Chapter 9: Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost

A quick shout out to Life of Chaz. Dude’s probably become my most regular viewer aside from the friends who I force to view my content; in other words, he’s my most willing reader. Many thanks, my man. Much gratitude. Also, chapter 10 is is following on the tails of this one; I had a burst of creative momentum lately.

Chronicles of Koeleth: The River’s Tale
Chapter IX
Voice of the Damned

“Now, hold on a minute,” the barkeep interrupted. “You said you were going to tell us about Tom’s unexpected and interesting comrade. We haven’t met anyone that fits the bill.”

“Sure you have!” the old man assured his audience. “I’ve told you about Aaron, Collin, Cleo—she fits the bill of ‘unexpected,’ let me tell you!”

“I heard that, you squawking parrot!” the female voice retorted aggressively from the upper rooms.

“If only your sense of humor was as sharp as your hearing!” the old man shot back before returning to the topic at hand. “Anyways, you’ve met all sorts of interesting people that most folks don’t see everyday. Your grandmother and I are quite the exceptions. That, my young friend, is quite off topic, however. I haven’t gotten to Tom’s most unusual—and most important—companion. But we have some time before we get to that. You must know about the adventure that led up to that meeting.”

“Alistair!” Dennis and Grace screamed.

“Who’s Alistair?” Collin nervously inquired.

“He’s one of our pack mates,” Dennis hurriedly explained. “His abomination power lets him transform into a wraith-like shadow creature. While in that form, he can unleash a mind-numbing, blood-curdling, ear-splitting screech. The problem is the scream we’re hearing now only happens while he’s in between forms. Any transformational abomination knows the pain of being in between forms. Grace knows it, Rydia knows it, and I sure as hell know it. Whatever is forcing him into this half state, it must be stopped, because if we can here his screech, the people at the camp can hear it all the more loudly. Right now, there are only two people in that area that aren’t affected, and they’ll need our help!”

“Then we better get going!” Theo declared.

“Hold on, Theo,” Tom interjected. “Normally, I’m all for rushing in with reckless abandon, but Alistair’s powers could cause us some trouble if we aren’t careful.”

“You’re right. What do you recommend, then?”

“Grace, your power allows you to fly, right?”

“Yes, and they turn me into a giant leathery lizard thing,” Grace answered uncomfortably.

“I believe the word you are looking for is ‘pterosaur,’” Collin interjected.

“Thank you, Collin,” Grace responded politely but exasperatedly.

“How is your hearing in that form?” Tom asked.

“Not fantastic, but my sense of smell and my eyesight are spectacular.”

“Would Alistair’s scream be an issue if you tried to scout the camp out by air?”

“It shouldn’t be.”

“Look,” Dennis horned in, “if something is causing this, we need to take it out soon.”

“Right, and as soon as Grace is done scouting, we’ll do something about it,” Tom stated.

“We’ll send Aaron in to check it out on foot, as well.”

“Why me?” Aaron inquired stoically.

“Because you’re better at stealth than anyone else here, and if there is someone causing this, you can take them out quickly. Who better suited to that than a professional thief?”

“You raise a valid point that I can’t argue with.”

“You’re going to need something to cover your ears, then,” Grace suggested.

“And we have just the thing for that,” Dennis declared, producing two plugs of some unknown material. “Put them in your ears and it’ll block out Alistair’s screech, along with just about everything else.”

Aaron took the earplugs from Dennis and followed his guidance. Just as advertised, he could hear nothing.

“Tom, yell at me,” Aaron commanded in a voice louder than he anticipated. “Shout something at me that you would never say to my face.”

“I’m sure I can think of a few things,” Tom answered, knowing Aaron couldn’t hear him. He began to shout and scream a dozen insults and curses. “That felt really good.”

“Nope, didn’t hear any of it,” Aaron said in response to a question that wasn’t asked. He took the earplugs out to hear further instructions.

“Okay, let’s not waste anymore time,” Tom said. “Lives are at stake here.”

“Right, I’ll go, then,” Grace said, steeling herself for whatever was to come. Taking a running start, she launched herself into the air. The prehistoric creature disappeared over the horizon. Aaron followed on foot, making swift progress.

Before much time had passed, Grace and Aaron returned to the small company with news of the camp.

“I didn’t see what was causing Alistair’s pain, but I did see that Darren and Owen were fighting a group of soldiers outfitted in leather and chainmail. The insignia on their armor looked like a shining sun,” Grace reported.

“I saw a man blowing into a strange flute,” Aaron stated. “It might have been a magical item of some sort, I don’t know. The tree he was posted in was too heavily guarded for me to get to unnoticed.”

