The artificial divinity spark is expressing in sixty percent of the test animals, but seems inert. Analysis of discarnate energy fluctuations shows that they are miniature conduits to the power of the Well of Souls, but they are incapable of using it.
I expected this. A sapient mind is needed to control such awesome power. The Emperor seems to agree. Experimentation on sapient subjects has been approved. To minimize damage to more valuable beings, the initial tests will be conducted on ang’hailene.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
As a final token of thanks to Taylin and her companions, the battlemagi of Solgrum’s army conjured a causeway of ice across the river to that they could continue their journey to Rivenport.
It was a sturdy enough, and the skilled spellcrafting of akua shaped the ice so it wasn’t slick in the least, but it creaked under the weight of the heavily laden Gaddigan and none of the animals was particularly happy to travel on it.
Kaiel dismounted and spoke in soothing tones to each, weaving discarnate power into his words until his own horse, Raiteria’s pony, and Miser were all cautiously willing to cross. That left Gaddigan, who seemed to understand what he was trying to do and refused to make eye contact; responding instead with laid back ears, a tossing mane, and several attempts to bite the chronicler.
All the while, Ru floated nearby with an amused look on his face, clearly pleased that his mount was as belligerent and aggressive as he was.
Taylin was neither amused nor pleased, and after the third bite attempt, she stepped in. Grasping the warhorse’s reigns in one hand, she effortlessly swung his head around to put them nose to nose.
She was not the first to blink.
Gaddigan, for all his surly behavior and wild spirit, recalled Taylin as the one who threw him over like a child overturning a toy wagon and he wasn’t so sure he could emerge from another conflict with her victorious. Or alive. After a half-hearted attempt at biting her, he trundled after the other mounts across the bridge, occasionally casting a hateful look back at her until they were halfway across the river and going back out of spite was worse than useless.
The rest of the day passed without incident, and by nightfall, they had left the unclaimed wilds between Torm Dondaire and its neighbors, and entered Khish proper. Along the way, the hills that had until then characterized Novrom for Taylin started sporting more and more trees and shrubbery until they were traversing scrub forest.
As Ola began to sink beneath the horizon, they crested a hill that descended on the other side into a sea of tall, straight trees that stretched on until it began to climb the foothills and mountains in the far distance.
Kaiel suggested camping inside the House, which Ru agreed with on the condition that the animals remained outside. And so the night was spent secure and warm inside the extra-dimensional space.
At midday on their second day out, Taylin and Raiteria were scouting ahead of the others. The later was on ground level, blazing the trail for the others while Taylin flew above, both keeping watch for anything that might try to ambush her sister, and for any Khishan settlements they would need to avoid.
Riding the air currents, her bright wings stretched wide beneath the warm rays of Ola, Taylin felt many of her earlier anxieties melt away.
None of the others had brought up what happened during the battle, nor had they started treating her any differently.
With her more relaxed mood, the constant itch of her scales (which seemed to have been lying in wait to spring up and protect her) finally ceased. This made her more relaxed still and allowed her to think on other things.
Things like the mysterious Soul Battery.
It bothered her that Immurai would set a one month deadline to bring it to him, and then not tell them what it was. Moreover, the trip to Rivenport and the sea voyage would eat much of the time allotted to them. If the demon wanted the Soul Battery, whatever it was, he wasn’t doing a very good job of making certain he got it.
Unless that was the point; that the Soul Battery wasn’t what he wanted and instead, the whole thing was a charade or decoy. They had slain his previous pawn: the King of Flame and Steel. Perhaps taking Motsey and issuing a vague quest was his way of taking them out of the picture for his next plot in Taunaun.
That would also explain why Bashurra seemed perfectly willing to kill them.
Below, she saw Raiteria appearing and disappearing through breaks in the tree cover.
Nir-lumos scouts were adept at moving quickly over all sorts of terrain, leaving as little trace of their passing as possible. Rai was making a study of it by nimbly hopping from branch to branch, occasionally using her chain to lash a tree too far to jump to so she could swing across.
Taylin decided to swallow her doubts about Immurai’s intentions then and there. For if the search for the Soul Battery and trip to the Kimean Isles was all a diversion, then there was no reason for him to keep Motsey alive.
