- 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
“Your supper, Mister Azan.”
Vul Azan glanced up from the nautical charts spread out on the table in front of him to find the barkeep’s youngest, Beni, setting a wooden plate and a mug of some drink on an empty space at the table. Supper was some green leafy vegetable stir-fried in hot oil with crumbled nuts, a skewer of grilled scallops, shrimp, and onions, and a seared steak of some marine animal Vul Azan couldn’t identify. The latter wasn’t unidentifiable because he’d grown up in the desert, but rather because it had been blackened. Whether by design or accident, he couldn’t guess given the myriad cuisines he’d seen across the world.
He frowned when he saw that Beni was still casting about with his eyes, looking for danger while his sister was busy snuffing the lamps lit for second night.
“Be calm boy.” He said offhandedly as he picked up a skewer. “Anemone isn’t going to return to your father’s bar for some time yet, and neither is her crew.” Except maybe Toa Raiul if the appetites of dragonsired of the Gold Nation were the same as rumored. He didn’t tell the boy that, and hardly believed it in any case—he hardly fit the standard profile of a Red Son after all.
Beni nodded timidly and muttered a quick thank you before moving off to serve other patrons.
The boy probably wasn’t going to see twenty living in that part of Siram Leggate with that attitude, Vul Azan reasoned. He never saw the sense of people being like that. People who didn’t fight ended up getting beatings from those who did.
Nothing of his concern though. That was Beni’s father’s place. And at least Beni had a father. Vul Azan had had a village, but they saw him as a literal gift from their gods, not as a child in need of a proper upbringing. Why would a child with the blood of dragons in their veins need to be brought up like a human after all?
He rumbled deep in his chest, a growl no human throat could duplicate. Clearing all the thoughts that little aside brought to mind, he returned his attention to the charts. With a charcoal pencil, he marked off the latest search zones where the soundings returned nothing. The only positive hit was eighty miles off the coast of Illium and he didn’t want to enter the hailene’s sovereign territory if he could help it.
By the time he finally remembered the skewer in his free hand and bit a scallop off it, the meat was no longer hot, merely warm. He scowled and set the food aside.
“I would imagine that reheating it wouldn’t be an issue for you, sir.” A female voice came from just over his shoulder. Vul Azan didn’t need to turn around. Her voice had been the one constant in his many years and many travels. He knew her as well as he knew himself and the same was true in reverse.
Anyone else would have been suggesting he spit the flaming gel that was red dragonbreath on his food, which would have been disgusting. She meant he could have Foomish work his elemental power on the dish instead.
“Perhaps later, Sharae. I promise I’ll eat when the work is done.” He took a second to catch sight of her out of the corner of his eye. “Speaking of which, I haven’t seen you in some days.”
Sharae of Elfhame Amon’ru was a Tresholmi elf, every inch of her. She had rich dark skin, wavy sun-colored hair, and ears that stuck out about four inches from the sides of her head. She was set apart by being significantly shorter than most of her kin, several inches under the six-foot average. As always in a major city, she was dressed for scholarly endeavors; a light linen blouse with an orange cravat under a black waistcoat and dark linen slacks. There were no weapons evident on her person, but Vul Azan knew there would be a one-shot pistol or two somewhere under those clothes.
She inclined her head in her version of the more formal Tresholmi bow. “Apologies sir, but I had a contact at the Library pull any newer books that might be germane to your current interests. I’ve been reading these past three days.”
Nodding his approval, Vul Azan went back to marking the next negative sounding location. “Anything of value?”
“Yes, actually.” said Sharae with excitement that only Vul Azan had any hope to detect beneath her deadpan. “A new tome from Harpsfell presents us with an interesting twist to the tale of your father.”
“Another loreman writing histories as told by the winners?” asked Vul Azan, only just holding back a yawn for effect. “I don’t need to know how ‘great’ Father was, or how fiercely heroic he was during the War.”
He heard the soft sound of Sharae’s short-cut hair brushing her shoulders as she shook her head. “Nothing of that sort sir. The public edition seems to be heavily redacted, but the important bit of information was left intact: Agmar sired another child with a mortal. You have a younger sister.”
