‘The order came down this morning: we will now report to and be subject of inspection by the Office of the Defense Chancellor in addition to our responsibilities to the Body of the House of Advancement. No one has said it aloud, but we all know it, deep inside: Today the Empire has unofficially declared war on the world beyond the shores of Illium.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
After Grandfather himself, Raiteria was the best marksman in the Clan of the Winter Willow, a distinction that had made her the obvious choice to lead the clan’s scouts. To supplement this, the clan had all pooled their money and had her rifle custom built for her by Keytun Rocksteadler, the finest gunsmith in Kinos. It was perfectly balanced for her, with precision machined parts and rifling, all of which could be broken down in moments for quick and easy maintenance, and the three-shot carousel was designed to accept a variety of ammunition.
For the task of getting Bashurra the Crevasse’s attention, she chose her nastiest sort: alchemical bullets made in southern Mindeforme and considered illegal for use by nations at war by the Thirteen Nations Accord. The nir-lumos caravans were recognized as a legitimate government by the Accords, but as they had no lands, they weren’t technically a nation.
She sighted through the sliding array of lenses and found Bashurra, but didn’t fire yet. There were more factors than aim involved in delivering a bullet to a target over a mile away in the dark. Instead, she put her thumb in her mouth, then swiped the saliva-slicked digit along her arm.
The air moving across that line of moisture delivered sensations to her that the tall folk simply weren’t in tune with. It told her of temperature and wind direction, of atmospheric pressure and many other tiny factors that could translate into large deviations in a ballistic trajectory, and she adjusted her aim accordingly.
The world around her dropped away. It was just her, her gun, and Bashurra. The demon was unaware of her, still crunching horribly into the broken limbs of his brethren.
Careful not to move the rest of the rifle, she thumbed the lever on the carousel, causing it to rise from the ‘safe’ position in its cradle and into the ‘ready’ position with the first round in line with the hammer. There were simpler, more efficient rifles out there, mass produced for armies and bandits and anyone in between, but none were as safe, reliable or precise as the complex machines built by serious folk who lived and breathed the science of the devices and overbuilt to their satisfaction.
She pulled back the hammer and adjusted for a shift in Bashurra’s posture.
She squeezed the trigger and the bullet was on its way. For the first few yards, it left a tail of blue flame, as the last of whatever alternative propellant the alchemist used in place of gunpowder cooked off, then it was gone.
In her lenses, she saw Bashurra suddenly buck, and even a mile distant, she heard the bellow of pain mixed with shock and rage. He dropped the corpse he was devouring and slapped a hand over his eye, which was disgorging a noxious green foam; a form of alchemical acid that expanded in volume inside a living body.
His contortions exposed his throat and Rai advanced the carousel before taking a second shot at that, then a third. No need to bother aiming anymore; she didn’t even lookto see if she hit before lowering the rifle and looking over to Kaiel.
The chronicler had one hand against the tree and it was wreathed in blue-green light where his fingers seemed to dig into the bark without disrupting the surrounding area. He extended his free hand to her. “Come on; I’m sure we have his attention now, so it’s all up to Brin.”
Rai slung the rifle across her back by its strap and took his hand. At the same time, she risked a look back toward the homestead.
There was a shield of fire and golden light in the air between them and Bashurra now, taking the shape of three interlocking circles with a smaller circle in the center where they all overlapped. That was a circle of black so deep that she wasn’t certain she’d ever really seen that color before.
Kaiel jerked her close to him as a clod of earth and stone was thrust violently out of the ground before the shield, wrecking a house that was too close to its point of origin. It floated briefly in air before accelerating toward them with terrible speed.
Wrapping Rai securely in his arm, Kaiel stepped backward into space while keeping his fingers planted firmly in the tree. The energy around his fingers burst into vivid flames as those fingers started to trial down the side of the tree. The spell slowed their fall enough that they reached the ground and tumbled down the roots of the once living wall without major injury.
