The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 46

“We are not going to get by that.”  Vilhylm said, staring down at the valley that was teeming with some kind of Taken industry.  Caravans of wagons loaded with some cargo led toward a pit carved out of stone on the near side of a lake.  The lake hadn’t been there the last time they had traveled this road; the river had been dammed up by huge blocks of stone presumably carved from the nearby cliffside.

“We need to free the river.”  Callindra said, not knowing exactly why, but understanding that this dam was a problem.  “It’s in the way and we need to get down to the ocean if we’re going to make our way to Starvale anyway.  I feel like it would do Jorda’s spirit good to know this river flowed free to the sea without this … whatever this is making it filthy.”

“I appreciate the sentiment.”  Connor said, fiddling with his goggles, “However, I suggest caution.  There are many Taken down there and they seem to be doing something with all those corpses.  I don’t see how we could get through with a frontal assault, but I also don’t see any way to get by without them seeing us.”

“Corpses?”  Callindra asked, “What corpses?”

“That’s what they’re carrying in those wagons.”  He said, gesturing at the caravan.

“Can you see what’s pulling them?  Who is driving them?” She asked, squinting and wishing she had a far-seeing glass.

Holt shaded his eyes and shook his head, “I can’t see very well here but it seems as though they’re being pulled by oxen.  I don’t see any drivers.”

Connor flipped a pair of lenses over the eyes of his goggles and started cursing.  “The god rotting Taken are doing something new. I hate it when the bastards start to get creative.  Nobody is driving the wagons; those oxen are Taken and seem to be obeying orders.”

“What use could they have for dead bodies?”  Callindra mused.

“It doesn’t matter.”  Vilhylm said firmly, “If they want them for something we should be planning to deny it of them.”

“I agree.”  Callindra said, “But we should know what they are doing before we get too deeply involved.  It’s bound to be dangerous and we have no idea what’s waiting down in that lake.”

“I have an idea on how to get in.”  Connor said, “But none of you are going to like it, especially after you find out what’s in the lake.”

They all gave him an expectant look as he removed the lenses from his goggles that must have allowed him to see the wagons in closer detail.  He sighed, finally giving them his attention. “All we must do is crawl in amongst the carrion. They’ll bring us right into their midst and once inside we should have some time to figure out how to deal with the dragon turtle that’s in that disgusting lake of filth.”

“I have read Tershan Fesrik’s account ‘At Peril to Thy Vitality’ which is the only tome of arcane knowledge about dragons I am aware of, and even if he exaggerates the danger twofold, I’m afraid a dragon of any kind is likely more than we can handle.”  Callindra said, feeling a touch of fear shiver down her spine.

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The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 45

“I’m Ritt.”  The girl said, “Who’r you?”

“I’m Callindra.  Go get your blade and come meet my friends.  Bring anyone you think you need to.”  She said, as she gestured for Reed to follow her and walked past Ritt to leave the trees.  “Get any food we can spare ready.”  She said quietly to her friends.

Alanna tried to fuss over Reed’s injuries but he brushed her off.  “Later.  We gotta look strong for the damn kids.”

She looked up as the group of ragged urchins hesitantly emerged from the trees clutching weapons and giving them suspicious glares.  Something changed in her demeanor and she stood away from him with determination in her expression.

“I am Callindra Sol’Estin.  It is no small feat to lead a group through the last few years Ritt.”  She nodded in respect.  “I have more experience with this than I want to.   We have all lost friends and family.”

“She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met.”  Alanna interrupted, stepping forward with her hands open.

“So what?”  Ritt asked, “You wanna take over?  You wanna take us out?  What you got to make us?”

“I don’t want to take over.”  Callindra said, trying to keep her voice from betraying her discomfort at the thought.  “I have things of my own to accomplish and I can’t have an entire village with me.  Staying here will eventually mean you’ll all die Ritt.  I think your talents could be put to use somewhere else.  Just a few days away is an entire city of people who could use your unique ability to set traps.”

“I’ll take you there.”  Alanna said, giving Callindra a look challenging her to say no.

