Chapter 5: Finders' Pursuit

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Mera and Tally looked so similar, Vantra could not tell them apart. While not twins in life, they chose the countenance in death, and it disconcerted her, to speak to one aqua-haired, deeply tanned, cheerful woman, turn, and face the other. They worked in perfect tandem, with Vesh joking he did not have much to do in hooking up the horses to the wagons.

Vantra, with no experience in prepping a wagon for travel, sat on a stump and stayed clear with Red and Katta. Despite their complaints about a slow start, neither seemed inclined to help and finished off the elfine leaf cakes from the previous night.

She could not fathom eating an entire sackful of the sweets while living, let alone while dead, and she enjoyed food quite a lot. She pondered how one extracted energy from meals, but she did not have the experience with Physical Touch to guess the magical mechanism.

Dowl walked to them, brushing his palms together. “I’d take the low roads out,” he quietly advised as his gaze flicked over the two wagons and the four beasts to pull them. “Chemen says a group of Finders arrived just as he was leaving with the feed—and someone more powerful than Dychala was with them.”

Vantra’s spine tingled at the information. Who? While Nolaris had hundreds of acolytes, she had met few outside her training sessions. And most of those with substantial Touch ability, other than Dychala and Newl and Retharin, were in the Evenacht completing Redemptions. She doubted many were in a convenient place to answer his call.

“Power in name only,” Katta remarked as he licked icing from his fingers. “Still, there’s no reason to endanger others caught between.”

Dowl nodded. “I’d even wait and take the Meander,” he told them. “That’s far enough from Evening, it bypasses the tolls and any inspections. I doubt the Finders will think you’d go that way. On this side of the city, most everyone heading for the Dark’s shores travels Veer’s Road to the toll, or takes Continuation going west.”

“You seem more concerned than normal,” Red said, squinting at the man.

“Remember, he introduced me to his acolytes and his enforcers as a threat.” The man’s soft words barely carried over the breeze. “He has powerful followers eager to please him so he’ll elevate their standing in the Hallowed Collective.”

“While I’ve no doubt Nolaris retains stronger peons who joyfully lap his heels, they would not be at his beck and call,” Katta said. “Whoever he bullied into visiting the Mounds is probably seething at their lack of standing to avoid the summons, and not interested in looking about.”

Red grinned. “Do you think he has ready access to anyone strong enough to take out Kjaelle?”

“No. I do think he has access to enough asses who will pique her temper, though.”

“However did you become his acolyte?” Red asked. Vantra started when she realized he spoke to her.

“Oh. Well, he was the only sage willing to train me.”

“Ah. So you have enough Mental power the Collective didn’t think they could twist you into serving them without question.”

Vantra winced at the description; her immediate reaction was to defend the Collective, but after the previous night, she doubted they would reciprocate. Why support them, when they only wished her harm? “Only sages can train acolytes. One of the regular Finders, Jheeka, gave advice, but there wasn’t another sage who thought I was worth the time.”

“Is there really that much to learn?” Kjaelle asked as she hopped down from her wagon. “I mean, we didn’t know anything of Redemptions, but we managed Dowl’s.”

The squint-eyed, eyebrow-raised disbelief the caravan leader directed at her elicited laughter from both Red and Katta. Vantra knew she missed something, but as with jokes among friends, outsiders simply smiled politely and waited for an explanation that might never come.

“There’s a lot of information about different Evenacht cultures and how to courteously navigate them,” she said, hoping not to sound as awkward as she felt. “I studied past Redemptions. I memorized the major routes, cities and villages. I had an atlas, but . . . that burned.”

“So it’s really a crash course in things that, if you’ve resided here long enough, you discover eventually,” Kjaelle said.

“And sages are supposed to teach those with magic ability how to better use Mental energy.”

“Did Nolaris?”

“He showed me a few things, like using ziptrails. Jheeka helped more, but I mostly discovered what I know on my own. ”

Laken snorted, the first sound she had heard out of him all morning. He sat in her lap, observing, keeping his bitterness to himself. She rearranged her hold yet again, and he growled but said nothing. In the normal way of things, she would have retrieved a stand from Finder storage, one designed specifically to keep heads upright. The base of the neck sat snugly in the center, and the bottom expanded out for stability. Without it, she needed to hold him so he could observe and converse with others without tipping over.

And since he refused to speak on it, she had little idea where to place her hands, so they did not bother him.

