The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

All Good Things

In the far distant south, past the fever swamps of Trolah and beyond even the Nightmare Mangroves of the Thrice Killed King, there lies is a range of hills at the very feet of the high-fells. A place still shrouded in a white mist that clings to the valleys like cobwebs. A place where the forests are as tall as they are dark and are far more ancient than man. It is an old place filled with old things; the grim spectres and shades of monsters which haunted and hunted man even before he had mastered fire or learned to speak. Only a fool ventures into these hills. For despite all of man’s might and pretensions at civilisation, the old things still hold sway and can still make you very, very dead. But amidst a night made of knives and teeth, a small clan have forged a life. They are a people of dusty brown skin and their tales say they were hewn from the foundation stones of the earth, back in the Old Time when the world was young. If you ever meet them, you would like as not agree with their tales. They spend their lives like coiled springs, filled with raw power, yet it is a power restrained and mastered, a power stored away until it needs to be used. They are lithe, and they are stout, they are quick and they are slow, they are murderous, yet they are also wise. They are people, perhaps here more so than any other race anywhere else. As if they were the first and we are all but shadows of their ancient grandeur. These people are the ones that the darkness first learned to fear, they are the fire makers and the wilderness-tamers. And it is these simple, yet mighty people who have a saying:

“To all things there is a season, A time to live by the sword, and a time to die by the sword; a time to give and a time to seize that which is before you; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to raise up heroes, and a time to tear them down and crush them unto dust; A time to love, and a time to hate; And after the time of war, there will be a time of peace. But for all things, there is a time to end.”

Chile_-_Cochamó_climbing_23_-_misty_mountains_(6873698866)

And so I am here to say that our saga is now at an end, at least for now. So The Working Barbarian is going on hiatus. But don’t worry, there are plans in the works and we will be back. After all we can hardly leave the end of the Lay of Jala unsung can we? Her inevitable confrontation with the Whelpslayer will find its way to your screens eventually. But for no we’re venturing off into the wilds and we may be some time…

Thanks for reading.

Part 29 – The Tyrant’s Shade

Jala was torn. So much of her time here in the south had been spent making difficult choices, not the hard choices she was used to. One might think that a difficult choice and a hard choice are the same thing, but they are not. A hard choice is one which you do not want to make, one which will bring you pain and grief, but one which you make all the same. A hard choice is made in the blink of an eye, in the hair-thin gap between breaths. In the north you make hard choices so that you do not die. So that you and your tribe might live. You might not like making the choice, but it is far, far better than the alternative. They are clear-cut: right and wrong; good and evil; death and life; black and white. The difficult choices of the south are different. They have no right answer, there is no black and white, there is only a sea of stormy and conflicted grey. A sea where there is no land in sight and whose waves pull you to and fro and threaten to drag you under into the cold, crushing depths. With a difficult choice you simply have to pick a direction and strike out in the hope of land, not knowing if you’re heading to right way, or even if you will ever reach it if you are. Difficult choices are the sort of thing you linger over even when you do not have the time. Especially when you do not have the time.

Mere moments stretched out into aeons. Sonja’s eyes still blazed with their brazen, yet cold and lifeless golden light. Jala’s heart yearned to speak with Freya, to hear her voice, and to ask for her forgiveness, and most importantly of all to tell her that she was sorry. But that was not the reason which had brought Jala and Kru across the barrens and to the Heldrakai. There were far greater things which needed to be asked.

“Magebane.” Jala whispered. “I want to speak to the spirit of Magebane.”

Both the jewel on Sonja’s brow and her eyes flared like the dawn sun cresting the horizon, as if their previous light had been but a prelude to something grander. The hall was filled with the sound of whispers, the half heard words of thousands of unnamed and unknowable voices. The air began to chill, breath steamed and hoarfrost began to form on the jewel upon Sonja’s head. She spoke, but the words and the voice were not her own. They were those of the Tyrant of Stellastelathororn.

“Why do you disturb my spirit Jala, daughter of Quyren? Was my death alone not enough for you? Must you torment me even beyond the veil?” The voice was unmistakable Magebane’s, though it was devoid of the malice from when Jala had last heard it, and it echoed as if she were speaking up from the depths of a great well.

“I would have you tell me the Whelpslayer’s plans.” Replied Jala.

“I suppose you have earned that much.” Said Magebane “Though the knowledge will do little to aid you.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

Sonja gave a deep shuddering breath, her small body seeming to shake like a leaf as Magebane’s knowledge flooded into her sleeping mind.

“The Whelpslayer stokes the fires at the heart of the Dragonkeep of Raderock and dark things stir in the depths of that dread caldera and nightmare sharps swarm through the catacombs. The Whelpslayer is building an army.”

“He’s planning to invade the southlands?” Jala said with a furrowed brow.

“Would that it were something so harmless and innocuous.” Replied Magebane’s ghostly voice. “He is preparing for His return.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jala.

“He seeks to revive his long dead master. Every ounce of his will, every drop of blood he spills and every life he takes is bent toward pulling but one thing from the realm of shadow, the shade of his God-King: Aagb, the baddest of men.”

The faces of Wojji and Yarla paled, both of them glance at each other with worry in their eyes.

“But Aagb is a myth, he’s just a story we tell to scare children.” Said Jala, turning towards Kru.

“Not so long ago you thought the same of me” replied Kru with a stern glare. “Trust me, he is very, very real Jala. I faced him only once, when I was a mere slip of a girl. It was Aagb who took my eye.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was defeated by heroes far greater than myself. Exactly what transpired in that battle has always been a mystery.”

Jala turned back to Sonja’s prone form.

“And you’re certain The Whelpslayer’s plans will succeed?”

“If I wasn’t I would not have agreed to serve a monster like him. I only wanted to be on the winning side.” Answered Magebane.

“Fat lot of good that did you” said Jala with a snort.

“True.” Replied Magebane “Very true. Fear of failure and of him led me down a very dark path and ultimately to my ruin.” Magebane paused with a sad sigh.

“Can we get in the Dragonkeep unnoticed?” Jala asked.

“Perhaps.” Replied Magebane “There is a small cave on the seaward side of the island, barely large enough for a rowboat to navigate, it is hidden behind a pillar of green sea-stone. The cave leads to a small postern dock. It should be relatively unguarded.” Magebane sighed once again.

