The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 65

“We are what is left of a group of adventurers who went on a mission given by the Gods themselves.”  She quickly sketched out the bare bones of their travels and misadventures, trying to gloss over as many of the finer points as she could.  Rrayu sat quietly and listened, her eyes getting wider as the tale progressed.

“After killing that thrice cursed squid Connor managed to hold the ship together until we could debark and then we made our way here.”  She finished.  “We’re looking for survivors to see if we can gather assistance to somehow turn the tide against the Taken or reverse the magic that is causing the plague to happen.”

“You’re fighting for the Gods.”  Rrayu said, a bit of awe in her voice.  “I thought them all but gone.  Betimes prayers would be answered in the past but with all that’s happened and them letting it happen I’d all but lost hope.”

“It’s not like they’ve been much help to us either.”  Vilhylm said wryly, “Almost more of a hindrance in most ways.”

“You said your swordmaster is Luftin?”  Rrayu asked, looking at Callindra with such an unabashed look of wonder that she began to feel uncomfortable.  “You’ve met him?  And Jorda?”

“Well, I didn’t know who he was.”  Callindra said, “I was pretty awful to him at first and he didn’t seem much like a god.  Jorda was a much different story; she was much more like what one would think of as a goddess.”

“Not everyone looks upon the gods with reverence.”  Vilhylm said with a frown, “We must ask you to keep this bit to yourself.”

“What are you hoping to find here?”  Rrayu asked, looking between them.  “This city is lost, most of the people here are dead, why would you come to a place like this?”

Again they all looked at Callindra and she said for the first time something she had been mulling over ever since she saw Luftin devoured by Cerioth.  She took a deep breath and forced her left hand to relax on Shadowsliver’s hilt.

“An ally told us there was some power center for the Abyss here, I want to find that gods bedamned dragon and get some answers.”  She said, “It ate my Master, it destroyed this city, it has been present at many of the worst moments in this war.  If anything knows what Morde’s plans are it does, and I have heard it comes and patrols Starvale.”

The room fell silent as they all stared at her.  Even her companions seemed stunned by her words.  “We should also look at those spheres.”  She said, pretending not to have noticed their reaction.  “Anyone powerful enough to have created those is likely powerful enough to fight well against the Taken.”

Connor nodded slowly, “I also want to look at those things.”  He said, “Perhaps we can find more information about how they resist the power of the Taken and of that dragon.  Could be that there’s a way for us to harness that protection for ourselves.”

“You’re off yer nut.”  Reed said, “You wanna fight that bedamned dragon?  What do you think we can do that a whole city of mages couldn’t?”

“We can talk more once we’ve had time to think about it.”  Callindra said, refusing to give ground.  “For now I think we need to go be seen if we’re to keep in Ellen Eth’s good graces.”

“You can’t be seriously thinking about fighting that dragon.”  Kain said, “You won’t have a dam to collapse on this dragon will you?  I don’t know if we’ll get that lucky again.”

Rrayu’s mouth dropped open in shock.  “You’ve already killed a dragon?”

“I might have left that part out of the tale.”  Callindra said with a shrug.  She hadn’t wanted to mention Terevelen, since most people wouldn’t understand making an alliance with a necromancer.  “Perhaps that’s a story for another time.  Right now I believe we need to be seen downstairs.”

“I say we give ‘em a show.”  Reed said with a grin, “Enter with style, buy ‘em all a drink and talk a good game.  All we gotta do is get Ellen Eth’s attention, sounds like being flashy is the way to go.”

“Only if you all promise to only tell tall tales about yourselves and leave me out of it.”  Callindra said, “I have enough to deal with trying to be this ‘Lady’ you’ve all talked me up to be.

“Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.”  Reed said, not fooling anyone who knew him with his innocent expression.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 64

“One more thing,”  Rrayu said, opening a drawer and removing a small case.  “Sit please My Lady.”

Callindra sat, giving the box a dubious look.  Rrayu opened it and pulled a few small pots and brushes from it.  With careful strokes, she applied subtle shading to Callindra’s face, just a hint of charcoal to her lashes and gentle pigments to highlight her cheekbones.  Although the changes were only minor ones, the effect was striking.

“I don’t know if I like it.  I look so different, like a beautiful, fragile delicate thing.  She smiled ruefully, “I suppose that’s the point.”

“You look presentable.”  Rrayu said, “Barely presentable, but yes, you begin to understand that there’s power in being feminine.  Yes, the clothing and the face paint has changed the way others will see you, but you are like an unpolished gemstone.  You can be beautiful and command the attention of a room while dressed in rags, and I can show you these skills.”

Three polite knocks on the door heralded the arrival of Holt.  He was looking quite dapper in a forest green velvet trousers and jacket with a white doublet underneath.  His hair was braided into twin tails tied off with silk cords. With his beard trimmed neatly, clean and dressed he looked decades younger.  Vilhylm cleared his throat and Callindra realized she’d been just standing there. Holt’s eyes widened slightly in surprise and she realized he’d been staring too.  

