The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the category “Adventures”

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 ~

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…

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

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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…

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.

Part 24 – Sand and Camels

“Please! Oh, please, Jala, would you let me … interview you?” Hervel’s eyes shone brightly as he looked up at Jala, the barbarian woman standing at least a head taller than he.

“No.”

“Fantastic, now can we…oh” His entire posture seemed to sag as his mind finally registered her rejection. Jala didn’t think she had ever seen anyone look so disappointed.

“I’m sorry…” She felt awkward, heat rising in her face as she felt eyes of the other caravan travellers on her, “I don’t do…interviews.”

“No no, it’s fine, really. I mean, of course you don’t do interviews. Warriors don’t do that sort of thing, how foolish of me. You’re all too busy fighting things and looking out for things to fight, stuff like that. Why would you have time to do something as silly as an interview with the likes of me? Sorry. Sorry to have bothered you…” Hervel walked away, notebook dropping back into his pocket as he muttered admonishments to himself under his breath.

“That was a cruel thing to say to the poor man”. Kru had silently come up beside her. Once again she had her face mostly hidden by a hood, but Jala could see the gleaming glare of the Star Witch’s single eye in the shadow. Jala looked away, going more red.

“I don’t do interviews” She growled, hoisting her heavy pack up onto her shoulders and heading to the wagon where they would be storing their things for the duration of the journey. Jala had the horrible feeling that Kru was smiling underneath that hood, and not in a good way.

That first night was possibly one of the most uncomfortable and downright unpleasant experiences of Jala’s whole life. At least until the next day. It took her no less than 3 attempts to manage to sit on one of the infernal camels long enough for it to stand up and start moving without falling to the dusty floor in a heap. Typically, her travelling companions had no such difficulties, and simply sat smirking at her obvious discomfort.

When they finally did get moving, Jala found the saddle she was forced to sit upon almost unbearable. No matter how she shifted her weight around she could not get even remotely comfortable. After a few experimental shifts, she wasn’t sure she even dared move around too much. She was sure the beast she was riding had it in for her, and would throw her off as soon as it got the chance.

Hervel seemed to have gotten over their earlier embarrassment, and now would not leave Jala alone. Instead he insisted on riding alongside of the barbarian, jabbering away from beneath a strange floppy brown hat that had appeared from somewhere that made him look like a poor impression of a farmer. His glasses were constantly slipping down his nose, which drove Jala nuts. Why did he not just fix them so they stayed in place?!

She was fairly certain Hervel’s attention was the doing of Kru. The Star Witch rode the camels with the same strange ease she seemed to do everything, and chattered away with Tim the Guildmeister for the most part, catching up on the history of Stellastellathororn since she had been sleeping. Jala almost began longing for the noisy, smelly, busy streets of the city. Anything but this fresh hell she was in. Marek seemed to feel some sympathy for her, and sat on her shoulders for the first part of the journey, though he soon sought the shelter of the saddlebags instead.

They soon left all signs of the city behind them, and found themselves out in a huge sandy plain. There was some evidence of a track through the sand that they were following, though it was clear the desert worked hard to reclaim its land. The temperature steadily dropped as they made their way through the night. Jala found this strange, though not terribly uncomfortable (the one thing that wasn’t on this damned journey.) It reminded her of the meeker evenings back home in the North, when the tribe came together at the communal fire and told stories of their ancestors late into the night whilst feasting on the latest catch by the hunters. That all seemed so far away now…

They stopped after a few hours when the caravan reached a scrubby set of what you could have possibly called trees, if you had never seen a tree before. The caravan leaders swiftly set up tents for the group, and drew watch rotas for the group. They had seen no danger that first night, and it was unexpected until at least the second night, but you could never be too careful. The desert could eat you up in seconds if you took your eyes off it, even for a moment.

Jala drew first watch along with two others. Thankfully Hervel was not in the watch rota, and had finally found someone else to bug about being interviewed. The quiet coolness of the desert night came as a relief to the barbarian woman, and she allowed herself a small sigh of relief as she was finally, alone.

Sitting up on a small rock face that overlooked the scrubby not-quite-trees, Jala turned her eyes to the sandy plains. She reflected that this was the first time she had truly had an extended time to herself since… well, not counting loosing Kru in Stellastellathororn, since before she had met Freya.

A pang of guilt swept through Jala as a small, eager face swam up in her mind, eyes glowing with pleasure at having found some new and exciting moss, Marek at his rightful place on her shoulder. Freya had reminded Jala so much of her own younger self, eager to prove herself and unafraid to stand up for herself. Her hands clenched as she yet again felt the blade sliding into Freya’s small body, as she saw the surprise and horror in those deep trusting eyes one last time.

‘It wasn’t your fault Jala’

Jala’s eyes snapped up, her hand instantly on the hilt of the strange sword at her side, ears straining to hear…hear what? That voice. It had sounded so much like Freya.

