As Darkness Falls

Bandits of the Broken Tower

Summary: The Roman Empire crumbles as darkness and superstition fall over Europe like a burial shroud. Marcus Valerius is a lone scholar seeking to preserve the learning of antiquity for the future. With both a sword and strange powers, he will not go gently into the long night.

A broad-shouldered brute of a man in a gray robe ascended the rocky coastal path with the texture of broken glass. Marcus Valerius leaned into the wind as his clothing fluttered, ignoring the minor cuts on his hands as he climbed towards the structure at the end of the road. His blue eyes almost matched the wine-dark waters of the Adriatic lapped at the cliffs below, ready to consume the careless. Overcast skies and strong winds seemed as natural surroundings to the old Roman lighthouse as the briny smell in the air. Exposure and erosion had harrowed the structure down to a shattered ruin, known to travellers as the Broken Tower. From the distance, it could easily be mistaken as a broken sword.

It was neither the name nor the history of the place that brought the librarian from Alexandria. The wreckage of a particular caravan laid dozens of leagues behind him, with a trail leading directly to the bandit encampment. The ruined tower was surrounded by ramshackle fortifications, hammered together from rusted metal and driftwood. A bandit gang had encamped within, making few signs to hide their presence.

Marcus tallied his supplies for a moment, trying to reassure himself. Tinted glass goggles hung around his neck. His sheathed blades hung from his belt, alongside leather pouches and satchels holding his supplies. He reassuringly felt the gadgets in his leather bracers on his forearms, and then approached the tower with his gloved hands in the air. Marcus knew his best chance for survival rouse the bandits' curiosity, but do not seem as easy prey. He walked towards the fortress with an alchemical lantern of violet flames that cast eerie blue lights on the jagged walls.

A lone guard stood with sun-kissed skin watch behind an overturned wagon, and levelled a crude spear at the approaching sage. Marcus exhaled to relax, making eye contact with the sentry. His rounded face forced a smile, a lie almost as painful to him as it was unconvincing.

"Greetings, good sir!" he shouted to the unkempt guard. "I desire an audience with your leader!"

"Aye, who approaches the Broken Tower?" the guard levelled his spear at Marcus. The ruddy-skinned man whistled, and bandits clambered up the nearby ramparts. Javelins were hefted and arrows were notched in bows, all trained on the solitary librarian. Sweat ran down his otherwise stoic face, forcing Marcus Valerius to keep his composure as dozens of deadly instruments were trained upon him.

"I am Marcus Valerius of Alexandria," his lips formed a smile. "And I have an offer for your leader."

"What business have ye with Borri?" shouted a one-eyed man with a battle-axe and dented iron helmet. He towered over the other men on the ramparts, and his patchwork armor gave him an aura of authority his mangy men lacked.

"A business transaction," Marcus chose his terms as diplomatically as possible. The wrong word would turn him into a pincushion. "He may possess a book worth a great fortune to me."

"Ye do not know Borri," One-Eye grinned. "Aye, you may enter."

Marcus exhaled as the guards stood down. One-Eye, however, continued glowering at the scholar. "Should Borri will it," he ran his finger across his neck. "Yer another notch on me axe. 'Tis a fine blade ye have. Will be mine, when ye die."

One-Eye's cyclopean gaze fell to the hilt on Marcus's belt. His primary blade was a curved war-knife, a falcata, with a basket hilt, a tangle of metal to better protect his hand. A classical Roman pugio dagger hung from his other hip, a last-ditch defense. Marcus silently hoped he did not have to use either, as preferred other methods of problem-solving.

"Follow me," One-Eye ordered the gate opened. "And maybe ye'll leave with yer head."

Marcus tried to ignore One-Eye and maintain a steely disposition as he walked through a creaky gate and into the bandit camp. He was noticeably shaken as he walked towards the Broken Tower. Ever step forward increasingly unnerved the librarian. He tried to keep his face an emotionless mask, but the thieves could see through his facade. The bandits stared at him, moving towards him like wolves sensing easy prey. Nothing unified the men, aside from their ragged appearances and unshaven countenances. Their clothing was a motley patchwork of tattered military uniforms and patchwork repairs. Marcus assumed most were deserters and mercenaries from at least a dozen lands, including the Empire.

Marcus's senses were assaulted in the same way he imagined the brigands did to the caravan. Due to a lack of basic sanitation, the camp reeked of fecal matter and sweat, and the stench of alcohol emanated from every nook and cranny in the walls. Makeshift tents clustered in the shadow of the Broken Tower, billowing in the wind enough that Marcus thought a strong gust would send them flying. The walls themselves were piles of dirt and stone with flimsy and groaning wooden supports. Marcus saw ornate carpets, foreign silks, and more exotic wares haphazardly strewn about, the plunder of previous raids. Barrels of supplies were crammed everywhere they would fit, cramped into niches in the walls. Like rats, the bandits infested every space available to them.

