Lorn Elera stared up at Tan Maldrin. The ancient palace loomed above the priestess of the Denith Lorn, crowning the hill on the West side of the ruined town where she stood. A shadowy figure stood atop the central keep, silhouetted against the light of the setting sun.
A low howl reached Elera’s ears. It slowly rose to a wail. The sound filled her heart with darkness. It was not terrifying, but depressing; a noise filled with loneliness and despair.
“What is that, Lorn?” asked her companion Nalia.
Elera glanced over at the teenaged novice that she was mentoring. Training a new generation was one of the most sacred duties of the Denith Lorn. The girl looked frightened as she stared up at the keep. The sound faded for a moment, then began again.
“I do not know, Nalia,” Elera told Nalia, “That is what we have come to learn. We were sent to investigate a reputed haunting of this place. I think we have just found it.”
“Is it dangerous? The sound speaks of anguish, even suffering. But not evil or danger.”
The priestess smiled at her student’s perception. She had already come to realize that Nalia was highly sensitive to spirits and their world, perhaps more so than herself.
“I feel that, too, Nalia. Perhaps we shall understand more when we go up there tomorrow.”
“I am scared, Lorn Elera.”
“Fear is healthy. But we must overcome it to learn what this is. Some spirit may be bound there. We must find out what and why.”
Another howl came down from the palace, making Elera shudder.
“By Denith,” came a gasp behind them.
Both women looked behind. Sha Aval, the third member of the group, was looking up at the apparition. Once a soldier of the kingdom of Aswick, Aval now served in the Denith Sha, a lay order that supported the Denith Lorn.
There was one last, anguished wail. Then the sun was gone and with it the apparition. No one spoke for a moment. Elera broke the silence.
“Did you find a place to camp, Aval?”
Aval nodded, clearly glad to deal with something more mundane than howling specters.
“There’s a largely intact building around the corner,” he told her, “No roof but the walls are in decent shape and there’s not much debris inside.”
“Good, show me.”
Elera could tell when she entered the ruined building that it had not been a mere house. The size and layout of the space suggested it had been a crafter’s hall, perhaps even a sanctuary of the Denith Lorn. Aval had already moved their gear into the most intact section and started work on a camp.
“I will go fetch water,” said Nalia, grabbing their waterskins.
“Be careful out there,” the priestess admonished her novice, “we don’t know what wild animals could be around here.”
Or wild humans. Or wild spirits, for that matter.
Aval got a fire going while Elera started getting food out. When Nalia returned, they filled a pot with water to boil. After adding some salted, dried meat and a few vegetables they collected on the way, the trio soon had a nice stew to eat with the hardtack they carried.
Elera awoke in the middle of the night to find herself staring up at a pitch black sky. With no moon, the darkness was broken only by the pinpoints of the stars. She sat up shivering, not from cold but fear.
“I await you,” whispered a voice in her head, “Come to me.”
Elera shuddered, wondering what was calling to her. The Lorn sensed that there was also something else; something dreadful lurking and waiting. And was the one calling really any less dreadful?
Rising, the priestess went out to the street. In the night, the palace was just a big dark space atop the hill.
“Lorn, I heard you arise. Are you okay?” asked Nalia, emerging from their camp.
“I dreamt that something is up there waiting and calling to me, Nalia. I do not know if I should dread it or desire it. I feel both.”
“Me, too. Is it that thing we saw?”
“I think so. But I am not sure that there is only one being up there. I sense that the desire and the dread might be from two different things.”
“Perhaps. I mostly feel the dread, like something evil is lurking there. I dreamt of being in pain and terror. At least Aval sleeps well.”
“Not every person is as sensitive to the world of spirits as you and I, Nalia.”
“Sometimes, I wish I was not,” the young woman said in a hushed voice, “They terrify me. At least with you, I feel like there is someone who can understand and help me.”
“That is my duty as your mentor, Nalia. I’m glad you feel that way. Let’s go back to bed. We have a long day ahead,” said Elera, placing a hand on Nalia’s shoulder.
