Rune Breaker: Chapter 49 – What Matters

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)

The Silver Hammer Lodge was on Constan’s Isle, occupying the affluent northern end. Seeing as Kaiel couldn’t fly and the public boats were unlikely to support the weight of all three of them, he hired a charter boat to carry them there.

 

It was a wide, flat-bottomed craft manned by a pair of twins who looked to have the bare minimum amount of human ancestry to maintain that designation. Both men were nearly as tall as Pele, and wider still with thin, frog-like mouths and chins so strong they might have been able to chew rocks as far as she could tell. Both had so much wax worked into their coal black hair that it formed into a shiny natural helmet on their heads that didn’t move at all with the breeze. Their skin was an ashen color shaded all the way to mottled gray along their brows and the lines of their jaws. Their incredible musculature was put to good use pulling the oars as they guided the boat between the islands of Rivenport.

 

The trio of travelers sat in the bow to offset the two big men in the stern with Pele furthest forward, trailing one hand in the comparatively cool water. She didn’t particularly like the temperature, but she’d never had the opportunity to do so and had read a scene where someone did it in one of Brin’s books. It quickly lost its appeal, however, as a few pressing questions born from her reading of her mother’s journal prodded at her.

 

“Kaiel?” She finally asked, still watching the trail her fingers wove in the water. She heard the chronicler hum a little noise of acknowledgment. “Whatever happened to the goblins and orcs?”

 

One of the rowers grunted in a way that made it seem like he wanted them to hear. Out of the corner of her eye, Pele saw Kaiel fidget for just a moment before composing himself.

 

“You read some about what the hailene did, I wager?” Pele gave him a hum of her own. “Right. The hailene had a special hatred for what were called…” he hesitated, “unfairly called the ‘savage races’: the peoples who were already here when Saint’s Landing occurred. These races included various goblin peoples such as orcs, hobgoblins, trolls and…” again he hesitated and Pele caught him starting to turn toward the rowers before thinking better of it, “ogres, as well as kobolds. You see, they have their own religions and their own gods, and never accepted the Vishnari Pantheon because they believe in a separation between this world and the realm of gods. Mainly their belief that the Vishnari were known to walk the lands in mortal guise was proof to them that they weren’t gods at all.”

 

Pele pulled her arm out of the water and turned to face him fully, her eyes dancing inquisitively. “I’m not sure I understand why that would make the hailene hate them.”

 

Kaiel shook his head, “It’s because after a while—around the time Sylph the First vanished from historical records—the Vishnari Pantheon ceased to walk among us or intercede directly. They left our world in the care of the Dragon Nations… and the nations of Gold, Red, Silver, Blue, and White betrayed that trust and instead smothered the world in Draconic Control. Even after that era ended and demi-humanity won their freedom, the hailene on Illium never forgave their gods and tried to raise up ancestral and hero gods as their own small gods.

 

“But it didn’t work. The hailene priests of those gods were able to channel sporadic magic at best. All the while, they saw the sa… original peoples of Ere able to call on their own gods without trouble. They wanted that ability and had theories that it was something passed down in the blood…”

 

“So they experimented on them.” Pele said before he could. Her hands clenched at the thought.

 

Looking away toward an island passing them by on the left, Kaiel nodded. “Tens of thousands died in the raids to get ‘subjects’. There are no more true orcs in this world, and Dey stepped in, breaking whatever prohibition had been placed on the Pantheon against interfering in mortal affairs directly to destroy the hailene aerial fleet and much of Illium in order to save the last of the true goblins, who had added her and her alone to their own list of revered beings.”

 

Ru’s eyes flashed dangerously and the link reflected it. “So that’s the wench who sapped my power, preventing the chamber from collapsing while Miss Pele slept!”

 

They were all aware of it when the strong surging stopped and the boat began to slow.

 

“I think…” the rough, deep voice of one of the rowers got their attention, and they all looked to find the man on the left had taken his hands off his oar to turn the back of his fist toward them. Lashed to it with a thin strip of leather was a pewter icon: the open palm symbol known as Dey’s Gray Hand. “I think,” he repeated, looking Ru in the eye, “That you can swim the rest of the way. This boat goes no further for you.”

 

Kaiel glared at the dark mage. “As I was about to say, Dey is still revered among them for that, even when the Thirteen Nations accord stuck them with Taunaun, a land of deserts and wastelands with a gigantic mountain range belonging to the Red Nation directly in the middle of it, mostly over religious slights.”

 

He crossed his arms and inclined his head toward the two rowers who were both watching the trio with identical stony countenances. “She is also known in some aspects as a patron of children of mixed parentage. Quarter ogre, gentlemen?”

 

The man on the right stifled a guffaw and flexed one knotted bicep. “On our mother’s side. One eighth ogre, one eighth troll.”

 

“Prodigious.” Kaiel said. “Please excuse our associate. He is exceedingly ignorant of the ways of the world, and has had a bad experience with a priest of Dey in her ‘Goddess of Evil’ aspect.” The lie came out smooth and seamless thanks to bardic training.

 

“Goddess of Evil?” Pele asked, trying to whisper and doing a poor job of it.

 

Kaiel shook his head, not turning away from the rowers. “Schisms and corruption mixed with ideological drift. Dey was not one of the original gods from Saint’s Landing despite being counted among the Pantheon. She was originally simply Goddess of Redemption and Sins of Necessity, but different sects had different ideas on what needed to, or could be redeemed, and what might be necessary. So there are now those who believe that all the evil they do is redeemed merely by their faith.”

 

“Perhaps I was hasty to judge. That seems like a most sound philosophy.” Ru said, not bothering to hide his mockery.

 

With a groan, Pele brought two fingers up to massage the space between her eyes. “Ru, why do you feel the need to besmirch gods? Please apologize to these men.“

 

“Why should I?” Ru asked, petulance dripping in every word. “I sincerely doubt that Dey suffered when our powers clashed. I am the one who finds himself diminished—I should be the one demanding apologies.”

 

The rower on the left spat off the side of the boat. “We will go no farther with the blasphemous dog in our boat.”

 

“Ru.” Pele and Kaiel said as one.

 

Ru looked about. The nearest shore would be a manageable but arduous swim for most folk; a fitting punishment for such a slight without being fatal. He showed his teeth to the twins in an unfriendly kind of way. “Heh.”

 

With that, he tipped himself over the side, changing shape as he fell. He’d scarcely made a splash before a crocodile with dull green and rust colored stripes bobbed to the surface, rolling a dark, reptilian eye at the occupants of the boat before surging toward Constan’s Isle with powerful stroke of its thick tail.

 

Still massaging her brow, Pele growled out her annoyance, a sound that was feral enough to get the two rower’s attention. “I’m getting tired of apologizing for him; but I am sorry if my question offended either of you. There’s a lot I don’t understand and I’m only just beginning my education.”

 

The man on the left, the one who originally spoke first, looked pointedly at her wings before nodding and returning to working the oar. Without a word, his brother joined him, the matter over as far as they seemed concerned.

 

Kaiel turned back to the bow and blew out a long breath. Pele rested one elbow on a raised knee and her forehead in the palm of her hand, pushing tangles of hair out of her face in the process. “The hailene were even worse that I thought, even after what I’ve been reading all day.”

 

Shifting on the hard bench beneath him to find some comfort, Kaiel looked past her at the approaching docks of Constan’s Isle and the telltale wake of Ru swimming beneath the water’s surface ahead of them. His expression softened. “Taylin… Pele, I don’t want you to think that reflects on you. Not all hailene are like that—not all hailene even back then were like that.”

 

“I know.” she replied, settling her wings around her loosely. “I am me, and for as long as I can remember, one of the most clear lessons I was taught was that I am not a hailene.” The hand on her forehead traveled up to run fingers through her hair and she tilted her head back, breathing deeply in the salt air of the delta. “But I still hoped I might find something good about my mother or where I came from.”

 

Kaiel took out his coin purse and started counting out a gratuity large enough to smooth over Ru’s earlier faux pas with the rowers. “Well, you did say you haven’t finished the book yet. There’s still time for Lena Hiddakko to prove herself. Failing that, you have a new family and a new place to come from now. That’s what we’re fighting for after all.”

