Chapter 49: The Lighthouse.
As Slayd approached the lighthouse tower, he slowed his pace and stared up at the looming building, apprehension growing in his gut. Peeling white paint that must have been decades old clung to the stone like dying lichen, accompanied by crusts of sea salt no one had bothered to scrape away. Aside from the single rotating beacon high above them, no lights shone through the narrow slitted windows of the tower. Even while the wind whipped all around him, the whole place seemed unnaturally still.
“Slayd.” Guile tapped his shoulder and inclined his head towards the tower. “You have precious little experience dealing with the denizens of the sea. Tread carefully, as the Worm King urged you. Your clout as the Heir of Moroloth means nothing to the seafarers. The Keepers of the Lighthouse will probably be the kindest you will meet, and keep that well in mind. They are dangerous and have little patience for outsiders.”
Slayd nodded slowly, the caution in Guile's voice needing little time to sink in. “Shall I have you speak for me?”
“It would not be wise. My reputation precedes me as well. I cannot help you here.”
Slayd turned to the door and took a slow breath. “I suppose we should get this over with, then.” He rapped sharply three times on the wooden door, and stood back to wait for a response.
It came from an unexpected direction. After a moment of silence save for the howling wind, a scratching, scraping sound cut through the air, coming from the side of the lighthouse facing the cliff and the sea. Slayd groped a hand behind him to catch at Guile's arm, but before he could make contact a tall dark shape loomed up from around the tower. Shambling with unexpected speed, it lurched towards them in the blink of an eye, making Slayd stumble back against Guile. Belatedly, Slayd recognized the tall and lanky monster from what seemed so long ago, at the very edge of the Maggot Kingdom. The Watcher leaned its head forward, its single eye looking in all directions before focusing on Slayd. He could feel the rumble of speech from deep underground before he could actually hear it, and he waited for the words of the still-unseen Speaker to make sense.
“...Miles between. You travel far, Heir. The Keepers await you. Ascend to the top of the tower.”
The old wooden doors were thrown open from the inside, and Slayd spotted a long heavy arm before it retreated into the darkness of the lighthouse entrance. He dipped his head at the lanky creature still standing uncomfortably close. “Thank you, Watcher.”
The creature backed off a few steps and stood staring beyond Slayd and Guile, fixing its gaze on the path they had trod with an unblinking eye. Slayd turned to Guile and raised a cautious eyebrow.
Guile only shrugged in return. “The lighthouse is one of many guard towers that lie along the edges of Dehalen's populated lands. We should have expected the Watchers and Speakers here.”
“I see.” Slayd hesitated for a moment longer before he ducked through the threshold, his eyes drawn to the blackness near the open door. He could hear the heavy breathing of the Speaker that lurked there, but the darkness was so thick he couldn't see even an outline of the massive creature.
Guile followed Slayd in, Allowing the door to clang shut behind him. A blue ball of light materialized in his Guardian's hand, making Slayd jump as the toothy face and giant frame of the Speaker was thrown into sudden high relief. But it did not move, and Slayd tore his eyes away from it to peer around the base of the lighthouse. He found himself at the foot of a narrow spiral of stairs hugging the outer walls, hewn from coarse stone and dressed in the same ancient peeling paint that clung to the outside. At the center of the interior was a large open hole ringed with a low lip of bricks. The wavering light of Guile's orb could not penetrate the darkness at the bottom, but from its depths Slayd could hear the roaring of the waves.
“Shall I lead the way, my lord?” Guile's voice sounded even harsher in the echoing tower.
Slayd nodded, and followed the glow of his guardian's spell as they climbed the steps. The salt even coated the inside of the lighthouse, making every surface rough. He didn't dare use the thin guide rope hanging limply from the wall – it looked so rotted he imagined it would disintegrate in his hands. As they ascended he kept as close to the stone wall as he could, but morbid fascination tempted him more than once to peer down the inner edge. If he fell, he would plummet even further than the floor of the lighthouse, and who knows how deep that hole truly was.
