Rune Breaker: Chapter 56 – Death and Fog

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)

An overcast sky turned the first light of dawn into something more akin to a sullen gray glow that filled half the sky before the brilliant orange and yellow flares of a rising sun. Kaiel offered up a quick thanks to the Goodly Morn for kindly concealing Ola, which was both the sun and the goddess’s home. It made it easier to see the keep while making it far less likely that the mundane telescope he was using might throw off a glint that could give his position away.

From that position, high up on the bough of a tree upon a ridge overlooking the keep, he watched Immurai’s soldiers go about their morning.

The keep hadn’t originally been meant as a fortress. Instead of a progression of inner walls, the main gates opened into a tiered garden with huge stone troughs planted with orange-red roses and trellises bearing grapes and other climbing vines, as well as decorative trees and statues. They provided ample cover, but nothing in the way of proper fortifications designed for fighting groups to fall back behind.

Four towers had been built into the surrounding wall in later years, supplementing the two gate towers flanking the portcullis, and providing real barracks and guard posts as well as galleries for archers, mages, and riflemen. Said towers were dimly lit from within, and every window and bolt-hole was screened by a distortion field to make shooting those inside more difficult.

Newer still were the ballistae; six in total and set up on mobile platforms built to swivel through a full three-hundred and sixty degrees of fire. They were tilted far enough that they could fire on closer targets than such a weapon would normally allow for. Their bolts were all-steel contraptions with obvious moving parts and barbs.

He estimated that there were eighty men split up into squads between the various garden tiers, and thirty or so more on the walls crewing the ballistae or keeping watch. There was no way of knowing how many were in the towers. Most were human and half-elves, reflecting the bulk of the Threefold moon’s following. There were also a few elves and hailene represented.

The demihuman numbers were bolstered by decidedly unnatural beasts. Kaiel had read about and seen drawings of the imoc-te vorian: extremely minor demons used by the Threefold Moon as heavy infantry. They stood as tall as ogres, with gray pockmarked skin. Instead of the muscular physique of ogres, imoc-te vorian were grossly fat and had heads like a frog’s. Being mass produced from the cast-off materials from which other demons of Zect and Matasume’s ilk were made, they were nearly mindless. They made up for it with prodigious strength, superb healing ability, and a complete lack of fear. Immurai was fielding at least a dozen of the creatures in groups of three and being tended by an officer who could direct them.

Alongside them were more decidedly Kimean creations. These prowled amid the trellises, mostly avoiding his scrutiny. The most he could make out were several stalking cat-like shapes, and something low and reptilian.

After a quarter hour of watching and taking note of troop placement and movements, Kaiel climbed down, mindful that any active magic he might use to make the task faster or easier might be detected by Immurai, and reported his findings to the others who were gearing up at the foot of the tree.

“I’ve seen no sign of Immurai, Matasume, or Partha.” He concluded. “More than likely, they’re inside the keep. If I was to bet a few marks on it, I would say at least one of them will be guarding Motsey on the assumption that we have a way to track him—which we do.”

Ru was down on one knee, painting a design around Rai’s left eye with a paste made from crushed red berries. “Immurai will be as far from the boy as possible. He knows my purpose is to destroy him and as such will seek to separate us. There are also layers of defensive screens in place to prevent bombardment with traditional offensive spells.”

“Then it is a good thing your plans are decidedly non-traditional.” said Zect. He was sitting on the ground, legs crossed beneath him, fists pressed against each other before him in a meditative pose. His gourd sat corked within arm’s reach.

“Heh.” replied Ru. “They will have no idea what is happening until it’s too late.”

“We shouldn’t underestimate Immurai.” Pele warned. She was tightening a set of straps from a climbing harness around Brin’s torso. “As far as we know, we’re exactly where he intended us to be so far. We can’t just depend on the idea that we’re outsmarting him to win this.”

Brin nodded. “Right. Rune Breaker or not, nothing good comes from being overconfident.”

