The Tower And The Stars
by Rab Foster
Thunder growled in the distance.
It surprised the man guarding the tower’s
entrance. Until now the day had been bright, clear and, save for the frogs croaking
in the surrounding marshland, quiet. The last thing he expected was a storm. The
guard turned towards the source of the thunder, gazed across reed-choked pools,
twisting channels and islands of coarse grass, and saw dark clouds swirling
along the marsh’s faraway rim. Lightning bolts pierced the clouds and thunder
The rumble wasn’t loud, but it hid the
sound of Drayak Shathsprey rising out of the undergrowth and running up behind him.
In one hand Drayak held a sword and in the other a cudgel. He was about to bash
the cudgel against the guard’s head when the man lost interest in the
storm-clouds and turned back. This allowed Drayak to see the tattoo on his face.
The sight of it made him freeze momentarily and gave the guard time to unsheathe
By the time the guard made his first
thrust, Drayak had recovered his wits, dropped the cudgel, and passed the
sword-hilt from his left hand to his right. Their blades clashed. Then the
guard reeled back, blood spouting briefly but spectacularly from between his
leather collar and his helmet’s side-flap, where the edge of Drayak’s sword had
opened his neck. He toppled into the marsh and died in its muddy embrace.
Drayak stared down, perplexed. That
Then his attention was drawn to the distant
storm. He watched its clouds writhe along the horizon until, finally, they dwindled
and sank behind it. As the thunder faded, Drayak remembered his mission. He had
a princess to rescue, a young, fair, rich princess.
But he spent a minute studying the tower before
he dashed inside. It was a tall, slim cylinder of stone, though the stonework
was difficult to see because strands of marsh-weed had grown up it and enclosed
it in a green mesh. He assumed the structure was centuries old, since the
marsh-weed would have needed that long to envelop it so thoroughly. When he’d first
spied it, he’d wondered how it could stand on such waterlogged ground. Now he saw
it was built on a platform of rocks and boulders, which had been piled on the bed
of the marsh and flattened at the top. This foundational platform was smothered
in marsh-weed too.
He went through the arched, doorless
opening the guard had been posted by and found himself in a round chamber comprising
the tower’s whole bottom level. The chamber was untouched by the marsh-weed,
which’d been cut away at the threshold. Its ceiling was high, and several
chains hung from it, ending in glimmering lanterns that reeked of tallow. Their
weak light showed him that the entirety of the wall encircling him was covered
in a gigantic star-chart. It depicted every constellation, and all the lesser
stars inside and outside those constellations, in the night-sky over the marsh.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the light,
he noticed that the star-chart wasn’t a single surface but a patchwork of
smaller ones. Each piece had a chaotic, sprawling outline, yet he discerned
that the pieces had similarities too. Each had a central part, maybe twice the
area of a human torso, and several appendages, maybe twice the area of human
limbs. He approached the astronomical tapestry and touched one of its sections.
Though the material had been dyed black, he recognized its texture as that of skin.
Meanwhile, the objects representing the
stars on this great conglomeration of skin had been coated in a substance that
made them luminous in the lantern-light. He first assumed they were shards of
stone. But when he studied one star closely, he understood what it really was. The
expanse of human skin was studded with human teeth.
Now he felt less guilty about slaying the
A flight of steps hugged the inside of the
wall, slanting up through the grisly star-chart, spiraling around part of the
chamber until they arrived at a doorway just below its ceiling. Drayak started up
the steps. When he got to the doorway, he glanced down and saw that an esoteric
pattern had been painted on the crude, lime-ash cement of the chamber’s floor: an
array of circles, ovals, triangles, pentagrams. Then he stepped through the
doorway and was outside the tower again. The steps continued up the tower’s
exterior, coiling around it as it soared upwards.
There, he encountered a second guard,
who’d also been distracted by the distant storm and was peering at the horizon,
wondering if the strange clouds would reappear. This time Drayak didn’t
hesitate. He ran the person through with his sword. Only after the guard collapsed
against the steps did he recognize this one as a woman. Masking her dead features
was the same grotesque tattoo that the first guard had borne.
