Monday, September 12, 2016

To the Skull Tower

Jaga made her way through the tenebrous jungle night under a full moon. A mist hung in the air, between the giant boles of the primordial trees, and all around were the sounds of the creatures of darkness. Insects cried and monkeys jabbered, and now and again came the tortured scream of a leopard. She moved with absolute silence, walking on bare feet as she slipped through the shadows and silver light to the place where she could look up to the dark tower.

She had never seen it, yet a thousand tales spoke of the skull-covered ruin high in the upland forests. The black stone was volcanic, hewn from the soil of the mountain, and the bones of those slain in that long-ago eruption jutted from the black glassine blocks, carefully cut so that each one showed the face of the dead to the solitary night. The tower was ancient and covered in red vines studded with thorns that dripped a killing venom; it had been built and abandoned in a forgotten age, and tonight a light gleamed in the topmost window.

Jaga reached the base of the tower and crouched in the darkness at the edge of the trees. Wary, her ears straining to hear the slightest sound, she tested her bowstring and loosened her sword in its sheath. Around her right wrist was a charm to ward off evil magic, and mail shimmered on her shoulders and arms. Inside, she would find the fugitive sorcerer Shevan, and this time, no spell would deflect her fatal arrow.

She did not fear the dread thorn vines for she had spent her life becoming immune to the common sorts of poisons. The points that her armor did not shrug aside left no more than painful stings. She slung her bow and climbed past the bare lower reaches of the tower. The height of five men stretched below her before she reached one of the open, ruined windows, and then she slipped carefully inside. The floor was old and weak, and she stepped carefully lest it break and spill her to her death. She would not let a worm like Shevan escape her hunt. She had been paid good gold to put an end to him, and further, he was a wretched man who warranted death.

But he escaped her, in the city of Pallas, three moons ago. Her arrow had glanced from his protective enchantment and dug into his shoulder, leaving him to escape in a billow of choking smoke and leave her nothing but blood to curse. It was a professional embarrassment, and one she would not suffer another night. He had fled here, to this most remote and haunted place, to hide from her. It would not be enough.

She climbed easily, testing her grips before she trusted them with her weight. There were plenty of vines and creepers to hold onto, and her effort was mostly to do so quietly. She brushed away deadly yellow spiders and when a purple serpent with glowing eyes lashed at her she slapped it out of her way and left it coiling in frustration. Jaga had been born in the remote jungle forests at the edges of the empire – she feared nothing to be found here.

Higher, and she heard the sounds of chanting, low and slow and with an ugly sound in an unknown tongue. She moved more carefully now, knowing she was close. There was light above, shining through the cracks in the ancient floor. There she saw the remnants of a stair and the rope coiled close by that he had used to climb to the top. She liked to think of him sweating and grunting as he ascended higher.

Something moved against the darkness, and she froze in place, motionless as part of the night, watchful. It moved again and she saw it there – a small devil he set as a watcher. It was low and built like a scorpion, the tail coiled behind it, many legs dug into the wood of the ancient stairs. The small head had two blister-like eyes, but it had not seen her, or if it did, it gave no sign.

Carefully, silently, Jaga shifted, turned to wind her legs through the hanging vines, and then let them take her weight, hanging upside-down in the darkness. She unlimbered her bow and silently nocked an arrow. The string of her bow was wound with little knots of fur to silence it, and she drew silently, finger making a rest for the arrow so the fletchings would not slap against the staff.

Silent, silent, she measured her swing against the vines, distance and angle and breath, and then she loosed. The arrow struck fast and hard, piercing the tiny demon just behind its head and impaling the long body. The creature twitched once and fell, dropping away into the dark with its legs flailing. She did not hear it hit.

She hung there and waited, listening, but there was no pause in the long chant, and she smelled the acrid, bitter smells of the mixtures used in witchcraft. After a moment she slung her bow again and resumed her climb. Now she was even more cautious; just because she had dispatched a guard did not mean it was the only one.

It seemed to take her a long time to reach the stair, and then she had to test the ancient wood to see if it would hold her weight. It was rotten and crumbling, but enough of it remained for it to support her. She climbed up the last half-turn with her bow in hand, another arrow set to the string. Slowly, making no sound, she slipped upward into the light.

The upper chamber was filled with such things as Shevan had been able to smuggle with him. Cheap rugs covered the rotting floorboards, bolts of stolen silk hung over the old stone of the walls. Skulls and other bones were arranged in patterns and scattered on the floor. She saw him there, not twenty feet away, his back to her. He was a small man, hunched and discolored by the practice of his evil arts. His hands were long and marked by strange scars, his nails black and curled and uncut. His hair was braided in tight rows, and one of his ears had been gnawed away by a demon years ago, leaving an ugly hole.

He stood facing away from her, arms open as he chanted to a billowing cloud of smoke. Six bone-yellow dandles smoldered in a circle over the wizard sign drawn on the floor in blood. Incense coiled from no fewer than three burners, making the air thick and foul-smelling. Jaga drew her arrow back and sighted for his heart, but then she paused. Something bothered her, something was not right.

