HOUSE OF BLADES
350th Year of the Damascan Calendar
16th Year in the Reign of King Zakareth VI
10 Days Until Midsummer
Through the darkness and the pouring rain, Simon stared at the ghost.
He had never seen a ghost before, but he knew this one at once. It looked like little more than a man-sized lump of mist, so he might have mistaken it for a product of the storm if it hadn’t seemed quite so unusual. For one thing, it glowed with a soft blue-white light, even though the moon was hidden behind rolling black stormclouds. For another, the ghost didn’t fade away or drift in the wind. It stood stock-still, facing one direction across thirty paces of rain and shadow. Simon imagined the ghost was looking straight at him.
He moved to take a closer look, but his father grabbed him by the arm. “Simon, why don’t you come help me with the cart?”
The boy cast one last, longing glance at the ghost before trudging over to the cart, hitched to their nameless donkey. They had packed the wagon to the brim with crates, boxes, and bags containing everything they had bought and hoped to sell in the villages between Enosh and Alrin. Simon’s father, Kalman, bent over the cart, checking that everything was sorted and covered.
There was nothing Simon could do to help, but his father had only called him over to keep him out of trouble. And away from anything interesting. Maybe the ghost would drift over here, and then he might even get to talk to it!
Simon’s mother, Edina, walked up and threw an arm around her son’s shoulder. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” she said. “What do you think it is?”
“A ghost,” he said with certainty. He was only eight years old, but his mother stood less than a head over him. She looked even shorter next to her husband, whose head brushed the branches of the nearby trees.
She nodded thoughtfully. “I bet he was a victim of the Forest Demon. He could have been another merchant, just like us, killed before his time. His soul will wander this world for eternity…or until his killer is brought to justice!”
Her voice rose dramatically at the end, and Kalman sighed.
Simon shivered in spite of himself and looked into the shadows, trying to make out the shape of a crouching demon. Would he be able to tell if there was a demon behind that redberry bush?
“What’s the Forest Demon?” he asked.
Edina took a step back so she could look at her son from arm’s length. She widened her eyes as though shocked. “Why, I’ve never told you the story of the Demon of Latari Forest?”
Simon shook his head.
“Then gather ’round, young one, and open your ears. I’m about to tell you a tale of horror and tragedy that happened right where we stand, in this very forest.”
He wasn’t sure how, exactly, he was supposed to “gather ’round,” but he tried to look as attentive as possible.
“Let’s pick up this story once we’re on the road,” Kalman said, with another glance at the ghost. The figure of glowing mist still hadn’t moved: it stood like a statue, staring at Simon’s family with no eyes.
Edina slapped her husband on the arm without looking. “They say the Forest Demon looks like a man,” she began, ignoring Kalman once again. “He wears a cloak with the hood up, so you can’t see his face, but you’d never know he wasn’t just another lost wanderer…until he’s already on top of you, and by then it’s too late. He prowls the edges of the trees, looking for people he can snatch up for food. Once he finds you, he takes you to the center of the forest, where there’s one tree that’s all his own.”
Simon’s mind filled with visions of a stranger in a black cloak, his hideously inhuman face hidden from view.
“When he gets you to this tree, he hangs you up like a piece of drying meat.” She mimed slipping a noose over her neck. “Then, once you’re dead, he eats your body slowly. Piece by piece. They say his hanging tree is solid red, covered in the blood of his prey.” She gestured toward the ghost. “That must be the spirit of one of his victims, here to watch over us, to make sure we don’t get eaten up.”
She swept a mock bow, clearly proud of herself.
As Simon stared through the veil of rain and into the shadows, trying to see if one patch of darkness looked a little too much like a man in a black cloak, his father leaned against the side of the cart.
“He’s eight,” Kalman said dryly. “You’re going to make him superstitious.”
“He’s eight,” Edina countered. “He’s already superstitious.”
“It’s not hard when his mother’s telling him Traveler’s tales every night before bed. Speaking of which,” he waved at the ghost, “we need to get out of here before whoever summoned that thing shows up.”
Edina grinned. “Ah, now who’s superstitious?”
“That’s Traveler work, you know it as well as I do,” Kalman said patiently.
Simon’s ears instantly perked up. He’d been scanning the bushes for odd-shaped shadows, spinning a fantasy in which only his alert warnings had saved his parents from an ambush by the Forest Demon, when the mention of Travelers caught his attention. He’d always wanted to see a Traveler.
