Vantra clasped Laken tighter; if she rushed the way Katta and Greyshen had just taken—
The stranger looked in exasperation at the captain, waving an index finger through the air. “You wouldn’t say that if you actually listened to me,” he muttered. He perked up and regarded Vantra with delight. “Hello! You’re his Redeemer, eh? I’m Lorgan.”
Lorgan? Laken had mentioned him—and said he started, but not completed, his Redemption.
“Lorgan?” Red asked politely, hefting himself onto the top of a table to sit, rather than in a chair. The nonchalance irritated her. Why not assume an unexpected attack? If he had fallen after failing Laken, redemption for him lay in capturing her.
“Ah, yes.” The spirit nodded and smiled, settling a hand on his breast. “I used to be a—”
“Lying snake,” Laken helpfully provided, his tone cold enough to freeze the room.
“From your viewpoint, I suppose,” he admitted with a sigh. “But there was a reason I didn’t complete your Redemption—and I told you that. Over and over again.”
“Wait, what?” Kjaelle said, coming to stand next to Red, arms folded, eyes so narrowed only a slit glimmered beneath her lashes. “You attempted to Redeem him?”
“I didn’t attempt—I was successful in finding his first two essences. But there was a strange difficulty—”
“You gave up,” Laken snarled.
“I didn’t give up,” Lorgan denied. “I redirected my efforts.” His gaze landed on Vantra. “Do you know anything about the Clastics?”
“You’re a Clastic?” Red asked, amused, relaxing back on his arms, idly swinging his legs.
Did he not recognize the potential danger? And what was a Clastic?
“Not officially. I used to be a Finder until they decided I disgraced them by not Redeeming Laken.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course, they uplifted Nolaris despite his failure with him, so that obviously wasn’t the reason.”
Vantra felt the hate shuddering through the captain, to the point his head quivered. She did not understand the other spirit’s breezy lack of recognition for the gut-felt, seething rage focused on him. She needed to protect her Chosen from the emotion and get him away from the other spirit, but safeguarding him also meant discovering why Lorgan had visited the enclave in the first place.
“Anyway, the Clastics took me in. They have some interesting takes on the Finders, I give them that. Perhaps not all justified, but their points about outsized influence and Redemptions have merit.” He beamed. “One of them is an archivist at the secondary library in Evening. Very helpful, in the continuation of my research.”
“Research?” Kjaelle asked, her skepticism growing.
“Yes. Into where Laken’s essences reside.”
The declaration struck Vantra like a galloping horse, shattering her suspicion. “You researched his essences?” How fantastic! Pondering how to access a library and worrying about being captured kept her anxious and afraid, and if Lorgan already completed it . . .
But why would he do that, if he broke his bond and ended the Redemption?
“Yes! I realized the one meant to Redeem Laken would fall on the bad side of the Finders, and that they would cut off typical means of discovery.”
The one meant to Redeem Laken? What did he mean by that? Unease shuddered through her. That sounded distressingly like a Sun prophecy, and many of those ended poorly for all involved.
“So I continued to conduct the research right under their eyes. You see, I, poor Lorgan, wanted to recoup what I lost and struggled to reestablish myself in the Collective’s eyes, so they allowed me to use the library and archives because pity drove the caretakers.” He smirked. “The librarian in charge scrutinized my work and tsked and wrote nasty notes, but they never stopped me from filling over fifteen crates!”
“Fifteen crates?” Red asked, as incredulous as Kjaelle.
“Yep. Fifteen crates, about three a piece for each essence.” Vantra’s mind spun. Fifteen crates? Where had his curiosity led, that he produced so much paperwork? “I updated what I could because I’ve been at this for a thousand years, so some of it isn’t current current, but we can rectify that.” His smile broadened. “It took me near a century just to discover the continental whereabout of his right arm, and another for the land in which it rested.”
“Two centuries?” Vantra asked, faint. She joked with herself about the length of time to research the home of each essence, but she never anticipated it would, in fact, take a century or two. And he did so without a map?
“You expect me to believe that?” Laken asked, outraged.
“I told you what I planned to do,” Lorgan said. “You chose not to listen. But I have fifteen crates to prove I did.”
“And how did you manage that without a map?” he gritted.
