- Rune Breaker: Chapter 1 – The Bargain is Struck
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 2 – The Clever Girl
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 3 – A Paradise in the Future
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 4 – Clan of the Winter Willow
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 5 – Spell-worked Water, Alchemical Food
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 6 – Waste Not Want Not
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 7 – Battlelines
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 8 – Filling the Gap
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 9 – The King of Flame and Steel
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 10 – Recovery
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 11 – Sisters, Brothers
- Rune Breaker: Chapter 12 – Her Most Beauteous Wings
Kaiel watched the first two victims of Ru’s rampage fall. The line around him faltered as riders alternately attempted to flee, or charged forward to end it. The ones that chose the later charged into an increasingly creative meat grinder.
All the while, the snipers took shots as they found them. Here an archer clutched at a wounded limb, there one fell dead. Whoever was directing the bandit force managed to catch that in spite of Ru’s distraction and ordered the charge before the archers were prepared to cover.
The chronicler saw what they were trying to do; screening the archers with the bodies and dust of the advance group. It worked; where the charge managed to get started.
All except for where Grandfather aimed. The aged halfling had grown up in Rizen, where the long rifle was born and popularized, and he was good enough that three archers could testify already; two dead and missing eyes, one whose middle and fourth fingers have been blown off. In spite of the charge, he carefully waited for a shot and removed the kneecap of the other torch runner.
“He’s not even bothering with the archers.” Kaiel observed of Ru.
Taylin was fighting herd not to chew her lip or show any fear, lest she spook the villagers. “I think he’s enjoying himself too much to think much about it.” She replied in a tight voice.
“Fire arrows coming.” They both looked down to find that Grandmother had sidled up between them without their notice. She was dressed in full vestments as a servant of the nature goddess, Sylph; a mud-brown robe with a belt woven with living grass and a cord of the same, from which hung a live, perpetually ripe, strawberry. At her side sat the urn. The halfling matriarch didn’t allow either of them to waste time talking, simply pointing out on the field.
Out of some thirty archers, a bit less than half were able to both survive the snipers and managed to get an arrow lit. On a desperate order, they let fly. Thirteen blazing shafts leapt skyward, accompanied by half that many that weren’t lit.
Warning came from the lookouts, who raised their leather shields. The villagers on the line and in the fire crews had no such cover and many of them broke for the houses.
Grandmother ignored it all and took the lid off her urn. Something red flashed around the lip of the vessel and a geyser of mist issued forth from it to a height of thirty feet before spreading out like a parasol. It blocked out what little of the sun there was, but more importantly, when the flaming arrows met it, their deadly payload hissed out.
Unfortunately, it did nothing to actually stop the arrows, which pelted down behind the wagons and onto the nearest roofs. The snipers hastily rolled backward off the side of the wagons, crawling to their second position beneath them.
A wolf yelped and began to whine, an arrow just missing it’s spine by the grace of its harness deflecting it. One of the young men behind Taylin went down screaming, pierced through the forearm. It took two of his friends to drag him back away from the line, drastically reducing the numbers at her back. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. None of those boys, in her opinion, had any business there. Hopefully, the other two would take the excuse to stay with their friend.
“Ru Brakar is not going to deal with their archers.” Grandmother informed Kaiel. He nodded his understanding before letting the rifle hang again and putting the flute to his lips. As he started to play, Grandmother shouted something in the halfling language and gestured over the urn.
Two things happened immediately. First, the cloud formed from the urn suddenly dropped to ground level, spreading out in an impenetrable mist bank about four feet high. Second, the halfling warriors took up a deep, undulating cry that Taylin couldn’t believe halfling voices would produce. A moment later and the wolves responded with howls, the two sounds becoming a monster all its own. Then both warriors and wolves hurled themselves into the mists.
The tune Kaiel was playing on the flute was oddly apropos. Even with all the howling, the war cries, and even the cries of the injured young man, the music was what made gooseflesh break out on the back of Taylin’s neck. Kaiel noticed her expression, and without stopping, pointed out over the field with his free hand.
Without being directed to it, Taylin might not have noticed, but a patch of sky above the rear line of the bandit force was oddly dim, as if someone was holding a piece of delicately smoked glass in front of it. And it was getting darker by the moment.
Some of the bandits noticed too, but by then, it was too late. Suddenly, the dim spot in the air erupted into a great swarm of bats. In their hundreds, the creatures poured out of the dark aether and swooped down upon the line of archers where they were preparing to lose a second volley. Tiny claws latched on, minute teeth nipped and scratched, and leathery wings filled the air so thickly that breathing seemed impossible.
