PROLOGUE: THE TOWER MUST STAND

 

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, Jon Matyrn’s even footsteps echoed around the dimly lit corridor as he slowly made his rounds through the ancient fortress he had called home for over forty years. His armour clinked as his broad arms swayed at his sides. The rhythm soothed him; he was relaxed, but completely aware. Tap, tap, tap, tap, his walk could be seen as an arrogant saunter, but in reality, his feet were placed exactly; so that at, any given moment, he could stop and find himself at a perfect balance. Likewise, his swaggering arms could move freely and like lightning; draw his sword and have it bared to face danger from any angle. In a heartbeat he could go from a casual walk to a near unstoppable killing machine. Arrogant? Yes. A saunter? No, it was more akin to a prowl.

Perhaps, his armour was the only thing that could impede those cat-like reflexes, well that, and his age. But as commander and Lord-Marshall, it was his responsibility to look the part, and he looked every inch of it. His grey-black armour shone dully, if that was possible, and the sigil of a fist, painted in blood red, that was engraved over his heart; glistened in the torchlight. The five stars in gold around it, which marked his rank, gleamed, polished to perfection. He had to look the part, for the awe of his enemies, and the faith of his soldiers.

As for his age, at over sixty he was nowhere near as fast as he used to be, and even he begrudgingly admitted—if only to himself—his mind wasn’t what it used to be either. But there was nothing he could do about that. Jon Matyrn did not trouble himself with things he could do nothing about. Besides he still had faith he could outsmart and outfight almost all of the Guardians in the Tower, experience meant more here.

His right hip pained him, if only slightly, as he made his way down the tight winding staircase to the next level. He nodded in recognition to a grizzled Sword-Bearer who had braced himself flat against the wall, fist over his heart, to let his commander pass. When you lived to the position of Lord-Marshall of the Tower of Manus you had learned a long time ago not to trouble yourself with things you could do nothing about. When the Tower called the Men and Women sworn to it, they gave up all claims, responsibilities, allegiances and loves. Their world, in truth, was the Tower. Some had families in the Town, indeed, almost all were raised there, but any unlucky enough to have seen their nation conquered, their home burned, and their people slaughtered––as Jon had––understood fully what that pledge was for. Raleir may have been wiped off the map but Jon had known; the Tower must stand, or the world will fall.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, he continued down another gloomy corridor, occasionally passing Sword-Bearers and officers on their own rounds, or squires on some errand. Most people rarely had the need to come to the upper levels. After completing his circuit, he continued down the next short spiral of stairs. He had made this trip around the outer corridors of each level twice a day for the last twenty-three years, but still he carefully took in every detail. The Tower must stand, he thought wryly, remembering the Guardian’s motto.

He always began at the peak, the Tower was a stepped pyramid carved out of the top of a relatively small mountain. The Turning Chamber, at the summit, was a square of about twenty paces a side. With a straight staircase leading to the level below. With each descending level, the square grew outwards. Allowing each floor a narrow balcony from which to shoot arrows or hurl rocks, though how anyone could hit an enemy from nearly above the cloud line was beyond Jon.

The Tower continued down like this for twenty levels. Each level had a slim corridor running around the edge. There were staircases on the exterior corners which only brought you down to the level below. And then, of course, the one on the interior corners which brought you up. Thus making it torture for any attacker trying to reach the summit, and for any Lord-Marshall making his inspections, twice daily. In truth; Jon was glad for the stairs, the only reason anyone would attack the Tower was for what was on the top level––in three thousand years no one had possessed the strength of arms, or the numbers to reach the top––and with the world in the state it was in, it might be soon that someone would try. The vast Corrtellan Empire to the north had experienced a Golden Age since the conclusion of the war. With artistic, social and technological advances abound. But Jon knew that the reality was that the Empire and their so-called “Golden Age” was built on top of slavery and genocide. Oh yes, he was glad for the stairs.

