The ruins of the Lira stood on a small hill overlooking the cave-riddled western shore of the Point, not far from the great black rock of La Piedra. The hotel had been built on the plan of a three-sided open rectangle. The main portion, which had contained the lobby and all of the grandest rooms, faced south. At one time the broad open space in the middle, walled in on either hand by the east and west wings of the building, had enclosed an immaculate lawn traversed by wide gravel walks, brilliant flower gardens, a couple of majestic cypresses, a hedge of holly, and a grand three-tiered fountain. All that remained now was one old twisted tree and the rubble of the fountain’s cracked granite basins. The rest of the space had been entirely taken over by sage, beach grass, and low-growing coastal scrub.
Except for portions of the west wing, which had borne the brunt of ocean gales and storms, the outer frame of the building itself was still largely intact. Like St. Halistan’s church, its exterior walls had been constructed of solid stone. The woodwork, both inside and out, had suffered terribly at the hands of the ravaging decades. The few doors still remaining hung in blasted shards from rusty hinges. The glass in the windows had all been broken out. Most of the door-frames and window casements had long since rotted away.
As he stared up at it from among the weeds and wild grasses of the one-time courtyard, this shattered and abandoned structure seemed to Morgan the fossilized skeleton of some gigantic Behemoth. He shivered involuntarily at the sight of its second- and third-story windows, all of them standing open to the invading sea air, blank, frigid, and empty. They appeared to be gaping down at him like so many hollow eyes.
He was just surveying the east wing, searching for the most likely point of entry, when a rustling among some dead leaves and branches near the main entrance caught his attention. Gripping the blue bundle tightly under his arm, he took a few hesitant steps towards the porch. Under its shadow he could see the remains of the surviving half of a double oak door dangling crookedly from the crumbling door-frame. Within the porch itself all was thick shadow. Beyond it lay the blackness of the deserted lobby. Morgan took out his flashlight and directed its beam straight through the front door of the Lira. No one was there.
This place is kind of creepy, he thought. He hadn’t expected to find his nerves so badly shaken by the loneliness and quietude of the spot. What if somebody’s out here? he wondered, sitting down on a piece of the broken fountain. What if I’m attacked?
It was only natural that these fears should lead to thoughts of the sword Azoth; and not merely thoughts of its sharp blue blade, but of the words he remembered reading in The Life and Times of Paracelsus:
… some say it possessed the power to deflect the hatred of his enemies. Others affirm that in the sword’s hollow pommel Paracelsus kept a miraculous powder …
Morgan looked down at the blue bundle. If it’s hollow, why is it so hard to open? Peeling away just enough of the flannel to reveal the hilt, he gripped the golden globe at the end of the handle and tried again to pry it off. Nothing happened. He took a firmer hold and twisted for all he was worth. It wouldn’t budge.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” said a voice from over his shoulder.
Up jumped Morgan, his heart in his throat. Hastily covering the sword, he whipped around and found himself face to face with Baxter Knowles.
“You!” he cried. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw you leave school with that big pack on your back,” Baxter answered nonchalantly, turning up the collar of his blue windbreaker. “Looked to me like you were up to something. I decided to follow.”
“I figured you might need my help.”
“Your help! I don’t think so!”
“Look, Izaak, I’ve bailed you out before. Maybe I can do it again. Don’t be stupid.”
Morgan eyed him narrowly. “I’d be stupid to believe anything you say. You’re just a bully and a liar! And don’t think I can’t fight back if I have to!”
Baxter backed off, his eyes wide with something akin to genuine awe. “Listen, I’m not looking for trouble,” he said, staring fixedly at the blue bundle. “I only meant to—”
“Then get out of here. Just go home.”
With that, Morgan spun around and walked straight into the old hotel’s east wing. Not once did he look back until he was switching on his flashlight and ducking under its yawning black doorway. Then, turning for the briefest moment, he quickly reconnoitered the shadows that lay jumbled together on the weedy quadrangle. Baxter was nowhere to be seen.
Guess I told him, he thought, carefully stepping over the warped floorboards and pointing his light down the cobwebby hallway to what looked like the lower end of a broad winding staircase.
East wing, second floor. That’s what the yellow piece of paper in his father’s notebook had said. Morgan reached the stairs and began to climb …
(To be continued …)