Rune Breaker: Chapter 48 – Days of Light and Joy

This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)
The journal of Lena Hiddakko contained neither her official notes, nor a consistent day to day log. It was more of a collection of whatever thoughts the woman considered worth remembering. There were week long gaps between some of the entries along with sometimes dozens of entries made on the same day. They weren’t just written entries either, but also spell diagrams, scientific formulae that Pele couldn’t decipher and amateurish sketches; all compiled in a small, neat hand but cramped as if she was afraid to waste a square inch of white space on the pages.
 
After three hours of reading, a picture was forming of an ambitious woman who had contributed to several key advances in the empire’s war machine and strove to improve several more.
 
Pele hadn’t even reached the beginning of the theories and experiments that would eventually result in her conception and birth, but there was already copious mention of using vitae to manipulate growing organisms. Here some notes on how to cause cork trees to expel a lighter-than-air waste gas into their own porous structure to reduce the effective weight of the material for the manufacture of airships scrawled in a margin; there three full pages centered around an idea to breed a species of vulture into a replacement for the already vitae-manipulated hounds.
 
All of that was intermixed with Lena Hiddakko’s personal thoughts on her life, her vocation and the political landscape unfolding around her. Occasionally, a bit here or there called up faded memories for Pele. The room with the glassed in sky from her dreams was actually an indoor garden on Lena’s estate in the Illium foothills. The entire place had been granted to her by the reigning Emperor Caleb Messai for her service to the advancement of the hailene race only a few years before his death and the ascension of his successor. Galad Messai, the same who would eventually start the War of Ascension.
 
Lena had been a staunch defender of Emperor, nation, and race, and was not shy about writing out her thoughts on why ang’hailene such as humans, elves, and minotaur (the term seemed to be used more inclusively than Pele had ever heard it used elsewhere) were so inherently and unfortunately inferior in her journal. There was no mention of halflings though, something for which Pele was grateful. However mentions of goblins and orcs made her uncomfortably aware that she hadn’t heard any talk of those races since her awakening in the world of the future.
 
Had such peoples been hunted down, exterminated or, as mentioned several times in the journal, used as experimental stock by her mother and people like her?
 
It was this question that finally convinced Pele to take a break from her reading. Considering that somewhere further into the book, Lena would have to mention experimenting on ang’hailene, things would not paint her mother in any better light anytime soon.
 
Marking the page with a sprig of grass plucked from the ground next to her, Pele closed the book and leaned back. The Eastern Brand’s scabbard at her back contacted the tree behind her and she fluffed her wings out around her.
 
How could the woman from her dreams, the person who had nothing but soft words and warm embraces for her say and do the things Lena Hiddakko mentioned in her journal? All hope that she might find inspiration from her mother to bolster her as she made ready to attack Immurai at Nhan Raduul was well and truly dead. Now the best she could hope for was some hint as to how she might unlock the hidden legacy of the Soul Battery inside her.
 
For the moment, however, she pushed those thoughts aside. Ru had stifled his end of the link some time ago, leaving her completely alone for the first time since they’d left Daire, so she took advantage of it and just enjoyed the surroundings.
 
Others were doing the same. As the sun began to set and Haumea’s legendary shadow began to creep forward, several couples were positioning themselves to have it fall over them. Some came to stand hand in hand before the statue while others were making more of an event of it, laying out blankets to sit on and enjoy the romantic moment.
 
One such couple; consisting of a human man wearing livery that marked him as some sort of courier and a woman of the same unknown race as the artist Pele and Ru spoke to when they first arrived, settled down not far from where Pele sat. The man was filling up ever moment of possible silence with idle chatter while the woman replied casually with warm smiles for even his most banal observations. Regardless of the direction of the conversation, their focus was one another with glances here and there to monitor the progress of Haumea’s shadow.
 
That flutter Pele felt whenever she saw Brin and Kaiel together, the same one that reacted so strongly to the artist’s tale concerning the statue, returned as Pele observed the pair. She looked away guiltily. There was no point being envious to something she’d never had; something she sure as the seven interlocking hells didn’t even understand.
 
