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 VI
A Serial Story by KD Sarge
“You said you would come alone,” the boy blurted when Flame stepped out of the shadows in the correct alley. Flame rolled her eyes.
“My chaperone. He annoys me, but I’ll vouch that he’ll treat everyone else well.”
“The mistress is ready for surprises,” the boy warned, eyeing the ranger. “And she is never questioned when bodies turn up in the lake.”
Ryahled rested a hand on his sword. Flame shot him a glare. “I will vouch for him,” she repeated. “And further vow that if he starts anything I will kill him myself.”
The boy snorted and turned away. “Come, then. Mistress Pwyllydwen keeps late hours, but she rarely sees the dawn.”
“Wise woman,” Flame muttered.
“I’m Roch. Philip wanted to accompany you,” he tossed a smirk over his shoulder, “but I could not wake him.”
“Just as well,” Flame grumbled, tossing a glare over her shoulder.
“Do I want to know what I just stepped in?” Ryahled asked.
After a lot of running around that Flame thought was just to confuse Ryahled, Roch led them to a moldering door on the front of a narrow market shop. Behind wide windows the shop was dark. The awning overhead slouched and sagged; the outside tables drooped. The bench by the door, however, where in open hours a proprietor might sit to hail and lure in passersby, that was in suspiciously good repair. So was the rust-colored key the boy produced to open the door.
“Wait here,” Roch commanded, herding them into the room. He closed the door, then light flared. He’d lit a lamp; he set it on a table. “Someone will come for you,” he said, and vanished through a curtain at the back of the room.
“This place,” Ryahled said in Vralajii, “would make a brownie hoard look restrained.”
Flame chuckled and had to agree. Shelves and tables filled the narrow room with floor-to-ceiling junk. Perhaps there were a few treasures hidden, but even her trained eye could not spot any. Fine clothes so old a touch would crumble them, bangles and baubles long past whatever beauty they once possessed, broken tools and notched weapons…
“What,” Ryahled asked softly, “could you possibly want here?”
“I don’t know,” Flame answered in Syntari. “Something pretty?” She crowed and snatched a misshapen lump from a shelf. “Gods among us! A stuffed splay-foot! I’ve never seen one before!” She waved it at the ranger. “Hi!” she said in a squeaky voice, ignoring the cloud of dust and old feathers. “I used to be alive! Were you ever alive?”
“Did you ever have a friend?”
“Put that thing down.”
The thing squealed and ran away. In the process Flame’s eyes caught a figure in the corner, and she gasped. “Yerel! Hells, boy, what did that witch do to you?” She skirted a table to grab the arm of a life-size statue. “Told you she was trouble, didn’t I? Alas, young Yerel, what—”
“Is this your urgent errand? Playing the fool with the useless wares of a—”
“Useless?” Flame lifted a metal fan; it crumbled in her hand. She made a face and raised her voice. “Useless! Is this the shop of the famed Pwyllydwen? Wonders to astound the most jaded eye, that is what I was promised! Wares that only the beauty of Pwyllydwen could outshine! Eyes of amethyst, hair like spun gold, voice of a crypt-beetle! Where is Pwyllydwen?”
“Lower your voice!” Ryahled ordered. “Let us just—”
“Where is Pwyllydwen?” Flame repeated, louder. “Oh, Pwyllydwen!” She lifted the visor of a suit of armor, peered inside. “Pwyllydwen?” She bent to look under a table. “Pwyllydwen?”
“If my lady pleases—” It was a small, unwashed body, barely visible under a mound of moldy hair.
“Lady?” Flame looked behind her. “Where?”
“Honored guest,” the creature tried again, “if it please you—”
“Pwyllydwen would please me, my lad. Girl. Whatever. Go and fetch your keeper, won’t you?”
“Indeed, honored guest, I will do so. May I offer you and your friend refreshment until I can bring her?”
“Friend?” Flame looked around again. “Where?”
“This way, guest of Pwyllydwen. Our humble shop is honored by your visit.”
“Oh, all right. Just don’t try to feed me any of that sooty roast geet. I’ve been warned.”
“Indeed, honored one. Please come with me.” The figure led them toward a yellow-splotched curtain at the back of the shop. Flame snatched the stuffed splay-foot as she followed, Ryahled at her heels. On her heels. Damned ranger.
Behind the curtain was a hall with several doors. Their guide led to the third one and threw it open. “If it pleases our guests to wait—”
“Why?” Flame asked. “You’re right here, and I’m running out of time.”
From under the rags a serpentine-blade dagger appeared. Ryahled put his hand to his sword. Flame kicked his foot.
“By the boiling hell!” she snapped at their guide. “I’m a thief, not a thug! I just want to skip the play-acting. I need to know if we can reach a deal.”
“I doubt it. Fetch my keeper?” the figure demanded as it flounced through the entrance. Beyond the door lay a lounging room, with chairs and padded benches all done in gold and purple. “Voice of a crypt-beetle?”
“Eyes of amethyst, hair of gold,” Flame retorted. “I had to keep it believable.”
