Doors of the Past

 

“Doors of the Past”

by John Burridge

Kari’s freelancers were on the final stretch of the road to Devor when Kari’s amulet began to tingle in warning. The triple loop of enchanted silver had saved her life more than once. The warning prickle grew as the merchant wagons they guarded drew nearer to the hills of Devor.

She rode ahead and looked for signs of bandits. This time of spring, clumps of trampled grass grew between wagon wheel ruts and rain puddles. Earlier, they’d met a string of pack mules going the other way, and their tracks muddled signs of any other travelers.

Kari turned her horse and rode back, inspecting the wagons until she got to the end of the train. The prickle eased as she did so, but grew again when she rode to the front.

Her second, Lorrin, drew her horse up alongside Kari’s. In a low voice, Lorrin said, “You always ride up and down the caravan when something’s about to happen.” Her gaze flicked back and forth along the road.

Kari nodded. “It’s an intuition.” She hadn’t shared the properties of her amulet with anyone for over five years. Better to let the hired swords she worked with think she had superior powers of observation than to give them a chance to twit her about a piece of spell-twisted metal. “It’s probably the ghost stones. During the new moon they’re always uneasy. If we keep to the road, we should be safe.”

Lorrin grinned. “But tell the others to keep a sharp eye out for trouble.”

Kari nodded. “Aye.”

Devor lay on the other side of the chain of hills before them. The wooded slopes hid the ghost stones:  a scattering of ancient barrows and menhirs. Her mother had said the builders of the ghost stones had dealt with the tricksy folk under the hill. Tales of farmers foolish enough to try to clear the trees too close to the stones made for good fireside tales, but they weren’t the sort of stories Kari wanted to be in.

They made better time when the wagons came to where merchant guilds maintained the road and cobblestones paved it. They’d easily reach Devor before sunset.

But the warning from Kari’s amulet grew. She knew she’d have nightmares tonight; the payment for the amulet’s warnings of the future was remonstrations from the ghosts of the past. Most likely her mother’s spirit, misshapen by the spell that killed her, would come to her in dream, wailing and showing Kari what might have been had Kari taken a sorceress’s path instead of running off to join the Mercenaries’ League.

As the wagons neared a crook in the road where it rounded an outcropping, the amulet’s tingle grew stronger: a sharp prickling that presaged an ambush. Someone was using magic nearby. Kari readied her bow and signaled Lorrin. “Look sharp. Magic and fighting ahead.” Her fighters readied their weapons.

Accompanied by two archers, she rode around the curve, and into a robbery in progress. Masked bandits—armed with scythes, cleavers, and farm implements—surrounded two travelers and their horses. One traveller, a grey-robed man, leaned forward in his saddle and gestured; the bandits in front of him collapsed. The other traveller, a helmed fighter on foot, brandished her war-sword and scattered bandits. A riderless horse reared up. Several bandits lay in the road.

Kari signaled her horse with her knees, aimed, and shot a bandit through his throat. She readied another shot. Bows twanged as her archers let their arrows fly.

The bandits fled into the woods.

Kari’s amulet tingled as the fighter-woman rode up.

“My thanks,” the woman said.

Lady’s Milk! Kari stifled an oath. It was Reina Crowther! Her old weapons trainer was the last person she wished or expected to meet.

“Lord and Lady!” Reina swore. “Kari Wainwright. So this is where you ran to.”

It’d been five years since Kari had stormed out of the Mercenaries’ League hall. She’d been covering for Reina for months, training fighters in sword-work while Reina played diplomat with League dignitaries. Then Reina suddenly deigned to appear in the pell ring one morning and “relieved” Kari in the middle of drills, criticizing her roundly in front of the new recruits for teaching the very techniques and moves Reina had taught her!

What rankled most was that Reina was untouchable. The garrison commander had had the grace to look sheepish when Kari lodged a complaint, but ultimately did nothing.

A tingle from her amulet accompanied each memory relived.

“Narack,” Reina waved at the slumped-over mage, “was looking for some rogue who’d holed up here and was ‘darkening the ley lines.’  Reports said he’d joined bandits.” She looked at Kari critically. “Hah! Rogue mercs, more likely.”

“They aren’t all mercs,” Kari said. And you should know that, she thought, by the poor quality of their gear. “But they started out that way. They’re the remnants of Serdik’s Serpents.”

“Those were Serdik’s Serpents?” Reina looked aghast.

“Were,” Kari said. “They’re mostly ruffians and luckless farmers now.”

The wagons rumbled around the outcropping.

