Chapter 19: Ghost Seeker
by Julian Lawler
Table of Contents|
Chapter 18 appeared
in issue 140.
They woke to an early frosty dawn. Thick, gray clouds hid the sun at the horizon and heavy dew caked the forest floor. These were the first signs of winter. Ivan Lustcrow stomped his feet to spread the warmth isolated in his boots to his numbing toes. He rubbed his hands together as he tried to ward off the lingering chill. North of him laid the awesome sight of the Raven’s Reach Mountains. It was his first sight of the gigantic mountains and he felt overwhelmed.
They stood dark and forbidding against the surrounding landscape. Rumors had it that valleys the size of whole cities hid rivers within those mountains. It was said waterfalls dotted those high lands; waterfalls so great and huge that they plummeted into some great unseen void at their base. It was a documented fact that a great lake lay up there somewhere. When was the last time any man alive had laid eyes upon it? No one could remember.
Ivan Lustcrow continued to stare at the huge mountains. He felt riveted where he stood with curiosity... and fear. Those mountains scared him as much as the darkness did. Raven’s Reach hid many things.
Myth had it all dark things were born there. Supposedly a castle as large as any in Geamehn stood somewhere within those high passes. It could only be assumed that it was inhabited by something Ivan had no desire to meet. It wasn’t until he heard someone stir behind him that he was able to look away.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” said Aurin as he sat up in his bedroll. Soot still covered the man’s hands and he ran one through his grimy hair.
Ivan regarded him for a moment. Everyone else was starting to wake. “Here,” he said to the man from Nomen as he threw a canteen full of water to his feet. “Wash yourself.”
Aurin reached for it without a word and set himself to work.
Alguin Sorrel was already up on his feet when Aurin finished. The Light Bearer knelt down before the other to examine his wounds. “You barely escaped injury,” he stated.
A shadow crossed Aurin’s face as he nodded agreement. He looked over at Ereen who was helping the young girl. “Cover her ears, lady.”
Ereen only shook her head sadly. “There is no need to,” she explained. “I’m afraid she might not ever recover from her state of shock.”
Aurin only turned away, pain evident in his eyes. He looked up to the Light Bearer. “It was horrible, Alguin. Those people never had a chance. They were all burned alive. The entire village, it was burned around them and destroyed. And those things, there were at least ten of those things running around before Ivan and I took three of them out.”
Alguin heard it all solemnly. “So the dead have risen.”
Ereen came over to them with the young girl clutched tightly in her arms. “They are just not undead. They are magical. The undead do not spew fire through their eyes.”
Ivan had heard enough. Such things were best left unspoken. Maybe he could change the topic if he told them the bad news.
“That’s enough,” he stated as he strode over. “Our wounds are not bad, Alguin. Let the man be. And don’t speak of the atrocities we saw last night. I think you should all know that we’re lost and the horses are gone. Some time last night that thing chased us off course and came back to cripple us.”
“That’s that, then. We’ll just have to make do on our own two legs.” Aurin Nubel studied the distant mountains for a second. “Isn’t Geamehn directly north from the eastern tip of those mountains?”
“That appears to be our only option,” agreed Ivan. “Except that I don’t think we should get so close to those mountains. Avoiding them will take us all day.”
Ereen studied them for a moment. “Geamehn is six days from the village.”
Ivan peered at her for a moment. Was there something she was hiding? The lady was something more than she said to be. How else could she have escaped those dead things from the village when no one else had? He felt like drawing his sword and getting to the bottom of it but stayed his hand. “What is it that you’re not telling us?” he asked. He took a step towards her.
Alguin quickly stepped in between the two people. “What is it, Ivan? This woman has caused us no harm.”
“She’s hiding something from us,” he said. He locked eyes with the old lady and she calmly stared back at him. She was not afraid. He’d give the old lady that much.
Aurin quietly stepped up next to her. “What is it?” he asked.
She peered up at him intently. “Up north, past those mountains, lies an army.”
The three riders from Nomen fell silent. The old lady was crazy. “What army?” asked Ivan.
“Alias’ army, of course,” came Ereen’s immediate reply. “Two squads came to our village three days ago. They brought provisions and rations. They also posted many of these up on our walls.”
She reached into her pouch and pulled out a piece of parchment. It was rolled up like a scroll. She patiently undid its tie and quickly unrolled it. It was a sketch of Palance Demondread’s face. There were letters inscribed on it. They ran along the topside and across the bottom of the page:
Wanted Dead Or Alive:
For treason and crimes against the king
Ivan Lustcrow stared at it for a long, long time. He didn’t burst with anger or with fury. He was completely shocked, and for the first time in a long time the darkness didn’t threaten.
Aurin grabbed the sketch from her first. “What is this? We’re running an errand for a traitor?”
Ivan spun on him. “My lord is not a traitor. Watch your mouth!”
Alguin steered Aurin away. “We must all remain calm. Let us keep our cool.” He turned to the old lady. “How large is this army?”
