Tris watched the supper preparations with a leaden feeling in his stomach. The slavers’ hushed conversations and furtive glances only confirmed Berry’s warning. Tris glanced at Vahanian, who struggled with the small blade Berry had given him, working to weaken the ropes that bound his wrists.
Tris knew the day went hard on all of them, with a forced march and exhausting physical work. It looked to have gone hardest on Vahanian. Before the march, Vahanian might have held his own in a brief battle. Now, Tris doubted Vahanian could do more than skirmish.
Carina appeared lost in thought. Annoying as the constant sparring between the healer and Vahanian was during the caravan’s trek, now that the healer did not respond, Vahanian seemed to miss the challenge. The double blow of her brother’s disappearance and their own reversal of fate seemed more than Carina could bear.
Carroway was the most visibly nervous. If Berry’s warning was correct, then of the five of them, Carroway, Carina and Alyzza would die. As Tris watched, he realized that Carroway, too, was preparing to fight. Hidden in the folds of his tunic was one small dagger that the slavers missed. Carroway jostled the blade into his numb fingers. He caught Tris’s glance and shot a daring grin. If there was to be a battle, the minstrel was going to give the slavers a good fight.
At dusk, as the supper fires burned down, Tarren and his lieutenant walked toward the prisoners. The lieutenant shook his head. “Are you sure we can’t find buyers for the rest?” he asked, struggling to reconcile orders with his own business sense. “They aren’t the best lot we’ve taken, but there are mines in the East that would take the bunch of them, no questions asked, so long as they’re breathing.”
Tarren shook his head. “I know, I know,” he said. “Can’t say I like it either, but there’s the forest to contend with. And I like that less.”
The lieutenant eyed the trees once more and nodded. “Aye, I’ll agree with that. Well, then, best to get it done if there’s no getting around it.” He walked toward where Tris and the others were staked, and Tris watched as he strode down the line. “This one,” the slaver said with a flick of his blade toward Tris, “is the one Vakkis sent for,” he confirmed as Tarren nodded. “And this one,” he said, with a gloating grin toward Vahanian, “is the bonus to sweeten the pot.” He looked to Tarren once more. “The others?”
Tarren shook his head. “The thin one,” he said with a nod toward Carroway, “couldn’t do a day’s work in the mines. The others are worthless. Kill them.”
The lieutenant stroked his blade along his finger thoughtfully as he took another step toward the bound captives. He stopped a pace in front of Carina, and only then did the healer look up, her dark eyes unreadable. “Maybe I’ll start with you, pretty lady,” the slaver chuckled coldly. “I don’t imagine you remember, but you rapped me pretty soundly with that staff of yours. Time to pay the debt,” he said, advancing, as Carina shrank back against her post.
Vahanian’s wrists were raw as the obstinate ropes frayed. “No!” he rasped. As the lieutenant bent, blade ready, Vahanian’s bonds gave way and he sprang like a coiled snake, tackling the lieutenant and grasping for his knife hand.
Vahanian pinned the lieutenant between his knees, wresting the knife free and tossing it into the darkness, then swinging with all his waning might with clasped fists at the slaver’s jaw, until the man fell slack. Boot falls warned him of another opponent, and Vahanian tore the lieutenant’s sword free of its scabbard, dropping and rolling to come up in a crouch.
Tris lurched forward, straining against his bonds, one word in his mind. Now! he cried to the dark presences just beyond the forest’s edge. A chill wind swept through the clearing, and the ropes that bound his wrists dropped away, sending him sprawling as a damp fog suddenly rolled in around them from everywhere at once.
“I’ll cover you!” Carroway hissed, rubbing his newly freed wrists. The force of the spirits’ rage buffeted Tris like an unseen windstorm as he staggered to his feet, struggling to maintain contact with the onslaught of ghosts who swirled thickly around them as a heavy fog enveloped the clearing.
“Get to cover!” Tris shouted above the wind.
The camp erupted into chaos. Out of the corner of his eye, Tris glimpsed Vahanian intent on his next opponent as the swirling fog started to take human shapes, twisted, pain-wracked shapes with gaping, open mouths — the stuff of nightmares. It took all of Tris’s strength to continue his link with the ghosts, and as their numbers grew and their keening wails shrieked louder, he felt his control begin to slip.
Protect! Tris cried in his mind, summoning the spirits around him. He could feel their anger, their vengeance so long denied, and the malevolence he sensed grew like storm clouds. Carroway set about with a stolen sword, driving back the slavers that launched themselves at Tris. Vahanian, who was doing the lion’s share of fighting, was tiring fast. The slaver fighting Vahanian seemed to sense the mercenary’s weakness, and doubled his offense, driving Vahanian back towards the cliff face with wild blows that could have split a man from shoulder to hip.
The slaver scored a shallow cut on Vahanian’s shoulder. Sure now that he had the upper hand, the slaver beat forward with all his might, leaving Vahanian parrying wildly for his life. Then, just as Tris was sure that Vahanian could hold the slaver off no longer, a rock the size of a melon fell hard from the ledge above, striking the unsuspecting slaver cleanly on the top of his head and dropping him without a word. Above Vahanian on the cliffside came a mischievous giggle, and Tris glimpsed Berry leaping from ledge to ledge, ducking the slavers’ arrows, hurling a rain of boulders and large rocks down on their heads.