*

The rest of her watch passed uneventfully, though Jala kept her eyes and ears open for any other signs of life. The next morning came quicker than she would have liked, and once more the barbarian warrior was faced with the horrifying prospect of riding a camel. Coming face to face with the impetuous beast was an incredibly bad plan – she learned camel spit was very sticky and didn’t come out of eyes or hair very easily.

The day dawned bright, hot and dusty. Everyone (everyone except Kru that was) found themselves coughing and spluttering as the wind flicked dust and sand into their mouths, noses and eyes at every chance it got. The sand got literally everywhere, driving everyone nuts. Even Kru couldn’t seem to keep the endless dust out of everything.

They stopped again before midday. Jala would have been frustrated at their slow progress, but any excuse to get off of the damned camel without falling off was one she would gladly take. The place they stopped this time had more tree-like structures, and what could only be described as a lake with a lakeside hut. Jala could only blink in astonishment. A lake. In the desert. How on earth did that even work? The whole point in a desert was the lack of water. Tim laughed at her apparent astonishment.

“The lake is attended to by those with…ahem…talents shall we say.” The guildmeister glanced around furtively to check he wasn’t being overheard. He had finally ditched the ridiculously dramatic cloak and tied it down next to his bags in the caravan. It had not seemed very impressed. He now wore pale, loose fitting clothing that still somehow managed to hide what shape he was, and looked very odd in the process. At least his hat wasn’t as stupid as Hervel’s. “Without the lake, crossing to Alkathum and back would be near on impossible, especially for a group this size. The amount of water you would need to carry is just impractical. Some of my…ahem…associates help out here from time to time and make sure the lake stays topped up.”

Jala glanced at him. “You know, you would appear a lot less furtive if you stopped saying ‘Ahem’ all the time when you’re trying to hide something.”

Tim went red and shuffled off, muttering something about water and a wash. Jala had to admit, a wash and something to drink sounded heavenly. A chance to be free of dust and sand, even for a short time, was worth a lot.

Of course, it was whilst the majority of the company were bathing in the lake that the sand worms decided to make their presence known. By this point Jala was bathed, dressed and was standing by the lakeside hut. The door opened moments before the attack, and from within came a voice.

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

“You child, you with the destiny. I can tell you more on what you wish to know but you must come here now and prove your strength of will to me. If you do not, this knowledge will be lost forever. I offer only once.”

A hand emerged from within the darkness, proffered for her to take. At that same moment, screams rose up from the far side of the lake. Huge, bulbous sand worms erupted from beneath the dunes, mouths dripping slime as they bared their razor sharp teeth. A group of guards raced to intercept them, but would they be enough to protect the rest of the caravan?

Jala looked back and forth between the offered hand and the impending battle. Which should she choose? Help save the people of the caravan right here and now, or possibly learn something which may save herself in the future?

24 - Sand and Camels

The poll closed on Sunday the 9th of June at noon BST. If you cannot see a poll above, try a different browser or enable cookies. If neither of this options work then there is not a lot you can do. But as you flee from the ancient polling sites but sure to walk without rhythm, lest you attract the worms.

Part 23 – Cooler Heads Prevail

The choice loomed large in Jala’s mind, shouting down all other thoughts. A deeply passionate voice, screaming white-hot with rage, was demanding a swift and bloody resolution. ‘Strike at the heart of the beast!’ it howled. ‘Quick, decisive action! Kill! Kill!

She was tempted to listen to this voice, oh so tempted. With Magebane’s blood still cooling on her blade, her warrior soul thirsted for more. More blood, more carnage, more bodies piling up around her calves. The feeling was fading fast, but the bloodlust was strong, just as it had been when she slew the illusionary beige dwarfs in the depths of Kharäzdhuin.

And yet…

Another, calmer voice prevailed. It spoke in a quiet hushed tone, a gentle caress. It wound its way through Jala’s turbulent thoughts, soothing and sedating. The voice urged caution. The voice recommended strategy, patience and smarts. The voice was the touch of ice on a fevered brow.

“We head South,” Jala declared, “to the Necromancers beyond The Gash. Let them pry the truth from this bitch’s cold bones.”

Then she pitched forward onto her face and gave unconsciousness a try for a while.

*

She awoke in a soft bed. This confused her greatly, as she’d never really experienced a soft bed before. A soft bedroll on the hard frozen ground, certainly. But a soft bed? Goosedown quilt? Duck feather pillows? She felt uncomfortably comfortable.

She looked around herself. The room was sparse but welcoming, not gaudily decorated or stuffed with lavish unneccesities. There was a dresser and a mirror, a wardrobe, a bowl of water, a stoat sitting on a chair beside the bed, some nice curtains.

“You’re awake!” Marek cried happily. Jala nodded. Halfway through the action she remembered her wounds and expected the sharp stab of pain – but none came. She lifted the bedcovers and took an appraising look at herself. As expected, bandages everywhere – but the dressings were clean, no sign of blood.

“How long did I sleep?” She asked. Marek looked uncomfortable.

“Er-“

“You slept fitfully, Jala,” said Kru, “for the Bastard Sword cuts deeper than flesh.”

