- Rune Breaker: Chapter 28 – Memorial
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 29 – The House
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 30 – Prices For Power
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 31 – Idrian Homestead
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 32 – Novacula Kuponya
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 33 – Titan
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 34 – Onslaught
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 35 – Unleashed
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 36 – The Truth of Brin
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 37 – Sins of the Hailene
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 38 – Bonds
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 39 – Following Flames
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 40 – A Strong Soul
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 41 – Along the Passage of Conquerors
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 42 – The Soul Battery
Rune Breaker: Chapter 32 – Novacula Kuponya
Ru hovered just above the grass on the hilltop, legs crossed, Kaiel’s lap desk atop them. The army was arrayed along the riverbank before the now useless bridge to his right, and straight ahead was the wall of living wood that guarded Idrian Homestead; or rather the corpse thereof.
As the sun sank, the wall began to take on an increasingly sinister look, as the thick nekras miasma twisted the dying light.
He only glanced up to track their progress of Kaiel, Rai and Brin’s woodling cloak nearing the homestead periodically. The majority of the time, his attention was on his pen, which scratched tiny symbols across the page laid out on the lap desk. A neat, but complex spell array lay almost complete there, drawn in part from memory, and part with his knowledge of how such spells worked.
“I still don’t understand why you refuse to fight now.” Taylin’s voice sounded far away, because she was further down the hill, shrouded in a cylinder of swirling black fog; a veil of akua she’d asked Ru to conjure to preserve her decency while she donned her armor. He didn’t reply, but she only took that as an invitation to continue.
“I can feel it you know, the rush it gives you, this blood-lust of yours. Even now.” She lapsed into a moment of pensive silence, “You promised not to force me into giving your orders anymore.”
Ru placed his gaze firmly on the array he was diagramming. “And I have already made it clear why I choose not to step into this battle, Ms. Taylin. To engage Bashurra is to step onto the gaming board of Immurai’s choosing. He takes no action without there being multiple advantages he can gain from them, win or lose. It is bad enough that we follow his trail to the child, but this… this is a situation where we can easily afford to simply deny him his scenario.”
“I’ve already told you why I can’t do that.” Her annoyance swirled in the link, but a sudden flash of worry and shame mixed in. “Is it because of your scars?”
“No.” He said brusquely and almost missed a set of calculations along the rim of a control circle.
Taylin stepped through the veil, shattering the hastily constructed illusion and transforming the black fog into a shower of ice crystals that glittered in the setting sun before falling down around her. The cold made her flinch and fold her wings up tight, the feathers ruffling in her discomfort
Her new armor was professionally made by metalworkers who knew what armor was for, and so didn’t gleam. The chain hauberk that fell to her thighs only shonewinked duly metallic, and the leather kilt, originally made for minotaur warriors, and as such large enough on her to reach her calves, was hard worn from the toughening process. More hardened leather was fitted across her chest and laced to another piece that extended between her wings to cover the opening that had to be worked into the hauberk to allow her to put it on around them.
It was all unadorned and highly functional. The only seeming concessions for looks were the chain gauntlets with plate over the backs of her wrists and plain leather over her fingers, and the sandals on her feet.
Dóttir Logi was in its mechanized scabbard, the hilt peeking over her shoulder. Not content with just the one weapon, she had two wide-bladed hunting knifes sheathed on her hip and another strapped to her leg.
Now more than ever, Ru was reminded of the old legend of Lady Death he’d quoted back during the King of Flame and Steel’s attack. He’d seen Taylin fight several times now, but he’d never seen her fully equipped and readied for battle.
She took no notice of the thoughts in his head at the moment and fixed him instead with a look of nagging concern he’d grown to dread. “Will you at least tell me what it was that I accidentally took away?”
“That has nothing to do with why I won’t fight now.” Ru looked away from her and down at the army. Scouts on spider and ornis-back were returning from a fruitless search for a ford somewhere upstream. Oddly, they hadn’t sent anyone toward the Homestead. In his trained senses, he could tell that someone was moving a great deal of akua, though. Perhaps they were considering forming an ice bridge?
