- 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 crewman who met Pele and Brin on deck was as big as any Formean Pele had ever met, but dark-skinned like a Rizeni. A neatly trimmed beard framed his lean leonine face, and his straight black hair was pulled back into a neat braid that snaked over his shoulder to brush against powerful abs that strained the simple white shirt under his tan coat.
“Welcome to the Forgotten Freedom” he said in a heavy accent Pele didn’t recognize, spreading his arms in a grand gesture. “I am Bounsei, first mate of our fair ship. Your tickets please, ladies.”
Brin reached into her vest and extracted the two wooden plaques that served as their airship passes. After some careful scrutiny of the symbols and words burned into them, Bounsei nodded and handed them back. “You are with us all the way to Harpsfell, I see. Going up for the Wintercoming?”
Both women nodded.
“We will do our best to see that you arrive in a good mood for it.” Bounsei said with a boisterous chuckle that might have been overacting. “Your rooms are on the second floor of the passenger dorms.” He flicked his wrist back toward the tall structure that dominated the deck. Up close, Pele could see the large windows that curved out from it, allowing the occupants of the rooms a better view of the ground below past the deck.
“The dining room, gaming parlor, and shipboard shops are on the first floor,” he continued, “below-decks, toward the stern, we have our bathhouse and the brewery. Toward the bow, we have the communal lounge where the Captain has arranged plentiful and varied entertainment. In your rooms, you will find a pedestal with a book of bronze pages and a stylus. If you write what you require upon those pages with the stylus, the staff will be alerted to your desires. We strive for your enjoyment.”
Pele managed not to make a face at that last part. It felt very close to what Ru had first said to her after she reluctantly accepted the link. Bounsei, at least, wasn’t offering to help her conquer nations. That counted for something.
Unaware of her thoughts on the subject, Bounsei wrapped up his presentation by clasping his hands together. “Do you have any questions before you are shown to your rooms? Is there any luggage you need help carrying on?”
That made Pele’s lips twitch. Unless there were some ogres or minotaurs hiding on the ship, no one on staff would be able to ‘help’ her carry anything. Luckily, everyone had just piled their baggage into the main room of the House, so no one in the Winter Willow, nor Brin or Layaka, had any luggage to bring aboard at all.
“No, that’s fine.” She said with a casual wave of her hand. The ship was moving under her feet. Not the rolling bob of a ship on the open seal, but the subtle but chaotic three-dimensional tilt of a craft constantly compensating for the wind and the futile demands of gravity. It was something she remembered vividly—and loathed.
Bounsei seemed to take notice, a flicker of curiosity and concern appearing briefly in his eyes. He left well enough alone though and called out to a group of teenaged boys neither Pele no Brin had noticed. They’d been sitting on some low benches by the ship’s railing up until that moment. A lanky, tanned boy of about fifteen unfolded his too-long limbs from where he’d been sitting on the bench and ambled over. His expression was a war between a game attempt at generic teen disinterest and the eagerness of someone who sometimes got very generous gratuities.
There was something else in there too, as his eyes raked over both women. The tiny bit of the dragon Pele was channeling to stave off her nerves demanded she cuff him upside the head and tell him to put his eyes back in their sockets.
As it turned out, Bounsei did the next best thing anyway. “Raffa.” He half-barked, half hissed at the boy, who immediately averted his gaze and stood up straight. “These two passengers are in rooms seven and eight on the second floor.”
Eyes dropping to the wooden planking of the deck, Raffa nodded, thoroughly cowed. “Yessir.” Then, as if reciting from a script in a bad play, added. “If you would come with me, ladies?” He started off without checking to see if they followed. Brin snorted and gave a small nod to Bounsei before she and Pele moved to catch up to the retreating back of the boy.
Though the dragon refused to let her forgive him, Pele didn’t see anything funny about the exchange. In fact, it seemed to her that Raffa might not be on the ship of his own free will. She quickened her pace, catching up to him just as he reached a set of open doors leading to a set of carpeted stairs to the second floor.
“Yes, miss.” He kept his eyes respectfully averted. Considering their difference in height and how close she was standing, trying to look her in the eye would have ended with him staring up into her chest anyway.
“Can I ask how you came to work on this ship? Did you come aboard by choice?”
That drew a rueful noise from the boy. “’Course not.” Pele’s feathers ruffled and she opened her mouth to comment only for the boy to continue. “My father and mother signed on as cooks and I’ve gotta go where they do.” he said with a sour expression.
