- 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
Ru’s words tore into Taylin’s stomach in ways that the hounds would never have accomplished. She stumbled back from him until her back found the wall. “No!” The statement echoed off the domed roof, reporting again and again. “That isn’t right. I don’t want this.”
From where he’d come to kneel, Ru lifted his head. His face was without emotion, his eyes, not quite the right shape for a human and a barely luminous amber besides, observed her. In the link, she could feel his measured curiosity overtaking all else.
“You made the bargain, Ms. Taylin.” He informed her.
Taylin’s back slid along the wall until she found herself in a crouch. Years of conditioning and berating made it difficult to sit fully. She quickly noticed just how much of a hold the masters still had on her and forced herself to sit. To Ru, she said, “I didn’t know what you were talking about. I didn’t know the Rune Breaker was a person.”
Ru laughed and the coldness in the sound came through in the link as well. With little apparent effort, he stood up smoothly from kneeling. “I’m not, Ms. Taylin. The man died so long ago that not even his dust remains. All that’s left of Ru Brakar are his powers and skill, imprisoned by spellcraft and artifice.”
Blood loss was making her light headed. She bled slowly, but she had a lot of wounds to bleed from. “That’s not true.” The words came out slurred. “I can feel… you feel.” That didn’t make any sense and she knew it. The minimal combat medicine she’d been taught came back to her. She needed to stop the bleeding.
No bandages. The stiff canvas shirt she wore was in tatters and soaked through with blood, both hers and from others. Her thick, wool leggings we also torn and bloodied, on top of being caked in mud and dust. Without the adrenaline of battle, she was starting to doubt she’d be able to tie a bandage properly in her condition.
A sly, smug feeling came from Ru, though his expression didn’t change. He floated over to her, feet only inches above the ground so that the charcoal gray robes and cloak that seemed to swaddle hm dragged upon the ground. When he was directly in front of her, he sank down into a cross-legged position.
This close, the height difference and size difference in general were striking. Thought he was tall for a human, Ru was still a head shorter than Taylin even slumped as she was, and her warrior’s frame made two of the taunt whip of his scholarly build.
He stared at her without seeming to see her for the space of a breath. “You are bleeding to death, Ms. Taylin.” There wasn’t anything to argue with there; she knew as much already. No use wasting her last energy with that. From the link, she could tell that the prospect of her demise didn’t concern him one way or another, but he was annoyed that the statement didn’t draw a better response.
A moment later, he tried again. “You told me before that you didn’t wish to die here.”
And she had told him that it didn’t look like she’d had a choice.
“And you were wrong.”
That got a start from her. She knew for a fact that she hadn’t said those words out loud, only thinking them.
“Another facet of the link. You can speak with me, issue commands at range with a thought.” Ru explained. “It is a complicated piece of spell structuring with many rules governing it. For example, you can read my thoughts, but I can only hear what comes to the surface of yours.” He leaned forward. “Right now, you still do not want to die.”
Once again, there was no point in arguing with that. It was obvious from the start. Why bother telling her that when they also both knew these were her last moments?
But Ru kept talking, his voice even and deep and entirely sinister. Now, he put the palm of his hand on her forehead and gentle pushed her head back against the wall. “For example, I am required to protect you from harm. But I am not required to stop you from bleeding to death, even though it would be nothing for me to heal you.”
Gloating. That’s what it was. He had managed to strike a bargain to get free of his bonds, and in the process, managed to shake off the inconvenient ‘master’ that came with it. If she weren’t watching the word swirl and fade because of it, she might be proud of him for killing someone who enslaved him.
“Your only hope now is to order me to heal you.” He said, hand still on her head. “Just think the command and you will not die here, Ms. Taylin”
Taylin didn’t know if it was the blood loss or the nausea that made her stomach roll at that. Probably both, plus a slowly kindling anger. How dare he give her that choice. Become one of the things she’d tried so hard to escape, or perish just hours after making good that escape.
The last of her strength was dedicated to reaching up and brushing his hand aside. She would die a good death after all.
Warmth flooded her. The afterlife? It made sense. The closest to this combination of physical and spiritual warmth flowing through her were the times that a sympathetic or, more commonly, efficiency minded master deigned to use combat healing to get her back into battle or to work.