Stepping into the next stairwell Jon found himself in a staircase that went down a number of levels, in fact, it went all the way down to the ground level. How did I get here so quickly? He asked himself. He had stopped paying attention, a dangerous thing. He considered making the loop on that level again, but decided duty was one thing, but falling into futility was another thing altogether.

After descending twenty levels the tower stopped growing outwards, and stopped being square, the bottom ten floors were a sheer, round wall, hewn from solid rock. The bottom levels held all the living quarters, kitchens and dining areas. Not all the men were armoured, or even on duty.

He spied young Timotan Wohesin sneaking into Sameuel Lought’s room with what looked like a bottle of wine. His wavy brown hair was tussled deliberately, and his top two shirt buttons were undone. Though, he was still hunched under his looming height. Jon knew the boy was young––an excellent swordsman, but young––however sneaking around really was below him. Then again, the young man was starting to get a reputation.

There were very few women stationed in the Tower, and fraternisation between any Guardians, albeit of equal rank, was not prohibited or even frowned upon. The survival and sanity of the Guardians was key to the Tower’s endurance. Jon Matyrn however, could do quite well by himself thank you very much. That sort of thing was a young man’s territory anyway.

Every man and woman he passed went straight-backed against the nearest wall, fist on heart; the ancient salute of the Guardians. Whether the salute grew from the sigil, or the sigil from the salute, none could say. Somewhere in the Annals, it was probably recorded, but very few people read through them anymore. Except, of course, young Tim Wohesin, but he had grown up in the Tower itself, not in the supporting town below.

He checked the final levels very thoroughly to make up for his letting his mind wander earlier. He passed many soldiers and craftsmen as he went down. One or two of the bolder soldiers eyed him rather askance when he examined an arrowslit perhaps too earnestly. Why did he feel so strange today? He’d found himself getting lost in thought about enemies attacking the Tower, only to look a fool while trying to compensate for it. All-in-all he was very glad to reach the ground floor and to be on his way to making his final check before climbing back up for supper and retiring to his quarters for a nice read.

The lowest levels were even more dimly lit than the upper ones, and there were no arrowslits to let in any daylight, even if it hadn’t been two hours past nightfall. The final floor itself was actually under ground level, with only one stairwell leading to it. As he finally stepped out at the base he nearly slammed straight into a tall, slender woman who was making her way to the stairs.

Both of them stepped into the partially illuminated corridor and Jon got a better look at who it was he nearly knocked flat on their bottom. It was Marianne Sedusere, a Lightbound, all that remained of an ancient race, who possessed terrifying supernatural abilities. Jon felt even more on guard than usual when around her.

She had arrived at the Tower three weeks previously. She claimed to be studying architecture, in order to learn how the immense structure was constructed, but in three weeks he hadn’t seen her so much as look at a supporting wall or beam. She had closeted herself in the Annals Chamber, and anyone who enquired how her study was going; was politely told to mind their own business. Her studies were perhaps a good enough reason to find her in the foundations of the tower.

“Mistress Sedusere, a pleasure to see you,” Jon said with a cautious friendliness.

“You as well, Lord-Marshall,” she replied curtly, in her surprisingly deep voice. A pleasure to see her; who could say? She could have been considered pretty if not for her near constant pout. But to smell her, a pleasure it was not. The woman reeked, and habit nearly found him ordering her to bathe. Of course, no one ordered a Lightbound, he was just not used to having anyone around who he didn’t outrank. But then again the woman didn’t really bear a resemblance to any Lightbound he’d ever met. If it wasn’t for sunburst tattoo on her chest, a ray of which poked up from her bodice, just below her neck, he might not have permitted her entry. Abruptly he realised that he had been staring at her silently for perhaps a moment too long.

