By the Light of the Sun
I rubbed my hands together, both to warm them and out of anticipation for having another spirit to catch. Walking beside me, Siobhan seemed unenthused about our mission. That wasn’t anything new. I’d worked with the brown Ruki for twelve years and never seen Siobhan happy. I frowned slightly, walking down the cobblestone path. No, that wasn’t quite right. Now that I thought about it, I’d seen him happy once; when he was in the midst of binding a powerful spirit.
Watching red-gold leaves fall, I wondered in the spirit we were after right now would give Siobhan a similar measure of joy. If Neovia’s message was true, they had a nasty problem on their hands. Fortunately, they’d called the right people to solve it. I spent six years learning spirit-based magic, and though Siobhan had simply said that he was well trained, I suspected the Ruki had spent as long in training as I had.
In earlier days, Siobhan and I had talked as we walked. Now, I kicked a loose rock out of way, shoving my hands back in my pockets and listening to the sounds of the forest. At least Siobhan was still sociable enough to explain that I wasn’t a charmed beast. I didn’t know how that rumour started, but it’d haunted my career for nearly a decade. I was fairly sure Siobhan encouraged the rumour, too.
The Ruki’s quiet voice broke my reverie. “Gianni, we’re there.”
I glanced up, too curious about the town to mind Siobhan’s use of my nickname. The town seemed normal enough. It was rather charming, in fact. The woods adjacent to it had been cleared, and the houses were almost certainly made of local wood. I didn’t see any children playing, but that was to be expected after ghost-sign had been sighted. I grimaced. “You go first, Sio. I’d rather not scare them any more than necessary, since they have a ghost around.”
“You’re not helping your case.” Siobhan did step in front of me, though. I followed the brown Ruki, wishing I could mask my mutated features. I had been a perfectly ordinary green Kougra before a spell had gone wrong. I’d been told I was lucky to survive, but it didn’t stop me from disliking the face that stared at me in the mirror on the rare occasions that I saw a mirror. The Academy’s rules prevented such frivolous uses of magic, however, so I suffered my scarred face and red-gold eyes.
As we proceeded down the town’s main road, a red Bruce dressed in finer clothes than I had expected hurried out of a building, scampering towards us. “You’re the ghost-catchers, I trust?”
Siobhan nodded. “We are. You sent a message saying that a spirit was haunting your town?”
“Oh, yes!” The Bruce clasped his hands together, glancing around. “Please, come to the town hall. I would rather not be outside with it.”
I sighed. He was of the paranoid variety. At least that explained why nobody was out; the Bruce, who was probably the mayor, didn’t want anybody to be around the spirit. I assumed the spirit was nasty, but the letter we’d received had simply said there was a ghost problem. Siobhan and I had come out of curiosity as much as anything else, and the sooner that curiosity was satisfied, the better, in my opinion.
As we walked through town, I studied the surroundings. It didn’t seem like a spirit was haunting the town. Spirits usually left dead spots in the grass and rotted nearby wood. Either there wasn’t a spirit, or the spirit was unusually powerful.
I hoped it was the latter. It’d been years since the last time we’d been challenged, and I wanted to see Siobhan smile with power again. His face shone then, nothing like his normal dour expression. I tugged at my coat, irritated at myself. My mind should be on the job, not on my partner. Fortunately, we reached the town hall and the Bruce opened the door, gesturing us in. If he noticed my mutated visage, he didn’t react. My mood lightened, and I stepped to Siobhan’s side as we entered.
It seemed like the entire population of the town was crowded into the hall. Most of the adults were huddled in groups, but the children were playing in the middle of the room, laughing and shouting. I smiled, unable to help myself. I loved children; they were always joyful, despite what happened around them. The Bruce scurried around in front of us. “I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself earlier,” he said, bowing. “I’m Mayor Theodore Thumbert III.”
Siobhan nodded his head. “My name is Siobhan of Stienn, and my partner is—”
“Giovanni Serefini,” I said, bowing. “Thank you for asking us to help you. Now that we have introduced ourselves, may we get down to business?”
