Alden shut the door behind him and dropped the wooden latch into place with a soft thump. Pale moonlight spilled across the room through the window over the bed. The floor had been swept, and his inn room smelled like fresh straw. Through the open window came the distant sound of a woman laughing.
Pine chair legs scraped on the floor as Alden dragged the only chair to the center of the room. He sat down and set the sheathed metal greatsword in his lap. His calloused fingertips traced the twining roses reaching out from each side of the blade to form the crossguard. The purple gemstone pommel was warm to his touch. Plush leather squished under his fingers as he took a grip on the hilt and pulled the sword from its sheath. The blade’s arcane runes glowed blue and cold, rivaling the moonlight for control of the shadows in the room.
“You hear me,” Alden said. “I know you’re here.”
The sword remained silent. The distant woman’s laughter stopped, and the air grew thick.
Alden found himself breathing heavily. He stared down at the naked sword lying across his knees.
“Spirit. Ghost. You fought against me and made yourself known. Come to me now, and let’s discuss terms.”
The air grew cold. Alden’s breath plumed in the still air. He heard no sound, but the hunter detected a change at edge of his sight and raised his head.
Standing before Alden, within arm’s reach, was a young woman. Her pale skin gleamed in the darkness and shone with an iridescent glow. She was young, probably near Alden’s eighteen winters of age. Her two eyes were mismatched: the right eye was a bright, clear blue, while the left was lime green. The young woman had high cheek bones, a small nose with a slight upturn on the rounded tip, full lips, and a delicate pointed chin. Her dense brunette hair was drawn up into a high ponytail and secured with a thick strip of white leather, leaving layered bangs to frame her face. In the moonlight, her feathery hair layered around her neck and face took on a ghostly shimmer.
The young woman wore a sleeveless white dress the likes of which Alden had never seen, with pointed shoulder pads and a high neckline up around her collar bone. The dress stayed tight to the brunette’s body without being indecent, was cinched around the waist with a blue sash, and flared into wide, thick skirts which fell to her calves. An embroidered cascade of large blue flowers began at her shoulders and throat and fell in thick patches down the length of the dress, spilling across the skirts like floral snowflakes from a winter sky. Large pockets were stitched into the skirts with heavy flaps across the tops, and the wooden toggles holding them closed were disguised as flower stems.
White leather boots with short heels rose partway up each calf, and Alden noticed a zigzag of thin leather cord up the front of the boots which clasped the boots shut and held them on the ghostly woman’s small feet. White gloves were stretched across each hand and stopped above the wrist.
Alden experienced two reactions at the same moment. The young brunette’s beauty caused the hunter’s breath to catch in his throat. At the same time, the skin on Alden’s arms puckered into gooseflesh and the hackles on the back of his neck rose in alarm.
The young woman’s face held no warmth or kindness. Her pupils were tiny pinpricks of black against a sea of blue and green. Mismatched eyes locked on Alden’s face radiated intense hatred. The brunette’s nostrils were flared, and her jaw was clenched.
The two stared at each other across the narrow space.
Alden tried to swallow, but his dry throat just clicked and burned.
“Cast away the sword, and trouble me no more,” the young woman said into the silence of the room. Her hard voice held an edge of command.
Alden was simultaneously struck by the sweetness of the voice itself and stung by the bitterness of the tone.
The black-haired hunter tried to swallow again. This time he succeeded. “Ghost. I was expecting… I didn’t think you’d be—“
“I know what you expected,” the young woman said, and her voice was colder than the frosty air which burned Alden’s nostrils as he breathed. “Cast away the sword, knave, and leave me in peace.”
Alden drew a breath. “I can’t do that.”
The ghost’s eyes and brow crinkled in anger. “Of course you can. I command it.”
Alden leaned back in his chair. “Who are you to command me?”
Her white-gloved hands tightened into fists at her sides as the ghost drew herself up. “I shall plunge your life into endless torment until you cast me away. You witnessed the desperation in the man who sold my sword to you. His anguish shall be as nothing compared to the affliction I’ll heap upon you.”
“Why?” Alden asked.
“Because you are not worthy,” the woman declared.
Alden cocked his head as he considered the ghostly young woman. “Who are you?”
“You are not worthy to know that, either.”
“How do you know I’m not worthy?”
