Captured wind blew against Athia’s huge kite, pulling her and her riding board down the remains of a worn road. It beat walking and riding in both mobility and fun. She whistled as she rode, trying to piece together a song with the scrapes and pops of her board’s metal lining.
It didn’t work so well as she hoped, but she found it fun. That was the important part. Why travel alone if you couldn’t enjoy your own company?
When a merchant cart grew closer, Athia flicked her board to the side and skidded through the grass.
“Hiyo!” she shouted, waving one hand as the wind blew back her hair.
The little cart’s guard gave her a dirty look while the driver mushed the horse faster. Athia snorted at that, not too surprised. People grew wary this close to the old capital. Technically still the capital anyway. None of the provinces wanted to admit the nation of Loiys truly fell. All the little factions thought they’d be the one to finally retake Clarient and rule through the silent city.
For her part, Athia quite liked not having a king or queen, or really any other upstart with a gold hat. Let the rebels keep Clarient! After fifteen years of squatting, they had as good a claim as anyone.
The thought of it pulled her attention East. She squinted and a small speck focused into a purpose-built shape, the barest suggestion of the city’s large walls. That meant she was just inside Clarient’s territory, where the Einarr kept what little control they could. They could hold the walls in an invasion, but their grip on the surrounding lands shrunk by the week.
Clarient couldn’t keep its lands safe, but it also didn’t get much trade. That meant robbers preferred to set up on the roads in the neighboring province of Lerian, ruled by the duke turned little-king Lerian.
Those robbers that setup in the more lawless Clarient lands were plentiful still, but less dangerous than Lerians’s guards. She’d take bandits any day of the week. Bandits meant money.
Her attention flicked up to a bend in the road. Large trees hid much of the curve. A gust of wind knocked orange leaves into the air where they fluttered free under the shadows of migrating birds. Athia’s sail pulled her against the breeze, she paid extra for that. The handhold regulated the kite’s wind control at her gesture. It split the breeze and let her power through at speed. Wasn’t cheap, and she needed to get it recharged soon.
She pulled on the handle and twisted, making it pull her upward as she jumped a ruined section of road. The board touched down and bounced off uneven stones. Above, the wind shifted to pull her around the bend.
Her eyes flicked to the tree line, back and forth as she took in the area. They should be-
A man materialized just in front of her, brandishing a heavy hatchet and self-important grin.
Seeing this and expecting to be surprised; but nonetheless surprised, Athia said, “waaaaaaa!”
She jumped and turned. She rose six feet off the ground in a blur, spun, and slammed the side of her board into the man’s jaw. It knocked him forward and she twisted and kicked the board off his back. He shrieked as his spine arched before he slammed to the ground.
The board touched down and slowed as the kite retracted into Athia’s hand.
“Woah pal what was that about?!” She yanked her feet free of the board and sat the kite on it.
With her back straight, Athia stood a just over six feet tall, built sturdy and strong. A mixture of her parentage and lots of effort. Tanned skin and short, tied brown hair matched her rough worn traveler’s garb and simple breastplate. One scar run up her neck to her jaw, which she wore with pride. Leather bracers held either wrist, both tall and strapped secure. Two small spikes with unsharpened edges and flat, weighted pommels rested in sheaths on the bottom of either bracer, attached back to the leather by a small cord on the pommels.
“I didn’t break a leg or foot did I?” she asked, “that’d be inconvenient for both of us.”
The man writhed, then rolled to stare at her, jaw unhinged. “Ooo urry ish!” he groaned, “em onnuh ap ooo!”
“Malicious gibberish, my favorite!” Athia stood up on her toes, hand over her eyes, and scanned the trees. “Where’s your friends?” Making a show always brought out the worst in her targets.
A hint of movement grabbed her attention. One of the spikes shot from its sheath, its cord lengthening unnaturally with one of her practiced powers. The reach. It hit an arrow midair, deflecting it before the head exploded in a powerful crack.
At the same time, her other spike shot out and planted into a tree behind her. Small barbs on it grew, via the same power, and embedded in the wood. Then the cord shortened as her power left it, yanking her back while her feet went slick.