Drayak ascended. The weed had been cleared
off these external steps, so he had nothing to tangle and trip on. Below, because
of his increasing altitude, the immense, green plate of the marsh seemed to expand
even further. He wondered unhappily: stars, sorcery, murder, mutilation… Who were
these lunatics who’d abducted the princess?
Halfway up the tower, he arrived on a step
that widened into a small landing because it was beside a door in the wall. He
also blundered into two more guards. One wielded an axe. Seeing Drayak, the
axe-man swung the weapon back across his shoulder, but in his surprise and
haste he unwittingly smashed the axe-head against the other guard’s helmet and
knocked him over.
Then the axe-head hurtled the other way. Drayak
had the door at his back, but he ducked down and the wedge of metal embedded
itself in the timber above him. The guard struggled to free the axe. With no
space to use his sword, Drayak whipped a small blade from the top of his boot
and drove it into the underside of the guard’s jaw. It passed through his mouth
and penetrated his skull, and he keeled sideways. Drayak straightened up. The
other guard lay across the landing, stunned by the blow his comrade had given
Drayak observed how the dead axe-man had a
steel breastplate strapped to him while the unconscious man wore a shirt of
chainmail. Their helmets were differently shaped too. And their attire was unlike
that of the guards he’d killed below. Over the years, these characters must
have scavenged their armor and weapons from people such as knights, soldiers,
and mercenaries, whom they’d waylaid in the marshland. But they shared an
insignia, their tattoos. One half of their faces was covered in black
tattoo-ink, the other half in white ink. The black half was speckled with white
stars, the white half with black ones.
Drayak heard another far-off clangor of
thunder and, looking over the marsh, saw the storm-clouds rampaging along
another section of the horizon. Again, after a minute, they dipped out of view
and the thunder died. His thoughts returned to the princess. He assumed she was
imprisoned at the tower’s top and was about to continue up the steps when he
heard a faint cry: “I’m in here! Help me!”
He looked at the door, from which the axe-haft
now protruded. Like the steps, the marsh-weed had been stripped from it.
“Princess?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s me! I’m here!”
The door’s original lock was corroded
beyond repair, but four bolts had been attached to it more recently. Drayak
wrenched these from their holes in the jamb. As he shoved the door open, he remembered
he was slathered in blood and marsh-muck and hardly looked presentable for a princess.
He hoped she’d overlook this fact in her keenness to be rescued.
The doorway revealed a tall, lean woman
with a seamed face and straggles of grey hair hanging to her waist. Her tunic
and leggings were made of cheap, drab cloth.
Drayak peered past, searching the dark chamber
behind her for the princess. “You,” he said, “old servant-woman. Inform your
mistress that Drayak Shathsprey has come to rescue her. If we flee now, we can
be away from this tower in minutes.”
The grey-haired women corrected him. “No,
you’ve come to rescue me.”
“I’ve come to rescue a princess,” he
maintained. “A young princess whom these ruffians abducted…”
“Yes, I know. Fair-skinned, golden-haired,
dainty as a flower. Has a wealthy father who’ll reward you generously for her
return. I thought I’d add that detail, the wealthy king, in case the aesthetic
details weren’t enough to lure you here.”
“I don’t understand…”
She pushed by him. Outside, after being
couped up in the chamber, the daylight made her squint and wrinkles fanned from
the corners of her eyes. The light also shimmered on an elaborate medallion
that hung around her neck. “Those stories you heard about this princess… The
reward posters for her stuck onto walls and tree-trunks… The peddler you met who
claimed he’d heard rumors about this tower… None of those were real. They were imaginary
things I slipped into your mind from afar.”
“Slipping them in wasn’t difficult. Not into
a mind of, shall we say, moderate intelligence like yours? No, the problem was
finding you in the first place, amid this huge, empty marsh. Someone like you
who speaks the common tongue. I can only put words, prompts, ideas into a
person’s head if I can communicate with them. That’s why I couldn’t stick some
jiggery-pokery into one of those guards’ heads and fool him into unbolting my
door. They speak a language unknown to me.”
