In hindsight, the ghost stories were probably a bad idea. But Kayl's Star Cluster had been on their last assignment longer than they expected, and their return to Kith Alunel had been brief indeed; the Elder Mothers had sent them out to investigate the var'Mitra estate almost immediately. (Kayl suspected that decision was based less on the pressing nature of the investigation and more on news of Varevice and Barthelmy's failed experimental spell at the far northern Star Hall. Small wonder the Elder Mothers wished to preserve both the goodwill of their neighbors and the roof of the Hall.) All of them had been looking forward to some time at home, and Barthelmy in particular had waxed nostalgic about being back at the dormitories. It was more than a little disappointing to be out again so soon, especially for what seemed a trivial cause.
And the assignment -- phrased as more of a 'request' from Elder Mother Anaya -- had certainly lent itself to a certain train of thought. For some of them, at least.
"I suspect we have been handed a rabbit chase," Evla said as she spread out her bedroll. "A spate of bad dreams among a rural populace could have any number of causes, even before one considers the magical. The var'Mitra estate might have nothing to do with them at all."
"A few of the Elder Sisters with strong Sight have been catching glimpses of it lately," Kayl added. "That's enough to send a Star Cluster to investigate. We've been sent out on flimsier pretexts."
"I still think the Elder Mothers at the northern Hall were overstating the damage. We caught the worst of it, after all." Barthelmy tugged at one of her flyaway locks of black hair. "Do we really need the fire tonight?"
"It's going to get cold." Kayl added another log to the fire. "Summer's over."
"Not that cold." Still, Barthelmy scooted closer to the fire.
"We might not have needed it at all if we'd made better time on the road," Varevice said without looking up from her book. Her witch-light bobbed gently over her shoulder, and she made another note in the margins.
"That was my decision." Kayl thumped her roll a few times and dug a rock out from under it. "If we're going to be poking around a place that causes bad dreams, I'd much rather do it in daylight. Wouldn't you?"
Evla laughed, a faint musical note to it. "A fair point."
Kayl nodded her thanks and sat back. The fire illuminated the faces of her Star Cluster: Evla's cool Shee serenity that belied a fathomless kindness and determination; Barthelmy's wicked grin and disheveled black locks as she rooted through her pack; Varevice's intent gaze on her book, one lock of hair wrapped around her index finger. Her family. Above, the stars were cool, as was the breeze coming off the fields; summer fading, but still present.
"A place that gives people bad dreams," Barthelmy said happily, sitting back down with a thump. "It's like the stories we used to tell late at night in the dormitories."
"I seem to remember that the last time we were in the dormitories, we were talking about star-focus points and residual arcana, and why our spell might have misfired," Varevice said dryly.
Barthelmy nudged her. "You know what I mean. I was looking forward to a good night of gossip and scary stories."
Evla ducked her head. "I always fell asleep too quickly."
"Because you're always up before the sun to study," Kayl said. "No, I know what you mean. Ghost tales. And I know you were there for them, Varevice; we were still telling them up through the day we chose our Cluster."
"Like the one about the Elder Sister in the cursed lichyard, who riddled the bones for a whole night until sunlight could kill the lich-king. Or the sklathran'sy who escaped from Varna on a raft, only to find that their helmsman had died before they ever set out and kept them guided through sheer force of will." Barthelmy's eyes gleamed. "Or the one with the travelers who discover their innkeeper is really a Varnan wizard cannibal!"
"That one always seemed far-fetched to me," said Kayl.
Barthelmy didn't notice. "Or the one about the Star Cluster who come home to find the whole Hall abandoned and empty, only it turns out they died on the way home and hadn't realized it."
Evla folded her hands in her lap. "Well, now I don't need to hear any of these stories, because you've just told me the endings."
"Lich-kings have been disproven," Varevice added.
"That's not the point," Barthelmy said. "Nor is knowing the ending. The whole point of a ghost story is that you're telling it when you know you're safe and warm and can afford to get the shivers. They're stories for when you're comfortable and want to be even more glad of that comfort." She turned to Kayl. "Come on, Kayl, tell us one."
"You know all the same ones I do." But she paused, thinking back to before Mother Dalessi had found her, to Larrin whispering her stories . . . "Although . . . do you remember when I first came to the Star Hall, I was so scared of spilling anything?"
"I remember," Varevice said, glancing up. "You didn't panic, but you froze up a lot."
