Bless-month, Year 1322, Cycle of
The night... would do. Not perfect,
for his purposes, but good enough. Raven and Dragon were
both crescent, but Wolf was full and far too bright; no
convenient cloud-cover, though the shadows could be his
friends, when he so chose. Unconscious and unnoticed, his
gloved fingers dipped inside the high collar and to the
leather thong about his neck, traced lightly over the small
amulet. The Guard wouldn’t stop him—would likely pretend
they didn’t even see him—so the amulet was rather redundant.
Still, it would be best if they didn’t see him at all.
It wasn’t supposed to matter, but he
assumed no one had reckoned on one of his kind still being
fit enough or sane enough to even contemplate what he
planned, let alone perpetrate it. Well, relatively sane, at
least. By adopted tradition-cum-pseudo-law, he should
be able to enter in broad daylight, tend to his gruesome
business in the city’s very center with the whole of Ada for
witness, and still walk away unscathed and unmolested. And
then come back the next day to do it again.
Then again, the Adan weren’t ‘supposed to’ just walk right into a tribal
state—even one so tiny and politically minor as Jejin—take
it for their own, and slaughter its natives with impunity.
They weren’t ‘supposed to’ steal away those with magic and
do the-gods-knew-what with them.
Gray eyes went automatically to the
gibbets and crows’ cages that twisted from their chains
above the Gates, incongruous to the clean street and
tailored Doujou who walked it, then flicked away uneasily.
‘COLLUSION’ one placard proclaimed. The bloated, ruined
remains cockled within the rusted web of iron were still
fresh enough to reek that singular rancid-sweet stench, but
already so nibbled and pecked as to be unrecognizably male
or female, young or old. He wondered idly who they’d been
hiding, if the Adan had taken the one for whom that sorry
crow-picked carcass had given its life, and whether it had
been worth it in the end. Was there one more bit of magic in
the Court’s pockets, or had it slipped through their
The whispers in his skull swirled
louder, more insistent, and he clamped his mouth tight so
none of it would leak out. Listened intently for a moment,
dutifully attending—more out of habit than any real hope—but
they were just as senseless as always, so much gibberish. He
bit down on the inside of his cheek, concentrating on
nothing but the pain until the sweetness of it crowded out the sibilant clamor.
Focused his mind down to that one thing, that heavy sting,
and the copper-sharp tang that flooded his mouth, until the
relentless din retreated to the back of his mind where he
could ignore it. Well, mostly.
No magic, not in him, nothing in him
the Adan might want, and plenty for which they had no use.
The Ancestors had been insane for centuries now, and those
like him, those who heard them, were usually quickly
rendered likewise. Untouchable but not untouched.
His hand went again to the amulet, and
he whispered the words his beishin had taught him—a simple
incantation—and breathed a little easier when the shadows warped
and wove themselves around him. Not invisible, but... dim,
perhaps. Insubstantial to all but the most careful glance. It had served him well on these stealthy forays inside
He pulled in a deep breath and headed
for the Gates, silent as a ghost and just as obvious.
Eidolon, they called him,
sometimes Wraith, but he was neither of those things.
No phantom, no off-cast specter limned with living spirit.
One must have lived, at least a little bit, to be either.
Ghost was the more common
epithet, and he thought it fit better—his own father had
named him so, hadn’t he? He was, after all, merely the
remnant of what had been, an after-image of what was past
and gone, and it mattered little if blood still pulsed heat
through a still-warm, still-animate corpse. A corpse was a
corpse, wasn’t it, and the acid, jacksaw memory of what had
been, bleach-boned and bitter, made scant difference in the
end. It only mattered what the ghost chose to do with it.
This one chose to live with it.
...No. That wasn’t right. Not live
with it, but exist around it. Sway carefully about its
edges, mimic its dips and steps, just well enough to avoid
being dragged to its center. Bleed a little, but not too
much, for he had no right to his own blood; he’d already
sworn it to his cause, his vengeance, fed it to his hatred
and rage, until it seethed in his veins, trilled its
siren-song to a revenant heart. And every drop of blood he
spilled in the name of justice and revenge—in the name of
one of the few who’d known what he was and dared to look him
in the eye anyway—brought him another step closer to the one
whose vague shadow haunted him, waking and sleeping.
