Elemental Tide

Show Your True Colors

The early morning sunlight awakened Callindra from troubling dreams. Her head throbbed and she wisely refrained from trying to sit up. “Mylee?” She whispered, even that level of vocalization sending daggers of pain into her temples.

She remembered seeing a horrifying scene of people fighting in her dreams. Thousands of people standing behind a row of glittering spear points, as soldiers bravely stood in front of a phalanx of charging horsemen. A boy running toward the horsemen with a bow made of steel on his back seemed to look right at her … did he shout her name? It was all hazy behind the pain and she shoved the memories aside.

“Mylee?” she croaked again, trying to raise her voice.

“My Lady.” Mylee said softly, but her voice was still too loud. “Please drink this tea. It will help your head.”

Callindra tried, but a wave of dizziness caused her stomach to flip and she nearly vomited. “I can’t.” She whispered, so faintly that the girl barely heard her.

The door opened and the sound of the footfalls coming across the wood plank floor made Callindra’s head spin. “Fool girl.” The Maalrah’s voice grated, “I dinne ken why yeh would do such a thing. I dinne ha time fer yeh ta be layin in bed.”

In spite of the roughness of her voice, the old woman’s hands were gentle as they carefully touched the back of Callindra’s neck. Coolness spread through her heated body and took the pain away. Her vision cleared and she was able to see the others in the room.

“That was healing magic wasn’t it?” She said, fixing the Maalrah with a mildly accusatory look.

“Of course you silly wench, now keep it to yourself. If word gets out, I’ll be swamped with nothing but idiots begging me to patch up their owies.” Callindra realized the older woman was speaking Auran and smiled. This was going to take some time to get used to.

“Mylee. We need to get the leaders together, our time is… limited. We need to act quickly before it’s too late.”

“I will see to it personally my Lady.” Mylee said, “Are you … feeling better?”

“Better enough my dear. Could you please set out that new dress I asked to have made and my sword belt?”

“Your sword belt?” Her maid sounded confused, “Are you sure?”

“It survived.” Callindra replied, “If Dorgaard will allow it, I’ll keep it. Seems like I owe it to him.”

“What? Why would you owe Dorgaard anything?” Mylee asked, confusion on her face.

“No, not Dorgaard, the sword.” Callindra said with a mysterious smile, “It feels like… I’ve done this before.”

“Sometimes I’m glad you don’t remember your past my Lady.” Mylee said, a slight frown on her face, “It almost seems like you used to be a very different person.”

“Well, regardless of who I was before I am who I am now. Nothing will change that.” The skepticism was clear on her friend’s face, “I swear it. Now go lay out my clothes.”

With a nod, Mylee left the sick room, but the frown was still on her face. One more step away from friend. One more step towards worshiper. Damnation.

-

“I asked you all to assemble and you have all gathered to hear my words. I thank you.” Callindra took in the assembled men; nearly every Clan Chief was here; more than twice what she had expected. Apparently the word of the little girl from the city who had the Berserk and slaughtered droves of Abyssal Spawn had spread quickly.

Callindra stood in the main feast hall wearing the dress she had commissioned. It was made of sturdy material and slit for riding, but cut in a fashionable style. The corset had metal bands instead of whale boning, allowing it to almost be armor. The rapier Dorgaard had given her looked impressive, but she had to always keep her hand on the hilt to keep the bedamned thing from tangling in her skirts.

“This threat of the Abyss is real, and it is possible that they are, for whatever reason drawn to me. I do not know why, but I do know I refuse to sit here and wait for them to try and kill me.” Her gaze swept over them, and she could see the effect it had. They were nearly in the palm of her hand, but why? She hadn’t even done anything.

“I intend on taking the fight to them, and I happen to know where this started. I know where their leader is. He almost fell to me once before although he sought to slip into my room unnoticed and stab me in my sleep.” Her eyes seemed to flash with anger to those watching and a swirl of wind caused the banners on the walls to flutter. Her hair blew out around her head, escaping from the silk ribbon she had used to tie it back.

“This time I am ready for him. This time, I am armed. If we are to win against the threat of the Abyssal monsters that have invaded our island we must face them together. That is why I am not riding to put Caer Corwell under a siege. I go to exterminate vermin.” Her voice was hard, “The so-called ‘lord’ Daleus ‘te Jerran is not just a traitor to his people; he has sold himself to the Abyss, and I will see him dead for his betrayal.”

I go to eliminate him and any of his kind who dare to tread on my island and this time I am NOT ALONE!” She drew her sword in a glittering arc, “If any of you have the stones to follow me into battle, I call you to do so now. I leave within the hour.” She didn’t wait for them to ask questions. She didn’t wait for any of them to agree. Instead, she spun on her heel and stalked from the room as though simply expecting them to follow. They followed.

-

“I hate this plan.” Mylee whispered, “I hate everything about this plan. I can’t believe I allowed you to talk me into it.”

“I refuse to let more of my people kill each other Mylee.” Callindra whispered fiercely, “Not if I can help it. We have plenty of Abyss to destroy if they’re interested in killing something.”

“Yes, but why do you have to be the one to do this?” The girl asked.

“I’ve told you already. I have to be seen defeating him. It has to be me, otherwise they won’t believe it. They won’t follow me.” Callindra tucked a wayward strand of hair back behind her ear. “If I don’t unite us we will all be swallowed up.” She shuddered, feeling the weight of the truth in her words.

“I … why does it have to be you?”

“Who else is there? Now keep quiet and find me a way up there!”

Dorgaard was the battle leader. He had lead the united forces of The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to the gates of Caer Corwell. She wasn’t certain that Talcomnis had gotten her communication and hadn’t been able to wait to see what his response was. Either way, she hoped that the men outside the gates would be distraction enough even without a small fleet of ships threatening the harbor.

“I believe I can hook my grapnel over the crenellation up there, but we’ll have to be fast. His guards are actually fairly competent, which is a surprise.” Mylee whirled the rope and hook only once, releasing it at the top of the arc. “I’m going first.” She said and swarmed up the rope before Callindra could respond.

Callindra began climbing as soon as her friend had reached the top. To her surprise, it was actually quite easy and she reached the top of the wall in just a few moments. The view was quite literally breathtaking. The citadel was perched on the edge of a sheer cliff on one side and the city spread out below, all the way down to the bay. On the bay side of the city, the sun was just clearing the horizon, painting the clouds with a crimson brush.

She could see her forces arrayed threateningly outside the walls of the Citadel and to her distinct pleasure there were a number of ships in the harbor flying Talcomnis’s flag. The wind buffeted her playfully and she had to keep herself from laughing in exhilaration. Was this really going to work? Only if she could find Daleus, and quickly.

Mylee began a crouching run along the walls toward the city’s gates. The majority of the city guard were down there, addressing the clear threat of several thousand men doing what they did best. Making a lot of noise.

“I don’t see Daleus’s banner, do you?” Callindra asked, following the other woman and trying to keep a low profile. It was no easy task due to the steel boning in her corset, but she was willing to take the protection over the flexibility this time.

“It’s down by the gate.” Mylee said tersely, “I don’t think we’ll make it there without being spotted either.”

“As soon as we’re away from the Citadel we can just use city streets. Nobody is going to recognize us and pretty much everyone is going to be on the walls anyway right?” Even as she said those words, a pair of soldiers stepped from a hidden guard post, one lowering his spear at them and the other turning to run the opposite direction.

“Shit!” Mylee pulled something from her belt and flung it at the retreating figure. With a whirling sound, a set of weights strung on a rope flew from her hands and wrapped around his legs, bringing him down hard. The other man stabbed at Callindra with his spear, the point driving through her skirt as she leaped lightly into the air and landed directly on the haft of the weapon.

The crosstrees of the spear became tangled in her skirts and the frustrated soldier dropped it, drawing a short sword from his belt instead. With the speed of a striking snake, Mylee lashed out with her leg, her shin connecting with his face with a cringe-worthy thud. A quick investigation of the soldier who had run showed he had struck his forehead on the stone wall and was unlikely to raise a hue and cry any time soon.

“We got lucky.” Mylee muttered, “The sooner we’re off this wall the better.” The sound of a throat clearing behind them made them both spin, Callindra pulling her sword from its sheath and Mylee drawing a pair of daggers.

“My apologies.” Said Claymore, stepping out of the shadows.

“Claymore?” Callindra couldn’t believe it, “You survived? How?” The man had been her personal Reeve when she had lived in the city.

“Ah, well. I have… a variety of talents. One of the main ones is knowing how to survive and that mostly involves knowing how to remain innocuous.” He shrugged deprecatingly, “If you would like… I can bring you anywhere you would like to go in the city. You will get there quickly and unnoticed.”

“What? How?” Callindra asked.

“Yes.” Mylee said at the same time.

Claymore looked at Callindra and winked. “Magic of course.” With a wave of his hand, he shimmered and his clothes became the uniform of a guard captain. Looking down, she saw that she and Mylee both appeared to be a guardsman as well, wearing the polished breastplate with the gray and black of the Watch.

“Let’s go.” She said, not wanting to think about it too much. Magic was dangerous. At that thought, her mind whirled and she saw an old man’s face, long white hair caught in a wrist thick braid that hung all the way down his back. The man looked at her and spoke, something vast moving behind his steel gray eyes.

‘You are an awakening mage Callindra, nothing can stop that. Your unfortunate contact with Daleus seems to have accelerated your body’s ability to channel the Weave. Even as we speak the winds have been reflecting your mood.’

What in the hell was that? She shook her head to clear the cobwebs. She must have zoned out for almost a minute, they were much further down the wall, almost to the front gates. They were sailing past guards, all of whom saluted Claymore. Apparently his disguise was well chosen. The roar of her men was now clearly audible.

“Come on out an fight ya spineless coward!” That would have to be Dorgaard. The men around her muttered angrily, looking to where their captain stood on the wall. It wasn’t Daleus under the flag. Damn.

“Captain, how long we gonna sit here and take this?” A soldier grumbled, “These damn savages have no bloody right to insult us like this.”

“Easy now. He’ll will be here soon. He won’t stand for this.” The captain said, “Just stay calm. No need to do a damn thing. They can’t even hit us with arrows from here, there’s no point in us wasting our ammunition. Those… things are still out there. Hopefully they’ll take care of the gods damned savages for us.”

Behind him a door slammed open and Daleus walked onto the wall. “What in the Nine Hells is going on here? Goddamn northmen, what do they want?”

Callindra couldn’t wait; she felt something pulling at her. The winds came up beneath her, blowing away the illusion that surrounded her. She almost felt as though her body was rising above the ground as she spoke in ringing tones.

“Daleus, you are an agent of the unholy! I hereby charge you with a betrayal of us all. You have sold your soul to the Abyss. I judge you and find you WANTING!” Her voice echoed over the wall, the battlefield and all fell silent.

The man began to laugh, and as his laughter rang out over the city, something began to change. The sky seemed to darken and the very ground began to tremble. “I. Will. Be. Your. Undoing.” The thing that had once been Daleus took a single step toward Callindra and terror overtook her. She turned and ran, not even thinking about what she was doing.

Only through an extreme act of will was she able to stop at the corner of the wall. Behind her, the surf crashed against the bottom of the cliff. Callindra turned to see the end of a whip, curling with emerald fire cracking before her face. The explosion threw her from the wall, plummeting toward the rocks.

“You see what following this little girl will bring you?” The thing that had once been Daleus turned toward the men on the field. “I have ended her. She is NOTHING!”

Behind him, the form of Callindra rose, standing on the air. Her hand reached out and the air beneath his body exploded, knocking him off the wall. “I have judged you and FOUND YOU WANTING!” She screamed, turning and striking him in the chest even as he fell. The look of surprise on his face was almost comical as her hand hit him with terrible force.

The aftershock of Callindra’s attack echoed across the wall and over the battlefield. “I am Callindra Stormchild. I am here to destroy the Abyss that has infected our island. I will not rest until we are free of their threat. Let this promise be a bond, from me to the land and its people. All of its people.”

View
To Lead is to Have Those Who Will Follow

Taking the Maalrah’s advice, Callindra had tried learning to swordfight. The result had been a near complete disaster, and she’d had to give up after only two attempts. No sword that she wielded survived and after one of the blade’s death throes nearly claimed the life of Olaf, who was attempting to be her trainer she decided to stop.

“I’m sorry Olaf, it seems I’m just not cut out for this.” She said, standing on tiptoe to wipe the blood from his face with her kerchief. “I don’t care what that old woman says, this is not the answer.”

“Yeh do seem a mite… unfit fer this type a fightin truth be told lass.” The big man agreed amicably, “Yer mode a dress ain’t exactly fit fer it either.”

She had insisted on wearing proper skirts. After all, she wasn’t going to go about dressed as a man all the time and she could hardly imagine any assailant would wait for her to change from a dress into breeches before attacking her. Callindra shrugged, not bothering to take up the old argument.

“Mylee can teach me more tumbling instead. It doesn’t help much but the stretching and meditative kata seem to give me some relief and focus.”

“Aye. I’d sooner yeh knew how tae use a blade teh defend yerself but wi luck yeh won’ have tae worry bout it.” Olaf said, turning to give Mylee an appraising look, “If yeh could learn some a tha hand fightin Mylee puts ter fine effect it wouldna go amiss.”

Mylee’s cheeks colored ever so slightly at the compliment, “I have tried, but as soon as we move from the kata to the faster, physical strikes my lady’s stance gets soft and her form just falls apart.” The girl shrugged, “I’d settle for her not bringing a gale down upon our heads every time she gets in a mood.”

Callindra ignored this barb with aplomb, instead settling into the easy, wide parted Stance that the first kata began from. Following Mylee’s instruction, she moved smoothly through the meditative Stances, allowing each one to flow into the next. She finished the one hundred and eleventh, ending by shifting back into the Ready Stance. Her instructor stared at her in undisguised admiration.

“You have real talent for the kata my lady.” Mylee said with an approving nod, “You’ve actually moved beyond my skill truth be told. I’ve heard of other practice Stances that involve weapons but I haven’t ever seen anyone who knew how to dance the Korumn before.”

The word resonated through Callindra like a stone falling into calm waters. “That word sounds… familiar.” She mused, feeling the languid relaxation that the kata always brought to her. “Where does it originate from?”

“Certain schools of swordplay that have produced the most renowned Weaponmasters in history swear by them, saying they focus the warrior’s energy to the point that their blade becomes an extension of their body.” Mylee said wistfully, “They bond with their blades, becoming completely attuned to them and gaining incredible fighting prowess in return.”

“Ah’ve heard a Elven Bladedancers as weel.” Olaf said with a scornful shrug, “But ah ken better n teh believe in fairy tales.”

Mylee punched him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt. “Shut up!”

“My friends, I seek your council.” Callindra said, “They are asking me to lead them to war.”
The other two glanced at each other and then looked at her. “War against who?” Olaf asked.

Callindra lowered her head, “Against the city folk. Against the people of Caer Corwell.” Looking up at them, they were surprised to see a fierce gleam in her eyes. “I will not allow it to happen. I will NOT see the people of the Isle of Gwynneth fight one another.”

“Wha?” Olaf said incredulity painted on his rough features. “Yeh think yeh cn stop a war between th folk?”

“My Lady, the people will do as they always have. Those of the City will look down on those of the Moor, and the Moor people will never accept the Cityfolk as equals.” Mylee said, sadness creasing her face. “I wish you could, but nobody has ever been able to make the Clans and the Royals see eye to eye.”

“I will not allow it.” Callindra insisted, “Times have changed. I will simply not allow conflict between living beings. The Abyss must needs be our concern now. They will be destroyed. I shall not rest while ONE SINGLE spawn of the abyss lives upon MY ISLANDS! We start with that treacherous slime Daleus.”

“Eh… nae offense ‘meh lady’ bu how exactly do yeh expect to hurt tha sonofabi-“

“I intend to kill him.” She said, cutting Olaf off mid curse. “Once he is gone, his hold over the people of Caer Corwell will be gone and I will be free to martial the entirety of our forces against the remainder of the Abyssal Spawn that dare to stay behind after his destruction.”

“He may prove difficult to kill.” Mylee said, “I’ve already seen what he was able to resist. The destruction you visited on him before was… quite impressive and yet he survived.”

“Then I shall have to do better.” Callindra replied, her mouth thinning into a grim line, “I tolerate failure in myself less than I do in my subordinates.”

“Yer… wha?” Olaf asked, his eyebrows crawling up toward his hairline.

“Retainers?” Callindra said, trying to cover a slip of the tongue that took her by surprise. She wasn’t a warrior and this kind of speech was unbecoming of a Lady.

“My Lady, what are you suggesting?” Mylee asked, quirking an eyebrow, “You don’t expect me to believe that you want to break in and assassinate Daleus do you?”

“Certainly not!” She said, “I wish you to bring me within striking distance of the filth and I will deal with him as he deserves, preferably within sight and hearing of as many citizens as possible!”

“An then wha? Yeh get killed an we hav teh handle wha follows?” Olaf asked, “Yeh ain’t na fighter.”

“I may not be a warrior by trade my dear Olaf, but I know how to deal with a … with someone like Daleus. The only way I can destroy his base of power is to kill him and do it in a way that humiliates him, showing his weakness to any that might wish to follow in his footsteps. They need to fear and respect my power or it is all for nothing.”

“An yeh got a plan?” He said, fixing her with a skeptical look.

“Well… I have the idea. I have you two to help with the plan!” Callindra said with a hopeful smile.

“Ah hells.”

Olaf was cut off by the sound of splintering wood. Behind him, the barricade that surrounded the city shattered and a creature of nightmare reached through with wickedly curved claws.

“DOWN!” Callindra shouted and the big man dropped to the ground like a stone. Razor sharp claws that would have torn him asunder clove thin air instead. “DIE you abyssal scum!” She shouted, whipping the thin blade from the scabbard with a whistling rush of air.

To Mylee time seemed to slow as she saw her mistress leap through the air as though flying, easily clearing the prone form of Olaf and striking the monster across the eyes. The thin silver sliver of steel exploded even as she struck and the creature roared in rage. Mylee stared in horror as the woman she worshiped stood before the ravening abyssal spawn, now weaponless but no less defiant.

“You shall NOT have him! Your filth shall be BANISHED from my island!” A light seemed to shine from her as she spoke the words, “I swear it by the four winds, the end of your kind is near, but YOUR end is NOW!” At the last word, Callindra flung out her right hand and it was as though all the sound in the room coalesced into her palm before exploding out in a shattering blast that tore the monster and a chunk of the wall into pieces the size of grains of sand. The wind whirled around her, tearing her hair loose from the braid that usually tethered it and sending her skirts flying almost to her knees.

