The Wanderer

A ghost hunts for prey in the new land of Magic

The Wanderer
Original image by breakermaximus for Shutterstock. Photoshopped by Charles Bastille. All rights reserved.

Nothing remains of Pittman. As we watch its remnants smolder, I know deep in my soul that every one of us has the same picture in our mind, that of the grand and stately old hall, a stubborn old man of a building frowning at its more modern surrounding university upstarts.

It was a proud frown, though — an I know better than you frown, with an upturned smirk that seemed to be buried within its gold-colored masonry. Today, despite its once-strong stone structure, little remains. It smolders. Ruined, it offers little more than wisps of smoke to the students still staggering about its grounds. I can’t imagine what could have melted those old welds that held its foundation.

I look at Katrina imploringly, begging her to talk to me, but she doesn’t know I’m here. I want to grab her by the shoulders but I know my hands would go right through them. I shrug and laugh at my frustration.

So instead I wander through the crowd, wishing I could speak to people, wondering if they could forgive me if they knew the truth.

For it was me who made Pittman burn. Stumbling around aimlessly, I push into each and every person in the crowd asking for forgiveness, but nobody knows I’m there. They ignore me as if I’m less than lint.

Today, I know I’ll have to leave this place. Its ruins. Katrina. She knows I’m inside there now, embers among embers. I am so close to her gushing tears I can nearly touch them, but now, today, tomorrow, never will I.

I put my palms up before me and they’re translucent. I can see everything in front of me through them, as if through a filmy lens.

Days, weeks, months, years, no, decades pass. Yes, I think it’s been decades since Pittman burned. Me in it.

The world has changed much since those days. Death has taken charge. Magic has taken root among survivors of a scourge I don’t quite understand. I hunt those survivors for sport. What else is there to do?

The powerful witch who thinks she can manipulate time throws cascades of fire at a small village to try to hide it from the drones. She thinks she is hiding the village because it’s what she’s been told happens. It is Inkantu, she is told.

And in truth, it would work if I wasn’t there.

But I am, and I not only intercept her efforts, but I approach her invisibly and suck the very life out of her by touching her lips with mine and breathing in her life force.

The swordmaster who eats his own sword at my command.

The firestarter who burns her parents alive because I can whistle in a way that sends the flames from her original intent.

The conjurors and the medicine shamans and the displacement wizards who weep when they see the altered effects of their own actions.

They are all at my mercy.

What can I say? I have gifts.

Candalon shares a story about demons and black knights on horses as we sit around the fire on this cold autumn evening. He finishes with, “And then there’s The Wanderer.”

“I hate ghost stories,” says one of the girls. We all have heard the stories about The Wanderer. “Yeah,” says another, “Shut up on that.”

The wind whistles as though a storm is about to blow open the forest canopy. Fittingly, a full moon, tinted red, lurks behind a break in the trees behind us. Crickets are rubbing their legs in glee as they pronounce the danger in mistaking the evening’s quiet for safety.

Candalon continues. “In the old days,” he says, “people used to think of ghosts as these lost dead souls who haunted houses or cemeteries. The Wanderer, he’s different. He haunts everything. He never stays in one place for even an hour.” Candalon whispers, “He could be here right now. Watching us.”

“I’ve heard he was a magician when he was alive. So he’s one of us,” says one of the boys.

“Yeah,” says another. “Rather him be here than a drone.”

Candalon shakes his head. “No, you would not rather.” He’s silent for a moment. Listening to an unnatural rustle in the trees. He looks ahead at the sound. “Could be him now.”

I don’t like how he’s trying to scare the girls and I tell him so. “Ain’t scaring,” he replies. “Warning. Just like how we warn each other about drones and Gath warriors and hunters.

“People don’t understand. He can be at more than one place at a time. He can be here, but somewhere else, too.”

“He’s a magician ghost!” exclaims one of the younger girls, unafraid.

Candalon nods. “Uh-huh. He has powers. He’s not a normal ghost.”