“Ingenuity. Finders hate to talk about it, but they lose their maps all the time. It takes longer to discover the essences, but it can be done.”
Kjaelle glanced at Red, but his interest remained on the ex-Finder, and she pursed her lips, as if debating what to say. “How did you find us?”
“We didn’t,” Lorgan said.
“Who else is with you?”
“Clastic associates. You see, Vantra’s escape is news all over Evening, and I knew everything and everyone would come under suspicion. I anticipated my access to the libraries would end, so there didn’t seem to be much reason to stay. I packed up with Jheeka and Cheldisa’s help and—”
“Jheeka and Cheldisa?” Vantra asked, immediately wary.
“They accompanied Dychala back to the Council to clog things up and buy you time in your escape,” Lorgan told them, his tone lowering to emphasize his seriousness. “She told Nolaris they interfered with your capture, so the Collective detained them.” He produced a wane grin. “There was a lot of chaos after the Meddals surrounded the Council building and demanded Nolaris receive justice for destroying a neighborhood. A confused acolyte took custody, and since he paid more attention to the commotion and the stressed Finders racing about, they got, um, lost in the confusion.”
“It was simpler than you think. Because so many newly deceased ring the building at all times, if you use Ether Touch, Greeters assume you’re just another one. They came and got me, we slipped into their ranks and escaped. Got to my place, packed the crates, they retrieved everything they didn’t want to end up in a Finder pyre, and we left. They had yet to block the exits, so off we went.”
“Are the Finders going to miss you?” Red asked.
“Eventually, maybe. Maybe not. I made a habit of disappearing for a year or two. I still completed the random Redemption—unacknowledged, by the way—so there’s no reason to think they’d link my research to Laken’s essences. They’ll believe I’m making yet another sad attempt to regain favor.”
“Unless they think you’re involved because you once tried to Redeem him,” Kjaelle commented wrily.
“And failed,” Laken said, darker, deadlier.
“I didn’t fail,” he insisted. “I’ve continued your Redemption, just not in the traditional way.” He turned to the elfine. “That might be an issue if they thought I was still a viable Finder, but Nolaris destroyed my reputation, despite the fact I completed over a thousand Redemptions in under a thousand years. He saw me as a threat to his upwards mobility and gloated over getting rid of me. I, however, knew I had a calling outside the Finders, and his childishness did not harm me the way he wished.”
Red’s eyebrows had shot up his forehead and Vantra gaped in astonishment. A thousand Redemptions? Heralded Finders who completed one hundred held positions of great esteem. But a thousand? No wonder Nolaris burned with jealousy over the accomplishment. He bragged about completing Redemption after Redemption, but he only claimed three hundred or so.
“He’s a liar.” Laken’s snarly voice broke through her amazement.
“I never lied to you,” he said. “I told you the truth. I wasn’t the one to Redeem you. But I didn’t abandon you. I did the research.”
Vantra looked down at the top of her Chosen’s head. He felt delicate, yet ready to explode. She attempted to imagine the hope coursing through him after retrieving two essences, that after centuries of sitting in the Fields, freedom lay within his grasp. Then the Finder who recovered them broke the bond because he was not the one meant to Redeem him and sent him back to the Elden Fields to wait for hundreds more years, desperately hopeless. Tears burned the back of her eyes at the cruelty, and she strengthened her already firm resolve; she would never do that to him. If she failed, it would not be because she gave up.
“Anyway, we did a lot of avoiding blockades and found ourselves on a back road that led to this fine Shades establishment. Greyshen was kind enough to put us up, and we met Katta because he was curious as to the content of the crates. He asked after the research, and once he viewed the Snake’s Den materials, he told us we needed to stay and meet up with you. So, a happy accident.”
“Why trust you on that?” Laken asked. “An easy way back into Finder graces is to tell them where we are.”
“Katta wouldn’t have suggested he stay, if he doubted,” Kjaelle snapped, her tone sharp in warning.
“Really. And Katta knows he’s trustworthy how? He dumped me back in the Fields for another . . . I lost track of how many years, claiming that success wasn’t really success. He wanted to do all the research first? Fine. He didn’t have to send me back to the Fields.”
“I had to break the bond, so you could form it with—”
“And you decided this after talking to that snake.”
