The Angel Murders Part VII

“Happy birthday love!” Alison woke Lacy up with a kiss.

“I don’t wanna think about it.” Lacy groaned, trying to push her away.

“Well, I made you coffee with cardamom, crispy bacon, hash browns, and eggs sunny side up with a side of rye toast.” Alison said with a smile, “I brought a bottle of Tabasco and there’s plenty of cream and sugar for your coffee.

“I knew I married you for a reason.” She said, giving her a kiss back and sitting up.

“I’m pretty sure there were at least a couple more reasons.” Alison said with a wicked laugh, “But it’s too early for that kind of thing.”

“Says you.” Lacy grinned, “But I need coffee first.”

She took the first drink of coffee and almost dropped the cup. Over her wife’s shoulder, she could see an indistinct shape standing outside the second-story window. Twelve Twelve. The twelfth day of the twelfth month. The killer’s deadline had come and now it was her turn. The shape pointed at her and somehow she knew she had until noon.

“Baby?” She said, her voice sounding vulnerable even to her own ears. “Can we just say in bed for a few hours?”

“Hey.” Alison took her chin in her hand and raised it so they were eye to eye, “It’s your birthday, you get what you want.”

“Then I’m very much afraid this wonderful breakfast you’ve made is going to get cold.” Lacy spilled her coffee and didn’t even notice.

“Don’t tell me you’re going into the office.” Alison crossed her arms and gave her a stern look.

“No, I’m getting a bottle of wine.” Lacy said, “Also I need a cigarette and I don’t want to smoke close to the house. I know how you hate that.”

“If you’re not going to work then I’ll allow it.” She said, “You need to take a break from your job even if I have to lock you in the house.”

“I’ll be right back.” Lacy gave her a kiss and zipped up her coat. She walked briskly down the block, lighting a cigarette to steady her nerves. This had to work. It just had to.

As she had promised, she bought a bottle of wine for dinner. It was her favorite New Zealand chardonnay, a lactic fermentation that gave the wine a smooth buttery finish and went astonishingly well with grilled salmon. Purdue walked out of the liquor store and trudged through the snow into a small park across the street.

The air was cold enough that the snow squeaked underfoot and her breath came in clouds of steam. Nebecenezer was sullenly silent, but to show her appreciation she lit another cigarette. She arrived at a small stage in the center of the park where sometimes a small theater company would perform in the summer months and leaned against the railing to wait.

“You didn’t run or try to hide.” A pleasant voice said from above, “Just as I had anticipated. You’re the type to take things like this head-on. Quite refreshing actually.”

The creature above her was floating, not really flying since the wings that spread out to keep him aloft didn’t flap like a bird. They also appeared to be made of soft golden light instead of feathers and bones. His face was achingly beautiful; so perfect it seemed alien, which she supposed it was.

“Thank you for giving me the morning.” She said, not flinching, “Just in case it was my last chance to be with her I wanted to make it memorable.”

“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” He said, coming to stand in front of her, although his toes never touched the snow. “Even the others who came as close to you about guessing what was happening at least registered a little bit of shock.”

“It was the only explanation,” Purdue said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “When I looked into the history of all those others you murdered they all had one thing in common. In the past, on the same day, they were killed they all had some kind of major life event. From that moment on they seemed to live perfect charmed lives, getting everything they wanted and experiencing unparalleled success.

“I wasn’t sure what could have happened to them until you started to come after me. The only thing I had in common with your victims was that I had ample opportunity to get the same things they had. If only I was foolish enough to leverage my own personal demon, I could have wealth, power and whatever else I wanted.

“I don’t know if you were trying to give me a clue or just scare me with your notes, but I have to thank you for that. Without the warning about my anniversary of meeting Nebecenezer I might never have thought of how to survive.” She lit another cigarette, carefully flicking the cherry from the first before tossing it in a trash can.

“All the machinations in the mortal world can’t change your fate, Lacy Purdue.” He said, “The Almighty put us here to do his bidding and the words he speaks are law in the same way that gravity is law. However, as an agent of the divine realm, I am allowed to make you an offer.

“Since you have resisted the temptation regularly offered by the thing that taints your soul, you are allowed to forsake the part of you that caused the trouble in the first place and join us instead. Your dedication to upholding the rule of law is admirable, all that is left is for you to understand the portion of yourself that is keeping you from becoming perfect.”

Purdue laughed and looked at the angel. “Instead of giving up my free will, how about I make you an offer instead?”

“Bargaining won’t work.” He smiled sadly, “You see I am not burdened with the illusion of choices. You can say whatever you wish, but the options I am able to offer you will not change.”

