Alight

June, 2017

There are swirls of fine, grey dust spiraling about your ankles when your fingers release the weathered rope and the soles of your leather boots hit the packed earth. The whispered thud of each footstep is smothered in the stagnant air and when you draw your next breath--slowly and steadily through clenched teeth--the years of stale neglect are heavy on your tongue. It would seem that your steps are the first to trace this tower in decades.

The upended bookcases and shredded silk draperies come as no surprise to you. The tower's reputation has been penned in blood through the ages, from mage school to prison to inquisitor's chapel. You gingerly toe a spent, shattered arrow shaft away from your path, and move forward, daring to test a beam of anemic, artificial light with a dented brass vase. There is a wheezing rattle and whistle, but no spritz of acid nor rush of flame. Even the traps in this tower are too old for adventuring.

The chipped stone stairs shift and shudder beneath your heels as you descend to the lower levels, past crumbling arches and piles of rubble, beyond shards of stained glass and seas of silent, splintered furniture whose hinges had worn past the point of mournful creaking. Down farther still, into the yawning abyss at the tower's base, where you prayed that you would find your prize.

The cold strikes your face unexpectedly, a surge of damp chill that set your teeth knocking and your fingers flexing. It takes several minutes of icy daggers needling their way underneath your fingernails and into your limbs before you can bring yourself to inch forward again. This time you unhook the steel cage at your waist and strike a flint with shaking hands. The burst of fire that licks at the dirty glass is almost too bright in the murky depths of the abandoned tower, and you blink away fat, stinging tears that carve dull tracks through the grime on your cheeks and chin.

One foot in front of another, you scramble ahead, perhaps more quickly than you'd dare admit around a tavern table. There are some errant slips of paper peppered along the filthy walls, but the furniture is upright and untouched, pristine save for the inches of gray neglect that cover their once polished surfaces like a shroud. You take note of all that you see here, from the gubby ivory mosaics that sprawl along the high ceilings to the time-stained satin tablecloths with careful creases at the corners to the mysteriously cloaked mounds dotting the distant corners of the wide greeting room, only to slow to a halt in front of something you had not quite expected.

A closed, perfectly polished door.

Your hand trembles above the handle for a moment and returns to awkwardly cradle the lantern, avoiding the empty braziers on either side. Without exposing your back (why does that thought come to you?), you step away and edge yourself to the nearest lump, darting your eyes over it uneasily.

The sound of the roughspun linen scratching the pads of your fingers is louder than your newly realized panting and you peer past the clouds of your breath only to recoil in horror when your lantern's light catches its face. Bile rises like a fountain, burning its way up to the roof of your mouth and you lean away to dry heave. The stench is unbearable. It clings to the back of your teeth even as the acid in your stomach claws it way up and out of your throat. Your skin and eyes burn with it: the stink of fat and human remains, of smoldering flesh and rotting meat.

When the tremors cease and your shoulders straighten, you dare a second look. Relief washes over you instantly and you feel the prickles of sweat and adrenaline at your hairline that leave you lightheaded. The lump you uncovered is a crudely carved candle, a monstrous mass of wax and tallow, with limbs that stretch in all directions and a face twisted in the throes of torture. You stare into the soot-black stems of waxy wicks that are shoved into where eyes ought to have been and feel that pinprick of fear again.

Gasping, you dash to each pile of stinking fabric, unveiling two dozen in total, each a looming abomination that is frozen in eternal suffering. Some are clawing at their bodies and have peeled long stripes of wax from their breasts beneath desperate fingers. Others have sunk to their knees in supplication, begging for salvation. One in particular stares ahead, his torso a tangled mass of scowls and jeers. He meets your eyes, or would, if he had been granted any by his deranged sculptor and a single finger is raised as though in accusation.

You back from the greeting room slowly and slip down another hall in long strides, refusing to glance over your shoulder at the shadows steadily creeping closer in the wake of your hasty retreat.

Aside from the ever-present sheen of silver dust, the library is unravaged by time. You enter cautiously, having expected either the tidy display of the greeting room or the whirlwind of debris of the high levels.

Instead, your curiosity is piqued, though in a decidedly less sinister fashion than the tower's grotesque display of human candles. Each and every bookshelf in this room is empty, their remains having been carefully excavated and placed in a stream of spirals that decorate the floor, walls, and ceiling. Every book has been laid out and sorted in scrolling sweeps and intricate swirls with no regard to subject or size. They did not appear to be fastened in place and a kick or two with your boot sends a couple sailing across the floor.

In the distance there is an unsettling drone that rattles the empty shelves. A cursory glance from the doorway yields no evidence of other life, so you set the lantern at the entrance of the room, away from the delicate books.

You pick through the titles laid out before you impatiently. Any number of these books could be what the old elf was looking for and none of them seem worth the price he'd so graciously proposed. The parchments and papers are so fragile that you can not bear to thumb through many, glancing only at the titles gilded along the spines or illuminated inside of the soft leather covers.

When your fingers rest upon the spine of a palm-sized black book, you hear that solemn drone again. Some force keeps your eye on the book and when you mouth the title---Family Recipes for the Cursed and Corrupt---the dark beyond the doorway surges into the room with an icy blast, smashing your lantern on the stone floor. You clutch the book to your shaking chest, overwhelmed by the chorus of several hundred thousand pages ripped and rent and ravaged.

The drone sounds a third and final time as the wind dies down and you hear the parchment settle. You slide the book into your belt and crawl from the library, blood trickling along your jawline, stiff fingers scraping the wall until you can tug yourself to your feet. The cold bathes you in that gut-churning stench of fear and decay and you drag yourself along the wall toward it, groaning and gasping with each step.

When you reach the greeting room, the oil braziers are washing it in cold blue flame. The human candles are at the long table, looming over the crisp creases in the satin cloth, their impassive lord pointing to you from the head. Behind him, the polished door awaits, open and hungry.

You squeeze the book between your palms again, stroking the sigils stamped into the spine. It begs your attention, needling at the edges of your will until you tear your eyes from the gruesome display and slide a fingernail between the pages. A small peek couldn't hurt----

When you hear the strike of flint, it is far too late. There is a flash, a flicker, and then the wall of dread that knocks you back. Before the screaming begin--a piercing whistle that spikes into your brain and sends blood to the edges of your eye---you know that somehow someone has lit one of the human candles. You swallow your own cries of horror and race away from the room with its mysterious door and monstrous guardians.

The screams and the screamers follow every step of the way.

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