- 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
Lake Naogae was two weeks travel north from Findant Settlement, where three rivers fed by melt water off the Rame Mountain Range converged, and the lush foothills gave way to open savannah. On its northern shore, the nir-lumos clans had built one of their stone houses; a way station where the halfling caravans could both resupply and exchange messages or packages.
The legend went that the Lake Naogae stone house was the original, having begun as a temple to Pandemos and the site where the god transformed his most devout human followers into the very first halflings and personally led them out to explore the then-new world of Ere.
Pele wasn’t sure if she believed it or not, but it was the only stone house with doors and ceilings sized for tall folk rather than halflings, even if centuries or millennia of nir-lumos use meant that all the furnishings were halfling-sized. The first time she’d been there, she spent time exploring the place, but this year, her mind was occupied by other things.
Grandmother announced her plans the day the clan pulled out from Findant settlement, confirming that her intention was to fly the whole clan to Harpsfell from the Calleni capitol of Spinar. Even so, the caravan hadn’t diverged from its route yet, so Pele had been able to pretend they would continue north to Rishec instead of hitting the Great Calleni Causeway and following it west northwest to Spinar.
In a day, they would be on that westward road and now there was no more ignoring that in a few short weeks, she would be on an airship once again. The context would be completely different of course, but all her life, airships were places of starvation, suffering, and humiliation. No matter how much she tried to look forward to the same things Bromun and the other hunters did, those memories couldn’t be banished.
Her wings rustled, feathers ruffling with her anxiety even as she tried to get comfortable where she was sitting on a bank by the lake shore. Below, most of the children were frolicking in the shallows under the watchful eyes of the elderly. Some of the hunters were further down the, fishing from a flat rock that jutted out into the water. Behind her, she could hear the rest of the clan settling in for the day.
On any other day, she would have joined all of them, but at the moment, she chose to sit and enjoy the outward peace while trying to tame inner demons.
Some days, she never once gave a thought about her time as a slave. Then a set of chains would rattle in a certain way, or she’d catch herself shying away from a touch and it all came back: the darkness of the mines, the buffeting winds of the open airship decks, and the blood-stench of the battlefield. In those moments, she was a powerless little girl and a tool honed by brutality all over again.
Without meaning to, she looked to the west. Spinar was much too far away to see, hidden by the horizon, but she almost felt its presence. Just looking at airships as they passed overhead made her every muscle tense. How could she actually board one and travel on it for five full days?
“You’re looking thoughtful.” something struck the ground next to Pele. It rattled; metal and clay inside leather.
She looked up to find Signateria in the process of kneeling down on the other side of the heavy travel bag she’d thrown down. Flowers and herbs the young priestess of Pandemos picked up in their travels stuck out beneath the bag’s heavy flap.
As Pele watched, Signateria opened the bag and took out a white drop cloth and spread it out in front of her before dumping the assorted plants and minerals out before her. After them came an assortment of tins and ceramic jars in addition to a mortar and pestle.
“A little bit.” Pele lied. “We’re going to have, what? Three extra weeks wintering in Harpsfell this year?”
“Not quite, but it’ll be fun.” Signateria shot her a conspiratorial grin. “You know, if there was ever a city I’d become nir-latos for, that would be it.”
Pele returned the grin, though she didn’t completely grasp what that meant. Nir-latos was what the caravan halflings called either halflings who settled down in cities, or those who stopped observing some other combination of tenets of the nir-lumos belief system. Whether they actually lived in cities or not, they were all called ‘city halflings’ colloquially, even if they were traveling merchants unaffiliated with a clan.
While she guessed Signateria was admitting to being tempted to living in Harpsfell permanently, Pele wasn’t sure what her agreeing would mean. She was, as far as the Winter Willow and its sister clans were concerned, a halfling; a nir-lumos by adoption. If she decided to stay in a city would she stop being a halfling or would she herself become nir-latos? Both Brin and Kaiel had similar status and didn’t stay with the caravan, she would have to ask them when she saw them next.
“It’s nice.” She said diplomatically. “Probably my favorite city we’ve been to. Kinos is a near second though. All the art galleries and such.”
Signateria started sorting the collected reagents and putting them into appropriate containers. “Art doesn’t do much of anything for me. I like doing things instead of looking at them. Oh, but speaking of city-folk, there’s a letter for you at the stone house.
There were only two people who would try and reach her through the stone houses and the thought of hearing from either of them drove some of Pele’s worries away and brought a smile to her face. “Really? I hardly ever get anything. Did you see where it was from?”
“I only saw your name.” said the priestess. “I got a few missives from other Dice Priests, but nothing personal.”
Pele made a conscious effort to be polite and not give a longing glance back at the stone house. Her friend had just come over to talk with her after all. “So what are you doing with the rest of your day?”
“Making medicine to leave in the stone house when we leave. We passed through the Stolat Hills just in time for the praesia to be in bloom, so I can leave a nice stock of stomach remedy and I gathered pounds of willow bark for painkillers when we crossed these stream a few days back.”
Leaning over to observe the gathered reagents more closely, Pele inhaled the pungent spicy odor of them. Having watched Signateria go through the process many times before, she imagined she could prepare something of a kind if pressed. Then again… “I may never understand why you even learned to make medicine when you can pray to the One Dice Rolling for the same effect, Signa.”
A light laugh escaped the priestess. “Well, Grandmother says the fastest way to convince the gods to start ignoring you is to bother them for every little ache and pain. Plus, I can’t leave a prayer or invocation behind for our cousins.”
Pele nodded. “That makes sense. It felt really good leaving all that boar jerky, it really made me feel useful to the caravans.”
“Exchanging it for the first non-pork we’ve had in two weeks probably helps too.” Signa snickered. “No offense to your big kill, Pele, but I’ll be glad when we have enough open stores to lay in some antelope or goat… or anything that isn’t boar.”
“None taken.” Pele said, waving off the apology. “I plan on fishing a little later to have something different for dinner myself.”
“I’ll trade you some spearmint for a perch or bass if you catch one.”
“Deal.” Pele’s curiosity finally got the best of her and she finally couldn’t stop herself from looking over her shoulder at the stone house. Nevertheless, she made no move to leave.
The move and the deliberate lack of action wasn’t lost on Signa. “Pele, I’m not going to be insulted if you go get your letter. Go ahead. I’ve got work to do anyway.”
“But we only just started talking.”
“We talk every day.” the priestess pointed out. “You don’t get letters from outside the caravan nearly as often. Go.”
Pele shrugged, then got to her feet. “I’ll be back as soon as I read what they have to say.”
Selecting a small handful of leaves and dried flowers, Signa placed them in the mortar and started grinding them. “Not without the fish. I’m serious: I don’t want to see or think of another pork roast or slab of bacon for the rest of the day.”
“Well I’ll see you after that then.” Pele said, giving her one last wave. With that, she hiked the rest of the way up the bank and across the flat expanse where all the wagons were stopped. The stone house was just beyond them.
Every other stone house Pele had seen was a small overgrown structure with a single room above ground containing a simple spellworked fountain that provided clean water alongside a trapdoor leading down into dug out storerooms and pre-existing cave systems that served the same purpose. Lake Naogae’s stone house was a big as a manor house, over two stories tall and built of stones larger than any of the halfling wagons.
The common icon for the One Dice Rolling, Pandemos, was carved in the heavy wooden doors and served as another clue to the fact that this place was more significant to the nir-lumos than any of the others. Offerings of shallow bowls of spirits and dice of every type and material were laid out around the fountain in the entrance hall.
The message box was on the eastern wall of the room, a stout chest attached to the stone floor by iron spikes driven through brass loops worked into its base. Anyone who opened the chest without it being activated by the leader of one of the nir-lumos caravans would find it empty.
Pele was unsure of whether this was an illusion or yet another use of pocket dimensions at work. None of the Winter Willow members were more adept at magic than Grandmother, and she’d learned by rote. And because entry to the stone houses were forbidden to anyone who wasn’t nir-lumos, Ru wasn’t allowed in to examine it and thus, she had no one to explain the principles to her. The law of the halflings was really the only law the Rune Breaker even pretended to heed.
Finding the letter meant for her in the chest was easy. Most of the clan went to check for messages immediately after arriving at a stone house, so there were only a few items left in the box to start. Beyond that, most other letters were in paper envelopes and packages were in parchment-wrapped cardboard boxes.
Leave it to Kaiel, loreman-in-training that he was, to send his missives in a scroll case of blood-colored leather. Pele didn’t even have to read the label, even though Brin’s letters were often so wordy that she had to send them in whatever boxes or scroll cases she had lying around. Only Kaiel would dream of paying coin to send something so ostentatious out into the wilderness.
Pele appreciated it all the same. She used the scroll cases Kaiel sent to store her better drawings or fragile baubles she purchased and feared might become lost and broken in her less than tidy room. Picking up the case, she headed back outside and used the link to find Ru.
Kaiel sent some mail. He usually has something to say to you as well—do you want to come read it?
She could feel his mind ticking away in the link before she consciously reached out to him. It wasn’t the deep thought he devoted to study and spellwork, and it was muddied by slight frustration and competition. Without asking, she knew he was engaging one of the elder nir-lumos in Stones and Ashes, a board game Ru discovered in Kinos the previous year, which had become all the rage with both himself and the older nir-lumos.
I will be there shortly, Miss Pele. He replied tightly. It was an obvious sign that he was losing.
Stones and Ashes?
Grandfather purchased new pieces at Findant. He has assembled a most formidable rampart defense.
Pele just let him feel her amusement at the Rune Breaker, the ‘weapon’ of legend, being preoccupied with a simple board game.
If you appreciated strategy and proper resource allocation, you would not find this amusing. Ru sent dryly. A few moments later, he mentally uttered an oath so foul Pele wondered if it was even possible to say aloud and appeared beside her, scrutinizing a handful of hexagonal enamel Stones and Ashes tiles.
“When next we enter a civilized town, I will pay a dozen weights of gold if only I can find a damned guardian tile.” He picked one piece in particular out of the pile and glared at it. Pele saw that it had a stylized spellworking diagram drawn on it. “I will never for the life of me understand why the wizard piece can only attack in one direction, and cannot attack adjacent.”
“Most wizards don’t turn into ogres and pound a person’s hat into their shoes.” Pele laughed. Then she shrugged. “It really surprises me how intrigued you are with this game.”
Ru grunted noncommittally as he floated along beside her. “It is a challenge, at least a mental one. And I have been in need of such stimulation since the destruction of Immurai the Masked. You must admit that my great power and knowledge goes under-utilized in the day-to-day life with the caravan. The occasional battle such as the one with the boar notwithstanding.”
“I can’t exactly say I’m sorry that we aren’t in mortal peril on a daily basis Ru.”
“Indeed, Miss Pele. And yet I sense you feel responsible for my boredom regardless. Do not worry: Stones and Ashes will suffice until I find something new to divert myself. As it stands, it seems I still need to hone my mastery of the game.”
Pele weighted the scroll case in her hands while giving him a sidelong look. They were trotting back through the encampment toward where she’d left Signa. “Grand father beat you that badly?”
“His rampart placement strategy changes the flow and motion of the game greatly. I waste turns destroying them while he uses the time arranging an unstoppable assault.”
A light smirk played on her lips. “Are you finally discovering the value of things like ‘defense’, Ru? I’m shocked.”
He growled deep in his throat, annoyance and frustration building in the link. “Just read the letter.”
Pele didn’t hide her amusement as she unscrewed the fitted cap of the scroll case. There were two sheets of thick vellum inside, marked by the large looping handwriting that was unmistakably Kaiel’s. She tucked the empty case under her arm, unrolled the pages, and began to read.
“’Pele, I hope this letter finds you and the entire clan of the Winter Willow well and happy. The last I heard, you were delayed crossing the Strait of Nivia by storms. I would ask after Rai, Bromun and the kids, but by the time your next letter reaches me, I expect you’ll be in Chordin already.’”
Sooner than he thought, Pele mused to herself with a pang of dread.
“’In answer to your question, no, I haven’t heard from Brin in nearly six weeks. I spoke to her while she was in Rivenport, but she and Layaka were about to leave on some assignment for the Historic Society—retrieval of a trove of art dating from the Age of Tragedies. She’s good at what she does, however, so they’ll be alright. She told me then that they expect to make Harpsfell by First Frost. It’d be nice to have all of us together in the same city again.’”
Upon hearing this, Ru let out a derisive snort. “It seems he wrote that last part wrong. What he means is that it will nice to have Brin in his bed.”
“Ru.” Pele admonished. “You know he isn’t like that. In fact, I don’t think they were ever… together.”
Being unable to say the words made her feel like a child. She did so anyway because putting her thoughts in the direction of anything intimate made something stir inside her that she wasn’t sure was entirely… her. Much like the roaring, draconic fury that sometimes took her in battle, the fluttery warmth and lewd thoughts felt at once like they were part of her and apart from her. She didn’t like it, so she refused to feed it.
When Ru merely scoffed, she continued to read.
“’But I do have a more interesting purpose to this letter than simply catching up. I have news, both from myself and for you. Forgive my selfishness in relating my own first.’”
Pele didn’t even need the link to sense the derision bubbling up from Ru at that.
“By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way back to Harpsfell following my time among the outcast dwarves in the north of Vini Tresholm. Loreman Ridsekes will be evaluating my memoir and by the time you see me next, I will have my sixth walkabout from my loreman requirements completed. From there, I am but one more step from becoming Loreman Arunsteadeles.’”
That news brought an instant smile to Pele’s face. “Isn’t that wonderful? And I can’t wait to read that memoir.”
“Oh, even you have to admit his account of what we went through looking for Motsey was a good read.”
Ru shrugged. “That depends on which one you read: the honest one he sent you, or the one full of fabrications and half-truths that anyone can buy for a few coins.” Under his breath, he added, “And which downplayed my involvement entirely.”
“You would rather the entire world know that you’re the Rune Breaker?” Pele redirected them toward her wagon. “We wouldn’t be able to move without fighting off yet another would-be monster looking to ‘gain’ the Rune Breaker. Not to mention what would happen if he explained why Immurai wanted me.”
The dark mage grumbled to himself, the link reeking of petulance. “It is still a lesser tale for lack of my great feats. The very idea that Immurai the Masked could be slain by simply destroying his keep and dropping the rubble on his head.”
He glanced up at where they were going. “Weren’t you going back to Signateria?”
“I have an assignment to go fishing when I’m done reading.” Pele said with a faint smile. “Anyway, let’s see what news he has for me.”
The first page ended with Kaiel’s announcement, so she shuffled the pages to the next. “’With that said and out of the way (you are, of course, invited to the ceremony if you arrive in time), I took some time to study my copy of Lena Hiddakko’s diary.’”
Pele made a face at the vellum. “Why does he never just call her my mother?” Ru offered no suggestions, so she just continued.
“’In the course of reassembling her notes into a more coherent timeline, I was able to narrow down the range of dates on which you were likely born. While I couldn’t suss out which of the listed births was you precisely, I was able to eliminate a few and come up with either the tenth through twelfth, the sixteenth, the nineteenth, and anywhere between the twenty-first and twenty-third of the Waning month of Autumn.
“’The practical upshot is that unlike the rest of us, you’ll get to choose your birth date. The downside? Since I won’t be able to hear from you until we meet up in Harpsfell on or around the first of the rising month of Winter, your present from me will be late regardless.
“’I can’t wait to see you again and hear when your birthday is. Your friend and Brother, Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles, Chronicler-of-note.’”
Ru barked a harsh laugh. “Even with you reading his words, he still sounds deeply pretentious.” He paused at the door to the wagon, hovering above the step. “So what day do you suppose you’ll choose? Today is the twenty-second of Autumn’s Standing month—there isn’t much time before the first available date.”
Over the last year, every member of the clan celebrated birthdays, and even Ru acknowledged his. Pele was eventually forced to admit she had no idea when she was born once the others noticed. Bromun and the hunters compensated by giving her gifts and a traditional night of campfire praise due all hunters on the eve of the Pandemian holiday of Fated Night earlier that summer.
“I’m going to have to think about it.” said Pele. “Are there any holidays around those times?”
“In the days leading up to winter?” Ru studied the sky. “The harvest festivals are over, the solstice holidays are months away. There’s nothing I can recall directly.”
Pele regarded the letter again, committing the dates to memory before rolling it up once more and stowing it in the case. “I have a few weeks left at least. Maybe I’ll ask Rai or Bromun or Signa for their opinions.” Lifting the latch, she gestured inside with the scroll case. “For now though, I have some fishing to do. Would you like to come?”
“I suppose.” Ru rumbled and transformed into a heron. I do need time to reconsider my Stones and Ashes strategy. And even I am growing tired of roast boar every night.