 

She nodded. “It is indeed.”

 

***

“I know you have a spell to dry yourself off.” Kaiel said, keeping his distance from Ru, who, now in his normal form, was dripping from head to toe with the slightly off-smelling water of the Emaru.

 

Ru sneered at him past one wild lock of black hair that had plastered itself over his left eye. “I do, and yet, I feel no compulsion to use it.” An obvious trail of wet spots on the dusty cobbles that made up the streets of Constan’s Isle marked the path he’d taken from the docks. Passersby were starting to stare at him. And sniff.

 

The sun was almost completely gone and spellworked lights were winking on along the main thoroughfares. They were delicate things of glass and copper with clever mirrors and prisms that magnified small magical flames into bright luminosity.

 

“No one made you swim the rest of the way to the island.” said Pele, her feathers literally and visibly ruffled. “If you had only apologized to those men, you could have ridden in the boat.” After a moment, she glanced down at his feet, noting the good five inches between his feet and the ground. “Or you could have flown. You fly everywhere in every other situation!”

 

The level of smugness mixed with haughty offense at the idea that he should ever apologize was such that it choked everything else in the link. “He told me I could swim the rest of the way. I obliged.”

 

Kaiel whirled on his heel, bringing both hands up in front of him. All but his index fingers were folded flat against his palm, the former two pressed together. He spoke, more of a tone than a word, as he brought them apart, calling into being a shimmering screen directly in Ru’s path. Burning like an azure web in the center of it was a simple spell diagram: akua dosim.

 

Momentum carried Ru through the screen, which made a sizzling sound and sent crackling arcs of white energy to form a halo around him as he passed through it. A small downpour of dirty water was ejected in a sickly colored stream behind the dark mage, spattering the cobbles and an unfortunate bed of white flowers in a planter on the street corner.

 

Ru paused to glare at him, “A water repellant? Primitive.”

 

“Yet highly effective. You no longer stink.” Kaiel walked back to examine the flowers. After some consideration, he took out his half-flute and played a short, high tune that reminded Pele of birdsong. The leaves all turned toward him as if he were the sun and took on a more vibrant shade of green.

 

“And what was that?” Ru demanded, still scowling from his previous remark being ignored. Pele declined to chide him: she wanted to know too.

 

Kaiel replaced the flute in an inner pocket of his coat and put on a placid smile. “The Hymn of the Green and Growing. It’s one of the more well-researched applications of the Song portion of the Word and Song that form the backbone of bardic and loreman discarnate spellcraft. That was a simple passage, just something to gird them against whatever poisons you may have dredged up from the Emaru.”

 

“What do more complex ones do?” Pele said, purposefully interrupting whatever cutting remark she sensed Ru formulating in the link. Despite trying and failing at her every attempt at magic, the subject fascinated her.

 

Kaiel started walking again and she fell into step with him, the pair leaving Ru to float along behind in a cloud of his own ill temper. “A great many things, but the more complex the passage, the less permanent it is, like most applications of Word and Song. Making them grow, for example, is simple. Controlling that growth is not, and might well kill the plant.”

 

“I seem to remember you calling the fear bats you summoned back when we were fighting the King of Flame and Steel ‘simple’.” said Pele as they turned down another avenue. This one was wide and given over to a great deal of cart and hansom traffic; nothing like the comparatively simpler streets of Daire City.

 

Kaiel kept his eyes open for landmarks. He didn’t come to Constan’s Isle often, and was having to go by Brin’s directions to find the Silver Hammer Lodge. “Very simple. Otherwise I couldn’t have multiplied them so much. Ah, here we are.” He guided them around another corner, which placed them at the mouth of a small plaza.

 

On three sides (including the side where the street terminated), the buildings were fronted with a walk of polished wood planks beneath colorful awnings that delineated one storefront from another. The walk was enclosed by an iron railing with gaps to allow access to each place of business. Bronze shields hanging from the awning, rather than wooden plaques, identified each in turn. Pele quickly picked out an outfitter’s, a tailor’s, an eatery of some sort she’d never encountered, and a surprisingly quiet and well-appointed tavern.

