Rune Breaker: Chapter 54 – Beasts of the Deep

This entry is part 12 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)

The link moved in Ru’s head, the feeling very near that of having the edge of a razor lightly drawn across the jugular; not enough to make one bleed, but enough to be a reminded that it was there.

In a certain sense, he was abandoning his master when a threat was bearing down on her. It wouldn’t be the first time he rid himself of a master on such a technicality. The link might have punished him for it, but Pele had given an order and he was to do ‘whatever it took’ to prevent the Kimean carrack from coming into attack range of the Immaculate Raptor. In his head, he laughed at the spellcrafted problem-solving engine as it displayed nearly sapient indecision.

Bolts of lightning were stabbing into a sea. They weren’t doing anything more to him than a biting fly might a bear. Maybe if he were in a smaller form, or in shallower water, but the sea and the salt spread the energy out so much that the body of a shield whale barely registered it. If it were possible for his current form, Ru would have smiled. Incompetent mages were the best kills. Heedless of the attacks from the ship, he threw himself forward through the water.

As he advanced, he reached out with his senses to probe the ship. Sure enough, he found reinforcements of ere-a and even ferif threaded through the outer hull along with a thin akua sheath that protected the planks from water damage.

He conjured vox, the element of void which gave spells their shape and exerted force, layering it out in front of him as a bow-wave of tension that scattered the ambient magical energies in the water. No one aboard was tapping akua; they wouldn’t notice the spell until it was too late.

Someone more knowledgeable than the lightning hurling spellcrafter must have seen that Ru wasn’t going to be stopped, and that collision was eminent, because the rudder shifted hard to port, trying to turn the ship in the direction of the impact.

Had Ru been some dumb animal, it would have saved them. He aimed for the stern, the part of the ship that was moving toward his strike even as the rest of the ship was hauled around by the rudder’s action. One last lightning bolt crashed into the water and this time, he was shallow enough to feel the tingling burn roll over his skin. It wasn’t enough.

The bow-wave of vox hit first and Ru released the tension. Vox flexed and whipped out ahead of him, sinking into the wood and sundering the reinforcing spellcraft within. In an instant, a twenty-foot section of ship that had been spellcrafted to shrug off cannon shot and explosions was transformed back into ordinary wood.

In the next instant, that wood met the ridged forward dome of bone some twenty-two inches thick being driven forward by one of the most powerful animals in the ocean. The carrack listed violently under a force that turned said wood into a cloud of splinters and timber chunks that flashed through the lower decks just ahead of the ocean.

Ru rode out the shock of impact on his grim satisfaction alone. Shield whales, both cows and bulls, dueled for territory and mating rights; they were built to ram much more sturdy targets than the suddenly fragile carrack. So holed, the ship wouldn’t make it to port without significant magical intervention.

As such, Ru’s attention went to the deck where he sensed at least three people trying to use akua to stop the sea from rushing into the gaping hole he put into the ship below the waterline. If they did, they might be able to carry on the attack…

And Ru had orders to stop that with whatever means he deemed necessary. He changed shape again.

***

What rose from the water on Immaculate Raptor’s port side was, at least in form, a cuttlefish. It’s bulbous body and mantle remained mostly submerged, but betrayed that it was more than a mere mollusk after the Kimeans had tampered with it. Most of the slick flesh on its body was covered in black crocodilian scales or shod in corroded metal. What looked like a bronze helmet was bolted over most of its head, covering the eyes. Three pear-shaped green moonstones were set into the forward center of the helm, glowing dully.

The tentacles that raked the railing were a mishmash of features: some were completely scaled, some were bare, and yet others encircled by corroded iron rings supporting metal cables that supplemented their already considerable muscle. Various others were simply capped with crude steel harpoons that gouged the metal plates of the deck, looking for purchase. That there were more of tentacles than a normal cuttlefish bore was beside the point, all things considered.

Sangua didn’t have to give any orders: the sailors entered the fray at the first opportunity, hacking at the nearest tentacles or trying to break their grip on the deck.

