He watched the ghost poking their small fire with a twig already blackened at the tip.
As they sat in the shadows of the sweet-smelling pine trees Fysiwon was avoiding making eye contact with him. He was staring deep into the flames instead, his sharp features wrinkling into a frown occasionally as parts of him blurred into smoke and darkness as he tried to hold onto his voln shape.
“Could you close your eyes? Please?”
Harl jumped a little at Fysiwon’s voice, recognising its brokenness from the darkness of their cell, but struggling to put it together with the small boy sat in front of him. As a woods-voln Fysiwon was younger than him, thin and pale with large worried eyes and quick movements. He was nervous.
Harl slowly, cautiously, closed his eyes. Instantly he felt he was back in the cell, and half expected some of Fysiwon’s babbling nonsense. But for all his nerves, the ghost lad seemed to have more control over his mind now.
“I knew you weren’t dead. I was glad of it.” The boy’s travelled to him across the slight crackling of the fire. Harl heard something shifting and moving in the darkness, bumping stones against each other as though making more space. The boy made a sighing sound that reminded Harl of the times Cole had worked long shifts in the Cant of Lios and then come back to their small rooms and shucked off his stiff boots while sitting down heavily on his bed. He wanted to open his eyes again, but he fought not to.
“Where have you been? Since the castle?” Harl whispered, his teeth chattering with the growing cold and a confusion of emotions. Fear was still one of them, a remembrance of their first meeting. In the darkness behind his eyes he still thought about the ghost’s teeth and the scars other lads in the castle had worn. Like Cole’s scars.
“I tried to find the trees. Ones I might find familiar. But on the way to them, on the roads… I found roarers instead.” Fysiwon sounded sad. “Button men were sent out against me and the others. And among the trees there were so many poison greened arrows! I don’t know how long I wandered for. While I travelled I tried on different kinds of bodies, but I couldn’t keep them. Wings and claws and darkness kept claiming me. And then finally the One Who Hungers found me and claimed me as well.”
Harl frowned a little, thinking for a moment that Fysiwon was talking about some bastard god finding him, one that he’d never heard of before. But then he remembered the large ghost full of others, and the way it had defeated another ghost on the very mountain side that they now sat on, as the mountain-voln village had watched. The broken bodies of its most recent victims were a ways off, out of sight beyond the trees of the slope that they now rested under, but he still shivered thinking about its furious violence. The blood of the mountain-voln was still splashed across him. The One Who Hungers had fallen to fighting its own self, and only Fysiwon had survived being eaten by it.
“I did want to find you too. But I had no idea where to start. I found the broken stones of the castle once or twice as my path brought me to them. Where were you Harl?” The creature breathed, sadness in the voice coming from its wyrd mouth.
“Emphon. For a long while.” He decided not to tell Fysiwon about Cole and their friendship. Cole had been a master, and a collector of children for the cells at that. It was hard enough for Harl to understand how they had gotten to trust each other, to think of each other with fondness. How then could Fysiwon understand why he was travelling with the tall man? “I found a home there for a while.”
“Among the city-voln?!”
“And the sea-voln too. A tavern owner gave me a position there. A bed. It was good for a while. Then the prophets and the gho- the others from the castle came there. And then Emphon burned.”
“Burned?!” Fysiwon sounded shocked, and the sound of stones and air moving nearby told Harl that the creature was shifting again, his emotions affecting his wyrd body.
“Peace, friend, peace.” Harl kept his eyes tightly shut and held out his hands in the sign for peace, careful not to put them through the fire in his intentional blindness. He suddenly felt the gentlest of touches as silken scales and smoke wrapped about his hands and his wrists. He gulped down his disturbance and let Fysiwon hold ‘hands’ with him.
“We never touched before.” Fysiwon whispered. “Ahhh… your hands.”
Harl felt the touch change as Fysiwon examined the claws within the palms of his hands. “I did this to you, didn’t I? I remember… but it’s like a dream, already fading.”
“You gave me a quest. And you cut me. Just a small cut, on my face.”
A strange laugh came from the ghost that chilled Harl’s blood and made him concerned that he had overestimated the boy-creature’s sanity. He pulled his ragged coat about his body, suddenly much colder.
