- 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
Unsolicited marriage proposals aside, Pele was in good spirits as she returned to the Winter Willow’s encampment. She’d helped out Athan and his people while increasing the food stores of the clan and the wealth of all her fellow hunters. She could even admit that she enjoyed the fight except for it being so brief.
It still felt strange to be fighting on her own initiative rather than taking orders from masters, who not-so-secretly hoped that she might die in battle.
Good mood or not though, her day’s activities were starting to take their toll as aches and pains started to creep over her body, especially around her shoulders and upper arms from dragging Gath Royard’s head several miles. She needed to see to that before Bromun, Raiteria, and the kids came over.
Picking up speed, she merely waved to the halflings she saw in passing, not stopping to engage anyone in conversation as she might on any other day. It wasn’t long before she reached her wagon.
It was bigger than most of the other wagons, not because it was built for her, but because it had started life built to accommodate the occasional non-halfling who paid to travel with the caravan as it traversed Ere’s two continents.
Now it was hers, and in the nir-lumos fashion, she’d painted it herself; white with red trim. It stood large and proud among the other wagons, the only less than impressive thing about it being the rather sad and limp mint plants she was trying to grow in the window box. She paused just long enough to scold herself for forgetting to water them that day. Again. Then she ducked under the slightly too low doorway and went inside.
The interior of the other wagons were set up for halfling families, with storage, work, and living necessities designed with efficiency of space being given the greatest importance. Beds folded into the walls, tables could be slid into hidden nooks under cabinets, and so on.
Pele’s wagon was set up more like a sitting room. There was a long padded bench, several halfling-sized chairs, and a low table between them with some saucers and clay mugs still left out from when she and her adoptive sister Raiteria and friend Signateria spent time talking the night before.
Making a note to clean those up and water her mint plants before Bromun and Raiteria arrived for dinner, Pele headed for the back of the wagon. There stood a door of dark wood, covered in carvings of twisting leafy vines with small woodland creatures hiding in the foliage. Too much in a hurry, and preoccupied with her growing aches, Pele barely registered the beauty of it, or the achievement of spellcraft it represented. She just went through it and into what everyone had come to simply call the House.
The actual principles behind the House were something Pele was still trying to untangle, but all she really needed to know was that it was an extra-dimensional space constructed entirely of magic and shaped by the spellcraft of whoever held the artifact that also created the door. That, and the fact that it was her home.
A hearth nearly as tall as she was dominated one end of the main room. The conjured fire inside kept the space several degrees warmer than it was inside the wagon. Like every room of the house, this one was appointed as if for royalty with furniture, carpets, and tapestries from the palace upon the island of Nhan Raduul.
Pele skirted around to the stone stairs leading up to the second floor. There was a long hallway at the top with more doors than she and Ru, the only occupants, ever needed. When he first got control of the house, Ru created enough rooms for them and their friends as they chased after the demon Immurai. Over time, he’d added other rooms as well; a library, a private study, and a storeroom for the magical reagents he spent almost every coin that passed through his fingers on.
Her room was the second on the left and she felt as if she’d never been more happy to reach it. A welcome heat blasted out at her when she opened the door. A second hearth, nearly as large as the one downstairs, kept her room sweltering, just the way she liked.
Before being adopted into the Clan of the Winter Willow, Pele never owned much that was truly her own. Armor and weapons were handed to her before battle and confiscated after. Clothes and blankets were issued and could be taken away on cold nights as punishment. Food bowls were communal among all of the other ang’hailene slaves.
As such, Pele had gone overboard with buying whatever she could afford, and had little concept of what to do with it all. The two bookshelves next to the door were groaning with books of every size, shape, and subject, arranged in no particular order with several open on her nightstand, writing desk, and the big upholstered hailene chair she’d bought in Mindeforme. The desk was also populated by all manner of drawing implements with her best efforts at sketching various subjects in her life tacked to the wall above it. Every available space had knickknacks and trinkets that caught her fancy during her travels; most being mechanical tools and toys.
The giant four-poster bed (also taken off Nhan Raduul), with its thick duvet and soft mattress beckoned to her, but she wouldn’t have time for a nap, however much she wanted one. Instead, she crossed to the far side of her room, to her second favorite feature besides the hearth.
