I shivered violently as a ghost passed through me. Most ghosts of man could not cause harm as they did not possess the anger required to activate the spell imbedded into the magic of Eastwood, so they were left wandering, desperately trying to steal the heat of those who still lived.
But for the living, these ghosts of man were often used as a warning, because where there were several ghosts of man, there must be something living already near.
My hand gripped my sword as the darkness of the wood swallowed me. I did not wish to use the light-crystal that I had taken from the throne room just yet, because the light would only draw more predators – especially ghosts – to me. If it continued to darken however, I would be forced to in order to see anything at all.
I winced at the sound in my head. This plea that was from a ghost of man. One strong enough to communicate, and probably recently killed if it could attempt to draw me to it. More than likely, it would try and get me to move its body outside the woods so that it could be free of the spell and move on.
Please, help me.
I ignored it and moved away from the sound, heading north. I pulled my hood back so that I could see better around me, very aware of the strong feeling that I was being watched by something that was not a ghost.
The tree branches moved down toward me slowly, trying to snag at my hair and slow me down. I snapped those branches with my free hand and moved further. Behind me, I knew, was the way out. I could turn around and go back right now.
I could, but I knew that I could not.
I needed to see the dragons, just as my father had written.
As I moved further, the air sounded of howls that mourned and hungered; the trees whispered to each other, the branches always stretching; the ground tried to swallow me as I moved past pools of black water, and the twigs upon the ground to my left and right, snapped as something stalked me. Ghosts flowed through me, bringing violent shivers. A fog, thick and unnatural, began to creep toward me with reaching fingers from the north.
I walked into it, my heart pounding, sweat beading down my face despite the heavy chills.
Please help me.
“No.” I whispered. “Find someone else.”
There is no one else. Scattered. Buried.
“Then suffer in silence, ghost.”
The branches snapped with a different sound, one closer and made of flesh and blood.
They come for you.
Then I won’t help you.
I grimaced, but there was no way I was helping a ghost. I continued, my eyes searching the dark and fog, waiting for something to jump out at me. My foot tangled in something and I looked down to see roots had begun rising from the soil to try and grasp me, try and drag me down into the soil and feed from me.
In Eastwood, the trees were hungry, too.
I sliced the root away and the others shied back, hiding beneath the soil once again.
I moved on.
Another snap, close now, just to my left and slightly behind me. I could reach out and touch it if I so chose to, but I didn’t dare. No, they – whatever the type of creature – were surrounding me, but if they were docile enough to try and circle me and herd me quietly, then they were only animals and I could handle animals so long as they were not ghosts.
The sound of me killing them would bring the ghosts. I would hold off as long as I could before then.
Because you couldn’t kill a ghost – for how could you kill something that was already dead? All I could do was slow them down or silence them for some time, and I still had a long way to go. Too long to run.
So, I let the beasts stalk me and herd me with snaps of twigs to avoid just out of sight in the terrible fog where ghostly faces were sometimes seen, screaming in silent horror as they reached for me with icy hands. So long as we went north, this circle of danger was an odd sort of protection from other predators. As long as they debated on attacking me, I was safe from everything else that would hunt me in their place.
But it didn’t last long enough.
I suddenly heard several move all at once and knew these creatures were attacking. Wherever they wanted me to be, I was now there.
I ducked and twisted with my sword out, my blade cutting the fog and whatever was inside it down low, as I did not know what it was that had surrounded me. The fog was so thick in some places that I could barely see my hand, but I felt the resistance of bone and heard the inhuman shout of pain.
And in that shout, I knew it was fiends of which I fought, and my stomach tightened in a worried knot.
Fiends were viscous little things.
One leaped and landed on my back, its little teeth digging through my cloak and into my skin. I pushed myself back into the trunk of a tree, squashing the bony mass and hoping it would come off even as I swiped out with another lash toward a place where the fogs rippled with movement.
The fiend on my shoulder bit harder, I banged back again, hard enough to shake my own teeth, and it let go with a cry. I twisted, my knife coming out and stabbing out, but I missed the fiend and hit the tree instead which groaned in anger and tightened its grip on my knife, making it impossible for me to pull it out at all.
I stopped trying and turned again just in time, lashing down with my blade on my ankle where a root pushed up. A fiend – green, boney mass that it was – flung at my face with a tiny knife and sharp teeth bared in a hiss. Another came at me from the side at the same time, I stabbed upwards with my sword and kicked out in a practiced movement I was taught to use against larger creatures, but it worked.
Deciding I was more difficult than they had predicted, they stopped their games and all attacked at once. Six coming at my legs, another six leaping into the air at my face.
I ducked, spinning to catch most of the fiends on the ground, but got struck in my back by two. I didn’t dare cry out, for that would only encourage them. I stood and went to lurch forward, but my foot was tangled in yet another root and I fell.
With a loud cry of success, the remaining fiends fell on me, biting and stabbing with there little knifes made of stone and the bones of their previously eaten prey. But I was not yet defeated; I grabbed two of them in one hand and rolled onto them, the other arm swiping across the legs of those approaching. Then, the very second I saw the chance, I leaped to my feet and cracked the neck of ones that still withered in my arms, dropping both delicate bodies to the ground.
