Heads. Tens of thousands of heads.
Heads of the weak of spirit, the cruel, the malicious, the evil, heads of men and women and some very unlucky teens, heads that screamed through cavernous mouths into the Field’s fog-shrouded twilight, pleading for forgiveness, begging for someone, anyone, to ease their suffering.
A light breeze carrying the cries and the essence of late-year, bitter grass, ruffled Vantra’s forest-green robes, playing with her bell sleeves and hem and friskily snagging the matching silk bag whose string wrapped around her wrist twice. She snatched and wrinkled it in a fierce grip as she regarded the dry dirt path leading up the first hillock. She had yet to walk among the heads alone, and forcing her initial step proved daunting.
Another breeze, from a different source, drifted across her back and teased her dark, silken hair. She settled the dislodged strands behind her ears and eyed the newly dead who caused it. They raced down the wide, cobbled Passage Way, horrified by the Fields and their unholy captives. They left swirls of grey energy in their wake, which slowly drifted to the road and powdered it with soft, ashen puffs that the next group of terrified spirits kicked up and dispersed.
So it had been with Vantra. She, too, had raced from the cacophony of pain, hands clasped over her ears, crying, confused, desperate in her fear not to join them—as if Death would rend her apart for a slow step.
No, the rending took place long before the punished reached the Evengates.
She sighed a depressed, dark breath, then set her fingers against her lips. Her incorporeal body did not need air to survive, but becoming a spirit did not destroy lifelong habits and instinctual responses. They lingered, sometimes for thousands of years, before they wafted away.
Or so her mentor, Nolaris, claimed. He had passed three millennia ago, yet still sucked in a satisfying breath after completing something he enjoyed, like a book.
The wind fluttered her hair from behind her ears and into her eyes, and she turned, squinting away. She would not have noticed him otherwise; one, among the dozens racing from the Evengates to Death’s Arch, who crept down the road, cavernous eyes wide in sick dread as he beheld the Fields. A man with dark blue religious robes, long beard, and skeletal face—but all in the Evenacht possessed skeletal features, no matter how corpulent in life. So was the trauma of death on the spirit.
He drifted to her, sweeping his shaking arm about. “What is this?” he asked, aghast.
Nolaris spoke true; religions never prepared their adherents for their first experience in the Evenacht. Even she, the daughter of a High Priestess of Ga Son, had not understood what transpired after death, and navigating the first few months in the evening lands, with new ways of existing, panicked her into immobility.
“The Fields of the UnRedeemed,” she replied, her tone as soft as the powder. Calm, deliberate—a very un-Vantra attempt to soothe a frightened soul. Mimicking her mentor’s tranquility only went so far, and she hoped the spirit did not guess at her harried state.
“UnRedeemed?” His brows knit over his watery blue eyes as he tipped his chin up and beheld hill after hill filled with heads that stretched beyond sight in the misty atmosphere.
“Fake regret falling from lips taking their last breath never purges’s life’s villainy,” she told him, attempting the sophisticated Finder talk. “Death is not ignorant of their lies.”
“I am an acolyte of Arstet! She never spoke of this!”
“She did.” Reading directly from holy books and documents in the Finder’s Library, she realized years ago how few listened to the words of the Syimlin they claimed to follow. “You neglected to listen.”
“This punishment! I don’t understand.”
“Death passes Judgement in the Seat of Adjucation. If the spirit has lived a reprobate’s life, she rends them limb from limb and places their heads here, then scatters their body parts across the Evenacht.”
He quaked, horrified. “A terrible afterlife,” he whispered.
“I thought so, too,” she said. “But it is not an eternity of punishment. They will find Redemption.”
He, as she before him, assumed justice for ill deeds happened at death, but that the penance took place away from casual view, hidden from the myriad of spirits who wallowed the years away in the evening lands. The illusion of a soft, warm afterlife, held in the calm embrace of Death while searching for that which eluded her in life, broke apart on the lightning shock of realization that she, too, could have ended up there.