She pressed a gnarled hand against her forehead.
“And now, after projecting those images and voices to you over such distances...
I’m exhausted. I’ll struggle to use my powers for the next few days. Especially
without my staff, which they took from me…”
Just then, the supposedly unconscious guard
sprang up and slashed a blade at them.
Drayak dodged back, tripped over the corpse
of the axe-man and fell several steps down from the landing. Stinging from
newly acquired cuts and scrapes, he scrambled onto his feet again, rushed back
up to the landing and arrived in time to see the guard lunge at the woman. She
avoided the blade by falling back against the higher steps. At the same time,
she kicked forward and smashed her foot against the guard’s knee. Something cracked,
the guard hollered and dropped into a kneeling position, and the woman kicked
again. Her foot caught him on his helmet and propelled him sideways. He was beside
the outer edge of the steps and lurched over it. His scream receded as he
plunged towards the marsh.
The woman peered down the tower’s side and
said ruefully, “I don’t approve of taking life, but these vagabonds had no
qualms about taking it. They killed a dozen monks without mercy, men with no
more malice in them than new-born lambs.”
“Who are you?” Drayak demanded.
“My name’s Gudroon. I’m an emissary from
the Grand Coven.” She held up her medallion, whose metal was fashioned into
three different shapes: a triquetra contained within a six-pointed star,
contained within a sun with a dozen points. Pessimistically, she added, “I
don’t suppose you know who the Grand Coven are?”
“They’re an association of repute and influence
in the civilized kingdoms to the north. Incidentally, before you came here
searching for a princess, you might have reflected that the nearest kingdoms,
with kings, who have daughters, are 300 miles away. How you expected to find a
princess in this anarchic part of the world is beyond me.”
“So, you’re a witch and belong to some
sort of witches’ guild. What’s your business?”
She sat on one of the steps and patted the
surface beside her. Reluctantly, Drayak seated himself. “Well, that requires some
explanation. What do you know about the ancient civilization that once existed in
“Well, it was a mighty civilization, they
say… Lasted many centuries… Then ended…”
“How did it end?”
“I don’t know.”
She gave a sigh that made Drayak wonder if
she rated his intelligence even as ‘moderate’. “The civilization was known to
worship the stars. They made all their political, military, and economic
decisions according to what they believed the stars told them. This old tower
is their handiwork. They used it as an observatory. Anyway, eventually, they floundered
because they were torn apart by a holy war. Their people divided into two warring
factions, one that followed the established teachings about the stars and a
new, heretical faction who believed the stars were telling them to behave more
malevolently. Leading the heretics was a figure known as the Eyeless Prophet.”
“How did he become eyeless?”
“She. Historians think the Eyeless
Prophet was a woman. Towards the end of her life, she’s said to have presided
over a ceremony where she ended up tearing out her own eyes. That shows how
insane those heretics were. By the way, it’s whispered that remnants of their
faction linger on in these parts. Surviving as degenerate cults who worship the
stars in obscene ways.”
Drayak shuddered. “Degenerate enough to decorate
chambers with people’s teeth and skin?”
“Of course. You’ve come up through that
vile room where they perform their ceremonies when the real sky’s too clouded
to show the real stars. And that’s not even the most degenerate thing they do… Anyway,
it’s also said that before her death, and before she blinded herself, the Eyeless
Prophet compiled a book. Part of it consisted of star-charts. But she wrote
pages too, detailing her visions and speculating about how the stars’ power
could be unlocked to turn those visions into reality. For centuries, this book
was only talked about. Nobody knew if it was real or not. If it existed, then
it’d been lost. Obviously, those surviving cults were desperate to find it
again, seeing as it contained all their prophet’s wisdom.”
“You’re going to tell me the miscreants
using this tower as their headquarters have found this diabolical book?”
