The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 75

“Where is he now?”  Ellen Eth asked, leaning forward.  “Surely he has told you how you could find him.”

“Luftin was eaten by the same bedamned dragon that Lord Caverstorm is looking for.”  Callindra said, savoring the dry bite of the mead.  “It was right after Jorda was killed saving us.  A few of her siblings came with him to avenge her death and there was a huge battle and Cerioth just ate him.”

“Luftin?  I was told your Master’s name was Glarian.”  Ellen Eth frowned and leaned forward.  “Why did you call him Luftin?”

“Turns out he was the god of wind the whole time.  I have no idea why or what a god would want with someone like me.”  Callindra was definitely feeling strange.  She set the goblet down with a frown.  “Why would the gods care about an orphan who never knew her real parents?”

“Why indeed?”  Ellen Eth said, “I know they rarely do anything without a reason, so that makes you a curiosity my dear.”

Callindra couldn’t take a deep enough breath, the bedamned stays were digging into her ribs.  She stood slightly unsteadily and bobbed a curtsey.  “Pardon me Lady ‘Orien, but I feel the need for a breath of fresh air.  I am going to just step outside for a moment.”

Ellen Eth watched her go, a slight but genuine smile on her lips.  This youngling was a puzzle and a prize.  She made a slight gesture and one of her spies slipped from the shadows and followed.  The girl wouldn’t get too far with that amount of the truth telling drug raging through her system, but she wanted to be certain that The Sol’Estin did not get beyond her reach.

Durrak toyed idly with a dagger, spinning it between his fingers and flipping it to catch the hilt.  Lorin had been gone for a quarter candlemark and he was starting to wonder where the blighter had disappeared to.  In any other situation he’d think his friend was off scandalizing the courtesans, but here and now he felt there was cause to worry.

“Hey.”  A low voice interrupted his reverie.  “You don’t look like the rest of ‘em.  I mean cause of the armor not cause you’re a Dwarf.”  A young human dressed in finery that looked out of place despite it fitting with perfection slipped into the chair that Callindra had recently vacated.

“You no do be talking like a court boy.”  Durrak observed with a wry grin.

“Huh?”  He stuffed some of the small sandwiches into his mouth and talked around the food.  “Yeah I ain’t from around here.  I’m lookin for a friend who ain’t from around here either.”

“Who do your friend be?”  Durrak asked, “A certain willful young lady?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Maybe.”

“If she do be Lady Callindra, she did be walking toward the exit less than half a candlemark ago.”  Durrak said, “If I do be seeing her again I do be happy to be giving her a message.”

“Which way’d she go?”  He asked.  When Durrak gestured with the point of his dagger, he nodded, “If ya see her tell her Reed was here and said time to go.”

“Maybe I do be joining you Reed.”  Durrak said, sheathing his dagger and rising from his chair.  “I do be getting bored of sitting anyhow.”

Reed looked at him and chuckled.  “You think I’m actually supposed to be here?  With all that armor you’d give me away in a second.”

The Jade Court Part VI – Failure

“We can’t keep having these losses boss.”  Lon finished, shaking his head.  “Five of our last six deposits got jacked, Shinji and Li got shot in the head in broad daylight and someone got into one of our bases last night and did something.  Something weird.  Must have been like a biological weapon or something.”

Tanaka poured him a glass of whisky, lit two cigarettes in his mouth and passed one over.  “What do you mean weird?”

“They’d been melted boss.”  He shuddered and took the drink with a nod of thanks, “I ain’t seen nothing like it.  Like their flesh had been turned to jello.”

Tanaka poured whisky for Asahina and himself and took the opportunity to exchange a glance with her as she took the glass.  She nodded slightly, it was magic.

“I dunno what to tell you, boss, I’m sorry.”  Lon bowed his head, “I’ve failed you.”

“You should have brought this to me sooner Lon.”  Tanaka said, “But I made you a captain because of your independence, so the failure is mine, not yours.”

Lon kept his head bowed until Tanaka slapped him lightly on both cheeks, “I need you at your best, not feeling sorry for yourself.  Get back out there and keep your men vigilant.  You can rely on me to handle the rest.”

“Yes boss.  Thank you boss.”  Lon said, standing and bowing deeply before backing out of the room.

“What do we do about this?” Tanaka asked Asahina, “Can you do anything to defend against whatever magical attack this is?”

“Let’s look at the facts.”  Asahina said, “It appears most of these attacks have happened at night, other than the ones that seem to be from sniper fire.  Since it seems Lon didn’t vary his patterns much, I think it may be time to put out some bait and see if we can catch ourselves a rat.”

Tanaka’s mouth spread into a humorless smile.  “An excellent idea.”

The trap had been set, the bait dangled out for their enemy to see and all had been in readiness.  Tanaka had been waiting on a rooftop with a sniper rifle and night vision scope.  Asahina had been across the street on another rooftop, waiting to attack or defend with her magic as needed.  Men had been positioned in cars and cafes, waiting to move in when their attacker fell into the trap.

That’s when everything went wrong.