The Eastern Brand had barely cleared its sheathe before someone bounded past Pele, headed for the appendage in front of her. She recognized the woman as the unstable looking sailor who welcomed them aboard; a woman she now knew was called MacGill.

Fitting her personality, she was armed with a wicked curved blade with double edges and serrations on the inner edge, accompanied by a huge, four-chambered revolver. The blade slashed out at the tentacle in passing, avoiding the cables and iron rings to saw into exposed muscle.

What it didn’t do was slice cleanly through, and the resistance as it became caught halted MacGill’s mad charge toward the rail, presumably where she intended to engage the beast head on. She grunted and let the momentum turn her, pulling the blade free only to swing it back into the same wound. This time she was rewarded with a welling of thick yellow ichor.

Pele brought up the Eastern Brand and intoned “Ignite!”. A double helix of bright flame traveled up the dual blades of the weapon, reflecting in her eyes. With her off hand, she drew Novacula Kuponya on the run. Both weapons joined MacGill’s on the assault on the tentacle; the flaming sword sheering apart a bundle of cable while the other plunged into muscles and nerves, delivering disruption.

The tentacle flexed as the monster started to drag itself up to the deck, more ichor spraying out of what wounds Pele’s attacks hadn’t cauterized.

Despite the best efforts of the sailors to hack apart the tentacles, the creature’s main body appeared at the sundered railing. Where all the tentacles converged gaped two sets of jaws. One was a fixed metal device with hundreds of needle-like teeth angled backward to ensure that nothing that went into it would come out undamaged, while the other was a gnashing beak.

A pair of slimy pseudopods extruded from somewhere beneath the mantle to grip the deck as it began detaching several tentacles to defend itself.

One of those detached was the one Pele and MacGill had been laying into. It shifted without warning, nearly driving Novacula Kuponya from Pele’s grip and forcing her to stumble back. It then reversed itself, sweeping MacGill’s legs out from under her.

All the while, the beast remained completely silent save for the gurgle and squelch of its moving body. This made it easy to hear the sound of valves up on the gunnery tower achieving overpressure. Pele spared a look in its direction and was rewarded with the image of Gertan strapped into the harpoon launcher’s seat, pulling levers and turning wheels to control the complex steam mechanism that aimed and fired the weapon.

“Eyes forward!” Sangua bellowed. Pele looked toward her only to find the Captain pointing back toward the monstrous cuttlefish. She turned just in time to cross her swords before her, catching the steel cap of a tentacle that would have laid her open across the ribs if not for the warning.

In the next instant, a spearhead trailing a nimbus of white light came down, severing the tentacle just above the cap. Brin’s Barratta. It split the black scales as if they were paper, leaving behind nothing but a gout of yellow ichor.

It wasn’t just the Barratta that was glowing, but also Brin herself. The woman seemed to exude light composed of luminous smoke as the reliquary at her throat blazed like and earthbound star. She didn’t even so much as nod to Pele before she was off again, dashing with fluid grace and speed that ignored the difficult footing of the deck and even her own weight. Twice more, the Barratta lashed out, dealing telling blows to any tentacles that might come within the Barratta’s considerable reach.

A loud thump followed by a hiss heralded the harpoon launcher letting fly. A six-foot long steel lance tipped with a barbed head flew toward the creature’s exposed mouths. Behind the head of the bolt was a thick iron cylinder fitted with a spring-driven timing mechanism and loaded with gunpowder.

One black-scaled tentacle whipped up to intercept. The leading point was deflected by the scales, but one of the barbs caught in the same, leaving the harpoon stuck there, timer slowly ticking down. Smart enough to know it didn’t want to be struck by the projectile, the cuttlefish wasn’t so clever that it knew what the ticking bomb meant and thus ignored it.

Three seconds later, the timer wound down, setting off the powder just as the tentacle was raised to strike at a knot of sailors. Burning meat that reminded Pele too much of dinner wafted over the deck. For the first time, the thing made a noise: a hissing, whistling ruckus that sounded like a potful of boiling crabs. It reared up on anchoring tentacles and pseudopods, shrilling its pain to the heavens. Lashing, agonized tentacles threw sailors like a tantruming child knocking aside their toys.

Several fell into the sea. Some hit the deck, broken. In some cases, too still to still be living.

Sangua screamed out her rage at losing members of her crew and hacked more viciously into the anchoring tentacle she was attacking. “A thousand gold marks to the one that kills the beast!” She bellowed. The crew answered her with renewed ferocity, if not for the reward, then to avenge their comrades.

“And here I was going to kill the blighter for free.” MacGill tossed over her shoulder to Pele. Her choice of weapon and fighting style had painted her in yellow ichor and white foam such that it matted down her hair and ran off her in disgusting, snotty runnels.

She didn’t pause to listen for an answer from Pele as she charged in the same direction she aimed for at the start of the battle: toward the monster’s face. Pele tried to call out to her, but couldn’t pursue as she was forced to parry another tentacle strike, and almost slipped in the mess covering the deck.

The only other one that seemed to notice MacGill’s headlong charge was the cuttlefish, which darted its double jaws forward to snap her up. Only this seemed to be exactly what the bloodthirsty woman had been hoping for. She leapt at the descending mouth, juking to the side so that instead of her head and shoulders becoming caught in the metal trap, she was thrusting her revolver wielding arm down its gullet.

Her curved blade bit into the side of the thing’s head, gaining her purchase as the teeth of the outer jaws caught and held her bicep, locking her arm in the beast’s mouth. “You stupid git!” Pele heard her crow just before letting out a madwoman’s laugh.

Four muffled shots sounded in the creature’s mouth. It jerked violently with each one. The fourth was enough to shake MacGill free, shredding her right arm across the metal trap of the outer jaws in the process. She hit the deck amid a spray of blood and ichor. Frenzied by the hurt done to it, the creature swung a black-scaled tentacle down to dash her into paste against the deck.

A leap and two beats of her wings found Pele standing over the stricken woman, swinging the Eastern Brand overhead to block the coming blow. The impact made her shoulder ache and almost drove her to her knees atop MacGill. Several scales split under the force, dusting her with glittering black specks.

With a grunt, she pushed the tentacle back and away. Just in time to swing Novacula Kuponya around to block a similarly punishing strike form the side.

The battle rage mounted inside her as the desperate flurry of blocks and counters slowly became a dance. She turned, using the slick ichor and blood under her feet to make each movement take the absolute least amount of effort on her part, while forcing her gargantuan opponent to spent considerable energy hammering at her adamantine defenses.

Another harpoon explosion happened somewhere over the rail, causing the ship to rock violently and the cuttlefish to let out another gurgling hiss of agony. Its attacks faltered and Pele took the opening to perform an overhead slice that lopped off a tentacle wholesale.

“Bastard kept my gun in his mouth.” slurred MacGill, reminding Pele that she needed to get the woman to Kaiel for healing as soon as possible.

In that moment of thought, she almost missed the tentacle coming for her from the right. She went to snap up a hasty block with Novacula Kuponya, only to find the blade gently redirected by an expert swipe of two fingers as a shirtless figure wearing a large straw hat stepped into the space between her and the oncoming attack.

The back of a hand holding a drinking gourd came up and slammed into the side of the tentacle with enough strength to redirect all of its force several crucial inches such that it whipped harmlessly past both Pele and her new ally.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Pele felt like snarling at having her fight interrupted, but her more rational side saw that the new combatant was giving her an opening to get MacGill out of harm’s way. “My thanks.” She said, sheathing Novacula Kuponya in order to free a hand for dragging the injured woman to safety.

He saluted her with his gourd while slapping away another tentacle with incredible strength. “Nothing of it. Just hurry back to the fight.” He said, and threw his head back, pouring amber liquid from the gourd into his mouth.