A moment later, The tops of the tree they had been in and its neighbors were shorn off by the earthen missile Bashurra had sent for them. Shattered boughs and chunks of wood larger than a man came tumbling down all around them, but again Kaiel was ready, throwing himself over Rai and raising both hands to bring up a translucent, yellow kite shield that rumbled like a kettle drum as the falling debris bounced off it.
It took what felt like hours before all was still again and Rai felt herself being pulled to her knees.
“Are you hurt?” Kaiel asked.
It shocked her that she wasn’t now that she could see the devastation around them, including some gigantic splinters that had ended up thrust into the earth like javelins. “I’m fine.” She didn’t bother reporting bruises and scrapes because those would be a waste of both their time and his magic.
“Good.” He said. “Now you know why I said to tie the mounts further down the wall from where we were.” Helping her up, he paused to listen to the challenging bellow of demonic expletives Bashurra was issuing. “Ah. He thinks the army just tried a futile sneak attack. He’s coming for ‘them’.”
“And that means it’s time for us to go.” said Rai, though she was a bit dismayed to realize just how easily the demon had shrugged off a weapon that would have reduced even moderately powerful spirit beasts to puddles of bubbling ooze.
Neither acknowledged this fact to one another as they made their way toward the mounts.
Amid the scrum of minotaurs working to prepare the hwachas, a half elven man dashed up to the Percival and dashed off a quick salute. If he noticed Taylin and Ru, he gave no indication. “Sir, spotters just confirmed that something just blew off part the wall out there. They’re saying it was an earthbolt the size of a cerato.
Percival nodded gravely and waved the man off with thanks before looking at the pair before him. “You were right. He can use era-a even in this desolation. Probably everything else too.”
“He’s coming.” Ru smiled in a predatory fashion, the thrill of the hunt heavy in the link. He looked down to see that Percival was wearing four red-striped grenades on his belt. “Can I make use of one of those?”
“I thought you said you had access to flaer too.” the general asked reproachfully.
Ru shrugged. “I’m curious about them.”
“This isn’t a creche.” Percival flared his wings with indignation. “This is a battle in which my people will be injured and killed. Satisfy your curiosity another time, Mister…”
Another predatory smile. Taylin braced for Ru to say something unnecessarily provocative. “Rune Breaker.” He said with too much growl in his voice, and before Percival could process that, added, “But very well. I will need use of that zome store of akua your people are building up.”
Percival knew the legend of the Rune Breaker. As a sellsword, he’d even heard boasts from companies that hiring them was as good as having the Rune Breaker in hand. No one had ever claimed to be the Rune Breaker in the same say that no one claimed to be the goddess Hessa’s favorite shawl, or the first sword of the Mother of Blades. He let it pass because there were more important things to discuss.
“We’re building it up for defensive fortifications: frost wards, icicle palisades, and the like.”
Ru moved his hand and suddenly he was holding the spell diagram he was drawing earlier, pulled from the same folded space his scythe resided in. “Do you know what this does?”
Percival repressed a sigh and called out for a battlemage.
He was answered by a tall, swarthy man with a carefully maintained beard almost identical to Ru’s and a mane of carefully combed, very dark brown hair that fell about his shoulders. He was dressed in crisp, white trousers, knee high boots of highly polished leather, and a white great coat with a high collar, dark gray piping, and intricate silver toggles that fell to his knees and had to splits in the back that were also fastened with silver. There was a patch over his heart; three wavy lines, tilted slightly to one side and stacked one above the other in a circle, the spell diagram for vin crea, all depicted in the same gray as his piping.
There was a slight shift in the wind at his approach and a scent hit Taylin’s nose that made her heart flutter unexpectedly with a mix of dread, curiosity, and something she couldn’t identify.
The newcomer looked from his general, to his two guests and bowed low, never taking his eyes off them. “Golden Son of the Misno Tribe, Tal Eserin pur Tal Dray; Wind Mason and Captain of the aerial forces of this army.”
