The cold night wind howled eerily outside the small room, making the glass panes rattle behind the closed window-shutters. It was a chilly evening, and the attic room of the lodging-house did not even have the benefit of an insulating layer of air beneath the steeply gabled roof the way the lower story made use of the attic. The glowing embers in the fireplace grate were dimming, too; the innkeeper had not been liberal in the amount of wood that went with cost of the room.
"Listen to it," said one of the two night-guests to her husband. "It sounds like a spirit calling to us."
Her husband looked at her with surprise, and a hint of fear, in his eyes.
"Don't say things like that, Zala."
"I can't help it. Thinking of that story the innkeeper told us over supper..."
A shudder ran through the man.
"I know! It's not right for a man to frighten his customers that way. Telling skin-creepers like that! Nasty fellow to do something in that line; probably made the whole story up out of whole cloth."
Zala shook her head.
"I don't think so, Mikal. Why would he tell us if it wasn't true? If we pass an uncomfortable night, we could beat him down on the price thanks to the room's bad reputation. It just goes to hurt his business, so it must be true."
Mikal glanced around uncertainly.
"I'm glad this is our last night here."
"Yes, but...Mikal, I don't feel right."
"You don't mean that," he quickly responded.
"I do. I can't help but get a feeling of wrongness, of...well, of evil."
"You're just saying that because of the innkeeper's story. It's got you on edge, Zala, thinking about haunting spirits and about evil. That's all. When morning comes, you'll see everything's different in the light of day."
"I hope you're right, darling."
"Of course I am. When you see the sun on the bright snow, you'll forget all about this nonsense of ghosts and night-terrors." Mikal spoke loudly, a bit too loudly, and his wife could tell that his hearty bluster was as much for his own benefit as for hers.
"I'm sure it will," she went along with his words. "Only..." she began, then trailed off.
"Only what?" he snapped quickly. The wind whistled in the chimney, the embers of the fire fading to a dull red.
"Only...only we have so many hours to go until morning finally comes."
As he often did, Prelate Arjan of the frontier town of Vassha took his breakfast in the library. The young Dezolian priest was in his heart a scholar, and had made the library of Vassha's shrine compound his favorite personal space. He used it as a study and workroom, as well as for research, and also found it the most convenient place for receiving private guests. He felt at home surrounded by books and scrolls; he found them almost as pleasant company as friends and family would have been to dine with—particularly at breakfast, when he savored the quiet solitude of the morning before the constant rush of job pressures was upon him again.
Closing his eyes, Arjan inhaled and let the sweet yet faintly salty aroma of the ^aduumbal fill his thoughts. The rich orange vegetable broth was a favorite breakfast of the green-skinned race native to Dezolis, and the Prelate was no exception. These morning rituals always lent energy to his day, a sense of order that helped him to keep his own thoughts focused.
Once he had drunk his ^aduumbal, Arjan reached for the teapot sitting in its padded basket and poured a cup. Although not an adept of the kej Tuumjem, the formal tea ceremony, the beverage itself was his favorite. The hot, strong brew fought off the cold of the mountains and unlike alcohol (at least, unlike alcohol for someone with the young Prelate's limited tolerance) cleared rather than clouded the mind. He sipped slowly, tasting the flavor on his tongue.
It had been an education for him, these months as the Prelate. In the theocratic government that ruled the ice planet's natives, the Prelate served as the senior priest of the district, the village elder, and the magistrate responsible for investigating and punishing crime. It was a great deal of responsibility, especially as nothing in the scholar's previous career had prepared him for it, and moreso that the revival of the theocracy was barely older than his own possession of his high rank. The people of Vassha did not yet trust that the Church could govern any better than had the civil government under the pai'tekkan.
Now, though, Arjan hoped that things were changing, that his people were seeing him as fit to hold his position, or at least as honest and trustworthy if still learning his role. The acid test would of course be when he was in due course transferred and another Prelate took over. A system had to be more than merely the people who made it up; it had to be strong enough to endure even if, temporarily, a corrupt or incompetent person assumed office.
A knock on the door cut through Arjan's reverie. Soft at first, it only vaguely penetrated his thoughts, but then became more insistent and brought his attention back to the real world.
A maidservant opened the door; he recognized her as the daughter of the cook at the Prelate's private residence.
"Pardon me for disturbing you, Your Grace," she said shyly.
"Not at all; I was merely lost in thought. What is it?"
"There's a man to see you, Your Grace. He didn't have a visiting-card, but said that his name was T'Kor, innkeeper of the Bountiful Rest lodging-house."
"Please, bring him in."