“Because I am acquainted with your sort,” hissed the young woman. “You strive for glory and are eager to get others killed. Your mentor sees this and cautions you against your folly, but you disregard his wisdom. In time, your recklessness shall swallow you and those you adore.”
Alden’s heart seized in his chest. This was his fear, the argument he’d been having with himself.
“That’s not my goal—” Alden began.
“Of course not,” the ghost cut him off. “Your goal is to become a glorious hunter and seek after fame and fortune. In the end you’ll regret your recklessness, and you’ll have a grand epiphany that fame and fortune bear little worth stacked against the cost of your friends, but it shall be too late. You’ll be bleeding to death, and I’ll have to stand and watch you die.”
“Is that what this is about?” Alden asked.
For the first time, the ghost’s confident expression faltered. “What do you mean?”
“You’re afraid you’re going to have to watch me die?”
The young woman clenched her jaw again, and Alden had the impression she was thinking fast. At last she said, “All die in the end, hunter. Everyone who seeks glory pays the price in blood, their own or those close to them.” For just a moment, the young woman’s mismatched eyes softened, and she looked sad. “All who wield me die in agony.”
Alden’s heart ached for the pain in her words, and when he spoke his tone was soft. “It must be hard to watch so many people die and not be able to save them.”
The young woman’s momentarily vulnerable expression slammed shut, and the lofty air of command returned. “Cast away my sword, hunter, or you shall wish you were dead.”
“Work with me,” Alden pleaded. “There is so much to be done, and I need your help. We need to win this tournament. In time I can show you that I’m not like your past wielders who just sought fame and glory. I’m here for a worthy cause. I will make myself worthy of this.”
The young woman’s face went blank at the earnestness of Alden’s plea, but then she smirked. “Quite a boast from a hunter who locks himself in an inn room with a young woman and won’t let her go when she asks.”
Alden’s eyes bulged. He hadn’t been expecting this conversational turn. “I… Hey, no. That’s not—”
The ghost’s eyes glinted with malicious mirth. She had caught Alden off his guard, and she knew it. “I suspect you do this sort of thing all the time, correct? Drag poor young women into cheap inn rooms against their will?”
“W-What!” Alden spluttered. “I didn’t even know you were a girl!”
“I don’t see you racing out of here to get a chaperone. What an indecent ruffian. And you won’t even let me go when I ask. What a brute.”
Alden felt his mouth gaping. “Listen—“
“Someone like you could never be worthy,” the young woman declared. She shut her eyes, turned her nose up, and pointed her face away from Alden. She waved a gloved hand dismissively in his face. “The decent thing to do would be get rid of me right away, not hold a sweet young woman captive.”
“Sweet?” Alden roared. The hunter stood so fast that his chair toppled over backward. The heavy sword fell from his lap and thumped on the wooden floor between them. Alden’s cheeks were burning red from both blushing and furious indignation. “What’s sweet about you? You’ve been horrible since you appeared!”
“How dare you!” the ghost snapped, and she leaned forward to poke Alden in the chest. Her ghostly finger went right through his wool shirt and his flesh. Alden expected to feel at least a slight tingle, but there was nothing. “I’ll have you know I’m incredibly sweet. It’s just oafish troglodytes like you who bring out the worst in me.”
“You don’t even know me!” Alden shouted.
“I know you’re an indecent jerk who accosts young women!”
Alden closed his eyes and drew in a hissing breath. “Listen. We need to work together. We can do this. Please.”
“Not going to happen.” The young woman disappeared.
Alden growled, snatched up the sword from the ground, and gave it a shake. “Get back out here!”
The ghost did not appear.
“Fine! Have it your way!” Alden shouted. “Just think about what I said. We can work together. I don’t know what you want, but I’ll help you however I can. Just think about it.”
The young Shaman started to feel stupid talking to the sword, like he was talking to someone through a locked door when they refused to answer. He dropped the sword back into its sheath and set it in the corner. He turned to walk away, but abruptly turned back and pointed a finger at the sword.
“And don’t go hiding again! I’ll just track you down and find you, no matter how long it takes.”
He let his words ring out in the empty room, then thought about what he’d said.
“… because I need the sword. Not because I hunt girls or anything. I’m not… Argh!” Alden kicked the fallen chair, then stomped over to his bedding and threw himself into his sleeping furs. He rustled around under the furs until he got his boots off, kicked them across the room, and rolled over in the darkness.
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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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