Tyrissa is a Valkwitch, a wandering enforcer against rogue elemental magic. Her latest mission takes her upriver and deep into the swampy backwoods of the Khalan Federation. There, she finds this task is not quite like the others. For once her steady purpose is murky, clouded by doubt. Tyrissa has been a force of vengeance and justice. Can she be mercy as well?
Waterlogged is a follow-up story to Valkwitch and can be read as a stand-alone. It takes place about six months after the end of Valkwitch.
Excerpt: Chapter One.
Tyrissa leaned against the railing of a docked river barge and watched her reflection ripple in the port’s calm waters, the morning sunlight and gentle bobbing of the barge conspiring to display an unrecognizable self-image. The last year of her life had changed so much even a proper mirror would show a face that might as well belong to a stranger. Still with a little youthful roundness that was almost gone. Still with the bright blue eyes holding a touch of trouble. She was the same on the surface but there was something more behind it all. The weight of purpose and the obligation of a Pact, a magickal deal with powers beyond etched onto her soul.
Tyrissa was a Valkwitch, an enforcer of balance among the warring and predatory Elemental Powers, their creations, and their agents. At least, that’s what she’d figured out thus far. She didn’t have a complete grasp her new, inherited role. There were more than a few unknown corners and haunting mysteries. But she had the basics down, a title and a purpose, the understanding of which she earned through months of blood and struggle and doubt and fear.
She looked out across the port’s waters, allowing such thoughts to return to their customary place in the back of her mind. To the east lay the great mercantile city of Khalanheim, a swatch of rooftops and spires spewing smoke and steam, all contained within grand gray walls. Those vaporous columns rose in angled lines, spurred westward by unceasing winds. The city was technically her home now but she’d spent far more time away from it than within. With every completed Calling of her Pact (as she’d come to describe them), she’d return to the townhome she shared with her brother, only to be pulled away a short time later. It didn’t leave much time to settle down and consider a single place a home. And so here she was once again, just upriver in the port of Orten, one of Khalanheim’s satellite towns devoted to managing the endless flow of trade from all corners of the continent.
The port of Orten was a glittering example of Khalan design, with orderly rows of warehouses and shipping services running out from the half-circle port area like rays of an overly geometric sun. The buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, uniformly three stories tall with neat grids of windows on their faces and pointed gables lined up like saw teeth.
Tyrissa leaned on a railing belonging to the lower deck of the river barge Drifter of Kosin. The Drifter was a workhorse hauler, a three tiered box of wood and metal, its sparse accents making it appear either freshly built from the shipyard or stripped down and ready for the scrapyard. Tyrissa had no idea who, what, or where Kosin was.
The Drifter’s crew hustled about the boat to make ready for their latest haul. Scattered among the crew and trying not be in the way were a number of guards settling in their own gear and supplies, all members of Kadrich’s Cadre, a mercenary troop turned security guild. Tyrissa recognized a few of them, having served in the Cadre for a time last year. They possessed a different sort of toughened look from the riverboat crew: of well-trained muscle instead of sun-worked leather.
Jesca van Rild joined her at the railing. An officer of the Cadre and formerly Tyrissa’s superior, Tyrissa often thought of Jesca as a short woman, but that was colored by her own heightened perspective. Jesca was about average height, with short brown hair framing a face that always seemed a little too pretty for security work, though her physique and usual tough expression were right in line with her chosen profession.
Jesca normally wore the red and white of the Cadre on jobs, but this was another of her preferred deceptive contracts. There wasn’t a scrap of identifying heraldry among the security beyond a few tattooed touches on the contingent’s men.
Tyrissa murmured a polite greeting, still uncertain where things stood between them.
“We’ll cast off shortly, as soon as the cargo’s loaded,” Jesca said with a slight twist to ‘cargo’.
“What’s actually in there?” Tyrissa asked, forgoing formality and trying to be casual in an attempt to put Jesca at an ease approaching what they used to have.
“Junk. Scrap metal. Boxed up to look like genuine, valuable cargo to anyone who might be watching us here and give the boat the proper draft in the river,” Jesca replied in the hasty, clipping accent of Khalanheim. “We’re still doing a run worth something to someone once the boat gets to Eizba.”
“Can’t let a good trip upriver go to waste,” Tyrissa agreed. Such mercantile efficiency was bred deep into the Khalans, not second nature but first.
