- Soul Battery: Chapter 7 – Inner Strength and Weakness
- Soul Battery: Chapter 1 – Boar Hunt
- Soul Battery: Chapter 2 – Findant Settlement
- Soul Battery: Chapter 3 – The Family She Found
- Soul Battery: Chapter 4 – The Stone House
- Soul Battery: Chapter 5 – The City of Temples
- Soul Battery – Chapter 8 – What It Means To Fly
- Soul Battery: Chapter 6 – Freedom Forgotten, Pasts Discovered
- Soul Battery: Chapter 9 – Welcome to the Bard City
- Soul Battery: Chapter 10 – Vul Azan
- Soul Battery: Chapter 11 – Death Stalks Harpsfell
- Soul Battery: Chapter 12 – Poisoned With A Spark
- Soul Battery: Chapter 13 – Tales That Need Telling
The forests that blanketed the foot hills of the Rame mountain range in southern Callen were often deceptively placid. While there were few spirit beasts native to them, that only made them better hunting ground for more mundane predators and territorial creatures. Whether with tooth and claw, or sword and pistol, danger still stalked the wooded hills, seeking prey.
In the fork of an old, strong elm, one such predator crouched, waiting for her prey to come to her.
Her name was Pele Hiddakko and she didn’t have to try hard at all to hear the approach of the beast she was expecting. To the north and west, wolves barked and yipped, drowned out periodically by an enraged bellow that carried for miles, along with the noise of brush being trampled, or the racket as tree trunks were snapped.
A wolf’s bark broke off into a pained yelp and Pele had to force herself to stay in place. That sound meant that a member of the Clan of the Winter Willow was hurt or worse. And while a wolf was a member in their own right, their rider might also be harmed. Someone she cared deeply about.
It might have been Bromun, her adoptive brother-in-law, or Takkun, who taught her to fish the nir-lumos way, or Haruteria, who made days hunting fowl from a blind less tedious with whispered jokes and spouted facts from the copy of Marin’s Wildlife Guide she’d bought in Kinos last year.
The wolf continued to whine, breaking off from the pack and away from whatever was bellowing and tearing through the vegetation. It was still alive and there was a good chance its rider was too.
Pele’s wings twitched, her muscles demanding she take flight and go find whoever had been hurt. To mollify herself, she reached back and took hold of the hilt sticking out of the loose camouflage mesh draped over her wings.
Following the hilt’s surface, she found the lever sticking up from the sword’s scabbard by touch. With ease born of just over a year’s worth of practice, she eased it down into the first position. Clockwork gears and springs moved inside the scabbard and caused it to split open along a concealed seam. A wash of hot steam burst from the opening with a hiss, followed by the intense heat that continually emanated from the blade housed inside.
Most people would have been in agony after taking so hot a burst of steam across their back, but Pele took comfort in the heat. One more notch down on the lever opened the scabbard further and a bar pushed the blade almost free; ready to be drawn.
When next the thing fighting the nir-lumos and their wolves let out a bellow, it was punctuated by another tree coming down. This time, it was close enough that Pele could see a leafy crown disappear into the canopy. More trees around that one shook, whether from their neighbor colliding with them as it came down or from the monster impacting them on its way.
Pele tightened her grip on the sword at her back, then with her free hand, took hold of the hilt of a second sword resting on her left hip.
The other hunters were luring their quarry to her. Days of scouting with Haruteria turned up the very place where she lay in wait as the best ambush spot possible. First and foremost was the elm itself. Thanks to Pele’s complicated heritage, her bones and muscle were so dense that she weighed around five hundred pounds; more than the average branch or hide could support, necessitating an older tree in excellent health.
Beyond that, the elm overlooked a narrow valley between two hills. The placement would mean that their target would barrel into their trap with great momentum, but would be forced to work hard to escape. It didn’t hurt that the thick brush at the top of the first hill hid the steep slope until one was already on it. The nir-lumos and their wolves knew about it, but their prey didn’t.
The barking grew closer and so did the sounds of plants and trees being destroyed. Just as the people at Findant Settlement warned them, their enemy was strong enough and single-minded enough to simply crash through anything in its path, be it light brush or good sized trees.
Movement at the top of the hill caught Pele’s eye. Bromun’s wolf, a black-furred brute named Gruwluff, burst from the bushes at speed, his bounding steps sending him airborne as the hill sloped away beneath his paws. Bromun, black hair whipping the air where it wasn’t plastered to his face with sweat, tucked his small body in tight against the huge wolf’s back and gripped the leather harness fastened around Gruwluff’s back and shoulders. The wolf didn’t lose a step when it hit the ground, pouring on the speed to get down one hill and up the next.
Haruteria and her mount, Shaidin, were almost directly behind, alongside two other hunters and their respective wolves.
Pele took note that one of the younger hunters, Tomasei, and his wolf were missing; evidently he was the injured party. That was all the time she gave herself because a noise followed them down the hill that pained her ears and vibrated her perch. There were only seconds before her target would arrive.
She drew out the sword at her hip. It looked like a giant’s straight razor: a handspan wide and so straight that it would have been a rectangle if the tip wasn’t cut off at an angle. The silvered edge glittered and the blue gem in the pommel glowed from a power trapped in its core.
“Bright glow hidden deep within.” She recited to the sword from memory. “The living soul of all things in this world. Lend of your essence and return it to its age-old form…”
A crack sounded at the top of the hill and a young tree twice as wide around as Pele’s forearm was hurled through the bushes to tumble down the hill. Its executioner charged out onto the slope behind it.
The crudely drawn pictures shown to the hunters back at Findant did nothing to capture the raw power of the beast the settlers called Gath Royard, which meant ‘Old Man Who Splinters’ in the tongue of the so-called ‘savage’ races.
Once, he had been a boar. In general shape, he still was, but an encounter with a divinity spark—a randomly occurring phenomenon that infused living things with a wellspring of discarnate energy from the Well of Souls—made him something more.
Gath Royard was large enough that two horses might have stood abreast on his back without danger of falling off, and looked to weigh as much as a cerato. His forehead was broad, as was his lower jaw, from which protruded four tusks almost as long as Pele was tall with natural serrations along their inner curves. A ridge of keratin spikes ran down his back like the bristly mane of a normal boar. His light brown, almost albino fur was streaked with rust colored lines that jagged across his hide in symmetrical patterns characteristic of those subject to the divinity spark, called ‘spirit beasts’.
Pele firmly ignored the image of both natural and supernatural fury that came charging down the hill toward her, preferring instead to finish her incantation. “…the flower of being formed of the flame of creation. Let my foes contemplate their last moments as it blooms anew!”
Gath Royard had reached the bottom of the hill.
Pele flared her wings, using them to discard the camouflage mesh, before leaping from the tree to take flight.
For a moment, she was caught in sharp relief against the sky. Flame-red feathered wings stretched to their full twelve-foot span as they carried her aloft. Her short, curly red hair was ruffled by the air of her passage. At over seven feet in height and built for war, she seemed like an avatar of violence even before she made an attack.
“Habaense!” She shouted and thrust the straight sword; Novacula Kuponya, the Razorblade of Remedy, out before her. Lines of pure, white light spread across the blade’s edge before peeling off in dozens of directions and curving in an inexorable path that would carry them to the marauding spirit boar.
The lines of light shot Gath Royard through again and again, piercing his hide as if it were insubstantial. The great beast screamed and came to a halt under the assault.
Against mortals, the Habaense had a disrupting effect that ended in unconsciousness. Against beings powered by nekras, the dark anima, it dealt devastating damage. But spirit beasts were powered by the Well of Souls itself, and even when taking the full brunt of it as Gath Royard was, it only caused pain and enough of a disruption to stun them.
Pele knew this. That was why she followed it up by drawing the sword from her back. Dottir Logi, the Eastern Brand, was a two-handed sword for anyone without the prodigious strength Pele possessed. Instead of one blade, it was actually made up of two set close together, edges facing outward. They continually glowed a dull red and were surrounded by a perpetual heat-haze; the result of being the channel for a powerful spell over a year prior.
“Ignite.” she commanded and the Eastern Brand obeyed in the form of a double helix of flame erupting from somewhere in the vicinity of the hilt and swirling up to encompass the blades.
Fire was key. Spirit beasts were effectively immortal except through very specific means, but they couldn’t heal wounds that were cauterized. They healed fast enough that some were known to survived even being beheaded, so doing the beheading with a flaming sword was one of the best ways to end a fight with one quickly.
Pele folded her wings and dove at the monstrous boar, angling her descent so that she had a clear path to swing for its thick neck.
It was impossible for Gath Royard not to see her coming. Ambush or not, Pele wasn’t built for stealth of any sort and neither was her weapon. Where she’d hoped the Habaense would keep him reeling long enough to finish him quickly, those hopes were dashed as the great boar turned, bringing his brutal tusks into play.
Steel clashed with enamel as Pele back-winged and swung the Eastern Brand to ward off being impaled.
Gath Royard was smarter than the people of Findant suggested. He rolled his head, catching the burning sword—the weapon whose wounds he couldn’t recover from—between the tusks on the right side of his head. Putting all of his weight behind it, he turned with the trapped blade against Pele’s attempt to retreat, tearing the weapon from her grasp. And as soon as she was disarmed, he swept his head in the opposite direction, hoping to finish her all in one attack.
Her own backward momentum and wherewithal to let go of Dottir Logi when it was clear she wouldn’t be able to hold on saved Pele. Gath Royard’s tusk only managed to hit her side-on instead of point-first. All the same, the power of the blow knocked her out of the sky to strike the mossy earth like a smith’s hammer on hot iron.
Pele’s birth mother had been a hailene, who in addition to feathered wings and hollow bones, had powerful lungs housed behind hinged rib cages. In that respect, she was no different and was all the more fortunate for it, as instead of shattering, her ribs just swung inward, absorbing the brunt of the impact, but leaving her breathless and coughing rather than hopelessly injured.
Something stirred in a specially cordoned-off corner of her mind. Do you need my assistance, Miss Pele?
The mental voice wasn’t hers. It belonged to Ru Brakar. The mechanism that connected them—which she called ‘the link’ for simplicity’s sake—was something she still didn’t fully understand. After so many months, however, she was used to it and to the wizard whose mind it connected her to.
Tucking her wings, Pele turned her fall into a roll, then kicked her legs to get herself into an upright crouch. For her trouble, she was treated with the image of Gath Royard turning, ready to bring a hoof larger than her head down upon her. Rather than get stomped to paste, she jumped, throwing herself between the great boar’s twinned sets of tusks. She passed so close to his snout that one snorting breath sent strings of mucus splashing across the fine steel rings that made up her chain shirt and the front of her leather breeches.
As soon as she had room, she pumped her wings for altitude and flew over the boar’s back, just missing the spikes running down its length. Still breathless, she didn’t remain in the air longer than it took to clear him, then set herself down and pivoted to keep Gath Royard in sight.
I’m fine. She sent back to Ru. Her eyes scanned the forest floor for where Dottir Logi had fallen when she dropped it. You can get back to whatever it was you were doing.
It took an effort of will to muffle the link from transmitting the adrenaline-fueled cocktail of excitement and worry that was coursing through her. It wasn’t his fight. She was the one to offer her sword in the hunt for the dread spirit beast that had menaced Findant Settlement’s logging operations. She was the one who planned the hunt when more of her fellow hunters of the White Willow volunteered to take part. Ru had even said then that it was none of his concern and she agreed.
Gath Royard whirled in a surprisingly small turning radius, then paused. Intelligence burned in his dark eyes as he sized up the strange challenger who managed not to be annihilated by him in mere moments. Undergrowth, trees, loggers, mercenaries, boulders—nothing stood against him for long. His tucks and his strength sundered them all the same and painted him in their dust, splinters and gore as proof.
Between herself and the spirit beast, Pele recognized the tell-tale heat-shimmer that marked where Dottir Logi landed in a clump of bushes.
As if sensing her discovery, Gath Royard hurled himself into another headlong charge, roaring out an earth-shaking challenge as he came. Pele extended her wings to their full span, ready to take flight.
I doubt the link, or the continuing legend of the Rune Breaker would, be too kind if I sat in the shade reading while you were slain by thirty tons of pre-sausage. Ru’s mental voice said dryly. Before Pele could warn him off, the dark wizard triggered a mechanism in the link’s vast workings and teleported, appearing in a flourish of dark gray cloth as the scholar’s robes he favored settled around him.
If he weren’t always continually hovering a foot or so off the ground, he would have been somewhere around six feet tall, with a long, angular face that was almost, but couldn’t rightly be called handsome. Beneath the robes, he was skinny, nearly emaciated and about a muscular as a gawky city-born youth. His black hair was tied back in a scholar’s tail, which reached past his waist, and his beard was short and neat.
