Captain Arrolg had to stay with the ship for docking but Elena tagged along with Rusk. She seemed happy to be away from her grandfather, and his parrot came along with them for the ride. Rusk breathed in the scent of the island. Sand and palm and ash and soot. A combination of sea and flame, the earthy smell of cold igneous rock and the waves that washed the shore. The sand was red at the bank, and the trees were a vibrant purple with deep brown trunks. Rusk didn't know where Sanctuary was exactly, but the stronghold was said to lie at the very base of the volcano, which meant it would be at the exact central point of the island itself. The island wasn't very large, so he didn't predict that long of a walk, and Elena made good company. Even if she was all jitters, it made the walk smoother to know another human was nearby.
The island itself seemed very much deserted, which took Rusk by surprise. He'd always read it was a bustling territory despite its quaint namesake. Heroes should've been coming and going. There should've been more than one ship at harbor. And speaking of that, the harbor itself was far more humble than he expected as well. Only enough room for three or four vessels, maybe five if they were small. And all it was were anchor points and planks. No registrar. No lookout. No nothing. Just the waves and the red red sand.
It was kind of unnerving to be navigating a place so quiet too.
"So you've been trying to get here your whole life, huh?" asked Elena out of nowhere.
"Not my whole life, but Iya Tarfell saved me as a kid." Rusk eyed the scars on his biceps. "That's what made me want to be a Hero."
"What do you think of this Heroes have bad luck thing?"
The volcano spit smoke into the cerulean sky.
And the stronghold came into view. It was all white pillars and marble floors. A staircase made of flat black rock built into the sand leading to a foyer of sorts. It was majestic and had a presence so filled with magic that Rusk almost thought he'd waltzed right into the Elva itself. Or wherever other magic came from. The rush of sheer presence overwhelmed him, first with awe and pride at having come this far in his journey, and then with dread.
Because the smell of death soon followed, and the sensation of something not being right.
They reached the official arcing entrance of the Heroes' Sanctuary, and Elena cupped her mouth to hold in her scream.
There were corpses everywhere. They littered the marble floor in dismembered limbs and bloodstains. Vomit and decay spread out before them through the entire stronghold, and Rusk instinctively stepped in front of her while the parrot peeped its little head off, squawking at something otherworldly that only it could sense, being an animal of the natural order.
"What happened here," said Elena squeakily.
"I don't know. But you should go back to the ship. Tell Captain Arrolg this island isn't safe."
That was all she needed to hear. The parrot was happy to take its leave as well.
Rusk looked upon the carnage. He pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose to mask the smell. Not that that worked in the slightest, but it was all he could do for the moment. He had to figure out what happened. Had to find out what could've killed so many Heroes, especially when they had all their resources at their disposal and were banded together. The thought of civil war entered his mind but he immediately dismissed it. He knew on a visceral level that wasn't what happened here.
But what if the king, who hated Heroes, stuck a necromancer in the mix? Could someone with power over the dead cause something like this? Captain Arrolg was competent, but that didn't mean the rest of the Heroes knew how to deal with something that got more powerful the more you killed it.
With every step, Rusk ran scenarios through his head. Possibilities. But none seemed to match up with the patterns of destruction all around him. There was something positively nefarious going on here. And he was on edge and angry, murderous. Thoughts of betrayal kept invading his mind, and he actually found himself wondering if maybe Captain Arrolg had been in on this. It made sense. He was the only vessel in harbor, and if that were the case then his victory over the sea serpent could've been staged. Perhaps that green glowing sword of his didn't do anything magical whatsoever. Maybe it was all a trick.
Rusk didn't know who to trust anymore.
He ascended the steps that led up to the volcano itself, an otherworldly force much like the Elva pulling him in that direction. With every ascension his anxiety increased, but he knew he'd find the answer when he reached the top. Eventually the steps turned crude and then faded into the natural landscape, and Rusk was practically crawling instead of climbing as he made his way up the ashen slope. His lungs burned with the sulfuric scent that the volcano emitted. And when he reached the very top, there was someone standing there. Whoever they were, they were unperturbed by the heat and the lava that cast their legs aglow from behind and below.
And they had such presence that Rusk nearly slipped and fell to his doom back down the slope. But he picked himself up and steadied his stance and forced himself to look upon them without outward fear.
Not they. She. She was beautiful.
Rusk coughed, blinking, squinting.
The heat was a physical force burning at his retinas. His skin was sharp with pain.
But he managed to make out what she looked like.
She wore nothing but scraps, and a white shock of bangs framed her forehead while the rest of her hair was black as the igneous rock undertow. Ash and charcoal. That was her coloration. Her skin was tan but not dusk, and her eyes were bright as fire in their orangey golden irises. The scraps she wore were blue. Like the sky, so it seemed her silhouette faded in and out of existence, blending with the nature of the island itself.