The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 9

Durrak sat next to his evening campfire, roasting the last bit of meat from his pack.  It was salted pork, but not cured so well that it would have lasted more than another few days.  The weather had been far warmer than usual and the meat would likely have spoiled before too long.

The few folk he had met had been very closemouthed and tightfisted.  They’d been smart enough to know that gold wasn’t nearly as important as food and he hadn’t been able to replenish his supplies.  He sighed and thought over what he’d discovered near Hellgate Keep.

The folk there said Jorda was dead.  A goddess had died.  He shuddered just thinking about it.  Not only that, but the group who had apparently summoned her to die had escaped unscathed.  Of course they hadn’t been responsible for her death directly, but the Grandfather tree had burned.  That had hit like a blow to the guts.

Rumor had it that Starvale was still holding against the Abyss and that The Bane if Ignitium had been seen circling above it.  He would find and slay that dragon even if the attempt cost him his life, so he been walking for weeks.  Now that he was within a day’s march of the city though, things had changed.

Tens of thousands of Taken surrounded the city.  Cerioth was nowhere in sight, but she had been here.  He could see the fallout of her deadly breath having burned and destroyed everything a mile outside of what had been the city walls.  If he was to get into the city itself he would have to be creative.

While he watched the city, the slightest movement to one side caught his eye.  The dwarf kept himself from looking directly at the movement and saw a slight flash of light on steel.  A few more minutes of quiet vigilance was rewarded with the shape of a humanoid.  Durrak nearly jerked in surprise; it was an Elf.

The shock wasn’t that he was seeing one of the Fair Folk out in a wood, it was more that he was had managed to spot him.  This one was being careless, and carelessness would cost him his life.  Durrak deliberately let his heavy plate armor clink and looked in his direction.  He pitched his voice to carry and muttered a phrase of greeting in accented Elvish.

It was gratifying to see the Elf’s eyes widen in surprise.  Durrak made a couple of hand gestures, and they retreated several yards into the tree line before leaning back against a tree.

“You do be making a target of yourself.”  Durrak said in a low tone.  He itched for a cigar, but knew the smoke would be a bad idea this close to the enemy.  He settled for taking a drink from a wine skin instead and offering some of the sour liquid to his new companion.  “If I did be seeing you it did only be a matter of time before the enemy was seeing as well.”

“Your eyes are keen.  For a Dwarf.”  He replied, taking a practiced squirt of wine from the skin before wincing and passing it back.  “I am Lorin.”

“Durrak.”  He replied, taking the skin back and clasping the proffered hand.  “The city do be lost then?”

“Nay, while the fiends could have overrun us ages ago, they appear to be waiting for something.  I cannot imagine what it might be.”  Lorin shrugged elegantly, “That’s why I went scouting.  Getting out was surprisingly easy, but getting in seems to be a bit more of a problem.  I suppose partially because I don’t have the knowledge of the terrain I have of the territory within Starvale’s walls.”

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 8

“My apologies.”  He said, “I am merely communicating what my goddess revealed to me.  My name is Kain.  I am a disciple of Iilimin.  She revealed to me the light when I was surrounded by naught but darkness.”  As Kain spoke the name of his goddess, a gentle white light briefly shone from him.  Each person who stood close to him felt a blanket of peace fall over their being and watched as their wounds slowly closed.

Callindra was shaking; her façade of calm control breaking.  “I thought.  I hoped that we were wrong about Jorda.  I just…”  She wiped a hand across her eyes and took a shuddering breath.  Cronos put his hand on her left shoulder and Vilhylm put his on her right.  With effort she brought her self-control back.

“We need to get moving.”  She said, “I’m sure that Taken going missing didn’t go unnoticed and they usually don’t travel alone.  Kain, you’re welcome to travel with us.  For now.”

“What about the rest of us?”  A woman in a chainmaile shirt with a round shield and a large bearded ax said.  “You just going to let us fend for ourselves?  We’re just supposed to be bait while you escape?”

“I saved you once.”  Callindra said, “What more do you want from me?”

“Lead us.”  She said, “With your skills and abilities how could the Taken stand against us?”

“I’m not a leader.  I can barely keep myself alive, how do you expect me to lead all of you?”  Callindra shook her head.  “You’re better off on your own.  I’ve failed before and had the consequences reached beyond anything you could imagine.”

The room seemed to darken and wind began to fitfully tug at the hem of her cloak.  “I’m dangerous to those around me.  I can’t turn my brothers away, I owe Holt my life and Kain might be my only chance to redeem myself in the face of the gods.  The last time a goddess trusted me she died.  You don’t want to be nearby the next time I mess up.”

