Rune Breaker: Chapter 37 – Sins of the Hailene

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3)
‘Six months have passed and I find myself having doubts. The project is not what it was when we began. We endeavored to create new hope for a people who had been abandoned by the gods they once served. Now the Office of the Defense Chancellor and the House of Advancement speak of them only as tools or weapons. I fear that we have done a terrible thing. What I fear more is that we shall do worse before it is over.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
 
***
The command tent that Solgrum’s army had pitched on the floodplain outside Idrian Homestead was far smaller than the commandeered pavilion Percival employed back on the night of the attack at Daire City. The table inside was low, elevated on spare boards meant for repairing wagons only high enough for a person sitting on a cushion to fit their legs under it. Only two lanterns lit the space within, their light amplified by a lensing effect conjured by Tal Eserin.
 
Aside from a few cheap cushions and Percival’s kit, the only other furniture within was a portable iron cook stove. The stove was a luxury Percival inherited from his predecessor: while the rest of the army cooked on or around a bare fire, the general cooked as if he were still at home.
 
The atmosphere was quiet and tense as the occupants waited.
 
Percival, having refused the be drugged into sleeping just to temper the pain of his gored and cauterized leg, sat at the head of the table. His wounded leg was extended to one side and draped over with his spare uniform jacket to conceal the balmed and bandage wound. He was wearing a robe, as it was the only thing he had that could cover him without pinching the wound.
 
At his left hand sat Tal Eserin, Jaks, and Liytheed. Of the three, only Liytheed, newly promoted Warden, was in the dark about the reasons for the late night meeting. She and her scouts had been absent from the battle, and had only seen the drama unfolding from afar.
 
Tal Eserin sat placidly, one arm tucked into his armpit while he sipped from the shallow bowl of liquor rationed to officers with their meals. Beside him, Jaks sat stiff and implacable, one hand on his gigantic daizaku greatsword. He would not relax until it had been proven to him that those across he table from him were no treat.
 
Those in question, sitting at Percival’s right, were Taylin and Ru. The former sat on her knees with her arms folded insecurely and her gaze averted to stare at the table. She hadn’t touched the bowl of liquor set before her. She had placed herself near the stove, almost huddled against it even though the night was warm enough that the others had worked to avoid sitting near it.
 
And at her right was the Rune Breaker, who had immediately downed his own proffered bowl in a single gulp, and who was now engaged in a glaring contest of sorts with Jaks. All the while, he wore a mockingly confident smirk on his face that dared the minotaur to draw his curved honor blade against the dark mage.
 
It wasn’t a moment too soon for anyone when they heard the guards stationed outside the tent call a challenge and heard a response. After an exchange of words that was muffled by the canvas, the flap was pulled aside to reveal a female minotaur.
 
She was broader even than Jaks, and wore a hide cuirass and leather kilt. The short fur on her face was marred with white lines growing over dozens of thin scars as if she’d been attacked at one point by a horde of very small things with sharp claws.
 
“By the Warden’s orders,” she said, inclining her head first to Percival and then to Liytheed, “The scouts have located the companions to the general’s guest and escorted them here. Shall they be sent in?”
 
“Please do so with haste.” said Percival, his voice strained even as he took his ease.
 
The minotaur stepped aside and gestured for those standing behind her to enter.
 
Raiteria came in ahead of Kaiel and Brin. She was coated in what sawdust and splinters hadn’t fallen off her on the ride in. The smugness of her smile rivaled Ru’s. “I wish I had stayed with you two, if only to have seen that hulking bastard burn up close.” She eyed Percival and his three officers before adding, “This is what happens to people who touch nir-lumos children without permission.”
 
When no one reacted to that, the smile faded. “Something’s wrong. Taylin?” She looked to her adoptive sister and read the other woman’s posture immediately. “What happened?”
 
Percival looked to Tal Eserin, silently giving him permission to speak in his place. Normally it would be Jaks’s place, but the minotaur had already opted to cede diplomatic command to Tal Eserin.
 
“There is no cause for alarm. Of those here, only the general was injured, and thanks to Miss Taylin’s actions, will be able to recover fully once we reach lands with unobstructed vitae.” reported Tal Eserin.
 
Kaiel raised his hand. “I am from the Bardic College, on the path of the loreman. If the general permits it, I can call on my discarnate magic to mend him.”
 
“Bards can heal without vitae?” Jaks said skeptically.
 
