The Ghost of the Fingers
I wrote about a character named Isaac for the Reddit Writers Anthology, and the world he lived in caught my imagination. So, here is another of that character's adventures, set many years before "A Bargain in Blood".
“All survey work involves danger. The measure of a barrowman is taken when he must make sketch and note while in fear of his life.”
Randalf von Turberg, Cryptoarchaeology, A Primer
It had begun to snow when Isaac first spotted the pillars. They stuck out from a sodden field, rising from the muck like the fingers of some drowning giant. Away, across the undulating hills beyond, Isaac could see smoke rising from the thatched houses of Wranworth.
He dismounted from his horse, a sturdy mare he’d picked up crossing the Trantine marches, and gave the animal a reassuring pat on the neck. A few snowflakes had nestled within her mane, and he brushed them away with the back of his gloved hand. A wizened oak tree lay a few feet from the path, the last few leaves of autumn clinging for grim life to its branches. Isaac led the mare over to it, and tied her reins to a particularly sturdy branch. The horse seemed nonplussed, and set about cropping at tufts of brown, thinning grass.
“Really got to think of a name for you,” Isaac told the mare with a sigh. “But it’d make it all the harder when I hand you back to the station.” He patted her neck again - she ignored the attention, too intent on uprooting a persistent clutch of nettles.
Isaac turned to face the pillars. The stones were composed of that strange marble and granite mixture that only the ancient Saénfir had managed to perfect. It created a material that shone like some dark, cloudy mirror. The guild of alchemical engineers in Rovir had attempted to replicate the method, scattering their trial pillars and statues throughout Stangrad, but they had never really come close. Some things, Isaac’s old professor had taught him, simply cannot be made by the hands of men.
He started towards the stones, trying to ignore the brackish water soaking into his boots. Within a few strides his ankles were caked in slick, loamy dirt as his feet sank a few inches at every footfall. It had bothered him greatly as an apprentice, but getting mud spattered up your legs was really just part of the job description.
The wind picked up, blowing a flurry of sleet into his face, alongside the faint smell of woodsmoke from the dwellings beyond the fields. The weather had been perfectly calm on the ride up from Wranworth, but seemed to worsen with every step towards the stones. He had been warned as much by the brusque innkeep back at the village.
“No one goes up to the fingers fields no more,” he had told Isaac after a good hour’s questioning, and plenty of bought drinks. “Something’s wrong about that place, by no mistake. You can feel it in yer bones.”
Lost in thought, Isaac’s boot sunk into a particularly deep patch of slime.
“I’m going to have words with Raffman when I get back,” he said to no-one in particular. Somehow the professor managed to avoid all the dirty work when it came to surveying, and claim all the credit when major findings were unearthed.
He pulled his boot free from the sucking mud, and took a few more tentative
steps towards the pillars. The wind whipped at his face and jacket, slapping the lapels against his jaw. For a few dizzying moments the blizzard reached a howling crescendo, and Isaac had to hold his hand in front of his face to protect against stinging hail. Then, as soon as it had appeared, the storm vanished.
He stumbled forward, having suddenly lost the wind he was bracing against. Slowly, Isaac righted himself, brushing a layer of sleet and snow from the rough fabric of his guild jacket. It would be dry in a minute or two. The society of cryptoarchaeologists was not the most fashionable, but it knew how to craft all-weather outerwear. It helped that the fibres were infused with a smattering of magic, too.
Isaac found the ground nearer the pillars much firmer. He turned to check on his mount - it was still absentmindedly chewing away. Between him the untouched horse was a wide cone of snow a few inches deep. As protection charms go, it wasn’t a particularly effective one. He unclipped a pouch on his belt and unwravelled a square of dried parchment and a small piece of charcoal. It was finally time to get down to work.
The monument itself was fairly interesting. Most likely seventh-age stuff, from back when the elder races still had run of the land. It was free of runes and reliefs - unusual for an image-conscious race like the Saénfir. Isaac circled the perimeter of the five pillars. One of the five - the thumb, he presumed - was shorter and thicker than the others. He squatted next to it, noting on the parchment the stone’s width and surface. It was rougher than the other stones, and had a few patches of obstinate moss growth. Professional curiosity getting the better of him, Isaac reached out a gloved hand to brush away the lichen.
A soft noise, like that of a candle going out, made him hesitate.