Kjaelle eyed the captain, then studied her. “There’s a spark in you, easy to see if you’re well versed in Touch. I’m betting he kept you close to see if he could manipulate you, then purposefully stunted your growth when it became obvious he could not.” She motioned to Red and Katta. “If you have questions, just ask them. Then, after they’ve expounded at length on a complex spell you never knew existed, ask them to start at baby steps, like I did. They’ll broaden your knowledge with a couple of words.”

The two men eyed each other in humorous annoyance.

“Did they teach you that spell from last night?” Vantra asked.

“Spell?” She frowned.

Katta chuckled. “That wasn’t an intonation,” he informed her. “That was temper.”

Temper?

“If you think that’s impressive, wait ‘til Qira or Katta give you a reason to gawk,” Dowl said. “Kjaelle intimidates him, but Nolaris fears them more.”

I fear them more,” Kjaelle said.

Not one of them agreed, and by her twinkling smile, she meant to tease.

“I don’t think fear is what you feel around Katta,” Red said drily. His friend pursed his lips at that, while Kjaelle blushed.

“All right, we’re ready!” Vesh called.

Vantra wanted to sit with Vesh as he guided the team down the road, eager to see the countryside, but all agreed that she needed to hide until the threat of discovery lay far behind them. Kjaelle and Katta kept her and Laken company in the flower-decorated wagon, while Red sacked out in the other, vine-painted one. She did not understand the need for rest; had he not absorbed enough mist the night before?

Of course, she had realized soon after arriving in the Evenacht that her mind needed time to reset, even in spirit form. Her body continued on, but her thoughts shut down. She had lost a couple of days at one point, and Jheeka’s visit had been the only thing to knock her from her repose. Embarrassed and concerned it might indicate some breakdown in her Ether form, she neglected to mention it to the healer, and now she wished she had.

Five years, and she still did not have a good grasp on when she needed to sleep.

The wagon lurched into motion, the sounds of the other merchants and horses and oxen fading away. Vantra grabbed the edges of the box to keep herself upright and envied Kjaelle her balance.

“Have you been down the Meander?” the elfine asked as she tucked the last stray corner of cloth around Laken. He did not wish to sit in the center of the table, so she improvised a stand from a storage box, cushioned it with fabric, and propped it up so he could view and chat with them from the edge. Vantra appreciated the thought; her Chosen grumbled.

“No. I studied it on the maps, but I’ve only been around Evening and through the Fields.”

“I’d think, Finders would broaden their experience when they could,” she said and she sank next to Katta and settled her elbows on the table.

Vantra shook her head. “Nolaris cautioned me about traveling outside the city because I needed to be present for training. He made certain I knew the Field paths, and I took walks through the streets near my home, but mostly I used the ziptrails.”

Kjaelle winced and Katta laughed. “Our beloved Kjaelle believes ziptrails are a masochist’s dream,” he said.

Vantra did not think her wrong.

“But the way the Collective teaches spirits how to use them is ludicrous,” he continued. “There’s a simpler, and less caustic, way of traveling through the magic.”

“There is?”

He nodded. “Remind me. I’ll show you when we pass one.”

“It’s superior,” Kjaelle reluctantly admitted. “But you still feel like you’re being pulled every way ‘til you reach the end.”

“Ziptrails are not supposed to shuttle spirits back and forth,” he reminded her. “They’re supposed to collect excess energy into ponds. Curious spirits first employed them that way, however ill-equipped they are to be transportation.” He took on a teasing quality. “Probably by someone like you, nosing about because they wanted to know how something works.”

Vantra mentally flew through her study materials. “I don’t remember learning about ponds,” she said.

“Not surprising. The Collective restricts training to what they deem important, and their viewpoint is very narrow.” Katta waved his fingers in the air, representing water. “Think of ziptrails as rivers and streams, all leading to ponds or lakes. Spirits have interrupted the flow, just as they have for their physical counterparts. This is partly why the large Evenacht lakes exist. They don’t just dam water, they dam energy as well. The mists in those places are potent, making them attractive homes to spirits, but the barricades prevent the energy from naturally flowing where it wants, depriving areas once lush with power of the touch. Some have become energy deserts, affecting the natives, the flora, the fauna, as well as the deceased.”

Vantra felt her chest tighten. “That’s not right.”

“No, but when the powerful see profit in it, they’ll destroy a lot more than native beings, creatures and plants to achieve more wealth.”

