- 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
Even with her prodigious strength, Pele couldn’t drag the corpse of Gath Royard back to Findant on her own. The hunter’s wolves were ill equipped to drag the gigantic beast either, so in the end, Bromun left to collect Tomasei and his injured wolf and return to Findant to enlist the clan’s ponies. While they waited, Pele and the other hunters skinned and butchered the great boar and cut saplings and branches to construct a small armada of sledges.
Pele took charge of Gath Royard’s still-intact head, setting it on a skid cobbled together out of saplings and oilskins and using the spirit beast’s tusks as handles to drag it by. After hours of labor in the unseasonably hot autumn evening with the stink of pig innards all around her, the snot staining her armor was the least of her worries.
The sun was on the cusp of setting when a tired but triumphant band of nirlmos hunters finally reached Findant with their spoils.
Findant Settlement was one of the southernmost permanent establishments in eastern Callen. A wall of conjured stone, bolstered by enormous trees which acted as living watchtowers, enclosed both the township and its surrounding farmlands where late season wheat swayed in gentle waves under the wind’s caress.
There was a trading post at the southern gate, now ringed by the colorful wagons of the Winter Willow. The halfling clan wasn’t the only visitor to Findant. A herd of tri-horn ceratos, their frills painted in the blue, orange, and red of the Toraneki Tribe, grazed placidly on the grassy expanse cleared between Findant and the forest. Just north of them along the wall a larger herd, these with gold-painted horns and beaks and belonging to the Rilodern Tribe, were tethered in place and being fed hay by their handlers.
The main bulk of both tribes were staying in the township, while the Winter Willow preferred to stay near their wagons and the trading post.
As she hauled the boar’s head, easily twice her weight, near the line of wagons, she spied an ancient gray tomcat sprawled in the shadow of the white and red wagon she called home. It was a gnarled and ancient creature with notched ears and white streaks in its fur denoting old scars. Even if they didn’t know its true nature, the wolves would have given a wide birth to such a capable brawler. Both eyes, one amber and the other a deceptive rheumy gray, watched her. Even without the link, Pele imagined she could see the smugness on his face.
Ru—for indeed the battle-scarred tom was the shapeshifting master’s favored form for lounging about—regarded her in all her sweat-soaked, ichor-stained, blood-damp glory and in the link asked: Do you still feel clever?
“You could have at least offered to help.”
With a languid stretch, the cat rose and padded to her side, keeping pace with her. I already did my part, being stomped into a paste for my dinner. By my dinner, in fact.
He looked back at Pele’s load. Are we keeping the head? It would be an excellent trophy in the main room.
Pele started to glare at him, but her expression turned into a cruel, calculating smile. “You know the nir-lumos way, Ru: the spoils of a kill belong to the one who struck the killing blow. I killed him, so I’m presenting the trophy to Athan for his hospitality.”
The snarling disappointment and annoyance at having been bested again that rippled across the link was its own reward. She flashed a triumphant grin and paused to stoop and give him a scratch behind his kitty ears.
For just a moment, the instincts of his acquired shape took over and he purred, pressing his head up into her palm. Just as quickly, he recalled his dignity and shied away. I am not a pet. He muttered in her head.
“I know, but that still felt good, didn’t it?” The edge from her previous jibes dissolved, leaving only friendly teasing.
Ru refused to admit anything of the kind and shifted back into his human form, now floating rather than walking. Unsurprisingly, he showed no sign of his earlier brutalizing by Gath Royard. He had not a hair out of place, not a stain or tear on his clothing. Without a word, he extended a hand toward her and worked a quick spell.
Over the months, Pele had honestly tried to learn magic—it seemed most people on Ere could handle some basics like creating small amounts of water or generating a few pounds of motive force. She couldn’t even muster that much, but thanks to Ru, she knew most of the principles.