“The Inquisitors,” Tom muttered forebodingly. “That’s not good.”

“No kidding,” Dennis affirmed.

“Do you guys have anymore of those earplugs?”

“Yeah, we always pack extras.”

“Good. Everyone, ready yourselves for combat. Collin, this will end in violence. Take Rydia and keep her safe. And, Theo?” Tom spoke, his face sprouting into a grin.

“Yeah, Tom?” Theo grinned back.

“Man, this is gonna be fun!”

The band of warriors rushed towards the camp, with Tom leading the charge. As they approached the camp, the scene was surreal. In the middle of the camp was a half-human apparition screaming in pain, surrounded by the cringing figures of its fellows, but Tom and company heard nothing. Standing back to back, fending off a handful of enemy soldiers, were two warriors, presumably the aforementioned Owen and Darren. The only thing keeping the rest of the Inquisitors from attacking were the misfiring powers of the other abominations. Aaron pointed at the flutist and Amelia put her bow to use. After he had been eliminated, the screeching abomination collapsed, exhausted by the suffering he had endured. Amelia was the first to notice and took out her earplugs, directing the others to do the same. When they had adequately recovered, several abominations joined the fight, using their powers to devastating effect. One traveler turned into an apelike creature and hurled his opponents across the battlefield. Another set her own arms on fire and then proceeded to do the same to her foes. Even Dennis, knowing that his pack was now safe, flaunted his power. Morphing into a massive theropod with a coat of metallic scales, he plowed through the enemy ranks. He may have suffered from a lack of sight, having no eyes in this form, but he made up for it with an impeccable sense of smell. Grace began taking victims into the sky only to drop them onto the ground below. Amelia did not stand on the sidelines when the fighting started, either. Pulling out her shield and sword, she charged into the fray, staying close to Tom and Theo. Her presence on the battlefield was beneficial, as her magic boosted the strength and endurance of her allies.

Tom and Theo were the true stars of the battlefield, however. They could never be found more than a few feet away from one another, and they fought together with such ease and grace that even the more seasoned enemy warriors were shocked at their skill. Tom hit hard and sure with his halberd and Theo struck with speed and precision, twirling his blades in his trademark style. Tom was primal and aggressive, but he never took a life; breaking bones was just as effective. Theo was flashy and over the top, but he knew how to use his twin falchions, and his opponents fell before him like wheat before the harvester’s scythe. Tom pushed back the enemy, and Theo stepped in to deal the final blow. Tom guarded Theo’s back, and Theo cleared a path forward. The two had rapidly amassed piles of injured and dead.

Before they could rest, however, some of the soldiers got past the frontline and deeper into the camp. Tom and Theo charged in their direction, but Theo quickly redirected when he noticed where they were headed. Sheathing his swords as he ran, he dived towards a young woman, embracing her and rolling out of the way of the soldiers. While Theo took care of the girl, Tom erected an aquatic barrier to impede the soldiers’ progress. Using their confusion to his advantage, Tom quickly took them down.

“Th-thank you,” the woman muttered, looking up at her rescuer.

“Yeah, don’t mention it,” Theo said in response, captivated by the beauty in front of him.

For a brief moment, Theo’s hazel-brown eyes locked with the woman’s peculiar purple eyes, and they stared at one another.

“I’m, uh, I’m Theodore Mapleleaf,” Theo finally said, breaking the silence.

“Oh, um, I’m, uh, Suren Northstar,” the woman responded, nervously playing with her jet black hair. “Thank you, Mr. Mapleleaf.”

“Oh, um, you can just call me Theo. Theo is fine. Yeah, just Theo,” Theo embarrassedly fumbled over his own words.

“W-well, th-thank you again, um, Theo,” Suren smiled, blushing all the while.

“Hey!” Tom interrupted, breaking the enchantment. “Lover boy! We still have work to do. Save your romantic escapades for later.”

“Ergh! Right, right! Sorry, ma’am! Sorry! I’ll let you go now, as I must be going myself! Lovely meeting you, I hope we can do it again sometime!” Theo stumbled back to his feet, flabbergasted and abashed.

“Oh, wait! Oh, okay, um, I guess…I’ll see you later,” Suren mumbled as the warrior went on his way.

“So,” Tom smirked. “Getting cozy with the ladies, huh? Never thought you were the type.”

“Oh, shut up!” Theo said, still flustered.