Holding my sword up, I awaited them to attack again.
But I was not easy prey as they had thought, and they backed away with hisses and snaps of teeth, taking the dead bodies of their own with them to feed off instead of me.
I let out a slow breath and waited another moment, knowing there was another creature other then this one out there, something larger, I was sure, but whatever it was stayed back out of my view and did not yet attack.
I let out yet another slow breath and got to yanking the tiny knives out of my back, arms and legs with grimaces. Blood ran down my skin beneath my cloak from both sides, but I was unworried. I removed my leather glove, then I felt in my pocket and put my fingers between the slots in the cloth. When my bare skin touched the Ruberous Faun, my injuries tingled, then stung, then burned, and then they were healed.
I let go of the gem once I felt myself gain energy, then placed my glove back over my hand and cut the roots that had sprouted from the ground and wrapped around my ankles during my pause to heal.
I stretched. Good as new.
I let out a huff, eyed the fog warily, and lifted a foot to keep going.
I froze. Whatever had been behind me was now directly in front of me, and close enough that I should have been able to see the creature, no matter how foggy it was.
As I heard the words, icy breath brushed across my face, making my nose hurt with cold and my eyes to water as they widened.
It wasn’t a creature, it was a ghost. The ghost, one angry enough to have a voice and solid movements. And apparently angry enough to even make a twig snap.
I grimaced but decided to change my answer.
Take my bones with you.
Just as I’d expected. “Where are they?”
South. South west.
Taking me far out of my way. I swallowed nervously and gripped my sword tighter. “I cannot help you. Ask me something else.”
But at this final denial, it was no longer talking to me.
It was not in invisible after all. When it reached out and pushed me with remarkable strength, I saw two foggy hands reach out and hit my chest.
I flew into the air, scraping branches, then before I hit the ground was suddenly hit from behind and went forward, landing painfully against a tree which I slipped down, crumbling to the ground.
It wasn’t invisible, it was part of the fog.
How was that possible?
A face came, hovering above my bloody one.
Help me! Demanding now, no longer begging.
How my hand still gripped the sword after being tossed around in such a way, I had no idea, but I swiped out, my blade rushing through the face and making it wisp away like smoke being blown away from the spout of a burning pipe.
Fog reached out from around me and knocked my hand, forcing said hand to drop the sword, then it pinned my arm to the ground. Even as I felt incredible fear, I felt awe at the strength of this ghost of man; I had never once heard of such a thing as this.
The face appeared again. Ragged and dripping skin as if it were rotting even as a ghost.
I tried the get to my feet, but something stepped on my back, pushing me down, the hand of fog still gripped mine.
“How?” I finally asked, my voice barely a breath from the pressure on my back.
I knew that. “Where are they?”
South. South east.
Scattered. It answered.
Buried. It told me.
Help me. It whispered.
It was asking for the impossible. I grimaced at the pain to come as I spoke. “I cannot.”
The fog quivered with rage and then the pressure on my back and hand left me. I grabbed my sword, vowing not to let it go again, and whipped to me feet to run while I could, but two foggy hands pushed me back. South! It shouted. South east!
“North.” I hissed as I stood again and when the face appeared, I was prepared and cut through it. It was strong, but it was just a ghost. It was the simple nature of any ghost: if it had form, I could weaken it.
It pushed me from behind and tripped me from below, then something grabbed my ankle and yanked me back. South!
I cut the fog at my ankle then spun out. Cutting the fog around me.
It pushed me south, away from the mountain, throwing me at least dozen twigs. My shoulder slammed against a tree which groaned in anger and branches reached down to tangle in my hair. I cut the branches away and then cut toward the fog again with my injured arm, wincing constantly.
I was getting sick of hearing that.
I cut out again, my blade scratching fog. Something gripped me from behind and lifted me, throwing me again. I went through the air, my arms flailing, then I landed, not on land but in water.
Where before there was fear and fury, I now felt panic reach out; I was in a pool as dark as soil in a wood as dark as night. I could see nothing as I fought to swim upward, but I felt ice hands push me down, the fog whisking into the water in an impossibly unnatural way. It wasn’t letting me swim up. It was drowning me.
You will help me!
I fought against the frigid hands as they pushed me deeper. My sword came up, but it was slow in the water and there wasn’t much to see. The face hovered in front of me as I kicked and tried to force the hands that I could not feel into letting me go, air bubbles escaping my mouth at my struggles – the only thing showing me what was up and what was down.
This is where Arion will save me. I thought to myself, almost expecting Arion to come, grabbing my waist and pulling me up with impatience that he’d had to save me yet again. This is where he will come.
If this were a story, he would save me. And as my vision started to blacken as my lungs fought for air, I waited desperately for those hands, sure that they would be there. That those hands would come eventually.
But this was not a story and Arion was gone. I had watched him turn away.
I was on my own.
