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Chapter 2: The Bonding

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Sparse travel on the road to Evening created an easy return to the largest Evenacht metropolis—as Vantra planned. Day or night, the lands of the dead remained coated in the grey mist that spirits used to energize their essences, but the daytime dimness was that of a cloudy morning before a snowfall, while the night wallowed in heavy darkness. Once twilight approached, the crowds dwindled, preferring the lights and noise of habitations to the pitch-black wilderness.

Evening radiated brightness to appeal to those nervous spirits.

She topped the small incline and stared at the distant buildings towering over the valley, floors stacked on one another like cake layers, windows blazing bright. She had despised her first glimpse of it as the Greeter, who took charge of her and a small group of Keels, led them to the main plaza. While living, she knew the cozy warmth of wooden buildings and the limestone coolness of the temple, structures much shorter, more inviting. The population of Winsun, the seat of Ga Son’s Keel followers, had just reached fifty thousand, and most of the inhabitants wished to keep their community looking as historical as possible, in honor of their syimlin. No skyscrapers dotted the landscape, no expansive markets filled space, and city planners strictly limited modern transportation around the temple complex.

She had ridden bikes and horses and sat in carriages, rather than use self-driving vehicles.

Her home had not prepared her for the sprawling metropolis called Evening. It packed the river valley and nearby hills, far beyond her ability to see the edges, a multitude of lights blaring bright against the cool grey of a fading day. The Greeter had to force her forward, with a mixture of scolding and sympathy, while her newly dead companions glared, impatient at her reluctance to near the humongous habitation.

Their impatience grew, as they walked through wagon lengths of rutted ways and paved roads, through old neighborhoods of brick and stone and wattle, newer neighborhoods of wood and steel and stucco, to reach the city center. They eventually arrived at a white-tiled plaza with a single, wide, squat metal building that looked much like an awkward crab wearing a tilted hat, the walls made of glass to allow the soft ambient light into the interior. Other spirits stood before it, flickering and intent. After a brief tour of the exterior, and one-sided conversations with the other ghosts and caretakers, she and her companions returned to their Greeter, confused. Where were the doors?

The first test, for newly deceased, the spirit said. Get inside.

Vantra had an easier time than her mates. Without complaint, she dutifully gorged on the energy that filled the mists and slipped through the solid-looking wall after twenty-nine days of trying. The test taught the new arrivals how to re-energize and manipulate their Ether essence, the most valuable lesson to learn within the Evenacht. The dead could not do much within the evening lands without understanding the fundamental concepts of Ether Touch.

Mulling over those first, frustrating days after her death, she hurried down the hill and to the valley floor.

With a last glance at the lofty western towers, resplendent with gold facing that blazed through the dim atmosphere, she took a crossroads leading east. The native-kept fields gave way to clustered habitations. This far from the city proper, no defining, common feature represented neighborhoods, and the clash of styles and colors scratched at her. Small, dull wooden abodes with pointed roofs sat next to squat, flat-topped brown brick huts, which sat next to brightly stuccoed, two or three-storied structures that housed extended families. Scattered among them were the wattled, thatched homes of farmers, set on stone foundations and bearing one window, if the inhabitants were lucky.

In the center of it all, larger estates of wealthier individuals, highly decorative and cold in their staid presentation, blighted the faint sense of community with uninviting wrought-iron gates and thick stone walls. They stood as testament to how, even in death, spirits enjoyed walling themselves away from those they believed did not belong.

Berating herself for the unkind sentiment against those she did not know, she hastened to a bridge that spanned the gently flowing Nectar. The river began in the distant Crescentshine Mountains and meandered past the city on its way east, eventually meeting several others and forming the humongous Sparrow, which flowed to the Collection of Prayers.

She hated that term for the ocean, and hated more the implication that even the most urgent prayers drifted into a deep body of water, never to reach the syimlin they targeted. The natives called it the Forevermeer, and claimed it linked all of Sensour’s deathlands. She preferred that, because of the hope and community expressed in the description.