She withdrew her pistol from beneath her jacket and pointed it at him, “Either you go away, stop murdering people in my city and never come back or I’ll kill you.”

It was his turn to laugh, “Even if you had the power to injure me, mortal, as I mentioned before, free will is not a problem I am forced to endure. I cannot change the options available to you.”

“That’s too bad. I have no intention of becoming god’s hitman.” She said and pulled the trigger twice.

The gunshots shattered the quiet of the park. The angel looked down in surprise at the two quickly closing holes in his chest as his feet touched mortal soil for the first time.

“My wings!” He cried, “What have you done to me?”

“Nobody murders anyone in my city and gets away with it.” She said, holstering her pistol and taking out her handcuffs. “I figured out your weakness by the placement of the wounds on your victims. A little help from Nebby let me momentarily bypass your invulnerability and two precise shots clipped your wings.”

He turned a horrified face to her, understanding dawning at last as she slapped the cuffs on his wrists. “Welcome to the mortal world. You’re under arrest.”

 

The Angel Murders Part VI

Purdue sat at her desk, desperately wishing she could have a cigarette.  Of course, smoking wasn’t allowed in the office anymore and the IA officer assigned to her probably wouldn’t have let her smoke anyway.

“Inspector Purdue, I am Investigator Lawrence.”  The powerfully built man in the off the rack suit tapped the stack of papers carefully straight and set them exactly squarely on her desk.  “I have been assigned to look into your so-called ‘wing murders’ case file.”

“Lawrence, glad to see you.”  She said, “What can I do for you?”

“Well, we’re wondering why there’s such a lack of progress.”  He said, laying a perfectly sharpened pencil next to the files.  “You’ve been working this case for six months now?”

“Eight months actually.”  She said, “The first incident I looked at occurred two months before we discovered this was a serial case.”

“Eight months.”  He smoothed his hair carefully and looked at her, “You haven’t produced any real results in that time?”

“Nothing in the case makes sense.”  She took her cigarettes from her breast pocket and tapped one out of the pack.  “I haven’t been able to draw any conclusion from what I’ve found at the crime scenes.”

“But surely after this amount of time you’ve begun to form some kind of idea about who is behind this series of murders.”  He said, “Please humor me and give me some insight into what you have discovered.”

“Officer Lawrence, I assure you that my official statements encompass the entirety of my knowledge about the case.”  She put the cigarette between her lips, “I wish I had more information.”

“I’m happy to step outside if you want to smoke,”  Lawrence said.

“Fucking serious?”  She smiled and stood, “I really do need a cigarette.”

“Of course.”  He said, standing and opening the door.

They walked out to the alley behind the station and she lit her cigarette.  Purdue turned and looked him in the eye. “So, what do I have to get IA off my back?”

“We need results, Purdue.”  He said, “I know the chief has warned you, but the Mayor is hitting this one hard.  He can’t afford to look weak on crime, and this case is getting a lot of media attention.”

“The only problem is that it’s all impossible.”  She blew twin streams of smoke from her nostrils, “The last three?  There’s no way anyone could have placed them there without disturbing the snow, but the only footprints were from the person who discovered the bodies.”

“She’s not a suspect?” Lawrence asked, leaning against the wall.

“Jessica Chang is about five feet tall and weighs ninety pounds soaking wet.”  Purdue shook her head, “There’s just no way she could have carried an adult corpse, and even if she could have, there weren’t any footprints around the bodies anyway.  No footprints where the sick bastard drew those wing outlines, not between the bodies, no evidence that anyone had stepped on the corpses themselves and furthermore, not one of them had an injury that the medical examiner would call fatal.”

“I did read that report.” He admitted grudgingly, “The coroner’s office said, and I quote, ‘The superficial wounds below each shoulder blade are only skin deep and show no sign of toxicity.  None of the bodies lost enough blood to cause death. ‘There is no evidence of murder, it is as though their bodies decided to peacefully shut down.’ and that’s just impossible.”  

“None of it makes any sense.”  She said, stubbing her cigarette out and dropping it into the butt bin.  “If I tried to say someone used magic to stop people’s hearts and then teleported them to the center of the street I’d get locked up.  I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of that paperwork.”

He laughed, “I hear you there, but you have to give us something Purdue.  I certainly don’t envy you right now.”

“I’m not just going to make something up so that the mayor looks good.”  She held the door for him and they walked in out of the cold, “I have one last lead I’m going to chase down, provided you don’t think I’m somehow mishandling the investigation?”

“You’re a good cop Purdue,” He said, “I want to make sure you understand that I respect the work you’ve done in the past.  I don’t know that you’ve done anything wrong here, but nobody can deny the lack of results. I trust your lead will pan out in the next couple of days, I’ll get out of your way and let you do your job.”

