The flood of angry and worried Deacons surged into the room. They looked about them, and Sorcha did not need to share Merrick’s Sight to know they were horrified. The scene was a little dramatic; blood, bodies and the dissipating fetid smell of the Otherside.
“It is lucky that we hadn’t decorated the citadel yet,” Sorcha said, motioning to the burned stone and pools of blood drying on the floor.
Then, pushing aside the dark thoughts that had been born in the carnage, she began helping them tidy up. In this new world, they couldn’t afford to merely let the lay Brothers clean up the mess. Now, they all had to pitch in.
Raed fled the citadel, holding the Rossin off by only the scantest breath. His throat was choked, so that as he ran up to the sentry at the entrance, he could only manage a few garbled words before shoving his way past him and into the night. Luckily, the man had instructions to keep watch for dangers without—not within. He bowed, and stepped aside as the Young Pretender ran out into the rock-filled valley that was one of only two entrances into the citadel.
Staggering, Raed sprinted as fast as he could, the image of the Rossin running amok in the confines of the fortress burning in the back of his brain. He would not do that to Sorcha. She had worked so hard to bring them to this place of refuge that he could not allow it to become a one of slaughter.
The night was cold and as desolate as his thoughts. His breath, which came in ragged gasps, froze before his straining eyes. None of that registered, though, as he stumbled on, catching his feet in the cracks and fissures of the scree slope.
It didn’t matter. What mattered was what was going on inside him. The Rossin, that great cursed Beast that had taken up residence within him, was laughing. At least that was what it felt like.
He had, months before, made a pact with the creature. It was one born out of survival, and a desire to save a sister, now lost to him anyway. The geistlord had given him control over the change, in return for the Beast living closer to the surface. It was an arrangement that had allowed him to pass through some of the most hostile environments in Arkaym, and track his sister to the farthest ends of the Empire.
It had been a ruse by the Beast.
Raed clutched at his throat. It felt as though the Rossin were clawing its way up from down there, an image of ferocious rage that almost dropped him to his knees.
Once, the Beast had been confined deeper in his consciousness and only risen to the surface when the presence of other geists had given him power. Now, it seemed the Beast would have its way whenever it wanted.
He had reached the lakeshore where the iron gray waters of the waterfall pounded into a seething cauldron at the bottom of the mountain. Everything around him was shades of blue and black, and even the moon had hidden her face from him.
It was as if the days he had spent with Sorcha had been nothing but a bright, hopeful dream.
“This wasn’t how it was meant to be,” he gasped, clutching onto a boulder. “You promised.”
You are such a child. Let me take over and the pain will go away.
The Rossin’s voice in his head was seductive; a rattle of power and strength that promised it would share everything with him. Raed wondered if that was how the Beast had sounded when he made the deal with the first Deacon, who Merrick had informed him had become the first Emperor.
He slid down the rock and leaned his back against its chillness. From here he could just make out the jutting form of the citadel.
“She will know,” he rasped out to the Beast slithering within him. “Sorcha will know when you come because Merrick will tell her.”
They are blinder than you think. Do not place your trust in false Deacons; they will always disappoint.
Raed let his head drop back against the rock as despair welled over him. Exhaustion was overrunning his defenses, and he wasn’t sure if he could muster any strength for another fight. He knew the way things were and had been here far too often. Still, it would be a shame to waste his clothing. With numb fingers he stripped off his shirt and pants, and then as fresh pain washed over him, huddled on the ground. He was as weak as a kitten in this moment.
Ever since Sorcha’s new Order had come to the citadel the Rossin had been stirring, but at first Raed had been able to ignore the sensation. He had thrown himself into the joy of actually being able to be with Sorcha, even if it was at the worst possible time. When she wasn’t wrapped in Deacon business, they had stolen moments together, hungry for each other. It had meant that he was out from under the watchful eye of Aachon, his first mate on the Dominion who had brought the remaining crew with them to this place. Aachon had easily taken over the running of the lay Brothers, and for once let his role as Raed’s conscience lapse.
It was—quite naturally—the precise moment when he needed a conscience and a friend the most. Yet every time Raed had opened his mouth to share what was happening to him with Sorcha or Aachon, his voice locked in his throat; the Rossin would not let him.