Vul Azan’s pen stopped in the course of drawing another ‘X’. Slowly, he turned to meet Sharae’s vivid green eyes through the round lenses of her spectacles. “A sister you say? When? How? I was a child of cultural obligation. I don’t see any other Red Nation exarchs pressuring him into a second.”
The elf woman shrugged. “I can’t offer any answers sir, but perhaps the author of the book can—him or his loreman mentors. I’ve already contacted our friends in the capital; a teleportation array will be readied for us by tomorrow night.”
“Loremen.” Vul Azan said sourly.
“While I understand your aversion, this is the only way you’ll be able to learn more about this sister and through her, your father.”
Vul Azan grunted a grudging agreement to which Sharae nodded. Her piece said, she rounded the table and sat across from him. As he once more scrutinized the charts, she picked up the skewer he hadn’t eaten from. With a few muttered words, she conjured a short precise burst of flaer that entered the food and heated it to sizzling without flame. Satisfied that the food was hot again, she took a dainty bite of a piece of shrimp and settled into thoughts of what her revelation meant to her employer and what his sister, Agmar’s second mortal child, was like.
Even though the air blowing over the open balcony their table sat on was just a little too cool for her liking, Pele couldn’t help but feel content. Never before had she had so much of her family together in one place for a meal. Rai, Bromun and the kids were there of course, as were Signateria and Haruteria—and to her surprise, Grandmother and Grandfather. In addition to the nir-lumos, who sat on special tall chairs the restaurant owner had to break out of storage, Brin and Layaka were also present, the former being the one footing the bill for their feast.
As she cut a piece off her steak, she took a moment to consider the latter. Admittedly, she didn’t know the real Layaka Emeries, formerly of Idrian Homestead. Still, it was plain to see how much the young woman had changed.
Her hair was still dark blonde, cut short at the back and worn long in front such that only a knotted black headband kept it out of her eyes, but she’d shaved the sides to stubble in the fashion of some Calleni women. Where before she’d been stocky and built for the farm, months of training and a growth spurt left her powerful and built for battle.
Beyond the physical though, Pele could see that the anger and bitterness she’d seen in the girl so long ago at the Silver Hammer Lodge where they first met had melted away into something lighter with more rounded edges than the ball of defensive spikes that made up her personality before.
“…three stone guardian statues at all times watching this thing. I understand why someone would pay a thousand full-marks for some dead queen’s beauty mask now because of the historical value and whatnot. What I really want to know—and we never found out—is why she thought it was important enough to defend it like it was her tomb full of gold and magic. Was she really that fantastically ugly?”
Everyone old enough to follow the conversation laughed at Layaka’s accounting of her first mission as a contractor alongside Brin. With one obvious exception.
Ru sat beside Pele, dragging thick slices of braised beef onto his plate. She found his hand-eye coordination impressive, seeing as he managed to do so while glaring at Layaka. Even without looking at him, she could tell he was glaring because the link was registering it. There was low low-level suspicion and frustration, as was his natural state when it came to anyone he didn’t know, but mostly there was glaring. No emotion, just the glare, as if for him, glaring was an emotion all its own.
It wasn’t going unnoticed by Layaka either. The young woman glanced at him on occasion, but never faltered in her words or shied away from his ire. Brave or suicidal, Pele really couldn’t decide. After all, Layaka was one of the few who knew first hand was Ru was capable of.
“So Miss Hiddakko…” Pele flinched at being addressed as such. Technically, her given name was now officially Pele Agmar Hiddakko, taking the name of her genetic father and the woman who for lack of a better way of saying it, created her in addition to mothering her. No one actually used those names though. To everyone, she was just ‘Pele’ in the same way she’d just been ‘Taylin’ before she learned her real name.
Layaka blinked at the response, but continued with what she was going to say: “…Brin said something about you getting to pick your birthday?”
Pele nodded quickly, hoping to head off any awkwardness. To hide her own embarrassment, she made a show of leaning forward to grab a basket of hot buttered rolls. “Kaiel managed to figure out my most likely birthdays from the journal. Actually, I was going to tell everyone my choice after dinner.”
“Oh?” asked Grandmother, “After all this time, you’ve finally picked a day?” The elderly halfling’s eyebrows rose with her interest. It was she who suggested to the hunters that Pele deserved a yearly observance regardless of if she had a birthday.
