‘Leytic noted in his examination that the confluence of magical energy within the spark-afflicted smith’s body is similar, but not identical to those found in dragons. However, without fresh, uncontaminated samples, this will likely remain just a hypothesis.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
It was quite late by the time bellies were filled, messages were sent, and camp had been broken. Tal Eserin saw to it that the group was given adequate space near the heart of the army’s encampment.
Breaking camp didn’t require much: it was a fine, warm night, and nearly everyone opted for bed rolls only instead of pitching a tent. Nearly everyone: Ru disappeared into the House at the first opportunity and didn’t re-emerge until morning.
The rest were too tired, confused, or conflicted to do much else but try and get what sleep they could. And they all knew they needed it, as the next day would involve embarking on a lengthy trip through harsh, spirit beast haunted wilderness to reach the Passage of Conquerors and Rivenport beyond.
Before the disc of the sun, Ola, was fully above the hills to the east, Percival appeared with Jaks and a contingent from the quartermaster carrying a litter of supplies. He arrived to find Kaiel and Rai up and about, cooking some Albuk’s porridge over a small fire.
“Morning.” Percival greeted them.
Rai was intent on the food and didn’t even spare him a glance. Kaiel however, stood with respect; straightening his shirt as he did. “Good morning, General Cloudherd. I see the leg is better.”
Percival nodded. “Much. In fact…” He tossed something to Kaiel, who caught it deftly. “A token of my appreciation.”
Taking a look at what he’d just caught, Kaiel blinked in confusion. It was a metal flask about twice as wide as his thumb and just a bit longer. Atop it was a mechanism that looked something like the hammer of a firearm. “I…” he started.
“Pull the lever back sharply.” Percival said helpfully.
Kaiel put his thumb on the thing that looked like a gun’s hammer and pulled it back as Percival instructed. There was a scraping noise and suddenly a tongue of flame sprang from a port revealed by the pulled lever. Shocked, Kaiel let go of the lever. A spring caused it to slide back into position, covering the port and snuffing the flame.
A grin spread across the chronicler’s face. “Light’s grace, that’s fantastic. Where did you get it?”
“There’s a Rizeni tobacconist I favor from back in my sellsword days—he’s got a man that makes them and he gives ’em away with bulk shipments. Used to give away cases of matches, but now he gives you one of these. Calls it an auto-striker.” A wan look came to Percival’s face, making him look far older than he was. “’Back in my sellsword days’. Guess I’ll be going back to those days now that Solgrum’s dead.”
Kaiel flicked the lever, watching the flame ignite once again. “Not necessarily.” He’d actually been giving that some thought—along with so many other things of late.
“Yes, necessarily.” Percival heaved a sigh and glanced back at his soldiers who all remained stone-faced in discipline. “We’ll be lucky if they wait for us to get back to Daire to start the succession war. You know how the Principalities are.”
Snuffing the flame again, Kaiel nodded slowly and straightened his back. “I do indeed, General. I was born and raised here. But I also know the history of Torm Dondaire. Solgrum (who bought his way onto the throne, yes?), paid off the merchants to oppose Prince Rayneir II and hired you to provide the muscle to back it?”
Though Percival nodded, Kaiel didn’t bother waiting to see if he did because he already knew that much was true. “But the people never believed in him. Most of them hated him.”
“They hate us as well.” said Percival. “They aren’t thrilled to have minotaurs and hailene in their midst.”
Kaiel shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Granted it’s been years, but last I was in Torm Dondaire, they were an open people. I suspect that they only hate you for your connection to Solgrum. His treatment of you aside, I doubt you would argue if I said that Desminon Solgrum was not a man of the people.”
“What difference does it make why they hate us if they still hate us?” asked Percival with an air of exasperation.
A clever smile spread across Kaiel’s face. “Because there is a ruler that the people want in charge of their nation, General. I heard the rumors while I was in Daire City, saw how the priests of Pandemos talked… Rayneir II yet lives. And she will try and make her claim now that Solgrum is dead and whatever bribes and politicking he had in play are buried alongside him.”
Percival stroked his chin in thought. “You’re suggesting we return to Daire and declare loyalty to Rayneir II then? It has merit; if she’ll have us. We will be on the side that the people prefer. And seeing as Solgrum ensured that we are the largest standing army in the principality, it would very likely be the winning side.”
