“Aside from my training,” Jarvela said. “I can only remember that you always asked for more ghost stories. I discount my training as important to you. So we must be ghost hunting.”
“Do not be so quick to dismiss yourself,” Kyouki said, looking sidelong at Jarvela. “You are right, though. We are ghost hunting. A specific ghost. We have almost found him.”
The next morning they started early. Unlike every other day since Jarvela had joined company with Kyouki, the Oswemend seemed to have a clear idea which way to go. They continued southward along the scrubby edge of the desert. Gradually, hills grew and slowed their horses. For a day no further adventure beset them.
The next dawn burned hotter than any Jarvela had ever felt. He shed many layers of clothing before they started and still dripped with sweat before an hour had passed. The hills grew hotter and drier as they went south. Large, sandy rocks began sticking up from the ground, becoming larger as they went. After not many hours there was more rock than hills. The wind formed rocks swept up taller and taller. Soon their rode wove around tall rock formations.
Wind grew through the rocks. The sparse sand whipped up. Jarvela wrapped a cloth around his mouth to protect his breath. The going got more difficult every mile—the wind threw around more grit and the ground was always stonier. Jarvela did not want to believe that some ill will set against them. He had trouble disbelieving it. A dry voice laughed or cursed in the wind, raising the hairs on his neck. The first few times he heard it he thought he imagined it, spiraling through the coarse dust into his face. It sounded so faintly and seldom that he thought it a brush of wind. The sound of the voice grew louder, clearer, frequenter, till Jarvela could only believe it. The laughter sounded scornful and ironic—the curses as bitter as the grit in the wind blowing in his face.
The sand blowing around had grown so thick Jarvela saw a few feet ahead of him and no further. He had no clear idea of the terrain anymore, except that the ground had become dry stone. Kyouki still seemed to know where he wanted to go. He rode a little ahead of Jarvela, his head bowed and wrapped in his black silk hood. The cruel voice in the wind drew him on through the sand. He had found his ghost, Jarvela supposed.
Though the wind developed no change, Jarvela became vaguely aware through the closening of the air and the tightening of the rushing sound that they had ridden into a canyon. Jarvela felt they had been riding in it for some time—perhaps two miles. The walls swooped closer around them so that what little sunlight strangled through the gritty wind turned dim and red. The horses didn’t like the wind and sand. They wanted to turn back. The voice in the wind scared them the more. It had become shouting with a renewed vigor.
The walls of the canyon narrowed to nearly a cave for a hundred feet. They whooshed out again suddenly and they rode into a wide place in the canyon. The sand had been thinning for a while. Through it Jarvela could see vague shapes in the distance. The walls of the sandstone canyon, windswept and winding, stood tall and a uniform yellow-red from the ground up shaped like a very slow creek bed eroded with very fast wind. The far wall was featureless except for a pale X shape chained to the wall thirty feet off the ground.
“A man,” Jarvela shouted, bending near Kyouki’s protected head.
“Very nearly,” Kyouki said. If Jarvela could have seen his face he would have guessed Kyouki smiled.
“Yes—the wretched creature,” Kyouki said. The familiar, rasping laugh in the wind broke forth again, louder than ever.
Taking a pickaxe they had brought with them, Kyouki, using his own special nimbleness, climbed slowly up the cliff face to the X of a pale man hanging from the walls. Kyouki found a narrow ledge under the chains and just managed to keep his feet enough to strike the chains securing the man’s feet a few good blows. Jarvela watched, feeling loathe to release this person, so securely hanged from chains in such an unwholesome place. His voice made Jarvela nervous. And some other ill feeling hung about the place, though Jarvela could just be jumpy from riding in the hard wind in the canyon for so long. Besides, the pale man could not be trussed so roughly for being a safe person. A hazard and no mistake.
Kyouki managed to dislodge the chains securing the man from the cliff till only on chain kept the pale man’s left arm attached to the wall. Through an improbable feat of balance and strength Kyouki held the pale man by the one chain left, climbed to where it was attached to the wall, and dislodged it as well. He kept a hold of the chain and climbed down the cliff. On the ground Kyouki wrapped his own cloak around the man, who could almost not stand. They walked back to Jarvela and the horses, Kyouki supporting the other, who still dragged his chains.
“Let’s find someplace to get out of this wind,” Kyouki shouted at Jarvela. Jarvela tried and failed to get a good look at the newcomer. He kept the hood of Kyouki’s cloak over his face. Aside from being a man as large as Jarvela, broader than Kyouki, and pale, Jarvela could see very little of him.
A little further along the canyon they found a deep crevice which afforded protection from the wind. It was deep enough and wide enough to get the horses inside. Still they had enough space to sit on the canyon floor near the opening. Jarvela had a good look of the pale man, who sat against a wall in the alcove.
He smiled. It looked genuine enough. Anything cheerful in it had the taint of being formed by a purple and bruised mouth in a wax-white face, his skin chapped and cracked from maybe years hanging in the sand-swept canyon. The chains around his limbs had been welded together. Whoever put him up there wanted to keep him there.
“What crime deserves this punishment?” Jarvela asked.
“He is guilty of no crime,” Kyouki said. “Though the name may mean nothing to you, this is Iskander Younes. He was hidden here because some people are embarrassed by his existence. He reminds them of certain secrets they’d rather hide. I think he wants to tell you about it.” Kyouki fell silent while the quiet laugh of Younes mumbled from him.
“Aye, no crime but loyalty,” Younes said. “This was the body of Iskander Younes, a loyal soldier, who swore fealty to a lord and a lord bade him do, so Iskander Younes did as he was bidden. There died Iskander Younes, but not his end. Nay, for here is he still. And not the same. Nay, respawned, the first of an ill breed.” Younes giggled. “They hid him away—dangerous he is, certain. More dangerous still being present than being he. Iskander Younes is a secret clue of a bad decision. As the master yon suggests, Iskander Younes reminds them what they meant to hide. They don’t much like that.”
“Damn,” Kyouki muttered, standing just behind Jarvela’s shoulder. Jarvela glanced back. Kyouki’s eyebrows lowered, his eyes stern. “I’ve made a grave error. I hoped he’d be more stable than this.”
Younes looked past Jarvela at Kyouki. Laughing, Younes waved a chained hand to Kyouki. “Iskander Younes is free. The tidy man—oh ho, so prim and clean at every edge—has his price, no doubt. Perhaps Iskander Younes will see it in his power to repay this mild kindness extended to him. Name your warrant, tidy man.”
“Join with me, Younes,” Kyouki said, stepping around Jarvela. “Join with me and we will rebuild a place for our kind.”
The pale face of Younes looked suddenly tense. His eyes widened and his mouth fell agape. “You are not like Iskander Younes. Not by an ounce of flesh nor a turn of phrase. How could you even suppose?”
“I know better what you are than you know,” Kyouki said, lowering his voice. He sounded like he had recently become uncertain of it.
Continued on February 3...