“You have you answers Jala, let me return to the ageless sleep of death.”

“Very well” began Jala “and thank you.”

“Ha!” Laughed Magebane “As if I had a choice. There are no secrets in death…” her voice trailed off, drifting further away and into silence.

The golden light in Sonja’s eyes began to fade and the dusting of white frost around her began to melt. Sonja’s breathing began to slow and her eyes began to close, as she drifted back into the wizard sleep. Wojji reached down to pick the jewel from her forehead. As his finger touched the polished surface of the jewel it the fading golden flashed into a cold and baleful blue, the colour of ice, ancient and forgotten. To behold the gems was to feel your eyes burn. Wojji snatched his fingers back and quickly as if he had touched a fire.

“This… This is not supposed to happen” he stuttered.

Sonja’s eyes snapped wide open, filled with the same eerie blue. Her back arched and from her lips came a long and tortured howl.

“She is here! The Stranger in the Strange Land! Interloper and intruder! She has risen from the depths!” Sonja wailed. “I’m scared. She is moving towards the conduit… Help me! Help…” Sonja’s words died in her mouth. The temperature dropped and the air itself iced. Frost crackled across hair and stone alike, dusting every surface with a fine, white rime.

“Jala!” a voice cried out. It was the voice of a young girl, but it was not that of Sonja.”

“Freya?” asked Jala with a quaver in her voice.

“I’ve found a way out Jala. I know how to get back home. I just need you…”

Whatever Freya’s remaining words were, they were cut off. Yarla grabbed the jewel on Sonja’s brow. The flesh of her hand blackening, steaming and cooking with the cold of ice-fire. She tore the gem from Sonja’s brow and hurled it to the stone floor where it shattered, boiling away into dust. Jala grabbed the necromancer by the scruff of her robes and began to shake her.

“What did you do? What did you do!?” Jala screamed.

A soft whimpering came from the bed. Tears began to well up in Yarla’s eyes.

“She was killing her.” She sobbed.

Jala let go of the necromancer, letting her slump to the floor.

Wojji leant over the sobbing girl. Curled up in the rumpled sheets, she looked so small and vulnerable. Wojji gently stroked her hair, shushing and cooing as he did so. Through ragged sobs Sonja whispered something to Wojji.

“What did she say?” asked Jala “Tell me!”

Wojji turned to Jala, his face a stern amalgam of worry and fear.

“Wytchwood.” He said “She said Wytchwood.” Wojji sighed heavily.

“It would be best if you left the hall.” He said, gesturing towards the door. “One of the acolytes will see to your needs.”

Jala and Kru began to make their way towards the exit from the hall.

“And Jala.” Said Wojji “Know that even we do not make deals with the shades of the dead.”

*

As the light began to fade Jala sat on a balcony high up on the canyon wall. The golden-red rays of the sunset slanted over the lip of the Gash and set the room aflame with light. But despite the appearance of warmth, the air had a chill to it. The slow and gentle wind had the sting of night to it. Once the sun had set it would only grow, until the barrens had been consumed by the harsh and unrelenting cold of the desert highlands without their sun.

Jala’s eyes gazed off into a middle distance which contained no object or person, just an out of focus nothingness. On a small table next to her sat a small clay cup, untouched and filled with tea that had long since gone cold.

Behind her came the soft padding of feet and of rustling silk.

“I’m not ready for this.” Said Jala.

“No one ever is.” Replied the Star Witch.

“Do you think we can defeat him? The Whelpslayer?”

“Perhaps.” Said Kru “Perhaps not. Only time will tell”

The balcony fell back into a silence disturbed only by the sighing of the wind and the far off howls of the scavenger beasts of the barrens.

“I’m scared Kru.” Said Jala

“I’d be worried if you weren’t. The Whelpslayer will be a formidable foe. And I dare not think what he will do to us if we lose.”

“I’m not scared of what will happen if I lose, Kru. I’m scared about what might happen if I win.”

A smile touched the lips of the Star Witch.

“We can cross that bridge should we ever come to it. For now I think it’d be best if you got some sleep. Perhaps things will seem less grim in the light of the morning.”

There was a swish of silk and the Star Witch was gone, leaving Jala alone with her brooding.

Though Jala’s gaze was vacant, it was not without target. It stared out beyond the rim of the Heldrakai’s canyon and out across the dusty barrens and its scrub bushes and wiry dogs. It looked out beyond the searing sandwastes and scorching dunes of the desert of Cairnobàs. Beyond even the spires of Stellastelathororn. It was fixed on a point amidst the waves of the Darksiren Sea with its pods of sabre-dolphins, shoals of scuttlefish and its slumbering sea dragons. Her gaze looked out the stony manse atop Radgerock; the isle of forgotten fire, and to the dark halls where The Whelpslayer dwelt; an enemy as uncertain and nebulous as the future itself.

Jala looked upon destiny, and it did sit ill with her.

~ Fin ~

I have Magebane for you on Line 1

The greater good is a tricky thing. It so often requires you to do something morally or ethically grey, perhaps even something a little bit evil. Other times it could just require you to do something that you’d really rather not. The greater good asks for a special kind of selflessness that is not often found in ordinary people in ordinary situations. It always asks for something extra-ordinary. Because it isn’t supposed to be easy to make the hard choices and to put aside you own selfish wants and desires. so despite the obvious temptations to reach out to the spirit of Freya, the girl who she failed and lost, Jala is reaching out to the spirit of Magebane. What secrets will the tyrant’s spirit yield?

28 - Hall of the Listeners

Will Magebane give up her secrets easily? Even in death she could prove to be stubborn. Or will she spill the metaphorical beans and reveal the darkest secrets of her master The Whelpslayer? These are questions which shall be answered in the fullness of time, when we return on Monday August 18th (baring accident, incident or marauding dragons) for the next instalment of our tale. Part 29 shall come from my own fevered and addled mind. A nightmarish hellscape of word and song, devoid of reason and logic and riven with an all-consuming doubt.

Stay tuned, we shall see what this week does yet hold…

Part 28 – The Hall of the Listeners

Jala eyed the hilt of the dagger warily.

“My body…” she muttered darkly. Wojji nodded gently.

