Chapter 4: Unexpected Allies

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The Nectar Merchant Mounds, one of the four Mound areas surrounding Evening.

Vantra had passed through a couple of times in her wanderings but never spoke to any resting there. The series of small hills near the river provided an out-city camping space for caravans, wagons, farmers, anyone selling anything in Evening, for little in the way of fees. It sheltered poorer sellers and travelers and the ones who needed a cheaper way to care for horses and cattle. Richer merchants preferred to spend their wealth at Travelers’ Villas, paying outrageous prices for a closet, then smugly bragging on it while they sent their less fortunate help to the Mounds.

She kept to the side of the road while farmers and their teams rumbled past. The hills had roads wide enough for three broad farm wagons to pass, ending at camping sections that surrounded clean water pumps. The living congregated around the shower stalls, where anyone could quickly wash the stains of travel away. Spirits, not as enamored of water, kept to the outskirts and closer to the Nectar and its nightly mists. A few cooks plied their trade, though many of the hungry warmed food over the campfires instead.

At least she did not have to avoid speedy modern transportation. Evening, as an old city with even older inhabitants, had outmoded forms of physical transport and proudly boasted on it—like most other Evenacht spirit-centric habitations. Ancient populations disliked the noisy, fast vehicles, so passed laws concerning appropriate modes of travel.

Of course, if ziptrails did not exist, she had the suspicion Evening would embrace modern vehicles. While wagons, carts, rickshaws and beasts of burden ferried beings back and forth across the urban landscape, spirits who wanted a quick streak across the city, and who had the funds, used those magical lines. The Finders maintained a couple, though put the most effort into the one that ran from the Mansion to the Fields of the UnRedeemed. She could not say she enjoyed the sensation of filtering her essence into a sparkling tube of energy and racing away while she fought to keep herself intact against the pull of power. She had no idea why the first industrious spirit, upon experiencing the natural trails for the first time, thought getting sucked into one and being dumped in a far removed spot a brilliant conveyance, but they had.

It made her queasy, to think about how many ghosts succumbed to the Final Death before authorities engineered the energy into a more manageable travel source.

Ghosts still hovered around their fires, gossiping and laughing. She bowed her head and whisked past, hoping they did not pay enough attention to recognize her description and tell other Finders her direction if they asked.

“Where are we?” Laken’s muffled voice rose from the bag.

“Oh. Nectar Merchant Mounds.” Guilt raced through her, for not keeping him informed.

“That will be one of the first places they look.”

“Maybe.”

“The Mounds are an obvious place for unlucky souls without money to ask around for a ride.”

“How much do you know about the Evenacht?” Vantra asked, annoyed. If a head remained isolated in the Fields, how did they learn anything about what lay beyond their boundaries?

“Why do you think anything changes between attempts to Redeem me?”

How many Finders had undertaken his Redemption? Though she burned with questions for the captain about the failed quests, those needed to wait for a calmer time. She hustled on.

Upon reaching the fence that delineated the Mounds from the farm communities surrounding them, she paused and assessed how many more campfires sprawled down to the Nectar and traveled along its shores. Why so many merchants? She did not recall a holiday or event that might attract more vendors. Worried, she took the path next to the river, avoiding the light of most campfires.

She wilted as she neared the last scattering of wagons situated around smoldering fires. Beings curled up in the driver’s seat or snuggled into sleeprolls on trampled grass, asleep. Dogs whined and barked at her; their owners groggily took one look and went back to sleep, unconcerned about her presence.

The final seven wagons sat at a huge campfire on the Nectar’s bank near a stout, covered bridge, two in a lively discussion about the finer aspects of a particular berry alcohol while their twenty-odd companions groaned. A quiver raced through her as she studied the visages of the chatty ones; humans that looked young and alive were old, old ghosts with several millennia of practice in Physical and Mental Touch.

She had only met one, a Hallowed Collective sage who pre-dated the Beast’s reign. The woman remained in perfect Physical form and did not leak essence, which fooled newer Finders into believing her alive. Vantra thought that silly; any human, elfine, nymph or dryan in the Evenacht was a spirit because their living peoples did not reside in the evening lands. She also thought it odd, that the acolytes tagged the sage as over fifty-thousand. Despite the chance at a new existence in the Evenacht doing what one loved, ghosts grew weary of being. Eventually, they sought the Final Death—or so she had been told. She, as a new spirit, did not know anyone who had passed beyond the evening lands and into the nothingness of the Void.