Kalman levered himself up onto the driver’s seat of the cart. “I want to be back on the road before they show up.”
“Really?” Edina responded. She nodded toward the edge of the trees. “You want to ride out into that?”
As if her words had summoned it, lightning whipped across the sky, closely followed by the crackle of thunder. Simon felt like his skin was soaked through from the water that dripped through the Latari Forest’s thick canopy, but the storm beyond the treeline was like a waterfall by comparison. He’d rather jump into a cold bath than head out there.
Especially if it meant missing the Travelers.
“At least the storm won’t try and kill us,” Kalman said, keeping his serious gaze focused beyond the trees. Simon’s father smiled sometimes, but he never joked, and he meant every word he said. Edina was his exact opposite in almost every way.
She chuckled. “Kill us? Why would anyone want to? For our vast wealth? Travelers are just people, Kalman. They’re not monsters.”
Deep in the trees, coming from the center of the forest, a small pinprick of orange light appeared among the bushes. Simon squinted, trying to figure out what he was seeing. A torch? A campfire?
Kalman stepped down from the cart, but his expression remained clouded. “What are we going to do if a Traveler shows up, and he doesn’t—”
Edina interrupted by reaching under the tarp and pulling a two-pound sack out of the cart. She shook the bag under his nose, where it rattled as if it were filled with gravel. “If a Traveler shows up? We’ll sell him some beans!”
Simon kept staring at the orange light. It couldn’t have been a torch—it was too bright, too steady for that. It looked almost like a flame-colored star, drifting through the trees toward him.
But it was coming toward him.
Kalman’s lips twitched up in something that was almost a smile. “Beans?”
“Travelers still need food, don’t they?” Edina licked her lips. “Mmmm, beans. Delicious. And the rain will ruin them, so we might as well get rid of them while we can.”
Kalman sighed, defeated, and pulled his wife toward him in an embrace. “You win again, I’d say.”
She laughed from somewhere around his chest. “Then my flawless record stands another day!”
“Someone’s coming,” Simon said quietly. The orange light might not have been coming from a torch, but somebody was carrying it. And they were getting close.
Simon didn’t have long to wait. There were two people, it turned out, the woman in front carrying a light that looked a little too bright to Simon. It burned too steadily, not at all like a dirty, smoky, regular fire, and it didn’t hiss or throw up steam when it passed through the rain.
More importantly, she wasn’t carrying the light at the end of a torch. It hovered in midair two feet above her upturned palm.
Simon couldn’t hold back a grin. This was obviously a real Traveler, using the powers of a real Territory. Maybe he’d get to see her summon a monster!
Her partner was a big man with scars all over his face, so much that Simon couldn’t see any smooth skin, and he wore a grey cloak the color of the rain. Simon would have expected someone with that many scars to look mean, but he didn’t; he looked peaceful. He smiled at Simon as he approached.
The woman had yellow hair and wore dark red, almost black, robes. She was short—though taller than Simon’s mother—and she had blue eyes. Simon had never seen anyone with blue eyes before. When she saw Simon’s family, she glanced around into the bushes as if she expected to see the Forest Demon hiding nearby.
The ghost raised one misty arm, pointing straight at Simon. Then it blew apart, as if the wind had suddenly grown too strong for it to hold together.
The pair of Travelers stopped a good ten paces away, the woman still looking warily into the forest.
“Are you alone?” the scar-faced man called.
“Not at all,” Edina yelled back. “I have my husband and my son with me, but thank you for asking.” She snapped her fingers as though just remembering something. “And I’ve got a donkey as well, so it’s practically a party!”
The Travelers stared for a moment, and then the yellow-haired woman snorted out a laugh. Simon relaxed. If she could laugh, that meant she was really human.
“The forest can be dangerous this time of year,” she said. “I’m glad you have your donkey around for protection.”
Edina returned a chuckle, but the scar-faced man stepped forward without so much as a smile. He spoke in a smooth, utterly patient voice. “I apologize for my…lack of clarity. Have you met any strangers in this forest today?”
“Just two,” Edina quipped, before Kalman took over.
“We have seen no one else, sir,” he responded. “Is there anyone we should watch for?”
The two Travelers traded another look, this one longer. Finally the woman lowered her hand, though the light hung in the air like a lantern on a hook. As her hand fell to her side, Simon noticed a second light, dull red, glowing softly on the center of her palm.
“It’s not safe for you here,” said the yellow-haired Traveler. “It would be best for us all if you left the forest.”