“Would you like to join me for supper?” he said quickly, “I just have one final check–”

“–no Lord-Marshall, that will be quite all right,” she said impatiently, “I have business to attend to.” And with that, she scurried off into the stairwell, her slippered feet somehow managing to stamp on the hard rock. Jon shook his head after her; the woman probably thought he was interested in her. Taking a torch from a sconce on the wall he started down the dark passageway.

It was true; she wasn’t at all like any of the Lightbound Jon had met. Sure she had the self-possession down perfectly. She just didn’t have the composure of one; in fact, she was practically unkempt in her worn grey dress with her poorly managed, wiry, brown hair. And she lacked that sense of authority and power that came with wielding forces beyond an ordinary man’s comprehension. Jon didn’t know what the surviving Lightbound had been forced to do to avoid the extermination that the rest of the Shaymans suffered following the war, and frankly, he didn’t care, the Tower was his world. Though, he would have given a gold bar to know what she was doing this far down. He shook his head again, and pushing thoughts of Marianne Sedusere and the Dread War firmly out of his mind, he set about his final task.

Edging his way further down he approached one of the doors along the exterior wall, this level was used for storage of foods and other supplies which needed to be kept cool and dry. And indeed, on opening the third door on the left it would appear that all it contained was just that. However, at the back of that particular larder was a hidden door, well, a moving wall, seamlessly fit alongside the others. This led to a network of tunnels and caves that ran within the mountains, providing escape in times of great need.

Naturally, every Guardian in the tower would lay down their lives in its defence, but if it had fallen, there would be no need for further death. And someone must carry word to the outside world of what had occurred, so they could ready themselves. None but the Lord-Marshall knew of the door’s existence, perhaps it was recorded somewhere, but as far as he knew, it was a secret all but lost to the ravages of time.

Withdrawing his master key, he set it into the lock and turned it. To his surprise it merely caught. He’d left it unlocked this morning, not like him, but he had been in a strange humour. He pushed the door open, I must be getting ol–– is what he began to think, but immediately he knew something was wrong. He felt a cool, yet stale breeze on his face. Hurrying to the far wall he found it non-existent, with the remains of it on the ground of the tunnel. Someone must have been unable to find the mechanism and simply knocked it down, as impossible as it seemed to knock down nearly a tonne of stonework, he knew of someone in the fortress who just might have that power.

Before he could think on it any further something moved in the corner of his eye. He spun around, dropping the torch, his sword was out of its scabbard before he even thought about it. At the doorway, a black pool glistened along the floor. The light from the torch reflected in it as if it was liquid, but it was moving independently, and with purpose. It disappeared into the corridor and out of sight. Picking up the torch again he rushed after it.

The thing was syrupy in nature, and it seemed to slither along the rough, stone floor, although Jon could have sworn it didn’t actually touch the ground. Whatever it is, it must be stopped, he told himself, but how? Considering his options quickly, he hurled the torch ahead of the vile thing, stopping it dead. Then, it turned on him. Well, it swelled up into a mound just over half the size of a man, but Jon could feel its faceless gaze bearing down on him.

Abruptly it lashed out, a tentacle-like stab with an arm honed to a sharp point. He barely had time to dodge the strike and slash the tendril down, when another sprang up at him. Every tentacle he severed swiftly joined back up with the main body as another stabbed at him. It went on like this, sometimes two or three tendrils at a time, Jon was moving as much as he could in the tight quarters. It took all his skill to hold the creature off, how could he even kill it? Once or twice it caught his arm or his leg. Blood and sweat stuck his coat and breeches to his skin. Though he fought on, he was growing tired. Two tentacles flew at him aiming to pin him in either shoulder, with a wide swing he took them both down, but that was what it wanted––if it could even want anything––a third took him straight through his unguarded belly, ignoring his armour as if it were paper. The tendril tore itself free as Jon dropped his sword and fell to his knees. He watched the creature slither to the stairwell, its quarry forgotten, then; darkness took him.

