The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 41

“A remarkably charming man for all that you’re as blunt as a tree trunk.  I am willing to wait, and I’m sure you’re eager for me to produce the promised results.”  She cocked an eyebrow at him, “You have a plan to kill her I assume?”

“Of course.”  Durrak took a satisfying drag on his cigar, waiting until she she grew frustrated enough that her left eyelid twitched.  “I do be going to cut her filthy head off.”

“With that?”  She indicated his Gisarme with an elegantly painted fingernail.

“Indeed.”  He was starting to feel slightly apprehensive at her look of honest concern.  “Femurslicer do be quite efficient at removing stubborn problems.”

“May I?”  Ellen Eth reached out a hand and Durrak shrugged and flipped the weapon easily into the air, catching it just under the blade.  The flat smacked into the plate steel that cased his forearm and he held the heavy counterweighted end out towards her.

She gestured absently, and the weapon leaped from his hand, shedding its coating of dried viscera as it flew toward her.  It stopped inches from her hand, lifted to point at the ceiling and began to slowly pivot.  Her eyes began to glow a vivid purple and she shouted a word that shuddered with power.  Violet light streamed from her mouth as she mouthed a long incantation that seemed to be all one long word.

The blade began to chime like a struck bell and the entire shaft quivered in response.  Runes of Power reluctantly faded into view, climbing the haft in twin spirals that eventually blossomed into an intricate latticework on both sides of the blade.

“It may do.”  Ellen Eth said, sounding as though she was surprised and grudgingly respectful.  “Cerioth has grown in power over these last few decades though.  I will do my best to make sure you are not simply throwing your life away.”

When she fluttered her hands at his weapon as though shooing away an annoying fly, it streaked back toward him, spinning through the air with blurring speed as though it was in a rush to escape the embrace of her arcane Power.  If he hadn’t been ready for something like this, Durrak knew he would have suffered serious injuries.  He caught it only using the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.  Just because he could.

Ellen Eth beamed at him.  “Yes, you will fit right in here.”

Damn.  He hadn’t meant to show off, but her display of magic had been more intimidating than he thought it would be.  She was better than he’d anticipated too, and he’d known she must be powerful to be able to maintain her leadership over these people under these circumstances.  He had underestimated her.  He bowed slightly from the waist, politely returning her acknowledgement of his earlier point in their mental fencing match.

“I do be out of practice.”  Durrak said, dropping the still smoldering cigar butt back into his belt pouch.  “Also I never did be the most skilled at court games.”

“It has been a fascinating evening Lord Caverstorm.”  Her eyes twinkled, “Thank you for the entertainment.”

“I do be thanking you for your kind hospitality Lady Ellen Eth.”  He said carefully, “By your leave, we do be departing.”

She nodded graciously and both he and Lorin bowed, backing away three steps before they straightened and turned to leave the room.

“Durrak.”  Ellen Eth’s voice cut through the room with a snap of command that his training couldn’t ignore.  He stopped and turned to look back at her.  “I will hold you to your word.  Do not think you can take from me without giving my price.”

He shuddered, feeling icy fingers crawl down his spine.  If ever there was a question about keeping his bargain, he knew he had his answer.

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 40

“I have many capable men and women to defend my borders, but the two of you are unique.”  She fixed Durrak with a piercing look, “The last scion of the last great House of Farenholm who is also the Battlemaster of the nearly unrivaled Drakanda style would be a jewel to shine in any ruler’s retinue.”  She twirled her goblet and it sent rainbows dancing about the room.

“Of course, the Prince of the Blackthorn Wood is a prize nearly as fetching.”  She gestured and wine poured itself into a pair of golden goblets and floated toward them as though carried by invisible hands.  Durrak took his and drained it.  Lorin brought the cup near his lips but didn’t bother making much of a pretense about drinking.

“So.  You do be a collector of nobility?”  Durrak asked, simply letting go of the goblet and watching with interest as it was deftly snared out of the air once again.  “How interesting, who else do be in your menagerie?”

“Most of my warriors are boring, if competent.”  She said, smiling as he took a drag on his cigar.  The tip flared an astonishingly bright turquoise and when he exhaled smoke, it was black from his left nostril and yellow from the right.  “You are not only dangerous, you are interesting.  Such strange and complex pasts.  Such diverse reasons for becoming the beings you are now.”

“I do be having a single purpose and being a bauble dangling from a Lady’s necklace no do be part of it.”  He looked at her steadily.  “It no do be my wish to be an ungrateful guest, but I no will be staying.”

“What is this purpose pray tell?”  She purred.  At a gesture his glass floated back to his hand refilled.

“The idiot wants to try and kill a dragon.”  Lorin snapped.  He put his hand out in a familiar gesture and Durrak snorted in amusement, handing him a smoldering cigar plucked from his belt pouch.  The Elf took a drag on it and blew a sparking cloud of green smoke into the air.  “But not just ANY dragon.  Not just any run of the mill dragon will do for Durrak Caverstorm.”

“Revenge.”  Ellen Eth said, her voice a caress.  “You seek the death of Certioth the Black?”

“That do be my first goal.”  Durrak said, surprised at her depth of intuition.

“Then we can make a deal after all.”  She sat back with a predatory smile.  “I can give you the chance to kill her as long as you agree to be part of my household guard in return.  If you join me, swear fealty to me and promise to obey my orders I can give her to you.”

“If you do be providing this you do be having my oath.”  Durrak said, “But I will no give anything until you do be fulfilling your promise.”

Lorin gave him a stricken look, but Durrak continued smoothly.  “We do be able to be working out details once you do be fulfilling your promise.”

Ellen Eth was staring at him with a small smile curling up the corners of her mouth.  It made her look less amused and more like a vixen who had just seen the mouse slip into a small hole but knew it could wait outside longer than the mouse could hide.

“You have not let your Courtly wit wane over the years Master Dwarf.”  She said, sounding mildly annoyed, a tone he knew was precisely calculated to make him nervous.

“I do be but a humble warrior Lady.”  He said, bowing low to the creak of his war harness and the soft pattering of dried blood raining down on the pristine marble.  “I no do be knowing of the ways of nobility.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 39

As it turned out, Ellen Eth kept them waiting for a half candlemark.  Refreshments were brought, and although wine wasn’t really his preference Durrak sampled it.  One didn’t just waste alcohol.  It was dry and a little sour but had overtones of plumbs and hints of some kind of spice he couldn’t quite recognize.  It went quite well with the sharp cheese and freshly sliced apples that came alongside on the platter.  Lorin didn’t drink or eat anything.

When the door finally opened, it revealed a room with a polished marble floor that gradually widened and rose to a tiered dais.  A wide wooden chair with plump crimson cushions rested there and a stunningly beautiful human woman lounged on it.  Raven black hair was arranged in a way that was likely intended to look careless and she was holding a crystal goblet with a golden base negligently in her left hand.

The clothing she wore was obviously perfectly tailored to her, a long flowing gown of dark green with so much golden thread embroidery that the color was difficult to see along the sleeves and the neckline.  A choker of woven gold held a string of large rubies that shone with inner light and rings adorned every finger.

Durrak noted that none of the guards or attendants were permitted entry.  It was either an overconfident boast or a sign of power and control.  Noteworthy either way.

“So, you are the fabled warriors who are leading the daring evacuation of Starvale Above.”  She purred, “It is an honor to have you visit my humble hall.”

“I do be hearing that declining an invitation from your august self do be hazardous to one’s health.”  Durrak said, allowing cigar smoke to curl from his nostrils as he spoke.  “What do be the purpose of wanting to meet us?”

“Ah, a blunt Dwarf.  What a cliché.”  A touch of mischief twinkled at the corners of her mouth, but her eyes stayed cold and calculating.  “I have brought you here my dear Battlemaster Caverstorm of the Drakanda style because I intend to attempt to recruit you.”

