Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)

The Towers of Zolyniak

©Melissa K. Michael 2003
ca 5000 words

The Towers of Zolyniak
by Melissa Michael

"Why'd I get sent to rescue a moldy old wizard? Why can't I get sent to rescue a beautiful young princess?" Tolly called to the ether as his horse stumbled on the trail.
I knew they were all tired, men and mounts alike, but we were almost there, almost to the spiteful sorcerer's keep, and soon the mounts could rest even if the real work only began for the men.
"Make that a beautiful, young, rich princess," Nimwit called from the rear to the amusement of all my party.
Indeed, what were we doing sent to rescue the mighty, all-powerful, High Wizard Rumex? Only King Asarian knew, just as surely as only he knew why he'd sent Rumex to challenge foul Zolyniak at all. Whatever the reason, it was us, the uncommon commoners section of the King's City Guard sent to the rescue.
"I'd settle for a fat old goodwife to rescue me," Carverson said and was answered by more chuckles.
I'd picked a good crew, taking only half the number the King authorized. I let Tolly ride point on the trail. He was young and full of youth's stupid eagerness for battle. I hadn't yet seen the wall he could not climb. Yakut was the best at throwing a knife I knew of, and that in a fight, not just at targets. Varley had a way of approaching strangers without causing alarm. It's said he made his way to the princess' door while dressed as a beggar, claiming he was a courtier who'd been waylaid. I'd pulled him out of the stock after that. I had use for such greatness, if none else did. Nimwit and Carverson were skilled swordfighters but didn't have the discipline for the City Guard; all that spit and polish, marching in step, standing up straight. Come to think of it, I didn't either, but at least I could fake it when in front of the King.
And me? I'm hell on horseback with a sword in my hand. Even better, I've got brains and uncommon good luck.
We rounded a turn in the trail and stopped to stare as one. We'd been heading up and up for days, yet before us a mighty fortress soared like something beyond my worst nightmare. I'd never seen the towers of Sorcerer Zolyniak, but I'd heard they were of black gabbro, that he'd called the whole thing up from the pits of hell by his own twisted power and much virgin's blood. High atop a sheer face of black rock sat a castle many times greater than that of King Asarian in Blueville and atop it, four towers soared even higher toward heaven, one in each cardinal direction.
"Get on with you," I called. "Mayhap he's changed old Rumex into a princess just for you, Tolly."
A few half-hearted chuckles greeted my comment. The boys were shaken, but they heeled their horses forward and continued plodding along. After a time, we came to the place we must needs leave the horses. It was either climb the cliff or ride on in full view of Zolyniak's guards. I sent Varley to scout a way in while we rested and ate and considered our options.
"He's either in a tower or in the dungeon," Nimwit offered.
Yeah, sure as stool stinks Zolyniak put a wizard in a tower where he could summon a beast with a whisper to bear him away out a window.
"You're not gonna like it," Varley said from behind us. Everyone jumped save me. I'd been listening for his return.
I looked at him.
"Found the sewer drain."
The men groaned. I'd figured as much. "Let's get to it," I said. "Varley, lead on."
The way was plenty wide to accommodate kitchen offal, sacrificial leftovers and the stool and urine of probably a thousand residents, but it was slick and we had to use rope in some places. Tolly didn't relish being sent first, but that's what I'd brought his snotty nose along for. Like a snake, he slithered right up all the slopes and tied the knot for us to follow.
Finally, we neared an opening to the dark tunnel and it grew small so that we had to crawl single file. There was fresh air ahead laden with baking smells. We'd come round near the kitchen. The dungeons were below us as well as below the wine and root cellars. So we laid in muck for hours tortured by the proximity of delicious smells. At last the sounds dimmed away.
"There's one yet," Tolly breathed down to me.
"We'll wait," I answered.