And she certainly didn’t need Ru returning from whatever he was off doing to find her thoughts straying in that direction. No doubt, he would have something to say about it, possibly involving Issacor and the link would end up punishing him, making her feel bad about two things at once.
 
Issacor…
 
She hadn’t known him very long, but she had enjoyed that time. He had been intelligent, noble and had by example reinforced her ideal of the principled warrior she wanted to become. Did that mean her feelings were any stronger than she had for her new family or Brin? She couldn’t tell. If there was something there, she didn’t even know how she was meant to identify it. There certainly hadn’t been butterflies in her stomach like Brin’s milder dime novels described it, nor had there been anything like what the less mild ones described in much more graphic detail.
 
“I’m trying not to think about this.” she said aloud just to make sure she paid attention to it. Running a hand through her hair, she looked around for distraction, giving a pass to the various couples awaiting the shadow. Distraction found her instead, in the form of a wave of rolling nausea and the metallic twisting of the link in the back of her mind.
 
The statue’s garden was gone and Pele found herself lying face down on a stiff, wooden table. The air was cool, dry and distinctly unlike Rivenport’s with a powerful scent like crushed moss and burning leaves filling it. The position was not unlike the one she’d assumed when Grandmother and Signateria invoked Sylph to give her back her wings.
 
Wings were the first clue she had to what was actually going on. She didn’t have any. Instead, she felt the air disturbing a short beard on her chin. Once again, she was in one of Ru’s memories. And Ru was in pain in that memory.
 
The link dampened the full shock and agony of the experience, but it was sharp and precise. She could feel the sensations crisscrossing her arms from the backs of her hands, down past her elbows and to her shoulders. These were accompanied by new lines of pain that were just starting to spring into being.
 
They are cutting me. Ru’s thought from that moment in time, but it felt to Pele like she was thinking it. They are cutting me, filling the wounds with liquid pain, and we are not yet halfway done.
 
Over and over again, that thought circled her and the pain intensified. When will this stop? Will it ever stop? I would die to make this stop. I want to die. The shock was making her shake now and multiple hands were pushing her down on the table as sharp blades continued to cut and a finger dabbed something into the wounds that made the pain seem to leap in response to its touch.
 
I want to die. She, or rather Ru, was only remaining conscious through force of will and shapeshifting ability. There had been a warning before it began: if you pass out during the ritual, there was little hope of awakening. But never before had that possibility held so much more promise than remaining awake and surviving.
 
All I have to do is stop resisting. She felt Ru starting to let slip, his will ebbing as no price seemed too high to stop feeling the ritual being undertaken on him.
 
“Ru.” Even in ancient memory, her voice was clear and unaltered by the fog of time. A soft hand touched the side of her face. “Ru, you have to stay awake.”
 
Pele-as-Ru looked up at Gloryfall, only a year or so older than she had been when giving Grace to him. It wasn’t possible to talk. If Ru opened his mouth then, it would have been to scream until he asphyxiated.
 
“Just stay awake.” She said, voice trembling. “Y-you don’t want me to tell Master Gand that he’s lost one of his first three because you were too lazy to stay awake do you? And he’ll tell Paive-Endiro that he’s very sorry, but you didn’t have the spirit of a dragon after all.”
 
It was the pain, not her attempt at taunting him to distraction that made his eyes roll, but she groaned nonetheless. “You and Gand have a talent for talking people through this sort of thing, but I don’t.” Her other hand touched the cheek opposite the one she was holding and cupped his face, holding his eyes locked with hers. “But I’m here, Ru. Right here. Don’t focus on the pain, focus on me.”
 
It wasn’t something she should be seeing. Pele knew this and knew that Ru would fight with every iota of his power to keep it hidden. It was the weight of that revelation; of just how much of a violation she was committing just by watching that moment from Ru’s past that caused her to push away from it. She didn’t even know that she could push away, but suddenly she had a metaphysical hold of the link, using it to remove herself from Ru’s memory.
 
The scene before here receded, becoming transparent in her sight to reveal Haumea’s shrine to her once more. Soon, the link was relegated once more to the depths of her mind where it became a cold, quiet point as it usually did when Ru was blocking his end.
 
She almost asked him what all that was about, but stopped herself. There would be no point to it: Ru wouldn’t want to discuss it, and more to the point, neither of them needed to be reminded of the link any more than was necessary.
 
