- 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
Once, before the long line of Praetors who ruled the city chose to be swayed by the honeyed words, military titles, and full coffers offered by the Church of Vitalius, it was home to one of the greatest schools of magic known to the people of the coast surrounding the Sea of Tephedi.
The Academ Imajji took up as much land as one of the estates it started the wealthy Sandayros neighborhood with. Forty years after officially barring its doors, none had made any attempt to scale the walls to defile or loot the place. No matter how much the common folk believed in the message of Vitalius, they believed in the power and spite—even from beyond death—of wizards in equal measure.
That unspoken edict was doubly in force now that there were real wizards in residence, even if their numbers consisted of but one Master, three apprentices barely in their teens, and less than a dozen children who might have been able to spark if they concentrated.
Ru Brakar, age fifteen, sat on the roof of the main dormitory. The heat radiating up from the slate roof and into him through his thin robes went unnoticed as he took advantage of his position to look out over the city.
To the north, he could see the dual ridges of the Waterbearer Mountains, green with jungle thanks to the dozens of trapped rain clouds that swirled between the ridges and the springs that spilled down their slopes to feed the great river Akiana. The Waterbearers were greedy, however, keeping all the rain to themselves such that beyond the Akiana’s floodplain, there was desert right up to the shores of the freshwater inland sea.
The difference between lush floodplain and unforgiving desert was reflected in the city. To the east, where the river passed nearest and where fresh food and fish, not to mention commerce, passed through the gates, there were nice, affluent neighborhoods. To the west, where the gates opened only onto the desert and what rare traders might come from that direction, lay the poor districts like his original home and namesake, the Brakar.
Ru knew he would still be there—or worse—if Gand hadn’t found him. There were excellent odds he’d be dead, actually. Some days, it was more difficult to keep that in mind. Some days, his teenaged brain didn’t care and thought about going back to the Brakar…
…where he would be dead fairly quickly. Years of mystic study hadn’t done anything to build up his meager physique and if he used spellwork to defend himself, the Church of Vitalius would be upon him like hungry wolves.
He was young, but not stupid—he wouldn’t be running away after the argument he just had, or any other argument. There was nowhere to run to. Deep down, in fact, he worried that he might have gotten himself cast out after his latest outburst.
Behind him, the window of what had once been some archmagus’s private study creaked open and someone stepped out onto the hot slate roof. Ru didn’t bother looking: the younger kids weren’t allowed in the upper levels, Gand would not be coming to talk to him so soon, and Seth was afraid of heights.
Pangs deeper than those of the fifteen year-old version of himself ran through Ru and he became aware that what he saw wasn’t real. More accurately, it had been real, but was no longer. Since becoming bound by the unfathomable eldritch machinery that made up the link, Ru hadn’t dreamed, but in the months since Pele became the 108th Master of the Rune Breaker, the link often forced him to experience his memories as if they were dreams.
He knew what was coming next, but there was no control; the memory played out exactly as it happened and Ru found himself living it again.
Light steps—remarkably light for the boots she was wearing—approached. “You know he’s not really angry with you, right?”
“He should be.” replied Ru the Younger even as his older self grimaced at youthful theatrics. “I said some pretty nasty things to him.”
Gloryfall chuckled. “I think he gave as good as he got once you got him going.” She moved into his peripheral vision.
No amount of idealization compared to how she really was, even so young at sixteen. Shining laughing eyes, with golden hair cut short after the unfortunate misapplication of a flaer array. It was rare seeing her in clean clothes and that day was no exception: from her worn and singed canvas pants with more leather patches and original material, to her alchemy-stained linen shirt, whose original color was lost to history, and the leather flat cap perched atop her head.
She was beautiful to him, but more than that she looked like… freedom. The freedom they’d all found with Gand and with each other. For Ru, she was one of only three people in the world who managed to see him as a person.
