Harbinger
Book of the Order - 4
by
Philippa Ballantine

To Tee Morris, my captain, who made me unexpectedly believe in soul mates

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This has been a rollicking, fun series to write, and I am sad to leave Arkaym, Sorcha, Merrick, Raed and even the Rossin. To all who have supported me along the way, I need to give thanks, so here is the list.

To my editor at Ace, Danielle Stockley, for keeping me honest and on the straight and narrow with large cats and cursed princes.

To my agent, Laurie McLean, who back in 2007 said she liked my prickly Sorcha, and found her such an awesome home.

To my cover artist Jason Chan, who has always delighted and astounded me by capturing my characters in such wondrous detail.

Most especially to all the readers who have embraced the series. May you enjoy the ending, but keep dreaming of the comradeship and bravery of the Order.

The Runes of Sight

Sielu—See from another’s eyes

Aiemm—See into the past

Masa—See into the future

Kebenar—See the real nature of a situation

Kolar—Send your sight traveling

Mennyt—See into the Otherside

Ticat—The Last Rune of Sight; for the last moment


The Runes of Dominion

Aydien—The Rune of Repulsion

Yevah—The shield of fire

Tryrei—Open a peephole to the Otherside

Chitrye—Bringer of lightning

Pyet—The cleansing flame

Shayst—Steal another’s power

Seym—The Rune of Flesh

Voishem—Phase through walls

Deiyant—Move objects with your will

Teisyat—Open the doorway to the Otherside

ONE
Return of the Wanderer

Smoke blew off the once-admired canals of the capital of the Empire of Arkaym. Several times the geistlord, who wore a coyote shape, had to backtrack as he found bridges broken before him and houses tumbled down everywhere. The Fensena sniffed at the bodies left to rot in the alleyways of Vermillion, but unlike a real coyote he did not pause to dine.

The fact that a five-foot-tall coyote was wandering the byways of the heart of the Empire in broad daylight would have been impossible to contemplate even just a few months before. Yet here he was with the run of the place, and not a Deacon of the Order or a soldier of the Imperial Guard to give him pause. The Emperor of Arkaym had very little care for his capital, and had chosen instead to chase after the Princes who had risen in rebellion against him—and it turned out there were quite a few such Princes.

Papers rustled and blew past the coyote in the sharp wind. He caught one as it spun by him, his lightning-fast paw pinning it to the ground. Through gleaming golden eyes the geistlord read—a skill he had taken pride in developing. It was the offer of a bounty; one on the head of Sorcha Faris. She was accused of sedition, treason and murder. More telling was the title they were giving her. “Arch Abbot of the outlawed Order” was written beneath the badly drawn picture of her. The Fensena had no love for the Deacons, but he knew what awaited him on the Otherside and had no desire to see this world burn.

As these dark thoughts filled him with dread, he moved on through the city and finally made it to the Bridge of Gilt. The canal that ran beneath it was clogged with all manner of dead and decaying things that made his nose twitch. Someone had tied offerings to one of the small gods on the railings: fruits, dead birds and something bloody and unidentifiable.

Still, the bridge was intact, and so he padded over it toward the Imperial Island. The coyote’s ears pricked forward as they traced running footsteps up ahead among the shops that lined the bridge. Though most merchants had long since abandoned their businesses for whatever safety they wrongly perceived elsewhere, a few brave held on. He could smell them huddled in their little shops, and hear them whispering.

A young woman was running along the bridge toward him, clutching something to her chest. The odor of fear was overpowering to the Fensena’s sharp senses.

It was a baby. She was cradling a baby to her chest as she ran. In the lowering light of sunset, her eyes were wide with terror. Finally, she saw the huge coyote standing in the middle of the bridge and skidded to a halt.

The wind ruffled the coyote’s brindle coat, made for deeper winters and more northerly climates. He felt a clench of sympathy for the woman and her child. The Rossin, the great geistlord who wore many shapes and all of them terrible, would have snapped her in half in an instant. The Fensena himself could have at least bitten her and leapt into her body to use her energy to keep his toehold in this realm for another few days.

