“Qira,” Kjaelle choked, backing from the confrontation. She purposefully slammed the back of her hand against her nose and glared swords into his head.
The two in cloaks and hoods gagged, dropping their appendages and leaning over. The Finder raised his hands, swallowing hard, and another shield spanned the interior of the first. His frown deepened, and Vantra assumed the defense did not do what he expected.
So his majestic magic could not keep the moldering stench out.
“What spell is that?” he asked, fighting against a vicious cough.
“Spell? Elfine leafcakes aren’t a spell. They’re tasty pastries. I thought everyone knew that.”
If he had stood anywhere near Kjaelle, Vantra was certain that the spirit nicknamed Red would have met a nasty Final Death then and there, in the middle of a rutted dirt road, surrounded by droopy grass and sparsely-leaved trees that semi-hid the harvested farmland beyond, by boot up the ass. Plugging it sounded like an exceptional idea.
His grin widened as he contentedly stared about; the ragged travelers behind them, the farmers with wagons, and wealthier individuals in carriages, all fled, their mounts more eager to vacate than they. Native or ghost, not one remained within shouting distance of the confrontation and the putrescence wafting from the area. The draft animals proceeded so quickly that the vehicles they pulled nearly tipped into the shallow ditches running to each side of the roadway.
Guilt would ride her if she left Laken behind and followed them.
Red snickered and motioned with magnanimity towards the three behind shield, bidding the elfine to proceed.
“You refuse to face me? A wise choice,” the Finder said, nastily pleased. He puffed his chest and tipped his head, to better stare down at the ghost.
Kjaelle rolled her eyes as the ancient spirit regarded the presumptuous younger one. “Face you? This is Kjaelle’s fight; she attacked, so she gets to battle first. I can make it mine, but if you’re having problems with elfine leafcakes, you aren’t up to me.” He waved his hand at the ashy essences of the Finders. “They certainly weren’t.”
The Finder squinted at the piles of energy while his support glanced at each other and hunched their shoulders. “This disrespect is unacceptable.”
“You’re the ones who stopped us,” Red pointed out. “And became nasty when we didn’t bow and make nice. ‘I look forward to showing you the majestic nature of the Hallowed Collective’,” he mocked in a snooty tone. His arms spanned wide. “So please, show us this grand ability . . . um, what’s your name?”
The spirit’s fingers curled into shaking fists. “I am Bregarde, Spear of the Finders,” he said through clenched teeth.
“What?” Vantra asked, frowning. She had never heard of the Spear of the Finders. Divisions within the organization depended on experience, with acolytes on the bottom, Finders as the middle, and sages at the top. Internal groupings were by year, rather than a specific rank. She loved the idea because of the equality expressed and found herself motivated to join them instead of bothering with the Sun temple’s smug elite.
“The Hallowed Collective sent me to search for a woman in your company, a renegade named Vantra. I see more than she will face the retribution of the Fields.”
Red’s rosy-cheeked amusement ended and his eyes gleamed a brighter blue. “Retribution of the Fields?”
“The Evenacht does not halt the evil within a person’s soul. There must be punishment in the afterlife, and we carry it in our palms,” he stated clearly, his maliciousness spitting into the air. He held up his right hand, palm out.
A mark glowed a subtle blue in the center, though Vantra could not tell what it denoted from that distance. Maybe a vox, Erse Parr’s symbolic animal. The species lived in both the living world and the Evenacht, one of the few that straddled both, which made them a fitting symbol of the Living Death.
“The punishment of sundering is a Hallowed Collective prerogative, given us by Death’s Hand.”
The wrongness twisted her essence, and prickles of ashen fury sifted through her. What blasphemy did he speak?
The sundering of essences was Death’s punishment for a life ill-lived. No one in the Evenacht had leave to usurp a function reserved for the transition of life into death, a duty Erse Parr held dear. She had lived through the Beast breaking taboos when he invaded Talis and rampaged across the continent, slaughtering the living to feed his appetite for souls to fill the Evenacht. He and his brethren took too many before their time, and any who refused to bow to him, his minions sundered and sent to the Fields, to wallow in unearned punishment until they agreed to honor him as he demanded.
He slaughtered her family, her friends, and returned years later for the one who escaped his grasp the first time. She shredded him with her father’s sword and hurled his putrid essence into the Final Death—and donned his mantle.
Erse refused tp continue his abuses. She reverted Death’s Hand to its previous purpose and forbade others to step in the Beast’s tracks. She, as Death, aided by Darkness, judged souls. No other.