To add to the drama of his entrance, he still held the book he’d been reading: a treatise on magical theories that Pele found impenetrable. He snapped it closed and gave her a look with his golden wolf-eyes, the very model of a proctor about to scold a student who interrupted his lesson.
There was one flaw in his showmanship: he’d arrived between Pele and Gath Royard—with his back to the charging spirit boar.
No sooner had he closed his book than a tusk was thrust through his back and out through his chest, its twin following just behind and mangling his arm. The sudden and violent collision took even the great boar by surprise and he hesitated in his charge. That would prove to be his mistake.
Had the charge continued, he might have managed to strike Pele while she was distracted. Instead, the stutter in its step gave the swordswoman time to leap into the air and take flight. As shocking as the scene was, she knew Ru Brakar well enough not to fear for his life.
In their time together, she’d seen him shot, stabbed, slashed to ribbons, spit upon harpoons, stricken with poisons designed to destroy him, stuck to a wall with Dottir Logi, and burned until he was a skeleton. None of them had conducted him to his end.
And whatever pain the link was broadcasting to her was far outstripped by the indignation and rage.
Ru Brakar was a man, but he was not just a man. He was the Rune Breaker; a thing of legend rumored to be a weapon that made its wielder unstoppable but in reality was a Shapeshifting Master for whom non-magical wounds were little more than a nuisance.
The thick, dark blood running from Ru’s wounds writhed and slithered as his form—both pale flesh and dark cloth—lost cohesion and became an indistinct mass that in turn became a gigantic viper coiled around the tusks that once impaled him. Letting out a threatening hiss, the serpent struck at Gath Royard’s eyes.
Caught off guard by yet another inexplicable turn of events, Gath Royard skidded to a halt, tearing up mossy turf in the process. As the snake struck again and again at his face, he gave his head a mighty shake and lowered his tusks to scrape the offending animal off him.
The snake came free, but as the boar reared up to stomp it, the creature’s body began to distort and bloat. Suddenly gaining ten times it original mass, the snake became an ankyl: a beast that resembled a massive snapping turtle, only with a dull, cow-like face and a muscular tail ending in a club. Without missing a beat in the battle, the newly formed ankyl swung its club tail into the giant boar’s skull.
Gath Royard weathered the mighty blow, though his brain slammed about in his skull, one of his orbital bones shattered, and one of his left tusks splintered. Almost as soon as the injuries happened, the gift of his divinity spark kicked in, repairing his hurts and replenishing his vitality. He lunged at the strange animal, getting his tusks up under its shell and flipping it on its back.
Undeterred, Ru shifted into an amorphous mass of gray flesh in order to roll with the flip, then became a tri-horn cerato: a powerful, pebble-skinned quadruped with a shield-like frill sprouting up like a crown behind its head. A pair of horns sprouted above its brows and a third horn jutted from its nose. Thus armed, he clashed with the boar; horns against tusks.
In the meantime, Pele didn’t waste the distraction. Out in the forest, the howls and barks of the wolves were starting to draw closer again and she wanted the fight finished before her fellow hunters found themselves in danger again. While Ru vented his fury on a foe nearly as immortal as he was, she winged her way over to the clump of brush where the Eastern Brad lay.
Leaves were starting to curl and smoke where the super-heated blade touched them and everything within a foot of it had already dried out. Left alone, the sword could have started a forest fire. Pele got her boot under the blade and neatly kicked the hilt up into her waiting hand before turning back to the battle.
Finding no leverage against the boar in cerato form, Ru shifted into an ogre, nine feet tall and nearly as wide with a big hanging belly and copious fat that disguised slabs of prodigious muscle. He caught the innermost two of the Gath Royard’s tusks and dug his toes into the ground, trying to throw the spirit beast over.
Mountain ogre, Pele mentally corrected herself. Ru had taken the form of a mountain ogre. There was a distinction she needed to remember, lest she offend the clan’s hosts back at Findant Settlement.
That said, the struggle between the two mighty combatants revealed an ideal opening to the swordswoman. All of Gath Royard’s attention was so squarely on Ru that she had been forgotten. As he bore down on the Shapeshifting Master, his neck was strained and exposed.
Pele raised sword up to eye level and whispered, “Ignite.” Heat washed over her as the familiar flaming helix chased itself around the Eastern Brand’s blade. Past the flames, she saw Ru, pounding a fist into the boar’s face, cracking the beast’s skull almost faster than it regenerated.
