Rune Breaker: Chapter 31 – Idrian Homestead

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
Kaiel did his best to maintain eye contact with the beast wrapped around his right forearm. Whenever the koshi orm tried to turn its attention elsewhere, he moved his head in the same direction and redirected it back to him with a low, resonant hum.
 
It might have reeked with the scent of bug ichor thanks to its diet, but up close, the creature was beautiful with jewel-like, green scales, shifting to black under just the right light. The tiny claws on its wings, which dug into the sleeve of the chronicler’s coat, were opalescent, and its four eyes, two smaller and set forward with two larger ones on either side of its head, a vivid gold. But Kaiel knew that what was beautiful to the sentient races were a warning sign in nature, broadcasting that this little beast was poisonous and not to be handled lightly.
 
“So you’re a mesmer now too.” Rai was sitting facing him, outside of lunging range of the orm. Very few things actually attacked halfling caravans in group, as rumor had it, this was the result of deep history with both Pandemos and Sylph, but that protection didn’t extend to accidents brought about by a foolish lack of caution.
 
Not breaking his gaze with the orm, Kaiel said, “Let me tell you a bit of a secret—but neither of you can ever, ever let Ru know.” He included Brin even though he knew her mind was elsewhere. There was no need to look up, he knew she was still at the top of the hill, watching what was on the other side. Nothing to do for it at the moment, they’d all agreed to wait on Taylin and Ru before deciding what to do about it.”
 
“Deal.” Rai said without stopping to think about it. She had no personal grudge with Ru, but there was nothing like an acquaintanceship between the two.
 
Kaiel chose to take Brin’s agreement as implicit. Unlike Rai, she bluntly hated Ru. “Alright, the secret,” he paused to draw the orm’s attention back to him. It wouldn’t be long now, the creature was growing less willful by the minute. “Is that there are many specialties in the Bardic tradition. Pure bards just use the Song; they have songbooks and lyrical tomes full of magical music that taps the Well of Souls to have varying effects. Storyspinners—real ones, not just storytellers, use just the Word and they make up or embellish stories and weave it with power from the Well. All of them are different, you can’t copy a person’s stories exactly. Chroniclers like me don’t have a magic of our own; we study the past and the lessons that can be taken from it and might dabble in magic.”
 
He was interrupted as the orm started to get restless and he had to take a few moments to wrangle it back into his control and settle it comfortably on his arm. It was a surprisingly willful little creature, but that was expected when one knew that they were supposedly to dragons what apes were to humanity and the races derived from their stock.
 
“And that’s just the edge of the blade when it comes to the paths the College offers, but the point is, then you have the Loreman path. You start it after your fourth year and it might take a lifetime to get your first knot. That’s the path I’m on now, and we need to know a bit of everything even if I’ll always be a better chronicler than bard. And there’s a benefit to that: we can use the Word and the Song, and the knowledge of centuries, from Saint’s Landing to the lost secrets of the dragons. It lets us take advantage of one simple truth: the world is built on the Well of Souls; everything is based on it. So the power discarnate, if you know how to use it correctly, with the Word and Song, can do anything the other energies can.”
 
He locked eyes with the orm and felt a spark leap between them. The hum he’d been maintaining, even under his speech, was rapidly changing, expanding into a pattern of discarnate energy on its own. No longer afraid of a deadly bite, he reached out and brushed his fingertips across the creature’s brow.
 
“Give me your will.” He whispered and closed one eye. Instead of darkness, he found himself looking back up into his own face, After a moment of making sure that the orm looked in the directions he wanted it to look, he looked back at Rai.
 
“That’s why back in the old days, before the College was formed and Loremen we just people who stumbled over this strange ability to mimic the abilities of your average middling wizard no matter what energies were in ebb or flow in the area, the real wizards took to calling them charlatans.”
 
Rai took only a handful of seconds to staring at him as he jostled the orm on his arm, testing the strength of command before bursting into laughter. “Gods above—you mean Ru was right?”
 
Rather than rise to the bait, Kaiel instead concentrated on the orm. “Technically. But the term hasn’t been dusted off in anywhere but the most isolated backwaters in centuries. It’s as much of an antique as he i—“ He stopped and turned an eye toward Brin, hoping she hadn’t heard that. He really wished Taylin would just take the time to explain the situation to the elven woman, but she hadn’t and it wouldn’t be right for him to.
 
