- Andrew M. Trauger
Ch. 10: Wilder Tower
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
Gælan held aloft his cane. “Wilder Tower!” he boomed, and several nearby people backpedaled away from him. “It was once all there was to Westmeade. No city, no wall, jis brave men ready to light the beacon that warned of dragonkin comin’ down from The Grotters.”
He grabbed a piece of firewood and tossed it into the fire, sending up a swirling column of sparks. “The hills were alive back then! They crawled with the once-dead and swarmed with the cursed children of the Dragon! Behold! Wilder Tower, our protection, now lies in ruins!” He pointed to the stone column with a dramatic sweep of his arms.
Cora nodded appreciatively at his storytelling flair. He was effective, especially with the bonfire casting shadows of his high cheekbones across his eyes.
“We used to live in the safety of its shadow,” Gælan said, pounding a fist into his hand. “But now its shadow is a curse to us! It hovers over us, piercin’ our hearts with fear. It used t’be our pride, a monument to our strength, but now it lies in disrepair, forgotten an’ forsaken by the Council.”
Cora frowned and shifted uncomfortably. Don’t turn this into a political diatribe; just tell the story.
Gælan continued, this time in more hushed tones, and the people of Wilder District leaned inward, straining to hear every word. “They’ve neglected it an’ us along with it. Blanchard is dead, an’ no one in the castle mourns. Four years without a leader! We are blown about like sheaves of grain in the winds of The Deepening. But that ain’t all. No! That ain’t the half of it!” The old man’s voice swelled as he jabbed his cane in the direction of the tower. “The once-dead are back! They weren’t all slain, an’ they have returned. While Westmeade slept, while Prisido sipped his costly wine, an’ while Hunt looked the other way, phantoms done got all up in Wilder Tower!”
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Gælan clearly commanded the listeners with great skill. Cora nodded in appreciation. Everyone likes a good ghost story.
“Yes, people of Wilder, our beloved tower is haunted by the specters of the livin’, by dragon-blooded corruptions, an’ other things fouler than you can imagine. Creatures born of darkest dreams reside in that fair tower, an’ soon they’ll descend upon us, an’ they will destroy us!”
A collective gasp rose up from his enraptured listeners. But, leaning against a lamppost with folded arms, Ordin scoffed.
“Do you doubt me?” Gælan said, wagging his cane at the mystic. “I ain’t no liar! Why, jis last week, I seen a pale light shinin’ from that topmost winder, an’ when I went to check on it, like any good citizen would do—”
As he said these words, a woman screamed. At first Cora quietly laughed at the woman for allowing herself to get so caught up in the story. But then another scream followed a split second later, then a third, followed by a collective gasp rippling through the crowd.
Cora lifted skeptical eyes. Above the thatch rooftops stood Wilder Tower, silhouetted in perfect blackness against the midnight blue of the sky. But not all was black; a faint green light glowed in one of the open windows of the tower. She felt her own breath catch. Does Gælan have an accomplice, or is the tower really is being occupied?
Gælan seized upon the moment, and his shrill voice trembled. “Behold! It’s a phantom! Run to your homes! Lock yourselves in! Cover your children! We are doomed!!”
Much to Cora’s astonishment, the people fled in all directions and vanished into the twisting streets of the district. They truly believed him! In the surreal quiet that followed, only Cuauhtérroc, Ordin, and Cora remained.
Ordin pushed off the lamppost, strolled to Cora’s side, and folded his arms across his chest. “That was stupid.”
“Why did dees people run away?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Cora frowned and stared into the fire. She couldn’t fault the savage for missing the meaning of Gælan’s words. “I don’t know, Cuauhtérroc. That was either the greatest ghost story ever told, the most elaborate hoax ever pulled, or there’s really a phantom in that tower.”
“Well,” Ordin said, “there’s one good way to find out.”
“What ees dees phantom?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Cora smiled at the Audric. How would she explain this one? It would do no good to unload on him theories of the afterlife, transcendence, or the Void. “A phantom is the spirit of a dead man that somehow becomes trapped in Phantasm instead of rising to its final resting place in the Maker’s Realms.” Or in the Nine Hells, depending…
Cuauhtérroc nodded but not convincingly.
“Let’s go,” Ordin said, grabbing his scimitar. “You’ll never explain that mess to him.”
“It’s not ‘mess,’ Ordin. It’s the holy writ.”
“And it’s too complicated…let’s go check out the tower.”
“What? No, that’s none of our business,” Cora objected.
“Look, are we freeblades or ninnies?”
“We’re inside a city. There’s a town watch here, and we have zero permission. That’s just a bad idea.”
Ordin stared at her, slowly pulling the curved blade from its sheath.
Cora stared right back, shaking her head.
“Fine…” Ordin muttered, shoving his scimitar back into the sheath.
“Let’s talk about it in the morning, after we’ve had some solid sleep, all right?”
“Besides, have you ever faced a phantom before? I haven’t, and from what I’ve read about them, I’m not sure I want to.”
“I ain’t sure it is a phantom,” Ordin quipped.
Cora shrugged. “Regardless, let’s wait for tomorrow. We may find in the morning that it was just a trickster or a trespasser. But, if it’s truly a phantom, then we should alert Calloway or whoever is Captain of the Guard. They may even give us a commission to investigate.”
Cora ate breakfast alone in the common room of Crossroads Tavern. But that wasn’t the plan. They were supposed to be eating together, the three of them. What’s taking them?
She waited for a short while longer, sipping another cup of kaffe. She replayed the bonfire scene from last night from Gælan’s dramatic storytelling to the faint glowing light in the upper window of the tower. It still confused her. What exactly was all that?
Ordin’s words rushed back to her: “There’s one good way to find out.”
Cora felt the blood drain from her face. With a final swig of her kaffe, Cora jumped up and rushed to the bar. “Bartender!”
A stout man with a nose slanted from an old break looked up from a coin purse, which he dropped into a strongbox that he shoved under the bar. “What’ll it be, Miss?”
“Did you see an Audric or a pale, white man this morning?”
“Yep, shore did. An odd couple, those two—one dark an’ one light. Makes a man think, it does.”