*

Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. Much to his own surprise, Jon woke up. Or at least, he thought he did. He was shrouded in darkness as black as that which had taken him. Am I dead? He thought vaguely. No, he was in pain, a lot of pain; he was alive, at least for now. Something had woken him; he could hear something, distantly. Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. Footsteps, heavy footsteps, she’s coming to finish me off. No, they weren’t heavy footsteps; they were footsteps in heavy boots. A Guardian coming to find him, he had to warn them! A faint orange light began to grow, coming from the now visible stairwell. He struggled to his knees, grasping for his sword. He tried to get to his feet but he couldn’t work out how.

Lifting his right leg he managed to get his foot under him, the light was getting brighter, footsteps getting louder and more frantic. He fought his left leg to move, but his right foot gave way and he slumped back down. Suddenly the corridor was illuminated and the footsteps stopped. “Lord-Marshall!” a fearful voice cried.

Jon looked up to see Timotan Wohesin standing motionless in the doorway, torch in one hand, sword in the other. Without dropping either he rushed to Jon’s side. Jon managed to get his right foot under again, and this time using his sword as a prop, and with a good deal of help from Tim, he lifted himself to his feet. Leaning against the wall, he began to warn him; “There’s a creature loose in the Tow–”

“–I know sir,” the young man said, unable to look up, “it’s killed everyone.” The last word barely came out a whimper, let alone anything else.

Everyone? No!

Tim continued, “I hid sir. I went to fight, but I saw it cut through the others, there was no point, so I hid.” The lad was on the verge of tears.

“You may have done exactly the right thing,” Jon said, from the way Tim’s head lifted he might have taken some solace in that. But Jon didn’t have the time to console him, he needed to think. How long was he down? What could he even do in his condition? He had to reach the top, even if there was the slightest chance he could stop it. But if he couldn’t, what then?

“What should I do sir?” the boy said as if reading his thoughts. He’d put most of the fear out of his voice, Jon looked at him appraisingly; the young man had donned his armour. He’d been that smart; he would have to do.

“I’m going to the peak. You must go; now,” Jon replied, expecting no discussion. Wohesin looked taken aback, Jon grabbed the edges of Tim’s armour, half supporting himself off him, “You may have hid, but in doing that we now have someone to go and get help.” From somewhere.

He had to warn them, someone, at least. That woman, she must be responsible. Faith knew he couldn’t trust the Empire, but how far could he trust any Lightbound? Perhaps there was one. “You must find a man, his name is Arthur n’Anguis—I don’t know exactly where he is—but in Terrastag there’s a town called Atter; you’ll find an inn called The Wishing Well. Start there.

“You mustn’t tell anyone what happened here, not if you can help it. But especially not any from the Imperial hierarchy, nor any Lightbound. Marianne Sedusere betrayed us, there’s no telling how far that treachery goes.”

If the boy was surprised at all, he didn’t show it. Jon felt pride in that. Black ink creature or not; he was a man of the Tower and his Lord-Marshall had spoken. He hastily gave him the instructions on how to get to the secret passage and out through the caves. And how to use a hidden mechanism to cave in the tunnel behind him. It was the best Jon could do to stop further incursions. Though, perhaps the secret of the main gate would be useless if more of Sedusere’s kind proved to be traitors.

“You should come with me,” the boy said finally, putting a gauntleted hand on Jon’s shoulder. Yes he was loyal, but sentimentality won no battles, or wars for that matter, plenty started because of it though. A decade or so as a Guardian would have got him out of habits like that, well now he was the Guardians. Jon held up his sword to him, the sword of the Lord-Marshall. He didn’t have time to explain its full worth, but Arthur would see to that.