“My Lady.” Mylee breathed, “My beautiful, deadly Lady.”

The hole in the wall showed a host of monsters much like the one Callindra had just killed. She did not hesitate, instead leaping through the hole without even bothering to try and pick up a weapon. The first few fell to open handed strikes that destroyed them as thoroughly as the first but then her power faded and she looked around for anything she could use to defend herself.

Dorgaard’s voice rang out from the top of the wall, “Here lass, CATCH!” Callindra spun and caught the weapon he threw, sweeping it from the scabbard and striking the head off one of the monsters with a single, smooth stroke. The blade sang in protest, but did not burst asunder with her first strike, nor the second or the third. Callindra lost track of the fight, forgetting herself in the flow of the battle.

A massive shape loomed out of the rabble of spawn, roaring a challenge and breaking Callindra’s reckless charge. It wielded a sword made of some strange red metal longer than she was tall in both hands, swinging it in a vast overhand strike faster than seemed possible.

She twitched sideways at the last possible second, allowing the huge sword to miss her by the slightest margin and slam deep into the ground. Her return strike stabbed through the thing’s wrist, punching through and flicking back out before her opponent could wrench his sword free. The monster tore his blade loose and swung at her in a brutal upward arc.

Again, Callindra could see exactly where the strike was aimed and was able to move just enough that it missed the mark. The wind of its passing ruffled her hair and she saw a few strands parted by the blade’s jagged edge. “You cut my HAIR!” She yelled, irrationally enraged.

Before the giant could bring his blade down again, Callindra leaped forward, tucking to roll smoothly under its legs and lashing out at the tendon on the back of the left knee. As it spun to face her, she pivoted on her heel and struck at the other leg. The blow it aimed at her changed mid-swing when both of its legs failed to hold its weight and the flat of the sword struck her a glancing blow on the side of the head. As it began to topple she drove the point of her borrowed blade through its eye, twisting to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible. Laughing in triumph, she jumped over her fallen foe, looking for the next enemy.

When the battle fever subsided from her veins, Callindra stood surrounded by the bodies of her fallen foes, the slender blade Dorgaard had given her still whining in protest. She looked at it in astonishment. “How have you managed to survive?” She murmured. The sword seemed to quiet under her scrutiny.

“My Lady!” Mylee was picking her way through the clutter of the battlefield, “Are you hurt?”

Callindra looked at herself for the first time after the fight, noting the dreadful state of her dress. In spite of the fabric of her clothing being shredded by multiple slashes, she found only one or two shallow cuts in her flesh. In spite of the relatively minor amount of damage she had sustained, Callindra couldn’t help but wince in pain.

“I do not think they are life threatening but these thrice cursed wounds hurt!” She said, awkwardly attempting to investigate the one across her middle that seemed the largest.

“What kind of pain?” Mylee said, brow furrowing.

“There are different kinds?” Callindra said, “What a horrifying idea. Mylee, I believe I have chosen the wrong path. This being a leader thing does not suit me very well.” Her thoughts seemed slightly scrambled.

“Where is the sheath for that sword?” Asked Mylee, looking around, “I don’t want you to stab me when I have to carry you back to the healers.”

“Over next to the … the hole I made in the wall I think.” Callindra giggled, what in the nine hells was wrong with her? “I am afraid I feel slightly dizzy. It’s all right though; this sword didn’t break so I think it’s safe.”

“You aren’t making sense.” The girl whirled and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Olaf! I need you!”

“Oh, ask him to bring some wine.” Callindra said brightly before her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed like a puppet with cut strings.

-

“I dinne recall seein anathin like her.” Dorgaard said softly. “She fights wi th might a many men wi nae regard fer her own life. Thas th mark of a warrior bu nae a leader.”

“She’s not supposed to be a leader on the battlefield.” Mylee retorted, “She is a Lady. I have seen her take an entire court of highborn Lords and Ladies and bend them to her will with nothing more than subtle innuendo. A smile here, a curtsey not quite as deep as it should be there, making direct eye contact with one of higher station and overnight she is the subject of everyone’s attention. My Lady Stormchild does it without even seeming to try.

“But your people do not respond to such things. Here she knows the only way to prove her worthiness to lead you is to show how dangerous she is, but my Lady is discerning enough to let it happen gradually. Even after defeating you in single combat she refused to take advantage of it, only responding to the evidence of her prowess when it was obvious that it would put your position in danger. So tell me Clan Chief Dorgaard, has she earned your respect?”

The big man sat back in his chair which creaked warningly under his bulk and crossed his arms. “I dinne think o it like tha.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Mylee said, the laughter in her voice more playful than mocking, “As I said, she is a born leader. This is what she knows and why you need her to lead you. I understand that you have a narrow vision of how to manage your people, but she has the ability to bring the entire isle together.”

“Mah folk inna likely teh follow a lass.” Dorgaard rumbled, “More teh th point she’s a wisp o a thing.”

“I think you do them an injustice.” She said, “They aren’t as close minded as you think, and besides her actions show strength beyond her physical appearance. My Lady managed to beat you did she not? In spite of being unarmed, asleep and vastly smaller and weaker than you?”

Callindra stirred on the bed, groaning softly and kicking a bare leg out from under the blanket. With a sigh, Mylee tried to tuck it back in and narrowly avoided a knee to the head. The prone figure grumbled like a hibernating bear and rolled over, hair tangling into a cloud around her head.

Dorgaard shook his head, “Hard teh believe this’s th same lass.”

“Yes, well you aren’t really supposed to be in a Lady’s bedchamber.” Mylee said primly, “If it wasn’t for the fact that we needed to have this little chat I never would have allowed it. In fact, I imagine she would be most angry with me if she knew you were here.”

“Yeh aint gon ta tell her?” He asked.

“Not if I can help it.” She muttered, shaking her head, “Now get out of here. You have plenty to think on and I need to watch over her. The healer said she needs willow bark tea as soon as she awakens. They say she has taken a blow to the head that may have caused some damage.”

“Tryst.” Callindra’s voice was heavy with emotional pain, the words coming out slurred and indistinct. “Why did you leave us? After you died everything just fell apart. We lost at Hellgate keep. I was sure the whole thing was over then. I never imagined it was possible for her to die… she was a goddess.”

Dorgaard froze, his hand on the door as if afraid any movement would interrupt her words. Mylee gasped in shock, her face bone white. Who was this woman? Callindra’s left hand reached for her right wrist and a moan of despair escaped her lips when it touched bare flesh.

“He’s gone.” She whispered, the fear making the listeners skin crawl, “I’m lost.”

View
Plot and Revelry

It was afternoon, and the Swords of Hope were once again gathered beneath the sheltering boughs of the Grandfather Tree, taking tea with Luagga. Rrayu was also in attendance in her role as maidservant; one which she excelled. The Druid was in a better mood, but also veritably glowed with power. It was clear the favor of the Goddess lay about his shoulders like a cloak.

Rrayu had poured tea for half of them and then hefted the pot, “Would anyone else like tea? I’m afraid I did not make enough.” She glanced around, locking eyes with Reed for a moment.

“I would like some. That pot looks heavy, let me help you.” Reed said, rising and following her a short distance away to where a small cooking stove sat.

“I know you don’t really want to … help … but I don’t think you just wanted to get away from them either.” She took the pot from him and rinsed it with hot water from the stove, “So… what do you need now?”

Reed’s brows furrowed in mild confusion, “Hmm, I’m sorry. I thought you wanted to speak to me. I seem to be misreading everything as of late. My apologies.”

“Why do you apologize to me? It’s not like you’ve insulted me past the point where any normal person would even stand to be within twenty feet of you.” She tossed a handful of tea leaves into the pot and added more boiling water from the stove. “You reserve that for ancient Elven lords.”

Reed’s voice began to rise in anger, “I am done defending my actions. If there is burden to bare I will, but my actions were needed”

“Who was asking you to defend yourself?” Rrayu began stirring the tea, "I just don’t want to die, and since you insist that I am to stay here when you leave, I was hoping that perhaps you wouldn’t ensure that every single elf hates humans with a passion that borders on fanatical. You are strong enough to defend yourself against them… after all, it’s not like even the current Lord of the Forest can force you to leave… as is evidenced by the fact that you stay when he asked you to go… but the rest of us? We will be sorely outmatched when you go.

“If he finds what you carry however…” She glanced around furtively, “If he sees the thing you just invited to join you, he will absolutely do everything within his power to kill you and all who came with you. That is a dangerous play… but one that could, if handled properly, bring you much power.”

Rrayu looked at him, sizing up his mood before continuing, “I have seen you move stealthily Reed, you need to learn how to take that physical practice and apply it to your social interaction. Subtlety.”

Reed leaned in closer, dropping his voice, "So my ears didn’t deceive me, what do you know? How do you know of it?”

“You did this… without even knowing what it was?” She backed away from him slightly, “What did you offer? What did you bargain? What are you getting in return? What protection did you negotiate?”

“I haven’t yet negotiated with it. I offered life. I worry that everyone will react the same, but you are not acting like the rest of them.” He bit his fingernail and regarded her with a nervous expression, “I need the risk for the reward but how do you know of this?”

“Foolish boy, the bargain is made when the offer is accepted. If you did not make a pact when you made your offering…” She shook her head, “I don’t know what will happen to you, but if you gave it your life then you are likely in a lot of trouble.”

“How do I know if these things?” She diped the tea leaves out of the pot with a strainer. “I learned of power… of bargains… and I can recognize things that resonate with them.”

Reed could sense that she was leaving out important details, and sought to earn her trust. He told her exactly how he had come to possess the tainted dagger from the strange clearing. “I am not precisely sure what may have passed but, it is weak.”

Rrayu laughed, “Weak? You say it had control over dozens or more Willow the Wisps… that does not sound weak to me.”

“I don’t know.” Reed countered, “Was it control or were they attracted to the chaos?”

“It might owe you a small favor for bringing it out of that shrine but since you didn’t designate what you would get in return that means the choice is up to it, not up to you. If they led you to the shrine…” She shrugged, “You mentioned something about hearing them tell you to follow them and then something about hearing them demand your blood? I think it’s safe to assume they were being controlled by it. You don’t happen to have its name do you?”

“No.” Reed frowned and began worrying at his fingernail again.

“You don’t know anyone who might know its name?” She shook her head again, “No, I suppose that’s too much to ask.”

“Well I might be able to get it from Kain, but then what? My idea with this is … well … there is a group of Goblins outside of Loudwater. Since we’re heading there anyway, I figure maybe I can bring this thing close to the … followers it needs to survive. Anything is better than letting another God die right? I know it is crazy but we need all hands on deck here.”

“My knowledge of these things comes from some of the interactions my Mistress had with the Count and Countess Adbar.” Rrayu paused, gauging whether or not the name meant anything to him. Seeing no reaction, she continued, “From what their spies were able to learn, the Count made some sort of pact with a dark power in order to provide himself with certain… unsavory amusements. He erected a gladiator arena for the glory of this dark power and dedicated every death to it. I’m not privy to all the details, but apparently when the slaves escaped it violated his pact and his body and soul were forfeit. I don’t know what would happen with such an open ended arrangement. At least knowing its alignment so you know if you can trust any bargain would be helpful… but you gave it your blood. Be wary.”

“What of the others? Do you think I should share this information, would any of the other Swords understand?”

She looks at him, incredulity painted clearly across her face, “Surely you aren’t that foolish?”

“Bah, I feel so uneven.” Reed ran a hand through the tangle of his hair, “This whole day has been a mess. I assure you I will clean this mess up. We should get back before they question our absence, or at least before the tea gets cold.”

“I honestly…” She trails off and looks down for a moment. Reed realizes that the face of calm she always shows is a complete falsehood as stark fear paints her features. “The only times I’ve felt safe around Kain and Connor are when you’re there. The only time I slept solidly through the night was when you saved me. They just don’t understand us Reed. We’re survivors. We need to stick together.”

Reed nodded and after putting a hand on her shoulder for a moment, he made his way back to the others. As he walked, a harsh voice shattered his calm and intruded on his mind.

“Loudwater? Surely… you are not going to assist those… fools who saw fit to throw you to the slavering jaws of the Abyss…” The voice was low and chill, the dagger vibrated against his thigh as though it were not a sheathed blade but a hive of bees that was stirred with a stick.
Looking around to see if anyone is paying any particular attention, he ducked behind a tree for some privacy. He spoke in a whisper, “I was wondering when we would speak. My name is Reed.”

“Yes, I know.” The gravely voice said mockingly, “Your blood is what brought me from that place. In my world, blood is knowledge and power. I taste the sweetness of the Fey in your vitae… strangely mingled with the bitter flame of the mortal human.”

“I have been warned that I should be cautious when working with you, but seeing as you know who I am you are aware of my intentions and trepidation.” Reed said.

“Foolish words spoken by foolish mortals. I feel the burning need to survive above all else within you. In that we are one and the same.”

“Then you understand the peril I put myself in just to give you the opportunity to survive, do you not?”

“Peril? As I said… foolishness. They might chastise you for your behavior, but they would hardly remove you from your mortal coil.”

“My comrades possibly, but others who do not know who I am or what I trying to do would likely judge without thinking, and that would likely lead to trouble.”

“Of course the Elves were hostile and angry toward you already.” The voice grated, “And that was hardly my doing… but for all their supposed wisdom, I find the Fey to be a haughty, angry and judgmental folk.”

“As you know I agree.” Reed said, “You do have me on a disadvantage as you know who I am, but I do not know who you are.”

“This is true.” The God’s laugh sent shiver trembling down the boy’s spine, “You will learn more of me in time.”

“Well time is a rare resource as of late, we should at least come to some type of an accord at least for both of our survival.”

“I know you think you can bargain…. but that should have been negotiated before you gave me your life essence.” The same laugh rattled Reed’s calm again, “I am under no duress to fulfill any request that you may have. You are… for me to deal with as I see fit. I must admit, you do amuse me with your aspirations however. Perhaps I shall be lenient and grant some small request.”

“I think you may have misunderstood the agreement.” Reed said, allowing some of his anger to slide into his words, “I agreed to save your existence, in order to keep the opportunity alive. But I am not yours to command, my blood was an offering to keep you alive, not to give you control.”

“Think what you may. It is clear to me that your fourteen years of age have not educated you about pacts with powers.” The God said coldly, “Blood, the very vitae that flows and nourishes your body was freely given. I do not take more than my due… yet… but do not presume to bargain after the offering is made. I do not believe you wish me to know what I know about you. That should, in some measure, suffice to explain exactly how much control over this situation you have.”

“I am not going to be a puppet to your whim.” Reed said scornfully, “We both have your interest in mind here, but if you make any unwarranted move or threaten to act through me without permission, my pact with you, as you can call it, can be ended just as quickly as it was made. I do not need you, but you damn well realize you need me.”

“Do not press me.” Blood began to flow from the cut Reed had made before the altar, “You are not willing to do what is needed to break this bargain.”

An oppressive pressure seemed to grip his body and he felt weak for just an instant, before it slackened and Reed could breathe again. “But enough of this antagonistic talk, I see no reason we cannot cohabit amicably enough. You seem like a reasonable enough, if terribly disrespectful and rash, youth.”

“Well it seems I have more than one disadvantage.” Reed took a moment to gather himself, “Well you know what my plan is. What do you think?”

“What do I think of your plan to reunite me with a group of Goblins outside Loudwater?” The voice chuckled ruefully, “It is a humble beginning, but it has potential. I would honestly be surprised if many of them survived the Cleansing, but perhaps some of the very strong or very weak managed to make it through. You don’t precisely understand what you did do you? You’re thinking of … leaving me there?”

Reed hesitated before responding, "Well … yes … to build their strength with yours.”

“No. Build OUR strength with THEIRS.” The God’s voice rasped with anger, “I am not a passenger. We are bound by blood and sacrifice… you are not going to be rid of me as easily as you seem to imagine.”

“That was not the agreement I had in mind.” Reed protested, “I will aid you with regaining your strength, but that is all. We are not one and the same.”

The God began to laugh and it spread. Reed smiled before he could think about it. “I am a God of Blood. I gave you commands and you complied, without even the slightest hesitation, even going against the will of your companions. Deny it all you wish. You gave your blood to me, you accepted my sacrificial soil. Ignorance is not a defense any but the foolish hide behind.”

“A god of blood?” Reed cursed under his breath, “Looking back I can see the folly of my actions, but if I didn’t make such a rash decision, who knows what state you would be in?”

“How fortuitous for me indeed.” The voice rasped, still sounding amused.

“I think we both can coexist for mutual gain, but you need to understand that the line I walk is precarious, but working together we can succeed.” Said Reed.

“I believe you are far too young and inexperienced to even begin to imagine what risk, loss and gain are.” The God said bitterly, “You are afraid. You should be… but the world is much more dangerous to you than I am currently. Restrain your foolish impulses in the future lest you put us both at risk.”

“I think that lesson has come and gone, but I fear I will continue to learn it.”

“I will ensure that you learn it much more rapidly.” The voice said. The promise it contained made the boy shudder.

-

Kain approached the clearing that the young Elf had pointed him to. He squared his shoulders and fingered the pouch that held the diamond the size of his thumbnail in it. Walking into the clearing, he saw Xangeon leaning low toward a small figure.

“Know that this is a two way gift Mogget. With this pearl you may summon me. I will see your situation clearly and know exactly why you have asked me to join you… but also know I will be able to summon you in the same way.”

“You’re telling me if I accept your gift that I give you the same in return?” Mogget’s voice was like a handful of gravel being thrown down a granite cliff. “Why would I accept such a gift?”

“Because it has been offered in good faith.” The dragon responded, “I understood that you were looking to make a new life here young-“

“Yes.” Mogget interrupted, “I am looking for a fresh start. Very well Dragon. I acknowledge your debt to me and I accept your gift, even with the strings that are attached.” He leaned down and took something small and white from the dragon’s claws, and swallowed it.

“Lord Riddlebane, I… I owe you an apology.” Kain said, “I have treated you as one beneath the stature your station demands.”

“Yes.” The dragon stared at him with eyes the size of wagon wheels, “I will consider your request Kain Raal.”

“Maybe this will influence your decision?” Kain withdrew a large diamond from his belt pouch and offered it. Xangeon plucked it deftly from his palm with claws that could have torn him in two.

“This is a reasonable gemstone. Carved by a Dwarven jeweler if I am not mistaken.” He gestured and the jewel seemed to disappear from his hand, “I was merely thanking Mogget before taking my leave. I must return to my people before they are lost. Best of luck in your endeavor for your gods.”