Pele finished tightening the straps and checked the daggers she’d strapped across her chest, and the one on her calf. In addition to said daggers and her swords, she had the expanding staff hanging from a loop on her minotaur kilt, and several smaller throwing knives strapped to her hip along the breeches she wore under the kilt. She flared her wings and looked to the slowly brightening sky. “Are we ready?”

Ru took one more look at the pattern he’d drawn on Rai’s face and nodded, clapping the halfling woman lightly on the shoulder before standing. “We are. Arunsteadeles, once I begin, channel vin into the pattern here,” he pointed to the top of the pattern, “to make the array active. Then raise your other spell—given how much vin I will be moving, Immurai would have to be the greatest spellworker in history to pick yours out.”

“Right.” Kaiel nodded sharply. “See you inside, Old Man.”

The dark mage sneered. “See you inside, charlatan.” He nodded to everyone else, then became a sparrow and fluttered off into the pre-dawn shadows of the forest.

Zect rose, tipping his hat down to once more hide his eyes. “That seems to be my signal to get moving. You’ll all know when I join the fight.” He strode off into the forest, moving at an angle down toward the keep.

“Good luck.” Pele said quietly to the two departing monsters, knowing that neither could hear her. She turned her attention to Rai. “Raiteria…”

The halfling woman managed to cut her off with just a smile. “I know.” She said at length. “And I want you to know that… even as my sister you’ve done more than I could ever expect of you. I hope you know how much it’s meant to me… to Bromun… and especially to Motsey.” She swallowed; it wouldn’t do for her to get tears in her eyes. Not when so much of what was to come depended on her eyesight.

“We’re going to save him.” said Pele softly. “I swear on… on everything I have.”

Rai forced herself to brighten. “Of course we are. Just don’t get yourself so drenched in demon blood that you scare him when we meet back up, okay?”

Pele matched her sister’s expression. “I’ll try. But given that Ru will be with me, it might get messy.” She then met Kaiel’s eye. Though it wasn’t an official part of the honorary family status bestowed by the nir-lumos, she still considered him to be her brother. And as he was the next best thing to a full loreman, she knew she didn’t have to say a word to him to convey what she was thinking.

Take care of the both of you.

The chronicler nodded. Then he and Brin’s eyes met and again, everything that needed to be said was completely non-verbal.

He ended up being the one to look away first, glancing toward the ground with a deep, cleansing breath. “Alright then. Let’s get to it.”

With a few last glances, Kaiel and Rai started back up the tree while Pele and Brin struck off for a clearing they’d scouted out earlier.

***

Ru had spent most of the previous night on the sea floor, using a sharp rock to gouge spell arrays into the stone concealed beneath the shifting silt. It was arduous work, especially given that he couldn’t use any overt magic to speed things up so as to avoid detection. But he was nothing if not devoted to his craft—and to the death of Immurai.

Fortunately, the primary spells he was diagramming were simple ones—the same as those he’d helped the Winter Willow’s Grandmother etch on the night he first met Pele. These were just on a much larger scale.

Amid the sharp spars of rock and gurgling surf below the keep, a sparrow became a man and hovered above one sharp, stony point. When he closed his eyes, he could feel the array in his mystic senses. Though there was very little flaer beneath the sea, his arrays trapped what little there was to be had and bent it in just the right ways so that it would be useful when he channeled more. More delicate and less energy-intensive arrays could become active simply by drawing them if the spellcrafter wasn’t careful.

Ru, however, was very careful when it came to his craft, and his spell wouldn’t have been tripped unless a hundred funeral pyres were sailed over them sometime in the night.

Fitting, he thought to himself, considering that there would be need for more pyres than that on Nhan Raduul before the sun set. If he left any of his enemies alive to attend to their dead, that was.

It was time to set it all in motion. He plunged into his personal reserves. For most mages, it was described as a pool, meant only to form the necessary constructs and arrays for gathering and shaping ambient energies. For him, it was a grand reservoir, forged by years of training during which Gand sent himself, Gloryfall, and Seth to distant lands filled with countless strange peoples.

Keeping Pele alive and asleep for almost five hundred years in a cave, as well as protecting both of them from the collateral damage wrought by the goddess Dey’s wrath falling upon the hailene had diminished that reservoir, though it was still vast compared to the average wizard.

From those depths, Ru drew out flaer and vin, then directed them into this grand array concealed beneath the waves. He conjured vox and harnessed the raw akua that existed in abundance in the sea itself, leashing it to the mystic engine he was setting into motion.

In his mind’s eye, the arrays blazed to life as the energies coursed into them. Thanks to those carved arrays, there was no need for chants or gestures or other mnemonics, but Ru couldn’t help himself as he thought of Immurai suddenly becoming aware of a massive spellwork appearing to surround his keep.

He raised one hand, palm upward, fingers clenched as if grasping something. “Rise.” Fog boiled up from the sea floor and, following his command, rose up in an arc that encompassed the entire keep. It spread in only one direction: inward. There it met the rocky shore and began to swiftly climb the cliffs toward the keep’s seaward walls.

Shouts of alarm started on the walls. Horns were blown. Boots tromped as soldiers readied themselves for something they couldn’t possibly prepare for.

The fog rolled over the top of the walls, sweeping lookouts and ballista crews alike in obscuring mist before spilling down to engulf the tiered gardens. Still it came from the ocean and still it rose up the cliffs, forming a dome that soon mired the keep’s interior towers.

Once the cloak of air and water was in place, the Rune Breaker went to work.

***

“Steady!” Meghul Tendare, war-priest of the Threefold Moon, felt his army starting to shy like a horse that just got the scent of wolves. He silently cursed Immurai for explaining to them exactly who and what the Rune Breaker was. If the masked demon wasn’t pan-khul and thus inherently above him in station, he would have liked to wring his neck.

“It’s just fog, shades take you.” He spat, hearing said fog make his voice echo dully as if in an enclosed space. “Stand steady and on alert! You have more to fear from me than the Rune Breaker if you break discipline now!”

The fog overhead swirled crazily in all directions as if many large flying things were moving through it. A deep, rough laugh followed, then a voice that came from all directions at once. “Is that what you really think?”

“There!” Someone shouted. Meghul looked down from his vantage point on the topmost tier, to where the fog was moving around a shadowy figure. A small squad rushed it, only to see it melt away into the gloom before they could reach it.

Another voice called out, and sure enough, Meghul saw a new shadow on the eastern wall, silhouetted against what little sunlight penetrated both overcast and fog. A gunshot echoed in the eerie quiet, but the figure merely faded away.

Two soldiers cried out at once, from two different directions. Neither had any success attacking the shapes in the mist.

Meghul thumbed the snap holding his cudgel to his side. It wasn’t a particularly impressive weapon to behold; just a smooth length of lacquered oak that was slightly thicker on one end and capped in copper etched with the symbol of the Threefold Moon, but in the hands of the faithful, it was potentially devastating. “Decoys.” He growled. “Hold your positions!” He shouted, “He’s trying to sow confusion! They’re decoys!”

More of the specters were appearing in the fog, some within a few feet of a squad. No one went for them now, and as quickly as they formed, they dissipated.

The war-priest let out a grunt of satisfaction. “What kind of fools does this Rune Breaker take us for?”

“Heh.” The short, harsh laugh came from right behind him. “Nightmare Syndrome.”

Meghul whirled, swinging his cudgel while at the same time opening himself to his god’s power. The copper cap blazed with divine power as he brought it to bear on whatever foe might present itself. To his confusion, the weapon’s head found its mark not in the ribcage of his assailant, but in an overgrown rose bush he didn’t remember being behind him. Narrowing his eyes, he tugged on the haft to dislodge it.

The gnarled vines held fast, their thorns digging into the finished wood.

He pulled harder to no avail. The bush shivered and the vines moved, scraping noisily as they scratched gouges in the lacquer.

