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 IV
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
In the daytime a fire was just more light, but at night it could draw things from unguessable distances, so the group had slept cold. By the time Flame helped Ryahled into the camp, though, a tiny fire blazed fiercely. A small kettle of water sat in the middle of it, sweet herbs drifting in it. Tolor came from the fire to take Ryahled’s arm.
“I’m beginning to wonder,” he said with a soft laugh, “if you elves are worth the trouble you find.”
“I too,” Ryahled muttered, and stumbled but Flame didn’t have to hold him up because Tolor did.
“Lie here,” he directed, helping Ryahled to do so as Flame got out of the way.
Lory stood in the opening of her tent flanked by Okon and Kessa who watched with wide scared eyes. Bran wasn’t there, nor Satak. They must have taken watch, knowing Kessa would not keep her focus.
“Flame, get the kettle,” Tolor ordered, cutting Ryahled’s shirt off.
“Flame,” Tolor said, “get the kettle.”
Flame bit her lip on further argument and got the tongs, took the kettle from the fire and set it by Tolor’s hand.
“Bathe the wound,” Tolor ordered, putting a blanket under Ryahled’s head.
Tolor just looked at her. Flame swore softly and poked a careful finger at the surface of the water. Hot but not burning—there was a cloth in it already. Flame lifted the cloth quickly, squeezed it over Ryahled’s shoulder. He tensed and bit his lip as she dropped the cloth back in the kettle.
“I know you don’t want to hurt him…” Tolor murmured. Flame snarled and snatched the cloth, squeezed it again more slowly, guiding the dripping of the tisane over the wound to rinse the blood and ichor away. Not want to hurt him? She always wanted to hurt Ryahled; it was just a question of how and how much.
Where the drops met green ichor, smoke rose. An angry cast lay over Ryahled’s features.
“Priest…” Flame growled, “do something!”
“I know,” Tolor breathed. “Keep going.” He put his hand on Ryahled’s forehead and chanted softly. Flame wet the cloth and dripped more. Tolor’s chant grew. Under his hands Ryahled writhed.
“Lie still, elf-boy,” Okon rumbled, coming to hold Ryahled down with a hand on his good shoulder and on his chest. “Take your medicine.”
Tolor’s chanting grew, swelled, filled all of Flame’s perception. There was the fire, the sweet tang of herbs, the smoke, and the chant. Ryahled strained, fighting Okon unknowing. The ichor bubbled even where water didn’t touch it. The chant broke off.
“Lory,” Tolor said. “Flame, keep bathing.”
The mage came over. Tolor muttered to Lory in a language Flame didn’t know. Just when she was about to knock their heads together to make them act, Lory began to sing. Tolor took up his chant, his deep voice winding around Lory’s soft words but never drowning them out. Flame dripped more of the tisane. The virulent green of the ichor seemed faded in the firelight. Tolor’s chant grew as Lory’s song went higher, faster. Ryahled struggled and Okon leaned more weight to hold him down.
Lory grabbed the kettle from Flame and tilted it over the wound. Ryahled screamed at the splash of heated water, and then water and ichor both lifted from him in a cloud as Lory sang and Tolor chanted and the mist of green-tinted water before Flame’s eyes flashed to steam and vanished. Tolor’s chant stopped as if it had hit a wall. Lory’s song faded into silence.
“Thank you, Flame, Okon,” Tolor said. “I will tend the wound now.”
“Do you…need more water?” Flame asked before she thought, but Tolor said he didn’t need anything else so she went to her bedroll. Okon stood next to it.
“What do you suppose that was about, elf-girl?”
“Old stone, I am too tired for guessing games. What are you talking about?”
“A priest asking a mage for help healing, that’s what. Have you seen that before?”
“He spoke Klaneeri to Lory. He told her he couldn’t heal the elf-boy from inside.”
“Something in the healing fought him. The elf-boy or the taint or…something. Or so he said.”
“Ryahled fighting being cleansed? That’s ridiculous.”
“Tis indeed.” And Okon stumped away, vanishing into the night but for his loud footsteps and muttering at magic-users of any stripe.