The sloped bridge had tall, red-stained wooden railings and taller streetlights that rose four times her height. The lamps, long cylinders of red paper that held a flickering ball of ether essence, rocked back and forth in the breeze. To either side, trails led through the towering grass and to shallow beaches with a myriad of multi-colored shells gleaming in the yellowish grains.

Her first touch of water in the Evenacht came during a visit to one of those beaches, and she had delighted in the tingling pressure against her palm, the flow of cool liquid through her fingers. A simple act, but one resplendent with learning opportunities.

She paused at the top and glanced over the side; only a few spirits mingled with the reeds, dipping their hands into the water and hoping their attempt at Physical Touch bore fruit. A shame more did not join them; too many wandered Evening in a daze, uncertain and confused, and unwilling to focus on anything else but the realization that the afterlife’s rich bounty did not immediately flow to them. The Hallowed Collective’s representatives told them, after they passed through the glass wall and their Greeters shepherded them to the spiritual educational facility, what they needed to learn to interact with their new environment, but they refused to listen and bemoaned their unexpected fate.

The afterlife was supposed to be a reward, not another awkward learning experience.

A muffled call rose from the bag and, frowning at the reminder of duty, Vantra fast-walked across the bridge and beneath a string of orange paper lamps swinging merrily over the dusty road.

So began the Meddal District.

Over seven thousand years previous, the Meddals, a sophisticated people of education and great works of art, built the community. Unable to come by the tools and materials they once used to construct grand abodes, they settled on round concrete huts, stout and ugly. The bright colors painted onto the exteriors attempted to downplay the severity of the look, but never managed it. Wooden beams lay flat across the roofs, overlapping the walls to provide an awning that protected the chairs and benches that lined them. The structures had a single room divided by screens, and unlike other places the dead resided, they housed one or two inhabitants. Because of this, the district spanned into the eastern hills, taking up far more space than the stately skyscrapers erected by more recent peoples.

Those sheltered many thousands, the spirits stacked upon one another like firewood. Finder gossips claimed caretakers of the Eldrikdark Estates simply lined the walls with coffins, where the dead retreated when they wished to rest. While Vantra did not need much space, she desired more than the confines of a coffin. Even the deceased had knick-knacks they held dear, and wanted a place to store them!

And, truthfully, the constant reminder of burials and rotting bodies would bother her.

She stepped into familiar streets, busy with the bustle of Meddal stores. Beside the wisps of ghosts, natives stood at the stalls settled between abodes, perusing the pottery, woven baskets and fabrics, hardy but embellished items that withstood the vigor of Evenacht living. Short, grey-hued, snub-nosed, three-fingered Travers perused the merchandise, while tall, elegant, ebon-skinned Avies bartered over trinkets, their feathery red eyelashes fluttering as they rapidly blinked. Stocky, green-dappled klaits meandered by, their wispy white hair joyously dancing in the breeze as they spoke with animated gestures using their thick fingers.

She noted two uneasy djorgens, an unusual sight in the Meddals. Their people preferred the wider, newer city streets because they had room to maneuver. They looked something like large deer with a short-haired human torso where the neck would be, though their withers sloped down to thick back legs and a short, fluttery tail. Their spindly front legs looked delicate in comparison, and long, thin arms jutted from their shoulder blades like wings, ending in head-sized, four-fingered hands. They dressed in the black and teal guard uniform of a prominent Astri noble house, wearing a sash with a badge to denote they attended to official business, and she bowed her head before hastening past.

That house, Di Kjadenzte, caused major difficulties for the deceased. A large population of Astri disliked that the dead walked their lands, and hated the fact their long-regretted pact kept them from retaliating against the insult. Di Kjadenzte took the dislike to a new level of hate. Their patriarch’s ruthless treatment of spirits and those who supported them caused some of the other houses, notably the Di Qö and the Di Gekjeng, to rise against him in protest.

They felt a more genteel cleansing in order.

She whisked around the corner of her street, a lucky coincidence in circumventing them. While the Di Kjadenzte rarely interacted with Finders because they did not quite have a means of subverting the Hallowed Collective, that did not mean their representatives would neglect to hassle her.