The terrain became bumpy, and Vantra planted her feet to keep her upright and held the box so Laken did not tumble out. She did not want to stuff him in the bag; how rude, to keep him from company. His eyes flicked to her, narrowing, but he neglected to say anything about her help.

Silence lengthened. Kjaelle and Katta lounged, unconcerned, but the quiet made her antsy. Her mind whirled, debating what questions to ask to begin conversation, but one bothered her more. “How did you switch Dowl’s bond from Nolaris to Kjaelle?”

There, despite embarrassment, she asked.

Katta cocked his head, then shrugged. “Nolaris had an exceptionally weak bond, for a sage Redeeming a Condemned,” he said. “Even the newest Finders develop stronger attachments to their Chosen. I broke the connection and took the end and applied it to Kjaelle.”

“But . . . how?”

“Essences attract one another.” The elfine elbowed him; he pursed his lips, then continued, though Vantra had the impression he redirected his explanation. “A bond link is like a rope—or a string, in Nolaris’s case. You can magically cut it and retie it to another spirit. It must be a spirit, not a native, because a living essence is too dissimilar for a meld, but it’s easily done.”

Kjaelle raised her eyebrows, unconvinced by the declaration.

Vantra swallowed. “The Finders don’t teach that we can transfer bonds.”

“No, because they want to corral Finders into a Redemption, even if they and the Condemned aren’t suitable for each other. It can be as much a punishment for the Finder as their Chosen.” Laken must have made a face because Katta regarded him with a smile. “I’d not worry. Even though Nolaris interrupted your ceremony, the bond you have is strong enough to survive until you discover the first essence.” He lounged down, tapping his fingers against his stomach, then grew more serious. “Finders teach essences are only viable for the Recollection ritual after finding all of them, but that’s not true. Considering the troubles, link Laken to his after you find them, rather than all at once at the end. In this, you are lucky the torso is first.”

Vantra frowned. “How do I do that?” She only knew the intonation for the Recollection, a lengthy ritual that attached the sundered essences one by one, then strengthened their link with the Rivulet of Energy until they melded into a whole.

“It’s simple enough. Intone ifre insque indmeu for the arms, ifre insque ible for the legs, ifre insque ig for the torso. After doing so, set his essence where it belongs and intone trible. Take the energy inherent in the sundered essence and pull it through him until it clicks into place.”

“That sounds horrendous,” Laken grumbled, aghast.

“It’s not. Your essences want to relink. The process is fast and painless, and don’t underestimate the joy when it’s done. It’s true, a head is easier to cart about on the Redemption, which is why Finders put limitations on when Recollection occurs, but since Vantra has no place to store your essences, my way is better.” He returned to Vantra. “To guide your thoughts, intone ifre an ecu fin te or ifre an vrote. If the link’s sluggish, use nanfla on pa a brulo fin before the phrases. Finish with ecune ceupre ifre fin ceupre no.”

“How do I pull the essence through?”

“At the end that needs to be attached, there is a brighter flare of power. Treat it like a handle. Pass through his Physical form, grab it, and pull.”

Laken was not the only one who thought that sounded horrendous. Must she stick her arm through his head to connect his torso to his neck? Queasiness whirled through her tummy at the thought.

Kjaelle popped open the window and a fresh breeze blew through, carrying the soft chill of an early morning that promised a late-year rain. Evening’s air held a heaviness to it that Vantra associated with living in an area inhabited by thousands of ghosts who, unable to properly control their essences, flavored the atmosphere with their emotions. The lack of it exhilarated her, though she hoped she kept the reaction from her new companions. She did not want them to think her odd.

She lost herself in savoring the ambiance and quiet companionship and did not know how much time passed before a light tap tap caught her attention. Kjaelle uncurled from Katta’s side, rose and slid the wall over her bed aside, revealing the driver’s box. Vesh did not turn about.

“A group’s stopping traffic and checking wagons,” he whispered. “They’re nowhere near a crossroads or an official checkpoint, so I’m betting they don’t have formal permission to go through people’s things. Since we’re still on the Evereast Trail, there’s a backup, and people aren’t happy.”

“Great,” she grumbled, whisking it shut.

Katta sighed and sat up. “Insistent, aren’t they?” He eyed Laken. “How are your acting skills?”

“What?” her Chosen asked, confused.