“You failed. He tricked you and you dumped me back in the Fields. The Finders were right to throw you out. The bright and confident thousand-Redemption Finder wasn’t so bright and confident and gave up—”
“Would you like to see the research?”
“Because it’s in the wagon, stuffed into fifteen crates to make your Redemption go faster. And you had to go back, so the one to Redeem you could find you. There would have been no reason for Vantra to seek you out if I still—”
“You never would have done that, if you cared about what it’s like to sit in the Fields!” Laken screamed.
The building shook, as if attuned to his fury.
Red blinked, frowned, and cocked his head, as if listening. “Hmm. Looks like they’ve hit a . . . snag.”
Kjaelle whirled, but he grabbed her arm and kept her in the room. “It’s nothing that Katta and Greyshen can’t handle, but we need to help retool the shields around the buildings.”
Verryn, who leaned against the wall and silently watched the proceedings, piped up. “I’ll show Vantra and Laken to the suite.”
Laken’s mistrust, his rage, his desperation, filled Vantra as they followed Verryn from the room. Of course, his despair drew her to the Elden Fields, but more emotional overtones flavored it. The heady negativity coursed through her, and she fought the pull to a dark, depressed place that found deceit and betrayal in all.
And, despite his insistence, Lorgan had betrayed him and their bond. Why was he so insistent another was meant to complete the Redemption?
She managed a smile for Verryn as he showed them to a large communal sitting area decorated in soft, welcoming browns. Delightful landscapes spanning the times of day filled the walls. Ornate, brown and oatmeal-hued vases stood as artwork on their own atop plush carpet, and the velvet-covered couches and chairs looked plump enough to drown her. She expected him to stop because the lavish accommodation seemed perfect for resting, but he continued through a plain wooden jamb and into a hallway with floor-to-ceiling paintings of Darkness spreading across beautiful forestland and eight doors.
He selected the one at the very end, which led to a small, cozy room as ornate and plump as the outer one, with a pane glass, umber-curtained door that opened into a small greenhouse garden. A dark grey fountain with two levels and a closed flower bud at the top pumped out a thick mist, coating the greenery in energy and water.
“Greyshen keeps this suite for Katta and Qira’s visits, so no one else but those connected with them ever stays here,” he told them. “This Shades enclave runs a hostel for random travelers, though normally only those associated with Darkness and Light use it. Well, and the families and friends of those in custody. They’re usually housed in another building, though, so you shouldn’t encounter any of them this visit. Since you’re traveling with Katta and Qira, the rules are, if a door’s painted red, don’t go inside. Otherwise, you’re free to roam.”
“That’s generous,” Vantra murmured.
“For Shade enclaves, Katta and Qira are the earthly representatives of Darkness and Light, walking hand-in-hand through the lands. If you’re with them, that’s tacit approval of you, and no one will doubt their judgment. But don’t mention that to them. They hate the reminder of the religious aspects of their leanings. They want to travel, see the sites, enjoy the Evenacht, and leave the religion to sorry saps who don’t have anything better to do with their existence but moan to a deity about this or that.”
Vantra pursed her lips, insulted but unwilling to call him on it. “How can they be so disrespectful, considering they are earthly representations of two Great Syimlin?” And, if they despised the relationship so much, why not bow out?
“It wasn’t their choice,” Verryn said. “There’s nothing so crushing as having someone else dictate what you are going to do for eternity, your wishes and dreams be damned. They resent the bonds that tie them, though they acknowledge the good that can come from it—which is the reason they still accept them.” He smiled. “Kjaelle and Vesh helped them see past the bitterness, and once the twins became Qira’s drivers, they cemented a fine group who don’t grovel but treat them as any other being.” He knocked on the left-hand wall with his knuckles. “I’ll be in the next room if you need anything.” He motioned to the glass. “If you open the door, the mists come in. It’s a nice way to recharge.”
“Thank you,” she whispered as he left, quietly closing the door.
“So they trust Lorgan because Katta said so?” Laken seethed. “I know his duplicity. If they’re earthly reps of syimlin, then they should see that.”
She set him on the cloth-covered circular table in the middle of the room and opened the glass door. Mist flooded in, cool, refreshing, carrying the Touch of plants with it. She tasted a hint of Darkness mingled with Light, and both appealed to her. How odd, one of the Sun enjoyed the opposite.
