The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 52

“That was intense.”  Connor said, rubbing his hands through his scorched hair.  “I thought he was gonna sic his god rotting zombies on us for a minute there.”

“God’s balls what were you THINKING?”  Reed demanded, turning on her with wild eyes.

“We cannot trust that he won’t attack us after we deal with his dragon problem.” Holt said, a frown creasing his face.

“Yes we can.”  She said with more certainty than she felt.  “His kind respects power, all we need is an overwhelming victory against that dragon and he will treat us with deference.”

“Oh good, all we have to do is destroy a Taken dragon.”  Reed said with mock sincerity.

“No, we must have a decisive victory.”  Callindra said, “Just winning isn’t enough, we have to show that it was no match for us.”

The others stared at her in disbelief.  She kept walking with purpose in her stride.  If she allowed herself to flag at this point she might not get the resolve back.

“You’re serious.”  Holt said at last. “Very well.  How do we do this?”

“Holt, you’re as crazy as SHE is.”  Reed all but shouted, pointing at Callindra with a finger that all but trembled with anger.  “We can’t kill a dragon. I ain’t saying is hard or whatever, I’m sayin we just don’t have … I mean it just ain’t possible.”

“I hate to say it sister, but Reed has a point.”  Vilhylm said. “We can’t swim and fight at the same time.  The instant it sees us in the water that thing will just swallow us.  Even if we lure it out of the water it’s the size of a house. What can we possibly do that will be more than an inconvenience?”

“I can think of a thing or two.”  Connor said, “But I’ll have to be close but preferably not close enough to be eaten or to fall victim to its breath provided the beast has retained such abilities now that it is one of the Taken.”

The others turned to look at Connor with surprised expressions on their faces.  “Ah, and it would be best if it was out of the water also.” He said apologetically, “I know that’s kind of a tall order but if we could manage that we might have a pretty good chance at victory actually.”

“I have a plan.”  Callindra said, “It’s not a safe plan for any of us; least of all me.  It will have just the right amount of danger that if we pull it off this necromancer will eat his own servants before he pits them against us.”

She brought them out past the ramp leading to the pit and up into the remains of a building.  From this vantage they had a decent view of the dammed up river, the wall made from the remains of whatever town had been here and the surrounding terrain.  Pulling out her last wineskin, she took a drink and passed it off to Connor before beginning to explain her battle plan. The longer she spoke the more interested and less skeptical their faces became.  By the end even Reed had lost most of his frown.

Callindra was performing the first Korumn and trying to calm herself.  This was the first time the practice of controlling the breath hadn’t brought her racing heart under control.  Of course this was the first time she had thought out something this complex and the first time she’d put everyone’s life on the line this deliberately.  

Certainly there had been fights before, but this was a real battle.  According to General Delanous, fights just happened, but battles were deliberate and planned.  Battles had strategy and were designed to make use of the talents of the fighters to their best ability.   Delanous had also mentioned that the plans of a battle rarely survived the first engagement.

“Are you ready?”  She whispered the words and they slipped into the tiny breeze that furled around her, tickling her neck with the ragged ends of her hair.  With one last flip of the errant wind flew off to find Connor. Within seconds it returned.

“As ready as I was last time you asked five seconds ago.”  His reply came back. She could tell he was beginning to get annoyed.  Then the monster made its appearance and she forgot about everything but her first move.

The beast looked equal parts dragon and snapping turtle, massive shell and huge armored limbs with a head the size of a large wagon on a short, powerful neck.  It surfaced meters from shore and began to move with frightening speed across the water. Emerald fire blazed from its eyes and bright green steam vented from its nostrils.

Before she could convince herself to abort or alter her plan, Callindra swung Shadowsliver in a series of fluid motions and drew a spell of speed followed quickly by another that let her tread on air as easily as ground.  Then, she was off at a sprint that left water sheeting away from her passage in a filthy wake.

The head of the dragon swung to focus on her instantly and a jet of superheated steam lanced from its mouth, tracking across the surface of the lagoon and following her path.  The spell that quickened her footsteps kept her well ahead of its breath, but she didn’t dare slacken her pace for an instant. With a tremendous splash, the monster leaped into the water and gave chase. 

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 50

They moved out into the tunnels, following the direction the goblins had taken cautiously.  Kain knew more of their language than Callindra did and she needed them to get close enough for him to hear what they were saying.

“They are talking about the dead ones and their master.”  Kain whispered to the others. “I’m not certain but it sounds like they mean the master of the dead ones.”  His tusked face turned down into a frown that made him look truly terrifying.

“You can’t mean a necromancer?”  She asked incredulously, “I thought the disciples of the darkest art had all been destroyed.”

“I don’t know, but they’re doing something with all these corpses.”  Kain said with a shrug. “It’s hard to sense anything other than the presence of the Abyss anymore, but I can feel something different here.”

Reed gave him a dubious look but remained quiet.  He seemed to be more worried about attracting the attention of goblins, or more likely the hordes of others he had imagined.  All doubt about what Kain sensed fled when they turned a corner.

The tunnel had been curving downward gradually the entire time and now it opened up into a chamber that had a massive circle of runes carved into the floor.  A wide pit that obviously contained hundreds of corpses dominated the left side of the room. There were a number of things moving about inside, however no sound came through the opening that led into it.  

The things were illuminated by a sickly yellow light that threw their rotting features and exposed bones into harsh relief.  They were clearly undead, and the creature that had raised and now controlled them was standing in the center of the circle, crackling energies leaping from his hands to the circle and then out to the pit.

Connor made a grunt of warning that halted them all and brought them back out of sight of the archway.  “Those are all runes of power.” He said, “I don’t know what else they do, but keeping sound from coming out is certainly one of their features.  Lets them do their foul experiments without anyone being able to eavesdrop.”

“They’re certainly raising the dead in there.”  Kain said, his eyes glinting with a harsh anger.

“They’re not Taken though.”  Callindra said, “I don’t like what they’re doing but they must be doing it to protect themselves.  I can’t imagine that even a Necromancer would be trying to eradicate life or whatever they were supposed to be after with the world overrun with Taken.”

“I don’t think we can afford to ask him.”  Vilhylm said, “He seems to have an army of these things.”

“If saving the world was easy everyone would be doing it.” Callindra said, “We can’t let leave the river polluted in any case which would certainly mean a fight.  We don’t have anything to lose by talking. Just be ready to fight if we have to.”

The others didn’t seem happy about it, but they didn’t argue.  “Connor, will we get hurt if we pass through this archway?”  

He flipped down another one of the lenses of his goggles and was quiet for a few moments.  “I don’t think so.” The strange little man said. “It will probably set off an alarm or make some kind of noise but I doubt it’ll actually do any damage.  The gobs went through after all, and they look alive enough.”

“I’m going first.  The rest of you stand behind me and look strong but not threatening.  If you can manage it.” Callindra took a deep breath and walked through the archway with Shadowsliver held at an angle up her left arm in what she hoped was a nonthreatening grip.

The smell of rotting flesh and the sharp tang that always hung in the air after a lightning strike were overpowering.  The creature finished its spell with a crescendo of chanting and the runes of the circle flared with dirty yellow light.  A rotting hand reached out of the mass of bodies in the pit and a dead woman in the remains of a dress dragged itself out and stood before the thing that had summoned it.

They locked gazes for a few heartbeats before the freshly created undead shambled out of the room through another archway.  The robed figure in the circle turned to them, focusing glowing blue eyes on them from the depths of a deep cowl.

“Ah.”  It rasped in a voice dry as autumn leaves.  “Visitors. How quaint.”

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.

Excerpts From the Memoirs of the End Times of Einn Boer

Hello to all my faithful subscribers, sorry to still be on break from The Callindra Chronicles.  I know I’m a right bastard for keeping you waiting for the next chapter, but I needed to dedicate some time to re-igniting my players for the upcoming reboot of my World Lost campaign.  I hope you enjoy!

~

“Things have changed mine Scion.”  Illimen’s voice rang in his ears.  “Thy story hath become perchance a nightmare to the enemies of the mortal realm.  Thy triumph o’er the forces of the Endless Night and those of the Descending Stair hath caused quite a stir.”

“My Goddess.”  Lirin said, not trusting himself to say more.  He was conscious of sitting cross legged but also of his spirit beyond the mortal realm.

“Be thee at peace.”  She said, reaching a hand made of purest incorruptible light to touch his forehead.  “I shall never allow them to harm you.  Allow mine light to shine through thee and naught shall stand in thy path. Be thou the light and the light shalt be thine sword and shield.”

Ecstasy and pain flowed through Lirin’s body, and he welcomed them equally.  When the sensation faded, he drew in a gasping breath.  “What would you have me do my Goddess?”

“Thou hast surpassed mine expectations Scion.  Thy dedication doth humble me.”  He caught a hint of hesitation in her presence, “I prithee gather more to the light of the flame of truth.  We shalt need the strength of the masses to oppose what doth lurk on the horizon.  Thou hast but seen a fraction of what lies outside the sanctuaries.”

When Lirin awoke and began his devotions he noticed something strange in his reflection.  One lock of his hair where Illimen had touched his head was white.

“Dem don’t knows nothing.”  The tiny bat winged shape declared, baring its fangs in a demonic smile.  “You not parts of da Everwar, but dem think dem safe cause of dat.”

“What is the everwar?”  Tabitha asked, feeding the creature a bit of dried meat.  She couldn’t imagine how she had managed to convince it to talk with her so openly.  It was probably that she was covered with fur with sharp fangs and claws.  Or maybe just that her feline magnetism knew no bounds.  Regardless, she had found it when prowling the parapets and spires of the outer wall and had finally gotten it to come and talk with her.

“It be’s da fight we be’s winning against da deads.”  It said, chomping up the meat.  “You gots to go see da fights by da tower.  Dem deads gettin crushed by da hundred a second.  Da Lords says we just gots to crush dem faster’n dey can come back.”

“The Lords?”  Tabitha prompted, her feline features artfully puzzled.

“You be’s lucky to be having me.”  The demon said, “You be’s so dumb.  How did you stay so dumb and being alive?  Everyone be’s knowing who da Lords be.”

“What are their names?”  She asked, voice carefully innocent.

The tiny demon looked at her aghast.  “We don’t be SAYING da names even if we be KNOWING dem.”

“Why wouldn’t you honor them with their names?”  She pressed, “Isn’t it giving them the respect they deserve?”

“Because we want to be staying LIVING.”  It said adamantly, “Do don’t be liking nobody to be knowing names.”  It seemed to be getting nervous, glancing around with apprehension as though expecting something to drag it off to hell.

“Oh, I’d heard there was something about Demons and names.”  Tabitha said in an offhanded tone.  “I thought it was just a rumor.”

“I doesn’t be like dey say it used to be.”  It said, “But da Lords be’s remembering.”

“Where is this Tower?”  She asked, changing the subject now that she’d gotten the information she wanted.  “I would like to visit it.”

“It be’s over dere.”  It pointed with a clawed finger.  “I be’s showing you if you wants.”

“How far over there?”  Tabitha asked, “How will I recognize it?”

“I fly maybe twenty times between sleeps to get dere.  You can’t missing it.  It be’s da huge ting surrounded by da armies of da Lords.”  It said, picking a piece of meat out of its teeth with a claw.  “You be coming?  Da Lords would be loving to know you.”

“Oh certainly.  Lead on!”  She said with her best smile.  When the small demon turned to leap into the air she grabbed him and popped him in her mouth.  He had a strange, almost spicy flavor and crunched quite nicely in her jaws.

SP was trying to meditate.  It wasn’t working.  The seemingly constant racket of the city wasn’t the problem, SP had managed to tune such things out out long ago; this was something different.  The necromancer straightened a fold of snow white robe and tried to allow the feeling to reveal its source.  Breathing slowly and deeply while thinking of the beautiful, perfectly clean white marble of the morgue where he used to reside and labor over the dead, SP was finally able to focus.

The answer was so simple that it almost went unnoticed.  Ever since they had left the safety and security of Einn Boer, he had felt on edge.  Something had always seemed to be just over his shoulder, watching, touching, pushing him forward but to what he couldn’t say.  It was power.

Not just power, but power that wasn’t just accessible to him but that practically demanded to be used.  Thus far he had not used it.  Not intentionally.  But this, he realized, was an offer and slightly more than an offer.  It was also an intrusion.

With curiosity, he reached out to brush the offered hand.  It was akin to what he imagined putting his hand on the sun would be like.  Pure unfettered energy coursed into his body and he watched in fascination as frost formed on his fingertips, gradually flowing up his hand.  When he exhaled his breath steamed in the early morning air.

Something noticed him.  NOTICED him.  Just for a moment.  That was enough for him.  SP tried to withdraw, but found that the ATTENTION of whatever it was held him fast.

“A. MORTAL.” It wasn’t a voice, it was a glacier in his mind, not speaking but scraping a place in his mind flat in order to insinuate itself. “HOW. CURIOUS.”

SP had stopped breathing.  His heart fluttered in his chest like a frightened bird.  It was all peripheral, the only focus was breaking contact with the PRESENCE.

“YOU. MUST. COME. TO. ME.” The ice was freezing his mind. A flickering vision of an ancient set of standing stones with an entrance in the center was followed by a series of runic symbols and a flash of blackness.  The vision changed to be from above, distorted as through the eye of some alien creature, but the features were obvious and indelibly imprinted on his mind.

“THE. BROKEN. CROWN.” The presence intoned.

“Why are you doing this?”  SP managed to ask.

“A. GIFT. FOR. A. TALENTED. SEEKER.”

“Who are you?” The Elf gasped.

“WE ARE ALL.  ALL ARE WE.  WE ARE LEGION AND WE ARE ONE.”

The grip on his mind was released and SP drew a ragged breath.  His right hand burned with incomparable pain.  To all outward appearances it was untouched, but he could feel the power raging like a river of frozen flame beneath the skin, begging to be used.  Demanding to be used.

Teelos wasn’t feeling well.  Something had disturbed the ebb and flow of arcane energies that he tapped from the Pact and he was getting strange surges in power that made him feel almost as though he had a virus after every time he tried to work even the smallest of arcane workings.

He tried to clear his mind, pushing a hand across his face and leaning back against the smoothly polished black bones of Legionnaire.  The construct had obligingly twisted itself into a chair for his comfort as he attempted to find what the problem was.

Focus is erratic.” The voice of the once living, now never dying construct said into his mind. “Not yours.  Another’s I think.  Things are not the way they were.”

“What does that mean?”  Teelos asked, his frustration giving way to curiosity.  “How do you know that and what do you mean by it?”

“I mean what I said and I know it because I can feel the patterns.” Legionnaire said, “It had not occurred to me that you did not feel it yourself, bound as you are to one of them.”

“I feel it, I just don’t understand it.”  Teelos said, feeling the tension coming back.  “What has changed?”

“Everything has changed.  The gods are moving again.  Belief is spreading again.  The Others that have existed here for so long now feel the presence of them.  And of you all.”  Legionnaire paused, “Was this not your intention?”

“What?  No!  We wished to avoid detection at all costs!”  Teelos protested, bringing his hands up to massage his temples.  “I thought that would have been obvious.”

“You have opened the sealed cities.  You have resurrected ancient warriors.  You have given the fallen gods hope.  You have defeated hundreds of our foes.  The City of Gears has erupted into a mountain of fire.  The blood of mortalkind has been spilled upon the thirsty sands.  I would have thought the result would be obvious.”

“I … I hadn’t thought of it that way.”  Teelos admitted, “So why is my magic resisting me?  Why has this change influenced things so much?”

“Because it is trying to see you.”  Legionnaire said, “Now that it knows you are what you are it wants to see how it can benefit.  I suggest continuing with caution.”

Boris waved his hand over the corpse of the fallen demon and it wavered and changed.  From where it had fallen the spiky growth of a cactus sprouted, growing with speed and vigor.  The plant was healthy and sturdy and would survive quite well in the arid environment.  He smiled in satisfaction, taking a drink from the skin of distillate and smacking his lips.

He knew this was a dream because he was outside the walls; something he never would have attempted while awake.  It was true that some of the best bits of these creatures spoiled quickly and upset him to waste such interesting components, but it wasn’t worth his life.

“Well done, although it is an empty gesture.”  The voice was conversational and sounded as though it came from someone standing next to him.  He started and looked around for the speaker.

“Who’s there?” He blurted, reaching for a weapon.

“It is I, Jorda.”  The voice said calmly, “I have been with you for some time now, although you reject my presence.”

“You are unnatural!”  He said, remembering how the people had been twisted in the city of Fyrl Logi.  “You changed those beings and forced them to be something different than they had been!  You kept them drugged and unaware of what was happening!”

“We all tell lies to children to keep them safe.”  Her voice was calm and sure.  “What lies are you telling this cactus?  The first demon or undead that finds it will destroy it utterly.  Have you told it that it can thrive and grow?  That its offspring will survive and have offspring of their own?  That will not happen.”

Boris considered this for a moment, unable to come up with an answer immediately.  “I haven’t given any promises.”  He said at last, “I merely give it the opportunity to live.”

“That is not enough in this era.”  Jorda said, “You are wasting resources that could be used in other ways unless you propose to destroy all of the enemies of this plane.”

“I’m not proposing anything.”  He protested, “I’m just giving opportunities for life to begin again.”

“You are making false promises.”  She said, her voice sad.  “If you intend to make a change you must conserve your energy for something that makes a much larger impact.”

“I made no promises damn it!  I get the impression you have something in mind.”  He said suspiciously, “I’m not listening to someone who treats mortals like you have, get out of my head!”

“The engine to protect all life is there.”  Jorda’s voice grew fainter, “I cannot maintain contact with you when your mind is closed.  You are on the path.  You must continue or all is lost.”

“What kind of cryptic garbage is that?”  He demanded.  There was no answer.  The cactus had grown and even sprouted flowers during the brief time he had been speaking with the goddess of nature.  He looked at it critically; noting that the production of seeds at this point in its life would likely mean it would expend all the energy it would need to survive.  How peculiar.

Duty.  Honor.  Steadfastness.  That’s what Trey supposed he was supposed to be thinking about.  That’s what they would have said at the orphanage anyway.  Probably.  It seemed like a lifetime ago when he’d been there, in Einn Boer.

The world outside was so much different than he’d ever imagined.  The folk out here didn’t all have magic.  Hellfire, almost none of them seemed to have magic compared to back home.  It must have been nice to grow up without being afraid of hurting people by accident.  Well, not that he’d have wanted to live with those necromancers.  Or those weird druids.  Maybe home wasn’t so bad all things considered.

It was a relief in some ways to have his strength be not just useful but necessary.  He was able, nay needed to fight to the absolute limits of his ability just to survive.  Now he knew why some of the stories of his Orcish ancestors spoke of them taking pride in their scars.  He was proud of his.

In his dream, Trey was sitting on the parapet of a massive fortress looking out over a battlefield strewn with the corpses of a decade’s long war.  “Life out in the wild eh?”  A voice from beside him said, “Must be nice to have that mobility, not that I mind being here defending the home front.”

Trey looked at the man who had sat next to him.  He was powerfully built to a degree that was almost disturbing.  He wore only a close-fitting pair of leather trousers and heavy boots.  A massive double-bladed battle ax was resting across his knees.  His long black hair was gray at the temples and bound with a heavy silver clasp at the nape of his neck.  He had patches of bright golden scales like lizard skin that seemed to be growing on his forearms and across his chest.

The glance at the man made him look back up at the vast citadel that rose above them; tier upon tier of city; each level with its own crenelated wall.  Huge war engines with their arms cocked and ready stood at each flat-topped parapet.  This place was at least as big as Einn Boer.