Athia shot away as another arrow popped where she’d been. Her first spike retracted until she spun it on its cord, fast enough that it whirred with each rotation. When she vanished into the tree line, four men ran out from their hiding places across the road.
One went to check on their fallen ally while the others advanced toward their elusive quarry.
Athia swung around the hooked tree, then disengaged her spike. It retracted into its own spinning motion, like the other. When her path lined up, she tossed both forward, embedding into separate trees up ahead. They caught and she cranked up her other power, momentum.
No more friction on her feet, air drag vanished, and inertia dampened. Her spikes retracted, catapulting her forward at high speed.
She shot up and out the woods so fast only one bandit noticed. He raised his short sword and small shield. His blade extended much like Athia’s. It and the shield pegged him as a former soldier, and they all used the same style. Offensive reach and its defensive compliment.
Athia’s spikes released and shot back to her hands. She soared through the air, eight feet above the road, and began to whip her spikes in spins once more. One of them flung out toward the man, moving toward his center mass.
Her spike curved by supernatural force. And not hers. The second forte of soldiers, the pull, sucked the spike into the shield. But she knew it would.
Athia waited until her spike hit the shield, then the barbs expanded. Her momentum continued and her foe’s blade neared. She torqued her hips into a spin.
The spike ripped the shield off the man’s arm, she spun past his attack, and her second spike’s hammer-like pommel slammed across the man’s gut. He fell while one of the others knocked an arrow.
The arrow missed as she vanished into trees on the other side of the road.
“It Below,” one of them shouted.
An instant later, she blasted out at them again, spikes whirring. One snapped the bandit’s bow, the second broke his nose, then a third strike broke his wrist. She slid past him, a little bit of friction returning to slow her. The remaining two charged her.
They both hit the ground before their third step.
Athia slid to a stop before the ex-soldier, knuckles on her hips. “You’re the leader right?’ she asked. “Have to be, only one who has an idea what he’s doing.”
He got to his knees, clutching his hand to his stomach. “What do you want?”
Athia pointed at him, then herself. “Who are you?”
She cut him off, “no, no, you ask me.”
His nose flared, “who are you?”
She grinned, “Athia Fensa, Lover and fighter.” Her fingers snapped, turning into a double point at the man. “There’s a bounty on your heads.”
The bandit spat.
“But, I won’t turn you in. On one condition.”
“You show me your stash. If it’s a decent haul, I’ll take that. And your weapons. And your food. You get to be free men, just not here.”
One of the others asked, “wait, are you blackmailing us?”
She swung one of her spikes in a lazy circle. “I get your stolen goods, and your banditry tools, you get to run away and live free. Alternatively, everybody gives me an ear. And I hear that’s not fun.”
. . . . .
Athia returned most the goods she took in lieu of ears as her proof. Most of the goods. If it wasn’t explicitly listed as stolen or identifiable, she kept it. Who’s to say if that was stolen or property of the bandits?
That made her a nice little sum of three rens, the Loysinian currency. Even with the nation fractured most the provinces kept the same currency. Easier that way, especially since the mint in distant Tinwald still produced. How that impacted the economy and political situation of the area was of little consequence to Athia at that moment. Because Clarient, in their rebellious fervor, minted their own worthless coins.
“Clariens?” she asked, holding up the worthless tin tokens. “This is a joke.”
The Lerian sergeant snorted, then spit a heavy glob of mucus. “This is the posted payment. More than you deserve if you couldn’t get the ears.”
A few soldiers glanced her way, positioned near the palisade’s gate. The fort sat on the border of Lerian and Clarient, watching out for any encroachment. The guards wore simple leathers, about as protective as positive thoughts. Their more well-to-do captain sported chainmail that hugged his gut.
Athia sized them up, fingers stretching with anticipation. “This isn’t Clarient, giving me this junk is a scam.”
He pointed westward, toward the old capital. “It’s a short walk to go spend it.”
Athia’s eye twitched, but she didn’t fancy her chances in a fight, not surrounded in the fort. Sure, she could escape, but what good would it do to start a fight she couldn’t gain anything from?
“How about you give me some real money and we call it even?”
The man wet his lower lip, “that sounds a bit like extortion, Ms. Renna.”