“I wouldn’t touch that.”
The voice was smooth as freshly-cut silk. It seemed to come from both sides of Isaac at once. He sat back onto his haunches and stifled a sigh. An ethereal was exactly what he didn’t want to encounter. Why was it guarding such a pile of unimportant stones in the middle of a marshy backwater? He stood up, counted to five in his head, and turned around.
The figure was surprisingly life-like. Waxy complexion, taught, drawn-back hair, a good two or three feet taller than Isaac, clad in a rich fabric doublet and matching trews criss-crossed with red lace. Over its shoulders - for Saénfir had no gender - hung a sweeping cloak.
“Good morning,” he said to the spirit.
The figure bowed its eyeless head. The two olfactory slits in their place wided as the ethereal tasted and smelled the air around it. It’s mouth - a wide, lipless hole - stretched into what could probably be described as a smile. “So nice to meet someone with manners at last, I must say. The usual gaggle of robbers, itinerants and curious peasants tend to leave when I throw the blizzard at them. If they do get through they’re all ‘where’s the gold?’ this and ‘give me power’ that.”
“Any idiot should know that ethereals are just projections of ancient protective magic,” Isaac said. “And that they guard cultural sites, not treasure and relics.”
“Indeed, I’m not some monstrous golem or fyreskald.” The figure drifted on the spot, its feet phasing through the ground just above the ankles. “You seem to know what you’re about, so you probably know what will happen if you touch the altar.”
“Altar? Very interesting.”
Those nose slits widened again. “What are you doing?”
Isaac looked up from his sketch. “We don’t have any records of Saénfir religious sites anywhere east of the Wren. Closest to here is by Kingsdyke, at least a few day’s ride away. It’s worth documenting.”
“Oh.” The spectre hovered for a few moments in silence. “You’re not here looking for loot, booty or any kind of spoils?”
“Not particularly. I’m just to record some things.” Isaac pocketed the charcoal. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“You sure you don’t want to at least look for some valuables?”
Isaac shook his head. “No, thanks. I know enough about ethereals to know that the moment I do anything that looks remotely like looting you’ll turn me to ash. I don’t particularly want to be turned to ash, so I’m not going to touch anything.” He sniffed. “I’m impressed by your outfit, though. Whoever worked your charm had enough time to modernise your clothing to fit the era you’re woken in?”
“The doublet chafes a bit,” the ethereal admitted.
“Never liked them myself,” said Isaac. He yawned and sat on the ground, which had bloomed into bright flowers after the spectre’s appearance. He had been planning to head straight back to the university, but it’s not every day you get to converse with an aethermagical spirit - at least not without it dragging you inside out by your tonsils. “Anything else hidden away I should know about?”
It nodded, then burst into particles of soft light. They floated on the breeze for a second before coalescing into a new shape and appearance - a perfect mimicry of Isaac. Everything was there: the young face, thin nose and grey eyes, the scar below the lip from his tumble during guild initiations, the bronze hair and flecks of three-day stubble on his cheeks.
“Not bad,” he admitted.
“Your clothes are much more comfortable,” the ethereal admitted.
“I’m glad you think so.” After a moment’s hesitation, he decided to try his
chances. “How old is the altar?”
In the first few lectures on dealing with aethermagical beings, creatures and guardians is one core tenant, drilled into students over and over again: do not interrogate, converse or engage. Spirits are easy to anger, confuse and generally rile up, which usually ends with an untimely and none-too-swift demise. Isaac had never been one for keeping to the rules.
“I’m not sure,” answered the spirit, eliciting a small sigh of relief from the guildsman. “If you had come here at night I would have been able to give you an accurate time frame.”
“Could you hazard a guess?”
The ethereal burst into light again, and rearranged itself atop one of the pillars. Its legs phased into and out of the surface as it swung them like a child on a swing. “I’m not really constructed to guess. I’m not really constructed to talk to trespassers, either.”
Isaac felt his stomach knot. He was about to reply when a shout caused him to turn back to the pathway. The spectre had been staring at a crowd of people, who had now arrived en masse where Isaac had dismounted earlier.
Among them, Isaac recognised the innkeep from Wranworth. That barrel-chested man stepped forward now, his meaty hands clasped around a vicious-looking cudgel.
“Thought you might’n have fixed the curse!” he hollered from across the field. “Way we figures it, the fingers are on our land, an’ anything you find among ‘em is ours!”
