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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 36

Ignoring the pair’s shocked looks, she turned and sprinted toward her brother and the sounds of fighting.  She saw a group of Taken chasing a small band of travelers who were running with desperate haste toward were Vilhylm stood, spear leveled and ready.  Holt rose up from Vil’s other side, firing long shafts in a continuous ripple, but it wasn’t going to be enough.

“Rax zark kreshnak!”  She cursed and flung herself forward, lifting a spell to grant her further speed from Shadowsliver’s flat black surface.  “I have left!”  She shouted, and Holt’s aim switched to the right.

With a shout of defiance, she leaped completely over the heads of the fleeing people, summoning another spell as she soared through the air and landed with bolts of lightning blasting out from Shadowsliver to consume a half dozen foes.  She recognized the type; they were numerous but relatively harmless as long as you kept them from swarming over you.

A rotting hand closed on her shoulder and Callindra pivoted smoothly, breaking the grip and following up with a slash that took both the creature’s arm and head off in one smooth strike.  Three more stopped chasing the civilians and leaped at her.  She ducked one, cut the second in half at the waist and took the charge of the third on the shoulder.

It bounced off, falling back from her braced stance.  Shadowsliver cut it savagely and it fell twitching, hands still grasping at empty air.  The fourth she hadn’t seen nearly closed jaws on the back of her neck before she smelled its rotting breath.  It was too late to flinch away, but instead of tearing a ragged chunk of flesh out of her neck with broken teeth, it fell backward with an arrow in the eye.

Six more appeared almost out of nowhere and she was now fighting for her life in earnest.  There hadn’t been this many when she’d first leaped into the fray, there must have been a second group that was following behind the first.  Hands began tearing at her armor, jagged fingernails digging trenches into exposed flesh and attempting to wrest her sword from her grasp.

With a scream of defiance, Callindra tore a spell from Shadowsliver and a whirling torrent of wind blasted the smaller Taken away, leaving only some of the larger ones and those that had a grip on her directly.  Terror and pain gave her strength, but her experience made her focus.  If she let herself give into fear now she would be throwing away any chance she might have had of survival.

She calmly decided that two of the creatures were less of a priority and allowed them to savage her better armored legs.  One that was clawing at her back was also ignored in favor of slashing the two that tried to claw her eyes and face.  Callindra managed to slash the arms off one and looped Shadowsliver’s chain around the other, tangling it enough that it was momentarily distracted from cutting her to ribbons.  Two more of the creatures leaped on her back and she was overbalanced, sprawling to the mud made from dirt and viscera on the ground.

A wave of heat blasted over her, quickly followed by the roar of an explosion.  The monsters pinning her were tossed in pieces and she could feel shrapnel cutting runnels into her skin wherever it wasn’t covered by her armor.  She sat up shakily and looked around for any enemies, but the battlefield was strewn only with smoking corpses apart from a smallish man wearing goggles with ridiculously huge lenses high on his forehead.

He held a wand in one hand, the end of it seemed to have caught on fire but he didn’t pay it any mind.  His hair was also smoldering, but he only watched her intently, wand leveled at her with unwavering intensity.

“Thanks for the assist.”  She said through ravaged lungs.  With an effort of will she staggered to her feet and tried to pick the largest slivers of stone and other things she didn’t want to think about from her arms and the back of her neck.

“I thought they’d gotten you.”  He said in a clipped voice.  “I’m still not sure they didn’t get you.”

“Understandable.”  She said, “No offense taken.”

“I could care less about your feelings.”  He said in that same tightly controlled voice.  “Prove to me you’re not one of them.”

Callindra mutely held out her right arm, showing the red human blood dripping from a deep cut. “They tend to bleed black stranger.  I’m Callindra, the leader of this band of idiots.”

“Connor.”  He said, slowly lowering the wand.  “Recently a traveler with a rather sizable group of survivors.  Now just a traveling … inventor.”

“My companions are just up the way.”  She said gesturing to where now only Vilhylm was visible at the top of the rise.  “We probably will be leaving within the hour if you wish to join us.”

Connor looked at her skeptically, taking in her bloodied battered state.  She was limping badly as she made her way back to the top of the hill.  Connor put his wand away, pausing to lick his fingers and pinch the flame on the end out.  Callindra caught a glimpse of movement behind him, but recognized Holt’s surprisingly lithe form and paid it no mind.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 35

By the time she got back to the camp, the girl was sitting on a log, looking pleased with herself and eating a hearty breakfast.  Reed was rushing about, apparently attempting to do six things at once. When he saw her, he handed her a steaming cup of tea and ran off to attend to a pot of something boiling over the fire.

“Girl.”  Callindra said, taking a sip of her tea.  It was perfect. “Why are you sitting there?  Surely there’s work that could be done.”

“Reed said I didn’t have to.”  She said, her glance taking in Callindra’s state of undress, her sweaty body, worn undergarments and crudely shorn hair.

“Reed isn’t in charge.”  Callindra said coldly, “I am in charge, and I don’t allow dead weight to slow me and mine down.”  She put emphasis on the word dead and stared at the girl until the other’s defiance wavered.

“What’s your name?”  Callindra demanded.

“Alanna my Lady.”  She said, trying to maintain her gaze, but eventually lowering her eyes and blushing.

