"When you've buried your husband three months past, you don't expect to come home and find him rattling around in your attic!"
The old woman stood there, an ancient blunderbuss cradled in her arms, looking ready to go upstairs and blast her undead spouse for his temerity. However, her real ire was directed at Deacons Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers—as if the Order of the Eye and the Fist was solely responsible for this awkward situation.
Sorcha, who had managed to perch herself on the low wall outside the lady Tinker's shop, watched with amusement as her partner tried to negotiate his way in. Perhaps she was enjoying the situation a little too much, but these days she savored any excuse to leave the grounds of the Mother Abbey. Her cigar was already half-smoked, evidence of just how much the owner did not want them to go inside the shop.
Merrick, who had always been the more diplomatic of their partnership, posed the same question he had when they'd first arrived: "What is the deceased's name?" He had to raise his voice because Widow Vashill was impossibly deaf—which only served to increase Sorcha's enjoyment of the situation.
The old woman's eyes narrowed as if she suspected it was some sort of trick. "Joshem Vashill—and I was never more happy to see a person in the ground."
"Doesn't sound like he had much reason to come back," Merrick muttered softly over his shoulder to Sorcha. This was why she liked working with the younger man; when she'd been partnered with her husband Kolya, he had not been nearly as amusing.
"You are sure it is Joshem?" Sorcha shouted, then blew out a smoke ring and tried to keep her hopes in check. The Order had been plagued with a spate of false alarms recently, and though she appreciated getting out of the Mother Abbey, she wasn't about to crawl around in a dusty attic chasing a figment of this Master Tinker's imagination.
"I know my own husband!" Widow Vashill snapped. "Now you just yank him down out of there, and I can go about my business."
"'Yank'?" Sorcha managed not to roll her eyes. People so quickly forgot the nature of things. Her Order had only been here in Arkaym a scant few years, and yet the population seemed incapable of remembering the plague of geists they had suffered from before the Order's arrival. "We have to go up there and deal with him," she replied in what she thought was a perfectly reasonable tone, "because we don't just 'yank' geists. It's more like wrestling."
"What?" The Widow Vashill bellowed.
Sorcha gestured up to the top story. "We're going to have to go up there!"
The woman's face went abruptly pale. "Oh no—I must have been mistaken. I'm just a silly old woman seeing things in the shadows. No need to—"
"Madam"—Merrick pushed his dark curls out of his eyes with something that looked awfully like exasperation—"if you will just let us up into the attic, we can assess the situation and take care of things for you." His earnest youth usually moved even the most elderly of women to compliance—this one, though, hesitated.
Tinkers' Row had grown under the patronage of the forward-thinking Emperor Kaleva: ramshackle houses had been transformed into impressive new brick buildings, the open drains decently covered, and sweeps employed to keep the street clear of filth. Carriages and pedestrians bustled up and down the Row, which had become one of the busiest in Vermillion. The sign above this particular door said VASHILL—MASTER TINKER TO THE PALACE, but then most of them on this street did. The Emperor had become the patron to nearly all the Tinkers in Vermillion.
Sorcha sighed, knocked the top off her cigar and pulled her Gauntlets out from her belt. Usually these symbols of her rune powers tended to grab people's attention. She was sharply aware of this as she fixed the old woman with a cold blue stare. "So, what's really up there, apart from your dead husband?"
Widow Vashill's lips pressed together in a pale line, and she leaned forward. "Things. Secret things."
Every guild had their mysteries, but the Tinkers, thanks to their close working kin, the airshipwrights, were especially paranoid since the Emperor wanted full control of the new technology. Merrick stood to his full height. "Madam, as long as the devices you are working on are regulation, then you have our assurance that we will never reveal anything to another soul."
If Sorcha had tried to sound so officious, people would have taken fright, but out of that earnest young mouth it was so much more reassuring. The old woman smiled, revealing a broken expanse of teeth. "Never doubted it, lad; it's just that many of the devices in the attic contain weirstones."
Sorcha clenched her teeth on an explicative. The Order had long ago limited the ownership of those things to Deacons and members of the Imperial armed forces—but the Emperor had extended that in recent years to include Master Tinkers.
At her side, Merrick shifted—well aware of her particular bugbear with the stones. Along the Bond they shared he tried sending out waves of calm, but it didn't make any difference. She didn't want to be calm. She'd had far too much of being calm lately. Time to let some of that frustration out.
"Then we will just have to manage," she growled. "Now let us get about our business." Sorcha stepped around the Tinker and strode into the shop, leaving protestations and excuses in her wake.
