Vantra’s image stared back at her; wide dark eyes with heavy black smudges, long brunette hair as unremarkable as she. Many of the Winsome temple acolytes considered her plain, another indication that her vibrant, beautiful mother looked too far below herself for a lover. One of standing, one on equal footing, would have produced a lovelier child.
Red tapped the glass. “It’s basic light and color theory,” he continued. “You can make your hair as bright or dark as you wish. Golden, scarlet, deep black.”
Not golden. That represented her mother, not her. She liked the wig, so perhaps a shade more in line with scarlet.
“Modifying your entire appearance is doable, but too many spirits can’t hold the change and revert to a blob.”
She winced. “Blob?”
“And they don’t remember their original look well enough to return to it. Pictures help, if you have one.”
She shook her head. She had neglected such things during her time with the Finders, for she assumed she had plenty of time—millennia upon millennia—to snap a pic or two. And, besides, all that would have burned with her poor little home.
The burst of sadness shot through her, pricking tears.
“Um. Sorry.” Red rubbed at his nose. “That was insensitive.”
“It’s fine,” she whispered, her fingers digging into her thighs.
He did not agree and sagged, his humor dwindling to a soft melancholy. “Well, let’s try, shall we?”
“Lia olge nanfla los druor.” She concentrated, taking the edges of mist energy as Red explained, and drew them through her hair at an angle. The reflected light changed color, and she tipped more; bright scarlet flared through the strands, producing a dappled effect. Not what she desired. She focused on warping the edges, trying to even it out.
Her hair dived into a nasty greenish brown.
Red settled his hand on top of her head, and the horrid color wafted away.
“Not bad for the first try,” he said.
“How often do you change your look?”
“I don’t, not anymore. At first, I wanted to look as unlike Light as possible. I darkened my hair, my eyes, but I never found comfort in it. Ultimately, what I resented, what I hated, was not me, but the superficial cultural expectations. I turned my back on all of that and reclaimed me. That doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. Sometimes the need for change is so great, that it’s painful not to do it. Those spirits are happier with another appearance because it reflects who they truly are. They’re able to claim in death what eluded them in life, the true promise of the Evenacht.” He grinned. “But I don’t have the sense that is your goal. Kjaelle’s fond of violet and magenta hair. She’ll change for a few years, then go back to darker hair.”
“How long have you known Kjaelle?”
He cocked his head in thought. “How long has it been? Katta and I met her and Vesh maybe two thousand years ago? She was already telling skeptical fortunes, and not everyone appreciated the info. They tried to take their humiliation out on her. They were running from angry customers when they raced right into a magic display I was doing.” He wormed his mouth over to the side. “And all she noticed was how red my hair was. My spells were brilliant, by the way.”
If they were anything like the stinky one, Vantra understood why the elfine noticed his hair instead. She also found it interesting, Vesh knew her before the two ancient ghosts.
The wagon slowed to a halt, and sudden fear clogged Vantra’s reply. Another checkpoint? Red raised an eyebrow as Kjaelle roused from her quiet regeneration. Laken, who sat in the makeshift box on the table quietly observing the lesson, rolled his eyes over to the window, as if he could see outside.
“What did you do?”
The elfine popped up at Vesh’s muffled laughter and hopped to the door. “Verryn?”
“They’re stopping everyone on the major routes out of Evening,” the man said. The elfine opened the door, revealing a bronze-haired, green-eyed spirit tying his mount to the hitch under the right-hand side of the wagon’s bed. He had the same not-dead features Red and Katta sported, hinting at an ancient ghost. “And the backup is . . .” He sighed and shook his head.
“They stopped us, too,” the twins chimed together.
“I know. And so does everyone else. They’re telling some fantastic story about a dangerous Finder stealing a head from the Fields and her accomplices, who match the Joyful Caravan pretty well. You’re lucky, because I don’t think the Finders thought you’d take the Meander. Once I hit this road, traffic continued like normal.”
“That’s not good news,” Red said.
“No, but they’ve unwittingly called their own credibility into question because different checkpoints are telling different stories concerning the danger—and the Astri are all over it.” He finished the knot and patted his placid mare before swiping his hands together and unbuckling the saddle packs.
“Of course they are,” Kjaelle muttered.
“Any opportunity to undermine the Collective, they’ll take. There are rumors, too, and I’m not certain whether to believe them or not. A group of spirits from an Earth temple muttered about Imparik not being in Evening, and these checkpoint decisions coming from Regarsilla, someone they hold in contempt. Now, I don’t remember someone of that name in the hierarchy succession.”
“She isn’t.” While Vantra had not met the Collective’s leadership, all Finders learned who they were and why they held important positions within the organization. “Sage Æshren Gerant and Sage Imparik are the Founder and Spirit Leader, and Hallowed Moriom Willows and Hallowed Weamon are their seconds. If Imparik is unavailable, one of the other three, preferably Weamon, should speak in his place. Regarsilla isn’t even on the Collective’s council. Nolaris mentioned her, but I never had the impression she held a position of importance in the Collective or in the Sage ranks. She was just another Finder.”