When the remaining soldiers were cleared out or dealt with, the group turned their attention to recovery efforts. Several people were wandering around the campsite, cleaning up debris, gathering scattered property, and checking on the wounded. Darren and Owen, the ones unaffected by Alistair’s screeching, were getting themselves checked by a medic, having taken the brunt of the combat damage. Collin had kept a safe distance away with Rydia, but, when the commotion died down, he decided to check things out. Now that it was safe, Rydia and he both rejoined the camp. Amelia, upon seeing Tom and Theo, approached them.

“Hey, Tom,” Amelia began. “It looks like nobody was too severely injured. Gabriel was knocked completely unconscious by Alistair’s screaming, but the medic says he is fine otherwise. He should recover soon.”

“That’s great,” Tom said. “But these guys were easy. If they come back in the future, the Inquisitors are going to bring bigger, badder fighters. They’re going to bring out people on mine and Theo’s level, or maybe even tougher. That’s not good for us.”

“Yeah,” Theo said. “At least we have something to work with, though. This pack has more than a few useful assets.”

“Yeah, a little bit of training and they would make good warriors.”

When everything had settled down enough, the escort party convened for an impromptu meeting.

“I have one question, bro,” Artie began. “Why didn’t they attack when everyone was disabled by the shadow guy?”

“I think,” Grace answered, “that they were trying to get the pack to kill itself. If Alistair had continued screaming, he might have killed a few of the more sensitive abominations, or one of them might have gone crazy and started killing the others. And even if that wasn’t the case, uncontrolled abomination magic is kind of something you want to stay away from.”

“No muss, no fuss, eh?” Theo commented. “Despicable.”

“What’s the deal with Darren and Owen?” Tom inquired.

“Darren is deaf,” Dennis replied. “Owen has a sort of magical barrier that prevents his senses from being inhibited.”

“That seems useful,” Collin remarked.

“What’s Darren’s ability? I didn’t see him use it,” Tom stated.

“He has a really unique ability,” Dennis explained. “After he’s hit with a weapon, he can recreate it with organic matter. In other words, he’s really hard to kill, and, if you try, he’ll stab you with a copy of your sword that’s made out of bone. I saw him shoot a guy with an arrow made out of bone and toenails, shot from a bow made out of hair and fingernails. It wasn’t a great shot, but it was a shot. As to why he wasn’t using his power, steel is much more reliable than bone.”

“Fair enough. So, how do you guys communicate with him?”

“He’s adept at reading lips, which has come in handy more than once. The only person he has any trouble communicating with is Rydia, and we’ve been teaching her to mouth out her words, since she can’t form sounds. We’ve been moderately successful. She mouths words to him. Just him.”

“Moderately successful indeed.”

“Enough about that,” Theo said. “We’ll learn all about the various magical diseases and curses as we go. Right now, we need to get working. If we can train some of these guys, you’ll be able to defend yourselves, and we’ll be able to better defend those who can’t.”

“You raise a good point,” Dennis admitted. “That can wait for later, though. For today, we should be safe. I doubt they have reinforcements waiting right here. That would be too big a tax on their resources, even for a blessed guild.”

“A blessed guild?” Artie asked.

“A guild that has a patron guardian, you doofus,” Diane responded. “Like the Adventurer’s Guild, though I can never remember who their patron is…”

They all looked at Tom and Theo.

“Beats me,” Tom said.

“It never mattered much,” Theo continued, finishing Tom’s thought.

“Fearl is the guardian of the Inquisitors. They inspire fear, and they are driven by it. A perfect guardian for such a guild.”

“Anyways,” Dennis said, weary of the topic. “Let’s get camp fixed up, and then let’s have a celebration. Today’s victory deserves it.”

“Yes, Dennis is right,” Grace agreed. “Let’s worry about the ugly stuff later.”

Everyone was in agreement, and they commenced preparations. Rydia happily followed along, carrying a large jawbreaker in her mouth like a Labrador carries a tennis ball. The community cleaned up the campsite and gathered together for a party. Everyone laughed and danced as the Sirens, the camp’s resident band, played a wholly unique style of music, using a few extraordinary magical abilities that had a more artistic bent than usual. The festivities went on into the evening, and after a large feast, the camp gathered around a few bonfires strategically placed so as not to burn the place down. The outsiders, along with Grace, Dennis, and Suren, were gathered on one side of the central fire, and even Gabriel had recovered enough to show up. Some would say that he even enjoyed himself, but he would never admit to it.

“So, then, we charged in, swords waving wildly, and somehow we managed to take down all of them without getting a single scratch between us!” Theo was telling one of his and Tom’s many adventures. “We earned the title ‘Fearless Chargers’ after that, to make it sound less comical and more dramatic, but it was really just a fluke we didn’t get hurt.”

