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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plants are alive,” the druid had replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly, the warrior had begun to tell his tale.

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

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

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

From the thirteenth tower.

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Eminence?” Morah questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All or none,” Thomas shrugged.

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

“How do we stop them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent,” Shan replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you won’t,” Craig declared.

“How do you know that?”  Abeth asked.

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

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

“The undead?”  Shan asked.

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

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

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

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

“Another camp,” Shan replied.

“The closest one,” Craig agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So where is the body?” She questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A muffled knock came from the door to her chambers.

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

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

“Your Eminence,” Shan nodded from the doorway.

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

“Yes, Your Eminence.”

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

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

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

“Do we know who attacked the camp?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who attacked you?” Shan asked.

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

“Was it bandits?” Shan prodded.

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

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

“Care for a trip?” She asked Shan.

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

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

“How many soldiers?” Shan asked.

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

“I’ll leave immediately.”

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

I don’t dislike dogs. I enjoy the company of most dogs and I have yet to meet a dog that didn’t like me. I am not fond of small dogs as, in my experience, they tend to be far to prone to barking and whining. I become uncomfortable with their constant shaking. Medium and large-sized dogs are the breeds I prefer, they match my internal bias for what a dog should look like and how a dog should act. I don’t dislike dogs, I just don’t have a desire to add one to my life.

I must have been just entering my teenage years. It was so long ago, age and distance has merged those years of my life together into a single era. There are eighteen years in a childhood but it is impossible to separate my memories of that time into distinct years. I have memories that date all the way back to my daycare days and I find it can be difficult to place those at an age that feels correct. Time and memory can sometimes not connect seamlessly together. I am, however, fairly certain that I had just entered my teenage years when I got my first, on only, dog.

He was a mixed breed dog we had gotten from a neighbour, one of my best friends at the time. His mother was a border collie / blue heeler cross, a medium-sized dog that was fiercely protective of her puppies. She bit me when I went to take what would become my dog from her, the bite was serious enough to draw blood. She was normally a friendly dog but she was not willing to let anyone look at her puppies let alone take them away from her. I would go home with a bloody leg and a new dog.

He was tiny when he came home that first day, about the size of a small cat. He had been well fed and looked like a ball of black and white fuzz with legs, a tail, a nose and a couple of eyes. His feet were white with blackish blue speckles exposing his blue heeler blood, his feet were massive compared to his body. He was destined to be a big dog.

He would dwarf his mother by the time he finished growing. His father had been a scotch collie that had belonged to another of our neighbours. A dog that had never been fixed and was free to roam wherever he wanted, he sired quite a few litters in his day. The only thing my dog inherited from his father was his size, in everything else he took after his mom. He had the size of a scotch collie but the colouring and personality of a border collie.

We learned early in his life just how fast he was. He moved quicker than any of the family could react and seemed to possess and endless supply of energy. As a puppy he would use his speed to get at the cat food as it was put down and before the cats could even get a bite. He earned his name “Flash” as a result.

Flash learned to chase and catch balls and frisbee at an early age. It was almost an innate skill he seemed to pick it up with no effort almost as if he had been born pulling frisbee from the air. The grabbing of flying objects was not only an instinctive response it was also his favourite pastime. He would greet strangers to the property with a frisbee in his mouth, if they threw it for him they were friends and if they didn’t they weren’t to be trusted.

He was a dog of action who tended to be on the move long before he could think about what it was he was doing. One day during an extended family barbecue he ended up getting hit in the mouth with a baseball bat. We had been playing baseball and he attempted to intercept a pitch just as it connected with a swinging bat. He picked himself up, shook his head and prepared to grab the next pitch. We gave up on the game, he was too fast and there was no way to continue without putting his safety at risk.

His reactions were so quick and automatic that he could catch birds in mid-flight. Flash brought me the gift of a grouse at one point. He had been so careful when he caught it that there were no puncture wounds, no crushing from his jaws, not even any ruffled feathers. The bird had died but it was most likely from shock or fear than from any physical injuries. He had a hunter’s instincts.

