THE TOWER OF LULLABIES by Kieran Judge
The Lord of Wottlenoss put his elbows on the desk and sank his head into his hands. If he blocked out all the light, he might sleep a little, and if he slept, he wouldn’t have to remember what day it was. As if he could forget. He had thought of it every day for the past decade, and now it had come around again, as it always did. Once more it was his turn to hold his side of the bargain.
There was a knock on the door. Lord Venn raised his head. “Come in.”
Sal Honns, Captain of the Town Guard, entered with his face turned down. He tried to look at Lord Venn but couldn’t keep eye contact. “My Lord,” he said. “The time’s almost here. With night falling, if we are to, ah, maintain the tradition, I should begin soon.”
Venn turned his gaze to the window. A small town scuttled away from the base of the hill towards the river, and the setting sun turned the houses to shadow. Far in the distance past the Wottlenoss farmland was the rim of Mournwood, standing ominous in the dying light. Somewhere tucked away inside the trees was a stone tower. Lord Venn knew that it was there, despite having never set a toe over the forest’s edge. He only went there in the darkest of dreams, dreams he knew were too horrible to be pure imagination.
He would arrive at the pillar of grey stone, reclaimed by creepers twisting their way up the cracked walls. The world around it was silent. Not a single note of birdsong or a snap of a twig would break the hush, nor the sound of a dormouse as it scuttled across the beaten, forgotten path. Lord Venn had inspected this path closely in his nightmares. If you looked hard enough you could make out the faint heel-and-toe prints of human feet, always going in the same direction, towards the tower. None came back the other way.
“How long have we known each other, Sal?” asked Venn.
Sal shifted in his uniform. “Almost thirty years now, sir. Good years they’ve been, too.”
Venn sighed deeply. “Have they, Sal? Have they really been good?”
“Trade has picked up a little with Lorres in the south, and we’ve had no drought like we had before your father passed. We haven’t conquered half the land, but we’ve come through in our own quiet way.”
Lord Venn nodded, but his eyes didn’t agree, having sunk back into his skull to hide. The weak candlelight emphasised the wrinkles above his cheeks. He ran a hand through his hair and pulled away grey strands caught in his rings. “Look at this, Sal. My hair disagrees with you.”
“You’ve allowed this town to live peacefully.”
“But at what cost, Captain? Is that price for being left alone so high everywhere?”
“I believe that you’ve always done what you think is best.”
Lord Venn nodded. “Perhaps I have. And perhaps I have not. Perhaps I have submitted to other powers for too long.”
With a sudden conviction brought upon by a decade of guilt, he stood up. “It ends this year, Captain. We take charge of the Tower.”
Sal kept his gaze. “Is that wise, sir? Think of the risk involved.”
Lord Venn waved away the Captain’s concerns. “I understand your worries, but I have an idea which might just work.”
The mayor beckoned the Captain to follow him through to a small antechamber. One wall was filled with a large, antique map. On it was every house, every plotted field, for miles around Wottlenoss. Out stretched the plains where farmers toiled the land. Right at the top, butting against the ceiling, was the edge of Mournwood. Inside, still looming over them after so many years, was his guilt.
Sal nodded. “I hope you’re not planning to repeat the first year, sir, when we tried going in with a whole regiment. A regiment which never returned.”
Lord Venn poured himself a goblet of wine. He took a sip before returning to the map. “What we haven’t considered, Captain, is sending someone in alone.”
“Why not? We get someone to go in and deal with it quickly and quietly. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.”
“You did, but we dismissed the idea. You know nobody’s come back alive from that place in ten years. It would never work.”
“But we must try something!” Venn threw the glass on the floor, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. He sighed. “I’ve let this go on for too long. There must be something we can do.”
Sal bowed his head. In his heart, he agreed with Venn. He too had been complicit in their conspiracy, and every year when the time came around he found himself in the shrines and temples again, three times a day, praying to be forgiven. Perhaps now was the time to prove he was worthy of that forgiveness.
“I heard from Eyepatch that there may be someone who could help.”
Lord Venn seized upon this fragile hope. “Yes? Who is it?”
“I’m not sure. He didn’t say much, only that she was asking for work.”
“Eyepatch said that she claimed to be, in her own words, a ‘knife-for-hire.’”
Lord Venn looked back at the map. He sighed and put his hand to his brow. “Do we not have anyone of our own we could send?”
“All of my men are fairly young, sir. I’d be reticent to send them, what with the cost of failure being so high. Even Eyepatch.”
Lord Venn nodded. A vein in his temple pulsed. He was loath to sell out their fortunes to a stranger, but what other choice did he have, aside from offering up yet more sacrifices? Perhaps this was his punishment; to roll the dice on a complete unknown.
“Bring her here,” Venn said. “And if you can, make sure she’s fit for the job beforehand.”
Sal clicked his heels together and left Venn’s chambers.
Venn slumped back into his chair. What had he done to bring about the fate he had been dealt? Had he been such a bad child? A bad leader, perhaps? He guessed he must have been, or else the gods would not have been so cruel. The heavens delighted in misery; it was how they found the strongest to serve with them when their mortal time had ended.
Venn just hoped, after all was said and done, that the gods would still allow him to beg for forgiveness.
Orel drew her knife and readied herself.
Across the tavern, two men rolled up their sleeves to reveal biceps big enough to crush boulders. The patrons cleared a space in the centre of the room. Nobody wanted to get into a fight with Groom and Des. They were two thirds of the town’s collective disappointment, and each had been known to put people through windows even when sober.
Groom spat on the floor and wiped shaggy blond hair from his eyes. “You think because you’re a woman we won’t smash your face in? After what you did to Tymber?”
“Would saying once again that I didn’t kill him stop this before it starts?” she asked. She eyed up the front door. Three people in the way. Probably not manageable. The window might be a better chance if she could get to it. There could be a back exit, but she didn’t want to look and drop her guard.
“Not a chance,” Des said. “You go around lookin’ for work with a knife, then say you ain’t done nothin’ when we find our mate with his throat cut in the river? You got some nerve. And doing it tonight as well? Thought you might hide it? Never.”
“Has it occurred to you that you might have pissed someone else off?”
“Shut up.” Groom drew his own knife, a big hunting blade with a serrated edge. “We’re gonna do you proper, right here.”
Orel switched her grip on the knife. She didn’t like killing anyone, and she’d only maim in self-defence, but living was a very attractive prospect right now. Living, she found, was often severely underrated.
Groom inched his way towards Orel. She was up against the bar, and the floor was sticky with a thousand spilled drinks. She edged right towards free air, where the floor gradually gave her better purchase. Threw her pack behind her out of the way.
Groom lunged, swinging his blade wildly. Orel ducked down and rolled between his legs, then drew her knife across the back of his calf. It severed his hamstring nice and clean. Groom screamed and fell clutching his leg. Blood washed the floor.
“You bitch!” was what Groom tried to scream, but what actually came out wasn’t much past a guttural, “oobish!” Orel restrained a smile.
Before Des lunged in for a revenge mission, Orel had stood up and regained her breath. She took in the man on the floor, howling and roaring like an animal. She’d never severed someone’s hamstring before. Just as she’d been told, it was an effective method of disabling someone.
She refocused on the brawl in hand, aware that she still hadn’t made out alive yet. Across the room, Des had decided that he wasn’t going to merely kill Orel. No, his eyes said that he was planning to slice her up into carefully measured cubes, and then sell them off one at a time for a profit.
He went for her, weaponless, but with fists the size of bricks. Orel stepped back to avoid a swing, sprawled onto a tabletop, and sent a stray plate to the floor. She kicked her legs up and rolled back over herself as another fist came down, hitting the table and rocking it towards the big man. Orel rode the crest of the table’s edge and flipped down behind it.
She grabbed the shaft of the central table leg, put her shoulder to the underside, and drove forward, throwing Des back across the room. He tripped over a loose stone in the floor and fell onto his back. His hands smacked the cold. Blood was drawn. The crowd gasped.
Orel threw the table at him. Enough was enough. She knew when it was time to run, and although most of the onlookers probably wouldn’t mind if Des was out of action for a few days, she didn’t want to risk any other buddies of his deciding that they wouldn’t mind a piece of the action. She went for the door, pushing through the crowd that was reluctant to let her through. She was almost at the door when it opened, and Orel barrelled straight into a plated chest, with a pair of scowling eyes attached to its head.