“I look ridiculous.”  She said, feeling a slight blush threatening to rise up her cheeks.  “But at least I’m close to meeting the expectations your little performances gave the locals.”

“I think you look wonderful.” Holt said, “But I generally do.”

To her frustration, Rrayu touched her shoulders and her chin, forcing her to a more regal posture.  “A Lady does not stare at her feet when presenting herself. She must be confident and poised.”

“Rrayu says I need to make an appearance for dinner.”  She said, looking over Vilhylm’s typical black attire. It was obviously new but looked very similar to what he had been wearing before albeit clean and not ragged.  Reed was wearing grey tunic and trousers with gold embroidery and Kain looked surprisingly urbane in dark blue, even his Mohawk looking like it fit. “Keep it civil and by the gods and demons don’t do anything to inflate their expectations any more than you already have.”

Reed gave her an innocent look that she didn’t trust for a second.  “Before we go shouldn’t we try and ascertain how to present ourselves?”  He asked.

“Well, we shouldn’t be too obvious about why we’re really here.”  Vilhylm said, “I’m not certain if there are any other groups of survivors here or not, but something tells me if there are they won’t be looked upon with friendly eyes.”

“There are some rumors of other enclaves.”  Rrayu said softly, “I’ve even heard that there have been some attempts to penetrate the floating sanctuaries, but I’m not sure what the results of those were if they actually happened.”

“What methods did they use?”  Connor asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

“I apologize, Mage Connor, I do not know what methods they employed or indeed if the attempt is more than a rumor.” Rrayu didn’t meet his eyes but kept nervously glancing around the room instead.  “If it’s not too intrusive, may I ask who you really are? I am likely to be associated with you simply because of proximity.”

Callindra crossed her arms and gave her maid a level look.  “I offered to send you away and you begged me not to. Now you’re worried about being associated with us.  Something doesn’t smell right about this.”

Reed moved on silent feet to stand behind Rrayu, also placing himself between her and the door.  Her other companions moved slightly, ready to draw a weapon or line up a spell. If Rrayu tried to run or was something more than she had pretended to be she would be dead in seconds.

“Being sent away would be worse than being your maid.”  She said, talking quickly. “I will not lie, it is my intention to pass at least some of the information I gather from you along to whoever tries to get it from me.  I won’t tell them anything you have specifically asked me not to, but if I tell them nothing they will be certain we are working together toward some nefarious end.

“Please understand, I do not wish to betray you but I must find a balance between keeping your secrets and keeping them satisfied.  This city is not kind to those who displease her.” Rrayu met her eyes, giving her a pleading look.

To her surprise, Callindra saw all her companions turn to look at her.  It was just hours ago that her instructions had been completely ignored, but now they were all waiting for her leadership.  She thought about what Rrayu had done for her thus far and how honest the other woman had been just now. Weighing everything in her mind, she made her decision.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 63

“I could have gutted her by accident.”  Reed said darkly, “Just walking in like that.  Don’t these people know that there’s a war on outside?  A year ago she’d have been bleeding out on the floor.”

“Somehow I think she was a lot more than she appeared to be,”  Callindra said, narrowing her eyes.  “She definitely checked us all out and I’m certain she will be telling her mistress what she observed.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rrayu giving her a considering glance.  The woman who was to be her lady’s maid turned deliberately back to the closet and withdrew a brilliant red garment.  It had wide trouser legs that gave the illusion of skirts but still had the mobility of trousers.  The top was also flowing red silk that overlapped to tie and then be covered by a matching sash. Small vines picked out in an impossibly emerald green twined about the hems with tiny white and gold flowers peeking through.  Brightstar flowers.

“I think this will be an admirable compromise, My Lady.”  She said, laying it out on the bed.  “Now you go so that our Lady may dress in private.”  Reed rolled his eyes but left without dissent.

“You’ve been keeping this in reserve haven’t you?”  Callindra accused, sliding out of the robe and allowing Rrayu to assist her in dressing.  She couldn’t help but admire the feeling of the silk as it slid over her skin.

“Of course, although I was fairly certain I would have convinced you eventually, you must make an appearance in the dining room below.”  She surveyed the effect the outfit had and gave a reluctant nod.  “This will have to do.”

Callindra looked at herself in the mirror and barely recognized herself.  The shoulder-length ragged ends of her hair were now sculpted into a quite stylish and intentional looking cut.  The clothing fit her beautifully, managing to make her whipcord thinness look dangerously feminine like a hunting cat.  She smiled, and turned to Rrayu, giving the other woman a hug.

