Ghosts are real. And now they’re Aric’s problem.
Even legendary swordsmen need time off, and Aric and his half-fairy partner Emrys are traveling south to visit Aric’s brother. But, on a stormy night at a roadside inn, an old friend stumbles in nearly frozen, swearing that the mountain pass is haunted ... and deadly.
With travelers and friends in danger, Aric and Em will try to solve the mystery of the murderous hauntings, but that won’t be simple. Swords aren’t much use against specters. Any use of Em’s magic will draw attention from a powerful fairy king. And this quest is making Aric think about his past, his future, and settling down in one spot with Em, someday ... if Emrys wants that future, too.
Boulders of ice and rock gloomed. The path, frozen hard, glinted like knives. Aric’s breath became a plume of dragon-smoke; Em’s did as well, but smaller, he noticed. “This might be tricky.”
“I don’t mind cold, I said.” Emrys regarded the iced-over mountain ascent as if planning a campaign, thoughts moving behind grey eyes. They’d left the horses; no reason to put Ginger and Starlight in danger. The walk up into the hills had grown increasingly uncomfortable despite layers: coats, cloaks, gloves, hoods. “I might be able to do something about the path.”
“At least it’s not raining.” It wasn’t, but only because the rain had drained itself. Snow hunched and loomed in fantastically tall shapes, smothering trees and brush and signposts. Treacherous ground promised slips and falls. The air hummed, skeletal and vicious, cold as funeral stones.
Emrys shaded his eyes, peeked into the pass. “Do you recall where the guard towers were?”
“Will it matter? According to Theo no one’s left alive.”
“I was wondering what might have brought the ghosts out of hiding. Clearly they weren’t here even a few months ago. Some sort of disturbance, a new construction, an unearthing ...”
“Makes as much sense as anything else.”
“Or it could be worse. A necromancer, a warlock, raising the dead.”
“Thank you for that.”
“I’m not sure I could do that.” Em knelt while talking, tugged off a glove, touched the frost-sparkle treachery of the path. “I’m not that strong. And I imagine it wouldn’t feel ... good. I don’t know, though. There are some stories ... connections, the otherworlds, the underworlds ... my father’s country isn’t the same as the land of the dead. Not exactly. But there’re some ... connections, I think.”
Aric looked at him for a second: outwardly unremarkable aside from the prettiness, simply a short and competent young man wrapped up against bitter cold, fingers touching the earth. “Your mother’s stories?”
“That, and ... here, this might help ... I can’t explain it well.” Em made a face, more at the lack of clarity than the icy slush. A thin line of water formed, pooled off to one side, rushed away; the trail became easier to walk. “Something I think I feel, sometimes. Places that you can go, when you’re not -- not entirely mortal anymore. I think that’ll be enough; I don’t want to disturb the world much more, yet.”
“We’ll be fine.” He held out a hand; Em took it, but only playfully, hopping back up, brushing dirt away. Not a witch, Aric thought, not a warlock, not an evil sorcerer. Human, too. Marvelously so. “Let’s see what we find.”
At first, that proved to be more ice, snow, giant boulders hurled downward by storms and swift water. Broken timbers protruded from one bank, the remains of some structure; Aric caught the glint of cold sun on flat metal and found a crossbow, and then, further up, the man to whom it’d belonged.
“Caravan guard,” Em said, coming over. “There’s another one on the left.”
“Frozen through. And terrified. Look at his face.”
“They died afraid. Theo mentioned voices, in the cold. The anger.”
A prickle of unease snuck down Aric’s spine. “Can you feel anything? Magically?”
“I don’t ...” Emrys hesitated. “Maybe. There’s something, but ... I don’t know what, yet.”
“Someone has to, or no one will.”
They went on. The air closed in: sharp, tearing at lungs, searing eyes. The wind whispered, lonely and shrill. It howled around the frost and rime. The sound almost made words: go away, leave us, shouldn’t be here ...
Emrys, at Aric’s side, paused. Glanced around.
Aric stopped too. “You hear something?”
“That or we’re both imagining things.”
“I might really wish we were.”