It was hard getting a handle on MacGill thanks to all the slime and blood soaking the woman, but Pele managed to loop an arm under the woman’s intact shoulder and carry her back to where she last saw Kaiel.

The chronicler was already hard at work patching up other injured soldiers with applications of the Word and Song channeled through his flute. Solias and another of the lasconti crewmen were flanking him, wielding two axes each in their almaga forms, fending off any tentacles that reached this far.

“She’s nearly bled out.” Pele announced, setting MacGill on the deck near her friend. “And her arm’s been practically ripped off.”

“Worth it to hear it scream like that.” MacGill muttered.

Kaiel left off on healing the remaining light lacerations on the man he was tending to see to her. “I’ll do what I can for her. But the crew is taking heavy damage. We need to either kill or drive this thing off as soon as possible, or I’m going to be too spent to heal anyone else.”

Extinguishing the Eastern Brand, Pele returned it to the scabbard at her back and drew Novacula Kuponya again. The blue gem set into the hilt glowed gently. “I have an idea, but while I do the incantation, I’m going to be open to attack.”

“Then someone needs to make sure it has more pressing matters to deal with.” The lasconti woman Pele had seen boarding earlier stepped up beside her. “If this beast kills too many of the crew, I won’t be able to keep my appointed ‘meeting’ with the Kimean Lord Caldebron, so I’ll do it.” She reached into her right sleeve and drew out a trio of slim yet sturdy iron needles. All three were wet with some sort of red liquid.

Images of flechettes coated with yellow poison caused Pele’s grip to tighten on her sword. She forced herself to take slow, even breaths. One poisoner, she reminded herself, was not the same as another. This one seemed intent on killing a Kimean Lord as well; a point in her favor.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to look at the woman or her deadly implements, only nod. “Unless you have something that will kill it outright.”

The assassin shook her head. “I didn’t embark with the intent to kill giant mollusks. This blend of senetha wort and venom from Heylen’s adder should put it in so much pain that it won’t be able to focus on you though. I’ve seen it drive off treeline stalkers and feral war spiders.”

Pele brought up Novacula Kuponya, the Razorblade of Remedy, and nodded. “Then let’s not waste any more time then.”

***

Ru let the boiling emotions from Pele’s fight with the Kimean-built monster wash over him as he powered his way up toward the surface in the form of a swordfish. The focused anger she used to fuel her fighting style was a perfect counterpoint to his own desire for the kill, and the background roar of her inner dragon was inspiration pure and simple.

He broke the surface on the opposite side of the carrack from where he holed it, using the swordfish’s powerful and streamlined body to launch himself out of the water. No one even gave the breaching fish a second glance—another fatal mistake. With another thought, the swordfish’s body swelled and unfolded, extending a serpentine neck, lashing tail, and two gigantic wings that kicked up a cloud of sea spray with the first mighty down-stroke that carried the newly formed black dragon aloft.

Panic raced through the crew like disease. In the midst of rushing to keep their ship afloat, they suddenly found a new and more terrible threat bearing down on them. One of the ship’s wizards rushed to the starboard waist, conjuring era-a and vin.

Ru was impressed that the wizard was able to use ere-a so far out to sea, but less so when he saw that he was doing so in order to create a shield against acid. The dragon Nations of Ere consisted of vastly different breeds, some of which breathed things like freezing liquid, rapidly hardening resin, or in the case of the Black Nation, clouds of powerful concentrated acid. None of this mattered to Ru. In his time, all dragons were one species and breed; and they all breathed one thing.

He didn’t even bother attacking the shield before unleashing a vortex of flame so hot that the core of it verged on blue rather than orange. The wizard and all hands near him caught fire instantly, as did two of the carrack’s masts and sails.

“Fool.” he roared over the conflagration, “As if the breath of a dragon were the only danger they pose.” To illustrate, he snapped his wings forward, sending out a blast of wind that extinguished the flames, but also sent sailors and the burnt corpse of the wizard hurtling out into the sea. The gale was such that it caught a sail with such violence to snap the mast, sending it crashing to the deck. Another gout of flame breath followed to reignite the fires.

