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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 36

Ignoring the pair’s shocked looks, she turned and sprinted toward her brother and the sounds of fighting.  She saw a group of Taken chasing a small band of travelers who were running with desperate haste toward were Vilhylm stood, spear leveled and ready.  Holt rose up from Vil’s other side, firing long shafts in a continuous ripple, but it wasn’t going to be enough.

“Rax zark kreshnak!”  She cursed and flung herself forward, lifting a spell to grant her further speed from Shadowsliver’s flat black surface.  “I have left!”  She shouted, and Holt’s aim switched to the right.

With a shout of defiance, she leaped completely over the heads of the fleeing people, summoning another spell as she soared through the air and landed with bolts of lightning blasting out from Shadowsliver to consume a half dozen foes.  She recognized the type; they were numerous but relatively harmless as long as you kept them from swarming over you.

A rotting hand closed on her shoulder and Callindra pivoted smoothly, breaking the grip and following up with a slash that took both the creature’s arm and head off in one smooth strike.  Three more stopped chasing the civilians and leaped at her.  She ducked one, cut the second in half at the waist and took the charge of the third on the shoulder.

It bounced off, falling back from her braced stance.  Shadowsliver cut it savagely and it fell twitching, hands still grasping at empty air.  The fourth she hadn’t seen nearly closed jaws on the back of her neck before she smelled its rotting breath.  It was too late to flinch away, but instead of tearing a ragged chunk of flesh out of her neck with broken teeth, it fell backward with an arrow in the eye.

Six more appeared almost out of nowhere and she was now fighting for her life in earnest.  There hadn’t been this many when she’d first leaped into the fray, there must have been a second group that was following behind the first.  Hands began tearing at her armor, jagged fingernails digging trenches into exposed flesh and attempting to wrest her sword from her grasp.

With a scream of defiance, Callindra tore a spell from Shadowsliver and a whirling torrent of wind blasted the smaller Taken away, leaving only some of the larger ones and those that had a grip on her directly.  Terror and pain gave her strength, but her experience made her focus.  If she let herself give into fear now she would be throwing away any chance she might have had of survival.

She calmly decided that two of the creatures were less of a priority and allowed them to savage her better armored legs.  One that was clawing at her back was also ignored in favor of slashing the two that tried to claw her eyes and face.  Callindra managed to slash the arms off one and looped Shadowsliver’s chain around the other, tangling it enough that it was momentarily distracted from cutting her to ribbons.  Two more of the creatures leaped on her back and she was overbalanced, sprawling to the mud made from dirt and viscera on the ground.

A wave of heat blasted over her, quickly followed by the roar of an explosion.  The monsters pinning her were tossed in pieces and she could feel shrapnel cutting runnels into her skin wherever it wasn’t covered by her armor.  She sat up shakily and looked around for any enemies, but the battlefield was strewn only with smoking corpses apart from a smallish man wearing goggles with ridiculously huge lenses high on his forehead.

He held a wand in one hand, the end of it seemed to have caught on fire but he didn’t pay it any mind.  His hair was also smoldering, but he only watched her intently, wand leveled at her with unwavering intensity.

“Thanks for the assist.”  She said through ravaged lungs.  With an effort of will she staggered to her feet and tried to pick the largest slivers of stone and other things she didn’t want to think about from her arms and the back of her neck.

“I thought they’d gotten you.”  He said in a clipped voice.  “I’m still not sure they didn’t get you.”

“Understandable.”  She said, “No offense taken.”

“I could care less about your feelings.”  He said in that same tightly controlled voice.  “Prove to me you’re not one of them.”

Callindra mutely held out her right arm, showing the red human blood dripping from a deep cut. “They tend to bleed black stranger.  I’m Callindra, the leader of this band of idiots.”

“Connor.”  He said, slowly lowering the wand.  “Recently a traveler with a rather sizable group of survivors.  Now just a traveling … inventor.”

“My companions are just up the way.”  She said gesturing to where now only Vilhylm was visible at the top of the rise.  “We probably will be leaving within the hour if you wish to join us.”

Connor looked at her skeptically, taking in her bloodied battered state.  She was limping badly as she made her way back to the top of the hill.  Connor put his wand away, pausing to lick his fingers and pinch the flame on the end out.  Callindra caught a glimpse of movement behind him, but recognized Holt’s surprisingly lithe form and paid it no mind.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 35

By the time she got back to the camp, the girl was sitting on a log, looking pleased with herself and eating a hearty breakfast.  Reed was rushing about, apparently attempting to do six things at once. When he saw her, he handed her a steaming cup of tea and ran off to attend to a pot of something boiling over the fire.

