Authors: Matthew Ballard
With a flick of his wrist, Ronan surrounded himself and Rika with transparent spirit shields. He drew the shields inward until they hugged their skin.
Rika, flying as a great silver and black eagle, arced around the village’s perimeter. She leveled off and tightened into a straight glide above the harbor’s icy waters.
A narrow empty dock stretched into the harbor. Near the dock's entrance, the harbor master’s office stood dark and lifeless.
Through gusting snow, Ronan scanned Porthleven’s empty streets searching for any sign of life. A flicker of movement caught his eye near a chapel on the village’s far side. “Rika, I saw something near that church. Can you bring us closer?”
Rika descended in a slow circle drifting over a solid bronze sphere set atop the church’s domed peak. An inch of snow covered the already frozen ground as Rika landed near the church’s small weathered graveyard.
A man wearing a plain cotton tunic and trousers stood twenty yards away. He worked a rusty iron spade scooping up chunks of frozen dirt and snow. He took little notice of their arrival and kept his attention focused on his labor.
Rika shifted into human form and stood beside Ronan observing the odd gravedigger. “He must be freezing without a coat, hat, or gloves.” She worked loose strands of dark hair behind her ear.
Ronan’s brow furrowed. “I’d like to know where he finds strength enough to tear apart frozen ground.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Rika said and started toward the strange man.
Ronan fell in beside her as they approached. “Just be careful. Something about this village isn’t right.”
The thin man’s tunic showed streaks of black grimy soot, and a long jagged tear ran along his trouser’s dirt-stained left leg. Stringy blond hair covered his face hiding his facial features. He didn’t look up as Ronan and Rika approached.
“Hello,” Ronan said.
The man paused his digging, but kept his gaze lowered.
“If you don’t mind my asking, aren’t you the least bit cold?” Rika said.
The gravedigger’s head jerked as if startled, but his blank expression betrayed any hint of surprise. He tilted his head and furrowed his brow. “Cold?” He stared at Rika slack-jawed for a long moment. “Oh the snow.” He bobbed his head as if enlightened by the answer to some long-unsolved ancient mystery.
A nervous chuckle escaped Ronan’s throat. “Where is everybody? The town’s deserted.”
“They’re here,” the man said. “Where else would they be?” He shook his head and resumed shoveling.
“But, I don’t see anybody, and all the houses are dark,” Ronan said.
The man ignored Ronan and continued to scoop large chunks of frozen earth as easily as sand on a beach.
Rika tugged on his sleeve. “Come on Ronan. Let’s take a look around.”
Wind howled as gusting snow blew through the wooden buildings nestled around the village square. Dim light filtered through the windows of a two-story inn opposite the church.
“There’s light coming from the inn,” Ronan said.
Rika slid in behind Ronan and peered over his shoulder, staring at the inn’s gloomy facade. “It doesn’t look very friendly.”
“Let’s look inside.” Ronan took Rika’s hand and crossed the square. He paused and glanced over his shoulder, scanning the empty air behind him.
“What’s wrong?” Rika said.
“I can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching me.” He glanced toward the harbor master’s office, but the closed door and dark interior offered no sign of human presence.
“I feel the same way.” Rika squeezed Ronan’s hand and pressed tighter against him. “This village is spooky Ronan. Let’s wait for Devery and Jeremy.”
“I think we’re letting our imaginations run wild. Come on.” Ronan dragged Rika by the hand, stopping on the inn’s creaky porch.
A wooden salt-stained door stood closed before Ronan and Rika.
Ronan pressed his ear to the door and enhanced his hearing. No sound came from inside the inn. “Why do I get the feeling we’re walking into a viper’s nest?”
“Because we probably are,” Rika said. “I told you let’s wait for Devery and Jeremy.”
Ignoring Rika’s warning, Ronan pressed down the door’s iron latch and pushed the door open.
Grim gray light from the open doorway battled murky shadows pressing in from the common room’s far corners.
Ronan squinted and peered into the empty room.