Kjaelle stepped towards the Finder, a soft gloom enveloping her. “The evening lands have their own justice, but the Hallowed Collective does not serve it. Darkness acolytes do. They float through community and sanctuary, rooting out the most egregious and destructive beings, and bringing peace to those affected. They expose evil will to Death’s Hand, and she either exacts the punishment of the Fields, or sends them to the Shades of Darkness for a lesser penance. The Finders have nothing to do with that.”
Their opponent’s dark eyes lit with a moon-bright gleam. “Naïve assumptions, that the Shades of Darkness are adequate judges.”
“It is their sworn duty to their syimlin,” Kjaelle snapped, ice slicing her words. “They are chosen by Darkness and the oaths they take bind them to their office. If they neglect or abuse it, they are rewarded in kind. The Hallowed Collective has no similar penalty.”
“We don’t need it. We only promote the most worthy.”
“The most worthy? Nolaris destroyed a neighborhood last night, and yet here you are, doing his bidding. If you truly worked by Death’s Hand, you would have arrested him, sage or no.”
“Nolaris?” He snarled a laugh. “Nolaris attempted to stop a rogue Finder. Do not blame what she wrought on him.”
Vantra swayed. She should have expected it, but to have the Finders accuse her of committing Nolaris’s damage infected the small bit of hope she carried with her. As a child, she thought it her connection to Ga Son, but as she grew, she cherished it as the brightest aspect of her, that even on her darkest days, a small light blazed within her. She supped from it and coated herself in the courage to continue. But to face grave punishment for another’s malice . . .
“A rogue Finder.” Kjaelle folded her arms while Red’s loathing filled the space, as infectious and violent as his gas. All three opponents nervously regarded him while the elfine continued, increasingly annoyed, though with who, Vantra could not say. “She chose a head from the Elden Fields and that makes her a rogue Finder? Doing a duty the Finders ignore because it’s more expedient to accept bribes from the wealthy to Redeem their kin first?”
Bregarde’s head snapped to her. “Our sacred charge shall not be mocked! Of om opte a nanfla frandiu. Tu vulfe piorte fin page.”
For someone powerful enough to maintain a Great Seal, Vantra found the intonation absurd. By the time those gifted in Mental energy possessed the knowledge and power to create one, they should have left word-focused magic long behind.
The Great Seal’s circles ground to a sluggish start, and he set his hand over the vulf before they picked up speed. Bluish-white spikes shot from the edges like sunbeams. Pulses traveled from the tips to pool in the centers, which expanded to fill the space between. Humming increased with each turn, and the vulf hopped from the Seal, to float just in front of it. Beams from all three circles fired into it, and it rode their push towards Kjaelle, legs pumping fast.
The attack impacted the swirls of darkness; a flash, and Vantra hid her eyes. The vibrations from the clash snagged her essence, yanking it away. She firmed her Physical form to prevent further leakage, and noted her Sun badge glowed a warning crimson. “Anznet emi.”
Shields rose around her. Red’s eyebrow raised as he regarded her, but he did not mock her use of them. She expanded them to encase the wagon, protecting Laken and the horses from the bite of backlash. Vesh hustled to the ancient spirit, who formed similar protections to encompass the other wagon. The stoutness she sensed stunned her. She considered Nolaris among the finest sages the Finders offered, and no spell he cast came near the depth and strength of the one Red just initiated, without preparation or phrases to guide intent.
Bregarde focused on Kjaelle, but the two with him stared at the wagon and its protector. The elfine did not let them gape long. Tendrils of darkness curled about her, then shot towards them, striking the Great Seal’s vulf.
The blue symbols vibrated and cracked; the two underlings yelled and focused on their neglected task, while Bregarde ground his teeth together. Wind sliced through them and the tendrils burst apart; severed essence wafting into the air before evaporating.
“Oooohhh,” Red said, unimpressed. “I bet that works wonders for chopping wood.”
Vesh chuckled while the Finder’s rage grew. Why provoke him? Vantra firmed her stance, hoping the next clash of magic, backed by anger, did not shred her shields.
“I see why she sought you out,” Bregarde gritted. “Like calls to like.”
Kjaelle laughed. “She didn’t seek us out. She stumbled upon our camp, and we helped a Finder in need. And here you are, claiming you need to punish us for that. No wonder the Collective’s reputation is trash in the Evenacht. Assholes like you only make that worse.”
The entire Great Seal lurched into motion. The outer edges moved counter to the smaller circles within, speeding up as the Finder forced more magic into them. Red laughed and waved his hand in disgust. “Guess he doesn’t like playing,” he said. “Kjaelle oh Kjaelle, whatever shall you do?”
