Jora Silver leans on his broom. The floor of the general store is clean enough as far as he’s concerned. His father, Kaleel, demands that he sweep every day but Jora doesn’t think it’s necessary, the floor is always spotless. In the town of Dragon’s Hollow nothing ever happens that could create dirt.
People are clean and healthy, and their homes are well maintained. A long peace has permitted the town to prosper and the townspeople to become soft and complacent.
The store sees half a dozen customers in a day looking for nails or sugar or something equally mundane.
It’s not as if one of the near-mythical ogres is going to return to the world and stomp into the store with bloody feet. It’s embarrassing to live in a town named for a dragon when the last dragon was slain over one hundred years ago. The last army of the Dark Lord was defeated when Jora’s grandfather was still a young man of twenty-seven, so there’s not even a chance of marching off to a glorious war.
Jora has lived here his entire life, sixteen long years full of the same boring routine. He often dreams of going on an adventure like his grandfather or his grandfather’s father did. Back then the land was thick with evil wizards, rapacious monsters and Dark Lordlings looking to conquer the world. It must have been a fun time to be alive.
“You’re slacking off on your sweeping, boy.” A female voice snaps Jora out of his reverie.
“You’re so funny, Lamia. At least your father doesn’t have a store that you have to sweep.”
Lamia Rezath is Jora’s best friend. They were born within three days of each other. According to their parents, they crawled toward each other on their first day in the town square and have been inseparable ever since. Lamia is tall for a girl, only a few fingers shorter than Jora. Her long black hair is eternally bound in a thick braid which spills down her back to just above her buttocks. Lamia has never been sufficiently feminine according to Jora’s mother. She disdains proper dresses and skirts and instead wears tough canvas trousers and men’s shirts. Mother claims it makes Lamia look like a boy. Jora can’t understand why his mother says this. Lamia is as beautiful as one of the statues in the temple. Her skin is smooth and glows like alabaster in sunlight. In the last few years, she has blossomed into her woman’s body which her clothing in no way conceals.
Jora has fought a few of the other young men in the town over improper comments or advances. He’ll be damned if he’ll let some drooling muck-raker insult his best friend with lewd behavior.
Jora is a handsome young man. Lamia says that quite a few girls stare after him with moon-eyes during the spring festival, but he’s never noticed. He’s never really thought about girls, adventure is what he craves.
He thinks he would have made a fine warrior back in the day. Hard work in his father’s store and helping his friend Conrad’s father in the fields every spring and fall have made him strong and lean.
Most of the people in town assume that Jora and Lamia are involved romantically. It’s such an obvious match to everyone. Two lifelong friends who are equally comely MUST be headed toward a storybook wedding and family.
He doesn’t want to be with her in that way, she’s like a sister and any other type of relationship would be weird. As far as he is concerned, he’d rather climb a tree with her than climb into a bed.
“If you’re done pretending to sweep, how about walking me to the square? Conrad and Safir are there and he has some grand idea he wants to share.”
Conrad Johns is one month younger than Jora and physically his polar opposite. Where Jora is tall and muscular, Conrad is short and soft. Jora always looks for the silver lining while Conrad dwells on the misery of life expecting doom and disaster to befall him at any time. Jora sometimes wishes the boy’s predictions of disaster would come true, a bit of chaos would make their lives more interesting.
Safir Torsdattir is the youngest of their little clique. She turned fifteen three months ago and ever since then has been insufferable. She follows Lamia and Jora everywhere they go. Every time they put their heads together to share secrets or just talk about best friend things, Safir inserts herself into the conversation. She sits or walks between the pair as often as possible. It’s almost as if she can’t bear to be apart from them. Jora has often caught her staring intently at him and Lamia. Sometimes she looks angry when she does this and once they notice her, she blushes and turns away.
She’s a good kid in Jora’s estimation. She always has a skin of lemon water to share and is willing to go anywhere Jora suggests at the drop of a hat. He hopes that she gets over this weird phase soon.
The four teens met at the harvest festival three years earlier. Each of them always felt out of place in Dragon’s Hollow and immediately gravitated toward each other. Where other youngsters in town were satisfied with discussing the harvest or who was dating whom, they would rather read stories about the great adventures of the past when daring warriors fought the forces of darkness.
Jora looks around the store. No stray clumps of dust or grains of sand rear their ugly heads. He unties his apron and leans the broom against a wall. Poking his head into the back room he waves to his father, busily counting inventory.
“Da, I’m done with the sweeping. Lamia wants me to come to the square for a bit. Mind if I go? I’ll be back soon.”
Kaleel waves absently. He’s too deeply immersed in enumerating nails, rope, sugar, and corn to focus on his son fully. Jora loves his father but can’t imagine why the man wanted to be a shopkeeper; it is quite possibly the least glamorous profession the boy can imagine.
