Rune Breaker: Chapter 36 – The Truth of Brin

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
‘A smith on one of the outlying islands was afflicted by a divinity spark five days ago. Unfortunately, the spark drove him mad, resulting in the deaths of twelve citizens of the Empire and over thirty ang’hailene before the local garrison could end his threat. Fortunately, he was slain using ash chalk instead of immolation, thus preserving his body for our inquiry. We finally have something more than theory to work from.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
The sanctum of Lord Crossius had originally been constructed as a laboratory for his predecessor, a true Kimean whose experiments with fey creatures were still well regarded across the archipelago. Due to the nature of that lord’s favored subjects, the room was constructed in its own tower overlooking the sea, surrounded in a cage of cold iron. Layer upon layer of spellcraft had been placed in the walls, ceiling and floor to prevent teleportation into or out of the chamber as well as blocking incoming scrying. Mirrors of polished silver were placed on each of the pillars ringing the room to foul fey illusions, and not long ago, the floor had been painted with a pattern that scattered ambient akua, the favored magic of such beings.
Lord Crossius, upon his return, had ordered a new floor installed; black marble shot through with white veins. Though no one but himself, Lady Milfune, and his ward, Layaka were allowed into the sanctum, it wasn’t a secret that he’d laid a spellwork of his own into the stone tiles of the new floor, though to what purpose, none could tell.
The only furniture in the sanctum was a granite throne banded in steel, its high back sweeping up more than eight feet and decorated with rough cut gems dangling from silver basket settings, and a round of white chalk smuggled from all the way across the ocean in Illium. It was easily eight feet across and two feet thick. Lord Crossius had placed it in front of his throne and kept it covered at all times with an orange silk cloth with green embellishments and golden tassels.
This evening, he’d brought something extra in: a bowl, two feet across and shallow, carved from a single crystal, and three precision made tuning forks. The bowl sat atop the cloth covered chalk slab with a tuning for on either side. The third was in his hand as he sat his throne, fingers laced around it in contemplation.
Lady Milfune stood beside him, one hand gently massaging his shoulder. Layaka sat on the floor at his right hand, sharpening an endless supply of flechettes with a whetstone.
All three were watching the air above the bowl. The tuning forks on either side of it were trembling in sympathy with a mystic sensor thousands miles away, linked to it by currents of vox. Their were in turn picked up by the bowl, which converted vox into vin that was then used to lens the ambient light in the chamber into images—images that matched what the distant sensor spell was seeing. The fork in Lord Crossius’s hand used a similar process to deliver sounds from the same construct.
As they observed, a badly wounded Bashurra the Crevasse was pierced through by several dozen shafts of white light until the last of his healing ability failed him and his body began to disintegrate.
“And he wanted to be a god of war?” Layaka asked, testing a flechette with her thumb. “A shameful waste.”
Lord Crossius set his back flat again the throne, his imperious face betraying a tiny hint of a satisfied smile. “Not at all. Bashurra served his purpose. Solgrum is dead and the command structure of his army in shambles. A war of succession will begin in Torm Dondaire; one that will draw the opportunistic eye of the Threefold Moon away from me.”
He looked thoughtfully at the settling pile of ashes that were once a formidable demon. “He was very good at what he did. Unfortunately for him, a tactician is only as good as his intelligence. When I suggested the Idrian Homestead as an ideal place for an ambush, he thought that Solgrum’s army would be without martial strength without their magic and that he would only be facing the Rune Breaker.”
“You’ve still robbed yourself of a powerful ally.” said Layaka. “Not smart in the kind of gambit you’re trying to play out.”
Lord Crossius quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, you have no idea what kind of gambit I’ve got in mind, old soldier. Do you think it was an accident that I placed you in the path of that spirit docent? Do you believe that I contacted the traitor Zect honestly hoping for an alliance? No, I have set things in motion that your mind could never unravel.”
He gestured toward the image floating above the bowl. “And as for Bashurra: do you know what would happen if the Threefold Moon discovered what I am doing? He would set a demon against me whom he believed could destroy me. Bashurra is one of the few as old as I, and I will not shy away from admitting that he could, in fact beat me matching strength for strength in terms of both physical prowess and magic. And now he is dead and no longer a threat.
