Rune Breaker: Chapter 34 – Onslaught

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
‘There are three of us in my research group, not counting our students and support staff. Our charge is to delve into the nature of the so-called ‘divinity sparks’ that transform normal creatures into spirit beasts. The Emperor believes that unlocking this secret will allow us to replace or exceed the powers granted to priests by the gods. If we can do this, we will be free of all dependance on the gods who abandoned this world to the tyranny of the Gold Nation and its allies during Draconic Control. We could finally be a truly free people.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
 
***
Spirit docents were accidents of birth, or so Brin had heard. They were children who, under other circumstances, would be born with the expanded energy capacity that made for talented wizards. But the old tales among her people went that if such a child came too close to death in the womb, a bit of the Well of Souls leaked into them, filling the place where a wizard would have a swirl of elemental forces with discarnate energy.
 
Whether that was true or not, it did make some sense to Brin. The afterlife had always been part of her normal life. Her mother had told her that she’d been looked after—even in the crib—by guardians from the other side of death.
 
Brin had never met another spirit docent in person. She only knew about them from news of their exploits and the occasional fictional account in a dime novel. There had been on one to teach her, so everything she had learned had come from listening to the spirits and opening herself up to the in-between world they inhabited.
 
That was what she was doing now. With her disguise cast aside and her truths laid bare, she looked into the in-between space through the lens of the discarnate power inside of her.
 
All around her, throughout the ruined Homestead, the spirits responded.
 
Lulled out of their fear of Bashurra, his stifling aura of nekras, and the maddened impressions left over from their murdered friends and neighbors, the undeparted dead of Idrian began to emerge from hiding; rising out of the ground, seeping out of the corporeal forms of tools, clothing and household items, and even dragging themselves out of their own slain bodies.
 
There was only just over a dozen of them compared to probably two score of the potentially dangerous remnants. They were all steadfast looking people, just as they had been in life, and they had died with a desperate piece of business left unfinished: to protect their loved ones. In failing to do so, they found themselves stuck; unable to pass on to the Afterworld. But instinctively, the knew Brin could undo the anchors they had chained themselves to and send them on their way.
 
All of them crowded in; jostling and sometimes overlapping one another in their rush to reach their salvation.
 
Brin looked up at them sadly. Men and women, young and old; they were all humans all worn by hard lives on the frontier, no matter their age or gender. And yet even after living those lives and then losing them in defense of those they cared about, they still couldn’t get rest—not without her. And she knew that she couldn’t take the time to send them on, not before sealing Bashurra’s connection to the place.
 
It wasn’t right, especially after she’d abandoned them the first time. She lowered her head in shame.
 
Something thrummed in her docent’s sense like the strung of a harp plucked too hard. It wasn’t just Brin that felt it, because the undeparted stopped their crush and turned in the direction it came from. And from that direction, spirits began to step aside to form an aisle between a single figure and Brin.
 
Said figure was old and gray and bent; a man of the frontier through and through. His skin was leather, his eyes squinted from years in the bright sun, and though he was very old, he moved with power, confidence and pride. All of the spirits of Idrian turned to him and their expressions were of love and appreciation. They weren’t respectful as such, and they certainly weren’t reverent. It was an expression that people rarely wore because they rarely felt that specific emotion for a being.
 
If she’d been stripped of all of her docent powers, that expression alone could have told her who the figure was. It wasn’t a ghost or a remnant. It had never been slain, and in fact, still lived. The people looked at it with such love because it was home—the spirit of their home.
 
It was something docents understood implicitly, but few others even entertained: everything the mortal races came into contact with on Ere could have a spirit. The Well of Souls infused everything on the planet with discarnate energy, and when discarnate energy met sapient thought, spirits formed.
 
Ancestral weapons, heirloom jewelry, and old ships could have spirits because of the thoughts people attached to them. And almost any place people actually lived was bound to have one. Strength and focus and level of coherency varied, but farming enclaves, where people all had a single goal and depended heavily on understanding and nurturing the land often had very coherent and powerful spirits.
 
Brin looked up into the eyes of the spirit of Idrian Homestead and spoke softly. “Your people deserve to pass on.”
 
The spirit nodded. Probably a century of constant habitation had given it human mannerisms as well as form.
 
“But I must seal the nekras contamination first. If I don’t, my friends will be killed by the monsters that’s defiled this place.”
 