“You’re a miracle worker!  This looks amazing!”  She stepped back and performed a few lunges and cuts, Shadowsliver’s twin tips whistling through the air.  “And I can still move in it.  Do you really think this is going to make a difference?”

“My Lady is too kind.”  Rrayu said, “The transformation from your travel-worn self to this version should be sufficient to convince most that you have some claim to a title.”

“A title?  But I do actually have a title.”  Callindra said, lowering her sword and looking at her maid.  “I am the Sol’Estin, Master of the North Wind.”

She hadn’t ever spoken those words aloud, gods and demons she’d barely even thought them, but as they left her mouth she realized that they were true.  Glarian was dead, and with his death, the mantle of Sol’Estin was now hers and hers alone.  Even inside a building underground and far from the raging power of the Great Winds, a gust of air rattled the shutters briefly and a tiny zephyr tugged at Shadowsliver’s chain.

Rrayu was looking at her with a shocked expression on her face and jumped when the wind blew.  “Oh!”  She looked around, as though fearing something might step from a corner of the room and whisk her away to gods all knew where.

“My Master had many enemies however, so I think it might not be the most productive thing to spread around.”  She paused and looked at Rrayu.  “Are you alright?  You look like someone just walked over your grave.”

“I just didn’t know you were a …” She trailed off, staring at her feet and swallowing hard.  “That’s a Mage’s Title.”

“It’s much more than just a Mage’s title, but that is part of what it means.”  Callindra said, “Is that a problem?”

“Not with me,”  Rrayu said, still looking down.  “However, it may complicate things with Ellen Eth.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 62

After the bath and half a candlemark of fussing with a pair of scissors, carefully snipping at her hair, Rrayu had shown Callindra a wide variety of different dresses, but she turned them all down.  “I don’t want skirts.  How do you expect me to move in these things?”

“But a Lady does not wear trousers.”  Rrayu insisted, nervously twisting the dark blue silk in her hands.  “If you’re seen wearing trousers it would be most unseemly.”

Callindra crossed her arms, standing in her smallclothes it was surprisingly difficult to face down someone who was fully clothed.  “I hardly think a sword would be seen as ‘seemly’ for a lady either and it’s not like I can put Shadowsliver down.  Nor would I if I could.”  She shook her right wrist for emphasis and his chain jingled merrily.

“Of course that is an impediment to your overall appearance; however a Lady is not excluded from carrying accessories.” Rrayu said, “I can work with accessories.”

“If you can work with a four-foot-long double edge sword chained to my wrist then you can find something that doesn’t have skirts for me to wear.”  Callindra leaned against the bedpost with the air of someone willing to wait for a long time.

Rrayu sighed and turned to the closet.  As she did, the door opened and a washed and dressed Reed walked in carrying a bottle of wine and a tray with assorted bread and cheeses.  Callindra grinned at him and stepped forward to take the bottle.  She took a swig from it and turned to see the maid’s shocked face.

“A man must NOT see you in this state of undress!”  She said, clearly horrified.

“It’s just Reed,”  Callindra said with a shrug.  “We’ve been traveling and fighting together for months; he’s seen me naked and patched up wounds that would have killed me.  Besides, it’s not like I’m worried about my body.  Taken are killing every living thing they can find where the hell are your priorities?”

“I don’t know about the outside, but I know how nobility works.  I know how rumors spread.  I know what people will think already about a single woman traveling with a group of men.”  She gave Callindra a pleading look.  “If you want to maintain your credibility you must not continue to behave this way.”

Callindra took another swallow of wine from the bottle.  “Nobody is in here but us.  Are you going to spread these rumors?”

“My Lady!  Of course not!”  Rrayu clutched the dress she was holding hard enough for her knuckles to turn white.  “But the walls have ears and eyes, servants come and go to clean linens and sweep floors.  If your desire is for Lady Ellen Eth to take you seriously, you must maintain some air of decency.”

With a sigh, Callindra slid a thick robe over her shoulders, almost slicing the sleeve off when she threaded Shadowsliver through it.  She was just tying the belt around the waist when a liveried messenger strode into the room after only two sharp raps on the door.  She stopped and gave a greeting that was half-bow and half salute, fist to heart, completely ignoring the knives that appeared in Reed’s hands.

“Lady Callindra?”  She asked; a skeptical tone in her voice that suggested the ‘lady’ was extremely unlikely.

Rrayu stepped forward with a sharp rebuke.  “Even another woman should not so enter a Lady’s bedchamber without proper introduction or inquiry.”

“There wasn’t a servant outside the door or in the antechamber, and My Liege Ellen Eth wished me to deliver this message posthaste.”  She sounded mildly annoyed, perhaps at not having a scandalous or tawdry scene to report on.

“Reed, this woman is clearly not a threat,” Callindra said briskly.  “Rrayu if you would retrieve the missive, please?  Does your liege require an immediate response?”