 

Filling the entire space at the end of the plaza was a building that rose four floors above the ground and was made of smooth cut stone reinforced by highly visible spellworkings etched into precious aluminum. It was fronted by an open air balcony on the second floor that could only be reached by climbing a set of wide stairs from the street. There were no words on the bronze shield over the polished double doors of gretharian wood, only an ornately worked silver hammer.

 

“We’re staying there?” Pele asked, blushing slightly when she heard the awed hush in her voice.

 

“Brin is a woman of many surprises.” said Kaiel. “I’ve worked in places like that, but even then I never stayed the night.”

 

Ru drifted past them and folded his arms. “The reinforcement work is sloppy; full of useless and detrimental flourishes for show. Fortunate that it isn’t even anchored to the structure.”

 

“There isn’t even the idea of poetry in your black soul, is there?” asked Kaiel.

 

“There is infinitely more beauty in good spellcraft.” Ru intoned, turning to face the pair of them. “A pattern of vin can bend the light into colors to make the sunset feel ashamed. An array of ere-a can conjure artifice gems of unrivaled clarity. Spellcraft is applying intellect and strength of will to assert one’s own reality. That, to my ‘black soul’, is more beautiful and poetic than poor spellwork and rude stone dressed up in fanciful expense.”

 

Lifting his chin, he turned and started toward the lodge at a brisk pace.

 

Kaiel looked to Pele as they moved to follow after. “Am I imagining things, or has he become worse?”

 

Pele folded her arms and fluffed her wings in annoyance. “He’s trying to make me upset with him without triggering the link to punish him.”

 

“Again?” Kaiel rolled his eyes. “I got the sense that the two of you managed to get past that sometime along the road between Daire City and here.”

 

Her eyes were locked on Ru’s back as he rose up the stairs to the lodge’s entrance. “He went somewhere today. I have no idea where, but he was apparently inspired by the story of Lydon and Haumea.” She wondered if the little spiel about poetry and beauty came from that place too. He had mentioned spellworking things for Gloryfall.

 

The very notion of someone putting that much effort and heart into a gift caused that alien presence she’d noticed inside her while at Haumea’s shrine to reemerge. Ru must have sensed it too, as he paused at the top of the stairs, the link suddenly awash with confusion. She quickly tamped whatever it was down.

 

“Haumea’s tale, huh?” said Kaiel, cracking a smile. “No doubt he’s discovered a way to weaponize true love or some such then.”

 

That wouldn’t have surprised Pele in the least, actually. Ru seemed to be able to kill anything with anything. But she shrugged all the same. “I have no idea about the details except that he said he met an unpleasant woman and he now has a ring that contains the memory—” She stopped, realizing almost too late that she nearly said too much. “A very painful memory of his. He thinks it will give him power and that I might order him not to use it because of that.”

 

“You wouldn’t?”

 

Pele didn’t know what to make of how surprised he sounded. Still she didn’t question why, only shook her head. “Ru can make his own choices. Besides, we may be on better terms now, but I’m not going to betray my own principles and force him to act against his will just to stop him from doing something he feels he needs to do. I don’t know why he thinks I would.”

 

She noticed that Kaiel was suspiciously quiet as they reached and mounted the stairs. Did he see her as ‘soft’ in the same way Ru did? Considering how hard Ru initially fought against being given as much freedom as the link allowed, she thought she was being very firm about it. And that was the important thing to her: while she didn’t want Ru or anyone else to inflict pain on themselves for the sake of their mission, it was his prerogative. She would ask him not to, but never force him.

 

There were tables and chairs arranged on the balcony; works of art in wrought iron. Only a few of those were occupied and none of the patrons took any notice of them. Ru waited under the overhang protecting the entrance, his legs folded underneath him where he hovered and a bored look on his face.

 

Via the link, she could tell that boredom was masking tension and it took her only a moment to suss out why. In a few minutes, they would be meeting Layaka. The real Layaka.

 

As much as she hated to admit it, she had her own reservations. While she didn’t doubt Brin, she did doubt her judgment when it came to Layaka. The betrayal had cut too deep and her need for closure was too strong for her to be trusted to think completely straight on the matter. And as a mother in a desperate fight to save one child while separated from the other, Raiteria wasn’t in much better shape.