“The general rank suits you.” Kaiel decided. “Tacticians and brave men are worth much, but it is the man who considers the council of others that holds the greatest advantage in battle.”
“In a lot of things.” Percival observed. “My thanks, Chronicler Arunsteadeles; to you and your companions. As you can see, I’ve mustered what supplies we can offer. Take what you want and can carry. Whatever’s left, just leave here and my people will retrieve it.”
Kaiel inclined his head. “My thanks as well, General Cloudherd. May I one day write a tale of the time I met a man destined for greatness.”
Within the hour, everyone was up. The quick and largely tasteless repast of Albuk’s was bolted down and the group started in on sorting through the supplies Percival left them.
Gaddigan was refitted with new cerato-leather saddlebags designed to be more comfortable for the horse over long distances. They were also loaded with dried meat, grain, and other food staples as well as more up-to date camping supplies.
Of more interest were several clay jars of a bitter smelling tincture that could be rubbed onto an animal or person to make them less appetizing to predators. It was the secret to how the army’s scouts were able to range so far afield without fear of being stalked by all but the most starved or territorial creatures, including spirit beasts.
Taylin hardly spoke unless spoken to throughout the morning’s packing. Everyone respected that and kept the tone of conversation light, skirting the burning questions they wanted to ask even though they knew Taylin couldn’t answer them.
“So this is the dangerous leg we’re heading out on?” Raiteria asked Kaiel as she coiled a finely braided spidersilk rope onto the horn of her pony’s saddle.
Kaiel was just getting done buckling the last of his own horse’s saddlebags on and turned to give her a grave nod. “To reach the Passage of Conquerors from here, we have two choices: South through all the tiny coastal principalities; a trip that would take weeks and fail to make Immurai’s deadline, or west and south; through the Principality of Khish.
“Khish is run by Denaiian aesthetics who stick to their cloisters and have no need to make safe paths. In fact, they prefer the place crawling with spirit beasts and big predators—keeps outsiders away fairly well.”
“Oh, the mad kind of Denaiian.” Rai said, nodding sagely.
“I hesitate to call them mad. They don’t hurt anyone, not like the sect that runs Calderia. They just let the wild nature of the world do their guard duty for them.” Kaiel shrugged. “Not unlike the elves of the Tresholm, really. Just replace Denaii with Sylph and it’s much the same.”
Raiteria made a face as she patted the pony on the nose for behaving while being prepared for travel. “I just don’t trust Denaiians in general. Because they don’t trust halflings.”
Making a non-committal noise in his throat, Kaiel waved the idea away. “The mainstream sects might have some less than kind things to say about nir-lumos, but I’ve known halflings that worship the Lawgiver. They’re mostly nir-ley and nir-lato.”
The difference, to everyone but halflings, was cultural. Nir-ley halflings had given up the nomadic lifestyle many centuries ago and with it much of what nir-lumos considered the ‘halfling religion’, a mix of worship for Pandemos, Sylph and Hessa as the wife of Pandemos. They were mostly rural, living in farming enclaves and worshiping Hessa first and foremost.
Nir-lato was a nir-lumos catch-all term for halflings that no longer confined themselves to any specific way of halfling life; living anywhere they wished and worshiping who they wished. The nir-lumos often referred to them as ‘city halflings’, which was highly inaccurate.
It was common for nir-lumos to hold a superstition that they were a race apart from their kin, and while they were all still ‘cousins’, the offspring of any cross-lifestyle couple would be infertile.
Rai shook her head sadly. “Poor, poor cousins. I wouldn’t give up the family and freedom of the caravan for anything.”
Choosing not to get into a cultural argument, Kaiel merely nodded and double-checked all the ties and buckles on his saddle and packs. “In any event, we should be fine. We can rub the mounts down with that tincture at night and sleep in the House. In three days’ time, we should be on the Passage of Conquerors, which is relatively well patrolled by King Nov’s own army.”
“How long after that?” Raiteria asked, the usual mischievous glint leaving her eyes.
Kaiel saw this and all lightness left his voice. “Three or four days depending on the weather. Once we’re in Rivenport, it might take a day or two to secure a ship, but from there, Kimean waters are only a few days’ sail on a steamship or something similar.”
