The journey down the river to the east had the travelers winding through the forest for weeks. Eventually they passed from seeing farms and villages interspersed among the trees on the bank to seeing nothing but a solid wall of trees lining both sides of the river for days on end. The monotony was only broken up when they occasionally past a boat going upriver. The weather began to get hotter as they crept further into spring, and the air was generally heavy. The black water of the river seemed to swirl with the thick air at points. Achara, Camon, and Jorn were uncomfortable at first, not being used to the humidity, but they soon acclimated. It didn’t seem to affect the crew or Ghing at all as they continued as if it was completely normal.
After several weeks of this, they came to the confluence of the South River with the Great River from the north. The confluence was broad, looking more like a lake than a river. They could not see the east bank for the Great River. The river out of the north was bulging at its banks and even seemed to push the eastward flowing river’s waters back. Crossing the confluence was turbulent at points with eddies and swirling water that made navigation more difficult. Thawbai and the crew kept to the south bank of the South River as it turned south to the Great River.
As they rounded the grand bend towards the south, the forest cleared to an open field, and set far off the bank was a pillar towering above the trees. A spiral staircase wrapped around the pillar to the top from a structure at the bottom. A small dock was constructed over the water with a hardpack path from the dock to the structure.
“This is the lighthouse on the south bank of the confluence,” Thawbai announced. “We’ll put in here for a while to inspect the boat and make any repairs if necessary. I think you might appreciate this place.”
“Can we climb the lighthouse?” Ghing asked.
“If the keeper is in a good mood,” Thawbai answered. “He doesn’t get much company here, so seeing folks might help put him in a better mood.”
Thawbai and the crew maneuvered the craft into a position that would bring them close to the docks. As they drifted closer, one of the crew hopped onto the dock and tethered the craft to one of the pillars. The current pushed the craft parallel to the dock, and then the crew moored it. They extended a plank from the boat to the dock, and the remaining crew and passengers disembarked. Camon, Achara, Jorn, and Ghing gathered and then set off down the lighthouse path. The grass on either side of the path was shoulder high, and they could hardly see over it. They kept to the path, not wanting to deviate.
They got to the building, and it was in a clearing amid the grass that was kept cut. Camon went to the door and knocked. A rustling came from within the building, then the door opened, and there was a portly older man with unkempt hair and ragged clothes standing in the doorway. “Oh, great. More tourists. Come on. The lighthouse is open. Stairs are through there,” he grumbled, gesturing to a door at the back of the building.
Camon looked through the door into the building. It was messy, strewn with crates, barrels, broken furniture, and other odds and ends. In the corner, there was a hammock strewn between two walls. Camon walked in past the man through the mess to the door at the back, and the other three followed him. Camon saw the stairs and started the climb as it circled about the pillar. The flight of stairs was only wide enough for one person and barely offered enough support. Some of the stairs were missing, forcing the four to skip them with seemingly large leaps. They cleared the treetops and could see the countryside beyond the lighthouse and the confluence from the height. They reached the top of the pillar, crowned by a large, enclosed structure made of metal and glass with a large lantern backed by a mirror. The light piece occupied much of the pillar’s top, leaving hardly enough room for the four of them to stand. They observed the surrounding landscape and could see the far side of the confluence and the lighthouse on the opposite side to the north and yet another to the east. The breeze from atop of the lighthouse was solid, blowing their hair back. The boat at the deck looked minuscule against the immensity of the space above and below in the river.
“There’s more to this lighthouse than meets the eye,” Camon observed. “It’s old, maybe ancient. Well, at least the pillar is.”
“How can you tell?” Jorn asked.
“The architecture isn’t like anything else I’ve seen in the Empire,” he replied. “It looks like it was repurposed for a lighthouse but was something else entirely.”
“What was it?” Achara asked.
“Hard to say,” Camon said.
“It’s a warding post,” Ghing said. “I’ve read about these, but I’ve never actually thought that the lighthouses were as such.”
“What is a warding post?” Jorn asked.
“These were built as defensive structures. They are designed to keep unwanted things away or alert watchers if something does come through.”
“Do they still work?” Jorn asked.
“I don’t know. But I can tell you that even if they did, there are no watchers.”
“What kind of things would they keep out?” Jorn asked again.
“Things that would frighten even the bravest of men,” Camon answered. “The aphiptere was tame relatively speaking.”
Ghing’s eyes got wide, “You’ve seen an aphiptere?”
“He slew it,” Achara said.
“Slew it?” Ghing exclaimed. “I didn’t think that was possible. How?”
“With a sword and a whole lot of luck,” Camon answered. “I was fortunate that it didn’t kill me in the process.”
“What kind of sword could slay that beast?” Ghing asked.
“As I said, I got lucky,” Camon said. “I think a closer investigation of the pillar might be a valuable addition to your research. I’ll probe it to see how it responds.”
“Probe it? With what?” Ghing asked.
“Magic,” Camon said. “You said it was a warding post, so it should respond to magic.”
“Be careful,” Achara warned.
Camon reached into his pocket and removed a stoned with his left hand. He then knelt, placing his right hand on the surface of the pillar. He began to hum with guttural utterances. Nothing happened at first, but after a while, a tremor rippled through the pillar. It rattled the glass surrounding the lantern and mirror. The tremor halted, and Camon stopped humming and withdrew his hand.
“I awoke the magic,” Camon said. “It seems to have been dormant for quite some time.”
“How long?” Achara asked.
“Can’t be sure, but Ghing was right. This is, or at least was a warding post. And yes, it is ancient,” he explained.
