So many, Merrick muttered, following her deeper into the Hall. It was like an egg that has been struck against a bowl and just like that egg, any one of these cracks could give. Several had, but the geists had slipped back into the Otherside. Such cleverness was not their usual stock-in– trade.
The citadel was old, had once been a Priory, and there were many dusty corners in it. Suddenly, Sorcha did not trust the place. Even though they had examined it closely, it had been made by the Native Order, the Circle of Stars—the very one that had brought about the destruction of the Eye and the Fist. They were known for their crafty nature. However, the Priory was also the last place the Circle of Stars would have looked for them and was surrounded by water on all sides. Once, that would have guaranteed no geist would enter it.
Sorcha was heartily sick of knowing that all the rules had been broken in the last few years.
Outside, Merrick whispered to her. Look outside.
She stepped boldly out onto the stone balcony and was greeted by the sound of plummeting water. The blunt profile of the citadel pushed out from the center of the Avalanche Falls, which plunged off granite cliffs, hundreds of feet down to the lake below. It was a treacherous place, but not nearly as dangerous as the streaming gap into the realm of geists, geistlords and everything malevolent that the Order stood against. Corenee was a small principality largely comprised of stern dukes and the goat herders they ruled over. Far into the southwest of Arkaym, it made a perfect principality in which to hide. Or at least, it had.
Her face was suddenly covered in the swirling, freezing water droplets. Sorcha waited for a moment, her eyes unfocused on the real world but tightly concentrated on the one Merrick was showing her. The long files of geists were watching her just as intently. It felt as though they were merely a few inches away through flimsy gauze, and if she just reached out her hand she might touch one of them.
Such dangerous thoughts were interrupted when Merrick called her name—both into her head and out into the night. One of the cracks was spreading. Whatever was strongest was coming through.
Twice before, Sorcha had faced a geistlord; the Murashev and Hatipai. The first time they had relied on the strength of the Rossin to give them a chance. The second, without Merrick at her side, Sorcha had won, but had been thrown into the terrible living death of a coma. Now, they stood alone, on the balcony.
Where is Raed? Sorcha thought to herself in an off– hand sort of way. Her lover had still not made an appearance, and she could not feel him in the citadel. She felt along the Bond that tangled her, Merrick and the Young Pretender together. The connection was still there, but nothing else. It was as if the awareness of Raed was wreathed in dark smoke.
She glanced across at Merrick. Under the tattoos of the runes, his brown eyes were troubled. His words, when they entered her mind, confirmed that. I can’t see him.
Few words could have chilled her more than those. Merrick was not just her Sensitive—he was the best she had ever worked with. The Bond they shared the strongest. If he could not see the Rossin, then she had real cause to worry.
However, now was not the appropriate time. Thinking of her missing lover while the world was splitting before them would have been beyond foolish. It was almost suicidal.
Concentrating on survival meant concentrating on what was before her. Blinding red cracks were now growing bigger, signaling that whatever was ready to come through was near the end of its journey. The similarity to watching a chicken hatch only went so far. This was going to be much more than a giant angry rooster.
Such a stray, comical thought at this moment was not something Sorcha was used to. Discipline and training had been hammered into her, ever since she was a child, and as she had recently found out, she was also the daughter of a powerful Sensitive.
And the daughter of something else too, a small voice whispered in the back of her head.
Sorcha’s gaze jerked away from the spreading gaps in reality, toward Merrick. He however was concentrating on seeing more of the situation. He had not spoken into her mind.
Just as Merrick turned his own head toward her, Sorcha had straightened. With careful and precise determination she managed to shift her thoughts away from the momentary terror and concern of what exactly that voice had been, and once more onto the horror that was coming. Sensitive and Active Deacons were tightly bound together in a partnership that had few secrets, but there were ways to hide some little things from one another. Sorcha was not yet prepared to share her darker, creeping fears with Merrick.
First, they had to survive this. Through her partner’s Center she could sense more Deacons nearing their position. Once they reached Merrick and herself, they could form a Conclave and then they would have the superior strength.
However, a Conclave relied on physical proximity.