 

In Pele’s own case, while she felt the sting of Partha’s reveal, she hadn’t been that close to ‘Layaka’. She’d tried to be friendly of course, and was more than happy to include her with the others, but Partha’s portrayal of a frivolous, hapless, and somewhat dim girl made it so there had never been a strong bond there. For her, the loss was more like those of her fellow slave soldiers rather than a ward or daughter. There was pain, but nothing lasting. Not like…

 

Ru must have sensed the direction her mind was drifting because he locked eyes with her. “You want me to hold my peace with this new pretender.” He said roughly.

 

“Just… try not to antagonize her.” said Pele, stopping before the entrance to address him. “I know you’re certain this is another spy, but it very well might be the real Layaka. I know you won’t do anything for Brin’s sake, but consider that she is coming along to help us against Immurai. It won’t do to have more bad blood between the two of you.”

 

He grunted and unfolded his legs. His feet still didn’t touch the ground. “You do realize that the link will punish me far more if I let this girl—if she even is one—slip a knife between your ribs than if I disobey your orders, yes?”

 

“It isn’t an order.” She said, “You know I won’t give you an order if I can help it—possibly not even then. I’m only asking for you to behave like a man with some measure of sanity.”

 

Ru scoffed. “As I’ve said many times: I am no man. I am a weapon.”

 

“And I still neither accept, nor believe it.” Pele said, brushing past him to the doors. “My swords are weapons. And Dottir Logi has never been petulant. Nor has Novacula Kuponya shown paranoia. “ She put her hand on one polished brass handle, pushed it down, and turned to lock eyes once more with the Rune Breaker. “The daggers never complain either.”

 

A trill of shock raced through the link as she pushed open one of the big doors leading into the lodge and breezed inside. It added a bit of confidence to her step. She’d never bothered engaging Ru in repartee like Kaiel often did because she figured he would do as he pleased anyway. As the shock was joined by, and mixed with indignation and grudging respect, she could see why the chronicler indulged in what she’d initially considered a fruitless task.

 

Just a few steps into the lodge, however, and she was sending shock into the link herself.

 

Over the few weeks between joining the Clan of the Winter Willow and their arrival in Daire City, she had visited several inns, way stations, and flophouses adjacent to taprooms with Bromun and the clan’s hunters. She thought she knew what to expect going into any establishment that rented rooms or corners to sleep in: namely, a dusty, smoky common room where alcohol and something resembling food were served, and a barman who also traded keys for coins.

 

The Silver Hammer Lodge was not an inn. Primarily, it was a residence for the affluent who didn’t want to deal with the trouble of owning property in or around Rivenport, or contractors who made enough money to live posh and stupid for a few weeks before becoming desperately poor again.

 

As such, it didn’t have a taproom or a commons to speak of. There was a kitchen, where meals were prepared to be brought up to guest rooms, and a cellar full of fine and exotic liquor. However, when someone first entered the place, instead of facing what other, less well-to-do establishments might present, they found a lobby designed to show just what kind of luxury the lodge provided.

 

The room was oddly shaped, its contours determined by what appeared to be the ribcage of some gigantic beast; its huge, fused sternum forming the ceiling while the individual ribs acted as supports.

 

Said sternum was painted with a vast mural of two dragons: one red, one gold. They were engaged in battle, their toothy maws unleashing gouts of flames at one another. Where the painted flames met, a complex crystalline growth erupted from the ceiling, shedding clear, white light that filled the room. Each rib was painted red with thin, black lines across them at regular intervals to make them seem segmented. Tapestries in black velvet with gold embellishments of sea life were hung between them.

 

The floor was made up of hexagonal tiles of white stone speckled with tan. Pele noticed that whatever the stone was made of, the tread of her boots didn’t echo on it. To her left was a wide, arched door blocked by a curtain of heavy, red velvet that muffled the noise of a deep, male singing voice and the clink of glasses within. To her right, another arch: smaller, but similarly curtained with velvet. It offered no sound at all. And directly in front of her was a high desk behind which sat a man of a species she recognized but hadn’t seen since she first encountered Ru: a dwarf.

