Vengeance, page 1
A Darkhurst Novel
Gail Z. Martin
About the Author
A Darkhurst Novel
By Gail Z. Martin
eBook ISBN: 978-1-939704-74-0
Print ISBN: 978-1-939704-75-7
Vengeance: Copyright © 2018 by Gail Z. Martin.
The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), locales, and incidents are either coincidental or used fictitiously. Any trademarks used belong to their owners. No infringement is intended.
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Cover art by Sam Gretton.
Additional cover work by Melissa Gilbert.
SOL Publishing is an imprint of DreamSpinner Communications, LLC
To my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, who has believed in me from the beginning.
A chair sailed through the air, thrown by unseen hands. Rigan Valmonde shouted the warning to his brother Corran and dropped to the floor seconds before the chair slammed into the wall behind him hard enough to splinter into pieces.
Setting a child’s vengeful ghost to rest hadn’t sounded like a difficult job when Corran and Rigan took on the task from the village elders. The reality turned out to be far different from what they had been led to expect.
“Finish the banishing circle before she kills us!” Corran climbed to his feet after the angry ghost had thrown him across the room. His iron knife might be able to disrupt the ghost if he could see the spirit to know where to strike.
“Great idea——why didn’t I think of that?” Rigan replied, sarcasm thick in his voice. “Trying not to die right now.” He reached toward the container of salt, aconite, and amanita powder to lay down a protective circle for the banishment, but the spirit materialized just long enough to hurl the container to the far side of the small cabin before he could grab it.
“At least we know for sure that she’s got enough strength to be behind the murders.” Corran dove for the salt mixture, only to see it skid along the wall as if the vengeful spirit were baiting him.
“Yeah, but why?” Rigan got to his knees and brushed the splinters out of his dark hair. Getting thrown around by a wrathful ghost had been an occasional danger when he and Corran were undertakers in Ravenwood City. Now that they were outlaw monster hunters, bodily injury had become an everyday occurrence.
Before Corran had a chance to answer, a force slammed him against the wall and pinned him, immobilizing his arms and legs. “Ask her,” he croaked, as the pressure tightened against his chest. “You’re the one who can confess the dead.”
The force pressing against his chest grew stronger, and Corran gasped for breath. Rigan scrambled to his feet. Corran’s eyes widened with fear, and his whole body trembled, then his head fell forward, and the spirit let him collapse against the wall, but not before carving four deep gashes across his chest.
Usually they contained a restless spirit before Rigan attempted to contact the ghost, either trapping the revenant inside a salt circle, or drawing signals and the circle to protect them from its anger. This time, the ghostly child attacked as soon as they crossed the old cabin’s threshold with a fury they had seldom seen even from much older spirits. They had seriously underestimated the danger, and that mistake might cost them their lives.
Rigan reached into his pocket for a handful of loose salt mixture. He did not have enough to draw a circle, but what he threw into the air where the child’s ghost last materialized was enough to break her grip on Corran, who freed himself from the wall. The ghost struggled to show herself, momentarily weakened by the protective mix of materials.
“Corran!” Rigan shouted again, terrified when his brother did not respond. Then he heard a groan and felt dizzy with relief as Corran pushed himself up on his hands and knees, scowling in anger. Blood stained his shirt from the cuts, and the skin around his throat had already begun to bruise.
“Cover me,” Rigan said, closing his eyes and gathering his grave magic. Though he and Corran were brothers, and both had grave magic that let them see and hear spirits, only Rigan could take their final confessions and send them into the After.
Corran gripped his iron blade and moved closer to watch Rigan’s back. He circled warily, unsure where the ghost would show herself.
“Are you crazy? You’ll get yourself killed—”
A window shattered, sending a hail of glass shards flying. Corran dipped his head, turning so that the worst of the pieces hit his back and shoulders, sliding off the leather coat. He swore under his breath as he tried to get close enough to protect his younger brother from the vengeful spirit.
Rigan ignored Corran’s protests and reached out with his power to the spirit. “How did you die?”
Everything stilled. For a heartbeat, Rigan wondered whether she heard him.
I couldn’t breathe. The thin, reedy voice came from behind him, and he wheeled to face the ghost. Rigan motioned for Corran to remain where he was.
“What happened?” Rigan asked. “Were you alone?”
