‘We agreed to allow the surrogates to raise the children they brought to term in order to maximize socialization and promote healthy mental development.
Unfortunately, the surrogate for the sixth child died of infection despite our best efforts. The staff has been taking turns caring for her, but these children need a stable parental figure. I have decided to elect myself for the task because she has endeared herself to me.
Though unfortunately cursed with markings of her special heritage, she is bright, responsive, and even at such a young age, inquisitive. In order to correct this issue and spare her the pain of what it is to be ang’hailene, I have secretly procured dye for her hair and wings.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
With Bairoe in the lead, they passed briskly through the streets of Market Town.
The buildings in that part of the city were a manageable four or five floors tall at most, and they were made of unfired clay, wood, or stone (sometimes all three at once). Aside from respecting the lay of the streets, the buildings followed no unified style or layout. Butchers’ shops butted up against smithies while outfitters shared the same block as breweries. And on every corner, there was a vegetable merchant hawking his or her wares.
Eventually, they reached a high, arched bridge and left the piecemeal Market Town behind.
The bridge was stone and made of a single piece, just like the city walls. The raised railings had notches along the top at regular intervals. It took Taylin until she was halfway across to realize they were there to steady gun barrels and crossbows.
By then, she was also noticing that the bridge arched up high above the water; high enough for ships to sail beneath.
“But how can the ships get anywhere if the falls are right there?” She wondered aloud as she caught sight of a sizable ship on the river to their north with seemingly nowhere to go.”
“Quite simple, really.” Bairoe said, “They use the lock.”
Taylin gave him and then the river a skeptical look. “Lock?”
“Take a closer look at the middle of the falls.” Brin said, guiding Miser closer to Taylin and Gaddigan. “See that kind of box shape in the mist?”
The swordswoman squinted. Yes, she could. It looked like a very simple keep, built directly in the path of the waterfall. If it had been a keep, the lower floors would have been flooded and the rest overtaken by mold and snakes. She nodded.
Brin continued. “It’s one huge chamber, called a ‘lock’, that can be sealed by siege engineers like the era-users we met with Solgrum’s army. When a ship wants to go upriver, they sail into the lock and pay the engineers. The chamber seals and the river water is diverted into the chamber with sweeps up top. The chamber fills and the water level raises the ship up to the level of the falls. From there it just sails out.
“And if a ship wants to come down the river, they sail into the lock at its high point and sluice gates open at the bottom to lower the ship down.”
As much as Taylin wanted to ask more questions, she also took note of the nervous and impatient looks Bairoe was throwing them. She and Brin had slowed down during the explanation and he looked unhappy at that. How many days had he waited at the gates for them to arrive?
Out of respect for his urgency and the fact that the situation was far more important than her education in nautical engineering, she only replied with an impressed noise and increased her pace.
The bridge led them to a larger island, this one dominated by towers; some reaching seven floors high. They were arranged in groups of four or six, surrounded by low walls with grassy expanses between where children played in small communal gardens. At the intersections of the streets, stalls made of wood or carefully placed stones sold hot potatoes, bread bowls full of thick, meaty stew, and grilled vegetables. Other stalls, more rare than the food peddlers’, sold dime novels and news sheets along with seemingly whatever homemade crafts the proprietor could muster.
Bairoe pointedly ignored all the offers shouted to him from the stalls, so the rest of the group did as well. Taylin watched a particularly large display of novels go by with a pang of longing. Once Motsey was back and safe, she was going to use some of the money left to her to buy a stack of them.
A few more turns down streets that seemed to have been laid out more by accident than design, brought them to another bridge. This one didn’t arch very high, as it didn’t span a distance wide enough for larger boats to be an issue.
In the smaller channel, Taylin saw people navigating short, narrow boats from one island to another. The boats didn’t seem to belong to anyone. Whenever one person tied up at an island another might climb into that same boat a moment later and cast off.
After a short walk, they found themselves on a man-made island. It was a rounded triangle with each point featuring a bridge to another island. On closer inspection, the ground was made of fired, unglazed clay like the watchtowers along the Passage of Conquerors.
There was only one building on the island. Its architecture was unique even compared to the general hodgepodge of Rivenport: three two-story wings split off from the central, three-story building with each wing aligned at a right angle from the points of the island. They were made of rounded slabs of sandstone highlighted by a layer of cement between them. In a city where most important public structures were either made of a single piece or designed to look that way, this one went out of its way to show exactly how it was put together.
