Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

Samuel rested his crossbow against the trunk of a tree. Before him was the body of a man leaning against another tree. One of the necromancers: dressed in tattered black robes, pale skin pulled taut across his skull, greasy hair hung in clumps from his scalp. One shoulder was soaked in blood, the fletching of a bolt could be seen jutting out from the centre of the bloody stain.

It was the necromancer he had hit earlier.

“Are you alive?” Samuel asked, he didn’t really expect an answer. He drew his sword, short bladed and sharp, just as a precaution.

It had been while retrieving his bolts after he had defeated a second pocket of zombies that Samuel had stumbled across the scene before him. It surprised him at first, he had not considered the possibility of catching up with one of the necromancers. He had been frustrated by the additional delay the second batch of zombies had represented. The discovery of the necromancer had reduced that frustration somewhat. One less necromancer brought him a step closer to success.

“No such luck for either of us,” the voice rasped from the body in the black robes. “I still live.”

“I can fix that,” Samuel knelt down beside the necromancer, his sword was in his hand. “Are you in pain? Can you walk?”

The necromancer let out a short, sharp laugh. “My life drains from me,” he responded, “soon I’ll be free of this life and ready to serve Her again. It can’t be stopped, soon I’ll join Her for eternity.”

“Are you blind?” Samuel asked. “You are nowhere near Her tower. How do you expect She’ll find you let alone reanimate you? I think your dream of being a mindless servant will probably die with you.”

“No,” the necromancer grimaced, “I have served Her well. She’ll find me, She’ll bring me into Her fold. My reward will be being accepted into Her Chosen.”

“I think you might have overestimated Her reach,” Samuel replied. “She can’t reach beyond the edge of the wasteland.”

“We are closer than you realize,” the necromancer chuckled. “She will get Her prisoners and Her loyal servants will be rewarded. You are too late to stop it.”

“Maybe,” Samuel answered. He sank his sword into the necromancer’s chest, he was bored with the conversation and felt he had tarried enough. The necromancer would be right if he continued to allow himself to be delayed: he would be too late to stop it.

Freeing the prisoners was optional, killing the last necromancer was not.

Samuel used the necromancer’s robes to clean the blood off his sword. Satisfied that it was clean, he slid the blade into its sheath. He quickly tore the quarrel from the dead man’s shoulder and shook it free of gore. The bolt swiftly disappeared into its quiver as Samuel moved to retrieve his crossbow. He slung the weapon onto his back and started back along the trail left by the last necromancer and his entourage.

There was one more necromancer left for Samuel to dispatch. One more necromancer accompanied by a couple dozen zombies. At least. It was unlikely that they had had the time to force any corpses from their graves since Samuel started his chase but it was always possible that more of their kind had journeyed from the ruined tower to join them.

He would have to take a chance and assume that hadn’t happened. There was an arrogance that seemed to hang around these necromancers Samuel had noticed. It seemed unlikely they would have considered the possibility of failure let alone planned for it. A little bit of caution would keep him safe should his assumption be wrong. There was never a need to rush blindly into anything.

It was difficult to be prevent his mind from imagining an ambush behind every tree. The sounds of nature were absent, the passage of so many unnatural creatures in so short a time had frightened the forest’s normal population from the region. The soft sound of the wind as it blew through the leaves was all that Samuel could hear.

The wind brought something more with it: the stench of decay.

Not the regular decay of the forest as it reclaimed dead foliage but rather the rot of flesh long corrupted and stinking of sickness. The smell was overwhelming, almost too much so.

The smell was so strong it seemed that he should be in the middle of them. Samuel was more surprised that he was alone amid the strong smell of death. It set his nerves on edge but it meant that they were close.

Very close.

Samuel moved his crossbow into his hands and loaded a quarrel. His eyes scanned the undergrowth around him, his sense alert for any sign of ambush. So intent was he on detecting a potential ambush that he didn’t notice the forest’s end until he had walked out of it.

Samuel could feel the warmth of the sun caress him, but he still felt a chill run up his spine. At a distance in front of him he could see the remnants of the group he had been hunting as it crossed the green fields on its way to the grey of the wasteland that was their destination. Further along he could see the source of the extreme smell: all along the border of the wasteland stood an army of the dead, like a wall of rotted flesh. The mass of undead was at least as large as the one they fought at Norasburg.

There was no clear shot at the necromancer, too many zombies surrounded him. They were on the verge of escape and it looked like Samuel would be unable to stop it.

One man could not fight an army.

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The two remaining necromancers split a dozen of their zombies out of their group to combat Samuel. It was the same tactic they had employed with the forces at the river garrison: leave small groups of combatants to harry, harass, and delay any pursuers.

It was a strategy that had served them well.

Samuel could attest to the tactic’s success. He had seen first hand the results it was capable of achieving on a large scale. Pockets of the undead had slowed the Norasburg forces to the verge of stopping the forward momentum completely. They had successfully delayed the army long enough for the necromancers and their captives to all-but escape: they were beyond the reach of the army as a whole.
Not so much from a skilled and determined tracker of Samuel’s caliber.