“Loreman can.” said Kaiel. “The discarnate energy we wield comes from the Well of Souls and can be bent to emulate most elements; psi and vitae being the easiest.” Both Jaks and Tal Eserin looked to Percival. Percival in turn looked to Liytheed.
 
The woman nodded. “I’ve seen bards light fires on ships in the middle of squalls: all vin and akua without a hint of flaer around. I would believe him.”
 
Percival beckoned to Kaiel. “Then I welcome you to come and try.”
 
As he walked around the table to tend the general’s wounds, Kaiel took stock. Whatever the reason for the meeting, Percival hadn’t summoned his entire senior staff; only those who were presumably closest to him. Additionally, he’d waited for Taylin’s companions to arrive to start. That meant it had something to do with their group in particular.
 
He shot a glare at Ru, but the wizard looked nowhere near as proud of himself as Kaiel imagined her would, had he caused a military council to be summoned concerning him. That left Taylin…
 
Kaiel knelt by Percival. The general threw aside the jacket covering his leg and gently peeled back the bandage. The wound had been slathered in medicinal smelling balm the color of phlegm. Through the translucent unguent, Kaiel could make you the puncture wound, which was pinched closed and burned until it sealed together.
 
The burn was in the shape of a hand.
 
“Blood to ice. What did this to you? The print is too small to have been Bashurra.” Kaiel clamped his jaw shut, but the words were already out there. Too late, he’d started to get an idea of what caused the cauterizing burn.
 
Tal Eserin coughed politely. “That’s actually the reason for this meeting. You see—.”
 
“It was me.” Taylin said before things could be put into a more charitable light. She refused to look at anyone in the tent as she rambled “I burned him to keep him from bleeding to death. But that’s not why we’re here. During the battle—well during every battle, there’s a part of me that… that really likes the fighting. It roars and rages and it makes me stronger, tougher.”
 
She gazed off into the middle distance. “But if I don’t keep it chained down, it changes me. Actually changes me.” Brushing her hands up and down her arms, she tried to mime having scales. “Physically, I mean. I’ve tried to hide it, but I couldn’t tonight. Bashurra attacked my mind and made me remember something and… it broke free.”
 
Though Taylin fell silent, the others in the tent mostly still looked at her in the hopes that she could explain further.
 
When she didn’t, Percival spoke to the assembled. “Is anyone here able to elaborate?”
 
“I know a bit, but not the whole of it.” Kaiel admitted. He cringed wen he heard Taylin gasp out her shock and, he imagined, her betrayal. The assuage his guilt, he hummed deeply and set the vibration of the Song into his palm before pressing it to Percival’s wound. The slimy balm was cool and squelchy to the touch, but he ignored it as he began to vary his tone to work the healing.
 
Brin, who had been left standing just behind Raiteria leaned down to the halfling. “Did you know about this?”
 
“Well some things are obvious even if you aren’t reading books on xenology every night for pleasure.” Raiteria leaned over, forced Taylin to meet her eye, and winked. No matter what the whole of the truth was, it didn’t have any bearing on Taylin being Rai’s sister.
 
“Really,” She continued, “red wings don’t just happen in hailene any more than blue ones or stripes. And no offense to the general, but a regular hailene isn’t half as strong as Taylin.” She shrugged as if none of it actually mattered. “I always thought she was dragonsired.”
 
Tal Eserin set down his bowl. “She is not dragonsired. I can catch as much of that by scent. And what she describes is nothing like my experience transitioning between forms. I am always myself and always in control of my transitions.”
 
“What she describes sounds more like lycanthropy.” said Liytheed, taking a sip from her bowl.
 
Jaks snorted rudely. “You can’t be a were-dragon.”
 
“Not so much that you can’t be, as we’ve never heard of it.” Liytheed said. “Or hengeyokai for that matter. She could be a dragon hengeyokai.”
 
The wound in Percival’s thigh was shrinking nicely and the blisters from the burn were popping and receding at a satisfactory rate. Kaiel felt it was safe enough to let the spell take its own course from there on out, and rejoined the conversation. Across the table, he saw Taylin listening to the speculation with an increasingly lost look about her.
 
“Taylin.” He let some of the power form the Well seep into his voice. Though the volume didn’t change, it cut across everyone else’s words as if it had been shouted, and garnered everyone’s attention. Once they were properly focused on him, he dropped the use of power and spoke normally. “I suspect that you wanted to explain this to us? Is that why the meeting was held until we arrived?”
 