A spell. He knew the bush was under the control of a spellcrafter, one who was no doubt intent on using his distraction against him. The moment he had that thought, and made up his mind to abandon his cudgel, a thick, thorny vine crept out of the bush to encircle his hands, lashing them tightly to the cudgel’s haft.

Meghul’s warrior discipline faltered as he pulled frantically, trying to break the vines but only succeeding in driving the thorns deeper into his hands and wrists. His thick, dark, and semi-transformed blood began to flow from the wounds, spattering the ground.

He looked up again to find that the bush had altered its shape: the branches had clumped together, with the leaves lying flat against them like scales. They were arranged around a rough circle of thorny vines that bore more than a passing resemblance to a toothy maw. The vines around his hand and weapon formed the tongue of that dread mouth, and he realized with rising horror that it was slowly drawing him inexorably into those horrible teeth.

To everyone but Meghul, it looked as if the war-priest, commander of the Kaydan force on Nhan Raduul under Immurai, had turned to face down another ‘harmless’ specter only to begin screaming and convulsing, his hands shoved out before him as if they were tied. It took over three minutes before his mind and his heart finally gave out and he collapsed to the ground, eyes vacant, foam dribbling out of his fear-twisted mouth.

The fog shifted subtly, and for a brief moment, the forces on the upper tier could see that the specter their commander confronted was not an illusion in the mist, but a cloaked figure with a scythe slung across his shoulders.

One of the underpriests, a half-elf who was yet to have any overt augmentation, loudly invoked the Threefold Moon and summoned a ball lightning into her hand, using her off hand to reach into it and extract crackling skeins of electricity to hurl at the enemy.

She never got a chance. No sooner had she gathered enough power to throw, that her head jerked awkwardly to the side and she collapsed, a red stain bubbling out of the side of her head just above the ear, and running down the side of her neck.

The cloaked man sneered, then disappeared into the fog again.

***

Rai ejected the spent cartridge from her first shot and was advancing the carrousel to her next round before the priest hit the ground. Predictably, a second underpriest, this one with a visible brass skull cap in place of the top of his skull, rushed to investigate what suddenly killed his compatriot.

The fog should have covered his movements, especially from a quarter mile away. Yet it didn’t thanks to the spellworking drawn over her right eye. Ru had constructed a special vin and akua spell that allowed the affected eye to simply not see the conjured fog. With her left eye closed, the fog simply didn’t exist for her.

The second underpriest’s skull cap made another shot like the first a tricky proposition, so she switched targets.

Breathe.

When Kaiel saw her preparing to fire, he vocalized a subharmonic similar to the one he used to silence everyone days earlier; but this one encompassed only the sound of the gunshot, and instead of a zone centered on himself, he extended it in front of them, where it would silence the bullet as it cracked the air.

Breathe.

Fire.

In complete silence, the bullet found its mark, disappearing into the hollow of the underpriest’s throat. The man’s eyes widened, more in shock than pain, then the wound began to spurt as he clutched desperately at his neck. His attempts to speak and beseech his god for more power only brought up more blood.

The effect on the various squads was immediate as the command structure collapsed with the deaths of three high-ranking officers in the span of moments. Squad leaders barked orders, but without knowing what had killed Meghul or the two underpriests, they all had their own ideas on how to react. Some took up defensive positions behind statues and trellises, while others formed up into defensive formations in the open, hoping to stave off attacks from all directions.

In one of the more tightly packed formations, Rai found her best target. Her thumb found the loading lever and pulled it back. The mechanism lifted the carousel out of its cradle and swung it out to the side, exposing the two spent cartridges and single unfired round. A plunger set in the center ejected all three and her practiced hand caught the one that was still of use and slipped it into the chest pocket of her leather vest.

She couched the weapon in the crook of her arm, using her free hand to reach for a hardened leather case hanging for her belt. There were three different such cases and she had to identify the one she wanted by feeling the notches she’d cut into its top. From it, she produced one of those bullets that she’d purchased in Rivenport—the kind that was outlawed there.