“The central library of the Historical Society of Kinos.” Kaiel announced for Taylin and Rai’s benefits. “Only the Library at Siram Leggate, the Denaiian temple at Spinar, and the Bardic College Archives can boast a larger or better cataloged collection of written knowledge on Ere.”
Ru snorted. “The Codex Mishna was drilled one thousand feet into Mount Kaam. Every level was filled.”
“And where is it now?” Kaiel said irritably.
The dark mage made a rude noise, but didn’t dignify that with an answer. Nothing of his world remained. There was now only Ere and its history, starting with Saint’s Landing.
Bairoe gave Ru a curious look for bragging about a library he’d never heard of, but led them around to the entrance; a high, arched doorway set into the north-facing side of the main body of the building where they had to hitch their mounts and divest themselves of all weapons before moving to the doors.
Sigils etched into the door frame hummed with power the moment it was opened, and as they passed through it, the difference between inside and outside was pronounced. Where Rivenport’s riverside atmosphere was humid and warm, the interior of the library was bone dry and cool like a deep cellar.
The entryway left them standing on a dais some ten feet across with polished brass railings on all sides but directly ahead, where a massive wooden desk seemed to stand sentry over a set of stairs down to the library floor.
Said floor was populated by stacks, each row three times Taylin’s height, and arranged around islands where there were tables, cabinets and comfortable reading chairs. More stacks lined the two additional stories of galleries above; all of those were flanked by alcoves for private study.
There were no windows, only lamps lit by floating balls of magical light like those Kaiel used, but many times more bright. Three wide arches lead out into corridors connecting to the other wings.
A female miare in muted purple and navy robes sat at the desk, her thick fingers laced in front of her as she leaned over a large, open book covered with letters from an alphabet Taylin didn’t know. Her dark eyes peered at the tome through small, round glasses designed to perch on her pronounced nose, and occasionally, one of her ears flicked, causing the two silver rings in it to clink gently together.
Only when Bairoe gave a polite but urgent cough did she glance up. “Chronicler.” She greeted with a cold kind of familiarity that said that she was aware he existed and that was enough information for her.
Bairoe didn’t seem put off by the aloof acknowledgment. “Librarian Dreyfiss. I’m here with Chronicler Arunsteadeles and his people. Librarian Yolinderan requested them.” After an awkward moment, he added, “…Concerning the Soul Battery.”
The librarian’s ear flicked again. “I’ll call someone to bring them down to him. Librarian Dasahyur has enough assistants assigned to her that she should be able to make time.”
Without ever looking at Taylin or the others, she opened a drawer in the desk and drew out a bell. The device was constructed of crystal planes with the symbol for vox worked into it in copper wire. The stem was cherrywood with dials made of what might have been bone worked into it.
She had to work the dials carefully, using her long, thick nails to set the dials to a satisfactory configuration. Once that was done, she rang the bell once. It’s clear peel, more loud than something of its size should make, filled their ears, but didn’t seem strong enough to reach those of someone deep within the library.
Satisfied that her part was done, the miare librarian returned to her reading.
They stood in uncomfortable silence for several minutes until a dark-skinned woman appeared out of the stacks and headed toward them.
She, like Librarian Dreyfiss, was dressed in purple and navy blue, but her style was radically different. The long, tight fitting sleeves of a navy undershirt extended to her wrists, and was covered by a deep purple blouse that was long enough to hang past her hips, where a navy skirt with purple paisley fell to an inch above the floor.
Dark eyes complemented her skin, which was darker by far than Bairoe’s. Her hair was black and cut short on the sides and back while allowed to grow into curly bangs in the front.
When she had reached the top of the stairs, she nodded to Bairoe. “I trust these are Librarian Yolinderan’s guests, Chronicler Bairoe?” Her voice was low, calm and imperious, like Taylin always imagined the Empress of the Hailene Empire must have sounded.
“As the College ordered.” he replied.
The woman nodded her thanks to him and turned to the others. “I am Librarian Kaylini Dasahyur, Head Archivist. Welcome to the central library.” To Bairoe, she added, “I can take them from here. If they have mounts or cargo, the Historical Society will reimburse you for stabling them at The Gathered Shards.”
Bairoe ducked his head, then looked to Kaiel. “Good luck, Chronicler.” He said before leaving.
Kaiel watched him go and had to be nudged forward by Brin when Librarian Dasahyur motioned for them to follow her.
Soon enough, they were down on the main floor and moving toward the northern corridor. Kaiel jogged a bit to draw even with the librarian. “Pardon me if I’m not meant to ask, but do you know why we’re here? Because we don’t. Not exactly.”