She promptly noticed a huddled spirit in between two huts, shivering enough their essence flickered. She could not tell much about the being, whether a man or woman, whether a human or elfine or nymph or another race, and did her best to infuse warm comfort into her aspect. The Lost needed help, but their terror made that a difficult endeavor. She did not want to chase this one down right before the bonding ceremony.

Vantra sank down in front of them; the ghost jerked up, the cavernous darkness of their eye cavities wide in fright.

“Hello.” She forced calm into her voice and touched her chest. “I’m Vantra. Do you need help?”

They swallowed but uttered no words.

“Leave that one be!”

They both started at the rough command. She glanced over at the djorgens and cursed her ill-luck while the ghost whimpered and shrank away. She rose, then stepped between the two guards and their victim, aggravated. Newly dead did not understand the Reckoning, the language shared between all beings in the Evenacht, and to expect them to follow orders spoken in it annoyed her.

Why did they want this spirit, anyway? Until ghosts learned the basics of Ether Touch, interacting physically with them was almost impossible for the still-living, unless they practiced Touch magic, like the Keepers. While she did not doubt the Di Kjadenzte employed their fair share of spiritesti, she could not picture those accomplished intoners agreeing to common guard work.

“You’re interfering,” one warned, reaching for the long spear strapped to his left side. He should have kept it in the sheath; the end caught and refused to come out, and no amount of jerking freed it.

“Are you taking them to the city center?”

The one speaking barred their teeth; djorgens possessed long fangs that would make a cat proud. The intimidation tactic, however, would never work on her. She tapped at her badge, making certain they did not mistake her.

“I will escort them to the—”

“I said you’re interfering,” he reiterated.

“I am not. Finders are—”

He finally drew his weapon, tearing the sheath from its straps. The ripped leather slithered to the ground, where it landed in the fine dust, sending plumes into the air. His companion glanced at it while he pointed the sharpened tip at her.

He expected that to harm her?

“Vantra?”

The two guards jerked around and regarded Jheeka as she floated past them. Her annoyance filled the space about her, like heavy smoke, and they retreated a step, uncertain. Had they experienced her sharp anger before?

Jheeka possessed a strong, uncompromising reputation when it came to bullies, be they alive or dead. She had first warned Vantra of Nolaris’s intimidating idiosyncrasies, and cautioned her about provoking the man, though she often instigated his disgruntlement without care. While many sages frowned upon her acts, they reluctantly refused to officially chastise her, though Vantra could not quite pinpoint why.

“Oh, a new arrival!” She smiled warmly at the cowering ghost, then glanced at her. “Do you know what language they speak?”

She shook her head. “Not Keeling,” she said.

Jheeka tried a few others from disparate cultures that ran the breadth of the continent of Talis, but none sparked recognition.

“You’re interfering.”

The djorgens stood, awkward but insistent. Jheeka faced them, folding her arms and glaring frost at them.

“Interfering? It’s a Finder duty to help the Lost to the city center.”

The chatty one hissed through his teeth.

Without waiting for further conversation, Jheeka slipped her palm under the newly deceased’s hand and tugged them into standing. She glanced at Vantra, then at the djorgens, whose muted discussion included grimaces and much hand waving.

“Vantra, I have to speak with you, but I need to get this one to the city center first,” she whispered. “Please, don’t leave until I do. It’s urgent.”

“I have to perform the Ritual of Bonding, so I’ll be at home.”

Jheeka’s concern flooded her. “Hurry and complete it,” she advised, before whisking her charge away. The djorgens belatedly followed, rushing to keep step with the swifter, more agile ghosts.

Hurry? Did she refer to potential mischief by the djorgens? She and Jheeka needed to speak with a sage. If Di Kjadenzte were waylaying ghosts who wandered from the Passage and lost their way in the Fields, they needed to act. If they sought to interfere in Bondings and Searches, the Hallowed Collective needed to break their assumed impartiality and lean into the Astri, reminding them that Finders performed a service sanctioned by Death—and she was not one to provoke.

Vantra’s chest fluttered; the certainty she interrupted something evil swirled within her, but intuition, without proof of wrongdoing, meant nothing.