"That was because of the Bloody Man."
Barthelmy's eyes went wide, and she made a stifled, happy noise. Even Evla turned to stare at Kayl. "Go on."
Kayl cast her mind back. "A long, long time ago, there was a band of Thar who had a miser for a leader, a tightfisted bastard who'd scrape every last quarter-copper before spending one. They had planned to cross the desert, but their leader scoffed at the travelers who tried to sell them water. It wasn't until they got halfway across that they discovered that due to their leader's miserliness, they hadn't brought nearly enough water. There was a fight, and the leader lost, and they buried him up to his neck in the sand, saying that since he was fine risking their lives, he could have their death as well. And then they left him behind, even though he screamed at them until they were out of earshot, even though the vultures came for him."
She drew a shivering breath. "They'd almost made it across the desert when a man showed up one night, a man in all torn black clothing. But when he came close to their fires, they could see that where his face should be was only a ruined, ragged, red mess. The vultures had eaten it, you see, but it hadn't stopped him. One by one, he strangled them all, then moved on. And now he waits for children, especially children who spill water, because he still can't abide the thought of wasting water. So if you spill, clean it up quick, and maybe you won't see the man with no face left, the Bloody Man waiting to punish you."
There was a moment's silence. Evla's green eyes were wide, and Varevice's pen stilled. Barthelmy shook her head. "That's more of a cautionary tale than a real ghost story."
Kayl glanced up from the fire, a little nettled. "It scared me enough as a girl."
"That's my point. It's meant to scare children into obeying. Not give people a shiver over the fire."
Kayl started to argue, then sighed. "I don't know. I vaguely remember some of the adults telling different Bloody Man stories, but I wasn't old enough to listen. This was all a long time ago, ten years and more."
"So they could still be proper ghost stories," Barthelmy mused. "What about you, Evla? Do the Shee have ghost stories?"
"Barthelmy, are you really sure this is wise?" Varevice asked.
"What's the harm?" She curled up, arms locked around her knees. "It's a great night for it, and I'm not tired at all."
"Evla, you don't have to tell one," Kayl said.
Evla's eyes narrowed as she gazed into the fire. "I don't know . . . There's the tale of how Artallin heard his wife."
Kayl rolled her eyes. "Tell it!" Barthelmy said.
Evla closed her eyes and cleared her throat. When she spoke, it was in a low, fluting singsong:
"One night Artallin woke
one starless night of no cloud
woke to hear his wife calling,
saying Come down to the ashy path
and past the seven birches
the seven leafless birches
and over the silent river
across the path of rattling stones
the scattered path of rattling stones
to the sunken circle
where I am waiting for you.
And she was."
The last word seemed to hang in the air, its sibilants like wind through branches (seven leafless birches, Kayl thought). At length Barthelmy stirred. "I'm not sure I understand. It's pretty, and it's unsettling, but I don't see why it's scary."
"Because his wife was dead," Evla said, puzzled. "She was dead and calling him."
"Then you should have said that to begin with!"
"I understood," Varevice said, closing her book with a snap. "It's dependent on certain Shee poetic conventions -- the ashy path is a sign of Shadow corruption, the seven leafless birches of death beyond death, and the river --" She shrugged. "Well."
"Thank you," Evla said. She tipped her chin up and looked down her nose at Barthelmy, then ruined the effect by sticking her tongue out. Barthelmy giggled.
"I've got one," Varevice said. She rested her book on her lap, folding her hands over it. "A long time ago and not so far from here, there was a group of scholars."
"Sorcerers?" Barthelmy asked.
"Decidedly not. None of them had the talent for magic. But the brother of one of them did, and he used it poorly, seeking what he should not have. He was touched by Shadow, and the scholars realized that he would come after them, hoping to use what they'd learned.
"They took refuge in the family home, the same one that they'd spent years altering to their preference, living together as seekers of knowledge. The secrets they'd unveiled, the research they'd done . . . only a little of it survives, but it was groundbreaking work, all of it." Varevice sighed, hands briefly tightening on the cover of her book, as if worried it would go the way of the scholars' research. "But now they had cause to fear. They moved more quickly, hiring builders to change the house, set it according to plans no one could understand. Strange lights could be seen at all hours, and voices were heard chanting in echoes all around.
