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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 4

“Good alewife do be bringing Felix a tankard.”  Durrak said, “It do be many a moon since I have shared a cup with another Dwarf.”

Felix slapped him on the back hard enough to nearly knock him from his seat. “That is indeed most kind Durrak Caverstorm.  Perhaps I can offer something in return?”

“May I be imposing on you for one of those cigars?”  Durrak asked, “They do be smelling of home.”

“That may be inadvisable my friend.”  Said Felix, but he produced one anyway and handed it over.  “They don’t often seem to be the same.”

Durrak took the cigar and smelled it.  The scent was of brimstone and iron.  The smell of the Adamantine Forge itself, the tip was glowing sullenly, already lit.  “This do smell even more of home.”  He said, drawing on it to light it properly.  It took a bit of puffing but when the cigar lit, the smoke was an acrid yellow and diffused very quickly.  Angry red sparks shot out and split as very high quality steel would.

“You are a smith.”  Felix said; a statement not a question.  “You are from Farenholm itself.  I know that accent and the smoke does not often lead me astray.”

The alewife brought a pair of foaming tankards and set them before the pair with a smile.  “Roast is near done.  Would your friend like a meal as well?”

“My dear, I would be forever grateful for a meal.”  Felix said.

“I do be accounting for his meal also.”  Durrak said at the same time, putting another handful of gold on the bar and waving away Felix’s protest.  “It do be a pleasure to share the company of a kinsman.  I do be insisting Felix.”

The cigar, for all its strange scent and odd behavior, brought a tingle to Durrak’s tongue and a pleasant thrill to his senses.  The smoke was harsh, but he found it was much like working at the forge, something he had always enjoyed.

“I take such kindness to heart and insist on returning it in kind.”  Felix said gravely, “What would you have me trade?”

“The cigar and the companionship do be more than sufficient.”  Durrak said.  “Did you be knowing Farenholm?  Did you be walking the ancient halls of my ancestors?  Do you be knowing of Cerioth the Black, Bane of Ignitium?”

“Certainly I once walked the halls of Farenholm.”  Felix said with a wistful smile, “Her tall arches and endless caverns are a bright spot in my long memories.  The splendor and grandeur of the King’s front hall has stayed in my mind as one of the triumphs of mortal engineering and craftsmanship.

“As for your other question; I heard a report that she was seen near Hellgate keep.” Felix said, “But I didn’t see that myself so I can’t speak for the accuracy of that particular rumor.  Have a care speaking that name aloud my friend.  Ill luck comes to those who invoke the names of those fell things who have made compacts with dark forces for power.”

“When?”  Durrak asked, his voice sounding harsher than it had before.

“I heard the rumor a month ago.”  Said Felix, “The man I spoke to said he’d seen the dragon fly out of a swirling cloud of black smoke that rained emerald green rain down on the ground.  He didn’t stay to watch, even abandoned his herd and ran until his horse was blown.  I don’t know more than that.”

“I do be going there.”  Durrak said flatly, “If I no did need to resupply I no would delay one moment.”

“Now I see the resemblance.”  Felix said, “You father-“

“Did be a fool.”  Durrak interrupted.  “He did embark on a mission knowing it did be the undoing of my people.”

“Perhaps.  However, I seem to remember the Moragainnag stating that the doom would be worse if he did not set forth.”  Felix said, pausing to take another lit cigar from his pouch and flick the stub of his first into the fire.  “I was there when the doom of Farenholm was pronounced.  Unlike most of your folk I had the wisdom to leave.  If I’d thought for a moment they’d disregard her words I’d have tried harder to convince them.  I am sorry.”

The pewter mug in Durrak’s hand shrieked in protest as his hand tightened on it, mashing the thick metal into an hourglass shape.  The dwarf blinked in surprise and unclenched his fist.  “I do be sorry Alewife, I do be paying for the damage.”

She swiftly replaced the mug with a fresh one full of ale.  “Not to worry master Dwarf.”  She said, looking at the mug with wide eyes.  “These things happen ye ken?”

“I do be insisting.”  Durrak placed a platinum piece in her free hand.  “I no do wish to be an unwelcome guest.  I did simply lose control, it no do be anything.  Please do be thinking nothing of it.”

She took his gold without further comment and retreated behind the bar, setting the mug carefully on a shelf behind the bar.  Filling a fresh tankard with beer, she returned and set it in front of him without meeting his eyes and left without speaking.

“I do be spreading fear.”  Durrak said sadly, “I no do wish to be a harbinger of fear and despair.”

“None of us do.”  Felix said, “Doesn’t change that what we know changes how we influence the world.”

Durrak drained his tankard in a single long pull.  “Aye.  Our desires no do mean a bedamned thing.”

Felix put his hand on Durrak’s shoulder and squeezed.  “That tale requires something in return.”  He said solemnly and placed the cigar pouch on the counter.  “The wizard who traded this to me warned me not to keep it too long.  I find the results got more interesting when I began adding other things to it.”

Durrak made as if to protest, but Felix smiled broadly.  “Keep it my friend.  Keep it and remember this day as I fear pleasant memories will be few and far between in days to come.”

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

Durrak Caverstorm; Battlemaster of the Drakanda style and sole survivor of Farenholm trudged down the road at a mile eating pace.  It didn’t look like he was moving very quickly, but his short legs moved steadily, not slowing when going up a steep incline or indeed at all until the sun reached its zenith.  He might not have stopped even then, but a roadside inn and rest hove into view and he decided it was worth a look.

The prodigious bag of provisions he had been carrying had shrunk drastically over the last few weeks and if these folk had anything to spare he would buy it and damn the cost.  Shifting the straps of his pack he transferred his Gisarme to slant across his right shoulder as he approached The Ox and Cart.  Smelling the scent of cooking meat made his mouth water as he rapped smartly on the door with the butt of his polearm.

It had been a year since he’d won his title and the world had changed substantially during that time.  Folk were less trusting and he had discovered seeing an obviously capable traveler who was alone sometimes made them more nervous so it paid to be up front.

“Hello the Inn!”  He said in a voice that would carry but hopefully not inspire fear.