The woman gave Reed a subtle but clearly calculated sizing up when he made the blades vanish up his sleeves with a deft motion.  She paid nearly no attention to Rrayu, but was not hiding she was also giving Callindra a thorough once over; her eyes lingering slightly on her bracelets, chain, and sword.

“Send a runner with your response.”  She said, turning abruptly and striding through the antechamber and out the door.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 61

Callindra followed the boy up the stairs, looking at the carved banisters, wood inlaid walls, and rich furnishings.  When they reached the top, she paused and looked over the railing to the floor below. The view took her breath away, the gentle light from the lamps made the polished wood glow and silk banners diffused the light in beautiful colors.

A gentle clearing of the throat made her turn from the view.  The young woman standing next to the door was wearing a perfectly starched and pressed uniform and appeared far more comfortable than the boy who had brought them here.

“My name is Rrayu, and I am here to serve you, My Lady.”  The emphasis was obvious, and Callindra gave her a closer look.  She stood primly with her hands folded before her and kept her eyes down.

“I don’t really need a servant,”  Callindra said, feeling awkward.

“Oh please My Lady, do not send me away,”  Rrayu said, her voice quivering just slightly with fear.  “If I have displeased you in some way I beg that you allow me to make amends.”

Callindra blinked, “I just met you, how could you have done anything wrong?”

Rrayu opened the door and gestured inside to a grandly appointed sitting room.  “If you will allow me to show you the suite?” With an inward sigh, Callindra entered.  

 “The gentlemen may avail themselves of the chambers there,” Rrayu said, indicating a set of doors to one side of the room. “I will show you to your wing My Lady, it’s just through here.”

Giving her companions a somewhat annoyed look and getting even more so when they grinned at her discomfort, Callindra allowed herself to be herded into a luxurious bedchamber.  The bed was big enough for the entire group to fit in if they slept close and was hung with silks that made it look like an exotic forest of flowering trees. The carpet on the floor was so thick her feet left a trail of impressions in it and the walls were hung with embroidered tapestries.

“We must get you out of those filthy clothes My Lady,”  Rrayu said, tugging on one of the buckles of Callindra’s leather greaves.  “The bath has been drawn, would you like rose scent or lavender?”

Almost before she knew what was happening, Rrayu had divested her of her boots and armor, tisking over not being able to remove Shadowsliver’s chain and fussing about the state of her clothes, skin, and hair.  The constant banter of her voice was distracting, a steady stream of polite requests and delicate comments that were all phrased in such a manner that refusing them would seem very rude. Rrayu ushered her into a tiled room with a steaming tub set into the floor.

“Lavender I think would suit you better.”  Rrayu was saying as she unnecessarily helped Callindra out of her clothes.  “This breastband really needs to be thrown away I’m afraid, are you certain this sword can’t be removed, it’s really too dangerous.”

Callindra sat on a stool and Rrayu poured hot water over her, sluicing the dried salt and dirt from her body before lathering a thick cloth with soap that smelled like flowers and scrubbing her gently.  After another rinse, she slid into the tub and lay back with a sigh of comfort.

“I will see what can be done about this mess My Lady,”  Rrayu said and began massaging oil into her hair. “Your hair looks like it was cut with your sword, who did this to you?”

“I was mistaken Rrayu.”  Callindra murmured, “I don’t know how I got along without you until now.”

“Yes My Lady, and if you are going to continue with this idea of being a Lady then you will need much more help,”  Rrayu said, her voice low. “The Lady Ellen Eth will have heard of your unorthodox display of power and will have certain expectations.”

Callindra blinked and focused.  “What?”

“She rules the Undercity with absolute authority.  News of your arrival will have reached her by now and I would expect her to be sending you an invitation soon, and you must be prepared if you wish to continue portraying yourself as a Lady.”

“This wasn’t my idea.”  Callindra said defensively, “I told those idiots to keep a low profile but they never listen.”

“It would be better, now that your sorcerer has shown himself in such a flamboyant manner, for you to be seen as powerful as well.”  She said, “Ellen Eth does not respect brute force, your swordplay may be impressive, but she can kill someone with a flick of her little finger.”

“Any idiot can kill someone.”  Callindra said, “It takes skill and power to keep people alive.”

Rrayu’s fingers stilled on her scalp for a moment, “Well said My Lady.”  She said, sounding like she meant the title for the first time.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 60

Callindra’s heart sank as she realized that none of them really had anything to trade.  There were a few useful odds and ends that they’d acquired over their travels, but the reality was much of it was important for their continued survival.  While they all dug through packs and pouches hunting for anything that she might take on trade, Connor was staring at the building and fingering something up his sleeve.  

“This place used to be beautiful.”  He said quietly. When he withdrew his right hand from the sleeve, he had taken his glove and a strangely delicate tattoo made of overlapping geometric shapes spilled out over his wrist.  He touched a portion of the railing carved with intricate flowers that had almost been worn completely away.