“As soon as the storm lets up, we’ll be on our way,” Kalman said.
The scar-faced Traveler shook out his gray sleeves, and tendrils of glowing mist rose from around his feet. “It would be better for you to face the storm than what lies at the heart of these trees.”
The woman gave a little bow, and then both Travelers turned and began to walk away.
“Are they talking about the Forest Demon?” Simon asked his parents.
The red-robed Traveler turned her head a bit and smiled at him, but she kept walking.
“That’s right,” Edina said playfully. “The Travelers are here to deal with the Demon, so you don’t have to worry about him or his bloody tree.”
Both Travelers stopped.
The scar-faced man in gray turned completely around, mist swirling around his legs. “I’m sorry, ma’am. What was that about a tree?”
Simon’s mother looked surprised, but she replied anyway. “I was telling him stories about the Demon of Latari Forest. You know, he hides his face in a hooded cloak, kidnaps innocents, and hangs them on his blood-red tree. Surely you’ve heard the stories.”
The woman’s face grew pale, and she drew a shaking hand over her eyes. “Saints above,” she said.
Her partner, on the other hand, still seemed totally calm. “As a matter of fact, I have,” he said. He closed scarred eyelids briefly, and as soon as he opened them, he flicked one hand toward Simon’s mother.
At Edina’s feet, another shape of glowing mist rose from the ground, just like the ghost. This one wasn’t shaped like a man, but like a long tendril, like an earthworm, sticking its head up and questing around in the air. The mist touched Edina’s cheek tenderly, feather-light, and then it pulled back a few inches. It hesitated, weaving in front of her face for a second or two.
Then it struck like a snake, the mist plunging into Edina’s open mouth. She inhaled roughly, like screaming in reverse, but she didn’t look in pain. At first she looked stunned, as if she had seen Simon do something so wrong that she was too surprised to punish him for it.
Then she sagged in place, going entirely limp and starting to collapse. Something caught her. Something invisible, like the strings on a puppet. Then those strings began to pull. Edina twitched violently, arms bending one way, neck stretching back farther than it should have. Her head moved side to side, jerking back and forth. Moon-colored mist swirled around her form, and Simon could have sworn he saw brightly colored flower petals drifting down around her.
Simon ran forward, screaming so loud that his throat felt bloody. He had no idea what he was supposed to do against two Travelers, but he had to do something, had to help somehow.
A pair of hands grabbed him under the arms and lifted him into the air, practically throwing him into the cart. After one last glance to make sure that Simon was out of the way, Kalman turned back to the Travelers. He held both hands out, showing that they were empty.
“Please,” he said, his voice breaking. “We don’t know you. She doesn’t have anything you want. Please, we don’t have anything!”
The gray-cloaked man looked just as bland and placid as he had walking through the rain, but the woman in red had her face twisted in disgust. The steady orange light still hung in the air over her shoulder, even and warm.
“You don’t deserve this,” she said, but she shook her head as she said it. “I’m sorry. This is not justice.”
She extended her right hand, palm-out, the mark etched in the center glowing cherry-red. She waved the hand through a complex pattern, drawing lines of light on the air.
Her hand stopped, and she winced as if at a sudden headache.
And Simon finally got to see a Traveler summon a monster.
In a flash of orange light, the creature erupted from the air in front of the Traveler’s palm. It looked something like a wasp the size of a dog, with a two-pronged stinger. It glowed with light like bright coals, flaring through a spectrum of colors from red to yellow.
The wasp let out a noise like a screaming wood saw, flexed its stinger, and flew straight toward Simon.
Simon shrank backwards, still frozen on the edge of the cart. He couldn’t move. He knew he needed to run, that even throwing himself off the edge and onto the ground would be better than letting that huge wasp stab him with its stinger, but his body wouldn’t listen.
His father shouted, running back for the cart. When he got close enough, he dove for the giant wasp with his whole body, tackling it to the ground. He drew it in to his chest, curling himself around the monster, though Simon could see its wings and glowing legs struggling, trying to escape.
Simon scrambled for the back of the cart, shock knocking him out of his trance. He had to help somehow, had to pull the giant insect away from his father…
Then the wasp flashed brighter, ember-orange, and Simon’s father caught flame.
Kalman’s agonized screams were too much for Simon. He wanted to help, but he was too scared, and he didn’t know what to do. He slid down into the cart, wedging himself between two barrels. The tarp was level with his eyes; he could still see, still hear everything that happened. He covered his ears with both hands, trying to block out the screams, crying helplessly.
