One thing about hills, Melanth noted dimly as they ascended the thirtieth hummock, was that going up tem took a lot more energy than going down them. Passing through this kind of terrain quickly tired all but the most seasoned hikers, which accounted for none of the party he currently kept company with. The weaker Naka had quickly started to complain that the soles of their shoes were wearing thin; hardly surprising considering the kind of distances they had travelled over the last few weeks. He reflected that, as unused to travelling as the two monks and the girl had been, they had accomplished a great feat in coming as far as they had and miraculously avoided all the ill effects that often came with long voyages on the road. Not one of them had caught a fever. He also reflected that maybe he himself had been the only one of the company to fall ill, because nothing short of the most severe deliria could have caused him to give them permission to scramble up onto his back and settle amongst the luggage, which was where they were currently ensconced. Wondering what new low he had discovered, he ate up the miles at a kind of monotonous tramping pace, feeling overburdened and in desperate need of a long bathe in the river. On his back, the human and the two Saris dozed, utterly exhausted. It had been a further two days since they had crossed the gorge, and food rations were spent. They would have to reach the tower tomorrow or face further delays as they were forced to hunt.
Despite his melancholy, Melanth could not help but wonder at the majesty of the place; the Granitefall mountains loomed before them, like the wall of some vast impenetrable fortress they had been commissioned to breach. The hills rose out of the forest below in great barren mounds of scree and clinging tufts of grass, interspaced with deep wide and surprisingly verdant valleys. Great herds of deer bounded away into the shelter of the trees as he crested yet another hill, and he stared after them wistfully, keenly aware of the twist in his stomach; he promised silently that as soon as his pledge had been fulfilled he would gorge full of them.
The last rays of the sun were falling when he spotted the slim ivory needle against the stone grey backdrop of the mountains; so distant that it looked to be a trick of light until the eye was allowed to adjust and it still remained. He stopped and stared at it long, suspecting but not knowing what he saw. The Tower of the Clerics was not where the Abbot had said it would be on the horizon, and too distant at that. He realised that he must have wandered from the path they had given him, an easy mistake to make, especially amongst the featureless hills where all reference was lost as soon as one ducked into a valley. He guessed that they were some ten leagues north of where they were meant to be, which meant another day of foot slogging at the least, and the road would only be harder on an already empty stomach. Grumbling to himself miserably, he plodded off east, the sunset at his back.

The first impression one got of the tower was its sheer size; Melanth could only guess, but even a guess put it at some four hundred feet of free standing height. The stones had to have been imbues with essence; no ordinary brick could support the weight of such a monstrosity without being crushed beneath the weight of its fellows above. More than anything though he felt relief, a deep and profound sense that his mission had been achieved and that he could rid himself of these damnable bipeds. The crest of the last hill fell away underfoot, the ground hard packed and well trodden by the neophytes he found himself face to face with. They had apparently been doing some sort of exercise in a broad stone pavilion, but had fallen silent and immovable as the sight of the Dragon. Melanth returned their gawking stares coldly, throwing himself to the ground roughly and startling his three sleeping passengers to bleary wakefulness. They looked around dazedly for a few moments, not fully grasping where they were, their sleep filled eyes smarting at the bright reflected light of the tower until the Abbot released a joyous cry and jumped down, punching the air in unabashed celebration. The other two were slower on the uptake and startled by the strange surroundings they had suddenly found themselves in, but the Abbot’s mirth was infectious. Their smiles deepened to outright laughter at the sight of the still stunned neophytes frozen midway into whatever art they had been practicing. On the pavilion, a Saffron clad and massively built human monk of indeterminate age shouldered his way past the students, scowling furiously until he caught sight of the Abbot. An expression of rapture lit up his face, destroying the scowl and the threw himself at the Abbot with a happy roar, catching hold of the startled Saris around the chest and lifting him clean off his feet in a bear hug.
“Damn you Whiskers it’s been too many years!? He roared in perfect Saris, tears of mirth running down his bearded face.
“Put me down Ox before you crush my ribs! I’m not as young as I once was!? The Abbot laughed, struggling to free his arms from the man’s and landing nimbly when the immense human, Ox, regained his composure, aside from a corsair’s grin plastered over his face. The man was huge; he looked ready to burst out of his monk’s robes with but a flex of his shoulders and his face was well weathered with deep lines of laughter around the eyes. His salt and pepper beard was neatly trimmed, yet he seemed full of vitality for one of an older appearance. He might have been any age between forty and sixty.