Behind both of them Brin laughed. “Pele, this isn’t… one of your books. Outside of the Kimean Isles and maybe Calderia for all we know about those ashing madmen, that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Some of the Novish Principalities still have indentures, but even that’s not the hateful thing it used to be.”
Pele looked back at the teen, who was dutifully looking elsewhere with a forced air of sullen boredom. There wasn’t any sign of suffering either mentally or physically. Her feathers smoothed down as the tension in her shoulders and wings relaxed. “Right. Sorry.” She waved toward the stairs. “Lead on then.”
The boy didn’t bother containing a sigh that practically screamed ‘these stupid adults are wasting my time’, then did as told. The top of the stairs opened out into a carpeted hallway with a high, arched ceiling lit by magelights set in mirrored sconces. Doors lined either side, their numbers elegantly carved on their wooden faces. Between them were wall hangings depicting lofty vistas from around the world.
Everyone from the Clan of the Winter Willow had preceded Pele and Brin aboard and many of those doors had been left open so friends and neighbors could wander freely. Anyone thinking that would make it easy to steal from them would discover that Grandmother had paid extra to convince the captain to allow their wolves along. They took up surprisingly few rooms. While the Winter Willow was over sixty strong, families of five or more all comfortably shared rooms as easily as they did wagons.
Raffa’s surly attitude was not improved by having to stop every few feet so Pele could greet or exchange a few words with every halfling that happened by. At last, they reached Room 8. Once they did, he let the script he’d been following earlier take over.
“Your ticket lets you open the doors.” He explained, holding up the plaque so both women could see the notches and grooves carved deeply into one of the long edges. “You just push it into the plate here like this…” He directed their gazes to a bronze plate with a slot cut into it that. It was in the same place where a doorknob or handle might have been if the door wasn’t lacking one.
The ticket fit perfectly into the slot, and when Raffa pushed it in, there was a series of clicking and quiet rumbles inside the door as some mechanism engaged. “…and once it locks in place, you can slide the door open.” He pushed and the door indeed slid sideways on a rail set into the floor.
He removed the ticket and handed it to Brin. The cacophony of mechanisms engaging followed the action. “Without the ticket in it, the door locks automatically.”
Brin dropped a handful of copper Calleni spear coins into the young man’s hand, enough to be a generous gratuity. “Thank you Raffa. I’ll make sure my friend can get into her room. You can head back down to your friends.”
That made the teen actually smile right up until the moment he remembered he was supposed to be mature and therefore very serious. He screwed up his face again and nodded. “Thank you, Miss.” He said before heading back down the hall.
By the time she turned back to Pele, the other woman was already on the other side of the hall, pushing her ticket into the slot of Room 7 and removing it over and over, watching the blank wood of the door with great interest.
“What do you suppose these doors look like on the inside?” Pele asked as if sensing Brin’s attention landing on her. “Do they have a way to open it up, or do they have to take an ax to the door every time one breaks?”
A clever smile touched Brin’s lips as she crossed the hall. “Ticking things and gears aren’t something I concern myself with most of the time. But since this is a steamship instead of just a fully spellworked flier, there’s bound to be an engineer or two on board. They might be happy to have a passenger bend their ear too.”
“You think so?” Pele asked, looking up from what she was doing. “The last ship with a steam engine I was aboard was the Immaculate Raptor, and I had more important things to do back then than wonder how using magic to generate steam was better than just using magic to make motion.”
“Well here’s your chance.” said Brin. She carefully did not mention anything about the ship’s other defining characteristic or Pele’s issues with it. The scary glint that had been in her friend’s eyes—the same glint Brin previously only saw just before something died on the end of two huge swords—was gone. In its place was the far less worrisome glint Brin usually saw before some complicated bauble ended up in pieces with Pele trying her hand at putting it back together.
“That would be interesting.” Pele agreed and went to put the ticket in the slot again.
She didn’t manage it before the door was swept open from within and the two women came face-to-face with the yellow glare of Ru Brakar. “Burn my wretched soul; what in the Seven Interlocking Hells are you doing out here?”
“Pele found the locking mechanism fascinating.” Brin said, giving him a look from around Pele that she hoped conveyed her great need for him to keep discouraging words or complaints out of his mouth just that once. “She was completely distracted by it.” Subtlety wasn’t a skill she’d needed in her years as a contractor. Considering who she was talking to, she saw no point in even trying it.
The dark wizard’s eyebrow hitched for a split second and Pele glanced at him askance as the link conveyed some of the emotion behind the eyebrow. Ru schooled his face and his thoughts with practiced ease. Turning to go back into the room, he grunted, “These new and inferior sciences seem to be thriving. Undeservedly so. I know at least five vox arrays that would seal this room for a hundred years.”
Pele gave a little laugh and followed him with Brin bringing up the rear. “I don’t think we’re meant to be locked in for a hundred years though, Ru.”
Inside, the room was nice, if modest. The carpeted floor was thick and soft, and the pair of beds looked to be comfortable. There were two upholstered chairs set across from a round wooden table on the far wall, a chest of drawers across from the beds, and small nightstands with magelight lamps atop them.
Layaka was in one of the chairs, it’s soft stuffing threatening to swallow her. Grandfather sat on a tall folding chair instead of the other regular one. A Stones and Ashes game in progress stood on the table between them. Neither player even bothered to look up at the new arrivals.
The door was actually set into the end of a little hallway and once the trio were inside, they could see that the hallway’s inner wall doubled as a wall for a small alcove with a tile floor. There was a sink with a mirror set into the far wall, a closet to the left, and an open door to a fairly modern-looking bathroom to the right.
Upon seeing the bathroom, Pele’s already stoked curiosity flared. “Where do they get fresh water up in the air? And where does the waste-water go?” She made a face. “They don’t just use a spell to recycle it, do they?”
“If this craft was running with anything more than the bare minimum spellcraft while letting devices and artifice suffice, I would expect it worked like the bathrooms in the House: making use of akua crea to make new water and a combination of flaer and nekras to destroy the waste. Here? There is probably some filtering machine in the bowels of the ship.” Ru said, moving to sit on the bed nearest the Stones and Ashes game.
Whatever passion Pele had for all things mechanical, they didn’t extend to sanitation. She shuddered and tore her gaze away from the bathroom. “I think I’ll be getting my water from the taps in the House then.”
“A wise choice, Miss. Pele.” Ru smirked though his eyes were now locked on the game pieces.
Pele shook her head at the fixation the three had with the game and looked to Brin with a smile. “I think we’ll just be a distraction here, Brin. How about I go change, then we can go find Rai, Bromun and the kids?”
“Sounds like a good idea.” said Brin. “Like I’ve been telling you, this place has a lot to offer. We’ve got a lot of exploring to do, you know? We might even corner that engineer for some questioning.”
The door to the House had been opened in the wall between the two nightstands. Pele flashed a grin over her shoulder before stepping over the threshold. Only a few steps in, she paused with her eyes closed and swayed. At the same moment, Ru’s attention broke away from the game. He turned his neck so fast, Brin wondered if a mortal man would have broken his neck doing the same.
“I’m fine Ru.” Pele straightened herself up, but Brin heard the flatness in her voice. Thanks to the link, Ru didn’t even need that much. His eyes narrowed, but for once Brin couldn’t detect any anger in them.
Deciding not to let the ancient villain handle the situation, Brin rushed across the threshold to her friend’s side. “You okay?”
When Pele opened her eyes, that dangerous glint was in them. “I’m fine. Just… it was stupid of me. Back when we were on the Immaculate Raptor, I noticed that the House moved with the motion of the boat. I was hoping that wasn’t true for the airship.” She made a sound in her throat that could have been a growl or a purr. “My mind was actually off it until I came in here and stopped to check.”
Brin put her hand on her friend’s arm, only to have it shaken off. “I’m fine, Brin.” Pele said with all the finality of the last shovelful of dirt on a grave. Abruptly, she started. “Gods above, I’m sorry Brin. I was just…” She took a deep breath. “I really am fine. Or will be fine. You’re right: there are plenty of things to do to keep myself occupied, I can learn a lot, spend time with my family and friends… And nothing bad it going to happen. There are no slaves, no war and from what I can tell, no hailene.”
Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles, Kaiel to everyone who didn’t put stock in embarrassing him, rubbed his temples and tried to remember that the proper response to an obstinate student was not using the Word to strike every fear chord in her mind at once.
The problem was a cultural one. Favored Daughter of the Reverent People of the Cliff, Her Majesty Lisbeth Cordiae, was a literal princess of her tribe. And her tribe was one of the largest and most dogmatically traditional hailene tribe in the east.
While many hailene had to a great extent joined the modern world, many of the tribes living in the east of Novrom, Vini Tresholm, and Taunaun managed to stay bitter about their people’s loss in the War of Ascension while clinging to the beliefs that led to said war. The hardliners among the Reverent People of the Cliff vowed that the Hailene Empire would Ascend once again, first ousting the ‘imperfect’ hailene trying to re-people the Illium archipelago, and then the world.
Lisbeth’s father was less of a hardliner than most and wanted his daughter to train her natural knack for discarnate spellcasting at the Bardic College as well as getting a true education.
Unfortunately, it was clear to Kaiel that the girl had been around her grandfathers and tribal elders far too much than was good for her social conscience or burgeoning ego.
“We don’t have to make this meeting last any longer than is necessary, Master Arunsteadeles.” She said with a perfect and pleasant smile. Even as she sat in the seat across the desk from him, her back remained ramrod straight and her wings extended to their fullest. Not-so-subtle attempts to show that she was taller than him and had what he shamefully lacked: wings. “All you have to do is admit your egregious mistake and change the order of your syllabus for this coming session.”
It was rare that Kaiel questioned why he wanted to become a Loreman. Loremen and loreladies were highly sought after to teach sessions at the Bardic College when they had time—which would be far more often than he was invited to as a chronicler merely on the path to becoming one. Imagining multiple sessions in a row with the Princess in his classes was more than a man could bear.
He gave her his best flat stare. No emotion. No hesitation. Especially no acknowledgment of her posturing. “There is no mistake, Miss Cordiae.”
For just a fraction of a second, her smile slipped, but she gamely plastered it back on, tossed her curly jet-black locks and stared right back at him. She had a good diplomat’s stare. It both said ‘I’m listening’ and ‘My word is backed by folks who can kill you’. “But there is, Master Arunsteadeles.”
From the little embroidered purse she had slung over her neck in the tribal style, she produced her copy of the syllabus. As usual, Kaiel’s class of choice to teach between Loreman walkabouts was Intro to Xenology. A purple-lacquered nail, shaded to match the ribbons threaded through Lisbeth’s immaculately white wings, tapped a line.
“You see here? The section on hailene isn’t to be taught until the sixth week. Clearly we should be first.”
It wasn’t truly hard to believe that the entire world once united in a bid not to live under the rule of people who had that thought process. Kaiel managed to keep his expression schooled and serious. There weren’t a lot of cultures he was comfortable labeling ‘wrong’, but the Reverent People of the Cliff were… wrong. Much like Mon Sulus Kime and their endorsement of slavery, their assumption of racial superiority was toxic and that was all there was to it.
It wouldn’t do for a mere chronicler to try and set the Princess straight though, so Kaiel took a different tack. Leaning back in his stuffed leather chair, he steepled his fingers. “Miss Cordiae, do you know the racial make-up of my Intro to Xenology session?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.” she said sweetly, still holding up the syllabus.
“Indulge me, Miss Cordiae. There are twelve humans, ten half-elves, four halflings, two miare, two hailene—including yourself—and a minotaur.” He suppressed a grin as her smile faltered at the mention of the minotaur. Even if they hadn’t been a classic target for tribal hailene racial hatred, minotaur tribes were competitors for space, hunting grounds and water rights out east.
He continued. “My point being that my students know you, they know Mister…” he wracked his memory for the other hailene’s name, “…Dawnriser… as well as many of the other hailene students here at the College. Meanwhile, we only have three lasconti students on this particular campus in total, one ogre and no goblins. Do you see what I’m getting at here?”
Lisbeth’s eyes flicked to the syllabus where goblins, ogres, lasconti, and dragonsired were all scheduled to be discussed before hailene. “I know that none of them is even going to be in the class to even complain.”
Despite his years of training and the power of the Word and Song—the very stuff of the Well of Souls—flowing through him, Kaiel felt his eye twitch.
There was a knock on the open door of his office and Liren Tomiar, the elderly half-elven secretary to all the Culture Department Junior Tutors stuck her head in. “Mr. Arunsteadeles?”
“Yes?” It was all Kaiel could do not to appear too eager for a way out of his present conversation. Lisbeth turned her head and aimed the dangerous, diplomatic stare at the old woman.
Liren weathered it well, having spent her career working with young charismatics all trying to prove themselves. “You have visitors. Loreman Ridsekes thought it would be useful for you to speak with them. Shall I send them up?”
Freedom. Sweet freedom. Loreman Ridsekes wouldn’t refer anyone to him unless it was very important, and even if it was someone here to warn him an assassin was coming to kill him, it would have been welcome. Even with a lively chorus number playing in his head though, he managed an apologetic smile for Lisbeth. He rose to see her out.
“The Loreman calls and I must answer. You understand, don’t you, Miss Cordiae? I’ll send a message to inform you when I’m free to take up this discussion again.”
It was just a tiny glare, but Kaiel didn’t miss it as she drew herself up to her full height, just over a head taller than he was. “Indeed, Master Arunsteadeles. I do hope my warning has given you time to reflect on the issue at hand and do the right thing.”
“I have no doubt I will be reflecting on this in the days to come.” Over drinks with the other Junior Tutors, possibly to my mentors…
With that, the Princess strode out, looking like she’d won dozens of concessions even when nothing of use transpired. Liren left soon after to fetch the visitors. Kaiel took the time to straighten his wine-colored shirt and dark jacket before sitting back down and tidying his desk.
A few minutes passed before Liren appeared again, knocking on the door. “Mr. Arunsteadeles, your visitors: Mister Vul Azan and Sharae of Elfhame Amon’ru.”
She stood aside to allow a mismatched pair enter. The woman was a smartly-dressed elf whose posture gave Princess Cordiae competition. The man was a red-haired beast who walked with something between a slouch and a swagger, his eyes narrowed in suspicion about everything around him.
Kaiel stood and offered a hand. “Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles. Please, call me Kaiel.”
The elf took his hand first, a quick, one pump professional greeting. The man enveloped his hand in a grip that showed he wasn’t used to shaking hands with mere humans. The name gave away why to the educated chronicler.
“Vul Azan…” Liren was too experienced to make a mistake in the introductions, which piqued Kaiel’s curiosity. “Not ‘Red Son—”
“No.” Vul Azan cut him off. “I prefer being my own man instead of relying on who or what lay with my mother on the night of my conception, thank you.” His stern expression melted into a prideful smirk.
Kaiel nodded. “Understood. Please, sit. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, Thank you.” said Vul Azan. Sharae shook her head mutely. “I notice that in your book, it is similarly not ‘Red Daughter’. Is that because she shares my philosophy, or was that a transcription error?”
Bardic training kicked in and kept Kaiel from reacting or appearing to put up his guard. “You’re referring to my recent publication, I take it. I recorded all the names as the subjects wished to see them appear.” He took a seat behind his desk as the pair did the same on their side. Liren gave him a questioning look, but he dismissed her with a careful hand signal.
Vul Azan’s smirk became a real smile as he let loose with a hearty chuckle. “I hoped that would be the case. At your ease, Chronicler Arunsteadeles, we come to you through official channels—and Loreman Ridsekes no doubt vetted our story before sending us to you.”
That was true, but then Loreman Ridsekes wasn’t Pele’s brother by clan adoption. He kept his voice perfectly level. “Might I ask what this is about? I’m afraid I won’t be of any help if I don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Curiosity played over Vul Azan’s face and he openly looked to Sharae, who finally spoke up. “They became very close—in a platonic sense—during the course of their exploits. He’s understandably protective.”
Vul Azan grunted. “Very well: I am here because if I accepted the title Red Son, it would be ‘Red Son of Agmar’. Your friend Pele is, in fact, my little sister… and I wish to find her.”
“Hmm.” Kaiel adjusted his spectacles and sat back to give the impression of giving the matter all due thought. It wasn’t unheard of in Harpsfell for unsavory folks to take advantage of people who had lost family by pretending to be long-lost relatives. Even if Loreman Ridsekes saw fit to pass the two along to him, that didn’t mean they should be trusted. It might even be a test of Kaiel’s wisdom.
“I’ll do what I can for you—Pele is like a sister to me after all and I’m sure she would love to get in touch with her family. However, she isn’t in Harpsfell. It might take some time to locate her and pass the news along. If you want to leave me information on how to reach you…”
The two shared a look and Sharae was the one to speak. “We will be staying at the Brass Man inn on Overhang Road for a few weeks. We will inform you if this changes.”
Kaiel nodded, already thinking of what sources he might tap to test the truth of Vul Azan’s claims. “Excellent. I’ll let you know the moment I know anything.”