Read Fireclaws - Search for the Golden Online
Authors: T. Michael Ford
Fireclaws: Search for the Golden
T. Michael Ford
This book is a work of fiction. All of the characters, situations and events portrayed in this novel are from the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, people, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form, electronic or mechanical without expressed written permission from T. Michael Ford.
No actual marmots were harmed in the writing of this book.
Copyright © 2015 T. Michael Ford
Table of Contents
With the release of my fourth book, I would like to thank the individuals who have stood by me and supported me the entire time. Once again, I would like to thank my father most of all. His aid, attention to detail, and creative suggestions have helped to shape this book more than any of the others; I would have been lost without him. Second, I would like to thank Betty, my editor, who did a wonderful job even though she did it over the holiday season.
I would like to thank Jenny Hentges for the amazing cover art. Each cover is even better than the one before!
Then there are my beta readers, who once again threw their constructive feedback right at me. Some of it I followed and some of it I didn’t, but I never questioned their commitment to make each book the best possible. Seriously, thank you, guys! Thank you, Cathy, George, and Mandy for all your work.
And last, but not least, I would like to thank everyone who supported my first three books after launch. It means a lot to me that you took the time to write a review or post on the author’s page. I love to hear from you guys, and your kind words and suggestions definitely kept me going; I really hope you lik
Fireclaws: Search for the Golde
Tired, cold and hungry, I pulled open the door to a battered old roadside inn along a forest road that had no real name that I could ascertain. By my best estimates, and Rosa’s magic map that I carried tucked in my boot, I was still a few miles inside the kingdom of Elcance. But my travel direction was leading me to a spot which, up until five years ago, had been a black-shaded area on all maps. The black areas denoted lands controlled by the Lich, the former Duke Pharmon. Even with the destruction of the Lifebane by the King and Queen of Sky Raven, the lands in black did not revert instantly back to hospitable zones for man, elf, or dwarf. In fact, they almost became more dangerous since the goblins, of course, had never left and ran amuck without leadership. The few humans who did venture into the area immediately after the war were bands of lawless mercenaries looking to fill the power vacuum and not peaceful settlers.
I would almost bet that a few miles up the road would be a military outpost whose sole purpose was to watch the border and warn off travelers from proceeding further. This inn probably owed much of its existence to catering to the outpost’s soldiers and the occasional desperate or foolish peddler.
Closing the heavy door behind me, I felt a wave of warmth hit me in the face along with the heavy smells of ale, cooked food, sweat, and a few odors more questionably rancid. Unconsciously, I straightened my leather traveling clothes and double-checked that the enchanted scarf that my employer and friend, Rosa, had made for me was still knotted around my throat.
It was only a little past mid-afternoon, but the bar was already half filled with off-duty soldiers and a few seedy looking travelers and gambler types. The room had perhaps twenty round tables with short benches in various stages of disrepair. Smoky lanterns illuminated the side walls and spoke volumes about this area not having access to even the most basic magic items. The lanterns cast a pall of thin smoke across the low ceiling and flickered routinely. Two lone windows made of poor quality glass, let in a minimal amount of sunlight. On the whole, the lamps and windows competed for ineffectuality.
The back of the room was dominated by a dark oak plank bar, which looked like it hadn’t seen a wax brush anytime recently. In one of the back corners, a flat stone fireplace roared invitingly, with an ancient-looking black hound asleep next to the hearth. On a stool in the other corner, a human male wearing leggings and a tunic strummed softly on a stringed instrument. He apparently had no inspiration, as well as no particular tune in mind at the moment.
As is usually the case, all activity in the tavern came to halt with the entrance of a newcomer, and I stopped for a few seconds to assess the situation and get my bearings. With a polite bob of my head, I walked quickly to the bar and sat down at the stool closest to the wall. At this juncture in time, the would-be troubadour began playing in earnest and quite loudly at that, not that any of the other patrons seemed to notice in the slightest. The sudden loud noise did make me jump a little, but I still managed a smile at the proprietor, a balding older human male wearing greasy pants and a barman’s apron. He walked out of the door behind the bar and approached me with a somewhat amused expression.
Resting his considerably-muscled hairy arms on the bar, he looked me up and down and finally spoke in a mild voice, just barely audible above the antics of the bard. “We don’t get many local lasses in here, young lady. Still, I don’t believe I’ve seen you before,” he said, idly picking up a mug. He inspected it critically, then started to shine it with a well-used rag.
