The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 10

“The wounds seem to be healing properly but I do not like the condition she is in.”  Tryst’s voice came to Callindra’s ears as though from down a hallway.  “This much healing without any food is taking a serious toll on her body; magic only accelerates the body’s natural processes, it doesn’t do anything the body can’t do already.”

“She will wake up, eat like a horse for a few days and be right as rain just like she has a dozen or more times.”  Cronos said, a curious edge to his voice.  “The Goddess wouldn’t give her something that healed her just to kill her slowly with it.”

“Malachi believes we’ll have smooth sailing for a few days at any rate.”  Vilhylm said, “That’ll give her some time to recover.”

Callindra cracked an eye and looked at her friends.  All of them sported bandages of one type or another, Cronos had one that wrapped around his head quite thoroughly and nearly obscured his face.  Vilhylm walked with a pronounced limp as he paced the floor and had strips of cloth wound around his chest, probably broken ribs.  Tryst’s left arm was purple with bruising from shoulder to wrist while his right forearm was tightly bound to his side.

“You three look like hell.”  She said, her voice coming out in a thick croak.  “Who do I have to stab to get some food around here?”

She was laying on her stomach due to the wounds on her back, her right hand was a mass of vines that sprouted tiny Brightstar flowers and her knee itched like there were a thousand mosquitos biting it just beneath the skin.  Her hair was loose and spilled over the side of the bed, the sunlight coming through the porthole bringing out the red notes in the otherwise unremarkable brown.  Someone had brushed it out recently.

Cronos approached with a steaming bowl of something that smelled like ambrosia as Vilhylm helped her sit up.  Her knee wouldn’t bend and her back was so stiff that it took her several minutes for it to relax enough that she could sit.  Awkwardly balancing the bowl on her lap with her leg stretched out she took the wide wooden spoon from the bowl of stew and began to devour it.

“Well, nothing is wrong with your appetite I see.”  Tryst said wryly, “Try to slow down so you don’t make yourself sick.”

“Thank the Winds I’m left handed.”  She said around a mouthful and as if in response a breeze promptly began teasing the ends of her hair, threatening to deposit them into her meal.  Before that could happen, she had finished the bowl drinking down the last of the broth and wiping it clean with a hunk thick black bread Cronos handed her.

“So this Malachi is the captain?”  She asked, accepting a mug of ale from Vilhylm.  It was a dark brew with an earthy flavor she associated with hazelnuts.

“Yes.  He is also the one who pulled you back onboard when you nearly fell over going after that sword of yours.”  Said Cronos, “What kind of fool’s errand was that?”

Callindra’s face colored slightly and she took another drink to hide it.  “He is my life.  I would be lost without him… my magic would devour me and likely take anyone standing around me with it.  If I didn’t have the control he offers I would be a danger to everyone.”  She reached out and touched Brightfang’s pommel stone with the tips of the fingers that extended from the mass of vines on her right hand.

“Aye, he is the captain.”  A gruff voice came from the door, “An he is wondering what exactly he picked up there in the forest.”

“I was going to wait to mention this captain Malachi, but you seem to have something onboard your ship that we have been tasked by the Goddess Jorda to acquire.”  Tryst said, giving the Dwarf a careful look.  “I am not certain which part it is, however I know there is certainly a portion of our quest here.”

Malachi gave them a level look, and then grunted.  “This cabin’s too small.  Come to mine.”

“I don’t think-“ Tryst began, but the Dwarf cut him off, glancing toward the walls significantly.

“I said come to my cabin.”  He said, pulling out a pipe with a wide, deep bowl and tamping it full of tac.  Without waiting, he turned and stumped out of the room reaching into his belt pouch for flint and steel.

“Can you help me to my feet?”  Callindra asked, “I need to get dressed in at least a shift if I’m going to walk out of here.  Just bandages is hardly proper attire for a meeting with the captain.”

Cronos chuckled, “Yeah, I’m sure most of the crew would appreciate watching you walk across the deck.”  He took one of his shirts out of his pack and helped her put it on.  “You don’t have any dresses, so this will have to do.

“Fits me like a tent.”  She grunted, awkwardly buckling Brightfang on around her waist since she couldn’t put the baldric on over her shoulder as normally did.  “Thanks Cronos.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it.” He said with a smile, “Come on sister, let’s go and see what the captain wants.”