She jogged to the final hut on the dead-end street, despite the increasing protests of the head bouncing against her back. Her sanctuary, her home. The bright blue structure nestled against the tall, crumbling remains of a grey stone wall, one, she had read, that held against the Beast when he sought to subjugate Evening. He, as Death, wished dominion over all deceased, though the dead did not want the brutally cruel monster as overlord. Many religious texts detailed how he stepped beyond his office, one meant to ease the transition from living into death, and attempted direct, singular rule of the Evenacht. She nearly tasted the relief in the words, that Erse Parr sent him to his Final Death before he managed it.

She pushed the darker-hued door open and bumped it shut with her rear before walking to the square table she had conscripted as a makeshift altar. She settled the bag on the edge and released the string; the material slid about Laken like water, revealing his narrowed-eyed, furious glare.

He could manage nothing else?

Jheeka said to hurry, and she trusted the woman’s judgment. Forgoing the initial ritual cleansing would speed things up; while nice for the Chosen to have the dirt and dust washed away, it served no other purpose.

She glanced at the round table next to the altar, which held water and syimlin-blessed soap, both set in shined silver bowls, surrounded by violet arrowmark petals and white candles. Syimlin-blessed soap had cost her most of her acolyte stipend, but she wanted to perform her first Choice as a replica of the description she studied of the first Redemption.

Realizing the encounter with the djorgens made her more susceptible to Jheeka’s odd advice, but unwilling to discount it, she cupped Laken’s ears and set him on the silver plate in the center of the altar. His hair trailed across the surface and over the rounded edge; she grasped it and pooled it about his head, surprised it held no tangles. Her long locks always knotted at the slightest provocation, and combing them out took half the morning.

“You’re really going through with this?” he asked in angry consternation.

“I told you, you’re my Chosen,” she murmured as she lit the candles that ringed the altar. A soft, white glow illuminated the space.

His eyes flicked about, but she had little in the way of visual distraction. Her small, purple-blanketed bed rested under one of the two shuttered windows, an over-stuffed bookshelf next to it which held her jumble of Finder tools and the hand-sized pyramid altar dedicated to the Sun. The pyramid shimmered with a welcoming golden glow, but she doubted he found such enchanting.

He eyed a thin blanket on the other side of the bookshelf, as if trying to guess what lay beneath. It hid the piles of paper she scribbled notes on while learning her craft, because she did not have time to file them before the pull to the Fields became overwhelming. The fabric showed odd lumps but appeared far neater than the disorganized sheets.

She grabbed the purple, magic-laced chalk set between the violet Find and Bond candles and drew a circle around the plate. He eyed her, his upper lip twitching, as she divided it into six sections. Within all but one, she wrote the Hallowed sign for the correct body part, Laken’s name, and appended ‘Find’ to the end. Most Condemned needed to recover their arms, legs and torsos, which proved quite the handful to discover. Hopefully Laken was one of them; she did not want to search a couple hundred years for his internal organs, too.

In the last box, she wrote “Bond” and appended her and Laken’s names to it.

“It’s hard to break a covenant.”

“Yes.”

“You’re going to have to do it, to return me to the Elden Fields.”

“I’m not going to return you to the Elden Fields.”

“You’re delusional. Sages have tempted their fate and tried to Redeem me. If they failed, what makes you think you can succeed?”

“You called to me.” She stubbornly believed that meant something.

“I call to no one, little Finder,” he snarled. “I already told you that.”

She clapped her hands together because she had no bell and tipped a candle over. “Chue a Isacurche. Daduon ifre.”

The flame lit the chalk, and the powder burst to life, flaming high. It streaked to the words and burned for an agonizing eternity before puffs rose from them. They flared and devolved into ash that pattered across the table. Wisps swirled in their wake, and after they cooled to a soft violet, they surrounded Laken in a haze. A breath’s moment, and they whisked to the chalk-outlined map of the Evenacht she had draped over a triangular flag holder that hung from the ceiling behind the altar. They combined and splatted into one area—her first hint.

Snake’s Head Peninsula.

The wind-distressed desert did not make for a promising start to her endeavor. Could not the magic have pointed her in a wetter direction?