Tanaka sent a perfectly spaced pair of bullets into the head of the first would-be assailant.  He quickly turned his scope toward another figure and shot it in the chest, knocking it backward.  Asahina’s voice sounded in his earpiece.

“Tanaka!  Get out!  GET OUT!”

He saw the flash of magic from the rooftop where she was stationed and saw a half dozen figures converging on her location.  Before he could get a clear shot, a scrabbling sound made him look down.  Figures were clawing their way up the side of the building with unnatural speed.  Cursing under his breath, he dropped the rifle and took out his phone.

“I’m extracting, route three.”  He said.

“Negative sir!” The voice on the other end said, “We’re being hit, use-“ The voice cut off to the sound of screaming and awful crunching sounds.

The first of the things climbing the building pulled itself over the edge of the roof and Tanaka put a bullet through its head, but the thing only seemed to find it a momentary inconvenience.  A thrill of fear went down his back.  He turned and ran, pulling a pair of grenades from his belt, tossing one behind him and dropping one as he ran through the door.

When the explosions shook the building he didn’t stop running until he was at the underground parking garage.  He paused, catching his breath and loading a fresh magazine into his pistol.  Looking through the small window, he could see several people who he was certain were waiting for him or his associates.

Tanaka opened the door and walked briskly out, ignoring the men who moved to flank him.  When the first one was close enough to be an easy target, he shot both of the man’s kneecaps out.  He knew the bullets wouldn’t kill whatever the things were, but nothing could run with the use of its legs.  The momentary distraction was enough for him to run to his car.  Silently cursing the necessity, he abandoned his men and ran.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 74

“If you do be finding Cerioth, your best option do be running.”  Durrak said, “If I no did be a fool, I no would be looking to fight with her.  But she did be destroying Farenholm, killing all my people and taking up residence in the halls of my ancestors.  For that, I do be owning her.”

“She ate my Master.”  Callindra said, “I plan to cut her open and see if he’s still inside.”

With that, she turned and walked from the table.  Lorin watched her go, eyes searching for a hint about what possible danger she thought she could pose to a fly, let alone a dragon.

“Did you be noticing her hands?”  Durrak asked, “She do be a left handed fighter, light blade, fast footwork.  She do be wearing that ‘lady’ disguise well.”

“You really think she’s dangerous?”  Lorin asked, still mesmerized by the sway of her hips as she walked away.  “Beautiful as a naked blade, but other than how she moves, I would never have guessed…”

“Oh, I do be certain, Lorin.”  Durrak took a cigar from his pouch and blew a plume of dull red smoke to curl through the air.  “If there do be one who might beat me to Cerioth, it do be her.  We should be working together, but I no do be knowing if we can be trusting her.”

Abruptly, Lorin stood and hurried in the direction Callindra had gone.  “What the hell, why don’t we ask her?”  He said, giving Durrak a grin.

Callindra was worried about her friends after they hadn’t followed her in, but even more, now that The Order had threatened her in public.  If Ellen Eth allowed this type of behavior at a ball, there was little doubt that worse was to come for guards and servants.  She also wouldn’t be at all surprised if knives in the night were next.

As she walked toward the stairway where she’d come in, a guard stepped forward from an alcove where he had been watching unobtrusively.  “Pardon Lady, but my Lady ‘Orien would like to speak with you.”  He gestured toward a raised dais where she could see Ellen Eth sitting at a low marble table.  The woman was staring at her.

“Of course, I would be delighted to make her acquaintance.”  She said with forced enthusiasm.  “I wouldn’t have thought she would want to meet me personally.”

“My Lady meets with all of her guests personally.”  He said, “She only invites those with whom she wishes to speak.  Lady ‘Orien finds these casual parties to be far preferable to a formal audience.”

“I see.”  Callindra said, “It makes sense to wish to meet informally first.”  It certainly did make sense.  In this setting, most of her potential enemies would be unable to carry a weapon, and if they did, it would be difficult to conceal anything in formal wear.

With a nod to the guard, she made her way toward the dais.  She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, glancing back she saw the Elf Lorin walking toward the guard with a purposeful stride.  If he was following her, she decided to deal with him after Ellen Eth.

Callindra approached the table and curtseyed deeply while keeping eye contact.  “Lady ‘Orien, it is a pleasure to meet you.”  She said as she rose.

“Charmed, I’m sure.”  Ellen Eth said, giving her a smile that did not touch her eyes. “I must say you are not at all what I imagined you would be.”

“We are rarely exactly as expected, Lady.”  Said Callindra with a slight inclination of her head.  “I trust the differences are positive ones?”

“Based on the exploits I’ve heard of the Adamantine Brotherhood and the reputation of battle mages from The Order, I rather thought you would be more martial in both appearance and manner.”  She said, “I was surprised when you did not send Rrayu away and even more so when I heard the reports of your drastic changes in appearance and manner the evening you arrived.”

Callindra hesitated but decided that the truth was as likely to work as anything.  “When my life required me to know how to be a warrior, I became a warrior.  When I had to be a Lady, I learned to be a Lady.”  She shrugged, “Off hand, I would say being a warrior is easier and less dangerous.”

