Prologue – Page 3

The queen scowled as she watched her servant poking around the outside of the house. When there had been no reply to his knocking he had made his way to peer in through the windows, moving around the house in search of some sign as to its occupants.

So far, he had turned up nothing. The queen had a sinking feeling about all this.

Ever since he had been forced to resign from the Royal Court, insofar as three people could be said to constitute a Court, two years ago Lord Shylith had turned his attention back to his vineyard. He still served as ambassador and had more than proven his worth in that role during his travels. His manservant would always remain behind to care for the house and handle any business that needed looking after during his absence. It seemed very strange for not even him to be here.

Her own servant returned, shaking his head as he walked up to her to report what he had learned. The furniture inside was covered with sheets and there were no signs of any inhabitants. The beds had been stripped of their bedding, the lamps had been taken down, and the cellar, apparently left unlocked, was completely empty.

The queen had hoped that Shylith, at least, would prove amenable to her plan to explore the castle. Her subjects would be too frightened to go willingly, and she would not have on her conscience having ordered them to their deaths were the same fate to befall her as her husband. That left the Court, and those two would do their best to prevent her from going.

She would have to go alone.

***

From the calm waters of Lake Serên rose the Haunted Isle, a gentle hill surrounded by sandy shores and dotted with a handful of copses. It held a dark past of restless dead and, more recently, the disappearance of those who had entered the half-built castle upon it. Though nominally a castle the structure was more a fortified mansion, built with defence in mind but not intended as a military installation. Even so it overlooked the natural harbour along Serên’s shores south of the isle. A simple wooden bridge had been built across the narrow ford separating it from the village on Serên’s western side and upon that bridge now stood a lone figure in the morning mists.

The queen, draped in a thick velvet robe to ward off any chill still lingering from the night, was surrounded by an air of determination as she gazed at what had become known as her husband’s mausoleum. There were answers to be found within the abandoned halls, answers which were years overdue. She shivered, not from cold but from the ominous feeling she had that something was horribly wrong on this island. There was something unnatural clinging to the air.

Sighing she looked back at the village behind her. Even this early it was bustling with activity, its citizens hard at work on the vision her husband had left behind. Homes, shrines, markets, shops, and even a few guilds were being constructed throughout the once-rural valley. There were still racks heavy with vines lining the slopes around the lake, waiting to be laden with this year’s harvest of berries, but the roads across the hills were growing wider and the crops were taking up more of the workers. Only Lord Shylith’s estate was still a vineyard through and through.

Taking a breath and throwing a quick glance to the house in which her son was fast asleep, the queen straightened her back and steeled herself. She turned quickly on her heel and set off at a brisk pace towards the castle.

***

The halls were a jumble of furniture, tools, decorations, building materials, and debris, but all were covered in a thick layer of dust. Even the spiders seemed to avoid this place, for though ample opportunities could be found to place them not a single cobweb hung in the queen’s way as she moved through the dilapidated citadel. She strode through the empty corridors and abandoned rooms, glancing at half-finished statues and tables that were only partly evened as she passed them by.

Lamps and sconces lined the walls, but the torches had long since burned out and what little oil had been delivered was long gone. Either the workers had vanished with lights still burning, or Diarmid had consumed the last drops during his investigation. Fortunately, there was no need for fire to show her the way because there were skylights and windows strategically placed to allow plenty of natural light into every chamber and passage. So that even now, with just the scant sunshine offered by the dawn, there was sufficient light for her to see where she was going, despite the illumination barely penetrating the dirt caking those windows outfitted with glass.

Thus it caught her by surprise when she opened a heavy metal door, itself an oddity, only to find the space beyond cloaked in darkness. She pushed the door wide open and enough light trickled in to reveal the top of a staircase. It was rare for a structure to have rooms underground because of the loose soil and the proximity of the lake. She had not expected there to be any cellars.

She cursed her folly.