The ‘fearless’ horses went instantly mad. Inhuman screams burst out from all quarters along the line as they bucked and kicked and threw themselves on the ground in desperation to be rid of the vermin. And where they did, their riders were thrown and slammed and crushed by their own mounts.
Taylin watched, stunned. “I thought…”
“They are.” Kaiel assured her, finally taking the flute away from his lips. The satisfied smile on his face was a sin unto itself. “But only to mundane fear. Those aren’t bats, you see; each one of them is a minor fear spell in constructed form, doubled again and again by the pattern I was playing.”
She was going to comment on that, but at that moment, the lead horse in the charge went down with a terror filled whinny. There wasn’t any indication what made it fall, but the swirl of mist and guttural snarl followed a cessation of whinnying made it clear why it and its rider didn’t get back up.
Soon, she was seeing evidence of the strength of the Clan of the Winter Willow all over the field. Here, a weighted chain wrapped the length of a spear and tore it from its owner’s grasp. Elsewhere, a halfling wielding a pair of kurkis vaulted out of the boiling sea of mist and onto the back of a horse, plunging his blades into the rider’s flank. Still elsewhere, two sets of chains were thrown in tandem, catching a woman across the neck and arm and pulling her off her horse and into the wolf haunted fog.
It wasn’t all victory, however. In one part of the field, a trio of riders were riding close and watching each other’s flanks. When a bounding warrior finally took the bait, he found himself with a saw edge spearhead in his gut. In another, a huge, black charger, a breed apart from most of the other horses in the bandits’ number, seemed to be almost having fun, dishing out bone shattering kicks to both halflings and wolves that came too close while its rider warned others off with his sword.
For their numbers, less than a third of the force they were repelling, the White Willow was doing far more damage than the bandits. But even with their best and most brutal effort, a sizable number were still going to make the gap.
Taylin saw the first few win past the skirmish and make straight toward her. The part of her that was a soldier knew the situation immediately and she slipped into a stance for receiving the charge on foot; knees bent, weight ready for the side step, sword low for an up swing, or to bat aside a lance. Let them come. She knew exactly what to do.
By the time Ru finally ran out of immediate opponents and turned his attention to the archers, it was just in time to see the bat swarm descend on them in his stead. By virtue of a trained eye and a spare sense when it came to magic, he identified them as very simple spells expressed in a somewhat exotic form.
No one of them was an impressive feat for any but a novice, but they weren’t what made him come to a halt mid-battle. It was that they were being generated; perfect copy after perfect copy, likely from the ambient emotional energy that surrounded the bandits. Not only that, but as with the screen earlier, or Kaiel’s alleged endurance spells from their first meeting, Ru couldn’t sense the array constructing the fear-bats. And that was inconceivable.
Since he was old enough to draw upon magic, he’d had a knack for identifying it. The natural magic of elements that existed all around, the pure energy from within himself, the overwhelming, but restricted forces portioned out from the gods; they were all different, but the same fundamentally.
What the chronicler was tapping, while it must work on the same principles as magic in order to generate spell constructs, was something else entirely. Something Ru could not identify, or anticipate, or control. And that did not sit well with the Rune Breaker. Understanding was the core of his being, more than battle and death, more than spellwork which was a means to an end and that end was understanding.
He hated the man even more now.
And had his mind not been on magic at that time, he might not have sensed the oncoming attack and sidestepped. Green liquid, formed up into a fist-sized comet, hissed past him and spattered in a line along the ground some distance behind. Where it landed, it bubbled and steamed.
Acid. Ru realized. Green acid. Some things never changed.
Tutors of magic taught basic substance transmutation, starting with a very simple acid-to-water spell that inherently turned the resultant caustic green to distinguish it from the base water. The uncreative and ignorant never bothered removing the color change when building on that.
He sneered at the amateur effort as he turned to face the source.
It was his first time seeing a riding spider. It was a huge beast; twice as tall as a horse with a central body larger than three; brown with spine-like hairs jutting out all over its body. The bandits had strapped a large platform to its thorax, replete with a railing and two hard seats, back to back. In front of that was a smaller platform, resting just behind the head with a single hard seat with standing space behind.
There was a body slumped in the forward facing chair on the large platform, dressed in robes and a hark hood. A decoy meant to die on behalf of the real mage, who stood on the back of the smaller platform, just in front of a harried looking woman who controlled the spider’s movements by way of a hook-tipped goad.