“From what the men at the village reported, about ten thousand,” she answered.
Ivan swore vehemently. “Why has he been branded a traitor?”
Ereen shrugged. “I believe because he has gone against the king’s direct orders.”
Alguin regarded the lady silently. But Aurin turned away to face the man from the Iinnin Lodar. “What is he doing that has made him a traitor?”
“Nothing,” replied Ivan. “Everything he is doing is with the king’s consent.”
Aurin calmed enough and spoke up. “What is he doing?” he asked, again.
Ivan put his hand on his word. If he needed to defend his lord, he would. “Alias has framed Palance. Why? I don’t know. We came to Nomen with his consent and blessings. How could he do this to us?”
Ereen placed young Ventra Palilas down. The little girl just sat down on the hard ground where she was placed. The old lady came over to the mighty soldier.
“What is he doing to you, Ivan?” she asked. “Why is this happening?”
Ivan didn’t understand the question. He felt confused. Who was doing what to him, the king or the darkness? He didn’t look at any of them. Could he trust them? Could he tell them about Andina and the darkness? How the mystery of the two notes in his bags was slowly driving him crazy?
It took him several minutes for him to shake himself loose from whatever spell he seemed to be under suddenly. Finally clear headed he examined them all in turn. This was a lot of pressure. He didn’t think he could handle it by himself any more. With an army waiting for them north and a mission waiting to be completed, these were the only friends he had.
“Palance arranged to marry a Seer over ten months ago,” he started. He didn’t stop talking until he was finished and had covered every little detail there was to his tale. When he finished he found them all exhaling slowly.
Ereen nodded to herself. “I believe Palance has made a grave mistake.”
Aurin was quick to agree.
“The important thing is to find out what exactly has happened,” said Alguin. “There are some decisions for us to make, as well.”
“He’s right,” said Aurin. “We need to know for sure if they will stop us from going north. We might be able to pass on through without incident.”
Ivan didn’t like it. “No. They will arrest us. I’m a soldier from the Iinnin Lodar. That makes me an enemy and you, accomplices. This mission was planned by Palance and the king, for all intended purposes, they know we are out here and that we have this letter.”
“That’s that, then,” said Aurin. “We need to decide if we turn around or if we continue onward. Possibly into enemy territory at this point.”
“We don’t give up our mission.” It wasn’t a suggestion, but a command. Ivan wasn’t about to disappoint his lord. He fell quiet as a wave of anger washed over him.
“To what end do we complete this mission?” asked the Light Bearer. “If the king is our enemy, then to whom do we go to in Geamehn?”
Ivan understood their concerns. “We go to the queen. She must not understand the things that are going on. She is Palance’s mother. She’ll sort everything out.”
“And if not?” asked the old lady.
“Then we go to the rest of the Iinnin Lodar,” he explained. “We tell them what is going on and maybe we can do something to help our prince.”
“You do not need to go with us,” Ivan told the old lady.
Ereen almost laughed. “And where do you suggest that I go? No. I believe my path lies with you three. The girl and I don’t have a chance out here alone.”
“You can always go to the king’s men. I’m sure they would help you, lady,” he said to her.
“The king has always been considered a tyrant,” she explained. “Maybe this will be the beginning of his downfall.”
Ivan didn’t feel comfortable with her choice of words, but at this point it didn’t matter much. His allegiance was to Palance, not Alias.
“So is it decided, then?” asked the old lady.
“It has been decided,” stated Alguin Sorrel. “I only hope that this journey sees all of us at the end of it.”
Suddenly, young Ventra Palilas reached up and tugged on Ereen’s shirt. She had a fist in her hand and her eyes were wide with fright. She stared off in the direction of the mountains and her tugging grew sharper.
Ereen was quick to pick the young girl up. “What is it, girl?”
The little girl pointed with a trembling hand at the Raven’s Reach Mountains to a ridge of trees that rose there. The old lady tried to see what the girl was seeing but there was nothing there.
“Speak child,” soothed Ereen. The three soldiers looked on with anticipation. “Speak to me.”
The girl did.
“There was an old man, there,” she said in a voice that could only belong to one so young. It was the first time she had spoken since her screams for her daddy had cut the night.
“He’s the shepherd,” she said again. “He wants to speak with you.”
All of them stood riveted. Ivan didn’t know how quite to react to all of this.
Ereen watched patiently. “And what does he want to tell us?”
The young girl shook her head. “I don’t want to say,” she cried.
Ereen nodded. “Yes, let him say it, girl. It needs to be done.”
“What needs to be done?” asked the Light Bearer.
“She needs to let the shepherd in,” she explained.
Alguin’s face hardened. “What kind of magic is this? She’s just a girl!”
Ereen reeled away from him. “She needs to do this. You must understand.” Ventra Palilas began to cry. “It is her calling.”
