Part 14 – The Mean Streets of Stellastelathororn
Jala, Avatkch and Kru journeyed through the tunnels in silence. Each was lost in thought and unwilling to speak, busy as they were processing miner worms, undead dwarves, and the screams of an innocent girl. None of them noticed the near-silent pit pat of feet behind, or the steely glint of beady eyes in the dark.
Only this morning I was distraught to think the child was dead, Jala mused, Avatkch’s booby trap replaying in her mind. She had enjoyed lopping limbs off zombie dwarves, of course – but when I plunged my knife in what I thought was Freya’s belly…
It was like losing a sister.
And yet she had abandoned the little one alone in the cold of the tunnels, alone and far from home. That’s not a true sister. Had Freya been a blood relation, or one of her tribe in the north, Jala would have helped the others build a funeral pyre on the top of this godforsaken mountain. They would have sent Freya into the afterlife with a war cry in her ears and a flaming sword in her hand, so she could hold her own against the darkness.
‘I must go back,’ she said out loud.
‘Why?’ the Star Witch asked.
‘I need to carry Freya out of this place.’
‘Bit late to be looking out for her now,’ Avatkch said coldly.
‘I should not have left her there,’ Jala said. ‘I thought it was the right thing, but perhaps I was wrong.’ She looked the witch in her one eye, ‘could it have been the magic that confused my thinking?’ she asked. ‘Between your bloodspell and the dwarf’s illusions I… well. I am not used to dealing with these sorts of things. I find it hard to determine what is real and what is not.’
Jala shifted her weight awkwardly from foot to foot. It made her uncomfortable to be in this position of uncertainty – but she held the witch’s gaze.
‘Don’t you blame my magic,’ the dwarf squawked, puffing out his chest and advancing towards her, ‘it was your blood lust killed that poor young girl.’
‘Hush, Avatkch,’ the witch intervened, placing herself between the two. ‘Jala didn’t mean that, I’m sure.’
He glared balefully at them, but held his tongue.
‘Now, Jala. Freya’s body is on the other side of that hole in the ground. You have no way of getting to her. Marek – wherever he is – is normal size again, and your hand is still a mess.’
The warrior glanced down at the offending limb. Doubtless Freya would have her bandage it with a liberal dose of moss. She gritted her teeth, ‘I’ve had worse.’
‘Nevertheless.’ Kru looked to the dwarf. ‘Perhaps when he is done guiding us to the exit, Avatkch will lift Freya out of her final resting place? Give her a proper burial?’
Avatkch looked uncomfortable. ‘Actually, Kru… I was going to ask whether you wanted a little company on the journey? It has been a while since I visited the city; I need some supplies. And –’ this with a pointed look at Jala – ‘it’s dangerous on the road through the mountains. You never know what kind of barbarians you might run into on the way to Stellastelathororn.’
‘You would abandon your mountain?’ Jala was suspicious. ‘After taking such pains to protect your tunnels from intruders?’
‘Truth told, your little group was the first I had seen in nearly forty years,’ the dwarf admitted. ‘Most folk travel by the Darksiren Sea these days. It’s a lot safer since the Pirate King started offering to fight off sea monsters in return for a toll.’
‘What toll?’ Kru asked.
‘Apparently all he asks is a song,’ Avatkch told her. ‘He’s a bit eccentric. Anyway, my tunnels are probably safe for a day or two. Can I accompany you to the city?’
‘I suppose so,’ the Star Witch told him. ‘But the two of you must be civil. I cannot abide bickering.’
‘Only if he will promise to bury Freya properly on his return,’ Jala said.
‘Consider it done,’ Avatkch replied with a low bow. ‘As if I would have left her like that,’ he muttered beneath his breath, ‘stupid barbarian.’
They continued to walk and, in the shadows behind them, a small furry figure continued to bide his time.
After only a few hours further walk, they saw a pinhead of grey light that signalled the way out and, buoyed by the thought of seeing the outside world again, they picked up pace.
Jala exited first, checking for ambushes, but all she found was a silent grassy hilltop overlooking a valley. The sky above them was cool and grey, but even so the walls of Stellastelathororn gleamed brightly in the distance. She reckoned it would only take a day or so to walk.
Kru came after her and shook out her long white hair in the breeze, laughing girlishly. The sunlight felt good on their necks and shoulders, and they noticed in the grey light how dusty they were.
‘Curses,’ the dwarf called out, ‘I’m stuck!’
Jala turned to look. Avatkch was standing lopsided, it seemed he had got his foot tangled amongst the roots and vines that shielded the entrance from the view of strangers. To a passer by, it just looked like a rocky outcrop covered in foliage, not the entrance to a magical dwarven cave.
‘I’ll get him,’ she sighed, but-
‘No!’ he shouted, ‘not her! Kruu-uuu, will you do it?’ He gazed meaningfully at her, and Jala couldn’t help rolling her eyes. Whatever had happened between those two, he clearly wasn’t over it.
Kru smiled, but she did not move.
‘No, Avatkch,’ she said softly, ‘I don’t think so. It has been a long day, and I am spent. Why don’t you free yourself?’
The dwarf flushed deeply. ‘I can’t,’ he whined, ‘my foot is right in there. It hurts.’
‘Then let Jala help you.’
‘It won’t work with her,’ he cried impatiently.
‘Is this one of your… things?’ Jala began, but her joke was interrupted by a reedy, unfamiliar voice.
‘Betrayal!’ it cried from the darkness behind Avatkch, and suddenly the dwarf fell clumsily out of their view. Jala darted forwards, but by the time she reached the cave again mere seconds later she was already too late. The assailant has carried out his bloody work.
She stared down at the crumpled body of the dwarf. Atop his chest sat Marek the stoat, fur wet with blood. As she watched, he spat a globule of what used to be Avatkch’s jugular vein onto the ground at her feet.
