Haunt of Stars
Caled stepped through the trees, Lio and Gam flanking him. Green lights wandered around the upper and lower level courtyard balconies in a grotesque mockery of everyday life. The three men continued forward, both thieves clutching cloth bags and Caled holding powder in his clenched fist. As they passed, the ghosts began to notice the men in their march across the courtyard. They began laughing and taunting them as they dodged into their path, washing the three men in terrible, bone-chilling cold when the ghosts passed through them. Inside the castle, dozens of ghosts were lining the way to the throne room, joining in the harassment. The two thieves looked at the ghosts, shuddering from the various slashing and stabbing wounds that marked their deaths. One ghost swiped her hand through the blood and fluids dripping from the large wound on her head where her skull had been bashed open and reached forward to rub the fluid in Lios face. The thief gagged, reaching up to wipe the cold liquid from his face. His hand came away clean and the ghosts howled in laughter. He turned away, gritting his teeth. Through it all, Caled ignored the specters, moving through the hall and up the stairs in determination. When they reached the throne room, they encountered the little girl with the blonde curls standing before the doors to the chamber. I warned you to leave, she said in her piping voice. Caled stepped right through her and grabbed the handles to the metal doors, pulling them open.
The room was bright and beautiful, lit by the same unnatural sunlight as before. Syellen sat on the golden throne, raising her eyes, hot with red fire, to the doors as they entered. Hadrian stood in the center of the large white circle on the floor. He smiled brightly when they entered. Well, what have we here? Ankou said, speaking through Hadrian. His voice was light with amusement. Come to rescue your lover?
Caled never hesitated. He walked straight into the circle and, before Ankou could react, he thrust out his hand, throwing a pale powder into the Keepers face. I banish you, specter of the dead, from within the limits of this sacred circle, Caled growled. The two thieves gaped in amazement as Ankou went flying from the circle, landing hard before the dais. Now! Caled snapped. Gam ran forward, opening his bag. He began sprinkling more powder along the edge of the circle, muttering an incantation Manix had made him memorize in a language he didnt understand. Lio also opened his bag and carefully removed three twigs from a birch tree and three small scraps of cloth. He then tied a cloth each to the twigs, one cloth red, one blue, the third gray. He carefully placed the twigs on the ground and began to lay out other pieces of vegetation and various stones in the pattern Manix described. Caled raised his arms. Hear me, spirits of the dead he began, carefully reciting the incantation Manix had taught him.
Ankou narrowed his eyes, climbing back onto his feet. Oh, so you seek to banish us? he said, slowly stalking forward. A mercenary and two thieves are going to eliminate us? He stepped up to the circle. A loud crack was heard as white lighting shot from the ward Gam was placing, forcing Ankou away from the wall. Lio hesitated briefly, and then continued placing the last few items. The Keepers face darkened, his eyes burning. He backed up a few paces and raised his right hand, throwing at them a ball of blue fire. The ball hit the ward with a loud crack, weakening the barrier.
Gam, Lio warned.
I got it, Gam said, rushing forward with more powder to strengthen the ward. Caled stepped into the center of four stones Lio had placed, closing his eyes to better concentrate. He kneeled down, picking up the twig with the red cloth.
With this, Caled said, speaking slowly to be sure he said it correctly, I break your ties, Lorelei of Cahywallan, to the body you haunt. He snapped the twig. There was a large rush of power and Syellens body tumbling to the floor, a blood red mist rising from her as she fell.
Ankou had turned to watch the queens ghost as it hovered near the throne. With a snarl, he whirled back around. He stepped close to the ward and raised his hands. He slowly began to pour power into the barrier.
Gam! Lio said, alarmed.
Theres nothing I can do! Gam replied. I dont know how to stop him.
The barrier began to glow white. Delicate blue cracks began to run through it. Caled! the thieves shouted.
I break your ties, Ankou of Cahywallan, to the body you haunt. Caled snapped the twig with the blue cloth. Ankous eyes went wide. He stumbled back, but soon crumbled to the ground as the queen had, a shimmering blue mist rising from him. As the two thieves watched, the colored mists seemed to grow deeper and darker. Two forms appeared in there depths.
Part three, Caled, Lio said, his voice tense. Hurry.
