To the south of the stained-glass windows another door opened onto what had clearly been a library. Sagging shelves lined the walls, and most of the books had long since succumbed to the ruin of damp and vermin. Rahab looked around and sighed sadly.
In front of the fireplace were two chairs, one of which had fallen over. There was a distinct silk scarf of rich red and lustrous gold draped partially over the tumbled seat. It might have been Varisian. In the fireplace a stone bookend shaped like an angelic being with butterfly wings had been cast aside. Between the two chairs a book had fallen, somehow undamaged by the passing of time, and upon this Rahab’s gaze alighted. The others were looking at the scarf. No breeze traversed the room, yet the diaphanous cloth appeared to move.
“Does anyone see that scarf moving?” asked Gloriana.
Lem had seen enough. Every moment he silently weighed his decision to join these tall folk. Lack of clarity left him surly and nervous. The gardener drew a dagger and smoothly twirled it into a reverse grip, then knelt, plunging the blade into the cloth, pinning it to the floorboard. The others were filing cautiously into the room.
Gloriana regarded the scarf. There was something foreboding about it, and she glanced down momentarily at her waist where a silken drape of similar color hung. A gift from one of her great-aunts, it was ruddy, streaked with lines of golden thread like rays of sunlight. When the oracle looked up Aldern Foxglove was standing in front of her, tousled hair framing his lean face, and in his eyes a vibrant insanity.
Lem watched as the scarf shuddered around the dagger blade, then tore free and flew through the air of its own volition. It wrapped around the oracle’s neck almost too fast for the eye to follow.
Gloriana was suddenly caught within a dream, frozen with a fear great and deep and all-encompassing. Aldern’s hands worked over and around, winding the ends of the red-gold scarf around his palms, and then he looped the cloth around the oracle’s neck. She could not move; she felt trapped behind the eyes of another. Aldern’s face twisted as he leaned close, and a strange spectral light cast in relief his enraged, fearful, forlorn features. Gloriana felt Foxglove’s breath as the manor lord’s shaking hands clenched the scarf tighter and tighter. Her vision dimmed, her hearing faded. On the verge of unconsciousness her final thought was that her husband had gone utterly mad, and the ensuing darkness was as deeply sad as it was fraught with terror.
The other saw only the scarf leap unbidden to wrap around the oracle’s throat, the gasping struggle that ensued, and then the beautiful honey-haired woman collapsed with a horrid, gurgling noise of last breath.
Rahab was in motion in an instant, already drawing a healing elixir, uncorking it as he knelt near Gloriana.
Lem dashed forward even as the oracle fell. He knew little of these sorts of things. His own upbringing had fostered limited exposure to spiritual contexts, either among fellow halflings or by association with tall peoples, including the diabolic Chellish formality. Perhaps he had simply overheard it once—that ridding a ghost required the ghost’s own realization of itself—and so he shouted the only weapon in his arsenal against haunting: “This is not your wife, Aldern! You have already slain her!” Lem clutched desperately at the tangle of cloth writhing like a snake escaping capture, tightening against his efforts to pull it free.
In the next instant Kara joined Rahab and Lem. The alchemist hooked her slender fingers into the material of the scarf and hauled in concert with the gardener. The cloth drew away from the purple line around the oracle’s throat, and Gloriana drew breath once more, shallow and shuddering. Abby moved close to join the others in frantic cordon around the heart of their party. Rahab tilted the healing draught into the oracle’s mouth in a splash that brought her suddenly awake, coughing, sputtering, eyes wide with alarm. The scarf went suddenly slack. Alchemist and gardener ripped the thing away.
Gloriana blinked. The apparition of Aldern Foxglove was gone, but the constriction around her throat had been as real as the rotten floorboards beneath her, as real as the cliff of grassy stone upon which the house was perched. She drew a hitching breath, deep and ragged, and it sent her into another fit of pinched coughing. When it passed the house was quiet once more save for a faint, thin whistle of air rising up the chimney.
Rahab exhaled long and sat back as the oracle struggled upright. Kara gave the oracle a hand. Lem slowly returned to his dagger and worked it free of the plank. Abby rested her blade on her shoulder, looking around the room, grappling with the notion that—one diseased rat aside—no danger the manor yet presented could be successfully vanquished with a sword. More so, the mightiest magic she had ever seen—the power her friends wielded—seemed thus far insufficient. She was not defeated, but like her companions she was mystified, and her frustration made her feel like cutting something. Worse still, it made her afraid.
Wizard and oracle gained their feet. “Thank you,” Gloriana said. Rahab nodded as he brushed the dust from his lower robe.
“This is where you say, ‘You’re welcome.’”
The wizard blinked and stammered. “Of course. You are welcome.” The oracle smiled again, one of her genuine, winning gestures, bright and alive.
A moment later, almost as one, they both detected for magic, and still none made itself plain. Lem was busy searching the fireplace and the discarded bookend therein. When the gardener drew it forth the others could see the soot-covered stone had one of its wings broken off, and a dark scar of dried blood matted with hair stained one side of the blunt weight. Rahab bent to retrieve the book between the chairs. It was a text on Varisian history. After a brief perusal, he stowed the volume in his backpack for later scrutiny.
Kara had the scarf in her hands and was inspecting it closely, as though the fabric might divulge some secret of the phantom that gave it violent life. She guessed it was Varisian, and pressed to make appraisal the alchemist would have valued it highly for the quality of material and craftsmanship.
Then Gloriana snatched it from Kara’s grasp and threw it resolutely into the fireplace, followed by a flask of oil. The alchemist started in surprise. The oracle snapped her fingers and a spark flared on the soaked rag.1 Flames burst and churned oily smoke up the chimney for the first time in decades.
