The experiment began with a group consisting of thirty-six female ang’hailene verified to be in good health and of optimum age for safe childbirth.
Twenty-nine surrogates survived the artificial impregnation procedure. Of those, seven miscarried in the first month and one died of unrelated illness. In the next four months, five more died of complications relating to the embryo. In the sixth month of pregnancy, one surrogate quote: ‘vanished into light’ according to Leytic, who was with her at the time. The remaining sixteen managed to bring their charge to a full eight month term, but six died along with the children at childbirth, three of the children were stillborn and one died shortly after birth.
The Emperor himself contacted me to express his pleasure that we have six viable and healthy subjects.
As for the dead surrogates, We were ordered to dump the bodies at sea.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
Raiteria woke up sometime after midnight by her reckoning. That was getting to be the norm for her since they’d left Daire City, and there were multiple reasons for that.
One, she was used to sleeping in her wagon, in her own bed, and with her husband by her side. Unlike tall folk scouts, nir-lumos scouts (at least those with the Winter Willow and its immediate sister caravans) weren’t outriders; they returned to the wagons at night and rarely slept in the open.
The second was the nagging feeling that she was alone. Not in a literal sense; she was, after all, on the journey with Taylin, Kaiel, Brin and (to an extent) Ru. Taylin and Kaiel were even family. But for all that, she missed Bromun desperately, to say nothing of how much her mother’s heart longed to hold her children again. And she also missed Grandmother, Grandfather, Signateria—the whole the Winter Willow.
Many nir-lumos, barring a change of caravan by marriage, never found themselves more than a day’s travel from their caravan in their lifetime. Now, she was hundreds of miles from the Winter Willow; everyone and everything she had grown up knowing.
And finally, there was the thing that was blindingly obvious but none of the group, not even Ru broached: she was desperately afraid for her son. Raiteria was no fool. She had heard stories of Kaydan demons and knew that Motsey might well be dead or tormented at their hands. For all her and the others’ talk of rescuing Motsey, she knew full well that they might actually only be sallying forth to avenge him.
With that somber thought riding her, she knew that sleep wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. With a groan, she shoved back the flap of her bed roll and sat up.
She was in the entry chamber of the House, which was greatly changed from their first visit. Both Ru and Kaiel had been applying their respective spellwork to the extra-dimensional space and it had taken on a blend of their respective tastes:
The floor was highly polished hardwood in the style Ru seemed to prefer, while the walls were light-colored stone like those of the Bardic College of Harpsfell. The hearth, which Taylin was currently curled up in front of, one arm thrust out into the fire, was also Chordini-style with a moulding carved in the image of waterfalls.
What was lacking was furnishing. They had quickly discovered that while the House could create solid structures that endured, soft ones like padding and fabric broke down and dissolved back into whatever energies formed everything in the space after a few hours. Tables, bookcases and chests were simple, but anything comfortable to sit or sleep on would need to be brought in if and when they felt the need.
Until then, they were all using their bedrolls just as if they were sleeping outside. All except Taylin, she opted to sleep so close to the hearth that the first night in the House, she almost set hers ablaze.
Rai smiled faintly as she looked over at her sister. While she was an exceedingly talented warrior, and fairly intelligent, the girl was like a gawky and awkward adolescent in other respects.
That might well be literal. She was in prime adulthood for a hailene, but only just reaching adulthood for a dragonsired. And by dragon standards? She was an infant. Who knew how old she was in the relative sense when she was probably the only one of her kind.
Not that there was anything immature about her. Naive possibly, and idealistic, but not immature. Taylin was handling her future shock and unfortunate arrangement with Ru better than Rai thought she might. Those on top of the death of Issacor and Motsey’s abduction. She mourned and occasionally lapsed into brooding, but she didn’t break. It made Rai proud to have her as a sister.
A noise drew her attention, and when she cast about for its source, she discovered that a change had been added since the group all settled in to sleep.