“I bet you used to look better before all yer hair got burnt too,”  Hagar said, obviously upset at the critique of the inn. “Me da built it after he quit bein a shipwright.  He did have a hand with a chisel, but times an war ain’t been kind.”

“Maybe I could… fix this for you?  In exchange for room and board for myself and my friends?”  He was lost staring at the building with a strange look on his face.  Callindra tried to catch his attention; she’d seen him ‘fix’ things before and this did not sound like a good way to stay inconspicuous.

“You fix the Fisherman and you cn stay as long as ya want boy!”  She laughed, “Drinks onna house and all!”

Connor closed his eyes and to their collective surprise his tattoo writhed off his arm, rivers of ink unfolding and winding about the building.  Wood warped and nails shrieked as the ancient boards folded and twisted like a massive blacksmith’s puzzle. After mere minutes, an immaculate four-story structure with bright green painted walls, polished brass trim.  Carvings covered almost every exposed surface showing a variety of aquatic scenes.

“How’s that then?”  Connor asked, shaking and sweating but with a triumphant smile on his face.  “I was fair certain this was old Dimgar’s work; never knew anyone else who would name their daughter Hagar.”

“You knew my father?”  She stood, staring at the inn with a stunned expression on her face.  “Boyo you and yours cn stay as long as ya want.”

“Nah, but I heard of him from my dad,”  Connor said, leaning on the railing and sliding his glove back on.  

“So much for keeping a low profile,”  Callindra said, giving Connor a look that mixed respect and annoyance.  “But at least we gained something from it.”

Connor grinned, “I’ll need the penthouse for my lady.”  He declared in a loud voice, “She’s been leading us in battle and on the road for weeks and is a bit worse for wear.  Our Callindra always gets a bit testy when she has to sleep in her armor.”

Reed took up the banter, “She’ll want a bath drawn with lavender soap and a silk robe to lounge in.”

“A pipe and tobacco should also be procured,”  Holt said, joining in without a hint he was having fun with her.  “She prefers Karalan Imperialis if you have it.”

Hagar opened the door with a flourish, “Only th best fer such a fine lass!”  She said grandly and then stared in shock.  

Inside, the Pickled Fisherman was set up as a hollow box with rooms on all sides that surrounded an open center.  A bar stocked with barrels and bottles stood on one side of the bottom floor and was offset by a large stage on the other.  The centerpiece of the room was a large dance floor made from mosaic wood tiles.  

“It’s all here.”  She whispered in amazement.  “Down to th food n beer.”

“I’ll bring them to their suite.”  A confused looking boy whose dirty face looked very out of place compared with his perfectly pressed and starched uniform. 

“Right.  Th top floor suite for th Lady.”  Hagar said, her voice faint. “Nothin but th best for Connor’s mistress.”

Callindra followed the boy up the stairs, looking at the carved banisters, wood inlaid walls, and rich furnishings.  When they reached the top, she paused and looked over the railing to the floor below. The view took her breath away, the gentle light from the lamps made the polished wood glow and silk banners diffused the light in beautiful colors.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 59

Callindra paused, feeling the tension of her friends behind her.  The creak of Holt’s bow. The random sparks arcing from Connor’s wands.  Vilhylm’s steady spear. Kain’s calm intensity. Reed’s barely contained violence.  Knowing they were with her, she lowered her sword.

“Very well, we would like to meet her.”  She said carefully.

“Excellent!”  He smiled disarmingly and turned to saunter back down the alleyway.  “Follow me, I will show you the wonders of the Undercity.  You look a tad road weary; you should rest, wash and change before meeting Ellen Eth.”

Glancing at her friends, Callindra tried to shrug nonchalantly.  “Well, we wanted to find survivors.  Let’s see who this Lady is.”

“I don’t like this.”  Holt said, arrow still on the string.  “This alley is surrounded by places that could easily be sniper nests.”

“It’s probably a trap.”  Reed said, checking the knives up his sleeves nervously.

“Maybe, but that soldier looked well equipped and well fed.”  Callindra said.  “I can’t argue with his assessment either. I’m tired of being hungry, tired and dirty.”

She squared her shoulders and followed him.  Halfway down the alley, Callindra could tell they were right, there were at least a half dozen pairs of eyes watching them from behind the glint of arrowheads.  It took all her willpower not to stare at them.

At the end of the alley Renfeld opened a door and then unlocked a reinforced iron door behind it with a key that hung around his neck.  The hallway beyond bristled with spear points in front and crossbows behind.

“Renfeld, you stain what’re you thinking?”  One of the soldiers holding a spear growled.  She had a scar that bisected her nose and left a thin white line underneath her right eye.  “You know better than to bring them straight in without the test.”