After only a minute or two, Kalman’s screams had stopped completely. Silence rose with the drifting smoke from his body.
The scarred man in the gray cloak walked over to the dead man, observing his injuries with a detached gaze. “I’ll go back to searching,” he said to his partner. “It’s been too long since we’ve heard from the others. One of them had a hand in this.”
The yellow-haired woman turned her head and spat on the ground. “Not in this,” she said. “These were our actions, and we will pay the price.”
He waved a hand airily as he turned to walk away. “I have no time for Narakan justice,” he said. “I have a job to do.”
The woman turned her gaze to the cart, and frozen blue eyes met Simon’s. She raised her red-marked palm once more.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Then a burning hand grabbed her ankle.
Kalman had been scorched so badly that Simon almost didn’t recognize him. His clothes were little more than soot, his hair was gone, and his skin was a horrible reddish-black. Simon couldn’t look too closely, because he was afraid he’d throw up. His father was even still on fire in a few places.
But he wasn’t dead. He crawled forward, one hand on the robed woman’s ankle, pulling his body off the crushed and broken form of the fiery monster wasp. With an inhuman scream, Kalman heaved the red-robed woman off her feet.
She tumbled to the ground, but that seemed to have been the end of his father’s strength. He fell to the ground and didn’t move any more.
Simon held his breath and stared at his father’s body. He couldn’t be dead. He was just unconscious. He would sleep for a while and then recover. But deep inside, Simon knew better.
A new voice, a man’s voice, cut through the rain behind Simon. “I’ve never seen a man go more bravely than that,” the voice said.
Terrified, Simon turned to face whatever new horror was coming. He tried to hunch lower in the cart.
There was a third stranger in the forest now, standing on the other side of the cart from the two Travelers. He wore a fine black cloak, with the hood up, so Simon couldn’t see what he looked like, but he was sure he had never met this man before. From the depths of the hood, the man flashed Simon a wide smile.
He looked like a normal person, but there he was, wearing a hooded black cloak. Just like the stories.
The Forest Demon had come.
The yellow-haired woman scrambled to her feet. “Did you know these people?” she asked.
The hooded man ignored her. “Are you hurt?” he asked Simon.
Simon shook his head, speaking through the tears. “My mother and father are hurt. Please, don’t hurt me.”
“We found them like this,” the scarred man said. He spoke calmly, like he was telling a story. “Were you traveling together with them?”
The hooded man said nothing. He moved forward, around the cart, toward the other two strangers. As he walked, he extended one hand out into the rain. His long arm was heavy with muscle and bare to the shoulder. Someone had cut the sleeves off his shirt. A tattoo of a chain wrapped around his arm from wrist to shoulder, spiraling up like a snake wrapped around the trunk of a tree.
He held a gleaming sword in his outstretched hand, even though he hadn’t been holding anything a moment before. Simon didn’t know much about swords, but this didn’t look like a very good one. It was chipped and pitted, as if he had spent years cutting wood with it.
The blade looked far too long, like it was made for cutting through horses. It was slightly curved, but bigger and wider than a sword had any right to be. When they saw it, the two Travelers finally looked as frightened as Simon felt.
“Valinhall!” The man in gray shouted, though he even made that sound somehow calm.
“Stop him!” The woman cried. Bright, glowing mist spun around the scar-faced man, and the woman began waving her glowing red hand again.
The hooded man stepped forward, and it was as if he moved so fast that he didn’t even need to walk. First he was ten paces away, and then he stood five feet in front of the red-robed woman, monstrous blade gripped in one fist.
The Traveler in red thrust her glowing palm forward, shoving it straight at her opponent.
A bright orange ball of flame flashed into existence only a pace from the hooded man’s chest, shrieking with a human voice. Faces seemed to twist and writhe within the flame, as though it were made of burning souls instead of ordinary fire.
Simon expected to see the Demon blasted apart, or perhaps burned like his father. Instead the hooded man batted the flame away almost casually with the flat of his sword, flicking it away as Simon might have swatted a fly. Knocked off-course, the fireball blasted into the dark forest like a bolt of orange lightning.
The Forest Demon’s sword flashed again, and the woman’s red-marked hand fell away. She gasped. Her other hand followed, and then the sword slid into her chest.
As the yellow-haired woman fell onto her face, she seemed surprised, not as scared as Simon would have expected.
