The tempest raged, blowing from every direction at once. The wind whipped across the sinuous carvings on the tower, raising a keening cry amid the howl of the storm.
Sol Reifworm squinted upward, but couldn't find the keep's pinnacle through the driving rain. Despite the warmth of the summer evening, he pulled his slicker tight around his spindly frame. Something about this long-forgotten place chilled him to the bone.
"What do you see?" Captain Hammack, standing beside Reifworm, asked.
Hammack shook his head, and droplets of water cascaded from his thick, black beard. "Nothing," he said. "Nor can I hear anything through this accursed storm."
"Perhaps we should return to the ship," Reifworm suggested.
"No. We'll wait until they come out. The tower isn't that big; how long can it take?"
How long, indeed? They'd been standing in the rain for an hour-and-a-half now, as near as Reifworm could make it. Yet, they'd neither seen nor heard anything from the party of sailors they'd sent inside the keep. The tower was big, but it wasn't that big—not unless there was more to this lonely, crag-top building than there seemed.
A sole door, made of carved white stone, led into the spire. Neither windows nor balconies marred the tower's carved surface. So, near as they could tell, there was no other way in—or out. Neither was there any way to tell what kind of progress the expedition inside might be making. The door, which had taken their battle mage a half hour to magic open, had swung shut—seemingly on its own—just after the last of the explorers entered. This despite the heavy rock Captain Hammack had wedged against the open portal.
Reifworm could smell it all around. It wasn't just the rain and the tower's strange carvings that made goosebumps stand up on his sallow skin.
"They should have returned by now," he said. "Or at least sent word."
Hammack, tall, burly, and confident, nodded. His steel breastplate glistened with each crash of lightning, and his scarlet tunic, long soaked through, clung to his muscular limbs. "Aye," he agreed. "Taverau's a good first mate. It's unlike him to go for so long without reporting." Still, the captain made no move; he just stood stoically in the downpour.
"What do you intend to do about it?" Reifworm asked.
"What would you suggest?"
"We could send to the ship for more men." Reifworm looked back toward the bay on the rocky isle's shore, but he could barely make out the lanterns on the anchored ship's forecastle. Nearby, the hulking shadows of sailors, Hammack's guards, patrolled the blasted hillside, keeping their captain safe. But were they enough against this weird place?
Hammack took a deep breath, though his face remained impassive. "If you're so concerned, perhaps you should go in and look for Tavereau yourself."
Hammack laughed, a deep mocking bluster. "You're a mage, aren't you? What are you so afraid of?"
"I'm a sea mage," Reifworm replied. "Oh, I can find a course easy enough, but you know I've no power within stone walls. Nor do I have the skill to open that sealed door the way Bronwyn did."
Thunder crashed and Reifworm jumped; Hammack laughed again.
"We should never have sent them inside," Reifworm concluded, glancing around nervously.
"What would you have me do, Worm? Sail away without exploring this place? How do you think the prince would react to that?"
Reifworm swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. No, they could not have sailed past without exploring. The prince would never have stood for it. And there was no use trying to falsify the ship's log after the island—a craggy black shape half-glimpsed through the storm—had been spotted. The prince would have known of the deception immediately. Somehow, he always knew.
"You're right," Reifworm said miserably. "There was nothing else we could do."
"Of course I'm right," Hammack said with absolute confidence. "Now stop whining. Between you and the damned wind, I can hardly hear myself think."
Not much to hear, Reifworm thought, though he said nothing. He pulled his slicker so tight that his bones ached, but it still didn't ward off the chill.
Is this how my brother perished, he wondered, wandering about on some fool mission for his egomaniacal lord? It had been over a year since Reifworm had heard from his brother, Tel. He felt fairly certain now that he would never see or hear from his only sibling again.
If it had been within his power, Reifworm would have left the island right then, that instant, and never looked back. But, as he'd pointed out to Hammack—who knew the wizard-navigator's limitations only too well—Reifworm was only a sea mage. He could find a lost island, skirt a hidden reef, or chant wind into a sail, but he couldn't conjure up his own boat, or fly, or teleport himself off this accursed rock.
Just then, a figure appeared out of the rain: Morton, one of Hammack's guards. He nodded a deferential bow and stood next to his captain.
"Anything?" Hammack asked.
"Nothing, Captain," came the reply. "Not even a fish in the streams or an animal in the jungle over that ridge." Morton's eyes darted nervously through the darkness. "It ain't natural."
"I'll decide what's natural and what isn't," Hammack replied.