From a distance, it was probably hard to tell the mage from his fellows, him being in a shirt and trousers, but up close, he stood out clearly. The trousers were cotton instead of rough hide or canvas and the shirt was dark red, like blood and made from fine silk with polished enamel toggles. His hair was long, wild and unbound so it fell in a black mane.
The spider moved within a slowly shifting cage of green lightening which erupted from flaring points on the ground and earthed themselves in the mage’s open palm.
Ru recognized it as a persistent gathering array, constantly transmuting water vapor in the air into the caustic substance that was magical acid. The moved the man out of the ignorant category and into the uncreative. Something else Ru loathed, but at least he might be an interesting opponent.
His sneer grew into a cocky grin that bared one set of incisors. “That is a very nice shirt.” He observed. The complement drew the other mage up short in the middle of casting. Ru just kept talking. He could have snapped up a shield without a thought and blocked such meager acid blasts, but that wouldn’t have been creative.
“I’ve been told that the halfling way that if you kill a man in battle, you get to take everything he owns. I fancy the shirt. What else do you have to make yourself worth killing?”
The mage responded by hurling a larger blast of acid than the first, which Ru caught with a spellwork that followed the motion of his palm. “Fool! Do you know who you’re trying to threaten?” He demanded of Ru, “I am Hurden, flesh melter, bone dissolver. When I’m done with you, not even the crows will starve for what little of your remains.”
He sneered down from his perch atop the spider. “I’ve been watching you and your lowly shape-changing. Such a low form of magic is almost below me to engage. But if you insist, I will show you how a real wizard fights!” With that, he gathered power from the gathering array around him and flung an acid bolt as large as a human head at Ru.
“Heh.” The spellwork over Ru’s hand blocked and consumed it as easily as it did the previous one. Tension built up on his wrist and forearm. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the link registered pain on Taylin’s part and tugged at him to act to aid her. But the pain was a fraction of a fraction of what she’d suffered in the battle with the hounds. She would be fine. And the link seemed to agree.
He glanced down to see visible black lines tracing a maze pattern across the skin there. Trapping and storing spells usually required an object to act as the vessel and an hour or more of preparation, not to mention knowledge of the spell before hand. If one wasn’t adverse to risking great personal injury should a spell prove more powerful than expected, and were capable of changing shape to mimic a prepared array on ones own body on the fly, however, there was another option.
“Is that all you’ve got?” A barking laugh escaped him and his yellow eyes flashed madness. “That isn’t how real mages fight. This is.” He shifted subtly to alter the spell and whipped the spell trapping arm laterally. A tentacle of vivid, blue acid writhed out of the aether in the wake of the gesture and crashed down heavily across all four legs on the spider’s left side.
The hairs in the affected area melted instantly and the chitin wasn’t far behind, filling the air with a most repulsive stench. Finding itself in sudden agony, the spider let out a sound like hundred of thin, taunt wires being drawn across one another and tried to shift off its injured legs. Its frantic motion almost dislodged its rider and did pitch Hurden the flesh melter into the dust.
Rolling with the fall, Hurden was swift to dash out of the path of the berserking spider and impressed Ru by managing to maintain the persistent array. Not enough to let him live of course. The bandit mage skidded to a stop as Ru appeared in front of him. “Normally, I would skewer you through the belly and let you enjoy the slow death of a gut wound.” he informed Hurden. “But I don’t want to ruin my prize. Do you really want to know how mages fight?”
Fear gripped the bandit and he turned to flee.
“Nightmare Syndrome.” Ru’s voice said behind him, becoming deep and rumbling, very much reptilian.
Hurden didn’t get more than three steps before there was a sound of metal whistling through the air and the curved blade of a scythe tore his arm cleanly off at the shoulder joint. He gasped and tried to stagger on through the pain. Another slash, this one drew a white hot line of agony across his back. Crying out in pain, he didn’t here the next one coming until it tore through his lower back. Barely a moment passed before another cut hamstrung him and sent him sprawling face down in the dust. One last slash came, aimed cleanly at his neck and darkness followed.
In the real world, Hurden hadn’t even manged to turn. He was still standing directly in front of Ru as his body jerked with each imaginary wound Ru inflicted within the psychic world conjured by the Nightmare Syndrome. Finally, his he snapped back and with a tiny ‘urk’ sound, he collapsed in a heap.