“You’re out late!”

Vantra blinked and looked at the gangly man who hailed her. He was one of the chatty spirits, with bright crimson hair that fell just past his shoulders and eyes that gleamed like a mid-day sky. He wore a typical traveler’s outfit of dusty boots, loose black pants tucked into the tops, a soft sea green shirt hanging to his thighs covered by a rib-length blue vest embroidered with gold thread. His right arm and hand had a fingerless gauntlet of sturdy leather with a gold design she could not quite decipher on the top. The quality displayed hinted at either grand wealth or an old spirit who could manipulate the appearance of their clothing to exacting standards.

Neither boded well for her.

“I am,” she admitted with a half-smile.

“You should have a seat,” he said, motioning to a tree stump seat near his own. “The thick mists are about to rise.”

The thick mists?

The other old spirit, who sat on the ground and leaned against yet another stump, chuckled. While those around him wore brighter colors or dusty browns, he dressed in casual black, with a laced shirt, loose pants and knee-high boots, all a blatant contrast to his pale skin. “The Nectar always produces a descent fog this time of year, this time of night,” he informed her. “I’m amazed more don’t take advantage of it.”

“Is that why you’re here?” she asked, the only polite thing she could think to say.

“Yes.” A woman stepped out of a flower-painted wagon with a curved, brown-tiled top. She struck Vantra as someone who did not understand the vigors of the road; she dressed in a long black tank and skirt, sandals, and had silver bangles jangling at both wrists. Her braided black hair fell to her waist, the fingers of wind playing with the loose strands fluttering before her elfine ears.

Of course, ghosts in Ether form did not have to care about the physical rigors of anything. Physical form at night, to enjoy the warmth of a fire, the touch of cool mist on the skin, Ether during the travel of day . . . it made sense.

The man in black smiled at her, his sunset blue eyes twinkling. “You do enjoy the late-night fogs.”

“There is nothing wrong with that,” she muttered, flumping next to him. Dust puffed up, and the man wrinkled his nose as the fine particles coated the edges of his shirt. Her water-green eyes took Vantra in, though she sensed no ill will. “Seriously, you look like you need to soak in the mists for a night or so.”

She fought not to wince. True, she needed to re-energize, but doing so among strangers, especially after Nolaris’s attack, struck her as unsafe.

“All of us need to, at some point,” the red-haired man said. “And we here at the Joyful Caravan always provide the best entertainment while we absorb. Why not join us?”

A couple held up stringed instruments, grinning. She recognized the long-necked, oval, plucked, four-stringed glavix, a staple in traditional Keel music, though she did not know the name of the harp-shaped bowed one that had a bridge but lacked a fingerboard. Had she happened upon players rather than merchants?

She wracked her brain, wishing to gently decline without offending their hospitable offer. “I’m . . . a bit of a mess right now—”

“I can help with that,” the woman said, popping back up.

Others also rose, and three began a fast dance folksong Vantra recognized as Keel in origin, though they took liberties with the tune. She tried to politely demur, but the words did not leave her mouth before the woman planted her hand between her shoulders and pushed her towards the bridge.

The underside had tall reeds delineating a pool-sized space with an obvious magic barrier filtering the water. A pleasant heat drifted from it, at odds with the late-year cold of the Nectar’s typical water. Soap, ladles, brushes and combs, a bucket and cloth sat on a flat, clean grey rock, within easy reach of the pool.

“Red spelled it, so you don’t have to worry about fish nibbling your toes as you wash,” she said.

“Is that a problem for ghosts?” Vantra asked, confused.

She laughed. “It is for Red,” she chortled. She pointed at the bag. “And I’ll get you a new one.”

“Oh! No, I need to keep—”

“And ask Katta or Red to spell the clean one to keep your Chosen with you.”

Vantra quieted. It was that obvious? Well, she did wear a dirty Finder’s robe, and that she had yet to change to Ether form and manipulate the grime away . . .

“I’m Kjaelle, by the way. It’s spelled with the Kanderite ‘kj’ for the ‘sh’ sound.”

She knew them as southern Talis wildelfine from nine or so thousand years previous, though she had read that they built their reputation by exaggerating their military victories to the point enemies quaked at their name. A good way to save soldiers from death by having targets meekly give way, though it had worked only until they reached someone who fought back.