“It was.” said Taylin. “Only I don’t know how to explain it because even I don’t know everything. I am ang’hailene because I’m not pure blooded. But I’ve seen ang’hailene who were part dragon…er, dragonsired, as you say and you’re right: they’re not like me. The mas… the officers on the airships told me there was something wrong with me; and they were right.”
 
“Officers aboard airships?” Jaks rumbled. “Where? The Accords clearly prohibit military airships. What honorless whelps have decided to break the accords?”
 
“Heh.” Ru’s smirk became a predatory grin. “You said you wanted to tell the whole truth, Miss Taylin. It seems you’ve told more truth than you intended.”
 
Jaks, who had already been at the limits of his patience from Ru’s leering rattled his sword and shook his horns before looking to Taylin. “What is he talking about?”
 
Ru’s yellow eyes glittered and the link betrayed his sense of satisfaction to Taylin. “Shall I tell them?” he asked in the same way he once asked her, ‘shall I kill them?’.
 
Whatever shame and nervousness Taylin was feeling was washed away by the irritation she felt at Ru for taking such pride in being an irritation to their hosts. “Go ahead, Ru.” She said quietly and through clenched teeth. “You can’t make things worse at this point.”
 
“Heh.” Ru laughed again and raised his chin so that he was looking down his nose at the officers. “No one had broken your accords. Miss Taylin hails from the time of the War of Ascension.” He held up a hand to cut off protest. “And before you ask, she is not immortal: she asked a great power to let her sleep until the war as over. That great power granted her wish and she awakened in this era only a few months ago.”
 
Jaks flicked his ears in annoyance. “And now we’re supposed to believe there is a spell that can allow one to sleep half a thousand years?”
 
“I didn’t say ‘spell’. I said a great power. Perhaps the great power. I speak of course…” He paused, his mind prepared for the chaos he knew would follow. “Of the Rune Breaker.”
 
The room fell into uneasy silence. Mercenaries, more than anyone else traded stories about the legendary weapon. Many of them dreamed of even finding and claiming it. And everyone present among Percival’s officers had either heard the earlier pronouncement that Ru was the Rune Breaker, or heard Bashurra call him such.
 
That didn’t mean they had believed him; people made insane boasts in battle all the time. But there was one person in the tent had heard nothing of the sort.
 
Brin burst out laughing. “Light above us, Ru. I’ve seen and done many strange things in my life and Taylin’s always showed a lot of interest in the War of Ascension, so you almost had me believing you. But the Rune Breaker? Do you know how many contracts I’ve taken by ambitious idiots who thought they knew where to find it? Every one turned out to be a rusting sword or rotted bow, usually with no magic at all to speak of.”
 
Languidly, Ru rose to his feet.
 
Ru. Taylin warned him mentally.
 
“No, let us have the truth here. All of it. I am the Rune Breaker. And all of you sitting there across form me have seen proof. I cast the spells of war when your battlemagi could hardly light a campfire. I tore apart the very fabric of reality to unleash the power hidden at its core upon my enemy.” He met each of their gazes in turn. “Tell me that you still believe me an ordinary wizard.”
 
“Being no ordinary wizard does not mean that you are the Rune Breaker.” Jaks said. He lifted his bowl and slammed back his liquor. He showed Ru the empty bowl before placing it back on the table upside down; a challenge among mercenaries.
 
Ru snorted. “Whatever. I’ve spoken my truth and it doesn’t matter if it is a truth that any believe. Now,” He turned and leered at Brin. “Perhaps there are others who wish to speak their own truth.”
 
“Ru.” This warning came in mental form from Taylin, but out loud and enhanced by the Well from Kaiel. The chronicler had finished healing Percival and had stood up. His regal bearing was marred only just a little by the powerful smelling and filthy looking balm dripping from his fingers.
 
With his clean hand, he pointed at the dark mage. “Don’t start.”
 
“Come now, Arunsteadeles. If you’re fool enough to give your heart to her, you should learn why she reeks of obfuscation magic!” Ru said forcefully.
 
Kaiel remained dangerously calm. “I know what she obscures and I advise you to leave it be as it is none of your concern.”
 
“Like hell!” said Ru. “We’ve already had one traitor in our midst already. Or have you forgotten how that ended, chronicler? I do.”
 