Then a rush of water came with no warning. Luckily the tunnel was small enough that we could brace ourselves with our arms and legs. Still, I managed to get a mouthful of Tolly's boot, but we were washed clean of the stink of our passage, a worry I'd been nursing. Can't sneak around a keep if they can smell you coming. After the flush, we crept out of the sewer and shook like so many drowned rats.
"See if you can find us the dungeons," I whispered to Varley.
He'd tell them he'd been sleeping off a drunk and someone had wakened him with a bucket of water, and they'd believe him. I kept my boys from making free with the sorcerer's victuals. We wanted a clean, quiet, quick snatch. Get in, get our wizard, get out, and get gone before they knew we'd come.
Varley motioned from the door and led us down a hall past two doors then down two flights of stairs. The dungeon access was completely separate from the wine and root cellars. I sent Yakut ahead to knife any guards and Nimwit and Carverson to help him. By the time I came to the bottom step, two guards lay dead with the bloodflow slowing from their necks.
"Yakut, Carver, go on and find the end of this." I waved down the inky black hall of cells lit only by two torches at this end. "Tolly, Nimwit, hide these," I said, gesturing at the bodies. "Varley, let's find a wizard."
The men moved to do my bidding. The dungeon had been silent but now from it rose a hue and cry. The prisoners knew something was up. Gods! How many prisoners were there? I could make out about thirty cells on either side of the hall but there was a side passage that perhaps led to more halls. The din was of a hundred or more.
"Quiet, blast it!" I yelled. "You want to call him down on all of us?"
They went to whispering, "Help me, please." "Get me out."
Varley and I went from cell to cell, "Have you seen the wizard, Rumex?"
Old men, young girls, and everything in between, gangrenous skin, broken teeth, head bald in patches; all shook their heads.
"I found him," Yakut said, appearing at my shoulder.
I followed him and passed Tolly in a cell comforting a young maiden. The lad hadn't wasted any time, like unto my own heart.
"You spilled a drop of wine and he scarred your beautiful face and threw you in here?" I heard before I snapped my fingers. He came. He used the guard's key to open Rumex's cell.
"We're from Asarian," I said.
"Good. Le's go," High Wizard Rumex said from a great golden staple holding his lips together.
I walked around and saw his arms were held by golden cuffs, no doubt bespelled to hold his magic. He had naught else on but a rag about his loins. His hair hung in greasy, matted locks.
"What about all the other wretches in here?" I whispered. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way, pricked up my neck hairs. Was it the feverish glint of his eye? The desperate lust all prisoners feel when freedom beckons?
"You can't take all o' 'em. You'll never get 'em all out wi'out alerting Zolyniak. Each o' you take a wo'an, like him, and le's go!"
Tolly stood by the door. The young girl, her cheek ablaze with infection, stood behind.
I don't rightly like wizards. Oh, they're fine for making gold out of rock--not that I ever see any of it--or bringing water in drought or multiplying the food in a famine. And they're good at healing if you can get to them in time; if they've got the time, what with all their partying and studying and practicing. He was right though, I couldn't free some hundred odd, certainly sick and weakly souls and get them down off this mountain without ol' Zol himself taking notice. But hearing their pitiful coughs and cries I couldn't hardly leave them to their fates either.
"Where is he now?" I asked.
"What! Don' be insane. You can' face a wizard."
"You know, I've learned something in all my years around wizards," I said softly as I drew my longsword and pressed the point to Rumex's belly. "They die just as easily from steel as any man."
He backed hastily. "I, uh, understan' de t'rust of your statemen', my good sir, but I assure you, Zolyniak is no ordinary wizard. He has uncanny powers of perception. He migh' e'en be watching us now, I tell you, we mus' leave wi'out further delay. The King sen' you for me, correc'? Not to rescue all Zolyniak's outcas's."
That did it. Being the leader of the City Guard's outcasts, watching people trodden upon, left out, left behind, sold short, never for any good reason, I had to help these poor souls.
