It was Tuesday. Tuesdays were tower days.
I eyed the massive round tower rising in front of us. The big wooden gates leading into it had been smeared with clay and baked into a solid slab. A length of twine stretched across the slab in an elaborate pattern.
The Fort in the Woods, or Fortwood, as we decided to call it, was shaped like an imperfect square with rounded corners. At first measurement, we thought the wall enclosed just under 1.5 square miles. A more precise survey put us around 1.6 square miles. Each side was a little over 1.2 miles long and had exactly 76 towers, each of which was 83 feet in diameter, with a little bit of connecting wall between them. The scale was truly colossal.
The weird numbers drove Luther crazy. He’d been obsessing over them since his first visit. It was his third excursion to Fortwood and he still hadn’t figured out the significance of 83 feet. He was peering at the tower now and rubbing his hands like a kid facing a pile of Christmas presents.
To my left, Andre hopped back and forth on his toes like a boxer warming up. He was lean, about 5’ 10”, with dark hair he kept cropped very short, the kind of skin makeup companies would call pale ivory, and an easy smile. He cracked lots of jokes and was vicious in a fight.
To my right, Isaac gazed at the tower with impassive patience. Luther was hoping for wondrous, Andre was hoping for dangerous, and the knight-pathfinder simply waited.
Next to me, Narra leaned on her spear, staring at the tower with open suspicion. We’ve been slowly trying to get around the language barrier. She called herself Narra, the “a” pronounced as in car. I wasn’t sure whether it was her name or occupation, but I was hoping for a name, because she was able to distinguish ours.
Every morning when she came to her post, she greeted me with “Hello, Kate,” and I answered “Hello, Narra.” The ritual was very important to her. I had to respond in the same way every time. Once I forgot and said “Good Morning” instead and it really disturbed her.
She had assumed the role of my bodyguard. Any attempts to explain that she didn’t have to follow me around were met with borderline panic. She was clearly uncomfortable with the whole business of the tower opening, but I was here and so she persevered.
I looked back at the tower. With three hundred and four towers total and two hundred and eighty-five left to open, we had a long way to go. We had checked all of the ones without twine for signs of life and, once that was done, we decided we would open three a week. Each opening required a ward, so that if something ran out of it, it would be contained, and Curran insisted on having a minimum of three people supporting me. He had fully committed to having things his way and would periodically pop out of nowhere to make sure I had the proper escort for my tower adventures.
Every tower contained something useful. Unfortunately, we couldn’t always figure out what it was or how to use it. It was really frustrating.
“Are we ready?” I asked.
“Release the kraken!” Luther declared.
“It can’t be a kraken,” Isaac told him. “There is no water.”
“You never know,” Luther said.
“Can I kill it if it’s a kraken?” Andre asked.
I sighed and stepped into the ward. I had developed a new spell that was a combination of runes, vampire blood, and sapphires I picked out of the Pale Queen’s craft warehouse. It was relatively quick to set up and had a high threshold. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be using five uncut sapphires the size of a plum as my anchor points, I would’ve laughed right in their face.
I pulled Sarrat out. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Narra looking apprehensive. Narra was apprehensive about a great many things. It seemed to be her default state. After everything she’d been through, I couldn’t blame her.
I sliced through the twine. It sparked with magic and burned to ash. The seal was broken. I stepped aside.
Andre walked into the semicircle and kicked the clay slab near the center. A crack snapped down the center of the door. He kicked it again. The clay slab broke, big chunks rained down, and the big double door emerged, made from a single slice of wood cut in half.
“How do you preserve unsealed wood for 15,000 years?” Luther murmured wistfully.
I sighed. “Here we go with Luther’s Lament again.”
“Surely, there was some room to negotiate with her. Perhaps—”
He waved his hand. “Fine, fine.”
Isaac leveled a crossbow at the doorway.
Andre picked up the left half of the door, lifted it up, and set it aside. Hinges were beyond the Pale Queen’s tech. She’d simply boarded up the towers with wood.
The inside of the tower was pitch black.
Andre sniffed the air. “Weird stink.”
“Animal?” Isaac asked.
“No. Something else.”