“He’s like other Finders. They promise us heads salvation and bring nothing but agony. Who gets Redeemed? The punished whose families pay bribes.”
“That’s not how I Chose you,” Vantra reminded him, sucking in the mists. Her essence appreciated the roar of energy, and she wondered how the Shades created a fog laden with power.
“And there are interested parties that pay the Finders to keep others from being Redeemed,” Laken said, breaking her pleasure.
“What?” She whirled, staring at him, aghast. True, her traveling companions mentioned Finders accepted bribes to Redeem a particular spirit, but they said nothing about the opposite!
“The Elden Fields? Filled with heads that pissed off powerful people in life, and who wallow in disgrace while those powerful people pay to have them hidden away from potential Redemption. The pathetic punishments for the petty criminals who enter the Fields themselves and try to hide heads that personally harmed them are cover for the worse crime.”
She sat in a chair and stared directly into his gleaming blue eyes. She did not believe the words, but a small part of her whispered that, before she Chose him as a Candidate, she never would have believed tales of Finders hunting one of their own because they did not like her selection, either. “I won’t abandon you to the Fields,” she vowed. “I will complete your Redemption, and if I don’t, it’s because the Final Death claimed me.”
“Brash, maybe, but I mean them.”
“You won’t follow through. If a being like the beghestern threatened to send you to oblivion, you’d do what he asked, to remain extant. It’s not like you’ve ever had to be strong. You’re the pampered daughter of a Sun high priestess. What, exactly, have you done, that has stepped beyond that?”
She firmed her lips. Years of training kept her pain bottled, and she shoved the nasty reply down. “Claiming you as my Chosen.”
His unamused glare pricked her, and she fought between laughter and anger. She stood, listening to the soft trickle of water over stone. Too gentle, for her racing thoughts. While alive, she walked in the forest near the temple when too antsy to sit, and she needed the soothing state it produced.
“I want to explore,” she told him. “Would you like to come?”
“No,” he snapped.
She nodded, relieved at the answer, and made certain to block the door so it remained open to the mists, positioned him so he could better view the pretty glint of moonlight off the haze, and left.
Vantra frowned at the rolled paper Lorgan gave her. She had not made it much past the exit to the sitting room before he popped around a corner and proudly shoved the sheet into her chest. She cautiously unrolled it and skimmed the contents.
An introduction, to himself and his research. She had not heard of his sage advisor, but Nolaris kept her more sequestered than she assumed. The last sentences rattled through her mind.
“You want to join us.”
“If you have questions, it’ll be easier for me to answer them if I’m there.”
“Laken will be furious.”
“Yes, but he’s always furious.”
She glared for her Chosen, and he grinned, a charming look.
“I know it hasn’t been easy for him, especially since Nolaris tagged him with the UnRedeemable stamp. There’s more to it than that, though.” He shook his head. “We need to talk.” His voice lowered to the point the air about them almost drowned the words. “Please.”
She looked back at the paper. Why speak with him? Laken certainly did not trust him, but Katta had vouched for his sincerity, and she noted her Sun badge remained silent on the matter. Since it had alerted her to past danger, she decided he did not mean her harm—yet.
And she wanted to know more about why he assumed Laken had an appropriate Redeemer. “Alright.”
Reminding herself that attacking her would bring Kjaelle’s wrath on his head, a fiercesome deterrent, she followed him to a quiet grotto behind the primary structure. An unassuming circle of happily bubbling water rested in the center, which shot a tall spray of mist into the air that coated the benches and the grey rock walls in droplets and energy. As with the garden fountain, this one also combined Light and Darkness, a satisfying meal.
Did all Shade enclaves take the ‘There is no Darkness without Light, no Light without Darkness’ mantra this seriously?
“These fountains are extraordinary,” Lorgan said with excited awe as he sat and leaned forward, holding out his hand and wetting his fingers. “I’ve never felt the like, and I’ve been all over the Evenacht. I wish I had realized the Shades ran hostels. It would have made some of my Redemptions swifter.”
“You completed over a thousand?”
“At last count, I had hit sixteen hundred and six. Because I need to sneak into the Fields to Choose a Candidate now, I haven’t completed as many as I’d like.”