Ellen Eth blinked, the only thing betraying her surprise.  “Ah, well.  I suppose your training to become The Sol’Estin could hardly have included courtly arts.”

A laugh burst from her before Callindra could stop it.  “Oh, gods and demons no.”  Just thinking about Glarian trying to teach her how to wear stays or walk in skirts nearly made her dissolve into helpless laughter again.

“Of course.  Rumor has it that he was a bit of a recluse?”  She gestured, and a servant stepped from the shadows with goblets and a pair of bottles.  “Is it true that The Order disbarred him?”

“I don’t know all the history, but from what he told me, they could not remove him without trial by combat, and none of them had the skill or power to defeat him,”  Callindra said, watching as the servant poured her a goblet of mead.

“Why would he break the bylaws and train a student after being forbidden to do so?”  Ellen Eth mused, accepting a glass of dark red wine from the servant.

“I’m sure he had his reasons,”  Callindra said, taking a sip of the excellent mead.  “But I saw him practicing the Korumn and wouldn’t stop begging him to teach me the Sword until he agreed.”    Her head felt lighter than it should.  She’d never told anyone that before, and it seemed as though she should be thinking more before she answered.

The Jade Court Part IV – Invitation

“I appreciate you calling me with this Asahina.”  Arclight said, “What has this so-called ‘Jade Lady’ done thus far?”

Asahina sipped whisky and frowned at the small figure standing above her communicator focus.  Arclight was one of her contacts in the British Council where apparently taking a new name as a Journeyman mage was still in fashion.  He didn’t sound very worried about the situation; but then again, he didn’t have much reason to be.

“I told you what she has been doing.”  Asahina said a trifle impatiently, “She’s taken over an entire island, infiltrated every aspect of its business, politics, and set herself up as some kind of queen on Izu Oshima.  We sent some people to talk with her and we lost contact with them as soon as they debarked from the airplane. That was eight months ago and we haven’t heard from them since.”

“So she is very good at organizing support, has a bit of money, and is probably a mind mage of some sort.  You don’t have any evidence that the pair you sent to meet her met bad ends at her hand do you?” Arclight said, “I don’t see what’s gotten you so worried.  This isn’t like you.”

“One of them was a former apprentice of mine.”  Asahina said, “She was an accomplished death magic user and I can’t imagine her getting in over her head if there was combat involved.  Her ability to see through the intricacies of political rivalries took her a long way in our society, so I find it hard to believe she’d be caught out by any sort of gamesmanship either.”

“Which begs the question of what could have possibly kept her from reporting back for a day, much less half a year.”  He said, “Also not like you to let your people go missing for that long without following up.”

“We have.” She said shortly, “That’s why we know how deeply she has sunk her fingers into every aspect of Izu Oshima.”

“Have you thought about going there yourselves?”  He asked, “It’s not likely that she would take overt action against a recognized Council mage and someone with Tanaka’s contacts.”

“You don’t know much about the Jade Court do you?”  Asked Asahina.

“Only a little.  Had a coffee with a Knight of the Cross one afternoon about ten years ago.”  Arclight said, “He seemed to think they were more mysterious than any of the other courts, but I took that in stride since by all accounts they more or less vanished around two hundred years ago.  Pretty easy to be secretive when you’re gone through the entire Information Age wouldn’t you say?”

“She has been here for more than half a year and the only reason I know what her face looks like is that we strapped tiny cameras to a flock of pigeons.”  Asahina said, “We don’t know where her fortune came from, but she rebuilt a CASTLE in three months, made the island energy independent in four months and by our current estimate will have made it food independent by the end of the year.  

“She sent one envoy to us requesting that Tanaka come to pay his respects.”  She drained her glass and ran her hand through her hair, “Other than that there has been no attempt at contact.”

“Seems to me you need to make an overture.” Said Arclight, “If you won’t go to her, perhaps invite her to visit you.  If she’s as powerful as you say she won’t turn down the chance to show how much stronger she is than you by coming to your stronghold.  At very least you won’t have to deal with her pet tiger if you don’t want to.”

Asahina laughed, “I still think that’s one of the most compelling arguments for her being a mind mage.  Even the most talented with animals don’t get the kind of control she seems to have with her beast.”

“Well, keep me informed.”  Arclight said, “I have another meeting to get to.  Best of luck.”

His image faded from the focus and Asahina poured herself another two fingers of Santori.  “Well shit. Now I have to convince Tanaka that this is the best course of action. We also need to prepare a warm welcome for our ‘Jade Lady’ just in case things go sideways.”

The boardroom was prepared perfectly, the staff had been informed and only the most loyal and trusted people were present.  Asahina looked around and smiled to herself, this was as perfect as they could manage. The clock chimed 11:00 and she saw the video feed outside the front office.  A black limousine pulled up and the driver opened the door.

A parasol opened before the lady exited herself.  The silk of the parasol was colored black with a beautiful pattern of sakura blossoms scattered across it and the kimono the woman who stepped out of the car matched it perfectly.  The spray of cherry petals looked like blood splatters as the Jade Lady stepped out on her platform sandals, holding the hem of her kimono out of the dust of the street.