His hands curled into tight fists, and
he clenched his teeth, sucked in a long breath, and shoved
it all down—down and down and down, to the place where
sensation lived, where emotion raved and railed, where
insanity crouched, waiting, and control was a laughable
thing. He held the breath and sank his teeth into his sore
cheek again, clamped down ’til his eyes stung and the rage
let up its stranglehold on his mind.
Restraint. Detachment. Conscious rule
of Self; power over passion.
His muscles relaxed, fists unfurling,
and he flexed his aching jaw, ran his tongue along the
inside of his cheek, and let the metallic zing add another
layer of clarity. Cautious, he slipped a quick glance
sideways, enwrapped in his shadows, as he passed the first
Guard... smirked a little and straightened his shoulders,
quickened his silent pace, as he passed the second. Neither
of their glances shifted to either avoid or focus on the
discreet bend of shadows. There were degrees of
invisibility, he’d discovered: that with which he’d lived
all his life—that quick slide of the eyes toward him then
more quickly away—and this one. He preferred this one,
though it wasn’t truly his, nor was it real. Still, it was... more complete. Didn’t require anyone to pretend—not even
Almost unwilling, he spared a glance
to Subie, looming over the city, a hunchbacked sentinel,
grumbling its disdain now and then, just to remind everyone
it could. His grimace was filled with dark contempt, and he
dragged his gaze away.
Sliding along with the shadows, silent
as the darkness of which he was a willing fragment, he
skulked down the main thoroughfare, lit bright and
trafficked heavily with a motley throng clamoring at the
various stalls and shops for day’s-end bargains, or merely
scuttling to their homes or inns or ships at port. Thecians,
with their dark skin and dark hair, and the fairer Kente,
milling heedlessly amongst the vagabond Shinto and the
wealthy Heldes, with their rich silks and telltale tattoos.
No Jin—exiled to their camps by sunset, and only permitted
through the Gates at all for work detail, appropriately
escorted and with the proper papers. The shops from which
hawkers called their wares had once been those of Jin
merchants, or so his beishin had told him, the homes and hostels,
taverns and tearooms; all Jin once, all stolen. The
architecture still told the tale—sloped sharp and curled at
the edges—but mouths that might’ve told those same tales had
been stoppered long ago. He deliberately pointed his gaze
straight ahead, dodging various bodies as he crept along;
seemingly-invisible, perhaps, but not insubstantial—if he
allowed someone to bump into a ‘shadow’, his purpose tonight
would be needlessly jeopardized.
Mindful, he slipped down alleys and
backstreets, sliding east past the wharf and through the
more end-of-day-sedate tanneries and ironworks with their
animal-chemical reek, and headed toward the Center Wards.
Not the Statehouse, at least not this night, though he
assumed his forays would eventually lead him there. Perhaps
the information he needed would come tonight; perhaps the
prefect would fear Death’s Messenger more than he feared the
demon to whom he’d handed his koin and allegiance for a
taste of the power he could steal but never own. They would
both find out, he supposed.
The Linen Quarter of the Agricultural
District, because the man in the Ghost’s sights tonight
tended to stay late at his desk, tucked into his office
until the candle hit the halfway mark—no earlier, no later.
Nicely predictable, because there was nothing to worry
about, was there? Stolen protections, spells and charms
smelted in magic’s Blood, molded from a cast of the agony
and degradation of one purchased for the prefect’s own
personal use—his property—until bled, spent and done.
Not moved by the screams, because they weren’t really
people, were they?
This one was careful, they were always
careful: didn’t use it to excess, didn’t flaunt it, lest
someone twig that the steady rise through the ranks to
prefect had some ‘help’ and decided to help themselves to
what this ‘noble’ had stolen for himself. Didn’t make it
obvious that the promotion to Judge, about which there had
only thus far been whispers and hints, might come through
means other than skill and merit. After all, he deserved it,
didn’t he?—how he got it when it came only mattered if his
rivals found out. And it would come; the things men like
this wanted always came, so long as they used the right
spells and conserved their ‘resources’.
