Note as of 11/1/2013: This page has been updated with the new version of the story, which corrects a lot of embarrassing typos and hopefully improves everything a bit.
The Tower of Ishmal is a current project of mine, a fantasy short story meant to evoke the likes of Robert E Howard, with a singular hero exploring a world that no one quite understands. It is meant to be the first chapter or so of a larger work, but I have found it works quite nicely on its own, as well. I hope you enjoy.
Sargt di Martivir paused a moment and stretched, feeling the aches and pains of exploration lessen for a moment as he extended himself as far as he could go. The Gem Scaled, what the other races would call a lizard, or lizardman if they were being particularly tolerant that day, heard several pops emanate from his back and tail and sighed. He still had a long way to travel.
The cavern was dark and dank, and the only light came from the torch in his hand, the flame’s glow dancing over his armor and scales before dropping off into nothingness. He couldn’t see far, but knew the ancient road he was on sloped down, a bridge of earth and stone through the large abyss that surrounded him. In the distance he heard the sound of running water splashing down through long-forgotten passageways into the earth below.
He felt a small rustling on his shoulder.
“You doing okay, Sar?” Blueberry tweeted. The little bird, a thrush not half the size of his fist, nestled against his thick, scaly neck. “We’ve been down here a while. Want to make sure you’re not about to go crazy and start eating rocks again.”
Sargt put his hand up to his shoulder, and the tiny thrush hopped onto it, perching on his palm. “Do not worry about me, Blueberry,” he said in a rumbling, low voice, the sound of a coming thunderstorm over low plains. “It is not like we haven’t done this before.”
“You ignored my question about the rocks.”
“Do not concern about it. I just hope this place is worth the journey.” He gently placed the bird back on his shoulder. “Keep your eyes sharp. I have a feeling we are getting close.”
“Will do, Sar.”
He began again down the the path. A cool breeze washed over his skin, and he shivered, pulling his cloak closer around him. His kind were not renowned for their resistance to the cold.
After walking for but a few minutes more, the slope snapped sharply down, and soon Sargt’s clawed toes sank into the muddy floor of the cavern. The water had settled into the earth here, and a slight sucking noise accompanied his every step. Yards later, they arrived in the forgotten city.
The flickering light played over the facade of an ancient, squat building, its empty windows and door frames yawning like sightless, empty eyes. Sargt stuck his head inside, but saw nothing of interest except a few broken clay pots, shattered pieces scattered about the floor. He continued down the street, walking toward the heart of the ancient city.
All around him buildings loomed and receded out of the gloom, dark hulks passing in the fog. He paused often, stilling himself and listening for anything that might lurk in the shadows. Neither he nor his familiar could detect a thing. Yet he felt a tingling in the back of his mind, like hearing distant wind chimes on a warm summer’s day, sound carried by the breeze. Something was out there.
They made haste through the dead city, its once proud buildings of stone and iron laid low by the ravages of time. Most structures had roofs or walls partially collapsed, the legacy of over a hundred years of erosion and neglect. But at the center of the city, one building still stood tall and strong.
“The Tower of Ishmal,” Blueberry whispered. Sargt felt the words echo quiet and deep inside his mind.
“Yes, little friend. Now let us hope we can find what we came for.”
The tower stretched above them, intricate spires splitting off from the center like branches of an ancient and gnarled tree, twirling in decorative designs up into the mist and darkness. It was made of once-white stone, now covered in moss and lichen and darkened with age. Sargt walked up to the main doors, enormous things made of what appeared to be bronze, covered in reliefs telling tales of when the gods walked the earth.
“Watch behind us, my feathered friend.”
“You’ve got it, Sar.” The brown bird hopped off his shoulder and fluttered just behind his head, watching down the street. Sargt felt the familiar brush of air against the back of his neck and allowed himself a small smile. He then laid his torch on the ground, where it sputtered lightly but did not go out, and planted his feet in the mud and his hands on the inside edge of both of the double doors.
And heaved with all his might.
He felt his muscles tighten like steel chains, every piece of him straining against the weight of the doors. Slowly, the doors began to creak open, flakes of rust raining from the hinges. Inch by inch he stepped with them until they yawned wide enough to allow his passage. He crouched to pick up his torch again, and felt Blueberry alight back onto his shoulder.
“We should be clear, I didn’t see anything.”
“Not yet. If we are lucky, maybe we will be able to fight it from the position of the tower. It is much easier to hold a door than a street.”
“Whatever you say, Sar. I still don’t think there’s anything out there.”
“My instincts tell me differently. I will be pleased if you are right.”
“So will I. Now let’s go get what we came for and go home.”
They slipped inside, and by the torch’s sputtering light they saw a staircase, spiraling around the interior of the tower up into inky blackness. Sargt wasted no time, ascending the stairs as quickly as he could without outright running, taking the steps two at a time with his long legs, using his long tail to keep his balance. No rails ran along the outside edge of the staircase, and the stone was smooth and damp, the water creating a ghostly sheen when it caught the torch’s light. There were several landings, with crumbling doors leading off to side rooms, but he ignored them, focused only on climbing ever higher.