Jala jumped. The Star Witch had appeared from nowhere, in her damnably sorcerous way.

“Don’t do that,” she said sternly. Kru smiled.

“I’m glad you’re recovering your strength. You’re going to need it. The journey south will-“

“How long did I sleep?”

“You have been out of action for almost a week, madam warrior,” said Calathor, stepping out of a shadowy corner that Jala was certain he hadn’t been standing in just moments before.

“Gods, I wish you mages would walk about and open doors like normal people,” Jala grumbled.

“That wouldn’t be much fun, would it?” asked her erstwhile companion the Guildmeister from her bedside. She glowered at him. “In fairness, I came in the window while you were looking at Calathor just now.”

“Lovely,” she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Anyone else planning on materialising in front of me? Is the turnip man going to pop out of the wardrobe at me next?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Mark cleared his stoaty throat.

“Erm, are you sure you’re up for a long trip, Jala?” he asked. Jala sighed.

“He wasn’t a real turnip man, he was only dressed as- look, never mind. I feel fine.” To demonstrate this, she climbed from her bed and fell onto her face. “Mfee? Mfine,” she said into the carpet.

The Guildmeister helped her to her feet.

“You’ll be right as the proverbial rain in a few hours once you’ve had a good stretch,” he said. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.

“What is our plan?” she asked. “I trust things have been set in motion as I lay in recovery?”

Kru nodded.

“We join a southward-bound merchant caravan in three days. It will take us as far as Alkathum, the Ghormish capital. From there, we strike out to the Gash and beyond. My suggestion is that we hire a guide and a mercenary or two on our arrival in the city.”

Wonderful. Another city. A desert one this time – in addition to bustling crowds and noise and stink, Jala would have to put up with oppressive heat and choking dust. Still, it would be worth it. Worth it to squeeze information from Magebane. Worth it to get closer to this Whelpslayer and avenge Freya’s village. Worth it for other reasons, the calm cool voice from days ago suggested…

She shook herself. “A good plan,” she said. “When you say ‘we’ join the caravan…?”. Kru smiled.

“Well I would hardly let you journey alone, would I? Certainly my city needs me, but the stakes are higher than we ever thought they could be. This Whelpslayer … well. Let us suffice to say he has delusions of grandeur, but also the ruthlessness and drive to achieve his ambitions if left unchecked. As for the rest of us, well, I can’t speak for Marek-“

“You can if you say ‘Marek will be coming with us,'” said Marek.

“Apparently I can speak for Marek. Marek will be coming with us, of course. We would do well to have a representative of this guild…” at this she glared at Calathor and the Guildmeister, who both had the good grace to look uncomfortable. Jala got the impression this had been an argument that had lasted over the days she’d been out.

“Er, well, lots of things to do-“

“Grave goings-on afoot-“

“-rebuild the city-“

“-arcane mysteries and such-“

“-got to weed out Magebane’s supporters, very political stuff-“

Jala sighed and grabbed the Guildmeister’s collar.

“You,” she said. “You’re with us.”

The Guildmeister looked unhappy for a moment, then his face went blank. Jala wondered idly where his mind went to when he did this, then found she didn’t care. She poked him in the belly.

“Oi,” she said. “I said you’re with us … er … I don’t think I caught your name,” she finished lamely. The Guildmeister returned to the physical plane with a bump.

“I don’t think I dropped it,” he said. “My name… is unimportant.”

“No it’s not,” said Marek, “we can’t call you ‘Oi’ or ‘that fellow with the noisy cloak’ can we?”. The meister sighed.

“Very well,” he said. “There are some who call me … Tim.”

“Tim.” Jala said flatly. Tim looked embarrassed.

“It’s short for Timammon, and it doesn’t do a lot to help cultivate the air of mystery that a competent Sablemagus needs to project so I’d rather we just dropped it or changed the subject, ok?” he answered hotly. Jala shrugged.

“Very well, Tim, as you wish.”

“ANYWAY” Kru interrupted loudly, “I think we should let Jala get her rest. We have many preparations to make for the journey.”

Jala, suddenly tired, nodded. It would be a long journey, no doubt fraught with peril. They all seemed to be. The world was growing ever bigger, and the threats it held grew bigger to match. She only hoped she was up to the challenge.

*

They made their way to the caravan offices on the night of the third day. The caravan was due to set off long after the sun had set. Apparently this was the best way to travel through a desert, and the caravan master liked to set the sleeping pattern from the outset of the journey. It made no difference to Jala whether she slept when the sun did or with moon. Her blade would be ready.

The caravan was taking them on as both passengers and guards. A reasonable rate was agreed, and once the caravan master met Jala he agreed that she was certainly at least as capable as his own guards. They outfitted her with a new sword, a clumsy weapon but one that would do the job. The Bastard Sword made them nervous, and she could hardly disagree with them. She kept it wrapped in furs with her personal possessions. She knew she would use it again, when the time was right.

