I slept soundly that night. The missing man’s body had been found in the cave from which the monstrosity had sprung at us. We’d taken it back with our own slain, and Barro had given them all of the proper rites upon our return. A thing well done, if not the end of our troubles.
I mean that I slept soundly until a high shriek pierced my slumber, jarring me awake and stunning me momentarily as the waking world flooded into my consciousness. As it had penetrated my dreaming mind, that first scream seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. For a brief instant, I wondered if I’d dreamt it, startled awake over nothing. But more screaming—this time several voices from the floor below me, confirmed my fears.
I flung the bedsheets aside, grabbing for my staff as I threw open the door and stepped into the castle’s hallways without bothering to add anything to cover my bedclothes. Screams came again, but not from the same location as before, farther below this time.
For tenuous moments I tracked the phenomenon by sound, changing directions and orientation with every new scream, passing by servants opening the doors to their quarters to inquire about the commotion, closing them again at seeing me and understanding. A retinue formed behind me, Gamven with the subtle limp his wound had left him, Barro sidling along. I knew Lord Aryden had joined us by the heavy thunk of his Artificial foot against the stone.
“It wasn’t Kalvor, then?” the priest asked as we tracked through hallways grown labyrinthine with the spirit’s trickery.
“Evidently not,” I said through gritted teeth, nearly colliding with my companions as I turned to the freshest cries of alarm.
“What is it doing?” Aryden asked between breaths, for we had quickened to a jog in our attempts to reach the spirit before it transported itself away again.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
To put a point on the statement, a blue light flashed between us, moving through one hallway wall and to the other. Audible gasps rose from my companions as I concentrated and gripped my staff tight. Just in time, too, for the spirit dashed into the hallway again, ethereal claws striking against the arcane shield I’d raised just in time to protect our fellowship.
Instinctively, Gamven slashed at the manifestation with the short sword, a short fat thing with a blade like an isosceles triangle. The weapon connected only with the wall, making a clank and causing the warrior to grit his teeth as the sword jarred and vibrated uncomfortably through his arm. Again the specter charged us, its strike shattering the warding force I’d raised against it.
“Run!” I spat, waiving my companions off with my free hand.
But they only stood dumbfounded, overwhelmed by the unnaturalness of the assaulting phantom until it darted away again, no doubt preparing its next ambush. If I used the Sight, I could detect the spirit even beyond the material impediments behind which it hid. But I dared not, for I was not yet ready to view the hideous essence of the malevolent soul a second time.
Instead, I drew in a breath, hoping to slow my pulse and find some calm. I pulled the maelstrom of thoughts in my head into focus, prepared to draw upon the Power to restore the shield that had protected us a moment before. But the hairs on my arms and neck no longer stood on end, the cold I’d felt a moment before had melted away, and the tingling of the skin one sometimes gets during a thunderstorm fled as well. The spirit had gone, had retreated from the fight. Was it only testing me? Looking for my weaknesses to better plan our next encounter? I frowned in the low candlelight that lit the hallway. Where we on the second floor or the third? I couldn’t remember.
Lord Aryden observed my downcast visage and matched it. “You don’t know what it’s doing, do you?”
“I said as much already,” I objected.
Gamven and Barro looked elsewhere down the hallway, whether in expectation of a renewed attack or simply to avoid the tension between their lord and I, I do not know.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but the hallway once more filled with blue flames, that empyreal aura that clung to the spirit like Gwaenthyri fire, dancing to its own tune, filled with its own life. Those flames lashed at me with renewed fury, forcing me to draw upon a working stored within my staff’s sigils to ward the attack. The force of it knocked me to my ass, the impact sending the staff skittering across stone.
Unable to draw focus with all the questions about how it had evaded my detection, fooled my very instinctive responses to its presence, running through my head, I rolled out of the way of its following slashes, rolling again to the other side of the hallway as it struck again.
It caught me in the middle of the hallway, without sufficient room to evade to either side. Resigned, I brought myself up on my elbows to look at the spirit directly (defiantly, I hoped) as it prepared to attack again. The shadowy form in the center of the flickering aura bore down on me; two hollow eyes through which the flames lapped focused upon me. I could make out the outline of a skull formed of the very essence of gloom, a rictus grin broadening into an open mouth as it enjoyed my fear.
A blade pierced through that mouth from behind, the tip only inches from my chest. Gamven had gathered his courage, though it availed him not. The shade merely turned in place, its mouth and skull passing through the blade just as its whole form had passed through the walls. It traveled toward the master-of-arms, riding up the blade as if pulled along it by some invisible rope, until its shadowy face—if it could truly be called such, stopped mere inches away from Gamven’s.
But, before it could act, something knocked the spirit aside, flinging it through the wall again to only The One knows where. Aryden had kicked the thing with his Artificial leg, the Power that allowed the device to function apparently also allowing it to connect with the spirit’s ethereal form.
