It is time, once again, for “Speculative Story Saturday” here at Marcher Lord Press. This week concludes my (Kerry’s) portion of the story. It has been a pleasure to be a part of this experiment. Next week Steve will be here to finish all up.
♦ ♦ ♦
We found ourselves in a large circular room. It was lit only by torches hung around the perimeter. There was a stairway on one side, seemingly leading both up and down. But between us and that stairway, was a crowd of the most malevolent beings I’d ever laid eyes on. Some I recognized—wolf-men and large spiders—but others were completely foreign. Red beings with multiple heads and scorpion tales. Green amorphous creatures with black eyes, the bodies of which seemed to ooze from the floor. Large hulking things with multiple sword-wielding arms. Ferocious brutes all. And the stench was unbearable.
Standing before them, in the exact center of the room, was a figure in golden robes adorned with enough gems to make even the most resolute thief salivate. He had a bird-like nose and a long white beard. Despite my sword and daggers, I was a little scared of him.
“Intius, you devil!” Tekla screamed and let loose a dagger that flew directly toward the darkened wizard. The throw seemed to startle him too, for though he dodged, it managed to nick his shoulder. Blood and skin were clearly visible, despite his robes.
“How dare you strike an Archmage!” Intius drew his shoulders back. “It is time I dealt with you, slave.”
I noticed then that the boy, Luther, hadn’t made the trip with us. For that, I was glad. “So much for stealth,” I said aloud.
Barzillai turned my way and smiled. Winked. “That time will come.”
“Where is the Landgrave?” Abelard asked. His hands were already up and in the ready position. A storm was coming.
“He’ll be along in good time,” Intius said, smiling. “To look over what is left.”
I brought out my sword, noting the gleam of it. How sharp it looked. How accurate it felt. I couldn’t help but notice the exit on the far side of the room, though. The stairway. I must reach it.
Barzillai brought up his bow. Fitted it with an arrow. Smiled. “Then let’s give your master something to look at.”
One of the larger, pug-faced brutes roared and raised an axe. Barzillai let fly, sinking his arrow deep in the creature’s abdomen. It grunted and dropped slowly to the floor.
The room erupted into action.
Abelard and the Archmage immediately faced off, and between them a globe of crackling blue energy was suspended. It nudged first one way, and then the other. Their struggle caused a wind pattern to form in the room. Anything not secured began to swirl and dance.
Barzillai unleashed volley after volley from his quiver, each shot proving why he was a famed hero and archer. One dark beast fell, then another, and another.
Despite losing the Flow, Tekla appeared to be making a good accounting of herself. I saw her dispatch a wolf-man and move on to a large ogre, quickly dodging and striking.
My first encounter was with one of the multi-headed scorpions. I slashed one of its forward limbs, and after outwitting its tail strike, slid beneath it for the killing blow.
I next met a grasping ooze creature. It took some testing to discover its weakness—a peculiar light section near where a human’s knees might be. Upon discovery, though, I made good use of it. I slicked and hacked until the beast was only cubes of gelatin on the floor.
Finally I reached the other side of the room. All I wanted, from the very beginning, was a proper distraction. The wind-tossed battle would suit my ends.
I took a long last look around the room. It was clear that the conflict was going our direction. I counted at least ten fell beasts on the floor, and our three fighters were still going strong. I saw hardly a nick on them.
I looked purposely at Barzillai. In the middle of a pull, he noticed me, smiled, and gave a slow nod.
It was all I needed. I ducked into the stairway, and was on my way.
♦ ♦ ♦
The stairway led both up and down, but my decision was easy. I knew things. I studied.
If the Landgrave had been the master of this land, the master of all he could see, he would live and sleep in the uppermost tower chamber. All narcissists are like that. All megalomaniacs. They want to survey all they lay claim to. To gaze over it and delight in it. To rub palms together, and plot further conquest.
But prisoners are not that way. To them, the view of the outside is only a reminder of all they’ve lost. To all that has been denied them. They may visit the heights, but they will not stay there. They will live somewhere else.
That meant the tower’s pinnacle could be used to house only one thing. The Crystal of Darkness. I didn’t know where the Landgrave was, but I guessed he wouldn’t be there. He would cloistered now, plotting his final move.