But their climb was not a long one. They reached the end of the stairs within ten minutes, stopped by a ladder and an open hatch above. Slayd turned to his guardian, but Guile only raised an eyebrow behind his blindfold.
“Hello?” Slayd called softly up into the dark have above them, half hoping and half fearing a response. He waited for a reply to his word before calling again, but he was never answered.
“Where do you suppose they went?” Slayd muttered, half to himself.
Guile shrugged. “They are here. Perhaps they do not wish to speak.”
Musical laughter met their ears in a sudden rush, coming from the dark hatch over their heads. “Or perhaps there are no words to say or answers to give you, guardian of the Lich King's unnatural spawn.”
Slayd could see the hackles raise on the back of Guile's neck, and he laid a hand on his guardian's shoulder to stay him before he answered the voice. “I have not yet asked anything of you, Keeper of the Lighthouse. How would you know you have no answers for me?”
“Because we already know what you will ask,” came his response. “But come, if you insist on conversation, let it be face to face.”
Slayd shrugged to both Guile and the unseen owner of the voice, and climbed the ladder.
The top of the lighthouse was narrow, dominated by the support for the rotating beacon, whose light was thrust out to sea. Thin, half-rotted rope and a heavy rusty chain were the only barrier between the circular walkway and the open air. The wind rushed through with a high tinny whistle, backed by the roaring of the sea. Slayd climbed out of the hatch and peered around the beacon's stand only to be suddenly met by a pair of shining eyes. He stumbled back and nearly fell through the hatch before he caught himself on the chain.
Again the musical laughter swam through his ears, and the Keeper stepped out from the shadow of the beacon stand. Her glimmering eyes raked over Slayd's form, and she crossed thin arms over a narrow chest. “Ask your questions, Slayd of Amoth Shyr. We have little patience for outsiders, and you are a long way from home.”
A second figure dropped down from the rafters to stand beside the Keeper, this one staring hard at the open hatch. She scowled. “Call your guard dog to your side. I do not like him lurking about below, unseen.”
Slayd blinked at the slur, but Guile had heard and wordlessly climbed up from the hatch and stood by his master's side. He eyed the two Keepers warily before nodding to each of them. “Lady Anemone and Lady Medusa. I have not met you, yet I have heard your names.”
The one nearest Slayd inclined her head in Guile's direction, but her words were short. “I care not for introductions. Ask your questions.”
Slayd peered beyond the Keepers to stare at the white-capped sea and thunder clouds outside. “We wish to cross the sea. Only I hear that no ships have been seen for a long while near this shore. Would you advise us?”
“Find another way.” Lady Anemone shook her head and threw a hand towards the churning waters. “No ships have been spotted near this shore in nearly two fortnights. Save one. And it brings ill-fortune with its tattered sails. I doubt it makes for land.”
Slayd's ears perked up at the mention of a ship, but he frowned. “Why do you say that?”
Lady Anemone only shrugged. “From what Aurelia's sharp eyes have seen, it would not make it another league. It was so damaged it should have sunk days ago.”
Guile shifted from one foot to another and grasped Slayd's shoulder. “Such a thing is a bad omen, my lord. A ship like that is a ghost ship, a vestige of tragedy best left at sea. We cannot take such a vessel.”
Slayd only grunted at Guile before directing his words back to Lady Anemone. “Where would it make port, if it were able?”
“The only port of call on this shore is further south. Follow the shoreline seven miles, and you will come upon the harbor of Droston. But I doubt you will be successful. That vessel is a portent of doom, ghost ship or no. It is committed to the depths.”
Slayd's frown deepened. “Yet we may find someone in Droston willing to take us out to sea, if the ship is not capable.”
Harsh laughter erupted from Lady Medusa, and she shook her head. “Not likely. Ever since the demons have been seen lurking about in the storms at sea, the town has been abandoned.”
“Then I suppose we will just try our luck.” Slayd turned and climbed back down the hatch without another word.
