Part 11 – Ensorcelled
Marek’s stoaty mind raced. Jala was the obvious choice, being stronger and more able to protect the other. By the same token, though, she could stand to take care of herself for longer than Freya. Should they both be in peril, Jala’s warrior instincts and experience would stand her in good stead. But Freya, his Freya…
He nodded determinedly, his mind made up. He dug his teeth gently into Avatkch’s robes and tugged him rightwards.
“Very well, master stoat,” the dwarf said, “we shall save your little friend first. I hope you chose well. We had better make haste.”
Freya had found her voice, and then some. Her screaming echoed around the forest as she ran, trying to escape the monstrous horror that pursued her. She had only caught a glimpse of it, but a glimpse was all she needed to know she didn’t want it getting any closer. There had been chitinous legs, hideous mandibles dripping with venom. And the eyes, so many eyes!
She launched herself at the lowlying branches of a tree, pulling herself up and hoping against hope that whatever it was couldn’t climb. No such luck; her gamble didn’t pay off, judging by the feel of the slimy leg scraping against her foot. She shuddered and dropped back to the ground. At least getting out of the tree would slow the creature down.
“Jala!” she called as she ran. “Star Witch! Marek! Anybody!”
Nobody came. She was all alone, just her and the creature with murder in its eyes. Had the Star Witch deliberately led them into danger, had she betrayed them? Or had Freya just somehow taken a wrong turn?
It hardly mattered either way. She was tiring and running out of breath. She was going to die.
As this rather morbid thought crossed her mind, her foot became snagged on a near-invisible thread stretched between two trees. She pitched forward onto her face with a startled yelp, ending up with a mouth full of dirt and leaves. Spitting and spluttering, she flipped onto her back and started scuttling backwards. Clicking and chittering away, it crept forward on legs seemingly too spindly to support its bulbous body. If it had lips it would have been licking them. Of course, it would need a tongue too.
Freya waved her stick in front of her in a manner she hoped was threatening. The creature lashed out with a foreleg and knocked it easily from her grasp. So much for mystical, magical powers. Damn that Star Witch!
Her undignified backwards escape came to a sudden stop as she propelled herself into a clump of cobwebs. They clung to her as she shrieked, kicking at the creature as it pounced and struck.
For all its fearsome appearance, the spider’s bite on her calf was strangely gentle, almost tender. The poison must have been spreading quickly, she felt very strange indeed; the webs around her became almost an embrace, and she could feel a cool hand on her brow. The spider leaned in close, and murmured softly in her ear as she sobbed quietly.
“Waken, child. You are safe, none shall harm you.”
Freya opened her eyes. Gone were the forest, the grass, the webs, the spider. She was in a stone hall, held in the arms of a small kindly looking man with a big bushy beard. In place of the spider, watching her intently with fierce devotion, was Marek. Marek! With a grateful cry she scooped him up and held him close. He grumbled and mumbled and fussed, nuzzling her face and licking her tears. The little man looked on with a smile.
“Oh Marek,” she said, “I couldn’t find you, or Jala, and there was this forest and a spider and I don’t know what’s going on!”
“Ah,” said the man, “I believe that that is where I come in. I am Avatkch, and this is my home. I am most sincerely sorry for the distress and alarm you have suffered at the hands of the guardian spell. It is designed to waylay tresspassers, you see.”
“We’re not tresspassers!” Freya objected. “We’re only passing through the tunnels-“
“-Unbidden and uninvited,” Avatkch finished, not unkindly. “Now come, Freya, we must see to your barbarian friend. She is strong, but she cannot hold out forever.”
“How do you know my name? Who are you?”
“All in good time, child. Follow.”
Jala struck again and again. Pallid beige limbs flew around her, beige heads rolled across the floor. Hers was a dance of death and the music was oh so glorious. Strike! Lunge! Another strike! Lop! Slice!
She wasn’t quite sure when she’d picked up a sword or where it had come from, but she was glad of it. Without it, she could not have lasted minutes. Now, sword in hand, she was deep in her work. More enemies rose against her, an army of drably coloured undead dwarves. All fell before her might, none could hope to stand against her.
And why should they? Was she not Jala, daugther of Quyren? Was she not the fiercest and most able warrior of her tribe, the most skilled? These shambling corpses were nothing to her, less than nothing. Fie on them! Even their sheer numbers could pose no threat, so swiftly was she cutting them down. The mounds of bodies, limbs and offal lay scattered at her feet, growing ever higher with every swing of her blade.