“What brings you back out of your comfortable retirement and across such far roads my old friend? And in such strange company too!? He said in jovial tones, his voice obviously well used to carrying over great noise to the point that it was as subtle on the ear as a foghorn. Melanth eyed him suspiciously, and Katrina just stared, dumbstruck by the sudden flurry of activity. The younger monk was gone, apparently familiar with the surroundings to the point of having vanished inside during the confusion. The ranks of neophytes, clad in robes of the same style though sky blue rather than orange or red, visibly relaxed at the sight of the two greeting each other and some were even sitting down to watch the proceedings.
“I cannot speak of it now, not here either.? He said calmly, a strange light in his large amber eyes. “No doubt you will be invited to the proceedings however, we have much to discuss I feel.?
Ox gave him a conspiratorial wink and clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to knock him off his feet, catching him as he fell only out of reflex. He turned to Katrina and Melanth as though only noticing them for the first time. His grin returned as he made a deep bow to Katrina in greeting and then repeated the gesture with stiff formality to Melanth, who inclined his head politely in return. He shared some swift words with the Abbot, asking him to recount as much as he could of the journey without breaching the pledge to secrecy. The Abbot obliged, rushing headlong into the tale of everything that had happened since their departure from Parsinia, concluding finally with the crossing of the gorge and their arrival at the tower. Ox listened variously with a surprised or amazed expression, breaching on active sorrow when he heard about the mule dying on the road.
“I feel your sorrow Whiskers; that bloody beast and you went through a lot together.? He said, shaking his head sadly and leaving the others nonplussed. When the Abbot’s account was finished, he waited a polite moment with a blank expression, piecing together in his head the events, and then theatrically slapped his thigh. “But where are my manners?!? He roared, suddenly jumping upright, startling everyone. “Come! Eat! You all look like half dead mutts from your journey. Let it not be said that the Clerics are misers to leave poor travellers stranded without charity!? And with that sped off through the high arched gates of the tower with a speed that should not have been possible in such a bear-like man, gesturing at them to follow.
The tower seemed larger on the inside than it actually was, the atrium on the first floor wrought with a cunning skill and supported with pillars that were both practical and decorative. Melanth was surprised by the sight of it; much of the inside of the tower was decorated with marble inlaid with gilt silver; an extravagance that belied the plain outside structure. Even more surprising were the people who inhabited it, and he was keenly aware of the general buzz of conversation when the travellers in their travel worn and dirty coverings were led through. Most of the monks and neophytes were clad in armour and mail rather than the thin orange robes he had come to associate with the clerical order; indeed, whereas the robed monks were prohibited from carrying edged weapons, there were a great many swords and battle axes on show amongst the armoured ones.
“Ours is an unusual Order, in the world of the Cleric.? The Abbot replied when he asked tentatively, not liking the number of frowns and openly aggressive stares being thrown at him by people carrying such massive blades. “The monks of Kion are unique in our practices, no others bear robes. They are more...? He waved with a paw dismissively, “Templar.? He said finally, still walking all the while. “Be careful of your words here Dragon.? He warned. “We here are bound in the worship of the Goddess Istaria, Brobbert and Alyssa. To us, Drulkar is a heathen god, and preaching his name is heresy. They will be quick to take offense, and some will be even quicker to run you through.?
“That is well.? Melanth snorted. “Drulkar is not our god. You believe in your gods, we know Drulkar was the first Dragon. We do not worship him; he asks not that we think of Him, only that we think.? He finished smugly. The Abbot merely shook his head, clearly having been through this argument many times before.
Ox finally led them down a flight of stairs into a room that was stiflingly, almost unbearably hot. Thick clouds of steam roiled in the air, leaking into the room from another door at the far end. A low, large basin dominated the centre of the room, lined with sponges and cleansing oils. The cool flags were slippery with condensation and a great many hooks and lockers lined the walls.
“Before you can enter our holy sanctum, you must first cleanse yourselves in the sanatorium.? The Abbot explained, seeing the blank stares from Katrina and Melanth. “We are unclean and stained from our travels, and the tower is holy ground.? He directed them to disrobe whilst he cut the straps that still held the baggage to Melanth’s hide. The dragon sighed with relief, licking at a few bloody spots where the roped had galled through his scales. Katrina was horrified.
