There is a tall tower to the north. It is made of stone that looks a common gray from afar. But I have been close enough to see the stone shift hues, to glitter with the gilded veins of an otherworldly ore, to fade into a pale so utmost as to be nigh invisible.
A warlock once lived there, it is said. Now the tower is abandoned.
But that does not mean is it safe.
The tower is haunted, it is said. By all that the warlock left behind.
The volatile residues of rancid potions seep through the still locked door of the workshop on the ground floor. They rise and swirl unchecked, seeking, snaring the odd swallow whose curiosity brings it too close to an open window, twisting the odd spider whose web was spun in the wrong corner. If the trapped creatures are lucky, they die quickly. If they are not, they might become part of the unearthly menagerie that lurks and stalks.
It is enough to stop the heart from beating to be climbing the stone steps in pitch dark and hear something shuffling ahead. But it’s worse, it is said, if they come into view. Such a thing was still possible, for some chambers and hallways were still lit with torches that burned with a hazy green flame.
It is said that the warlock summoned otherworldly creatures, some to do his bidding and some to drain of their most potent vitalities—be it their blood, their tears, their sanity. These disparate beings—some wicked, some good, but all aligned with one purpose—banded together to battle and destroy the warlock.
Thereafter, some were able to break free of the tower, but some found themselves tumbling deeper into it, and by the time they realized, it was too late to turn around. They were like beetles trapped in the throat of a pitcher plant, slowly dying in the juices of the foul enchantments that permeated the tower. For the tower seemed to have a hunger of its own.
The only protection for the lands lying around the tower was the spell that the warlock cast to contain all the tower’s powers within itself. He did not cast it out of kindness or regard, but so that none of what he wrought would escape his clutches, so that none of his power would fall into the hands of another.
There are stories of people—both foolish and intrepid—who have ventured into the tower to try and pry some of its secrets and powers away. Some have been lost, for while their attention was vigilant against monsters in the shadows, they failed to notice the strange turns of the corridors they walked, turns that lead deeper and deeper into the tower, twisting and turning upon themselves, up the walls and down a narrow spiraling staircase…
Some have returned unchanged, or perhaps they only think they are. Perhaps the only change is the ever-growing dread that whatever the tower did to them, whatever mark it left upon them, would show itself in due time and in some frightful form. Some have returned with varying types and degrees of damage from missing limbs to missing memories. It is said that one man left the tower with his soul missing. The tower consumed it. So that when he died, nothing would be left of him. He would be gone forever from the natural world. He would be gone forever from all the worlds that come after.
There was a story told in one of the villages of a little girl who went into the tower and came out unscathed and in possession of a most precious potion. The bard who told the story sang in sweet and rising notes of how the girl was protected by her innocence.
But when in the history of this tricksome world has innocence ever protected anyone from anything?
A few know the true story. She only looked like a little girl. It wasn’t a disguise. It’s what they look like. The people, the race, to whom she belonged. A race with powers that could match that of a warlock. They have left this world now. Either by their own will. Or by the inevitable passing that will one day affect us all.
This isn’t her story. It’s mine. I went into that tower.
I went back into that tower, after I’d become free of it.
I am not strong of constitution. But sometimes cowards can do what the brave cannot.
Because their hearts can perceive what the hearts of the valiant may miss. For both are afraid, but one looks for a way to avoid what they fear, while the other is resolved to face it.
I left my fear in that tower. But cowardice, I came to learn, can abide even in the absence of fear.
I went into the tower. Then I came back out. And I had a story to add to all the others.
I’ve since been recruited by one who heard that story. He needed a guide to help him navigate the tower so that he could find some spell that would help him save and preserve. He was a minor magician, I think. One who dealt in herbs and poultices. A healer aspiring to heroism. I was, naturally, worried for anyone who ventured into the tower, but especially one such as him.
He might unleash something terrible as he stumbled his way through, before it consumed him, before it cast him out, crumpled and despoiled.