One thing Raiteria didn’t need was to have her hope taken away. For that matter, Taylin didn’t either. In only a short time, she’d come to adore the boy and the thought of Immurai and his ilk harming him… Ruminating on it was enough to make that part of her the she’d been trying to ignore rumble with the fury of a mother bear seeing her cubs disturbed.
The scent of something burning tingled in her nose and for a moment, she thought she was bringing up more burning gel. But then something flashed in her vision: Raiteria’s signal mirror.
Lost in her thoughts, Taylin had also lost track of Raiteria and the forest below. Looking down now, she found her adoptive sister standing on a fallen log, mirror held high. Not far from her, some of the trees sported heat-withered leaves and scorched branches. The fire had not come from her.
Taylin leaned back and flapped her wings to halt her forward progress, pumping slightly harder to check her fall. Most hailene could do so easily. Serving on the foraging crews of ships, she’d seen them. They would flutter down with the greatest of ease and light on tree branches, because while they were taller than humans, hailene had hollow bones and less dense muscle, causing them to weight significantly less.
Not matter what her hailene instincts told her, there was nothing hollow about Taylin. She was as solid as a brick, and fell exactly like one if she tried to follow those instincts while trying to land. Instead, she had to fight against generations of hailene to replace the traditional fluttering with slow, powerful strokes of the wings to bring her down safely.
Even then, she hit the ground with a thud and had to drop into a crouch to absorb the last of the fall.
“Sorry if you were trying to signal me for long.” She said, trying to maintain some dignity as she straightened herself, “My head was else…”
She trailed off, because beyond Raiteria, she could see the damage in its entirety.
The undergrowth in the area was gone, burned to the dirt so there was nothing but a coating of soot. Smaller saplings were blackened staves of char that still smoldered, and the larger trees had their bark scorched or blistered off. In the midst of it was the skeleton of… something.
Whatever it had been, it was only a bit larger than Gaddigan, with a low-slung body. Most of it had burned down to a skeleton, but here and there, matted hair survived along with quills. Massive quills. The smallest were three feet long, while some were nearly five. All of them were nastily barbed.
“What was that thing?” Taylin asked, awed in spite of herself at the ruined body. Without meaning to, she started to walk slowly toward it.
Rai slipped the mirror back into its pocket on her leather scout’s vest and hopped off the log to investigate with Taylin. “The caravan’s passed by more than enough for me to know that much: It’s an erethizon; a kind of spirit beast porcupine.”
She frowned at the charred corpse. “This was unnecessary. Erethizon are peaceful as spirit beasts go. They only attack if they’re spooked and even then, they do enough false charges to give you the idea to run before they launch those quills.”
Taylin looked around slowly, then asked, “You talk like you think someone did this on purpose. Couldn’t it have been something that breathes fire? The fire burned this whole area in a cone shape.”
“No,” Rai tapped her nose, “You smell that? The chemical twinge?”
Now that she was being asked, the answer was ‘no’. All Taylin could smell at that point was burnt flesh. She shook her head to that effect.
Rai shrugged as if to concede that maybe Taylin didn’t have the proper nasal training that a nir-lumos scout did. “It’s lamp oil. A lot of it burned at incredible heat. Someone doused the erethizon and lit it on fire.”
“Or sprayed it.” Taylin said, keeping in mind the shape of the burn pattern. She really wanted to venture that it have been a dragon that did this; a fire-breathing one. After all, the burning substance she spat two nights ago had been some sort of chemical rather than the billowing gout of flames depicted in Brin’s dime novels, so it stood to reason that real dragons did something similar.
Rai scratched the back of her head and surveyed the same pattern Taylin had. “Maybe it’s some kind of new weapon.” She knelt and placed her palm flat on the ground. After a moment, she straightened and dusted her sooty hand off on her pants. “This happened last night, I’d wager. Whoever did it is nowhere near here now.”
“Should we look around a bit more? Try and figure it out?” asked Taylin.
“I’m not sure what good that would do us.” said Rai. “Even if erethizons are less dangerous than other spirit beasts, they can still be deadly. This is a net good thing for us and the worse that can come of it would be upsetting the locals. Apparently, they like keeping the spirit beasts around as deterrents.”
