Sorcha, powerful protector of the Empire against malevolent hauntings, is called to a small settlement. But more is occurring there than "geist" activity. It's a conspiracy of evil that reaches back to herown Abbey. Even if she survives, what hell would she be returning to?
Deacon Chambers was, thankfully, silent. Sorcha rode ahead of him and fought the urge to kick Shedryi into a gallop. Sensitives were tricky creatures to get away from. She wanted a smoke badly, but there were only so many cigars in her pocket and she had a feeling if she got trapped in Ulrich, she might need every one of them.
They would have to follow the road north to the calmer port of Irisil, where kinder and warmer currents flowed into the harbor. Sorcha wasn't looking forward to getting on a small ship with her new partner.
Sparing a glance over her shoulder, she was amused to realize that Merrick was actually reading the report. His curly dark head bent while he rode with practiced ease. Maybe he hadn't been joking about winning those events.
She'd realized he would be young; she'd been unprepared for just how young. After reading his file in the records office, she'd noticed that he'd declared a touch of Ancient blood in his line. Though those first peoples had long since been swallowed up by the Otherside, their blood could still be traced in some of the continents' older families. It explained his incredibly high testing in both Active and Sensitive. It wasn't up there with the Abbot's skill, but if he burned out his Sensitivity, he would have been accepted without question into the ranks of the Actives.
She would have to watch this one for sure. Deacons of near-equal rank in both disciplines could sometimes be tempted to activate when first confronted with a geist. That sort of deadly mistake could leave her looking for yet another partner.
As Sorcha had been thinking about this, Merrick had urged his mare up next to her and offered back the report. "Not many solid details, really." At least he had the good sense to sound concerned about that.
"There seldom are," Sorcha said with a little laugh. "Geists are like that… mysterious."
"You know I studied all this, don't you?" he snapped back. "Just like you, I did my training. Difference is I got stuck with the partner no one in the Order wants."
That stung, though Sorcha managed not to let it show. Once upon a time she'd been highly soughtnow she wondered what exactly she had done for that to change. Oh, yes… all those supposedly private arguments with Kolya.
She glanced at him out of the corner of one eye and measured up exactly how she should play this. They were partners, Bonded and shackled together. They would have to rely on each other in tough situations. The whole setup of this assignment worried Sorcha, and she would need a Sensitive who was not only good, but who cared enough to pull her out of the fire if necessary; so ramming those words back down his throat as she was tempted to do would serve no purpose.
"Sorry you feel that way"her fingers itched to be holding a cigar right now"but we've got to make this work for the sake of the assignment."
They traveled in silence for the next few hours. The Bond between them was still fresh and raw, and that was surely why she could feel a tinge of his frustration. It flickered across her awareness and disturbed what might otherwise have been an enjoyable ride.
The countryside on the east coast was beautiful even this late into autumn, and Sorcha looked about with a feeling of real pride. When the Emperor had arrived, this area had been a rabbit warren of unfettered geists and mistwitches. It had been one of her and Kolya's assignments to oversee the clearing of the area from Vermillion to the Turijk Mountains. As they passed through the low-lying areas of marshes and dark water, she was able to look back on those times as simple and rather pleasant. It had been hard work, but satisfying.
Recollection softened the hard knot of displeasure in her stomach. She pointed to a collection of abandoned stone buildings not far from the road they now traveled. "That is the place where my husband and I banished our first geist for the Emperor in his new realm." It was only three years past, but felt a lifetime ago.
Merrick pulled his cloak around him as if he wasn't interested, but she could tell he was. The prickle of frustration subsided a little. "Are the geists of Delmaire the same as the ones here?"
For a second she didn't reply, stunned. If he was asking her that, then he must have been among the new recruits from Arkaym, and if that was true, then he had gotten through the novices faster than anyone since Abbot Hastler. She would definitely have to take care around this one. Sorcha was abruptly conscious of the Bond between them. She'd crafted it so casually, but if she'd joined herself to such a powerful Sensitive, maybe she should have been more cautious.
She cleared her throat. "No, the Delmaire geists have been tamed for centuries. The last attack recorded there was more than fifty years pastthat was why so many Deacons jumped at the chance to sign up to this new Abbey: boredom."
"That's one thing we never have to worry about. Sometimes I wonder…" The young man's voice trailed off. Flicking his head over his shoulder, he pulled his mare up suddenly.
"What is it?" Sorcha tugged Shedryi to the right, circling her new partner. No matter how useless it was, she too scanned their surroundings. They were in the middle of a narrow stretch of dry ground, with low marshes on each side. Sedge and rushes whispered in the breeze, but she could make out no trace of geist. Certainly there was no scent but the brackish water and the damp earth.