It looked like any other round, just with a steel cartridge instead of brass and a thin wax seal on the back. With her thumbnail, she peeled the wax off to reveal a thin groove like the head of a screw. She used the same nail to turn it: one, two, three clicks for three seconds on the little clockwork timer. That was how long the timer would count down after the bullet was fired.

The round slid into the chamber and the loading lever settled the carousel back into place. Rai took aim once more.

Breathe.

Her target was a man in heavy metal armor that bristled with intimidating, but non-functional spikes. She picked the hollow if his armpit, just beneath his right pauldron, which was particularly festooned with excess metal and frippery.

Breathe.

She felt the slight hum starting up behind her as Kaiel started up his silencing subharmonic. Combined with the fog, which masked the flash from her rifle’s muzzle, she almost felt it was unfair. Almost. They were, after all, standing between her and her child.

Fire.

This bullet wasn’t silent, as it went ping as it deflected off the chain shirt the soldier wore under his spiked pauldrons and iron cuirass. Then it rattled as it bounced about in the space between the chain shirt and the pauldron.

From her perch, Rai could tell from the reactions of his fellows that they knew he’d been hit with something and she wondered if he heard the clockworks ticking.

Three seconds later, the mechanism in the bullet reached zero and two alchemical mixtures were exposed to one another, reacting violently. The resultant explosion turned the man’s formerly useless spikes into an expanding sphere of shrapnel that proved very useful for killing and maiming Kaydan soldiers.

Rai smiled grimly and reached for one of the other cases, this one containing the foaming acid rounds she used against Bashurra at Idarian Homestead. If she had her way, they would all regret getting between her and her son.

***

The sounds of bedlam were reaching the walls from below. Squad leaders were shouting as they tried to regain some semblance of control over their subordinates or the reserves found themselves storming out of the garrisons and into a ball of confusion. Men, women, and beasts screamed as they confronted foes both illusory and real out in the fog, or fell victim to long-ranged death.

For the ballista crews, the only evidence of battle besides the noises were the occasional flash of conjured flames and lightning, or swirling masses of fog that indicated large numbers moving in unison. All they knew was that the fight had gotten inside the walls.

“Turn it around.” Ordered the man in the traces of a ballista mounted atop the wall next to one of the gate towers.

One of his crew looked up at him and protested. “But we’re on watch for the Rune Breaker, aren’t we?”

“What in the Seven Interlocking Hells do you think is down there?” The man in the traces demanded, “A bear? A battle spider? Get this twice-damned thing turned around right now!” He had a point and his crew knew it. Two of them, including the one who argued with him, pulled the stops out of the twin capstans on either side of the gunnery traces and started cranking with all their might. The fourth leapt off the rotating platform the weapon was mounted on to move the rolling cart holding the spare bolts and chains out of the way.

Slowly, the ballista pivoted, the iron sights moving from the blank whiteness between them and the forests beyond the wall to sweep over the battlement itself. The massive crossbow was loaded and primed with one of the great mechanical steel bolts Immurai imported from one of the Kimean Lords. There was a hook on the rear of said bolt to which was latched the end of a thick, yet light chain looped around a third capstan on the platform so that it could be reeled in.

The entire ballista crew was so focused on changing their target that they failed to see a shape plowing through the fog from above.

Brin was not a heavy person, but given Percival Cloudherd’s hollow bones and hailene physiology, she was the heaviest person Pele had ever carried aloft. Unlike Percival though, Brin knew to stay still, and the climbing harness made her far less awkward to carry. In fact, the contractor had gone completely rigid.

“Relax a little, you’re making it hard to turn.” Pele said, keeping her voice low. She was mindful that heavy fog caused weird echos that might carry or dampen sound in unexpected ways. “I thought you said you’ve flown in an ornithopter before.”

Brin licked her exceedingly dry lips and practically choked the Barratta with her grip. “An ornithopter has a seat. You’re enclosed in them. You’re certainly not belly-down looking at nothingness that’s hiding a two hundred foot drop.”

“You’re more worried I might drop you than the actual fight.” Pele couldn’t hide the bewilderment in her voice.