“Yeah, that was only our fourth mission, too!” Tom added. “We didn’t get along at that point in time, much less understand how to work together.”

“What, your ineffable charm didn’t affect Theo?” Amelia jested.

“Quite the opposite, actually,” Theo answered. “I hated him when we first met. I was fresh in the Guild, and I took my job so seriously that I thought any sort of frivolous celebration was a hindrance. When Tom would walk in the door, he was everybody’s friend. I hated him for it, but he wasn’t overly fond of me, either.”

“I wouldn’t say I hated you,” Tom clarified. “But I was always enjoying myself, and you always managed to bring down my high. What a stick in the mud. Of course, I didn’t like you.”

“Yeah, well, the captain thought it would be funny if he paired us up for a mission or two, and, after those first two missions were blinding successes, he decided to keep us together. Initially, we both resented the fact that we worked well together. After the big one, though, we reached an understanding.”

“The big one?” Collin asked.

“Yeah,” Tom interjected. “The one that earned us the title ‘River Brothers’. We were sent to Deluge, a town that sat at the joining of two major rivers in our mutual home region of Sorowa’s Cradle. A group of rebels who were trying to start an uprising against Lord Cradleborn were nested in Deluge and the Guild chose us to represent them in this scenario. At the time, we were the best two man team in all of Sorowa’s Cradle and were more efficient than most larger groups. We no longer loathed each other, but it was still a far cry from being best friends. Their base was littered with traps and hazards, but if you know what to look for, they’re easy enough to bypass. Well, we didn’t know what to look for when it came to pit traps, and this one was particularly nasty. They had a means of controlling it remotely, and to this day I don’t know how, but they saw us coming and triggered it when we were on top of it. A lucky catch saved me, and I was able to climb out, but Theo almost bit it. His robe got stuck to a floorboard that hid the trap, and he was slipping out of it. The spikes at the bottom seemed unforgiving, so neither of us was excited about the prospect. I dropped on my stomach to try and grab his collar, but he was just out of reach, so I did the stupidest thing I’ve ever done; I swung my Hardened Tear as hard as I could towards him, lodging it right underneath his left arm, locking his robe into place and giving him a handhold.”

“Tore a nasty hole in it, too,” Theo explained, rubbing his hand over a barely noticeable line of stitches in his robe. “Ah, but Tucker is an excellent tailor. Fixed it right up.”

“Anyways, he did slip, but he managed to grab hold of my weapon’s inside edge—perfectly safe, it’s a dull as a butter knife on that side. I finally managed to get him out, but not before almost falling in again myself. He later repaid me when I was ambushed and captured by some of the rebels. Theo took out a whole room of them by himself to get me out of there. We finished that mission successfully and came out with our lives and a healthy new respect for one another.”

“Wow, that’s amazing…” Suren whispered.

“Yeah, taking on a room full of rebels was probably the stupidest thing I ever did. You know, it would have been easier if you just killed them,” Theo joked.

“You’re probably right,” Tom laughed in response.

“So, um, how did you convince Gabriel to trust you?” Suren asked Theo.

“Oh, that?” Theo answered. “Well, pay close attention, folks. Only Tom knows this.”

With a quick blink, his eyes dilated and started reflecting the light of the fire. His smile took on a more sinister appearance as his canines became sharp and fanglike.

“I’m a freak of nature just like the rest of you. It’s just a little harder to notice. Wonder why they call me ‘Nightprowler?’ It’s because these bad boys can see in the dark.”

Suren nervously played with her hair.

“He is right,” Gabriel said weakly, still recovering from his earlier incapacitation. “It assuaged some of my mistrust to see that he was an abomination. I also—hesitantly—have placed my trust in Mr. Riversedge.”

“Well, that’s refreshing to here,” Tom said.

“By the way, Tom,” Theo said, “you never told me why they called you the ‘Demon in the Mist’ after that one mission.”

“It’s…not a story that should be shared in this setting. It’s a dark chapter.”

“Fair enough. I have a couple of those myself. Well, let’s change the subject, then. How about we talk about the ‘Golden Wall?’”

“Only if we can talk about the ‘Twirling Blades!’”

The two shared their adventures well into the evening, and the other travelers returned the favor with tales of their own. When it came time to retire for the night, the hired swords returned to their inn, ready for a good night’s rest. Before they separated for the night, Tom pulled Theo aside to talk privately.

“What’s up, Tom?” Theo inquired.

“I…I need to talk to you about something,” Tom somberly whispered.

“About what?” Theo answered with concern.

“I had the dream again. Only, this time, there was more.”

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