She turned and strode from the inn, past the wreckage of the common room and out into the incongruously cheery day.  Rank upon rank of perfectly still Taken humans stood staring blankly with glittering emerald eyes.

“Don’t move.”  Cronos whispered, “They don’t seem to have seen us yet.”

“Get back inside.”  She said in a level voice, “We need to find a back door.”

The closest Taken swiveled their heads to look at her and they began to run.  Not like living creatures, but with wild abandon, moving faster and faster to the sound of popping tendons and breaking bones.  They saw with horror that even though some had shattered their legs with the force of their speed they kept running faster.

They slammed and bolted the door just before the first Taken hit it hard enough to splinter the wood.  “Run!”  Callindra and Cronos shouted together, pushing back through the confused crowd of people still fighting off the grogginess of the drugs.  “They’re coming, RUN you idiots!”

The shattering impacts on the door and walls continued, splatters of blood and worse leaking through the cracks.  Splinters of bone jabbed through, broken femurs and ribs driven through from the force of the creatures smashing into the wood.  With a shriek of protesting wood, the door gave way and one of the Taken tumbled into the room, body half destroyed but still moving fast despite being mostly broken.

Callindra stopped trying to push her way through and turned to unleash a blast of wind from the twin tips of her blades that blew tables, chairs and broken pieces of Taken back out the door.  “I will hold them.”  She said, voice deadly calm.

“No!”  The woman in chainmaile said, standing next to her with shield raised.  “You go.  I’ll keep them off your back.”  She grunted in effort as she deflected a thrown Taken skull.  “Just swear to me that you’ll take them with you.”

Without waiting for a response, she shouted a wordless battle cry and planted herself in the doorway.  The sounds of horrible and deadly impact drove everyone else on, slamming doors behind them as they ran through the Inn.

Callindra tried to take up the rear, but the others shoved her to the front shouting that she needed to lead them out of the inn.  One by one, the folk behind her fell to horrible fates as the recklessly fast suicidal Taken ran through the halls after them.

Forcing herself to focus, she ran to the last room.  The wall was solid without a single window.  “Vil, break it down!”  She yelled, “You, you and you, move these crates in front of the door.  Holt put an arrow through anything that tries to break through.”

The others scrambled to do her bidding as Vilhylm put a wooden mask on his face, becoming his familiar hulking form.  Thick claws began tearing through the wooden wall even as Taken runners smashed their feeble defense into kindling.  Arrows flickered past her shoulder faster than she could have thought possible, bringing a brief reprieve in the attack.

Vilhylm broke through the back wall and all but vanished under a scrabbling mass of Taken.  With a roar of rage he began flinging them off and three of the remaining prisoners ran to his aid.  Cronos leaped through the hole in the wall, twin Bastard swords swinging and Callindra saw the last of the men holding the door fall with a shattered arm bone punched all the way through his skull.

With a sob of anger and fear, she shoved Holt out of the hole grabbed Kain by the back of his robe and dragged him behind her.  The half orc priest was gripping his holy symbol and chanting as they went.  A glow of light emanated from him, briefly repelling the Taken who were pouring into the room.

Callindra began spinning Shadowsliver in an intricate set of arcs, drawing on the Weave with all her will.  “Down!”  She shouted, and wind roared around her and she thrust her blade high as twin bolts of lightning leaped from the sky to her sword’s tips and splintering into dozens of scintillating lances that incinerated the Taken.  Lightning burned through them, leaping from one to another, blasting each one into shivering bits.

“Maybe I should have tried that first.”  She said, her voice a rough whisper.  Then she looked around and saw her brothers, Kain and Holt picking themselves up from the ground.  The rescued prisoners hadn’t been fast enough.  Their bodies lay among the Taken, burned and broken.

“I tried to warn you.”  She rasped, barely able to push back the wave of despair that threatened to wash her away.  She didn’t even have the energy to cry, the spell had cored her like an apple.

“Come on sister.”  Cronos got under one arm and Holt under the other and together they helped her to walk until she got her feet underneath herself.  Together they fled from the inn, leaving the dead behind.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 7

Callindra struggled to control her breathing and focus but the pain of her injuries was bleeding through her initial anger.  This was one of the Taken.  But it was talking.

“Allow me to extend the courtesy that I did to those two you just slaughtered.”  It continued, giving the two corpses a cursory glance.  “Lure in more of the living and you shall be spared.  As you have deprived us of our current servants you must take their place.”

“You should have brought an army.”  Callindra said, tightening her grip on Shadowsliver until she could feel her knuckles creaking.  “I’ll never serve your kind.”

“A pity.”  It said in that same emotionless voice and pointed a finger at her.  Emerald flames shot from the finger and she only barely dodged to one side.  The bolt turned the iron bars of the cage she’d been in into powder.  She swung her chain at it but the Taken ducked her strike easily, moving with boneless grace.

Callindra used the moment it had taken to dodge to close with it, running forward and sliding under another blast of green fire that singed her skin with the heat of its passage.  Shadowsliver bit deeply into its leg as her slide brought her to within striking distance but to her horror his blade stuck fast.

“One of the others will agree.”  It said, “Your time is finished.”  The green light began to glow from its finger again but a heavy chain with manacles attached smashed into the arm and the shot flew wide.  A gangling man with a touch of grey in his dark hair picked up another set of chains and began to spin them in a whirling arc.

Ripping her blade free, Callindra swung with all her might and buried Shadowsliver’s forked tip into the thing’s skull.  It leered at her and reached a hand that burned with flickering green flames toward her, but her unknown comrade flung his second chain.  His throw wrapped around the Taken man’s arm and pulled it down with a snap of breaking bone.

With a burst of will, Callindra forced arcane power through her sword and a blast of air made the flames within rage uncontrollably.  Its head exploded into a thousand fragments.

“Thanks for the assist.”  She rasped, all the energy draining from her limbs.  “I am Callindra Sol’Estin.”

“Holt.”  The man said, giving her a professional nod.  “You’re really something with that sword.  Think you could cut these cuffs?”

Callindra took a deep breath before shaking her head.  “No.  I wouldn’t want to risk him when it’s not absolutely necessary.  There’s a perfectly good anvil and tools here.”

Between the two of them, it was a matter of a few minutes to gather a hammer and chisel and break the manacles off his wrists.  They then set about waking the other prisoners and repeating the process.  Callindra searched the chained people for her brothers, nearly sobbing in relief when she found them safe and relatively unharmed.

“We need to find where they stashed our gear.”  Cronos said, his voice tense.  “Without my blades and armor I won’t be much use out there.”

“Nonsense.”  Said Vilhylm, “You still have your magic.  But I agree we should find our things and depart this place as swiftly as possible.”

They spread out along with the other prisoners and found to their relief that everyone’s possessions had been taken to a common storage room and tossed inside ostensibly for sorting after they had been given to the Taken.  The dazed captives gathered their things and looked around blearily; many of them still fighting off the effects of the drugs.

Callindra explained about the Taken, how it had been talking and making deals with their former captors.  Her brothers listened with serious expressions on their faces as they girded themselves with armor and weapons again.

“What do we do now?”  One of the others asked giving Callindra a confused look.

“I’m not your mother.”  She said tersely, “We will be getting the hells out of this cursed place as fast as possible.  What you decide is your own business.  There isn’t anything left here to provide evidence to a Magistrate even if there was such a thing around still.”

“This was the only place that still seemed to be untouched by the Wasting.”  Holt said, pulling leather armor and a cloak of mottled browns and greens over his lanky frame.  He picked up an exquisitely crafted bow and a pair of quivers along with a travel stained leather pack.  “Now we can see why it was spared.”

“There are other places.”  Cronos said, “Not many, but there are places where mortal kind still stands fast against the Abyss.”

“Are you going to one such place?”  Holt asked, appearing to address Callindra instead of her brother. “If so, would you allow me to accompany you?”

“I owe you for distracting that Taken.”  Callindra said with a toss of her head.  Instead of getting her unevenly shorn hair out of her eyes, it instead fell further forward, obscuring half of her face and sticking out at awkward angles along the side of her head.  “If you’re as good with that bow as you are with a thrown set of manacles then you’d be useful to have along.”

Cronos goggled at her and Vilhylm eyed Holt with mild suspicion clouding his dark eyes.  Callindra didn’t seem to notice.

“Holt, these are my brothers Vilhylm and Cronos.  He threw a chain at the Taken who was coming for us.  If he hadn’t been there I doubt I would have been able to last more than another moment or two.  He thinks quickly on his feet and made good use of his surroundings.”  She extended a hand to Holt and he clasped her forearm with a warrior’s greeting.

“Thank you for your assistance Holt.”  Vilhylm said with a considering look.  Cronos grunted and adjusted the hilts of his weapons over his shoulders.

“We’re heading for Starvale.”  Cronos said, “It’s a long and dangerous trip and we aren’t exactly the most pleasant or merry company.

