Rune Breaker: Chapter 58 – Last Line of Defense

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series Evil Unto Evil (Rune Breaker, #4)

Tucking her wings, Pele rolled as the first imoc-te vorian brought its fist down on her. The ground vibrated under the blow, some of the stone pavers rattling. She got a leg underneath her body and pushed herself up and into an awkward, unbalanced run. That lack of balance saved her as she stumbled just as a gargantuan fist plowed through the air just above her head.

In a few more steps, she had her footing and a bit of breathing space in which to take stock. The lesser demons were bigger than her and far stronger. She’d been pressed to attack ogres in her time and knew how to take them in single combat: close quickly, stay inside their reach and always roll with attacks; never block. Knowing that though, she’d never fought more than one alone.

As if her position wasn’t grim enough, she could hear the telltale thud of booted feet coming up the path behind here. Soon she would be flanked.

There was nothing for it but to fight. She waited for the first imoc-te vorian to come for her and stepped into its first wild swing. Its over-extended arm forced her wing down, but the actual force of the blow struck the earth behind her. Inside its guard now, she thrust the Eastern Brand into the monster’s belly.

A grunt was all the reaction the strike elicited. Pele goggled at the thing as it reached down and grasped the blade in the same way a man might seek to pluck out a thorn. She held fast to the hilt, looked up into the broad froggy face, and shouted, “Ignite!”

Twin helixes of flame leapt to life around the Eastern Brand’s blade, engulfing the hand that grasped it before diving into the demon’s belly. As dim-witted as the beast was, it still knew enough to bellow out its agony and lurch back, trying to escape the flames searing into its gut.

Pele refused to let it escape so easily. She dogged its retreat, slashing the sword out of its body before pressing the offensive with both of her swords. Confidence was building in her when her feathers registered an incoming blow via the compression wave of air built up ahead of another imoc-te vorian‘s fist.

She dove to the side, moving with the punch instead of resisting it. The strength behind it sent her somersaulting into one of the hedges lining the path and she only had a split second to gather the wherewithal to hurl herself to the round before the follow-up swing punched a hole in the wall of vegetation.

Unlike before, she came up swiftly and lunged, sinking the tip of Novacula Kuponya into the thing’s armpit. Such a huge creature couldn’t be so easily overcome by the sword’s magic, but the sapping effect did cause its arm to sag, temporarily numb.

As she unleashed a flurry of flaming slashes on the monster’s now vulnerable side, a scream came from beyond the ranks of the three huge demons. Pele sidestepped the crashing fists of one of them just in time to see the man assigned to direct them stumbling forward ahead of a spray of his own blood. Behind him stood Brin.

The imoc-te vorian‘s handler tried to bark another order to them, but Brin whirled the Barratta, clouting him in the back of the head with the weighted butt. He hit the ground in a heap, the gash in his back visible down to the shoulder blades.

All three imoc-te vorian snapped their heads around at their handler’s scream. They had no concept of vengeance, but their limited training did tell them how to recognize a threat. And anything that killed the one who directed them was exactly that. They howled and hooted before leaping at the blonde spirit docent.

One found itself with more pressing problems as a flaming sword was driven up between its ribs and twisted with prodigious strength. It shrieked in bestial agony and turned to engage its tormentor.

Arguably, it was the lucky one.

Brin skipped back out of range of the initial attack. Then her hand came up to grip the reliquary. “Reflair,” She spoke, her voice firm and clear. “Into me.”

Mist glowing as if backed by the rising sun emerged from the reliquary, curling up along Brin’s neck and jawline like a mother caressing her child. She inhaled and the mist took it as an invitation, pouring into her mouth and nose.

Reflair’s power and spirit filled her and her will permeated every muscle—every cell. An inner light shone through her skin as spirit merged with flesh. Brin—now Reflair—exhaled slowly, a puff of glowing vapor trailing out of her lips. Those lips pressed into a thin, serious line as she dropped into a fighting stance unlike any Brin used.

The imoc-te vorian didn’t understand any of this and came at her, all firsts and fury.

She moved like a zephyr flitting up the side of a mountain. The first brutal uppercut passed within inches of her and she punished it by moving the blade of the Barratta into those intervening inches, using the monster’s own strength to carve its arm open to the bone.