Pele cringed inwardly and prayed to Pandemos that Grandmother didn’t happen to ask about why she chose the day she had. “Well I suppose I can tell everyone now. It’s not exactly news you have to toast to.” Clearing her throat nervously, she sat up. Thankfully, the restaurant had narrow-backed hailene chairs alongside the tall halfling chairs, or doing so would have been most uncomfortable.
“I was thinking about the sixteenth. Seeing as Brin and Layaka are coming with us now and Kaiel is in Harpsfell, that would mean I could have my birthday with everyone there.” the thought of it made her smile. What was left unsaid, however, was that the sixteenth was the day after their trek aboard the Forgotten Freedom was over and done. She certainly didn’t want to try and celebrate on an airship. And looking forward to the event might just make the trip less of an ordeal.
“That gives us a day to shop for a gift in Harpsfell.” observed Bromun.
“And a night of buying you drinks in Harpsfell!” Haruteria added, lifting her mug with a boisterous grin.
Just as Pele hoped, the discussion turned to what they would do on her birthday and by extension, what they would do in Harpsfell. It wasn’t so much that she wanted attention lavished on her as it was that she wanted attention diverted from even the thought of what they would do aboard the ship.
Bromun and Raiteria picked up on this quickly and Brin jumped in soon after, talking about the best theater troupes and other entertainment to be had in the Bard City. Soon, the talk had moved to plays, namely the worst plays everyone had seen in their travels. The Novish National Theater’s production of The Weeping King dominated that line of thought, especially their ill-conceived usage of realistic-sounding gunfire that didn’t mix with the theater’s excellent acoustics.
When a lull finally came up, Layaka appeared to finally have enough of being glared at by Ru. She stared right back into his baleful, yellow eyes and for a moment, Pele caught herself tensing for impending violence. Instead, Layaka once again proved that she wasn’t still ruled by her anger.
“Mr. Brakar.” she said crisply, but without any coldness in the tone. “Someone mentioned earlier that you play Stones and Ashes?”
Ru narrowed his eyes and Pele felt his suspicion grow tenfold alongside his curiosity.
“Oh, he plays.” Grandfather chuckled. “’Playing’ and ‘winning’ being two different things, of course…” The glare aimed at Layaka shifted to him, but the dangerous edge dulled. Ru actually respected and trusted Grandfather. The old halfling met the glare with a grin. “Sorry, Ru, but you’re never going to win until you learn you can’t just batter your way through every defense.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Layaka.” said Brin. “I barely know how to play; only picked it up because ‘Yaka got into it, but I can usually beat her by turtling behind Sentinel and rampart tiles.”
“Which is basically cheating.” Layaka said with playful bitterness. The link lurched with Ru’s surprise. Meanwhile, Layaka reached into the breast pocket of her dark blue overshirt and pulled out a hexagonal enamel tile with a winged shield topped by a crown carved into it. “But I’m not going to have to worry about that since I bought a guardian tile.”
She was still talking when Ru barked out, “Where did you get that?”
The former farm girl rolled the tile across her knuckles with a smile that told everyone, especially Ru, that the conversation was now in her favor. “Breccia’s Game Shop. I’m not sure they have another guardian though—the game’s creator only makes a handful of the powerful pieces for every shipment. But if you save your death gaze for when I do something to earn it, I’ll show you where it is.”
Ru continued his glare as he dipped a torn piece of roll into a pool of combined sauce from his other food. Everyone but the kids looked on to see how he might react to such a direct challenge. Brin particularly, looked especially proud of Layaka for standing up to him.
At length, he popped the bread in his mouth, chewed deliberately, then responded with: “Heh. We will see if I feel like honoring that demand—it depends on whether or not I get my hands on that damnable tile.”
That got everyone else chattering and laughing. Pele let the tension melt out of her and a slow smile spread across her face. She could feel the little flicker of respect in Ru over the whole confrontation. At least there was now a chance he wouldn’t fight with Brin over her junior partner throughout the entire trip.
And she definitely had something to look forward to on the other side now.
Who knew? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
That hope had evaporated by the next morning as she watched a stone lift surrounded by steel railings levitate over two hundred feet, bearing another load of the Winter Willow’s wagons up toward the open bay doors in the belly of the Forgotten Freedom. It hadn’t helped that the nir-lumos ponies panicked earlier when they had been sent up, requiring the ship’s animal handlers to soothe them all the way up.
Gaddigan, of course, hadn’t reacted at all except to try and bite a handler who got too close to him.
The Forgotten Freedom looked far too much like the old hailene airborne navy vessels she’d spent much of her life on. It was about the same size, around four hundred feet long, and shaped much like an ocean-going craft provided one ignored the bays and hatches open well below the waterline.
If she was being honest, that was where the similarities ended. There was a two-story tall structure rising above the deck in place of the fore- or aftcastles the hailene ships possessed. And instead of the multi-masted ‘wings’ that extended horizontally from the waist of a hailene ship, the Forgotten Freedom was kept aloft by a steel band running the length of the ship along what would have been the waterline, inscribed with vin arrays that commanded the air to keep the craft in the sky.
The stern of the mostly wooden ship was given over to iron and steel, the housing of a mystic steam engine that powered a trio of independently tilting propellers that could be swiveled to move the craft in three dimensions.
Part of Pele, the curious part that brought every mechanical device she could afford just to see how it worked, was attracted to the majestic machine even while the part that remembered her years of suffering on other ships was repulsed with equal force. Caught in the middle, her stomach churned, making her regret having breakfast that morning.
She was standing with Brin at the base of the airdock currently servicing Forgotten Freedom and a dozen other airships of various sizes and purposes from behemoth long-haul cargo freighters carried aloft by gas envelopes large enough to fit two of the ship in question inside, to light cruisers only big enough for a handful of people.
The dock itself looked like the largest tree she’d ever seen, if trees were made of spellworked stone with steel and iron gantries and docking spars for branches and the airships themselves as fruit. Beneath its spreading canopy, porters drove wagons laden with incoming and outgoing wares while hawkers from the passenger ships called out destinations and rates for prospective passengers passing by. It was identical to an ocean-going dock, only dry and vertical.
Pele flinched as a hand touched her forearm, but she relaxed when she realized it was Brin, even if she knew what she was going to say.
“That’s the last of the Clan’s cargo.” Brin noted as the lift carrying the wagons disappeared into the ship. “I hate to say it, Pele, but you’re now officially out of excuses. Volunteering to watch the wagons and animals get loaded was inspired, but we really have to go up now.”
When Pele shivered, Brin blew out a slow breath. “I can’t say I know exactly how you feel, but please believe me when I say this is going to be nothing like one of those ships. There hasn’t been a war ship in the air in my lifetime, so the designs are going to be nothing alike. You once told me you slept piled together with the other slaves belowdecks. Here, you’re going to be in a nice room—or even your own room, given the House—with people paid to serve you at your beck and call.”
The former slave squinted down at her friend. She didn’t have to state the nature of the mistake to make Brin blush hotly. “They’re paid. And they like their jobs, most of them.” After another beat, she added. “And you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to. The important thing is, you’re not going to be ordered about or abused up there.”
Tugging gently on her friend’s arm, Brin coaxed Pele toward the open doors to the airdock’s interior. “You’re going to be able to relax and do whatever you want: play with Motsey and Rale, have Ru and Layaka teach you their stupid tile game… are you still trying to learn magic?”
Pele latched on to the distraction, and she allowed herself to be led to one of the lift alcoves that would take them to the Forgotten Freedom’s level. “I still try things, either asking Ru to show me basics, or reading from old spell manuals. Even Motsey can get a spark of flame if he needs to, but for me… nothing. I think whatever my mother did to make me… me made it so I don’t have personal reserves.”
She laughed and couldn’t tell if it were cruel or just a tiny bit bitter. “Imagine: Immurai bet everything and lost, waited the better part of a thousand years to get the Soul Battery, this legendary power source. My mother ruined dozens of lives trying to get the same thing. Here I am though, exactly what they wanted, and I have less magical power than most rocks.”
“From a certain point of view so do I… Hmm.” said Brin. The pair stepped into the first available alcove where a smaller version of the railed-off stone platforms outside was waiting. Pele pulled her wings in tight against her back to give her friend plenty of room while Brin touched the appropriate brass plate mounted to the rail to indicate the level that wished to reach. Soundlessly, the platform began to rise.
Once they were moving, Brin gave Pele a sidelong look. “Have you ever considered you might be like me?”
“Like you how?”
Brin’s hand traveled to the glass amphora she wore on a chain around her neck. It was a reliquary, a type of home for her spirit companion, Reflair. “Like a spirit docent. Kaiel never explained how we…well for the lack of a better description… work?”
“I remember him saying the talent was rare, but he never went into detail. To tell the truth, I don’t think he knows.”
Brin snorted. “That would be a first. But anyway, they say we’re born wrong somehow. We don’t have that reservoir of elemental magic everyone else does. Instead, it fills up with the discarnate power out of the Well of Souls. It makes us part spirit in a way, which might be why other spirits talk to us.”
The ‘born wrong’ line and the unhappy look that flickered briefly over Brin’s face didn’t go unnoticed, but Pele was sidetracked by the talk of spirits. “My mother’s journal did say that she was looking for a way to recreate what makes spirit beasts. But wouldn’t I have noticed if spirits took an interest in me?”
The platform stopped at an opening in the tower that led out onto a wide balcony that wrapped around the tower. One of the branching gantries that Pele had seen from the ground jutted out into space before them, crossing some twenty feet to the deck of the Forgotten Freedom.
Sensing Pele trying to look anywhere but the ship, Brin once again led her, both by taking her arm, and by continuing the conversation. “Maybe it works differently for you. Maybe it’s special for dragons, or maybe you’re more like a bard and it’s something you need to learn about before you can try it.”
Pele’s curiosity swiftly overrode her nerves even as the two stepped out onto the gantry. “That might actually be it, Brin. I mean, that would explain why I can’t use normal magic: the power course is wrong. It’s like trying to make a clockwork move by heating it.”
She stopped abruptly, her sheer mass causing Brin, who had been easily pulling her along until that moment, to stumble and almost fall face-first onto the gantry. “Wait… but how am I going to learn, Brin? I think I’m too old for bardic training, and no dragon is going to teach me anything. I’m not even really dragonsired after all. I’m pretty sure they can smell that I’m some kind of abomination my mother made in a laboratory. Tal Esrin seemed to.”
It was very likely she would have gone on like that if Brin hadn’t interrupted.
“You’re… I’m not actually sure what you’re doing, but it doesn’t sound healthy. How can you fly screaming into the face of every monster and demon that gets in your way, but then get nervous and rambling over airships and asking someone to teach you a few spellworkings?”
Pele blushed a bit and shrugged. “It’s the pressure.” She said to a blank look from Brin. “Well lack of pressure. When you’re fighting or hunting, you have to pick now. It’s instinct and you can’t second-guess yourself or you’re dead. Give me time to think though and I over-think. Which is good when you’re coming up with a plan, or trying to put something together. It’s not so good for facing your fears.”
“What about the magic thing?”
A dark look came to the larger woman’s face and she cast her gaze off the side of the gantry, down to the people scurrying about far below. “I already said it makes facing your fears harder.”
“Not having magic scares you? But you’ve got Ru around, I mean—”
“That’s not it, Brin. I mean sometimes I wonder what it is my mother actually did to me. The other soul batteries apparently worked, so I’ve got some kind of power. I just worry about what it actually is.”
Brin started to say something, searched for the right words of reassurance to help her friend, but by the time her lips were moving, it was too late. Pele drew in a deep breath and reached into her mind. Not to the old, steely ball that was the link between herself and Ru, but to the roaring dragon that resided deep inside her, that tried to break free whenever she went into battle.
She tapped just a little of it. The thing was rage and avarice and blood-lust that even Ru had to respect, but in proper amounts it was also confidence and certainty. She let a low roar rumble in her mind and drew herself up to her full, impressive height, flaring her wings as she did.
With the dragon in her head, she finally looked at the ship she would sail aboard for the next two weeks. Looked at it and stared it down. At length, she offered a brave smile to Brin. “That’s the point of not just letting Ru teleport us. I am going to figure out how to deal with these things. I was afraid almost every day of my life and I couldn’t do anything about it. Now that I’m free, I’m going to do something. I’m going to do whatever it takes to stop being afraid.”
This time, she was leading the way as they crossed the last ten feet to the Forgotten Freedom.