- Rune Breaker: Chapter 13 – Tales of the Rune Breaker
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 14 – Another’s Darkness
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 15 – The Tenth
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 16 – Daire City
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 17 – The Flaw in the Myth
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 18 – The Trinigon Arena
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 19 – Citadel
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 20 – Audience
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 21 – Sparring Sessions
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 22 – Grace From Outside
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 23 – Old Soldier
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 24 – Bones of the Earth
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 25 – Matasume the Wind
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 26 – Devices
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 27 – Ashes of The Dawn
Issacor rested Faith-Be-Forgiven on one shoulder, leaning slightly against the weight of the huge blade in its heavy sheath. His armor was built to help him carry that weight in just that way. And, as a Blade Disciple should never be without his sword, he was rarely without his armor.
Not all Seven Virtues Swords were as unnaturally massive as Faith-Be-Forgiven, it had been forged specially for its original owner, a minotaur. It had been passed down through three other disciples before it came to Issacor and it took him three years of training in the lone temple to the Mother of Blades to wield it.
The Tresholmi elves he was just returning from meeting hadn’t believed her could wield it and demanded a demonstration. Just watching him perform a few simple katas inspired them to add another fat handful of the strangely uniform gemstones that Vini Tresholm used for currency to their offer. In the end, they were rejected.
Blade Disciples sold their swords as part of their faith. However, one didn’t hire a follower of the Mother of Blades, they petitioned him. The elves had been found wanting; their cause of making war against a neighboring elfhame over water rights didn’t pass muster with Issacor, so they would have to do without his skill.
A pity. He’d been hoping there was a deeper philosophical or historical story behind their war effort. There wasn’t; they simply wanted the spring to keep their neighbors from becoming ‘too powerful’ as they embraced the new advances in the mystic sciences using water as a base. Jealousy and politicking didn’t interest him and hardly felt worthy of his attentions. So, ignoring his uncomfortably light coin pouch, he turned them away.
The meeting ended earlier than he’d expected; the sun was still casting a burning line across the horizon and only the red moon, Mayana, lit the sky above. Noticing this, he headed out of the eastern gate toward the halfling caravan. He hadn’t inquired as to when Solgrum’s ball was to begin, but with luck, he might still steal some time to speak with Taylin.
Very few were interested in the so called Small Gods like the Mother of Blades and very few could ask tough and engaging questions about the faith. Taylin could and did and that endeared her to him, as did the many other conversations they often engaged in before and after sparring. In recent days, he’d come to crave those discussions and now was intensely eager to manage another before she left for the Murderyard.
He nodded to the nir-lumos sentries who watched for intruders coming from the city. The halflings all knew him by site now, and though he wasn’t family, he was enough of a friend that he wasn’t challenged.
The encampment was far more quiet than he ever remembered it, so many had taken Solgrum’s invitation of only for the purpose of thoroughly abusing it. There were still several large fires, but there were more wolves around them than halflings. Most of those left behind were the elderly and the children. Even though the place was markedly more quiet, it was still alive with voices.
Issacor nodded in passing, but directed himself toward Taylin’s wagon. On his way, a muffled noise caught his attention. It was a small sound, one he might have missed if not for years spent traveling and training in combat. There were plenty of predators, both bestial and humanoid that attacked from ambush. The little noises were he ones that saved lives.
This little noise sounded like a whimper. Not the whine of an animal, but of a person in pain. Instinct put his hand on the hilt of his weapon as he slowly turned toward its source.
It was coming from the wagon he recognized as belonging to Raiteria and Bromun. In the strange light that came from the setting sun mixing with Mayana’s red glare, something seemed off. Gruwluff, Bromun’s wolf, lay on his side, asleep in front of the wagon. Even with his limited time spent among the nir-lumos, he knew the wolves they kept to be better trained then to lounge about where someone could trip on them like a common lap bear. They slept under the wagons or near to cook fires, never in front of doors as Gruwluff was doing.
Issacor’s hand tightened on Faith-Be-Forgiven as he approached, moving as lightly as one could in heavy armor.
Another small whimper came from inside the wagon. Instantly, the huge sword was swung up and over his shoulder, falling easily into a ready position, still in its sheath. He slipped into a stance meant for powerful lunges as the door started to open.
To his relief, it open, not on a dangerous assassin, but on Layaka, the girl he knew to be Brin’s temporary ward. She was still dressed in the training leathers Kaiel bought for her. It seemed likely that Kaiel had been working on teaching her to wear it better, as instead of the hasty, sloppy manner he usually saw her don the tan breeches, war skirt and jerkin in, she wore them with military precision. The jerkin and legs of the pants were laced in proper, criss-crossing fashion and tied with firm knots, the war skirt was buckled properly around her waist instead of hanging off her hips, and all the pieces looked freshly cleaned and oiled. This was covered by an old, worn evening coat, the kind worn by Nov soldiers when the weather grew cold.