The big man stopped Orel pushing past him. “The hell’s going on here?”
Des threw the table away. “Give her to me, Sal. She killed Tymber, and she’s gone and cut Groom up as well.”
“This true, miss?” Sal asked.
“I didn’t kill anyone.” She looked at Groom. “That leg, however, I’ll admit to.”
“You the one asking for work?” Sal asked.
“Depends what work you mean.”
Des moved in closer. Orel shook free of Sal’s grip and retook a fighting stance.
“Des, back down.” Sal drew his sword with an audible sssshing! and pointed it straight over Orel’s shoulder at Des’ heart.
“You gotta let me have her, Sal. She killed Tymber...”
“I know about Tymber. After my own investigation, witnesses say they saw a robed figure dressed head to toe in black fleeing the scene and heading out of town two hours ago. From my reports, this lady’s been in here since midday. I’m not about to make a complete snap judgement on events that have transpired, but as this lady here doesn’t seem to have a scrap of black cloth on her, and also happens to still be in Wottlenoss, I would suggest that we look elsewhere for Tymber’s killer. Wouldn’t you?”
At the back of the room, Groom tried to move his leg, and a fresh wave of pain sent him howling again.
“Will someone see to him before I have to put him out of his misery?” the Captain called.
A man tiptoed out into the battlefield and over to Groom. He looked the wound over before giving several hand-signals to a few of the other spectators, who quickly ran to help.
Sal spun Orel back around. “I’ll ask again. You the one asking for work?” He nodded behind her to Groom. “For better uses with a knife than that, I hope.”
“I’ll answer again; depends what the job is.”
Sal looked her over. A young woman with trimmed hair, worn clothes, and arrogant eyes. He wasn’t pleased with what he saw, but he wasn’t going to be able to do much better. He sheathed his sword. “Come with me. Someone wants to see you.”
“Hey! What about what she did to Groom?”
“In due time, Des. Lord Venn’s orders come before trying her for disorderly conduct which you, yourself, have participated in. I’d check yourself before trying to push the matter any further. I’m sure she didn’t start the matter.” The Captain allowed himself a slight smile at the corner of his mouth.
Des went to retort, but reason temporarily won over. He bowed slightly, and then rushed to see how his companion was holding up with a leg out of action.
“Come on with me please, miss,” Sal said. “Time’s wasting.”
It would have been polite to call Wottlenoss ‘run-down’, or ‘dishevelled’, or even ‘forlorn’. With its disorderly streets constructed and re-constructed over many years from whatever happened to be lying around, it seemed confused as to what it aspired to be. Trade came in along the river and went again, but due to the town’s relative isolation to the rest of the region, it had taken on its own identity of ‘anything-goes’, and specialised in nothing in particular. Crime wasn’t high, but it wasn’t non-existent, either. The markets that Orel had poked around absent-mindedly that morning sold anything and everything, and all of it was on the cheap. There were no special town delicacies, no landmarks of interest to the scholar or researcher, and nor was there any particular wealth from mines, or minerals that might attract the odd entrepreneur. Wottlenoss was a town which, despite some constant trade, seemed to be coming to the end of its life. Having achieved nothing of importance, it didn’t care enough anymore to try.
At the top of the hill, Sal nodded to the Manor’s two guards, who parted and opened the main door for them. Orel followed the Captain down the halls and found that even these were distinctly lacking in character. Everything was clean enough, but soulless. There were too few torches in the racks, and not enough scribes hurrying from place to place to attend meetings, or bringing an idea for new trade, even at the coming of night. There weren’t even any guards inside, save for Sal himself. Orel had been in the Great Hall in Skakar, the region’s capital, and there had been at least a few people treading the floorboards at all hours of the night. Something always needed doing. Wottlenoss Manor would have been poor company for a mausoleum.
They reached the end of a particularly dismal hallway. Candles which had not been lit for several years hung on the walls. “Through here.”
“What’s this about?”
“Lord Venn will explain.”
Orel frowned, but the Captain was unwilling to give further information. Highly secret, she thought. This intrigued her. She made a living from unearthing highly secret things.
The room was warm (the only warm room in the building), and completely dishevelled. It was the room of a hermit, of a man trying to maintain the appearance of productivity; the chambers of a morbid procrastinator.
Lord Venn watched her enter. “Good evening,” he said. “Please, come and take a seat.”
Orel looked around the room as she stepped forward. You’re not here to pinch anything. She couldn’t help herself. Force of habit. She sat herself in the chair opposite Lord Venn, who looked as if his face were melting in sympathy with the candles on the desk. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Lord Venn shifted in his chair. “I’ve heard you are one to, how do I put it, offer your services? With a blade?”
Orel looked behind her at the Captain. “Am I being arrested? Because it’s rather personal and informal if you’re about to clap me in irons.”
Lord Venn laughed quickly. “Oh no, nothing of the sort. In fact, I require your particular abilities, Miss...”
“Well, Miss Orel. It transpires that I’ve need of your unusual skill set.”
“I’ve already been accused of killing one man tonight, and only escaped a lynching after cutting a man’s leg open. If you’re asking me for something similar, someone trying to take your job, perhaps, then count me out. I wouldn’t make it out past the river.”
Lord Venn sighed. “Well, that’s rather unfortunate, Miss Orel. Because it was, ah, the business of blood-shedding, which I brought you here for.”
Orel stood. Sal opened the door for her.
And then she stopped. If it was a simple throat-cutting he needed, then why did he have such a hopeful look about him? Why did he seem to be a man whose very life had rested on Orel’s acceptance? This couldn’t be purely political motivation, surely. He looked as if the gallows would have been preferable to her declination.
She clicked her tongue. She was too curious for her own good. “What did you want me to do?”
“No, no. I understand your reluctance...”
“With the right amount of persuasion, on rare occasions, I’ve been inclined to change my mind. Sir.”
Lord Venn looked behind her to Sal, who nodded and shut the door again. “Well, you see, it’s like this. Several years ago, the town suffered a kidnapping.”
Orel raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”
“Suffice to say, it was someone of extreme importance. Every year since, in exchange for this person’s wellbeing, the town has made... concessions. For a decade now we have given up our livelihoods in exchange for the promise that one day, this person will be returned. But it has gone on for too long. We must not live in fear any longer. We have forgotten what it was like to feel sunlight on our skin without reprimanding ourselves for enjoying it. We are in need of someone who will put an end to Wottlenoss’ misery.”
A constant use of a royal ‘we’. What had this man been doing for so many years? She remembered Des at the tavern, disgusted that she might try to disguise murdering Tymber on this night of all nights. Hide him along with all the others that end up dead or missing, perhaps?
Orel didn’t care for the snivelling man before her. What she cared for was that an entire town was slowly being given away as a sacrifice when the stars aligned each year, for something not of their doing. “What’s the reward?”
Lord Venn’s eyes suddenly burst into flame. “You mean you’ll do it?”
“If it’s killing this person who has been holding Wottlenoss captive that you’re after, then I shall do it. However, the price.”
“Name it, name it!”
Orel tried not to smile. It wasn’t that she liked playing people, but pushing Lord Venn would be fun. “All your personal wealth.”
Lord Venn stuck out his hand faster than a striking cobra. “It’s a deal!”
Orel shook it. Once this maiden of his had been escorted safely home with the dragon slain, Venn would be so overjoyed that she could ask for anything under the sun. She had in mind the entirety of the treasury, and was sure that Venn would readily agree to hand it all over once this was finished. Desperation and gratitude always allow openings for manipulation.
“So where is this villain hiding?”
Lord Venn stood up and escorted her to the map in the adjoining room. “Deep in Mournwood here, there is a tower. Inside, at the top of the keep, is where he is keeping Amanias.”
I was right on one account then, Orel thought. It is a woman. “Why not just send a platoon in to storm the thing?”
Lord Venn shuddered. “That’s the problem. The tower used to belong to us in Wottlenoss, but it is now home to a powerful sorcerer. He’s the one keeping Amanias hostage. The tower is now that of ultimate sleep, and all who venture inside have been lost. One individual might slip under his defences, but an entire army? We’d be wide open to sacking in one swoop.”