The two outlines in the mists sharpened to people standing in colored fire. In the red fire was Queen Lorelei, or at least how the thieves reckoned she must have looked while she was alive. She was similar in appearance to Syellen, though she did not look quite so young. There was a look about her, a certain hardness that denoted age beyond her years. Her long hair was a deep red the color of spilled blood and her eyes were an astonishingly deep green. Ankous appearance was equally as stunning. It actually surprised the thieves how much he truly looked like Hadrian. His glossy black hair hung to his waist like a dark cloud, but the easy confidence that seemed to ooze from him made him more handsome than beautiful like the sorcerer. Both ghosts, however, looked utterly enraged.
Lorelei breezed forward, towards them. Ankou held his hand out for her, again not looking. She took his hand and both focused eyes burning with ghostly fire on the thieves and mercenary. They raised free hands and again began to pour fire into the ward. Caled, Lio whined, shying from the ward. Hurry.
Syellen raised her head, blinking her eyes in a daze. She looked around, trying to remember where she was. Her eyes landed on Hadrians crumpled form, then on the two ghosts attempting to destroy the protective barrier around Caled, Gam, and Lio. Suddenly, she remembered everything that had happened: the voice, entering the throne room, seeing the ghosts, being possessed, attacking Manix. In horror, her hand flew up to the gold collar around her neck, feeling its warm, throbbing power as the queen made use of it. Her fingers slipped to the back, searching for the clasp, but it would not come undone.
Movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention. Hadrian was also beginning to come around. Careful to avoid catching the ghosts attentions she crawled over to where the sorcerer was. Hadrian? she whispered.
He raised his head to her. His eyes had a strange, far-away look, like he was seeing something she couldnt. Syellen? She helped him up onto his knees. They are going to break through the barrier soon, he murmured.
She cocked her head, listening. I dont know this Cast, she replied, but I dont think he is going to finish in time.
He nodded. We have to help them.
How? she asked.
Were going to have to distract the ghosts. He moved around her so that he was behind her, his chest pressed against her back.
And how are we going to do that? she asked, her tone, though whispered, sharp.
He closed his eyes, turning his head so that his lips brushed her ear. He wrapped a single arm around her waist. Do you feel it? he murmured to her. She shivered slightly. He didnt seem to notice. Do you feel the collar? Do you feel its power being pulled like a warm golden line?
She bit her lip and nodded.
He took her left hand, raising it with his. Pull.
Gam and Lio watched in helpless panic as more glowing cracks appeared in the ward. Caled, Lio whispered in desperation. Suddenly, the fire in the hands of the ghosts went out. Lorelei and Ankous eyes widened. The two turned, stepping apart. Behind them, Gam and Lio could see Hadrian and Syellen kneeling, their eyes closed and their hands glowing in respectively blue and red fire. The two ghosts snarled and moved toward the mage and sorcerer. Caled opened his eyes and picked up the last twig, glaring coldly at the ghosts.
I break your ties, ghosts of Cahywallan, to the castle you haunt. Go and be at peace, Caled said. He took a breath, then snapped the twig.
The air seemed to still and fall silent. Suddenly, a large wailing burst through the castle, a hundred voices screaming in the darkness. The fire surrounding Lorelei and Ankou ignited. The two screamed, the cool blue and deep red turning into the sickening shade of green that surround the other ghosts. The fire consumed them, the features that they once held in life and in death burning away until nothing remained. A great wind swept through the castle. It blew into the throne room, stripping the room of its once great splendor and dimming the light of the banished ghosts. The wind settled and the unnatural light that once lit the room went out.
Gam carefully walked over the door where two oil torches had stood. There was a clanging of metal on stone, and then the soft light of the torch lit illuminated part of the room. A loud crash surprised them all. The thieves and mercenary turned to see Syellen rubbing her neck, the golden collar lying on the floor. Hadrian was carefully unclipping his, an unreadable look on his face.
Are you two alright? Caled asked. Hadrian nodded, lying the Collar of Stars on the floor beside the Queens Collar.
I think so, Syellen replied, looking shaken. She looked at them, tears in her eyes. Manix, is he ?
Hes alive, Lio replied. The chain broke his legs, though.
A bright blue glow shone through the room from Hadrians hands, making everyone gasp. An answering glow came from two large stones as they lifted from the floor. Hadrian, Caled asked cautiously.