The Prelate rose politely as the man entered. T'Kor had the average Dezolian build, tall and thin; his narrow, angular eyes lent his face personality. He wore the conical, middle-height kem'pallah of an artisan shopkeeper; his patched but clean blue jacket and trousers were also typical of that social class. He was obviously ill at ease, twisting his hands together at waist-height.
"Good morning, T'Kor. Will you sit down?" Arjan offered, hoping to put the man at his ease.
"I'm sorry for interrupting your breakfast, Your Grace," T'Kor said, seeing the dishes.
"Not at all; I'd already finished and was just washing it down with a cup of kej. Would you care for some?"
"I'd appreciate it, Your Grace. As a rule I prefer wine, but I need something to settle my nerves so I can tell you about what happened. Then I can go out and get good and drunk!"
T'Kor accepted the cup gratefully; his hands trembled a bit but not enough that he sloshed any tea over the rim. He gulped down the strong kej, and it seemed to help. At the least, it put a bit of color into his face.
In his time as Prelate, Arjan had learned to his regret that few people are comfortable with a high official. His assistant Colce had likened it to dining with a dragon—even if the creature is friendly, the raw power makes one nervous to be close by. He also knew that he lacked the "common touch"—educated by the Church, formerly a cloistered scholar, and a bit clumsy at social interaction, he could not help but present himself as one of the educated classes with every sentence, and his youth kept him from presenting the image of fatherly wisdom. Even so, Arjan felt that there was more to T'Kor's discomfiture than just social awkwardness. That was what he needed to address, the part of the problem that perhaps he could solve instead of the part he couldn't.
"It must have been something important," he said, "if it brought you directly to me instead of the police, the tribunal clerks, or the temple underpriests."
"To tell the truth, Your Grace, I'm not sure who else I could turn to. Now, maybe it's a police matter, but then again, maybe you'd say it was a question of religion. But you're in charge of it all, so that way it's part of your job however you want to look at it." He smiled momentarily, proud of his reasoning, but the worried look came back quickly enough.
"Either way, Your Grace, it's an awful business. Things like this shouldn't be allowed to happen to decent folk! I've heard about how you did for that murdering vampire up at Tuvan Waystation, so I'm sure you can teach that haunt who's boss."
"Haunt?" Arjan asked in surprise.
"That's right, Your Grace. The Bountiful Rest has a haunted room, right enough, and last night that blasted ghost made two lodgers disappear into thin air!"
"Spooks again?" Colce asked. "Didn't we get enough of them to last the rest of the year up at Tuvan, boss?"
"We can't pick and choose where we fight evil."
"That must be why they call it evil. If it had any sense of common decency, it'd limit itself to showing up at occasional intervals instead of being so derned persistent."
Arjan's assistant had been with him for a number of years. A short man, just barely over six feet tall, he seemed even shorter on account of his broad-shouldered, muscular build. A former criminal, he'd reformed upon entering Arjan's service and now put his diverse talents to use in tracking felons and solving crimes. Fifteen years older than the Prelate, his age as well as considerably greater practical life experience broke down the barriers between them so that they almost never stood on formality. Arjan thought of Colce more as he would a favorite uncle than as a servant or employee.
Upon hearing T'Kor's claim, Arjan had summoned Colce and one police-warden at once, then set out with the innkeeper to investigate. If a crime had been committed, Colce would be much better at searching the room for evidence. If the supernatural really was involved, though, it was his duty as a priest to act, so he went in person. As a scholar, he'd studied both the magics taught by the Church and certain of the "techniques" invented by Palmans, and this mysticism would be very useful against any malign spirits.
The morning, he reflected as T'Kor led the group to the lodging-house, had grown considerably less appealing than it had seemed at first. It was still bright and sunny, but Algo's radiance seemed to have lost its friendly warmth somehow, becoming more like one of the artificial glow-panels used in Palman buildings before the destruction of their Mother Brain caused the collapse of the planetwide electrical network, providing no heat but only cold illumination.
Of course, it wasn't the weather that had changed, but only Arjan's own attitude. The contentment and serenity of the breakfast hour was gone, and instead his nerves were on edge as he prepared himself to face trouble.
"T'Kor, why don't you give us the whole story now?" he suggested. "Start with the ghost; you can go over the specific details of last night's disappearances when we are on-scene and can see the situation for ourselves."
"Yes, Your Grace. The Bountiful Rest has been in my family for three generations now. It was my grandmother's, and she left it to her son-in-law, my father. Pajo left it to me. I grew up in the lodging-house, and worked to help out all my life. The story took place thirty-five years ago when I was a child."