He snagged a large blue container strapped to the middle shelf above his head; upside down, it resembled a seer’s ball, one they used to divinate. Kjaelle whipped the tablecloth away, revealing the wooden surface with a deep, circular gouge in the center. She grabbed Laken from the box and planted him in the middle, then pooled his hair around him. Katta settled the ball in place and turned; it locked with a click.

“Pretend you’re a fake head telling the future,” Kjaelle said as she tossed the makeshift stand and the tablecloth onto the bed before snagging another covering. This one had a hole in the center for the ball, and contained flickering gold sparkles, imitating stars in a pitch-black sky. “If they get nosy, tell them something they can interpret in a lot of different ways, like “The day brings new beginnings”. Close your eyes, and don’t open them until I tell you, ‘Light the way.’ Re-close them when I say, ‘Darkness beckons.’”

“This isn’t going to trick them,” Laken grumbled darkly as Katta spread a black cloth over the glass.

“You’d be surprised,” Kjaelle replied. “And make it good, because you really don’t want to go back to the Fields to wait another eternity for Redemption. If Nolaris is your gatekeeper, it might be longer than that.” She studied Vantra and nodded. “We need to hide your Finder badge.”

Vantra dug in the pack for it. She had no other place to store it, so unpinned her Sun badge, hid it beneath, and stuck them both to her breast. The setting sun covered the smaller Finder acolyte cat head, so she did not have to worry about edges peeking out.

“What about the robes?” she asked. She had not thought about them and mercilessly chastised herself for forgetting. Wanting to impress her Chosen, she had paid a pretty coin for the outfit. Her stomach fell at her previous exuberance; Laken had not been impressed, with her or the soft cloth.

Kjaelle smiled. “They’re in my costume chest.”

Oh.

The wagon stopped and remained stationary. Katta shook his head and opened the door before hopping out while Kjaelle rummaged about in a red-painted box. She withdrew a scarlet wig as long as her natural hair. Vantra regarded it, confused.

“Red and Katta will have a bit of fun before they nose about,” she said. “We can get you hid in plain sight before then.”

Kjaelle understood how to manipulate both her Ether and Physical forms to interact with Vantra’s essence, and did so without stopping to channel her actions into purpose with intonations. Within moments, she had twirled her hair into thin curls and plastered them to her head before settling the wig upon them, attaching it with a spell Vantra had not learned but assumed it handy for theater performances. The elfine grabbed a wide, short tin from a basket and popped it open; foundation, though far lighter than her ghostly countenance. She sponged it on, then grinned before snagging another tin; black eyeshadow. She ran her thumbs across the glittery stuff and rubbed it over her eyes, brushing outward. A reddish container held blush, and she made circles on her cheeks, then smoothed her lips with the same color.

“We don’t have time for much else,” she said. “Good thing theater troops have developed quick-change magic. Katta laughs that I use it, but he and Red dip in when they don’t think I’m paying attention. They’ll cavort around whatever place we’ve stopped, and no one realizes the mischief they cause is by them.”

Vantra had no idea how to respond to that.

Kjaelle held up the shiny top of the foundation for her to peruse her face. The makeup well-covered her sunken eyes and gaunt features, allowing the smear of magic-created black eyeshadow, rosy cheeks and lips to reign. The elfine tossed the container into the basket without care. “Act like someone you don’t like,” she advised and sat just as the door swung further open and three wearing Finder’s official robes planted themselves at the base of the stairs.

Vantra did not recognize them. Good. Nerves warred within her, and she did not think she could act well enough to hide from someone who had met her.

She made a show of looking them up and down, then raised her nose and turned away, doing her best to mimic Melita, once-priestess at the Spiral Temple. Her snobbiness died with her when her mother cleansed the sacred place, and she ended up in the Fields for her role in poisoning the high priestess’s daughter.

Vantra’s shame at her smug pleasure for that punishment overwhelmed her guilt in feeling that way, which only made her more mortified. Empathy was far more important than revenge, and her moral failure haunted her.

Kjaelle planted her elbow on the table, stuck her cheek in her palm, and fought not to smile, though her eyes twinkled too bright in humor for the three to mistake her reaction.

“We’re looking for a fugitive Finder called Vantra,” the first Finder asked, her lip raised in a disgusted sneer. She did a credible job on her facial attributes, but her robe fluttered in and out of Physical and Ether form. “Your wagon matches the description of one sheltering her last night.”

