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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 43

“Everyone up!”  Connor was yelling, “Up and out!  It’s almost run out!”

“What?”  Callindra had sprung to her feet in her smallclothes and was looking around with her naked sword in her hand.

“When the spell stops this is going to become a wooden model again.”  He explained as though to an infant, “I would have thought that would be perfectly obvious.”

“Oh god’s balls.”  Reed gulped, grabbing his things and running toward the door.

The others were slower to respond, Vilhylm pausing to grab the last loaf of bread off the table and Alanna trying to pull on her clothes.  Callindra had already exited the front door when Alanna was ejected forcibly, obviously having been thrown out half clothed and Connor was running on her heels.  The instant he left the door, the structure seemed to twist around itself in an unsettling way and was abruptly the crude wooden model in the center of a perfectly round area of cleanly swept ground.

“That was too close.”  Connor mused, scratching at a healing burn scar on his forehead.

“Connor.”  Callindra said calmly, ignoring Alanna’s furious shouts as she tried to pull her skirts down from where they were tangled about her body.  “Next time you should tell us all the details before something like this.  We could have been killed when that spell ended.”

“Oh.”  He blinked a few times and adjusted his strange glasses on his nose.  “Right.  I should have thought of that.”  He took a few steps around the perimeter of their camp, inspecting the line and making notes.

Callindra performed an abbreviated Korumn to stretch her muscles and shake off the last of her lethargy while the others set about getting a brief breakfast.  She was dimly aware that Vilhylm was complaining about the bread having vanished the moment he had walked out of the magical inn.  Her body and mind were in tune with the winds that gently moved through the grass and around the small copse of trees nearby.

She could feel the eddies as they swirled about the tree trunks, through the branches and over small pits that were covered with thin twigs and leaves.  The breezes found ropes tied like giant rabbit snares, logs suspended in place with small sticks as triggers.

Her eyes snapped open and she called to the others, “This entire grove is full of traps and snares.”  She said quietly, “Although this is dangerous, it’s also a sign that there are living people here.  Taken don’t make traps.”

“If we set them all off getting through won’t we make them vulnerable?”  Reed asked as they walked up to one of the crude traps.  Despite its rough construction, when he peered through the thin wooden poles that covered the pit there were several bodies of Taken on the bottom impaled on thick wooden spikes.

“Looks like they’re certainly needed.”  Vilhylm said wryly.  “Reed, can you make it through without setting them off?”

“He’s not going alone.”  Alanna said just as Callindra was opening her mouth to say the same thing.

“You can’t come with.”  Reed said.

“I’m coming.”  Callindra said, in a voice that brooked no argument. “The rest of you stay here and guard our backs.  Signal if you see anything coming.”

“No offense, but you’ll only slow me down.”  Reed said slipping around the pit trap and into the trees.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 42

After three grueling days of travel, Callindra was finally able to slow down.  The hordes of Taken that had responded to their brief and explosive battle had been whittled down to a manageable number and finally been wiped out.  She had seen the last of them fall under Shadowsliver and they had backtracked for three hours to make sure there weren’t any stragglers on their trail.

“I’ll take the first watch.”  She said, in a voice that brooked no argument.  “Holt you have second watch.  Vilhylm can take third and Reed the fourth since you’re always up early.”

Connor gave her a questioning look and cleared his throat awkwardly.  At her nod he made a small bow that she was now used to as his sign of deference.  “I have been working on something that might assist us in our rest.  Now that we have the time to try it without interruption I thought perhaps I would attempt it.  By your leave.”

Callindra was wary of this; Connor’s experiments did not have the best track record.  He noticed her hesitance and laughed, “No, this won’t be like the last time, I put more effort into this one and I found the bones of it in an actual book of magic.  I had to fill in some of the blanks of course since the book was damaged by fire but I am quite sure this one will work.”

“You can try it by yourself.  Away from camp.”  She said, still remembering how narrowly they’d escaped his attempt to create a meal out of thin air two days ago.

“No everyone needs to be close or they won’t be able to get inside.”  He insisted, “I’ve tried it already once on a small scale.  I’m confident it will work when done bigger.  It will give us a save place to rest.  We can all rest.”

Although she was sure she would regret it, Callindra called everyone in.  “Connor has a spell to keep us safe for the night, but it’s a new spell so I can’t make any guarantees.  If it works we all get to sleep without posting a guard.”

“If it doesn’t work we’ll all sleep forever.”  Reed grumbled.  “Surely you don’t want to risk another mishap.”

“I’m too tired Reed.”  She said gently, “We’re all too tired.  If we try to post watches and fall asleep instead of being vigilant it won’t be much better.”