There was no use trying to get his attention and ask him to hold his opponent still now; not because he was berserk—he wasn’t. Ru knew full well how to kill a spirit beast and knew dozens if not hundreds of ways to conjure flaer, the energy of fire, to slay Gath Royard. But the Rune Breaker was never practical and it was rare for him to come up against a foe that could last against him even when he was handicapping himself by solely using his shapeshifting.
It wasn’t a life or death battle for him, or even a matter of pride. It was fun; fun Pele couldn’t allow to go on, lest it become a matter of life and death for the nir-lumos hunters.
She sheathed Novacula Kuponya and shifted the Eastern Brand into a two-handed grip. Sharp, trained eyes watched for her opening, which came when part of the moss carpeting the forest floor gave way beneath Ru’s feet. Gath Royard took instant advantage, toppling the mountain ogre and driving his tusks into Ru’s engorged belly again and again.
Pele charged down the slight slope between herself and the boar. With her wings outstretched for balance, the bad footing and slick moss proved little hindrance and she closed the distance before the spirit beast was even aware of her.
She stepped into the dangerous space just ahead of the boar’s shoulder and within range of a life-ending stomp should she fail to strike a killing blow and delivered a rising, vertical stroke to his muscular neck.
A combination of resistance and her own prodigious strength pushed her boots two inches into the soft ground as the burning blade sliced through the jugular vein and windpipe on the way to the spine. The mystic flames cauterized the wound, so instead of a spray of gore, the air was filled with the stench of burning fur alongside the familiar scent of roast pork. The Eastern Brand struck bone, and Pele had to angle it into the space between vertebrae heedless of the strain it put on her arms, knees and back.
And then that resistance was gone and the flaming blade tore up through the spike-covered hide along the boar’s back. The cut had destroyed Gath Royard’s windpipe too quickly for him to make a sound. The sword itself wasn’t long enough to cut through the entire thickness of his neck, but even the power of the Well of Souls couldn’t save him once his spine was severed and cauterized. In mid-lunge, his tusks dark with Ru’s unnaturally thick blood, the mighty spirit boar, Gath Royard, died and his body collapsed with enough force to shake the earth.
Pele took a moment to catch her breath before extinguishing Dottir Logi’s flame. With muscle memory alone, she slotted the sword into it’s mechanical scabbard and flicked the lever, causing it to snap closed around the blade.
“You could have given me a few more minutes.” Out of the corner of her eye, Pele watched the much-bloodied ogre assume the form of the neatly attired scholar once more. He floated over to her with a haughty expression on his face, making a point to beat imaginary dust off his robes.
“And you could have listened to me and not come.” She said with a shrug and a nonchalant half-smile. “After all, you said joining in the hunts was ‘beneath you’.” Stretching to get rid of the last kinks in her ribs from the earlier hit, she started to pace around the boar’s corpse, puzzling over how in the Seven Interlocking Hells the hunters were going to get it back to Findant.
Ru huffed. “Hunting for food is beneath me. The only entertaining ways to kill things rarely leave a result that is enticing (or wise) to eat.” He gestured to the former Gath Royard. “This, however, was a diversion.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself then.” said Pele. “Thank you for distracting him.”
Annoyance swirled in the link at her flippancy. “I wasn’t distracting it.”
“I didn’t say you were doing it on purpose.”
Ru gave her a dark look, but the annoyance in the link slowly became laced with humor. “Heh. One would think you planned this simply so that this… this ham-in-waiting would be busy long enough for you to retrieve your sword.”
“I have been called clever.” Pele said, a tiny bit wistful. At one time, she’d answered to the name ‘Taylin’, which meant ‘clever girl’ in hailene-de. ‘Pele’—with a slightly different inflection—meant the same thing in the Imperial tradespeech, but it didn’t carry the same weight for her.
She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a handkerchief to clean the mess splattered down the front of her armor, only to find that it had been soaked in the same. Making a face, she tossed it aside. “Ru, would you mind spellworking this off of me?”
The humor in the link built, but took on tinges of childish cruelty. “I am quite sure you will find a clever way to clean yourself up, Miss Pele.” Ru smirked and gave her a mock bow before teleporting away.
Pele glared at the spot he so recently occupied, but with no real malice. A year ago, he would have tried to wheedle her into using the link to order him to use his magic for her benefit in a strange attempt to make her fail some test of character only he understood. In a way, him leaving her in the middle of the forest covered in boar snot was progress.