Stop panicking, Mir. I could almost hear Jovian. You’re stronger than this. Panic is beneath one of your bloodline.
I blinked away the black spots, but they were insistent; my lungs were convulsing, trying to force my body to suck in air but I fought back with clenched teeth. I lifted my hand and refused to die, swiping out with my sword and missing the ghostly form entirely,
Stop panicking, Mir. Came the ghost of my memory.
Help me! Screamed the ghost that would be my murderer.
Stop. Panicking. Be still. Breath.
I cannot breathe!
Breathe with your mind.
I closed my eyes.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. With panic I will fail my father. Calm. Down. Now.
I relaxed my body and focused my mind.
“Why do you want me to talk to myself, Jovi?" I remember asking with child-like seriousness. "I feel abso-wootly wi’diculous."
“Because, Mir, when you speak inside your mind, you are speaking to the second level of your mind. Your instinctive one." He patted my hand which lay on my lap in a tight fist, silently telling me to relax it. ”If you cannot use all three levels, then at least use two of them. This will help stretch your mind. Flex it. It will make it stronger.” He grinned, his eyes crinkling with secret knowledge. “Put simply, child, it will make you able."
The three levels: Focus. Instinct. Magic.
Calm down. Breathe with your mind.
The hands were icy on my shoulders.
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
My heart thumped slowly in my chest, it did not slow down, but time slowed.
Breathe with your mind.
I opened my eyes, the process taking several seconds, and was instant all at once.
My hand gripped the sword still, the instinct making it automatic now – I would not loose my sword until I died, and I was not dead yet.
Thump, my heart went.
The blackness around my vision stopped moving in closer, it moved like the ghost of molten rock at the edges in slow motion, but it did not move closer to the centre. It did not block my sight. It remained where it was.
The hands on my shoulders were nothing but wisps, like strings of smoke through water feathering it to the air. It was fog, it needed air, this ability of being beneath water was severely unnatural for a ghost and so would take much energy from it.
I moved my hand that held the sword, turning it upward, not toward the figure, not toward the hands, but toward those wisps – those strings – reaching toward the surface.
I pushed up, I watched with careful-yet-clear eyes as the blade sliced through one of the bubbles of air that had come from my mouth, it seeming to be frozen there in the water. The bubble turned to two, pushing away from each other as my blade moved with a speed I did not see but felt in the furious strain of my muscles.
The blade, barely visible in the murk darkness, cut through the first thread and as it did, the hand on my shoulder melted like blood mixing with water. Then the blade hit the second and the other hand did the same as the first.
The ghostly face slowly began to change from anger to horror. So, so slowly.
I kicked, my body moving upward, passing the bubbles, following the thread that faded backwards, up into the dark that was where the air sat waiting for me to breath it in.
My face broke the surface and I sucked in a hard and painful breath.
My heart resumed its normal rhythm. Time sped up, bringing me back to life and agony.
I coughed and swam to the edge, yanking myself up onto the lip of the pool with weak and quivering arms. The ghost came at me without pause, pushing me, but the fog was so much weaker now and I barely stumbled. Help me.
The voice was an echo of what it once was.
I stood, blinking the darkness from my eyes, coughing still but breathing. I was still breathing. I glared at the fog, tightening the grip on my sword.
It screamed in rage and came at me, the fog like a funnel. I swiped out – it seemed so slow now – and cut through it, then spun and cut through the fog behind me, knowing it would come from there next because that was its rhythm. That was its nature.
A root caught my foot and I stumbled, but even as I stumbled back, I was swiping out with my sword, not letting it move toward me. A hand of fog went down by my ankle and I cut it off as I could see it now – the fog was fading.
Its anger was great, no longer desperate, only angry. It seemed to suck in the fog, turning into one being that vaguely resembled something human. With rotting flesh hanging loosely and awkward, mangled arms, its body twisted in a grotesque way, the feet fading to tails as it came at me all at once.
I stabbed it in the chest, my sword feeling nothing at all in resistance, but the damage was the same.
It faded as it fell around me, like steam meeting air of the same temperature, fading into nothing as the energy it had stored finally collapsed, leaving me alone.
I knelt, gasping loudly in the darkness. Now that the danger was passed, I felt every injury, each stumble through the air had hurt something, and each one hurt now, in addition to my throat and shoulders where the icy cold had damaged the tissue.
I tugged my glove off and reached into my pocket, pulling out the gem and pressing it directly to my throat in my desperation, though it already began healing me the moment I touched it.
There, I gasped and caught my breath, noticing how dark it was – pure blackness. I could see almost nothing at all.
I pulled out the light-crystal and broke the tiny jar of elven blood onto the ground, then rubbed it in the red. It wasn’t much at all so the light was not as bright as it should be, but it would do for me to see.
I put the Ruberous away and started off again, going further north.
But then, in the distance, I heard that howl once again but now it was closer, and I recognized it.
And they were coming for me.
With a frustrated moan, I gripped my soaking cloak around me and abandoned stealth entirely, I started running.
I hated witches, I hated mutts, and I have decided that I also, very much, hated ghosts.