Flame’s eyes snapped open. Something had happened—
“Illyara,” Ryahled breathed, and ended with a snore. Frost coated the ground before her nose, but the rest of her was warm. She’d rolled closer to the ranger in the night, or he’d pulled her near. His arm was across her waist now. Flame let it be. Gods, she was tired…not because it had taken a long time for Tolor to finish with Ryahled. She hadn’t waited up for that. The cleanliness and relaxation of her bath ruined, she’d just given up and gone to bed.
And she’d wrapped herself in the ranger’s cloak only because it made sense to leave the bedroll to the injured Vral. She’d have done the same for anyone else in the party. Except the dwarves. She’d never get the smell out of her bedroll if she loaned it to a dwarf.
A deep voice swore nearby, over the sounds of creaks, pops, and grunts. Flame sighed.
“Will you be quiet?” she growled. “Have a little courtesy, old stone.”
“Courtesy? You’re one to talk, girl. You change your mind about him? You two look all cozy now.”
“When you shave your beard.” Flame wiggled a little closer to the warm body behind her. “Wake me when breakfast is ready.”
“Maybe when I’ve had my share.”
She heard him walk away. Someone else was stamping his feet–Bran. Something–bacon–sizzled and made the fire pop…vral ears had their drawbacks. Flame grumbled and tugged on Ryahled’s arm, trying to gain just a little more of his warmth. He complied by rolling on top of her. Damned inconsiderate—she gave up, shoved him off and got up. Fine. They wanted her awake; she was awake.
Bran was blocking the teapot. Flame shoved him out of the way and didn’t care that he stepped on his bedroll with dew-wet boots. Should have put it away instead of stamping around like a fool. She beat Satak’s grab for the last of the honey, and snarled at Kessa when the girl spoke to her. Lory was still asleep, the witch. She didn’t have anyone bothering her. Tolor was praying, of course. As she always did, Flame let her mind toy with ways to accidentally disrupt his communion. She never did any of it because Tolor’s connection to his god was where he got his power, and his god-given magic had saved her pretty red head more than once. But she always thought about it while she filled her fancy silver tea ball that she never shared with the others and waited for her tea to steep.
Kessa had set aside cooked bacon, but Okon stabbed at her hand when Flame tried to grab some. “Wait,” he told her. “Your ranger found some eggs yesterday. We’ll eat for real today.”
Her ranger? Flame snarled and headed into the woods. Damned dwarf. She found a stream, bit down a shout at the cold water. Why in hells they couldn’t heat water over the damn fire she didn’t know. She found a sassafras twig to brush her teeth. Damn Okon anyway. Did he think eggs were that big a deal? She could have supplied them every day if she’d been asked.
Something happened again, jolting the world around Flame though nothing moved. Except now she wasn’t alone. Flame froze, then slowly looked up. “Honored One, greetings,” she called softly in Vralajii. The cat stood across the stream, staring at her. “Sorry to bother you,” she said, standing up. Lady’s lugs, it was a big cat. What was an animal like that doing this close to humans? She backed a step. The animal paced forward, but stopped when she did. Damn. Mad? Or magicked?
Magicked meant someone wanted something. Flame preferred mad, all in all. She debated if she could get into the tree behind her fast enough. Probably not. She kept talking.
“Where is a ranger when you need one?” she asked. “I’m just a treasure hunter, I can’t talk to you.” She stepped back again. It stepped forward. One more step would put it in the stream. More likely it would jump, and then be way too close.
“If you want food,” Flame told the cat, “I can lead you to a nice tasty human.” Though she herself would be an easier catch. Damn Okon some more, for annoying her so she stomped off alone with no weapons but a few daggers.
The cat sat on its haunches. Flame stepped back. It flopped on its belly. Flame swung up into the tree and felt a lot safer.
Reddish-tan on top, white underneath, it looked like a cougar, but damned if she’d ever heard of one so big. Tigers got that big. Cougars didn’t. Except for its size, though, and its obvious interest in her, it seemed a perfectly normal beast. With perfectly normal, very large, teeth.
“You don’t belong here,” she said, shooing it. “We’re not a day out of Synto, only two hours from the main road. You’ll frighten the farmers. They’ll hunt you down.”
The cat yawned. Flame shook her head.
“You might not care now, but just let them get a net over you and see how you feel.”
The cat looked mildly curious. Flame wondered if she’d lost her mind and just now noticed. “No, I won’t be there to help,” she told the beast. “I only look Vral. I’m not going to hang around waiting to rescue you.”
The cat laid its head on its paws, twitched its tail.