He turned and walked past her office and into the maze of cubicles, amicably greeting a few of the people he passed.  Purdue pursed her lips, he wasn’t making an overt threat, but she knew a warning when she heard one. It was time to call in that favor from Nebby.  She had something very specific in mind. He was going to hate it.

The Angel Murders Part V

Purdue stepped out of her squad, lighting the cigarette she already had between her lips, “Here we go again.”  She muttered.

“About time you got here.”  Officer Whitehead gave her cigarette a dark look.  “We gotta block off an entire street just because some psycho likes to finger paint with his victim’s blood.”

“A pleasure to see you as always officer.”  She said cheerfully, “Where’s the victim?”

“Victims.”  He corrected, “There’s three of them down there.”

She followed him under the police tape and looked around at the area as they walked.  A dusting of fresh snow covered everything, there were several sets of footprints on the sidewalk and a single set of vehicle tracks that went in and out.  The vehicle had stopped a hundred feet from the bodies and a single set of footprints walked to and from the bodies. There were no other footprints that came near.

“These are from the person who called it in.”  Whitehead said, “Nobody else has been here. How the hell the perp managed to get them here without leaving any marks is anyone’s guess.  I’m just a beat cop, you detectives get the fun job of figuring out the details.”

Three men’s bodies were laying in a triangle, their feet almost touching, their hands over their eyes and bloody wings almost touching where they unfurled from their backs.  Two of them were wearing clerical collars and the third wore an Armani suit.

“Any ID on these guys?”  She asked, walking carefully around the corpses.

“We got orders not to touch any of them.”  He said acidly, “They all got the wings. That means hands off.”

Purdue pulled on her gloves and removed the tweezers from her breast pocket.  Kneeling, she opened the mouth of the man in the suit carefully. Under his tongue was a familiar piece of parchment.  This one had a portion of a word on it. She bagged it with shaking hands and repeated the extraction from the other two.  

After pocketing the evidence bags, she found the men’s wallets, put them in their own evidence bags and handed them to Whitehead, “Get these to the lab please.”

“I ain’t your delivery boy.”  He grumbled, but took the bags and stalked down the street back to where the forensics van was parked. 

Purdue was about to take her necklace off when one of the men’s hands twitched.  She quickly knelt and put fingers to his throat. There was no pulse.

‘Don’t touch that.’ Nebecenezer said, ‘It’s dangerous.’

“If you don’t tell me what you’re talking about I’m going to ignore you.”  Purdue muttered, “I don’t see anything dangerous here.”

‘What’ll ya give me?’ He asked.

“You’re the one who wants something.”  Purdue said, reaching her hand out again, “What will you give ME?”

‘What?’  Nebecenezer exclaimed, ‘That’s not how this works!’

“Yeah, it is.”  She said, lighting another cigarette, “Just because the tables have turned doesn’t change the nature of the relationship.”

The demon paused, making a high-pitched keening sound. ‘Fine.  I’ll give you one favor if you don’t touch them.’

“Excellent.” Purdue said, “I have just the thing.  I’ll tell you about it later. I won’t even ask why.”

‘Wait, no!  You have to make the deal right now!’ Nebecenezer protested, ‘I can’t have something like that just hanging over my head.’

“Oh, you’ll get used to it.”  She said. “Some of us have had to deal with that for years.”

Purdue took the evidence bags from her pocket and held them so the tears all matched.  She shuddered as the symbol drawn on the whole piece of parchment was revealed. The random-looking lines resolved themselves into an outline of a rosebud on one side and a set of roman numerals on the other.  

The numbers XII-XII were significant.  They represented her birthdate and one other anniversary.  December twelfth was also in three days.

The Angel Murders Part IV

‘You finally figured it out did you?’ Nebecenezer sneered, “You can run all you want, but the truth was going to catch up with you eventually wasn’t it?”

“I haven’t done anything I need to apologize for.”  She snapped, angrily wiping melted cheese from a plate.  “My only crime is finding a few pages of an ancient Sumerian text that detailed how to make an alliance with a supposed dark power.”

‘Here I am and you dare to say you’re innocent?’ Nebecenezer laughed, ‘I have made you all but immortal and given you a window to the knowledge you so desperately crave!’

“I only asked you for help once, and that was out of adolescent ignorance.” Purdue said, “You’re also not nearly as powerful as that text claims.  Nebe, you’re just a shitty little con artist and you know it.  I figured you out decades ago.”

‘Hey, I know a lot more than I pretend.’  Nebecenezer said, ‘I’m telling you all the answers you want are literally at your fingertips.  I just need a little more from you.’