The inside of the building was dim simply because of the very few windows. A single lamp burned on the back wall, illuminating the devices of brass that the Tinkers had lately become specialists in. The constant rattle of clocks, all slightly at a different tempo, put Sorcha's nerves on edge. Perhaps the Widow Vashill's deafness was an advantage.
Merrick, standing in the doorway, had the look of a child on the threshold of a candy merchant. Sorcha knew her partner fancied himself an amateur Tinker, but she held hope that he would snap out of it soon. Undoubtedly the smells of linseed oil and the whiff of sulphur were exciting her partner a little too much to be healthy.
While Merrick crept in, casting covetous eyes over the goods displayed in the shop, Sorcha stalked over to the lifting pallet at the back of the room, stepped aboard it, and kicked the crank handle with one foot. The machinery whirred and clanked, its staccato rattle occupying her mind, while the mechanism carried her up three stories into the storage attic. Her partner would just have to take the stairs.
Whatever else was true of Widow Vashill, she looked to be in demand as a Tinker. The storage area was stacked with many crates and other more mysterious sheet-covered items. The Deacon examined them curiously. From the labels she could see many were waiting to be shipped all over the Empire.
"Sorcha, wait!" Merrick, in the way of the young, did not sound at all puffed after three quick flights in pursuit. Her partner caught up and looked at her from under his curly hair with something close to reproach. "You shouldn't get upset over people's disrespect for the Order"—he adjusted his emerald cloak and tilted his head—"especially after what happened at the ossuary this winter."
Sorcha's stomach tightened, and she felt herself flush. "Actually"—she pursed her lips—"after what happened at the White Palace, the people of this city should trust us more not less. They treat us more like ratcatchers than protectors."
"We'll earn back their respect and trust," he replied with a certainty she did not possess. "Anyway"—Merrick touched her arm—"she is probably just jumping at shadows—most people are these days."
Sorcha smiled bitterly. "You're right—it's not like Rictun would ever knowingly send us anywhere that actually has a geist." She did not give him his proper title; to her there had only been one Arch Abbot. Despite his treachery, the now-dead Hastler had earned her respect. Rictun, who currently sat on the Council in that position, was worse than a fool—and he had always despised her, for reasons she could not deduce.
A cruel fool.
"Yes, yes, he is." Merrick probably didn't even realize he had picked unspoken words from her head. Their Bond was not supposed to work that way. A topic they were both avoiding. "However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be cautious all the same."
"I think we can handle one little shade, Merrick. We can't possibly be that out of practice." Still, she did turn and regard the attic with some caution.
The world bloomed to life as her partner's Sight enveloped her; it heightened her awareness and gave her own powers direction. As an Active, Sorcha was only too well aware that her life relied on her partner. Without him she would be a raging fireball with no direction that was more likely to hurt herself than a geist.
Sorcha's breath coalesced in front of her eyes. Outside it was summer, but the chill on her skin was as if the depths of winter had come again. It was a sign every human in the Empire could read.
Her heart raced, and her skin ran with goose pimples, yet a slow smile spread on her lips. It had been far too long since she had done the job she'd trained for all her remembered life.
Suddenly Merrick was at her shoulder, the only warmth in the room, and she was very grateful for it.
Caution. Watch. Danger.
His Sight meshed with hers again, and now she began to realize she should have stopped to question the widow a little more thoroughly. Their Sight was compromised in the attic—a low-level gray light flooded the space. It came from the number of weirstones used by the Tinker.
Their shared Sight dipped and swayed as Merrick tried to compensate for the staining of the ether. A scuttling sound made his mouth snap shut. Rats were running from every corner, scrambling through the walls, and skittering down the drainpipe. Animals were more sensitive than humans and always fled in the face of the undead. The noise was unnerving—even to the trained.
Leaving her partner to hold his position at the rear, Sorcha crept forward. Until recently the very idea of an unliving incursion into Vermillion would have been unthinkable; however, everything had changed since the battle in the ossuary. It had taken the Order back to the bad old days when they had first arrived on this continent. Now once again they were flooded with alerts of geist activity—both real and imagined. The new Arch Abbot Rictun had made sure his Presbyter Secondo gave only the latter kind to Deacons Chambers and Faris. So whatever chance had brought them here to an actual geist she was not going to question.
They were bitter thoughts to keep Sorcha company as she scanned between crates, her hands steady in her Gauntlets. They were the holder of her magic and her only protection against the geists.
Something flickered between the rows, a suggestion of shadow darting away from the Deacons and deeper into the attic. So it was not a brave geist—surely only a shade and nothing as dangerous as a ghast or a poltern. Still, after a long dry spell, she would take whatever she could get.