Cora rubbed her face. “Where’d they go?”
“Well, I don’ rightly know. They didn’t say as much.”
“So, they left?”
The bartender nodded, and Cora growled as she dashed back to her table. She grabbed her gear, quickly dropped some coin on the table, and scampered out of the tavern, fuming the whole way. You better not be doing what I think you’re doing.
Her boots clomped loudly as she dashed along the cobblestone pavement, dodging merchants and shoppers milling about the street at a much more leisurely pace. Speed was paramount, but the morning commerce was thick with the kinds of people who lived here—farmers and ranchers—folks who preferred to take their time. Had she believed in the Bones, she would have cursed them. At an intersection of two narrow but busy streets, her path was hampered by the slow plodding of cattle pulling carts, and the lazy clanking of cowbells dangling around their necks gave her fits. “Will you move already?” she yelled at the beasts, as she smacked them and tried squeezing through the animal throng. The surprise piles of manure sprouting along the street like mushrooms in a field after an autumn rain soon caked the soles of her boots.
Cora felt like screaming.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Jis whatcha think yer doin’?” a wrinkled, toothless man asked Ordin and Cuauhtérroc as he cast a nervous eye at the gray wolf to Ordin’s side.
“We’re goin’ to check out the phantom in the Tower,” the mystic answered.
“Ya don’ wanna be doin’ ‘at,” the man said with a twitch in his eye.
“Well, ‘cause it’s haunted.”
Ordin squinted at him. “Look, we’re goin’ in there because it’s haunted. We’re gonna find out what’s causin’ that.”
The old man leaned in, and Ordin caught a whiff of something stale on his breath. “They say August Blanchard done come back from the dead, they do.”
“Oh no, him in the flesh!” the man said with widening eyes, “Walkin’ an’ talkin’ jis like we are. Was buyin’ salt, he was.”
Ordin shook his head in pity and hoisted his pack a little higher on his shoulders. “If you see him buyin’ any pepper, let me know. He might be makin’ supper.” Then she turned to Cuauhterroc. “You ready?”
The Audric nodded. “Yes. We go now.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Cora finally cleared the livestock jam and ran headlong toward the southern gate, with the stone tower always bearing slightly to her left. At one of the better streets, she veered off and wended through the haphazard alleys to the base of the tower hill deep in the heart of Wilder District. Here, the houses thinned considerably as the land jutted upward into the only hillock within the town walls. Atop this swell of earth stood Wilder Tower, its dingy white limestone blocks unfazed by time or weather, a testament to its sturdiness. Ivy covered a portion of the base and a light spread of moss grew on some blocks on the north face, but the masonry was sound. Arrow slits throughout the trunk and regular crenellations around the parapet proclaimed its military purpose.
As she approached, her breathing ragged, inquisitive faces peered from windows at them. “Did…any of you…see an Audric savage…and…a pale, almost white man…come through her?”
A woman with a dirty child cradled on her hip nodded and pointed toward Wilder Tower.
Cora cursed and hung her head. This is not going to go well.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ordin read an old sign, its lettering painted in official script beneath a burnt-in seal of the city Council, that was nailed to the double wooden doors of Wilder Tower.
Do Not Enter. Condemned. Keep Out.
“I theenk dey do not want us going in here,” Cuauhtérroc said.
“It looks to me,” Ordin said, “like the perfect opportunity to flush out some freeloaders.”
“What ees dees freeloaders?”
“Probably some toughs smokin’ a secret stash of kanabi, or some late night weesbaldy…you know…” Ordin thought of the Audrian term as he grabbed a handle on one of the doors and pushed. The door rattled slightly but held fast, causing the mystic to stumble back. “…you know…smussel.”
Cuauhtérroc smiled and patted his groin. “Ah…dees smussel ees very good.”
“Well, I ain’t standin’ here starin’ at a sign,” Ordin muttered. “It ain’t locked…the latch is rusted out. So, it’s gotta be barred from the inside. That means it ain’t a phantom, ‘cause they don’t care about doors. So…I’m goin’ in. Maybe it’s my purpose to figure this out.”
Ordin lowered his shoulder and drove it hard into the center of the doors, directly below the rusted latch. With a great clatter, the doors shifted slightly on their hinges. “A little help, Cuauhtérroc?” the mystic called out as he backed up and prepared to ram it again. The savage joined him, and together they broke through with a crash of splintering lumber, leaving one door askew, and disappeared into utter darkness.
* * * * * * * * * *
After catching her breath, Cora raced up the hill to the base of Wilder Tower, but her feet became leaden as the scene unfolded before her. The front doors were broken inward, but they were mysteriously shrouded in a blanket of inky blackness, as if the tower had opened onto the Void itself. Even the sunlight failed to shine past the threshold.
“Hello?” she called out softly. Surely the guys aren’t in there.
Shinnick emerged from beneath a nearby bush and began a doleful wail as he stared into the darkened doorway.
“Ordin? Cuauhtérroc?” Her voice warbled with swelling dread.
When no answer returned, Cora’s heart began to race. She would even have enjoyed a sarcastic comment about being afraid of the dark just to know that they had heard her. The tower was hardly more than fifty feet in diameter, so they should have been able to hear her voice. How would this infernal darkness prevent their hearing? Does it block sound as well as sight? The possibility truly frightened her, for every one of her spellsongs depended upon visual or auditory perceptions.
Cora knelt down beside Ordin’s wolf. “Shinnick, I don’t know what’s in there, but I think you should stay out here.” Her shoulders sagged as she gazed into the impenetrable black. I’ve got nothing for this. There’s a couple of new ones I’m working on that might be useful. But I need to tweak the chording and melodies. And time to practice. I wish Devin Rhynn were around.
“Stay, Shinnick.” She stood and extended her hand outward. “Stay.”
She glanced around the base of the tower, hoping against all hope that Ordin would emerge from a nearby shrub. Only a half-dozen people at the bottom of the hill watched her with curious but disapproving eyes. “Cripe!” Cora fussed at the open doors. “There’s no time to fetch the guard, and I can’t just let you two dunderheads perish alone in there.”
Mustering all her courage, she stepped inside.
