Ghostwalker

Ghostwalker

The Fighters Series

A Forgotten Realms Novel

by Erik Scott DeBie

 

Proofread and formatted by BW-SciFi

Ebook version 1.0

Release Date: July, 4th, 2008

Dedication

To Shelley, my perfect melody.

If I could sing of her forever, it might be enough.

Acknowledgements

My heroes who inspire,

My family who support,

My friends who cheer,

My editors who guide,

And my readers who enjoy;

All I would acknowledge.

 

PRELUDE

 

30 Tarsakh, the Year of the Serpent

(1359 DR)

 

He ran through the woods, jumping at every snapping twig, every moving shadow. The height of the moon told him it was midnight, but the youth cared little. His clothes had been torn to ribbons in his desperate flight, and his flesh had been scratched brutally by the shrubs, branches, and rocks.

The youth would do anything to avoid his pursuers.

Cruel faces, real and imagined, greeted him at every turn, and sometimes a fist lashed out and sent him sprawling. He always got up again, his head ringing and his vision swimming, only to run on, mocking laughter echoing behind him. They were playing with him, as a cat toys with its prey, allowing him to run and to think he might escape, but ultimately wearing down his nerves—and his fragile resolve—to nothing.

“Oh, Ri-in,” a voice came, “here little Rhyn!”

Startled, Rhyn Thardeyn stumbled, tripped, and fell with a cry down a rocky hill into muddy water. He struggled to rise and squeaked despite himself when fiery pain shot through his right leg, and he collapsed again. He heard their voices steadily approaching and was nearly petrified with doubt and uncertainty, unsure of which direction to run—or even if running had any purpose.

The youth was thinking about how to drag his twelve-year-old body along when he heard footsteps among the trees. He froze.

“Why do you run, lovely boy?” a sharp voice called sweetly. “Come—come dance with me. I’ll teach you how.”

“Ugly little goblin’s get,” a gruff voice joined the first. “Come an’ face us like a man. We won’t hurt ye… much.”

He cowered, hiding deep in the shallows, coated in mud. He saw two forms run by—the two men who had shouted. They seemed oblivious to his presence.

Fighting to calm his breathing, Rhyn hummed a merry tune over and over again in his head. Everything would be all right. Everything…

Rhyn heard a splash in the stream behind him. Slowly, he turned to look.

A young boy with curly ebony hair waded there, dressed in rich silks.

Rhyn looked, pleading, into the boy’s eyes, and saw there unwillingness, even sympathy. The boy was not to blame for the sins of the father.

“I’ve found him!” shouted the boy. It was a condemnation.

Then they were upon him, rough hands clutching at his arms and his broken leg. He screamed and cried for his mother, but it was no use.

They threw him down in the circle of trees and lay into him with hobnailed boots. The kicks broke ribs, arms, and his uninjured leg, and when he tried to rise, the pain drove him back before the brutal men could punch him down once more.

Finally, the beating stopped. Rhyn looked up with bleary, red-filled eyes.

“You’re going to die now, boy,” a thick, slurred voice said. A huge man with a heavy wood axe loomed over him, patting the massive weapon.

“No, no, let him dance with me first,” the thin man said. A rapier gleamed in his hand, and he whisked it through the air. “I will enjoy tracing his red trail, watching his broken moves. Come dance with me, boy—I’ll be the last thing you ever see.”

“If any o’ us gets him, it’ll be me!” said a bearlike man with a wicked grin. “I’ll grind his bones an’ tear his flesh with me teeth!”

Moaning, Rhyn tried to curl into a ball, away from them, away from the world of pain.

“Now, now, gentlemen,” said the leader in a sonorous voice. He was the one Rhyn feared the most—the one behind this, the one who commanded the others. Rhyn just wanted to get away from him, the man he had once wanted to become.

“Please … please m-my Lord Greyt… .” he managed through cracking lips. His voice was broken and slurred with pain.

His pleas went ignored. The man bent low over Rhyn and slipped a silver ring onto his finger.

“We have a job to do, and we shall do it.” He flipped his rapier idly in the moonlight. “One blow at a time. Don’t worry about killing him—’tis my ring. Death won’t spoil our fun, or his pain. Let us hear him sing.”

Mocking, lyrical words….

“Aye,” said the woodsman, “me first.”