Even if she might have cared about his slip, Rai continued to laugh uproariously, temporarily transformed into the image traditionally held in cities where few halflings were in evidence, that they were all mirthful and mischievous. It made him feel better for a bit, seeing her in good spirits, even at his expense. They all needed those moments, especially if the endgame was to have them pitted against one of the most prominent demons of the Threefold Moon.
 
A great thud sounded behind them, heralding Taylin’s return. There wasn’t a second thud; Ru didn’t touch the ground if he didn’t have to.
 
“Why are you all here? I thought you were continuing on to Idarian.” Taylin looked on edge and it showed in the fact that she’d offered no greeting. “And why is the army stopped? There’s still a few hours of light left.”
 
Kaiel rose, as did Rai, their lightness dissolved as they were forced to return to the matter at hand. “You should take a second look for yourself.”
 
Together, the group gained the top of the hill, where Brin was holding her vigil. Below was a wide river valley, thick with verdant splendor up and down the floodplain. The Nya Rynthian river formed a broad slash that flowed east from the craggy and broken mountains far to the east in Taunaun.
 
Brin’s gaze was fixed on the eastern side of the valley where a swathe of the plain was cut off by a stand of trees too dense and too broad to be natural. A rough, dirt road wound out of a split in that grove, where a fortified, wooden gate once spanned from one tree’s thick bole to another. Only now, that gate was battered flat from the outside. The magically grown wall of wood was slowly dying, and in places, boughs had broken off, revealing glimpses of similarly atrophied farmland and village buildings.
 
The blight was no more natural than the wall was originally, but the more immediate problem stood directly ahead of the party, to the south. There, the army assembled to avenge King Solgrum was spread out and beginning to put up camp for the night, partially in the shadow of an ancient bridge tower.
 
The tower itself had seen far better days. It was riddled with moss and slime from proximity to the damp, some stones tumbled down despite still-active magic in place to maintain its integrity. Even in that shape, however, it should have withstood many more years, barring outside interference.
 
Outside interference had found it, however. Just mere yards beyond the arch in the tower meant to allow passage onto the bridge, the bridge ended in a blackened mess of scorched, melted and splintered stone. A powerful magical attack had blasted the bridge apart, and that breech had started a cascading failure of the magics holding the span up over the river. The entire thing had collapsed into the swift waters of the Nya Rynthian.
 
“Looks like that monster destroyed the bridge after him to stop pursuit.” Rai said, drawing upon her knowledge as a scout. “A bridge that big, over a river that fast—they’ll never be able to rebuild it strong enough to carry those ceratos without sending back to the city for some architectural spellcrafters. Military engineers wouldn’t be enough even if they had them.”
 
“And with Daire now in a succession crisis, an army loyal to the old king will be a decided unfavorite in terms of funding and favors.” Kaiel added. Then he pointed to where lines of soldiers were busy digging an expansive hole in the rich soil. “Percival means business though; they’re digging for stone to build a smaller bridge for the lighter mounts.”
 
Taylin frowned at what looked to her own experienced eye like an inefficient set of actions. “Why not have the mages with earth magic dig if they have them? They need those shovels for latrines and defensive works.”
 
“Same reason they can’t just raise the old bridge.” Said Kaiel. “The river. All that akua moving along with it scatters ere-a and makes it harder to gather and use spells that require it—like all stone manipulations for example. It would be too much of a strain on their mages to dig down to usable rock and build a bridge out of it. The bridge is going to be a near enough thing.”
 
Taylin nodded slowly. “They’ll be here a long time then. I guess this is where we go on our own—after Brin visits the homestead.”
 
“We’d be heading on alone along the path we know a demon took.” Kaiel pointed out.
 
Rai folded her arms and looked down with some misplaced disdain at the army. “There’s nothing for it though. We have to get to Rivenport and get to Motsey. There’s no time to waste, demon or no demon.”
 
“Heh.” Ru got everyone’s attention with his usual cruel vocalization. He’d summoned Grace and was balancing the weapon on the flats of both hands in front of him as he surveyed the scene below them. “If we cross the river, there will be no demon before us at all.”
 
“What are you talking about, Ru?” Taylin asked, “The bridge—“
 
“—was not destroyed to avoid pursuit.” Ru cut her off.
 
“Blood turn to flame, stop being smug and tell us what you know.” Kaiel said with a glower.
 