Between Ru, the link, and all of the couples in the park now, she found herself picking up the journal again. However Lena Hiddakko might defame herself in her own writing, at least reading the journal might help rather than compound Pele’s problems.
 
Some fifteen minutes later, she was startled out of her study by a wave of frustration, annoyance and a clammy, slithery discomfort she’d never felt from him before as he lowered his block on the link.
 
This was followed a moment later by the arrival of the Rune Breaker himself. He appeared in the air, floating backward as if to avoid something but only succeeding in slamming his back up against the tree Pele was resting against. Correcting his course, he scudded sideways a few feet before dropping out of the air and into a cross-legged heap beside her. His head dipped below the level of his shoulders, chin resting on two fisted hands while his elbows rested on his thighs.
 
A low, constant growl permeated the link.
 
“I have just encountered the most unpleasant creature in this world.” He said, plucking Pele’s question out of the link before it could form on her tongue.
 
Pele didn’t close the book, but she did glance at him sidelong. “Was that what you went off to find when you flew from here in such a hurry?”
 
He ran his fists up across his face until he was rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. “Yes and no. And I would prefer to leave it at that for the time being. Have you gleaned anything from the journal?”
 
Her fingers traced the page she was on and she wanted to mirror Ru’s gesture. “Only that my mother was not a very good person who lived to serve far worst people, I’m afraid.” She tamped down her growing negativity and let a small, tentative smile touch her lips and her attention returned to the book. “But there’s hope. I’ve only just reached where she starts to talk about the theories she has about spirit beasts.”
 
Ru just grunted and the link didn’t indicate he’d heard her at all. In fact, all she was getting, beneath the swirl of negative feeling he’d arrived with, was a distant emotion not unlike the one she’d battled herself when contemplating the couple in front of her.
 
Another look in his direction revealed that his eyes were locked on the statue of Haumea.
 
“I wouldn’t have expected you to be interested in any kind of art.” she admitted, keeping her voice low in fear of disturbing whatever meditation he’d fallen into.
 
“I am not.” his voice was, for once, hushed and honest, making her check again to make sure that it really was Ru Brakar sitting there beside her. Distracted, he continued. “I am merely remembering that I too was prone to wasteful and exuberant shows of my affections.” He waved his hand blithely at the statue, “Never statuary, my talent did not lie in that, but spellworked devices; frivolous things she would enjoy or that would help her in her work.”
 
He stared hard that the statue, seeing a different face upon Haumea’s stone countenance. “The difference is that I hope to all the dead gods of my world that she did forget me; that I passed from her memory and all that I did were replaced in her recollections with days of light and joy.”
 
Pele in turned stared at him. He looked the same and the link confirmed to her that Ru Brakar, the shapeshifting master and self-proclaimed monster was sitting beside her, so close that he was actually sheltered from the wind by her wingspan, but that didn’t add up to the words coming from his mouth and the lack of spite or haughtiness in them.
 
“Gloryfall?” She asked, purely out of a desire to get to the bottom of this transformation. “But she’s the one that made the link, wasn’t she? Why would you want her to find happiness?”
 
“Heh.” The spell was broken; Ru was back, his darkness filling the link like blood dripping into clear water. “That I suffer for it doesn’t mean that I think she was wrong to do so.” Shifting position, he planted his palms on his knees and leaned his head back as if trying to work stiffness out of it. “Five thousand years of wretchedness is not half the punishment I deserve.”
 
Pele studied his face closely. His attitude was back, but he still seemed off, as if he was still trying to regain his center. Whatever he’d been through in the last few hours that triggered the memory that overtook her was probably responsible for the strangeness still hanging about him like mist clinging to grass after a hard rain.
 
The real question of where he’d been still hung on her lips, but she knew she wouldn’t get an answer to that. “You never told me what you did to… earn the link. I remember flashes of a city burning, was that…”
 
He tilted his head side to side, cracking his neck and he grinned in a way that would frighten off a squad of minotaur warriors. “Heh. I could never be not proud of that.” The pride slowly drained out of the link as his eyes drifted to the grass in front of him. “I was always the most aggressive of the three of us. Gloryfall had been the sheltered daughter of nobility, raised with the art of decorum and diplomacy. Seth was left in the care of an orphanage from the day he was born—not a soft life, but nothing like growing up in the Brakar. I first stabbed a man at six years old. I only attempted the path of peace because Gand insisted, and Gand was… Gand.
 
