Part 16 – Obey Your Meister
Somewhere, somewhere dark, something, something ethereal, moves. It is a world, but not a world. It is a place, no, not a place. It simply is. And through it there is movement, and what moves, moves towards a point, a beacon, a failing attempt at light in an infinite darkness. A flower. And as there is movement there is a cry, a cry without a voice. It calls out impotently through barren, through empty, through nothing to the beacon, through the beacon and to the world, the real and actual world, that lies beyond.
“Jala,” it cries. “Jala, I’m here! Don’t leave me!”
Jala stared at the indigolily flowers lying discarded on the floor, like a forgotten tribute to a tragic death. Jala could not explain why, but her thoughts were suddenly pervaded by a barrage of images of the dead girl. Jala had done the right thing, she was sure, even if the agency had not been her own, the girl would not have survived anyway. Yet as she stared down at the failing petals she could not assuage her feelings of guilt, as though the girl was with her still, crying out to her, and she hesitated – a moment too long. As she watched, a string of heavy, and mostly poorly kept footwear trampled the lilies under foot. They were quickly torn beyond recognition. The haunting feeling of the child died away and Jala’s mind was made for her. With the random, violent swings of the baying crowd mere inches from her person, the barbarian took up what of her possessions were still within reach and fled to follow the Sablemagus Guildmeister through the window and away.
Jala dropped down onto the street below just in time to see the hooded cloak of the Guildmeister swoop around a corner in the alleyway ahead. Jala had a great deal of experience with cloaks. Leather, cloth, fur – the North grew deathly cold at times, and a good understanding of suitable attire stood a warrior as well as her weapon could. But this cloak was different to her, unique. For a start, it did not follow the wind as it billowed behind its owner, nor did it strictly follow sensibly the motions of the Guildmeister. Rather, and Jala could not really credit this, it appeared to flow, at all times, in whatever way might bestow the greatest mystery to the situation and the Guildmeister. It followed the flow and the force lines of Drama. And this in turn imbued on the cloak its second characteristic of which Jala had never before had experience. As it snapped round the corner with a whip like crack, Jala would have sworn that the cloak – not its master, but the cloak itself – was getting impatient.
Jala got to the turning the hooded figure had taken and again caught just a glimpse of trailing melodrama. A second and third turn and the Guidlmeister was always just out of reach. On the fourth turn, Jala instinctively looked far ahead for the man’s tails, paying no heed to what went on in the foreground, and was rewarded by being upended and lain flat on her back in the dusty mud of Stellastelathororn.
The Guildmesiter and his cloak flapped in the abscence of breeze above Jala, his arms folded, a look of magisterial scorn on his face. The dramatic garment seemed almost out of control, it waved around with such ferocity. Jala attempted to move back on to her feet, but was hindered by more than one crack across the face from the rough fabric of the Guildmeister whirling cloak. Finally she managed to right herself to face this bizarre man on equal footing.
“Where are we…” she began, but was cut short by a loud snap of cloth on air on cloth.
“Whe…” SNAP, SNAP!
“Look, can you do something about that?!” Jala finally got out.
The Guildmeister turned, his cloak turning with him, and mysteriously somehow never once striking him the way it struck Jala. He bowed his head towards raised, pointed fingers pressed together and muttered what Jala took to be some impressive and secret mystical words.
“If you don’t cut this out right now,” the Guildmeister muttered to his over garment. “I am going to douse you in oil and use you as a firelighter. Do you understand?”
Jala watched in awe as the – rather animate – object appeared to obey the Guildmeister’s very whim and the great dramatic noise of cloth simmered down into the same slick, fluid motion that she had first seen from it in the tavern. Clearly, this was a powerful man, if man he was at all. The barbarian was about to speak when the Guildmeister seemed to anticipate her perfectly.
“Follow me!” he exclaimed and raised himself nimbly from the floor to a nearby ladder that led to the rooftops.
Consciousness returned to the Star Witch in short, dual-slitted bursts, and with it came a string of half seen images. A hallway, a room, a table, shackles, a figure. At last, Kru manage to hold tight to this mortal coil and open her eyes fully. Before she even saw her companion, she knew she was not alone. Kru went to speak but her throat was dry and hoarse and her words came only as the whispers of the wind. The figure moved round from behind Kru to stand before her and finally, with something to focus on, Kru began to realise her situation.