“Well, something’s changed,” Verryn said. “And if it has anything to do with the Collective, nothing good will come of it.” He pulled the packs off the horse and hefted them over his shoulder.
“You’re so cynical,” Kjaelle said.
“And you’re not?” he asked, amused. She backed up so he could enter the wagon, then waved at the twins before closing the door.
Vantra’s fear dwindled, but unease still gripped her. She assumed him an ancient ghost, especially since he sported a sword, but he dressed in elden Keel garb, wearing a brown, thigh-length shirt laced up the front and tight leather pants that had stitching down the sides as well as horizontally at the thigh and mid-calf, a style she associated with the centuries-long Brindle Wars of just over forty-seven hundred years previous—the same wars Laken fought in.
How would he react to her Redeeming a Gaithen Candidate?
He did not seem concerned two strangers sat with those he knew. He set the packs in the small space between shelving and the back wall, unbuckled his weapon and placed it with them, then patted his chest before crashing onto a crate. “I’m Verryn, one among many.”
She nodded. Verryn was a common enough Keel name, initially because a great hero of her people had that name five thousand years previous, later because the valiant husband of Death possessed it. Mothers wanted his bravery reflected in their children, especially concerning his prowess while battling the Gabridarço during their invasion of Sensour a hundred years previous. He, a man considered myth by the majority of the living, rose up and defended his home continent of Talis against the interstellar threat. If only their offspring held such reverence for ancestral vows.
Of course, this Verryn lived long before that conflict, though he had probably encountered his share of similarly named ghosts. At least ‘Vantra’ had no legendary anybodies attached to the name, because she doubted she could live up to legendary expectations.
“Don’t laugh, but he’s an acolyte of Death and Passion,” Red said, cupping his hand over the side of his mouth and leaning close, though his words were loud enough Verryn heard them.
“Call me what you want,” he grumbled with humor but did not deny the association. Vantra knew that contemporary acolytes of Death sometimes revered her husband as well. He had gained a syimlin’s power during the ultimate battle against the interstellar invaders by being too near his love when the energy from hundreds of thousands of souls filled the air about her. Erse Parr’s devotion to him, and his in return, affected the magic, and he became Love. He did not see himself as a romantic but a warrior, so molded his power in a different light. While his love encompassed physical and emotional needs between two beings, he also found desire within learning and intellect. So he donned the aspect of Passion, a broader net than what ancient religious thought would have allowed.
Perhaps that expanded view now filtered into older ghosts’ perceptions of a syimlin’s duty.
“I’m Vantra,” she said.
Her Chosen’s cold, hesitant tone indicated he expected the man to direct harsh things at him. Ancient Keel hatred of Gaithen anything was legendary.
“I’m happy with the acquaintance,” he breezily said.
“Don’t let old hatreds guide you,” Kjaelle told them as she hefted herself back onto the bed and knocked on the panel. The wagon rolled into motion. “Believe me, Verryn doesn’t feel them.”
Vantra could sense Laken’s skepticism. So could Verryn, for he smiled in knowledgeable disdain at the captain.
“Yeah, I fought the Gaithen. Nothing good came of it, for either side. All it proved was how brutal and cruel people could be to each other. Lust for blood and destruction brings nothing but pain and despair, a lesson too many generations refused to learn.”
Laken lifted his lip in response but did not reply.
“Good thing you caught us,” Red said, a distraction.
“The Meander’s a quiet ride from Evening, and I think it’s the fastest route to Lesarat. I guessed you came this way.” He glanced about. “Where’s Katta?”
“We encountered a group of Finders under the leadership of someone called Bregarde. He claimed to be the Spear of the Finders and wanted to use a death mark on Kjaelle to win their duel.”
Verryn stared, blinked, then his eyes narrowed to the thinnest of slits. “A death mark?”
“Katta confined it and took it to the temple.”
“No one uses that mark but for Death and Darkness.”
“It’s not the same one, but Katta told us it would sunder a spirit readily enough.”
“That’s dangerous in ordinary hands.”
“Yeah, and Bregarde was definitely undertrained. He had two other Finders feed him energy to create a Great Seal.”
Verryn half-laughed in disbelief. “He needed help to form a Great Seal, but he thought he could wield a mark, no problem? I wonder how many they’ve mutilated.”
“I don’t know, but we interviewed a beghestern who called them the Knights of the Finders, and Bregarde said they’re charged by Death to do what the Shades do, only better.”
Verryn rubbed at his mouth. “Who mistakes Death’s favor?”
“The willfully ignorant. We’re taking their essences to Greyshen’s for decontamination.”
“So Katta said.”
Vantra’s curiosity prickled. Which temple? Death and Darkness had several dedicated to them throughout the evening lands, but she had no idea if he went to the nearest one, or visited a grand and glorious one, like The Eye of Death or the Temper.
“And how many are out there with this fake mark?”
“Too many. You might even get to meet one if the Finders searching for Vantra show up.”
