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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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INTO THE DEPTHS

armor
Yendor was momentarily disoriented by the presence of actual light. In comparison to the mental blue image that had been being projected in his mind, this small candle was incredibly bright and ethereally orange. The immense dramatic shadows flickered and grew across the walls only to shrink and grow in the other direction. His nostrils were filled with the scent of familiar sweat and as he fought to get his bearings, he saw Danse in the corner. His vision tunneled to her and the rest of the world melted away for a moment as he recognized her. She was huddled up with her knees to her chest and her arms wrapped around them, hugging them tightly to her self. She rocked back and forth and was unaware that someone had entered the room.
He rushed over to her and scooped her up before he knew what was happening. They were out the door and racing back the way Yendor had come in such a mad rush that it was with some surprise when Danse said to him; “What are you doing here?” She seemed to slowly be coming to her senses as if just waking from a dream.
“We are getting the damned hell out of here!” he said.
“You’re bringing the dog?” she asked, and he noticed that indeed, the beast was loping along just behind them, not growling, just part of the group.
“I guess.” he said. “I take it you two know each other?”
“He’s been my only friend for so long now.” she said and Yendor remembered hearing stories around the campfire how captors could come to feel like friends to their prisoners who were robbed of all other contact and affection. Yendor wondered how long they had been separated. He had taken up the chase immediately, but had had many interruptions and side tracks along the way. Also, she had been under the power of Incarnate and perhaps time had passed differently for her.
Just then the beast began to growl. Yendor thought it was in response to their conversation, but it wasn’t. The beast stopped and barked, whimpered and growled a frightened growl. Yendor was inclined to ignore it and carry on, but before he wonder why such a malevolent creature should be frightened of anything, a giant battle axe nearly took Yendor’s head off. Yendor had stooped to look at the whining dog, so technically the dog saved Yendor’s life. Danse, weak as she was leaped out of Yendor’s arms and he drew his sword to face a fully armored knight. The knight had its sword out also and was pressing the attack. The two swung their swords simultaneously and Yendor was struck by the force behind the knight’s blow. The knight pulled his weapon back for another swipe with lightning speed. Yendor lunged to tackle his assailant and was surprised when the armor simply fell empty to the ground. The plate armor clattered around the narrow hall and Yendor wondered briefly if it had been occupied by a ghost or if it had been the puppet of a sorcerer hiding somewhere safe.
Around the bend of the curving passageway came two more haunted knights. Yendor decided that his presence was known and the time for restraining from magic was over. Pulling energy from the very air, Yendor felt it swirl around his arm up to his shoulder and then shoot down the length of his arm as he threw circling, crackling rings of blue white lightning at the knights. It struck their armor which absorbed the energy like a lightning rod, and the armor collapsed into sizzling pieces. There was a rumbling in the floor and Yendor saw with horror ghastly glowing green corpses emerge incorporeally from the stones beneath them, pulling on pieces of the armor as they came.
Yendor counted three ghosts. He could smell their rotting flesh. They were semi transparent and he could make out various anatomical workings going on; joints twisting, muscles constricting, semi digested materials floating in the digestive tract. Yendor began swinging his sword at them and kicking away armor as they clawed at him and hissed as they were thwarted in their attempts to gather the armor. Yendor could see some kind of mist rising off of them. Although they could pass through objects like the floor it seemed they solidified as they appeared and though his sword didn’t have the same effect as it would have on a living thing, it definitely bothered the ghost corpses and they were perturbed when they had the armor kicked from them. There were more coming through. They were coming through the walls now too. There seemed to be countless ones and even the ones who had been kicked or sliced with the sword kept coming. Yendor’s sword would pass through them like a knife through soft butter pulling a disintegrating stinking trail of
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Rising and sinking hand
ectoplasm with it. It was part solid, part liquid, part gas, and really not any of these things.
They were in various states of decomposition, missing jaws, noses, one was had no legs and dragged itself toward Yendor by its arms, its exposed spine writhing like a tail.
Yendor realized he was going about this battle all wrong, and scooped up Danse, and reluctantly grabbed the beast’s chain and the three of them fell out of reality.