Lorin’s breath hissed in through his teeth involuntarily and the Lady’s attention switched to him.  “My dear Elven Lord, I have not forgotten about you.”  She said, the slightest edge creeping into her voice.  “When you left without hearing my offer last time I was most put out.  It really was rude Lorin.”

“What do you be recruiting for and what do you be offering in return?”  Durrak asked, casually leaning on Femurslicer.  The ichor that clung to his armor had mostly dried and now was flaking off onto the perfect surface of the floor.  Durrak supposed he should feel sorry for the servants who would be required to clean it up, but that wasn’t the point right now.

Ellen Eth focused on him again and smiled in a way that once would have made his heart ache for his lost family.  Now all he could feel was contempt for the poor attempt to appeal to a base nature he had cut out of himself.

“The world above is no longer habitable for mortals.  We must take refuge in the few hidden places that still exist and defend them against any and all comers.”  She gestured with her wine glass and the red liquid inside sloshed over the rim.  Before it could soil the thick rug or even stain her pale white skin she frowned slightly in concentration and it reversed course, returning back to the glass.

It was a minor, but very obvious and casual display of arcane power.  Here was a woman who could afford to waste Weave on household tasks, even when alone in a room with a pair of very dangerous and accomplished warriors.  Her reaction time was also quite admirable, even if it was likely contrived.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 38

“Oh thank the gods!”  Alanna started to collapse, but caught herself.  She wiped and sheathed her knife carefully before bending to check on Reed.

Callindra watched her, trying to keep herself from shoving the girl aside and tending to Reed herself.  She’d have been almost as likely to kill him as to help.  It was better to wait for Kain.

Tears pattered onto Reed’s bloody face, leaving runnels in the blood.  “He was so brave.”  She said, her hands slipping as she tried to staunch the flow of blood from a wound.  “They just came out of nowhere and he didn’t even have a proper weapon but he killed one with the kitchen knife.  Just when the others were about to catch us he did something and this light blasted holes in three of them but there were so many.”

Kain walked calmly out of the bushes and knelt next to them.  “He will live child.”  He said, passing his hands over Reed with practiced motions.  “I have not arrived too late.  Reed is young and has not lost too much blood yet.  It was a near thing, but the spark of his life is strong.”

Alanna sat down hard, still shaking with emotion but looking less desperate.  She watched with wide eyes as Kain coaxed the power of the goddess of nature he revered to stitch together the many wounds on Reed’s body.  The rigid tension of pain relaxed from his face and his breathing steadied.

“This is what it means to be out here.”  Callindra said in a flat voice.  “You did fairly well for your first fight.”

“I didn’t do anything.”  Alanna said miserably, “I just stabbed one of them after Reed … fell.”

“You didn’t die.  That’s more than most people can say about their first fight.”  She pointed to a long shallow gash on the girl’s arm.  “You should let Kain see to that.”

With a squeak of surprise, Alanna’s eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped gracefully over on her side in a dead faint.

“We don’t have time to send her home.”  Callindra muttered to herself, “But she’s not going to last long here and now she knows it.”

Kain put a foul smelling ointment on Alanna’s arm and bound it with a clean bandage.  “This is superficial.  She will have a scar of course, but I can’t waste the energy on vanity.”

Callindra turned her gaze to Reed, eyeing his face that looked so much more like the boy he was when he was sleeping.  “Idiot.  Thirteen years old and thinking he can take on the world.”  By all the gods and demons how was she going to live with herself when she led them all to their deaths.

“Let me see to your wounds as well.”  Kain said, a touch of wary empathy in his voice.  “Some of these are quite serious.”

Callindra blinked, remembering that she had only barely survived the last battle herself.  “Right.  Thank you.”

“Remarkable.”  Connor said.  He had flipped down his goggles and his eyes were magnified and seemed to swirl.  “I have heard stories, but I’ve never actually seen someone wielding that kind of power before.”