He reached out and patted her shoulder, offering a weak smile. “We’ll be far ahead of Immurai’s deadline. Don’t worry.”
“Are you worried about why Immurai wants us on Nhan Raduul?” she asked, not looking up at him. Instead, she looked over to where Taylin was rechecking the supplies on offer.
“More and more every day.” Kaiel admitted. “He’s luring us, but he certainly didn’t leave Bashurra instructions not to kill us. That makes me wonder exactly what it is that he wants out of all this. All the tales told of Immurai—Gaunt or Masked—describe him as manipulative, specializing in multilevel plotting. Ru says the same. It all adds up to this terrible feeling that I’m missing something…”
Across from them, Taylin stooped to examine the piled objects on the litter with open curiosity. Everything had already been picked over, mostly by Brin and Kaiel who had the most experience with traveling abroad, but her interest was in how many items there illustrated to her just how far into the future she was.
There was food stored in tin cans; utility knives the folded in on themselves, but could be snapped into readiness at the touch of a button, and chemicals sealed in thick glass that emitted light without heat when agitated.
She picked up a steel cylinder, about one and a half feet long and covered in brass-work, to give it a closer look. There were two buttons made of polished bone near the center of it, set into recesses in the brass-work that would have just fit fingers slightly smaller than her own. These flanked a brass lever with a bone knob set into its own, wider recess.
After turning the thing around in her hands for a bit, and failing to deduce what it did, she held it at arm’s length and pushed the lever along its groove.
It clicked, sounding like something failed to engage, and the lever snapped back in place on a spring.
Undeterred, Taylin pressed one of the buttons. There was a moment of resistance and then:
Ka-chunk. Two lengths of steel, each a little over two feet long, snapped out of the ends of the cylinder with a kick that almost caused her to drop the device. The lever also twitched, jumping to the other end of its groove.
The soldier in Taylin understood what she was holding almost immediately now: a perfectly balanced steel quarterstaff. What was more; it was an easily concealed steel quarterstaff.
“If you hit the other button, it expands all the way out to eight feet.”
Taylin started at the voice and looked up to see Brin standing on the other side of the litter from her. The other woman was wrapped in her traveling cloak despite the warm day, and had her hair bound up close to her head and tied under a scarf. The Barratta was clutched in one hand, tucked tight to her body in an unconsciously defensive gesture.
“Very useful when traveling,” she continued, “It’s light and multifunctional.”
The comment made Taylin relax. She’d been on edge ever since the meeting, waiting for her companions to subject her to a barrage of the same questions she’d always asked herself: Why had the hailene done what they’d done to her? What was she really capable of? What did all of the alterations make her, exactly?
She did have an answer to the last: ang’hailene. It was an incomplete one though. Others were called that for much smaller deviations from the hailene ideal.
“Taylin?” Brin’s voice called her back from the mire of unanswered questions she was creating for herself.
“Um… yes.” Taylin said, distracted. “I think I’ll take it then. It might prove useful.” She looked down at the staff and gave it a small frown. It expanded with the touch of a button, but how did it collapse?
Brin saw the consternation on her face and reached across the litter to point. “Push the lever to the right.”
Compliance rewarded Taylin with a ratcheting sound and the staff folding back into its smaller rod-like form. “Thank you.” she said, slipping it through a belt loop.
“Nothing of it.” Brin said, but now it was Taylin’s turn to read her expression and she saw a question lurking there.
She’d been most grateful to her friends for not pressing the issue the night before, and had been wishing they would keep on with that policy. At the same time, however, she knew how much it must have been eating at them wondering just what manner of unnatural creature they were traveling with.
“Go ahead.” She said, picking up a small wooden box with the sunburst symbol of Hessa, the Goodly Morn drawn on it in charcoal. Seeing as Hessa was commonly worshiped as a goddess of healing even in her time, she expected it to be full of healing supplies. Thus it was entirely unnecessary for a group boasting three individuals capable of using magic to do the job faster and better.
Brin bit her cheek at the despondency in her voice, but decided to go ahead with her query rather than leave things hanging unanswered. “It’s… not what you think. But it is about something you said last night.”
“Not what I think?” Taylin looked up, box still in hand. “Then… what did you want to ask me?”