The axe came down and Rhyn screamed as it cut into his shoulder.

“Then me,” the thin man said before the bearlike one could speak. The rapier pierced Rhyn’s arm, bringing with it razor-sharp pain.

“My turn!” the bear man spat.

The boy prayed he was far enough gone that he would not know pain, but when the spiked ball of the man’s weapon slammed into his chest, he felt every shattering rib.

Rhyn moaned as darkness closed in. Blood trickled from his mouth.

“Good work,” the leader said. Somehow, Rhyn could still hear. A rapier gleamed golden in the moonlight. “Now, let us teach him a new song.”

The boy stood over Rhyn, his eyes filled with fire. Anger? Rage? Indignation? Rhyn had thought there was softness there…

Then he passed out, whether for a moment or an eternity, he did not know. He felt someone reach down and pull the silver ring from his finger—the ring whose magic had kept him alive through this torture.

“A horde of good it will do you now,” said a soft voice.

Arguing broke out in the darkness. Lord Greyt was angry. “That was never our bargain!”

Whispers.

“Damned if you will have this boy!” Rhyn heard someone shout.

A cold finger ran down his cheek—the touch of death.

Then a sharp pang ran through his chest, a blade pierced his throat, and he started back into the world of misery.

“Let’s hear you sing now,” the soft voice said.

Rhyn opened his lips, as though to oblige, and only a bloody rattle emerged.

Angry shouts erupted and a scuffle ensued. Something small and metal, like a tear, fell against his left cheek and rested next to his eye.

“Whether you will it or no,” whispered another voice in his ear.

The world went black.

CHAPTER 1

24 Tarsakh, The Year of Lightning Storms

(1374 DR)

 

Shivering, the courier pulled her cloak tight around herself, warding off the chill of the Moonwood night. At least the stinging drops no longer slapped down on her—the forest canopy caught much of the rain. She rode slowly down the road to Quaervarr so her mare could avoid stumbling on unforeseen rocks and sticks. Her parents told her spring was coming, but it was definitely taking its time. Chandra Stardown couldn’t stand the cold, and she prayed to Mielikki and Chauntea that the warmth would come soon.

She clutched the leather case strapped around her stomach protectively, just to reassure herself it was there. This was not Chandra’s first assignment, so negligence or jitters would not be excused. Grand Commander Alathar had said this message was important, so it wouldn’t do to lose it en route. If she wanted a promotion, perhaps even membership in the famous Knights in Silver, she could not fail.

As she rode deeper into the shadowtops and firs of the Moonwood, the storm passed. The cold, however, grew no gentler. Chandra longed for the Whistling Stag, where she could order a room and a long, hot bath with the silver her father had loaned her.

Abruptly, Songbird, Chandra’s mare, neighed and tossed her mane. She stopped all forward motion and pranced in a circle.

“What is it, girl?” Chandra asked, running a soothing hand along Songbird’s mane. “Did you see something?”

Chandra looked around, but didn’t see anyone. The trees loomed forbiddingly beside the trail like towering mountains hiding unseen dangers in their heights. She looked up, wary of an ambush by gnolls or even elves, and clutched her silver short spear tightly. Even though the real threat of the Moonwood—the People of the Black Blood, a cult of werebeasts—had been chased away months before, Chandra’s father had wanted her to be prepared. The courier was far from a capable fighter, but any werewolf would think twice before it charged onto a silver spearhead.

There was something out there, something that had frightened Songbird, but Chandra didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The forest was peaceful.

Somehow it seemed almost too peaceful. The birds had stopped chirping, and there were no sounds of rustling leaves or lonely crickets. Absolute silence reigned.

The hair on the back of her neck rose and Chandra had the unnerving sensation she was being watched. Was she being hunted? Surely no werebeast would dare…

Another cold sensation ran through her—this one very different. She was suddenly intensely conscious of the blood pumping through her veins and the breath passing through her lungs—more so than she had ever been before. Trembling, she became aware of a ghostly presence, one that touched her soul with tenuous fingers and probed at the vibrancy within her, seeking, perhaps, to explore.

Or to feast.

She had heard legends about a ghost who haunted these woods, but she had always dismissed them as mere fancy, as children’s stories told by young men who wanted to weasel their way into awed young ladies’ beds.