Unsettled by the sound of pity that resonated in the dragon’s voice, Kain settled for a respectful bow instead of a vocal reply. He did not straighten from the bow until the whirling downdraft of Xangeon’s wingbeats had faded to light breezes. Taking a deep, shaking breath, he let it out slowly.

“That was… interesting.” Mogget said, casually washing a paw.

Kain ignored him, frowning at the angle of the sun. “I guess we won’t be leaving today after all.” He turned to go and saw the slender form of an Elf in Ranger garb standing at a respectful distance. Kain approached him warily, knowing that he and his friends weren’t exactly in the best graces with the Elven leaders at this point.

“I am Elric, current leader of our guard.” The Elf said by way of greeting, “I was moving to pass on invitations to some of my guard captains personally; we will be having a Revel tonight to celebrate the life that our fallen brothers and sisters sacrificed for our survival after committing their remains to the Mother.”

Kain hesitated, then understood that he meant there was going to be a party after a funeral.
“I am sorry for your loss Lord Elric.” He said, inclining his head.

The Elf laughed softly, “Nay Sir Raal, I am no Lord, I work for a living.” He held up his callused hands as though they were proof positive. “Speaking of, I would like to extend an invitation to you as well. You and your folk have extended themselves to assist mine, likely saving all of our lives. Although I know the opinion is not widely shared, but I wish to express my thanks for the… fortifications you helped to erect. They shall greatly increase our ability to defend the Grandfather.”

“I am not a ‘Sir’ Elric, as I hold no claim to titles, however you are correct that your opinion is in the minority.” Kain said with a wry smile, “I appreciate your candor, and I’m pleased to accept your invitation.”

“Excellent. I shall see you after the last of the sun’s rays fade.” Elric said, clasping forearms with the man. “Be well Kain.”

-

As the sun began to set, the Swords gathered with the men and women who had accompanied them from Secomber for an evening meal. The invitation that Elric had extended was a popular topic of conversation among most of them. Kain felt he needed to address them and waited until they had all quieted down with full plates to call for their attention.

“Companions, a moment of your time please.” He said, his voice loud enough to carry over the assembled people, “We have been afforded a unique opportunity, and it is something that we should be thankful for. Let us remember that the Elves are a reserved folk, please try and act accordingly.”

Even as he finished speaking, a low and mournful song that spoke of terrible hurt and loss seemed to come from all around them. The Elves were keening their dead and many of the assembled people began to weep, even though they could not understand the words.

“Elves live for a very long time.” Holt said softly, “They have few children, and losses such as they have suffered cause such pain that it must be released together lest the grief tear their spirits asunder. I have never heard a gathering this large sing the dying song together before.”

The haunting melody continued for several minutes, then the song blended into a wordless wail before falling into a rhythmic chant that faded slowly away into silence. A moment later, every voice of every Elf was raised in a defiant shout that drove the pall of depression and sadness from the hearts of all who could hear. The dead were gone, but they would not be forgotten and their sacrifice would not be in vain.

-

The men had followed the scent of burning wood and the sound of voices to a place just out of view of the Trickster’s Pipe and found a large group of Elves in Ranger garb efficiently skinning and butchering a deer and a wild boar. One of them had gone to the base of the tree where Connor’s strange building was currently sitting and was attempting to figure out how to get inside. He had seen provisions there before and thought that perhaps he might procure some kegs of ale or casks of wine but as of yet had not been able to get inside. A group of his fellows were standing nearby, calling out suggestions in loud bawdy voices.

“Will you quiet the hells down?” A window opened high on the side of the building and a strange face with goggles askew and hair singed glared down at them. “What is all the god rotting racket?”

The hecklers quieted and the man below squared his shoulders under the gaze of his companions, “We just wanted to see if Connor would see fit to provide us with drink for the celebration.” He said, attempting to make his voice authoritative, but instead sounding like an orphan asking for a crust of bread.

“What? You lookin for booze?” The figure asked incredulously, “If I give you some drink you’ll go away and be silent?”

“Yeah, we’ll go away for sure.” He replied, and before he could say anything else the window slammed shut. A few moments later, the sound of clattering and banging could be heard from inside the Pipe. The lift descended to a cacophony of clacking gears and creaking cable. It was loaded with barrels, cases of wine and a dusty crate filled with a variety of mugs and goblets.

The men pulled them off the platform, struggling under the weight but managing to acquit themselves fairly well once they heard the sloshing sounds from inside. Most were labeled ‘ale’ but a few said ‘grog’ and others simply ‘potable’. None of the wine was labeled and dust lay thickly on the bottles. Once the last one was removed, the lift shrieked and squealed its way back up. Within a quarter hour, they had managed to bring the libations to the fire where the Elves had the animals roasting over a bed of coals along with a variety of tubers and mushrooms on long spits.

The first keg was broached, the mugs passed around and the revelry began. Some of the men pulled small instruments, mostly drums and whistles along with a lute and a guitar and began playing a lively jig. Some of the Elves joined in, the words they sang were alien to the humans but they sounded almost as loud and bawdy as the ones they spoke in the Common tongue.

There was a pause after a few songs and a bright contralto voice cut through the chatter of voices. “You call that a dance tune? My grandmother plays livelier songs! Follow me in this one if you have the skill.” The humans and elves turned as one to see Rrayu standing on top of an ale barrel with a slender silver whistle in her hands.

She began to play and the tune was as infectious as the delighted laughter of a child watching a clever conjuring trick. Some of the drummers joined in and Holt borrowed a lute from one of the Elven musicians. Without warning everyone was dancing. Even the musicians were moving as much as their instruments allowed, their feet moving in a complex jig. Laugher issued from each throat and every face was smiling.

The song drew to a close and Kain saw to his surprise that even Luagga had joined in the dance. “My Lord, we should speak privately. There are some things that need to be discussed before our departure on the morrow.”

“As you wish Kain.” The Elven Lord said, looking at him with a twinkle of happiness still in his eye. “I have not danced like that in ages. The lass has quite a number of gifts I see.”

“Yes.” Kain said looking at the laughing woman as she accepted and drained a tankard from one of the soldiers, “She is full of surprises.”

They walked back to the small alcove in the shade of the Grandfather Tree and sat. Luagga had purloined a bottle and a pair of goblets and he removed the cork, pouring them each a glass. Kain accepted it and took a sip, it was rich, fruity and had a lingering earthy aftertaste that was quite pleasing.

“Ahhh, it is Dwarvish plum wine.” Luagga said in satisfaction, “I thought I recognized the stamp on the cork. Now then, what did you wish to discuss?”

“We leave tomorrow as I said, but we plan to leave the majority of our force here to assist you in protecting the Grandfather Tree.” Said Kain, sampling the wine again.

“I understand that you might wish to protect what you’ve built here.” Luagga said, a sour note creeping into his voice, “However, you must understand that this is my domain and any who stay here must be subject to the laws of my people.”

Kain considered this for a moment before answering, “I will be appointing a likely man from the contingent of soldiers to captain them and a woman to handle the civilians in my stead. I believe that Jared Conway and Rrayu…” He trailed off realizing that he did not even know Rrayu’s surname.

“Yes, those two I have met and I find them to be honest and just.” Luagga paused and swirled the wine in his goblet, “However, they will still be subject to our laws when they are here. They must be under my command or under the command of Elric, my guard captain. I will not have chaos with two sets of rules that may or may not overlap properly.”

“I can understand your hesitation my Lord, but I know they will behave themselves without any undo application of –“

“No. I will not accept anything other than an answer in the affirmative here Kain.” Luagga interrupted, “If they stay beneath my branches they follow our rule.” The newly regained power pulsed behind his words. The Elven Lord was no longer powerless to defend his people or enforce his will and it was palpable.

“Fine. I will inform my subordinates of their responsibilities, and I expect that my people will be treated as equals under your law. Also I would request that you have a formal introduction of your rules and a list of punishments given to both my leaders that they may instruct their people properly.” Kain said.

“Of course, I will endeavor to deal fairly with your folk. They have shown themselves by and large to be honorable and truthful. You will be taking that… thing out of my tree when you go?” At Kain’s nod he nodded in satisfaction, “Excellent. I thank you for what you’ve done for us. Most of it anyway. May we prosper together.” He drained his goblet and Kain did the same.

“I had best return to the fire so as to inform Jared and Rrayu of their status. Thank you for the wine.” Kain said, and with that he returned to the festivities.

View
Meeting With Prophecy

“So… this is the little waif that all the excitement is about?” The old woman was so wrinkled that only her eyes were barely visible, shining as beads of obsidian in her face.

Callindra was surprised, but hadn’t expected civility from this or anyone here by now. Even their holy woman had no reason to treat her with respect… she wasn’t sure that she deserved it herself. “I suppose I am.” She said, wondering why the Maalrah didn’t have the same accent the rest of her people did. When she spoke, the other woman’s eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Well, let me see that palm and perhaps we can get to the bottom of things then.”
Callindra removed her glove and held her hand out. The Maalrah took it in her own and frowned, “It’s like a child’s hand. This skin is new…”

While she knew she hadn’t been used to hard labor and wasn’t ashamed it, Callindra could tell this wasn’t the normal abuse she’d been enduring before the battle. This woman was actually saying she was younger than she appeared.

“I only have memories of the last three or four weeks.”

“So they tell me.” The woman grumbled, “That appears about right.”

“However, it should be quite apparent that I am substantially older than that.” Callindra said.
Ignoring her, the crone leaned closer, “I can see three seperate lifelines. One is so jagged that it is clear you nearly died dozens of times. Once when you were no more than a girl. What a reckless thing you must have been. Yes, it’s clear that without the protection of your God and his siblings you would be quite dead.”

“How can you see all that from my palm?” Callindra asked, surprise and skepticism fighting for dominance.

“Hush, it’s hard to concentrate with distractions.” The Maalrah retorted, “But there is a darkness that follows you. Has always followed you. One by one those who are close to you fall to this darkness. Here it even becomes too much for your spirit and you fall.” She pointed to a faint line where it came to an end.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Callindra asked, “You mean that I…”

“I mean that you killed yourself.” The crone said bluntly, “Now, through the power of your God, you are once again saved. This time, the line comes back stronger. You have conviction and drive. There aren’t any side branches, no deaths close to you and you begin to repay the Gods for their numerous gifts to you.

“There is still something missing though. You have the will to persevere, but somehow you lack the power to survive, in spite of the fact that you carry it with you. Again, you die, but this time you die fighting, spitting in the eye of your enemy.

“The vessel is destroyed, leaving only the power. You shine with power and these Isles tremble at your coming.” The Maalrah’s voice grew troubled, “However, the will and drive seems to be lessened now. Where once there was focus, now there is distraction and the darkness crowds closer than ever before.”

“What, may I ask is that supposed to mean?” Callindra asked, “That I don’t care for my people? That I cannot focus on helping them?”

The crone looked up at her with one eyebrow raised, “Nae lassie.” She said, the Isles accent finally coming out, “Ah mean tha yeh care a bit much. Ere yeh ha a choice, yeh see?”

“No, I don’t see.” She was starting to doubt this woman’s so-called powers and her irritation began to creep through into her voice.

“Righ’ ere.” A gnarled finger jabbed her palm at a point near the bottom of her palm where the line split. One way branched into a forest of lines that spread past her wrist. The other ended in a slight dimple. “In one life, yeh ha a family. Mor children than stars n th sky.”

Callindra’s beat a touch faster in spite of her skepticism, “And in what of the other?”

The Maalrah shrugged. “In th other yeh save th world.”

“WHAT?” Callindra was astonished, “You expect me to believe that I have died twice, that my family and friends died all around me because of some ‘darkness’ and that after all that I have to choose between happiness and the fate of the world?” The wind picked up outside, rattling the shutters.

“I’m supposed to believe that this power is a gift from the Gods? That I’m some champion of divine righteousness?” She demanded, “I have seen what this power does. I am a MONSTER, not a hero, and I am certainly not the savior of the world!”

“I see what I see.” The old woman said, her accent gone as though blown away by the wind. “You aren’t the first to doubt me. Since you are having a hard time believing me, I will use the bones. They may tell me more.”

She thrust a roughly stitched leather sack at Callindra, “Pick one. The one that feels right in your hand.” When the girl took it, she turned to the hearth. There was no peat laid down to burn, but at the wave of her hand a fire burst to life within.

Callindra’s brow knitted in confusion when she reached a hand into the sack. It was much larger on the inside than on the outside, and there was quite the wide variety of bones to choose from. Finally, she found one that was smooth and felt like it fit into her hand. When she pulled it from the bag, it fell from her hand in shock. It was a femur, and she was fairly certain it had come from a human leg.

Not wishing to appear as squeamish as she felt, Callindra quickly retrieved the bone and handed it to the Maalrah. “Here.”

“Interesting choice.” She said, and threw it on the fire, “Once it begins to crack I will be able to read the greatest event or events in your life. The deeper the cracks, the more violent and terrible your life shall be. I will also be able to read something important in the marrow that is revealed.”

Callindra leaned forward with interest just as the bone exploded into shrapnel that flew apart with enough force that the arcane flames the crone had summoned were extinguished. One of the fragments cut a delicate line under Callindra’s right eye.

“Never have I seen such a ting.” The Maalrah whispered, “There must be something else at work here. Some other power that wishes your future to remain in shadow.”

“Or maybe when you throw a bone on magic fire it explodes?” Callindra said acidly, “I could have lost an eye!”

“You could see the flames?” The other woman asked in surprise.

“Of course I could see the flames! There is nothing wrong with my eyes.”

“Weel lass. Tha’s mos interestin ain’t it?” She said, “Ah dinne ken nother wha’s seen th fire.”

“What is with your voice changing all the time anyway?” It was a rude question, but Callindra was frustrated and frightened by her near miss.

“When I speak in my native tongue, I do not have an accent. This is my first spoken language.” The things that came from her mouth weren’t words. They were the sigh of a gentle ocean breeze, the whoosh of a gusting wind, the sound of a stiff clipper through a forest. “What I would like to know is who taught you Auran?”

The Maalrah took her head in a surprisingly strong grip and stared into her eyes. “Ahhhh…. it becomes more clear to me now. You claimed to be a monster. As a matter of fact you aren’t entirely wrong. While I would say ‘monster’ might be a touch harsh, you certainly are not human.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The crone counted things off on her fingers, “You have strange powers, the wind changes at your whim, you speak the language of the Elementals of Air and you can silence a room or create a thunderclap of destruction.”

“Who told you about that?” Callindra whispered.

“You must learn to control yourself. Once you understand your powers, you will begin to master them.” She smiled mysteriously, “I have a feeling that there may be a more that have not manifested themselves yet.”

Callindra couldn’t stand listening to this old hag spelling out her supposed responsibilities, powers and future. What could she possibly know? She opened her mouth to say as much, but the Maalrah spoke first.

“Even now, you are reacting to the storm that is brewing off the Sword Coast. I have learned to control myself, but I can still feel the pull of Njordi when he is in a rage.”

Now that she paused to consider it, these bursts of temper were not like her at all. Callindra took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the tension drain from her like sand through her fingers. With it, went the anger that had been seething in her breast.

“Very good. Whomever your teacher was, she trained you well. Of course you don’t remember her, or her instruction but some things are too ingrained to be forgotten, even when all else has gone. Even after the body has died.”

Callindra still didn’t like the woman, however she could respect her and now understood that she needed her help. The Maalrah had knowledge that she felt would be essential to her survival. “I do not remember her. Can you help me?”

“No.” The crone said shortly, “Without knowing how you were trained before anything I could show you would likely put both our lives in danger. Most of us have a focus… I can suggest learning any sort of martial skill you can. When you condition your body, you condition your mind.”

“How do you know about this?” Callindra asked, “Why do you have similar… abilities?”

“Because.” Said the Maalrah, her voice dropping to a whisper, “I am not precisely human either.”

View
Rending Asunder, Making Whole

They approached the tree where the Trickster’s Pipe had grown around the tree, and heard the strange whirring of the device that raised and lowered to allow access into the raised structure could be heard. The others were confused, but Connor stepped forward with a frown on his face.

“Who’s there? What are you doing?” He said as the lift came to a stop.

“Eh? Oh, just gonna dig a trench here for Abrizim. He wanted me to try out the latest formula… don’t touch those. Very dangerous. Not very stable.” He paused to scratch his head. “Only have maybe about… thirty or forty minutes. Yes, that should be OK though. If you all would just…” He gestures behind him and a small army of clay figures climb out of another crate. Each one picks up one of the clay cylinders and starts to walk off into the darkness.

Reed stared at the retreating figures in mild confusion, “Hmmm, interesting… How far out are you planning?”

Connor’s face grew pale, “O gods. You are going to use those with an explosive mixture to dig a trench with explosives????

“Eh?” The Elf turned to look at Connor and his night vision was momentarily ruined when their gazes met. His goggles are now emitting a brilliant light. Pulling a much folded piece of parchment out of an inside pouch, he glanced at it briefly.

“Ummm… no wrong one.” He dropped it on the ground and reached into a pouch, pulling out a sheaf of papers and starts sorting through them, at least half of them falling on the ground. As the pages continue to fall, a metal spider about a foot across crawls out of another pouch and begins picking up his scattered papers.

“Ahh… here it is. You can check my notes if you want…” He hands you a paper covered in unintelligible scribbles and strange diagrams with circles, radiuses, angles and random doodles of weird creatures in the margins. “I need to get to work before it becomes too unstable.”

Not understanding the possible danger inherent in the situation, Reed broke into a wide grin, “Great! The help is much appreciated.” One of the clay figures made a rude gesture at him before picking up its load and following the others

Connor sighed, “This won’t go well I feel but I must trust in my God… Let’s head inside.”
Once inside the pipe, they saw Connor had brought them to room with chairs and drinks. “We really need to work on things as a team. This flying by the skin of our teeth can’t continue. Our luck will not hold out forever.”

Reed sat on the far side of the table so as to face the door and plucked a goblet of wine from the table, “What is it you want to discuss?”

“First. Just recently. Reed, I don’t know what your relationship is with your God or what you are used to but If you can’t show any God more respect please do not address them unless you are spoken to. I feel very sad that you spoke to Abrazim that way and I will have to take the time to make amends for your poor interaction and respect.”

“No, what else?” Reed asked flippantly, taking a sip of the wine and looking around with an air of contentment.

Connor frowned at him for a moment before shrugging, “If that’s how you want to play it, know that I will be crafting something to keep you silent against your will in the future.” Nodding in satisfaction to the other who had taken seats and helped themselves to various beverages, he continued. “Moving on. Battles. We need to have a more clear role assigned and know what we need to do. We almost lost Durak…”

“So what is your plan then?” Said Reed, “You must have one since you bothered to call us all together?”

