The Tower: Chapter Five - Into the Tower
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"Tower", Anteus decides, may be a misnomer for this building. Squat, it is, about 40 feet in diameter and the same in height, although once it may have been taller. The top is sheared off abruptly, and a good deal of rubble and broken stone lies scattered around its base.
The ancient stone, still purple from a distance, has the slightest sheen of brown up close, from centuries of baking under the tropical sun. There are, he notes, a few cracks in the wall. The remains of windows can be seen in the ground floor, and there is a hole where doubtless once was a stout wooden door. No windows, however, can be seen above ground level.
And Anteus observes one more curious thing. The boundary of the clearing seems to be a point of demarcation. Beyond that line is the lush fertility of the jungle through which he and his companions have just passed, thick vines and luxuriant growth. Within the clearing, though, the grass is thin, stubbly and ill-nourished. There are patches of bare earth, dry and gray, as if the ground has been leeched of its vitality.
The tower stands brooding silently in a circle of death.
"I like this not at all," Sittius mutters, licking his lips and eying the crumbling top of the tower. "I think that one of us should scout ahead," he suggests, and draws his shortswords with a flourish that betrays a little of his unease. "Those of you with bows, keep them at the ready," he mutters to the others and without waiting for comment sets off on a careful circuit of the building, avoiding the door but trying to peer through the remains of the windows.
Lina steps into the clearing after Sittius, screwing her eyes up at the sudden sunlight. She looks about cautiously, still recalling that awful stench in the jungle. A few paces away from the edge of the jungle seem a good idea, room to bring her bow to bear should someone or something leap out of the vegetation.
For once she has nothing to say, she just looks warily at the tower, the blasted grass and the edge of the forbidding jungle...
Anteus scans the area including overhead. He plants his halberd beside him and unlimbers his crossbow. Loading it, he waits and maintains his vigil of the surrounding area as the others concentrate on the building in front of them.
Sittius trots back to the group, suddenly mindful that he makes an excellent target out in the open. "There's not much to see," he admits. "Three windows. The one to the right of the door looks in on some kind of bedroom. There's one round the back, though 'tis too small and high up to get a good look inside. The one to the left of the doorway looks in on a room filled with rubble of some kind. The doorway opens onto a corridor running straight back toward the rear of the tower."
He glances back at the ancient structure before continuing. "It's too dark inside to tell much else. But I think the windows were once shuttered and the doorway had a wooden door. All that wood has rotted away, so I can't be sure, but I found a bit of twisted metal near the doorway..." He shrugs. "Maybe the door was ripped out of its moorings?"
Lina slips the bow over her shoulder, the arrow back into her quiver and draws her shortsword. "Better that we go into the tower now and face whatever's there than stay out here roasting in the sun."
With that, she heads quietly across the clearing towards the tower.
Jubal draws his broadsword, flexing stiff muscles. "Rouse yourself, dogs," he growls. "The day is wasting away, and if I stand here much longer I shall take root."
"Remind me to discuss with you how civilized people address their comrades, Jubal." Sarracenius gestures towards the door with his blade. "In the mean time, after you. I'll be nipping at your heels."
"Enough of this bickering!" admonishes Veredan. "Jubal, stay by my side. Sarrencius, keep a civil tongue in your head - men have died for less than you have said to my Captain, and he is right, after all. The day is wasting away while we stand here." He glances at each of you in turn. "So. Who goes first?"
Stealthily they gather outside the doorway, watchful, weapons drawn. Inside the tower all is quiet. From outside it can be seen that a wide corridor bisects the ground floor, its far end lost in darkness. The floor of this hallway is made of the same stone as the rest of the tower, but it is covered with dirt, mud and the bones of small animals, either tracked-in or blown-in by the wind.
Daylight comes from two doorways, one on either side of the corridor. With the briefest pause, Sarracenius steps inside, blade held ready, and enters the first chamber off the corridor. The adventurers slowly follow.
The floor of the first chamber is piled with all manner of rubbish. Broken scraps of wood were once a table and chairs. Against the wall beneath the window are the remains of a firepit, with a spit and an old kettle by its side. Scattered around are rusted pieces of metal and broken shards of earthenware - kitchen utensils and broken pots. Empty shelves sag on the walls.
And the room has one other occupant - a tangle of bones and tattered cloth sprawled on the floor towards the rear of the tower.