The vulf raised its head, but instead of howling, it sucked in the blue essence rising from the seal. The more it gorged, the brighter it glowed, until blinding rays erupted from it. Again, it streaked towards Kjaelle. Black fog thickened about her, preparing for impact. The vulf broke apart into sun-bright cracks that raced through the protection, splitting it into curls that evaporated before a full rotation.
Bregarde forced a laugh, his eyes bugged out too far. Vantra shuddered at the maniacal delight, then gasped when the last wisps disappeared, revealing an empty space.
His laughter smoothed, became genuine, and he snapped his wrist at the place Kjaelle had just stood, as if dismissing a servant.
Had he . . . had he sent her to the Final Death? No essence blanketed the ground, as with the Finders. Vantra sensed nothing but burnt dirt.
Panic rushed through her. Why had Red not helped her? Or Katta? Did they not have a relationship? Did he see her as expendable? The ancient ghost rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest, unimpressed, unconcerned. Bregarde gloated and whirled to her, the Great Seal spinning faster than before. He pointed and the vulf shot towards her, eyes a piercing blue that promised swift retribution for instigating its creator.
The magic struck and disappeared in a burst of rays, which snaked over her shields and dug into the surface like claws. She poured her power into them, staving off the assault. The rays shredded the protection but did not break through in enough places to grip the energy and tear it asunder, as with the dark fog.
The brightness cleared, and the smugness the Finders exuded died as they realized she remained under shield, whole. Good thing her ghostly aspect did not gasp or sweat, tipping them off that the defence took more effort than they thought.
Red tapped his chin with his index finger as he studied the construction. “That’s an interesting design.”
Design? She did not care about design! What about Kjaelle?
“Your shields will last no longer than my next breath!” Bregarde shrieked.
The Great Seal shuddered into motion, and the two supporting him fell to their knees, their forms wavering. How much power did he take from them to power the magic?
“Ghosts do not breathe.” Kjaelle’s voice drifted through the air, ethereal, enraged. Vantra perked up, ecstatic she remained whole, and glanced about. Where was she? “Or had you forgotten? Death takes more than the flesh.” Black wisps curled across the ground, filling the space between the wagons with a soft gloam.
“I forget nothing!” He declared, spinning around in search of his adversary as the Seal stuttered. His support concentrated, hands out, their combined magic re-energizing it. The circles sluggishly turned before picking up speed.
“The Hand of Judgement is not a toy,” she continued, the tone darkening with the billowing mist. “But you see it as such, or you never would have used it as a threat. A travesty of sick hubris. How many others have you purposefully abused in this manner, sanctioned by the Hallowed Collective?”
The hate that infused her last words caused Vantra to shudder. With that much loathing directed towards her parent organization, she marveled that Kjaelle offered to help her.
“I’ve abused nothing,” he snarled. A shadow as black as midnight shot behind him; he whirled, too late to catch but a glimpse. He clenched and unclenched his hands as he whipped about. “You helped a fugitive. That’s—”
“Inconsequential.” The black streak zipped past the Seal, leaving four marks across the surface, then faded into nothing.
“Where is she?” he hissed. His support quavered.
“I can’t sense her,” one said. “The Seal—”
“Show yourself, you who claim Darkness,” he called, agitated, cutting the woman off when he realized she could not help him. He held out his right arm, and a fizzle of light flared from the mark before he snagged the bluish-white spear that materialized. The tip hovered half his height over his head and looked more like the ornate vinework on an iron fence than a spear point.
Kjaelle appeared behind his shield, right in front of his nose. “Oh, is that your majestic nature?”
He squealed like a shrill piggy and backpedaled. His support raised their heads as he stabbed the weapon at her, an automatic reaction rather than a thoughtful attack; the tip struck an unseen barrier and black wisps erupted from the impact, snaking up the shaft and wrapping about his hand. He only managed a stunned countenance before the elfine reared back, brought her boot around, and nailed the side of his head. He fell, discorporating as he did so. The wisps broke the spear in half before it evaporated.
“What a joke,” she snarled.
“What have you done?” The second support staggered to his feet, stunned. She whirled and slammed her foot through the Seal; it exploded, the remnants spinning into nothing, the wind striking harshly. The two Finders blew back, landing in heavy lumps, their Physical essence shuddering at impact. Vantra strained to maintain her shields against the assault of debris. The burst died as quickly as it erupted, leaving clumps of dirt and bits of grass to slide down her protections.
“Joke or no, he has a mark that can sunder spirits.” Katta rounded the corner, where he, Mera and Tally had taken refuge from Red’s nastiness. “The spear he called swam in death magic, and could sunder the less powerful with a single strike.”
