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 III
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
Ryahled had found the campsite she’d planned to use. The group was setting camp already, with an eye to defense rather than comfort. Tolor never was dumb. Flame dropped into the middle of the group; all but Ryahled grabbed for weapons. Flame smirked at the dwarf brothers.
“Nice watch you keep.”
“Sneaking elf,” Satak grumbled. Okon snorted and turned away. Tolor stalked to glare down at Flame.
“Where in the hells have you been?” he demanded. “Ryahled said you were off chasing a smell. Do you think we have the time—”
“You’d better make the time,” Flame snapped, her eyes searching out Lory in her tent—the only tent—which Bran carried. The woman liked her comforts. “Hey, mage, listen up. I don’t want to tell this twice.”
Tolor was counting under his breath. “All right,” he said when Lory had come to his side, “what did you find?”
“Five mages in a circle around a fire, twenty soldiers around them.” Flame told every word, every movement, until she came to the demon-dogs. “When the things started out, I figured I couldn’t learn any more and I came back.”
“And you’re quite certain they are between us and Synto?”
“Positive. Which may be a good thing. At least we know we’re not between them and their prey.”
Tolor nodded approval, only because he was too distracted by her news to think better of it. Lory was lost in thought too. The dwarves returned to their watch, grumbling and tugging on their beards. Bran muttered and looked around, his hand on his sword. Kessa stood staring wide-eyed at Tolor. Scared, all of them. They’d be fools not to be.
Ryahled tried to catch Flame’s eye. She turned away, to the forgotten fire. She’d need her strength. If Ryahled even thought about being noble, she’d have to drag him a ways before she let him wake up.
“Well,” Tolor said, and Kessa and Bran jumped, “that is some news, Flame. Next time, though, ask me before going on your own. I don’t want to lose you. We’ll need you more than ever now.”
Flame shrugged, scooping up a ladleful of stew. Rabbit, smelled like. Ryahled hadn’t wasted time while waiting on her. A hand closed over hers on the spoon.
“That has another hour or more,” Ryahled said. “About the sacrifice—”
Flame dropped the ladle in the pot and jerked away. “It was small,” she said. “That’s all I could tell,” she lied.
He yanked her around to face him. “You know as well as I,” he whispered in Vralajii, “what is required to summon a demon of any power. Have you tried to speak with the little people?”
“I? I am hardly in good standing with the Altered, ranger of Lyalirhee. Surely the noble Ryahled would be a better choice for such an attempt.”
He squeezed her shoulders, the bastard, wordless apology for jerking her around. “This is no time for jokes, Illyara. They will come to—”
“Hey,” a big hand landed on his neck, “what do you think you’re doing to Flame?”
Ryahled didn’t move. Flame glared over his shoulder at Bran. “Step back!” she snapped. “Before he kills you, lackwit!”
Bran’s fingers tightened. Flame leaped aside as Ryahled released her. Bran hit the ground before Flame’s boots did, and squinted cross-eyed at the sword poking his nose.
“Never,” Ryahled said, “touch me again.”
“Don’t kill him!”
Flame rolled her eyes as Kessa joined the drama, flinging herself between Bran and Ryahled. She almost grabbed the Vral’s arm, but thought better of it. “Please, don’t kill him. He was just worried about Flame. He thought you were hurting her. He doesn’t know you wouldn’t do that.”
Sure he wouldn’t. Flame walked away, shrugging to ease her shoulders. Did the idiot ranger think he’d been manhandling a human? She threw herself down on Kessa’s bedroll and pulled out a biscuit. Looked like dinner would be a while.
Tolor and Lory were muttering together, ignoring the show. Bran was still on the ground, but Ryahled’s sword had backed off a little. Kessa kept pleading. Bran at least had the sense to stay put while she talked. Flame tensed at a creak behind her, then tossed another biscuit over her shoulder.
“So,” Okon said. “That’s the one? The elf-boy? He’s fast.”