Ru smirked and waved his hand to indicate the length and breadth of the valley. “This place is a terrible place for your average spellcrafter. As Raiteria and Arunsteadeles already noted, the river stunts ere-a. Not only ere-a, but that favorite of battlemagi: flaer. Meanwhile, the floodplain is normally a cradle of life, inviting vast amounts of vitae. Except, and she,” He shot a venomous glare at Brin, “can attest to the fact as well, that the violent deaths and moldering corpses of so many minor beasts of the Threefold Moon have left that homestead a festering pit of nekras, and by extension, this entire valley anima-neutral: a perfect brew for abnormally weak spellcraft—unless like me you possess a robust natural capacity, or like this dog of Immurai, you possess a conduit to an outside source of power.”
 
He watched their faces when he was done. It didn’t need to be said because even Taylin who knew nothing of magic, knew much of tactics and the laws of advantage. The demon hadn’t destroyed the bridge to escape the army, it had done so to keep them from escaping.
 
“Yes.” He said at length. “They’re all going to die.”
 
“No.” Taylin said before the words were even completely out of his mouth. “They’re not. Look at how many there are of them, how many mages. It only works if they’re taken by surprise. We can warn them, help them mount a defense.”
 
“To what end?” Ru swung Grace up onto his shoulder. “We owe them nothing. It might even be a kindness: I’ve seen the fates of hundreds of armies left without a nation. Death at the claw, or death from starvation and neglect.”
 
Rai started to say something, but stopped. Percival had worked with Grandmother to find her to bring news of Motsey’s kidnapping when he had much larger problems before him. But on the other hand, she wanted to move on, to close the gap between her and her son as quickly as possible.
 
As Ru and Taylin continued to argue the pros and cons, Kaiel went to stand with Brin, facing Idarian Homestead. Without a word, he raised his arm and ordered the orm into flight in that direction.
 
Brin glanced over at him and instantly knew why. “There’s only one place the demon could be hiding on this side of the river.” She said quietly.
 
“Unless he knows how to hold his breath or go invisible.” Kaiel agreed. Then he held out his hand to her. “I can see through the orm’s eyes and control its movement—at least for a while. And I can let you see too… if you want to.”
 
A soft sigh escaped Brin, but not in the romantic sense. “I don’t really want to. Just seeing how the wall is dying tells me that the place is poisoned by nekras, far more than just the deaths of the farmers can account for. They must have died in pain-terrified. I’m not sure I want to see them in the light of day—what must have been done to them.”
 
“It might not be that bad.” said Kaiel. “Those creatures you fought, they weren’t spirit beasts, they were lesser minions of the Threefold Moon, demons not so much grown, or even created as much as roughly cobbled together with a massive infusion of nekras to animate them. When they’re killed, they dissipate gouts of it, so you can imagine how terrible the contamination would be from a swarm of them.”
 
Brin nodded. “I suppose, but in the end, it doesn’t matter either. I’m a spirit docent, and I have a responsibility to the dead. My discomfort doesn’t mean a lot in the face of that.” Slowly, with great care, she took his hand.
 
“Good.” Kaiel said quietly, carefully picking his tone and inflection so as to weave the pattern between them to share the information coming from the orm. “Now just close your left eye…”
 
Through the orm’s eyes, the world was brighter and the pallet of colors shifted to toward yellow. Four eyes provided a sprawling panorama below without losing depth perception. They saw almost the whole of the valley and beyond.
 
Most importantly, the homestead began to slip into view below. It was an average enclave for that part of the world: two lots of three fields each inside of the initial wall. Where some enclaves built stone walls or palisades, this one was fortunate enough to have someone skilled enough with vitae to throw up and maintain the living wall of trees. As they’d seen before, the fields and the tree wall were dying and decaying at an accelerated rate from nekras contamination.
 
“There should be bodies.” Brin told Kaiel, her voice low and reverent. “Not villagers, but monsters. I met at least seven on the road out after I found Layaka. I killed them there and they should still be there– spidery things with six legs and faces like bulls with long, lolling tongues. I assumed a divinity spark had hit an ant nest.”
 
Kaiel guided the orm forward with a stern expression on his face. “I have theories, but I don’t want to say anything until I’m sure…”
 
Past the fields and outbuildings, including coops and a pig pen, there was a second wall, traditionally built from stone, but only some seven feet tall or so. The slanted roofs of the houses were visible above it. They were arranged in a horseshoe shape with the open end facing the now ruined gate with storehouses, a stable, and various craft houses toward the back. There was no well, but there was a cistern visible through the gate before the orm passed through it.
 
The cistern held the first corpse. It was a demon Kaiel had never encountered before in his studies; a twisted mass of reddish brown limbs covered with stiff hairs. It’s bloated belly had been pierced again and again before it finally collapsed back into the summoned water in the cistern and went still.
 
