Rune Breaker: Chapter 28 – Memorial

This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
The army assembled to avenge Solgrum’s murder didn’t take the Farmer’s Causeway; the packed dirt road that curved gently to the south east from the city gates. The trail of the king’s murderer led due south, and so the army followed in the same manner.
 
An hour and a half behind them rode Taylin’s party, intent on following them as far as they could on their journey to Rivenport.
 
By mid-day, Daire City was completely hidden from them by the hills around it and sparse trees. It didn’t take Taylin long to point out a likely place to serve as Issacor’s final resting place: a rise untouched by the inexorable press of the passing army. Mossy rocks stuck out along its steep slope and it was crowned by two trees with roots that spread, thick and gnarled down half its height and sent up a high, wide expanse of branches that provided plentiful shade.
 
The group dismounted and set the horses to graze. Brin gave Miser some dried meat and slung a short hobble between his legs to keep him from ranging far.
 
“It’s a good place for him, Taylin.” Kaiel observed reassuringly as he took in the setting. “Worthy of a Prince of Novrom. More than worthy for most of them.” He held his rifle sling close to keep it from swinging as he walked a short way up the hill. “The ground’s all rock under a little soil. We’ll have to break up some of these boulders to make a cairn.”
 
Ru stalked past Taylin, who was carefully unstrapping Issacor’s body from the sledge, and came to stand at the base of the hill, facing a large boulder that jutted out there. “Or we can stop wasting time.” Without further explanation, he raised his hands before him as if sighting the boulder; using his thumbs and middle fingers and began to chant.
 
“What are you doing?” Taylin demanded, directly broadcasting to him her worry that he was going to ruin the burial site.
 
He didn’t respond either by voice or by thought. In his mind’s eye, he used the lines formed by his fingers to construct a pattern of ere-a; something quick and dirty, but effective for the purpose. The lines linked together. The energy flowed from him into it, and he felt tension in his hands.
 
Clenching his fists, he brought them straight back to his breastbone. A rumble came from inside the hill and suddenly, a section of the boulder and the soil beneath and behind it turned to dust and exploded outward in a cloud of debris.
 
Ru was ready for this as well and gestured with one hand, tracing a simple vin pattern before sweeping that hand off to his right as if throwing aside a curtain. The cloud of shattered earth rolled away from them to settle in the grass like a strange rain. What was left was a hole in the side of the hill, five feet square and burrowing eight feet toward the heart of the mound of earth and stone, through boulder and soil and root all the same.
 
With a somewhat satisfied grunt, he abandoned the whole proceeding to go sit in the shade and resume his examination of the ‘Home’ artifact.
 
Thank you. Taylin sent to him, her pure gratitude radiant in the link.
 
I just want this over and done with so we can hunt down that masked vermin, Immurai.
 
Taylin had been expecting a surly, uncaring answer, but not the bone weariness that leaked through with it. Is something wrong?
 
No. He replied tersely and shut down their connection as best he could.
 
There were more important matters at hand, so she left him be. With great care, she lifted Issacor’s body from the sledge and carried him to the tomb burrowed into the side of the hill. She had to crawl on her knees to see him properly seated inside, but she did so without complaint. When she emerged again into the sunlight, Brin was there bearing his armor and Kaiel, bearing the ceremonial sword.
 
The armor went in at the blade disciple’s feet, but the sword had a part to play yet in the final rites.
 
Taylin, Brin and Rai stood together before the tomb while Kaiel, who had done some reading on the burial rites of the Mother of Blades as a favor to his adoptive sister, faced them, sword in hand and his voice clear and rich in the air between the hills.
 
We assemble here in the eyes of the Mother to honor the life and deeds of Aba Issacor Trueddeles, blade disciple in service to the Mother of Blades, son of the Principality of Te Manda. We attend to see him properly laid to rest.”
 
He set the sword’s point lightly at rest in the soil. “Issacor was our friend. A brave man and an accomplished swordsman who proved both of those virtues last night when he stood in combat against vile evil to protect children and fought fiercely and with great skill even as he knew that his life was forfeit.
 
“There is nothing that we, the living can do to repay what he has given, but to ensure that even in death, he will pass on his gifts.” He thrust the sword into the sky, blade first. “Stand I now and beseech the Mother to look to Issacor’s Vault and see that the blades that he carried in Her service be brought forth, for it is baneful to her that a good sword be denied its destiny to protect, to do battle, to become worthy.”
 
