The Tower: Chapter Four - Under the Trees

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Chapter Four

Sittius strips off his armor and places it carefully down in front him. He wraps a length of rope around his torso, slings a waterskin around his neck and places a dagger in his belt. Shielding his eyes from the early morning sun, he cranes back his head to scan the cliff face upwards to its summit. "Higher than I thought," he mutters before forcing a smile onto his face. "Lead on, woman."

Angelina of Brythunia needs no second invitation, and mounts the rockface swiftly and surely using hand and footholds that only she can see. Leaping to catch the overhang she swings herself up and onward in one smooth movement, and is then gone from the sight of those below. A slow trickle of dust and pebbles marks her upward progress.

Sittius fares less well. Climbing ropes in the Marlin has not prepared him for the treachery of the overhang, and try as he might his questing fingers can find no purchase on the crumbling stone. After four or five attempts to pass this first obstacle he is forced to admit defeat, cursing roundly in his frustration, his temper not improved by the sound of Angelina's tinkling laughter from far above.

Shortly a rope descends, and Sittius tries the climb again, with more success this time. Soon all of the party, including Veredan, have gained the cliff top, panting and blowing with the effort. The only casualty is Sittius' waterskin, which slips from around his neck just as he reaches the summit, and bursts on the rocks below.

They recover from the climb sprawled amongst a growth of coarse grass, not fifty yards from the edge of the dark, silent jungle. By now the sun is high in the sky, and the heat of the day would be oppressive were it not for the light sea-breeze.

It is dark under the trees. Dark, hot and stifling. The humidity smites the wary explorers like the wrath of the gods, slowly and surely draining their vitality as they venture deeper into the jungle. The silence is primordial. Not even a leaf quivers on a branch. Companions are dimly-glimpsed shapes in a twilight world, dark shadows against green and grey. Peering around, the adventurers see nothing but creepers and tangled vines, marching rows of warped and twisted trunks receding into the gloom of the deep woods.

The ground is pitted and scarred, as if by some ancient trauma. Time and again a thicket of vines or a leafy branch is brushed aside to find a piece of ancient stone blocking the path, or a narrow crack or fissure of unguessed depth crossing the way.

And yet, disturbingly, passage through the undergrowth is almost effortless. On either side a mass of vines and creepers block the way, and the trees seem to close ranks behind the travellers as they pass, but the way forward is strangely easy to find.

In the vanguard of the party, Sittius tells himself that he is following an ancient path, that must be it. Yet there is no other sign of habitation in this jungle, and in the back of his mind is a grim and growing suspicion that the trees are simply letting the trvaellers pass this way and that the tale would be very different, aye, if they took it upon themselves to turn aside or even - dare he entertain the thought? - turn back...

A sudden stench assails the young warrior's nostrils, causing him to cough and curse... something ancient and somehow... unclean? Then just as suddenly it is gone.

As the echoes of his outburst die away, Sittius realises that the jungle is silent as the grave. The heat is stifling, but there are no insects, no cries of birds or beasts. Just a furtive rustling off either side of the path that occasionally reaches his ears as he pauses to draw his next ragged breath.

And in the name of Mitra, how much longer must he walk before he reaches this blasted tower?

One moment they stumble in turn against a trailing branch in the dimness of the jungle. The next moment, without warning, their eyes are blinking in the bright sunlight of a clearing.

And in the middle of the clearing stands the tower.