Rune Breaker: Chapter 55 – The Drinking Gourd

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)

Pele had spent her entire adult life in the company of violence. She had survived more engagements as an unwilling shock trooper in the Hailene Army of Ascendency than anyone she was aware of. Simply by watching, she could ascertain a person’s combat ability and begin gleaning their fighting style.

And she could tell immediately that Zect allowed himself to be hit.

A slight stiffening of his shoulders marked how he was suppressing his instinct to block. The way he turned his head slightly to keep the blow from meeting the cartilage of his nose proved that he knew precisely what he was doing. He never even blinked.

Though the Rune Breaker was capable of transforming into the mightiest creatures to ever walk two worlds, and wield magical power with seemingly peerless mastery, he was just a man in his natural form. Just a man who barely did an ounce of physical labor past the age of fifteen without first becoming a stronger creature via magic. Five thousand years out of shape, the force of his punch didn’t even manage to make Zect grunt.

Snarling in frustration, Ru aimed a second punch at the man’s gut.

Zect took it. Pele watch him exhale as the blow landed so Ru’s fist sank deeper into the hollow of his stomach than it would have otherwise. He grunted and stepped back, acting for all the world as if the punch had hurt. Then he lifted the two fingers of his right hand and tipped up his straw hat.

Black eyes with orange irises that burned with an inner electricity regarded Ru. “Are you done?”

“You swine.” Ru spat. “I should have known you would continue to trail us—should have questioned why you sought me out in Daire.”

“Sought you…” Pele started. “Ru, who is this?”

“That’s a good question.” Kaiel arrived, flanked by Brin and Raiteria. “I’ve never seen you actually attack someone hand-to-hand before. I would say you didn’t want to kill him, but then… you’re you, and I can’t bring myself to imagine there are people you don’t want to kill.”

Ru bared his teeth. “For the first time, Chronicler, I’m glad you’re here.” He straightened up, still floating half a foot off the ground, and plucked at his sleeves. “Perhaps you can tell Miss Pele who Zect of the Drinking Gourd is.”

“Zect…” Kaiel broke off whatever he was about to say and looked at Zect closely for the first time. His expression grew consternated. “I’d love to, but we don’t have time to assemble a university lecture course. Zect of the Drinking Gourd is the most muddled and enigmatic creature in the mythology of the Threefold Moon.

“Depending on the tale you hear, he is a renegade demon, a demon hunter who used strange magics to graft the power of a demon into himself, an entire line of hunters who train in a type of magic granted to them by an ancestral god, or even just a rumor spread by many people for many reasons. I would argue in favor of the rumor, but given what I’ve learned in the past few months of the Rune Breaker, and of Immurai the Masked and his true intentions… I’m willing to accept that I’m about to get the truth directly from the source.”

Pele glanced over to where the assassin was standing, wondering why Kaiel would give so much away in the stranger’s presence. She found the spot vacated with no evidence the woman had been there beyond a solitary pair of ichorous footprints where she’d stood.

“The answer better be good.” Raiteria piped up, making sure Zect saw her rifle. “I never got a good shot on that squid…slug… thing, so I still haven’t had a chance to test my timer rounds.”

Zect held out his arms, hand down, thick fingers spread in a gesture of supplication. “I wouldn’t have shown myself at all if I didn’t think it was time to explain myself.”

He nodded to Kaiel. “Indeed, Master Chronicler, I am that Zect of the Drinking Gourd, and that Zect is a demon who rebelled against the Threefold Moon. Zect the Faithless. Zect of the Unbent Knee. Like Immurai’s right hand, Matasume, I was not created as a demon, but transformed into one—one of the eldest of that ilk.

“In those days, the Kaydans didn’t choose new demons from among their own priesthood; they recruited the most ambitious, the most hungry for power. They also recruited those so desperate to survive that they would swear their souls away for a chance at life. And so was born Zect of the Drinking Gourd, from the ex-communicated warrior priest of Denaii, Omruai Zect.

“To spare you a long tale, I grew tired of the cruel and petty things expected of me, and turned my efforts to subverting the Threefold Moon’s efforts. That mission is what brings me here. If anything, Immurai is worse than Kayda. Where the Threefold Moon is content to play the long game with at least some level of subtlety, Immurai only considers himself subtle when really he’s too grasping and impatient. If he takes the power he’s after, he will reduce this world to ashes in his rush to conquest.”

Ru growled, clenching his fist as if expecting to take another swing at the demon. “You knew. In Daire City, you knew that I wasn’t what Immurai was seeking. You could have given me warning.”