They moved faster than Samuel had expected. Up until this point the necromancers had seemed to be almost unconcerned about the events around them. They had left their army behind them seemingly without a second thought. They had shown little concern with their safety or the security of their captives, they would drop immediately into sleep at every stop leaving the security concerns to their undead minions. Samuel had observed them since he first spotted them near the ruined tower and they had never displayed an awareness beyond obliviousness to the world.

Until now.

Samuel watched as the necromancer camp sprang into action. The body of the one he hit hadn’t landed on the ground before they had sprung into action. The prisoners were being herded forward by a handful of zombies, more of the undead formed a wall of cover around the two remaining necromancers, twelve zombies broke off and began to move into the direction the shot had come from.

The change in their demeanour was fast, Samuel was only able to get a second shot before his line of sight was marred by the unliving monsters. His last shot at the necromancers was not fatal, the shot was off and the quarrel sunk into a shoulder rather than a chest.
One dead and another wounded sounded like a win to Samuel.

He let one more quarrel loose and dropped out of the tree. There was one less zombie headed his way but he didn’t like the idea of being caught in a tree surrounded by the living dead. It might provide some safety from the claws and teeth but it would keep him pinned to one spot. Samuel preferred to be free, to be able to move as the situation called for it.

His preferred weapon was the crossbow. His skill with the weapon was beyond expert, the weapon was almost another limb. But a crossbow required distance from its target, distance that could only be maintained if he was manoeuvrable.

His skill with a sword was only passable by comparison to his crossbow expertise. In a one-on-one fight he could hold his own against the average soldier. Samuel had no confidence that his skill would be good enough in a crowd of opponents. He was certain it would result in his being overwhelmed and ended with him becoming zombie food.

They sent the zombies at him like a wall of flesh. They moved toward him with a solid, steady gait their goal to push him backward or catch him and the threat he presented.

It was a valid strategy that worked delaying his catching up with the larger group.

Samuel ducked behind a tree and knocked another bolt into his crossbow. He figured he could use the trees and distance to take down each zombie. It was a simple plan and simple plans worked best: fire, run, load, repeat. As simple a plan as one could get.

The downside to the plan was that it allowed the necromancers to escape with their prisoners. Not for long, Samuel was sure he’s catch up with them again, but they would get closer to their destination. Too much of a delay and he might lose them to the wasteland.

He took a brief moment to aim before he fired. One more zombie dropped and he moved back to the next tree. It was time consuming, he knew, but there was no real way to speed it up as far as he could see. Slow and steady removed the risk to him but increased the chance of losing his prey.

A crossbow could only be loaded so fast. A dozen zombies took some time to be put down. It would also take time to collect the spent quarrels, he could only carry a limited number of bolts on him and he couldn’t afford to leave any behind.

It all added up to a large delay. Their escape was certain if he died.

Load, shoot, back away, and repeat until the last zombie fell. As quick as he could Samuel collected as many of his quarrels as he could before he followed after the rest of the undead.

Three dozen zombies, a couple necromancers, and two prisoners made for an easy bunch to track.

A small group can move faster through the forest than an army. A single person can avoid enemy positions and slip past their lines with the ease of the wind. Given the right person, of course.

The average member of the undead was mindless, it operated on the most basic of instincts: hunger. They could follow instructions to a point, some species were less driven by hunger and more capable of focusing on a task than others. Without an external intelligence to guide them all the lesser undead were trapped in either a task without end or an endless nagging need to eat. Without a stimuli to draw their attention they will mindlessly go on about their days in an eternal cycle.

Which was what Samuel was counting on.

He had been born and raised in a community of nomadic hunters. His childhood was spent learning the ways of the forest; to track prey and to evade predators. He was as much in his element at the top of the food chain as he was on the bottom. The community he grew up in relied heavily on the efforts of the members; they taught him to be self-reliant and to think for himself. In the woods you could only count on your own skills to be there when you ran into trouble as the community was too small to be there every time.

It had come as a complete shock to his friends and family when he chose to leave the community and joined the local military.

He had been fascinated with the strangers who had set up camp on the edge of the forest. There were so many tents, so many horses, and more people in one place than he had ever seen in one place before in his short life. He had known at first sight that his destiny lay with these new people.

His time with the army found him assigned to the scouting units. His knowledge of the wilds, his swift and noiseless movement, and his uncanny ability to blend into the background seemingly at will made him a much admired asset. Overused, underpaid, but an asset.

The only plus to this era of his life was his introduction to Craig. He was never comfortable within the crush of bodies that made up the camps and coupled with his growing disillusionment with military life made the decision to leave with Craig a simple one.

The life of adventure with Craig and company was similar to his youth: a roving, nomadic life within a small community. There was no one to answer to. Every member was respected for the skills they brought and everyone was given a voice in the direction they took as a whole. They shared the gains and losses equally.

It was never a profitable life; no one left it rich as a king. It did provide Samuel with a more valuable treasure: he got to see and experience more of the world than he would have had he stayed among his people.

He moved through the forest like the wind through the grass: quiet and swift. He kept his distance from the pockets of undead that were scattered throughout the trees. Lesser undead that had been left to slow an enemy but were easy for an individual to avoid, even in the dark of night.

One of the weaknesses of the lesser members was their inability to think for themselves. This resulted in them keeping close to their assigned routes with almost no deviation. With an intelligence to guide them they could be formidable, without they were only dangerous if you stumbled upon them unawares.