Yet, by the time she had reached the far end of the attic space, Deacon Faris had the sinking feeling that it was she who was imagining things. Her shared sight detected nothing. Perhaps she had been too hopeful, and her eyes had seen only what she wanted to see. After so long she was practically conjuring geists from the woodwork. Her hands clenched in the smooth leather of her Gauntlets.
Sorcha turned back to Merrick with a sigh. "I think you were right. The woman was just jumping at shadows. There's nothing here." She couldn't contain the disappointment in her voice.
Her partner shrugged. "Maybe she saw what—"
And that was when she felt every hair on her body stand on end. The rush of intense cold flooded down her spine, and in the corner something metallic rattled. Sorcha spun around and jerked the drop cloth off a six-foot structure. It was a calendar, with the phases of the moon and the date inscribed on a huge dial—probably meant to stand in a warehouse. On cue it began to tick loudly, almost in time with the rhythm of her heart.
Sorcha! Merrick's voice blared in her skull, just as their shared Sight cleared. Something was wrapped around the base of the clock, spinning and shifting like a bundle of snakes. Her eyes widened. She took a shocked step back and raised her Gauntlets. Shades were the remains of a recently dead person—spectyrs were their evil cousins. Twisted by the Otherside, they were human souls who sought revenge. However, they usually manifested alone—what she was faced with now was entirely different. A shade haunting was usually more irritating than terrifying. These spectyrs were not.
The rattle of irritated spectyrs grew louder, as the spinning knot of them flew apart to darken the ceiling and every corner of the attic. Sorcha knew that she had received far more than she wanted.
"Stay still," she bellowed at Merrick, as she ducked away from the swooping shards of darkness that were beginning to shape themselves into skeletal forms.
A nest of spectyrs was particularly dangerous, a fact that Sorcha became aware of as the contents of the attic began flying at her head. Ducking and diving was making it rather hard to concentrate. What appeared to be a lighthouse lens tipped over, knocking her off her feet and exploding glass all across the floor.
With one hand Sorcha called on Shayst, the Sixth Rune of Dominion, and the attic flared green. Shayst sucked away the spectyrs' power, at least those she was lucky enough to hit with the rune. That power became hers, enough that she could lever the lens mechanism off her and crawl out.
Out of the corner of one eye she saw Merrick step toward her, his hands reaching for his Strop, the talisman of the Sensitives.
Sorcha could taste his fear. "Don't you dare go Active!"
Though every Deacon had both talents in them, a Sensitive using their Active power was ridiculously dangerous and ultimately pointless. He made a face at her. "I think I have something better." He called on Masa, the Third Rune of Sight, and their shared Center blurred, deepened, and now Sorcha saw double. As the contents of the attic tumbled, as the spectyrs wheeled, hissed, and threw them at her—she was able to see everything before it happened.
The Active ducked and rolled as a tall machine with long lines of cogs and wheels toppled from the wall. It was hard to imagine what the widow Vashill was thinking outside. It couldn't be good.
A twisting cluster of spectyrs dived at her, their skulls screaming for vengeance, ready to burrow into her body and take it for their own. Sorcha dropped onto her back, raised her Gauntlets; one lit with the blue fire of Aydien, holding off the larger mass of spectyrs, while she concentrated Shayst on the immediate attackers.
A line of sweat broke out on her lip as she drained them of their strength, and in the back of her mind was the joyous hum of delight.
Take it. Take it all. Take everything. The insidious, tempting call yammered in her head, because it felt so very, very good.
Sorcha was so busy draining the spectyrs swarming on the ceiling, she almost missed the stragglers that were darting and blundering through the crates in the attic.
Sorcha! Merrick, still standing still in the corner, howled, but she only had two hands and two Gauntlets. Though she dropped Shayst and reached for Chityre, she wasn't quite fast enough. The spectyr came barreling out of the shadows, its jaws wide and snapping.
She heard Merrick yell—this time physically, but she saw nothing else, because they were on her then. The nest turned everything black, and her throat became abruptly unable to utter anything at all. Sorcha scrabbled at her neck, choking. Despite everything she had learned, primitive physical reactions were impossible to deny.
As she rolled across the floor, unable to use her Gauntlets to get more air into her lungs or summon a rune, the screaming of the damn wailed in her ears. It was the sound of the unliving calling her to them, and she was aching to go.