The caravan was a series of small wagons and several laden down beasts of burden. These were the strangest creatures Jala had ever set eyes on, and she’d once seen a Frost Hare with three ears. They were coarse, lumpy and misshapen, with saddles crammed between their back bulges and an offensive odour that followed them like a cloud. They eyed her viciously and spat in her direction.

“What in all the hells are those things?” she asked a passing young merchant. He pushed his spectacles up his nose and squinted through them at her.

“What, the camels? They’re … um … well, they’re camels.”

“Camels? Will we not be travelling by horse?”

The young man laughed. “Well, we could do,” he said, “but they’d all be dead by the time we got there. Horses from these parts don’t fare well in the desert.” He shoved his hand out at her. “I’m Hervel.”

Jala stared at his hand.

“Jala,” she said, turning back to the camels. Hervel dropped his hand awkwardly.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

“First time with a caravan?” he said? Jala nodded. “It’s my second run, to Ghorm at least. I must say, I’m glad you and your companions seem like the sort who can handle themselves. On the last journey, we were set upon by giant scorpions, lost two wagons to quicksand and were attacked by a marauding raider party. It’s a tough run.”

Jala sighed.

“Of course it is,” she said, feeling an uncharacteristic tiredness and heaviness in her limbs. “We wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Sometimes it seems my whole life is a series of choices, each resulting in more violence and bloodshed than the last. I set out to seek my destiny, now I wonder if it is simply to be a lightning rod for danger.”

Hervel said nothing, but he took out a book and started scribbling in it.

“What are you doing?” she asked warily.

“Just getting that down, it’s gold!” he said happily. “The readers will love it. Don’t worry, I’ll credit you properly. Is it ‘Jala’ with one ‘l’ or two? Any apostrophes?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I suppose I didn’t introduce myself properly. Hervel Macaloon, roving journalist and cataloguer of adventure and derring-doo. The readers of the Stellastelathororn Chronicle just lap it up. Live vicariously through the peril of others and all that. Where are you from?” he asked abruptly.

“From? I am from the tribes in the mountains to the far North, beyond-“

“Oooh, a barbarian warrior!” he cooed. “As strong as she is beautiful, as cold as her homeland. She is the wielder of the Bastard Sword, she is the slayer of Magebane. She is vengeance, she is death! Ah, it’s too superb!”

“How did you-“

“Please! Oh, please, Jala, would you let me … interview you?”

“What?”

“Over the course of the journey? It’d be a character piece, a human interest piece. What spurs the noble warrior to leave her homeland, righting wrongs, avenging deaths? It’d be beautiful, I’d write it beautifully for you, it’d be my best work. Oh say you will!”

His face shone with youthful excitement and fervour, his grin almost wider than his head. He seemed so earnest, so young, so like another companion she’d once had.

How could she say no?

23 - Cooler Heads Prevail

The poll closed on Sunday 25th of May. If you cannot see a poll above, please try a different browser or enable cookies. If problems still persist seek out any local priests, shamans, hermits or holy (wo)men and enquire as to whether you have recently offended any gods, deities or major spirit world entities.

Part 22 – Death Drives

Death was the decision. It felt like a very good decision in Jala’s mind – a mind utterly consumed by bloodlust, rage and an unrelenting desire for revenge.

The northern warrior loomed down upon her prey. Inching in closer, she heaved out heavy breaths onto the bloody, pulped face of her prone foe.

‘I, Jala – daughter of Quyren, of Hrímawyr blood, death from the north – am going to kill you now, Magebane. Now you die…’

But the sanguinary squashed skull smiled, spat out a gobbet of red into Jala’s eye and hacked out something resembling laughter. Magebane, defiant to the end, was determined to go down both unrepentant and smiling.

‘Oh Jala, Jala, Jala,’ she wheezed. ‘You impudent bitch. Such a fool…’

Jala’s right arm shot forward and grabbed a firm stranglehold around her victim’s throat. Magebane gargled, eventually managing to eke out intelligible words.

‘Oh, Jala. Yessssss, Jala,’ she purred, that cat smile goading her opponent. ‘Yes, you have proven that you’re a force to be reckoned with but, ah, it is hopeless. You are doomed.’

Jala responded by digging her knee even deeper into Magebane’s chest. Something snapped and the defeated tyrant spluttered out another mouthful of blood. Still, her eyes shone wildly with the mania of those who know that they have nothing left to lose – those who know that the kiss of death is upon them.

Magebane puckered up, at peace with loss, ready to embrace whatever afterlife the gods deemed fit for her.

‘Jala, Jala, Jala. You can kill me. Go ahead. You were a worthy foe. The worthy foe I waited a lifetime for. I have craved such a death and thank you for providing it…’

Jala cringed. ‘I’m not doing this for your satisfaction, Magebane,’ she glowered. ‘I do this because it is right and just. I do this for all the innocents you’ve slaughtered and to avenge all the wrongs you have unleashed upon this world. I kill you so that the world may be a better place…’

‘Pah!’ chortled Magebane, breaking several more of her ribs as she guffawed. ‘You kill me and make the world a better place?! Oh, girl, you truly do have no idea, do you? Killing me will achieve nothing…’

Jala leaned in even lower and, through gritted teeth, wrenched out her wroth with relish. ‘I will enjoy it anyway…’ Tense fingers tightened around Magebane’s neck.

