Hemlock : Chapter One

Hemlock and the Wizard Tower:  Chapter One
by B Throwsnaill
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The night air was crisp as Hemlock, a lithe figure wrapped in a gray cloak, approached the decaying remains of a once proud structure. Heavy beams of wood, now sundered, splayed out like broken ribs, leaving the main structure sagging in some places and collapsed in others. One section of the old building, more stubborn than the rest, remained standing at its full height, and it was toward the top of this section that Hemlock directed her attention. She was able to make out a small glowing ember atop that old roof, and she shook her head condescendingly as she sprung onto the wall and scampered up the side of the building easily.

As she gained the roof she saw an aging, balding man sitting cross-legged and puffing gently on a long pipe. His cloak and pants were a worn and non-descript brown, and were slightly ill-fitting on his large, portly frame. The familiar scent of his tobacco comforted her.

“The whole Warrens is surely aware of you, Safreon. Why do you insist on giving away our best hiding spots by smoking that pipe?” she asked.

“Hmph,” he grunted, mouth still on pipe, gesturing for her to sit beside him.

Hemlock took his cue and sat, taking little stock in the commanding view of the marketplace the rooftop afforded. It was too familiar to register as anything but another place to spot the ill-tempered types who preyed on the decent folk who kept life moving in the district that extended from her position for a score of blocks in each direction.

“Sometimes a visible deterrent is enough,” said Safreon, “and some evenings I’m just tired. Let the cutpurses have a night to consider the direction of their lives. Tomorrow I’ll resume stalking them.”

“I make no such guarantee.”

“Fair enough. They’ve been warned. If strong drink or malice blunts the impact of that warning, then they have made their choice this night.”

Hemlock didn’t answer; instead she looked toward her and her sister’s apartment, the vicinity of which was visible, though several blocks away. Seeing all was quiet there, she turned her attention to the Wizard Tower, which loomed at the edge of the Warrens near the shore of Hemisphere Lake, which separated the low-class Warrens from the upper-class section which was simply called the Elite district.

The Wizard Tower was taller than any other structure in the City of San Cyra. It rose to a height of several hundred feet, and was composed of seven distinct floors. The outer walls were round, and at evenly spaced intervals around the Tower a series of tall, ornately arched windows were in evidence.  The glass of these windows did not transmit any signs of activity within the Tower other than a faint glimmer of light that emanated from behind many of them from dusk through the darkest hours of the night. At the top of the Tower there was an intricately shaped glass atrium that rose up from the stone below it at an equal width, and gradually tapered as it rose via a series of sharp angular transitions which culminated in a slender glass rod that extended upwards to form the apex.

A shimmering light played around the top of the Wizard Tower as Hemlock watched.

“How is your sister?” asked Safreon, breaking the silence.

“Better, although that healer, Frascont, needed to use an extra potion to help her.”

“How did you pay for it?”

“I managed.”

“I see. I can lend you some coins until we recover more money with no clear owner.”

Hemlock turned to him sharply. “And what if we can’t wait that long? Why would a few coins taken as a finder’s fee be such a problem?”

“You know why. Our enemies would condemn us, saying we are little more than thieves ourselves. They have connections, and those few who cherish the rule of law would listen to such criticism.”

Hemlock looked away and exhaled forcefully. The Wizard Tower caught her eye again, and she blurted out something that had been simmering in her mind for a long time. “It’s the Wizards behind it all! They are the reason my sister suffers as she does. We need to do something about them!”

Safreon did not respond immediately. Hemlock turned toward him; he merely sat, puffing on his pipe. This infuriated her, but she controlled her anger. She knew from past arguments it only ended up worse for her when she lost her temper. He always made her feel like a foolish child, and she didn’t want to cede him that intellectual high ground.

“Remember that first night when you tried to rob me? You were a good thief—the best I’d encountered, in fact—even then. But you didn’t think the rumors about ‘Safreon the Vigilante’ were real, and you didn’t take the time to learn about me. Then, because of your ignorance, you made an error in judgment that led to your capture at my hands.”

“A point you never tire of bringing up!”

“Because it underscores a critical point. I’ve been studying this City and the people in it for years. I agree the Wizards must be dealt with eventually, but in due time and with subtlety. You don’t know the first thing about them. You look at their Tower and imagine we’ll attack it? It’s foolish nonsense. There are obstacles and wards. How would we cross the Moat of Acid? What of the Drawbridge of Ninety-Nine Tears?”

