- Rune Breaker: Chapter 1 – The Bargain is Struck
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 2 – The Clever Girl
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 3 – A Paradise in the Future
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 4 – Clan of the Winter Willow
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 5 – Spell-worked Water, Alchemical Food
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 6 – Waste Not Want Not
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 7 – Battlelines
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 8 – Filling the Gap
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 9 – The King of Flame and Steel
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 10 – Recovery
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 11 – Sisters, Brothers
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 12 – Her Most Beauteous Wings
Loose stones skittered under her feet, the sound amplified by the closeness of the cave. Though it was pitch black, she had no trouble seeing. Her kind wouldn’t; they had been bred to march through day and night if necessary with no need of fires or torches.
That wasn’t all they had been created for and part of that breeding suddenly informed her that this was no cave she had found herself in. It was a mine. Or at least some sort of hand-made tunnel. An adolescence spent hewing iron ore from the earth was the preferred method of strengthening her kind for military training.
In the darkness behind her, there were other noises. Claws on stone, growling, and snarling breaths of canine effort. The guard hounds of the masters were no more mere dogs than she was a mere human. They did not bark, or yap, or whine and they were cunning and viscous in a way most thought only demi-humans were capable of.
A frontrunner of the pack took the bend in the tunnel at speed by running up the wall, then leapt toward her. She was only warned by the sound, whirling and meeting paws half the size of her head, with the flat of her sword. With all her strength, she pushed it away and brought the sword up ready to strike when it came again.
The hound’s lips curled back in a snarl, revealing its sharp snout to be full of metallic teeth. Like all of its breed, it didn’t even know that retreat was an option. She had seen the training; pups with an instinct to flee were killed instantly and those without were bred continuously.
It leapt at her and her sword came down precisely on its skull. Hot fluid and brain matter spilled as the sharp iron clove deep into the hound’s head. It drove right through to the spinal column and there, it stuck in bone. By the time she realized there was a problem, it was too late. The dying animal’s weight and her own bulwark solid stance conspired against the sword and it snapped.
As it came free of the new corpse, she heard more on the way. Still gripping the broken blade, she turned and bolted further down the tunnel.
That had been the third hound she’d killed and it never stopped being satisfying. After years of bites and watching here brothers and sisters being mauled for punishment or base entertainment, she could live a happy life if she were only allowed to spend it killing their entire species, one beast at a time.
But her hadn’t been created as a fool. The masters had loosed a pack of a dozen to hunt her down after her ‘sins’. Fighting on open ground would have been suicide, even if she used all of her potential. Falling back to the cave reduced the number that could come at her at once and removed flanking from the equation, at least for a while.
That had been a good plan, back before the shield had been torn off her arm, or when she didn’t have claw marks oozing blood along her back or a chunk nipped out of her calf. In retrospect, she should have waited until she was in full armor before committing her sin.
Fortunately, she was built and bred to fight until torn into pieces. She would run until she was cornered and then, even with only a broken sword, she would bring as many as she could with her into death’s arms. Fighting like and animal if necessary. Like a demon. Tooth and claw.
That last thought settled in on her like a mantle of ice. Self consciously, she checked her hand. Still nails. No thicker. Good.
The cave floor began to slope sharply, and she found herself skidding down it instead of running. Suddenly, there was light up ahead. Lines of white radiance.
And they were leaking out from around an iron door. It was half again her height with no visible hinges. The only feature in fact was a wheel set into its face, like that found on the vaults where the masters performed their works.
She managed to stop before slamming into it, blinking in surprise. Why was this here? Had she really just fled directly to the home of her hated enemy?
More growling breaths. The hounds were coming. If one of the masters was inside, she stood a much better chance of killing him and possibly taking weapons or defenses from the corpse than she did making a stand at the door.
She tucked the broken sword into her belt (the scabbard was lost at the cave’s mouth) and seized the wheel.
It was rusted hard, but still moved grudgingly. Muscles knotted along her arms and back as, inch by inch, she forced it to move. The growls and snarls were closer. This was taking too long. She couldn’t do this and if she kept at it, she would die with her back to the enemy.
Heat filled her belly. No, she would not fail. There was strength; a great, deep well of it. All it took was not fearing or resenting it. It was hers to use, after all, not the masters.
An itching sensation crept over her arms. Her gorge rose as she saw the tiny scales, shaped like rounded kite-shields, sprouting like a fungus. Thickening, hardened nails bit into the metal of the wheel and suddenly, the rust wasn’t groaning and resisting, it was screaming as the wheel turned freely.