‘Sweet,’ the strangled one croaked. ‘But your victory is hollow. You are still doomed. Yes, you are strong and spirited but you are nought compared to his might.’

‘His?’ Jala inquired, annoyed that the momentum she was building up to the killer blow kept getting slightly sidetracked.

‘Yes, Him. I have served him well. I have no regrets. He will inevitably triumph and rule all…’ and then Magebane coughed again and for a space was stalled by her breathing struggles. She’d overwhelmed and over-exerted herself, in too much of a rush to say all that she wished to say in the final moments.

After a pause, she found fresh wind and fixed an eerie look deep into Jala’s eyes. Magebane – first of the dread lieutenants and the tyrant who’d terrorised Stellastelathorn – smiled that ghastly smile of grue and softly whispered her final warning.

‘You are doomed, whelp. You are all doomed. My master rises in strength. His hordes and minions are growing in power. The realms, all the realms, will bow down before him and you cannot stop him, bitch. Prepare to perish beneath the fire of Whelpslayer…’

‘Oh, you are done, Magebane. Die…’

And Magebane did die, Jala’s fingers having forced themselves right through her thorax, ripping the throat apart and severing her spinal cord.

But yet, that vicious predatory cat grin lingered and leered. Jala eyed the savaged mess and brooded awhile. Victory was hers, but victory felt slightly empty. Victory felt unnervingly ominous.

‘The Whelpslayer?’

***

The moment the two antagonists had raised swords, all the others had swiftly and quite sensibly fled the Great Hall of Castle Solaris for the relative self shelter of an adjourning corridor. There, they – the Star Witch, Marek the Stoat, Calathor Oakenknock and the Sablemagus Guildmeister (whose chains had turned out to nothing more than a temporary holding charm) – had all waited patiently in silence, unsure what to do with themselves. Finally, thankfully, a selection of small noises ended the chilling quiet’s oppressive dominance.

It was the sound of weary feet shuffling and the steel of a dragged bastard sword – The Bastard Sword – tapping on stone flooring.

‘Jala!’ cried the Star Witch.

The northern barbarian lurched into the corridor and looked upon the small crowd through bleary eyes. The battle rage had settled. The bad mood and elevated sense of disgust had not. Caked in blood and clearly wounded, she raised up her fallen foe’s bejewelled blue shield and the prized sword to make a clear show of her triumph.

‘Oh Jala!’ the Star Witch exclaimed again before proceeding to unfurl several competing thoughts in disordered fashion. ‘You overcame Magebane, but, oh, your wounds, but what? How? Oh my dear and, really, the blood, but you beat her and, oh my stars, what? Oh, come here…’

But Jala silenced her with a shrug and a light wave of the sword. ‘Please, Kru. She is dead. I am alive. I am fine, she is not…’

‘But you’re hurt! Look at you!’ Kru protested.

‘It’s nothing. Let it be…’ she groaned through teeth that now seemed to be permanently gritted. The Star Witch got the message and respectfully retreated.

The others gawped in disbelief. Calathor Oakenknock finally piped up, ‘So, Magebane. Dead? For certain, she’s definitely dead?’

‘I ripped her throat out. She’s definitely dead,’ Jala confirmed.

‘Brutal,’ remarked Marek, his stoat face convulsing as he formed a few vivid mental pictures.

‘But just,’ replied the northerner. ‘She spoke a lot of nonsense. She kept on taunting me and saying that we’re all doomed and that some Whelpslayer is going rule all and she was spitting blood at me and blah blah blah so I silenced her once and for all…’

‘Hold on. Whelpslayer?’ Kru looked perturbed. ‘Rule all? Jala, what did she say about the Whelpslayer?’

Jala suddenly began to feel slightly uncomfortable and insecure – the sublime feeling that stirs deep inside the inside of your insides when you begin to suspect that something is amiss or that you have, somehow, contrived to make a tremendous mistake without being aware of it or anything to do with it, whatever it is, was or will be. Shades started to encroach upon the glow of her triumph, and those acute, ominous strains prickled with greater prominence.

‘We’re all going to perish beneath his fire,’ she recalled. ‘He’s mighty, getting stronger and more powerful and we’re all doomed. She said things along those lines, that her death didn’t matter and that she had served him well.’

Saying that and seeing the faces of the gathered throng, Jala felt deflated and even more on edge. Marek and Calathor looked perplexed and slightly taken aback. The Sablemagus Guildmeister bore an indifferent expression, though it was most probable that his mind was elsewhere – possibly in another dimension altogether. It was Kru’s face that was most troubling, though. Something near to fear flashed across the elder woman’s countenance and her eyes were wide and white with stark concern.

‘Jala, I think that killing that awful woman may have been an unwise move.’

