“I’ve never seen the ocean before,” Astor says, startling me.
As we stare out at the water, almost in a trance, I begin to notice stray rays of orange lighting up the clouds above and realize it is only morning. I look up and admire the heavens, the clouds slowly breaking apart to reveal a crescent moon and an open sky. My heart fills with peace, and I breathe in a deep breath ov
erjoyed at the sight of this wondrous place. We are truly no longer in the plains.
I turn around excited to see the rising sun, but something else instantly grabs my attention. At the end of the beach, running far into the distance in both directions, is a wall of forest, and sticking out of it right in front of me is a windmill. Its design doesn’t differ much from the windmills in the fields surrounding Kalepo, though the blinding light obscures it.
“Should we take a look?” Astor asks.
“Yeah,” I reply.
After we start walking, I try to refocus my mind back on what brought us to this wondrous place. I can imagine others being tempted to forget why they came and simply trying to maintain their hold on such a paradise, but somewhere in this beautiful place is a person who needs to be saved, and we have no idea where to even begin. Except a windmill.
Near the end of the beach is a solid cement barrier with stairs built into it. There is no sophistication to its design, nor any sort of artistry. It seems to serve its purpose just fine, maybe to prevent flooding, but it is peculiar to find architecture without any sense of elegance, not like in Kalepo where art is found in everything as one of the only means of true expression.
At the top of the stairs is a roadway, one constructed in a similarly plain manner, but it has fallen into even more severe disrepair. Its surface is covered with dark pebbles, some of which
stick together. Cracks form all over it, some large enough to reveal deep fissures in the ground beneath. Whoever once lived here, they must be long gone, and I fear what aggressive invaders might have displaced them.
“Where did tell you we should go?” Astor asks.
His look suggests he really expects me to have an answer, like he somehow knows about my secret rendezvous with the Necromancer and assumes I must have been instructed. Or maybe he suspects that the Necromancer might have whispered something to my mind since he knows that the Necromancer has talked to me in that way before.
“He didn’t,” I say hollowly, “though I wish he had.”
“Yeah,” he sighs.
“He might not have known any more than what he told us,” I continue, but I doubt it.
How could the Necromancer know that Eliana was in danger and yet have no other details for us? And he transitioned so quickly into sending us away that I had no chance to ask. I suppose I also somewhat assumed he would have told us if there was anything else important we needed to know. Then again, as I consider the mystery of his true intentions, he might have other reasons for hiding the truth. Time will tell.
We follow a fork in the road that turns into the forest. As we go a little further, I notice a few oddities, from faded metallic signs to lightless posts sticking out from the side of the roadway. Cement walkways also run alongside them, seeming altogether unnecessary, as does the wideness of the road.
“This must have been a public garden, or one for a palace or something,” I comment to Astor when we reach a wide opening of grass and flowers surrounding the windmill.
The walkway diverts from the road here, leading through the small overgrown garden lying between us and the windmill. Different colors of flowers grow in patches, and several small paths weave through the different sorts. Broken benches appear on the different paths here and there, but though this place seems ancient and abandoned, a set of footprints in the brush tells me that someone passed this way not long ago.
“Look,” I say to Astor pointing to them, but he doesn’t.
“I’ve noticed quite a few already,” he says. “Whatever’s been going on, it’s caused quite a frenzy. The footprints are spread apart, like everyone has to run whenever they are out in the open. We need to keep our eyes open.”
The breeze then dies down, and the air becomes perfectly calm, making me paranoid. A moment ago, I could hear birds chirping in some distant trees, but not anymore. It’s too quiet. I can still hear waves crashing on the beach behind us, but beyond that, the only thing I am able to sense is a foul odor on the air. Not a stench, but something felt. Something dreary.
But considering the transforming experience I had last night with the Necromancer, I don’t believe that he would send us to our doom. He could have killed us if he wanted us dead, so I shouldn’t let myself believe that some terrible fate will soon befall us. We just need to keep our guard up, that’s all.
“Kaela, come see this,” Astor says anxiously from ahead of me.
He is standing at the top of a small stairway that descends to the base of the windmill. A platform hangs several stories above it, supporting a wide balcony that makes a complete circle around it. The windmill itself is a metal and concrete structure with beams that stick out to further support the balcony. Its entrance is a simple doorway at the bottom of the stairs, a dark metallic one covered in deep, bloody gashes.
We look at each other warily and unholster our guns as we descend the steps. As we get close, I realize that the door is slightly open. Astor steps forward and pushes it inward while I take aim, anticipating something jumping out at us. The door screeches as it swings, and I cringe thinking about what faraway creatures are now being made aware of our presence. To my relief, behind it is only an empty hallway.
Astor leads us inside, where a hallway going down and to our left has collapsed and is blocked with rubble. Another door in front of us is locked, leaving our only remaining option a staircase heading up toward the balcony. I go first this time, Astor walking backwards a few paces behind to keep an eye on the entrance as we move upward. The stairs here are made of old wood and creak loudly, echoing our footsteps throughout the windmill’s corridors despite our efforts to keep light feet.
There is a hallway lined several rooms at the stop of the stairs, but as we go through them, none provides any hint of what became of this place’s former occupants. Each room contains several rusty old beds with tattered mattresses. The reinforced locks in the doors suggest this might be a hideaway or refuge of some sort, but everything is too neat and orderly to indicate any sort of struggle.
“Did you hear that?” Astor suddenly stops.
I freeze and try to listen, but there is only silence. Yet Astor remains tense, his hand raised slightly like he can feel the pulse of the air with it. A few seconds pass, and still nothing, but then a slow tapping starts to pick up, the sound of someone running and gradually drawing closer to us.