The Light Bearer’s patience, for once, appeared to be cracking. He started chanting and Ivan could feel the crackling of power. He couldn’t blame Alguin Sorrel for this. Aurin didn’t know how to react. It was evident in his uncertain movements.
Ereen only moved farther away. “She’s a ghost seeker.”
That stopped Alguin. “A ghost seeker?”
Ereen took a deep breath. “Yes, a ghost seeker. This girl has the power to speak to the dead. Spirits. And there is a ghost up on that ridge.”
Alguin examined the tree line. “A shepherd, right?”
Ereen agreed. “Right. He wants to help us.”
Aurin came over to her. “How do you know this? This trip has held nothing but danger for us. How do we trust this?”
Ereen peered past him at the tree line. “Because the girl is a recipient of spiritual energies. She can summon ghost and shades. Any ghost nearby can use her to channel messages and to speak to the living. This ghost didn’t do that. He tried to let her know his intentions.”
Ivan studied the older woman. “And you came up with all of this with the little that she said?”
Ereen nodded. “Yes.”
“Then what the hell are you?” he asked. “Do all villages have women like you?”
Ereen shook her head. “No. I’m an apothecary. I make many things through potions and vials.”
There was a genuine look of curiosity on Alguin’s face. “And where do they teach this trade?”
“At Stonegate,” she replied. “I am a rare breed. It takes something from the underworld to be able to shape and mold chemicals the way I do.”
“Why?” asked the Light Bearer.
“Because we can do things with poisons and venomous liquids,” she replied. “Some of the things in my bags could kill a man with one sniff. It is how I escaped the village.”
“What makes you so tolerant to all these things?” asked Alguin.
She shrugged. “No one knows. That’s why they say we are touched by the underworld. It protects us from death, I guess.”
Ivan pointed at the girl. She seemed half asleep again. “What about her?”
Ereen looked down at the comatose girl in her arms. “Ghost seekers. We discovered them only about fifty years ago. We don’t know what gives them this ability. It’s like peering into the future, only it’s more like a veil for them. Seers and ghost seekers have similar powers, only vastly different.”
“She says there is a ghost up there,” continued Ivan.
“Right,” answered Ereen. “She is young. She doesn’t know what is happening. I need to show her. But to do that, she needs to give in to her talent. It’s the only way. Otherwise, she might go crazy.”
“No one said we need to go up that ridge,” countered Aurin. “We can try going another way.”
“No,” interrupted Ivan. “We need to stay on this line of travel. We can’t veer off. We have been lucky none of those things have found us this morning. But it doesn’t mean that they are not out there.”
It was Alguin who heard it first. “We need to get moving. Riders are coming.”
Ivan didn’t dispute the claim and he started the group off immediately. “Let’s go,” he said. He drew his sword and cut through underbrush as he tried to take some cover under the trees of the forest. “How many,” he asked.
Alguin counted in his head. “About ten. All heavily armored. They have warhorses. Four extra riding horses.”
Aurin turned to him. “Do you think we’ve been spotted?”
“Maybe,” was all the Light Bearer said.
Ereen gaped at the young man. “How do you know this?” she asked as they ducked under a large sagging tree branch.
The Light Bearer smiled at her. “The Light reveals many things when attuned properly to it.”
“Fascinating,” was all she said.
“The Sun Cathedral holds many wonders, as well,” he continued.
Ivan led them deeper into the woods as the sounds of pounding hooves approached. He led them through a thicket and into a small ravine. Following the groove of the ravine, he turned north and straight towards the Raven’s Reach Mountains. Alguin paused for a second to listen. Then continued after the men.
“Twelve more to the east of us,” said the Light Bearer as he caught up.
“Damn,” was all Ivan said at the report.
It was Aurin who noted the obvious. “Are they surrounding us?”
“It appears so,” answered Ivan. He could feel the noose tightening around them. He had yet to see them, but he was sure the soldiers knew where they were.
He pointed up the ravine. “Let’s get up there. We can try to hold them off through that ring of rocks at the top.”
Ereen smiled. “I have something to keep their efforts modest.” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a small vial. It looked like the vial contained powder and not liquid.
“This will choke the horses,” she explained. “It doesn’t affect humans. They will have a much harder time following us on foot.”
Ivan understood the game. He looked over at Alguin. “Can you do anything about the men once the horses are taken care of?”
Alguin spread his hands. “Lead the way and I’ll see what I can do.”
It was all the prompting Ivan needed. The noose was almost closed around his neck. He led them up the ravine. The way was hard and several times they had to keep the old woman from falling. A third of the way up, the king’s soldiers burst through the shrubbery and into the ravine.
Arrows began to zip through the air around them. Arrowheads snapped as they bounced off rocks and as they hit the hard ground. Alguin chanted. Arrows flew and were deflected by an invisible force. They were all grateful of the Light. The Light Bearer would never be taken for granted again. As the company reached the edge of the ravine, they stumbled into one of the greatest sights they had ever beheld.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler