Rune Breaker: Chapter 45 – Arunsteadeles and Ridsekes

This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)
“Right in here, Mr. Arunsteadeles.” The half-elven woman in charge of the university’s communications building pulled open a heavy door whose materials Kaiel could only guess at. Whatever it was, it had done an admirable job keeping the cool air that rolled out of the room beyond the moment it found egress at bay. In comparison to the humid heat of Rivenport, it was downright chilling.
 
“Thank you.” Kaiel said, inclining his head to her. He didn’t miss the look of naked appraisal her found on her face.
 
On University Island, the Bardic College and University of Novrom’s southern branches intertwined. The students of both shared dormitories and no small number of the university’s staff of professors and researchers had been trained in bardic tradition. However, anything more than the basics of the Word and Song were only taught at the college in Harpsfell.
 
The actual prestige of being on the path of the loreman, combined with dime-novel fantasies caused the crest of the Bardic College he wore to become a mark of great potential wealth, fame and virility. The half-elf had not been the only person that day to size him up with hungry eyes.
 
“Are you certain that you won’t need any assistance with the transmission?” she asked hopefully, even though she knew that even if he accepted, they wouldn’t be alone in the room.
 
Kaiel had to admit that at some other time, he would have been glad of the attention. The half-elf was, after all, quite attractive. Like Brin’s affected appearance, she had san brown skin like her elvish parent or ancestors from Vini Tresolm, and ears that stuck out from her head in sharp points. Though dressed plainly, in a white blouse; brown wool vest, and charcoal-colored cotton trousers, her natural good looks could not be concealed.
 
But this was not another time. There was too much of import taking place to waste time flirting even if he didn’t have Brin on his mind. Beyond that, the room she’d just opened for him wasn’t empty and the last thing he needed was its occupant overhearing anything untoward.
 
“No. Thank you.” He affirmed. “I will be receiving and I assure you that the party on the other end will have no trouble operating the array from their end.” Ignoring the disappointment on her face, he gave her one last nod before stepping into the room and pulling the door closed behind him.
 
It was really less of a room than a cell. Perhaps not a prisoner’s cell, but it would do for a cleric or monk. All four, bare walls and the back of the door were paneled in padded material with vin arrays scribed on them. Where akua could be used to alter the path of light and create visual illusions, vin could do the same to sound waves riding the air. In this case, the arrays stopped sound from leaving the room, keeping the communications therein private.
 
At the back of the room stood its reason for being: the incredibly complex transmission engine. At first blush, it looked like nothing more than a particularly ornate scrying focus: a crystal bowl sitting between two upright, silver tuning forks. Those, however, sat upon a smooth cylinder of stone shot through with veins of raw iron. Silver and copper wires had been woven into a cage around it with still more wires passing through precisely drilled holes in its surface. Before it sat what looked like some sort of game board on a short pedestal; several hematite pegs as long and as thick as Kaiel’s thumb were resting in slots upon it.
 
Each of the university’s five engines had taken teams of spellcrafters months to craft and were so expensive that even members in good standing with the Historical Society or the Bardic College were still required to pay to use them unless a senior member of the university staff signed off on it.
 
Sitting on the lightly padded bench that was the only piece of furniture in the room besides a long, low desk placed in front of it, was a senior member of the staff.
 
She had twisted around to watch him enter. In her fiftieth year or so, she was only of middling height, but carried herself in such a way that made her look much taller. Her hair was dark in a way that could only be accurately called ‘dark’. Not so dark as to be black, but far too dark to simply be brown.
 
It was just one of the things Kaiel had gotten from her side of the family.
 
“And so it only takes a demon and a hostage to summon my son to Rivenport.” Meriin Arunsteadeles rose from her seat with a wry smile. She made a show of smoothing her beige and azure skirts, and making sure the top button of her highly starched, white shirt was fastened. Her coat, azure like the side panels of her skirt, was left open despite the cool of the room. “I shall have to remember that for the future.”
 