Orel thought for a moment, and then she nodded. “You’ve got yourself a deal.” She stuck out her hand again, and Venn shook it so earnestly she heard her wrist click.
She had a guard retrieve her pack from the tavern. She didn’t trust a return visit, even if she had been flanked on either side by an entire battalion. She’d learned throughout her travels to quickly ascertain where she wasn’t welcome.
A young guard with a covered eye came and handed the pack to Lord Venn. The guard eyed up Orel, smirked to himself, and left quickly.
Venn rooted around on his desk and produced an old seal with a crest on it. “Find the loose stone on the wall just below the tower,” he said. “This should let you into a passage underground that leads into the tower. Anyone who bothers you in town, you just show them that. I understand that you had some trouble before coming here.” He slipped the seal into the pack and handed it over to her.
“Some of your citizens don’t take lightly to strangers,” Orel said.
Venn nodded. “The years have taken their toll. I hope you will bring us better luck for the future.”
Orel stuck to the shadows as much as possible. It would only take a single careless whisper and tales of her coming might end up at the tower before her. Near the edge of town she felt her hip to check her knife was securely fastened. It had tasted blood tonight already and, with any luck, it would refresh its palate before sunrise.
She slipped up to the city gates, which were nothing more than large wooden doors which had been pulled shut for the night. A little man, bent with age, emerged from a nearby hut with a lantern in hand. “Who goes there?”
“A traveller headed out of town.”
“Not tonight you’re not. I open the gates at sunrise. Those have been the rules for many a long year, and those are the rules we’ll keep. Besides, it’s a bad time of year for Wottlenoss. People go missin’ and the likes, you see. If I were you, I’d go find a place to keep out of the cold for the night, and return in the morning.”
Orel showed the seal from Lord Venn to the old man. “That’s to open the gates.” She dropped a coin into his palm. “And that’s to forget you ever saw me.”
The man stalled for a moment. “Right you are, miss. And what business is it that Lord Venn has sent you on, if I might ask? Security of the town and all. It’s part of my job, you know.”
“The coin was to hold your tongue, not to loosen it.”
The old man went to argue, but a look at Orel’s eyes told him to trust better judgement. He took out a large iron key, turned it in the lock, and swung open the gate. “Don’t you go causin’ trouble, you hear? We ain’t had much disturbance aside from these disappearances in many a long year, and I don’t want no stranger kicking up a fuss now.”
Orel nodded. Before the guard had pulled the gate shut the mists had swallowed Orel whole like a phantom disappearing into smoke. The man would swear an hour later that he had never seen her, and by the time morning came, if it hadn’t been for the gold, he might never have remembered seeing her at all.
The final curls of smoke rose from chimneys where, huddled around them, farmers slept on through the night. Nothing stirred on the Wottlenoss fields. The cattle were inside their barns, and even shrews and dormice moved cautiously through the grass, lest they be betrayed to curious owls by a watchful moon.
Orel hugged the river which led away from town towards Mournwood. She looked up to the tops of the trees as she approached the forest edge. They were tall and strong, with branches stretching high like the wooden beams of a banquet hall. From what she’d seen from Wottlenoss, these at the edge were the smaller ones, with even larger trees further inside.
Once inside Mournwood’s gloom she trod lightly, taking to rocks and fallen logs to cover her tracks wherever possible. It was slower going, but safer. In some places it was the only way to navigate, as most trails were overgrown and forgotten. Despite the rustling of leaves, the sound of bats flitting overhead, and the odd pine martin scampering along the forest floor, the absence of any recent human intervention gave Orel the feeling of passing through a graveyard. The feeling wasn’t reassuring.
Vines clawed and roots tried to grapple her to the ground, but Orel had plenty of experience keeping her footing. She kept her senses open and constantly on guard. Perhaps it was this inbuilt awareness of possible dangers lurking in every darkened corner which gave her the chills. Hair pricked up on the back of her neck. She was being watched.
Without changing her speed, in order to try and disguise her new awareness, she looked around for somewhere to hide. She spied a small ditch behind a pile of rotten wood and leapt inside. She crouched on landing, ready spring to life again. One hand was at the knife at her waist. She held her breath. She waited with one keen eye looking through the deadfall. Someone would come past and prove her suspicions correct any moment now.
She looked around her. Maybe they’d seen her run to hide and covered her off. Yet still she saw no one. She straightened up, knife at the ready. No sign of her pursuer. If anything, the lack of a visible assailant was an even worse outcome than the sight of a figure coming up behind her.
Orel continued, more cautiously than before. She tried every log to see if it would creak when she put her weight on it. She stopped at regular intervals to check for followers. There was never anyone after her, but the pressure of the gaze from the dark mounted with every footstep. Every bone in her body tingled.
“Stop it,” she whispered to herself. “You’ll be dead before you get there at this rate.”
She plunged further into Mournwood. At every twist and turn she cast away shadows and ghosts from her sight. It wasn’t easy.
Soon she came across a large standing stone, covered with brackish moss. It was carved to resemble a pot-bellied toad, standing and laughing at who-knows-what. The thing’s mirth made Orel shudder. Stones should never be laughing at people, especially not her.
She passed the stone and became aware of a change that fell over the forest. Everything hushed, smothered by a blanket of such incredible denseness of the air that Orel had to stop to catch her breath. It choked her, this clutching pressure, it tried to crush the life from her. Sweat poured off her forehead as her body tried to adjust. Slowly she adapted to make it manageable, but her ribs kept screaming, as if a boar was sat on her chest.
Everything else nearby was quiet save for her own shuffling footsteps. The bats had disappeared and the badgers had fled the scene. She passed the carcass of a large animal, perhaps a bear. Its guts were exposed to the dank, dark forest.
That desiccated creature was how she knew she was close even before she saw it. A stone keep, rising from the earth as if it had grown from the soil. A single light burned at the top.
Orel kept to the shadows once again. She looked around for the remains of the low wall and soon spotted it not far away, crumbling like an abandoned doll with its face falling apart. She ran alongside it and felt the stones on top. She hoped that the sorcerer in the tower had failed to discover this particular secret.
A stone suddenly moved under pressure from her palm. She pressed a bit harder and it came free on a spring. Inside was a shallow circular slot. She took the seal from her pack, dropped it into place, twisted, and the ground under her feet groaned.
She dropped onto her knees. After pawing in the dark she located a brass ring under the wall and, as she heaved it towards herself, a trapdoor slid away. There revealed was a steep shaft which lead down into the rocky murk.
“It’s always underground,” she muttered. “Why am I always going underground?” She looked up to the room at the top of the tower, made sure there was no black silhouette in the window, and dropped into the tunnel.
She slid for ten seconds or so, and then hit the bottom hard. Stopped. Waited for an ambush. None came. The moonlight pressed a little ways into the tunnel, which was not carved straight from the rock as she had initially suspected, but had been constructed from stone and brick. She calmed her nerves as best she could and plunged ahead.
The tunnel was longer than she had suspected, and it wasn’t long before Orel found that it was starting to push in on her. She wasn’t claustrophobic, but the further she went, the more she wanted to turn back. The smell of damp and rock got under her skin. She tried to focus on something else. Nothing good came to mind, however, and it was all she could do to push the thought of being discovered away. Perhaps the sorcerer didn’t know about this entranceway after all. She hoped that she was right, beyond all reasonable expectations.
A ladder appeared not far ahead, heading vertically to a black ceiling. She raced over and began to climb up. Thankfully for her, rust hadn’t gotten to it too badly yet, so each rung was still fairly sturdy. She climbed, trying to ignore its biting cold against her hands and the fact her fingers kept slipping over the mould and lichen that clung to every available edge.
When she was fifteen rungs up, Orel felt something extra slimy underfoot. She realised a second too late and, as she put pressure on the rung, her foot slipped. Her heart lurched before her body had time to catch up. She held on with her left hand, a rung down, and jolted as her whole bodyweight came to an abrupt stop, threatening to snap her neck as it slammed back. Pain shot through her entire body. She grimaced, feet kicking, and reached up with her other hand again. Her legs swung back to the ladder and she regained her grip. She forced herself to breathe out, and then resumed climbing once her heart rate was near normal again.
