"Well, well," said the ghost. "Have you come seeking apprenticeship? Or are you looking for the children?"
In life the man had been tall and lean, with shoulder-length black hair and a neatly-trimmed black beard. The pallor of his skin might have been remembered, or it might have been an acknowledgement of his spectral state. He wore the grey robes of a Verath, which was a bad sign; and he seemed to know who he was and what he was about, which was worse. A ghost that was muddled and confused might be set on its way, dispersed into the tides and flows of the world-blood, but one like this... This is bad, Cat thought.
He rose to his feet, frowning. He didn't see any way to delay this, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. Still, if there was any way to take the ghost off-guard... "What is it you have to teach?" he asked. Then, deliberately idle, he added: "...and what are you doing with those children?"
The ghost drew himself up as if affronted; then his shoulders lowered. "If you seek a teacher," he said, "you should show more respect."
"Very well," the dead Verath said at last. "Serve me, and I will teach you the arts of death. They call to you, don't they? The training you have, passing the elements through your body, it isn't enough, is it? You know there is more you could learn."
Cat nodded. He knew. "And the children?" he asked.
The ghost shrugged. "The villagers took my children. Now I have taken theirs. And when I have used them to restore my living body, I will teach you the things it took me decades to learn."
Cat shifted the navic to his back, and let it hang there. Even sheathed, the blade was part of him; it hung comfortably across his back with nothing to support it. He took a step forward, moved as if to kneel...
...And came up with the indoor saber in his hand, slashing.
Two strides away, the ghost fell back, cut in half by the blow. Still connected to the children, it restored itself with stunning speed, and Cat's follow-through rebounded from an unseen shield. It gestured, murmuring, and Cat felt darkness gather around him.
It was a Death Art, one that drained his strength and dropped him to one knee. He extended his arm by an act of will, then drew it back and to the side, fingers clenched for gripping. In physical combat, the motion would have voided an enemy's attack, drawing it off into empty space. Against a Verath's Art, it pulled the draining numbness into darkness and silence and cold. The effect collapsed as he devoured it.
The master of the house stood staring, his ghostly face slack with shock. Cat lunged up and forward, and for a moment he stood locked with the ghost. In life, it would have been no contest; but the ghost still drew energy through the circle of the children, and with the house insisting on its presence all around them, the spirit was as solid to the touch as flesh would have been. For a moment, they stood locked, strength against strength; then Cat shifted his weight, and felt the opening as the ghost failed to follow. He twisted, sending the ghost past, avoiding its force and more, drawing it into the void he had created...
It screamed as it fell into the darkness and cold, as Cat devoured it. A shockwave of ice rolled out across the aged wooden floor, momentarily dispelling the house's memory of itself and revealing weathered wood layered over with dirt and ash.
Cat staggered and fell to his knees. His head was throbbing, and his blood alternated hot and cold. He knew what "children" the master of the house had lost; he knew that they had been horrible, rotted things, murderous and deranged and uncontrollable, animated by the darkest of Arts. Small wonder the peasants had killed them; they'd had no choice. It was that or wait to be killed.
For a moment his heart stopped; then, entirely on its own, it started beating again.
He knew how the peasants had trapped and destroyed the master's monstrous children, two centuries earlier; he knew how the master had created them; he knew how the master had died, poisoned by his servants; he knew how the master had watched, screaming in bodiless rage, as the peasants had burned his body and scattered the ashes. He remembered fifty years of studying the Art alive, and two more centuries of study as a ghost. He wanted to pound his head against the wooden floor until the memories went away.
Mara smashed through the non-existent front door, which reformed itself (now open again) behind her.
Cat raised his head, and forced his body to be still. "Basement," he said. He could feel Delissa approaching, and feel the house recoiling from the energies that cycled through her and filled the air around her. She must have come in the back. "There's a circle in the basement." He could still feel it. He could remember the connections that had been forced between the children. "Don't break it. Tell them to do it."
Then the wooden floor was rushing towards the side of his face. He didn't have the strength to stop it.