“We just saw them take on the giant squid and win.”  Renfeld laughed, “Angalus, you can’t be serious, not even the Tidoh maniacs fought their way in.”

“The test.”  Angalus hissed, pushing the spear forward.  “Now.”

“Sorry friends, she’s serious I’m afraid.”  Renfeld said, a pair of knives seeming to appear in his hands.  “You’re going to have to look into her eyes and not blink.”

Angalus held a small round mirror in her hand and muttered something under her breath.  A brilliant light shone from it directly into Callindra’s face.  Her eyes watered, but she knew what the test entailed and what failing it would mean. The light passed over the faces of all her companions, pausing for a few moments on each before finally being muttered to darkness again.

“I told you they were fine.”  Renfeld said with a grin that didn’t touch his eyes.  He didn’t sheath his daggers until Angalus grounded the butt of her spear and waved them inside with a curt gesture.

“Do this again and I’ll gut you.”  She said, giving him a flinty glare.  He ignored her, making the daggers vanish up his sleeves with a skill that rivaled Reed’s clever fingers.

Once they passed another door made of iron that only opened after another inspection and an exchange of passcodes they were assaulted with a riot of scents, sounds and sights that screamed of the everyday reality of a vibrant mortal city.  Hawkers cried wares, brightly painted buildings sprouted from the walls like giant mushrooms.  

It was like a sewer, but so much larger, and made of multiple tiers.  The walls were hundreds of times wider and taller than they should have been and had been altered to allow for the buildings foundations to gain purchase.  Some of the structures were obviously built after the city had been taken, but many of them seemed as though they had been transported from above. Some seemed to have fallen, walls cracked and patched as though from an impact, but others looked as though some agency of magic or industry of labor had moved them here brick by brick.

The structures were packed tight and a winding ramp wide enough for an ox drawn cart had been carved out of the wall.  Arcane lights shone on every street corner, high above the rooftops and smaller ones above the heads of many of the citizens.  Everywhere there were people talking, trading, eating, laughing and generally going about their daily lives. It was almost too much.

Renfeld stopped before a building that appeared to once have been grand, but was now long past its prime.  Peeling paint and broken boards adorned its porch and all but one of the windows was cracked. A sign hung from a rusted chain proclaiming it ‘The Pickled Fisherman’ in carefully stenciled letters.

“We should keep a low profile if we can to try and gather as much information as we can before we meet the Lady.”  Callindra said to her friends, trying to keep her voice low enough that their guide wouldn’t notice. He strode up the creaking steps and addressed the middle aged matron leaning on a stout oak staff and sipping from a tankard.

“Hagar, I’ve got some new faces for you.”  He said with a sweep of his arm that took in their bedraggled appearance.

“You always bring me the best surprises.”  She said, eyes roving over them with a mercenary gaze.  “Well new faces, whaddya have to trade me fer the privilege of staying under these venerable rafters?”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 58

“We don’t have time to use kid gloves.”  Callindra said through gritted teeth. “Just set the bone and be done.”

Kain was looking at her leg with a concerned expression.  “This would be difficult to set in a controlled environment, doing so on the deck of a moving ship will be dangerous.  It might not heal properly.”

“Kain.  You have to set the bone before you can heal the sword wound.”  Callindra said, trying to stay patient. “If you can’t staunch the bleeding it won’t matter if my leg heals crookedly because I’ll be dead.”

He blinked and looked at her other thigh, noting the bone deep slash with surprise.  “Oh, I didn’t know that was your blood. There was so much of it I just assumed it was from the monster.”

“It didn’t have red blood you god rotting fool!”  She snarled, and then screamed in pain when he quickly jerked and twisted her leg.

“Apologies, but I had to distract you into relaxing before I could set the bone.”  He said, giving the leg a critical look. “Your muscles had tensed to the point that I would have had to tear them in order to set the bone.”

He gently touched the slash next and green gold light shone from his palm, closing the wound and knitting the muscle back together.  When the healing magic spread to her broken bone, the lessening of pain was nearly euphoric.  

“Apologies aren’t necessary.”  She gasped, “Thank you Kain.”

“You really shouldn’t be putting weight on that yet.”  He said, frowning. “I know, I know, we don’t have time.”  The half orc raised his hands in surrender.

Callindra accepted a water skin from Holt with a grateful nod and let him help her to her feet.  “We have to move now. Fast.”

The ship wasn’t in the best of repair, but her sails and rigging were in good enough shape to move forward.  Under Connor’s direction they got the ship underway again and managed to get her into the harbor even as the seas behind them began to thrash with other unseen threats.  To their relief nothing seemed inclined to follow beyond the harbor mouth.

“Ship seems to be sinking.”  Cronos said in a detached voice, “I’m afraid the bonds of Weave I’ve put about her are failing.”

