Category Archives: Ghost Wounds

Ghost Wounds, end notes

The idea for “Ghost Wounds” came from a passage from the book of Luke:

“Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

You can see how that would be apropos.

###

There were a bunch of different endings, but they basically had two main variations:

-Caina puts on the soulsieve, and lets Lucan kill her, or kills herself. This kills Croanna.

-Caina kills Siona. After Siona is dead, Croanna no longer has the protection of the soulsieve, and so Caina kills her.

Whether Lucan survived to the end depends on whether or not Caina killed Siona. If Caina killed Siona and then Croanna, Rycurgus would keep his cool, stab Lucan in the back (recognizing him as the greater threat in a straight fight), and then turn his attention to Caina. But if Caina managed to outwit Croanna so thoroughly, then Rycurgus, in a rage, would attack Caina first.

###

Croanna was a fun villain to write. She wasn’t as powerful as Korthion, or as dangerous in a fight as Sophia Nikaedes, but she was very, very smart, as the First Magus found out the hard way.

Of course, it might seem that she picked up the Villain Ball by trying to make Caina kill Siona in front of Lucan rather than simply killing her. But remember, Croanna had already tried to simply kill Caina twice – first by sending the Kindred assassins to the Black Cuirass Inn, and then by sending Rycurgus to Rhazion’s house.

It might appear that her love of cruelty was her undoing, but not so – Croanna was very good at cruelty (as Ark and his family almost found out the hard way), and very good at tormenting her victims without exposing herself to personal risk. After all, Croanna recognized that Caina was the biggest threat to her plans, and tried to kill her before she even got to the Imperial Citadel.

It just never, ever occurred to her that Caina might actually put on the soulsieve. Croanna anticipated everything, except that.

###

I thought about doing an ending where the soulsieve, in addition to transferring Caina’s mortal wound to Croanna, also transfers her old injuries. So Caina’s scarring would heal, and she would find herself unexpectedly pregnant by Lucan at the end of the story.

But that seemed too cheap, too easy. After all, the evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been.

Everyone has scars, but we can sometimes learn to live happily despite them.

###

Choose Your Own Adventure will return in a few weeks – I want to get some ducks in a row first, and then run a little contest (more on that next week).

I’m not sure what we’ll do next. I suppose we could do another Caina one, but it would seem artificial – her arc has come to a pretty clear resolution. On the other hand, there’s no need to leave the setting – the Empire of Nighmar is a pretty big place, and there’s lots of other things happening with it. I think Lucan himself could sustain a story. Or maybe Siona, in another ten years – she’s going to have a very good teacher, after all.

###

Finally, and most importantly, thank you all for reading.

Because of my job situation since January, I haven’t had time to do any new fiction writing this year. But I did keep doing Choose Your Own Adventure, because I’d already started “Ghost Ascension” at that point, and by God I was going to see it through to the end.

So when I started writing “Soul of Serpents” on May 1st, I was astonished by how much easier the process seemed than I remember. Then I realized that “Choose Your Own Adventure” really helped with that – the necessity of turning out episodes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday really teaches you to optimize your writing time.

So thank you for that!

-JM

Ghost Wounds, Episode 22c

“Still not impressed,” you rasp, hand inching towards the flask in your belt.

Rycurgus sneers, and spits in your face.

“Then die,” he says, the blades pressing against your throat, “you miserable…”

You wrench the flask from your belt and fling it. You were aiming for his face, but Rycurgus jerks back, and it shatters against his hip instead. You twist to the side, eyes screwed shut, and hear Rycurgus’s bellow of pain and fury, accompanied by the smell of burning leather and wool. You open your eyes, see Rycurgus trying to beat out the flames on his leg.

Then his eyes narrow, and he becomes a wraith of smoke and mist.

The flames go out.

He solidifies once more and stalks towards you, sword and dagger raised.

You try to get to your feet, but your right leg collapses beneath you with a spasm of pain.

“Damn Croanna and her games,” growls Rycrugus. “She should have just killed you. Like this.”

His sword plunges for your face, and you try to scramble back, your leg clenching into uselessness…

Then his sword clangs off a silvery blur.

Rycurgus snarls in fury, and Lucan is there, his ghostsilver sword spinning as he blocks Rycurgus’s attacks. Rycurgus blurs into wraith form and jumps back, spinning back into physical form a dozen paces away.

“Lucan Maraeus,” he snarls. “I’ve been looking forward to this for ten years.”

Lucan says nothing…but beckons Rycurgus forward with his free hand.

And Rycurgus comes. He leaps at Lucan, flickering in and out of wraith form, his sword and dagger a storm of gleaming steel. Rycurgus is a master swordsman, fighting with a skill you’ve rarely seen, and he’s younger and stronger than Lucan, as well.

Lucan’s just better.

Again and again his ghostsilver sword licks out, scraping along Rycurgus’s ethereal form, and again and again Rycurgus shudders at the agony, jerking away from the blade to solidify back into material form. At last Lucan yanks the dagger from his belt and stabs Rycurgus’s wraith form with the ghostsilver blade. Rycurgus reels back, flickering back into physical form…

…only to find Lucan’s dagger already in his left arm.

Rycurgus’s wrist and hand explode in blood, the ebony bracelet rolling across the grass. Rycurgus himself falls to his knees with a scream of agony, gaping at the ruin of his left hand, and Lucan kicks away his sword.

“I yield,” croaks Rycurgus, shuddering. “I…I yield.”

Lucan doesn’t answer. He can’t – the mindreaver.

You drag yourself to your feet, limp to Lucan, and use your ghostsilver dagger to claw the mindreaver off his wrist.

