- 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 hansom’s seat was impossible for her to get comfortable on. Pele’s mind wandered to all the hansom cabs she’d taken in the past year and none of them had been built in such a way as to accommodate a hailene. She could think of a number of reasons for that, not the least of which was centuries-long, hard-earned animosity.
Pele usually managed to ignore such things, but having to sit in an awkward hunch to keep her own body from pinning her wings beneath her got in the way of presenting a confident air to Vul Azan and Sharae. Seeking a compromise position, she put her elbows on her knees and then brought her hands to her chin, steepling her index fingers so that she was peering past them at the two people in question.
Things had been quiet as the hansom trundled off from the docks on a course for the Menagerie. Sharae and Ru were in the middle of a fierce glaring contest, while Vul Azan was pretending to watch the sights out the window while actually casting expectant looks at Pele every now and again.
Finally, she opted to do as he expected and asked the question she was sure he wanted to hear. Hopefully, his reply, however well-rehearsed, would give her more information she could use.
“You understand if I have a lot of questions—not just about the assassin, but about… well… our being related. First thing that comes to mind is ‘why did you travel all this way here to meet me?’. You read the book, you know I’m not wealthy or influential. If it’s the coffers from Nhan Raduul you’re thinking on, you shouldn’t bother: we took mostly creature comforts. The actual coffers had only a little coin to speak of.”
“Begging your pardon, but if anyone would be gaining a wealthy relation, it would be you, Ms. Hiddakko.” Sharae broke off her glaring at Ru, but pointedly didn’t meet Pele’s eyes. “Vul Azan is renowned in Mindeforme and Taunaun for his skills as a tracker and sellsword. There are at least three principalities in Novrom that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for him.”
Vul Azan raised two fingers to Sharae and she nodded in deference to him before sinking back in her seat.
“That isn’t to say I’m so well off that I don’t have to still earn my living. But these days, I organize the swords to be sold rather than selling my own. Nonetheless, it is because of this success that I sought you out. Look at it from my view, Pele: I discovered that I was no longer the sole mortal child of Agmar and not only that, but my sibling has suffered such hardship while I was being toadied to in the cult.”
Covering a shift to try and reposition her left wing with a laugh, Pele shook her head. “The events of the book were hardships, that’s true; but I’ve been very happy in the Clan of the Winter Willow. The entire clan is a family and we take care of one another. And beyond them, I have Brin and Kaiel… and Ru.”
The link told her Ru smirked at her hesitation without her having to look.
Vul Azan took notice of it too and directed his green-eyed gaze—eerily similar to Pele’s own—to the dark mage. “And what exactly are you to my sister, Mr. Brakar? I hear her call the bard and his woman ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, but not you.”
“Heh” Ru let his teeth show, but it wasn’t what anyone but a shark would call a smile. “Consider me an assistant, a body guard, a tutor in the mystical and histories long passed, an attack dog, a sword… a friend and an adversary whom she cannot seem to rid herself of.” He straightened up to his full seated height, which wouldn’t have been impressive but for the mad, challenging light in his eyes. “I am Ru Brakar, Master Azan. That is all I need to be.”
His lip curled into a smirk and he asked, “And what is the elf to you?”
Vul Azan’s back straightened, his head almost touching the top of the hansom’s cabin. “A very old friend. We’ve fought together since more than a decade before Nov’s Peace or the Accords.
Before Ru could say whatever was making cruel humor rise in the link, Pele cut him off. “You’ve said twice now that you and I are Agmar’s only ‘mortal’ children. What exactly does that mean?”
Vul Azan’s stern expression somehow softened and darkened at the same time and Sharae tensed beside him. He did not make eye contact this time. “A slip of the tongue from force of habit. The dragons call us mortals. Though they’re just as capable of untimely death, they think the two hundred years of life an elf, a dragonsired, or a highly skilled demihuman wielder of vitae can achieve is pathetically brief.”
“Two hundred sounds like a lot to me.” Pele admitted.