Until now.

“Chandra…” the wind seemed to whisper.

Chandra dug her spurs into Songbird’s side and the mare gave a fierce neigh as they burst into a gallop. Chandra no longer cared about the rocks and twigs—Songbird could handle herself. Indeed, the mare seemed just as terrified as she was. All Chandra cared about was getting away from that awful feeling, that ghostly chill that had come upon her. She flicked the reins and shouted to Songbird, urging her on to Quaervarr.

As such, she hardly even registered the click of the crossbow until a bolt sprouted in her right shoulder.

Gasping in surprise and pain, Chandra jerked in the saddle, slamming her head into a low-hanging tree branch. The impact hurled her off Songbird’s back, and she landed with jarring force on the ground. Fortunately, the trail lay muddy with rain—else, her back might have snapped from the impact.

As it was, Chandra sat stunned for a moment. Then a ringing broke out in her head, an ache tore her backside, and the sucking pain of the bolt in her shoulder cried for attention. Her leg was twisted as well. Hot blood flowed into her eyes, and the world was cast in crimson. She wiped at her face, clearing the sticky stuff as best she could, but more oozed from the cut on her forehead.

Then she remembered Songbird, galloping on ahead of her.

“Wait!” she tried to cry out, but the choked sound that came from her throat was more a gurgle than a word. Chandra tried to push herself to her feet, but horrible pain lanced through her and she collapsed to the ground again with a short scream. Dragging her broken leg behind her and wincing from the darkwood shaft in her shoulder, she crawled along the trail after Songbird.

Right up to a pair of black boots.

Chandra looked up at the man standing over her. Cloaked with a cowl that covered his face, he seemed a pillar of black. A sheathed sword hung from one hip.

“A-ah,” Chandra started to choke out. “H-help… m-me … P-please….”

The man may have smiled at her, but she could not see through the black hood pulled low. He bent down and ran one cold finger down her cheek.

She thought she could hear her name on the wind.

Few heard Chandra’s scream, except for unthinking animals, and even they recoiled.

 

 

It was a cold evening after the rain passed—the last great chill of winter—but the darkness was warm with cheer.

Hundreds had crowded into the plaza of Quaervarr for the largest gathering in months. Children huddled with their mothers, trying to pull as much of themselves into the warmth of their parents’ cloaks as they could. Fathers and unmarried men mulled around in the town square, working to light the fires before dusk, trading hearty jokes and even more raucous laughter. Even the grumpy ones could hardly keep smiles off their faces. Fine, fey eyes twinkled and a scattering of elf faces seemed to glow in the falling light of the setting sun. The men finally got the fires lit, and flames danced up, hissing and crackling. Children laughed and squirmed, escaping possessive mothers.

Tonight would mark the beginning of the Greengrass festival which would end with the dawn of spring seven days hence. Cruel winter would leave behind the frontier town of Quaervarr, and the rebirth of all growing things would see the people of the Moonwood in higher spirits. True, the winter frost would not actually leave until summer, but there was a noticeable difference between winter’s cold and spring’s cool.

Lord Dharan Greyt had always preferred the spring.

Gold-haired, clad in a rich crimson doublet, and wrapped in a violet cloak with gold lining, the Lord Singer of the Silver Marches cut a dashing figure as he stepped onto the wooden stage in the square. A one-eyed wolf, his family seal, grinned from the velvet of his cloak. At once the crowd went silent, waiting to hear him speak, but he merely looked out at them, a sea of blank faces.

All of them looked expectant. All except one: the handsome, dusky face of Meris, framed with ebony curls and sitting atop his white-cloaked body. Meris looked on in bemused contempt. Greyt suppressed a smile. Much of the rabble was hopelessly bewitched at the sight of the Lord Singer, but not Meris. He was greater than any of them.

Greyt was pleased. He expected nothing less from his favorite—and only living—son.

Straight-faced, he tossed back his cloak and drew forth his gleaming golden rapier with a flourish. The crowd was stunned and drew back in awe.

“Well met, my friends!” His voice was rich and melodious, as though he sang a tune with every word. “Spring is coming—let’s come to an accord!” Greyt spun his sword once with dazzling finesse and stabbed it into the planks at his feet where it stood, quivering. The audience gasped. “To live by art instead of the sword!”

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