“How did you know?”
Flame pointed Ryahled at a seat before he did something stupid. Like talk. “I wouldn’t insult you by thinking you’d let an underling deal with an unknown.”
“As long as it wasn’t the costume.” The figure pulled off the wig, to reveal a head of short black hair and an unlined, feminine face. “Call me Pwyll. What is it you’re looking for?”
“Weapons. Sword, knife, bow—something for my own use. With a spell of finding or something similar. There’s demonspawn in the forest.”
Suspicious brown eyes narrowed, Pwyll cocked her head. “I’ve not heard that.”
“You don’t have to believe me. Just sell me what I need.”
“I can do that.” Pwyll waved her hand over a low, wide table between them. “Here are the knives I have,” she announced as the wood tabletop vanished to reveal a case of weapons on purple velvet. “Do not try to touch them.”
“They are not all bespelled, are they?”
“I do not trade in mundane weapons. Not all of these are suitable for your needs, however.” Quick taps on nothing left wisps of smoke above three of the eight blades. “These two have light spells of finding. The first is also enchanted to be unbreakable.” Flame snorted. Pwyll flashed a smile. “Of course, nothing is truly unbreakable, but that is the spell. The last was made by Tekler of Armaldy, if that means anything to you.” Her face wrinkled and she sneezed. “I beg your pardon!”
“How about swords?” Flame asked.
Pwyll waved a hand at a wardrobe by her side. “They are here.” Three swords hung in the now-revealed interior. “The selection is more limited, but any of these would meet your stated need.” Again she pointed. “This has a spell of weakness to your enemies. The longsword has both finding and lightness on it, you could wield it. The sabre—oh!” Again she sneezed. “I am sorry! I can’t imagine—are either of you weres? Cats make me sneeze.”
Flame re-directed the hand that had been going to soothe the stowaway stirring in her hood. Instead she shoved the splayfoot unter a pillow as she shook her head. “Perhaps feathers do the same. What about the sabre?”
“Also made by—achoo!—Tekler. Please excuse me.” Pwyll tugged at a servant cord; somewhere a shrill bell rang. Moments later a small boy appeared with a tea tray. Pwyll quickly made herself tea but let the boy serve Ryahled. Flame refused. Tea was a waste of time. She handed the stuffed beast to the boy as he left.
“Tekler,” Pwyll went on, her eyes tearing, “was mage-smith to Iroba of Kisadar after the Curse of Rat’phatig loosed a plague of demonspawn upon that mountainous land. He created many weapons with the sole purpose of hunting down the evil that—achoo! Pardon me!—stalked his people.” Pwyll lifted a crystal pendant from her chest, held it before her eye. “Um. Yes, the sabre would probably best fit your needs. Would you care to try it?” She waved her hand and an entire wall disappeared, to reveal an exercise ring complete with several different forms of targets. “The standing one has a spell of displacement on it. Try it—ahh!—try it with your own sword first.” Pwyll sneezed again. Her face was getting blotchy.
Flame rose and removed her cloak carefully, making sure to hold the hood closed as she handed it to Ryahled. He answered her sharp look with a hand on the hood; the movement within settled. Good kitty, lots of fish later…
After Flame tried her own sword—with four of five swings she missed the pell right in front of her–Pwyll handed her the sabre.
In three swings Flame knew she wanted the sword. It was light yet strong, well-balanced, and had a mountain-cat as the guard. The cat’s tail arced up to the pommel as a knuckle-guard. She was tempted by the dagger, too. Tekler the smith had known his craft.
She tried the other swords, so as not to look too eager, and tested a couple of the daggers too. By then tears were streaming down Pwyll’s face and Flame’s cloak was moving alarmingly. Damned ranger. What good was talking to cats if you couldn’t get them to listen? Flame settled down to bargain before her stowaway voiced his displeasure and got her in real trouble.
“What?” Flame demanded as she skipped across a roof. The second moon had risen; it was nearly bright as day up there. So she saw Ryahled shake his head.
“Did you take the cat on purpose?”
“No.” Flame reached to pet the contented sleeper in her hood. “That was pure Luck.” She’d lay a few more coins on the Lady’s altar in the morning. She’d already fed the cat all the day-old fish it could eat, and that had not been easy to acquire so late at night. But it was worth it. Lady Luck and the ugly cat had saved her a small fortune. After a few intense rounds, Pwyll had ended the bargaining abruptly, accepting barely the worth of the sword and throwing in the dagger when Flame added it to the pot, then chased them out before she was completely unable to breathe.
“It was wrong of you to take advantage of her weakness.”
Flame stopped, turned to him. “Hello. I’m a thief. Have we met?”
“You…did not used to be like this.”
“Who do you think seeded the spring celebration with itch-vine?” Flame asked as she whirled away. “Rysra?”
“You did that? I thought she was careless! Poor Rysra was unable to sit for a month!”
“Which got me a new tutor. Naved, who fell asleep fifteen minutes into every lesson.”
“That explains much.”