He takes a deep breath, and the words spill out of him. He couldn’t stop himself from stabbing you. He should have told you about the letter, despite the warning from Croanna. He shouldn’t have let himself fall for it. He should…

“Shut up,” you say, and lean against him. You are trembling, partly from exhaustion.

But mostly from relief.

Siona steps closer, looking up at you, and Lucan reaches down and takes her hand. Her expression does not change.

But she does not pull away.

“What the devil is all this?” booms a deep voice.

You turn, and see Lord Corbould Maraeus standing in the doorway, sword in hand, his bodyguards arrayed around him. You stare at him in confusion for a moment, and then remember that Tylas said the Emperor had plans to meet with Lord Corbould this morning.

“Lord Corbould,” you say.

The old lord’s eyes narrow.

“Countess,” he says. “What is going on here? What’s wrong with the Emperor? Answer me!”

You look down at Siona…and feel yourself smile.

You take her hand and Lucan’s. Lord Corbould frowns…but his icy eyes fix upon Siona, and bit by bit sudden wonder creeps across his stern face.

“Lord Corbould of House Maraeus!” you say in formal High Nighmarian. “I, Caina of House Amalas, present you with a living grandchild. Siona, daughter of Lucan and Livia of House Maraeus. Having presented you with a living grandchild, I accept your terms, and consent to wed your son.”

And you have the very great pleasure of seeing the astonishment on the old tyrant’s face.

###

CAINA AMALAS and LUCAN MARAEUS wed a week later.

LUCAN MARAEUS had long stayed out of Imperial politics, despite his high birth and family name, but at last accepted a magistracy from the Emperor – the Lord Prefect of the city of Malarae. As Lord Prefect, he could keep an eye on the magi and hunt down slavers – work near to his heart.

Besides, he had a family to provide for now.

NORASTER remained in Lord Lucan’s service, of course, and became seneschal of the Lord Prefect’s new household in Malarae. Noraster had always enjoyed working for Lord Lucan, but he particularly enjoyed working for his lordship’s new wife, as the Countess made efficient use of Noraster’s more…unique skills.

Specifically, when spies infiltrated the household, Noraster…handled them.

Discreetly, of course.

A seneschal’s work is simply never done.

MORESTI remained in Malarae, as he still found life in the capital more congenial than guarding caravans on the dusty roads. The wine was cheap and plentiful, as were the ladies of negotiable affection, and there were plenty of heads that needed bashing.

Especially when the Countess was hiring.

LYSANDER remained in business as a petty spy, but made certain to pass his reports to the Ghosts, first. Sometimes he had nightmares about a woman with cold blue eyes, and what she would do to him if he betrayed her.

ARK returned to work at his foundry, grateful to be reunited with his wife and children – and that they had escaped the horrible fate Croanna had planned for them. Soon his foundry received an order from the Lord Prefect for new arms and armor for Malarae’s Civic Militia, and Ark prospered as he never had before.

The Ghosts looked after their own.

SEPTIMUS RHAZION was annoyed at the loss of his house, but was relieved to have come out of another one of the Ghost Countess’s mad little adventures with his skin intact. Especially given the Countess’s opinion of the magi in general.

So he was very surprised when the Countess sent him a sum of gold to rebuild his house.

He always knew the Ghosts repaid their enemies. Apparently they repaid their friends, as well.

RYCURGUS, as the exiled son of a noble house, stood before an Imperial magistrate. He was convicted of treason and murder, and beheaded in the Grand Market below the Imperial Citadel.

TYLAS, for his vigilance in guarding the Emperor, received promotion to the rank of Tribune of the Imperial Guard.

THE FIRST MAGUS, Aberon, bled to death in the Tower of Corthios, forgotten as Croanna hunted Caina.

The man who would rule the Empire, who saw himself as one of the great magus-emperors of old, died in a pool his own blood, unable to stop the bleeding unless his mistress gave permission first.

She didn’t.

With the First Magus’s death, the MAGISTERIUM entered a period of decline. The First Magus’s iron hand had kept the Magisterium focused upon their goal of claiming the government of the Empire, but his successor lacked both Aberon’s political skill and resolve. The magi fractured into a dozen squabbling factions, each more concerned with the Magisterium’s internal politics than conquering the Empire.

But Caina kept a close eye on them anyway.

CROANNA, despite her death, soon became a legend among certain factions of the Magisterium. They spoke in whispers how she developed a form of mind control beyond any other, a type of slavery inescapable and implacable. How if the magi rediscovered her secrets, they could rule the Empire, indeed, the world, with ease. Caina had destroyed every last one of Croanna’s enspelled baubles, and burned her journals and notes.

Nevertheless, the magi tried to recreate her research.

The legend of the GHOST COUNTESS grew. Hundreds of nobles had seen her cut down before their very eyes. Yet she rose again to strike down Croanna and free the Emperor from the exile’s spell. Soon the stories and songs said that the gods themselves had restored her to life, as an instrument of their vengeance, or that no mortal blade could slay the Ghost Countess.

Caina thought the stories absurd. Yet if they kept her foes from stabbing her yet again, she would not object.

LORD CORBOULD MARAEUS regretted allowing his youngest son to marry the Emperor’s pet spy, but he supposed little enough harm could come from it.

He very quickly changed his mind.

Lord Corbould had long ruled House Maraeus with an iron fist, but that damnably impertinent woman! She was his daughter-in-law, and yet she defied him! To his face! And in front of others! And what was worse, she was clever enough to do it successfully.

It was egregious.

And yet, secretly, he was exhilarated. It had been years since he had had such a worthy opponent. Sometimes his hands shook a little, when he thought about the marvelous arguments they would have…

It took a long time for SIONA to speak in complete sentences.