The tub was the only thing about the House she specifically asked Ru to conjure up for her. It was sunk into a stone dais that rested against the back wall, beneath a wall-spanning tapestry depicting a stylized red dragon clutching a gold-wrought rendition of the diagramming symbol for flaer. Three dragon turtle heads carved in stone protruded from the wall to hang over the tub, their eyes picked out in opals of varying colors, each with a brass dial upon its brow.
Pele leaned over the tub and turned each dial as far as it would go, each head in turn instantly disgorging a spout of steaming water. Running her hand under it drew a pleasurable sigh from her. For most people, it would have been scalding, possibly dangerous; but for her, it was heaven.
Satisfied that the tub was filling, she went about divesting herself of her weapons and armor. Unlike everything else, those had very specific places to go and she didn’t tarry from putting them away properly. Too many poorly stored and maintained arms and armor had killed or endangered those around her for her to treat these with any less care.
Dottir Logi, still in its scabbard, was slotted into a stand created specifically to accept it. Her friend Kaiel had made it for her shortly after they returned to the mainland after Nhan Raduul where the sword acquired its uncontrollable heat.
Novacula Kuponya and its scabbard were placed in a decidedly more mundane bracket hanging over her bed, while her armor went on a simple wooden manikin some of the hunters made for her that she kept in the corner. Her adoptive niece and nephew had painted it in an assortment of strange colors and patterns.
Her boots, heavy things of thin iron plates over cerato leather, followed after and were set beneath the armor stand.
Beneath chain shirt and leather breeches, she wore a padded cotton shirt and leggings. Ru’s earlier spell had cleansed them of the sweat, grime, and mucus of the battle, but that didn’t make them less heavy and uncomfortable. She took a moment to lay out what she wanted to change into before skinning out of the rest to have her soak.
A little over an hour later, a more clean, comfortable, and relaxed Pele came down the stairs, following the scent of roasting meat. In place of her armor, she wore a light cotton tunic and trousers under a green silk hailene-cut housecoat with large orange fish dyed on the back and arms; a present from her friend, Brin. Her feet were shod in canvas slippers that had seen better days and were thus extremely comfortable.
“I figured after that fight, you wouldn’t show until you smelled meat.” Bromun was at the hearth, turning a spit loaded with hunks of boar meat alongside whole onions and potatoes.
Raiteria was sitting in one of the tall halfling chairs, stirring some sort of batter in a bowl that was too large for her. “We let ourselves in. Hail the conquering hero, by the way.” She widened her eyes with fake wonder. “I’m so proud, my sister killed a pig.”
“It was a big pig.” Bromun defended his fellow hunter.
“A very big pig.” Pele added over the squealing din that erupted when her nephew and niece finally noticed she was in the room.
Raleian matei-Bromun and her brother, Motseitiel matei-Raiteria had been sitting on the floor under the table, occupying themselves with sheets of paper and colored charcoal sticks. Drawing was forgotten when they caught sight of their favorite aunt. Both leapt to their feet and scampered over, begging to be picked up.
More than happy to oblige, Pele scooped them both up into a hug. “Well I’m happy to see you too, Motsey, Rale.”
“We haven’t seen you all day.” Rale complained.
“We heard you killed a biiiig pig.” said Motsey, who then giggled. “He-he. That rhymes.”
Pele returned his laughter with her own. “Yes, Yes it does. And I’m really sorry, Rale, but the hunters needed me. When you grow up and you’re a hunter—”
“Nuh-uh.” Rale interrupted. “I’m gonna be a priestess like Grandmother. That way, everybody’ll have to do what I tell them. Even you and Mommy.”
“I see. Well I think you’ll be a really great priestess.” Pele said, carrying both children over to the table. Raiteria looked up from her bowl and smirked. She’d heard this one before.
“Well when I grow up.” Motsey cut in, not wanting to be outdone. “I’m gonna be a wizard like Mr. Ru or Cousin Greymun from the Clan of Clear Skies! Or a scout, like Mommy. Did you know she blew up a monster to get me back when it stole me?”
Rale rolled her eyes. Yes, she did and couldn’t care less because at six years old, things that had nothing to do with her were incredibly dull. Soon enough they were bickering over whether Motsey was making up parts of the story, like whether or not he fought any of the demons that kidnapped him or if their Aunt Brin had really cut someone’s arm off.
Now completely forgotten by the children in her arms, Pele shook her head and knelt to put them back on the floor. She suppressed a laugh as she pulled her chair around to face Rai and Bromun before sitting. “I told you not to tell him the whole story.”
Rai stuck out her tongue. “You told me that months ago. It’s still a good story and they both know that if either of them were taken, both Mommy and Daddy would do absolutely awful things to the ones who did the taking.”
That wasn’t an idle threat. In nir-lumos society, touching a child without a parent’s permission for any reason could mean death. Messy, drawn out death. Hurting family at all didn’t get much better—and they considered all halflings, be they nir-lumos or not, family.
With a cheeky grin, Rai hopped down from her seat with the bowl and set about pouring the contents into the hot drip pan beneath the spit. “Dinner will be ready soon, by the way.”
“I can’t wait.” said Pele. A quick consultation of the link revealed that Ru was in the House as well, upstairs in the library. She let him know about dinner, then went back to her sister and brother-in-law. “So does either of you know what Grandmother was up to earlier?”
Rai scraped the last of the batter into the pan and set the bowl on an unused chair. “The sugar business?”
“The terms just seem too… fair for how Grandmother handles deals like this, and I don’t get the impression that Findant Settlement, the Toraneki, or the Rilodern are special friends to the Winter Willow.”
The noise of childish arguments had died down and Rai leaned past Pele to check on why. The children, argument abandoned, had returned to their drawings—both of giant pigs. After taking a moment to dust her hands off on her pants, she rearranged her chair to face Pele and the fire, then climbed back into it.
“All I know is she’s getting a lot of money up front to bring a lot of it back. That, and she changed our route. We’re not going due north to Rishec, then up through the Kilodern tribal lands like last year.”
Bromun raised a brow at this. “Really? We’re not going to be meeting up with the Clans of Clear Skies and Winding Path for the final leg to Harpsfell?”
That made Pele’s mood sour a small bit. She’d been looking forward to the big celebrations that happened whenever two or more nir-lumos clans linked up. There were reunions and courtships and weddings almost nightly on top of games and just plain meeting new people.
“Doesn’t look like we’re going to meet up with them until they get to Harpsfell.” Rai said. “We’re heading for Spinar, and based on how much money she’s squeezing out of the tall folk, she might well buy the whole clan passage to Harpsfell on an airship—wagons and all!”
Many times, Pele had heard her family and friends saying something to the effect of ‘blood to ice’ or ‘blood to ash’. She thought she had a good handle on what it meant. It was the feeling she got when Motsey was taken in Daire City, or when Immurai the Masked had her chained and ensorcelled at his mercy. This time, it felt different. Sudden. It struck her before her conscious mind could pick out the trigger. Her muscles tensed, her throat tightened. Air rushed into her lungs in a mighty intake of breath that forced her ribs apart.
At the speed of thought, she felt a tingle in the link and Ru was there in a flurry of black robes. Metal sang as his scythe, Grace, emerged from the pocket dimension that served as its sheath and into his waiting hand. The weight of the murderous, gleaming blade made the haft swing down to rest on his shoulders.
The halflings were used to Ru’s dramatic comings and goings, but just for a second, his expression had Bromun instinctively reach for the kukri tucked in his belt and Rai to move swiftly to place herself between him and the children.
Tension spiked in the room, then quickly collapsed into awkward silence pierced only by Motsey and Rale giggling at the adult’s actions.
Ru, who was floating as usual, rotated in air to raise a brow at Pele, who pointedly ignored him. If he really wanted to know rather than make a production of things, he could have asked in the link.
That was all Rai needed to realize her mistake. “Oh.” She covered her mouth in horror at the depth of her ignorance. “The airships. Grandmother doesn’t know—it wasn’t my place to tell her, Pele.”
“What about the airships? She’s never been in one?” Bromun relaxed, turning back to tend the spit. “You’ll like them, Pele; especially the expensive ones. It’s like a flying town up there and there’s folks that bring food right to you. All you’ve got to do is ask. Last time we took one… it was between Amon’ru and Catlaeys, I think… three or four years ago—anyway, Haruteria hired this tall-folk man to give her a massage!”
Behind his back, Bromun’s wife was turning red and giving Pele a look that was pleading forgiveness.
“He doesn’t know either?” Ru asked, turning his scrutiny on Rai.
“Know what?” Bromun asked, looking over his shoulder at them.
“That Miss Pele does not like traveling by airship.” Ru said flatly. Pele wondered if he did things like that out of courtesy, or just out of his love of lies by omission and obfuscation.
Before Bromun could ask his next question, Pele held up her hand. It took an effort to make sure it wasn’t trembling. “It’s fine. I’m fine, Bromun.” She got up to retrieve the plates and utensils. “Everything’s fine.”
No it isn’t. Ru said into the link, blunt as ever.
It will be. Pele shot back. Bromun enjoys it. I’m sure the kids will enjoy it. I’m not ruining it for them.
For once, Ru didn’t push. He simply vanished back to his library with the excuse that he needed to put his research materials away.
Siram Leggate was on the other side of the world from Findant Settlement, on the coast of Mindeforme, just two hundred miles from the Taunaunese border.
At its core was the Library at Siram Leggate, the most respected hub of learning in the East. It was built from the hull of a crashed Hailene warship, which stabbed a stunning thirty stories into the sky, far over-topping any other building in the city.
So massive was the Library’s bulk, that its shadow turned the entire city into a gigantic sundial, casting a different part of the city in temporary night every hour. The locals called such hours ‘second night’ and learned to adjust, because without the library and the army of academics it both attracted and employed, their city wouldn’t even exist.
Second night came at four in the afternoon in a waterfront bar called The Open Cask. As the Library’s shadow bore down on the tiny establishment, the servers—both the barkeep’s daughters and only son—scrambled about lighting lamps. It wasn’t a nice place with a lot of money, so the lamps were simple candles and oil lamps with mirrors set behind them to increase their meager light. There was a big spellcrafted lamp hanging over the main room, but it took too long to light for anyone to justify using it for second night.
Beni, the youngest of the three at sixteen, had lost the argument with his siblings and was tasked with bringing drinks to the patrons sitting at the far back table. They’d argued because all three knew from experience the unpleasantness that came of serving ‘Anemone’ Jubae Chandel.
Anemone sat with her crew and could be picked out easily from the rest. She chose her crew for capacity for violence. They were mostly human men and women from Mindeforme—tall, broad, and blonde; with a few stocky part-dwarf Genmidis and rangy, lank Taunaunis. She herself was a Nov and looked every bit a city girl from Kinos with her overly-gelled black hair, button nose, and big grey eyes with heavy lashes. She was also dressed more for city living than the high seas with a black silk shirt, wide-legged cotton trousers, and fur trimmed white cloak with a silk lining. Lastly, she wore a wide belt of segmented metal plates with a buckle set with a smooth cut aquamarine the size of a small hen’s egg.
There were no weapons on her person, which informed smart folk that she didn’t need them.
Unlucky Beni was smart enough to know, but unable to avoid what he knew was coming. All he could hope for was the experience only being humiliating. Keeping his eyes on a neutral spot on the table, he delivered the crews’ orders of crab soup and hard rolls. All the while, he prayed to Dey to bless him for doing what he had to by delivering him from the consequences of getting too close to Anemone Chandel or anyone on her crew.
He placed the food down without incident, but when he turned to go, a hand closed around his arm, spinning him about until faced Anemone.
Up close, whatever made her look soft and city-bred fled from the cruel spark in her eyes. “Not so fast, lad. Haven’t made my order yet.”
Beni tried not to tremble, he really did. “S-sorry, ma’am. What would y—” She cut him off by pulling him down onto the bench next to her. Before he could react, she’d kicked one leg across his lap and tensed the muscles, locked him in place. She wasn’t heavily muscled and only a hair taller than Beni, but still, she had strength to spare in holding him still.
One of the crew, a gargantuan blond man with biceps larger than Beni’s head, barked a laugh while a thin dusky-skinned half-elven women fixed him with a golden-eyed stare and licked her lips.
“I think you well know.” She said, her voice hard, commanding. Her arm insinuated itself around him, pulling him closer with just as much strength as she already displayed.
Fighting wasn’t an option. Beni knew from her reputation at other bars along the shore that Anemone would start breaking bones if he tried. He just went limp as she leaned in for a forceful kiss, breath reeking of beer.
Somewhere near the bar, the wooden legs of a stool scrapped across the floor. “Anemone. That’s enough.” The voice was deep and with a touch of intentional gravel.
The kiss didn’t come. Beni cracked open an eyelid to see Anemone glaring past him. Venom dripped from every word as said, “Vul Azan. I didn’t think we’d ever see your like back in ‘forme. I seem to remember our business had concluded.”
Beni followed her glare to a man he recalled coming in a few minutes earlier. He was a Nov like Anemone, only from nowhere near her principality. He was as tall as any of her crew, and while not as well-built, he wasn’t weak looking either. Red hair curled down to his cleanly shaven jaw and his green eyes were almost luminescent in the dim room.
A coat of rough leather, but dyed rose-red as if it were something a fine gentleman might wear, hung off his shoulders without his arms in the sleeves. Beneath it, he wore no shirt, but a strip of cotton cloth wound tightly around his chest down to the top of his abdomen. Loose black wool trousers covered his legs, rolled up above tall, heavy boots. Four finely-wrought chains of gold and silver around his neck held charms of a design unknown to Beni.
As Anemone spoke, he picked up a pair of leather bucklers and strapped them onto his arms.
“More business came up in the area. I thought to hire you and your crew on again, but then I got word that some of the barmen along the shore took up a collection. Did you know there’s a reward for making sure you and your crew stop abusing the service around here? Seems that most of the service folk are sons and daughters of the barmen and they happen to not like people forcing dalliances on them.”
Anemone leaned over and rubbed her cheek roughly against Beni’s “Enough for you to take it? I ought to rob them next time.”
“I’ve got expenses, same as everyone, Jubae. More now than ever.”
The pirate captain lifted her head away from Beni with a smirk. “Better add the cost of a Hospitaller to that. Maybe a whole circle of vitae masters. Got me a new girl since you’ve been gone. Toa Raiul? Say hello to my old friend, please?”
A nasty smile spread across the face of the half elf who made eyes at Beni earlier. Fine, golden scales began to appear on her bared arms. “I’ve heard about you, Red Son of Agmar. You and your ‘friend’. Bad luck for you: I’m just as fire proof as you.”
Vul Azan sported a grin of his own as his hand strayed to one of the charms he was wearing around his neck; two silver serpents entwined around a tiny bowl of what seemed to be white mist. “Good to know. But I’ve made other friends. Vouga, Ieyae: my bucklers, if you will.”
The mist in the tiny bowl in his charm boiled, spilling out in twin tendrils that flowed across his chest, down his arms and surrounded his bucklers. As soon as they were completely enveloped in mist, he whipped one arm out. The buckler detached itself from its strap and went spinning through the air toward Toa. A trail of shimmering fog trailed behind it.
She dodged to her left, but the missile veered to follow her. The edge shattered her nose in a spray of blood, sending her crashing back onto the table. Soup and blood droplets spattered everyone at the table, including Beni.
As the pirates leapt to their feet to aid their comrade, Vul Azan snapped his arm, and the foggy trail connected to the buckler pulled it back to his hand. His grin had become wolfish as he anticipated a fight. A shrug of his shoulders caused his coat to fall from them.
“Foomish.” He called, touching a golden flame charm hanging from another chain. “Surround me.”
A ball of fire burst into being around the charm. Two eyes briefly glared out from it before the ball spread out into a sheet that folded around Vul Azan like a cloak.
“So Anemone, shall I burn your entire crew, or do you think that belt of yours gives you enough strength to match that of a dragonsired and his spirit guardians?”
Beni took the opportunity to slip out from under Anemone’s leg and flee for the back room before the violence began.