Where once there was a blank wall, now a staircase of stone, with a banister of polished oak, traveled along it, leading up to a passage near the ceiling that also hadn’t been there before. There were sconces lining the stairs, each lined with a mirror that reflected the conjured flames set within them, and from the flickering light in the passage, there were more up there as well.
The noise came again and this time, Rai knew it was coming from the upstairs passage.
She looked around at her companions. Taylin was still asleep by the hearth while Brin and Kaiel were nearer the center of the where Rai herself had bedded down. It was no big surprise to her that Ru wasn’t with them and that placed him as the source of the noise.
Curiosity and the knowledge that she wasn’t going to be getting back to sleep anytime soon got the best of her, and she shoved herself the rest of the way out of her bedroll to go investigate.
The room was comfortably warm, even given the thin cotton shirt and trousers she’d slept in, but when she reached the stairs, the stone was cool under her feet as if the stairway were part of a drafty castle rather than the cozy domicile the rest of the House emulated.
Pushing the eeriness of this out of her head, Rai carefully made her way up.
When she reached the passage, she found that it took an immediate left turn before extending into a long corridor with an arched ceiling braced with stout timbers. Sconces of the same type as downstairs were staggered along either side of the hall, providing even illumination. And the floor was made of smooth stone tiles, not unlike very clean cobbles.
There were six doors: two to the left, three to the right, and one at the very end, framed by its own sconces. But when Rai gave them a closer look, she noticed that they weren’t really doors at all. Yes, they had a general door shape: about eight feet high, twice as wide as an average human, and rounded at the top with a knob and keyhole; but they didn’t actually lead anywhere.
Instead, they were simply sunk into the stone of the corridor with no gaps of space that would hint that there was something beyond them. They seemed to exist only because someone felt the corridor needed to have doors leading off it. All, that was, except the first door on the left, which was open and did lead somewhere.
Cautiously, Rai tiptoed to that door and peered inside.
There was Ru, floating with his legs crossed under him in the center of a room that was essentially just a box measuring fifteen feet to a side. Aside from the door, there was no definition to anything at all. Floor, walls and ceiling were all formed of something unidentifiable that seemed to blur when Rai looked at it too closely; as if she were looking through a cloud of dust that never settled.
Still unaware of her presence, Ru raised a hand and twitched the middle and ring finger in the direction of a wall. The ‘dust’ coalesced and settled; parts of it bulging like blisters while others receded. When they were done, the undefined wall had become one made of rough-cut and fitted stone blocks. Rai had seen the same style in small settlements and buildings that dated back to before the War of Ascension; a time when not even large cities fielded enough skilled ere-a users to raise slabs of smooth stone for masonry.
As she watched, the effect spread from one wall to the next until all four had been converted.
Ru looked upon his work and nodded with mild satisfaction before reaching down and pressing his hand flat to the floor. This time the settling effect started at his hand and expanded outward from it like a spreading stain. The floor became tiled with dark, gray rock that looked somewhat less smooth than marble, but nonetheless was veined with some manner of white crystal. The crystal veins shimmered in the light coming in from the hall.
She expected him to do the ceiling next, but instead, Ru paused and very slowly turned his head to look at her. Those yellow wolf-eyes of his looked weary rather than their usual blend of malevolent and disinterested.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” He asked after a pause in which they both stared at one another.
“Shouldn’t you?” She shot back. It took her off guard when he looked away, flinching in spite of himself.
“I don’t require it.” He said, casting his gaze up toward the ceiling. A look came to his face that suggested he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. “It helps, but it I won’t suffer for it.”
Rai arched an eyebrow at his behavior. She’s expected the Rune Breaker to have an acidic retort for that, and yet he simply answered the question without argument. It looked like he was distracted. And tired. “You slept plenty before. I remember seeing you as that cat practically every morning after Taylin killed the King of Flame and steel.”
“I didn’t have the House to study.” he said quickly. Much too quickly. Rai decided to press because she’d just remembered something.
