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 V
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
A chill rain fell as the group walked within a growing stream of traffic, all headed for the tall white walls smudged with murk. At the sound of thudding hoofbeats from behind, Flame jumped out of the way of a galloping horseman and while she was in the ditch stooped for a mudball to fling at his back. She thought the smear improved his blue cloak. Ryahled didn’t; he scowled at her. She grinned back, wiped her glove on a passing wagon. Kessa looked from him to her and didn’t speak. Again. Flame poked her.
“What is gnawing on you, little one?” Though Flame was smaller in every dimension but talent. The girl bit her lip. Flame poked her again. Heading toward civilization always put her in a good mood.
“I just—when you yelled at Ryahled, when the dogs came, what did you call him?”
What—oh. Damn. Of course the girl knew enough Vralajii to catch that.
“Ulawlekny ulawros,” Ryahled said. “She called me a child.” He glared again. Flame decided to let him dig his own damn hole, and didn’t correct him. She pulled the scrawny dog-bait cat out of her hood instead, settled it against her chest under her cloak. The silly thing had been on her since the attack almost, despite Kessa’s attempts to lure it with food scraps. Nothing short of throwing it would persuade the cat to leave Flame, and she wasn’t going to do that. She really did like cats. Even awkward, ugly, malnourished bits of fluff that shed only the white hairs on her black leathers.
“Human child,” Kessa accused.
“Human-like-acting younger-than-me,” Flame corrected automatically. Damn, she’d wanted out of the conversation, not in the middle of it. Maybe teaching Kessa had been a bad idea.
“Why did you call him that?” Kessa demanded. Flame shrugged.
“Habit. Sorry, kid, but he brings out the worst in me.”
“Human is simply a description,” Ryahled said gently. Flame stroked the cat under her cloak and dropped back a step. “As you might say a man was as strong as a dwarf.”
“Don’t talk down to me,” Kessa snapped. “She meant it as an insult. She meant you were being stubborn and stupid.”
Flame dropped back another step.
“You have to remember, Kessa, that our people have little contact with yours,” the ranger said as Flame stepped on the other side of Bran. “Therefore we have certain…ideas,” Ryahled went on, quietly enough only Flame and Kessa heard, “that may not be correct, and don’t apply to all humans, but that define how we think humans are. So—”
“My people?” Kessa demanded, and everyone in a thirty-foot range heard her. She shoved hood and braids back to reveal a gently pointed ear. “What do you know of my people, Vral ranger?”
Flame sighed and thumped Bran with her knuckles. “Go after her, idiot.”
On cue, Kessa whacked Ryahled with her unstrung bow and darted forward, head bowed. Flame prodded Bran again; he ran after her. Ryahled walked faster. Not chasing, but keeping the pair in sight. Lory chuckled at Flame’s side.
“The young are so turbulent. What was that about?”
“Ryahled finally figured out Kessa’s daddy wasn’t human.”
“And Kessa hit him because…?”
“I’m guessing the revelation made him look ill.”
“Ah.” Lory nodded. “Elven society does not approve of such pairings?”
“Elven society does not approve of much of anything.”
“How does Ryahled feel about your in-town habits?”
“Oh!” Flame grinned as she realized the truth. “That hasn’t hit him yet. He knows, vaguely, but…” she trailed off.
“Ryahled does not seem one to give up in the face of adversity,” Lory warned. “The more you push him, the more determined he will become.”
“Do you think he is more stubborn than I am?” Flame asked.
“Somewhere in the world, someone must be.”
“Somewhere,” Flame allowed, tossing her head. Under the hood, it didn’t flip her hair. “Maybe. But not here.”
“The dogs should have reached here by now,” Lory said, changing the subject. “These people do not seem frightened.”
“Perhaps not-Kentin is not quite ready to send them this far.” Perhaps he was missing a few of the beasties?
“What kind of fool,” Lory wondered, “thinks to hold hellspawn in check?”
“What kind of fool deals with demons at all?” Flame retorted. “Either he is mad, or he knows something we do not. Either way, we cannot fathom his choices.”
“Sadly, ‘tis true.” Lory groped in her robe, came out with her pipe. “Ah, here are our wanderers,” she said as they came to where Bran had caught Kessa. The pair waited by the side of the road for the party to come to them. Ryahled had fallen back into place beside Tolor. Flame turned, walking backward before the dwarves.