"Finally, as the brother drew near, the four scholars worked all night -- some say making a bargain, some say working a death-spell, some say invoking things worse and stranger than Shadow. A brilliant light shone from all windows of the house, and when it receded, the house was empty. The brother wreaked his fury on what was left, but in the end he could do nothing but rage, and he, too, left the house empty and alone."
Kayl and the others waited for more, and finally Barthelmy could stand it no more. "And then what?"
"And then nothing. That's all there is."
"What happened to the brother?"
"Killed by a hero some decades later, I think. Pai ron Seiris lists the battle in his Minor Magics of the Snake Mountains."
"That -- that isn't --" Barthelmy sighed. "Look, it's a good start, but for it to be a good story there has to be more. Like where the bodies ended up, or how anyone who stayed there was found dead of fright, or at least something."
"I hate to say it, but Barthelmy's right," Kayl said. "It's not really very scary."
"Good," Varevice said. "Because that's where we're headed. That's the history of the var'Mitra estate."
The stories -- and Varevice's end to them -- had had more of an effect than Kayl liked. She went from uneasy dreams of the Bloody Man to a mishmash of Bartelmy's favorite gory tales, particularly the mad innkeeper and the dead sklathran'sy helmsman, and woke with where I am waiting for you ringing in her head. Judging by the expressions on her Cluster's faces, they'd had similar nights. But no one spoke of it on the way.
As ominous locations went, the var'Mitra estate wasn't much. The hill below the house was covered in fields of gently waving grain, and a double row of apple trees led halfway up the hill before veering off toward the current owner's house. The house itself was a simple, two-story structure, stone walls crumbling in places and flowers growing out of the cracks, high windows arched and empty of glass or shutter. If there was any spookiness to it, it was only the sort of old, abandoned stone buildings everywhere, of empty windows and shadowed insides.
Still, after last night, that was quite enough. Evla's soft thanks for bringing them here in daylight drew a murmur of agreement.
Varevice and Barthelmy paused as they reached the door, and after a second both raised their hands and began to chant. Kayl glanced at Evla. "I don't sense anything."
"Nor do I," Evla responded. "But best to be sure."
The chant continued, rising to a high note, then stopped. A pigeon flew out of a high window, warbling to itself. "No magic," Barthelmy said.
"None that we can immediately perceive," Varevice corrected. "Though I have the sense . . ."
They waited; Varevice's hunches were often close to the mark. Finally she shrugged and shook her head. "Nothing. I'm just oddly reminded of the training ground."
The double doors had long since been broken by looters (a good sign, Kayl told herself; anything that had lasted this long untouched did so by unnatural means). Sunlight filtered through the ivy-covered windows and, in places, through the ceiling, casting a murky green light over once-polished stone floors. A wide staircase rose from the front hall to the second floor, and doors opened onto rooms to either side. Kayl squinted up at the staircase, then drew her rapier. "All right," she said. "Room-by-room search. Stay together -- I'll take point, Varevice takes guard. Keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary."
The rooms were high-ceilinged and airy, even with the ivy over the outside windows. Not even time could conceal the skill and care that had gone into their construction. And they had been made with one goal that overrode all others, an indication of var'Mitra and the other scholars' care. "Shelves," Barthelmy murmured as they crossed another threshold.
"Stone shelves," Varevice added. "This house was made to hold knowledge."
"It's a shame," Barthelmy said, running her fingertips over one soot-blackened shelf. "Think of how much was lost."
"Not just quantity, but quality. Var'Mitra and her fellows had some of the best minds of their times . . ." Varevice sighed.
Kayl frowned, glancing at the far door. They'd made nearly a full circuit of the house, circling sunwise, and in every room, the shelves had been on the right, sometimes covering the whole wall -- even in the kitchen, where a few shelves hung above a pump and trough (probably courting disaster when both were full). Each room had seemed normal enough, and yet the whole didn't quite add up.
"Small," Evla said, echoing her thoughts. "The rooms are too small given the outer dimensions of the house. There should have been some rooms to this side by now." She pointed to the shelf-laden wall.
"Secret door?" Barthelmy's eyes lit up. "Like the one the mad Varnan used to kill his guests?"
"No, and stop that," Kayl said. "There's certainly something, but I want to check the second floor first."
As soon as they ascended the broad staircase, though, the reason for the smaller rooms became clear. Where the extra rooms should have been was a broad, square courtyard, but there was no access from the first floor at all. The upper landing, roof long collapsed and scattered, opened onto a balcony and second stair that led down into the courtyard, apparently the only way to reach the courtyard. The rooms on the second floor were smaller; a narrow hallway ran along the outside of the house, with doors leading in to the smaller rooms that faced the courtyard. The roof over the landing had fallen in, though a few stubborn oak doors clung to their frames, and the floorboards underfoot creaked and protested under their weight.