Before long her hand touched the roof. In the stone was a large notch cut into the underside as a handhold. Bracing herself against a ladder which she now inherently distrusted, she pushed. The stone grated against its slot in the floor and lifted up. Faint light filtered through the gap. She heaved it aside and, when the gap was just large enough, put her arms through, found purchase, and hoisted herself out of the tunnel.
She pulled her knife out and quickly scanned the room.
The bottom of the tower was silent. A small table was pushed up against the far side of the room, with a bowl and spoon sat on top. A fireplace stood cold nearby, but had evidently been used recently, judging by the charred logs in its hollow. The walls were lined with shelves upon which were bottles and vials containing every imaginable herb, plant, or animal body part. One of the jars held a partial skull that looked unnervingly human.
On her left was a staircase which spiralled up to the top of the tower. He must be up there, she thought. Should she wait down here in the gloom, and spring on him when he came to eat? But there was no telling how long that would take. There were supposed to be people marched here in the dead of night to die, according to Lord Venn. The sorcerer might transform into a bird and fly from the window to Wottlenoss and massacre everyone in the town, and Orel would still be waiting in the dark, none the wiser.
Slowly she put her toe before her heel. She breathed through her nose. She could hear her pulse and feel the blood pumping in her wrists, and Orel prayed that the sorcerer’s hearing wasn’t so good as to detect it. The staircase went on forever. Her dread increased with every fatal step.
Then, near the top of the tower, she saw a faint glow from a doorway. She stood at the door, listening hard. She heard nothing. There were no whispered chants, or the scratching of a quill on parchment. She couldn’t even hear the sound of cloth shifting against cloth, or the breath of a man deep in sleep. Was there even anyone inside?
She took the door handle. She knew she shouldn’t turn it, but what else could she do? She had to go in. That was her job, after all. A hired knife had to plunge into flesh at some point, and even though she sincerely wished that it was Venn she had been asked to kill, this one would have to do.
Orel opened the door a crack, her teeth on edge for the slightest groan, and peered through the gap. Inside was a scholar’s study. A large cauldron simmered in the centre of the room, with runes splashed around it in dark red-brown stains. Of the sorcerer or the captive, there was no sign.
Knife out, she stepped into the room. In a small cutaway in the corner lay a mattress with a crumpled blanket in close company. Parchment on the desk lay untouched, a quill lying forlorn at the side, ink idle in its well. Orel was confused. Where was the sorcerer? Where was the girl?
In a single dreadful second, the overwhelming feeling of being watched returned. It was so aggressive that it sent physical shivers of repulsion through her entire body. She sensed the figure standing in the doorway behind her before she turned to see it. She knew the figure watching her was dark, towering, and filled with contempt.
Orel turned and lunged, but the hooded figure dodged with incredible speed. The figure mumbled something, and the knife in Orel’s hand burned white hot. She yelped and dropped it, and it clattered onto the floor, scorching the boards. She backed away but again the figure’s lips blurred. Orel doubled over as her stomach screamed. It felt as if all her insides were being torn apart, pulled this way and that way, organs squishing together into impossible knots. Her vision blurred and Orel threw up on the floor, collapsed in a crumpled heap too stricken with pain even to writhe in agony.
“He chose someone with pluck, I’ll give him that. Too bad he’s misunderstood the entire situation.”
The figure removed its hood and a river of golden hair tumbled down the shoulders. Shocking green eyes watched the thief. The woman had sharp cheeks, taught lips, and wrinkles in the eyes from years of intensive study. In her hand she grasped a long staff, with the end broken up in shards. Runes were inscribed all the way down the polished black wood, runes which glowed in the firelight like liquid gold.
“My gratitude,” said the woman, “for coming all this way to rescue me.”
Orel stared at the floorboards in dismay. She found her vocal chords as the torment inside her briefly abated. “Faked... you faked it all...”
The sorceress nodded. “Some people don’t understand the allure of dark magic. I did. Trouble with it is that you can’t do it without isolation. You need peace to test the limits. So I faked a disappearance, scared my father, and now I get subjects to test on every once in a while. It’s a good system for everyone, really.”
Orel struggled to a sitting position. “Amanias...”
Amanias squatted down beside her. She pinched Orel’s cheeks and turned her head this way and that. “You look tired. Please, don’t get up after me. Rest a while. Go lie down. I shall be back shortly.” She stood up and locked the door, pocketed the key, and went to the window. She stared out towards Wottlenoss. “I have some family business to attend to. Goodbye, Orel.”
Thick shadows stirred in the corners of the room. They crept across the walls and down from the ceiling, drawn to Amanias as she raised her staff above her head. She started chanting in a language forgotten to everyone except the darkest of scholars. The runes on the staff chased each other up and down the wood. Orel watched in dreadful awe as darkness lashed itself around Amanias, obscuring her from view as the shadows became a seething cloud of black. Suddenly the sorceress was lifted from her feet, carried out through the window and into the night sky. She hovered there, ponderous. Through a gap in the writhing shadows, Orel saw her smile.
And then she was gone, transported over the trees towards Wottlenoss to unleash her havoc upon its people.
Orel struggled over to the door and rattled it. It was definitely locked.
She crawled onto the mattress as she had been told to, and rested her head against the cold, comforting wall behind her. She had failed. The town would fall, thousands slaughtered. Amanias would return and kill her, or use her as a plaything for dark rituals and evil deeds. Orel preferred the idea of death to whatever Amanias could conceive of.
Her eyelids began to droop, her head falling down onto her chin. She fought sleep as long as she could, but the ethereal lullaby that overcame all who entered the sorceress’ domain soon took Orel in its turn.
Black clouds hung heavy over Wottlenoss. The morning sun should have been rising, but it was obscured by the dark cloud that gathered overhead. It was a storm without lightning, yet everyone in the town felt static pluck at the hairs on their arms, run through the flesh and clutch at the heart. They didn’t know what it was, or where it had come from, but they knew they were in trouble. Wottlenoss’ temples of Vanas and Menshii saw hundreds of faces under their roofs within minutes, including those that had never set foot on sacred ground before in their lives. Even those who arrived at the taverns early to begin erasing the forthcoming day from memory, put down their tankards and held their breath.
The old man who watched the town gate trembled. Should he open the gates and let people out, or keep them closed to stop something entering? He didn’t know. He felt that he was being watched by a great burning eye behind the smoke. How could you escape a threat that saw the tensing of every muscle?
In his little room in the manor, Lord Venn looked out across the smothered dawn. He’d been watching without rest all night, something which the stubs of three candles attested to. He had called for Sal, but what good would the town guard do? They could usher people inside, keep them away from the sight of it. At least then they wouldn’t behold their destruction washing towards them.
The woman. Orel. He had hoped the resilience in her eyes would translate to a favourable outcome. How could he possibly have thought that plan would work? He should have gathered everyone together, told them to sharpen their swords, and taken off to mount a full-scale attack. He should have done that right at the beginning. At least then he could have died knowing he had tried everything possible to get her back.
But now it was hopeless. He’d made his bed in a cold, damp grave, and now he would have to get out his blankets ready for a long lie down.
A letter-opener lay nearby. The blade looked remarkably appealing in the candlelight. He grabbed it. It was nice and cool against his skin. He put it against his throat, ready to draw it across and escape before he could look that evil in the eye. At least he would go on his own terms. He tensed, straining with all his willpower for his hand to come across, one side to the other, and mark the bloody noose.
He let the blade clatter onto the desk. He couldn’t do it, not after all this time. He was too much of a coward. That had been what got him into this mess to begin with, wasn’t it? Being a coward?
There was a knock on the door and Captain Sal entered, hastily dressed for battle. “It’s him, isn’t it?”
Lord Venn nodded. “It seems that way.”
Lord Venn looked out across the town. The cloud continued to grow, a shifting black hole of shadow. What could anyone hope to achieve against someone who could conjure that up at will?
And yet, if it were to be over, he would go out fighting. The cowardice was to end in one final moment, and if he were to perish there and then, he would at least have ordered a damn good show of it. “Sound the horn,” he said at last. “Prepare for battle. I don’t know what that magician has got planned, and we may all go out in a puff of smoke, but we’ll go out kicking and screaming.”
Sal nodded. He noted the letter-opener lying lonely on the table, looked back to Venn, and left the room without another word.
Sacrificing his townsfolk to keep desperate hold of a final, impossible glimmer of hope that his daughter might still be alive at the top of the tower. That was all Lord Venn had left.