She sniffed, carefully, and she remembered that smell from before, the smell of his magic. She looked more closely at the brazier closest to him, and she recognized it. Perhaps it was the source of his protective magic. She squinted at the air between them and thought it was hazy – more than the haze of mere smoke.

He chanted louder, gesturing, and the candles in the circle burned higher, smoke roiling up in a column to the stone ceiling. Jaga drew out a second arrow and held it in her fist, close against her bow-stave. She drew again and this time she aimed at the small, bronze brazier. A breath, a sigh, and then she loosed.

Her arrow struck hard, and the brazier flipped over and scattered burning coals in a spray of red. The sound of the stroke was like the toll of a bell in the confined space of the room. Shevan jerked in shock, and he began to turn, but she was already nocking her second arrow. The tumbling brazier had not stopped moving when she drew to her eye and aimed for his heart. He turned and saw her, and his eyes went wide, one of them permanently white and blank from the burn of forbidden powers. He held out a foul hand, fingers spread. She saw fear – real fear – in his face, and then she loosed.

Her aim was deadly, and the shaft flew between two of his outstretched fingers and the arrowhead cut them as it passed, and then the bolt buried itself in his chest. She saw him stiffen, and saw the arrow twitch as his heart clenched around it, and then he went down, crumpled like a black rag on the blood-painted floor.

Jaga let out a long breath, and then flames erupted inside the candle ring, and she heard a roar that seemed to come from far away, growing closer, louder, until the flames dashed against the stone roof and a shadow appeared inside the circle. She saw a horned skull set with six gleaming amethyst eyes, and wings stretched forth from wall to wall, and she realized she had made a mistake.

Unbound by the death of its summoner, the demon burst free from the arcane sigil that had called it forth. Claws like black iron gouged the ancient floor, and the beating wings scattered fire and splashed it over stone and wood. The bones and skulls strewn about the lair of necromancy scattered and broke, crushing under the tread of this thing from a distant abyss. It howled through jaws lined with black glass teeth, and it came for her in a rush of hunger and lust.

Jaga acted by reflex, and she fired two arrows one after the other, quick as adders. She saw the bolts sink into the scaled breast of the fiend, but they did not slow it. It howled and clawed at the shafts, snapping them loose even as they burned to ash. It came for her and she leaped away as it struck and shattered the ancient floor. Stone and wood fractured and flew in burning shards, and Jaga felt her foothold drop away.

She fell hard and landed on the very edge of the ruined stair below, the wood cracking and shifting beneath her sudden weight. The demon filled her view above, roaring through the torn hole. She bent her bow and fired, sending an arrow into its neck, the steel head punching up through the back of the bull-like throat, already glowing red hot.

The beast howled like a cracking sky and tore the floor open, plunged down to seize her just as she leaped away. It gouged the vine-choked stone with unyielding claws, holding on with its wings like spread hands. Fire coiled around it, never ceasing, curling moss and creepers to ash.

Jaga struck the tangled vines and caught a grip with her one free hand, clinging grimly to her bow. Vines snapped loose and dropped her a body-length before they brought her up. She swung, braced her feet against the wall, and hooked her arm through the hanging tendrils. In the jungle dark the demon was a blaze of fire, impossible to miss. She drew an arrow, bent her bow, and fired again, sinking another arrow into the juncture of neck and shoulder.

Now the fury of the beast broke all bounds, and it ripped stones from the walls and shattered the remains of the stair. Burning wood cascaded down, and the entire top of the tower slumped and began to crumple, cracks racing along the ancient stone.

It hurled itself at her and she simply dropped, feeling the many crisscrossed vines catch and slow her. It flashed by, all fire and iron flesh, and it shattered the wall of the tower. Flames boiled out and stone plummeted down. Already the uppermost floor of the tower was an inferno, a pyre for the fallen Shevan, his body consumed at last in a fire he could not control.

Swinging, half-tangled in jagged vines that dug at her flesh, Jaga drew again and fired into the heart of that cursed flame, driving two more shafts into the chest of the demon, making it howl in rage, and in pain. The scream was human and not human, and the stretched maw showed smaller, clenched teeth behind the outer row of blackened fangs.

It slashed through the vines to reach her, and she had time for one more arrow. She drew well past her eye, and fired her final bolt down that gaping mouth to embed in the unseen flesh within. The demon snapped off the shaft with its jaws, and then it was almost on her.

She dropped her bow and drew her sword from her side, and the steel sang in the night air. It was blued Akarian steel, sharp as dreams and unbreakable in the hand, and it caught the firelight in little blue sparks that crawled on the etched blade. The demon slashed through the vines that held her and she struck it on the arm even as she dropped, the fine edge cutting the otherworldly flesh in a spray of sparks, as if she had cut an embered log.

