Chapter 8: Reuniting with the Wraiths

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    In his sleep, Kalin incoherently grumbled, “No… don’t. Please…”

    Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. His lips pressed together tightly, and his face scrunched in pain. Both arms franticly flung to the top of his head, his fingers gouged into his hair, and he gasped.

    Frenzied eyes shot open, then darted around his surroundings. He blinked, and the hazy world came fully into view. Splotches of brown and green were all around him. Those splotches were trees.

    ‘Right. Still in the forest.’ Kalin lowered his arms from his hair and frowned in disappointment, not from escaping his nightmare but because he had fallen asleep.

    Sunlight pooled on the ground in puddles where it could break through the trees’ leaves, but it was utterly silent. Not even a single bird dared to sing. For him, that was normal, but it would likely unsettle most people.

    A grumble broke the silence, and Kalin sighed. He was hungry, but he didn’t have time to forage. Hunting was out of the question. There’d be no animals near him.

    As he placed his hand down on the ground to push himself up, he felt leather on his fingers and looked down to see a backpack. ‘Left by that scoundrel, no doubt.’

    The thief’s abandoned bag surely had something to eat. He lifted the flap and dug around inside. The bag was nearly empty, but there was a handful of cherries, a carrot, and a crusty roll.

    ‘Huh. I’ll have to thank her when I find her,’ Kalin thought with a smirk.

    After wolfing down his light breakfast, Kalin set out after the thief. The rain hadn’t started back up again last night, so it was easy to find her tracks. Boot prints were stamped into the mud, and foliage was bent where she’d run.

    Even if the visual trail went cold, it didn’t matter. He had another way to track her. Wherever she went, she left traces of presence.

    Following her path, the same blackberry thorns that had scraped her snagged his pants. The fabric was too thick for them to scrape his skin, so it was just a minor annoyance, and soon, he was bending down to look under a rocky outcrop. 

    Dried blood stuck the surface of the rocks around the little nook, and his shackles sprawled on the ground. But the thief wasn’t there.

    ‘Looks like this is going to be a long… morning? Afternoon?’ He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept and didn’t care to look for the sun through the tops of the trees. With a sigh, he stood and continued his hunt for a thief.

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    Nora hadn’t slept long after falling asleep. Once she had woken up, she realized she didn’t feel that guard watching her. There had been no signs he’d found her, so, ignoring her sore muscles and stinging cuts, she had hastily navigated to Mirnis.

    Once in the city, she weaved through a tangle of people with her hand protectively pressed against the ring in her pocket. It was crowded in Mirnis’s busiest market. It always was, but today the bustle seemed more chaotic than usual. The number of patrolling guards must be double what it usually was, which made her nervous.

    ‘Surely there hasn’t been time for the Taeguns’ to have an audience with the city’s police. Would they even do that? They’d have to admit they had the enchanted ring, and then their secret would be out. Maybe they lied– said I took something else. Hmm. No. There are too many guards out for the robbery of some magicless trinket, even if the victims are as powerful as the Taeguns,’ she reasoned. 

    Something else must be going on. Whatever it was, it nagged Nora, and she was sure she should know what it was.

    High above, the sun was just past its peak. The heat from its rays warmed Nora’s damaged skin. Bits of dried blood clung to her skin, her clothes were torn, she probably stank, and her hair was a tangled mess behind her hood.

    The people in the market avoided her dirty hands as she tried to push past them, so she swiftly made it to her destination without forcefully fighting her way through the crowd.

    Standing in front of a regular-looking shop, she opened the door and went inside. In front of her was a maze of shelves overflowing with various baubles and curiosities. She’d just begun to take her familiar route through the racks when someone sharply inhaled and rushed in her direction.

    “Nora! What the devil happened to you?!” Hana exclaimed as she threw back Nora’s hood and scrutinized every inch of the girl.

    Since she had no way to check, Nora had no clue how bad she looked, but Hana’s reaction told her everything she needed to know.