“But don’t let that fool you. My mother was half-Vint, and my father was Colloquial Hethetor. During my youth, the treaty lands had not yet acknowledged the Vint, so while they considered themselves hereditary Kanderites, the treaty lands did not. Hethetor, at that time, was a sophisticated country with advanced armaments superior to anything the Kanderites used against them. The Kandi elite exiled anyone with a connection to Hethetor because of hatred for the more powerful land, and demanded the Vint do the same, so I grew up in Hethetor.”

Bloodlines always mattered, when they should not. The constant barrage her mother received from the concerned priesthood about the suitability of her unknown lover exposed their ignoble worry. They fretted that the high priestess’s refusal to name him meant he tainted both her and her daughter, and feared that their syimlin would bring destruction to his followers for her indiscretion.

An idiotic fear. No sign from Ga Son ever indicated anything but acceptance of her, be it from badge or altar. That disquieted those priests more, to the point they took her life rather than wait for syimlin punishment.

“I’m Vantra,” she murmured. “From modern Keelsland.”

“Salu me to you, Vantra. Use what you want, we freely provide.” She swept her arm to the supplies, then studied her with the intensity of a curious scholar eyeing a newly bought book. “Our hospitality is sincere. Katta and Red come from ancient cultures where kindness created or broke peoples.” Then she laughed. “Though you should probably call Red by his name, Qira. When I first met him, I called him Red because I didn’t know his name. When he informed me, I told him Red suited him better. Katta smirked until dawn because the only thing I had noticed about him was his hair, rather than the magnificent magical skill he was trying to show off. Oh, and Katta’s the one in black.”

“I realized they were ancient ghosts.”

“Because they look alive?” She nodded. “I found it intimidating, at first. They hold great Touch ability, far more than anyone else I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been in the Evenacht for over eight thousand years.”

Vantra hesitated but asked anyway. “What civilizations do they come from?”

“Red’s Aristarzian. They were a northern Talis people from twenty-three thousand years previous to about eighteen thousand years previous. Their closest modern descendants are the Zarinen. Katta hails from the Sendleba Islands and a people called the Sleeve. The Ba eliminated them fifteen thousand years previous, and the handful of survivors of the purge made it to the western seaboard and intermarried with the peoples there. He’s one of those survivors. Truthfully, neither enjoy discussing their ancestry, like so many other spirits. They find it tedious, depressing, and best forgotten, rather than something to brag on.”

Since Keels tended to do just that, she understood the last part as being directed to her.

Kjaelle left her to the pool.

Vantra settled the bag on the stone near the supplies. “I’ll be right back,” she said, grabbing soap.

“You actually trust them?” Laken asked in derision.

She did, and she had as much right as he to warily regard strangers and the harm they may inflict. But several older Finders insisted on shows of great hospitality, and she readily believed that Red and Katta took it seriously—especially after noting her Finder robe.

The water tingled through her essence as she waded in. She had not experienced the like anywhere else in the Nectar, and she enjoyed it. It seemed as if she washed not only her clothing and skin, but her energy as well. The soap had a delightful scent, soft and sweet with a hint of musk, though she could not place the spice. She held up her sodden robe, the grime absent, and sighed for the long drying process. The power to form a mirage of attire rather than wear the outfit eluded her at the moment, though, perhaps, if the other ghosts spoke true about the mists, she could quickly absorb what she needed to create a presentable façade.

She dribbled water onto the bank, creating a muddy mess, and spread the sopping item out on the rock before she retrieved Laken. He glared at her, but she gave him the wash she intended with the sylf-blessed soap earlier.

“You’re drowning me,” he gargled.

“You aren’t alive to drown,” she reminded him.

He growled. “I’m surprised you haven’t cut my hair yet.”

“Why would I? Unless you want it cut.”

“I don’t.”

“Then I won’t.”

By the annoyed shift in the air about him, he tried to come up with another grumpy statement, and she dunked him under the water. Spluttering would keep him relatively quiet. Besides, she doubted he disliked the bath, after going who knew how many years with a rag wash and little more. He simply needed an outlet after too many years moldering in the Fields.

It disconcerted her, when she returned to the rock, that a dry slip dress and warmer duster awaited her, rather than her robe. Next to the clothing sat her badges and a sturdy backpack of modern stoutweave with a padded interior for Laken, a side compartment large enough for her Sun altar, and various pockets for storing equipment Finders would use on Redemptions.