Reaching up, he put his hand over Lady Milfune’s. “There is ever only one other who I would share power with because I am certain of who her loyalty lies with. Even if Bashurra could have been trusted to choose wisely: me over Kayda; his sacrifice has purchased for us vital information about those who will soon be bringing battle to our door.” His eyes narrowed slightly and he focused on Layaka, “Didn’t it?”
Layaka set her jaw and nodded. “It did. The halfling is a menace with that rifle. Bashurra survived her, nothing mortal could have.” She set down the whetstone and folded her arms. “Non-magical weapons of that kind of range and accuracy are after my time: the best defense I can think of is a screen that distorts vision to throw off her aim over the windows and guard positions on the outer wall.
“Brin was a surprise tonight. In my time with her, I just took her as a good hand with a polearm with some good combat spells. But if she can cut off nekras…”
“She will be doing me a favor.” Lord Crossius interrupted. “Do you know how many devotees of the Threefold Moon are on this island as we speak? There will be many spies channeling and converting nekras for their spellcraft. Breaking their connection at a crucial moment can only afford me greater security. And in the meantime, I will mostly be concerned with vitae and vox.”
Layaka gave him an odd look, but knew that what he said of his plans was the extent of what she would be hearing. “If that’s your assessment, I can’t challenge it. Now the ang’hailene—“
“Leave the girl to me. She requires special attention.” Lord Crossius cut her off again, then added sharply; “Tell me what you’ve ascertained about Ru.”
She hunched her shoulders and bowed her head in thought at this for a moment. Head still lowered, with her hair falling into her eyes, she said, “Most people seeing what we just saw: him going up against and matching Bashurra in a place so barren of outside energy; they’d say ‘we know he’s the Rune Breaker now’. But I have to say that my eyes tell me I’m still not sure.”
“I am.” said Lord Crossius, “But say on.”
Layaka looked back at the image from the battle with a frown. “He conjured a simulacrum out of akua, which was all around, used it to buy time: probably to chant that unstable spell; and mass-broke the mentalisms Bashurra used—but after that, it was all shapshifting. Taken with how easily he was defeated in Daire City, and I have my doubts that he’s the legendary weapon that let the wielder take over nations.”
Carefully setting the tuning fork in his hands on the armrest of the throne, Lord Crossius then leaned forward and interlaced his long, thin fingers. “Noted. And I already have a countermeasure in the works. But as a soldier, you of all people should know that the weapon is only as powerful as the will that guides it.”
Suddenly, the tones from the two tuning forks on either side of the bowl changed to something shrill and discordant. The image above the bowl distorted and disappeared as cracks began to run rampant across the bowl’s surface. The noise reached its height just as the bowl flew apart in a glittering explosion of crystal shards.
They would have cut the three occupants of the room to ribbons if Lady Milfune had not stepped forward with inhuman celerity, producing a war fan from one voluminous sleeve, and snapped it open. With one sweep, she set a powerful gale against the flying crystal, sending the dangerous projectiles scattering to the other side of the room.
In the silence that followed, all three tuning forks began to smolder and deform until they were useless.
Lord Crossius picked up the one on his throne and tossed it casually aside. “But we must never underestimate the Rune Breaker. That would prove to be a fatal miscalculation.”
Immurai was monitoring the entire battle. Ru reported through the link.
Taylin heard the sound of something heavy moving through the grass; the drying stalks scrapping against scales. She looked up to find a great constrictor snake slithering in her direction. As she watched, it raised its head above the ground; its body folding unnaturally beneath it. Scaled became cloth or softened to skin or hair until Ru Brakar hovered scant inches in the air before her.
“I have destroyed his means of doing so.” he continued aloud. Then he met her gaze; his yellow eyes betraying little emotion. “Care to explain what that was earlier? It barely felt like your mind in the link.”
Drawing her wings up tighter around her, broke eye contact to look over to where Tal Eserin and a battlemage were tending to Percival’s wounds. “I don’t like being touched.”
“A mistake I doubt Bashurra will make again.” Ru said and sent a small working of vin to scatter the ashes further than the natural wind was doing.