“I don’t know,” conceded Hemlock, “but there has to be a way. And you do know things about the Wizards! If you just tell me what you know, then we can come up with a plan!”

“You’re not ready yet, and my plans for the Wizards proceed along other avenues. Never confront an enemy at their point of strength when other, weaker options exist.”

“Like?”

Safreon puffed on his pipe again before answering. “Call it diplomacy.”

Hemlock stood and turned to him. “Diplomacy? When my sister takes ill again, should I trust in your diplomacy?”

“You must,” responded Safreon, rising. “Now calm yourself in the remaining night hours. You’ve agreed to trust me many times, yet here you are arguing with me again. You must have faith in me and my plans. Rest assured I will teach you everything you’ll need to know and more—but in the proper time.”

Hemlock turned away as Safreon climbed down to the street to take his leave of her for the night. He had made her feel like a chastened child again. Part of her bristled at his lecture, but another part appreciated the truth in his words. She was at war within herself for several minutes, but, finally, temperance won out over defiance and desire for swift action.

Though Safreon’s smoking and their ensuing argument had likely compromised her position, Hemlock was not inclined to move for several hours. She watched over the marketplace and surrounding blocks, but her eye always seemed to stray back to the heights of the Wizard Tower and the glowing dweomer that played lazily around its apex.

An unusual motion caught her eye several blocks to her right. She was certain she’d seen something soar from a rooftop down to the street, and now she could barely make out two figures huddled there.

She rose, reaching a full sprint in a matter of steps. The rooftop became a blur as she sped toward its edge and then leapt into the open air. She flew for several seconds before hitting a lower rooftop of an adjacent building in a controlled tumble. She vaulted out of the tumble and jumped from rooftop to rooftop, covering the intervening blocks in an astonishingly short period of time.

As the scene on the street came into view, she saw a man of strange appearance roughing up a drunk on the street below. The aggressor was clothed only in a loincloth, and his slender and muscular body was light blue. Upon his back rested an odd pair of wings. The wings were folded and covered in feathers. Hemlock realized this was a “bird man”—a member of a group who had recently immigrated to the City from the west.

The Bird Man was close to wresting a coin purse from the prone man, who was putting up a surprising amount of resistance, given his apparent condition.

“Awwww, no you dowwwn’t!” slurred the drunken man.

Hemlock skidded down the shingled roof and then grabbed hold of an iron rain gutter. She slid down the gutter, wincing as it groaned slightly under her weight, but she reached the street just as the Bird Man was breaking into a sprint with the coin purse in hand.

He was fast, but Hemlock was faster. The Bird Man spotted her just as she reached him, and suddenly his wings extended and his feet left the ground. But Hemlock was too quick; she got a hold of the man’s belt as he rose. Though he carried her with him into the air a few feet, Hemlock was able to strike the man several times under his arm. The Bird Man lost control of his ascent, and Hemlock rode him down into a hard face first landing in the street.

Safreon had a term for a special skill Hemlock possessed. He referred to her as being "magically attuned." He explained that meant she was sensitive to magic. She could perceive it when most could not, and she could often understand its nature. 

Just before the Bird Man had taken flight, Hemlock detected a magical spell of activation. It had been a command word and an odd, mental visualization Hemlock had perceived as a geometric pattern.

The Bird Man was out cold. His wings appeared to be undamaged by the crash.

Safreon’s words re-played in her mind. How would we cross the Moat of Acid?

“This is how,” she muttered, quickly removing the wings from the Bird Man.

She was able to wear the wings comfortably after making some adjustments to the leather straps. They were surprisingly light, and Hemlock sensed their power of flight was more magical than physical, with the wing shape serving only to amplify the magical characteristics.

She noticed the Bird Man’s blue skin was the result of a covering of a chalky substance she had to clean off her hands after handling him. His skin was colored normally beneath the chalk.

She tossed the coin purse to the drunk as he shuffled toward her, rubbing his head and cursing. Though she needed the money, her deference to Safreon carried sway in that regard. But in another, more fundamental area, his influence did not fare so well. Hemlock was heading toward the Wizard Tower.

