Once again, “Speculative Story Saturday” has arrived at Marcher Lord Press.
Unfortunately, our matron of fantasy, Jill Williamson, was too entrenched trying to get her latest book ready (Check out the main page!) to be able to contribute this weekend. So, you’re stuck with an interloper. ♥
In fact, in the midst of writing the episode for this week, I realized there was no proper place to break it off in order to hand it on to our next talented writer, Steve Rzasa. So I kept writing. Before you knew it, I had over 3,000 words…which was enough text for two weekends.
All that to say, you’re stuck with me for two weeks. (Robots are running the building! Argh!)
Anyway, I gave it my best. Hope you enjoy it!
♦ ♦ ♦
It was a shock having my secured sword affected in such a way. Every weapon, in fact, was touched. Even those most hidden, I could now feel pulsating with new life. Imbued with an unearthly energy.
I knew that the ashes would bring us something. There were legends, rumors. The power of the old ones, those keepers of the tenth ray. And it seemed only logical that that was what the giant was, even before his intervening on Tekla’s behalf.
So I couldn’t leave even his remains behind. That would’ve nullified everything I’d learned. Everything I’d noticed. Yes, I saved them. And because of that decision, everyone had weapons of power. Of light! As uncomfortable as that was.
We stood before the Fortress of Gloom, and the sky’s color reflected that name. Grey as dusk. Aside from our party, I could see no living thing. There were just these great stone walls, jutting up as if they were teeth grown from the mountain rock. Atop them, I could see hideous creatures depicted in stone, and from below those, chains were hung. On those chains, darkened skeletons swung. Dark, because they were denied the benefit of the sun’s light to bleach them. In Gloom, even the release of death is shadowed.
“It is wretched,” Tekla hissed. Her eyes were looking upward, as well. Noticing the deception of the place. Beyond the walls, an ebony spire rose. Our final goal. It too, looked insurmountable.
Abelard was undaunted. His eyes shined with new light and purpose. I thought it dangerous. “We must enter now!” he said. “We are ready.”
Barzillai eyes had a new intensity too, but his was not the same fire as the priest mage. More an echo of Abelard’s passion. Muted. Tempered with a bit of wisdom, hopefully.
“The map,” I said. “Bring it out.”
Barzillai continue to stare at the Fortress walls, his radiant bow clutched in his right hand. There was a great wooden gate, but it was drawn up. Locked tight.
“We need the map,” I reminded. “To know how to get in.”
Barzillai awakened from his trance. “Yes, right.” He reached into his satchel and brought out the map. He stretched it out where all could see. Tekla raised her dagger near it. The map was entirely visible. As if she was using a torch.
The map looked much worse for the wear. The edges were heavily frayed, and it had yet to dry out from the time we spent in the river. Some of the color had run, others had washed out completely. The representation of the tower was still present, though.
“What does it say?” I said. “About getting in?” Aside from our renewed strength, I had a dull ache in my gut. A sense that all was not right.
Barzillai pointed. “The tower is right here…and there is a small footnote…”
Tekla moved closer to Barzallai. And the map. Studied over his shoulder. She then drew back with a gasp. “Oops,” she said.
“Oops? What is that? What is ‘oops’?”
Barzillai said nothing. Just kept looking at the map. As if entranced again.
Abelard moved closer and looked too. Finally, he said “Hmm…well…”
From my position, the map was turned sideways. Difficult to read precisely. “What?” I pushed between Tekla and Barzillai. Got to where I could see what they were seeing.
Near the representation of the Fortress, was a small missing portion. It was tiny, but significant. One could tell there had been words there. Now missing. Lost.
“I think that’s where I stabbed it,” Tekla said, looking pained. “Back at the Sohn’s Bend. Back at the Boar…”
“Wonderful.” I looked at the walls again. Monolithic. Well-maintained. Dozens of feet over our heads. “So much for sneaking in. Or getting in at all.”
Tekla’s face looked truly sorrowful. “I’m sorry.” It was an interesting change in her. Something to make note of, but hardly helpful to our current situation. “I—I made lots of mistakes. Before…always.” Her eyes looked at the hard earth. Distant. Thoughtful.
“Yes,” I said. “But now what?”
Barzillai scanned the top of the wall. Found the nearest gargoyle. “We have rope. Perhaps I could shoot an arrow? Catch it up there. We could climb up.”
“And if the arrow slipped?” I said. “The climber would fall to his death.”
Abelard brought his hands up. Clenched them into fists. “I can just bring the door down. Or shake the walls off their foundation.” He searched our faces. “It has been done before, right? With the Great One’s help. In other situations?”
“We’re here to steal,” I said. “Not to conquer or occupy.” I smiled softly. “Or have you forgotten?”