“I would have purchased a sending, but I’ve been in Taunaun and you know how things are there.” Kaiel crossed the room to her and they embraced.
 
Meriin huffed as she hugged her son closer. “The sending I received said you were in Torm Dondaire. Unless the game of principalities has gone to full madness, that is not Taunaun, Kaiel.”
 
Not Keese Kaiel. That name had been his father’s doing; Pashael Arunsteadeles was too blinded by brotherly admiration to see that Keese Murl Arunsteadeles, infamous robber baron of the minor principalities along the Strait of Nivia, did not need the honor of a child named after him. Nor did he deserve it.
 
“I think you might forgive me for being distracted given the rest of my sending.” said Kaiel.
 
Letting go of him, Meriin took a step back and regarded him for a moment. “I do, though I’m shocked to find you in such good health after what you’ve been through.” She laughed lightly, “And the tale behind it: the Rune Breaker, a woman who lived during the War of Ascension, an old soldier reborn as a waif, and three demons of the pan-khul rank or higher—it is more fantastical than a dime novel.”
 
Kaiel sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “And it isn’t over yet. Where is Father? I was hoping that after I speak with the college, I might treat you both to a nice, family dinner.”
 
“If only events had been timed better.” sighed Meriin, extracting a pair of glasses from an inner pocket of her coat. The frames were thin wire and the lenses smaller in diameter than a Calleni one shield coin. They were non-functional anyway, meant only for fashion. She put them on so that they slipped to the end of her nose before continuing. “Your sending missed him by three days. It is that time of year, you know: he’s gone to inspect the company holdings in the north.”
 
The Arun Trading Company was the third largest in eastern Novrom and the only one in the east with contracts extending into Vini Tresolm Based out of Rivenport, it had trading houses and brokerages in most major cities except Daire, where Solgrum, a competitor of Pashael Arunsteadeles had revoked their license.
 
“Do you think he will meet any unpleasantness if he calls at Daire City?” Meriin asked.
 
“If the One Dice looks upon us favorably.” replied Kaiel, “I advised the new leader of Solgrum’s army to support Rayneir II. She has enough support among the people that with the army at her side, any thoughts of succession wars should be quashed in short order.”
 
Meriin breathed a sigh of relief. “Very clever of you.” Then she recalled why they were in the transmission room and waved their conversation aside. “But family business can wait. I don’t imagine Loreman Ridsekes is happy to be left waiting so long. I’ve already set the engine to contact him, but he’ll be waiting for you to identify yourself.”
 
“Of course.” Kaiel nodded, concealing a sudden case of nerves. He’d known there was a good chance that his mentor along the path of the loreman might be the one standing by to receive his report, but there had always been hope that someone else might be there to hear how he’d gotten himself this far in over his head.
 
He approached the pedestal set before the transmission engine and gazed in confusion at it. The board was a grid of hexagonal cells cut into a slab of smoky lead crystal and outlined in copper. The hematite pegs, each one marked with the order of their placement, one through six, were each slotted into one of those cells. Their position created the coordinates of the receiving scrying array one wished to talk to. Kaiel had been expecting coordinates in Harpsfell, but these…
 
“Siram Leggate?” he asked aloud, looking over his shoulder at his mother.
 
Meriin shrugged. “Loremen do move around so much. I wasn’t too surprised when young Bairoe brought those coordinates to me.”
 
“I suppose.” Kaiel said, though he still wondered what his mentor was doing in Mindeforme. The man was Formean by birth, but the government there, overrun by elitist and pedantic wizards, was not friendly with the Bardic College. Pushing that thought to the back of his head, he held his hand over crystal console and began to hum, deep and resonant.
 
When most people used a transmission engine, they tapped vox to complete the array with a pattern that was uniquely their personal symbol. Being trained with the Word and Song, however, Kaiel used discarnate energy instead, twisting it just enough to cause it to engage the same parts of the array as vox did.
 