“I would join you as well.”  A strong baritone voice said.  They turned to see a man with a shock of greenish hair cut in a mohawk.  He had jutting tusks that suggested he had orcish blood in his heritage.  “The Goddess spoke to me of travelers headed to the Vale of Stars.  She told me their need would be dire.  That they had lost their way when one of their number fell to the darkness.”

The three turned to look at him in unison, their eyes blazing.

“Which goddess?”  Callindra asked, her voice all but breaking with hope.

“Who are you?”  Cronos demanded, reaching for the hilts of his blades.

“Do not speak of Tryst.”  Vilhylm said, his voice dark with rage they had rarely heard before.  “Not even in metaphor.  Not even indirectly.  Not ever.”

Gravelox and Gearslayer

I liked the names… so I re-used them for this character intro.  With the end of one Dungeons and Dragons campaign comes the start of another.  This should be an interesting one.

“Here’s the workshop.”  Lexai said smiling his usual smile as he opened a wide pair of doors to a large room with a mixture of modern and ancient equipment, shelving, cabinets and a ten foot tall statue of a suit of armor in the corner.  “Outfitted with standard blacksmithing tools, a forge and the newer alchemy supplies you requested as well as a bit of the modern magitech.”

Gravelox looked around and smiled.  This place would be perfect.  He could barely afford the monthly payments, it didn’t have any Passages in it to disrupt his work and the combination of the captive fire elemental for a forge and the alchemy tools were exactly what he was looking for.  There was even a small office space he could convert into a living space.

“Who owns it now?”  He asked his realtor, mentally going over his finances to make sure he had enough for a downpayment.

“I keep my clients confidential.”  Lexai said in a flat, businesslike tone.  His smile stayed fixed as though plastered on.  “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Of course not.”  Gravelox replied, too distracted by the workshop to think clearly.  “Just idle curiosity.  Now, about the terms you had mentioned?”

“The offer stands.  The owners are willing to sell it to you contract for deed.”  Lexai said, his smile ratcheting up a notch.  It was really almost mechanical.  “And at a low fixed interest rate of ten percent.”

Gravelox tried not to swallow his tongue.  “What?  You said it would be five percent!”

“Well, inflation and all that.”  Lexai waved a hand vaguely, “I have three other clients interested.  None of them need financing.”

Swiftly calculating in his head, Gravelox decided that as long as he met his projected sales potential he could make it work.  Barely.  Provided he didn’t run into any unexpected difficulties.  He shook the Kobold’s hand.  “Done.”

Something wasn’t right.  Gravelox had only been living here for a month and it seemed as though things kept going slightly wrong; just wrong enough that many of his creations failed.  He stared at the tiny bit of powder in frustration, watching as the reaction failed to produce the violent reaction intended and instead slowly smoldered and let off sullen red sparks.

It was time for drastic measures.  Opening the scroll case at his waist he withdrew one of the few remaining scrolls within and incanted the spell on the thick vellum.  His eyes glowed violet and he looked about the room, searching for magical anomalies.

At first glance, nothing was wrong.  Of course his forge had a hazy outline showing that it had runes that contained and compelled the elemental within with conjuration, evocation and enchantment.  There were protections on the walls that kept outsiders safe should any untoward alchemical event occur with abjuration magic.  The chamber even had some transmutation magics built into the walls that deadened sounds and helped control the temperature.

A more careful scan showed that the rusting metal statue that served as one of the support pillars radiated subtle power.  To his surprise, both of the statue’s hands radiated a hint of conjuration, but the rest of it seemed almost to be a dead zone.  It almost appeared to be absorbing ambient weave and redirecting it for some unknown purpose.  He also noted that there was a small bit of the statue in the direct center that seemed to be damaged now that he was inspecting it closely.

Removing an old friend from his equipment case, he leveled a wand of mechanical repair at the imperfection and activated it.  The statue twitched, sagged and fell over with a resounding crash.  Gravelox watched in horror as the wall it had been supporting collapsed.  When the roof truss smashed into him he was too surprised to shout.  All he could think of was that if he couldn’t make the payments he was dead.

Something was very wrong.  Gearslayer’s systems were gradually activating, one after another.  The first were the large muscle groups; the cables and cantilevers flexing and going through their startup tests.  A blockage of its shoulder joints impeded mobility so it first tried to lift, then allowed its knees to bend and slump.  Rust made it impossible for Gearslayer to fully articulate its knee joints, and it lost its balance and fell.