An intensity entered Idrian Homestead’s eyes and the undeparted ghosts mirrored it in their own. Every one of them now had reason to hate Kaydans in general and Bashurra especially.
 
Swallowing, Brin kept her gaze steady. “I can create the seal, but I need more power than I have. Will you help me?”
 
Somehow, spirits all knew what it meant to help a docent. Brin didn’t know how and Reflair couldn’t explain it to her, but they all did; even animal and plant spirits. The spirits of Idrian Homestead was no exception. It nodded and took a step forward that carried it into the same space Brin was already occupying.
 
Discarnate energy roared into her, a flood that enveloped her instantly. White light pours out of her eyes and mouth as she began the rite to create the seal.
 
***
Ru rolled to the side as Bashurra bore down on him with the edge of his shield in what would have been a decapitating stroke. He then answered the attack by snapping a heel into the demon’s ribs.
 
Rolling with the blow, Bashurra came up whirling his hooked chain and cast it at Ru, wrapping one leg as the titan was rising to his feet.
 
“Becoming larger than me only means I have more weaknesses to capitalize on.” he hissed savagely before hauling on the chain. There wasn’t enough friction in the grass, already made slick by the frosty mist that exuded from Ru’s body, and his leg came out form under him, sending him crashing to the ground.
 
Bashurra wasted no time leaping upon his fallen foe and raining down crushing blows with his shield.
 
Ru put up an effort of defense, but his arms were soon battered aside, opening his face up to Bashurra’s brutal punishment.
 
Back at the front lines of Solgrum’s army, Taylin reached back and grasped the hilt of the Eastern Brand. She couldn’t just stand by and bear witness to the beating Ru was taking, and so she triggered the mechanical bolts along the length of the sheathe. With a series of chunks and clacks they slid free, leaving the sword free to be drawn.
 
Only she didn’t.
 
Because in the link, Ru was still feeling no pain. Instead, anticipation was building in the link, the kind of impatient blood-lust she’d felt before, when they were waiting for the arrival of the King of Flame and Steel’s bandits, or for the hounds to take her on the day they met.
 
He saw no disadvantage, saw only a window opening in which he could bring down oblivion on something. And he was still casting his spell.
 
“…Heed my will. Focus and be transformed.” He was saying.
 
Beside Taylin, Tal Eserin suddenly looked up. “Someone is moving a great deal of vin—the air currents don’t move that way naturally.”
 
She barely acknowledged his comment, as she was seeing memory flash in Ru’s mind as he used the incantation to recall the complex spell pattern. She saw, as always in those memories, through Ru’s eyes, looking at Gloryfall as a teenager. She was dressed in a plain tunic and breeches, both so rumpled that she’d likely slept in them for the past few days.
 
Gloryfall was hunched over a workbench, upon which lay a scythe. Only that scythe was neither a farming implement, nor a weapon. It was… art. The haft was constructed of a flawless piece of wood that was dark brown and smooth like the fine chocolates Raiteria bought by the bagful in Daire. There were indentations smoothed into the wood; hand grips that had fingerprints stylized into them in hematite. There were also elegant sigils flowing up the length in silver workings so fine that they only shown when the light caught them just right.
 
The blade was attached to the haft by a cap of seemingly tarnished silver, and the blade itself was similarly dark; not black, but dull in color while bearing a metallic sheen. There were sigils there too; entire magic circles in miniature.
 
“Gand made her for you,” the young Gloryfall was saying, “and asked me to strengthen it. Her name is Grace. And with her, you’ll be able to do things you haven’t imagined yet.”
 
And suddenly, Taylin found herself in Ru’s head. Not in a dream or memory, but in the present, seeing through his eyes and using his other senses.
 
The first realization was that Ru was not on the ground receiving Bashurra’s savagery. He was in the air above the fray, fists gripped around the haft of a much less elegant scythe and his mind aflame with spells.
 
In one corner of his mind, he controlled the titan, a simulacrum made of akua; willing it to react to Bashurra’s attacks, keeping the demon focused on it instead of allowing him room to attack the army or discover that Ru wasn’t where he was supposed to be. In another, he wielded still more akua, pulling it around himself in a more complex veil than the one he erected to give Taylin privacy earlier. This one made him fully invisible to Bashurra’s senses.
 