“I’m traveling to visit relatives nearby and I was hoping you might have a hot meal available. I can pay,” I said, carefully aping his dialect of the common tongue, something I’ve had a lot of experience with these past five years.
He looked around the bar, making a judgment call, and nodded. “Just so long as you eat and leave. I wouldn’t recommend a young woman being here alone late in the evening. So what do you have a hankering for?”
I gave him a nod of appreciation and my most winning smile. “Anything with lots of vegetables would be wonderful, a small loaf of bread, and a mug of pressed cider if you have it.”
He chuckled. “Well, aren’t you in luck?” Putting away the mug he was polishing, he continued, “I didn’t get a meat delivery today so Marta, my wife, whipped up a nice vegetable stew, and she’s been baking bread and rolls all day.” I nodded eagerly but didn’t have the heart to tell him that I could have recited his entire menu, including liquor supply, the moment I stepped into the room - dark elves have keen noses. Neither did the lack of meat bother me; in fact, I desperately needed a break from deer, rabbit, and goat. The scent of the vegetables simmering in hot broth behind the kitchen door was making my mouth water.
“Two coppers…I’ll get your food ready, miss, and I’ll be right back. It’s probably safe enough for you to warm yourself by the fire; you look cold, girl.”
I gratefully slid the coins across the bar top and thanked him silently. I took the long way around the tables, avoiding the other bar patrons, to reach the fireplace. This place was old by human standards, the inch thick floorboards worn down by half in places. I rousted the fire a bit with the poker leaning against the hearth and tossed a couple more small logs onto the flames, then just let the warmth wash over me. After a week on the road, it felt heavenly, and I soaked up as much of the heat as possible. Reaching down, I absently scratched behind the ears of the old dog lying with a well-chewed throwing stick under his shaggy throat. As soon as I touched him, his head came up and his tail automatically began to beat an irregular drumbeat on the rough wood floor. Sitting on the hearth with my back to the flames, I petted him for a while, speaking in low, soothing tones. The thumping slowed to the cadence of a heartbeat as he brought his rheumy brown eyes up to mine, and he whined meaningfully for just a second. Whispering, I crouched down next to him and gently put a hand over his great heart briefly. The tail thumps picked up speed again as I rose to my feet, noting the barkeep had brought out my food and was watching me intently.
I retraced my route back to the bar, my ears registering that one of the soldiers had risen from his ale and was on an intercept course to stop me. But before he could approach within ten feet of me, a large metal ladle landed between us, jangling heavily on the rough plank floor.
“Corporal Targe, I’ll thank you not to be bothering my paying customers; not when you already owe the bar a tab of three silvers as it is!” I looked up and saw the proprietor pointing sternly at the soldier. The man hissed and gave me a regretful wink, but sat back down with his friends, laughing. I retrieved the ladle and returned it to its owner.
“The name’s Karll, miss.”
“Nice dog; is he yours?”
The barkeep smiled and looked across the room. “That’s old Bert, best dog I’ve ever had. He’s sixteen now, I keep expecting to find him dead there by the fire every morning when I open the bar.” I could see the old man getting misty-eyed. “Guard the house, herd goats, watch children, he could do it all. But he was always a fiend for playing chase the stick, he loved that more than life until his body just started to stiffen up on him. I guess it happens to us all, I feel it too these cold mornings.”
I sighed, wondering if I should proceed. “Karll, the food looks great. If you don’t mind a bit of advice, I’ve seen that look in a dog’s eyes before. I’m sorry, but I don’t think he’s got much time left.” I watched the old human gulp and his throat work up and down as if swallowing was painful. “I think he’s just holding on to play fetch with you one last time. I’m sure as a last request he’d appreciate a chance to do that again.”
Misty-eyed, he leaned across the bar and whispered, “You have a little of the sight, do you? We had a herbalist in the village where I grew up who could look at a man and tell you whether he would live or die in the next day.”
I shrugged noncommittally. He leaned forward even more with urgency. “A bit of advice for you then, Miss; keep that well under your hat and get to wherever you’re going quickly, you don’t want to hang around here.” He looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping and continued, “There’s a powerful wizard setting up a stronghold across the border. Word has it he’s been snatching anyone with a hint of magic off the trail and dragging them off. For what, I don’t know. But I do know none of them have been seen since.” He paused and then looked down in astonishment. The old dog had gotten up and was holding the stick in his mouth and vigorously wagging his tail at his master. By this time, tears were running freely down the barkeep’s cheeks.
