“Impressive,” Shadow commented.
Safira replied by retching once again as another whiff of charred flesh blew past them. She was doubled over on the cold stone of a small dock, barely large enough for a single ship of medium size. Shadow had never seen it from across the lake, though, so any ship therein would be well hidden.
They were among the ruins of Raven’s Nest, surrounded by weathered, century-old rubble and debris from an incomplete building. So far all the rooms had been littered with the remnants of half-finished furniture and other signs of the long-abandoned construction, but strangely Shadow had not seen any tools to go with the projects. Instead they had stumbled upon a small band of smugglers using the secret dock for their illicit deeds.
The battle had been short. Safira had received minor cuts before being cornered against the wall of the structure. Shadow had dispatched several thugs before the world had turned into an inferno as a fiery rush of hot air swept over him while sheets of flame engulfed everything in sight. He had been lucky to escape the conflagration with his life, despite his speed and training having him diving for cover before the fires had reached him.
Most of the smugglers had been less fortunate and had ended up seared and burned far beyond their ability to survive. A most gruesome death, and apparently not one that Safira had ever had to deal with before. The sights and smells had overwhelmed her and she had spent quite some time with her head hanging over the edge of the dock, vomiting into the water below.
She looked up at him with her bronzed skin pale from nausea, the confusion in her eyes surprising Shadow. “That wasn’t you?”
She shook her head meekly.
Shadow shrugged and looked out at the lake. A bank of fog was rolling down from the vinefields on the other side, occasional tufts of mist breaking off and some already floating above the lake. With the calm weather they would simply drift along the same way they had come, all headed toward the middle of the lake. One of the larger ones was already past that point, now peacefully gliding toward the Isle.
Even with the attention undoubtedly drawn by the blast they would have plenty of time to look around, if anyone even dared come investigate. That odd puffball, all alone in its path toward shore, would likely get caught up among the ruins for quite a while before it dissipated. Shadow nodded to himself, content that they would not have to wait until dark to sneak back to the mainland.
Safira rolled onto her back, her face scrunched up in a strange mixture of disgust and pleading with the distant sky for aid. Shadow thought back to the battle, feeling it best to give her time to recover and wondering what, if not her, had caused the explosion.
The only fire he had seen seen was a lantern carried by a smuggler headed out of the cellars when Shadow’s dart had struck him in the throat. The lantern had landed on the grassy stones, not too far from some barrels. Throwing a glance behind them, he noted that the soot and destruction seemed centered near that point. Shadow wondered what might have been in those barrels to have such an effect.
Safira groaned and as if in wordless agreement with her complaint a piece of lone wall toppled over nearby.
They were descending into the basement of the ruin, where the dank of the lake had seeped in through unfinished dirt walls to collect in small pools on the floor. The moisture glittered in the light of their lanterns, spoils from the smuggler’s cache, while the musty air was filled with the thick scent of moss. Safira suppressed a queasy sensation as she caught a whiff of the stench filling the air outside, still lingering on her clothes.
Safira watched Shadow as he moved through the rubble and debris littering the stairs. He had a natural agility in his motions that made her think of shadows gliding along a wall. His new outfit, loosely fitted so as to not restrict his movement, was of cloth dyed in dark blue hues tinted with deep red, blending easily with the darkness around them. He had thrown off his cowl as soon as they had climbed ashore on the Isle, but the burgundy scarf wrapped snugly over his lower face had remained, no doubt contributing to his resilience earlier-
She almost gagged again and forced her attention back to clothing, this time her own. In contrast to Shadow’s dark trappings, her own outfit was colorful and light. It consisted of sheer veils of violet silk which were held in place by jewelry attached to garments of light blue velvet. It was an outfit made as much to remind her of what she had left behind as it had been designed for comfort and mobility; based on a style predating the Sollim enslavement of her people.
It also stood out amidst the darkness, its shimmering material seeming to gleam in the flickering light of their lanterns. She didn’t like this place. It had a lingering sense of doom, as though something horrific had happened here long ago. Something worse than the disappearance of a sultan and his guards, and something far more ancient. Safira shuddered involuntarily, the sudden dance of the lantern’s light drawing Shadow’s attention.
She looked at him, meeting his cold gaze with an annoyed stare. “Why are we here?”
“I know Ky said to look for clues… But we’re not, are we?”
Again, a shrug.
“What does he think we’ll find? It was a hundred years ago and-”
“Give or take. And he’s expecting us to find nothing. Given the similarities with events in Wyrm’s Edge, he thought it unwise not to try.” Shadow paused, seemingly pondering Ky’s motivations further. “I do not believe he would have sent us here had he believed it a waste of time. Until he and Gethak finish their business with the nobility, however, better we explore this ruin than sit idle. If we can find any clue as to the real fate of the Skeleton King, perhaps it-”
“Skeleton King?” Safira echoed, her annoyance changing to confusion tinged with fear as a shiver ran up her spine. “I thought the sultan simply vanished?”
Shadow shrugged. “He did. On a haunted island. So people made up a story about how he now rules the afterlife from this ruin and when you die he comes to demand your fealty in undeath. Hence Skeleton King.”
“Oh.” Safira didn’t feel at all comforted by Shadow’s infuriatingly terse explanation, not that he seemed to care. They continued in silence for a time, looking into collapsed rooms and checking empty corridors. All the while, Safira couldn’t help but feel watched and soon she found herself unable to bear the quiet. “Is it true?”
“What?” Shadow didn’t even look back at her.
“Is this place really haunted? The… Skeleton King?”
The man scoffed. “Hardly. That tale is nothing but the usual superstitious crap. If it calms your nerves, call him the Vanished King instead. Either way, I have never heard any credible rumours of undead on the Isle nor did Kyrion see any when he was here.”
“Wait, Ky’s been here? Then why did he send us here again?”
“Because that was seventy years ago and he did not have the knowledge of disappearing crops and otherworldly nightmares to suggest the influence of magic. Nor did he have an actual summoner with him,” Shadow replied, throwing her an irritated scowl before moving further along the latest corridor.
Safira narrowed her eyes, watching him with belligerence as he leaned forward to peer around a corner. The nonchalant way he dismissed her was beginning to grate, but as much as she wanted to storm off she had long ago lost track of the way out.