After she’d walked several blocks, during which time she had resisted multiple counter-attacks by her conscience, she stood in the shadow of the Tower. Its massive size was far more imposing up close, and she wasn’t without fear as she stood in the shadows of a hovel that lay close to the Moat of Acid.

The Moat encircled the entire Tower, and its bubbling, viscous, green surface looked very threatening. She had actually witnessed a man try to cross the Moat one night some years prior. He’d attempted to slide across on the flimsy purchase of a rope attached to a bolt, which he’d fired from a small, makeshift ballista. The bolt had given way about two thirds of his way across—and had sent him hurtling into the Moat with his face contorted in a silent scream. Hemlock had wondered, prior to this incident, whether the Moat might not have really been filled with acid. But the disintegration of this man, his partially destroyed limbs thrashing above the surface of the moat, first devoid of skin, and then even of sinew, had convinced her of the acid’s authenticity. 

These threats are real. Are you sure you want to do this?

The thought of her sister suffering galvanized her.

And how many others suffer as she does?

She walked away from the Tower for a block and cautiously attempted to activate the wings. Her first attempt failed, but her second worked and she felt the wings extend on her back. She felt light, and before she realized it, she’d begun to hover a few feet over the street. She wasn’t sure how to control the flight and wished she’d observed the Bird Man more closely.

Did he extend his arms?

She tried that and began to climb rapidly. Fearing to rise too high, she brought her arms back to her sides and she began to descend. Feeling bolder, she raised her arms again and leaned forward slightly. This time she began to fly forward as she climbed.

After a few more experiments, she felt confident she could cross the thirty yard width of the moat.

She returned to the shadow of the hovel and realized the moment for the final decision had arrived. She was surprised to feel her doubts wash away in the face of it.

It just feels right!

That was enough for her. She jogged toward the Moat and then accelerated as she mouthed the magic word to activate the wings. She raised her arms and leaned forward, and in a moment the strange green fluid was passing below her feet. She thought about trying to fly to the top of the Tower, but as she did so, a sudden gust of wind spoiled her flight.

She began rolling uncontrollably and losing height. She didn’t know how to compensate. She raised her arms frantically, but because she’d rolled to her side, the motion caused her to dip toward the glistening surface of the Moat. She recoiled her arms as the distant shore approached. She had no hope of regaining control—only that she had enough momentum to carry her over the acid.

Fortunately, she did. She hit the ground on the other side, mere feet from the Moat’s edge. But she landed hard and rolled onto her back. The wings twisted and broke under the strain of the fall.

She rose and sprinted several yards until she reached the base of the Tower. As she removed the remnants of the wings, she looked all around for signs of detection.

The night was still quiet, and only the faint howling of a distant wolf interrupted it.

Her adrenaline was pumping as she considered her next course of action. She knew the gatehouse was to her right as she stood with her back on the cold granite of the Wizard Tower. Everyone knew the gatehouse was protected by the Drawbridge of Ninety-Nine Tears. As she scampered around the Tower toward the gatehouse, she remembered the legend.

The Drawbridge was named for an apocryphal event that had taken place in the early, formative years of the current age of the City. According to the tale, there had been a faction in the Elite citizenry that had been wary of the influence the Wizard Guild had been gaining over City politics. A legislative power play had been made in the Senate, which would have regulated the use of Magic and outlawed the Wizard Guild—or any organized group of Magic Users, for that matter, who would not have agreed to be "supervised" by City government authorities. The Wizard’s Guild had reacted quickly and decisively. 

The Senate members, who intended to unanimously pass the measure to institute the new regulations, had numbered ninety-nine. Each had been abducted on the night prior to the passing of the legislation; some had been abducted by means of sorcery and others had been taken by more conventional means. For six days and nights, nothing had been seen or heard from the ninety-nine abductees, and no means had been found to enter or communicate with the occupants of the Wizard Tower. 

Finally, on the seventh day, the Drawbridge had been lowered, and the ninety-nine Senators had been impaled on long gleaming spears which had been arrayed in two rows running up and down the length of the long wooden platform. All ninety-nine had been near death, and appeared to be dying of thirst; their bodies were horribly desiccated. Though the Drawbridge had been down, no desperate relatives, city guards, or any force had been able to cross onto the Drawbridge to intervene on behalf of the ninety-nine. Then, from within the Tower, a great chant was heard, as if each wizard had chanted in unison under the power of some mysterious amplification.

