- Rune Breaker: Chapter 43 – Pele
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 44 – Haumea
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 45 – Arunsteadeles and Ridsekes
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 46 – The One Who Was Lost
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 47 – Reclamation
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 48 – Days of Light and Joy
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 49 – What Matters
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 50 – An Evening at the Silver Hammer Lodge
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 51 – The Immaculate Raptor
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 52 – Spiders and Demons
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 53 – The Journal of Lena Hiddakko
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 54 – Beasts of the Deep
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 55 – The Drinking Gourd
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 56 – Death and Fog
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 57 – The Siege of Nhan Raduul
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 58 – Last Line of Defense
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 59 – He Who Destroys
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 60 – In the Sanctum of the Mask
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 61 – Daughter of the Dragon
Brin took her time exiting the hansom, extracting the Barratta from where it leaned on the other side of the carriage’s cabin, and adjusting her clothes. All the while, she observed the real Layaka Emeries. Though there were similarities about the face that left no mistake that whichever of the demons forged Partha’s body had seen this girl or her near relations, she was a far cry from the fragile, excitable girl who had traveled with her from Idarian Homestead to Daire City.
This Layaka could only be called a strapping young woman of obvious ancestry stemming from the original settlers of Mindeforme. It was difficult to tell from how she was sitting, but Brin estimated that the girl was only an inch or two shorter than herself and wasn’t done growing. The ill-fitting, sleeveless homespun she was wearing showed off strong shoulders and a broad back forged by a family line who worked in the fields for their survival. Instead of Partha-Layaka’s long hair, the real version had shorn hers off and wore it short in back with a long bush that threatened at all times to fall over her eyes in front.
Partha had played up what the old soldier thought was femininity in playing the part: skittish and frightful while being wide-eyed at Brin’s prowess and competence. Just from the way the true Layaka sat, solid and casual atop the narrow rail, spoke volumes of the differences there.
She was fiddling with a piece of stiff wire as Brin approached. Raiteria hung back respectfully, leaning against the side of the hansom until Brin needed her or wanted to introduce her. Without looking up from her twisting and bending of the wire, she spoke.
“Evening. Here to get your horse out of the stable?” When Brin said nothing, she added, “If you’re here to buy, Master Temores should be back on the quarter hour; he’s gone to the feed store.”
Brin still remained silent and this caused Layaka to finally abandon whatever she was doing with the wire and look up. “Ma’am?”
Shaken from her pondering over what to say, Brin said the first thing that came to mind. “Layaka? Layaka Emeries of Idarian Homestead?” The girl froze, eyes narrowing with suspicion. On the homesteads, most people who knew your name lived with you and saw you every day. For an unfamiliar face to know your name was rarely a good thing. Brin saw her mistake at once. “I… I’ve been to Idarian Homestead.” She lowered her voice. “I am a spirit docent. I put the souls there to rest,”
The girl slowly wrapped the wire around her thumb. Her jaw set as if in anger; as if she would fly from that railing and start throwing fists into Brin with wild abandon. But she didn’t move. She only wound the wire tighter until her thumb started to darken under the pressure. “You don’t look like a cleric or priestess to me.”
Brin wanted to hug the young woman for giving her something to talk about that she understood. “That’s because I’m not. When it comes to death, a holy woman deals with the afterlife. I deal with those who can’t or won’t go to the afterlife.”
“So you came all this way to tell me that my Momma and Papa didn’t go on the path to Denaii’s City?” came the reproachful response.
Casting her eyes down, Brin shook her head. “No, in fact, I was able to send most of the spirits of the homestead on. I’m here because…” Because… what? Because she wanted to make her being fooled by Partha mean something? Because she wanted to soothe her guilt at not being able to save the homestead? Because she missed Partha’s version of Layaka even with all the annoyance she often brought and wanted a replacement? How could she explain why she was there if nothing among her reasons sounded kind in her head anymore?
“I think it’s probably best we don’t try and soften it for her.” Raiteria raised her voice to be heard as she pushed off from the carriage and started toward them. “I might not know much, but there’s a good chance this wasn’t the first time her homestead was attacked.”