Kayl stepped out onto the balcony, followed by the others. She drew a slow, hissing breath. "I have to admit, this is the first part of the estate that looks like it could cause bad dreams."
Varevice sniffed, but not very loud. It was hard to argue against; while the rest of the house had been abandoned and decrepit, it was no more so than any other very old building, and certainly less than some places they'd spent the night. Here, though, the courtyard was not just derelict but dead. Spindly, leafless trees, one at each corner of the yard clawed at the air like prisoners trying to get out, and even the grass growing between stones had withered -- not to brown, but to a pale gray, as if color had been sapped along with life.
In the center of the courtyard, where it drew the eye again and again, gaped a wide black pit. "A fountain, you think?" Evla tried.
"A well, more likely. Keep your guard up, all of you."
"What kind of place has a courtyard you can't reach from the first floor?" Barthelmy asked, taking a few steps down toward the yard.
"The same kind that has stone shelves in every room," Varevice returned.
Kayl advanced down the steps, rapier in guard, and the others followed. Nothing else moved, and even when she reached the last step, Kayl felt no telltale tingle of magic. "Nothing," she said. "Nothing yet."
Barthelmy came to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. "Varevice is right. There's something familiar about this place."
"Training grounds again?" Kayl asked.
"No . . . maybe . . . no. I don't think so. It's as if I should know this place, but I don't."
"Guard your mind," Evla said sharply. "There are spells that can cause that sense."
Kayl glanced at the ring of windows -- all on the second floor, narrow and high and arched -- that surrounded the courtyard. A sparrow perched in one, then fluttered away, going through the room behind it rather than cross the courtyard itself. Her gaze returned to the open well. Not even the day's light could touch that emptiness. "Back up the stairs. We make a circuit of the second floor; I don't want to leave an unexplored space surrounding us. Then we start divining here. If we have to."
"Hold on," Barthelmy said. She looked at the walls, then again at the empty well. "If they had a pump in the kitchen, why would they need a well here?" She took a step toward the well.
"Barthelmy --" Kayl warned.
The black-haired girl shook her head, still approaching the well. "Do you hear --"
The courtyard exploded.
Kayl thought afterwards that it was almost the opposite of an explosion, that the burst of darkness against her eyes had been almost exactly like an afterimage with nothing to cast it. At the time, though, all that registered was the blast, the shock, and the feeling of being shoved back, as if a great hand had pushed her aside. Kayl yelled and struck out blindly.
Her sword connected and rebounded, and she staggered back. She stood before a gray stone wall, marred with soot and time and now sporting a pale chip where her blade had struck. The air rang with the remnants of an echo: steel on stone.
Kayl turned. "Barthelmy!" No answer. "Evla! Varevice!" Her voice fell flat in the stale air. This room wasn't one they'd explored -- she was on the second floor, daylight streaming through the broken ceiling. Broken tiles crunched under her feet as she hurried to the window. "Barthelmy!"
The courtyard was empty, the empty well at the center leering at her. Her sisters were alive -- she would have felt it if not, surely -- but they were just as obviously not here.
Her gaze rose to the windows on the opposite wall. The sparrow had long since left, and the sun was at the wrong angle to let much light into those rooms. And yet, there had been something, a moment ago, like a leaf caught in wind . . .
She shook her head. Nothing. And from the looks of it, she hadn't been just pushed back, but back and to one side; the balcony and stairs leading into the courtyard were to her left, four windows down.
A heavy oak door hung slightly askew to her right, but its hinges creaked and yielded when she pushed with her free hand. The room beyond wasn't pointing the right way, though -- it should have turned antisunwise, circling the courtyard, if she had the layout of the second floor right. And there shouldn't have been any more windows on this side of the courtyard, not if she'd counted correctly. She picked her way across the floor to the windows, kicking aside detritus, and peered out -- to see the balcony and staircase leading into the courtyard to her left, four windows down.
She turned. It was hard to make out any signs of passage in the mess on the floor, but it did look disarranged, as if someone had followed a path to the oak door -- the door very like the one on her right. And there, on the far wall, a bright mark stood out against the weather-aged stone: the chip she'd knocked out with her sword.