Stung by the statement, Jala moved to speak up but the Star Witch interjected before she had chance to protest. ‘We could do with knowing more. I could have questioned her. Extracted information using subtle, effective and arcane measures, you know? If there are great powers rising, great evils growing, sinister forces moving… who knows?’

‘The Whelpslayer?’ mummured Calathor, reaching into the muggy puddles of his memory. ‘Long time since we heard of him. Curious, quite unsavoury character. Ah yes, I remember now. He was here in Stellastelathororn for a spell and then left under a cloud. Took off on a galley with a crew of freaks and hoodlums and headed out to Radgerock.’

‘Radgerock? You mean the Isle of the Forgotten Fire?’ asked the Guildmeister, rejoining the real world for a second before swiftly departing again for an abstract state of awareness that was absolutely blank.

‘Aye, the same dreaded rock,’ Calathor replied to the uncaring, absent mage. ‘I’d guess he’s still there. I mean, this is the nearest port and I’m sure we’d have heard about it if the Whelpslayer had moved. Pretty certain that his blasted old galley hasn’t been sighted in a decade…’

‘Then let’s sail out to him,’ said Jala, recovering some of her fighting vigour before quickly realising that such an endeavour would mean crossing the sea – a strange, alien entity that she, the warrior of the icy northern wastes, had never confronted. Stifling that apprehensive sliver of doubt, she continued, ‘let us see if this Whelpslayer is as powerful as Magebane boasted. If he is the real villain, surely we should take the battle to him and strike first.’

Bloodthirsty impulses still stirred strong. The desire to defy Magebane even though she was dead, likewise, pounded in Jala’s breast.

‘By all means, Radgerock is not far. About two hundred or so oceanic leagues away, straight sailing,’ Calenthor stated calmly. ‘Flash that Bastard Sword around the docks and fling around some coin and, sure enough, you’ll have no problem chartering a ship.’

Then the be-bootikinned one’s features darkened a little. ‘Of course, it’s no simple business crossing the Darksiren Sea. Those waters are treacherous. Marauders, The Pirate King’s garbage, Then there’s the sabre-dolphins, scuttlefish, mermice, oh, all sorts of dangers. What’s more, Radgerock – or the Isle of Forgotten Fires, if you will – don’t impress folk as the most welcoming of islands. That Whelpslayer keeps it pretty private and, aye, it’s also one of the last of the Dragonkeeps so, altogether, not a promising travel destination…’

‘Dragonkeeps?’ Jala frowned, a stab of fear piercing her fragile psyche as soon as the d-word was mentioned. Flashes of her envisioned destiny – a grim death at the jaws of a great winged monstrosity amidst a flaming tableau of skulls – broiled in her feverish brain.

The Star Witch stepped in. ‘Yes, the Dragonkeeps. The disparate last refuges of the draconian beasts. Most now lie in ruins, the dragons long slaughtered. But Radgerock? The Whelpslayer with dragons at his disposal?’

She bit her lip and turned towards Jala. Her expression was grave and her tone was domineering, tinged with a mote of despair.

‘Jala, I do not think it is a good idea to undertake a voyage to the Isle of Forgotten Fires. Something sinister is afoot and I should have wished to interrogate Magebane further. A rash and reckless run at the Whelpslayer could be catastrophic folly if we don’t know what is going on and what has really been happening across these realms. If the Whelpslayer now has grander ambitions than merely roving around and occasionally slaying a few whelps…’

Swivelling her eyeballs towards the Guildmeister – eyes now shut, seemingly sleeping – Kru continued with curt disdain, ‘We’re not going to find any further enlightenment here…’

‘So, why not go directly to the Whelpslayer!’ cried Jala. ‘As you say, there’s nothing more for us here and Magebane is dead…’

But the Star Witch cut in again, ‘Oh she is dead, but she still may speak. Yes. Yeeeesss…’

She stuck on that thought, rolled it around her several minds and then, all of them working as one, came around to what took cogent, lucid form as what could potentially be an excellent idea. After a few ponderous beats she gave voice to her cogitations. ‘Heldrakai – the necromancers of the Ghormish Barrens.’

This appeared to mean something to the dozing Sablemagus Guildmeister for he gave a slight nod of his head. Otherwise, everyone else looked a little lost.

‘They reside beyond The Gash, in the rocky, desolate land of Ghorm to the south,’ the Star Witch added, by way of edification. ‘An esoteric and eldritch sect, their arts are of the darkest nature. They speak the spirit tongues, commune with the Dead Realms and converse with the souls who have ceased to be…’

‘They sound lovely,’ said Marek with a smirk, but Kru was clearly serious and not in the mood for stoatish jesting.