“Wait you fool!”  Reed squeaked, and they all realized that Connor had begun his spell already.

The strange little man took a small crudely made wooden house from his pocket, set it on the ground and grabbed the corners of the roof as he finished his spell.  With a grand flourish, he finished the spell and straightened, flinging his arms up and out.  The shelter responded to his gesture, growing nearly to the size of an inn, complete with swept courtyard, windows and smoke coming from the chimney.

Connor laughed and gave them all a crazed grin.  “It worked!  IT WORKED!”  He was all but jumping up and down.

“What good is a wooden house?”  Reed objected, “They’ll tear it apart.”

“He has a point Connor.”  Vilhylm said, staring at the structure with a dubious expression on his face.

“Hold my hand and back up.”  Connor said, still smiling a madcap smile.

Vilhylm frowned but did as requested and gasped in astonishment when his feet passed the clean area of the courtyard.  He was shaking his head as he came back within the circle.  “I couldn’t see it.  My arm vanished into nothing.”

Connor laughed again and danced a little step in place.  “Come inside.  It’ll only last for about six hours, but we will be totally invisible from anything outside.  Keep in mind if you actually leave you won’t be able to get back in.  The magic makes things avoid it.”

“This is incredible.”  Callindra said, “Amazing.  I can’t believe it.”

“That’s not even the best part!”  He said opening the door.  A table was spread with food and there were neat bedrolls along one wall and by all the gods and demons there was a big copper tub in front of the fire.

The food didn’t quite taste right, but the fresh fruits and vegetables that the unmistakable feel of fresh fruits and vegetables even if they were unfamiliar flavors.  The bread was almost sweet and the meat seemed like venison but it was prepared in strange spices but none of these things kept everyone from eating their fill and more.

Callindra had passed by the food other than to grab something that looked like an apple with golden skin in favor of immediately stripping and bathing.  The strange fruit tasted sweeter than anything she had ever eaten and shocked her by being slightly intoxicating.

After everyone had eaten, they all retired to the clean bedrolls.  Despite his misgivings, Reed was the first to drop off into sleep.  Alanna stayed awake, staring at the door with wide eyes until Callindra told her to get some rest.  It took her longer than she hoped but not as long as she feared to sleep.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 41

“A remarkably charming man for all that you’re as blunt as a tree trunk.  I am willing to wait, and I’m sure you’re eager for me to produce the promised results.”  She cocked an eyebrow at him, “You have a plan to kill her I assume?”

“Of course.”  Durrak took a satisfying drag on his cigar, waiting until she she grew frustrated enough that her left eyelid twitched.  “I do be going to cut her filthy head off.”

“With that?”  She indicated his Gisarme with an elegantly painted fingernail.

“Indeed.”  He was starting to feel slightly apprehensive at her look of honest concern.  “Femurslicer do be quite efficient at removing stubborn problems.”

“May I?”  Ellen Eth reached out a hand and Durrak shrugged and flipped the weapon easily into the air, catching it just under the blade.  The flat smacked into the plate steel that cased his forearm and he held the heavy counterweighted end out towards her.

She gestured absently, and the weapon leaped from his hand, shedding its coating of dried viscera as it flew toward her.  It stopped inches from her hand, lifted to point at the ceiling and began to slowly pivot.  Her eyes began to glow a vivid purple and she shouted a word that shuddered with power.  Violet light streamed from her mouth as she mouthed a long incantation that seemed to be all one long word.

The blade began to chime like a struck bell and the entire shaft quivered in response.  Runes of Power reluctantly faded into view, climbing the haft in twin spirals that eventually blossomed into an intricate latticework on both sides of the blade.

“It may do.”  Ellen Eth said, sounding as though she was surprised and grudgingly respectful.  “Cerioth has grown in power over these last few decades though.  I will do my best to make sure you are not simply throwing your life away.”

When she fluttered her hands at his weapon as though shooing away an annoying fly, it streaked back toward him, spinning through the air with blurring speed as though it was in a rush to escape the embrace of her arcane Power.  If he hadn’t been ready for something like this, Durrak knew he would have suffered serious injuries.  He caught it only using the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.  Just because he could.

Ellen Eth beamed at him.  “Yes, you will fit right in here.”

Damn.  He hadn’t meant to show off, but her display of magic had been more intimidating than he thought it would be.  She was better than he’d anticipated too, and he’d known she must be powerful to be able to maintain her leadership over these people under these circumstances.  He had underestimated her.  He bowed slightly from the waist, politely returning her acknowledgement of his earlier point in their mental fencing match.

“I do be out of practice.”  Durrak said, dropping the still smoldering cigar butt back into his belt pouch.  “Also I never did be the most skilled at court games.”