And front and center, he was gathering, manipulating and transforming vin on a massive scale and channeling it all into the honed edge of the scythe until the scythe seemed to be cleaving the air itself.
 
Down below, the titan construct, under Ru’s command, tried to squirm out from under Bashurra to no avail. All it managed was to change its position so that Bashurra’s back was fully toward Ru and partially toward the gathered army. In a burst of strength, it caught Bashurra’s shield and ripped it away, hurling it as far away as it could before struggling to sit up.
 
“That won’t save you.” Bashurra grinned hideously, showing his ranks of mismatched teeth. “I was only using the shield to prolong your suffering. But if you insist…” He raised his now free shield hand. Each thick finger had a brass ring on it that extended a wickedly sharp blade out from his knuckle. As he clenched the hand into a fist, he called on his god’s bottomless pool of nekras and converted it to flaer, surrounding his hand and the blades rings in dark, intense fire.
 
“And so dies the Rune Breaker. Immurai will be saddened he didn’t get to do it himself.” And with that, he drove his fist into the titan’s face.
 
But instead of gore and charred bone fragments, the titan’s head exploded into a cloud of fresh, powdery snow that let the punch pass right through it. This was followed the the rest of the titan’s bulk transforming, from the neck, working its way downward, into a gigantic, vaguely humanoid, drift of snow and ice.
 
Bashurra stared a for a moment, then let out a bellow of unequaled rage. He punched the snow twice more with his burning fist as if he might find Ru hidden inside, then rose briskly to his feet.
 
He didn’t get a chance to piece anything more together.
 
Ru released his veil, adding another small cascade of falling snow to the wind. “Let those who stand in my way be torn asunder!” The vortex of vin concentrated on the scythe blade as Ru brought it up, then began to sweep it downward in a vertical slash.
 
And Taylin realized that the blade really was cutting the air as it met resistance and began to sheer through it. Fire blazed into being around the blade; blue and pink and white, all swirling around one another, boiling out of the rift in the air the scythe was cutting.
 
She felt the tautness in his muscles as he applied brute force in driving the blade through the summoned wind. And for a moment, she felt triumph swell inside him as the spell took shape, knew the frustration born from the number of times he’d failed at it, and felt it melt away.
 
Then there was the creak, a small, quiet snap. Ru knew from experience what the meant and in their state of synchronicity, Taylin knew too: the scythe wasn’t strong enough. There was a spike in the apprehension, for Ru knew that what came next was pain. Then that collapsed into resignation as he continued to muscle forward, trying to complete the spell before the scythe failed.
 
The link itself took notice and suddenly, Taylin was out of Ru’s head and in her own again. The sudden change made her rock on her heels, and she didn’t get time to recover before it happened:
 
A scream came form the sky, nothing human, or even organic. It was a noise of reality brought to the edge of annihilation. The sound lasted only a moment before a ribbon of light, all the same boiling colors that had danced on the end of the scythe, fell down from the rent Ru had torn in the air like a bucket of water being poured out into the bright sunlight.
 
It struck the earth several yards from Bashurra and where it touched, the grass and dirt were churned up and thrown violently aside. With astounding speed, the ribbon tore a path toward Bashurra, striking the demon across the back and ripping it open down to the bone and horrible ichors. The demon was pounded into the icy remains of the titan like someone had dropped a ship on him.
 
A scant moment later, there was a sound that reminded Taylin of the gunshots she’d heard during the fight with the King of Flame and Steel and the link registered Ru’s pain. The ribbon of light guttered out, plunging the world back into comparative darkness.
 
All chanting had stopped among the soldiers, but some were cheering upon seeing Bashurra put down. That stopped too when the bulk of the demon once more began to rise.
 
Even laid open by the incredible power of the Rune Breaker, Bashurra the Crevasse got back to his feet and shouted into the night sky. “I will commend the tactic! Distraction. Ambush. Overwhelming force. All well and good. But you forget: you are fighting the future god of war! I can recover from these hurts. And then I shall revisit them a thousand times upon you.”
 
“Heh.” Ru’s voice seemed to come from the entire night sky. He sounded steady and strong to everyone but Taylin, who felt the strain and the damage done to him in the link. “Who said I was done?”
 
The snow at Bashurra’s feet boiled and suddenly, frost began to grown in fern patterns up from the demon’s feet, up his legs, and all the way up to his chest and arms, literally freezing him in place.
 