They remained like in silence for several minutes. Taylin’s mind clicked away in the link, working through her lingering adrenaline and anxiety over what had happened. Ru merely kept watch, not believing that the ignoble defeat of Bashurra the Crevasse was the extent of Immurai’s attack.
Eventually, Tal Eserin left Percival in the care of the battlemage and headed came to them with a serious, but not grave expression on his face. Nodding to Ru, he focused on Taylin. “The General will live. Thanks to the scarcity of vitae here, he probably won’t be walking on his own for a few days, and if we don’t get him properly healed soon, he might not walk without a stick ever again, but he doesn’t need that to lead.”
Refusing to meet his eyes, Taylin demurred and nodded. “Good. I’m glad.”
Tal Eserin scratched his scaled neck with his brutal looking claws and fixed his gaze out over the river. “I told you before that I wouldn’t ask, and now that you have slain the king’s killer and saved the life of the General, I have less right to ask than before…”
“But you’re curious.” said Taylin. She heaved a sigh and fluffed out her feathers. “And so is Ru, and Brin and Rai will be as well—to say nothing to Kaiel. And… and you all deserve to know who and what you’re really dealing with.”
Brushing a few red curls out of her eyes, she slowly got to her feet. “The problem is: I don’t know—not the whole of it anyway. But I will tell you what I do know. Just… I don’t want to explain it twice. Can you please wait until our friends return from the Homestead?”
“Of course. At your leisure.” said Tal Eserin. “General Cloudherd has put Jaks in command with me as his second until he is fit for duty, so I would like to invite all of you to join our camp and share our supplies tonight.”
A weak smile forced its way onto Taylin’s face. “Thank you. I think we’ll take you up on that. But first…” She returned Novacula Kuponya to its sheath and looked around. “Ru? Can you please help me find the Eastern Brand? I dropped it when… when it happened.”
“Yes, Miss Taylin.” the dark mage replied before transforming into a white owl and winging skyward to search.
Breathing was more difficult than Brin ever imagined it could be in the first moment after the spirit of Idrian Homestead vacated her body. She was left on her hands and knees, chest heaving while her breath came in shuddering gasps.
Around her, the ranks of ghosts were starting to thin. For some the cleansing was enough to free them of their last mortal bonds. For others, the feeling of vengeance delivered that came with Bashurra’s death was what they needed. They disappeared to the Afterworld in brief flashes that quickly faded to nothingness.
Others remained, however, and crowded around her. They were those who were still addled by the violence of their deaths and the thick concentration of nekras. The two things combined to completely foul the natural instincts of the dead to move on. For them, a push in the right direction was needed, either through proper funeral rights, divine intervention of exorcism.
Cold hands were reaching for her when Brin looked up; hands connected to pleading eyes and murmuring voices. Though still shaking from the unbearable amounts of discarnate energy she’d been a conduit for, she reached out to them in turn: it was a very small task to exorcise the willing.
Brin reached into the place where their hearts would be and channeled tiny sparks of discarnate power: beacons that showed them the way they had to travel to return to the Well of Souls. Each time she did this, the ghost flashed into nothingness with a joyful noise.
After long minutes of work, Brin finally turned her attention to a middle-aged woman whose shade wore a bloody, tattered dress and wielded a shovel in both hands, only to have the ghost shy away from its salvation.
“Don’t do this…” Brin whispered. Resistance to exorcism was a sign of a ghost with strong fetters to the mortal plane. They were more difficult to send into the Well and a danger of becoming a more malevolent form of undead unless properly tended. “I don’t have enough left in me right now to fight you. Don’t…”
The dead woman clutched the shovel to her chest. The spectral instrument glistened with the memory of demonic ichor—she had wounded one of her killers at the very least before dying. “Please.” she spoke in an airy voice that echoed from far away. “The children…”
Brin looked around. There were no child spirits left. But now that she thought of it, there were too few to start for a village of that size if everyone had been killed. While they may have crossed over immediately, or never left a spirit at all, Brin grasped at a small hope, both for her sake and for the ghosts’. “They’re not here.” she said carefully.
The ghost nodded slowly, tentatively. “Sent them… through the run. To the bridge.”