The librarian gave him a sidelong look. “I do. Your request was communicated to us not long after Guyforth, head of the Bardic College chapter here, received it. One of my assistants recalled seeing the phrase and brought it to my attention and after reading the pertinent volumes, I brought it to Librarian Yolinderan to decide if we should disseminate the information at all.”
Instead of entering the corridor to the north wing, she led them down an aisle between stacks and then took several turns in succession until they seemed to be lost.
“He started a series of communications with your superiors: Loreman Ridsekes and Loreman Renehe. They informed him of your report to them, and Librarian Yolinderan now wishes to explain everything to you personally.”
Taylin gathered from the emphasis she put on personally that this was not how things usually worked in the library. It also caused Kaiel to lapse into quiet thought as they continued through the maze of stacks.
After long minutes of walking, they turned one last corner to find an open pit in the library floor. There was a rail around it in the same style as the one at the entryway, and it was surrounded by glass fronted racks of scrolls. Librarian Dasahyur lead them to a break in the railing where a set of fired clay stairs circled the pit, leading ever downward.
“This is Librarian Yolinderan’s personal archive. He alone knows how to make sense of the recovered texts from pre-Saint’s Landing sites, and only he is allowed unrestricted access to all of the library’s resources.”
The sudden shift in Ru’s attention, transmitted by the link, almost caused Taylin to stumble on the stairs. “Objects have survived from the time before the Vishnari arrived?”
“A few sites.” said the librarian, “Most only recently discovered. The find on the Orudai glacier in Chordin is what inspired a closer relationship between the Historic Society and the Bardic College. Unfortunately, what has been found offers little useful information at the moment.”
“Without context it wouldn’t.” Ru said. The link ticked with his calculations. “I want to see what you have.”
“Impossible.” Librarian Dasahyur said without even a thought. “The texts are too old, too fragile, and too precious to allow in the hands of one not trained in their care. Besides, you would have no idea what they meant. It takes all of Librarian Yolinderan’s considerable magical talent to decipher them.”
Ru rumbled and glared at the back of her head. “Eiy toveler hakka novindrie. Yasey maltheies endruiay.”
Being privy to the translation of those words, Taylin gasped. “Ru! There’s no need for that. Absolutely no one in this age knows that language except for you.”
Rai snickered at the exchange and the look the librarian tossed over her shoulder at them.
“I forgot whose presence I am allegedly in.” the librarian said with a sniff.
Taylin blinked at her. “You know?”
“And you don’t believe it?” Ru added irritably.
“Librarian Yolinderan is my immediate superior.” she pointed out. “Of course I know. But without proof, I see no reason to blindly accept it.”
“Few would.” said Brin, giving Ru a cross glance of her own.
Ru hunched his shoulders and continued floating down the stairs. “One day all will know the name and the face of the Rune Breaker.”
No one refuted him because they reached the bottom of the stairwell shortly thereafter and were confronted by an open arch baring the same sigils as the doors at the entrance. Librarian Dasahyur once more led the way. Beyond the arch, the air suddenly turned humid again, and warmer still than the air up above.
After a short passageway, they stepped out onto a crescent-shaped platform that formed one edge of a small underground lake.
Unlike the stairwell and the corridor, the cavern they now stood in was natural stone, probably deep beneath the river. The platform had been hewn out of the rock by hand, leaving obvious tool marks as opposed to the smoothness of spellcraft. Occasional drops of water fell from stalactites above to send ripples along the dark surface of the water.
Moments after the group entered the cavern, lanterns hanging from posts along the platform became active, sending white light to flood that section of the cavern. They revealed a stone pier jutting out from the platform directly in front of the entrance. It was eight feet long and ended in a second platform; this one a circular stone fifteen feet to a side upon which was set an inclined writing desk. In front of the desk, facing away from the water was a device that perplexed Taylin as to its function.
It was eight feet tall with a frame of gleaming brass and steel, holding a series of lenses on swiveling arms. Their arrangement seemed designed so that the lenses could be independently aligned to focus on whatever might be placed on the desk. Every inch of it was so covered with carved spellcrafting symbols that Taylin could see them from where she stood. The problem was that it was much too large for any demihuman to actually use.
Kaiel cleared his throat carefully. “How do we let Librarian Yolinderan know we’re here?” Librarian Dasahyur didn’t answer. She didn’t have to, because a moment later, the answer came from the mouth of Yolinderan himself.
