- 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
There was a lot to process from the past few minutes. Pele’s gaze snapped to the man who claimed to be her brother. He certainly didn’t look over five hundred years old, nor did the woman beside him resemble an ancient sorcerer capable of keeping him alive and un-aged for all that time. One or the other was a necessary prerequisite to hold that title. Whether he knew it or not, it was a ridiculous claim—just as if not more ridiculous as his assertion that Kaiel or his mentor might hire an assassin to kill anyone, even a huckster trying to swindle a close friend or the close friend of a mentee.
She was about to give voice to those thoughts when an odd feeling raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Glancing around for its source, she found Trace. All of the warmth and humor she’d seen in him just moments before had drained from him—not merely from his face, but his stance and the very air about him. Though he was a large man by human standards to start with, Pele suddenly felt dwarfed by him.
Whereas Kaiel, still standing nearby, was merely looking stern, defensive, and angry, Trace projected righteous indignation. ‘Projected’, not in the sense that any normal mortal might project a mood, but in the way the sun projected heat, or a nekras-tainted area projected a sense of foreboding and unease.
For the first time, she understood how far a Loreman who was fully invested with the secrets of Word and Song was beyond other mortals; even those on the path toward the same power. Her alleged ‘brother’ and the woman with him visibly steeled themselves against it, but seemed nonetheless stymied by it. Such was the awe inspired by the Loreman’s simple aura, that it managed to distract Pele from other concerns until he finally spoke.
“Vul Azan,” intoned Trace. His voice vibrated with the ring of truth, a technique Kaiel had employed more than once in Pele’s presence. “My protege informed you that we would contact you if and only if we determined that Miss Hiddakko wished to make contact with you.”
The red-haired man visibly drew himself up, steeling his will against Trace’s ongoing display. He managed to muster a dark look for the Loreman. “I don’t need the bards’ permission to speak with my own blood kin, nor you to locate her. I have my own sources. But the attack at my suite shows just how far you would go to be rid of me.”
If it were possible, Trace’s eyes grew colder. “If I felt the need to ‘get rid of you’, I assure you I would need no assassins or sellswords to accomplish it.” He spread his arms wide as if inviting an attack. “I am a Loreman; one whose essence resonates with the Well of Souls. I can make alterations to reality, befoul perception, or scribe my will upon the surface of your brain, Vul Azan. Had I wished you dead, I would have told you to walk away and not stop—a death sentence here on the mesas of Harpsfell. And if I wanted you to suffer, I would have made you sexually attracted to fire.”
Vul Azan showed entirely too many teeth for Pele’s liking and barked a laugh. “A hollow threat to someone fire cannot harm, bard.” He reached up and laid a hand upon one of several amulets hanging around his neck—it reminded Pele of the reliquary Brin wore for Reflair. “Foomish…”
It sounded like a name. If this ‘Vul Azan’s’ accessories were anything like Reflair’s reliquary, that meant things were officially escalating into a dangerous place.
“Wait!” She shouted, moving decisively into the space between Trace and Vul Azan. Behind her, she heard the familiar sound of a scythe being retrieved from its extra-dimensional sheath. For once, she was glad Ru’s mind always went directly to violence, as she was unarmed.
Some of the tension in the air abated and after a moment’s thought, Pele realized that Trace had released whatever discarnate spellworking he’d been using to be so intimidating. With that gone, she had to try not to sigh in relief before giving Vul Azan all of her attention.
“I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. I have no brothers or sisters. And there’s no reason for Loreman Ridsekes or Kaiel to try and kill you even if they needed to because they know there’s no way I’d believe that. So please just turn around because you’re wasting your time. The only family I have is the one that took me in.”
Her words seemed to break the stasis that seemed to have enthralled everyone on their section of the dock.
At a meaningful look from Grandmother, the House Gurrai representative, Pharnan stepped forward and gave a polite cough. “While it seems, sir, that you have already earned some of the ire of the good Loreman here, I am compelled to add that this young lady is a member of the Clan of the Winter Willow and therefore a guest of House Gurrai. You do not want to place yourself in opposition to one of the Great Houses, do you?”