“Such a small thing, that little bit of pain. But all the masters wanted it. Did you understand, Harl? All their measuring and all the boys they stole, all just to find out why we decided to pass it on to some of them and not others. So, they could make us give it to them… to Lios.”
“‘It’?” Harl asked, “This power? From the castle?”
“Power? Yes!” The boy-creature hissed. “The bad blood in our veins that changes us. But you’ve started on your own path haven’t you, so you already know.” The gentle touch became more insistent, turning his hands this way and that as though he was examining them. “These little claws, and you changed your face, earlier during the fight. And you made the fog that was meant to calm us.”
“Us?” Harl felt ice in his heart. “You mean the One Who Hungers. You aren’t an ‘us’ anymore.”
“Of course. No, I just meant all of us, you wanted to calm the gods and the warriors fighting on the mountain side.”
Now Harl couldn’t open his eyes, afraid of what he would see if he did. But he had to know.
“Fysiwon, do you want me to tell you your favourite story? Like I used to in our cell? Which one was it again that you liked so much?”
“It was the story of Kur Gyreblack, of course.” The boy-creature answered finally, before starting the story himself. “Kur Gyreblack was a woods-voln. Sharp of face and sharp of mind. He wore brown leathers and greened his arrowheads with Gyreblack, the strongest poison the woods-voln have ever known.”
Harl would have wiped the tears from his cheeks if the boy-creature hadn’t still been holding onto his hands. But then he felt Fysiwon else wipe them away with another shadowy whisp of its self.
“What’s this? Tears?” The voice was deeper. Older. “Tears for a dead monster? He’s long gone, so dry those tears.”
A sob escaped Harl’s mouth and without thinking he went to move his hands and draw his borrowed sword. Instantly the caress about his wrists became an iron like vice.
“No. None of that.” The voice was changing, moving away from him as though the creature was growing. “None of that Harl… friend.”
“You’re not my friend!”
“Some of him is still in here with us. Enough to remember you and your stories. And his quest for you! His hopes for revenge. But you will not stop us from ascending the mountains! We are the ones they are waiting for! Not you, woods-voln. US!”
Harl opened his eyes and instantly closed them in terror again. Above him, dwarfing the pine trees about it was a ghost made of many parts. It might have been smaller after losing some of its ‘meals’, but it was still a tumbling chaotic mess of smoke and oddly angled appendages covered in dark skin and scales. Even more long arms came from what might have been its belly and long clawed hands were wrapped about Harl’s wrists as he still sat on the cold ground.
Harl forced a charm into the creature’s flesh. Let me go!
For a moment the beast relaxed its grip, but it tightened its twisted hands just as quickly again. “Oh, tricky little woods-voln! You think we don’t know about sendings and charmings?! There’ll be no forcing us to let you go. We’re going to eat you and get stronger. And we’re going to find every single one of the others that you made leave us, and then we’ll eat them! And then we will face the gods waiting for us at the top of the mountains and eat them too!”
Harl cried out in pain as the creature began to lift him by his wrists, bringing him closer to where the largest of many mouths was opening, ready to eat him. His mind raced through trick and plan and scheme he could think of as the teeth of the creature got ever closer. In desperation he was forced to act quickly.
The black claws burst from his wrists, causing both Harl and the creature to scream with the pain. Their razor-sharp edges sliced into the dark stretched flesh of the ghost’s hands and cut through their tendons, turning them back to smoke and losing its grip on him. But with them came the strongest charm that Harl could push into the beast.
With ghost distracted by the pain and the shock the charm worked this time, and the last thing Harl saw as he fell all the way back down to the hard rocky ground was the beast starting to eat itself.
The first thing he saw when he finally came around was Cole, leaning over him with a concerned look on his thin face. Moving about him, setting up a camp and moving bodies, were another group of mountain-voln from the village.
“You idiot.” Cole muttered under his breath, not even aware that Harl’s eyes were slowly opening. “What have you done?!”
Cole was lifting up the dead weight of his right arm, and gently turning it this way and that, looking intently at the curved spikes that had pierced through his coat there.