“Exactly. We must look the part, for the bandits’ sake. They know not to target boats in the employ of Southwest or their affiliates. Those have better security on board and are more likely to provoke a response if raided, insurance or no.”
“A response like us?”
“Not quite. This contract’s in the service of a concerned citizen of means. He has limited interest in the river trade, but he’s from the area and is a fan of some tier of justice.”
“He gave us some contacts up in Stotten to round out our numbers with local guards. We’ll draw out who we can with the boat ruse, then team up with a supplement of local lawmen to attack their hideout. Given the client’s from the area it might even be some long-term settling of a grudge.” Jesca shrugged. “Suppose it doesn’t matter. His money’s good and the cause is just enough for us.”
“Who are we dealing with?” Tyrissa asked. Jesca had agreed to bring her on as an additional ‘freelancer’ but was mum on the greater details up to this point. All she knew was the bandit group in question had some kind of magick or strong elchemical assistance, and her Pact’s Calling had her pointed toward the same region.
“We’re certain it’s a bandit group operating under the name ‘The Sons of Amatha’. That name shifts around and pops up regularly in the ‘Meek,” Jesca waved a limp hand back and forth, then tightened into a fist. “Then they get a too big and have to be culled like a weed, only to sprout up once again a few years later.”
“Such is the strength of a good local legend.” Hearing the name had shaken loose a piece of Khalan history Tyrissa had read. Amatha was a legendary seer and pirate queen from the region around the junction of the two great rivers of the Khalan lands, the Rilder and the Dreve. Amatha reigned over the rivers and swamps for decades, her fleets exacting a consistent toll on river traffic. Her own ending varied. She was brought down either by age, the lack of an heir, the consolidation of the river trade under the Prime guilds and their security forces, or some combination of the three.
“Their attacks have mostly occurred on the River Callen, between the fork with the Upper Dreve and the end of the northern swamps. Anyone running between Eizba and the Dreve aren’t using Southwest’s boats, and thus don’t have Southwest’s security or insurance. They’re easier targets and look much like us.”
Looking around the port, one could see that each boat and business wore an identifying crest, stylized or simple, upon its hull or above its door. The majority of crests carried the silver and marine blue of Khalan Southwest, one of the nation’s six Prime Trade Guilds. Scattered among the Prime’s presence and breaking their not-quite monopoly of river trade were dozens of small, independent haulers and river transit operators, like the Drifter, as well as boats bearing the heraldry of Felarill, a maritime nation connected to Khalanheim through the great river system and its canals. Tyrissa felt a twinge of envy toward the luxurious riverboats docked across the port, but glamorous travel was much too slow for her purposes.
Arranging a ride toward her newest Calling had allowed her to travel light this time. Just her staff, a six-foot haft of rare, storm gray steeloak bound with three steel bands, a long dagger emblazoned with the symbol of the Valkwitch found during last year’s long search for what exactly a Valkwitch was, and a small pack of clothes with an obligatory book: Trelian Y’sho’s Windswept Stone, a translated Hithian text on the Wind-Earth elemental pairing.
Tyrissa and Jesca stood in localized silence for a time, listening to the rhymes of the longshoremen’s chants over the sounds of the port. Like the zeppelin docks down in Khalanheim along the Rift, many of the dockworkers in Orten were part Hithian and they sang in the heady patois of Hithan and Northern. Another set of Cadre members boarded the Drifter and Jesca raised her hand in greeting. She received quick, casual salutes in return.
“Why only regulars on this contract?” Tyrissa asked. “If we suspect the Sons of Amatha have magick or even Pactbound assistance doesn’t the Cadre have a group of guys devoted to that?” There were always men who relished the challenge of facing down something or someone with a distinct, magickal advantage and coming out on top. Tyrissa was quite good friends with a couple.
“They’re all on assignment.” Jesca said with curt finality on the subject.
Tyrissa barged right through. “All of them? There trouble I don’t know about?” She hadn’t felt anything else from her own Pact beyond the Calling towards the Upper Rildermeek, but perhaps she should be grateful that she wasn’t the sole line of defense against elemental aggressions on the continent.