If she had any equipment.

“This is too generous, even for the hospitable,” Laken muttered, suspicious.

Vantra gratefully donned the clothing, then applied the Sun badge to the dress. Without the obvious Finder robe and badge, she doubted many evening land inhabitants would pay her much heed, including those chasing her. Hopefully. Pushing down the sour thoughts, she piled the damp strands of hair atop her head; she could deal with them later.

Grabbing a brush, she set about untangling the captain’s hair, using that as an excuse to avoid discussing her trust when she should withhold it. True, she found Katta and Red intimidating, but that did not mean they were cruel. She typically sensed hidden animosity, a necessity in navigating the Spiral temple hierarchy, and none of that soul-stifling darkness encased them.

The mist became thicker, and it infiltrated the folds and gaps in her clothes, slid along her skin, and penetrated her essence with a joyous tingle. No wonder the ghosts waited for this! She wallowed in the sensation, gorging on energy, uncertain she had ever recharged so fast, so liberally.

Raised voices caught her attention. She frowned, looking at the mist-shrouded wagons, barely visible through the fog. Kjaelle wandered through them, humorously exasperated. She flumped on the stone and scanned Laken before focusing on Vantra.

“Come to the fire. It’s nice, to recharge in company.”

“I’m certain it is,” Laken grumbled.

She grinned at him. “Quite the snarly one, aren’t you? I’d be worse, if I had languished in the Fields for millennia while trying to convince a sniffy sage to Redeem me.” She glanced at the pool. “I’ve helped Finders a time or two. Given them rides. The younger lot are polite and eager and dedicated to their Chosen. The sages are better left in the dust of my team.” She rose and urged Vantra up. “Gather Laken and your things and come.”

When they reached the fire, the subdued spirits immediately instilled caution in her, but Kjaelle studied Katta with forceful exasperation. “You let Red go?”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “The Finders came between him and his dessert,” he said. “He doesn’t get the elfine leafcakes often.”

Finders? Fear trickled up Vantra’s spine as Kjaelle sucked in a huge breath for effect. “Yelling at them isn’t going to do much in getting him elfine leafcakes,” she responded.

“No, but angry Red is intimidating to most spirits, even if you don’t think so. It may well keep them away from this fire.”

A few others chuckled at that.

It struck Vantra, too long after the initial tell to ask about it. Elfine leafcakes. Manipulating one’s essence so that eating became possible was an exacting task. Ghosts who wished to pursue artistic endeavors like baking or cooking needed to learn the intricacies of Physical Touch to do so, but a small bite for taste was all they managed. They could not absorb energy from it, so needed other ways to dispose of the mush left behind. If he ate food . . .

“Have a seat,” Katta said, waving her and Laken to a vacant stump.

If the Finders were already at the Mounds, she did not have the luxury. “I appreciate the hospitality—” she began.

He grinned. “I take it those lackluster rubes are after you?” He shrugged. “Chemen says they made quite the fuss.”

“They did,” one of the gaunter spirits agreed. He looked tranquil enough, basking in the mist’s touch, his tanned, chiseled face tipped back, his sun-burnt straw hair dangling loose, but Vantra noted his fingers curled into fists as he leaned on them. “An inappropriate Choice, they claimed—as if there is such a thing.”

“There isn’t,” a man with a rough brown beard and hazel eyes insisted with strenuous force.

“Unless the Hallowed are upset his family didn’t pay the bribe to Redeemed him,” Katta said, his humor dwindling as he eyed Laken.

Vantra’s gut-punch reaction to that quaked through her. Finders did not take bribes to Redeem the Condemned! They listened for calls, or did research in the Libraries, looking for information on one ready for Redemption. Those who sat in the Fields deserved their punishment, but they also deserved their Recollection, and . . . and . . .

“A young Finder called Vantra, with commitment and fire in her eyes,” Katta murmured. “A refreshing change. And you?” he asked, intent on Laken.

“I’m Laken,” he said gruffly.

“You’ve the feel of an elder spirit, trapped for millennia,” he said in a casual tone. “I’ve spoken with a couple of Elden Field Chosen over the years. They struggled to remain sane enough for Redemption, as one long-neglected head among thousands seeking peace. The Finders shame themselves, for how many endure there.”