“I have been very selfish lately only bolstering my survival for fear of what we all are just going to blindly throw ourselves at next and I feel bad for that. I can, and should do more for the rest of you to prepare for battle.” He picked up a tankard of ale and took a drink before continuing. “Are we decided on Cain being our leader? I’m ok with that but I think before going into a talk he and we need a clear goal and topics. Having Reed jump in without being addressed by you or asking him to speak only undermines Kain’s role as leader and makes us look bad like we have no order.”

“None of that sounds unreasonable.” Said Reed, “What are your thoughts? What do you believe should be our priorities?”

“First and foremost we need to keep our primary goal in mind. We must locate the spark before Dergeras finds it. After that, I believe we need to build up our army. At some point the Abyss will begin to organize itself again and if the living aren’t united … we will all die.” Connor irratably waved away the bright yellow smoke of Durrak’s cigar and coughed, “We do not have a lot of time and I feel like we aren’t making the best use of it.”

“OK, so what should we do then?” Reed said, concentrating for a moment and grinning when a bowl of fruit appeared on the table.

“I think we need to talk about what we can count on each other to do first and foremost.” Said Connor.

“Fair enough. What can we count on you for?”

“Whatever role you all decide to assign me. If you want me to work on our defenses that is what I will do. If you want me to invest all my time in healing than I will start to make healing wands and that is what I will do.”

“So what should I do? Who should lead? You should list out each member’s strengths and weaknesses. Find which role suits best.” Said Reed, munching on an apple.

“Why do you think we are all here?” Connor demanded, starting to lose his patience. “Until a few days ago I thought your strengths were hiding and picking locks and being in all honesty strange. Now after seeing you in the fight I’m not so sure. What exactly are you capable of?”

“I am biased you are a calculated person I feel you should identify my faults and strengths.” Reed said with a sly look.

“Reed. Unless you do desire to add to what do already be a questionable situation you do need to cooperate” Said Durrak, ” We no do know what you do be capable of. You do be constantly surprising those of us who no do be attuned to the Arcane.

“As for me, I do be physically strong. I do have no secrets. I put my enemies on the ground and do bury my Guisarme in their brain. I do break walls with my bare hands. I do crush enemies between my armor and any hard surface. I no do be a mystery”

Reed seemed loosen up a touch at the Dwarf’s directness. “I am skilled with my hands, and I am learned with the arcane arts. I have read many books on the subject and have a wealth of knowledge toward it. I have also trained to work locks, both physical and magical. Lastly, I feel I can speak to people and connect to a side of them.

“My weakness, I would say is wisdom. I am young and haven’t experienced much. I also don’t share the fear of the gods as you all do. Of course I see that as a strength but I am sure you would argue. I am not a fighter, I prefer to speak then fight, but I am not above kicking someone in the groin and then stabbing them in the back while they are down.”

“I also feel I lack wisdom.” Said Connor, “ A lot of my time was spent in shops and crafting. I have a eye for detail in what I am doing but can’t find those things in the world such as finding something or seeing something coming at us.

“Most of what I can do is help make you better at what you do. If we have time to prepare, I can create a lot of tools for different jobs. I don’t have a large constitution so I am not meant to be a front line fighter, but I can create potions, scrolls, armor, weapons and magic items. But it takes time.”

“So what’s your assessment of the others?” Reed asked.

“What I see is you as primary trickster. You hinder and lower the abilities of the enemies, secondary I don’t know. My primary role would be strengthen the party secondary healing. Kain primary damage secondary healer. Durrak. Primary offense. Secondary defensive offense. Holt, ranged damage, secondary eyes and ears and make calls of what’s happening in the battle field that we can’t see.”

“That sounds … more or less like what we’ve been doing.” Said Reed, shrugging his shoulders and nibbling on the apple core.

Durrak took a mug of ale and drained it in one long drink. “I do feel I must say… you all did be most rude to Xangeon Riddlebane. I no do know much of dragonkind, however I know enough. If you no do wish to leave a trail of people who hate you I do suggest not repeating the actions taken today.” He sighs, and mutters to himself. “I no did think it were possible for humans to be more ignorant than my prejudice did dispose me to believe.”

Raising his voice slightly, he continued, “And Reed… I did think your… heritage would give you some respect for … something. We do be supposed to assist the Gods, no mock and try to manipulate them as though they did be mortals.”

“I don’t disagree that I could show some more respect, but then again, I didn’t see him giving out much either. And your right we are to assist them, but damn they need to help us too.” Said Reed with a frown.

“He do be a dragon. It do make sense to show respect to something that can kill you instantly. He did tell me had it not been for his being grateful that Mogget did save his life he would have eaten you earlier for your extreme impertinence… and you no did endear yourself to him by showing disdain for the being he did just finish praising.” Durrak said and turned to look at the others. "It no do just be you… not one of you do seem to know how to acknowledge a thing more powerful than yourself.

“As for the gods… they no are just powerful mortals. It do be true that they have tasked us with things… or in my case he do force it, but as you do be pointing out, we no do be the only ones here. Losing us do be troublesome to them, but there do be others who do be capable of doing what do need doing.

“In any case, if they do tell us to do something it do be simply because they do have other things to accomplish that we no do be able to. That do mean they do be busy with things more important than us. We do be… alone in this.” The Dwarf shook his head in disbelief, “Asking a God to dig a ditch… I do be surprised you do still wear your skin on the outside of your body.”

“Because of two things.” Connor said, “One, my god is not like that and two, now that I’ve seen his method, I believe this also fits his need of testing an alchemical solution.”

“Did you no feel his anger? You do be fools… Every one of you.”

“I agree with Durrak. Reed do not do that again. I do not mean to insult anyone I guess my flaw is ignorance of who to treat races and other creatures.” Said Kain.

“You no do be one to talk Kain.” Durrak puffed on his cigar, the gold smoke pooling at his feet. “Xangeon did save your life and yet you did give him orders like a servant without even introducing yourself.”

“How did I disrespect him?” Asked Kain.

“He did even go as far as to give you his name first… and yet you did treat him as though he did be a horse. Connor could easily have taken you … but you did ask him instead. As though he were a beast of burden.”

“I was a…” Kain sighed, "A slave in a gladiator arena for all of my life until I was able to escape so manners where not really know just to shut your mouth or they would take your tongue.”

“If you did indeed grow up in a slave pit then how do you no understand how to respect power? Were it no for Mogget you also would be dead.”

Connor nodded his agreement, “More like we all would be dead.”

“Then I will apologize.” Kain said, keeping his voice neutral.

“That do be a start. That do be what I did be doing when you interrupted… dragons do like jewelry and I do be done with that part of my life. I no do have a need for jewels and gold… I only wish for tools with which to destroy enemies and protect…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged his shoulders as though easing a heavy weight and absently reached down to gently touch the lantern at his belt.

“That is good to know I have a gem or two that I can give to him as well.” Said Kain, sounding a little more natural now, “I plan to learn from Rrayu so that does not happen again. I will ask her when she is well rested.”

A low rumble builds to an ear shattering roar and the Pipe shook like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. Reed and Holt managed to keep their feet, but everyone else is slammed into one wall, then another the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood was barely discernible to their damaged hearing. The tree groaned and creaked, listing alarmingly to one side before coming to rest, at least ten degrees off center. Glass from shattered windows lay on the floor mixed with dirt, rocks, broken branches, leaves and other assorted debris.

“What in the hells was that?” Kain picked himself up off the floor.

“Oh no.” Said Connor, “I think he used too much…”

“What are you talking about?” Holt asked, “Did you know this was going to happen?”

“Well, I didn’t think it’d be like this.” Connor said defensively, “But… yeah… kinda.”

Durrak shoved a broken portion of the table off his prostrate form with a crash and stood, brushing himself off. “What did you be expecting Connor?”

“Well, he said he was going to dig a ditch, but he’s an alchemist so of course he’d use explosives.” Connor said and with that he went to the lift and let himself down.

The night was dark and moonless; the spray of stars across the sky insufficient to shed light on the scene. Connor pulled a lit torch from his rucksack and made his way to where the light illuminated a massive berm of earth that ranged between fifteen and twenty feet high. A brief examination revealed that this ground was likely exceedingly unstable, so he pulled his disk off the end of his staff and flew to the top.

A chasm at least twenty feet across and deep enough that his torch light didn’t show the bottom greeted his eyes. Ruptured tree roots and large stones stuck haphazardly from the side in spite of the fact that the forest had been burned by the Abyssal spawn that they had destroyed. Luagga had been right; this would indeed be a disruption to the natural order of the forest in spite of their attempts to minimize the damage. At least it wasn’t for nothing; this trench would be a very good base to build defenses from.

“Looks like a big hole. I don’t know how far it stretches but…” He said, as he flew back to where the others were coming from the Pipe. “Anyway, we won’t have to worry about an attack tonight I don’t imagine.”

“I will keep watch.” Holt said, “Just to be safe.”

-

The next morning, Reed was up early and inspecting the fortifications. The trench eclipsed his expectations. It was forty feet wide at the widest and nearly that deep at its deepest but nowhere along its length was it narrower than twenty five feet or shallower than twenty feet. The sides were loam for only a few feet before becoming thick, sticky clay. He was pretty sure that even without further modification this would be nearly impassible, but even so he wanted to do something to allow the defenders to more easily attack any enemies who might approach.

“We need to figure out what the proper defenses here should be.” He walked along the top of the trench, doing his best to devise a good plan based on his limited experience.
Kain walked into the trees, feeling strangely weak and sad. When he sat in a secluded clearing to commune with Mielikki, a feeling of pain and anguish subsumed his being. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he felt the terrible rent that had been torn through the ground. The natural order had been horribly disturbed and he wept with his Goddess over the loss.

Holt went to find some food and saw Luagga just finishing some kind of conference with a few Elven rangers who bowed to him before melting into the trees. Upon seeing him, the Elven Lord approached with a stern look on his face.

“Holt, what is the meaning of this outrage?” Luagga said, “I never agreed to any fortifications, let alone anything like this!”

“It was the God Abrizim’s doing Lord.” Holt said, “None of us could have stopped him, let alone predicted anything of this scale. That is why I follow Ehlonna, she is far more predictable.”

The former Druid’s eyes widened, “Ehlonna? She lives still?”

“She does. I am sorry for Abrizim’s actions, and I’d apologize for him if I thought it’d make any difference.”

Luagga wasn’t paying attention, “I seem to remember there being a shrine to Ehlonna nearby… I must look into it.” He muttered, almost to himself and turned to walk purposefully toward where the trench had been excavated. Holt watched him go with a faraway look on his face before turning to find Kain.

When he finally tracked down his friend, he found Kain sitting in the center of a small clearing, tears streaming down his face.

“Kain? Are you all right?” Holt moved closer and knelt next to him. ”Kain?” He reached out to touch the other man’s hand and was swept into another world. The forces that made up Ehlonna and Mielikki swirled around one another, the pain caused by the explosion creating an unbreakable bond. The two men sat perfectly still, one huge and muscled, the other appearing to be a boy on the cusp of manhood, the only movement the tears that ran down their faces.

Weak as they were, the two Goddesses found comfort and solace in each other’s company. When the storm of grief had passed, their essences were inseparable. The two had become one.

-

Reed was still standing on the walls, trying to do calculations in his head and wishing he had more knowledge of engineering. A soft, furious voice behind him broke his silent reverie, he hadn’t heard anyone approach.

“This is an abomination.” He spun to see Luagga’s stern face pulled into lines of ill-concealed anger. “You had a direct hand in its creation and for that I hold you accountable.”

“Well it’s done now.” Reed said, not bothering to keep the satisfaction from his voice.

“Yes, it is done and now you and your companions can leave.”

“There is still much to do. The men need stable platforms to stand on in order to fire upon enemies and it is my hope that we can bring some ballistae and other siege engines from Secomber to further assist in the defense of your people.” Said Reed, looking out over the trench with plans beginning to form in his mind.

“No. You should go. Today.” Luagga said shortly, “You have done enough.”

Reed turned and gave him an insolent look, “We will leave when our work here is done. Since you’re too stupid to do what’s necessary to keep the Grandfather Tree safe it falls to us to protect our investment of time and personnel here.”

Luagga glared at him, but knew there was no way to expel them short of ordering his Rangers to attack… and that would be suicide even if they could win as it would leave them with scores of dead and wounded, unable to defend themselves against another attack from the Abyss. Setting his shoulders stiffly, the ancient Elven lord turned and stalked into the trees, intent on finding the ancient shrine to Ehlonna. He must see if the boy Holt spoke the truth. If only he could regain contact with a power of nature, he might be able to restore his power as a Druid.

-

As one, Holt and Kain opened their eyes. Their souls still reeled from the event that had just occurred; they knew about one another… secrets that each of them had held close had been laid bare. In spite of the raw feeling of having your memories forcibly mingled with another’s they were overpowered with awe at what they had just experienced. It was the joining of their Goddesses that had precipitated theirs and the aftershocks of that union still rocked them to the core.

In addition to that, they felt the raw wound in the earth, the tips of roots like exposed nerves, the untold millions of tiny organisms that had been annihilated by the explosion and the fractures in the delicate pathways of worm, microbe and root that extended for miles around the blast site. It was almost more than their mortal bodies could sustain.

Holt rose unsteadily to his feet by levering himself up on his bow stave and Kain used his scabbarded falchion to a similar purpose. They noted the angle of the sun with evident surprise.

“I did not think it was so late.” Holt said.

“We were…” Kain’s voice faded, “I didn’t realize how much time passed either. We need to find the others and prepare to depart. Also I need to speak with Luagga about the people we will be leaving behind.”

Upon returning to the main camp, they found everyone busy about their daily tasks. Holt approached an Elven archer with arrow making materials who was sitting in the shade of the Grandfather tree and asked in Sylvan if he had seen Luagga.

“He went into the forest some time ago to search for a shrine. I believe to the southwest.” The fletcher replied with equal measures respect and reticence in his voice.

“Thank you brother.” Holt answered, “I can find his trail.”

Together he and Kain walked in the direction the Elf had indicated and it was a matter of moments for Holt to find the trail Luagga had made. It wove and twisted as though the one who made it was unsure of their true destination. After passing through an especially dense bit of underbrush with long thorns that reached hungrily for any exposed skin, they emerged into a clearing.

In the center of it lay a strange sight. On one side of a small hill was a lush green sward, a brook bubbled from it, running happily down to form a small rill that ran off into the forest. On the other side only small patches of weeds and thorns grew in a tangled mess, the trees near it were diseased with leprous looking moss and lichen clinging to branches and trunks. A stone altar straddled the crest with one leg sitting on each side, its center stained with ancient blood and the surface carved in ancient runes of power.

Luagga sat in front of the altar, unmoving, a slate knife with a wickedly sharp edge in one hand and a tree branch in the other. All about him, tiny motes of greenish white light flickered and flashed. They moved forward cautiously, unsure what was happening.

“I think those might be Wisps.” Holt whispered, and no sooner had he made this comment than dozens of the lights sprang from their hovering dance around Luagga to flit and flicker before them.

“Blood. Give us. Give him. Spill it. Spill your blood. Spill it on the stone. On the altar. Your blood. Spill your blood.” A myriad of voices spoke compellingly to them.

Kain shook his head irritably and waved the tiny things away. Glancing to his left, he saw Holt had drawn a dagger and cut a deep rent in his arm, the blood was running freely down to spatter on the ground and he moved forward clumsily as though sleepwalking.

“Holt! Stop it!” Kain tried to grab the other man’s arm but Holt’s erratic movements made him fumble. With a howl of anger and to Kain’s surprise fear, Mogget sprang from the underbrush and grabbed the boy’s wrist while Agroh swept down from above, pecking and beating at him with his wings. Under the onslaught, Holt lost his balance and fell forward. The small white cat held his wrist tightly in needle sharp teeth that kept him from doing himself any more damage, even though they punctured him to the bone in the process.

Kain stepped back from the melee and began incanting a spell that would summon blessed rain down upon the grove. As the rain began to fall, Reed stuck his head out of the underbrush. While looking for Holt, he had seen the flickering lights of the Wisps which had begun questing out from the clearing and led him here. He could hear them asking something but hadn’t quite understood.

The water fell on the Wisps, each one hissing like a tiny bonfire and winking out with a weak cry of agony. With an ear-splitting crack, the altar broke in two, and Holt came to his senses. “Mogget. Let me go.” He said weakly. The demon/cat glanced at Kain and waited for his nod before releasing him.

Reed waited for the rain to subside before approaching with a drawn dagger. “What happened here?” He asked, looking from where Holt was standing up and wrapping a hastily torn bandage around his arm to Luagga who was looking around the clearing with a strange awe shining in his eyes.

“We were tracking Luagga and when we came here something bewitched Holt.” Kain said, placing a hand on Holt and removing his injuries with a brush of Divine power.

“Help. Me.” A guttural voice croaked in the Goblin tongue in Reed’s mind. He looked around, but couldn’t see anything. None of the others seemed to have heard.

“I have found her.” Luagga said, a smile of perfect peace crossing his weathered face. “She has made me whole again and I have you to thank Holt.”

“What do you need me to do?” Reed thought, “Who are you?”

“Take me with you.” The voice whispered in harsh tones, “Take some of the soil from beneath the altar. Mingle it with your blood. Take me with you.”

After a momentary hesitation, Reed cut his palm and approached the altar.
“Reed! What are you doing?” Holt demanded.

Reed concealed the cut and shrugged, using his dagger to dig around the base of the altar. “Just wondering what this place is.” He said, sheathing the blade without wiping it clean. Fragments of the soil stained with ancient blood sacrifice clung to his blood.

“It was once a shrine to Ehlonna.” Luagga said, standing stiffly and looking around. “Years ago, before my time, Goblins invaded the High Forest, burning and killing as they came. They found this shrine, defiled it and made this place their home. After an extended war, they were all killed or expelled from here but apparently a remnant of their God stayed here. The Wisps lured the unwary here after the death of Jorda released the evil deity from her imprisonment. I was nearly caught up in their thrall myself.”

He stood and placed the branch he had been holding in the crack down the middle of the altar and chanted a low sonorous song. He raised his hands and a willow tree grew up and over the stone, spreading its branches so that they drooped gracefully to touch the stream. Even as it grew, grass sprouted on the formerly diseased side of the hill, lichen and disease fell away from the trees and tiny Brightstar flowers could be seen peaking from the surfaces too stony to grow grass.