“You sneak into the Fields?” No one had caught him?
“It’s easy to do,” he said dismissively. “The so-called caretakers would rather whine about their unfair punishment in being assigned to the Fields than caring for the heads there. They didn’t like going to the Plaintive and the Purgis, so it was simple to slip in when they weren’t around. Since the UnRedeemed thought I was a Finder, everything went on as normal. I’d even visit Laken, as much as he hated to see me.”
A good way, to continue driving a stake into his emotions. “How do you perform Recollections?”
“By following thousands upon thousands of years of precedent—using a binding spell. It doesn’t matter where it’s performed, as long as you have the energy to attach the links. The power well the Finders maintain is helpful, but not necessary.”
And Katta had already taught her the words to channel intent. “I don’t understand. You’re so accomplished. Why did you break the bond with Laken?”
He bit his lower lip, dropped his hands and leaned on his thighs, then closed his eyes, solemn. “It wasn’t easy, I admit. I knew I was throwing my reputation away because Nolaris would jump at the opportunity to undermine me. But, well, I met a Clastic.”
“Who are the Clastics?”
“Oh. It doesn’t surprise me, Nolaris never mentioned them. When Jheeka told me he was your sage, I winced because I knew you’d be stunted.”
Stunted? He cleared his throat unnecessarily at her annoyance, embarrassed he misspoke.
“Well, um, Clastics are like Finders, but their organization existed long before the Hallowed Collective. How much Evenacht history have you read?”
“Some, mostly concerning Erse Parr’s reign.”
“Ah. A good start, but there is much to learn from before she donned the mantle of Death. Did you know, Death created the Fields of the Condemned after making the pact with the Astri however many eons ago? I’ve never come across the name for that Death, and I’ve read documents falling into particles where someone had scratched out or erased their name. Why, I’m uncertain. But this unknown Death gave the Astri the Gift of Life in return for the use of the Evenacht as a spiritual dumping ground.”
Vantra choked. Spiritual dumping ground? Ghosts were not garbage! He acknowledged her unease with a self-conscious grin and plowed on.
“This unknown Death apparently created the Fields based upon a beghestern myth concerning afterlife punishment. But of course, how does one determine when a ghostly head has suffered enough? How do they recollect their essences? The Clastics formed thousands of years later, to answer that question. Basically, they began as mercenaries paid by desperate families to Redeem their loved ones, but at some point, their leader had an epiphany, as all prominent leaders are wont to do, and they became less greed-focused and more redemption-based. They selected Candidates who were ready, not just the heads who knew someone rich enough to pay a lot of money to get them out of the Fields.
“Unlike the Finders, though, they made a point of forming relationships in local communities and with leaders at all levels of government. Redemptions went pretty smooth for them because they didn’t have to fight natives and sneak about ghostly guards to retrieve essences. Then Gerant showed up and thought that the whole enterprise needed a syimlin’s guiding hand. The Clastics told him to piss off, and offended, he created his own group to undermine them. And thus, the Hallowed Collective was born.”
“I suppose there’s a reason no one mentions that,” Vantra commented drily, though her mind snagged the words and chewed vigorously. Laken’s plight initially pricked her doubt, but the more she learned of the organization she thought above reproach, the more she despised the lies told to gain her loyalty.
She wanted to help the Condemned, not stand as window dressing for the powerful to hide their dirt behind.
His amusement did not sit well. “The Collective hides all sorts of things,” he said. “Some concealments are more egregious than others, like Gerant’s destroying the Clastics and creating the Finders on their supposed ashes. Have you read about Denz Chak and his damming the Nectar to flood the Fields eleven thousand years previous?” She nodded. “Gerant thought the Clastics aided the Beast in razing that dam because the rush of water wiped out his beloved Grail when it burst. Whether or not he truly believed that, or whether he snagged the opportunity to send his followers after them, he drove them underground. He placed the Finders as the proper Redeemers of the Condemned, which, until that point, anyone willing to brave the danger could conduct a Redemption. A couple of millennia later Imparik manipulated the masses through song and tale, and now the Finders are the only sanctioned group to Redeem the heads because the Hallowed Collective cites sacred right to excuse their banning everyone else.”
“But the Clastics survived.”