The shock-blank look on the prefect’s
doughy face was nearly comical when the shadows took on
sudden substance; the abrupt reach for a leaf-shaped quartz
amulet and the sneer when the prefect took it up was...
actually rather sickening.
“How did you get in here?” the prefect
hissed, dingy teeth clenched tight, pallid face going red,
and fist snapping tight and yellow-knuckled about the charm.
A scornful half-smile and a slow blink
was all he got for an answer. Until the prefect’s eye caught
the glitter of the long knife in the hand of a Ghost.
The Ghost allowed himself a sneering
smile. “Who sold it to you?” was the eventual
reply, and no ‘ghostly’ voice, this; even and flat, the
words spoken very clearly. “Give me a name, and perhaps
you’ll live.” Not really, but it was polite to allow the
doomed a small vestige of hope.
The prefect’s eyes went a little wide,
and his grip on the amulet tightened. His livery lips
opened—an order or incantation, no doubt—then made a soft
‘o’-shape when shadows swelled, draped themselves about the
walls, in front of the door, dulling the light and muffling
sound. The prefect stared, eyes narrow slits now. He held up
The Ghost smirked, and his gloved hand
tightened on the grip of the long knife. Did this man
really expect magic to work against a Ghost? He was
interested to find out himself, in truth. They all tried to
use their magicks against him—either sooner or later—and
thus far, he’d been immune. His beishin had told him he was immune
to all of them—a blank spot in the fabric of life, a walking
void—and he’d merely accepted it at the time, because he’d
accepted everything his beishin had told him. Still, the
chance was there that, one of these times, one of these
nights, one of these men would say the right words, clutch
the right talisman, and his heart would burst, or his brain
would rupture inside his skull...
The prospect more intrigued than
frightened him—sometimes he thought perhaps it even soothed
him a little, but he never dwelt on that.
“Telem!” the prefect called, his tone
still superior and calm but with a twitchy little warble
slithering just beneath as he appealed to his guard through
the open door. Everything about the prefect tightened and
trembled when his man failed to appear, yet still, he tried
to conceal it beneath haughty indignation. “Telem!”
“He can’t hear you.” A pause and an
indifferent shrug. “No one can hear you. No one but me, and
I hardly count.” An upward tic flickered at the corner of
the Ghost's mouth as he watched the jaundiced, rheumy whites
of the prefect’s eyes grow larger for a moment, watched the
now-worried gaze trace the braid that hung heavy over one
shoulder. The Ghost's eyes flicked to the amulet in the prefect’s
fist then back up again. “Who is your master?” He asked it
calmly, only a hint of threat beneath it, but when there
came no answer, the muscles in his jaw tightened—he couldn’t
help it. “Give me a name.”
“Ghost,” the prefect whispered, anger
and muddled fear now creeping together and twisting his lax
mouth into something between a grimace and a snarl.
Bored now—he’d heard it all before,
after all—the Ghost rolled his eyes. For men with such
craven hearts, such greed and malice, they were all
“You can’t do this,” the prefect
stated, a whiny growl clogging it thin in his throat. And he
really believed it, too—it was almost funny.
“But I can,” was the calm retort. A
jerk of the chin at the amulet in the prefect’s meaty fist,
and a wave of the knife, just enough to catch the light of
the candle and send a small flicker into the prefect’s eyes.
“Do it,” said the Ghost. “Call it a last request.”