“Heh.” Ru dipped a wing to circle the ship, looking for another mage to school in the ways of mystical combat.

Ru? Pele’s mental voice reached him in the link.

Yes, Miss Pele?

I need to use the spell you put in my sword again. I haven’t memorized the invocation yet though…

A vicious thrill ran through Ru and he knew from the curiosity he got back from Pele that she noticed it. He didn’t care because the idea appealed to him too much. Casting two spells simultaneously was a near impossibility even for him at the height of his power. But invoking two at once…

Heh. Of course, Miss Pele. Do as before and recite:

***

Pele forced herself to ignore the action going on around her, but was only mildly successful as she soaked in the words Ru was pouring into her head. To her left, Brin was no longer glowing, but the Barratta was as she mounted a defensive flank. To her right, the assassin had shifted into her own almaga form for better footing on the slick deck. Periodically, she would dodge a tentacle and drive one of her iron needles into it, soliciting another shriek from the monstrous cuttlefish.

And straight ahead was the greatest spectacle of all: the man with the gourd and straw hat was fighting the beast with his bare hands, punching and chopping tentacles aside and occasionally spitting the amber liquid from his gourd onto them and the monster’s head.

“Get out of the way!” She shouted at him.

“The moment you strike.” He replied, downing another mouthful of whatever it was he kept in the gourd.

Pele decided she just had to trust him on that. At the very least, the Habaense was supposedly non-fatal to anything not powered by nekras, as Bashurra had been by the end of the battle at Idarian Homestead. She drew back the Razorblade of Remedy and began to recite.

“Bright glow hidden deep within. The living soul of all things in this world. Lend of your essence and return it to its age-old form: the flower of being formed of the flame of creation. Let my foes contemplate their last moments as it blooms anew!”

The branching lines of white light appeared, running from the sword’s hilt toward the tip. Pele lunged, putting all of her strength into it and beating her wings to add an extra surge of power. “Habaense!”

Just as the hundreds of bright flares began peeling off from the blade, the man with the drinking gourd threw himself sideways, using the slickness of the deck to his advantage to slide further away than he might have traveled otherwise. At the same time, he spat one more time, expectorating the liquid as a conical cloud. He clicked his tongue at the same time and a spark flashed between his teeth.

The cloud became a cone of fire and touched off liquid already soaking the creature’s tentacles and face. It screamed as the flames engulfed it, unable to concentrate on the larger threat. Before the fire had even begun to raise blisters, the lances of brilliance from the Habaense blazed through the gigantic cuttlefish.

One last gurgling cry, and the thing slipped into unconsciousness, heedless of the fact that it was on fire and vulnerable to the vengeful crew of the Immaculate Raptor.

***

As Pele was invoking the power he’d spellworked into Novacula Kuponya, Ru was calling up a spell of his own. He let the form of the dragon melt away, leaving him floating above the burning carrack. He tapped akua and vin, then used an array of vox to convert it into flaer.

“I draw in the flame of the sky, the eternally burning sun that sends its heat across the Void.” It started as a tiny spark in his palm that burned white-hot. The air began to move around it as he added an array of vin to continually draw air into the fire.

“I draw upon the flame of the land, and the deep molten bones that support the world.” The spark kindled and expanded, the white core becoming surrounded by blue and orange.

“I pour their heat into the flame of my own passions: the fury I kindle against all those who would array against me. Destroying heat that consumes all things, I summon thee and cast thee forth.” He raised the miniature conflagration overhead, feeling the spell take on a life of its own as it sucked in more air to feed itself.

“Sublime Fireball, burn it all!” He threw the miniature star down at the carrack at the same moment that he spied the telltale ‘bloom’ of light from Pele’s Habaense. The air rippled with the fireball’s passage and where it passed, the burned air boomed with the shockwave of the near-vacuum it left in its wake.

