As the day is long, sweet child.

Julian Auros, formerly the Iron General

 

Ionas scratched out the last line of the rune, rendering it useless. Not much point in that one now. It needed secrecy. “You’ve been drowning people, I hear.”

“What, you listen to the stories? That ain’t me.” The air cooled, his breath fogging the air. A cold hand touched the back of his neck.

He spun around, smacking her arm with the stick. The ghost recoiled, hissing. “No touching,” he said, grinning. He raised the stick in defence.

Damn thing looked like a child, too. Floating high off the ground, it looked like a thin, almost gaunt creature with sharp, bony features and dark eyes. Brown hair ran ragged and wild over her – it, he reminded himself. Over its shoulders. It glowed midnight blue, but its ragged clothes were stained with mud.

“I’ve been waiting,” it snapped at him.

“Pardon me if I don’t trust you,” he returned, grin fading. What had Sarea said, on that stormy night? They found her sister in the pit. “What do you want?”

It hovered a little closer. “Could let me in. Gets damn cold out here.” It bared pointed teeth. “A little fire does a soul a world of good, y’know.”

“Move on,” he said, lowering the stick. “There’s no place for you here.”

“Home’s where the heart is, don’t they say?” The ghost flicked its gaze at the building then back at him. “My heart is in there, and I want her back.” Then, sing-song, “Give her to me?”

He considered it, discarding the stick on the ground. He put his hands in his coat pockets. “No,” he said, and walked away.

“What?” it said.

Ghosts were weak and useless on their own. If this one had been drowning people, it’d be so strong it wouldn’t bother with begging. They fed on pain, anger, and fear. They found power in being acknowledged. But this one had reached out and stolen warmth from Sarea, and he couldn’t be having that.

Ionas hunched up his shoulders against the cold, striding across the marketplace to the main road. It was still a child. He could use that.

“Where are you going?” it said, popping up in front of him. He veered around it, setting foot on the road. It floated along beside him, foldings its arms. “You’re ignoring me,” it said.

“I’m sure you can work it out,” he said, settling into an easy ground-covering pace. South and east, the road that led to Nettinam and South and a dozen other little towns. And –

“The west side.” The ghost cocked its head. “You shouldn’t go in there. No one will let you leave.”

He shrugged. “If they saw me. Why wouldn’t they let me leave?”

“The rot.” The ghost’s face lit up. “Big ol’ grand-daddy lives in the pit, and he’s spreading a rot. He didn’t do it until he got me. Didn’t have the power, the -”

“Language,” Ionas murmured.

The ghost sniffed. “I ain’t no child.”

He glanced at her in the corner of his eye, just long enough for her to notice and bare her teeth again. He shook his head, focussing on the road and the bridge. “So he’s cursing everyone in there. How many is in there? Can you count?”

“And I ain’t stupid. I answer your questions and you don’t let me near her.”

And there were the guards, on either side of the bridge. Two groups of four, both of them lounging on the ground talking. He looked up at the moon, maybe three quarters full, and called up a notice-me-not spell. Between footsteps shadows swallowed him, tinting the world grey. He didn’t falter. “You take her fire, you kill her. I can’t let that happen.”

The ghost moved in, then around him in a slow loop. “That’s a nice trick,” it said, folding his arms. “I got better.”

He smiled thinly. “I doubt it.”

“If she’s dead, we’re together.” The ghost stopped in front of him. He stopped too, frowning at it. It said, “That’s how it’s meant to be, us, together. If I were alive -”

“You aren’t,” he said flatly.

“If I were alive, we’d burn this town to the ground and leave them all screamin’ and dyin’ behind us.” It drifted closer. “If I were alive, we’d set the entire world alight. That’s what’s we’d do. Scatter the ashes and salt the ground, us, forever.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Thank the gods you aren’t alive, then.”

“Separated is an aberration,” it said. “She -”

Ionas snorted. “Big words for a little girl.”

“She needs me!” The force of the shout rocked him back on his heels. Lightning rippled across it, between cracks in the skin, maggots of lightning and a white, bony face with inch-long fangs.