Don’t fight it, because you can’t.
His body was moving; that horrible crawling sensation that preceded the Rossin taking the reins. Blackness wrapped itself around him, and tore him away from reality.
The Rossin sprang into the cool night with an unrestrained snarl. The great cat looked back over his shoulder at the citadel hanging on the granite rock face like an unnatural growth—which it was. It was full of Deacons, every one of them scurrying about, replete with all sorts of concerns. A small breach was opening up there, and the true nature of what they had unleashed was apparent. The smell of blood and sweat reached his sensitive nose even here.
Yes, the foolish humans were realizing only now that things had changed. Geistlords on the Otherside were stirring, and the hated Derodak, first of everything, was the instigator. The Rossin’s jaw, which could crush a man like a fly, opened wide, displaying his saber teeth, and a growl rumbled in his chest.
No, that particular enmity would have to wait for the moment. He turned his thickly maned head away from the citadel and the distant screams of its inhabitants. They had earned whatever came through from the Otherside.
What the Rossin wanted, his former subjects and rivals could not give to him. His freedom would not be brought from the Otherside . . . that would be found elsewhere. The great cat bounded off down the length of the riverbed, leaping over rocks and bushes with speed not even a horse could manage in this terrain.
It felt good to be moving away from the Deacons, their runes, and the corrupt Patternmaker that they had hung their dreams on. The night was chilly and the moon low in the sky—perfect weather for hunting.
The river valley eventually faded away again, and the Rossin stood, head raised into the wind, on the edge of a cliff that dropped away in another series of rapids and waterfalls. The cat opened his mouth and roared. It was a full-throated proclamation of his pride and his strength, but it was meant for one set of ears in particular.
The Rossin did not have long to wait. The Fensena padded out of the low scrub near the river. Humanity called him the Oath Bender, and a hundred other unpleasant terms, but the geistlord admitted they were not given without cause.
The huge coyote with eyes of burning gold looked in his direction with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, and began to trot toward him. When he reached a rock just below the Rossin, he dropped back one paw, and performed a bow that a circus pony would have been proud of.
Well met, my lord of the great long tooth, the fellow geistlord offered mind to mind rather than using humanity’s more difficult words. We are met again in strange times.
End times, the Rossin replied, his claws flexing on the unyielding rock beneath. He had come to like the feeling of this realm—in fact come to rely on it. He would not have it snatched away. The moment of the geist is upon us, and I will not be unprepared for it.
Indeed, those meddling priests have woken more than they could imagine on the Otherside. They wanted power, and soon it will come to find them. The coyote looked up at the stars, as contemplative as the Rossin had ever seen him. We must all make preparations for the changes to come or else be swept away by them. His gaze when it returned to the other geistlord was chill and strangely free of humor. To that end I bring news. I did not come empty of paw to you tonight.
He bounded off into the brush and returned a moment later, something long clutched in his mouth. The Rossin inhaled the scent of this offering and felt the warmth of achievement wash over him. His servant had done as he had asked. His pelt lay on the rock before him—his real pelt, not the one he formed from his host. It was one vital piece of their puzzle. The great cat bent his head and nuzzled its luxurious softness.
You have done well, the Rossin conceded.
I would say I have. The Fensena sat down and cocked his head. Vermillion is a dangerous place to be for man or geist these days.
His fellow geistlord survived in the human realm in his own way; a way that the great cat viewed as more than a little disgusting. The Fensena was transmitted from body to body through bite, and he wasn’t particular about who or what he lodged in. He happily jumped from human to dog and back again, leaving a trail of exhausted bodies in his wake. Possession by the coyote burned through a body’s resources, but he most often chose not to wear them down to death. It was a messy, wasteful business, but at least his fellow geistlord was not trapped as the Rossin was.
Linked to one family, one bloodline had seemed like a wonderful way to lock into a focus point in this world. Unfortunately—either by luck, or perhaps by the design of the family that had taken the name of the Rossin as their own—the pool of blood relatives the geistlord could transfer to on the death of his current host was gone.