Samuel was on the lookout for danger anytime he caught a whiff of death or decay. His responsibility as a scout was to uncover potential danger before anyone stumbled upon it. He was almost never caught unawares.

It hadn’t taken him long to catch up with the remnants of the necromancers. His prediction had been correct, the zombies and the older Falson were slow moving, steady in pace but slow. There were more of the dead in the group than he expected, closer to four dozen than the two dozen he had predicted, but he could make out the two prisoners and the trio of necromancers.

It had only been a few days since he had left the Norasburg contingent on his task from Light Koarl: kill the necromancers, bring back Shan. He may have been a bit more optimistic than he should have been, based on the more accurate numbers he had seen he should have brought people with him.

Too many zombies for a direct attack, Samuel spent the next couple of days discretely following the group as it moved through the trees. They spent the bulk of the day on the move, they rested three times a day for two hours at a time.

The necromancers left their security to their zombie companions. Both the necromancers and their prisoners crashed the moment the group stopped, falling fitfully into sleep until they were awakened when the break was over.

Samuel took advantage of these stops to catch quick naps. It couldn’t go on like this forever, they were quickly approaching the ruined lands of the tower at Ravensbrook: the ruined tower. Once they passed into those lands their numbers would grow as they were joined by roving bands of the undead. They had to be stopped on the forest side or not at all.

He pulled out his crossbow and loaded a bolt. He would only get the one shot before his presence was known but he could at least take down one of the necromancers first. There should still be enough time to get the other two before they made it to safety.

He carefully placed the crossbow into the branches of a tree above him. He pulled himself into the tree and reclaimed his weapons. His perch in the tree gave him a better view of the group and a clearer shot.

They were breaking camp as he watched; the necromancers groggily shaking off the sleep, the prisoners resisting the push for them to awaken.

It was now or never.

Samuel let a quarrel fly and watched as it scored a hit on a necromancer. The target fell and the camp exploded into chaos.

“Husband,” Esther greeted Thomas as he emerged from the underground, “Shan has been beside herself with grief. She was certain you had met your fate at the hands of those abominations.”

“But I knew,” she continued as she walked over to the large man, “I knew nothing as mundane as a tower full of the restless dead could defeat you.” She smiled and walked into the offered embrace.

“We just might get to test that claim,” Craig interrupted. “We have enemies right behind us. Wait… where are the others?”

“Patience,” Esther directed to Craig, “there is enough time for a wife to greet her husband. You’re hurt.” The last comment was directed at Thomas. He had winced when she had closed her arms around him.

“Where are the others?” Craig asked Shan. The remnants of the building were empty of all life but the five of them as far as he could see.

“One of them got lucky,” Thomas answered. He wrapped his arms tightly around Esther and added quietly, “there were eight of them.”

“We sent them on their way,” Shan replied to Craig’s query. “It made more sense to get started than risk being noticed by a random patrol. There was no need for everyone to wait. We sent the archers with them, they’ll guide them beyond the border and we’ll catch up with them there.”

“How bad is the wound?” Esther asked.

“That’s a bit of relief,” Craig nodded. “We need to stop the ones behind us and try to buy the others some more time to get some distance away from the tower.”

“Not much more than a scratch,” Thomas replied. “A mere discomfort. Abeth bound it, it’ll heal.”

“We need to catch them on the stairs where it’s narrower,” Craig went on. “We can better control their numbers and keep from getting surrounded. There’s no telling how many are behind us.”

“Thank-you for taking care of him,” Esther directed to Abeth. She had been relieved, much to her surprise, to see her husband emerge from the stairs into the ruined building. They had been through many dangers in their time together, faced many life threatening challenges, she had seen how competent he was. She had shared all that she knew of the undead with him over the years, drilled it into his head until he knew it as well as she did, there was little doubt in her mind that he was more than capable of handing most anything the tower could throw at him.

There was that tiny sliver of doubt that whispered fears into her mind whenever he was beyond her sight. It told her people made mistakes, especially during a high pressure situation like combat where things were fast and chaotic. It whispered to her of the ease at which one man can be overwhelmed by many. It reminded her that success can breed overconfidence in anyone, overconfidence could get one killed in combat. He wasn’t getting any younger, it informed her, reactions slowed with age and every wound he had ever taken took its toll on him as well. “He’s dead,” it would insist every moment he was away.

She had no fear of death. She had devoted her life to the protection of the natural world. She had gone wherever the spirit of nature had directed her. She understood the cycle that began at birth and ended at death. Every birth ended in a death, every death supported new life. She understood this.

She just wasn’t ready to part with her mate. She doubted she would ever be ready for that day.

It was always a relief for her when she returned to her.

This doubt seemed even more pronounced in this wasteland. This dead land that stood as a mockery to nature and its cycle. A land so heavy in death that it left Esther feeling almost completely cut off from nature.

Almost.

There was life of a kind within the ruined land. The barbed vines seemed to be entwined throughout the tower grounds and the ruined city that surrounded it. It was not a shining example of life but it was alive, the only life that existed among the dead.

It was easy to overlook if you didn’t know how to listen.

The vines were tough and resilient. Stubborn and independent. They were determined to make a claim for the harsh land they called home. To thrive where no other life could live.

Esther could feel a connection to this lifeform.