Layaka watched the halfling approach, then turned away from both of them to survey the porch. “Of course not. We’re… We were out in the unclaimed country. There’s bandits and always someone or other thinks they can make a principality out there.” She scowled and made a fist of the hand with the wire on it. “First time spirit beasts came, though. First time anything got through the wall.”
“They weren’t spirit beasts.” Brin said quietly. Raiteria had given her this new opening and she did her best not to take it for granted. When Layaka was facing her again with a question on her lips, she plunged forward with the truth. “They were demons. Demons of a god most people don’t think amounts to much: Kayda the Threefold Moon.”
Something hardened in the young woman who was already hard simply from living her life and Brin wondered how she ever believed that Partha’s version of Layaka ever came from a homestead or enclave. “A man came to the homestead a few weeks before it happened. Andross Mikon, he called himself; said he was on a pilgrimage. Papa let him sleep in the cellar and pay with some of his cleric magic.”
Her hand strayed to the Denaiian icon around her throat. “I never liked him. He never really smiled, or frowned or anything.”
“Like his face was a mask?” Rai asked. Both other women could hear her straining to keep her voice level.
When Layaka nodded, Brin had to pace away, running a hand through her hair. “Immurai. He was scouting the homestead, probably more than one, trying to figure out where to plant Partha. Idarian is an obvious stop for anyone moving between the coast and Daire City.”
This made Layaka’s brows rise with cautious interest. “Immurai… the bandit god?”
“That explains a lot.” Rai muttered, before saying to Layaka, “The demon in Kayda’s service.” She shot a look at Brin, but the other woman had her back turned. Even if she hadn’t she didn’t look to be in a place where she could give permission or warning.
“What are you talking about? What’s going on?” Layaka swung her legs off the railing and sat at the edge of it, dangerously close to jumping down and maybe trying her hand at forcing one of them to explain.
Rai held her hands up in a gesture of peace. “We’re sorry if it sounds like we’re keeping secrets, but this is hard to explain. Immurai is the one that ordered your village attacked by those minor demons. What’s worse is, you, your family, none of them had anything to do with his plan. You were just useful tools.” The words dripped from her mouth, acidic and charged with her anger.
A tear did finally win its battle against Layaka’s efforts and slid down the side of her nose. Her knuckles had gone white. There was only one question she had and though she didn’t have to give it voice, she did. “Why?”
There were tears threatening to follow suit in Raiteria’s eyes now as well. She shook her head. “He’s hunting my sister. The whys and wherefores of that aren’t mine to tell, but in order to find her, he killed everyone at Idarian Homestead and left one of his catspaws there to be rescued by…” She inclined her head toward Brin.
“They met up with us and when his spy figured out they couldn’t just take her, she kidnapped my son to lure her to them.”
The hard look didn’t subside, but some level of sentience and intellect surfaced from beneath it in Layaka’s eyes and her posture slackened by the smallest fraction. As she studied the two strangers with care. “That… isn’t the whole story. Even if you had to come to Rivenport, why find me? For that matter, how did you find me? I’ve never seen either of you and I have a good memory for faces.”
“Brin? It’s not my place…” Rai said, avoiding Layaka’s stare.
The docent nodded and touched the reliquary hanging at her chest. Reflair filled her with a short, calming burst of discarnate energy and her breathing came under control. That was usually something to aid her in combat, but it was just as welcome now.
Without turning to face the girl, she spoke deliberately, forcing herself to keep going when all she wanted was to leave the girl in peace now that the breadth of what she was laying before her was becoming clear and she knew what the response would be.
“We found you because… we were looking for you. I was looking for you. You see, the spy Immurai sent after Rai’s sister? She was using your name.” No need to add the ‘she’ was actually an old man filled with cruel madness. “I was badly fooled and went to Idarian Homestead to see if she was impersonating a real person. When the ghosts of the homestead told me you escaped, there was a chance that you came here and since we had to travel to Rivenport anyway…”
Layaka had shied away from her from the moment she said that Partha had taken her name and only when she trailed off did the young woman recover. “That still doesn’t explain what you want with me. I didn’t know any of this until you told me.” Brin winced as she saw an idea enter Layaka’s head. “Unless you want me to come with you against this Immurai. If that’s the case…”
“No.” Brin said quickly.
