“The Tower” by Brie Barbee
Aud knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t put the feeling into words. Something about the air around her felt off. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was, but it was still noticeable, like a soup with slightly too much salt.
The walls of the tower seemed to shimmer, shadows dancing back and forth across their surface. Aud placed a hand on the cold rock, relieved to find the facade under her palm was perfectly solid.
There was a rumor — nearly a myth at this point — that the powerful wizard Rickantheous lived in this tower many centuries ago. He was supposed to have left a great treasure behind when he died, but no one had ever been able to find it — no one until now. Aud wasn’t exactly sure what the treasure was, but it was bound to be something incredibly rare and expensive.
The tower was abandoned, and it looked like it had been for a while. The dusty piles of books and array of old potions, ink, and feathers strewn around the room in a manner familiar to any artist, seemed to suggest that no one had stumbled upon this place yet — that Rickantheous’s treasure might still be there for the taking.
A cloud of soot kicked up as Aud walked forward; it sparkled in the light of the setting sun. As darkness enveloped the tower, the particles began to glow. Did Rickantheous leave traps to protect his treasure? That thought worried her, because she hadn’t considered the possibility until now.
The flecks of dust stirred by her entrance began to spin and elongate. Aud’s heart thumped in her chest, the hairs on her arms and legs stood on end. Something ominous was coming; her body stiffened. Had she made a mistake by coming here?
One of the larger clumps of dust hung in the air in front of her, as the others continued to spin in unseen currents. It stretched and bent, doubling in size in just a few seconds. This had to be a trap, Aud realized with a gulp. Two sunken eyes appeared on the ethereal form. Its eyes fixed on her and made her skin crawl.
From some disembodied place, a deep voice whispered her name. “Aud…”
Suddenly, she was running — sprinting as fast as she could. Whatever was in that room, locked away for hundreds of years, was no friend of hers, and she wanted nothing to do with it. No good could come of messing with ancient magic. She needed to leave now.
Her shoulder slammed hard against the heavy wooden door as she barreled out of the tower. She had to catch herself as she smacked into the railing on the other side of the door. Her gaze fell through the bars of the metal bannister, tumbling hundreds of feet to crash into the roaring waves and rocks below her.
Aud turned around to look back into the room as her stomach rolled over — and she instantly wished she hadn’t. Multiple shapes filled the room, all with the same sunken eyes and icy glow as the being that spoke her name.
She thought she recognized that creature now, at the front of the group, as they all rushed toward her. They bobbed and slithered through the air, pushing past one another in a frenzy.
Aud wanted to scream, but her voice caught in her throat. Screaming wouldn’t do her any good, anyways; there was no one around to hear her. She flung herself down the first couple stairs that spiraled down the side of the tower, sagging onto the railing for support.
It creaked noisily under her weight. She hoped it would stay put, but she had no way of knowing if it would. She could hear the boom of waves crashing in the distance.
She pushed off the railing, but not having completely regained her balance, tipped into the outer wall of the tower. She scrapped her hand along the rough stone, a warm sensation spreading through her arm.
Without stopping to see how badly she was hurt, Aud pressed on. Her breath was shallow and fast. She knew she needed to get away from the tower as fast as possible. Her feet felt awkward and heavy, the skin above her breasts ached terribly, but she kept running.
As Aud’s foot slammed into the next step, she stumbled to avoid a mouse that darted across her path. A part of her felt bad for the mouse, but she couldn’t risk stopping to help, not if she wanted to make it out of here alive.
The motes — spirits, whatever they were — were still behind her, just out of arm’s reach. Her throat burned as she continued down the stairs. The journey up the stairs had felt long, but she was driven by the thought of what waited for her at the top: power, knowledge, fortune. It was all supposed to be there, but she hadn’t stuck around long enough to find it.
Aud felt like she had been running forever — longer than that, forever times forever — and the spirits were gaining on her. How much longer did she have? Her time was running out and she began to doubt that she would ever be able to escape.
Just as she began to lose hope, the staircase came to an abrupt end, and the boat she arrived in came into view. It was small and rickety, the best she could afford with only a few coins. It had barely been able to make the journey there, but if she could just reach it now, Aud hoped the creatures wouldn’t follow her over the choppy water.
She crumbled into the boat as she pushed off the last step, almost crashing into the frigid waters as she did so. The dingy rocked violently back and forth. She struggled to steady it, grabbing hold of the oars and beginning to paddle frantically.
The oars slapped uselessly against the water as she struggled to build momentum and pull away from the staircase. The spirits gathered on the edge of the last step, looking at her as she finally started to row away.
They stared at her longingly from the edge of their domain as her boat drifted out into the open water. What would have happened to her if they had caught her? Aud didn’t want to think about that. It must have been a trap all along set by Rickantheous to protect his tower from looters. She was lucky to have escaped.
But if he feared looters, he must have had a reason to. She couldn’t help but think that she would never know what lied at the top of the tower now, never possess the treasure that had been hidden there, the treasure she had worked so hard to find.
Aud continued to row, sweat clinging to the back of her neck. Daggers of pain shot through her injured hand with each stroke, but she kept Rickantheous’s tower in her gaze. As it slipped into the distance, its spire a matchstick on the horizon, she felt profoundly sad.
What had really been at the top of the tower? She would never know now.