“I’m no lady.”  Callindra said, the words coming like a curse.  “I’m a warrior. That’s what you have to be to live out here.  If you think you can get by letting others do your fighting for you, you’ll be dead in a day.”

She turned and pointed toward the packs.  “There’s a shovel in there. Go fill in the slit trench from last night.  When you’re done you come back here for a fighting lesson. You will do whatever I find for you without complaint or you go home now.  Right now.”

Allana looked at her in disbelief, but Callindra’s face firmed and she gestured again.  This time she used her left hand and Shadowsliver’s flat black fork tipped blade pointed unwaveringly.  “If you had helped instead of being a burden to one already overworked I might have spared you the roughest and most odious tasks, but you have well and truly earned this.”

The girl blushed deeper, ran off to find the shovel and shot Callindra a venomous look when she thought she wasn’t looking.  That one would be trouble.

“I’ll take over the porridge once I get clean and dressed.”  Callindra said to Reed. It was unlikely that she’d have the opportunity to bathe in clean water for a few days at least; the river downstream was a polluted mess from what they’d been able to see.  They needed to find the source of that corruption; it was trying to work its way upstream to the High Forest. That couldn’t be allowed.

“I’ll handle it.”  Reed said, giving an anxious look at the pot.  Callindra frowned; her cooking wasn’t that bad was it?

“Go get clean, I’ll take over here Reed.” Vilhylm said, coming from the direction of the river with dripping hair.  Callindra grabbed her clothes and armor and stalked off to the riverside, muttering under her breath.

After only two days, and still Alanna managed to cut herself with the knife in even the most basic of Stances.  It shouldn’t be possible for someone to be this incompetent. Beyond that, she complained constantly, badgered and flirted Reed into doing chores whenever Callindra wasn’t paying attention.  She had decided that enough was enough.

“Please Reed?”  Alanna’s voice wheedled, “Just this morning?  I know she’s going to make me fill in the trenches again and it’s not fair.  My hands hurt and I barely slept last night.”

Before Reed could answer, Callindra flung the tent flap open to let in the brilliant sunrise.  She was clad in full armor and Shadowsliver was in her left hand. Alanna was kneeling by Reed, twisting her hands with a pleading expression on her face.  Reed looked like death warmed over. The pair started and glanced at her with panicked guilt on their faces.

“So.”  She said, her voice flat with disapproval. “The pair of you have been conspiring to be deliberately disobedient.”

“Lady Callindra, please-“ Alanna began but a single glare silenced her midsentence.

“It ain’t what it looks like.”  Reed said, the hint of a blush coloring his cheeks.  “She ain’t used to this kind of work an you’re pushing too hard.”

“Do you think for one moment that where we’re going anyone can afford to be less than capable?”  She asked, raising an eyebrow. “Should we keep her alive just long enough to run into the first band of Taken and watch her get torn to shreds when she’s too weak?  Or should we be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for her when she fails like Cronos had to do to protect me?”

The bitterness must have shown on her face and in her voice more than she intended because Reed flinched.  “I’ve learned my lesson Reed, and right now you’re selling your own strength to keep her from getting blisters.  You’re so tired if we were attacked right now you’d be worthless to me or to her.”

As if on cue, she heard an alarm call from Vilhylm immediately followed by the ring of steel on steel.  Cursing in Goblin, she glared at the girl. “Alanna, Reed is exhausted because you convinced him to do all your work.  If he is injured or killed from being too tired and you let him die you’d better hope the Taken don’t leave you alive.”

Prelude to Destruction

The door to the Tower of the Mistress of Darkness was flung open and Zenrakk Velana staggered forth, gasping at what the portents had revealed.  An ancient power was stirring and she did not know if it was going to save her people or utterly destroy them.

“Get me the high priests.”  She rasped to the attendant standing outside the door.  Her voice was rough from the hours of screaming in pain when she was in the Embrace.  It was so difficult to leave the rapture of that agony, but she had her duty and that duty required her to live.

The attendant fled at the sound of her voice and she allowed her Maidens to wrap her body in her silken robes, careful to make sure the white silk clung to her properly so as to show the blood flowing from the wounds the Embrace had left.  She waved them away and sat on the Obsidian Throne, accepting a goblet of dark red wine from a servant.

The black robed acolytes entered first, their censers of incense making a low fog that spread over the floor.  They were closely followed by her high priests in their blood red garb.  They entered and saw the blood that had seeped through her clothing to drip onto the black throne where she sat, running in sluggish streams to pool on the floor.

“You are dismissed.”  She said to the acolytes, and drank a second goblet of wine as they filed out.

“For what have you summoned us?”  The most senior of her priests asked, stepping forward to touch the blood at her feet and touch it to his mouth.

“Ancient power once again runs through the veins of my city.”  Zenrakk said, holding her glass to be refilled again.  “I can feel it flowing.”

“The Embrace has revealed the return of our strength!” One of the others exclaimed, taking a half step forward.

She flicked her eyes toward him and lashed out with her will.  His mouth opened in a silent scream as blood began to flow from his eyes.  “You were not recognized.”

She drank the rest of her wine and tossed the goblet aside to shatter on the floor.  “It moves through my city.  I can feel tainted power from other filthy sources that seek to dilute our perfection.”

