When all the youths Kegar had spoken to had come together, Sir Wilbur addressed them, “As you are all aware, the hunters were sent six days ago. Now, there’s no telling what they encountered but we know not one was able to return to make a report. So, it is clearly dangerous.” He paused and looked out at the sea of young faces, I hope they understand the gravity of this situation, “One thing is certain. Six days ago, that spire of bone and flesh was not visible over the tree line. Now it is. That thing is growing. I want you to scout the outside of the spire and see what can be seen. If you should find the bodies of the other men, you are to bring them home so they can have a decent burial. Don’t go into the tower unless you absolutely must.” Sir Wilbur looked around the group, “Where is Katrina? A holy warrior of her skill would be of great use.”
Cole shrugged, mentally fuming that his prowess was once again questioned, “She needs some time to regain her temper.” Why can’t anyone see that I am her equal?
Sir Wilbur opened his mouth for a moment, then closed it as if thinking better of his words, “Very well. You are a skilled choice as well. A priest of the sun god would certainly be useful against something so unholy.”
“Kegar brought news of the further spread of the desecration that has been coming from the spire. For this reason, I am placing him in charge of the expedition. Please remember, the goal here is the scout around the spire.” Sir Wilbur tried to stress that they were not to enter the spire, but even as he was talking he could see them drifting off into their own delusions of grandeur.
I’m so glad Lizzy isn’t going off with this buffoon. If he would consent to letting another lead, he might be able to learn something about leadership… but I expect the North and South Kingdoms will unite before Kegar willingly follows another. Sir Wilbur tried to give some additional advice for their journey but this group of youths was perhaps the most un-teachable group in the entire village.
Shandra was simply too lost in her own experiments and thoughts to hear what he had to say. His only hope was that she remembered to apply the journals he had written in his youth. She had asked to read them some years ago. But while her mind was a steel trap when it came to the written word… applying these thoughts to the real world was another story. The journals were detailed accounts of his own adventures when he was a young knight, dungeons he and his friends had crawled through, monsters they had slain, puzzles they had solved.
The young men around his table… Kegar, Cole, and Strozazand were the most pigheaded youths to ever be born in Pode. Strozazand was… young. With experience, kindness and encouragement he could probably develop into a great man. He has had some troubles being a bastard. I’m certain he can feel the tension. Neither his father nor mother speaks of it, and no one knows who the father was… Still, bastards can amount to great things.
Only patience and compassion could redeem Cole or perhaps a swift blow to the head. I’ve owned enough mules to know trying to force that them into doing something they don’t want to do will not end well. The young cleric was so aggressive about his competence, it could only mean he was afraid that he didn’t know anything. Which he didn’t. But his digging his heels in only made him look more foolish. His understanding of honor is weak as well. He sets up arbitrary rules for himself to follow and expects the world to fall in line.
Kegar though… Sir Wilbur looked at Kegar and sighed internally. It would be better for everyone if Kegar disobeys me, goes into the tower and gets killed. His death would solve a host of problems. Kegar was an arrogant prick who had somehow convinced Lizzy that he was a valiant hero. He could be charming, in an unpolished way, but Sir Wilbur saw through that bravado and false charm. He had seen too much at court in Capita to fall for Kegar of the Frozenpine. He knew that the dwarf wasn’t to be trusted. But if I were to put my foot down to prevent them from being together… he would take her off into the forest. I wouldn’t be able to protect her there. Better that she sees who he is on her own. Better if I am able to moderate the damage of their relationship…
It was nearing high noon when the party left the table of Sir Wilbur and began trudging into the forest. They stopped when they ran into Kegar’s second cousin, Broden the Lionheart. Broden was felling trees in the forest, practicing his powerful swing, something he did every minute that he could.
“Broden!” Kegar called to him.
Broden looked up from his axe and seeing Shandra, came over. Broden had always liked the bookish Shandra, ever since they were kids. Pretty. Not that anyone other than Katrina knew, since she was the only person who could be bothered to learn and understand the complicated sign language.
Kegar spent the better part of five minutes shouting at Broden and making large sweeping gestures to explain the groups’ intention to destroy the bone spire. When Broden’s sensitive ears could take no more of his cousins carrying on he shrugged and gestured that he would follow.
Shandra stopped them. “I don’t mind him coming, but he is filthy.”
Broden smiled under the dirt. He liked being covered in wholesome soil.
