Once wild magic shattered human civilization. Mage-built cities collapsed, spell-sped galleons sank, airships fell from the skies. Magic-born chimerae turned on their creators, and then their neighbors. The peoples of Awrhee fell into barbarism.
But that was generations ago. Humanity has scraped together kingdoms again, and learned to live without magic. Those who practice spellcraft are eyed with suspicion, as are the old ways, and the old places.
Some, however, seek treasure in the ruins of what was. Knowledge, gold, power—it’s out there. Treasure untold for anyone clever enough to find it, bold enough to take it, fast enough to get away with it.
It’s out there, in the Spell-Wracked Lands.
Flame Isfree and the Feather of Fate
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
Flame lay along a slender limb, high enough that the still-thick autumn foliage hid her from below. Not, she reflected, that any of the fools ever looked up. She stretched, and smirked as her movements made not a sound. Leather as soft as spring moss cost more than the cow who wore it first, but a treasure hunter in the forest got her money’s worth.
Another group was coming. Flame could hear them blundering maybe thirty yards away. A fighter in chain mail led them—that, or someone jingling coins.
She should be so lucky.
Chain mail, she thought, tilting her head to focus an ear. Chain mail on a horse. Leading four others walking, humans by the sound. Three mules also, or maybe ponies. Probably mules. Pack animals, since they brought up the rear of the party. Heavily laden, by their slow walk.
Flame considered. Might be something useful on the pack animals. The last one would probably be a ways behind the rest of the party, and the fools probably looked back about as often as they looked up.
But no. It had been a rewarding day already, so much that without her pack to load Flame had all she could carry and stay silent. Whatever instinct had brought her into the woods this day had been a good one, but it was time to say enough.
Besides, if Lady Luck finally turned on her and she had to call for help, Tolor would be angry. That didn’t bother Flame, but he might be angry enough to send her away. That mattered. They quested for treasure, and Flame meant to have her share.
Not that the party stood a virgin’s chance in the abyss of finding any without her.
Still, Flame had tried the priest’s patience enough of late. She should save some for an emergency.
In that case, she should go before she risked discovery. Flame was in the next tree before she’d finished the thought. If Tolor only knew the concessions she’d made—
Flame froze. Discovered? It wasn’t possible! Hope they’d just seen movement and guessed at the source–
“What did he do?” another voice asked, and Flame relaxed. She had not been seen. She moved around the bole of the tree, putting it between her and the group. They were too close now. She’d wait.
“He about got out of his ropes,” first voice said, “that’s what he did! Ankrad, why in hell didn’t you tie him tight?”
The leader was in sight through the branches now, a tall human in chain mail, his dark head turned to watch the argument as his bay plodded on. Young but not pretty. Not rich either, judging by the drab under the armor, and that was all Flame cared to know.
“I tied him! Blasted elves act like they got no bones!” The speaker came into sight. Scruffy, squat, and also looking over his shoulder. Flame palmed daggers. The leader first, if she had to fight. His head was still turned, she could see the vein in his neck below his ill-fitting helmet. One throw and then the other man, who only had bits of metal sewn on his clothes for armor—
“Enough!” the leader barked. “Knock him out, Kirs. We’ll deal with him later.”
The rest of the party came around the curve in time for Flame to see a sword hilt descend on the unprotected head of a dark-haired Vral. A ranger, by the fade-in clothes. He sagged from the mule he rode; his attacker flung him across the animal’s back and checked his bonds, then his head. Each mule behind him also held a prisoner: a dwarf in armor who looked ready to chew through his bonds and then his captors, and another human, a—minstrel? He had a harp on his back, and one eye swollen shut.
Who in the abyss would attack a minstrel?
“Elf’s out for a bit, Captain.”
“Thank you,” the man muttered. Probably only Flame heard him.
For an instant she toyed with the idea of freeing the Vral. They cared for their own, she might be paid handsomely–well, no, she wouldn’t be. As Vral herself, they’d expect her to do it for free. And Flame did nothing for free.
And Tolor! How he’d shout if she brought in a stray!
Hmm, she did irritate Tolor for free…
Hells. Who were these men? Only the captain had anything approaching real war-gear, though all had decent swords. And none wore the colors of any local lordling. Unless some fool had chosen ugly and uglier for his colors, they wore no livery at all. Yet they were cleaner and better fed than any bandits she’d ever seen.
She’d have to be a good little scout and go report this.
A blond underling dropped back beside the bound Vral. “He’s unconscious, Kirs,” he said. “No need for ropes so tight he’ll lose his hands.” He reached to loosen them; the other knocked him away.
“You want to guard him, Rojer? He’s my prisoner, I’ll decide how to tie him.”