“Craig,” Esther asked as she separated herself from Thomas, “what is your plan? To have us all on the stairs to be trapped when more enemies arrive from this side?”

“If need be,” Craig answered. “We need to buy some time. We can fight our way out.”

“We could do that,” Esther agreed. “Maybe we get lucky and we beat these enemies without taking a scratch. We spend two, three days fighting our way out of Her land? What do you think the chances are we’ll make it through unscathed?”

“There’s a better way,” Esther interrupted before he could reply.

“Make it quick,” Craig sighed, “whatever it is.”

“These vines,” Esther explained as she ushered them out of the ruined building, “are the only life native to this land. The only thing that can survive here.” She turned back to face the building.

“The point, Esther,” Craig pushed.

“They have agreed to help us,” Esther took a knife out from her robes. “For a price,” she added.

“What price, wife?” The concern was evident in Thomas’ voice.

“Just a token,” she responded and passed her staff to Shan. “A little blood to seal the bargain. Less than what you’ve lost, I’d wager. They are taking a big risk drawing attention to their existence but they have no more love for the restless dead than I do.”
Esther closed her hand over the bare blade and drew it across her palm. She squeezed her cut hand tightly and allowed a small rain of blood to drop onto the vine at her feet.

“Now for a lesson in power,” Esther told her companions. “Watch the frailty of death without life.”

She closed her eyes and slowly spread her arms out to her sides. All around them the tendrils of the vines moved to either side of the building they had just left. Esther began to move her hands together, the vines climbed the sides of the building. There was a thunderous crack as her hands came together and the building collapsed into a cloud of dust.

“We should leave now,” Esther announced.

“Thomas,” Craig called out in a hoarse whisper. He had spied the large man emerge from the wall ahead of him. Thomas was alone and had his axe firmly held in both hands.

“I thought you may have passed us by,” the large man smiled at Craig. His eyes took in Abeth’s presence and he nodded an acknowledgement. “I fully expected to find you at the exit waiting for us to arrive.”

“It’s slow work,” Craig shrugged. “Quiet and compassion can’t be rushed. What were you doing in that room? Where are Shan and Edith?”

“We needed to make a detour,” Thomas muttered as an explanation.

“The slaves,” Abeth added. The trio had joined up together and had continued their journey down the hidden flight of stairs. A few more floors to go and they would be in the hall and on the way to the exit.

“Of course,” Craig muttered back.

“It was the right thing to do,” Thomas defended.

“Yes,” Craig snapped. “But now we have a dozen more…”

“A dozen and a half,” Thomas corrected.

“A dozen and a half,” Craig repeated, “more people to feed and protect. Defenceless, slow moving people. People who’s disappearance will be noticed.”

“As will ours,” Thomas reminded Craig.

“We would have been able to put a lot of ground between us and the tower before that happened,” Craig retorted. “Eight people stood a better chance of escaping than twenty-six. We went from eight people who could defend themselves to eight people who have to protect eighteen others. Maybe we’ll get lucky and put some distance between us and the tower before they know we’re gone.”

“They might know sooner rather than later,” Thomas muttered.

“Why were you in that room, Thomas?” Craig asked.

“I was helping to gather the slaves,” Thomas answered.

“Thomas,” Craig pushed.

“We were interrupted by one of those talking skeletons,” Thomas explained. “I ended its grotesque life. It bought time for the people to escape.”

“It wasn’t Prince Stefan, was it?” Abeth asked.

“No,” Thomas replied. “Shan would have been upset if that happened. She seems to have developed an attachment to him. No, this was one we’d never met before.” There was a slight pause before he added, “And eight of its friends.”

“It’s a safe bet they’re aware something is up,” Craig sighed. “And Esther and Shan? Where are they?”

“They took the others to the exit,” Thomas said. “They should be there by now. Probably wondering where we are and when we’ll arrive.”

“Thomas,” Abeth directed toward the large man, “you’re bleeding.”

“I guess their swords were sharper than they looked,” Thomas lifted his arm with a wince. His armour was torn across the right side of his torso. The leather was split and blood seeped through the break.

“Let’s take a look,” Abeth suggested.

They stopped. Thomas, with Craig’s help, carefully removed the armour from around his chest. The wound was long but shallow, the skin was torn and blood oozed from the cut but there was no sign of anything more than surface damage.

“It doesn’t look that bad,” Abeth remarked. He pulled some cloth from his bag and covered the wound with it. “Hold,” Abeth instructed Craig. The captain pulled more cloth from his pack and wrapped it around Thomas’ torso. “This will do until we get out of Her hands. We’ll clean it up when we’re clear.”

They strapped the leather chestplate back into place and began the journey through the tunnel again. They had descended what remained of the stairs in silence, the quiet broken only by their footfalls. They could hear no sounds before or behind them as they shifted from having stairs under their feet to the flat surface of the hallway that would lead them out of the tower grounds.

Shan, Edith, and the others had passed through the passage, there were obvious signs within the dust that layered the floor, but no one could be seen in the hall as they moved down it. The men kept as brisk a pace as the could without straining Thomas’ wound more than needed.

They could just make out the stairs to the exit when the first sounds of footfalls behind them reached their ears.

