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Chapter 3: Escape

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Vantra sensed the energy of several individuals above her, and furious animosity flavored nearly all of them. A whiff of hesitant, aghast disbelief rode below the stronger anger, which she decided belonged to Tieron, but she did not recognize any other.

“I don’t care.” A woman’s voice sliced through the static buzz of wrath. “You destroyed a street!”

“I—” Nolaris began.

“And I know it was you because I watched you! You attacked and drove a Finder from her home and obliterated it afterwards!”

Her breath hitched, and a tear rolled down her cheek. All the items she had collected in the previous five years, gone. The ritual tools, the notes, the papers and books and knickknacks, the Ga Son altar and badge and . . . and  . . .

Wait. A tear? She rubbed at her face; how had she formed a tear? Nolaris said manipulating energy in that way took decades, and most never managed it!

Bitterness swirled from the pit of her stomach. Why believe anything he said?

“I’m a sage,” he stated coolly. His presence stepped across the threshold, vexed sternness warring with another emotion Vantra could not identify. “I’m conducting Finder business.”

“Then the Hallowed Collective will pay for the damages.”

“You dare bring this to their attention?”

While apparent, the admission Nolaris acted without Hallowed approval buoyed her. It meant she was not completely cut off from the Finder organization—for all the good it likely would do her. He would stalk to them after this conflict, denigrate her Choice, and lie to conceal his involvement in the Meddals destruction. The Hallowed had no reason to disbelieve him.

She had witnessed similar things in the Spiral Sun Temple. The acolytes would fib about their abuses of merchants and random residents, and because they had a Sun patch across their breast, they expected all to believe their lies and punish those who spoke against them.

Her mother sought to rid her temple of those malcontents. They turned their anger on her daughter, and Vantra knew the ending to that poisonous tale.

 “I don’t care who you are,” the woman seethed. “I don’t care about Finder intrigue. The one you chased walked our streets, carrying books and study materials. No sneaking, no suspicion. No destructive intonations. The one you chased helped others in need, especially the Lost. Not once did I think criminal when she was near.”

Criminal?

“She’s dangerous,” Nolaris cautioned.

“She is not the one who used magic to destroy homes,” the woman snapped as angry calls for his arrest rose from many other voices. Had the Meddal inhabitants followed him? He must have caused more damage than what she witnessed, for so many aggravated ghosts to confront him.

“Don’t you dare,” the sage said, his tone biting.

Vantra bowed her head as anger heated the essences of the argumentative spirits. She knew Nolaris’s power, and she doubted the one championing her had similar capabilities despite glowing strong. No one in the crowd could stop him from harming her, when he beheld her again.

She knelt and shook out her robe. She covered the bag with her right sleeve, then curled over it and grasped her right shoulder with her left hand. She concentrated, the verbal tussle above her fading away as she meticulously converted to Ether touch, and dimmed her essence to the point it barely functioned. It coated Laken and the bag, a shadowy camouflage.

Would it be enough to trick Nolaris?

“There’s no one down here.”

She shuddered and nearly lost her concentration as the voice erupted from the darkness next to her. She did not recognize him, so decided the woman had sent him to nose about.

“But there is residue of his magic,” he added.

“His magic?” The woman’s voice sounded nearer.

“Leave that be,” Nolaris snapped.

“It’s evidence,” the woman said.

“Evidence?” Nolaris asked, outraged.

“I’m not intimidated by the Finder elite, sage,” she told him, contemptuous. “I’ve been in the Evenacht longer than your esteemed Collective. I know the land’s laws. You’ve overstepped yourself, and you are going to pay.”

Vantra heard scraping sounds and a brush of air to her right.

More heated words, but if she paid attention, she would lose the Ether and reveal herself and Laken.

Time plodded past. Her essence wavered, and her form threatened to dissolve. She fell out of the trance, and exhaustion took hold. Shuddering, she attempted to suck energy from the air about them.

The mists did not filter down into the hole. She needed to rise, to return above ground, and sup from there. It would expose her, but hopefully no one remained who might witness her sneaking away. She pictured a nervous but determined Tieron hunkered down nearby, waiting for yet another opportunity to rush to Nolaris with the news of her movements.