 

Unlike the hairy soldiers clothed in so much steel plate that they were more difficult to fell than a minotaur, this one was well groomed and well dressed in a fine coat with a bright red ascot. His white beard barely reached his chest, but the end of his mustache nearly brushed the desk, and his brows, though carefully curled, dangled around his jawline. The hair on his head was neatly combed and fell around his shoulders.

 

Upon spying her gawking in the entryway, he put down the complex looking metal pen he was writing in a ledger with and raised one brow, causing the curls to bounce. “Yes?” He harrumphed. Even his voice was different than Pele remembered from dwarves; rock-dust inspired rasps and gruff barks that went along with their harsh tongue. Instead his was sonorous, and if not smooth, at least more refined, though heavily accented even with such a simple word.

 

Pele was preoccupied with looking around her, still noticing other details about the lobby, such as the portraits of serious looking folk of several races tucked in small alcoves between ribs and tapestries, or three larger alcoves behind the dwarf’s desk that seemed to exist only to house gaping holes large enough for her to spread her wings in without touching the sides.

 

Luckily, Kaiel had followed her in and spared the dwarven clerk her confused sputtering when she finally realized she was being addressed. “Good eve, sir.” he said with a small bow and a meaningful tap of his Bardic College crest, “Our friend sent for us. She’s rented a suite for our use over the next few days.”

 

The clerk shot a meaningful look at Pele and Ru, who was sulkily floating in behind the other two. One was a red-winged, hailene with one gigantic sword on her back and another at her hip, and who obviously had never encountered anything like breeding or good taste before, in his opinion. The other looked to be dressed in black dyed sailcloth with his hair in a messy scholar’s tail and eyes jaundiced by what the dwarf imagined was some alchemical experiment gone awry.

 

Adding in the bard, and the clerk was sure he was seeing a group of Society contractors fresh off a large payday. And as rowdy as contractors tended to get, they kept it in their rooms (which were the maids’ problem) and handed him large amounts of coin for things like summoning hansoms and couriers for them, or taking messages. Instantly, his posture and attitude improved.

 

“Yes sir,” he said, mimicking Kaiel’s honorific with another, somehow genial harrumph, “And what would your friend’s name be?”

 

“Brin of the Rolling Meadows Enclave.” answered Kaiel, closing the distance to the desk. Pele and Ru followed his example, though Ru’s attention was mostly on the room where the singing was coming from.

 

The clerk pushed his ledge carefully aside and picked up a small black leather notebook. He flipped to the last page with writing on it and went down the daily list of guests until he came to Brin’s name, which had a few notes in his personal shorthand next to it. “The young exorcist that put our poltergeist problems to rest.” He remarked, his genial tone becoming genuine.

 

After consulting some of his shorthand, he closed the notebook and pulled the ledger back over to him, turning pages backward until he found the notation he was looking for. “Yes. She did leave instructions with me. And your names are…?”

 

Kaiel gave the dwarf a gracious smile. “I am Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles, that man there is Ru Brakar and the lady is…”

 

His pause caught Pele off guard and she wondered how he could possibly have forgotten her name. Then it struck her like a minotaur mace: it was entirely possible for him to forget, or to be confused as to which name Brin might have left with the desk clerk. She had, after all, only been ‘Pele’ for a matter of hours and was only just getting used to it herself.

 

“Taylin.” she offered.

 

The dwarf harrumphed again and she was starting to wonder if that was just something dwarves did when not scream-singing battle songs and hurling creative and lewd curses. “I’m sorry, but there isn’t a ‘Tay Lin’ listed here.” He sounded out her former name as if it were two words, making it alien even to her.

 

She blinked. Brin remembered? Either she did or Raiteria did, but it didn’t matter which one because she hadn’t really expected it when even Kaiel was still tripping over it. It was a very small thing, having her friends remember her name, but it set a warmth inside her that spread and fluttered in a manner akin to whatever it was that responded to Haumea’s shrine and Brin and Kaiel dancing. She smiled broadly and inclined her head to the dwarf. “Pele then.”

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 48 – Days of Light and JoyRune Breaker: Chapter 50 – An Evening at the Silver Hammer Lodge >>

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