“Halt,” Kari ordered. “Lorrin, head up a detail and pick up the dead. We’ll have to take them to Devor.” She turned to Reina. “We’ll have you in Devor soon.”

“Thank you for the offer,” Reina said, “but we’re going to scout the ghost rocks or whatever you call them,” Reina said. “I’m certain that’s where the bandits have their lair.”

The amulet tingled at Reina’s words. “But your mage is in shock,” Kari said.

Narack had a look of fierce but pale concentration on his face. “I’m fine.” He straightened up in the saddle.

“Nobody goes to the ghost stones.” Kari glanced at the late afternoon sun. “Especially near dusk when the moon is new.”

“You mean you don’t go.” Reina scowled. “I’ll bet that luck piece you wear has you too frightened to look for them there.”

That hit too close to the mark. “I grew up near here,” Kari said. “There’s unwholesome spirits living under the hills. I can show you the ruins of the last farmstead where some fool tried to build too close to where the old bones lie.”

“Reina,” Narack said, “there’s a dark current of shadow in these hills.” He swayed in the saddle.

“Well,” Reina gave Narack a meaningful glance. “Serdik’s Serpents go there,” Reina said.

“He could be anywhere in these hills,” Kari said. “If he is at the ghost stones, it’s because no one is insane enough to follow him.”

Narack started to protest, then hissed and doubled-over, dry heaving.

Reina hurried to his horse’s side and took a small water-skin from the saddlebag. “Here.”

Kari caught the scent of mint, rosemary, and other herbs.

“Narack,” Reina said, “you’ve over-taxed yourself.” She glared at Kari as if it were her fault. “Take him to Devor. He needs rest.”

“Lorrin!” Kari called to her second. “Get this mage into a wagon. He’s recovering from spell-casting.”

“You can’t go alone,” Narack said to Reina as Lorrin led his horse away.

“Your mage is right,” Kari said. “You should wait for him to recover. Why aren’t you here with troops?”

“I’m on a mission.” Reina turned away and approached her mare, who had its ears twitched back.

The amulet’s prickle grew. “The ghost stones are dangerous,” Kari said.

“Not to me.” Reina caught her horse’s bridle.

“Wait.” If Reina died or disappeared, the League would send a squad of sneaks and there would be an inquest. The Devor council would blame her for the incident. “I don’t want to report that I lost a League captain to the ghost stones.”

Reina shrugged and mounted. “I’ll be careful.”

“The town council doesn’t allow strangers to the ghost stones,” Kari said. “Dead heroes give Devor a bad name.”

“They can complain to the League,” Reina said. “Besides, I came here to… clear out bandits, and I mean to do so. Narack was my backup, but he’s out.” Reina smiled slowly, and the warning over Kari’s breast grew stronger. “So I’m appointing you to help me. You can give me permission to search the stones, too.”

Kari was not going to lose control in front of her freelancers. “I’m not the council. You don’t have my permission, and I’m not going with you against whatever bandits Serdik has gathered. Even if they aren’t that well armed, they’re still armed.”

Reina brought her horse in close. “You’ll come along with me, soldier, or I’ll—”

“I’m a freelance sword!” Kari said. “Ever since Serdik left during the famine years, there’s been no League garrison here. If you want to pull rank on someone, go back to—” The prickling in her breast made her suck in her breath. The bandits! “Lorrin! The bandits are regrouping behind us. Get those wagons moving!”

The wagons lurched forward. A sling stone cracked where it struck the nearest one.

Reina spurred her horse forward.

“Move! Move!” Kari wheeled her horse and rode for the decoy wagon at the end of the train. More stones rained down. Soldiers swore as the projectiles struck helmets and armor. Kari reached the last wagon when her horse reeled. Something struck Kari hard on the back and knocked her out of the saddle.

She clattered to the road and rolled from her maddened horse’s hooves.

The wagons thundered away.

She’d lost her bow. Grunting, she pulled herself to her feet and drew her sword.

Her horse was nowhere in sight.

A rider—Reina—rode up behind her and stopped. A prickle at her breast told her bandits lurked in the trees.

Reina whispered, “Do as I do.” She dismounted and slowly placed her war-sword on the ground. “A serpent’s guile!” she called, “will make gold pile! That’s what Serdik says!”

A rock skittered in front of them.

“Hold!” A figure stepped out from the trees. An old leather vest hung around his thin frame. “So he does, warrior. So he does.”

The bandit wore a dirty scrap across his face as a mask, but Kari recognized Jerrod, one of the young hands from Kandarfarm.

Reina gestured to Kari. “We’re here to join Serdik’s band,” she said.