“Who’s that then?”  A woman said from within, “No need to rattle the door off the hinges; come on in if you can pay and bugger off it you can’t!”

This was a pleasant surprise; many of the people he’d found didn’t take coin anymore.  “I do be able to pay alewife; what do that delicious scent be?”  He pushed the door open and strode inside; his Dwarven eyes piercing the slight gloom with ease.

The room was set in a familiar pattern low tables with benches instead of chairs and a small bar at one end next to a hearth where a haunch of meat was turning on a spit.  The woman who regarded him with a jaded eye as he entered was shockingly young; perhaps fifteen summers, although she took in his appearance with ease that suggested she had grown up in a tavern.

“Let’s see the coin and you can have what you want.”  She said, touching a crossbow that was cocked and loaded sitting over the taps.  “We don’t have prejudice against Dwarves or adventurers as long as your coin is good.”

Durrak grinned, setting his pack and polearm down on a rack by the doorway before walking up to the bar and plunking down a half dozen gold.  “Lady, please do be letting me know when this runs out.  I do be famished and parched from many long days on the road.”

She brightened a bit at the sight of the gold and even further when she scratched them with a wicked looking belt knife and revealed them to be pure.  Pulling him a large wooden tankard of frothy ale, she set it down on the bar.  “This will help with the thirst master Dwarf.  That roast won’t be done for another hour, but I got some cheese and bread, maybe some leftover sausages.”

“I do gladly be sampling your ale and nibbles until the roast do be ready.”  Durrak said, drinking deeply and smacking his lips.  The ale was a bit light for his taste, but it was quite refreshing.

As Durrak ate and drank, several more folk entered chatting amicably and ordering drinks and inquiring about the roast.  They took him in without comment, a few nodding politely and some staring but not in an aggressive manner.  All of them had also put a weapon of some sort aside as they entered even though they were obviously villagers, not adventuring types.

Thunder rumbled outside, but no rain fell.  It hadn’t rained for ages and the land was parched and dry.  The winds seemed to be blowing erratically of late, not bringing the moisture from the sea to nourish the soil.  All signs of bad times and possibly worse to come.

The door opened to admit another traveler, his cloak black and ragged at the ends.  Setting an immense pack down next to Durrak’s with a heavy thump he grinned and rubbed at his huge red beard.  A fellow Dwarf; a rarity in these parts.  He stumped up to the bar and sat next to Durrak.

“How’s the ale?”  He asked in Dwarven, giving him a grin.

“Light, but quite potable in quantity.” Durrak said in the same language, returning the grin.  “From where do you hail?”

“I am a traveler.  Felix is my name.” The other replied, offering a hand thick with calluses.

“My name is Durrak Caverstorm.”  Durrak said, shaking the offered hand.

“Caverstorm?”  Felix asked, “Have you the title from the Drakanda school?  Never did I think to see the Mistress of that school fall from aught but old age.”

“I took her title.”  Durrak said, feeling the sadness of that memory even now.  “Took it by fair trial of combat.  One of many regrets I carry on my shoulders.”

“Ah.” Felix said, reaching into a pouch and removing a smoldering cigar.  He puffed it alight to a small explosion of purple sparks.  The smoke he exhaled was bright blue and sank to the floor instead of rising.  The smoke had the scent of a meadow high in the mountains in the dead of winter.

“I have been traveling for some time and have not seen another of our kind.”  Durrak ventured, “Do you know how our people fare elsewhere?”

“Farenholm has fallen.  Vanterholm stood last I saw, although it was beset by hordes of goblins.”  Felix replied, “I do not stay in one place long.”

Durrak saw the looks the others were giving them and continued in the common tongue, “Perhaps we do be doing better to converse in a language the others do be knowing?  I no do want to cause suspicion.”

“Yes, perhaps that would be best.”  Felix said in unaccented common, “It has merely been so long since I spoke to a fellow Dwarf in my native language.  My apologies to our gracious host.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 2

“Callindra stop picking on the locals.” Cronos’s voice came from the doorway.  Even though he was younger than her, he had grown a lot in the last year and looked several years her senior.  He wasn’t wearing his twin bastard swords and looked strange without them.

“What can I get for you sir?” The barkeep was bravely attempting to do his job, and Cronos looked slightly more normal.  Especially since the sleeves of his shirt covered the tattoos that proclaimed him a powerful mage.

“Fruit juice, or water if you don’t have juice and some bread.  Callindra isn’t it a little early for the hard stuff?  Why not just have an ale, save the falling off your chair for later.”  His voice sounded harsh, but she could hear the concern.

“You must be Cronos?”  One of the strangers was still standing uncertainly, holding his glass of whisky and looking at him with a confused expression on his face.

“These gentlemen are looking for The Brotherhood of Steel.” Vilhylm said, “I have invited them to return on the morrow to discuss whatever business they wish.”

“I’ve told them they have to drink to the memory of things lost.”  Said Callindra.  She pulled a withered and dried crown of woven plant stems from her hair.  It did not come loose easily, but she disregarded the pain, tearing hair from her scalp without flinching.

“I waited a for her.”  Tears began coursing down her cheeks, “I wanted so badly to believe that a Goddess was truly immortal.  She showed me the power of putting others before yourself and inspired me like only one other has.  Then she died.  Because of me.  Just like Glarian did.  Just like Tryst did.  Because I’m too weak.”

“Stop the whining, since when did my sister become a sniveling little girl?”  Cronos said, “I don’t remember you asking anyone for help.  You are cheapening the sacrifices of those who CHOSE to make them because THEY believed you would pick up the torch of their cause.”

“This has gone on long enough Callindra.” Vilhylm said, “It’s time to let go of your sorrow and move forward.  There is work to be done.”

“I don’t care.”  She said, picking up her glass again.  Vilhylm knocked it from her hand with a lightning fast maneuver that she hadn’t anticipated.

“I’m not going to let you do this to yourself anymore.  It has been months since I saw you practice.”  He towered over her, rage burning behind his eyes.  “You’re less than useless like this, you disgrace the memory of your master!”