“Marta,” he yelled through the door. “Watch the bar, I’m gonna take Bert out!” He walked around the bar, giving a little whistle. Karll looked at me incredulously. “Are you sure, Miss? Look at him; he’s like a young pup again!”
I nodded sadly as he waved me off and patted his leg for Bert to follow. Together they went outside and I returned to my food, most of which I had lost my enthusiasm for. As I dipped a chunk of rutabaga out of my bowl, I thought about what had brought me to this place.
Five years ago, after the destruction of the Lifebane, I volunteered and went to work for the Enchanters Hall at Sky Raven, ostensibly as a field assistant. At the time, I really wasn’t sure what that fully entailed, but my mentor, Rosa, insisted I would see the world. Well, she was mostly right. I had visions of walking the streets of far off cities, having lots of free time to investigate their libraries, absorb their culture, and see the sights…
I snickered to myself, the sights turned out to be far more pig wallow than breath-taking vistas. The human world was a mess. By most competent estimates, over sixty percent of the world’s population died in the war. The mountain and green elves, probably closer to fifty percent, but those numbers are sketchy. I know my people, the dark elves, suffered horribly, as much as seventy percent; we are but a shadow of our former glory. The dwarf peoples probably had the least physical casualties, but walling themselves up in their stone fortresses set them back socially as well as drained their society’s vigor. They, too, were no longer the strong people they once were. The Lifebane had waged war not only on the humanoid races, but in his mad desire to destroy all magic; he was responsible for nearly eliminating whole species. Merfolk, brownies, pixies, unicorns, and centaurs, just to name a few, were practically nonexistent now, and the world was a decidedly poorer place because of it.
The first three years of my employment, I performed what was jokingly referred to as the “ten labors of Ryliss” by the inhabitants of both Sky Raven and Xarparion, the wizard school. The two entities, one a center of learning, and the other the mightiest fortress on the planet, were so closely interwoven now that it was difficult to decide where one ended and the other began. Students, staff, guards, and even common folk were free to cross through the magic portal that linked the two anytime they desired. People now travel across half a continent with no more thought or care than they would crossing a well-known village street. Of course, the planet is now in a different galaxy from where it formed, so even the portals seem tame by comparison to that miracle of magic. Humans and elves alike, especially those plying their trades on the seas still struggle to figure out our “new” stars.
Xarparion was still rebuilding, even five years later, but the greatly enlarged central hall complex was now nearing completion. The old Xarparion had prominently featured five large towers, each reserved for students of each of the disciplines of the human-minded magics: fire, water, air, earth and healing. In the center of the ring of towers, the old Central had stood, but it had been completely razed in the war. The new Xarparion did away with the long-standing tower concept entirely. Now the buildings, which are still referred to as towers, are merely classrooms dedicated to those fundamentals. Wizard students now live, eat, sleep, and learn together as one cohesive student body, only breaking apart for a few hours each day for their specialty classes.
Hons, the Headmaster of Xarparion, works tirelessly to keep the wizard population engaged with regular people. Every wizard student is required to attain a base proficiency in a mundane weapon, usually a staff or sword. This was mandated so that if they ever encounter a situation where magic fails them, they have a fallback defense. The horrifying scenes of the undead sack of the old Xarparion are still vivid in many wizard minds. A secondary benefit, however, is that it forces the students to train and work with the school’s guard force and weapons trainers, most of whom are normal humans or one of the other races. Getting knocked on your butt a few dozen times in a row has a remarkable effect of deflating the naturally inflated egos of wizards. Queen Maya takes a particular interest in occasionally overseeing the weapons instructions personally; needless to say, slacking off is not an option. No one wants the mindset of old Xarparion to resurface, where wizards once considered everyone without magic beneath them and inferior.
Sky Raven benefits from this conjoined arrangement as well. Typically, more healers are in training rotations at the fortress than in the school itself. Fed by a large influx of refugees seeking a better, more secure environment, the burgeoning local farms and villages around the citadel are never short of medical attention. In turn, the citadel is provided with a constant supply of medicinal herbs, food, and trade commodities. Besides the heavy presence of the healers at Sky Raven, a fair number of earth wizards make their home there as well. They find the unimaginable mass of the great walls of the mountaintop fortress to be somehow spiritual and soothing at the same time; at least, that’s how Hons explains it. The Headmaster keeps an apartment in both locations, but truthfully, he greets the day at Sky Raven more often than not. Last but not least, Sky Raven is also the permanent home of the Enchanters Hall, still stuck at only two actual wizards; my mentor, Rosa, and King Alex. But with the renewed flow of magic into the world, Rosa says we will have to expand the hall to a real building someday soon. The Royal Princess Belle is already displaying impressive enchanting abilities, and she is only four years old. I sometimes shudder when I think what powers she will have when she reaches puberty, not to mention she appears to be a perfect copy of her gorgeous mother.