“Do you suppose the Bearded Lady is still in business, old stone?”
“After your last visit, girl?” Okon chuckled. “If what we left of the walls was still standing after the fire, the watch probably had it knocked down for spite.”
Dread crawled onto Ryahled’s face. “Fire?”
“Aye, fire,” Okon answered. “Mind you, now, the fire weren’t the girl’s fault. Wasn’t she threw that lantern. She started the fight, of course, but—”
“Hells,” Flame interrupted, “if you’re going to tell it, do it right, old stone. Start at the beginning.”
The dwarf tugged his beard, scowling at her. “Why don’t you tell it?”
“Because I don’t remember all of it. It started with me trying to drink you under the table, remember?”
“Aye.” Okon chuckled again. “Aye, it did start that way.”
“What?” Kessa demanded. “What started that way?”
“The fight, of course.” Okon shook his head. “Pay attention, little elf. Me and the girl were having us a drink—a drinking contest—at the Bearded Lady when elf-girl sets her heart on the boy serving us. Mind, the owner knew her ways and he’d told her to keep her hands off. The boy was on loan from his sister, and he didn’t want no trouble with her. But that boy had never seen an elf-girl before, and Flame was just as stuck on him. Then these other fellows decide they want the elf’s attention, and…”
Flame chuckled. The ‘boy’ had been twenty, and sure as hells no virgin. Worth the trouble, though, definitely…
Ryahled paled when Okon reached the fight. The dwarf hadn’t lied; she had started it. And the blow had been foul. The ranger turned to glare at her. Flame gave him a half-smile and raised an eyebrow. He looked away. Okon was still talking. Kessa burst out laughing.
“She did,” Okon asserted. “Damned if she didn’t distract every one of the watch, too. They weren’t much interested in a sotted dwarf, with a half-naked elf running around on the roof.”
“But the fire! Wasn’t she—”
“Oh, she didn’t hang around that long. Soon as I was clear, she took off. She probably lost them quick enough, but I wouldn’t know. Girl didn’t get back to our inn till after breakfast. Looked damn pleased with herself, too, she did.”
“Good thing I insisted on staying at the Ring, wasn’t it, old stone?”
“Well, now, if we’d been staying at the Bearded Lady, I don’t guess I would’ve set it on fire, now would I?”
“Oh, Flame,” Kessa interrupted, “you’ve had such wonderful adventures! Chased by the city watch, while a huge fire lights the night—”
“It’s disgusting,” Ryahled snapped. “Kessa, is that really what you want? To be drunk and naked in public, on top of a building you helped burn?”
“Hey, don’t knock it till you try it,” Flame advised as Kessa stammered. “That happens to have been one of my better evenings. Especially…” she cast for a name, found it, “Stefan.” Flame rolled her eyes. “Mmmmm…hey, Okon, how old would he be now?”
“Old and fat and swilling ale while he tells his sons about you, girl.”
Flame shuddered, then brightened. “Sons…how old would they be?” She poked Ryahled. “Maybe he’s got daughters too, eh? Take care of that little problem?”
Ryahled halted in mid-step.
“You…” he said, staring at her. “You…” His hands curled into fists. “You…with…”
Flame lifted an eyebrow. Ryahled turned on his heel and walked. Straight away from the road; he’d be back in the forest in by midday. Flame grinned, clapping Kessa’s shoulder as she spun away.
“My turn, old stone. How about the time you tried to steal the mayor of Tunlit’s wife?”
“Now, girl, don’t start on that—”
Trotting across rooftops, Flame fought the urge to whistle. Thank the gods for towns. She preferred hunting lost or abandoned treasure rather than claimed and locked up treasure, but thank the Lady she could get into a real city once in a while.
In her hood that had been hanging down her back since the rain quit at sunset, the cat grumbled again. Flame laughed. The creature had no appreciation for the finer things in life. A well-run bathhouse, chilled Ciabri bubble-wine, a talented and lovely masseur willing, even eager, to go beyond his duty… Someday she would settle down, and have all her favorite luxuries in her castle.