“What does this mean Mistress?”  The senior priest asked, ignoring the other who was thrashing on the floor.

“The portents suggest this is a prelude to something greater.”  She said, “But they do not indicate that it is beneficial to us.  I have reason to believe it intends to consume us and leave us an empty husk, why else would they seek to dilute our purity?”

“Is there nothing to be done?”  He whispered.

“I shall grind myself to bloody meat before I allow interlopers to harvest my city for its power.”  She hissed, “Your task is to prepare for war.”

The roots of the Great Tree began to drip thick sap onto the floor the cavern.  “Ah.  So autumn has come at last.”  Jorda said, a tinge of sadness in her voice.

Above, the children began to watch in stunned silence as the leaves of the trees around them began to turn brown and fall to the ground.  Slowly, the adults began to rouse from their various states of intoxicated stupor.

“All that has been stored will soon be required once again my dears.”  Jorda’s voice rippled through the glade.

“Is this what we have been studying for all this time?”  Demanded one of the older children, fists on her hips as she glared around for the source of the voice.  “Or have I just finally gotten old enough that whatever is in the air around here is making me crazy?”

“Nah, I feel it too sis.” A boy with tangled hair said.

“Who you think it is?”  She asked, still looking about suspiciously.

“I dunno, but the leaves are falling off.”  He replied, “That can’t be good.”

“Prepare for changes, for after autumn comes winter and this one has been centuries in the making.”  Jorda said, “You are the future, take the seeds of knowledge and plant it.”

“Just who the hell are you?”  The girl demanded.

“Elenna, it is all right.  I am Jorda, the power that has kept you and those before you safe for years.”  She said, “You and your siblings are the product of generations leading up to this moment.  You will rise to the challenge my dears.  I have faith in you.”

“I thought gods were supposed to be the ones people had faith in.”  Elenna said, frowning.

“Yes.  That is what we all thought.”

The volcano that used to be the Machine City of Megin Dugr continued to burn, spewing a cloud of thick black ash into the sky.  Nothing moved within a hundred miles of it.

“Warleader!” Ralven Thraine, the Third Watch Battle Warden saluted crisply as he entered the room.

Elre Veleren turned from the tower windows where she was keeping an eye on the fighting below.  As General of the Nightwatch she was Operational Commander and needed to carefully mind the ebb and flow of the battle below.

“Ralven.  What is it?”  She asked, returning his salute before stretching to get a kink out of her back.

“The Battlemaster needs to see you.” He said, licking his lips nervously.

“Now?  There is a full on assault that needs my full attention Ralven.”  She looked back down at the battle and touched one of the gems on the railing, “Archer teams, focus on the fourth quadrant, they’re in danger of being pushed.”

“Right now.” Ralven said, “Battlemaster Torm Rektros needs to see you immediately.”

She blinked, “Oh.” A feeling of trepidation bordering on panic hit her.  “Can you keep an eye on things here please?”

“Of course Warleader.” He said, saluting again.  “I would consider it an honor.  Please hurry back.”

Elre moved to the center of the chamber and exerted an effort of will.  The floor collapsed into a spiral staircase leading down.  She walked swiftly down the stairs into the chamber where Torm resided.  His massive metal form creaked as he turned toward her.  As he did, she could see the entire wall behind him was pulsing with glowing azure light.

“Welcome Warleader.”  Torm said, “As you can see there is a slight anomaly.”

“What is that?”

“Da Ultor Ithrun.” He said, “The Final Sword is active.  The power the Gods gave our ancestors is ready to be unleashed.”

“Does this mean our mission is finally at an end?”  Elre asked, a smile tugging at one corner of her mouth, “That we’re finally going to be free?”

“Your responsibility to defend Malm Hrid will be reduced, although I do not believe it will be gone entirely.”  He said, “However you will need to continue without me.  The power that keeps me active will likely be depleted.  The purpose I was created for will be fulfilled.”

“Why are you telling me this?”  She asked, the feeling of trepidation returning.  “What aren’t you telling me?”

“You will take my place as Battlemaster.”  He said.  “You have the best qualifications.  Your instruction will begin now.”

Elre sighed, her hopes of a simple life crushed.  “As you say Battlemaster.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 34

Callindra awoke to the scent of roasting meat and the sound of pitched voices the next morning.  One was Reed’s and she didn’t recognize the other.  Reed was clearly not happy about something.  There had damn well better be tea if she was going to be awakened to this racket.  Perhaps even with a tot of brandy in it.

“I thought you bloody well said you could cook!  How inna nine hells didja burn TEA?  No, don’t bother putting more water in there, you’re gonna need sand to scour out the pot or it’ll always taste like burned socks.”

“I never cooked over a campfire before.”  The other voice responded haughtily, “I only used the stove in the kitchen.  This pot isn’t a teapot either, and I didn’t have any way to lift the pot off the flames without burning my hand.”

“So ya just let it BURN?”  Reed hissed, “By all the gods n demons I oughta – well never mind.  Go get sand and clean the charred tea leaves off the bottom.”

Callindra staggered out of her tent only wearing her smallclothes of cotton shorts and breast band with Shadowsliver in her left hand.  His chain was jingling merrily, but the rest of her face could have curdled milk.  She looked at Reed who was speaking to a young woman with hair in a complicated braid that fell halfway down her back.

Reed winced at her expression and the girl spun around, her rosebud mouth in a perfect ‘O’ of surprise.  She dropped into a curtsey, her braid nearly touching the ground as she did so.  Callindra let her gaze pass over the pair, only feeling a momentary pang at the girl’s hair in contrast with her own ragged locks that barely brushed her shoulders.  Without comment, she stalked past them to a small area of shoreline and began her morning meditation.

As usual, the Korumn drove the last vestiges of sleep from her mind and left her feeling sharp and prepared for the day.  Who was that girl and what the devil was she doing in their camp?  They had some serious distance to cover today if they were going to reach Daggerford in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 33

After half a candlemark, they arrived at a closed iron door barely wide enough for a human to pass.  Belladonna took a dagger from her belt and rapped a staccato series of strikes on it and waited until a slot shot open and a sudden brilliant light blazed into the corridor.  Durrak cursed and flicked the butt of his latest cigar, a dark green cylinder with light orange sparks leaping from the smoke, through the slot to the sound of curses.

“You no do be treating us with respect.”  He said, his voice an angry rumble.  “I do be expecting such tactics from children, I do be expecting an apology.”

“It is done to expose some kinds of the Spawn who take on mortal guise.”  Belladonna said apologetically.  “If we told visitors about it, any infiltrators would be prepared and it wouldn’t work.

Durrak snorted, but his glare lessened.  “There do be other ways, but I do be understanding.”  He grumbled.

The door opened and a large man with a beard nearly as full as the Dwarf’s stood with a large double bitted ax over his shoulder.  “You nearly started me beard ablaze Master Dwarf!”  He boomed, “For one who don’t appreciate childish pranks you gotta funny way of showing it.”

He laughed, the sound filling the chamber.  “Enter and be welcome in Undercity.”

The chamber beyond the door was round, white and only had the iron portal they entered through and another much like it on the other side.  Belladonna knocked on that door and they were admitted once the guard on the other side saw the first door had been closed.

The view beyond was stunning.  Hundreds of buildings made of what appeared to be ruins or rubble from ancient and modern structures were stretched out below them in a tangled profusion.  Thousands of people were about, all armed and armored except for the very young, but even they had belt knives.  Arcane lights floated about everywhere, giving an approximation of afternoon sunlight.

There were tiers of pathways and catwalks that wound around the buildings and arched between them, connecting one to another stories above the stone of the streets below.  The crown jewel was what seemed to be part of a castle jutting from the wall.  It was sheathed in a checkerboard of white and black marble and had a formidable looking gate of spiked iron.

“Guests to see the Lady Ellen Eth.”  Belladonna said, approaching and ensuring her face was visible.

“They don’t look like they’re fit to meet the Lady.”  One of the guards growled, eyes on the pair still coated with blood and worse.  “Where’d you dredge up this gutter trash?”

Durrak bristled and Lorin did his best not to look down his nose at the guard; something aided by the guard being nearly six inches taller than the elf.  Before either of them could speak, Belladonna blurred forward with speed aided by subtle arcane flashes from her boots.  One hand ended up gripping the guard by the thick beard with the other inches from his face, glittering with scintillating azure energy.

“Do I need to repeat myself Gradach?”  She asked, her voice conversational.  “Perhaps you cannot hear me through all this hair.”

“No Mistress Belladonna.”  He said, face white.

“Good.  Ask your men to open the gate and to send servants to prepare baths.”  She smiled sweetly, “If you please.”

“I no do be needing a bath.”  Durrak said, pulling a cigar that looked remarkably normal from his pouch.  Noting with mild annoyance that it wasn’t lit, he touched it to the still glimmering energy surrounding Belladonna’s right hand.  The cigar immediately lit and he puffed contentedly on it, watching as the guards all stared at him in shock.  Even the ones that had come to meet them on the surface looked horrified.

“If Ellen Eth do be wanting to meet me she do be able to do it while I do be looking as I had to in order to be getting here alive.”  He blew a large smoke ring.  “Surely she no do be squeamish about a little blood?”

“The Lady will not wish her carpets and chairs to be ruined by your condition.”  Belladonna said, waving her right hand in a gesture of dismissal and banishing the writhing energies from it.  “That spell very well could have killed you Dwarf.  It should have burned that cigar to dust in an instant.”

“Tell Lady Ellen Eth that we will happily meet her in the first antechamber.”  Lorin said, “If I recall that one has carpets over stone floors.  My friend and I are needed back above if our folk are to survive long enough for us to bring her offer to them.  Our time is too limited to spend bathing unless she wishes us to leave all our other assets at risk.”

Belladonna gave them a considering look before nodding slowly.  “Thran, take them to the first chamber.  Servants will be sent to clear out the floor coverings.”

It was a minor victory, but it still put them in control of the where and when of the meeting.  Durrak strode forward confidently, following Thran and looking at the various splendors with a critical eye.  Everything here was fine to be sure, but it all looked chosen merely for its gold value, not for any sense of symmetry.  It was as though the person who had assembled the collection only cared about the monetary value of the artwork, not their intrinsic value.

Durrak was troubled in a way he had not thought possible anymore; his artistic soul cried out for the lack of appreciation of the individual paintings, tapestries, vases and other assorted works of art.  To be admired only for what they could give in return rather than for what they were was apparently part Ellen Eth’s makeup even more than rumor would suggest.