Not as scared as he felt in that moment.
The scarred man did not shout or roar, or beg for his life. Instead, he calmly gestured, and the mist wrapped around the swordsman as it had done to Simon’s mother. Not just one tendril stood up from the ground, but half a dozen, weaving up and climbing over the hooded man.
But this man walked through the mist as if it were...well, as if it were mist.
The scarred Traveler’s eyes widened, and he turned to run.
“If I had been frightened, that much mist might have killed me,” the hooded Demon said. “Maybe even driven me insane. I hear the Mists of Asphodel have that effect on some people. But guess what?”
Again, the swordsman moved so fast that Simon couldn’t see him. Then he was right behind the running man, and his chipped sword stuck into the other man’s back and out into the rain.
He was far enough away now that Simon almost didn’t hear what he said next. “I’m not afraid,” he said. Then he stepped back, pulling his sword with him.
The body of the big, scarred man joined the others on the ground.
Simon tried to be quiet, so the Demon wouldn’t remember he was here and drag him away, but the hooded man didn’t even look at the cart. He knelt beside Simon’s father, holding two fingers to his neck and staring into his face.
Then the stranger sighed, shook his head, and walked over to Simon’s mother.
At some point the invisible rope holding her up had been cut, and she lay sprawled on the ground. At first, Simon was afraid she was dead, but as he watched she twitched like a dog having a bad dream.
The hooded man bent and scooped Simon’s mother up in both arms like she weighed no more than a pillow. He carried her over and tucked her gently into the back of the cart, next to Simon, pulling a corner of the tarp over her to keep her dry.
Simon latched onto his mother, pulling her away from the hooded stranger. As far as he knew, the Demon merely meant to preserve them both until he could take them back and eat them.
“Are you the Forest Demon?” Simon whispered through his tears.
The man flashed him another smile from within his dark hood. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
But he hadn’t said he wasn’t the Demon, so Simon kept crying.
“What’s your name?” the hooded man asked.
“Simon, son of Kalman.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” he said. “And this is your mother?”
The hooded man shook his head again. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do for her. If it was just the body...but Asphodel attacks the mind. The spirit. It will be years before she recovers, if ever.”
A fresh wave of tears overwhelmed Simon, and he sobbed again. “I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I just wanted to help, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t move.”
He had to say it, even if it was to the Forest Demon. He had to explain why he hadn’t defeated the evil Travelers and saved his parents, as he had done in a hundred daydreams.
The hooded man hesitated, as if trying to find the right words. “It’s not your fault, Simon. Not at all. But you can do something now, all right? I need you to take care of your mother for me. Can you do that?”
Simon nodded again, because he wasn’t sure what else to do.
“All right. Now, where do you live?”
“Myria village,” Simon responded, trying to clean his face off with the back of his sleeve.
“Myria village,” the man repeated. “That’s...a day or two northwest, I think. I can make it.” He glanced back at Simon and said, “I’ll make it.”
He didn’t seem to be talking to Simon, so Simon didn’t say anything.
Somehow the hooded man got the donkey moving, and Simon clung to his mother’s sleeping form as the cart rattled down the road. Simon had pulled the tarp off the goods, laying it over his mother and himself, keeping them as dry and warm as he could.
“Once you get a little older,” the hooded man called from the driver’s seat, “you should come back to the Forest, if you can. I’ll teach you how to make it so that Travelers never bother you again.”
“They were Travelers, then,” Simon said. Of course they were. Who else could call creatures out of nowhere, cast mist that ate people from the inside, or summon ghosts and screaming fireballs? But Travelers weren’t supposed to kill innocent people on the side of the road. They were supposed to do big, important things, like fight monsters and hoard treasure. But he’d known they were Travelers all along.
He had only hoped he was wrong.
“Yes,” the man said simply.
“Why did they hurt us?” Simon asked. He could feel a fresh batch of tears leaking out, and he sniffed, trying to hold back. He had to be strong now, to take care of his mother. His father was strong, and he never cried.
“Nothing you did,” the hooded man said, “I promise you that. They were...looking for something. When we reach Myria, I’ll do what I can for you, help you take care of your mother as best I can. For a little while. But I can’t leave my forest undefended for long. Not now.”
Simon clutched his mother tighter. “It’s okay. I can take care of her.”
“I know you can,” the hooded man said.
I will take care of her, he promised himself. He had been useless tonight, he knew that, but next time he wouldn’t be.
Next time, he would keep his family safe.
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