by Lynn Rushlau
Every part of him hurt. His head throbbed from too much whiskey the night before, but Garrity had needed the liquid courage. No one expected to ever see him again, not when he’d been charged with crossing the most haunted region of Salleynx.
The pack on his back grew heavier with every step. He stumbled over a root. Cursed. Reminded himself this was for Lady Corrainne, Countess of Orben, and for his lady, he’d do anything.
“You okay?” Kippen called from behind him.
“Yeah, yeah. Fine.” So far. The boy would be no help. What had the commander been thinking, saddling him with this young pup? They’d be lucky if they made it through the woods without the kid getting them lost. Or killed.
And they had to be that lucky. All of Salleynx depended on he and Kippen reaching Fareech before the full moon.
The “road” barely qualified as a path these days. No one had done upkeep on it in more than a hundred years. Roots snaked their way across. Trees and other greenery sprouted up in the middle of the street. Half the topping gravel had washed away. That they could see enough of it to follow surprised him.
Of course there wasn’t enough gold in all Salleynx to pay anyone to work on repairs on the Great Larul Wood Road.
What he wouldn’t have given for another route. There were several, but they’d all take two to three times as long. Time Salleynx didn’t have, not according to the ambush orders captured yesterday.
The pack had gained another five pounds in the last minute. His back burned. Could have sworn he wasn’t carrying that much. How did it keep getting heavier?
Bits of grey and gloomy sky peeked through holes in the canopy. A drip of water landed in his eye. He cursed again as he wiped his face.
“You okay?” his partner called again, sounding exasperated.
His feet ached. Muscles up and down his legs screamed. Even his abdomen and ass had muscles on fire. How many miles had they walked thus far?
“Fine.” At least it wasn’t actually raining. Though the mist had stopped falling midmorning, he air remained heavy and humid with water dotting every leaf and blade of grass. His pants were damp to the knee to confirm that.
The songbirds serenading them provided a sense of normalcy. The cheery song even created the illusion of safety.
The road rounded sharply left. He led the way around the curve and smacked face first into a blob of mist. A thousand tiny pinpricks stabbed his face. He loosed a scream, strangled, as the ghost shot through his open jaw. Fiery pain erupted in his mouth.
Heart hurtling against his ribs, he swung up his iron-banded walking staff and smacked himself hard in the face. Spat, retching, as he did. Another stick flashed before his eyes–thankfully–as his slid from his trembling hands. Tattered and frayed, the ghostly mist fled through the dripping trees.
The boy whipped a clean kerchief out and patted Garrity’s face. The pristine white cloth came away speckled with blood.
“Fuck.” He took the cloth and patted his face. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He shoved the kerchief in his pocket and took a swig of water from his flask, wishing it were whiskey. He spat bloody water on the road.
“Best move on.” The young officer frowned at the bloody puddle. “That’ll draw more of them.”
Gritting his teeth, Garrity wetted his own kerchief and washed the blood from his face, trying to ignore how little control he had over his hands. “Fresh blood on my face will do the same.”
“Here.” Kippen held out a small jar. “Do you want me to do it?”
In this state, he’d only drop the bottle. He nodded, ignoring the look of disdain on the boy’s face. His comrade daubed his fingers in the jar and smeared the salve over the stinging pinpricks.
“I hate this,” Kippen said as he stored the salve away. “Why am I here? I got a promotion last month. Captain Josby’s been saying I’m doing a fine job!”
Refusing to rise to the implications that he was the reason for this duty, Garrity shrugged and took an extra few seconds to ensure he felt stable enough to walk. “I don’t think it’s punishment. Maybe Josby saw us as the two most likely to succeed. Prince Sheth needs to know Medelin’s about to attack–“
“I know that,” the younger man spat.
Of course he did. They both did. Fail to get the news about the ambush to the Prince and their entire northern forces would be slaughtered. Medelin could overrun the entire kingdom. The royal family would be assassinated, and Salleynx would exist as only a downtrodden holding of Medelin.