“What even is a normal ghost?” someone asks. “Yeah,” says another, “is it someone who we see in a haunted place but who can’t do nothin’?”

Candalon shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that The Wanderer appears without warning, without a trace. And he’ll suck you dry like he’s turning you into a raisin.”

“I’ve never seen a raisin,” I say. So I can’t imagine this description.

“Imagine the oldest person you’ve ever seen,” Candalon says as he looks at me from three people away on my left, his head leaning out. “Then, a hundred million times more wrinkled.”

“Cat!” giggles one of the girls. “No! Beatrice! In that old farm just north of here,” says another. “The one who conjures wolf packs.” Yet another corrects her by saying, “She doesn’t conjure them, stupid. She calls for them. That’s not conjuring. Sheesh.”

You might think of me as evil. But I’m not. Everyone dies someday. Why does it matter how? And how is saving people from the greater evil that is The Gath itself an act of evil? I’m doing them a favor.

I look at the ring of children around the fire and an awareness takes me. I’ve never killed children. I won’t start now. Maybe, I reason, they will somehow stumble into a better life than the adults around them. I won’t take that from them.

But it’s kind of fun to scare them.

Their large fire is impressive. It took them some time to perfect. I blow it out like it’s a candle and they scream as their startled imaginations send them fleeing to their nomadic homes.

I follow one of them. He’s a stout boy, no more than eleven, who has obviously found some way to build carbohydrates into his body during a time of extreme deprivation. He should be quite proud of this feat.

His fat little fingers push open the thick canvas tent of his home where his parents lay huddled together talking. The mother smiles. The dad, looking stern, glances away.

The boy has dark brown skin, mostly his mother's I guess as I peer at the small family. His tightly curled hair is surprisingly light, almost blonde. Strange. The father has black hair but pale skin. I’ll never fathom genetics.

The boy mutters something as his concerned mother asks him why it is so dark outside the tent. “The fire was quite alive just a few minutes ago,” she says.

The boy shrugs, not wanting to expose his anxiety or the reasons for the children’s sudden flight. He sits on the opposite side of the large tent from his parents and unrolls his bedding. The father, astute, tells him that whatever it is to not be afraid. “I sometimes think that drones can sense fear,” he says.

The boy is not afraid of drones.

The father waves a deck of cards in the air but the boy shakes his head and slides into his bedding. In the morning he’ll wake to the remnants of his parents, each hollowed out and shriveled and looking like petrified human branches.I’m still sort of seething at Candalon’s stupid stories about The Wanderer. It’s not that I don’t believe the stories. I do. But it’s dumb to scare the girls. Little Becky, she’s only six.

Last week, Nan, she’s eleven, gave me a doll. A boy with a doll, I said to her, isn’t a really great idea. You won’t see me walking around with it.

That’s not the idea, she had said. The doll had a cowboy hat on its head. And a skull for a face. The hat was threaded onto the doll’s head. I wouldn’t be able to take it off unless I tore it off. So I asked her, well, what is the idea?

The doll was made of yarn. Her mom made it, she said. It was supposed to fend off evil spirits. She had given me a pin to stick in it. When I do that, I’m supposed to think of something bad that should happen to the evil spirit. When I asked her why it looked like it did, why it had a skull, she said she didn’t know. Maybe it makes it easier to stick the pin in, she said.


My parents are asleep in the tent. It’s cold outside, but my blankets are keeping me warm. I’m grateful for the coverings as I pull them to my neck and reach one arm out for the weird doll. I look it over. Nan said she had one of her own and didn’t need this one when I asked her why she was giving it to me.

I sort of have a crush on Nan. I don’t know what she thinks about me. She’s nice to me. She gave me a doll. But I think it’s just because she’s nice, and maybe just feels sorry for me because I’m pudgy. She’s that way. Kind. Or, she gave me the doll knowing that the other boys would kick the crap out of me if they saw me with it. Which would make her mean.

I don’t think so, though. I don’t think she’s mean.