Jaga fell again, caught a vine and swung against the stone wall. Even from here she felt the heat of the burning top floor conducted through the stone. Like a chimney, the tower was sucking in the humid night air and funneling it upward to feed the flames. There was a snapping sound and the remnant of the staircase fell burning to crash against the wall and tumble down to shatter below.

There was the ghost of a ledge here, and Jaga braced her feet on it, tried to gain balance while the demon came ravening down toward her, half climbing and half falling. Claws scoured the ancient stone and it cracked and fell apart. The thing fell on her like a burning wall of iron, and the claws shattered the wall as they plunged in and tried to hold it in place.

It gouged at her and she struck the beast a ferocious blow that severed the horn away in a splash of flaming blood. It howled and lunged in, jaws wide to bite, and she shoved her sword in between the dark teeth, braced it with both hands to keep those jaws from her flesh. Fangs clashed on the smoking steel, and the edge cut into the back of the demon’s jaw. Scalding blood poured forth and spattered her hand. Her flesh smoked and she cried out.

The thing tried to wrench her sword from her grasp and she held in grimly, reached back and grasped an arrow from her quiver and plunged it into one of the six blazing eyes. The monster thrashed away and it lost its grip, fell below her, threshing its wings, trying to gain back the height it lost. Jaga set both hands on the hilt of her sword and leaped downward.

She landed on the thing, felt the burning heat bake against her skin, and she struck down hard. The glittering edge cut into the alien flesh, and blood that burned spilled out. It twisted and threw her aside, and she snagged on a thorned vine and almost fell, hung on as she swung into the wall and hit hard enough to knock the breath out of her. A wing battered at her and she slashed at it, opening a long cut through the membranes. The demon howled and smashed her with the back of one clawed fist. The blow drove her against the wall and her vision darkened for a moment as her head bounced off the stone. She tasted blood.

There was a terrible ripping sound and the upper floor of the tower split apart and came cascading down in a hail of fire. Jaga hugged the wall and shielded her face as the air filled with falling hot stone and burning wood. The demon howled and a flaming beam struck it dead center like a ram, ripping it loose and sending it plummeting downward.

The wall gave way and Jaga yelled as she spilled out into the night. The darkness was shockingly complete after the blaze of the flames. She dropped her sword and groped for something – anything – to hold onto. Her hands closed on a poisoned thornvine, and she felt the points rip her flesh as she slid down. The vine halted her fall, broke loose from the stone and sent her plummeting the remaining distance to smash down in the thick jungle undergrowth.

Jaga rolled over, groaning in pain. It felt as if she had broken ribs, and her left shoulder was a mass of pain and the arm would not move no matter how she tried to make it. A cracking sound like lightning split the mountain quiet, and she turned to see the tower fall in upon itself, slumping down into a burning ruin as it collapsed. When the weight of it struck she felt the shock through the earth under her, and it spewed forth a huge blast of sparks and dust. Embers rained down around her and she flinched from them.

With a groan she dragged herself to her feet and tested her muscles, finding her legs sound enough, even if her ribs and arm were jagged with pain. She made her way closer to the tower, hoping she might find her bow or her sword among the scattered wreckage, but there was nothing but broken stone and charred wood. Doubtful she could even find Shevan’s blackened skull to take back with her.

The wreckage shifted, sending up a spray of sparks, and then it heaved up and the demon dragged itself out of the ruin. One side of its face was crushed in, three eyes dark, and it dragged a mangled wing behind it, but it breathed hatred and spat venom burning into the grass, and it came for her with a guttering snarl.

Jaga turned too fast and dizziness brought her crashing to the ground. Hot embers burned her skin and she grunted, pushed herself backward as the demon closed on her. She grabbed up a stone and hurled it, smashing it against the monster’s skull. It growled and kept coming and she threw another, and another, groping behind her for missiles as she crawled backward. It did not stop, it did not slow. It loomed over her with jaws wide, and her hand closed blindly on the hilt of her sword.

The demon lunged and she brought her sword over and down in a desperate blow that struck the side of its neck and bit deep into the unearthly flesh. Molten blood spilled, but the Akarian steel did not falter or give way. The demon put one claw on her and she felt the talons digging through her mail, piercing the links. She gritted her teeth and dragged the sword through the wound, sawing it deeper, and the hot blood poured out and seared her leg.

She screamed and shoved the massive thing to one side, levering it off her. It thrashed, wings beating in its last convulsion of fury. Jaga pulled her sword free and chopped at the thing again and again, grunting with the effort, until she severed the misshapen head and the whole loathsome corpse lay still and smoking in the wet grass.

Jaga collapsed, gasping for breath, feeling pain in every fiber of her body, only obscured by the sharper pain of her wounds. She lay for a moment, looking up at the spray of stars across the night sky, watching the pillar of smoke from the burning tower climb up and up, until it finally vanished in the haze of the scattered clouds. Slowly, she gathered her strength and sat up. Then she gathered more strength and got to her feet. The night was not over, she had a long way to go, and she desperately wanted a drink.

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