‘We can go to them,’ she continued, ‘If we take Magebane’s corpse to the Heldrakai we may be able to reach out to its spirit and demand answers. The Heldrakai can guide us. We will be in a stronger position to challenge the Whelpslayer…’

Then she clouded over, ‘Of course, that’s if they will welcome us. Few venture to the Ghormish Barrens and the Heldrakai demand a high price for any services and aid they see fit to grant…’

Having absorbed the information, Jala recovered from a slouch and stood up tall, raising the shield and holding The Bastard Sword with firm hardness. She was determined not to be overwhelmed and was resolved to action in spite of injuries, the fear she felt and the threatening dangers that were looming and lurking, unseen and unknown. It was clear – they had to leave the devastated city of Stellastelathororn. But where should she go from here?

Sail across the Darksiren Sea to attack the Whelpslayer at Radgerock or journey to the south in hope that they may seek the macabre assistance of the Heldrakai?

Both prospective pathways were undoubtedly fraught with uncertainty and presented myriad perils but, summoning up her mettle and succumbing to her unyielding warrior drives, Jala made a critical choice…

22 - Death Drives

 The poll closed at noon BST on Sunday 11th of May. If you cannot see a poll above, or cannot vote, please try enabling cookies or using a different browser. If neither of these work journey to the mountains of the elder east and dive into the depths of their forgotten pools, claim the nightmare pearl that sits on the throne of stone, the gods will grant you their favour. For now…

Part 21 – Memories

The snow fell softly, drifting lazily through the crisp mountain air before settling to the ground with nary a sound. Deep within an ancient forest, at the edge of a frozen tarn, a young girl plays around a roaring fire. In her hands she wields a thin branch, with it she slices at the falling snow. Her wild cuts fill this soft and muted world with sharp chorus of thwip, thwip, thwip. The thwips are interrupted by the crunching sound of footsteps. The girl turns towards the approaching sound and sees a woman emerging from the trees. The woman carries something over her shoulder.

“Mummy! Mummy!” The girl shouted running towards her “You were gone for ever!”

With a grunt, the mother heaved a mass of fur and blood from her shoulder, letting it land with a flumph in the soft snow.

“I ran into a very uncooperative boar.” She replied “Come on, give mummy a hug.”

The girl and her mother embraced, squeezing tight, not wanting to let go.

“Mummy?” the girl asked “Why are you shaking?”

“Things got a bit hairy towards the end love. The brute almost got me.”

“But you won in the end Mummy, because you’re the best.”

The mother smiled weakly.

“If only that was enough to see me right. Sit, it’s time I dispensed some of that sage, motherly advice that the elders are so found of.”

The girl sat herself by the fire and pulled her knees up under her chin.

“A fact which all hunters should be aware of is that there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal. Now some animals are always dangerous. An ice serpent, for example, is always going to be trouble. Fangs as long as your arm and scales like iron, if it’s at all humanly possible you avoid them like the plague. Because like as not, they’ll tear you to pieces no matter what. Now most animals aren’t like that, not until you force them into a corner and don’t give them a way out. Then something snaps inside their heads. When the threat of death closes in, even the most placid of deer will change into a wild and furious monster. If they’re staring death in the face, fighting wild and crazy makes a sort of sense. Chances are they’ll die anyway, but if they’re lucky they might take someone down with them, maybe they’ll even escape. The important thing to remember is when they’re in that position, they don’t have anything to lose. Do you understand?”

The young girl nodded.

“Now that little nugget of wisdom isn’t just a warning, it’s advice. Because it’s not just animals who get like that, people do too. One day you’ll find yourself with your back against the wall, with nowhere to run and no way out. When you’ve taken a good old-fashioned lumping and you’re out of options, you’re allowed to go a little bit mad, you’re allowed to take the big risks and do the stupid things. It’s important that you go down swinging. But fighting alone might not always be enough to see you right. You’ve got to reach deep inside yourself and grab hold of your anger. Now just hanging onto your rage isn’t going to be good enough. Anger is like a wild horse; sure, you might hang on for a while, but soon enough you’ll get thrown and like as not you’ll wind up dead. You’ve got to have the strength not just to hold your anger, but to wield it. For rage is a weapon that burns both hot and cold, it is the greatest of all blades and naught is proof against its edge. You wield that anger right and it’ll make a sword look like nothing more than a stick.”

“Wow…” whispered the girl.

“Now I want you to make me a promise” said her mother.

“What?” asked the girl.

“Promise me you’ll always go down swinging. Promise me that when the time comes you’ll take as many of your rat bastard foes as you can into the cold embrace of death.”

The young girl was silent, unnerved by her mother’s request.

“Promise me Jala! Never give up, never surrender!”

*

Frozen Tarn

Stinging flashes of pain began to rouse Jala from the blackness which had swallowed her. As she returned to consciousness Jala could feel a burning in her cheeks, a burning which was quickly followed by a hard slap to the face. Her fingers tightened around the totem within her pouch.

“Wake up you bitch. I want to see the life leave your eyes when I kill you!”

The voice sounded familiar to Jala, but she couldn’t quite place who it was, nor why she instinctively felt such malice toward its owner. Something had happened between the two of them. A disagreement? An argument? No, it had been a fight. That would explain why so much of her body hurt. She felt groggy, unsure of where she was or what had brought her to be here. Her mother’s voice still rattled around her brain never give up, never surrender. Jala was sure there was a reason why they had sprung to mind, why those words were important. More slaps assailed her face.