No sooner had that thought escaped Sorcha, than a cold, stinging wind blew fiercely off the chasm. It raced around both she and Merrick. Its scream was nothing that a normal gale could have produced, and it was full of teeth and bitterness. It swirled around them, blowing their capes around them like shrouds, before racing into the Great Hall.
Sorcha heard the sounds of the heavy wooden shutters slamming shut, and if that was not enough to assure the Deacons that this was deliberate, it was soon accompanied by the racket of furniture suddenly being thrown up against the doors. Heavy wooden tables, chairs and their packs acted as most effective barricades against Sorcha and Merrick leaving, or anyone else reaching them.
The rune Voishem that would have allowed the Deacons to shift and phase through the walls had not yet been mastered by the recently tattooed of their colleges. They would hesitate to use it. No one wanted to be stranded half in and half out of an object. Instead, the sounds of shoulders being applied to doors could be vaguely discerned.
“So that’s the way it shall be,” Sorcha muttered through ice-cold lips, and her words froze in the air. She turned back to the now foot-wide gap and rolled up her sleeves as high as they would go.
Merrick took a step nearer to her, so that he stood in her shadow, which streamed backward into the Great Hall. The light coming from the gap in reality was that bright.
Everything was absolutely still for a moment; even the roar of the waterfall seemed distant. Their shared Center was tightly focused on the long thin figure that was pushing its way through the gap in the world. It slipped free with a sucking pop—but its place was immediately taken by another that was its exact replica.
They were not geistlords, which was an immediate relief, but neither Deacon had a chance to enjoy that, because they identified what had escaped instead.
Wari were greater than the average geist, and known for appearing just before geistlords. Some called them the “heralds,” but they carried more than trumpets and banners. A wari could rip a soul from a human body like a man might tear a bone from well-cooked chicken. They were incredibly uncommon, and yet now a third was squeezing its way through the gap.
One would not have been a problem, but as the knife-sharp shapes began to circle toward them, Sorcha raised her hands. Confidence was what she was trained to project, but along the Bond she shared her worries with Merrick. The runes on her flesh did not feel as comfortable as when they had been on her now-destroyed Gauntlets. They were as slippery as fish, and so she hesitated to act.
Through the shared Center the wari gleamed like silver scintillating clouds. Their long arms were formed into claws perfectly shaped for their purpose.
Sorcha. For a moment she didn’t realize it was Merrick’s voice in her head. Sorcha, he repeated. They are flanking us. We have to move before they do.
The Active felt a little annoyed at his goad—but damned if he wasn’t right. She was moving as slow as an old man first thing in the morning. The warm shapes of the other Deacons beyond the door wouldn’t get in quickly enough. She and Merrick would be soulless shells before then.
Sorcha wrapped her mind around Pyet, the Fifth Rune of Dominion. It felt like it wriggled to elude her, but she bore down on it. The experience of summoning a rune from her flesh rather than from tanned leather was excruciating. Something about the Gauntlet had stood between her and the raw power. Now it felt as though her skin were being flayed as Pyet illuminated and ran down the patterns carved there. It was a stream of molten metal that she had to release.
With a howl of frustration and rage, Sorcha spread her fingers wide on her left hand, braced it with her right, and let the flame boil out of her. Her control was not what it had been, and Merrick had to duck wildly out of the way as fire roared from his partner and scattered all over the Great Hall. He tackled her around the middle, holding her up where she might have fallen. Her eyelids were heavy, and rather than the usual euphoria that enveloped her when channeling the runes, she felt as if she might be blown away on the swirling winds.
“Let it go,” Merrick screamed in her ear. “You can’t hold it steady and the wari aren’t even there.”
With his mind and body for support Sorcha was able to close the rune. The wari had been scared off for only a moment. They dropped down from the ceiling to the floor and advanced once more. The heat of Pyet was soon forgotten as the geists’ freezing presence enveloped them.
Sorcha was used to pain; what she was not used to was not knowing what to do. The wari were closing in, but Merrick—still holding her upright—unrolled Kebenar, the Fourth Rune of Sight around them.