The star plunged into the ship and rather than explode, it simply consumed and expanded. Wood, flesh, bone, metal—it was all just fuel for the terrible spellcraft of the Rune Breaker. Sailors on deck flashed out of being, leaving greasy wisps of smoke that were soon annihilated themselves. Planks exploded into fire and were swept into the day-bright heart of the attack. The ballistae and the readied iron bolts they never had a chance to fire melted before the slag caught fire. All the water around the doomed carrack boiled until the last remnants of the ship disappeared into a column of steam.

Ru floated above it all a moment more, transfixed at the destruction he had wrought. Long ago, another Sublime Fireball, magnified again and again by a sorcerous genius beyond his own, had consumed an entire city of traitors and hypocrites, melting the stones themselves until all that remained was a field of obsidian and the murmured rumors that divine punishment had been visited upon the followers of the city’s most worshiped god. The rumors were correct in all but the fact that the surviving children of Gand were by no means ‘divine’.

***

Pele raked her hair out of her eyes where sweat and other things she didn’t want to think about had pasted it. The crew was engaged in disentangling the now-dead monster from the ship, as well as recovering any survivors who had been knocked overboard.

From what she could tell, there were at least five dead, but she could tell by the dark satisfaction coming from Ru that the Raptor’s crew had fared far better than the carrack’s crew. She couldn’t even see any debris through the cloud of steam floating over the ship’s last known location.

“Someone is going to notice that.” commented the assassin. She had resumed her human form, and had managed to keep herself clean except for her spattered boots. “The captain is going to have to get us away from here before someone investigates.”

“Unlikely.” The man with the drinking gourd walked up to them. Along the way, he took another drink from his makeshift jug and Pele clearly saw him swallow the flammable concoction this time.

The assassin folded her arms. “And what makes you think that?”

His answer was preceded by a dismissive laugh and he turned to the west southwest. “Kimeans go to war at sea with each other—we’re miles and miles from the nearest target for a carrack. No, the one who dispatched that ship sent it specifically to meet this one.” He looked over this shoulder, locking eyes with Pele. “And he didn’t care if they survived, just as long as they did some damage—just like sending you through that stretch of spirit-beast infested forest or throwing Bashurra into your path.”

Pele slipped into a defensive stance, one hand reaching back for the Eastern Brand while the other grasped the hilt of Novacula Kuponya. The battle with Bashurra had already been top of mind, but now she was also recalling the swathe of immolated spirit beasts in their path between Idarian Homestead and Rivenport.

“Who are you?” She didn’t try and hide the bestial snarl.

The man let the gourd fall to his hip and spread his hands. “Now, now, I’m…”

Ru picked that moment to teleport to Pele’s side. He opened his mouth, presumably to ask what had her hackles up, but the question died in his throat when he laid eyes on the man she was talking to, to be replaced by a single word.

“Zect.” For once in his life, he didn’t use a spell, nor did he shift. Instead, he stepped forward and sent a punch at the other man’s face.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 53 – The Journal of Lena HiddakkoRune Breaker: Chapter 55 – The Drinking Gourd >>

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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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9 Comments

  1. into a sea
    the sea

    strike form the side
    from

    Did I ever mention that I really like your incantations? Because I do.

  2. “…sword sheering apart…”
    Shearing.

  3. It’s a little bit of a meta complaint, but the similarity between the Descendants and the Rune Breaker incantations throws me out of the story a little.

    • They’re all kind of born from the incants in Slayers, so yeah, I can see that. It’s part of why I try not to have a lot of incants in RB.

      • I guess it’s a bit moot at this point in the story, but even something like restructuring the incantations into a more constrained poetic form, and maybe rewording the final claim, would feel more different from Descendants. In standard casting, it feels like the Erelings don’t care so much for naming spells as identifying the constituent elements of them, and even an incantation could reflect this – instead of the Sublime Fireball, burn it all! , it’s “Fire sublime, shape to my will and burn!”

        • Oddly enough, I’d rather do this with Descendants-verse spells; mostly because the Books are the ones giving the spells names (otherwise, it would make no sense for them to be in readable English).

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