The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “Freya”

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

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Part 27 – Secrets of the Heldrakai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, sit.” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” asked Jala

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

“And your point?” asked Jala.

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

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

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

Jala snorted with derision.

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

“How much?” asked Kru

“Hmm?” replied Wojji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we have an agreement?” he asked.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

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Part 12 – Words and Worms

The Star Witch smiled. Jala found this unsettling. With Kru, as with any witch, there was a knowing behind the smile, a wry and prideful intelligence which suggested she was privy to a great many things that you were not. The Star Witch spread her hands wide, wind caught up in the hall in which the four plus mascot stood. Lights twinkled in the darkness, swelled and flashed and spiralled around them. Images in the mists of the wind, images of the past, began to play out before the bewildered warrior and her little friends. Jala saw the Star Witch, young and beautiful and…

“Kru! Enough!” The interruption came from the dwarf. “Always such a show with you to tell the simplest of stories.”

“You think you can do better do you?” the Star Witch taunted.

“I think I can do simpler. This is a dwarf hall. We tell stories with words.”

“Fine,” Kru said. “Use your words.” There was some amount of patronisation in her tone.

“Thank you,” Avatkch said, choosing to ignore any insult meant. “Like I said, it’s a enough simple story. Kru and I…” The others leaned into the dwarf, an easier task for Freya than it was for Jala, awaiting an explanation. “We were lovers!”

Jala, being an adult and trained from a young age to control her emotions – a hunter must always be in control – restrained herself to the merest flick of a dubious eyebrow. Freya, being younger and less worldly wise, could not resist allowing a short, heartfelt laugh to escape her belly. She immediately clasped her hands to mouth in embarrassment when she saw she was the only one.

“And what is so funny about that, little girl?” the dwarf asked Freya.

“Well, it’s just that you’re a little…” Freya stretched for an appropriate word that might get her out of this without causing too much offence. Avatkch moved towards her, hands on hips, a scornful and cautionary look on his face.

“Hmmmm?” he drew out to inexplicable length.

“Beardy?” came Freya’s attempt.

“Short?” Jala
chimed in with brutal honesty, hoping to take the heat off the child a bit.

“Young?” This came from the Star Witch, who once again had that wry smile, which once again sent a shiver through Jala’s soul.

“Squeek?”

“Oi!” the dwarf puffed up with hurt pride, gesticulating with a fat, stubby finger towards the stoat. “That’s enough lip out of you. You’d do well to keep quiet and hidden in your little girl’s tunic!” Avatkch straightened up his chainmail and smoothed down his beard.

“Well, despite my being a beardy, midget, youngling what-the-stoat-said,” the dwarf said, unwilling to repeat Marek’s words in polite company, “It’s true! Is it not, Kru, dear?” The Star Witch nodded.

“But,” Freya began. “I mean… well… how?”

“Even I was young once,” the witch explained

“Ha ha! Yes you were!” Now the smile with meaning behind it was worn by the dwarf, but Jala was no less disturbed, although for altogether different reasons.

“Ahh, that was marvellous time,” Kru said “A true adventure. But this is a story for another time, perhaps for a successful spin off novel. For now, I feel we have dwelled too long.”

Avatkch agreed and led the way, and soon the group, probably better described as a mixed bag of nutty individuals, found themselves once more within the claustrophobic terror of the dwarfish tunnels. As they travelled, Avatkch could not resist relating the entire history of every chisel stroke on every wall of every tunnel they passed through. His talk might have been tedious, but it echoed beautifully through the network of underground passages, each reiteration making the facts less interesting and the tunnels seem more endless.

Freya began to tire quickly due to her age, and soon began to believe that there might truly be no end in sight to their dirty scrabbling. But with Marek chittering in her ear and pulling her on, she was not going to be the one to slow her friends down. Besides, the going was easiest for her, being the smallest of the group. The tunnels, despite appearing infinitely long and winding and complicated (she had no idea how Avatkch navigated them with such ease and speed, never a hesitation or a mistake, as far as she knew), were more than spacious enough for her to stand her full height and still have a clear foot of space above her head. As such, she managed to keep speed well with Avatkch and was at his heels all the way.

Jala, on the other hand, took up the rear and not through choice. As she stooped and struggled her way through the diminutive catacombs she experienced something she was not accustomed to, something she barely even had a name for. Envy. The dwarf, the child, the stoat, all were presented with no difficulty in traversing those cavernous depths. And the Star Witch? Jala could not even comprehend what she saw when she looked to the movements of Krung Nak To. Clearly her limbs moved, but that movement seemed entirely separate from whatever force propelled her forward. Clearly she was hunched over, just as Jala was. She would not fit in the tunnel otherwise. And yet, at the same time, she seemed to be stretched to her full height, proud and comfortable. The Star Witch glided along without effort, with total grace, and that drove Jala mad.

The warrior, Jala, was beginning to flag. She could feel the muscles in her back begin to tighten from the constant stoop that she was forced to endure. She hated herself for it, but she would soon need to stop. Jala stretched out her hand and opened her mouth. She had expected to hear words, something she had intended to say like “Wait,” or “Hold on.” Instead, she heard a rumble, distant and low and earth shaking. The dust on the walls shook loose and scattered a dark icing over the travellers. Jala might not have uttered the sound herself, but it still had the desired effect. Everybody stopped dead and listened.

Freya went to say “What is that?” but was halted by a raised hand from Avatkch.

“Wait,” the dwarf said. They waited, they knew not for what. The rumble came again, louder this time, small pebbles dislodged from their ancient nooks and scratched at the arms of the adventurers.

“No,” Avatkch said, turning his thoughts about. “Run!”

The dwarf pelted down the left of a fork that lay ahead of them, sloping upwards towards the surface, and the others wasted no time in following suit. They could see the worry in his eyes.

“What is it?” Freya shouted ahead to Avatkch as the thundering grew louder and the shaking stronger.

“Miner Worms!” the dwarf replied.

“They feel more major to me!” Jala chimed in, her voice carried easily by her strong lungs.

“No, no,” Avatkch explained. “Miner, like a dwarf! And no short jokes!” This he shot at Freya along with a cutting stare. Freya returned to him a practiced look of innocence. Butter would not have melted. “This way!” the dwarf concluded as he swiftly changed direction again at a crossing between tunnels, once more heading for the steepest incline, up and away to safety.

All the while the travellers ran the quaking grew more and more intense. Soon, larger rocks were beginning to fall around them, fractures started to appear in the walls and floor at their hands and feet. Freya thought she could hear the worms munching away at the rock around them. She tried to listen closer, to hear them, to better understand taking her concentration away from her flight for one crucial moment.

A large rock, practically an entire piece of the wall to her left, dislodged and fell against her left shoulder, knocking her to floor and winding her. Freya fell to her knees, her shoulder in agony, her world spinning, temporarily paralysed. A second boulder came free and tumbled down towards her. Freya could not have moved, even if she had been aware of her impending destruction. Fortunately for Freya, she had friends. Jala’s lightning reflexes moved her towards Freya before even Jala herself, her higher functioning self at least, was aware of precisely why. The warrior moved fast, but not quite fast enough. The rock came down hard on Jala’s hand crushing the bones within it. But, despite the intense, burning pain that shot through her body, her hand did not concern her. Jala’s thoughts were all with Freya. The warrior had managed to knock the girl far enough to secure her life, yet still the child screamed a hard and terrible cry. Jala searched quickly with her eyes for the source of Freya’s laments and was dismayed when she looked to her own ruined hand and saw underneath the torn and fractured leg of the child. Oh stupid, slothish creature! You were too slow, too useless, she chastised herself silently.

Ahead, the dwarf and the Star Witch tackled problems of their own. The final quake that had shaken the fateful rock down upon Freya and Jala opened up the world beneath Avatkch. First to sink was his heart, as for a moment he felt himself hover in midair, entirely unsupported by the rock below which had tumbled and cracked away into the deep abyss of the belly of the world. This feeling left him swiftly though, and he closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable oblivion which would end his fall. All of this occurred within a fraction of a heart beat, no time for the dwarf to truly react. And now that heart beat finished. As did another, and then another. Soon the dwarf began to feel dubious as regards to how long one could feel as though one were floating in midair before one was forced to face up to the fact that one could clearly fly. In this case, however, he was not the one. The Star Witch hovered above him, her hand gripped tightly onto the scruff of his chainmail. Slowly, she moved them both back to the safety of solid ground, gently placing her ex-lover back on the floor, with the care one might afford to an injured puppy.

This puppy showed no gratitude however, not a bark, not a lick, not even a nuzzle into the soft folds of Kru’s dress. For as he had floated gently back to Earth, he caught sight of the plight of his companions and wasted no time in racing to their aid. In seconds the expert hands of the dwarf had the rock off and away from the broken bodies of his new found friends. Freya continued to cry out in agony, wishing she might pass out from the pain, but every swoon was met with a new wave of intense pain which jolted her back into consciousness. Jala, more stoic, lifted herself up with her good arm and stared with dismay at the chasm that had opened up between the group and their escape route.

“With two good hands I might get us across,” she said. “But not like this.”

“I’m sorry,” Avatkch said. “I let my defences down for too long. The mental barrier you two experienced usually keeps them away.”

“It is not you fault,” Jala consoled the dwarf. “We should not have trespassed in your realm.”

“I never said it was my fault!” Avatkch was indignant. “It’s hers!” he yelled, thrusting a stubby finger at the Star Witch.

“What?” Jala asked. Kru did her best to mimic the innocent gaze Freya had managed so effortlessly earlier, but she lacked the purity of childhood, and the image she portrayed was distressingly unconvincing.

“Oh, don’t think for a moment that anything you do around her is by choice,” Avatkch explained. “Nothing happens near Kru that she didn’t want to happen long before it did.”

“Is that what you think?” the Star Witch thundered at the dwarf.

“It’s what I remember,” Avatkch replied.

“Well, we shall see. Freya, be a dear and stop you screaming for long enough to pass me your stoat.” Marek responded himself, fortuitously, as it was unlikely the child would stop crying any time soon, and slid his sleek body into the grip of the Star Witch.

“What are you doing?” Jala asked.

“I shall enchant this stoat, large enough to jump across, he will carry you. You four can make your escape.”

“Us four?” said Jala.

“I shall stay,” the Star Witch explained, “And hold back the worms.”

Avatkch’s head dropped at the words of his lover. For a moment he could not speak for embarrassment. Finally, he said, “I am so sorry, Kru. Thank you.”

The Star Witch nodded and held her hands over the little animal. A bright light began to emanate from between her fingers and around the body of the stoat. As Jala watched, the brightness swelled and engulfed Marek until Jala was forced to turn her eyes away. Once she felt the heat of the magic come off the back of her neck, she looked back. And there was Marek, in the hands of the Star Witch, still stoat sized.

“Wow,” Jala mocked. Kru elected to ignore this. She was far too focussed on what lay in her hands to care for the petty sarcasm of the warrior.

“This stoat,” she said quietly, almost to herself, “Has been enchanted before.”

“What?” Avatkch said.

“I can do the magic, make him large, but it will take more than petty sorcery. This will require blood magic, bone magic.”

“What does that mean?” asked Jala.

“One of you,” the Witch explained, “Must make a sacrifice!”

12 - Words and Worms

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Part 11 – Ensorcelled

Marek’s stoaty mind raced. Jala was the obvious choice, being stronger and more able to protect the other. By the same token, though, she could stand to take care of herself for longer than Freya. Should they both be in peril, Jala’s warrior instincts and experience would stand her in good stead. But Freya, his Freya…

He nodded determinedly, his mind made up. He dug his teeth gently into Avatkch’s robes and tugged him rightwards.

“Very well, master stoat,” the dwarf said, “we shall save your little friend first. I hope you chose well. We had better make haste.”

*

Freya had found her voice, and then some. Her screaming echoed around the forest as she ran, trying to escape the monstrous horror that pursued her.  She had only caught a glimpse of it, but a glimpse was all she needed to know she didn’t want it getting any closer. There had been chitinous legs, hideous mandibles dripping with venom. And the eyes, so many eyes!

She launched herself at the lowlying branches of a tree, pulling herself up and hoping against hope that whatever it was couldn’t climb. No such luck; her gamble didn’t pay off, judging by the feel of the slimy leg scraping against her foot. She shuddered and dropped back to the ground. At least getting out of the tree would slow the creature down.

“Jala!” she called as she ran. “Star Witch! Marek! Anybody!”

Nobody came. She was all alone, just her and the creature with murder in its eyes. Had the Star Witch deliberately led them into danger, had she betrayed them? Or had Freya just somehow taken a wrong turn?

It hardly mattered either way. She was tiring and running out of breath. She was going to die.

As this rather morbid thought crossed her mind, her foot became snagged on a near-invisible thread stretched between two trees. She pitched forward onto her face with a startled yelp, ending up with a mouth full of dirt and leaves. Spitting and spluttering, she flipped onto her back and started scuttling backwards. Clicking and chittering away, it crept forward on legs seemingly too spindly to support its bulbous body. If it had lips it would have been licking them. Of course, it would need a tongue too.

Freya waved her stick in front of her in a manner she hoped was threatening. The creature lashed out with a foreleg and knocked it easily from her grasp. So much for mystical, magical powers. Damn that Star Witch!

Her undignified backwards escape came to a sudden stop as she propelled herself into a clump of cobwebs. They clung to her as she shrieked, kicking at the creature as it pounced and struck.

Freya&Spider

For all its fearsome appearance, the spider’s bite on her calf was strangely gentle, almost tender. The poison must have been spreading quickly, she felt very strange indeed; the webs around her became almost an embrace, and she could feel a cool hand on her brow. The spider leaned in close, and murmured softly in her ear as she sobbed quietly.

“Waken, child. You are safe, none shall harm you.”

Freya opened her eyes. Gone were the forest, the grass, the webs, the spider. She was in a stone hall, held in the arms of a small kindly looking man with a big bushy beard. In place of the spider, watching her intently with fierce devotion, was Marek. Marek! With a grateful cry she scooped him up and held him close. He grumbled and mumbled and fussed, nuzzling her face and licking her tears. The little man looked on with a smile.

“Oh Marek,” she said, “I couldn’t find you, or Jala, and there was this forest and a spider and I don’t know what’s going on!”

“Ah,” said the man, “I believe that that is where I come in. I am Avatkch, and this is my home. I am most sincerely sorry for the distress and alarm you have suffered at the hands of the guardian spell. It is designed to waylay tresspassers, you see.”

“We’re not tresspassers!” Freya objected. “We’re only passing through the tunnels-“

“-Unbidden and uninvited,” Avatkch finished, not unkindly. “Now come, Freya, we must see to your barbarian friend. She is strong, but she cannot hold out forever.”

“How do you know my name? Who are you?”

“All in good time, child. Follow.”

*

Jala struck again and again. Pallid beige limbs flew around her, beige heads rolled across the floor. Hers was a dance of death and the music was oh so glorious. Strike! Lunge! Another strike! Lop! Slice!

She wasn’t quite sure when she’d picked up a sword or where it had come from, but she was glad of it. Without it, she could not have lasted minutes. Now, sword in hand, she was deep in her work.  More enemies rose against her, an army of drably coloured undead dwarves. All fell before her might, none could hope to stand against her.

And why should they? Was she not Jala, daugther of Quyren? Was she not the fiercest and most able warrior of her tribe, the most skilled? These shambling corpses were nothing to her, less than nothing. Fie on them! Even their sheer numbers could pose no threat, so swiftly was she cutting them down. The mounds of bodies, limbs and offal lay scattered at her feet, growing ever higher with every swing of her blade.

She felt a curious elation, a giddiness that crept upon her with each foe she slew, building and building within her breast. A giggle slipped past her lips, followed by a chuckle. Soon she was roaring with laughter and joy as carnage reigned around her.

The undead horde shifted subtly around her. The creatures were no longer attacking; now they were flinching, retreating, fleeing. No chance. They had dared provoke the mighty barbarian warrior woman, and they would pay the price! She pursued them in all directions, not even noticing that some of the bodies seemed to be women and children. No, gods preserve her, that was a lie. She noticed. She simply … didn’t care. The bloodfever was upon her.

JalaBarbarian

“ENOUGH!”

She growled at the booming authoritarian voice that rang out through the Dwarvern hall. Who dared? She was one with her blade, she was death incarnate, there could be no stopping now! She pressed on, hacking away. A hand touched her back gently and she whirled around, digging her sword deep into her would-be assailant.

In an instant, the undead army around her had disappeared. Jala stared down in horror at the sword, plunged deep into Freya’s belly. The young child looked up at her with solemn eyes that grew ever bigger, and as she spoke her mouth was a waterfall of blood.

“Your destiny,” she said. Then she collapsed.

Jala dropped to the floor, cradling the girl’s body. The joy of battle had drained away. Only horror and despair remained. Freya had been so full of life, facing the loss of her family and their perilous journey with bravery and determination. And Jala had murdered her.

As she wailed, she felt a hand brush her hair.

“Waken, brave warrior. Your battle is done, for now.”

She opened her eyes. Freya’s body had disappeared, and in her place stood a dwarf with sad eyes. Marek was perched on his shoulder, and around him peered…

 Jala knocked the small man to the floor in her rush to clasp Freya to her chest. She was alive, it had been some foul trick, Freya was alive. She held her close.

“Jala,” Freya squeaked after a few long moments, “I’m so glad you’re safe, but I’d really like to breathe now, please.”

Embarrassed, Jala released her and ruffled her hair.

“I thought…” she trailed off. Freya stared at her, none the wiser. She had seen nothing of Jala’s battle. Jala couldn’t find the words to tell her. Instead, she turned to the dwarf and bowed low.

“It seems I am indebted to you, sir,” she said gratefully. “Without your help, I’m afraid to think what might have happened.”

The man took her hand and planted a kiss on it.

“My dear Jala, warrior of the North, there is no debt to be repaid. The trap you fell into was my own; I am old and weary and do not like to receive guests unannounced, so I set up a spell to waylay trespassers. The two of you are the first of such guests I’ve had in many a year, and I suspect the magicks were eager to flex their muscles, so to speak. I can only apologise for the trouble you’ve been put through.”

Jala frowned. “You know my name? You have me at a disadvantage.” Freya elbowed her in the ribs.

“Don’t be rude,” she chided. “He just saved us!”

“From a spell he himself had cast,” Jala reminded her. The sorcerer nodded sagely.

“I understand your caution, Jala, and it is wise that you are thus. Not all who help are benevolent. For myself, I can but try. My name is Avatkch. I don’t expect you’ve heard of me?”

The blank looks on Freya and Jala’s faces were answer enough.

“No, I didn’t think so,” he said with a sigh. “My people are long gone, no one remembers the magicks and inventions of Avatkch the Bold.”

A peal of laughter rang out around the hall.

“Avatkch the Absent-Minded, you mean,” came the Star Witch’s voice from nowhere. “Or perhaps Avatkch the Tinkerer?”

“Hark!” cried Avatkch. “Do I hear the dulcet tones of Krung Nak To, Maiden of the Stars? Or just the croaking of some old toad? Show yourself, crone, let’s be having you!”

The Star Witch stepped out of the shadows – or did the shadows become the Star Witch? She was full size now and staing at Avatkch with wry amusement.

“No crone, as you can see, little man.”

He looked up at her.

“You’ve grown,” he said bluntly. “Though you haven’t aged a day. Essence of Amber Moss?”

“Enchanted sleep in an ice coffin.”

“Ah. That’ll do it.”

There stared at each other some more, sizing each other up. Jala and Freya looked from one to the other, worried.

Avatkch broke first. With a huge grin, he skipped up to the Witch and hugged her shins. When he released her, she knelt and clasped his forearms.

“It’s truly good to see you again, Kru,” he said, beaming.

Jala cleared her throat.

“I do not wish to impede this touching reunion, but what in the name of Aagb’s beard is going on here?”

11 - Ensorcelled

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Guest art for Part 11 was provided by the talented Will Gisby. He does good work.

Part 10 – Passing the Mountain

Freya and Marek turned two pairs of big eyes on Jala, the decision weighing heavily on her shoulders. None of the options the Star Witch had given them seemed appealing, but what other choice did they have? They needed to reach Stellastelathororn in order to find out what the hell that vision had meant. Jala definitely did not fancy the idea of a dragon… With a shudder she looked away from the others and focused her mind on the choice ahead.

A trip across the sea on some rickety old tub did not sound appealing, especially in the presence of Sirens and sea serpents. For someone like her who had grown up in the high icy mountain peaks, the sea was a mere grey-blue line on the horizon, to be ignored if not feared. If she didn’t have to go near the sea, she wouldn’t.

And the Frylkarn forest. Jala remembered stories from her childhood about those damned Hymb elves. They’d sit and watch a journeyman get more and more lost, slowly starving to death or being driven mad by the strange plants and waters that ran through the place. Then they would finally descent from their trees and remove the body, placing it carefully at the edge of their realm for the forest to devour. And without a guide, the likelihood of seeing the far side of the forest was minimal.

A shudder ran up her spine. That left…

“We will head for the mountains” She said finally, turning to look at the Star Witch. “If, as you say, the Beige Plague wiped all of the Dwarves from the tunnels, then we should pass through undisturbed.”

“To the mountains we shall go!” With a dramatic flourish, Krung Nak To pointed down the left hand pathway. “You have nothing to fear of the tunnels my child. Any traces of that old plague should be long gone by now.” Her voice sounded strange as she said this, like she was far away all of a sudden. “I remember that time well. Those Dholvian folk were always so friendly, always up for a shindig under the stars. Why I remember that one day it got too warm for…” The Star Witch wandered off, mumbling contentedly about the old days. Jala was quite glad she missed the latter half of that sentence.

With a quick shrug to Freya, Jala shifted her gear into a more comfortable position on her shoulders, and set off after the rambling Krung Nak To.

Freya started to follow, only to be stopped by a frantic biting and tugging at her leg by Marek the stoat. He was squeaking and digging his claws into the mud, trying to pull her away from the left hand path. A frown crossed Freya’s face. Marek had never made a fuss like this before. He was normally just content to curl up on someone’s pack and sleep in the sun as they all travelled.

“Jala, I…” As she looked up, she realised that the other two were now quite a distance down the path. “Marek come on. Jala will look after us, don’t worry. If we get left behind…” With a sigh she picked up the stoat and hurried after the others, trying to ignore the quivering coming from the animal.

Behind them, the beautiful and clear running spring of the meek continued to flow with ease. Then… a click, a rustle of leaves, and the spring gurgled. A few pebbles dropped down from the tunnel walls, scaring a crow from the tree branches. And the spring of the meek flowed red.

***

By that evening they had reached the edge of the rolling Mazhdan grasslands, home of the Mazh tribes. These were nomadic people, living off of the land and the livestock that was their trademark. If you didn’t cause any trouble for them, you tended to be left alone. At least, that was what the Star Witch told them. That night they camped on the edge of the woods anyway, just to be safe, Freya taking the first watch. As the moon rose over the horizon, she heard it for the first time. A wolf howling in the trees somewhere close by.

It wasn’t Freya’s frightened squeak that woke Jala up. It wasn’t even Marek’s frantic squeals that woke Jala up. It was his needle like claws digging into her nose and forehead as he tried to bury himself in her hair that did it. Once the stoat had been extracted from her face and very carefully not thrown into a tree, she calmed the shaken Freya and stoked up the fire. The Star Witch stayed blissfully asleep throughout the whole escapade, leaving Jala stuck with watch duty the rest of the night.

Morning dawned to reveal Freya sprawled on Jala’s lap, snoring softly through an open mouth, and Marek draped across her shoulders, hiding in her long hair. If a wolf had attacked, they would probably have all been eaten before she could even get to her feet.

A gleeful giggle drew her attention to the bright eyes of the Star Witch, standing over her and grinning in delight at Jala’s predicament. With a scowl, she gently pushed Freya off onto the floor, making her wake with a start, and deposited Marek on top of her. Telling the others to sort out some breakfast, she set off out of the camp. Heading in the direction the howl had come from, she checked the ground around the area for nearly a mile before heading back to the others. No sign of any wolves.

It took them a further three days of travelling through the Mazhdan grasslands to reach the foothills of the Gruhzkär Mountains. They saw no other living being, though each night as the moon rose, a single wolf howl echoed through their camp. Though Jala searched each morning, they never found any traces of the creature.

They spent most of a morning hunting for the trail up into the mountains, one built by the dwarves and leading to their underground world. The pathway was worn and overgrown from so many years of neglect, and a number of the marker stones were either covered in a new type of moss (which Freya got very excited about), or shattered and lost.

It took them until sunset to follow the path to its end, the group climbing higher and higher into the mountains as they went. The Gruhzkär Mountains themselves were a huge sweeping spine of the country, slicing a great swathe of the land in half. Their majestic peaks scraped the skyline, tipped with snow all year round. It was said that no one had ever reached the summit of Kharäzdhuin, the tallest across the whole land. The Dolvian folk had built their lands directly underneath its peak, with the entrance less than a quarter of the way up.

It was this entrance, on the northern side of Kharäzdhuin, where Jala, Freya, Krung Nak To and Marek found themselves at the setting of the sun. Jala had been imagining some great, majestic stone carved wall of glowy runes that only showed up at a special time of day. Freya was hoping for some moss. Neither of them was disappointed, though by the way Marek was squeaking it seemed he was more than a little upset about the way things were going.

The door was as you would expect a dwarf door to be: Big; made of grey stone; and completely plain until the moon rose and made all of the dwarven runes glow. You almost couldn’t help feel that someone was putting on a bit of a show. The Star Witch walked up to the centre of the door, put her hand on the middle and muttered a single phrase: “Hohai, Nätakshi wazne mö!”

The big doors rumbled aside, revealing…a four foot high circular hole in the cliff face. Everyone looked at it. Then they looked at the Star Witch. Then they looked back at the hole. It was lined with stone, and lead off into a dark tunnel within the mountain. Jala opened her mouth to say… what exactly do you say in response to that?

Krung Nak To stepped forwards to the tunnel entrance, and was suddenly the perfect height to walk through with ease.

“Hurry up you three. Mind your heads.” She vanished inside.

Kharäzdhuin

So here she was: Jala, barbarian warrior of the Hrίmawyr tribe of the north, daughter of Quyren, crawling along the dirty and dusty floor of a long abandoned dwarf tunnel only four feet high. This was not exactly what she had envisioned when she had decided to take the route through the dwarven cities. She had seen great soaring ceilings, deep dark caverns and beautifully carved pillars holding it all up. This was just silly.

She saw the light held by the Star Witch disappearing around a corner, followed closely by the crouched form of Freya. Jala was a little surprised to see how far she had fallen behind; crawling wasn’t exactly her forte. With a few well-formed curses as her knees bashed against sharp rocks, she followed them around the bend.

A slight ‘chink’ sounded in the dark

The light held by Krung Nak To was much further off now, and the tunnel was starting to widen out. It finally ended, opening up fully into a huge cavern with rune carved pillars disappearing up into the darkness. Now this was more like what she had been expecting.

Jala stepped forwards into the dark and away from the wretched tunnel. The base of each of the pillars was faintly illuminated from a softly glowing moss, giving the whole room an eerie blue light. Ancient rules spiralled their way up to the ceiling, fading as they moved away from the light. As her eyes travelled to the floor, Jala’s movements froze as she saw what lay there. Littering the floor between the pillars lay the unmoving, twisted bodies of the once proud dwarves. All had strangely beige coloured hair and beards, beige coloured skin, and if she could have seen them, Jala would bet anything that they would all have beige coloured eyes.

A shudder ran through her entire body at the sight of the carnage on the floor. Rumour of the beige plague had spread far and wide across the lands, and Jala remembered the nightmares she had had as a child after hearing the stories about it around the campfire. It snuck up slowly on you, first changing your hair, then your skin, and finally your eyes. As your physical appearance changed, so did your mind. You started to care less about things that once mattered, starting with work and friends, slowly moving to families, food and eventually, breathing. You became boring, wearing plain coloured clothing and eating plain coloured food. You do plain things, and eventually just fade into obscurity. The first few people to go in a clan tended to go unnoticed.

Then the twitching began. First it was just the fingers, and the toes. Things Jala barely even noticed. Then it spread to the limbs. Not just in one of them either; in all of them. Hands gripped onto old hammers and rusted axes, frozen and stiff joints creaked and groaned as they moved for the first time in years, and haunted beige coloured eyes snapped open and stared hungrily at the barbarian warrior.

It was then that Jala realised that neither Freya nor Krung Nak To were anywhere in sight. It was also then that Jala realised that all of her equipment was gone: her weapons, her armour, her pack, all gone. Thankfully whatever had taken the rest of her stuff had been nice enough to leave her clothing behind, so at least she wouldn’t be cold when the un-dead beige dwarves ate her.

The shuffling creaking noises of old bones moving slowly surrounded Jala in the eerie blue glow of the cavern.

* * *

Freya found the crawl through the tunnel all rather exciting, if a little scary, she was still fairly young after all. The samples of moss she had taken from the outer door were now safe in her bag, and she was looking forward to asking someone in Stellastelathororn what potential uses it had. She could hear Jala shuffling along behind her, cursing periodically. A girlish grin crossed her face as she heard some of the more colourful phrases, imagining the look on her parents face if they knew what she had heard. Then the now almost familiar pang of pain shot through her as she remembered the scenes from home.

Those images were still so vivid in her mind, those sounds. She had hidden in that cellar for what had felt like an entire lifetime, and when Jala had finally let her out it had taken every ounce of control not to run screaming for the hills, or run screaming after the monsters that had done it all. As she straightened up, she rubbed at her eyes in some vain attempt to wipe those images from her mind. So much had been happening of late, but even now it was hard to try and forget.

Brushing the leaves out of her way in annoyance, Freya tried to focus on the task at hand. If only she was a bit more like Jala. Jala was brave and strong, and managed to survive the crazy guy back at the spring easily. And she had barely even flinched at the horrors back at home. Freya sighed as she flicked a cobweb away.

They needed to hurry and get to Stellastelathororn on the other side of Kharäzdhuin. The star witch had said it would only take them a day or so to pass through the dwarven tunnels…wait. Since when did underground tunnels have leaves? Or trees? Or grass underfoot? Freya’s footsteps slowed to a stop as she gaped around. How had she gone from rocky tunnels deep under the tallest mountain in the country to a thick dark forest with not an ounce of moss in sight? And where were Jala and the Star Witch?

“H-hello?” her voice sounded muffled in the thick foliage, and she shuddered at the delicate touch of cobwebs gently settling on her skin. She felt stupid. If Jala had been in this situation, she wouldn’t be flinching at the feel of cobwebs or have her voice shaking from fear.

Click

She reached for the comforting warmth of Marek’s fur. Nothing. The little guard stoat had not left her side since those horrific hours in the cellar. Even when she slept Marek had never been all that far away.

“Marek?” She called out, and making the little chirpy noise he always responded to. Nothing.

Click click

Freya turned around. Maybe if she just went back the way she came she would find the tunnel again. It was always said that if you got lost you waited by the entrance, right? Only which direction was it now? All the trees and bushes seemed to press in around her, leaving no obvious path out of there.

Clickclickclick

The shadow that fell across her back felt cold as ice, with eight legs and a huge body. The eerie clicking that had slowly been filling the background echoed through the foliage, making it sound like there were thousands of them. Freya’s mouth opened in a scream, but no sound emerged.

* * *

Marek’s frantic squeaks had finally faded from the tunnel, leaving only the quiet shuffling noises of his paws on the rough ground. It had been over a day now since they had entered the tunnels under Kharäzdhuin, and Marek had seen some wondrous sights. Since the first few minutes of entering though, after they had passed those weird blue runes, Jala and Marek’s dear Freya had been silent. Krung Nak To had barely seemed to notice their sudden silence, and a while later had cheerfully told them all to take a break whilst she scouted ahead. Marek’s frantic squealing had gained no response, and he was soon left alone in the darkness with the two silent humans.

Then things had become even weirder. The two humans had unerringly continued onwards in the dark, never missing a step. Nothing Marek did seemed to rouse them, so he simply clung on to Freya’s shoulders and tried not to panic. This worked for the longest of times, until the sway of Freya’s movement lulled him to sleep.

The impact of his small furry form hitting the floor jerked him awake with a squeal, leaving him lying stunned on the floor for a few moments. When he finally came to his senses, Marek found himself alone and cold in the middle of the tunnel, with no clue as to which way to run.

Now he sat there, huddled in the dark, all panic exhausted, though his simple stoat mind was shouting over and over again ‘Where is Freya? We must protect Freya’. If stoats could cry, Marek would be sobbing.

“Oh you poor little creature”

A brilliant blue light filled the tunnel, illuminating a four foot high figure holding a staff with a glowing crystal atop it. Dressed in flowing green robes and sporting a dark brown beard, the dwarf smiled down at the stoat sadly.

“You’ve lost your friends haven’t you Marek?” The dwarf bent down. “Well don’t worry; Avatkch is here to help you.”

Avatkch held out his arm for the stoat to climb on. After a pause, Marek complied, teeth and claws at the ready. The dwarf was gentle however, and carried the stoat off down the tunnel. About five minutes later, they came to a fork in the tunnel, where Avatkch stopped.

“Now my little furry friend, you have a choice ahead of you. Your human friends each took one of these paths. To the left, the woman barbarian you know as Jala. To the right, the young girl you know as Freya. Both of them have been caught up in the guardian spell of this realm, and both of them are in serious trouble. I can help you save one of them, and then together we can try and help the other. Which do you choose?”

Marek’s instant thought was for Freya. But then he listened to the words properly. If he went for Freya now, then how on earth would they save Jala? But could he really leave Freya alone?

The stoat’s little head flicked back and forth between the two options, his little heart torn.

10 - Passing the Mountain

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Part 9 – Destinies in Sight

Jala scowled at Krung Nak To, subjecting the strange freshly-thawed-out enigma to intense scrutiny.

She remembered Elder Linna’s words ‘Never trust wolf-whisperers!’, ‘Be wary about pyromancers!’ and ‘You can only trust Blood Ravens before high noon on days that don’t have an S in their name!’ She had never given her advice about trusting a Star Witch.

Memories of Linna and her homeland served to firm her resolve. She’d travelled a long way so why not? She’d left the village to find her destiny. If this ‘Kru’ could bring her closer to realising it, of course she should trust her.

‘Fine, erm, Kru. I am willing. Tell me of my destiny…’

A capricious smile of tarry-teeth greeted Jala’s decision. ‘Oh joyous!’ the Star Witch sparkled with the glee of a little girl and Jala, Freya and Marek the Stoat were taken slightly aback.

The woman drew herself up, shook off her sleeves to free her limbs up and danced forward with sudden tremendous enthusiasm. ‘Let us see destiny!’

With a surging forward charge the Star Witch was on top of Jala, lengthy ancient fingers shoved into ear holes and palms massaging the young northerner’s temples. Jala gazed into the glowing blue eyeball – an eyeball that appeared to expand exponentially and eat up entire reality around.

The Star Witch’s stunning hypnotic blue pupil shrank then disappeared as blinding whiteness whirled away into a clouding celestial cosmos of star constellations.

Immense. An infinite unfathomable beyond the comprehension. Comets and nebulae and galaxies and universes and invisible omnipotent gods, impossible but envisioned because for a moment Jala could see forever.

Forever swiftly fell away. The stars were swept away in a hideous blaze. Jala’s senses were assailed by a very new, very vivid set of impressions. Her consciousness reeled as the vision lurched into fresh hell.

Flames danced, billowed and bellowed. Licking and lacerating oppressive smoky air, they gave way to the gravest notion that Jala had ever confronted and would ever confront. Skulls were everywhere and they were piled high in epic mounds. All around, a wasteland of charred bones, chunks of blackened flesh and the sorry shattered skeletal remnants of mercilessly slaughtered former-beings.

The skulls all wore the same expression. It was an abhorrent expression of absolute helpless fear in the face of an unavoidable death that the no one would wish on the worst of the worst enemies.

Jala raised her arms in a futile effort to shield herself from the flaming carnage and, thus, came to acknowledge the state of her upper limbs. They too were aflame, skin singeing and blistering, embers smouldering beneath the cracks in crisping flesh. Between mutilated fingers – for several were missing entirely or hacked into useless stubbiness – she carried a colossal emerald shard. Blood dripped and dribbled from the pointed end of the beautiful great green gemstone.

All at once a tumultuous roar rose from the depths of the deathly bone valley and the morbid mountains shuddered and quaked. Dread black wings swooped upwards and flapped with ferocious wrath. The obsidian dragon smashed through the flames and skulls and with its cavernous maw opening wider it surged straight at Jala.

‘YAAAAAAAOOOOOOOWWW!’

Blink. The dragon and scorched deathscape was gone and Jala now saw Krung Nak To hopping backwards, fwapping frantically at her right breast. Marek’s tiny sharp teeth were embedded in that breast and holding the stoat’s hindparts was a very worried-looking Freya.

The witch succeeded in shaking off her assailants and then shook herself off before shrieking. ‘CHILD! WHAT IN AAGB’S NAME? YOU BROKE MY SACROSANCT SPECIAL PSYCHIC CONNECTION!’

‘But! But! But I thought you were hurting her!’ remonstrated Freya, spluttering as she stroked the slapped stoat.

Kru laboured a heavy sigh and facepalmed her empty eye socket as she sought to suppress her irritation. ‘Silly, silly child! You can’t… arrckk!’ Witchy fingers cracked, glimmered a light blue and touched at the air as if breathing in fresh composure.

‘Look… once the telepathic threads of fate have been enjoined it’s catastrophic to… oh, oh! Oh! I feel that! Yes! I still have a few prescient strands wiggling!’

The Star Witch jolted and rapped at her forehead.

‘Yes! Yes! Maybe I can reclaim them from the aether! Yes! I’ll have you here, plucked from the Beyond!’ She lurched forward again to embrace Jala and the glowing eyeball engulfed the barbarian’s mind’s eye once again, senses overcome by that immense blinding white.

This time, however, it felt like a diluted experience and there was no picture of eternal numinous wonder. Krunk Nak To’s sole pupil dilated this time and morphed into the shape of her whole head.

‘Man who wears nought but trinkets!’ the face howled suddenly before shifting around in the white metaphysical whirling. ‘Silver stoat!’

It convulsed again. ‘Birth during battle! “Spare me! I am but a humble turnip!” Stick not stones!’ Each random statement was delivered in a wildly different tone as if the Star Witch was schizophrenically searching for a preferred stage persona.

‘Aye, the amber moss! The Amber moss!’ she intoned with an erudite air before pepping up to a sing-song spree of ‘bread! Blessed heartparsley bread is the answer!’

Suddenly, straight-faced, a deadpan return to something resembling regular form. ‘I’m done. No more.’

Blink. Jala was back above by the Fountain of the Meek. Freya and Marek looked confused. The Star Witch simply stood there as if nothing had happened.

‘Wha? Wha-what just happened?’ Jala stuttered as sweat beads the size of butterbeans ran down her clammy cheeks.

‘We accessed your destiny,’ Kru calmly explained, ‘but of course that got cut off.’ She shot a withering frown in the direction of Freya and Marek then fixed herself back to an amiable air. ‘I managed to gather a few snippets of things to come which much have strayed into our shared vision across the supernal, transcendental vistas but, alas, my connection was feeble and I’m sure it made little, if any, sense…’

‘So all those things, those phrases you uttered and all that I saw…’

‘Oh, my young dear don’t even try,’ she replied with a nonchalant air, more mentally occupied in silently wishing a minor accident on Marek than in the concerns of Jala. ‘I can’t help. I don’t know what you saw. I don’t know what your destiny is.’

Jala and Kru

‘But you were with me! Your eye! It opened it all up and you shared it all! Surely you did! You were in.. or there… oh, wherever or whatever it was you showed it to me!’

‘Ah, yes I showed you but I am merely an enlightening instrument in the unravelling of destiny that the Universe has ordained an individual. I do not retain knowledge which, naturally, is not really even supposed to be known…’

Unnerved, Jala to holler out, her usual fortitude fractured by the frightening fate she’d stumbled through. ‘But surely you must remember the… the…’ and then she came to an abrupt halt. She was trying to say things like ‘obsidian dragon’, ‘mountains of skulls’ and ‘my flaming mutilated fingers wielding a bloody great emerald shard’ but she couldn’t articulate them. Her voicebox simply failed to function as she opened her mouth.

‘Oh, please, don’t hurt yourself!’ Kru interjected. ‘You see there’s another aspect to the unveiling of future fate and that is that the querent can not speak of their foreseen destiny once they have experienced it via prescient special revelation.’ She then added with a black smile, ‘as facilitated by a fine practitioner of the esoteric magic arts, of course.’

For several minutes, Jala kept trying to say things along the lines of ‘I’m going to die a mutilated mess in the belly of a great black dragon in a flaming deathpit of bones!’ but the words failed to materialise as audible resonances. She gave up and they went unsaid, silently echoing within, chewing at her nerves and tormenting her bewildered mind.

‘I need help,’ she whimpered and then she said it again even louder. ‘I need help.’