As always, she was utterly exhausted and ravenously hungry after Kain’s healing magic, but she forced herself to focus.  “We are heading out.”  She said looking at the assembled companions.  “This is Connor, he’s not a Taken and that’s good enough for me for right now.  I want to be miles away from here before the sun is above the treeline.”

“You are hardly in any condition to travel.”  Vilhylm said, sounding halfhearted in his resistance.

“I am leaving whether or not you have the sense to come.”  Callindra snapped, “The amount of noise we made and the level of magic we expended here will have drawn the attention of every Taken for a ten mile radius or more.  I want to be gone in the next ten minutes.”

“I will carry Reed.”  Alanna said, her eyes daring them to deny her.

“If you can’t keep up, pass him off to someone stronger.”  Callindra said without rancor.

With that she began to strike her tent and pack her bedroll.  If she didn’t keep moving she knew she’d fall asleep.

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.

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.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 34

Callindra awoke to the scent of roasting meat and the sound of pitched voices the next morning.  One was Reed’s and she didn’t recognize the other.  Reed was clearly not happy about something.  There had damn well better be tea if she was going to be awakened to this racket.  Perhaps even with a tot of brandy in it.

“I thought you bloody well said you could cook!  How inna nine hells didja burn TEA?  No, don’t bother putting more water in there, you’re gonna need sand to scour out the pot or it’ll always taste like burned socks.”

“I never cooked over a campfire before.”  The other voice responded haughtily, “I only used the stove in the kitchen.  This pot isn’t a teapot either, and I didn’t have any way to lift the pot off the flames without burning my hand.”

“So ya just let it BURN?”  Reed hissed, “By all the gods n demons I oughta – well never mind.  Go get sand and clean the charred tea leaves off the bottom.”

Callindra staggered out of her tent only wearing her smallclothes of cotton shorts and breast band with Shadowsliver in her left hand.  His chain was jingling merrily, but the rest of her face could have curdled milk.  She looked at Reed who was speaking to a young woman with hair in a complicated braid that fell halfway down her back.

Reed winced at her expression and the girl spun around, her rosebud mouth in a perfect ‘O’ of surprise.  She dropped into a curtsey, her braid nearly touching the ground as she did so.  Callindra let her gaze pass over the pair, only feeling a momentary pang at the girl’s hair in contrast with her own ragged locks that barely brushed her shoulders.  Without comment, she stalked past them to a small area of shoreline and began her morning meditation.

As usual, the Korumn drove the last vestiges of sleep from her mind and left her feeling sharp and prepared for the day.  Who was that girl and what the devil was she doing in their camp?  They had some serious distance to cover today if they were going to reach Daggerford in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 33

After half a candlemark, they arrived at a closed iron door barely wide enough for a human to pass.  Belladonna took a dagger from her belt and rapped a staccato series of strikes on it and waited until a slot shot open and a sudden brilliant light blazed into the corridor.  Durrak cursed and flicked the butt of his latest cigar, a dark green cylinder with light orange sparks leaping from the smoke, through the slot to the sound of curses.

“You no do be treating us with respect.”  He said, his voice an angry rumble.  “I do be expecting such tactics from children, I do be expecting an apology.”

“It is done to expose some kinds of the Spawn who take on mortal guise.”  Belladonna said apologetically.  “If we told visitors about it, any infiltrators would be prepared and it wouldn’t work.

Durrak snorted, but his glare lessened.  “There do be other ways, but I do be understanding.”  He grumbled.

The door opened and a large man with a beard nearly as full as the Dwarf’s stood with a large double bitted ax over his shoulder.  “You nearly started me beard ablaze Master Dwarf!”  He boomed, “For one who don’t appreciate childish pranks you gotta funny way of showing it.”

He laughed, the sound filling the chamber.  “Enter and be welcome in Undercity.”

The chamber beyond the door was round, white and only had the iron portal they entered through and another much like it on the other side.  Belladonna knocked on that door and they were admitted once the guard on the other side saw the first door had been closed.