“You’ve taken all you’re getting from me.”  She put the last plate into the drainer and dried off her hands.  “I have this damn habit and I can’t kick it thanks to you.”

‘Oh quit complaining.  You know you wanted to be a smoker anyway and thanks to me it won’t kill you.’ Nebecenezer said, ‘That was your first command.’

“Request.”  Purdue said, “I asked for it, I didn’t issue an ultimatum.”

‘That’s not how it works and you know it.’ He said and laughed bitterly, ‘I have to obey your commands and I get to take things in return.’

“At first you said you wanted to be allowed to stay out of hell.  You failed to tell me that meant  you got to take half my soul.”  Purdue walked to the closet, pulled on her jacket and stepped outside, tapping a cigarette out of a fresh pack.   “I doubt I’d have agreed to it if I’d really understood that you’d be hitchhiking along in my brain.”

Snow swirled in front of her as she cupped her hands to light her cigarette, the wind seeming to outline a vaguely humanoid shape leaning against the porch railing.  She squinted and looked closer at it, “Nebby?  Is that you?”  He’d never manifested a physical form before.

Purdue blew a stream of smoke at the figure and it passed through it without slowing down or distorting.  Whatever it was, the figure wasn’t really there.  She flicked the cherry off her cigarette and tossed the butt into the garbage can, barely taking her eyes off the thing.  Just as she was slipping through the door, she was almost sure the figure pointed at her.

Nebecenezer was uncharacteristically silent.  A shiver ran down her spine.  It was time to get to bed.

The Angel Murders Part III

“Bad day, babe?” Allison Purdue took her wife’s coat and handed her a cold beer.

“You’re a lifesaver.”  She said, taking the beer and killing half of it in one swallow.  “Not so much a bad day as the culmination of a month’s worth of bad days.”

“Lacy, you need to take a break.”  Allison said, “Come on, I made your favorite extra spicy enchiladas.  You can tell me all about it.”

‘Yeah, tell her all about it!’ Nebecenezer chimed in cheerfully, ‘She needs to know all your crazy theories!’

“I can’t tell you about it.” Lacy Purdue said with a long-suffering sigh, “It’s still under investigation.”

Allison guided her to a chair and put a plate of food in front of her.  “You don’t have to tell me anything specific, just let me know what’s bothering you the most.”

Lacy took a bite of food and let out a moan of pleasure, “You are a Goddess in the kitchen.  OK, I’m almost certain that the thing killing people in my latest case isn’t human.”

“I know it’s normal to think of your enemies as different from you.” Allison said, “Why do you say they aren’t human?”

“I realized the only thing that tied all the victims together.”  Lacy said, “They were all sinners beyond redemption. Every single one of them had some kind of criminal record that broke biblical law more than seven times.”

“Isn’t that a little thin?” Allison asked, “You’ve never resorted to something as ephemeral as scripture to make a legal argument before.”

“What if the things listed in the Bible were true?”  Lacy asked, “What if there is some kind of divine justice?”

“Don’t you think we’d be the first to suffer from the sword of God?” Alison laughed, “Aren’t we homosexuals supposed to be on the top of the naughty list?”

“Not according to the Ten Commandments or honestly really any bible passage.” Lacy said, “There actually isn’t anything in the bible about lesbians directly.  Even the passages about gay men are more or less understood to be about sexual abuse, not about consensual same-sex love.”

“So give me an example.  I thought the last victim was just a kid.” Alison said, “What could some kid have possibly done to warrant divine retribution?”

“I can’t tell you.”  Lacy said, her face a hard mask, “Not just because it’s part of an ongoing investigation but also because I want you to be able to sleep at night.  It’s bad enough this shit has to live in my head; I’m not going to subject you to it if I can avoid it.”

“Baby, I’ve heard everything under the sun from you by now.”  Alison said with a smile, “Nothing you could say at this point can make things that much worse.”

“He was just a kid.  He’s not that much older than our daughter, Ali.  Can you imagine Reese being a murderer or a rapist?”  Lacy shoved her plate away, only half empty. “This is beyond normal human awfulness.”

‘You would know, wouldn’t you?’ Nebecenezer asked gleefully.

“I hate to see you like this baby.” Alison said, reaching across the table to take her hand, “Why don’t you just take a shower and come to bed?”

“You go first.” Lacy said, “Thank you for dinner, I want to do up the dishes before tuning in.  I hate leaving you with all the housework. It’s only fair I do my share.”

“Come soon, I demand snuggles.  You missed dinner last night, and you have to pay the piper!” Alison said mock-severely, “I love that you want to help out around the house, but I want you to get your rest, and I want to feel your arms around me before I sleep too.”

Lacy kissed her deeply, running a hand down her back.  “I will be in bed soon, I promise.”