Instantly Cora was surrounded by perfect darkness, forcing her to concentrate on the odor of musty stone and the echoes of her footsteps. Sound is a songsage’s medium, and Cora breathed a soft sigh of relief as she realized her spellsongs would work unimpeded.
She sang a mote of light into being, but though it glowed brightly in her palm, the radiance barely reached her face.
“Ordin?” she called out.
“What?” came the immediate reply, filling the dark chamber with sound.
“I can’t see a thing, Ordin. Where are you?”
“We’re standin’ over here by the well, by my light. Do you have Shinnick?”
“No, I told him to stay outside.”
“Good. This ain’t a place for him.”
“You shouldn’t be in here either,” Cora said. She caught herself pointing an accusatory finger without knowing exactly what she was pointing at. She threw her hand down and furrowed her brow instead. “You sound like you’re everywhere; the sound is all around. If you have a light, why can’t I see you?”
“Probably because my light ain’t shinin’ but a couple feet out.”
“Mine too…but they should be illuminating the whole room!”
“I know that,” Ordin said, “Quit your yappin’ and get over here.”
Cora followed the sound of his irritated voice until she stepped into the faint ambience of the mystic’s light. The passage from total darkness to the small sphere of light was abrupt, and the shock of it showed on her face.
Cuauhtérroc’s eyes were wide, as if opening them further helped him to see better. “Ordeen Clay say dees half of hees Vashanti eyes cannot see in dees darkness.”
“I’m half-Vashanti,” Ordin said, “not half of a Vashanti.”
“I believe it’s a magical darkness,” Cora commented in hushed tones.
The mystic raised an eyebrow. “You think?”
“Well, I don’t like this at all. We need to come back after we have permission to be here. Come on. Whoever’s in here can wait.”
“Lead on,” the mystic said, smirking at Cuauhtérroc.
Cora sang another of light into being, affixed it to a rock, and gave it to Cuauhtérroc. With their spaces individually illumined, she turned on her heels and retraced her steps to the front doors, but soon faced nothing but bare stone wall. She laughed at herself for not being able to backtrack a few feet, and began edging along the curved wall toward the doors. She passed a bookshelf and slid along for a while longer when a writing desk came into view.
Here she stopped and looked up at Ordin and Cuauhtérroc. Their faces faint in the struggling light of their glowing rocks, but both of them were grinning.
“Don’t…say a word,” she cautioned them with a cross glare. Then she followed the wall back the other way, passing the bookshelf once again until, some distance later they encountered a small closet beneath a stone staircase going up along the exterior wall.
“Well, Nine Hells!” Cora exclaimed out of sheer frustration, “How could I have missed the door? I know I’m not a reeve, but I wouldn’t think a pair of broken doors would be that difficult to find. Did either of you see them?”
They both shook their heads. “We’ve been ‘round this wall twice,” Ordin said, “and we couldn’t find it, either. It’s like we rolled crossed bones.”
“Did…did the doors disappear?” Cora felt her voice crack.
“That’s stupid,” Ordin said, “That’s not even physically possible, you know.”
“Then what!” Cora said, her voice nearly a shriek.
“Dees doors hide in dees dark,” Cuauhtérroc said.
“Yep,” Ordin said with a nod, “It’s obviously an illusion.”
“An illusion…” Cora whispered, her voice trembling, “…we can’t even see? Oh, that’s not good.”
Ordin shrugged. “I guess if we can’t find a way out, we can always go up. Maybe we can crawl out a window on the second floor.”
Cora shook her head. “I don’t think it has windows until near the top, but we might be able to shout to someone through the arrow slits.”
“Sure beats walkin’ round this rinkin wall again.”
Cuauhtérroc led the way, circling around the outer wall again until the stone staircase appeared in his faint light. He crept up the curving stone stairs to the second floor and stepped onto the landing. But the darkness remained like an inky blanket of oppression.
“It would be nice to know a cassock of a Solarium right about now,” Cora commented. “We need some real light.”
“Dees place ees empty,” Cuauhtérroc said. “I do not hear any sounds, but Cora O’Banion is breathing very loud, like dees steps are too hard for her.”
“What?” Cora gasped, “I am not.”
“So…” Ordin muttered, “Up to the third floor?”
Cora nodded. “There can’t be darkness everywhere, and we know there’s light at the top.”
“I like dees idea,” Cuauhtérroc said, “We go now.”
Cuauhtérroc led the way, circling around the outer wall just as they had done on the first floor, until a stone staircase appeared in his faint light. “We go up now.”
With his first step, a faint click echoed near Cuauhtérroc’s feet.
“Stop!” Ordin growled and grabbed the savage’s arm.
For a moment, nobody moved. Seconds ticked by until Cora whispered, “What is it?”
“Listen,” the mystic said.
Cora heard her own heartbeat for a moment, but gradually a new but faint sound began to register. “Something’s hissing.”
“You need to stand back, Cora,” Ordin said, as he released Cuauhtérroc’s arm and slowly eased away from him.
“Ordin, you’re scaring me. What is it?” Please don’t let it be a snake.
“All right, Jungle Boy,” the mystic said when he could no longer see his lighted rock. “You’re gonna have to step back down or—”
A second faint click punctured the quietude, a spark flash briefly beneath the savage’s foot, and jets of flame erupted from the stone floor and engulfed him. He roared and shouted as he jumped, tongues of flame licking his legs. Finally, he fell to the floor and rolled quickly about to smother it.
As the last of the flames extinguished, his lighted rock slipped from his hand, and he was lost. In the darkened moments that followed, Cora heard breathing, heavy and forced, sounding as if his composure was on the verge of splintering. Footsteps, light and quick, scuttled about the area, punctuated with angry growls. The room quickly filled with the appalling odor of burnt hair, and then all fell quiet.
Cora held her breath and waited, hoping that the jungle savage would not erupt into a whirling pillar of frenzied death, especially one she couldn’t see. Given the oppressive darkness, she could not imagine a more dangerous and chaotic mess.
“Cuauhtérroc?” she called out in a voice barely above a whisper. “Are you all right?”
“Don’t do nothin’ stupid,” Ordin said. “We’re just comin’ to check on you.” He nudged Cora’s arm. “I guess I owe him one for talkin’ me down from the ledge all those nights before Tarchannen.”