“I’m supposed to get naked in front of you all?? She asked, incredulous, and in a foul temper. She was aching and footsore, and in no mood to brook an argument.
“If you want to enter.? Brother Guan shrugged, throwing his own robes into a corner with a lip curled in distaste. “You need not worry; all here have taken vows of chastity.?
Katrina still protested loudly, finally sitting hunched and cross legged and sulking in a corner whilst the other three attended to the ritual ablutions until Ox and the Abbot finally had an argument and it was deemed sufficiently respectful to the Gods for her to bathe in private. Melanth fumbled with the sponges uselessly, his claws being designed to part flesh more than manipulate small objects until on the verge of exploding in frustration he climbed bodily into the basin, much to the protest of the other monks in attendance. When that was finally done, they were led into the sauna to sweat off the last of the dirt that clung stubbornly to them and then at length into a deep pool, blessed with holy unguents. The process was lengthy and tiring, but also strangely refreshing of the mind, and gave them a chance to attend to the minor injuries they had all acquired throughout the journey. By the time they were sufficiently clean to be granted access to the tower proper, noon was well in advance and even Melanth was ravenous with hunger. The Saris dressed in clean robes that Ox provided for them, whilst Melanth was forced to wear a strange pendant around his neck, proclaiming him a friend and ally of Alyssa in the Dwarven script, and declaring that within the walls of the tower he forsook Drulkar. Unsure if this was a ritual or a calculated insult, but rankled nevertheless he responded by tripping Ox with an apparently careless swipe of his tail and tipping him headfirst into the bathing pool.
They met with Katrina in the main Forum, who was much happier and wearing a long, flowing skirt similar to her home dress. The Cleric’s attitude towards Melanth warmed considerable now that they saw him wearing the amulet, and the small party was lead with much bustling and jostling up a flight of stairs to a communal dining area. Under the direction of Ox’s booming voice large platters heaped with food were provided for the guests, who stuffed themselves gratefully. Ox and the Abbot apparently catching up after a long absence at one end of a table, whilst at the other Katrina and Melanth sat together, staring around the high vaulted room with wonder between mouthfuls. Like most of the tower, the walls were mottled cream and russet marble, but here and there tattered, ancients banners were hung from the walls and ceiling, and occasionally a sword, bow or hammer lay beneath them, and in one case was worked into the fabric of the banner itself. With a start Melanth realised that each one was a memorial to a fallen warrior, and on further inspection noticed that most of the banners were not greatly old, though many were perforated and torn, stained with blood and bleached by the sun. Brother Guan noticed his attention and gestured around with a drumstick, muttered the word ‘Tazoon’ then went back to eating. Melanth nodded with sudden understanding. The battle of Tazoon was the greatest and most terrible battle to date in the war with the Withered Aegis. Tazoon, the largest city in the empire had been laid siege to by the vastly superior armies of the Aegis, bombarded relentlessly for months. The numbers of the undead there were unfathomable, hundreds of thousands, so much so that the combined armies of Humans, Elves and Gnomes had not been able to repel them. Eventually all the living races, save the Satyr and the Dryad who had fallen entirely became embroiled in the struggle, attack and counter attack, fighting endlessly for a year until the fruitlessness of the task finally became apparent. The Undead did not need to eat or drink or take shade under the merciless sun of the Barasavian Desert. Weary and demoralised, the defenders of Tazoon were almost spent, and the high walls that had endured the most relentless pounding by missile and magic were breached. It was at that moment that the Gifted came to be, those who fell rose again, and not as the mindless machinations of the Aegis. The Dragons and the Dwarves sallied forth against the tide in a final, desperate charge whilst the remaining soldiers prepared to make a last stand before the breach, and it was at that moment when all seemed lost that the Aegis hesitated, and the Gifted rose and scattered them. The battle had lasted for days, even with the slain of the living rising back to life, such were the numbers of the undead. The breach in the wall was finally sealed, choked off with the putrefying remains of the Aegis’ slaves. And then it had stopped. The Aegis had no more corpses to throw after the Living, and the tide had turned. The war was far from over, but Tazoon still stood, and the races were united like never before. These banners that lined the walls were shrines to those of the Clerical order that were not fortunate enough to have been Gifted when the wall came down, and whose former habitations were added to the ranks of the Aegis, only to be destroyed again by those who they had called friends. He bowed his head in silent acknowledgement at their sacrifice, all hunger suddenly gone from him.