Mayor Thumbert gasped, apologizing profusely. I rolled my eyes, glancing around at the townsfolk. Many of them were staring at me. I wasn’t surprised; most people in the rural towns we often helped had only heard legends of mutants and never seen one for themselves, so they tended to regard me as some sort of evil beast. And then they heard me speak and tried to reconcile the image of a beast with the voice of a highborn.
Finally, Siobhan interrupted Thumbert. “Tell us about this ghost. Start at the beginning.”
The Bruce’s face paled to pink.
“If you’d rather, you could ask someone else to tell us,” I said sharply. “It doesn’t matter who tells us, just that we get the information.”
A nearby child paused in his play. “I could tell you.”
I smiled at the young blue Zafara. “Please do, then.”
The Zafara stepped over to me, hugging a tan and red Kyrii plushie close to his body. “It started a couple weeks ago,” he said, blue eyes wide and dark. “Ma says she saw it first. She went out to the stream for some greens one evening and came back at a run, saying she’d seen a ghost. Then Mister Silvers saw it by the school near dawn. My friends have seen it around there, too.” The child’s head dropped. “I haven’t. Ma says it’s a good thing I haven’t. Says I’d be a target if I had.”
Kneeling in front of the child, I raised his head. “What’s your name, young one?” I asked gently. “And what did they say this ghost looked like?”
“I’m Kevin. And the ghost looked like a Lupe, everyone says. But not a Lupe walking around like most do.” Kevin’s eyes widened again. “They said he walked like a beast.”
I sat back, digesting that information. It mostly meant that the ghost was old. And thus, powerful. “Thank you, Kevin,” I said. “That’s good to know.”
“What’s with your face?” he asked, with all the shameless curiosity of a child.
I laughed, ruffling his hair. “A spell backfired. I used to be pretty enough to match my voice, but now I look rather like a monster.”
Kevin looked at me for a long moment, then shook his head. “Nah. Monsters can’t talk.”
The young Zafara went back to his games before I could reply, leaving me bemused. Siobhan prodded me with a foot, and I stood, looking at him. “The adults say that the ghost’s a savage thing,” Siobhan said. “What did the little one say?”
“Nothing much,” I said, straightening my coat. “He said that it walked on all fours, though. So it’s old.”
Siobhan’s face lit up. “Wonderful! The mayor said it liked appearing at the school.”
“The kid said that too.” I brushed dust off of my clothing. “Shall we go investigate?”
Before anyone could notice and protest, we let the town hall. I took a deep breath of the crisp air, looking at the sun-gilded buildings with delight. The golden light of the setting sun was always beautiful, and rural areas seemed to intensify the beauty. Siobhan grabbed my shoulder, dragging me along as I delighted in the evening. It was perfect fall weather, chilly but not quite cold. I’d likely be thankful for the coat I wore once night set in, but for now I could forget I wore it.
Red-gold leaves littered the town, much like snow would come winter. I preferred autumn; its beauty wasn’t as cold. The leaves reminded me of childhood, what with all the time spent finding the perfect maple leaf, building giant piles to jump into, and being asked to rake off the lawn. Siobhan shook me, reminding me that we were at the school for a reason. “Tell me what mage-sight sees, Gianni.”
I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath to help focus my mind. When I opened my eyes, everything was overlaid with color. Siobhan was all autumn colors, and the plants and rocks had simply intensified in color. What I found interesting, however, was the silver-blue circles scattered around the schoolyard. There were a few in other parts of Neovia, but almost all of them were in the schoolyard. I told Siobhan about the circles, adding, “Did they say what time they usually saw the ghost? The kid mentioned dusk and dawn.”
“During the twilight hours,” Siobhan said, turning to rummage in his pack. “Meaning about now.”