“Yes. Members sneak into the Fields all the time to Choose an UnRedeemed to help. Some become undercover agents within the Finders, like Jheeka and Cheldisa. They all want to help those deemed unworthy of Candidacy, and they’re good at it.”
Nolaris had raged at Cheldisa’s wont to find inappropriate Condemned. Vantra even told her about the last head the sage cruelly rejected, and she promised to Choose her next. A small confirmation that Lorgan told the truth, but she latched onto it. Yes, Laken hated him, but she did not detect deception in his demeanor. If he had completed the research for all five essences, she owed him at least a chance to prove himself more than a cowardly bond-breaker.
“That’s why you joined them?”
“I’m not an official member. I’m tangential.”
What an odd description. He appeared comfortable with it, though.
“The Clastics take their calling seriously and are as devoted to it as the religious are to their syimlin. They associate with the Shades because of the punishment aspects of Darkness’s mandate; they Redeem the spirits that are not sent to the Fields, but whose crimes warrant extended stays in a cell, well away from society. That’s kind of why we stopped when we realized we passed an enclave.”
“Where are Jheeka and Cheldisa?”
“Sucking in mists,” he said. “Have you met Fyarazal?”
She shook her head, certain she did not remember a Finder by that name.
“Well, he’s a nymph mafiz, and quite seeped in magic. He drained their essences to keep them from escaping. They fled anyway. I think our successful getaway relied on the fact they were no more than wisps and the newbies trying to figure out Touch didn’t recognize them as ghosts, so they didn’t alert the Greeters.”
Her mouth dropped open, disturbed. “Are they alright?” Spirits could easily dissolve into the Final Death if their condition remained as such.
“Yes. I had a couple of emergency energy containers left over from my last Redemption, and they emptied them. The mists on the way here were surprisingly thick, so they rested and recouped. Greyshen thought they needed more time near these special fountains and offered to delve in and make certain Fyarazal didn’t leave nasty surprises behind. I didn’t sense anything, but Darkness acolytes are exceptional at finding hidden things.” He looked at his fingers, rubbing them together. “I wish I’d known when they arrived, but I was in my little niche in the library. I would have interfered. It’s not as if my reputation could hit rock further bottom.”
“But he’s a mafiz,” she said, strained. And few, other than grand elfines brimming with magic, would dare confront one.
He chuckled. “Yes, and I’m a Bradic educated in linguistics and magic at the nymph’s finest university. At the time, that was Reddown under Lake.”
Her eyes bulged. Reddown was an ancient place of learning in central Talis, producing some of the most influential leaders throughout the last five millennia. Human endeavors would have fallen to ruin long ago, but the nymphs co-founded the institution with Carthan Keel lords, and since they lived several centuries, it did not seem so untenable that its halls still suffered the strikes of multiple students’ heels.
Only the wealthiest could afford the outrageous tuition, though the educators would accept low-born individuals of exceptional talent. After the interstellar invasion, they led the push in discovering magical ability in the populace and training any who qualified for future conflicts.
“Ah. It still exists. Good. I don’t have to explain the honor.”
“That’s incredible,” she breathed.
“I see they haven’t lost the glowing edge.” Laughing, he ground his fingers into his hair and dropped his gaze, finding the gravel-covered ground interesting. “Anyway, mafiz trained me. Nymph magic doesn’t frighten me. Or elfine, for that matter.”
“Is that so?” Kjaelle whirled into the alcove and flumped next to Vantra in a swirl of black skirts, eyeing the other ghost with skepticism. Raising a confident eyebrow, he focused on her.
“While alive, I dueled my share of mafiz, lorels and myztic. I won most of them.”
“Hmm.” She sounded thoughtful, rather than disbelieving. “Understanding magic before reaching the Evenacht is a boon. I feel bad for the common spirit who had no ability when living, then must learn it to interact with their new and frightening environment. But that’s for another discussion. Qira would like to see your research. Do you mind?”
“Oh, of course not!”
The elfine smiled widely and rose, offering Vantra a hand up. Disappointed at the interruption, she accepted. She would ask, at another time, why a talented and successful ghost broke his bond with Laken and returned him to the Fields because of a Clastic.
And why he so firmly believed only she could Redeem Laken.