“I believe you.” Taylin baldly lied. “But I would like to know anyway. It’s important to me.”
And she used the link to impress upon him just how important. For a brief moment, he was subjected to the stomach knotting tension she’d been feeling since she learned of what she’d done in her attempt to save him from the agony of Matasume the Wind’s attack. And with it came the skittering paranoia and guilt that she may have, in some way, crippled him.
“Oh you are a bright soul, aren’t you?” He dredged up another archaic epithet just for the occasion. “Not above manipulation with the link, but actual compulsion is too far.”
She strode past him to stand on the slope leading down to the army. “It isn’t manipulation if you know what I’m doing.”
“I wonder if you believe that.” He growled. She was silent and let the link return to its baseline, broadcasting only her tension at having to go down and meet with Percival again, the omnipresent concern over his lost scarifications, and if he concentrated, the thrum of anticipation she was hiding even from herself at the prospect of a fight.
“Heh.” He said to the last one. “Very well, seeing as you may well be in the midst of a suicide in the next few hours, I will tell you the simple version: In the third year after he rescued me, Gand sent myself, Seth, and Gloryfall to visit neighboring lands where magic was accepted, even embraced.
“I traveled to the Chiimiko-Han Mountains, to a people called the Matul Garu. They were an entire people who were sparkers like I was; who built their society around it. But in those mountains, there was precious little ambient energy around; not enough for proper spellwork. Instead, the Matul Garu specialized in casting from their own reserves; quickly and efficiently. They were masters of the quick-cast, to the point that most of their conflicts were resolved in the hiuldar, a battle of non-lethal spells. The first to score a definitive hit on their opponent was the victor.”
Ru watched her partially turn toward him, studying him with one eye, and he wondered if she was seeing his memories again: the stark halls built of ancient and weathered wood, sunken into the stone so that from the outside it was impossible to tell how a person could live inside one without having a permanently hunched back; the chalked out hiuldar floors that took up a room in every generational home; his first few weeks living among the Matul Garu, in which he got intimately acquainted with those floors from meeting them at high speed…
He coughed and continued, “There was an occupation among them: a representative of sorts, who could be paid to stand in one’s place at huildar. Among the masters of the quick-cast, these were the most mighty. They were called traccas, or scarred ones.
“That is what the scars were for, Miss Taylin. They are scored into the flesh through a coating of plaster and herbs and the pain is immense, but once it’s done, you can use that pain, the memory of the patterns the scars make to instantly recall and string together fragments of spell arrays; no incantation or pattern drawing required. Back in Daire, I snapped a Chaos Lance at Immurai with barely a second thought; a spell so complex that it is typically used only for demonstration purposes, because it takes upwards of a minute to chant in combat.”
Taylin turned back to face the army fully again. “So you can’t change shape instantly anymore.”
“Heh.” the laugh came out dangerous and cold. “Miss Taylin, I would not have been cooperative or forgiving if that was taken from me. I am a shapeshifting master. I’ve earned that. And violent death awaits anyone that would seek to relieve me of that.”
As soon as he said it, his eyebrow shot up at what he felt in the link. Her guilt had been slowly evaporating and now it was fully replaced by pride. Pride in what she saw as standing up to her. It was all he could do not to snarl, because it felt to him was if he were a small dog getting petted for not wetting the floor.
“I’ll be going then.” She said and that same pride stained her words.
“And I will remain here.” He said through clenched teeth. But as she spread her wings in preparation to fly, he recalled something. “Wait a moment.” He cut her off. With a few sweeps of his fingers, he drew out a pattern of void in the air and reached into the folded space he used for storage in lieu of filling Gaddigan’s saddlebags like the others. It was crude compared to Kaiel’s portable library, or the House, but it served his purposes: storing his books, scythe and his favored red, silk shirt, as well as one other object.
Taylin stopped and watched him drag forth from the folded space a familiar weapon, still in the same poorly made leather scabbard as it had been in the night Layaka betrayed them and Motsey was taken.