“Recently, such a book was discovered in the
library of the Monastery of Jazrak, just beyond this marsh’s eastern edge. No
one knows how it got there. Probably it was left to the library in the will of
some antiquarian who’d owned it without knowing its history. The monastery’s abbot
was most disturbed by it and contacted the Grand Coven. I was assigned to
collect the book and bring it to them for safekeeping. As a courtesy, the abbot
provided a group of monks as an escort on my way back.”
“We were ambushed by these star-faced
villains. They slaughtered the monks and took me prisoner, presumably to serve
as a hostage should the Grand Coven come looking for the book.”
“How did they know it was in the
monastery? That the abbot had entrusted it to you?”
“I can’t say. The monastery offers accommodation.
Perhaps after the book’s discovery, some gossip a monk told a traveler spending
the night there, and word spread.”
Noise came down from a higher region of
the tower. At first, Drayak thought it was music made by an orchestra of exotic
pipes and flutes. Then he realized it was a chant, the voices producing it somehow
both shrill and guttural.
Gudroon observed, “They’ve had a few weeks
since the ambush to pore over that book and decipher it. And by my
calculations, tonight will be moonless. A clear sky, stars shining brilliantly.
Now it sounds like they’re conducting a preliminary rite up there. A prelude to
tonight’s main event.”
Drayak stood up. “Then I suggest we depart
as swiftly as possible, Mistress Gudroon. Between us, we’ve killed four of
their number, which won’t endear us to the rest of them. And from the sound, there’s
many more of them. And they’ve embarked on some devilish ritual, which means they’ll
be truly crazed. Yes, it’s time to flee.”
The woman shook her head. “You flee if you
want, Drayak Shathsprey. I have to retrieve that book. I dread to imagine what
mischief might be wreaked if I don’t retrieve it.” A note of appeal entered her
voice. “Though I’d appreciate help. Having spent much of the past few days
inside your head, I know plenty about you. I know you’ve been a mercenary, outlaw,
smuggler, buccaneer. You’ll turn your hand to any trade, however nefarious, if
you believe you’ll make money from it. Well, I’m sure if you assist me, the Grand
Coven will pay you generously.”
“You’re as mad as the cult-members!” he
retorted. “You brought me here with your trickery, now you expect me to join
you in battling these murderous fanatics? To commit suicide, in other words? No,
thank you. Not me!”
Determinedly, he started down the steps.
Gudroon jeered after him, “You were braver
when you thought I was a princess.”
Drayak descended a short distance, then halted
and looked back. The spiraling steps had taken him around the tower from Gudroon,
so she was no longer in view. A minute passed, then a second minute, and still
he didn’t move. The chanting continued above, though he barely noticed it thanks
to the conflict going on within him.
Finally, he snarled, “Obstinate old
woman!” and turned and headed upwards again.
He returned to where the axe-man lay dead
and the chamber-door hung open, then followed the steps as they looped higher. The
further up he went, the more dizzyingly vast the marsh looked around him, and
the louder the chanting became. Then, when he must have been near the top, the
chanting ceased and gave away to a tumult of shouts and cries.
Ahead, a man appeared past the line of the
weed-coated tower wall. He tumbled down the steps, went over the curve of their
outer edge and plummeted into the marsh.
Drayak ran on and arrived in sight of
Gudroon. She was just a few steps short of the tower’s summit. Two bodies lay sprawled
on the steps by her feet and now she was dealing with another assailant. A
spiked mace swung at her on a chain. She sidestepped it, then slammed her palm
into the wielder’s face with enough force to break his nose.
The majority of the cult, Drayak saw, were
still at the top of the tower but were starting to stream down towards her. Like
the earlier guards, some were dressed in an assortment of helmets, armor and leathers,
and carried different-sized swords, pikes and clubs. Others were unarmed and wore
flapping, scarlet-colored robes. But all bore the same facial tattoo with its half-circles
of white and black.
“For this,” he hissed, “your Grand Coven
will need to pay me a lot!”
He rushed up to join her.
Drayak came to several times but was
cognizant only briefly. He had no time to work out where he was, or what was happening,
before he passed out again. It wasn’t until after nightfall that he regained
consciousness and stayed conscious.