“You want to trust me?”  Callindra’s voice rose, “You want to rely on ME?  After what’s happened you want ME watching your back?”  Unnoticed by her, the winds began to blow about the room for the first time in a year.  “I am not strong enough to watch your back brother, find someone else.”

“There is no one else.”  Vilhylm looked at the floor, a grimace on his face.  “Even if there was, I they couldn’t replace you.”

“What are you going to do?  Beat it out of me?”  She grabbed the bottle and took a drink.

“If I must.”  Vilhylm took her by surprise, grabbing her by the shirt and bodily throwing her out the door of the tavern.  Shadowsliver’s chain rattled after, finally reaching its limit and jerking the sword through the air toward her.

Callindra tumbled into the street, staggering to her feet just in time for Shadowsliver’s edge to cut deep into her shoulder.  A whirlwind began to form around her as the pent-up rage at her loved ones for dying, at her inability to do anything to stop it and the world for allowing her to survive was released in an uncontrolled torrent as she pulled the sword from the deep wound it had carved into her body.

“What do you want from me?”  She shouted at the sky, at the world, “WHAT MORE CAN YOU ASK OF ME?” Thunder rumbled in the distance, her hair began to stand on end from the static charge in the air.  “What more can I POSSIBLY give to you?”

The hair that once had Brightstar flowers twining through it showing the blessings of Jorda now tangled around her as the wind began to pick up.  “Gods curse it!”  Callindra had been so proud of that hair, but now like everything else it was getting in her way.  She held her hair in a lose bundle with one hand and cut it off with one smooth stroke of her sword.

Outside of town, coruscating bolts of lightning struck the earth and overhead dark clouds billowed.  Wind whirled around her, rattling the shutters of nearby buildings and picking up plumes of dust.  Cronos stepped outside, Vilhylm close behind him.

“Callindra you need to stop this, it’s dangerous!” Cronos said, looking nervously at the sky.

“YOU are the ones who wanted this.  YOU trusted me, this is on YOUR heads!”  Callindra said, “I wanted to GIVE UP but you are forcing me, FORCING ME back into the world.  You want me to use the power again?”  She raised Shadowsliver above her head.  “FINE I’ll turn it loose.”

A bolt of incandescent electricity lanced from the heavens, slammed into the tip of her sword and ran through her into the ground.  The crack of thunder shattered windows and knocked her brothers off their feet.  Callindra stood in the center of the madness, lightning swarming around her like a mass of serpents while a whirlwind kicked up dust and debris.

“You want to trust THIS to watch your back?”  She shouted in a voice that made the lightning strike sound like a whisper.

Vilhylm had picked himself up and walked unsteadily through the chaos towards her.  Without hesitation, he folded his sister into a crushing embrace, disregarding the electricity that scorched his flesh.    “Callindra, I’ve already lost one of my brothers.  I refuse to lose my sister too.  Yes.  More than anything else I want you to be by my side for this fight.”

The lightning scattered and she burst into tears, leaning on his shoulder and crying like a child who had lost everything.  With those tears, rain began to fall.  The first rain that had fallen here in almost a year.  Even after the storm had passed, breezes once again began to blow.  Something had changed.  It was something small, but nothing comes into the world large.

On the outskirts of town, a dry brittle circlet of vines fell from the whirling winds above.  A seed pod fell, the rain beating it into the soil.  A bright green sprout sprang up as though it had been waiting for this moment.  Curiously enough, the plant that began to grow looked more like a tree than a vine; its small trefoil leaves waved defiantly against the wind.  Despite all the destruction that had been visited on the land, life refused to be defeated.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 1

The winds struggled against stagnant heat.  Great rents in the ground spouted acrid smoke that stopped the natural flow of the air.  Wind from the Abyss wasn’t wind at all; it brought with it the charnel reek of fresh blood mixed with brimstone and rotting flesh.  Anything it touched died.  Worse than that, when the things died, they were animated by the Abyss and so the infection spread.  Some seemed to be resistant to the plague, and they set up as much resistance as they could, living in small enclaves or fighting building to building in large cities.

Rumors abounded.  All the gods were dead.  Jorda was dead.  The Grandfather Tree was burning.  Luftin had lost his mind.  Ild had sided with his treacherous brother at long last and they were conspiring to burn the world.  The only living people who knew the truth weren’t likely to tell it.

A dry sulfurous wind blew through the nearly empty streets of a once prosperous trading town.  Although it was near Hellgate Keep and between that cursed edifice and the High Forest where a haze of smoke still clung to the tree tops, Varild had somehow managed to survive.

The ones who had been taken by the Abyss had answered some strange summons and left as a group.  The others who had been living for almost a year on stored provisions, rain water and the occasional wild game that still eked out a living in the lost land around them.

Other than the obvious problems of a land cursed by the infection of the Abyss, Varild was in a lot better shape than other places.  The storehouses had more than enough food for the surviving townsfolk and the well was still good.

A pair of figures wearing dark cloaks with the hoods pulled low approached the front gate.  Finding it barred, they hammered on it with the butts of their daggers.  “Hello the Town!”  One shouted.

“Keep your skirt on.”  The guard on the wall grumbled.  He’d had a long night and had drawn the short straw, meaning he had first watch as well.  “None may enter hooded.  Throw back your hoods and show me your eyes or you will not be allowed inside.

“A wise precaution.”  The taller of the two said, pushing his hood back to reveal blonde hair in a cluster of braids.  The other likewise uncovered his face to reveal a face with dark skin and a bald pate.  A latticework of scars covered his head and the guard could see it was in an intentional pattern.  He shuddered involuntarily.

“What’s your business?”  He demanded.

“We seek some folk.  Rumor has led us here.”  The shorter man said.  “The ones we seek were last purported to be seen around this area.  We have our own provisions and carry our own water.  We will not be a burden upon your settlement.”

“No need to skimp here strangers.”  The guard said, “Survivors are welcome, and news of the world is as valuable as clean water here.”  He climbed down, inspected their eyes through a slot in the gate and then opened a small steel door to one side, barely large enough for them to squeeze through.

“You think that’s her?”  Callindra heard the voice from across the tavern and intentionally paid it no mind.

