- 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
Once his business was concluded with Captain Sangua, Kaiel found himself back in the care of Gertan as the dwarf led him back to the deck.
More crewmen were swarming the deck now, especially on the rigging where instead of sails, pulleys almost as large as men were being hung and rope was being threaded through them: Some were attaching to the ribs on the side of the ship via more complex devices, and others being tied off the capstans. It was the goliath version of a net, rod and reel.
“How often do you carry people into Kimean territory?” he asked, watching a team of sailors fitting wooden poles into a capstan so as to tighten the line attached to it.
“Two or three times a year.” said Gertan. Her small eyes were searching the deck for someone not currently occupied so she could hand Kaiel off to them.
The chronicler raised a hand to lightly stroke his chin. “That’s quite a bit of danger to put yourselves in for not a lot of coin compared to what’s to be made hauling in shield whales.”
Gertan grunted. “The Captain’s from Rizen—Tellian Bay, one of the places the raiders hit the worst. She’s lost brothers, a sister—others she’s loved. Moren’ half of the crew’s the same way. Taking passages is just an excuse: to hunt raiders.” A cruel little smirk came to her lips. “You ever been on a whaler that hunts shield whales before?”
“I can’t say I have.”
She nodded pridefully. “A shield whale’s a lot tougher’n a raider ship. Raiders run light and fast, they’re not built for a scrap. The same exploding harpoon that stuns a shield whale will sink a raider. There’s not as much danger as you might think. The Kimeans fear one another more than outsiders—all the nasties are deeper in their waters.”
Kaiel might have missed it if he wasn’t both trained to notice and in tune with the word and song, but he sensed the slightest tremor of tightly regulated fear enter her voice. “Two years back, we went too deep—ran into one of their things.”
She turned a dark-eyes stare on him. “The Kimeans do terrible things on their archipelago. Dark things. And they use ’em like tools. This one was a guard: something like a saltwater croc combined with seaweed and coral. It damn near sawed through the hull; killed eight sailors and nearly capsized us before Rendral ended it with lightning.”
For a moment, Kaiel was quiet, turning that thought over in his head. “I’ve heard the Kimeans made monsters. I never knew they turned any of them loose into the sea.” He suppressed a shiver at the thought of what could be created by combining Kimean fleshcrafting with the same process that purportedly created Kaydan demons. Or perhaps they were one in the same.
“Now you have.” said Gertan with an air of finality. She pointed down to the open cargo hold where Solias was leading the others back up on deck. “Keep that in mind when you consider where you’re leading that lot. I don’t imagine all of them will be coming back.”
With her piece said, Immaculate Raptor’s first mate left him on his own.
The others hadn’t seen him. Solias was telling them something while Layaka looked to be complaining to Raiteria about something. Presumably pleading her case one more time to join them, but now Kaiel was more determined than ever to veto that.
If it had been in his power, none of them would be going. Rai and Pele were his sisters. Now that he’d been traveling with them and learning more about them, it was more than just part of nirlumos tradition. And Brin was… he would have to suss that out afterward; it would only complicate things to address his feelings toward her while underway on a stressful journey. Even Ru wasn’t someone he wanted to see marched into the jaws of Immurai’s trap.
Yes, he was glad that at least Layaka would be spared.
He strolled over to them and added his voice to everyone else but Ru’s as they bid her farewell and wished her good luck. Brin had left her with a sizable percentage of her savings, and if the girl was frugal, she wouldn’t have to look for work for the better part of a year. Pele once again promised to get Layaka her vengeance by proxy. Rai told her to mention her to the Winter Willow if Grandmother decided to bring the clan through Rivenport.
Finally, it was his turn to say goodbye to the girl they had known and lost and found all over again. He knew in this situation people expected much speechifying by loremen, but the whole mess set in motion by Immurai’s gambit with her name was too convoluted to cover with pretty words.
Instead, he unfastened the crest from his cloak and pressed it into her hand. The girl looked up at him in surprise and confusion. “This is a kind of protection all its own.” He explained to her. “If you run into problems that money or fast thinking can’t solve, you find the nearest member of the College, or go to the University and ask for my mother. This will prove to them that I vouch for you. They’ll help you.”
Layaka looked at the crest for along moment before asking, “I heard them say a bard’s crest is his identity. I can’t take this from you.”
“Some stories aren’t true.” He said with a forced laugh. “The crest identifies us, our rank and path, but it isn’t magical and it isn’t any more precious than a watchman’s patch of office. Besides, being a member of the college isn’t going to mean anything in Mon Sulus Kime. You’ll be keeping it safe and intact for me.”
There was a long moment before Layaka closed her fingers around the crest and gave him a resolute nod. “I will, Mr. Arunsteadeles. I’ll have it waiting for you.”
Another round of goodbyes followed before Layaka finally disappeared down the gangplank. She was passed on the way by another woman who was carrying a large leather bag with a flap secured by an intricate brass lock. As if by some strange magic of her own, Gertan was there to meet the newcomer at the top of the ramp despite Kaiel having lost track of her earlier.
“Can I ask you a question?” Kaiel almost jumped at Pele’s voice. She was speaking quietly, bending slightly to talk into his ear. Whatever it was wasn’t something she wanted to blurt out for all to hear.
Kaiel took quick stock of the new woman. She was dressed all in a neutral gray cotton: shirt, trousers, gloves and traveling cloak, with soft boots. There was a simple short arming sword at her hip, the kind fashionable folk wore even though they never expected to use it. Only this one’s hilt was wrapped in leather that had grown worn from long use.
She knew how to fight, was carrying only one weapon that he could see, and she was boarding a ship that regularly brought parties to within striking distance of Mon Sulus Kime. Kaiel hastily revised his certainty that the earlier talk of assassins had been mere fancy.
“Of course.” He said before Pele got suspicious. It was just another thing to bring up once they were all in private. “I’m always happy to give you any information you require.”
Pele pursed her lips and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Solias… this woman—they’re the same race, right?” Kaiel nodded, sensing that this was not the actual question she needed answered. “I met another at Haumea’s shrine. He told Ru and I the story of the shrine. But… I thought they were just humans. Humans differ quite a bit from nation to nation after all: Formeans, Rizeni, Chordini—they have different skin tones, different body types… Gray with more hair than normal isn’t that much different.”
“But then you saw Solias in his almaga form and you’re wondering if they’re a different race or if Solias and the other lasconti aboard are just wizards who prefer shifting into half-spider forms?” Kaiel put forth his educated guess.
Pele blushed a bit, knowing full well that once again, she was asking something that was common knowledge. “It’s just that I’ve never seen them before. Like the miare. They’re called lasconti?”
Kaiel nodded and gave her a reassuring pat on the arm. She only flinched a little before visibly forcing herself to relax. “The same reason you never knew about the miare is the reason you don’t know the lasconti. They’re the single surviving race of hengeyokai. They were created by Sylph the First by blending humans with animals. Once, there were dozens of subraces, each with their own cultures and communities and then…”
“…The Ashing of the Green.” Pele said solemnly.
“Right.” said Kaiel. “So to answer your question: they are human, but they’re also spiders. They can change from one to another. And at the same time, they are something different, something between the two. Lasconti call the shape they take that is both human and spider their almaga form.”
He swallowed. “Does… that answer your question?”
Pele beamed at him, always happy to banish another piece of her ignorance. “Yes, thank you.”
“Good.” He breathed the words out semi-laboriously, “Because I just learned a few things in my talk with the captain and first mate. We all need to have a serious talk.”
The five of them had been assigned two rooms in the stern of the ship, beneath the boiler. Though the same shielding that kept the heat from reaching Captain Sangua’s quarters was in effect there as well, the accommodations were significantly more modest than the Captain’s. Neither room was any larger than the one at the Gathered Shards was, and instead of beds, they only had hammocks hung on either side of the room so that two people would sleep one above the other, and a single sea chest bolted to the floor of the rear wall.
Luckily, they had no intentions of either sleeping in nor meeting in the tiny quarters.