Even then he kept still and silent for a period,
recalling what’d gone on earlier and taking stock of his situation now. He was
bloodied and battered. As his tongue shifted in his mouth, it encountered an unexpected
gap amid his teeth and caused excruciating pain. He wondered if the lost tooth
had become a star on the wall of the tower’s bottom chamber.
Meanwhile, peering through bruised and
swollen eyes, he discovered he was enclosed in a cylindrical cage, scarcely any
wider or taller than he was, and suspended in mid-air.
He and the cage were above the tower’s
summit. Its flat roof was ringed by a wall and from the wall’s ridge sprouted
curved strands of iron, with the ubiquitous marsh-weed wound around them. These
iron strands crisscrossed one another in a lattice, and he supposed at one time
they’d covered the summit in a domed frame, containing glass, which allowed astronomers
to study the sky whilst protecting them from the elements. Now, though, most of
the frame was gone. His cage dangled from a chain, slung between the highest
prong of iron on one side of the tower and the highest prong on the other.
A second cage hung a few yards along the
chain. Gudroon sat inside it, her face bloodied too. “Well,” she said, “you put
up a commendable fight.”
“I lost that fight.” Talking rekindled the
pain in his mouth, which prompted him to add, “Also lost one or two teeth, I
“Teeth?” she mused. “Not to worry. When you
reach my age, you’ll appreciate how many things are more important than having
a pretty face.”
Despite the witch’s lack of sympathy,
Drayak was glad to see her again. “What’s happened since then?”
A platform had been erected at one end of
the roof. Standing on this was a lectern that had a large, thick book resting
on it and a tripod that supported a long, metal tube. Drayak guessed the latter
object was a device he’d heard called a ‘telescope’. Directly under them, the
marsh-weed had been stripped from the flagstones of the roof’s central area and,
like the floor of the bottom chamber, a pattern had been painted on them. This
pattern, however, consisted of a single, giant circle with many oblique and
curved lines streaking back and forth within its circumference. Numbers were
inscribed in the spaces between the lines and stars were painted where they intersected.
The paint used had a dismayingly familiar, dark-red hue.
Eleven tall candleholders, with candles
burning in the cups at their ends, had been positioned on eleven of the
“It looks like a star-chart.”
Gudroon nodded towards the lectern.
“Copied from a chart in the stolen book.”
“And the eleven candles?”
“They denote special stars. Ones the
Eyeless Prophet believed were significant.”
“So now they’re going to conduct their
“Yes. Undoubtedly with us being sacrificed
at its climax.”
Later, voices began chanting again. As
before, the sound managed to be simultaneously high-pitched and guttural. Eleven
figures, dressed in the red, cowled robes Drayak had seen earlier, filed onto
the roof from the steps. Maintaining the chant, each figure entered the painted
circle and stood beside one of the candles.
Gudroon stood up and jerked her body
violently, so that the cage around her swung. Drayak felt a tremor pass along
the chain and into his own cage. “Make a commotion,” she instructed. “The iron
that the chain’s attached to must be old and brittle. If we apply some
violence, maybe it’ll break.”
“Won’t they notice?”
“They’re too immersed in their ritual.”
The two of them rocked back and forth, agitating
the chain, straining the iron prongs at either end. They heard creaking noises
and the chain and cages dipped lower as one prong tilted slightly.
Drayak had a sudden thought. “Gudroon, can
this cult exert power over the weather?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You probably didn’t hear them imprisoned
in your chamber. But twice today, I saw storms.”
Her voice grew tense. “Storms? Describe
“They were strange… unnatural. Black
clouds growling with thunder and crackling with lightning. Appearing for a
minute, rushing along the horizon, disappearing again.”
Though she kept swinging her cage, Gudroon
became angry “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Why should I have? We’d other things to
worry about. Besides, I don’t see how the local weather is relevant to our predicament…”
“You idiot! That was the Grand Coven
searching for me! They’d projected their energies over this marshland. Those
energies passing through the air cause disturbances, rainclouds, thunder, lightning…
Didn’t you realize this? Haven’t you heard tales of witches raising storms?”