It was a long climb up, but I was fit, able to hurdle two or three steps at a time. I passed floor after floor, never stopping. I pushed on, ever mindful of the goal.
As I always had been.
Finally, I reached the uppermost room. The great oak door stood open. On one side, near one of the tower windows, a stone statue had been placed. It was of a seated figure, with hands resting on his knees. It was colored with age, cracked in places. It had the look of having been outside for a long time—perhaps near a lake or stream—but it had been moved inside for whatever reason. The features were indistinct, plain. I couldn’t imagine what significance it had for the Landgrave. If it once bore the likeness of a relative, those features were long gone now.
I spent only a passing moment on the statue, though. What I most sought was obvious. In the center of the room, was a dais. And on that dais was an ornate wooden box.
It must contain the Crystal.
I smiled and brought my fingertips together. I scanned all the windows then, and seeing the grey emptiness outside, I smiled larger. Despite what Luther had said, the method that brought us inside the tower—his stone monster—wasn’t the only way out.
I felt inside my cloak, where my long length of silken rope was stored. There were hundreds of feet of it, yet it weighed no more than a single pound. It would serve me well today.
I strode up to the dais and laid a hand on the box’s cover. It felt warm to the touch. Should I check it first? Make certain before I go?
“I wouldn’t open that if I were you.” A deep, rumbling voice.
I spun around, hurriedly searching the entire chamber. Aside from me and the statue, though, it was completely empty. “Who said that?” I asked.
The statue’s arms shifted. One hand came up to cradle its chin. “I knew you would come.”
I grabbed the box, and turned to face the statue. The stairway was on my left, closer to him. But there were windows behind me. I took a few steps back. “The golem, I presume?”
The creature repositioned itself, yet remained seated. “I am. And that,” it said, pointing a large finger, “is the Crystal of Darkness.” Its face contorted into a smile. “But, of course, you know that.”
I pulled the box closer, cowered in my cloak. “You said you knew I would come. How?”
“Because I never forget anything,” it said. “Even the thief.”
I glanced behind me; saw a place where I could attach my rope. A heavy iron grate. I took another step backward. “So you know what I’m going to do then,” I said. “What I intend.”
“You intend to leave with that Crystal,” it said. “And to sell it to the highest bidder.”
It paused, waited for a reaction. I gave it nothing.
“But by doing so, you will doom this land.”
The words shook me, but I tried to push them away. “What is that to me?” I said. “I’ll be rich. I can buy a new land.” I hurriedly took out my rope, started tying it to the grate. Once tied, silken rope is eternally secure. I had no fear of it coming free. “So you’ll try to stop me…” I needed to keep the creature talking. I needed to be away.
It shook its head. “I will not. I am to guard the tower and the Landgrave. Not the box. Not anymore.”
I didn’t understand. Didn’t care to. “So why are you here, if not to stop me?”
The smile returned. “I’m here to help with your decision.”
I was confused. “I have only one goal in this quest,” I said. “Only one purpose. One path.”
It shook its head again. “No, from here there are two paths regarding that Crystal.”
I threw my rope out the window, watched as it dropped away. I smiled as I saw it touch the courtyard below. “I’ve promised my friends. My cohorts. I’m sworn to a duty. To a task.”
The thing chuckled, a low rolling sound. “Ah, so you’re mindful of your friends now. Very good.”
I scowled. “I mean to share it,” I said. “Of course I’ll share the earnings.”
The golem rose to his feet. His head nearly touched the ceiling. His fists were as large as my chest, I realized. “You will,” he echoed. “Of course.”
I brought out a bag and slid the box into it. I then swung a leg out. Checked the ground far below. I needed to get away. Regroup with the others. Escape. “I’ve studied everything. Tested everything. Watched. Learned.”
“Knowledge is good,” the golem said. “Wisdom is better.” It pointed to the window. “And only one decision, in this case, is true.”
I laughed when I realized what he was asking. “You want me to destroy it!” I cried. “To drop it over the edge!”
“It would change many things.”
I felt warmth in my cloak. The Cludge-enabled sword was throbbing. Reminding me. Motivating me. I felt truly unsettled.
I held up the bag with the box. Slid my hand inside. Touched the metal clasp.
“Now,” the golem said. “What will you do?”