When Thran led them to the carved mahogany doors and barred them from entry with an imperious gesture, Durrak began to chuckle under his breath.  The chuckle became a full-throated laugh as the warrior glared at him darkly.

“If you do be thinking you do be able to stop me from entering the room at will friend, you do be sorely mistaken.”  Durrak said, still laughing.  “If you do be wishing to ask me to be staying outside it do be behooving you to ask politely.”

Thran opened his mouth to say something, closed it and swallowed after looking at the macabre grin that split the dwarf’s gore splattered face.  “Please wait here sirs.”  He said politely enough, although it was clear that rage seethed beneath the surface.

Durrak grounded Femurslicer’s steel shod butt on the marble of the hallway with a resounding crash that made tiny hairline fractures radiate out from it in a pattern of ragged lines.  “Very well.  We do be waiting on the Lady’s pleasure.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 32

Durrak wore Bonecrusher’s Brace and held Femurslicer angled across his shoulder as he approached the meeting place.  His only concessions to visiting an important personage were that his armor and weapon were polished and he had added a grey cloak with the hammer and tongs of the Drakanda style picked out on it in dark blue.

Lorin, on the other hand, had foregone his usually flamboyant style and only wore nondescript brown and green that would seem more at home in the forest than city streets.  He still carried his beautifully carved and polished bow, but he’d covered the jewels on the hilts of his long knives with leather wrapping.

“I don’t like this.”  Lorin said in a low voice.

Durrak snorted a laugh, “You no do like any of this.  How do this be different?”  He strode into the alley like he owned it, but he kept an eye out for Taken.  When the flood of monsters boiled out of the second story of the buildings surrounding them in a tide of humanoid beings that clung to the bricks with multi-jointed claws the pair were ready for them.

Not bothering at first to even use Femurslicer, Durrak ran forward with a battle cry that rattled the remaining window glass as he charged and smashed bodily into the creatures with the spiked pauldrons of his armor.  Bodies crushed to black ichor beneath his onslaught and a steady stream of arrow shafts from Lorin pinned a dozen of the hapless creatures to the wall before they’d moved more than a dozen feet.

Within minutes, all but three of the creatures were dead; either crushed to disgusting paste or filled with arrows from Lorin’s bottomless quiver.  A solid section of stone at the far end of the alley slid aside and a half dozen armed warriors sprang forward ready for battle.  They stopped in confusion at seeing Durrak glaring at them, his spiked armor dripping with black blood.  Lorin stared down an arrow shaft at their leader, the tip beginning to glow with sullen red light.

“You do be a bit late to the party.”  Durrak rumbled, swinging his Gisarme in a casual arc that cut two of the remaining creatures in half.  “I do be sorry we no did save you any playmates.”

The woman in the lead gave him a cautious look, but flicked a finger at the last monster, sending five bright purple bolts streaking into its head.  The bolts left neat round holes clearly through the skull and it dropped like a puppet with cut strings.

“I apologize gentlemen.  We thought this entrance to be secure.”  She said, “I am Belladonna, these are my companions; members of the Blood Guild.  We protect the Undercity as the Blackfist Guard used to do above.”

Durrak was fairly certain she wasn’t telling the truth, but she was telling a good lie if she was truly unaware of the monsters waiting in the surrounding buildings.  Perhaps she hadn’t been told of the ploy.  It would put them on uneven footing if they’d had to be rescued by Ellen Eth’s guard.  Or perhaps he was becoming overly suspicious in his old age.

“Those things ruined the god rotting polish on my boots.”  Lorin said mildly, slinging his longbow over his back.  “You must not use this entrance much for it to be so compromised.”

“Peace Lorin.”  Durrak said, shaking the blood from his gauntlet and withdrawing a cigar that glowed with a dim pink light and released thin wisps of jet black smoke that hung in the air for a few moments before simply vanishing instead of dissipating like smoke usually did.  “There do be no reason to doubt these folk.”

Belladonna relaxed slightly, a loosening of tightness round her eyes and mouth that Durrak hadn’t noticed until they had smoothed away.  Apparently his instincts had been on the mark; they’d best tread even more carefully than Lorin wanted them to.

The brick corridor was dark as they entered, but the humans carried no light.  The darkness was no impediment to their eyes as Durrak and Lorin followed them down, their inhuman senses allowing them to see the passage and their escort clearly albeit in grayscale.  There were places that had obviously once been side tunnels but they were bricked over now.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 31

Durrak puffed on his cigar and sipped ale.  It was decent ale for a change, gotten in trade from a strange source.  A Matriarch who lived under the city named Ellen Eth had sent it along with a note and an address in the city.

‘Dear Battlemaster Caverstorm.  It would be my pleasure to make your acquaintance.  As a person of great influence in the Undercity of Starvale, I would like to invite you to come and visit.  We could use an individual of your talents to assist us in the defense of our assets.  I include a barrel of the finest Dwarven ale as a gesture of good faith.  Very truly yours, Ellen Eth.’

He let smoke trickle out of his nostrils as he considered the signature on the note.  It was full of flourishes and embellishments; quite different from the other writing.  This woman had taken the trouble to find a scribe to write her letter, even in these dire circumstances.  What kind of person would do that?