She paused, adjusting her garments before stepping forward and allowing the driver to close the door.  Asahina flinched slightly as Shiriasau Sai’Li looked directly at the camera trained on her and smiled slightly before snapping a fan over her face and delicately walking toward the door with measured, tiny steps.

The doorman held the door wide for her and she paused to thank him with a slight inclination of her head.  “May I leave my parasol with you?” She asked, folding the item and offering it to him handle first.

“Of course.”  He said, accepting it and setting it behind the small desk at his station after she had entered.

For no reason she could directly define, Asahina began to feel anxious.  Was it really a good idea to invite such a being into the Yashida stronghold?  The elevator chimed and the click of wooden sandals on the marble floor echoed around the room.

The Jade Court Part III – Loyalty

Soft music drifted into the room, delicate and precise.  Tanaka Yashida and Asahina Ito sat at a low table, watching a video feed on a large screen mounted to the wall.  A young boy sat in a chair nearby, legs crossed and eyes closed in meditation. It had been six months since their information gathering attempt had failed, the moment Ichi and Shinobu had set foot on Izu Oshima they had lost all contact.  Asahina saw it as a diplomatic snare. Tanaka saw it as a declaration of war.

Using his contacts on the island, he had first tried to remove the Jade Lady from the hotel she had taken up residence in, only to find out that she had indeed purchased the Miharayama Onsen hotel.  She had also paid twice the market value with cash. He’d tried to get local suppliers to stop selling their wares to the hotel, but he’d only managed a temporary pause in their business.

From there, Tanaka had widened his efforts to disrupt life on the island itself.  He had undermined the reliability of the power grid by cutting auxiliary power lines, sabotaged the ferry and bribed the local traffic authorities to undertake major repairs on the only bridge that connected to the mainland.  The Jade Lady had responded by constructing solar and tidal power generation that made Izu Oshima energy independent and helping to revive the local farming and fishing communities. The need for people to leave the island dropped dramatically.

Eventually, the amount of influence they could enact to change things on Izu Oshima had dwindled to almost nothing.  Councilors and officials politely declined bribes, business owners ceased responding to threats, and even locals who owed him favors only grudgingly agreed to do small things in return for being released from their obligations.  He had finally resorted to magical means.

One of the people who Asahina had helped him recruit was an Adept who had an affinity with animals.  Together with Tanaka’s tech department they had outfitted a few dozen pigeons with small cameras and deployed them to the island for spying purposes.  Now they watched in disbelief at what was happening in the city of Motomatchi.

The Jade Lady was walking the streets in formal dress from centuries ago.  She wore a flawless kimono of white embroidered with sakura trees, wooden sandals with high platforms to keep her feet out of the road dust and carried a parasol.  A huge Bengal tiger walked next to her like an obedient hound, everyone seemed to take its presence in stride.  

She exchanged pleasantries with every person she passed, calling them all by name, giving some gifts and accepting small tokens from others.  Children occasionally begged rides on the tiger’s back in exchange for small dishes of liquor that he lapped up with apparent relish. The townsfolk weren’t being forced or intimidated into obedience, they actually loved and respected her.

“It can’t be real,” Tanaka said, looking at Asahina. “Looks like you were right.  She is using some kind of mind control.”

“As strange as it seems, I don’t sense any kind of magic.” She said, “But I’d have to get closer to be sure.”

They watched as the lady walked into a small town square.  A gang of young men with masks over their faces ran from alleys in front of and to either side of her.  Most of them had knives, but their leader and two others had pistols.

“Tsung, please move one closer so that we can hear,” Asahina said, and one of the images on the screen came closer to the square as one of the pigeons landed on a fountain.

“-you stupid bitch?” The leader was yelling, “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but you don’t get to tell us what to do!  You might have a pet tiger but that’s not gonna help you against bullets!”

“You are being most uncouth youngsters.”  She said, snapping her fan open in front of her face.  “One should show more respect for one’s elders.” A low rumble of a tiger’s growl rolled through the air.  It cut off when she put her hand on his head.

“The Tonda gang has run this town for longer than you’ve been alive.”  He pointed his gun at her, “We don’t take anyone trying to get a piece of the action.  We sent you warnings but you just wouldn’t let it go.”

“Izu Oshima is my island.”  She said calmly, “No gang of young fools can alter that.  Your guns cannot help you accomplish your goals. The only way you will be able to remain here is to agree to serve me and obey my commands absolutely.  I will not allow you to further trouble my people.”

The gang began laughing and their leader shook his head. “You’re outta your goddamn mind.  I’m gonna paint the walls with your blood!” His gun fired, and a bright splash of blood began to stain the Lady’s pristine white kimono.

A hail of stones flew as Sai’Li fell to sprawl on the grass in an expanding pool of blood.  Dozens of the citizens ran forward, throwing more rocks, carrying bats, sticks and carrying other improvised weapons.  Shopkeepers still wearing their aprons, servers from restaurants, students, housewives, and fishermen filled the square, skirting around the tiger where he stood protectively over his mistress.