Vantra had no hand in that, but she felt the chastisement to her core.

Katta regarded her, eyes heavily lidded. “What prompted you to look for your Chosen in the Elden Fields?”

“I heard his call,” she whispered.

She found herself under the scrutiny of every spirit at the fire.

“That’s rare,” Kjaelle said, plunking down next to Katta. “The Finders brag on it, but few ever hear the pleas.”

“What are pleas compared to money and an aristocrat’s favor?” Laken asked, his resentment darkening his words.

“Too many accept the bribes, and the evening lands are poorer for it,” Katta agreed. He swept his fingers through the mist, leaving wispy swirls behind. “I’ve not known an Evenacht without the Fields, and I’ve existed fifteen millennia. Before the Hallowed Collective, no single organization Redeemed the Condemned. Sometimes family took the responsibility, sometimes friends. The wealthier hired adventurers who wanted exciting quests to complete. The Redemption was the journey, not the punishment of languishing centuries in the dirt. The Collective changed that, limiting UnRedeemed access to sanctioned Finders. That rule has limited Redemptions in turn, and the Fields grow and the Condemned become more desperate.”

“Recognizing that won’t help,” Laken said bluntly.

“Nothing will change without speaking on it,” Katta replied. “The common ghost believes the Finders are syimlin-blessed and hesitate to interfere in their business. Without showing them the error, they will never learn of it.”

“The common ghost wants nothing to do with the Condemned,” the captain bit out. “Telling them that Finders are corrupt won’t change that.”

“You don’t believe a sincere explanation will attract others who wished to help but found their aid turned away at the Mansion’s door?” Katta settled his elbow on the stump and planted his cheek in his palm. “I don’t blame your bitterness. But you now have an opportunity to see things right.”

The angry shout and the clang of metal caught their attention. Vantra could not quite tell, but she thought the commotion took place a couple of wagons away.

The bearded spirit waved his hand at his companions. “Get inside,” he said. “If they don’t see us, they’ll have no reason to stop and interrogate.”

Vantra’s unease pounded against her thoughts, as firm and sure as any living heart. The group rose, grumbling, but all retreated to the wagons—except for Katta. Kjaelle looked down at him, then motioned to her.

“You can have a seat with us,” she said. “And Katta can scare whoever is nosy enough to bother him away.”

Vantra snagged the bag and carried a muttering Laken up the stairs and into the hiding place.

The wagon did not have merchandise, as she expected. The curved top sheltered a rumpled bed placed at the back of the driver’s seat and above a series of cabinets. Thin, sheer black fabric hung from the walls, covering shelves filled with items Vantra recognized from the Sun Oracle’s divination room. A round, black-draped table sat in the center, boxes surrounding it like chairs. The glavix player who accompanied them sank onto one, then set his instrument on the tabletop and popped open a small window near the bed’s pillow, allowing the mist to filter in faster.

Kjaelle held out her hands, palms up, to Vantra. “The seats aren’t the best,” she began, and the man snickered. “But it puts customers in a mood.”

“You read fortunes.”

She grinned, and the man heartily snorted. “No, actually. I show people how those tellers fake it. As far as I know, only the priests associated with the Sun Oracle can divinate, and even then, they’re usually wrong.”

Vantra pursed her lips. “They’ve had numerous successes.”

“You would say that, being a Sun acolyte,” Kjaelle said, indicating her badge. “They may have success guessing at the little oracles, like where someone lost a favorite item or who they might marry, but the big, society-changing ones? There’s been one, to my knowledge. Getheldeen’s Curse.”

Vantra sighed. The angry woman had correctly guessed that the elfine Cusok of the Southern Mirbel would invade his neighbors two hundred years after her death, wreck the lands and steal their wealth, then smack into Mandyi and fail to take the capital because the spies he thought he bribed were not traitors, but patriots. The Mand formed an alliance with other cultures, and led by the Keel, defeated the warlord and restored peace to the continent.

Impressed clergy heaped accolades upon Getheldeen’s words, and the Oracle became the center of all syimlin worship for a couple of centuries. Barrine’s failed vision of the Keel Ascendancy shattered the awe, but despite that, most cultures still considered the Keel the spiritual leaders of Talis. Since the reappearance of the syimlin a hundred years previous, that leadership role had expanded to government institutions as well, something her mother disliked because she anticipated harm to follow.