He was a smart dog although he didn’t always use his intelligence for good. He had hurt one of his front paws on some barbed wire. It had been a pretty serious wound with a lot of blood and a trip to the vet. His paw was bandaged up and he limped around while it healed. He received a lot of attention while he recuperated.

It was this attention that he remembered. After he had recovered he would use the memory to manipulate everyone around him for more attention. He would hold up a paw and limp around whenever he was feeling neglected. The only flaw with his otherwise perfect plan was that he couldn’t remember which paw he had injured. He would switch back and forth between paws, sometimes even in the middle of his current con.

Despite his attempts at trickery he was still this boy’s best friend. We were inseparable from the moment we met. I was what could be called a painfully shy kid, to an extreme. I would have preferred to do just about anything to avoid having to talk to people or, much worse in my mind, to be made the centre of attention. Flash provided an invaluable friendship; I got the companionship and socialization I needed without the awkwardness, embarrassment, and pain that all too often accompanied human interactions.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have or couldn’t make friends, it was just difficult and exhausting to maintain. I had always had an affinity for animals and it was strongest with Flash. We did everything together.

He was an outside dog, his size made it difficult for it to be otherwise. We had an enclosed porch that the large dogs slept in. They had food and water put out for them and dog houses were built so they could sleep on straw and old blankets. It wasn’t heated but was otherwise a rather luxurious shelter. Flash had lived in the house as a puppy and there always seemed to be a part of him that wanted that life back.

Whenever the temperature would drop to a ridiculously frigid level he would get a taste of the indoor life. There were days when the mercury plummeted to the point where no amount of shelter or thick winter fur could keep a dog even remotely close to warm. On these days we brought the outside dogs into the warmth and shelter of the house.

This meant that I would have a couple of guests for a few nights; Flash and Shadow (a small scotch collie youngster who earned his name because everywhere Flash went he followed like a shadow). As I was his boy Flash would claim my bed, a small twin, as his. I would put out a small cot for Shadow to sleep on.

Flash and I would share my twin bed, or at least attempt to. Flash took up at least as much space on the bed as I did, there was essentially two people sharing bed built for one. Flash loved to sleep on the bed, he would jump onto it and stretch himself out on his stomach right down the centre of the bed. I would have to squeeze in between him and the wall or perch myself on the edge of the bed.

He did not make a good bed mate. I could pet him for a bit after we went to bed, but only for a short while. He would let loose a deep, semi-threatening growl when he had had enough and was ready to sleep. It was the same warning he would use anytime I moved or jostled him during the night. Without a doubt the bed was his and he suffered me to share it with him.

The bulk of the time that I wasn’t in school was spent with him. We’d throw around balls or frisbee, he’d run alongside me while I biked around the subdivision, he’d accompany me through the local marshes while I hunted frogs and snakes, and we’d have adventures together. We lived on ten acres of mostly wooded land that was nestled behind a large, government-run wildlife preserve. This provided us plenty of opportunity for adventure.

Flash and Shadow (who was never far from Flash) were fearless companions. Between the back end of our acreage and the wildlife preserve was a wide, deep creek, flooded and swollen thanks to a family of beaver that had made it their home. I used fences or fallen trees to cross over the water since it was far to deep to wade through. I was not a strong swimmer and I doubt I would have enjoyed swimming through the disgusting smelling water anyway, so makeshift bridges were the order of the day. The dogs didn’t have this concern they just swam across from one side to the other, even in the dead of winter. The water almost never froze over enough to support their weight. Flash’s loyalty and devotion were so great that he wouldn’t allow something as minor as a dip in freezing water to separate him from me.