Then dimly, on the edge of consciousness, she felt Merrick. He slid across the floor to her, throwing himself into the middle of the snarling, vengeful geists. A Sensitive was supposed to stay out of the melee, out of harm's way. But her partner broke through the swarm and put his hands on her.
The Bond flared, suddenly stronger and more important than anything hidden in shadow. Merrick was in her head, she was in his, in ways that no Deacon Bond should allow.
Yet Sorcha didn't care about that, because up against their surge of power the nest backed away. She could breathe. Gasping, with Merrick wrapped around her, she released the rune Pyet.
The attic was full of flame, blessed cleansing fire that flickered and danced in the polished brass of the Tinker's craft. The spectyrs wailed loud enough to rupture normal human eardrums, shriveling as the geist power that held them captive was burned away.
Together, she and Merrick got all of them—all bar one.
"Wait!" Her partner called, but she was already up and chasing the fleeing geist. This one was not going to hang about and be sent back to the black embrace of the Otherside. It flashed away from her, phasing out and passing through the crates, before heading for the far brick wall.
"Sorcha!" Her partner's voice chased after her, but she refused to acknowledge him as she dashed after the spectyr. Damn it, after weeks of inactivity, she wasn't about to let any of the undead get away from her.
Sorcha raised her right hand, spread her Gauntleted fingers, and called Voishem. The air bent around her, twisting, breaking into the space between things. Brick, stone or wood could not stop her now.
On the heels of the geist, Sorcha slipped through the wall and into the adjoining attic. The Bond, though, held tight, and she still shared Merrick's sight. In fact, once through the wall, the influence of those cursed weirstones was mercifully dampened.
This second attic was completely empty except for two crates by the far window. It was full of enough dust that Sorcha was surrounded by dancing motes, and for an instant she was confused by the flicker of light. The spectyr she half expected to have moved on was in fact huddled at the far end of the new room, crouching in shadow. All of her training as a Deacon told her this was very strange behavior for this kind of geist.
Though her heart was pounding, this was the one remaining problem from the whole vicious nest. She wasn't afraid of it. Still, she kept her Gauntlets raised as she approached the cloaked form. Stopping two feet from the spectyr, Sorcha waited. It had been a long time since she had tried to communicate with a geist—usually the mistake of a newly minted Deacon—but she opened her mouth and said the first thing that came to mind. "Why are you here?"
Slowly the spectyr pivoted toward her, like a circus ringmaster revealing the final act in his show. Despite all her power, all her training, Sorcha swallowed hard.
In the dim light of the attic the transparent skull in a gray shroud flickered, a reminder of every humans' fate. Suddenly Sorcha was no longer thinking of it as a simple, single geist. It was a part of the great void that waited for them all: the Otherside. She had danced there for a while the previous season—but her memory of that time had faded. Now as the geist faced her, flashes of it returned. Sorcha wanted desperately to smoke a cigar in that moment—remind herself that she was still among the living.
She cocked her head, Gauntlets half raised, waiting to ignite a rune and send the apparition tumbling back to the Otherside. The spectyr mimicked the gesture, and then its bone white jaw creaked open.
"Sorcha!" The voice was like the wheezing cry of a dying man, stretched out and desperate in the silent warehouse attic. The Deacon could not have been more surprised than if the geist had started a song and dance routine.
"Sorcha?" Merrick's voice came from below and was an eerie echo. She heard her partner's boots on the stairs and was reassured that soon he would be here.
"Sorcha," the geist repeated, raising a shimmering hand and reaching out to her. "You must save him, Sorcha."
In many of the religions it was said three repetitions of a name were required for a binding. As a Deacon she didn't believe in such foolish nonsense—but oddly, a chill still ran up her spine. She smothered the rune that she had been meaning to cast—because she guessed who the apparition meant—and now she had to know.
Sorcha remained stock-still as the spectyr's hand touched her face. She let it—something that went against every ounce of her training. Beyond reality and time, the Otherside held knowledge that no human could ever possess, so the greatest Deacons of the Order had often taken chances to snatch what they could from the void. This was her moment.
Slowly her eyes drooped, heavy with the cold of the undead. As Sorcha trembled on the edge of death itself, she accepted its vision.
Raed Syndar Rossin, Young Pretender to the throne, fugitive, and the man she had not stopped thinking of since she met him. Sorcha could see him, like looking through water: as if she was below, and he was above.
A girl who she couldn't quite make out was screaming while men carried her away—then her face changed to a terrifying smirk. Raed was there trying to save her, yet dark hands reached out and took him. Lured into a trap under a circle of spinning stars, he and the Beast within were devoured by a creature of snapping, snarling gold and scarlet. It was awful, terrible, and as she watched, Sorcha was sure it had not yet happened. However, it would—this was Raed's fate.