Ru opened the door to the House against the rear wall, turning the chest into a makeshift stoop they had to step up onto in order to enter. Over the days spent in Rivenport, Ru had put some finishing touches on the individual rooms, including a large circular oaken table around which they seated themselves. At Pele’s request, he’d added a chair with a very narrow back to allow her the sit back without causing discomfort to her wings.
Kaiel claimed the seat opposite the hearth (and incidentally opposite Pele, who gravitated to the fire) by dropping his pack into it, but didn’t sit. Instead, while the others took their seats, he removed the brass handles that opened his portable library from an inner pocket and after some sifting through several new and as yet unlabeled map cases, took out the historical map of Nhan Raduul he’d had drawn up in Rivenport.
“Nhan Raduul:“ He began, unrolling the heavy vellum on the table top, weighing each corner with a small lead weight stored in the lid of the map case. “The northernmost island of the Kimean Archipelago but not part of the nation of Mon Sulus Kime. It is the heirloom property of one Lord Ienstadt Crossius. Crossius was given special consideration by the Thirteen Nations Accords provided that the island remains neutral in any disputes between the Kimeans, the Rizenis and the Novs.”
Circling around his chair, he took out a shallow bowl from his camping gear. Offhandedly, he cast conjured water into it. “It’s barely ten miles across: one major settlement on the south side and a keep on the cliffs to the northeast that was originally built as a palace prior to the War of Ascension. As of the last reliable survey some forty years ago, there is only one major road, which runs through the interior of the island to connect the village and the keep.”
He brought the bowl to his lips and hummed into it, filling the liquid inside with the Word and the Song. The water danced before rising up as mist that spilled out of the confines of its container to roll out over the map. Kaiel used his command of the discarnate energies to bend it to his will and imagination. Soon the mist twisted and coalesced, becoming a three dimensional rendering of what was drawn on the vellum.
Once the rendering was complete, Kaiel pointed to the cliffs below the keep where a yawning cave was visible. “When Nhan Raduul was a palace, this was a private dock—it probably still is. My original thoughts were that we could enter here and work our way up into the keep with minimal confrontation.”
“I never agreed to any of that.” Ru rumbled, baring his teeth. “I want Immurai to see me coming. I want him to feel whatever passes for fear in that husk he calls a body before I relieve him of his mortal coil.”
Rai was sitting to his left and gave him a hard stare. “If you do that, it might get Motsey killed. And if he dies, Ru Brakar…”
“Immurai is secondary.” Pele insisted, “Yes, we need to kill him, but I’d just as soon have every advantage, including surprise.”
“Surprise?” Ru demanded, “We are going exactly where he demanded we go and bringing into his reach exactly what he wants us to deliver. There is no surprise here. Whatever skulking action you think you might take against him, he will have countermeasures.”
“And your solution is to blunder directly into them?” Brin asked, folding her arms. “If we charge headlong into this, we really will die.”
Ru swept a chilling glare around the table at all of them. “Odd, bods, hammer and tongs! Tell me which of you has even a small god’s prayer of even approaching ‘stealth’? Among us is a near giantess who wields a flaming sword, a woman who depends on the power of a glowing specter, a bard who can’t do anything without humming or vocalizing…” He looked to Raiteria, “And you bought possibly enough explosives in Rivenport to send the entire keep sliding down into the ocean. If any one of you can kill one man in silence, it would likely be an accident.”
The others rushed to assert themselves and their ability. Kaiel didn’t give them a chance. Focusing on the Word, he called up discarnate power and shaped it on his tongue. From his lips leapt the antithesis of speak, an un-word that swallowed up all of theirs, leaving only silence behind.
He held it like a trained singer might hold a note, breathing through his nose until he saw he had their attention. The moment all eyes were on him, he closed his suddenly dry mouth and swallowed a few times before speaking. “I don’t doubt any of you. Not your will to see this fight through, and certainly not your ability to carry out a covert attack on the keep… under normal circumstances.”
Brin opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to stop her. “As I told Pele earlier, I gleaned new information about the keep from the Captain and her crew. First and foremost: according to other ships, the village has been pressed into increasing their fishing haul enough to feed a sizable military garrison. The Captain’s estimates put it at enough for two or three hundred.”