Cora nodded at him. “At least one.”
They found the Audric savage solely by scent and sound. He stood with his back to the curved stone wall, his dark eyes glowering, his breathing coming in soft but punctuated bursts. He looked terrible and smelled worse. Thin wisps of acrid smoke curled off his body and clothes like the morning fog rising off a shallow pond. His lush black hair was frizzed, recoiled on itself from the blast of heat. And he smelled of cooked flesh.
Cora’s shoulders sagged. “Oh, Cuauhtie…”
The savage’s dark eyes swiveled to meet hers, and for a moment Cora wondered if her chances were better dashing back downstairs in utter darkness. “I mean, Cuauhtérroc.”
“I hate dees fire,” Cuauhtérroc grumbled. “And dees bounda is burned.”
“Bounda?” Cora asked with some hesitation, especially once Ordin snorted and grinned.
The savage turned around and pointed to his buttocks, now partially exposed through a six-inch smoking hole in his pants.
“You burned your butt!” Ordin sputtered and nearly fell over as laughter consumed him.
“Ordin!” Cora hissed, “Show some respect!”
“I ain’t touchin’ your butt!” Ordin hooted, “You gotta heal that one on your own!”
Cuauhtérroc continued to smolder until Ordin’s mirth finally brought a smile to the Audric’s face. “Yes, dees ees funny. But it does not feel good.”
“Are you okay?” Cora asked. “Do you need Ordin’s prayers?”
“Ain’t touchin’ it!” the mystic said, laughing.
“We go now,” Cuauhtérroc said, grabbing Ordin’s shoulder and spinning him around, “but I go last.”
Ordin retrieved a stump of chalk from his pack and marked the base of the steps with a fire rune to remind them of the trap in the floor. “No need to step on that again,” he said. “Now, third floor, here we come.”
Cheers broke out on the third level as their heads emerged from the impenetrable darkness into a circular room brightly lit by sunshine streaming in through arrow slits. Broken and discarded furniture, pottery, and fabrics, layered with dust and old cobwebs, littered the floor. A trail of footprints, both coming and going, led from the top of the stone stairs they had ascended to the base of a wrought iron spiral staircase leading to the fourth floor. Clearly someone had been here recently. Someone with a body.
Cora peered out one of the arrow slits and inhaled deeply of the fresh outside air. She saw thatched roofs and a few people in the streets far below, and she shouted down to them for help.
“Do you think anyone can hear you?” Ordin asked, shaking his head.
“I don’t know,” Cora replied with a sigh. “I suppose not, and even if they did, they probably can’t see me. Let’s get to the top so we can open a window.”
The wrought iron staircase squeaked with each step as Ordin led the trio up to the fourth floor. At the landing, the mystic paused, sniffing the air.
“It’s dirty up here,” he said, “and somethin’s dead.”
Cora quietly surveyed the area while Cuauhtérroc slowly came up the stairs behind her. The room was unlit, but sunlight streaming through a pair of windows revealed a number of tracks in the dusty floor. Some were human.
Others were not.
Piled around the outer wall were stacks of crates, rows of barrels, mounds of gunny sacks filled with various grains, and even an odd assortment of old weaponry. Wardrobes stood like sentries to their right, but they were covered with overly thick cobwebs, as was everything else in the room. Like the contents of the third floor below them, the whole of it was covered in cobwebs. But unlike that floor, nothing here seemed discarded or abandoned.
“I don’t recognize these prints,” Ordin muttered. “Maybe avian. But I don’t see feathers or droppin’s anywhere, so…Celindria would know, but I don’t.”
“We all miss Celindria,” Cora offered. “Some more than others.”
The mystic drew his scimitar. “We’re not alone up here,” he said solemnly. He stepped cautiously toward the wardrobes. “This webbing—it ain’t natural. I think I might know what’s up here.” He skulked across the room, motioning to the others to stay put.
Nearer the walls, the cobwebs thickened so much that Ordin was slowed in his approach. When he found himself hacking at the strands like they were underbrush, he suddenly stopped and stared at his scimitar as if he had done something wrong.
“Don’t move,” he hissed back over his shoulder. Time seemed to freeze with him.
“What is it?” Cora whispered after an eternity of waiting.
“There’s a spider in here,” Ordin replied.
Cora glanced about the floor at the copious webbing. “Do tell…”
“I ain’t playin’ with you, Cora. This ain’t your ordinary wolf spider.” Ordin tried picking a strand of webbing off his leg, but he only managed to get it stuck to his hand. He growled at his predicament. “This is the home of a komaci, a banespider. I’m stuck in its webs, but you…oh no…”
Cora had no love for spiders, but something in the way Ordin’s voice trailed off told her she might hate them for life after this. “Ordin?” she asked with growing dread, “What…don’t leave it hanging. What is it?”
With a hand mired in the webs, Ordin pointed with his eyes toward the ceiling. “It’s the komaci,” he said, wincing.
Cora slowly turned around and immediately gagged on a scream. Dangling behind Cuauhtérroc from a single strand hung a spider the size of a dog. It was covered with short quills and barbs, mottled in grays and blacks. Mandibles glistening with poison protruded from its gullet. Before Cora could react or say a word, it bit Cuauhtérroc squarely in the back of his neck.
The savage’s eyes grew wide. He dropped his macana and sank to his knees.
Several of the komaci’s thin spiny legs fastened onto his skin as the spinnerets of its abdomen pulsed. The spider began covering Cuauhtérroc’s back with preserving secretions, quickly scuttling along his bare flesh with spiked feet, its spinnerets throbbing as the sticky goo flowed.
Cora thought she was going to retch. Somewhere in a faraway place she heard Ordin’s muted voice spewing unintelligible nonsense. Daylight faded to dark within moments, the sight of Cuauhtérroc’s embalming trailing away in ethereal mists.
Through sheer determination of will, Ordin managed to break an arm free of the sticky lattice, and he grabbed the first thing he could reach—his waterskin. And he threw it at Cora.
“Do something!” he shouted.