Flame gnawed her biscuit.
“Not as fast as you,” the dwarf went on. “Bran would be dead already.”
“He’s a ranger,” Flame explained.
“Honor. Morals. Other meaningless mouthings. Only renegade elves kill people for touching them.”
“You didn’t kill the ranger for touching you.”
“Habit.” Flame rapped her biscuit with the hilt of her dagger, shook her head when it didn’t break. “I’ve been not-killing him all my life.”
The dwarf grunted. “Or maybe you don’t want him dead? He’s pretty, by skinny elf standards.”
Flame twisted, whipping the knife underhand. It stuck, quivering, between Okon’s boots. “Don’t make me kill you, old stone.”
“With that toy?”
“No.” Flame chuckled, retrieving the weapon. “There’s a reason I call you ‘old stone.’ But I have what I need.” She patted her cloak. “I’m prepared, dwarf. Don’t ever think I’m not.”
“I think you talk big, girl, that’s what I think.”
Ryahled sheathed his sword. Flame sighed as he turned, scanning the camp. A crackle told her Okon had gone back to his watch. The ranger started towards her; Flame turned her back and pulled out her bedroll. Might as well do something useful while he bothered her.
She ignored him, kicking rocks out of her chosen spot. Near Kessa—the kid was proving a useful distraction—but not so close the kid would be able to talk all night.
Why did the most annoying man in the world have to be Vral? Anyone else she could have avoided simply by taking to the trees.
“Oh, Ryahled!” She looked up and smiled. “How long have you been there?”
He gritted his teeth. Then tried to talk through them. “I asked you to speak to the little people. Will you try?”
“No.” She looked down and kicked another rock. It landed on Kessa’s blankets.
“Deny it as you will, you are Jamrhee. They will hear you.”
“You do it.”
“This is no time for your obstinacy! You have a better chance at bringing them together. You don’t need to be an Elder; you have the blood and the—” he stopped. Flame kicked another rock before he grabbed her again. “You’re not pure?” he breathed.
She’d planned to laugh, but it just wouldn’t come. Ryahled’s fingers tightened. She refused to flinch.
“Damn you,” he snarled. “Illyara, you are mine. How dare—”
It was reflex; Flame hissed and stabbed. The ranger’s hand moved and her knife dropped; her fingers went numb. Ryahled’s hand gripped her throat. Jerked away as if her skin burned him.
“I am shamed,” he breathed, “to have touched in anger—”
“Mine to take?” Flame taunted. “Is that only on your invitation, then?”
Ryahled gripped his belt like he probably still wanted to grip her throat.
“Illyara, you could push a stone to thoughtless action! How dare you—”
“Because I am not yours!” Flame glared into his icy eyes. “I will not have you or anyone!”
“Who?” he snarled. “Who dared—”
“To touch what belongs to you?” Flame tossed her hair. “I don’t remember them all. I could probably come up with a list if—”
He reached but stopped himself, spun and stalked out of the clearing. Flame shook her head and went back to making her bed.
She picked up her knife, but kept her hands away from the stinging fingerprints on her throat.
Ryahled missed dinner. Flame told Tolor he’d gone to make certain the area was secure. The cleric looked relieved, which annoyed her. He had fits every time she went off alone.
The ranger wasn’t back by dark, when Flame took up her watch. She shrugged when Kessa asked about him.
“He’d let us know if he needed help.”
“But if he got captured by those soldiers—“
“He’s not stupid!” Flame snapped, turning her back on Kessa’s cringe. She walked away, to check the perimeter. Kessa stayed by the fire, thank the Lady.
Maybe he’d left. Flame swung herself into a maple, climbing until she could leap into an oak. Maybe he had finally given up. Gods knew it was about time. She trotted along a branch and leaped into another maple. Damn fool. He’d heard her named, watched her grow, and never seen what she was. Did he think fifty years among the other races would make her act Vral, when thirty-two surrounded by Vraljii hadn’t done it?
