had seemed to be a constant need for reassurance that the Falson matriarch was still at Norasburg. Abeth’s report on the necromantic army sent to the tower brought everything into clarity: the Lady of the Tower intended to take the Falsons from Norasburg tower.

Welsley felt foolish. She had been so caught up in the excitement of finding an ally in her battle against Light Falson that she allowed herself to be blinded to the warning signs. The obsessive need for updates on the matriarch’s location was as obvious as it could get. This combined with a relentless push to keep her anger at raging emotional levels should have been an obvious sign that this “Goddess” was trying to keep her distracted.

It was over now. Any doubt concerning the supposed deity of this being was gone. She was neither a god nor a friend.

The brief conversation with Captain Abeth had brought her a sense of peace, a clearer vision, and a path to travel. Her distant soldier had provided her with a way to escape, to move about the tower. He had also provided her with a list of names, soldiers whose loyalties were tied to her and Norasburg. These warriors would bring their own loyal troops, there might be enough troops to wrest control of the tower from the Falsons. Light Falson’s control came from her family’s placement within Norasburg’s soldiery not from an overwhelming invasion force.

The hidden tunnel system was where Captain Abeth had told her it would be. Welsley was pleasantly surprised by this secondary system for traversing the tower. The tunnels were well lit and used by many of her Illuminated. It had been a simple matter to grab one of them and pass summons on to the officers she needed to speak with.

Which is how she found herself deep in the tower’s underground in chambers that were unreachable by the main corridors and surrounded by half-a-dozen of her officers, the most trusted of her soldiers.

“Abeth,” Welsley began after the last of the soldiers arrived, “thinks quite highly of you. He assures me that you can all be trusted.”
She waited, allowed the silence to stretch out as she carefully caught the eyes of each man. She had a passing familiarity with all of them, knew their names and faces, but had never worked directly with any of them. She was about to put a lot of trust into Abeth’s opinion.

“Why are we here, Your Eminence?” The voice was that of an older man, older than the other men to be exact. They were all older than she was. Welsley recognized the speaker as the man in charge of training within the barracks: Edmund Khorat. He had a reputation for being tough on his pupils, but all his students left his care as competent soldiers.

“You are all aware of our visitors?” Welsley asked. She knew they did, she waited as they all nodded in the affirmative. “You have also noticed an adjustment in the command of the garrison? That all orders are coming from the soldiers that accompanied the Falsons? That there are guards posted all over the tower? That they are all Falson soldiers?”

There was a quick glance shared between the men.

“Surely, they are here for Light Falson’s protection on her journey,” Edmund spoke for all the assembled officers.

“Why would they be needed in the tower?” Welsley asked. “She should be safe in the tower. Our garrison should be capable of defending the tower, right?”

They had no answer.

“She used the ghoul problem as an excuse to journey here,” Welsley continued. “She moved troops to our river garrison. She moved into my throne room, assumed my duties, placed guards to restrict my movements and imprisoned me in my own tower. All done so subtly that I am sure you hadn’t noticed.”

Surprise flashed across their faces as they one by one realized what she had suggested.

“Our swords are yours, my Light,” Edmund spoke.

“We need to retake the tower,” Welsley said. “As quick as we can and with as few casualties as we can manage. None being my preference. Fast and quiet. No one outside of the tower need know of this difficulty.”

“We should be able to manage that. We’ll have some troops slip in under cover of the next shipment to the kitchens.”

“Good,” Welsley nodded. “We need to take Light Falson and her granddaughter alive. We need to keep the troops from clashing. Once the tower has been retaken we’ll need to bolster our numbers at the river garrison. There is another, larger, army of the undead on the way. We need to be ready when they arrive.”

“How do you know this?” There was doubt in his voice.

“I have been in touch with Captain Abeth. I believe he reports true.”

“We’ll send more troops to the river garrison immediately. Those who’s loyalty might be questionable.”

“Excellent,” Welsley exclaimed before leaving the soldiers to their work.

This was curious. As far as Abeth knew, the ruler’s chamber was the uppermost floor of the tower. For as long as anyone could remember this floor was used as the tower’s Guiding Light’s personal chambers, her home, her sanctuary. From here she could get a rough overview of her domain. It was the highest point in the tower.