The woman glanced behind her, and the Fensena could feel it now; the swirling approach of one of his kind. A geist eager for a host was sweeping down from the island. It tasted to him like a broken soul, perhaps one that had in life even worn the robe of a Deacon. Certainly, something that had been twisted by the Otherside and chewed into dire form.

The Fensena tilted his head, considering, and then placed one paw before the other to perform a slight bow in the woman’s direction.

“Run while you can,” he whispered through jaws made for cracking bone and tearing flesh.

That beasts should open their mouths and speak in the language of men had not been so strange in the first days, generations past, when the geists first came into the world—but humans had such very short memories and did not read very much of their own history.

The woman pressed her lips together and took her chance. She darted forward, and past him, so close that her skirts brushed against his fur and the perfume of her skin reached his nose. The coyote did not watch her, but his ears tracked her progress.

The geist was on her heels, and it was indeed as he had suspected. The torn and desecrated figure of a Deacon of the Order of the Eye and the Fist floated down the bridge. Once water would have prevented the geist from crossing, but the Otherside was very close to this realm now.

The geist did not acknowledge the Fensena’s existence. It floated on, making even the weeds in the cracks in the pavement wither as it passed. He knew what it would do to the woman when it caught up to her—and it would eventually.

It was not his concern, and he could not let it make him miss his appointment. Moving faster on its small, neat feet, the coyote crossed the bridge and trotted up the hill toward the seat of government. He did not like being in this city. However, just like the last time he’d been here, he was on a mission for the Rossin; the great and powerful geistlord whom he was tied to—like it or not.

The coyote raised his nose and sniffed as he approached the burned shell of the Mother Abbey. The odor of rotting human flesh was easily discernible here. When the roof collapsed, there had been none about to pull the bodies from under the stone, and now the ruins were a graveyard. This place had been full of beautiful gardens, dormitories crammed with Deacons, and a massive library.

However, what he was looking for was not here. Nothing was here.

The Fensena moved on, his nose twitching. Ahead lay only the Imperial Palace. However, a little caution was called for here. Like the shape he wore, the Fensena knew he had to exercise a care; he had a body, he could be killed, and lose his grip on this realm altogether. Unlike the Rossin, his bond with his host was not a permanent one. So he lowered his head and kept to the shadows of the buildings that looked out onto the Imperial Square. His nose told him that unlike the Mother Abbey, there were living people inside—people who would probably not like a large coyote having the run of the place.

He nosed his way around the large square, which faced the palace, eyes darting every now and then to where the pale stone wall ran. His fellow geists had not let the palace alone, despite the cantrips and protections laid down by Deacons over the centuries.

The coyote stopped and let out a faint yip as the thought occurred to him; those Deacons had for much of Arkaym’s history been the Circle of Stars. The newer Order that Sorcha Faris had served might have laid their cantrips over the top, but if the earlier foundation had been torn aside then it was all for naught. He sensed that was what they had done as soon as the Mother Abbey was destroyed.

At last, near the rear of the palace, the Fensena found what he was looking for; one section of the wall and the cantrips that had protected it had given up its structural wholeness. The crumpled heap of red stone was a welcome sight. The Fensena needed to get within and soon, since his master was not the most forgiving of creatures.

He entered the pleasure garden of the palace, and realized that no pleasure was ever likely to be found here again. It looked as though a small whirlwind had passed through the ordered rows of plants and topiary. Everything was ripped up and thrown about, and he suspected that mist witches had once again taken to the Ancient paths that the building of the palace had displaced. Though the island was no longer a swamp, the witches would traverse their old paths, and thanks to the thinness of the veil between this world and the other, their powers would be greater.

The Fensena disliked the lower geists and their chaotic nature. He preferred logic, since it usually meant a greater chance at survival. A low rumble started in his chest, and his brindle tail tucked instinctively closer to his body.

The mist witches were still here.

Robbed of any chance to lead travelers astray, drown them in the swamp and take their essence for their own, they would instead be quite happy to rip apart a human. Or indeed another geist or geistlord. Energy was energy after all.

