The first attack decapitated Ath.
His head rolled away and fell down the slope to the warriors below him, his long beard wrapping about it as it tumbled. He body collapsed then as though a puppet with its strings cut. And his sword, the mighty sword that Harl had taken from the man just a night ago, clanged into the rocks and lay there vibrating as the man’s body twitched and pulsed out blood.
Harl ducked quickly, bringing his already shorter woods-voln frame closer to the ground and his head further away from whatever had whipped out and taken Ath’s.
He saw it the next time it whipped around. It was coming out of the dense fog that he’d assumed it was making, until suddenly he realised that the ghost was the fog. A long sinuous arm, made of wisps of darker stuff, but somehow edged enough to slice through flesh. What it was attached to was immense, so much larger than it had seemed when they’d seen it fighting the other ghost across the valleys of the mountain range. It was like a dark cloud resting half way up the mountain side, and it pulsed like a thunder storm.
The next pass of the arm took of a woman’s leg.
Harl staggered and skittered towards her body, desperate to know what had happened even as the crazed warriors about him charged and screamed their bloody revenge to the dark shape that seemed suddenly to be all about them. The woman was clutching the end of the stump, screaming in a terrible way that chilled his blood. He went to rip his rope belt from about his waist and tie it there, but she slumped back into a swoon before he could, her blood red hand falling from its place and letting the blood run free. He saw that the cut was bubbling at the edges and smelled bitter. There was some kind of vile greening on the arm that cut like a blade.
Another sweep of the arm was followed by the emergence of another long appendage, and another pair of warriors fell, the burning flesh smell getting worse.
A mountain-voln slid to where Harl was crouched, causing a mad swirl in the dark fog about them. He recognised one of the braggards but didn’t remember his name.
“Run boy! We can’t fight this!” The braggard yelled, ducking as much as his large shape allowed as the arms swung past them again.
Harl shook his head and tried to concentrate again on his own fog, not caring that the man would see what he was doing. It emerged from him paler and weaker than the fog about them already. But he watched as the man’s frantic breathing and wild crazed eyes calmed. Peace, Harl thought, peace.
The flailing arms slowed as well, and the warriors quickly regathered their sanity and their strength, coming together as the ghost condensed into a more defined swirling dark shape on the slope above them. They warily raised their swords, but paused, as if they already suspected they would be powerless against this strange beast.
“You boy, what did you do?” One of the women asked, staring at the fog about him.
“I… calmed it. I think. For now.”
The woman hissed between her teeth, her fierce grey eyes surrounded by tattoo lines looking at him with fear. “Grab him!”
The nearest mountain-voln seized him, massive hands wrapping about his upper arms and neck, and holding him still. He was like a rabbit caught in the mouth of a mountain-lion, he could not even struggle the smallest amount.
“What are you boy?!” She sneered, looking closer at him. “What kind of woods-voln knows how to calm a creature like this?”
Their bare hands were on his flesh, holding tight to him about his head and neck, and he wondered if he could charm them through that connection. He had to stop the fog to do it, but with their eyes on him it had already trailed off anyway. Instead he focussed on those two mountain-voln, close enough to him at that moment that he could smell their unwashed flesh and the musk of their beards.
“Let me go.” He said quietly, with cold determination. And they did. Just as the creature roared from a hundred mouths and set to flailing again, freed from his calming enchantment just as he was freed from his own captivity at the hands of the warriors.
More of them fell, and blood dropped like rain onto him. He staggered away in shock as a mountain-voln next to him was speared through and through by the creature, spraying him in the face with his heart’s blood. Harl crawled on his hands and knees towards the thing, pulling on his reserves of courage and strength to try to produce more calming fog, praying and cursing any bastard gods who might be about to listen after his dream of them.
Suddenly he was lifted up into the air, a constricting band about his stomach as the creature used one of its arms to roll about him and pull him up and away from the last of the mountain-voln. The few that were left looked like dolls in between the shrinking trees. They were swiftly despatched. He looked ahead of him in horror, and saw the centre of the creature, a maelstrom of dark shadows and smoke. A hundred mouths opened in its mass.
“Who are you?” A hundred voices asked him.
He gasped for breath, pushing with both hands at the tight limb wrapped about his middle. “H-Harl Woods-Voln.”
“You were in the castle!” They screeched and hollered and yelled. “We remember you!”
“We?” he asked of the swirling mass.
“Inside us, chewed up and dissolved together, are a few of those who once lived in the spaces behind the numbered doors. We remember you telling us to be brave. We remember escaping the castle at your command. We remember you, Harl Woods-Voln.”
He swallowed deeply, looking nervously down at the mass that was talking to him. “Would you let me go since I helped you to escape?” he asked nervously.
There was a disturbance in the swirling mass of the creature. “You came to kill us. To take our place. We have seen the gateway, and now we will ascend!”