For example, she knew that normal cleaning spells were spellworks of vin, the energy of air, and akua, the energy of water, that dissolved and whisked away dirt and grime into the air. Being a master spellworker and prideful showoff, Ru instead employed the power of the void, vox, which was normally applied to creating motive force as well as controlling other energies in arrays and constructs. His spell swept over her, seizing each individual drop and particle of filth and pulled them away from her, collecting it into a horrid-smelling brown-red ball that hovered before her.
When she, and her clothing and armor, were clean, he then tapped flaer to immolate the ball of filth.
“Thank you.” She said with a more honest smile.
“You still have to drag the head the rest of the way to Athan.” he said, looking in the direction of the settlement’s open gates and the trading post beyond. “After all, I prefer to do heavy lifting as an ogre and both you and Grandmother have said it would cause tensions if I became one here.”
Offhandedly, he added, “Even though these are most emphatically not ogres.”
Pele rolled her eyes. “The gilbraehi are plains ogres. Just because you apparently never met one doesn’t mean there’s not more than one type. They see the mountain ogres as dumb, uncivilized brutes that give them a bad name, so you turning into one is like an insult to them.”
The Rune Breaker sniffed, but didn’t pursue the subject. “We are going to eat this damnable boar, yes? Tonight? Because fighting it gave me a great hunger for pork.”
“We already worked all the spoils out.” Pele nodded, “While we were working. In the forest. Without your help.”
“I would point out that you bought that upon yourself, Miss Pele.”
She ignored his backpedaling. “There’s enough meat for us to eat it fresh for days, have enough salted to last us to Chordin, and still sell some to Findant, the Toraneki, and the Rilodern. They might also buy the bones, since spirit beast bones are reagents for spellcrafted items. After that, the head goes to Athan—” she paused for the spike of annoyance in the link, “—and I’m keeping the fur.”
“The fur?” Ru raised an eyebrow. He personally would have much rather have kept the bones.
“We’re wintering in Harpsfell again.” Pele shivered at the very memory. “I can never get warm in that city. This year, I plan to be prepared. There’s enough fur there for three full outfits—enough to keep me warm the whole winter.”
Ru shrugged at this. Subtle shapeshifting kept him at a comfortable temperature in all but the most extreme conditions and he knew alternate forms to deal with said extremes.
They walked in amiable silence through the gates. They were alone now, as the other hunters broke off to deliver the boar parts to members of the clan with the expertise to process them.
Findant Settlement’s trading post was a small town on its own. A pair of two-story tall stone store houses flanked the main gates with a lumber yard visible behind the westernmost one and a stockyard behind the eastern. Past them were several small shops: an outfitter, a smithy, and a cartwright among them. The largest building was a wooden structure attached to a third stone storehouse: the trading post.
These all surrounded a plaza in the center of which stood a building that was little more than a large roof on stilts with a smoke hole cut in the middle. Stone benches and tables, all conjured with the energy of earth, ere-a, were arranged beneath the shelter, surrounding a large fire pit made of clay bricks.
Pele heard Athan’s voice and deep laugh before she spotted him among the ogres, humans, and halflings sitting together around the flame.
Moh Athan was short for an ogre—even a gilbraehi—barely taller than Pele herself. He made up for it by being broad with muscles like boulders bulging under his green-gray skin. Unlike the jutting belly of a mountain ogre, he and most of his people had flat stomachs and barrel chests. Athan’s muscles were both taut and powerful from years of farming and logging. His jaw was wide and jutting—almost lupine—with a fringe of moss-green hair outlining it. That same wispy green hair sprouted in tufts on his forearms and grew in a long mane from his head.
The ogre was sitting on the packed earth nearest the fire, along with his wife, Gruenhei, at his left hand. To his right, perched atop folding wooden benches they supplied themselves, were the leaders of the Winter Willow, known to the entire clan and any who did business with them as Grandmother and Grandfather. Across the fire from that quartet were representatives of the Toraneki and Rilodern tribes.
Koga, chief of the Toraneki, was accompanied by his son, a young man who while bare-chested like his father (As far as Pele could tell, the wearing of shirts among the nomadic tribes of southern Callen was seen as just an oft-ignored suggestion if that), wore a hood that covered his shoulders and obscured all but his eyes. It was styled to look like a Calleni tufted rhino, complete with a wooden horn with the tip cut off.
Representing the Rilodern clan were a trio: Ghomran, the chief, and Kiligoh and Tovaran, his two mystics. Beneath their many, many tattoos, Pele could make out something of a family resemblance between them.
There were other humans and ogres about; the ogres sitting on the ground as most of them preferred while the humans sat on the benches. The other nir-lumos had too much work to do with the arrival of the boar to make a showing beyond their leadership.
The mood around the fire seemed light as steaming bowls of some sweet-scented drink and puffy pale loaves of the heavily spiced bread the ogres favored were passed around. It didn’t change when Athan spotted Pele and Ru approaching.
“And there, my friends,” he boomed, “is the biggest halfling I ever saw.”
The ogre laughed at his joke, but the others could only muster polite laughs, having already heard ten variations of it over the past two days. Politeness wasn’t in Athan’s repertoire any more than witty humor was, so he guffawed and slapped his thigh for a good minute before Ghomran spoke up to spare the others.
“It looks like she’s brought you your forest pest’s head.”
Athan’s laughter cut off with a grunt. “Pest nothing. Gath Royard slew five of our lumberjacks—two ogres even—and two hunters besides. He was a menace, especially with no mages skilled with flaer or ash chalk on hand. Damn his soul to the Seven Interlocking Hells.”
“Just goes to show that one should always be prepared.” Kiligoh spoke with a rasp before taking a sip from the bowl in his hand.
Gruenhi spread her fingers out in a dismissive gesture. “It isn’t as if this were Mindeforme, the Tresholm, or even Terhan—there aren’t that many hostile spirit beasts in Callen. Gath Royard is the first I’ve seen here in years.”
“You’ve been lucky then.” said Koga, munching his loaf of spiced bread. “There is a nesting pair of Timaba Eagles on the Roaring Mountain. We used to hunt in the valley to the north of there in the spring; not anymore. Callen used to have few spirit beasts, but the ones we’ve got are breeding.”
“Well there’s one less in these lands.” Athan grunted and rose from his place before the fire, raising a meaty hand—large even for his frame— to the approaching pair. “Hoy, big halfling! Is that the bastard that’s been tromping down our lumber business?”
Pele beamed at him. Despite how tired others were of the joke, she enjoyed being likened to her adopted family. “Hoy, Athan! I can promise he won’t be any trouble again.” She picked up her stride and briskly dragged Gath Royard’s head up to the shelter. “I thought you might like to have his head.”
This drew a hearty laugh from Athan. “Stuffed and mounted in the trade hall, yes indeed. How much?”
“Call it a gift.” Pele said, finally letting go of the tusks. Her hands ached from gripping them so long, and she massaged them gently as she stepped aside so that Athan could examine his trophy.
“Free?” Athan’s bushy green brows drew together in mock puzzlement and he looked back to Grandmother. “Now that’s hardly the nir-lumos way, not as I know it.”
Grandmother chuckled, hiding it behind a sip from her bowl. The elderly halfling was only three feet tall, not even waist high to the humans present, much less the ogres or Pele, but she managed to cut a presence as large as any of them even in humor.
“It’s her kill and her choice.” she said, “Though the Winter Willow wouldn’t mind a gift in kind… maybe a pound of this tea you bought from Ghomran, or a few pounds of that sugar I know you stockpile.”
Koga perked up at this. “You have sugar?”
“Yes,” Kiligoh leaned forward, “Why wasn’t that open to trading?”
Others around the shelter paused in their own conversations to join in at the mention of the commodity.
“Where did he…”
“…only been able to find spun honey…”
Athan grunted and shot Grandmother a glare for what she’d started. “It’s not for trade. It was a cruel joke from Sylph that it only grows in the Tresholm and the elves hardly ever cross the Strait of Nivia. Maybe once a year if that, so this has to last me.”
Pele caught Grandmother exchanging a look with Grandfather, who smoothly took his cue. Setting his bowl of tea calmly aside, he spoke up into the calamity his wife created. “It doesn’t grow only in Vini Tresholm, you know?”
“Well of course, it grows on Nyce.” Tovaran entered the conversation, “And I’ve heard it used to grow in Illium.”
Grandfather shook his head. “Not what I’m talking about. I heard the tale last winter in Harpsfell. Caius Subter stole clippings from the Tresholmi elves. You know about the druids and Chordin, yes?”
Beside him, Grandmother tore a piece off her loaf of bread and nibbled it with a satisfied smile. Her eyes twinkled as she watched Athan draw the correct conclusions in his head: the druids served Sylph Reborn, goddess of nature, and it was through their patronage that Chordin managed to thrive in the frozen north. Moreover, Grandmother herself was a priestess of that same goddess and maybe…
Athan coughed into his fist. “So there is a chance that there is now sugar for trade in Harpsfell?”
“More than a chance.” Grandmother said, composing herself into the picture of piety. “Nothing that grows withers under Sylph’s attentions. I imagine House Subter will have bags upon bags of white sweetness by the time we arrive in Harpsfell for winter.”
“And you’ll be passing back this way in the spring.” Koga picked up the unspoken second part to that hint. He had no care for sweets, but his tribe ranged to places in Callen the Winter Willow didn’t travel and so did Ghomran’s. Piles of golden and silver coins glittered in his mind’s eye along with the herds of ceratos, complete with armor and weapons, they could buy. The Toraneki would be able to hunt and winter wherever they wanted forevermore.
Grandmother didn’t have to say another word, the three leaders leapt almost as one to place their orders.
Still trying to massage life into her hands, Pele shook her head at the sight. She’d been there when Grandmother first got wind of the Subter sugar rumor. Knowing that it would be a while before the details were all hammered out, she strolled over to a table with some open benches and helped herself to a loaf of bread from a basket set atop it.
Ru sat next to her, but his attention was more on the basket.
The device was a testament to the wealth Athan brought to Findant. There was an iron plate at the bottom of said basket, spellcrafted with flaer to keep the loaves warm. A smaller dish was also set out and filled with spiced butter, just the way the local ogres liked it.
Remembering the horrible coughing fit from the last time she sampled the butter, Pele just tore off a piece of bread and ate it. Cinnamon and ginger infused the bread, enhanced by hints of honey. It was apparently further improved by the hot chilies in the butter, but she didn’t see how.
Though no fire known could burn her, nothing of her heritage protected her from the sting of whatever Inferno-wrought plant the gilbraehi in the region crushed and put into almost every dish. It was really no wonder that all of their other dishes were as sweet as possible.
“So you’re the one that killed the spirit boar.”
Pele paused in her snack to notice the man she’d set herself down beside. He was an older human, his hair not so much gray as the color of steel, with defined musculature still showing beneath the thin leather vest he wore. Faint scars painted what was exposed of his chest and arms as well as his neck.
When he was certain he had her attention, he raised two fingers in a formal Calleni greeting. “May you die drowning in the blood and bile of your enemies.”
Though his attention was on the spellcrafting done on the warmer plate in the basket and the bottom of the butter dish, Ru snorted. The morbid Calleni greeting was enough, but Pele could feel the anticipation building in the link—he couldn’t wait to hear her attempt to respond in kind.
She swallowed her last bite of bread. “My thanks. And… may your death rattle settle on the unhearing ears of a thousand slain foes.”
The man paused at the oddly poetic phrasing and Pele groaned inwardly.
You read too many books. Ru said in the link. People don’t talk that way.
If the point is to be creative while saying you hope they’re able to die killing their enemies, why do they get so confused when someone puts effort into it? Pele struggled not to let her frustration show.
Ru managed to convey the feeling that he was rolling his eyes. You don’t put effort into wishing people dead. It comes naturally.
Pele was spared whatever direction that discussion was going to go when the man found his train of thought again. “How’d you do it?”
“Not alone.” She said with a shrug. “The other hunters drew him out, then led him to me, then Ru… held him in place so I could strike the killing blow. My sword,” she gestured to the Eastern Brand on her back, “can catch fire on command—it’s very useful against spirit beasts.”
He hmm’d and looked her over. It wasn’t in a lecherous way—Pele had enough experience with that. But it was in a way that she was similarly used to: the cool, calculating estimation of a potential opponent’s prowess in combat. Whatever he saw in her had him nodding.
“Damn strong for a hailene.”
Pele looked away, her wings twitching. “Ang’hailene.”
“There’s a difference?”
A rumble started up on Pele’s other side and a stirring in the link told Pele that Ru was tired of hearing that particular question in regard to her over and over. The dark mage had picked up the butter dish and continued to examine it even as he spoke.
“In the hailene language, hailene-de, hailene simply means ‘people’ and the prefix ang’ was a negation. Taken literally, ang’hailene means ‘not people’ and the hailene Miss Pele knew when she was growing up took it quite literally.”
Pele relaxed a bit when Ru lied by admission. Sometimes he just laid the whole truth out and left her to explain the whole mess, which sounded like the plot of a dime novel.
That last thought made her force down a laugh. It was a dime novel story now. Her friend Kaiel sent her the fictionalized account of their adventures together, the one that ended with the death of the demon Immurai the Masked.
The old warrior looked between Pele and Ru. “Ah, the two of you are together.”
Pele did laugh at that. Even Ru was forced to let out his trademark ‘Heh’. “No, not at all. Ru is my friend. We share a wagon and the occasional meal, but never a bed.” The look or relief on the man’s face made her laughter cut off the instant she noticed it. “…Why do you ask. You aren’t…”
It was the man’s turn to laugh now, loudly and boisterously. “Gods above and well below, no, girl. I’m too old and too married for that. No, you see it’s my grandson.”
He leaned back so that Pele could see a young man sitting beside him. Like Koga’s son, he wore a face-obscuring hood with a wooden rhino’s horn on the forehead. The only differences were that his horn had an even larger notch carved into it and a series of heavy iron bars sewn into the hem of the hood.
“This is Tolla.” The old man explained. “He is in his second year of manhood; strong, bright, skilled at hunting and battle. But, as you can see,” He gestured to the hood, “he hasn’t won the attention of a wife. This isn’t of his making of course. We of the Toraneki and our traditional allies have been blessed with many sons, but far fewer daughters.”
Pele stared at him for a long moment, trying to process what he’d just said. The link was a riot of amusement, enough to make the blood rush to her face. Very slowly, she put together what she wanted to say. “Are… you asking me to marry your grandson?”
“Of course not!” the old man said, recoiling as if she’d spat in his face. “For most of the tribes, marriage is the choice of the woman. I ask only that you consider him. I’m not without wealth if the hai… ang’hailene demand marriage price. As Koga’s herdmaster, I own twelve head of tri-horns, four bone-masks, and two prize warshields as well as tack, howdahs and battle platforms.”
Ru leaned past Pele, what could only be called playful cruelty crackling in the link. “These battle platforms. Those would be the back-mounted cannon I saw atop one of the warshield ceratos when you arrived?”
“Indeed.” said the man, chest puffing out with pride.
Pele shook her head and rose from the table. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not looking for marriage or war beasts right now. Besides, the clan is leaving tomorrow morning, so…” She struggled to remember the young man’s name.
“Tolla.” The person in question supplied with a defeated and distressingly practiced air.
“Tolla. Thank you. Tolla and I wouldn’t have any time to get to know one another before we left.” She snatched another loaf of bread from the basket before backing away further. “Again, I’m sorry.”
Ducking her head, she retreated from the shelter, heading back toward the gates and the caravan beyond.
And you say that I am rude. Ru drawled in the link.
I’m sure your wonderful demeanor will keep them company. Pele didn’t turn back.
Rai, Bromun and the kids are going to have dinner with me in the House tonight? Are you going to be there?
Mercifully Ru let the change of subject go by without protest. Will there be pork?
There’s likely to be pork every night for a good long while. Pele couldn’t help but laugh aloud.