- 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 Clan of the Winter Willow made excellent time along the Great Calleni Causeway, arriving at the outer wall of Spinar on the thirty-fifth and final day of the Standing month of Autumn.
The thirty-foot outer wall, encompassing all of the outlying farmland and fisheries serving Spinar denied Pele her first glimpse of the famed City of Temples until the wagons passed through its gates. When she finally laid eyes on it, all of her questions about its nickname vanished.
Built at the easternmost edge of the city so as to be the first structure to greet the rising sun, the Temple of New Dawn dominated the skyline with three spires that climbed a dizzying forty stories into the sky. Polished white marble gleamed and some spell or mechanism lit the stained glass windows from within, showing with great clarity the radiant sunburst patterns and renditions of Hessa in various aspects to any who might look in its direction.
And while the Temple of New Dawn was most prominent, the entire Vishnari Pantheon was well represented with their largest, most well-staffed houses of worship being based in Spinar. From a hill in the west rose the dome of the Outward-Facing Eye, a temple and observatory dedicated to Denaii in his aspect as God of Knowledge and Science.
Not far from Hessa’s marble spires, dark basalt turrets over-topped the surrounding buildings by several stories. Pennants bearing the gray hand icon on a field of white identified them as belonging to the central Deyic Church where the goddess known alternately as the Goddess of Duty by her faithful, and the Goddess of Evil by those who still didn’t accept her induction into the Pantheon during the Age of Tragedies tended her flock.
Much like it did upon the Temple of New Dawn, the sun’s light glittered where it struck the myriad panes of glass that made up the geodesic dome on a roof near the southern extreme of the city. Said dome allowed light to shine down upon the place of worship for Sylph Reborn’s faithful. It had no special name, being identified only as a sylvan grove like all of the nature goddess’s sacred places.
Spinar’s buildings, some of which topped fifteen stories on their own hid the other Vishnari temples, but Pele knew them from her reading. Dodregaar, God of Peace, Love, and Family had a chapel at the city center that was also an open forum for the free exchange of ideas as well as a popular place for young couples to be married. Meanwhile Pandemos hosted an enormous ring-shaped tavern and gambling house that was also rumored to rest atop the hub of a labyrinth of tunnels that stretched out beneath the entire city.
It wasn’t just the Vishnari Pantheon that put their grandeur on display in the City of Temples. The Threefold Moon had a temple in the west, its single dark spire challenging Sylph’s. And there were also temples, churches and shrines to small gods scattered about the city with ranks of faithful ranging from a handful to a few hundred. Most of the better known small gods had some level of presence in the city save one: the Mother of Blades. Her sole temple was in Harpsfell.
Pele groaned to herself and tightened her grip on the reins in her hands. As if she didn’t have enough on her mind, thinking about the Mother of Blades reminded her of a task she’d left undone. Aba Issacor Truedeles’ sword, Faith-Be-Forgiven, still rested in the corner of her room. Pele had taken it upon herself to return it to the Mother’s temple, following his death at the start of the campaign against Immurai the Masked, but lost her nerve when she was in Harpsfell last. This time, she would have to swallow her anxieties and do what needed to be done—for Issacor, if not for her own sake.
But Harpsfell was hundreds of miles and many days to the north, so she wrestled her thoughts away from that particular source of her dread and returned her focus to Spinar and the special dread it held for her.
Situated in the north was the only set of structures to rival Hessa and the Threefold Moon’s dominance of the skyline: the airship docks. Ten great towers stabbed the sky, extending arms of stone and steel out in all directions to allow incoming craft of all sizes to dock.
There were simple dirigibles with gondolas meant to carry cargo alongside modified sailing ships with retrofitted engines and mystically enhanced sails, as well as purpose-built ships that looked like great wooden or metal beetles. Lighter craft, from bird-like ornithopters and things reminiscent of rowboats, to bare platforms with railings bolted to their sides darted amongst their larger brethren, butterflies in a forest.