Tris returned to the spirits with an abrupt wrenching, as the malevolence of the dark cloud grew stronger. He intended for the ghosts of the forest to drive off the slavers, but now, as the spirits massed around him, Tris knew that the spirits themselves had other plans. The winter wind cut though the glade in an icy blast, chilling Tris to the bone and whipping his hair into his eyes. Beside him, Carina seized one of the stakes from the ground and was using it as a makeshift staff, holding off a slaver who threw himself at Tris, half-mad with terror.
Vahanian sprinted back to them, breathless and pale. “I can help cover,” Vahanian said, relieving Carina. “One of these days, you’ve got to start using a sword.”
“Can’t,” Carina breathed as she used the staff to trip a passing slaver and then thump him heavily on the head. “Healers may not use blades.”
“Dumb rule,” Vahanian shouted back, engaging a slaver who made a run toward Carroway, giving the bard a chance to lob a dagger and drop the man in his tracks. “Must make for a lot of dead healers.”
“I didn’t expect you to understand.”
“Someday, you’ll have to explain how whacking a man on the head is better than just running him through,” Vahanian retorted.
Tris struggled to retain his concentration as the effort drained him and he began to tire. It was now almost impossible to see in the fog, which had almost obscured the moon. Even the moon seemed cursed tonight, glowing with a strange light as darkness began to blot out its light, casting the orb in eerie colors. Deep in the miasma of the fog, Tris could hear the frightened screams of the slavers and the clang of battle. The other captives, freed by the spirits, now took up arms or fled. A few of the slavers ran from the fog wraiths into the shadowy forest, and their bloodcurdling shrieks attested to worse than specters awaiting those who copied their folly.
The fog was churning, punctuated now and then by balls of the mage fire Alyzza threw at the few slavers who remained to fight. An instinctive warning prickled at the back of Tris’s neck. The fog became more dense and the revenants easier to see. Their contorted faces would haunt his nightmares for days to come, Tris was sure, and he knew, as the wind howled louder, that he was no longer in control.
“Get shelter!” Tris shouted to his friends. “I can’t control them any more!” From their ashen faces, Tris knew that his friends suspected as much. “Go!” he cried above the wind. “I’ll keep them away from you. Head for the caves!” Vahanian and Carroway grabbed Carina by the arm and started toward the meager cover of the cliff. She pulled back.
“Tris, what about Tris?” she shouted above the howling wind.
“Get out of here!” Tris cried, raising his hands in warding against a gust that nearly took him off his feet. He could feel the spirits’ malevolence, and it took every shard of power he could summon to hold a protective aura around his friends.
“Tris can take care of himself,” Vahanian assured her, dragging her with him toward the cliff. He stopped just below the ledges. “Berry, jump!” he urged, holding out his arms. Her weight nearly drove him to his knees, but he staggered and held his feet, dragging both Carina and Berry toward a cleft in the rock. He thrust Berry in first, then Carina despite her protests, then Carroway, and sealed the opening with his body. His sword was ready in his right hand, and his left arm shielded his face, instinctively protecting himself against the spirits in their murderous rage.
Tris opened himself to the spirits, staking his waning power and his soul to hold a faint blue shield of power over the crevice where his friends sought refuge.
And then, the moon went dark.
Tris knew the sounds of pitched battle, had heard the cries of dying men before, but what erupted around him in the glade was far from human, and the torments inflicted by the spirits upon the slavers surpassed any artist’s fancy of the Place of Darkness. Bitter cold, the vengeful spirits hunted their prey, toying with the desperate slavers. The shrieks of dying men mingled with inhuman wails until Tris longed to clap his hands over his ears and dared not open his eyes to guard his sanity. The metallic tang of blood was heavy on the wind, and Tris felt the graze of spectral teeth against his flesh, shuddering as the revenants passed over him and through him, unwillingly linked to their gory vengeance, unable to pull himself free from the force that was determined to cleanse the glade and extract revenge.
The darkness seemed to last forever. At last, Tris felt the spirits wane, sated with their kill. He chanced a look skyward, to see the bright disk of the moon obliterated by a dark orb, which gradually slipped sideways, until at last, after what seemed an eternity, the moonlight shone again. The fog, its bloody work complete, reluctantly rolled back toward the forest.
We have kept our bargain, kin of Bava K’aa, the voices howled. None held by force were harmed. Now, give us our rest.
Gathering the last of his remaining strength, Tris stretched out his arms in blessing. As he began to murmur the words of power, he felt the spirits swirl around him, but their mood was longing, grieving, lonely. He drew strength from the compassion that welled up in him for the spirits’ long exile, their betrayal, their loss and grief, and wove that strength into the final blessing, working the passing-over ritual. In the plains of spirit visible only to the mageborn, Tris could see the souls that awaited release, and in the distance, at the edge of darkness, felt more than saw the presence of She who Rules the Night.
Her call to the lost spirits was the sweetest thing his soul had ever heard, although he could never utter it in mortal tongue. Even his own spirit yearned towards it, though his body anchored him from following. Rest now, Tris said in benediction as the revenants began to slip free of the bonds that held them to the forest. Rest forever.
As if he were suddenly released from the clutch of strong fingers, the spirits left him, and Tris fell to his knees, too spent to feel the ground rush up to meet him as everything went black.