The hike up the hill to the palace took nearly an hour the next morning. To Elera’s relief, the gate had fallen, laying on the ground just inside. At least they would be able to enter and leave quite freely. Her relief vanished when Nalia stopped short of the entrance and turned pale.
“There’s something waiting. It feels like death,” the young woman said, her voice barely audible and her body quivering.
Aval put a comforting hand on Nalia’s shoulder.
“I will be with you, Nalia. My blade was blessed by Na Lorn Reya herself. With that blessing, it could take out one of the Night Lord’s soldiers.”
Nalia did not seem comforted.
She said in a soft voice, “What if this is worse than that?”
Elera looked at the young woman in alarm.
“Is that what you feel? Something so terrible?”
Nalia nodded, a tear running down her cheek.
“Let me go in first,” said Aval, drawing his sword, “I’ll reconnoiter and see if there’s anything obvious.”
Always the soldier, thought the priestess.
“Be careful, Sha Aval,” Elera told him in a calm, measured voice, “Nalia is very sensitive to the spirit world. If she says something terrible is in there, pay heed.”
Aval walked through the gateway as the women watched. Elera glanced at her novice and saw Nalia’s tears. Were they from fear of what she sensed, or fear for Aval? The priestess had sensed an affection beyond that of travel companions between the soldier and her novice.
For a time, the soldier remained in view. He moved slowly, eyes constantly looking around him, blade at ready. Then Aval went off to the right, disappearing from sight behind the wall. Elera tensed and could sense the same tension in her novice.
“Nothing that I can see, Lorn Elera,” Aval said when he reappeared, “but there are some markings on the walls. Old runes, I think.”
Elera cocked an eyebrow at that. Her vocation in the Denith Lorn was the study of the spirit world, including the art of sorcery. Runes could mean some kind of sorcery was at work here.
“I am coming in,” the priestess called back.
“What about me?” asked Nalia.
“You can remain outside if you wish. I will not order you to follow. But it would be a good opportunity to learn about the old scripts.”
The young woman took a deep breath, then nodded and walked forward. She was clearly going to be left alone if she did not follow. That terrified her more than being inside with her companions.
“Stay close to me,” Aval told Nalia, hefting his blade and winking at her.
The young woman smiled and moved over to the soldier. Elera watched them for a moment, then walked over to the first symbol. Checking the sun and recalling some lore around directions, she quickly realized that it was on the Northeast side of the wall.
“These things almost always start in the West,” Elera said aloud as she walked in that direction.
Nalia and Aval followed her, staying close behind as she studied the symbol in the West. Then she moved clockwise and confirmed there was another at the Northwest point.
“Azla Takh,” she muttered, remembering the names of these runes.
By Denith, Elera thought to herself, someone has turned this wall into a powerful sorcerer’s circle. What pact was made when it was inscribed? What spirit did it summon or contain? Who died to empower it? Nalia’s fears suddenly seemed more real. The priestess glanced nervously around.
“Let’s go to the keep,” she said, “Move slowly and keep an eye out. Something very powerful was once summoned or bound here. And the circle does not yet seem to have been broken.”
“What’s that over there, Lorn?” Nalia asked.
Aval and Elera followed her gaze. There was a huge heap of something white, maybe wood, just East of the keep.
“I’ll check it out,” said the soldier.
“Go very slow, Aval. Something feels very wrong here,” Elera warned him.
“Very, very wrong,” Nalia affirmed, “The feeling of dread seems to come from there.”
Aval walked slowly. He paused when he could see the objects clearly.
“It’s bones,” he called back in astonishment, “and they appear human, Lorn.”
Then the bones moved. Slowly, the heap of white rose, bones assembling to form a huge, distorted human skeleton. Aval stared in horror and slowly backed away.
“By the Holy Name of Denith,” the soldier gasped.
The thing before Aval was made entirely of bones. He counted three bony legs, five arms, and a skull perched on the shoulder of each of the top two arms. A third skull nested in the abdominal cavity below the rib cage, which had far too many ribs in it. That skull’s eyes blazed with a yellow light. The monstrous skeleton began moving forward.
