- 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
The first man to meet Taylin beyond the trip lines didn’t have time to even bring his weapon on guard. She smashed him in the face with the edge of her shield, sending him stumbling back into his fellows behind him, spitting out teeth and blood.
She followed him, shield raised and forced him back into two others while her sword crossed with that of another who tried to move to flank her. In five steps, she had fully engaged fully half of the incoming force.
The other half found worse. A great, tawny lion bounded into their midst, ignoring a spear that skewered its shoulder to drag its wielder to the ground and savage him.
Two of his fellows rushed to help with their swords drawn, only for the lion to rise up and resume Ru’s true form, complete with readied scythe. “Come and die.” He taunted, showing them his teeth and making a rude gesture too archaic for them to understand.
The pair glanced at one another, then let out a rallying cry, charging as one. Ru laughed harshly and prepared his scythe for the harvest The cry of the man in the lead cut off into a yelp as his leg suddenly became useless and he fell, rolling in the dust.
Ru shot a glare in Taylin’s direction. The former slave had sliced the tendon in the back of his leg as he passed and went right back to what was now a trio fighting her. She didn’t even notice the glare or the discontent he radiated into the link. She was fulled engaged n more ways than one.
There was no time to upbraid her further, as the second man was inside his guard. Ru let go of the scythe with one hand to dispatch him with a flesh-sculpted weapon, but a bright flash came form above and the man dropped, shivering uncontrollably.
He blinked down at the prone form before him in confusion. But he wasn’t out of potential victims just yet. A low growl formed in his throat as he made eye contact with the fourth man before him, telegraphing a litany of injuries in store with a single look.
It happened again, and this time, Ru saw exactly what transpired: an arrow of white fire streaked down and passed through the terrified bandit. Whatever it was, it made the man instantly convulse and collapse. Frustrated beyond measure, Ru followed the path of its flight backward to find Kaiel atop a wagon, grasping a blazing bow.
With a though, he found himself almost nose o nose with the chronicler. “Never do that again.”
Kaiel stepped back to open some space between them. “We’re all working together here, Ru. This line has to hold. Besides, if you’re so hungry for murder, you could at least finish them off.”
“What?” Ru glanced back down at the battlefield. Taylin had felled another opponent, but he was replaced by two women, both wielding hand axes instead of the standard sword or spear, while the two men that fell from the white-fire arrows continued to writhe on the ground. “You interrupted me in battle and you didn’t even succeed in killing one man?” his eyes narrowed at the bow. “What is that thing anyhow?”
“Fell-light bow.” Kaiel stepped to one side to clear his aim and fired another brilliant shot at a rider approaching in the mist. It missed him, but panicked his horse. He scowled at the mistake, but couldn’t argue with the result. “Believe it or not, it uses healing magic, but a poorly controlled burst of it, to disrupt the body temporarily.”
Ru continued glaring at him and he felt the need to add, “Shouldn’t you be helping Taylin?”
The dark mage gestured to the skirmish below. Taylin sidestepped an ax blow and replied with a heavy chop to the woman’s knee before bulling her sideways into the path of one of her compatriot’s sword strokes. The blade only drove into her arm, but her collapsing weight pulled the weapon from its holder’s grasp.
“Why bother? In any event, as she is now, she would likely lay my belly open the moment I move out of her blind spot. That would be most unpleasant.”
Kaiel paused in his shooting to watch as Taylin turned a quick circle to block both an ax coming from her front and the sword from a hopeful flanker coming up on her sword side without once leaving any real opening to either.
“Is she possessed of some sort of berserker spirit?” He marveled.
Ru laughed mildly. The chronicler might have the same vantage on the battle as him, but the link offered him a much more clear perspective. “It seems like it, doesn’t it? And mark you, there is rage in her mind. But observe how precise and controlled her attacks are. Look at the blocks and feints. She is in total control; will fully so. She isn’t using the rage to enhance the battle, she’s using her focus on the battle to quell her rage.”
Taylin caught blocked a falling ax with her sword, but her strength worked against her and the ax’s haft snapped, allowing the head to tumble free and bit into her shoulder on the way down. Blood flowed, but the injury was too shallow to stop her. She slammed with her shield and the force snapped the ax-woman’s neck.
“Death is a lady plain, who sits beside the path, offering to sit with you and drink in your last hours. But when she dons her gown and she dances, sings and laughs, she is become Lady War, and her beauty blinds and destroys.”
Kaiel gave him an odd look. “Poetry? At a time like this?”
Ru shook his head. “Here and now, I suppose so. But in its time? Religion. Of course, I insult Olera, Lady Death, wife of the Void, Farth Olein to compare her to this timid and squeamish girl. And this rabble is hardly a thing to test her. I find it to be a damning shame on this entire era that they could hold a farmhouse, much less a region of a lawless nation.”
Another fell-light arrow streaked across the battlefield to strike down another rider. “I agree.” Kaiel found himself saying. “They’re more than enough to take a village like this, but to terrorize places with permanent defenders? They’re highly trained and poorly commanded. This bandit king must be all smoke and mirrors.”
Ru’s eyes narrowed again. “The man on the actual warhorse: was that this king?”
“I don’t imagine so. His death didn’t seem to effect the charge at all.”
“He was one of the ones giving orders when I hit the line.” Ru said in a low voice. “But there was more than one and no one seemed sure whose orders to follow. Certainly no one who could call himself a king and not get knifed in his sleep.” A thought struck him. “How many spiders did you say they had?”
“Four.” Kaiel replied instantly. “And six score horses…”
“I saw only three when the attack began.”
“And only five score horses at best.”
Ru snarled at the idea of someone else thinking they could outsmart him. “Enough to hide under a woodling cloak if they move slowly.” Before the chronicler could say another word, he launched himself into the air. He reached a height that put the entire village and surrounding it in view and turned a slow circle.
A woodling cloak moved light and sound, preventing the most obvious methods of detection, but the wider it was (and thus, the more people it covered), the more difficult it was to move without leaving a visible distortion where light bent unnaturally. The limit of such a cloak was based on the skill of the caster and the quality of the power source, but one thing the cloak didn’t do was cover tracks.
And with the amount of dust in and around the tiny hamlet, it wasn’t long before he spotted a mass disturbance in it. And it was within sprinting distance of the northeastern segment of the wagon line.
“To hell with Taylin’s compassion for horses.” He muttered, visualizing the basic pattern for an explosive fireball and filling it with his personal stores of energy. Then he sent it hurtling toward the where the center of the dusty disturbance.
In answer, a small, yellow star flared into being below, rotating as it rose to meet the fireball and kindling into a conflagration of its own, only in the shape of a hurricane in miniature instead of a sphere. The two spells collided fifty feet in the air and exploded with a deafening eruption.
The lookouts instantly pinpointed the source of the second flame and relayed it to the lines. A howl went up that was soon answered by the wolves and their hunter partners out in the mists. The battle line began to shift, but all too slowly.
With no more reason to hide, whoever was maintaining the cloak released it and the secondary fighting force of the bandit king’s army was revealed. Twenty-five men strong, these were no mounted rabble in worn leathers. Their armor was piecemeal, but here and there, there were full shirts of chain, augmented by quality hardened leather, odds and ends of steel plate, and segments of chitin from enormous insects. Every man and woman was helmeted and carried a tower shield of reinforced wood to complement their fine steel tridents, bill hooks and spears.
At the fore was another spider, it’s hairy body doused in red dye, with a black howdah strapped to it. Behind the spider’s handler stood, presumably, another decoy mage, but behind him, on the pain platform, stood a figure in fine, black leather with iron greaves and gauntlets. His face was unhidden by any helmet, allowing him to sneer proudly and likely to show off his clean shaven face, and long, unbound, brown hair. One ear was weighted down with rings of silver and gold; the other was missing.
The bandit king.
He held in both hands a fine, two-handed sword, its double bladed length dull, but for the fuller running down its center length, which shone silver. Still sneering, he raised the sword and the silver began to glow dull orange, then with the brilliance of flame.
A second star awoke just above the sword’s guard, tracing the fuller’s length as it rotated. The bandit king brought his weapon down as if to slash an unseen foe from clavicle to hip and in doing so, unleashed the burning whirlwind. It tore through the air, kicking up the dust with the wind of its passing until it collided with the wagon directly in the king’s path.