He might unleash my fear. And if he did, it would come and find me.
I warned him that there was nothing good in the tower. Not even by accident could the warlock have created anything good. He only ever seized and seared, distorted and defiled, and consumed, and consumed everything he touched, everything he encountered.
Oh, he knew how to utter words of kindness. But he uttered them in such a way that they would sharpen into shards that would pierce the mind of the one who heard such words, and drive them to despair. He knew how to smile in such a way that the smile would cast a deep gloom upon the heart of the one who beheld it, and they would shudder and shuffle away.
I told the healer that I once served the warlock.
That’s true enough.
I told him that was why I could help him to navigate the ruined tower without becoming ensnared in all the unperceivable traps that lay rampant within.
I had meant to lead him to an adjunct chamber where I knew there lay a few scrolls, with some minor spells writ upon them. Perhaps the healer would be satisfied with that.
So how then did I find myself leading him to the highest part of the tower? Toward the very thing I feared he would find? I am not subject to folly or lunacy. Not as I am now. I can only conclude that I always meant to do what I did.
Yes, I always meant to.
When we entered the chamber, when I stepped aside and let him see, the healer gaped.
His eyes shifted toward me. The knot in his neck bobbed as he gulped.
His brow was knit and I saw fear within his eyes.
“You have deceived me,” he said. His gaze shifted from my face to the face of the other one who hung suspended in the middle of the chamber.
The faces were the same. And the healer was right. I had deceived him.
“What will you do with me now, warlock?” he asked me, a quiver in his voice. Here was the valiant man, steeped in his fear, and yet still thinking, still attempting to devise some way out.
Truly, I marveled.
“I will tell you what you are looking at,” I said. “And then I will give you what you came here seeking. It will be your choice what path you take thereafter.”
The healer blinked and his shoulders heaved, and I knew he was wrestling with despair.
“The warlock is not dead,” I said, for we could both see it. The warlock hung frozen in the chamber, stumbling back, one foot off the ground, the other barely touching at the toes. His robes were caught in a flutter. The broken horn of a unicorn pierced his chest in the spot where his heart lay. The glowing red venom of a dragon pulsed through his veins. A whip-like tail squeezed around his throat independent of the creature who had dropped it. A hundred other hurts all worked toward one end…his end.
But the warlock was not dead.
When in past times the warlock had suffered any hurt, a cut finger, a cracked bone, he tended to it in the same way that any typical person would. Bandages and rest. Never did he cast any spells of healing upon himself, though he knew many.
Magic is a fickle force. One with skill and a ruthless will could manage its unpredictable nature. But casting magic upon one’s self, inviting it within, was far too great a gamble. The warlock would gamble anything on anyone else. But nothing upon himself.
But in that moment of battle, struck by the greatest powers of great enemies, the warlock’s fear was sparked for the first time in a long time. And that spark alighted and blazed.
“Overcome by the fear of death, the warlock could not think,” I said. “He could not think of a way to save himself. So he cast a spell upon himself.”
The healer stood by the doorway, poised to run, but afraid to run for he did not know the way out. He glanced between the frozen warlock and me.
I stepped toward the warlock. “The spell split the warlock’s mind from his body.” I raised my hand and pointed up. “Using a drop of his blood, he imbued the mind with a form, a form that was uninjured. So too was his mind separated from the fear that flooded his body, his withered heart, and his corrupt soul.” I turned to the healer and met his gaze. “The warlock’s mind would think of a way to save him from the collective wrath of his prisoners and victims, from their moment of justice and vengeance.”
I stepped away from the warlock. “The mind spoke, and he said, ‘Cast another spell.’ And he told the warlock what spell to cast.”
The mind needed time to read the proper scrolls and books, to arrange and manipulate the needed artifacts, to mix the potions of rescue. To assure enough time, the warlock must freeze himself in that moment.