Thomas gripped the haft of his axe in both his hands. He gave the axe a couple of swings while he waited to hear the muffled click of the door as it closed behind him. His eyes were focused on his foes before him, the axe in his hand was like an old friend: trusted to be there when needed.

The axe had been in Thomas’ possession since early in his adventuring career. A gift from a town he had helped save from a vicious group of raiders. The haft was made of a solid, heavy wood with a soft leather handle. It was topped by a single-bladed head made of a lightweight metal that never seemed to dull. The lack of the need for maintenance made it a perfect weapon to take with him into the wilds.

There were eight skeletal warriors in the room. They wore armour in what could only be described in a piecemeal fashion, although they all wore armour none of them wore a complete suit. They were, however, all armed with rusted broad-bladed swords.

The room was little more than a wide corridor lined with alcoves on either side. Three or four people might be able to fit abreast at any one time, but only two could fit across without getting into each others way during a fight. Something your run-of-the-mill undead wouldn’t realize.

These ones seemed to realize it.

They moved down the chamber two at a time. Up until they had met Prince Stefan, Thomas had never encountered an animated skeleton that had been anything more than a mindless drone. The tower possessed a large number of those typical skeletons as well as a handful of those that retained an ability to speak and think, who retained some semblance of their original personality.
These ones seemed different.

They seemed to be somewhere in the middle of the two: they were smarter than your average undead skeletons but seemed to lack any personality. They maintained their former instincts but little else, it seemed.

Still, Thomas felt confident in his chances at fighting them two at a time.

Thomas eyed the two lead skeletons as they made their way toward him. They kept enough distance between them as to allow them to freely swing their swords, a tactic employed by the duos behind them as well. There was a cautiousness to their movements as they edged near Thomas. They displayed a noticeable concern for their safety, an odd behaviour Thomas hadn’t seen before.

It wasn’t going to be so simple as breaking bones as his enemies lined up conveniently for him.

Thomas lunged at the skeletal warrior on his right, the axe head thrust forward like a spear. The skeleton backed away from the thrust axe, its companion lunged at Thomas. The large man easily sidestepped the clumsy attack, swung his axe in an arc and slammed the blunt end into the left skeleton’s skull. The result was spectacular as the skeleton’s skull shattered throwing pieces of bone everywhere. There was no time to celebrate as another foe moved forward to take the fallen one’s place.

Thomas moved away from the newcomer and into the path of his foe on the right. He swung his axe and caught his opponent’s legs, the force of the swing broke through both legs and dropped the skeleton to the floor. A quick blow crushed its skull and Thomas turned his attention to his left. He could see another skeleton move forward on his right.

He was just in time to deflect a swipe from his opponent. The sword bounced off the axe, Thomas reversed his swing and drove the butt of the handle into the centre of the skeleton’s face. It dropped lifeless to the ground.

Thomas felt something brush against his right side. He dropped his arm and pinned the item against his side. He turned to face his opponent, the sword clung to his side and was wrenched from the skeleton’s grip. The axe was swung upward, it hit the exposed skull and knocked the undead warrior backward into the ground. The sword clattered to the floor.

He stepped over the scattered bones all around him. Thomas brought his axe up above his head and brought it crashing down through the brittle bones of the skeleton on the left. He kicked out at the one on the right knocking it into the wall. He finished it off with a forceful hit to its head. One more skull crushed by the back end of his axe.

He moved back to the left side, the axe lashed out to smash a skeletal hand, it dropped another sword to the floor. One more swing and another skull was crushed. He could hear the bones snap underfoot as he moved to his last opponent.

Thomas deflected a blow from the skeleton and stepped into his opponent. He used the weight of his body to knock the skeleton to the ground. A swing of his axe removed the head from its body.

He stopped moving and stood long enough to take a deep, somewhat pained, breath. He crossed through the debris of bones, armour, and swords as he made his way back to the hidden door. Thomas took one last look at the carnage he had left in the room, he nodded to himself before backing through the door and into the tunnel.

“We can’t leave the slaves,” Shan repeated an opinion she had shared many times before. “There’s no telling what Her reaction will be. These people don’t deserve to bear the brunt of Her rage. She has no need for them without the necromancers, if we leave them here we doom them.”

“Agreed,” Esther confirmed. “The kitchens are on our way. We can slip in and grab them as we go. There’s only a half-dozen or so. They won’t slow us down that much. They can travel with us to Shatterook.”

It was a conversation they had had many times since they arrived at the ruined tower. As distasteful as it was to agree to end the lives of the tower’s necromancers Shan felt it would be a far greater stain on her conscience to leave the slaves to the not so tender mercies of the Lady. With the necromancers dead and Shan’s group removed from the tower there would be no need for the slaves. Shan’s time with the Lady had shown her a creature of rage and hate with no capacity for forgiveness.

“This is taking far too long,” Thomas grumbled the observation in his deep voice.

“Calm down, husband,” Esther responded, “let them gather their possessions. We’ll be on the way before you know it.”

“At this rate Craig will be waiting for us to arrive,” Thomas mumbled. He stood half in the barracks and half in the hidden corridor, his body kept the door from closing.

It was less a collection of possessions than a collecting of people. They had discovered only a small number of the tower’s slaves when they had arrived at the kitchens. There was some resistance to the idea of fleeing the Lady, but after a bit of convincing they had agreed to go; they did have to make a slight detour to retrieve the rest of the enslaved people.