“It is no longer merely a handy bit of sharpened steel.” He said, offering it to her hilt first. “It is now Novacula Kuponya. One translation would make it: Razorblade of Remedy. Take it; it may be of use.”
An avaricious light came into her eyes when she saw the weapon and was soundly quashed by her better decency and inquisitive nature. “This is the sword you gave me…” She couldn’t bear to say what happened, “That night. You were surprised by something about it.”
Ru continued to hold out the sword to her. “Indeed. Part of its design is to use some of the wielder’s personal energy to fuel a powerful spell of disruption. This is meant to happen over time, and yet it charged instantly in your hand.” That still concerned him. Taylin should have passed out from the amount of discarnate energy required to charge the weapon completely.
Ignorant of the real issue, Taylin took up the sheathed blade and started to buckle it to her belt. “I was lucky, apparently. But thank you, Ru. I appreciate it.” She hesitated, then drew it out. The gem in the hilt glowed a soft blue, still charged from that night, its light dying her eyes and skin blue and her feathers brown. “What does it do?”
Ru folded his arms and rocked back slightly to look up at her. His yellow eyes were green in the light. “You claim not to want to do harm, and yet always throw yourself into a fight. The sword is made to complement that twisted philosophy: it heals as it cuts, using the vitae already present in the target, draining them to exhaustion without slaying them.
Surprise and careful delight filled the link as Taylin turned the blade over in her hands and tested its edge on her thumb. It sliced a thin line that faded the moment she pulled away from it. The pain remained, but there was no evidence of the injury. “Ru…” She said in a low voice, “This is perfect! Thank you!”
Then came a wash of embarrassment. “I-I should give you something. Next time we reach a town, I promise!”
Ru scoffed. “It isn’t a gift. It’s to stop you from holding back. I can tell: every time you check your swings, or hesitate because you feel compelled to consider if an enemy deserves to die or not. It grates at me so. With that sword in your hand, no more. That is all I require.”
Taylin frowned at him. The Rune Breaker was a confusing beast, and even with the link, it was hard to gauge his motivations. They weren’t friends, but he was better off having her alive than being sent back into stasis to await a new master who would abuse his situation and power, wasn’t he? Why couldn’t he just say that instead of formulating aggravating reasons? She masked the link to deny him the satisfaction of her annoyance.
“Still, I’d like to pay you back for it.” She said stiffly.
Ru didn’t bother to argue and instead changed the subject, “There is one other thing you should know: the disruption spell, Habaense. When you feel the need to use it, ask and I shall walk you through it; there is little time and you’ve shown no knack for magic.”
There was no arguing with that. She’d tried to learn while they were in Daire, but she couldn’t even find her own well of power like Ru, Kaiel or Brin could, no matter how hard she tried. “Right.” She said and sheathed Novacula Kuponya. “Thank you again. I need to go and find Percival before the others reach the Homestead.”
With that, she spread her wings and leapt into the air. Ru quietly returned to his scribing.
Percival Cloudherd strode along the eastern edge of the camp, watching the fodder wagons being trundled into place under the prodigious muscle power of thoroughbred, tri-horn ceratos; imports from Callen that King Solgrum brought in for the army at his urging. More powerful than the lighter mixed breeds preferred elsewhere in Novrum, the beasts also had another advantage desirable in military dray animals: they could go longer on less food provided they were gorged before departure.
He paused to watch a pair of minotaurs unfold iron legs tipped with spikes from the sides of one fodder wagon and begin to pound said spikes into the earth while a mix human/half-elf team offloaded the bales of hay, bags of oats and the barrels of tripe and slurry they fed to the spiders and ornises, then turned to the minotaur Jaks Nullner, his second in command.
“Have the battlemagi construct gathering and storage arrays for flaer. There’s not much here, but I don’t want to rely on torches for ignition. Thirty-five foot increments should be enough. And have the sergeants make sure everyone has javelins; I don’t want to take this close if I don’t have to.”
Jaks huffed and tilted his head so the beads hanging from his horns jangled. “I would rather tear him open personally for Rumeddo and Flar’s deaths, but I agree. Any idea what the thing is?”