"He spends the night with his harem in the western tower," the girl said from behind Tolly. "That's where I was kept. Chained."
"Why that evil flinking dog's son! I'll carve out his heart and feed it to the vultures," Tolly declared turning to hold his true love's shoulders.
I covered my grin and motioned my men out. When the wizard followed I gently pushed him back in. "We'll be back to free you all. Can't let anyone get suspicious if you're seen out running about now, can we?"
Rumex squawked an intelligible protest.
Heben of the ebony hair was the girl's name. She led us straight and true by the servant's path to the western tower. Though Tolly was her hero, she pulled me down to whisper, "There are human guards here at the base. Demons guard the upper quarters."
"Are they killable?" I'd not had much truck with demons. Drunks, sheepstealers, young lads on a lark, were more my fare.
"Iron burns them," she whispered. I nodded and waved Yakut and Nimwit forward.
Yakut's quarry bent to scratch an itch just as he cast. It happens. Instead of quietly clearing our way, Yakut and Nimwit faced two yelling guards swinging swords. I charged forward, my own longsword held tightly with both fists at my left ear, ready to pull it round with all the force of my back and right side.
Smash! I clove the one guard's helm down to his breastbone. Nimwit had felled the other, but four more appeared clattering from a hallway. They set to with a professionalism I admired. Toss of the coin and I might have been one of them. But I was not. I took my bread from an honest king, not a base sorcerer. I brought my sword around and clove a man in twain just as he sheared off my ear. Damnation! but that hurt and I bled like a stuck pig. Tolly finished the last one with a feint to the man's face that wheeled around to his heart faster than lightning. He turned to see Heben binding my head with a rag torn from her filmy skirt.
"Will more guards come?" I asked her.
"No," she said. "No one is allowed near his towers."
We proceeded up the stairs, Yakut on point, me next, Tolly in the rear with Heben. We'd climbed several stories worth of stairs when the first demons came floating down to meet us. They were pink jelly-like things that sprouted more and more arms as we hacked off the ones reaching for us. I began to fear they'd been sent simply to dull our blades when Yakut scored a direct hit on the center of one and it fell screaming to the stairs. The rest disappeared in fright. Yakut went to retrieve his knife but it was burnt black and eaten away as though by great age. I hurriedly wiped the pink sludge from my blade but there was no scoring on it.
After another few flights of stairs we came to a platform whereon stood a giant figure of a man with a coal black helm covering his features and blackened ring mail covering his frame. He stood leaning on a sparkling sword twice the length and breadth of mine and regarded us with flaming demonic eyes.
My first thought was one of fear and horror. How was it this demon carried a steel sword and wore iron ring mail?
"Ah dinner, for me, my sword, and my master," the demon said with a voice that rattled my ribs like thunder.
No, the silvery glint of his polished sword was actual silver, and the black of his mail was but tarnished silver. My sword would cut through it like butter, I hoped. Provided I could reach a suitable target. Being twice my height I simply couldn't reach his heart, head, or arms. A thigh cut would bring him down, or a good smash of the knee. There's a main blood vessel along the inner thigh that could . . . but of course, a demon didn't have blood. His human shape already had me confused.
"He's mine," I said as my men prepared to charge at once. "Varley, if he takes me, you're in command. Get the wizard and get back to Blueville."
"You're not serious!" Tolly exclaimed.
"Don't distract me." I hadn't time to explain basics to a pig-headed fool. I used the only lever I had, "You've got a wife to think of now. Do as I say!"
Tolly bit back further protest and glanced at Heben in confusion.
The others understood and drew back. When fighting in a team, we all kept track of the movements of the others which required great amounts of concentration and energy that could be otherwise utilized to make that lightning-quick, killing blow. I advanced, holding my longsword in my right fist, watching for his first move.
"Only one," the demon said sadly. "I was hoping for a challenge.
"Let us by, that I might kill your master and thus free you from his cursed domination," I said.