One-Eye lead Marcus through a throng of jeering men, heading towards the royal court of the thieves. A branded man with a face resembling uncooked meat, a head taller than Marcus, chugged a goblet of wine while sitting on a barrel of mead. His eyes turned to meet his lieutenant and the scholar, cold blue eyes of hate and contempt. Beside him was a massive hole that seemed to devour the sunlight, a place Marcus assumed was the final destination for trash and the bandits' victims. Marcus shuddered at the thought of ending up in such a place, never found and left to rot. The thought of a priceless tome, and the esoteric knowledge it contained, abandoned in such a place chilled him even more.

"Who dares disturb Borri the Bloodthirsty?" the bandit leader bellowed. He rose to his feet, clutching a massive sword and moving with a slight limp. The fact One-Eye dared not advance another step indicated who the bandit feared. Marcus exhaled to relax, and extended his hand. His survival instinct and common sense told him to run the other way, but sweat dripped from his pores as he forced himself forwards.

"Greetings, sir," Marcus said. "I am Marcus Valerius of Alexandria, and I have a proposition for you."

Borri laughed menacingly, and turned his gaze downwards at the scholar. "Speak quickly, or I shall feed you to the hole."

Marcus drew a small bag from his robe, jingling it in his hands. He saw Borri's eyes begin to follow it. The brigand caught the bag in one hand when he tossed it to him. Borri tore open the bag and gold coins fell to the ground. He greedily grabbed them up and pocketed them.

"A caravan carrying a codex valuable to me vanished on a nearby road," Marcus said. "If you know that tome's location, I shall pay you more."

"Scholar, I do not care for your book," Borri grinned. "I would have tossed it into the pit with the rest of the trash."

There was an awkward silence as Marcus observed Borri sticking his chest out. The bandit lord took a step towards Marcus, a cat cornering a mouse. His novelty was wearing thin.

"Perhaps I should feed you to the hole," Borri turned to the mass of bandits. "I doubt this whelp could take the weakest of you in single combat!"

"You trivially discard knowledge that could give you great power," Philo spat. "Men like you only care for the present, costs to the future be damned."

"Aye," Borri laughed. "And why not? We could all die at any moment, so we will do as we please until then!"

"Borri, have you ever told your men what those brands mark you as?" Marcus asked. "A slayer of kin, a betrayer of oaths, and a lover of goats."

Borri's face turned to reddened fury as One-Eye barely suppressed a chuckle. Both of Borri's hands clasped his sword as Marcus planned faster than any normal person would. A concealed mechanism launched a dart out of his sleeve and into Borri's neck. The burly thug let his sword clatter to the ground, its defeated ringing filling the air. One-Eye desperately extended his hand as Borri staggered backwards and fell into the earth's waiting maul.

Marcus did not hear the splash at the bottom of the pit, nor the shouting that followed. He sprinted for cover behind a stack of barrels as a barrage of arrows and javelins filled the air. They slammed into the casks, mead flowing from their puncture-wounds. For a long second, Marcus panted behind cover and felt a jolt of pain as an arrow punctured robe and grazed his left shoulder. He tightened his robes and grit his teeth. Fear transformed into fury as Marcus allowed his reflexes to overcome his mind.

"I command powers you cannot comprehend!" he shouted at the bandits. "Feel the fire and the storm!"

Marcus raised the alchemical lenses over his eyes, and tossed a ceramic pot from his belt onto the ground behind him. A cloud of smoke followed a blinding white flash, and Marcus unleashed his powers. He saw his enemies through the cloud as clear as day, and moved in for the kill. He hurled containers holding Greek fire and naptha into a cluster of wheezing bandits, baptising the bandits in fire. A putrid stench filled the air as flame licked at flesh and reduced the brigands to helplessly twitching bodies on the ground. The scholar dashed through the inferno as the remaining bandits scattered, already planning his next move.

Marcus would have been horrified to see the consequences of his actions under normal circumstances, but perverse hatred filled his mind as he revelled in being the apex predator. The smoke cloud was beginning to dissipate, and the enemy archers and skirmishers were getting ready for another volley. Marcus raised his hand to the air, braced his wrist at the nearest ramparts, and a fireball shot forth from his wrist with the sulphurous stench of brimstone. The infernal torrent of flame and thunder erupted erupted from the librarian's robes, and the bodies of archers hit the ground a split second later. The survivors cowered behind rubble and fortifications, feebly hoping to be spared from powers they did not comprehend.

"Come, men!" shouted One-Eye from across the courtyard. "Finish him!"

Marcus said nothing as he turned to his adversary. The one-eyed bandit raised his battle-axe and let out a fearsome shout. He charged at the scholar like a raging bull, driving Marcus back against the wall. He charged past the leaking mead casks when Marcus had an idea. Marcus hurled a handful of sand at One Eye's face as he sidestepped. Sparks jumped across Marcus' sword as he slashed it across the ground, into the spilled mead. A wisp of frame turned ignited into a roaring inferno as One-Eye staggered blindly in its path.

