Flame Isfree and the Feather of Fate II

 

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.

Part I.

 

Flame Isfree and the Feather of Fate II

A Serial Story by KD Sarge

 

Flame heard the footsteps approaching in her sleep, but she knew them and also she was warm and cozy, so she only wandered towards consciousness. Then she heard the sword ring as it was drawn.

With her leather-clad arm Flame knocked the sword-point away from Ryahled’s throat as he lay blinking at the silhouette over them. Idiot Bran! Thank Luck she’d drugged Ryahled last night when he wouldn’t stop talking. Had she not, Bran would be dead and Tolor furious.

Idiot ranger had needed to sleep, not talk.

“What the hell is this?” Bran demanded, the sword blade coming back.

“It was two sleeping elves,” Flame snapped, shoving the blade away again. “Does that overwork your wits?” Gods, it was barely dawn, pale and cold now her cocoon was disturbed. Flame growled disgust and pried Ryahled’s limbs from around her, shoved them back at him. Men. Even groped in their sleep. Should have thought to steal him a cursed bedroll of his own.

Blasted dawn. Ew. Flame looked around, fighting a yawn.

Kessa stared wide-eyed from her blankets. Tolor knelt across the clearing at his prayers. Nothing but an attack would bring him back early. The others still slept. Flame sighed and knocked Bran’s blade aside once more. “Put that away,” she warned, “or I’ll geld you with it.”

“Flame, damn it—” Bran blinked as she pulled daggers. He sheathed the sword slowly. “I…didn’t mean to frighten you. But this elf—”

“Do you think I didn’t notice him crawling into my bed?” Flame put the daggers away and wriggled out of her lovely was-warm cocoon. “Go back to sleep,” she told Ryahled, and wondered if he’d had more than a sip of that potion because he rolled over and dropped right off. “You could have made some tea before you woke me up,” she growled at Bran. “Go get some wood.”

“Flame—”

“And fresh water.”

Kessa jumped up to catch Bran’s arm. “Come on, Bran. I’ll help you.”

“But—” He let himself be led off, with glances back at Flame and the Vral in her bed. Flame sighed and plunked herself down on her blankets. Damn. Dawn. A cold, somewhat drizzly, cloudy grey dawn. What in the Abyss was she doing up at dawn?

It did not matter. The sun could return to the fires that spawned it for all she cared. Flame crawled into Kessa’s abandoned bedroll.

Sleep, however, had fled. Flame found herself staring at Ryahled, noting the changes in a face she’d once known better than her own.

His skin was darker, telling of long days far from the sheltering shade of Lyalirhee. Faint lines marked the outer edges of his eyes. One who did not know him might think them smile lines. His eldlun had…gotten smaller? No…

Yes? The mark of his soul-binding was—not as full as it had been. Fifty years ago a stately and balanced young tree had stood on one side of his face in the symbol of his clan, what humans foolishly thought was a well-done tattoo. Flame brushed her own, an interlocking endless knot framing her eye from temple to cheek.

She growled and put her hand under her head. That reflexive check for growth was one habit she did not want back. Lost her many a pot at cards until she realized she did it when she’d bet strong on a weak hand.

Her soul-mark had not changed in fifty years. But Ryahled’s had. The healthy young tree was wizened now. Bent by the wind, it looked, and only three large limbs remained. One stretched above his eyebrow, another across his cheek. The third, bare and black, forked as it climbed his temple nearly to his hairline.

The gnarled tree was proof that he had changed, though Flame had yet to see any sign of it. As condescending and self-righteous as ever…

A new scar traced his jaw—a new-to-her scar; the white line had been there for many seasons. Far from marring his noble features—Flame was the first to admit (silently) that Ryahled was one hell of a male whatever his race—far from marring his features, the scar gave him a rakish air. Too bad that didn’t reflect in his personality.

Flame wondered idly who had landed that blow. Had it been aimed at his throat? Who besides her could have wanted the noble ranger dead?

Heh. Any non-Vral he ever talked to, probably.

The rich hair was shorter than she remembered, uneven and barely meeting Ryahled’s shoulders. Flame snorted at his haircut. So the honorable ranger would rather hack it too short than risk a length not appropriate to his age? Too bad he’d done it before he found her. She knew a wig-maker who would pay a fine sum for such a shade. Deep and light brown, honey and gold and burnt red all together—

Flame shoved a fire-red curl out of her eyes, amused that her hair was longer than his. Too bad it wouldn’t make him respectful. Ryahled knew her age to the heartbeat.