What in the Lady’s Name was Reina doing?

“Huh,” Jerrod said. “Well, ain’t you just?” His gaze flicked between them and settled on Kari. “How about you, Captain?”

He’d recognized her, too. “I… have a proposition to make Cedric.”

Jerrod leered. “Heh. I’ll bet you do.”

They took the women’s blades, blindfolded them, spun them around, and marched them through the woods. The prickle from her amulet told Kari they marched closer to whatever danger lay among the ghost stones. She figured they headed east and north, moving diagonally away from the road. Deeper into the wood. Up the hill. Closer to the unquiet dead.

Kari tried to fathom Reina’s plan—whatever it was. She couldn’t believe Reina had come with only a single mage to infiltrate the bandits. Even if she did know a passphrase.

The ground leveled. Kari tripped over a rock and nearly fell.

Jerrod snickered. “Careful, an old wall fell here.”

Before Kari could retort, an older woman called out: “Who’s there?” Kari didn’t recognize the creaky voice, but the woman smelled of the liniment the older folks used to ease their joints.

“Serpent fang,” one of the bandits said.

“We’ve new recruits.” Jerrod snickered. “And weapons.”

“Good thing you got here before dark,” the sentry said. Something bothered the woman; underneath the scent of liniment, Kari smelled her fear. “His Lordship is in,” she continued. “And Old Chalky is with him, and in a fine humor, too. Brr.” The old woman spat. “It’s going to be a dark night.”

Footfalls on gravel and rock just ahead of her warned Kari to step carefully. Her right hand brushed a cold smooth stone. Through the dank air, a smokey and acrid mix of herbs assaulted her nose. Someone pulled off her blindfold. They stood in a stone-lined corridor. Her hackles crawled; they were in a barrow.

Jerrod lifted a lantern. “Don’t trip.” He pointed at steps leading down.

Reina shrugged as if to say, let’s get this over with.

They descended to another corridor stretching deeper into the earth. Four smoldering braziers, two to a side, stood sentinel where an intersecting corridor made an underground crossroad. Fresh chalk glyphs on the floor and snaking over the stone portals wavered in the sullen light. Their captors hesitated and steeled themselves before walking between the braziers and the shadowy entrances they warded.

The runes pulled at Kari’s gaze. They sparked a dim memory—one of Kari’s mother’s books on summoning had writing like that in it. It had been full of tales of the wicked kings who had dickered with the underhill folk: trading wealth, power, and life for a tithe of their warriors’ souls. Her amulet practically writhed as she passed between the dark openings.

They descended another flight of stairs and continued straight. The tingle of magic being worked grew stronger the deeper into the earth they went. Double doors stood open at the corridor’s end. They slunk through the opening.

The space beyond was like a council hall. A low, rough hewn rock slab, like a long table, ran the length of the chamber. Fitful light from candles blurred the boundaries of the stone walls and made it hard to guess the place’s true size. The roof disappeared into shadows. Six braziers—three to a side—burned in front of dark portals running along the room’s length. At the far end, twisted glyphs in chalk—and blood—overlaid a massive iron-bound double door. Kari didn’t need the clamor of her amulet to be thankful the doors were shut; her instincts shouted at her to avoid that uncanny entrance.

Serdik, a stocky, older man, wearing a gorget and a hauberk of mail, stood near the middle of the slab, studying a map held down by a war helm on one end and a small wooden box on the other. He looked up as the bandits led them in.

“I thought I’d find you here, old snake,” Reina said.

Serdik smirked. “Sara send you?”

Jerrod interrupted, “She says she wants to join up.”

Serdik raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Reina shrugged. “Serpent’s guile got me here. And your man—” She jerked her head at Jerrod. “—doesn’t seem to be the sort who knows what a parley is.”

Serdik smiled. “He hasn’t been with me as long as you were.”

Kari was dumbfounded. They knew each other?

“We want to offer you something better than a life of banditry,” Reina said.

Hoarse, eldritch words echoed dully beyond Serdik. In front of the right-hand brazier closest to the massive doors, a shabby wizard rose from the floor and raised a glowing glass bottle over his head. His mage’s robes were frayed at the hem, and the silver runes embroidered on it trailed loose threads.

The fool was summoning! Shadows gathered in the circle he had chalked on the ground.

Kari felt presences gathering in the stoney openings throughout the chamber. “Serdik,” she said, “you know the tales of the ghost stones as well as I do.”

Serdik’s gaze flickered toward the wizard. “Won’t matter after tonight.”