"Know this: each of these ninety-nine has been complicit in crimes against our Guild. We will not abide those with hostile intent towards us. Each of these shall die upon the Drawbridge unless they can shed a single tear to atone for their crimes. Ninety-nine tears shall be the sum total of our required penance for these crimes. The alternative is death."

Each of the ninety-nine Senators had perished soon after these words were spoken, for none had been able to muster the single tear required, though those who had some small remaining pool of energy had cried out, tearlessly and pathetically, at their fate.

Hemlock couldn’t help but shudder a bit as she beheld the drawbridge and thought about its legend. It was closed, but there was a slight gap at the top, where its edge met a stone gatehouse. The gatehouse extended outward from the Tower proper at a height of almost twenty-five yards. The shafts of the spears, which were mounted on the drawbridge, were visible through this gap, and gave it an appearance not unlike a crude mouth, facing upwards towards the sky, punctuated by thin wooden teeth. 

She had a rope and a small grappling hook with her, which she pulled out of her backpack. She secured her hook through the gap and onto the very spears which were described in the story of the drawbridge. It was those same spears she used as handholds to slip through the gap and into the interior side. She then climbed back down the inside using those same shafts.

That was almost too easy!

She had progressed farther into the Tower than anyone she had ever heard tell of. Perhaps even this much progress, should she fail, would earn her a place in song and folklore: at least in the Warrens. She shook her head and quickly dismissed any thoughts of failure.

Then she thought sadly of Safreon, and how his countenance lately seemed to be aging before her eyes. She’d watched him living his life in the constant sorrow of martyrdom; he didn't seem to derive much joy from his existence, despite the appreciation of many people  he had helped and mentored. In her estimation, he, above most others, deserved happiness in return for his sacrifices.

A portcullis stood before her as tall as two of the tallest men in the City combined, and the iron was black, cunningly curved and slick with moisture. It was spiked downward at the bottom, and outward along its surface, with a number of cruel, upturned barbs. It looked massively heavy. 

Hemlock began to despair. How she could have assumed she’d be able to gain entry into the Tower once she got past the drawbridge?  She felt naive and foolish. 

The Portcullis seemed to loom larger in front of her. She experienced a vision suddenly, of her flesh suspended on those upturned spikes. 

The spikes glistened invitingly in the darkness. She was sure they could easily support her weight if they were properly embedded in her flesh. Maybe it would be a relief to come to such an end. At least it would show she had stubbornly tried to climb the obstacle and had never wavered or considered retreat.

Safreon and Mercuria would be devastated at her loss, but she also knew they would eventually go on with their lives. And she thought they would have been proud of her, after years of recollection, each in their own way. 

She caught herself, as she realized she was crouched and ready to spring up and run at the Portcullis!

It was odd she didn't remember consciously planning to do anything like that.

In some instinctive way, she realized she had actually been preparing to impale herself on those upturned spikes, just as she’d imagined herself doing in her melancholy thoughts of the past few minutes.

Of course, the Portcullis of Infinite Sorrow!

She’d been so relieved to get past the drawbridge she’d been caught unawares by the Tower’s next legendary defense. She became aware of the emotion emanating from the Portcullis then; it washed over her like a slap in the face: feelings of sorrow and despair were rolling over her mind, and they were almost incalculably strong.

She had to act decisively, as she realized this was the strongest magic spell she’d ever encountered.

The Portcullis stood at the end of a shallow tunnel, with an arched roof of masonry formed by the line rendered by the top of the Portcullis, where it met the wall. There was nothing to climb to, and there was no way to climb over. The seam where the Portcullis met the upper masonry was impenetrable.

She noted the space behind the Portcullis for the first time. It was a shadowy hallway, which was a continuation of the one housing the Portcullis. At the end of it, perhaps twenty feet further, there was a pair of large, ornate wooden doors. Between the doors and the inside of the Portcullis, Hemlock beheld the legendary Demonic Gargoyles. 