“Not compared to the five or six hundred years one of their kind can live.” said Vul Azan. “But to answer your question, I am not your only sibling, just the only one who isn’t a full dragon.”
Sharae stared off into the distance through her window. The hansom had mounted a gently arching stone bridge that gave an expansive view of some of the lower parts of the plateau. Those were further out to the east, beyond the protection of the spell that kept Harpsfell warm enough to be habitable in winter. “And the only one who will give a damn about you.” She muttered.
Manipulative as that sounded, Pele could almost taste the bitterness that dripped off the elf’s tongue. “Hmm…” She said to buy time as she formulated her next question. Following Sharae’s lead, she looked out her window as well.
Whatever view she might have gotten was blocked by traffic passing them by, moving toward and leaving the Menagerie. There were people—mostly half-elves—on foot, more hansoms, pulled either by horse or by ornis, huge spiders with howdahs laden with cargo, and even a huge shaggy bear with blonde fur and an ornate saddle with a minotaur riding astride it. All of them were forced to make way for an ospreshrike lumbering across the bridge going the opposite direction as their hansom.
The beast was of a different breed than those Pele’d seen at Spinar. Its jaw was more narrow, its tiny forearms a bit bulkier, and the feathers atop its head formed a metallic blue mask from snout to crown before erupting into a crest of similarly colored feathers. The bristly feathers on its tail were the same color. Its back might have been was well, but it was fitted with a huge howdah. Though it was big enough to seat six, there was currently only a single man with a goad occupied it.
It was a beautiful animal. Pele didn’t usually hold much interest in animals, but the blue ospreshrike was novel enough to capture and hold her attention… at least for a time. There was still the matter of her brother… or apparently more than one sibling, some of whom were dragons.
“How many of them are there?” she asked. “Of my—our—siblings, I mean.”
Vul Azan scowled and continued to purposefully not make eye contact. Whatever bitterness Sharae showed was ten times as intense when he spoke. “There are three in the Red Nation. Dragons occasionally breed and have offspring with others not of their Nation, so I can’t tell you if there are more than that.”
He made a face as if tasting something awful. “The eldest is Rukh’ahnsha. A more perfect exemplar of draconic arrogance I have never laid eyes on.”
“Arrogance?” Pele asked.
“They once ruled the world.” said Vul Azan simply.
Pele frowned at him. “Yes. The Era of Draconic Control. I’ve read every scrap of information I can find about dragons, but that was almost two thousand years ago and from what I’ve gathered, it’s a point of shame to the Dragon Nations.”
Outside, there was a commotion. Something, presumably the ospreshrike, growled and there were raised voices. Pele tried to see what was going on, but she was at a bad angle for it.
Vul Azan paid whatever it was no heed. “It appears to be shame only in so far as they know better than to be openly threatening to demihumanity after their defeat. Now they’re more subtle in both word and action, but it’s there. And it’s worse when you’re a dragonsired.”
“I’ve never—“ Pele’s reply was cut off by a deafening roar from outside. The stone bridge and the canyon it spanned caught the noise and sent it back to reverberate again and again until the enraged noise was all anyone could hear. The hansom stopped and shuddered as the horse panicked at the noise and danced in its traces.
It wasn’t the call of any animal Pele knew, but she’d come up against enough territorial beasts to recognize a challenge when she heard one. She reached for the door handle to lean out and see what was going on, but by then it was too late.
An overwhelming force struck the cab from the rear on the same side Pele was sitting, easily overturning it. The world inside the cabin became a chaos of tangled limbs and eerie light. By the time the vehicle settled and Pele could finally take stock, she found herself lying on top of Ru. The dark mage had slammed into the door on his side, which had now become the floor. Dark, unnaturally thick blood filled in the spaces in the shattered glass where his head had caught the broken shards of the window.
The light was coming from strands of ephemeral force that bound Vul Azan and Sharae to their own seat and to one another. The elven woman had her hand clenched around the center of those strands, her face screwed up on concentration.