She growled and ran on, letting the night fill her thoughts. She circled the camp, checking it frequently but careful not to fall into a pattern. Every rest she sat in a different place, for a different length of time. She relaxed into the world around her, letting her mind drift on the music of the dark-and-silver forest. This part of being Vral, at least, she liked. Not that she would ever admit it to Ryahled. The fool would take it as a victory when it had nothing to do with him.
The first moon was high when her vigilance yielded results. A sound, out of place. She froze, cocked her ears, concentrated, waited. Again. Cloth on metal. Bandits? Or the soldiers with the demonspawn? Neither should have been so quiet—
A nightlark whistled. Flame called back, the raucous call of the sailor jay. Soon she saw the ghostly form of the girl darting among the shadows of the trees. Flame went to meet her. It was nearly midnight, time for Kessa’s shift, but usually she had to wake the kid.
“Ryahled still isn’t back,” Kessa whispered in Vralajii. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“Hells,” Flame snarled in Syntari as she sank onto a convenient branch, “is that all? Did you bring anything to drink?”
Kessa held out a small jug-shape. “It’s tea. It’s still pretty hot.”
“Guess it’ll do. I heard you coming, cloth on metal.” Flame tipped the jug up. “Seen anything?”
“Bran was talking about paying Ryahled back. Tolor told him not to be a fool if he could help it.”
“He can’t help it.”
“He—I saw Ryahled grab you. I thought—”
“That he was so polite and gentle and noble? He is—right until someone tells him no. Ryahled Janel j’Dlun expects to get what he wants.” Flame sipped the tea, lowered it. “Not really sure how he developed that, as a matter of fact…”
“I should have—”
“No,” Flame snapped. “Would you fare better against him than Bran? Grabbing me was reflex, but Ryahled wouldn’t have stopped himself from harming anyone else. Be warned, girl—Ryahled has been training since before he could hold a sword. For over a hundred years, he has studied his craft with all the dedication and obnoxious attention to perfection only he can maintain. Don’t cross him. Just because I taunt the dragon is no reason for you to throw stones too.”
“You sound like you want him to mistreat you.”
“I ask for it, don’t I? I’m just getting what I deserve.” Flame handed over the jug and rose. “All’s well out here. Stay in the trees. If you see or scent demon-dog, head for camp but stay in the trees.”
“Flame,” Kessa called as she moved away, “camp is—”
“I know.” Flame trotted off, following her nose for the second time in a day. This time she knew what she smelled, and couldn’t wait to find it.
Flame sighed when she saw the steam rising off the little pool. “Hello, hot spring,” she murmured. “You have no idea how thrilled I am to see you.”
It took time to be certain she was completely alone. Moments after she was sure, Flame was in the spring, setting her little jar of soap on a handy rock and fighting to stay alert in spite of the bliss. She was still alone in a wild place.
The call of a nightlark made her jump. Damn Kessa, why in the abyss had she followed? Flame whistled back. The kid wouldn’t give up if she’d come this far.
A few minutes later the moonlight picked out a shape on the other side of the spring. Flame swore.
“I should have known it was you.”
Ryahled didn’t answer. He climbed a large rock and sat, staring out at the forest. Flame sank under the water now that she had a guard.
She’d soaped and rinsed her entire body before he spoke.
“Bran thinks to be your lover.”
Flame snorted. “You can’t really call what Bran does ‘thinking.’”
“I should have realized you would do anything to break the bond between us.”
“Yes, I only take lovers for that reason.” She started lathering her hair. “I’ve never enjoyed any of them. Not the press of bodies, or the loss of breath—”
“—the heat, the—”
“I thought you wanted to discuss this.”
“Do you think if you make me angry enough I will leave? Is that why you torment me?”
“You brought it up.” She tilted her head back to rinse her hair, swished it through the water and straightened. “Are you going to tell me you have been celibate for fifty years, ranger of Lyalirhee?”