She brought her stallion up tight against Merrick's mare; she wasn't about to let another Sensitive get away on her. Even when she cocked her head and strained her Sensitivity, she could still make out nothing more dangerous than sucking mud. "I don't smell any"
"Quiet!" The young upstart actually raised his hand as if she were a novice at the back of the class. The tone of his voice, though, and her knowledge of his ranking caused Sorcha to slide her Gauntlets from under her belt and onto her lap.
The marsh to the right, a thinly spread oval of dark water, was completely quiet. No wading birds disturbed the surface. No frogs chirped from its fringes. Even the expectant resilient midges seemed to have abandoned this patch.
The Deacon Breed horses, male and female, tossed their heads, but unlike lesser mounts did not dance sideways. Trained to stand in the face of supernatural attack, they dropped their heads, blew through their noses, and did not move.
Carefully, Sorcha got down off Shedryi, slid on one Gauntlet and walked to the head of Merrick's mare. He had not shared his Sight. Annoyed, she reached up and placed her bare hand on his.
Sight flared about her, so different from what she had shared with Kolya it was disconcerting. This new partner of hers must be packed full of power; everything was blazing. Behind her she was aware of the gentle slumbering trees, the creatures hiding in the mud and birds winging their way out to the sea. It was the color, though, the sheer brightness and detail, that she reveled in; reveled in, and was definitely overwhelmed by.
This was why new partners usually stayed safely within the Abbey walls, learning each other's strengths and getting used to the sensation of the Bond. After a moment, Sorcha's Center felt like she'd been looking into the sun for too long.
Snatching back her hand, she shot a look up at Merrick. He was glaring down at her. Rated Sensitives didn't need to send their Centers out; they trained to keep both the real world and the ethereal one in focus. What sort of strange double vision that might engender, Sorcha couldn't really imagine. She tugged on her left Gauntlet without looking away.
After a second of playing staring games with each other, Merrick shook his head. "By the Bones, that was uncalled for! Give me a second, and keep your hand off me… if you can manage that?"
He too dismounted and wandered a little distance off, looking out over the patch of water. The locals called the little dips in the land vamma kesi, or dark water, because no sunlight reflected off the pools that collected there. It was something to do with the earth itself, as Sorcha had read in an indolent moment in the Abbey library. Whatever the reason, they were dire little spots.
Merrick pointed over toward the farthest reaches of the water, where low scrub tumbled down a small rise. "It's not a geist, but there is something lingering there… something in pain."
Sorcha snorted. Everything was always in pain or tormented. She'd trained Kolya not to get involved with every injured kitten or bruised plant, and it looked as though she would have to do the same with Merrick.
"If you haven't noticed, we need to get moving. Those ships are leaving if we are there or not…" She looked up and realized that her new partner was already off the road and tromping through the light snow in the direction he had pointed.
"Stubborn," she muttered to herself. "Hastler had to give me a stubborn one." Tucking her fur cloak around her shoulders, she strode after him. He was at least fifteen feet in front of her, not even bothering to look behind him. Basically giving her the same treatment that she'd handed to him at the Abbey. The phrase "too big for his britches" was made for this one. She'd much rather have had a lesser-ranked Sensitive than one who knew he was good.
"You know, if I get wet boots, you'll be riding the pack mule the rest of the way," she barked at him. Merrick had stopped and was actually yanking aside bushes. Whatever he had sensed from the road had probably crawled in there to die. Her only satisfaction was that he was tossing enough snow about to get himself rather damp as well.
Finally reaching his side, Sorcha stood with Gauntleted hands on hips, staring down at her new partner as he fossicked around in the undergrowth. "I'm not carrying any…"
She stopped in midsentence as Merrick finally cleared away the snow and branches. A long length of what she assumed was bleached wood was wrapped in the remains of a red skirt. It was a human leg.
Wordlessly she bent and helped her partner yank away the swath of brush that covered the scene; cold and dread were building in her. What she'd thought was merely growing near the water had in fact been deliberately laid down to cover the horror beneath.
When they finally both stood back, panting into the air, the scene had been revealed. It was difficult to count exactly how many bodies there were, but all were frozen into terrible shapes. Merrick clapped a fist to his mouth and turned away.
Sorcha took a deep breath herself. Many of those in the pile of dead were women and children. The jumble of body pieces was not random, however. They were stacked in a pattern, limbs placed like firewood with heads facing upward in an inner circle around what looked like the burnt remains of a wagon. They appeared to have been a family group, probably Tinkers who traveled from village to village repairing items and selling cloth and such. Whatever they had met on the road had been the death of them all.
It was a terrible, half-frozen, macabre display. No doubt it was an exhibit not meant to be seen by mortal eyes.
Merrick, to his credit, wasn't throwing up his breakfast. He turned around and stood at her shoulder. Sorcha felt his Center open, but he didn't share. What he was Seeing, he was best qualified to make sense of.