Cora’s sight came rushing back, colors resolving as the dark shroud covering her eyes lifted. Suddenly she was fully aware of a string of vitriolic curses flying all about the room. Cripe! I nearly passed out!
Before her, the situation was escalating as the komaci scurried around Cuauhtérroc’s body, wrapping him in multiple strands of webbing. The savage just knelt there, his eyes staring blankly into the middle distance, registering neither fear or alarm. Or anything.
Now with a clear head, Cora reacted on pure instinct. She whipped out her rapier and thrust it at the horrid komaci. The point of her blade pierced the soft tissue of the its abdomen and exploded out its back. A nasty spray of acrid juices covered her and Cuauhtérroc, and Cora trembled with disgust. But her friend was in death’s grip, so she stabbed the banespider again, this time in the head.
Without the komaci essentially supporting him, Cuauhtérroc toppled over, crushing the skewered spider beneath him. Cora fell to his side in anguish, desperate to find a sign of life remaining in him.
“He’s dying!” she wailed.
Ordin’s struggles garnered the attention of a second komaci, which crawled down the webs from its hiding place to investigate, keeping at a safe distance along the periphery. Realizing the escalating stalemate, the mystic released his scimitar, watching ruefully as the blade clung to the webs and never quite landed on the floor.
Being careful not to snag his free hand once more in the strands, he carefully grabbed his crossbow from his back. It took some doing, but he managed to load a bolt and raise the bow to his shoulder. It was a maneuver best reserved for a skilled marksman, but he had no other choice.
The komaci eased forward on its webs, balancing against the vibrations as Ordin struggled, always watching for a moment to strike and reaching out with a foreleg to test the resistance of its prey. A stalemate of sorts formed between them, each one waiting for the other to misstep.
“Ordin!” Cora screamed again in helpless desperation, “He’s not breathing!”
Ordin cursed and pulled the trigger, sending a bolt exploding through the komaci. It jumped backward entirely from reflexes and fell on its back, its barbed legs quivering until they each curled inward.
All the color had left the savage’s flesh; his once bronzed skin was now a sickly pallid hue. Cora could barely hear his heart beating in his chest, but from his throat came little more than sputtering, choking noises. He was drowning in his own foamy saliva.
“Turn him over on his stomach!” the mystic ordered as he fought vigorously to free himself from the webs.
Cora did so with considerable effort; the savage was a thick, muscular man. As his body flopped over, her hand slipped across the spray of abdominal juices and secretions that covered his back. The banespider’s squashed and mangled corpse remained latched onto his skin, and a wave of nausea swept over the songsage as she quivered with revulsion.
Instead of struggling against the webs, Ordin tried a slow, methodical approach. Within a couple of seconds, he had freed a leg. “Press hard on his back,” he instructed.
Cora gaped in horror at the destroyed husk of the komaci, its innards oozing onto the savage and the floor around him. She held her breath and found a not-so-disgusting place to press down with a pair of fingers.
“Not like that, Cora. Two hands! Hard!” Slowly and consistently, he pulled his arm free, the silken strands snapping away under the stress.
“Ordin, he’s gross! He’s got a dead spider on him, and all its guts are pouring out!”
“Are you serious? Scrape the komaci off him and put your hands right between his shoulder blades. I don’t rinkin care what you have to touch, just do it. Act as if his life depends on it, ‘cause it does!”
Cora grit her teeth, wincing with overwhelming dread, and pushed the oozing body off Cuauhtérroc’s back. Steeling her intestinal fortitude, she threw her entire weight down on Cuauhtérroc’s back, forcing his lungs to exhale sharply and spew the froth out of his mouth. Tears began to form in the songsage’s eyes as she sensed her friend’s life was coming to an end. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, such an ignoble way to die: a stranger in a strange land, on a quest to avenge his tribe, bitten by an overgrown spider…
Finally, Ordin broke free entirely and rushed to the savage’s side, rolling him back over. He felt for a pulse and listened closely for breathing. “He’s cold, Cora. He needs some elder weed and extract of hemlock.”
Cora stared at him, blinking back another wave of tears. He’s cold. Those words echoed in her head. He’s at death’s door.
Ordin sprang to his feet and rushed over to the stack of crates and boxes. He quickly scanned the sides of each box for a clue to its contents, then to the barrels, the sacks, and back to the crates. Somewhere there had to be an…
“Ordin!” Cora screeched, wide-eyed, “He’s going into convulsions! His body is shaking and I can’t make it stop! Do something, Ordin! He’s dying!”
Ordin’s shoulders sagged beneath the weight of helplessness. “I don’t know…we need an antidote—”
The mystic cursed aloud and threw the backpack from his shoulders. He knelt down beside it and quickly rummaged through the pack until he produced one of the vials they obtained from Calloway as payment—an all-purpose antidote. A deep sigh of relief escaped his thin lips as pulled the stopper free.
Getting it in Cuauhtérroc’s mouth proved more difficult with all his spasms; getting him to swallow it was nigh impossible. The savage’s flailing body flung Cora off as if she weighed nothing, as if they were wrestling a raging bull. But Ordin gathered his strength and pinned Cuauhtérroc’s arms and pried open his mouth. Cora scampered back to him and upended the vial in his mouth until it was empty.
When Cuauhtérroc’s spasms finally subsided, Ordin rolled off of him and rested against the spiral staircase as sweat dripped down his forehead.
“He even puts up a good fight when he’s dyin’,” he remarked as he picked away the spider’s strands.
“So…” Cora began as they waited. She was almost afraid to ask. “What was that?”
“I already told you,” Ordin grunted, wiping a collection of sticky silks off his hands, “It’s a komaci.”
Cora huffed. “I know that, but what—I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing—it’s horrible!”
“Yet another reason I hate the Great Dragon. Her spawn have corrupted even the bugs.”
“Well, technically, spiders aren’t really bugs…”
Ordin shot her an annoyed glance. “Don’t be stupid.”
Moments later, Cuauhtérroc groaned something in his native tongue and sat up slowly. Cora smiled broadly and sighed with great relief. He still looked a miserable wreck, but at least he was alive. He would pull through. She leaned over and almost hugged his neck, but she recoiled at the mixture of horrific substances smeared and sprayed all over him.