She grasped for the bag. Her fingers passed through. Frowning, she concentrated. “Uvron eucton.” She attempted to grab it again.

Physical Touch eluded her.

Gritting her teeth, she focused on her hand; she needed to take Laken with her. She needed to solidify to do so, and she did not have the strength.

“Have you left me yet?” Laken’s resigned voice drifted from the bag.

“No,” she snapped.

“After that, I’d think you would.” He sounded surprised. Truthfully, so was she.

She had never worked hard for much in her short life, preferring to laze in the luxury granted her by simply being her mother’s daughter. The effort she put into her Finder studies outshone any dedication she had while living, to her home, her education, her sect. She now had a purpose, an important one, a reason for existence beyond the woman who birthed her and the holy inheritance that Ga Son’s followers insisted she accept. She refused to lose that progress because she Chose poorly.

Poorly? No. She stiffened her resolve; everyone deserved to be Redeemed, and brutal Laken was ready. He long ago redressed the past offenses that occurred over a handful of years, during the millennia he sat in the Elden Fields.

“I need to re-energize,” she told him. “I can’t pick you up right now.”

“Re-energize?”

“I hid us from Nolaris.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I’m good at Touch.” She inched forward and turned her face to the open air above. “Once I can trigger Physical Touch, we can go.”

“Where?” he asked, though disbelief flavored his tone.

Where? Hmm. “Well, before Nolaris burned the map, I saw the place where your first essence rests.”

“Those maps only provide a vague area, not a specific location.”

“Yes, but—”

“I know how this works. I’ve been through it before. Finders drag me to their Libraries, hunt through histories and diaries and whatnot, trying to find a hint of where my body’s gone to ground. The Researchers take on the challenge and mumble and curse and sift through stacks of paper. They guess and guess and fail and dump me back in the Fields because their shame overwhelms their inane claim to duty.”

She sucked in a huge breath, and mist entered her, filled her, and transferred its energy to her. Too slow, considering they needed to flee the hiding place, but it gave her a chance to ponder her options.

“I still might have access to the Library here.”

“Do you really think Nolaris will let you visit? He just tried to send you to the Final Death!”

“He did not,” she denied, though her emotions floundered at the thought. If he destroyed buildings with spells meant for her, she doubted he only intended to inflict minor damage.

“He’s quite fond of using that threat against those who disobey him. It’s not like the Hallowed Collective cares if he sends a few low-class Finders to oblivion. His support’s too important.”

“How would you know about any of that, anyway?” Sitting in the Elden Fields did not grant heads intimate looks into the Finder organization.

Laken’s dark laughter, filled with heady anger and helpless rage, made her shudder. “He tried to Redeem me.”

She froze, a dread-filled tingle filling her throat. He had?

“He was so puffed up with snobbery, he couldn’t see past the jut of his chest,” the captain said, vicious hate swirling below the surface. “He was the most successful Finder in years, had even Redeemed the Rival, an ancient competitor to the Beast’s throne, a being some thought UnRedeemable because the monster intended to punish him in perpetuity for his hubris. But crafty, powerful Nolaris succeeded! And then came for me, the Keel Butcher. He thought his mere touch would give me the moral center I needed for Redemption.

“He carted me around, showed me off, bragged incessantly.” He snorted, and Vantra closed her eyes on the agony lacing the sound. “And he failed. He conducted the Bonding ceremony, and nothing appeared on the map, and no link formed between us. He had no hint, no idea where to look, and since he pissed the Researchers off during the Rival’s Redemption, they told him to do the investigation himself. Rather than put any effort into it, he broke what there was of the covenant and had an acolyte return me to the Fields, claiming I’m UnRedeemable.”

UnRedeemable? NO! No one in the Evenacht should languish in the Fields for eternity. NO ONE. She rarely felt an emotion so stark, so encompassing, but the dead certainty drove her, that every head sitting in the Elden Fields deserved to join the evening lands proper and indulge in their afterlife.

Death never intended for the punishments to last an eternity.

“NO ONE is UnRedeemable,” she told him, with fierce conviction. “If anyone who tried to Redeem you found a body part, that proves it.”