On his rock, facing away, Ryahled shook his head.
Flame crowed. “Then—”
“From the day we were bonded,” Ryahled said softly.
“From the day we were bonded,” the ranger repeated. “For eighty years I have waited for you.”
“You—eighty—” Flame shook her head, got slapped with wet hair. “How can you be so stupid?” He didn’t answer. “By the gods, no wonder you’re an ass! Eighty years without—” Flame shut her mouth, dunked again. Came up a little more in control. “You could call the little people, then. Eighty years has to be almost as pure as—”
“Do not mock me! Illyara, you try me so. My conduct earlier shames me. Do not push me to repeat it.”
Fool, Ryahled was ever a—
“You knew I’d come for you,” he said softly. “I thought you would keep your promises.”
“I made you none.”
“Your father made the promises in your stead. It is our custom to honor our family’s wishes.”
“I’m not one of you,” she answered in Vralajii. Hells, he’d switched and she hadn’t caught it. Flame changed back to Syntari. “Everyone but you and Father accepted that years ago.”
“Do you remember when you fell in the river?” he asked. Flame wished for fangs to bite him with. “It had been raining for two weeks, and you decided you wanted a real bath. I was across the river and I saw you go in—”
“—and you damn near drowned rescuing me, and my father said I owed you my life, and you said it was only right that you be the one to save me. I’ve heard the story many times.”
“When I finally got to the bank, I thought you were unconscious. Then you smiled at me. You said you knew I would come.”
“I’m far beyond four summers old, ranger of Lyalirhee, and I’ve learned things you can’t imagine. I don’t need a protector anymore.”
“My duty has always been to watch over you. My duty and my honor and my life’s task. It will always be so.”
“Try to watch over me like you used to—” Flame stood to wring her hair out, “—and Vral or no, I swear I’ll kill you.”
“I hate the name you have chosen.”
“You hate all my choices.” Flame climbed out of the spring to use her cloak as a towel. “That should tell you something.”
“Will you help me call the little people? If one of them was used for the sacrifice—” He stopped, lifted his head. Flame snatched up her shirt as he jumped down beside her. “Demon-dog?” he asked, drawing his sword.
“Maybe. It’s something not at home in these woods.” Flame struggled to pull her shirt over her wet body. No time for pants. She stamped into her boots, belted on her sword. She stuck four daggers in the belt as well, before bundling everything else into her cloak.
“If we take to the trees—”
“It will follow on the ground. They are as tenacious as earthly hounds, and as tireless on the hunt. And they climb.”
“Get help,” he said, stepping between her and the forest. “I’ll hold it off.”
“Just in case I don’t get to tell you again—” Flame caught his face, yanked it to hers, “—you’re an idiot.” She tossed her bundle into a tree, then spun to put her back to his as she drew her sword. “I hear two.”
“If I kill you, I’ll have to fight them alone.”
He shut up. Flame waited. Any second now—damn it, she didn’t even know if her sword could hurt them! She’d heard other-worldly creatures could only be killed by— “You got any wine on you?”
“Good.” Hear that, Lady Luck? she prayed. No wine, I’m too young and he’s too old. It’s not my time, even if there is a bath!
A loud snuffle sounded from where Ryahled had come. Damn, he hadn’t had the sense to stay in the trees?
It came, a hole in the night—dark beyond imagining, fire-eyed, dog-shaped. It didn’t bay. The burning eyes flared as it filled its nose with Vral-scent. Ryahled pointed his sword.
“Flee, demonspawn, or I will send you back to the abyss from which you leaped. I am Ryahled, ranger of Lyalirhee, and I command you to be gone.”
“I don’t think it’s impressed,” Flame muttered. She threw a dagger, not her best. The creature flowed aside. “By that either.”