Shandra continued, “His stink will give away our position before anything has a chance to see us.”
Broden could see where this was going. He eyed her with growing concern. His dirt was a protective covering against soap. That terrible burning thing! Traditional soap was so caustic it could leave burns if left on for too long.
Kegar looked at Shandra with skepticism, “We don’t have much time… a bath would take a long time.”
Shandra began waving her hands in intricate ways. A scarlet glow began weaving itself around Broden, “This won’t take but a minute.”
“Fine then.” Kegar grumbled. She shouldn’t have started until I gave the order. This is my mission! “If it will help the mission.”
“It will.” She said with a final flick of her wrist. A crimson web shot out from her hand, covering Broden in a cocoon for an instant. Then the magic and all the dirt disappeared.
What remained was a shock. Broden’s hair and beard were a handsome glossy rose-gold that gleamed even in the poor light that struggled to filter through the trees. The supposed “lion” skin shone the same color. Without the filth caking lines into his face, Shandra found he actually had a rather pleasant face. His cheekbones were wide and now that his beard was smooth, it revealed a strong jaw line. He still had a dwarves’ sturdiness, but that blockishness was now combined with a fresh smelling man instead of the reek of old sweat.
She smiled at Broden and he, finding the process hadn’t been painful in the slightest, smiled hesitantly back.
“We can go now, Kegar.” Shandra said looking at Broden still. The more she looked at Broden, the more her smile slipped into an appreciative one. Oh, he is actually quite handsome… With the dirt gone from his face, she could see that his eyes were a lovely cinnamon color that flushed redder with his smile.
The party continued through the Skógur Forest. As Broden and Shandra walked they drifted closer to one another. Shandra hadn’t noticed any of the youths in town, she had been too caught up with her enchantments. I bet he would make a wonderful tower guard too! Her thoughts drifted off, trying to think of ways to increase Broden’s strength, ways to harden his skin. Maybe I could turn his skin to stone? Cheerful thoughts of magic spun through her head and she forgot why she was thinking about… making golems, wasn’t it?
Broden, for his part, was just enjoying the floaty feeling he had walking near Shandra. He felt lighter, like his feet had wings and his arms were made out of steel. I will smash all the things for her. He was in unknown territory and at his most romantic.
When they reached the dead woods, Kegar pointed out the spot the previous group had tethered their horses. One horse was dead. It still had rotten grass stuck in its mouth. The horse had obviously attempted to eat the necrotic vegetation and had rotted from the inside out. “The other horses broke free and alerted me to their plight. But it was too late for this one.”
Shandra peered closely at the dead horse. “Now, Kegar, I’m no druid, but I don’t think it is natural for horses’ stomachs to explode from eating something foul. The others were experienced hunters. They wouldn’t tether their horses near something so poisonous.” She adjusted her glasses to get a better look.
Kegar nodded, “You’re right. This necrotic growth is not natural. Not only that, but it has spread since this morning. Most likely, they tethered their horses at a safe distance and this unholy growth spread to surround the horses.”
Cole touched the necrotic growth, “Unholy is right. This stuff is evil and where evil lingers the undead will eventually come. Keep a weather eye out.”
Strozazand, never known for his tact, spoke, “Well, it’s looking like we ended up with the right priest for the job! Doesn’t the god of the sun hate the undead more than anything?”
Cole glared at Strozazand, “Praise the lord over the earth.” Sarcasm rippled through his words.
Köttur, who was traveling with them at Kegar’s behest, sniffed the dead horse. After a careful once over, considered informing Kegar that he had scented the hunters but that they were covered in smells of death and the undead. However, on hearing Stroz’s comment about undead, Köttur felt the young group had a handle on the gravity of the situation. Anyway, it was possible the hunters had merely been captured. Unlikely, but possible and the hunters were members of the community. It would be terrible for the children to go in thinking their friend’s fathers were already turned into something terrible.
Köttur cleaned his whiskers. He didn’t care for necrotic growth. It made his fur itch unpleasantly. Like he was suddenly covered in fleas.
Not far away, the spire stood protruding from the ground. Paper thin flesh covered the bone tower. It looked like the tower would burst forth from the taut skin at any moment. Great ivory barbs jutted from the walls in a spiral going up the tower. The spikes were long and wide enough to be used as a staircase. The tower shuddered as if drawing a breath. Then the side facing them opened in a strange oblong entrance at the top of the spike staircase. Though the sun was still shining, the light was dim where it fell around the tower, the shadows were far deeper than they had any right of being. The smell of rotting meat permeated the air, making it heavy and rancid.