“Look, I get that you’re bored. I’m sorry. I told you I can’t understand you. We’ve got a ranger in camp, do you want to talk to him?”
The cat stood. Flame stared.
“Damn me to the Abyss,” she whispered. Then she laughed, and made to drop out of the tree. She stopped. “Promise you won’t eat me?”
The cat bared its fangs in a snarl. Flame shrugged and dropped.
“Hey. Look at it from a prey point of view. I had to ask.”
When Flame and her companion emerged from the mists Kessa screamed, diving for her bow. The dwarves shouted and came running, while Bran tripped and almost fell in the fire trying to get to the sword on his pack. Lory charged out of her tent, arms upraised, a spell on her lips. Flame, her hand on the cat’s head, ignored them all. She led the animal to her bedroll and grinned when Ryahled sat up, befuddled with pain and sleep, and came nose to nose with the great beast.
“Kikre hai!” he shouted, trying to scramble away. The cat promptly sat on him. He froze, staring into the huge eyes. The cat stared back, then calmly began washing a paw. Flame stepped in front of the dwarves before they could attack.
“It wants to talk to Ryahled,” she explained. “Some rangers can talk to certain animals.”
“Girl, it’s—” Okon stopped. The creature obviously wasn’t hurting Ryahled, unless cutting off the circulation to his legs counted. He put his battleaxe back in its loop. “You got a mean temper, girl.”
“Why, old stone, do you think I told it to sit on him?”
The dwarf grunted and turned away, shoving his kin in front of him. “It’s just elf-nonsense,” she heard him say, then something else that made Satak laugh. Kessa appeared to pick at Flame’s sleeve.
“Flame?” she whispered. “Are you sure—?”
“I’ll teach him to yank me around, eh?”
“But…” Kessa began, then shook her head. Flame grinned at a speechless Kessa.
Ryahled was still staring at the cat. The beast finished its paw, and only then deigned to stare back.
“All right,” the ranger finally grumbled. “Get off me, and I’ll see what I can do.”
The animal uncoiled and stepped off him. Flame staggered as it butted her legs. She scratched behind its ears.
“Well?” she demanded. “What does it need?”
“She,” Ryahled growled back, “wants to know what we’re going to do about the demonspawn in her forest.”
“And you told her…?” Flame asked. Hells, hells, hadn’t thought of that, had she? Just tell the giant beast it was her own problem, and then…the cat yawned and sat on her foot. Flame resisted the urge to kick her.
“That we will kill them as we find them, of course.” Ryahled cocked his head. “What else?”
What else indeed. Flame clamped her teeth before she gave him ideas. The cat gave a low yowl. Ryahled knelt to meet its stare once more. Flame shoved Kessa.
“Something’s burning, kid.”
“Gods above!” Kessa ran. Flame sighed. So much for a good breakfast.
“How?” Ryahled demanded. “How do you plan to do that?”
The cat ignored him, choosing instead to clean her other paw. Flame shook her head. “At least you’re clean,” she told the cat. “Do you want some breakfast? We have an extra dwarf.”
The cat turned away, walking back into the forest. Flame nodded.
“Right. I wouldn’t eat one either.” She headed for the fire. Ryahled stepped beside her.
“You’re taking this rather calmly.”
“I like cats.”
“You could have talked to her yourself, if—“
“Oh, woe is me for a misspent youth! Had I only done what I was told, I could expired from boredom decades ago!”
Ryahled, bastard that he was, didn’t react. “Did it occur to you I might have stabbed her before I was awake?”
“A ranger of Lyalirhee, harm an innocent beast?” Flame shook her head. “Never occurred to me. Besides, she sat on your sword.”
“And me. You told her to.”
“I merely told her you might try to run.”
“Most people would, waking up to something like that.”
“Some ranger you are. Trained for the unexpected, ready to face the challenges of the outside world, running from a big kitty.” Flame didn’t mention her own tree-climbing. No one expected better of her. She wasn’t a ranger. She took the plate Kessa handed her, smiled at the kid and moved out of earshot again. “Did you think to ask her about the little people you’re so worried about?” Bacon, eggs, only slightly burnt toast…
“Most of them are in hiding. The demon-dogs have caught a few, the wizard a few more, apparently. The forest will suffer if the invasion isn’t stopped soon.”