“The run…” Brin wondered aloud before it hit her. Farming out on the frontier was a dangerous prospect; that was why they had mystically grown walls and small standing armies with everyone trained with a weapon. Spirit beasts, invading armies, and (it seemed) demons were a very real threat to their survival.
Given the constant danger, many copied the thieves’ runs found in large cities: tunnels underground with highly secure and hidden entrances on either side. In the event of an attack, those who couldn’t fight had a small chance to escape and hopefully survive the wild long enough to reach another town or armed caravan.
This new information bolstered Brin’s hopes. “Yes, the run. I can check it for you; make sure the children are safe… or at peace.”
“Thank you.” said the shade. Lowering the spade, she drew closer, ready to be sent into the Well.
Brin hesitated. “Before I send you, I have a question.” The ghost cocked her head, curious. Brin licked her lips before asking the question she’d come to the Homestead to ask. “Were any of the girls here called ‘Layaka?”
A glimmer of recognition danced in the ghost’s eyes. “Yes…” she paused, making an effort to recall memories that would have been top of mind in life. “The smith’s daughter. She was… to take them.”
Her gaze turned toward the river, and despite the houses, wall and distance in the way, it was as if she could see the bridge and the hidden exit to the run. It didn’t take any special connection to the spirit world to understand that.
“Thank you.” Brin murmured, reaching up toward the spirit’s heart. In a flash, the shade was released from its fetters in the mortal world and was free to sink into the Afterworld, where it would begin its journey to the Well. With a loud sigh, Brin hunched back to the ground, alone at last.
Or so she thought.
“The death of Bashurra the Crevasse: there will be songs about this one. I’ll probably write a book about it when I get back to Harpsfell.”
Kaiel was coming up the main path that led from the houses out past the fields and eventually to the gate. A sphere of light hung over his shoulder, shedding illumination all around him. The flute was in his hand and his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Brin smiled, and not just for his presence. No matter how well and truly tapped she felt, there was also a goodness and a warmth there that always came with putting lost souls to rest, and also some in seeing the handsome chronicler.
That smile only lasted as long as it took for him to come close enough for his light to fall on her. It was only then that she remembered that she had the ring off and her true form was on display for Kaiel to see. With a troubled cry, she backed out of the light and dashed for cover, finding it behind a rain barrel.
Kaiel froze where he was, confusion and traces of hurt evident on his shadowed face. “Brin?”
Even concealed behind the barrel, she pulled her cloak up around her and over her head. “Kaiel, I… please say you didn’t see too much.”
“I can have seen as much or as little as you wish.” He said, the hurt draining away from his face. Taking a few more steps forward, he stopped and came up with something that glinted silver under the light hovering over his shoulder. “But I have to say that the efforts to obfuscate it might have been worse than you imagined.”
After thoroughly patting her pockets, Brin muttered a curse. The succubus ring wasn’t on her person.
Kaiel examined the ring thoughtfully. “This must have been very expensive: it takes a very skilled spellcrafter to make a succubus ring that’s undetectable.”
Left with no choice, Brin thrust her hand out around the barrel. “Hand it here. Please.”
He held the ring out in the middle of his palm. “Well here it is. Come take it.”
“You know I can’t.” replied Brin. “This isn’t something to jest about, Kaiel.”
“No, I believe not.” Kaiel shucked off his coat and laid it out on the ground before sitting down on it to resume examining the ring. “Brin… do you know where the original succubus rings came from?” When the only response he got was an unhappy growl that a human or elven throat couldn’t have managed, he shrugged and continued.
“In the Age of Tragedies, the was an extremely vain King who ruled a kingdom in what is now Mindeforme. He had eight children, but all but the youngest daughter were, in his opinion, terribly ugly. So ugly that her refused to marry such as them off until they could be made beautiful. To that end, he offered the hand of the youngest and truly beautiful princess to whoever in the kingdom managed to make it so.
“One of those trying to win the hand of the princess was an unscrupulous mage who specialized in summoning. With his power, he reached across the void to the red moon, Mayana and plucked from that most terrible and merciless land, seven demons.”
Brin peeked around the barrel to watch him tell the story as only a member of the Bardic College could. It wasn’t just the words, but the gestures and expressions that made them the best storyspinners on Ere.