“Now that I think about it, I only saw you sleep once the whole time we were in Daire City. It was when we were getting ready to go to Solgrum’s ball. That was before you even got a hold of the artifact.”
Ru stopped pondering the ceiling and turned to face her fully. “You have learned how to needle me from Arunsteadeles.” he observed. She only stared at him, making it clear that she wasn’t going to be brushed aside.
He in turn stared right back. Rai felt distinctly as if she were being sized up for something. Evidently, she met whatever criteria he was weighing her by because after a time, he grunted and returned his attention to the ceiling.
“I suppose you are the only one of this patchwork band of travelers that will understand my reasons and accept them.” He said absently, then growled under his breath. “Miss Taylin and Arunsteadeles have wrought terrible influence on me—normally I would ignore you and your hard stares.”
“But you’re not.” said Rai dryly, “So there’s no point in stalling.”
He rubbed his chin, then pointed to the ceiling, causing thick wooden beams to emerge from it. They bent and shifted until they formed a braced arc that raised the ceiling into a kind of squared off dome. “Indeed there isn’t. The truth is, I have only slept the one time while we were in Daire because I knew that you and that woman were distracting Miss Taylin sufficiently. That it was safe.”
“Safe? Why did you need her distracted—what did you need to be safe from?”
“My memories.” Ru said darkly. “The night we reached Daire, the link did something… new.”
Anticipating her question, he added, “The link evolves. It adapts to situations and my mindset to ensure that the punishment it was meant to carry out remains a punishment. As Miss Taylin will not order me about as a servant and is not cruel to me, the link seeks out other means of tormenting me. That night, it chose to deliver my dreams—really my memories—to Miss Taylin.”
“And that’s bad.” Rai deadpanned. She knew that the Rune Breaker was surly and anti-social, but it still surprised her that he would be so agitated over being forced to share something of himself with Taylin.
Once again, he turned to look at her, staring her down with an expression of barely controlled anger. But that anger wasn’t directed at her and accompanying it were bitterness and, surprisingly, loss.
“Those memories are of the people I cared about. My brother. My love. My… the man who was as close to a father as I will ever know. All of them gone for a greater length of time than the world as you understand it has existed. As far as all Creation is concerned, they exist only in my mind. I would not dole them out lightly and I do not wish to speak of it.”
The anger faded, by the other, more somber emotions did not. “Imagine if all who you loved were gone. And there was not even a grave or an object left that holds the memory of them. That only the vivid images in your head remain. And you know that you will never die and see them again in the afterlife. Would you then enjoy discussing them with an inquisitive girl and a nosy chronicler?”
To her credit, Rai didn’t back down. Instead, she let the ghost of a smile curl her lips as she nodded. “I see. They were your family and I agree: it should be your choice how you remember them.”
“From what I know of nir-lumos culture, I suspected you would understand.” Ru all but grunted out before returning once more to pondering the ceiling.
Rai stepped into the door and took a seat on the floor, back resting against the wall. When Ru raised no objections, she asked, “You know what always bothered me about tall folk? And what I like about Kaiel?”
“Hmm?” Ru asked, seemingly only half listening.
“You name your horses. Kaiel doesn’t.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Family.” she drawled lazily. “Nir-lumos, we only name things that are family. A horse, even a well-trained one like your Gaddigan; they’re just dumb animals. They can’t love you and be loyal. Wolves can. And some dogs and cats. Some say bears can, but I haven’t seen the proof. And all birds are too stupid. That’s why Gruwluff has a name, but my pony doesn’t.”
She folded her arms and played with the cuff of one sleeve. “When tall folk name their horses, it just goes to show how differently we think about things. Like for the life of me, I don’t understand how humans decided it was alright to push their children out after sixteen years and still say they love them.”
“That’s far better than some are afforded.” said Ru, “The streets are home to many who were turned out much younger. Abandoned. Disowned.”
“There’s not even a word in our language for ‘disown’. Sometimes we have to exile someone, but that’s the last resort and they’re still family no matter what terrible things they’ve done. Family is family.”