She almost said more but smashed her lips together. He would discover that his petty cruelties did not equal the corrupted depravities these heads committed in life.
A wrenching scream tore through the calls of others.
A head appeared above a vacant indentation on the nearest slope and fell into it, landing with a dull thump and spraying all near her with soil before rolling over. The long white hair collapsed upon her face, shielding most of the visage from view, while her new neighbors coughed and spit dirt from their lips.
The acolyte gasped, shoving his fist into his mouth. “Adana!” he cried brokenly and surged into the grass.
Annoyed, Vantra whispered the word of Ether Touch, rive eucton, disintegrating her Physical form into wispy energy, and leapt after him. Her bag fell through her incorporeal appendage and plopped into an undignified heap next to a silently leering head. She snagged his arm, yanking him back before he unwittingly ended up in the Fields himself. He flailed, reaching, and she tightened her power about him and drug him back to the Passage.
“There is nothing for you here,” she told him, quiet but insistent.
“I must help her! How . . . she . . .”
“If you wish to help, then you must join the Finders,” she told him. “The Hallowed Collective sanctions us—and only us—to Redeem the Condemned.”
The ground shook. The acolyte whirled, losing curls of energy with the act. A Keeper of the Gates deliberately tread towards them, his heavy footfalls vibrating the air. He raised his enormous spear, a weapon used to denote office, and while Vantra had never heard of the Keepers using them, she did not discount they might.
The acolyte whimpered, his eyes flicking upwards, past the muscular chest, to stare at the jutting lower jaw, the long fangs reaching beyond the flat nose, the small, black-bead eyes, the straw-like black hair and curving, spiral horns on each side of the forehead. He fled, as most newly dead did, after beholding the red-skinned Keepers. Their height, their fur kirte that reached to the knee, their bare, clawed feet, frightened those unfamiliar with beghestern.
Flashes of grey streaked away from the beast’s feet and flew past her, the spirits wasting even more energy in their fear. Vantra sighed; the much-alive Keepers, natives of the misty Evenacht, could not squish the newly dead beneath their step. They used other means to physically interact with them, flesh to ghostly illusion—but those leaving the Evengates had extremely limited experience in the afterlife, so did not know their terror-induced flight was pointless. They would learn of it from the Greeters at Death’s Arch, while they slowly regained the energy they lost because of the imagined threat.
The beast stilled, following the acolyte’s progress, then turned on his heel and began his plodding return to the Gates, paying her no attention.
She settled her fingers against the Finder emblem prominently displayed on her left breast, a stylized white eye in the center of an abstract design that looked like a cat, all on a green background. Only Finders possessed official permission to remain in the Fields, so she made certain to wear the badge whenever she walked in them. While the Keepers knew her, she still felt tense if she forgot it.
Disgusted, she muttered the word of Physical Touch, uvron eucton, and retrieved her bag from the brown-eyed, shaven head that produced the snarly words. Unlike the others, he sat upright, neck planted in the soil like a stem, to the side of the path’s beginning. “You could have said something, too,” she reminded him.
“Like he’d listen to me.”
“You are the warning. Perhaps you should start behaving as one.”
She disliked Gell. Inky greasiness combined with sick anger swirled beneath his words, and while he tried to coat his liar’s tongue in sugar to trick the Finders, he never succeeded. Instead of contemplation and admitting to his evil deeds, he enjoyed screaming invective at the newly dead, scaring them with his plight, because they could not know how he arrived in the Fields.
She did not understand his willful want to continue his current state. Why let rage drive him like that?
“You don’t believe I’ve repented?”
His eyes narrowed as she wrapped the bag about her wrist again and focused on the disjointed cries echoing from the hills. The Fields beckoned.
“I’m just as suited as they,” he hissed.
“You have no regret for your actions.”
“They deserved what I did!”