“It’d be a dreadful shame to let it go to waste,” he said. “When the last of your breath has fled your lungs and your eyes have caught their final light, your soul would be able to depart knowing that your body would be going on to a purpose greater than feeding the worms and the grubs of the earth.”

A high price indeed – and yet, was it really? The necromancer did not propose to slay her on the spot, merely to use what would no longer be hers to use when the time came. A lump of flesh and bone, the image of Jala but not the warrior essence of Jala.

Jala reached towards the hilt of the dagger, and for a moment thought she saw a look of intense avarice and greed cross the face of the man offering it to her. At the last moment, her arm dropped to her side.

“You are a man of business,” she said flatly. “Let us negotiate.”

Wojji’s face fell dramatically, but he recovered smoothly.

“It was worth a try,” he said, tucking the dagger away. “The barbarian tribes of the North don’t often come by these parts, and I fancied that perhaps you were the one who would… no matter. Negotiate. Indeed, let’s.”

Kru leaned over, her lips brushing against Jala`s ear and her voice soft and low.

“We have nothing with which we can negotiate,” she said. “Yet.”

Jala nodded in understanding.

“Master Wojji,” she said, “I cannot give you what is not mine to offer. I do not know what fate I pursue, and to what ultimate destiny my body will go. Perhaps I am to perish in the belly of a dragon, as a vision I have had seemed to show, or perhaps I am to be obliterated into starstuff. I do not know, and so I cannot promise that I would uphold my end of the bargain were I to promise you my body.

 “I can, however, offer you something that I know I will have. I can offer you the body of the Whelpslayer himself.”

 The necromancer raised an eyebrow.

 “You really feel you can deliver on such a promise?” he asked.

 “I feel the truth of it in my bones and in the heft of my blade. I make you the traditional honour-bound oath of my tribe : Under the moon, under the stars, above the crisply fallen snow and amongst the deep dark pines, I so swear that I shall have the corpse of the Whelpslayer to deliver unto you, or that I shall die trying.”

 Wojji blinked.

 “That’ll do it,” he said, spitting into his palm and holding it out. Jala eyed his moist hand.

“That’s disgusting,” she said. Wojji shrugged.

“Fair enough,” he said, extending a pinky. Jala wrapped her own pinky around it and they solemnly shook, sealing their pact as Kru looked on with a knowing smile.

“Right,” said Wojji, wiping his hand on his clothes, “now that that’s taken care of, drink up – we’ve got a Listener to bother.”

*

 Jala and Kru were led through winding canyon tunnels until they came to a stop before a simple wooden door.

“Is this the fabled Hall of Listeners?” Kru asked, a note of disappointment creeping into her voice. Wojji shook his head.

“It takes two to access the Hall of Listeners,” he said. He pushed the door open and they stepped through into a small antechamber. It looked like a sort of clinic, which would make the elderly woman who occupied it a sort of doctor. She initially did not notice that she had visitors as her arms were elbow deep into the chest cavity of a zombie which lay on a table before her, watching her work interestedly.

Wojji cleared his throat. The woman glanced up, irritated.

“What?” she snapped. “I’m in the middle of an operation, Wojji. Would it kill you to knock?”

“Yes, but not for long,” he replied with a smile. To the others, he said, “This is Yarla, one of our more hands-on members.”

Yarla snorted and returned her attention to her patient.

“Funny man,” she said. “I’d love to see you patch a perforated spleen sometime.”

“I’m confused,” said Jala. “Are your workers not risen and driven by magical forces? Why would the state of their organs matter?”

Yarla sighed and pulled her blood and ichor stained arms out.

“That’s correct in principle,” she said, “but long story short a machine with missing parts is hardly an effective machine. Our workforce is no good to us if it’s dropping to bits all over the place.”

“Necromancy is a many-faceted art,” Wojji explained. “Some of us are better at the act of raising, overcoming the most stubborn of bodily inertia. Others take a more resorative path.”

Yarla held her hands over the gaping hole in the zombie and muttered a few words. A cold breeze seemed to pass through the room as dead flesh knotted together before Jala’s eyes. The zombie stumbled to its feet, good as new though still quite clearly dead.

“And that’s that. Now, then. As wonderfully lovely as it is to see new people, to what do I owe the dubious pleasure of interruption?”

“They are here to see Sonja,” Wojji replied.

Yarla whistled and wiped her hands on a nearby cloth.

“I see. Well then, let’s not waste time. Stay here,” Yarla instructed the zombie. It slumped into a corner looking almost dejected as it watched the others leave the room.

“Will it be alright in there?” Jala asked. Yarla rolled her eyes.

“It’s a zombie,” she said. “It’s not even one of the smarter ones. It won’t need food, warmth, rest or company. I think it’ll be ok standing in a corner for a while, don’t you?”

They continued in silence until they came to an impressively large door of silver and steel, covered in runes and ornate symbols. This, it seemed, was the entrance to the Hall of Listeners. Wojji and Yarla waved their hands over the door in an elaborate pattern, causing the runes to flare brightly then fade away into nothing. Slowly, slowly, the door swung open.

The Hall was a massive chamber that seemed to stretch away to the distance in all directions. The room was filled with nothing but beds, rows upon rows of beds in which lay the prone forms of the Listeners.

Wojji led the into the room, walking silently and reverentially down the aisles between the slumbering folk. Eventually they came to a bed in which lay a young girl, fair of hair and fast asleep like all the rest.

“This is Sonja?” Kru said. “She’s but a child!”

“She may be a child but she’s the best damned Listener we’ve ever had,” Yarla snapped.

Jala gazed down at the girl, fascinated at the thought of the power she had despite her tiny young frame. Wojji pulled a jewelled pendant from one of his many pockets and polished the inset stone thoughtfully.

“You will have but 10 minutes,” he said, “for even as strong a Listener as Sonja cannot maintain a direct relation with the dead for longer. Think carefully of your question, Jala; be sure of what you want to know. Are you ready?”

Jala nodded and Wojji pressed the pendant to Sonja’s forehead. It glowed a deep rich golden colour, and Sonja’s eyes flew open, eyes of the same glowing lustre. The girl lay unmoving, stared fixedly up at the ceiling.

“The conduit is open,” she said in a sing-song voice. “The dead speak and but few listen. Would you hear what we hear?”