The Star Witch was strapped upright to a table that lay vertically in the centre of a large stone room, the tall, curving walls of which gave her the impression of a tower’s interior. Before her, Kru could see a large window, through which one could behold the atrocious sight that was modern Stellastelathororn, the dirt and the squalor in every corner, the scent of corruption on the air. Between her and this woeful vision, the figure of her gaoler resolved itself.
The woman that stood before Kru had a formidable look about her, and that was precisely why the Star Witch did not fret. The long, tight boots, the dark colours, the metal fixings, the tightly wrapped hair over her pure ebony skin; it was all a bit too impressive, it reeked of insecurity. Perhaps, Kru thought to herself, this could be used. The Star Witch attempted to speak again.
“Whhaa..” was all she managed.
“Beautiful, is it not?” came the mocking chocolate tones of her gaoler as she indicated the view to Krung Nak To. Kru did not think it was. She thought the sight of the failing city hideous and she could not reckon it to how she remembered the place, from so many years ago.
“What have you done?” she finally managed to force from her lungs.
“What have I done?” The gaoler laughed as she spoke, a cruel joke at the expense of Kru’s ignorance, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and Kru was the only one not to be in on it. “Why,” the gaoler continued, leaning into Kru, whispering softly into her ear. “I have captured the Star Witch. And all it cost was one little village.”
“Bitch!” the Star Witch thought to herself. This lackey before her didn’t do this. Krung Nak To was not had by any mere mortal. She knew this, but kept her cards close to her chest. Marek squirmed somewhere in the depths of the Star Witch’s garments, but Kru calmed him with her mind. Now was not the time for action. “No,” Kru said. “What have you done to my city?”
“What? Oh, I see?” the gaoler replied. “Yes, yes I suppose it is, isn’t it. Stellastelathororn, the city of Stars. Star Witch, Star City. Yes. Lovely is it not? Dark is it not? Dank is it not? So much better than when they would celebrate the light. Yes. Let me tell you just what I’ve done with the place.”
“The city of what?” Jala asked her new guide, certain she must have misheard him. She rubbed at her hands after the climb onto the roof, her fingers still stiff from her injury in the dwarven mines.
“The city of Stars,” the Guildmeister replied. “That’s what they used to call it. At night, it used to shine so brightly, right about this time, just as dusk was turning, there would be shining beacons all over the rooftops; a prayer to the stars for the morning’s safe return.” Jala stared incredulously at the old man (for this was how he now appeared in his deep reminiscing, aging and grey), but he just chuckled at her doubt. “Not anymore, eh?” he said. “Now it’s just dirt and blood and mud and… and shit! Yes, the City of Shit, eh?” The Guildmeister smirked at Jala, proud of his little jest. Jala met his mirth with a dead steady gaze.
“I’m not calling it that,” she explained. The Guildmeister hesitated for a moment and then thought better of the argument.
“Fair enough,” he said instead. “Come on!” And off he sprang again, this time his cloak wafting with full force. The mage hurtled headlong towards the side of building and promptly plummeted off the end. Alarmed, Jala followed to the roof’s edge and looked over the side to the streets below. To her amazement she saw, stood upright on the ground beneath her, the Sabelmagus Guildmeister, not a scratch on his person, cloak flapping triumphantly about his starch straight shoulders. He waved up for her to follow him. Unable to believe her own foolhardiness, Jala closed her eyes, took a breath and jumped.
As she felt the cool air rush swiftly over her outstretched limbs, Jala waited patiently for whatever magic the mage might be using to take her and carry her gently to the ground. She was not kept waiting long, but then, it was not a long drop. A mere second after she had flung herself so trustingly into the soft embrace of nothing, Jala came to realise her mistake. Solid ground brought her quickly back to reality as she hit it – hard! For a moment, all the warrior could do was roll around on the floor, failing to scream expletives at her guide from winded lungs. Finally, once the searing pain of the fall had subsided somewhat, and she had managed to conclude that she had, by a miracle, broken no bones, Jala brought herself to her feet and stared death into the core of the Guildmeister’s soul.