“Dear Kjaelle thinks she can convince people not to get scammed,” the man said. “But willful stupidity is a favored commodity among too many. I’m Vesh, but the way.”

“Do you always accept strangers into your wagon?” Laken asked.

Vantra thought it rude, but the other spirits appeared more amused than offended. “This is Kjaelle’s home,” Vesh said. “She invites who she wants inside, including Finders and their Chosen. She’s helped in Redemptions now and then. So have Katta and Qira. They . . . well, let’s just say they aren’t enamored of sages and the Hallowed Collective. When given the opportunity, they interfere—and there isn’t a soul in the Collective that can do a thing about it.”

She frowned. “No? Some of the most powerful spirits who understand the intricacies of Touch are part of the Collective.”

“They like to brag on that, but it’s not true,” Kjaelle said. “It’s propaganda to keep ghosts out of their business.” She lifted her lip at a memory, while Vesh grinned in sympathy.

“I doubt you’ll ever encounter that jackass again.”

“Well, that describes the whole of Finders,” Laken grumbled.

“Even yours?” Kjaelle asked. “She seems right by me. But no, he’s talking about the grand Collective sage Nolaris.” She threw her hands out in a mocking flourish.

Vantra froze, the sarcastic tone washing over her.

“The puffed-up dead fish conscripted my wagon and stank up my essence for a semma,” Kjaelle snarled. “Worthless ass, demanded I stay outside my own home while he wallowed away the days in here. He said he didn’t want his Chosen contaminated by a vintage essence. I threw him out at Row Quarters.”

“Row Quarters?” Vantra asked.

“It’s the main merchant docks area in Voledanthes,” she said. “And the one most Finders use to find cheap passage to Uka’s Lament. Instead, he wanted me to take him to the Ardent, where the rich housed their pleasure boats. He thought he could conscript a large enough ship there he could sail from the Dark to Happendance in luxury.”

Vesh looked to burst, and Kjaelle had a huge smile, despite her anger.

“Let me guess,” Laken said. “He sent the authorities after you.”

“He did,” she agreed. “He had a grand tale of woe and disrespect. As punishment, they forced me to cart his sorry butt to the Ardent, then confiscated my wagon.”

Vesh buried his face in his arms, shaking, a completely unwarranted reaction in Vantra’s opinion.

“You got it back?” Laken asked, his eyes sliding over to the amused ghost.

“I didn’t—Katta did.” She shrugged. “I showed up at our pre-arranged meeting place, and neither he nor Red was in a great mood to begin with. When they found out what happened, he went and had a chat with the city elders. They blew him off, and were so greatly annoyed at his request, that their leader offered Nolaris the use of his boat.”

“He sank it!” Vesh said gleefully.

“Sank it?” Vantra asked, shocked.

“Yep. He tore it in half before it left and it hit bottom like lead. All the beautiful décor, the paintings, the safes, destroyed. After the third boat, the elders refused to entertain Nolaris, despite Hallowed Collective demands. He ranted and raved on the shore, and the longer he stood there, the longer a magic barrier across the harbor grew. When it hit the other side, Katta wandered up and relieved him of his Chosen. He told him to kindly return to Evening since he wasn’t needed in Vole anymore, as we would complete the Recollection. I, Katta and Red Redeemed him, and I think he had a better time of it than he ever would have with Nolaris.”

“Dowl’s the one they Redeemed,” Vesh said. “He said he owes them his afterlife. They told him he’s free to do as he pleases—and he always wanted to run a caravan. So here we are.”

Vantra frowned. “But . . . how did you Redeem him? After Nolaris relinquished the bond, the Condemned would need to return to the Fields, and since the Collective limits who can enter—”

Kjaelle waved her hand in dismissal. “Katta switched the bond to me.”

He had? That explained nothing!

“That barrier’s still there, too,” Vesh giggled. “And the only boats that can pass it are small fishing vessels. Oh, the seething and stamping, because the wealthy had to dismantle—”

Vantra’s badge turned crimson. The two caravan spirits stared as the door burst open, ripped from its hinges. Magic rushed inside, breaking glass, tearing cloth, sending slivers of wood zinging into object and spirit alike.

Vantra hunched over Laken and glimpsed a furious, lightning-charged Dychala before Kjaelle surged up and past Vesh.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” she screamed. She raised a hand.