“How was I to know those storms related to
you? Anyway, summon your fellow witches now. Send them a signal. Use a spell!”
“I can’t. I told you, my powers are
exhausted. If I had my staff, I could use it to amplify whatever energy’s left
in me, but…”
The chanting reached a crescendo. Drayak looked
through the bottom of his cage and saw that all eleven figures had removed
their hoods and cocked back their heads, so that he could view their faces. The
faces were both male and female and all were emblazoned with the tattoo. Yet
they seemed not to stare up at Gudroon or him, but beyond… Drayak gazed upwards
too. For a moment, the night-sky appeared normal, though without any moon it
was sprinkled with countless points of starlight. Then he noticed something
abnormal. In places, eleven places he counted, he no longer saw stars, but…
He exclaimed, “Am I really seeing this? Eyes?
Baleful and intense, they returned his
“You see them as eyes,” said Gudroon, “because
that’s the only way your mind can make sense of them. That’s a good thing, by
the way. Be thankful you don’t see them in their true form.”
Then they heard screams of agony below.
The sound was hideous enough to distract Drayak from what he saw in the
firmament. Lowering his head, he realized the ritual’s eleven participants were
in the process of gouging out their left eyeballs.
“Why are they doing that?” he spluttered.
“They’re creating a bridge,” said Gudroon.
“Their rites are a debasement of what the astronomers of the old civilization
practiced. But the vile things up there, the cosmic filth you perceive as eyes,
are happy to take advantage. To use them as a means of getting down here, to us.”
By now, each participant held their left
eyeball in their hand. The candles in the candleholders beside them had burnt
down and puttered out, and they placed the removed eyes in the molten wax
filling the cups at the top, positioning them so that the pupils continued to
stare upwards. After that, the act of self-mutilation took its toll on the
cult-members and they sank down onto their knees. A few sank further, passing
out on the flagstones. Those who remained conscious emitted a new chant, a low,
From each of the eleven eyes in the eleven
candleholders, a thread of pale, glowing light rose into the air. The threads
reached the level of Drayak and Gudroon’s cages, then climbed past. Drayak
looked up again and saw that the eleven celestial eyes were bleeding threads of
light too. These were descending.
“Keep moving your cage!” yelled Gudroon
and flung herself about inside the bars yet more furiously. He followed her
example. A few minutes later they heard a cracking noise from the tower’s side
as the prong there bowed and snapped. Consequently, the chain, the cages, and
the pair of them dropped into the center of the roof.
Drayak’s cage bounced and rolled out of
the painted star-chart.
Placed against the wall that encircled the
roof were crates, trunks, barrels, piles of things shrouded in waxed linen
sheets to protect them from rain. Drayak imagined every scrap of space in the
tower that wasn’t used for star-worship was used for storing booty taken from
the unfortunates who’d fallen into the cult’s clutches in the marsh. His cage
crashed against one of the piles and its door broke loose. He clambered out but
then, shaken, head spinning, he collapsed.
It took him a minute to recover. He found
himself lying on top of the pile. He’d displaced part of the linen sheet
covering it and, underneath, he could see bags, bundles, leather sandals and
plain cotton robes. The latter looked like garb worn by monks, which made him
recall the detail in Gudroon’s story about how monks were escorting her when
the cult launched its ambush. Presumably, these were their looted possessions.
He heard Gudroon’s voice. Her cage had
rolled much less than his and lay on its side within the star-chart, among the
candleholders and the kneeling and fallen cult-members. She struggled inside
it, unable to get out.
“Drayak!” she yelled. “Drayak Shathsprey!”
He looked upwards again. The eleven threads
of light that drooped from the eleven eyes had converged in the middle of the
sky. A single thread, an amalgamation of the eleven that was much thicker in
diameter and looked more like a column, descended from the convergence. Also,
the eleven threads rising from the grisly contents of the candleholders had
converged over the tower. Mirroring what was happening above, one column of
light rose higher.