The transmission engine responded with a sympathetic hum as its vast, complex arrays awoke. The placement of the pegs told them where the transmission needed to go and sent out skeins of mystic force out to a relay in a town on the southwestern coast of Novrom, which in turn reached out to another at the city of Dragondock in Taunaun. The relay in Dragondock was just within range of Siram Leggate and completed the connection to a second transmission engine in that city.
 
All six hematite pegs reverberated in their slots to tell Kaiel that the message had been received. He stepped back from the engine to await the reply.
 
Barely a minute passed before the tuning forks sang and the water in the crystal bowl stood up in a pillar. The entire transmission engine let out a deep sonorous hum as its counterpart in Siram Leggate began to transmit. By way of the vox conduits between the two engines, the person at the other end was able to work limited illusory spells with akua, vin, and flaer at extreme range, which was precisely what Loreman Ridsekes was doing.
 
The pillar of water was seized by spellcraft and took on the shape of a man. He was huge, perhaps only half a head shorter than Pele. Slowly the illusion took on color from refracting light and details began to fill in. The man’s chin was clean shaven, his skin pale from spending much time in the long night and short summers of Chordin. His yellow-blond hair was swept up and kept there by means of either wax or an unknown spell, looking like a particularly well maintained broom. Across broad shoulders, he wore a long coat of white leather. From the amount of obvious stitches and other signs of repair, Kaiel often wondered just how many different animals were represented in that coat by now.
 
While the stature merely marked him as a man born of stock from Mindeforme, the hair and coat could only have belonged to Traceren Ridsekes, Loreman.
 
The illusion took a few more seconds to fully resolve, filling in the texture of his white silk shirt, red neckerchief, black leather trousers, and highly polished black boots. As a loreman, he did not wear the crest of the collage—he didn’t need to identify himself in any city of size because people already knew who he was.
 
“Loreman Ridsekes.” Kaiel said, inclining his head respectfully. “I’ve come to make my report.”
 
Trace, as he insisted people call him, lifted a hand. “I can save you a considerable amount of time, Kaiel. Librarian Yolindarian, myself and Loreman Rehene have already been at this the entire time you were in transit. Can you confirm to me our suspicion? Is your friend, Taylin, really the daughter of Lena Hiddakko?”
 
The question made Kaiel raise a brow. Being a loreman, Trace could be trusted to say exactly what he meant in situations like the one they found themselves in, and Kaiel had expected the question to be whether or not he could confirm that Pele was the Soul Battery, not that she was Lena Hiddakko’s daughter. He decided to answer the question as asked.
 
“She is. In fact, she’s taken the name Lena Hiddakko gives her in the journal. Taylin is now Pele.”
 
Trace did not seem surprised. He nodded thoughtfully. “It’s a bad situation we’ve been put in. When the evil or the foolish want a thing—an object with no consciousness—we can destroy it or seal it away. Not so with a person. I trust you’ve all discussed her options?”
 
“We have. Pele wants to go to Nhan Raduul to destroy Immurai. And after hearing her arguments, I can’t say I disagree with her overmuch.”
 
“No doubt.” said Trace, “The other choices are death or confinement to some remote vault such that she might as well be dead. But whatever she chose, I would have agreed short of submitting to Immurai. Remember, Kaiel, that the purpose of loreman and the Bardic College is not to defend this world from the depraved or the stupid. It is our mission to make this world better. Part of that is never taking the fate of the innocent out of their hands no matter the consequences.”
 
Kaiel knew all this. Though he would have argued vehemently and even threatened to leave if he thought it might have turned Pele’s decision for the better, he would never have forced her to do anything. “She wants to learn to use the power of the soul battery against the demon.” He added.
 