“I am whole once again.” He said quietly. “I must return to the Grandfather and send my remaining brethren to this place.”

View
Adventures in Failed Diplomacy
How not to speak to the powerful and dangerous.

“I am known as Luagga.” The Elf’s age was difficult to discern, however the light wrinkles around his eyes and the pure white of his hair indicated a strong likelihood that he was quite advanced in years.

“I am Kain Ral. We have come as we promised we would, bringing support and arms from Secomber.”

“We are most appreciative of thine assistance.” The ancient elven lord spoke Common with an archaic and formal, “Thy companions speak of building fortifications and this is not something which we are comfortable with.”

“I can understand how you might be hesitant but surely you understand that this situation is … well it goes beyond what can be considered normal. You need to adapt or your tree will be burned to ashes.” Said Reed, crossing his arms in disgust.

“What you suggest is an abomination. You wishe to cut through the earth and dig a trench. Doing so would disrupt the natural order of the forest beyond what you imagine.” Said Luagga with a stern frown.

“You are a stupid old man.” Reed said, “Refusing to consider fortifications guarantees your oh so precious tree will die and once the Grandfather tree dies what’s next? Your settlement here is a linchpin that holds the abyss in check from Hellgate keep.”

“We have held them off in the past and we will do so again..” The ancient elf lord said, not looking amused at being so addressed. “Come, you are tired. I will take you to my grotto where you may rest and take refreshment. We shall speak on this more.”

“No I think you’re mistaken. This needs to happen. Right now. We can’t just sit on our asses until they get as old and wrinkly as yours.” Reed snapped, “I’m going to get the men ready.”

He turned on his heel and walked quickly away before anyone could react. He was fuming; they didn’t have time for this kind of stupidity. The men they had brought with them were largely lounging in the shade. A few of them were helping in the healing tents but for the most part they were just waiting to be put to work.

“All right, naptime is over!” He said, “Gather the picks, shovels and whatever else you can dig with and meet me out at the battlefield. We need to start digging a trench here.”

“Picks? Shovels?” One of the men looked at him in confusion, “I didn’t bring any tools…”

It took a moment for Reed to remember that all the tools had been brought in the Trickster’s Pipe. Looking around, he saw Connor and walked briskly to him. “Connor. You need to set up the Pipe so that we can get this thing started.”

“Yeah… I don’t see anything that looks much like a building though.” Connor said, looking around with a skeptical eye at the tents and then up at the Grandfather Tree. “I’m not going to set it up on that…”

“Pardon me, do you have any buildings around?” Reed grabbed the sleeve of a passing Elven warrior who was hurrying past with an armload of arrow shafts. His command of their language wasn’t the greatest, but he knew he was understood.

“Buildings? Well there are always the guard platforms. Is that what you mean?” The Elf’s brow furrowed, “Why?”

“My companion has an item that needs a… structure to work properly. It’s like a large bag of holding.” Reed explained, “We brought supplies and things in it.”

“There is a platform just there.” The Elf said, pointing toward a tree a few hundred yards away. “Just don’t break it, we still use them.”

“He says there’s a platform in a tree over here you can use.” Reed said, “Will that work?”

“Maybe… I’ve never activated it on something that wasn’t a ruin before but I think that’s probably our only option at this point.” He walked with Reed to the tree and looked at it skeptically. “I don’t even see how to get up there.”

Reed’s sharper eyes picked out a thin rope that trailed down from above. When he tugged on it, a thicker rope ladder fell from above. Connor put his hand on the rope and the tattoo writhed off his arm and shoulder, twisting and turning in a myriad of gears that wound up the ladder and onto the platform.

The sun was setting and Reed realized it was too late to get the men working on the trench this evening, but decided that perhaps it might be interesting to see what the Pipe looked like this time. Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure that there were shovels and picks inside the building. He didn’t remember seeing any before, but it was supposed to produce things … wasn’t it?

A sound scratching at the window drew his attention. He knew Connor was inside… and it didn’t sound like a tree branch. Wind rattled the window, but the Pipe as a whole did not seem to be moving. Reed crept to the window and looked out. Xangeon’s eye was peering in, his breath causing the window to rattle in its frame.

“This is fascinating. What is it? There is power here, but it is … contained.” The dragon rumbled.

“It’s called The Trickster’s Pipe. It is a pocket dimension of sorts.” Reed said, his shock at seeing the monster so close causing him to revert to his most arrogant and defiant tone of speech.

“I am not a hatchling little human, I understand that it is a pocket dimension.” Xangeon said indignantly, dark green fog seeping from his slitted nostrils. “I want to know where it came from, what it is doing here and how to unravel its secrets. I love a good puzzle.”

“I know much about the Pipe.” Reed said in the same offhand tone, “I might be willing to trade information with you… either for information or perhaps for services.”

“Insolent little pup.” Xangeon snorted and the green fog swirled out in threatening whorls that clouded the window for a moment, only his glittering gold flecked copper eyes shining through, “You dare speak to me in such a tone? To … bargain with me? To attempt to make some kind of a deal? I can tell you know little of Dragonkind. Of your group only the Mogget and Lord Caverstorm seem to know how to behave.”

“I don’t trust Mogget. He schemes to do us ill, I can feel it. That one has too many secrets.” Reed muttered, backing slightly away from the window. “I thought perhaps you would want to assist us in our quest. After all, you are already in our debt. For us saving your scaly hide from the Abyss I mean.”

“Debts? You speak of DEBTS? I owe YOU nothing. To Mogget, I had obligation, one that was repaid in kind when I rescued his master at his request and again when I did not EAT said master for his intense rudeness thereafter. I hold him in esteem for his resourcefulness and his clever nature, and of course the Lord of the Mountain City deserves some modicum of respect as well. I suggest you learn from them before daring to speak to me again lest my pride overcome my restraint.” The dragon’s mouth clicked shut on teeth the length of Reed’s forearm and the head withdrew.

Reed shrugged uncomfortably tense shoulders, “What an asshole.” He muttered to himself.

-

Later that evening, all were gathered by a low fire in an area secluded from the forest on three sides by the massive gnarled roots and trunk of the Grandfather Tree. It was as close to a sitting room as Luagga had to offer outside of the tree itself, and he had not offered to open the doors of his domain to them. They were just finishing a meal that had been shared with all thanks to the abundance of the cook pot that had been given to the Brotherhood of Steel all those months ago by Felix.

“Would you fix us some tea please Rrayu?” Luagga said, causing them to notice the woman for the first time. She had been standing so quietly that Shadowsliver’s chain hadn’t even been making noise. She jumped to obey his request.

“We need to speak of fortifications.” Reed said, “Your current tactics aren’t sufficient to allow you to defend the Grandfather Tree. You would have lost it if we hadn’t been here.”

“You seek to rupture the Earth. To dig a trench.” Luagga said flatly.

“Indeed. For the safety of you and your settlement.” Kain cut in before Reed could unleash his temper again. “As well as to protect the tree in whose shadow we now rest. There aren’t enough of you to hold this position without some kind of fortification.”

“None of you understand the ways of the forest.” Luagga said placidly, “There is a delicate balance in the web of life here, doing as you suggest would uproot trees, kill the tiny creatures that live within the soil, not to mention divert the ground water from its normal path.”

“I know someone who is from here!” Connor said, jumping up with unexpected enthusiasm. “I can bring him to speak with you, I’m sure he’d understand and maybe he could explain it in a way you’d understand. The Alchemist from Myth Drannor.” He said to his companions by way of explanation before spinning his flying disk off the end of his staff and flying off at incredible speed.

“Please excuse him… he’s a bit…” Kain trailed off.

“Abrupt?” Luagga suggested, calmly accepting a steaming cup of tea from Rrayu.
“Ah.. yes. Abrupt.”

-

Connor knitted his brow and forced the Trickster’s Pipe to his will. He hadn’t had much success in finding the door to Abrizim’s workshop… it was almost like the place wasn’t a part of the Pipe at all. After a bit of struggle, huge gears began to turn slowly in the wall, moving aside and showing an opening. Dust lay thick on the floor, workbenches and shelves. Nobody had been in here for years, but Connor was certain this was the right place.

Making his way carefully through the room, he looked for some sign of habitation and eventually saw a dim light shining from the far end. It was a window covered in dust and grime. When he cleaned it off with his brush, the light was harsh and bright in his eyes. On the other side, he could see a monstrous alchemist’s lab with glass tubing threading its way around in the same profusion that cobwebs pervaded on his side of the door. Several small fires burned, heating bubbling fluids and hundreds of glass containers held a variety of powders, crystals and other assorted materials.

Looking for the handle, Connor was mildly surprised to see there wasn’t one. When he tried to use the power of the Trickster’s to open the door, he found he couldn’t feel the usual presence of the Pipe at all. He shivered, this really must be a separate place. Seeing motion inside, he knocked on the glass. The Elven Alchemist inside paid him no mind; he seemed to be bending over a clay tube that was about three inches in diameter and perhaps four feet tall. Drawing his hand back to knock again, Connor was shocked when a gravely voice sounded behind him.

“Are yeh DAFT?” Abrizim demanded, “Yeh should know better than teh hammer on tha door of an alchemist’s laboratory. He’s workin. Whaddya want?”

“I was hoping to ask him if he would come and meet someone.” Connor said, careful to keep the irritation out of his voice, “We’re trying to convince the elves to let us fortify the Grandfather tree but Luagga is hesitant. I thought perhaps he would listen to another Elf and since … well I guess I don’t know his name, but I thought our Alchemist friend would be able to talk some sense into him.” He gestured toward the window.

“Well yeh can’t have him. He’s busy.” Abrizim tugged at his long white beard, “Luagga eh? Hmmm… fine, I’ll come and pay the snot a visit.” The God plucked a gear from his pocket and twirled it across his fingers and the room faded to be replaced by flickering firelight.

“Ahh Luagga, you’ve gotten old!” Abrizim laughed uproariously and plucked the freshly lit cigar from Durrak’s fingers. The Dwarf shrugged and pulled another from his pouch.

“Mechanist God.” Luagga said with distaste. “Any divine presence is welcome at my fire of course.” He said sourly.

“Yeh ain’t changed a bit. So what’s th rottin issue?” Abrizim blew a cloud of glittering silver smoke that curled and formed itself into fantastic shapes.

“They wish to dig a trench.” Luagga began.

“I’d bet you could make one.” Reed said, staring into the God’s face, “A God like you can do anything right?”

“Ha, yeh got a mouth on yeh boy.”

“Please my Lord, pay Reed no mind.” Connor said, but Abrizim waved his protest aside.

“Oh, teh be sure kiddo. My powers’r all but limitless. What’s yer point?” He said, taking a deep drag on the cigar. “Why should I do yeh a favor?”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.” Reed said, leaning back and taking a cup of tea from the tray Rrayu was holding. “You can’t even do something that simple.”

Abrizim looked at him speculatively, smoke slowly curling out of his nostrils in glittering silver tendrils. “Yeh know, I think it’s time fer him ta test it anyway. I’ll make yeh a trench.” He stood abruptly and nodded toward Durrak. “Thanks fer th cigar. I liked your dragon sculpture.” The smoke around his head formed into a myriad of gears that clattered to the ground and the God was gone.

Durrak bent to pick one of them up and inspected it for a few moments before dropping it into the pouch that produced his cigars.

“We should go and talk.” Connor said, “In the Pipe.”

“I agree. There is much to discuss.” Kain said shortly.

View
Discovery

It took three days for Callindra to regain her feet. It felt like an eternity to her, but none of the wise women who were tending to her could believe it.

“Yeh canne be well lassie.” The matronly woman folded her arms over the rough homespun overdress that barely restrained her bosom.

“I honestly feel quite well, I assure you.” Callindra said imploringly. She was so sick of beds and resting. The sea was crashing against the cliffs and she could hear the wind singing on the bluff. “I just want to see the ocean and feel the wind on my face. Lord Talcomnis can accompany me to ensure I am safe if that is your wish.”

The mention of Talc’s name brightened the woman’s face considerably. Callindra hated to stoop to such depths of deception, but it seemed like the only way she’d be able to sway the hadrian. Not that she precisely disliked the man supposedly paying court to her, but there was something about having someone else see his attention and approve of it as though her hair was in twin plaits and she were in need of a keeper.

A forgotten memory stirred, young ladies in elaborate dresses with two braids in their chestnut hair but… it wasn’t a happy memory. She didn’t think they had been friends of hers… she found herself grinding her teeth in a nearly uncontrollable burst of anger. The ragged ends of her hair thrashed at her neck as a gust of wind rattled the shutters, bringing the scents of the sea with it.

“Easy daughter ‘a th storm, nae need ta call yer fey ta blow abou.” Said Agata, smiling indulgently. For some reason they had begun to think that she was somehow responsible for the way the wind blew over the Isle of Gwynneth even though it was a silly concept at best.

“Did my lady call for me?” Talc said from outside the door, tapping discreetly. He’d learned better than to try and walk in. For all her indulgent smiles and approval, Agata and the other wise women of the Dunn would broke no tresspassing on the ‘lassie’s honor’. It had only taken being thrown out once to get that point across.

“Aye, she wants tae go walkin.”

“Please come in Lord Talcomnis, I am fully dressed and ready.” Callindra stood and accepted the cloak from Mylee who had become much more subdued in the company of the women of the Isles. Her maid followed at a discreet distance as they left the healer’s hut.

“My Lady Stormchild, I admit I did not expect you to wish me to accompany you.” Talc said, his voice slightly playful but with a hint of seriousness as well. “I am flattered.”

Out of the sight and hearing of the wise women, Mylee made a rude noise. Callindra studiously ignored it, instead turning to look the man in the face. He sounded genuine, and the smile on his lips touched his eyes but she couldn’t quite shLoake the feeling that there was something not quite right about him. What could it be?

He caught her hand in his, such a small gesture but it still managed to make a light blush touch her cheeks. Perhaps that was what bothered her… this seeming ability he had to make her body react without her wanting it to. She usually had such good self-control and it was troublesome that he could compromise it so easily.

Callindra pulled her hand smoothly from his, trying to make the motion as casual as his taking it had been. “It seemed to be the only way that dungeon warden Agata would let me go.” She said, raising her chin slightly, “I cannot abide being kept indoors on such a beautiful day.

The day was, in fact, not all that nice. A strong wind was gusting off the ocean and clouds skated by low in the air promising rain later. Here and there, small shafts of sunlight cut through the gloom but this had the effect of making the overcast skies look even darker.
“Uhhh…” Talc actually looked at a loss for words. The confusion on his face was so surprising that Callindra burst out laughing. It was the first time she had seen him ruffled, and she found it irresistible.

“Oh my Lord, you are so charming when you are like this.”

“I beg your pardon!” He really did seem to be offended and Callindra tried to make peace with him by taking his hand in hers.

“My dear Lord Talcomnis, please do not be wroth with me.” She smiled at him through lowered lashes and after a moment, her smile seemed to melt his indignation and he returned it. They walked to the cliff hand in hand and she found it not at all disagreeable.

“Lady Stormchild, may I ask you a question that is…” Talc sighed and raked a hand through his sandy blond hair which responded by curling even more in the humidity. “Well a bit impertinent?”

“You may ask whatever you will my Lord, however I will choose whether or not to answer.”

“Are you a warrior or a lady? At first I thought you some kind of … well honestly I thought you were a ghost or a spirit or something of that nature.” He said, looking at her with a far too serious expression on his face.

“Whatever do you mean?” It was her turn to be confused and mildly angry. She tried to pull her hand from his, but he would not release it this time.

“You were just standing there after a bolt of lightning struck. I saw you stop the worst storm I’ve ever seen with a gesture. I know you don’t believe the rumors… but they are true. I was there. I saw it happen.” He fidgeted, his fingers stroking the back of her hand, making little circles that she found most distracting. “You commanded us to drop our weapons and we did.”

“Is that so strange?” She said weakly, trying to process what he was saying.

“My Lady, you know it is. I knew… I think we all knew… at that point we would do anything you asked. We were yours, and it was frightening even though it was only for the briefest of moments. To know in your bones that you will obey someone absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt is the most intimidating thing I can imagine.”

“I am sorry.” She said, “I do not remember any of it. Not the fight, not the storm, not the command.”

“Then I see you like this, blushing prettily and looking at me through those enchanting lashes… and I would swear on my life that there is no possible way you are the same woman.” He shook his head, “Then there’s the battle I saw you in just a few days ago.”

“I don’t remember much of that either. They say I am something called a ‘berserk’… although it’s unusual for the talent to manifest in women, it is said to be something of a valued, or possibly holy thing according to these people.” She was mildly defensive; she didn’t want to think of herself as a murdering maniac, even if she had slain the spawn of the abyss.

“I do not think that someone not born and raised here on one of these Isles with their Gods would have that gift my Lady.” He said quietly, “You said you do not remember your former life and I believe you… but it seems your former life is finding you anyway.”

“You think I was a warrior before?”

“Yes.” His response cut off any derision she might have been able to summon. “You didn’t just fight, you danced through them. You wove a pattern of beautiful, terrible destruction through your foes that is unlike anything I have ever seen before. You are unparalleled but I fear … now that I’ve found you … that I might lose you.”

“What?” Now it was her turn to be completely caught off guard, “I do not understand.”

“I think you do my Lady, but I will not press the matter.” He released her hand and she let him.

“Sir. If you have something to say, I request that you say it.”

“I care for you.” He said, and a feeling like none she had ever felt thrilled through her body. “Please. When the Maalrah comes, do not go to her.”

“Either you accept me for who I am no matter what or kindly give up any ideas that you may have about courting me.” Callindra said, feeling anger beginning to simmer, “If the person you have come to ‘care for’ is not who I truly am, how can you even think of holding me back from discovering the truth? It would truly be folly to think either of us would gain from living a lie.”

“Then I will leave you to discover who you are.” He bowed formally as though to royalty which was strange behavior for a pirate. “If you find yourself and want to share what you uncover with me… find me. I went through much to find you here in this place; I do not think it is too much to ask the same in return.”

With that, he took three steps backward before straightening and turning to go.

“You are a force to be reckoned with my Lady.” Mylee breathed, “I cannot believe…” She shivered as though cold water had just been poured over her body.

“He does intimidate me as well… but I won’t allow myself to behave irrationally.” Callindra said sternly, and then sighed, “But I must admit Talc does have quite an effect doesn’t he?”

“Oh thank the Goddess, you are human after all!” Mylee said with a giggle that was borderline filthy.

“I wonder what reason he could possibly have for wanting to keep me away from the Maalrah though? Surely he knows that eventually my memories will return and even if they did not, I must accept that I am not just a Lady. My past is a frightening thing Mylee, but I do not want it to surprise me again.”