“It has been a fascinating evening Lord Caverstorm.”  Her eyes twinkled, “Thank you for the entertainment.”

“I do be thanking you for your kind hospitality Lady Ellen Eth.”  He said carefully, “By your leave, we do be departing.”

She nodded graciously and both he and Lorin bowed, backing away three steps before they straightened and turned to leave the room.

“Durrak.”  Ellen Eth’s voice cut through the room with a snap of command that his training couldn’t ignore.  He stopped and turned to look back at her.  “I will hold you to your word.  Do not think you can take from me without giving my price.”

He shuddered, feeling icy fingers crawl down his spine.  If ever there was a question about keeping his bargain, he knew he had his answer.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 40

“I have many capable men and women to defend my borders, but the two of you are unique.”  She fixed Durrak with a piercing look, “The last scion of the last great House of Farenholm who is also the Battlemaster of the nearly unrivaled Drakanda style would be a jewel to shine in any ruler’s retinue.”  She twirled her goblet and it sent rainbows dancing about the room.

“Of course, the Prince of the Blackthorn Wood is a prize nearly as fetching.”  She gestured and wine poured itself into a pair of golden goblets and floated toward them as though carried by invisible hands.  Durrak took his and drained it.  Lorin brought the cup near his lips but didn’t bother making much of a pretense about drinking.

“So.  You do be a collector of nobility?”  Durrak asked, simply letting go of the goblet and watching with interest as it was deftly snared out of the air once again.  “How interesting, who else do be in your menagerie?”

“Most of my warriors are boring, if competent.”  She said, smiling as he took a drag on his cigar.  The tip flared an astonishingly bright turquoise and when he exhaled smoke, it was black from his left nostril and yellow from the right.  “You are not only dangerous, you are interesting.  Such strange and complex pasts.  Such diverse reasons for becoming the beings you are now.”

“I do be having a single purpose and being a bauble dangling from a Lady’s necklace no do be part of it.”  He looked at her steadily.  “It no do be my wish to be an ungrateful guest, but I no will be staying.”

“What is this purpose pray tell?”  She purred.  At a gesture his glass floated back to his hand refilled.

“The idiot wants to try and kill a dragon.”  Lorin snapped.  He put his hand out in a familiar gesture and Durrak snorted in amusement, handing him a smoldering cigar plucked from his belt pouch.  The Elf took a drag on it and blew a sparking cloud of green smoke into the air.  “But not just ANY dragon.  Not just any run of the mill dragon will do for Durrak Caverstorm.”

“Revenge.”  Ellen Eth said, her voice a caress.  “You seek the death of Certioth the Black?”

“That do be my first goal.”  Durrak said, surprised at her depth of intuition.

“Then we can make a deal after all.”  She sat back with a predatory smile.  “I can give you the chance to kill her as long as you agree to be part of my household guard in return.  If you join me, swear fealty to me and promise to obey my orders I can give her to you.”

“If you do be providing this you do be having my oath.”  Durrak said, “But I will no give anything until you do be fulfilling your promise.”

Lorin gave him a stricken look, but Durrak continued smoothly.  “We do be able to be working out details once you do be fulfilling your promise.”

Ellen Eth was staring at him with a small smile curling up the corners of her mouth.  It made her look less amused and more like a vixen who had just seen the mouse slip into a small hole but knew it could wait outside longer than the mouse could hide.

“You have not let your Courtly wit wane over the years Master Dwarf.”  She said, sounding mildly annoyed, a tone he knew was precisely calculated to make him nervous.

“I do be but a humble warrior Lady.”  He said, bowing low to the creak of his war harness and the soft pattering of dried blood raining down on the pristine marble.  “I no do be knowing of the ways of nobility.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 39

As it turned out, Ellen Eth kept them waiting for a half candlemark.  Refreshments were brought, and although wine wasn’t really his preference Durrak sampled it.  One didn’t just waste alcohol.  It was dry and a little sour but had overtones of plumbs and hints of some kind of spice he couldn’t quite recognize.  It went quite well with the sharp cheese and freshly sliced apples that came alongside on the platter.  Lorin didn’t drink or eat anything.

When the door finally opened, it revealed a room with a polished marble floor that gradually widened and rose to a tiered dais.  A wide wooden chair with plump crimson cushions rested there and a stunningly beautiful human woman lounged on it.  Raven black hair was arranged in a way that was likely intended to look careless and she was holding a crystal goblet with a golden base negligently in her left hand.

The clothing she wore was obviously perfectly tailored to her, a long flowing gown of dark green with so much golden thread embroidery that the color was difficult to see along the sleeves and the neckline.  A choker of woven gold held a string of large rubies that shone with inner light and rings adorned every finger.

