Mercer muttered under his breath. “There has to be some way I can help,” he said. Left behind, to wait for Esther and Arturo to catch up with the group, he understood the responsibility of acting as a relay but couldn’t help feeling restless.

He tramped through the bushes in the overgrown village commons. They were untouched by livestock, now covered in all manner of weeds and formidable stinging shrubs. Mercer took a small amount of pleasure in trampling the undesirable things — ugly and cumbersome stuff.

If there was something he could do for the people of Chaika, or even Ephine, he would give all he had, all he could give. He felt, in some ways, like the weeds he walked on, a choking blight on the world, stinging and getting underfoot, overtaking things that had more right to be there than he did.

There, in a place he reckoned was about the center of the commons, he came upon a strange sight. No weeds, nor anything green seemed to grow nearby. The earth was hard and cracked, devoid of any life or ground cover. In the center was a shallow pit overflowing with palm-sized stones.

Walking around the odd formation, Mercer realized to his horror that the barren earth stretched out from the site in all directions, and the plants on the edge showed signs of fresh rot, suggesting that it was growing. Something unwholesome had happened here, might well be happening still.

Before he could decide what to do about his discovery, Mercer’s attention was arrested by a faraway shout. Suddenly, the shouting was all around him, coming from all directions at once. There was nowhere to turn, nowhere to run, a legion of angry, droning phantoms surrounded the blighted place. He whirled around in confusion, and began to back toward the pit.

His foot found the edge of the pit, and he turned to face what he now recognized to be a monument, and the spirits closed in around him.