The Angel Murders Part II

“Where are you getting with these wing murders, Purdue?”  Dennis Lopez strode into her office with a pair of styrofoam cups of steaming black coffee.

She looked up from the file she was studying, “I just can’t figure out what the connection between them is Chief.”  Taking the cup he offered, she took a drink and shuddered, “God, did you brew this in one of your old boots?”

“Well, I have some bad news for you.”  He said, taking a sip from his own cup, “The mayor is running out of patience.”

“He wouldn’t give a shit except this is an election year,”  Purdue said pinching the bridge of her nose.  Almost absently, she drank half the cup of coffee in one long swallow.  It was so hot she exhaled a small cloud of steam.  She glared at the cup and Nebecenezer laughed in the back of her mind, the bastard.

“I’m not arguing with you there, but it is what it is.”  He shrugged, “I know you’re a good detective Purdue, but you’re the lead on this one and it’s getting a lot of attention after that kid got killed.”

“Interesting how nobody pays attention when it’s a few homeless people and a few people of color, but kill some rich white kid and suddenly it’s an epidemic.”  She picked up her jacket, “I need a smoke.  You wanna come?”

“You know I quit.”  He said, “I can’t stand the smell of tobacco smoke now.”

“Can’t resist it you mean.”  She tapped a cigarette from her pack and tossed it on the desk.  “I get it.  I know I should quit too, but it’s just one more straw on the camel’s back.”

Purdue walked out to the alley and lit up, drawing smoke deep into her lungs.  “Why can’t I find the common denominator?”

‘You know I could help you.’ Nebecenezer whispered, ‘It’d be easy.  All you need to do is ask.’

“Yeah, I know better you little bastard.”  She muttered through a cloud of smoke, “You’ve got enough of a hold over me.”

“What was that?” Lopez walked out the door with one of her American Spirits in his mouth.

“You quit.”  She said, “You don’t want to start again for something as stupid as this do you?”

“You ain’t telling me everything.”  He said, “You got a light?”

Purdue handed him her Zippo.  “You’re right, I’m not.  Are you sure you wanna know?”

He lit the cigarette, handed her lighter back, and looked at her with narrowed eyes.  “Yeah, I want to know.”

“I can’t prove it, I have no evidence, but my gut is telling me this is religious.”  She blew a smoke ring, “I know that might seem obvious what with the angel wings, but not everyone sees things in the same way.”

“What religion?  What sect?”  He coughed and sighed.

“I don’t know.”  Purdue said, flicking the ash off her cigarette, “Although Christianity is really the only religion with angels.  Other cults have winged humans, but really I don’t think it’s any of them.  What I can’t figure out is why angel wings would be involved with all the victims.”

‘I can tell you!’ Nebecenezer whispered mockingly.

“Maybe it’s some kind of cult, or some guy with a vendetta?”

“It could be any number of things.  There’s just not enough evidence.”  She stubbed out her cigarette and threw it into a trash can.  “Whoever is doing this is too careful.  All they’ve left is pieces of old parchment under the tongue of their victims.  No words or anything to identify what the significance of it is.  The only thing that forensics can tell is that the paper is likely torn from the same sheet, and that it’s old; around two thousand years old.”

“Who would use such an ancient piece of parchment and what kind of message would they be trying to send?” Lopez mused.

‘Pick me, pick ME!’ Nebecenezer crowed.

“Oh hell.”  Purdue said.  “This is bad.  This is really really bad.”

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.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 5

A man of indeterminate middle years walked into the crowded common room of the Fox and Pullet.  Straightening his hat, he hung his cloak and bow on the hooks inside the door reserved for weapons.  The inn was tucked away in a small valley that seemed to be prospering despite the area that surrounded it being desolated by the fires and plagues that had affected so much of the world.

Just as the door closed behind him, Holt was startled as it was slammed open once again.  A travel worn trio entered, cloaks pulled tight against the rising wind.  The first was a slight figure with a long sword hilt protruding above her left shoulder.  She was closely followed by a young man in chainmaile armor with twin swords strapped to his back and a tall figure in a swirling dark cloak.

“Gods and Demons you’d better have something to drink in this place!”  The leader said, “I’m so dry I’d drink purple hippogriff!”

The hunter’s eyes widened as he took in her appearance.  The skin of her arms had a latticework of healed scars; most of them faded until they were barely visible lines.  The two and a half hand hilt of the sword was far too large to fit the size of the slender four foot long blade.  A delicate looking silver chain ran from the faceted pommel of the sword to a gleaming bracelet on her right wrist.