Exchanging glares, they moved on. As little as Garrity wanted to be here, he wished for a better companion. Kippen had a stick up his ass. There’d be no trading of tales and jokes. Nothing to help pass the time or soothe their nerves.
But for Lady Corrainne, he’d put up with any companion. His countess needed him. He would not be the one to let her down. He was loyal to the royal family of Salleynx down to his marrow. His family had served the throne since the founding of the kingdom. Kippen could go fuck himself. He was here for the mission, not his asshole partner.
They each carried supplies of salt, iron-tipped walking staffs, and sage to sprinkle on their fire when they made camp. He’d rosemary in his pocket, silver rings in each ear and obsidian set in silver on two fingers. All the best protection against ghosts. They’d make it to Fareech.
Taking a deep breath, he fought for calm as he followed Kippen around a deep gouge where the road had given way. The path past the gouge was nothing but mud as it twisted downward. The boy paused and cursed viciously. The swamp of mud continued both directions into the woods. There was no way on but through.
Seconding those curses silently, he trudged behind his still swearing partner. Mud coated both of them to the knees by the time they’d slipped and skidded halfway down the path. He paused to catch his balance and froze, a chill trickling down his back, as his gaze scanned the world before them. A whiff of mist darted through the trees.
“To the left,” he hissed.
Startled, Kippen slipped. Screaming a curse, he jabbed his walking stick into the muck. Landed hard, twisting his arm at an angle that looked painful.
Walking stick aimed at the mist, Garrity carefully slid down to his partner. The ghost slithered closer. Kippen ceased his struggles to regain his feet. Gritting his teeth, Garrity tightened his grip on the stick. The ghost bobbed in place for a second before retreating a few yards.
They exchanged a glance. Kippen nodded. Turning his back on the blob, Garrity pulled him to his feet. Keeping the ghost in their sights, they veered left, but pressed forward. The ghost scuttled up the hill away from them. Garrity sighed softly.
The hill bottomed out at a puddle they had no choice but to wade through. This was the way to Fareech. It had to be crossed.
He tried to reassure himself that at least the water removed some of the mud. He might be wet, but he’d not been attacked again and he was marginally cleaner than he’d been just five minutes ago. The thought didn’t help make up for the way his feet squelched in his boots as the road turned upwards.
“I need to dry out my shoes,” he shouted. Kippen charged up the path looking like he moved in a rage.
“At the top,” came the hollered reply.
Slipping and sliding in his boots, Garrity rubbed his chin and cursed. How had his hand become covered in mud? He rubbed his chin against his sleeve to wipe it off his face. A lank of hair fell free from his braid. Mud crusted it. Blessed Goddess, what a mess.
So much for the water helping clean them up. They’d be so bedraggled by the time they approached the camp at Fareech that no one would believe them soldiers, let alone admit them to the presence of Prince Sheth.
“On the right!”
His heart leapt into his throat, fingers crushed his walking stick. A miasma of white sprawled under the foliage. He tiptoed forward, needing not to face this alone.
“How many do you think?” Kippen whispered.
He slowly shook his head. The ghosts swelled around the tree trunks moving toward them. Kippen took a step back, putting Garrity between him and the threat.
The cloud drew nearer. He thought he might piss his pants. Breath whistled through his teeth. He clamped his jaw shut. The cloud drifted right, further from them.
He blinked not willing to trust his eyes. But the ghosts retreated. He could see a tree trunk, two, three, that he couldn’t a minute ago. White swirled around the nearer of those trunks. The swirl paused. Tendrils drifted toward him. He was not going to piss his pants. Was not. Would not.
“Don’t move,” Kippen hissed.
No shit, he thought as another spike of cloud unfurled their direction. If only his companion would take his own advice and shut up so as not to draw their attention. The cloud stopped, swelled upwards instead of out and, in a blink, was gone.