I muttered a curse. Some ghost-hunters said cursing called ghosts. I didn’t believe that, and didn’t really care if it was true. If it brought the ghost you were hunting, how could that be bad? I pulled my pistol out of its holster, checking the charge on it. The magic that gave it ammunition and allowed it to actually hit ghosts only lasted so long. I could recharge it, but doing something that required concentration in the middle of battle was not a good idea. Unless you were concentrating on not getting hurt, in which case concentrating in the middle of battle was a very good idea.
I nodded, no trace of a smile on my face anymore. Siobhan held a sword in his right hand and an amulet shaped like a sun in glory in his left hand. “All we need now is the ghost.”
“The ghost doesn’t particularly like people assuming he’s evil.”
I spun to face the voice, firing my mage-pistol straight at it. But when I faced the voice, there was nothing there.
Laughter echoed all around me. “Foolish. You’ve fought us for twelve years now, and yet you still do not understand what we can do?”
“Show yourself,” I said though gritted teeth. “Perhaps then we’ll be able to talk sensibly.”
“The only thing sensible right now is staying out of sight,” the ghost said, his voice acerbic. “Put away those toys. If I wanted to hurt you, I would’ve done so already.”
I hesitated, glancing at Siobhan. The Ruki sheathed his sword, keeping the amulet out. I sighed, holstering my pistol. “Now will you show yourself?” I sounded like a petulant child, much to my annoyance.
The ghost faded into view about ten paces in front of us. As Kevin had said, he was a Lupe who walked on all fours. His eyes were coal black, void black, unlike the fiery red eyes most ghosts had. The Lupe smiled, silver-blue fur waving in a non-existent wind. “I am not what you expected, am I?” He shook his head, eyes half-closing. “You were expecting a monster.”
“We always do,” Siobhan said, voice taut. “It makes it easier.”
“Easier for who?” The ghost turned, walking around us silently. I watched him closely, but I couldn’t find any reason to shoot at him. I wanted to like him. It bothered me. As the ghost began speaking again, I grasped the handle of my pistol. “It’s easier for— I wouldn’t do that, mage.” His voice deepened to a growl in an instant, and his fur seemed to darken as well, solidifying his form. “I can destroy you with a breath.”
I released my pistol. “You’re charming us.” I crossed my arms, letting my coat flap open despite the chill starting to work its way into me. “Why?”
“Why not?” the Lupe sighed, walking straight through a fence as he neared us. “You can’t banish me, and I doubt you have the will to bind me.”
I didn’t want to ask him why he thought that. “How do you know I’ve fought ghosts for twelve years?”
He shrugged, fading away into the night. “I am who I am. Try asking Fyora about how the ghosts came to be. It might enlighten you.”
I swore under my breath, pulling the focus for mage-sight out of somewhere. All that remained of the ghost were the silver-blue spots where he had become visible and faded away. I let my mage-sight fade away, turning to Siobhan. “Well?”
“I think I could bind him,” Siobhan said hesitantly, “but he’d either need to let me or be so distracted he couldn’t do anything about it. I doubt the first will ever happen. That leaves the second.”
Shoving my hands into my pockets, I started back towards the town hall. “What exactly are you planning, Sio?”
“Nothing!” Siobhan protested. “Just... a little bit of you playing bait?”
I stopped. “Playing bait is not nothing,” I said calmly. “Tell me your crazy plan, Sio. Now.”
“It’s not crazy. Really. And I’ll explain it tomorrow.” Siobhan yawned, continuing towards the town hall. “We’ve done enough for today.”
I sighed, following him. He was right about the long day, and it’d just get longer if I kept on with a fruitless argument. Siobhan probably didn’t even have a plan yet, anyway. At least the Neovians likely wouldn’t expect us to have even met the ghost yet, so we wouldn’t need to explain to them why it wasn’t banished yet. If they did ask, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to them that the ghost had implied that it was the first ghost ever to exist. They probably wouldn’t like hearing that.