On the last word, he plunged to sword into the earth, point first and left it there. “And this is a gift to the future, in the name of Aba Issacor Trueddeles, to guard a life, to cut a path to the future where he would have himself. We assemble and pray that he has found his way to Her and the eternal reward she provides.”
 
They all bowed their heads, save Ru, who hadn’t paid attention since carving out the tomb.
 
After an appropriate measure of silence, Kaiel stepped around the sword and touched Taylin’s arm. He didn’t have to be mystically connected to her to know she was hurting. “Did you want to say a few words? It helps sometimes.”
 
She shook her head, throwing her hair, still unkempt from the night before, and whispered. “I don’t want to ruin it.”
 
He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “Whatever you need. We can talk later.” He inclined his head to Rai, who nodded and took over, taking her by the hand and turning her away from the hill.
 
“Come on, Taylin. We need to break down the sledge before we can move on.”
 
Once Taylin got moving, Kaiel turned to Brin. “Would you mind…” He asked, gesturing toward the tomb.
 
“A seal against nekras?” She asked.
 
“And a cleansing, if you don’t mind.” said Kaiel. “May sure his spirit isn’t still fettered to this world; give Taylin a little more closure before we seal the tomb and move on. I’m sorry to ask something so draining of you, but no matter how many rites I know, I’m still no priest.”
 
Brin looked over her shoulder at Taylin. The normally bright and curious woman was moving mechanically, doing only what Rai instructed her to do and no more. Even her feathers seemed to have dulled with her mood, though that was probably an illusion of the shade.
 
“No need to apologize.” She nodded. “Reflair.”
 
The familiar, white mist exuded from the reliquary to drape like a stole around her neck and flowed down to engulf her hands, glowing softly.
 
“Thank you.” said Kaiel. “Now one last chore on my part.” Steeling himself for reticence and insults, he headed for Ru.
 
Heedless of his approach, the dark mage leaned back, supported by one arm as he held up the mystery device with the other. His expression was contemplative and intense, like a chess master mapping out turns until checkmate.
 
“I have half a mind to take that back after your shameful display here.” Kaiel said by way of greeting.
 
“What? I make a hole to throw his corpse into. That was the bulk of the work to be done, so I see no reason to force me to stand in honor of a man I had no opinion of and beseech a goddess I’ve never even heard of.” Ru never looked up.
 
Kaiel went to snatch it from him, but he twisted away and kept hold of it. “It’s about respect, Ru. Issacor was a friend to us. He died protecting Raiteria’s children; my and Taylin’s niece and nephew.”
 
“Heh. And a great deal of good it did for the boy.” Ru growled.
 
“You gormless bastard.” Kaiel’s hands curled into fists.
 
Ru finally turned his baleful yellow eyes on the chronicler. “What are you so galled about? My goal of slaying Immurai perfectly overlaps yours of saving the boy.”
 
There wasn’t really an argument that could be made there. Ru might not care, but he would still help as long as it got him his vengeance. But Kaiel was still angry at him on principle. “Don’t you see how hurt Taylin is? Shouldn’t you care, if only because the link will punish you for it?”
 
“Why would it? I didn’t kill him. The link only punishes me for my own actions. Though the ‘hurting her feelings equals harm’ part is new. If you want to make her feel better, go and do it yourself. I am her servant, not her wet-nurse.”
 
Kaiel gave him another withering look and turned to go back to the still open tomb. “But what you are is a pathetic example of humanity as a race.”
 
On the way back, he checked on Brin. The elf was kneeling, back straight, heels directly beneath her hips, in front of the open tomb. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved rapidly. According to his limited understanding of docents, she wasn’t chanting or performing any other sort of ritual, but reciting a mantra that strengthened her bond with Reflair in order to achieve the enormous amount of energy from the Well of Souls required to quickly erect a seal that would keep nekras from gathering around the tomb, slowly deadening the air and water and general atmosphere of the area.
 
While she was using the same power source that he did for his personal spellwork, he would never be able to do that, just as she would never be able to conjure emotions into solid form. He resolved to learn more about her abilities on the long road ahead. But first, he had a friend and sister to tend to.
 
Even if she wasn’t nearby, the sounds of splintering wood would have led him straight to her.
 
With Issacor buried, the sledge had become dead weight that Gaddigan would otherwise have to drag; better to break it down and use it for firewood when they made camp for the night. Rai was standing well out of Taylin’s way, coiling the cord and rolling up the tarp that had served as the ‘floor’ of the sledge. She kept an eye on Taylin and shot Kaiel a concerned look as he approached.
 
