Enjoy the following sneak peek.
A Threat of Shadows
The deeper Alaric rode into the woods, the more something felt… off. This forest had always fit like a well-worn cloak. But tonight, the way the forest wrapped around felt familiar, but not quite comfortable, as though it remembered wrapping around a slightly different shape.
“This path used to be easier to follow,” Alaric said to his horse, Beast, as they paused between patches of summer moonlight. Alaric peered ahead, looking for the trail leading to the Stronghold. He found it running like a scratch through the low brush to the right. “If the Keepers weren’t too meek to hold grudges, I’d think the old men were hiding it from me.”
All the usual smells of pine and moss and dirt wove through the air, the usual sounds of little animals going about their lives, but Alaric kept catching a hint of something different. Something more complicated than he wanted to deal with.
Around the next turn, the trail ran straight into a wide tree trunk. Alaric leaned as far to the side as he could, but he couldn’t see around it. “I could be wrong about the Keepers holding grudges.”
Well, if they didn’t want him at the Stronghold, that was too bad. He didn’t need a warm welcome. He just needed to find one book with one antidote. With a little luck, the book would be easy to find and he could leave quickly. With a lot of luck, he’d get in and out without having to answer anyone’s questions about what he’d been doing for the past year.
Beast circled the tree and found the path again, snaking out the other side. As his hooves thudded down on it, a howl echoed through the woods.
The horse froze, and Alaric grabbed the pouch hanging around his neck, protecting it against his chest. He closed his eyes, casting out past the nearest trees and through the woods, searching for the blazing energy of the wolf. He sensed nothing beyond the tranquil glow of the trees and the dashing flashes of frightened rabbits.
“That’s new.” Alaric opened his eyes and peered into the darkness.
A louder howl broke through the night. Beast shuddered.
“It’s all right.” Alaric patted Beast’s neck as he cast farther out. The life energy of an animal as large as a wolf would be like a bonfire among the trees, but there was nothing near them. “It’s not wolves. Just disembodied howls.” He kept his voice soothing, hoping to calm the animal.
“That didn’t sound as reassuring as I meant it to. But a real wolf pack wouldn’t keep howling as they got closer. If we were being tracked by wolves, we wouldn’t know it.”
Beast’s ears flicked back and forth, alert for another howl.
“Okay, that wasn’t reassuring, either.” Alaric nudged him forward. “C’mon we’re almost to the Wall.”
A third howl tore out of the darkness right beside them.
Beast reared back, whinnying in terror. Alaric grabbed for the saddle and swore. He pressed his hand to Beast’s neck.
“Paxa,” he said, focusing energy through his hand and into Beast. A shock of pain raced across Alaric’s palm where it touched the horse, as the energy rushed through.
Mid-snort, Beast settled and stood still.
Alaric shook out his hand and looked thoughtfully into the woods. This wasn’t about a grudge, or at least the howls weren’t directed at him. Any Keeper would know there were no wolves. Even one as inadequate as he would know there was no energy, no vitalle, behind the sounds. So what was the purpose of it? The path had never been like this before.
With Beast calm, Alaric set him back into a steady walk. Two more howls rang out from the woods, but Beast ambled along, unruffled. Alaric rubbed his still-tingling palm.
Beast paused again as the trail ran into another wide tree.
Alaric growled in frustration. The path to the Keepers’ Stronghold shouldn’t be this troublesome for a Keeper.
Unless it no longer recognized him as one. That was a sobering thought.
As they skirted around the tree, a white face thrust itself out of the trunk. Alaric jerked away as the hazy form of a man leaned out toward him. When the figure didn’t move, Alaric reined in Beast and forced himself to study it. It held no life energy, it was just an illusion—like the wolves.
The figure was a young man. He had faded yellow hair and milky white skin. Once the initial shock wore off, the man was not particularly frightening.
“What are you supposed be? A friendly ghost?” Alaric asked.
It hung silent on the tree. Alaric leaned forward and backward, but the ghost remained still, staring off into the woods.
“The howls were more frightening than you.” Alaric set Beast to walking again.