Percival flared his wings, flashing the blue tattoos on them and shrugged. “Divinity spark is my guess. Some poor wretch at the Murderyard got sparked and transformed into that thing. Though I’ve never seen a newly sparked spirit beast summon up things like those stone creatures. When I was selling my sword in Rizen, I would have said Kimeans, but we’re too far inland and too far east for them.”
A flick of his ear was Jaks’s way of showing his discomfort. “I would be more comfortable if we knew more about this thing. Spirit beasts new to their power can be tricky things to put to an end in the best of circumstances.”
“I am in complete agreement.” said Percival, “But I trust Liytheed when she says that farmstead is a death sentence for any scout. She has good senses for magic; better than you or I by far.”
“General!” a call came from above and Percival stiffened at the title. They’d found General Galvanner shortly before sunrise. His ribs had been crushed and one of his arms torn off at the shoulder. Confirmation of his passing and the deaths of all the Royal Guards sealed Percival’s promotion to the position and that it required the death of such a man as Galvanner made him feel like a child dressed in his fathers’ clothes, pretending at his work.
But he fought the feeling down and turned his eyes skyward. One of the Air Guard, a hailene named Emmara, was coming in low from the perimeter, escorting a now familiar looking hailene with orange-red plumage. The guard pulled up gracefully and fluttered once or twice to land with a salute in front of him. The visitor, who he knew as Taylin, came down like a barrel dropped from an airship, landing in a crouch with her wings fully extended for balance.
“One of the ones that’s been following us, sir.” Emmara said with the eagerness of a woman certain she’s done something worthy of promotion—which was also how she announced that she was going on patrol, or taking tea. “She says she has information we might need.” Her tone and the sidelong glance she shot Taylin showed that she had no faith in any such information, but was gambling on it in hopes of a promotion.
Emmara was a relative newcomer to Solgrum’s army, raised in the Eastern hailene tribes. She’d only just recently been forced to swallow her attitudes about minotaurs and wasn’t ready to let go of the same regarding ang’hailene.
Percival recognized that she would be a determent to getting whatever knowledge Taylin possessed and saluted her sharply. “Very good, Air Guard. Back to perimeter post; I have a message I want you to pass along to the others up there: they are to shift the patrols eastward over this line and stand ready to form up. Off you go now.”
The Air Guard returned the salute and hurled herself into the air, quickly becoming lost in the darkness overhead.
Once she was sure the other hailene was gone, Taylin frowned at Percival. “You already know then?”
“I try not to assume I know anything well enough that I can’t add to my knowledge.” Percival started walking the line again with Jaks at his side. He gestured for Taylin to come with. Once he was sure she was, he continued, “The situation as we know it is that a powerful creature, possibly a spirit beast, attacked King Solgrum’s gathering at the Murderyard, ultimately assassinating the King, plus the entire military upper echelon save myself. It then led us here, taking great care to pace itself and leave plenty of signs for our scouts to discover.
“That is, until we reached here; a place where the trail disappears, but the bridge is out; a place where my battlemagi tell me our mystical combat capabilities are severely blunted, and our freshly promoted Warden tells me it is adjacent to an abandoned Homestead crawling with dark anima.
“It wants us to think it is a stupid, obvious beast, but it identified King Solgrum immediately and slew him and his defenders with maximum efficiency, then led us into a trap where a conventional army of Novrom would be almost defenseless. It has a military mind, but so do I, and my mind tells me that it intends to ambush us in the night.” He turned inquisitive eyes to Taylin. “Now. What can you add or disabuse me of?”
Taylin gawked for a moment, shocked that they had already discerned so much.
Jaks flicked an ear in her general direction. “We weren’t always getting fat at a politician’s trough. Up til a few years ago, we were mercs. Maybe the grunts that get their ranks handed to them can afford to be stupid, but a merc can’t.”
“Right…” Taylin said guiltily. “You know most of it then. But I can tell you it isn’t a spirit beast. My friend the chronicler… well he came up with a lie I was to tell you as you won’t believe me, but I won’t insult your intelligence. Do you know the Church of the Threefold Moon?”