His hand snapped up to catch the knife Yakut hurled, then snapped down again to catch the second. Nice try.
"Would that I could." I heard the smile though I couldn't see it through his mask. "But I can't."
I gulped. With reflexes like that, would I see his first stroke when it came? He lifted the huge sword with both hands and pointed it at me. Down at me. I touched my point to his with a little force. His sword sung like a silver bell. He lunged. I leapt sideways and crashed my sword on his but only scratched it. Two-hand grip and I tried again when his next lunge came, but he knew what I was about and had turned the flat of his blade to my stroke, increasing the area of impact, thus lessening its force. Another deep scratch on his blade. Without waiting for his next lunge I pressed my own attack giving the swing my all, from my planted feet, my leg muscles, and my back, to my shoulders and arms; and Snap! half his blade broke off and clattered to the floor.
Now his sword was the length of mine and had no point. Only his arms had twice my reach, his legs twice my height. Then began thrust, parry, and riposte in earnest. I think I'd impressed the demon and mayhap he felt threatened.
All too quickly my arms grew leaden and I was on the defense, instead of trading attacks. The force of his blow knocked me off balance and I went down. Now was the time, the chance. I knew nothing but the demon's movement. He stepped forward and raised his broken sword, reversing the grip so that he could stand and spit me where I lay instead of leaning down to slice me, so that I could not lunge up and reach his upper body. T'was the golden opportunity I'd awaited. I lunged for his inner hip joint and felt my sword slice easily through his ringmail. A terrible, rage-filled shriek rent the air even as his sword cut my bum. I dove between his legs that he might not land on me as he fell.
A bubbling hissing black puddle was all that remained of the demon and my sword. I sat back and simply breathed for a moment. Heben brought me a sword she must have taken from a slain guard. I took it and felt Tolly's eyes on me. Resourceful girl, that, like unto my own . . . but she's gone now, never to return to the likes of me.
Ah, Clarice. Shall I ever know peace without you?
"I thank your wife for the sword."
Tolly nodded and handed Heben a small knife from his boot which she tucked into the waist string of her skirt at the small of her back. I let Tolly pull me to my feet. Just then a shriek of terror and pain came from where we were headed. Nimwit and Carverson pulled open the great wood doors to the Sorcerer's harem. We strode forth into a large chamber decorated with many hangings of painted silks and gauzes. Soft light shone from magic bulbs throughout. Many doors led off to small chambers and on the far side from us I caught sight of what surely must be Zolyniak toying with the innards of a woman he'd just sliced open from sternum to pubis. He was no great figure of a man, no demonic eyes lit his features. He was the sort you wouldn't look twice at and perhaps that had helped to make him what he was. Coolly, he turned to face our approach. He licked the blood off one finger with apparent disinterest in us. He was surrounded by perhaps thirty women who simply watched the spectacle, no doubt knowing they could be next.
"Stop," was all he said and the seven of us stood rooted. He held out his hands and a woman came forward bearing a pitcher and basin with a towel over one arm, one ankle encircled by a slim chain of gold that ran to a wall. He washed his hands but then dried them on her filmy dress instead of the towel.
His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of Heben. "You. With your ugly face. And men. Get back where you belong!"
Heben staggered forward as though pushed and joined the circle of women. They received her with tearful embraces.
"Perhaps you've brought me entertainment at least. Which of you is the best swordsman?" he asked as a trio of bright swords appeared in the air above us.
"I am," we all cried at once. Damn my men. I'd not watch them die one by one.
The sorcerer only chuckled. "So eager to die. Who slayed my giant?"
"I did." My answer was low.
"And who is the leader of this merry little band of fools?"
"I am."
"Ah. I think we've found the best swordsman of the lot. Will you put on a private exhibition for us? A command performance?" He chuckled again.
The trio of swords descended just as I noticed Heben was hugging her friends in such a way as to eventually lead her to Zolyniak's back.