And now came the investigation. She did not think delving into the Researchers’ books for rumors, diaries, literature, a hint to the exact whereabouts of the essences, would prove exciting in any capacity. She would much rather stick up a map of the specific province and go through the ceremony again, but Bonding to the Condemned only happened once—so Finders initially received only one general clue to follow. When she asked quite logical questions about why, Nolaris’s intimidating glower convinced her to follow tradition and not attempt to disrupt it.

The bond glyph snaked smoke into the air, which wrapped about Laken, entered his nose, eyes, and then mouth as his lips parted to protest, before shooting to her and engulfing her in a thick cloud. She caught a hint of disbelieving outrage from the captain as the link formed, a thin line of essence between their foreheads, before it, too, puffed into ash and drifted to the floor.

“I accept this bond,” she whispered. “Fe tiu insque sacurche. Do you accept this bond? If so, repeat ‘Fe tiu insque sacurche.’ ”

The connection reappeared, strengthened, and she waited for Laken to recite the words.

Her door blew off its hinges, the wood clattering against her bed.

Jheeka? She turned, confused.

Nolaris stalked through the broken portal, his gnarled hands clenched, shuddering under the strain. His whitish-grey hair flew about his head, a living creature of its own. His robes billowed back, smacking Tieron, who tumbled backwards, blank in surprise.

Tieron. A shing of enraged resentment burst through her. How dare he retrieve her mentor!

“What are you doing?” Nolaris shrieked, his voice high enough to jiggle the various glass containers sitting on her shelves. She glanced at them and trepidation shot through her as she noticed the sun pyramid had dimmed to an ominous crimson. What did that mean?

“Ah, Nolaris,” Laken said, his deep voice thrumming in pleasant dislike. “I wondered who held her leash.”

Leash? Resentment replaced her concern; it must have traveled through the link, because he winced.

“Shut up!” Nolaris screamed.

Vantra stared. Her mentor never raised his voice above a condescending, firm comment, even when he attempted to regain attention for his words.

“Do you know who that is?” He pointed imperiously at the captain, his finger trembling.

“Yes,” she said cautiously. “Captain Laken.”

Nolaris triggered Physical Touch and swatted at her.

She instinctively jerked back, avoiding the slap.

What was he doing? True, they did not have the closest of relationships, but she followed his advice as best she could, and had gratefully accepted his offer of mentorship when she first applied to the Finders. No one else who officially held the office of sage wanted to sponsor her, and that one of the highest-ranked members took an interest in her? She eagerly leapt at the opportunity.

Many regarded her with envy. Jheeka told her she would regret her choice.

“Nolaris?” Tieron timidly asked.

She eyed him; his hesitant shock did not diminish her wrath. He must have raced to retrieve the other man nearly as soon as she left him in the Elden Fields. Why? What right had he to interfere in her Choice?

“You’ll return it,” Nolaris told her, a crisp, ugly demand. Whether Tieron’s concern—or the reminder he had a witness—prompted it, he calmed and jerkily paced.

“Return him?” she asked. True, she had not exactly done as he wished, selecting a head from the lesser Fields, but no stricture forbade her from entering the Elden Fields and helping one there. And Laken called to her, an insistent pull.

The captain laughed. “Jealous?” he mocked. “Her Choice went much easier than yours did.”

Nolaris jumped to the altar, grabbed his hair at the back of his head, and slung him into the map. Purple essence trailed him.

“What are you doing?” Vantra cried as he slammed against the hard concrete and flumped to the floor. She rushed to him as the link between them frayed; he had yet to solidify their bond, a mutual agreement, and any untoward act might sever it.

Which was the point.

She gently grasped him, holding him as she would a kitten. Nothing askew, nothing broken.

“Should I accept this bond?” he snarled, his eyes focused on Nolaris. “Fe tiu insque sacurche.”

“The spell broke,” the man said in gleeful contempt, his face lighting in a manic smile. “It’s too late.” He pointed imperiously at her. “Now give it to Tieron. He’ll put it back where it belongs.”

“No,” she said. She held Laken so he faced outward, an accident, but he could see his adversary. Whatever his expression, Nolaris took it as an insult.