They had quickly gathered as much food as they could before slipping into the hidden passages. The barracks that housed the captives was a converted store room one floor beneath the kitchens. The floor was normally used as a store room for food and also as a slaughter room for livestock. The current population of the tower had little need for either function and had instead taken to using it to house the people needed to prepare the meals for the necromancers. There was enough storage in the kitchen proper for the small amount of food that was kept on site.

There wasn’t much to be seen within the makeshift barracks; a few blankets that served as every possible type of furniture for the dozen and a half people trapped within. Outside of the clothing draped over their bodies there seemed to be little else in the room. Whatever there might have they wrapped in the blankets as they worked as fast and with as little noise as they could manage.

“It won’t take that long,” Shan offered. There were more people than she had expected. Half a dozen, a dozen at a stretch, they would be able to protect but eighteen would be difficult if they ran into a problem. These new additions were basically defenceless; they weren’t armed and they didn’t look like they were in any shape to wield them if there were. Shan found herself in agreement with Thomas: Speed was their ally. They needed to be free of the tower and away from the wasteland before the Lady knew they were gone.

“I’ll guide them through the tunnels,” Esther offered.

Thomas stepped aside to allow the first people ready to slip past him out of the barracks and into the tunnel. There were seven of them ready to go, the rest could still be heard elsewhere within the former storage chamber.

“See you in a bit,” Esther said as she moved through the doorway.

“We’ll be right behind you,” Thomas promised with a nod. “In theory,” he mumbled after she had left. He nodded as two more people brushed past him on their way out.

“Half way there,” Shan smiled. She walked toward the door on the far side of the main chamber. The people were in the smaller alcoves that lined either side of the main chamber. Shan had decided to see if she couldn’t speed up the packing process by her presence and, if necessary, her hands. They needed to move, sooner rather than later.

“Don’t you get lost on me,” Thomas complained.

“I’m going to attempt to impress a sense of urgency on our remaining charges,” Shan explained. Another person rushed past her toward the previously secret exit.

Shan had looked into the first three alcoves on her left when she heard Thomas announce, “Not without me.” She turned to watch as he used his massive axe to jam the door open. He moved across the open floor to join Shan as she neared the fourth alcove.

“I’m fairly certain there’s no danger,” Shan laughed. “They seem more afraid of me than I of them.”

“Perhaps,” Thomas admitted, “but I am betting they’re even more afraid of me.” Three more people scuttled off toward the tunnel entrance as if to punctuate his statement.

Four more alcoves and two more evacuees brought them to the end of the left hand row of storage rooms and a handful of steps from the chamber’s door. They turned to follow the right hand line of alcoves back to the tunnel exit, three more stragglers and they were free to leave.

“Why is there nobody in the kitchens?” a deep, disembodied voice rang out from behind them. They turned to find the door flung open and a skeletal warrior dressed in ancient armour crossing the threshold. There were at least six more similar figures in the hallway behind it.

“How did you get in here?” it demanded to know as it focused its glowing eyes on the two people in front of it.

“Run!” Thomas grabbed the creature by the front of its armour and dragged it fully into the room. He kicked the door shut while at the same time he used his muscled arms to pull the undead warrior’s head from its body. The light quickly faded from its eyes as Thomas swiftly used the skull to jam the door shut.

“Run!” he yelled again as he turned to follow his own instructions. Behind him came the sound of banging as the other undead attempted to break through the door. Shan had gotten to the tunnel and was ushering the remaining slaves through the door.

“Thomas!” Shan yelled. She pointed behind him: the door had shattered open and more armour-clad skeletons had begun to enter the room.

“Go,” he grabbed his axe from the door. “Get these people out. I’ll be right behind you.” He pushed Shan through the doorway and turned to face his still growing collection of foes.

Abeth used the weight of his body to keep the man beneath him from thrashing around. One hand was clamped firmly over the mouth and nose while the other used a knife to pierce the arteries on either side of the neck. He tried to make the act as fast and painless as possible. Death was painful, there was no avoiding that, but Abeth didn’t want to add any unnecessary pain to the process.

There was no way to predict what they would go through once the Lady reanimated them. A fate they would certainly endure.

“That’s it for this nest,” Craig said from the room’s doorway. He used the same approach as Abeth and it showed, his hands and forearms were stained with blood while the rest of him showed only a few droplets.

“It feels wrong to leave these people here for Her to add to her forces,” Abeth mused. He cleaned his blade on the bed’s blanket before he stood up and flexed his shoulders.

“It does,” Craig agreed, “but the only way to prevent it is to burn the bodies to ash. We can’t set them on fire without drawing attention to ourselves. I don’t like our chances if we have to fight our way out of this tower.”

“Yeah,” Abeth could understand that. It didn’t make what he was doing any easier: ending a man’s mortal life and leaving him to be cursed with an eternity of un-life. He found it difficult to believe that this was in the best interest of his people. It felt dirty.

It wasn’t that he had never taken another life nor that he was reluctant to do so, he had spent a lifetime as a soldier, but this was different. There was almost a sense of honour to his regular duties for the towers, there was none in this.

Life for a soldier of the tower cities was not easy. Depending on the day one could find oneself policing the city, patrolling the countryside, escorting travellers along the roads, guarding the local Light or her tower, or any other task that might arise.

