Gathering of Ghosts
Book Three of the Addicted to Heaven Series
Winner of the 2021 Aurora Award! Now available from Laksa Media, or find it on Amazon!
Rennika could not recall the first time she’d seen the ghosts.
It was before she had a name for them or thought to question their existence. Before she understood the terror and heartache they signified. Before memory, really.
But the first time she could identify, her first clear image, was during those golden days before the fall of the Kingdom of Orumon. Before her mother had cursed the High King. A time that now seemed only a dream.
It had been a beautiful summer day. A rare hot sun dappled through the castle garden’s aspens, fluttering leaves playing with its light. A breeze set the trees to whispering and teased her with the cool scent of the mountains’ glaciers.
Rennika could not have been more than five or six years old, lying on her stomach by the garden wall. A scatter of fallen stones covered in lichen and moss–for who cared to repair a garden wall during times of peace?–had created a wondrous landscape in which to pile earth and build doll houses for the delicately robed puppets Nanna had made her. For some reason, her sister Janat wasn’t there that day—off to learn comportment lessons fit for a princess, or some such.
Rennika hadn’t noticed at first, absorbed in her play, but a faint blur softened a bush near the wall. She brushed the corner of her eye, to clear it. But it was still there, on the edge of sight. And another behind her, and more, like a mist creeping beneath the bracken. Yet no mist was there.
It meant Mama was nearby.
Rennika peered through the lace of leaves screening her sanctum. Mama had come to the garden, Rennika’s eldest sister Meg in tow. Meg had become insufferably condescending since she began lessons in how to use her magic. Meghra, she’d been called, then.
Mama sat at a table in the shade and nodded to Meg to sit across from her. She opened a velvet bag and spread a handful of thin, wooden disks before her, each about the size of her palm.
Rennika slipped back to her play, digging a root cellar for her doll’s house. She didn’t always want to go to Mama.
But the voices drifted to her, a soft, feminine music. “Sooth cards,” Mama said, teaching Meg.
“Where did you get them?” Meg was always respectful with Mama. Meg wasn’t afraid of her. Meg wanted to be her. And, well, Meg looked like her, with shimmering, magical skin. Not like Rennika. Rennika was the youngest, and she just looked like a worldling because Mama didn’t really want her.
“Traders brought them from Arcan.” Mama’s voice filtered through Rennika’s play. “But I’m told they come from further away than that.” The cards clicked against each other, and against the table. “Aadi-of-the Valley.”
Rennika had heard Aadi-of-the-Valley mentioned before. It was somewhere, a long way. Not as far as Heaven, but a place so far away no one could ever go there except traders, and not many of them.
“I’ve never seen them before.” Meg might’ve been about nine or ten then, with the self-assurance that came with knowing her world, and knowing her place in it. A place above others.
Rennika sat back on her heels, adjusting the layering of her doll’s robes, listening more than playing. The ghosts trembled in the grasses, quiescent. Rennika thought maybe they were listening, too.
“Nor have I.” Mama’s voice was cheerful, animated. Ghosts clustered to her more tenaciously when Mama lay in her darkened chamber or ranted strange prophesies. “Tales tell they are copies of forgotten runes.” The cards clicked and slid across the table. “Or, possibly, drawings the One God left for his mistresses, corrupted over time. But you can feel the magic in them.”
Meg drew in a sharp breath. “Yes.”
Magic. In the cards? Rennika could not help but be drawn to see.
“What are these symbols?”
“Cups, Staves, Arms, and Magiels. See? Each woman depicted is one of the One God’s mistresses. But some are in disguise.”
Rennika drew as close as she dared without rustling the branches, but still she couldn’t see.
“But the One God had six mistresses.” Meg’s face was bent over the table, studying the cards in puzzlement.
“I suspect some of the information has been lost over time.” Mama’s shoulder blocked a view of the table.
Rennika drew back. How to get closer? The fallen stones below the broken part of the wall—she slipped as quietly as she could to the wall, scrambling up the tumbled rubble, hoping Meg’s preoccupation and Mama’s insensibility to this world would mask her movements.
“…the magiel who gifted them to me was not of a pure line back to the One God,” Mama was saying. “He could sense only that the cards resonate with time, but he couldn’t draw futures from them.”
“And you can?” Meg asked.
Screened by the tree’s spreading branches, Rennika climbed to the top of the wall, ghosts following her, and crawled toward her mother and sister. The far side of the wall dropped to the heat and hard-packed earth of the castle bailey where a hammer rang out from the smithy and two horses waited patiently for shoes, flicking their ears at summer flies.
“Can worldlings read them?” Meg’s voice floated to her more readily than Mama’s dreamy tones.
“I think so, but weakly.”
Rennika reached a place where a broad tree limb stretched over the garden wall, a sturdy grip to steady her, and a leafy camouflage. A perfect spot to see down to the table where Meg and Mama laid out oddly painted discs of wood between them in some obscure pattern. The sooth cards were beautiful. Each was infused with a haunting image of delicately inked scrolls, colored in subtle, moody shades of green and brown.
“I plan to study them to see what they can reveal.” Mama tapped her finger on one of them, an uplifted face overarched with a skyful of stars. “I’ll also dig into the histories and spell books in the vaults.” She stacked them and slipped them into the velvet bag. “Now. Speaking of study, did you read the passage in the Tale of Kyaju? How she came, finally, to acquiesce and accept the One God as her lover?”
The cards were gone. Well. All that fuss to get here, and Rennika was too late.
She turned on the wall–missed her footing–
And fell, hard, into the garden, onto a tumbled stone. Her head cracked against something, and pain splintered across her senses.
A blank, then–
…hands, fingers spread, engulfing either side of her head with cool, firm touch. The flaring pain eased, then, and the throbbing dulled. She struggled to open her eyes.
“There…there…” Mama’s voice, but from so far away…
Rennika’s lashes parted. She lay awkwardly among the bushes, Mama’s terrified face gazing down on hers, blurred with the agitation of countless ghosts.
A sudden terror filled her, then. Death was here.
Death, drawn to her.
Because ghosts, spirits of those who perished with no death token, were cursed to have perfect knowledge of the tumble of precipitate futures but helpless to prevent them or warn the living. They hungered to watch a mortal’s shadow rise to one of the Heavens, in that final moment. They wept to watch the untokened linger here, to join them to stretch thinner and thinner, forever.
Meg, pale, her eyes frightened, fingered something in her hand.
Rennika only realized years later, remembering back, that it must have been her death token, plucked from Rennika’s collar to be placed on her tongue to transport her to Heaven, should she die. A token to save her from an eternity of ghostly wanderings.
Rennika hadn’t died.
She’d been scolded and hugged, and Meg’s lessons in magic halted while they all went into the castle for Mama to check her over and observe her. Rennika, inexplicably tired, had slept for most of the afternoon.
But later, as Rennika learned more about the world, she thought back on that day and wondered about the moment of death that so intrigued the phantoms. About accepting life. About accepting Heaven. About accepting–or railing against–one’s fate.
She thought about her own wee children, and magic. What it meant for them when she’d cast spells while bearing them within her. How they interpreted what they saw, as guileless little ones when she used it in their presence. How it shaped them.
How it had shaped her.
Mama died during the civil war, but her power, her fierce will to try to change the futures she saw swirling around her lived on. Her rage had doomed a king, and through this act, changed a generation, a nation, a history. Mama’s obsession had haunted Rennika’s life, and her sisters’.
Forged them, ennobled them, cursed them.