“Are you sure you can handle it?”  Callindra asked, arching an eyebrow.  “This is a huge responsibility.”

“We just went through that area.  The presence of the Taken should be much diminished and we’re only a fortnight out.”  Alanna said.  “I can do this.”

“Very well.”  Callindra said, carefully concealing her relief.  “I charge you with this quest.  Bring these children to safety.”

“I will prove that I am worthy!”  Alanna said with a defiant look.

“I trust that you will.”  She said.  “In fact I’m relying on it.  These kids are as well, and that should be your main focus.”

“Hey.  We ain’t agreed to nothing.”  Ritt said, interrupting their conversation.  “Who says I’m goin with this bint?”

“You will go.”  Callindra said calmly, “You will go because you don’t want to die and you want to eat hot meals every day.”

She turned and walked past Ritt.  The girl’s eyes followed her as she strode away.  “They gonna give us food?”

“We need to supply Alanna with as much as we can spare.”  Callindra told the others, “She’s going to have enough trouble as it is.”  Within a quarter candlemark they had gathered the supplies they were able to spare for Alanna and the children who had agreed to accompany her.

“You have my respect for taking this on Alanna.”  Callindra said, giving her a firm handshake.  “You’ve grown from the person you were when you first joined us.  I think you have the potential to be a great leader if you rise to the challenge.”

“I will do my best.”  She said simply, “When I see you again I will be ready to fight.”  Her eyes were focused over Callindra’s shoulder and she knew without looking that Reed was standing there.

“Good.  We will need you.”  Callindra said, releasing her hand and turning to go without a backward glance.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 44

Callindra spun Shadowsliver and lifted a spell from his length.  Her feet lifted from the ground and she simply strode after him, keeping her eyes alert for the trip lines the Winds had shown her.  Reed was darting from tree to tree, keeping off the main trails.

Movement above caught her attention, but she didn’t have the chance to warn him before a pair of small figures threw a weighted net down on top of him.  Instinct made her leap sideways in the air and slash above her, cutting through the trailing edge of a second net meant for her.

The figures were running along narrow catwalks and tightropes, making much faster progress than she had anticipated.  Although she wanted to give chase, Reed was the priority.  The winds blasted her down to her imprisoned friend.  Two swift swipes of Shadowsliver parted the thick rope of the net and Reed sat up cursing under his breath.  His first act was to pull a pair of daggers and scan the trees.

“Did you see where they went?”  He asked, running his tongue over a swollen lip.  “Ain’t gonna fall for that shit again but they got more tricks or I’m a bald halfling.”

“We’re going.”  Callindra said, looking around at the trees.  “We don’t need to get more involved here.”

“What?  I thought you were all about finding out if this was survivors or what?”  Reed frowned, “I got bruises fer nothing?”

“They have things well in hand it seems.”  She said, “As much as I’d like to offer assistance, I don’t think we can help them without causing more harm than good.”

As she spoke, Callindra watched the branches above out of her peripheral vision, noting the leaves moving against the wind.  Keeping the smile off her face she continued, “They likely don’t need the food and protection we could offer, it seems as though they’re quite able to defend themselves from the hordes of Taken all on their own.”

Reed opened his mouth to reply but saw her eyes move from the trees to him and give a sly wink.  “Yeah.  Obviously they don’t need our help.” He said, giving her a considering look.

They turned to go and followed the path Reed had taken on the way in, both of them taking special care not to look around.  Callindra exchanged a glance with the boy next to her, knowing she shouldn’t be surprised that he had picked up on her plan so swiftly.  He gave her a wink that was only slightly spoiled by the bruise forming with alarming swiftness on his cheek.

Neither of them were surprised when a shape dropped from above and landed with a flourish of a wickedly sharp looking short sword.  “You ain’t deadmen so we ain’t killin ya but but you ain’t leavin.”  The girl said with a grin.  “We needs more blood.  You got good blood.”