“Greetings.  My name is Trey D’Orc.  May I inquire as to your name?”

“I am Ravlen Thraine, Third Watch battle warden of the great city of Malm Hrid; the last true bulwark of mortality against the hordes.  Or so we thought.”  His hand touched the worn haft of the ax with a familiar gesture, nodding absently.  “I was getting to that.  Trey D’Orc you are a candidate whose fate might one day lead the Third Watch if you choose it.”

“I doubt that I would choose such if remaining here were a requirement.”  Trey said, “I did not know one was able to choose one’s fate.”

Ravlen laughed, a sound so loud that it actually startled his companion.  “Well spoken Trey!  The truth of the matter is that Cthrek Ra Chen is the one that actually gets to make that choice.  These great weapons are quite adept at ferreting out the warrior most compatible and molding them to the task.  You’re a little older than most candidates, but you also have more experience it would seem.”

“My companions need me.  I wouldn’t abandon them to defend strangers.”  Trey tried to keep his voice from betraying his anger at such an idea, but he was pretty sure he failed.

“Honest and true, I can see why she likes you.”  Ravlen said, slapping Trey on the back hard enough to move him slightly on his seat; no mean feat.  “You ought to give it a thought; life here is amazing for us warriors.  The best food, the most attractive and frolicsome bedmates, the most comfortable chambers and the best calling in the world.  The destruction of the Horde for the salvation of all!”

“You’re winning?”  Trey asked, looking at the vast number of slain demons and shattered skeletons on the killing field below.

“We’re holding our own Trey.  Where do you hail from and how is it that you’re in such fine battle form?  I’ve only met one Wanderer who managed to make our gates.”

“I come from Einn Boer.”  Trey said, “There I was an orphan, but we found a secret and have ventured forth…”  He stopped noting that Ravlen’s face had drained of color.

“It cannot be.  The End Times are here already?  I never thought I would see such in my lifetime.”  His eyes narrowed, “Or is this a plot?  Has the greatest of cities fallen?  Has the Horde stolen her secrets?”

“We killed some undead before we left.  I don’t think there were any more, Iln Rektros sent us forth.”  Trey frowned, “Ravlen, what do you mean by the End Times?”

Ravlen’s hand tightened on the haft of his ax.  “I will say no more until… things are settled.  I must go, the battle begins again.”

Trey looked out at the killing ground before the fortress and saw that to the north it was swarming with demons, some taller than houses.  To the south it teemed with undead, many with the towering forms of giants but with bonfires the size of horses burning in their chests.

Ravlen strode away, leaping from the parapet and landing on the wall three stories below without visible effort.  Trey watched him go, shaking his head.  Was this man’s battle his battle?  Well, they had a common enemy at least.

Shaena slept fitfully, flickering images of the battle with the horrible undead Eye Tyrant still fresh in her mind.  It had been so powerful, so deadly, it had nearly killed them all.  Would have if the city hadn’t opened the gates and sallied a force forth.  The scene replayed, the gates swinging wide and the warriors charging out.

The three in the lead were clearly a cut above the rest.  The man in front wore almost nothing and swung a massive ax.  The figure in full armor to his right carried a large shield shaped like a kite and a bastard sword held in the other.  The last was wearing flowing silk robes; her hair coiled into a battle braid and the beautifully lacquered quarterstaff she wielded was a blur in her hands.

They hit the ranks of the Dead like a fireball, bones flying in all directions and cut a path to their party.  From this perspective, Shaena could see that the three were laughing and trading jokes as they fought.  A great skeleton warrior loomed up before the woman as she watched, swinging a sword with dreadful strength at the slight form in front of it.  As she blocked the strike, her staff broke into two pieces.

Pivoting smoothly, the staff became a pair of Nunchaku spinning in a bewildering set of maneuvers as she literally ran up the monster’s body, each strike breaking pieces of bone off.  Her attack culminated as she stood on its right shoulder, the two weapons once again becoming a single staff that she swung in a two-handed blow that knocked the head from the body

She executed a perfect back flip off the falling pile of bones and landed leaning casually on her staff and staring Shaena directly in the eyes.

“Hiya.  What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

Several skeletons employed a tactic she’d seen before, three rushing in while three more fired arrows at the other woman.  She grinned madly and moving so fast she seemed to be three places at once, she flicked her hand and redirected the incoming arrows to punch through the skulls of the charging warriors.

“Well.  I can’t disappoint all these boys who want to tango dear.  Come see me maybe when ya wake up.”

When she turned to weave and leap into combat again, Shaena thought she saw the suggestion of a long prehensile tail curling from the woman’s backside.  But this was a dream after all.  That thought brought her out of her uneasy slumber, sitting up in bed suddenly wide awake.

Terevelen finds his heart’s desire

Taking a break from The Callindra Chronicles this week for a spooky story; it is approaching Halloween after all.  I played this character for a very brief time before the Dungeon Master and I had irreconcilable differences revolving around me asking questions, trying to play the character I chose with the skills his class and race gave him, and having the audacity to actually give feedback when he asked for it.  What cheek!  Anyway, the character in question ended up running from a fight and the DM’s refusal to allow me to in any reasonable way rejoin the party or return to safety I instead decided to leave the game and wrote this as my character’s exit.  I hope you enjoy.

~

The others rushed into combat, but something plucked at Terevelen’s vision.  No, not at his vision but at his intuition.  It was almost like a siren song, the seductive thread of arcane power calling to his Mage’s Sight.  The shouts and screams of the others faded from his attention as he incanted a spell.  Motes of light barely visible from where they were encapsulated inside bubbles of darkness.  This was energy he had only seen once or twice before, and it was forbidden power.

Walking almost in a trance, he followed the trail, watching as the motes became threads and the threads became tendrils and the tendrils led to something more.  The power was weak, but the allure was irresistible.  Terevelen stood before a hill with toppled stones that were once a grand archway.  The capstone sealing the entrance was long since smashed and time had worn away the runic carvings that had once covered it.

With trembling fingers, the Elf pushed the tall grass and weeds aside.  The air that breathed from the opening smelled of earth and mold, decay and faintly of death.  He was frightened and more than a little disgusted by the thought of entering a tomb, nonetheless Terevelen shivered and crawled beneath the fallen archway.

The crypt was small and anything of value had long since been pilfered by thieves or destroyed by the ravages of time.  Gold and gems had been prized from the walls and from the lid of the sarcophagus.  A stone slab had the remains of a parchment that had likely once been proudly displayed under glass but was now reduced to moldering dust.