A minute passed by before a horn, deep and trembling, shook Wottlenoss’ walls.
“Forgive me, Amanias,” he spoke to the electricity in the air. “I did what I thought was best. I was wrong. Forgive me.”
Captain Sal stood outside the manor. The horn blower hurried to his side from the little stone watchtower. “See anything up there?”
The young man, enlisted in the guard almost purely through a lack of people taking up positions, shook his head. “Just the storm, sir. Looks like the underworld itself.”
“It could just be that, Ronan. It could just be that.”
“What do you mean?”
Sal looked to Lord Venn’s window. “Let’s just say it’s been threatening to arrive for a long time.”
Ronan nodded. “I saw movement around the barracks, sir. The guard are up.”
“Good. No time to lose.”
They marched down the hill and through the darkened streets. Nervous eyes peered through windows, and doors slammed shut as the Captain walked by. Shadows lingered in cobwebbed corners. Every hair stood to attention.
Still the cloud waited.
When they arrived, the barracks were in pandemonium. Young men rushed around half dressed, without order and, judging by the tankards strewn across the benches, without much sleep. A sorry lot brought about by relative peace and quiet, which had now come back to punish them for their complacency.
“The hell’s going on, Captain?” one of the guards called.
“Sorcery. And the shit-your-pants kind at that.”
Half a dozen men stopped with their mouths agape. “You’re pulling my leg.”
A flash of light lit up the place like the middle of summer. The ground rumbled.
The Captain gestured to the door. “Go out there and see for yourself.”
The man with the eye patch who had delivered Orel’s bag the night before punched the soldier next to him on the leg. “Always said that you snore too loud; even the sorcerers’ve come to shut you up.”
“Snort Garhill, you fourteen-carat crap-bucket.”
Captain Sal stepped between them. “I’ll kill you myself before that thing outside does if you don’t shut up and get yourself armed to the teeth.”
“Come on, Captain. It’s a bit of a storm, is all.”
The Captain looked him in the remaining eye. “What colour’s my face, Eyepatch?”
“What colour’s my face?”
“It’s...” Eyepatch swallowed. “It’s white, sir. White as a bone left out in the sun.”
The Captain smiled grimly. “That’s what you’ll be, soon.”
Eyepatch and his friend shared a glance that roughly translated to ‘crap, he might actually be serious.’ Their faces turned a similar shade of snow to their Captain’s.
Soon everyone in the barracks was moving with something near the degree of manic organisation that Captain Sal had been trying to instil in them for years. He’d been dreading this moment, but had never been able to tell them why. Every time he tried to get them into shape, get them serious about their job, they laughed it off. ‘Whatever happens in Wottlenoss?’ they would ask. ‘The world’s just about forgotten we exist, anyway.’
But someone hadn’t forgotten them. They were about to discover that the hard way.
The door to the barracks burst open, and an old man with tufts of white hair coming from his ears staggered in. His eyes were wide, and his pupils were the size of pinpricks. “They’re walking! They’re walking!”
“Oreon! What’re you on about?”
“I... I get up when I hear the horn. Look outside and see the cloud. Nothin’ too much, I says to myself, but then...”
“Spit it out.”
Oreon gulped. Took hold of the Captain’s arm with a shaking hand. “This big flash of light hits the earth, and the ground started shaking. Thought it was an earthquake, but then they start coming through. Bones and skeletons, coming up through the earth. They were walking, moving. They’re alive, Captain! The cemetery’s waking up!”
Only one laugh rebuked the man’s final cry, and this was soon cut short. A scream down in the lower town. It was soon followed by a second, and then by a third.
Sal prayed for a miracle he knew would not come.
In the room at the top of the tower, Orel looked out of the window and examined her options. It was a seven floor drop onto ground that had frozen over in the night and was yet to start thawing. She’d break every bone in her body, if she was lucky. The tree line was too far away to jump for. And the tower wall, though full of little holes in the stone where mortar had fallen away over the countless years, was nowhere near climbable. The creepers running up the side were, as if it had been deliberately planned that way, just a little too far down to be useful. All that would have been no problem if she was an expert climber. She could get up a tree easily enough, but scaling the tower wasn’t going to happen in a thousand years.
“Damn sorceress bitch,” she spat. She went to sulk on her mattress, a home away from a non-existent home. It was old and worn and didn’t feel as if it had been slept on in years. It probably hadn’t. Maybe Amanias didn’t need sleep any more.
She pulled it away from the wall and found discarded shackles attached to the stone. Orel didn’t usually get queasy, but this time was a break from tradition.
“Got to be something.” She got up again and paced the room. She muttered to herself as she looked through the rows of books. She took one down in desperation, found barely two words in any language she recognised, let alone spoke, and then threw it on the floor in disgust.
The cauldron bubbled away pleasantly in the middle of the room. The serenity of it pissed her off, so Orel kicked the book at it. It banged off the side, and some of the liquid splashed onto the floor. She smiled and hoped that it had ruined Amanias’ little potion. Small victories, if it counted as such, ought to be celebrated.
She went back to the window. The darkness still gathered around the sorceress, high above Wottlenoss. The cloud trembled, and then an almighty bolt of lightning leapt from the black and struck the town. Malevolent bitch.
Orel sniffed. Something inside the tower was burning.
She turned back to the cauldron, which remained as idyllic as ever, the contents having returned to a quaint simmer. Next to it, however, a trail of smoke was rising to the ceiling.
Orel examined her accidental handiwork. Where the contents of the cauldron had splashed onto the worn floorboards, a small part of the wood was burning away. She put her hand over the spot and found that it was quite warm.
Orel had an idea.
She looked around her and found an iron ladle nearby. Carefully she plunged it into the boiling liquid, carried it across the room, and splashed it at the door. She leapt away as the wood hissed and spat, and acrid smoke filled the air. When it cleared, a chunk of the door had corroded away. Orel returned with ladle after ladle. She wasn’t sure there would be enough mixture to complete the job, but she did it anyway; there was nothing else to try.
The last ladle of mixture hit the door. She crossed her fingers and waited for the smoke to clear again. Then she took the knife and jammed it into the newly-formed hole. “Come on,” she said to both herself and the door. “Play nice for me.”
She spent several minutes trying to force her heart back into her ribcage as she pried at the bolt that locked the door in place. Then, finally, she watched it slide back. She extracted her knife and pulled the door open.
Orel didn’t waste a second. She was down the stairs faster than a mistress hearing the wife coming into the house. Twice she almost went tumbling, but she kept her balance through sheer luck. At the bottom of the staircase she ran to the door. She hadn’t tried it before, to avoid being seen, and now she hoped that Amanias had been too sure of herself to actually lock the main door into her fortress.
Amanias, however, had taken precautions. It was locked.
It was back through the tunnels, then.
She dropped through the hole in the floor, glad she hadn’t shifted the slab back into place. She’d never have been able to pry it out of its hole again from the topside. The memory of almost falling to a lonely death flashed through her mind as soon as her feet touched the ladder, and she descended with reluctant caution. When she was back on terra firma, she let out a sigh of relief.
She tore through the dark so carelessly that she bashed into corners on several occasions. Blood dripped from her forehead into her hair, where it congealed and clumped together.
Back at the chute upwards to the open air, she saw faint sunlight trying to creep in, which was smothered by the darkness gathering towards the town. She felt around her for something to help her up again, but there was no rope or ladder; she would have to climb it.
She brushed her hands off to dry them of sweat. She put her palms to the rock and felt around for handholds. Two appeared for her under her fingers, almost her entire arms’ width apart. She took a deep breath and, one foot locating an outcrop, hoisted herself up.
Sweat poured from her brow as she climbed. It mixed with the bloody hair and trickled into her mouth, which she promptly spat out, disgusted. She kept climbing, but no matter how far she went, the light never seemed to get any nearer.
And then she was suddenly out of handholds.
Orel rummaged along the wall for a nook or cranny. She felt like screaming. All this way, only to be stopped with freedom in sight. The universe was a cruel bitch.
“Try again,” she told herself. “You’re not going anywhere unless you find something.” She exhaled. Cleared her head. Tried again.
Another search in the dark and she managed to worm her fingers into a tiny crack between two large stones. She took a deep breath, ignored the pain as her whole body weight rested on four slender digits, and splayed out to the next step.