They walked the short distance to the admittedly larger cabin where Malachi waited for them at the slow shamble, the best they could do with their combined injuries.  When they reached the door, the scent of Karalan Imperialis wafted from the room.

“Get in here, I ain’t got all day.”  Malachi’s voice followed a large smoke ring that drifted out of the door.

Callindra was the first through the door, wishing she had taken the time to bring her own pipe.  “I’ve heard that few people smoke the Imperialis blend.”  She said, giving him an appraising look.

“Ah, a connoisseur.”  He said, “Well sit your skinny arse down and pack a bowl if ya will.”

The room was small but well appointed, a desk bolted to one wall and a bed folded up against the other.  A small bookshelf held a few tomes, each one strapped down with a leather thong to keep it in place.  A scattering of cushions lay on the floor for them to sit on.  The Dwarf was gesturing toward the desk as he spoke, and Callindra saw a pipe rack with a few long stemmed pipes resting next to a small wooden box of tac.

“I will take you up on that captain.”  She said, hobbling to the desk and picking up a pipe.  Brightfang kept banging into her knee as she walked making her wonder how anyone could wear a sword on their hip.  It was difficult to tamp the pipe full with only one hand, but after a few moments she had it burning and was settled comfortably on a cushion, her injured leg stretched out in front of her.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with us Captain.”  Tryst said, “Our mission is of the utmost importance and I think you can help us achieve it.  I think you might even have been told to help us.”

Malachi leaned back on his cushions and sucked on his pipe, giving them a level, suspicious look through half closed eyes.  “Maybe.”

“I think perhaps you know more than you’re letting on.”  Vilhylm said, leaning on the wall just inside the door.  “But it seems you’re helping us anyway.  Jorda asked you to save us from the fire and you did so.”

“Aye, a perceptive one.”  He muttered, smoke coming out of his mouth with the words.  “I was indeed asked by a certain individual to give aid to a certain group.  She never said you were dangerous imbeciles who would all but destroy the Grungie did she?”

“Is your ship more important than the will of the gods?”  Tryst demanded, steel entering his voice.

Callindra chuckled and the men all glanced at her with frowns on their faces.  “Sorry, it’s just that all this dancing around the truth seems so trite when you consider what we are attempting to do.”  She blew a series of tiny smoke rings.  “Don’t you understand?  I guess I shouldn’t judge because I certainly didn’t.  Not until a month or so ago.

“The Gods are real!  Demons and devils and all that are real too… it’s not just the good things that we’ve been told about, but the bad too.  Something used to keep them at bay but now they’re fighting free of whatever that was.  I think that something was Onde.”  She looked at them, fear in her eyes.  “He’s gone.  Nobody knows where he is and the only way we can find him is by doing as Jorda asked.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Chapter 9

A gentle knock at the door made her relax slightly.  The voice that followed even more.

“Callindra?  Battle sister?  Are you awake?”  Tryst asked, his words muffled by the thick oak.

“Tryst.  I’m glad you warned me it was you.”  She said, her voice quiet and raspy, “I might have acted rashly otherwise.”

“I thought as much.”  He said, a smile in his voice.  “It’s almost like I know you or something.”

She lowered Brightfang and her body remembered its fatigue.  By using her blade and the wall for support she managed not to fall over outright.  As it was she had to stagger back to the bed and sit heavily.  “Well.  Are you coming in or not?”

Tryst entered, a slight frown creasing his brow.  “How are you feeling?”

“Like a spring breeze playing about in the daisies.”  She said, but then let herself relax and leaned back against the wall.  “Actually I’m famished.  What are the odds of a meal?”

“I’m sure I can find something.”  He said with a smile, “It is good that you are hungry, it’s a sign that you’re on the mend.  You took a nasty knock to the head.  I will see what I can get for you.”

Tryst was halfway out the door when her stomach rumbled like a thunderstorm, “I don’t know that you need to cook it first.”

He chuckled as he went out and Callindra closed her eyes, trying to get her limbs under control.  Her head wouldn’t stop throbbing and it was difficult to keep her thoughts focused.  The ship lurched hard to one side, throwing her to the floor.  Only her nearly inhuman reflexes saved her from cutting herself again, although she managed to smack her head on the floor, sending stars careening through her vision.

She got to her feet, stumbling drunkenly and wobbled to the door.  As her hand touched the latch, the sounds of combat erupted from outside.  Inhuman screeching accompanied battle cries and screams of pain, each one a lance into her temples.