Apparently, they had all been wrong.

Behind this door blended into the wall was a staircase that curled upward into the tower. The stairs showed signs of regular use, the dust was limited to either side near the walls while the centre of each step was dust free. Torches lit the way, the smoke from their burning disappeared into cracks in the ceiling.

There was just enough space to turn around on the staircase. His sword would be useless in such tight confines. Moving into the unknown unarmed did not appeal to Captain Abeth. In his hand he held a full-bladed knife, as long as his forearm and as wide as his wrist. He normally kept it strapped on his lower leg but it felt better to have it out for this search.

He ascended the stairs, knife in hand, he tried to prepare his mind and body for anything. He would not be able to evade anyone coming down the stairs, if he tried to turn and flee he would just expose his back to danger. He could turn to face anyone approaching from behind, but he was headed up into the tower where there would be no escape. He was keenly aware of having placed himself in a potential, inescapable, trap.

The staircase opened up into a small oval room. Three lit torches were set around the room. The room was otherwise empty.

“This is a bit disappointing,” Abeth slipped his knife back into its sheath. There was only a single exit from the room but there was enough room to use his sword should the need arise.

“Who’s there?” A voice appeared out of nowhere. “What’s happening?” It was a female voice.

“Who is this?” Captain Abeth looked around the empty room. “Show yourself.”

“I know your voice,” the voice retorted. “Where are you? Who are you?”

“Your Eminence?” Abeth stammered, confused. “You’re hear?”

“Captain Abeth! What a pleasant surprise!”

“Where are you, Your Eminence?”

“Still in Norasburg,” was the response. “The towers are all linked by this forgotten chamber, it allows for instant communication between anyone within. How is everyone? How’s your host?”

“We are all good,” Abeth answered. “We have been shown a good deal of courtesy.”

“But…,” Welsley’s voice prompted.

“We are surrounded by the living dead,” Abeth answered. “The tower is in reasonably good shape, but the surrounding land is almost completely dead. What little bit of life that exists is twisted and vile. The Lady of the Tower seems little more than a well preserved corpse. She is not to be trusted.”

“How so?”

“She claimed she had killed the necromancers who were responsible for sending the ghouls our way, but there are necromancers hidden in the tower,” he explained. “She has sent a party of necromancers and zombies in your direction without telling us, quiet and secretly.”

“That’s disturbing news,” Light Koarl responded. “How many?”

“Three necromancers, double that number of zombies at last report. But the number could grow as they march.”

“Why has she allowed you to contact me?” She continued before he could reply, “She didn’t. Shan. What’s she up to?”

“She’s collecting information,” Abeth replied. “She is distrustful of our host and wishes to have a complete picture of all her options. She hopes to be able to reduce the Lady’s influence in the world. I saw the Lady leave the chamber while I was investigating the tower. Thought I’d take a look and see what was here.”

“In our discussions, this Lady has claimed to be the Goddess Herself,” Welsley shared. “Claims she was betrayed by the Falson family.”

“I don’t pretend to be a religious scholar,” Abeth offered, “but she does not seem like a caring, selfless deity.”

“No,” Welsley admitted, “I had already worked that out on my own. Rage and hate are better descriptors. The Falsons have all but taken over the tower. I am a prisoner in my own home, trapped within my chambers. I can’t get near my troops or free myself.”

“She had mentioned.”

“She could be useful to me,” Welsley stated. “The enemy of my enemy and all that.”

“Maybe,” Abeth said. “She is an ancient power. A danger but on her own useless, her power trapped in her borders. Have you tried the tunnels?”

There was a pause.

“What tunnels?”

It hadn’t taken Abeth long to search through the four residential levels in the upper tower. The chambers he needed to search were directly above the floor his assigned rooms were on. He estimated that his search was complete before Craig had even arrived at the first of his floors. That the rooms were empty, and had been for some time, only increased the ease with which the search was conducted.

He saw no reason to rush back once he was done.

They were forbidden to enter the library or the Guiding Light’s chamber. There were guards posted at every door to every room they were not allowed to enter. The hidden corridor had doors to every chamber, none of which were guarded and all of which he had access to. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Find, count, return.