Taylin didn’t even notice him. Hunched over the sledge, she kept one hand flat on the outer frame while the other gripped a crossbar tightly enough to leave an indentation on the soft wood. Grunting with exertion, she gave a mighty tug against the sturdy nails that kept the bar in place. They held. The wood didn’t, cracking and splitting apart around the nails as it was extricated from them. With the leverage gained form that, it was nothing for her to twist the bar free of the nails on the other end.
 
Once it was free, she tossed it aside with casual ease and moved to the next one.
 
“I said we would talk later.” Kaiel said gently as she sidled up behind her.
 
“I’m busy.” Her voice was quiet and flat.
 
“You can’t talk while you work?” he asked.
 
Another crack. Splinters flew as another crossbar was torn free. She wrenched it free and stood there holding it in both arms. “Kaiel… I don’t know what to say. I don’t even understand why I feel like this.”
 
“There’s no mystery; a friend of yours died. A close friend.”
 
“My friends died all the time.” She said quietly. “Kaiel, you don’t know what it was like aboard the ships: anyone you got close to could be dead at any minute, be it in battle or from sickness, or just to make an example. Only two days before I escaped, there was a girl… She was another ang’hailene; a half breed. I don’t know what her other half was… she thought it was goblin
 
She fiddled with the timber in her hands as if it were a small bauble. “I tried to protect her from the things the Masters did. I wanted to take her with me, but we were taking on cargo and the net swung too far…” She stared blankly at the partly deconstructed sledge as she recalled the sound; the horrible, horrible sound. “Kaiel, she was crushed. I didn’t see, but I heard.”
 
Kaiel reached out a hand to put on her shoulder, but her wings twitched and she sidestepped him. “Taylin…”
 
“It hurt. It still hurts. But this is different. I don’t understand why and I feel horrible about that.” She finally looked at him, green eyes full of pain. “Why is that, Kaiel? Why do I feel worse now when I’ve lost more people than I’d wager most people knew?”
 
The question tripped up Kaiel’s entire train of thought. “I… I don’t know the answer to that, Taylin. But I do know that you can’t control how you feel. Maybe you felt more of a connection with Issacor because you’re both warriors, or because he’s the first friend you’ve lost since winning your freedom. Maybe now you’re worried that things haven’t changed as much for the better as you thought.”
 
He stood up straight, though he was still dwarfed by her. “And if that’s the case, put your mind at ease: things have changed a great deal. Issacor made a sacrifice that probably kept Rale out of Matasume’s clutches and saved both Signateria and Growulff’s lives. All death is regrettable, but his was a good and honorable one.”
 
His reassurance seemed lost on Taylin, but her expression turned stony. “I’m not sure if you’re right about that or not. But you are right on one thing: I was hoping that being free meant no more lost friends. I just hope I can stop from losing Motsey too.” She tossed the wooden bar aside and bent to get the next one. “I… I’ll be alright. Maybe I’ll fly from here until we make camp to take my mind off things. Thank you.”
 
There was no truth in her assertion that she would be fine, Kaiel noticed, but pushing her would do more harm than good, so he let it go and went to sit in the grass besides Rai. “And how are you doing?”
 
“No different from when we talked this morning.” said the halfling woman. “Afraid for Motsey, missing Rale and Bromun.” She deftly looped the end of the cord she was coiling so that it held itself together. “Worried about Taylin, now.” She added quietly.
 
Kaiel watched the woman in question doing violence to the remainder of the sledge. “She’s been through a lot; the kinds of things that you don’t come out the other side of unchanged. The best we can hope for is that she’ll work through this before something comes up that requires her to be clearheaded.”
 
Rai stacked the cord with the others she’d done and took up the last one. “Same goes for all of us, doesn’t it? Taylin and myself for obvious reasons, Brin because of Layaka, and Ru… I don’t understand Ru. The point is, we’re going to be depending on you to keep us sane through this.”
 
“Don’t think that I’m detached from this.” he replied simply and drew a long breath.
 
“You’re my husband’s brother and Motsey’s uncle. I know that you aren’t detached. But you’re also on your way to being a loreman and this is one of the things they do, isn’t it? Keeping people from panicking or giving in to despair? Giving them hope?”
 
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Was it possible for him to do that in the face of his traveling companions’ very personal recent tragedies? “I just hope I know where to start.”
 