"It's really very simple. There was a stranger who came to Vassha, a wild-eyed traveler in a ragged outfit. He scared me, and I think my parents would have told him to take his business elsewhere, but he paid up front and in cash—good Palman meseta, not the crap the pai'tekkan's government printed.
Arjan recalled that the Dezolian civil government had made a number of bad economic decisions that had made their paper money all but worthless. The current copper and silver coins grew out of the still-lingering distrust of paper.
"He was given the attic room over the southeast side of the lodging-house, and went up there right after supper. We didn't see him all that night and he didn't come down for breakfast, so Pajo went up to the room. The door was locked, so he opened it up, and he saw the traveler hanging from the rafters. He'd hung himself using his own belt. We never learned who he was, or why he'd killed himself."
"A grim story," Arjan said.
"It didn't end there. Ever since then, people who stay in that room have reported all kinds of strange things—mysterious presences, odd odors, and the sensation that they're being watched. Even a misty figure, on a couple of occasions."
"If you thought the room was haunted, why didn't you come to the Church in all these years?"
T'Kor spread his hands helplessly.
"It was just talk! No one was ever actually hurt by the ghost. Most of the time I didn't even believe there was a ghost, just, you know, tall tales."
"That's no excuse," Arjan said sternly. "Dealing with unquiet spirits is an important task of the Church, but we can't fulfill our religious duties if no one reports them."
"Well, I certainly won't hesitate again, not after what happened last night!"
"Let's hear about that," Colce prompted.
"I'll do better—I'll show you. Look, we're almost there."
The Bountiful Rest looked like a typical lower-class lodging-house, located next to the Drunken Owl wine-shop so that travelers could get good and drunk, then stagger off to their beds without the risk of getting lost. The guests would likely be peddlers, wandering hunters, and vagabonds who'd managed to get their hands on some copper cash. The interior was just what one would have expected—bare plank floors and sturdy, unpolished counters. The furniture in the common room was cheap but solid, hard to break but not expensive to replace. Behind the counter was a rack with five pegs from which three room keys hung. A young woman Arjan's age was manning the desk.
"Shall we go upstairs?"
"Wait," the Prelate said as the others headed towards the staircase. "Let me see the register first."
"Yes, Your Grace," said the clerk. She brought out a heavy, cloth-bound book and set it on the counter. Arjan turned to the last page with any entries.
"Which were the ones who disappeared?"
"Mikal and Zala, Your Grace."
"I see. Traveling actors from Aukba, most recently from Irdah Waystation, arrived three days ago."
"That's right. They've been performing in the market square."
Arjan was glad to hear that; one of the problems with the remote district was a lack of amusements and entertainments for the common people, something that in his opinion led to too many nights spent in the wine-shops. Whatever ill fate had befallen the actors, it was twice the shame, and the Prelate couldn't help but feel it the more keenly.
"Thank you," he told the clerk. She put the register back, and he turned to the stairs. They led to an upstairs hall set in the highest part of the attic, the very center under the roof's peak. Doors led to two rooms on each side, painted with the numbers 2-5.
"Where's Room One?" Colce asked.
"On the first floor," T'Kor explained quickly. Talking about the minutiae of his job seemed to relax him. "It's more comfortable, so it's thirty meseta a night. The rooms up here are only twenty cash per person."
"If I ever leave Prelate Arjan's service," Colce muttered to no one in particular, "I think I'll open a lodging-house." The police-warden with them, a sharp-faced man in his late thirties, chuckled at that, but it was a brittle, uncomfortable sound. Humor did not distract him from the knowledge that there was something in the next room that had caused two people to vanish.
"It was Room Three, here, where they were staying," T'Kor said, pointing to the door. "They'd arrived three days ago, and this was supposed to be their last night."
"What made you check on them?"
"Well, Your Grace, while dinner downstairs costs extra, I do include breakfast with the room, usually a bowl of vonde gruel and hot tea. It's not often that anyone who stays at a lodging-house like this one would pass up a free meal. When breakfast was almost done and my wife was taking the pot of leftovers off the stove, I got worried that...well, that maybe Mikal and Zala had skipped on their bill. I'm sorry I thought that now!"
He walked up to the door and pantomimed his actions as he described them.
"First off, I knocked on the door. They might have been asleep or hey, they're married, right?" He gave the other men a lewd wink, then stiffened at the Prelate's cold response. "Sorry, Your Grace; I didn't mean to imply—well, anyway, there was no answer. I knocked again and yelled for them to wake up, but there was still nothing.