“Barkeep.”  Her voice rasped in her own ears, “Where’s that bottle I ordered?”

“You wanted…?” The man behind the expanse of the oak bar asked, nervously dry-washing his hands.

“Whisky.  You know damn well what I asked for.”

“I just thought…  It’s only nine bells…”

“Gods be damned, I care not for the cursed time of day!”

“Pardon, but are you Callindra Sol’Estin?” The man didn’t look like a warrior or a mage, but she had long since learned that looks could be deceptive.

“What.  Do you want?”  She turned a baleful eye towards the two men standing a few feet away.  “If you are from The Order, Glarian is dead.  My Master is dead.”  Her voice sounded flat and dead, even in her own ears.  In her mind she whispered, ‘Luftin, God of Wind is dead.’

“Here’s your whiskey lass.  Your sword, could you sheath it please?”  The barkeep glanced nervously at Shadowsliver lying flat on the bar, his chain piled on the floor next to her before stretching back to the Mithril cuff on her right wrist.

“He doesn’t want to be sheathed, so he doesn’t have one.”  Callindra said, pouring some of the dark amber liquid into the glass he had provided.

“Ah…” The two men were nervously standing on her left.

“You’re still here?”  Callindra drained the glass in one long swallow, “What in the nine hells do you WANT?”

“We aren’t from … we’re here to ask … are you Callindra?”  The man cleared his throat, “We are looking for The Brotherhood of Steel.”

“The brotherhood is broken.”  Her voice fell to a whisper, “Leave me here with my sorrow and my memories.  You’ve chosen an ill day to mention brothers.”

The door to the common room opened wide and Vilhylm strode into the room.  “Barkeep, ale and meat!”  He paused when he saw Callindra sitting at the bar, “You’re still here sister?”

“Nay, they made me leave for a few hours.  You’re up early brother.”  She poured another glass of whisky.

“It is a day we should be observing together Callindra, and one we should be marginally sober for.”

“Sir, are you Vilhylm the Just?” One of the men asked.

“I am Vilhylm.” He said, “What can I do for you?”

“They are looking for the Brotherhood of Steel.”  Callindra said, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

“I fear good sirs that this is an inauspicious day to bring up that name.” Vil said, “Perhaps you could come back tomorrow.”

“But Sir, we have traveled for moons to beg your assistance.”

“We aren’t in the hero business anymore, especially not today.”  Vilhylm said, looking at the man with a suspicious eye.

“Listen.  If you want to talk you have to drink.”  Callindra gestured to the barkeep and he handed her another pair of glasses.  She filled them with whisky and topped off her own.  “To Tryst.  May his soul rest in peace until the end of days.”

“I apologize I did not realize we were interrupting- “ One of the men began.

“Shut up and drink!” Callindra said, putting her left hand on Shadowsliver’s hilt.  “You had the impertinence to come and find us on this day, I fear that means you share in our remembrance of the death of my brother.”

The men exchanged glances and picked up the glasses.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Prologue

Callindra could not believe it.  The battle that raged around her was nearly beyond comprehension.  Glarian; no Luftin danced the Korumn with Sakar a living extension of his limbs.  The winds themselves answered his call.  Storms sang his fury.  Lightning struck where he pointed.  His siblings were no less amazing as they commanded the very elements to destroy their enemies.

What was unbelievable is that it was not enough.  It was nowhere near enough.  The hordes of Abyssal spawn seemed unending and worse yet, the great Black Dragon seemed impervious to all their attacks.  The green fog that dripped from its mouth corroded anything it touched, whether that be flesh or stone or the Weave itself.

Despite everything, Callindra laughed in exultation.  She was fighting by her Master’s side at last and they moved perfectly together.  When he struck a sweeping blow, she knew exactly how far to lower her head and her follow up thrust would inevitably finish off the dying monster before it could counterattack.  They leaped and spun, twisted and slid only to spring back to their feet borne by the lightness of the winds themselves.

When they had carved a space for themselves on the battlefield, Callindra paused to look for her brothers.  Vil was doing surprisingly well paired with Ild and Cronos seemed to be watching Vandis’s back.  The sting of a dozen or more cuts made her wince, she hadn’t noticed them while the fight was raging.

“Callindra, you fight well.”  Luftin said with a madcap grin.  “I’m afraid you can’t follow me this time though.  I have an old score to settle and that bedamned beast is too much even for your new talents.”

“You can’t be trying to face it on your own?”  She panted, looking high above where the Black Dragon still circled.  It seemed to be waiting for them to be worn down by legions of Spawn before it attacked.

“No, Ild and Vandis will give me a head start.”  He said, “You get out of here, I’ll catch you up.”

“I won’t leave you!”  She said fiercely, reaching out for him.  “I searched for so long.  I lost so much.”

He wasn’t paying attention to her. Crouching low, he summoned a spell from Sakar and sprang into the sky.  As he rose, ice began raining down in jagged shards, cutting into the dragon’s wings while a wave of flame roared up from below, obscuring him until the last minute.  His sword hacked into the dragon’s throat and black blood poured from the wound.

Callindra’s shout of victory died in her throat as the monster swiped Luftin out of the air with a clawed hand and swallowed him whole.  The Dragon roared in triumph and breathed acidic fog down upon them.  While Ild and Vandis were momentarily distracted deflecting the caustic substance with a wave of flame and a deluge of water the Dragon traced a series of runes in the air.  The symbols flashed, and Cerioth the Black, Destroyer of Farenholm, Bane of Ignitum dove through the portal that opened between them.

Shirasiau Sai’Li Has Had Enough

Author’s Note.  It has been over a year since we last heard from Sai’Li and things have changed substantially.  This is a bit of fallout from a failed assassination attempt.

“I am disappointed.”  Sai’Li snapped her fan closed, and fixed Ignis with a glare.  He had never seen her express this much emotion outside of a nearly unhinged frenzy brought on by a battle where his mistress had expended her absolute utmost effort to literally and completely destroy her enemies.  It was mildly terrifying to see that barely restrained fury on her face while he was in a room alone with her.

