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.

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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.