Ryahled stepped away from her. “I will—”
“Lackwit!” Flame leaped after him, too late. Another blackness poured from the bushes, leaping at Flame Ryahled spun to attack, Flame sliced at its head. The weapon clanged, her hand stung. “Hells!” The beast flowed away from Ryahled’s blade. Now it was between them, its attention on the ranger. Flame stepped back, looking for the other. They were intelligent, gods above—she jumped, running right over the dog. Ryahled’s sword blocked its nip at her ankles, the thing yipped pain. Her sword caught the other dog’s teeth before it hamstringed the ranger. She put her back to Ryahled’s as the dog backed off.
“Tell me,” she said, hurling a second dagger, “that your sword hurts them.” The knife missed. Gods below.
“It fears my blade,” came the muttered answer.
“They don’t mind mine.” She took a deep breath, then darted away. “Here, doggie, come here, boy.”
“What are you—” He cut off. Flame swung into a tree, pulling her bare behind out of reach just in time. “You said they climb!” Ryahled called.
“Worry about yours!” Flame leaped to the next tree; the dog followed on the ground. Stay low, keep it interested…two more trees, and Flame reached her bundle. The dog started up the tree. Gods, let them be as slow as she’d heard, damn it where was—got it! Ryahled shouted. Flame didn’t look, just leaped. The beast flew through the place she’d been, landing on another branch with a snarl. Flame jumped for another tree.
The dog followed. Damn, in the branches it was fast! It wasn’t as sure as she was, but—
Blood-smell. Flame darted a glance. Ryahled’s dog had ripped his shoulder. Hells! He threw the monster off. Flame leaped into an oak. She turned to face her opponent.
“Here, doggie. Here, boy, I got a treat for you.”
“Run!” Ryahled snapped. “Until I can deal with—”
“Who’s wounded?” Flame threw her last two daggers, and the rope while it dodged the blades. The lasso settled over the beast’s head. She yanked, wrapped it around a branch, and dropped to the ground. The thing yelped surprise, choked as it swung loose.
“Gotcha,” she muttered, darting around the tree a few times for good measure. She tied a quick knot and ran for Ryahled.
“Stay back!” he ordered. “Your sword—”
“So much for surprise.” Flame kicked the beast’s behind. “Hey, pup—” The creature yelped and tried to spin, Ryahled intercepted. The thing howled as it died.
“Nice job. But can you kill the other one before it chews free?”
The ranger growled and ripped his sword loose. Flame made sure he’d get there in time, scanned the area for more enemies, then set about looking for her daggers. She’d only found two before Ryahled returned, her bundle over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he snapped.
“My rope?” If he was going to play servant—
“It’s here.” Flame tried to take her bundle. He held onto it.
“Do you want me walking into camp without my pants?” she asked. Ryahled grunted and handed it to her. Flame swung into the nearest tree to dress; he followed. She heard his gasp of pain as he sank down beside her.
“How bad?” she asked, wriggling into her pants without removing her boots and that took agility.
“It’s on fire,” Ryahled said, pressing a cloth to the wound. “Do they have poison?”
“I never heard that.” Flame leaped up, ran along a branch headed towards camp. Hells. He needed Tolor’s attention, and soon. She’d thought that story had to be false. Teeth of the Damned, the tale-spinners called it. It wasn’t poison burning Ryahled, but the deadly evil of demonspawn. It seeped in through wounds and could turn the best of men to a servant of darkness. Even Vral were not immune, not since the Devastation—
Hells. A little corruption would be good for Ryahled, but this—he was panting behind her. The wound itself must be bad to affect him so quickly. Flame tossed him a smile.
“Not much farther. Tolor’s going to be mad. You won’t be able to stand your watch now.”
“He’ll probably…blame you.”
“And then thank you for coming to my rescue.” Ryahled stumbled; Flame balanced him before he could fall. After that she stayed close and whistled like a sailor jay every third tree. Damn it, where the hell—
A nightlark answered; Kessa appeared darting among the branches almost like a Vral. Flame heard her gasp four trees away.
“Get Tolor,” Flame snapped. “Wake the others. Now!”