The cities were generally safe for the people who lived in them. The more populous of the cities had thriving criminal elements, the port and border towers had zones that were outright dangerous to set foot in. There was an element within the tower cities that was obsessed with contraband and those that supplied it had no resistance to using violence.

The more dangerous assignments were those that took the soldiers away from civilization. Between the tower cities were vast expanses of wilderness within which pockets of humanity survived. These people lived apart from the gentle guidance of the Goddess, some were peaceful but most were not. Travel between towers was dangerous, people who left the safety of the tower were preyed upon by these hostiles.

Abeth’s duties involved him in many battles with these groups, both defending travellers on the roads and hunting them down in the wilderness. These battles were on a more even footing, man against man, the winner: the man with the most skill, or the most luck.

There was a risk involved for both parties. In this instance there was no true risk involved. It was just murder, regardless of the danger the necromancers represented it was still murder.

He had no issues taking a life in a fight but he was a soldier not an executioner. He had trouble coming to terms with this action being Her Will even with the positive result in the end.

“It’s dirty work,” Craig’s voice interrupted Abeth’s thoughts, “but necessary. We have to cut off the Lady’s power to influence the world outside of Her lands. These necromancers are little better than the monsters they create. We’ll all be safer for this.”

“I’d prefer a more honourable approach,” Abeth replied. “It would sit better with me if it was a face-to-face fight.”

“There’s honour in keeping your people safe,” Craig said, “no matter how it’s done.”

“There is a right and a wrong way to do things,” Abeth responded. “Any man should be given a chance to defend themselves. This is a slaughter. There is no humanity to it. No honour.”

“Your Goddess disagrees,” Craig pointed out. “Shan understands the necessity of what we do. Surely that suggests you Goddess sees some honour to the act. We may not like it but the truth of it is that not all battles are fought on a field. Some are fought around tables, some are fought in the dark of the night. Honour can be found in any arena.”

“Look,” Craig’s voice softened, “we have one more floor to clear. Watch my back and I’ll handle the dirty chore.”

“No,” Abeth answered. “I’ll shoulder my responsibilities. I don’t like it but I’ll follow my duty through. Thank-you, though.”

“Good. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”

Abeth followed Craig into the tunnels hidden within the tower’s walls.

Escape Plan

Posted: May 16, 2018 in 4. The Ruined Tower, Tall Tales
Tags: ,

Craig felt fairly certain they had explored the tunnels of the ruined tower as completely as anybody could. Their exploration might not have been one hundred percent complete but it had opened up an alternate way out. Under the tower, among the many chambers, there was a wide, seemingly forgotten, corridor that wormed under the ground and away from the tower.

Four people could fit comfortably side by side in the corridor. The corridor ran a relatively short way before it transformed into an equally wide staircase that led back to the surface. It had seemed to be that way, a journey up the stairs had quickly told a different story: a cave-in had blocked the way up to the surface.

Along with Thomas and Abeth, Craig had spent days digging out the rubble that blocked the stairway. It was a slow process, but they only needed to open up enough space for one person to get through. They could build supports as they went to keep their tunnels from collapsing in on themselves.

The stairs opened up within the ruins of the surrounding town, it was within the shadow of the walls that surrounded the tower grounds. Hidden behind half-broken buildings within the crust of a decayed warehouse, it would have allowed anyone housed in the underground rooms to come and go unnoticed. It would now provide an escape route from the tower. The archers that had stayed outside the walls were moved over to guard the now uncovered exit.

They were, as far as Craig was concerned, as prepared as they would ever be.

“The more time that passes, the more likely our hosts will discover the tunnels. We are in their homes, they could hear our activities at any moment. Catch us entering or exiting a hidden tunnel at any point. We shouldn’t delay much longer,” he voiced his opinion to Abeth as they returned from a visit with the archers. He kept his voice low, it was hard to judge how much sound carried in the recesses beneath the tower. There were times when you could hear distant footfalls as clear as a bell beside your ear and other times when it was a struggle to hear a voice right beside you. There seemed to be no consistency in how sound travelled in this underground.

“I agree,” Captain Abeth replied in equally hushed tones. They were all very careful about the level of noise they made while in the tunnels. There were no indications that the Lady or her minions, undead or living, knew of the tunnels’ existence but there was no reason to risk changing that.

“It’ll be nice to be away from the stench of decay,” Craig offered as they walked. “It has been too long since I’ve smelled anything else. Some clean fresh air will be a welcome change.”

Abeth gave a grunt that was noncommittal.

“I’ve seen where you come from,” Craig went on, “lush and green. Pure, clean running water. A veritable paradise. Surely there is something you miss. Something that calls you back.”

“I serve the Goddess,” Abeth replied. “I go where She pleases.”

“When she’s finished with you, come see me,” Craig shrugged. “There is always a place for a man of your skills and loyalty. Having you watching my back would be a comfort to myself and my family.”

They climbed the stairs hidden in the tower in silence. It was a trek they had taken many times. The route had been burned into their brains to the point that they could accomplish the journey in complete darkness.