"Now, this got me even more worried than I'd been before, so I tried to peep through the keyhole. I couldn't see a thing, though—the key was still in the lock. Then I got really worried. They couldn't have left and still locked the door from the inside, but if they'd been asleep they'd have heard me calling and knocking. So, I took a long needle and poked it through the keyhole to clear the key out, and used my own master key to open the door."
He showed them a large key, the handle of which was linked to T'Kor's belt by a chain.
"But when I opened the door, there was nothing, no one there." He pushed the door open, showing Arjan a plain room with a bed, chamber pot, and a small table with pitcher and washbasin as its only furnishings. A thin quilt lay on the bed, bunched up in one of the corners by the footboard. The fire in the fireplace had long since starved itself and was nothing but cold ashes.
There was nothing else, no person and no baggage. Nothing was left of the two actors.
"The window there is nailed shut," T'Kor said, pointing. It was a common practice; no one opened a window for fresh air in icy Vassha, and on the second story it prevented accidents if it couldn't be opened. Of course, it created trouble in case of fire, though at that point just smashing the glass would be the easiest way to get through.
There was no broken glass in the window of Room Three, though.
"Colce?" Arjan said.
His assistant nodded.
"I've got it, boss."
He went over to the window and checked it to make sure it really was sealed, that the nails held and the panes were not loose. Arjan had never been entirely sure he wanted to know the entire story, but he knew that Colce was familiar with all the tricks of breaking and entering. If he said that the window was shut, then it was.
"All right, then. The rest of you had better step back into the hall."
"Why is that, Your Grace?" T'Kor said.
"I'm going to try to make the ghost reveal itself. An unquiet spirit can be dangerous at any time, and it won't like either the sunlight or being forced to manifest tangibly, which will make it all the more of a threat."
"Nothing doing, boss," Colce said flatly. "If you're going to stay and face this thing, then I'm gonna be here."
He drew his silver longknife, a weapon he'd brought along when he'd been told they might have to confront a ghost. The pale gray metal, low-grade laconia, was one of the most reliable tools for dealing with supernatural evil.
At least according to legend. Colce didn't know if the wight Arjan was going to try to summon could be hurt by silver or would just laugh at his efforts before killing him.
The fear took over then, genuine fear instead of just nerves or a vague sense of unease. He had to fight hard, mentally, to keep from bolting out of the room and fleeing the lodging-house entirely. To his credit, though, Colce did not give in, or even raise the subject. Arjan looked at the police-warden.
"Joran," he said, remembering the man's name, "take T'Kor out with you."
"Yes, Your Grace." They left without much urging being needed, closing though not locking the door behind themselves.
"All right," Arjan said. "Stay ready, but don't interrupt me."
"Believe me, boss, that's the last thing I want."
Arjan bowed his head and closed his eyes, trying to properly focus his mind. Dezolian belief considered magic a gift of Heaven to aid in confronting evil forces, but it still required work to master. The Prelate began to chant softly as he summoned power from within himself and reshaped it, enhancing his senses so as to reveal any hidden magic in the vicinity, of which a ghost would be a strong source. He could then target it with his next spell, to force it out in visible form.
Then the real struggle would begin. Spirits of the dead could manifest in different forms. Some were vulnerable to physical attacks, while others were not. Arjan knew a powerful spell that could dispel an evil creature with a single holy word, but it was not guaranteed to work; he had to overcome its will with his own power—not always an easy task with a hate-filled, unholy spirit!
The Prelate pronounced the final words of the chant and sent forth his power, seeking the resonance left by the haunting spirit.
He found none.
Sighing, Arjan opened his eyes, his shoulders drooping with the release of tension.
"What is it, boss?"
"There's nothing I can feel here. My spell failed."
Colce put his longknife back into its sheath.
"Well, it is still morning. Most spook-stories have the ghost waiting to come out 'til after dark."
Arjan shook his head.
"That wouldn't matter, Colce. That's a restriction on its ability to manifest and do evil, but the spirit itself would stay here in the world even when it couldn't take form."
Colce scratched the back of his neck.
"Well, you'd know better than I would. Always trust the priest's opinion when it comes to ghosts. How about if it's not in this room? Like, if it can go out and wander around town?"
"That's a possibility...but T'Kor said it was this one room that was haunted, specifically, not the rest of the lodging-house. Then again, he might be wrong..." Arjan's voice trailed off as he thought it over, then he shook his head. "No, even so, there should be some trace of its presence, particularly given that it performed a major act of magical power last night, by making those two vanish. I should have been able to detect something."
Colce looked at him, worried. As well he should be, Arjan thought, with a malign spirit about that could somehow obliterate two lives and yet conceal any trace of its passing.