She walks up to me almost every morning when I go spearfishing in the creek. She waves at me from the embankment but never goes into the water. Asks me about my catch for the day. Sometimes we talk about where our band of people will go next, and where we’ve been.

Nan thinks we’ve traveled 500 miles since we left the city a couple of years ago. I guess that sounds about right, but I don’t really understand what a mile is.

“You’ve seen my mom cut my hair, right?” she said one day. “Well, if you were walking all that time? You’d cover about a mile.”

So. “Our little group of people has traveled about 500 haircuts?” I asked. She giggled at that. I love it when she giggles. She has a high-pitched laugh and it doesn’t sound like she has any control over it. Like something just turns it on and takes over her body until the giggling has completed its course.

I’m looking at the doll she gave me and I feel terrified. Maybe it’s the wind, which is howling and whistling outside. It sounds, well, it sounds like a ghost. I suddenly feel unnaturally cold. It is cold outside, yes, but not that cold.

And something else. It feels like someone is in the tent with us. Watching us. I close my eyes tightly. Then open them. I see my parents cuddling and sleeping.

But it’s weird. Something seems wrong. My mom’s foot is shaking. Just the one foot. What starts as shaking becomes more violent, but it’s still only her foot. The rest of her is perfectly still.

Except…except her mouth is open and pursed, as if she is about to receive a kiss. Not from dad. His back is against her because they are spooning. The arm that was curled around my dad suddenly flops off him onto the ground and it, too, begins to shake. The same way as the foot. Like someone is shaking it for her.

My heart races.

Now she is laying on her back and her hips suddenly thrust into the air. It’s her whole body now that is shaking. Dad is just sleeping through it as if he had been knocked out or something.

Her mouth opens more widely. Then her cheek looks hollowed out like she is making a stupid face with her lips on purpose. Her body becomes still as her cheeks sink into her jaws so far I think she’s going to turn inside out.

That’s when I hear an awful sound, like the wind, but a breath, too, a sucking breath that you might hear after someone has run really fast for, well, about a mile I guess. Not in short spurts like a tired runner but one long continuous breath — deep, hoarse, seemingly originating from so far inside her body that it seems it comes from the middle of the earth.

The breath becomes a long, choking wheeze.

I pull the blankets up against my neck even tighter but then I wave the doll at her for some reason. It’s him, I think to myself. It’s him! The Wanderer is in the tent with us!

I throw my blankets off and sit straight up. The pin. Where is that pin? My hand searches furiously in the spot where the doll had been stored. I can’t find it. My mother is making horrific gasping noises while my father sleeps. I don’t have time to think about how he can sleep through this when I know I must find the pin.

But it’s gone. The pin is gone.

My mother’s feet are turning white.

I stare at the useless doll. Then I shake it towards my mother, demanding that the being that is killing her show himself. I’m afraid, so afraid that I don’t even have words to describe my fear, but I don’t care. I can’t watch my mother die without doing something, even if what I do is foolish and can accomplish nothing.

Then I see it. A being on its knees, holding her head, his lips on hers I think — it’s hard to see from this angle. He’s wearing a cowboy hat just like the one the doll is wearing.

“I see you,” I hiss, trying to sound bolder than I am actually feeling.

His head spins around to look at me. He glares at me like a predator looking up from its kill. His skin is emaciated to such an extent that I can see the contours of his skull. No. Strike that. I can see his skull. The tall straight grimace of decayed teeth and bone.

“I see you!” I scream as I shake the doll at him.

Then the being utters a horrifying scream so high pitched that it hurts my ears, and he disappears into a small cloud of smoke or vapor or steam that trails under and out the tent.

There are times when we are sitting around the fire in the evenings when I want to tell Candalon this real story about The Wanderer. Someday, maybe I will.

Somehow, I think he knows. Everyone heard the sounds that night coming from my tent. And these days, I carry the doll with me everywhere I go, and nobody asks me why.

Thank you for reading! This story is part of The MagicLand Chronicles: Short stories related to my debut novel, MagicLand, but with different characters and stories.