“I’ll guard him,” Rojer agreed, reaching again to loosen the ropes. Kirs shrugged and fell behind to check the bonds on the dwarf. Flame could see the Vral clearly now, his pale face upside down and in profile, but she knew it too well to be misled by position. She cursed silently. Damn them. Damn the bandits to the abyss, the Vral with them, and most especially damn Ryahled for getting captured by such lumbering idiots!
Flame looked to the humans again, marking armor and weapons while her mind raced.
What was that fool Ryahled doing here? These were not his woods, why had he come so far alone? If he was going to go and get captured, he damn well should have brought someone along to save him! Stupid rangers, always wandering alone. So damn perfect, like they could never need help—
Oh. Would he ever be furious if Flame rescued him!
That just might make it worth the trouble.
But then she’d have to tolerate him.
Even as she thought about it, Flame sheathed her daggers and leaped to a scraggly pine, hoped she didn’t get any pitch on her leathers as she followed the group. There was no harm in seeing where they were going. Something might come up.
Ryahled Janel j’Dlun, First Ranger of Lyalirhee, caught by wlekny, by humans. Flame found she was willing to expend both effort and patience to taunt him about it just once. Taunting him more than once, of course, would be honey on the cakes. Bubbles in her hot bath. A handsome, young, nude—
Gods and demons, it would be good to get into town.
The humans pushed on farther than Flame had expected. Some urgency moved them, surely, because it was past dark—and past time she should have been back with her own colleagues—before they settled on a campsite. Flame watched from an oak as they set up puny protections and set a watch, then hurried back into the woods.
“Tolor was so angry!” Kessa said, as if Flame hadn’t spent two candlemarks already listening to Tolor, priest and leader of their little band, as he castigated Flame for taking an afternoon to herself. Now, alone in the chill night but for the sleeping forms around them, Kessa needed to go over it again. Flame shrugged without missing a stroke across the whetstone. Looked around, and up, and back at her work.
“You were right, though,” Kessa went on. “You were late to supper, but not to your watch. And it’s up to you if you don’t want to sleep all day and night. You didn’t nearly drown in the river this morning, so you didn’t need to recover.”
“Kessa—” Flame snapped, then softened her tone, “Kessa, I know all that. I said it. Now why don’t you get some rest? I’ll wake you for your watch.”
“I’m not really tired.” The girl grunted as her brush caught on a tangle in her waist-length hair. “I slept all afternoon. What were you doing? Bran was getting worried. He wanted to come after you, but Tolor wouldn’t let him.”
Praise Luck for that. Bran would have made a right mess. The song of a few hardy crickets flowed into the silence as Flame pulled off a glove to test the edge of her dagger, shaved off a tiny paring of her nail. Perfect. She sheathed it and stood, pulling her glove back on.
“You’re going to check the area?” Kessa asked, twisting her hair into a knot. “I’ll go with you.”
Flame stopped her first response. The girl was probably just looking to warm up, same as she was. “All right.” Flame led off, and she kept her mouth shut as the girl blundered behind her. A deaf dwarf could hear her a mile away.
Actually, the girl wasn’t that bad. By most standards, she was excellent. By Flame’s—she needed to improve. And she needed to give up the silly cuirass of scale mail. It cost far more in noise than it was worth in battle, especially if the girl played it smart as Flame was always telling her to, and stayed behind the stronger fighters of the party.
The two completed their circuit. Flame drew her last knife—the last she would let Kessa see—and sat to sharpen it. Kessa sank down beside her, letting her hair down again. She set to work on the many small braids she liked to wear. Flame thought she’d rather be bald than put that much work in.
“Bran really likes you,” the girl whispered after a while in stilted Vralajii. Flame tried not to cringe. The girl simply could not remember to soften her consonants. “He was terrified you’d been hurt or captured or something.”
“Bran,” Flame retorted in harsh, honest Syntari, “wants to bed me, and he doesn’t want anyone else getting there first.” Bran, she didn’t say, had some damned stupid ideas about a lot of things, not just her.
Kessa bent her head, letting her hair shadow her face. As if Flame couldn’t still see despite the lack of a fire. That was a smart move on Tolor’s part, considering Flame had found evidence of three more bands of soldiers before she reported.
Damn it. She needed the girl feeling helpful. Flame reached in her pouch, found the right object and tossed it into Kessa’s lap where the moonlight had begun to pool, now the first moon had risen behind the massive Ekenhorn. “Somebody dropped this.”
Kessa lifted the necklace and gasped. “It’s—Flame, it’s lovely! Do you—“
“It’s yours. Silver and opal aren’t for me.”
“But you could sell it!”
“If you don’t want it, sell it yourself.” Flame tested the edge of the dagger. “There’s something I need to do. Will you take watch for a while?”