“Kayda. Small god with a lot of city churches, few towns dedicated to his name, as I hear.” Jaks answered for Percival. Taylin marveled a moment at a hailene and a minotaur getting a long and mentally elevated Percival’s measure yet again in her book. “Nothing much to tell.”
“They have demons.” Taylin ventured cautiously. When the two men gave her told her more explanation was needed. “I’m not the person to give you the whole story, but their god… makes demons.”
Percival shook his head. “A demon is a summoned spirit from the Seven Interlocking Hells. They don’t have affiliations with gods of any type.”
“Maybe it’s just a name then.” Taylin said, her feathers starting to stand up while she wrung her hands. “But the long and short of it is that Kayda makes and is served by monsters. Powerful monsters like the one that killed your king.”
Now she had their attention. Percival turned on his heel to face her fully. “Assuming they do have such creatures, why attack Solgrum? They have no church in Daire City; never approached him about it. As far as I know, King Solgrum was likely all but unaware of them.”
“I…” Taylin trialed off as her mind kicked into gear. Why were the demons doing these things? Backing the King of Flame and Steel in Taunaun, assassinating Solgrum, and… kidnapping Motsey? How did any of it fit? Did they just like chaos? No, that couldn’t be it, that was lunacy.
She felt his arrival just as Percival, Jaks and all the soldiers in the immediate area put hand to weapon.
Ru had teleported in directly behind her, such that his voice actually reverberated in her rib cage. He floated, as he was wont to do, just off the ground, framing himself inside the curve of his scythe.
“It hardly matters, does it?” he said. Yellow eyes swept the assembled soldiers, daring them to come at him. “A creature of immense power lies in wait for you, intending to strike at you in a place where traditional battle magic is next to useless. Do you truly believe you have time for religious philosophizing?”
He gave them no time to argue. “Because if you are, allow me tell you something: you have limited flaer, ere-a and vitae reserves in this place—he is under no such handicap thanks to his connection to his god. I’m sure you’ve seen battle-priests and paladins on the field, yes? Well every demon of Kayda is a priest, drawing their power from him, only their very forms have been honed and transfigured to his purposes. And this one; Bashurra the Crevasse, is one of the eldest of their number. You aren’t fighting a monster; you’re fighting a demigod.”
Murmurs rippled through the soldiers that had heard and was quickly relayed in whispers through the surrounding rank and file. Hardened though they were, none of them had come prepared to battle something like that.
Taylin sent Ru her thanks and stepped up into the lull. “But!” She shouted the word, louder than she knew she even could shout and in doing so, shocked herself into temporary silence. She recovered with a nervous cough because now everyone was looking at her. Something in the hailene part of her blood made her straighten to her full height and open her wings, projecting confidence.
“But my friends and I know how to cut him off from that power. And we have a plan to lure him out of the Homestead and make him fight on open ground.” Now that she was going, the confidence became real and she started moving her hands, speaking with increased animation and vehemence. “I came here to rally you and ask for your aid. While we can cut him off from his source of power, he will notice us long before the seal is complete. We must give him something else to be concerned about long enough for it to be done.” She finished with her voice rising once again above what she was used to.
Percival nodded subtly and then it was his turn. He turned a slow circle, looking to his troops. He quirked a wry, cocky eyebrow, a mercenary’s eyebrow, at them. “Sounds about like what we were going to do to this trull-dung smelling beastie in the first place, wasn’t it?”
The disquieted murmurs stopped almost instantly, replaced by equally quiet mutterings of agreement. The army of Solgrum had been together longer than Solgrum’s reign, and they all knew Percival; trusted him.
The newly minted general raised a leather encased finger toward Ru. “What he said right off is all you need to know: It hardly matters. It hardly matters if this thing is a demigod or a demon; a spirit beast, or a conjuring. It hardly matters how powerful it might be, or if we need to rely on someone else’s plan to put it in the ground.”
The agreement was louder now, punctuated by a few hearty ‘yeah’s’. Taylin watched with great interest as his words hit home, visibly bolstering the troops, and inwardly, she wondered if Percival knew about the Word and Song like Kaiel did.