“Thanks for not dying,” she said and settled for laying a gentle hand on his.
Ordin stood up and stretched. “Well, much as I hate to break up this party, I think it’s time we were goin’.”
Cuauhtérroc struggled to get to his feet, collapsing again to the floor. “Dees legs do not work,” he said.
“Well, great,” Ordin replied with a roll of his eyes, “Looks like the poison’s gonna be with you for a while.”
“Can you help him?” Cora asked.
“Sure…after a couple more years of trainin’ in the Mystic Order…which I was tossed out of.”
“So…you can’t help him.”
“No, I can’t. What he needs is some good old-fashioned bed rest. About a week’s worth, I’d say. I reckon there’s a good week’s worth of supplies in this room. Underneath all those webs. If it hasn’t spoiled.” Ordin grabbed his pack and hoisted it onto his back. “Make yourself at home. I’m goin’ back outside.”
Cora jumped up from Cuauhtérroc’s side and pointed an angry finger at the mystic. “You’ll do no such thing! We’re in this together, Ordin Clay, whether you like it or not, so if you set even one toe on that staircase, I’ll be all over your white arse faster than—”
Ordin quickly held up his hands. “I’m just kiddin’, Cora. Settle down.”
“Well…” the songsage blustered, “it’s not funny.”
“Actually,” Ordin said, pointing to the supplies, “I was lookin’ at all that stuff, and I’m wonderin’ if there’s somethin’ in there we could use.”
“In case you didn’t notice, his butt’s still burned.”
Cora looked down at the savage lying on his back, and she grimaced. “Oh, yeah…maybe there is.” She felt his forehead. “Be careful this time, Ordin. There’s not a whole lot we can do if you stir up something else.”
By carefully pulling apart the remaining webbing, Ordin eventually reached the wardrobe that had originally gained his attention.
While he rummaged about, Cuauhtérroc growled something in his native tongue.
“What was that?” Cora asked.
“I say I weel keel dees man leeving in dees tower.”
The songsage recoiled slightly. “No, Cuauhtérroc. You can’t do that, not if it’s a man. If it’s truly a phantom, then be my guest. But you can’t kill a person.”
“Yes, I can. I keel dees meeny Amurraks and dees—”
“I mean you’re not allowed to kill a person. Not here.”
“Because that would be murder.”
“He put dees darkness in here and dees fire and dees spiders to keel me. He try to keel me but I am stronger, so I weel keel heem first.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing personal.”
The savage turned his dark eyes to Cora and delivered a level of ferocity that caused her to scoot back a bit.
“Well,” Ordin said as he rejoined the others, “there’s nothin’ here but dried food and a bunch of clothes I wouldn’t be caught dead wearin’. Smells bad, too.”
“Is there nothing you can do?” Cora asked.
Ordin sighed. “I’ll try.” He retrieved a small pouch from his pack and began mixing dried powders together. The musty odor cleared within seconds, replaced by a pungent aroma of clove and licorice root. He pulled a tiny, green-tipped stick and swiped it rapidly across the stone floor, igniting the end in a shower of green sparks. He quickly pressed the burning end into the powder, which burst into a flash of orange flame and a cloud of spicy smoke.
Then he prayed. Briefly and quietly, with his alabaster hands resting gently on Cuauhtérroc’s forehead and chest.
Cora was certain a faint glow ebbed beneath the mystic’s fingertips and absorbed into the savage’s skin, and she felt her eyes widening.
Seconds later, Ordin stood and dusted his hands. “Well, that’s all I got.”
Cora turned to the savage. “How do you feel?”
Cuauhtérroc struggled, but he slowly rose to his feet. “Dees legs work now. I am…heavy, but I…I am ready.” He breathed deeply for perhaps the first time since being bitten and picked his macana off the floor. A focused glare formed across his brow. “We go now.”
Cora jumped up and threw her arms around the mystic. “Thank you!”
Ordin sputtered and frowned, but he patted Cora on a shoulder. “Like I said, that’s all I got. But, you’re welcome.”
Despite his heavy legs, the savage circled around to the platform of the spiral staircase and began ascending the steps to the fifth and final floor. It started as a low growl, but as he climbed, his anger increased until he was in the midst of a full-throated roar. He was definitely going to stir up whatever was up there, but the element of surprise, had it ever existed, was gone.
As soon as the savage’s feet touched the floor above, his war cry came to an abrupt halt.
Cora and Ordin exchanged brief glances of concern and scurried after him.
“Hurry!” Cora screamed up to Ordin, pushing against his back to emphasize the point. Please don’t be dead, Cuauhtie!
Ordin jumped up from the last step and dropped to a knee. From a few steps below, Cora watched him whip his crossbow up to his shoulder and immediately pull the trigger. The telling sound of a man’s painful yell echoed in the room above her. Two seconds later, she was at the mystic’s side.
With but a glance, Cora could tell this was someone’s home. It was cluttered but furnished with a bed, washbasin, cabinets, a table, chairs, pantry, and even a small table with a reading lamp. Bookcases filled with reading material and a workbench of some kind filled out the room. And in that brief moment, Cora felt the guilt of intruding on someone’s life.
Cuauhtérroc stood at her left, completely immobile, his jaw lowered in the act of yelling and his macana raised above his head.
An old man stooped over the workbench on the far side of the room. He had age spots on his balding head ringed with a thinning crown of white hair. From the plush over-robe he wore, he looked like a dignitary or an ambassador. His left hand clutched a crossbow bolt that was embedded in his right shoulder. But as he stood upright, his right hand began forming the intricate motions of a spell, those rapid contortions that rightly earned accomplished arcanists the nickname “finger flasher.”
If he was powerful enough to bind Cuauhtérroc, Cora already knew the man was leagues beyond her capabilities, but she had one trick that could frustrate even a master arcanist. With a graceful twist of her shoulder, Cora swung her lute around her and grabbed it deftly in both hands.
The opening chords sounded like cats clawing across a slate board, and was painful even for her to hear. As the discordant music swelled, she sang an atonal descant right at the spellcaster. With any luck of the Bones, she would be able to completely disrupt whatever magic was forming across his palm.
