By Richard Grunert
Completed September 19, 2012
Stretching high above the dark hills of a long-dead kingdom, the tower kept eternal watch over what remained of the rotted village at its base. Like a giant inverted cone the finely cut stone structure towered above all surrounding it, the apex expanding into a large disc of cracked granite supported by beams of wood so thoroughly decayed even the worms no longer wanted them. Ages before when the forests were green and the winds still carried the warmth of life it was built to keep watch over the valley, then a strategic point in some long forgotten war. Its innumerable rooms had once been host to the great gatherings and feasts of its day; kings and commoners alike were held in awe at the luxury of even the most modest rooms at the base. It was said the grandeur only increased as one ascended, the rooms near the top fit for even the greatest emperors of time. The greatest treasure of all however, was the great library housed at the top, said to contain all the secrets of time and existence. It was also there that the great monster sat, guarding his books as the great tower had once guarded the valley.
Was he really a monster? The great lich had forgotten what a monster was. He'd forgotten many things over the course of his thousand (or was it two thousand?) year existence. When one is dead the things that trouble the living, such as sleep, no longer need to be bothered with, and as such he'd spent his entire un-life awake, thinking. In the corner of that dark library in that slowly crumbling tower he'd sat pondering every philosophy, every aspect of magic, every minute detail of his world and surroundings, guarding a mass of paper and ink as rotten as his ancient bones. There was still one thing he was certain of though, that long ago when his heart still beat he'd been a great magician, master of the great tower he was now bound to. Vaguely he could recall the feeling of happiness from when he'd finally managed to seal his soul into the one book he now guarded more than any other. He couldn't remember exactly why he'd done it, perhaps out of some great fear of death or lust for more knowledge than any one man can know in a lifetime; but the real reasons had been lost to time ages before. Fifty years into his immortality he'd finished reading the entire library, and it had given him oh so many wonderful things to ponder, but even those now bored him. Every few years he'd read one of his books again, but they had nothing left to offer him. Little by little the spell that held him to the earth had eroded the fabric of his once-great mind, and it made him worry that soon he'd no longer be able to think. He needed a student, one to pass on his knowledge to, lest it be lost forever. But he was bound to his tower, and his magic prevented him from leaving to find a suitable pupil. So there he sat, he'd practice a little magic every now and then, or stare in wonder out his window thinking of a past that slipped further from his mind with each passing moment, but mostly he just spent his existence in his great chair, worrying and forgetting.
He looked at his thin, skeletal hand, trying to remember what color his flesh had once been; for while his magic had defeated death, he was now its spitting image. White bones in a ragged robe and a soul in a book, that's all he was and all he could remember being. He knew not of the horror with which the living spoke of his land, tales were told of the the terrors lurking within his walls, and few dared penetrate the dark forests surrounding his valley. In all his time not one living creature had ever dared to violate his sanctuary, and so for ages upon ages he sat, neither alive nor dead, slowly becoming one with the tower he guarded. Where royalty once slept darkness was now king, and he was its only keeper.
When the three figures approached their footsteps jolted through his empty, tortured consciousness like violent waves of energy. He lurched toward the arched window, and in the setting summer sun watched as the tiny silhouettes approached the base of his fortress. For the first time in an age a great warm feeling he barely recognized filled his hollow ribcage, which he released in the form of a piercing, frozen screech that reverberated throughout his valley, stopping the travelers dead in their tracks. He was excited; at last, pilgrims had come seeking his wisdom!
Down through the empty halls he flew, down through the empty rooms stuffed with the decayed beauty of the past. He descended the great central staircase shouting joyous spells, spells interrupting centuries of the slow, encroaching rot that covered his tower. Shimmering beams of light cut through the darkness, scorching the dust and restoring life to every surface it touched. Ancient tapestries sewed with the glory of hundreds of battles regained their color; magnificent mirrors trimmed with baroque swirls of radiant gold regained their luster; brilliant chandeliers of crystal shone once more with blinding prismatic radiance. As he reached the floor of the great entry hall he stopped and raised his boned fingers; immediately the head of every torch present burst into flame. He thought he must have been happy, for his tower was suited for visitors once more.
The sounds of the trio approached the great carved door and stopped, its caretaker flattening himself against the shadows of a dark corner. After an agonizing moment of silence and the loud, moaning groan of metal hinges a sword's silver tip emerged, swinging the door's left side open and revealed the first guest, a great man clad head-to-toe in heavy ringmail. He stepped slowly forward, a look of amazement crossing his bearded face as he beheld the lich's hospitality. The shade held his ethereal breath as the visitor looked over his shoulder and called to his companions. The two other men stepped in. One, whose bones must have really been aching under his great layers of fleshy fat, nearly dropped the gilded suitcase he carried and ran an awed hand across his slick bald head, smiling greedily. Behind him stood the third: a shaggy, twig-like man dressed in leather, muttering to himself a thousand astonished blessings.