The remains of a human corpse were scattered from looters removing what were likely richly embroidered robes, but the dark aura of forbidden power he had been sensing emanated from those bones.  It would be a laborious process, but Terevelen felt a need to re-assemble the skeleton.  Sitting down to concentrate, he began to gently shift one bone at a time, moving them back where they belonged.

He never noticed when the runes along the walls lit up.  He never noticed when the stones shifted back into place, cutting off all light.  Absorbed in his work, Terevelen forgot to eat or drink and after a time found he did not miss it.  All that mattered was this.  Humming to himself, he looked at his new body in satisfaction, briefly admiring the intricate tracework of black threads that crisscrossed his emaciated frame.

“Time.”  He whispered in his dry, broken voice.  “All I have is time now.  Time is all I need.  All the time is mine.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 17

They followed him through the crowds to a large building with a wide open porch that stretched across the entire side that faced the street.  A number of people sat at tables lingering over drinks and plates of food.  Callindra strictly reminded herself that she needed a bath first.

“Show me to the baths first if you please Master Castille.”  She said, offering him a small stack of gold coins.

“Your coin isn’t necessary Callindra.”  He said, “If you truly have a healer his services are what I require for a night’s lodging.”

Kain stepped forward with a compassionate smile on his face.  “I will do what I can Innkeep.  Please show me to the one who requires healing.”

Thadrick gave him a surprised look, obviously not expecting the hulking half orc to be the healer.  He led them through doors and down hallways to a room with a heavy locked door.  Taking a key from where it hung around his neck he opened the door and opened it.

The scene beyond was one of horror.  A young person sat in the center of the room clad in torn rags rocking back and forth.  The figure did not look up as they entered, but kept the rhythmic motion, hands occasionally clawing at the clothing and the skin beneath.

“She has been thus ever since her mother died.”  Thadrick said softly, “My poor Lillian is the one who saw her change.  Imagine seeing the love in a mother’s face turn to murderous rage.”

“I fear there may be little I can do for her sir, but I will try.”  Kain went to sit across from the girl, folding his muscular bulk into a sitting position across from her.  She ignored him, but after a few moments of sitting silently a gentle white light began to shine around him and a low rumbling chant rolled from his lips.

Callindra was surprised to hear him speaking in his native Orcish and had no idea what the words were but they had a marked effect on the girl.  Her rocking slowed and stopped, then she raised her head to look at him through a curtain of stringy hair.  Kain reached out a huge clawed hand and she tentatively rested hers on his palm.

The light began to creep from his hand to hers, gradually flowing over her until it surrounded them both.  Kain didn’t stop chanting, but the tone became lower and slower.  After a few minutes Lillian’s eyes closed and the strain and fear on her face slowly faded.  By the time Kain’s chant finished she was sleeping peacefully, stretched out on the floor.  The scratches on her skin were healed over and she breathed easily.

“Illimin has granted me the grace to take her pain.”  He said in a weary voice.  “I do not know if it will last sir, nor do I know if taking those memories will give her peace, but I have done what I can.”

There were tears streaming down Thadrick’s face and he wordlessly took Kain’s hand in both of his.  After taking several deep breaths he wiped his face, “You are welcome to stay beneath my roof as long as you desire.”  He choked out.  “I’ll ask my boys to have a lookout for your friend.”

He picked up his daughter and gently put her in a bed on the far side of the room.  She only made the slightest sound of sleepy protest as he did so.

“Much appreciated Thadrick.”  Callindra said, drawing attention away from Kain who was obviously uncomfortable with the man’s thanks.  “If you would be so kind as to tell me where I might find the baths?”

The innkeeper carefully closed the door on his sleeping daughter and moved back up the corridor.  He opened a door to a large room with an iron key on his belt and gestured them inside.  “Ring the bell for anything you need.”  He said, “My staff will provide you with the best we have to offer.”

The others ordered food while Callindra asked to be shown the baths.  She was soaking in luxury with a tumbler of ale on the stone ledge next to her when a figure slipped in nearly silently.  If it hadn’t been for the light breeze from the outside that accompanied his entrance she might never have noticed.

“Reed.”  She said in a conversational tone of voice.  “Didn’t see you at the gate.”

“What in th bleeding hells are you doin in here?”  Reed hissed, “Takin a bath?  You getting all girly and stuff while they’re out there plotting ta kill you an yer mates?  Startin with th one what’s rotting inna cell?”

“What I’m doing is keeping up appearances.”  She said calmly, taking a deep swallow of ale.  “This is what they expect.  Once the sun goes down, we’ll go and retrieve Holt.  When we find him the next morning they won’t have anything to say about it since they specifically told me they hadn’t seen him or imprisoned him.  In front of half a city’s worth of witnesses.”

“As if they cares a rats balls for witness.”  Reed said, “They does what they wants and nobody says boo cause if they do they’re next.  You gotta get him and scram afore they burn down th god rotting inn.”

“They won’t burn down the inn Reed.”  She said calmly rinsing the last of the soap out of her raggedly cut hair.

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.”

Gravelox and Gearslayer

I liked the names… so I re-used them for this character intro.  With the end of one Dungeons and Dragons campaign comes the start of another.  This should be an interesting one.

“Here’s the workshop.”  Lexai said smiling his usual smile as he opened a wide pair of doors to a large room with a mixture of modern and ancient equipment, shelving, cabinets and a ten foot tall statue of a suit of armor in the corner.  “Outfitted with standard blacksmithing tools, a forge and the newer alchemy supplies you requested as well as a bit of the modern magitech.”

Gravelox looked around and smiled.  This place would be perfect.  He could barely afford the monthly payments, it didn’t have any Passages in it to disrupt his work and the combination of the captive fire elemental for a forge and the alchemy tools were exactly what he was looking for.  There was even a small office space he could convert into a living space.

“Who owns it now?”  He asked his realtor, mentally going over his finances to make sure he had enough for a downpayment.

“I keep my clients confidential.”  Lexai said in a flat, businesslike tone.  His smile stayed fixed as though plastered on.  “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Of course not.”  Gravelox replied, too distracted by the workshop to think clearly.  “Just idle curiosity.  Now, about the terms you had mentioned?”

“The offer stands.  The owners are willing to sell it to you contract for deed.”  Lexai said, his smile ratcheting up a notch.  It was really almost mechanical.  “And at a low fixed interest rate of ten percent.”

Gravelox tried not to swallow his tongue.  “What?  You said it would be five percent!”

“Well, inflation and all that.”  Lexai waved a hand vaguely, “I have three other clients interested.  None of them need financing.”

Swiftly calculating in his head, Gravelox decided that as long as he met his projected sales potential he could make it work.  Barely.  Provided he didn’t run into any unexpected difficulties.  He shook the Kobold’s hand.  “Done.”