Many other things fell as well, and when Gearslayer’s ocular inputs came back online it found itself to be prone in a pile of rubble.  A shriek of protesting joints and pulleys that were long overdue for oiling accompanied its movements as it sat up, easily moving large wooden beams aside.  A fire seemed to be starting and there were multiple code, health and safety violations in effect.

More urgently, there seemed to be a Citizen bleeding and unconscious beneath a section of roofing.  Protocol suggested rescuing the citizen had priority.  Ignoring the warnings about joint malfunction and improperly lubricated equipment, Gearslayer bent and tried to move the section of roof.  When it refused to budge, it extended a hand and a pure white glittering scythe appeared in its hand.

With a perfectly calculated slices, Gearslayer chopped the sections of rubble that pinned the Citizen to the ground.  Dragging the boards off the Citizen, it lifted him to safety.

“Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, as its vocal systems finally coming back online.  “Your building is the subject of several health and safety violations.  I also believe it to be on fire.  My channels of communication with local authorities seem to be very outdated.  Do you have the ability to contact them?”

The Citizen did not respond.  Gearslayer attempted to recall how to check for vital signs but found that program to be corrupt.  It attempted to recall how to restore consciousness but found that program had been removed at the request of one Officer Durand.

A passerby was goggling at the destruction and Gearslayer approached her.  “Attention Citizen.  I require assistance contacting the local constabulary.  It would appear that this building has been destroyed and is in danger of setting fire to the surrounding neighborhood.  Can you assist?”

The Citizen burst out laughing, “You some freak baby, I ain’t no firefighter.  Ain’t no damn cops out here honey.”  She walked off, still chuckling.  “Crazy ass machine, don’t know where he be.”

Coughing behind it made Gearslayer turn back to the Citizen it had rescued from the building.  “You destroyed my shop.”  The Citizen gasped.

Gearslayer paused to consider this statement.  “I do not recall doing so Citizen.”

“What is your name, designation and what year is your commission?”  The Citizen asked, coughing and spitting blood out of his mouth.

Gearslayer paused again, sorting through its protocols.  “My name is Gearslayer, I am designated a Defending Bailiff and sentence executor. I am unsure as to the year of my commission Citizen.  It appears that some of my records are damaged, or possibly modified.”

“Your worthless carcass was holding up one of the walls of my shop.”  The Citizen said, “My name is Gravelox.  Your lawless destruction of my property puts you legally in my debt.”

Gearslayer considered this statement.  Likely he did indeed at least partially owe this Citizen something in return for what had happened; even if it wasn’t intentional.  “What is the amount needed to cover the damage done Citizen Gravelox?  I do not seem to have mention of funds in my name in any of my databanks.”

“Eighty thousand gold.”  Gravelox said, “And that’s just for the building, not counting all the equipment and materials lost.”

“That is a substantial sum Citizen Gravelox.”  Gearslayer said, “I fear it will take some time to assess my capability to assist in the reconstruction.”

“Time is something I don’t have.”  Gravelox said, running his hands through his hair.  “We’d better get the hell out of here.”

“Why would we leave Citizen?”  Gearslayer asked, “Should we not attempt to salvage-“ He was cut off by a small explosion from the ruins of the building.

“There’s dangerous stuff in there.  We need to run – ah – to get the proper authorities.”  Gravelox said.

“That is a valid point Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, “Lead on to the nearest constabulary.  I believe it is six blocks west and fourteen blocks east.”

“Sure.”  Gravelox said, “Come on.”

Lexai frowned, looking about at the destruction.  He’d been counting on the gunsmith to make him some real coin.  Now he was out the lucrative trade of firearms dealing to the less savory elements of this particular quarter as well as being out a building, the mortgage payment and even worse, his Minder wouldn’t be happy about losing the interest on the loan, the regular payments or the property.

“By the Portals what went on here?”  He wondered aloud.  Gesturing to his followers, he looked around the streets.  “Find out what happened.  Bring me witnesses.  Bring them alive, or at least capable of being brought back for questioning.”

The Shadows glided into deeper darkness, the winged folk took to the sky, the other assorted toughs and monsters trudged off into the maze of streets.  When he found Gravelox, there would be a reckoning.

One of the Shadows returned almost immediately, depositing a sealed envelope at Lexai’s feet.  Inside, he found a note from his missing gunsmith.

‘Lexai, please excuse my absence.  I know you will be displeased by the events that have unfolded, however I do plan on paying you back in full.  With proper interest.  It will merely take me more time.  I apologize for the inconvenience.  You have my word that I will compensate you in full once I am able.  Payments will be forwarded regularly.”