“Your father did seem to act outside of the normal bounds of good faith.”  He said guardedly.  His great scythe sized claws carefully gripped the cask of whisky so as not to crush it and lifted it to take a drink.  Why did he still feel vulnerable in front of this tiny humanoid?  His true tiger form was ten times her size, but he had seen her let down the barriers of propriety that she wore like armor and what he had seen was what nightmares were made of.

“He insulted me.”  She all but hissed, “Summoning me here only to pretend I have gotten soft?  To threaten my followers?  To DARE to suggest he could use them against me?  As though my loyalty was in question?  As though I couldn’t defend what is MINE?”

Ignis noted that her canines were much more prominent than they had been moments before.  Instead of their usual seafoam green, her eyes seemed to be darkening to gray.  Instead of responding, he gathered his legs beneath him in a position more suited for a leap to one side or another and took another drink.

“If he dares to offer such an insult again we will END him my Tiger.”  She flicked her battle fan open and looked at him over the razor sharp tips that were almost concealed by the delicate looking silk.  A shiver ran through him; she had never given him a look that demanded such obedience.

“I tried to be what he wanted.  I built an empire.”  She continued, and Ignis noticed that the flowers on the table beside her had died.  “I am the trading mistress of an entire city in a kingdom that has never given any credence to an outsider before.  A sovereign nation in the very heart of one of the most exclusive and xenophobic kingdoms on the Prime.  I have left nothing behind but vanquished foes and loyal allies and he acts as though I am expendable.”

The potted plants in the room didn’t just wilt, they crumbled to dust.  Sai’Li noticed him looking at them and took a deep breath in.  She didn’t let it out.  Minutes passed before he set his cask down and nodded slowly.  This seemed to be what she was seeking.

When she let her breath out, he could smell graveyard soil.  “I do not doubt your loyalty my Tiger.  I know you began as my father’s hireling, but by this point you must realize he is not going to give you what he swore, what you need.”

This hadn’t occurred to Ignis, he narrowed his eyes but didn’t speak.  His Mistress knew him.  She saw his expression and she knew his mind.  He shuddered even as she smiled.

“I have seen thousands die.  I have killed dozens of members of my own family.  I have even murdered the innocent without the slightest hesitation.”  She inspected the nails of her right hand, taking out a tiny knife and trimming them until they were even.  “I am not a good person.  I am not, to be brutally honest, even a person at all my Tiger.  But I am an entity and I do wish to continue to live.  Do you wish to stay by my side?”

Ignis considered her for a few moments.  The more he looked, the more his instincts told him she was a true predator.  The awestruck way in which she had been referring to her father before had given him pause but this fierce defiance was what he had been waiting for.

“There will be none who can stand against us and live mistress.”

Sthax of Longtail Sharptooth

Sthrax leaned on his shield and searched the undergrowth with a critical eye.  Despite being separated from the others, this place was good hunting.  Watching one of the Older Brothers walk by.  He stood still, not seeing any reason to antagonize the beast.  There was no need to fight but no need to flee either; the massive shape moved off, leaving a trail of broken trees in its wake.

This jungle was different from his home jungle.  The smells were different.  The insects tasted different.  There were many more of the Older Brothers.  Islands surrounded by the salt water were strange places.  There was treasure here apparently.  The soft ones needed the shiny bits and the sparkle stones for status and power.

He fingered the multiple rings in his ears and the shiny studs in his frill.  They marked him as one of the successful and wealthy.  Or at least he had seen the soft ones do similar things to demark their status.  If nothing else, the red stones and golden rings glittered a fetching contrast to his scales with their mottled green, white and black patterns.

Sthrax wasn’t here for treasure though.  There were things here that needed to be destroyed.  Or there were rumors in the villages of the soft ones that there were ancient ruins that contained some of the things from the ancient evils he sought out.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.”  He rumbled in his native tongue.  As they usually did, repeating these words sent him back to the first time he had heard them in that order.

“You think differently than we.” The Elders said in unison.  They had been sitting and speaking for so long that their voices blended together, their minds were the same.  “We have lived long and soon will depart.  We have decided the time has come to send One out to the lands of the soft ones.  This One must go forth and find The Accursed Thing.  This One may not return until it has found and destroyed The Accursed Thing.”

“Why?”  Sthrax asked, shocked into questioning them.  Nobody left for any extended time.  Hunting trips, trade missions where some of their folk went to exchange the hide and bone weapons and armor they created and the occasional forays against the Orc or Goblin kin that bordered their hunting ranges happened, but nobody left without a definite plan to return.

“Your mind is young and bends like reeds.  Ours is old and stiff as the oak.”  They answered, “A Darkness comes for the Longtail Fang people.  It will come after we end, This One must return to the tribe after we end to report to the Elders who have replaced us.  To let them know the way.”

“It has to be me?”  Sthrax was horrified.  He had never considered leaving the Tribe.

“A soft one who wears the shining skin will come.  You will help her.  She will show you the ways of the soft ones.”  The Elders said.  Sthrax noted that only two of the three were speaking now.  The third was staring off into the distance.

“She comes.”  The third whispered.  “This One is no longer of the Longtail Fang until This One finds The Accursed Thing of the Screaming Face and makes it into dust.”  As one, all three of the Elders turned their backs on Sthrax.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.  This One must fight the greater evil.  This one must show no mercy for the wicked.  This one must prevail by any means necessary.  For This One to fail will mean the downfall of the Longtail Fang.”

He backed up in disbelief, walking backwards until he passed out of the tent, watching the three that he had based his entire life on act as though he no longer existed.  Outside, none of the others seemed to see him either.  The Longtail Fang as one had turned their tails towards him.

Sthrax ran blindly from the village, not even noticing when the branches tore at his tough hide.  When the fear had finally run itself out and he realized he was running from something that couldn’t possibly harm him and couldn’t be fought he stopped.  The pounding of his heart allowed him to hear the bright ringing of the weapons of the soft ones used and the cries of combat.

He unlimbered his sling from where it wrapped around his waist on instinct and dropped a stone into the pouch.  Rounding one of the Great Trees, he saw a figure made tiny by the contrast between it and one of the Two Heads that was swinging a club nearly as big as Sthrax himself.

