The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

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I have Magebane for you on Line 1

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

28 - Hall of the Listeners

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

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

Part 28 – The Hall of the Listeners

Jala eyed the hilt of the dagger warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jala nodded in understanding.

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

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

 The necromancer raised an eyebrow.

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

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

 Wojji blinked.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yarla snorted and returned her attention to her patient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yarla whistled and wiped her hands on a nearby cloth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 - Hall of the Listeners

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

How About No?

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

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

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

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

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

Part 27 – Secrets of the Heldrakai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, sit.” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” asked Jala

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

“And your point?” asked Jala.

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

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

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

Jala snorted with derision.

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

“How much?” asked Kru

“Hmm?” replied Wojji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we have an agreement?” he asked.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

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

An Unexpected Turn of Events

“Man plans, God laughs.” – Yiddish Proverb

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

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

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

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

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

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

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

Part 25 – Sandworms, Bloody Sandworms

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

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

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

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“What hut?”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cairnobas

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

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

“What happened to them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Kru?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if I refuse?”

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

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

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

It looked like this decision was up to her.

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

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

Walk Without Rhythm

There was once a wise man named of Slim of the Clan Fatboy. As was the custom of his people he dispensed his nuggets of wisdom though song and verse, adding to the rich oral tradition of his culture. Perhaps the most well known of his wisdoms is the Lay of the Choice Weapon, which was popularised for our modern age with the assistance of He That is Walken. In this piece we are told that “walk without rhythm, and it won’t attract the worm.” In the desert it is advice well heeded, for to ignore it invites peril and ruin. Be warned friends.

24 - Sand and Camels

But should you be fool enough to ignore these words then like as not you will be forced to confront the denizens of the depths of the sand wastes, and they are not known for their friendly and welcoming manner. As Jala must now discover herself.

Our next thrilling instalment will arrive on Monday 23rd of June. Our next chunk of high adventure will see the return of Ali, she will utilise the forgotten powers of dark and ancient witcheries to weave a tale that will strike at you very soul! But not in a threatening and killy sort of way. That’d be just plain rude.

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

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Last week Jala was approached by a member of the popular media with an offer of an interview, of potential stardom and fame, to have her name on the lips of every citizen of Stellastelathororn and beyond. But Jala is from the far and distant frozen north. A place where the media is non-existent and news is generally communicated by shouting at someone on the other side of the valley. So it is not entirely surprising that Jala is having none of it.

23 - Cooler Heads Prevail

Our next instalment will arrive on Monday the 2nd if June. It will come courtesy of Nel Taylor. She is a figure now less shrouded in mystery, less of an unknown quantity. Nel returns as a guest author to bring us more tales of derring-do and fantasy shenanigans.

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

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