Slash, thrust, parry, riposte, duck, whirl, jump; I'd never had such a time in all my day of dancing the dance of death. I'd fought three enemies before, even four or five. But never tireless, disembodied swords that flew where they would, controlled by the will of a sick, evil sorcerer. These were steel swords that I could not snap. I knocked one away and engaged the other two, only to feel the rush as the third came at my head from behind. I kicked at the pommel and threw one off balance but only for the split second I needed to deflect the other while ducking and twisting from the third, then they were all at me again. And I knew despair. I was exhausted, from the trail, from fighting the giant, the pink demons, the guards, from the climb up the sewer.
The swords dropped to the floor with a combined clang! I risked a look toward the wizard. His back was arched back as he fell forward. Heben stood behind, her hands at her mouth in horror at the act she'd performed. I wasted no time and ran forward with my sword, but Yakut's knife beat me to Zolyniak's throat. I stabbed my blade through his heart. Then thunk! thunk! thunk! thunk! thunk! the others, including Yakut, all thrust their swords into the body.
There was no blood. The initial screams of the women had died away. I guess I expected something spectacular at the death of such an evil man.
It wasn't over though. I felt something ominously threatening in the ether. I grabbed for a sword in the dead man's gut and wrenched it free then whacked off his head. Still no blood.
"A pyre," I said. "I want nothing left of him."
The women hurried to comply, dragging wood and oil from their chambers to the tinkling accompaniment of their ankle chains. By the time the fire was lit, all at once, the bulbs of light popped and went dark.
"His magics are gone! Run!" one woman screamed and ran from the hall in terror, her chain having disappeared also.
I saw the bowls of fruit scattered by recent events suddenly become moldy and worm-ridden, the hanging silks rent and moth-eaten.
I called my band together.
"Treasure?" I asked of Heben.
"The south tower," she answered readily. "The east was for his seeing; the north, for his magics."
"Varley and Carverson, go get six small bags. We'll release the prisoners and meet at the horses." They nodded and left at a trot. Screams and howls sounded from all about the castle.
A woman grabbed my arm, buxom and most winsome, like unto the ladies I'd seen at court, only with nary but a filmy cloth about her loins. "Take me with you."
"Where?" I asked trying to retrieve my arm and catch up to my group.
"Wherever you're bound! They won't take me back in my village, since I've been here. They burn any girls who escape and come back, as polluted."
"As you will," I shrugged and pulled her into a trot.
Yakut, Tolly, Heben, and Nimwit set about opening cells while I proceeded directly to that of the High Wizard Rumex, the buxom lass trodding on my heels. It was unoccupied. I held a torch aloft and scanned the cell for any sign. Golden cuffs and the lip staple lay on the fetid floor. I touched them with the steel of my blade before pocketing them thinking I ought to get some bonus for leading these shenanigans. Mayhap when ol' Zol died, Rumex was able to spirit himself back to Blueville. A rumble shook the foundation upon which I stood, breaking my reverie.
"Up and out now!" I shouted. "Have we freed everyone?" Yakut came last carrying a woman with a bad leg. Up the stairs we went and made for the main gate and bridge to the mountain trail. Varley and Carverson rejoined us there.
"We've got to bring the horses back and load them with treasure. You wouldn't believe! The whole tower full of gold and gems. Fine silks woven thick as your little finger."
"Carverson!" I grabbed him by both shoulders. He was frothing at the mouth. "How much gold can you live on luxuriously for the rest of your life?"
His glazed eyes finally focused on mine. "This much," he said, holding up a five pound flour sack which weighed closer to twenty with the gold in it.
"And how much can you hold onto and guard and get out of these mountains alive with?"
He nodded.
"I couldn't get the Captain of the guard here to establish any order," Varley reported. "Soldiers are killing each other over more treasure than a thousand times their number can carry away."
"That's it then," I declared. "We leave and take any who'll come with us. I fear this whole mountain is about to quake apart."