“A body part?”

“Yes.”

The brief silence concerned her. “One did,” he finally growled. “He discovered my torso and an arm before deciding he didn’t want to spend another century digging for hints and clues.”

Another century? She swallowed; she had much to look forward to.

“Where were they? There’s no reason they aren’t in the same places.” She had read in her study materials that, in the unlikely situation of a failed Search, the body parts would return to the same secret hiding locations after the Finder severed the bond, which gave the next Finder to undertake the Search a headstart in discovery. If Laken mentioned sites that differed from the Snake Peninsula, she might already have three areas to explore.

He did not respond, and she looked at the bag. The top sagged over, the fine cloth somewhat molding to his form.

“Did they show you the map? If you can—”

“You really are serious about this.”

She made a face at his flabbergasted words. “Yes.”

“Even after Nolaris attacked you.”

“Yes.” He had made certain she had nothing left to return to, so why not embark on a grand adventure to Redeem the UnRedeemable?

“You may not think so, but there’s no guarantee they’re where Lorgan found them.”

“But it gives us a starting place, and if we can’t find information on them, then we know to look somewhere else.”

He sighed, exasperated, disliking the salient point. “Fine. My torso is in the Snake’s Den, and my right arm is in Greenglimmer.”

“The map showed the Snake’s Head Peninsula.” Disappointment stabbed her; two instead of three locations, then. At least he had a specific locale. The Snake’s Den was a wide stretch of wilderness known for its even more dangerous fauna and flora compared to the rest of the peninsula, which had the privilege of being the most treacherous evening lands environment outside of the Voidlands and the Sunderlands. Even seasoned Finders avoided it, because the Snake hated anything associated with the spirit side of the Evenacht. She vaguely remembered reading about Greenglimmer, a swamp forest in the Dryan River basin, but knew no particulars.

At least Uka’s Lament held both, even if they rested on opposite sides of the continent.

Laken laughed, a rough sound. “And yes, the Snake guards my torso. Quite the congenial host. He convinced Lorgan I wasn’t worth the time to Redeem. I don’t have an exact location for my arm. I was in the bag, and he never said.”

“I’ve not met him. Lorgan.”

“Not surprising. His failure with me destroyed his Finder reputation—and Nolaris helped in that.”

“Why?”

“Nolaris saw an opportunity to get rid of a formidable rival. And he did.” Laken sucked in an angry, grating breath. “He thought Redeeming me would destroy the remains of Lorgan’s reputation, and any attempt he made to rejoin the Finders. And then he failed worse.”

“But Nolaris is still a Finder sage.”

“When the powerful invest in someone, it doesn’t matter how badly they screw up. Hide them for a few years, have them reappear when the immediate scandal is over and everyone else has moved on. Hands washed, no one cares, and the tool continues to shit on everyone’s existence while accepting accolades from the morally bankrupt.”

“I’m not going to fail you.”

A terrible response, but what else to say? Perhaps, before Nolaris’s attack, she would have argued how bitterness prompted by years in the Fields had led to the declaration, but she lacked the energy to follow that reasoning, for she did not believe it. Not in this case.

Not after Nolaris interfered with her Choice, her Bonding, after he destroyed her home.

Jheeka knew his darkness. But she never convinced Vantra to see it, and, too late, she desperately wished she had listened.

She sucked in more mist and forced her thoughts to focus on her immediate predicament. She needed access to a Search map, and some Finder enclaves outside of Evening did not look to the Hallowed Collective for leadership even if they followed their tenets. Their Libraries might still be open to her. While Nolaris ranked highly in the capital, that did not mean he carried weight anywhere else.

And, maybe, if she could find Lorgan, she could convince him to tell her about Greenglimmer by playing on his hatred of Nolaris. Maybe.

Absorbing enough energy to transition to her Physical form exhausted her. She stretched her fingers, winced, and snagged the bag; if her ex-mentor discovered her again, she did not think she had enough strength to hide. Hopefully the Meddals kept him busy enough that she could flee.