The girl knew a surprising lot about…everything, really. Croanna, despite her crimes, had been brilliant, and Siona learned a great deal from her. But Croanna had also used the girl for experiments, testing her theories on the creating of sorcerous devices.

Siona had suffered, and badly. But if anyone ever dared to hurt her again, they would answer to her father.

And to her stepmother. Especially her stepmother.

###

Perhaps a month later, Lucan stood by the fire in the sitting room, sharpening his daggers. Now that he was Lord Prefect, he supposed, he had servants to do that sort of thing for him. But a wise man trusted no one else with his weapons.

Caina sat on the sofa, reading a book. She looked like she wanted to be distracted. He would sit down, kiss her neck, and…

Lucan looked up, saw Siona standing in the doorway, wearing her nightgown.

“Can’t sleep?” he said. The girl, unsurprisingly, had nightmares.

Siona nodded, and Caina looked up.

“You can sit up with us for a while,” said Lucan. He smiled. “I know your stepmother was showing you how to throw knives, and…”

Siona crossed the room and sat on the sofa, her head resting on Caina’s shoulder.

Lucan blinked. He had seen Caina in a rage. He had seen her in pain, in a dark mood, had seen her smile.

He had never seen her eyes fill with tears.

“Are you all right?” he said.

She looked at him and smiled.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’m fine.”

THE END

Ghost Wounds – a third terminal episode / Episode 21c

“Hold still,” you tell Siona, and press the ghostsilver dagger into the soulsieve. The dagger grows hot beneath your fingers, the soulsieve writhes like an insect, and it falls from Siona’s wrist.

And then you notice on Siona’s wrist an intricate, spiraling tattoo, once hidden by the platinum bracelet. The tattoo is a sigil of sorcerous warding and nullification, similar to the one tattooed on Moresti’s face. It would have indeed made Croanna’s connection with Siona one-way only.

But you have no such tattoo.

You take a deep breath, pick up soulsieve, and press it against your left wrist.

The thing feels warm and unclean against your skin, and wraps itself around your wrist like a giant metal worm. You grit your teeth in pain as you feel its claws sink into your flesh. At once your head begins to throb with pain, and you feel hot, feverish, as if the soulsieve is pumping poison into your veins. Your skin crawls and tingles in reaction to the potent sorcerous power gathered in the bracelet.

Siona stares at you, gray eyes full of fear.

“If you live through this,” you say, “tell your father I love him.”

You get to your feet, limp away from the trees, and head into the open area of the Gardens of Corthios. Hundreds of Imperial Guards line the wall and the railing, their eyes blank. The Emperor, his high magistrates, and perhaps fifty of the most powerful lords in the Empire watch you with the same blank expression. Croanna stands before them, that lightning rod in her hand, Lucan at her side.

You keep your left arm pressed to your side, hidden beneath your shadow-cloak.

“Is that it, Countess?” says Croanna. “No more running? No more games?”

You say nothing, shivering as the fever worsens.

“Such a powerful audience for this little drama of mine,” says Croanna, gesturing at the Emperor and the nobles, her smile returning. “This isn’t quite as good as making you kill Lucan’s daughter in front of him…but, ah, it is appropriate nonetheless. Lucan Maraeus.” Her smile widens. “Kill her now.”

Lucan glides forward, ghostsilver sword coming up.

“I’m sorry,” you hear yourself say, “that I made you do this.”

Lucan moves in a blur, and his sword plunges through your leather armor and buries itself in your chest.

You’ve stabbed quite a few people in the heart yourself, and you’ve always wondered what it would feel like.

Not pleasant, as it turns out.

Lucan kicks you off his sword and you fall backwards, Croanna’s mocking laughter filling your ears.

The last thing you see before darkness swallows you is the anguish in Lucan’s face.

###

You are standing before floor-to-ceiling windows with a grand view of a rippling blue sea. You turn, see heavy shelves laden with books and scrolls. The air smells of paper and dust, and you hear the crash of the waves against the shore.

Your father’s library.

He stands by his desk. Sebastian Amalas has been dead eighteen years now, but he looks just as you remember – the same rumpled clothes, the same slightly distracted expression.

He smiles at you.

“My clever daughter,” he says. “Not quite yet.”

You hear a tearing sound, and suddenly the world dissolves in green fire.

###

Breath explodes into your lungs, pain filling your chest as your heart starts beating again. Your eyes swim into focus, and you see the night sky overhead, lightening with the approaching dawn. You feel terrible, but your heart is beating, breath is filling your lungs, and you feel the blood thundering in your temples.

Lucan stabbed you through the heart…but you’re still alive.

You sit up, stand. There’s a ragged hole in the front and back of your armor, but the skin beneath it is smooth and unmarked.

Lucan is standing over you, face blank, but his eyes widen in astonishment.

“Now, my dear Emperor Alexius,” says Croanna, her back to you. “You will write additional messages, summoning the nobles to you one by one, and they’ll join our…”

She turns, frowning, and sees you.

Her green eyes grow enormous, and you see confusion on her face, and a hint of fear.

“What?” she says. “That’s impossible. That’s utterly impossible. I saw you die. I saw…”

Her eyes shift to your left wrist, and the sudden horrified realization floods her face.

Croanna claws at the soulsieve on her arm, but it’s too late. She stiffens with a scream of pain, the front of her leather vest darkening with blood. She claws at the air, staggers, and falls upon her back.

You limp towards her, prying the soulsieve off your wrist. Croanna stares up at you, breathing hard, face going gray.

“You were wrong about me, you know,” you say. “I was too clever for your own good.”

Then you bury the ghostsilver dagger to its hilt in her throat.