“Death already punished them. Sneaking into the Fields to mutilate and hide them questioned her purpose and interfered with their repentance. Until you acknowledge that, you will remain the warning to others who want to commit the same atrocity.”
“Atrocity?” He snortled. “And what do Finders know of atrocity, since you support this one.”
She turned away from him, her mood souring. She had a job to do. Thousands of Condemned, and she could choose only one Candidate.
Choose. She mentally laughed. An insistent tug had followed her since her last visit to the Fields, one filled with regret, despair, the melancholy of agonized acceptance. She needed to discover the head she sensed that begged for Redemption—but, as Nolaris said, bow to wisdom and care. Helping a Condemned soul too early was a mistake that could shudder through the Evenacht and cause mayhem amongst the deceased.
She did not think the pull cared much about mayhem amongst the deceased, but even so, she needed to cautiously decide whether to follow it. Prudence reigned among the Finders, because rage engulfed so many UnRedeemed, drowning their unripe desire for salvation. Nolaris warned her of it, that all acolytes experienced dismay at the lack of regret. If they worried on the bitterness and resentment, it would rot their soul.
The Condemned would find Redemption, in their own time. Make peace with that.
She thought she had, but experiencing the Fields alone rather than in the company of her mentor proved a far different type of bird. Without his words to distract her from the cries and pleas and heavy rage, she absorbed the keen pain, and it infused her.
She anxiously scanned the hills, mentally reviewing the Plaintive paths she and Nolaris walked two days previous, because the tugging had begun then. She should have paid more attention when she first noticed it, but she spent the time silently rebuking her mentor for sitting with a Condemned, asking them question after question, raising their hopes for Redemption, then obliterating their excitement by stiffly proclaiming them unready.
The tears and disbelief after that declaration . . .
She closed her eyes and clenched her thin fingers in her layered white skirts. She had thought to return to that head, Choose her, but the persistent tug dissuaded her from it. So she told another of Nolaris’s acolytes, one already performing Finder duties, and anger flashed through her eyes before she vowed to Choose the head herself. Cheldisa disliked Nolaris’s methods and, unlike his many admirers, purposefully ignored his advice, even that which might help in difficult situations.
Vantra originally thought it odd that Nolaris even claimed her as his acolyte, but he attempted to keep Cheldisa subdued through the link. It worked as well as a bucket with a hole, and she defied his tenets if she thought they interfered with her Candidates. In this, she looked to Jheeka as a mentor, even if the other Finder was not a sage and therefore not authorized to train acolytes.
So did Vantra, but considering the chastisement Cheldisa experienced over the relationship, she kept her involvement with the healer silent.
She sucked in a deep breath and stepped onto the path. No more hesitation; she must find the Candidate.
The shrill demands started after her second footfall. Cries from the Condemned about the unfairness of their punishment, the lies of Death, did not move her. Erse Parr did not casually rend ghosts apart based on whims; she had read enough of their histories in the Library to know they had committed egregious wrongs in life and suffered until they crashed into their personal rock-bottom and repented their deeds.
The mental tug strengthened with every step, and she hurried after it, like a cat after an elusive thread. She ignored the First Fields heads, not spending time to study the gaping mouths, the round, bloodshot eyes. She knew their appearance, recognized their unripe desires. She whisked from those initial hills and towards the Mendacity, a second-tier shelter that housed the Condemned who realized their punishment would not end until they captured the attention of a Finder. Many resented the fact and grew deeply bitter over their plight.
Bitter, yes, but not regretful. Unfortunately, she had to walk through them to reach the third tier, the Plaintive. The ghosts there, in some way, accepted their punishment, and the glimmerings of despair and remorse swirled within them.
