Eris’s Atta did come to a halt, forming a circle about the boundary stone, the ghost and the man. Each of her friends were full of nervous energy as they stared down at the jittering Beloved, the city-voln among them seeming to glare at him with the most venom, perhaps recognising the meaning of the golden collar on his brown robe. Others threw worried looks at the ghost, Orrin in particular, but they all waited for Eris’s command before acting. She took a dead breath and looked at Beloved, who was still muttering and beseeching the shadow dancer wearing the boy’s form, feverish in his desperation.
“Enough! Stop that!” Eris shouted. “He obviously does not obey you!”
“He is sent by Lios, just as I am! To work his will and too punish the sinful!” Beloved roared back at her.
“Lios?” The boy asked in a voice crackling with age that contradicted his features. “At the castle?!”
Whatever it was, the shadow dancer had some memory of where it had been born, what had been done to it. Sympathy flooded her veins as she looked at the half formed child. There were so many of them, and maybe even more on the roads still spreading inland from the castle by the sea that had fallen.
“Lios?!” The creature repeated, the sound getting louder. The third time he spoke the god-king’s name the noise was so great that the Atta about the stone grimaced as the force of it assailed their ears.
“Peace! Peace…” Began Eris, but whatever rage was inside the shadow dancer could not be contained. The beast swallowed the part of itself that it had made into the shape of a boy and opened a great maw across the middle of itself to yell out its anger again.
The sound of it pushed the Atta back, but worse than that it caught the attention of other ghosts hovering by the boundary stones. The nearest began to move towards the Atta on the outside of the circle whose wariness saved them all from surprise. They turned to make the circle around Eris defensive, but that only meant that Beloved and the ghost were on the inside as they faced the outside threat. Eris moved, charging at Beloved and swinging the short sword in an wide overhead curve, aiming for his neck where the armour might not be cover him. He leapt back from her clumsy charge and moved around so that the ghost lay between them. A long dark stretch of shadow emerged from the flowing creature and swept towards Eris before doubling back to slam into the priest as well. The ghost was not a certain ally for the Beloved, nor for Eris! Or perhaps the confusion that she’d seen in other shadow dancers infected it as well.
Eris bobbed and weaved about more flailing shadow limbs that emerged quickly from it, aware that her people were holding the line against other such ghosts, their backs to her as they chopped at them with Atta greened blades. Screeches from the other ghosts told her that greening was carving into their wyrd flesh and leaving wounds. But she had only been able to kill the ghost that had swallowed Orrin by flooding it from the inside with the poison only she could make. Would a thousand small cuts from her Atta’s greened weapons be enough to turn back the ghost?!
She staggered as the Beloved shoved her. He had circled about the ghost and the boundary stone and taken advantage of her concern for her people fighting the creatures. He did not appear to have a weapon, but in knocking her over he had opened her up to the ghost’s next attack. She yelled in anger as an undulating arm from the beast circled her ankle as she staggered and yanked her further, making her fall to the earth, the air rushing from her lungs. Voln hands grabbed at her wrists and tried to pull her back as the ghost brought her closer to its chaotic core. Orrin’s hands. She looked up into the city-voln’s frantic eyes, and saw the shapes of battle still going on just beyond him.
“Let me go!” She shouted, seeing his eyes widen even further at her command. “Let me go!”
His loyalty to her finally won over his fear for her, and the storyteller finally let go of her wrists.
Dragged backwards along the dirt and grass she prepared herself for the ghost to engulf her into its flowing shadow. The world became the night without stars again, her lungs filled with the stuff of the ghost itself. As with the first shadow dancer she’d leapt into, this one carried a few spoils from its feasts within it: a city-voln boot, river stones, the skeleton of a hand which briefly scratched a lone along her jaw with its bone fingertips. She pushed them all away to stare out at her Atta fighting in the new night against the other ghosts. Orrin was the only one not paying attention to them, standing with his bow in hand as he watched her floating within the ghost, her hair loosened from her braid and spreading out within the belly of the creature. This time, without Orrin’s life to save she could pause and feel the anger of the creature, and the confused rush of memories and feelings.
But then she could see Beloved stalking towards Orrin, and she opened her mouth to yell a warning.
Instead of sound more sharp fluid emerged from the anger broiling in her own belly. Poisonous Atta had killed the first ghost she’d encountered in the woods, but this was different tasting as it passed between her lips. Her warning to Orrin came out of the ghost’s own maw, opening wide right in front of her and giving her a clearer sight of her people for a moment. The sound was not human, and it chilled Eris’s blood. But the effect on those about the stone and the ghost was even more dramatic. Several of her Atta dropped, including Orrin, falling to the thick dark soil as though cut down by a blade. Beloved, pushing his hands to his ears, shuddered and bent over, paling as the sound washed over him. Then he found his feet again and charged blindly through the nearest Atta who were also stricken, and Eris lost sight of him.