Taylin grabbed his sleeve without looking at him. He stopped; if only in shock at the gesture, for Taylin rarely touched anyone unless under duress. Slowly, deliberately, she raised her eyes to meet his. “Now isn’t the time, Ru. As much as you argue with him, you know Kaiel is trustworthy and he says there’s nothing to worry about.”
 
She let go of his sleeve and scrubbed her hand through her hair. “We just had a long battle and more than enough stress to go around. Please; stop picking fights.”
 
Ru rumbled deep in his throat, enough to give Jaks a run for his money, but subsided. “Yes, Miss Taylin.”
 
Percival observed that last exchange with curiosity, but decided not to pursue it. He was, however, feeling far better after being healed. “I’m inclined to agree with Miss Taylin. The battle has been won, but at cost. No need to waste more energy than we need to. So as engaging as your group’s arguments may be to you—this meeting was convened to discuss Miss Taylin’s transformation on the battlefield.”
 
Taylin shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you more. No one told me anything when I was growing up about who and what I really was. Though I did read some books while in Daire City that said the hailene made extensive study of the science of using magic to alter living things. I think maybe they did something to me when I was a baby, or even before I was born.”
 
“No unheard of.” said Tal Eserin. “The Kimeans are rumored to do such things.”
 
“But with a dragon?” asked Liytheed. “Even Kimeans at their worst couldn’t capture a dragon to experiment on.”
 
Kaiel wiped his hand off on his pants. “The hailene fielded the mightiest aerial navy in the history of the world. If anyone could do it, they could.”
 
The discussion threatened to become another round of gross speculation, but the newly rejuvenated Percival waved them to silence. “I think you all misinterpret my reasons for this line of questioning. What Miss Taylin is and why is not my concern. My concern,” he looked Taylin in the eye, “Is that I watched you from where I was pinioned to that monster’s head.
 
“You were inflicted with a rage like a berserker. I’ve seen berserkers, worked in armies that fielded them. The battlerage they call up doesn’t leave them once they leave the fight. Same goes for the tales I’ve heard of lycanthropes: the beast is always there; waiting. The berserkers had their own camp, just so that if one of them flew into a rage in the night, they only posed a danger to other berserkers.”
 
Percival extended a hand in Taylin’s direction. “You saved my life twice over: once from my own hand when I planned to detonate my grenades and again when you kept me from bleeding out. In short, I owe you and the least I can do is offer you the protection and hospitality of my command on the journey back to Daire City. And, if we manage to hold on to our charter with Solgrum’s death, I would offer you a place in our ranks.
 
“But that all hinges on this question: are you safe to have in my camp? Would we have to worry about that demonic rage igniting and being turned against us instead of our enemies?”
 
Taylin started to duck her head. It was the respectful, submissive response she’d been expected to give back on the ships. But she was not on the ships and Percival was an equal and in her debt. There was nothing for her to be submissive about. So instead, she only nodded and raised her chin.
 
“It doesn’t usually take me over like that. I use it to fight, the keep focused and aware.” Her voice went slightly off in the middle of the sentence, becoming markedly more aggressive. Her gaze became cold. Analytical, but with a smoldering fury buried within. “But Bashurra reached in where he shouldn’t and tried to use my memories. He had to die for that transgression.”
 
Beside her, Ru’s eyebrow twitched. In the link, the transition, if that was even what it was, felt as if Taylin had just slipped on a strange new garment. It was still her wearing it, but it altered her as well.
 
As quickly as it happened, it passed.
 
Not seeming to have noticed herself, Taylin relaxed and shrugged, “But it doesn’t matter. Our place isn’t in Daire, it’s in Rivenport.”
 
“Rivenport?” Jaks asked, the sneer in his words expressing exactly what he thought of the place.
 
Kaiel stepped in, not wanting the mercenaries to see another strange outburst from his friend. “Aye. Bashurra was only part of the attack on Daire City—a distraction for another demon to take one of the nir-lumos children.”
 
My child.” Rai said, her face losing all mirth as the focus of the conversation shifted.
 
“He’s been taken as ransom to a place near the Kimean Isles.” Kaiel studied the officers for a moment. Having sold their swords across Novrom and beyond, they were more worldly than more stable soldiers, and the Warden, Liytheed had already displayed some knowledge of the mystical. “The ransom is something called the ‘soul battery’. Even as read as I am, I’ve never heard of it, so we’re bound for Rivenport to query the Historical Society’s Prime Librarian.”
 