The view beyond was stunning.  Hundreds of buildings made of what appeared to be ruins or rubble from ancient and modern structures were stretched out below them in a tangled profusion.  Thousands of people were about, all armed and armored except for the very young, but even they had belt knives.  Arcane lights floated about everywhere, giving an approximation of afternoon sunlight.

There were tiers of pathways and catwalks that wound around the buildings and arched between them, connecting one to another stories above the stone of the streets below.  The crown jewel was what seemed to be part of a castle jutting from the wall.  It was sheathed in a checkerboard of white and black marble and had a formidable looking gate of spiked iron.

“Guests to see the Lady Ellen Eth.”  Belladonna said, approaching and ensuring her face was visible.

“They don’t look like they’re fit to meet the Lady.”  One of the guards growled, eyes on the pair still coated with blood and worse.  “Where’d you dredge up this gutter trash?”

Durrak bristled and Lorin did his best not to look down his nose at the guard; something aided by the guard being nearly six inches taller than the elf.  Before either of them could speak, Belladonna blurred forward with speed aided by subtle arcane flashes from her boots.  One hand ended up gripping the guard by the thick beard with the other inches from his face, glittering with scintillating azure energy.

“Do I need to repeat myself Gradach?”  She asked, her voice conversational.  “Perhaps you cannot hear me through all this hair.”

“No Mistress Belladonna.”  He said, face white.

“Good.  Ask your men to open the gate and to send servants to prepare baths.”  She smiled sweetly, “If you please.”

“I no do be needing a bath.”  Durrak said, pulling a cigar that looked remarkably normal from his pouch.  Noting with mild annoyance that it wasn’t lit, he touched it to the still glimmering energy surrounding Belladonna’s right hand.  The cigar immediately lit and he puffed contentedly on it, watching as the guards all stared at him in shock.  Even the ones that had come to meet them on the surface looked horrified.

“If Ellen Eth do be wanting to meet me she do be able to do it while I do be looking as I had to in order to be getting here alive.”  He blew a large smoke ring.  “Surely she no do be squeamish about a little blood?”

“The Lady will not wish her carpets and chairs to be ruined by your condition.”  Belladonna said, waving her right hand in a gesture of dismissal and banishing the writhing energies from it.  “That spell very well could have killed you Dwarf.  It should have burned that cigar to dust in an instant.”

“Tell Lady Ellen Eth that we will happily meet her in the first antechamber.”  Lorin said, “If I recall that one has carpets over stone floors.  My friend and I are needed back above if our folk are to survive long enough for us to bring her offer to them.  Our time is too limited to spend bathing unless she wishes us to leave all our other assets at risk.”

Belladonna gave them a considering look before nodding slowly.  “Thran, take them to the first chamber.  Servants will be sent to clear out the floor coverings.”

It was a minor victory, but it still put them in control of the where and when of the meeting.  Durrak strode forward confidently, following Thran and looking at the various splendors with a critical eye.  Everything here was fine to be sure, but it all looked chosen merely for its gold value, not for any sense of symmetry.  It was as though the person who had assembled the collection only cared about the monetary value of the artwork, not their intrinsic value.

Durrak was troubled in a way he had not thought possible anymore; his artistic soul cried out for the lack of appreciation of the individual paintings, tapestries, vases and other assorted works of art.  To be admired only for what they could give in return rather than for what they were was apparently part Ellen Eth’s makeup even more than rumor would suggest.

When Thran led them to the carved mahogany doors and barred them from entry with an imperious gesture, Durrak began to chuckle under his breath.  The chuckle became a full-throated laugh as the warrior glared at him darkly.

“If you do be thinking you do be able to stop me from entering the room at will friend, you do be sorely mistaken.”  Durrak said, still laughing.  “If you do be wishing to ask me to be staying outside it do be behooving you to ask politely.”