“What. You just told me that he murdered everyone I knew aside from the children for no reason, that you’ve come all this way to tell me, and now you’re saying I’m not going to get my chance to avenge them?” Layaka demanded.
Images of Issacor dying, Kaiel with his legs flayed and Ru reduced to an unsurvivable mess multiple times returned some of Brin’s steel and she wheeled around, jaw set. “No. Immurai isn’t a bandit or even a spirit beast. I know you must have learned to fight and defend the homestead, but he and his servants are beyond you.”
“You don’t know what’s beyond me. Maybe you knew someone who called herself me, but you do not know me.” This time Layaka did jump down from the railing and Brin reeled from her words.
Rai stepped up between the two women, arms crossed and a look on her face that suggested that the size difference between she and Layaka wouldn’t affect the outcome if they clashed. “I thought tall folk matured faster than ours.” She said mostly to herself before addressing Layaka. “Stop being a child and listen.”
“Papa and Momma are dead.” hissed Layaka, “My little brothers are going to grow up with a whole different family and never know me because the folks in Abi Rhonte didn’t think a girl would be useful. The least I can do is put an ax in that ashing monster’s head.”
“You wouldn’t survive meeting Immurai.” said Raiteria. “I’m not even sure we’ll survive it and between the six of us, we have more experience and magic than you’ve probably seen in your life. How do you think they’ll feel if you take the chance at life your parents gave you by sending you away and get yourself killed because you’re angry?”
Fire still burned in Layaka’s eyes, a sullen, teenaged hate, but she backed down. Her head lowered so that dirty blonde hair hung over her eyes, she once again turned to playing with the wire wrapped around her thumb, slowly unwinding it. “Then what in the seven interlocking hells is the point of coming here? All you’ve done is make me think about everything that happened; gave me more nightmares.”
The feel of a callused hand on her bare shoulder made the girl look up. Brin was standing before her, a small, gentle smile on her lips. “We aren’t here to make things worse, Layaka. I grew up a lot like you did, in a farming enclave in Vini Tresolm. I left on my own, but that didn’t make it much easier than I imagine things have been for you on your own.” She looked toward the front door of the stables. “Tell me: are you happy here?”
Layaka shrugged and looked down again. She was trembling under Brin’s hand, her mind still turned to violence against Immurai. “It pays good. I like working with the animals well enough, and I get to sleep in a spare stall and that’s better than where I slept on the way here.”
“That’s just survival.” said Brin, “Are you happy?”
The young woman looked up with a spiteful glare. “Of course not. But that’s what I’ve got. I’m lucky I got this job, being a coinless, dirty kid from the back country.”
Brin squeezed Layaka’s shoulder. “What if someone offered you a better job? Better pay and an actual bed perhaps?” Layaka simply regarded her with silent suspicion. She rolled her eyes, recalling that not so long ago, she would have reacted the same way.
“As I said,” she continued, “We are going to kill Immurai. But the journey is by sea and I can’t take my ornis with me. You know how to care for ornises?”
“We had a couple on the homestead. For hunting.” said Layaka, face softening by a small amount at the thought of a real bed and something besides tavern food to eat.
That look told Brin she didn’t need to sell the idea any further. “How about we wait here for Master Temores to return and explain to him how he’ll need a new girl to work his stable then?”
‘Cacophonies’ was a good name for the three little islands. There didn’t seem to be even a token showing of law there and raucous noise assaulted the casual passerby from every door and open window. Music, accompanied by singing both semi-proficient and spawned from chemical sources spilled out from taverns and bawdy houses while the shops had children and teens out front shouting about their wares to people. He had passed at least two fights in the streets, each surrounded by a crowd taking bets and edging the combatants on and another where the fighters in question were two mangy bears.