It was her eyes that caught and held him though.  Tempestuous seafoam green with a glitter of mischief and humor, although there were grief lines around them.  Far too many lines for one as young as she seemed to be.  The world wasn’t as kind as it had been when Holt was her age he supposed.

The innkeeper waved at the large man leaning casually against the wall and he stepped forward.  “Have to leave your weapons at the door.”  Torver said in his mild baritone, “Inn policy.  Makes for much more polite company.”

“As much as I would love to comply, as you can clearly see that isn’t an option for me.”  The girl said with a smile, lifting her right hand and shaking it.  The chain tinkled merrily.  “We are a little attached to one another.”

“I can fix that easily enough.”  Torver said, patting his wide bladed axe with a smile, “If you’d like me to I could take care of that problem for you.”

“Oh really?”  Her eyes glittered with amusement and a tinge of malice.  “A big strong man like you would help out a poor weak girl like myself?”

“I don’t wanna be responsible for damaging your weapon little one.”  He said, narrowing his eyes.  “I’ve seen this game before.”

“Let everyone witness!  If this gargantuan lump of muscles damages my Shadowsliver’s chain I will not hold him accountable for damages any more than he would hold me accountable if it was his axe instead that was broken.”  The girl said, her poorly cut reddish brown hair bristling like an angry cat’s as she addressed the bar.  The patrons were all paying attention; this was the first bit of sport they’d had in days.

Torver laughed, a booming roar of amusement.  “Done, and if I can’t cut the chain, I guess we have no choice but to allow you entry.”

The girl didn’t draw her sword, but instead laid her wrist on the bench, a heavy thing made of an oak log split lengthwise.  Torver’s laugh died and his mouth stayed open in astonishment.  “You’re not gonna put the blade down there?  What if I miss?”

“You think I’m going to risk damaging the wire wrap on the hilt?  You think I’m putting HIM in danger because of YOUR stupid rules?”  Her voice was genuinely indignant, “Or is it your own skill you doubt?”

“Callindra.”  The figure in the black cloak said in a low bass voice, “Keep a leash on your temper.  The man is just doing his job.”

“Or maybe it’s your skill with that ungainly monstrosity you doubt?”  Callindra continued, still glaring at Torver.

With a speed belied by his huge frame, Torver swung his axe in a whistling arc.  It slammed into the chain with a musical tinkling sound and tiny pieces of metal flew about the room, bouncing off walls and clattering against tankards.  Most of the people in the room burst out laughing and went back to their drinks.

“I hope that chain wasn’t important.”  The bouncer said with a sympathetic look and wrenched his axe out of the bench.  Half of the blade stayed embedded in the oak, a neat crack running from where it split over the tiny chain.  The room went from raucous laughter to stunned silence.

Callindra pulled the chain free from the crack in the wood and winced.  “Sorry.  I probably shouldn’t have goaded you into that.  I get unreasonable when I don’t have a bath or a drink for a week.”

Torver just stared at his broken weapon in disbelief.  “Gods and demons.  Who in the nine hells are you?”

“Thirsty.  We’re thirsty.”  Callindra said firmly, and moved past him towards the bar.  “Barkeep, if it makes you feel better you can keep him behind the bar.  But don’t you dare try and touch him.”  She withdrew the sword from where it was thrust beneath her armor with a practiced motion and wiped off the black steel with a practiced motion before setting the weapon carefully behind the bar with a rattle of chain.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”  The barkeep said faintly, placing a tankard, a bottle of wine and a jug of spirits on the bar.  “I didn’t know what your preference was Mistress.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 4

“Good alewife do be bringing Felix a tankard.”  Durrak said, “It do be many a moon since I have shared a cup with another Dwarf.”

Felix slapped him on the back hard enough to nearly knock him from his seat. “That is indeed most kind Durrak Caverstorm.  Perhaps I can offer something in return?”

“May I be imposing on you for one of those cigars?”  Durrak asked, “They do be smelling of home.”

“That may be inadvisable my friend.”  Said Felix, but he produced one anyway and handed it over.  “They don’t often seem to be the same.”

Durrak took the cigar and smelled it.  The scent was of brimstone and iron.  The smell of the Adamantine Forge itself, the tip was glowing sullenly, already lit.  “This do smell even more of home.”  He said, drawing on it to light it properly.  It took a bit of puffing but when the cigar lit, the smoke was an acrid yellow and diffused very quickly.  Angry red sparks shot out and split as very high quality steel would.

“You are a smith.”  Felix said; a statement not a question.  “You are from Farenholm itself.  I know that accent and the smoke does not often lead me astray.”

The alewife brought a pair of foaming tankards and set them before the pair with a smile.  “Roast is near done.  Would your friend like a meal as well?”

“My dear, I would be forever grateful for a meal.”  Felix said.