“Give me yours,” Jon said plainly. Wohesin looked at the ancient badge of office as if it were a poisonous snake. “You're the last of the Tower now lad, this is yours. Who knows, carrying it might help you if the right people recognise it.” The boy reached out his sword and between the two of them they swapped deftly, Wohesin examined the thousand-year-old blade, awestruck. “Cover over the hilt mind, wouldn’t do if the wrong person recognised it.” Hastily Jon undid his belt and handed Wohesin the scabbard, then began removing his armour, and dropping it to the floor. It would do him no good, and it would weigh him down. He was injured enough already. In the time he’d been removing breastplate; the boy ––no, the young man–– had taken the extinguished torch from the ground and lit it, he handed it to Jon. Jon smiled at him, “You’ll do well I think. Now go.”

Wohesin saluted him, sparing a moment to look Jon square in the face. What was it he could see in that young man’s eye? Hope? Maybe. Wohesin then turned on-heel and quickly went for the passage. No time for grand words, yes, he will do well, he had to. Swinging the sword once to make sure he still could, Jon began the long climb up. The Tower was in complete darkness; either it had been quite some time since the attack or the lights had been extinguished before, to aid in the assault. Sedusere, he growled inwardly, she would pay for this, even if it was with his last breath.

He made good time at first, but eventually his wounds slowed him. He cursed those stairs now. Every now and again his torchlight would reveal some blood smeared across stone, or a dismembered body part. He glanced into the living quarters as he went up, the torch didn’t give too much light into the corridors so it gave the illusion that there were bloodied bodies as far as his eye could see, at least, he hoped it was an illusion. Along the stairwells and into the upper levels there were more. Some killed in fights, some killed before they knew what was happening. She will pay, he thought madly

After a time beyond reckoning, he staggered onto the final staircase. Amazed he still had blood in him, he dragged his feet up the stairs. Reaching the top he found the door to the Turning Chamber in pieces along the ground. Standing with her back to him was the blasted Sedusere woman. She stood in front of the large font, usually filled with the clearest of water––or what looked like water––edging closer he saw that it was now black, that creature was in the font. “NOO!” he growled before he could stop himself. Sedusere spun around.

“I’m afraid so Lord-Marshall,” she put a sneering emphasis on the last words, “you have failed; three thousand years of ‘heroes’ before you, and you were the one who-” Her words were cut off by Jon’s sword tearing through her chest. He held it there until the light in her eyes faded. Then his strength failed him, and he crumpled to the ground.

He had failed, but there was still hope. The last of his life was dripping out of him. Timotan must find Arthur n’Anguis. The Tower has fallen, please don’t let the world. This time, there was no waking up; until his story would be told again.

***

Fire, rock, and blood churned under his feet. He was wielding the embers of creation and bringing them to bear against all those who stood against them, all those who stood against freedom. But wait; wasn’t this fight done? He had lost, they all had. “You promised,” he heard her rail again. But he couldn’t find her, his mind was becoming clouded as his body was slowly overwhelmed by the destruction he wrought from within.

That’s when he felt it, something shot through him like a stone through glass leaving fractures in its wake. “You promised.”

Situs woke out of his nightmare with a start. What was that? He thought. The dream was nothing out of the ordinary, simply the premium from a life of bad decisions. Marianne’s voice was a new element—he hadn’t thought of that dreadful woman in years—but still it was to be expected. That other sensation though, that was different. And it hadn't been left in his sleep with his tormented memories, it was still there, still fresh. It felt like a small hole in the hull of a ship waiting for the right conditions to spring a leak.

What does that even mean? He demanded of himself, but never-the-less, it was how he felt. Looking down towards his living space he sought through the darkness for any threat, any movement that might explain his anxiety. But nothing stirred, and his breathing was the only sound in the house. Still he stared into the blackness, seeking an enemy who was just waiting for a moment to strike. Absently he wondered when his life had become so serene that he had started keeping his sword by the front door, not beside his bed as he had for decades before. But despite his uneasiness, no attack came.

The feeling within him had lessened, like a fresh wound whose pain you grow accustomed to. Deciding that a dream was just a dream, he paid the sensation no more mind. But as he lay back down, he found himself dreading what the new dawn would bring, and perhaps, fearing even more; the fact that he had no idea why.