“By the Maker!” Ordin yelled as he loaded another bolt in his crossbow, cringing at the sound, “That’s rinkin awful!”
The old man cursed in frustration as Cora’s cacophony set his teeth on edge and caused him to miscue. With great irritation, he grabbed a clay pot from the workbench and hurled it at her feet, where it broke open and released a thick cloud of noxious fumes.
Cora coughed and wheezed, trying desperately to maintain her musical discord, but the burning fumes made her head flush mucus from every sinus cavity. In a blubbering, phlegm-filled fit, she gave up and cowered away.
As she stumbled about, the old man pulled the crossbow bolt free from his shoulder and grabbed a gnarled wand from a pouch on his belt. He pointed the stick at Ordin and spoke a pair of arcane syllables.
Ordin’s body magically froze in place, bound by unseen forces, a living statue to match Cuauhtérroc.
The old man now pointed the wand at Cora. He slowly approached her as she clutched the railing at the top of the stairs, her sinuses flushing clean through her eyes, nose, and mouth. “You,” he said, aiming the wand directly at her head, “How dare you attack me in my house.”
Cora could only sputter, gripped with fear, her knuckles turning white on the rail. Through the heavy production of tears and mucus, she focused as best she could on the wand. Despite her teary vision, she noted an exquisite diamond ring on the pinky finger of the hand aiming the wand at her. The old man may very well have been a dandy, but that ring spoke more of nobility, perhaps even royalty.
The arcanist stepped closer, his eyes glaring as the wand neared Cora’s forehead. “You broke into my house, and now you think you can kill me? In…my…house!?” He stared Cora down with a ferocity she didn’t think possible in the elderly. Perhaps he’s not as old as he looks. “Still,” he said, suddenly pulling the wand away, “that was a creative countermeasure, young lady. A right appalling sound, too. I should like to know what that was.”
“It’s called a caterwaul…” Cora sniffed mightily and, despite her mother’s upbringing, hocked a wad of phlegm and swallowed. “Sir.” Maybe adding a title of respect will make up for being gross.
He nodded in appreciation. “A nice songsage trick. Ah well…soon your friends will no longer be held by my magicks. I cannot afford to empty my wand on your sorry arses, nor can I hope to survive your outright attacks.”
“You’re…you’re not going to kill us?”
The old man recoiled at the suggestion. “Kill you? Of course not! I’m no murderer…not anymore. I’ve disabled you, which is enough to affect my escape, if I hurry.”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir.” Cora offered. She began to sense that this whole thing had been a tragic mistake. Clearly, there was no phantom in the tower at all, and this man, though perhaps a trespasser, was not one of the “once-dead” Gælan feared. She was sorry!
“I suppose you are, missy. But there’s nothing to be done about that now. Know this—what’s your name?”
“Cora.” That was all he was getting.
“Know this, Cora. I’m leaving for only a moment. If you’re still here when I get back, I won’t bother to spare your lives a second time.” He backed quickly away and clapped his hands over his head. He fanned his arms apart in concentric half-circles, opening up a purplish-hued doorway in the wake of his movements.
“Wait! Are you August Blanchard?” she blurted out. It was one theory, but a few things about this man were making that theory seem plausible.
The old man seemed shaken ever so slightly at this question, but in response he raised his wand again and studied Cora through narrow, pensive eyes. “Maybe?”
Maybe? Cora felt as if he had slapped her with that word. Suddenly this man was not merely a possible connection to the mystery surrounding Wilder Tower, but perhaps also the long-dead alderman as well. She wanted to apologize, to make amends, to grovel if necessary—anything to form a trusting partnership with this man.
But as the words formed on her tongue, an arcane phrase punctured the air, the numbing energy of the man’s wand rippled through her flesh, and her entire body stiffened. As the arcanist stuffed the wand back in its pouch, Cora thought of all the things they might have done differently. Regret washed over her, but it was an empty emotion devoid of any bodily expression. She couldn’t sag her shoulders, hang her head, mourn, or look pleadingly for mercy or forgiveness. It was emotion detached, soulless and surreal. And she didn’t like it at all.
In the periphery of her vision, the old man strolled up to Cuauhtérroc and whispered something in his ear. Then he walked back to his lavender doorway, nodded, and stepped through.
Just as he did, the binding magic holding Cuauhtérroc lifted. The savage lunged forward, charging with all speed for the old man. But the purple doorway vanished, and the old man was gone. Cuauhtérroc skidded to a stop in an empty space.
The savage frantically searched about, but found no enemy. Fury welled up within him, and his chest heaved with the breathing of a man about to do something drastic. Finally, when he could contain his anger no more, Cuauhtérroc, panther warrior of the Audric Jungle, lifted his head high, spread his arms wide, and bellowed a cry of pent-up rage. And with the walls still reverberating, he brought his macana down hard on the workbench next to him.
But his fit of rage yielded horrific results. As his macana crashed down on the various paraphernalia laid out on the table, several of them exploded as perhaps they were designed to do. Two clay pots erupted into roiling fire, and a third seemed only to hold more fuel.
Almost immediately, the entire workbench was engulfed in roiling flames and thick black smoke, which simply triggered further rage in Cuauhtérroc. He shouted continually in his native tongue, all the while swinging his obsidian studded club with wild abandon as flames roared up the tapestries and curtains, eagerly feasting upon the wooden timbers overhead.
In the midst of this tirade, the magical bonds holding Ordin released. He immediately cursed the savage’s wanton destruction and swiftly rifled through the surrounding furnishings for things of value before it all burned.
Cora knew it would be some time before she could move or protect herself. Until then, she would be powerless even to scream from the searing pain of immolation, but certainly and unimaginably able to feel it. But she had no confidence that her freedom would find her any faster than the fires. To her great relief, though, Ordin scooped her up from where she stood, prying her hardened fingers from the rail, and carried her down to the fourth floor, where he leaned her against the outer wall like she was a marble sculpture. Then, to her great bewilderment, he dashed back up the stairs.
Sometime thereafter, Cora felt something snap in her mind. She was released from the binding magic so suddenly that she nearly fell down the wall. It seemed so simple and obvious that she thought she could have done it herself if she had only known how.