“You boys leave now.”  A man in a business suit said, pointing at them with a golf club.  “Lady Sai’Li has done more to ensure our prosperity in the last two months than anyone in my lifetime.  You always said you were helping us but I never saw you do anything but demand free drinks and cause trouble.”

A group of teenage girls ran up to Sai’Li, stopping nervously a few feet away from the still bristling Ignis. “Lady!” One shouted, “We need to help you!  If we don’t stop the bleeding you’ll die!”

The tiger looked at them with a baleful glare but moved to put himself between her and the gang.  More rocks flew and the gang leader brandished his gun, causing some of the people to flinch.

“I’ll shoot you just like I did her!” He yelled, “Nobody fucks with the Tonda gang!”

A rock struck him in the face and he stumbled back, blood running from a broken nose.  The businessman ran forward, smashing his golf club into his gun hand, sending it flying.  One of the others aimed his pistol but went down under a half-ton of angry tiger before he could pull the trigger.  The remaining gang members fled.

“Something’s not right,” Tsung said, his voice soft and dreamlike.  “No! They’re dying!”

The video feeds closest to the square changed perspective and the ones further away caught the motion of small bodies falling.  The birds that had been carrying the cameras had fallen over. The leaves of the trees in the square turned brown and began to fall off in the light breeze.

A white Mercedes arrived, and a group of figures sprang out.  The Lady struggled to her feet, and the man in the business suit seemed to be talking to her.  Despite her injuries, she bowed to him before allowing the new arrivals to help her into the back of the car, leaving a trail of blood behind her. 

“Well, that was unexpected,”  Tanaka said, running his fingers through his hair.

“Yes, she seems to have truly captured the hearts of those people.”  Asahina said, “I did not think that kind of tactic would be what she employed.”

“I was referring to how she tricked them all into thinking she had been hurt defending them,” Tanaka said, tapping a cigarette out of a pack and lighting it.  “After word of that little display spreads there won’t anyone in that city who wouldn’t die for her.”

“If she doesn’t die from being shot.” Asahina said, “That wasn’t a trivial injury.”

“She uses some kind of life magic.” Tsung said, “Or if it wasn’t her, someone else drained the life from everything around her.  The people were strong enough to stay alive, but the plants and smaller animals all died.”

“What does that?” Tanaka asked, looking at Asahina.

“Oh no.”  She said, her face going pale. “We thought they were all dead.”

“You thought WHO were all dead?” Tanaka snarled, “What have you been hiding from me?”

“I thought she was laying claim to the Jade Court out of ignorance or because none of them still lived to dispute her words,”  Asahina said, her face pale. “If my fears are accurate she may be an ancient evil returned.”

“What?” Tanaka looked caught between anger and surprise.  He’d never seen Asahina frightened before.

“Remember when we first met?  When I was hunting that creature and found out it had been stalking you?”  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Remember how hard it was to kill?”

“Once you told me how dangerous it was and we ganged up on it with the proper tools, it wasn’t that hard.”  He said, but the memory of the thing she had called a Black Court vampire still sent a thrill of fear down his spine.  “Garlic, crosses, and stakes through the heart, a scene right out of Brahm Stoker.”

“That’s why the Councils around the world worked to propagate that story,”  Asahina said, pouring a glass of scotch with shaking hands. “That’s one of the only times the wizarding world has used the power of normals to defeat a supernatural enemy.”

“I remember your history lesson from last time.”  He said, “What’s this got to do with her?”

“The Jade Court left a few centuries ago.”  Asahina said, “They weren’t driven out, they weren’t forced to go, but it was right before the first war between vampires and mages began.  At first, we thought it was because they were weak, there never were very many of them and nobody knows how they’re actually created.

“I haven’t been able to find more than rumors, but it seems as though this was a strategic move based on divination or maybe even advice from a dragon.  Either way, it was not due to any weakness that I could find.”  

“So we should stock up on crosses?”  Tanaka asked, lighting a cigarette.

“I looked through all of our records back then.”  She said, “After we drove the Black Court from our lands I wanted to research the other courts so that we could defend against them if need be.  I couldn’t find one single instance of a Jade Court vampire being killed. Not one.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 73

“The Lady do be conversing with me,”  Durrak said, giving the man who had spoken last a stern look.  “I no do appreciate a pleasant interlude being interrupted with rudeness.”

“Stay out of this, Caverstorm.”  He said, all but spitting the words.  “This is not your concern and she is no ‘lady’ at all but an imposter, trained by a rogue mage who defied the-”

Durrak abruptly stood and hurled one of his spiked gauntlets in the man’s face, cutting off his tirade.  “I no do be taking insults to Ladies who do be sharing time with me lightly.”  He said, voice simmering with contempt.  “Be picking up my gauntlet or do be departing after formal apology.”

Callindra paused, left hand reaching into her bag, and waited to see what would happen.  Lorin was leaning back in his chair with a boyish grin on his face, watching with apparent glee, but she could see he had his hand on a knife hilt under the table.  The man stared at Durrak for a moment, ignoring the blood coming from wounds the spiked glove had made on his face.