“To the keep!” Elera snapped, “The door is too small for it.”
“We’ll be trapped,” cried Nalia.
Elera, already in motion, yelled back, “The keep is closer than the gate and we have no idea how fast this thing is. And I need a chance to learn more about it.”
The women made it into the keep. They turned and watched in horror as Aval raced towards them with the strange monster in pursuit. It was much faster than they expected and appeared to be gaining on the soldier.
Elera wracked her brains, trying to come up with a blessing that might help. She was primarily a healer, though, not yet fully trained in dealing with spirits. A thought came to her mind.
“Alesh Denith, shala Aval. Nasha thain tal,” she prayed, calling on Lord Denith to bless Aval with the strength to run faster.
Aval suddenly sped up, moving at a speed beyond anything he had managed before. He reached the door of the keep and dove through as a bony fist swept by him and crashed into the wall. Nalia shrieked and shrank back against the far wall, her eyes wide with fear.
Elera shoved the door closed. Aval leapt to his feet and threw the bolt to lock it. The priestess gave thanks that the door and bolt were both intact.
“Thank you, Lorn,” the soldier said, gasping for breath.
“It was your legs, Sha Aval. I just asked Lord Denith to give you a bit of a boost, that’s all.”
Aval went to Nalia and hugged the shaking, weeping novice. For the first time, Elera felt certain there was more than friendship between them. That made her smile even in these circumstances.
“We are safe for now,” the soldier whispered softly to the young woman.
“We are trapped, Aval,” Nalia responded, “how can we leave with that … that horror out there?”
Elera looked grim.
“We will have to figure out a way. For now, let’s head upstairs and see what we can learn. The staircase looks intact, at least at this level.”
“That’s where the other thing, the one we saw last night, will be,” the novice said, her voice empty of hope.
“And maybe some answers to what happened here,” Elera pointed out, “This palace was built by a dynasty of regional monarchs almost five hundred years ago. The family reigned in this region for a couple hundred years, then fell apart when twin princes fought each other for control of the throne. There’s nothing about sorcery in those histories but there clearly has been sorcery done here.”
The priestess began climbing the stairs. Aval rose and offered Nalia his hand.
“Come on. It can’t be worse than what we just encountered,” he assured the young woman, “And maybe she will find a way to get us out.”
The soldier’s voice did not sound too hopeful, though. Nonetheless, Nalia took his hand.
At the top of the stairs, they found the top floor open to the sky. It had walls, but no ceiling. And around the room, in the cardinal points, there were runes inscribed.
“Oh no, another circle,” Nalia said.
She paused at the top of the stairs and went no further. Elera walked to the West side and began examining the runes in the usual order, clockwise from West.
“This binding is even more powerful,” she finally said after she was around to the Northeast.
“What is in here, then?” Aval asked. The soldier’s eyes darted around nervously.
There were no piles of bones. Indeed, the top of the keep was devoid of anything but the runes.
In the center of the floor, however, there was a tangled mass of silver lines forming a large circle. The lines looked like they had been painted but also had a shimmering quality to them. The circle felt as if it were alive and about to start moving.
“What is that?” the soldier asked.
Elera had also been studying it.
“I am not entirely sure, Aval. I think it is another kind of circle, one more powerful than the usual runes of a sorcerer’s circle. Such things are only obliquely referred to in the ancient books I have studied. No human sorcerer is supposed to be capable of such power, though.”
“Then what could? What could it be used for?” asked Nalia.
“I think we are about to learn,” the priestess said.
Something rose in the circle. It was at once tiny and vast, a maze of lines similar to the circle itself but in three dimensions. And throughout it, Elera could see eyes, mouths, and other things that vaguely resembled human parts.
“By Denith, no,” she hissed, realizing what she was probably seeing, “How … how …”
Something touched her. The priestess was unsure if the touch was physical or purely mental. All her thoughts evaporated into a single moment of beauty and light. Elera’s body quivered and pulsed with a powerful energy. It was like an orgasm only magnified infinite times. Visions danced before her, obscuring the room and her companions.