“What?”  Holt said, just as the timbers began to crack and the sound of water rushing into the hold rumbled like a miniature thunderstorm.

“Probably won’t totally fail for another thirty seconds.”  Cronos said, sweat beading his brow. “If someone else could formulate a plan while I hold it together that’d be best.”

Callindra braced her shoulders and whipped Shadowsliver in an intricate pattern.  “Run off the Starboard side!” She said and released the spell, creating an invisible ramp of air.  When nobody moved, she ran off the side, the air as solid as stone under her feet.

As the ship crumbled the others followed on her heels. “Stay close, I can only make it two paces wide.” Callindra said as she ran as best she could.  Holt slid under her right arm and helped her move faster. She managed to keep the spell active until her friends had reached the dock, but only barely.

Looking around the quay, Vilhylm pointed at the most intact building with his spear.  “That looks like the most likely place if we want to find survivors.”

“We need to find a way into those spheres.”  Callindra said as they moved toward the building.  “If there are survivors I would imagine that’s where they would be.”

“Survivors aplenty in the undercity.”  A voice from a side alley said. “Come on down, The Lady Ellen Eth was quite impressed with how you took down that leviathan squid out there.”

Weapons were drawn in seconds and Callindra felt the exhaustion and pain vanish as adrenaline took over.  She drew a spell from her blade, feeling the Winds gather around her to grant speed and power.

“Hey now, no need for that.”  A man in light armor walked out of the shadows of the alley with his hands in clear view.  “I’m here to extend an invitation from the Lady Ellen Eth, mistress of the Undercity. She bids you welcome to her domain and wishes to meet adventurers who could defeat such a dangerous opponent as the leviathan squid that patrolled the waters outside the city.”

“I am Callindra.  We’ve come here to try and find the survivors.”  The winds still swirled around her with a promise of violence.

“Well.  You found ‘em.”  He said with a grin, “If ya wanna find the rest of us you gotta come with me, and I’d appreciate it if you decided not to try and carve me up with that toothpick of yours.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 57

Callindra sprang into action without hesitation, sweeping Shadowsliver in a vicious arc that hacked the last two paces of the tentacle in front of her completely off.  It fell thrashing to the deck, nearly knocking her off her feet when she didn’t skip out of the way fast enough.

Connor took a piece of parchment out of a pouch and began furiously scribbling arcane symbols on it.  Reed scrambled into the rigging, frantically trying to shove the book back into his haversack. Vilhylm cut with the point of his spear, opening a gash in one of the other tentacles that threatened the ship.  Kain gestured with his holy symbol and a light golden nimbus surrounded him. Holt strung his bow and began firing arrows into one of the tentacles, pinning it to the deck and forcing it to further damage itself to withdraw the limb.

The massive monster ignored their attacks, instead wrapping its huge sucker covered arms around their small craft and squeezing.  The timbers creaked in protest as its terrible strength was brought to bear.  

“I’m going for the body!”  Callindra shouted, “Try to cut these loose!”  Before anyone could stop her, she ran and vaulted over the rail, summoning the winds to bear her aloft before she struck the water.  Beneath her, the voluminous body of the monster stretched out nearly twice the length of their craft. Running along a breeze as though it was solid ground, she began to search out the thing’s head.

Behind her on the ship, the others began to hack at the tentacles with whatever was at hand except for Connor who still wrote so fast that his quill tore the parchment in places.  The ship groaned and the railing shattered as the huge squid kept the pressure on.

Callindra realized that the thing’s head was actually right next to the ship itself, not at the end of the long undulating body.  With a cry, she dove downwards with Shadowsliver held in front of her like a lance. She took a deep breath and dove into the water at a speed that made the impact feel like being slapped by a giant.  

The speed of her dive drove the twin points of her sword into the creature with such force that she was buried in its soft flesh up to the elbow.  It began to thrash wildly and one of its hideously powerful arms let go of the ship to wrap around Callindra’s waist. She was torn from the water, and her blade was pulled free of the monster’s flesh so abruptly that her fingers lost hold of his hilt.

Black spots filled her vision as the tentacle wrapped about her tighter and the air rushed from her lungs.  Her small stature in comparison with the beast was all that kept it from crushing her in a single ripple of its muscles.  She desperately clawed at it with her free left hand, but her efforts only seemed to make it grip tighter. With superhuman effort she managed to shove her right wrist up and out between two of its huge grasping suckers.

Using the last of her strength, Callindra grabbed Shadowsliver’s chain and began to pull him up.  The indestructible Mithril chain cut into the squid and its grip slackened very slightly. When the razor sharp edge of the sword came into contact with the creature a convulsive shudder ran through it, driving the blade to cut into it even deeper.  

Callindra would have cried out in pain if she’d had the breath.  The tentacle was crushing her body, but worse was that Shadowsliver was double edged.  She welcomed his razor’s caress if it would free her from the monster though. The squid released her abruptly, blood flowing from the sliced limb and she fell toward the waves.