“We are both Inquisitors of The Order.”  He said after a moment, indicating the woman who stood next to him. “You may not have understood who you were speaking with before you made that challenge.  I understand if you wish to withdraw it.”

The Dwarf began to laugh, a rumble that built until it was a full belly laugh that shook the fastenings of his armor.  “You do be thinking.”  He started, before lapsing back into laughter.  “You do be thinking I do be withdrawing my challenge because you do claim some bloody title?

“Before I do be coming to this place, it did be my life’s work to be taking titles from fools too weak to be keeping them.  Do be apologizing to this Lady and departing with your comrade or do be preparing to fight.”  Durrak folded his arms over his armored chest, a move that emphasized the broadness of his shoulders and the spikes on his armor.

“Lord Caverstorm, please.”  Callindra said, “There is no need to intercede thus.  I would not want you to be injured for making such a noble gesture.”  Although her voice was calm, her eyes flashed with anger.  The Dwarf suspected she wished to defend her own honor.

“A gentleman no do be able to do less.”  Durrak said, “It no do be a gesture; it do be my obligation and my pleasure Lady.”

The entry chime sounded again, and the light illuminated a beautiful woman wearing a simple yet elegant dress of silver.  “The Lady Ellen Eth ‘Orien.”

Her eyes swept the ballroom, occasionally pausing on one group or another until they eventually came to rest on Durrak.  She took in Lorin, Callindra and the Inquisitors in silence, not offering support or rebuke.  Her presence seemed to calm the confrontation down, and the man bowed from the waist to Callindra.

“Lady Sol’Estin, please accept my apology for my behavior.”  He said, his voice perfectly polite.  “I should not have intruded on your private conversation and aired my grievances in front of others.  We shall discuss this later in private.”

“I fear I do not know your name, sir, for we have not been introduced.”  Callindra replied, stiffly formal, “May I please have your name?”

“I am Inquisitor Revchek.”  He said,  “We will speak privately of personal matters soon.”  The two Inquisitors stalked away, backs straight with tension.

“Seems to me that man intends to kill you,”  Lorin said laconically.

“The feeling is quite mutual.”  She said, watching the two as they retreated.  “I don’t think I’m going to give either of us a chance though.  Too much risk for not enough reward, as much as I’d like to see his liver on a stick.”

“You did be saying you no did know him,”  Durrak said, seeming confused.  “Why do you be wanting him dead?”

“I appreciate your chivalrous offer Lord Caverstorm.”  She said, “However, my quarrel with them is only due to the Order’s quarrel with my Master.  Now that he’s gone, I appear to have inherited his debts.”

“The offer do stand.”  Durrak said, “I did make it more for his sake than yours.  That man do be in need of a touch of humbling.”

“I find his arrogance in the face of the end of the world a little refreshing.”  Callindra said with a weak smile, “Or at least I would if I could find room for levity.  Thank you for the conversation and support.  If you find Cerioth tell her hello with that polearm for me.”

“You no do be staying?”  Durrak asked, raising a bushy eyebrow.

“No, I’m afraid this city has shown itself to be as dead as every other place.”  Callindra said, “Despite the people who shelter here, none of them are living.”

She stood from the table with a grace that Lorin now recognized.  It wasn’t the smoothness of a dancer or a Lady trained from childhood to move just so.  It was the litheness of a predator trained to kill.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 72

“Why did I be letting you be talking me into this?”  Durrak asked Lorin, “Look at these bedamned fools in their frippery.  Do they not be knowing there do be monsters from the Abyss feasting on human flesh above their heads?”

“Durrak, my friend, you need to relax and enjoy yourself,”  Lorin said, surveying the crowd.  “There are so many beauties here tonight, how can you focus on the problems of the world above with such delectable butterflies flitting about?”

“How do you be thinking of women now?”  Durrak took a lit cigar from his belt pouch, puffing a cloud of thick blue smoke.

“One has to enjoy things when one can, my friend.”  He smiled over Durrak’s right shoulder, “Like this vision of loveliness for example.”

A woman in a dark green dress with a matching bag incongruously strung on a silver chain that was bound to her wrist was walking purposefully toward them.  Lorin thought her a bit slender, but she moved with grace and confidence that he found alluring.  The only sign of nervousness was the way her hand clutched the bag’s chain.

“Lord Caverstorm?”  She inquired, ignoring Lorin completely and dipping a curtsey to Durrak.  “Might I impose on a moment of your time?”

Durrak chuckled at his friend’s stricken expression.  He grounded the butt of his Gisarme and bowed with a creak and scrape of armor.  “I do be at your disposal, Miss.”

“Apologies Lords, my name is Lady Callindra Sol’Estin.”  She curtseyed to Lorin as well, “Would you care to join me at a table so that we can converse with proper refreshment?”

“For you to be using Mithril, you do be showing much caution or that you do value the contents of your pouch most greatly,”  Durrak said, glancing at her wrist.  “I do be happy to join you Lady Sol’Estin.  This do be Lorin, I do be apologizing in advance for he do be a terrible flirt.”