“He cast the spell,” I said. “And so he was frozen in his moment of dire death. But when the mind examined the warlock, he saw something that the warlock did not see, could not see.”
I stepped further back. “And he did not do as the warlock asked. Instead, he fled.”
I fell silent and I waited.
I watched the warlock. And if I were capable of feeling horror, I would have felt it.
When the healer did not speak, I resolved to take him out of the tower and leave him with the knowledge I had given him.
But when I turned to him, his gaze was upon me, and he asked at last, “What did you see?”
No doubt, he had been trying to see it himself. But he was no warlock. Despite his profession, his perceptions were untrained.
“He was not dying,” I said. “He was healing.”
The healer had what I deemed a strange reaction. Fear and horror drained away from his eyes.
Mighty forces both natural and unnatural had failed to destroy the warlock. Here was a fate that the healer could not fight or even escape. The warlock would heal from his hundred wounds. He would grow strong enough to undo the spells that he had cast upon himself. His fear would turn to rage.
“How much time do we have?” the healer asked, his voice steady now, almost gentle.
From my pocket, I produced a vial that I had swept out of an alcove set in the corridors we’d passed on our way up.
“I will give you now what you came here seeking,” I said. Again, I stepped toward the warlock. I held the vial against one of his eyes. To the healer they must have seemed still. But I could see a flicker of movement. The vial began to glow with the substance that now filled it. I pulled it away from the eye, approached the healer, and offered him the vial.
“The soul’s energy, its animus, can power whatever spell—even a good one—that anyone needs,” I said.
The healer gazed at the vial and frowned. “I can’t use that to heal people. It’s…profane.”
“I have…filtered it as best I can. But you are right, there is no way to remove all the corruption.”
“Then I have come here only to learn of the certain doom that is soon upon us.”
I knelt to pick up one of the stone bricks that had jogged loose during the immense battle that was once fought in that now-quiet chamber. I let a drop of the warlock’s animus fall upon the brick as I whispered a phrase.
The brick turned to gold.
“An illusion?” the healer asked.
I nodded. “Yes.”
I brought the brick closer to the healer’s face so that he might examine it. He leaned away from it.
“Gold can be dangerous,” I said. “But how many clean and honestly made healing potions can you purchase with this?”
The healer winced as he took the vial from my hand. “You cannot simply pour this away, can you?”
I shook my head. “Unless the warlock’s animus is directed and diluted, it will befoul whatever it touches. I have seen it happen many times. I have been draining him for many a moon, separating the vials throughout the tower. But some of them have burst already, pouring pollution upon what is already poisoned. For now those it is all contained within the tower, but it will not always be so.”
The healer held up the vial. “Whatever I do with this, will the deed not be stained with evil?”
“I have heard it said that the only good thing that one can extract from the bad is a lesson. But you heroes who come here seeking magic are not content to leave with only lessons. Are you?”
The healer’s shoulders heaved again. “You have me there. I did not believe that everything in this tower was bad.”
“And perhaps you are right,” I said. “I cannot say for certain if the animus will turn foul even if it is directed towards a deed that is only pure good. But the animus contained within the warlock is made from more than just his own soul. It may be that returning it to the world will restore a balance that was broken.”
The healer peered at me and asked the question I knew he would ask. “Why do you do this? If all that you have told me is true, then you are him. A part of him. If you succeed in destroying him, will you not be destroyed as well?”
In the healer’s eyes, I caught a glint of something I had never seen before I fled the tower. That something was, by no coincidence, the very answer to his question. But that answer would not suffice. So the answer I gave him was this.
“I left the tower, glad to be free for a while, until the warlock inevitably reclaimed his mind. But as I sat under flowering trees in your village square, I truly pondered his only command to me. ‘You must save me,’ he said.”
I held up another vial. “I am doing just that.”
The healer was right. I would drain the warlock of his soul and he would perish.
And I would fade, nameless, into the void. And the tower that once terrified, it too would fade and be forgotten.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel