The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “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 ~

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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…

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…

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

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

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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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Part 20 – Showdown

Jala charged. There was no battle cry or guttural scream, she hurtled towards Magebane with nothing but silence, just the cold and stoic inevitability of death itself. Her sword arced up in a furious backhand stoke. It was an obvious opening gambit. One which Magebane read easily and moved in to parry. The sound of ringing steel filled the great hall as the two blades connected. But for all of her preparation, Magebane was nothing if not proud. After all, how could a grubby, northern savage provide any real opposition? She did not expect the crude swing of a bold amateur to have so much force. Jala’s attack sent Magebane reeling, sword arm flying upwards under the impact and leaving her guard wide open. With her opponent on the back foot Jala swung in with a left hook. The punch connected hard with Magebane’s jaw and elicited a sound of popping sinew and grinding teeth.

Jala pressed the attack, moving in with another stroke towards Magebane’s chest. But for the second attack she was prepared, fully aware of the force behind the incoming blow. Jala’s sword skittered across blue wood as it met with a raised shield. With that simple block Magebane recovered her poise. Jala’s attacks came thick and fast, falling like lightning from the sky. But each and every one of them was met by a well-timed parry, deft block or graceful dodge. Then the tables began to turn. Magebane started to probe Jala’s defences. A quick flick here, an arced thrust there. Searching for a chink in the armour, a weakness to exploit and they were many, and varied. For Jala did not have the same grace and skill at parrying as her opponent. A fight in the North was over in seconds, because that was the way it had to be. One quick slice to a nice fat vein and then let the bastard bleed a bit, stove their head in with a rock and move onto the next foe. Precious few of Magebane’s strokes were met with a sword, for Jala favoured the more logical and practical school of “getting out the bloody way.” A dance with such fast and rapid steps is hard to keep up for long, even more so when you’re unsure of who is leading and you have to keep guessing where you’re supposed to be. In such a dance a misstep is inevitable. Magebane feinted an upward swing, Jala leaned backwards pulling her head out of its expected arc. With a fluid flick of her wrist, Magebane turned it into a thrust. Off balance, Jala had nowhere to go. The Bastard Sword bit deep into Jala’s armour, the blade slicing through leather and cloth and into Jala’s flesh.

Pain swept through her body, like her very nerves had burst into flames. Muscles contracted, spasmed and seized as eldrtich agony poured through every fibre of her being. Jala’s head and arms raised to the sky, almost pleading. A rapidly spreading cloud of inky blackness began to creep over Jala’s vision, like a falling shroud and the cold end. Thoughts of anger and rage and hate evaporated away into a thin and intangible mist, all reason and tactics boiled away like the night ices of the Old North. All things fled before that one, lone undulating scream that echoed from the very pit of Jala’s soul.

With her arm still out-thrust Magebane smiled, her lips creasing into a dark and perverse mockery of a smile.

“It hurts doesn’t it?” she whispered “An exquisite symphony of pain and nightmare.”

Jala’s eyes began to roll back in her head, her mouth still held agape in an unending howl.

“Goodbye little barbarian, it’s all over.”

The words of Magebane slowly drifted through the soupy sea of Jala’s pain, being swept up in the maelstrom of her mind like leaves in a hurricane. They did not reach the conscious and thinking being that was Jala, daughter of Quyren, for that creature was being rent and shredded by the arcane sufferings of the blade which had wounded her. Instead the words reached something else. Something deeper. Something primal. They reached the hot and angry core of that which was Jala. The place where the dark rage and cold fires of hate slept, caged beneath the congenial necessities of the human condition. The words reached the monster that dwells within all of us, and it did not like what it heard. Not, one, bit.

Magebane was close to Jala now, slowly sawing her blade into the wound it had made a hair’s breadth at a time, savouring the moment before the kill. Jala’s snapped her elbow downward, trapping Magebane’s sword arm and the blade it held tight against her side. With great effort Jala lowered her head and met her gaze. Shock was writ large in Magebane’s eyes and the slight gape in her mouth. This was not supposed to happen.

“It’s over, when I say it’s over.” Hissed Jala through clenched teeth. Quite without warning Jala brought her forehead down upon Magebane’s nose with all the thundering force of a falling mountain. Jala could feel the cartilage tear and bone shatter as her skull crushed into Magebane’s face. The faint feeling of wet jelly beneath the skin, the yielding of flesh. They were good feelings.

Magebane’s staggered back, sword limp in her hand as she instinctively reached out toward her ruined nose, touching tentatively at the blood flowing down her face and over her lips. She gazed back towards Jala with something approaching fear. There was nothing human in those Jala’s eyes now, just a bestial hunger, a feral madness. She let out a guttural roar, the noise was hungry and entirely animal.

20 - The Fight

Blow after blow, Jala laid into Magebane with a fury not of this earth, for the Blood-fever was upon her. She lashed out with a hail of limbs and steel too fast for the eye to follow. Her sword licked across Magebane’s flesh, leaving a criss-cross trail of welling blood; it gouged at her armour, tearing great rents at the leather. Jala’s blows hammered down upon Magebane’s shield, the wood bucked and shook, but refused to splinter.

Magebane fled before Jala’s relentless advance, scant moments before she had victory within her grasp, but now she was being driven across the Great Hall as if she had never held a sword before, stumbling past tables and staggering around columns. She sent out short, darting flicks with the tip of her sword, as if trying to whittle away at Jala. The blows sliced thin little cuts into Jala’s forearms and the meat of her thighs. Each cut seared into the barbarian’s body like hot iron, Magebane could see the slight wincing in Jala’s eyes. Yet still she came on, The Bastard Sword’s sting barely slowing her pace.

It took every ounce of Magebane’s skill to prevent her losing a limb. Jala had no skill or finesse to her strokes but sometimes you don’t need to. After all, no amount of riposte, parry or daring quarter circle slices are going to save you when faced with a herd of stampeding rhinos. Her skin was slick with blood, everything stung and her vision was still blurred from the breaking of her nose. Magebane knew that if she were to survive past the next few minutes she would have to get an edge, any sort of edge.

The point of Jala’s sword swept across her face, missing her eyes by nothing more than a breath. The swing went wide, the edge clattering into a pillar and raising a shower of sparks. As the steel skittered across hard grey stone, before it could even rebound, Magebane slammed her shield onto the flat of the blade, pinning it to the column. The blade flexed and twisted as Jala sought to pull it free, but it was caught, its edge trapped within the crack of the great red jewel at the heart of Magebane’s shield. With a great heave, Jala tore her blade free, but not all of it came loose. As the sword twisted in Jala’s hands the metal gave, finally buckling under intolerable strain, weakened by a lifetime’s worth of nicks and notches. It shattered, leaving Jala with less than a foot of broken, jagged metal in her hand. Her maddened eyes gazed at the broken blade, confused and not quite comprehending what had just happened.

“Not so tough with a broken sword are you?” Panted Magebane.

Jala glared at her and slashed out with the stump of her weapon. The jagged fragments of steel cut through the flesh of Magebane’s cheek, tearing a ragged groove across her face all the way to her forehead.

“Bitch!” Magebane screamed “Bitch! Bitch! BITCH!”

The wounded tyrant lashed out wildly with her shield, the hard metal of its rim slamming into the side of Jala’s head. It sent the northern barbarian reeling, like a ship caught in a storm. The battle-fugue that had gripped her mind began to lose its hold on her. Her head spun, she struggled to stay on her feet, her balance lost and her skull ringing like a thousand bells.

Still she fought on, but her blows were slow and sluggish, easily avoided by an opponent who looked like nothing more than a fuzzy blur. Magebane waded in with long overhand swings, slowly slicing away at the dazed barbarian. Jala lashed out at every twisting shadow and dancing blur. But with her sword so shortened, Magebane had the advantage of reach, easily staying well clear of Jala’s desperate, frenzied swings.