The loreman shook his head, shoulders heaving with a sigh. “Then she wastes her time. I’ve read Hiddakko’s journal and they never learned how one of their young demigods might be able to access their own connection to the Well of Souls. The legendary Dragonslayer ships had spellcraft within them that could draw power from them, but by all accounts it was not a simple or painless experience for the subject. No doubt Immurai has the means now and is waiting to enact them on your friend.”
 
Something cold settled in his gut at that. So much for any hidden advantage they might have hoped for.
 
“I doubt that would change her mind.” he pointed out. “Her primary objective is rescuing Motsey. Most of the group’s primary objective is this. The goal of destroying Immurai is just a necessary step in ensuring his continuing safety.”
 
Again, Trace only nodded as if all this was as it should be. “So the five of you intend to sail for Nhan Raduul, an island on the edge of Kimean waters where the demon no doubt has dug in and is expecting your arrival?”
 
“Yes.” Kaiel said, wishing his mentor didn’t sound so matter-of-fact about it.
 
Trace laughed—actually laughed! Kaiel almost stumbled back at the sound. “That seems to be the way of the world. I’ve found myself as one of two against an army myself. The key is your wits and being my student, I expect you to have those to spare. On the other hand, resources are nothing to neglect: what can I do to help?”
 
For a moment, Kaiel’s mouth worked without any sound coming out. He hadn’t expected it to be this easy. He expected to have to outline an entire plan which he did not have before the Bardic College would lend aid to what sounded like a suicide charge. Then again, he found himself thinking, it might be that all the wild stories about Loreman Ridseke’s escapades were not as embellished with bardic flare as he’d thought.
 
It was his mother prodding him in between the shoulder blades that forced him back to reality. He coughed over-loudly and looked up at the patient expression of his mentor’s illusion. “Forgive me sir, I expected the college…”
 
“I didn’t say the college.” interrupted Trace, “With the time limit on the young halfling’s life and Immurai no doubt gathering strength by the day, we can’t waste time with the bureaucracy. I can finance you from my own accounts and the college can reimburse me after Immurai the Masked is destroyed.”
 
“Loreman… Trace, I can’t possibly ask you…” Kaiel’s every sense of propriety was set to war against his practicality. He needed the money and fast, but it just felt wrong taking it directly from his mentor.
 
“You didn’t ask.” said Trace. I’m telling you, as your mentor that you will take five hundred full marks from my account at Sikant’s to finance this mission.” Trace’s voice was authoritative; he was adding the Word to it to lend impact. “Kaiel, you asked for me to mentor you after your first stint of walking the world because you agreed with me on the third philosophy: that is it not merely our job to inspire the masses or raise up heroes, but to act ourselves when uncommon circumstances arrive. This, Kaiel, is one such circumstance, and it calls upon us to act.”
 
Kaiel had no choice but to agree. Everything his mentor said was true. “My thanks, Loreman Ridsekes.” He said, feeling stupid for arguing in the first place.
 
“There’s the bright young man I know.” smiled the loreman. “I trust that you already have some idea where to look for a ship?”
 
“I do.” replied Kaiel. He knew that Trace already knew the answer—Rivenport was a town he knew well, after all—and had asked to bolster his confidence anew. “The whalers. Whaling ships venture far already and are armed and armored enough to survive any Kimean patrols we might encounter. If I can find one from southwestern Novrom, southern Rizen or the Te’ranian coast, all the better. They would love to help someone bloody the Kimeans a bit in retaliation for the raiding parties.”
 
“Excellent.” said Trace. “You sound set then.” He moved as if he were going to deactivate the transmission engine, then paused. “Oh yes. One more thing. I’ve spoken to Loreman Rehene and we have agreed: the destruction of Bashuura the Crevasse is an impressive enough event that, pending your written account, it will count as the end of your fourth walkabout.” Kaiel started to thank him, but Trace wasn’t finished. “Your fifth begins now. We’ve agreed that foiling the machinations of Immurai the Masked and in the process saving the world from the rise of a new evil god will certainly worth your fifth ruby pip should you accomplish it.”
 