She stepped onto wilting grass as the path ended, the sign that she had arrived at the border of the Mendacity. A head bit at her ankles, snarling, the eyes wide and wild, the teeth yellow and broken. She fought not to kick her in the nose, sending her bouncing into her neighbors while she scampered away; the Condemned could not move and do her harm. The heads remained Physical, unable to discorporate because that would allow them to float from the Fields and escape Erse Parr’s judgment. Instead, they lay in the divot they created when Death first planted them there, and unless a Finder turned them over, or the Field Keepers moved them to the next tier, they stayed in the same position, hearing, seeing, speaking, and nothing more.
The pull yanked her away from her meandering thoughts, away from her current direction. Frowning, she looked to the west, to the distant black iron arches bearing dead vines and shriveled flowers. The Elden Fields? They contained the ancient heads who had yet to be Redeemed and those who committed crimes so horrendous their Condemnation would last for centuries, if not millennia.
Nolaris took her to the northern arcade once, so she could peek past the Keeper-tall arches and behold the black soil, the wilted grass and leafless bushes, the grungy heads. While he considered it a sacred Finder duty to Choose an older head to Redeem, he cautioned her about entering the Elden Fields. Only the most gifted Finders helped those within, and while she may eventually consider an exploration into those anguish-shrouded hills, her first Choice of Candidate should be from the Plaintive, or even the Eviction.
But the pull refused to retreat.
She stepped through drooping grass blades and around Condemned after Condemned, the cacophony of pleas drifting away under a more intense demand to reach the arcade. Did she already have a connection? Strange; that typically developed only at the end of the bonding ceremony.
As she reached the towering black iron, mental pain ripped through her. The cavernous, dark need for salvation, the soul-twisting acknowledgment of wrong, the despair that the afterlife would be an eternal punishment, an inescapable nightmare.
An old head, heavy with years and suffering, led her there; did they lay claim, or did she?
She peered up at the arches; flakes of organic matter flitted down from them, to coat the defining edge of the Elden Fields like brown snow.
“What are you doing here?”
Vantra blinked and turned; another Finder, one who wore the badge of those tasked with upkeep in the Fields, strode angrily to her, his arms pumping up and down to emphasize his displeasure, the brush he held trailing soft strands of hair behind him. His green robe billowed around him, smacking several heads. The Condemned winced and shouted, but he disregarded them.
She immediately disliked him. Finders needed to understand Physical Touch to interact with the heads, but keeping it active to the point he hurt them, however subtly, meant he did not see the UnRedeemed as potential Candidates, but annoyances.
“These are the Elden Fields,” he told her brusquely.
“Yes.” She had eyes, to see that.
He paused, startled at her admission. “The Elden Fields are only for the most experienced Finders. I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m Vantra, one of Nolaris’s apprentices.”
“Then you know, not to step foot in there!” He pointed imperiously to the north with the brush. “The Plaintive is that way. Surely he showed you?”
“He did,” she said, irritation sparking within her. What right had he to interfere? Finders, while part of the same organization, worked alone.
“Come,” he said, raising his palm and waving her to him. “I’ll guide you.”
“I know where I need to go,” she told him, desperately trying to retain her previous calmness. She did not need to tarnish her first Choice with anger.
“Obviously you do not.”
“I sense the call,” she told him, bristling at his tone. “Is that not what Finders do?”
“Well, yes . . .”
“And the call has led me here.”
His mouth twisted into an ugly frown, the ends pulled down near to his chin. Ah, a man who disliked challenge. She had encountered several of them while alive; most resented her mother’s influence on Ga Son’s sect, and they never hid their annoyance and anger at her commands. But, because she was the unreachable High Priestess, they took their nastiness out on her daughter.
Knowing an argument with him would match the entertainment value of watching a fly buzz around a sugary drink, she pivoted on her heel and whisked through the arch.
“What are you doing?” he called in outraged stress.
“Choosing a Candidate,” she muttered.
A head laughed. He possessed a long, drooping mustache that had probably been curled in life, dirt-crusted black hair, and near-mad brown eyes. His visage reminded her of paintings from six hundred years ago, of Keel royal court illuminaries from the Sequestered Queen’s rule. “Tieron there, he’s tried to Choose someone here for centuries,” he snickered. “Too afraid. Steps inside, and runs away.”