I used the time he’d bought us to gather myself and find my feet. I pulled the same nub of chalk I’d used in my first confrontation with the spirit and began to sketch a rough design, a seven-pointed star, on the wall nearest me. I could hear Aryden cursing as I added sigils along the lines, but I ignored him, drawing the Power into the point of Spirit, mumbling to myself and trying to ignore the tingling in my back as my body anticipated the next assault.
Screams echoed again throughout the castle, the specter’s attempts to further taunt us and draw us into its waiting traps. A hand grasped my shoulder, Aryden’s no doubt, but I shook it off, smudging one of the shapes on the wall with the tip of my finger before redrawing it. The frustrated straining of the muscles in the lord’s face could be heard, felt, in the silence between intermittent screams, but he restrained himself at least enough to let me work.
The sigil complete and empowered, I stepped back. Gamven scanned back and forth along the hallway, his instincts overtaking his knowledge that he had little power against the spirit. Aryden began to pace with a soft clank, clank as his Artificial leg lightly graced the stone floor. Barro said a quiet prayer.
We waited, the looks of my companions becoming ever more troubled as the call-and-response of screams through the castle quarters continued to accompany the whole affair. With their eyes, they beckoned me to give chase again, to stop the spirit’s torments of their friends and compatriots. I hardened my face and turned away from them, reaching out with my intuition to feel for the specter’s location.
An overwhelming wave of impending doom crashed over me as I felt the spirit charging for me once again, hurtling through mortal obstructions in furious ambuscade. At the height of the sensation, I sidestepped and activated the sigil, holding in place the amorphous conglomerate of light and shadow that composed the spirit’s form. It reached for me, ethereal claws just out of reach of my flesh, the slashes strong and almost rhythmic at first, but becoming more chaotic as the being grew more desperate.
I couldn’t help but smile as I began the incantations that accompanied my thaumaturgic banishment. The others stood by, wide-eyed now, witnessing first hand this time what they had only heard in the cellar during my first confrontation with this malevolent force.
Midway through the working, the spirit stopped struggling, accepting the inevitable as a dog who is beaten at its master’s whim. Finally, with a pop and a crack, the spirit vanished into itself, leaving the hallway in pitch darkness until Barro managed to retrieve a lamp from somewhere else.
The silence persisted only seconds after the light returned to us. Aryden barked at me, “What the hell was that?”
After enduring a true threat from that supernatural force, the lord’s entitled fussing wore through the last of my patience. “An attack,” I said, my voice the tone of a animal that knows it’s bigger than you, so growls quietly without baring teeth.
“How did it get in?” he pressed.
“Through the walls, it seems.”
He stepped angrily toward me, his Artificial foot clanging with definite authority as he drew himself up in front of me. Aryden was a good deal larger than I, broad-shouldered with a warrior’s build, and though his best fighting days might have been behind him, he still cut an intimidating figure. I did my best not to flinch as he stopped just short of pushing me; I stared him in the eyes, defiant. “What about the fucking wards?” he yelled.
“They didn’t work.”
The lord recoiled from my answer as if it had been a slap in the face, my insolence so offensive to his countenance and bearing that the two could not occupy the same space.
“What good are you to me?” He spat contemptuously. “Take your things and be gone!”
I let the command blow past and around me, as if I were now the spirit moving effortlessly through it. I just stared back at him, my face cold and unfeeling against the warmth of the flickering lamplight. I’d become plenty comfortable with silence between two people, but I’ve also found that most people are not. There’s a power to be had there. Minor, perhaps, but leverage nonetheless.
The technique worked. I could watch Aryden’s face contort as he played out the different scenarios in light of my tacit refusal to obey. He could escalate the situation, force me out of his demesne, but then he’d be labeled a fool when the spirit returned and he’d banished his best hope of solution. Or, he could acquiesce. I hadn’t explicitly disobeyed him and only close confidants remained present, so he had little face to lose in changing course.
“What’s next?” he asked, finally.
“We’ve run out of alternatives,” I told him. “The spirit must be the missing boy, Orren.”
He frowned. “You’re sure?”
“Unless there’s been some other death in the town I’m unaware of.”
“So what do we do?”
“I find out what happened to him, see if we can recover the body and burn it, just as we’ve done with the others. Or, perhaps, I’ll uncover something else that might be working as an anchor for his spirit.”
Barro interjected, “But why the focus on Lady Aevalla? What would Orren want from her?”
Aryden turned, scowling, to face the priest, his countenance demanding an answer as to why the man would even ask the question.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. A suspicion immediately came to mind, but I put it aside until I could find some scrap of information that might support it. “It’s possible he held a grudge against the lord and lady,” I hedged.
“Hmph,” Aryden added.
A scream, high-pitched and blood-curdling. Aevalla’s. Aryden looked to me briefly, the hardness fallen away from him, leaving only worry.
“I’ll begin first thing in the morning. I need to rest,” I told him.
He nodded quickly before setting off for his lady’s chamber, his companions in tow.