“I wish Katrina were here to blow this stink away.” Someone muttered.
Cole frowned at his friends, “If only there was a priest of the sun to do combat with this necrotic infestation.” With that Cole quietly prayed to the sun god and an orb of light appeared above him. The unnatural gloom shrank back from the light and the spire seemed to shudder before belching more foul air.
Broden the Lionheart, who never spoke by choice, nodded his thanks to the priest before rushing up the stairs into the squishy opening with his woodcutting axe firmly in hand. He smiled thinking, Now that we have announced ourselves, we can commence the killing! Broden didn’t know what he faced, but to him, it clearly needed to be hacked to bits since it had sprung up on Sir Wilbur’s land without the lord’s permission.
Strozazand, not to be outdone, sprinted in behind Broden. The muscles holding the gap open relaxed after each one entered, closing for a moment before opening back up. It was like it was breathing or swallowing.
The inside was dark. This should have been expected, since the tower lacked windows. However, strangely, there was an ambient glow that brought the fleshy room to a false twilight. The stink was unquestionably worse and the confines of the “room” were cramped. This was made even more restrictive by the bone spikes sticking out of the walls like hedgehog quills.
A fog lay across the ground obscuring any lurking horrors. Horrors that both Strozazand and Broden were certain prowled within the shroud of mist. They moved forward cautiously, their boots sinking into the floor like they were walking near a marsh. Three figures stood unmoving in the middle of the room.
Strozazand squinted, trying to peer through the gloom, “Those guys don’t look like any of the hunters.”
Broden grunted acknowledgement, taking another cautious step forward. When Cole came through the hole, the light he had summoned outside came with him. It burned the fog away, exposing skeletons that were creeping toward them.
Broden leapt on one in a fury, smashing it in the skull with his fist before cutting it down with his axe. Stroz inhaled before being tackled to the ground by one of the skeletons. He released the entire breath into the one pinning him, turning the bones to sticky, foul ash.
Cole, who thought one of the emaciated figures was a hunter, attempted to pray to the god of the sun for healing for the man. “In the name of all that is pure, sweet and good, be healed!” When the pure light of healing pounced onto the man, his face twisted and he howled an unearthly cry, sending the others like him into a fury as they shambled at Cole.
Shandra entered behind Cole. Upon seeing the twisted dead figures shambling toward Cole, she pushed up her glasses and pointed a finger at one of them. An orb of fire, the size of a marble, sprang from her finger, only singeing the dwarf and dargonman a little, as it sailed toward the ghoul and exploded. The magical fire ignited the foul air. Broden shielded his eyes from the flames that scorched the now writhing floor while launching himself at the remaining skeleton.
When Kegar came in through the opening, it contracted a final time before sealing behind him. The bone spikes from the walls flowed in behind him and then jutted out toward his back. The spikes scraped against the hide armor Ellen had made for him, but couldn’t pierce it.
“Damn it! Move in further!” He grunted trying to press forward.
Shandra pressed backward, “There are undead things in here!”
“Well then, kill them!” Kegar grumbled about his decision to leave Köttur
outside. It would have been really nice to have a huge snow leopard in here, but now that the door was closed he couldn’t change his mind. Köttur could never have made it up the stairs anyway, which had prompted Kegar’s desicion to tell him not to come up.
Shandra took a few shaky steps forward, giving Kegar some breathing room. She flicked her now flaming hands and the fire that had burned the foul air began to slowly move about the room. The walls and floor that were scorched by her flames shivered and moved.
The fire did a great deal to destroy the undead. So did the mute with the axe. Pathetic wailing rang in Cole’s ears, though no one else seemed to hear it. The other worldly shrieking pierced his mind. He was so taken aback by what he saw and heard that it was all he could do to maintain the glowing orb above his head.
Once the last of the dead things had been burned to ash or dismembered, the room began to constrict. It seemed like muscles rippled in the walls, with each pulse pulling the walls closer. While the walls of the room pushed toward them with the great spikes jutting toward them, a small hole began opening in the floor below them. The portal led into darkness and more unknowns. It was like the tower was trying to swallow them into the next section. For a moment, the group looked at each other. There was a second of hesitation as they considered whether they wanted to go down, but with the walls closing in, promising a painful impaling, followed by a good crushing, they leapt down into the next room.