It went against every instinct he had, but the words of the Elders held sway even if they had cast him out.  Sthrax whirled his sling over his head, releasing the stone with a shriek of reptilian challenge.  The stone struck the Two Heads on the arm with a sharp crack of splintering bone and the club swung wide, missing the soft one in the shining skin by a claw width.

A sweep of her large shining stick the soft one cut one of the Two Heads arms off.  Sthrax’s second stone landed squarely in the Two Heads chest, striking hard enough to break the skin.  The soft one used the moment of confusion to slice through its opponent’s belly.  As tough as Two Heads were, this was more than it could handle.  It took two ponderous steps backward before falling to the ground with a thud that he felt as well as heard even from this distance.

The soft one sank to one knee, the shining stick planted on the ground before it.  It began making the strange hooting noises that passed for its speech.  Sthrax knew some of the words but none of them seemed to make sense for the situation.  Was it thanking the Two Heads?  It was thanking someone.  Perhaps it was thanking him.

He strode down the side of the hill to see if it would share the flesh of its kill with him in the thanking ritual but before he reached it the soft one fell sideways and did not move.  The shining skin on its head fell off and a shock of black hair almost like a crest spilled out.  There was blood on the soft one’s face and leaking from its shining skin.

Hoping that it reacted to the same kind of herbs and remedies that his kind did, Sthrax set about finding the bindweed, thistle down and saproot that would help stop the bleeding and save its life.  Provided he could remove the shining skin of course.

In the end, he had been able to save Kinrik’s life and she had spent four years teaching him to fight with sword and shield as repayment.  Discovering that his shield could be used as a weapon changed everything about how he thought of combat.  Kinrik was stronger than he, but his advantage in speed eventually made the difference.

Gradually, he gained a better understanding of her language and during their travels Kinrik showed him how to navigate the outside world.  By far the most important thing she gave him was understanding though.  One evening while sitting around a campfire she had asked him why he had arrived when he did on the day he saved her from the Two Heads.

“This One was cast out.”  He said, still feeling the anguish of the rejection years later as he described the events in detail.

“You were not cast aside Sthrax.”  She said, working a chip out of her sword blade with a whetstone.  “You were given a task.  No other in the Longtail Fang could do what was needed, and although you were sent away you only need complete the quest before you are allowed to return.  Your people need you.  That’s something most cannot say.”

For the first time since he had run from the Elders, Sthrax felt the burden on his shoulders shift.  Instead of the punishing stone given to those who broke the tribe’s laws, it felt more like a kill he was bringing back to feed the hatchlings.  In that moment he felt the claws of the Great Old Ones fill him with Purpose.

Sthrax shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs of memory.  Far below a ribbon of water cut a deep valley into the mountainside.  It was time to find his way back to the others or back to the ocean.  Preferably without attracting the attention of any of the Older Brothers.

Where there was water, often there were people of one type or another.  Fanning his crest in decision, he made his way carefully down the slope.  This river would, he was sure, lead him to his goal.

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 3

Sergei turned and saw a man in an impeccable suit, a fedora, dark sunglasses and carrying a cane swaggered through the door.  The locked door.  Around him, shadows gathered and flickered as though there was a campfire burning on every side of him.

“I fear the young lady has misled you.”  His voice was smooth and urbane.  “What she has taken cannot be returned without proper recompense.”

“Excuse me friend, but the bar is closed.”  Sergei asked, feeling somehow less intimidated than he thought he would.

“Yes.  How fortunate for me that there will be nobody to see.  Nobody to stop what must be done.”  Ethad said, his voice still silky smooth and calm.

“You won it in a game correct?”  Sergei asked with a smile.  “Well then I challenge you.”

“What do you wager?”  Ethad asked, pulling out a chair and sitting at one of the tables.  He pulled a long thin cigar from an inner pocket and bit off the tip before lighting it with an old fashioned strike anywhere match.

“My bar.”  Sergei said, “It’s my life’s work.”

“That’s an interesting offer, however I don’t need real estate.”  Ethad said, blowing a smoke ring.  “I’m thinking of something a little more valuable.  After all, what the young lady has stolen is worth more than you can imagine.”

“What did she steal?”  He asked, “I never was clear on that.”

“It does not matter to you.”  Ethad said, “But if you must know, she stole knowledge.”

“What do you want me to bet then?”  Sergei asked, “And what game will we play?”

“To keep it interesting, we will play a game that matches your abilities.  Since you own a bar, we shall play a drinking game.”  Ethad took off his sunglasses and where his eyes should be was nothing but pits of utter darkness.  “You shall bet your immortal soul of course.”

Sergei swallowed hard, but a glance over his shoulder showed Corva’s large frightened eyes and his spine stiffened.  “Is that all?  I’m pretty sure that’s long gone to many a vice or broken promise.”  He moved to the bar and took the half full bottle of Laphroig down along with two glasses.

He sat down across from his opponent and poured them each a shot.  Something settled over him; a power with a force beyond his imagination.  The pact had been made.  The stage was set.  What had he gotten himself into?  Still, his blood boiled with excitement.  He had never felt so alive.

“The game is an old one.   It is called by many different names, but I call it Flip.”  Ethad smiled and withdrew an old belt dagger from a sheath beneath his suit coat.  The weapon was worn, but obviously well cared for.  The edge glittered wickedly.

Sergei raised an eyebrow and waited, amazed that he was feeling so calm and collected.  Perhaps it was the sheer absurdity of the situation.  Maybe it was Corva’s apparent dependence on him.  More likely he’d just lost his mind.

“The game is played by flipping the blade a certain way a certain number of times and having it end by sticking point down into the wood of the table.”  Ethad said.  “If you fail to stick the blade, you must take a drink.  Every five flips you must take a drink.  The game ends when you are incapacitated or bleed to death.”

“Bleed to death?”  Sergei asked, “Why would that be an issue?”

“Some of the flips later in the game require very good aim.”  Ethad said, “Shall we begin?”