Reifworm cocked his head. "Do you hear something?"
Hammack frowned. "Only this accursed wind and you yammering."
It came again. Distant, almost drowned out by the keening wind: a cry, or perhaps a scream.
"I-I think I hear it, too," Morton said. He clutched his cutlass so tightly that his hand, lit the flashes of lightning, looked skeletal.
"You're both being old washer women," Hammack said, "frightened of a little rain and thunder. Yes, the tower is odd looking, but we've seen just as strange on our trade runs to Kesh and Alarion's Ring. Stranger. Remember that spire built out of human skulls in Grizilund? Cannibals or no, we still struck a trade agreement with them."
"It's not the tower, it's a scream," Reifworm insisted. It sounded louder now, as if the distant voice was multiplying.
"There's a screaming tower in Xiangdau, too. It's only the wind there, and it's only the wind here. It's nothing to get—"
"Look out!" Reifworm cried, pushing Hammack out of the way as something hurtled down from above.
It plummeted out of the storm-washed sky and crashed hard onto the wet stone at the tower's base—barely missing the captain and Reifworm. It took both men and Morton a moment to figure out what the object was.
When the realization hit, Morton ran screaming for the dory on the shore of the rocky bay. Reifworm brought his hand to his mouth, fighting to keep his dinner. Even Hammack paled.
It was Bronwyn. The maroon and purple robes that draped the figure's crumpled body left no doubt about that. Without the clothes, though, identifying the corpse would have been difficult.
"Wh-what happened to her . . . her head?" Reifworm choked.
The battle mage's severed neck leaked crimson on the wet stones at the tower's base; there was no sign of her head.
The color returned to Hammack's cheeks, and he looked around warily. "It can't have been Bronwyn you heard scream—not in her condition." He looked up into the storm, as if expecting Bronwyn's head to plummet down at any moment.
"B-but the tower has no windows," Reifworm protested, still nauseous. "It has no doors other than this one! How can her body fall on us from above?" The loss of his shipmate was starting to sink in now. Bronwyn had been a good crew member and a fine mage as well. To never hear the young woman's pleasant voice again, or see her smiling face. . . !
Reifworm lost the battle with his stomach, fell to his knees, and retched.
"The door's opening!" Hammack said, sending a lance of cold down Reifworm's spine.
The sea mage scrambled to his feet; Hammack already had his cutlass drawn.
The tower door swung silently inward, revealing only blackness beyond.
Reifworm held his breath, his fingers groping for his dagger, his mind racing for some spell that might save him from the terror inside the portal. Something inside had torn Bronwyn's head off. What would that unknown creature do to him?
A figure staggered out of the darkness. Hammack clenched his sword; Reifworm lost his grip on the dagger and it fumbled though his fingers and clattered on the wet rock at his feet.
"Tavereau!" Hammack blurted, relieved.
As the first mate emerged, ashen and quaking, the tower door slammed shut behind him. Tavereau pitched forward, but when Hammack tried to catch him, the first mate righted himself and cried, "No! Don't touch me!"
Startled, Hammack backed away.
Tavereau looked exhausted, his skin was papery, his eyes brimmed with fear. He looked around frantically. "How long were we gone?" he asked. "How many days?"
"Days?" Reifworm replied, wiping the vomit from his lips. "It hasn't even been two hours!"
"What happened?" Hammack barked. "Where are the others? What happened to Bronwyn?"
"Gone," Tavereau replied. "All gone. It's not right in there. Nothing's right." His wild eyes widened. "You have to run. Run away. Far away. Don't look back! It's coming!"
"What's coming?" Hammack pressed.
Tavereau began to respond, but his mouth seemed to have gone dry. Despite the rain all around, his lips looked cracked and parched. Small flakes of skin, like particles of sand, fell from his mouth, his eyebrows, the edges of his jaw.
Hammack reached forward again, but stopped as Favereau's skin began to crumble. As the first mate stepped forward, almost pleading, the captain and Reifworm backed away.
"Go!" Taverau gasped, his voice rasping and withered. He pointed toward the ship, and as he did, his index finger collapsed into dust.
The crumbling effect raced up the first mate's arm to his shoulder and then the rest of his body. Tiny flakes of body and clothing fell away like sand leaking through a broken hourglass. He lurched forward, disintegrating with each pasting instant, until the wind whisked his dissolute body away. Nothing remained but gritty puddles of mud on the wet stone at the tower's base.
Sol Reifworm screamed until his breath ran out and his senses fled into darkness.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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