I certainly didn’t like it, even though I wasn’t completely sure if the ghost was telling the truth. The ghost hadn’t needed to lie about being powerful; I’d been able to see that for myself. Even Siobhan had probably been able to see that. Entering the town hall once more, I winced as everyone quieted and turned to look at us. “Yes, you have a ghost,” I said, feeling awkward. “It’s a powerful one. Anything you know about it is useful to us, no matter how pointless it seems to you. We will try to banish or bind the ghost tomorrow, probably at dusk.”
None of the townsfolk said anything. They simply turned back to what they’d been doing. I glanced at Siobhan, and he nodded slightly. We found an out of the way corner and settled down. I leaned against the wall, looking out at the town hall. Everyone seemed to be settling in for the night, though I doubted they’d get to sleep anytime soon with all the paranoia floating around. But we’d learned how to fall asleep in almost any circumstances, so long as it was relatively peaceful.
I sighed, closing my eyes. I let my mind drift away, thinking about the Academy of Mystic Arts, the place I had lived in for most of my stationary life. My home. I slid down the wall and onto the floor, falling into the land of dreams.
Siobhan woke me with a hissed, “Gianni!” He paused for a second. “The ghost’s here.”
I shot to my feet, ignoring my sore muscles. The ghost was right in front of me, a smile on his face. “I wondered when you’d notice,” he said. “The sun has begun to rise.”
“And what does that mean?” I asked, keeping an eye on him as I knelt to retrieve my mage-pistol.
The ghost’s smile broadened, his black eyes focused on mine. “It means that I will have the light of the sun once more.”
I didn’t get time to ask him what that meant. He leapt at us, utterly silent. Siobhan stepped in front of him, taking the brunt of the blow. I started cursing, bringing my pistol up to shoot the ghost. My first shot missed, and I heard the crack as it hit the opposite wall. My second hit the ghost in the flank. The ghost noticed, but the blast – which usually incapacitated a ghost – barely left a mark. And what mark it did leave was true silver and looked like normal flesh and fur. The ghost turned to me and roared.
The roar woke everyone else. Distantly, I heard Mayor Thumbert shouting for everyone to evacuate, but nothing mattered to me but the ghost stalking towards me. “Giovanni.” The ghost’s voice was musical, lilting. “Such a pretty name. Not suited to a face like yours. Would you like me to change that?”
I shook my head.
“Pity. Well, I suppose this will need to suffice.” It was like time had slowed to a Slugawoo’s pace for everyone but me and the ghost. The ghost walked up to me without care, touching my shoulder with one of his paws. It burned like ice, searing into my soul. I looked down at my shoulder, too numb and pain-filled to scream. The ghost’s paw was inside my shoulder. I noticed that intellectually. My emotions didn’t seem to exist anymore. I tried to pull away from him, but the ghost just laughed.
“This is true power, Giovanni,” he said, withdrawing his paw. I fell to the floor, gasping in relief as the pain faded. “It is ethereal, forever out of reach to a mortal.”
“Then what are you?” I pushed myself to my feet, ignoring my numb shoulder. “A faerie?”
He smiled, and the world returned to normal. “No. I am merely fae-touched. Created by them, you could say.” He whirled, dodging Siobhan’s blow. “And you are a mage. There is not as much of a difference as the fae wish you to believe.”
I ignored my mage-pistol, focusing instead on containing the ghost. Patterns of light, silver and gold and glittering like a Spyderweb strung with dewdrops, covered my vision. I reached out to them, using shining fingers to weave the light-lines into a net.
“The faeries wish you to think that they are the source of magic,” the ghost continued, slipping through the light-lines and around Siobhan’s sword. “They are not. They are simply a focus for the energy that abounds in this world. Everything holds some of that energy, and some people can touch it and draw power from it. Mages.”
My frustration rippled through the delicate lines, tangling my net. I hissed, unraveling the knots as I rewove it, stealing energy from the earth to make it stronger. The green and bronze provided poles, and when the ghost next tried to pass through the web, he was unable to.
“Good, good,” the ghost said, laughing. “You do indeed touch the light of the sun in your work.”