Once again, Ru grunted and lapsed into silence for a time. But he didn’t go back to working on the room. The ceiling beyond the timbers remained a hazy blur of potential. At length, he spoke again: “Immurai will not have killed your son.”
That made Rai sit up. She tried to hide the confusion and budding hope as she asked, “How do you know that for sure?”
Now Ru folded his arms, “Because I’ve had experience with this demon. Even as demons go; be they true manifestations of evil, or creations of this Threefold Moon that are merely called demon; Immurai is a cruel beast. He won’t kill your son because you won’t be there to see it. For all his machinations, Immurai is compulsive in his need to tear down all who oppose them.”
His expression soured, disgust for the demon evident.
“I have personally observed him spent months driving a man who was unwittingly fouling his designs mad when he was in a position to simply slip a knife in his ribs the entire time. Like a house cat, he refuses to land a killing blow when he can inflict great trauma over the long term.”
Something about how vehemently Ru said those words made Raiteria curious. “Was it you? Who Immurai tried to drive insane I mean.”
Ru shifted uncomfortably. “No. It was Miss Taylin’s immediate predecessor, my one hundred and seventh master.”
Rai’s lips pressed into a firm line as she considered asking her next question. She was worried that she already knew the answer. It was her natural curiosity that decided for her. “’Only the most evil of souls seek the Rune Breaker’. That’s how Kaiel tells the story. And Immurai sounds like he fits that. Did he do that to your last master so he could get you?”
“Not entirely. He was unaware of me when he first infiltrated the staff at Bresnic’s keep. At the time he only wanted to subvert Bresnic’s empire-building in what I understand is now two nations called Callen and Chordin to clear the way for his own plans.” Ru scowled, “But he found out soon enough.”
“And that’s why you hate him so much.” Rai guessed, “Because he drove your last master mad?” She stopped short just after saying that out loud. Everything she knew about Ru contradicted the idea that his motivation would be to avenge his old master.
“No, that doesn’t make sense. You’ve made it obvious that you’ve hated every one of your masters.”
Ru pinched the bridge of his nose and turned away, muttering. “Why is everyone associated with Miss Taylin so damnably curious?” Louder, he continued, “Of course I shed no tears for Bresnic. The man was unusually worthless even by the standards of those I’ve served. He never did anything for himself or took more initiative than giving me orders.
“But when Immurai began to break his mind, the link forced me to feel it as his sanity slipped, cracked and then shattered.” He looked back at her, doing a bad job of masking the haunted look on his face. “You have no idea what it is to feel yourself gong mad—and yet remain sensible enough to feel the horror of it all.”
One of his usual growls built in his throat. “When Immurai discovered what was happening, he tried to use it as leverage to convince me to serve him and teach him how to use the link when Bresnic finally died. That is why I will see him destroyed.”
Rai had only been partly listening because her mind was working through all the things she now knew and what it added up to made her ill. “He’s going to do the same to Taylin, isn’t he? Taking Motsey and using him against me is just a means to try and break her, isn’t it?”
Despite seeing the raw emotion in her eyes, Ru remained impassive. “It is likely.”
Fear clenched at her chest and Rai scrambled to her feet just so she could feel that she was doing something. “We can’t let that happen! Not to Taylin and certainly not to Motsey. You have to know a way to fix it, right? You’re the godsdamned Rune Breaker!”
Still, Ru was dispassionate when he spoke. “I can promise you that Immurai will die. Swiftly and in agony. And if he is dead, your son will be in no danger. And as for Miss Taylin, I wonder if it is possible for even Immurai to break her.”
Rai arched any eyebrow. Did that sound at least a little… respectful toward her sister?
The dark mage waved a hand idly. “Bresnic was only human. So were all of my previous masters: mortals through and through. Miss Taylin has the blood of dragons within her, and as I noticed when she first entered my cavern, hers is a strong soul.