“You are lost,” the ghost whispered as he passed.
Alaric gave a short laugh. “I’ve been lost many times in my life, but this isn’t one of them. And if it’s your job to scare people off, you should consider saying something more chilling and less…depressing.”
Beast kept walking, and Alaric turned to watch the ghost fade into the darkness behind them.
A rasp pulled his attention forward. Another white form slid out of the tree they were approaching. This one was a young woman. She was rather pretty, for a ghost.
“Hello.” Alaric gave her a polite nod.
“You have failed,” she whispered. “You have failed everyone.”
Alaric scowled. The words rang uncomfortably true.
Alaric stopped Beast in front of the ghost. Behind the woman’s face, Alaric saw thin, silver runes carved on the bark. He couldn’t read them through the ghost, but he didn’t need to. Narrowing his focus, he cast out ahead of them along the trail, brushing against the trunks with his senses. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he felt the subtle humming runes dotting the trees ahead.
Alaric sat back in the saddle. This wasn’t what he expected from the Keepers. The old men protected their privacy like paranoid hermits, but they’d never tried to scare people away before. Of course, these ghosts weren’t frightening. If the Keepers were going to make ghosts, these are the kind they would make.
Years ago, during his “Defeat by Demoralization” lesson, Keeper Gerone had declared, “Control the emotions, control the man!” Gerone was probably responsible for the depressing ghosts.
The ghost runes were on almost every tree now, faces appearing every few steps.
“Your powers are worthless,” the next whispered and Alaric flinched.
“It’s your fault,” another rasped. “All your fault.”
Alaric clenched his jaw and stared ahead as the whispers surrounded him.
When he passed close to one large tree, a ghost thrust out close to him. Alaric turned toward it and saw his own face looking back at him. A pale, wasted version of himself. His black hair was faded to a lifeless grey, and his skin, far from being tanned from traveling, was bleached a wrinkly bone white. Only his eyes had stayed dark, sinking from a healthy brown to deep, black pits.
Alaric stared, repulsed, at the withered apparition of himself—it was decades older than his forty years. The ghost looked tired, a deep crease furrowed between its brows. Alaric reached up and rubbed his own forehead.
The ghost leaned closer.
“She’s dead,” it whispered.
Guilt stabbed into him, deep and familiar. He shuddered, grabbing the pouch at his neck, his mind flooded with the image of Evangeline’s sunken face.
Alaric slammed his palm against the rune on the trunk.
“Uro!” Pain raced through his hand again. He poured energy into the tree, willing it to burn. The bark smoked as he seared the rune off.
Out of the corner of his eye, pulses of white light appeared along the path ahead of them. He glanced at them, but the distraction had consequences, and the pain flared, arcing up each finger. He gasped and narrowed his focus back to the energy flowing through his palm. The pain receded slightly. The ghost stared a moment longer, then faded away. Alaric dropped his arm, leaving a hand-shaped scorch mark on the trunk where the rune had been.
Alaric’s head snapped forward.
The trees ahead of him were full of ghosts, each a washed-out version of himself.
“Dead… She’s dead… Dead.” The words filled the air.
Alaric clutched the pouch at his neck until he felt the rough stone inside.
A ghost reached toward him. “She’s dead…” Its voice rattled in a long sigh.
Alaric spurred Beast into a gallop, trusting the horse to follow the trail. The whispers clung to them as they ran. Alaric shrank down, hunching his shoulders, wresting his mind away from the memory of his wife’s tired eyes, her pale skin.
The trees ended, and they raced out into a silent swath of grass, running up to the base of an immense cliff. Alaric pulled Beast to a stop, both of them breathing hard. Gripping the saddle, Alaric looked back into the trees. The forest was dark and quiet.
“I take it back,” he said, catching his breath, “the ghosts were worse than the wolves.” He sat in the saddle, pushing back the dread that was enveloping him. She wasn’t dead. The ghosts were just illusions. He’d get the antidote tonight. She’d be fine.
When his heart finally slowed, he gave Beast an exhausted pat on the neck.
“This path used to be a lot easier to follow.”