And as Croanna dies, her rings and bracelets start to…melt, bursting into harsh green and blue flames. You jump back, your skin crawling as the arcane power in her jewelry releases in burst of sparks and flame. A sudden sigh goes through the assembled Guards and nobles, and you realize that whatever piece of jewelry controlled the mindreavers just melted. Though the Guards and nobles remain motionless – you’ll probably have to cut the mindreavers off their wrists, one by one.

Siona walks over, staring at Croanna’s smoldering corpse.

Lucan first, you decide. His ghostsilver sword can also cut off the mindreavers. And you so very, very badly want to tell him that…

Siona’s eyes get wide.

“No!” she screams.

You turn, just in time to see Rycurgus materialize behind you.

You just manage to avoid the thrust that would have taken your throat, yanking a throwing knife from your belt. Then Rycurgus goes on the attack, his sword and dagger leading, and you can barely hold him off. He’s stronger than you, and you are exhausted and in pain and he is not. He drives you back until your hips slam into the marble railing at the edge of the Gardens. His sword and dagger close in an X around your throat, and he pushes you back, until you’re certain you will lose your balance and tumble over the edge.

He smirks.

“Well, Countess,” he says, his voice a purr of satisfaction. “Impressed with me yet?”

[poll id=”103″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 20b

Lucan lunges at you, his ghostsilver sword a gleaming blur. But you’ve seen him fight before, and though he is the best swordsman you know, you remember his opening moves. You dodge past the thrust, spin, and snatch two of the clay flasks from his belt.

You squeeze your eyes shut and fling one of flasks to the floor.

Even with your eyes shut, you still feel the glare of white light through your eyelids. A chorus of pained groans rises from Croanna’s enslaved victims, and you hear Rycurgus bellowing enraged curses at the top of his lungs. You open your eyes, and see the mass of enslaved Imperial Guards, nobles, and magi shuffling around, blinking their eyes, and bumping into each other. Lucan stands a few feet away, sword raised in guard, eyes bloodshot and watering.

You leap past Lucan and run for Siona. The little girl remains motionless, her face blank, as you scoop her up into your arms.

Croanna shakes her head, and the soulsieve on her wrist flashes with green light. Then Siona’s own bracelet flashes, and she shudders, her hands flying to her eyes in sudden pain.

“Lucan Maraeus!” shouts Croanna, pointing at you. “Kill her! All of you! Anyone with a sword, kill her now!”

As one, hundreds of the Imperial Guards and the nobles move in your direction. Most of them were dazzled by the broken flask and can’t see you. But the flash didn’t reach the ones in the back, and they push towards you with deadly purpose. You turn towards the secret passage, but find it blocked by dozens of milling Imperial Guards. So are the doors to the courtyard.

With no other choice, you turn and run for the stairs at the other end of the great hall, the stairs that lead to the Tower of Corthios’s upper levels.

Croanna looks at you, the malicious glee gone from her eyes, replaced with a cold and deadly purpose. She pulls something that looks like a copper meat fork from her belt, albeit a meat fork carved with silver symbols, and points it at you. A blue spark flashes between the fork’s tines, growing brighter and brighter.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t look healthy

The spark at the end of the fork flares, and you fling yourself to the side just as a sheet of sizzling blue lightning erupts from the tines. It misses you, ripping into the wall, but a curling finger of lightning loops around your right leg. The shock knocks you into the stairwell, and you just barely keep your feet and your grip on Lucan’s daughter.

Then you spin and race up the spiral stairs as fast as you can.

Expect you can’t go very fast. Your right leg feels as if it was dipped in oil and set aflame, and it’s all you can do to keep your feet, much less run. You hear the clang of armor and swords in the stairwell as Lucan and the Guards pursue you, and you try to force yourself faster. There’s another secret passage on the Tower’s third level, one that connects to the Tower of Nicokator, and then to…

You stop.

An iron portcullis closes off the stairs to the Tower’s higher levels. It’s chained and locked shut, and if you had time, you could undo the lock, but…

The sounds of boots on the stairs grow closer.

There’s another door, one opening to the left, and with no other choice you flee through it.

You find yourself in a garden of bushes and low trees, perhaps three acres in size, jutting from the side of the Imperial Citadel. The Gardens of Corthios, you realize. It’s ringed by a low marble railing, with a thousand foot drop to the city of Malarae below.

And no other way out.

You’re trapped.

You manage to make it to a circle of low trees before your right leg folds up, and you fall to your knees with a gasp of pain, Siona besides you. With a cold certainty, you realize that your luck has run out at last. You’ve tricked and outwitted your enemies time and time again, but you have no more tricks left.

Perhaps you can find a way to conceal Siona before they kill you, to hide her, to keep Croanna from…

Siona is tugging at your shadow-cloak.

You look at the girl. Her face is a rictus of agony, as if she is struggling to speak. Instead she lifts her left arm, the soulsieve glittering upon her wrist. With her other hand she points at it, her fingers trembling.

The soulsieve.

Any injury done to Croanna is instead transferred to Siona. Could the connection be two-way? If you cut Siona’s throat or stabbed her in the heart, would the mortal wound be transferred to Croanna?

Was Croanna was stupid enough to leave herself open to such an attack? She certainly showed no hesitation about loosing lightning at you and Siona.

And assuming you could bring yourself to kill Lucan’s daughter. Though if you’re wrong, you probably won’t live long enough to curse yourself for it.

But as you stare at the soulsieve, another thought occurs to you, and your hand tightens around your ghostsilver dagger.

You could use the ghostsilver dagger to remove the soulsieve and put it upon your own wrist. And then you could cut your throat, or let Lucan cut you down. If Croanna built safeguards into the soulsieve, they might not work while the sorcerous device is upon the wrist of another…rendering Croanna vulnerable to her own soulsieve.

