Summer, 1277, deep in the rainforest of the Chivit Continent
It wasn’t my best day.
I tore through the curtain of cobwebs like they weren’t even there, then bolted for the doorway. The doors were still open, but the wood I had jammed between them and their doorframe wasn’t going to last long. A pathetic groan echoed through the ante-chamber around me, followed by the staccato sound of wood splintering.
Correction, those wooden braces weren’t going to last another few seconds. I ran faster.
Stone dust was like a fogbank. My clothes and hair were stiff with it and seeing past it felt like a bad joke. Specifically, on me. Gulping down air, I lengthened my stride, sprinting like a madwoman for the only way I knew out.
Then I was through. Past the stone dust, thick cobwebs, and pale-skinned, giggling, scrambling nightmares with too many arms. Little things that were all too eager for me to sit and stay awhile. I threw myself forward into the wall of heat and humidity that was part and parcel of Anestri'for, the ‘Great Jungle’ on Chivit.
Landing on my hands and knees, I drank in the smell of wet grass and foliage. The feel of damp earth was a delight. Best of all? The sound of the stone doors slamming shut on the writhing mass of bodies with too many arms trying to follow me. They weren’t giggling as the doors shut in their face, but snarling.
I hauled my aching body into a sitting position, then placed a dust-covered satchel in front of me. Thunder rolled around in the clouds overhead. I glanced up.
“Hourly thunderstorm. Right on time. At least it's not a magic storm.”
“Good job, Tela.” I congratulated myself. “Alive, limbs in one piece, and you found it.”
Shaking my head, I reached for the flap on the bag to check the condition of my find. The last thing I needed was to get it back to Ishnanor in a thousand pieces. I didn’t manage to open the bag. A yell to my right gave me better things to think about.
A man dressed in mercenary leathers, and a belted tunic had shoved his way out of the underbrush. Dirty, mud-stained, he leered at me like a prize or fresh caught prey. I shot daggers back at him with a glare. Sad to say, he didn’t seem impressed.
“Here!” he bellowed. “She’s here! Tell Vargas! I’ve found the Windtracer! She’s got the relic!”
I was on my feet and past a stand of briza-taeda ferns to my right before the mercenary took another step. Shouts filled the Anestri’for jungle air behind me. I ran faster.
Vargas. It would be him and his hellsdamn Crimson Company out here in the Anestri’for. I vaulted a fallen ruberi rubber tree before darting off along a faint game trail.
The Crimson Company was almost a shadow of the Windtracer Company. A dark, brooding shadow that had a bad habit of stealing relics they didn’t poach for themselves. Unlike us Windtracers, they sold anything they stole or poached from a ruin.
By all rights, they ought to be rolling in money. Vargas was to an extent. The Company? Not so much. They had a bad habit of spending too much on wine, weapons, and debauchery. But that didn’t take away from their skills. They were deadly fighters and trackers.
I was better.
A throwing ax slammed into a tree, just missing my right hand.
So, I was only a little better. Right then, I needed to be a lot better.
“Idiot! Vargas said ‘no killing’. If you kill her, we can’t get out of her what she knows about the relic!” growled a voice to my left.
“I was only going to maim her a little!” whined a second.
Sprinting harder, I swallowed the urge to yelp or curse. There wasn’t any time. I could hear a group running hard not far behind me.
Beyond the branches, past the caribel trees and long, drooping agenti vines, the jungle thinned out to a sloped clearing. I dimly remembered it when my crew and I surveyed the area three days ago. It was the backside of a hill that sloped down to the riverbank where I had left the others. Perfect.
I ducked past the vines, avoiding the sweet-smelling sticky blossoms, before tearing past the mature caribel. The pendulum-like branches whipped at me as I passed. It stung a bit, but I was all focused on that hill and my crew on the riverbank. Then I broke through. Warm sunlight was a welcome feeling on my skin before I realized one little detail.
This was the wrong hill. It wasn’t even a hill.
The hill I remembered was a solid two hundred yards away, on the other side of a fast moving watercourse to the north. Its lovely northwest side sloped gently and gracefully toward the shoreline. Here? This was a small cliff that the watercourse spilled over into what looked like, from below, a magnificent waterfall.
It didn’t look so magnificent right then.
I stumbled to a stop just short of the cliff’s edge and looked over. There was the beach below with the longboat and my crew at camp. The cliff wasn’t a straight drop, most weren’t. But it was a good two or three hundred foot descent to the waterfall’s plunge pool below.
All I had with me, that I hadn’t left behind in the ruin, was a pair of daggers, a whip, compass, and a backpack with the relic. I had even lost my favorite machete dealing with a carnivorous vine bridge back in that place. So, I had literally nothing with me to deal with a waterfall or a long drop.