Fugitive? How dare they! Nothing she had done warranted that designation. Resentment coursed through her, burning her trepidation over the encounter.

“We must search this wagon.”

Vantra overacted raising her eyebrows and widening her eyelids in unshocked surprise at the demand. The three gritted their teeth together while Kjaelle turned her palms up and indicated the interior.

“We are but simple fortune tellers,” she said. “We accurately predict our customers’ loss of funds to others who claim the same mantle, if they don’t heed our warning about scams. We reveal, not hide.”

“Fortune tellers?” the gaunter man asked in disbelief, his eyes flicking about the interior before focusing on the cabinets beneath the bed, the only place hidden from him. He had dark tanned skin and bright blond hair, but Vantra caught brief flicks of transparency, an obvious tell that he created his façade and had difficulty maintaining it. Finders normally had better control of their aspects than that—at least, the ones she had met. Did they fall under Nolaris’s mantle as new acolytes, or had the Hallowed Collective sent them? If so, why retain operatives with so poor an understanding of Touch? “And which one of you tells fortunes?” The last word swam in ugly disdain.

Vantra responded with a high-pitched hmph. “I am a Sun acolyte,” she told them with haughty superiority. So many modern Sun followers thought themselves above other syimlin adherents being snobby was not an act, but a deeply held belief. “Surely you’ve heard of our Oracles?”

“We have descriptions of all caravan retainers from last night. No one mentioned someone who looked like you,” the third said, his eyes narrowed as he regarded her.

Vantra laughed, fighting down the panic. “Oh, please, you think the poor darlings wringing their hands paid attention to those at the fire?”

Kjaelle snickered. “They were far too busy trying to figure out how to cart that ass away from our camp to care about my companions,” she said, thick sugar in her tone. “After all, I did hit her with enough energy she discorporated. Has she solidified yet?”

“Get out of the wagon,” he barked, outwardly irritated.

“No,” they said together.

“Who are you, to order us about?” Kjaelle asked, straightening, extremely annoyed. “Finders have no law enforcement jurisdiction. Every person you’ve stopped could issue a complaint about being held against their will by you lot.”

“You match the description of the woman who attacked Finder Dychala—and that is our jurisdiction. The Hallowed Collective has granted permission to detain you for your transgression.”

The revelation lit a fire in Kjaelle as Katta strolled towards them, highly amused, hands in his pants pockets. “I did say, to not bother you,” he said congenially. “I see they listen as well as their counterparts last night.”

“Hmm. As well as any Finder,” Vantra sniffed. His deepening amusement meant he appreciated her change. Well, if the remembrance of Melita played well, so be it.

“So tell my fortune,” the third man said, folding his arms and regarding them with narrow-eyed suspicion. He, of the three, had better form, and his stiff poise reminded her of petulant men outraged when denied something they assumed their due.

Vantra glanced at Kjaelle, who smiled with pretty poison and whisked the black cloth away from the ball.

Laken, to her surprise, had his eyes closed, waiting. The glass’s tint made him appear blue, and the curve warped his appearance so she doubted the Finders could distinguish any telling detail beyond male with long hair, buggy eyes, and wide nose that waved side to side.

“Oracle, Light the way!” Kjaelle said with a flourish of her hands.

The glass brightened. He opened his eyes and stared straight at the Finders, unblinking, unnerving the three enough that they anxiously looked at one another.

“Oracle of the Sun, Great Seer of the Beyond, relate to us our wish. What do you see in the days ahead, for our three visitors?”

“Missed opportunities,” he stated in a dead monotone.

So much for a general, benign fortune.

“Hmm. Sucks for them,” Kjaelle said. “Oracle of the Sun, what do you see for us?”

“Mists.”

Katta snickered and clapped his hand over his mouth. That was the generalness Vantra expected.

“Yeah, we do travel from misty place to misty place.”

“That’s a head,” the gaunt Finder declared, pointing.

“Um, yes. A not-head can’t fit in the ball,” Kjaelle said, sarcastically patient.

“You stole a head from the Fields?” he asked, outraged.

She sucked in a huge breath, and Vantra decided she should say something before the elfine’s temper equaled that of the night before. “Darling, this is part of the scam.” She laughed, attempting throaty disdain. “If Finders are even taken in—”

The three looked ready to burst at the insinuation they could not determine a genuine head from a fake.

The suspicious man leaned forward, squinting. “Where’s the one we’re looking for?” he asked quickly.