“But then he was murdered. Two men climbed in through his window and stabbed him in his bed, then escaped before they could be detected, running to the church of Vitalius for sanctuary. The church not only took them in, but declared them to have done the god’s work in killing a man who only wanted peace and equity. They held a festival to celebrate them not two days after Seth, Gloryfall and I put the man who might as well have been our father in the ground. And the whole damn city took on a festival atmosphere.”
 
The ever-present rage that always lurked about him was stoked by the recollection and he clenched his hands into fists against his knees. “I would have burned them for only that, but Seth stayed my hand. That is, until we heard about the purge wagons. The church was using the holiday as cover to round up all the young sparkers in the city. Praetor Joquien had to know, but he just didn’t care, even after all those years smiling in Gand’s face and promising that the city was changing in our favor.
 
“When I showed them what was happening and nearly died in saving those young sparkers, Gloryfall and Seth agreed that a price had to be exacted. We gave them warning. Told them to take their old and their children from the city by the next setting of the sun. I have no way of knowing how many listened.”
 
In Pele’s mind’s eye, she saw a sky dominated by a pyroclastic cloud, raining down fireballs and streamers of red lightning while burning tornadoes dropped down to decimate what were almost certainly temples and government buildings. Amid the rage was pride. Justice. It made her breath hitch to see the devastating vengeance being undertaken. It made her ill to think that it was done in the name of a man who only wanted harmony.
 
“But if that wasn’t it…”
 
“Then what could possibly be worse to someone who helped me burn a city to the ground?” Ru asked, setting his gaze on a couple in front of them—the same one Pele had found herself focused on earlier. “She never really forgave herself for that, no matter how much Seth and I assured her that our actions were just. She fell into the role of teacher for the newest members of the Brotherhood, the sparkers we saved. I, however, set myself to protecting them the only way life in the Brakar had taught me: striking at the enemy before they could strike us.
 
“That was the start of the war of conquest. I didn’t want to rule, or acquire wealth, I wanted to make us safe—make us all safe. I started with stamping out the church of Vitalius, then their allies and any city-states that harbored them. I made the very name of Vitalius a curse.”
 
Once more, the link showed Pele scenes from another world, another time. Inhabiting the body of Ru again, she strode through a forest with a squad of cloaked figures, each carrying a scythe. There was an opposing force set against them, trying desperately to slow them with guerillas tactics. It was all for naught, as their weapons were arrows and swords while they were facing the Brotherhood’s killing fires and streams of clear acid that dissolved both soldiers and terrain.
 
“But there were always more threats and as we expanded out of our region, where the influence of Vitalius had stunted magical study, the wars became more bloody.”
 
The mental scene shifted to the great stone hall of a castle. The wooden rafters were burning and holes had been blasted in the walls. The corpse of some horror conjured to defend the fortress, a gigantic snake with the head of a crow and rows of curving horns running from the crown of that head down its back, lay still on the floor, its belly split open and its humors mixing on the floor.
 
The mangled body of a young man, probably not even past his sixteenth year, was being pulled out of the rent stomach by a woman just a little older than him with dark hair spilling out of her hood. All the while, she cast desperate vitae spells over his body, shouting for help—shouting for ‘Master Ru’.
 
No help came. Before Pele—or Ru could act, a bolt of blue-green lightning came from further down the hall, lancing into her chest and hurling her to the ground.
 
Ru’s voice tore Pele out of the vision. “Some of those same children we burned the city of Kuria to the ground for died as part of my war. The children Gloryfall knew and taught and loved. That I was so crass as to offer her the thrones won with their blood as tokens of my esteem makes it no surprise that in the end she felt she had no choice; that I had to be made to pay.”
 
He looked at her, a challenge in his eyes. “That is my sin, Miss Pele. Today I had a loathsome woman reach into my skull and stir those memories up, strip away the centuries of insulation so that I might find one more weapon to bring to bear against Immurai.”
 