The Vral shifted in his sleep. Lines of pain appeared on his brow, but he didn’t wake. Flame caught herself planning to ask Tolor to heal the hurts that had etched that pain, and snarled. She owed Ryahled nothing. It was his own damn fault he was wounded. She hadn’t asked him to come after her. Had made it plain as the summer sun at noon that she did not want to be found. Flame rolled the other way.

To stare at Okon. Oh, yes, that was an improvement. Hairy damn bastard. Who snored. Gods, he was going to laugh when he found out, and she’d probably have to stab him…

Damn Ryahled. She could feel him behind her; she ached with his every labored breath. One of her own kind right there within reach, fulfilling a need she had fought for fifty years. Like the thirst of a drunkard, both hating and needing, wanting the thing that was killing him.

Not just any Vral, either, but Ryahled. Having him near after so long was…running barefoot through the tree-tops in autumn, red and gold and racing heart and alive—

By the frozen hells! Flame snarled and burrowed under the blankets. The suffocating darkness reminded her of Ryahled’s reason for tracking her. She threw off the blankets and went to check on breakfast.

“Hey, no!” Kessa yelped when Flame tried to help. “Flame doesn’t cook, remember? We want to eat that!”

Flame stalked upstream to wash.

 

The shrouded sun was just lifting off the horizon when Flame finally got her tea. As everyone gathered around the fire Tolor finished his prayers and rejoined them. Lory handed him a plate. He didn’t notice the extra person still in Flame’s bedroll until Bran pointed him out. Then the burly monk rounded on Flame.

“You brought a stranger—”

“I’ve known him longer than you’ve lived, priest.” Flame dipped her biscuit in her tea. It tasted awful that way, but led to less gnawing. The bacon was good, though. She liked it with pepper.

“You left—”

“Kessa was on guard.”

Stop interrupting me!

“Sorry.” Flame sat back. “You were saying?”

Tolor clenched his fists, closed his eyes and muttered prayers for patience he thought she didn’t hear. Then he opened his eyes. “Flame, you came highly recommended. You have exhibited your skill many times on our journey. Unfortunately, you seem to think my quest is some sort of pleasure trip for your amusement. You disappear for hours at a time, you drink on watch, you steal from the others—”

“That’s a lie!” Kessa shot to her feet, gulped as Tolor looked at her. “It—um, I mean, you’re wrong. Sir. Lory found her scroll. It wasn’t stolen. Sir.”

“Thank you, Kessa.” He nodded, she sat. “Flame, I have warned you time and again. This morning I prayed for patience, and promised myself I would not shout at you anymore. As always, you have pushed me beyond restraint. So I set you free. For your happiness and my sanity, I think it best that we part ways.”

“Sure.” Flame dipped her biscuit again, while Kessa gasped and the others muttered. “Mind if I finish breakfast first?”

“You don’t have to send her away,” Bran said as Tolor choked. “Just get rid of her friend. He’s the problem.”

“He’s not a problem!” Kessa yelped. She clenched her hands as Tolor looked at her. “He isn’t. His name is Ryahled, and he’s a ranger of Lyalirhee.” She talked on over Okon’s bray of laughter. “He’s been looking for Flame for two years. I think it’s—”

“Kessa,” Flame snapped, shifting to put her back to Okon, “I think it’s none of your concern.” Kessa looked hurt, but subsided. Okon’s guffaw turned into a coughing fit. Pounding sounds meant Satak was trying to help him.

Lory twirled a lock of frizzy grey hair around a long finger and spoke. “I find it fascinating that your friend has slept through this discussion, Flame. Is he hurt? Or do his elven ears not hear?”

Flame shrugged. “He’s tired.” Okon was still snickering through his coughing. And Flame was on her own with Ryahled. She really should just kill them both now.

“She rescued him from some soldiers,” Kessa put in. “They—”

“Soldiers!” Tolor spun on Flame. She sighed and laid her biscuit on her plate. “The soldiers you warned us of, that we are trying to avoid? You stole a captive from them and brought him back here? What if they—”

“They won’t follow me,” Flame promised.