“We would,” said Wojji gravely. He looked at Jala. “Whisper into her ear. Tell her what you want.

Jala leant down, her lips resting by the child’s ear.

28 - Hall of the Listeners

The poll will closed at noon BST on Sunday 10th of August. If you cannot vote, or if you cannot see a poll above, please enable cookies or try a different browser. Alternatively travel into the depths of the most ancient and loneliest forests of the Old World. At their heart, where no light penetrates their canopy and all is shrouded in darkness older than man. There you must light a fire and speak your choice. Then run. Flames anger the trees…

How About No?

There’s something about Necromancers that makes people uneasy. Hanging out with dead people all the time marks you in some way. It makes you a little bit unearthly, different, other. From a certain perspective this has its advantages. It gives the necromancer an aura of aloofness and mystery that is a very desirable, some might even call it a business asset. It does however make it very hard to get people to trust you. Especially if you’re trying to get something big out of them. Say for example, the rights to their still warm corpse. Which is going to be a bit of a stretch at the best of times.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

Jala has decided that she doesn’t particularly like the proposal put forward by Master Wojji, which I suppose is entirely understandable. Bodily autonomy is kind of a big deal. Even when you’re dead. This does mean that she’s going to have to find some other method of payment or leave empty-handed.

Exactly how this all pans out will be the decision of Sam Kurd: adventure, dreamweaver, visionary (plus writer.) We’ll be entering the world of his imagination as he takes us on a majestic odyssey of fiction and wonder. Which is more impressive than the brief he was originally given. (Which read “Oi, you! Write something.)

The next chapter in our ongoing tale will arrive on Monday the 4th of August.

Part 27 – Secrets of the Heldrakai

“So the dead told you that we were coming?” Jala asked incredulously.

“They are necromancers Jala, you needn’t sound so surprised.” Replied Kru.

“Talking to the dead I can believe.” said Jala “It’s the fact that they’d be talking about us that I find hard to swallow.”

“Well” began Wojji “The dead have very little to do other than watch the living, and they do so love to gossip. All we do is, eavesdrop on their ethereal chatter. The denizens of the spirit world have a particular liking for the ‘Big Fish’ of the world, the movers and shakers. When we heard Magebane’s spirit gong ring it was pretty much guaranteed that someone would be coming our way. She always struck me as particularly tight-lipped.”

“What exactly is a spirit gong?” asked Jala.

“Yes, I suppose not many outside our sect will have heard of them. It’s a captive geist which strikes a gong when the person it is attuned to dies. We have them for quite a variety of people: Kings, queens, tyrants, politicians, warlords, or any one who we find moderately interesting in a socio-geopolitical sense.”

“So when her gong rang you started asking around.” Said Kru.

“Indeed” replied Wojji “Nothing all that mystical about it really.”

Wojji led them past arches and recessed colonnades, and finally to a grand, almost palatial staircase cut into the bone-white rock of the canyon.

“If you’d care to follow me to my office we can continue this conversation over refreshments. The dead will see that your luggage is dealt with accordingly.” said Wojji as he began to climb the stairs. The small horde of dead marched past the stairs and vanished into one of the many tunnels which dotted the canyon floor.

The veranda at the summit of the stairs led into a vaulted corridor of ascetic simplicity. The hot and dusty air of the barrens vanished as they crossed the threshold, being replaced by the cool and funereal elegance of stone and shade. Their footsteps sounded soft and muffled, the rocky corridor not eliciting the echoes one might expect. The necromancer ushered Jala and Kru through a doorway and into large white room with a balcony overlooking the canyon floor. At the centre of the room sat a table of night-black stone, behind which stood a large and imposing throne carved from the same material. One the side nearest the door were two squat white stool blocks which Wojji gestured to.

“Please, sit.” he asked.

As Jala and Kru lowered themselves to the stone stools, Wojji perched himself on the edge of the black throne, his frame swallowed by its imposing grandeur and enormity. Almost as soon as he had sat himself down an acolyte in pale grey robes shuffled into the office carrying a large ceramic jug and three glasses. After setting the refreshments down on the table, the acolyte shuffled out of the room with nary a word. Wojji filled each of the glasses, the crystal clear water pouring from the jug in a thin and sparkling stream. He placed the jug onto the table and leaned back in his throne, steepling his fingers.

“So…” he said “I suspect you have questions.”

“What can you tell me about Freya?” Jala blurted.

“Ah…” replied Wojji, before lapsing into a heavy and nervous silence. He rose from his throne and paced over towards the balcony.

“That one, she is a puzzle.” he finished.

“Hervel told me you could give me answers.” said Jala quietly, her voice poised somewhere between anger and sadness.

“I do not know what that fool Hervel promised you, but on the subject of the girl I can only offer you more questions, not answers.” Replied the necromancer.

Jala flung herself to her feet, rage building in her heart. Kru reached out and touched Jala’s arm, a gentle, yet firm touch that spoke of patience and restraint. Kru slowly guided Jala back into her seat.

“Tell us what you can.” Asked the Star Witch in a voice like butter and honey, yet still suffused with an imperious and commanding tone.

“Her gong did not ring.” began Wojji “But she is dead all the same. Even the greatest amongst our Listeners fear her, though they do not know why. In the depths of their wizard sleep they speak her name with equal parts awe and dread. They mutter of a great power growing in the beyond, one which they cannot fully understand.”

A wry smile flashed across Kru’s face and was gone in the blink of an eye.

“What does that mean?” asked Jala

“Before I answer that Mistress Jala, let me just say that there are no secrets from the Heldrakai. We know all that is, all that was, and a significant portion of all that will be. Our knowledge is as close to omniscience as any mortal thing will ever come. Our sages have mastered and understood secrets long since forgotten by men and gods.”

“And your point?” asked Jala.

“I just want you to be fully aware of exactly what it means when I say: we do not know.”

“You don’t know?!” Jala shouted, slamming her fist onto the table.

“No.” he replied “And it truly pains me to admit it. All we can recommend is that you both remain weary of what the future might hold.”

Jala snorted with derision.

“Magebane however, is another matter.” Wojji continued, as he returned to his place on the black throne. “I’ve already arranged an appointment with Sonja, one of our best and most promising Listeners. She should have no trouble answering any questions you might have regarding Magebane, or her employers.”