They lowered their belongings to the tiled floor and the fat one spoke. Centuries of solitude had made his words incomprehensible to his host, but a man's character shines through his voice, and this one had a tone to it that any creature, living or dead, could understand. This was a man of power, he spoke in firm commands to his companions and quickly the thin one shut the door. He pointed to the other exits and each connecting room was opened and explored in turn. The lich watched as they searched the entire first floor of his tower, creeping from shadow to shadow cast by the torches' warm light, studying his guests intently.
As the bearded man approached the great second floor dining hall their unseen host snapped his fingers once more. The door opened to a huge banquet, neatly set out with everything a guest could ever ask for. The sublime aromas of glistening cooked turkeys intermingled with the rich, thick smell of poured wine, causing his guest to nearly drop his sword in amazement. He yelled to the others, and both came rushing, their eyes growing delightfully wide as the beheld the great feast before them. The fat man sat down with earnest and began devouring the food sloppily, as did his bearded companion. The lich noticed however, that the third was not so quick. He eyed the table's contents with suspicious contempt, opting to eat only a green apple he removed from his pack.
Soon the meal was finished, and the lich had many new interesting things to think about. How did the man manage to eat so much without smearing his beard? How much wine would the gluttonous duo drink before their faces grew red? Just how many legs of turkey would the fat man eat? Why did the thin one refuse to accept his generosity? For a moment he felt the cloud of boredom lift from his mind, and the renewed clarity in his thoughts was maddening; he needed to know more. With a wave of his invisible hand a silent breeze caused a side door of the banquet hall to creak open, causing all but the sated glutton to jump to their feet, swords at the ready.
The flickering wicks of gilded lanterns lit the hallway beyond. The thin man and his companion explored each connecting room top-to-bottom, but no danger was to be found, only the relaxing tranquility of made beds and fat pillows rewarded their search. Upon hearing no danger their leader himself stepped full from the banquet into the nicest of the rooms, ordering his bags to be brought up to him. They were, and he stretched out on the tasseled purple sheets. The group set up camp in the tiny passage, cautiously fortifying it with nearby tables and chairs and leaving the lights on. The bearded man disappeared into another bedroom while his thin partner took the first watch, and the lich again noticed something different about the man as he sat there in the hall with an agitated look upon his face. Why was he still so cautious? Hadn't he shown them yet that they had nothing to fear? It puzzled him, and proved to be a wonderful thing to ponder while his pilgrims slumbered.
Soon the light of morning crept in through polished windows; a gray, muted light, for the heavy clouds high above the tower never truly let the sun shine through. This light soon woke the fat man and his servants, although the lich noted that the thin one had never truly slept. The undead sage had spent the night in careful observation of them; peering into their dreams and delighting at all he saw. The leader stood up, scratched his head and called for their expedition to resume. The group hurriedly packed up their things (the bearded one slyly slipped a jeweled cup into his pack) and rallied together back in the banquet hall where the great table stood, again covered with all the wonderful sorts of foods a living creature could imagine, as if they hadn't touched a morsel the night before. The fat one cheered, and his hearty breakfast cost them almost an hour. Soon however, the search resumed, and by early afternoon they had searched the third floor and begun on the fourth. Days went by, and on each another level of the tower was explored. Every night they spent in comfort, provided for by the magic of their unknown benefactor, who fed them and ensured they had only the finest rooms to sleep in. Slowly, very slowly, he began to understand their language and learned they had visited his tower to find something, but speak of exactly what it was they would not; but this did not trouble him, for surely they must be learned men searching for his great library and the knowledge it held. They took things here and there: golden candlesticks, jewels from the edges of mirrors and the like. But this did not trouble the lich, for his guests were welcome to take whatever they liked from the lower floors – after all, what use for gold and treasure did one who lived forever have?
By the seventh evening the group had reached the base of the great central staircase in the center of his tower. They camped there for the night and started early the next morning, the fat man needing to stop every half hour or so to rest. Over the two days it took the trio to ascend the lich continued to watch and wait, often returning to the sanctuary of his library to collect the books he considered to be the best from the shelves, arranging them in a neat pile so that his guests could read and behold the wonders contained within. He had decided that when the group at last reached his sanctum he would reveal himself and speak to them, he had so many great things to teach!
After another silent eternity the door swung open and they entered the low golden light of the lich's innermost home. Colossal racks of books reached high above them, as if they were treasure cases containing the great wisdoms of the world. Down the center aisle was stretched an elegant purple carpet laced with threads of silver ending at a sharp obsidian staircase. Above this, flat on a stone table lay the most valuable treasure of all: a yellowed book of bound leather, the wizard's soul. On a low table to their left sat the pile their host had set out for them, the host who now watched from the shadow of a pillar near the wall behind the door.
