Aytaq looked out across the still waters of Lake Seren. Morning mist lingered across it, protected from the sun’s searing light by the shadows of the surrounding hills as well as those of that ugly wall that was being built atop them. His gaze swept across the vineyards on the other side, lingering on the one he had called home in his former life.
His great-great-grandchildren still owned the land, though they now made wine instead of grain. A hollow endeavour, but none of his concern. This was a peaceful land, despite the darkness dwelling at its heart. Something was draining the Black Gate down below, and though that protected the locals from its withering influence-
Behind him a terrified shriek notified him that the girl had woken.
He did not bother to look back at her, but continued to scan the far side of the lake. It would not do to let her see his mouth twitching with suppressed amusement over her horror. He knew full well what had frightened her: the skeletal puppet he had adorned in jewellery and fine clothing, standing motionless in a secluded niche of the ruined wall surrounding his little camp.
Moment upon moment passed in silence before he heard her moving. She scurried about a little bit, seemingly hurried, and then stopped. Likely she had seen him standing a few steps outside the empty doorway she had to pass through.
She did not reply.
He turned his head, looking at her over his shoulder. She was short of stature, and quite young. She was wrapped in the leftover finery that had not suited his ‘Dead King’, fine clothes turned into makeshift blankets to keep her warm throughout the night. In her arms were clutched her clothes, still wet from her little swim.
“Good morning,” Aytaq repeated.
She looked at him, fear still etched on her face.
He waited, gazing at her from under a raised eyebrow.
“H- hi,” she stammered at length.
“I am Keeper Aytaq.” He turned back to the lake. “Who are you?”
“I- I am Rima- Kathleen.”
“Of which guild are you, Rima?”
“The- the Thieves’ Guild.” Something about that seemed to bolster her resolve.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Thief Rima.”
“Is this the Dead King’s court?”
He let out a chuckle and then shook his head ‘no’ as he turned to smile at her, brushing a stray piece of dust from his skirt before clasping his hands behind his back.
“No, child, it is not. You are not dead.” He paused, gazing over her at the husk. “And that is not the Dead King.”
Rima did not look at it, but he could tell from the shudder that she did not need to.
“Where am I?”
“The ruins of Raven’s Nest.”
“Wh-” Rima fell silent, staring at something to his right with a mixture of fear, confusion, and awe.
He looked over at the woman silently striding down the broken corridor, her fine dress of silk and velvet made all the more beautiful by her transparent form. In his life he had kneeled before her and sworn an oath of fealty, but he served a higher power now and his death and hers had both concluded that oath.
“Rima of the Thieves’ Guild,” his monotone belied his feigned surprised. “Do you not recognize your sovereign, Queen Megaera Ravenwing?”
The girl seemed shocked, yet something compelled her to sink down to kneel before the ghostly figure gliding up before them.
“Are you undead?” Rima’s curious choice of question caught him off-guard.
“It is more accurate to say that I am unliving,” Aytaq replied after a moment of reflection.
“What’s the difference?”
“I eat, I sleep, and I breathe. Just like the living.”
“The husk is undead, fuelled by my will.”
The three of them were standing together with his puppet Dead King, Fakey as Rima had named the husk, at the hidden dock of the Haunted Isle, patiently waiting for Aytaq’s other husks to prepare the small boat. It had belonged to the smugglers infesting the ruin, who would not have need of it again.
“So… Is there a real Dead King?”
“A quaint notion, combining the legend of the Reapers with that of a mysteriously missing monarch,” Aytaq noted calmly. “Certainly such things exist, but not here.” She seemed dissatisfied with his answer. “No, the Dead King is no more real than you make him.”
She seemed confused by his remark, drawing a slight smile to his face. There were many things she had yet to experience in life, though meeting an entity such as the Dead King would not likely be one of them.
“What is it you’re going to do, anyway?”
“Bring murderers to justice.” Megaera’s voice seemed as ethereal as her form. Hardly surprising, given that it echoed from beyond the grave, yet it still sent a shiver along Aytaq’s spine. It was the first time she had spoken since he found her, and the archaic dialect brought with it a flood of memories from a life long ago lost to death.
Aytaq watched dispassionately as images danced before his mind’s eye; of his wife, their children, his friends, his farm, his whole existence. He let them wash over him, embracing them as his past and accepting their loss. All things change, and so much suffering was born of the desire to cling to what was after it ceased to be.