Looking onwards she could see the other ghosts, twisting and turning, and making their own groaning noises in response to her host’s bellow. What wounds they had were slight, only small grey marks sliced into their shifting bodies. The noise had bothered them much more, and as she watched from within their brethren, they backed away from the circle of the Atta and moved quickly away from the boundary stones, heading East and towards Tralis.
Eris looked down at the fallen bodies of her friends lying just below the ghost and allowed her anger to ripple through the creature again. Let. Me. Go!
She felt the shadow flesh of the creature loosen about her and she slid quickly out of the ghost and landed heavily as it relinquished its grasp on her. That brought her to Orrin and the others, and she scrambled over quickly to assure herself that he was breathing if still unconscious. Pierson ran over then, his blade still in his hand, his eyes looking her over. He spotted her own new sword, and then took in Orrin and the others lying on the dark soil of the farm lands.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know.” She warily looked back at the remaining ghost. “I only wanted to warn Orrin that the priest was coming for him!”
Pierson paled, “That wretched noise… that was you?!”
“I don’t know. I think so.” She was confused. “It was like I… controlled the shadow dancer.”
Pierson looked concerned, but they were interrupted by Orrin groaning deeply as he returned to consciousness. The other stricken Atta were also waking.
“What happened?” The city-voln asked weakly.
“We need to think about that later.” Pierson said firmly, earning Eris’s gratitude. “I’m more concerned about this remaining ghost.” He looked up pointedly at the creature twisting and turning above them.
“And where is the Beloved… the priest?” Eris asked, looking about. Her people were still in a loose circle about them, tired but still on the defensive. Past them she could make out the slight hills of the farm-land, and the house and barns of Lissy and Thoma. Of the priest there was no sign, but she could see the small figures of the city-voln husband and farm-voln wife coming closer, cautious in the face of so many woods-voln, and city-voln in woods-voln dress.
“Let them through.” Eris said, standing and also helping Orrin to his feet. The Atta parted for Lissy and Thoma, and they slowly entered the circle, their eyes on the remaining ghost turning above them.
“They’ve gone.” Thoma finally spoke. “You have rid us of them! As you promised!”
“All but this one.” Said Lissy in a scared voice, and Eris nodded. She was just about to speak out loud her ideas on sending this one away too when Aril stepped forward and proudly planted her staff into the farm lands soil in front of Lissy and Thoma. The clay like white paste on her face and her old ragged woods-voln leathers scared the couple, who backed away slightly.
“This day a powerful force has swept over the land! Here is Eris. Foretold by prophets and worshipped by city-voln and woods-voln alike. Take to your knees in front of the one who even Lios’ ghosts fear-”
She was drowned out suddenly by laughter. It was Orrin’s.
“Good bastard gods and bad alike, is that how I sound?!” The handsome city-voln smiled wryly and a few about him nodded.
His laughter spread among the other Atta. Aril’s face darkened.
“Seriously, “foretold by prophets and worshipped by city-voln and woods-voln alike”! Now, not forgetting about our good friend Nemnir Mountain-voln here, you’ve also ignored the self-proclaimed street-voln in our number. We all worship her… in our way.” He smiled broadly. “And the only prophet who has foretold anything for Eris has been yourself. Or did you speak of that deranged prophet of Lios who tried to prophesy, and then bring about, her death?”
“City-born fool.” Aril said and spat into the dirt by Orrin’s feet. “We stand in front of the ghost she has subdued with her divinity and you mock me for proclaiming her godhead?”
Orrin spread his hands in the symbol for peace, but a dark smile still twitched the corners of his mouth. “Lady prophet, I meant no disrespect. Not to Eris at least. I above all others know the wonders wrought by Eris, new born god of the volnen. I above all others have tried to sing the praises of her divinity.” He smiled widely as he saw Eris roll her eyes. “Aye, and that’s the usual response I’ve had from her.”
But then his tone changed, and a sharper edge crept into his voice that Eris had never heard before. “But if you are going to try to make good voln kneel in her name, then you do not know this god you claim to be called to prophesy for!”
Aril paused, acid on her tongue, and then seemed to think better of it. She bowed deeply to Eris and Orrin.
“You are right. She is no Lios, afterall.”
At the name of the god-king, the ghost, which had been floating above them, began to shape itself into voln form again, bringing forth the boy child which whispered and moaned Lios’s name. Behind the boy flowed the rest of himself, shaping dark wings.
“Lios?” The boy said in a questioning voice, his strange blank face still seeming sad.
Eris took a step forward towards him, ignoring the growing tension among her Atta.
“Yes. Lios did this to you. At the castle by the sea.”
Looking closer at the boy she made out a sharpness in his features. Woods-voln.
“Where were your people? Have you found them yet?”
The twisting shape expanded suddenly as though the boy lost control of himself for a moment. But then the shape of the child returned.
“Not yet.” His voice, the same voice that had knocked her people to the ground, was small and weak.
Eris nodded. A heaviness was on her heart. The ghosts had killed in their madness. And she had controlled this one and been a part of that madness. But there had to be more to them than that blind rage. She had to help them find it. She had to help this one.
“We will help you find them. I swear it.”