The wagon filled with the dark weight of anger-overloaded magic. She threw the swirling mass into the Finder; Dychala blew away from the door, landed in a heap next to a still-seated, bemused Katta, and discorporated.

She struggled like a fish on land, to hold her essence together. Several of the Finders Vantra recognized from the earlier confrontation rushed to her, shocked, wringing hands—and at a loss as to what to do. Kjaelle filled the doorway, blocking most of the view—and making certain the assaulters could not see inside.

“Shit,” Laken breathed, and he sounded worried.

“Don’t piss off Kjaelle unless she likes you,” Vesh said, resigned, as he bent over to see around her. Vantra mimicked him, concerned about being seen, but curiosity won over caution. “She’s not one to suffer disrespect. She’s even had words with Qira over his teasing, though he backs off when he realizes he’s hurt her.”

Katta sighed and rose. “For one who claims an assassin’s mantle, you have very little feel for it,” he told the floundering woman. He caught something and flumped it open.

Vantra watched, stunned, as Dychala’s essence swirled up, the particles tightening into a small whirlwind before the magic deposited her inside a largish bag used by merchants to carry fruit. He held it out to the nearest Finder, who stared in horror at it.

“Take her back to wherever she must go,” Katta said. “And be warned, the next time you invade our campfire and cause damage, it will go even less in your favor.”

“Sage Nolaris will hear of this!” one squeaked.

“NOLARIS?” Kjaelle roared, fingers clenching.

The laughter of Red, a light, ethereal sound, softened the sense of rage. Kjaelle’s shoulders slumped, and Vantra did not think it purposeful. “Oh, please, yes! Offer Nolaris the hospitality of Katta and Kjaelle and Qira’s campfire. I’m sure he’ll gratefully accept.”

Katta snickered and shoved the bag into the acolyte's hands; he instinctively took it and tumbled back. “Kjaelle and I run with Darkness and Qira is the hand of Light,” he told them. “Our Touch isn’t in name only.”

Kjaelle hmphed loudly, to emphasize her disdain and annoyance.

Vantra could no longer see the Finders as the thick fog hid even the campfire. Vesh sat back with a disappointed groan. She glanced at Laken, guiltily realizing she should have tried to get him a view, too. The elfine leaned around the corner, her hand on the edge, one leg raised for balance, then hopped down the steps and grabbed the door. Katta helped her with it; the magical hinges he attached felt stronger in essence than many a spirit she had met.

He said he and Kjaelle ran with Darkness, and Qira was the hand of Light. Were they priests? Syimlin had always attracted the magically gifted into their priesthoods, and ancient cultures held those institutions in high reverence for it.

“They’re gone,” Red called.

“Nolaris,” Kjaelle muttered, hate infusing her voice.

“An unwelcome visit,” Katta agreed as the mists swallowed his retreat to the fire. Vesh rose, and Vantra, unwilling to remain in the wagon with Laken and have a Finder sneak in and cause mischief, vacated.

The spirits drifted to the flames, some chuckling, some eyeing the direction of the Mounds warily. She plunked down on a stump, clutching the captain too tightly.

“Don’t squish him,” Red said, amused, as he regained his seat, a large brown paper sack with rolled top in hand. “They won’t be back tonight, so you can relax.” He opened it and withdrew a leaf-shaped yellow cake with green icing.

“Kjaelle said you have history with Nolaris.”

Both ancients laughed, and the bearded man nodded vigorously.

“He won’t tangle with our Katta and Qira,” he stated proudly.

“You’re giving him too little credit,” Laken snapped. “Especially when he gets angry.”

“Surely you realize, he backs away from confrontations he won’t win,” Katta said, settling against the stump. He patted the ground next to him expectantly; Kjaelle smashed her lips together but dumped herself next to him. He placed a hand on her back, comforting enough she reluctantly relaxed. “And unless his power has drastically changed in the last thousand years, he will refuse to face us.”

“He isn’t like Kjaelle,” Red said, savoring the treat. “She had no care for the strength of our Gifts. She stomped right up to us and told us what she thought.”

“Squeaky mouse has a certain ring to it,” Katta said. The elfine blushed. The reaction startled Vantra; the two men were not the only ones who reflected life to an exacting degree.