Ru looked him up and down carefully. “’Wind Mason. I take that to be a title for a skilled vin specialist?” The man nodded and Ru returned it, “And Golden Son. Dragonsired?”
Tal Eserin gave Percival an aside glance and the general nodded. The wind mason stiffened and his body didn’t so much as contort, as run like warm wax. His jaws stretched and became a muzzle full of teeth, his hands distorted, sprouting black claws and growing until they were slightly too large for his frame. His boots, apparently engineered for the purpose, split and stretched at convenient seams and panels to allow his toes to grow the same while his weight shifted off his heel and entirely onto the balls of his feet. Fine, golden scales, a quarter the size of those that grew in patches on Taylin, grew everywhere, covering his body in an auric sheen. The hair on his head melted into a thicket of spines of a darker color, but his beard remained, now messy and savage as it stretched beneath the elongated jaw.
Through the slits in the back of his coat extended two more arms, already scaled in gold, and with incredibly long fingers with veiny, golden membrane stretched between them and back down to where the arms emerged from below his shoulder blades.
He fanned the new wings in the air a moment before folding them neatly with each hooking two finger-claws over his shoulders. Now in his new form, he sniffed once, delicately and glanced at Taylin with slight confusion that he quickly hid to address Ru’s question.
“Yes.” He finished simply. “The general needed me to look at something for you?”
Ru looked unimpressed by the show and offered up the spell diagram. “I want to use you akua reserves for this.”
Tal Eserin studied the diagram, and whatever he saw in what to Taylin was a jumble of meaningless circles and symbols made him smile wide enough to reveal two rows of teeth. He looked back to Percival with a twinkle in his eyes. “I recommend allowing it, sir. This type of spell will leave the majority of the energy it uses open to reclamation. We can let him have his shot, and then raise our defenses as needed.”
Percival raised an eyebrow at the amusement the captain was displaying, but said to Ru, “Carry on then. Captain, sent word to the all our fliers not in the air guard to form up here, on you. We’ll mount an airborne charge once the hwacha fire off to give the battlemagi time to reclaim and raise ward. Jaks,” He looked to the minotaur, “Order the spirit beast specialists to the fore just in case the enemy makes it this far. Walls start a quarter mile from where we stand.”
His subordinates snapped to, and as they began their preparations, Ru took the diagram and set it on the ground. As he levitated above it, legs crossed beneath him, Taylin frowned at him. “You were drawing that even as you were saying you wouldn’t help.”
“That is correct, Miss Taylin.” he said, holding a hand out toward where the akua reserve was being massed.
She didn’t bother trying to mask her annoyance. Before she could say a word, however, he cut her off. “But what you are thinking now is also incorrect. I didn’t intend to use this spell for this battle. I had every intention to stand aside for this until forced to intervene because of the link.”
“Then what changed your mind?”
Ru shut his eyes in concentration. The diagram’s inked symbols began to glow with a soft, blue light. As Taylin watched, they began to drift off the page and into the grass around it. Some also began to rise into the air like fireflies at dusk.
“Because you were right Miss Taylin: I do indeed enjoy violence and mayhem. Whatever reason Immurai has for forcing a fight now and in this place; Bashurra is an old enough and powerful enough servant of the Threefold Moon that murdering him will at least make up for it.”
The symbols continued to rise and were increasing in size, forming a sphere around the Ru that slowly rotated around him.
Taylin suppressed a sigh because she knew she shouldn’t have been hoping for deeper or more noble reasons in the first place. With arms folded, she took a few steps back to let him work. When she did, her nose alerted her to the return of Tal Eserin even before he spoke.
“Will you be joining the airborne charge? General Cloudherd points out that our aerial forces are already depleted with so many of the officers killed at the Murderyard having been hailene.”
She had to glance back at him to be sure he was being serious. “I thought you were here to ask why I didn’t smell right.”
Tal Eserin folded his arms into their opposite sleeves, concealing his claws. “Then you disrespect me, Miss. I wasn’t going to bring it up.” He inclined his head back toward the soldiers. “Mercenaries; we don’t question what you are or where you come from as long as you’re on our side.”