That time, I did curse under my breath and ran over to the edge of the small river.
It wasn’t wide, and there were several rocks that thrust up through the water. I could cross it. The problem was that the water here was moving fast, turning the space between myself and the other side into whitewater rapids. So there was a chance I could get swept into the water.
I sighed. Did I mention I wasn’t having a great day?
“Windtracer Tela Kioni…”
The voice from the far side of the clearing behind me drawled out my name with a slow, greasy texture. I closed my eyes for a moment, forcing some of the tension out of my shoulders. Slowly, I turned around, one hand on a dagger to face the speaker, Vincent Takeda Vargas.
“Vargas,” I replied, putting some acid under my tone.
He stood at the edge of the treeline, accompanied by a collection of his Crimson Company. Six men and women who looked as dirty and disheveled as anyone would be from running in the muddy, damp heat of the Anestri’for. Basically, the same way I looked.
Vargas? He might be perspiring in that sleeveless long coat and sand-colored ‘explorer outfit’ he wore. Other than that, he looked as clean as usual. Blond hair was combed neatly back and braided behind his head. There was barely a light tan to his human skin tone. Even the sword and daggers at his belt looked polished.
I still say he keeps scrolls of ‘clean me’ spells on him hidden somewhere. One day, I’ll manage to knock him out and rifle through his pockets to find out.
The greasy braggart strolled out a few steps from under the caribel branches shading him. His mercenaries stood their ground but shot me ugly glares.
“Tela. My dear. We must stop meeting like this.”
“Oh, shut it,” I snapped. “This wasn’t chance. You tracked me and my crew here.”
“You didn’t make it difficult.”
I rolled my eyes. The depths to which I disliked this man didn’t have a measurement. Out of instinct, I stepped back until I could tell my boot heels found where the small river kissed the rocky grass. Keeping any kind of distance between myself and Vargas was always a good idea.
“Don’t you have an honest living to do somewhere else? Like killing someone or overthrowing a kingdom?”
Vargas made a sour face and waved his right hand in limp, small circles.
“I don’t entirely do ‘honest’, you know that. Work? That I do. Such as taking the delightful relic you’ve pulled from that wretched death trap back in the jungle. I’ve at least two buyers, a baron and a guildmaster, that will most likely be at each other's throats to buy it first. I wonder who’ll win?”
A fly buzzed at the side of my face. I blew at it irritably and refused to entertain Vargas with a reply. He looked disappointed while he withdrew a kerchief from an inner pocket of his long coat to dab at the sweat on his forehead.
“Set it down, Tela. If you drop it on the ground, I’ll let you walk away. No harm done.”
The blade scars on my back near my left shoulder itched from the memory of the last time he ‘let me walk away’. I halfway turned to my right, holding the backpack over the fast moving water.
“Drop what? This?”
Vargas’ usual smug look turned dark and nasty.
“Tela. Don’t toy with me, I’m not stupid. A relic with a compass that can detect the direction and strength of magical fields? We both know how valuable that is. The Windtracers have been after it for some time. I’m well aware you won’t just throw it away.”
I grinned, but there was ice behind my expression.
“To keep it out of your greedy hands? In a heartbeat.”
One of his mercenaries, a big orc with a broken tusk wearing dirty red brigandine armor, took a step closer. I shook my head.
“Ah ah, big boy. You’re not nearly fast enough to get here before this pitches over the waterfall.”
“Tela, be reasonable,” Vargas said.
“I am,” I snapped, cutting him off. “If you get this,” I shook the pack in emphasis, “it’ll vanish into some ridiculous private collection and any money you get off it will get burnt on what? A good time in a pub? Well, except for your money, Vargas. You horde it like a dragon.”
The blond man sighed as if the weight of Awldor just came to rest on his shoulders.
“Why must you always make this so difficult?”
He poured all his emotion and frustration into that last word. So much that I couldn’t help but grin wider. Checkmate. I had the upper hand.
Vargas watched me for a moment. I could see in his eyes he was weighing the options. After a few seconds he waved his kerchief at me while he turned away.
“Kill her. The detector will survive the fall.”
I thought I had the upper hand. Funny how those things change so fast.
The Crimson Company thugs unleashed hell. Three light crossbows sang the same time I heard the others charge toward me. Me? I just dove off the bank into the river.
Water churned around me as the current yanked me toward the falls. It wasn’t the best choice I had, but it was better than my alternatives. There was a splash or two behind me. Probably Vargas’ mercenaries jumping in to fish me out. I was too busy to notice since I had just reached the overhang of the waterfall.
My feet found the hard rocks at the edge of the waterfall overhang. Planting my boots, I shoved off. There was nowhere to go but down.