The glutton pushed his way into the room and shouted an order to his group, which spread out and began haphazardly flipping through the books of the table. They then spread out through the aisles, pulling down tome after tome, casting them carelessly aside after barely a glance at their contents. The lich was puzzled, and emerging slowly from his shadows appeared before the leader, his haggard robe swaying slowly in the breezeless room.
'Pilgrims! What dost thou seek?' He questioned, his voice coming not from his form but emanating from the very bowels of the room itself. The man shrieked and fell back, his companions rushing to his side, swords drawn. For a tense moment there was complete silence, but the man soon regained his composure, and prostrated himself before the dark, imposing figure.
'Dark lord, I kneel before you as a servant. I have heard great tales of your wisdom. I seek the secrets of the powers beyond death, and would gladly pledge myself to your service to learn them.'
'Ye say ye seek my wisdom, yet ye cast it upon the floor. Why wouldst thou seek to suffer as I do if knowledge is surely not thy goal?'
'Why for great power, as you have, my lord.' As he said this a low rumble ran through the very foundation of the tower, as if the entire structure groaned in anguish. The lich's empty eye sockets darkened and his fingers clenched into a bony fist.
'Power! Ye would suffer as I do for such a little thing as power?! What good is power without the wisdom to use it? I see now thy cause is ignoble, and I was wrong to guide and provide for thee. Begone from my tower and never return, for ye are not worthy to stand in my holy sanctum.' With this the lich vanished, and with him all the beauty he had prepared for them, and the tower once more was cloaked in rot and darkness.
'But great lord-!' The man stopped as the others pulled torches from their packs and lit them, the light illuminating the mask of frustration upon the face of their leader. 'All this way... for nothing?! Come, we shall not leave here empty handed.'
The trio returned to the center aisle and under the oppressive gloom searched the library a second time, but found nothing but dusty old books. Defeated, they regrouped and made their way up the stairs to the stone table upon which only one book lay, standing out from the rest.
'This book must be valuable,' said the glutton. 'The demon keeps it away from the rest, it must contain great power!' He reached out his hand to touch it, but before he could the lich materialized and caught his wrist with a skeletal hand, breaking it with a sickening snap. The man screamed and fell back, clutching his arm to his chest as the bearded man lunged forward with his sword, managing only to slice the air as their assailant vanished once more. He stood there, bewildered, until the same hand grabbed his hair from behind and yanked back hard as the tip of an icy spear replaced the contents of his torso, impaling him like a skewer through meat. The lich pulled back, his right arm completely enveloped from the elbow down by a pointed icicle, dripping with crimson. The man's body slowly slid off, landing in a bloody mess on the floor.
Before the lich lay the cowering form of the glutton, still clutching his broken wrist to his chest. He screamed once more and scrambled to his feet, fleeing into the dark aisles as his judge hovered calmly after him, a dripping trail of blood trailing his encased arm.
The booming voice seemed to emanate from the shelves themselves. 'What do ye hope to achieve by running? Come and cower before thy master once more, that I may render judgment upon ye.'
He was not hard to track, the lich knew every inch of his tower, and soon found his quarry clawing at the window, unable to open the rusted latch with one hand. The lich towered above him like a grand angel of knowledge and death, ready to pass sentence upon this this pitiful creature. The ice melted away as bony fingers found their way around the glutton's throat, lifting him so they spoke face to skull. The doomed glutton looked into the dark, empty sockets, and for a brief moment if was as if he understood the great disappointment and suffering behind them. It completely enveloped his mind, and in and instant he was blind.
The lich spoke.
'Defiler, I showed thee nothing but kindness and warmth; I cared for thee as ye traveled through my great tower; Thy presence gave me the false hope that I may pass on my great knowledge to a worthy student. Thine actions have proven otherwise. Thy greed and shortsightedness has clouded thy heart, and I shall not have it corrupt my home. Ye are forever banished, begone.'
He threw the writhing form through the window, shattering the once-beautiful glass into a cascade of faded color. There was a long, chilling scream which ended in a soft thud, and the tower was silent once more.
The lich turned and returned to his great chair, the stiffening body still beside it.
'Come before me,' he hissed, the voice like a seeking snake slithering through the shelves.
The thin man emerged form the shadows into the center aisle, unarmed and wearing nothing but a cloth tunic. He approached the throne and genuflected, his long brown hair almost touching the floor.
'What is thy name?' The lich asked.
'Montresor, great lord.'
'And what dost thou seek?'
'Endless wisdom, wise lord.'
The master's empty eyes glew red.
'And for what purpose?'
'To understand as you do, my lord.'
The lich raised a powerful hand and a book levitated to him, which he tossed upon the ground before his new pupil.
'Read,' he commanded. As the man opened the book and slowly began to digest its contents, the lich felt a deep, radiating warmth where his heart would have been.