Verryn’s gaze bore through her. She had the urge to cross her arms, as if that would prevent him from staring into her soul. “So did you take Laken from the Fields without permission?” he asked, sardonic. Laken snorted, and she shook her head.
“I heard his call, and I answered.”
“Ah. So they’re trying to stifle a competent Finder.”
Red smiled widely. “Nolaris is involved, so we’re helping.”
“Ah.” Verryn looked at Kjaelle, who firmed her lips and glared at the ceiling rather than the ancient ghost. “At least you have experience with that.”
“Do you know anything about the Snake’s Den?” she asked huffily.
“A bit, but my info is a century or two outdated.”
“Ghosts don’t change that fast.”
“The Snake’s Den is primarily a native land, so the living drive the current culture. Sure, there are spirit acolytes at the Sunbright Temple, but they’re concerned with resurrecting the rainforest. Theirs is a pretty, but long-past, ideal that ignores the fact the desert’s been around for twenty thousand years, and has flora, fauna and nomads who flourish there. How well the general population treats outsiders depends on the prejudices of wise women from Black Temple, Grindal Oasis and Kepher. A couple centuries previous, the Grindal Oasis and Kepher bezeks were lax and accommodating, happy with the money travelers spent in their towns. Black Temple took notice, and despite pushback from the most conservative vi-van, they, too, started catering to pilgrims and tourists. The dor-carous didn’t want to lose their leadership roles over the general aspects of nomad life, especially to the rival Voristi.
“I don’t know how much of that has changed. There might have been a cultural backlash instigated by the vi-van, and Black Temple drew back into their cocoon, though I doubt Grindal or Kepher would have followed. Too much money flowed in those places for the merchants and the leadership to turn away from it, no matter what spiritual leaders declared. And the Voristi still travel to Merdia, so there’s that.”
“Why?” Red asked, wrinkling his nose.
“Not all tourists want their first introduction to the Teeth’s coast to be by sunken ship. Some take a caravan up from Uka’s Grace and follow the eastern roads to Merdia. The Voristi provide those caravans. It’s pretty lucrative, for those who run them.”
“Merdia’s supposed to be a pirate town, through and through,” Kjaelle said.
“Yeah, and it’ll remain a huge tourist trap because of it,” Verryn replied. “Pay to see a pirate king’s abode, take a quick trip to the nearby Snake Fort if you want to join the law and order side, get caught up in drunken revelry, roar into a sea battle, maybe get sunk. Quite the experience for a few D tokens.”
Vantra sat, hands in lap, uncertain what to do with the information. She knew nothing of Merdia or the desert cultures. She had read the rainforests of the Snake’s Head Peninsula had turned to desert because the dryans hoarded the local magics in a lake, but never delved into the history of it—her curiosity bent to different lands. But he sounded as if ghosts paid to participate in sea battles. Her confusion must have captured Red’s attention because he grinned.
“Think of the southwestern Gulf of Teeth coast as an enactment location for an idealized high seas life from around a thousand years previous,” he told her. “Ghosts pay to be part of a mythical conflict between a pirate king and the nearby Evenacht commander. They can get into huge battles where no one dies, a lot of property damage occurs, and the spirits return to do it all again the next day, unless the king or commander gets caught. Then there are a series of rescue missions that end in the prison’s destruction. For construction businesses, coastal clean-up crews, and taverns willing to entertain winners and losers, Merdia’s the place to be.”
“It’s a game, even if the players are dead serious,” Verryn said, straight-faced. “The king and commander have strict rules about what goes on in what battles, too. The more realistic and authentic, the more you pay because of the increased danger, and the more they restrict participation. The ships have cargo the adventuresome can loot, and if they’ve chosen the right captain, they can keep what they take. It’s not all raids, though. Before tourists can join, they go through sword instruction, pistol instruction, sailing instruction, and a lot of other educational experiences concerning sailing history on Talis and in the Evenacht. All that, to participate in the Mer Bozem sea battles.”
She admitted it. The words shocked her. Ghosts could not drown as a living person, but they could sink to the bottom of a watery expanse and have difficulties holding their essence together while they sludged back to land. Being torn asunder by waves made her shudder. And what of the living participants? “That sounds so violent.”
“The afterlife isn’t perfect angels singing harmonies to Erse Parr,” Verryn said. “Some people see their ideal ghostly existence as being part of what Merdia provides.”
Red laughed, waving a hand as if to backhand away ill thoughts. “They cater to the later generations. The spirits who lived through those or similar times don’t want anything to do with the battles, though they have starry eyes for their own idealized, historical periods. I mean, there’s even a village filled with ghosts who actually lived in Erse Parr’s childhood hometown. They go about their everyday slopping pigs and cleaning house and people gawk at how ancient and exciting it all is.”
“Ancient, old man?” Verryn smirked.
Red looked ready to use his stink spell again but politely refrained. Kjaelle snickered, and with annoyance, the ghost tapped the mirror’s surface. “Well, at least we can still work on your hair color, Vantra.”