Cuauhtérroc bounded down the stairs, wisps of smoke streaming after him as he blew past her on his way down to the third floor.
Cora paused, waiting. Ordin was still up in that fiery room, but she expected he would be running after the savage.
When the mystic didn’t appear, Cora ran as fast as she could up those stairs, braving not only the singeing heat of the flames but the choking smoke that scorched the lungs and stung the eyes. In so short a time, the heat had become nearly unbearable. The room was a furnace, and in a few short moments she would cook.
“Ordin!” Cora yelled through the inferno. Please be all right!
“Over here!” he yelled back. The voice came from her right, near a place that wasn’t quite so aflame. There, on his knees, Ordin was pilfering through a trunk.
“Are you kidding me?” Cora shrieked at him, “There’s no time for looting the place!”
“You think there’s no time to salvage this?” he quickly retorted as he held up the arcanist’s spellbook.
In spite of the pressing dangers and intense heat, Cora could only gawk at the small fortune in the mystic’s white hands.
“And this,” he continued while holding up a gleaming greataxe, “and this?” An unadorned longsword followed. He gathered up the items and dodged some flaming debris to reach Cora at the top of the stairs. “Here. Take the book at least. Get it out of here. I got the rest.”
Cora ran around the spiral stairs as fast as she could until she met Cuauhtérroc on the third floor. The roar of the conflagration above echoed through the lower levels and the shimmering orange light of flame danced on the spiral steps. Cuauhtérroc’s breathing had settled as he rested himself against the outer wall. He was spent.
“Are you all right?” she asked him.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “I need dees rest, den I weel be all right. Are you burned? Deed I hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine. We found this and some weapons, which I hope Ordin is bringing down any moment.” She glanced up the spiral staircase. “Ordin!”
Cora scanned the cover of the tome in her hands; it seemed unaffected by the intense heat of the fire, no scorch marks, not even a smear of soot. Though she could feel nothing from the book, she was certain it held immense power. But that would have to wait for now; the fire was already sending half-burnt timbers crashing down, shuddering the stone walls and spraying showers of sparks and embers down the stairs.
Through the cascade of fiery debris and incendiary smoke, Ordin clambered down the spiral staircase two steps at a time with two newly acquired weapons poking out from his pack at odd angles.
On the ground floor they sat in impermeable darkness, desperately trying to think of a way to bypass the powerful illusion concealing the front doors. The darkness made it impossible to overcome, for it was an illusion they couldn’t even see. They sat, flummoxed, until they heard a small cadre of excited voices outside the tower.
“Head straight for that sound!” Cora announced. “Don’t look for doors; don’t feel for doors. Just know that there are open doors. Go…now!”
Moments later, they were standing outside Wilder Tower, surrounded by a dozen curious and bewildered people, many of which had jumped and screamed when three burned, sooty, and rancid freeblades burst through the screen of darkness into their midst. Behind them plumes of gray-black smoke poured from the top of the tower above leaping tendrils of fire occasionally laced with strange colors or the occasional minor explosion.
Magic always did put on a good show when it burned.
Before them lay Wilder District, where hundreds more townsfolk stood in horrified disbelief. Each of them alternated their astonished eyes from the burning apex of their beloved tower to the soot encrusted company that had just emerged through its front doors. Such things just didn’t happen in Westmeade.
“We better go,” Ordin said, looking at the suspicious crowd. He then whistled for Shinnick, and when the wolf rounded a nearby shrub, he hastened down the hill, his pack full of loot and the rest of the company closely on his heels.
* * * * * * * * * *
In a dank and musty cave, a flash of pale purple opened up in mid-air, widening into a six-foot-tall oval limned with lavender energy, and the old man stepped through. For a moment, the entire cavern was brilliantly illumined by arcane energies, and details of engravings and crude paintings rarely noticed were briefly but clearly visible. And then it was done. The energy vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving the old man standing alone in the middle of the cave in utter darkness.
Quickly, he spoke a magical phrase, and a mote of light gleamed in his open palm reddened with blood. He panted as if fatigued. “Curse them all,” he muttered and winced in severe pain. An ever-enlarging crimson stain slowly spread across a plush over-robe of violet and gold. The man’s balding head, ringed with a thinning crown of white hair, was beaded with perspiration. “Curse them all to the Nine Hells.”
He looked momentarily at the slippery cavern floor and shook his head. With all the haste his aged, wounded body could carry him, he rushed off along the narrow and uneven corridors. Grimacing with every few steps, the old man continued around a small bend in the stony passageway until he came to an intersection of caverns.
He stopped and pondered his direction, vacillating between left and right. Memories of this place danced on the edge of his conscious mind, as if from a dream. But they were more real than a dream, more tangible. It felt like he had been here before—no, he was certain of it. Why else would he have opened his doorway here? Instinct brought him here. Pure reaction when he needed to escape had deposited him in this place. But where was it?
Finally, he chose the left path and carefully ascended a twisting passage of protrusions cut into the bedrock and slickened with moisture.
The old man breathed deeply and clutched his angry shoulder once again as a fresh wave of pain shot through him. When he released his grip, he groaned at the sight of his magical light now affixed to his blood-soaked robe, highlighting, as it were, just how much blood he was losing. He rolled his eyes and sallied forth.
With his energy nearly spent and his body weakened by injury, he forced himself to continue up the crevasse. He could feel his time growing shorter by the minute, the loss of blood beginning to affect his mind.
At a place where the cave shrunk to barely a crawl space, the old man emerged at last into a grassy field. Directly above and behind him stood the high stone walls of Westmeade. He was outside the city, and if he could find a traveler or a farmer with some spare linens—or better, a kind-hearted cassock or a healer to tend his wounds—he would survive.
In the sunlight, it was apparent just how much blood he’d lost; his purple and gold robe only showed its true colors on the left side. The entire right side of the robe was stained a deep red. He staggered forward, feeling heavier with each step until he was crawling.
He thought his eyes deceived him, for he could no longer be certain what he was seeing, blurred and dim as his vision had become.He thought a wagon pulled alongside him, and he thought he felt arms around him lifting him upward.But all else was lost as his world went black.