"They aren't here," he muttered. "The souls are all gone. Such pain and fear should have left terrible marks on the etherbut there is nothing."
"Then how did you…"
Merrick cleared his throat. "One of the children didn't die immediately. Whatever it was, it took her soul, but her pain left the smallest whisper."
It must have been tiny, indeed.
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" he asked in a thick voice. "I've read the textbooks, but…"
"Not like this." She pointed to nearest bodies. "This wasn't done by anything human. Think about it for a moment. Geists can usually only operate to kill through humans. These wounds were not made by anything mortal. Something unliving made this circle."
Merrick nodded. "We should at least bury them. Their souls…" He stopped and surged upright. Suddenly, he was sharing a portion of his Center with Sorcha.
Through his eyes, the world was tinged with red. Something was coming through the ether toward them; something that she had also never seen before. Leaping to her feet, Sorcha put herself between Merrick and the approaching geist.
In the real world, the vamma kesi was bubbling and writhing as if a fire had been lit underneath it. The bubbles were moving toward them at a rapid pace.
"What is it, Chambers?" she hissed. She held the Gauntlets up, as yet unsure which Rune to activate upon them. "By the Bones, what is it?"
Her new partner was scrambling at his belt pouch. "I can't see." There was an edge of real panic in his voice. "I need the Strop to see…"
"No time for that," Sorcha yelled. "Give me the damn Sight…"
Merrick's Center swept up and filled her just as the geist leapt into the real world. Amid the blaze of light, Sorcha was almost blinded by the detail, but she did finally get a good look at the unliving creature barreling toward them.
Flesh was usually the only container for a geist, yet this one had thrown a body together from what appeared to be mud and dark water. No time to open a door and draw power. It was the height of rudeness, and usually done only after years of being partners, but Sorcha drew from the Bond. As the link between Sensitive and Active was made using Otherside power, it could also be a source of strength for the Deacons.
Sorcha needed strength as she called on Yevah. The shield of fire leapt into existence around them like a bubble, and even Merrick would have a hard time arguing with her use of the Bond to help forge it. The water and debris smashed into the orb as the flame poured from her Gauntlets. The air was full of the smell of earth and charred wood. It made one very spectacular mess. For a moment, steam and flying fragments blinded both Active and Sensitive.
Staggering back, the two mortals almost fell into the strange pattern of bodies. Merrick grabbed her arm, pulling her to the left and away from it. The shield Yevah conjured moved with them, but Sorcha's arms were already beginning to ache from holding it there.
"Name it," she screamed. The howl of wind and water was painful on mortal and Deacon senses. But she could not know how to destroy what Merrick could not name. "Damnation, remember your training!"
"Look," he screamed back. The full power of his Sight flooded into her once more, and only by focusing it on the geist was she able to bear it. Deacons learned all the forms of the unliving: the dukh, the rei, the ghast. Centuries of experience had slotted each shape into categories memorized by every novice. The swirling forms of the vortex and the spinning shapes of the rei were among those familiar to every Deacon.
As Sorcha stood gaping up at the geist that was all around them, she abruptly understood Merrick's indecision. This creature was not in the books. The pattern she could make out in the flickering geist form was like no other; complicated and knitted together like one of those visual puzzles popular at court. The difference was that this one was tightening on them. The shield of fire was actually shrinking under the weight of the dark water. Holding Yevah up within the Gauntlets was keeping Sorcha fully occupied.
"Don't you dare open Teisyat," Merrick bellowed at her while the geist began to squeeze in on the shield of fire.
Did he imagine that she popped that door open every time things got a little hairy? Only Kolya going down in a heap had brought that on. "I don't like you that much," Sorcha screamed in return.
At her back, she could feel Merrick doing something; she could See him doing it. Their shared Sight was unraveling the pattern. He was going deep into it, trying to understand the impossible.
With a grunt, Sorcha took a step back. "It's too much. Yevah is about to pop wide-open. How do you feel about drowning on dry land?"
He pressed his lips right next to her ear to be heard above the howling mass of dark water. "We have to get back into the circle."
That was against everything in the rule books: never step into any sort of summoning circle. Such circles were the base of the geist's power in this realm, and it was actually possible to be drawn into the Otherside from within one.
Sorcha dared a glimpse at Merrick. His face was calm, but his eyes glittered with an intensity shared by fanatics and the faithful. Breathing in over her drawn teeth, she made her decision. Years of training provided her only option: always trust your Sensitive.
Together they stepped backward over the dead and into the ring that had been constructed with such macabre care. They were now in the summoning circle. Yevah had shrunk so much under the assault that Sorcha and Merrick were now breathing against its fiery surface. But, looking up with her partner's vision, she saw something so incredible that their immediate danger paled into insignificance.