In an instant, the door swung open and the first hound arrived. She stepped into the sudden brightness beyond the door and then with all the strength pressed into her flesh and bones by the masters, she slammed the door and turned the wheel on the inside face of it until the bolt slid home once again.
The hound slammed into the iron, making it rattle in the stone around it. But it could not get inside.
Seconds passed and she stood there, pressing the door closed as if to supplement the bolt, staring at the gleaming red scales. Despite the sickness rolling in her stomach, she forced herself to be calm. And with that act of will, the scales wilted, receding into her flesh.
I smell hot blood.
The voice was like that of a primordial crocodile, if such a beast could speak rather than growl.
She turned, the sword coming up into her hands in a smooth motion. Before it was broken, it had been larger than that which a human or elf could carry, let alone one of the masters. As it stood now, it was still passable as a long blade, possibly made all the more wicked by its jagged points.
There was no one to threaten with it.
She was standing in a domed chamber, roughly hewn from the rock and girded with iron buttresses that met in the shadowed ceiling below. The floor had been ground smooth and in the center of it stood a thicket of stone pillars, each marked with carved maze patterns and topped by a globe of cold, white magical flame.
There was not logic or aesthetic to the placement of the pillars except the fact that they vaguely surrounded a central point. Thick chains of iron, copper, and silver were string from them to loop around the thing in the center.
She had only ever seen iron maidens in the captured dungeons of some of the folk the masters made war with. This was something of a kind. Made of gray stone, it looked like a huge sarcophagus stood upright. There was the likeness of a stoic man with a short beard, a scythe held across his chest carved into it. And there were spikes of black metal driven into it like nails into soft wood. The chains wrapped around this, and looped over the spikes.
Suspended in the chains, over the carved figure’s chest, was a stone tablet with faded writing etch on it.
She wondered at just what she was looking at as the hound slammed into the door behind her again.
But your soul is strong. The voice came again, still with no origin.
She presented the sword forcefully to the room. “Who are you?” She demanded.
Read the tablet.
There wasn’t anywhere else to go And arguing with a disembodied voice held no appeal, so she carefully strode into the thicket of pillars and approached to sarcophagus.
Though the writing was if a type she had never seen before, she felt some magic at work that allowed her to understand it:
‘Here lies the great weapon, Rune Breaker. When blood is paid and the bargain struck, a strong soul will command the mightiest of weapons.’
The symbols that evidently stood for ‘Rune Breaker’ were carved differently than the others, in such a way that made them stand out in a series of sharp points.
There were multiple thumps against the door. The pack had arrived and once they coordinated, they would have the strength to break the stone it was set in.
Someone is here to end your life.
She turned to face the door, readying her sword. “I know this.”
Do you want to die, deep inside the earth, alone and unmourned?
“Of course not.” She said without emotion. “But it’s happening anyway.”
It doesn’t have to. Spill your blood on the tablet. Strike the bargain. Swear to use me as you will.
“What insanity are you speaking? Who are you?”
You read the tablet. You know.
More impacts on the door. Tiny avalanches of dust and pebbles shook loose from the cave wall surrounding it.
“You want me to believe that I’ve stumbled across some sort of hidden weapon? You’re some demon looking to trick and use me.” She insisted, never shifting her ready stance.
Worse than a demon. But in a few moments, you will be torn to pieces. What are you really risking? I ask again: do you want to die here?
She chewed her lip. If she fought, it was in her nature, she would fight with everything she had. She would give in and she would die… like that. There was no fear of death, but she wanted to die as a person instead of a weapon.
“No. I don’t want to die here.”
Then do it now. Spill your blood on the tablet.
She turned to face the tablet. The dangers were obvious; she was no fool, there were ways to control or harm or entrap a person with their blood, the worst of them needed it to be freely given. She might gain this ‘mighty weapon’, or she might become blood-bound to a demon. But then how much worse could service to a demon be than serving the masters.
Left hand steady, she placed it on the raised, sharpened letters and pressed. The stone bit her skin and then her crimson life was pooling and dribbling across the stone. The chains, to a one, quivered and rattled.
Now swear. Said the voice. Swear to use me as you will. To work your will through me. Accept the bond.
“I do.” She said with all the false confidence she could muster.
The magical flames guttered out. The chains went taunt, straining with metallic groans.