Inevitably, these downward and upward columns
met and fused together. Drayak had the notion he was now contemplating a giant,
lambent tree. Eleven roots reached down to the tower, eleven branches straddled
the sky, and an impossibly long trunk stretched between them. Then he observed
things shifting down that trunk, from the heavens, towards the earth.
They were bulbous and oozing, like
gigantic slugs. Yet within their outlines, he saw not glistening flesh but
constantly changing images. Staring at one of the forms, he first saw a
screaming mouth. Then it turned into a whirlpool of bloody entrails. Then into
the head of a long-dead horse, the rows of teeth between its skull and jawbone
grinning through shreds of rotten flesh. Then into a mass of pulsing maggots…
Overwhelmed, Drayak sank back against the
pile. He understood what Gudroon had said. The things up there, the things
coming here, were so foul his mind couldn’t process them. It could only
substitute images he was already familiar with, images that revolted and
sickened him but weren’t enough to send him insane.
Then he remembered he had to free Gudroon.
He thought about using one of the
candleholders to prize open her cage, but all of them were enveloped in the
glow of the light-threads that’d emerged from their ends and he assumed they’d
be fiery-hot. His attention turned to the monks’ belongings beneath him. He
yanked away the linen sheet and scrabbled through the items until he found
something that might be helpful. He lifted the wooden staff and ran across. One
end of it he jammed between the bars of her door. Its middle he rested against
the side of her cage. Its other end he levered down. The staff bent but didn’t
Then the door burst open and Gudroon
scooted out, leapt up and snatched the staff from Drayak’s hands. “That’s my
staff!” she spat.
She looked skywards, raised the staff
above her head and started chanting too. The language she used sounded less
alien than that being uttered by the half-blinded men and women around them,
but to Drayak was no more comprehensible.
By now the descending forms weren’t just
segueing from one monstrous image to another. They were screaming. To Drayak,
the shrill, awful noise they released somehow didn’t suggest horror. It
suggested delight... Joyous expectation.
The screams of horror would come when they
arrived here, screams made by their victims, which would be everybody in this
He heard thunder again. A wave of black
clouds surged across the sky. Within a few seconds they’d blotted out the stars
and the obscene eyes lurking among them. Immediately after that, a bolt of
lightning shrieked down and struck the higher end of the telescope standing on
the platform. The lightning-bolt passed through the telescope and sprang from
its eyepiece to the nearby lectern, which it blasted apart. From there, the
bolt jumped and danced about the rest of the roof. It leapt from candleholder
to candleholder, the upper end of each exploding as the bolt touched it. This
sundered the bottoms of the threads of light, the roots of the impossible
More lightning streaked down, and more
scrawls of energy cavorted around the tower-top. Drayak flung himself against
the flagstones. Fragments of metal and globs of wax rained on him. A slab-like
mass that was partly on fire thumped down nearby, something he identified as
the Eyeless Prophet’s book, blown all the way from the lectern. Then a man
staggered past, screaming, flames devouring the robe he was wearing.
Gudroon kept standing and chanting amid
the chaos. Another cult-member, a female, lurched towards her. Gore leaked from
an empty eye-socket, over the white-tattooed half of the woman’s face. Without
ceasing chanting, the witch swung the staff and swatted her down with it.
Meanwhile, Drayak spotted a male
cult-member stumbling across the roof behind Gudroon. He carried a dagger in
his unbloodied right hand. Drayak forced himself back onto his feet and ran to intercept
him. On the way, he remembered he was weaponless and snatched up the book,
grabbing it by an edge that wasn’t yet in flames. He reached the man, smashed
the book against his head and knocked him flat. Burning pages swirled through
the air around them.
Lightning continued to sear down and now the
roof was ablaze with dozens of different fires. As he flung away what remained
of the book, Drayak saw something new. Advancing across the roof was a
pirouetting wind, sucking up debris and sparks and tatters of flame into a
vortex a couple of yards across. Gudroon saw the wind too and shouted to him, “If
you want to get out of here, seize hold of me!”