The girl looked up, her eyes wide. “Tolor will—”
”Not if he doesn’t find out. Don’t play the fool, though. If you even think something is wrong, sing out. Don’t try to handle it alone. I’ll deal with Tolor.”
“What are you going to do?”
Flame pulled her glove back on. “I’m going to meet a man.”
From above, Flame scanned the bandit camp once more, humming to herself to keep time. The wlekny had put out an alarm string—touch it and the rattle would wake the patrol. Even with the first moon she couldn’t see it, but she had paid close attention as it was strung. Now she plotted her route to avoid it.
And reminded herself as a chill air stroked her neck that she wouldn’t be warm back at camp, either, not till her watch was over. So she might as well get on with it.
Captain Chain Mail, Kirs, Ankrad, and Rojer lay around the fire competing in a snoring contest. The fifth man was playing sentry, stumbling down by the stream. He’d made his circuit twice while Flame watched. If he held true he’d be under her tree in two quick verses of Snake in the Barrel.
Ryahled and the other prisoners were tied to different trees, all in easy sight of the fire. The sentry had taunted the Vral about taking his share of the watch. Ryahled hadn’t answered, and he was slumped in his bonds. Well, she’d steal a mule if she had to. Flame climbed down, leaving the tree between her and the fire. Her eyes would adjust before the sentry came back.
The sentry was wlek—deaf, slow, and blind in the dark. She was Vral–naught but shadows and moonlight and trained in the night. Flame silently eased the sentry’s body down into the dark field that was his life’s blood to her othervision. Not a drop on herself. That took skill.
Flame found Kirs next, lying in the firelight as if it could protect him. The slice of her dagger woke him, then sent him off to a different sleep. The same for Ankrad. She took special care approaching Captain Chain Mail. The man might have earned his rank.
He slept in his mail, so he slept lightly. He’d rolled, though, his sword was under him. He mumbled something, Flame grinned and bent over him.
“Ooh, Captain,” she whispered, stroking the cheek away from her, “I’m not that kind of girl!”
The man chuckled and rolled after her hand. Flame sliced.
Ryahled had straightened; he was watching her now. Flame let him wait. There was one more. Rojer.
She woke the blond with a knife to his neck.
“Wha—” he aborted sitting up as the knife pricked deeper. “Who are—”
“Hear the words of the Forest People,” Flame intoned in accented Syntari. “You sought to stop the cruelty, this is why you live. Yet you are of the band who held hostage one of ours. We will not forget.”
Flame thwacked him with the firewood in her other hand. He sagged. She turned to the prisoner.
“Illyara!” he gasped as she finally let the firelight reveal her face. “What are you doing here?”
He spoke Vralajii, she answered in Syntari.
“I’m Flame now. And I’m here doing my good deed of the decade.”
“Shall I add ‘martyr’ to the list of things I hate about you?” Flame sawed at the ropes. “You’re in no shape to outrun them. Besides, there are others to think about.”
“Others? Why are they not helping you?” He was still speaking Vralajii. Flame ignored his question, but grabbed him as the ropes parted and he staggered. “Kossály hai, that burns! Now I know I still have hands!”
“Illyara,” he began, his voice soft as he touched her face.
“You would choose a name like that.” He straightened as best he could, taking his weight off her.
“I’m told it suits me. Can you make the trees?”
“I am not dead yet.”
“Wait for me in that oak.” She pointed with her dagger. “Unless you want to go your own way.”
“Or I could kill you now,” Flame growled, putting her blade to his throat.
He went. Flame turned to her work.
She freed the minstrel first. She had always wanted a song written for her.
“Here.” Flame sat on a limb and offered a vial. “Heal-water.”
Ryahled frowned. “You stole from the dead?”
“No. You paid for it.” He’d been clobbered how many times, even once he was captive? Flame laid Ryahled’s sword across the branches and began a pile of small items. “I brought everything that looked like it belonged to a Vral ranger with more honor than sense. Feel free to return anything that isn’t yours.”
“You mock me, Illyara.”
“Is it so?” he asked softly, examining her face. Flame turned her head, hiding her soul-mark from his assessing stare. “The other suited you better, once,” he said.
“Ryahled Janel, you were ever a fool.” Flame rose. “I have to go.” She glared at the now-high moon and forced her tongue to move. “Come if you like. There is safety for the night, at least.” She turned away, moving slowly enough he could follow but too fast for him to catch up. Just because she was stuck with him didn’t mean she was going to tolerate one more moment than she had to.
He followed. She heard his every move; they’d hurt him worse than she’d thought. Usually no one heard Ryahled unless he wanted to be heard.
She waited for him when they were close to her camp. He was cursing in Vralajii as he sank down beside her.
“Ribs?” she asked in Syntari.
“Yes,” he answered in the same language. “That potion helped, though. Thank you.”