Simple instructions. Since he had joined up with the Goddess’ garrison his life had been one simple instruction after another. He had lived a soldier’s life for decades and there was comfort to a chain of orders keeping your world intact. No need to question, no need to think, just focus on achieving one goal after another.

A simple life, in theory.

Abeth had proven himself to be an extremely competent soldier, capable of carrying out his orders as well as supporting others in their duties. What set him apart from his warrior brothers was his willingness to take charge, he was never content to sit back and wait when he could be leading the charge. This facet of his personality pushed him up through the ranks and before long the simple life of following orders was behind him. His approach to his duties attracted the attention of Light Amoren who assigned him to Shan.

Working with the Illuminated Shan was a unique experience. The difference between Shan and the rest of the faithful was like the difference between night and day. The faithful that Abeth had previously served were careful and slow to make decisions, they were autocratic in their treatment of the soldiers. Shan was different: she was quick to make decisions and, although distant and reserved, fond of considering other opinions.

It was like jumping into a frozen river. He moved from mindlessly following orders to being responsible to handing out orders to others. Added to this new approach to his duties was Shan’s expectation that he take on a fluid, more free form, role in every endeavour they undertook. He was used to making quick decisions, it was how one made it through battle, but the bigger picture was always left to others.

It was more difficult to learn to think for one’s self than it was to learn to follow orders without question.

The struggle had been worth it.

His time working with Shan left him with no doubt she would approve of his plan. Shan was at least as interested in the results of a “failed” choice as she was in the results of a “successful” choice; every choice yielded information, information led to more options and better future choices.

They had been forbidden from entering the tower’s libraries, the common doors were heavily guarded and blocked from entry. The question was why. The only way to know was to find a way in. The tunnel entrance was not guarded, Abeth was betting the libraries were devoid of guards as well.

He followed the corridor through the walls of the tower, climbing stairs as needed and noting the locations of the doors hidden in the walls. The dust that covered every surface was undisturbed except for where he walked. His feet were the first to touch the stone floor in what could be centuries.

He moved swiftly past the last of the library doors. Investigating the libraries were important to him, but there was something more important for him to check first: the Guiding Light’s personal chambers, the chambers used by the tower’s ruler.

He continued rising up through the tower, his eyes jumped between looking for disturbances in the dust and hidden doors on the walls. The corridor ended abruptly, the door he was searching for was not along the side but at the end of the tunnel.

There was no sound of occupants as he listened at the door. Satisfied that it was safe to proceed, he stowed his torch in a nearby sconce and opened the door wide enough to glance into the chamber. The door opened into the small passage that joined the main chamber with the balcony. From his position in the tunnel it looked as if the balcony and the main room were both empty.

He was about to step out into the short hallway when a movement near the fireplace caught his eye and froze him in place.

It was the Lady of the Tower.

She appeared out of thin air. Abeth held his breath as he watched her glance lazily around the room. He waited, muscles tense, sure she would see him and ready to attack if needed. Far better to risk death for a chance to remove the danger she represented than to flee and have her set off an alarm. Better his companions can react in shock at his actions than be caught as co-conspirators.

He watched, still as the stones that made up the walls. He didn’t dare move his hand to his sword, any motion, no matter how slight, might attract her notice.

Her gaze appeared to linger on his hiding place and then her focus shifted and she moved out of the chamber.

“Bring Shan to the throne room,” Abeth heard her order.

“Yes, My Lady,” he caught the former prince’s response before the doors closed.

Captain Abeth cautiously crossed the room to the point where the Lady had appeared. He kept one eye on the chamber’s doors as he searched the wall before him. He was not surprised to find a door that blended into the wall.

He was surprised to find a circular staircase leading further upwards into the tower.

Craig slipped unnoticed from the tunnels into the bedroom he had left from their assigned suite in the tower. The small room was empty, as Craig had expected, they had had no way of knowing how long the search would take so there was little value in anyone waiting on his return. He reached behind him and slowly guided the tunnel door closed. Softly, gently, almost noiselessly.