Durrak noted that none of the guards or attendants were permitted entry.  It was either an overconfident boast or a sign of power and control.  Noteworthy either way.

“So, you are the fabled warriors who are leading the daring evacuation of Starvale Above.”  She purred, “It is an honor to have you visit my humble hall.”

“I do be hearing that declining an invitation from your august self do be hazardous to one’s health.”  Durrak said, allowing cigar smoke to curl from his nostrils as he spoke.  “What do be the purpose of wanting to meet us?”

“Ah, a blunt Dwarf.  What a cliché.”  A touch of mischief twinkled at the corners of her mouth, but her eyes stayed cold and calculating.  “I have brought you here my dear Battlemaster Caverstorm of the Drakanda style because I intend to attempt to recruit you.”

Lorin’s breath hissed in through his teeth involuntarily and the Lady’s attention switched to him.  “My dear Elven Lord, I have not forgotten about you.”  She said, the slightest edge creeping into her voice.  “When you left without hearing my offer last time I was most put out.  It really was rude Lorin.”

“What do you be recruiting for and what do you be offering in return?”  Durrak asked, casually leaning on Femurslicer.  The ichor that clung to his armor had mostly dried and now was flaking off onto the perfect surface of the floor.  Durrak supposed he should feel sorry for the servants who would be required to clean it up, but that wasn’t the point right now.

Ellen Eth focused on him again and smiled in a way that once would have made his heart ache for his lost family.  Now all he could feel was contempt for the poor attempt to appeal to a base nature he had cut out of himself.

“The world above is no longer habitable for mortals.  We must take refuge in the few hidden places that still exist and defend them against any and all comers.”  She gestured with her wine glass and the red liquid inside sloshed over the rim.  Before it could soil the thick rug or even stain her pale white skin she frowned slightly in concentration and it reversed course, returning back to the glass.

It was a minor, but very obvious and casual display of arcane power.  Here was a woman who could afford to waste Weave on household tasks, even when alone in a room with a pair of very dangerous and accomplished warriors.  Her reaction time was also quite admirable, even if it was likely contrived.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 38

“Oh thank the gods!”  Alanna started to collapse, but caught herself.  She wiped and sheathed her knife carefully before bending to check on Reed.

Callindra watched her, trying to keep herself from shoving the girl aside and tending to Reed herself.  She’d have been almost as likely to kill him as to help.  It was better to wait for Kain.

Tears pattered onto Reed’s bloody face, leaving runnels in the blood.  “He was so brave.”  She said, her hands slipping as she tried to staunch the flow of blood from a wound.  “They just came out of nowhere and he didn’t even have a proper weapon but he killed one with the kitchen knife.  Just when the others were about to catch us he did something and this light blasted holes in three of them but there were so many.”

Kain walked calmly out of the bushes and knelt next to them.  “He will live child.”  He said, passing his hands over Reed with practiced motions.  “I have not arrived too late.  Reed is young and has not lost too much blood yet.  It was a near thing, but the spark of his life is strong.”

Alanna sat down hard, still shaking with emotion but looking less desperate.  She watched with wide eyes as Kain coaxed the power of the goddess of nature he revered to stitch together the many wounds on Reed’s body.  The rigid tension of pain relaxed from his face and his breathing steadied.

“This is what it means to be out here.”  Callindra said in a flat voice.  “You did fairly well for your first fight.”

“I didn’t do anything.”  Alanna said miserably, “I just stabbed one of them after Reed … fell.”

“You didn’t die.  That’s more than most people can say about their first fight.”  She pointed to a long shallow gash on the girl’s arm.  “You should let Kain see to that.”

With a squeak of surprise, Alanna’s eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped gracefully over on her side in a dead faint.

“We don’t have time to send her home.”  Callindra muttered to herself, “But she’s not going to last long here and now she knows it.”

Kain put a foul smelling ointment on Alanna’s arm and bound it with a clean bandage.  “This is superficial.  She will have a scar of course, but I can’t waste the energy on vanity.”

Callindra turned her gaze to Reed, eyeing his face that looked so much more like the boy he was when he was sleeping.  “Idiot.  Thirteen years old and thinking he can take on the world.”  By all the gods and demons how was she going to live with herself when she led them all to their deaths.

“Let me see to your wounds as well.”  Kain said, a touch of wary empathy in his voice.  “Some of these are quite serious.”

Callindra blinked, remembering that she had only barely survived the last battle herself.  “Right.  Thank you.”