She signaled and a full dozen small shapes revealed themselves in the trees above, more than Callindra had thought were there but not as many as she feared might be.  Standing tall, she gave Reed an almost imperceptible shake of her head before giving her full attention to the youngster in front of her.

“I do not wish to harm you or your friends, but we will not be staying.”  Callindra said, casually flipping Shadowsliver so that his length lay up her own arm instead of pointing at the girl.  “We have business elsewhere.  We could possibly point you in the direction of a settlement that could shelter you from the Taken though.  That’s what we call what you refer to as ‘deadmen’ I think.”

“You ain’t goin nowhere.”  The girl said, the tip of her sword not wavering a finger width.

“I do not wish to hurt you.”  Callindra said, “But I will if I must.”  Shadowsliver moved like a living thing in her hand, lashing out in a complicated series of twists that sent her opponent’s blade flying from her hand and ended with his razor sharp edge laying against the girl’s neck.

“How’d you do that?”  The girl asked, her eyes wide.  “You a witch?”

“I do use the Weave, but that was only my skill as a swordswoman.”  Callindra said with a vulpine grin.  She took her blade from the other’s skin.  “Now go and retrieve your blade.  I have people for you to meet.  But first tell me your name.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 43

“Everyone up!”  Connor was yelling, “Up and out!  It’s almost run out!”

“What?”  Callindra had sprung to her feet in her smallclothes and was looking around with her naked sword in her hand.

“When the spell stops this is going to become a wooden model again.”  He explained as though to an infant, “I would have thought that would be perfectly obvious.”

“Oh god’s balls.”  Reed gulped, grabbing his things and running toward the door.

The others were slower to respond, Vilhylm pausing to grab the last loaf of bread off the table and Alanna trying to pull on her clothes.  Callindra had already exited the front door when Alanna was ejected forcibly, obviously having been thrown out half clothed and Connor was running on her heels.  The instant he left the door, the structure seemed to twist around itself in an unsettling way and was abruptly the crude wooden model in the center of a perfectly round area of cleanly swept ground.

“That was too close.”  Connor mused, scratching at a healing burn scar on his forehead.

“Connor.”  Callindra said calmly, ignoring Alanna’s furious shouts as she tried to pull her skirts down from where they were tangled about her body.  “Next time you should tell us all the details before something like this.  We could have been killed when that spell ended.”

“Oh.”  He blinked a few times and adjusted his strange glasses on his nose.  “Right.  I should have thought of that.”  He took a few steps around the perimeter of their camp, inspecting the line and making notes.

Callindra performed an abbreviated Korumn to stretch her muscles and shake off the last of her lethargy while the others set about getting a brief breakfast.  She was dimly aware that Vilhylm was complaining about the bread having vanished the moment he had walked out of the magical inn.  Her body and mind were in tune with the winds that gently moved through the grass and around the small copse of trees nearby.

She could feel the eddies as they swirled about the tree trunks, through the branches and over small pits that were covered with thin twigs and leaves.  The breezes found ropes tied like giant rabbit snares, logs suspended in place with small sticks as triggers.

Her eyes snapped open and she called to the others, “This entire grove is full of traps and snares.”  She said quietly, “Although this is dangerous, it’s also a sign that there are living people here.  Taken don’t make traps.”

“If we set them all off getting through won’t we make them vulnerable?”  Reed asked as they walked up to one of the crude traps.  Despite its rough construction, when he peered through the thin wooden poles that covered the pit there were several bodies of Taken on the bottom impaled on thick wooden spikes.

“Looks like they’re certainly needed.”  Vilhylm said wryly.  “Reed, can you make it through without setting them off?”

“He’s not going alone.”  Alanna said just as Callindra was opening her mouth to say the same thing.

“You can’t come with.”  Reed said.

“I’m coming.”  Callindra said, in a voice that brooked no argument. “The rest of you stay here and guard our backs.  Signal if you see anything coming.”