The item didn’t jog any memories for the assembled, but Jaks snorted rudely and chuckled. “Why not offer him the ‘Rune Breaker’.”
 
Liytheed and Percival stifled chuckles of their own while Ru seethed, but Tal Eserin stroked his chin. “I’ve never heard of it, but I think I can give you some help—the road to Rivenport will take you a week in good conditions and a petition to the Prime Librarian (if I recall correctly, as it’s been twenty years) takes days.”
 
He inclined his head to Percival. “With your leave, captain, I would like to cast a Wind Missive to the Historical Society on behalf of them, so that their petition will get their ahead of them and save them time.” A bittersweet expression touched his eyes, “A child should not go any longer than is needed, separated from their parents.”
 
It didn’t take any longer than the span of a breath for Percival to agree. “Of course. It is likely that our losses might have been much, much greater if not for all of these peoples’ help.” He dipped his head to Kaiel, Brin and Raiteria in turn.
 
“The Army of Solgrum will do whatever we can to aid you on your way then. We have plentiful rations and replacement mounts, as well as up-to-date maps of the region and minor deterrents for the most common spirit beasts in the area.” He spread his arms. “For tonight, we offer you the protection and hospitality of our camp.”
 
Unaccustomed to other hailene speaking to her in gratitude and with overtures of friendship, Taylin raked a hand through her hair and looked elsewhere. “Thank you. We’d be most grateful.”
 
After summoning a runner to spread the word about the army’s guests, Percival concluded the meeting.
 
Tal Eserin rose and approached Kaiel. “I’ll be standing by the send your missive to Rivenport. Just bring it to me once you’ve composed it.”
 
“Much obliged.” said Kaiel. “Incidentally, what’s the largest you can send?”
 
“You plan to send something more than the petition to the Prime Librarian?”
 
Kaiel scratched his chin. “Hedging my bets by checking in with the Bardic College arm in Rivenport. They haven’t heard from me since I reported that I was acting as liaison between the Grandmother of the Winter Willow Clan and King Solgrum. Much has changed.” He spared a glance for Taylin who was stretching from too long spent sitting at the table. “And grown more complicated. That and paying a boat to go anywhere near Kimean waters is going to cost a great deal.”
 
“Ah.” said Tal Eserin. “I understand. Rest assured that as one who as earned the title ‘Windmason’, I can end any missive you can come up with, provided you aren’t sending a saga or story book.”
 
“Too bad,” Kaiel replied with a cheeky grin, “Before this is over, I suspect the College really will expect me to write a book on it.”
 
After making sure Kaiel knew where to find him, Tal Eserin took his leave.
 
With a free meal now on the horizon, Raiteria managed to muster her irreverence once more. “Okay, everyone. We can’t keep tying up the command tent like this—we should find our way to the mess!”
 
“That does sound good right about now.” said Taylin. “And something to drink: my mouth feels like fired clay.”
 
Brin nodded in agreement. “Same here. A cleansing that large is the same as running fifty miles as far as my body is concerned. A big meal and a pitcher of beer would be wonderful. And if they happen to have a tub and hot water around afterward, it would be like being cradled in Hessa’s arms.”
 
Even Ru, despite not voicing it, seemed eager to take the edge off the battle and tense aftermath.
 
As the group headed out, Kaiel hung back, his eye on Taylin and his mind on her story.
 
There were historical accounts and emerging evidence that corroborated what she suspected. The years leading up to and during the War of Ascension, the hailene had pushed the boundaries of applied magic, creating technologies the likes of which the world had never seen. And some of them had to do with using magic to permanently alter living creatures.
 
The Thirteen Nations Accord, among other things, like military airships, strictly prohibited such techniques being applied to living beings. The practice had been stamped out everywhere in the known world.
 
Everywhere, that was, except Mon Sulus Kime: the precise place they were headed when all was said and done.
 
“I wish I knew what you really are… for your sake..” He muttered to his friend and adoptive sister’s back.
 
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ru’s voice suddenly beside him made Kaiel flinch, much to the dark mage’s clear amusement. And without any elaboration, he left, floating as he was wont to, just inches off the ground.
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 36 – The Truth of BrinRune Breaker: Chapter 38 – Bonds >>

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