After that point it became surprisingly easy going. The way opened up for her, and she scaled the last quarter in seconds. She pulled herself onto the flat ground, turned over, and lay panting on her back. Freedom. Fresh air. The great expanse of the sky. The grass was cold under her with morning dew on the blades. She squirmed in its coolness and laughed. “You’re going to have to do better than that to keep me locked up,” Orel told the dark in the distance.
She lay there for a few minutes, relishing her newfound freedom. Eventually she got up and, trying to convince herself that this whole thing was Lord Venn’s fault and not her own, shambled back through the forest towards Wottlenoss.
She heard screaming as she raced across the fields. Smoke now billowed up in large plumes over the walls which blended seamlessly with the sky. Farmers stood watching from their houses. None moved to help. They called from the doorways and tried to stop her, voices which she promptly ignored.
She reached the town gate and the screams stopped. Was it all over? Was she too late to stop the massacre?
Orel went to bang on the gate to be let in, but it creaked open in the breeze before she had the chance. The old guard who had greeted her hours before lay in the dirt with his throat slashed. She closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.” She glanced around her, saw nobody moving, and left him there.
The streets were littered with the dead. Faces lay carved up in gutters, watching with sightless eyes. Orel walked the fresh graveyard in horror. In the few hours she had been absent, carnage had stalked the streets with a bloody sickle. She gave up mourning after the seventh body. There didn’t seem to be much point.
She heard sounds of fighting near the tavern she’d been accosted in the night before. She crept closer and looked from behind the corner of a blacksmith’s. Several guards had their backs to each other at the centre of a ring, where they fought steel to steel with the armed dead. These were mostly skeletal, but a few obviously hadn’t been dead for too long. A dead man lashed out and a guard went down. The others couldn’t spare the time to cry out for him as they continued to fight back. The noose tightened.
Suddenly a bolt of steel appeared from around a corner. Captain Sal, Eyepatch, and two other men charged forward with their swords raised high. They were almost on the skeletons before they sensed the reinforcements closing in on them. The trend of the fight turned as, pincered between two flanks, the dead now began to take hits. An arm was lopped off here, and a thigh-bone onto the cobbles there. When the fight was finished, the dead had returned to their prior state, but only a single guard remained with the Captain and Eyepatch.
Orel stepped out of the dark to them. They threw up their guard instantly. Eyepatch scrutinised her with his surviving eye. “You should be dead.”
“What’s going on?” Sal asked.
“Necromancy,” Orel said. “At a basic level, I’d say, but enough. Just to animate the forms and give them decent orders.”
Captain Sal stepped in close with his sword, ready to cut her down. His brow was blacker than the sky. “You brought this on us.”
Orel danced away from his hacking blade. “It was a setup! The sorcerer’s his daughter!”
Sal caught her in a powerful fist and raised her off the ground. “Then you should have killed her.”
“She knew I was coming. I think she was the assassin that killed your man, Tymber, last night. Followed me back to her tower and jumped me. Now she’s come to carry out the threat she’s been waving under Mr High-And-Mighty’s nose ever since she faked her kidnapping ten years ago.”
“You’re lying,” Sal growled.
Eyepatch shook his head. “It’s not possible. You’ve got to be wrong.”
“It’s the truth.”
The sound of movement behind them stopped the conversation as one of the dead men, not quite as departed as they had thought, rose without an arm and charged for the Captain. He was thrown to the ground with bony fingers around his throat. Orel drew her knife, leapt like a snake uncoiling to strike, and drove it into the top of the skull. Ghastly smoke poured out of the hole, and the dark life that had been controlling it left the body.
Eyepatch and the other guard rushed to their Captain’s side. “Are you okay, sir?”
Sal rubbed his throat which had begun to bruise. “Just about.” He turned to Orel. “Thank you.”
She held out her hand and helped him to his feet.
“Amanias is the sorcerer?” the Captain asked her. She nodded, and he whistled through his teeth. “I didn’t think anything could get worse.”
“To the barracks. We need a new plan.”
The barracks had been turned into a hastily-erected fortress at a moment’s notice. Groups of bleary-eyed citizens huddled together for warmth and security. Soldiers were being patched up from fights they had been ill-prepared for. The windows were blockaded by benches and wardrobes, and there was a large wooden beam that fell in place across the door once they were inside.
“The whole town is in here,” Orel remarked.
Eyepatch restrained a laugh. “Those of us that weren’t killed by our great-great-ancestors.”
Sal called a few additional guards to make a council of six, and they took up a table off to the side.
“Rosson saw things happening up towards the manor,” said an older guard. “Says he saw a figure in a long black robe striding through the streets like he owned the place. He’s got skeleton guards with looted swords with him. Rosson turned and ran. Sensible decision.”
“That confirms your report,” Sal said to Orel, who nodded in accordance with the universal expression for ‘I-told-you-so.’
“Wait, what’s happening? Who’s the evil dude?”
Sal turned to Orel for explanation, and she obliged. “Not a dude. Amanias; Lord Venn’s daughter. She faked her kidnapping ten years ago to give herself the privacy to practice black magic, posing as a sorcerer keeping Amanias herself captive. Lord Venn allowed tributes to be sent every year from the town to keep the supposed sorcerer from wiping the place out, and his daughter alive. She performed experiments on the sacrifices, tested out black spells, I presume. This year, her secret’s out, so she’s going through with her threat to wipe out the town.”
The table fell silent. One of the guards picked up a tankard off the floor and threw it at the wall in fury. Orel didn’t need to ask if he’d known someone who had gone missing in the past few years. She looked across at the Captain, who was trying to avoid everyone’s eyes. You took them, she thought. You sent them to their deaths on his orders. You did it.
“We can’t just go up after her,” another guard said. “We’re almost down as it is. Another frontal attack and those skeletons will be through the door, and then we’re as good as dead.”
Eyepatch took a pipe from the side and lit it. Sticking out of the corner of his mouth, he looked ridiculous. “Got to go for it though, haven’t we?” He looked around the group. “I mean, we’re dead either way.” He coughed and threw the pipe away.
Orel agreed with him. Reason told her to run straight down the river and away from the town. But she couldn’t. She’d not only a debt to be paid for unleashing the sorceress on the town, but she had a job to finish.
Captain Sal turned to her. “What do you think she’ll be doing?”
“Getting as much pleasure from this as possible. She’s a sadistic bitch. Probably got her pops tied up, staring out of the window at her handiwork, and when everything’s done, she’ll let him live for a bit so he can stew in his misery before she kills him.” I’ll do the same to you, if we live through this.
Eyepatch shivered. “I knew Amanias when she was a kid. Lord Venn said she’d been killed in an accident out riding. I never imagined that... you know...”
“Maybe she’ll be too busy torturing her father to notice us slip a knife between her ribs,” the sixth guard said.
“It’s the only one we’ve got,” Captain Sal said. He straightened up. “Orel, Eyepatch, and I will go. A small group means that we’re less likely to be seen.”
“Captain, you can’t possibly...”
“You’re right. I don’t possibly think we can do it. But if you hadn’t noticed, we’re out of options. Just keep that door barred and make sure nobody gets in. If they roll our heads through the door when it finally comes down, you know to find a quick way out.”
There was no preparation time for the three of them; they headed straight into the fire. By the door on the way out, bandaged up on old mattresses and unable to move, were two faces Orel recognised. She smiled and waved to Des and Groom, and they swore at her with every bit of energy they had left, which, truth be told, wasn’t much.
“This is a suicide mission,” Eyepatch grumbled, “you know that?”
“I’m fine with that,” Sal said. “You seem fine with it, too.”
“I signed up for the guard of a small town in the middle of nowhere where nothing happens. That’s a life sentence if ever I heard of one.”
Lightning crackled above them, and the air tasted of copper. As they skulked through the streets, the darkness pushed down even harder. It was a tangible, living thing, and it resented their every breath.
The closer they got to the manor, the more they had to double back and take alternative routes to escape the dead men who patrolled in tight regiments. They couldn’t afford a confrontation in their depleted numbers.
After being nearly discovered on several occasions, escaping by sheer dumb luck and the skeletons’ lack of perceived initiative, they slipped under the cover of the trees in front of the manor. Two dead men stood sentinel outside where there had been two living guards the night before.