He wondered, as the door shut, how Captain Abeth had made out. Craig had found a nest of necromancers in the underground but that didn’t rule out there being more in the tower’s upper floors. There were six he knew of, three he had found and three Samuel stalked; there could always be more.

He moved to the door that led to the main chamber and stopped. In his eagerness to share his discovery, he had almost charged out into the large room, blindly and with no thought. He had gone for a bit, anything could have happened in that time. His companions could be gone, there could be an army of walking corpses waiting for him beyond that door. He was too old to be making such a rookie mistake. Craig smiled, shook his head, and placed an ear to the door.

He could make out the sound of talking, feminine voices; Esther and Shan would be his guess. The voices were familiar to him, he listened as they discussed life within Shatterook and how it compared to life within Norasburg’s tower. The conversation sounded relaxed and friendly, Craig listened long enough to be sure there were no strange voices before he opened the door and stepped through.

Esther and Shan were seated on the floor a few steps away from where Craig emerged. Thomas lay on his back, hands under his head, his body within arm’s length of his wife. The two women stopped their conversation and turned their heads toward him, the larger man never moved.

“Abeth hasn’t returned yet?” Craig asked. There was no sign of the other soldier in the room.

“You’re the first to return,” Esther replied.

That seemed odd to Craig. There was less ground to cover in the upper level of the tower, the captain should have been back before him; even if there were more necromancers to be found. Find them, get a rough count, return; that was all he was sent to do.

“Did you find anything?” Shan interrupted his thoughts.

“Yep,” Craig replied. “Right where you expected it. The residential level right above the archives. At least three necromancers have taken up residence. It would be easy enough to dispatch them. We’d just need to catch up with the ones Samuel is tracking and the Lady’s living help is gone.”

“Assuming Abeth hasn’t found more,” Esther added.

“True,” Craig replied, “but I doubt there’d be so many as to make things that much more difficult for us.”

“We’d need to split up,” Shan said. “We won’t want to set off any alarms. We would want to hit every group in the tower and get out before the Lady’s forces could rally against us.”

“Agreed,” Craig responded. “Once we’re out in the courtyard the archers will be able to provide cover. We’ll just need to get free of the tower first.”

“We can use the private passage,” Shan said, “there’s a door into the main hall. We can bypass all the guards and wait for all of us to gather. We’ll have to push our was past the door guards but that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“What about the Lady herself?” Craig asked. “What sort of threat does she pose?”

“She had a lot of power at one point,” Esther answered, “or so the myth goes. She destroyed a nation with her magic, two cities swallowed by the desert sands. That’s a lot of power. But that was centuries ago, there has been no hint of her for so long that she was almost forgotten. The land she inhabits has been a wasteland for a long time and she has never made any improvements to it. Everything is still in ruin. That suggests she might have significantly less power than she did. She could either destroy us in the blink of an eye or watch us impotently as we leave, or anything in between. We can’t predict.”

“It’s probably best we avoid her,” Shan offered. “We know her influence can’t affect the world beyond her land. She needs the necromancers for that. We kill the necromancers and escape her land, preferably without running into her. She is effectively harmless trapped in the wasteland.”

“Which just leaves us the problem of keeping new necromancers from joining her,” Esther finished.

“It won’t take much to convince the ruling class to increase the size of our militia on the borders, to build some more outposts and increase the amount of horseflesh in each fort,” Craig smiled. “The nobility have a lot more to lose if she frees herself than anyone else. The poor will always be poor, it doesn’t matter who the ruling class is. Only the wealthy have anything more to lose.”

“I should be able to convince Light Koarl to contribute,” Shan added. “We’ve already been attacked once so the threat is known and real.”
“Where is Abeth?” Craig wondered aloud.

There was a knock on the chamber’s main door. The single rap against the wood of the door brought all of those gathered to their feet, including the previously slumbering Thomas. They glanced at each other in surprise before Craig walked over to the door and opened it.

“Prince Stefan,” Craig nodded at the former man. He stepped aside and gestured for the tower’s former ruler to enter.

“The Lady,” the deep disembodied voice announced, “desires an audience with your Illuminance.” He bowed slightly toward Shan.

“Of course,” Shan responded.

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.

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.”