At that, Brin looked to her left, to the now abandoned fire pit they’d set up camp around the night before. Just past it there was a free-standing doorway. It stood open, revealing not the encampment beyond, but a room, as if the door itself was built into the front of a building and not standing alone in the middle of nowhere.
Taylin got her meaning instantly. Ru had disappeared into the House not long after they made camp and had yet to emerge. “Ru?” She asked.
Brin nodded slowly. “You said that he was the Rune Breaker. Were you….” She licked her lips nervously, “Is he…”
“You’ll have to ask him, assuming her would give you the truth.” Taylin shrugged. “I never even heard of the Rune Breaker before I met him. To be honest, I don’t even know any of the stories.”
“Contractors from the Historical Society hear dozens of them.” said Brin in a hushed tone as if she were relating a story over a campfire. “They all boil down to the Rune Breaker being a weapon, usually a magic sword or a scythe created by a phenomenally evil king or queen.
“They poured their own darkness into it, made sacrifices of innocents to give it power and performed any other dark rituals you might think of as well. The result was a vile blade of unmatched destructive power. With the Rune Breaker in hand, the wielder was unstoppable.”
“That’s essentially what Ru says about himself.” Taylin nodded.
“Did he also tell you that only the most evil of souls can wield it?”
“He says that pretty much every one of his previous…” Taylin stumbled over the word ‘master’, “…people who had control over the link were complete bastards, yes. He still doesn’t completely believe me when I say I don’t want to control him like that.”
Brin’s eyes grew softer, more concerned. “And did he tell you that the Rune Breaker almost inevitably betrays the one who commands it to their death?”
Gently placing the box with the Hessan sunburst back on the pile, Taylin shook her head. “He hasn’t. Though I told him I wouldn’t blame him if he did.”
“You told him that?” Brin gasped, “Why?”
Taylin folded her arms, hugging herself until her hinged ribs creaked. “Because I don’t want to have a slave, Brin. I know what slavers do to people. I lived it under the hailene and I don’t want to do that to Ru, no matter what he’s done in the past and what a cold, rude…” she searched for the proper word and upon finding it, couldn’t help but laugh a little in saying it, “…brat he is in the here and now. In all honesty, if he did kill them, I’m glad of it.”
Brin cocked an eyebrow. “So you believe him when he says he’s the Rune Breaker?”
“I don’t know.” Taylin shrugged, “It never seemed important before. As far as I’m concerned, he can call himself King of Novrom; it doesn’t matter to me. Kaiel seems to accept it, though he might be humoring him.”
She pulled her wings in close to her back and looked at the door. “What I do know is that the link is real, and that he’s powerful; more powerful than any other caster I’ve met. And I believe him when he says he’s old. I’ve seen glimpses of his memory and nothing in them matches up to any of the histories I read in Daire City. If he isn’t the Rune Breaker, I think he’s probably the closest thing we’re likely to see in our lifetime.”
After a moment of quiet contemplation, she turned back to Brin. “But I don’t think he’s a danger to us. As violent and self-centered as he is, he isn’t mindless about it like some…” She searched for the term, “…penny dreadful villain. He has his goals and he’ll work with us toward them. No matter how much of a monster he says he is, I don’t believe he’ll hurt any of us without a reason.”
“I wonder if his mistrust of me is a good enough reason for him.” Brin suggested darkly.
Taylin shook her head. “He doesn’t trust anyone. If that was good enough reason, everyone would be dead.”
The two women stared at each other for a time, an unspoken question passing between them. Brin shifted on the balls of her feet, unable to stand comfortably any longer. “My secret isn’t anything that would endanger you or Motsey, I swear on Reflair’s reliquary.”
Her hand went to the piece of jewelry as she said so. “It’s just… uncomfortable to talk about.”
Very slowly, Taylin lowered her eyes back to the pile, fixating randomly on a roll of canvas. “I understand that perfectly. You don’t want to answer the questions we’ll have, or hear what kind of worries it might cause us. Maybe you even think you’re not able to give good answers to start with.”
She didn’t look up, but she could feel Brin’s eyes on her for a long moment. There was a soft rustle and the thud of the Barratta’s butt striking the ground as Brin walked. All too suddenly, Brin was beside her, leaning up to speak quietly in her ear.