The wizard’s voice rose in incantation. The whirling shadows rustled and flew into the glowing bottle he held. He stoppered it, turned, and shuffled toward them with a satisfied smile on his face. Etched runes gleamed along the bottle’s base; it was a spirit bottle. Although it was finer than the wholesome stoneware jars her mother once used to contain trickster sprites, Kari felt the sinister spells of its construction.

He stopped. “I sense a talent.” His eyes were like an owl’s hunting in the night. “Excellent.” Sniffing, he shuffled past Serdik. “A small talent, I think.” He worked his way along the rock slab. “But sufficient for the next summoning.” He made a questing, circular gesture; the chalk on his already thin hands made them appear skeletal. Then he drew a dagger.

Kari felt unseen eyes gazing upon her and shrank from the wizard’s approach. Let him think she was frightened of him and his glowing bottle. Let them all think she was frightened. When fighting magic, fight the magic user and his focus. The spell he had worked was still fresh. If she could get him in the right place, she could break the spirit bottle, the focus of his spell, and whatever the wizard had summoned should go back to the tomb he’d just raised it from. She hoped.

Behind her, Jerrod sniggered as the wizard advanced past the brazier in front of the hall’s middle-most portal.

“Leave her alone,” Reina said. “You only feel the trinket her mother gave her to warn her away from rogues who might bed her.”

The wizard stopped before he’d gotten where Kari wanted him.

Kari snapped. “Lady’s Milk, can’t you ever keep your mouth shut?”

Reina sputtered. “You ungrateful…”

A bandit guffawed.

Kari faced Reina. “Ungrateful?” Her voice rose in pitch and volume, but she kept herself aware of where everyone stood. “Like you were after I taught for you at the pells?” She kept the wizard in the corner of her vision.

“Silence!” Serdik roared.

All gazes snapped to the bandit leader.

The distraction was going to be her best chance. Kari rushed the wizard.

He moved quickly, his dagger hand striking more swiftly than a snake’s.

She anticipated his blow, and blocked with an armored forearm.

His dagger slipped along her vambrace.

She struck him on the wrist above the hand holding the glowing bottle. It flew from his grasp and shattered against the old stones.

Her momentum slammed her into him. They tumbled to the uneven floor.

The wizard knocked into a brazier. It fell over with a metallic clunk, spreading smoldering coals and ashes everywhere.

A weird shriek rent the air.

Kari came to rest against the slab.

Her amulet went icy cold. It had never done that before.

Smoke rose from the embers of the fallen brazier and coalesced in the darkness of the portal it had once warded. Within the billowing mass, Kari discerned a helmeted warrior. Darkness cloaked it. A circlet of steel adorned the black helm upon its head. Green eyes shone within the helm. Kari scrabbled away. With a sound like thunder, the towering figure stepped toward the wizard on the floor.

Kari sprang over the slab.

Reina shouted, “What in the Nine Hells have you done?”

The shadow warrior stooped. It hauled the screaming and writhing wizard up and held him against the stone wall.

Jerrod and the bandits broke ranks and surged through the double doors leading out of the hall.

“Lord and Lady,” Reina swore, and sprinted after them.

The shadow dropped the husk of the wizard, but it wasn’t finished. It stepped toward Serdik, who raised his sword.

Her amulet tingled like ice. Kari heeded its warning, and ran for the door out.

Reina stood in her way; she’d recovered her war-sword. “Soldier, we can’t let this thing loose. We’ve got to keep it here.”

“How?” Kari thought furiously and recalled a list of spirit-banes: salt, running water, garlic, silver. “I’m no spell-slinger or priestess.”

Wait, she did have silver. Her amulet.

With thudding footfalls, the shadow slowly advanced on Serdik. He skirted around it, slashing to no effect.

“Serdik,” Reina said, “how do we defeat this thing?”

Serdik backed around the slab. “Helps to have a damn ‘mancer. He used blood.”

Anger emanated from the shadow and it quickened its advance.

“I’ve got silver,” Kari said. “It repels spirits.” She drew out the amulet, the three loops gleamed fitfully. “But he’s right—we’ll need blood, too.” She recalled her mother drawing a boundary of goat’s blood.

“Worth a try,” Reina said. “What if we draw a line in front of the way out and hung your amulet there, too? Maybe stop that thing in this room.”

Kari glanced at the doors; they opened out from the room on either side. “I think I can hang it over the door handles when they’re closed.” She didn’t want to lose her amulet, but if it meant staying alive…

“Do it. I’ll see if I can save—”

Serdik ran along the left side of the slab; but with a sound like thunder, the shadow jumped over it and blocked him.