At least for the moment that is so, the Fensena replied. This is the answer to your problem.
My pelt is not the answer! The Rossin tilted his head and snarled. A thousand years, and you think it can just be fixed by putting this on me?
Those clever searching eyes of the coyote, fixed on the massive cat. It is a step, my lord. A step closer to your freedom.
The Rossin, tired of these games that the Fensena did so love to play, examined the pelt. Through his geist-sight it appeared like nothing more than a piece of luxurious fur. Not one touch of rune or cantrip was on it. However, there was a tug inside him, and an urge to keep it in his sight. When the first Emperor had ripped it from him, and taken it as part of the pact, it had hurt. It was a part of him; his freedom.
The fact that he did not know what to do with it frustrated the great Beast.
Rage boiled inside the geistlord that Derodak had thought to trick him in such a way. He would have bent and grasped the useless pelt right then and there, had the Fensena not put himself between him and it.
Not after what it took to get this!
The two geistlords snarled and snapped, for a moment reverting to the nature of the flesh they inhabited—a dog and a cat arguing over scraps. It was the danger of being so clothed; it sometimes overcame their greater nature despite all they might do. After a few seconds, they gained control of themselves.
The Rossin, huge golden mane of fur standing out from his body, loomed over the smaller shape of the Fensena, but the pelt had been saved.
Out with your plan, scavenger, the Rossin hissed. Before I lose every bit of my temper.
The Fensena tucked his tail between his legs. The priests I told you about, they have the knowledge of how and where the pelt must be attached to bring your whole power into this world.
I need to be free of this cursed family before the last of their blood dies. The Rossin bent and sniffed the pelt as if it might hide a clue.
It is one part of the puzzle. The Fensena licked his own jowls in a gesture that might have been nervousness. The rest of the answers I will hunt the world for.
There was an ill tone in the other geistlord’s words; an almost leer that the Rossin could not tolerate. He sprang on the coyote, with such little warning that the Fensena was knocked off his paws. He tried to scramble away, but the Rossin slammed one paw the size of a cauldron down on the coyote’s brindle hide, pinning him to the rocky ground.
The Fensena howled in pain, but he was lucky that the great cat did not extend his claws and do him real damage. The coyote made to bite at the paw holding him down, but the Rossin flexed it hard enough to make his point.
Give me what I want, liar, or there will be a true death for you, with no foolish beast or man to give you shelter.
The Fensena looked up at him, and there was a satisfying edge of fear in that gaze. I promise I will hunt down the priests with the knowledge you need. Derodak’s story is old and scattered, but it still exists I am sure.
The Rossin breathed down on him, letting him smell destruction hot on his face. If you do not find what I want, then you will meet the same fate as all my enemies, but their suffering will seem like a welcome relief to that which I will deal to you.
The two geistlords stared into each other, and the memory of flame flickered to life in the Fensena’s gold-coin eyes. That was when the Rossin knew he had not forgotten the Otherside and the chaos of survival there. Geistlords were snakes that fed on other snakes, and the alliance between himself and the coyote was unusual. Yet they had both profited off it.
When the Otherside tears its way into this world, the Rossin reminded him, we will need all those skills and more to survive. I cannot be vulnerable with this body. Help me, and I will help you as of old.
The Fensena’s ears shifted back and forth, as if he were listening to distant sounds and making a judgment. The Rossin had some idea of his fellow’s powers, and it was possible that was what he was doing. He was hearing the sound of distant battles and the breaking of promises all over the realm. Finally, the coyote closed his eyes and dipped his head.
Even living off your scraps, my lord, has always been a fine way to dine.
The Rossin stepped back and allowed the Fensena to climb back onto all four feet. The coyote shook himself as if he had just emerged from a very dark and cold pool. I promise you, great lord, that soon enough you will be free of both the family and the troublesome Bond. I must seek out one more detail for you, and then we shall move.
And these priests that have all the answers, will they die with all their secrets? The Rossin did not like the idea of anyone else finding out his weaknesses or what he was up to.
The bright pink tongue licked once more over the coyote’s nose. I will leave their monastery in flames and their bones scattered in the dust.