Luther lifted the lantern stick. After the fourth tower and the black tentacles inside, we had affixed a fey lantern to a very long sapling and used it to fish for any obvious danger. It was simple, but effective.
Luther swung the lantern into the doorway. Ten seconds. Twenty.
“We’re probably good.” I took a step forward.
“I go first.” Andre slipped in front of me. “The Beast Lord was very specific.”
Andre vanished into the doorway.
A snarl tore through the silence. Andre burst out of the tower, clearing twenty feet in a single leap, and hopped in place, running his hands over his head and body.
Isaac raised his eyebrows.
“Bugs!” Andre reported. “Big-ass bugs.”
Okay. I flicked Sarrat and walked into the tower.
The feylantern gave me just enough light to make out a straight passage leading to the back of the tower. On both sides of the passage, tall pine trunks stretched up from the floor, perfectly straight, crisscrossed by horizontal branches at regular intervals of about five feet, as if someone was trying to build oversized grape trellis. Between the trunks hung pale bulbous sacks, each the size of a grapefruit, wrapped in spiderwebs. At my approach, a creature skittered down the trunk on my left. It was longer than my arm, with ten spider legs. Unlike a typical spider abdomen, its rear was millipede-like, with at least a dozen chitinous segments terminating in a long, skinny whip tail armed with a barb.
I took a step back.
The spider-millipede leaped, curling its abdomen under its thorax and whipped the tail forward. I lunged to the left. It flew by me, landed in the ward, and screeched as Isaac’s bolt pinned it to the ground.
“Board it back up!”
Andre already had the door in his hands. He slammed it into place and looked at me.
The spider-millipede stopped jerking.
I looked at Luther. “Thoughts?”
He pondered the giant creature. “There is an extinct genus of arachnids with a similar tail. Chimerarachne, I believe. But they were a couple of inches long.”
We looked at the bug some more.
“What could the bug be for?” I wondered.
Luther crouched by the bug, licked his fingers, and touched the thorax. “Magically inert.”
“Ugh,” Andre murmured.
“It used to be worse,” I told him. “Before his power grew stronger, he used to lick magical monstrosities.”
I crouched by the bug. Insects and arachnids usually didn’t freak me out, but there was something particularly revolting about the combination of the two.
“Everything we found so far had a purpose,” I said. “She must’ve wanted these for something.”
“That tail has a barb. Perhaps they milked them for venom,” Luther said.
“Food for the livestock?” Isaac said.
“There are better options available with more flesh. This seems to be mostly chitin and spindly legs.”
“Maybe she just thought they were creepy,” Andre said.
“No, she went through the trouble of sealing them. She must’ve had a compelling reason. Like I said, everything she stores has a purpose.”
Things would’ve been so much easier if the Pale Queen had kept some ledgers in English. Or if we could just ask somebody what the damn spider-millipedes were for.
I sighed. “Purpose, purpose, purpose…”
“Purpose?” Narra repeated, hesitation in her voice.
I looked up at her. Now there is an idea.
“Nope,” Luther told me. “Won’t work.”
“It can’t hurt to ask.”
Everyone looked at Narra. She took a step back.
“It’s good to have enthusiasm,” Luther said.
I squinted at him.
“Your evil eye doesn’t frighten me, heathen.”
Luther had been ecstatic at the prospect of communicating with prehistoric people. He had recommended Talius Burse, whom he described as a “definitive authority” in the field of fae studies. Talius himself was unmistakably fae, with long limbs, lean build, pointed teeth and ears, indigo hair, the whole thing. He arrived to Fortwood with an air of authority belonging to a seasoned academic and informed me that he would establish communication within 48 hours. He also told me that, as a human, I couldn’t possibly understand the unique needs of the fae, and that he would be reviewing our policies and practices and making his recommendations. He expected us to “follow his lead.”
The horned people and the two hunters refused to speak to him. The children ran from him, the adults hissed and bared their teeth, and the male hunter, whose name was Orun, stalked him like a shadow. Even Curran’s presence didn’t change anything. Normally the horned people obeyed him without question. When Curran attempted to facilitate a conversation, Mura, one of the horned children, hid behind him, and Torlen, their elder, drew himself to full height and snarled at Talius. We had learned a few words here and there and I was pretty sure Orun told Talius to “not be”, which was probably a prehistoric equivalent of “go die in a ditch.”