About thirty followed us, staggering, from the hundred in the dungeons. Not so many, for there were hundreds of servants, cooks, and guards. Even ugly Nimwit had managed to pair up with an exotic woman of yellow skin and odd, slanting eyes. Many were lured by treasure over what they valued their lives. Those that were weakest we set on the horses, distributing what food we had left as we walked. T'was midmorn when we reached the pass where we'd first caught sight of Zolyniak's unholy towers and I called a halt. Even as we unloaded the horses and redistributed their packs amongst the able-bodied, a great creak and groan went up from Mother Earth herself. I watched as the towers crumbled and fell in upon the castle and the whole thing slowly sank, swallowed back into the hell from whence it sprang.


I included Heben in the council the King called immediately upon our entrance into Blueville. He was resplendent as usual in fine silks and furs, gold crown on his head, while we were stained, tattered, and shabby.
"I send you out for my High Wizard and you bring me back a band of beggars". King Asarian's lips curled in disapproval. "And no treasure, I suppose."
"We did rid the land of a true menace, much as you sent the High Wizard to accomplish, Your Majesty," I answered with a humble bow.
"Yes, and we are truly grateful. But what of Rumex? Found you no sign?"
"Yes Your Majesty, we actually saw him."
"You did? Where is he?"
"When Zolyniak was slain, all his magics dissipated and when we returned to Rumex's cell, it was empty. At first I though he must have magicked himself back here, but . . . uh . . . we have with us someone who knew Zolyniak's ways better than I, Your Majesty."
The King frowned. His eyes narrowed in interest.
I pulled Heben forward. We'd clothed the women in what scraps we could make of our cloaks. "T'was no wizard we saw in the dungeon, Your Majesty. I'm sure it was naught more than a demon magicked to look like your High Wizard so that Zolyniak could sneak him into your council."
King Asarian gasped, much as I had when she'd told me. It'd be the ruin of Blueville. If I'd rescued the false Rumex and brought him back and left Zolyniak alive with his servants in his fist, as was my mission, we might all be Zolyniak's thralls.
The King seemed to realize this as his face underwent several changes of expression. "And you killed the great sorcerer Zolyniak," he said finally, facing me.
"No, Your Majesty. T'was she who struck the killing blow," I answered, waving toward Heben.
She looked mortified. "But-but-I never could have gotten there without you all killing the demons, and indeed, freeing me from the dungeon!" she protested.
"Still," I said.
"In that case, I am very proud to name you King's Champion." King Asarian touched the gilded royal Staff of Law to her dazed forehead. "We'll have a ceremony tomorrow for you and the men, and a feast for all the survivors."
Tolly's thunderstruck expression minded me of mine own when Clarice declared I'd never appreciated her on her way out my door. I hoped to save him the same grief, for his Heben was not to be taken lightly and could easily find a man to appreciate her despite her scarred face. Losing Clarice, through sheer stupidity, convinced me that any woman who'll stay with a man is good as a princess.
Besides, the last thing in all the worlds I wanted was to be named King's Champion. No, with the treasure I'd garnished I was ready to retire from the thrilling life of adventure and settle down to appreciating my newfound princess. The gold cuffs alone would buy me a thatched hut and a bit of land. The whole sack of treasure would buy a splendid manor.
King Asarian turned to me. "You say there wasn't any treasure?"
I'd prepared my answer during the long weeks back. "Well, the men managed to pick up a bauble or two, but if you really want treasure, you've got to send the architects to dig up the ruins. Heben here, says the south tower was just full of gold and jewels."
The King's eyes glinted. "Excellent idea. And you can lead them to the exact spot where they should dig, eh?"
Ulp! I nodded graciously. Seemed I wasn't to set about appreciating the winsome lass who'd followed me home just yet. I hadn't buried those towers to go back and dig them up. But what's an uncommon commoner to do?
"As you will, Your Majesty."


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