“None of us wants to lose you my Lady.” Mylee said in a small voice, “Although some are less worried than others. I feel like I know a bit about who you really might be, and I don’t think you are the kind of person who turns her back on those who need her.”

“Never if I can help it.” She said, taking her friend’s hand. “We should get back I suppose. Agata will see Jacob returning and rouse the town guard if we do not come back shortly thereafter.”

When they returned to town they found he and his entire company had gone. Somehow, Callindra wasn’t surprised, but his leaving still made her feel like she had lost something. She knew she had, even though it had never belonged to her in the first place.

-

“So… this is the little waif that all the excitement is about?” The old woman was so wrinkled that only her eyes were barely visible, shining as beads of obsidian in her face.

Callindra was surprised, but hadn’t expected civility from this or anyone here by now. Even their holy woman had no reason to treat her with respect… she wasn’t sure that she deserved it herself. “I suppose I am.” She said, wondering why the Maalrah didn’t have the same accent the rest of her people did. When she spoke, the other woman’s eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Well, let me see that palm and perhaps we can get to the bottom of things then.”

Callindra removed her glove and held her hand out. The Maalrah took it in her own and frowned, “It’s like a child’s hand. This skin is new…”

While she knew she hadn’t been used to hard labor and wasn’t ashamed it, Callindra could tell this wasn’t the normal abuse she’d been enduring before the battle. This woman was actually saying she was younger than she appeared.

“I only have memories of the last three or four weeks.”

“So they tell me.” The woman grumbled, “That appears about right.”

“However, it should be quite apparent that I am substantially older than that.” Callindra said.
Ignoring her, the crone leaned closer, “I can see three seperate lifelines. One is so jagged that it is clear you nearly died dozens of times. Once when you were no more than a girl. What a reckless thing you must have been. Yes, it’s clear that without the protection of your God and his siblings you would be quite dead.”

“How can you see all that from my palm?” Callindra asked, surprise and skepticism fighting for dominance.

“Hush, it’s hard to concentrate with distractions.” The Maalrah retorted, “But there is a darkness that follows you. Has always followed you. One by one those who are close to you fall to this darkness. Here it even becomes too much for your spirit and you fall.” She pointed to a faint line where it came to an end.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Callindra asked, “You mean that I…”

“I mean that you killed yourself.” The crone said bluntly, “Now, through the power of your God, you are once again saved. This time, the line comes back stronger. You have conviction and drive. There aren’t any side branches, no deaths close to you and you begin to repay the Gods for their numerous gifts to you.

“There is still something missing though. You have the will to persevere, but somehow you lack the power to survive, in spite of the fact that you carry it with you. Again, you die, but this time you die fighting, spitting in the eye of your enemy.

“The vessel is destroyed, leaving only the power. You shine with power and these Isles tremble at your coming.” The Maalrah’s voice grew troubled, “However, the will and drive seems to be lessened now. Where once there was focus, now there is distraction and the darkness crowds closer than ever before.”

“What, may I ask is that supposed to mean?” Callindra asked, “That I don’t care for my people? That I cannot focus on helping them?”

The crone looked up at her with one eyebrow raised, “Nae lassie.” She said, the Isles accent finally coming out, “Ah mean tha yeh care a bit much. Ere yeh ha a choice, yeh see?”

“No, I don’t see.” She was starting to doubt this woman’s so-called powers and her irritation began to creep through into her voice.

“Righ’ ere.” A gnarled finger jabbed her palm at a point near the bottom of her palm where the line split. One way branched into a forest of lines that spread past her wrist. The other ended in a slight dimple. “In one life, yeh ha a family. Mor children than stars n th sky.”

Callindra’s beat a touch faster in spite of her skepticism, “And in what of the other?”
The Maalrah shrugged. “In th other yeh save th world.”

“WHAT?” Callindra was astonished, “You expect me to believe that I have died twice, that my family and friends died all around me because of some ‘darkness’ and that after all that I have to choose between happiness and the fate of the world?” The wind picked up outside, rattling the shutters.

“I’m supposed to believe that this power is a gift from the Gods? That I’m some champion of divine righteousness?” She demanded, “I have seen what this power does. I am a MONSTER, not a hero, and I am certainly not the savior of the world!”

“I see what I see.” The old woman said, her accent gone as though blown away by the wind. “You aren’t the first to doubt me. Since you are having a hard time believing me, I will use the bones. They can tell me more.”

She thrust a roughly stitched leather sack at Callindra, “Pick one. The one that feels right in your hand.” When the girl took it, she turned to the hearth. There was no peat laid down to burn, but at the wave of her hand a fire burst to life within.

Callindra’s brow knitted in confusion when she reached a hand into the sack. It was much larger on the inside than on the outside, and there was quite the wide variety of bones to choose from. Finally, she found one that was smooth and felt like it fit into her hand. When she pulled it from the bag, it fell from her hand in shock. It was a femur, and she was fairly certain it had come from a human leg.

Not wishing to appear as squeamish as she felt, Callindra quickly retrieved the bone and handed it to the Maalrah. “Here.”

“Interesting choice.” She said, and threw it on the fire, “Once it begins to crack I will be able to read the greatest event or events in your life. The deeper the cracks, the more violent and terrible your life shall be. I will also be able to read something important in the marrow that is revealed.”

Callindra leaned forward with interest just as the bone exploded into shrapnel that flew apart with enough force that the arcane flames the crone had summoned were extinguished. One of the fragments cut a delicate line under Callindra’s right eye.

“Never have I seen such a ting.” The Maalrah whispered, “There must be something else at work here. Some other power that wishes your future to remain in shadow.”

“Or maybe when you throw a bone on magic fire it explodes?” Callindra said acidly, “I could have lost an eye!”

“You could see the flames?” The other woman asked in surprise.

“Of course I could see the flames! There is nothing wrong with my eyes.”

“Weel lass. Tha’s mos interestin ain’t it?” She said, “Ah dinne ken nother wha’s seen th fire.”

“What is with your voice changing all the time anyway?” It was a rude question, but Callindra was frustrated and frightened by her near miss.

“When I speak in my native tongue, I do not have an accent. This is my first spoken language.” The things that came from her mouth weren’t words. They were the sigh of a gentle ocean breeze, the whoosh of a gusting wind, the sound of a stiff clipper through a forest. “What I would like to know is who taught you Auran?”

The Maalrah took her head in a surprisingly strong grip and stared into her eyes. “Ahhhh…. it becomes more clear to me now. You claimed to be a monster. As a matter of fact you aren’t entirely wrong. While I would say ‘monster’ might be a touch harsh, you certainly are not human.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The crone counted things off on her fingers, “You have strange powers, the wind changes at your whim, you speak the language of the Elementals of Air and you can silence a room or create a thunderclap of destruction.”

“Who told you about that?” Callindra whispered.

“You must learn to control yourself. Once you understand your powers, you will begin to master them.” She smiled mysteriously, “I have a feeling that there may be a more that have not manifested themselves yet.”

Callindra couldn’t stand listening to this old hag spelling out her supposed responsibilities, powers and future. What could she possibly know? She opened her mouth to say as much, but the Maalrah spoke first.

“Even now, you are reacting to the storm that is brewing off the Sword Coast. I have learned to control myself, but I can still feel the pull of Njordi when he is in a rage.”

Now that she paused to consider it, these bursts of temper were not like her at all. Callindra took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the tension drain from her like sand through her fingers. With it, went the anger that had been seething in her breast.

“Very good. Whomever your teacher was, she trained you well. Of course you don’t remember her, or her instruction but some things are too ingrained to be forgotten, even when all else has gone. Even after the body has died.”

Callindra still didn’t like the woman, however she could respect her and now understood that she needed her help. The Maalrah had knowledge that she felt would be essential to her survival. “I do not remember her. Can you help me?”

“No.” The crone said shortly, “Without knowing how you were trained before anything I could show you would likely put both our lives in danger. Most of us have a focus… I can suggest learning any sort of martial skill you can. When you condition your body, you condition your mind.”

“How do you know about this?” Callindra asked, “Why do you have similar… abilities?”

“Because.” Said the Maalrah, her voice dropping to a whisper, “I am not precisely human either.”

View
Aftermath

The first sensation Callindra felt was pain. Her entire body felt like it was on fire, with lines of white hot magma that cut across her arms, legs, torso and back. Forcing her eyes open was the most difficult thing she had ever done, but she had to know what had happened.

“My Lady, please don’t move!” Mylee’s voice mounted toward panic as she tried to sit up in order to make sense of where she was. “Your wounds are grave and you will only do yourself additional injury.”

A hand pressed a blessedly cool cloth to her forehead and she sank back under even so slight a pressure. “What. Happened?” She croaked.

“You were brilliant my Lady.” Mylee’s voice thrummed with pride, “You slew a legion of Abyssal spawn with their own weapons. You were a maelstrom of destruction; a warrior without equal… but you sustained many injuries. The churigons here still aren’t quite certain how you have managed to stay alive. You must rest.”

“What of the town?”

“You are welcomed back as a hero of course!” Mylee said, “Talcomnis did help a bit… he arrived with a force of thirty warriors. They hit the abyss from the south while you cut them to ribbons from the north.”

“He stopped me.” Callindra said wearily, “I was … insane.”

“They call it ‘berserk’ here my Lady. It is something that is revered as a gift from the Gods.” She seemed to be a bit dismissive of the last, “At least it gives you another thing to tie them to you. Now, you should rest some more.”

“May I have some tea?” This came out more pleading than she had intended, but she did not want to go back to sleep. The initial pain was subsiding slightly, or else she was just getting used to it.

“Of course, I will fetch it at once.” Mylee stood and slipped from the room.

Her friend’s absence gave Callindra a chance to survey the room, it was a rough affair, but there were heavy tapestries on the unfinished wooden walls and thick rugs on the planks of the floor. A fire of peat bricks glowed on the far end of the room. She peered beneath the heavy woolen blanket and saw that she was swathed in bandages.

From the feel of it, she had sustained injuries on nearly every available surface. The irrational thought that she would likely never be able to wear a dress that was off the shoulder again due to the scarring these cuts would leave made her lower lip tremble. It wasn’t until she felt something different about her head and realized that her hair was cut short that she was unable to hold back the tears.

She was still crying when Mylee returned with a steaming pot of chamomile tea. “Whatever is the matter my Lady? Are your injuries causing you this much pain?”

“I can’t wear a dress again and my hair…” It really did seem trivial now but she couldn’t help it.

“What do you mean you can’t wear a dress? You aren’t making sense Callindra.” Mylee said, crossing her arms and giving her a level stare.

Once she recovered herself, Callindra looked at her friend through tear streaked eyes. “I will have terrible scarring…” she gestured to the bandages that covered her body helplessly, “I can’t possibly wear fashionable clothes ever again.”

To her shock Mylee burst out laughing, “My dearest Callindra, only you would fret over such an insignificant detail…”

“I am sorry Mylee, I seem to be a bit off my usual self…”

“No you are exactly your usual self my Lady.” Mylee said, the look on her face warring between pity and pride. “You have destroyed over two hundred enemies on the field of battle, you have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a great warrior for the people and likely a servant of the gods… and yet you fret about a few scars.”

“But look at me.” Callindra sobbed, “I am wrapped in bandages like a mummy. Gods and demons, I look like a boy with this short hair and bandages tight around my chest!”

“I wouldn’t say you appear to be male.” Another voice said from the doorway. “I would find you quite enchanting even if you were wearing sack cloth.”

Callindra pulled the sheet up to her neck as Talc poked his head into the room. “Mylee is it acceptable that I enter? Is the Lady decent?”

“Talcomnis, I prithee withdraw until my Lady has the opportunity to prepare herself for your arrival.” Mylee said smoothly while slamming the door in his face.

“Gods above, thank you Mylee… what would I do without you?”

“Likely marry this miscreant without forethought!” Mylee said, “Not that I’d blame you, he is…” She sighed far too extravagantly, “Gods my Lady, you could do much worse.”

“What?” Callindra said, scandalized almost beyond words, “You forget yourself Mylee!” To her surprise, Mylee burst out laughing.

“If you don’t want Talcomnis, please let me know so I can attempt to snare him myself.” She giggled at the expression of indignation on Callindra’s face, “But I do honestly think he is a good match. Apart from being handsome and wickedly good with that cutlass he is the leader of one of the most powerful forces currently on Gwynneth.”

Mylee helped Callindra sit up and poured tea for her. She noticed a bandage on her arm and one on her thigh. “Mylee, you’re injured!” Now she dimly remembered seeing her and Olaf fighting alongside her through the fog of war that clouded her mind.

“Well, yes but they aren’t anything really worth worrying about.” She said, dismissing them, “Just scratches really.”

“Is Olaf OK?”

“Yes, he managed to escape almost completely unscathed.”

“Why did I get so hurt? It feels as though I must have a hundred wounds at least.” She sighed, taking the cup of tea from Mylee, “I always seem to put my foot in it don’t I?”

“Well for starters, we were wearing armor. It’s helpful stuff when it comes to not getting stabbed.” She poured a cup for herself and sat on a stool next to the bed with a more serious expression on her face. “Those creatures seemed hell bent on killing you my Lady. They barely seemed to notice Olaf and me.”

“You really think they were here for me?” Although apparently she was some kind of a killing machine her memories of it were hazy and she certainly didn’t think she could rely on able to do… whatever that was on command. She didn’t want to lose control again, what if Talc wasn’t there to stop her? What if she turned on friends?

“I do.” Mylee said simply, “I believe you have powers that they desire.”

“You actually meant it when you said that foolishness about me being a servant of the Gods didn’t you?” Callindra sipped her tea, it was chamomile and well sweetened with honey.

“I am sorry about your hair.” Mylee said, not even trying to pretend she wasn’t changing the subject and intentionally avoiding the question. “We had to cut it off though; it was burned in places and kept sticking to your wounds while they were trying to stitch you up. It grows fast enough though that it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to be a proper length.”

The tea left a mildly bitter taste on her tongue. “You drugged this tea!” She said indignantly, “You really are …” her voice trailed off, “Impossible…”

“Sleep well daughter of the storms. Your wounds must heal, for soon the Maalrah will be here and I want you to be at your best.”

Callindra almost fought off the sedative from the tea. “The Maalrah? Coming here? When?”

“Shhhh, it’s all right. You’ll have plenty of time to get ready. I promise, i won’t let you die. I can’t let you die.”

“I’m not worried about dying damn you I’m-” Callindra’s jaws cracked with a yawn she couldn’t hold back, “She’s coming and I’m not ready. I’m not ready…” She fell into a troubled sleep.

“Nobody is ready to meet The Maalrah. Nobody.” Mylee said, smoothing her hair. “Sleep Princess of the Winds. Sleep and grow stronger. I will need your strength.”

-

Callindra finally came fully awake, the sun was bright and blessedly did not hurt her eyes and she blinked, rubbing her face. “Mylee?” Her voice was strong although her body felt weak.

“My Lady!” A woman she did not recognize started from where she had been sleeping in a chair next to the bed. After a moment she realized this was the woman whose child she had given food however long ago that had been.

“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say, the words just wouldn’t come.

“I will fetch her for you. Please, don’t trouble yourself.” She rose and ran from the room.

“What is your … " Callindra trailed off, “Name? Damn.”

“Language my Lady Stormchild, language!” Mylee’s voice was full of laughter, “Oh it is so good to see you awake!” She swept into the room holding a large bundle.

“What do you have there?”

“Just a surprise for you. I can’t give you what you really want, but this might be a close second, and it’ll protect you besides.” She set the bundle on the table; it seemed to be made up completely of leather straps nad buckles. There was also a sword belt wrapped around scabbards of an intricately wrought basket hilted rapier and matching dagger.

“But… what is all that?”

“We have a full set of armor, complete with under padding, a rapier and main gauche, a fencing cloak, boots, gloves…” She noticed the look of confusion on Callindra’s face. “What’s the matter?”

“But… this is warrior’s garb.” She stammered, “I’m not a warrior. I hate fighting. i don’t want to fight ever again!”

“What? But you were amazing…” Mylee looked at her in genuine confusion. “I thought you’d like this, the armor and blades are from Dorgaard himself. He says they’re spoils from some war with the nobility of the Isles…”

“They’re gifts from him? Damn… i suppose that means I don’t have a choice then.” Callindra sighed in resignation, “I was so hoping you had a proper dress and corset in there. Can you help me into it?”

“Well of course, if you really want me to.” Mylee said, “I won’t try to force you to…”

“It’s so unladylike, but i suppose there’s no helping that.” She sighed again, “No I must bow to the needs of the moment.”

“I think you might as well get used to it.”

“What, may I ask, is that supposed to mean?” Callindra said primly, arching an eyebrow.

“It means that every single person I have spoken with about you has shown me their prophecy.”

“Their what?”

“Their prophecy. The paper they received from the Maalrah.” She shook her head and looked at Callindra with a look that wavered between fear and worship, but finally settled on wonder. “They all reference you.”

“Oh come now, that’s just not possible.”

“Neither is a woman with silver hair arriving on the wings of a storm, riding a bolt of lightning who can quiet a storm with a wave of her hand and a single word.” Callindra realized with a twinge of sadness that she had lost a friend and gained a follower.

-

It took three days for Callindra to regain her feet. It felt like an eternity to her, but none of the wise women who were tending to her could believe it.

“Yeh canne be well lassie.” The matronly woman folded her arms over the rough homespun overdress that barely restrained her bosom.

“I honestly feel quite well, I assure you.” Callindra said imploringly. She was so sick of beds and resting. The sea was crashing against the cliffs and she could hear the wind singing on the bluff. “I just want to see the ocean and feel the wind on my face. Lord Talcomnis can accompany me to ensure I am safe if that is your wish.”

The mention of Talc’s name brightened the woman’s face considerably. Callindra hated to stoop to such depths of deception, but it seemed like the only way she’d be able to sway the Hadrian. Not that she precisely disliked the man supposedly paying court to her, but there was something about having someone else see his attention and approve of it as though her hair was in twin plaits and she were in need of a keeper.

A forgotten memory stirred, young ladies in elaborate dresses with two braids in their chestnut hair but… it wasn’t a happy memory. She didn’t think they had been friends of hers… she found herself grinding her teeth in a nearly uncontrollable burst of anger. The ragged ends of her hair thrashed at her neck as a gust of wind rattled the shutters, bringing the scents of the sea with it.

“Easy daughter ‘a th storm, nae need ta call yer fey ta blow abou.” Said Agata, smiling indulgently. For some reason they had begun to think that she was somehow responsible for the way the wind blew over the Isle of Gwynneth even though it was a silly concept at best.