“Doesn’t it?” Flame whistled, the call of a sailor jay. She had to whistle twice more before a nightlark answered. Kessa must have been asleep. “You’d do well to remember my vengeful streak,” Flame warned as she turned to the ladder on the side of the roof. “Sleep well, ranger.”
Flame grinned and slipped into a dark window.
She gave the ranger twice the time she thought he’d need to find the room Tolor had rented for the men—lucky Ryahled, he got to sleep with the dwarves—and to fall asleep in it. By then Kessa’s curiosity had run down and the girl had faded back to sleep. Flame got up.
“Are you coming?” she breathed to the cat curled up on her pillow. She and Kessa had bedrolls on the floor. Lory, of course, had the bed. Since she didn’t have magic to drive the insect life out of it herself, Flame didn’t really mind leaving the bed to the mage.
The cat pointedly put its head back down. Flame chuckled as she went back out the window. Lazy creature. That was what she liked about cats. Just in it for themselves. Only a fool would expect loyalty or duty from a cat.
She spent more than an hour gathering the information she needed, and two hours after that getting into position. Damn, but she hoped Tolor changed his mind about leaving at dawn…
Pay attention. One false move now and sun-up would find one flat redhead at the foot of—Flame breathed relief as she landed a toe on the balcony. A light flashed, but she’d been told to expect that. She eased down to stand.
“Vrafha Jamrhee hyu kivoriy mlas.” I warn here.
“A Vral?” A figure appeared behind flowing curtains, a tall human with a ball of blue fire in her hand. “A harmony-weaver? I come, Honored One! Wrafha Abonné lif, Jamrhee.”
Flame swallowed at the translation of her Clan name, ignoring the faulty syntax. A bony woman in flowing white stepped onto the balcony.
“Vreha Jamrhee wrafle Abonné juné seldy,” she said with a bow. You bring me honor. She was closer this time. “Hideo kanemitsu,” she said in mage-speech, making a pass above the light. “Can you understand me, Honored One?”
A translating spell, for now Flame heard both Syntari and Vralajii. Thankfully the spell did not carry the woman’s accent, more grating than Kessa’s.
“Vrafha Jamrhee miñe mlas,” Flame acknowledged. I hear. “You are the mage Nuriel Abonne?” she asked in Vralajii.
The woman bowed again. “I am. How may I serve?”
“Demonspawn roam my forest,” Flame announced. “This evil seeks the mage Nuriel Abonne.”
“Honored One, how can this be?”
Flame told her what she knew, but not how she knew it. The mage shook her head.
“I will take steps, Honored One. If I may—when you call this forest yours, do you mean Vral will live here again?”
“All forests,” Flame lied, “come under my care. Take forceful steps, Mage Nuriel Abonne. Already my servants suffer.”
“I hear and obey,” the mage answered. Damn, that had been easy. Flame didn’t trust things that came so easily, even when they made sense. Every person she’d talked to had said that the Duke listened only to those he knew, but Abonne would hear any who spoke. And the mage had a long-standing fascination with the Forest People. Enough so, it seemed, that she had learned more than any wlek Flame had ever heard of, enough even to know what a misnomer ‘Forest People’ was.
Abonne, Flame decided, would bear watching if she ever came this close again. As she watched her now, waiting to see if silence brought anything more.
“Honored One, may I offer you hospitality?”
“I do not favor walls.” Flame fought a shiver. “Harmony be yours, mage.” Flame ran at the edge of the balcony, fought down delight as she somersaulted towards the next. Touched lightly and turned. The mage leaned over her own balcony, grinning. Flame leaped for the next. As always, going down was far easier than going up. And as always, an elf-loving human was the easiest of audiences.
Over the years the city had been allowed to grow close to the keep walls. That, and the Abyssal dark of the night now the moons had set, let Flame slip out as easily as she had drifted in. One more time, Flame trotted across rooftops, hoping it wasn’t as late as it felt.
And one more time, she was intercepted. This time she was forewarned. She heard the cat. Flame eyed the beast purring in Ryahled’s arms.
“He was worried for you.”
“I offered to bring him,” Flame growled.
“But I was not invited.”
“Perhaps there is a hidden meaning in that.” Flame went around the two. She wanted her bed, and she wanted it three hours ago.
“You found a way to warn them?” the ranger asked as he followed. “I had hoped that you would.”
Bastard. “I did not do it for the wlekny,” Flame growled. “Or for the forest. I just do not care to have demonspawn on my heels when we go on.”
“Of course,” the lackwit murmured. Flame poured her annoyance into her feet and left him to find his own way back.
She’d have to discover how he was tracking her. The way he was there every time she turned around was beyond ridiculous.
Tomorrow, she promised herself as she slipped into blessedly clean sheets. Thank Kessa and her hero-worship. Tomorrow she would find out how he did it—and put a stop to it.
Really. He was making her skills look common.
Well, she thought as she got comfortable, she did have talents the ranger couldn’t hope to match. Damned if she was showing him, though. That masseur, on the other hand…