Something wasn’t right.  Gravelox had only been living here for a month and it seemed as though things kept going slightly wrong; just wrong enough that many of his creations failed.  He stared at the tiny bit of powder in frustration, watching as the reaction failed to produce the violent reaction intended and instead slowly smoldered and let off sullen red sparks.

It was time for drastic measures.  Opening the scroll case at his waist he withdrew one of the few remaining scrolls within and incanted the spell on the thick vellum.  His eyes glowed violet and he looked about the room, searching for magical anomalies.

At first glance, nothing was wrong.  Of course his forge had a hazy outline showing that it had runes that contained and compelled the elemental within with conjuration, evocation and enchantment.  There were protections on the walls that kept outsiders safe should any untoward alchemical event occur with abjuration magic.  The chamber even had some transmutation magics built into the walls that deadened sounds and helped control the temperature.

A more careful scan showed that the rusting metal statue that served as one of the support pillars radiated subtle power.  To his surprise, both of the statue’s hands radiated a hint of conjuration, but the rest of it seemed almost to be a dead zone.  It almost appeared to be absorbing ambient weave and redirecting it for some unknown purpose.  He also noted that there was a small bit of the statue in the direct center that seemed to be damaged now that he was inspecting it closely.

Removing an old friend from his equipment case, he leveled a wand of mechanical repair at the imperfection and activated it.  The statue twitched, sagged and fell over with a resounding crash.  Gravelox watched in horror as the wall it had been supporting collapsed.  When the roof truss smashed into him he was too surprised to shout.  All he could think of was that if he couldn’t make the payments he was dead.

Something was very wrong.  Gearslayer’s systems were gradually activating, one after another.  The first were the large muscle groups; the cables and cantilevers flexing and going through their startup tests.  A blockage of its shoulder joints impeded mobility so it first tried to lift, then allowed its knees to bend and slump.  Rust made it impossible for Gearslayer to fully articulate its knee joints, and it lost its balance and fell.

Many other things fell as well, and when Gearslayer’s ocular inputs came back online it found itself to be prone in a pile of rubble.  A shriek of protesting joints and pulleys that were long overdue for oiling accompanied its movements as it sat up, easily moving large wooden beams aside.  A fire seemed to be starting and there were multiple code, health and safety violations in effect.

More urgently, there seemed to be a Citizen bleeding and unconscious beneath a section of roofing.  Protocol suggested rescuing the citizen had priority.  Ignoring the warnings about joint malfunction and improperly lubricated equipment, Gearslayer bent and tried to move the section of roof.  When it refused to budge, it extended a hand and a pure white glittering scythe appeared in its hand.

With a perfectly calculated slices, Gearslayer chopped the sections of rubble that pinned the Citizen to the ground.  Dragging the boards off the Citizen, it lifted him to safety.

“Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, as its vocal systems finally coming back online.  “Your building is the subject of several health and safety violations.  I also believe it to be on fire.  My channels of communication with local authorities seem to be very outdated.  Do you have the ability to contact them?”

The Citizen did not respond.  Gearslayer attempted to recall how to check for vital signs but found that program to be corrupt.  It attempted to recall how to restore consciousness but found that program had been removed at the request of one Officer Durand.

A passerby was goggling at the destruction and Gearslayer approached her.  “Attention Citizen.  I require assistance contacting the local constabulary.  It would appear that this building has been destroyed and is in danger of setting fire to the surrounding neighborhood.  Can you assist?”

The Citizen burst out laughing, “You some freak baby, I ain’t no firefighter.  Ain’t no damn cops out here honey.”  She walked off, still chuckling.  “Crazy ass machine, don’t know where he be.”

Coughing behind it made Gearslayer turn back to the Citizen it had rescued from the building.  “You destroyed my shop.”  The Citizen gasped.

Gearslayer paused to consider this statement.  “I do not recall doing so Citizen.”

“What is your name, designation and what year is your commission?”  The Citizen asked, coughing and spitting blood out of his mouth.

Gearslayer paused again, sorting through its protocols.  “My name is Gearslayer, I am designated a Defending Bailiff and sentence executor. I am unsure as to the year of my commission Citizen.  It appears that some of my records are damaged, or possibly modified.”

“Your worthless carcass was holding up one of the walls of my shop.”  The Citizen said, “My name is Gravelox.  Your lawless destruction of my property puts you legally in my debt.”

Gearslayer considered this statement.  Likely he did indeed at least partially owe this Citizen something in return for what had happened; even if it wasn’t intentional.  “What is the amount needed to cover the damage done Citizen Gravelox?  I do not seem to have mention of funds in my name in any of my databanks.”

“Eighty thousand gold.”  Gravelox said, “And that’s just for the building, not counting all the equipment and materials lost.”

“That is a substantial sum Citizen Gravelox.”  Gearslayer said, “I fear it will take some time to assess my capability to assist in the reconstruction.”

“Time is something I don’t have.”  Gravelox said, running his hands through his hair.  “We’d better get the hell out of here.”

“Why would we leave Citizen?”  Gearslayer asked, “Should we not attempt to salvage-“ He was cut off by a small explosion from the ruins of the building.

“There’s dangerous stuff in there.  We need to run – ah – to get the proper authorities.”  Gravelox said.

“That is a valid point Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, “Lead on to the nearest constabulary.  I believe it is six blocks west and fourteen blocks east.”

“Sure.”  Gravelox said, “Come on.”

Lexai frowned, looking about at the destruction.  He’d been counting on the gunsmith to make him some real coin.  Now he was out the lucrative trade of firearms dealing to the less savory elements of this particular quarter as well as being out a building, the mortgage payment and even worse, his Minder wouldn’t be happy about losing the interest on the loan, the regular payments or the property.

“By the Portals what went on here?”  He wondered aloud.  Gesturing to his followers, he looked around the streets.  “Find out what happened.  Bring me witnesses.  Bring them alive, or at least capable of being brought back for questioning.”

The Shadows glided into deeper darkness, the winged folk took to the sky, the other assorted toughs and monsters trudged off into the maze of streets.  When he found Gravelox, there would be a reckoning.

One of the Shadows returned almost immediately, depositing a sealed envelope at Lexai’s feet.  Inside, he found a note from his missing gunsmith.

‘Lexai, please excuse my absence.  I know you will be displeased by the events that have unfolded, however I do plan on paying you back in full.  With proper interest.  It will merely take me more time.  I apologize for the inconvenience.  You have my word that I will compensate you in full once I am able.  Payments will be forwarded regularly.”

“I’ll have his skin for scroll vellum if he so much as misses a single payment.”  Lexai hissed, and the note immolated in his hand.  “If the Minders believe me to be getting soft, they will end my contract.”  He shuddred, ending a contract with his Minders wasn’t fatal.  But he would likely wish it was.