“The bargain has been struck. The bond is formed.” Only now did she realize that she hadn’t actually been hearing the voice before. It had been in her head. Now it was a sound and a foreboding and terrible one at that. It continued to grow in intensity and volume as it spoke. “Dissolving containment protocols.”
Once more, the chains strained and flexed. They crumbled the pillars in their coils and leapt at the sarcophagus, wrapping tightly around it until cracks began to appear.
“Aligning spell structures for core array. Slaving to arcane command link and aligning command array…” Chunks of stone exploded off the sarcophagus, revealing hollows within. Within seconds, it was destroyed and the chains wrapped themselves around a man sized shape within the resultant dust cloud.
Foreign emotions invaded her head as she watched: a cruel form of manic glee; contained, brooding anger, and smug satisfaction. Then it struck her almost like a physical blow: They weren’t her thought’s but the Rune Breaker’s.
The surrounding dust thinned and he stood before her, bound in ever-constricting chains. Tall and thin, but nowhere near her height. He looked like a human, dressed in some sort of thick, black canvas in a rough approximation of a great coat and breeches. Wild, midnight hair as long as he was tall whipped around him, writhing like tentacles. She knew in an instant, however, that this was the man whose likeness adorned the now ruined sarcophagus.
“Retracting tertiary containment spells.” He said, more quietly and slightly less brusquely than before. The chains around him began to melt into his body. Soon his arms were free to hang at his sides. He stood up straight and hovered a few feet up into the air.
Her nose tingled with the sheer amount of ambient magic around him.
All this time, the hounds had been forgotten. They now made themselves known with a collective effort against the door. It held, but barely; fist sized chunks of stone crumbled around it.
The man stared at her with an inscrutable expression. Anticipation grew in the back of her head. He was waiting for something – but what?
Another slam against the door. More stone fell. His gaze flicked over to it.
“Do you wish for me to kill them, Mistress?”
She reeled. Not at the question, but at the appellation. And when his expression changed to confusion, followed instantly by that same feeling in her head, it became all to clear that the emotional exchange worked both ways. This did nothing to help the paralysis induced by his statement.
The next hit tore the door free of its frame, causing it to fall into the room with a ringing din that echoed again and again within the chamber.
Terrible excitement spread out like an oily film in her head and she looked at him, taken aback. It wasn’t showing on his face, but he was giddy with blood-lust
“It has been decided without you.” He informed her. “The first priority is preventing my master from coming to harm.” His right arm came up and swept her aside as the first hounds to recover came bounding in. It shouldn’t have been possible, he was probably only three quarters her weight and not even planted on the ground on top of that.
She forced the shock and confusion down and slid into a sword stance so she could meet the hounds.
That proved unnecessary as the same arm that swept her aside suddenly twisted and the canvas covering it deformed. A trio of black thorns, each some eight inches long, formed on the side facing away from her. With astonishing speed, it reversed direction and, still twisting and growing, slammed into the first hound. Two thorns tore into the animal’s throat, the last punched up through its jaw, through the pallet and into the brain. It would have been dead even it the surging strength behind the arm hadn’t launched it into the far wall hard enough to shatter its ribs.
Even less lucky was the next hound to leap at him, for he still had a free hand. This one had become some sort of colossal, black cleaver while she wasn’t looking and it fell from overhead like a meteor strike, severing the animal’s front leg, two ribs, and any number of organs while at the same time hammering it to the stone floor.
All the while, the blood-lust built and rattled around gleefully in her skull. There had been berserkers of a sort in the masters’ army. But never something like this. It wasn’t so much a rage that drove one to kill, as the joy of an artist, whose medium was warfare.
Another beast leapt at him and he brought his arms back across his body as twin war hammers that crushed it’s shoulders. This time, it wasn’t enough and the hound used its hind legs to power through, catching his shoulder with its teeth.
That lasted for the space of a breath before the strange man seemed to melt and flow until a huge, black anaconda was wrapped around the hapless animal, crushing the life from it. A brutal attack, but a wasteful one; in doing so, he left an opening for two more hounds to rush toward his apparent charge.
She met the first as it leapt at her, working her forearm up under its jaw to hold at away from her by the throat. Huge paws tore at her shoulders, but she ignored them, thrusting her broken blade into its belly and emptying it’s guts onto the floor.
By that time, the second had come around the flank her. It wasn’t fast enough. She turned and used the body of the first as a shield, pushing it back while swiping for its eyes. The beast evaded losing its eyes, but couldn’t save itself when a massive, black dire-wolf hit it from the side, snapping it’s huge jaws at its neck.