Their return to their assigned quarters found their comrades waiting for them. Shan and Esther sat together on a couch, locked in a hushed conversation. Thomas stood on the balcony that overlooked the entry court of the tower’s grounds. Behind the large man the sky had begun to turn orange as the day drew to a close.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” Craig offered as greeting, “but I am ready to leave. Just give the word, Shan.” He settled himself comfortably onto an empty sofa.

Abeth quietly leaned his back against the chamber’s door.

“I am ready to return to the forest as well,” the deep voice that belonged to Thomas came from the balcony. The large man had moved to the balcony’s doorway.

“I am tired of being called to meet with the Lady,” Shan spoke, “multiple times a day. I have learned all that I can from her rambling, bragging rants full of hate, spite, and anger. How soon can we do it?”

“Just give the word,” Craig replied.

“Let’s do this tonight,” Shan decided. “Remove the necromancers and get out of this wasteland.”

“Abeth and I will handle the necromancers,” Craig instructed. “We’ll meet you at the exit. Thomas, guide Esther and Shan to where the archers wait. We’ll meet you there once we are done. If we don’t arrive shortly after you… leave. Get home. Let people know what’s happening. Get patrols set up to keep new necromancers from making the journey here. Cutting off her supply of assistants has to be out priority.”

They all nodded their agreement.

“Let’s go,” Craig looked over to Abeth. The two men moved toward the chamber’s hidden door.

The soldiers that exited the bush were more orderly then the first batch. It was a retreat rather than a rout. Men helped their wounded comrades while others watched for attack. They moved steadily past the scene of carnage, their eyes widened as they recognized the figure of Light Koarl covered by blood and gore.

Welsley, Samuel, and the four surviving guards watched the second wave of retreat from their position around the body of the undead bear. She knew they looked a sight: torn and broken bodies all around them, armour trashed and bloodied, the exhaustion evident in their stances. But there was a defiance to them as they watched the other soldiers emerge from the trees, their weapons at the ready.

The newly arrived soldiers from the front did not seem to pose much of a risk. They were all at least as exhausted as the Light and her group. Half of them, Welsley estimated, were horribly injured while the remaining half showed signs of minor trauma. Not a single one of the soldiers Welsley observed didn’t show signs of a battered morale.

“Help them,” Welsley ordered the remnants of her guard. This group of fleeing soldiers were from Falson Peak, she realized, the emblem of that tower was everywhere among the wounded and tired men. It was a little disturbing to think that her army had broken so much more completely than the Falson’s had.

She couldn’t deny the discipline on display. The officers had already begun assigning men to tend to the wounded, collect and burn the dead, guard the perimeter, and setup a basic camp. This was a decision made solely by the presence of the light.

“Why are you stopped here? Who gave the order?” Welsley heard Commander Mortimer’s voice boom out.

“Light Koarl,” Mortimer’s voice changed to surprise and then to concern, “are you hurt?”

“I am unharmed, Commander,” Welsley answered. “What happened?”

“We’ll make our stand here,” Mortimer informed the men around him. “See to the defences.” He crossed over to where Welsley stood and stared down at the bear’s body.

“Good job,” he said after a moment, “these beasts broke our lines. We lost a lot of soldiers in their initial attack. They’re fast, vicious, and strong. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Not luck,” Samuel nodded toward Welsley, “it was Light Koarl. She brought the monster down. We would have died without her.”

“Really,” the commander arched one eyebrow in surprise. “No simple feat, Your Eminence.”

“Indeed,” Welsley nodded, “you were telling us what happened at the front, Commander.”

“We came across a large field late in the morning,” Mortimer’s gaze shifted between the soldiers, hard at work as they prepared the defences, and his two partners in conversation. “It was there that we saw and organized force waiting for us, something we hadn’t seen since that first day. An army making a stand! Finally we could stop crawling through the woods picking them off one by one. We could finally fight like soldiers again.”

“I allowed myself to imagine we might finally be through their lines,” Mortimer smiled for a brief moment. “I was elated. The troops’ spirits were high as well. It looked as if we might finally be able to gain some ground on our enemy.”

“Commander Roberts and I agreed to let my men take the lead,” he continued. “My soldiers were more heavily armoured and very eager to land the killing blow on our enemy. I led my soldiers across the field, our enemies in our sights. We never managed to engage.”

“The land around us exploded,” Mortimer explained. “We found ourselves suddenly swamped by large, feral bear-things. We went from marching toward our enemy to swimming in an ocean of danger. I could hear the sounds of battle all around me, but my focus was limited to what was directly in front of me. By the time we had defeated the beasts and reassembled the bulk of our troops were dead or gone. The undead line was unmoved and untouched.”

“There just wasn’t enough of us left to launch an attack,” he went on. “We gathered our injured and made an ordered retreat. We collected soldiers and destroyed any undead we encountered on the way.”

“What happened to Commander Roberts?” Welsley asked.

“I lost him when the battle started, Your Eminence,” the Commander responded. “I don’t know where he wound up.”

“Thank-you,” she replied. “Go. Finish with your troops. Try to get some rest.”

Mortimer bowed and left Welsley and Samuel.

“You and a handful of men?” Welsley turned to Samuel.

“Just myself at this point,” Samuel answered.

“Go kill the necromancers, they cannot be allowed to return to the Lady,” Welsley declared. “Bring Shan home.”

“And the Falsons?” Samuel asked.

“I don’t care,” was the reply.