“Is there a back door?” Orel asked.
Sal snorted. “There is, but unless you want to slip past those two walking corpses stood in the shadows waiting for someone to try, then I’d suggest not bothering.”
“We’ll have to take out these two at the front, then.”
“How?” asked Eyepatch. “We’ve been running away from them this whole time, and now you want to fight?”
“They don’t seem to react until you get close. Maybe if we skirt right up against the wall out of their eyesight, we can get in through an open window.”
It wasn’t much of a plan, but they were a planless crew, and a plan you can’t stick to is better than none at all.
They darted on tiptoes across the open to the wall. The skeletons didn’t acknowledge them. With their shoulders brushing the brickwork they inched closer, with Orel and Eyepatch on one side, and Sal taking the second guard. The guards didn’t react to the intruders’ presence.
Orel slowly reached up to try a window. She got her fingers around the edge of the frame and pulled. It didn’t budge. She tried the other side and got the same result. People inside had seen trouble brewing and done what everyone in their right minds would have done: bolted everything down. Typical.
“We’re going to have to take them,” Orel whispered to Eyepatch.
“Are you crazy? They’ll cut us down in seconds.”
“Maybe,” Orel agreed, “but if we don’t get in somehow, we leave empty handed and get slaughtered anyway.”
Eyepatch nervously scratched the bricks with his nails. Then he nodded. “Fine. Always wanted to die in this house, anyway.”
“Sweet spot for the bitch in her younger days?” Orel asked.
Orel signalled across to Sal of their new plan. He looked at the sentinels, visibly gulped, and gave a nervous nod of approval. “Okay,” she whispered. “We pincer them, like before.”
“What do you mean?”
Orel wandered out from behind Eyepatch and strolled up towards the skeletons. They turned and brandished their swords. “Excuse me,” she said, “you wouldn’t happen to know what’s been going on around here, would you? Everyone seems to have vanished.”
They advanced on her. Their jaws clacked together horribly, and Orel suddenly decided that she’d picked the worst plan possible. She watched over their shoulders for Sal to take up his moment. Come on. Do it. The Captain moved in on them, his sword in both hands over his shoulder ready to strike.
One of them sensed him coming.
Their swords clashed. Sal, taken by surprise, hesitated in coming back in for a second blow, but the corpse did not. It struck between the plates of his armour and Sal screamed.
Eyepatch roared and shoved Orel aside. He crashed into the skeleton and drove it back through sheer fury. He sliced left and right, and the skeleton parried every blow by the slimmest of margins. The skeleton was predictable, however, dark magic not being known for imbuing corpses with imagination, and Eyepatch managed to get in a well-timed thrust past its defences. His sword slipped through the ribs and glanced off the spine, cracking the bone and severing it in two. The skeleton fell to the ground in two sections, the top swinging manically. Orel rushed over and delivered her coup-de-grace; a blow through the top of the skull. Smoke gushed from the body.
The second skeleton had managed to get in to the Captain’s range, who was on the floor losing blood rapidly. It raised its sword to strike Sal’s head from his body.
The dead thing turned and was forced into a furious duel with its new, younger opponent. Eyepatch took no prisoners, but this skeleton was better prepared than its dead fellow; perhaps it had been a better swordsman in life. It held its own against Eyepatch, who gritted his teeth and steadied his nerves to keep the dead thing’s sword from exposing his guts to the air.
Orel threw an arm under Sal who, with a hand clamped over his chest, limped to his feet. Together they staggered backward to the main doors which, mercifully, swung open, despite Orel’s firm belief that they would do no such thing. “Eyepatch! Get in!”
Eyepatch heard the call but couldn’t find a gap in the fight to escape. The dead man was on the aggressive, and pushed him further and further back without mercy. Eventually, however, this reanimation too faltered, and Eyepatch was given a chance to either go in for a risky attack, or turn on his heels.
He took the retreat and dived inside the manor, and Orel pushed the door closed behind him. Eyepatch quickly brought the beam down on the iron holders across the door. The skeleton outside pounded against the wood uselessly.
Eyepatch rushed to the Captain’s side; he was slumped against a white marble statue of a man with a scroll and quill in hand. “Captain. You’re hurt.”
The Captain, pale face drained of blood, waved his concern away. “Leave me. Go find Venn.”
“Not happening. I’m staying here. We’ll get you back to the barracks in no time.”
“Nobody’s making it back... if you don’t stop her... up top. Now get to it... that’s an order.”
Eyepatch glared. “An order. The prick made it an order. You hear that?”
Orel heard, but was more focused on something else. A voice was whispering through the halls on a stray, unearthly wind. It was speaking her name over and over again. Orel... Orel... Orel...
“She knows we’re here,” she said. She took off in search of the sorceress.
Eyepatch looked to the thief wandering into the manor, to his Captain about to slip into unconsciousness, back to the thief, and back to the Captain. “Oh, you bastards.” He picked up his sword again and lurched after Orel with a hand clutching an aching shoulder.
Six skeletons flanked the hallway to Lord Venn’s quarters. They stood to attention and made no attempt to attack. They had apparently been taken off killing-duty.
“I don’t like this,” Eyepatch said warily. “We’re being led into a trap.”
“It’s not a trap if both sides know,” Orel replied. “Then it’s just us being stupid.”
“So why don’t we just not do it?”
“We’ve got a choice?”
“Got me there.”
Lord Venn’s quarters were so cold that Orel saw her dragon breath in the air. There were no skeletons in here; just Lord Venn sat in his chair. His arms were on the desk, palms flat. His eyes were turned down, and his cheeks were wet. “I’m so sorry,” he whimpered. “It’s all my fault.”
Orel shook her head. “You and the Captain have a lot to answer for, but I’d say it’s mainly the fault of the big bad bitch in the dark purple cloud stood behind you.”
Amanias stepped forth and laid a bony white hand on her father’s shoulder. “Rihan,” she said, “Good to see you. It’s been a while.”
“I go by Eyepatch now,” he said, pulling on the band that wrapped around his ear and pinging it back with a snap.
“How inventive. And you, Miss Orel, are more resourceful than I gave you credit for. I always suspected you might escape, but I’m surprised to see you so soon, nonetheless.”
“Shouldn’t have left a bubbling cauldron of corrosive potion in your chambers.”
Amanias raised an eyebrow. “It’s corrosive? Interesting. It’s a variation of another brew that I’m working on, you see. I had no idea it could do that. I should look into it further; it might be useful to weaponise.”
“So that you can murder more innocent people?” Eyepatch shook his head. “That’s not my friend talking.”
Amanias smiled. “Correct, Eyepatch. That girl was dead long before this began. This big bad bitch, as I’ve been aptly named, can see further than that Amanias ever could. I can feel death at my fingertips. I can touch the whispering gulf, and I can see the souls of the trapped eternally wandering the vast plains beyond. And when I really concentrate, when the stars are in the right positions in the sky and the wind blows in the right direction, I see thrones. Thrones of gods in dark places untouched by man. And there I see one seat abandoned. In a ring of high gods, one seat remains empty, and I mean to take that hollow throne for myself. Why shouldn’t I?”
Lord Venn tried to look behind him to see his daughter, but an invisible hand forced his head back. He sat like a ventriloquist dummy in a hypnotic gaze. “Amanias,” he said. “You don’t have to do this. This is your home. When I am gone, it will be yours to look after.”
The necromancer crouched down by his side. Her breath in his ear brought goosebumps to his flesh. “Maybe that’s just it. Maybe that’s why I did it. Wottlenoss could be so much more, so much better than it is now. But you were content to let it tick over, the bare minimum, the status quo. Why not more? Why should it not be me?”
Eyepatch looked at his sword and, to Orel’s utter dismay, threw it on the floor. “Fine then,” he said. “If you want to go and practice dark magic all by yourself, then go do it. If you want to make Wottlenoss great, where people prosper and live like kings, you can take the seat. But the killing has to stop. You’ve got a chance to prove yourself now, a chance to show that you’re still capable of resisting madness.”
Amanias shook her head and smiled wearily. “Eyepatch, Eyepatch, my old friend. I promised my father this result when I issued the ultimatum ten years ago. If I am to rule from the realm of gods, I must uphold my promises.”
Orel tested the floor with her foot in a silent search for grip. She’d only get one shot, and she was going to make sure it counted. “Who were the other gods?” she asked. “The ones you saw?”