“What?” he asked, with a look that only perfect ignorance of a problem can give.
“I thought,” Jala wheezed. “You know. Magic, or something?”
“Why?” the mage giggled, as though Jala had said something excessively foolish, which only threw oil on the flames in her eyes. “What?” he asked again, the ignorant smile still pursing his lips.
“Nothing,” Jala finally conceded. “Lead on.”
The Star Witch stared in dismay at the scene from which she could not turn, left before her as a torment befitting ancient lore. With her gaoler gone, Kru released Marek to allow him some air and freedom. The stoat ran amok around the witch’s shackled limbs for a while before finally settling down to work at the bonds that chained Kru’s powerful, charming fingers.
“No wait,” Kru interrupted Marek’s ferreting. “Not yet. The time will come little Marek, but for now we must study the enemy as closely as possible. And we couldn’t be much closer than this now, could we?”
Marek hesitated for a moment at the witch’s words but was clearly uncomfortable with inaction.
“I shan’t just sweat away in your dress while that demon tortures you!” he exclaimed with great forcefulness, for a stoat.
“Nor would I ask you to, little Marek,” Kru explained. “You wouldn’t find out much in there. Well, not much that I think either of us wants you finding out, anyway.” Marek tried to hide a little sneer at what he had already seen and wished hard that he could forget.
“Go on, my little spy. Spirit yourself into the walls. See what you can dig up around here.” Marek gave what Kru imagined was supposed to be a salute, and scampered away towards the wall before the Star Witch. A quick hop and he was upon the sill of the window then round and away to whatever it was he might find in the enemy stronghold. With Marek gone, Krung Nak To turned her attention back to her forsaken city and, silently, she shed a tear.
Jala followed her guide around a sharp bend between two tall, yet dilapidated buildings and out into an open courtyard. At least, it might have been described as open had there been even one square inch of the place unoccupied. As it was, the only word that could truly capture the feel of this square, its atmosphere and its ethos, was ‘full’. Full of tents, packed end to end to end to end, row upon row upon row. And the tents were full of items, all items. Anything that Jala could try to bring to mind, and a great many more things she had never before known, was displayed and handled, swapped and discarded. But what the place was most full of, the thing that threw Jala the most and raised within her the greatest feeling of unease – the square was full of people.
As her guide pushed his way into the crowd, barely making a Guildmeister shaped hole big enough for him to squeeze his not miniscule self into, he beckoned her to follow and her stomach turned at the thought. Jala was used to a far more solitary existence than this market had to offer. She had never considered the problem of personal space before, as she had never encountered enough persons to truly threaten hers, but now she thought long and hard about how she wanted a good couple of feet between her and everyone else in the world.
“Come on!” the mage said, growing impatient at her hesitation. Jala stepped forward and took a deep breath and then another step. It felt like immersing herself in frustration. Elbows, knees, the points of swords, all found their way into the soft, fleshy parts of herself that she would have rather kept private. Never had she felt quite so off her guard, never had she been dealt quite so many unwanted blows. The Guildmeister ploughed on through the heaving mass, his hand on her wrist, oblivious to her sufferings, until he found a small pocket of air that seemed to exert its own unknown pressure on the crowd to keep itself from collapsing.
“Warrior,” the mage started at Jala. “I must go now. There are things to which I must attend.” Jala was going to protest but the Guildmeister held up his hand to prevent it. “You’ll be safest here, I assure you. The authorities, such as they are, stay clear of this place. It’s too much effort to even move here, and besides,” he said, with an air of only half humour. “If you started on every little misdemeanour around here they’d be at it until doomsday.”
“What do you mean?” Jala asked.
“Well, it’s precedent isn’t it! Arrest one pickpocket and you have to arrest them all. Before long and they’d be no one left on the streets at all, and then where would we be?” Jala couldn’t help but think that they’d be a lot better off that way, but she held her tongue for the time being. “Right, listen young barbarian and listen well.” The Guildmeister leaned in closely as his cloak began to flap with a very slight but persistent motion that gave the impression of dynamic intrigue. “We are not unaware of the plight of your companion,” he said.