    Hana’s sea blue eyes were bloodshot, presumably from lack of sleep, considering she had bags and dark circles under her eyes. Her sandy brown hair was in a messy bun, and she was hunched over a bit like her back was aching. 

    It probably was since Hana had been sitting in the shop’s chair all night waiting for Nora to return from the job. Even so, she was more concerned about the woman before her than herself.

    Nora knew if she told Hana everything, the woman would be even more upset, so she tried to lighten the mood. “Oh, nothing to worry about. I fought with some blackberry vines, and the blackberry vines won,” she chirped light-heartedly, but she didn’t miss Hana’s look of disapproval.

    “That tongue of yours is spinning stories.” Hana challenged but added a quick jest to keep Nora’s temper from flaring. “Did those vines hold you hostage, too?” She knew Nora was hiding something, but pushing the girl for information was never fruitful. 

    “Mmm, yes. I’ve never met such sadistic vines as those. They were absolute brutes, Hana!” Nora’s playful expression and contagious liveliness greatly contrasted her pitiful appearance.

    Hana’s shoulders relaxed a bit, and she looked deeply into Nora’s eyes before pulling her into a loving hug. “I’m glad you’re back,” she cooed and smiled, then let go after a couple of pats on Nora’s back. Fresh tears were welling in her eyes. “When you didn’t return last night, I thought-“

    Nora quickly cut her off. “I’m here now. It’s all fine, I promise. Now, I need to take this ring to Vicla.” Her stomach growled loudly and sheepishly added, “And grab some lunch. Else, they might think a monster was let loose in here.”

    Hana shook her head at the silly girl, then led her to the back of a shop. She lifted a thatched rug to reveal a hatch. When Nora reached down to pull it open, Hana lightly smacked her arm and instantly regretted it when she saw the girl wince. “What a fool I am,” she scolded herself. “I’m sorry, dear,” she apologized and opened the hatch herself.

    The last thing that girl needed was to be lifting a heavy hatch door. Hana waited patiently for Nora to descend the ladder into the thieves’ den, then called down, “I’ll be home for dinner. Oh, and don’t forget to see Blaze. When I gave him his breakfast this morning, he was whining like a baby.”

    Nora waved goodbye, so Hana waved back, then shut the hatch and replaced the rug. She’d taken someone else’s shop duty for the opportunity to be the first one to greet Nora if the girl found her way back.

    The familiar musty smell of the thieves’ guild’s den filled Nora’s lungs. It wasn’t enjoyable, but it was comfortable. She was walking toward Vicla’s office, but her heart protested with an ache as she remembered Hana talking about Blaze whining.

    ‘I’ll see him first. Then, he can come with me. Lan loves when I bring him,’ she decided and turned down a hallway. After a short walk and a turn down a different hallway, she soon came to her quarters.

    A bark resounded from inside, and she smiled widely. Blaze knew her footsteps, and she could hear his claws scraping the door. “Back up. I need to open that if you want to see me,” she giggled. She pulled the door open after another loud bark.

    As soon as the door swung open, russet and white fur zipped through the threshold and leaped on her. The red heeler’s paws were on her chest as she laughed and enthusiastically scratched him behind the ears.

    “You’re such a good boy, Blaze,” Nora praised.

    He happily barked and licked her hand as she pulled it back toward her side. The dog spun around, ran back into the room, and reappeared with a grimy leather ball in his mouth.

    Nora gave him an apologetic look, then said, “I know you want to play, but we need to go somewhere.” Nora was sure he couldn’t understand her, but it only felt natural to chat with him. 

    The dog had been her companion for nearly 7 years, and even if he didn’t verbally speak, his presence lifted her spirits. 

    Happy after seeing Blaze and Hana, Nora patted her thigh to ensure her dog followed her, then shut the door and headed back toward Vicla’s office with the canine.

    Once there, Nora quietly knocked on the door. She was nervous. Even though she’d completed the job, it had been a mess, and she’d put the guild at risk by being seen and nearly being caught.

    “Come in,” invited a woman with a clear, pleasant voice.

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