“Please ignore the crude and uncultured Dwarf, my Lady,”  Lorin said with an elegant bow.  “We would be honored to sit with you.”

Instead of returning to the table she’d shared with a few other courtiers, she led the way to a small table and perched on the edge of a chair.  She signaled to a servant who brought an assortment of small snacks and a tray of wine glasses.

After the servant had left, she smiled at Durrak, but the words that came out of her mouth belied the expression.  “I hear you have an interest in the dragon Cerioth.  If you desire her death as intently as I do, perhaps we can help one another.”

“What quarrel do a Lady have with The Bane of Ignetium?”  Durrak asked, “A gentle lass like yourself no do be having cause to be picking fights with dragons.”

“I’ve killed one dragon already.”  She said, her voice fierce but calm.  “It wasn’t easy, but by all the gods and demons, I intend to do it again.”

“I think we may have misjudged you, my Lady.”  Lorin said, “It seems as though you aren’t a delicate flower despite looking the part almost perfectly.”

“I’m flattered that my ruse worked so well.”  She said, still smiling as though they were flirting or making small talk.  “I fear I’m even less of a Lady that you likely think.  I came here to try and figure out what the most powerful city ever constructed had done to survive the hordes of Taken, and instead, I discover a den of petty idiots pretending that someone’s claim to nobility still matters.”

Realization dawned on Lorin’s face.  “I remember that name now.  It’s not a surname, but a Title from a school of battle magic.”

“It is the Title of a wanted criminal.”  A woman’s voice from behind and to the left Callindra’s chair said.  “A Title that cannot be rightfully claimed by a half trained apprentice.”

“Come along quietly, child.”  Another voice said, this one behind and to the right. “All we want is you to lead us to your Master.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 71

“Oh please, simply call me Drake.” He said, smiling.  “I assure you the honor and pleasure of our meeting is certainly mine.”

She lowered her eyelashes and walked next to him, allowing him to guide her to a group of people sitting at a table.  “Pleasure can be shared, Count.” Flirting was not something she excelled at, but Rrayu had given her some tips and to her surprise, they seemed to work far better than she would have imagined possible.

“Indeed,”  Drake said, giving her a brief but through leer.  “Perhaps we can share more later.”

Callindra suppressed a shudder and kept her face down in case she couldn’t keep her feelings from showing.  “Perhaps.”

“Drake, you old letch!”  One of the men at the table laughed, “Always getting to the newest and prettiest girls first.”

“Come now; she’s not just a pretty face,”  Drake said with a smile. “This young lady is The Sol’Estin.”

Most of the courtiers at the table made polite noises, either ambivalent about or ignorant of the title.  Two of them stopped and gave her looks that did little to disguise their hostility.

“I thought they were warriors or sword fighters or something.”  A young woman in a low cut black dress said, “Or is that just a title?”

Callindra took a glass of wine from a passing servant, ignoring the question.  She focused on her surroundings and covertly kept an eye on the two hostile courtiers.  One was a woman of striking beauty dressed in a comparatively severe gown and the other was a man who looked old but still well-muscled and hale.

“Nay Kapirnika, the title requires training and skill.”  Drake said with a smile, “Rumor has it, Lady Callindra is quite accomplished with a blade.”

“Hardly seems proper for a Lady,”  Kapirnika said, giving Callindra a mildly scandalized look.

“Well, in this age, we all must make sacrifices,”  Callindra said, sipping her wine.

“Too true.”  The woman across from her said.

Before the others could comment further, the chime sounded again, this time followed by an officious voice.  “Lords Durrak Caverstorm and Lorin Blackthorn.”

The light illuminated the staircase and an odd pair, a tall and elegantly attired Elf standing next to a heavily armed and armored Dwarf.  They were chatting as they walked down the staircase, apparently not paying any attention to the eyes that followed them. The Dwarf pulled something from a belt pouch and blew a cloud of bright blue smoke into the air with an accompanying exclamation.

“That pair finally showed up at a ball,”  Drake said, looking at them with narrowed eyes.  “I wonder what our Lady offered or threatened them with.”

“I don’t think the Dwarf would respond to threats passively.”  The older man who had been glaring at her said.

“He has a history of obliterating threats quite actively.”  Kapirnika said enthusiastically, “I don’t think the Elf should be assessed as any less capable, however.  Have you seen him shoot his bow? Gives me chills.”

“Drake, see if you can get them to come over here.”  The severely dressed woman said, “I’d love to take a closer look at that polearm he carries.  Word has it Herself enchanted it for him so he could get his revenge on that menace of a dragon.  More power to him if he can, for all I think he’s insane to try.”

“Zinneah, you’re only ever interested in whatever magic someone has.” Kapirnika said, “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Zinneah glared briefly at her before her gaze returned to Callindra, focusing on her right side.  “Oh, I think of many things, Kapi dear, but I always come back to what’s important. Magic, power and weapons matter now more than anything else.”