But first . . . she had to go back to her home. She had to see, whether her Sun badge survived the onslaught. To freely traverse the Evenacht, she needed a badge, and while her Finder identification still rested on her breast, it might prove troublesome for her to wear it.

A Great Syimlin’s badge, however, would grant her the same opportunities without Nolaris baggage.

When she first visited the Temple of the Golden Sun in Evening, the priests had sniffed at her credentials, told her she needed to learn proper respect for the hierarchy before they agreed to let her join, and showed her the exit. Humiliated and angry, she reluctantly left. They tittered at her seething, and she wondered if they would treat her mother with the same disrespect.

On her way out, she noticed a badge with a resplendent, jeweled sunset lying on a small vase table near the elaborately etched gold paneled door, and on impulse, snagged it. The theft triggered guilt because only an important member of the temple would wear such an elaborate piece, and she hastened home, unable to stop blushing.

She never convinced herself to return it. Once she stepped within her abode, the luminescence she associated with similar, syimlin-blessed items erupted from the fine stitching and refused to dwindle. She took that as a sign that Ga Son wanted her to have it, and placed it near the pyramid altar she constructed, satisfied that she now had a connection to her mother, however roundabout.

Had Nolaris destroyed it? Would not the syimlin take that as an insult?

What was she going to do if the badge had not survived the fire?

Dread filtered through her as she whisked through a city gate, sternly telling herself running from ashes was cowardly. She hustled to the Meddal district; the streets, usually still lively with a nighttime crowd, held quiet, creeping merchants and Evenacht natives. Had Nolaris frightened them so?

She stopped when she reached the street she first fled down, and she understood, why the Meddal woman insisted on punishment.

“What?” Laken asked.

“Huh?” She looked at the bag, confused.

“Your breath hitched.”

Breathing. She needed to discard that living act. “The destruction.”

“The destruction?”

The huts were burnt husks sitting in a spatter of ash, a few unintelligible items sticking up past fallen walls. Thick lines of blackened soil streaked in all directions, through whatever stood in the way. Vantra did not think she could have withstood a direct strike, considering the damage the attacks did to the buildings and land.

“I want to see.”

She reluctantly shrugged out of the straps and pulled the string. The silken material sagged over his head. He blinked rapidly in the ambient light from far removed lampposts and stared at the devastation.

“Why did you come back here?” he asked in ugly shock.

“I need to see if my Sun badge survived.”

“You returned for a worthless badge?”

“Not worthless. It’s a passport I can use to go anywhere in the Evenacht, just like a Finder’s badge.”

“You’re a Sun worshipper?”

“My mother is the high priestess of the Spiral Sun Temple, the primary Keel spiritual center.”

“And you really think the evening lands, a place of constant mist, will respect a Sun badge?” He muttered something derogatory about that, but his words faded from her consciousness as she halted in front of her once-home.

Burned to the ground. Only ashes and bits of the stone foundation remained.

The tears did not shock her, as they had earlier. She wiped at her face, numbly digesting the loss. Not that she had much in the small home, but everything she had worked towards in the past five years lay in ashen heaps at her feet.

Why? Even if Nolaris burned with resentment concerning his failed Search for Laken’s essences, destroying all she owned in the afterlife was a too-drastic reaction to it. Embarrassment did not explain his attack.

The twinkle of gold caught her attention. She concentrated on the flash, then put Laken down. A puff of dust billowed around him, and he choked, exaggerating his response; she eyed him and whatever he noted in her expression quieted him. She crept over the dusty grey ground, ignoring the ash clinging to her robe hem and her slippers, making for a slick step. Powder covered most of it, but the tip of the Sun altar poked above the remains, reflecting the mellow light. She took her robe and brushed at the grime; the small gold pyramid remained whole, and while grungy, appeared undamaged.

She picked it up. The badge sat beneath, protected by the base, untouched, gleaming as brightly as it had the day she brought it home. She snatched it, her heart leaping.

She had not lost everything.

The fine thread, the gold foil of sunbeams, and the jeweled decoration brightened at her touch. Warmth emanated from it, and the pyramid responded in kind. She unclasped the back and pinned the badge over the smaller Finder one; the glow diminished, but not the heat. She set her fingers over the item and smiled; Ga Son’s favor had not evaporated.