… Or flies in a cerato’s corpse. Pele couldn’t help being morbid about the prospect of boarding an airship again. She’d killed to escape airships; bargained with Ru, who at the time could have been a demon or malevolent djinn for all she knew, to escape them. All told, she fled almost five hundred years into the future to be rid of them and lived a year without ever having to set foot on them—and all that hard-won evasion was going to come to an end the next morning.
The part of her that was curious before it was wise wondered if the ship they were taking was already docked, and if she could pick it out from the others. Bromun made the thing sound like a flying marketplace, but nothing jumped out at her as looking the part.
A part of her that was bitter and wrathful before it was wise toyed with an indulgent fantasy of ordering Ru to burn the docks to the ground, not sparing a single thing that flew or floated. There was no catharsis in that though. The simple idea of using the link to order Ru to do anything was enough to cause pangs of guilt, let alone the innocent lives lost in such an act. Even though it was an idle thought, it was one she quashed as swiftly and violently as possible.
“Heh.” Not swiftly enough, it seemed. Ru was riding alongside her on Gaddigan, his huge black warhorse. “Some of those ships are filled with volatile gasses—or at least they were during my previous master’s time. It would take little effort to turn all ten towers into a conflagration to be written of in histories.”
Pele turned to glare at him, but ended up glaring directly into Gaddigan’s eye. The big horse snapped his teeth, but shied away. More than a year later and he still remembered their first meeting: it had ended with him tossed over on his side like a sack of grain by her.
“It isn’t funny Ru.”
“But it would solve your problem.” said Ru, stroking his beard theatrically.
Pele restrained the link from punishing him for that, focusing on the cold, steely point in her mind it was represented by and keeping it from growing sharp. “No, it won’t. What will solve my problem will be… I don’t know. It isn’t as if I haven’t read about modern passenger airships. I know I’m not going to be hurt or mistreated on board, but none of that is keeping me from feeling like a sparrow about to fly through a gargoyle roost.”
“And yet you insist on flying into that roost nonetheless.” Ru observed. “I have been to Harpsfell now. Given a few hours and the correct regents, I could teleport you there. The clan would understand that.”
She shook her head and directed her gaze at the approaching city walls. The inner walls of Spinar were only about twenty feet tall and formed of basalt, but they were spellworked for strength and their ramparts held hwacha batteries in addition to the standard archers, riflemen, and wizards.
Pele had seen a mere four hwacha unleash enough salvos of exploding arrows to decimate an army. With the number the inner wall sported, no force she knew of would reach the gates intact.
When her gaze swept over said gates, which allowed the Great Calleni Causeway entrance into the City of Temples, she received a shock that made her temporarily forget all about airships and trauma. Rather than foot-soldiers stationed to guard the eastern gates of the city, Spinar fielded ospreshrikes.
She’d only ever seen a dead one, felled by a detachment from the Rizeni Citizen’s Army after it started attacking ranches in the area. However, the clan’s hunters had plenty of tales about the beasts widely accepted as the most powerful non-spirit beast predators on Ere. They said that the ‘treeline stalker’, as they were called among the nir-lumos, had a bite strength powerful enough to crack open a wagon and a sense of smell that could alert them to prey ten miles distant. They said they killed and ate ceratos, even the huge war-shield variety.
And there were four of them at the gates of Spinar.
Awe more than dread filled Pele as the caravan drew nearer and she could see the hulking brutes more clearly. There were three females and a male, the latter identifiable by the twin crests of red feathers that flared up from his brow ridges and by the fact that he was a good ten feet shorter in length than the females who stood just over ten feet tall at the hip and measured around forty feet from snout to tail.
They all had big, boxy heads that seemed almost too heavy for their burly, S-shaped necks to hold up. Walking on two legs, they kept their spines parallel to the ground with their tails jutting stiffly behind. Though their forearms were short, with only two sickle-like talons upon them, it was clear that they were meant to grab on to large prey and hold it in place for a powerful bite that could end any struggle.
While they weren’t birds, their hides were covered with spiky feathers, with the females being gray and brown striped, trending to lighter gray at the breast, while the male was charcoal gray—almost black—but with a white breast. He also sported tufts of feathers at the ankle, surrounding his feet, while the females’ talons were bare and gleaming black.
All four were in livery; black and white barding with hammered gold pectorals emblazoned with the crossed spears and downward thrusting sword of the Over Chieftain, the sovereign ruler of Callen and the city of Spinar. The largest female wore what appeared to be a crown of golden feathers upon her already heavy head.
The caravan slowed as it approached the gates and the guardian beasts set before them. The nir-lumos ponies, usually steadfast in the face of peril, balked at the sight and scent of the ospreshrikes. Even Gaddigan tossed his head and snorted.
“Oh please.” Ru snarled at his steed. “You carry a worse terror than all four combined upon your back on a daily basis. What sense is there to even pretend you know fear at this point?”
Pele wanted to smirk at him, but found herself having to urge her own wagon’s ponies forward. When she finally got them moving through the natural valley of feathers and fangs formed by the ospreshrikes, she was able to see that each beast had a howdah on its back containing a three-man crew and a pair of mounted guns slung so that they could fire past either side of the animal’s head. The crowned female also had a smaller forward saddle where sat a woman in full armor and a crested helmet in the shape of an ospreshrike head.
“Maybe I missed something in my reading, but I wasn’t aware spirit beasts were that big a problem in this region. What threat could possibly require so much massed military strength?”
“Callenis.” Ru grunted, looking not at the ospreshrikes, but rather the wall. His yellow eyes examined the spellwork bolstering the stone and other concealed spells laid in preparation for an assault. “You’ve seen the muscle-bound hulks they grow here and the ceratos and other war beasts they ride about on. I am honestly unsure whether an explosive arrow would put one of their children down, much less a warrior.”
As they passed under the gates, Pele turned around to look at the ospreshrikes one more time. She imagined the four of them, guns ablaze, charging into a line of Calleni warriors and ceratos as the latter was pounded by the incendiary rain coming from the top of the wall.
No wonder the Over Chieftain managed to hold sway over the fiercely independent tribes of the east and south. If that was his defensive posture, his actual army might give even her nightmares.
Once the gate was safely behind them, the ponies resumed their usual pace, the mortal threat forgotten. The clan rolled down the center of the Causeway, drawing the attention of everyone on the city’s main road. Brightly colored wagons meant either traveling showmen or a halfling caravan and both were something most city-dwellers saved their coin for.
Pele didn’t pay the gawkers much mind. True enough, many would be surprised to see her driving a wagon in a halfling procession, but the clan accepting her as one of them far outweighed what others might think. For a moment, she thought she heard her name being called, but discarded that as impossible.
Which it was right up until something hit the side of her wagon, making it lurch to the side. Pele’s hand went instantly to the Eastern Brand’s hilt. At her alarm, Ru also went on alert, raising a hand either to ready a spell or to simply shift it into a deadly hedge of killing spikes.
Both proved unnecessary as the intruder pulled herself fully up onto the wagon’s seat beside Pele. If her sun-kissed brown skin, jutting ears and blonde hair didn’t give away her identity, the antique spear with a crescent-shaped crossbar behind the head with rings hung in holes bored through it made her identity certain.
“I think after all this time you know I won’t be ignored like that,” said Brin of the Rolling Meadows Enclave with a grin that only grew when she saw the state she’d put the pair into. “Oh, did I scare you?”
“People—sane people—do not leap onto moving wagons.” Ru huffed, returning his hand to Gaddigan’s reins.
His mixed embarrassment and annoyance in the link did nothing to dampen Pele’s enthusiasm upon seeing her old friend. She almost dropped the reigns to the ponies and ended up juggling them between hands before finally crushing the other woman in a one-armed hug. “Brin! It’s been forever, I can’t believe I’m getting to see you before winter!”
Brin had to get her breath from the sudden hug. “I didn’t expect to see you and the Winter Willow in Harpsfell.” She patted the arm draped around her. “You’ve gotten over your problems with touch?”
Drawing attention to the contact made Pele flinch, but she didn’t tear her hand away, merely removed it at a leisurely pace. “I’m… getting better with it. With people I trust, it’s not much of a problem anymore—as you can see.” She finished with a weak laugh.
A mischievous smirk twitched Brin’s lips. “Hmm. You know, if you’re ready to move on to strangers, we might be able to find you a special someone in Harpsfell this year.” Pele’s face burned in the one way she didn’t find enjoyable and she snapped her gaze back on the ponies and the road ahead.
“Speaking of,” Ru broke in. “Miss Pele received a letter from Arunsteadeles a few weeks ago. It seems he hasn’t heard from you in some time, hmm?”
Brin glared at him and shifted uncomfortably. “We’re both busy people out in the world. We got up to Harpsfell a few months ago, but he was out on walkabout. We couldn’t hang about though: now that it’s both me and Layaka, we need more than twice the money to survive on.”
The link burned with Ru’s continued rage at that name even though it wasn’t referencing the actual object of his ire. Pele herself still had to suppress a wince, but managed to ask. “Where is Layaka? Is she here with you?”
“In the city, yes.” replied Brin, making herself comfortable on the hard wagon seat. “We just finished up a job for the Historical Society: providing security for a dig near the coast. We figured we’d stop here and spend some of our money before hopping a ride to Bri-sean.”
Pele gave her a sidelong look. “Isn’t that the city full of criminals?”
“Every city is full of criminals, Pele, trust me. Bri-sean’s leaders just own up to it. Either way, it’s a good place to link up with expeditions headed into the Ashed Lands. Those jobs always pay well and you need a lot of coin to winter in Chordin—if you’re not part of the caravan.” She added the last part with a wink.
“Well you could be part of the caravan.” Pele said hopefully. “Rai did make you her sister and aunt to Motsey and Rale after what you did for them on Nhan Raduul.”
The sentiment wasn’t lost on Brin, but she shook her head anyway. “It’s not that I’m not honored and happy to be a sister to both of you, Pele. I am—you know that. But caravan life isn’t for me. I like sleeping in a new inn every week and changing cities whenever I want. Plus there’s Layaka now. She’s still learning the contractor business and she needs me…”
“Yes, because there are so many places you can go in Chordin in the middle of winter.” Ru rumbled. It was mostly under his breath, but he made sure she heard it.
Brin scowled at him. “I’m just not a good fit.”
Ru, however, refused to let it drop. “How much coin do you think you would need sharing quarters with Arunsteadeles?” A cruel leer marred his countenance. “And I am certain a man of the Bardic College wouldn’t mind sharing space with both you and… the other young woman.”
Feeling his inner stumble as he avoided saying Layaka’s name made Pele just a little slow to step in. By the time she found her mental footing, Brin had already pounced.
“Look here, Rune Breaker.” the contractor said coldly. “I may have accepted your barbs and antics before when I was guilty over what happened with Partha. I understood why you didn’t trust me then, but it’s over now, isn’t it? I’m sure you still carry that scorched mask around with you, so you know better than any that Immurai is dead and with him, all his machinations. There is no longer any justification for this… this beyond you being an ancient, acute pain in the ass. Leave me, and whatever imagined threat you think I pose, be.”
Ru made a primordial sound, like some huge crocodile about to strike. “Indeed I do not trust you. Today, as the very day you appeared, you reek of obfuscating magics. Arunsteadeles might accept whatever excuse you gave him, but we both know his senses are clouded when it comes to you.”
Brin bared her teeth at him in something that could in no way be confused for a smile. “That’s another thing: don’t you dare cast aspersions on Kaiel, especially when it comes to his relationship with me. You know nothing of the nature of our relationship. I trusted him with my secrets and he kept them. That’s as far as it needs to go where you’re concerned.”
The dark mage opened his mouth to press the offensive, but Pele’s voice cut through the link.
He glared at her, but held his tongue. In the meantime, Pele had been watching Brin’s face out of the corner of her eye and the pain there was evident. “Brin… did something happen with Kaiel?”
Knuckles turning white as they gripped her spear, the Barratta, Brin cast her gaze downward. “Nothing’s happened between Kaiel and I.”
“That’s the problem. Literally nothing’s happened. When one of us is on one side of the world, the other is on the opposite. We send letters, but they’re always weeks out of date, we’d use the pool at the University at Rivenport, but it’s rare we’re both in a position to do that. I’ve talked to his mother face to face more often than I’ve talked to him in the past eight months.”
She sighed and turned to watch the crowds on the streets. “But let’s talk about other things, okay, Pele?”
Ru grunted, noticing immediately that she was purposefully hedging him out of the conversation. “I thought the Winter Willow reached Harpsfell by another route? How did you come to be in Spinar?”
Facing away as she was, Brin missed seeing Pele stiffen. In changing the subject away from her problems, she put it squarely on her friend’s.
“The clan’s Grandmother concocted a scheme that put her into a great deal of coin.” Brin’s head snapped around when it was Ru and not Pele to answer, and without insults or sarcasm no less. “As is the nir-lumos way, she is sharing it with the clan: purchasing passage for them all to Harpsfell and extending their winter retreat there by two weeks. We are to board the airship Forgotten Freedom at the seventh bell of tomorrow morning.”
Brin practically radiated concern as she leaned forward to try and make eye contact with Pele. “An airship?”
“She—” Ru started, but Pele raised a hand to let him know she didn’t need him to speak for her.
“I know.” said Pele. “I’ve been on edge this past month, but there’s nothing for it. The whole clan is so excited; Bromun, Signa, Haru—and the kids? They’ve never been on one before, but they’ve heard stories. I’m not going to ruin that, Brin.” She briefly chewed her lip before adding, “Besides, this is something I need to get over. It’s not that different from how I felt about touch before. From what I hear, they tend to your every need on board this kind of ship, so what more positive experience with an airship can I ask for?”
A spark of avarice lit within Brin’s concerned expression, “Oh, I’ve been on one of those once or twice…” With a visible effort, she tamped down her feelings about the crafts; those thoughts were of no use to Pele. “You know, those big passenger ships are a lot slower than the cargo rigs or a courier. Maybe one of those would be a better choice for your first trip.”
“You waste your breath,” said Ru. “I already offered to teleport her. Her mind is set on this.”
Brin regarded him past Pele for a moment. After a moment, she offered him a small nod. “That’s… it then, I suppose. You’re completely committed to this, Pele?”
“It makes the people I care about happy and it might help me shed one more weight the hailene heaped on my back. I don’t see the sense in trying to avoid it.” said Pele. The caravan was turning off the main causeway now, necessitating actual concentration on her part to guide the ponies.
“Hmm. That’s a compelling argument, for true.” Brin sat back on the seat and crossed her legs. “I would have taken Ru up on the teleportation if this were something that bothered me, but I see why you wouldn’t. There’s only one thing for it then: if you’re going to be brave and undertake this, you should do so with all the support possible.”
Pele risked taking her eyes off the road to look at her askance, but by then her friend was already making plans and only partially verbalizing them. “I’m sure ‘Yaka wouldn’t mind the change of plans. I was worried the Ashed Lands might be a little too much of a challenge for a greenhorn contractor anyway…”
“No.” Ru muttered under his breath.
“And really, we can earn coin contracting with the Great Houses just as easily…”
“Burn my desiccated soul, no.” Ru snarled. “If you have so little money that you were prepared to enter that hub of criminality in Bri-sean, you most certainly don’t have the coin to pay for passage on the Forgotten Freedom.”
Brin smirked at him. “A savvy contractor knows to save her funds for emergencies: business drying up, for example, or injury.” She laid her hand on Pele’s shoulder with a gentle smile. “This is such an emergency. Layaka and I will be there for you if you’ll have us, Pele.”
You have the entire clan to support you, Miss Pele. Ru reminded.
It was to no avail, however, as Pele’s warm emotion at having Brin offer was already flooding the link. Most of the clan was unaware that there was any problem at all and Pele wanted that to remain the status quo. “Are you sure it wouldn’t mean you passing up important jobs?”
Brin made a show of rolling her eyes. “Every person who contracts with me thinks their job is the most important undertaken. And they are—to them. Helping you out though? That’s important to me. Plus, who could say ‘no’ to two more weeks in Harpsfell?”
While the two women beamed at each other, Ru grumbled to himself. Though the annoyance in the link wasn’t as strong as she’d been expecting.