Sittius approaches the tangle of bones and cloth. From its size, he guesses that this tangle of ancient bones was once a woman. Not a scrap of flesh, however, remains. Whatever clothing she once wore has rotted to shreds of dirty, dusty fabric. She lies in a heap as if discarded.
"No head," says Sittius, gravely. "Whatever killed her, took her head."
"Sittius," Sarracenius swallows. "Sittius, tell me the pot by the fireplace is empty."
As Sittius and Sarrencius poke about amongst the earthenware, Lina casts sharp eyes about the room from the doorway and points to a dark corner. "Over there, I see a skull ..... and a glint of gold." She edges into the room, sword drawn and with its tip she rolls the skull over, holding her breath.
The old bones clatter harmlessly on the stone flags as Lina pushes them aside. Beneath is a golden disc, just a little too large to fit in the palm of Lina's hand, fastened to a neck chain - an amulet of some kind. She picks it up, studies its surface briefly. It is clearly an object of some antiquity. One side is unadorned by decoration. The other side bears an engraving in relief, what seems to be a stylised swarming mass of tentacles and hooves.
"Let me see," says Veredan, emerging suddenly from the shadows with outstretched hand. Lina hands him the object without a word, and he peers at it closely for a few moments in the dim light before handing it to Jubal. "Does the relief mean aught to you?"
Jubal glances at the disc, shakes his head, hands it back to Veredan.
"At least we have something to show for our efforts now." Veredan smiles his thin smile, and places the chain around his neck. "Shall we proceed?"
"By all means," agrees Sittius. "The more shiny trinkets we find the larger grows my one-twentieth share. And the sooner we wring the secrets from this cursed place, the sooner we can return to a place where I can spend my reward."
Veredan smiles again that enigmatic smile, and waves Sittius on with one languid hand.
The scraps of furniture in the second chamber are badly broken and decayed, its once-gorgeous silks completely ruined. The remains of a silken pavilion can still be made out and, tangled within, another skeleton, again that of a woman judging by its size, with the skull completely crushed. Nearby is a large piece of stone from the ceiling. Scattered throughout the room is more rubble from the ceiling and walls, though nowhere are the walls completely pierced.
This room is lighter than the first chamber. A mirror of polished brass hangs on the wall by the window, although it is now smudged and tarnished.
Standing against the wall that divides the chamber from the corridor without are two large chests, that appear somehow to have survived intact.
Lina looks into the room and steps in quietly after Sittius. "I wonder what happened here? At least no body or thing has taken the head this time." Crouching down near the two chests Lina peers at them to see what sort of locks or catches or hinges they have before turning to the warriors. "Shall I have a look at these chests?" She asks, looking around, perhaps fearful of more pieces of the roof falling in.
"Aye, Lina," Sittius agrees, pointing at the chests with the shortsword in his left hand. "Have at them." The chests are ancient but sturdy oak, bound in iron and decorated in a tarnished metal that may be silver. Both have a couple of sturdy clasps at the front held fast by a single lock. Neither lock shows sign of corrosion.
"Well, Lina?" Sittius asks. "Know you anything of locks?"
"Oh I may know something of locks, I may," laughs Lina lightly, tossing blonde braids from her face as she draws a worn canvas roll of lock picks from her satchel. Despite the morbid surroundings, Sittius chuckles at the revelation of Angelina's hidden talents. "You're a sly one," he grins.
Lina just flashes a white smile at Sittius and turns back to the lock. A quick flick of her wrist is followed by a metallic click as the catch snaps open. Her cry of triumph, though, is followed by a shout of alarm as a sharp, sturdy needle emerges suddenly from the keyhole and narrowly misses burying itself in her thumb. Only lightning reflexes save her. Sittius has never seen anyone move so fast.
"Gods' blood, woman! Are you all right?" Sittius asks eying the needle trap warily. "Someone certainly valued the contents of this chest. I am curious to see what the ancients have left for us to find." Cautiously he raises the lid of the chest with the point of his shortsword, only to find it contains man's clothing, ancient and mildewed. Lina rifles through the garments, cursing, pulling them out of the chest and tossing them carelessly aside. Then another cry of triumph and she holds aloft two heavy pouches that clink as if filled with coins. Gold and silver coins in fact, and in the smaller pouch a handful of gems and a man's gold ring set with a large opal.
"Well done, Lina!" Sittius grins, his eyes glittering almost as brightly as the gemstones. "Our wealth grows by the moment! Let us check the other chest and then move on."