He turned his attention to the Abbot’s conversation, deducing that he and Ox had been partners in crime in their youth, and that ‘Whiskers’ had been his nickname before he turned to a more spiritual lifestyle. Only when the Saris broached the subject of their purpose at the Tower did Ox’s face lose its joviality. Melanth was almost shocked to see the true extent of the lines and wrinkles that marred the man’s face; he was a good deal older than what he had fist taken him to be. Alone as they were in the great hall, the Abbot spoke of the strange dream and the events, occasionally asking Brother Guan to fill in where his memory had failed him. Ox’s face became even graver as he spoke, until at last he put down his fork, his plate only half empty, and scratched his stubbly chin with quiet thoughtfulness.
“Certainly this can’t be a natural thing.? He said with finality, putting his hands on the table. “Is it a machination of the Aegis??
“We don’t know.? The Abbot said levelly. “We are here to find out.?
“This is worrying at best.? Ox said, slowly, carefully, mulling his words. “I will request meeting with the Elders at once. They should be willing to oblige; they hate the Aegis, and all news of strange things afoot in the lands are dealt with carefully here. More than once have our Diviners foreseen catastrophe by reading the stones and the trees. If nothing else, we will lay rest to your fears Whiskers.? He stood to leave, gesturing around with a big hand. “Make free use of any of the Tower’s conveniences. They are few, granted, but we are well stocked and pay refuge to many lost travellers. There are many humans here to keep you company young lady, and I believe we even have a Dragon kicking around somewhere too...?
“A Watcher.? Melanth stated flatly, unimpressed. “Every Tower has one. They make conversation like a stone, and if you can even get one to blink you are a greater being than I.?
“Whatever.? Ox said dismissively. “I will call for you when the council is in session, which is often, but you may all do as you wish until then. Do not get too comfortable, for I feel your stay will be brief.?

***

“Are you the group of travellers who came in this morning?? The diminutive little Dryad asked, fluttering nervously on its gauzy wings. Melanth and Katrina had been playing chess in a quiet reclusiarch whilst the Abbot, Ox and Guan discussed more godly matters that they found tedious and boring. Katrina put down the rook she was about to move and stared openly at the Dryad; she was human shaped, though less than a foot tall and her skin was an unblemished olive green. Butterfly like wings held her aloft, fluttering at a furious pace so fast that all she could discern about them was that they were brightly coloured. She carried a sword at her side, and a staff in her hands, thought the staff would have done for a chopstick and the sword little more than a letter opener by comparison. Clearly she was ill at ease about being so close to the dragon, who must have been a hundred times longer than she was tall.
“Yes, we are.? Katrina made herself reply, still transfixed by the little fairy. She found it impossible to take her eyes off the bright iridescent colours of her wings, almost hypnotising...
“Oh!? the Dryad said suddenly, looking deeply embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s the Glamour, it always happens without us realising it...?
Katrina suddenly snapped back to herself, as though some invisible blindfold had been lifted and she was aware of herself again. The moment of shock passed quickly.
“You are the Diviner they sent?? Melanth asked, craning his neck to inspect her more closely. She swallowed and nodded, and at that moment the Clerics came through the door.
“Excellent!? The Abbot said, rubbing his hands in anticipation. “Diviner, do you have the Focus you need for this task?? He asked, kneeling down to address the little Dryad.
“Not yet,? she replied, bowing to him. “I still need a token of some sort, something the person in question was wearing or in contact with at the time.? She looked around the motley group, seeing only confused stares from everyone save the Abbot.
“It will help form the link between the then and the now.? The Abbot explained, pulling up a chair. “Scrying is an imperfect art at best, and to look into the past is no grantee that you will see what you want to see, only that what you see will be in the past. You could want to see your mother as she was thirty years past, and end up seeing a tree as it was thirty years ago. But a token gives focus to the visions; I suppose you could say that inanimate objects have a memory of sorts.? He grinned, seeing their blank expressions. The Diviner nodded, settling to the floor, her wings quivering. The company looked at each other, and then Katrina reached inside her shift and drew out a beaded necklace. It was a modest one, the kind that poor a parent might make for their child with beads of shell and bone and polished quartz. Slowly and reverently she unhooked the simple clasp and handed it over to the Dryad.