It was said the Gargoyles had been animated from the rafters of the Hall of the Senate on the Night of Ninety-Nine Tears, and they had taken hostage two of the strongest fighters of the City, who were also Senators. It was also said they had since rested in eternal guard of the Wizard Tower, and any intruder that managed to defy impossible odds and cross the Moat, enter the Drawbridge, and penetrate the Portcullis, would be torn to bits by them.

Their forms were winged and composed of smooth gray granite. Their hindquarters were powerful, their hands tipped with talons, and their wings were massive and folded. Their faces were grinning death masks with exaggerated, animalistic features. They inspired an instinctive urge for flight in Hemlock (though it felt weaker than the melancholy attraction of the Portcullis) as she fell under their gaze.

Though they betrayed no properties beyond that of normal stone statues, she felt she was being stalked by cunning and merciless predators.

The sorrow that had almost overcome her moments before returned with a renewed force, and overshadowed the fear inspired by the Gargoyles. It was a two-pronged mental assault of fear and melancholy.

She needed to act decisively.

She considered the Gargoyles would surely attack her if she somehow managed to get inside the Portcullis. She assumed they would eviscerate her in short order, and the wizards would find her remains in that hallway some days henceforth, and would wonder what impetuous soul had ventured that far within their defenses.

She also considered she really didn’t have any means to bypass the Portcullis. She had a file in her set of lockpicks, but it was small and it would take her weeks to file through that iron. She judged she only had minutes to spare. The temptation of capitulating to the Portcullis railed against her self-control mercilessly, and it held an attractive promise: an end of suffering.

She quickly realized there could be only one solution. She considered an idea that the only force that could possibly open or destroy the Portcullis was the Gargoyles. She wondered whether the wizards had thought of that possibility. She felt her life depended on their having overlooked it.

She assumed the Gargoyles would animate if she entered their side of the hallway. The Portcullis prevented this: but not completely.

She ran up to the Portcullis, and focused her mind completely on resisting the melancholy as she embraced the cruel iron and extended her limbs through the spaces between the bars.

If her initial plan didn’t work, she knew she would soon be hanging from those spikes in a willing, dying embrace.

Her hands extended to their full length and reached out toward the Gargoyles. She supported herself with her upper arms as they pressed against the cold bars, and took a low stance, as she also extended her legs through the bars and touched the ground on the other side of the Portcullis with her feet.

The Gargoyles awoke. Their eyes glowed with an anti–light which appeared as some sort of active darkness. They didn't move at first, but all the same, she felt the awakened presence of a great coiled energy, which was building in intensity.

In the space of one breath, the Gargoyles sprung— her mind registered the motion; her entire being shouted out a single message that reverberated through her consciousness and was able to drown out even the bittersweet, tragic melancholy of the Portcullis.

JUMP BACK!

She launched backwards into a tumbling somersault as greedy talons rended the ground where her legs had been half a moment before.

The Gargoyles were terrible in their rage, and they seemed to know their prey was close at hand. One, and then the other, grasped the slick iron bars, which now separated them from their kill; and with a frenzied effort of unimaginable strength, they began to bend the bars askew.

The iron groaned. Perhaps the Portcullis itself groaned, as if imbued with some fell awareness. Hemlock wasn't sure. Despite the terrible groaning, the Gargoyles steadily bent the iron until they made enough space for their bulk to pass through.

Sheathing their wings tightly around their bodies, they crawled through the openings.

She’d made her final gamble and now had to await the result passively. And, as was usual for her gambles, the stakes were nothing less than her very survival.

As the Gargoyles gained purchase on her side of the Portcullis, they slowly moved toward her, menacingly, as if they were savoring the moment of her death.

She rapidly realized  their speed and their strength were far beyond her reckoning. She could not evade them or jump past them–even with her excellent reflexes.

But then it happened. The Gargoyles slowed and then turned around, in a shuffling gait, back toward the Portcullis. They embraced it, their great arms outstretched grotesquely; and as they did so, their forms reverted to smooth, unmoving stone.

And then she felt something else. She was totally alone again with the melancholy of the Portcullis. The Gargoyles were just regular stone once more, as she sensed their magical spirits had been seized in some way by the seductive malice of those glistening iron bars.

Risking the icy touch of the Portcullis one final time, she crept through one of the openings that had been made by the Gargoyles, and approached the heavy wooden doors of the Tower itself. As she stepped beyond the Portcullis, it felt like stepping out of a bitterly cold night into a warm homestead. With a feeling of relief, she realized the Portcullis’ magic did not affect the Tower side of the hallway.