Blood pouring out in an arterial spray, the lesser demon jerked away only to find that Reflair wasn’t done with it yet. Words in the ancient tongue of elves and the races of the Great Green Expanse spilled from her lips and there was only one Pele recognized.

“Barratta!” Not the name of the weapon, the name of the technique it was named after, issued by the woman who created both. She unleashed a series of thrusts too fast for the eye to track, the spearhead emulating the sting of a hundred giant hornets. Wounds seemed to bloom into being on the imoc-te vorian‘s flesh; its belly, its chest, its throat. One eye disappeared into an explosion of blood and various ocular humors.

And then she was gone, almost dancing as she moved around it and the second attacker. There she added more stings to the backs of the things’ knees and ankles. The one that had thus far gone unmolested got the worst of that, with every tendon in both legs being sliced in quick succession. It came tumbling down like an avalanche of flesh.

Its companion turned. The demon was listing to one side, as one leg refused to take on any weight. Blood fountained out of it in a half dozen places and leaked in several dozen more. Nonetheless, it ignored its hurts and drew back it fist… only for its life force to finally fail it. Groaning, it collapsed on top of its comrade.

Pele in the meantime, didn’t have the help of a spiritual ally and was finding the imoc-te vorian to be far tougher than a mere ogre. It was the same one she’d attacked earlier and yet even with one hand burned to uselessness and several smoldering wounds from the Eastern Brand’s burning blade, it kept coming.

Behind her, there was a shout, heralding the arrival of a squad of five Kaydans with swords or axes, plus heavy shields and plate armor. She made the mistake of looking in their direction and in that instance, the demon’s beefy hand caught her left arm, twisting it and jerking her off the ground.

In a shocking display of intellect on its part, the demon held her at arm’s length where Novacula Kuponya couldn’t cut into anything vital while putting pressure on her wrist, trying to make her drop the Eastern Brand.

A dragon’s roar deafened her to most of her own thoughts and scales started to sprout on her arms and neck. Fire stoked in her belly, surging to be spat into the beast’s face for the affront of touching her.

Pele forced herself to calm, however, wrapping chains of will around her inner dragon. Mindless rage wouldn’t help her in this situation—even if she defeated the lesser demon, she would still have to face the armored warriors. Fighting her own instincts, she sheathed the Razorblade of Remedy.

The stupid beast reacted, thinking it was safe now that the dangerous steel was put away. It drew her closer, opening its froggy mouth with the intent to bite her head off.

When clumsy fingers couldn’t undo the clasp on her belt, Pele simply snapped the leather loop with mean strength, pulling the extending staff free. She thrust it into the beast’s waiting maw and triggered the mechanism. The spring tensioned and metal rasped against metal as the staff tried to extend to its full length. One end jabbed into the demon’s pallet while the other lodged itself in the thing’s gullet, blocking the airway.

The imoc-te vorian‘s piggy eyes widened as it started to choke, then widened farther as Pele twisted around and kicked it in the chest with all her strength. It dropped her before trying to cram the thick fingers of its good hand into its mouth to pull out the obstruction. It also left itself wide open to attack.

The Eastern Brand, Dottir Logi, carved a burning path into its chest, slipping between ribs to puncture, then cauterize the heart.

Pele’s foe hit the paved ground just moments before Brin’s second and she took a moment to admire her friend’s incredible speed before turning to deal with the soldier. Once more, she drew out Novacula Kuponya, and fell into a ready stance. The Eastern Brand’s flames reflected in her eyes, making them seem to glow.

The squad leader hesitated, having just witnessed the two women eradicate three of his force’s greatest weapons in moments. Nothing short of complete surrender could have saved him then. He was between those women and the staircase to the third tier and the keep beyond.

***

Iron tower shields, each three inches thick and so heavy that two men had to carry them, had been plunged into the earth between dug up paving stones at the top of the grand staircase and leading to what had once been a plaza laid out in front of the palace doors. Behind them, six marksmen sighted down the barrels of huge guns normally lean to be mounted to the backs of warbeasts, set into specially machined grooves in the shields.

All paths on the third tier fed into the plaza. Across it stood the twelve-foot high wooden doors of the keep itself. The last line of defense was dug in there, behind tower shields and more rifles. At the center of that formation were three wizards and a priest, all gathering power with zome arrays and preparing to fight to their last if need be. There was also a man with a spellcrafted horn, standing ready to summon the other defenders of the keep to them should enemies penetrate that far.

The riflemen on the stairs knew it was only a matter of time. They weren’t deaf; they could hear the screams, the explosions, the bestial roars—the din of battle. And it was coming from everywhere. At one point, they saw a dragon appear above the hedges hemming them in and thought the end had come. But the creature disappeared and they hadn’t seen or heard it again.

More than one of them was fingering a Threefold Moon icon, muttering prayers, when the dog appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

It was a medium-sized, brown mutt with matted, greasy hair, and a nasty wound that seemed to be festering above its left hip. Limping from the wound, it stopped directly below the riflemen and looked up at them with a curious expression.

None of them were fooled. The Rune Breaker was a shapeshifting master; Lord Crossius had told them so. They also knew about the ballista bolts and how they were enchanted to leave lasting wound in him that would carry over from form to form.

The first shot tore into the beast’s shoulder, a second and third into its chest. The fourth went cleanly through its head followed by two more. Not a sound came from the wretched animal as it slumped, then fell apart into a pile of rapidly melting snow.

Only then did they notice the glittering, emerald dragonfly that had buzzed its way up the stairs while they were focused on the dog. With horror slowly dawning, along with the fact that they had no time to chamber another round, they watched as the dragonfly become a black-furred dire wolf with a brutal wound over its hip.

Paws the size of dinner plates slammed into the two center shields, the great wolf’s weight tearing them out of the earth and sending them slamming down onto the two soldiers behind them with the finality of a closing coffin lid.

Before the sickening crunch ceased, the wolf lunged, snapping its jaws around the torso of another rifleman, throwing him to the ground and worrying him like a terrier with a squirrel until his back broke.

By then, those manning the last line were taking notice and a storm of bullets, arrows, and bolts filled the space at the top of the stairs, uncaring of whether they struck friend or foe. The Rune Breaker weathered it; the remaining riflemen did not.

The counterattack didn’t come from the ancient mage posing as a dire wolf. A gunshot echoed across the plaza from one of the myriad garden paths and a man busy winding his crossbow dropped his weapon to slap a hand over his gut. No one else heard it but he could feel the mechanical clicking inside him. Three seconds later, an explosion threw a dozen soldiers to the ground, some heavily injured, and disrupted one of the zome arrays.

Squad leaders shouted for their subordinates to close ranks, but the bodies of fallen and maimed comrades and gore-slicked paving stones made the task difficult and painfully slow. As the ranks began to shift, another shot rang out and one of the wizards started screaming. Her arm was dissolving at the shoulder under a tide of expanding, acidic foam.

Archers loosed a volley in the direction the shots had come from, only to watch a cone of flame leap up from behind the hedgerow and burn their arrows out of the air. Somewhere a flute began to play a somber funereal tune.

Another volley was ordered, but the hedges then erupted with thousands of bats boiling out from between the leaves. What might have been an orderly, concentrated attack devolved into panicked fire as the creatures swooped and darted down upon them. The hornblower sounded the call to arms as the last line of defense broke up into knots of terrified skirmishers.

Under cover of the swarm, Zect, Raiteria, and Kaiel emerged from cover, skirting the open plaza. Ru also took the opportunity to lope forward, still in the shape of a wolf. He took the time forging an array of vin to carry words between him and the other three as he went. “You are too theatrical, Arunsteadeles. Why not use constructs to set them on fire?”

“Bardic spells don’t work that way.” replied the chronicler. “And in any event, I’m not going to take that particular criticism from you after… everything you do. Where are Brin and Pele?”

“I don’t know where your woman is, but Miss Pele will be here very shortly.”

He didn’t even need the link to tell him as much, just the superior sense of hearing that the form of a wolf provided. The sounds of heavy fighting were coming from off to his right, around the bend in a garden path. At least a dozen armored people were fighting in retreat, attempting to fall back to the keep while under attack.

If wolves could purr, that might describe the sound Ru made as he broke off his approach on the defenders at the keep’s doors. Head low, jaws lolling, he angled toward the sounds of battle.

The wait wasn’t long. What had been three full squads had come together as one, forming a loose mobile shield wall backed by spears that steadily fell back around the final bend. Beyond the interlocked shields, the swirling uneven glow of flames intermixed with an eldritch light and incredible blows hammered into the line.

Ru announced himself with a loud, resonant growl that he imagined vibrated their armor. One or two turned, then started shouting to their fellows. He took that as a call to combat and threw himself upon them. As a great hunting cat with tawny fur and luminous green eyes, he deftly avoided a poorly set spear and pounced the first person he could reach.

Teeth and claws were useless against plate, so he turned into an ogre while standing on the man’s chest. The breastplate caved and the sternum behind it didn’t last much longer. Before he even stopped growing, he grabbed two spear carriers; a man and a woman, and flung them bodily into the backs of the shield-bearers.

A small gap in the shield wall was all Pele and Brin needed. A spearhead, rimed with brilliance, stabbed through the opening and into the neck of one of the shield-bearers with perfect accuracy. It was followed by one blade that bashed a shield aside to make room for a burning sword that split a woman’s helmet.

The soldiers broke ranks, knowing it was useless. A few tried to stand and fight, but they were flanked and quickly realizing that they were outnumbered regardless of the number of warm bodies on each side. The rest flooded past Ru onto the plaza where they found the pandemonium caused by Kaiel’s bats still in motion.

Pele thrust Novacula Kuponya through the open visor of her last opponent and kept the tip of the blade firmly in his forehead until he had collapsed into a seizing heap at her feet. Withdrawing it, she nodded to Ru. “Thank you for helping. Those spears made it hard to get in close enough to deal with the shields.”

“You could have flown over them.” he pointed out, resuming his normal appearance. The wound on his hip manifested as a blood-wet slash on his robe.

“Brin can’t fly and I wasn’t going to leave her behind.” Pele informed him without apology.

The woman in question wasn’t paying attention to their conversation. Instead, she pressed her eyes shut and slowly exhaled. The same iridescent mist she’d drawn into herself while allowing Reflair to possess her boiled out of her nose and mouth, coiling in air before finally returning to the reliquary. Her inner glow dimmed before finally guttering out and she had to lean on the Barratta for a moment as if weight had finally returned to her body.

Pele ignored the remark Ru made in the link and looked to her friend. “Are you alright, Brin?”

The other woman nodded hastily and straightened her back with a slight effort. “I am. Thank you. It’s just that this was the longest I’ve spent merged with Reflair or any spirit. It’s a little overwhelming for both of us.” She took one more deep breath. “Are Kaiel and Rai here yet?”

“Along with Zect.” Ru said, rotating in the air to watch the survivors of their skirmish trying to link up with their allies only for some of the former to perceive only armored figures storming toward them and reacting accordingly. Two of them already lay splayed on the ground, one from a bullet in the brainpan and another from a lucky spear that pierced a seam in his armor.

Brin drummed the butt of the Barratta against the stone at her feet and swung it up into a ready position. “Let’s not keep them waiting then.”

Ru looked to Pele. “Shall I teleport us there, Miss Pele?”

She considered it for a moment and decided that any misgivings she had about being teleported were outweighed by the sheer advantage simply appearing at the enemy’s flank would offer. “Yes. Try and put us there—” she pointed, “With our backs to the door.”

A spark of appreciation kindled in the link. That was exactly where he’d intended to go. “Yes, Miss Pele.”

***

The fear constructs were starting to degrade under the pressure of a bolstering prayer the priest finally managed to start up. With blind, fight-or-flight panic tamped down to something more manageable, the soldiers before the doors were no longer killing one another and were finally starting to take orders.

Kaiel was crouched in the shadow of a statue along with Rai. Zect had stolen on ahead of them and Kaiel quickly lost track of him.

“We’re close enough now, I think.” he informed his companion. There was no need to elaborate; she’d been fidgeting in anticipation for them being ‘close enough’ since they teleported inside the walls. “It’s going to take a bit of time, so I need you to protect me.” He inclined his head toward the multiple converging paths. The honed senses and skills of a loreman-in-training let him hear the approaching reinforcements.

Rai opened the carrousel of her rifle and loaded a timer round, plus two normal slugs. “Nothing gets within ten yards of you alive.” She promised grimly.

He had no doubt that she would put her all into that promise. And so, he settled on the ground, legs crossed and closed his eyes. It took great mental effort to shut out the noise of the battlefield, but he did so, applying force of will to replace every sound. He cataloged every vibration humming through the ground or air, every smell and feeling, and replaced them with the Word and Song.

***

They appeared precisely in the spot Pele had pointed out. Ru purged the excess vox that rolled up around them like shadows by working it into a quick and simple spell: an expanding ring of force that rolled out from the three of them at chest height. There wasn’t enough to knock anyone down, but it did rock the priest and the sword and pistol wielding soldiers guarding him off balance.

Brin followed right behind the wave, driving the Barratta into the space where one guard’s helmet met the allegedly protective ridge rising from the back plate of her armor. Pele wasn’t far behind, taking the guard on the opposite side. Where the edge of her swords couldn’t cut through his armor, she was able to bash him to the ground with sheer strength.

Very briefly, Ru wondered if they left the priest to him on purpose. He let the man turn.

As it was, the man before him was probably very close to the day when he would be brought to one of the Threefold Moon’s Citadels to have his body remade; to become a demon. His lower jaw was distended and covered with rough knobby flesh with two tusks poking up through his lips. One eye resembled a yellow marble set into the socket with no pupil and no lid.

His human eye registered triumph rather than fear when he recognized the Rune Breaker from Lord Crossius’s description. The arrogance of a demon blinded him from the danger. A hand, desiccated like a mummy’s, shook free of his priestly robes and power channeled directly from the Threefold Moon flared around it as an azure-black flame.

Ru answered in his customary fashion. A gigantic crab’s claw caught the priest’s arm at the elbow, crushing and slicing it until it was torn off in a spray of gore. He waited for horror and pain to dawn on the man’s features before shifting the fingers of his right hand into a set of blades.

It was the type of strike he went for when he wanted to make meticulously sure that his target couldn’t be recovered by even the greatest vitae master. The first blade pierced the man’s brow between the eyes and slashed through the connection between the two lobes of his brain. Next, one opened the throat, tearing the jugular vein in half before blunting itself so as to crush the windpipe. Two more, formed into stilettos, punctured the lungs through-and-through. The final one tore the heart, leaving a jagged gash in the most vital of organs.

He withdrew his hand and was covered in a fine mist of arterial spray as the would-be demon went down choking and shuttering. No single healer could fix all of that at once without massively increasing infection with an unfocused burst of vitae that caused disease to thrive just as much as it caused wounds to mend.

As an encore, he used the same bladed hand to tear open the side of a leather armored crossbowman who strayed too close while trying to evade Pele’s flaming sword.

“Heh.” He was in his element, surrounded by violence and soaked in enemy blood. He was reveling in it so deeply that he didn’t feel the itch at first, as it started in the open wound over his hip, nor the tremors in his muscles as he shifted again to stab an archer.

***

It was like sitting in an open field only to suddenly find oneself sinking into the sea. The vibrations that underlay all of reality swallowed him up, drawing him deeper. Some, who happened upon such a state accidentally, failed to resist the tug it exerted on their soul and threw themselves into it. They didn’t fully comprehend that the source of the Word and Song, the sea that engulfed them when they cast spells from essence instead of bending discarnate energy into a facsimile of traditional magical energies, was also the Well of Souls. Those people were always found dead, as if passing away in a most sublime slumber.

Unlike those unfortunates, Kaiel was well trained, and instead of himself, he cast his memories of Motsey into the Well, listening to the subtle changes happening around him in the sea of vibration. It came to him as an echo, a soft keening that he seized on so that he might drag it with him when his mind returned to the world. Once he awakened, he would be able to follow that sound directly to Motsey, no matter how far away he might be moved after the fact.

His eyes flew open. The sights and sounds of the world resumed, starting with the boom of gunfire right beside him. Across the plaza, he watched the first soldier storm out of cover only to catch Rai’s bullet in the face.

But he wasn’t alone. Not by half. What looked to be four entire squads with assorted armor and weaponry barely broke pace as the charged out around him. At their center was one of the beast Kaiel had only seen in passing while watching the keep.