Now everything was laid bare to her. The wari were more than just three entities. Sorcha pushed her hair out of her eyes and got her feet under her. Not for the first time she wondered how she had managed without Merrick at her back.
They are a net, sent to take us back. The idea of that was worse than if they had been trying to kill or destroy their souls. To be wrenched through to the Otherside and pulled apart by geists was the most terrible fate imaginable.
A bright memory flashed across the Bond, one from her partner. Floating in a sea of stars, with the indistinct face of Nynnia hovering nearby. Such a feeling of peace and joy filled Sorcha that she began to understand what misery Merrick had been in. No one forgets his first love, and Nynnia, Ancient, sent through time, had been that to Sorcha’s Sensitive.
This time however, it would not be Nynnia bringing them to the Otherside—and the geists would have far less generous ways of handling them. As the wari charged, Sorcha reflexively threw up her left hand and summoned Yevah from her skin.
A gleaming scarlet flaming dome leapt to life between the geists and the Deacons. For a moment the cold lifted slightly. It should have been a deep relief, but Sorcha was still frozen down to her bones.
The hand she was holding the shield rune up with had her full attention. The spiderweb Pattern of the rune on her arms was running flame red, gleaming on her skin like colored fire, but now she saw something else entirely.
The light coming from the crack was illuminating something she had never seen before. Now standing before the shimmering gap into the Otherside, she saw the tendril of the rune gleaming on her flesh, and disappearing into it through the space to the realm of the undead.
It makes sense. Merrick’s whisper into her mind was like a trickle of cold water over her stunned conscience. The runes are powers from the Otherside, and it seems the Order stole them from there.
He was so calm, and yet what he was saying was not in their teachings. In the novitiate they were taught that the runes came from humanity’s own psyche; ripped from their souls in order to fight the geists. It was so relentlessly drummed into them that Sorcha had never thought to question it.
The Sensitives . . . had they known? How could they not know? A little worm of distrust bit her deep down. No, not Merrick. He can’t have known.
Sorcha! His voice battered the inside of her skull as hard as a hammer blow. Her distraction had however been enough.
The three wari were inside the shield. Their long stretched faces charged at the two Deacons while their claws flashed back, ready to strike. Sorcha heard Merrick shout over her right shoulder, but there was nothing to be done, and what could a Sensitive do in any case? She caught a glimpse of the long, sharp faces, the mouths curved open in something that might have been undead delight; macabre joy that surely meant the end for the pair of Deacons.
Sorcha had a moment to contemplate how foolish and weak she had been. Her soul was about to be ripped from her body, and there was nothing at all she could do to prevent it. The three assailants moved. The cold tips of the geists’ fingers touched her, and the pain of those touches penetrating her skin was enough to have broken a normal human. However, the claws did not drive deeper to separate soul from body.
Three sets of empty, dark eyes locked on her, and the words that formed in her mind were like pools of ice. Mistress . . . apologies . . . we did not know . . .
Unbelievably, she was hearing the geists in her mind as clearly as she heard Merrick. Just when she’d thought that the world could not get any more broken and strange.
Merrick was there, though, and louder than the undead could ever hope to be. Shayst! Now!
It was beaten into her to obey her Sensitive when he called. His judgment was not be to questioned. She thrust out her right arm, and the green light of the sixth rune ran widdershins up it. The pain of the wari and the rune combined until it felt like her head was about to turn itself inside out.
The geists were all connected to her; their bodies were inside her, and they had no time to escape the ravages of Shayst as it reached into their very being. They had come from the Otherside to rip her soul free, and instead it was she doing the ripping. Sorcha tore their very substance apart. She did it quickly so that there was no way that they could poison her mind with more terrifying words.
The two Deacons stood there a moment, panting slightly, their minds and Sight tangled together. Sorcha was not sure how much her partner had seen of those moments of chaos, but she hoped he had not caught any of it. She didn’t know what they meant and she didn’t want to hear—at least straight away—what he might think had happened.
Merrick straightened and pulled back his Center. For some reason, this time she felt bereft. Her partner didn’t say anything to her, but strode off the balcony, back into the Great Hall, and began throwing the heavy furniture away from the door. After taking a deep breath, Sorcha went to help him.