Rai dropped the now coiled cord with the others. “Where’s that flute of yours? Play us something happy while we wait for Brin.”
 
Kaiel gave her a small smile and took the instrument from his coat. Then he began to play.
 
***
Wind and rain battered the island, but inside the thick walls, equally stone and spellcraft, Nyadec Tolere was only aware of the storm when a boom of thunder managed to penetrate the silence of his office.
 
As steward of Nhan Raduul, for almost twenty years and a skilled servant by profession within the nation of Mon Sulus Kime, he was used to both storms and being insulated from them. Insulated from everything, really; though the island, the keep and the fishing town that supported both were in disputed waters, the island was largely unknown thanks to unkind currents and winds conspiring to ensure that only someone looking for the place could find it.
 
And with no ruler to make petty demands or do routine altering things like hold balls, Nhan Raduul under his stewardship had become so efficient that he was certain he could navigate the entire keep blindfolded and still be able to conduct its business perfectly.
 
On most days, he ran out of things he needed to do by midday. This was one of those days, and it found him idling in the stuffed chair in his office, contemplating what to fill his time with for the day. The storm would prevent his usual trip into the village, and like many Kimean households, there wasn’t a library because reading for enjoyment was thought of as a low pursuit; literacy was for taking and reading notes regarding arcane studies.
 
He was still searching for inspiration when one of the young boys he employed to run messages through the extensive keep and out to the village burst into his office.
 
The lad bore the clear indicators of a family whose genetic legacy had been tampered with: his hair was stark white, shading to extremely light blue, his eyes red like an albino’s, and overly large in his head. The overall effect made people look twice, but was nowhere near as drastic as some of the alterations he’d seen Kimean aristocracy inflict on a peasantry they viewed as one mass pool of fodder for their experiments.
 
Now he stood, dripping wet, his long, unbound hair sticking to his face, with a look of unbridled excitement on his face. “Mister Tolere! Mister Tolere! They sent me up from the village!”
 
Tolere grunted and tried to look like he’d been interrupted in the middle of something important. “What is it, boy? And it had better be a navy bearing down on us to justify entering my office without knocking.”
 
The boy hung his head, eyes on the ground. “I’m sorry, Master. Only, they said to come with all haste, and I was already slowed up enough for the rain—didn’t wanna slip and crack my head!”
 
A waved of Tolere’s hand told the boy to get on with it. “You work for me, remember? No one else’s orders come before mine and mine are to knock.”
 
“Begging your pardon, Master…” The boy stayed near to the door, ready to bolt. A lot of people new to the island behaved that way; like beaten dogs. They eventually came around, once they realized that the steward wasn’t a cruel man, he just blustered because he could. “But ma says we work for the Lord of Nhan Raduul, Lord Crossius.”
 
Tolere chuckled. “Yes, but beyond the gold he sends to keep the coffers topped up, Crossius hasn’t been on this island for more than twice as long as you’ve lived.”
 
“That’s just what he said, Master.” said the boy with the wide-eyed expression of a child desperately trying to relate their side of the story before punishment. “He said it’s been nigh on twenty years, and that I should run and tell you he was coming.”
 
“Who told you this?” Tolere asked, resisting the urge to heave a sigh.
 
“Why Lord Crossius, Master. He said he’d be here in an hour.”
 
Tolere gaped like a fish on the deck of a ship for a long moment. It couldn’t be! After two decades of efficiency and bliss, it was all just going to be torn from him again? He’s gotten used to the life of an autonomous steward, and now he was expected to return to the life of a servant?
 
He suddenly knew what he needed to do that day: drink. There was half a bottle of the local brandy in his desk. Like a flash, he went for it, half shouting to the boy to order the household staff to assemble for presentation in the receiving hall before diving into the fermented salve for his soon to be battered pride.
 
***
Mon Sulus Kime was a meritocracy that judged its members on their accomplishments in spellcraft with very complex and strict views on what types of spellcraft had merit. But even in the unusual system of hierarchy that existed in the Kimean Isles, an aristocrat was an aristocrat, and Lord Crossius lived up to expectations by arriving two hours after his underlings were all expected to be ready for him.
 
The household staff was arrayed in neat ranks according to their station in the receiving hall when the retinue finally arrived.
 
Tolere watched their arrival with trepidation and more bitterness than was healthy, but his managed to maintain his best posture front and center as the main doors were opened. Storm winds rudely preceded the lord, lashing the servants nearest the doors with cold rain. Just behind it came the oddly small procession of Nhan Raduul’s long absent master.
 