Dragging herself to the door, she drew Brightfang and gritted her teeth against the pain throbbing in her head.  Kicking the door open, she ran out into the sunlight in nothing but her smallclothes.

The scene outside was chaos.  Beasts with the heads of deer and the bodies of eagles were swooping down upon the crew.  Her companions were battling them, and they were losing.  One of the monsters stooped toward her, wings folded in a delta shape.  With a snarl of defiance, Callindra whipped Brightfang in a series of flashing arcs.  A blast of air carrying the sharpened knives of frigid Nordji, the North Wind tore into the thing, shredding its wings and sending it tumbling from the sky.

A string of curses blistered the air and the ship heeled dangerously over to one side.  One of the sails was partially cut to ribbons and a large swath of the rigging hung as though sliced by a huge sword.  Oops.  Before she could react, another voice barked out orders and a dozen crossbows fired in unison.  Two more of the creatures fell from the sky, flapping weakly as their injuries kept them from maintaining altitude.

There were at least another dozen of them still in the air and a pair of them landed on the deck of the ship amidst the crossbowmen as they frantically worked the cranks on their weapons to reload.  They should, she thought idly have fired in ranks, not all together.  Her thoughts snapped back to the horrible reality of the situation when one of the monsters reached its head out and bit the nearest man’s face off with fanged teeth.

The spray of blood galvanized Callindra into action.  Ignoring the complaints of her body and the strange lurching motion of the ship underfoot, she sprinted across the deck and swung her sword with every fiber of strength she possessed.  As the creature raised its bloody muzzle from its grizzly repast, Brightfang hacked its head clean from its shoulders.  Its companion lunged forward, jaws gaping and Callindra threw her arm up in defense, an automatic and futile gesture.

The instant before it tore her arm off, a hammer the size of her head slammed into the monster’s body with the sound of breaking bones.  It fell sideways, twitching pitifully and the hammer was jerked back toward the one who had thrown it courtesy of a thin silver chain connected to its haft.  Before the monster recovered, Callindra dispatched it with a thrust of her sword.

A heavy weight slammed into her back and fire erupted down her spine.  She tried to roll with the blow, the effort sending another burst of pain through her injured back.  Her shirt fell open and her breast band, having been cut clean through fell to tangle around her legs.  To Callindra’s horror, Brightfang clattered from her hand and skittered toward the edge of the ship.

With a desperate cry, she flung herself recklessly across the deck.  Her hands reached for her blade’s hilt, missing him by a finger’s breadth and she keened in fear as he teetered on the edge of the deck.  With a desperate effort, she gripped the wood with her bare toes and lunged forward, one hand grabbing the sword by the blade just as it fell off the ship and the other gripping the rail.

The edge but deep into her right hand, but she refused to let go, even as she could feel tendons parting.  Letting go of the rail, Callindra took hold of the hilt, not paying attention to the danger as her body began to slide toward the edge.  Her right hand flopped uselessly when she tried to reach for the rail.  The ship lurched and she began to fall, only extreme luck and agility allowing her to hook her knee around one of the railing supports.

One of the monsters dove at her as she dangled from the side of the ship and she swung her blade with precise fury, severing one of the joints that kept a wing functional and sending it into a spin that carried it away from her.  Fire seemed to be burning in her knee joint and she felt dizzy from the various injuries she had sustained.  She tried to reach back, but without her right hand she couldn’t get a proper grip.

A large hand with short powerful fingers grasped her forearm just as she began to fall in earnest, pulling her back to safety.  “I told yeh, yer a bedamned fool girl.”  Callindra looked up into the eyes of the Dwarf who had saved her life.

“Yeah.  Probably.”  She said, and gratefully succumbed to unconsciousness.

Shirasiau Sai’Li – Part 2

Sai’Li tried to weigh her options.  On one hand, she was being evicted from the soft and wonderfully enticing life in the Blossom Houses but it would also free her from the rigors of her training and allow her to use the other talents she had been so carefully cultivating.  They had grown like one of the bonsai trees she had been tending for decades, the power they contained having been distilled into absolute perfection.

“I can create my own empire.”  She whispered to her reflection, “Father has honored me with this chance to prove myself.”

The mirrors she kept in her room to remind herself of her own existence.  Of her own mortality.  Of the fact that she was not precisely mortal, but much more so than her honored father.  His vampiric nature had given her unnatural gifts, and unnatural weaknesses.  She would find a way around it though, she must if she was to make her way in the world.