A low whistle escaped Brin. “That’s a pretty big force for such a tiny island.”
“Good.” said Ru, “More fools to feel my rage.”
“But also more than enough that we will never get into the keep without raising an alarm and bringing them all to us.” Kaiel pointed out. “And Immurai isn’t stupid; he knows that simple warriors won’t stand against a group with the Rune Breaker fighting with them. There will be mages, alchemists, and maybe even some Kaydan priests—the real ones they keep hidden, not the preachers in the churches.”
To illustrate, he waved a hand over the map, causing the misty rendering to shift and include several orderly blocks of roughly humanoid figures. “And…” Another gesture added his own rough estimations of the best placements for the ballistae. “You won’t be able to use any large forms, Ru. I have no doubt that whatever these fire, they’ll do as much damage to you as Matasume did at Daire City.”
A shadow passed over Ru’s face as the memory of Matasume’s ferif-enhanced metal threads shredding through dragon scale and flaying muscle played out in his head. He grunted and shifted around in his seat. “Then I suppose you have a plan of your own.”
“Just a mental sketch of one.” admitted the chronicler. “Each of you know yourselves and what you’re capable of better than I do. If we all contribute, it only increases our chances of success.”
Pele leaned forward, observing the ghostly image of the keep and its defenders. “That makes sense. Where do we start?”
Kaiel relaxed as the others followed suit, all beginning to study the map more closely. “My immediate thought is ironically the same one Ru had: we can’t surprise Immurai. All of his actions suggest that he plans to win this battle by attrition. Remember, he doesn’t need me or Brin or Rai to survive this. He can’t kill Ru, but he doesn’t need him in good shape either way.” Kaiel was too wrapped up in his musings to notice the small start Ru gave at that point. “He probably does need you alive, Pele, but how alive remains to be seen.
“So we’re facing a gauntlet with multiple components, an enemy that is expecting us, and a great disadvantage of numbers. That isn’t even considering how we will be assaulting a fortress.”
“Don’t make this sound too easy, Kaiel.” Rai said, still surly from Ru’s earlier agitations.
Kaiel didn’t respond to the remark. In his mind, Raiteria needed the catharsis. “We do have some things going for us.” He concentrated and the actual structure of the fortress and the three tiers rising up from the portcullis to the keep proper became better defined. “First, the keep and surrounding walls predate the War of Ascension and the rise of airships—it has no pre-existing air defenses.”
He then grinned at Rai, “It also predates firearms. The glass on those towers along the wall will have been made to stop arrows from the cleared area around the wall, not bullets from the forest.”
Rai shook her head. “The building might not be ready for a sniper, but the people will. One kill, maybe two and their wizards or priests or whatever are going to figure out where I am and drop a fireball on me.”
“You forget you’re not alone.” Kaiel pointed out. “And while you’ll be sniping, everyone will be busy dealing with more… overt aggression.” He tried to catch Ru’s eye at this, but the other man seemed not to be paying attention, lost in his own thoughts.
That Ru would be overtly aggressive regardless of what Kaiel said was a given, so he addressed the others. “My plan is simple: Immurai has put together a complex plot to chew us apart when we come to fight him. It’s too strong to simply smash, but what we can do…” He waved a hand and the misty keep collapsed and blew away. “Is dismantle it.”
Based solely on the tenor of the calls and shouts from the deck of the ship, the woman assigned to meet the passengers knew that the time to cast off was near at hand. One passenger was missing, but that wasn’t unusual; many folks thought they wanted to go up against the Kimeans, but lost their stomach at the last moment.
A series of metallic clanks, violent hissing from steam pipes, and the groan of salt-crusted mechanical joints came from the stern of the Raptor. She closed her book and scooted around on her makeshift seat atop the bollard so she could watch the screws being lowered. The Raptor‘s propulsion looked like some fierce weapon meant to hole and sink ships even larger than itself instead of the more powerful replacement for sails.
