Silence filled the narrow streets as Alden and Jincra made their way through the city. Most of the citizens had turned out for the tournament, and the abandoned capital had an eerie quality which set Alden’s nerves on edge. Without all the sweaty bodies, a cool breeze blew through and brought the smell of pine.
The two hunters made their way in the approximate direction the registration team had given them. At last, Alden stopped outside a small shop with the hanging picture sign he’d been told to look for: a glowing blue flame cupped in the palm of a hand. He and Jincra pushed through the wooden door and entered the building.
Inside, the shop was full of shelves. Most of the shelves were empty, but here and there a random item broke up the emptiness. Alden spotted a glass vial full of purple liquid which pulsed in time with his heartbeat. On another shelf sat a pink conch shell, similar to the shells Moxi and Ahken had been using.
The entire shop was silent and solemn. The smells of fresh basil and sage mixed with old dust tickled Alden’s nose.
After weaving through the empty shelves, Alden found a polished oak counter in the back. Behind it, an old woman sat propped up on a tall chair. Her long gray hair was woven into two braids, and she wore a shabby gray dress with a light blue shawl. A blue wool blanket covered her lap. The old woman had her feet propped up on the counter and was snoozing in a ray of warm afternoon sunlight that fell through the open window beside her.
There was also a spirit resting on the counter beside the old woman’s crossed ankles. The spirit’s body was flickering blue light in the shape of a cat, and the creature lay curled up into a ball. Alden had never seen a spirit sleep, but he’d swear the spirit was snoozing just like the old lady.
Jincra poked Alden in the side and whispered in his ear. “Do you not think it strange that we have seen no wild spirits since we came to the capital?”
“So, do you think that one is wild, or not?” Jincra asked.
Alden considered the question while gazing at the snoozing cat spirit. The Sacram house spirits, like Arca, weren’t really bonded with anyone, they just lived in the house voluntarily as a kindness to the humans inside. But bonding always absorbed the spirit into the person or object and caused them to disappear.
Or so I’ve always been told.
“Maybe it’s a wild spirit, or a house spirit.” Alden said. Then the black-haired leader cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Excuse me. Old mother?”
The lady and the cat spirit both had synchronized sleepy reactions: they opened their eyes, blinked slowly several times, smacked their lips, and went back to sleep.
Alden wasn’t sure how to respond to such a display. “Um. Excuse me, old mother. We need some help.”
This time the spirit didn’t stir, but the old woman did. She opened one faded eye the color of rain and focused it first on Alden, then Jincra. The old woman smacked her lips again and sat up in her chair but left her feet propped up on the counter.
“You’d better have a good reason for disturbing my beauty sleep.” Despite her gruff words and shabby appearance, the old woman had a melodious voice.
Alden glanced at Jincra for encouragement, then back at the old woman. “We’re competitors in the tournament. The registration staff told us to come here for help.”
“I don’t train hunters,” the old woman said.
“Training I’ve got,” Alden said. “But it doesn’t do much good when your weapon has a will of its own.”
The old woman raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have any cure for drunkenness, young man. You’re just going to have to sleep it off.”
Alden drew his greatsword from the sheath on his back and placed it on the counter. As the heavy weapon thumped down on the polished oak, the cat spirit finally woke up. The flaming blue spirit looked up at Alden with dark blue eyes made of billowing fire, then stood and arched its back just like a real cat.
“Relax, Marel. He’s just here to interrupt our nap.”
At the old lady’s words, the cat spirit crawled into her lap, curled up, and promptly returned to snoozing.
Jincra put both hands on the counter and leaned forward to inspect the spirit. His long black braid brushed the countertop. “Fascinating! Is that spirit wild, or bonded to you?”
“Marel is bonded to me,” the old woman said impassively.
“But bonded spirits dissolve into their bonded hosts, right? How is he still visible?”
The old lady looked at Jincra with a mixture of pity and annoyance. She stroked the cat spirit with one hand. “Why would the spirit dissolve?”
Jincra stammered. “W-well, um… That is the prevailing teaching. The spirit’s form dissipates into pure energy and is absorbed by the spirit of the host into a unified whole. This is what we are taught.”