Her cursory inspection of the rest proved that all else had fallen to magick; even the silver bowl had melted into an unrecognizable mass. Wishing to see if something of the map survived, she took one step before the pyramid’s gold darkened into the same ominous crimson that heralded Nolaris’s visit. She hastened to Laken, nervous with fear.

He squinted skeptically at the altar; she shoved it in with him and ignored his outraged protest. She slung him over her shoulder and turned to leave, the jewels on the badge flashing a warning ruby.

And stopped.

Dychala.

The woman floated in the center of the road, her green Finder robe swirling violently around her, several of Nolaris’s other students backing her. She was one of his first acolytes and still looked to him as a mentor. She had a reputation for sophisticated exploration of essence locations using modern technology, even though it had not existed during her lifetime. When Vantra first met her, she espoused she owed all to Nolaris, so if she visited her once-home, she came at his behest.

“You’ve caused quite the stir,” she said, her voice throaty and derisive. “That Meddal stain would never have had the opportunity to dig her claws into him, if not for you.”

Vantra swallowed at the hate that rode the words. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Dychala smiled, pulling her reddened lips taut, as venomous as a snake. “No? Nolaris does not attack innocents. You committed a great offense, and I will set this right.”

“And what offense is that?”

The woman narrowed her dark eyes at her. She had enough control of Touch that she did not present as gaunt as other dead; unlike most inhabitants of the evening lands, she had practiced magic while alive, and it influenced her use of energy. Still, the attempts at lighter makeup to hide her sunken eyes while keeping her tanned skin bright, looked amateurish. “Your Choice,” she bit out, as if the words soured on her tongue.

“Laken called me. I listened. That’s not a wrong Choice.”

“Laken is UnRedeemable,” she snarled, whisking to her, reaching for the bag. Vantra shuffled back, curving away from her and her long red nails. “You, as a Keel, know this.”

“Is he now?”

Dychala’s eyebrows arched down to her nose as she turned. The acolytes nervously parted for Jheeka. While her actions appeared nonchalant, as if she had strolled by and accidentally encountered the confrontation, Vantra sensed the underlying rage. The newly arrived Finder looked about at the ashy remains of homes, then focused on her opponent with a malicious smile.

“No one is UnRedeemable. That’s a lie Finders tell when they’re incapable of completing their covenant.” She raised her chin and regarded the bristling woman with cool contempt. “Nolaris well knows it.”

Dychala hissed, her fingers curling. “You presume much, Jheeka.”

“Do I? Perhaps, but so do you.”

The other acolytes glanced at one another, and by their confused frowns, Vantra guessed they did not understand what, exactly, occurred to warrant this altercation, let alone what prompted the animosity between the two. Dychala must have summoned them, and they accompanied her because of their association with Nolaris, but they should have asked why she needed their support.

Dychala laughed, fury decimating the attempt at a sultry sound. “You have been a scratch in his side for too long. Perhaps Vantra’s mistake in her Choice was not hers? I’ve heard you advise her frequently, ignoring Finder tenets on mentorship.”

“Vantra’s Choice was her own. There is no shame or guilt in that. A Condemned called, and she listened, as Finder tenets direct us to do.”

Meddals, intent on the confrontation, their anger massive enough to infuse their essences, congregated just beyond the acolytes. Wisps of emotion swirled from them, evaporating and leaving behind their enraged displeasure. Dychala focused on them briefly, then turned to Jheeka, agitated.

“And who are they?”

“Spirits whose homes your mentor damaged or destroyed. Songya is speaking for them at the Hallowed Collective, but they had to remain and attempt to recover what they could.”

The irritated Finder solidified and hissed when the Meddals did the same. She expected them not to understand Touch? A stupid assumption, concerning beings several thousand years old. Vantra took a step back, tempted to flee during the distraction, but she did not want to abandon Jheeka or her neighbors to face an enemy on her behalf.

“Leave,” one of the men told the fuming Finder. If his gaze could bore a hole into Dychala’s head, it would have drilled one so large, it would have eclipsed the confines of edges.