Vul Azan ignored him as well as mostly ignoring Brin and Kaiel who had both come up to flank Pele in case a fight broke out. ‘Mostly’ in that he couldn’t help but cast a wary look at Brin and in particular, Reflair’s reliquary hanging around her neck before focusing on Pele.
For just a moment, his expression flashed confusion, then settled back into stubborn confidence. “You are wrong, little sister, but I understand why you would think you were the only one. To be honest, I thought I was the only child our father ever had with a mortal until I read of you in the bard’s book.”
“Chronicler’s book.” Pele corrected on Kaiel’s behalf. “And I don’t think I’m following your meaning.”
For true, she had a birth mother: a nameless ang’hailene who was little more than a lab subject, and a mother who raised her. A mother who was a xenophobic mad scientist who was partially redeemed for the love of her ‘clever girl’… but she’d rarely given much thought to where the other half of her heritage came from.
Vul Azan shook his head as if she’d said something childishly foolish. “You never really knew him did you? Neither did I, but I was raised by the dragon cultists and got a proper impression. Agmar might have honored mortals, but he had no real taste for them. Both you and I were born more out of his obligation to the cults than any love of our mothers.”
Agmar. Pele knew that name. It stirred up that thing inside her; the raging, roaring dragon that fueled her in combat. Lena Hiddakko mentioned that the red dragon Agmar was the source of the material she used to create the Soul Batteries including Pele herself. She’d just assumed the sample had been taken postmortem.
But if Agmar lived, then it was possible the man before her really was her brother by blood.
“I…” She turned to Kaiel. “Agmar is still alive?”
The chronicler shook his head. “He passed in the second year of the Accords at the age of six hundred and forty-one.”
“Old even for a dragon.” added Vul Azan, “But gone these past thirty-four years. You hadn’t heard?”
“Pele grew up mostly cut off from the rest of the world.” Brin cut in, supplying the usual lie.
“Then there’s a great deal you don’t know.” said Vul Azan, casting a cold glare at the two men from the Bardic College, “Which might be the motive for wanting me silenced.”
Sensing the return of the previous tension, Pele was quick to speak against it. “There’s absolutely no way Kaiel or Loreman Ridsekes hired someone to kill you, especially not to protect me from whatever you have to say. They know I can take care of myself.”
She reached up and ran a hand through her hair. As she did, she couldn’t help but notice it was the same not-entirely-natural-for-human-or-hailene shade of red as Vul Azan’s; actually red rather than the auburn or orange-ish color most people called red hair. “Now I’m willing to hear you out, but not if you insist on antagonizing my friends.”
“Your friends tried to kill me.” said Vul Azan and the woman beside him nodded mutely.
Pele squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. They were getting nowhere and wouldn’t until Vul Azan was disabused of the notion that Kaiel or Trace hired an assassin. “There has to be another explanation. Maybe if you told us about the attempt on your life, we’d be able to figure out who might really be behind it.”
Vul Azan and the woman with him exchanged glances for a moment until he finally shrugged. “If you think it will get us anywhere, do as you please. Sharae.”
The elf woman nodded and looked Pele in the eye with a confidence worthy of the Bardic College. “We have rooms just north of the Menagerie—the third floor of the Hands of Excellence Inn. One hour ago, Vul Azan was returning from an errand when he was assaulted in his room by an enemy who lay in wait in his closet.”
She brought her arms together before her, reaching into a sleeve. From it, she produced three knives with the distinct aerodynamic shape of throwing daggers. “These were used in the attempt. All three are devoid of poison, but have been lightly spellworked with a vin array to improve their speed and accuracy when thrown. The assassin also used vin to shield himself from Vul Azan’s counter attacks and to escape through the window.”
“Did you get a good look at him?” asked Brin.
“Vul Azan was too busy surviving the attack.” Sharae said, folding her arms into the sleeves along with the knives.
Trace tapped his chin with a finger. “I know I’m supposedly the mastermind of this, but those knives look fairly distinct; you might try your luck with some of the local outfitters and smithies.”
While the others asked a few more questions, Pele went over the whole situation in her head.
For just a sliver of an instant, she considered that Immurai the Masked might have somehow survived their conflict on Nhan Raduul, that this was part of a plot to ensnare his coveted Soul Battery. It would be the perfect ploy: the demon knew how much she invested in family. A new-found brother, someone not just of her blood, but who would understand her draconic side, was a profound temptation.
Pele pushed that thought away before it could even fully form, down into that dark well where she tucked away her worst memories of her enslavement, where her most hopeless moments congealed into old, dull pain that she kept her back firmly turned on. And she did her best to ignore how it felt like something half-slithered, half-fluttered when she did so.
Instead, she focused on the assassination attempt—if there even was one. That the woman Sharae, not Vul Azan, related the tale was suspect. Even if she took it at face value that there wasn’t any kind of obfuscation involved, vital information might be lost simply because the elf hadn’t witnessed the attack first hand.
She needed time to put the pieces of both mysteries together, and in a flash of the inspiration, it occurred to her how to buy it.
“If the assassin was using magic, then there might be more evidence left behind than you would expect, right Ru?”
A stab of confusion hit her from the link before Ru answered. “Indeed there may, Miss Pele. Extensive castings tend to be detectable a short while after the effect. The style and methods of casting may be identifiable, even traceable if they keep active spells cast about their person.”
Pele nodded and thanked him for going along in the link. “If we help you track down the assassin, we might be able to find out who really hired him.”
“I remain convinced that I know as much already.” Vul Azan shot a venomous stare at Trace. “But if it will help prove the facts of the matter, little sister, then I’ll entertain it.”
“That she’s truly your sister remains to be proven.” said Brin, folding her arms. “Raiteria’s her sister. I’m her sister. Even if you can prove your blood, that doesn’t make you more than blood kin.”
The cold tone coming from the other woman made Pele flinch at first, but she held up a hand. “It’s okay, Brin. It’s a long walk across the Menagerie and I intend to have a long talk about all this sister business with Mr. Azan. And after that…” She offered what for her was a highly calculated smile to her supposed brother, “Well we’ve a long stay in Harpsfell to suss it all out.”
Brin didn’t stand down, or take her dark gaze away from Vul Azan, but neither did she argue, so Pele didn’t push it. After making a show of taking a breath, she turned to Ru. “Do you mind coming with us to investigate this assassin? Magic is your forte, not mine.”
Now that she was finally facing him, she found that Ru had his eyes locked dangerously onto Vul Azan just like the others. Whether it was a sign of their growing friendship or just that he was keen on dealing with things if or when things turned out to be a trap, she had no idea.
“I have no issue with that.” Ru said with a cruel smile directed not at Vul Azan, but Sharae. “It might prove… entertaining.”
“Right.” Pele said quickly, hoping to gloss over the emphasis he put on ‘entertaining’. “Brin, can you tell Rai, Bromun, and the kids that I’ll see them at House Gurrai? You, Layaka, and Kaiel can take my wagon if you want—if not, I’ll just come back here and get it.”
Brin blinked at her. “What? No, we’re going with you.”
“No, you’re not.” said Pele. “I need someone to explain things to Rai once they get back from offloading the wagons, and I’d really appreciate it if you brought my wagon to House Gurrai for me.”
“You–” Brin sputtered, “But Grandmother is right here; she can deal with that.”
Pele made a soothing motion with her hands. “Brin, Grandmother has the Gurrai representatives to talk to; things for the good of the clan. I can’t ask her to interrupt that for me.” Of course she could. If Grandmother thought Pele or any other member of the clan needed something, she would tell Sylph Reborn herself to shut up for a moment while she tended to them. “Please, Brin.”
Unconcerned that Vul Azan and Sharae were still present and listening, Brin stepped protectively between her friend and the possible threats. “You don’t know these people, Pele. You can’t go with them alone.”
After only a moment of hesitation, Pele laid her hand on Brin’s arm and gently moved her friend aside. “It’s fine, Brin. Besides, I’m not going alone anyway, Ru’s coming too.” She gave her friend a meaningful look. They both knew that there was likely nothing more dangerous on the entire plateau than the Rune Breaker.
Brin’s eye’s narrowed, but she let out a breath and nodded. “Fine. But if we don’t hear from you…”
“If you call, we will hear.” Kaiel said, remaining seemingly calm though Pele knew him well enough to know that wasn’t the case.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Pele smiled at her, then approached Vul Azan and Sharae. “Sorry about that. My friends and I have been through… well you read the book.”
Vul Azan’s nostrils flared and he let out a low laugh. “That I have. And I can promise you there are no demons here, and no friends of them either. The dragon cults aren’t as ignorant as these city folk. Growing up, I heard all about the dangers of the Threefold Moon.”
“You would have had warning then.” said Pele, gesturing for the pair to walk with her toward a lift while simultaneously taking their attention away from Ru, who followed along behind in grim silence. “I knew nothing until I’d already killed one of Immurai’s pawns and had his eyes fall on me.”
“Nothing at all?” asked Vul Azan.
Drawing her wings in close around her as if to insulate herself from the memories, Pele shook her head. “I wasn’t raised in a dragon cult. I wasn’t taught anything except how to work and how to fight. Even then it was mostly learning by doing.” They reached an empty lift and Pele let Vul Azan and Sharae enter before her, followed by Ru before getting on herself and activating the brass plate that controlled their steady descent to the ground.
Vul Azan mulled over that statement a bit before saying, “I take it you had a harsh life?”
“It’s over now.” Pele said without pause, “Long over. And that time isn’t coming back. You say you were raised by a dragon cult though? What was that like?”
That drew a grunt from the man. “Dragonsired children are demigods to the cults. That doesn’t mean I was pampered though; I was barely treated like a child. I was raised to be a warrior to protect them, a spiritual leader to shepherd them, and a diplomat to speak with… our father in their favor. It pales in comparison to what your life was like, I’m certain, but I wasn’t allowed friends, or play, or even the comfort of my mother because she was somehow ‘lesser’ than I.”
“I didn’t know my mother either.” Pele admitted. “Not much at least. I remember pieces, but I was really young when they took me.”
This time, it was a snort. “Was, young? You hardly look a day over forty—for us, that’s barely an adult.”
Pele absorbed the new bit of information, covering by looking out over the lift’s rail at the dockyard below. Due to her less-than-natural nature, it was hard to tell how old she was relative to others.
Certainly she was an adult; she conformed to the same forty-four day cycle other hailene women did. But beyond that, questions of how much she aged in a year or a decade were a mystery. Kaiel’s best guess had put her at the equivalent of mid-twenties for a human, but what Vul Azan said suggested she might be effectively younger still, maybe early twenties or late teens depending on what counted as an ‘adult’ in the dragon cults.
“I’m actually fifty-one as of today.” Pele supplied in time for the lift to finally come to a halt. “And you don’t have to worry about me; I lived my life and you lived yours.” As they filed off the lift, she ventured a probing question, “Forgive me from asking but… you’re a spirit docent, aren’t you?”
Vul Azan rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “The bard told you that, didn’t he? I knew they’d had contact with you earlier.”
Pele shrugged and ambled along beside him, not really looking at him, but never looking away. “Kaiel told me what a spirit docent was, yes, but not about you. It was your reliquaries that told me though—my friend Brin has one like them. Her spirit’s name is Reflair.”
“So that’s why I had a strange feeling about that rude woman with you.” mused Vul Azan. “I haven’t met many others.”
“Neither has she.”
“But she really only has the one spirit companion? Why?” He made a face that almost had Pele laughing inappropriately.
Fighting back that reaction, Pele waved her hands in the air dismissively. “You’ll have to ask her. I didn’t know it was even possible to have more than one. How… many do you have?” The more she got him to talk, the more she would learn, regardless of whether he lied or not.
They passed through the main doors of the dock’s main building where the scheduling, ticketing, and various administrative duties were handled. Sharae moved closer to Vul Azan, watching in all directions, presumably for signs of an attack.