“How much?” asked Kru

“Hmm?” replied Wojji

“There is always a price, what is yours? You said yourself that necromancy was inherently transactional.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.” he said, stroking his chin. “For a request of this nature and for the substantial risk our sect is undertaking by granting it, we would ask for the body of mistress Jala.”

Jala’s eyes blazed with anger as she fixed Wojji with a stare that would melt steel.

“I don’t mean anything sinister by it. Simply that you agree to donate your body to our sect after your inevitable demise. We would ask for the Star Witch’s, but based on historic events I don’t think that would be a debt we would ever be able to collect.” Said Wojji with a chuckle.

“ This seems a somewhat extortionate payment.” replied Kru “I know well what magic could be wrought from the corpse of one such as Jala. Do you truly fear the Whelpslayer so much.”

“We are not concerned by the Whelpslayer, we are concerned with what might come after. You have seen the visions.” He said turning to Jala “The hints of possibility; the foreboding gloom; the smoke and fire; the charnel wasteland which could yet be. We do not enjoy dealing with uncertainty and matters of such flux.”

Wojji produced a curved dagger from his belt and offered it, hilt first, to Jala.

“Do we have an agreement?” he asked.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

The poll will close at noon BST on Sunday 27th of July. If you cannot see a poll above, please try enabling cookies or using a different browser. If this does not work then you are clearly cursed and probably have bigger problems.

Part 26 – Into the Barrens

The silence hung heavy in the ashen air, stretching out and punctuated only by the whistling of the wind. Hervel and his horde made no move towards Jala or Kru. They simply waited, staring at the pair with their dead empty eyes. Waiting. To Jala it all felt more than a little absurd. The feeling started deep in her belly, bubbling up from the depths like a spring gushing forth from cracked rock. It started as a snort. Derisive in tone, manner and timbre. The snort soon become a chuckle, the quiet sort which hangs under the breath. The dead looked on impassively and Hervel cocked an eyebrow. The feeling within Jala kept growing, now loosed there was no holding it back, it came unbidden and unstoppable; a thing with a mind of its own and a will to break free from the depths. Jala’s chuckle built and rose to a glorious peal of laughter, a hearty belly laugh. Tears tinged the corners of her eyes and she bent double, struggling to catch her breath. Whole oceans of pent-up angst, unfulfilled rage and nervous tension found its vent in those laughs.

“What” began Hervel “is so funny?”

Jala choked back the laughter, slowly mastering herself.

“It’s just that you’re so…” Jala’s words words were lost in another snort of laughter “just so… so” and then the giggles took over again

“Just so what?!” fumed Hervel.

Jala straightened and wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes, the laughter finally receding and slinking away with a few parting snickers and chortles.

“Oh you’re just so precious” Jala sighed.

“W… what?” stuttered Hervel.

“Getting all puffed up and throwing out those big ominous ultimatums like you’re the ‘big man’ who everyone needs to take seriously.”

“The Heldrakai do not take insult lightly. We will not suffer your mockery!” blurted Hervel.

The Star Witch glanced at Hervel and then to Jala

“But it’s not a ‘we’ is it? You’re just an apprentice after all.” She said.

“Exactly.” Jala replied with a smile “We willingly came seeking the Heldrakai, we didn’t need any threat or coercion. And despite that, and everything you know about us; the things you know full well we can do, the foes you know full well we’ve defeated. Only yesterday you and your friends saw me drive off a whole pack of those sandworms without so much as breaking a sweat. But still you’re putting on airs and making threats like you’d even slow us down. I’m mean look at you lot. You’re barely even a man and your horde looks like it’s about to drop to pieces.”

One of the on looking dead groaned in protest.

“I supposed precious is the only word for it, isn’t it?” said Kru. “You’d think by now we’d have earnt at least a modicum of respect. There’s the temptation to set his bones on fire.”

“Or sever all his major tendons and stake him out in the desert.” added Jala

“Oooo” cooed Kru “That’s a good one. Or there’s a spell I know that peels people’s skin off. It’s very slow. Quite elegant magic if I’m honest.”

“That does sound pretty fancy.” replied Jala.

Hervel’s face was growing pale and his facade of pomp and bravado long since shattered. He stood gulped, as it dawned on him that he might have made a terrible, terrible mistake.

“Oh stop looking so glum.” Said Kru to Hervel “We’re not really going to kill you.”

“We just wanted to remind you that we could.” added Jala

“If we wanted.” said Kru.

Jala looked Hervel in the eyes and said “We’ll go with you Hervel, but not because you asked.”

“Only because we want to.” finished Kru.

The two women turned away from Hervel and his looming dead and began to walk in the direction of the cliffs beyond the city.

“Your sword!” stomped Hervel.

“Hmm?” said Jala, turning back towards the apprentice necromancer.

“I asked you to lay down your sword!” shouted Hervel.

“Oh that’s not going to happen.” replied Jala “Though you’re welcome to try and take it from me if you want.”

Hervel didn’t say anything.

“No.” added Jala “I didn’t think you would. No get a move on, we’ve still got quite some way to go today.”

The assembled dead shuffled nervously in the ashen dust, looking toward Hervel, waiting for him to tell them what to do.

“Ruddy barbarians.” he muttered, before scampering after Jala and Kru.

*

They journeyed on in a strained and angry silence. Up the tight and stony, switch-backed ravines of the cliffs and into the Ghormish lands beyond. The plateau of the Barrens stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was a tundra of dry and stunted scrub-grass poking thin, razor edged stalks out of coarse grey sand, poked hither and tither by great marble tors the colour of bleached bone. Jala and Kru trailed in the wake of Hervel and his band of dead as they beat a relentless pace across the desolation, heading towards The Gash. They first glimpsed the fabled place on the dawn of their fifth day from Cairnobàs. The Gash itself was a great rent in the barren plain, a knife wound in the ground, angling away towards the horizon. It was nearing dusk before they finally reached the mouth of The Gash and made the descent down the steep slope into the heart of the subterranean valley. The walls of the canyon rose straight and sharply about them as they travelled further down into the depths. But despite their descent further and further beneath the surface of the plateau, the canyon remained light and airy, with the light of the setting sun drifting down from above. But despite the warm reddish-yellow of dusk tinting the white walls of the Gash, it felt still and cold, like a temple nave, and as the slope began to flatten out, there came the sound of ringing metal. The gentle and sonorous sound of bells and gongs.