Haumea’s shadow had fallen over them, the day darkening locally along with Ru’s expression. “I am telling you this because you must understand that I am a monster and that there is no reason to lose focus on our goal to destroy Immurai to have sympathy for me.”
 
From his cloak, he drew a ring of rare aluminum with a rough sapphire set into it. The blue stone was tinted with an inner purple light. “This contains the most physically painful moment of my life: the day I got my scarification. For a total of one hour, I will be able to relive it and regain my quick-cast mastery. After the battle at Idarian Homestead, Immurai believes I no longer have it.”
 
Tactically, Pele knew it was ingenious. If she had a way to trigger whatever had come over her when Bashuura grabbed her, no matter how traumatic, she would have made the same decision in his place if it meant saving Motsey and ending Immurai’s threat. But it wasn’t her in his place and even if it was the Rune Breaker, she didn’t want to see anyone else in pain if it could be helped.
 
“Ru, you know I can’t.”
 
“Block it out. Ignore it.” He said, authoritative. “If you want your nephew to live—if you want to survive this yourself, you will take whatever advantage presents itself. And this is a powerful advantage.”
 
“Isn’t there something I can do to… I don’t know, help you with it?” The link had shown her what he’d gone through the first time and that made her doubt he would be all that capable of fighting after reliving it.
 
He shook his head. “There is no point. I am the Rune Breaker and I will survive it regardless.”
 
Pele wanted to argue, but at that moment, a familiar voice reached them.
 
“I spoke to Loreman Ridsekes.” Kaiel said, dropping into a kneeling position on Pele’s other side, his expression neutral. “On the positive side, he’s advanced us money for our undertaking. On the negative, he’s read Lena Hiddakko’s journal and says there’s nothing there that can help you make use of the power of the Soul Battery.”
 
With her own thoughts having been on Ru’s plan, Pele had to shake her head a moment to shift gears to the denial of her own. She turned widened eyes on the chronicler. “Is he certain? I’d hate to think I just wasted more of the day looking for something that wasn’t there.”
 
Kaiel shrugged. “Loreman Ridsekes is a very smart man, but there might be something in there that has meaning to you that wouldn’t to him. I wouldn’t get my hopes up though.” At seeing her mood deflating, he offered her one of those charming loreman-in-training smiles. “It isn’t a waste though. Learning about where you came from is still valuable.”
 
‘Where she came from’ being the experiments of the dispassionate and racist Lena Hiddakko. Pele found herself rather dubious as to the value of learning that. She didn’t tell Kaiel that though. Instead, she asked, “Have you heard from Brin and Rai?”
 
The chronicler gave a soft chuckle. “Actually, I did. Brin sent a courier all the way from The Silver Hammer to find me. You won’t believe this, but they say they’ve managed to find Layaka.”
 
Ru’s eyes flashed dangerously. “What?”
 
“Easy there.” Kaiel held up a hand as if that could possibly mollify the other man.
 
“Why should I?” Ru growled. “Am I the only one who recognizes patterns in this haphazardly assembled group? We should have left the elf at Idarian Homestead, especially if she thinks us to be such great fools as to accept another infiltrator into our midst? Using the same name?”
 
Pele massaged the space between her eyes. “Not this again, please Ru?”
 
“Miss Pele, if this isn’t proof of what I’ve been saying all this time…”
 
“It isn’t.” Kaiel cut him off. “Remember how I can tell if someone is telling me the unvarnished truth? Brin has told me several truths about herself. She is not a Kaydan agent and before you say it, that sense can’t be countermanded by what I feel about a person.
 
“I will confirm her story, but it is entirely possible that this Layaka is real. The ghosts of Idarian Homestead told Brin that she escaped and given the time frame, she could have easily made the journey to Rivenport on the coastal roads.”
 
Pele sighed softly and started to stand. “I for one hope she is real. I don’t think worrying over what might have happened to Layaka was good for Brin.”
 
Giving them both a baleful look, Ru rose as well, levitating until he could unfold his legs into a standing position. “Yes, but is it good for the rest of us and our mission?”
 
Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 47 – ReclamationRune Breaker: Chapter 49 – What Matters >>

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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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