Flame shrugged. “Pixies are lazy to begin with, and brownies aren’t much better. If they all got together, they could handle this themselves.”
“It is our job—“
“Sure, if there are rangers around. But these woods have been Vral-free for a good hundred years.”
“And the wlekny will do nothing,” Ryahled growled. “So—”
“What do you think the humans should do?” Flame demanded. “Wleken are targets to the pixies and brownies. How are they supposed to set things right?”
“Then,” the ranger said, determination setting his face, “we will have to do it.”
Just because she didn’t want to explain it, Flame resisted the urge to quote a wlek joke that ended, “What do you mean we, Sheriff?”
From the fire, Tolor roared. “Flame! You brought—“
Ryahled went to calm the cleric. Flame settled on her bedroll and wished the damn cat hadn’t shed all over it.
The sun had barely cleared the mists when Tolor ordered Flame to scout. She handed Okon her pack as usual before heading into the trees. Ryahled snatched it away from Okon, and staggered as he swung it onto his own back. Flame rolled her eyes and turned to climb. The rest of the party wouldn’t even be starting for—a shrill animal scream tore through the mists. Flame froze, listening. Ryahled grabbed her shoulder.
“Kiii—” he breathed. Flame whirled, shouting.
“To arms! Ware, evil comes!” She shoved Kessa. “Get in the trees, girl, these are beyond you! Tolor, demon-dogs!” A howl punctuated her warning. Tolor looked around, choosing his ground. Flame pushed Kessa again. “Go!”
“Kessa, Ryahled, get in the trees and use your bows!” Tolor ordered. “Okon, Satak, guard Lory! Bran, with me!”
Tolor didn’t try to direct Flame any more. She grinned at the thought as she shoved Ryahled. “Move, son of a slow goat!”
“Get your useless wounded ass in the tree, ulawlekny ulawros!” Flame whirled away as more howls filled the air. Coming straight at them, for damn sure, and she had no—
Her eyes fell on the fire. Flame snatched a brand, pulled her best dagger with the other hand.
“There’s something…” Bran muttered, staring into the forest. “I see shadows, but ahead of them…”
“A cat!” Kessa yelped from her tree. “It’s a hearth-cat! The poor thing! Tolor—”
“We cannot help it,” the cleric cut in. “Guard yourself, Kessa.”
Flame counted dogs and bet herself a guilder that streak of black and white would outlive them all. The cat only had to reach Bran, after all, and its pursuers would forget its existence. Eight demon-dogs.
“If they get a chance to climb,” Ryahled warned, “we must move.” No credit to the one who taught him that, of course.
No bath, Flame pointed out to the Lady of Fortune. No bath, no wine—hers was in the tree with Ryahled—and no appropriate man. Not my time, she prayed.
The cat faltered; a dog closed the gap. A bow sang, the dog yelped and stumbled. Lady’s lugs, Ryahled had missed its heart? Or was it–
“He’s going to make it!” Kessa whooped. Her bow twanged, to no effect. “It dodged! It dodged me!”
“Come on, kitty…” Bran muttered. Flame shook her head, waved her brand to keep it flaming. Fickle Lady, turn your face towards—
The streak tore past Bran and up Flame’s leg. She thrust her brand at the dog behind it, cursing dog fangs and kitten claws. The dog fell, an arrow in its throat and Bran’s sword in its gut. Flame whirled her brand, slapped another dog. It spun, distracted, and died on Okon’s axe. Boiling hell, was her sword the only–
“Azad kar!” Tolor roared. “Al byom!” Light streaked from his hands.
“Nyemi takatsu ne!” Lory shouted, throwing silver threads that formed a net. Satak hacked at the trapped dog, chanting his ancestors. Okon guarded him from another dog, swearing. Bran fought two, humming his war-song. Three charred bodies lay where Tolor’s light had caught them.
Eight, where was—Flame leaped, ran through the fire before she turned, swinging the brand. The monster flowed aside, danced back. Damn, why did the biggest one choose her? Two arrows—three—stood from its back, but the damned thing—
“Azad al byom!” Tolor shouted, and the beast writhed and fell in ashes.
Sudden silence filled the clearing. Flame counted gasping breaths and realized they had all survived. She raised a shaking hand to the bundle of quivering fur clinging to her shoulder.
“Next time,” she told the cat, “climb a damn tree.”