A bolt of lightning ripped through the fog and the wagon lurched to the right. Vantra leaned back as the horses shrieked, hoping she did not tumble off the edge as the vehicle tipped up on its wheels. The bird screeched and tore at the shielding, but could not keep itself embedded. Kjaelle nailed it in the head and the talons ripped free, leaving small, glowing fractures behind that expanded past the initial divot. The long feathers unhooked and followed their owner into the dirt.
Vantra reinforced those places, trapping the fissures between a fresh coat of her magic.
Confined between the new and old shield layers, the cracks puffed into nothing. How odd. She zipped another layer over the entire wagon, and the remnants of attack dissipated, giving her an opportunity to strengthen her protections.
Another lightning strike. And another, closing in. Vantra firmed her lips as a third crashed over the horses, bolts racing away from the impact, but, as with oil on water, they did not penetrate.
A bird screamed and dove at them with a batch of lightning attacks, sparks dancing about its talons and long feathers as it dug them into the protections. Vantra coated the shielding again, and the cracks evaporated, leaving spaces for her to fill. The creature tugged futilely at its feet but remained caught between.
Kjaelle raised a hand. Dark formed about her appendage, darker than the surrounding fog, and struck. The bird rocked back and released its grip, either unconscious or dead. Vantra did not care which. She pushed, and her power freed the animal; it fell to the side of the road, immediately lost to darkness. If it survived and re-attacked, they would not see it coming.
“Those birds are graspers,” the elfine yelled. “They swoop down, grasp their prey, and electrocute them with the long feathers. Using them like this is very difficult because they’re stubborn and not at all eager to wear the domestic yoke.”
So their foe practiced some sort of husbandry magic.
The wagon lurched to a stop as lightning circled it in quick succession, spraying dirt everywhere and leaving behind smoking holes. Burnt chunks took flight in the increasing wind, and the impact of rocks, twigs, branches, and clumps of earth began a slow wear of her shields.
Vesh pulled himself on top of the roof. “OK, cast the spell. The horses aren’t going to go anywhere.”
“This is insane,” Kjaelle gritted. “If they didn’t want to lose the mark, they never should have given it to an incompetent man.”
Vesh chuckled. “His seal was pathetic. I could create a better mechanism in my dreams.”
“Well, now’s your chance.”
Vantra stared at him. “You can create seals?”
“Despite what you may have heard, they aren’t that difficult to erect and maintain,” he told her. “Katta and Qira have some neat ideas concerning spokes and wheels. What that Bregarde produced was childish. And he had to intone to use it?” He rolled his eyes. “That’s probably why the Finders gave him a special title to intimidate those they send him after. Had to cover up how shitty the Seal works.”
A larger bolt struck the middle of the roof; streaks of glowing, fiery mass flowed over the shields, digging in. Vantra whimpered and bent her head, dipping into reserves to coat the magic and destroy it. She smothered the remainder, and panting, she glanced about for the next direction of attack.
How much longer might she last? She rarely pushed herself, and her methodical study had not prepared her to endure a prolonged assault.
Kjaelle shared her trigger with Vesh. He grinned, slapped his hair back into a band, stood, and held out his hand. Dark swirled from it, shooting up and down, forming a gigantic bow with flicks of greyish-purple bursting from it. Only those blessed by Darkness worked with magic of that particular color. When alive, she had met two who visited her mother. Laid back and talkative, when an acolyte of Uka, the Keels’ battle goddess, pushed them, they displayed a dark, rich ability that left the priest quaking and speechless.
Vantra had thought the display was pretty rather than intimidating. Her mother smiled and told her that Light and Darkness walked hand in hand through the lands of Talis, two sides of the same face, and since Light supported Ga Son as Darkness supported Erse Parr, they were kindred spirits.
He pulled back the string; it vibrated with pent-up magic and a long arrow with a vicious point formed from it. She marveled at the strength. He must have many years under him as well, to create something so wondrous without intonation.
He waited, though she could not understand for what. A brief break in the fog, exposing a bright yellow glow, caught her attention, and Vesh stilled. “Darkness guide my hand,” he called before release; the arrow shot through the air and into the opening; a moment later a larger bird careened down, feebly flapping, and landed in front of the horses’ noses, a plume of dust rising from its limp body. The shaft had gone straight through its chest and out its backside, leaving a gaping hole.
Impressed, Vantra meant to congratulate him on a successful strike, but instead met Kjaelle’s unamused glare. Vesh half-laughed and rubbed at the back of his head before bending over to steady himself against the increasing strength of the gusts.
