Wolf's-own

© Carole Cummings

 

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Prologue

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Bless-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf

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 fingers?

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 the city.

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 him.

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 charm.

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. “Untouchable.”

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 disappointingly predictable.

“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, nothing intelligible.

“What do you want?” the prefect demanded.

He nearly sighed—nearly wept. Because how could they all have the same question? How could they not know?

“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 several paces.

“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.

Failed. Again.

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 ridiculously betrayed.

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, perfectly silent.

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 himself calm.

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 around 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 the incense.

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.

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(*Thank you to my friend, Julia, for her grammar-fu.)

 

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