As if he had not been shocked enough already by the twists and turns of their meeting, Kaiel was once more left speechless by this final revelation. Five completed walkabouts. It took seven completed to satisfaction and documented in a marketable dime-novel form for a person to earn the title and prestige of Loreman. He’d been proud to earn his third pip, as very few on the path achieved even that. But now a fifth? Only one in perhaps two hundred students on the path of the loreman made it that far without washing out or discovering a passion in their travels that was greater than their desire to be Loremen. And most who managed to earn five earned their sixth and seventh as well.
 
“Sir.” Kaiel finally said, making an effort to stand straight.
 
“I don’t want you to thank me yet.” said Trace, holding up a hand to stop him. “Thank me when we meet again in Harpsfell, when the Chancellor is pinning your new crest brooch on with those five rubies; just before you regale me with how you and your companions snuffed out Immurai’s dark flame.”
 
***
Nyadec Tolere breathed hard through his nose, trying not to audibly huff as he hauled himself down a seemingly endless spiral of stairs. Before Lord Crossius returned, he hadn’t hurried anywhere. There were common servants to do that for him. Now he was the common servant once again and was expected to precede and announce the Lord and his Lady to the visitor awaiting them at the docks beneath the keep.
 
The spiral stair had been cut into the rock and circled an open shaft that the lift would use to bear any cargo from the private dock up to the keep some two hundred feet above. There was no reason that the lift, a circular slab of rock infused with ­vin to make it float on command, couldn’t carry passengers as well, but Lord Crossius hadn’t even acknowledged Tolere’s suggestion to that effect.
 
Tolere spared a glance behind. In the glow of the magelights lining the stairs it looked like the regal pair wasn’t even sweating from the long climb down. They just continued smoothly and inexorably down, threatening to overrun keep’s former steward if he didn’t keep up his scramble. The lady Milfine hardly even seemed to bounce as anyone else would on the stair. She glided down with a smoothness that must have been taught to her in a finishing school on one of the major islands.
 
Mercifully, salt air began to tickle in Tolere’s nose and the sound of a coarse man shouting instructions to porters reached him. They were near the bottom and the promise of level ground to stand on and time to catch his breath spurred Tolere forward.
 
The last ten feet or so of the stair were free hanging as it emerged from the ceiling of a wide mouthed cave. The lift was there, floating a few inches off the ground and emitting a soft, golden glow that taunted Tolere and his aching feet.
 
Once, the cave had been natural, but long ago, one lord or another had seen fit to have a dock hidden from the prying eyes of the townsfolk, and close enough to the keep that nothing that broke free in the transfer from ship to shore had anywhere to run. The cave had been excavated deeper to make space for storage rooms, the winding stair and the lift while a wooden pier had been installed just outside of the cave mouth so that ship wouldn’t have to come too near the nasty hidden rocks that lurked around the cave mouth, waiting to tear open unsuspecting ships. A passage had been cut through the coral reef offshore and replaced with an illusory one so that only those who were welcome could safely approach.
 
One such welcome ship had pulled up to the dock and was being offloaded as they arrived. The porters were peasants altered by their lord’s experimentation over generations like almost all of Mon Sulus Kime’s lowest class. In their case, the alterations were so extensive that they barely looked human. Broad, heavy torsos, squat, stout legs and hands that looked like they belonged to a species of large ape made them ideal for carrying great loads. Tolere didn’t dare try and guess what purpose the naturally bald heads of oddly textured gray skin served.
 
Six long crates, stamped with the maker’s mark of Lady Tremier, had already been set down. Tremier’s specialization was blending magic with the principals of mechanization. The porters were obviously not hers, as she had very few living servants, finding metal and glass to be her favored medium.
 
Standing on the dock, berating the porters, stood Lord Caldebron himself.
 