The stairs finally ended after what seemed a small mountain’s height and led into a large, round room that spanned the width of the tower. Mouldering rugs covered the floor, and upon the walls once magnificent murals had flaked away into illegibility. In the center of the room a small dais rose. There was a glowing item upon it surface, bathing the room with unnatural light. Sargt approached it cautiously, feeling with his feet to make sure no panel of the floor suddenly sank, that no wires crossed his path. The ancient people’s sacred spaces had been rife with traps many times before, and he had no desire to repeat the experience. He stepped up onto the dais, and crouched before the glowing object, lowering himself onto one knee.
He put his elbow on his knee and made a fist with his hand, then placed his forehead against his clenched fingers.
“Ishmal, I pray to you now. May your wishes guide me as does the wind guide your wings. I thank you for guiding me to this place without incident, and though I know you may have trials for me ahead, I await them with a calm heart, for I know they are a chance to prove myself to you. I pray I am allowed to remove this item from its ancient home, for purposes of study, to better learn myself in your ancient ways. I accept that to do otherwise is to challenge your fiery judgement, that punishment will be delivered on swift wings. Peace upon all of us, for we are your children.” He stood up, gently picking up the glowing item as he did.
“Nice prayer, Sar.”
“A necessary one. I may not be a priest or some sort of holy warrior, but I know when it is my duty to beseech the gods for mercy and grace.”
“Why are you so serious about some ancient, probably dead god?” Blueberry hopped onto Sargt’s wrist, looking at the relic, bobbing his head every which way to let both his eyes take in its full glory.
Sargt sighed. “You know this, Blueberry. Because she is my goddess, and while I may not draw my powers directly from her, she is worthy of respect and daily prayer. She seeks to bring peace to all her children, and that is an ideal we must strive for.”
“Whatever you say. So, what is it?”
Sargt looked down at the object in his hand, and as he focused on it, the glow receded, allowing him to view its details clearly. It was a statue of an enormous dragon, wrapped around the sphere of the world, rendered entirely in glowing crystal. The colors shifted, yellow to green to blue and back again, swirling inside the statue and along its surface, like water in a stream. “It is a statue of Ishmal, as she was after creating the world. She protected it, warming it with her own body until it was ready to sustain itself.”
“Where did she go after?”
“No one truly knows. Some say she descended, to live amongst her children as a great dragon, causing mountains to erupt in fire as a warning of her power. Others say she was exhausted after the great Creation, and hid where mortals dare not tread to rest for a million years. Others say she is dead, and we have only her words to guide us now.” He crouched back down and wrapped the statue in layers of cloth before depositing it into his large backpack, nestling it inside his bedroll.
“Which one do you believe?”
“I believe that we do not know, those few of us who still believe at all. I pray someday I may find the truth. Now let us leave this place. I have a feeling the longer we stay, the more difficult our trials will become.”
Sargt turned back and descended the stairs as quickly as possible, taking care to place his tracks in the ones he laid before in case of a trap or trigger accidentally missed. His torchlight slid over the walls and long-forgotten passageways, and he found himself wondering about those who had lived here, long ago. If he met them today, would they be friend or foe? Did they fear outsiders, or welcome them with open arms?
The door was still ajar, and Sargt slipped out, peering left and right. In the back of his mind, he heard those chimes on the wind. He loosened his sword in its scabbard, and brought his magic closer to the surface of his mind. Its energy felt like a fire, charring the edges of his surface thoughts.
He advanced down the street, checking every corner, straining his reptilian eyes to gaze into every darkened building. His eyes were better than most in dim lights, but seeing truly in this dark was beyond his capabilities.
A quarter of the way towards the outside of the city, he stopped in mid-stride. He heard the crumbing of stone, the crunch of old gravel and timbers beneath a creature’s feet. A stench like bat guano mixed with mouldering burlap filled his nose.
“Blueberry, fly up and spot for me.”
Without a word in response, the tiny bird batted his wings and flew upwards.
A movement in the corner of his eye. As he turned towards it, Sargt let his mind release the first of his spells.
Memories of shelter flooded through his mind: the warmth of a dry cave on a rainy day, the smell of a hearth fire, the sight of blustering winds through a thick window.
A crackling translucent blue shield of energy appeared bound to his left arm, and he took cover behind it as the creature collided with him.
It was a beast he had never seen before, large as a mountain cat with eyes darker than a starless sky. It snarled as it clawed at the shield, miniature lightning storms dancing across the protective surface. The creature’s coarse fur covered it in random tufts. Pink, mottled skin showed through everywhere it did not cover. Sargt shoved the creature with his shield and it reared back and away, circling around for another pass.
Sargt dropped into a ready stance, his knees loose, his sword at the ready.