The second chest proves no match for Anteus' prybar. The clasp yields with a sullen snap. Liftung the lid reveals women's clothing, mainly fine silks of a kind best suited to the harem. They seem better preserved than the men's robes in the other chest. There is jewellery too - earrings and bracelets, wrist and ankle chains, a couple of silver arm bands, three leather collars studded with silver, some delicate silver clamps and chains with more obscure functions. There is another amulet too, identical to the one found in the first chamber. And a small leather parchment case.
"Oh do look!" Lina's eyes light up at the sight of the intact silks and the jewellery. "Oh, well perhaps not suited to tramping through jungles!" Her laughter tinkles around the room as she twirls about with a few wisps of silk and silver chains draped over her linen tunic. She stops after a while to peer over the shoulder of Anteus as he empties the chest. "Another amulet. Do you wish a second my Lord?" Lina looks enquiringly at Veredan.
Veredan eyes the amulet profered by Lina, and shakes his head with an enigmatic smile. "I think that particular jewel would look better around your neck, my dear. Please... try it on."
Anteus eases a roll of parchment carefully out of the case as Sittius looks on. A half dozen sheets of manuscript closely written in a flowing script. He peers at them for a moment in the dim light and then grunts with surprise. "Ishtar's baubles! Its a little too dark in here to make it out clearly, but I'd swear this is written in Old Kothian..."
Sittius snorts derisively. "I don't read Old Kothian," he states flatly.
Sarrencius, Anteus and Lina pore over the ancient manuscript together for a few moments, Lina absent-mindedly fingering the amulet around her neck. Veredan peers over their shoulders briefly, and then walks away with a shake of his head. The writing is cramped, the language archaic and the ink smudged and faded with age.
Jubal hawks and spits noisily. "The dust of this place sticks in my throat," he grumbles. "Can we not leave these old bones in peace, Lord?"
The corridor is dark indeed beyond the doorway to the second chamber. Although the sun is high in the sky outside, and the air in the tower warm and stifling, little light penetrates the interior of the ruin beyond this point. Jubal stares ahead, hand on the hilt of his sword, face expressionless, an ebon statue but for a slow trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. Even Veredan seems affected by the heat and the silence. "Come," he murmurs. "My Captain speaks wisely. These are but trifles we have found. The real treasure, I am sure, lies in the chamber above. Lead on, Sittius."
"We'll need light if we're to move on this way," says Sittius, peering into the darkness. "Anteus, I saw you stuffing candles into your pack on board the Marlin. How many did you bring? I don't suppose that any of you others thought to bring light? Spark one of those candles, Anteus, then join me in the front so that you might light the way."
"Believe me," says Anteus, tossing Sittius a candle, "I'll be much more use holding a crossbow."
After a few feet they come to a choice of doorways, one left, one right. Gingerly, Sittius holds a lighted candle aloft.
The doorway to the right appears to open out into a room, which is in blackness save for one point of light that marks a small window high on the opposite wall. Anteus sniffs the air. "Damp," he murmurs. "I smell something damp."
The doorway to the left leads to a flight of stone steps leading upwards around the interior of the tower wall, dimly-illuminated by daylight filtering down from above. At the foot of these steps is sprawled another skeleton, that of a man this time in fighter's garb, covered in dirt and dust. He lies at the base of the far wall, a heap of tangled bones with a crushed skull. Around his neck is a golden amulet of familiar design. His leather armour is cracked now with age and useless. His scimitar lies a few feet away, dropped or discarded and covered in rust.
Lina frowns, stroking the amulet about her neck, lost in thought. An instant later though she looks up at the shafts of sunlight streaming down from above and her mood brightens. The steps are shallow and broad, climbing steadily upwards in a clockwise spiral. With a toss of blonde braids she turns to look at her companions to ask, "I am the lightest here by far, perhaps I can scale the stairs without disturbing any stonework. What say you all?"
Lina's smile is filled with mischief as she looks around at the warriors. And with a flash of tanned legs she is on her way up the stairs.
"M'Lord," asks Sarrencius "What of the dark room where Anteus smells damp?"
"That, I think, can wait," says Veredan, and sets off up the staircase with the rest of the party bar Jubal in tow. The black giant takes up a position of guard at the foot of the stairs.
It takes a full circuit of the tower, it seems, before the climb reaches the next floor. Just before Veredan completes that circuit he hears a startled yelp and a clatter. Lina recoils down the stairs, pale of face and clearly shaken. "Warm," she mutters. "Its warm..."
Without a word, Veredan moves her gently aside and continues his climb.