“I do be accounting for his meal also.”  Durrak said at the same time, putting another handful of gold on the bar and waving away Felix’s protest.  “It do be a pleasure to share the company of a kinsman.  I do be insisting Felix.”

The cigar, for all its strange scent and odd behavior, brought a tingle to Durrak’s tongue and a pleasant thrill to his senses.  The smoke was harsh, but he found it was much like working at the forge, something he had always enjoyed.

“I take such kindness to heart and insist on returning it in kind.”  Felix said gravely, “What would you have me trade?”

“The cigar and the companionship do be more than sufficient.”  Durrak said.  “Did you be knowing Farenholm?  Did you be walking the ancient halls of my ancestors?  Do you be knowing of Cerioth the Black, Bane of Ignitium?”

“Certainly I once walked the halls of Farenholm.”  Felix said with a wistful smile, “Her tall arches and endless caverns are a bright spot in my long memories.  The splendor and grandeur of the King’s front hall has stayed in my mind as one of the triumphs of mortal engineering and craftsmanship.

“As for your other question; I heard a report that she was seen near Hellgate keep.” Felix said, “But I didn’t see that myself so I can’t speak for the accuracy of that particular rumor.  Have a care speaking that name aloud my friend.  Ill luck comes to those who invoke the names of those fell things who have made compacts with dark forces for power.”

“When?”  Durrak asked, his voice sounding harsher than it had before.

“I heard the rumor a month ago.”  Said Felix, “The man I spoke to said he’d seen the dragon fly out of a swirling cloud of black smoke that rained emerald green rain down on the ground.  He didn’t stay to watch, even abandoned his herd and ran until his horse was blown.  I don’t know more than that.”

“I do be going there.”  Durrak said flatly, “If I no did need to resupply I no would delay one moment.”

“Now I see the resemblance.”  Felix said, “You father-“

“Did be a fool.”  Durrak interrupted.  “He did embark on a mission knowing it did be the undoing of my people.”

“Perhaps.  However, I seem to remember the Moragainnag stating that the doom would be worse if he did not set forth.”  Felix said, pausing to take another lit cigar from his pouch and flick the stub of his first into the fire.  “I was there when the doom of Farenholm was pronounced.  Unlike most of your folk I had the wisdom to leave.  If I’d thought for a moment they’d disregard her words I’d have tried harder to convince them.  I am sorry.”

The pewter mug in Durrak’s hand shrieked in protest as his hand tightened on it, mashing the thick metal into an hourglass shape.  The dwarf blinked in surprise and unclenched his fist.  “I do be sorry Alewife, I do be paying for the damage.”

She swiftly replaced the mug with a fresh one full of ale.  “Not to worry master Dwarf.”  She said, looking at the mug with wide eyes.  “These things happen ye ken?”

“I do be insisting.”  Durrak placed a platinum piece in her free hand.  “I no do wish to be an unwelcome guest.  I did simply lose control, it no do be anything.  Please do be thinking nothing of it.”

She took his gold without further comment and retreated behind the bar, setting the mug carefully on a shelf behind the bar.  Filling a fresh tankard with beer, she returned and set it in front of him without meeting his eyes and left without speaking.

“I do be spreading fear.”  Durrak said sadly, “I no do wish to be a harbinger of fear and despair.”

“None of us do.”  Felix said, “Doesn’t change that what we know changes how we influence the world.”

Durrak drained his tankard in a single long pull.  “Aye.  Our desires no do mean a bedamned thing.”

Felix put his hand on Durrak’s shoulder and squeezed.  “That tale requires something in return.”  He said solemnly and placed the cigar pouch on the counter.  “The wizard who traded this to me warned me not to keep it too long.  I find the results got more interesting when I began adding other things to it.”

Durrak made as if to protest, but Felix smiled broadly.  “Keep it my friend.  Keep it and remember this day as I fear pleasant memories will be few and far between in days to come.”

The Death of Flinder Quickfingers

Flinder ran like he had never run before.  It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this; it was a simple job, a quick hit and run with a payout that should have made him look twice but it was for a nobleman and they never knew how much something like this was worth.  Sweat poured down his face as he thought about how wrong things had gone.

Their target hadn’t been a simple merchant; he had been some kind of blademaster.  He fought like a demon and had killed three of Flinder’s crew before the gnome had managed to hit him with enough poisoned crossbow bolts that he had fallen to the cobblestones, paralyzed.  Flinder was far too smart to kill a mark; stealing was one thing, but murder always brought more trouble than any fee was worth.

He had gone personally to recover the merchandise from the carriage.  It was supposed to have been in a small, easily movable iron casket, instead there was a series of strong boxes that had to be individually unlocked.  Every one of them had some sort of trap on it and he only very nearly avoided being poisoned by a particularly nasty needle trap on the last one.