Harl’s brows furrowed, he didn’t understand what the creature meant at all. But he was in a precarious situation. With just a single thought the beast could tighten its hold about his waist and squeeze the life from him. He couldn’t charm it either. He was trying but nothing was happing, which told him that the charm could only pass skin to skin, not through his clothes. Every time he had worked one before he had been either touching someone skin to skin, or sending out a fog to be breathed in. He could try that now, but it would take too long, and the creature could crush him the moment it saw what he was trying to do.
He took some slow and careful breaths, pushing his ribs against his captor as much as he could to get precious air into his lungs. “I do not seek your place. You are far more powerful than I am.” He said in a feeble voice. “To have survived the castle and then out here you have to be. I also watched you consume the other one.”
“He is here, inside us. We have eaten many many others. We are together as we always should have been!” The beast moved him about, turning him this way and that. “You aren’t so impressive. We thought you must have been powerful to have opened all our minds to escape. The voices beyond the gate won’t even want you we think now. We are much more to their liking, we are certain of it!”
“I fear you are absolutely right. I am so small and fragile. Just one voln, when you are many.”
A trick suddenly occurred to him, and he decided that it was worth risking. The mountain-voln were just bloody messes below him on the rocks, and the coldness was down deep in his bones. His chances of making it back to the village on his own were slim. He had little to lose even if the creature did decide to kill him. A moment of sadness struck him. He would miss Cole though, and he regretted not telling him he was leaving on the hunt with the doomed warriors. But Cole would be better off with Tersia and Alisaya and the rest of their strange company. They would return to Bara and Cole would find some better life there. The charm he had put on the man was bound to fade with his death, but perhaps he would find some other happiness to fulfil it anyway. Harl steeled himself to try his trick.
“I find it pleasing.” He began, making himself sound wistful.
“What?” Asked the ghost.
“Oh, that you are all so happy together. I lived among the city-voln for a long while, and among the mountain-voln for a little. I’ve been attacked by farm-voln and hated by sea-voln. Yet, here you are. Many into one. So many lads, from so many volns. Maybe most of you is farm-voln, or city. But there’s some sea-voln too, isn’t there? I just think it’s amazing to find the voln all together, all in one body. Any Denosians in there? They must be pleased to have been united with their slave masters in such blessed harmony…”
The breath was pushed from his lungs as the appendage that held him up suddenly undulated and wove in the air with the others. The maelstrom of limbs and smoke was convulsing, and the hundred mouths and thousand eyes were appearing and disappearing as the ghost struggled against itself.
“We are not… we cannot be… we are not one voln!” The voice itself was breaking apart, different sources becoming clearer.
Suddenly Harl was dropped, and he crashed down onto the rocky ground before rolling out of the way of a flailing part of the beast that carried on to smack into itself with a booming thud. At its core it was dividing, hiving off parts as it fought against itself. Some of the released ghosts fled, racing away from the devourer with the speed of a storm cloud in a hurricane. Others tried to reshape themselves, sprouting arms and legs, heads and scaley bodies. Some managed to take the form of voln for a moment, warping and shifting back and forth between the different volnen. Some collapsed as soon as they wore voln bodies, gasping as unformed lungs failed them, or blood was made that was too thick and dark to give them life.
Eventually there were just five ghosts still on the mountain side. Two looked like young city-voln lads but with long double-jointed legs formed from lattices of dark materials. One was smaller, and darted about constantly, its body returning to quick smoke and then reforming in different places before moving again. And the last two were like great wolves, larger than Harl and dark of fur with oddly proportioned limbs and snouts.
Harl held his hands out in the sign for peace. But he was ignored and almost straight away the two immense wolves began to stalk towards the city-voln lads with the wyrd legs.
“Sharp bones!” Hissed one of the city-voln and the wolves howled a hunting cry. Woods-voln!
Desperate to get their attention and avoid more bloodshed Harl began making Tersia’s concoction in his mouth to shift him to city-voln, hoping the shock of the change would distract them. But it only riled them up more. The deformed city-voln hissed at him and the wolves bared their teeth at him. He shifted back again, spitting out the bile on to the broken ground, feeling his face shift and change back to its usual sharpness.
“Please, we don’t have to fight! We are the same! We were all changed in the castle!”
But they would not listen. Something changed in the tension held between the two sides and then suddenly the four of them were clashing together, ripping and rending flesh into smoke and smoke into ash as their ghost natures worked against each other. Harl darted away, unwilling to get between them. He watched from some ways back as shreds of the ghosts wafted away on the mountain winds and disappeared. Then what was left of both sides collapsed into piles of dark matter than was swallowed by the stones and was no more.
Harl let out his long-held breath and tried to calm his frantic breathing, listening to the whistling of the wind across the stones and between the snow-capped peaks far above him.
“Harl?” a voice spoke at last, interrupting the sound of his blood in his ears as his heart slowed.
He looked to the last of the ghosts, the darting boy whose features had been blurred by his speed and his re-shapings. He was crouched now beside him, looking at him with great concern in his woods-voln eyes.
“Harl… it’s me. Fysiwon.”