Like many Kimean fleshcrafters, his skin was blotchy with different unnatural hues thanks to the various concoctions and wild magics he employed. From his elbow down to the tips of his fingers, his skin was vivid sea green, giving way to fish belly white veined with bruise purples all the way up until they disappeared into his sleeveless vest. He was short, but powerfully built with a forked beard of wiry gray hair on his chin and a scraggly mat of the same on his chest, which his open vest left exposed.
 
He turned his head, the visor of smoked glass he wore over his weak, squinting eyes glinting as he detected movement within the cave.
 
Tolere knew he needed to speak before Caldebron did if he had any hope of maintaining propriety. He took two deep, ragged breaths and bellowed into the shallow cavern. “Attend!”
 
The dock guards, all of them with the Threefold Moon worked into the decorations of their leather cuirasses, Tolere noticed, stood at attention at the call. No doubt this had nothing to do with Tolere and everything to do with not getting on Lord Crossius’s bad side.
 
Still, the former steward took what he was given and continued his announcement. “Presenting Lord Ienstadt Crossius and his Lady Milfine!”
 
The Kaydan guards didn’t stir at this and the porters continued their work heedless of anything. Lord Caldebron merely grunted, unimpressed. “Crossius.” He said, his voice loud without even having the shout. Some folk had no voice but their loud one. “Lady Tremier paid her debt to me with your debt to her. I’m making delivery of the harpoons you commissioned from her. You have her twenty gold-weights of copper ore?”
 
Crossius didn’t even acknowledge Tolere as he stepped past the exhausted man to meet his contemporary. Passionless, he spoke. “I do Caldebron. Your…” He regarded the porters as if he could not bring himself to sully even the pathetic human race by naming them as ‘people’, “…servants will find them in the first storage room.”
 
He pointed toward a set of iron doors set into a cave wall not far from the stairs.
 
“As useful as the harpoons are, I am more interested in the item you have for me. It is ready, yes?”
 
Caldebron, beard quivered with insult. “I would not have sailed this close to wretched Rizin’s waters if I did not.” He looked back at his ship, a shallow drafted thing with two decks of oars and only two sails, and shouted an order in a language that was possibly of his own devising.
 
An elf, unaltered, but with his own skin stained red and an unsettlingly organic shade of greenish yellow, answered before stepping onto the dock carrying a heavy iron box. He wore long, thick leather gloves and seemed reluctant to hold the box by anything but the handles. He brought the box before the two nobles and stooped to set it on the ground, quickly backing away from it.
 
“Your assistant seems quite cautious.” noted Crossius.
 
“That is because he enjoys not dying in a horrible manner. The contagion you commissioned is harmless to most mortals, but there is a protocol to be observed and followed stringently when you work, as I do, with virulent entities. He knows it was a lack of such caution that killed his predecessor.” He shook his head, “A pitiful sight. His temperature rose and rose, but his organs refused to fail. Only when they actually begin to cook did he expire.”
 
Crossius’s expression remained impassive. “Interesting. But again, my care lies with the creation I asked of you.”
 
“Indeed.” said Caldebron, kneeling to open the lock on the iron box. He opened it to reveal that the inside was lined with velvet to better protect what looked like a glass egg; filled with viscous, blue fluid; then girded and ribbed with steel. There was a mechanical cap at its tip that looked as if it would provide ingress. “This is a true marvel. A malady that not only consumes the victim’s reserves of a specific magical energy, but will also only become active when that reserve is used for a specific purpose. I was most impressed by the principle when you approached me with it and am proud of the results.”
 
With a hard, prideful look on his face, he lifted the container from its resting place and held it up to the light. It looked more like a decoration than a vat of disease. “As you requested, it is blood-borne and can remain in the system of any mortal, inactive for weeks.” He held it out to Crossius.
 
The man’s normally unmoving face formed the smallest of cruel smiles as he looked upon it. “Most excellent. Lord Caldebron. I have great plans for this.”
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