It looked like a panther, but it was big enough for a man to ride if they were so inclined. Its paws were more like those of an ape than a cat’s, and flexed with every step as if practicing to crush heads. Metal shod its prehensile tail, which ended in a crude syringe attached to a metal tank no doubt filled with a dreadful compound. Like the giant cuttlefish, its eyes were covered by a steel band and replaced by three pear-cut gemstones; rubies in this case.

“I found him.” Kaiel said, getting to his feet. Once there, he drew his arming sword along with a six-shot pistol. “Let’s regroup with the others and get inside—we have a long climb down to reach Motsey.

***

“There’s more coming!” Brin shouted. “From everywhere.”

“Every soldier in the keep will be on their way here.” Zect seemed to materialize from behind a man he dropped with a knife-hand strike. “We need to get inside and bar the doors. That will buy time and the narrower corridors will limit how many can attack us at a time.”

“Or we can simply kill them all.” Ru snarled and lashed an arm toward a spear carrier who thought he could take him by surprise. His forearm started to melt into the familiar blade he tended to use, but was suddenly seized with a wracking cramp accompanied by a spreading cold radiating from his wounded hip. As if all of his muscles, both physical and metaphysical, were in revolt, the blade-hand snapped back to its original shape.

The formerly-doomed spear carrier saw his chance and plunged his weapon into Ru’s chest, forcing him to his knees.

Ru didn’t seem to notice, as he was staring, dumbstruck, at his rebellious limb. In his mystic senses, he felt a void spreading within him, wicking away the blend of vox, vitae, ere-a, and akua that he always kept in abundant store to fuel his favored magic.

He was too stunned to even block the abject horror that rushed through him from traveling down the link.

Ru? Ru, what’s wrong? Pele asked. She was so used to his blood-lust, eternal frustration, and bottomless arrogance that feeling him locked in the throes of terror nearly sent her into them as well.

All fear was overshadowed, however, by the covetous dragon. No matter how much Pele rejected the link and its implications, something deep inside understood the reality. And property, no matter how immoral, was in the blood of all dragons. Something that was hers was being threatened—and that would not stand.

Blocking a sword stroke aimed at her so hard that she sent the man performing it flying, Pele turned and began to hack her way toward Ru.

The Rune Breaker, however, was nearly insensate.

Shapeshifting was freedom. Shapeshifting was what made him strong.

Gloryfall was the spellworking and spellcrafting genius such that she made him look like an idiot by comparison even five thousand years of practice later. Seth was the tactician and the strongest of Gand’s three elder children in terms of true capacity; as far beyond Ru as he was beyond normal wizards.

Gand had done the best he could for the boy he saved from the temple steps. He spent an exorbitant amount for the ingredients to brew the demon-drought, trekked to another continent to find a practitioner of the art of spellwork-aiding tattoos. Finally, he called in a favor he was loathe to expend to convince the dragon Paive-Endiro to teach the boy the way of the Shapeshifting Master.

For five thousand years, the thrill of new forms, of becoming something more than the frail runt from the Brakar, had been his only joy apart from spellcraft and spellwork. Now it was gone, and what was left…

Pele had almost convinced him that he was a man, not a remnant of one forged into a weapon. Through naivete, she’d poisoned him with the lie that this time, with this Master, he might find something like contentment. No orders, no cruel punishments and mind games; she meant to leave him to his own devices and did so as often as she could.

But no matter how little she meant it as one, it was still a lie. Now, more than ever, there was no Ru Brakar. There was the Rune Breaker. The weapon.

He felt the weight of the ring more than the repeated jabs of the spear that had laid him out on his back. He was nothing more than a sword. And as such, he should not only be wielded as his master wished, but also honed to absolute sharpness. There was no reason not to make himself as effective as possible.

Psi flared into the ring, completing and activating the Sensate’s memory-array.

“What does pain matter to a sword?” He muttered to himself, bringing the ring to his brow. Purpureus flame blazed into his eyes, eating away the yellow of his irises as the memory overtook him.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 57 – The Siege of Nhan RaduulRune Breaker: Chapter 59 – He Who Destroys >>

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2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure what I’ve missed, but in the last three paragraphs I have no idea what ‘the ring’ refers to.

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