The beast charged again, tearing up the soft ground with every step, covering the distance between them in the blink of an eye. It leapt at Sargt, and the impact vibrated through his arm from the shield. He twisted his torso, turning the creature’s momentum to the side, and as it flew past he drove his sword deep into its exposed side. The creature collapsed, but its mighty charge tumbled it another several yards before its body dug into the moist earth. The sword ripped from Sargt’s hands, and he hurried after it, pulling it out of the creature’s side the moment the beast ceased to draw breath.
“Sar, there’s more!”
He wiped his blade on the creature’s fur. “How many?”
He ran as fast as his legs could carry him, and from the worried titters he heard above him he knew his familiar had done the same.
All around he heard the snarls and growls. Masonry crunched and cracked as the things jumped from building to building, and squelching sounded from the mud behind him.
Another spell welled up in his mind,
…the smell of candle smoke, a forest fire viewed from a high cliff…
and he tossed his torch behind him.
The torch’s flame burst forth, creating a wall of shimmering fire. The creatures snarled and yelped, and the smells of singed fur and flesh reached his nose. It wouldn’t hold them for long, he knew, but it at least bought some time.
He reached the edge of the city, and another creature thrust itself upon him from behind. Sargt was knocked forward into the mud and it filled his mouth and nose. The creature clawed at his back, rending and tearing with all its might. His chain armor held fast, however, and he drove his elbow back into the creature’s face, hearing a snap as the thing’s muzzle broke. It leapt off him, retreating while whimpering in pain. Sargt scrambled forward, regaining his footing and embarking up the great bridge-road as he choked and sputtered from the mud in his nose and mouth.
“They’re right behind you!” Blueberry squeaked from up above. Sargt could almost feel their breath on his neck, and he dared not risk looking back. His thighs and calves burned as he ascended the slope, his breathing ragged. His whole body protested at every step. But to slow down meant death.
A bark sounded behind him, and without a moment’s hesitation Sargt brought another shield to bear and swung it in an arc behind him, twisting his hips and turning to bring the full force of his frame to bear. One of the creatures bounced off his shield, and he shoved it over the edge of the road. It fell through empty space for ages, howling all the while, before it met its hard end on the cold cavern floor stories below.
He heard the crunch, even at this great height.
The other creatures took their comrade’s demise as a tactical opportunity and all struck at Sargt at once, teeth snapping at his face and claws flashing through the air at his arms and belly. He held his shield in front of him as it sparked and smoked, holding the memories in his mind, but his thoughts began to grow fuzzy and unfocused with exhaustion. It would not last for long.
He reached deep into his mind, tossing his sword behind him, up the road. The magic’s power surged through his body, and as he felt his shield collapse his senses were overloaded.
…the smell of clay pots, the sound of a stoneworker chipping away at a block of granite, the feeling of being covered in mud and dust, the dryness on one’s tongue after a run on a hot day, a crumbled ruin of a city long forgotten…
His vision turned crystalline, and he saw the creatures surge forward again as if through a hundred lenses, hued blue and green and red and purple. Sargt dropped to one knee and planted his hand on the ground, the creatures a hair’s breadth away.
The ground under the creatures began to buckle and crack, the waves tearing at the stone and dirt. Dust and freshly-made gravel flew up into their eyes, and they reared back in pain as sharp chips of stone dug into their flesh.
And then the great bridge-road collapsed out from under them. They fell to the cavern floor, bodies crushed and torn asunder by the falling chunks of great works of the past. Then the road underneath his feet began to crumble, and he scrambled back, stumbling to steady ground.
Sargt collapsed backward, falling on his thick tail, a bright spike of pain in his addled mind. He groaned and rolled onto his side. His mind was exhausted, and for a moment he could do nothing but lay there. Then the pain of his wounds, the cuts on his arms and face from their claws, the bite on his leg he had ignored to finish the spell, the bruises from the falls, all came back at him in a burning rush, snapping him out of his fugue. He sat up in the darkness, and felt the brush of wings at his neck as Blueberry alighted upon his shoulder.
“Good work, Sar. You really showed them,” the little bird breathed at a whisper.
“I can only hope they understood their actions. I did not wish to kill them.” Sargt rolled up onto his feet. He reached down into his mind and found the last dregs of his magic. A few tiny gold and silver lights, all together about the brightness of a torch, materialized around his left hand.
“Why not? They were trying to kill you!” Blueberry protested as Sar walked over to his sword. He picked it up and placed it firmly in its sheath. By his new light, he saw as he looked back that the bridge now had a gap at least fifty feet across.
Not as precise as he had planned.
“They may have simply been defending their home. Or perhaps I was just to be food. Their reasons may not have been unjust.”
“So everyone tells me,” Sargt said with a sigh. He patted the thrush on its head. “Now let us leave this place to its peace and find a warm meal, shall we?”
“Can I eat any maggots?”
“Of course.” And they walked up the old road in silence.