A scream bellowed out as One-Eye flames ripped across the ground, forcing the brigand to stamp out his fires licking at his boots. Marcus drew his crossbow, aimed it as he shifted probabilities in his head, and planted a bolt in his good eye. The bandit fell lifelessly to the ground, joining his comrades in death. Marcus looked around, and saw the remaining bandits had wisely fled. All that remained was the howling wind and the calls of distant seabirds. Soon, Marcus imagined, scavengers would arrive to feast upon the fallen. He hoped to have left before that time.

Marcus cleaned and bandaged his wounds before confirming the camp was empty. He produced a rope from his pack, and tied it off above the hole. His alchemical potions and other tricks had been exhausted, and his body still ached from the fight. Part of him wondered how he had been able to survive several men trying to kill him, and how he had been able to kill them so easily. Life was delicate, and the powers he commanded could easily snuff it out. But sometimes, some had to die for the benefit of the many.

Marcus slowly lowered himself into the cavern, his lantern casting eerie shadows on the wall. Marcus knew his mind was projecting most of the horrors he imagined lurking in the shadows, but the flickering lights dispelled them as he went deeper into the hole. Looking upwards at the sky, he realized the hole was much shallower than he originally imagined it to be. Water covered part of the cavern floor, pooling in the corner. As the floor came into view, Marcus saw the bandits' refuse. Rotting food, broken bottles, and other discarded items had been scattered across the hole. He almost gasped when he realized that some strange shapes were dead bodies and rotting skeletons, the victims of the Broken Tower. He dangled in the air for three long moments as he tried to regain his composure. A minute later, his feet touched solid ground. A second later, something large and fast barrelled into him from the shadows.

Large hands grasped his throat in an iron grip, and began choking the life from him as the figure jerked him back and forth. Marcus reached for one of his blades, only to have his attacker seize it from the sheath. His dagger reflected the dying lantern light as the cold gaze of Borri tracked his next victim. Despite the poison dosage undoubted racing through his veins, adrenaline and hatred drove him onwards. Marcus kicked Borri in the shins and stomped his heels, loosening the giant's grip enough to slip out. A look of disgust was the only reaction that registered on Borri's face.

"If you still breathe," Borri muttered. "Then then my men have failed!"

"I put them down like a den of mad dogs," Philo replied. "A trivial task, given my abilities."

"They were all I had, boy!" anger swelled across Borri's face. "I will enjoy gutting you!"

Marcus leapt backwards and drew his falcata, his inexperience causing the blade to sway. Borri stepped backwards, tossing the blade between his hands. A backhanded swipe came at Marcus's chest, only to be deflected by an upward flick of his own sword. Marcus held the blade in one hand as he circled the brigand chief. His longer sword kept Borri just outside of its reach. The glint of the stolen dagger danced in the cave as the bandit probed for openings.

Marcus shifted his fingers as he fumbled for a concealed mechanism. Only sparks and smoke arose from the basket hilt, bringing the sulphurous stench of failure.

"Your tricks fail you, whelp," Borri spit.

Borri took the distraction to lunge at Marcus slicing through his robe before he leapt backwards. A sadistic bloodthirst catapulted Borri forward with a fearsome battlecry. Marcus continued retreating, parrying and dodging his foe's enraged flurry of blows. With each strike, the academic clenched his teeth harder as he feared he would slip. A lucky strike hit Marcus' belt, shattering a ceramic case and sending bits of copper and vinegar falling to the ground. Marcus twisted as the stain grew on his robes, narrowly avoiding a stab that would have disembowelled him. Borri ceased moving for a minute, as Marcus realized what had occurred.

It took the brief lull to realize that Borri was growing fatigued. The bandit clenched the dagger in two hands as it slipped from his grip, and his stance tottered listlessly like a drunk. Borri stumbled with his weapon, and Marcus drove his blade into the bandit's chest. Borri fell to his knees as his crimson lifeblood wept from his wounds. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his body joined his victims on the floor. Marcus exhaled and caught his breath. Marcus felt uneasy and slightly sick to his stomach as he wiped the blood from his sword. He could barely stand to look at Borri's body as he retrieved his dagger and gold.

A long wipe later, Marcus found a small chest containing the tome that he sought. The pages were slightly damp and smelled of mildew, but saw it was still legible. He thumbed through the ancient pages, seeing wedge-alchemical formulae in archaic inks. The ancient symbols seemed to hypnotically crawl across the pages. The secrets of his powers were stripped naked on the pages before him.

"Saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, all with the correct ratio," Marcus noted as he slammed it shut. "It is fortunate those bandits could not read this."

Marcus placed the book into his pack and climbed out of the hole. He saw no signs of any remaining bandits upon his return to the surface, and helped himself to their provisions. As the ravens gathered in the courtyard, Marcus left the Broken Tower behind him.