“It’s be a really bad way to die.” Brin pointed out. “Plus, when it’s a fight, it’s my hand thrusting and swinging; my skills on test—or Reflair’s. I’m not someone’s baggage.”

Pele saw the lamps along the wall appear in the fog. They were near useless now, only putting out large, conspicuous globes of yellow-orange light while revealing nothing but murky shapes. Context was everything, and if the huge, moving shape was the ballista, then the three smaller ones around it were its crew and the looming mass off to her left was the gate tower.

“It’s almost over.” She promised. “Ready?”

“Very.”

Pele trimmed her wings and dropped into a shallow dive toward the ballista. When they were over the wall and a safe distance above it, she let go of the harness, allowing Brin to drop. The other woman made good of her extra forward momentum by hitting the ground at a run and driving the head of the Barratta into the exposed back of one of the men working the capstan that turned the ballista.

The skewered man let out a noise between a strangled scream and a yelp, followed up by a gurgling grunt as Brin wrenched her spear free, tearing a grisly chunk out of his ribs. Beside her, the crewman manning the ammo cart cursed and went for the short sword at his hip.

Brin pivoted, whirling the Barratta around in an upward swing that slammed the weighted butt of the spear into his jaw. He stumbled, his back hitting the cart, which rolled away and put him even farther off-balance. Brin followed, shoving him with the spear’s haft until his hips hit the edge of the battlement and there was nowhere else to go. One more shove sent him flipping over, disappearing into the mists to presumably find his death on the packed earth at the base of the wall.

For her part, Pele beat her wings to gain just enough altitude to clear Brin’s head and drew out Novacula Kuponya. Letting herself fall, she used her weight to drive the blade’s tip through the leather jerkin of the man in the ballista’s traces, then into his chest.

With any other sword, it would have been a fatal blow, but the Razorblade of Remedy instantly drew on the man’s own life to flood him with vitae. He went into a seizure, straining the straps securing him in his seat until he went still. Unconscious.

Pele tugged the sword free, barely noticing that it came out bloodless, and caught the eye of the last surviving member of the crew, a half-elf with a notch taken out of one ear and the symbol of the Three-fold Moon tattooed over his right eye.

From his perspective, a red-winged giantess had dropped from the aether and slew his crewmate. His mind locked up just long enough for the Razorblade of Remedy to slash through his throat, sending him into a dreamless oblivion.

Just for a moment, Pele considered finishing the two off. She didn’t have any particular reason to leave them alive, and had only used Novacula Kuponya because it was lighter and more maneuverable than the Eastern Brand for a quick, precise strike. She decided against it, purely because it would be a waste of time—she had a job to do.

Leaping down from the ballista platform, she took note of the fact that it was almost pointing at the heavy wooden door to the gate tower and felt a feral thrill. She came around to where she could reach one arm of the weapon and grabbed hold.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Brin vanish into the fog. The contractor had her own mission to disable as many of the ballista as possible.

With the prodigious strength of a dragon, Pele set about manhandling the giant crossbow into position. It took only a few minutes more to discern which lever set before the gunnery traces triggered the incredible weapon and she pulled it the moment she did.

The tensioned steel cable hissed. Flexed wood groaned. Gears, driven by counterweights, rattled, all delivering force to the bolt. It left the ballista with a cacophonous symphony to the technologies that set it in motion and covered the ten feet to the door before the ballista was even done shaking from its release.

Steel struck wood and shattered it into a mass of flying chunks that only got worse when the bolt’s casing opened, releasing an unfolding blossom of steel barbs and blades. People screamed inside, at least one of those voices being cut off into sudden silence.

Pele unsheathed the Eastern Brand, setting it into her left hand while readying Novacula Kuponya in her right. No doubt, there would be resistance between her and her goal. Steeling herself for anything, she followed the ruin wrought by the bolt into the gate tower.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 55 – The Drinking GourdRune Breaker: Chapter 57 – The Siege of Nhan Raduul >>

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