From the room’s shadowed recesses, a single candle flame flickered atop a round table. Seated at the table, a dark silhouette sat motionless.
Rika gasped and squeezed Ronan’s hand pressing her chest into his back. She whispered into his ear. “Ronan, this isn’t okay. Please, let’s go.”
Ronan’s stomach fluttered, and he gawked at the dark figure seated at the table. He glanced behind him and found Rika’s nervous eyes hovering above his shoulder blade. “Come on. We’ll be fine. We owe it to Sergeant Reed and Davin Keel.” Ronan stepped through the open doorway and stood in the inn’s common room. “Hello?” He said, raising his voice.
The human shaped silhouette didn’t respond.
Ronan crept forward curling his grip around the hilt of his sheba blade.
Through the shadows, a pair of smaller figures emerged sitting motionless on either side of a grown woman.
“Hello miss?” Ronan’s footsteps creaked against the inn’s worn floorboards. He eased forward inching closer to the table.
A fair-haired woman in her early thirties stared ahead with unfocused eyes. Two children, a dark-haired boy and a blond girl, sat to her right and left. The woman wore a simple but fine cotton dress. Her children wore formal clothing suitable for a Saturday morning church service.
The short hair on Ronan’s neck bristled as an icy chill crept along his spine.
Their glassy eyes and waxen pallor left no doubt about their condition.
Rika clutched Ronan’s sleeve with a trembling hand. “They’re dead Ronan. Please, let’s leave and find Devery. This place feels all wrong. My skin is crawling.”
Ronan nodded. “I agree, it’s bizarre. It looks as if someone dressed them and posed them around the table. Why?”
“I don’t care Ronan. You know how I feel about ghosts.” Rika pulled his arm. “Come on, let’s go.”
“One more second Rika. The woman’s holding something in her hand.”
Candlelight flickered from a piece of dull gold porcelain lodged between the dead woman’s pale stiff fingers.
Ronan grabbed the object’s smooth tip, but it held tight in her grip.
“Don’t touch her! What are you doing?”
“I’m curious. Whatever it is, it obviously meant a great deal to her.”
Ronan pried the object loose from the woman’s cold hand and examined it.
A tiny porcelain figurine of a gold dragon missing its right rear right foot rested in Ronan’s palm. The paint had chipped in a half-dozen places, revealing aged yellow clay beneath. Tiny hairline cracks crisscrossed the figurine adding to its ancient weathered appearance. Ronan’s brow furrowed. “How odd.”
“Can you put it back please, and we’ll get out of here?”
Ronan set the figurine on the table near the dead woman’s empty hand. “Let’s go.”
Rika yanked Ronan’s hand pulling him toward the door when a large banging noise came from behind.
Ronan’s heart lurched, and he jumped whirling ready to fend off attackers while Rika shrieked.
The woman and her children hadn’t moved, but an empty chair lay tipped on its side.
“Did you knock the chair over? Please tell me you did,” Rika said.
“I must’ve, but that chair is five feet away.”
Rika gasped and pointed toward the empty tabletop. “Ronan, look.”
Ronan’s face flushed, and a sharp chill prickled the nape of his neck.
The dragon figurine had vanished from the tabletop and reappeared clutched in the dead woman’s hand.
He squeezed Rika’s hand and pulled her toward the door. “Okay, maybe you’re right.” Ronan rushed through the open doorway, leaving the haunted inn behind.
Through the harbor master’s office window, a woman’s pale face flashed then receded into the shadows.
Ronan’s heart pounded. He held still watching the icy windowpane and waiting for the figure to reappear. “Did you see a face in that window?”
“Forget that Ronan, let’s leave.”
“Wait Rika, this is the last place we’ll check. I promise. Let me take a quick look. You can even wait outside if you want.”
Rika squeezed Ronan’s hand and pressed against him. “You’re not leaving me out here alone. I’m going with you.”
Ronan slipped free the sheba blade strapped to his shoulder and extended it in a single hand. He crossed the village square until he stood outside the harbor master’s office. Heart hammering, he peered through the ice-covered office window and held his breath.