Or you could kill yourself for nothing.

You hear footsteps upon the stairs. Whatever you decide to do, you have to do it now.

[poll id=”102″]

Ghost Wounds, a second terminal episode

Lucan lunges at you, his ghostsilver sword a gleaming blur. But you’ve seen him fight before, and though he is the best swordsman you know, you remember his opening moves. You dodge past the thrust, spin, and snatch two of the clay flasks from his belt.

You squeeze your eyes shut and fling one of flasks to the floor.

Even with your eyes shut, you still feel the glare of white light through your eyelids. A chorus of pained groans rises from Croanna’s enslaved victims, and you hear Rycurgus bellowing enraged curses at the top of his lungs. You open your eyes, and see the mass of enslaved Imperial Guards, nobles, and magi shuffling around, blinking their eyes, and bumping into each other. Lucan stands a few feet away, sword raised in guard, eyes bloodshot and watering.

You step in close, twist his sword arm behind his back, and trip him. Lucan falls, his sword arm pinned beneath his back, and you drop your knee into his stomach, holding him in place. He’s a lot stronger than you, but you’ve got better leverage, and he can’t throw you off.

You pin his left elbow in place with your other knee and drive the ghostsilver dagger into his mindreaver. The bronze bracelet shudders, writhing like a dying thing, and the ghostsilver dagger grows hot in your grasp.

Twelve seconds. That’s how long Rhazion said it would take to safely remove the mindreaver.

Croanna shakes her head, and the soulsieve on her wrist flashes with green light. Then Siona’s own bracelet flashes, and she shudders, her hands flying to her eyes in sudden pain.

The ghostsilver dagger sinks deeper into the bracelet.

Croanna looks at you, the malicious glee gone from her eyes, replaced with a cold and deadly purpose. She pulls something that looks like a copper meat fork from her belt, albeit a meat fork carved with silver symbols, and points it at you. A blue spark flashes between the fork’s tines, growing brighter and brighter.

Then the mindreaver falls from Lucan’s wrist. Awareness floods into his eyes, and he looks at you in alarm. “Caina…”

At that very moment, a sheet of snarling blue lightning erupts from the Croanna’s fork and slams into your chest, blasting you off Lucan and flinging you into the wall. Your limbs jerk and writhe uncontrollably, and you feel your heart stop.

It does not start again, and blackness swallows you soon after.

[poll id=”101″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 19a

“You know,” you say, rolling the throwing knife over your fingers, “I think I’ve played this game before.”

Croanna blinks.

“You’re just standing right there, practically begging me to put a knife into your throat,” you say quietly. “I’ll wager there’s a good chance something bad will happen if I do. Isn’t there?”

Siona shivers and closes her eyes, as if in relief. The expression looks so like Lucan that it hurts.

“Very clever, Countess,” says Croanna. “Very clever, indeed.” She draws a dagger from her belt. “But in case you do get the idea of putting a blade through my heart…let me show you just what will happen if you do.”

She cuts her palm with the dagger, blood welling over the steel blade. Then the platinum bracelet on her left wrist flashes with green light, and the cut vanishes, the skin whole and unmarked.

The identical bracelet flashes on Siona’s wrist, and the girl staggers with a muffled shriek. A gash appears on her palm, red and dripping, and Siona stares at Croanna with rage and utter hatred.

The platinum bracelets, you realize. Somehow it transferred Croanna’s wound to Siona. If you had put that knife into Croanna’s throat…

Croanna sighs and taps her platinum bracelet. “The bloodsieve was my most useful creation by far. It would have been marvelous if I could have made Lucan Maraeus watch the woman he loves kill his daughter. A worthy vengeance for all the trouble he has caused me.”

Rycurgus smirks. “Let me kill her now. I’ll make her scream for death, before I’m done. Or better yet, put a mindreaver on her. Then we’ll have some fun.”

“No,” says Croanna. “She’s much too dangerous for that. And her death will serve a very useful purpose. My lord Lucan!”

Boots click against the marble floor, and Lucan Maraeus comes into sight.

You didn’t think your mouth could get any drier, but it does.

He is unharmed, so far as you can tell. Yet a mindreaver rests on his left wrist, and his expression is blank, his eyes glassy. His ghostsilver longsword, mate to the dagger you took from Anacepheon’s tomb a few months ago, rests in his right. He’s wearing his leather armor and weapons belt, and you see three small clay flasks near his scabbard.

“Well, Countess?” says Rycurgus. “Any last words? Anything clever you want to say?”

You say nothing, staring hard at Lucan’s belt.

“Lucan Maraeus. Kill her in front of me,” says Croanna.

Lucan raises the ghostsilver sword, stepping forward, and plans flash through your mind.

You’re on your own. The others won’t wake up from that stunning spell for at least another hour.

You suspect that the wound transference ability of the bloodsieve goes both ways. Sorcery always has a price, after all. Croanna knows that you will not touch her, fearing to wound Lucan’s daughter. But what if you simply cut Siona’s throat? The mortal wound will transfer to Croanna, she’ll bleed to death, and your problems will be solved.

If you can bring yourself to cut the throat of Lucan’s nine-year-old daughter.

There’s another way. Croanna made a mistake. Those flasks on Lucan’s belt hold a chemical concoction of his own design. When exposed to air, it burns with a brilliant white flame, enough to temporarily blind anyone looking at it. And everyone in the room is looking at you.

But what then? Lucan wanted you to save his daughter. You could snatch the girl and run for help. If Croanna has control of the Emperor and all the Empire’s high officials, you’ll need help to stop her – someone who will listen to you. Someone who will help you defeat Croanna, and rescue the Emperor, Lucan, Ark, Moresti, Rhazion, Tylas, and all the others in her power.