Flash took his canine companion duties seriously. He was as faithful a companion as any boy could have asked for and staunchly overprotective. Throwing his body into danger to keep me out of it was as natural as breathing to him. He would be overzealous in carrying out his duties, there was one time he jumped between me and a neighbour, growling and snarling with such ferocity that the neighbour chose to flee rather than risk an attack by the big dog. This boy was someone that Flash saw just about everyday, his only crime was an attempt to dunk me with water from a bucket, an action I had already perpetrated on him.

The protective feelings were mutual.

One of the many children that we fostered over the years decided one day that he was going to take his anger out on me. This was not an unusual occurrence, I had learned from experience to just accept it as defending myself would just get me into trouble. It was better to put up with the bullying than to stand up for myself and wind up with a punishment in addition to the bullying. This time the bully had made the mistake of pushing me in front of Flash. The dog moved faster than either of us could react, there was no warning given, he was on the boy’s back snarling and growling as his front paws grabbed his opponent. To his credit he restrained himself from biting the other boy.

The boy turned to defend himself from the dog, his fist lashed out at Flash’s head. I saw red and threw myself at my bully. My fists connected and the boy cried for help as Flash and I fought with him. We fought well as a team, neither one of us getting in the other’s way. We were pulled off the boy, fairly quickly, I remember in my rage that all I could think was that nobody hit my dog.

Nobody.

I still rage when I think about it.

He lived to be about fourteen, maybe fifteen. He stayed with my mother as I attempted to start my adult life. They had moved from the acreage to a home in the city. Anytime I went by for a visit it was like we had never parted. He would find a frisbee, he always seemed to have an unlimited supply, and I would throw it for him. Even as old age ravaged his body he would still bring me a frisbee, in his mind it was what I enjoyed and he wanted nothing more than to make me happy. He could barely walk at the end so I would place the frisbee in his mouth and he would hand it back to me. That was how we played our game near the end of his life and they were some of the best games of fetch we ever played.

I still feel guilty over not making more time to visit him as he aged. I regret that I was not there to see him off as he left this world.

For years I kept his collar in my pocket everywhere I went. Having his collar with me allowed me to keep his presence close to me, as if we hadn’t parted company. His last canine companion would cry every time I’d visit, she could smell the collar in my pocket but couldn’t find him. Her presence had extended his life and together we would mourn him all over again.

Since I met Flash I had had the most perfect dog. I have never felt the need to replace him, it would feel wrong as no other dog would ever match him.

A Secret Learned

Days pass quickly when you’re trapped in a job you hate. Before I knew it October had run its course, November had left and I was smack-dab into December. We had gone through a lot of excitement in those two months.

Prior to adopting Panther I had had the unfortunate luck of having to go through a bed bug infestation, a few to be accurate but like most things in life the first time is the worst one. The first indication that these pests were in the building was a notice that they were going to spray the apartment in a couple weeks. There were no sign of bugs that I could see but I dutifully followed the directions they provided to prepare for the spraying. Less than a week before the spray date the apartment was crawling with bed bugs. One day I was bug free and the next I was living with a nation of them.

Part of the instructions for successfully combating a bed bug infestation is to not change your sleeping habits. Particularly important is not to change where you sleep. Which meant that I had to spend three or four nights sharing my bed with a few hundred tiny ladies whose entire reason for existing was to steal my blood. But if I moved from the bed they might shift their location and escape the pesticide. It is, by far, the hardest part of dealing with bed bugs.

After that first time it seemed as if those little vampires were attempting to move in every couple of months. It felt like there was a period of nearly constant spraying as they fought to evict these insect freeloaders from the apartment complex. It was a fight they didn’t seem to be winning. All of my possessions were boxed and stored in the middle of the dining room as per their instructions. I had been packing and unpacking so often due to the treatments that I just stopped putting anything back, it was just easier to leave everything packed where they were.

The bugs eventually stopped coming back, at least for a time. It would take months before I could relax enough to start returning things to where they belonged. It would never be complete, it always sat in the back of my mind that the bugs would return. They did.