Jerking Shadowsliver back to her left hand with a flick of her right wrist, she screamed out another spell, drawing the Weave and the Winds to her bidding.  Even as she fell, a thousand razors of wind exploded from her blade’s twin tips and shredded two of the tentacles clutching the ship into bloody meat. She felt her heart sink her as she realized her trajectory was taking her towards the unyielding deck of the ship instead of the waves.

Connor laughed in triumph and threw the paper he’d been writing on overboard.  The ocean around the ship began to boil, superheated steam rising with a rush so sudden that it slowed Callindra’s fall.  She crashed to the deck of the ship, rolling with the fall but feeling shooting pains going up both her legs.

The squid released the ship, thrashing in the waves in agony.  Callindra forced herself to her feet and threaded a spell through Shadowsliver, calling up the winds to blow them into the harbor.  The pain from her legs and the exhaustion from the spellcasting made her head spin, but she forced herself to stand and grab onto a safety line as the ship heeled into the wind and lurched forward.

Kain dropped the ax he’d been using to hack at the monster and ran up to her.  “Callindra, your leg!” He said, even as her right leg buckled underneath her. She looked down and saw her leg bending at the shin.  

“Oh.  God’s balls.”  She said, crumpling to the deck.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 56

It was a frightening way to discover her plan had succeeded.  She was right, if the Abyss was to be defeated, it would take every living thing working together.  No matter the differences they may have had before, life was all that was important.  

Sitting in the bow of the ship with the wind whistling through her hair, Callindra felt a weight settle on her shoulders.  She had to build on this, she had to spread the word, she had to build an army.

“What’s got you all pissed?”  Reed asked, swinging down from the rigging.  “That face, you look like you’re going to do something stupid and violent.”

“We have to recruit everyone we find Reed.”  She said, taking out her pipe and thumbing the bowl full of tac.  “The only way to defeat the Abyss is by banding together.  No matter what, we can’t afford to alienate any living things.”

“What’re you on about?”  He asked, sitting on the rail and pulling a book from his pocket.  The boy opened it and idly flicked through a few pages before reading with a furrowed brow.

“The Taken have to be opposed Reed.  We all have to work together or we’re going to get wiped out.”  She lit her pipe and let the smoke trail from her nostrils. “This has to be our new mission, and the first part of it has to be finding what their weakness is.”

“How you gonna do that?”  Reed asked, sounding distracted.  “Ain’t like anyone knows anything about them other than how to kill the Taken.”

“That’s the thing Reed, Terevelen told me about a place in Starvale.  He thinks it leads to a place where we can finally get some answers.” Callindra said, “That’s just one more reason we need to go there.”

“Yeah.  Like I trust the words of a Necromancer.”  Reed said, flipping to the next page in his book.  Callindra looked closer it, frowning.

“Where did you get that book Reed?”  She asked, eyes narrowing. “It looks familiar.”

“Uh, I found it?”  Reed said, looking at her guiltily and tucking the book back into his pocket.

“That’s one of Cronos’s books.”  She said, giving him a dark look.  “What are you doing with one of his books?  What book is it?”

“It’s his spellbook.”  Reed admitted. “I didn’t want those ungrateful townsfolk to use it for toilet paper, so I swiped it.  I never thought it’d do anything for me, but it’s fascinating stuff really. I mean, once I got past how hard his handwriting is to read anyway.”

Callindra paused, remembering how Reed had thrown lightning at the Dragon in their last battle.  If he hadn’t they all might well be dead by now. She smiled and touched his shoulder in a fond gesture.  “I think he’d have wanted you to have it.”

“It’s not like I stole it I-“ He paused, “What?  You’re OK with it?”

She grabbed him in an impulsive hug, “Yeah.  It’s like having a part of him along with us, but without the horrible puns.”

Reed stiffened at her embrace, but was careful not to let on that he felt the tears falling on his shoulder.  “Actually, there’s an entire chapter of puns. Just wait until I decipher them and I’ll make your life miserable with the horrible legacy of Cronos’s humor.”

Her arms tightened around him and he tried not to wheeze as his ribs creaked. “Gods and demons you’re strong.”  He croaked.

“Oh, sorry.”  She let him go and wiped at her eyes.  “I forget sometimes.”

“Starvale off the Port bow!” Connor shouted, breaking the moment.

They turned to look at their destination as the ship rounded a promontory of land.  Huge colored spheres of light floated above a city devastated by war. The walls were breached in several places and fires still sent columns of black smoke into the sky.  The harbor was in shambles, craft of all sizes smashed and clogging the docks. There was no sign of life anywhere within it.

“Looks dead.”  Reed said, and that’s when the tentacles of the giant squid rose up from the depths to wrap around the ship in a deadly embrace.