She was coming out of the wagon with little Raleian under her arm, leading Mostsetiel by the hand. Issacor knew Rale and Motsey well, as when not with their parents, the children could be found climbing about on their oversized ‘aunt’. Issacor frowned at the picture in front of him. Rale seemed to be asleep while Motsey seemed to be forcing himself to hold in tears.
It became clear that he was what drew his attention when the child spied Gruwluff on the ground and failed to contain a whimper from a fresh batch of sobs in his throat.
Issacor looked down at the wolf again. In the light from the open door, he could see that the wolf wasn’t sleeping; it was laboring to breath. Something had carved deep, straight gashed down its back, which oozed dark blood out onto the dirt. Worse, there was a splinter of metal driven into its shoulder, awash in thick, yellow slime.
It took a great deal of self control to pretend he didn’t see that and to also to feign relaxing his stance.
“Evening, Layaka.” He said, keeping his voice even. “I suppose if you’re watching the children, the others have already gone to Solgrum’s little get together.”
The girl looked surprised that he didn’t sound suspicious. She covered it quickly, however. “Oh, yes, Mister Issacor. They asked me to watch the little ones for them.”
Even if he didn’t hear it in her hesitation, Issacor knew that to be a lie. Even he knew how particular the nir-lumos were about their children and who was allowed contact with them. Even if Raiteria or Bromun were that stupid, Grandmother would have overruled them should if they suddenly abandon sense and try to place their children in the trust of the famously flighty and scatterbrained Layaka.
Famously, he realized, because that’s what she wanted them to think.
“Odd.” He remained calm-sounding, even as he planned his next moves. He had to separate her from the children before he could truly take her on. “Taylin said that Signateria volunteered to watch the children tonight. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t find a way to stay by Brin’s side, invitation or no.”
Layaka laughed lightly. “Sadly, I couldn’t think of any. Now, if you excuse me..”
Whatever she was about to do, whatever Issacor was about to do, Gruwluff beat them to it. The wolves of the nir-lumos were said to be monstrously loyal, wiling to brave agonizing, even fatal wounds in defense of their companions. The caravans, in turn treated them like family, even burying them as such.
Gruwluff lived up to his breed’s reputation and beyond, moving to protect his companion’s family. Ignoring the brutal tears in his back and the yellow slime’s toxic fire in his blood, he summoned enough strength to snarl and lounge for her legs. He was too injured and in too awkward a position to do any real damage, but she didn’t know that.
Dancing back from him, Layaka let go of Motsey’s hand and dropped her wrist, twisting it to move hidden mechanisms in the evening coat’s sleeves. A splinter, much like the one in Gruwluff’s shoulder, gleamed wetly along its six inches of length, droplets of yellow flying from it as she whipped it around to throw.
Issacor intercepted it by dropping Faith-Be-Forgiven directly into its path. The splinter made a ping sound and ricocheted off into the night.
“A poisoner.” Issacor snarled with disdain.
“A scout assassin.” Layaka corrected, moving laterally to get more open space behind her. The whole time, she kept the sleeping form of Rale between them. “I earned the Emerald Order from Nov I himself after the Battle for Locklom’s Oasis.”
“Lies. Nov I’s been dead longer than you’ve been alive!” Issacor activated the hidden device that split the sheathe, extracting his sword the moment it was free. He wasn’t fighting an exhibition here, so he offered up a prayer to the Mother and by Her will, the first un-tarnished disc along the weapon’s length, the seal of Oor-kutre, hummed and rotated in its setting. After a quarter turn, it sank slightly into the surface of the blade. The world leapt into clarity; not because his sense were heightened, but because they were sped up, capable of analyzing everything his sense took in in fractions of a second.
He easily swept his blade to intercept two more flechettes and cut them out of the air. Now he recognized them for what they were; the swift and silent death of the battlefield. Spellcrafters and engineers were such a massive threat that it was outright expected for armies to employ assassins to hunt and destroy them ahead of armed action. Some armies hired specialized magehunters who were spellcrafters in their own right. Others simply relied on highly skilled murderers. Poisoned flechettes had earned a historical place during the Age of Tragedies as the weapon of choice for that kind of work.
Layaka’s feet skidded to a stop on the hard packed dirt. “Longer than I’ve been alive? He’s only been dead forty years.”
Less than forty, to be accurate. Nov had only lived two years past the signing of the Thirteen Nations Accord, victim of the very same sleepless nights, poor diet, constant travel and war wounds that made him the central figure in getting those accords signed.
A calculated, cruel grin split her face and she let two more flechettes drop down, holding them between her outstretched fingers. “You hold your stance well, but there’s more tells in a soldier than the stance. You’re surprised. More than a little confused. Let’s see what your ang’hailene ‘friend’ told you during those sessions of alternately sparring and flirting.
