“Hurry up!” Tess urged.
Her blue form flickered between the trees ahead as a guiding light as Dia ran blindly in the dark forest. Dia hugged her travel pack and the staff against her chest, hoping that she wouldn’t trip as branches brushed her face and leaves crumpled in the wake of her steps. She could hear the labored breaths and unsteady steps of the young soldier trying to pursue them through the maze of trees and did her best to ignore the faint glow of other spirits that wandered the woods around them.
“This is your fault,” Dia panted, “You shouldn’t have shown yourself.”
The nice soldier had been willing to share his fire until Tess showed up.
“Can’t a ghost play a friendly prank anymore?” Tess complained.
“Not,” Dia gasped, “In the middle of an undead war.”
She raised her pack over her face as she uncomfortably passed through a wayward spirit in her path. Dew sprinkled her face from the trees above. They had found a path down the canyon and were now traversing the last forested bit of land before the field opened up into the battlegrounds.
“Gods slow down,” she called to Tess.
She lowered the pack to glimpse her guide, but the forest was pitch dark. Dia was hit by the intense feeling of being the only person left and she slowed to turn in all directions, every way a dark dead end. And the longer she waited in silence the more she thought that she heard the slow crunching of a predatory animal.
“Tess,” she whisper called.
Then Dia again heard the pursuer’s steps and continued running in an unknown direction through the trees. The crunching sound seemed to get louder.
“Tess!” Dia called for help.
Then she saw a hopeful thin blue line between the trees. Dia was almost at the light when her foot snagged a root and she pitched forward. The staff and travel pack hit the ground in front of her as she caught herself on her elbows, managing not to crush the contents. Water from the damp ground soaked through the thin fabric of her dress that must have looked like rags and she felt the sting of scrapped elbows.
But she had found Tess. Dia had fallen to the edge of a clearing and Tess had manifested in a motionless state not far off along the side. Now they both had their attention on the black mess that lay in the middle of the space. From the mass came a loud snap like a large tree branch breaking and Dia knew that this was the origin of the sound of predator eating prey.
“What is it?” Tess wondered aloud.
A wright, Dia thought horrified; an all-consuming spirit. There was no more time for thinking when the soldier chasing her burst through the trees beside her and into the open space, unaware that Dia had fallen out of sight. He skidded to a horrified stop in front of the withering shape. If the thing didn’t move right away, Dia knew it was only by choice as it was occupied in a current meal. But slowly, the formless shape pulled itself together enough to have a ridged spine-exposed back, slender toothpick arms ending in three fingered hands, and a skull-like head with empty eye sockets and a gaping toothy mouth. It was the only semblance of humanity that it knew. Its chin dripped with the blood of a corpse that it had been sitting atop and feasting on.
Dia knew that there was not enough salt in her bag to fend off such a monster, and as she felt a twig caught uncomfortably under her left hand she gave silent thanks for the soldier’s distraction. Before the soldier made an ear-piercing scream, Dia used the twig to painfully carve a bloody symbol into her left palm. Then she clutched the staff and travel pack in one hand and darted towards Tess to grab her wrist and drag her along.
The only thing that prevented Tess from tripping up was that as a ghost her legs and body phased through the foliage so that she seemed like a memory of someone running through open ground that the forest had grown over and obscured pieces of.
Dia’s didn’t know what she was aiming for. They only needed to get far enough away so that wright would forget them. Heck, it would have caught them already if it hadn’t been so stuffed. She didn’t stop even when her hand began to itch where the wound was scabbing over, not until the spell lost its hold and her hand slipped from Tess so that she caught herself against the nearest tree to stop from falling. Dia coughed from the impact and drew in a proper breath.
“You were worried about me,” Tess said amazed.
The comment brought Dia back to her regular irritated frame of mind.
“Oh, shut up,” Dia told her angrily.
The stupid ghost would have got herself killed. Dia hadn’t realized how being alone would affect her. She had assumed that with her past she would be able to handle it, but she couldn’t take it anymore. Now this stupid ghost that she had wanted gone was all she had. Irritated, Dia opened her pack to check that nothing was broken from her earlier fall.
“I-I’m not apologizing,” Tess said standing behind her.
Dia pushed back her tangled hair away from her face and glanced at Tess.