Recklessly, she touched the double doors, and she did not detect any magic. She surveyed what appeared to be some conventional locks, which would take little time for her to pick.

Nothing stirred within the Wizard Tower, even after the heavy footfalls of the Gargoyles had resonated over the surrounding moat during the recent encounter.

But at that moment, unbeknownst to her, a robed figure was moving about the outside of the Tower on a seventh floor balcony. It lingered above the drawbridge for a time, looked down, and then retired within the mysterious confines of the Tower.

She soon stood in an ornate entrance hall, which extended upward five stories, and was finished with elegant mahogany walls and great, multi–story tapered windows of opaque glass bordered with pale marble. Twin carpeted staircases crisscrossed the space and wound upward, providing access to the four visible floors above.

The beautiful woodwork of the hall felt oppressive, as if she’d entered into the belly of some ancient sailing ship, preserved in funereal majesty, resting deep on the floor of an ancient sea. 

She quickly gathered her wits, realizing that staring at her surroundings was a good way for her to end up being discovered and captured.

Hemlock’s goal was to ascend to the seventh floor of the Tower. She figured whatever force was siphoning magical energy from the Warrens district would most likely be situated there for maximum effect. And she had noticed (as had many in the City), that strange lights and dweomers were seen to dance above the Wizard Tower in recent weeks. 

Don’t the wizards realize the lights look a little suspicious and that people notice these things? Are the wizards so detached from reality they don’t consider what people observe?

The stairs rose before her, the warmth of their mahogany railings enhancing their welcoming expanse, which Hemlock perceived being in stark opposition to the danger she knew would surely await her if she dared to take them. Subtlety would be required for success—she couldn’t simply climb up those stairs and expect a warm reception from the wizards. She hoped alternative means to ascend might exist. 

She had to be cautious, just in case the wizards had been crafty enough to trap the interior of the Tower, despite her hunches they might not do so. She hadn’t survived as long as she had in the streets of the Warrens by being na├»ve.

The entry hall contained two large wooden doors, located slightly ahead of her, and offset to her left and right. Also, hidden somewhat in shadow under the balcony of the second floor above was a smaller door, dimly lit by flickering lamps on either side, and showing no visible doorknob or locking mechanism. 

Service entrance.

With a final, almost feral glance to the stories above, she silently darted across the floor, and with a graceful turn, halted, back to the wall, beside this smaller door. 

The wall at her back pulsed in an abnormal rhythm. This wasn’t something she had expected or could react to instinctively. She considered her course of action, conscious that precious time was elapsing and every moment spent in the open hall was a risk to her.

After feeling them for a time, Hemlock noted a pattern to the rhythms, and a distinct but faint hiss that sounded at a regular interval in the complex pattern. She wondered whether the source of the vibration was some sort of automata. Though automata were often not threatening, she weighed the risk of the likelihood of a trap or some other dark outcome waiting for her, should she pass through the small door.

Voices, she thought, as her ears registered new sounds from above. 

Footsteps on the stairs above. Three voices: two elderly and reflective; one hissing, forceful. Third or Fourth floor, probably. Descending. No time. Choose. Or die.

She moved sideways, catlike, to stand in front of the small door, straddling its width and feeling methodically along its surface. The echoing sounds of footsteps and voices above on the stairs indicated  the rate of their descent was somewhat slower than she’d first thought. 

Thank goodness for the old timers. Their doddering footsteps came slowly. She pictured them grasping a railing while they walked. She returned her focus to locating a latch or other hidden mechanism.

As she concentrated on the rhythmic pattern that emanated from behind the door, she noticed a spell warding it. It had been well concealed and subtle, and she hadn’t noticed it immediately, wasting precious seconds. 

She had to risk entry despite the machinery beyond the door. Hemlock focused on the spell. It manifested to her as a subtle mixture of anticipation, defensiveness, and paranoia. It radiated from the middle of the door, and she felt a certain geometry to it: it had an ordered nature and some dimensionality. 

What does it mean? 

Vibrations from above, more voices. Getting closer.

She returned her focus to the magical ward on the door.