Weeks had passed and there was no rot or sign of scavengers. Demons didn’t rot and nothing natural would take the meat. Direct sunlight broke down the nekras, most of the time, but the miasma of the stuff present in the homestead preserved the bodies now, and there were many of them.
 
“How many did you kill.” Kaiel said with hushed awe as the orm’s flight revealed more and more impaled, slashed, and broken demonic bodies. There wasn’t much left of the inhabitants, their bones picked clean by creatures that turned away from the demons, but the place was a veritable demonic graveyard.
 
Brin shifted uncomfortably. “They swarmed us. I merged with Reflair and… I didn’t count. We were just trying to get ourselves and Layaka out and—wait. What was that?”
 
“What was what?” Kaiel wheeled the orm back around and this time, he saw it too: one of the demons was moving, but not in the sense that it was up and walking, or even crawling.
 
It was being dragged behind a house.
 
“Blood to ice, please don’t be what I think it is.” Kaiel murmured and sent the orm flitting up and over the roof.
 
“What do you think it is?” Brin asked.
 
But it was too late to prepare her for it. The orm lighted on the roof and looked down into what had been an open air forge. There, crouched among the anvil, the quenching trough, and all the other accoutrements of the forge was a gigantic, red monster with black antlers and a mouth crammed full of mismatched teeth.
 
As they watched, those teeth set to work as the demon lifted the body of the lesser demon and crunched down into it, powerful mandibles grinding, tearing and shredding the corpse as a barbed tongue drew it further down the gullet.
 
Kaiel shuddered. He knew that demon from his studies. “Bashurra the Crevasse.” He whispered as if the demon could hear him. “The first known record of him is an etching of the Fall of Baiamas in the one hundred and third year after Draconic Control. He’s ancient, a pan-khul among the demons of the Threefold Moon, something like a general. He might look like a brute, but he’s a skilled spellcrafter and master of military strategy. In fact, the translations of many of the names ancient kingdoms had for him come out to ‘Tactics Ogre’. This is phenomenally bad.”
 
Meanwhile, Brin was watching with disgust as the last of the demonic corpse slid down Bashurra’s throat. “He’s eating them. Why? Aren’t they on the same side? Why would he desecrate those bodies?”
 
“A Kaydan demon is ever on his own side and the Threefold Moon’s; they rarely ally with each other willingly.” Kaiel said. “He’s eating them because their bodies are full of dark anima: every bite he takes, he grows stronger.”
 
He cut off the connection with a suddenness, setting the orm free at the same time. “He’s not just going to ambush the army, he’s going to annihilate them. We have to stop him before he absorbs the nekras from all those demons.”
 
Both of them turned back toward Ru and Taylin, who were still arguing.
 
“They didn’t have to give us any help at all.” Taylin was saying, “But they did, and they’ve been letting us follow them all this time without a word. We can’t repay them by letting them die!”
 
Brin pulled on Kaiel’s sleeve. “I can disperse the nekras, maybe even purify the corpses. But he’ll know the second I start. Maybe he’s not strong enough to take on the army alone right now, but he could definitely defeat Reflair and I.”
 
“Then let’s fight a monster with a monster.” Kaiel gave her a confident smile he didn’t entirely feel and stepped into the argument.
 
Ru was livid, more than usual. “Can you not see this, Miss Taylin? This is Immurai’s game, his plan. He knows how you are from Partha and he’s counting on your conscience to lead you to stand and fight. I refuse to play his game. I say we continue south and deny him whatever end this serves.”
 
“It’s Bashurra the Crevasse.” Kaiel said, having reached them without either one noticing. He fixed Ru with a look. “Does that name ring a bell with you?”
 
“Should it?”
 
“He’s a pan-khul, on Immurai’s level. The level the records say Immurai is anyhow. That either means they’re working together, or Immurai is far, far more powerful than my books say, which is a very real possibility because besides his cults, there’s no mention of him acting directly since the War of Ascension.”
 
Ru sneered. “I still don’t see why I should care.”
 
“You have a grudge against these demons.” Taylin pointed out. “Why wouldn’t you want to fight this one?”
 
“No, I have a grudge against Immurai.” Ru shot back. “I have no real cares about the Threefold Moon and this demon’s done nothing to me. I want Immurai and staying here and fighting an unrelated battle delays the time between me and ripping out his still beating heart.”
 