Anyway, my first three years were taken up by Rosa testing my resolve, ingenuity, and surprising ability to not get myself killed. Such monumental quests as retrieving a dozen carnelian coneflowers from the high meadows of the Fenorian Alps, searching for dire beaver claws in an active bubbling tar pit in the jungles of Boal…I stunk for a month after that one! Even when I did get an assignment in a civilized area, I was more likely to be prowling the sewers than the libraries. I had a sneaking suspicion that Rosa had saved up all these tasks over her seven-hundred-plus-year lifetime, decided which were no fun and put them on a shelf for future reference. And that’s where I fell into her trap.
Fortunately, I passed all her tests and always returned with the goods and mostly unharmed. Of course, having a traveling companion twelve feet long, fangs to tail, with four-inch sickle claws, had a lot to do with the unharmed part. Naurakka, or “Fireclaws” in my native tongue, is fully grown now, the embodiment of sleek, black, death on four feet - a Jag’uri Puma. Next to dragons, a Jag’uri is the one creature sure to drive fear into the hearts of dark elves, and my people do not fear much in this world. Having never seen one, elves in most localities speak of Jag’uri sightings around campfires like ghost stories to frighten small children. Most humans in the settled lands naively consider them a fanciful myth.
Naurakka and I are relatively uncomplicated. I saved her life as a kitten when her mother was killed, and she hasn’t left my side for long since. Our first trip out on our own on assignment for Rosa was a disaster. I left on a horse with packs and full gear and returned with just the clothes on my back and the item I was sent to retrieve. Who knew trolls loved horseflesh so much? Ever since then, it’s just been easier to use my shape-changing abilities to mimic another Jag’uri and travel as a big cat. The downside is an all meat diet, raw and steamy at that. Periodically, I feel the desire to walk on two feet again and eat human food that doesn’t try to bite back or escape, which is exactly why I’m sitting in this seedy bar right now.
For a moment, I pondered the wonder of it all; six years ago I was a librarian working in the dark elf capital. I had no real friends, a job I enjoyed, but which would never allow me to be anything more in life; pretty much a non-entity. That was before Alex, Maya and the Druid girls, Lin and Julia, rode into town. Since then…well, life has changed a lot and for the better. Now I have friends, an exciting career, and a real purpose. The proper dark elf in me still nags incessantly in the back of my mind that I need to return to my roots someday; the deep forbidding forests that my people call home, find a mate, and settle down. But, I reflected with a slight grin, I’ve never been a proper dark elf. Still, wandering around the world alone is pretty radical stuff by my people’s standards.
I would never be able to do this without the aid of Rosa’s scarf enchantment because dark elves are, at best, still viewed with suspicion, and in most locales, downright hostility. To everyone in this bar, I look like whatever they expect to see, probably a rather plain local girl in unremarkable clothes and speaking in a local dialect. I’m not sure what enchantments Rosa used, but the scarf has not failed me thus far. It was capable of a few other disguises as well, but those I have to concentrate on to make happen. Generally, I find it best to just let it work its magic without my guidance.
Sopping up the last bit of flavorful gravy with a chunk of fresh bread, I directed my mind to consider my next course of action. Thus far, my trip was an abject and dismal failure and that is not a credible option in my opinion, especially with what is at stake. Not only that, but it rankles my professional pride and ego to go back empty-handed. I took a swig of hard cider and a long, trilling puma growl erupted harshly under my breath. I glanced around nervously, unsure if anyone had heard my outburst. Yeah, I have definitely been spending too much time as a Jag’uri.
Roughly six weeks ago now, Naurakka and I were just crossing the river bridge in front of Sky Raven and feeling pretty darn good about it. Within its two-hundred-foot high white stone walls would be a welcoming hot bath, clean clothes, and a chance to catch up with good friends. I smiled thinking how much I had let this place get under my skin; it was truly home for us both.
