Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

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 rumbled again.

 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 his blade.

 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 tattoo…

 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 guard.

 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 him.

 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.”

 “My mind?”

 “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?”

 “No.”

 “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 this region?”

 “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.”

 “But…?”

 “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 think.”

 “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?”

 “Look below.”

 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 intersections. 

 “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 main ritual?”

 “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 them.”

 “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? Eleven eyes?”

 Baleful and intense, they returned his gaze.

 “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, droning one.

 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 break.

 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 world.

 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 tree. 

 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 seeing. However…”

 “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 distance.” 

 “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.

THE END


2022 Rab Foster

Bio: Rab 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 Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Legend, Schlock! Webzine, Sorcerous Signals, Swords and Sorcery Magazine and Volume 3 of Sword and Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy.  He blogs regularly at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/.  


Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.