She felt a curious elation, a giddiness that crept upon her with each foe she slew, building and building within her breast. A giggle slipped past her lips, followed by a chuckle. Soon she was roaring with laughter and joy as carnage reigned around her.
The undead horde shifted subtly around her. The creatures were no longer attacking; now they were flinching, retreating, fleeing. No chance. They had dared provoke the mighty barbarian warrior woman, and they would pay the price! She pursued them in all directions, not even noticing that some of the bodies seemed to be women and children. No, gods preserve her, that was a lie. She noticed. She simply … didn’t care. The bloodfever was upon her.
She growled at the booming authoritarian voice that rang out through the Dwarvern hall. Who dared? She was one with her blade, she was death incarnate, there could be no stopping now! She pressed on, hacking away. A hand touched her back gently and she whirled around, digging her sword deep into her would-be assailant.
In an instant, the undead army around her had disappeared. Jala stared down in horror at the sword, plunged deep into Freya’s belly. The young child looked up at her with solemn eyes that grew ever bigger, and as she spoke her mouth was a waterfall of blood.
“Your destiny,” she said. Then she collapsed.
Jala dropped to the floor, cradling the girl’s body. The joy of battle had drained away. Only horror and despair remained. Freya had been so full of life, facing the loss of her family and their perilous journey with bravery and determination. And Jala had murdered her.
As she wailed, she felt a hand brush her hair.
“Waken, brave warrior. Your battle is done, for now.”
She opened her eyes. Freya’s body had disappeared, and in her place stood a dwarf with sad eyes. Marek was perched on his shoulder, and around him peered…
Jala knocked the small man to the floor in her rush to clasp Freya to her chest. She was alive, it had been some foul trick, Freya was alive. She held her close.
“Jala,” Freya squeaked after a few long moments, “I’m so glad you’re safe, but I’d really like to breathe now, please.”
Embarrassed, Jala released her and ruffled her hair.
“I thought…” she trailed off. Freya stared at her, none the wiser. She had seen nothing of Jala’s battle. Jala couldn’t find the words to tell her. Instead, she turned to the dwarf and bowed low.
“It seems I am indebted to you, sir,” she said gratefully. “Without your help, I’m afraid to think what might have happened.”
The man took her hand and planted a kiss on it.
“My dear Jala, warrior of the North, there is no debt to be repaid. The trap you fell into was my own; I am old and weary and do not like to receive guests unannounced, so I set up a spell to waylay trespassers. The two of you are the first of such guests I’ve had in many a year, and I suspect the magicks were eager to flex their muscles, so to speak. I can only apologise for the trouble you’ve been put through.”
Jala frowned. “You know my name? You have me at a disadvantage.” Freya elbowed her in the ribs.
“Don’t be rude,” she chided. “He just saved us!”
“From a spell he himself had cast,” Jala reminded her. The sorcerer nodded sagely.
“I understand your caution, Jala, and it is wise that you are thus. Not all who help are benevolent. For myself, I can but try. My name is Avatkch. I don’t expect you’ve heard of me?”
The blank looks on Freya and Jala’s faces were answer enough.
“No, I didn’t think so,” he said with a sigh. “My people are long gone, no one remembers the magicks and inventions of Avatkch the Bold.”
A peal of laughter rang out around the hall.
“Avatkch the Absent-Minded, you mean,” came the Star Witch’s voice from nowhere. “Or perhaps Avatkch the Tinkerer?”
“Hark!” cried Avatkch. “Do I hear the dulcet tones of Krung Nak To, Maiden of the Stars? Or just the croaking of some old toad? Show yourself, crone, let’s be having you!”
The Star Witch stepped out of the shadows – or did the shadows become the Star Witch? She was full size now and staing at Avatkch with wry amusement.
“No crone, as you can see, little man.”
He looked up at her.
“You’ve grown,” he said bluntly. “Though you haven’t aged a day. Essence of Amber Moss?”
“Enchanted sleep in an ice coffin.”
“Ah. That’ll do it.”
There stared at each other some more, sizing each other up. Jala and Freya looked from one to the other, worried.
Avatkch broke first. With a huge grin, he skipped up to the Witch and hugged her shins. When he released her, she knelt and clasped his forearms.
“It’s truly good to see you again, Kru,” he said, beaming.
Jala cleared her throat.
“I do not wish to impede this touching reunion, but what in the name of Aagb’s beard is going on here?”
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Guest art for Part 11 was provided by the talented Will Gisby. He does good work.