“Odd, bods, hammer and tongs.” Ru cursed and lifted his head to survey the cabin. The side of his face was a ruin of lacerations with pieces of glass still stuck in. Even as he looked around, the viscous blood was slithering back into his wounds.
Are you alright, Miss Pele?
Yes. Are you…
We both know this is only a minor annoyance. Speaking of… He mentally nudged her attention to the other people in the cabin. Sharae was slowly dismissing the strands, allowing her to slowly slide down to a sitting position atop the former wall of the cab.
Outside, there was another challenging roar. It was closer this time—right on top of them, drowning out the pained whinnies of the cab’s horse and the screams of the driver, which thankfully did not sound like death throes. As the sound trailed off, it was replaced by a basso rumble.
Vul Azan worked his way out of Sharae’s protective spell. With a grunt of effort, he braced his feet against the seats on either side so he was standing hunched beneath the door that now faced skyward.
“Blood turn to ash, I’m not going to let whatever that was try again.” He snarled. He tried the handle and found it jammed. That didn’t last long. Reaching up, he undid the only button of his coat that he left fastened and shrugged out of it. As the garment dropped to the bottom of the cabin, Pele caught a glimpse of red scales sprouting in patches along his exposed arms, and when he turned his attention to the door again, she could see his jaw starting to extend.
In the next moment, Vul Azan slammed his arms upward and flexed his legs, half-leaping and half-bullrushing. The door snapped in half with those halves then being torn free of the stuck latch and hinges. Before they could even clatter to the ground, he seized the door frame and hauled himself out and into the open where the thing that overturned the cart waited.
“What a time to not bring my swords.” Pele muttered to herself. She rolled off of Ru and into the precious little space left at the bottom of the cab between Ru and Sharae. Once she got her feet under her though, it was just a matter of tucking her wings and letting her incredible strength launch her into a vertical leap that carried her out of the empty doorframe in a single bound.
…And into the face of one of the deadliest natural predators on Ere.
The blue ospreshrike was in the process of recovering from Vul Azan’s sudden appearance and was mid-lunge when Pele cannoned out of the wrecked hansom and slammed shoulder first into the creature’s jaw.
The ospreshrike reeled from the impact while Pele rebounded off its hide and landed awkwardly on the deck of the bridge with her wings extended to keep her balance. Her wings also provided a bright red target for the beast’s fury.
It lunged, but Pele threw herself forward and into the air with a powerful flap of her wings. This time, she meant it when she swung a fist into the ospreshrike’s snout. It recovered swiftly and snapped at her as she back-winged out of range of its jaws.
Something red rose up between her and her pursuer. Vul Azan.
He wasn’t the first dragonsired Pele had seen fully transformed, but he was the first born from the Red Nation and he was a terrible and awesome sight to behold.
Deep red, pentagonal scales—so much like her own when she allowed her draconic side to surface—covered every inch of bare flesh save for where thicker, lighter-colored scutae protected his throat and chest. The special seams designed by the dragon cults allowed his wings and tail to emerge from his clothes. The former were like powerful arms situated at the shoulder blades with great splayed fingers supporting a thick membrane. The later was thick, muscular with a calcified, black tip shaped vaguely like an arrowhead.
More ingenious articulation in his boots allowed for an elongated foot and brutal talons that matched the ones on his hands. His hair had become an array of spikes that looked like a deadly version of his normal style and they were crowned by a pair of black-tipped, red horns that swept up sideways from his temples in counterpoint to his sharp elongated jaw with its dagger-teeth.
He let out a low growl before drawing in a deep, gurgling breath. Pele knew what came next because she’d done the same before: a globule of burning gel that stuck to whatever it spattered and burned most fiercely. What she didn’t expect was for Vul Azan to bring his teeth together and spit the gel through them, rendering it aerosol in a cone of burning vapor.
The ospreshrike let out an out-sized yowl and ducked low to avoid the flame. It took several steps sideways and back to get a better look at the threat set before it.