The base of the knife-slit canyon began to widen out, and as it did so two enormous statues loomed out of walls, looking down at the canyon floor with the gaze and visage of death. Empty sockets of great and lidless eyes, skeletal jaws and fingers worked in creamy stone. One of them held and hourglass, and the other a pair of scales. The two statues were wrought with such skill and precision that you could even see the weave of the robes that garlanded their thin frames. They looked as if the slightest breeze would send the cloth a-fluttering.

At the base of one of the statues sat a man on a small wooden stool. He had skin the colour of burnt umber and he wore a light blue shirt with smart black trousers, the sort with creases you could probably shave with. He had about him an air of jovial impatience as he waited for Jala and the others to reach him.

“You’re late” he said before standing up and brushing a speck of dust from his trouser leg.

“A thousand apologies great master!” said Hervel slumping to his knees.

“Oh get up you idiot and stop grovelling, it’s most undignified.” Replied the man in the blue shirt shaking his head. “And these must be our guests. I am Master Wojji of the Heldrakai, it is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” He finished with an elaborate and flourishing bow.

“You’re a necromancer?” asked Jala

“Yes of course.” Replied Wojji “What we you expecting? Some sickly, pale-faced wraith of a man in black robes spouting cryptic riddles and nonsense?” Wojji finished with an easy laugh.

“Well…” began Jala

“You did it again didn’t you?!” shouted Wojji turning to Hervel “You decided to be all ominous and dramatic, thought it would be a good idea to ‘put on a show.’ Do you have any idea how hard it is to shake off all the negative stereotypes associated with Necromancing?”

“But…” began Hervel

“No buts. I asked you to escort our guests here from The City of Stars. No pageantry or embellishment. This is why you’re still an apprentice.”

Wojji pinched the bridge of his nose and let out an exhausted sounding sigh.

“Hervel?” he asked

“Yes Master?”

“Where is the Guildmeister?”

“I err… lost him.” Said Hervel nervously. Wojji let out another sigh.

“Do you have any idea how many business opportunities a meeting with an actual Guildmeister could have afforded our sect? No of course you don’t because you never think things through!” said Wojji, his voice rising to a shout. “And look at that zombie!” he continued, striding into the crowd of dead.

“They’re all tatty and dropping to bits. Just look at that missing jaw? I can’t fix that now can I? It’s almost as if you don’t have any respect for the dead! I must say I am very disappointed Hervel.”

Hervel’s face was downcast, his eyes firmly fixed on the toes of his shoes.

“Now Miss Jala, Ms Krüng Nak To, if you’d please follow me we’ll see about dealing with your enquiry.” Said Wojji, beckoning the group through the gap between the statues. They all made to follow before Wojji interjected.

“Not you Hervel, you can stay here and think about what you’ve done.”

And so Jala, Kru and the shambling horde of dead made their way deeper into The Gash, leaving Hervel sitting on the little wooden stool, all alone. Down the length of the canyon words drifted back to him from his departed Master, a snippet of a conversation.

“I’m really terribly sorry ladies. Honestly you just can’t get the staff these days.”

*

 “I feel I must apologise for Hervel.” Said Wojji as he led Kru and Jala deeper into the Gash. “Two hundred years ago he would no doubt have made a fine necromancer. But times change and so we must change with them. If we are to keep our place in the world we must modernise, regrettably there are some more conservative members of our sect who haven’t quite let go of the old ways.”

“How exactly do you modernise necromancy? It always struck me as a fairly iron-clad setup.” enquired Kru. Wojji’s eyes flashed with delighted passion and a grin split his face.

 “That is exactly what so many of my forebears thought, but even the time-worn craft of necromancy is ripe for innovation.”

“Explain.” said Kru with a frown

“Necromancy has always been inherently transactional so it made sense to commodify what we do. Other brands of wizardry have been doing it for centuries, why not us?” replied Wojji.

“Because necromancers are have a reputation as dangerous, menacing and unsavoury characters meddling with forces which should be left well enough alone?” said Kru with a smile, clearly not buying into that opinion herself.

“Surely the same can be said for all wizardry? The only obstacle was a matter of perception and public relations.”

“That does not sound like a small thing to surmount.” Added Jala suspiciously.

“No it wasn’t so we started with politics and money.” Said Wojji with a flourish. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, the barrens are not really conducive to habitation. Only the far west of Ghorm can support life on a large-scale. Yet the barrens’ mineral wealth is extraordinary: Iron, gold, stone, gems the size of your fist. But extracting it was never cost-effective to extract it.”

“So you used the dead to extract it. Clever.” Said Kru.

“They don’t need breaks, they don’t need paying, they don’t need food, or water, they do exactly what they’re told and since they’re already dead any usual fatal accidents do not result in the usual loss of life. They are a fantastically reliable and efficient workforce.” Wojji smiled again.

 “After we’d gained a solid economic foothold in the Ghormish marketplace we made a few ethical changes to our ways of working, diversified our business interests and public opinion of the Heldrakai in Ghorm changed almost over night.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘ethical changes’ Master Wojji?” asked Jala

“Oh it’s quite simple. We started paying people for their dead instead of robbing graveyards and tombs. It went down surprisingly well. Every zombie, mummy and ghoul in Heldrakai Incorporated is a consenting and willing volunteer. Even the poorest man in Ghorm knows he can leave something behind for his family if he donates his corpse to us. After all, it’s not as if he’d be using it once he’s dead.”

 The canyon began to widen out from the straight and narrow defile which they had been traversing and into broad valley. The steep stone walls were pocked with carved windows and grand facades of fluted pillars and elaborate porticoes. All hewn out of the white stone of the Gash itself. But for all its elegance it still felt uncomfortably like a mausoleum.

 “Welcome to the home of The Hedlrakai! Is it not a sight to behold.” said Wojji, throwing out his arms.

 To Jala’s eyes it did seem a grand and magnificent, far more pleasing to the eye than the dank and grimy spires of Stellastelathororn. There was one thought that stuck in Jala’s mind, like a nut shard trapped in your teeth which despite repeated prodding and probing, she couldn’t quite shift.