“No offense, but you’ll only slow me down.”  Reed said slipping around the pit trap and into the trees.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 42

After three grueling days of travel, Callindra was finally able to slow down.  The hordes of Taken that had responded to their brief and explosive battle had been whittled down to a manageable number and finally been wiped out.  She had seen the last of them fall under Shadowsliver and they had backtracked for three hours to make sure there weren’t any stragglers on their trail.

“I’ll take the first watch.”  She said, in a voice that brooked no argument.  “Holt you have second watch.  Vilhylm can take third and Reed the fourth since you’re always up early.”

Connor gave her a questioning look and cleared his throat awkwardly.  At her nod he made a small bow that she was now used to as his sign of deference.  “I have been working on something that might assist us in our rest.  Now that we have the time to try it without interruption I thought perhaps I would attempt it.  By your leave.”

Callindra was wary of this; Connor’s experiments did not have the best track record.  He noticed her hesitance and laughed, “No, this won’t be like the last time, I put more effort into this one and I found the bones of it in an actual book of magic.  I had to fill in some of the blanks of course since the book was damaged by fire but I am quite sure this one will work.”

“You can try it by yourself.  Away from camp.”  She said, still remembering how narrowly they’d escaped his attempt to create a meal out of thin air two days ago.

“No everyone needs to be close or they won’t be able to get inside.”  He insisted, “I’ve tried it already once on a small scale.  I’m confident it will work when done bigger.  It will give us a save place to rest.  We can all rest.”

Although she was sure she would regret it, Callindra called everyone in.  “Connor has a spell to keep us safe for the night, but it’s a new spell so I can’t make any guarantees.  If it works we all get to sleep without posting a guard.”

“If it doesn’t work we’ll all sleep forever.”  Reed grumbled.  “Surely you don’t want to risk another mishap.”

“I’m too tired Reed.”  She said gently, “We’re all too tired.  If we try to post watches and fall asleep instead of being vigilant it won’t be much better.”

“Wait you fool!”  Reed squeaked, and they all realized that Connor had begun his spell already.

The strange little man took a small crudely made wooden house from his pocket, set it on the ground and grabbed the corners of the roof as he finished his spell.  With a grand flourish, he finished the spell and straightened, flinging his arms up and out.  The shelter responded to his gesture, growing nearly to the size of an inn, complete with swept courtyard, windows and smoke coming from the chimney.

Connor laughed and gave them all a crazed grin.  “It worked!  IT WORKED!”  He was all but jumping up and down.

“What good is a wooden house?”  Reed objected, “They’ll tear it apart.”

“He has a point Connor.”  Vilhylm said, staring at the structure with a dubious expression on his face.

“Hold my hand and back up.”  Connor said, still smiling a madcap smile.

Vilhylm frowned but did as requested and gasped in astonishment when his feet passed the clean area of the courtyard.  He was shaking his head as he came back within the circle.  “I couldn’t see it.  My arm vanished into nothing.”

Connor laughed again and danced a little step in place.  “Come inside.  It’ll only last for about six hours, but we will be totally invisible from anything outside.  Keep in mind if you actually leave you won’t be able to get back in.  The magic makes things avoid it.”

“This is incredible.”  Callindra said, “Amazing.  I can’t believe it.”

“That’s not even the best part!”  He said opening the door.  A table was spread with food and there were neat bedrolls along one wall and by all the gods and demons there was a big copper tub in front of the fire.

The food didn’t quite taste right, but the fresh fruits and vegetables that the unmistakable feel of fresh fruits and vegetables even if they were unfamiliar flavors.  The bread was almost sweet and the meat seemed like venison but it was prepared in strange spices but none of these things kept everyone from eating their fill and more.

Callindra had passed by the food other than to grab something that looked like an apple with golden skin in favor of immediately stripping and bathing.  The strange fruit tasted sweeter than anything she had ever eaten and shocked her by being slightly intoxicating.

After everyone had eaten, they all retired to the clean bedrolls.  Despite his misgivings, Reed was the first to drop off into sleep.  Alanna stayed awake, staring at the door with wide eyes until Callindra told her to get some rest.  It took her longer than she hoped but not as long as she feared to sleep.

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 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.