“You know how shitty Veer is with a bow,” she told him. “You might as well ask Uka for guidance.”
“It’s habit,” he replied. “And good luck.”
Kjaelle’s expression darkened further, but the sniping about to erupt died as the wind stopped and the ground shook more violently. The vehicle rocked back and forth, and all three of them snagged the railing with both hands. A beghestern walked out of the fog, ominous at three times the height of the wagon, wearing the traditional furs of war. The black staining them meant he looked to kill his opponent rather than defeat them.
He raised a hand and red wisps swirled into existence around his fingers before he threw the mass at her shields.
Not all shattered, but he made it to the bottom layer. Struggling, she reformed them, racing to produce enough coats that the next hit would not break them all.
Vesh fired, and the arrow broke apart on the being’s protections, splinters flying everywhere. He notched again and steadied, waiting. Intense, viciously flickering flames snaked around the beghestern’s appendage before he slung it at them; Vantra’s shields cracked to the second-to-last layer. Again, she formed them anew.
Wisps resembling black flame coursed around Kjaelle. She rose, a ghostly shadow amid the magic, which pulled from her and swirled into a ball quicker than Vantra blinked. It smashed a small hole in the beghestern’s shields; Vesh’s arrow sailed through and embedded itself in the beast’s chest. Her essences danced to the vibrating, agonized roar.
The point exploded, but while blood and flesh burst forth, the damage did not down him. He stumbled back, clutching at the wound, and screamed words in his native language, Hlurk. A Great Seal twirled into existence, the same as what Bregarde used, but with an oceanful more energy.
The bow disappeared and Vesh etched something into the air with his index finger. A Great Seal flashed before them, the outer circle already whirling with power. The interior did not contain smaller circles, as Vantra assumed Seals must, but a single thorny rose.
Darkness, as a gift for Erse Parr upon her taking the mantle of Death, placed a single thorny rose in an empty expanse of dirt outside the temple. The flower did not grow or wilt, but remained as it was until she fully accepted her charge. On that morning, Erse chose to walk inside the walls rather than tread through the tangled misty wood surrounding the stone structure, and stopped, stunned, at the beautiful hedge of roses that surrounded her home. The petals, an array of colors and shades, created a rainbow within the dimness of Death’s domain. While they waxed and waned through the seasons, whenever they bloomed, Erse would take her stroll at their side, her fingers trailing across the soft petals.
Vesh must also walk with Darkness.
The thorns grew from the center and raced about the wagon and horses as the vulf erupted from the beghestern’s Great Seal. It streaked to them, snarling, snapping, and slammed into the spikes. Vantra’s shields shuddered at the reverberation from the impact, a couple more breaking. She reformed them, her aspect wavering as her energy faded. Firming her resolve, she set her legs, and reinforced the protections, shoving as much as she dared into them while keeping herself in Physical form.
The beghestern expected a victory and his pained grimace died into an ugly scowl when the vulf did no damage.
“He’s putting too much power into staying on his feet, and not enough into the Seal,” Vesh said. “Do you want to wait for Qira? I don’t want to overpower my attack and take him down because I misjudged the strength needed to strike.”
“Yeah. This fog may play havoc with our magic, but he’s not inhibited.” It was? Vantra did not think it affected her, so perhaps it targeted Mental energy associated with the dark. “He can call Light’s Truth or some other such spell and if the beghestern understands what that means, he’ll back down.”
Vantra’s eyes widened. “Qira’s a high priest of the Light?” Only those most sacred followers of Light cast that spell.
Kjaelle winced. “No,” she said, pushing her palms towards her in a motion to curtail that thought. “He hates the religious Light, and he won’t like it if you connect him to them. You see, his culture sent all red-haired, blue-eyed boys to Light’s Guidance Temple to study to become Talis’s . . . I guess avatar? They expected the ones who survived the training to represent Light, so avatar’s a good description, even if it’s not quite accurate. Anyway, that’s why the temple demanded the boys have red hair and blue eyes, to look as much like the syimlin as possible, and why they insisted on only the strongest surviving. A Great Syimlin is a powerful deity, after all, and only those of the greatest ability could honor him by setting an earthly example of his might. The government compensated the families who sent their lads to the slaughter, and that blood money built generations of nobles. Red was one of those.”
Vantra nodded. “Talis’s origination story talks about that.”
“Yeah. Talis wasn’t the only victim to rebel, either, though his obliteration of Light’s Guidance and the priesthood convinced the religious they needed to find another way to honor their syimlin, which, to his chagrin, ended up being him.”