“And a puffy cushion for you,” she promised the cat, “so you needn’t get your paws wet while I enjoy myself.” She slid down a steep roof, jumped into darkness on the next one. The moon wasn’t high enough to shine over the one she’d just climbed. Something scratched on slate, and she stopped, swearing silently. Something dwarf-sized had moved, right behind her. Now that she was still, she could hear breathing, too. More than one, less than five, at a guess. Less than five of what?
“I just want to go my way,” she announced. “I haven’t seen anything and I don’t want to.”
“Too late,” said a reedy voice behind her. “You can see us, Vral-girl.”
“Not yet. My eyes have to shift, same as anyone else.” They were already shifting. She counted three vague shapes, they would get sharper in a moment. Gremlins, by the size, or small dwarves. She wouldn’t have run into a group of dwarves, though. Even downwind, they smelled.
Normally gremlins she would have heard. Pleasure-sotted fool, not paying attention…
“Sorry,” said the one behind her, “but I think I want to keep you.” A claw combed her hair. Flame dropped, spinning, two daggers snatched and thrown as she dodged out of reach. Both knives bounced off her target and fell to the roof. Damn that armored hide!
She could run. They’d never catch her. But damned if she’d let some fool horny gremlin touch her and just—
On the roof she’d just left a figure appeared, a black silhouette against the rising full moon. The gremlins sniffed the air and hooted to each other. In a heartbeat all three vanished. Flame snarled as Ryahled jumped down.
“You should not be out alone,” he told her. “If—”
“To the flaying hell with if!” Flame cursed. “Why aren’t you halfway to Lyalirhee?”
“Because you are not.”
Flame would have bashed her head into a wall if there had been one handy.
“How did you find me?” This was getting ridiculous.
“Tolor’s group was easy to track,” the ranger said as he fetched the daggers she’d thrown. “When I found that you were not with them, I decided to wait on the roof. You are more comfortable up here; I thought you would come this way.”
Damn Luck, that her path had lain past the inn Tolor chose! Ryahled nodded to his left. “It is fortunate I did. The Stone Eye is there; you would have run right past it.”
“I know my way,” Flame snapped as she snatched the knives. “I need neither your direction nor your assistance, fool of a ranger! Go to the place you know!”
“Do not taunt me,” Ryahled warned softly. “I can smell where you have been, Illyara. It is all I can do to not place you over my knee as the wlekny do to stubborn children.”
“I will gut you,” Flame promised, her daggers back in her hands.
“As you will,” the bastard said, throwing his arms wide as he went to one knee. “Ryahledha Illyarale dluny.”
“You are not mine!” Flame bent to snarl in his face. “I hate you.”
“I know,” Ryahled answered.
“I am yours.”
Flame drew a deep breath through gritted teeth. There still wasn’t a wall around to bash her head into. And she needed to stop letting him enrage her anyway. She drove him to madness. It was not to be the other way around.
Flame whirled away. Ryahled followed. Flame dropped onto a ledge and trotted across the front of some public building, maybe a jail. The windows were barred.
“Anybody make any decisions?” she asked when she could say it calmly.
“Tolor could not get in to see the duke. Apparently the priest of the temple here disgraced himself, and the duke won’t see him or anyone he recommends. Tolor has decided there is nothing he can do.”
“At dawn he will continue his quest.”
“Single-minded, simple-minded dolt.”
“It does not seem like the demon-dogs are a great threat.”
Flame remembered hot breath on her heels and shuddered. “Your memory is faulty, ranger of the deepest woods. Besides, demon-dogs are not the most fearsome denizens of the abyss. Just because they are all I saw, does not mean they are all that came.”
“Do you believe the city is in danger?”
“It doesn’t matter. It is not my city.” Flame sped up. “I have an errand,” she said over her shoulder. “It must be done tonight, and I would rather get it done quickly than spend hours losing you first. Will you promise to keep silent and obey me, or must I leave you behind?”
“Do you believe you could?”
“I haven’t lost a race since I was fifteen.”
“It is true.” He sighed. “No one has caught you since that day. What business do you have?”
“Promise, or I leave you.” She’d made sure she was out of reach before she made that threat. Fool that he was, the ranger might force her to take the life he kept trying to give her.
“You know that you can command me.”
“I will make this deal, no other.”
“Very well. You have my word. Where are we going?”
“Where else?” Flame tossed a grin over her shoulder. “We’re going shopping.”