He raced over and wrapped his arms about
her waist just before the dervish of wind got to her. Then the pair of them
shot upwards and whirled around as the wind spirited them off the tower.
He got one more glimpse of the cosmic tree.
Unanchored from the tower, it shrank up into the sky. The forms that’d been
hurrying along its trunk retreated with it, their screams of jubilation
changing to ones of frustration and rage, their grotesque images becoming
indiscernible as they dwindled to dots. Then the black storm-clouds engulfed
the tree and its passengers, and they vanished.
He was unsure how much time they spent in
the air, but it couldn’t have been for long. After the wind had lowered them
and sent them slewing through mud, water, reeds, and grass, and they’d finally
halted, they were still within sight of the tower. For a moment Drayak was on
his back. Slimy, cold water slopped over his face. Panicking, he sat up and
discovered he was in the middle of a shallow pool.
His arms still gripped Gudroon, who rested
on his lap. “I think,” she said, “you can let go of me now.”
He released her, disturbed by how his
lower body had responded to her closeness.
They struggled to their feet. Although the
stem of the tower was visible in the distance, silhouetted against the starry night-sky,
its summit was hidden in a mantle of clouds that flickered with lightning and tolled
with thunder. Then the thunder gave way to an explosive roar. They dove back
into the pool and, for several moments afterwards, debris large and small could
be heard splatting and splashing down into the marshland around them.
When silence prevailed, they peered up
again and saw that the storm had disappeared. So had the upper part of the
tower. The stump that was left belched smoke into the starlight, through a maw
of broken, jagged stonework.
Drayak demanded, “What was it I saw up
there? I thought it was a gigantic tree, reaching to the stars. But I expect
you’ll tell me it wasn’t really a tree.”
“No. You saw only what you were capable of
“I know what you’re going to say. Be
thankful I only saw a tree. How fortunate we simple mortals are. Spared all the
dreadful sights available to a witch!”
Ignoring his jibe, Gudroon got up and
began wading through the pool in the opposite direction from the tower. She’d managed
to retain her staff and she used it to steady herself. “Most of the cult weren’t
taking part in that final ritual. They might not have been in the tower and
might have survived its destruction. We’d better leave this area now.”
“Couldn’t your Grand Coven,” he complained,
plodding through the mud and water after her, “have transported us further from
that damned thing?”
“They were so intent on putting an end to
the shenanigans, and preventing the arrival of those abominations, that we’re
lucky they remembered us at all.”
“How considerate of them. To remember us!”
For a long time they travelled in silence.
Then, at last, the lowest stars by the eastern horizon began to fade amid the
pale, red light of dawn.
Gudroon announced, “I suppose I’ll have to
walk the whole way home. That’ll take many days. And I, even I, would appreciate
a little company. Especially when that company is someone with fighting prowess,
who could serve as my bodyguard.”
He chuckled. “You’re the last person
needing a bodyguard. But if I perform this duty, will I be paid for it?”
“Of course. Come to think of it, you’ll
need to accompany me to the Grand Coven anyway. To collect your payment for the
services you’ve rendered already, at the tower.”
“Well, I may consider your offer. But just
now all I’m interested in is finding a creek of clean water in this dismal
place, one that hasn’t stagnated and congealed into muck. Where I can strip off
and bathe and wash away these layers of mud, blood, ash, smoke... And soothe
the many injuries I’ve incurred so far in your employment.”
He thought about what he’d said and added,
“Don’t worry. I shan’t strip off in front of you. I’ll do that at a discrete
“I should hope so. There’s a limit to the
amount of excitement a lady of my years can take in one night.”
Gudroon’s voice was the driest thing in
the entire, sodden marsh.
© 2022 Rab Foster
Foster has spent much of his life living in the
Borders region of Scotland. He grew up on a hill-farm, but now
works as an
educational consultant. His fantasy stories have appeared in
Blood Moon Rising, Legend, Schlock! Webzine, Sorcerous Signals, Swords
Sorcery Magazine and Volume 3 of Sword and Sorceries: Tales of Heroic
He blogs regularly at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/.
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