The old lady continued stroking the spirit, as if to make her point that it was clearly still in existence.
Jincra swallowed and leaned back.
“You don’t have a tattoo,” Alden said.
The lady looked at him, still stroking her cat. “And all people are going to follow the same custom. Is that what you believe?”
Alden shrugged. “That’s how the magic works.”
“That’s how your magic works,” the old woman corrected him.
Alden didn’t answer.
The old woman finally looked down at the metal sword on the counter. When she saw the weapon, her breath caught in her throat and she froze completely.
Alden took this as a good sign…. Or a very bad one.
“Why does my sword have a will of its own?” Alden asked.
The old lady stretched out a hand to touch the glowing aquamarine runes on the flat of the blade near the crossguard, but stopped just before contact. She murmured something under her breath which Alden didn’t catch.
The shop was deathly silent as the old woman ran her gnarled hand back and forth through the air just above the runes. At last, she withdrew her hand and went back to stroking her cat.
“Young man, where did you get this?”
“A crazed man in the village entrance sold it to him for one shell, then ran off screaming about being free,” Jincra told her.
Alden scowled at his cousin.
Jincra shrugged back.
The old lady chortled. “Spirits have a way of making their presence felt. I wonder why it dislikes you so much.”
Alden put his hands on the counter and leaned toward the old woman. “You’re saying there’s a spirit in this blade?”
“A spirit, yes, but not one like you’re thinking. This sword is a ghostblade.”
Jincra drew in a sharp breath, but Alden only frowned.
“What is a ghostblade?”
“Ask your friend,” the old woman said, pointing at Jincra.
Alden turned to his cousin with one eyebrow raised.
Jincra drew in a deep breath and made the serious face he always did when he was about to launch into a history lesson. “A ghostblade is an old artifact from ancient times. There was once a great kingdom able to forge metal and make great things. Some say their buildings were very large, because they could use metal tools to make and maintain them. Historians say we should be thousands of winters ahead of where we are now, but every time we get close to taking the next step, the megafauna show up in larger numbers and devour the metal.
“All the metal in that ancient kingdom drove the animals in the surrounding kingdoms crazy, and they congregated for the feast. The huge beasts eventually overwhelmed the defenses and ate all of the metal, and the kingdom fell into ruin. But the ghostblades were scattered across the land as gifts to noble rulers, and they survived. Most disappeared into crypts or treasure hoards, but a few are still rumored to be in use.”
“What makes them special?” Alden asked.
“They can trap spirits,” Jincra said. “Human spirits. The spirits of the dead. It prevents them from moving on.”
“Why would someone want to do that?” Alden asked.
Jincra opened his mouth to reply, but then looked confused. “I do not know,” he admitted.
Both young men turned to the old woman.
“Because a great warrior is a terrible thing to waste, young hunters. A warrior who dies can still provide training and assistance to their ruler. A warrior who dies while wielding this sword will have his spirit trapped by the runes. This purple stone at the end functions as a kind of vessel for the ghost to live in, and the runes keep it bound.”
“You’re saying,” Alden drew out slowly, “there’s a ghost inside this sword, the spirit of a dead warrior, and he’s fighting against me during my battles?”
The old woman settled back in her chair. “Sounds like it, young man. You’ve got problems.”
“How do I stop him from fighting me? How can I access the locked abilities within the blade?” Alden asked.
“I said you’ve got problems,” the old woman replied. “I’ve got a nap to finish.”
“How am I supposed to communicate with the spirit if it’s dissolved into the blade?” Alden demanded.
The old woman gazed back and said nothing.
It was Jincra who answered from beside Alden: “Why would the spirit dissolve?”
The old woman grinned and pointed one bony finger at Jincra. “You, I like. Come back and see old Sanba again sometime.” Then her grin disappeared. “When I’ve finished my nap.”
With that, Sanba shooed Alden and Jincra away, settled back in her chair, and closed her eyes. Within seconds, she was asleep.
Alden and Jincra showed themselves out.
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Author, ghostwriter, author coach, retired psychotherapist, husband, and father. I've written 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and scored a couple #1 Amazon bestsellers in my various categories.
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