The first few flips were simple.  Held in the hand, off the back of the hand, off the thumb, off the wrist.  The blade was very sharp and Sergei did accidentally cut himself more than once, although they were more of an annoyance than anything else.  After five flips, they each drank.

Now the challenges were more difficult, but Sergei found the balance of Ethad’s blade to his liking and the game was a fun and interesting one.  Five more flips and they each took another drink.  Sergei began to sweat as the moves became harder, but he managed to stick another five and they each drank again.

“You are showing more skill than I had anticipated.”  Ethad said, “It appears the bottle is almost empty.  It has been years, decades even since I have enjoyed myself this much.”

Sergei missed the next flip, recovered and made the next three and missed the fifth.  The bottle was empty and the alcohol was beginning to cloud his dexterity.  Ethad seemed to be unaffected and flicked the point of his knife into the tabletop with almost contemptuous ease.

“I’d better get another bottle.”  Sergei said, rising unsteadily.  “We both have to drink after that last move.”

He walked to the bar and took another bottle of Laphroig.  His fingers shook as he was unwrapping the foil.  Reaching into his apron pocket he took out a tissue and wiped the sweat off his forehead and tossed it into the trash.  Picking up the bottle and a new pair of glasses he walked back to the table where Ethad sat calmly.

Sergei poured them each a shot and couldn’t help but savor the whisky as he drank it.  Even if it was bringing him ever closer to being killed.  To being worse than killed.

Ethad had tossed back his drink and picked up his knife for the next move.  A strange look crossed his face and he lost his grip on the aged wooden handle.

“What did you do to me?”  He snarled, his voice a dangerous rasp.

Sergei blinked in surprise, noting that a red flush had begun to spread from the other man’s alabaster white neck.  Ethad began to make a choking sound, each breath becoming more of a struggle.  The realization of what must have happened struck him.

The tissue.  The wood sliver.  Corva had said it was hawthorn and it had hurt her.  She was somehow the same as Ethad.

“You left some of your hawthorn in her wound.”  Sergei said, feeling a sardonic grin slide over his face.  “It must have found its way into your drink somehow.  What a shame.”

Ethad stood, his clothes bleeding and changing into a cloak with a deep cowl.  His dagger lengthened and changed, shaping itself into a wickedly sharp scythe with a handle made of the same dark wood as the knife hilt, the butt end sharpened to a needle point.

“You have forced me to shuffle off that which allows me to tread on mortal earth once again Trickster.”  The moniker rang in Sergei’s head like a silver bell.  “Your accomplice can keep the knowledge of Fire she stole.  For now.”

Death faded from view, the gleaming silver of his scythe with its handle of hawthorn being the last thing to vanish.  Sergei spun to look at Corva, and instead of a wounded girl in layers of jackets a large raven perched on the back of the chair.  She cocked her head at him, one eye deliberately winking.

“You remembered your blood in the end.”  She said, her voice sounding no different for coming from a bird’s beak.

“Just lucky.”  Sergei said, “I didn’t remember anything.”

“Blood doesn’t forget, even if you don’t remember Trickster.”  Corva replied and flew up and out the door as it opened to admit Chelsea.

“Sergei?”  She said, surprise in her voice.  “What was that wind just now?”

“Never mind the wind.”  He said, sitting down hard, but feeling the sardonic smile come back.  “Come and have a drink with me.”

~fin

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 2

Sergei picked her up and carried her to one of the plush chairs in the small lounge area and set her down.  She weighed even less than it looked like she should.  Although she didn’t protest, she gave him an exasperated look.  He knew he should be asking more questions, that he should be doing something else, but the situation was so bizarre that he wasn’t sure what to do.  Where had she been hiding?

After depositing her to rest comfortably, Sergei returned to the bar to get his glass and his pipe.  It wasn’t responsible to smoke in the same room as a child, but he needed a pipe if he was going to be able to get through this.  When he returned, relit his pipe and took a drink of whisky he finally looked her in the eye.

“Corva.  Who is this man and why does he want you dead?”

“He calls himself Ethad, but I’m certain that’s not his real name.  Who he is and what his motives are do not matter.”  She saw the set of his jaw and sighed, wincing halfway through.  Reaching a hand under her layers of jackets, Corva removed a wadded handful of bloody rags and was about to throw it on the floor before he stopped her and got a waste basket for them instead.

“You’re going to let me look at that wound.”  He said firmly, “While I do you can tell me about why Ethad wants to kill you.”

She rolled her eyes and began taking off layers, dropping each jacket on the floor.  Sergei went to the bar and retrieved a first aid kit he kept there and by the time he got back, she had taken off three cashmere coats of consecutively smaller size, removed a pair of flannel shirts and unzipped a hooded sweatshirt.  When he approached Corva lifted her undershirt to show an angry looking puncture just above her waistline.

Sergei knelt to look, swabbing the wound with a cotton swab and peroxide.  As the wound fizzed and bubbled, he continued to swab it out.  After a few moments, he put the swabs aside, smeared some antibacterial ointment on it and taped a large pad of gauze over the top.  Before she pulled her shirt back down he could already see the blood seeping through.

He wrapped the soiled swabs up in a napkin, frowning at a small sliver of wood the size of a sewing needle sticking out of one of them.  Wondering what it was, he folded it into another napkin and tucked it into his apron pocket just in case it was evidence.  Chels would be proud.

Corva looked up and saw he was still waiting for an answer and twisted one of her dreadlocks around a finger.  “Long ago I stole something from someone.  That I only took some of it doesn’t matter any more than the fact that it made a large difference to my people.  The only way he can get it back is by taking it from me.”

“Why don’t you just give it back?”  He asked, blowing a plume of smoke to one side and taking a drink of whisky.  “Wouldn’t he leave you alone then?”

“Because he can’t get it back unless he TAKES it Sergei.”  She said, sounding frustrated.  He noticed that she had taken the glass from his hand without him noticing and had drained it in one long swallow.  “Can I give the whisky back?”

“No.  But I can’t take it back either.”  He countered.

“Well the one I stole it from originally couldn’t either, and he didn’t really care.  But last year Ethad won it in a bet.”  She shuddered, “Ethad differs from you both in that he does care and he can take it back.”