“Nobody really knows who built the lighthouses here either,” Ghing commented. “The histories are not really clear on their origin.”
“Indeed,” Camon said. “But we can infer that whatever they were built to deter was something that we don’t want to trifle with, and yet that’s the part of the world we are going through.”
“You mean sea creatures?” Achara guessed.
“Yes,” Camon said. “The positioning of these posts is, without a doubt, strategic. They form a warding field to keep anything from the south swimming upstream into populated areas to the north. They are not unlike the one’s I use.”
“Do you think those kinds of creatures actually exist?” Jorn said.
“Those who built the pillars obviously did,” Camon commented. “And you’ve seen the kinds of terrors that exist in the world that are the stuff of legend firsthand.”
Ghing grimaced, “Prawadi would concur, and so do I.”
“I think I’ve seen enough,” Camon said. “You may want to stick around for awhile longer and see if you notice anything, Ghing.”
“I think I will,” Ghing said.
Camon, Achara, and Jorn turned to descend. “You need to stay here with him,” Camon said to Jorn.
Jorn hesitated for a moment, then turned and said, “That’s what I’m here for.”
Camon and Achara started the descent down from the pillar back down to the building they entered through. When they reached the bottom, they saw the old man waiting for them. “Did you feel the earthquake up there?” he asked.
“Quite well,” Camon said. “Nothing to be scared of, I think.”
“It scared the heebie-jeebies out of me,” commented the man.
“How long have you been here?” Camon asked.
“I’ve been assigned to this post for the better part of twenty years,” the man reported. “I think the Imperials have forgotten about me, other than the boats that come downriver to drop supplies.”
“Are you with the military?” Camon asked.
“All my life. I enlisted as soon as I was old enough.”
“What can you tell me about the history of this place?”
“Not much to tell. It’s been here for as long as anyone can remember. No one knows for sure who built it or when it was built, but we keep it lit to help ships along their way.”
“Thanks for letting us take a look. The view from up there is amazing.”
“I guess I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “Going up every evening to light the beacon and up every morning to put it out for all these years has made me jaded to the whole thing.”
“I see. Here’s a token of our appreciation,” Camon said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a silver coin. He handed it to the man who accepted it wordlessly while Achara and Camon left the building and started walking back to the boat.
“I wonder if Ghing will put two and two together and figure out what you are?” Achara said.
“He’s knowledgeable enough to do so. I can’t imagine it won’t be too long before he does, assuming Jorn doesn’t tell him outright.”
“Jorn doesn’t seem to care for him much, but that’s not unexpected. He’s obsessed with that sword, though,” Achara noted.
“His kind are proud of what they carry. The quality of the blade is often associated with the quality of the man. The best mercenaries carry the best weapons. I can only imagine that blade came out of the forges at the university, honed from only the best steel with the best practices.”
“I see,” she said. They walked back to the boat and were greeted by Thawbai.
“She’s in good order,” the captain announced. “We can be underway as soon as the rest of you get back.”
“It might be a while. The historian is studying the lighthouse hands on right now,” Camon said.
“Suit yourself. It’s your ship,” Thawbai said.
Camon and Achara made themselves comfortable back aboard the vessel and waited for Jorn and Ghing to come back. The two returned about an hour after Camon and Achara did.
“Anything of note?” Camon asked.
“I didn’t find anything particularly revealing, but I did make notes about the architecture and estimated the structure’s height and diameter. It’s in remarkably good shape considering its age if it’s as ancient as you say it is. There are only minimal signs of erosion or settling in the structure. I’m not even sure what it is made from. The color on the outside isn’t the natural color of the stone. It is more yellow than the basalt color it appears to be.”
“It’s not natural,” Camon said. “The stone is cast, not mined or cut.”
“Like concrete?” Ghing asked.
“Like concrete. Many ancient structures would be built from materials that could be infused with magic so that the structure itself would be like a giant channeling device or talisman, not unlike the great cathedrals in Rahtneua or Rahtsaan.”
“Fascinating,” Ghing said. “The lore I’ve read doesn’t talk much about architecture.”
“That’s not something you’re going to find in the Imperial libraries,” Camon said.
“Then how did you learn about it?” Ghing asked.
“By getting outside of the Empire,” he smirked. “The censorship of the Inquisitors keeps certain things out of the hands of curious individuals, especially lore.”
“But they don’t police the university,” Ghing said.
“Oh, they do,” Camon commented. “Orthodoxy even among the faculty is enforced even if it is a de facto enforcement. Academics visibly pan scholarship that goes against this at conclaves and meetings. There are certainly those who disagree with the dogmas but would never do so in public.”
“Prawadi certainly does,” Ghing said.
“She’s not alone. I have met many others that share her disdain for dogma.”
Thawbai came over to the passengers. “If you’re ready, we’ll push off and be on our way.”
“What lies to the south?” Camon asked.
“In a couple of days, the forest will give way to the swamp. There’s nothing but swamps all the way to the sea. It’s not a fun trip, I promise. The water moves much slower.”
“How long to the outpost?” Camon asked.
“A good two weeks at least,” Thawbai answered. “Maybe a little faster, though. This time of year, the water seems to move a little faster due to snowmelt from the north.
“Good to know. The sooner we can be in and out, the better off we’ll be,” Camon said.
“You won’t hear me complaining.”
“Then let’s get underway,” Camon ordered.
Thawbai shouted to the crew, who loosed the moorings and pushed the boat away from the dock. The current carried the boat downstream, and they cut across the current into the middle of the river where the water ran faster. As the boat went along, they all watched the waters with anticipation of what lay ahead.