“Where’d it go?” Kippen asked. He nudged up against Garrity, who hissed at him to be quiet. Sure, it looked gone and no stories spoke of the ghosts going invisible, but was that reason enough to make noise?
“Let’s get out of here,” he growled softly when nothing reappeared after a couple of minutes.
The road climbed steadily for hours. Near dusk it leveled out. Every once in a while, he caught a glimpse of something white out of the corner of his eye, but never could find it when he turned to face it head on.
“We should make camp,” Kippen said, looking around wildly.
“There’s a clearing under those trees. Might be dry.” The steep angle of the slopes around here guaranteed they weren’t near the battlefield from the wizard wars that created all the murderous ghosts.
His partner shrugged and led the way to the patch a few feet off the road. The bed of leaves under the thick foliage proved to be damp–not really a surprise. Dry ground in this mess would have been shocking. At least it wasn’t muddy.
Kippen took care of provisions, building a small fire, and getting dinner started. Garrity ignored how his partner’s hands shook and how he started at each little noise around them. He turned his attention to their defenses. Inhaling the comforting scent of burning sage, he laid a thick circle of salt around the site. They ate in silence, their focus on the world around them.
Belly full, Garrity worked on brushing off as much mud as possible before he climbed into his bedroll with a naked blade on his left and iron-tipped walking stick on the right.
He woke to a scream. Shot to his feet, sword in hand. Didn’t need to kick up the fire to see the luminous white blob over his partner. Kippen scrambled back, without grabbing either of his weapons with his free arm.
Garrity leapt over the embers, sword in his right hand, walking stick in the left and smacked both down on the blob. Kippen’s terrified cries turned to pain upon impact. The ghost zipped away.
The boy clutched his bloody arm to his chest. “Sweet Goddess, you cut me to the bone.”
“Couldn’t have. Used the flat of the blade. And I got the ghost off, didn’t I? Where the hell’s your sword?”
The younger officer huffed and returned to his sleeping roll. “How’d that get in? You were supposed to build a circle of protection.”
“I did. You saw me.”
Now he prodded the fire into life. Rising, he studied the white arc of salt circling their camp. Brown and yellow leaves lay across a good three feet where the ring should have been on Kippen’s side.
“What the–” A gust of wind halted his partner’s complaint, ruffled their hair and clothes, and tossed another handful of leaves over the next section of the circle while the salt trickled away.
“What’d you do? Build the circle on top of dry leaves? You can’t tell me this ground isn’t wet enough to hold down both the salt and the leaves if it were built on the ground.”
Garrity merely shook his head and set to moving leaves back off the circle. Though smudged and thinned, the ring had not broken. Pain clenched his chest. If the ghosts could cross over a covered circle, how would they ever make it through to Fareech? They couldn’t stop the wind.
Once he fixed the circle, they took turns guarding it for the rest of the night. Neither was in a good mood when they set out the next day. They ate cold mush for breakfast and packed their bags. Garrity turned towards the salt. Kippen stormed off, down the path.
Garrity gaped and yelled after him, “We can’t risk wasting salt. We might need it.”
The truth didn’t call the boy back. Furious, but unwilling to put himself in danger, he scooped up as much as he could and stored the salt away.
Muttering curses, he walked along at a normal pace. Kippen could have all the temper-tantrums he wanted. He wasn’t going to waste the energy running off to find him. They had another two days left on this trek. He had no intention of wearing himself out chasing the brat.
An hour down the twisting road, he’d grown nervous with only birdsong for company. He tried to tell himself the birds were a good sign that nothing eerie lurked nearby, but he’d expected to find his partner long before now.
He finally spotted Kippen midmorning, when the path twisted right and began to climb again. Staff held rigid before him, face ashen, the youth waited a few feet up. He wasn’t looking back for Garrity though. He stared into the woods. An almost solid blob hovered by a tree a dozen feet away.