 

Shirasiau Sai’Li: Epilogue

It’s the end of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign… and I had some loose ends to wrap up.  Hope you enjoy!

_______________________________________________

Shirasiau Sai’Li sat on the tall chair that was the seat of power of the Jade Merchant.  It was her chair now, by right of combat.  There were some that had said as it was not by right of single combat it was invalid, but they did not speak very loudly after the first to question her position had vanished without a trace.

Of course, the transition of the title of Jade Merchant was publicly acknowledged in a far different manner.  It was the end of a week of celebrations, feasting, dancing and displays of acrobatics of all kinds, barring combat.  As the new Jade Merchant demanded; the martial arts were not to be shown.  To be completely accurate, she had mentioned that displays of grace and beauty were pleasing to her eye.  As she had never been seen to hold anything more substantial than a silken fan or paper parasol, the planners of the event had reacted accordingly.

She had to admit, the performances were quite pleasing and the dancers lovely.  Three in particular had caught her eye and one of them slept exhausted in her chambers.  The other two were kneeling close by, one holding tea, the other her kiseru and tobacco.

Sai’Li put out her left hand and the attendant placed the elegantly carved jade and silver pipe into it.  When she put it between her delicately tinted lips the same attendant held a coal over the bowl, allowing her to draw the scented smoke into her lungs.  Leaning back, she allowed smoke to trickle out her nostrils as she surveyed the room through lidded eyes.

The seventeen women kneeling before her sat motionless, waiting for her to speak.  She dropped the pipe and her attendant plucked it from the air without hesitation.  After taking a sip of her tea, the most powerful woman in Chen Yun snapped her fan in front of her face and leaned forward slightly.

“My dears.”  Her voice was resonant and pitched perfectly to carry but still sounded like a caress. “We are now at the dawning of a new era for the House of the Jade Merchant and for the Shirasiau family.”  At her words, the curtains parted, and the sun shone into the room, bright and cheerful.

Screams erupted from four of the women and they began to writhe as smoke burst from their skin.  They sprang to their feet, trying to escape from the punishing light, but Sai’Li vanished from her seat, stepping from the shadow of the nearest.  Black metal spiders the size of house cats were streaming from her sleeves as she slashed a fan with razor edges across the throat of her first victim.

“We shall not be tolerating the infiltration of the full breeds.  Only a select few of the males will be retained for the purpose of maintaining our strength of numbers.”  The spiders swarmed over the dying vampires as she spoke, holding them in the sunlight until they were burned to ashes.

Sai’Li sighed as the metal arachnids climbed back up her flawless obi and into her sleeves.  “I really do abhor having to resort to violence my dears.  It is a crude, crass way of dealing with problems and death truly is bad for business.  I have plans lovelies.  Won’t you join me for a nice cup of tea?”

The remaining thirteen women looked up.  They hadn’t moved from their positions as the others had died horribly around them.  Sai’Li flicked the blood off her fan before snapping it open before her face to hide her smile.  These women would be the future of the clan.  They had the discipline, the skill and the drive to perform.  Now if they only had the fortitude to survive bearing the next generation.

She needed daughters raised to respect the old ways.  Cunning but worthy of trust, ambitious but respectful, deadly but wise.  Her policy would be to reward rather than punish.  To encourage and nurture, to take the ideas she had learned during her time trading amongst the mortals and use them to create a family that would truly be legendary.

With a swarm of spiders still swarming behind her like a train, Sai’Li strode into the most important room in her house.  The battleground where she had fought and won most of the battles of her life.  In the tea room, she would court the mothers of her daughters.  She would earn their loyalty.

“Great Mistress.”  Keiko was bowing low, her white hair perfectly coiffed in the latest fashion.  The gray, blue and seafoam green of her kimono had koi swimming over the sleeves and across the back.

“Please Keiko.”  Sai’Li said, rising and taking her longtime partner by the hands.  “I have asked you only to address me formally when we are not alone.”

“Mistress of the Jade Chair, Brightly Blooming One, Flower That Opens in the Moonlight, One Who Stands in Daylight; emissaries from The Necropolis are requesting an audience.”  Keiko was still bowed low, “They are waiting in the antechamber.  I apologize Terrible Star, Princess of Spiders, Hand of Shadow Threads.  I do not yet know how they managed to enter unnoticed.”

“Find out.”  Sai’Li said, straightening her Obi and changing it to a formal affair of beautiful rippling metallic colors with a ripple of magic.  “Send them in.  Bring tea in ten minutes.”  She smiled behind her fan, “The black, flavored with jasmine and saffron.”

Keiko backed out of the circle of obsidian stones that surrounded the dais before straightening and turning to go.  In a few moments three figures dressed in folds of shadow and funerary wrappings entered.  They did not walk, but merely moved along the floor in utter silence.  Sai’Li stood gracefully and returned their slight bows with an inclination of her head.

“I extend greetings honored guests.”  She said, her voice warm as the sunlight that shone in through the high windows on both sides of the room.  “If I had but known of your visit I would have prepared for it.”

“We know.”  The foremost said, very obviously not flinching from the sunlight in a way that said clearly it wished to.  “This is why we have come unannounced.  It has come to our attention that you have been breeding.  We take exception to this.”

“The half dead are but a byproduct.  We do not appreciate your presumptions of superiority.”  The second rasped.

“Your beast has hunted an ancient bloodline nearly to extinction.”  The third whispered, its voice dry as ancient parchment.”

“Nearly to extinction?”  Sai’Li asked, arching a perfect eyebrow.  “I cannot imagine that my dearest Tiger missed any of my father’s spawn?”  She spat the word without honorific.

“You are the last.”  The foremost said.  “Centuries of knowledge and research has been lost and you are merely a half dead.”

“I assure you dear guests, I am not merely an anything.”  Sai’Li said, snapping her fan open to hide her annoyed expression.  “You stand in my chamber.  I require civility lest I become displeased.”

The door opened behind her and the aroma of jasmine blossoms and saffron stamen filled the room.  It was the scent of spring, of life and it cleansed the graveyard scent of her visitors from her nostrils.  Keiko carried a tray with delicate porcelain cups and a centuries old teapot that had belonged to her mother.

Chisara Yi’Tan was the first Empress of Chen’Yun.  Her reign had been a brief one; overthrown by one who had been stricken from the records; every evidence of her burned and all her descendants killed to the last.  Still, Yi’Tan had not been a virgin when she took the throne although her daughter was unknown to all save one.  Sai’Li had devoured the knowledge her father’s extensive diaries had held of her Honored Mother.