“I’ll have his skin for scroll vellum if he so much as misses a single payment.”  Lexai hissed, and the note immolated in his hand.  “If the Minders believe me to be getting soft, they will end my contract.”  He shuddred, ending a contract with his Minders wasn’t fatal.  But he would likely wish it was.

 

Shirasiau Sai’Li: Epilogue

It’s the end of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign… and I had some loose ends to wrap up.  Hope you enjoy!

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Shirasiau Sai’Li sat on the tall chair that was the seat of power of the Jade Merchant.  It was her chair now, by right of combat.  There were some that had said as it was not by right of single combat it was invalid, but they did not speak very loudly after the first to question her position had vanished without a trace.

Of course, the transition of the title of Jade Merchant was publicly acknowledged in a far different manner.  It was the end of a week of celebrations, feasting, dancing and displays of acrobatics of all kinds, barring combat.  As the new Jade Merchant demanded; the martial arts were not to be shown.  To be completely accurate, she had mentioned that displays of grace and beauty were pleasing to her eye.  As she had never been seen to hold anything more substantial than a silken fan or paper parasol, the planners of the event had reacted accordingly.

She had to admit, the performances were quite pleasing and the dancers lovely.  Three in particular had caught her eye and one of them slept exhausted in her chambers.  The other two were kneeling close by, one holding tea, the other her kiseru and tobacco.

Sai’Li put out her left hand and the attendant placed the elegantly carved jade and silver pipe into it.  When she put it between her delicately tinted lips the same attendant held a coal over the bowl, allowing her to draw the scented smoke into her lungs.  Leaning back, she allowed smoke to trickle out her nostrils as she surveyed the room through lidded eyes.

The seventeen women kneeling before her sat motionless, waiting for her to speak.  She dropped the pipe and her attendant plucked it from the air without hesitation.  After taking a sip of her tea, the most powerful woman in Chen Yun snapped her fan in front of her face and leaned forward slightly.

“My dears.”  Her voice was resonant and pitched perfectly to carry but still sounded like a caress. “We are now at the dawning of a new era for the House of the Jade Merchant and for the Shirasiau family.”  At her words, the curtains parted, and the sun shone into the room, bright and cheerful.

Screams erupted from four of the women and they began to writhe as smoke burst from their skin.  They sprang to their feet, trying to escape from the punishing light, but Sai’Li vanished from her seat, stepping from the shadow of the nearest.  Black metal spiders the size of house cats were streaming from her sleeves as she slashed a fan with razor edges across the throat of her first victim.

“We shall not be tolerating the infiltration of the full breeds.  Only a select few of the males will be retained for the purpose of maintaining our strength of numbers.”  The spiders swarmed over the dying vampires as she spoke, holding them in the sunlight until they were burned to ashes.

Sai’Li sighed as the metal arachnids climbed back up her flawless obi and into her sleeves.  “I really do abhor having to resort to violence my dears.  It is a crude, crass way of dealing with problems and death truly is bad for business.  I have plans lovelies.  Won’t you join me for a nice cup of tea?”

The remaining thirteen women looked up.  They hadn’t moved from their positions as the others had died horribly around them.  Sai’Li flicked the blood off her fan before snapping it open before her face to hide her smile.  These women would be the future of the clan.  They had the discipline, the skill and the drive to perform.  Now if they only had the fortitude to survive bearing the next generation.

She needed daughters raised to respect the old ways.  Cunning but worthy of trust, ambitious but respectful, deadly but wise.  Her policy would be to reward rather than punish.  To encourage and nurture, to take the ideas she had learned during her time trading amongst the mortals and use them to create a family that would truly be legendary.

With a swarm of spiders still swarming behind her like a train, Sai’Li strode into the most important room in her house.  The battleground where she had fought and won most of the battles of her life.  In the tea room, she would court the mothers of her daughters.  She would earn their loyalty.

“Great Mistress.”  Keiko was bowing low, her white hair perfectly coiffed in the latest fashion.  The gray, blue and seafoam green of her kimono had koi swimming over the sleeves and across the back.

“Please Keiko.”  Sai’Li said, rising and taking her longtime partner by the hands.  “I have asked you only to address me formally when we are not alone.”

“Mistress of the Jade Chair, Brightly Blooming One, Flower That Opens in the Moonlight, One Who Stands in Daylight; emissaries from The Necropolis are requesting an audience.”  Keiko was still bowed low, “They are waiting in the antechamber.  I apologize Terrible Star, Princess of Spiders, Hand of Shadow Threads.  I do not yet know how they managed to enter unnoticed.”