Lord Ienstadt Crossius entered without a herald to announce him. Tall and thin, he looked much like Tolere remembered him from years ago: the same weak jaw and narrow nose, the same pale skin, and impassive, unchanging expression. His taste of clothing still hadn’t changed either. In place of the light, close fitting style preferred in the hotter climes of the islands, Crossius wore extravagant robes in the style of Mindeforme. The only sign that time held any sway over him was the silver that now colored his normally straight, black hair.
 
He, of course, was as dry as a desert at noon, thanks no doubt to the spell that hovered above him, occasionally flashing a translucent red and revealing a shape not unlike an enormous jellyfish when the gusting wind drove rain in his direction.
 
Also with him was his bride, the Lady Milfine. In all his years serving the couple, Tolere couldn’t recall ever seeing her face. Like her husband, she adopted the robes of Mindforme, but she also supplemented it with a hood that covered all but her eyes; and a veil that covered those. It was a practice she claimed was from Callen, but Tolere had never heard of the practice.
 
She stood in the protection of the barrier, alongside a new face in the Lord’s company: a young woman.
 
This one was dressed expensively, but in a practical manner; a fitted shirt with ivory toggles, dyed dark blue, heavy trousers of the same color, tied together with a white satin sash and a spider-silk cloak in white. Her hair was golden, the color storybooks gave to princesses, but she kept it in a utilitarian ponytail held in place by metal decorations of some sort. On her shoulder perched a fantastic specimen of tropical bird; a green, blue and yellow creature whose long tail trailed down the woman’s back.
 
Behind them came porters, hauling the usual array of chests and oilcloth wrapped packages. Four young men were also carrying something concealed by a tarp and supported between metal poles. By the care they took with it, Tolere was certain they had either been bribed or threatened in regard to its handling.
 
At his signal, the whole of the household genuflected to their lord as a sign of respect.
 
Crossius drew up short as if he originally intended to walk right through without stopping. Soon, however, a smug expression crossed his face and he gestured out of hand. “Rise.”
 
The servants slowly did as told. Tolere scrambled to standing and hurried forward like an eager dog. It was humiliating, but that was life.
 
“My lord! We are most grateful that the day has finally come that you return to us.” He stopped a respectful distance away, “As you directed, I have acted as steward in your absence and I dearly hope that you are happy with what I’ve done these past few years.”
 
“It will do.” said Crossius, then he stepped to one side and indicated the young woman. “This is my ward, acquired during my travels; Layaka Emeries-Partha. Her word is my word.”
 
Layaka nodded once and went by to openly leering at one of the maids.
 
Tolere made silent note of that. In any other nation, that look might merely indicate dalliances with the help. In the Kimean Isles, it was just as likely the precursor to the maid becoming a test subject for some new spell that might turn her into a monster, or leave her in agony. He knew everyone who worked in the keep, and resolved to schedule things so that this ‘Layaka’ couldn’t arrange any unfortunate accidents or false criminal accusations for the young woman.
 
Crossius continued. “I trust the keep’s garrison is still manned and operational?”
 
“Of course, my Lord. Three dozen highly trained soldiers, backed by a corps of six military magi.”
 
“Excellent. Order them to prepare to be reinforced. I will be bringing mercenaries onto the island via the teleportation array over the next several days. Have them on high alert: while I do this, the island will be vulnerable to scrying and enemy teleportation. Oh. And do you still remember the operation of the keep’s magical defenses?”
 
Tolere stared blankly, his mouth working on automatic. “Yes, my lord. A-are we at war?”
 
“Good. Train three people you can trust in their operation and activate everything.” Lord Crossius’s face remained just as impassive as ever as he spoke, like a mask. “And oh yes, war is coming. A power beyond the scope of your imagination is being brought to bear on this island.”
 
Before Tolere could speak again, Crossius was off and moving again, heading toward the central spiral staircase that serviced the keep. Along the way, he turned and pointed to the men carrying the tarp covered thing. “You. Come with me. I need to find a safe place for that.”
 
Milfine followed after with Layaka not far behind. As she moved forward with a grace that seemed akin to floating, there was a faint scraping of clay over the stone floor. “’A great power is being brought to bear on this island’” She echoed sarcastically.
 
“In no way is that a lie.” Crossius replied. “I only neglected to mention that ‘here’ is exactly where I want that power to come.”
Series NavigationRune Breaker: Chapter 29 – The House >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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