“What plight?” Jala said, concerned.
“Shhh, will you please be quiet. I am trying to bestow on you a mysterious yet vital confidence!”
“Sorry,” Jala said.
“That’s ok, now, what was I saying? Oh, I’ve lost my train of thought now,” the wizard moaned.
“Something about my friend’s plight?” Jala offered.
“Yes, yes, your companion. Look. Meet me when the crow, err well, crows, at the head of the arch of souls.” This was all. Before Jala could question him further she was jostled rudely by a small urchin (who was quite put out at Jala’s empty pockets) and upon turning her head back to her guide he had vanished.
Left alone, the oppression of Jala’s surroundings became unbearable. She could not discern a single noise from the cacophony around her, every new image that burnt into her eyes blurred in with the last and the world was a fog of dusty colours. Soon, sight and smell and sound all blurred together, the world spun and spun until Jala could no longer keep her footing and she collapsed to her knees. And there, an inch from her nose where she had fallen to the floor, cast askew on the end of a stall, almost as though it were forgotten, was the object that Jala could focus on to bring her head back to the stable, solid world; a small bunch of indigolilies.
Invigorated by her new find, Jala sprang to her feet with the flowers safely in her clutches. But from here she was at a loss as to how the locals went about doing business. Fortunately, her saviour was not long in coming, in the form of the stall keeper. Unfortunately, this was not her world and the request that followed only threw Jala into further disarray.
“Two duckets!” the keeper barked at her over the din of the crowd.
“Two what?” Jala asked.
“Duckets! Two duckets! You wants the flowers, you pays the money!” Jala moved her hands about her person in dismay. She, of course, had none of their money.
“Might you accept,” Jala started, still searching. “Ah, this knife?” she concluded, pulling the weapon from a concealed place about her person.
“Hey, hey, hey. I don’t want any trouble now miss.” The stall keeper backed off and moved his hand to his own weapon. Jala realised her mistake and shifted her grip on the knife to a less automatically offensive one.
“To trade,” she explained.
“No barter!” the stall keeper yelled. “No monies, no flowers!” And with that, he snatched the indigolilies from her grip and turned away.
Jala fell back from the stall, as far as she might in the pulsating body of folk, and moped. She had no money, and no idea how to get any. This city was too much for her and she longed once more for the thrill of the hunt. Just as she was deepest in her reverie of times gone by, a hand landed gently, disturbingly gently, on her shoulder. Jala turned to see a sickening sight. A man, half grease, stood before her rubbing his hand and licking his lips. He was short and repulsive. Jala took an immediate dislike and mistrust to him before he even opened his mouth.
“You need money, huh?” he postulated. “I can get you money. Got a job for you. For someone of your…” The man looked Jala up and down, smirking. “…talents.” Jala trusted him even less having heard his serpent speech, but she had little choice and so followed the man as he led her to his place of business.
The creep led Jala to an area slightly removed from the main market, which she was very grateful of, where there stood the most rundown of all the stalls she had seen that day. It seemed cloaked in must and shadows fell about it where there ought to have been none. Jala noticed a small sack of coins on a table beneath the battered tent, which the man patted as he moved past it. She regretted it instantly, but she couldn’t help but consider how easy it would be to just take the money and run. This snivelling wretch would put up no sizable fight. Still, she thought she should hear him out. She may have entirely misjudged the man after all.
“So,” she began. “What kind of work are you talking about?”
“Oh, it is easy. No problem. And the pay is good.” He began to rummage about under his clothes in a way that made Jala decidedly uncomfortable. Finally, he extracted his hand with some new object of mystery within in it. “It is this,” he said as he placed an exceedingly skimpy looking piece of leopard skin cloth down on the table before Jala. It looked like just enough to cover the ‘essentials’.
“What the hell,” Jala complained, incredulous. “Is that?!”
Voting closed at noon GMT on Sunday November 17th. If you cannot see a poll above please try a different browser. Alternatively slaughter your enemies and pile their shattered corpses into great piles to form letters so large that they can be seen from space. Use these letters to pass on your message to the cruel and distant sky gods of your ancestors.