Croanna watches Lucan walk towards you, her eyes glittering with delighted malice, and you prepare to move…

[poll id=”100″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 18a

“We’ll take the secret passage into the Tower of Corthios,” you say.

Tylas nods. “And if this Croanna woman has dared to lay a finger on the Emperor, she’ll regret it sorely.”

You lead Tylas and the others to a deserted guardroom near the Court of Swords. The Imperial Citadel is thousands of years old, and therefore riddled with long-forgotten secret passages. At least, forgotten by everyone but the Ghosts. You take a narrow, dusty passage that winds its way through the heart of the Citadel, and opens in the great hall of the Tower of Corthios. Here the Emperor meets his private guests, though the hall is large enough to seat a thousand.

You stop before the secret door.

“You have a plan?” says Ark.

“Aye,” you murmur, listening at the door. Utter silence on the other side. “We find Croanna, and then we kill her as quickly as possible.”

“Simple,” says Noraster.

Moresti chuckles. “Moresti likes simple!”

You take a deep breath, push open the door, and step into the great hall.

Beyond is utter darkness. But you’ve been here before, and you know the way to the Emperor’s library and…

“Ah,” says a woman’s voice, a throaty rasp. “There she is. Some light, if you please.”

Light floods the great hall.

And you see hundreds of men and women around you.

You see the Emperor first, solemn in his black robe. The Lord Marshal and the Lord Exchequer and the other high officials of the Empire. The magistrates and dozens of powerful lords. The First Magus himself, who has sworn your death, and a dozen of the high magi. Over two hundred Imperial Guards.

And every last one of them has a bronze mindreaver on the left wrist.

You shout for the others to run, but it’s too late. The First Magus and the high magi lift their hands, faces blank, and you feel the sudden electric surge of sorcery. Noraster, Tylas, Ark, Moresti, and Rhazion collapse to the floor, unconscious, while your shadow-cloak ripples in a sudden invisible wind. A stunning spell, you realize, and your shadow-cloak kept it from reaching your mind.

But that won’t stop the First Magus from crushing your skull. Or the enslaved Imperial Guards from cutting you to pieces. You tense yourself, throwing knife in your left hand, ghostsilver dagger in your right.

But no one moves.

Then you hear footsteps against the marble floor.

A woman steps from around the Emperor. She’s lean and gaunt, perhaps ten years older than you, with ragged white-streaked hair and green eyes. She’s dressed outlandishly, with a leather vest, trousers, and armored boots. Rings glitter on her fingers, ears, eyebrows, nostrils, and lips, rings of gold and silver and bronze and steel. A heavy platinum bracelet encircles her left wrist. It looks like a mindreaver, but much larger, studded with rough chunks of green crystal.

Croanna. She looks at you, her eyes filled with…glee, perhaps? Or anticipation?

You step forward, hoping to get at throwing knife into her throat, and then you see the girl standing besides Croanna.

She’s nine or ten years old, dressed in a fine blue gown. A platinum bracelet, identical to the one on Croanna, covers her left wrist. She has long blonde hair, so blonde that it’s almost white, and her gray eyes…

You blink, and something clicks in your head.

Her gray eyes are the exact shape and color of Lucan’s.

“Oh,” you say. “You really are clever. And cruel.”

Croanna lifts a single eyebrow, rings glittering.

“Lucan’s wife,” you say. “She’s been dead for ten years. But…she was pregnant when Morneus killed her, wasn’t she?”

Croanna nods, her smile widening.

“But Lucan never knew,” you say.

“Yes,” says Croanna. “Livia was five months pregnant when I slew her at my master Morneus’s bidding. Morenus thought a grandchild of Lord Corbould Maraeus might prove useful, so I cut the child from Livia’s belly. He was right.” She reaches down and pats the child’s head, and a spasm of hatred flashes over the girl’s face. “But I put Siona here to a better use than my fool of a master ever dreamed.”

“And that was why you told Lucan that Livia was still alive,” you say. Another step closer. A few more and you can put a knife in her throat. “He never knew Siona. She would only be an abstraction to him. But he blamed himself for Livia’s death, even after all these years. And you knew that was the one thing that could make him act rashly.”

Croanna stares at you for a long.

“I must return the compliment, Countess,” she says at last. “You are indeed as clever as they say. But too clever for you own good, really. It would have been much less painful if you’d just let Rycurgus kill you.”

A blur of mist, and Rycurgus materializes at Croanna’s right, smiling. “I could kill you now, Countess, and spare you the…festivities to come.”

“I’m still not impressed, Niall Anabas,” you say to him.

Rycurgus’s smile curdles into a sneer of hate. If he gets a chance, he’s going to kill you. Slowly.

“Why?” you say to Croanna. “Why all this?”

Croanna gestures at the enslaved nobles and magi. “Why? The Empire is mine now, Countess. Mine to do with as I wish. Did you think this was about vengeance for Morneus? That was not the main point. It was only a…side dish, let us say. A dessert, even.” Her eyes glitter like green marble. “A sweet one, though. Observe. Aberon!”

The First Magus, a doughy, balding man, lifts his head, expression blank.

“Do you know,” says Croanna, “that I got the Magisterium to fund the mindreavers for me? I couldn’t have made so many without their coin. The First Magus thought I was going to give him the Empire. You should have seen the expression on his face when I slipped the mindreaver upon his wrist. The shears?”

Aberon lifts a pair of heavy pruning shears in his left hand.

“Cut the fingers from your right hand,” says Croanna. “One joint at a time.”

And the First Magus, the most powerful magus in the Empire, obeys. His face remains blank. But his eyes are screaming.