The blow came in without warning, slamming hard into the steel of her armour. Plates buckled, caved in by the force of the swing and as they failed, they took with them the ribs they protected. A howl of tortured metal, a cracking of bone. Stunned and gasping for breath Jala’s frenzy finally died. Shakes over took her arms as her adrenaline fled from her and the toll of blood loss began to make itself known. Her broken sword fell from her hands, clattering to the ground with a deep, sonorous clang. Thought and humanity returned to her eyes, and they were met with a hearty kick to the chest.

It drove what little wind was left from Jala’s chest and sent her into the air. Falling with a thump, then sliding and rolling across the cold flagstones. Jala lay on her back, prone and immobile, each breath a wet rasping gulp. Everything hurt.

Magebane coughed and spat a thick, mouthful of blood onto one of rumpled carpets. She grinned slightly, her bright teeth now stained a pale pink. Slowly and wearily she trudged towards Jala, her arms loose and heavy.

“Time I put you out of your misery girl.” Magebane wheezed.

The footfalls echoed through the Great Hall. Slow, steady and inevitable; the oncoming portent of death. Jala’s aching fingers reached out across the cold floor. They reached out for anything. Anything she could hold or swing. A candlestick, a chair leg, she would even settle for a spoon right now. But they found nothing. Her questing fingers retreated back, sliding into a leather bag on her belt and gripping what was within. The fingers found comfort, and memories.

Everything went black…

Our special two-parter concludes next Monday. Same barbarian time, same barbarian channel.

Prior Commitments

In the Old Time there were four virtues held above all others, virtues cardinal. They were Prudence, the art of appropriate action; Justice, a French electronic music duo the rendering of that which is right; Temperance, the practice of self-control; and Fortitude, endurance and the ability to confront fear. But the halcyon days of the Old Time are long since past and the virtues cardinal have fallen by the wayside. They have been supplanted by virtues social. Politeness, the art of not being a dick; Cleanliness, the rendering of yourself free from dirt, grime and offensive smells;  and Punctuality, the practice of damn well turning up when you say you will!

Fortitude remains, but these days it’s meaning is largely in the vein of “putting up with other people’s shit.” If anything this version is more noble.

18 - Drastic Acts and Delay No More

It has been decreed that Jala will keep her appointment with the clandestine and mysterious Guildmesiter, to his cryptic promise of help or perhaps information on the plight of her companion. Wherever this may lead her, it is quite clear that Jala’s patience is running dangerous close to empty. It can only be a matter of time before she decides to do something “drastic.”

Part 19 will be the final instalment of our tale for 2013. After this The Team will scatter to the four winds, heading back to their respective homelands to celebrate the coming of the solstice of winter, to make our sacrifices to ensure the return of the Day Star and the banishment of The Cold. The honour of penning Part 19 falls to I, Magus John the Steele, Rogue Verbumancer and Weaver of Words. I will conjurer forth a tale like no other and valiantly attempt to avoid the pitfalls that lead to the spawning of Grammar Abominations and Syntax Horrors.

Check back on Monday December 16th for our 2013 swan-song.

Don’t Look Back in Anger

The big wide world is a cruel and merciless place. Danger lurks around every corner, enemies behind every tree, daggers behind every word. it is not the sort of place that looks kindly upon kindness. The only way you’re going to stay alive is if you stay frosty and look out for number 1. Everyone else is doing it, it’s nothing personal, it’s just of those inalienable facts of life and there ain’t a whole lot anyone can do about things like that. Your only option is to plunge headlong into the future with no regrets and no second thoughts. Everyone has to make their own way in the world.

17 - Everybody Lives

Jala is doing just that. Without a second thought to the consequences of her little Ballroom Blitz she leaves and doesn’t look back. That girl is going to have to learn to stand on her own two feet just like everyone else, now’s as good a time as any.

Part 18 will coalesce out of the raw untempered æther on Monday 2nd of December. Once again the duties of “Dread Scribe” falls upon the shoulders of Warlock James Clayton. His dark and forbidden magic will make the air itself sing with nouns, verbs and adjectives. it is rumoured that he even has knowledge and mastery of the foul and unspeakable things we mortals call adverbs.

If you have the stomach and indomitable force of will required to face such horrors and live, then return to this place a week from today.

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