All that motion, flame, and violence was too much, however, for several dray animals on the bridge behind the great beast, whose handlers had miraculously managed to keep them calm until that moment. A few horses bolted, either breaking from their traces, or dragging their loads with them as they wheeled and fled back toward the other end of the bridge.
Of note, however, was a tri-horn cerato hitched to a construction wagon laden with supplies and workers. Normally well-equipped and unafraid of even the legendary tree-line stalkers, the cone of fire and the ospreshrike’s quick, predatory maneuvers proved too much for it.
Letting out a bellow that rivaled all the other noise around it, the beast of burden tried to back up, only to slam the wagon back into the stone railing with enough force to shatter the stone and send it tumbling down into the yawning chasm below. One of the wagon’s rear wheels followed, plunging over the side and threatening to drag the rest with it.
Pele saw this and started forward, only to be forced back as the ospreshrike hurled its multi-ton bulk into the air in a desperate lunge at either her or Vul Azan. It wasn’t going to let either of them out of its enraged sight.
A groan from below was followed by a series of cracks as the wagon burst apart under the strength of a mountain ogre expanding into being within—Ru had finally decided to join the fight. What was left of the wagon’s side hung around his flabby gray neck with the door frame acting as a collar.
He swiftly corrected this by snapping the whole thing in half and hurling both pieces at the ospreshrike.
For anyone else, that would have been a fatal mistake. Female ospreshrikes were pack hunters, but the males lived apart from them except during mating season. Despite their great size and power, they subsisted on carrion and attacking from ambush.
Enraged by attacks from all quarters, the ospreshrike singled out the one that couldn’t evade and struck with speed that belied its bulk. Teeth like serrated daggers, backed by strength unmatched in the natural world, snapped down on Ru faster than the eye could follow.
Instead of hot bloody flesh, the beast’s jaws closed on naught but empty air when Ru’s ogre form uncoiled into a vast green and black constrictor snake that promptly wrapped its powerful body around the ospreshrike’s snout, locking its mouth shut with mean strength.
Heh. Ru made sure to broadcast into the link as he flexed his serpentine coiled and felt bone and cartilage creak. I’ve heard this is the most powerful non-magical predator in the world. And yet, it is merely the second most deadly predator on this bridge.
His mockery was lost on the ospreshrike, which panicked, trying to get free by any means necessary. Storming forward and lowering its head, it slammed into the bridge’s railing, crumbling more chunks of debris over the side, but failing to dislodge the shapeshifting master.
Ru responded by steadily increasing the pressure around the poor beast’s head. Try all you might: your fate is inevitable.
Snorting as it tried to draw breath through compacted nostrils, the ospreshrike rampaged to the center of the bridge and hammered its trapped skull down onto the deck, trying to rub the obstruction off.
In doing so, it moved closer to the cerato, whose handler had dismounted to try and coax it forward so as to get the wagon away from the edge. A handful of workers had climbed off to help try and pull the sturdily built wagon up on their own while casting furtive looks at the ospreshrike. When the fight moved in their direction, the wise among them were already running.
Letting out a fearsome bellow, the cerato did what came naturally: it lowered its head to bring its horns to bear and took a step back to steady itself. That step turned out to be one too far. The wagon was shoved back against the railing; what hadn’t shattered in the initial impact breaking away in the process.
A moment later, the second rear wheel had gone over and the momentum of several tons of workers and equipment shifted toward the chasm. The cerato felt its load starting to slide and tried at the last minute to move forward, but the wagon was too heavy and the beast’s broad, flat feet couldn’t find enough traction on the relatively smooth stone blocks of the bridge.
Beast, wagon, and at least a half dozen workers still atop the latter went over the edge.
“Ru!” Pele shouted both aloud and in the link. The dark mage’s attention was automatically directed at the hapless cerato and the men it had been pulling as they slid backward through the broken gap in the railing.
Of course. Ru said with a bitterness that would make even a crushing defeat seem light and joyous. It really wasn’t directed at Pele, just a thought so strong that it leaked through into the link nonetheless. Pele didn’t need to say anything more; he knew exactly what was on her mind—the exact opposite of what was on his.