The pesticides they use to fight bed bugs does not quite agree with those of the feline persuasion, it is, in fact, fatal. So after I discovered a pair of the bugs and, with great difficulty, managed to get a spray date set I found myself suddenly needing a place to hole up with the cat for a few days.

I had just the place in mind. A friend of mine had a sweet house geared up for cats, she would house-sit her parents’ cats once in a while and kept some feline amusements there at all times. It was a two floor house with a basement, lots of space, and large windows. A nice place for a cat to play in. A quick text got the okay for Panther and I to crash there for a few days.

The day arrived for our short vacation from the apartment. The treatment wasn’t until the next day but I wasn’t about to let Panther be alone in a strange place so we were both leaving that afternoon for my friend’s place. I spent the morning moving things into the kitchen and away from the walls. I wasn’t sure it was necessary but I pulled everything away from the wall in Panther’s room as well.

He wasn’t dealing very well with the morning activity. The changes I was making to his environment had shot his anxiety through the roof. I decided to let him roam free until the last minute, he hated being in his carrier and I couldn’t see a point in making his day any worse than it had to be.

I could understand what he was feeling. My own anxiety levels were off the charts. I don’t really like to have people in my apartment when I am home, I can’t even deal with the idea of people being in my apartment when I am not there. I can’t focus on anything else, I have difficulty breathing, my hands shake uncontrollably, I just become a mess. I had no desire to put Panther through that stress so I allowed him the freedom to roam as I prepared the apartment.

He was nowhere to be found when I finished moving everything. I had just received a text that my ride was on the way so it was now time to package the cat up for travel. I checked above the cupboards in the kitchen where he liked to go when the vacuum was running but he wasn’t there.

Panther. Where are you, buddy?”

He normally came when called. He tended to show me that much courtesy, but not today it seemed. I wandered to the bathroom to check the tub, he would sometimes curl up there to sleep off warm afternoons. I pushed the curtains aside and was rewarded with an empty tub.

Where are you hiding, Panther?” I wondered aloud as I checked under the bathroom sink. Perhaps he had gone into his room, he liked to sleep on top of the boxes I kept in there. It was worth a quick look.

There was no cat to be seen on top of the boxes I had pulled away from the wall. No cat behind the boxes. No cat anywhere I could see.

There was a large hole in the wall that was shared with the bathroom.

A big, dark, gaping hole that caused my heartbeat to quicken.

This hole was the access hatch to the water pipes that fed the shower and bath tub. The panel must have been held closed by the boxes that had been in front of it. It must have opened while I was in another room. I could see all the pipes running up and down through the wall but I couldn’t tell if there was room for a cat to slip through.

A closer inspection revealed just how little luck I had, there was enough space between the pipes for a cat of Panther’s size to squeeze through. More important was the alcove that I could make out just beneath the tub that looked large enough to comfortably fit me. I was filled with dread and despair at the two eyes that reflected the light from my cell phone back at me. It had taken no time for Panther to find this hole and get himself into the space beneath the tub.

Panther,” I tried to keep the panic from my voice, “time to come out.”

It was hard to judge if he could make it back through all the pipes but it was worth the attempt to try to coax him out. I couldn’t get my arm far enough in to pull him out. For his part Panther seemed to be enjoying this newly found cave.

I shook a bag of Temptations at the open hole. This sound would normally bring him running but today he just lay down and looked up at me. I offered a whiff of catnip, perhaps the scent would entice him. He just lay down in that hole content to wait me out.

Feeling even more desperate and on the verge of a panic attack I decided to make a phone call to the building’s emergency line.

This line is only for emergencies,” they told me, “you need to contact the building manager.”

Hot water faucet in the bath tub won’t shut off… not an emergency. Cat trapped under bath tub… not an emergency. Just what was an emergency to these people?