“Why?” you say, sickened.

Croanna shrugs. “Why? Why not? He wronged me once, you know.” Her smile widens, and she takes three quick steps towards you. “And if I did that to the First Magus…what do you think I made Lucan cut off?”

Siona stares at you, face filled with horror and alarm.

Rage, hotter than anything you’ve ever known, erupts through you, and the throwing knife seems alive in your hand. Croanna stepped within range, and it would be child’s play to put the knife into her throat.

And yet…and yet…

She’s so clever. She knows so much about you. Why is she standing so close to you, goading you? She’s even holding her head high…as if exposing her throat to you. And why doesn’t she just have Rycurgus kill you, or one of the hundreds of Imperial Guards with mindreavers upon their wrists?

Does she want you to put a knife in her throat?
[poll id=”99″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 17a

“We’re going to find Tylas,” you say. “He’s a centurion in the Imperial Guard. He’ll know where we can find the Emperor. If Croanna’s there, we’ll kill her, and get Lucan back.”

It sounds so easy, when you say it that way.

“Follow me,” you say, and the others fall in line behind you.

You lead them through the vast marble maze of the Imperial Citadel. The corridors remain deserted, which troubles you. Even at this hour, you should have run into a patrol of Imperial Guards by now. But the centurion in charge of the night watch is supposed to remain in the Court of Swords, and you make for it.

The Court of Swords is a broad expanse of stone, dotted with statues of Emperors and lords long dead. Otherwise it is deserted, save for one man in the black armor of an Imperial Guard, pacing back and forth before a bubbling fountain. He’s a tough-looking man in his early thirties, with a face made for scowling, and he’s scowling now, fingering his sword hilt. He whirls at your approach, broadsword flying from its scabbard, purple cloak swirling around him.

“Name yourself,” he says, scowling at your companions.

“Tylas,” you say.

He frowns, lowers his blade. “Countess?” He blinks beneath his helm. “Are you mad, coming here? The Magisterium put a colossal price on your head. Every assassin, thug, and mercenary in Malarae is looking for you.”

“That’s why I’m here,” you say. “The Emperor is in grave danger. I have to get to him at once. Where is he?”

“He’s been closeted in the Tower of Nicokator with the Catekhari Lord Ambassador since sunset,” says Tylas, “and hasn’t emerged since. And he’s got half the nobility and magistrates of the Empire in there with him.” His scowl deepens. “Along with my entire century.”

“What?” you say.

Tylas shakes his head. “The Emperor’s been sending messengers, summoning lords and magistrates to the Tower on urgent business. None of them have come out. The messengers…gah! I don’t know what’s come over them. Men I’ve known half my life, and they’re like glassy-eyed statues now. I can barely get a word out of them.”

You remember how Ark acted while the mindreaver was on his wrist.

“Did you see Lucan Maraeus with them?” you say. “Lord Corbould’s youngest son?”

“No,” says Tylas. “Though Lord Corbould is supposed to meet with the Emperor shortly after dawn.”

“Have you actually seen the Emperor?” you say.

“No,” says Tylas. He hesitates. “But…I have a written order. From the Emperor himself. If I see you, I’m to kill you at once.”

You tell Tylas about the mindreavers.

Tylas curses. “You’re right. We have to get to the Emperor. But how? He’s ordered that no one is to disturb him, and the Tower of Nicokator is sealed. Gods, the Guards at the Tower doors…I thought they were acting strange.”

There is a secret passage that leads into the Tower of Nicokator. You doubt Croanna knows about it – but Lucan and the Emperor do, and since she probably has mindreavers on both of them, she might have thought to ask about it. Alternatively, it would be possible to scale the Tower’s sides and enter through the windows. The climb would be relatively straightforward – assuming Croanna didn’t think of it and post guards.

Finally, you could just walk up to the Imperial Guards at the Tower’s door and surrender yourself. That would get you to Croanna quickly…assuming the Guards don’t have orders to kill you on sight.

[poll id=”98″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 16a

“As you wish,” you say, walking towards the creature. “My flesh is yours.”

The undead thing floats towards you, the hem of its red and gold robes brushing the floor. An ancient pyromancer of power the creature might be, but it doesn’t know the first thing about hand-to-hand fighting, which you prove when you duck past its clawed fingers, take a running leap forward, and plunge the ghostsilver dagger into the sacrophagus’s side.

The blade sinks into the lead sarcophagus like soft butter. The burning runes flash with silver light, and the creature wails in sudden agony. You rip your dagger along the sarcophagus’s flank, the hilt growing agonizingly hot beneath your fingers, and tear open a gash ablaze with silver flame. The creature staggers, yellow-orange flame crackling around its fingers.

“Countess!” shouts Noraster. “May I suggest that we run?”

The creature straightens up, burning eyes fixed on you, and begins a spell.

You sprint across the crypt, following the others.

“Through the doors!” yells Rhazion. “It can’t follow us past the wards.”

The others race through the archway, and you fling yourself after them. A moment later the undead thing flings out its hand, and flames explode behind you, filling the crypt with a raging inferno.

But the flames do not pass beyond the archway. When the firestorm clears, the creature is gone…and the gash on the leaden sarcophagus has vanished.

“That went well,” says Ark.

Noraster snorts. “In what possible way did that go well?”

Ark shrugs. “We’re still alive, aren’t we?”

Moresti guffaws.

Rhazion stares at you in puzzlement. “That spell the creature used…you only see the person you love the most, trapped in agony. You…actually saw someone?”

You nod. “What of it?”

Rhazion shrugs. “I…didn’t think a woman like you was capable of such emotion.”