The same room that she'd just left. Fifteen paces on a side, two doors, the heavy oak one that she'd just come through hanging slightly askew on the other side of the room, still swaying a little.
Forcing herself to breathe slowly, Kayl turned back to the door she'd come through, only to find that it wasn't solid oak at all, but a paneled door missing one panel and part of its frame. She pushed it open and stepped through -- into the same room again, the chip on the wall, the staircase four windows to her left, a solid oak door behind her.
"No," she breathed, and stepped back -- into the same room. There was no point at which the door changed, but it was still the oak when she stepped through and the broken panels when she stepped back. Above the broken door's edge, she could just see another room, leading toward the landing. A room she could not reach.
She turned in place, looking from one door to the next. There had to be a way out; she just wasn't seeing it. The windows -- but they were too narrow to let even a child through. If she climbed out and over -- but the places where the ceiling had collapsed were far too high, and no handholds presented themselves. Through the floor? No; the old oak had held here, and she'd blunt her rapier trying to chop through that. She backed up slowly, yelping when a stick turned under her boot.
She turned to the window again. Something across the courtyard flickered, and she looked up. "Barthelmy? Varevice, Evla?"
A figure moved in the room across from her, visible only as a shadow. Kayl cupped her hands over her mouth and tried again. "Sister! I can't tell how, but I think I've been mazed -- I can't leave this room. Can you move?"
The figure paused, silhouette turning slightly, then began to walk, passing from window to window, toward the landing. Kayl breathed a sigh of relief. Probably Varevice, or Evla -- they moved without any hurry, taking all the care necessary to move through the estate. When she got back to Barthelmy, she was going to give her such a lecture . . .
The figure stepped out onto the balcony, daylight painting ragged black clothes that no Star Sister would choose to wear. Light advanced up to the blank red face, stripped of features, and all Kayl's training retreated under a shriek of childhood panic.
She stumbled back and through the door, across the room and through the door, across the room and through the door again, aware that she was getting nowhere but unable to think beyond the chorus of away, away, away. When she paused -- and she did not pause long -- the figure had moved, and she could hear the creak in the floorboards as it circled the house, coming for her, coming for her --
Her sword turned in her hand, and she fumbled it, coming up with both hands pressed against the hilt. The milky gem was cool and stilling against her skin, and Kayl forced herself to slow down, her breath coming in great ragged gulps. "There is no Bloody Man," she whispered between gasps. "There is no such thing. It's a spell -- it's this place --"
Except there was still no magic to be sensed. Only the prickle of her nerves, the rush of panic fading from her blood, the creak of boards and the whisper . . .
No. That wasn't in her head. A dry whisper, like paper drawn over sand, rasped from the broken door. "Justice . . ."
"No," Kayl said, her voice harsh. What were the ghosts in Barthelmy's stories seeking? Justice against their killers? Justice to thieves invading their home? "No," she said again, shaking her head, drowning out the whisper.
She pushed away from the wall and took a deep breath, running her fingers over the jewel in the hilt of her sword. "Justice . . ." the whisper began again, but she ignored it, turning her sword till the point faced down as if she were part of a ritual guard and advancing on the broken door. There was nothing to fear, she told herself.
"Easy to say," she murmured. A shadow glided past on the far side of the door; a red, blank face, seeking her. Kayl shook her head, closed her eyes, and continued her advance despite the thumping blood in her ears. There was no ghost here, no Bloody Man, only the empty estate and somewhere her sisters --
Her eyes snapped open. There was magic here, no more than a tingle at the edge of her perception. But it was magic she knew. And though the red-faced shadow hovered on the far side of the door, visible just beside the askew frame, the broken panel in the middle of the door showed no trace of it. Only a glimpse of gray cloth.
"Sisters," Kayl whispered, then drew back her empty hand and plunged it through the broken panel. She heard a gasp, felt cloth against her fingers, then a hand clasping hers.
The door shattered around her arm, falling to the floor in splinters of rotten wood. Varevice stood on the far side, gripping Kayl's hand so tight her knuckles were white. Several locks of brown hair had unspooled from under her cap. "Kayl," she said, letting go of her hand. "I hope I'd find you here."
"I'm just glad I found you at all." She stepped out of the room and into the long hallway that circled the outside of the second floor. "Any sign of Barthelmy or Evla?"