He pointed at me. “Your words don’t help me, thief. You have no faith.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “I have much faith. But mine is based on knowledge. On observation.”
“On living in the moment,” he said. “Yes, I know the type. Always doubting.”
I pulled my head back. Hid more of my face within my hood. “I think your God welcomes the doubts,” I said. “And my living in the moment. More than your dreaming of some far off place. Some far off destiny.”
“Stop it you two,” Tekla says. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“I know of a way.” It was the voice of Luther, the boy even I had almost forgotten about. As one, we turned to look at him. He was seated on the cold ground, legs crossed; looking as relaxed as if he’d just finished a swim on a summer’s day. Bright hair. Bright eyes. I swore even his clothes looked clean and bright.
“Where?” I said. “How?”
“A secret passage through the walls,” he said.
“A passage?” Abelard said. “Excellent.” He smiled. “A child shall lead us then. It is a sign.”
The boy got to his feet. Dusted off his hands. “I can take you only through the walls, though. Sorry.”
Tekla looked perplexed. “What are you sorry for? That’s a huge help. After what I did to the map, we’d be stranded. Close, but as far from the goal as when we started.”
Luther frowned. “Because I can’t get you into the tower. And if you want the Crystal, that’s all that matters.”
The ache in my stomach returned. The others seemed to deflate as well.
Barzillai folded up the map, tucked it into his satchel again. “Still, that’s one step closer.” He glanced at the rest of us. “I guess we’ll have to take the rest by faith, right?”
I could feel the new warmth of my sword in my cloak, and had to admit I could accept a small measure of faith in this instance. A single solitary step. We’d come so far. “Yes,” I said. “Lead on.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Luther guided us to a small cave on the eastern side of the Fortress. The passage was so narrow, and so low that we had to crawl on all fours just to enter. It was slow going, and reeked of sulfur and bat droppings. A hellish place.
I wondered if armor-clad Abelard would even be able to make it, but somehow he did. At times he was forced to take portions of his armor off, and shove them through ahead of him. Cludge wouldn’t have made it. Not in his corporal form. Not as a giant.
I remembered the bag of his ashes, and our weapons. The light they provided. Did he know how important it would be? How useful?
After it seemed the crawling would never end, I felt the hint of a breeze on my face. The sulfur smell dissipated. “There is a covering stone,” Luther whispered. “Don’t worry. I can move it.” There was a scraping sound and the movement of air increased.
I caught a glimpse of stars. Even here. Inside Gloom’s Fortress.
Within moments, we all stood on the cobblestone surface of the Keep. Our entrance was hidden in shadow by two narrow buildings.
“Outhouses,” Luther explained. “At times we were crawling near the sewage run.
“So that smell wasn’t from the bats,” I said. “Wonderful.”
“Eww!” Tekla said. “Good thing I’m getting paid…oh, wait…”
“We’ll all be paid,” Barzillai said. “Handsomely.”
The courtyard ahead seemed utterly abandoned. My eyes were drawn to the ebony tower above, though. It had to be at least a hundred feet high. “And that is where the Crystal waits?” I asked.
“And the Landgrave,” Luther said. “He remains always inside.”
There were a series of smallish buildings and lean-tos on either side of us. They provided plenty of cover. Together we snuck up to where the tower was completely visible, yet we remained hidden. There were no doors or windows on the tower whatsoever. It looked completely solid.
“How does he eat?” Barzillai asked. “How does he do anything? Bring anything inside?”
“There is a monster,” the boy said.
“A giant, hard, rock monster. He takes you through. He took me through. He’s taken others through. There was this lady, it took her through too. She was very sad. Pretty. Talked of her brother.”
“Brother?” Abelard whispered. “Describe her. Please.”
Luther looked wistful. “She was kind. And sad.” Luther shook his head. “Once told me of hiding in a tree. Of being found.” His eyes go wide. “And she could see things. Things from the future.”
Abelard looked as if he were pierced by a knife. “My sister…,” he said.
“Maybe,” the boy says. “She is sometimes sent on errands. Dressed up. Like she’s doing a play.”
Abelard and Barzillai exchanged looks. “The gypsy!” Abelard said. “That was her.”
Barzillai searched the ground. “But why would she…?”
Abelard touched his shoulder and pointed to the far side of the courtyard. “Look! Over there! The gypsy wagon!” He rose to his feet and momentarily stumbled out of the shadows. “My sister is here!” He looked toward the sky. “In that tower.”
“Silence,” I said. “They’ll hear you.”
All of a sudden there was a sense of motion, and the feeling of a cold embrace. I was wrenched from where I crouched, torn through the air, and flung straight for the dark tower’s surface. It was right there in front of me. Dark stone, heavy. I anticipated the feeling of pain. Of lots of pain. But when I reached the stone I felt nothing. I only passed through. We all passed though.