“But I’ll tell you what does matter.” continued Percival, “Solgrum is dead. Galvanner is dead. Trudrick, Almaize, Coltannic, Earthhammer. All dead. And the one responsible for it drew us out here and thinks he’s going to kill us like a bunch of ignorant lap-bears. Not even lap-bears; like helpless cubs.”
Jeers came from the soldiers along with the banging of weapons on armor and shields.
“Ashing right we’re not.” Percival nodded. “He thinks we’re helpless? He thinks we’re like Nov’s own men back in Kinos, or the Ocean Guard down Rivenport way; too fat and slow from more big dinners than weapon drills? He thinks that we don’t know how to send him back to whatever made him in neatly butchered pieces without the perfect conditions for spellworking?”
He popped his knuckles and raised a fist. “Let us show him how we bury an enemy. And tell him he can turn to ash!”
The soldiers roared their approval, a noise added to by clanging weapons, jangling minotaur horn ornaments, and a few blowing on hunter’s horns.
A grim smile on his face at his army’s loyalty, Percival turned back to Taylin and Ru. “We’ll follow your plan then. But I will warn you: we’re not as vulnerable as you or she believes.”
“Heh.” said Ru, as Taylin fished out the clay icon Kaiel had given her to signal him with. She gave him a glare, but couldn’t stop him from mouthing off. “Pray tell what you plan to do against him with almost no magic?”
Percival met his eye with a smirk. “The best we can.” He tilted his head, already knowing his second would be there. “Jaks, have them raise and arm the hwachas.”
The big minotaur grinned, displaying filed teeth and turned to the forming line. “Wagon crews to the fore! Raise and arm! Check the braces!”
Other minotaurs, and to the man, they were all minotaurs that responded, leapt into action, fitting heavy cranks into hidden slots beneath the now empty fodder wagons and set their backs to turning them. Slowly, what had seemed to be the bottom of each cart began to rise up on gear enabled arms, revealing that they were actually constructed of a thin tarp strung over a frame that held hundreds of wooden tubes.
Ru regarded them carefully and with mounting intrigue. And at the same time, Taylin broke the clay disk.
“I’ve seen wood walls like this before.” Rai said, setting into a comfortable spot where a thick branch met a tree’s trunk at an angle. Once she was secure in her spot, she unslung her rifle and slotted a complex array of folding lenses and mirrors onto the barrel. “The trees never just all die like this.”
Kaiel was standing on a branch just a bit further down, hugging the trunk carefully, but not fearfully. He’d switched clothes to simple leathers and a woodsman’s cloak like scouts wore. He was watching Brin’s progress toward the farmhouses through a small, folding telescope. “It’s the nekras contamination. They’re not actually dead, they just look that way because they’re not natural trees, but ones quick-grown with vitae.
“So the farm will come back once Brin puts up the seal?” She was flicking different lenses ans mirrors into and out of her line of sight as she sighted it across the dark fields.
“If people choose to come back.” he nodded, “Which they might not after hearing what happened to the people here. No one’s ever going to believe the Church of the Threefold Moon had a hand in this; they’ll think the area is haunted by spirit beasts or something. That’s the depressing thing about being educated at the Bardic College: you know the truth, but to everyone else, Kayda’s just another small god; nothing to take note of.”
“We know.” Rai pointed out, locking in her chosen configuration with thumb screws.
“The nir-lumos seem to know everything, I’ve noticed.” Kaiel smiled. Then his smile faltered as a sound reached his ear. No one else would have been able to pick it out amid the creaking of the trees or the night breeze, but Kaiel’s connection to the Song, and sympathetic connection with the icon he’d made ensured that he couldn’t miss it.
“There it is.” he said seriously and put away the telescope, replacing it in his hand with his flute. “The army’s agreed to the plan and Taylin’s waiting for us. Ready for this?”
Rai cocked the rifle and sighted it carefully. Through her lenses, Bashurra the Crevasse sprang into her vision. “I’ve been waiting to make a Kaydan bleed for days.”
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