“Leave?” she asked, offended.

“We expect the Finders to leave us be,” a woman said, fury lacing her tone. “We reciprocate.” She flung her arms wide. “This is what happens when you interfere with us. You’ve no care, who you hurt, who you destroy, in your power games.”

“What do you mean by that?” Dychala asked, outraged at the rebuke.

Vantra heard a hiss. A spirit floated in front of the wall, using camouflage well enough that she had difficulty distinguishing them from the old stone. They motioned to her; she returned to the confrontation, but Jheeka and the Meddals had everyone’s full attention. They hissed again, and she retreated to them, still facing the Finder threat before her.

She caught a hint of stray emotion; she recognized Cheldisa and froze.

“Vantra!” she hissed urgently. “I’m not here with Dychala. I’m with Jheeka.”

How could she believe that?

Dychala whirled. She raised her hand, and without intonation, created a glowing mass of yellowish magic filled with lightning and static. Jheeka rushed her and pushed. Her throw missed, blowing a humongous hole in the bottom of the stone wall and sending shards of it into the community beyond.

Displaced rock teetered at the top and careened down, slamming into the grassy earth and rolling awkwardly. Another lightning and static charge hurled Vantra’s way, still off-mark, a hasty attack that missed and obliterated the base. A large hole erupted from the soil and the wall sagged inward, chunks falling through the opening.

The stones dislodged looser dirt and it showered downwards. Vantra reached for Cheldisa, but the rush of sliding soil caught her legs and carried her into the darkness. She fell with a startled shriek; no bottom, just open air! She landed on wet stone and toppled over with a hiss as her Physical form vibrated. The bag hit the ground with a clang from the altar, and Laken’s obnoxious protest rose from the bag.

She ignored him and looked into the space faintly lit by her badge’s ruby glow. Broken, grimy squares tiled the floor in all directions. She could run away from Dychala and her companions! Well, shuffle; the surfaces were slick with water, and despite the pits, her slippers did not catch. Because, of course, official Finder garb consisted of slippers.

She hastened in the direction away from Dychala and her lightning, walking close to but not touching the filthy wall. Gunk clung to it, shiny and oozy, and she refused to slide her fingers through it. She no longer had a tummy, but nausea at the thought welled anyway.

“What is going on?” Laken demanded.

“We fell in a hole, and now I’m running away from one of Nolaris’s acolytes. Please hush, so she doesn’t hear us.”

“Which one?” he asked.

She gritted her teeth. Had she not said please? “Dychala.”

“Oh.” The deadening of his voice reflected her own misgivings about the escape. “She’s a nasty one.”

“Yes.”

“You know what Dychala means in her native tongue?”

What an odd question. “No.”

“Female assassin. She bragged she was her king’s favored killer.”

“You think Nolaris uses her in the same capacity?”

“Yes.”

She refused to ponder it. They were going to escape, assassin or not.

She lost herself in the twists and turns and offshoots and narrow pathways. Foulness coated everything, and for the first time since her death, she appreciated her lack of smell. Water contaminated with a grungy green-brown color flowed through some rooms and tunnels, running sluggishly in deep channels caked with unmentionable clumps. No mist hung in the air; the absence concerned her, since her strength ebbed, slow but steady, and she needed to re-energize soon. Unintentionally dropping Laken down there, then returning for him, hurt her heart.

Of course, the thought of absorbing energy tainted by whatever polluted the place made her nauseous, so perhaps no mist was for the best.

One tunnel, so coated in slime she gagged in reflex, led upwards and to a room tiled in smaller, rectangular bricks. Oddly, torches lit three openings and a rickety metal ladder rising into the darkness of the ceiling, with wooden plaques next to each.

She studied the writing; Mukaesh, a language spoken by the reclusive, native Yon. They warred with themselves, the rural villagers against the beings who moved to larger habitations and found success and money there. The village leaders claimed those who left the countryside were traitors to their people, bowing to the whims of the dead for the leftover crumbs of wealth. Vantra did not know much about them other than gossip; a recent Redemption led the Finder to one of those remote villages, where the shaman-witch had erected an altar around the Chosen’s body part, declaring it a luck favor from their village deity.