Perhaps that was her father’s goal.  Perhaps he wished her to overcome her weaknesses and establish herself in a position he could respect.  Of course it was much more likely that he merely wanted to weed out the weak.   That was likely why her sisters had been overlooked for this position.

Lian’Tiu was a full blood vampire, gleefully feasting upon the blood of the cattle and expanding the Family’s influence in any number of remarkable ways.  Rian’Zah was a half-blood like herself, but she had not been consigned to The Blossom Houses.  Of course Rian’Zah hadn’t taken well to the embrace of the mortals.  After the first two clients ended up horribly dead, her dear father had decided against such an assignment.

Sai’Li was the only one of his daughters who had been able to endure and eventually come to crave such contact.  Unlike her sisters, she had found the touch of mortals to be more than enticing.  It had become like a drug, the warmth their bodies could give bringing her back to the dancing, the shows and the seduction time after time.  And she was good at it.

Over the decades, her skill in the Houses had brought many secrets to her Family and well had she been rewarded for it.  But now she had begun to feel restless.  After a century of such work, Sai’Li had begun wishing for more.  The outside world was calling and now she had a chance to answer that call.

“Sha.  I require the Obi with the breaking wave.  Ling.  The Kimono with the ravens.”  She smiled, and for the first time her maidservants saw that smile spread to her eyes.  It was terrifying.  She moved behind her dressing screen and opened her top left bureau drawer.

“Pardon Lady, but your Honored Father has given you a gift.  It was his wish that you receive it upon returning to your chambers.”  Sha bowed low, holding a box wrapped with a silk ribbon forward.

Sai’Li took the package and found a pair of shimmering and nearly transparent kimono sleeves.  A note written in her father’s delicate and precise Kanji read ‘So that my Third Daughter may never be without the proper attire.’  She ran a hand over them and felt the thrill of magic running through them, begging to be attuned to her body.

Shivering, she drew on the sleeves and found that with an effort of will she could clothe herself in garb of her choosing.  The fabric whispered up over her body, forming into a perfectly fitting Kimono in pure white with an intricately embroidered pattern of ravens taking flight from a grove of blooming Sakura trees.  The Obi was an elegant grey and embroidered with her favorite traditional Great Wave pattern.

“Oh.”  She said softly, even that small of an expression being almost as outrageous as a shout.  For some this gift might seem frivolous, but for her it was beyond perfect.  Beneath the cloth was another piece of parchment and a small silk pouch.  ‘To ensure that my Third Daughter will complete her mission and honor her house in spite of mishap.’

Inside was a delicate bit of bone as thin as her finger and carved with swirling patterns.  It was a wand that she could use to restore what passed for her life force.  As she was not a full vampire, injuries to her person could not be restored by feasting on the blood of the masses, but the divine light of healing magic burned her flesh even as it burned the true undead.  Snapping open her fan, she quickly covered her face as she was unable to keep the broad smile from it.  This was proof positive that her honored Father wished her to succeed.

“Sha.  Ling.  You have served me with honor and dedication.”  She said from behind her fan, “I release you from your bondage of servitude with a gift of one thousand pieces of silver which I have placed in the top left drawer of my bureau.  Upon my honor, you are free to leave and make lives for yourselves.  Take back your names and depart this night with my blessing.  I fear I must begin learning to survive without attendants.”

The pair bowed low in unison without a single hint of regret, gratitude or relief.  Sai’Li sighed in regret behind her fan.  They truly were perfect servants, but there simply was not a place for them where she was going.  Such delicate flowers needed careful tending, she hoped they would find meaningful placement.  She would not speak to Father about that; he knew all too well how to take advantage of such things and she owed them at least a chance at freedom.

“My Lady, it pains us to leave your service.”  They said together, “However we are grateful that you have thought of our future.  We shall find a place and await your return.  We are loyal to your ladyship and the family.  If it was allowed we would accompany you, however we understand that we would be nothing but an impediment.  Please accept our apologies for not being worthy to serve you outside.”

She bowed in return, although hers was not nearly as deep.  “You honor me with your devotion.  Such dedication is more than admirable, it is deserving of a boon.  Name it and if it be within my power I shall grant it.”

“We require nothing.” Whispered Sha.

“Only to serve.”  Whispered Ling.