Guile nodded to each of the Keepers before following his charge, but not before Lady Anemone caught him on the arm. “The sea was here long before Dehalen had roots, and so it shall be long after the land has sunk beneath the waves. The denizens of the deep care nothing for saviors or the conquering of demons. I have never been fond of your master, nor do I particularly care what happens to his prodigy. And yet I warn you, and with urgency – do not go out to sea. I have heard you have encountered and survived Grigora before, but the shadows in those clouds are far more malevolent than you would imagine.”
Guile shook off her grip, but smiled. “Thank you for your concern, my lady, but I understand full well what danger we walk into. But we have few choices, and my master is willful.”
“He will get the both of you killed.”
“Perhaps.” Guile ducked into the hatch, closing it behind him.
They left the lighthouse quickly and quietly, the eyes of the ever-vigilant Watchers following them unseen. They made their way south, keeping close to the shore. Slayd's eyes strayed often to the white-capped waves and he peered at the obscured horizon, wondering if there was indeed a ship floundering through the churning waters and if there were, if it was indeed a Bad Thing as the Keepers had suggested. “I have never understood why seafarers are so different from the rest of us, yet they have a reputation of being very unhelpful, and I remember hearing of some stories where they even have animosity. Why is that? I thought Lord Moroloth saved all of Dehalen.”
Guile shrugged beside Slayd, his own gauzed eyes stealing glances at the waves but lingering much longer on the black clouds roiling over their heads. “Those who come from the waters are a much older race than those of the land. They were here when the roots of the world grew up from the sea, and when the bodies of the Grigora formed the first soil. While the absence of the Grigora has brought life to the land, it has never mattered to the denizens of the sea. They will still be here whether or not the blood of my people runs over this land.”
Slayd slowed his pace, but didn't stop walking. “...Does it bother you? That our master intends to perform another summoning?”
Guile sighed but Slayd didn't hear it, only hearing his words over the wind. “I have chosen where my loyalty lies. I know my place.”
They trudged through several miles of wet sand and sea-sprayed wind, and any further talk they might have wanted to have was muted by the constant roar of the angry sea. As they cleared the final rise of sand and sawgrass, they could see the hazy silhouette of roofs against the darkened sky. The port of Droston lay a little less than a mile ahead of them, and Slayd turned to his guardian in relief. “I know the Keepers said the town had been abandoned, but rarely does everyone leave.”
Guile nodded in agreement. “Were we to find a -”
Shrieks of virulent hatred screamed down from the stormy sky, and Guile threw himself down over Slayd as a monstrous figure plummeted to the sand. It bellowed horrible sounds that might have been words in the most hellish language Slayd had ever heard, and a mass of feathers, teeth, and twitching eyes heaved itself to stand on many legs.
Slayd gaped in awe and horror from his shelter in Guile's arms. He stared as the thing before him lurched and quivered before a sickening rip assaulted Slayd's ears. A rending tear across the creature's back nearly split the monster in half, exposing a gnarled mess of fangs and a thousand writhing pieces of flesh that could have been tongues or tentacles or intestines, Slayd couldn't be sure which. The mass of flesh pulsed and writhed, contracting itself inward with labored wheezing. Slayd couldn't look anymore, and he hid his eyes in Guile's shoulder. But Guile rose from their place on the ground and thrust Slayd behind him. He yanked off his blindfold and stood, waiting.
When Slayd's eyes turned back to the creature, he was startled to see the shape of a man. His skin was dark like Guile's, and three pairs of tattered red wings sprouted from his back. His arms and legs were heavily bandaged, and blood seeped through to stain the cloth. The wounds beneath were evident not just on his limbs, but they spread over the whole of his body – open sores and festering boils, the remnants of an unknown disease.
Guile stepped towards the man, but a wheezing snarl stopped him from approaching.
“Well Guile, I suppose you are satisfied now, aren't you?” The man raised fathomless red eyes to meet Guile's own. “The Lich King has returned from the dead. He makes for Lake Khorakh and your accursed tower.”
Guile only inclined his head. “Lesion. It's been a while.”