When she looked up, however, she saw that her much bigger sister’s eyes glimmered with the fires of curiosity. Taylin had spent much of their time in Daire lost in books when she wasn’t being dragged out shopping with Brin, or sparring with Issacor. Now she had something in real life she wanted to look closer into and she wasn’t going to be so easily deterred.
“Just another quick look around?” Taylin suggested hopefully.
Rai sighed. “Fine, fine. Go back up and see if there’s any more burned-out spots. I’ll mark the trail here for the others.” She looked back at the husk of the erethizon. A dead spirit beast, particularly one killed by immolation (the only other option short of ash chalk, was beheading), tended to frighten off the local wildlife for a few days in the immediate area. She would be fine without Taylin keeping an eye out for her for a while.
A broad smile and the wind of powerful wings carrying her sister back up beyond the treetops were her reward.
Taylin did find another burned out spot, but not until later that evening after the group had rendezvoused for the midday meal, and Kaiel and Brin had done some orienteering to make sure they were still on course to reach the road leading to the Passage of Conquerors as soon as possible.
There were several burn patterns over an area about a quarter of a mile to a side. There was no evidence of what had been burned, but the large conical patterns were joined by smaller, round scorches the burned down stands of brush and places where clods of earth had been dug up or pieces of trees gouged out by explosion.
As it was coming near to the time to break camp, she and Raiteria scouted out a place nearby to tie the animals and waited for the others to arrive.
In the last hour of Ola’s light, Kaiel, Brin and Ru all spent some time looking about at the destruction.
“No flaer.” Ru declared shortly after his arrival. “Whatever did this was not magical in origin.” He looked to Kaiel. “You have devices that mimic basic battle magic; firearms and grenades. Is there one that can explain this?”
Kaiel shook his head slowly. “Many alchemists are interested in replicating the ability to breathe fire, but the designs I’ve seen in Novrom and Chordin shoot narrow streams of flammable liquid and don’t have anything near the capacity for this. And the only thing I know that could blast out a cone of heat like this is a dwarven steamjack.”
“Any chance…” Taylin started, intrigued by whatever a steamjack might be.
“No, we’re nowhere near Genmide and the elders there levy a sentence of death on anyone that takes a steamjack or any of the components across the border.”
“Besides,” Added Brin, “A steamjack runs on a mystic steam engine. Anything that can detect energies would have picked up flaer and akua from one having been here.”
She was referring to Ru without actually saying his name, but he wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he floated over to where one of the smaller blasts had blown a hole twice the size of a fist in an elderly larch. Stooping without actually touching the ground, he examined the spray of burned splinters from the point of impact.
Taylin sensed the clicking of his analytical mind in the link and went over to get a closer look at whatever he was getting at. “Did you find something, Ru?”
The dark wizard held out a hand over a charred pile and gestured with outstretched fingertips. The splinters quivered a bit before being pushed aside by something rising into the air from underneath. With the ash and other detritus falling away, it became clear that they were looking at the last remnant of a spinal column and two ribs. Whatever they belonged to hadn’t been much larger than a cat.
“I thought I smelled burnt meat.” said Ru, twitching his fingers to rotate the bones in space. “What was he doing?”
“Hmm?” Taylin asked, having not quite caught what he’d muttered.
“Whoever did this.” Ru said quickly. “Burning an erethizon makes sense, but all this flame and destruction to kill, what? Rats? I do enjoy overkill, but this is just a waste of resources.”
Kaiel strolled over to them, though his eyes were still scanning everything around them for clues.. “You two find something?”
“A dead ground squirrel, or rat, or something.” Ru said, “Nothing of consequence.”
An equine scream came from the direction of the animals.
Ru’s head snapped toward the sound and the scythe appeared in his hand before he’d even straightened up. “Odds, bods hammer and tongs! Of course it was nothing of consequence: it was a distraction.” Before anyone else could speak or act, he was off, flying at high speed through the forest toward the sound of the distressed horse.
“Do you think…” Kaiel asked Taylin, reaching for the rifle slung over his shoulder.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been ambushed.” Taylin pointed out. She drew out Novacula Kuponya in a smooth motion and reached her other hand back to trigger the mechanism to release the Eastern Brand. “Let’s go.”
There was no reason to take to the sky for such a short distance, so she ran along with the others.