“She endured slavery and war only to fight her way out of both. She has been betrayed and had someone she cared for taken from her and she still strides forward. Bashurra assailed her mind with a spell that dredged up pain so deep that she made herself forget, and still she destroyed him for it. Perhaps that’s will, or perhaps…” he paused and licked his lips distractedly,
He raised himself up to his full height, looking as if he was barely there with Rai mentally any longer. “I am not in the business of offering hope. But I do not believe that you have to worry overmuch about her. As I said, she has a strong soul.”
They didn’t talk much after that. Raiteria seemed to be calmed somewhere by his uncharacteristic endorsement of Taylin’s abilities and soon decided to head back downstairs to sleep.
Ru was left in the newly minted room with only his mind for company.
As if he didn’t have enough on his mind; what with being denied sleep by the link’s attempts at doing him mental harm, and the new annoyance of the burned spirit beasts. Ru had a good idea of who was doing that, but not why.
Now his mind flickered back to that day, only a few months ago relatively, but really almost five hundred years in the past; the day that he sensed the powerful presence entering his chamber.
I sense a strong soul. He’d said.
And then he recalled the battle with Bashurra the Crevasse and the voice that spoke to him through the link that wasn’t Taylin but was all the same.
That returned him to that dark cavern where he met the one who would train him to become a shapeshifting master…
Even as the huge, dimly glowing eye bored into him, lights began to wink into being near the cavern’s ceiling. None of them had been larger than young Ru’s thumb, but they were all brighter than a hundred candles. They revealed to him for the first time, the colossal form of Paive-Endiro.
The great dragon had filled Ru’s vision, ten times the size of a horse: the largest creature young Ru had seen up until that moment.
His great head narrowed from the crown of horns that swept back from his brow to a sharp wedge filled with curved teeth, some longer than Ru’s arm. Obsidian scales, the shape and size of which reminded Ru of spades, covered his body, dulling to dark gray on the scuta across his belly and throat. In the newly illuminated room, the edges of the great beast’s scales seemed dance with silver fire.
A rough, primordial laugh came as Paive-Endiro watched Ru’s reaction. The sound had vibrated in Ru’s chest until he felt as if he was going to pass out. But he still stood there, trying to beat back the part of his brain that wanted nothing more than to flee.
“Good. You are least have some resolve then.” With those words, the great dragon… melted. Or at least that was how it looked to a young Ru’s addled senses.
Bones and muscles collapsed, slithering over one another and running together beneath the skin until it too started to run like heated wax. The dragon’s mass shrank and collapsed until it reached a tipping point where what was left had stopped melting (for lack of a better word) and began to take a new form.
Suddenly standing before Ru was a man who looked like the very definition of ‘old master’: a weathered face like the exposed shoulder of a mountain, wild gray hair that was long all over except for where it had receded from his forehead, and steely eyes that drilled into Ru where he stood. He was wearing a black velvet robe with a silver pattern that evoked scales.
As if to answer the question already forming in Ru’s head, Paive-Endiro said, “I am a dragon who can take the shape of a man. I can take the shape of anything. Such is the sheer immensity of power we dragons hold in our very souls that even our young can accomplish a rudimentary effort purely on instinct.”
He regarded Ru with a critical eye that even through the lens of memory made Ru feel small. “You however are mortal, no matter how much potential Gand says you and your ‘siblings’ have. If you want to become a shapeshifting master, you will have to be as a dragon made mortal.”
Back in the present, Ru stood in thought.
He thought of how Novacula Kuponya became instantly charged when Taylin first picked it up, and her strange, ecstatic reactions to healing. Of the moment of their meeting and how her presence felt. And of how she’d managed to power through his sleep spell and strike him after her ill-conceived order.
His eyes narrowed. “She has a strong soul.” He repeated himself. When he said it to Raiteria, it was mere observation. Now however, for the first time he cared enough to put the pieces together. There wasn’t enough to be definitive, but it set his teeth on edge nonetheless.
“A very strong soul indeed.”
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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