“Ha.” Zect rolled his strange eyes. “I came to you asking to coordinate against him, remember? You rebuffed me. ‘I don’t need to coordinate because I am the Shapeshifting Master’, I recall. The Shapeshifting Master who was shredded on Matasume’s filaments. That was something I could have warned you of if you weren’t such a prideful fool.”

Brin turned a glare on the Rune Breaker. “You didn’t tell us about this?!” She stormed toward him, holding out her arm, which was crisscrossed with many fine scars, the evidence left behind even after hastily conjured healing. “I almost lost my arm that night! Kaiel’s legs were flayed! If it hadn’t been for us being blindsided by that, we might not even be here. We might have defeated that clay harridan and kept Motsey safe. If she hadn’t nearly destroyed us and you, maybe one of us would have had the capacity left to save Issacor!”

Heat blazed up in the link, a furnace as blistering as any Ru might have felt on the physical plane. He felt rather than heard the unmistakable rumbling of a dragon growling. He looked at Pele and it wasn’t anger on her face, but shock.

This in turn stoked his own anger. “If everyone left me be that night, Immurai would have been destroyed and that would have been the true end of it.” He threw all of them an incriminating glare. “You all mewl and fret over my impatience and my knack for violence, but you forget what I am. Ending problems quickly and violently is what I do. I am a weapon, not a man. The Rune Breaker is not a subtle knife.”

“Then why not tell us?” Pele asked, her words clipped.

“Because he’s a prideful bastard.” said Zect.

Ru grit his teeth. “Or I knew that you would be nowhere to be found whenever it mattered. Just like the first time when you told me Immurai had his sights on me, then just stood by as Bresnic sank into madness and nearly dragged me with him.”

“Immurai the Gaunt had the full attention of the Threefold Moon as one of his most favored.” said Zect, “If I acted openly around him, it would have drawn the god’s eye toward me. I did what I could, just as I did for your group as you traveled through Khish.”

Pele blinked. “The burnt spirit beasts. That was you?”

Zect ducked his head. “Immurai made certain that you would have to cut through those woods, I’m sure. He likely expected the spirit beasts to winnow your numbers so he wouldn’t have to worry about unforeseen factors like a spirit docent or junior loreman. That, or he might have wanted to test his precious Soul Battery in combat. Denying him either or both was the natural choice.”

“On the other hand, he might just be making sure that you got to Immurai in one piece.” Brin pointed out. Her hand flew to the reliquary hanging around her neck. “We really have no reason to trust him at all. Blood to ice, Ru doesn’t even trust him.”

The dark mage grunted and looked away. “I never said that. It’s you I don’t trust, no matter how much Arunsteadeles says he knows your secrets, or how much Miss Pele believes in you.”

“What? You’re saying you do trust him?” Brin demanded, ignoring the barb aimed at her. “He admits he’s a demon!”

Ru turned his cold yellow gaze on said demon. “And I’m something worse. No matter what an annoyance Zect might be, he’s reliable in his hatred of everything to do with Immurai or the Threefold Moon.”

Rai cleared her throat. “Except Immurai’s also against the Threefold Moon. I can see him being happy that those two might kill each other, but why actually throw in on one side or the other? Aren’t you helping Kayda by working against Immurai?”

“An excellent question,” admitted Zect, “If all things were equal. But as I’ve said, they aren’t. Immurai is clearly worse than Kayda, and if I do the Threefold Moon a favor in getting rid of Immurai, it’s still worth it. The real question is, knowing what knowledge you missed out on the first time, are you willing to forgo the aid I offer a second time?”

The others fell silent, even Ru, surprisingly enough to Pele. They all knew that, in the end, the burden of their mission belonged to Raiteria. Immurai might want Pele, but he had Motsey, and that was the driving force behind their actions. It was up to her to decide how they handled the newest wrinkle in the saga.

All traces of the familiar nir-lumos lightness drained from her expression and she rested her hand on her rifle. “There’s an island out there, where Immurai is keeping my son to exchange his life for my sister’s. That probably doesn’t matter to a demon, but this does: if I lose my son, I will make sure that anyone who had a hand in that happening dies. Screaming. I don’t care if you’re tough. I don’t care if you’re immortal, I don’t care if I have to skip my chance to pass into the Well of Souls and instead become a revenant—I will become your final destiny.”

She adjusted her rifle and stared into Zect’s eyes. “So if you have plans to betray us or lie to us on this, you’d better jump in the ocean now and pray you sink. Believe me when I say it will save you the misery.”

“Heh.” Ru added his voice to the silence that followed. “The longer I know the nir-lumos, the more they impress me as a people. What say you, Zect?”

Zect gave Rai an appraising look, then nodded respectfully. “If all of you have one quarter the righteous fury this woman has for Immurai and his games, I think I’ve placed my bet on the right group to help end him.” He slapped a palm on the makeshift gourd at his hip. “I swear on this gourd from which my power flows that I will guide you true in this fight.”

Ru slowly turned to Pele, finding the cold look from the revelation about what he had hidden still on her face. He ignored it. “That’s enough for me, Miss Pele. I will vouchsafe for him.”

After a moment of staring at him, Pele cleared her throat and looked away, moving over to where Kaiel stood. The link closed down, shielding her emotions from Ru’s senses. “Kaiel, I almost forgot what I came on deck for in the first place: As I told you, I found some passages in my mother’s journal that suggest that Immurai might actually be the Lord Crossius that controls Nhan Raduul—but it also suggests that he’s the same man responsible for taking me from my mother in the first place.”

It took a second for Kaiel to shift gears from processing everything he’d just learned concerning Zect. “Really? That… actually that would explain a lot—like how he managed to find you in the first place. It also means Immurai is dealing with a significant familiarity advantage with the local terrain and the keep. We need to take this into account with our battle plan. Let’s all go into the House.”

No one argued. In fact, the idea of talking about the plan—even the fact that there even was a plan in a situation involving demons, intrigue, and giant bio-mechanical seafood—was encouraging. The companions, plus Zect, made their way across the deck toward the stairs leading to their bunk and ultimately the house.

It was only after they were all out of sight that a brown spider the size of a house cat crawled out from behind the railing where it had been hiding. With a thought, it resumed its form as the lasconti assassin. She watched the hatch leading below decks for a long minute before reaching up and brushing a lock of ebon hair out of her eyes.

Her vocation wasn’t one sanctioned by any official bodies; either in the Thirteen Nations Accord or otherwise. But her education was bardic. She had heard of the Rune Breaker, as well as Zect of the Drinking Gourd. It made her wonder if her fellow passengers were just as mad as MacGill, or if there was something more to their story.

But then, Rakne nil Thraeci had a job of her own waiting in the Kimean Isles. Maybe once Lord Caldebron was well on his way to the Seven Interlocking Hells, she might seek to slake her curiosity.

***

If the appearance of a strange door in the bulkhead of one of Immaculate Raptor’s bunks gave Gertan even one moment of pause, she gave no indication of it when Kaiel opened said door in response to her knock.

The dwarven woman hadn’t spared time to clean up after the battle, and so treated the chronicler to the unique stench of mechanic’s grease and dwarven body odor driven to the peak of pungency by sitting in the traces of a gun that bled steam with every motion. That also didn’t seem to give her pause.

“The Captain’s decided that we go no closer to Nhan Raduul.” she informed him without ceremony. “She’s of a mind that if one carrack’s prowling that curs’d isle’s water, there may be more with more beasts in tow. She’ll still wait where you ask, but if you’re meanin’ to make for the isle, this is where you ought to do it.”

Kaiel managed not to gag on Gertan’s musk and keep a passive, understanding look on his face. “We came to the same conclusion our own selves. There’s no reason to risk the lives of the crew any further than you already have. How long will the Captain give us to ready ourselves?”

“Sooner would be best. Cap’n doesn’t want to hang near where the carrack went down in case they left a beacon spell.”

Kaiel recalled the hell-storm that marked the final moments of the carrack and doubted that would be an issue. “Understood. Caution is a better policy than leaving the ship vulnerable.”

“Glad you see it that way.” Gertan looked more like she would have preferred if he argued with her so she might impress the point on him with shouting and violence. It probably had something to do with missing most of her shots with the harpoon launcher. “I’ll have Solias take a group and ready a longboat for you.”

“Actually,” said Kaiel, “That won’t be necessary.”

***

The north side of Nhan Raduul was protected by high cliffs and a cultivated arc of razor-sharp coral. The south side was typically undefended, being one of the few Kimean Isles not directly affiliated with one of the warring island Lords. However, with the return of Lord Crossius, the small harbor had become choked with what the locals thought were mercenary warships.

Kaiel’s review of several out of date maps, however, revealed an inlet on the island’s eastern shore that had been carved over centuries by rainwater spilling landward from the cliffs before finding new routes back to the ocean. Neglect, and better water access to the keep being provided by a cave carved into the cliff below it, led to the inlet becoming remote and isolated.

Six hours after Gertan’s visit, the waters where the inlet met the sea were disturbed by the mammoth form of a shield whale propelling itself with grim determination into the waterway.

It was suicide for such a colossal beast. There was no room for it to turn around, and as it continued on, the water quickly became too shallow. It’s carapace-covered back became exposed to the air and the silt bottom slithered against its belly, eventually giving way to a rocky bottom that dug bloody rents into said beast’s belly. Still, the leviathan struggled on until it could physically go no further, using one last thrash of its flukes to firmly beach itself; destroying a considerable swath of mangroves to ensure that its mouth was situated over dry land. Slowly, the great beast forced its mouth open.

Feeding primarily on algae, but also requiring cartilaginous fish to develop and maintain their eponymous ‘shields’, shield whales were possessed of a complex set of teeth. This whale instead had a toothless maw containing what, in the dim light of the white moon, Gracellia, appeared to be a pearl the size of a small room. As soon as the whale’s mouth was open wide enough, the pearl was expelled from it, levitating a short distance into the forest.

The ‘pearl’ was no pearl at all, but a thin layer of whale saliva rebounding again and again off of a spherical wall of sound. Once the pearl was firmly situated over solid ground, the sonic wall collapsed and the residual cetacean drool was cast out in all directions by one final burst of weaponized noise that flash-boiled it to steam.

Without the ‘floor’ of the construct to support them any longer, Pele, Brin, Raiteria, Kaiel and Zect fell two feet to mossy earth below. Most had been in sitting positions at the time, and only Brin and Zect managed anything resembling a dignified landing. Kaiel in particular ended up flopping limply to the ground, sprawling on his back.

Brin was quickly at his side, hand on her reliquary in case Reflair’s aide might be needed. “Are you alright?”

The chronicler answered at first with a raised hand. He was taking fast, shallow breaths and kept his eyes screwed tightly shut. Only after his breathing finally started to settling into a normal rhythm did he speak. “I’m fine. Just… five and a half hours of circular breathing to keep that barrier up and cycling breathable air for us? I’ve been trained for it, but I’ve never actually done it.”

He didn’t resist when she helped him rise into a sitting position, or when she sat down beside him, letting him lean on her. In fact, he just closed his eyes and relaxed more into her. “Can someone in better shape than I confirm that we’ve landed where we wanted to?”

Water gurgled behind them as the inlet’s content rushed to fill a space where a shield whale had been moments before. Ru floated over to the group, arms folded into the sleeves of his robe. “Shockingly enough, I am not so blind as to miss an entire island, or the one clear channel into its interior. Of course, you would know this if you weren’t feigning weariness as an excuse to rub yourself against that woman.”

Kaiel fumbled a waterskin off his belt and took a long pull on it. “Gods above, Ru, I just spent a quarter of a day singing two overlapping spells while inside the mouth of a whale. Give me a moment to gather myself.”

“Yes. ‘Gather’ yourself.” Ru sneered.

“Ru,” Pele cut off the imminent sparring match while still getting to her feet. “Can you sense any magical defenses here?”

With one more leer in Kaiel’s direction, Ru ducked his head in Pele’s direction. “I detected and neutralized them as I swam up the inlet. They were all basic detection spells, all decades old. I disabled them without breaking the spells themselves. Unless Immurai or whoever he tasks with monitoring those arrays actively attempts to make use of them, they will remain unaware of my tampering.”

“Then Immurai doesn’t know we’re here then?” asked Rai.

Zect grunted. “He might not know we’re here, but he knows we’re coming. If I know anything about him, that warship likely had something aboard that reported to him immediately the moment Ru inevitably destroyed it.”

“He’ll know soon enough anyway.” Ru rumbled, examining the fingers of his right hand, which he then transformed into five brutal spikes over six inches long each. “When he finds himself pierced through by these.”

Kaiel roused himself enough to give Ru an incredulous look. “Somehow I don’t think the centuries-old demon will be dispatched via stabbing him a lot.”

“Only if one fails to stab him enough.” Ru sniffed, completely serious.

Pele fluffed up her wings in irritation and surveyed their surroundings. It took a moment to match their location to her memory of Kaiel’s map thanks in no small part to the whale-assisted widening of the inlet. They were in a forested valley between tall, equally forested hills. The island had once been a volcano, but the caldera had gone extinct and collapsed long before mortal memory, leaving foothills with no mountain.

“That way.” She decided after some figuring. “Immurai’s keep should be twenty miles north of here.” A light frown creased her face. “That’s a long way to go in the dark over unknown terrain.”

Brin nodded. “That’s why we planned to sleep on the ship and sail here in the early morning hours.”