“Did my lady call for me?” Talc said from outside the door, tapping discreetly. He’d learned better than to try and walk in. For all her indulgent smiles and approval, Agata and the other wise women of the Dunn would broke no tresspassing on the ‘lassie’s honor’. It had only taken being thrown out once to get that point across.

“Aye, she wants tae go walkin.”

“Please come in Lord Talcomnis, I am fully dressed and ready.” Callindra stood and accepted the cloak from Mylee who had become much more subdued in the company of the women of the Isles. Her maid followed at a discreet distance as they left the healer’s hut.

“My Lady Stormchild, I admit I did not expect you to wish me to accompany you.” Talc said, his voice slightly playful but with a hint of seriousness as well. “I am flattered.”

Out of the sight and hearing of the wise women, Mylee made a rude noise. Callindra studiously ignored it, instead turning to look the man in the face. He sounded genuine, and the smile on his lips touched his eyes but she couldn’t quite shLoake the feeling that there was something not quite right about him. What could it be?

He caught her hand in his, such a small gesture but it still managed to make a light blush touch her cheeks. Perhaps that was what bothered her… this seeming ability he had to make her body react without her wanting it to. She usually had such good self-control and it was troublesome that he could compromise it so easily.

Callindra pulled her hand smoothly from his, trying to make the motion as casual as his taking it had been. “It seemed to be the only way that dungeon warden Agata would let me go.” She said, raising her chin slightly, “I cannot abide being kept indoors on such a beautiful day."

The day was, in fact, not all that nice. A strong wind was gusting off the ocean and clouds skated by low in the air promising rain later. Here and there, small shafts of sunlight cut through the gloom but this had the effect of making the overcast skies look even darker.

“Uhhh…” Talc actually looked at a loss for words. The confusion on his face was so surprising that Callindra burst out laughing. It was the first time she had seen him ruffled, and she found it irresistible.

“Oh my Lord, you are so charming when you are like this.”

“I beg your pardon!” He really did seem to be offended and Callindra tried to make peace with him by taking his hand in hers.

“My dear Lord Talcomnis, please do not be wroth with me.” She smiled at him through lowered lashes and after a moment, her smile seemed to melt his indignation and he returned it. They walked to the cliff hand in hand and she found it not at all disagreeable.

“Lady Stormchild, may I ask you a question that is…” Talc sighed and raked a hand through his sandy blond hair which responded by curling even more in the humidity. “Well a bit impertinent?”

“You may ask whatever you will my Lord, however I will choose whether or not to answer.”

“Are you a warrior or a lady? At first I thought you some kind of … well honestly I thought you were a ghost or a spirit or something of that nature.” He said, looking at her with a far too serious expression on his face.

“Whatever do you mean?” It was her turn to be confused and mildly angry. She tried to pull her hand from his, but he would not release it this time.

“You were just standing there after a bolt of lightning struck. I saw you stop the worst storm I’ve ever seen with a gesture. I know you don’t believe the rumors… but they are true. I was there. I saw it happen.” He fidgeted, his fingers stroking the back of her hand, making little circles that she found most distracting. “You commanded us to drop our weapons and we did.”

“Is that so strange?” She said weakly, trying to process what he was saying.

“My Lady, you know it is. I knew… I think we all knew… at that point we would do anything you asked. We were yours, and it was frightening even though it was only for the briefest of moments. To know in your bones that you will obey someone absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt is the most intimidating thing I can imagine.”

“I am sorry.” She said, “I do not remember any of it. Not the fight, not the storm, not the command.”

“Then I see you like this, blushing prettily and looking at me through those enchanting lashes… and I would swear on my life that there is no possible way you are the same woman.” He shook his head, “Then there’s the battle I saw you in just a few days ago.”

“I don’t remember much of that either. They say I am something called a ‘berserk’… although it’s unusual for the talent to manifest in women, it is said to be something of a valued, or possibly holy thing according to these people.” She was mildly defensive; she didn’t want to think of herself as a murdering maniac, even if she had slain the spawn of the abyss.

“I do not think that someone not born and raised here on one of these Isles with their Gods would have that gift my Lady.” He said quietly, “You said you do not remember your former life and I believe you… but it seems your former life is finding you anyway.”

“You think I was a warrior before?”

“Yes.” His response cut off any derision she might have been able to summon. “You didn’t just fight, you danced through them. You wove a pattern of beautiful, terrible destruction through your foes that is unlike anything I have ever seen before. You are unparalleled but I fear … now that I’ve found you … that I might lose you.”

“What?” Now it was her turn to be completely caught off guard, “I do not understand.”

“I think you do my Lady, but I will not press the matter.” He released her hand and she let him.

“Sir. If you have something to say, I request that you say it.”

“I care for you.” He said, and a feeling like none she had ever felt thrilled through her body. “Please. When the Maalrah comes, do not go to her.”

“Either you accept me for who I am no matter what or kindly give up any ideas that you may have about courting me.” Callindra said, feeling anger beginning to simmer, “If the person you have come to ‘care for’ is not who I truly am, how can you even think of holding me back from discovering the truth? It would truly be folly to think either of us would gain from living a lie.”

“Then I will leave you to discover who you are.” He bowed formally as though to royalty which was strange behavior for a pirate. “If you find yourself and want to share what you uncover with me… find me. I went through much to find you here in this place; I do not think it is too much to ask the same in return.”

With that, he took three steps backward before straightening and turning to go.

“You are a force to be reckoned with my Lady.” Mylee breathed, “I cannot believe…” She shivered as though cold water had just been poured over her body.

“He does intimidate me as well… but I won’t allow myself to behave irrationally.” Callindra said sternly, and then sighed, “But I must admit Jacob does have quite an effect doesn’t he?”

“Oh thank the Goddess, you are human after all!” Mylee said with a giggle that was borderline filthy.

“I wonder what reason he could possibly have for wanting to keep me away from the Maalrah though? Surely he knows that eventually my memories will return and even if they did not, I must accept that I am not just a Lady. My past is a frightening thing Mylee, but I do not want it to surprise me again.”

“None of us wants to lose you my Lady.” Mylee said in a small voice, “Although some are less worried than others. I feel like I know a bit about who you really might be, and I don’t think you are the kind of person who turns her back on those who need her.”

“Never if I can help it.” She said, taking her friend’s hand. “We should get back I suppose. Agata will see Jacob returning and rouse the town guard if we do not come back shortly thereafter.”

When they returned to town they found he and his entire company had gone. Somehow, Callindra wasn’t surprised, but his leaving still made her feel like she had lost something. She knew she had, even though it had never belonged to her in the first place.

View
The Fight at the Grandfather

The smoke below was thick and oily black. From their vantage point on a hill that almost dropped off steeply enough to be called a cliff, they overlooked a battlefield that bordered on terrifying. A line of twisted, hunched humanoids were advancing on the Grandfather himself, and all at once they spewed flames that flickered with Abyssal fire in Holt’s eyes, even at this distance.

The result was horrifying, any wood, living or dead, that was touched by those fires ignited as though doused in oil. Behind them, two figures raised their hands and the flames intensified, flickers of emerald green flashing through them. Worse still was the large serpentine figure behind them.

It was hard to believe, but there was a dragon behind the enemy lines, and although its skin shimmered metallic copper there was no doubt that it was on the side of the enemy. It was chewing on a griffin.

“As I see it, our options are either to split our force, sending the soldiers and support behind the line of defense while we circle around to flank the enemy, or else we all reinforce them from this side of the battle line.” Reed said.

“I think we should flank them. That dragon worries me.” Connor said.

“But if we split up, what will happen to the rest of our people?” Asked Kain, “We need to stick together. We go behind the fighting lines as a group.”

“In that case I will signal our friends.” Holt said, pulling an arrow with bright blue fletching from his quiver. He fired it toward the line of battle and it screamed like an eagle stooping over helpless prey. “Now they will know we come to help.”

They made their way down the escarpment and then through the trees. As they approached the Grandfather, the immensity of it was daunting. The idea that anyone could destroy something that large seemed impossible. Holt saw a sentry sitting on a platform high above the trail. He was young as elves judge such things, likely only about forty and barely allowed off his mother’s apron strings let alone standing guard on his own.

“Hail guardian of the forest!” Holt said in Sylvan, “I come with good news. We are here to aid you in the fight against the Abyss.”

Perhaps it was the boy’s youth, perhaps it was the language he spoke or the fact that Holt was riding an elven steed, but he lowered the bow which he had drawn back past his ear at the sound of their approach. “Was that your signal arrow?” His voice had an aristocratic lilt to it.

“It was indeed. I am Holt, I lived here in the forest for a time, but that was likely before you were born.”

“We are the Swords of Hope and we bring aid as we swore we would.” Kain said, coming up behind Holt. “Can you give us guidance to the Grandfather? Which is the swiftest path?”

The boy looked uncomprehendingly at him until Holt translated. “You are on it. Have a care, the fighting is heavy and the enemy is strong.” The boy said, staring back down the trail. Even at such a young age he still took his duty seriously enough that Holt felt certain he had seen fighting himself.

The smoke became thick and the sound of the flames grew to a roar as they approached the tree. A group of tents had been set up to acommodate the influx of injured and the party was hailed by a determined party of walking wounded who all brought some sort of weapon to bear.

“We are reinforcements from Secomber.” Kain said to the foremost guard, “You men support the efforts here, we will go forward to survey the situation.” He continued, turning to direct the soldiers and civilians behind him.

“Who you are?” The elf asked in broken Common.

“I am Kain Ral. We are the Swords of Hope. Take us to the front lines.”

With a nod of relief, the elf pointed, “I can not walk far, it that way.”

As they made their way forward, Connor annointed their armor with oil that made it glow with arcane energies. “This will help your defenses against most attacks.” He said as he removed two flat crystals from his pockets. Crystal plating began to cover his body, seeming to grow into a suit of overlapping plates that glittered in the afternoon sun.

The smell of burning things clogged their nostrils and the nasty looking black smoke seemed to hang closer to the ground, much like the smoke that came from some of Durrak’s cigars. The dragon writhed behind enemy lines, engaged in eating something. Holt’s keen vision showed him large eagle wings and the hindquarters of a lion. It was eating a griffin. The copper scales had a rime of green tinted corrosion around the edges, almost as though they were real copper in need of a good polishing.

In front of them was chaos, the bodies of many elves lay strewn about and the humanoid creatures strung out in a line were moving slowly forward. They had black skin with green lines that gleamed with heat, they appeared to be made of some kind of green oily, viscious substance inside that hardened into black plating on the surface. As one, they drew in a breath and blew greasy greenish flame out to raze the ground in front of them.

Behind those creatures, a pair of humans, one in black robes and one in red, were chanting a harsh guttural arcane language. Holt drew his bow and fired at them, but his arrow struck an invisible wall of wind and flew off course. Durrak stepped forward to engage them with his Guisarme flashing in a deadly arc and Kain began to draw on his power to bring a cleansing rain.

Connor looked curiously at the wall, looking over it here and there, poking it with his staff and then used the point to pluck out a cog the size of his hand out from where it was spinning. It wasn’t really there… but to his mind, the bindings that held the Weave in place to keep the spell performing as intended appeared as gears of varying sizes. This appeared to be something that controlled duration, the wind roared with the intensity of a hurricane, burning its energy out much more rapidly than it would have originally.

Rain fell as Kain released his spell, but rather than immediately quenching the flames as it should have, it sizzled and crackled, only putting them out when enough had fallen to completely soak the ground with water that was infused with the blessing of his goddess.

The dragon looked up, its meal finished or forgotten and took three massive strides forward. Sticking its glittering head through the wind wall, it unleashed a cloud of vapor that settled over the battlefield. They managed to shake off its effects but momentarily felt as though the air had thickened to the consistency of syrup.

Durrak had killed one of the firebreathing monsters and stepped forward, looking grim. He knew none of his companions could stand against a dragon. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Connor doing something with his strange staff. Hoping that he was doing something to stop the huge beast, the Dwarf readied his polearm and activated his magic belt, growing to more evenly match the dragon’s size.

Holt fired arrows at the dragon, only one of them finding the mark and not seeming to slow it down much at all. Connor pulled a parchment from his scroll case and, after a moment’s consideration, pulled something from the magic wall in front of him and wrapped the scroll around the end of his staff, stuffing it into the invisible hole only he could see. At first, nothing happened, but then the wind evaporated and was replaced by an aura of holy protection against evil creatures.

“It worked!” He shouted, laughing. Then his jaw dropped and he dove for cover, “Hit the ground!” A burst of multicolored gemstones exploded in a radius from the point where he changed the spell, bouncing off armor and puncturing exposed skin.

Everything on the battlefield began to tremble and shake. For a moment, the falling rain hung suspended before reversing course and falling up. The raindrops were soon followed by leaves, arrows, and assorted battlefield detritus and finally by everyone else. It was as though they had stepped off a cliff.

The dragon did not seem to care, turning to spray a line of corrosive fluid that covered Holt and Connor. Almost all of what Holt was wearing melted into viscous slag, he was nearly out of arrows, his backpack was gone as was its contents. He did not have time to mourn these losses however, the branches of the Grandfather tree were growing larger by the second and he knew it would only be moments before they would all strike them.

“Grab my hand!” Reed yelled, angling himself against the wind so as to move closer. Kain was also close enough to take advantage of the effects of the spell Reed released that began to slow their fall and Connor’s ring had activated the moment he had moved his full body length through the air.

The dragon and Durrak flashed past and as they watched, it set about rending the Dwarf nearly to shreds in a flurry of attacks that nearly tore the armor from his body. The aftermath of that merciless attack left Durrak unconscious, his body returning to its normal size and his polearm falling from limp fingers.

Holt seized the opportunity to fire off a pair of arrows at one of the robed figures now that the wind wall was gone. They struck with a neat grouping a mere finger width apart, but the man shrugged and began incanting another spell. The dragon turned to regard them with a maleavolent gaze and Kain panicked.

“Do it Mogget!” He shouted. A tiny white shape leaped from one floating piece of debris to another, vanishing to insignificance against the bulk of the dragon.

With a look of apology, Reed grabbed Holt’s shoulder. They had all landed safely on the underside of a tree limb thanks to his spell, but Durrak’s limp form was hurtling toward another, higher branch unchecked.

“I need you to trade places with Durrak.” He said, “Sorry, but it’s the only way to save him.”
“I will be fine. It will hurt, but I will survive.” Holt said.

Reed incanted another spell and Holt’s form wavered, replaced by the comatose form of the Dwarf. Holt, undeterred by his teleportation, sent more arrows into the mage he had attacked before, killing him and then spun in the air to fire more at the other. The dragon roared, a mingled sound of rage, pain and fear and at the same time the abyssal creatures smashed into the limbs of the Grandfather tree.

Kain invoked a spell that would allow him to heal at a distance, bringing Durrak back to his feet. The Dwarf frowned at his empty hands and drew his axe instead, preparing to deal out death to the spawn closest to him.

There was a flurry of activity, the party struggled to gain their bearings and to make sense of the new battlefield that was before them. Abyssal creatures were on multiple limbs, lowering their heads to chew and tear a the bark, all the while letting loose bursts of oily acrid fire that burned even the living tissue of the tree like dry tinder. Many of them were dispatched, first the other magus fell to Holt’s arrows, the dragon turned on its former allies, and Kain called forth blessed rain to put out some of the flames.

With a terrible splintering sound, several of the limbs that were being damaged by the spawn began to break off the trunk. Even as some of the creatures doing the damage died, two of the limbs fractured and broke free, the release of the preassure of their weight being released acting like a catapult. Holt and Reed managed to escape being flung toward the ground, but Kain was thrown from where he stood, plummeting down with the speed of a stone from a siege engine.

Just before he hit the ground, the dragon swooped down to pluck him from the air, and abruptly the magic that had been reversing the force of gravity ceased. The Elves who had been tossed into the trees were forced to hold on or fall, just as the Swords of Hope were. Kain sent a prayer to his goddess, pleading with her to help save them, for a fall from this height would surely kill them.

Working quickly, Connor spun the flying disk from the shaft of his staff, swooping around branches and dodging falling debris to catch several of the falling figures. Kain begged the dragon to assist him in saving a few more and Reed managed to manuver himself close enough to others that they were caught in a spell that arressed their speed, saving them from the crushing embrace of the ground. Some of the remaining Elves accepted the blessing of Mieliki and melded with the Grandfather tree, their life essence absorbing into his… but this went largely unnoticed in the chaos.

“I am Xangeon Riddlebane, and Mogget tells me you are the one to be thanked for my salvation, for it was entering your service that brought him here and your command that caused him to risk himself upon my behalf. I am in his debt and as you are his liege lord, I am also in your debt.” The dragon said, turning its massive head to regard Kain with a sparkling red-gold eye.

“Can you assist me in helping some of the Elves who are still in the branches? I fear they may fall to their deaths if something is not done quickly.” Kain said, eyes on the branches above.

“Massster… you are being most rude.” Mogget’s voice reverberated in Kain’s mind, “You are asking a dragon to be a beast of burden and have not even offered your name in return after he introduced himself.”

“My name is Kain Ral, servant of Mieliki, leader of the Swords of Hope.” Kain said aloud, “Will you deign to assist me?”

“As I sense your servant’s agitation, I will help.” Xangeon rumbled, “You would do well to learn from his example of respect and tact.” With that he launched himself into the air and began gathering the stranded Elves, bringing them safely to the ground once more.

Elves had begun coming to assist the wounded, it was startling how few of them there were left. Even those who looked much younger than Holt now appeared were bringing bandages and medicine. Some were wearing the robes of Druids, but most were clad in nondescript tunics of mottled greens and browns that blended into the forest well. Kain moved about, healing the injuries of the most gravely wounded until his spells were exhausted.

He was physically and spiritually drained, but the demands of leadership were not finished. “Masster… you must go and ssspeak with Xangeon Riddlebane.” Mogget said in that grating mental projection that passed for his voice. “He wasss confussed, but mosstly recovered now. While you have been notably dissstracted by your dutiesss you mussst now ssshow him the ressspect due one of hisss kind.”

“I am sorry if I’m not as courteous as I could be.” Kain said, not sounding in the least bit remorseful, “I was born and raised in a combination slave pit and gladiator arena.”

“And yet sssomehow you never learned to ssshow deferenccce to one more powerful than yourssself?” Mogget hissed incredulity in his voice, “How did you sssurvive?”