Chagrin? Light’s followers taught that Talis gratefully accepted the charge from the previous deity, having proven himself a worthy successor. The Seal’s vulf interrupted her musings, again attacking the thorny protections, and while they wavered, they did not break. Vantra stored the questions away for future asking; they had an enemy to combat.
Kjaelle continued as if the strike warranted no attention. “The structure of the training prepared the lads for the big Light spells, like Light’s Truth and Light’s Destruction. Too many died while learning them, but the culture kept feeding their sons to the temple. Red passed all their tests, and the final trial equipped him to cast Light’s Wrath, the same spell Talis used to obliterate the temple. People assume Red’s a gifted acolyte with his syimlin’s favor, but he earned those spells through pain and blood, just like Talis did. No syimlin patted him on the head and said, ‘Here.’”
“Speaking of Qira . . .” Vesh said.
Vantra looked over her shoulder at the man, who now stood with them on the roof, arms crossed, contemplating the beghestern. A serious melancholy flavored the air about him.
“Nice Seal, Vesh,” he said. “It complements Vantra’s shielding well. Light and Dark are stronger together than apart.” An old cliché, in religious circles. How old might it be, that he spoke it? “The layers are a strong choice, Vantra. Wear down the opponent as they tear through them, then strike.”
Vantra blinked. Had he just complimented her? She had never received accolades for any Mental energy formations she created; Nolaris typically noted her spell, then instructed her how to complete it properly. A fuzzy knot of happiness unfurled in her chest at the unexpected approval.
The lightning ring rained down again, and more beings appeared out of the dark. Travers, hooded, robed, and while they hid their features, she recognized their grey, three-fingered hands. Red sighed as they took positions where the bolts hit the ground, chanting, holding out their palms with the index fingers pointing up and down.
“What are they doing?” Kjaelle asked. “Not a capture, surely?”
“No, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Red said.
“A capture?” Vantra had never heard of such a spell.
“Authorities use it to subdue criminals,” he told her. “It’s meant to keep the most violent spirit under sedation until a proper restraining takes place. This is an abuse of intent.” He shook his head. “The Hallowed Collective is more corrupt than I gave them credit for.”
“What do you want to do?” Kjaelle asked.
“Good question.” He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Tally, form a Seal to protect the wagon!”
The twins had reached them, stopping just outside the circle of Travers, the horses calm, heads bowed. One raised a hand in acknowledgment, then a Seal popped up in front of the animals. It held a single image of a flame jumping merrily about before a blaze surrounded the wagon.
He tapped on his lower lip, studying their opponents. The beghestern formed another attack, the Seal brightening with each circle’s spin, the intensity obliterating the form of the vulf. “What more do you think they know about these special Finders than Bregarde?” he asked.
“The Travers probably don’t know anything, and the beghestern’s just following orders,” Vesh said. “He’s stained his furs, meaning he’s a grunt soldier rather than a commander.”
Kjaelle lifted her lip. “He has enough power to make Great Seals, so he isn’t that much of a grunt. I’m betting he knows who’s striking with that lightning, though how much info he has on those in charge is questionable.”
“I’m curious about the lightning,” Red said. “The bolts are originating outside the immediate area, like someone’s on a hilltop looking down. Their strikes are remarkably accurate, through physical treetops as well as fog designed to inhibit Mental energy.” He shook his head. “Since the fog’s hampering those associated with Darkness, we have a hint as to who they fear, my dear Kjaelle. Discorporating that Finder made an impression.”
“The Joyful Caravan is Light and Darkness. We don’t lie about it,” the elfine said.
“Yes. I’m betting our more powerful opponent leans toward Light and doesn’t want to battle their own impediments—which means they can’t create a spell that makes them immune to their own magic. That’s an odd drawback.”
The beghestern struck.
The attack flared into nothing, the energy dissipating into wisps that half-formed before dissolving. The being froze, his hand in the air behind the Seal, then barked in Hlurk at the Travers.
Their spell completed, and a net of magic spanned over the area, the power fluctuating badly between strands. It floated down to the wagon, breaking apart before touching them, the energy curling into wisps that held their form a tad longer than those from the Seal, before dissipating. The Travers looked at one another, a couple motioning with wild emotion at their fellows.
“Playtime’s over,” Red muttered.
A crisp light rose from the ground beneath each Traver and encircled them like rope, keeping their hands clamped to their bodies. Another tore through the beghestern’s Great Seal, shattering it before ensnaring him in a tangle of glowing vines. He howled and fought, losing his footing, but instead of crashing to the ground, the vines levitated him. His pathetic kicks halted when the confinement snaked around his legs as well.