What she was feeling now was greater than the sum of all those instances combined, a river of light and warmth enfolding her body, dulling the sharp edges of her hurts, gently tugging her torn flesh into proper shape. It infused every tissue and every thought. Comparing it to what she felt before was the difference between a single rain drop and a deluge.
Her scattered thoughts chained together again, regaining the shape of coherency. Perhaps she shouldn’t have feared death, here she felt peace and comfort that she’d never known in the mines or on the ships. It was as close to joy as she’d ever dared seek.
And then her hands began to itch. And the muscles in her back knotted.
It couldn’t be happening here, even in death. Not even in the afterlife could she escape the things the masters put inside her.
This time, there was so much strength behind her limb that when she struck out, Ru turned a quarter circle before his balance failed him and he felt onto his side. Surprise and irritation filled the link as a green-black light that had enveloped her dissipated.
She gasped at the residual ecstasy from the healing before remembering the itching. A quick glance revealed that the very first little patches of scales were showing on her skin. She willed them away. Only then did she remember Ru.
“I’m sorry.” She said quickly, reaching over to help him up. Thought he neither accepted, nor fought, she quickly had him sitting up again. “I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was dead and…” Horror dawned on her. “Oh no. I ended up ordering you to heal me, didn’t I?”
Surprise was quickly transforming into confusion and curiosity in the link, but only within a sizable nest of irritation.
“You did not, Ms Taylin” He said simply.
It was her turn to be surprised. “Why? If I died, then you would be free.” For some reason, that irritated him even more.
“I would not have been free.” He said, his face still bereft of emotion. “In the event you die or relinquish the link, the containment spells will be reinstated within thirty hours, during which time, I will be compelled to find or construct with my power a place such as this to wait for my next master.”
“Oh.” She said flatly. “So you think it’s better to,” She felt sick at the word, “serve me than be imprisoned again.”
Ru didn’t even think about it. “I’m not so certain. My half-oblivion existence while contained is a torment, but you seem averse to exercising my abilities, even when your life depends on it. If this is the case, one is the same as the other for me.”
There was no way that he was going to make her feel guilty for not ordering him around. But knowing the choices; being bound to someone or being sealed in isolation, she felt sorry for him. Evidently, he sensed that in her and it made him even more annoyed.
“Then why did you heal me?” She asked.
“Because I cannot allow harm to come to you.” He said, once again getting to his feet.
She did the same, after finding the sword on the floor beside her and grabbing it. It never hurt to have a weapon about you, even a ruined one. “But you said it would allow you to let me bleed out.”
Ru turned from her and glided over to the fallen door, contemplating it intensely. “The link allows me to lie unless ordered not to.”
There was the smugness again. He’d tried to trick her into giving him an order. The little flame of anger she felt when she thought he was mocking her in death lit again, but it was prevented from burning over.
Back on the ships, she’d seen some her brothers and sisters (for in a technical sense, that’s what they were) give in to who and what they were completely. They had become more like dogs than the hounds were, ready and joyful in the pursuit of the masters’ goals, reporting dutifully all dissent and unrest, and even killing their own if it was even suggested it would please the masters.
Before it was broken, the sword in her hand had put an end to three of those. She felt no joy in that, even as she knew that they would have if they were only a bit stronger or more skilled than she.
Somehow though, Ru didn’t fit that. He tried to get her to issue an order, yes, but he made no secret that he didn’t like her. It seemed that every word or thought of hers bit at him like a case of fleas. So what was it that made him attempt that gambit?
When she looked back at him, he had become an ogre; all gray-brown flab over hulking muscle. Without ceremony, he bent and worked stubby fingers under the collapsed frame off the door and with only a mild amount of effort creasing his hairy brow, lifted it back into place. Then with only a gesture, he worked some form of magic to make the stone around it whole again.
“Why are you doing that?” She asked quietly. The acoustics of the dome around her made it carry.
He glanced back at her and the ogre melted into the human shape she assumed was his base form. “Because I have done nothing for over one hundred and fifty years, Ms. Taylin.” He said. “A simple spell could have done. And really, there is no need to make repairs to this place. But I can, therefore I am.”
Taylin frowned. He’d been closed up in that… thing for three times as long as she’d even been alive. Almost as long as it was even possible for her to be alive. For her, it was her entire adolescence, but for a human, if he truly was human, it was two entire lifetimes.