“I’d say someone who thinks very highly of herself.  That or someone who wants you to know she is rich.  Or possibly someone who is insane.”  Lorin said cheerfully from the doorway.  He closed the door to his private chamber softly.

Durrak snorted to hide his surprise; he hadn’t realized he was talking to himself.  “Do that be Dane?”  He gestured with his cigar, “You know I no do approve of you being seducing the girls.”

“Good thing for me your approval doesn’t mean all that much to me.”  Lorin said, smiling wider.  “Besides, she’s the one who slipped into my bed.  I couldn’t very well be rude and turn her away.  Would have crushed the poor girl’s spirit I’m sure.  Isn’t it a bit early in the morning for drink?”

“The honorable Ellen Eth did be sending me a gift.”  Durrak said through a cloud of cigar smoke.  “It would be most insulting not to be sampling it.”

The smile fled from Lorin’s face.  “Ellen Eth sent you a note?  What’s that scheming …” His voice trailed off and he looked carefully about the room, swallowed hard and dipped a mug of ale.  Taking a long drink, he licked his lips.  “What did she want?”

“She do wish to be meeting with me.”  Durrak said calmly, handing over the letter.

Lorin took it and scanned it quickly.  Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he took another swallow of ale before wiping it away.  “She’s trying to recruit you.”

“It do be seeming so.”  Durrak said, taking a lit cigar from his pouch and handing it to his friend.  “I no do be interested, but it do be rude not to be responding.”

“You can’t go meet her.”  Lorin said, accepting the cigar and taking drag; flinching at the green and gold sparks that burst from it like a Firstday firework.  “She’s dangerous.  If you don’t agree to her terms or to work with her she’ll kill you.”

“You do be knowing her?”  The Dwarf asked, refilling his mug and dropping the stub of his cigar back into the pouch.  “Do be telling me of her.  She do know her ale well.”

“She used to run the Welcomers.”  At Durrak’s blank look he blew a cloud of smoke out in exasperation, “The guild of the rogue in Starvale; and likely beyond also.  They orchestrated the removal of the Iron Fist’s leadership, undermining their organization until it was nothing but a shell.

“I’ve never met a more thorough and ruthless killer.  A mind like a bag full of cats with anger issues.”  The Elf shuddered.  “She approached someone I used to work with.  Asked him if he was interested in helping her with a problem.  He apparently declined because the next time I saw him he’d been flayed alive.”

“Hmmm.  She do sound to be a formidable individual.”  Durrak mused, taking another cigar from his pouch and filling the air with bright purple smoke.  “Could she be what the city do be needing?”

Lorin choked on his ale, “What?  NO!  Durrak, she’s insane and selfish.  She’d love to see the city burn if it increased her holdings. She’ll murder the weak so that she can feed her cadre of trained killers.”

“In that case, I do be needing to deal with her.”  Durrak said, “There no do be a point in helping people to escape if she do be as bad as the Taken.”

“You can’t.”  Lorin said, “She doesn’t fight fair; she’d swarm you with a hundred men just so a hundred archers could fill you full of poison arrows.”

“But if I do be ignoring her she do be taking offense.  Or she do be assuming that I do be refusing since I no do be showing up.”  Durrak folded his thick arms over his chest.  “I do be going.”

Cursing, Lorin downed the rest of his ale and produced a whetstone.  With quick, practiced motions he began sharpening first a knife and when he’d put a razor edge on it, he began working on arrowheads.

“You no do have to be coming.”  Durrak said, exhaling smoke to hide his smile.

“The hells I don’t.”  Lorin said, “If she gets you and I knew you were going Dane would never let me hear the end of it.”

“Ah.  We no can be having that can we?”  Durrak asked, taking a drink.

“Was that a joke?”  Lorin asked, “That was a joke!  Gods all bless, it’s a momentous day, the Dwarf made a joke!”

“I do be making jokes often.”  Durrak said, “The stupid Elf no do be understanding them.”

Lorin chuckled and went back to sharpening his arrowheads.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 30

“We’ve all lost friends and family.”  Holt said, his voice rough with memory.  “We’ve all been defeated in battle.  Every one of us has made decisions we regret.  Those things all cut us deeply, but it’s when we stand up again that we allow those scars heal into greater strength.”

“I appreciate the effort Holt.”  Callindra said, struggling to keep more tears from falling.  “Some day perhaps I will appreciate the words.”

When they returned to the river, they found the townsfolk gathered.  A man stood in front of the rest, looking strange as he held his hat in calloused hands and addressed Callindra.  He was twice her size and half again her age, but still looked like a boy asking his mother permission to go and play.

“Lady, we were wondering if we might be allowed to settle here.”  He said, twisting his hat in an unconscious gesture.  “The other side of the river has bad memories and what with the new spring and all…”

“What’s your name?”  Callindra asked, “And why do you think you need my permission to do anything?”

“Well.  It’s your brother’s place of rest Lady.”  He said, hurriedly adding.  “Onell is my name Lady, we owe you our lives the most of us.  We didn’t want to presume.”

“I’m no ‘lady’ Onell.”  Callindra said tiredly, “You don’t need my permission, but you have my blessing.  All I would ask is that you respect the grave of my brother.”

A ripple of whispers ran through the crowd.  Onell blushed slightly and cleared his throat.  “We were thinking Lady of calling the new stedding Cronosholt with your permission.”