“I said put it back!” he roared. He jumped at her again, ramming the edge of the altar. Items jiggled; the Bond candle fell and extinguished, the ritual end to the ceremony. Dammit! They had not completed the link.

Nolaris snatched at her, and she tumbled back, bumping into the cleansing table and sending the water bowl crashing to the floor.

Good thing she had forgone that part of the ritual, as Jheeka suggested, or Nolaris might have prevented her from even initiating the Bond.

The enraged man grabbed a still-lit candle and heaved it at the map.

“NO!”

The middle caught fire and flames shot from it. Within a few breaths the paper burned and, as ash, fell to the ground.

She gaped at the remains, horrified. She had only one chance, to make a map that coincided with the Bonding. Not only did it provide a hint as to the first essence location, but it also became the initial bonding object, an indirect way to keep Condemned and Finder connected until they retrieved the first essence. At that point, the initial mental link strengthened and became unbreachable by conventional magic methods. Each additionally discovered essence bolstered the connection, and the power held within it became the basis for the Recollection ceremony, the bodily reconstruction of the Condemned.

Her mentor burned the foundation of her Redemption.

Nolaris swept his robe sleeve across the altar, obliterating the remains of the ritual. Vantra felt the link tear, and she poured energy into it to stabilize it.

She was not returning Laken to the Fields.

Nolaris snagged her right forearm, his fingers burning welts into her form.

She shrieked, dropping Laken, and dissolved into her ethereal form.

“Tieron, grab it!” Nolaris barked.

Damn them, no!

Vantra hissed the word of Physical Touch; her arm did not function properly, the magic he used boring into her essence, searing her energy. She choked and retrieved Laken with her left hand, shoved him under her injured arm, snagged the bag, and rushed to the door.

She would have to return for everything else.

Tieron stood dumbly in the doorway, and she fled through him. She caught a wisp of his emotions, the numbness of terrified confusion. He had wanted her to take Captain Laken back to the Elden Fields, as a punishment for a head who mocked him incessantly; he had not expected the sage to transform into a raging beast after he told him of her misadventure.

“Vantra!” Nolaris yelled.

She glanced back. Fire burst from her home, engulfing the structure in flames tall enough to reach the top of the adjacent wall. Tieron unnecessarily tumbled back as Nolaris calmly floated from the door and focused on her. His eyes glowed an eerie white, a reflection of the magic he used to consume her abode. He raised a hand.

She tore through the brush between two other dwellings, guilt ramming her for the loss as his magical attack destroyed the hut nearest her. What would that have done, had it struck her? She needed to flee faster, but she could not initiate a partial Ether Touch. The magic coating her arm sucked her energy, making any advanced spell impossible.

If she could not manage this, how might she help the elden Condemned find Redemption?

She hit the dirt road on the other side as angry spirits rushed from their homes and stalls to confront the one causing the commotion. Natives screamed and ran for cover. Nolaris floated between the remains of the huts and readied a strike; the Meddals interfered, furious. Their rage consumed the street, and the lesser spirits, who could not fight the force, shrieked their defiance of the sage and rushed him, mindless.

He struck them instead. Essences burst apart and evaporated.

He had not sent them to the Final Death. Had he? No graver sin existed among the spirits in the Evenacht, than to send a ghost not ready for the Final Death to oblivion.

Vantra whisked down the roads, taking twisty turns that she hoped would confuse Nolaris to the point he lost her. The pain in her arm grew, and she glanced at it; the red welts had expanded, sucking more energy. He must have decided not to pursue her, and waited until she could no longer function before finding her and retrieving Laken.

She paused to juggle the captain into the bag, then slipped the thin strip of twine about her shoulders. She ignored his muffled protest.

“He’s going to hunt you down,” he told her, loud enough she clearly heard him through the cloth. “That wound is going to lead him to you.”

Maybe.

She knew magic; her mother performed magical duties for Ga Son. The gift was rare, and priesthoods snatched up the people who showed even a small glimmer of it. She had studied it in passing while alive, having inherited the ability from her mother; she dove into the literature after death. She did not understand all that she read—the Finders did not have a single sage she trusted to truthfully answer her questions—but she grasped enough to know how to slough off the magic.