There were other bears too. He hadn’t seen anything more than a lapbear on Constan’s Isle or University Island, but in the Cacophonies, he’d seen at least a dozen being dragged around on the kind of chain usually found with a meat hook and a slab of beef hanging from it. These weren’t lap bears, but mid-sized brutes, waist high, and as wide as a minotaur. Pieces of improvised armor was strapped to them: sheets of untanned hide, mail gorgets made from flattened cans, or even helmets carved from wood. No doubt the one fight he’d seen was not a rarity in the Cacophonies.
“My, but you look like a rich one.” A half elf was sitting on the steps leading up onto a three story building, dressed in nothing but a shift, her dark hair in intricate braids. Her perfume reached him even several feet away, surprisingly delicate despite its heavy application. “Why not share some of that coin with me?”
Ru continued on without even a glance. The urge to look was still there, but more than one master had scourged the habit out of him because they didn’t appreciate knowing that their weapon had the same thoughts as any other mortal. Maybe it pricked what little consciences they had to be reminded of such.
As much as he ignored the woman and her offer outwardly, however, he did note it and file it away as one more feature of the Cacophonies. Not that any of it bothered or even disgusted him. He’d grown up in the same kind of place, might have stayed there to his dying day if Gand hadn’t brought him under his tutelage.
Still, it wasn’t the kind of place a wizard should place themselves. Especially not a master of their art.
Not far from the scandalously dressed half elf, he found the place he was looking for. It managed to both blend in and stick out; a brick building in a block of others with a wood and glass door where no one else in the Cacophonies would ever be so brazen or foolish to invite robbery in such a way. Censors with brass grilles that made them look like slanted animal eyes hung on either side of the door. Inside each burned some sort of alchemical concoction that made the flame purple, the visual shorthand for psi.
A legend was stenciled in gold leaf on the glass of the door itself: ‘Marina Skabalien, Sensate’.
‘Sensate’ struck Ru as an odd appellation for a psi master. He’d gathered in Daire City that spellcasting masters identified themselves with self-made titles, like Windmason for a vin master, but ‘Sensate’ sounded pathetically limited for one who attained the comparatively rare mastery of the power governing the sapient mind.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the relative quiet of the shop. Simple vin workings muffled outside noise and gave the shop a cozier feel.
Inside, everything was in meticulous order. Four waist high glass counters formed a squared off horseshoe that enclosed most of the space in the shop, leaving a space at the back for the proprietor to move from the back to the main floor without breaking stride. A pair of taller tables, each tilted to conserve space and show off the objects displayed there, ran up the center of the space. Every item had a small, stiff card attached where a small, neat hand had appended a short description of the device’s function.
A female elf sat in an armchair upholstered with the fur of some exotic animal. The short muzzled, lupine heads of two such beasts formed the corners of the chair’s back, eyes of white opal staring out into the shop. The chair itself was elevated slightly so that the elf was level with the counter she sat behind.
She was reading from a small, leather bound tome until the exact moment the door closed fully. As if that were a signal, she snapped the book closed and looked up. Green eyes, their irises rimmed in scintillating purple from no doubt dozens of psi-based spells cast on her own person, widened as she got a good look at Ru.
“Interesting.” She said, loud enough for Ru to hear, but not directed at him in the least. A smile that held precisely the wrong kind of joy tugged at her lips. “What a magnificent spell construction. Hundreds of arrays, thousands of sub-routines…” Her voice dropped an octave and took on a purring, bizarrely sensual aspect as she added, “It can edit itself.”
“The Sensate, I presume.” Ru said without flinching. That she was capable of seeing the link’s structure just from casual observation wasn’t something he had expected, given that most spellcasters he knew needed specific spells to achieve what he did naturally.
“Marina Skabalien to a fellow spellcrafter.” She said quickly, still staring at him. “But truly: I must study that spell. Is it yours? Do you have diagrams?”
Ru stalked slowly across the room, breaking eye contact to examine the devices on one of the slanted tables. There was a great variety, contrary to most people’s expectations of psi spellcrafting being done mostly on hats and circlets. His eye fell on a brace of small darts meant to be spat from the mouth at close range; an assassin’s weapon, but with a spell in place of poison.
“It is not my doing.” he said, lifting the brace up to examine the spell more closely. They held a scattering effect; whoever they struck would find themselves hopelessly confused and unable to form coherent thought for a short time. Not for assassins then. For thieves.