Callindra sighed and glanced at Vilhylm.  Her brother was looking straight ahead and nobody else would have recognized it but, despite the grief they had endured he was laughing at her.  She couldn’t help but smile back at him.

“We will offer you what advice we can in constructing it to be defensible.”  Callindra said, “Holt and Vilhylm have been in more battles than most and could likely give you some help.”  She turned and went to sit by the stream, letting the others talk to the villagers.

Closing her eyes, she sat and leaned against a boulder with Shadowsliver across her knees.  Light footsteps approached after a few minutes, the winds bringing the sound to her ears.  They were the steps of a small person, not a larger person trying to be quiet.

“I brought you some food Lady.”  A small boy’s voice, “Eating always makes me feel better.”

Callindra opened her eye just enough to see a roughly carved wooden bowl with a green salad topped with freshly grilled fish in it.  The sight of greens made her mouth water, but she didn’t move.

“You probably want to be alone.  But I want to say thank you.  Me and sissy would have been…” He swallowed hard, “We would have been killed by those things.  The guard was too busy fighting to get any of us littles out.  We were too scared to do anything until I saw you.

“There was this huge bear and it had glowing green eyes and I could see half its skull.  It was eating someone.  It bit half her arm off and she was screaming and there was so much blood.  A flash of light almost blinded me and a blast of lightning hit it in the chest but it wasn’t just lightning it was a sword.  On a chain.

“I saw you leap and land on the guard of your sword with both feet, driving it all the way through the monster.  You screamed a word, I don’t know what it was, but it blasted your sword out of the wound and you did a back flip and landed with blade in hand as the bear thing just flew apart into bits.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Callindra didn’t remember this exact moment of the fight, which was surprising.  She would have thought if she’d been doing that kind of reckless acrobatics she would have remembered.  Of course there was a time when her rage at the Taken had made her forget everything but killing as many of them as she could.  Small wonder she was so tired.

“What’s your name boy?”  She asked, her voice sounding harsh and grating to her ears.

“Gorian Lady.”  He said, his voice rising in a squeak of surprise.  Evidently, he hadn’t expected her to talk to him.

“Thank you for the food Gorian.  I am glad you and your sister are safe.”  She couldn’t help a tear leaking from her left eye.  Shifting slightly to take the weight off a healing cut on her shoulder she winced as a wound on her thigh gave a twinge.

“Yes Lady.”

“Gorian, I’m no lady.  Just call me Callindra.”  She sighed and opened a red rimmed eye to look at him.  He was a little twig of a half elven child with hair a brilliant white gold, violet eyes shining with hero worship from a filthy soot stained face.  She idly noted that his hands were clean.

“You’re a Lady to me.”  He said, “A great Lady who came in on the winds and burned the monsters to dust.”

She took the bowl and made a shooing motion.  “Off with you Gorian.  If your sister is anything like I was she’s probably getting into trouble without you to mind her.”

He bowed, gods and demons BOWED to her and scampered away.  Finding that the smell of the fish overwhelmed her, Callindra ate every scrap of food in the bowl and wished she had more.  As she rinsed the bowl in the stream and drank clean water to wash down her meal she wondered what Glarian would think of the tale of her riding in on the winds.

He’d probably laugh himself sick.  If he was still alive.  That dragon couldn’t have killed him just by eating him; he was a god after all.  It would take more than a dragon to kill a god.  Even that dragon.  Wouldn’t it?

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 29

“I told you to run.”  Cronos said between gritted teeth, blocking an overhand swing from one of the monsters with crossed blades that cut its arm to the bone.  “Now I have to get us BOTH out of here.”

“I’m not leaving you behind.”  She snarled as a set of razor sharp claws slashed through her upper arm before she could dodge it.

“Sometimes you need to learn to take orders from others.”  He said, a strange tone in his voice.  “Sorry you had to learn it this way.”

An explosion erupted from beneath her feet, catapulting her through the air and onto flat third story roof of a building.  Looking down, she saw that her brother had been transfixed by four of the creature’s clawed hands.  The bloodied tips had punched all the way through his body, sixteen points of stained ivory spelling out a death sentence.

Something broke inside her and Callindra slumped to her knees, crying like she hadn’t since she was a child.  With a crash, Vilhylm, Kain and Holt broke through another alley with the small contingent of guards at their back.  They were too late.  It was all her fault.

Her brother was dead.

After the ill-fated battle where she had been lured into the ambush where Cronos had died saving her life, the city had burned.  All the Taken inside had died in the ensuing inferno, as had any surviving humans.  Vilhylm had managed to get her and their brother’s corpse out before the fire destroyed everything.  Callindra was grateful that they would have something to bury.

She and Vilhylm stood before the grave they had made for their brother.  Between them they had formed something out of stone that would seal forever.  They both knew that Cronos wouldn’t want to take any chances of coming back as a Taken.

The people of the town they’d saved had softened, seeing what they had sacrificed to defend complete strangers.  Hearing the reports from the soldiers about how many Taken they had slain and about how many more townsfolk would have died had they not fought.  Their understanding only made Callindra feel worse.

“It wasn’t worth it.”  She told Vilhylm bitterly.

