I swallowed a lump in my throat and my hand drifted to my knife, which I had taken to wearing on my hip instead of my leg once we entered the Old Lands. “Logan, I am the one who lives in this territory,” I said weakly. “I am the one who had to convince you that it wasn’t haunted. But this place… it feels wrong.”
Logan stopped and looked at me, head cocked to the side. Sophia crunched away, oblivious to our hesitation. “Riane, this is why we came here. My legs haven’t stopped hurting since we left home, and I have never been filthier. But this is why we came, remember? We were going on an adventure to break from the monotony of our lives.”
I bit my lip and stole another glance in the direction of the fort. “I like the monotony,” I whispered, but he ignored me and jogged away to catch up with Sophia.
I watched their retreating backs, and my grip tightened on the hilt of my dagger. Night was quickly falling; soon we would be lost in the darkness, and I knew I wasn’t about to camp next to the ruins of the fort. We would have to walk back to Vavenby, and that would take all night.
My gut twisted and a shiver crawled down my spine. We were trapped.
I shook my head and wiped off my face loose locks of hair that had escaped from my braid and clung to the sweat. We weren’t trapped. There was nothing here to trap us. Logan was right. The fort wasn’t haunted. It had been long since abandoned by those who built it, just like every other manmade structure in the Old Lands. We would be fine.
Ghosts didn’t exist.
Repeating this mantra over and over in my head, I carefully moved closer to the fort.
It wasn’t long before I broke through the tree line, into the clearing surrounding the fort that time still hadn’t been able to retake. My breath hitched in my throat as the full sight of the ruins greeted me. Four stone towers, only one moderately intact, connected by walls that had long since crumbled in the middle. Vines crawled up the sides of the weathered stones as nature tried to reclaim what was rightfully hers. A flagpole still stood from the highest tower, the one closest to me, with a scrap of fabric still attached. It drifted lazily in the evening breeze.
Another shiver danced down my spine. The highest tower was one of the tallest buildings I had ever seen, aside from the castle in Nallis. It was majestic and magnificent, even with one side gone.
“I don’t like this,” I said to myself, and walked slowly past the tower, alongside the south wall, which was mostly intact. A few holes like slits were carved into the stone—places for archers to keep watch and ready their bows in case of invaders—and from one still dangled the ruined remains of a tapestry.
There was a small hole, big enough to crawl through, at the bottom of the wall. I peered at it, curious, and spotted broken, rusted bars protruding from the ground beneath it. A sewage drain, most likely. But one big enough to crawl through. I took another step toward it—and was enveloped in a feeling of icy dread.
I froze, shoulders hunched. The mantra vanished like smoke from my mind. Something dark was nearby. Something wrong. This place was haunted.
“Logan?” I called, barely daring to speak any louder than a hissing whisper. “Logan? Sophia?”
A soft noise rose up somewhere behind me, like a dry cackle. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and I turned, pulling my dagger from my belt.
There was nothing behind me but the edge of the forest, shrouded in shadows.
“Logan?” I called again. Night was almost upon us; there was only a faint ribbon of red light left on the horizon. “Are you there? This isn’t funny.”
Another noise, and a soft breeze against my neck like the breath of a stifled laugh.
I do not deal in jokes, child.
Fresh terror rippled through me and tears prickled my eyes. My breath came short as I turned—but yet again, there was nothing behind me.
I bit my lip; tears slipped from my eyes and slid down my cheeks. “Wh-Who’s there?” I stammered. My voice was pitiful, and was lost in the wind and mist almost immediately. Logan and Sophia would never hear me.
You tread in my territory, child—in my home. Unwanted. Uninvited. The outcasts of civilization do not want you; why should the ghosts of the past?
I shut my eyes as more tears fell free. My skin prickled as another icy breeze washed over me, and my trembling fingers slipped on the hilt of my knife. “Please…”
For what do you beg? Tendrils of glacial cold touched the back of my neck; I choked out a sob. It seemed to fall on me like a hand, growing stronger as the night mists gathered from the shadows. I see who you are. You have the hair and the eyes of your father, but the soul you possess is shared with your mother. Strange that destiny should decide to send you here, to me, but who are we to question what the gods decide? Do you beg for freedom from your blood, child? Do you beg for freedom from me? Another breathy noise, a child’s laughter in the wind. You would have more luck asking the mountains to walk and the sun to set in the east.
I opened my eyes, but saw nothing. Blackness surrounded me, twisting with the smoky shapes of half-seen ghosts and unrealized dreams.
“Help me,” I whispered, and the shadows swallowed me.