Young Ru watched her out of the corner of his eye. The youthful crush he’d developed that day at the bottom of the steps outside the Temple of Vitalius hadn’t dwindled. “He thinks I’m dangerous. Too aggressive. But he doesn’t understand, Gloryfall. He… none of you… you haven’t been out there, down in the city.”
His eyes fixed on the Brakar, a place he remembered only by phantom hunger pains, nightmares, and the memory of a feral terror only another Brakar orphan would understand. “He thinks we’re going to wait out the Church? Vitalius’s god-slaves own this city. They won’t just sit by while Gand outbids them on bounties for new sparkers and while he’s living here in a place that mocks them. Sooner or later they’re going to come for us, Gloryfall. People are going to die here.”
The blonde girl looked down at him for a long moment, then took a few shuffling sidesteps toward him before dropping down to sit next to him. She miscalculated the heat of the slate though, and within seconds, it had radiated through her pants.
“Hrk.” She held in a discomfited squeak and quickly shifted so she was crouching instead. Her fingers sketched out a quick series of patterns in the air over the roof, a spell array. When she was done, there was a hiss as the flaer array forced the stone to give up it excess heat to the air where it dissipated.
Nodding with satisfaction, Gloryfall took her seat beside Ru again. “Let’s say you’re right.” As if she could sense his response, she held up a hand to cut it short. “And if you want me to stay out here, talking to you, you’ll leave it at that instead of trying to shout whatever ‘sense’ you think I don’t see into me.”
“Heh.” It wasn’t the same kind of laugh he had as an adult. Ru the Younger’s laugh reflected humor and a measure of self-deprecation rather than scorn or schadenfreude.
Gloryfall butted him lightly with her shoulder. “If you’re right, which would you rather happen: the Church’s minions storm up here and face Gand and a bunch of children, or as close to four master wizards as we can get in whatever time we can buy?”
At his silence, she shook her head. “What? Did you think that just because the rest of us don’t go looking for fights that we wouldn’t all be ready to send someone to oblivion if they threatened this place?”
That coaxed Ru to finally fully turn to look at her. It was the first time she’d ever spoken of magic in terms other than the theoretical or practical. For the first time, he saw the same hardness he had in him reflected in her eyes. She understood more than he thought anyone at the Academy could. What was more, that was the moment which, years later, Ru would pinpoint as the moment he realized that Gloryfall was capable of creating great dangers in addition to great wonders.
In being jarred back to himself, Ru became aware of the link again. It was far, far too late, but he clamped down on it anyway, muffling the connection between himself and Pele. There were parts of him he would rather she didn’t see no matter how much the link tormented him by trying to share them with her.
Something moved against his block and it made him clamp down all the tighter. Pele never tried to worm her way past his attempts at privacy—at least not consciously. Her subconscious (or that’s what he assumed it was) was another story. At time the endless fount of rage that spread around her like a cloak when she fought would slam violently against his defenses, especially if he tried to mute the link after an argument. At other times there was… something else. It caressed the link like a precious gem and tried to pour through the muted link like honey.
Pele didn’t seem to like that part of herself and as it only assailed his defense of the link when he was hiding his memories, Ru agreed with her unequivocally.
Both phenomena were growing in the frequency with which they made themselves known. It had been a steady growth since the day they met, but since Pele had been deliberately dredging up the rage to combat her anxiety, both were thriving as the trip aboard the airship continued.
Past the probing from the honeyed thing, Ru could tell Pele was awake and embarrassed—no doubt from finding herself sharing in another of his memories. From the skeins of fatigue that stuck to her emotions, the shock of him muting the link had awakened her. As if by the same clockwork that operated the locks on the ship’s doors, Pele reached for her battle rage to gain calm so she could get to sleep again.
That had to stop or something was going to break in her head. It wouldn’t be the first time a Master of the Rune Breaker went mad while linked. It wasn’t an experience Ru wanted to revisit, and especially not on Pele who was the first of one hundred and eight to be something like a friend to him.
With less than a full thought, he was awake. Sleep wasn’t truly required thanks to the link, but he did sometimes doze when he wanted to or was resting. He awoke curled up atop the pillows on his bed in the shape of an ancient, battle-scarred tomcat. Cats could sleep comfortably anywhere after all.
After a luxuriant stretch, he resumed his human form and wrapped himself in his standard robes. Out in the hall, he stopped himself, realizing he had been on the way to knock on Pele’s door. As soon as it dawned on him, he made a conscious effort to pass it by.
Raiteria would have gone to Pele in the middle of the night if she thought something was wrong. So would Brin and Kaiel. Ru didn’t know if Layaka knew Pele well enough even after ten days aboard Forgotten Freedom to do so, but he would have put his own weight in gold up in wager that Grandmother, Grandfather, Signateria or any of the Winter Willow’s hunters would have knocked on that door if they knew what he did and came to the same conclusions.
But he was not them. They were her friends; her family. He and Pele were… something else. He couldn’t explain what exactly. Of course, he knew they should have been master and slave, but Pele refused to be anyone’s master. Not that he would say so out loud, but he was grateful for that. Although it left things complicated when it came to their, for lack of better terms, relationship.
Pele said they were friends and her feeling in the link bore that out, but Ru’s nature wouldn’t allow him to believe it. She still felt guilty for being his ‘master’ even in name only, and she likely felt an obligation to try and at least mitigate the harm he did—assuming she’d finally given up on the fool idea that he could be redeemed.
Whatever they were, Ru knew that he wasn’t someone who would run to her room and comfort her in the night. Likewise, she wasn’t someone who would want him to come to her room.
Nonetheless, something had to be done.
He floated down the stairs to the main room of the House before tentatively un-muting the link. The subconscious intrusion was thankfully gone, so he was able to reach out unhindered. Miss Pele?
Ru? Her reply wasn’t hazy with sleep; whatever she’d been trying to get back to sleep wasn’t working.
If you are awake enough to, would you please meet me on deck?
What time is it?
Ru bared his teeth in amusement. Early. Late. I suspect it is dark out.
The idea rolled around in Pele’s tired brain for a moment. Curiosity washed into the link while the rage she was wielding against her own anxious thoughts roared off into darker recesses of her mind. There was a reason why she’d been named ‘clever girl’ in two different languages; an inquisitive nature that couldn’t be subverted. Ru knew that the ‘why’ of Ru asking her to come to the deck of the ship was too much of a temptation for her to pass up.
Give me time to get dressed. She said after a few long minutes of consideration.
Of course. I will be waiting for you, Miss Pele.
Ten minutes later, Pele stepped out of the House and into the dim light of her room on the ship. Some halflings were sleeping in a pile on one of the beds while a shaggy gray wolf was curled up in one of the chairs. Thanks to the covers heaped atop them, Pele had no idea who they were, but they were from the Winter Willow so they were welcome to it.
Without wagons and with Grandmother having paid for the trip, the concept of ownership when it came to quarters had broken down among the nir-lumos, and everything had become communal. Everything, that was, except the House, which most of the clan saw as Ru’s domain—and Ru was not a member of the clan.
Careful to tread as lightly as she could so as not to disturb the halfling family, Pele slipped out into the hall and down the stairs to the deck.
The chill of Chordin and the waning autumn had been creeping up on her, so Pele had donned her complicated hailene coat with openings for her wings in addition to a woolen shirt, thick socks and canvas trousers. Stepping onto the deck in the pre-dawn cold made her wish she’d put on gloves and a scarf as well.
Ru had positioned himself at the rail directly across from the door. The white moon, Gracelia, and the green moon, Azelia, ruled the sky at the moment and their light was strong enough to see him by easily. He stood looking out over the rail at the moonlit landscape below.
He didn’t have to see her or hear the tread of her step to know she’d arrived—the link provide well enough. “It’s been ten days and still you are not at your ease, Miss Pele.”
Immediately, her wings drew in close to her back. “I’d say I was doing quite well. I’ve played with Rale and Motsey, Brin and Haru and Layaka went down to that spa, I talked to the chief engineer a few times…”
“And each day, unless properly distracted, you must rally your courage as if you were meeting a hopeless and out-numbered battle.” Ru observed. When she stiffened further, he raised his right ring and forefingers to tap the side of his head. “Did you forget, Miss Pele? I can feel your rage, your martial focus, even when you muster it in a manner it wasn’t meant to be.”
He let her feel his weariness and yes, even his concern in the link. “And I can feel when it slips free. When you’ve snapped at Brin, when you’ve had to step away from the children as they misbehave, and when you have to restrain yourself against a rude fellow passenger. That is not something that was there before.”
Pele let out a long, snorting breath from her nose and licked her lips against the cool, dry air. “Ru, it’s only for a few more days, and I need…”
“You need to conquer your fears, Miss Pele, not to bludgeon yourself until you stop feeling them and replace that fear with fury.” He gestured to her with the same fingers he’d pointed to his head with. “Come here. I wish to reveal something to you.”
There was the slightest bit of hesitance in her stride. Pele wanted to trust Ru, but he’d told her enough time not to trust him that she had to give that some credence. She eventually made her way to his side and grabbed the railing. “What are you talking about, Ru? Reveal what?”
Ru looked straight ahead into the night, but Pele could see that his yellow wolf-eyes were seeing something she couldn’t. Magic.
“There is no wind.” He declared evenly. “Even though this ship is moving faster than a horse at full gallop, there is no wind.”
Now Pele knew what he was looking at. “Air envelopes. Airships that aren’t enclosed by design are surrounded by air screens that keep the wind, plus stray birds or bad weather, from touching the ship.” Her feathers bristled as she added, “That’s why you can’t just fly off of one. I saw more than a few other ang’hailene try. The difference between the airspeed here and the airspeed out there… it was as if the ship itself hit them—it didn’t matter if it was just air: when you hit that sheer…”
“And thus, you are trapped on this ship just as surely as if you were in chains.” said Ru, still watching what Pele was sure were complex currents and eddies in the vin arrays maintaining Forgotten Freedom’s air envelope.
She nodded. “Yes, but you need the wind screens for everyone else. You might blow out the windows at this speed otherwise.”
“That is true.” said Ru, “But the part about you being trapped… that is false.”
Her eyes went to the screen she knew was there even if she couldn’t see it. “Part dragon or not, I’m not strong enough to go through that without getting maimed.”
“Unless you had command of a powerful wizard for whom teleporting ten feet to get you clear of the screen is utterly trivial.”
An argument was on the tip of Pele’s tongue. She was going to tell him for the hundredth time, she did not and would not ‘command’ him. As it was, however, she didn’t get a chance because the Rune Breaker anticipated her disagreement and silenced it by grabbing her arm and doing exactly as he said he would.
The world exploded into motes that swiftly retreated from her vision only to be replaced a fraction of a second later by new motes that crashed together and condensed into a new world—or at least the old one as seen from a different location.
Pele found herself starting to fall, but as a creature of the air, she didn’t panic in the least. Instinct had her wings open and beating mightily before she could lose more than a few feet of altitude. After a moment of disorientation, she was able to take in everything around her. Ten feet away, the airship raced past, quickly out-pacing her leisurely speed and surging north through the crisp, cool Chordini night.
And what a night. Gracelia and Azelia’s combined light revealed to her the Chordini badlands: a sundered landscape of barren rock mantled with snow and ice. Here and there, where volcanic hot springs brought some warmth to the place, odd twisted trees grew in sentinel groves around tiny farmsteads. In other places, migrating herds of gigantic deer and squat, thick-tailed couaga made their way south from whatever pre-winter pastures they frequented in the summer. Pele let herself glide as she took in the beautiful, almost alien landscape.
There was a rumble like thunder to her left and Pele looked over in time to see Ru unleash a concussive force that rippled the air for a dozen feet until finally dissipating. He caught her questioning look and grunted noncommittally. “A vox array to redirect our momentum. Otherwise, we would have still been moving as fast as the ship after the teleport.”
At the mention of the ship, Pele took another look and found that it was already quite far away. “We can get back to it, right?”
“I left a beacon on the deck. Returning will be no issue. For now, fly free, Miss Pele. For now and whenever you wish it. As long as you bear the link, you will never be restrained.” He was keeping pace with her simply by floating.
Pele smiled and turned a lazy loop in the air, oblivious now to the cold. “Thank you, Ru.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “Why don’t you fly with me?”
“I thought that was what I was doing.”
She laughed, then laughed louder seeing as there was no one to be disturbed by the noise. “That’s just using a spell to float. I’m talking about really flying. You can take any shape you’ve seen, so I know you have an entire catalog of forms with wings.” She paused, looking back at him thoughtfully. “Actually, I don’t think I remember you really flying in one of those forms. Can you?”
“Heh.” replied Ru. “Why should I bother when my levitation spell is far superior?”
Pele made a rude noise at him. “Because there’s no way levitating feels as good as flying. The stretch in your wings, the thermals holding you aloft…” To demonstrate her point, she performed a quick wingover into a dive before surging back up to him with powerful wing-beats.
There was hesitation in the link, along with feelings she didn’t usually get from Ru, like indecision. She was about to ask what was wrong when the black-robed wizard she was familiar with suddenly swelled out in a fleshy explosion of fur and sheer mass. It took considerable aerial agility on her part to avoid his growing form.
In the span between two heartbeats, Ru had become something Pele had never seen before. It was four times the size of a carriage with a wingspan easily three times that. The head was fox-like with a pair of eyes like solid green pearls twice the size of Pele’s fist and long, pointed ears. Four stubby, black paws were tucked up under its elongated body while a pair of furry bat wings rose from its shoulders. A thick flaring tail extended out behind it, bobbing up and down to push against the air just as the wings were. It was covered with fur, mostly reddish brown, but with black tips on the wings and tail and a white underbelly.
Seeing Pele’s shock in addition to feeling it in the link, Ru let out a lowing, trumpeting call as he beat his wings and tail. The wind from them nudged Pele aside like a child’s pool toys being pushed about by a swimmer’s wake.
Not to be undone, Pele gained altitude and swiftly overtook him to fly just above his head. “I’m going to be honest, I’ve never seen one of these before. I wish I had though, it’s an amazing animal.”
You will never see a living example, Miss Pele. This is a creature of my world. They are called raikenzacairus, or zaca for short. If raised from the moment they’re weaned from their mother, there never was a more loyal or more steadfast mount and companion.
Pele noted the sense of fondness that came with that. Ru was feeling all sorts of un-Ru things that night. It made her feel less alone that she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t quite themselves. “You had one?”
He was called Coelius. Most wizards never take a familiar, some take a cat or a toad. I chose something practical and powerful. He was a paragon of what a companion should be.
That said, Ru muted the link. Pele found herself in familiar territory now. Un-Ru thoughts were something hidden that she had to work to uncover or learn to respect as private. As such, she just allowed the both of them to fly in amicable silence.
Dawn was coming. Up ahead, one of the distant mountain peaks started to glow with the first light over the horizon. And beyond that, Pele could make out what someone new to Chordin might mistake as a heat-haze. Such a person would be half-right, as the wards around Harpsfell, the City of Bards, did indeed seal in the heat the city produced, keeping it comfortable for most people even in Chordin’s most hostile cold snaps.
They were close then. A day out, maybe two as the airship flies. And then they would be there with all of her closest friends and family in one place for the entire winter.
Unable to control herself, but for reasons far less troublesome than she’d had in the past two weeks, Pele peeled off from Ru and did a few loops in sheer joy.
Always loved this chapter.
Me too. I’d been waiting to write it since Lighter Days