“I wasn’t squeaking, I was singing,” Red muttered. The smashed-lip, glancing-away-to-hide-snickers reaction of the surrounding ghosts hinted at his lack of ability in the art. But to simulate breathing to the point of song . . . These spirits had extraordinary skills.

“So where’s your first location?” Kjaelle asked, distracting her amused compatriots.

“The Snake’s Den.”

“Ooohhh.” A chorus of ghosts did sound spooky.

“That’s pretty specific for a bonding map locale,” Katta said, lifting an eyebrow.

“Laken had a previous Finder discover his torso and right hand,” Vantra admitted. “So even though Nolaris burned the map . . .” She trailed off, flabbergasted she intimated the event. She bowed her head, fighting the shame.

“Burned it?” Kjaelle asked in a brittle tone.

“He destroyed her entire neighborhood to return me to the Fields,” Laken told her.

“He . . . was my mentor,” she whispered. “And he’s very displeased I followed Laken’s call.”

“That ass,” Kjaelle seethed. “Why’s he so interested in returning you to the Fields, Laken?”

“He tried to Redeem me. No mark showed up on the map during the binding, and he refused to do the research to find out where my essences were. He got rid of me fast enough.”

“Was that before or after the Rival?” Red asked, chewing slowly.

“After. He thought he’d cement his standing by Redeeming me.”

“Has he Redeemed anyone after the Rival?” the bearded man asked darkly.

“Yes, but they’re heads from the Plantive,” Vantra told them. She once assumed he helped so many there because it gave him a way to show his acolytes how to conduct a Choice. Perhaps the location and questions he asked of the Condemned had a different purpose—to keep him from further embarrassment.

“Not chancing another Elden Fields Redemption? Coward,” Red said, selecting another cake.

“How were you going to get to the coast?” Kjaelle asked.

“Walk.”

“Walk?” The disbelief of the campfire ghosts irritated her.

“Everything I had for Redemptions burned. My Finder tools and notes, and my stipend’s through the Collective so I doubt I have access to funds. I don’t have a choice.”

“I’ll take you,” the elfine declared.

Vantra blinked. “But—”

“I’ve helped Finders before,” she reminded her. “And if Nolaris is so insistent on not having Laken Redeemed, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“You’d help?” Laken asked, incredulous.

“Yes.” Vantra would never discount a woman who spoke with that conviction.

“Oh oh, I’m coming, too!” Red declared, pumping his leaf-holding hand into the air. “I’m supposed to visit Lesarat at some point, and it’s on the way!”

Katta smiled softly and met Kjaelle’s defiance with calm acceptance. “Up to living with the two of us?” he asked.

“I’ll somehow manage,” she said drily.

The bearded man laughed heartily. “Then you can pick up that package from Timmer when you arrive at the Row,” he said.

“But this is interrupting your caravan,” Vantra protested, her mind whirling. She did not need companions! Not that she derided company, but a Redemption was a singular journey between the Finder and the Chosen . . .

“That ass already did that.” Kjaelle pointed in the vague direction of Evening. “Besides, I never cart around cargo. I’m just an anti-scam artist who tells others inconvenient truths. I can do that just as well, traveling through the Dark as I can in Death’s Hand.”

The bearded man looked askance at her, and Vantra could not quite interpret his expression, though Vesh chuckled and smacked his shoulder with humor.

“Mera, Tally and I were on their wagons, Dowl,” he said.

“Yeah,” he said, flipping his hand. “We’re supposed to meet Joyous Two in Dreger, so we won’t be short long. Just make sure you visit Timmer, that’s all I’m asking.”

“You don’t think Qira and I are up to caring for Stick and Bread?” Katta asked.

“No,” he replied, so firmly Vantra tried not to laugh, as the others did.

“Un-a-ppreciated,” Red muttered as he shoved the rest of the cake in his mouth and delved into the sack for more.

“I appreciate your support very much,” Dowl disagreed, placing his hand across his breast and bowing. “But I have no illusions about your lack of experience caring for horses.”

“I’ve been around long enough—” Red began.

“—to have enough money to hire help,” the man finished.

“So what does that make us?” Vesh asked. “The Mini-Joyful?”

Vantra bowed her head, fighting the resentment slamming through her. Inviting themselves along when she had not asked for aid annoyed her, their lack of respect for a Redemption infuriated her—

“I have to put up with you people?” Laken asked in ugly disbelief.

—and she would gladly accept the company.

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