Laken did not respond, and Kjaelle smiled, though it did not light her furious eyes. “You must be more specific than that. Who is the one?”

“I thought he told fortunes,” the man snapped.

“Ah, vagueness not your style? That’s part of the scam, too. See, you’re learning.”

His frown turned dark, his eyebrows jutting low. “Where is Finder Vantra?”

Vantra sighed, exasperated. “Oracle of the Sun, where is Finder Vantra?”

“Far away.”

“Far away?” the man asked.

Laken remained silent.

“I want a specific place,” the man shouted, annoyed.

“Fortunes rarely deal in specifics,” Kjaelle said in a dry teaching voice. “Vague insinuations allow the scammers to claim the person hearing the fortune misunderstood the words, and that misunderstanding is not their fault. But, if you give them more money, they’ll surely make it less ambiguous a second time.”

“This is ridiculous,” the woman said, flipping her hand as if to wipe away a bug. “Now get out of the wagon. We need to inspect it.”

“No,” Vantra and Kjaelle said in unison, again. Katta’s fascinated surprise at their cohesion made her worry slightly, but he said nothing as he folded his arms and widened his stance. All three regarded him in nervous anticipation; did they quake because he, as an obviously old and talented spirit, posed a threat they could not battle?

“I find it interesting,” he began in an amicable tone, “that one of yours attacked Finder Vantra in her home, destroyed her neighborhood, but no punishment befell him or you would not be here. One of yours claiming allegiance to this sage attacked us, in camp, last night. Again, no effort to punish her for her transgression ensued, because here you are, seeking the one they wanted to harm.” Vantra tingled as the mental atmosphere darkened and the Finders inched away from him. “Not all in the Evenacht respect your weak display of threats and tantrums, fake piety and morality, to get your way.” He looked into the wagon. “Darkness beckons,” he said sternly. “We’re leaving.”

Laken closed his eyes and Kjaelle flumped the cloth over him.

“Not until we search—” the woman began, though her voice trembled.

Katta did not bother to hear her out; he pivoted and strode towards the other wagon. The darkness dwindled, then broke apart.

The suspicious man shook his essence into motion. “Insulting the Hallowed Collective—” he warned loudly, hurrying away. If the ancient spirit had directed that darkness at her, Vantra would never gather the bravado to follow him. She would accept the warning and ponder how to achieve her goals without bothering him. Brave man, if foolish.

“And how, exactly, are we insulting them?” Kjaelle asked, exasperated.

The second jabbed his finger at them, an ugly grimace on his face. “You and some pasty-faced fake Sun acolyte have shown great disrespect.”

A pinprick of embarrassment grew into a rush of shame at the insult. She had heard it often in her youth, the sneers about how true Ga Son followers tanned darker than she. The priesthood never did, a conveniently ignored fact. They used spray to tan their skin and recreated the golden locks of their syimlin through bottled bleach instead of the sun’s rays. Ancient followers obsessed over tanned skin, light hair, and wallowed in the sun to achieve the look. They died young from cancers. Modern priests faked the whole guise and remained alive well into a second century.

She glanced away when she realized he expected her pain, and she needed to hide the tears. Did he look to the Great Temple of the Golden Sun in Evening? He behaved like its priesthood when it came to nastiness.

“I follow in the steps of Darkness,” Kjaelle said coldly. “And I’ve never found humor in the asinine insults false adherents spew because they think harming others elevates them in the eyes of their syimlin. It doesn’t. It proves they don’t listen, and instead, they follow grift rather than admit their syimlin doesn’t find them attractive enough to acknowledge.”

“The Sun guides my steps through shadows,” he snarled, lunging into the wagon. Before Kjaelle halted him, he snagged Vantra’s arm.

Rive eucton!” she shouted.

He yanked and windmilled back with a startled squawk as his hand swiped through her Ether essence and gained no purchase. Did he truly expect her to remain Physical and let him grab her? She had enough experience to keep those like him from touching her!

The elfine growled and hopped down the stairs, intent on her opponent. Vantra floated after her, concerned. If the Collective targeted her because she discorporated Dychala, what might they do if she undermined the Finders further?

Red, the three drivers, and five other Finders walked through the thickening mists, kicking up plumes of fine dust. She could not decipher the expression on the red-haired spirit’s face, though Vesh, Mera and Tally might have bitten through steel, had a beam lain near. For all the talk about Finders making good impressions on the citizens of the Evenacht, the groups confronting her had few redeeming qualities. Did that explain the difficult Redemptions so many experienced? They pissed off the wrong people?