“You mean thanking, being grateful,” Dia suggested. “I hope you had a good look at that thing.”
Wrights and other corrupt spirits were usually rare, but this spiritual war was clearly starting to take a turn for the worse. Other spirits would become like that once they got sick of their half existence. Spirits like Tess.
“Uh, I’m nothing like that,” Tess said trying to brush nonexistent dirt from her gown.
Even an unknowing spirit could tell that the creature had been a ghost like them once, now a cannibal that tried to be more solid and real. Dia didn’t respond to this, choosing instead to sit down on a nearby rock to account for everything in the pack. Ghost Tess’s prolonged silence was a sign that she understood her guilty part in the process.
Dia carefully removed the salt bag to check for tears or water damage while Tess watched curiously. Satisfied Dia placed it back in the travel pack that she put on the ground, then used her left hand to adjust her crooked shoe. When Dia felt a tingle on the right hand that rested against the rock she glanced up to see that Tess had curiously tried to place her hand over top, only to have the usual fade-though reaction.
Dia gave the girl a sympathetic look and turned her palm over to show the remaining scabbed outline of the symbol.
“Don’t think about being any more than dust Tess. It was a grounding spell used to hold spirits long enough to save a person near death.”
“Humph,” Tess said removing her hand. “Scratching yourself up was stupid. I wasn’t going to go near that monster.”
Maybe or maybe not. It was hard not to yearn for life and be awed by those who seemed to have pulled themselves together, so to speak. Dia pondered if the cut would leave a scar once it healed, though she would go back to being the same flawless girl if she died.
“The professionals bring paper charms,” Dia explained. “They used to paste them on trees along the road where I lived. Not this symbol of course. But once there was a traveling healer on his way to learn from the white knights in the city who stopped in the village where I used to live. We all went to watch him.”
That had been an advantage of living along the route to a major city.
“We only ever had Alaban,” Tess said for herself.
That was the second time the connection had come up. Dia had not realized that Keenin and her had both cared for their village potion maker.
“I heard about him,” she said.
The conversation seemed to have reached an end. Dia had a look down at the torn skirt of her dress. She had hoped to make it further before looking like a haunted spirit herself. She pulled spare clothes from the bag and unashamedly began to change in front of Tess.
“We’ll camp here,” Dia announced.
“Near that creepy spirit.”
“Wraith,” Dia corrected. “Ya. I’ll spread salt and draw some symbols around. You’ll just have to deal with not roaming outside. It’s probably best that you don’t socialize with the spirits here anyways.”
“I thought that you wanted to get to Keenen.”
“He’ll still be there. That guy made it half way to the golden city before I even found him and I need to sleep.”
She tossed her destroyed dress into the trees.
“When we catch up to Keenin I promise that you can have him first for all the damn trouble.”
Tess watched as Dia used sticks to create rough circle that the salt could, well, stick to without dissolving. The truth was that Tess wasn’t sure if she still cared about Keenin in the same way. Before now Tess might have risked going to the Red Heart Army by herself believing that she was the only one who could help Keenin, the only person to know the entire story, but now she sort of pitied him. Tess might eventually be sent away by an exorcist or changed into a different sort of thing like that creepy wraith, but it didn’t mean as much when you were dead and forgotten. Keenin lost a part of his life every day.
As Tess watched Dia finish her symbol drawing and pat down a patch of leaves as a spot to sleep Tess thought to warn her.
“He’s not the same you know, Tess mentioned as Dia lay curled with the pack under her head. “He isn’t a hero. If he had died he could have been the same.”
“If he died then he would be dead,” Dia said absently.
She seemed too close to sleep to listen.
“I hope that you don’t blame him,” Tess said quietly.
“What?” Dia turned and asked.
“We’ll be there tomorrow so quit looking so heartsick,” Tess said instead.
Dia rolled back over and secured her pack pillow.
“Whatever,” Dia mumbled, “I am not the one whose heartsick.”
At least, Dia wasn’t sure. Keenin had made her happy and let her accept parts of herself that she had thought of as horrible. At the very least she didn’t want to lose sight of him. Dia wanted him to grow up even more in a place that was peaceful.
She had already decided that she wouldn’t regret any more life choices. For everything that time took, there were replacements; friends, home, favorite clothes, true loves, but not choices.
Chapter 39: The Price of Magic