The extra time meant that his crew was fighting the watch off by the time he finally got the casket open.  It was only by luck that he managed to slip through a sewer grate and run before the last of his muscle was overwhelmed.  Then the rats had started running from him.

It wasn’t just the normal running away from a threat, it was a panicked rush of animals that were terrified.  Something was inside the small iron casket.  Something dangerous.  Flinder had no desire to open it and now he just wanted to escape.  But he didn’t dare abandon the job.  If someone wanted this, they were powerful enough mete out retribution if he didn’t come through.

He stopped, his back against the wall and tried to quiet his breathing.  Removing his haversack, he placed the casket carefully inside, making sure to snuggle it between the layers of dirty clothes he had packed inside.  Making sure his hand crossbow was cocked and loaded with another paralytic bolt, he secured it out of sight beneath his rags and slipped out of the sewer into the bustling basement of the laundress’s shop.  This wasn’t the first time Flinder had made use of the slip me out here.  Best ten gold he had ever spent.

Stepping out into torch lit streets, the gnome almost walked straight into the night watchman who was waiting for him.  Maintaining his guise as a rag picker, he squinted at the man and bobbed his head.  “Apologies sirrah, didn’t see ya sirrah, old eyes ain’t what they were sirrah.”

“Flinder Quickfingers.”  He said, his eyes hard.  “Come with me.  We have business to discuss.”

Flinder looked at him for a moment and the man’s gaze was unsettling.  The game was up.  Cursing his luck and cursing the laundress for probably selling him out, Flinder looked for an escape while reaching beneath his rags for his crossbow. He never saw the rope that circled around his neck.

When he regained consciousness, Flinder looked around dazedly.  He was in a prison cell that was apparently built into something resembling a plush office.  Overstuffed chairs were arranged next to a crackling fireplace, paintings were attractively displayed on the walls and various bits of statuary sat on tables and pedestals.  His pilfered iron casket sat on a marble table near the fire.  His stomach churned.  It was open.

“So Quickfingers, tell me what you were thinking you were going to do with this?”  A man in a constable’s uniform gestured at the open iron box.

Flinder licked dry lips and shook his head dazedly.  “I didn’t know what was in it.”  He croaked, his voice raw.  “Just paid to get it.”

“Who would pay for something like this?”  A second man asked.  He was wearing an officer’s uniform; the rank of Nightmaster on his sleeve.  “Do you take us for complete fools?”

“Can I please have some water?”  Flinder asked plaintively, “My throat is parched.”

“God rotting gnomes.”  The Nightmaster hissed, spitting into the fire.

“Sir, I know they don’t understand propriety the way we do, however it makes sense to at least keep his lips moist while he answers our questions.”  The constable said, pouring a cup of water from a pitcher with condensation beading invitingly on the side.

Flinder didn’t even think about it being poisoned when he drank.  After all, they could have killed him any time.  Foolish.  He never expected the truth drugs; he hadn’t known they existed.

“Who hired you?”  The Nightmaster asked, leaning forward to hear the answer.  “What was the payoff?”

“I don’t know the Lady’s name, but she was of noble birth.”  Flinder said, feeling slightly dizzy.  “She offered ten thousand gold, which seemed to be an insane amount but you know nobility.  They’re all a bunch of insane maniacs who have no idea about what jobs are worth, I mean I’ve had Lords insist I assassinate someone for a handful of silver, not that I do those jobs you understand but I’ve brokered-“

“Enough!”  The Nightmaster cut him off, “What is this thing?”

“I don’t know what it was, like I said before, she just said she wanted it and it was important.  Was supposed to just be in that iron casket but they had it in a bunch of other chests and that crazy maniac must have been a swordmaster or something because he nearly killed my entire crew before we took him down.”

“Pox and rot this thing is useless.”

“Perhaps sir, we could sell it to this noble?”

“If we knew her bedamned name.  I’m sure this little bastard has already missed the time for the exchange.  When and where was it Quickfingers?”

“At the eleventh bell.”  Flinder said, feeling even dizzier now.  “In the fountains in the Flower district.”

“Missed it by three hours.”  The Nightmaster sighed, “Another one for the collection I suppose.”  He reached inside the casket and withdrew a hand constructed of a strange shining black material.  It ended right after the wrist in a maw of bristling needle like teeth.  It twitched in his hand slightly, the mouth of teeth opening and closing spasmodically.

“What a terrible thing.”  Flinder murmured, watching the hand as it strove to sink its fangs into the Nightmaster’s arm.  It was the last thing he saw as the poison stopped his heart.