Katta meandered after them and leaned his shoulder against the wooden side of the wagon, the suspicious Finder clipping his heels. His clenched hands shook at his sides as a surly pout pulled the edges of his mouth near to his chin; he must not experience challenges to his authority often, to behave so childishly.

“You are returning to Evening with us,” he began.

A loud thhbbbt ripped through the air. A putrid smell accompanied it.

Smell? Vantra clapped her hand over her nose as Katta choked, pushed from the wagon and fast-walked away, brushing hard enough against the bewildered Finder he fell on his rump. Mera and Tally ran after him, gagging. Red just grinned and waved his hand in front of his face.

“Whew! Those elfine leafcakes are not sitting well,” he said.

Vesh roared in laughter as the Finders stared in aghast horror at him. Vantra swallowed; he farted. He farted!

How did a ghost fart? That required air! Did it not? Speaking employed Mental energy, not wind, so perhaps he manipulated his essence in that way? Or did the food rot and infect a spirit’s essence to the point they passed something akin to gas? Even in Physical form, ghosts often left wisps of their energy behind when they felt happy or sad, but she sensed nothing of the sort—except for the putrid smell that could not be a smell.

“What is that?” A Finder choked out the words through her fingers. She had ratted hair feathered into a tall peak, heavy glittery makeup and long red nails sharpened to a point. Southern Talis humans obsessed with high fashion a century previous had such a style, one abjectly opposite the sleek, long strands of the elfine peoples they lived with.

“I told you. Elfine leafcakes.” He grinned wider.

Thhhhbbbbbbt.

Vantra had no description that did the volume or the rancidness justice, though both vibrated her essence. Laken wheezed, and she hoped no Finder stood near enough to hear. Vesh coughed while he laughed, a strangled sound, and stumbled further away from the ancient spirit.

“What in the name of Darkness, Qira?” Kjaelle spluttered, clapping her hands over her nose and mouth.

The Finders had taken on a green tinge to their aspects, and a couple wavered from Physical to Ether.

“What have you done to us?” the gaunt man asked as he collapsed.

“Eaten elfine leafcakes.” Red shrugged. “That’s all.” He patted his tummy.

“That is not all!” the glittery woman snarled as her Physical form discoprorated and her essence filtered to the pitted ground, shedding wisps. They turned a nasty mold green before drifting as a powder to the dirt and creating a circle around her, marking an intentional boundary.

Ttthhhbbbbbttttt.

One by one the offending spirits lost their physical form and sifted to the road, sloughing energy as quickly as a dog shedding water. An acidic haze encircled them, so rank Vantra retreated from them. Kjaelle gave Red a squint-eyed glare that would make an angry snake proud as she joined her.

Essences, in unison, wavered like abruptly disturbed swamp water, and the spirits lost their hold on their appearance. Their remaining energy coalesced into a glowing ball planted within a divot, reminiscent of the heads in the Fields of the UnRedeemed.

Red folded his arms and looked to his right, that inordinately pleased, wide smile still breaking his face. Standing just beyond the immediate stench was a Finder in resplendent green robes of fine silk, flanked by two others hidden beneath cloaks and hoods, all glowing with energy.

The man in the center had one hand over his nose and mouth, the other pressed into his stomach, his eyebrows arching so low in repulsed anger they covered his pupils. The other two held out their hands, one with fingers pointing up, one with them pointing down, intoning softly before their Mental Touch burst forth, forming a magical shield that protected all three. A Great Seal to stamp potent works of magic glowed at the front, a brag on their strength.

The seal contained three blue circles encompassing the rough sketch of a fierce, long-fanged vulf, with tiny words surrounding it. Vantra squinted, but could not decipher the letters.

“My my, where did you come from?” Red asked cheerfully.

Kjaelle rolled her eyes at the show. She marched to a clear spot, and again backed by temper, formed an anger-laden, glowing mass of magic around her outstretched arms. She lobbed it at the defense. Her attack burst apart like ripe fruit against a wall, the pieces landing in splatty lumps in the dirt.

The center Finder dropped his hand and smiled with malevolent joy. “I look forward to showing you the majestic nature of the Hallowed Collective.”

“Oooohhhhh,” Red responded, rosy with excitement.

Thhhhbbbbbbbbtttt.

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