Ru appeared back at the front lines next to Taylin. His left side had been torn to shreds by the scythe when it exploded: his left arm was flayed from hand to elbow and hung useless with a two-foot section of haft driven through the bicep. His hip was laid open in three places by shrapnel, and smaller chunks of the haft protruded from his ribs on that side.
 
He looked up with annoyance at Taylin through a cascade of dark, viscous blood bubbling from a wound in his forehead. “Since I have met you.” He said in a measured tone, “this arm has taken a disproportionate amount of damage.”
 
Tal Eserin looked at Ru’s ravaged figure in shock. “Someone bring a healer, right now!”
 
“Save it.” Ru snapped. Reaching up, he tore the piece of scythe out of his arm without looking as he cast about for Percival. When he found him, looking down at him from one of the hwacha wagons with as much shock on his face as Tal Eserin had, he barked out, “That ice will not hold him long and that wound will not slow him for much longer after that. Whatever you intended to do, do it now.”
 
Percival fixed him with a glare for daring to order him around in front of his command, but realized that there would be better times for recriminations. Instead, he faced forward. “Captain,” He nodded to Tal Eserin, “Prepare aerial charge. Everyone else, prep to receive incoming foe with a size advantage.”
 
He took a moment to make sure that the soldiers were moving into action as instructed, still uncertain of just how deep his authority went. It went deep enough, he saw, as everyone quickly fell into their much practiced roles. Nodding, more to himself than anyone else, he pointed out across the floodplain at the still-immobile form of Bashurra. “Hwacha two and three: fire!”
 
Crews of minotaurs took up levers on the sides of the hwachas and put their weight against them to turn the hulking beehive-like frames until the half-elven gunner called out that they were on target. Then the gunners produced chemical fire pots and used them to light the braided fuses that branched out to enter every cell of the honeycombs.
 
Taylin ignored Tal Eserin forming up to aerial forces a few yards away; she was entranced by the hwachas and their fast burning fuses. She had no idea what they were and what they could do, but the gunners and aiming crews cleared away from them with a swiftness that indicated that they were dangerous to say the least.
 
When the first fuses disappeared into cells, nothing happened at first, and she found herself leaning unconsciously closer. Then white smoke started to pour out, accompanied by a violent hissing like a cave filled wall to wall with vipers. Less than a second later, a white streak leapt from the frame and into the night sky, trailing white vapor and a tongue of flame. Another followed, then three, then a dozen others, then scores. The hwacha and the wagon it rested on disappeared in a cloud of white smoke as the last of its payload was sent aloft. The second device, number three as designated by Percival, unleashed it’s own fusillade just before the first was spent.
 
“What was that?” she wondered aloud.
 
Hwacha.” supplied a strange voice. Taylin resisted flinching when she turned to see that the speaker was a young, blonde hailene man holding a heavy looking gun with a stock like a wagon tongue. He raised his brows at her expression, but nodded toward where Bashurra stood.
 
Small explosions were happening, some in the air above the demon, some on the ground around him, but mostly they were exploding against him, tearing out hunks of smoking flesh as the creature screamed curses. Down the line, Percival called for one and four to fire.
 
“Fire arrows.” the hailene explained, “A hwacha can send two hundred in a go.” He grinned a vicious grin worthy of a mercenary holding a huge firearm. “You should see what it does to infantry columns.”
 
“You should see what I’ve done to cavalry columns and entire armored centuries” said Ru, lurking up from somewhere behind Taylin. She’d lost track of him while she was enchanted by the workings of the hwacha. He’d healed his body, but left his clothes bloodied and ragged. She assumed it was just for bravado with all the soldiers around.
 
The hailene blinked. “Why would you find disabling one or two watchmen impressive?” He asked, deftly ignoring the first part of the boast.
 
Ru growled in his throat. “Not ‘sentries’, ‘centuries’: units of men, one hundred strong!”
 
“I’ve never heard it called that.” said the hailene, shifting the weight of his weapon. “Hailene call ’em sortie flights, thought you’d have to scrape for a tribe big enough to field one. We call ’em battalions, the Calleni’s call it a ‘small, diplomatic envoy.”
 
He laughed at his own joke, shrugged, and turned back to the assembling group of soldiers who were awaiting Tal Eserin’s command.
 