Thran opened his mouth to say something, closed it and swallowed after looking at the macabre grin that split the dwarf’s gore splattered face.  “Please wait here sirs.”  He said politely enough, although it was clear that rage seethed beneath the surface.

Durrak grounded Femurslicer’s steel shod butt on the marble of the hallway with a resounding crash that made tiny hairline fractures radiate out from it in a pattern of ragged lines.  “Very well.  We do be waiting on the Lady’s pleasure.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 32

Durrak wore Bonecrusher’s Brace and held Femurslicer angled across his shoulder as he approached the meeting place.  His only concessions to visiting an important personage were that his armor and weapon were polished and he had added a grey cloak with the hammer and tongs of the Drakanda style picked out on it in dark blue.

Lorin, on the other hand, had foregone his usually flamboyant style and only wore nondescript brown and green that would seem more at home in the forest than city streets.  He still carried his beautifully carved and polished bow, but he’d covered the jewels on the hilts of his long knives with leather wrapping.

“I don’t like this.”  Lorin said in a low voice.

Durrak snorted a laugh, “You no do like any of this.  How do this be different?”  He strode into the alley like he owned it, but he kept an eye out for Taken.  When the flood of monsters boiled out of the second story of the buildings surrounding them in a tide of humanoid beings that clung to the bricks with multi-jointed claws the pair were ready for them.

Not bothering at first to even use Femurslicer, Durrak ran forward with a battle cry that rattled the remaining window glass as he charged and smashed bodily into the creatures with the spiked pauldrons of his armor.  Bodies crushed to black ichor beneath his onslaught and a steady stream of arrow shafts from Lorin pinned a dozen of the hapless creatures to the wall before they’d moved more than a dozen feet.

Within minutes, all but three of the creatures were dead; either crushed to disgusting paste or filled with arrows from Lorin’s bottomless quiver.  A solid section of stone at the far end of the alley slid aside and a half dozen armed warriors sprang forward ready for battle.  They stopped in confusion at seeing Durrak glaring at them, his spiked armor dripping with black blood.  Lorin stared down an arrow shaft at their leader, the tip beginning to glow with sullen red light.

“You do be a bit late to the party.”  Durrak rumbled, swinging his Gisarme in a casual arc that cut two of the remaining creatures in half.  “I do be sorry we no did save you any playmates.”

The woman in the lead gave him a cautious look, but flicked a finger at the last monster, sending five bright purple bolts streaking into its head.  The bolts left neat round holes clearly through the skull and it dropped like a puppet with cut strings.

“I apologize gentlemen.  We thought this entrance to be secure.”  She said, “I am Belladonna, these are my companions; members of the Blood Guild.  We protect the Undercity as the Blackfist Guard used to do above.”

Durrak was fairly certain she wasn’t telling the truth, but she was telling a good lie if she was truly unaware of the monsters waiting in the surrounding buildings.  Perhaps she hadn’t been told of the ploy.  It would put them on uneven footing if they’d had to be rescued by Ellen Eth’s guard.  Or perhaps he was becoming overly suspicious in his old age.

“Those things ruined the god rotting polish on my boots.”  Lorin said mildly, slinging his longbow over his back.  “You must not use this entrance much for it to be so compromised.”

“Peace Lorin.”  Durrak said, shaking the blood from his gauntlet and withdrawing a cigar that glowed with a dim pink light and released thin wisps of jet black smoke that hung in the air for a few moments before simply vanishing instead of dissipating like smoke usually did.  “There do be no reason to doubt these folk.”

Belladonna relaxed slightly, a loosening of tightness round her eyes and mouth that Durrak hadn’t noticed until they had smoothed away.  Apparently his instincts had been on the mark; they’d best tread even more carefully than Lorin wanted them to.

The brick corridor was dark as they entered, but the humans carried no light.  The darkness was no impediment to their eyes as Durrak and Lorin followed them down, their inhuman senses allowing them to see the passage and their escort clearly albeit in grayscale.  There were places that had obviously once been side tunnels but they were bricked over now.