The explosion tore it apart and ignited everything flammable within, including the line crews lying in wait for a charge. Bits of burning wood scattered from the epicenter and into the space between wagons and houses.
“By order of the King of Flame and Steel: no one in or around this village lives to see the setting of the sun!” The king bellowed, raising his sword on high. His warriors roared their agreement and threw themselves at the burning breech in the Winter Willow’s defenses. The spider skittered ahead, it’s long legs eating more ground than any soldier. It and by extension, the king bypassed the nearest houses and entered the center of the village unopposed before any defenders could even attempt to fill the gap.
The spider’s handler wheeled the giant arachnid around, sighting it on the village storehouse by unspoken agreement.
“Bear witness before you die.” A simple spell working caused his speech to roll out over the square. “For you were warned and you have earned the full wrath of the King of Flame and Steel.” He thrust the sword skyward. “This is Dóttir Logi, the Eastern Brand, it is the instrument of your ultimate punishment!” In a lower voice, he commanded the sword, activating a trapped spell within, “Ignite.”
From somewhere near the Eastern Brand’s guard, two tongues of flame erupted; one crimson, one pale yellow. They chased one another though the air around the length of the blade, becoming a blazing double helix around it.
He reared back to swing as he did before, but at the last minute, twitched the blade to the side. At the same time, a shot echoed across the square and something struck the sword, kicking up a burst of sparks obviously generated by one of the spells laid down within the weapon.
The King of Flame and Steel glared in the direction it came from, finding Raiteria kneeling at the corner of one of the houses. With a snarl of rage, he once more lifted and swung his sword, sending his hell-storm in her direction.
It detonated on contact with something ten feet in front of her, which then surged forward like an earthbound meteor. That something was soon revealed, with the dying of the flames, to be a rapidly disintegrating wagon wheel wrapped in hide, which was utterly annihilated in the conflagration.
Taylin shook the remains of her makeshift shield from her arm as she continued forward. Her long stride ate the distance between she and the king quickly and before he could bring the Eastern Brand’s deadly attack to bear again, she threw all of her considerable strength into a fantastic leap.
Clothes smoldering, bloodied and with an intense look carved upon her face, she looked an avenging angel even without wings. Her bound brought her right up to the King’s level and her razor met his brand with force and a burst of orange sparks before the force of their meeting drove both of them off the opposite edge of the howdah.
Both hit the ground in practiced combat rolls, coming up to a knee almost as one. The King beat her in getting to his feet and charged with an overhand strike that she blocked almost without looking. The Eastern Brand spat sparks in her face, a deliberate design to put melee opponents either off balance or on fire.
Taylin was neither and easily found her feet without disengaging her locked blade. Once she did, she pushed him back with ease, opening the distance of a sword length between them.
The King dropped into a classically trained stance. “So these ashing dirt eaters really were holding out on me. When I saw they were so desperate that they threw themselves upon the charity of caravan halflings, I thought perhaps they really were as poor as they professed to be.”
“I’m not being paid a single coin.” She replied automatically. Not a lie, but she surprised herself in the act of replying to his barb. Accusations she’d been holding in since she first heard of his plot bubbled to the surface. “But that didn’t matter at all to you, did it? You were going to kill all these people no matter what; for no good reason.”
“Power is always a good reason.” The King rushed in to lock blades with her again and this time, when she tried to push him back, he countered with equal strength, then greater, driving her back instead. “And I offer a correction: I am in the process of killing them all. Even if you stall me, I’ve brought only my best to exterminate the village and their halfling ‘saviors’ now that my irregulars have worn them down.”
Taylin glanced upward for a fraction of a second and then gave in to the feeling she was getting through the link, allowing it to twist her mouth into an uncharacteristic lupine grin. “You think?” The appreciation of the irony was entirely her own.
Something dropped from the sky into the midst of the bandit elite force. It was larger than even an ogre and its shape was most akin to a badge with a blunted muzzle, with gray-brown fur covering several tons of muscle, but doing nothing to hide the massive, curved claws on its forepaws.
Its incredible weight crossed one man flat on impact before it rose up on it’s hind legs and really set to work. Claws meant for stripping bark from the largest of trees splintered tower shields as if they were made of matchsticks and went on to tear the arms that held them from the bodies. Four of the King of Flame and Steel’s best were dead or completely out of the fight in an instant.