“Do you now?” you say, annoyed. But, then, you can hardly blame him for thinking that, considering that you almost killed him in front of his daughter. “If I could work my will, I wouldn’t have been a Ghost. I would have been married, had six or seven children by now.” But that kind of life can’t happen.

Not for you. Not with the injuries the magi inflicted upon you as a child.

But perhaps it can still happen for Lucan, if you save him from Croanna.

For Lucan, with his wife Livia. Not with you.

You let out a long breath, force aside the emotions. Later. Right now you have to get to the Emperor before Croanna. If it’s not already too late.

The others are watching you. Vaguely you wonder what your expression looked like just now.

“Follow me,” you say.

You lead them through the maze of the catacombs, thankfully avoiding more crazed undead sorcerers. Then you climb up a long winding spiral staircase, ascending high into the mountain.

Then you open a secret door, and step into one of the broad marble corridors of the Imperial Citadel, seat and fortress of the Emperor.

“Moresti has gone up in the world,” Moresti says, looking at the statues and busts of long-dead lords and Emperors.

“Don’t steal anything,” you say.

Moresti sighs.

It’s three or four hours past midnight by now, and the corridors are deserted. You take them to your suite, a small set of rooms in a corner tower. You let them help themselves to your store of weapons (you keep essentially a small armory on hand), and equip yourself with your shadow-cloak. Lighter than silk and black as night, the cloak lets you move unseen in the shadows. It also has the useful effect of shielding your thoughts from mind-altering sorcery. Which will keep another spell like the one in the crypts from affecting your mind.

Though it won’t stop a magus from using telekinetic force to shatter your skull.

“Now what?” says Rhazion, eyeing the small arsenal carried by Moresti, Ark, and Noraster.

“We find the Emperor,” you say, tucking extra throwing knives into your belt, “and kill Croanna.”

And get Lucan back. If he’s still alive.

There are three options. At this hour, the Emperor is probably in his private quarters in the Tower of Corthios. However, if he was meeting with the Catekhari Lord Ambassador, he might be in the hall of the Tower of Nicokator. Finally, there is a Ghost among the Imperial Guard, a centurion named Tylas. His century is on guard duty tonight, and he might know the Emperor’s location.

Assuming Croanna hasn’t gotten to Tylas, though. And the Magisterium has that enormous death bounty on your head. Anyone who recognizes you might try to collect.

“Your wishes, Countess?” says Noraster.

[poll id=”97″]

Ghost Wounds, Episode 15a

Every fiber of your heart and body screams for you to run to Lucan, to treat his terrible his wounds before he bleeds to death before your eyes. But your mind – the mind of a Ghost, heavy with knowledge and grim experience – tells you that something is wrong.

“Rhazion,” you say, “what were you about to say?”

“We should take another way,” says Rhazion, his hand raised in the beginning of a spell, his eyes darting back and forth. “The markings on that sarcophagus…I think this is the tomb of an Ashbringer, one of the pyromancers of the Saddaic Empire. Pyromancy, as you know, inevitably pushes its wielders into…ah, homicidal insanity, so the undead that rise from dead pyromancers are particularly…unpleasant.”

“Caina, gods, please,” groans Lucan, slumping against the pillar, “please, help me…”

Rhazion doesn’t respond, nor do any of the others, and with a chill you realize they can’t see Lucan.

“They’ll use a particularly nasty mind-altering spell,” says Rhazion. “You’ll see whoever you love most, critically injured and begging for your help…”

The pain and the fear drain out of Lucan’s expression, and he sits up straighter, his cold gray eye fixing on your like the tip of a crossbow bolt.

Oh, damn it.

“Run!” you say, turning towards the door. “All of you, run!”

Too late.

The glyphs on the side of the sarcophagus blaze with flame, and Lucan surges to his feet. He shimmers, and disappears. In his place stands a withered corpse in elaborate robes of red and gold, its empty eyes ablaze with flames, fires crackling around its clawed fingers.

To judge from the others’ exclamations of alarm, they can see the burning corpse just fine.

The undead thing flings out its hand, a lance of fire blazing from its fingers. You dodge, and the blast explodes into a marble tile at your feet, blowing it to glowing splinters. Noraster hits the trigger on his crossbow bow, a bolt erupting from the creature’s chest, and Rhazion flings out his hand in a spell. The undead thing staggers and shrieks, the flames blazing in its eyes, and throws out both its hands. Invisible force flings Noraster and Rhazion to the floor, and a wall of flame erupts across the doorway, sealing you in the crypt chamber.

Your hand curls tight around the hilt of your ghostsilver dagger. Undead this thing might be, but you wager your ghostsilver dagger can hurt it. Moresti and Ark race to your side, shields up, broadswords drawn back for a strike, and you prepare to charge…

“Hold, fleshlings!”

The creature’s voice is deep, melodious, beautiful, and its burning eyes fix on your face.

“Perhaps we can strike a bargain, my buzzing insects,” says the creature. “Long my spirit has been trapped in this chamber, and I long to see the world burn, to hear the sweet screams as men burn, their flesh running in rivulets down their bones.”

“Not my problem,” you say.
“Give me one of your bodies,” says the creature. “Let me be clad in your flesh. Then the world shall burn once more. Let me ride in your flesh, or I shall kill you all.”

You notice something. The glyphs on the side of the sarcophagus seem to pulse and throb in time to the creature’s words, and while the air crackles with sorcery, it seems like the flow of power is coming from the sarcophagus and into the creature.

“You,” says the creature, “you have enemies, yes? You are strong. Let my spirit into your mind. We shall be as one. And your enemies will burn. Will that not be sweet? Will not their screams be sweet music to your ears? Let me wear your flesh…or I shall content myself with watching you burn.”

[poll id=”96″]