Taylin blinked owlishly at this. It made sense, but she’d expected him to treat her like anathema or at least with some hostility. “I’m… not dragonsired, you know.” She said carefully, in case he was missing a point.
“Weren’t we having this conversation because you know I can smell that?” He asked with a laugh.
Her face burned with embarrassment and she turned back to look at Ru. “Right.”
The captain coughed politely. “And your answer about the charge? I use a spellworking to improve everyone’s speed and maneuverability, and it requires tailoring based on the number of participants in the area of effect.”
Something was happening to the symbols surrounding Ru; they were stopping, one by one in their orbits around him. Taylin was so drawn to that that she almost didn’t hear the question. “What? Oh yes. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
They were both distracted by what happened next:
The last symbol froze into place, falling into position among the others like the final tumbler on a lock. The moment it did, Ru straightened his legs and dropped down to the ground. It was a short fall, but he landed with enough force that he had to bend his legs almost to a crouch to absorb the impact, which sent a slight tremor into the ground around it.
Somewhere in that moment, he’s shifted subtly: now wearing simple homespun breeches and a rough woolen shirt along with heavy work boots of cracked leather, and a set of wrought iron manacles around his wrists, each trailing a piece of broken chain about a foot in length. The short, scholarly tail he kept his hair pulled back in had slipped its bonds so that his hair hung wild around his ears.
Taylin tilted her head as she took in the sight before her and compared it with what she felt in the link.
With a feral smile on his face, Ru straightened up like a puppet being drawn into a standing position on strings, head hanging down, yellow eyes staring at something no one else could see.
He took one step and then another, and when that second step carried him through the dome of floating patterns, they shattered like the most delicate crystal; bursting apart and coming tumbling down around him in a rain of gentle, blue sparks. The next step sent another tremor through the ground, and the trailing links on the manacles broke off, tumbling into the grass. Two more steps, both accompanied by tremors, and the ends of his sleeves and the cuffs of his breeches were starting to shred at the ends.
Taylin watched silently and wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her or if he really did look taller and broader at the shoulder with every step. Her suspicions were confirmed five steps later when the shirt strained and began to tear at his shoulder blades. Not only that, but his skin was shifting to a pale blue, dappled with white, and his hair was thinning in the front while growing in the back.
By the time he was a dozen steps away, each one was taking him farther and farther than the last and the soldiers were starting to take notice. Jaks returned from carrying out his duties and looked at Tal Eserin for an explanation. The captain replied in the native language of minotaurs, causing Jaks to roar out a boastful laugh and turn to the troops, bellowing the minotaur word ‘gaosh-ua‘.
The hailene and half-elves mostly looked confused, but the word energized the minotaurs. Those that didn’t have anything to attend to started stamping their hoofs in a practiced, tribal rhythm, chanting ‘gaosh-ua rho!’ and beating on anything that could handle it with their fists.
Tal Eserin grinned, a threatening display in his draconic form, and turned to the half-dozen hailene assembling for the airborne charge and said, “Ayet sul ashato. Nush ama kave ashato.” Like the minotaurs before them, the hailene were affected by the words and took one, ashato, up as a chant.
‘Ashato’ was a word Taylin did know. ‘Hato’ was the word for ‘giant’ and an ‘ashato’, as she was familiar with it, was reserved for a class of flying warship during the war, one that carried more weaponry, mages and bombardment devices than any other called ‘destroying giants’. But the word also meant the mythical giants said to have existed before the arrival of the Vishnari; the titans.
She turned to look at them. The sight of so many hailene all together and armed for war normally would have filled her with dread, but now she was left wondering what they were talking about. And all their eyes were on Ru.