“Be careful with that. It is most precious to me.? She warned gravely, not deeming to give further explanation. The Dryad nodded, gesturing them to draw into a circle around her.
The Dryad planted her little staff on the floor, drawing herself up to her full height and moving her hand through the air in what Melanth recognised as the sigil for good fortune. It was almost funny to see such a tiny and diminutive creature take such a serious posture, and he would have been tempted to laugh out loud if not for the sudden zing of arcane energy that pulsed through his senses. A glance saw that Katrina was biting her lip, hands clenched tight. She was feeling it too, the sudden surge of power that came with the beginning of the spell. The others were either too used to the magic or could not feel it; they sat normally. The Dryad fluttered her wings a little, cupped the head of the staff close to her breast, and lifted her leaf-green head to the ceiling, eyes closed in concentration.
And then she began to sing.
Raw power surged with every syllable, winding and twisting throughout the room, pulsing deep in the stone of the tower, sparkling like a million tiny electric shocks through the blood. Melanth felt the wash of the ethereal essence across his scales, all at once as delicate as a feather’s touch and as deep and powerful as the untamed ocean. He felt his breathing catch in his throat; such power! And from one so small! He would not have credited it if he was not witnessing it. It was like watching an ant move a mountain.
As the magic twined with the fabric of matter, linking itself to the unfathomable ethereal bonds of the very world the skin of the Dryad began to glow. Her song was typical of a Dryad melody; fluting, jolly- there was no need to understand the words, only to hear them sung conveyed the meaning directly to the soul. It made even the most ancient and revered war chants of the Lunus sound like rough drinking songs by comparison; it was said with such songs Dryads could cause forests to grow overnight and raise mountains with a verse. The words rode the magic, passing through stone flesh and bone alike, sweeping through his soul and cleansing it of the usual bitter cynicism, filling him with an urge to take to the sky and dance through the currents of the air, to swoop low over the wild expanses and revel in the unspoilt harmony of the wilderness as was his instinct’s calling. He barely felt or saw; none of them did, their mind’s essence lifted from their bodies and woven into one so that they might share the experience and the visions of the Diviner as she led them across the skeins of lands and time. The magic linked them all not only to each other, but to the impossible vastness of the world. It lasted for but a moment; a fleeting glimpse, oceans and deserts, valleys and mountains, the Lore of Nature from which the Dryad drew their power limited only by their concentration in channelling it. He saw the world as it was the day of the dream, sharing the memories of them all in one dizzying moment; the Abbot sitting silent in reflection, Katrina sleeping, Melanth mourning his fallen friend. For but one moment they were one and the same, no distinction between the individual bodies, personalities and memories. It was terrible and amazing, fascinating and repulsive and lasted for less time than a thought.
And then they saw the Dream.
There was a moment of gut twisting disgust as he saw what the Aegis had worked; some unholy act, words indistinct, pictures blurry and missing like pages of a long abused book, but it did not diminish the horror that seeped through the skein; cold heart numbing dread that had accompanied the vision. He saw the sacrifice, the blood spattered pentagram, and then the shrouded figure standing alone in the dim torch light, staring at its hand as though the limb did not belong it, lost in some baleful thoughts of domination, conquest and death, then it jerked, snapping around to where the unreal memory of Katrina/Abbot/Melanth observed incorporeally, reaching out with a snakelike movement and catching them in a grip as powerful as that of a God. The Dream became terrible reality.
Melanth was picked up by the guts and thrown across the room, smashing furniture and shattering a casement as he impacted the solid, unyielding marble. His lungs were filled with freezing fire like molten lead, air would not come, his mind still locked in the vision, his corporeal form only barely aware of the screaming that had suddenly begun and the pain that was crippling his own body. He saw the hood of the Aegis slip, caught a glimpse of a festering, twisted inhuman face like something that had died and rotted in water. The joyous, buoyant power of the Dryad cracked like a whip and writhed like a dying serpent, convulsing suddenly with the dull hollow emptiness of death, sucking him into some endless void of utter nothingness.
“I have you now.? The dead man sneered, putrid, pearlescent eyes aflame with the insanity of unlife. The grasping hand closed, and then everything stopped.