Athia rolled her shoulders as the man spoke the fake name. She stood three inches over the sergeant, something the man didn’t much like. “You like your odds against me? Must if you’re trying to pull this. I know about the guys you’ve got by the barracks.”
She didn’t, but the insinuation was just vague enough for the captain to shrink back. “I’ll toss in a ren an’ half, on top of the Clariens.”
Athia held out her palm and the captain placed the money. She took both and bit, finding them legitimate. “We’ve reached an accord, captain. Enjoy your safe roads and cold nights.”
He glared at her, face so taut it hid his wrinkles. “Second Sun is setting soon, a young woman shouldn’t take the roads alone at night. Lurkers gather outside Clarient, it’s like hitting the frontier.”
Athia walked backwards to the gate. “Wish them well and you might get these Clariens back!”
When she left, one of the soldiers ripped the sergeant. “No wonder you go that promotion captain, sure handled her.”
On her way out, she stopped at a booth like building and leaned against the table. An older man sat inside the small room, surrounded by small coins stuck to the walls, each labelled. He looked at Athia and slid over a small piece of paper and a sharpened chunk of charcoal.
Athia scribbled a quick note and said, “this is for Lea of the Tricorn, living in Olstin.” She rolled it up into a tight bundle and slid it back to the man, along with a ren piece to cover the cost.
He put a quick shorthand scratch on the outside of the note, then he pressed it through a coin labelled “Olstin” and it disappeared.
With that done, Athia pulled the kite off her back and threw it. The wind picked up as she slipped her feet into the stirrups of her board. With an application of momentum, wind pulled her down the road. After gaining some ground, she glanced over her shoulder. No arrows in pursuit. Nice.
Confidence could sell just about any bluff, especially to someone not used to being challenged. It didn’t get her everything, but it would do. This close to Clarient, she figured she could take a detour that way and cash out. Or at least try.
Athia ducked off the road and collected her things, she wasn’t dumb enough to bring all her valuables into that fort. With all in order, she took back to the road. Fatigue already wore down on her as the Second Sun, the Shepherd, dipped low. After several days of travel, she really wanted a comfortable night. If things went well with the sergeant, she might have risked it.
Instead, Athia would travel on as far as she could in the light. The sergeant told the truth about the dangers, but she kept a few tricks. Travel continued until dusk encroached and the Shepherd laid to rest. She found a small flat area hidden in the trees, just off the road before it became too dark to see.
Athia started a little fire and unfurled her sleeping roll. With that done, one of her spikes sprung from its sheath into her hand. The blade extended until it touched the ground. She used it to trace a circle around her camp. Then she pulled a line into the circle, near to where she’d sleep, and drew a gate. Off that she traced a star formation around the moon and added swirling tendrils from behind the gate.
Her crude drawings served for a simple ward. The circle around her was the fence, denoting what the spell encompassed. It connected to its base, the drawn gate, which signified the purpose of the spell to keep out lurkers. The night sky was the source, where she hoped the power would come. If It in the Stars blessed Athia, which she was confident in, then the goddess would keep her safe from It of the Unseen’s servants.
Spells like this depended on history of use to give them legitimacy, a strong connection to the power source, and a manner of teaching in how to focus it. In the end, it was a language. This one said, “I ask It in the Stars to keep lurkers out of this circle.”
She trusted it enough to sit down, boil some water and pour in a dried stew mix. The steaming cauldron brought it all back to life and she ate a warm meal while the temperature dropped. When she finished, she laid back and watched the stars. The clouds drifted until the Moon, It in the Stars, peeked down at Athia.
“Fate makes roads, but will makes travels,” she said, the most common refrain of those who worshipped the Moon goddess. “Under your gaze I do not fear what lurks.”
With the chirp of bugs and fall breeze, Athia fell asleep.
The fire and a thick blanket kept out the chill. When the First Sun rose, the Creator, so did Athia. She yawned and flicked her eyes over the area. Deep scratches rut the ground around the circle. Small pebbles sat near her ward’s base, the gate, in a crude attempt to disrupt it.
“Spooky,” she said to herself.
It took twenty minutes to pick up her things. Then her kite unfurled and she took off once more.