Callindra toyed with the stem of her wine glass, “You mentioned a dragon?  Would that be Cerioth?”

“What would you know of that?”  She snapped, giving Callindra a more appraising look.  “How did you manage to make it here alive anyway? Your guards must be quite competent.”

“Please excuse me,”  Callindra said, setting her wine glass down as she rose.  “I must go and speak with Lord Caverstorm.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 70

The ‘transport’ had turned out to be a handcart pulled by two burly men, and it was only big enough for Callindra to ride.  Since the rest of her friends were posing as her guards, she thought it was fitting that they walk, regardless of how much Reed grumbled about it.  Besides, there was no way she could have walked that far in the gown and shoes.  Even if it wasn’t so tight she could barely breathe, she would be worried about soiling her hem in the dirt of the street.

Following the winding wooden platforms that connected the dirt and cobblestone streets, they arrived at Ellen Eth ‘Orien’s mansion.  It was three stories tall, each story made of a different color of marble.  The courtyard was paved with gold coins instead of gravel, and guards in matching jet black livery stood at the polished blackwood doors.

Callindra stepped from the cart, gratefully accepting Reed’s hand to steady herself when her bloody skirts nearly tripped her.  Now she understood why Ladies had attendants.  Approaching the guards at the door, she gave them a slight inclination of her head and walked through the door.  The ballroom was so breathtaking it took her a moment to notice her companions hadn’t entered behind her.

A man in black livery with a staff of office stepped from behind a podium, looking at her appraisingly.  “And you are?”  He inquired in a voice that suggested she was dressed in strips of rotting meat.

Her temper flared, and a gust of wind swirled around her before blowing an inkwell over onto a stack of paper before also blowing the documents to the floor.  “Invited.”  She said shortly, gliding past him as he jumped to try and save the parchment.

“My attendants should be joining me shortly,”  Callindra said over her shoulder, and then she had to focus on her surroundings.  The arched entrance led down to a floor inlaid with gold and jade in intricate swirling patterns.  Richly dressed men and women stood in groups, talking and listening to an orchestra playing in a minor key.

As she walked through the archway, a gentle chime sounded, and the assembled folk turned to look in her direction.  A light above illuminated her as she walked down a wide staircase, and a servant in white livery came to offer escort.  A man in a perfectly tailored suit of dark red satin with lace ruffles at the cuffs and collar approached and bowed.

“Delgrin did not introduce you, but I gather you must be Lady Sol’Estin?”  He took her hand and brushed it with his lips.  “I am Count Drake Ardent.”

Callindra took her hand back to curtsey as Rrayu had taught her, “I am indeed, it is a pleasure to meet you, Count Ardent.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 69

“She’s barely left that room for two days.”  Vilhylm said, “I can’t imagine something’s going to have significantly changed in such a short time.”

“Maybe not, but I ain’t gonna be the one to mess up my part,”  Reed said, helping himself to a glass of wine.  “We’re all supposed to be escorts.  You’re all guards of one nature or another; that sounds easy enough to me.  I gotta be like a runner or something; hopefully, I can chat up some of the servants.”

“None of us have to change who we appear to be.”  Holt said, “She is undertaking a much more difficult task.”

“I’m certainly not a guard.”  Connor said, “I should probably just stay behind so I don’t mess anything up.”

The door to Callindra’s room swung open, and a vision in forest green silk with a matching handbag hanging from her right wrist on a delicate silver chain swept into the room.  The lines of her dress made a gentle hourglass shape, the bodice and skirt accentuating her figure.  Velvet slippers peeked out from the gold-embroidered hem.  Subtle touches of color highlighted her cheekbones and the seafoam green of her eyes.

“You shall indeed remain here and employ your arcane talents to study our situation further.”  She said, “The rest of you are to attend me at Lady ‘Orien’s ball.  Accord yourselves well and do not embarrass me.”

They all stared at her in momentary shock.  Reed was the first to find his voice.  “Callindra?  You actually look like a Courtier.  Gods and bloody demons, you SOUND like a Courtier.”

“Language Reed.  Holt, please close your mouth before you catch flies.”  The corner of her mouth quirked, and she started to laugh.  “By the nine hells, you should see your faces!”

“You’ve worked very hard, and the results are plain to see.”  Vilhylm said with a smile, “I didn’t think you could accomplish so much in such a short time, you will do us all proud.”

Callindra gave him a hug, a slight flush coloring her cheeks.  “I feel so bedamned awkward.”

“You look the part quite well,”  Holt said, seeming to recover from his shock.  “Hiding your sword in your magical bag is brilliant.”

“We need to be ready to depart shortly.”  She said, falling back into character.  “Please make yourselves presentable.”

Callindra moved to a table and sat primly, gesturing for Rrayu to bring her refreshment.  The others looked at her for a moment before realizing she was serious.  They left to make final preparations before presenting themselves for Rrayu’s appraisal.  She made minor adjustments, straightening and smoothing before sighing that they’d do.

“My Lady, I have asked for transport to be brought, they should be out front now,”  Rrayu said, giving Callindra a final once over.  “Gods all bless.”