“Remarkable.”  Connor said.  He had flipped down his goggles and his eyes were magnified and seemed to swirl.  “I have heard stories, but I’ve never actually seen someone wielding that kind of power before.”

As always, she was utterly exhausted and ravenously hungry after Kain’s healing magic, but she forced herself to focus.  “We are heading out.”  She said looking at the assembled companions.  “This is Connor, he’s not a Taken and that’s good enough for me for right now.  I want to be miles away from here before the sun is above the treeline.”

“You are hardly in any condition to travel.”  Vilhylm said, sounding halfhearted in his resistance.

“I am leaving whether or not you have the sense to come.”  Callindra snapped, “The amount of noise we made and the level of magic we expended here will have drawn the attention of every Taken for a ten mile radius or more.  I want to be gone in the next ten minutes.”

“I will carry Reed.”  Alanna said, her eyes daring them to deny her.

“If you can’t keep up, pass him off to someone stronger.”  Callindra said without rancor.

With that she began to strike her tent and pack her bedroll.  If she didn’t keep moving she knew she’d fall asleep.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 37

“Your hair is still on fire.”  She commented, looking at Connor.  “What happened to your wand?  What’s wrong with it?  I’ve never seen something like that happen before.”

“I didn’t have the proper fireheart wood for the shaft and had to substitute a garnet for the ruby core.”  He said with a shrug, pulling up a leather hood that glistened wetly over his head to snuff the embers in his hair. “Sometimes it ah, misbehaves.”

Callindra stared at him in mute horror for a few moments.  What he’d just said wasn’t possible.  There were some things that just couldn’t be done.  “You can’t substitute things in an arcane creation.  That’s insane at best.  You’re lucky it didn’t explode and destroy the entire hilltop!”

“I can.  You can’t.”  Connor looked significantly at the mass destruction, obliterated bodies and some places where even the sand was melted into glass.

“Point taken.”  She said ruefully, “Seems to work, but it doesn’t seem to give you much control.”

“I only use this one when control isn’t necessary.”  He said, his honesty a bit shocking to her.  “I thought you were dead and everyone else was down.  Figured it was better to destroy everything rather than deal with the fallout.”

“Well, as long as you don’t do anything like that to me or mine again you’re welcome to travel with us.”  Callindra paused to give him a real once over, noting the travel worn but well maintained clothing he wore and the slightly too large pack on his back.  She got an unsettling feeling that he had managed to figure out a lot more about her than she had about him.

“I would welcome a bit of respite before I decide what direction to go next.  We were heading to Woodfordshire because someone heard a rumor that it was still free.”  Connor pushed up his goggles and raised a scorched eyebrow in question.

“It’s Cronosholt now.”  She said, unable to keep the pain of the memory from making her voice raw.  “We fought off a horde of Taken.  Most of us lived.  Some of the townsfolk did too, they’re rebuilding now.  I’m sure they would appreciate assistance from a traveling inventor.”

“I’m not interested in staying in a city that the Abyss broke its teeth on.”  He said, shaking his head.  “They’re not the type to just give in easily.  The only way to really survive is to avoid their notice.  Best way to do that is to kill any of them that see you and move before whatever is controlling them notices.”

“We’re moving, but we’re heading to Starvale.”  Callindra said in a flat voice.  “Our next destination is Daggerford though.  Did you pass through there?”

Connor’s face closed.  “I would prefer not to speak of it if at all possible.  I recommend against going there at all costs.  It is a place of death and despair.”

“You probably won’t want to travel with us then.”  Holt’s voice came from one side, and he stood from a depression that looked too small to hide a rabbit.  Connor started ever so slightly and had a wand in each hand before he’d begun to turn.

Callindra put a hand out to stop either of them from doing anything rash, but the tinkling of Shadowsliver’s chain caught Connor’s attention and he stood between the two, training a wand on each.  When neither of them made a threatening gesture, he shook his head and the wands vanished back up his sleeves.  She caught a glimpse of odd looking bracers with several wands latched onto each.

“Sorry.  Just edgy.”  He gave Holt a respectful nod, “Nobody has managed to sneak up on me in years.”

“Come to the fire and get something to eat.” Vilhylm said, but then gave Callindra a questioning look. “Unless you want to leave immediately?”

“Oh god and demons, the fire!  Reed!”  Callindra broke into a run, her injuries and fatigue evaporating in the heat of adrenaline.

When she broke through the bushes surrounding the low cook fire she almost ran onto the point of Alanna’s knife.  The girl was white and shaking and standing over Reed’s bleeding body.  Four Taken were weakly thrashing around her and despite her obvious fear and terror, the firm set of her jaw showed more determination and grit than Callindra would have given her credit for.

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.”