“If you have some good info, start talking.” Red’s conversational tone rose above the being’s panicked gasping. “I’m the patient sort, but there are limits to how kind I am with those who attack people I care about.”
Lightning coursed down, intended for his head, but Kjaelle formed another quick burst of magic and, combined with support spells from the twins, the bolt came nowhere near him before shattering into a sizzling mass of sparks.
“So you have two choices,” he continued. “You can give me something to work with and I let you go. Or you don’t and I leave you tied up in the middle of this road. You’ll need to be hand-fed for days before the spell wears down enough that your employer can break it—if they think you’re worthwhile.”
Perversely, relief flooded Vantra because she no longer had to worry about living concerns like food and bathroom breaks. The poor Travers and beghestern did, and if they assumed the being who employed them would not come to their aid, their future held a terrible death.
Would Red actually follow through?
He studied them as they shouted at each other, in tones Vantra associated with panicked anger and helplessness. She stood nowhere near the confinements, but their power flavored the air, and she doubted any of the captives had enough energy to dispel them—and they knew it.
Red raised a hand.
Light flared from him, the beams ripping through the fog and shredding it into nothing. Within three breath’s length, the darkness had lifted and the normal Evenacht mists raced in to fill the void. The soft, precious energy flowed over the wagon, and Vantra sucked at it, energizing her depleted reserves and reinforcing her Physical form.
Stupefied, each captive shushed, a few whimpered, and the beghestern cried.
“Surrender, eh?” Red asked. The vines set the enormous being down on the ground and withdrew. He sagged, grabbing at his chest.
“We work for Lequorik,” he choked. “We aid the Spear, the Sword, the Shield, the Spike, the Helm, the—”
“Sounds like an organization inside an organization,” Red interrupted. “Is there a collective name they go by?”
“The Knights of the Finders.”
“Interesting. Who’s Lequorik?”
The tears increased. “A Finder sage. He is the First Shield and commands the rest.”
“And from what Bregarde said, the Knights are tasked with bringing deceased criminals to justice.”
“Yes. It is our sacred oath.”
“Who wields the lightning?”
“Does Runt have a name?”
Kjaelle curled her fingers, as if she wished to smack the beghestern for the nickname.
“Does he have a title?”
“No. He works for the Whip.”
“Is he a Finder?”
“What about the fog?”
“Mimeriqette manipulates fog.”
“Does she look to the Light?”
“She once did. The Knights call her the Guardian Priestess.”
Red winced. “Wonderful. Who controls the graspers?”
“I don’t know.”
“And your warrior name?”
“Do you know a Finder named Nolaris?”
“Anything to add?” he asked the Travers. No words met the inquiry.
Light spanned over them, in time to intercept more lightning. If the magic had hit, the Travers would have become the rods for the strike and Vantra did not think their survival concerned the caster.
“Cleaning up, eh?” Red snorted. “Looks like you lot became expendable. Tell you what. Since our Great Seal creator kindly imparted some nice info, I’m going to create a shield over this area. Whoever wants to silence you won’t be able to get in. Neither will anyone else except a Light acolyte with the correct key. They’ll be coming from Evening, so just hang tight for the rest of the day. If you want to chance the wrath of the people you work for, you can leave the shield. I’m not going to guarantee your survival if you do.”
The beghestern choked, and blood sprayed the ground.
“No, I’ll get someone here quicker than that.” Red smacked his hands together. “Alright. So, Joyfuls, do you want to continue or stay?”
“If you want to help Vulf Render, we need to provide medical aid,” Kjaelle said.
“I do. His faith is misplaced, but I don’t sense evil in him.” He eyed Vantra. “Are you up to maintaining the shields?” She nodded, and he grinned. “Stubborn, I see. You and Vesh need to expand to the other wagon, so the twins can help Kjaelle with the injury. It’ll keep nosy Travers out after I release them. Both of you, keep hidden until I or Katta return.” With that, he hopped over the edge of the roof.
Shield the other wagon? The fresh mists invigorated her but had yet to refill her essence. How might she manage that without energy?
Grit. The vines poofed into nothing and the Travers scampered out of the way of the horses as the twins urged them next to their vehicle. The Seal dissolved and Vantra extended her protections, Vesh’s coursing right behind. Kjaelle disappeared down the ladder, and her stomach twisted, to think of clambering down while woozy from exertion. The air about her wavered, not a good sign.
Vesh squatted down, hands dangling between his legs. “You look a bit peaked.”
She attempted a smile. His concern buoyed her. What nice people, these of the Joyful Caravan.