Sai’Li closed her fan and moved closer.  She kissed and embraced each of them, giving them a genuine smile.  “I feel undeserving of such praise.  I will make every effort to become worthy of it.  This I swear by my family’s honor and by my black heart.”

“We know when you call upon us that you will be a power to make the world tremble Lady.”  They said in unison, bowing so low that they bent double.

“I will recommend you to The House of Falling Sakura as attendants to the Madam.”  Sai’Li said, “You are loyal, perfect servants with stricture that you be returned to me upon successful completion of my tasks for the Family.  I can offer no higher praise to those in my service.”

“You are too kind my Lady.” They responded in unison, bowing so deeply their heads nearly touched the floor.

“My dears please.”  She implored them, “You honor me too much.”

“It is you who honors us Great Lady.”  Sha whispered.  “I am and will forever be Sha.”

“You have given us nothing but treatment above our station.”  Ling whispered.  “I am and forever will be Ling.”

“We live only to serve the Great Lady.”  They whispered in unison.

“Speak of this devotion to no one.”  Sai’Li cautioned, overcome with emotion at their words.  “It may be more than your lives are worth my children.  I welcome and will not betray your loyalty.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 8

The Council of Twelve was meeting and as both Storgar and Brenlena were not just members, but Speakers, Durrak was in attendance.  He wore the formal grey tabard with the thread of gold embroidered sigils of his lineage marching up the breast, mother’s family on the left and father’s family on the right.  They were both proud and ancient; the tabard was heavy with the weight of his family history.  Each of the other Twelve Clans had their own representatives who would speak here, but this time his mother had the honor of being the first heard.

She was standing at The Stone and addressing the assembled dignitaries, so Durrak was required to stand close, holding a tankard of ale in case she needed to wet her throat.  It was silly, neither of his parents had ever taken the offered drink, yet here he had to stand.  He hoped Brenlena was almost finished, he was exhausted.

“Krrakathanak is dangerous and needs to be stopped!”  She was saying, “He has already laid waste to nearly one hundred square miles of mountain range and he is moving this way.  Rumor has it that he is searching for a mate, and a breeding pair of black dragons is not something we want to have within a hundred leagues of here.”

Brenlena stood back from the podium two steps to signal she was finished and ready for any questions and reached out her hand.  Startled, he thrust the tankard into it so quickly he almost slopped some over the side.  She was resplendent in her Mithril chain and Adamantine breastplate.  He was proud to see that she also wore the Fullblade he had forged for her slanting across her back.

“A rousing speech as always Speaker, but who is it that will lead this mission?”  Durrak couldn’t see the questioner and didn’t recognize his voice, “Your duties are with the Kings Own Guardians and they must not leave the fortress.”

“I will lead it.”  Storgar’s voice boomed out into the cavern.  “Any who has the fortitude to follow me is welcome to prove themselves regardless of rank or station.”

Stunned silence greeted this pronouncement.  None had expected a volunteer and even fewer had thought it would be a Dwarf with a long lineage and no need to prove himself with deeds of daring and valor.  Storgar was a well-established battle general, having led many raids against goblin and orc in addition to having a noble family history.

A great shout rang out from outside the council chamber.  More than a hundred voices raised in a war chant.  Durrak shuddered, wondering how many of them would die, wondering if any of them would return.

“I call for the runes!”  The voice of Cairnara, Head Speaker cut through the noise and everyone fell silent as a door opened and the bent shape of the Moragainnag shuffled out.  The raven on her shoulder seemed to stare directly at Durrak, although he knew it was just his imagination.

She reached the edge of the Stone where a crystal pedestal with an iron bowl resting on top stood.  Reaching into the bowl, she picked up the handful of stone, bone and carved gem runes that rested there.  The raven ruffled its feathers and croaked as she threw them into the air.

“Death.”  The Moragainnag said, “Triumph.  Annihilation.  Fate.  The runes have spoken.”  This was the first time the results had been so unclear.  Silence reigned completely now, everyone waiting to hear what would happen.

“I call for a reading if we do not go.” Storgar said.  Although he didn’t raise his voice it was clearly heard throughout the entire chamber.

The raven croaked again and pecked The Moragainnag on the cheek before she reached into the bowl and picked up the stones again.  She tossed them again and stared into the bowl.  Shaking her head, she picked them up and threw them again, but this time most of them jumped out of the bowl, landing face down on the floor.