What do the sensations mean? Anticipation… Expectation? What is the key to the magical protection? It’s a service door – it shouldn’t be a complex ward. Feel.

The footsteps were now directly above her, on the second floor. 

Not a complex ward – likely runic or spoken. 

The geometry she felt pointed to runic.

Footsteps turning onto the stairs above!

Soon they would be within sight of her. 

She reacted from a place of desperate instinct now: raising her hand to the middle of the door, she pointed toward it with her fore and middle fingers. Her eyes closed and her head leaned back slightly, as she began to trace a pattern in the air–following the guidance of her mind’s eye as it struggled to traverse the geometry of the rune she was seeing in her mind. Her hand steadily traced out a graceful character consisting of six interwoven lines with three dots above it. 

The door clicked inward softly, and she slipped in just as three figures descended to the first floor, and a moment before a robed figure with a serpentine appearance darted its head her way. 

As she slid the door shut silently behind her, Hemlock hoped no sound had escaped in the short time the door had been open just a crack–which had been enough time to allow her slight form to pass within. She now stood in a damp, dark space which had a musty, metallic smell permeating it.

A band of dull green light, emanating from deep within the room, shone rhythmically up and down over Hemlock’s body as she surveyed the room for exits. The only exit seemed to be a metallic spiral staircase, which rose up into the ceiling some distance in front of her, behind a machine of infernal appearance. 

The machine consisted of a man–sized glass piston filled with a glowing green liquid, which was being pumped by the actuation of a metallic shaft. Ghostlike, an airy human figure worked a wooden handle attached to a round gear which turned the shaft. The figure was nearly transparent, but the room behind it was oddly distorted. 

There was a large glass vat which was reinforced with iron banding, which was suspended above the piston. Within the vat rested the flanks of a massive green Dragon attached to some sort of mechanical device. The Dragon was suspended by chains, its clawed feet securely restrained with massive iron cuffs. The upper body and head of the Dragon were not visible, but appeared to extend up into the floor above.  The glowing green fluid dribbled from a number of gaping wounds on the hindquarters of the Dragon, hissing as it fell into the vat, which then fed the green fluid into the glass piston.

The piston pumped the green fluid into a copper pipe which ascended into a larger glasslike shaft, within which the glowing fluid could be seen to flow to the upper floors of the Tower in great volume. 

The ghostly figure continued to pump as Hemlock took in her surroundings.

Sensing no living, corporeal occupants in the room, Hemlock gazed in unmitigated awe at the massive body of the Dragon, finding she was unsure whether it was alive, dead or in some intermediate state. She’d heard legends about dragons, but had never seen one. Seeing its massive form imprisoned there and subjugated by the wizards gave her an increased appreciation for their power.

Hemlock cautiously strode toward the ghostly figure, casting a lengthening shadow on the wall behind her as she was bathed in the ghastly green light.

The figure was manlike in form; it appeared to wear full armor, and moved as if encumbered by its weight. As she approached it, there was no indication it sensed her presence. 

She continued to creep toward it, moving silently. A faint sound began to emanate from the figure and within two steps, it had grown to a wail of utter agony.

Startled, she leapt back into a crouch, and just as quickly the sound was gone. She glanced to either side of the room to make sure she had not been surprised by any other developments, and noticed both walls were lined with shelves holding supplies of a mysterious nature. There were beakers, books, strange robes, brooms, and a host of tools like shovels and pick axes; all in all there was a myriad of what were likely items of day to day use in a wizard tower.

Feeling somewhat befuddled by the strange apparition, but confident she could circumvent both the machine and the Ghost, she moved toward one of the shelves in a circular motion, maintaining the distance between herself, the ghostly figure and the machine.

She could see the figure in profile then, and her heart skipped a beat. The features were some cruel combination of human and skeletal, locked in a howling scream of pain and anguish, which seemed to reflect a level of suffering beyond anything in Hemlock’s experience—and she had witnessed her share of suffering. 

She imagined it would roughly equate to those moments of utter destruction of the mortal form, which normally extinguished the flame of consciousness before the true magnitude of the torment could be experienced. This man–ghost–skeleton appeared to be enduring in this state, however, as a gibbering shell put to some foul purpose in this Tower, no doubt, Hemlock felt, as a result of some Wizard spell of an ultimately corrupt nature.

