For lack of a better title, I'm calling this Six Eyes' Woods for the moment.
Summary: People are disappearing in the forest. Viktor and Flik investigate.
(If you read the last two bits, you can skip to the newest here.)
I: There is a graveyard in my poor heart
The haunting of Eyes' Woods was the hottest gossip at the Hunter's Leap inn. Once they'd learned that he was heading for Eyrin--on the far side of the forest and ten-days distant--the proprietor and his wife told Flik all about it. They couldn't tell him if a master blacksmith still lived in Eyrin, but they could tell him more than he'd ever wished to know about the habits of lonely ghosts.
"It makes sense, don't you think?" the wife asked. "Most people are lucky enough to die where there's other people, right?" Her husband nodded, and she continued. "If they end up needing to haunt something--no problem. They've got a houseful--maybe even a village-full--of people right there. But those poor ghosts in the forest... Who have they got?"
Each other, Flik wanted to say, but the innkeeper was busy speculating about how the ghosts were luring travellers to their deaths, while his wife insisted that the ghosts weren't violent and the victims were all safe--but magically asleep--deep in the woods somewhere. A few minutes later, when they'd both paused for breath at the same time, Flik asked about the victims. Their answers were vague, and he was soon convinced that no one had actually gone missing.
Flik was still chuckling over their enthusiasm for the unlikely tale when he went to join Viktor at the tavern next door. The place was dim-lit and crowded, but he spotted Viktor right away. He was sitting with several other men--merchants from the look of them--and seemed more displeased than Flik would have thought possible given his proximity to an ample supply of beer. Perhaps he needed a refill.
Flik stopped at the bar and asked the young woman there for two ales. If her rather unfortunate nose was anything to go by, she was the innkeeper's daughter and the source of their ghostly gossip. He dropped a coin on the counter and took the tankards from her, glad that she was too busy to talk.
One of the men was saying something about ghosts being good for business when Flik arrived at the table. Viktor was frowning and staring into his beer, which--Flik was surprised to see--was more than half full. Flik set their tankards down and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Don't like the local brew?"
Viktor jerked at his touch, and beer sloshed onto the table. "Lightning? When did you get here?"
"Just now," Flik said. "Move over."
Viktor looked puzzled, but slid over on the bench. Flik sat down and quirked a brow at him.
"I... uh... didn't see you come in," Viktor mumbled.
"Really? I couldn't tell." Flik smiled and nodded at the other men, then took a tentative sip of the ale. It tasted fine.
"Your name is Lightning?" the merchant who'd been speaking earlier asked.
"Why did he call you 'Lightning', then?" the first man asked as another--a big man in a dark red suit--said, "Heh, 'Lightning' sounds better."
"It's a nickname," Flik explained.
"Were you--" The third man, who looked a few years younger than Flik, stopped, gulped, and tried again. "Were you struck by lightning?"
"Your hair," the young man said. "Did lightning do that?"
Flik blinked and touched the blaze in his hair. "No... I was... just born like this..."
"Oh," the man whispered, sounding strangely reverent. "I see." He continued to stare at Flik, and Flik smiled awkwardly back.
Flik turned to see how Viktor was enjoying the exchange and froze. Viktor was frowning into his beer again as if he wasn't aware of his surroundings.
"Viktor." When he didn't get an answer, Flik elbowed him. "Viktor!"
"Huh?" Viktor looked up. "Oh..."
"Yeah." Viktor stood up. "Uh, excuse me. I've gotta go... you know." He gestured vaguely and left.
"Heh," Red Suit said. "And I thought all of us big guys held our liquor well."
Weird Kid nodded. "That's what they say."
Flik thought about going after him, but if Viktor had only left to relieve himself, he'd feel stupid for worrying. He sighed and offered Ghost Guy the extra ale.
"So, why are ghosts good for business?"
An hour later, Viktor still hadn't returned. Flik wished the merchants a good evening and went to look for him. Their room at the inn was empty, but Viktor had obviously been there. The Star Dragon Sword glowered at Flik until he picked it up off the floor.
"Do you know what's bothering him?" Flik asked as he carefully leaned the sword against the wall.
"Probably the same problem as always."
"Brain the size of a walnut," the sword said.
"Ah." Last week, it had been a hazelnut, but the sword wouldn't appreciate it if he pointed out that Viktor's brain was growing.
He checked at the front desk. The innkeeper hadn't seen Viktor. His wife suggested a walk towards the river. It was nearly a full moon, and the Leap was "lovely in moonlight"--all their customers said so. Flik didn't care to go sight-seeing, but it was a place to start.
Hunter's Leap was a small town on the eastern bank of the Grey River. As Viktor had observed when they first encountered it, the Grey was a boring river with an equally boring name. It was wide and sluggish, except at Hunter's Leap where it narrowed and its banks became steep. If one was sufficiently daring, it was said--or drunk, Flik thought--one could jump a horse over the river at its narrowest point. There was a statue at the point commemorating the town's founder--a fool who had, as far as Flik could tell, done nothing more than recklessly endanger his horse on a regular basis.
The inn was on the edge of town, so it took only a few minutes to reach the Leap. Flik spared a moment to glance at the river. Even moonlit, it wasn't particularly lovely. The white stone statue glowed nicely in the moonlight, though. He shrugged and turned, and something caught the corner of his eye. He spun back around, and there was Viktor, sitting under the rearing stone horse.
The statue's pedestal was chest-level to Flik--not an insurmountable obstacle, but he didn't want to scramble up there if he wasn't welcome. He raised his hand and cleared his throat.
"Give me a lift."
Viktor met his gaze and not-quite smiled. Then, he reached out and hauled Flik up like he weighed no more than a sack of flour. Once he was up, Viktor scooted over and patted the horse's left hind leg.
"Pull up a leg, Flik--they make great backrests."
Sometimes the Star Dragon Sword was right; Viktor was an idiot. Flik settled beside him.
"So..." Flik said.
The night was quiet except for the low rush of the Grey through its narrows. Flik watched a cloud drift across the face of the moon and waited. Eventually, Viktor shifted restively.
"I don't like this place."
Flik had figured that much out already.
"There's no such thing as ghosts," Viktor said. "Not that I blame these people for not knowing..." Viktor paused and glanced at him. Flik nodded. "Maybe they can't know. Maybe they don't have enough proof, but I do. If there were ghosts, North Window would have been haunted--haunted a hundred times over... But there weren't... Not even one..."
In the past, Viktor had gone to great lengths to avoid speaking of the dead of North Window with him. Flik was almost absurdly grateful that Viktor was willing to say this much now. He reached out and squeezed Viktor's hand.
"We can leave at first light."
"Really?" Viktor asked. He sounded eager.
"We haven't restocked yet."
Flik had made some purchases that afternoon. It wasn't a lot, but...
"We've got enough," he assured Viktor. They could pick up the bare essentials in Meenoma.
"Great!" Viktor said. "It sounds like a plan." He slung his arm around Flik's shoulders. "Just one thing, though."
"Getting up before first light is inhumane. Let's wait until after breakfast."
Flik laughed and sat with Viktor until he was ready to return to the inn.
That night, Viktor talked in his sleep. Flik lay awake listening for awhile, before he rolled up tightly in his blanket and wrapped his hand securely around Odessa's hilt.
Viktor was more right than he knew. Places weren't haunted--only people were.
Memory could be crueler than the loneliest ghost.
[end chapter 1]
Beta comments are most welcome.