 “Master Wojji?” Jala asked “How did you know we were coming?”

 “For all our new business dealings we have not forgotten our more ancient powers.” He replied seriously. “Are you familiar with the expression dead men tell no tales?”

 “Naturally” said Jala

 “Well it’s bollocks. They simply won’t shut up. And the things they know…”

This week I invoked my editor’s privileges and decided to split the next instalment into two parts. As it was starting to get a bit on the large side. Subsequently there is not poll this week, so check back next Monday for the concluding section of this impromptu two-part special, where Jala and Co. will return in “The Secrets of the Heldrakai.

Oh How Far We Have Come…

And yet we sill have so far to go, but the exact length of our road remains to be seen…

Since our saga returned in April we have had five thrilling instalments, tales of courage, intrigue and bloody violence. It has been nearly three months since our last recap, that’s one-quarter of a year. That’s quite a while. The minds of men are fragile and fallible things, not like they were in the Old Time. And thus we forget. Things we once knew drift into the fuzzy miasma of obscurity, they pass out of memory and into myth, or legend, or into a vague nagging feeling that there’s something you were supposed to do but you can’t quite remember what. So come, sit down by our fire and let us remind you of that which was and that which has been.

Elder Linna

Magebane

Magebane

Read more…

An Unexpected Turn of Events

“Man plans, God laughs.” – Yiddish Proverb

Jala had set out from the City of Stars to find the Heldrakai Necromancers of the Ghormish Barrens. She joined a caravan and set out across the desert. What could possibly go wrong? How hard could it be? Well as it turns out, quite a bit can go wrong. As Jala discovered when she found herself surrounded by an undead horde in the ever-smoking ruins of a dead city. I suppose you could call this an occupational hazard of sorts.

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

The wise voices of the faceless sages of the internal-webs have counselled Jala that it might not be entirely the best idea to go all sword crazy. There are some schools of thought as to why this might be:

a) How exactly can you kill something that is already dead?

b) These cryptic a-holes are the guys that you were going to ask for help so it might not be the best idea to piss them off.

Either way, Jala has laid down her sword and places her fate into the hands of the mysterious Heldrakai.

Next week as opposed to another instalment in out ongoing saga there will be a quit recap as to what’s happened over the last couple of months. Much like we did at the start of April we at Barbarian Towers want to make sure that everyone can catch-up or have their memories refreshed before we once again plunge head-long into adventure.

Part 25 – Sandworms, Bloody Sandworms

Jala looked back and forth from the proffered hand to the impending battle.

“Well?” the voice prompted her from the gloom.

“Go out swinging,” the warrior replied, and – bone tired though she was – Jala drew her sword and joined the fray.

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Sandworms, as most people know, are bad tempered, overweight, and fiercely territorial. If anything or anyone that is not another sandworm crosses their patch, they’re likely to find themselves on the wrong end of some pretty impressive tusks, to say nothing of their needle sharp teeth. However, they also have terrible eyesight and their size makes them clumsy and slow to react.

Jala found herself thanking the gods for sending her only a moderately challenging foe as she hacked and slashed her way through the line of beasts, easily ducking out of their line of sight to wreak havoc on their soft underbellies. As she ducked and weaved amongst them, doing her best not to ingest too much sand or blood as she went, medicinal waves of adrenaline rushed through her limbs and she found she felt almost herself again. Would it be inappropriate to whistle, she wondered briefly, as her blade sliced through the leathery hide of what she assumed to be the alpha male of the pack (it was the largest and tuskiest, and its near-blind eyes glared balefully at her in an unmistakable look of challenge). Stupid creature, she thought, as its blood splashed onto her cheek.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see that some of the guards from the party were making a pretty good effort but it was Jala, even in her slightly weakened state, who claimed the most heads. The battle was over in a matter of twenty minutes, with only one man dead and two minor maimings (a missing finger for one, a chunk of ear bitten off another). The worms had fared considerably worse.

“That was magnificent,” Hervel congratulated her as he crawled out from underneath the wagon where he had been hiding, “truly amazing. Have you faced sandworms before?”

“No,” she said vaguely, splashing water from the guildmeister’s lake on her face, “although there were some miner worms in chapter twelve.”

“What?”

“What? Nothing. Excuse me will you, I need to check something.”

She pushed past Hervel and strode towards the lakeside hut – or at least she would have, but it wasn’t there any longer. Evidently the mysterious voice had been serious about this being a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Bloody meisters,” she grumbled, turning back towards the desert to look for Tim. He was standing slightly apart from the rest of the caravan, eyeing the pile of sandworm carcasses with an expression of distaste.

“What happened to the hut?” she asked him, slightly roughly.

“What hut?”

“The one beside your magical guildmeister lake,” she gestured towards the space where it had stood, “I assume your special friends must have magicked it up at the same time as the water as a place to take shelter from the desert sun or whatever.”

“There isn’t a hut,” Tim told her, “never has been. Generally speaking everyone travels across the desert by night because the heat by day is near unbearable, then sleeps in the wagons by day. A hut might not be such a bad idea though Jala, now you say it. Maybe I’ll mention it to my colleagues.”

Jala rubbed a hand across her eyes. “You do that,” she muttered. All of a sudden she felt very tired, and she’d just about had her fill of disembodied voices, mysterious magicks and people looking at her as though she’d suffered one too many blows to the head. Still, there was evidently nothing to be gained in pressing the point with Tim – and she still didn’t completely trust him. Maybe she could mention it to Kru later on. She headed towards the wagon that held their packs, crawled inside and stretched out on the floor to sleep.

*

She awoke in twilight, the wagon jolting awkwardly from side to side. Marek’s eyes gleamed in the shadows beside her head.

“We thought it best not to wake you,” he explained, “Kru and I. We’re on the move again, been riding for a few hours.”

“Uch,” Jala said, “I was hoping you might say days. This journey feels like it will never end.”

She pulled herself into a sitting position, then slid towards the back of the wagon to peer out behind them. A row of camels stared back at her, the expressions of their riders inscrutable behind the scarves that covered their noses and mouths.

Jala got to her feet and hurdled over the wagon door, then wheeled round to jog lightly alongside the caravan. Time to stretch out the stiffness, she thought, too much lying around convalescing was going to make her muscles lazy.