“Find out.”  Sai’Li said, straightening her Obi and changing it to a formal affair of beautiful rippling metallic colors with a ripple of magic.  “Send them in.  Bring tea in ten minutes.”  She smiled behind her fan, “The black, flavored with jasmine and saffron.”

Keiko backed out of the circle of obsidian stones that surrounded the dais before straightening and turning to go.  In a few moments three figures dressed in folds of shadow and funerary wrappings entered.  They did not walk, but merely moved along the floor in utter silence.  Sai’Li stood gracefully and returned their slight bows with an inclination of her head.

“I extend greetings honored guests.”  She said, her voice warm as the sunlight that shone in through the high windows on both sides of the room.  “If I had but known of your visit I would have prepared for it.”

“We know.”  The foremost said, very obviously not flinching from the sunlight in a way that said clearly it wished to.  “This is why we have come unannounced.  It has come to our attention that you have been breeding.  We take exception to this.”

“The half dead are but a byproduct.  We do not appreciate your presumptions of superiority.”  The second rasped.

“Your beast has hunted an ancient bloodline nearly to extinction.”  The third whispered, its voice dry as ancient parchment.”

“Nearly to extinction?”  Sai’Li asked, arching a perfect eyebrow.  “I cannot imagine that my dearest Tiger missed any of my father’s spawn?”  She spat the word without honorific.

“You are the last.”  The foremost said.  “Centuries of knowledge and research has been lost and you are merely a half dead.”

“I assure you dear guests, I am not merely an anything.”  Sai’Li said, snapping her fan open to hide her annoyed expression.  “You stand in my chamber.  I require civility lest I become displeased.”

The door opened behind her and the aroma of jasmine blossoms and saffron stamen filled the room.  It was the scent of spring, of life and it cleansed the graveyard scent of her visitors from her nostrils.  Keiko carried a tray with delicate porcelain cups and a centuries old teapot that had belonged to her mother.

Chisara Yi’Tan was the first Empress of Chen’Yun.  Her reign had been a brief one; overthrown by one who had been stricken from the records; every evidence of her burned and all her descendants killed to the last.  Still, Yi’Tan had not been a virgin when she took the throne although her daughter was unknown to all save one.  Sai’Li had devoured the knowledge her father’s extensive diaries had held of her Honored Mother.

The three turned to glare at Keiko and in that moment Sai’Li extended a hand.  Black metal spiders flowed from her sleeves and the hem of her Obi and skittered into the center of the group.  Each one held a tiny sliver of brilliant glimmering light in their mandibles.  Sourcing Sunstones had been rather difficult, but they were most handy tools and her connections with prominent worshipers of Pelor ensured these were legitimate.

“Won’t you join me for some tea?”  She asked sweetly, descending the stairs to her dais with deliberate steps.  “Perhaps we might discuss this in a properly civilized manner.”  Unperturbed by the displays of hostility, rage and fear by the visitors, Keiko unfolded a lacquered table and began pouring the tea.

“Why are there so many cups?  Is your servant joining us?”  One of the emissaries spat, narrowing its eyes against the gleaming beams of bright light.

“No.”  A deeply resonant voice said in Draconic.  “You are not the only undead with an interest here.  I greatly appreciate the gesture dear Keiko.  My sincerest apologies for interrupting you Daughter of the Lost.”

“Coalbraizer, you honor my humble house with your presence.”  Sai’Li said, bowing as a form of swirling smoke stepped into the room, flickers that suggested a skeleton of a dragon that would fill half the room seeming to appear at the edges before vanishing and coalescing into an ethereally featured man dressed in a copper colored Obi.

“You three are not worthy of drinking this tea.”  Another voice, flat as the sound of a coffin nail being driven home.  A woman who would be quite stunning if she had not been so obviously deceased stepped from the shadows thrown by the glimmering Sunstones and they all dimmed to mere moonlight.

“Stileen!”  Sai’Li was barely able to keep the pleasure from tinging her voice, grateful for the fan to cover her smile.  “It is so good to see you again.”  A mental nudge brought her spiders back to their mistress.  She did not want to anger these last two; she knew and respected them.

“You three claim to represent the Necropolis.”  Stileen said, not yet acknowledging Sai’Li.  “Perhaps the three of you could explain which faction?”  Her voice was flat and dangerous.

“We represent the Black Quarter of the city of Argus.”  One of the three said.

“Quiet fool!”  The foremost said, “This is the Lady of Coastwood Mausoleum.”