The Sensate’s gaze remained on him, exerting an almost physical pressure. “Of the one on the other end?”
“Heh. She could not conjure water in the middle of the sea. Her art is the way of the sword.” The Sensate responded to this with a disgusted little sound that made him want to laugh again. At that moment, Taylin detected his amusement and sent her own inquisitive response. Ru closed off his end of the link; the last thing he wanted was for her to pick up on the memories he was about to dredge up. “The one who created this work is… long passed.”
“And that gives you great pain.”
Not much startled the Rune Breaker after five thousand years of service to the dregs of existence, but the question put did put him off his stride. He put the darts down. “Just how much do those ensorcerelled eyes see?” After using his natural speaking voice so long, it felt unnatural to return to the reptilian growl.
The Sensate smiled that unnerving smile and tapped the corner of one eye with a long, indigo-lacquered nail. “No sorcery this. My mother was a psi master and I was conceived in a rare natural node of ambient psi. I see the patterns of the energy, be it spell or simply those that make up your thoughts. I read them as you might read a smile.”
Slowly, she tilted her head. “Yes, this troubles you. Another in a line of troubling things of late. You have suffered long but what confounds you most it that now that suffering is balmed. Self-determination is new to you and you fear joy as others might fear pain. Because it weakened the anger—always the anger that has been your boon companion. It protects you from the guilt and the lost lo—”
“Enough.” Ru snapped. “I did not come here for analysis. I came here to give you a commission.”
The Sensate purred; this time a real purr, not just an undercurrent in her voice. “Your anger is beautiful. You’ve cultivated it into something beyond what most people feel.”
Ru glanced back toward the door and in his mind’s eye, he imagined the rest of the Cacophonies; the crime, the fights, the drunken joy and the naked lust. He’d been wrong: this was the perfect place for the Sensate if she admired emotion like he did spellcraft. He cleared his throat. “The commission?”
“Hmm.” The Sensate hummed and slid out of her chair. She was short for an elf, and lighter in color as well. Her skin was like tea with too much milk in it, adding to the otherworldly look of her. She wore a dress of flowing, wine colored silk with a dark blue vest worn open over it. An elaborate necklace of miniature silver peacock feathers sprayed liberally with sapphires, emeralds and rubies rested at her neck and two large sapphire spindles hung from her ears.
Gliding out from behind the counter, she half circled him, peering at him, or rather the link from multiple angles. “Commissions from me are quite expensive. I am the only psi master in Rivenport, so I set my own prices according to my own whims.”
The word ‘whims’ sounded like it had a different definition coming from her lips. Ru stopped his browsing in order to keep an eye on her. “Do you not wish to know what it is I wish to commission?”
“This does not interest me as much as the price.” She hummed again and moved uncomfortably close. Close enough that Ru now saw that her skin was not actually as light as he’d thought; she’d covered herself in some fine, pale powder that smelled of sea spray and gently radiated vitae.
“You wish to study the link.” Ru said flatly.
“Mmm.” She brought a finger up to tap her lips as that unnerving smile returned. “To begin, yes.”
Even though he knew she was watching the psi swirl about him, Ru still refused to react physically. “One night of study. I can promise no more as I am not long in this city. Nor can I guarantee that you will learn anything useful: the link resists analysis to prevent me from learning how to disable it.”
“More interesting still.” murmured the Sensate. “Now tell me what it is that requires my considerable skill.”
Ru ignored the Sensate’s gaze, which was lecherous and dissecting all at once. “I need you to capture a moment in time from my memory and amplify it to perfect clarity. The mechanism need not be complex or reusable, but the memory must be flawless for however long it might last.”
The Sensate cocked her head, regarding him. “A simple thing for me, but you would know this. Why not ask for the memory to simply be amplified?”
He clamped down harder on the link as that same memory, faded by millennia, but crisp for its importance to him threatened to surface fully in his mind. To the Sensate’s no doubt questing mind, he projected his profound seriousness as he said, “Because this memory nearly destroyed my mind completely the first time I experienced it.”