‘He has been controlling you since you first set foot in the tunnels,’ the little creature said bluntly. Jala blinked at the sound of a voice coming from him, but it was Kru who replied.
‘I thought that might be the case,’ she said. ‘He was exiled to these caves many years ago – he never lived under the mountain by choice.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘People rarely live alone in the darkness voluntarily,’ the witch said pointedly. ‘I think he needed my magic to get him out of there, though. These vines are enchanted to prevent him from getting out.’ She tapped one of the plants wound around the dwarf’s shin. It shrank away from her touch, but gripped the victim’s leg even tighter.
‘The vines might be enchanted,’ Marek said bitterly, ‘but to get as far as them he needed blood magic. The blood of a virgin, in fact. Which he had you spill for him.’
‘The dwarves always did tend towards the dramatic,’ Kru agreed softly. ‘Poor child.’
‘He did not make me kill her,’ Jala said, irritated at the implication of a weakness on her part. ‘I knew in my head and my heart it was the kindest thing to do. She would have died from her injuries anyway.’
‘Yes,’ Marek agreed, ‘she would have. And that is why Avatkch let the worms through. He used his illusions to determine your strengths – single-mindedness, bravery, ability to do what must be done-‘
‘And he also assessed your weaknesses,’ Kru said. ‘Of which he could see only one, namely a fondness for Freya, evidenced by your reaction when you thought you’d put a sword through her belly.’
‘He then manipulated the circumstances to make sure you would kill her for him – not out of anger, but out of love.’
Jala looked down at the corpse, whose eyes bulged out of his purple face. She would never have credited the little man with being so clever, or so malicious.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘let us spend no more time in his company.’
She turned on her heel and walked purposefully away. Kru and Marek exchanged a look, then followed obediently behind.
The journey to Stellastelathororn was fairly uneventful. Jala killed a young deer along the way and they ate it over a small fire under the stars, toasting Freya’s memory and banishing that of Avatkch. Marek tried to remember the magic that had prevented Kru from transforming him without sacrifice, but he could not. The witch was unconcerned by this.
‘You’ve probably been cursed to forget your curse,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry about it. The truth will out in time.’
They rested well, and by first light were already walking again – except for Marek, who rode upon Kru’s shoulder. It was hardly any time until they had reached the great walls of Stellastelathororn.
Jala had never seen a city this size, and she was unimpressed. The place stank of rubbish and people, the air was full of soot and noise. Why people would choose to live on top of one another like this she could hardly imagine. More than that, there were far too many nooks and crannies where danger could lurk undetected.
‘We shall go to the university,’ Kru said, pulling her hood up to conceal her face. Marek hid himself inside the folds too, so that the only sign of him was the glint of his beady eyes in the darkness. ‘They don’t usually allow women,’ Kru explained as he made himself comfortable, ‘but for me they’ll make an exception. They owe me a few favours.’
‘Fine,’ Jala said, but she was only half listening. She was more concerned with scanning the crowd for potential danger – she had already clocked three small pickpockets and a convicted murderer on the prowl.
They made their way through a maze of earthen streets, littered with traders and urchins and the smell of poverty. On several occasions Jala found herself holding up her knife to would-be thieves, silently shaking her head at them till they scampered back off into the crowd.
At length the paths widened out. The buildings began to look more expensive, and there were fewer beggars. Jala found herself staring at an ornamental fountain adorned with sculptures of the gods, when –
‘Halt,’ said a man dressed in mail and an expensive looking cloak. ‘Papers.’
‘We don’t have papers,’ Jala told him, ‘we are not citizens of this place. We are merely passing through.’
‘Not without papers you aren’t,’ the man said, but he wasn’t really interested in Jala – he was trying to get a look under Kru’s hood. Perhaps he thought there was a beautiful young lady under there, a foreigner being watched over by a muscled barbarian bodyguard.
‘What about you,’ he tapped Kru on the shoulder, ‘got any papers?’
The Star Witch sighed, and pushed back her hood enough to reveal her one eye. The guard gasped and the blood drained from his face. ‘You!’
To Jala’s amusement, he fell to his knees, burbling incomprehensibly.
‘Another old boyfriend of yours?’
‘My reputation preceded me, that’s all,’ the witch replied. ‘Now we must make haste, these guards travel in pairs and his counterpart will doubtless arrive in a moment to raise the alarm.’
Kru darted off surprisingly quickly, diving down a small lane lined with burning torches. As they ran, she found herself hoping they would not get separated – she would never find her way out of this tangle of suburbia by herself. Then they heard the clanging of a bell, and the sound of many footsteps beating against the ground.
Jala turned to fight, but Kru put a hand on her arm and spoke to her mind.
‘Jala,’ she whispered, though her lips did not move, ‘you must not kill this man. He is an emissary of the Guild, and it appears they would wish to see me. Let them take me, for they have much information, and knowledge is power. I will find you again, once I am done with them.’
‘Unless they kill you first,’ Jala pointed out. There were now seven guards, all in the same uniform as the first and wielding a collection of fairly impressive weapons. None of them looked especially friendly.
‘Trust me,’ the witch said.
‘Right then,’ said the tallest guard – the leader on account of his size, Jala guessed, rather than any particular aptitude. ‘Krung Nak To, I presume? I am here to take you to our glorious leader.’
Kru inclined her head with a gracious smile.
‘And who is this?’ the guard peered at Jala, ‘a friend of yours?’
‘Never seen her before today,’ Kru said smoothly. ‘She’s a kind hearted stranger who thought she would help an old lady navigate the city in safety, that’s all.’
The guard did not look entirely convinced.
‘Is that true, madam?’
Jala looked at him, cleared her throat and said…
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