Its still me, Hadrian said, calling the stones to him. I can still pull power from the Collar of Stars if Im not wearing it.
Caled studied his face. The sorcerers face was calm as he concentrated hard on the stones, but there was a fierce joy in his eyes. Hadrian-
Be quiet, please, Hadrian said. This isnt easy. He levitated the stones over to where the Collars were. A soft look of regret quickly flashed across his face, then he turned his head, dropping his hands. The stones hit the necklaces with a loud boom and crack. A shockwave blasted from under the stones, knocking them all off their feet.
Why did you do that? Lio asked, lying on his back from the fall. Hadrian slowly climbed to his feet.
They had to be destroyed to release their power, he replied. A deep trembling began from under their feet. It quickly grew in intensity. Dust and debris began to fall around them.
Oh, no, Lio replied. This means we have to run again, doesnt it?
Move! Caled shouted, grabbing Hadrians hand. The five of them ran out of the throne room, trying to run down the stairs without falling. Larger pieces of rock and stone began to fall from the ceiling. At the base of the stairs, Hadrian and Caled had to break apart, jumping out of the way as piece of stone the size of a horse fell from the level above them. Gam jumped over the courtyard wall, turning back to help Syellen across as Lio and Caled jumped it. Caled paused, waiting for Hadrian as the sorcerer had to dodge another large stone on his way to the wall. Come on, Hades!
Hadrian ran across the hallway, ignoring Caleds outstretched hands as he placed his own on the wall and vaulted over it. The two ran across the courtyard and disappeared into the forest after the others. They ran for a long time, heading for the place where they left Manix. Syellen stumbled several times, but Hadrian was the only one to fall, hitting the ground on his bare arms hard. They only stopped when they had finally reached Manix.
What has happened? Manix asked, grasping Syellens hand as she fell down beside him. Like all of them, she was panting, her face a mask of worry for her mentor.
We did it, Lio gasped out. We stopped the ghosts.
So you did manage to banish them, Manix said. A loud crash came from the direction of the castle, shaking the ground beneath them. Manix grimaced in pain. What was that?
The others looked at each other. Well, Gam said slowly. That was the castle.
Manix raised an eyebrow. The castle?
Yeah, Gam said. Its sort of He hesitated, looking for the right word.
Collapsing in on itself, falling apart, being leveled as we speak? Lio supplied helpfully.
How did this happen? Manix asked.
It started after Hadrian destroyed the Collars. He crushed them under a rock, Caled said, eyeing the quiet sorcerer. Hadrians face was still flushed from the run, but he seemed calm, not at all uncomfortable with what had just happened. Hadrian must have felt Caleds eyes on him because he turned, calmly meeting his eyes. The two watched each other for a moment, then Hadrian turned away.
Hadrian, Gam said, alarmed. What happened to your arms?
The sorcerer lifted up his arms. There was a long gash caked with dirt and blood on one of his forearms. The other was covered in scrapes and dirt. He looked surprised. I fell in the forest.
Does it hurt? Lio asked.
He winced. It didnt until you pointed it out.
A soft blue glow surprised them. The blue fire surrounded the wounds and slowly burned its way through them, then faded. The wounds on his arms were gone. Another blue light glowed from Manixs legs. Again, after a few moments, the light faded.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Did you do that? Lio asked Hadrian. The sorcerer shook his head.
It may have been the islands way of saying thank you, Manix said.
The island? Lio asked.
Remember, the power of the island was housed in the Collar of Stars. It may have been grateful that Hadrian released it.
Another loud crash came from behind them, again shaking the ground. There was a sharp crack like a tree was being snapped in half. "Maybe we should head for the beach," Lio said, eyeing the direction they had come from uneasily.
"Good idea," Manix said, gingerly climbing to his feet. "It would be a shame to go through so much effort to banish the ghosts just to get crushed by the castle."
Gam rolled his eye. "Yeah. The perfect end to the perfect day."
The group wearily made their way to the beach, moving quietly in their exhaustion. The only person who didn't seem tired was Hadrian. Caled occasionally glanced at the sorcerer's face, frowning at his pensive _expression. Hadrian seemed distracted by something, though what the mercenary couldn't guess. Syellen's shriek started him and he pulled his daggers, preparing for a fight.