"Not yet. They're here, though." She summoned a witch-light, its cool glow augmenting the thin, patchy sunlight that came through the roof. "I expect they're trapped as you and I were. Aside from us, though, the estate is empty."
"I --" Kayl swallowed. "I saw what I thought was the Bloody Man."
"A figure with a red face, circling the hall? Yes, I saw it, too."
"There was more than that. I thought . . . I heard someone calling for justice. As if it were one of Barthelmy's ghosts, seeking retribution beyond the grave."
Varevice nodded slowly. "It's not a ghost."
"Or at least, not just a ghost." She peered at one of the broken outer windows, nodded to herself, and kept walking. "I know why this place reminded me of the training ground. Do you remember how the mothers would always perform a purification after practical spellcasting lessons?"
"Sometimes more than one," Kayl muttered, remembering her less-than-stellar performance before she joined the sword-wielders.
"Exactly. Novice magic has less structure than proper magic. Even when it's successful, it tends to deform over time. It dissipates only partially, so that it can seem to be come part of the background."
"So someone cast novice magic here. Which is why we couldn't sense it before."
Varevice nodded, striding on. Kayl followed, watching for unsteady floorboards. "They were scholars, after all. Var'Mitra and her fellows must have tried some powerful spellworking based on what they'd read, but they lacked the skill and experience to complete it flawlessly. I'd imagine it was meant as a defense, although I'm fairly certain they invoked the Change Rune of Time in its inverted state. Hence the effects we've seen. However, I'm not sure what use it could have been in the original spell, assuming it was meant as a defensive working."
"It didn't seem to save them, if it was," Kayl said. She glanced sidelong at Varevice. "You're handling this well."
Without speaking, Varevice reached out and caught Kayl by the shoulder. Tremors ran through the sorceress, one by one. "I was alone," Varevice whispered, a raw, strained note under her usual detachment. "I don't like being alone."
Kayl laid her hand over her sister's. "You're the one who's always telling us to leave you alone so you can study," she said, trying to make a joke of it.
"That's because I know you'll still be there." Varevice held her gaze, and after a moment, Kayl nodded. Gradually, the tremors eased, and she pulled her hand free. "We have to find the others."
Back to back, moving slowly across the broken floor, the two of them made their way around the circular hall. The floor here was mostly intact, but there wasn't as much detritus -- or, Kayl realized, it had been pushed to the side of the hall by Varevice's repeated steps, much as she'd made her own path from one door to the other. This path seemed a good deal deeper, though. Kayl started to ask Varevice just how long she'd been there, then froze as a red-faced silhouette emerged from around the corner behind them. "Varevice . . ."
"I see it." But she hadn't turned, and when Kayl glanced over her shoulder, she saw a second figure, this one slighter and taller and with the same blank red face, standing at the other end of the hall. She let out a short huff of breath and raised her rapier, shaking only a little, the slim blade fragile against the shadow.
Varevice pivoted slightly, one hand on the bare expanse of wall. "I think I have it," she murmured. She traced a rune on the stone, her finger leaving a glowing trail, then laid her palm flat against the rune. "Like the Biyoni'i Severance. Remember?"
"If that’s what you did on that Melyranne voyage, then yes, we'll do it. Stop renaming your spells," she added, concentrating on her irritation rather than the empty scarlet faces.
Varevice shrugged. "It sounds better this way. On my mark . . . one, two, three!"
Kayl turned and stabbed between Varevice's finger and thumb. The blade encountered a second's worth of resistance, then slid through easily, and the wall parted around it, revealing the empty doorway that had been there the whole time.
Varevice's grin as she snatched her hand away could have lit a room. It faded a second later as they heard the crackle of magic and a weary, despairing cry.
"Evla," Varevice breathed, and charged ahead, toward the balcony. Kayl cast a glance back at the empty hall and followed, blade at the ready.
The slender Shee stood halfway down the stairs, dagger in one hand, the other raised to cast a spell. A cluster of ghostly figures swirled around her, hands outstretched, the red at their faces flapping and drifting in a way that their spectral bodies did not. A hiss rose up from them, a repeated word she couldn't make out.
It didn't matter. She ran past Varevice, straight into the fight. The ghosts parted before her blade, and those that were left evaporated at Varevice's thunderous invocation. Evla stared at them, then sank against the banister, gasping. "It's all right," Varevice said, holding her and stroking her uncharacteristically frazzled hair. "It's all right. We're here."