Once more, Pele set her eyes on the ridge they needed to climb to leave the inlet’s valley. “Ru? How long will it take for you to set up everything you need to do your part?”

“Seven hours at least.” said Ru. “Even with my skill, I need to lay in spellworkings to obscure what I’m doing from Immurai—and these are no small undertakings.”

“That puts our earliest possible opening for attack at an hour before daybreak.” said Kaiel. “Which we’ll be in no shape for after a twenty mile slog through the jungle.”

Raiteria folded her arms and leaned back against a convenient tree. “Forgive my ignorance, but why are we worried about going through the forest?” When the reply was confused silence, she sighed, “What I mean, is, we have the House don’t we? The door can be shut down while people are inside, right?”

Everyone looked to Ru for the answer to that. “It can, but if someone doesn’t activate the artifact from the outside, everyone inside would be trapped indefinitely. There are ways around this, but I am months from formulating one.”

“But it can be done, right?” Rai asked. “We can go into the House, close it behind us, and you can carry the artifact with you. We can rest, and when you’re done, you can open the House up again near where we need to be. It’s simple.” She smirked at him, putting her fists on her hips. “Unless you drop the artifact or lose to Immurai. But then, you’re the Rune Breaker: you can’t die and to hear your mouth, you can’t lose; so what do we have to worry about?”

Ru regarded the halfling woman silently for a moment, then his feral grin emerged. “Heh. You couldn’t be more correct.” From his sleeve, he produced the artifact that controlled the house’s door. He pressed it into the air at his side.

Ripples expanded out into space until they defined an upright rectangle, which resolved into the intricately carved door of the House. With an arrogant flourish, Ru threw open the door and floated back from the aperture. “Rest now. All of you.” He looked squarely at Zect, who had been markedly silent throughout the discussion, “For tomorrow, we make war on Immurai the Masked.”

Eyes straying to Raiteria, he recalled their discussion not too long before on the road to Rivenport, “And bring Motseitel matei-Raiteria… Motsey… safely home.”

***

“Six hours ago, the warship, Roar of Deep Seas was destroyed. All hands lost, minimal debris.” Immurai spoke in his usual measured tones as he sat hunched forward upon his throne. Partha, Matasume and a Kaydan warpriest named Meghul Tendare stood before him in his sanctum.

There was no need for the lies of Layaka or Lady Milfine in that place, even with Meghul present: the warpriest knew what they were, though not their ultimate machinations.

“The Rune Breaker?” Meghul was too big to be human, but too humanoid to be a minotaur or ogre. Skin made angry and red by inflammation was stretched taunt over muscles that weren’t completely natural, and his boxy, dome-like helm and shoulder guards were bolted onto his body. Whenever he breathed, it was accompanied by a faint buzz in his chest.

The holes in Immurai’s mask changed shape just enough to form a glare. “Did you perhaps have another theory as to what could annihilate an entire Kimean heavy carrack, Meghul?” When the warpriest didn’t offer another option, Immurai continued as if the man had never spoken. “I dispatched a flying scout—it found nothing at all, and upon backtracking, found no vessel en route to the island. I am forced to conclude that the Rune Breaker, and my prize, are now on Nhan Raduul.”

“Would you like me to go hunting tonight?” Partha asked, slipping a flechette out of a sleeve and into a palm.

Immurai raised a hand. “Patience. You are too valuable to waste in direct conflict with the Rune Breaker. Besides, I have another task for you. One I think you’ll enjoy.”

“And what of the Rune Breaker, my love?” Matasume inquired.

Immurai sat back and clasped his fingers before him. “Let him come. He will grind himself down against this keep’s defenses—and then discover to his horror that I was prepared for him all along.”

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 54 – Beasts of the DeepRune Breaker: Chapter 56 – Death and Fog >>

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2 Comments

  1. >I am a weapon, not a man.

    I love this line. I always enjoy when a character refuses to admit he’s human. Makes for an interesting character arc. Particularly w/ what Ru said about character development in the interview a couple of posts ago.

    Ru could have been a one-dimensional bully. But he’s interesting because he is trying to _be_ a one-dimensional bully, but he’s stuck w/ Pele, a born hero. Eventually, he’ll have to grow, become something more.

    Rune Breaker is a buddy-cop movie!

    >The Rune Breaker is not a subtle knife.

    A reference to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials?

    • I never thought of it as a budy cop movie, but that’s perfect!

      If it’s a reference to subtle knife, it’s a reference to a reference. I got the term from a random rock song I heard in college.

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