She thought.

An explosion rocked the air.

Vantra stumbled and whirled; smoke rose behind her, thick, grey. White lightning crackled about it, only to disappear into the ominous mist.

She ran on, fighting to regain a semblance of thought. The instinct to flee took over, her sense bowing to it.

Despondence, heavy, sludgy emotion. The sensation knocked Vantra from her numbness and she glanced about at the melancholy spirits drifting through the surrounding space, collecting her thoughts.

Ah. The Grail. Serendipitous luck brought the first ghosts to the Nectar twelve thousand years previous, and they named the land upon which they settled after the holy silver bowl used in Redemptions. The Nectar of the Syimlin poured into the Grail, a metaphor the founders delighted in.

Spirits crowded the land, and the population grew outwards, formed shelters, built community centers and places of worship. An industrious priest of Death founded the Hallowed Collective, and they officially gifted the various districts with a common name a thousand years after the founding; Evening. They wanted an obvious moniker to serve as a beacon for those experiencing the spirits who wished for a safe place to create, meditate, enjoy.

The Collective, too, eventually moved from the Nectar’s shores, declaring the city center their heart. The once-vibrant community of the Grail drifted after it, and other, darker individuals claimed the land. Criminals and the disfavored resided there, native and spirit, feasting on the darkness surrounding their souls and nurturing bitterness at their lack of importance.

The district contained several abandoned buildings, far too many for Nolaris to easily search. She glanced at the ugly, growing mark on her arm, and fled through the sagging walls and stone-strewn, muddy streets, happily ignored by the residents.

She needed to get rid of the magic before it consumed all her energy.

She stumbled over a barely visible base to a wall jutting into the road, one that only stood ankle-high. The ruin contained broken, greying floorboards, a crumbling fireplace, and a hole that led into the ground. She whisked down it, sternly telling her idiot self that no monsters rested in the darkness—and even if they did, she could initiate Ether Touch and they would not harm her.

Unless they, too, were ghosts.

She hit the far wall too quickly; a small space. Should she attempt to find one larger? The heat wafting from her arm solved the dilemma; she needed to care for the nastiness now.

She squatted against the dry earthen wall; it crumbled around her. Wincing, she drew her robe sleeve away from the wound; a deep burn, the thumb and finger marks reaching through her, gnawing energy along the way. Nolaris meant for it to debilitate her essence, to the point she became an easy victim of his assault.

Annoyed muttering drifted from the pack. “Shh,” she told him.

“You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you just—”

“I think I’m beyond that,” she whispered as she concentrated on her appendage. She could do this.

“He isn’t shy, about sending ghosts to the Final Death who don’t do what he demands.”

“Shh. I’m going to remove his mark, but I need to concentrate.”

“Remove his mark?”

She closed her senses and focused on the malicious magic that encased her arm rather than Laken’s sarcastic incredulity.

She spoke truer than she intended. Nolaris’s enchantment trailed wisps of energy into the air, a beacon for the one who created it. She did not understand why he bothered; if she were to fail, Laken would return to the Elden Fields and she would wallow in shame for it. Something else triggered him.

Might Laken know? He recognized him and warned her about his revengeful actions. He had mentioned a not-smooth Choice—

Concentrate! Her afterlife depended on it!

She delicately touched her fingers. “Rive eucton.” The Physical faded, replaced by the smooth, shimmery Ethereal form. She trailed her index finger up her arm, on the bottom so she did not interact with the mark. “Juechtepre olge.” Physical dissolved into Ether after it, and the magic dropped through the airiness. It landed with a splat on the ground; luckily, the spell did not spray her.

“She’s down there.”

She jerked up. Nolaris’s snappy anger swirled through the words. Who accompanied him? Tieron? She shuddered and backed into the farthest corner. No escape met her eyes, only rough dirt and moldering wood.

She unslung the pack and set it at her feet, though she did not withdraw Laken.

“Don’t say a word,” she whispered. “They’ve found us.”

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