He started when Garrity reached him. Offered a glare before he stopped off. Keeping an eye on the nearly formed ghost, Garrity stayed quick on the boy’s heels. So close that when he tripped he crashed into Kippen and knocked him over.
Fury filled Kippen’s face as he scrambled to his feet. “Sweet Goddess, you’re completely incompetent. What did I do to get stuck with you?”
“I could ask the same. Who the fuck do you think you are charging off alone? Leaving the site unpacked this morning?”
“I’d like to get out of this alive. How the fuck is that supposed to happen if you can’t build a proper circle for protection? If you’re knocking into me, bowling me over right in front of the fucking ghosts?”
They glared at each other. A chill crawled over Garrity’s arms and down his back. Kippen’s eyes widened.
Garrity turned sharply to the right. The cloud had dissipated. Pivoting in a complete circle, he spotted not a wisp of white.
“Where they’d go?” Kippen pressed up against his back.
“Let’s move before they return.” That earned him a glare. Goddess, he wanted to punch the boy. The Countess, he reminded himself. She needed this of him. Needed him to reach Prince Sheth. To save her life and their homeland.
Kippen charged ahead, but stayed within sight. They passed the day without speaking. Mid-afternoon, he reached the top of the rise and stopped, spewing curses. Again. Garrity shoved up alongside him. He couldn’t find the breath to vent his own feelings.
“We can’t get through that.”
Unnatural mist covered the ground for as far as he could see to the left and right of the path. Ghosts filled the next dip in the path for a good fifty yards forward. They’d reached the heart of the old battlefield.
Everything depended on them. They had to find a way, preferably before nightfall. Instinctively he glanced at the sun, but something else caught his gaze.
Kippen started. “What?”
“We climb them. Cross through them.”
His partner spun and gaped at him. “You’re mad.”
“You’ve got a better idea?”
Garrity led–at Kippen’s insistence. At about ten feet up, he’d chanced his weight on a stout branch. It held. When it started to narrow, he’d stepped easily onto a branch on the next tree.
The going was slow, but they crept steadily over the great swath of ghosts. Garrity didn’t think the ghosts were aware of them, despite the nonstop muttering of curses behind him. He glanced back at a sudden rise in pitch in the cursing. Kippen’s ashen face remained squarely focused on the ghosts below, who paid them no heed.
A good sign that. If the ghosts knew there was prey so very close, they wouldn’t be ignoring the humans that could give them form and sentience.
“FUCK.” A strong arm came down his shoulder, pulling him off the branch. Throwing out his arms, he grabbed two other limbs. Bark ripped his skin. Heart racing, he scrambled to find his foothold again and eased himself over to a tree trunk. Curled his torn hands close. Both were scraped, but neither dripped blood.
He dug into his pack for a healing ointment and wrapped both hands as quickly as possible. Only when he’d seen to his injuries did he dare look down. The sea of ghosts below remained unchanged.
He faced his partner. “What the fuck was that?”
Kippen’s face was bloodless. Clutching a branch with a white-knuckled grip, he whispered, “I slipped. I haven’t the balance for this.”
“We haven’t a choice.” He caught a whiff of urine from his partner. Dammit. They were already committed to this. The boy had to pull himself together. “Are you ready?”
“I can’t.” Kippen frantically shook his head, arms wrapped around the trunk of the tree upon which he stood. He looked down quickly, but Garrity was sure he caught a glimpse of a tear running down his face.
“Look, you’ve made it a good fifteen yards already. You can do this. We’ll go slow. We’ll make it. Slow and steady, okay?”
“I nearly fell,” the boy whispered.
“But you didn’t. You caught yourself. We’re going to take it slower. You’re going to move carefully. Follow my lead. Grab the branches I grab. Step where I step. I will get you through this. I promise.
“You take some deep breaths. Let me know when you’re ready to move on.”
He took his own advice and breathed until he felt an inner stillness. With it, a faith that he could make it through. Could help the boy through this.
“Okay,” Kippen whispered.