A sense of peace stole over her, and for an instant the voice of the spectyr was familiar: light, womanly, one that had given her life for them all. Nynnia, the creature from the Otherside, was whispering into the mind of the Deacon. The words were far off, but Sorcha caught "angel," "son," "trap" and "stars."
The Deacon strained to hear the rest, but then Merrick was screaming her name more forcibly: standing on the top stair and shouting to her. Her concentration was broken, and Nynnia's voice melted away into the still air.
Merrick's yells were not without reason. Sorcha shook her head and looked up. The shrouded skull now loomed forward, and its eyes caught fire. A cloud of freezing air blasted into her face and knocked Sorcha back a step.
The burning skull under the hooded cloak snarled, its teeth snapping as its hand of bone reached for her. Sorcha spun away and summoned Yevah from her Gauntlet. The shield of fire leapt between them, giving her a moment to breathe.
Raising her Gauntlets, she next called the rune Tryrei. Opening up a tiny pinhole to the Otherside would draw away the power of the geist and send it back where it belonged.
Opening even a tiny crack to that place hurt. The sound of the hungry void was like a thousand screaming voices, calling for love, friends, life. It was a noise that would have driven a normal human insane, but a Deacon was trained and honed to not bend in the face of the undead. Sorcha stood before it, hands spread, directing the anger of the Otherside toward the spectyr.
Yet, it did not succumb but rather elongated. It came at her still, stretched and spinning, the white bones of its fingers reaching for her. However, the Otherside continued to exert its pull, and the vengeful geist had nothing to hold it in the human world. It scrambled, it fought, but then the terrible void took it.
Sorcha closed her fist on Tryrei, and the crack was sealed. Just as suddenly as it had come, the terrible noise and fury was gone. The two Deacons stood in the silent warehouse and stared at each other, not even panting.
"Nynnia was here." Sorcha took a deep breath. "She used that last spectyr to send us a message."
Her partner's deep brown eyes studied her for a minute. The Bond between them was stronger than any normal Deacon pairing—she had no doubt Merrick had seen a portion of what she had.
Carefully Sorcha removed her Gauntlets, folded them up, and took out the remains of her cigar. The sole window in the warehouse attic looked over the mercantile quarter and toward the Imperial Palace.
Merrick stood beside her, by now used to her smoking and her silences. For a young man he was very good at being still. He was well aware of his partner's feelings for the Young Pretender but also of the bind they were in. Even in the best of times no Deacon was a free agent. And these were not the best of times, for Arch Abbot Rictun had them under close observation. He would never let them leave Vermillion.
Sorcha inhaled the smoke, letting it sit heavy in her mouth for a moment before exhaling it toward the window. She was trying to logically assess the situation, but each time she did, she saw Raed's dying gasp. "He's not dead yet," she said calmly, "or we would have felt it." An attempt to control the Beast inside the Young Pretender had also ended up binding the two Deacons to the fugitive—a triple Bond.
"It could be a trap," Merrick replied softly, pulling his cloak around him.
"Yes." She blew a smoke ring. "It very well could be. Yet—"
"—apparently we have allies on the Otherside." Her partner glanced up and then away. Nynnia had undoubtedly been more than human, but neither of them had expected to hear from her after death.
Sorcha examined the glowing tip of her cigar. "But we don't know what her nature really is. Quite a bit to hang our future on, don't you think?"
"Raed is our friend… more than that." Merrick's mind reached out, tugging on the Bond like a boy might pull on a fence wire to test its strength. The part between them sang, and there was a distant whisper of the one between them and the Young Pretender.
Sorcha had made the Bond in haste, but none of them had been able to cut it. Wordlessly, both Deacons reached out for the Young Pretender, searching for the connection they had spent the last three months denying. He was out there somewhere—they could tell that—but too far for them to sense very much else.
"I saw them kill him, Merrick." Sorcha turned to her partner, her blue eyes gleaming in the half-light. "We can't let that happen—even if it is a trap."
He sighed, looked up at the ceiling as if searching for answers from some uncaring little god. But when he looked back, on his lips was a wry smile. "No—you're right—we can't. The trick of it though will be getting the Arch Abbot to agree to us leaving."
Sorcha's expression was amused as she knocked the end off her cigar to save for another occasion. "We've spent long enough playing by Rictun's rules. There's no fun in it anymore."
Her partner's reaction was a slightly nervous laugh—but he didn't for one second try to stop her. Sorcha knew it was another reason she liked the boy.