Along the way, she was treated to a flare of territorial fury in the link moment before she heard Ru bellow from somewhere up ahead.
“Get away from my horse!”
Taylin arrived in the glade where the mounts were tied just in time to see Ru hurl something forcefully against a tree not far from her. It was followed immediately by a sliver of iron that nailed it to the trunk.
It turned out to be a strange animal. About the size of a large rat or lapbear, It had a long body covered in white fur with angular, dark gray markings. Its head was long, narrow and was mostly given over to a weasel-like snout full of sharp teeth and tiny, tufted ears. Hairless pink paws that looked like some hellish amalgam of a bird’s talon and a humanoid hand with translucent, hooked nails scrabbled at the iron pinion through its chest while similar hind feet scratched backward at the tree. All the while, a denuded, scaly tail, tipped with a barbed point lashed the air uselessly.
“What in the Seven Interlocking Hells is that?” Brin asked, coming to a stop next to Taylin and staring that the little beast.
“It was attacking my horse.” Ru said darkly. “And for that, I will make certain that—” He cut off in a savage shout of pain as something slammed into his back, causing him to pitch forward onto the ground. Two more of the same kind of creature clung to his back, tearing at him with hooked claws and biting him in a frenzy.
Gaddigan let out a pained whinny as three more of the creatures leapt from hiding to savage his flank. Buckling wildly, he managed to throw one and pay it back with a crashing hoof that caved in its rib cage.
Ru followed his mount’s lead, and suddenly rows of spines like those of some deep-sea horror, erupted from his back, impaling the creatures attacking him with extreme prejudice. He retracted the spines as he stood, letting the furry bodies drop to the ground.
While all this was going on, the beast pinned to the tree managed to force its body forward along the sliver of metal until it finally pulled itself free entirely and landed on the forest floor, no worse for wear. Before Taylin could react, it leapt at her with incredible force and celerity.
It was all she could do to strike out with Novacula Kuponya while it was in mid-air. The blade sliced through its belly with an ease worth of its title of ‘razor blade’, and in the same stroke fed off the beast’s own reserves of vitae to heal it in passing.
From what Taylin understood, a wound that terrible should have caused the creature to slip into a temporary coma. What actually happened was that it became suddenly distracted, glancing off her chest. It hit the ground and lay there panting with its eyes rolling around in its head.
Before Taylin could question it, Brin drove the Barratta through its chest.
“That’s not going to work!” Raiteria announced as she and Kaiel arrive don the scene.
Indeed, even as Gaddigan crushed another of his attackers, he one he had stomped was twitching on the ground, starting the regenerate from what should have been a fatal injury. The pair Ru had ‘killed’ also suddenly leapt at him, fastening teeth and hooked claws into his left arm.
The first one, now run through by the Barratta was trying to fight its way off the blade.
“I’d like to know what does.” Brin said, looking at the struggling thing with disgust.
Rai reached into a vest pocket and came out with a short stick of dull white stone: Ash chalk. She drew her kukri with her free hand and pulled the blade across the stone, leaving a streak of white powder along the edge. “The Winter Willow’s run into these before, they’re called phalangers and they’re spirit beasts.”
“Those are spirit beasts?” Taylin asked, splitting her attention between the wriggling phalanger still spitted on the end of the Barratta, and Rai tossing the ash chalk to Brin. “I thought spirit beasts were big and powerful. And dangerous.”
Rai was too busy to answer because she was stooping to slash the pinned phalanger with her kukri. It was only as shallow cut, but the creature twitched and convulsed, blood starting to flow freely from both wounds until it was still.
“Anything can get hit by a divinity spark.” said Kaiel, shouldering his rifle in favor of drawing his sword. As he spoke, he advanced on the creatures attempting to swarm Gaddigan. “Small, woodland creatures, trees, family pets… luckily, the remedy for them becoming aggressive is always the same: immolation, beheading or ash chalk. The ash chalk disrupts their immortality.”
Taylin looked at Novacula Kuponya. Why did she seem to only draw it when it wouldn’t help? Sheathing it, she pulled the Eastern Brand from its scabbard at her back and ordered it to ignite. She saw that Kaiel was doing his part against the phalangers attacking the mounts, so she went after the ones attacking Ru.