"They -- they wanted --" Her voice broke, and she gave a half-hysterical giggle. "Come across the river, and into the sunken circle, where I am waiting for you. I should never have chanted that song; I should have known it could still do give me nightmares even waking."
"It's just the story reflecting off of them. I mean, I thought they were the Bloody Man," Kayl said, crouching on the step below her.
"And I, too . . ." Varevice murmured, but did not elaborate. She hugged Evla tighter.
Evla drew a shaking breath. "They asked me for mercy," she said. "I can't give ghosts mercy."
Kayl glanced up and met Varevice's eyes. Evla was unquestionably the best healer in the Sisterhood, cool and dispassionate even in the face of horror, but when asked to perform the healer's final mercy, she would have nightmares for weeks. Their Cluster had taken care to stay close to her after such an act, reassuring her and bringing her back to herself.
"They're just echoes," Varevice said. "Residue from an untrained spell. They aren't seriously asking for mercy."
"If they were, then they were asking me for justice, too," Kayl said, then paused. "Wait. Did they speak to you at all, Varevice?"
The sorceress let go of Evla and straightened up. "I didn't stay to listen to them."
"But if you had, I think they would have been saying Prudence." She got to her feet. "Your Mercy," she said, addressing Evla, then turned to Varevice. "Your Prudence. Your Justice," she finished, tapping herself on the chest. "And I'll bet you anything that wherever Barthelmy is, she's being addressed as Your Compassion."
"Of course," Varevice said, eyes widening. "That's the other reason why this place -- the courtyard felt so familiar. Look at it."
Evla and Kayl turned to look at the courtyard. "Oh," Evla said suddenly.
"I don't see," Kayl said. The square courtyard with its dead trees, the black pit of a well at its center, all were the sort that might be echoed in nightmares but not memory.
"Imagine it as larger. Imagine a pool where that well is, larger and foursquare. And imagine it at night, reflecting the stars."
Kayl squinted, then drew a sharp breath. "The Court of Stars."
"Exactly. Var'Mitra and her fellows weren't of the Sisterhood, but they must have known of it. The Star Halls are repositories of knowledge and havens for educated women; they rebuilt this hall in imitation of us."
Kayl stared at the empty yard, then at the well. Barthelmy, too, had noticed it; she just hadn't known it at the time. She sheathed her rapier. "I have an idea. If -- if we go down there, can you get us out?"
Varevice sniffed. "Assuming no opposition, it would be child's play."
"I don't think we'll get any. Not this time." She held out her hands. "We approach together."
Step by step, the three made their way to the well. Despite the noonday sun above, the well itself remained dark, as if shadow had filled it entirely. A shudder ran through her when they passed the point where Barthelmy had triggered the magic residue, and Kayl's hands squeezed her sisters'.
The well was wide enough that they couldn't surround it, even with arms outstretched. Instead they stood as if Barthelmy were with them, hands out to the last quarter of the circle. "Kayl," Varevice murmured. "Look."
She glanced to one side. Behind Evla, a figure in black with a red face had emerged from the wall. Stones could just be seen through the figure's outline, but it was much more substantial than what she'd seen before. A quick glance confirmed that two more had emerged -- one behind Varevice, one behind Kayl herself. But now she could see that the red was a cloth, tied so that it covered the person's face from hairline to throat, billowing softly with each phantom breath. A mask, or the sort of thing a scholar with more of a sense of drama than magic would use in a ritual. "Not the Bloody Man at all," she said softly.
"And not Artallin's wife," Evla whispered.
Varevice only nodded, but her hand tightened on Kayl's.
They took another step, to the very edge of the pit, and the specters moved with them, taking up places that mirrored theirs. Then Kayl closed her eyes and took one more step.
Even with her eyes shut tight, the burst of light against them set sparks scattering across the inside of her eyelids. Her feet struck something -- not falling, but as if she'd just taken a deeper step than expected.
"Kayl!" She didn't need to see Barthelmy to hear the smile in her voice. "Where have you been? I've been calling for the past five minutes!"
"Five minutes?" Kayl opened her eyes. They stood in a circle in the well -- a well at all, but a pit ten feet deep, lined with stone that was only a little damp. Their step had carried them over and into the spell-protected space. The pit was narrow enough that Evla and Varevice's shoulders nearly touched hers. Barthelmy stood before them, grinning. A witch-light hung over her shoulder, its glow familiar and comforting even in the pit.