Whirling, she turned back to look at him. He had topped eleven feet in height, his clothing, though it still grew with him, was in tatters, leaving his arms exposed to the shoulder and legs to the knee, revealing expanses of pale blue skin with what were now discernible as tattoos formed from frost; tribal patterns and an unfamiliar script that covered every inch of skin. The crown of his head was bald, encircled by thin, black hair that hung down to the center of his back. His normally well groomed beard was a thick, wiry bush that brushed his chest and gathered frost that formed form his breath. White mist curled off his shoulders as the apparent cold of his body interacted with the warm, moist air.
He took another step and now he was fifteen feet tall. His boots and manacles disintegrated and fell to earth as snow. One more and he was half a mile from the army and thirty feet tall. There, he stopped and spread his arms in defiance, unleashing a wordless shout that echoed in the river valley.
In the gloom of duck, it was hard to see, especially with the mist rising from Ru’s titan form, but Taylin made out a shape appearing at the downed gates of the Idrian Homestead.
Bashurra the Crevasse, look small compared to the dominating grandeur of a titan, but he appeared utterly unafraid. There was no sign on his body to hint at the damage Raiteria’s attack had done. His deep voice easily carried across the valley. “And what is this, I wonder? Could those ten-a-penny sellswords have a summoner?”
In response to his taunt, the minotaurs and hailene redoubled their chants and the humans and half elves joined in by banging shields in time.
“No.” said Bashurra. “And not an illusion either, I would guess. Then that only leaves a shapeshifting master, doesn’t it, Rune Breaker?” He raised his ancient, bronze ax on guard. “Immurai has told me many tales of the man who was worth an army. The weapon all evil souls seek to grant their greatest wishes. Due respect, but as you are to those wretched and inconsequential mortals, as I am to my god.”
Icy lips split into a familiar, cruel grin. “Heh.” Ru raised his hand toward Bashurra, drawing on ferif and flaer. “More’s the pity for your god then.”
Bashurra had, of course, warded himself against the typical attack spells. So Ru didn’t attack him. A net of the two energies fell over his ax and constricted, working its way into it all the way down to the most basic level. First the old bronze keened like a kettle too long over a fire. Then it exploded. Shrapnel tore into Bashurra’s arms and side and through his face, opening up great rents that wept thick, too-red blood.
The gigantic demon staggered from the force, catching himself on the wall before he fell. Once steady, he sneered at Ru, the sight made all the worse for the hanging tatters of what was left of his right cheek. A dark miasma of nekras began to crawl over his wounds, repairing them.
“Did you believe that would be enough? I’ve survived battle with Greater Beasts and dragons. I’ve laid waste to entire armies. That is why when his plan succeeds, Immurai has promised to make me God of War.”
“What kind of God of War…” Ru drew back his arm and combined akua and ere-a into a construct shaped like a massive mace made of ice, “wastes so much time with talk?” He snapped the mace forward and the spikes broke off, hurtling toward Bashurra as deadly projectiles.
Bashurra surged forward into the onslaught, tapping flaer to cover his fists in flame. He met the flying ice with gusto, dispatching it with punches, blocks and sweeps of his burning hands. He finished by bringing both hands together and sending a burst of flaer to dispel the akua arrays that made up the icicles, instantly converting them to glittering motes in the moonlight.
“You embarrass yourself.” He made a point of spitting on the ground. “War is many things and I am all of them. Not just striking and destruction, but defense.” He flexed his right fist and an array of ferif, ere-a and vox appeared in a circle above his arm, solidifying into a painted, copper and bronze shield, resembling the screaming face of a man stretched almost beyond recognition took shape over his arm. The brow formed a thick ridge across the top. “And control.” He held out his left hand and a second array of the same formed, this one manifesting as a long, thick chain with a meat hook on the end.
Ru boomed out a contemptuous laugh. “This is what you use your magic for? Conjuring armor and weapons? Hasty defense and attack? At least Immurai understands the art and the craft of spellwork: in your hands it’s just a tool. Any ape can use a tool—but allow me to show you how a real wizard does battle!” He raised both hands to the heaven and began an incantation while simultaneously drawing patterns in the air.