“I became aware of your arrival the moment you entered the cavern.” The voice rolled over them, a powerful, deep sound with rich, resonant tones. The accent was educated and full of sophistication. “You may approach my desk.”
They all moved forward. Librarian Dasahyur stood behind them, arms lightly crossed over her chest.
When Taylin got closer to the desk, she found that it was occupied by a rectangular package, presumably a book, wrapped in oilcloth. It didn’t hold her attention long, however, as something large disturbed the water in the lake from underneath.
Red lights winked into being beneath the surface. They were arranged in two groups of three with each group consisting of a light only slightly smaller than Taylin’s head with two the size of her fists just above them. As she watched, they began to rapidly approach the surface.
Before they reached it though, the lake erupted in a riot of what appeared to be stone spikes, each taller than she was, layered atop each other like gigantic scales. Water streamed off them and seemed to turn to glittering motes in the bright lights along the platform and pier.
A nest of smaller spikes emerged ahead of the main cluster, just behind the red lights. This was quickly revealed to be a horse-sized, reptilian head crowned by a mane of spikes the color of wet granite and shot through with red veins. The lights were, in truth, eyes. The larger ones were set deep into their sockets while the smaller ones seemed simply to rest on the creature’s brow like those of a spider. All six glowed a sinister red.
Below the spiked frill and the otherworldly eyes was a thick, hooked beak. Though clamped firmly shut, Taylin had no doubt it could bite her in half.
It was seeing this that finally made Taylin realize what she was looking at: the larger spikes weren’t scales, but there were close. They were the thorny shell of a gargantuan turtle, twice as large as the mighty trulls she knew. Instinctively, her hand went to draw out the Eastern Brand, only to belatedly realize that the sword and all her other weapons were with Gaddigan, far out of her reach.
All six of the beast’s eyes focused on her. “There is no need for that.” said the voice of Librarian Yolinderan. Even though the crushing beak didn’t move, the voice came from the monstrous turtle.
Taylin hesitated, fighting down the itch of scales trying to break out up and down her arms. She’d heard tales of the ornim-hele; the dragon-turtles. They were as ancient and wise as the dragons themselves, but few knew anything more than that about them.
Librarian Yolinderan, for indeed that was who he was, brought his head level with the pier to survey those standing before him until he spotted the crest on Kaiel’s broach. “Chronicler Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles, I presume?”
“Sir.” Kaiel said with a formal bow. “It is an honor to meet you in person.”
“A pity it is not in better circumstances.” The head librarian replied, his two largest eyes becoming half-lidded as he affected a sigh without expelling any air. “The tale you’ve relayed to me via Loremen Ridsekes and Renehe disturb me greatly if they are even partially true. The Rune Breaker has resurfaced, and at the same time Immurai the Masked begins a quest to take control of the Soul Battery.”
Kaiel straightened, bringing his cloak up around him to make the pose regal. “Indeed, Librarian. And that brings me back to my original research query. We have already concluded that whatever Immurai wants from us, it must be well worth it to him. The problem is that we have no idea what the Soul Battery is.”
“Hmm.” said Yolinderan. “It is indeed obscure, for a scholar of the War of Ascension like yourself. I do not fault you for not knowing: the Empire’s records were left in shambles from Dey’s retribution and the sharing of information, even in this age is far less than complete.”
He turned his great head to encompass all of them in his gaze. “I will spare you the close details and tell you only what history you must know:
“Even before the War of Ascension, the hailene had turned from the Vishnari Pantheon and sought to raise up their own ancestral and hero gods in their place. There were some that were not satisfied with this, who did not wish to pray to ghosts and fallen warriors. What they wanted were gods that walked among them and led their people with raw, divine power.
“When theories arose that there might be a way to empower a hailene with that manner of divinity, the Emperor ordered research conducted. The leader of this endeavor was a noble and scholar in the arts of using vitae to alter biology named Lena Hiddakko. Her personal theory was that the divinity sparks that fuel spirit beasts could be harnessed and controlled.
“However, in the course of her studies, she discovered that the divinity spark was similar to a power the dragons. Through experimentation, she and her people discovered that the souls of dragons are directly connected to the Well of Souls. Every dragon born on Ere is constantly charged with the discarnate energy from this pure, unlimited source.”
Yolinderan looked up to the ceiling of the cavern as if seeking divine guidance himself. “But the will of a dragon cannot be broken and their soul cannot be harvested for its power. Lena Hiddakko sought to create hailene who were themselves gifted with the souls of dragons.