Reading her thoughts, Ru replied as he went about testing the door. “I’ve been sealed for longer periods than that. By the bonds of these spells, I’ve outlived civilizations you have not even heard of, so thoroughly were they wiped from this world. The designer knew the torment of simple boredom well.”
Taylin slipped the truncated sword into her belt. It wouldn’t be needed for a time at least. “Is that why you tried to force me into giving you an order?”
“Partially.” He said stoically. The swirl of emotion and thought in the link stilled. Was he blocking it somehow? “Ms. Taylin, the thing you must understand is that I would rather be a weapon than nothing.”
She chewed her lip. Others like her had shared that attitude as well. The work became everything, no matter what it was. That could at least be respected, not like the sycophantic slaves. Yet when the idea of rebellion would come about, they were useless, unable to imagine anything but the work. That in Ru did not truly fit either.
“There are other options.” She suggested. “We could simply walk out of here and go our separate ways. You would be free to do as you please, free from me as long as I live.”
Ru laughed harshly. She couldn’t tell what was behind it with the link clouded, but it didn’t sound cruel, just a laugh from someone who didn’t engage in such a thing in a genuine way very often. “You think that you’re more clever than the architects of these bonds?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d been called clever. ‘Taylin’ actually meant ‘clever girl’ in the speech the masters used when addressing each other. She remembered being called Pe’le, the same in the enemy’s common tongue, the tongue they taught her kind, often enough.
‘Clever girl’ were the last words of her former Sky-captain He’d forgotten that she was proof against fire during punishment for being too clever and she’d used his burning palm spell to melt the rune-covered collar on her neck that compelled against violent retribution against the masters. If he hadn’t paused to mock her, he probably could have stopped her from kicking her sword off the planks and into her hands. After that, nothing could have stopped his fate; she was too good a soldier to lose to a weaker foe in close quarters.
But she remembered being called Pe’le before, vaguely. And then it had not been said in cruel tones, but proud, soft ones…
Taylin brushed the thoughts aside. A dream from her childhood, remembered as if it were fact.
She was suddenly aware of curiosity and a hint of blood-lust in the link. She looked up to see Ru staring at her. He’d evidently seized upon the memory of the Sky-captain’s end, but even more obvious was the fact that he’d noticed her drift off for some appreciable amount of time.
“It won’t work?” She asked.
“They considered every contingency, Ms. Taylin.” He said with a nod. “Otherwise, I could abandon an unconscious master to their fate; If I don’t witness a threat of harm, and am not informed of it by my master, the link cannot compel me to action. Therefore, if I separate myself willingly from my master by a distance greater than a mile, the retribution engine is employed upon me.”
Either by anticipating her next question, or simply by plucking it from her mind, he added, “It is a method of punishment; wracking pain and paralysis as well as disorientation and a cancellation of my powers.” He carefully let a feeling finality into the link. The matter was closed as far as he was concerned.
Taylin respected that and changed the subject. “You’re skilled in magic. Why didn’t you use it against the hounds until the end?”
Whatever method he used to cloud the link stopped doing so in order for her to feel the amusement he felt at the question. “Why did I lift the door instead of levitate it? I care not for efficiency or expediency. The point has been impressed upon me that I am eternal.”
He flexed his spindly arms are his sides and studied his closed fists. The sleeves of his robe obliged him by subtly dissolving until his arms were exposed to the forearm. “Therefore, I feel no compulsion not to embrace the feeling of power coursing through these arms, the pride of tension in my back, or the satisfaction of my own teeth and claws bringing oblivion to those that oppose me.”
“I’m sorry.” Taylin said in a small voice, as he stood there, apparently lost in his own dramatics.
“What?” He asked flippantly.
“For what happened to you. However it happened. And for… being in control of you. Is there really no other option?” She furrowed her brow, trying hard to communicate her sincerity to him as he broadcast his own emotions to her.
What she got was another wave of confusion and a feeling of being off balance. That was swallowed once again by his frustration, seemingly his dominant emotion.
He continued to stare at his fists. They weren’t impressive in human form, not by a long shot, by he looked at them as if intending to use them to punch through a mountain. “There was always the option of actually making use of me, Ms. Taylin.”
“No.” She said quickly.
“Why not?” He snarled, his frustration mounting. “If you had found an iron cask and a jinni inside, you would not have hesitated to beseech him for wishes. If you knew a spell to bind a lord of devils, there would be no morality preventing you from forcing a beneficial bargain.”