She did not trust the words, but they piqued her curiosity, since energetic curls of indignation wafting from the insulted man. How often did a Finder attempt to help an Elden head, and failed? Was that not why only the most experienced acolytes attempted it?
Experience hardly described her. But, determined to answer the call, she strode with fake confidence into the insect-infested, swamp-dark atmosphere.
Her energy prickled when Tieron firmed his expression and marched after her.
She hastened on.
She walked as fast as possible without running.
He ran, his loud huffs reaching her.
And looked down.
An old head haphazardly laid on his back, dark blue eyes gleaming in the faded light, bent brown grass tickling his cheek. Long, long black hair coiled about him and his sharp visage hinted at long hours in the sun before death, all marred by a sensuous mouth curling into a nasty snarl.
“What do you want, little Findling?” he asked, his raspy voice typical of the older Condemned. “Here to Choose a Sacrifice?”
“Sacrifice?” she asked, startled, though she should expect the surly banter. Centuries of lying in the dirt, staring at whatever lay in front of them, produced sour spirits. The resulting helpless, acidic cynicism coated everything in the Elden Fields, and they drowned in their own stew until a Finder rescued them from it.
She tugged open the silk-lined bag before snagging him and dumping him into the dark interior, one enchanted to keep him with her until they found his body parts. Pulling the string, she caught a good bit of hair in the opening. No matter. She would free it once they left the Fields.
A high, cackly laugh from the head next to his sent a shiver up her spine. Tieron huffed up, puffing loudly, and bent over before looking at the empty divot.
And froze, aghast, forgetting to breathe.
“She got that ducky,” the head said, deep, scar-like lines cupping her smile. “Cap’n Laken.”
Captain Laken? The head howled, her amusement striking a chord with the nearby Condemned, and they laughed with her. The laughter turned to shrieking, then a few heads chittered and clacked their teeth together, a discordant song against the merriment.
“What have you done?” Tieron choked.
She bit her lip, as if the small act would hold back useless tears. Captain Laken, a pirate of murderous rage who lived forty-seven hundred years previous, employed by the Gaithen, sworn enemies of her Keel ancestors. He had hunted her people, killed innocents in despicable raids, hung their body parts from pole and rooftop and welcome gate, had—
It did not matter. It was not supposed to matter.
But it did matter. How could she help such a monster? What did it say of her, that he called and she listened?
Yet she sensed it, the tingle of bone-weary resignation, the willingness to atone, and the desperate desire for the Evenacht proper and a death beyond the Fields. Past transgressions, the suffering he caused, he repaid during his stay in the Fields, and if he were ready for Redemption . . .
Vantra choked on her anguish. She was not suitable to be a Finder.
“Put him back!” Tieron shrieked, distressed, pointing jerkily at the divot.
“We’ll be waiting for you, ducky,” the head called with a knowing smirk.
Vantra whirled and rushed towards the Passage, gasping for air she no longer needed, the silk bag clutched to her chest, the hair flapping about her trembling fingers. Tieron’s scream of outraged, gut-deep denial followed her, pushed her harder.
Was Tieron a Keel? Did he drown in the blind hatred her people held for the Gaithen and their brutal leaders? Time had only strengthened the hostilities, and centuries-old violence passed from generation to generation, each exacting revenge for the bloody past, which guaranteed its continuation.
She should have put him back.
No. She firmly wrested her thoughts away from the bleakness. What was wrong with her? She heard his plea, followed it, Chose him. She needed to express sympathy and kindness to her Candidate, not traditional rage that held no meaning in their current state. Dead was dead, and the Evenacht did not care about old hatreds, forlorn hopelessness, or sick anguish. No, the evening lands turned all into opportunity, a chance to follow dreams once denied, a chance for happiness.
The Condemned deserved a fulfilling existence after serving their punishment, just like any other deceased.