Through the window pane, the woman’s face reappeared and stared deep into Ronan’s eyes.
Ronan jumped backward and forced a rush of power through his blade.
Fear marked the woman’s porcelain white face, and she receded into the shadows.
Swirls of red and green appeared in Rika’s eyes as she prepared to change form.
“Wait Rika. Not yet,” Ronan said. “Let me try to talk to her.” Ronan reached for the office door handle and twisted its dented brass knob.
On its own, the door pressed outward creaking on rusty hinges, and Ronan leaped backward flashing his sheba blade in a tight arc.
A young woman with pale skin and straight auburn hair appeared in the open doorway.
Behind her, a thin, gaunt man, sat motionless in a near catatonic state. The man matched Davin Keel’s description of Fitzgerald Montgomery. His lips moved, and he spoke a rambling jumble of disjointed gibberish.
The woman’s dark brown eyes betrayed fear and confusion. Her gaze flickered to Ronan’s blade before settling on his face. She wore a long white silk dressed that appeared an oddity among those living in a simple seaside village. She inched forward as if to move past Ronan.
Ronan flashed his blade outward and extended its point toward the woman’s chest. “Stop there.”
“Are you going to kill me?” The woman said.
“I need to speak with Sergeant Harrison Reed.” Ronan said. He tipped his head toward the open door and Montgomery beyond. “Who is that man?”
“Who are you?” The woman said her voice a bare whisper.
“He’s Ronan Latimer, the king of bloody Meranthia,” Rika said as she stepped toward the woman. “Who are you?” Her eyes flashed with anger.
She stared beyond Ronan’s shoulder, her gaze locked on the statue of Elan standing outside the chapel. “My name’s Tara,” she said without taking her eyes from the statue.
“What happened to the people in this town Miss…Tara?” Ronan said.
Tara raised an eyebrow. “Happened?”
“Where are they?”
“They’re here,” she said, her voice a monotone. “You saw Reginald at the cemetery. He told you himself.”
How did she know the specifics of Ronan’s conversation at the cemetery? “A young man came to Freehold three days ago reporting a pair of murders,” Ronan said glaring. “You’ve a man digging frozen ground at the cemetery and three dead people propped up at the inn enjoying some macabre tea party.”
“Do you mean those people?” Tara pointed over Ronan’s shoulder toward the inn.
Ronan whirled and staggered backward recoiling at the sight before him.
The dead woman from the inn stood in the village square holding her children’s hands. The dead woman glared, and the little girl pointed at Ronan. “That’s him mommy. That’s the man that tried to steal daddy’s dragon statue.”
Rika shifted into a great Meranthian grizzly bear, and a low growl rolled from her chest. Fluffy falling snowflakes collected on her coarse black fur as she spun and faced the walking dead.
An ice-cold sensation numbed a spot near the base of Ronan’s neck, and he stiffened moving his hand to ward off the strange feeling. He spun in time to catch a wide-eyed Tara holding her hand as if burned.
Tara backed away, her mouth hanging open, staring wide-eyed at Ronan.
“What did you do to me?” Ronan rubbed the base of his neck and icy cold spread across his palm as it drew near his spirit shield.
Tara rubbed her trembling hand and crept backward. “Stay away from me!”
Ronan raised his sword and glared. “What did you do to me?”
“General Demos! I need you!” A shroud of swirling black mist surrounded Tara as she moved further away from Ronan.
A low hiss and clattering armor sounded behind Ronan.
“Rika, don’t take your eyes off her.” Ronan whirled to face the menacing sound closing in behind him.
A ten foot man-shaped creature towered over Devery, Jeremy and two guardians with them. The creature’s outer skin appeared human-like, but dark shiny scales showed beneath. His nose laid flat against his face while his bald head gave way to a flat angular forehead. The creature's hands looked human with four fingers and an opposable thumb. His eyes glowed golden with black slits for pupils while his long scaly tail twitched in the snow. The creature’s forked tongue flickered from his thin lips as if tasting the air around him. He slid free a sheathed long-sword from his waist and motioned for Tara.