Kaiel raised an eyebrow at him, decided his that getting past his contrariness wasn’t worth the time and effort, and turned to Taylin. “It actually doesn’t matter what he wants. He can stand here and look like a coward for all anyone cares. The issue at hand is that Bashurra is known to be a military genius and he’s taking the time to increase his strength instead of ambushing the army before they can set up camp defenses.”
 
Just as he’d hoped, Taylin understood where that was going, thanks to her own military knowledge. “He doesn’t think he can win with just the ambush. The army could beat him if they mobilized.” Her gaze strayed to the homestead. “Except even with those trees dying, that’s a pretty good defensive position.”
 
“We’ve got to lure him out anyway.” Kaiel explained and gestured for Brin to join them.
 
Brin nodded in agreement. “I can cut him off from more power. The same seal against nekras I was going to perform anyway should keep him from drawing on more power.”
 
Taylin nodded and her feathers fluffed up as she thought. “That sounds like a good plan. We remove an advantage he thinks he has, and turn his ambush into one of our own. Only.. how do we lure him out?”
 
Someone cleared their throat and everyone looked to find Raiteria had joined their circle, clutching her rifle.
 
“I thought you would see reason.” Ru glared down at her, sounding mildly betrayed. “Your son hangs in the balance of this—do you think any good is being done for him by plunging into this foolishness?”
 
Rai refused to meet his gaze, her expression turning to a bittersweet smile. “When I find Motsey, and I bring him home, I’m going to have to tell him and Rale that story of how mommy came and saved him. What do you think he’ll think of me if I tell him that I let the people who came and found me, and told me he was gone, die?”
 
“That his mother has a proper set of priorities, not corrupted by storyspinner drivel.” Ru muttered, but he was now being fully ignored as the others started concocting their plan.
 
His yellow eyes scanned the plain again and he scowled his disapproval. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder: what was Immurai’s game? Solgrum was dead, his army would be reduced to mercenaries in weeks—it wasn’t exactly a toppling of titans even counting the assassination.
 
No, he wanted the group there, and he was using Taylin’s moral code along with Kaiel’s bardic philosophy to pin them there. But why?
 
***
Tolere dabbed at the sweat pouring off his brow in a losing battle. With the enlarged garrison complement, the kitchens were working most hours out of the day now, and that made the upper levels of the keep increasingly unbearable.
 
To make matters worse, Lord Crossius and his family hardly seemed to notice and didn’t even bother having the windows opened, or the vin circulating spells activated.
 
He glanced up at Crossius and saw that the man hadn’t even broken a sweat. Coughing to keep a reproachful look from appearing on his face, he tried to continue his report. “Another mercenary company arrived in the early morning today and I’m having trouble accommodating them. The garrison is at capacity, as are the guard bunks of the keep. If any more arrive, we’ll be forced to shelter them in town.”
 
Crossius was drawing a complex spell diagram on a long piece of vellum, something Tolere knew little to nothing about. He was also making something of a production of only listening with half an ear. Only now did he blow out a dispassionate sigh and looked down at the other man from his elevated desk and seat in the Lord’s office.
 
“Then buy out every inn and flophouse and put them there. Make them share bunks based on patrol and training schedules, I don’t really care as long as they’re in their places when I need them.”
 
Tolere pursed his lips and forced himself to nod. “There is another thing, my Lord. You see, I’ve been keeping an eye on things and…” He lowered his voice, “I think some of them might be Kaydans sir. Disciples of the Threefold Moon.”
 
“And that’s a scandal?” Crossius sounded amused. “The church and we of the Isles have allied before; our sciences for their… resources, and vise versa.”
 
“I know, my Lord but—“
 
“Again, I don’t particularly care. Tell me of my missive to Lord Caldebron. Has he replied?”
 
Tolere suppressed a sigh and nodded. “He sent word that the item you requested is well within his abilities and that for…” He couldn’t help to stumbled over the amount. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “For forty gold-weights of gretharian wood or ten pristine test subjects of nominal age and standard health, he can produce what you need within the next week.”
 
“My love?” The meeting was over the instant Lady Milfine spoke. Tolere was used to that. The Lady spoke and the Lord heard nothing else. She glided into the room, ever graceful, ever ignoring Tolere. “That experiment you’ve been monitoring: there is about to be a change. I thought you would like to watch.”
 
Crossius rose, casually dusting off his robes. “Indeed. I’ve been waiting for this a very long time.” Without another thought to Tolere, he stepped down from the desk and went to his Lady, moving to leave the room. “Now to see first hand if my patience has been rewarded.”
 
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