Kain sighed heavily, “I suppose I am merely exhausted.” He strode to where the wyrm was resting, keeping a respectful distance from the Elves who were understandibly still nervous in his presence. After all, the dragon had been leading the armies that were laying siege to their home less than an hour prior.

“Lord Riddlebane, I apologize for taking so long to come to you, I was attempting to save as many lives as I could.” He said, inclining his head toward the battlefield and makeshift medical facilities. “My name is Kain Ral, follower of Milieki and leader of the Swords of Hope. Are you hungry? I could perhaps-”

“No.” Xangeon said, his voice low and dangerous, “Sadly I feasted upon Griffin flesh today.” His voice held regret and perhaps even a bit of borderline despair.

“What happened to you?” Kain asked, “How did you become corrupted as you were?”
“I do not remember. I was fighting with my kin against uncounted legions when I was… struck by something.” The great body shuddered.

“We are fighting to stop any more from falling to the Abyss and to take back what we can… are there more of your kind who still fight?” Kain asked, “With help from dragons we could greatly decrease the difficulty of our task.”

“I have been gone some months. It is my fervent hope that some of my family still live, however I do not know. Once I am recovered and feel certain that I will not… relapse… into my former condition I intend to go and find them.” Xangeon said, “I have a debt to pay to Moggett and perhaps a gift for him if he will accept it, but then I must go.”

“Kain, the leader of the elves do wish words with you.” Durrak said, approaching to pause at a wary, respectful distance.

“I must go Xangeon.” Kain said and rushed off in the direction the Dwarf indicated.

“He do be rude, but one do expect such from a human.” Durrak shrugged. “I do be Durrak Caverstorm, son of Storgar, son of Brenlena of the city once known as Gauntlgrym.”

“I am Xangeon Riddlebane Lord Caverstorm. I knew of your father, he was renowned as stout of heart and strong of arm.”

“Ah as to the ‘Lord’ … perhaps you would do me a favor and not mention it. I did give that up. Did renounce it I suppose.”

“You have a claim to it Lord Caverstorm.” Xangeon said in Dwarvish, “I will not mention it, however you still have a right to the titles, regardless of whether or not you choose to claim them.”

“I have given up my claim to many things.” Durrak replied in the same language, “Now I only take what is mine. Now I only claim that which do claim me in return, or some of it.” He patted the lantern at his belt absently.

“I… must apologize for attacking you.” Said Xangeon, “I was not in command of myself.”

“No need.” Said Durrak, “It was a good reminder of what I will eventually face. I have set myself the task of finishing what Storgar Wyrmslayer began.”

Xangeon drew back slightly. “Although I know Krrakathanak deserved death… none of us like to hear that title. What remains to be done there? Your father slew him… did he not?”

“Yes. However, he did not take into account the words of the Moragainnag… the seer warned him but he wouldn’t listen. Krrakathanak had a mate, and even now Cerioth the Black, Destroyer of Life, Bane of Ignitium lays waste to the countryside and likely the entire world. As it was my father who began this destruction, I have taken it upon myself to finish it.” Durrak touched the lantern again, “I have sworn to protect the ones I love and so I will. At any cost.”

“Have a care Lord Caverstorm. I know all too well what cost this fight can exact.”

View
New Friends, New Enemies

Later that night, after getting to know the village a little and getting the rest of her people placed where they could be the most helpful, Callindra finally lost her temper. It was the sheer abject poverty that these people were subjected to that kept building up inside her. When Mylee told her that she had known about the malnourishment of the children in the Highlands she rounded on her with fury on her face.

“You knew about this? You KNEW and yet you didn’t tell me?”

“My Lady-“ Mylee began, but Callindra cut her off.

“NO! There is NO gods damned excuse for this!” She strode to the window and breathed in the air, sharp with the scent of the sea and mingled with the tang of peat smoke. “I will not allow it to continue.”

“I… we can’t do much about it here.” Mylee said, “If Daleus has indeed seized control of the city I don’t imagine it will get any better. He doesn’t seem like the kind, caring type.”

Callindra squeezed her eyes shut for a few moments and tried to calm her anger. “What can we do? I won’t accept anyone starving on Gwynneth. Not one child is to go to bed hungry, even if it means I don’t eat. Even if it means YOU don’t eat.” She realized she had been shouting and took a deep, slow breath still literally shaking in anger.

Olaf and Mylee looked at her in shock before slowly nodding. “As you say my Lady.” They said, as one.

“I am sorry; I did not mean to… it was not my intention to take the problems of the world out on you my friends.”

“Think nothing of it my Lady, if you insist that the weight of the world rests on your shoulders… then it rests on ours as well.” Mylee said, giving her a sympathetic, but slightly sarcastic look.

“No, got damn it!” Olaf said at the same time, “Do not! Too long have apologies been acceptable!” He looked at the others, “I know we canna say we canna change things, but I swore I would do as yeh asked. I meant it. If yeh wanna be changin things Lady, then know my blade’ll strike where yeh point.”

“But you realize it won’t happen overnight right?” Mylee said, “There are policies… tariffs collected from each Dunn for the local Lords, and you don’t even have control over the small holdings of the Stormchild estate anymore.”

“I’m not stupid.” Callindra said, “I know it’s not that simple.” Tears streaked her cheeks, but Mylee handed her a handkerchief.

“Unless someone takes a stand against it… nothing will ever change.” She said. “Let’s focus on staying alive long enough to see the Maalrah.”

-

Frowning in concentration, Callindra scraped the final bit of fat off the pig skin and flicked it into the slop bucket. She was wearing a pair of gloves that the master tanner Calien had given her and the blisters from the first week of work had finally hardened into calluses. In spite of her attention to detail and apparent aptitude for the work, she found most of the villagers treated her with indifference at best. Most of the women were outright hostile.

She suspected this was because they could tell she’d had an easy life before this and couldn’t really hold it against them. Stretching her back as a cramp threatened, Callindra heard footsteps approaching. Whoever it was, they were trying to be stealthy but had no real idea how to do it. Up to this point, nobody had been violent toward her but she held her knife up as though inspecting the edge and used it as a mirror. Behind her, a woman appeared to be preparing to throw something.

Callindra waited until the last possible second before bending to apparently check the lace of her boot and a glob of mud splattered into the skin she’d been scraping. Damn, she hadn’t thought about that.

“What’n th hells?” Calien yelled, “How’d yeh manage tha?”

“I’m sorry sir, I must have slipped.” She said, knowing full well that an excuse would only make things worse. She took her glove off and pulled a chunk of fat from the bucket. Dabbing gently at the dirt with it, she used the grease to loosen the mud to the point where it could be scraped off again.

Calien was looking at her suspiciously with his arms crossed, but when she was done and the skin was clean he shrugged.

“I think this one’s done sir.”

“Then get yeh gone. Day’s near done.”

Callindra carefully cleaned her scraping knife and returned it to the board inside the workshop. “Thank you sir.” She said politely and left when he glared at her. Why was everyone so hostile?

It had been a long day and she was tired. Her hair was tangled and much of it had escaped from the braids she had confined it in at the beginning of the day. Stray whitish silver locks fell across her eyes and she tucked them back behind her ear.

The hair was becoming a worry for her, it kept growing and growing. By her count, it had grown around an inch a day… every day. At first she’d ignored it, but now it was getting annoying. She wondered if there was a barber in town, or even if perhaps she could borrow one of Mylee’s knives. The sound of crying brought her down a side street. A little girl was sitting on a doorstep in tears.

“What is the matter little one?” She asked, crouching down next to her. The girl responded in a liquid stream of words that Callindra didn’t understand. “I am sorry, I don’t know your language.” She said sadly. Reaching into a pocket she took out the remnants of her lunch, a piece of fried fish and half an apple and held them out. The girl looked at the food and then at Callindra.

“I know it’s not much, but if you’re hungry please help yourself.” The girl snatched the food and stuffed the apple into her mouth as though Callindra might attempt to take it back. “You can come with me if you’d like.” She said, holding out her hand.

The girl backed toward the doorway and the door opened. A young woman looked out fearfully, put her hand on the shoulder of her daughter and drew her inside, the liquid sounds of her native language spilling from her lips like a bubbling stream.

Callindra smiled and waved, sighing when the door slammed. Why did these people hate her so much? Feeling depressed and physically exhausted, she made her way back to the small house that she shared with Mylee.

She had finally begun to get used to only washing her face and hands in a basin of cold water as opposed to being able to soak in a hot bath. Her skin always felt grimy, but to her vast relief she hadn’t begun to smell like old sweat or rancid tallow. The air around her always seemed to smell like Brightstar flowers after a spring rain. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Mylee, not that she seemed to notice.

“My Lady.” Mylee said quietly when Callindra opened the door, “We may have a problem.”

“Wonderful.” She muttered, sitting heavily in a chair and tugging at the laces of her boots.
“It seems that there have been some rumors floating around about the Abyss being back.”

“Well it’s not like we really expected it to stay quiet… did we?”

Mylee crossed her arms, “Well maybe not, but I was hoping for a little more lead time than this. Just that people know, however, isn’t the main problem. What’s disturbing is that some of the rumors suggest that it has something to do with you.”

“What?” She was paying more attention now, “I killed him, or at least fought him off. I
certainly didn’t bring him here.”

“My guess is that Daleus is spreading these rumors himself so that you will have no place where you can hide.” Said Mylee, “It’s a clever strategy really.”

“What do we do?” Callindra longed for a real hot bath and Mylee’s fingers to work out the knots in her shoulders.

“Just wait. As long as nobody finds out who you are…”

“Ahh, I hate this! All the sneaking about…” She hesitated, “Although I do love the work. I mean it is hard and all but at least I feel good at the end of the day. Like I’ve done something that’s worth doing. If only they had discovered proper bathing…”

At this Mylee broke out laughing, but quickly silenced her mirth with as grim expression crept back over her face. “We must be careful my Lady. This won’t be the end.”
In her heart, Callindra knew she was right.

-

The trouble came more quickly than either of them had imagined. Callindra was leaving the communal meal hall the nexsto morning when a group of men moved to stand in her way.
“We ken yeh came wi Olaf and tha yeh took Dorgaard unawares.” The obvious ringleader drawled, “Ah say yeh owe us a test.”

“I did indeed come with Olaf. He saved me from that awful place.” She didn’ thave to feign the shudder when she thought of the hordes of Abyss being led by a man who should have been dead. “As for the other, I was merely startled by your Lord. I take no credit or honor from the exchange. I am no warrior, it was merely dumb luck on my part. There is no need for a test, I would be immediately defeated by warriors of your obvious caliber.”

“Ah say there’s a need. So there’s a need.” He said, “Yeh talk like onea them but ye beat Dorgaard easy. Jest wha are yeh then? Ifn’ not a warrior yeh mus be assassin.”

“I swear by wind and wave I have nothing but respect and regard for you and your people.” Callindra said, seeing Mylee approach out of the corner of her eye. “If you beat me then you have merely thrashed a woman who is a quarter of your size and strength. If by some miracle I win then you are disgraced.”

“No he has everything to gain.” Said Mylee glaring at the man, “He has heard his Lord say that he was beaten by you, and therefore if he can beat you then he is stronger than the Lord.”

Realization and horror crept over Callindra. If Dorgaard was to remain the leader then not only did she have to fight this tower of muscle, she would have to win. “After the setting of three moons I will meet you across a blade.” She said, not knowing where the archaic phrasing was coming from, “We will fight to first blood, bring every ounce of skill you possess for you will need it.”

The man laughed a pleased, guttural sound and said something to the men behind him in his own language. She caught a bit of it, the words ‘girl’ and ‘cut’ but nothing more. He then turned to her, “Yeh ken not of our ways. First blood yeh may claim, but th challenge must be answered now.”

His friends began to surround them and he drew a broad bladed sword. “I do not have a sword or any knowledge of using one!” Callindra protested.

“Wha’s this then?” Dorgaard’s voice cut through the crowd and they parted to let him through. “S there a reason yeh’re botherin th refugee?”

“Oh aye. Ahm invokin th righ a challenge.”

Dorgaard’s eyes widened in shock, “Yeh challenge un from th outside Cairn? Tha goes again all custom!”

“Nye again th law.” Said Cairn with a sly smile.

“Mylee!” Callindra holding her hands out, “Lend me your blades. I may not know how to wield them, but I do know that justice prevails. Cairn, I will engage this fight as you say but know that while I am not a warrior I am quite dangerous. I shall endeavor not to kill you but I make no promises.”

Mylee handed over a pair of punching daggers reluctantly, and Callindra gripped the handles, whipping them through the air experimentally. They felt strange; too short and ungainly but what choice did she have? She couldn’t use Olaf’s massive broadsword even if he was here… which he wasn’t. All she had to do was cut him once before he could cut her.

“Dinne do this lad.” Dorgaard said softly, “Yeh dinne have wha’s needed.”

The blades in Callindra’s hands began to hum dangerously, one just a half step away from the other in tone. She could feel the handles vibrating against her palms as the discordant sound grew louder. Somehow she knew it wouldn’t be long before they gave way or she had to drop them. Cairn licked his lips uncertainly, but Callindra didn’t wait.

With a skill that felt born of desperation, she sprang to attack. Her strike was wide and not very well executed and Cairn parried it easily, but when their blades met the discordant whine of her knife amplified in his sword. She followed the right hand cut with a stab with the left that was also blocked. Callindra barely felt the jolt of his blade hitting hers; the knives were screaming now and very difficult to hold.

Cairn finally got himself under control enough to strike back. He used a vicious overhanded blow that Callindra was only barely able to stop by catching it between the crossed blades of Mylee’s daggers. The shriek of metal on metal reached a fever pitch and all three blades exploded in a shower of metal shards.

Callindra was blown backward off her feet but managed to perform a graceful backflip and land on the balls of her feet, leaning forward against the inertia of her flight and skidding to a stop. Miraculously, she was completely uninjured except for her hands being numb. Cairn, on the other hand, was covered in tiny cuts. His shredded chainmaile had saved his life, but he was a mass of bleeding wounds.

“Black magic!” The cry from Cairn’s ruined lips spread through the crowd, “Ah knew she’d reveal th truth inna fight!”

“What? No!” Callindra protested, “I warned you I WARNED you that I was dangerous and you insisted anyway!” But her cries were lost in the growl of the angry mob.

“Toss th witch over th wall!” Hands grabbed her from all sides and Callindra relaxed. They would throw her out, but she could still survive. Mylee would certainly join her and probably Olaf as well. Together they could find where the Maalrah was…

A woman’s voice cut through the crowd, speaking their language in a rapid, liquid stream. She pointed at Callindra and gestured vehemently. Her child peeked out from behind her skirts; it was the little one she’d given her food to the other day. With a sweeping gesture and a snarl of anger, the crowd swept past her. Tears were streaming down the woman’s face but Callindra gave her a reassuring smile. She had tried.

They reached the wall and the open gate. There were dozens of people running in and now over the sound of the angry mob, Callindra heard the clang of the alarm gong. Three long, two short, four long. The sign for an enemy attack.

“Th Abyss! They’s here fer her! Toss ‘er out!”

Callindra was unceremoniously thrown in the dirt outside the gate which slammed closed behind her. Ahead she saw a swarm of humanoid creatures running in an ungainly lurching gait toward her. In the lead, a monstrous thing in black armor stomped. When it saw her, it drew a sword that burst into flame as it cleared the scabbard and laughed in triumph.

Everything that had happened seemed to overwhelm Callindra’s mind. For a moment all she could feel was rage. She was angry with the people for judging her, she was angry at these Abyssal creatures for their need to destroy, she was angry with herself for not being able to diffuse the situation with Cairn and she seethed with fury at Daleus. She could feel something release inside her; something powerful and dangerous. For once, she didn’t care.

There was a rumble of thunder as a harsh wind began to blow from off the Sea of Swords. It whipped up dust and grit, blowing her hair and skirts into a tangle. “You want to see destruction?” She shouted at the approaching spawn, “I will SHOW you DESTRUCTION! You shall NOT enter these gates.”

A jagged bolt of lightning blasted into the ranks of approaching monsters, but Callindra was already running forward, hair flying and teeth bared in a rictus smile. The armored figure raised its sword, but she slid beneath the stroke and leaped up to slap it on the plated chest with her open palm. The explosion nearly folded the breast plate around her hand as the thing inside was turned into jelly.

Catching the sword that was flung from what had been its hand; Callindra felt the metal whine in protest at her touch. Laughing in exhilaration, she flung herself at her enemies. The flames that wreathed it began to burn her palms, but she refused to acknowledge the pain. She was a whirlwind of death. In a small hidden part of her mind, Callindra screamed in abject terror as the power tore through her.

The battle fever swept her into the fight, but the sword she was wielding did not last long. After three strikes it exploded into shards much as Mylee’s daggers had. Leaping forward into a long summersault, Callindra tucked and rolled, coming up with a short hafted spear in one hand and a broad bladed dagger in the other. These weapons also disintegrated but others followed, now a willowy rapier with a delicate basket hilt, then a rusted longsword.

The blades were snatched, used, destroyed and discarded with absolutely no regard for them. The Abyssal beasts were dismembered with equal disregard. A horn blared and Callindra turned to face a new enemy, the sword in her hand shattering against the edge of another. The surprise on the person’s face startled her back to herself. It was Talc!

Callindra suddenly felt scores of cuts, bruises and contusions on her body. She saw the destruction of the battlefield and the countless bodies strewn about. To one side, Olaf was wiping Abyssal ichor from his sword blade. On the other Mylee was looking skeptically at a pair of daggers before sheathing them with a flourish.

“My Lady, you never cease to amaze!” Talcomnis said with a smile. The reality of what had just happened came crashing down upon her and Callindra dissolved against him, sobbing like a child.

“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…” Her entire body shook with grief, fear, exhaustion and an exhilaration that only made the other three worse. Who was she? What was this fierce joy that she felt when she danced the razor’s edge between life and death? How was it that she had sustained wounds like these and not died? She had seen fully grown and trained warriors killed by just one of the kind of wounds that crisscrossed her body now.

“Sorry for what? At first I thought you a kitten, but I was wholly wrong. You are a ferocious wildcat and I am well and truly smitten.” She looked into his face in shock. He was cradling her in his arms tenderly but she could feel the inherent strength in the body; even beneath his armor and it made her breath catch in her throat.

“I … hurt … Lord Talcomnis.” She managed and he seemed to take in the state of her slashed and bloodied clothing. Now that he could clearly see that much of the blood on her clothes was hers, Talc seemed to remember who it was that he held in his arms. As he shouted for medical assistance, from whom she couldn’t possibly imagine, Callindra felt consciousness fade and for once she did not feel like fighting it.

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