Hissing with disappointment at not being able to crush an apex predator’s skull like a ripe winter squash, Ru put his serpentine form to good use, lashing all of those muscles against the ospreshrike’s snout in order to hurl himself over the edge himself.
He resumed his normal shape in the air, and looked down.
The bridge spanned a dark canyon whose floor was several hundred feet below. In the eternal twilight down there, he could make out the decayed and abandoned corpse of a city—Old Harpsfell, the first Free City in the Era of Draconic Control. Unchecked, the unlucky workers would fall for long enough to fully understand what was going to happen to them—just before they met their end spattered across the slopped roof of what looked to be a bathhouse.
Of course, Pele wouldn’t want that. She was perfectly willing to fight the planet’s mightiest natural monster bare-fisted if it meant saving ‘innocents’. Not that Ru entertained any illusions that anyone was innocent except maybe Pele herself.
He called up his well of personal power and vox—the energy of motion that commanded matter and magic in even measures. There was no time for a complex array, so he generated a web of spellwork not unlike the one Sharae used to protect herself and Vul Azan in the cab and cast it down to ensnare the falling workers, anchoring it to the concealed spell-storing tattoos that encircled his right arm. The black lines began to make themselves visible there, tracing geometric shapes.
Tension built up in his arm as the web ensnared the falling bodies. The vox array supported most of their weight, but for Ru, it still felt as if he were lifting one hundred pounds with one hand as he began to reel them in.
Something pricked at the back of his mind as he did:
Pele wouldn’t stop there, were she in a position to see what was going on. She was the one that asked him to limit his big destructive spells so as not to damage personal property, who didn’t find any level of collateral damage acceptable, and who felt pity even for the dumbest of animals. If it were up to her, she would want to save the cerato as well.
But… it wasn’t up to her. She was preoccupied with the ospreshrike. If Ru wanted to, he could take a moment’s pleasure to watch the brute explode into gore across the rooftops of Old Harpsfell. He almost did so too. At the last moment, however, he conjured a second web of vox and cast it down after the bellowing animal.
Less than a second later, he was mentally cursing Pele, the cerato, and most of all his damned fool self. Humans and half-elves normally weighted two hundred pounds at the outside and the vox web made them manageable to catch and lift, even the handful he’d saved from their fall.
A cerato on the other hand, weighted more than twenty full-grown men and still had that damnedable wagon hitched to it. Vox array or no, it felt as if he just tried to catch a falling hansom cab with one arm. The results were the same too. Where before there was just tension, this time, it was a grinding, twisting sensation, accompanied by his shoulder dislocating under the force.
No matter how much he tried to stifle it, the link reported his pain to Pele, who glanced away from her opponent to see what was going on. Ru?
Down below, the leather harness attaching the wagon to the cerato snapped, sending the wagon and its contents plunging to the city below. It hit the same slanted roof Ru spotted earlier and exploded into a flutter of wood and iron even as it punched through the roof and brought the whole western side of the building collapsing down upon itself.
More importantly to Ru, it removed more than half the punishing weight on his arm, allowing him to pull the lowing cerato back up to the bridge deck, where he dumped it unceremoniously on its side as punishment for causing him so much bother.
It’s nothing, Miss Pele. And for him it was. Already, he was subconsciously reforming the tendons and cartilage around his arm to pull it back into place. Nothing could kill him and compared to five thousand years of life, even bouts of debilitating agony were fleeting.
Pele knew this, but that didn’t suppress the outpouring of concern that flooded the link from her side. Dumb beasts and irredeemable monsters—nothing was beneath Pele’s sympathy unless one gave her good reason to exchange pity for wrath.
The ospreshrike sensed her distraction and took the opportunity to snap at her. She wasn’t completely off-guard, however, and managed to wedge her out-stretched arms between the descending teeth.
As strong as she was, however, Pele wasn’t stronger than the tons of pressure the ospreshrike’s powerful jaw could exert. Her muscles strained, the serrated teeth tore into her forearms, and by inches, the beast’s mouth was closing despite her best efforts.
Dizzy from the strain, Pele tried to reach inside herself to find the rage she summoned in battle, the roaring thing she’d desperately embraced on the airship. Her breath quickened. Adrenaline coursed into her blood along with something that had nothing to do with chemicals. In the back of her head, a dragon roared, and pentagonal scales began to sprout in patches along her arms.
Instead of being devoured by the ospreshrike, she was consumed from within. Unlike when she let the rage flow and give her focus in a fight, her desperation called it up full force, allowing it to well up and wash away reason.
A deep, rumbling growl issued from her. How dare such a lowly beast match strength with her! She was the strongest there was and she would prove it by dislocating the damn thing’s jaw and having its tongue stuffed to use as a seat cushion.
Rage all she might though, it didn’t change the reality that she was only just keeping the thing from biting her in half.
Then the ospreshrike’s head jerked to the side and it swung its head around to face the threat. It was rewarded by Vul Azan’s second buckler slamming into the ridge above its eye and deflecting into its temple. Pain and shock conspired against it and it yowled, mouth opening wide enough to release Pele from their grapple.
She almost didn’t take the opening. It’s tongue was right in front of her—all she had to so was reach out and pull… And its soft pallete was exposed above her. If only she had one of her swords, she could drive three feet of burning steel into the thing’s brain.
Her own savage thoughts saved her. That wasn’t her. The mindless, animal anger and suicidal aggression wasn’t like her at all. Even when she’d fully given herself over to her draconic side, her thoughts never went that far. Just another twisted evolution of the ‘dragon’ in her head.
“What’s happening to me?” She questioned herself aloud. At the same time, she brought up both feet and kicked off the ospreshrike’s chin, then beat her wings to put some distance between them. The battle rage that gripped her before wicked away like water down a drain.
The only bloodlust left in her head was more familiar and definitely not part of her. It made itself known as a dark shape barged past her. She didn’t have to look, she just knew. From the link. From the feral, vicious glee therein. And from the fact that there was no other way a full grown female ospreshrike could have gotten to the middle of the bridge without her noticing, rage or no rage.
Among ospreshirkes, the female of the species was larger than the male in almost every breed, and the breed they kept in Callen had females almost half again as large as the blue-feathered male that had attacked the cab. Wearing the form of one, Ru barreled into the male with the force of a cathedral being dropped from on high onto a castle keep.
The ospreshrike was lifted off its feet by the impact and only just managed to land on them as it staggered back to size up the new threat. It almost stepped on the cadre of guards moving up the bridge. If it even noticed them, it didn’t care. All of its attention was on the bigger, more territorial threat.
It roared, but Ru responded in kind with a mighty groundshaking sound that was almost unbearable to hear. Most challengers would have been cowed, but the young, brash bull tried a mock charge, darting forward and back, probing for a weakness. Finally, it bunched itself up as if to leap—
And a green-glowing haze descended upon it, clinging to its head like a skull cap. A green light filled its eyes, and it gave out a long, unhappy groan before sinking to its haunches, its thick jaw resting on the ground.
Ru snorted, and growled, swinging his big, feathered head around toward the guards, but more specifically, the man they arrived with.
He was an older human, his skin tinged blue like a Chordini, but with the craggy, weather-worn look to his skin that suggested he hadn’t spent his entire life in the comforts of Harpsfell. He held aloft a staff of twisted vines with one hand while the other held closed his heavy robe of silver-flecked, brown fur.
All of the old man—the druid’s—attention was on the ospreshrike as he shook the staff and bellowed in a voice as strong as old mountains and just as rough, “Enough! Be Still.”
The ospreshrike moaned and rubbed its jaw along the ground, its eyes rolling in its head.
Satisfied with the beast’s compliance, the old druid turned his steel-eyed gaze upon the other combatants on the bridge. “Explanations are in order.”