“It was not your choice.”  He said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  “You may have decided to help those people, but he is the one who chose to save you.  We made you our leader for many reasons, one being your sense of duty and honor.”

“I shouldn’t have gone that last time.  I should have listened when he told me to wait.”  She squeezed her eyes shut, but the tears leaked out anyway.  “He should not have died protecting me.”

“Tryst died for us too.”  Vilhylm said softly.  “A person’s life is theirs to spend.”

Holt came up behind them.  “Kain and I have something to add for the memorial, if it is acceptable to you.”

Kain stood behind them, fiddling with his robe nervously.  “I thought that since evil is supposed to have more difficulty crossing running water, and that this seems to be near a small underground spring I could purify it.  Holt found the spring and I think I can do the rest.”

He stood behind Cronos’s coffin and held his holy symbol in both hands.  Speaking in his native Orcish, the words of prayer and reverence seemed strange, but as he prayed they could feel the presence of the Divine.  Kain put his hand on the stone wall behind the coffin and a brilliant white flame began to burn.  The stone cracked and water flowed out over the sealed coffin and down the hillside.

“He shall never be corrupted by the forces of evil.”  Kain said, weary satisfaction in his voice.

“Thank you two.”  Callindra said, wiping tears from her cheeks.  “This means the world to us.”

The water of the small stream flowed down and into the river below, its purity obvious as the waters mingled.  Something began to throb, sounding for all the world like the slow beating of a heart.  It should have sounded ominous, but as the pure, clean water began to filter into the muddy river, Kain assured them this was something good.

“The earth is attempting to cleanse itself.” He said with a smile, “I know it isn’t much, but everything starts off small.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 28

They all wrapped cloths damp from Kain’s rainstorm around their faces and followed Callindra as she led the way more cautiously through the streets.  The blessed water that had soaked into their clothes lessened the heat dramatically and more than once saved them from what would otherwise have been deadly burns.

In the next candlemark, they managed to find several knots of civilians trapped by Taken in blind alleys and after a brief fight send the people back to the river.  A few more soldiers began to follow them even though Callindra had suggested that they guard the people by the river instead.  It seemed these townsfolk didn’t trust outsiders very much.

“I just want to take one last look.”  Callindra said, frowning at the flames that had now nearly completely engulfed the city.  “We haven’t gone all the way to the north east side yet.  One of the soldiers told me there was a school there and I want to make sure no children are still waiting for someone to rescue them.”

Her companions looked as exhausted as she felt, but she wasn’t ready to stop.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea sister.”  Cronos said, echoing her thoughts. “You’re dead on your feet and so are we.”

“Just one more.”  She said, hearing the hard edge of command come into her voice.  Cronos’s eyes narrowed slightly at her tone, but he gave her a curt nod.

“One more.  Then I’m sitting on you if you try to drag us back in there.”  He said, folding his arms over his chest.

“Fine.”  She said, adjusting her armor and noting with surprise that there was a huge slash that cut all the way through one of her greaves, rendering it all but useless.  She shook her head in disgust and unbuckled it and put it in her pack just in case she could repair it later.

They went back through the streets, swiftly dispatching a few aimlessly roaming Taken along the way.  As they turned down a side street, Callindra could clearly hear children crying.  She passed her hand over Shadowsliver’s blade and commanded the Winds to bring the sound closer to her.  The sounds firmed a decision for her and she turned to her companions.

“Do you hear that?  I KNEW there were children in danger here!”  Without waiting for a response, she turned to run toward where she could hear the crying.

“Wait you impulsive fool!”  Cronos yelled after her, but instead of slowing she ran faster.

When she vaulted over a low wall into a courtyard the flames had not yet calmed she realized her mistake.  The wall was solidly at her back, but before her were a dozen misshapen monsters with long arms tipped with claws that resembled fish hooks.  A pitiful sobbing sound was coming from their throats.  She had been tricked.

Whirling Shadowsliver in a complex arc, she cut left and right, injuring the two monsters who were closest to her but knowing it was hopeless if she couldn’t escape.  Callindra tried to blast the three on her left with a spell, but when she began to summon the Weave, the creatures on her right attacked.  Although she managed to dodge most of their strikes, the pain of the injuries left by their terrible hooked claws ruined her concentration and the magic vanished in a harmless gust of wind that blew a plume of dust into the air.

Sweat and tears of pain threatened to blind her, but she grimly kept dodging, blocking and making ripostes when she could.  One such cut severed a tendon and felled an opponent, but there were still eleven of them and she was beginning to succumb to exhaustion.

With a shout, Cronos landed in the midst of her enemies like a thunderbolt.  When his boots hit the cobblestones, a deafening concussion radiated out from him, flinging the creatures to all sides.  The blast knocked Callindra backward, her head rebounding off the wooden wall behind her and momentarily stunning her.

All she could do was watch as Cronos fought like a steel dervish.  His blades were an extension of his arms and where they struck, they left great wounds and removed limbs.  Callindra tried to shake off her daze as her brother fought like she had never seen anyone fight before.

“Get OUT of here!”  He screamed in frustration and to her surprise, in fear.

The fear in her brother’s voice cleared the fog from her head and Callindra dove forward into the fight, dodging one attack and parrying another with a vicious cut that took the attackers paw off at the wrist.  Her back touched his and they fought together like only a brother and sister could.