“Coastwood?  That tiny seaside berg?”  The other replied with disdain in its voice.

“Coastwood is the gateway to the Bay of Souls.”  The foremost hissed, swinging its fist in a vicious arc that sent the other sprawling to the perfectly polished marble floor.  “My apologies Lady Stileen.  That one is less educated than it should be.”

“Please take tea with me and we can discuss any and all issues that Argus may have with me and my Family.”  Sai’Li said, gesturing to Keiko with the tip of the little finger on her left hand.  Keiko retreated to kneel on the floor, awaiting her mistress’s summons.

“It is only proper for us to be introduced formally beforehand.”  She said, giving the bow to visiting dignitaries within a hair’s breadth of the proper level.  “I am Shirasiau Sai’Li, known as The Jade Merchant.”

“I am Revnar, I hold the title of Justicar of Argus Below.”  The foremost, “It is the use of the half dead and their elevation to equal status that is at issue here.”

They sat, ignoring the still twitching form of the third emissary and tactfully not noticing that the second emissary remained standing behind Revnar.  Sai’Li folded herself gracefully to her knees, noting in satisfaction that the others couldn’t match her grace, although Stileen was close.

After they had all taken their first sip of tea, Sai’Li delicately wiped her upper lip and fixed Revnar with a significant look over the edge of her fan.  “Honored Justicar of Argus Below, is the issue at hand that you believe the half dead are undeserving of equal status?”

“Of course.”  He said immediately, not appearing to notice.  “Although technically immortal, they are inferior in every other aspect.”

“Do you believe that I am inferior?”  She asked, her voice not betraying one single iota of anger or discomfort.

“Ah, of course it was not my intention to give insult.”  He said, finally noticing that her cheeks had become slightly more sunken and her eyes had begun to fill with black.

“Nonetheless you have offered insult to me and my daughters beneath my own roof.”  She said quietly.  “You may have your choice of opponents and your choice of champion if you do not wish to fight yourself.  But there will be a duel to satisfy honor.”

She continued sipping her tea in contentment, watching the expression on the faces of the others at the table.  Those too ancient and set in their ways were far too simple to manipulate in such situations.  Now he had to fight and choose the opponent who would be considered to be the strongest or else be deemed weak.  It was almost too easy.

“Of course I will satisfy the needs of honor.”  Revnar said stiffly, “I will face any opponent of your choosing at a time and place of your choosing.”

“You shall face me.”  She said, standing with perfect grace.  “Now.  Here.”

No fool, he attacked without warning but there were suddenly five of her seeming to flicker in and out of existence and his deadly bolt of black energy passed harmlessly through one of them.  It blew him a kiss and vanished.  One of the figures behind him struck with a razor-edged fan and decades old blood splattered to the floor.

“You should not be able to cut me.”  He hissed in anger, striking out with a dagger made of the tooth of some long forgotten animal.  The blow struck another image and it flickered out of existence.

“Perhaps you should have brought your scythe if you came to give insult to ME or MINE!”  Sai’Li said, anger bleeding through her normally calm mask.  “If we were not at least equal to those of you trapped in the shadow we would have long since ceased to exist.  After all it is YOUR kind who create us and it seems as though it is YOUR minds that are susceptible to the madness of the world blending.”

She feinted left and cut horizontally across his face, following up with a downward slash that left a ragged tear that cut his chest to the bone from collar bone to bottom rib.

Revnar had been waiting for her next attack so he could identify which of her shadows was real.   With a snarl of triumph, he put a hand on her arm and threads of black shadows ran from his fingers to flow up and toward her face.

“Die half dead scum!” He shouted in triumph as his attack struck, filling Sai’Li’s eyes, nose and mouth.

Her body convulsed with a spasm of pain at the invading power but she didn’t fight it.  Revnar’s eyes widened as a delicate hand tightened on his wrist and the flow of his power increased.  He realized with shock that his opponent was intentionally draining him.

“What are you doing?”  Revnar screamed as he could feel his limbs weakening.  Sai’Li seemed to be taking one long, deep breath and her diminutive hand held his arm with bone crushing force.

Sai’Li tossed the withered corpse aside with contempt.  Flickers of darkness still hovered about her, looking more like black forks of lightning than shadows.  She licked her lips and turned to fix black eyes on the last remaining being from Argus.

“Are there any other opinions about whether I am your equal?”  She put just enough hunger and anticipation into her voice and saw a quiver of fear travel through its body.  A flick of her wrist closed her fan and cleared the ichor from it.  “Return and tell your Masters that I am not to be trifled with.”