Barthelmy shrugged. "Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. Two minutes. But you didn't answer, and I got worried."
"Try five hours," Evla said shakily. "Or close to it."
The grin dropped from Barthelmy's face. "What? That can't be -- I only just dropped in here."
"Residual magic and the Change-rune for Time," Varevice said. "The novice spell was unstable enough that time varied within it. That's why novices shouldn't be allowed to use the Change-runes," she added irritably.
"Spell --" Barthelmy wheeled to face the wall. Against the damp stone, a flickering shape materialized. "You!"
Varevice laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's not its fault. It's only an echo of the original working; it's not responsible for what happened."
Barthelmy shook her head. "No -- it's more than that. Look." She held out her hand to the shade, which held out its own hand. Gray, hairless skin flickered into view, and the ghost raised its cloth mask to reveal a gray, browless face and a toothy mouth in a hesitant, uncertain smile. The ghost's gaze roved to each of them, recognizing them in a way the others had not.
"A sklathran'sy," Kayl whispered.
"You said they were scholars, Varevice? Well, so was she." Barthelmy smiled at the ghost as if she couldn't quite help herself; her role was demon-friend, after all, and here was a demon, or the ghost of one. "And she did more than var'Mitra and the others to hold the spell. She worked her own name into it." The grin burst through again. "Tielev. That was her name. She's been a part of this ever since, holding the spell together."
Tielev's shade looked to each of them again, fanged mouth working. Though it made no sound, Kayl could easily tell what was said. Your Justice. Your Mercy. Your Prudence. Your Compassion.
"But the spell deformed over time," Varevice said. "And she was still bound to it."
"Hence the bad dreams. Especially for Sisters traveling nearby -- she tried to reach out to the one group she knew would be friendly to sklathran'sy." Barthelmy turned back to them. "I had no idea you'd been caught -- I could still sense all of you, and I swear it seemed no more than a few minutes --"
"Probably it was," Varevice said. "The Time rune can do that."
Evla stirred suddenly, then embraced Barthelmy. "I'm glad you're all right."
Barthelmy stuttered briefly, but relaxed, and Kayl and Varevice joined the hug. Sisters, Kayl thought happily.
Barthelmy pulled back slightly. "I think a purification should have the right effect -- it'll be tougher than usual, but it should undo the remnants of the spell, especially since Tielev is willing to let it go now that we're here." Tielev nodded, one hand slapping the wall of the well soundlessly.
"Think of it as preparation for when you're an Elder Mother and have to clean up after all the novices," Varevice said dryly.
The four of them took up places on the four cardinal directions, and Barthelmy and Varevice raised their hands. Kayl and Evla's parts were smaller, but they repeated the phrases and cut the patterns in the air.
Barthelmy and Varevice spoke the final syllable in concert, and a stinging, prickly wave swept over her, like a blanket being pulled off. Tielev's ghost smiled and lowered its cloth mask so that she was again the strange, anonymous figure like those that had scared them, then turned and thumped on the wall three times before fading.
Varevice sniffed. "Drama."
"I don't think so." Barthelmy turned and tapped the wall just where the ghost had touched. Her eyes lit up, and she put her hands to either side of the stone, pulling it free with a thump. "See, I told you there'd be secret doors in this place."
Kayl peered inside, then recoiled from the irregular, pitchy lumps within. "Please tell me that's not one of the scholars."
"It's not." Barthelmy reached inside and touched one of the bundles. "That's what the spell was! It wasn't to protect them, but to protect their work!"
Varevice directed her witch-light to hover at the edge of the opening, and its glow revealed several lumps -- oilskin and pitch-wrap, to keep away the damp, each large enough to hold two or three volumes. "Beautiful," she said softly. "Beautiful work, even by novices. Now that's the sort of preservation spell I can understand -- they might have gone about it in the least skilled way possible, but var'Mitra and Tielev and the others did well to preserve these."
Barthelmy gave a little, sad sigh. "What is it?" Kayl asked.
"It's just -- well, this is silly." She ran a hand through her hair, sending black locks springing everywhere. "But I'd thought this was a ghost story, and it turns out it's more of a treasure-hunt."
Evla made a rude noise. Kayl thumped the smaller girl on the shoulder. "Don't worry. Once we're well out of here, safe and warm and certain, we'll tell you what happened to us."
"And if that's not a proper ghost story by your lights," Varevice said, "I will eat every last one of those books."