“Girl.”  Callindra said, taking a sip of her tea.  It was perfect. “Why are you sitting there?  Surely there’s work that could be done.”

“Reed said I didn’t have to.”  She said, her glance taking in Callindra’s state of undress, her sweaty body, worn undergarments and crudely shorn hair.

“Reed isn’t in charge.”  Callindra said coldly, “I am in charge, and I don’t allow dead weight to slow me and mine down.”  She put emphasis on the word dead and stared at the girl until the other’s defiance wavered.

“What’s your name?”  Callindra demanded.

“Alanna my Lady.”  She said, trying to maintain her gaze, but eventually lowering her eyes and blushing.

“I’m no lady.”  Callindra said, the words coming like a curse.  “I’m a warrior. That’s what you have to be to live out here.  If you think you can get by letting others do your fighting for you, you’ll be dead in a day.”

She turned and pointed toward the packs.  “There’s a shovel in there. Go fill in the slit trench from last night.  When you’re done you come back here for a fighting lesson. You will do whatever I find for you without complaint or you go home now.  Right now.”

Allana looked at her in disbelief, but Callindra’s face firmed and she gestured again.  This time she used her left hand and Shadowsliver’s flat black fork tipped blade pointed unwaveringly.  “If you had helped instead of being a burden to one already overworked I might have spared you the roughest and most odious tasks, but you have well and truly earned this.”

The girl blushed deeper, ran off to find the shovel and shot Callindra a venomous look when she thought she wasn’t looking.  That one would be trouble.

“I’ll take over the porridge once I get clean and dressed.”  Callindra said to Reed. It was unlikely that she’d have the opportunity to bathe in clean water for a few days at least; the river downstream was a polluted mess from what they’d been able to see.  They needed to find the source of that corruption; it was trying to work its way upstream to the High Forest. That couldn’t be allowed.

“I’ll handle it.”  Reed said, giving an anxious look at the pot.  Callindra frowned; her cooking wasn’t that bad was it?

“Go get clean, I’ll take over here Reed.” Vilhylm said, coming from the direction of the river with dripping hair.  Callindra grabbed her clothes and armor and stalked off to the riverside, muttering under her breath.

After only two days, and still Alanna managed to cut herself with the knife in even the most basic of Stances.  It shouldn’t be possible for someone to be this incompetent. Beyond that, she complained constantly, badgered and flirted Reed into doing chores whenever Callindra wasn’t paying attention.  She had decided that enough was enough.

“Please Reed?”  Alanna’s voice wheedled, “Just this morning?  I know she’s going to make me fill in the trenches again and it’s not fair.  My hands hurt and I barely slept last night.”

Before Reed could answer, Callindra flung the tent flap open to let in the brilliant sunrise.  She was clad in full armor and Shadowsliver was in her left hand. Alanna was kneeling by Reed, twisting her hands with a pleading expression on her face.  Reed looked like death warmed over. The pair started and glanced at her with panicked guilt on their faces.

“So.”  She said, her voice flat with disapproval. “The pair of you have been conspiring to be deliberately disobedient.”

“Lady Callindra, please-“ Alanna began but a single glare silenced her midsentence.

“It ain’t what it looks like.”  Reed said, the hint of a blush coloring his cheeks.  “She ain’t used to this kind of work an you’re pushing too hard.”

“Do you think for one moment that where we’re going anyone can afford to be less than capable?”  She asked, raising an eyebrow. “Should we keep her alive just long enough to run into the first band of Taken and watch her get torn to shreds when she’s too weak?  Or should we be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for her when she fails like Cronos had to do to protect me?”

The bitterness must have shown on her face and in her voice more than she intended because Reed flinched.  “I’ve learned my lesson Reed, and right now you’re selling your own strength to keep her from getting blisters.  You’re so tired if we were attacked right now you’d be worthless to me or to her.”

As if on cue, she heard an alarm call from Vilhylm immediately followed by the ring of steel on steel.  Cursing in Goblin, she glared at the girl. “Alanna, Reed is exhausted because you convinced him to do all your work.  If he is injured or killed from being too tired and you let him die you’d better hope the Taken don’t leave you alive.”