“She’s lived a good eight years without you,” he said, lowering his voice. “I think you need her more than she needs you.”

It hissed at him, fingers curling into talons. “She’s mine!”

“She’s her own,” he said. “But she is mine to protect, and you are a danger to her. You don’t go anywhere near her until I say you can. Do you understand that?” Damn, he didn’t like the look of this. Ghosts didn’t shift their form. There was something wrong here. He needed time to figure it out.

It relaxed back into human ghost-child, grinning at him. “You say I’ve gotta earn it?”

“I say I have a deal.” He didn’t sigh in relief. Much. “You can approach her and talk to her, but you can’t touch her or feed off her. And if you’d help me deal with the demon, it’d be appreciated.”

“Oh, I’ll help you all I want.” Her grin widened more than it ought to be able to. “But you got to use my name.”

He stiffened. “I don’t think -”

“My name,” it repeated, “Or I make all those nice men see you.” He’d seen those teeth on something far from human. “Instigators don’t want people hanging around suspicious-like.”

“I’ll bet,” he muttered. “Is that the deal?”

It opened its mouth wide.

“Do we have a deal, Amisine?” he said sharply.

The girl shut her mouth, staring at him in disbelief. She lashed out at him, claws raking his cheek. He stumbled back – what was it with this family and hitting him? – and she said, “We got a deal, big man.” She smiled at him, bright and innocent. “You come along now.”

:-#-:

Amisine at least knew her way around. She led him past patrolling Instigators, around the wall that circled the west side. It stood three times his height, constructed out of rough boulders and piled up grass-covered earth, making a steep slope with rough-hewn wooden spikes at the bottom. The Instigators really mustn’t want didn’t want anyone to leave.

“I bet you’d be looking for this,” she said, stopping. He crouched down, staring at a narrow gap between boulders, wide enough for him to maybe crawl in and hidden under a mass of long grass.

“What’s the other side like?” he said, looking up at her.

“Y’come out in one of the old shacks. One right up against the wall and all blocked in by the shacks. Roof’s fallen in.” She drifted down. “They used it to sneak in and out, ‘fore the rot broke them all. Block up the hole with a light old stone. I watched. Lots of time for watching when you’re dead.” She cocked her head. “You going in?”

He touched his face, blood smearing over his fingertips. “Not tonight,” he said. He held his hand out, palm up, and said in the language he learned from a fey queen, “Conceal.”

Humans couldn’t do glamour, but the lesser illusions? Well, he could. Unwillingly shed blood wasn’t the strongest trigger he could name. Still, it’d do in a pinch, and it’d make the spell solid enough to last.

Sarea slapped the other cheek, he thought. Symmetry. One leaves me aching, the other bleeding. He shook his head, scraping his fingers against the loose earth. The blood left behind melted black sigils into the stone underneath.

“Bar my blood, let no soul pass,” he said, and the sigils twisted and tore, shattering apart. He stood, rubbing his hand on his trousers. “That’ll hold.”

Amisine rolled her eyes. It reminded him of Sarea. “You’re just a show-off bastard, ain’t you?”

“I’ll have you know my parents were married,” he said. “Are there any others?”

“Used to be,” Amisine said, and looked along the wall.

He followed her gaze. “Used to be,” he repeated, voice low. A stake stuck out of the wall itself, and below it a scattered pile of bleached white bones. “It’s going to be a delight dealing with these people. A positive pleasure.”

The ghost flashed her teeth. “That reminds me. I ain’t terrified the rookies for two whole nights.” She rose upwards. “Can’t let ’em think they’re safe, can I?”

“And if I want you?” he called out.

“You just got to wait for me to come around,” she shouted back and, laughing, she dove down the other side of the wall.

He shuddered. Now he knew he was desperate, making a deal with that thing. Tired, old, and so very desperate. Ionas turned his head back. The demon’s black cloud blocked out the stars, but it took more than that to stop the moon. The rays were weak, but any moonlight felt good on his face.

Ionas sighed, stood up straight and tall, and headed back to Gregor’s. A few hours of sleep didn’t sound all that bad.

back home forward