There weren’t many. Out of the whole army, there seemed to only be a little over thirty hailene, plus two more dragonsired, a gold like Tal Eserin himself and a black-scaled woman who was carrying a pair of guns like the ones Taylin had seen mounted on spiders and ceratos, but never carried in hand. She was holding them like outsized pistols. They were supplemented by a handful of human and half-elven battlemagi using vin to stay aloft.
 
Among them, there were only about six firearms, a few heavy bows of hailene design, and a single crossbow, which Taylin figured was extensively spellworked from all the ornamentation on it. The rest, all hailene, carried polearms, from the uniform halberds she remembered from her days on the ships, to glaives, to a single naginata. It wasn’t the kind of armaments Taylin would have expected to be arrayed against a demon of Bashurra’s reputation.
 
Tal Eserin, however, looked at them with satisfaction on his face. “Alright.” He said, using a bit of vin to make his voice carry. “The plan is to charge, lay as hard a concentrated hit as we can on the brute, then switch to harrying tactics. The enemy can heal rapidly at the moment, but General Cloudherd has someone working to disable that. Once he bleeds freely, we switch to our topple drill: swarm, drop, kill. Understood?”
 
The soldiers saluted as one.
 
“Excellent. We charge on the final volley from the hwacha.” He raised one clawed hand, heel forward, and crooked his middle two fingers as he whispered a quiet chant. The wind moved around the soldiers, catching in robes, whipping at tassels, and most importantly, pushing upward on everyone, including Taylin and Ru.
 
Interesting. Ru said in the link, floating to Taylin’s side. He uses the same core structure for this as I do for my levitation spell. Only is spread among many and instead of full flight, he merely negates the force of gravity: useless for ground based creatures, but it grants fliers incredible maneuverability. I shall have to make a note of this.
 
Taylin wasn’t so sure about the spell. She felt herself starting to float, not really leaving the ground, but with the full knowledge that it no longer bound her. It was like flying, but without motion, which was disconcerting.
 
As long as you never use it on me, she told him.
 
The fourth hwacha hurled its payload skyward, serving as the call for the charge. Tal Eserin didn’t even bother sounding his own call: he simply fanned his shining, golden wings, and brought them down in one gigantic thrust that launched him skyward at a speed Taylin could only imagine.
 
All around, the other solders took to the air too, and with only slight hesitance, Taylin followed them.
 
***
Many spirit docents that she had heard of made heavy use of synchronicity: the means by which they voluntarily allowed their spirit companions to possess and work their will through them. In such a state, they could become forces to be reckoned with; a perfect blend of raw discarnate power and the expertise of a spirit, unfettered by the limits of their old flesh.
 
Brin rarely used it, and even then, usually only with Reflair. Unlike other docents, she usually only kept the one companion, mostly because she was uncomfortable being a medium for spirits who would be strangers.
 
To create the seal over Idrian Homestead, however, she had to synchronize with the Homestead’s spirit. And it was painful, like stretching muscles one as unaccustomed to moving, only the ‘muscles’ in question extended into the very core of her being, and ‘stretching’ them entailed running a volume of discarnate energy through them that she had never even attempted to marshal before.
 
A bridge had been formed (another thing major spirits seemed to know how to do instinctively), a conduit that punched through the Afterworld, past the depths of the Seven Interlocking Hells, all the way to the Well of Souls, and leading through Brin, out into the material realm.
 
Energy poured out, and it was all Brin could do to grasp onto it with her innate powers and wrestle it into a shape in her mind’s eye.
 
Wizards used complex symbolism and diagrams to work their power, priests were forced to be content with the forms sent to them by the gods, and practitioners in the tradition of the Bardic College dealt in ideas and stories just as thick as the wizards’ formulae. But docents, when not working through their spirits in a way that mirrored priests, were limited to brute force and direct constructions.
 
As such, Brin shaped the geyser of power flowing up from the well into something like a closed parasol, rising up above the Homestead from her position. And as more energy poured out, she began to slowly open it, sending the parasol’s ribs and webbing to rake down deep into the land, collecting the nekras that had sank into it and poisoned the air—and drove it out.
 
The process of purging the nekras was slow, but it was necessary to perform the sealing. Brin only hoped that it wouldn’t be too slow to help the others.
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 33 – TitanRune Breaker: Chapter 35 – Unleashed >>

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