The ghost flickered several times before a hazy shape materialized and held its form long enough for Rigan to take in the details. The girl looked to be about ten years old, wearing a torn and dirty dress. Livid bruises around her neck could only have been caused by a man’s tight grip.
It brought me here. She did not move, regarding him with a wary, baleful gaze. It killed me like it killed the others, and it chewed on my bones.
Rigan repressed a shiver. “It? Not ‘him’?”
The ghost girl nodded solemnly. She fit the description the village elders had given Corran and Rigan, of both a missing child and the angry apparition. Rigan had thought at first that the spirit might be vengeful because she did not know how to move on to the After, or because she was afraid, not knowing she was dead. No one had even hinted at the possibility that she might have been murdered. Now, Rigan wondered whether the elders did not know, or merely wished to be rid of the evidence.
He looked like a man, but he changed.
Rigan took a deep breath, trying to quiet his impatience. Spirits spoke haltingly when they could process words. Long, detailed descriptions would be difficult even for the ghost of an older person or a spirit that had been dead for many years. He wou
Like a dog, but he had four eyes.
Rigan had heard tales of shape-shifters and werewolves, though he and his hunter friends had yet to encounter such a creature. But none of those were said to have four eyes. “You said there were others?”
She nodded solemnly. I can show you.
Her image flickered out, only to reappear on the other side of the cabin, near the back door. Rigan gave a nod to Corran, and followed, careful to keep his distance so that he did not alarm the spirit. After her attack on Corran, he had no intention of trusting the ghost.
“Not sure this is a good idea,” Corran grumbled, his voice raspier than usual as if it hurt to talk.
“I think there’s more to this than we were told,” Rigan murmured, keeping his eyes on the girl’s ghost. “And if she has unfinished business, I can’t confess her.”
The spirit vanished, and Rigan thought she meant to trick them, but then he made out her form several yards behind the shack. He grabbed the container of salt mixture from where it had landed and drew his knife with the other hand, in case whatever had killed the girl awaited them outside.
The ghost led them down a slope through tall grasses that bent and swayed with the breeze. Rigan caught a glint of something in the afternoon sun, down at the bottom of the hill. Sure enough, the ghost materialized again by the edge of a stagnant pond filled with algae-green water. She pointed, meeting his gaze somberly.
“Is that where it put your body?” Rigan asked.
She nodded, and held up a hand, splaying all five fingers wide.
“Five bodies?” Rigan did not try to keep the shock from his tone. The ghost nodded.
Rigan exchanged a look with Corran. “They hired us to get rid of a ghost. How did they not notice five missing children?” He had a suspicion that the elders might get more than they wanted out of banishing the restless spirit.
“The people you hurt—why them?” It worked best to keep his questions short and direct. Spirits—especially the newly dead—seemed to get confused easily.
Rigan felt a flare of anger, certain now that the elders had not been honest with them. “You hurt them because they knew about… it?”
The ghost girl nodded. Knew. Didn’t stop.
“We have to fix this,” Corran growled.
A glance at his brother told him Corran was attempting to rein in his fury. “The other children, were they before you?” Rigan asked. Again, she nodded confirming his guess. “But they can’t come back as easily as you can?”
She shook her head. Too little.
The thought that a ten-year-old girl would be the avenger for murdered children younger than herself made Rigan grit his teeth. “Tell me who did this,” he said, trying to keep his voice level.
Elkin, the wheelwright, the ghost replied.
“We’ll find him and stop him,” Rigan promised. “And then I’ll help you pass over to the After. The others, too, if they haven’t already.” The girl nodded, then raised her arm to point at the algae-covered pond and vanished.
“You think the elders knew when they hired us?” Rigan asked.
Corran cursed under his breath. “They had to suspect something. The village is small enough that everyone would know about missing children.” He rubbed a hand over his bruised throat. Even at a volume barely above a whisper, his voice sounded rough.
“That’s what I figure, unless whatever did this covered its tracks, made it look like a wild animal snatched them, or that they wandered off,” Rigan said. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to come up with a plan.
“Wouldn’t they have noticed if the wheelwright had four eyes and looked like a dog?”
“Maybe the creature only takes its true form when it kills,” Rigan replied. “We’ve found references in the lore books to monsters like that.” He, Corran, and their friends had been hunting monsters for less than a year, though it felt like an eternity. They still had a lot to learn.
