The boy stood on a flat stone in the middle of the stream with his hands in his pockets, cringing only when the screams floated down from the ridge and faces appeared under the pine boughs. Boruin wanted to go out to get him back but the water was deep and the stones out of reach. He had turned his back for a moment and the boy was in the middle of the stream, dry as dust.
Pile passed by Boruin again, pacing away his worry in circles. “You own his writ. Make him come down,” Pile said.
“He’s not my slave, Pile,” Boruin answered.
“You own his writ!”
“Toaaho is not a slave!”
Pile stopped his feet, but his bone wards kept rattling on as if for emphasis. “You own his writ, Boruin. That means he is your slave!”
“I bought his writ, but that’s all. He is no slave to me, and even if he were it would carry no weight in Easlinder. They’ll stone a slaver, especially one over their own.”
“Well, you still have to make him come down,” Pile said. “He won’t last an hour in a place like that. Yuin, the death there! I can’t get it out of my nose.” Another shade flitted past him, and Pile almost fell as he twisted about and flailed his wards at it. That was all he could take, and the small man began to wade out into the cold spring water.
“What are you doing?” Wraethe called after him.
“I’m sticking with the boy. He’s no idiot. No ghost has touched him since he got out there.”
Wraethe watched the shadows move around them. “He’s right, Boruin,” she said. “These are no kin of Toaaho’s. Maybe the ones in the glade are, but the spirits here are something conjured, something set to keep us off.” Boruin’s fingers rubbed the back of his neck. He could feel the welts where dry fingernails had raked across. These ghosts were spiteful, darting out of the dark to pinch and scrape, trip and cut. He felt another one close, smelled its sour odor behind him, and he began to turn. Wraethe caught his arm.
“You don’t want to look. It’s trying to scare you,” she said. Her face wrinkled, horror and disgust appearing as the creature showed her something. Boruin could feel its cold breath on his neck and was glad he hadn’t turned. “They are horrible. I’m for the stones,” Wraethe said, lifting her skirt to step into the water. As her toes reached the edge, the sparkle of Takata Shin rose off the water. She paused as the reflections of the night sky swam across her face and summoned a more entertaining idea.
Boruin, Pile, and the boy sat on the flat rocks in the pool and watched Wraethe spin in and out of the shadows. Her weapons slashed through the night, and Boruin saw her devilish grin wax under Takata Shin’s diamond gleam. She could do no harm to those already dead, but it did not stop her from trying.
Pile continued to chalk wards into the rock, his back to the boy’s as they shared a wide piece of shale.
“What’s keeping them off us?” Boruin asked. The boy let his hand drop into the water and swirled it about.
“Running water, I think. Maybe that’s why Toaaho wanted us here.” Pile answered.
“He didn’t mention being in the water. He figured we’d be safe this far off,” said Boruin.
“Then Wraethe is certainly right. These ghosts aren’t family; they’re here to harm trespassers. All the more reason to drag him out of here and us with him.”
“We will wait, and that means you,” Boruin said.
Pile quit drawing his wards to raise his eye to Boruin. “Then tell me why. Why do you have a writ on him?” he asked. Boruin watched a pale face brighten out of the gloom across the pool; it tugged at its shirt tail and then ripped upward. The shirt and skin peeled from its body, pulling over its head. Wraethe appeared behind it, her sword cutting through the spirit. Blood that could not have been real splashed out over the water. Boruin took a breath with which to answer and locked his gaze to his feet.
“I met Toaaho on a slaver’s trail in south Nefazo. I needed to avoid a few problems, so I sold myself into a slave caravan moving north,” Boruin said.
“It was a long highway. The marshes made the road soft, water pooling where the ruts sunk in the low earth. The slaves dragged the wagons when the habbacks weren’t enough. I spent most of my time strapped into the harness beside Toaaho.
“When we arrived in Ouilainne, Belok bought me out, as I’d arranged, and I bought out Toaaho.”
“That had to be years ago. Why do you still own him?” Pile asked.
“I owe him for a few indiscretions that he pulled me out of. He won’t leave until I’ve paid up.”
“So pay up,” Pile said.
“They’re not that easy to repay. It’s not coin that he’s asking.”
“Yuin, you’re so damn cryptic! Can you give me a straight answer?”
“Then the Fae may steal it! You’re like talking to a rock,” Pile said. Behind him, the boy laughed softly “And you! It’s like carting a monkey around, all tricks and trouble. At least quit talking all the time and give us a rest,” he said, prodding the boy with his elbows. The child continued his giggling, and Boruin was glad Pile had chosen a different distraction from the ghosts. There were some secrets he could not easily divulge; his history with Toaaho was one of them.
Boruin laughed as the boy almost jostled Pile into the water, but he did not look up where the ghosts waited with spilling blood and torn limbs. They all kept their eyes down, nearly missing Toaaho stumbling among the horrid visions as he came down the ridge.
“You whoreson!” Wraethe shouted, pulling up her sword at the last moment. “Toaaho, I could just kill you!” she snarled, furious that she almost had. The man had stumbled down among the ghosts, and the embattled woman had almost cleaved him in two. Diun had set, taking the Trickster with it. Nurom Misuer now reigned above, and Wraethe was no longer giddy or fun.
Boruin dropped into the water and headed for shore. “Is he all right?” he called. He watched Toaaho tumble to his knees as a ghost, swimming in a cloud of long, blood-stained hair, launched onto his back. Gore flew as her fingernails cut into his flesh, and then she was gone, Wraethe’s steel splitting her form from crown to breastbone. The angry woman turned circles around the fallen Mana’Olai, daring any other to come close. They came and came fast.
“You wanted to go. Now’s the time!” Boruin hollered back to Pile.
“Now? You want to go now?” Pile yelled back as more spirits came down off the ridge and into the valley. Boruin took another look at Toaaho and made up his mind. The man’s back was shredded, as if penance paid for a hundred men’s sins. He could make out the flecks of white where he’d been scored down to the bone. They had to move and get the man to safety.
“Dawn is not any time soon, and there’s no guarantee it will be better. Let’s go!” he hollered, ducking as Wraethe’s blade whistled over his head and struck the spirit behind him. The ghost split and vanished, only to reform in the dark and come to crowd around again.
Pile made it to shore, but it was the boy who came bearing their way out. The small child darted into the darkness, slipping between the wisps of dark spirits as they reached out for him. He was gone only for a moment, but Boruin’s heart was in his chest and his hands had forgotten tending to Toaaho’s wounds.
A crashing came down the hillside as a shadow rolled out of the forest and splashed into the stream leaving the pool. The boy leapt behind, landing on the soft top of the giant mushroom cap. The thick wafer floated downstream toward them as Pile and Boruin dragged their friend out into the water. Wraethe moved even faster, a blur of blue eyes in the darkness. It reminded Boruin of Thilan flame dancers, visible only by the light of their fire coursing through the night.
Toaaho floated unconscious on the makeshift raft as the boy kept his head from falling into the water. Pile and Boruin guided them both downstream as Wraethe continued raging along the banks. The spirits continued to chase, but they were fading.
By the time the stream began to drop into deeper valleys, the ghosts had thinned to only screams and chiding threats. Wraethe disappeared into the forest, chasing down all she could, futile as the whole action was. Toaaho weakened until his breath was barely a whisper between his lips. Boruin knew there was little hope left if they did not reach Priyati soon.
“HE COMES!” Toaaho shouted, his back arching so sharply the spasm almost threw him from the float. Pile dropped underwater, startled by the loud cry. The boy clamped his hands around the Mana’Olai’s jaw, pulling his teeth wide and looking down his throat for the strength of the voice.
“COMING! ONE MORE…mpht!” Toaaho’s scream rang out across the quiet hills until the boy clamped his hands over his mouth.
End of chapter 07 part 01.