“Is he like you?”  Sergei asked, “You just walked out of nowhere Corva.  How am I supposed to be able to defend you against something like that?”

“You have something not many people do Sergei.”  She said with a smile that seemed to cut across her like a blade.

“What’s that?”  Sergei looked at his empty glass, thinking about getting another.

“I’ll tell you later.”  She said, smiling a mysterious smile.  “Are you going to help me?”

“I’ve helped you already.”  He said, “But I’m not killing anyone.”

“Then will you protect me?”  Corva pleaded.  He felt the intensity of her gaze and it touched something inside him.

“I will try.”  He said.

“Good.  Because he’s here.”

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 1

Hi all, I’m practicing writing short stories… I already failed since my goal was to tell a story in less than 1000 words, but hopefully I can keep it under 3000.  Knowing the way I write, it’ll probably end up being a novel. Hope you enjoy!

~~

Sergei wiped the bar top with a clean white rag, polishing the last bit of wax to a perfect shine.  He looked over the bar and smiled in satisfaction; everything was ready to go and he still had a half hour before it was time to open.  After all the things he’d been through and done, this pub was the only thing he was truly proud of.  The small silver bell over the door chimed and he frowned.  He didn’t think he’d forgotten to lock it.

“Serg.  Just checking in.”  A familiar voice preceded a familiar set of footsteps and Sergei grinned and pulled a pint of his own home brewed root beer for the early visitor.

“Officer Ordean, to what do I owe the pleasure?”  He asked placing a coaster on the counter and the root beer in the center.  Chelsea Ordean was a powerfully built woman who had earned her way in the force by equal parts skill, luck and brains.

“No time for drinks today Serg.  Just looking for some girl who supposedly got stabbed at the eighth street subway station.”  Her face was grim and despite her words, she slugged down half the root beer in one long gulp.  “You haven’t seen anyone in here have you?”

“Just me so far.”  He frowned, “I thought I’d locked the door though.  Maybe check the restrooms?”  The Rambler was his pub, but the layout wasn’t his design and the toilets were on either side of the entry door.

“The door was not locked.”  Chelsea said, unsnapping her pistol but not drawing it.  “Let’s go have a look.”

“If someone was stabbed wouldn’t there be blood?”  Sergei asked, following her up to the entry.  The bar itself was three wide steps below the entrance.  “Knife wounds bleed Chels.”

“She was apparently wearing a thick woolen jacket.  I’m just checking places that folks know they can get help.”  She said, giving him a sidelong glance.  They both knew he wouldn’t turn someone in need away; even though it was almost time to open.

They swiftly checked the bathrooms and found nothing.  “You need to check the rest of the place Chels?  I don’t think anyone came in while I was bringing up kegs but I thought I’d locked the door too.  You got the run of the place if you need it; you know where everything is.”

She nodded her thanks and moved through the pub, checking in the back office, the storage room and even the cold storage although that was the only place he’d have been able to miss someone coming in.  satisfied, she clapped him on the back and walked out.

Sergei dumped her root beer, cleaned the glass and straightened his apron before making his final pre-opening checks.  He hoped Chels would find the girl before she bled out.  Knife wounds were no laughing matter.

The usual ‘last call’ crowd were finally stumbling out to their taxi’s and fumbling for their subway passes.  Sergei smiled in satisfaction.  It had been a good night, his regulars had been joined by a decent crowd of businessmen attending some conference who apparently had gotten the green light to drink on the company tab.

He closed and firmly locked the door behind the last of his patrons and turned back to the bar.  There was just a bit of cleaning he needed to do before the he headed out himself.  The voice nearly startled him out of his skin.

“I heard some of them talking Sergei.  They all said that you used to do things before you came here.”  It was a girl’s voice.  Not a young woman, but a girl, likely only barely into her teens.  But he couldn’t see anyone.  “Is it true?”

“Show yourself please.”  He said calmly, walking back to the bar and taking down his bottle of Laphroig.  He always had a double shot of the smoky Islay single malt scotch after closing along with pipe of Molto Dolce tobacco.  “If I can assist you I will endeavor to do so.”

“I need you to kill someone Sergei.”  A tiny slip of a girl stepped out of the shadows.  Literally out of shadows, there was no room or place to hide.  She had the darkest skin he’d ever seen; a perfect rich dark chocolate and her hair was in twisted dreadlocks that stuck up from her head like ruffled feathers.  “I need you to kill him before he finds me and finishes the job he started.”

“I’m sorry girl, but I am not a killer for hire.”  He said, tamping the tobacco down in his pipe.  “I suggest allowing me to call my friend Chelsea Ordean.  She’s a very competent officer and can handle anything the wrong side of the law can throw at her.”

“I’m not a girl, I’m older than you are.”  She said with a glare, “As for your officer friend, I’ve taken her measure and she can’t handle this.”

Sergei barked out a laugh and snorted pipe smoke out his nose.  “You can’t be older than fourteen.”  He said, looking at her critically.  “If Chels can’t handle it I don’t want any part of it.”

“My age and appearance are irrelevant.”  She snapped, “She would follow procedure, and right now I’m going to bleed to death before procedure can be of any use to me.”

“You really have been stabbed?”  Sergei asked, setting his pipe and his glass down and moving to her side.  His years patching up wounds since he seemed to be the only one who had the knack tried to come to the surface, but he ruthlessly shoved them back down into the darkness.  That was the past.

“It’s nothing you can help with.”  She said, “He used hawthorn.”

“Is that a poison?”  He asked, pulling back her coat and finding another coat underneath it.  She had layer upon layer of clothing on.  “What is your name?  I can’t just keep calling you girl.”

“Stop that, you don’t need to look at the wound.”  She said, “You can call me Corva.”

“What good is killing this man going to be if you won’t let me stop the bleeding Corva?”  Sergei asked, “You said yourself that you don’t have time to wait.”

“If he is stopped I will be able to get proper help.  If he lives no place will be safe for me no matter what.”  She looked at him with eyes so dark gray they were almost black.  “I need your help and you’re the only one who can help me.”