Jora takes Lamia’s hand and drags her from the store before his father can come up with a reason to rescind his permission.
The pair race toward the town square hand in hand. Even the lamest idea from Conrad has to be better than chores. The pair weaves through townspeople going about their daily routines. Farmers barter with housewives for fresh vegetables from the backs of their wagons while old men gossip in front of the town’s only tiny tavern. The day is as normal and boring as every other day.
The duo enters the square, swinging their joined hands widely while giggling at the antics of a toddler wrestling with a piglet in front of the butcher’s shop.
“Jora, Lamia, over here,” Conrad shouts across the square.
Safir doesn’t wait for the pair to reach them but instead races across the square to intercept.
“I’m happy you could get away, Jora,” she says, coming to a stop in front of him and forcing Jora to halt. “I think you’re really going to like Conrad’s idea.”
Safir pirouettes and grabs Jora’s arm in her own forcing him to release Lamia’s hand. She then pulls him forward toward where Conrad waits. Lamia stares at the pair in confusion before trailing after them.
“It’s the best idea he’s ever had and I know it’s something you’ve always wanted to do. It’s daring and fun and, well I probably should let him tell you. Right? How has your day been?”
Jora is still off-balance from being forcibly separated from Lamia and the rapid-fire prattle isn’t helping him regain his composure.
“You know, I had to help mother hem three dresses just this morning. Can you imagine having to sew that many dresses? I think I’m doing all the work in her shop and she’s just collecting the money.
“Jenny’s mother came in and told us about…”
Jora sighs in submission to the inevitable and allows the girl to lead him forward, babbling non-stop. He finds it easier to tune her out and let her run down naturally. The girl loves to talk, mostly about herself or other girls. Come to think of it every girl he knows in town is the same, except Lamia. He’s known Lamia his entire life and Safir for three years but he still has no clue about how girls think. They ask questions but don’t want answers or they say something doesn’t matter but then get upset about that very thing. Maybe girls were what drove the early adventurers off into the wilderness to fight monsters.
“So what’s this grand idea you’ve got,” Jora says when Safir stops for a breath.
Conrad puffs himself up as tall as possible and sticks out his chest. Jora does his best not to laugh at his friend but it is comical as the boy only comes up to Jora’s shoulder and Conrad’s chest, even at its largest, is overshadowed by his belly.
“I propose we go on an adventure, just like in the old days.”
Jora feels a sinking feeling in his gut. He had hoped for a fun idea but instead, he wants them to play make-believe in the woods like when they were kids.
“Man, I don’t want to wander around the woods like a little kid with wooden swords pretending that boulders are dragons. We’re too old for that.”
“Not for play; for real!”
“Now how do you propose we do that?” Lamia joins the small huddle opposite Safir. “We’re not warriors, and there aren’t any evil monsters or wizards to fight. The world was tamed years ago.”
Conrad’s eyes narrow and a sly expression creeps across his face.
“You’re forgetting about Tower Faustus.”
Jora rolls his eyes. Tower Faustus is nothing but a ruin. When they were little, their parents would scare them with tales of the evil wizard who lived in the tower. “If you don’t eat your vegetables, the wizard will take you to Tower Faustus,” they would say.
Every kid in town knows the stories and retells them to the next generation. Tales of ghostly lights moving across the hill, flashes of fire from the parapets of the stone tower, fairy tales meant to scare children.
“Chasing after ghost stories isn’t my idea of fun,” Jora says.
“No, there’s something real there. Kleg, the miller’s son, said he sneaked up there with a few of his friends and they actually saw some sort of huge beast prowling the grounds around the tower. He saw it with his own eyes.”
“Kleg also thinks that rats are magically born from garbage heaps.”
“They’re not?” Safir appears shocked at the suggestion.
“No, they’re not,” Lamia moves to stand right in front of Conrad and places her fists on her hips. “Say there is some sort of monster up there. What are we supposed to do? We aren’t warriors and wizards. We don’t even have adventuring gear.”
“I know where my grandfather’s gear is.”
Everyone turns to stare at Jora. Is he buying into this harebrained scheme?
“So do I,” Conrad says. “Even if we don’t have all the gear we can use what we have and scrounge the rest. I’m sure the girls have some sturdy boots and rope somewhere around the house.”
“Jora, are you suggesting that you want to go along with this?” Lamia is aghast.
“Why not? Do we want to sweep floors, or sew hems, or plow fields for the rest of our lives? This might be our one chance for adventure. If it turns out that Kleg was imagining things, at least we’ll have a fun outing to the tower. “
“If Jora’s for it, so am I,” Safir says.