“I earned ninety-three confirmed kills on mages and engineers during the Victory Road campaigns. They would have stamped my face on half-marks if it wasn’t for the fact that I stumbled on Nov II taking his dalliance with some silver scaled dragonsired wench from the prison camps. My reward was a shitwater assignment in some crumbling fort in the desert. Took us two years to even learn the war was over.”
Issacor tried to push forward, but Layaka continued to back away, moving away from the camp entirely, throwing a flechette to warn him not to get too bold.
“And what happens to old soldiers when the war’s done? We don’t disappear. We sit and we rust and we rot and decade of skill and knowledge goes to waste because all the young men want to save up their money and learn to be mags, or buy a rifle because they’re easier. Then one day the wretched creatures beg for you ‘wisdom’ on when to plant because you’re so old that you must know.”
It’s enough to make you want to trade all their worthless lives for a second chance to be young and useful again. Because everyone only cares about who you are now. The never cared that I was once Trenion Partha, Mage’s Mortality!”
She suddenly dropped into an aggressive stance, three flechettes at the ready between their fingers. “Well thanks to Lord Immurai, I’ve been reborn as Layaka the Plague!”
The attack didn’t come from her. Issacor wasn’t even aware of the danger before the sound of rending metal and the tearing agony of torn sections of his armor digging into the flesh of his back. Something large and feathery went past his head, extending the rents in his armor across his right pauldron as it went.
Amet. Layaka’s falcon. Clearly it wasn’t really a falcon anymore than Layaka herself was an innocent girl. Its talons could shred steel plate without it losing flight speed.
Issacor bellowed in pain and tried to bring the blade up to strike at the bird, but at that moment, Layaka threw more flechettes, forcing him to move to block them instead.
“I smell your blood.” said Layaka. “That must have hurt too. How long can the mighty blade disciple fight with his back laid open like that? How long can you keep blocking fast enough to avoid getting a dose of fleshknotter oil?”
Taking a stable stance that took strain off the side Amet all but flayed, Issacor brought his sword into guard position, pointing up and slightly toward her. “Anything you throw, I can cut out of the air.”
“Was hoping you’d say that.” she laughed. “Prove it!” Whatever had been done to give her a new body endowed it with greater strength than normal, but nothing strikingly above human capacity. So it was an effort for Layaka to reposition the drugged and sleeping Rale in one arm and then heave her at Issacor with all her might.
The blade disciple was truck dumb by the maneuver, alarmed sounding in every part of his mind. This was a feint, but one he dared not ignore. He let go of Faith-Be-Forgiven with one hand and stepped forward with the other to catch Rail.
It was hardly an optimal motion and he had to go to a knee to soften the blow of being caught in his armored embrace, but he did it. Rail fussed in the sleep, even that much shock unable to overcome the drug in her system. Why was she drugged? Had the girl cried? Maybe fought? Halflings, he knew, were amazing fighters when they put their minds to it. And from growing up as a boy in a farming enclave beset by minor spirit beasts, he knew not to underestimate a child.
Something flashed by on his left, out of range of his sword thanks to his holding Rail. He knew it was Layaka and tried to turn to meet her. But it was too late; her speed was enhanced to the same extent as her strength and before he could face her, a new pain pricked his aggrieved back. There was cold where the slimy ichor dropped into his wounds.
Worse, he suddenly realized where she was headed; back toward the wagon. Toward Motsey.
Signateria woke to the sound of a single bone die rattling around in a cup and a deep laugh. When here eyes opened, however, she was alone and then came the pain. Her entire arm was cramped painfully and throbbing. It radiated from her left upper arm. When she tilted her head, she could see the straight-edged throwing knife buried in the muscle there and dripping yellow slime into the wound.
Poison. If she recalled her training with Grandmother correctly, a particularly sadistic one designed to make the target die in agony as every muscle in their body cramped and the heart seized. The shock of the chemicals entering her system must have knocked her out, which was normally just a mercy, as victims that fell to that never woke up as the poison progressed.
Fighting the violent pains that gripped her arm, Signateria forced herself to sit up. She should not be awake. She should have passed out from the pain by now even without. And yet there she sat. A shaking hand, the one not afflicted with fleshknotter oil, found her holy symbol still upon her chest. The One Dice Rolling. One of the names for Pandemos.
The gods, it was said, were no longer allowed to interfere directly in the fates of mortals, not since around the era known as Draconic Control. No one knew why, only that it was supposedly the express edict of Denaii. But the dice priests knew that their revered god laughed at all edicts, and when there was great need and great importance, or at least great interest, he would put his thumb on the scales of reality.
That meant there was something she could do, a part she had to play. And she sorely hoped it involved punishing Layaka and saving the children.