- 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
As if predicting the precise moment that the regrowth ceased, Grandmother said. “You can sit up now.”
Taylin did, and flared her wings fully. Wingtip to wingtip, they stretch the length of the wagon, at which point she had to curve them to fit. For the first time in years, she saw them; feathers as red as her hair. They marked her as ang’hailene. The masters hated them and tried their level best to make her hate them too.
They were beautiful.
More than a week went past since the clan of the Winter Willow rolled out of the village and disappeared across the flood plain, an eye toward the nation of Novrom and better markets for peddling their wares and services. Another night had fallen some time ago.
Upon a large boulder, which jutted out into the river, a lone figure stood beside his extinguished lantern and uttered silent prayers to the gathering of stars They were the only ones left to him now, for the gods would not forgive, and the demons would not forget.
“Elder Partha.” A voice as smooth and content as a cat’s purr emerged from the darkness behind him. “you disappoint me.”
The figure on the boulder turned in time for a soft light to appear before him. He was one of the elders of the village, the one that went to fetch clothes for Taylin. And on the other side of that light was the demon who wouldn’t forget.
Rich robes in red, black, and white with golden accents clothed him, but failed utterly to conceal his monstrosity. Even beneath the regal trappings, his neck and arms showed skin that was like poorly aged and cracked leather; his fingers overlong and ending in thick, black nails that scraped together with a sound like metal files. He wore his hair long and brown, tied into a tightly braided tail.
Upon his face was a mask, seemingly of stone, but in the light, it showed a golden sheen that only direct brightness could tell. There was no mouth, but there were two angular holes for eyes through which a faint, white glow escaped. Dozens of thin lines were scratched in the mask’s surface, forming strange patterns across it. Where the light struck them just right, they betrayed a glimmer of red, orange, or blue.
Partha shuddered. Somewhere above him, some black shape crossed between him and the stars. It could have been his fear, but he swore he heard a noblewoman’s laugh on the wind.
“Lord Immurai.” He sputtered.. “I—”
“We had a very simple bargain.” the demon, Immurai the Masked, spoke over him, never losing his even tone. “You deliver every soul in your pitiful little hamlet to be slaughtered by the King of Flame and Steel; an example of his power in the region; and in return, I grant you renewed youth.”
The demon took a step forward and reached into a fold in his voluminous robes. Partha scrambled back until he ran out of rock. The gurgle of the river below was a siren’s song to end it before the demon could.
Immurai didn’t seem to care about his fate one way or another and kept talking. “And what should we find, not two miles out on the frontier?” He took from his robe a blackened human skull, still stinking of char and burnt meat. Partha imagined he could still see curls of smoke occasionally wafting from it.
“Pity be to him.” the demon said dramatically. “His real name was Tanner, you know? I saw a spark in him; a will to lead, the charisma to back it. He dominated his men. Made them afraid to fail him. Afraid to be caught not following him.”
The white lights behind the mask dimmed and focused on Partha. “But all’s the more pity that I put six years into setting this insect up to rule this hill of ants. You might think that a blink of the eye to one who has lived as long as I, but I assure you, it is not. This one could have been the antithesis of Nov I, forming a nation in this dust-bowl under the Threefold Moon. And I would no longer be Immurai the Masked, but once more Immurai the Gaunt, sitting at my Lord’s right hand.”
He never raised his voice, but the rage was clear. And then it was gone. His clawed hand flexed and the skull formerly belonging to the King of Flame and Steel shattered like cheap pottery.
“My Lord, it was not my doing. The halflings came on their own and—“ Partha cringed and tried to apologize, to beg for his life. But the demon spoke over him.
“But… and this is where your luck turned, dear Partha: When we came upon the bodies, I found that some of them retained an essence from contact with a being of great power.”
Above, the thing blotting out the stars in passing was back again. This time Partha knew he heard the laugh.
Immurai was suddenly behind him, terrifyingly close. He spoke into the old man’s ear. “So tell me, good Partha: did someone extraordinary come to your aid when the King came to claim his due?”
Shivering uncontrollably, the old man nodded. “A woman and a man. The chronicler brought them the day before. The woman was hailene, a soldier. And such strength, I thought her one of yours at first. The man fought like an animal; transforming and killing at will. They left with the halflings.”
One of the holes over Immurai’s eyes actually widened with his interest. “So. That is my prize then. Quite the antiquity that one.” A gentle laugh escaped him. “And they travel with halflings, who the One Dice shields from my sight. You are a very lucky man, Partha.” He moved around the old man and began to walk to the proper shore.
“Lucky?” the village elder asked. “My Lord, how can you say such? I am still stalked by age!”
“Are you?” The soft light flew to Immurai’s hand and suddenly blazed into brilliance. It threw his masked face into sharp relief. He flung the light into the old man’s chest where it burst into white flames, which instantly spread to consume him.
Turning, he admired his work while Partha screamed. “You are very lucky indeed, dear Partha. I have use for a younger you. Surely you can handle a little agony for youth, yes?”
There was a high, shrill laugh behind him and a slender hand the color of rich, red clay touched his neck. It had the texture of clay as well. “It is a great deal of power, my love.” A female voice said. “Is building a whole new body for dear Partha worth it?”
Immurai reached up and caressed the stony appendage. “My love, if we capture this prize, we won’t even need the Threefold Moon any longer. We can build our own gods; and make them fight for our amusement.”
End Book 1