Lamia looks around at her friends’ faces. They all positively glowing with anticipation, Safir looks like she’s about to burst as she wrings her hands and chews her lip. It’s a stupid idea, but if Jora wants to do it, who is she to deny him?
“All right, I’ll go along with it. Dad still has great-grandmother’s compass and staff somewhere. Maybe it will be fun. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“So when do we want to do this,” Conrad asks.
“Let’s go home, gather our gear and meet at the western trail in two hours. Is that enough time for everyone to get ready?” As always, once Jora decides to do something he automatically takes charge.
The other youngsters nod with varying levels of enthusiasm but nobody dissents. Jora turns back toward his father’s store, signaling that the gathering is over. The others disperse to the four corners of the town to begin their preparations.
Unlike the King’s Road leading north toward the town of River’s Edge and south to the capital in Urston, the western trail is a rough road overgrown with weeds and bracken. Ancient ruts, now eroded to mere depressions, show that this road was once well used but after the fall of the evil wizard Faustus the only traffic on the western trail has been animals and the occasional youngster testing their mettle by daring to approach the ruins of the tower.
Jora stands at the head of the road awaiting his companions. He is clad in old, but still sturdy leather armor. Large bronze studs cover its surface, making him glisten in the sunlight. A sturdy short sword is strapped to his hip and a large canvas pack hangs between his broad shoulders. He looks like a hero from an ancient manuscript. His heroic appearance is spoiled by his impatient pacing. He can’t believe how excited he has become over the last two hours while he prepared. Even if this adventure turns into nothing more than a glorified picnic and game of dress-up, it’s at least a break from the drudgery which fills his life.
Lamia is the first of his companions to appear. She is dressed in her normal sturdy pants but has found a long tunic which is emblazoned with stars and strange symbols. A tall wooden staff is in her right hand and Jora can hear it thump each time it strikes the ground. She also carries a canvas pack and much to Jora’s surprise, she is grinning excitedly as she approaches.
“I can’t believe I’m excited to do this.”
“Me either. Where did you get that tunic? It makes you look like a mage.”
“It was my great-great-grandmother’s. I found it in a trunk in the attic. She was a wizard of the fourth-order you know, at least before magic fled the world.”
“Well, you look like a real adventurer mage to me.”
Lamia bows deeply and then spins her staff around herself in a figure eight. It is an impressive flourish right up until the moment the staff hits the back of her right calf and bounces away downhill.
“I think I need to work on that,” she laughs.
Conrad and Safir soon appear, trudging along the trail. Safir has a tall walking staff and is dressed in her younger brother’s clothes. The shirt strains across her breasts and the pants are too long but at least the outfit is more appropriate than one of her normal dresses. Conrad hasn’t changed clothes but has added a rusty helmet which is much too large. His eyes are almost invisible and the bottom of the helmet reaches almost to his shoulders. He has a short sword strapped to his hip. The hilt is covered in rust and the leather of the grip has a mossy look to it.
Both youngsters have bulging packs on their backs. Safir’s pack is so heavy that the girl appears about to topple backward with each step.
“Welcome brave adventurers,” Jora says as everyone gathers.
The others whoop loudly in response.
“Today we journey to the heart of darkness, to Tower Faustus. Our destinies await us within its haunted walls. Look, up there lies glory.”
Jora gestures uphill with a flourish just as the clouds part. A ray of sunlight arrows down, spotlighting the hilltop. Is it the blessing of the Gods or an omen?
Perched at the top of the steep rise is an imposing tower of dark stone. It reaches high into the sky and its shattered top gives the appearance of fangs trying to bite the clouds.
Without further ado, the small band marches uphill. Jora and Lamia take the lead as always, followed by Safir and finally Conrad far to the rear. They move swiftly at first but after a mile, they begin to slow.
“This is a lot further than I thought,” Conrad wheezes.
“It’s five miles from town. I thought you knew that?” Jora halts the group and waits for Conrad to catch up.
The boy bends over gasping for breath once he reaches his friends.
“Yeah, but does it have to be so steep?”
“Let’s take a break,” Lamia says. “We can have a snack and then continue once Conrad is rested.”
Conrad could kiss her in thanks if he wasn’t so exhausted.
“If we take too long it will be sunset by the time we get there,” Safir sounds afraid.
“We’re adventurers, right?” Jora places a reassuring hand on her shoulder and she blushes scarlet. “We’ll make a camp. We’re going to be on this adventure for several days if there’s something up there after all.”
After a snack of apples and cheese, washed down by healthy amounts of lemon water the small band resumes their upward trek.
Jora eyes the sky, concerned. Despite his bravado, he doubts the wisdom of spending the night next to the wizard’s tower, even if this is just a game.