She turned an ashen face to look at the assembly.  “Death. Destruction.  Doom.  Chaos.  Annihilation.  Damnation.”  Breaking all protocol, she turned to Storgar and pointed her gnarled finger at him, “I charge you Storgar son of Glardin to go forth with any who dare to join you and bring this dragon to his final rest.  If you do not, all is lost.”

She hobbled out of the cavern, leaving the runes sitting on the floor.  The raven on her shoulder caught Durrak’s eye and held it until they passed out of the chamber.  He swore he could still feel the bird’s eye on him even after it was gone.

A low thrumming sound that seemed to permeate through her whole body greeted Callindra when she awakened.  Her entire body felt like she had been beaten with a burning stick.  She tried to open her eyes but it felt like a labor of years.

“What happened?  Tryst?  Are you there?”  She whispered through dry lips, as anxious fingers felt around for her sword.  No answer was immediately forthcoming and she struggled to rise, only to find that she had been strapped to the bed.

“Hey!”  She croaked, forcing her eyes open.  The room was tiny, with barely room for the bed and a small table.  Relief washed over her when she saw Brightfang sheathed and resting on the table, his pommel stone glittering in the light that streamed through the porthole on the wall.

With a determined effort, she wiggled an arm free and unbuckled the restraint across her chest and then the one across her hips.  They weren’t tight she realized, more just tight enough to keep her from sliding out of the narrow bed.  The room lurched and Callindra remembered that she was on a ship.  A flying ship.

Before she could get out of bed, she had to brush out the yards long tangle of her hair and carefully braid it.  Callindra had learned the hard way that if she didn’t, it would quickly get impossibly tangled and while at first she had found its length to be an annoyance she had gradually become accustomed to it.  It even seemed to be a bit of a badge of honor to her now, although she wished it would stop growing.

Her pack was at the foot of the bed and she rummaged for fresh clothes since all she had on were smallclothes.  A line of neat stitches ran down her thigh where her wayward sword had dug into her during her tumble across the deck, but the magic of Jorda’s gift had healed her, likely with some help from Tryst.  Only a thin scar remained where the deep slash had been.

“All the trouble I go through for you.”  She grumbled, giving the leather wrapped hilt of her slender blade a dark look.  His pommel stone glittered, but it was probably a trick of the light.  A sound outside the door made her react instinctively, taking a smooth step to the table, stripping the blade from his sheath and poising by the side of the door ready to strike.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 7

Callindra was still on edge, their escape had been narrow, but that wasn’t all that was bothering her.  It was as though she could always hear someone talking to her, whispering just barely beyond the limit of where she could understand the words.  It had made her jumpy and irritable, to the point where even Tryst was giving her space.

“Great, I’m sure they’ll be happy to work for their keep.”  Callindra said, giving the refugees a significant look.  None of them protested.

“Relax sister.”  Cronos said, giving her a good natured punch on the arm, “You don’t need to glare them to death after we did all the work getting them here safely.”

She sighed, “I’m sorry, I just have this weird feeling that something’s not right.”

“I trust your intuition.”  Tryst said, “But this place seems like a good, safe place for these folk.  At any rate they won’t go hungry and it’s certainly safer than if they traveled with us.”

Callindra looked around the farm with its busy people and green fields.  The sun was setting red on the horizon; a color like drying blood and she shivered.

“That’s just th smoke from th forest fire.”  The farmer said, leaning on the fence rail.  “Been burning for a couple days now.”

They all turned, following his gaze toward the mass of the High Forest with the towering form of the Grandfather Tree rising beyond it.  The haze of smoke was clear against the backdrop of the setting sun.  Callindra felt the dread inside her build.

“No.  The High Forest is burning.”  She whispered, “We did this.”

“What?”  Cronos said, giving her an incredulous look.  “We didn’t set any fires there.  Besides, don’t you think Jorda could take care of a little fire?”

“Yes, I would think that Jorda would have the ability to put out a fire you idiot.”  She said, losing her patience.  “Why do you think I’m so worried?”  Wind gusted and swirled around her, loosening the tie holding her waist long, wrist thick braid so that hair fanned out around her head.

“Be easy sister.”  Vilhylm said, putting a calming hand on her shoulder.  “No need to get upset.  We’ll head that direction at first light.”

“The Hand seems to be pointing back in that general direction as well.”  Tryst said, “If we’re going to find the rest of the pieces we need to keep following it toward the closest one.”

Callindra forced herself to relax, focusing on the first Korumn.  Inhale.  Exhale.  “I’m still not sure I’m OK with you calling me your sister.”  She said, giving Vilhylm a quizzical look.

