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THE KEEP

The rainy season had persisted late into spring. As Yendor crested the tree lined hill early that morning, it was difficult to make out the sunrise in the foggy, cloudy morning. In the valley below, emerging from the clinging mist and rising into the sogging clouds above, stood a black tower. There were three of these throughout the Land of Phan Tao Sea: One carved from a deadly precipice a thousand feet above jagged, lethal rocks, whose windows emit eerily colored flickering lights on long winter nights. One shrouded in mystery, said by some to be accessible only through an underground labyrinth perhaps beneath a mountain, perhaps beneath the sea of Tao itself. And this: a lone tower in the center of a low valley surrounded on all sides by primeval forest. Blacker than night, it was Incarnate’s special sign; the total absorption of light. No magic could penetrate it. It was unknowable. The field grass ceased to grow within a thousand yards giving the lie to the idea that nothing living can exist in such a place. Yet these were Incarnate’s dwelling places for a millennium. The air tasted brackish, polluted. The light was dim. There was no birdsong, no crickets no sound of any kind.
Yendor fought the urge to cloak himself with invisible spells. That would be a beacon to Incarnate. Instead, he humbled himself, repeating that he was no better than the lowliest beggar, no more than a wanderer; tossed about his life like a leaf in the wind. He reminded himself that he was a part of the earth; that he belonged wherever he was needed and was not out of place in a palace or a dungeon. He was needed here and so he belonged. He was not out of place. These things were better than spells. This true knowledge was real invisibility. Yet still he crept close to the ground as he approached the castle “Trust in God, but tether your camel” as the saying went.
Once he was close enough to the keep, Yendor straightened up, but could feel an energy coming from it that kept him from touching it. It felt as if he would burn himself if he touched it. But not from heat; from cold. It was so cold it made the hairs on his arms stand up and if he passed an extremity too close to the structure as he began to circle it, that limb developed an ache as if it had been strained.
After a complete tour of the circumference, Yendor had been unable to find an entry. He began to circle the tower again, this time not looking at the structure, but at the ground and area immediately surrounding it. He was on his second circuit engaging this method when he noticed a corner in the earth perpendicular to the keep. He brushed the area with his foot revealing a step. Although there was obviously plenty of energy immersed in the building, there was apparently nothing actually masking the entrance to the castle, conventional means were all that had been employed. Yendor realized that this was the same logic that he had applied to his approach; magic would actually be more visible to someone with experience than simply covering up the step with dirt. Since no light penetrated the stone of the tower, it was impossible to see an entryway.
Yendor picked up some of the dirt and tossed it at the tower directly in front of the step. To his surprised it passed through and landed on the floor inside the entrance hidden by the light eating composition of the stone itself. Now Yendor felt a fetid breeze waft out of the door way. He realized a lantern would be of no use to him in such a place. He stepped through the threshold without a plan, trusting in his ability to meet whatever challenges he might face. He realized that the sensation of impending burning and limb aching gave him an accurate mental picture of his immediate surroundings. He was even able to “see” a table ahead of him as the malevolent energy coming from that area had a table shaped dead spot there. In this way Yendor gained confidence he could move around as if he were in a lit room.
In his mind’s eye, he saw his surroundings as if each object gave off a faint blue glow. He could differentiate between the bricks and the mortar, which was a distinction he couldn’t make outside with his eyes. He could see a faint wood grain to the table, and upon closer inspection, he could see fingerprints fainter still. They were made by fingers of incredible length, and were smeared as if the hand that left them had caressed the table. Yendor had the sensation that he didn’t know how long he had been examining the minor details around him, and felt he should concentrate on the matter at hand. He could become mesmerized by the sheer unreal magical elements of this place and be caught unawares.

He heard an ephemeral whispering in his head, as if it were slightly out of sync with the present; it seemed to echo ahead of itself and then smear across his consciousness. He realized it was Danse’s voice he heard in his head; that the shell of the place had shielded it from reaching him clearly before he had entered, yet still that had been what had brought him here. He knew it was a trap, but he also knew it was genuinely her. It rang true to him once again that the most powerful magic uses what is real, not what is illusory. Her thoughts were almost nonsensical: “cold..ugh, sweating. Hungry. Mother? Is that you? Why are you mad at me? I know you’re not real! I’m sorry mommy! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it! No. no please don’t make me do that! Don’t leave me! Mother!?” She was clearly in agony. Incarnate and his lackey’s must be torturing her to get her to call to him more strongly.
His anger and hatred made him aware of his weapons as if they were alive on his person; aching to avenge her. His dagger, it had been so useful and he had thought it would be a back up. He felt it in his boot, it sang to him: “let me kill for you, my master! Let me swim it their dying intestines. The grotesque thought must be a product of this place, he thought. The place itself is goading me, getting in my head. His sword vibrated in its scabbard and his bow hummed on his chest. His arrows? Appropriately, they quivered.
Yendor felt the air becoming more dank, and had the sensation that he was descending into the bowels of the keep. He felt the weight of the place above him as if it might collapse just to be rid of him. Yendor became aware of a panting ahead of him, perhaps around the corner. It was that of a heavy beast, a dog or some demonic version of one. Even from a distance he could feel the fetid heat of the animal’s breath rising up at him from the floor. Yendor had been being careful to be quiet, but he doubted he was so quiet that the beast was unaware of the only other living creature in the immediate area. Perhaps there was a master keeping it at bay. At that moment, there was a low growl, as the animal became aware of Yendor. Yendor paused assessing the situation. He should dispatch the beast as quickly as possible so as not to cause a racket that might alert the whole castle to his whereabouts. Yendor pulled his dagger, and rounded the corner.
It was grizzly. It’s fur was matted and bald in places, it slobbered in thick, stringy strands, it had long, ragged claws and sharp, glistening teeth. But its eyes were what drew your attention. They were red. In a world where everything was blue, they were red: glowing, angry, red. The stink of the thing was a concentration of excrement, disease, and vermin that thrived in filth. It growled from deep within itself. Remarkably fast, it leaped to its feet and lunged as its growl turned into a vicious barking snarl. Although he had been prepared for it, Yendor flinched and his heart stopped for a beat before it commenced to pound in his chest as if it were trying to escape.
Yendor overcame his initial hesitation and took up a defensive stance against the attack only to see it fall short as the dog reach the end of a heavy chain, caught itself and yelped at the sudden choking sensation. It coughed and barked and drooled but ultimately, Yendor was outside of the creature’s range. The beast strained at his confinement, further choking himself and enraged at his own impotence. Yendor wanted to shut the beast up, but felt pity for its predicament. Sheathing the dagger, Yendor pulled his sword, meaning to knock the beast unconscious with a blow from it. However when Yendor raised the sword to strike the dog stopped barking and backed away whimpering. Confused, Yendor cast a glance over his shoulder to make sure there wasn’t something more threatening behind him. Perhaps the only other being the dog had ever encountered had been his cruel master, and so he expected to be beaten. On an impulse, Yendor brought the sword down with force on the chain, severing it.
“Let’s see what you have to say about that.” he said to the beast. If Yendor thought the dog would be so grateful for being set free, he was mistaken. The dog leaped at Yendor with a snarl and the lightning speed he had displayed earlier. Yendor brought his sword up just in time and struck the dog in the nose with the flat of the blade. It was more an accident than a calculated blow; if he had reacted more quickly the dog would have had his head removed. As it was the dog landed stunned and shook its head and sneezed in an attempt to get its wits back. Yendor held the blade over the dog’s head trying to bring himself to kill it and be done with it, but again the dog cowered. Perhaps they could reach some détente.

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