Vul Azan didn’t seem to pick up on her agitation, or if he did, he didn’t show it. “I keep four with me at all times: Vouga and Ieyae, Foomish, and Tel’exis. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that your friend only keeps one; after all, the process of forging a bond is taxing and there are too few docents for us to learn by anything but experience.”
“Maybe you can teach each other a few things.” said Pele, wondering if that would be a good idea or not. She pushed open the doors leading onto the street and held them for the others.
“I have my doubts that it would work out.” said Vul Azan. “She seems attached to the junior bard.”
Pele narrowed her eyes at him. “Kaiel is a chronicler. He might have bardic training, but there are important differences.”
“They’re all bards.” Sharae broke her silence, her voice husky from lack of use. “They all think to put their hands on parts of the world they have no business interfering with.”
“Heh.” How Ru managed to pack so much innuendo into that cold laugh of his, Pele would never know. Normally, she would argue with him over his insinuations about bards (and related fields) being lechers, but this time it made the corners of her mouth turn up at seeing the pair with them look temporarily unnerved at being reminded of his presence.
Still, her friends had been insulted, so she fluffed up her wings in a show of irritation and openly glared at the elf. “If it wasn’t for Kaiel, I would be completely lost. He’s one of my closest friends, a brother through the clan, and it isn’t an understatement to say he taught me the bulk of what I haven’t learned from books this past year.”
Vul Azan ran a hand through his hair and visibly resisted rolling his eyes. “Pele, you’ll forgive Sharae if she has a low opinion of the College. Their attempts to open cultural exchanges with the Tresholm have caused social unrest and upheaval in many elfhames—her home included. The same can be said of the dragon cults thanks to the College’s close ties to the Dragon Nations.”
“Oh.” Pele faltered a step. “I didn’t know that…”
A quick recovery followed as she sorted through the logic. “But Kaiel isn’t part of that. The College is a big organization; Loreman Ridsekes probably isn’t involved either.”
“They all share a philosophy.” Sharae spat.
“I don’t think that’s true either.” said Pele. “When we first met, Kaiel told me he was a follower of the Third Philosophy, so they literally don’t all follow the same philosophy.”
The conversation halted unexpectedly as a hansom cab drawn by a huge black horse that reminded Pele of Gaddigan drew up alongside them on the street. Pele, Vul Azan, and Sharae looked to one another, wondering which of them haled it.
The mystery was short lived, as Ru floated over to the door and threw it open, turning back to them with a glare. “I grow bored of this diplomacy and dissembling. Let us hurry to your inn, track down your assassin, and do unspeakable things to him until he leads us to his employer that we may do unspeakable things to them as well.”
He didn’t wait for a reply before getting into the cab, shouting, “The Hands of Excellence, north of the Menagerie,” to the driver.
Vul Azan cracked a smile at that, and let out another laugh. “Now this is a friend of yours I think I may get to like, Little Sister. Blunt as a cerato’s hind quarters. That’s something refreshing after a lifetime of sycophants and pseudo-worshipers.” He gave an approving nod before climbing in after Ru.
Offering her own nod, Pele accepted Sharae’s courtesy and got in ahead of her. The cab wasn’t built for people as tall as herself or Vul Azan, so both had to hunch in their seats; she beside Ru and he beside Sharae. A magelight hung over the center of the cabin, shedding pale yellow illumination over the wine-colored upholstery.
“This was actually a good idea, Ru.” Pele said, pulling her wings in close in a futile attempt to get comfortable in a seat in no way designed for hailene wings. “The Menagerie is too huge to simply walk across.”
“It occurs to me that we could have flown.” said Vul Azan, looking out his window as the cab started moving. Neither he nor Sharae seemed uncomfortable being forced into such close quarters by the bench seat, but nor did there seem to be any tender feelings there.
“Yes. In an age of firearms, it would make perfect sense to take to the open sky when there is an assassin hunting you.” Ru drawled.
Sharae shot him a glare so vicious that Pele imagined it might have flensed him where he sat.
Before she could say anything, Vul Azan put a retraining hand on her arm. “No, he’s right. A wise point, Mr. Brakar. Let’s hope that same wisdom brings my would-be killer to task for his crimes.”