“Your skills aside, what if they do? What if—”

“They can’t track me, Tolor.” Flame stabbed her biscuit with a dagger. “Trust me.” She dunked it in her tea.

Tolor’s eyes widened. “You murdered—”

“Just like you did at Gozal.” Flame slipped the biscuit off her dagger, leaving it to soak in her tea.

“That was different!”

“Sure was.” Flame stood and wiped her dagger on her sleeve. “The soldiers were holding my kin captive. Those guards at Gozal were just in the way.”

“They were infidels,” Tolor corrected. “Guarding a relic that was not theirs.”

“And the soldiers were guarding kin that was not theirs.”

“Free,” Tolor said, spinning away. “I set you free.” He stalked away.

“Ryahled?” Okon managed between coughs and snickers. Satak handed him a waterskin. Flame ignored them both, sipping her tea..

Damn. It had been such a promising job too, with success likely to put her years ahead on the plan for a castle full of pretties…

“Our new friend is waking,” Lory said. “Perhaps we should talk to him, hmm?”

 

What Flame loved most about scouting was being away from everyone else. Skipping through the trees, spending hours at a time alone, she could almost manage to forget there was anyone else—until someone caught up with her. She heard Ryahled when he came into her tree. The ranger wasn’t fully healed yet, despite Tolor’s magic.

“Anything?” Ryahled breathed, standing in a croft to put his mouth by her ear as she lounged on a limb. Flame shook her head.

“Nothing. Looks like you got grabbed by the last bunch to pass through.”

He let the jab slip by. “Tolor wants to camp early. Do you know a good place?”

Flame squinted at the sun, reckoning distances. “Another hour, and I could bring us to something. What did you say to him, anyway?”

“Tolor?”

“Who else? He tossed me out of his quest, then talks to you for half a candlemark and decides he needs me. What did you say?”

“I told him I do not care to be paid,” Ryahled said like the fool he was, “and I bring my own food. I will contribute my skills to the safety and success of the group simply because you are in it.” Flame snarled. The ranger pretended not to notice. “I also told him you would be too busy arguing with me to enrage him. He does wish to keep your abilities on his team.”

“Yes, it’s just me he can’t stand.”

“One can comprehend,” the Vral chuckled.

“I put half a damned world between us, ranger,” Flame snarled. “If you did not wish to endure my company, all you had to do was stay home and marry someone who likes you.”

“It is not so easy, Illyara. We are bou—”

“Finish that word,” Flame hissed, a dagger in her hand, “and you’ll never speak again.”

“Cursing the constellations will not move the stars,” the bastard quoted her mother. “Do you truly wish to be free?”

“You know I do!”

“Then,” fast and strong, he caught the knife, his hand over hers on the hilt, and yanked the blade to his throat, “free yourself.”

“Fool, that knife is sharper than your mother’s tongue!” She didn’t struggle, that would end in blood. “Stop—”

“All the better,” Ryahled said. “My life is yours. It always has been. If taking it pleases you, then do so.”

“I will not have your life! I will not be indebted to you!”

“Debt? How can you not know the truth? You are my soul, Illyara! There can be no debt!”

“Stupid, foolish, romance-sotted child—” Flame twisted and kicked him off his branch. He flailed for a handhold. Released, Flame flung herself into the next tree. And the next, to—

She stopped. Ryahled caught up, slipped an arm around her.

“Ill—”

Ki!” She raised a hand, listening. Nothing but slightly quieted forest noises. But the smell—

“What is that stench?” Ryahled asked, wrinkling his nose. “Something is burning.”

“Warn the others,” Flame breathed, flinging his arm off her. “I’ll scout.”

“I should—”

“You’re weak. Go.” Flame darted off.

Two trees farther on, another breath of wind brought the smell. Acrid, rank—it was more than something burning. Lory would know what it was. But she was the mage, and thirty years past tree-climbing besides. Finding out was Flame’s job.

The forest got quieter as she moved; the animals liked the odor no better than she did.

 

Finally Flame perched twenty feet up a tree growing near the top of a cliff and peered around the bole very carefully. At least five of the humans below were mages. And most of the ten soldiers carried bows.