I rubbernecked a bit at the tent city that had somehow sprung up on the far banks since I left. It appeared that the number of travelers and wagon trains making the circuit between the dwarf capital, Sky Raven, and the port was picking up nicely. Tearing myself away from gawking, I considered the completion of my mission. In my pack were charcoal rubbings detailing all the carvings on a mysterious plinth that stuck up in the middle of the eastern Javano desert. I knew Rosa would be immediately pleased and then forget all about it when she spotted the equivalent of a mental bright shiny object or another project caught her fancy. That was the peril of working for a half-crazed old elf. Gratefully removing the enchanted scarf, I tucked it into my pouch, assured that I now looked like my real self, a modest dark elf woman. It felt good not to have to hide my true nature anymore. I tossed back my silver and yellow hair, and put on my best smile. A few good-natured catcalls and shouts of recognition rang out from the human guards manning the barbican above the main gates. The doors were open as usual during core daylight hours. A dozen steps into the main courtyard, I took a deep happy breath and nearly collided with an enormous white wall of horseflesh. Blocking my entry and view, Somnus eyed me and nickered, tossing his monstrous head up and down and then quieted.
Shaking my head, I consented to scratch his forehead between his big ears and running my hands through the icy flames that constituted his mane. “Hey buddy, how’s Somnus today, huh?…fun loving as ever?” I cooed. For whatever reason, the past few trips, Somnus had taken to greeting me and sending me off personally. I wasn’t sure how he knew when I was arriving and when I was leaving, but he was always there, and no one in their right mind was going to try and stop him. After taking a few large inhalations of scent from around me and accepting a little more attention, the great horse finally snorted and stalked away stiff legged with an air of regal indifference. “Ok…well, I hope that was as good for you as it was for me, then…” I called after him with a grin.
“You know he doesn’t greet anyone else here like that,” a voice spoke from behind me. I turned to see Guard Commander Ebony walking up with a big smile on her face. The Helios was, of course, her usual radiant gold color, decked out in full armor, sans helm, with a long sword slung across her back. “Welcome home!” she said, clapping an armored hand on my shoulder. “Adventuring agrees with you; you have become more confident and radiant with every trip. Soon you will be rivaling our Queen in beauty.”
“Not likely,” I returned with a snort, finally looking around. The main courtyard had a number of travelers, merchants, and warrior types in it. At the moment, however, most of them were pressed up against the walls, unmoving. They watched in horrified fascination as Naurakka sat calmly down next to me and proceeded to lick one of her massive paws primly. I leaned into Ebony and whispered. “What? They should be used to seeing dark elves by now.”
“Most of these people arrived just this morning with that caravan outside, they’ve seen dark elves going about their business here all day. No, I think it’s Naurakka they are surprised to see.” The guardswoman smirked and then raised her voice to the crowd. “Relax people, the giant cat is friendly…unless it’s hungry…go on with your business.”
Their reaction was interrupted by a loud buzzing sound that heralded the arrival of a super pixie on a serious mission. Nia made a short velocity-shedding loop and ended up hovering just inches from my face.
“By the stars, Ryliss! We expected you a week ago!”
“You try and run with cholla spines in your paws, Nia! Besides, no one said anything about a time limit; I got the darn rubbings,” I said somewhat crossly. I mean, really…some decent food and drink, plus a hot bath would be nice before the serious debriefings began.
Nia just looked at me blankly as she processed what I had said. “No, Ryliss, this is an emergency! Alex and Maya need to see you right away. They’re in their room, so c’mon, let’s fly!”
Crap! I patted my puma on the head and directed her to wait in our quarters, watching her amble archly off. She made a special point of veering close to some of the merchants on the way and I’m pretty sure was the direct cause of some mysterious puddles appearing on the cobblestone street. Ducking out of sight behind a tack shed, I started the mental vision process and willed myself to become a black bird. My clothes morphed into feathers, as I shrunk, nose and mouth became a beak, and long elf legs shortened to mere stubs of bone and claw. Change complete, I took off after Nia. Pixies are slow flyers over long distances, and I caught up to her before we were even halfway up to the magnificent keep lording over the back of Sky Raven. Landing on the stone balcony which led to the Royal rooms, I ducked down so that I was mostly shielded from sight by the ornate railings and changed back. Smoothing my hair down as best I could and hoping my appearance wasn’t too outlandish for royalty, I reached out, and tapped politely on the glass.