Siobhan advanced on the ghost, sword held straight and steady. I kept my mind of the barrier of light. “What do you mean, I can touch the light of the sun?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” The ghost half-faded, letting Siobhan’s sword swing straight through his body. “Light is part of your magic. So are we.” He glanced to the east, smiling. “Dawn’s light now graces this world, Giovanni.”
“Why should I care?” I tensed my fingers, drawing the barrier closer to the ghost.
“The light of the sun, remember?” A ghost of a smile passed over the Lupe’s face. “Five minutes to bind me, Gianni. That’s all you have. Five minutes before sunlight banishes me once more.”
I closed my eyes, letting the ghost’s laughter chance me into the trance I used to bind spirits. I heard Siobhan’s voice, a deep chant that centered me, kept me from drifting out of this world entirely. I reached out, touching the ghost with spectral fingers. The shock brought me back into a world, the binding-world. The ghost chose the setting for the binding-world, which usually meant that it was a distorted version of where we were in the real world.
Not so this time. I looked around, seeing nothing but waist-high grass, green-gold and waving in the wind. There were no clouds in the sky, and the only sound was the wind in the grass.
“This is where I grew up.”
I turned to face the ghost. When I saw him, my mouth opened in surprise. His fur was true silver, not the translucent blue-silver of a ghost. A necklace strung with feathers hung around his neck, the one in the center an unnaturally bright purple. And his eyes were the same black holes as before.
“A present from a friend,” the Lupe said, stroking the purple feather. “But that’s not why we’re here.” His face hardened. “You have five minutes to bind me, Gianni. Starting now.”
He turned and began to run. Behind him, green grass turned gray, dissolving into ash. The sky became a blinding source of light, and the wind picked up, blowing me towards the ghost. I hesitated a moment before giving myself to that wind, running after the ghost with the single-minded focus I usually only gave to complicated spells.
The trail of ash meant I didn’t need to think about where the ghost was; I could follow the path he left easily. I couldn’t catch him, though. I’d known that from the moment he took off running. Four legs are better than two, when it comes to speed.
I heard the time passing. Each second was a faint bell, each minute a deep-voiced tone. At each sound, I did my best to increase my speed, to catch up enough to see the ghost, not just a cloud of ashes. The fourth minute-bell rang, and then I saw the ghost, right in front of me. “Bind me,” he whispered, eyes blazing true red for an instant. “Bind me!”
I stared him. Never before had a ghost asked to be bound.
He roared in frustration, leaping at me. When he hit me, I felt the soul-piercing cold again. “Bind me!” he shouted, muzzle in my face.
The words came to mind without any thought. I spoke them in a whisper, using Siobhan’s sunburst as the focus of the binding. I finished just as the fifth minute-bell rang. The cold that marked the ghost’s presence faded, and he looked up at the sky. “So I get my sun after all,” he said thoughtfully. “Thank you, Giovanni.”
He disappeared after speaking those words. I looked at the sky for a moment, trying to see what he’d seen, but then Siobhan pulled me back to my body. I rocked on my feet for perhaps two seconds, and then fell over in a dead faint.
I woke up on a bed. Siobhan was sitting in the corner of the room, and as I sat up, he smiled. “That was more dramatic than necessary, you know.”
“I am aware,” I said, voice rough. “I am also aware that I want to go back and talk to the professors about that ghost.”
Siobhan laughed. “We leave as soon as you’re ready. I convinced the townsfolk that you didn’t care if I was the one to get all the appreciation, even though I didn’t do much.”
“You’re right.” I slipped out of bed, grabbing my clothes from the bedside table and pulling them on. “I’m ready, so long as you’ve packed our bags.”
“Of course I have,” Siobhan said. The Ruki stood, handing me my bag. I slung it over my back, walking out of the room. It was early morning, just as it had been when I bound the ghost. I smiled, looking at the rising sun. Birds sang to greet it, and I wanted to join them. I was going back to the Academy. I was going home.