Isaac stood up slowly, despite the pounding in his chest and the blood rushing to his face. He looked back at the ethereal, which had turned an alarming shade of crimson.
“Did you bring them here?” it asked simply.
“Not exactly.” He began to reach slowly into another pouch on his belt - the one filled with protective charms, amulets and talismans. Another key lesson taught to novices was to never lie to ethereals - it was one Isaac wasn’t as keen to ignore. “I believe they’ve followed me here, thinking I’d remove the magic.”
The innkeep and his mob began to cross the field, their collective footsteps churning up the soil and flinging it in all directions.
“Shame,” said the spirit. “I wasted all the illusions on you. Only one option left now.”
The mob had broken into a lopsided run now, as men pumped their legs to remove feet and boots from the sucking mud. Isaac could see the lootlust in their eyes now. The year had been a hard one, with small harvests and poor trade, and now the villagers saw in their minds a hoard of gold to ease all their worries.
“It’s your fault, you know,” said the ethereal, matter-of-factly. “I really should make an example.”
Isaac was about to reply, to call for clemency from the spirit, when the world exploded around him. His vision swam, turning end over end, and he realised he was flying through the air. The ground rose to meet him. He slammed into the muck, tumbled and rolled, the soft mud doing little to slow his momentum. He lay still for a moment, mentally checking that nothing had broken. He spluttered, his mouth and nostrils full of earth.
The screams had already begun. They were horror-screams, the shouts of men feeling pain they had never thought possible in their worst of nightmares. Something heavy and wet slapped besides Isaac. It was the bloodied torso of the village innkeeper. Isaac forced himself not to look back at the carnage. He screwed his eyes shut, clamped his hands over his ears and cursed the archivists back at the university for sending him to his death.
After a time the field grew silent. Isaac opened one eye.
“Are you done here?” The ethereal, appearing suddenly next to him, asked the question flatly, as if it hadn't just slaughtered a dozen men.
Isaac scrambled to his knees. One hand rummaged through his pouches, trying desperately to find a certain protective charm he’d bought from the arcanery a few weeks ago. At length he found it - a small doll’s figure, curiously hot to the touch. All he’d have to do is snap it between his fingers and he’d be enveloped in a protective magical shield. Or at least, that’s what the witch had told him.
He glanced at the gorey cadaver to his side. It had been sliced into bloody chunks at parallels, almost surgically. If that was the spirit’s power, he thought, then what was it protecting? A more pertinent question followed rapidly: why didn’t it kill me?
He held up his hands, palms outwards. The doll charm remained in his knapsack. “I was just here to survey,” he managed to say, spitting mud.
The spirit had returned to its original appearance - but its clothes had changed dramatically. It was draped in flowing cloths of shimmering light. It
shrugged, a comical gesture from such a grand creature.
“I have no quarrel with you, then.”
Isaac blinked. “Really?”
“Certainly. I was created to see the intentions in humans - yours is a primitive species at the best of times. If you had come here looking to steal anything, you wouldn’t have made it through the blizzard.”
Isaac stood up. He licked his lips, and spat a few more clods of earth. “Then I can go?”
“Of course.” It seemed to weigh up something in its mind, before asking:
“Actually, Isaac of Hesselinke, you must tell me one thing.”
He doubted he’d ever felt more acutely aware of his mortality. “Anything.”
“What exactly do you do?”
Isaac had found his horse exactly where he had left it. The creature had been undisturbed by the carnage in the field, nor by the fact that the tree it had been tethered to was now draped in strings of gore, offal and fluids. Curiously, the mare was completely spotless. He looked over his shoulder at the Fingers. The ghost was sat upon the thumb stone. It gave him a small wave.
Back on the road, and with his heart rate finally returning to a rate that didn’t make it feel like his chest would burst, Isaac considered the ethereal’s question. Apparently, antiquarianism was a hobby alien to the Saénfir. Their civilisation had flared into life thousands of years ago, but had fizzed out to nothing within a few centuries. Yet, the spirit - or its creator - had known about humans, who hadn’t even arrived on the continent during the Saénfir zenith, and wouldn’t do so for many hundreds of years.
It wasn’t until he was out of sight of the monument that Isaac recalled something that chilled him to his core. Not once has he told the spirit his name.