She would need a light down there, but going back for a lamp now would only result in Lord Merrinath putting an end to her investigation. The queen grabbed a piece of wood, the leg of a chair most likely, and wrapped one end in her velvet shawl. Without oil it would not last her long, but undergound it would be needed. It took some effort, it had been a long time since she had to light a fire with improvised tools, but eventually she managed to ignite the makeshift torch and then headed down the dark stairs into the lower level.

It was dark and gloomy, filled with the musty scent of molds and stale air. The smell changed to that of damp earth as the queen moved through the storage areas and into the unfinished rooms further from the stairs. It was as though the molds, having at first flourished amongst the supplies left behind by the vanished workers, were slowly withering away, retreating from the unworked hallways and collapsed earthen walls of the basement’s incomplete sections.

“Fascinating…” She murmured to herself, noting that the molds were in no hurry to wither and die in the direction of the finished stone walls of the foundation. By the way the mold seemed to avoid the dirt it appeared almost as if the decay seeped out of the soil itself; the mold was drier and paler, as if the life had been sucked out of it, the closer to the earthen walls it was. This drew her to turn her focus to those walls which were not yet made out of stone, the ones still unfinished and so made from packed earth held in place with loose boards.

The next thing of interest she found was covered with dried and lifeless molds, half-buried beneath a toppled wall. A gleam caught her eye from underneath it all and when she brushed it off she found the rusted and tattered remains of a soldier’s armor. Pulling it loose she found no signs of damage to it except for that caused by the loam falling on it, and no doubt its owner as well.

“Buried alive, then…” She sighed. This would never have happened if they had built things from the ground up instead of working on everything at once. Diarmid had always been in a hurry to get things done, but he had been unusually rushed in the construction of this place. He had never told her her why he had been in such a rush, mentioning in passing that it related to his deal with the spirits, and she had been too preoccupied with her impending motherhood to be as insistent as she ought to have been.

Her light flickered and suddenly she felt keenly aware of the oppressive atmosphere caused by the gloom and by a silence broken only by the occasional echo of a wave breaking against the foundation. She had her answers so she could leave now, yet something kept her down here. Something gnawed at her mind: a feeling she was missing something, that some vital clue lay hidden in the darkness, waiting for her to ask the right question.

Staring at the ruined armor she began pondering what had happened to the remains of the owner. She had found no signs of them, not the smallest bone, and yet it had only been a few years, far from enough for the skeletons to decay. And what of the workers above? They had disappeared at the same time as the others, yet there was nothing to indicate where they had gone or what had happened to them. Something was amiss here.

***

The queen’s robes were dirty and her face was covered in soot from her sputtering torch. Her strides, so resolute upon arrival, now betrayed a hint of trepidation. Despite this, she moved through the dark passages with surprising resolve given her sheltered past. Her watcher, having observed her since she entered the castle, was impressed by how brazen she was and amused by her unpreparedness.

Ten years the wife of a retired adventurer, nominally the queen of a village with its surrounding hamlets, and suddenly she thought herself competent enough to go delving in haunted ruins in search of things that were best left buried.

She had meandered about the dank corridors for some time without success. He had almost dared to hope that she would give up but then she had found the secret passageway, sealing her fate. If she had just left after finding the breastplate, if only she had accepted everyone dying from a landslide. Not this woman, remarkable and intelligent as she was, she would be satisfied only with the truth. She had picked up a surprising number of tricks from her late husband, even managing to get the door open enough to slip into the arcane workshop hidden beyond.

Catching up found her hunched over the nexus, the conduit feeding the Master, examining it closely. The clear glass sculpture stood at the center of the small chamber, surrounded by a mystical diagram carved into the stone floor. She hadn’t seen the ward, though. She had likely been too distracted by the tables with alchemical equipment and shelves laden with books lining the uneven rock walls to look where she was stepping on her approach to the contorted form.

“You?!” Her voice broke the silence of the cavern in a surprised gasp as she caught sight of her torch’s reflection in the blade being drawn. She had barely straightened to a stand before the steel slid through a void in the focus’ twisting shape and into her chest. Cleanly between her ribs and straight into her heart, the life drained quickly from her eyes even as understanding began to gleam within them.

Too late.