“They weren’t like the creations of the Threefold Moon,” Kaiel said, playing with the ring in his hands, “These were creatures who mirrored the darkness of mortal hearts: vanity, lust, superficial avarice—that is what a succubus is. And the mage destroyed them and forged their dark souls into seven beautiful rings of fine silver. Whosoever donned those rings would not only because inherently beautiful to whoever saw them, but they gave them powers of persuasive speech like the demons trapped inside.
“The mage won the princess’s hand, and the king made his ‘ugly’ children wear the rings at all times, for every day of their lives.” He scowled down at the ring and closed his fist over it. “But all wasn’t well. Because the demons in the rings couldn’t truly be destroyed as long as the rings drew upon them for power. Every person who wore the ring became twisted and depraved; reveling in harming others and destined to kill every lover they took.”
Kaiel took a deep breath, keeping the ring tightly held in his fist. “Over the past two hundred years, dozens of people were afflicted. Rich, stupid people still occasionally hire groups to seek them out, and spellcrafters still churn out these safe, ‘minor’ versions.”
His grim expression melted away as he carefully set the ring on the ground in front of him. “Personally, I don’t understand the need.”
From behind the barrel, Brin’s eye narrowed, but not in a glare. “I do.”
“I know you do.” he sighed. “And if you want me to close my eyes now and let you come get your ring, I will. But I want you to know that whether my eyes are open or closed, the person I see when I look at you after will be Brin, no matter what she looks like. And it’s Brin who I felt for, Brin who I defended against Ru’s accusations of treachery—accusations I now realize are because he sensed the succubus ring—and Brin who I will lose no respect for in any event.”
Brin hunched behind the rain barrel and weighed her options. She didn’t have any doubt that Kaiel was being sincere; even after such a short time, she knew that much about him. But then, it was such a short time, and the truth about who she was had been with her for years. As much as she’d grown to like the chronicler, theirs had so far only been a relationship of flirtation and the normal camaraderie found in a group working toward a common goal.
But was it even possible for it to become more when he knew that just by standing in front of him wearing the ring, she was lying to him? And not only that, but she would be lying to his adoptive sisters for the remainder of their journey together. She knew she wouldn’t tolerate that if he were the one keeping secrets.
“It isn’t that easy.” She said, even though her mind was made up. “It doesn’t matter who you see if the problem is what I see and what other people see. I bought that ring because I knew that without it, no one was going to take me seriously. I don’t mean this to be cruel, Kaiel, but a human can’t understand it.”
Kaiel was quiet for a bit, and then said, “That is unfortunate but true in many places. But this place, where it’s just you and me? This isn’t one of those places. I never said to destroy the ring… I just want to see you, Brin.”
The note of urgency in his voice made her throat tighten and cemented her resolve. “And you promise that you’ll give the ring back?”
“On my life and on my voice. That’s how a loreman pledges their word.”
“You aren’t a loreman yet.” she pointed out.
He spread his arms in an expansive shrug. “There isn’t an oath for chroniclers. So all I can give you is my word.”
“And you’ve yet to give me reason to doubt you.” Brin admitted as she stood from behind the barrel. For a moment, she hesitated on the edge of the illumination cast by his light spell. Then, drawing herself up with as much pride and bearing as she could muster, she stepped forward.
There was plenty about her natural appearance that tracked with that generated by the ring. Her eyes, though now slightly larger, were still a deep, rich green that didn’t happen in humans; her hair was still ash blonde and hanging down past her shoulders in soft waves; and her ears were still pointed and stuck up instead of out like an elf’s of half-elf’s.
But instead of flawless, brown skin, she was covered in a fine pelt that was the same san brown as her skin under the effects of the ring, and her hands sported rough pads on palms and fingertips. The fur was short enough to be almost non-existent on her lips, nose and the inner areas of her earlobes. And though Kaiel couldn’t see, he could tell by how she walked in her boots that her stance had shifted onto her toes and that the arrangement of her spine was giving her a certain sway at the waist that neither human nor elf could achieve.
The most obvious change was her tail: a long, sleek appendage, that twitched nervously behind her.