The group trudges for two hours including three more breaks for Conrad before they reach the summit of the hill. The sun sits low on the horizon casting long shadows across the tiny group. The tower is even more imposing in silhouette against the purple sky. In the past, according to the stories, the tower had smooth, unmarred stone. Baleful fires burned at the top and arcs of lightning chased each other across the black stone of its walls. Now, the black stone has faded to a dull gray and crumbling masonry has left gaps in the facade like rotting sores. The ground surrounding the tower is bare of vegetation. The road and most of the hillside has been reclaimed by vines and grass but the last one hundred feet encircling the tower is utterly barren as if the ground has been salted, killing every plant.
“This is creepy,” Safir says.
“We still have a little while until sunset,” Jora says. “Do we want to scout around the tower before we make camp?”
Everyone nods even though Conrad looks like he just wants to collapse and sleep. With Jora leading the way the small group circles the tower. On every side of the structure, the view is the same, blasted stone, bare ground and shadow.
“How the heck are we going to get inside?” Lamia tugs Jora’s sleeve bringing the boy to a halt. “There aren’t any doors or windows. This might be a short adventure.”
“I don’t know, maybe there’s a hidden door or a secret tunnel.”
A short cry draws their attention. Jora turns just in time to see Conrad tumble backward into the stone. The boy’s head and shoulders pass through the stone as if it is mist and his torso follows as he falls backward. The only part of Conrad which remains visible when he hits the ground is his boots.
“Conrad!” Safir screams and races toward their bisected comrade.
“I’m OK,” Conrad’s voice comes from the stone wall. “I think the wall is an illusion. Wow, you guys have to see this.”
Conrad’s feet disappear inward through the stone and the tower once more appears impenetrable.
“What do we do?” Lamia holds her staff across her body defensively. She looks back and forth between the spot where Conrad disappeared and Jora.
“He sounded fine. I say we follow.”
“I’m not going in there at night,” Safir says. She sounds like she’s about to cry.
“Suit yourself,” Lamia says. “Stay out here.” Holding her staff in front of her she walks right into the seemingly solid stone wall and disappears.
Safir emits a small eep as Lamia disappears into the stone.
“Come on Safir. I’ll keep you safe.” He places a comforting arm around her shoulder.
Safir wraps her arms around Jora in a crushing hug and then stands on tiptoes to deliver a swift kiss to his cheek.
“I know you will,” she says before releasing him.
Jora looks at her askance; he isn’t quite sure what just happened.
The girl allows herself to be led up to and through the stone wall by Jora.
Conrad was right; the inside of the tower is something they had to see. Jora expects a grand entry room or other normal room. His only experiences with buildings are the ones in town and he expects that the tower would follow the same pattern of small rooms with multiple floors. The tower defies logic. The inside is an enormous open tube reaching upward to the sky. The shattered uppermost level gives the impression of standing inside the throat of some titanic creature about to swallow them. There is no evidence of other floors that have collapsed over the years. The walls are smooth from the ground to the open roof.
“This thing is just hollow,” Lamia says.
“There has to be more to it than this,” Jora says. “Where did the wizard live? Shouldn’t there be workrooms or something?”
The group moves around the interior. The floor of the tower is made of the same stone as the walls, black, faded and worn by the elements. No illusions hide interior walls or furnishings; it appears that the tower is just an empty shell. As the band circles the room, the sun completes its descent and blackness fills the inside of the tower.
“We should get out of here and set up our camp,” Lamia says. “I don’t want to spend the night in this place.”
“Good idea,” Jora says.
He leads the way back to the illusory wall and confidently strides right into the stone, crunching his nose and stumbling back several feet.
“I must have missed it.”
Jora reaches out to the wall and moves a few feet in each direction, searching for the opening.
“I can’t find it.”
Safir screams and rushes to the wall. She frantically feels her way along the stones. A whimper rises from her and increases in volume the further she gets from the presumed location of the opening.
“Spread out, search the walls. It has to be here somewhere.” Jora sounds frightened but holds his fear in check. If he loses composure, his friends will panic.
The four friends move like blind men along the wall, touching every stone in search of the phantom opening through which they entered. Lamia and Jora move to the right while Safir and Conrad search the left. Soon the pairs reach each other on the far side of the tower. The stone remains stubbornly solid along every inch of the walls.
“We’re trapped,” Safir wails.
A low rumble reaches their ears. All four teens look around, vainly attempting to locate the source of the sound. The rumble increases in volume and they feel the ground shaking beneath them. The shaking increases in intensity until all four stagger across the room like sailors on a pitching deck. Safir screams in terror as the stone floor beneath their feet collapses. The four friends tumble down into the earth, pummeled by stone blocks.
Blackness closes in on them and the last thing Jora hears before losing consciousness is Lamia screaming.