“The fragmented journals of the Emperor’s advisers suggest that when he realized that he could not be personally empowered by the process, he gave the entire project over to the military with the aim to use the resulting hailene not as leaders for his people, but as a source of power for their newest weapon: the Dragonslayer class dreadnought. He is noted to refer to them repeatedly thereafter as ‘rom inder hai’, which translates to the Vishnari tongue as ‘power source made from essence’, or ‘soul battery’.”
A sick feeling hit Taylin’s stomach. She’d heard of butterflies in one’s stomach, but she imagined these to be made of ichorous slime. She felt the others all glance in her direction and saw Yolinderan set his gaze directly on her.
“In the end, what remains of the official record says that six children were born in the experiment and one died some weeks after. The journal of Lena Hiddakko, found in the remains of her villa three years after the hailene were given back the Illium archipelago, however, says differently.”
Now the dragon turtle had narrowed his focus to Taylin and Taylin alone. “You miss. Tell me your name.”
Taylin jumped at being address and the roaring in the back of her head demanded that she lash out. She fought it down and only managed to squeak out a “Me?”
“Taylin of the Winter Willow.” Rai actually leapt forward so she was standing beside her sister.
Yolinderan rumbled, but Taylin had no idea what that meant. “Taylin then. There is a book on my desk. Please take it and turn to page two-hundred and five. Then read the passage there.”
Everything in her wanted to flee, fight, or crumble now. She didn’t need to read the book; she knew what it said. There was no way that it said anything else. It all made sense now: why she wasn’t like other dragonsired, what that roaring in her head was, and worst of all why Immurai really took Motsey:
He wanted her.
It all came down to the fact that the hailene had meant her to be more of a weapon than she ever expected. And now she was left with the grim choice: let her nephew languish, become hated by Raiteria and the entire clan, never be able to live with herself—of hand that weapon over to Immurai.
Taylin turned to look at the others.
Kaiel offered a small nod of encouragement and Brin a more expectant one. Evidently, she wanted an unambiguous end to the mystery once and for all. Raiteria, was trying ineffectively to hide the dread in her own expression while still standing by Taylin. And Ru… stood impassive as ever, staring back at her.
In the link she found not surprise as she expected, but an odd mix of amusement and… vindication?
You knew. She glared at him.
I had a theory. Ru countered. I sensed the strength of your soul when we met, but only after speaking to Raiteria did it occur to me to ask ‘why’ and connect several pieces of information.
Taylin’s teeth ground and something in her really and truly wanted to let the link do as it wished to him for that. But she beat that part back, then turned away from him and toward the book. If Ru knew things like that about her, she needed to know them too. All of them.
On stiff legs, she stepped forward and lifted the book from the desk. She unbound it from the oilcloth with great care and took a moment to look at it.
Once, it had probably been an elegant volume, but the leather of the cover had rotted in places and the edges of the pages were water-stained. Still, when she opened it, most of the feathery, careful writing was still intact. That included the numbering, which was inked at the bottom center of every page.
Suddenly, she wanted to read the entire thing and find out what this mad woman had done to her in detail. But Yolinderan had been specific in his orders and it was his book. She turned to page two-hundred and five, then read aloud.
“I have changed all of the records to say that the girl died of a lung infection. It is a plight common to ang’hailene and will be believed. The only record of the girl’s true identity resides in these pages. To the rest of the world, she will be the child of one of my deceased relations who I have chosen to raise as my own.”
Taylin looked from the book to Yolinderan. “Wait. Do you mean to say…”
“You have already guessed.” the dragon turtle pointed out. “You are the sole surviving Soul Battery, and Lena Hiddakko took you as her child.”
Actually, no , she hadn’t guessed all of that. Yes, she had come to the conclusion that she was one of the child-turned-weapons, but with the knowledge, she imagined that her life before the mines would be in some dank laboratory being prodded and abused in the name of science.
But now ghosts of memories were coming back to her. All of those moments she half-remembered about the house and the loving voice…
They were real. She’d had a childhood. She had a mother.
Unable to stop reading now even if the book turned to acid, Taylin started to read aloud again the words of a mother she once believed to be a hallucination.
“I find myself most endeared to how advanced she is even at this early stage of development. To discard the clinical terminology, she is quite clever in her way. My very clever girl. And so I will name her precisely that in the tongue of the Vishnari.”
Taylin read the next words before speaking them and had to force herself to finish. Her mother had named her. And she’d forgotten even that.
“I will name her Pe’le.”
End The Path of Destruction.
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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