"What happened to the ship?" she asked, her eyes wide. Caled glanced out to the water.
The Palatine was gone. The only things to be seen in the pre-dawn light were pieces of burnt wood and a single boat with oars beached on the sand.
"Oh yeah," Lio said.
Caled glared at him. Oh yeah? he said, his voice low and dangerous.
Gam glanced nervously at Caled. We forgot to tell you. It exploded.
Everyone stared at him. Exploded? Hadrian asked, speaking for the first time. A large rumbled and crashed was heard from deeper in the forest as the castle continued to fall apart. How did it explode?
Oh, you know, Lio said, waving his hand in a dismissive manner as he settled down onto the sand, there was a big boom as the whole thing burst into flames. You know, an explosion.
And you didnt think to tell us this? Caled demanded.
As I recall, Gam said, we were a little to busy trying to keep you from burning down the castle.
He tried to burn down the castle? Hadrian asked, turning his sliver gaze to Caled.
Nevermind, the mercenary said sharply.
Well, its not like we really liked the pirates, Lio said lightly.
Regardless, we are now stuck here, Caled said, collapsing onto the beach.
Hadrian looked about. Not necessarily, he replied. There is still the boat we came to shore on. We could paddle to the shore of the mainland.
Hadrian, we are in Jeynesa, or have you forgotten? the mercenary asked. Hadrian turned to him, his eyes dark and unreadable.
I have not forgotten, the younger man said. But we cannot stay here forever.
No, we cannot, Caled said, lying back onto the sand. But we have been running from ghosts for an entire day without rest and, before I do anything else, Im going to sleep.
Hadrian stared at him. Here? he said, spreading his arms to gesture to the shore. On an open beach?
Yes, on an open beach. The ghosts are gone, the castle far behind us and the pirates who wanted to kill Lio and ravish you, he looked pointedly at the slighter man, are dead. He closed his eyes. I am tired and am not moving until I have had a chance to sleep.
And if we decide to leave you here? Hadrian asked, his arms crossed over his chest. He eyed the beach warily, the breeze from the water making the open sleeves of the white tunic he wore dance.
Caled opened his mouth to reply when Gam groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. By the gods, dont you two ever stop? We have all had a very long day and we are all tired so either cry friends or tear each other apart, I dont care which. Just dont do it here.
A strange look passed through Hadrians eye too quickly for Caled to read. You would agree with him, he muttered.
Enough, Hades. Lie down and sleep or be silent so we can. Caled rolled over and closed his eyes. He heard the sounds of everyone settling behind him and opened his eyes a crack. Hadrian was walking away down the beach, run his hands over his practically bare arms. As he watched, the sorcerer carefully sat down, mindful of where his clothing lay and where his bare skin was. Caled sighed. He had briefly forgotten that Hadrian couldnt touch Life. He was so used to seeing him bound in cloth from neck to foot that it didnt occur to him that Hadrian couldnt lie down to sleep. He quietly stood and made his way to the younger man.
Hadrian gazed out onto the water, his _expression unreadable as he tried to rub some warmth into his arms. The autumn breeze was cold, making the smaller man shiver. He didnt want to think about what he was wearing or why he was wearing it. That just made him think of Ankou, and he did not want to think about the ghost. The lies it had spoken had seemed so real, so caring. He knew it was ridiculous to think so. After all, who would ever care for him? However, he just could not give up on the hope that one of these times, someone might actually mean it. He sighed, drawing his knees close to his chest. Was that really too much to ask?
Hadrian was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didnt notice Caled behind him until the mercenary wrapped his arms around him. The raven-haired man started, turning to look at his blond companion. What are you doing? he asked as Caled pulled him close.
You cant lie down on the earth and Im too cold to give up my cloak, Caled replied, wrapping his think cloak around both of them.
But- Hadrian began to protest.
Hush, Hades. We are both tired. If you dont like this arrangement, we can make a different one later, but for now, go to sleep.
Hadrian settled down, allowing Caled to hold him close. He was tired and it really was the best arrangement he could come up with. He closed his eyes, enjoying Caleds warmth. He had the urge to wrap his arms around the larger man, but decided it wasnt such a wise idea. He didnt want to try his luck. Instead, he would just enjoy the situation for what is was. And never give up hope.
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