Evidently, he hadn’t been listening to the discussion, because instead of tapping flaer, Ru was using his shapeshifting to visit every punishment imaginable upon the phalangers. His fingers became spears, piercing them through; then his fists seemed to transform into living rock to hammer the creatures into fleshy pulps.
But each time he by all rights should have killed them, the phalangers regenerated and were back to attacking him with renewed tenacity and supernatural speed.
On their next lunge, Taylin stepped past Ru before he could counter and swung at them with the burning sword. The first one was laid open from the center of its belly up to the left front leg, the wound becoming instantly cauterized by the Eastern Brand’s flames. It fell lifeless to the ground.
The second only took a glancing blow across the side. It nimbly twisted away and retreated out of range of the sword. What burns the attack left on it did not heal.
“Fire can kill them.” Taylin said without even looking back at Ru. She’d anticipated his question from the moment of confusion that had spread over the link like a film of oil over water.
“Then let us make this short.” With a strong gesture, he caused a glowing spell diagram to overlay the ground around him, and by her proximity to him, Taylin. “Flaeron raide!”
Fires lit in random places around the diagram, some on it, but most either around or inside it. They looked like the quintessential rendering of flames; perfect upright jets with a uniformly yellow/white core and orange corona. Wisps of red-tinted mist rose up from them and surrounded Ru in a tight orbit.
“Ru?” Taylin asked, “What are you doing?”
“Removing a threat.” He intoned. “And an annoyance.”
With that as his only explanation, he pressed his palm forward, aimed at the phalanger that had managed to evade being killed by Taylin. Small balls of fire issued from his palm in quick succession. The first shot missed, blasting a crater in the grass and dirt. The second scored a direct hit and blasted the spirit beast into flaming bits.
He then turned toward where now Kaiel, Brin and Raiteria were standing around the mounts. Two of the little beasts had been killed; one’s corpse was missing a head and another had been stomped nearly to flatness and then had ash chalk applied to its broken form.
The survivor was evading all three of them, dodging attacks with incredible speed in order to dart in to snap at them.
“Heh.” said Ru and let loose with a barrage of small fireballs in the thing’s direction. To its credit, the phalanger managed to dodge admirably, but it was up against a steady stream of blasts happening all around it. One final burst caught it in the side as it dodged another. The concussion sent it flying ten feet until it struck the side of a tree. On fire and badly hurt, it wasn’t long before it curled up and died.
“Well.” Rai said into the relative silence that followed Ru dismissing his flaeron raide. She looked pointedly at the scorch marks and small craters. “I think we know why there were parts blasted out of the trees. We were actually lucky though: phalangers are swarm hunters; there are usually around two dozen when they go hunting. Our firebug friend probably killed most of the swarm with whatever they used on the erethizon.”
Kaiel clucked his tongue. “That’s a long way to go in order to get rid of some of the more annoying wildlife. That just makes me wonder ‘why’ even more.”
“Why indeed.” Ru growled under his breath as he moved to heal the wounds on Gaddigan’s flanks and back.
Something in the link made Taylin pay attention to his tone. There was a mix of emotions there. Frustration and anger as always, but also puzzlement and… betrayal? She had no idea what he had to feel betrayed over, even that one little bit. After all she’d come to his rescue and the others had slain the phalangers attacking his horse.
Had he been anyone else, she would have expected gratitude or possibly even a stronger sense of camaraderie. From Ru, all she could hope for and all she had expected was some grudging respect and lessened indifference.
She wanted to ask what was bothering him, but at the same time, felt that if he was going to be that way after they helped them, she could let him sulk or whatever he was doing.
Kaiel on the other hand, had read his tone as well and wasn’t going to let him leave it there.
“Something you’d like to add to this conversation, Ru?”
Ru said nothing until he finished healing Gaddigan, then turned to Taylin, pointedly ignoring the chronicler. “If you do not require me, Miss Taylin, I have more work to do.” He didn’t really wait for a reply before taking out the House artifact and using it to open the door.
“Probably mad because he’s the only one that got bitten.” Brin muttered at his retreating back.
The others were inclined to agree that something petty was to blame for the Rune Breaker’s worse than usual attitude.
All, it seemed, except Raiteria. She watched the door for a time after Ru disappeared through it. And as she rolled thoughts around in her head, her eyes narrowed.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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