Elera found herself facing a being of light. They had a human form but indistinct, just the barest outline. Their eyes were purest black, dark holes in the brightness of their form. A brightness erupted in the eyes. They reached out a hand and took Elera’s own.
A sorrow beyond anything the priestess had ever felt before filled her entire being. At the same time, there was a beauty unlike any Elera had felt before. She was crying but barely knew that’s what she was doing.
“What are you?” Elera managed to ask.
She already suspected the answer.
“I am Taza Nal of the Denith An,” said a soft alto voice that could have been either male or female, maybe even both.
“How … how could someone trap an An like this?”
“One known to me by no name created this horrible thing in which I am trapped.”
“What did they want from you?”
“Power. They sought to harness and control the power of the An.”
“How long ago?”
“Unknown. The sun and moons have passed over me many times.”
“This prison, it causes you pain? I heard you crying out last night.”
“The prison itself does not, but being imprisoned causes me pain. Being trapped in this world causes me pain. I am alone here, unable to travel the myriad planes or offer my light in the service of Lord Denith.”
A new wave of sorrow washed over Elera. She gasped as tears flowed. For a moment, she merely wanted death as a release from this spiritual darkness. Then the priestess realized that for a spirit like Taza Nal, even that was not an option for release.
“The thing below? What is it?” she asked, trying to distract herself from the intense waves of emotion.
“It is one of the Tarik Brath. The one who trapped me raised it and pacted it into some bizarre body of his and its creation. It is my guardian, to keep away or destroy those who might free me.”
Elera knew of the Tarik Brath. They were powerful spirits of violence and death. The liches, monstrous undead generals who had spearheaded the Night Lord’s brutal Army of the Night only a generation before, had come from their line.
“Can you help us defeat it, Taza Nal? I fear we will be of little use to you if I cannot leave this place and learn more about the sorcery that has trapped you.”
“Your soldier, is he a good man? Is he valiant and capable in battle?”
“He is, yes.”
“Then bring him to us. Through you, I can enact the blessing of the Denith An on his blade.”
“It is already blessed by a Na Lorn.”
The figure smiled for the first time.
“A Na Lorn’s blessing is naught compared to that of the Denith An.”
Suddenly, Elera could see the room again. Aval and Nalia were standing almost right in front of her. A strange sphere of silver lines pulsed and writhed where Taza Nal had just stood.
“What is happening to you, Lorn?” Nalia asked, “you look strange.”
Elera ignored her for now.
“Your blade, Sha Aval. Hold it flat across your palms and come to me.”
The soldier did as she asked. Elera laid her own palms on top.
“I am ready, Taza Nal,” she intoned.
And then Elera was back with the An, lost in a cloud of light that seemed to emanate from them. Taza Nal walked around behind her. Elera felt her body become energized as the Denith An merged into her. That feeling of an unending and almost unbearable ecstasy returned. Words flowed into her dazed mind.
“Asha vera. Nasha sedra. Olash chara. Thata ora. Laskha hara,” she sang in a loud, strong voice, not really knowing what she was saying.
And then Taza Nal was gone. Elera staggered back and leaned against the wall, her chest heaving as she gasped for breath.
Nalia rushed over and took her mentor’s hand.
“Lorn, are you okay?” she asked.
The priestess nodded.
Elera was not so sure though. All she could think of was the intense sensation of the An entering her, merging her spirit to its own. Longing for contact with the powerful spirit made her want to be forever in its presence.
“What happened there?” asked Aval, staring at the blade of his sword.
The blade was the same size and shape, but it had a new brightness to it. Lines were now inscribed in ornate patterns along its length.
“The being trapped in this room is one of the Denith An, the powerful spirits who serve Lord Denith. Their name is Taza Nal. They combined their being with mine so that they could bless your sword. That might let you damage the monster.”
“Then let's go try this,” the soldier growled.
He started for the stairs, then realized Elera was not coming. She was still leaning against the wall with a haunted look on her face.
“Lorn, come. Let’s get out of here,” said Nalia softly.
She caressed her mentor’s face and squeezed her hand. The priestess seemed to ignore her, staring at the center of the room. The great circle on the floor was now just black lines, no sign of life.