With a final smile and a hearty “You’ll be fine,” Garrity eased his way across the next limb. He tried to ignore that he felt more than a bit shaky himself. Made it a point to whisper back words of encouragement as he edged forward.
His hand wasn’t cut enough to drip blood, but even the scent could lure the ghosts. He glanced back at the next trunk. Face grey, Kippen wobbled his way across a branch.
“Hand over hand. Keep a firm grip on the tree. You’ve got this.”
Heart palpitating, Garrity skirted around the trunk, climbing down to the next branch before beginning to sidle out towards the next tree. A glance over the shoulder caught another tear slipping down the boy’s face as he edged forward.
“You’re doing good,” he called as if saying it would make it true.
He caught a branch that was about even with his eyes and used it for support as he hopped to a branch on the next tree and the next and next.
Kippen’s fear dissipated enough to give voice to cursing again. Garrity tried to answer each shaky curse with reassurance. He continued to move slow enough to keep the boy in his sights, but made sure that he was out of reach. Had no desire to be used for balance again.
A mistake, that. A scream rent the air.
He twisted, clinging tightly to the branch, and screamed himself. “Kippen!”
Too late. He was too far away. Nothing he could do. But watch the boy tumble from the branch. Arms flinging about wildly, attempting to catch himself.
He disappeared into a roiling mist of ghosts. His screams cut off abruptly.
Frozen, Garrity watched solid forms emerging from the shapeless mist. A rounded blob moved. Empty spots that could almost be eyes looked up. Saw him. He cursed and scrambled forward.
He refused to look down. Refused to look back. Refused to acknowledge the pain that every opening and closing of his torn hands sent through his body. Or how his vision blurred with his burning eyes.
How he’d failed.
Couldn’t think that now. Had to keep moving.
He braced for sharp stabbing needles that never came.
Finally, he looked down. Nothing but mud and dead leaves covered the ground below. Clutching the tree trunk, he looked back. He’d climbed a good twenty yards or more past the last of the ghosts. They were but a distant blur of white.
Hands shaking, he began his descent. About six feet off the ground he lost his balance. Walking hadn’t been a problem, but his hands shook too much for climbing.
He landed hard. Cursed a bit louder than he meant. Wincing, he rolled to sitting and felt his arms. His legs. Didn’t think he’d broken anything.
He’d landed in a heap, not on his feet so at least he didn’t have to worry about his ankles. Injury like that and he’d never make it to Fareech, not this month. Or ever really, not crippled out here in the middle of the ghost-infested wood.
He exhaled slowly and climbed to his feet. Raised his head for the first time since the fall and froze.
Half a dozen shimmery white human shapes stood in a half-circle before him. His heart stopped. Stopped utterly. He couldn’t breathe. Deep empty eyeholes stared back at him from a spectral face that had once been his partner’s. Garrity took a step back. Another. Slammed into a tree trunk.
“I’m sorry. I thought we’d both make it. I really did. I meant to help you. I’m so sorry.”
Kippen’s mouth gaped open. The other five matched his grin revealing needle-like teeth.
Garrity’s hand moved of its own accord. Slid his sword free. He was only a day and change from Fareech. He couldn’t fail now. Staff balanced in the crook of his arm, his left hand shot to his pocket for a handful of salt. His eyes watered as the grains slipped in and around his bandages.
But he had salt. Tons of salt. The first toss of it caused the ghosts to jerk away from him. He poured a handful over his head. Jabbed his iron-tipped walking stick with his silver-ringed fingers. He couldn’t die this way. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
“I’m sorry. I meant to save you. I did.”
But he had to get to Fareech. He lunged at the ghosts.
Lynn Rushlau graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Anthropology and minor in Sociology–which seem like awesome planning for a life creating cultures and societies, but she’ll admit to not have been thinking that far in advance. She lives in Addison, Texas with two attention-needy cats, and can be found on twitter at lrushlau.