The stench came from a fire inside the circle of five. The mages chanted, the soldiers watched as the smoke billowed more than the wind should cause. Humans. Cooperating like Vral, pooling power as she’d been told humans could not do—Flame clenched her fists and felt daggers in her hands. A small boot protruded from the flames, black on the end of a blackened leg. A sacrifice. The bastards had burned a—gods above. They held another captive, off to the side in a cage she saw a child of the glitter-kin, barely free of his chrysalis by the folds of his wings…

A form coalesced inside the whipping smoke. Flame clutched her tree, almost dropping her knives. A demon. Gods below, the fools were calling a demon.

She should go. Tolor would want to know—

Tolor would want to know their plans. They had to instruct the demon; she could learn easily.

And if the demon sensed her, she would die easily. Flame had no defense against such a—thing.

She should go. The wind was changing, any moment—

Flame crouched lower. Demon-worshipers could be a problem, demon-controllers even more so. Her job was to scout, to gauge the threat and find a way to avoid it. If they talked fast, anyway, before the wind betrayed her. Flame refused to die just because she hadn’t bathed lately.

The smoke parted, the hideous form was complete. It was not fully present, at least. Flame could see flames through the image of a well-endowed woman with the darting head of a snake and the glowing red eyes of a demon.

Ooh, blast, she’d never wanted to get anywhere near anything from the Abyss and now—

Flame forced herself to look away, at the idiots who had summoned the presence. Gods above and below, they hadn’t even used a magic circle! Did they think they were powerful enough to contain even this manifestation themselves?

The mages had bowed, now the one the thing faced looked up. “Mighty Paza—”

“Fool!” the demon hissed. “Do not sspeak my name again!”

“Your pardon, mighty one. I am Kentin; it was I who requested your attention.”

The snake tongue darted out, down and down towards the flames. “Yess. A most sweet sacrifice. I will hear you.”

“I propose an alliance, mighty one. If you will lend me your aid, I can supply many more such treats.”

“Am I to be bought with sweetss, then?”

“Of course not, mighty one. There is also the matter of revenge. I wish to seize the lands of the Duke of Synto.”

“I have no knowledge of this persson.”

“Perhaps not, mighty one, but I believe his mage, Nuriel Abonne, is known to you.” He smiled at a loud hiss! interrupting him. “I do not know, of course, why you hate the woman, but I believe I can, shall we say, bring her to your table?”

“That would be a feasst indeed.” The woman-body writhed. “Sso, you require my aid with the witch? Why do you choose thesse landss? Another would be easier.”

“A man must start somewhere.” The mage shrugged. “Shall we work together, mighty one?”

“What aid do you require? I cannot come through; there is none to hold the gate.”

“No, indeed, mighty one.” Kentin smiled again. “But if you hold your end, your servants can pass this gate. They will be enough to get the job done. While they may not obey me, they will obey you, and be sure to bring Abonne back to you. That is all the aid I require.”

The demon laughed, a hissing, boiling sound. “You do not trusst me. You are no fool, man-who-iss-not-Kentin.”

The mage bowed. “I only hope that continues to be true, mighty one.”

Flame shook her head as the demon vanished. Synto. Hellspawn, headed for Synto. Tolor was going to have a fit.

She eased away from the trunk. The humans below might be totally absorbed in the ceremony, but they might not.

A howl jolted her out of her caution. Flame darted one glance behind then ran. More howls sounded. Gods, there must be thirty hellspawn—and demon-dogs could climb trees.

The wind was changing. Any moment it would take her scent to the monsters. Flame ran, leaped to an oak, ran again. Far enough and they wouldn’t worry about the faint Vral-scent. Ran, leaped—should have let Ryahled come. Damn it, no way in hells or above was she going to be ripped to pieces! She wanted to drown in a bath at a thousand years old, with a hundred-year-old bottle of wine in one hand and a twenty-year-old human in the other, and she would accept nothing less!

The sounds faded behind her. Maybe the demon-spawn hadn’t caught her scent. Flame ran on anyway. That hot bath was her life’s goal, and no smelly mutt was going to keep her from it.

Demons. Gods be merciful, the fools had made alliance with a demon. Flame had heard some humans were that stupid, but she hadn’t believed it. What in the world or out of it was worth the risk not-Kentin chose to run?

Why didn’t matter. It had happened, Tolor must be warned. And if he decided to fight those accursed beasts, Flame was going to knock the ever-honorable Ryahled on the head and clear out. Nothing in her contract said a word about fighting demons.

Part III

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