The Fensena snarled, but the mist witch was a mindless thing; designed only to tear apart and feed. It was no geistlord capable of thought, reasoning and plotting. It was drawn to whatever living thing was about. Before the Circle of Stars, the recently returned Native Order, had done whatever necessary to rend the barrier between the Otherside and here, the mist witch might have only lured people to their deaths, or scrabbled their wits. Now however it was far stronger.

Like a Deacon, the Fensena saw its shape completely; the spiraling patterns that looked remarkably like runes that held together this spiderweb of hunger. When it came at him, howling and flinging its icy fingers at the Fensena’s flesh, he snarled and leapt.

He might have been one of the lesser geistlords, but he was still more than a match for a simple mist witch. His teeth connected with the strands of the geist, and his own power was transferred to the knot of runic, shifting shapes. With a jerk of his head, the Fensena pulled the thing apart as if it were the ripe flesh of a caribou that had been sitting out under the sun for days.

It dissolved in on itself howling, leaving only a bitter taste in the coyote’s mouth. Regrettably there was no way to get rid of that, and generally why he avoided skirmishes with geists when he could.

The Fensena inclined his head and directed his senses to the building, which lay beyond the gardens. It smelled of death and there was fresh blood throughout every corridor. Whereas once, in his early days in this realm, he had reveled in it, now it disturbed him.

His long pink tongue lolled from one corner of his mouth, and the huge pants that he needed to draw air were quite distracting. He knew why too; this body had not much more time to run.

This was why the coyote geistlord no longer liked to travel to Vermillion; too many bodies were already occupied by other geists. His connection with human blood was tenuous at best, and it was very hard for him to take a host when there was already one of his fellows within. Another reason to dislike recent events.

With a long canine sigh, the Fensena trotted up what had been a well-manicured gravel path. Up ahead there were humans; he could smell them as well as sense them with his geist-sight, but they were in such disarray.

The coyote nudged open a door that should have been barred and guarded, and wandered into the corridors and hallways, where once the business of the Empire had been conducted. His nails clicked on the stone floor, and the smell of piss and desperation filled his nostrils.

As the Fensena moved through the palace, he thought about how it had come to this. The Rossin had been a ferocious force on the Otherside; devouring many of their kind. However, since he had taken up with the royal family he had been much subdued. The Fensena had found he had not needed his protection. Indeed, in this realm, the coyote had been quite free to wander, as he preferred. It had only been the shift in currents, the fractional thinning of the border between this world and the Otherside, that had signaled a change.

That powerful fool Derodak had made this happen when he decided the time was ripe to complete his plan to harness the geists, and take this world finally for his own. That in turn had set in motion a series of events that could bring the realm to an end. It would make the destruction heaped on this palace seem like a drop in a bucket.

It was amusing to the Fensena that the Rossin was now the one to try and save this realm, well . . . save it and cut a slice for himself; a particularly leonine slice. His jaws split in a canine smile. He would see the proud Rossin brought down from his high-and-mighty perch before this was all over—provided there was an opportunity to stop the Maker of Ways ripping reality open.

The Fensena turned his mind away from these dire thoughts and padded on up the hallway in the direction his nose was leading him. A few times he was forced to hide in shadows, and duck into damaged rooms to avoid people, but considering this was the center of the human Empire it was ridiculously easy.

The coyote found the stairwell that lay at the heart of the palace. This was part of the original fortress that had stood long before Emperor’s vanity built pleasure gardens and golden rooms above it. The deeper down the Fensena went the cooler and quieter it became, but the less he liked it. The faded murals on the walls were deeply etched and told stories of his kind and the humans that had sought to control them.

Many things had been buried down here beneath the palace; things that the various Emperors of Arkaym had wanted hidden. Some had broken loose over that time, but there were still plenty of others that remained.

The Fensena stopped and paused at a smashed section of wall. His nose told him a geistlord had once been imprisoned here. His memory was not good for names, but he recalled a beautiful winged creature—one that had been very good at pretending to be what she was not.

The floor was now sloping down even farther, and the cavern walls were transitioning to rough from polished and carved. The flickering weirstone lights were also now few and far between. It didn’t matter; he needed no lights to see by. He had both animal and geist-vision to guide him.