“I can’t tell you, Ty. Not since you’re a freelancer on this one. There’s a reason I didn’t deny your request to come with us, favor or no favor. We could use the edge you provide, just in case.” At least she still called her ‘Ty’ instead the more formal ‘Jorensen’. They still had that much of a rapport remaining. Notable enough for a relationship built on a lie then salvaged with a spot of heroism. Still, there was more than a little irony of being terminated from the Cadre for being Pactbound, yet hired as a contractor for that exact reason.
“We’re stretched thin from summer traffic,” Jesca said after a momentary pause. “It’s been a busy season. A lot of trouble on the roads and rivers and a plenty of new ventures in need of protection.”
Tyrissa nodded, knowing full well how busy it was. After becoming a Valkwitch in full, she’d had a brief respite in the winter and into spring. But as the temperatures rose she’d been darting around the Khalan Federation, following the Callings of her Pact and dealing with a different tier of threat than the Cadre. A coven of entirely mad Fireweavers north of Velhem, a Wind Elemental hunt a few weeks back, more Fire-related trouble in Enshala, an illegal experiment gone out of control, followed by hunting down the last firepact responsible. She was still so new to it all but Fire seemed the most common, appropriate that it was the chief element of the ten to run rampant most often. Callings against monsters and elemental creatures were the easy ones, not much different from hunting a stag or a wurm or any other mundane animal. Well, aside from the elemental magicks at her quarry’s command.
“And what about you? I seem to recall you saying you were a city girl?” Tyrissa gave Jesca a friendly nudge with her elbow. The other woman tensed up at her touch. She still had some repairs to do.
“I can no longer be so choosy with my contracts. Your turn, Ty. Tell me what you…err…sense about his job.” Tyrissa had explained her new nature to Jesca twice now, recently and months ago when she couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. Though to be accurate, Tyrissa was always this was as long as Jesca had known her. Just not quite complete at the time.
Seek. Judge. Purge. Repair. Formally those were the only direct commands of her Valkwitch Pact. Everything else was up to her and a particular Calling’s variable sense of guidance.
“Well, the reports of the river’s current going still, along with the unseasonable traces of ice and snow point towards a human waterpact. Especially since he or she is coordinating with the bandits. No creature or elemental would cooperate with a group like the Sons. Low and middle level criminal organizations don’t have the expertise to harness an elemental.”
“And you can…deal with a waterpact?” Jesca asked, words heavy with doubt. Trusting a Pactbound, even Tyrissa, was a calculated risk on her part, the balance of trusting the person against the external, unpredictable influences of the Pact itself.
“Of course,” Tyrissa replied with false certainty. “However, I don’t have much exposure to the Water to Fire process in particular.”
“Meaning your control of fire magick. The most dangerous element to have running wild?”
“Second most,” Tyrissa replied lightly. “Death magick is far more dangerous.” She hadn’t yet touched either side of that pair and she feared the day when she must.
“So how will you…,”
“The fundamentals of controlling each element are the same across all of them.” She was making this part up. Or at least, it’s what Tyrissa extrapolated from previous, incomplete experience. Of the full array of elemental powers she was only truly comfortable with three out of the ten, four if you counted the murky element tied to her own Pact. Some called it Divinity, others Purity, still others Balance.
“I’ll be fine,” Tyrissa assured Jesca. “I’ll just have to improvise a little.”
Jesca gave her a withering look, but clearly was suppressing the quirk of a smile.
“Well, try to keep in mind we’re traveling on a giant pile of wood, yeah?”
“I think I can manage that much.”
“Another thing, Ty,” Jesca said after a pause and turning to her with a serious look. “I don’t mind you being causal with me at times like this. It’s refreshing. But in front of the crew and the Cadre, please stick to, ah, Commander van Rild.”
“You were promoted?” Tyrissa asked to assuage the different sort of uncomfortable tenor Jesca gave off. “Congratulations…?”
Jesca nodded. “Thanks. It’s still a recent event. Some of the Cadre aren’t thrilled with it. Combination of youth and having the right last name, you know? That’s why I can’t be too picky with assignments anymore.” It was a significant command, with a good fifteen Cadre members, so far as Tyrissa had counted, for a long-distance mission over multiple weeks. A considerable step up from the small bands for single nights Jesca led while Tyrissa had been in the Cadre.
“I will try to keep it formal then, Commander.”
That produced a grin, at least. “Right,” Jesca said while pushing away from the railing. “Looks about time to cast off.”
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2015