More than fair, in his opinion, and
considering what this man had done, what he was still doing
and would continue to do until he was stopped... Probably
too fair, but a Ghost had no gods to whom he must answer,
and the Ancestors had nothing to say on the matter. Anyway,
“What do you want?” the prefect
He nearly sighed—nearly wept. Because
how could they all have the same question? How could they
“I want the Blood back that you’ve
stolen.” Too rote, too rehearsed, because
he’d said it too many times already. “I want the magic
you’ve made from it.” The Ghost paused, let his lip pull up in a
mocking snarl. “Can you give it to me? No?” His teeth set
tight. “Then give me a name.” It was growled—almost
as much rage for the fact that he knew now that this man had
no answer as there was for the man himself. It was too
clear, just by the set of the chin and the slant to the
shoulders, that the prefect got his magicks and his
instructions and his spells from the same nameless, faceless
nobody as all the others.
Too predictable; almost routine by
now—it was wearying. Confusion always came next, followed
swiftly by indignation, because they were all alike, men
like this. He waited for it, watching, and wasn’t
disappointed: the prefect’s eyes clouded for a moment then
narrowed, and he bared his yellow teeth.
“Blood and bone,” the prefect chanted,
holding the amulet out in a stiff-armed grip, “soul and spirit;
take thy strength and make it mine; slip thy might through
the flesh that commands you!”
Silence, heavy and watchful in the web
of shadows. They waited, both of them—the prefect expectant
and almost cocky, an arrogant smile quirking at the corner
of his fleshy mouth; the Ghost... blank. Not anxious, not
hopeful, not full of dread or desire—merely waiting, idly
wondering if it would be different this time.
It wasn’t. The prefect frowned when
the incantation failed, opened his hand to stare accusingly
at the amulet for a moment, before shaking his head,
gritting his teeth. His ruddied face paled again and his
glance turned hectic. The prefect closed his fist once more,
waved it at the shadows surrounding him, and backed up
“Blood and bone, soul and—”
The knife left the Ghost's hand before
he even realized he was going to throw it, buried itself in
the sinew and cartilage of the prefect’s throat with a
squelch that shouldn’t have been satisfying but was.
Damn. So much for trying to torture the name out of him,
even if it was foregone conclusion that the prefect didn’t
have one. There was always a chance, even a very slim one,
and it had just been wasted. The Ghost had lost his control.
He stepped over to the prefect slowly,
watched the man sink to his knees, hands fluttering at his
thickset throat, pale hazel eyes gone shocked and
Silent and fluid, the Ghost stepped over to the prefect and set gloved
fingers to the knife’s grip, wrenched it to the left then
the right, the wet rip of gristle and the scrape of bone
loud beneath wet choking gurgles. “I gave you your one
chance,” was all he said. He yanked the knife free, managing
to sidestep the freshet gouting from the jagged wound and
swipe the knife somewhat clean on the shoulder of the
prefect’s robes before the man’s body slumped to the floor
with a last desperate burble. The Ghost merely watched the
process—tedious for him, but anything but for the prefect,
no doubt. He wondered what it was like, to feel that
much in such a short span of eternity, to be aware of every
miniscule half-second as life drained away, as organs shut
down, as lungs struggled to gasp in blood-heavy gulps of
air, drowning themselves, and knowing it all,
feeling it all, so vivid and real and here...
He wondered if the moment would be perfectly still,
The buzzing in his head ramped itself
up several notches, incessant and insistent, and he cocked
his head a little, listened. Bits and snatches—clear words
and scraps of phrases that almost made sense, but
didn’t, ever, they never did, damn them all to the
suns—and he snarled, bit down again on the inside of his
cheek. All of his focus narrowed in on the gratifying, disharmonic
pain, until the Voices receded into whispers.
A thin spurt of blood from the mess on
the floor sprayed itself over the toe of his boot. He curled
his lip in annoyance, growled a little when the stench of
evacuated bowels coiled into his nostrils; damn it, if he’d
wanted to smell that, he would have gutted the man.
Aggravated now, he waited impatiently
for the jets still surging from the prefect’s gaping throat
to settle into slow-pumping streams and then to nothing at
all. He crouched down while the body finished twitching,
careful to avoid the spreading pool of scarlet beneath the
prefect’s head. Sighing a little, the Ghost wiped his boot off
with the prefect’s robes first then attempted to save the glove, though
he knew that was likely a losing battle; the supple leather
was expensive, but it curled like flesh around his fingers
and afforded him a better grip—both of which were essential
and worth the koin. Anyway, this one had a heavy purse
hanging from his belt, and the Ghost cut it away with ease; he
considered it reimbursement.