She grinned as she imagined Captain Sangua somehow turning stern on some blundering Kimean raider, calling for the screws to be thrown into full reverse, and watching the enemy ship being chewed up by sixteen tons of steel.
Reluctantly turning away from the rapidly submerging screws, the sailor quickly wondered why she’d bothered. The man before her was clearly a vagrant: shirtless with dirty pants and a rope for a belt. He had a hollow gourd, likely half full of liquor hanging from a thong tied to the belt, and a great, wide straw hat pulled down to cover no-doubt blood-shot eyes.
Rather than fire off a rude remark at the drunk, she just stared at him. That usually worked to convince people she didn’t like to go away. Some of her fellows on the ship said she had ‘mad eyes’.
The man with the hidden eyes only laughed heartily at her ire. “I am doing well and you?” He said, as if she’d started a conversation with him. “Yes, it is a fine day for sailing.” He reached one finger under the hat to scratch his temple. “This is the Immaculate Raptor, isn’t it? I was told someone would be at the plank to give me permission to board.”
She looked him carefully up and down, trying to find something to suggest that the dirty beggar look was all an act. That would explain the precise manner of speaking. Nothing presented itself, especially as he took the lull in whatever conversation he thought they were having to uncork his gourd and take a swig.
Her nose wrinkled at the smell of the stuff. It stank worse than any rotgut she’d ever swilled, like lamp oil or naphtha. “You’re the last passenger?” She asked, trying to breathe through her mouth.
He smiled at her, which did little to soften his sharp features. “That I am. I have some business to take care of that I’ve let wait far too long.”
Lord Crossius removed the messenger’s salt crystal from the bird-thing’s skull and placed it on the table. The bird rattled out a caw and turned its cold eyes on Partha, whom the household knew as Layaka. She was idly peeling an apple with a curved knife.
“News?” Partha asked, restlessly. As the Lord’s ‘ward’, no one was allowed to spar with her and the wretched little steward had seen fit to assign only the oldest and least attractive maids to her, putting an end to any dalliances she might have instigated. She wondered if Tolere was really all that essential to acquiring the Soul Battery or if Immurai would even notice if the steward simply disappeared one night.
“Nothing that I didn’t expect.” droned Crossius. “The Soul Battery showed her tendency to put herself in the path of harm for those weaker than her in Taunaun with her initial encounter with the Late Tanner, the King of Flame and Steel. There was very little chance that she would choose not to rescue the halfling child. Now I have confirmation of that: she left Rivenport three days ago aboard a whaling ship purportedly bound for Rizen.”
Partha cut off a slice of apple and popped it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully before asking, “And the others? The Rune Breaker is a given, but…”
“They yet live.” Only weeks in the demon’s company allowed the old soldier to detect the frustration in his monotone.
“I thought the walk through those blighted woods were meant to cull at least a few.” Putting down the knife, Partha decide just to crunch into the apple, idly playing with her hair with her free hand. In her other life, she’d never had much hair—even as a child or young man.
Crossius turned toward the window, looking out once more at the soldiers down below. They had been drilling in shifts day and night since their arrival. None of them were elite. None of them had to be. They were just more teeth on the masterstroke of his trap.
“Whether they died on the mainland or they die here, it makes no difference. Even I do not command the spirit beasts of the world to attack on my whim… yet.”
After a short time watching the drills outside, in silence, he spoke again. “The time draws near. The Soul Battery will come to Nhan Raduul, and with her, the Rune Breaker. We must be ready. Go and fetch Tolere.”
Partha almost cursed under her breath. So the steward was off limits. “What do you need that sycophant for?”
The corners of the island lord’s mouth moved by just a fraction. For him it was a smile, however cold and filled with ill will. “Our warriors must be properly prepared for the coming battle. Order Tolere to prepare a great feast for them. If the villagers cannot produce enough food for it, slaughter every animal in the forest and roast it, I do not care.”
He turned back to face Partha. “And have him empty the cellars—I want all of them to have plenty of wine. They will toast to the downfall of the Rune Breaker, and though they have no idea it is at hand, the fall of the Threefold Moon and my own ascension.”