She shuddered at the tales of his brush with Final Death, to retrieve the essence.

She selected the opening to her right, wondering how far she had fled from her destroyed neighborhood, whether she had accidentally circled back to it, or if Dychala sent others after her, and they stalked her. Since she walked in her Physical form, they might trail her footsteps.

Fear hastened her pace.

The short entry led to a second room, one with more tunnel entries, another ladder, and crates stacked against the walls. Crates? Someone used the place for storage? Of what? Curious, but knowing she did not have the time to peruse, she continued, hoping to peek inside several unsealed ones surrounding the opening on the opposite side.

Short spears, their stone tips reflecting the light, wallowed in the straw. Painted symbols adorned the shafts, and leather string wrapped about the points to hold them to the wood. The frayed ends knotted about twigs.

She hurried on, uncertain what she expected, but not that. Were they for rituals? Performed by who? The Yon? Did all the crates hold such things or just the open ones? Why hide them in an underground storage area connected to the filthiness of the lower tunnels? She had heard smugglers used the abandoned sewers to bring outlawed items into Evening, but their illicit merchandise comprised drugs, magic paraphernalia and modern tech that the Hallowed Collective had yet to admit into the city’s stores.

Or so she thought.

Perhaps Yon smugglers had made fake weapons and expected to sell them to tourists as intriguing ancient artifacts. Tricking customers, whether living or dead, was a staple in Evening markets. She had witnessed many a seller hawking items they claimed were of modern origin, but which she doubted existed on the Talis continent, let alone on the world of Sensour. Flashy lights soldered to metal did not mean the thing had a purpose.

Worried that smugglers or other criminal types might take exception to her walking through their storage, she ran from the room.

And raced right back. Frantic, she stuffed herself in a niche between four stacked crates and the wall, wincing at the sludge that coated her robe, but unwilling to face whoever strode that way, yelling.

She understood no words, but the heated, snarly tones made their intent clear enough.

Wood cracked, accompanied by more yelling, followed by low, intimidating seething, a thunderous clatter that made her jump, then silence. She peeked around the corner; hunched figures in ragged, short cloaks with embroidery on the shoulders, a style worn by older eastern seaboard Talis ghosts, stared at the exit, then began a heated discussion before marching back out.

But they were not ghosts. They lived. Their breathing, their lack of essence dissipation, proved it.

She did not want to follow them.

She peeked further around the edge, then scurried to the ladder. Hopefully no lock barred where it led.

More voices echoed up to her as she reached the top. They spoke the Reckoning, but the reverberation marred any distinction of tone or speech. Assuming them her chasers, she hefted herself over the top rung and onto the dirt floor, doing her best to not wiggle the ladder and alert those below to her presence. The walkway led to a niche with another, shorter, more rickety ladder. She scurried up and into a dark-shrouded opening containing a dilapidated wooden door with sizeable gaps between greying boards. Hesitant, she placed her ear to a larger crack; calls, yells, laughter, animals braying and whinnying, all in unison with the rush of water, filtered to her.

Frowning, she pushed at the knobless thing. It creaked open.

The door sat below the earth, with a steep trail leading up. Vantra closed the portal and scurried from it.

Mist burdened the air, and she gratefully sucked it in as she placed distance between herself and any pursuer who used the ladder. The dark of an Evenacht night still held sway, which explained the vibrant torches lining the lane, illuminating the pits and shallow divots in the soft earth.

She sighed to herself. Should not dawn have arrived already?

On each side of the road sat low-burning campfires near farm wagons with their owners sleeping in the dirt or on the driver seats, the beasts of burden eating hay strewn on the ground. One still blazed, surrounded by spirits chatting about the next day’s market and expectations of profit. She thought of inquiring about their location but declined. If the ladder led to where she thought, she should happen upon a street sign quickly to confirm her guess.

She entered the main thoroughfare and recognized the route. Wagons still plodded down the road, their drivers looking at the signs hanging from tall lamp posts that indicated whether a lane had space available for them to water their teams and sleep. She smiled in relief.

The Nectar Merchant Mounds. At least she was no longer lost!

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