The first time he’d done this—all
terrified and dangerously edgy and filled with seething
rage—he’d made rather a mess of things, blood everywhere,
soaking both the target and himself, even his hair, as he’d
made himself watch the man die, slower than he’d thought and
not nearly as pleasant. Then he’d turned stiffly away,
stumbled a few steps from the gory corpse and thrown up all
over the man’s imported carpets.
He was much better at the business of
death now. It was what he did. It was what he was.
With movements both mechanical and
efficient, he pried open the prefect’s fist and retrieved
the charm, spoke his own spell so the shadows would recede
just a little and held the thing up to the light of the
single candle. A drop of Blood hung suspended inside the
crystal, and his jaw clenched tight; no more or less than
he’d expected, but it still pooled rage in his belly. It was
all he could do to keep himself from flying to his feet,
kicking the corpse, gutting it and skinning it—wouldn’t
that make a fine addition to the collection at the
Gates. Instead, he pocketed the amulet, then searched the
body for more, found another two and pocketed them without
examining them. There was only so much frustration he could
take at once, after all.
Next, he searched the office, rifling
the desk and cupboards, even searching through the cushions
of the chairs and single couch. No names, damn it, no
incriminating receipt, no carelessly jotted incantation
handily attributed to its author, no convenient confessions
with a helpful signature. Nothing. Ever. Each time, he told
himself that perhaps this would be the one, this time he’d
come away with a clue and not merely justice for someone he
didn’t even know, and each time...
He sucked in a long breath, forced
Several charms had been scattered
about, two set up on the lintel as wards that hadn’t done
the prefect a lick of good tonight; there was at least some
small satisfaction in that. He collected them all, pockets
heavy with the repulsive things, then wrapped his fist
his own amulet, called the shadows in tight and slipped out
the same way he’d come. The guard at the door—the same Telem
for whom the prefect had been shouting, presumably—stared
off down the hallway, bored gaze moving slowly from floor to
ceiling, not watching for anything in particular; not really
watching at all, merely marking time until the summons came
to escort the prefect home. Perhaps it would be worth it to
take this man out as well; perhaps the prefect had given the
guard some wards of his own, for added protection or simply
to show his ‘generous spirit’...
No. Definitely not the sort to share.
The guard would live this time, thanks to the prefect’s
greedy nature. Though, after they found the prefect, the
hapless oaf might wish otherwise.
Sliding into the slight gloom of the
hallway, the Ghost skulked silently away, fingers of his
right hand twitching reflexively at the tackiness clinging
to his glove. He wasn’t through yet. The prefect had a home,
after all, hope wouldn’t die completely, and someone had to
destroy whatever hollow shell was there—no doubt tucked away
in a cellar or something, they always were—before others
found and used it. Anyway, there was always the matter of a
soul to be put to rest.
And perhaps this time—please, this
once, it’s been too long, let it be tonight—he’d
recognize it; a familiar face for whom he could finally
paint the prayers, speak the rites and light the pyre, burn
Either way, it was a mercy, even by
the judgment of Ada’s own wretched, abandoned god. And the
wet work part was done now. Well, mostly.
He breathed in deep when he emerged
back out in the street, the merciless heat of the
sister suns now merely a dull throb beneath the cool mantle
of stars and moons. Raven and Dragon sat like red, crescent
twins at the top of the sky, but Wolf hung like cold, heavy
silver, leering over the cragged silhouette of Subie, its
vagaries and portents hoarded to its breast like folded
secrets. The Ghost shook his head with a glare for the
mountain that served as a grave but not a resting place. Then, for good measure,
he gave it the finger.
It was... unsatisfactory.
Sighing with a bit of a scowl, he
slipped the amulet back inside his collar and moved on.
(*Thank you to my friend,
Julia, for her grammar-fu.)