“Wake up! WAKE UP!” The screaming continued “No one defies Magebane!”

Magebane… the name struck a chord somewhere within Jala’s mind. A single clear, ringing bell that banished the fug and confusion. In an instant everything came rushing back. Stellastelathororn, Castle Solaris, Magebane, the fight, her fall; clarity and context. Go down swinging.

Jala’s eyes snapped open and gazed straight at the ruined face of her opponent. In one smooth motion she ripped her hand from the pouch on her belt, her totem still tightly grasped, and plunged it into Magebane’s thigh. Nearly a foot of razor-sharp ivory pierced through the flesh and muscle and out the other side. Jala wrenched it free from her enemy’s leg, leaving a ragged, red hole. Magebane howled, staggering backwards, her hands trying in vain the stem the flow of blood from the wound.

Jala’s arm slumped back to the ground, the ice serpent fang falling from her hand with a clatter. She let out a short laugh that quickly became a wet sounding cough.

“No one puts Jala in a corner and gets away with it.” She whispered.

Magebane continued to wail and moan as Jala began to slip back into unconsciousness. Sure, Magebane could still kill her easy enough, but now there was at least the chance that she might not see out the night, at the very least she’d never walk properly again. Jala could live with that. No one could argue that she hadn’t gone down swinging. One last surge of effort to drag her foe down with her, and now she was spent. She felt tired, so very tired. She just wanted to close her eyes and let sleep wash over her.

She could still hear her mother’s voice, an unending litany of “Never give up, never surrender.” But the voice grew quieter with each passing moment. Jala felt cold, as if lying in a snow drift, with hoarfrost or soft rime forming on her skin and armour. She let out a long rattling breath and she could have sworn it fogged the air as it left her lips. Her mother’s voice started to sound different; younger, much younger, like the voice of a girl. An echoing and distant voice, as if shouting up from the bottom of a deep well. The voice began to grow in strength as the chill deepened. Then the words changed. Gone was the previous litany. The platitude gave way to simple instruction.

“Get up!” it shouted “Get up Jala! You have to fight!” The words filled her blood with white fire, an icy chill of rage and a keening wail for justice.

The voice sounded like Freya’s…

*

The words rolled her to the side like unseen hands, just as Magebane’s sword hit the flagstones with a harsh clang. The words dragged Jala to her feet. A vital force seeming to flow through every inch of her being. Gone was the confusion, the lethargy and the waiting for death. Even the hot, wild rage had left Jala, what dwelt within her now was something sharp and calm, a murderous and clinical hatred.

Magebane turned sluggishly towards Jala, her face pallid and drawn, her breathing slow and heavy. She limped towards Jala, dismay writ large upon her battleworn face. She swung at Jala with a sluggish, almost languid, lateral stroke. It was a clumsy and imprecise attack born more out of desperation and despair than anything else.

Jala stepped inside Magebane’s guard before the blow had chance to land. She moved in close, almost as if to embrace her foe. Instead, she dislocated the shoulder of Magebane’s sword arm. The sword fell from Magebane’s hand, her mouth held wide for a scream that couldn’t quite bring itself to arrive. With her foe now disarmed, Jala grabbed Magbane and tossed her to the ground like a farm hand would toss a sack of potatoes. The once proud and mighty tyrant hit the ground without grace or dignity. With both one arm and one leg rendered useless, she lay on her back unable to right herself, gasping like a landed fish. Against all odds, the proud and mighty Magebane had fallen.

Jala towered over Magebane’s prone and vulnerable form, standing tall and strong. She was, in this moment, wrought from Old Stone quarried from the roots of mountains; hard, immovable, unyielding; a titanic weight pushing down on the skin of the world. The heady thrill of victory had not yet set in. Jala was still in the thrall of the fight, for though the outcome now seemed a foregone conclusion, the fight was not yet over. Even on the cusp of victory things could change, a certain thing could disappear in a puff of smoke just before you could grab hold of it. The very same thing had after all happened to Magebane mere moments ago. Jala clenched her fists till her knuckles turned white. The cold hate within her was warming quickly, warming into a simmering rage that threatened to boil over at any moment and swamp reason and logic beneath a red tide of vengeance and retribution.

Magebane lay at Jala’s mercy. It would be so very easy to put an end to her plans and schemes and general all-purpose maleficences. One quick thrust and it would be over. Freya, her family and all who had been lost in the village would be avenged, justice would be had. It would be easy, but would it be right? The notion warred within Jala. As much as she wished to enact her own justice in Freya’s name, there were surely others who had been wronged. Others whom Magebane had made suffer, those weighed down by the yoke of her tyranny, those laid low by her cruelty, and those murdered for her own desires. The Sablemagus Guild had bled at Magebane’s hand, that much she knew, and so surely had so many others in the city. Was it right for Jala to take vengeance away from them, just to slake her own thirst? A choice was to be made.

21 - Memories

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