Rancor and I gallop past bucolic fields and rolling hills, until we suddenly enter the sfumato zone.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like; apart from saying it’s probably exactly like being in a place that has been liberally shaded with a charcoal pencil. The sky darkens as if I’ve entered a dense forest, but there are no trees overhead. I’ve seen my fair share of smog living in LA. I’ve also even seen what it’s like when wildfires throw so much ash into the air it makes midday looks like sunset, but there is no smoke or ash in the atmosphere here. It’s just darker air.
Nothing grows here. The ground is covered in dead weeds that is noticeably absent of the usual insect life. Not even the wind stirs. Rancor and I seem to be the only things moving across this landscape. We crest a hill and see a bowl-shaped valley that stretches as far as the eye can see. In the center of the valley is a tall, black tower that jabs into the murky sky. I’m guessing this is the Ebon Spire. It’s really big. Methinks someone is overcompensating.
There is no sneaking up on Asphodel. The valley surrounding the Ebon Spire is so wide in all directions that someone inside the tower would only have to glance out a window, say, twice a day, to spot an intruder approaching from very far away. I guess my only option is to gallop up to the front gate on my gleaming white unicorn and hope someone lets me in.
I allow myself a moment of hysterical laughter as I picture wandering around the outside of the Ebon Spire calling, “Hello? Evil Sorcerer? Still want to marry me? Totally okay if you’ve changed your mind!”
But I know my laughter is just pent up nerves, and it’s either laugh or scream. I should have taken a moment to come up with a plan first, but I never do that. In fact, I think I spend more time wondering why I don’t stop to plan than I do actually stopping and thinking of a plan.
As I get closer, I can’t laugh because nothing is funny anymore. The ground becomes very uneven and Rancor has to slow down to a walk.
What I think at first are rocks sticking up out of the dirt, on closer inspection become bits and pieces of armor. Bent swords and broken spears are strewn about, and among the rusting weapons and rotting leathers are bones. This is the sight of an enormous battle. One fought long ago. Either everyone died, and no one was left to bury the dead, or the living were too afraid to come back to get the bodies.
They were left here to rot. Which isn’t just unsanitary, it’s the ultimate jerk-off move. From the look of things, it seems to have happened so long ago I can’t imagine Asphodel could be to blame. Unless he is hella old. Which he could be. He is a sorcerer. Best just assume he did it. I can’t imagine anyone moving into a high-value property like this and opting to keep the dead army in the yard.
This guy is really starting to piss me off. Mr. Abracadirtbag up there in his enormous African-American penis complex turned my dad into an undead swamp thing, he leaves fallen soldiers to rot rather than give them an honorable burial, and he’s supposed to kill Torvold in two days. Unless I kill him first. Which I will, dang it.
I’m working myself up into a decent-sized murderous rage when I see a cloud rise up from the top of the Ebon Spire. As it nears, I think it’s a flock of birds. The flock billows and flashes, and then tightens and heads right for me.
But it’s not birds. It’s bats.
I hate to buy into stereotypes, but bats are creepy. The squeaking, the shivering, the way they crawl around on their knuckles—all of it gives me the heebie-jeebies. If mammals were supposed to fly, more of us would do it, but it’s just bats and one squirrel who doesn’t even really fly. It just glides. All I’m saying is, evolution has spoken on the whole flying mammal thing. Bats are weird.
They swarm around us. Rancor tries to slash them with his horn, but only manages in turning a few of them into puffs of smoke. They flap at me with their wings and I have to throw my arms up to protect my eyes. They land on Rancor and start to claw and bite.
It’s been way too long since my last booster shot. I start tearing the nasty little things off of us. Rancor rears up and accidentally throws me to the ground. I see bats crawling all over his flanks and jump up to get them off of him.
As soon as I take a step toward Rancor, I feel something cold and hard wrap around my ankle, stopping me. That better not be what I think it is.
I look down. A skeleton grins up at me. In a fully instinctual ick response, I punt his skull with my free foot. It goes flying, but the rest of him hangs onto my ankle. More skeletons are rising from the sod between me and Rancor. The bats are all over Rancor now, and I can see blood streaking his white hide. They’re pushing him farther and farther away from me.
“Rancor!” I shout to him over his frenzied whinnies. “Get out of here! Run back to Torvold!”
He fights more furiously, stabbing at both skeletons and bats alike. Puffs of ash and smoke blaze all around Rancor as he hits his stride, but even more skeleton rise up from below and more bats join the swarm from above. I know which way this is going to go.
“There’s nothing you can do for me! Asphodel won’t let you anywhere near him, but you can still help Sir Torvold. Rancor, you must go!”
Rancor resists for a few moments more, then finally gives in and runs back the way we came. As his white tail disappears over the crest of the bowl, the skeletons start to push me toward the huge iron gates of the Ebon Spire.
“I know the way,” I say, throwing their boney fingers off of me. So nasty. I flap my hands around my head to keep them from touching me and hot foot it toward the gate, so I don’t step on one of them. They see me go, and the skeletons sink back into the ground.
I tilt my head back and look up at the impressive architecture. It’s actually quite lovely, if you go for the black-on-black evil monolith with very few windows look.
“Asphodel! Let me in!” I yell, and my voice only wobbles a little.
The gate glows with a ghoulish green light and swings open by itself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking all the way down to the ground at this point. Anger and adrenaline got me this far, but I’m running out of both. It just occurred to me that I could become one of those skeletons decorating the lawn, and I can’t make my feet take another step.
I hear the echo of laugher, coming from deep inside the tower. Asphodel is mocking me. I’m a teenager, I came here alone and sort of unarmed, and he’s mocking me for being scared?
What a dick.
I stomp through the gates, under the giant arching entryway, across a black marble audience chamber the size of a football field, right up to the onyx dais with the smoked quartz throne on top of it, look at the (okay, this throws me, but I’m furious so I roll with it) blazing hot snack on the throne and say,
“Does your offer of marriage still stand?”