Talius left, a bit humbler than he’d arrived. The next fae Luther found didn’t fare any better. Fae #3 was due to arrive at the end of the month. Luther had announced that he wasn’t holding his breath.
If I could get Narra to identify things for us, everything would be so much easier.
“Guard the door for a minute.” I stood up. “I will be right back.”
I waved at Narra to follow me. We walked from the tower deeper into Fortwood. A building was going up fifty yards away. I stopped by the work bench and picked up a hammer.
“Hammer.” I showed it to Narra. Then I took a nail and drove it into a piece of discarded board. “Purpose.”
Narra looked at me.
I put the hammer down and kept walking. She trailed me. I turned the corner and headed toward the mastodon barn, if that giant structure could be called a barn. In front of it, Owen was combing Mona with a big metal comb. We had discovered that mastodons were wool producing and the wool was of very high quality.
I pointed to Mona. “Mona.”
I pointed to the bucket of wool Owen had combed. “Purpose.”
Owen stopped and gave me a weird look. I grabbed him by the arm and pointed to him. “Owen.”
“What’s going on?” he asked me.
“I will explain later. Owen!”
I pointed to Owen’s shepherd staff. He claimed it helped him shepherd, but mostly I just saw him twirl it like the gun, Chinese martial staff. “Purpose!”
I moved on. Narra followed me.
A dark shaggy shape turned the corner, carrying a big bone in his jaws.
The mutant poodle froze.
“Grendel!” I repeated and pointed at him. “Grendel, do the scary smile.”
He wagged his tail.
“Good boy. Scary smile. Smile, Grendel.”
Grendel’s hackles rose. His black lips wrinkled, and he bared a forest of nightmarish fangs, still gripping the bone.
“Purpose! Good boy, carry on.”
We made a slow circuit. Saw had a purpose. Sword had a purpose. Cleaning rag had a purpose. Pen had a purpose.
We’d been at this for about twenty minutes, and I wasn’t sure if we were making any headway.
Narra stopped. “Paul.”
Paul came around the corner, carrying a stack of architectural drawings.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
Narra waved at the building going up. “Purpose!”
She got it. “Yes. Paul builds things.”
“Paul – purpose.” Narra nodded.
“Yes!” Fantastic. “Come with me!”
We doubled back to ward the tower. My three guards were looking bored. Luther was clearly calculating something in his head, Isaac was poking the spider-millipede with a wicked-looking knife, and Andre leaned against the tower.
They came alive at our approach.
“Any luck?” Luther asked.
“I think so.”
I pointed at myself. “Kate.”
I pointed at Narra. “Narra.”
I pointed to the dead bug and waited.
That was a heavy rolling r.
Luther focused on Narra.
“Hrrrt purpose?” Come on, Narra, what is the bug for?
“Hrrrt,” she repeated.
“She probably doesn’t know,” Luther said gently.
I rubbed my face. Narra’s apprehensive look was back.
“It’s okay,” I told her. She understood that phrase. “It was a lot to ask. Andre, open it back up. Let’s look at those egg sacks. Maybe something there will give us a clue.”
Andre picked up the left door, stepped aside with it, and a fat hrrrt came flying out, hurtling through the air, the whip tail posed to strike. Narra lunged forward. Her spear spun, and she impaled the bug with a single precise thrust.
The hrrrt screeched.
Narra twisted the spear, slapped the hrrrt on the ground, freed the spear with a sharp tug, and stabbed it three times into the insect. It screeched again and died.
Narra straightened and spun her weapon with a flourish.
“Narra – purpose!” she announced.
Andre made a small choking noise. Luther doubled over, cackling like a loon.
Isaac walked over to me, carefully patted my shoulder, and stepped away.
I dragged my hand over my face. Narra was still holding her spear.
“Best purpose!” I said. “I feel safe.”
Narra took a step forward, patted my shoulder the way Isaac had done, and gave me a brilliant smile.
There would be other towers and other hrrrts, but I would always remember Narra’s first smile.