Still forcing herself into a regal bearing, she closed the distance between them and reached out toward the hand holding the ring. But instead of grabbing it immediately, she laid her palm atop his and drew it back until their fingers interlocked with the ring between them.
Kaiel looked down at the gesture; the same affectionate moment they’d shared back in Daire City when he asked her to accompany him to Solgrum’s ill-fated ball. His eyes traced her arm back up to the shoulder, then along the slope of her neck to her face and up until their eyes met. There was sadness in those eyes, and hope, but there was also great defiance.
Half-miare.” He said quietly. “I-I wasn’t expecting that. Not many…”
“Not many non-miare find miare attractive.” She finished for him and took the ring from his hand. But Kaiel shook his head.
“That wasn’t what I was going to say at all. Not many survive. Even to be born. A human mother can’t survive the… chemistry… involved in carrying a half-miare and miare have difficulties. I always thought you were a rare woman, Brin. I guess I wasn’t just being poetic.” His fingers rubbed against one another, missing hers.
Brin was rubbing the ring with her thumb without really noticing. “Elven blood. My father was half-elven. That may have helped.” Only then did she look away, a dark expression on her face. “Not that it helped life at home. They met after the Ashing; he was part of an envoy from Vini Tresolm rendering aid to the refugees of the Great Green Expanse. I suppose they loved each other, but from what I saw growing up, Mother was mostly Father’s slave; doing everything he told her with a placid smile and a swish of her tail.” Her own tail flicked irritably at that.
“Every miare I knew growing up was the same: so concerned with being liked, being accepted and welcomed that they would lie on a puddle and let anyone walk across them if it earned them a nod. People started expecting the same from me too, and I wasn’t having any of it, so…” the ring slipped easily back onto her finger. With it came a cool wash of power that seemed to erase everything of her that was miare and left a half-elf who, now that Kaiel knew the whole truth, looked like a poor rendering.
Stepping forward, Kaiel took her right hand, the one with the ring on it, and held it between them. “So you hid who you really are behind the ring.”
Brin closed her hand over his, but shook her head savagely. “No. I hid what gets in the way of people seeing who I really am.”
Kaiel swallowed. She was right and he knew it. Especially in Novrom, people tended to take advantage of the culture of eagerness many of the refugee miare adopted after fleeing the Ashing of the Green and reinforced it until even the latest generation, who grew up in those areas often grew up with that attitude ingrained.
“I… can’t argue with that.” He said at length. “But I do wish you hadn’t lied—at least to me. Ru thought you were another sleeper agent or something and ash me if I didn’t give it more credence than I’d like to admit.”
She pursed her lips. “I understand. But now you know.” She looked around them at the dark and deserted village. “There’s something else you should know: Layaka was real—a real girl from this village. But she didn’t die here. They had a run and she was meant to take the children to safety.” The hope in her eyes dimmed. “What are the chances she survived?”
The change of subject didn’t escape Kaiel’s notice, but he didn’t point it out. He craned his neck to look at the night sky. “Assuming she had horses and a wagon? And assuming the bridge was destroyed after the attack…”
“It was.” Brin said quickly. “I crossed it the day I came across the homestead.”
Kaiel nodded at the confirmation. “If all that’s true, I like her chances. The bridge is the head of the South Coast Road and that takes you into the Principality of Sanga-Traad. All she’d need to do is make it south for about a day and she’d be on a route that’s regularly patrolled by folks with ash chalk and fireballs. There’s any number of enclaves, fishing villages, and trading posts she could reach from there. If she had a mind to, she could even have reached Rivenport along the long path in the time since the attack.”
“So there’s hope.” She said, making it almost, but not quite a question.
Their faces had drifted dangerously close, but Kaiel didn’t draw away when he nodded every so slightly. “There’s hope.” Then he drew her hand, the one with the ring on it, up between them and kissed it. “But we need to go now. Raiteria is waiting on the path with the mounts.”
Brin took a step back and collected herself, pulling the ring-bearing hand close to her body. “Yes.” She said with too much resolve in her voice. “And we should see how Taylin and Ru fared.”
They left Idrian Homestead, walking as close as they could manage, occasionally allowing an arm or hand to touch in passing.
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 35 – UnleashedRune Breaker: Chapter 37 – Sins of the Hailene >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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