“My associates aren’t going to like this. Keep quiet and let me handle them.”
“Associates? Not Vral?”
“No. Not Vral.”
“Yes,” Flame said. “Thieves. I gave your belongings back so they could have the practice of stealing everything themselves.”
“I did not believe you would lure me to a trap. I was merely wondering.”
“Of course.” Flame moved on. Two more trees and she whistled, the call of a sailor jay. Kessa wasn’t much of a fighter—compared to some, anyway—but she might manage to stick Ryahled in his condition.
A nightlark answered. Flame quirked a smile. Kessa didn’t like sailor jays. The blond thought the birds were swearing in the call that gave them their name. Flame whistled again and dropped to the ground, walking away from Ryahled’s awkward descent.
Kessa ran to meet her, then grabbed at her sword as Ryahled came into sight. Flame shook her head.
“Go to bed. I’ll wake you an hour after midnight.” She turned to Ryahled. “You can use my bedroll. I’ve got watch.” She walked away to check the area. Ryahled could explain if he wanted to.
Flame checked the camp every circuit, staying beyond the trees. Kessa tended Ryahled’s injuries, which let Flame out of helping. They talked for a long while.
Well, that was a surprise. Kessa talking. Who would have thought?
Eventually, though, the girl rolled herself in her bedroll and Ryahled did the same in his borrowed one. Flame let the moon rise another finger from the tallest tree, then reclaimed her rock and pulled one of her hidden daggers. The night was peaceful for a few moments, then Ryahled rolled towards her and ruined it.
“Don’t you even want to know why I’m here?” he asked in Vralajii again. Flame shrugged, digging for her whetstone.
“Not really,” she answered in Syntari. She found the whetstone and spit on it. Ryahled cringed. Flame set to work.
“I came to find you,” the ranger said eventually.
She knew the rhythm too well to miss a stroke. “Why?”
“Ill—Flame. It’s been fifty summers. Do we have to do this?”
“We could talk about the weather.”
“Illyara,” he spoke softly as he caught her wrist, stopping the sharpening, “isn’t it time to forgive?”
“I have no interest in your pardon,” Flame growled, shaking off his hand.
“Do not toy with me. I meant for you to forgive. As you well know.”
“Forgive? I? I have nothing to forgive. I have never received aught but what I deserved from my family.”
“Changeling child,” Ryahled sighed. “So we named you. None knew what to do with you, Illyara.”
“Come home,” he urged, ignoring her anger. “Please. It is time you came home.”
“Take Kessa.” Flame went back to her sharpening. “She would love it. Tell the Elders I bought a morph spell and I’m turning into a human. That now I truly am a changeling child.”
“I had hoped you’d matured.” He shook his head and lay back with a sigh. “You still think of no one but yourself.”
Flame pulled off a glove and tested the blade on another fingernail. Ryahled sighed again.
“I’m sorry. If that were true, I would still be tied to a tree.”
“Apologies? That human hit you harder than I thought.”
“Relive the old arguments if you must, but please keep straight whom you are reproaching for what. I am not your father. I have ever been ready to admit my wrongs.”
“Sorry. Just acting out my human tendencies again.”
“You have not changed.” Ryahled laid an arm across his eyes. “A thousand times I have wished I never said that, but you will not forgive, nor forget.”
“Humans carry grudges.”
“Not all humans. Some are more ulavral than many Vral I know.”
“I cannot imagine to whom you are referring.”
“Many people,” Ryahled said with a sigh. “I have given you enough sharp words, do not forage my comments for more.” He stretched, gasped pain and relaxed. “The stars are lovely this night. Sometimes when I look at them I can forget I am not home.”
Just like the ranger to ignore the two moons now in the sky and outshining all the stars, just because he liked the stars better. “If you start tomorrow,” Flame told him, “you can be there in two months.” She put away her dagger and drew her sword.
Ryahled chuckled. “I have searched nearly two years for you. I will not give up so easily when the goal is in sight.”
“Two years, and all you had to do was get snared like a rabbit.” She bent over her blade.
“I trusted one I should not,” Ryahled growled. “I asked that captain for directions. I had no way of knowing he had orders to take prisoner all he found in the woods.”
“Odd,” Flame observed, “we have not been bothered. I wonder why that is?”
“Perhaps you are heeding the lessons I taught you,” Ryahled said.
“It seems misplacing trust is a failing of mine,” he went on. “Illyara, I came for you because you did not come to me.”
“Why in all the horrors of the abyss did you think I would?”
“To be wed, of course. Did you forget the date?”
Gloved or not, Flame almost sliced off a finger. She dropped sword and whetstone. Her mouth flapped a few times, then she stood and walked. She stepped on Okon on the way. Neither walker nor walkee noticed.