“How is that possible?” she seethed. “Finders have access to the Fields, but how do they hide the other essences?”
He shook his head. “Death is not one to idly share her mark with any being. As far as I know, she and Darkness are the only two who possess it and therefore are the only two who can cast the concealment spell. The Beast was the cautionary tale she heeds, concerning judgments.”
“Well, you’d know,” Kjaelle muttered.
He hunkered down, his hand hovering over the ashy essence of Bregarde.
“Don’t touch him.” The first support grasped for him, not near enough to prevent him from interacting with her leader. “Death protects him!”
A black, snaky smoke rose from Bregarde, darkening as it drew away from the Finder. A soft hissing filled the air, and the blackness curled in on itself, jiggling, wisps fluttering away. The tip shot away from Katta’s hand but smacked into an invisible wall. It fell back, the jiggles turning into whiplash writing, like a snake in death throes. Sound died, wind died, the flavor of the Evenacht vanished, leaving suffocating stillness behind.
The smoke burst apart, and with a squeak, Kjaelle smacked into a whirl of light that surrounded them and slid to the dirt. The two support Finders dissolved into glowing husks as an unearthly roar trembled the ground, strengthening into a majestic thunder, rolling across the land and cracking the stillness. Grass blades alongside the road shrank into husks of dead gold, trees dropped their colorful late-year leaves, which spun about into ashes before blowing away. Limbs cracked, blackened, and slammed into the earth, bark peeled and whirled in unexpected giant gusts before disintegrating. Vantra strengthened her shields against the impacts, fighting to stand solid against the vibration and its draining effects, terror shaking her as violently as what attacked them.
Katta rose, struggling to keep his feet, a sphere of black fog floating between his hands.
“You’re going to take it to her?” Red asked as Vesh, Mera and Tally rushed to grab the shrieking horses. Vesh passed through her shields by turning wisp then re-forming on the other side, disconcerting her. How did he manage that?
“Yes. He thought the mark was Death’s Hand, but it wasn’t. It reeks of beghestern.”
“Beghestern?” Kjaelle asked, lurching up.
“Yeah.” He nodded at the three essences shuddering like mud puddles. “They need to go to a Shade of Darkness,” he said. “The mark contaminates what it touches. They are not as . . . pure as they believe, and a cleansing will cure them of it.” He narrowed his eyes. “And give the Shades a chance to study the residue before they must battle a similar mark themselves.”
“Well, I needed to go to Lesarat anyway,” Red said as he staggered to the other pools of green-tinged Finders. “Unless there’s an enclave closer than Greyshen’s.”
“Other than those in Evening?” Katta glanced in the city’s direction. “No.”
“We’ll find a ziptrail,” Red said. “I’ll just pack this lot up, zip them to Evening, and dump them in the square. Someone should be about to look after them.”
Vantra attempted to wrap her mind around the declaration as her shield splintered and failed. How might one bundle essences so that ziptrails did not tear them apart? Navigating them was typically a solo affair, and even instructors did not hold the student’s hand when they first entered the caustic mode of transport. To travel with so many senseless spirits . . .
“The Finders will miss them before we are anywhere near Lesarat,” Kjaelle said. “They’ll be hunting us, and they’ll know which route we took, because of who is missing.”
Red swept his arms around him. “Where are we? Still on the Evereast. Since Nolaris burned the map, and they don’t know where Laken’s first essence is, they’ll assume we’re headed northeast, maybe to the ports on Veer’s Embrace, maybe up through Csadarling or Dulcet. They don’t have a reason to believe we’re going through the Dark.”
“They’ve already said I’m a fugitive,” Vantra admitted, trembling at the thought. “I’m putting you in danger.”
They laughed, taking her words as nonchalantly as they took the impending danger.
“Revisit that after a spell,” Kjaelle said, smirking. “When you’ve more traveling experience with Katta and Red.”
What did she mean by that?
“Aaahhh,” Red said, patting his stomach. “I was holding that in. Better now.”
Katta choked and vanished, leaving behind wisps of darkness as the acrid stench billowed through the space. Enough settled around Bregarde and his Finders, their essences changed to a sickly, acidic green, the dirt upon which they rested turning a dull slime color.
“Red,” Kjaelle warned, tears streaming down her face, as she stuffed her arm under her nose and over her mouth, whisking away from his targets. “You get to collect them.”
Vantra kept her gaze plastered to the ground and hastened to the wagon’s stairs, hopping up, the elfine a step behind.
“Alright,” he sighed with melodramatic sadness, loud enough they all heard. “Get going. We’ll catch up!”