The building manager responded lightening fast to my call. This was the first and only time she would ever respond to one of my infrequent requests in less than a week. It was within fifteen minutes that she showed up with a maintenance man and all three of us were surrounding the open hatch. The maintenance man shone a flashlight in the hole to verify the cat’s existence (because I was obviously the type to make this type of thing up) and then they were on the move. They were going to pull down the ceiling in my downstairs neighbour’s bathroom to get to the cat.

I heard a polite meow beside me as I shut the apartment door behind them. At my feet was a very calm, slightly dusty, Panther. He had decided that he wanted to play with the beam of the flashlight and had followed it out of the crawlspace.

I grabbed him, kissed him on his head, and put him in his carrier. I managed to get downstairs in time to stop them from ripping apart my neighbours bathroom and then generously applied duct tape to seal the hatch. That done, we were on our way to my friend’s home for a few days.

The drive down there went about as well as could be expected. Panther voiced his discomfort and disgust at the situation throughout the entire journey. He changed his tune the moment he was released from his carrier into our temporary home.

The majority of the cat related items were in the basement, the litter box in particular. I brought him down and released him from the carrier. I needed to prepare the litter box and figured he could explore while I did. The basement was at least as big as our apartment so he had plenty of space to enjoy. It was a single room with a fridge, a scratching post, a table, some boxes, stairs, and various other items scattered about. There was plenty to keep him occupied while I set up his bathroom.

By the time I was finished he was gone.

It was an unfinished basement so there wasn’t too many places he could have disappeared into. I checked under the stairs and in the boxes, both those areas were clear. I could hear his meows so I was certain he was close by. As it turned out he had managed to get himself into the beams of the ceiling and couldn’t get himself down.

Maybe you don’t need to explore every hole,” I offered as I grabbed a chair so I could reach him. He purred musically as I pulled him free of the beams.

He spent the rest of the evening exploring the house. He particularly enjoyed using the stairs, racing up and down continuously throughout the night. He slept with me on the couch and spent the next day in the basement while I was at work. I only had to work the one day and then we were alone for a couple days before we would return home.

One of the more amazing aspects of Panther’s personality is how quick he adapts to changes in his environment. Like most cats he doesn’t like change but unlike other cats I have known he settled into his new environments with surprising ease. I was more uncomfortable with our circumstances than he was and it was a relief for me to be going home, he didn’t feel the same way. From a cat point of view the house with the stairs, large beds, and numerous surfaces to climb onto was a portrait of luxury. Like all cats he accepted that luxury as a birthright and was unhappy to be leaving it behind.

There were three treatment dates spread over about a month which allowed him to visit his paradise one more time. My friend was home during the second visit and Panther spent the day with her while I was at work. The reports I got from that day involve him happily joining her for a nap and, not quite so happily, respecting her requests to get off her counter tops. He was a perfectly charming house guest.

Sometime between the first and second treatments I learned a valuable secret kept by my feline roommate. It happened one morning that I was a little slower getting out the door than normal. Panther had been closed up into his room while I was temporarily flummoxed about which jacket I should wear, this choice delayed my exit by a minute or two. A flash of black burst out the door as I opened it to leave. Panther had somehow escaped from his room!

I had thought my roommate had figured out a system that allowed him to exit the apartment while Panther was loose. What was actually happening was that Panther had figured out that if he pressed his weight against the centre of the folding door it would open and he would be released from his cell. He had figured it out the first day I had closed him in the room, it had taken me considerably longer to figure it out.

It was also during this time that I accepted what would be my first promotion. I hated the job but I am something of a responsibility junkie so when they offered me the promotion I couldn’t refuse. The raise that came with it was essentially nonexistent and the included potential for a bonus was little more than a joke. The tiny increase in money didn’t come close to covering the increase in work load and daily abuse.

We settled on trading some treats for my freedom to leave. Most mornings I had to hold him in my arms, exit the apartment, and slip him back into our home while I closed the door.

We headed into Christmas having made some adjustments to our lives.