They made their way in silence for some time, thankful for the cool night air and the lack of breeze to whip sand against their faces. Jala lifted her face to the stars and felt almost peaceful under their watchful gaze. Just for one moment, she closed her eyes and felt the blue light dance on her lids. Then something cool and dry landed on her nose.

Jala opened her eyes again to see dozens of white flakes whirling through the air above her, looking just like snow. She raised her hands towards the flakes but they danced above her just out of reach and she almost laughed, some childish delight inside her awakened.

“Jala watch your step,” called Kru suddenly from somewhere to her right, just as the springy gold sand beneath her feet gave way to something finer and more shifting.

They crested a dune and came out suddenly over a valley starkly lit by the two full moons. Beneath them they could see the blackened skeleton of a city stretching out across the valley floor. Embers still smouldered in some of the wreckage. The snow wasn’t snow, Jala realised with a start – it was ash.

cairnobas

“What is this place?” she asked, looking down at where she stood and wondering what – or who – she might be walking on.

“Cairnobàs,” Hervel said grimly, appearing at her shoulder. “Or at least, that’s what it is known as now. They say the Whelpslayer killed all the children here and the families, wracked with vengeance and grief, laid waste to it and went after him that they might have their vengeance. They left it this way as a memorial, a promise of what was to come.”

“What happened to them?”

“Some were killed by the sandworms,” he said, “others perished in the crossing of the Darksiren Sea. The men of Cairnobàs were bad swimmers, doubtless because of their growing up in a city surrounded by dust and sand.

“The rumour is that the rest are prisoners of the Whelpslayer at Radgerock. He has no real taste for killing parents, as you can tell from his name he takes more satisfaction from disposing of chidren, so…”

“Spit it out,” Jala told him gruffly, though she thought she could guess what was coming.

“Well, most of the survivors were women,” Hervel continued awkwardly. “So the Whelpslayer has them regularly… interfered with by the guards. When they are with child they are removed from the confines of the dungeons and looked after properly, by servants and doctors and the like, so they can give birth in safety and survive the process too.”

“Right,” Jala said, “and it is only then, when they have survived another birth and started to feel kinship with the child, that the Whelpslayer kills the babes in front of them?”

From Hervel’s silence, she guessed she was right.

“That Magebane certainly had some strange loyalties,” Jala sighed.

“Still,” Hervel said brightly, “we have made good progress. See the cliffs beyond the city there? They mark the Ghormish territory, and the Gash is just beyond them. It shouldn’t take us more than two or three days to get there.”

“Three days?” Jala’s heart sank at the thought of more riding and walking, “is that all?”

As they came closer to the burnt shell of Cairnobàs they could almost feel the loss the city had faced – the air was thick with it. Some of the men in the caravan said they wanted to go around the edge, but that would add an extra day’s journey and Jala was determined not to prolong it any more than they had to. She found herself striding ahead, leading the way through this city of death as if unconcerned, even though every fibre of her being told her she was sullying ground that really should be left in peace. She didn’t have to turn back to look at the party to know all eyes were darting about in search of ghosts.

‘The last time I walked through an empty settlement like this I found Freya,’ she thought. ‘I hope there are no other children here in need of saving.’

But of course there wasn’t, that was the point. The Whelpslayer had murdered them all.

Looking up from her thoughts, Jala realised they were in what must once have been the city square. There was a ring of stones that would once have marked a well, although it was now filled with rubble and covered in a thick layer of ash. There were two half pillars, with flowers and vines carved into them – these must have been rather beautiful before they were destroyed. And behind them there was a wall almost intact, built from white stone and covered in strange writing.

The Star Witch leapt off her camel – rather nimbly, Jala noted, feeling slightly envious – and walked towards this wall, her robes leaving a trail in the ash.

“What is it, Kru?”

“These words were not written by any resident of Cairnobàs,” the witch told her, tracing the marks with a finger. “Perhaps our journey is not to go on as long as you feared. This is the work of the Heldrakai.”

“Very astute of you,” said Hervel, “there are not many left outside our sect that would recognise such words.”

He too had dismounted his camel, and as he advanced towards them he somehow seemed taller than he had at the start of their journey.

“You’re one of the Heldrakai?” Jala asked, quite unable to keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Not yet,” he told her. “I am a necromancer in training only. I unquestioningly serve the Heldrakai and in return they teach me, but I am some way off achieving their greatness.”

“You serve them unquestioningly,” Kru echoed, “I wonder if that isn’t part of the reason they leave you behind.”

If Hervel was put out by this he didn’t show it. “I don’t think they’ll help you,” he said, not unkindly. “The people of this city asked for their aid and paid them dearly for it, too – but in the end the Whelpslayer got to them all.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jala told him, her hand instinctively caressing the hilt of her sword once again. “I can be very persuasive.”

“So can they,” Hervel said. He stepped back and Jala looked behind him in surprise as the rest of their traveling companions from the caravan stepped into the city square, looking less like the allies who had fought the sandworms and more like a foe. Moments later they had formed a horseshoe around Jala and Kru, with the scrawled-upon wall at their backs. Marek and Tim were nowhere to be seen.

One by one the guards removed the scarves around their faces to reveal skeletal features, sagging grey skin and in the case of the man who had lost a finger to a sandworm, no lower jaw. These were the Heldrakai, necromancers of the Ghormish Barrens, and they did not look to be in a helpful mood.

“Lay down The Bastard Sword, Jala daughter of Quyren.” The Heldrakai spoke as one, a sound like wind and horror and death that made her teeth ache.

“Lay down your weapon and come with us, and we will hear your story.”

“And if I refuse?”

The Heldrakai laughed, again as one entity, a scraping whisper that clawed at the back of her neck.

“If you refuse,” they whispered, “you will never hear Magebane’s final words. If you refuse, you will never discover the Whelpslayer, much less defeat him. And more than this, young barbarian steeped in blood and guilt, if you refuse, you will never learn why you hear the voice of your little friend Freya echoing in your dreams as if she were alive and by your side.”

“I see,” Jala said. She looked to Kru for guidance, but the witch’s face was an expressionless mask.

It looked like this decision was up to her.

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

 The poll closed on Sunday 29th June at 12 noon. If you didn’t vote you must forever hold your peace.

Post Navigation