“They are so alone, so sad. It hurt just to touch them. I felt everything,” Elera said in a hushed voice, almost sobbing.
“You can’t help them by staying here. If we go, maybe we can find a way to release them,” Nalia argued.
For a moment, Elera felt confusion. She knew that the novice was right; that releasing the An was the solution. At the same time, she wanted the An’s touch, the intense beauty that had possessed her too briefly, so badly it hurt.
“Please, Lorn Elera, let’s go,” said Aval.
The soldier was standing at the wall looking down.
He went on, “The monster has crumbled back into a heap of bones but it is between the keep and the gate. This is going to be difficult. We must hurry. I do not want to deal with that thing after dark.”
“Lorn Elera,” came the soft, androgynous alto of the An, “This is not your prison. It is mine. Please go. You cannot free me if you imprison yourself.”
The voice echoed in Elera’s head. For a moment, she wrestled with her desire to stay.
“We must go,” the priestess finally said as if trying to convince herself, “We must go to Tan Denatha and learn more. Perhaps even this great pact can be broken.”
Elera moved for the stairs. Aval and Nalia looked at each other, then followed. At the door, Aval took charge.
“Okay, we split up,” he told the others, “If I can occupy it, the two of you should be able to go around to reach the gate. And it can’t go after all of us if we are not together. Nalia, head left. Go wide to try to stay out of the way. Elera, head right. I’ll move towards the monster and then veer whichever way it goes so I can respond if it rises to attack.”
Aval looked at his transformed blade again.
“I hope this works,” he said, “Because if it doesn’t, I expect that at least one of us won’t be leaving.”
Elera pulled back the bolt and opened the door. The trio stepped outside. The pile of bones remained inanimate. Elera and Aval looked at each other.
“The skull in the center, the one with glowing eyes, is the locus of the spirit,” the priestess explained, “Try to knock it out and damage or destroy it. That should put the monster out of action for a while.”
“But not kill it?” Aval asked.
“It is an inanimate form given life by the possessing spirit. Until the pact is broken to send the spirit away, it will eventually rebuild itself.”
Aval nodded and said, “Okay, let’s go. We will reassemble outside the gate. On three.”
The soldier counted down, his eyes fixed on the pile of bones. When he hit three, Aval broke and ran, sword at ready. Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw Elera and Nalia heading in their directions.
With a kind of roar and the clattering of bones, the monster rose ahead of him. In one of the five hands, it now held a mace.
“Well, shit, that’s great,” Aval muttered.
The monster must have realized Aval was the greatest threat. It lurched immediately in his direction. As they approached each other, the thing took a swing with the mace. Aval dodged it, then swung for the wrist of the hand holding the weapon. To his surprise, the wrist shattered on impact.
A hand came at Aval from the other direction. The soldier whirled towards that one and a couple fingers went flying. Then he ducked and rolled under it. So the blessed sword did seem to work. Getting close enough to use it against the central skull was going to be difficult and dangerous, though. Instead, Aval sprinted away, hoping to get around the creature and head for the gate.
An arm backhanded the soldier, sending him sprawling. The impact knocked the sword from his hand. His weapon fell a distance away.
Aval rolled to his back and saw the thing looming over him. It had recovered the mace and raised it to strike. The soldier rolled away as it came down and crashed into the ground.
Suddenly, Aval saw something moving swiftly out of the corner of his eye. To his surprise, it was Nalia. She grabbed the sword and headed for the back leg of the monster. The thing raised the mace for another strike, seemingly oblivious to the young woman. As the mace fell, Aval rolled away again.
Then Nalia struck, swinging the blessed blade into the back of the knee. It was a wild, untrained swing but struck hard, shattering the joint. That put the monster off balance. It staggered, dropping the mace, then spun in an awkward lurching move.
A bony hand shot out and grabbed Nalia by the throat, lifting her off the ground. The sword dropped from the novice’s grip as she used both hands to try to loosen the thing’s grip. There was terror on Nalia’s face and it was clear that she could not breathe.
“No,” Aval howled.