Now that the ghost no longer posed an immediate threat, Rigan grabbed Corran’s arm. “Let me see the damage.”
“We don’t have time.”
“You’re still bleeding.” Rigan pushed Corran’s jacket open and hissed through his teeth at the sight of the gashes. “Damn. Those are deep.”
“Aiden can fix me up when we get back.”
“You’re losing too much blood. Give me your shirt.”
Corran scowled but complied, watching impatiently as Rigan tore the ruined garment into strips and then bound up the gashes.
“Can’t do anything about the pain, but at least you’ll have some blood left when we’re done,” Rigan said. He purposefully kept his gaze away from the bruises on Corran’s neck that looked like the fatal markings on the ghost child’s throat.
That was too close, he thought. If I had been any slower, it might have been Corran’s ghost I’d have to banish. He turned away, clenching his jaw.
Corran headed back up the trail. “Come on. I thought I saw some hay rakes in the shed. If the pond is shallow enough, we might snag the skeletons of the others. Then we can salt and burn them after we show the elders.”
“No wonder she attacked the people she did,” Rigan replied. “If they knew and did nothing—”
“So why did she attack us? She’d never seen us before,” Corran asked as he trampled the high grass on his way up the hill.
“She’s a little girl, she’s alone and frightened, and something awful happened to her,” Rigan said, understanding despite his anger over Corran’s injuries. “Can’t blame her for fighting first and asking questions later.”
They found the wooden hay rakes leaning against the wall in the shed, and went back down the slope, intent on finding evidence in the slime-coated water. Neither spoke, though Rigan felt certain their thoughts followed the same path. Only once before had they been called in to banish the spirit of a small child, and then it had been a wailing toddler who had perished in a fire and did not realize that he and his whole family were dead. No confessions to hear, no awful secret to reveal, just a simple ritual to send the wayward ghost into the After to find peace. Rigan much preferred that closure to what lay ahead of them today.
“Got something,” Corran said after he dragged the rake through the shallow edge of the pond. He grimaced as the muck-covered tines pulled up a water-stained, pitifully small skull.
“Sweet Oj and Ren,” Rigan murmured, doing his best not to be sick. A few minutes later, his rake caught on something, and he pulled gently, retrieving a child’s rib cage.
Corran’s mouth set in a hard line, and his gaze went cold. “Bastard just threw them in, knew no one could see down to the bottom and no one would have reason to wade out.”
“We don’t know where the creature killed them,” Rigan pointed out, anything to take his mind off his awful task. Again and again, he reached beneath the surface of the water, making his way slowly around the edge. Dry weather had evaporated the shallows so that Corran and Rigan were standing on ground that would have been submerged in the wettest months. Rigan’s boot caught on something in the dust and revealed a fragile femur. “Damn,” he muttered, rucking up the dirt with his rake to reveal more bones.
A candlemark’s work yielded a grisly harvest. Five small skulls stared out from the heap of discolored bones. The ghost had told the truth; the other four victims had been much younger.
“I think it’s time to go see the wheelwright,” Corran said, setting the rake aside. “Take care of whatever he is, and then come back here and handle the bones.”
“Sounds good. I’m in the mood for a fight,” Rigan agreed. Dangerous as it was to go up against a monster, after their gruesome discovery he needed to burn off the rage that filled him.
They headed back to the village and agreed to say nothing about their discoveries thus far until the matter had been settled. Corran waited with a stash of their most obvious weapo
“Edge of town, set back a bit. I’m guessing he has plenty of room with no one around to see, and not close enough for neighbors to pay much attention to noise,” Rigan said as he reported his conversation to Corran. “Let’s go.”
By the time they reached the outskirts of the village, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows. Rigan chewed his lip in thought when the found the turn to the dirt lane leading back to a wooden barn. The location was even more remote than he had imagined, offering a perfect place for murder.
“What do you think he is?” Corran asked as they walked.
“Not sure. I know we came out here to deal with a ghost, but Aiden and I have looked through the lore on monsters many times,” Rigan replied, mentioning the healer-witch who traveled with their group. “Doesn’t sound right for a werewolf or shape-shifter, although I guess one might have specific tastes.” He curled his lip in disgust. “Same with a vampire or strix—too difficult to hide, and much more likely to take adults. It might be a capcaun—that would fit what the ghost said about the creature having four eyes.”
by Gail Z. Martin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes