- 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 last morning before the Forgotten Freedom reached Harpsfell revealed the fatal flaw to the nir-lumos‘ open-door policy regarding anything resembling inn rooms.
“Rale is going to pitch the worst kind of fit if we don’t find that doll Signa bought her in Kinos before we leave.” Rai was looking more than a little ragged after a few hours of trying to wrangle her family’s possessions from all over the ship. Bromun was packing up with the kids, while Layaka made herself helpful down below preparing the animals to disembark. That left Pele and Brin to help with the search for the all-important doll.
“Let’s do this logically and narrow down the places it could be.” said Brin. “The Clan had twelve rooms. Let’s narrow it down to just the rooms you slept in and the rooms Rale played in. We can leave out the common rooms because we can just ask the staff if they found it while cleaning later.”
Rai shook her head while she rifled through a closet. “That really only leaves out Grandmother and Grandfather’s room. We can probably rule out the room Bromun is packing in right now, but that’s still ten.”
“And the House,” said Pele, “Rale and Motsey played in the House almost every day.”
Frowning as she considered the sheer volume that added to their search, Brin shook her head. “Isn’t there some sort of magic that can track it?”
“I don’t think spells can track things unless you put a spell to act as a beacon on it in the first place.” Pele casually lifted the bed in the room they were searching to look under it. “And while I guess someone could read Rale’s memory to find out when she last had the doll, no one is going to let someone cast psi spells on their child. People barely let psi spells be cast on them unless they really need it.”
At this, Brin’s eyebrow went up. “Oh? Is that why you’ve been less edgy the past couple of days?”
Rai looked over her shoulder from the closet and said, “I was being polite by not commenting.”
“As a contractor, I’m required never to be polite.” Brin said with a cheeky smirk. “So Pele, did you finally get Ru to dull your fear or something?”
‘Get’. Brin was learning the nuances of Pele’s strange relationship between the link and Ru. Saying ‘make’ or ‘order’ would have shut the conversation down instantly with Pele insisting that she would never do such a thing. ‘Get’ and ‘convince’ were safe most of the time depending on tone or unless Pele was in a particularly dark mood.
This time, Pele shrugged. “Not with magic. He showed me how he can teleport me off the ship and gave me the chance to just fly around a couple of times. Now that I know I can leave whenever I want… it feels a lot less like the ships I remember.” A funny expression crossed her face, something between a frown and an amused smile. “The weird thing is, I didn’t even ask.”
Brin and Rai shared a look. Brin’s was cynical—she was sure that the mental struggles she’d been able to read in her friend had just gotten to be annoying to the Rune Breaker. Rai’s was warning—telling Brin not to give voice to her theory. Things were going well and she would not brook the elven woman starting an argument over her mutual animosity with Ru.
Meanwhile, Pele put down the bed and lifted up a chair to continue her search. “But anyway, now that I’m feeling better about the whole thing, I’m kind of sad the trip is over. It was kind of nice even though my teeth were clenched during most of it.”
“Your teeth least of all.” Brin said with a teasing smile. Though she was nowhere near as physically strong as Pele, she was able to nudge the armoire across from the room’s single bed over enough to get a good look behind. The teasing smile turned into a delighted on. “Oop! Look who I found!”
It took her some fumbling, but after a minute, she managed to extricate the doll. Though dusty, the doll still wore its sewn-on grin and colorful Novish ball gown.
“Oh thank the One Dice.” Rai said, letting out a long breath. She scurried across the room to take the doll. As she dusted it off with a sleeve, she added, “I owe you for this one, Brin. There would have been some sleepless nights in my future if I didn’t find this.”
Brin shook her head. “Nothing of it. Rale’s my niece now and I couldn’t just sit by and see her unhappy.” Then she tilted her head thoughtfully. “Of course, if you’re really feeling thankful, there’s an excellent pub in the Artisan’s Park that serves an amazing Tresholmi plum-infused stout and fried fingers of trout from Mirror Lake…”
“Is that anywhere near that odd little shop that sells the cheesy flatbread?” Pele asked.
“Osai’s? Yes, the very same. We can get some flatbreads from there and move on to the pub—make a night of it!”
Rai finished, the doll being as clean as she could get it without a good washing. “We’ll make a couple of nights of it. We have all winter, after all. And I just know Bromun is going to leave the children with me more than once to go drinking with the other hunters.”
“And you and Bromun can leave them with us for some alone time.” Brin intimated with a wink.
Returning the wink with gusto, Rai gave her a sly grin. “Now you see the true reason I made you an aunt to the children. Let’s move along though, I know both of you gave up some packing time to help me out, and there’s still an hour or two to enjoy the ship before we dock.”
Pele spent her last hour on the ship watching the scenery.
The sun was well up, though not nearing noon as the badlands gave way to mountains. Unlike the Rame range on the Callen-Calderia border, which was made of fold mountains; low and rounded, the Haishani mountains were the product of more recent cataclysmic forces thrusting them out of the ground and forced into a war between the planet and the elements. Volcanoes and earthquakes had sundered and reshaped them with lava flows and fissures while glaciers and the subarctic free-thaw cycle ground them down.
What resulted was an expanse of fantastic landscapes that had very little to do with magic. Here, a volcanic dome had collapsed, leaving twin curved peaks standing sentinel over a deep caldera lake that still boiled and fumed. Elsewhere, Pele could see wide, flat, and surprisingly fertile plains where lava flows and ash formed nutrient-rich slabs of land made to order for hardy cold-weather plants.
A year ago, she and the Winter Willow had traveled through that alien landscape and seen its wonders up close. An aerial view only made it clear just how little they’d been able to see—and how some of it was impossible to even access on foot. But even then, none of them compared to Chordin’s last great wonder; the place where the place’s natural splendor met the craftsmanship and engineering glory of demi-humanity.
Pele held her breath as the ship maneuvered its way around the tall jagged peak of the mountain called Araskatha in the Imperial tongue, which translated to ‘The Peak of First Vigilance’. She barely noticed the mountain, or the ancient fortress built just below the summit on the northern exposure. Her eyes went immediately to the City of Bards: Harpsfell.
Long before mortals settled in the arctic, the land had been a gigantic plateau. But glacier, earthquake and deluge had conspired to sunder it into dozens of smaller mesa and buttes, separated by yawning canyons, most of which we so deep they never saw daylight.
Harpsfell, or at least the second city to bear that name, was built astride the southernmost quarter of the former plateau, connecting the separated mesas with vast bridges until it was the single largest city on Ere. Unlike other cities, Harpsfell was as cosmopolitan in its construction as it was in population. Towers of dark stone, quarried from the frozen uninhabitable northern reaches of the plateau, soared more than thirty floors into the air and shared space with most conservative Calleni designs or round, organic Formean buildings.
To the east, Pele could make out the vast campus of the Bardic College, with its green lawns and circles, and its walks paved with white stone. She was also able to easily spot several estates of the Great Houses, especially the smokestacks, foundries, and cobblestone streets ubiquitous of House Deppin. Nearby were the tiered gardens and buildings constructed of living trees and fertile earth favored by House Gurrai. And still there was so much beyond that. Harpsfell was so large that it was impossible to cross it on foot in a day. Not even with three months of leisure had Pele even scratched the surface of what it offered.
“So.” Brin sidled up to the railing beside Pele and leaned on it. The breeze off the ship’s air screens played merrily with her hair. “What are you going to do first?”
Pele considered for a moment before nodding to herself. “House Gurrai is letting any of us who want to post our wagons on their grounds. I suppose I’ll do that and from there, maybe visit the Seinthal Gallery. You?”
“I’ve got enough money saved up that Layaka and I can just live comfortably until after Wintercoming, so it’s all about finding the best inn or hotel. Something near the Artisan’s Park so we’re near the best places to eat, or overlooking the Gold Walk where the best theaters and music halls outside the College are.”
“Those sound good.” said Pele. “Any plans for Wintercoming?”
Brin shrugged and studied the rocky terrain far below them. “I’ve never been here for it. It’s a family thing though, so I figure I’ll take Layaka around for all the local color. Aside from that, not much. Does the Winter Willow celebrate?”
“Not really.” said Pele. “Though I took Rai, Bromun and the kids out to dinner and then to the special ceremonies at the Bardic College last year. It was pretty nice, what with all the famous folk the College invited as guests arriving and giving speeches or demonstrations. Alun Signus Rheit… I think that’s how you say her name… conjured a blizzard of snow that tasted like lemons and blueberries—the kids loved that. Even I didn’t mind getting cold over that.” She smiled gently at her friend. “You can come with us if you’d like.”
The Forgotten Freedom was slowing down now and starting to drift off so as to angle into airdock. Now that they were closer, the docking towers were visible, as were the gigantic stone lifts that clustered around the southernmost mesas to bring visitors and goods from the rest of the world up to the city. This close, they couldn’t see the heat-haze that accompanied the protective ward that encompassed most of the city, trapping its heat and protecting it from the worst of Chordin’s frigid autumn and desolate winters.
“That doesn’t sound half bad.” Brin said with a nod. Then she turned away from the railing so as to lean back against it. “I’m glad you found a way to deal with your… issues… with airships, by the way. One day, we’ll take a trip over the Tresholm in the Zephyrus. It’s an older ship, but the luxuries they have there make this ship look like a cheap inn.”
Pele fluffed her wings, not out of any sense of discomfort, but the Forgotten Freedom’s wind screens were being brought down, allowing the comparatively cooler air to seep in. “I might like that.” She hunkered down against the railing, her eyes scanning the docks for items of interest. “You know something, Brin? Even before I got a chance to get out and fly, I was glad I did this. It might have been uncomfortable and I might have ended up wound far too tightly than is healthy, but it was all worth it to spend time with the Clan and with you and Layaka—even with Ru when he wasn’t tied up playing that game.”
She shivered a little, wishing she’d worn a heavier shirt. “I never really had a family—not one I remember anyway. Down in the mines, there were people who looked out for each other, but we got rotated a lot. Then I got moved to the ships and so many were out for themselves, just hoping that I was the one who took a spear before they did so they might get a bigger ration that night…
“I know that we’re only really ‘sisters’ because Rai made you her sister for rescuing Motsey, and that’s usually not taken as seriously as the Clan and Rai have with me, but I want you to know that you really are like my sister, Brin; as much as Rai is. I can’t imagine living this new life I managed to fall into without you.”
Brin settled back farther against the rail. “If you didn’t think the feeling as mutual, we’ll have to have a talk later. I’m not even sure what it is about you and Rai… I mean I have friends, plenty of them all over the world, people I thought were dear friends, but it’s been nothing like how it is with you two.
“I don’t have any blood brothers or sisters and I didn’t get along with my parents, so maybe I just never knew what it was like… but I’m glad I crossed paths with you. Certainly stirred up some big changes for the better in my life.”
She pushed off the railing, stretched, then turned back to watch with Pele as the ship started its docking approach. “Think Rai feels the same? Sometimes I wonder if we didn’t more collide with her life than fall into place. Without us, none of the rigamarole she went through would have happened.”
Pele nodded, her smile broadening. “I’d wager she does. Just because terrible things had to happen to bring us together doesn’t mean she isn’t happy with the end result.” Something on the airdock caught her eye and immediately thereafter, her train of thought. “Hey, look at that—it looks like someone’s waiting for a ship to come in—a lot of someones.”
Sure enough, a delegation had assembled at the end of one of the gantries meant to provide access to a docking ship. Half a dozen men and woman in heavy woolen robes of green with white piping were standing in two rigid lines to either side of the gantry. Each held a banner emblazoned with a green fir tree upon a white shield—the crest of the Great House Gurrai. Between the ranks stood two people in layers of white silk with green sashes; one a tall, fat human with a black beard braided almost down to his navel, the other a half-elf of the same height with as much muscle as the other had fat. They stood facing toward the currently empty gantry expectantly.
“Is that the gantry we’re going to dock to?” Brin asked as she took in the group.
But Pele was still scanning the dock at that level and picked out two more people obviously waiting for the same arrival, yet keeping a respectful distance from the Gurrai representatives. One was a man who, if he stood close to her, would only be shorter by a few scant inches not counting his straight yellow-blonde hair that had been combed and set so that it bested gravity to stand up tall above his head. He wore a bright blue leather coat with silver filigree and toggles over a sky blue silk shirt.
Beside him was a man who, while slightly above average for most human height was far shorter than his companion. His dark hair, long enough to reach his jaw if he allowed it, was arranged into a careful mess that likely took either hours or magic to affect. He wore a hunter green cloak with black fur trim over a fine leather vest and a white cotton shirt. It had been a long time since Pele has seen Keese Kaiel Arunsteadeles fully dressed up.
Pele’s smile broke into an outright grin. “That’s definitely the right dock, look Brin!”
Brin’s expression remained schooled, but her lips did curl up into a hint of a smile as she said, “He came to meet us… with his mentor?”
“The blonde Formean is Traceren Ridsekes.” Brin explained. “You’ve never heard of him? Not even in all of your dime novels?”
Shrugging, Pele shook her head. “I mostly read older stories. He’s famous then?”
“All loremen are.” said Brin, “But he’s probably one of the five most well-known of our age.”
Pele forced her smile into a tiny smirk. “Kaiel was very enthusiastic to tell you all about him, wasn’t he?” She lightly bumped her friend with her elbow.
Once more, the other woman maintained her stoicism. “He was more excited to introduce me to him than his mother… though we were on a demon-induced deadline when that came up…”
Along the Forgotten Freedom‘s waist, crewmen were tossing lines to the dockside workers who threaded them into winches to help guide the ship into its berth. At the same time, part of the railing was unbolted and pulled aside so as to couple with the end of the gantry.
Unable to hold back a chuckle, Pele patted Brin on the shoulder and turned to go join the others waiting to disembark. “Well I’m sure all the stories were exciting.”
Brin sniffed. “Not half as exciting as some of mine. Really, someone should write some of my exploits into a dime novel. Both spirit docents and spear-wielders are tragically underrepresented in fiction, you know?” She started to follow Pele, but paused. “…Huh.”
“Hmm?” Pele asked, looking back over her shoulder.
“I’m not sure. Reflair said she sensed spirits here. Most airdocks are too new to work up a good haunting. I might have to look into it later—there might be coin in dealing with it.”
They continued on to the ship’s waist where the gantry made contact with a soft shudder that ran through the ship. Grandmother made a point of quickly encouraging the other passengers to leave first, weaving their way through the Gurrai delegation before leading the Winter Willow (plus Ru, Brin and Layaka) off the ship.
The moment they reached the halfway point across, the six banner-bearers stood at full attention. The fat man stepped forward, speaking in a deep voice that seemed perfect for soothing people and animals alike. “House Gurrai, faithful servants of Sylph Reborn, welcomes our sister in Her holy sight. My name is Pharnan Stunio, house diplomat and official liaison between yourself and Master of the House, Jodit Gurrai.” He indicated the half-elf. “This is Tolesi Ganca, who will be acting as valet for your people. Whatever you need while guests of House Gurrai, he will locate and procure for you.”
Tolesi bowed. “I look forward to serving the Clan of the Winter Willow.”
Grandmother couldn’t have kept the satisfied look off her face if she tried. She stood as tall as any nir-lumos could manage, which in terms of presence was tall indeed, and replied graciously. “The Winter Willow thanks the Great House of Gurrai for its hospitality and accepts. We come with gifts and trade as well as able craftsmen and spellworkers to do our part where we are needed.”
She gave a little bow, then looked back to the Clan. “Alright all, down below to fetch the wagons! Off with you now!”
As most of the clan including Rai and Bromun struck off to do just that, and Grandmother and Grandfather moved to one side to speak less formally with the Gurrai representatives, Pele took the initiative to lead the way over to where Kaiel and his mentor were waiting.
“Kaiel! I didn’t expect to see you so soon—how did you even know we’d be arriving like this?” When she reached him, her immediate instinct was to embrace him; seeing the chronicler again reminded her of how much she’d missed her friend. Other instincts made her come up short and offer a hand to exchange grips instead.
After only a moment to marvel at even that amount of progress from touch-averse Pele, Kaiel clasped his hand over her wrists firmly. “It’s good to see you, Pele. As for how I knew, that was actually my mentor.” He let go and took a respectful step back so that Traceren could step forward. “Pele Hiddakko, I would like you to meet Traceren Ridsekes, Loreman of the Third Philosophy, Fellow of the Bardic College and Teacher in Oration and Storyspinning.”
“But everyone not bound by the College’s system of rank can call me Trace,” said the man in question, extending his hand to her. Instead of a grip, he just gave her a quick shake of the hand. “I’m sorry to have missed you when you were here last year. I’ve so wanted to speak to you, and of course,” He leaned slightly to Pele’s left to spy Ru through a gap in her feathers. “Ru Brakar.”
He reached up and adjusted the spectacles of amber-colored smoked glass he was wearing. “I apologize if you wanted your arrival to be a surprise, but in the past couple of weeks there have been some things I felt you might want to be informed of, so I cast some spells, reached out to some of my contacts, and divined the whereabouts of the Clan of the Winter Willow.” At that, he inclined his head to Brin and Layaka. “I didn’t think to check who else was aboard the ship. Forgive me for delaying certain reunions.”
With a sly look on his face, Trace stepped back and subtly gestured for Pele to do the same, leaving nothing between Brin and Kaiel.
They looked at one another for a moment; Kaiel trying to maintain his bardic poise and a debonair pose, Brin doing the same with a casual demeanor and posture. The cracks in their facades started as unsteady shifts in their stances, then became nervously giddy smiles as they fought against making a scene in public.
Brin was the one that broke first. The small smile became broad and sure and the unsteadiness fled her as she suddenly cast aside any concerns she might have had and strode the last few yards off the gantry. Kaiel met her with open arms and kissed her deeply. They remained like that for a long moment before breaking apart for breath, resting their foreheads against each other.
“I tried to find you to send messages…” Kaiel said.
“We move around a lot. We were even here for a while…” said Brin.
“Blood and ash, that must have been while I was on my walkabout…”
As they found the strength for another kiss, Layaka shook her head and smirked. “Finally.”
“I’m guessing I’m not the only one who was sensing a distinct lack of focus for a while now.” remarked Trace, giving the young woman a smirk.
“I’ve only had to deal with her for two weeks and I saw as much.” Ru rumbled.
“Then my work here is done.” said Trace, “Well mostly. Pele, we still need to speak about—”
He was cut off by an enraged shout. “Perhaps she would rather hear it from the source!” Even Brin and Kaiel’s attention was drawn by the noise and the fuss that arose as Vul Azan and Sharae shoved their way through porters and passengers bound for other ships.
Vul Azan’s face was a mask of rage and though her expression was impassive, Sharae’s bearing telegraphed hostility.
Without looking, Trace recognized the voice and rolled his eyes before turning and drawing himself up to his full, impressive height. “Sir, I am certain that my associate, Mr. Arunsteadeles, told you that we would contact you when he had information concerning when and if Ms. Hiddakko wanted to meet with you.”
Growling deep in his throat, Vul Azan stopped a few yards short of Trace and threw a trio of serrated discs onto the wooden planks of the airdock. They were sticky with a green-brown paste that seemed to be drying up. “It would seem I already got your ‘contact’, Loreman. Perhaps you would care to use that silver tongue to explain to Ms Hiddakko why you sent an assassin to kill her brother.”