“Maybe I shouldn’t though.” she said, “After all, everyone here knows that I am Brin. The same Brin you met in Daire, and who had the same secret as she’s holding right now. And, when the time is right, I really will explain what I can. Until then, I know that the others will give me all the time I need.”
It was the way she said ‘Brin’ and ‘I’ that made Taylin’s shoulders relax and her wings unclench. What Brin wasn’t saying and the fact that she was kind enough not to say it made all the difference. And it was true: they were traveling with understanding people who wouldn’t think less of them based on secret or revelation.
A dark shape appeared in the doorway of the House.
Brin saw and caught Taylin’s gaze long enough to roll her eyes. “Except for Ru. He’ll have his hackles raised the entire trip to Rivenport.”
A small laugh escaped Taylin’s lips. “That wouldn’t have changed no matter what.” She regarded the dark mage thoughtfully as he floated out the door and turned, presenting the artifact that controlled the doorway to the open space.
There was a ripple that started in the center of the air in the aperture and expanded outward until the structure of the door was shimmering. A thrumming noise emanated from inside just as the door seemed to collapse in on itself, looking like water being sucked down a drain until it was gone.
“You know what’s strange?” She asked Brin as Ru tucked the artifact away and floated over to see to Gaddigan.
“Ru seemed completely unsurprised by what I said last night. I know he doesn’t care, but he’s been surprised by things he doesn’t care about before. The only feeling I got in the link was… banality. As if I was telling him something he already knew by rote.”
Brin eyed the wizard with a scowl. “You did say that you were able to see his memories… maybe he’s seen some of yours?”
“I’m not sure that would help him.” said Taylin. “After all, I have my memories and I don’t know any more than I said last night.” After some thought, she shrugged expansively, fluffing out her wings.
“It’s Ru.” she concluded. “As much as I’ve tried understanding why he is the way he is, it’s like mapping a storm cloud’s surface. What’s most annoying is that he keeps it that way on purpose.”
The link made Ru instantly aware of it the instant Taylin’s attention strayed toward him. That was a remnant of a previous master who felt it too strenuous to mentally summon him and instead demanded that he attend whenever her thoughts settled on him.
Several others had made use of that feature, including Taylin’s immediate predecessor. It made him smirk inwardly to ignore that attention without fear of retribution and go about his work.
It occurred to him that his arrangement with Taylin was advantageous even with Immurai removed from the equation. After all, she really and truly loathed giving him orders. The worse she did voluntarily was to scold him like he was a misbehaving child when he went too far in his antagonism of allies.
For some reason, the word ‘brat’ drifted across his consciousness.
He blinked it away and went to check Gaddigan’s pack. The saddlebags had been replaced by a new, sleek set made of gray, pebbled cerato-leather. He stopped to admire the craftsmanship.
Artistry was something he’d always respected even after five thousand years of having his respect and care for most other things ground out of him. Gand taught him that magic was a craft, not a power or brutish tool; that there was an art and a beauty in constructing arrays and formulae.
Applying that artistry in creating new rooms and fixtures in the House was a major contributing factor to his good mood that morning.
There was beauty and form in combat too, along with creativity. As a shapeshifting master, he knew this better than most. That was something he shared in common with Taylin, and the first thing he’d come to respect in her. When she made war, it was with the calculated yet graceful flow of dance; the boldness and mastery of painting and the unsurpassed majesty of sculpture.
…Except for those few chaotic moments the night before when things had changed.
When that other voice; hers and yet not, had shouted at him. At that point all the artistry had been torn away and replaced by savagery, survival instinct, and an all-consuming rage even the Rune Breaker could rarely muster.
Even knowing and understanding what Taylin was, just the memory of it made Ru give her a sidelong look across the camp at Taylin as she spoke with Brin.
That voice, or the qualities in that voice, took him back a long, long time ago; to a teenaged boy shivering as he climbed down a rough hemp rope into a dank cavern. It recalled a shadowy thing there in the darkness, its vast body dragging on the stone.
In the darkness, a green eye larger than his head had opened, bathing him in verdant illumination as it examined him. A powerful, rough voice spoke to him: “And what is it you think you can learn from me, Gand’s whelp? Do you truly believe that one such as you can become a shapeshifting master?”
Ru shook off the line of thought. It was too close to true memory and that was the last thing he needed or wanted. Instead, he looked around for Kaiel to let the chronicler know he was ready to depart.
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