Amanias’ smile faltered. “Well, I’m not sure. They are powerful, though I don’t believe they belonged to any of the organised religions. They are obscure, hiding behind the scenes all this time. Maybe they’re what we actually worship. I thought one of them was an incarnation of Vanas, but considering everything, maybe it wasn’t...”
“How can you know they’ll accept you?” Eyepatch asked. “How can you know that you’ll be allowed to sit amongst them?”
Amanias shivered. The mass of shadows that had enrobed her became ever so slightly translucent as a doubt flickered across her mind. “No,” she said. “I can’t take that possibility into account. They must accept me.”
“You know they won’t. They’re gods, and for all your power, you are mortal. Come and join us again.”
Amanias backed up in fear of being convinced. She held out her hand and violet energy danced between her fingers. “Stay back, Rihan. Don’t make me take out your other eye.”
Eyepatch didn’t falter. He trod on the flat of his sword and extended a hand to her. “Take it out. I don’t want to see you in that hideous form. Come back to us.”
The shadows returned. “Hideous? You think the darkness has made me hideous?”
The tension in the room thickened like congealing blood. Orel exhaled. All her senses pricked up. The moment was coming.
“You speak out of term to your new Mistress of Wottlenoss, Eyepatch. I don’t appreciate insults.”
The lightning doubled in strength and danced in the reflection of Amanias’ eyes. Her pupils were alive with darkness deeper than anything that came of a mortal woman. It came from a realm beyond; past a wall humans could not penetrate without succumbing to the same madness. The darkness flowed through her veins, through a temple bulging with its sheer power, her forehead shiny with sweat. The lightning crackled again. It held together, waiting for the silent trigger.
Lord Venn suddenly sprang from his seat. He shoved backwards and turned. “Stop this, Amanias!”
But the lightning could not be stopped. It was there to strike, and no command could bring it back.
Eyepatch watched in fear and resignation.
The lightning leapt from her fingers.
Lord Venn threw himself in front of the blast. The energy tore a hole in his body and shot into a ceiling beam. The wood smoked and broke away from the roof, splintered in two, and came crashing to the floor. Eyepatch ducked out of the way as the beam collapsed onto Lord Venn’s body and crushed him beneath its weight.
Amanias looked on, stupefied. The shadows around her faded away like dust. She looked down at her fingertips in disbelief. Did I really just do that? she seemed to be asking herself. Was it my hand that killed my father?
Sensing the moment, Orel pounced. She vaulted over the desk, her legs splayed out to land a brutal kick to Amanias’ chest. The sorceress sprawled into the adjoining room, and Orel quickly followed her through.
Amanias regained her composure, and the shadows returned to surround her once again. She watched Orel like an enraged lion, snarling and growling deep in her throat. Lightning crackled at her fingertips again.
Orel lunged before Amanias had a chance to throw it. She brought her knife whipping across, and it sliced Amanias’ arm as she raised it in defence. Amanias swung from the other side with a curled fist and caught Orel in the gut. Orel saw stars and wanted to vomit. Then, through a clouded vision, she saw the lighting brought to her face. She heard it buzzing, and felt the tang of ozone and the cold wind that blew through her bloody hair.
Orel brought up the knife in a gut reaction, and sliced through Amanias’ fingers.
The sorceress screamed as she pulled her hand back. Blood sprayed the map on the wall. Orel gasped for breath as the energy dissipated and Amanias fell to the floor, clutching her bloody stumps.
Something crashed in the other room. She heard footsteps and Eyepatch shouting. He burst into the room, sword in hand. “Skeletons!”
Orel rushed behind Amanias, bent down, and put her knife to the necromancer’s throat as the skeletons clattered into the room. “Call them off, or you go see your gods in person.”
“You don’t have the guts to kill someone in cold blood,” Amanias spat. “You’re not a killer.”
“I’ve gone to very drastic lengths to save my skin before,” Orel growled. “And I’m still contracted to kill you, even if your father’s dead. So try me, bitch. Fucking try me.”
Amanias considered quickly. She needed that throne. She closed her eyes and chanted quickly. The skeletons stopped before Eyepatch’s blade could strike, and they crumpled to the floor. The dark magic animating them poured out in thick plumes of smoke. “That better?”
“Depends. You going to cause any more trouble?”
“Not at all, Miss Orel.”
Orel nodded and slowly, gently, released the pressure of her knife from Amanias’ throat. “We’re good, I think, Eyepatch.”
He turned and looked down at Amanias. He went to speak, then shut his mouth again so quickly Orel heard his teeth smash into each other. There was nothing more to say to her.
“Come on, let’s go down to the barracks. We’ll put a guard on you, constant watch, and send off for someone in Skakar who knows how to lock you up without any of your witchcraft.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Eyepatch asked.
“No, but I don’t want to kill her, either,” Orel said. “I keep bloodshed to a minimum if I can help it, fingers excluded. That’s my rule.”
Eyepatch marched them back into the main room, Orel close behind their prisoner in the middle. The blade was still waiting in her hand. Eyepatch stopped at Lord Venn’s body. “He saved my life,” he said solemnly. “In the end.”
Orel looked over Amanias’ shoulder and saw a purple glow, ever so faint, reflecting off Eyepatch’s back plate. Orel put the knife back to Amanias’ throat. The crackling grew in intensity. No time to call for Eyepatch to duck.
Orel sliced through bone.
The lightning bolt went wide and obliterated a window. The showering glass caught the corrupt light that burst out in startling rays from Amanias’ eyes, nose, mouth; anywhere it could find to escape. A deathly scream ripped out of her lips, and Orel and Eyepatch ran for cover behind Venn’s desk. Peering out from under it they watched, horrified, as phantoms emerged from the darkness that had been cloaking her and began to tear at her flesh. Blackened, blood soaked bones were thrown carelessly across the room. Muscle was desiccated. Amanias’ head was ripped clean from her shoulders. In a moment the apparitions faded, and what remained of Amanias was nothing more than a pile of bodily fluids and cartilage.
Eyepatch threw up violently. Orel closed her eyes. She went to apologise to Amanias, but she wasn’t sure that she could manage it. She thought of the stream the big bad bitch had spoken of, the plains of the dead, and the chamber of dark gods in shadowy haze, and she wondered if that might be where Amanias’ soul was on its way to at that moment. It was only then that she said a silent prayer for her, because even someone like Amanias needed a prayer to be granted a reprieve from that fate.
“Are you sure we can’t keep you any longer? You’d make a good addition to the guard. Captain, even.”
The day was beginning a week after that fateful morning, and the repairs were gathering momentum on the town. The new mayor, Rihan Eyepatch, had just returned from overseeing the construction of a private tomb for Captain Sal, who had never recovered from his injury. He’d not asked how far into the conspiracy the Captain was, and with all the death, Orel didn’t feel it right to darken the history any further.
It would take a long time before Wottlenoss recovered, but Eyepatch had grand visions for the town, visions which were not too dissimilar to those Amanias had spoken of. Orel wondered if that was where Eyepatch had gotten the idea to take up the title of Mayor from, as proxy for the woman he lost ten years before.
“If I stop in one place for too long, I rot,” Orel said. They were stood outside the Vanas temple, which was going to be seeing a distinct increase of visitors in the next few weeks, of that she was sure. She wrapped her new travelling cloak around her and felt the weight of her pack. In it was all the wealth Lord Venn had owned in life, as had been agreed. Eyepatch had asked if she’d wanted more, but with the devastation wreaked being partially her fault, she’d needed convincing even to take this smaller amount.
“Where will you go?”
“Lorres, I think,” she said. “Seems as good a place as any.”
Eyepatch nodded. “Thank you, Orel. We’d be dead without you.”
Orel returned the nod and turned in the direction of the town gate. The thought that followed her—the one that said that only the usual sacrifices would have been made had she not turned up, and that if she’d killed Amanias in the tower, then nobody would have died—was too discomforting to linger on. It was a hypothetical curse she would live with for a long time.
Eyepatch called out to her before she’d gone too far. “Don’t you go back past that tower, you hear? Those secrets should be left to fall into the void, no matter how intriguing. You hear me?”
Orel raised a hand in salute. The message had been heard loud and clear.
She just hadn’t decided whether to obey it yet.