Averting her gaze from the tragic figure, Hemlock briefly toyed with the idea of trying to free it somehow. But her senses quickly told her she was in no way qualified to meddle in such a powerful dweomer, and she strongly felt her goal was at the top of the Tower, not here. 

She could sense the form of the magic being employed in this room. Woven into the magic were strong emotions of ambition, aggression, and perhaps even megalomania, locked into a complex weave with the considerable mechanics of the machine itself. It was like a tapestry of indecipherable pattern, folded back on itself in four or more dimensions. Her mind simply could not make any sense of the complex lattice of these spells. Simple wards and traps she could often handle, but this was different. Understanding this magic would have been like a journeyman painter trying to touch up a masterwork painting: the probable result would be destructive. She felt it would likely result in her destruction and possibly that of a good portion of the City as well. Such was the power of the magic that she felt here. 

She ruefully moved toward the staircase, experiencing a reluctance to leave this machine in operation, but not knowing how else to proceed. As she approached it, she saw at periodic points along the spiral stair, its railing was adorned with odd hands, which were cast in the form of a clenched fist. Some were large, some were small. The staircase ascended to an opening in the ceiling and led to another floor above, which was cast in shadow. She anticipated there was another level of this maintenance area for this strange machine, accessible via this stairway.

Sound! she warned herself, as the door opened. 

She heard new metallic sounds, clearly but faintly, amidst the thunderous metallic churning of the strokes of the piston; there were clattering footsteps heard on the flagstone floor near the door.

She tumbled into a somersault and landed behind a small workbench near the spiral stair. After a few moments, she peeked out beside the bench.

A small clockwork gnome, who was dressed in a bright red, conical, velvet hat, clattered and sputtered over to the bench and placed a silver tray on it, upon which rested a large glass jar containing a spidery form suspended in a milky fluid. The Gnome’s body was composed of brass and iron parts: bolts, gears, pistons, and welds.

The gnome soon made its way toward the staircase. It did not seem aware of her presence; as it reached the stair, she heard the metalwork of the steps groan slightly under the weight of the automaton when it began to ascend.

Suddenly there was a metal scraping sound and the climbing stopped. Hemlock risked a glance toward the stair and she saw the lowest of the metallic hands had opened, and was now gesturing as if motioning the Gnome to stop. A small mouth formed in the palm of the hand, and Hemlock had to contain a gasp.

"What is the form of the concept when unseen?" cried that small mouth, with the strangest voice she had ever heard. It sounded like what she imagined a talking mouse or rat would sound like, yet it was melodious just the same.

"A dream," responded a voice–she realized it must be the Gnome’s voice–somehow quite understandable despite being composed of a fast series of horns, grinds, squeaks, metallic shivers and dull groans.

The sounds of climbing resumed.

Hemlock heard another odd scraping sound. Again the climbing stopped.

"What is the nature of the spotted alligator?" cried the strange little voice, challengingly.

"To rend and consume," replied the Gnome.

Hemlock heard the odd pattern of challenge and response continue at the next highest point on the stair.

"How high flies the Lagma when his wings are mired in magma?"

"The gift of flight he’s never known."

The Gnome had almost reached the next floor as another question was asked. But Hemlock could not make out the phrasing of the question. She glided along the floor, reaching the foot of the stair, but she was unable to hear the answer in her concentration on executing the quick motion without making any noise.

She cursed to herself as she took stock of the fact she had missed both the final riddle and its answer. Since the first three answers had been phrases, she imagined she stood little chance of getting that final answer right on her own.

She wondered if she could leap off the stairs or even climb up beneath them. She walked toward the underside to investigate. As she moved closer, an invisible force gently pushed her backwards. She surged forward then and was thrown back several feet, landing on her backside. Apparently, she mused, the wizards had thought of that.  

Again she reflected on her options. Since the Gnome seemed to be a machine, there seemed to her to be a good chance that he was automated and might return. But she wondered how long that would take.

Every moment of delay increased the chances the wizards would notice the damage to the Gargoyles and Portcullis.

She knew she was relying on the wizard’s arrogance and overconfidence. She wondered whether whatever magical protections they might have had been allowed to weaken over the years of seeming invulnerability. Or, she considered, maybe there were alarms going off somewhere, but no one had noticed them–yet.

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