Racing forward, the soldier grabbed the mace. Surely the monster’s own weapon could damage it.
Elera rushed forward as well. The priestess grabbed the sword and assumed a combat stance. She took careful aim and struck at the wrist of the hand that held Nalia. Shards of bone scattered with the blow she landed. Nalia dropped to the ground in a heap as the thing turned on Elera. The priestess held her ground, striking another blow as the monster reached for her.
With the monster focused on Elera, Nalia crawled away on hands and knees. The novice huddled against the wall, gasping for air and massaging her throat.
Mace at ready, Aval raced for the nearest of the remaining two legs and took a swing at the knee joint. There was a satisfying crunch as the leg fell to pieces. Now with only one leg working and all but one of its five arms damaged, the thing reeled and collapsed. That brought the central skull in range of Aval.
The soldier swung the mace hard, knocking the skull out of the creature’s body and partly shattering it. It landed near Elera. She brought the sword down on it, breaking it completely. The light in the eye sockets went out.
Aval and Elera both raced over to Nalia. She was still gasping but colour was returning to her face.
“Nalia, are you okay? Can you breathe?” Elera asked, examining the teen.
Nalia nodded and replied in a hoarse voice, “I can but it’s hard.”
The novice’s eyes were on the heap of bones behind her companions. A light came on in the eyes of a surviving skull.
“It’s going to come back, isn’t it?” Nalia said, her voice shaking.
Elera glanced over and frowned when she saw the skull.
“It is, yes. Sooner than I hoped, too. Can you run, Nalia? We need to get out of here quickly.”
“I don’t know. I am still out of breath and kind of dizzy.”
“Can you carry her, Sha Aval?” Elera snapped at the soldier.
“I’ve carried men twice her size. Let’s go.”
With help from Elera, Nalia got on the soldier’s back. They sprinted for the gate, driven by the clattering of bones behind them. The priestess paused outside the gateway and looked back.
A sinister-looking human skeleton stood there, not the bizarre monster of earlier. It glared at Elera, yellow eyes ablaze. The priestess glared back for a moment, knowing it could not leave the circle inscribed on the walls. Then Elera turned and followed Aval to their camp in the town.
Back in camp, the trio settled around the fire to rest and recover.
“I never knew you could handle a sword,” Aval commented to Elera as he cuddled and caressed Nalia.
The novice was still shaking with fear, but she seemed to be breathing better. In the soldier’s arms, Nalia at least seemed happy and comfortable.
“I am no master of the blade but my father and brother are both trained soldiers. I guess I picked up a few things,” Elera replied, “How are you doing, Nalia? You did well, too.”
The teen smiled and told her mentor, “I am better. Maybe still a bit dizzy. I am just having trouble calming down. I was so shocked and scared when it choked me.”
“We will stay here until you are ready to travel. Just rest and recover,” the priestess told her, smiling.
If Elera needed any further proof of the relationship between her two companions, it was the tender attention Aval was lavishing on Nalia. The priestess wondered if she should sleep away from them. Nalia might benefit from some time alone with her lover.
“I’ll be back. You two need to be alone, I think,” the priestess said with a smile and wink as she stood.
Elera stepped outside into the street. The sun was setting so she fixed her gaze on the keep of Tan Maldrin. A shadow stood in silhouette against the setting sun. The priestess shuddered as Taza Nal’s wail of loneliness and pain echoed through the streets.
Closing her eyes, Elera experienced once again the darkness and despair she had felt when the An touched her in the keep. Then came the wave of ecstasy at touching the heart of a Denith An. When Elera opened her eyes, the sun was gone, as was the shadow of Taza Nal. For a moment or two, Elera stood in the street weeping. Then, quietly, the priestess returned to camp.
Aval and Nalia had put their bedrolls together and were cuddling beneath them. Elera moved hers to a far corner to give her companions privacy.
The Lorn did not fall asleep for a long time. She lay in the darkness, contemplating both Taza Nal’s predicament and her powerful desire to be with the An. When sleep did finally overtake Elera, memories of the An’s touch haunted her dreams.