The other man spat on the ground. “Is that all you have to say? You cannot deny it – we have felt the pull of your master's presence, once again he is crawling into our minds, calling to us in that wretched clawing voice. And it is your fault he has returned. Your fault his bastard child is back within this realm. Your fault he has rekindled the faith of the insect kings. You spit in the very faces of your kin and your blood, Guile, your betrayal has never run this deep!”
Guile shook his head, casting a glance behind him to ensure Slayd was still shielded against him. “I never betrayed my brothers, Lesion.”
“That is a lie!” Lesion lunged for Guile, but he checked himself before he reached him, turning suddenly away. “You betrayed us when you aided that monster behind you. And when you goaded him into following this path. When you helped him resurrect the Lich King, you turned your back on us fully. I had hoped you would try to return to us, once. I see my hope was unfounded.”
Guile only sneered. “If you wish to fight me, then do so. Or are you not capable of challenging your elder brother?”
The snarl that escaped Lesion was dripping with vitriol. “I am not the one who submitted to a mortal and accepted slavery, Guile.”
“Yet you nearly did, 'til I took your place.” Guile's words were calm, almost wistful. Slayd looked from one to the other, hoping they would explain.
“That was a long time ago, Guile. You care nothing for us now, that much is plain when I see you protecting that monster. I owe you nothing for your past kindness.”
“Then fight me.”
It was Lesion's turn to scoff. “No. I did not come here to quarrel with you. I only relay a message. For abandoning your brothers and willingly serving the one man who wishes to commit genocide on our entire race, you will pay for in spades. This will be settled properly. I know you seek a ship to cross the sea, and indeed there is one, just off-shore. It is coming for you. You are bound for Kingsfall Island. If you wish the Mosquito King to live, you will board that ship.” Lesion pulled a bloodied scarf from around his waist and threw it at Guile's feet. “Your own brethren will judge you.”
Guile crossed his arms and studied the ragged piece of cloth. “And why should I care whether you hold a hunter like him? Surely you know he has been a thorn in my side ever since I was pulled into this realm.”
Lesion only grinned. He turned without another word and spread his wings. That same rending tear sounded through the wind, and Lesion turned himself inside-out as he took to the sky and disappeared into the dark and churning clouds.
Guile stared hard at the spot where Lesion had vanished, and Slayd came up to stand beside him, letting out a shaky breath before he spoke. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing.” Guile shook his head. Slow, eyes not leaving the clouds. “Family drama. I -”
As Guile spoke, the hazy form of a ship materialized on the horizon, and it looked like it was making for shore. Both Slayd and Guile watched as it approached, its sails full with a wind contrary to the one whipping about their heads. It neared the shoreline, but changed its course less than a quarter mile away and turned to follow the line of the sand, avoiding the submerged rocks lying just beneath the surface of the water. As it came close, Slayd squinted hard at the deck, trying to make out where the crew might be.
But there was not a soul to be seen. No one manned the sails, none were at the helm, no man was on the deck. Huge ragged holes scarred the body of the ship, yet it took on no seawater. The sails were so tattered they should have disintegrated with the next gale of wind, yet they blew full and proud.
Slayd shook his head slowly, eyes large and unblinking. “I am not getting on that.”
Guile raised his eyebrows. “If it is a ship that you seek, my lord -”
“That is not a ship. That is an abomination of the sea and a deathtrap to any who would set foot on it. We will go to port and see if there are any ships in the harbor. I'm not going anywhere near that thing.”
“And what if we cannot find a mariner to man any vessel we might find?”
Slayd shrugged, already making a hasty retreat from the sea and turning south. “Then we will make our own way across the water. You have some navigating skills.”
“On rivers, my lord.” Guile still lingered close to the water, staring at the ship as it slowly drifted alongside the shore.
“Then that will have to do. Come on, Guile.”
Guile knelt and picked up the bloodied scarf that Lesion had thrown at his feet, wrapping it around his shoulders before he replaced his blindfold and turned to follow Slayd along the shore.
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