“Well you’re as close to blood kin as we can have without sharing parents.”  Cronos said with a grin, “You’re even my big sister.”

“I’m only a year older than you Cronos.”  She said, allowing their playful banter to soothe away her worries for the moment.  “Tryst is older than I am and Vilhylm has got to have at least ten years on me.”

“Hey now, there’s no need to rub it in.”  Vilhylm said with a hearty chuckle.  “Come on, let’s see what kind of accommodations master Gild can give us for the night.”

“Oh not but th best hayloft for certain!”  Tom said with a hearty chuckle.  “And there’s a damn fine stew on.”

“Sounds wonderful compared to the burned meat and hard ground we’ve been enduring.” Callindra said, grinning in spite of her mood, “Anything’s better than my cooking.”

Pressing hard, they had arrived at the High Forest in two days.  The smoke had been getting steadily thicker and now a choking wall of it obscured their view of the roaring flames ahead.  All Callindra could do is stare in horror.

“Gods and Demons, what did we do?”  She breathed, the winds curling around her, blowing the smoke away from her face.

“This wasn’t us.”  Cronos said, “We didn’t start any fires damn it.”

Even as they watched, the fire grew, seeming to actively try to surround them.  With a cry of fear, Callindra lashed out with magic and the winds that were curling protectively around her burst forth, blasting a path through the flames.

“Stop it sister, you’re making the fire stronger!”  Tryst shouted over the increasing angry rumble and crackle of the flames.

Vilhylm had put a mask on, his body beginning to drip with mud and flung great handfuls of wet muck at the fire but the heat baked them to brick before they could do anything to smother the blaze.  Tryst stared at the wall of flames, spinning in a circle.

“We have to get out before it’s too late!”  Tryst yelled, looking around them at the shrinking gap.

“How did it get around us?”  Cronos said, breaking into a run.

“I think it’s alive.”  Callindra said, “Somehow it senses us.”  It was then that she saw the motes of pure emerald rippling through the smoke above their heads.

“It’s the Abyss!”  Tryst shouted, “We need to move!”

“To move where?”  Vilhylm asked, “It has surrounded us!”

With a supreme effort of will, Callindra drew in as much power as she could, spinning in circle with a gradual increase in speed until she was balanced on the ball of her right foot.  She released the power and the winds swirled in response, becoming a small whirlwind and keeping the raging flames at bay.

A roaring sound only barely audible over the flames made everyone look up.  Above them, a shape with a span of flapping wings too impossibly large to be anything but a dragon blocked out the sky as it hovered.  It took Callindra a moment to realize that she was looking at the wooden planks and decking of a sailing vessel.  When a rope ladder fell over the side, stopping a few feet from the ground she stopped caring how it was managing to float there.

“Get on!”  She shouted, sweat pouring down her face as she desperately concentrated.  “I can’t hold this wind forever!”

Cronos was the first to grab the ladder and begin to climb, closely followed by Vilhylm.  Tryst looked at her as though he might object, but the ship above them began to rock and sway, its massive wings flapping in an irregular beat to keep itself steady.  The torrent of air she was maintaining made the ladder begin to slide sideways toward the wall of flame Callindra was only barely keeping at bay.

As the priest in his gleaming maile ascended the ladder, the ship lurched and abruptly bobbed five feet higher off the ground.  The ladder was out of reach.  Desperately, Callindra brought the swirling torrent of air back in and beneath her in a rush.  It shot her into the air with a surprised scream.  Her clumsy attempt to merely raise up a few feet turned into a catapult shot and she flew a dozen feet past the rail of the ship, tumbling to the deck in a barely controlled roll.

“Do get that ladder up and us out of this bedamed torrent!”  A gruff voice sounded behind her.

“Aye Skip!”  Another voice responded.

The scent of Karalan Imperalius wafted into Callindra’s nostrils.  Her head was woozy from the impact and the massive expenditure of arcane energies.  She tried to focus her eyes on the figure standing above her.

“Yer a bedamed fool girl.”  It said in a basso rumble.  “Ya cut yerself up on that blade.  Pretty bad.  Yer bleedin all over Grungie’s deck, holdin onta that thing like it’s a baby or somethin.”

She looked down, and the last thing she saw before succumbing to unconsciousness was Brightfang’s hilt clutched in her hands, his blade buried in her thigh.