They were inside the geist. Craning her neck up, with their shared Sight she could See the pattern of the unliving whirling and spinning around her. It was like being inside a patterned tornado. Teisyat wouldn't help them now; the Otherside would have swallowed them along with the geist.
Sweat was pouring down her back, and her shoulders ached with the effort of keeping her Gauntlets up. "Please tell me that you have a damned plan!"
Nearly there, nearly there. Kebenar will show us. The Sensitive rune bloomed from Merrick to her, and Sorcha could finally see clearly. The pattern flickered around them from red and swirling to white, suddenly revealing itself. It was a braid, as simple as a child's braid. The pattern around them was a combination of three of the most common geist forms: dukh, rei and spokelse. They were the three most innocuous varieties, but it appeared that once they were combined, that was no longer the case.
It was certainly nice to know what she was facing, yet Sorcha was now far beyond any of her training. A geist made out of the essence of three otherssuch a creation should be impossible. Yet, the last few days had been full of impossible things. It appeared that all bets were off and the rule books might as well be thrown away.
Pyet. The Bond was too strong. She could now hear Merrick echoing in the back of her head. The whole world had gone crazy.
"Explain yourself," she hissed, falling to one knee as the shield buckled. They surely had only a few moments before it collapsed entirely. Merrick put his back to hers, giving her the physical strength to keep her Gauntlets up a little longer.
Keep Yevah, open Pyet. Not so much words leaked across, but understanding. Two runes at the same time? It was a good thing that Merrick hadn't been stuck with an Active fresh out of the Abbey.
"Stay behind mebut not too far." Sorcha clenched her right hand shut, dismissing Yevah. The shield, now held only by the left-hand rune, swayed sickly, sucking down even closer to the Deacons. They were forced to huddle together like two lost children or be exposed to the raw, roaring center of the geist. Sorcha, despite this difficult situation, appreciated that Merrick held the Sight steady and pointed upward, managing to ignore the wobbling shield and concentrate on the patterned geist.
She sought out Pyet. Doing so was like having one fish on a line, and using another hand to balance a rod for another. Her training had covered this tricky ability and she had done it before, but only under controlled circumstances. Had Deacons become so complacent, the thought flashed across her mind, in the way idle thoughts do in moments of stress, as to never expect to need more than one rune at a time?
Her fingers tingled within the Gauntlet, stretching out, while she gritted her teeth. Sweat now slid off her forehead. Finally, Pyet activated, snapping white-hot onto her palm. It was a lesser rune, but still enough to bring down something like a spokelse. These bouncing orbs of light that led people to their deaths had not been seen anywhere near Vermillion for more than a year. Now one was part of this monstrosity.
Her left hand was outstretched, still holding Yevah. Her right contained the undeployed Pyet. She needed a target before this deck of cards collapsed completely. Her muscles ached and her back was howling in protest as she braced herself against her Gauntlets.
Show me. Her shared Sight snapped into focus on one strand of the braid, separating it from the whirling chaos of the others. Sorcha dropped Yevah; no rune power could be transmitted through a shield. The geist was all around them and now they could both feel the raw power of the unliving. It scorched the skin and tore at their hair. Unlike normal mortals, Deacons could stand that power, but not for long.
Sorcha and her partner clung onto each other, holding tightly so as not to be swept away. With Merrick's Sight, she aimed Pyet through narrowed eyes, directly at the rei strand of the geist.
Gleaming fire spun around her Gauntlet and smashed into the unliving creature crushing down on them. The world became a chaos of white fire and dark water, snarling together as if a tornado were tumbling around them. Sorcha's ears and eyes felt like they might explode. She doggedly held on to her young partner as the fierce geist battered them about.
Merrick slipped and fell, but she never let go, shielding his body with her own. She was not about to lose another Sensitive to a contrary geist. Her lungs seemed on the verge of collapse, her eyes burning in her head, and then… and then… the storm passed, leaving them gasping in the aftermath. Pyet still twinkled on her hands, ready for more action as she pulled herself upright. Merrick was lying there, panting and staring up at her. Certainly for a first real-life battle experience, this one would be hard to beat.
Sorcha found she was smiling. She wiped her forehead, one Gauntlet already inactive. She glanced at the left one, still burning with white fire. With a slight smile she pulled out a cigar from her pocket and lazily raised it to her mouth. Merrick gaped as she used the treasured talisman, still burning with the fires of the rune, to calmly light it. She grinned at him while he continued to stare speechlessly, the smoke curling past her eyes, and took pleasure in his horror. With a mocking smile and a measured shake of her hand, she extinguished the flames. "Ah, white fire." She motioned with her head to the lit cigar. "Preserves the flavor."
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