"Did you cast the spell wrong, boss?" the broad-shouldered man said nervously.
"I must have erred somehow. It's a simple enough piece of magic. Summoning the ghost into a manifestation would have tested my strength, but I can't see how any but the most powerful spirits could conceal their presence from a detection spell. A phantom with that kind of power wouldn't be haunting a room in a lodging-house! Or would it?" He shook his head in frustration. "I don't know, Colce. I can't trust myself any more when it comes to ghosts. I thought I knew what I was doing, but now..."
Arjan looked at the fireplace with its burnt-out ashes and wished the fire was lit. Flame was the symbol of the Dezolian faith, the life-bringer on the ice planet and the eternal representation of the Light of Heaven. For even as any Dezolian could light a fire using his or her own hands and simple tools, so could any person seek out divine grace, a gift extended by Heaven to all. The crackling flames would have been a comfort; perhaps by meditating on them Arjan might order his thoughts and seek out the truth of this matter. It was no use wishing, though, for there was neither wood nor kindling in the cold, lifeless grate.
His head came up suddenly and he went and opened the door to the hall.
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"What's underneath this room?"
"Why, Room One is, the ground-floor room."
"I saw that key on the pegboard behind the counter. Did anyone stay there last night?"
"No, Your Grace. There's only one other guest, a peddler called Vrin, and he took Room Two, across the hall from this one." He scowled and added, "Cheapskates. They'd rather save a few coppers in an attic than enjoy a good bed and a warm fire below."
"Excellent!" Arjan turned at once to the police-warden. "Joron, go to the market and see if you can find anyone who saw Mikal and Zala act yesterday. I want to know what their performance was."
"I'm sure it was just the usual—traditional comic scenes, with breaks for juggling, tumbling, and fire-eating, that kind of thing. Those traveling players are all the same, that way."
"Usually, I know, but I want to be sure, before people start forgetting."
"Yes, Your Grace." The police-warden bowed his head in assent, then went downstairs. T'Kor just looked at Arjan in confusion.
"Your Grace, does this mean you've laid the ghost to rest?"
"There is no ghost, T'Kor, but there was evil nonetheless. A crime was committed here last night."
Arjan turned back into the room and gave Colce his orders. The older man accepted them with a grin; he'd clearly followed the same line of thought at the Prelate once he'd heard Arjan's questions.
"Don't worry, boss," he said. "This one I can handle by myself."
"This tribunal hereby finds," Arjan reached his decision, "the defendants Mikal and Zala guilty of petty theft and sentences them to a fine of two hundred and fifty meseta in addition to the payment of one hundred and twenty meseta's restitution. One-half of the fine shall be paid to the tribunal for court costs, and the other half to the victim, T'Kor. Should the defendants not have the money to pay the fine, they are sentenced to work full-time for their victim in exchange solely for room and board, each day of work to be valued at five meseta towards payment of the fine."
He struck the gavel sharply. The one-eyed bailiff, Tem, took the actors aside to arrange the details of payment.
"Your Grace," a grateful T'Kor asked, "how did you deduce that they'd skipped on their bill?"
"Actually, you suggested it yourself. You said you'd had that same thought when you went up to check on them, until you found the door locked. It was only finding the key on the inside, plus the fact that the room was thought to be haunted, that misled you—and I myself, too—into thinking otherwise."
"That's true," T'Kor agreed, thinking it over. "I was worried they'd done that, but there was no way they could have locked the door from the outside and left the key on the inside in the lock."
"And the window was nailed shut. Likewise, it was possible that they could have teleported out of the room, but if they could do that, then there was no point in engaging the room in the first place; they could have just gone straight to their destination without the rigamarole of staging the disappearance. So it seemed something supernatural had taken place after all, but when I attempted to dispel the spirit I found no ghost there to dispel.
"At first I believed it was my magic that had failed, but then I realized that there was a third way out of the room. Not for you or me, mind, but for two skilled acrobats and contortionists it was no trouble to strip to their underclothing and wriggle up the chimney. They could pull up their possessions after them, and our natural Dezolian resistance to cold would give them the time to put on their jackets again. Since they'd arrived from Irdah Waystation, they probably had gone by the other major track out of Vassha, to the southeast, to continue their journey. As I expected, my assistant had little trouble catching up to them."
T'Kor's face brightened.
"I understand now. And you asked about the room below to see if there were any other fires feeding into that chimney which would have made it too hot to climb!"
Arjan returned the smile.
"That's exactly right."
"Well then, Your Grace, I'd say that they did me a favor by trying to skip on their bill. Not only will the fine give me a nice profit on the deal, but I'll be able to tell the story for years!"