“Now who talks too much?” Bashurra stomped his left foot, causing the earth beneath him to buckle and crack until he was standing on a broken shelf of stone and grassy soil that tilted toward Ru. Then he brought his right foot back and twisted it at the heel, completing a pattern of his own in his mind. The platform leapt forward as the earth beneath rolled and reshaped itself to propel it and is passenger forward.
Ru noticed too late and brought an arm down to conjure a shield, only to have it wrapped by Bashurra’s chain and pulled aside before he could even bring the pattern to mind.
In the next moment, Bashurra was inside Ru’s guard, slamming the shield home into Ru’s ribs, then, when he buckled forward, bringing its thick brow ridge up into his chin. The force of the blow sent Ru stumbling back until the mage brought one hand down to the ground to steady himself.
Baring his tangled forest of teeth, Bashurra pressed his advantage.
And back at the front line, Taylin frowned in confusion. Because in her head, Ru never stopped his incantation.
The sounds of battle were muted by distance and the surrounding houses as Brin moved into Idrian Homestead’s village center. Surrounded by demon corpses, and dozens of untended dead, the nekras contamination turned the last moments of dusk pitch black. If not for Reflair, she would have been blind.
As she walked, she opened up her docent’s senses. Through the swirling miasma, she could see the shades of the Homestead’s dead. Most weren’t really spirits of the dead; their souls went to the Afterworld to eventually rejoin the Well of Souls unless they were taken by their god for other purposes. No, these were the impressions of those people’s terror maddened final moments, given shape and power by the the ambient anima. It could happen with vitae as well, but nekras was more common because it was always present around death and entropy.
Left on their own, those shades would grow stronger and more violent, possibly merging into more dangerous creatures that could rival spirit beasts in the threat they posed. Even as they were at the moment though, they could and would attack and even destroy true spirits like Reflair.
They instinctively knew who and what she was, and drew away as she approached, taking much of the choking cloud of manifest nekras with them.
Identifying, removing, and preventing the formation of such creatures in the first place were a spirit docent’s responsibilities and it made her ashamed that she’d left the place in such a state. She drew a shuttering breath as she saw the half-shadowed faces of the former villagers watching her.
Finally, she reached the very center of the Homestead’s houses and shops. Bashurra had dragged most of the demon corpses away, but he’d left the bodies of three villagers; two men and a woman, all armed with bill hooks and cheap pistols, probably purchased from traders out of Daire City. None of it had helped them, and their savaged bodies remained on the hard-packed dirt, untouched by vermin or rot thanks to the nekras.
She made herself stare at them. Those people deserved better. Even though she’d known she couldn’t have saved them, she should have stayed to give them proper burial and protection. But Layaka had been so scared to stay and…
…And there had been no Layaka. At least not the one she’d known.
With those bitter thoughts in her head, she struck the butt of the Barratta against the ground, making the rings jangle, then dropped into a seated position, soles of her boots flush against each other, and the spear across her splayed knees.
Reflair wouldn’t be powerful enough to cleanse the taint in the Homestead and put the seal in place, but Brin was, unusual for a docent, and only had the one spirit companion at the moment. She would have to make contact with a local spirit for the job. And when dealing with strange spirits, one could not lie or dissemble with them in any way.
Glad the others weren’t around, especially Kaiel, she brought her hands together. Her fingers touched a ring on her right hand that wasn’t there, then slipped it off. It came free, and in the gloom, sparkled with stored magics that outlined its shape: a silver band with a pair of bat-like wings as the setting for a single oval cut sapphire.
The world changed for her just as her body did; the succubus ring transformed the wearer completely, not just their appearances; old perceptions unavailable to her before came flooding back. The village leapt into view in her night vision, and the unnatural scents of the demons set her nose to twitching.
Guilt came as well when a new realization hit her: if she hadn’t been wearing the ring, she would have known that those creatures were not spirit beasts.
The sounds of Ru engaging Bashurra reached her newly sensitive ears before she could sink too far into her fugue. There was work to be done. Once that was done, she could atone.
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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