“Be free from pain and the burdens of the Road,” Gloriana whispered under her breath, staring at the tangle of cloth as it shrank and blackened. Lem regarded the action with approval, silently regretting that he had not had time to do the same with whatever undoubtedly damned text the Chelliaxian devil-worshipper had claimed from the library floor moments ago.
As she watched the scarf burn the oracle felt something displace inside. A shudder rose, expanding, fighting for purchase alongside her own familiarity with her body and mind. Her memory briefly crossed with that of someone else, as though her soul was joined by another. The interloper was Varisian, a woman, powerful and beautiful and ancient as all women of the Road were, and Gloriana knew as certainly as sunlight that this other spirit was also herself: Iesha, raven-haired with deep black eyes who had danced with Rahab, who had danced with Aldern, who had danced with her husband. Partially in a dream, partially awake, the twin-souled oracle glanced at the wizard. For a moment her ghost-sight pierced through all the layers of him, laying plain his power, his allure, his weakness, his ambition, his dread, his hope, his Infernal spark, his elevation, his turmoil, the scope of his emotion and being. He was her husband, her foil, her lover, her murderer, her counsellor, her friend, her companion on the journey. She knew no ghost, no spirit, no haunt could rival the living resonance charging the air in that moment, and she wondered if Rahab felt it, too.
Then as quickly as it had come the intrusion passed. Like a ship’s prow cutting through the mists of a fog-shrouded sea came clarity, and Gloriana realized that what the party had experienced thus far was not simply the machinations of a force undead. She did not yet have the means to categorize it, but she knew that the nightmare of The Misgivings was an old thing wrought long before Aldern Foxglove and recent misfortunes. No catalogue of campfire stories about ghosts could measure the complexity of unrest manifest in that place.
The oracle exhaled slowly. Her haunts appeared as a cloud of condensed breath, drifting signal of frost weeks before winter.
“Lem,” she said, her voice even despite the pain in her vocal cords, “keep wary. First sign of something strange, call out.” The gardener did not relish the implication that he was, for lack of a better designation, next in line.
Then the oracle bowed her head and silently said a prayer for Iesha and Aldern. When she finished she looked up and saw her friends waiting, friends as significant as any she had ever known at all her roadside camps. Her glance fell on Rahab, and Gloriana felt a frisson as Abby’s voice echoed in her memory: He loves you, Glo.
Ghosts of the Road, she thought.
In happier times the next room would have been described as “cozy.” Damp and mold marred the wood and what remained of the curtains on the south-facing window. Lem was first to enter, proceeding cautiously, ever-watchful. He stopped at the window and gently pushed the tattered cloth to one side with the blade of his knife. In the glass stood his reflection and the reflection of the room, and a figure immediately behind him. She was sad and beautiful, long hair as black as pitch and a figure of ample, seductive curves. A chill plummeted to the bottom of his being, an icy spear that transfixed his body. It took the mightiest effort to turn around; the motion seemed to take hours, like maneuvering through the sticky deliquescence of dreams.
“Something strange,” Lem said quietly, almost as afterthought.
Then Gloriana was channeling golden light, swift and smooth, filling the small room with honey-warm glow that, for a moment, chased away all damp, all gloom. When her emanation faded the chamber returned to its decayed reality. Nothing else happened. They made a brief search, but there was little to find. Lem recounted what he had seen. By now it seemed little surprise, though no less fraught with fear, and they all nodded understanding as the gardener described the woman he had witnessed.
“This woman we keep seeing,” remarked Rahab, “my sense is that she is not malevolent, however taxing her dancing may be.”
Gloriana nodded. “She is a victim of the malignancy here. I think her name was Iesha. Her ghost is trying to tell us something.”
“Why is it,” the wizard asked, “that phantoms are such poor communicators? Why not simply state plainly whatever torments them?”
“Perhaps the journey to the realm of death renders such directness impossible, like a toll exacted for not passing on. Not all who die become ghosts. Those that do may be unwilling to let go, and it may be that difficulty in direct communication is a signal from the cosmos to peacefully move on.”
Abby was intrigued by Gloriana’s theory. Rahab was not. “What nonsense.”
“You have a better explanation?” the oracle folded her arms.
“I do not. However, I do not understand where people get this ridiculous idea that the cosmos actually cares about them, that it is somehow invested in the outcomes of any of us, lesser or greater, alive or otherwise. And people say I’m arrogant.”
“What of the gods?”
At that even Lem’s eyebrows arched.
“You don’t believe in the gods?” Gloriana asked.
“‘Gods,’” Rahab said with barely-contained disdain, “is shorthand used by people too incurious about existence. It is not so far-fetched to imagine beings of tremendous power in the cosmos. Any one of us may encounter many such things. But there is no reason to believe those beings are the ultimate expression of either existence or power. There is always more power to be had, always more existence to experience, always more knowledge to secure. The less of our reserves we cede to other beings the better our own chance to attain greater heights.”
There was a long silence. Abby remained quiet, but paid close attention, eyes bright.
The oracle smirked. “You are going to have a difficult time convincing Father Zantus that the gods are not real.”
“How fortunate for me, then, that I am utterly unmoved to convince him of anything. Regardless, I do not dispute their reality. I dispute their categorization,” the wizard rejoined.
Abby lifted her sword to her shoulder with a small sigh. “Philosophy class is over. We have work to do.” The warrior led the others into the hallway.
Perfidious, devil-worshipping, Chelliaxian slaver scum, thought Lem. Brass balls, though.
1 Spark orison.