The three turned to glare at Keiko and in that moment Sai’Li extended a hand.  Black metal spiders flowed from her sleeves and the hem of her Obi and skittered into the center of the group.  Each one held a tiny sliver of brilliant glimmering light in their mandibles.  Sourcing Sunstones had been rather difficult, but they were most handy tools and her connections with prominent worshipers of Pelor ensured these were legitimate.

“Won’t you join me for some tea?”  She asked sweetly, descending the stairs to her dais with deliberate steps.  “Perhaps we might discuss this in a properly civilized manner.”  Unperturbed by the displays of hostility, rage and fear by the visitors, Keiko unfolded a lacquered table and began pouring the tea.

“Why are there so many cups?  Is your servant joining us?”  One of the emissaries spat, narrowing its eyes against the gleaming beams of bright light.

“No.”  A deeply resonant voice said in Draconic.  “You are not the only undead with an interest here.  I greatly appreciate the gesture dear Keiko.  My sincerest apologies for interrupting you Daughter of the Lost.”

“Coalbraizer, you honor my humble house with your presence.”  Sai’Li said, bowing as a form of swirling smoke stepped into the room, flickers that suggested a skeleton of a dragon that would fill half the room seeming to appear at the edges before vanishing and coalescing into an ethereally featured man dressed in a copper colored Obi.

“You three are not worthy of drinking this tea.”  Another voice, flat as the sound of a coffin nail being driven home.  A woman who would be quite stunning if she had not been so obviously deceased stepped from the shadows thrown by the glimmering Sunstones and they all dimmed to mere moonlight.

“Stileen!”  Sai’Li was barely able to keep the pleasure from tinging her voice, grateful for the fan to cover her smile.  “It is so good to see you again.”  A mental nudge brought her spiders back to their mistress.  She did not want to anger these last two; she knew and respected them.

“You three claim to represent the Necropolis.”  Stileen said, not yet acknowledging Sai’Li.  “Perhaps the three of you could explain which faction?”  Her voice was flat and dangerous.

“We represent the Black Quarter of the city of Argus.”  One of the three said.

“Quiet fool!”  The foremost said, “This is the Lady of Coastwood Mausoleum.”

“Coastwood?  That tiny seaside berg?”  The other replied with disdain in its voice.

“Coastwood is the gateway to the Bay of Souls.”  The foremost hissed, swinging its fist in a vicious arc that sent the other sprawling to the perfectly polished marble floor.  “My apologies Lady Stileen.  That one is less educated than it should be.”

“Please take tea with me and we can discuss any and all issues that Argus may have with me and my Family.”  Sai’Li said, gesturing to Keiko with the tip of the little finger on her left hand.  Keiko retreated to kneel on the floor, awaiting her mistress’s summons.

“It is only proper for us to be introduced formally beforehand.”  She said, giving the bow to visiting dignitaries within a hair’s breadth of the proper level.  “I am Shirasiau Sai’Li, known as The Jade Merchant.”

“I am Revnar, I hold the title of Justicar of Argus Below.”  The foremost, “It is the use of the half dead and their elevation to equal status that is at issue here.”

They sat, ignoring the still twitching form of the third emissary and tactfully not noticing that the second emissary remained standing behind Revnar.  Sai’Li folded herself gracefully to her knees, noting in satisfaction that the others couldn’t match her grace, although Stileen was close.

After they had all taken their first sip of tea, Sai’Li delicately wiped her upper lip and fixed Revnar with a significant look over the edge of her fan.  “Honored Justicar of Argus Below, is the issue at hand that you believe the half dead are undeserving of equal status?”

“Of course.”  He said immediately, not appearing to notice.  “Although technically immortal, they are inferior in every other aspect.”

“Do you believe that I am inferior?”  She asked, her voice not betraying one single iota of anger or discomfort.

“Ah, of course it was not my intention to give insult.”  He said, finally noticing that her cheeks had become slightly more sunken and her eyes had begun to fill with black.

“Nonetheless you have offered insult to me and my daughters beneath my own roof.”  She said quietly.  “You may have your choice of opponents and your choice of champion if you do not wish to fight yourself.  But there will be a duel to satisfy honor.”

She continued sipping her tea in contentment, watching the expression on the faces of the others at the table.  Those too ancient and set in their ways were far too simple to manipulate in such situations.  Now he had to fight and choose the opponent who would be considered to be the strongest or else be deemed weak.  It was almost too easy.

“Of course I will satisfy the needs of honor.”  Revnar said stiffly, “I will face any opponent of your choosing at a time and place of your choosing.”

“You shall face me.”  She said, standing with perfect grace.  “Now.  Here.”

No fool, he attacked without warning but there were suddenly five of her seeming to flicker in and out of existence and his deadly bolt of black energy passed harmlessly through one of them.  It blew him a kiss and vanished.  One of the figures behind him struck with a razor-edged fan and decades old blood splattered to the floor.

“You should not be able to cut me.”  He hissed in anger, striking out with a dagger made of the tooth of some long forgotten animal.  The blow struck another image and it flickered out of existence.

“Perhaps you should have brought your scythe if you came to give insult to ME or MINE!”  Sai’Li said, anger bleeding through her normally calm mask.  “If we were not at least equal to those of you trapped in the shadow we would have long since ceased to exist.  After all it is YOUR kind who create us and it seems as though it is YOUR minds that are susceptible to the madness of the world blending.”

She feinted left and cut horizontally across his face, following up with a downward slash that left a ragged tear that cut his chest to the bone from collar bone to bottom rib.

Revnar had been waiting for her next attack so he could identify which of her shadows was real.   With a snarl of triumph, he put a hand on her arm and threads of black shadows ran from his fingers to flow up and toward her face.

“Die half dead scum!” He shouted in triumph as his attack struck, filling Sai’Li’s eyes, nose and mouth.

Her body convulsed with a spasm of pain at the invading power but she didn’t fight it.  Revnar’s eyes widened as a delicate hand tightened on his wrist and the flow of his power increased.  He realized with shock that his opponent was intentionally draining him.

“What are you doing?”  Revnar screamed as he could feel his limbs weakening.  Sai’Li seemed to be taking one long, deep breath and her diminutive hand held his arm with bone crushing force.

Sai’Li tossed the withered corpse aside with contempt.  Flickers of darkness still hovered about her, looking more like black forks of lightning than shadows.  She licked her lips and turned to fix black eyes on the last remaining being from Argus.

“Are there any other opinions about whether I am your equal?”  She put just enough hunger and anticipation into her voice and saw a quiver of fear travel through its body.  A flick of her wrist closed her fan and cleared the ichor from it.  “Return and tell your Masters that I am not to be trifled with.”

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.”