“Serdik!” Reina started toward the combatants.

Kari rushed to the doors. She reached for her dagger and remembered the bandits had it. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and sliced her left palm with its point. Blood pooled in her hand, she let it run down her index finger and drew an uneven line across the portal. She didn’t know any spells. “Let no spirit cross this line,” she said. It would have to suffice.

Kari spared a glance back. Serdik circled the shadow warrior. Reina yelled again and brandished her sword, which glinted in the green light from the shadow’s eyes.

Kari flexed her hand to draw more blood and finished the line. She grabbed one heavy oaken door and dragged it closed on protesting hinges. She tried to ignore the shadow’s rumbling footfalls.

“Stay back,” Serdik grunted. His sword sliced through the air.

Kari grabbed the other door. It skidded to a halt half-way closed. Kari got behind the door and shoved. It wouldn’t budge. “Reina! Help me!” She pushed the door against the wall, then tried swinging it closed again.

Reina glanced back at Kari, a look of indecision on her face. “Lord and Lady, can’t even close a door.” She sprinted to Kari.

“Mind the blood.” Kari pushed the door against the wall again.

In the unnerving quiet, Reina knelt and swept the floor with her hand. “Got it.” She sprang over the line of blood and back into the chamber.

Kari leaned into the door. It swung farther this time. “Reina, come back!”

Serdik crouched in an opening, behind one of the still upright braziers. Opposite him, the shadow reached forward, as if fighting against some unseen wind.

Kari kissed the amulet, then pulled its thong from over her head and looped it over one of the door handles. “I’ve got to close the door. Reina, we can’t save him.”

A heavy footfall sounded and the shadow stepped closer to Serdik. “Get out of here!” he yelled.

“Hells!” Reina whirled, ran back, and squeezed through the gap between the doors.

Kari snaked her hand through the narrow opening. Serdik, lit by the brazier and the ghastly spirit’s green light, was the last thing Kari saw before she slipped the amulet’s thong over the other handle and pulled the doors shut.

In the darkness on the stair, they heard him cry out.

They backed up slowly.

The doors creaked as if a heavy weight pressed against them. A warning tingled at Kari’s breast.

They ran.

The sun was still in the sky when they reached the entrance to the barrow.

All the bandits had fled.

Kari was of a mind to follow them all the way to Devor. The malice of the ghost stones still pressed upon her.

She pointed downhill. “If we go that way, we should strike the road.” She felt exposed without the amulet. Maybe Reina was right and she had relied on it too much.

Reina sighed. She looked old. “Serdik was my weapons-master when I first joined. I was going to work out an asylum.”

“Oh,” Kari said, and thought better of saying anything else.

“Here’s what was in the door.” Reina held up a piece of gravel; wood splinters were ground into its jagged surface. She flung it to the ground. “You could have cleared the damn floor!”

“Serdik knew the risks,” Kari said, “making his lair in a barrow.”

“What were you thinking?” Reina’s words pricked Kari.

“I was fighting a wizard.”

“If you had trusted me—” Reina said.

“You’re a fine one to talk of trust when you didn’t tell me you planned to aid a bandit leader to escape,” Kari said.

She sensed Reina’s swinging fist and ducked under it.

Surprised, Kari danced away. When Reina swung again, Kari’s surprise turned to surety. The amulet wasn’t the source of her intuition. Her mother must have used it to wake her own sorcerous powers. As she dodged another blow, she realized she’d been running all along: from her mother’s sorcery, from the League, and from her own power.

An urgent tingle in her breast brought Kari back to the present; Reina had raised her sword.

“We both made mistakes,” Kari said. “Killing me won’t bring Serdik back.”

Reina’s sword lowered. She exhaled. “You’re right.”

“I’m sorry,” Kari said. “He must have meant much to you.”

Reina sheathed her sword. “He did.” She hung her head.

Kari pointed to the west. “It will be sunset soon. I know a tavern in Devor…” She had an intuition Reina needed to talk.

_______________

John Burridge grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. After brief stays in Northfield, Minnesota, and at Arcosanti, Arizona, he returned to the Pacific Northwest and eventually settled down with his husband in Eugene, Oregon. He’s an alumnus of the Eugene Wordos, which he co-chaired from 2004 to 2018.

“Doors of the Past,” is his first sale to Abyss & Apex Magazine.  His short story, “A Summoner’s Tale,” is in Issue #34 of On The Premises. His short story “Mask Glass Magic” may be found in the anthology Writers of the Future, vol. 23.

You can read more about John at http://johnburridge.blogspot.com

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