Freya rushed forward to hug her troubled friend. The stoat likewise moved forward to offer some therapeutic furriness and heart-warming animal sympathy. After a meditative pause of empathy they all simultaneously looked up to Krung Nak To.

No words were needed. The Star Witch understood and felt a shift in the breeze that casts drafts across the corridors of time.

Kru started to speak. ‘You, my dears, are bold indeed but yes, I appreciate that your inexperience makes you vulnerable. You are far from home and find yourselves with strangers in strange lands facing strange circumstances.’

Jala rubbed looked down at the ‘FU’ cut into her midriff, got a flashback of flames and quickly returned her focus upwards again to Kru.

The Star Witch licked her lips and exhaled heavily. ‘Y’know I think I like you young women. I’m liking this new helping people thing. Yes… yes, this could be an interesting, fresh challenge.’

With a flighty flounce she hopped closer to her new acquaintances and reached out a hand. ‘It is true that you freed me after all those years boxed up down below in cold waiting so perhaps aiding you upon your quests is a fair return.’

Kru sniffed and scrunched her nose as if she detected an offensive odour. ‘Plus it is true that my presence here has lingered on long enough for an era. I desire new scenery…’

Upon their feet again, the trio and the stoat all stared at each other. ‘So where now?’ asked Jala, a tremor in her voice as the trauma of the revelatory visions continued to ricochet around her mind.

The white-haired woman with one eye smiled sweetly, ‘You wish for adventure!’ She turned to Jala. ‘You have a destiny to reach.’

The Star Witch slid over to Freya. ‘Your village was vanquished, child! I know you wish to find those responsible for its downfall.’

‘You mean you know where the Others who destroyed my village are?’ Freya blurted out excitedly.

‘No, little inquisitive one, but I have intuition and intuition leads me to look southwards. You know not aught of the Southlands, do you?’

Both shook their heads.

‘Oh, I think you will like a journey to the Southlands. Hum ha. I have not been there for so long. Really, it has some very picturesque and stimulating parts. The people and creatures you can find! The things that you can see and do!’

A flash of inspiration struck. ‘Oh! The grand port city of Stellastelathororn! Yes! Yes, let us go there!’

‘Stellastellawhat?’ questioned Freya. ‘What’s that? What about those that attacked my village? What about Jala’s destiny?’

‘It is all good, little one,’ assured the Star Witch, ‘for Stellastelathororn is the city where those seeking answers find solutions to their questions. Firstly, it’s a pretty, pretty city of dramatic architectural interest with a diverse population and thriving culture. It is also a crucial transportation, communication and trading hub that acts an integral centre from which to reach wider regions beyond so, altogether, it’s a practical destination to target…’

Observing the anxiety-caked faces of her newfound friends, the Witch filled in a final convincing point. ‘It is also a city of learning bolstering a great many archives, sheltering the most erudite individuals and the wisest sages of the realms.’

Kru edged in nearer as if sharing a solemn, intimate secret. ‘These Others. Perhaps there is knowledge of them in Stellastelathororn. It may be that someone with powers superior to my own can aid you, my little mossbotherer, or provide insight into what happened to the village.’

She seemed sincere. ‘Remember, your grandsire was my friend. I too wish to see his insulted predecessors avenged. I too would like to know the reasoning because this curious case of apparently unwarranted violence.’

The Star Witch turned to Jala. ‘You require help with the handling of your destiny, Jala? My work is done and I can offer no more and you can’t speak of the things you have seen but there are always ways and means.’

‘We shall seek out the Sablemagus Guild. That is, we shall travel to Stellastelathororn and see if the secret society’s seat of arcane power has sustained itself over intervening years. They were always a very quiet organisation, always so cultish that they operated on the very cusp of non-existence…’

‘And they might help me?’ Jala asked, a fresh sliver of hope slipping up her neckbone to nudge at the terrifying black dragon that flashed back and forth through her cerebral cortex.

‘”Might” is a mighty powerful word if you utter it with optimism. Now, let’s go. To the Southlands! To Stellastelathororn!’

Before Jala, Freya and Marek had a chance to object the Star Witch was striding again out of and away from the Fountain of the Meek. There was nothing for it. Both younger women looked at each other and came to a silent agreement of ‘I suppose we’ve got nothing to lose and it’s best if we follow her’.

They caught up to Krung Nak To who had suddenly halted for a moment to rest next to an overgrown Indigolily shrub. ‘Of course,’ she murmured, ‘we must decide how we go about getting to Stellastelathororn…’

‘Don’t you know the way?’ Jala asked, raising her eyebrows as Kru yanked a fistful of flowers from the shrub and shoved them down the front of her dress.

‘Why, I know three ways!’ came the exuberant reply. ‘There’s the Darksiren Sea, a sail down the Coast of Beguile rich with its marvellous aquatic monsters and roving marauders! Then there’s the pathway through the Frylkarn Forest, beauteous wooded realm ruled over by the hermit Hymb Elves if they’re still around these days. Alternatively, we could make our way to the Gruhzkär Mountains and journey through them, taking the tunnels carved by the Dholvian Dwarf-Folks.’

Her lip quivered and a sad, baleful look blanched her face for a few beats. ‘Oh, the Dwarfs. Once proud people with their resplendent subterranean cities and artisan expertise. They all perished when the Beige Plague swept through you know…’

Then she was back again into queer cheeriness, hands clasped earnestly in front of her new travelling companions. ‘So, what will it be then?’

‘They all sound dangerous!’ Freya exclaimed.

‘The risks are worth the end result!’ came the optimistic rejoinder.

Jala rubbed at her forehead again and sought to blank out the split-second glimpses of flaming death and nightmare dragons. ‘Yes, she’s right. But which route is the right route?’

Turning to Freya and Marek, she carefully weighed up the three options and wondered which of the ways to Stellastelathororn they should take… Prophecy

9 - Destinies in Sight

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What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

When you boil it all down to its bare and simplest components, so that you’re just left with the pure raw essence of what it is, life is nothing more than a series of choices. Some are good, some are bad, and for most you don’t have anywhere near all the facts to hand. So you’re forced to take a wild stab in the dark, or a leap of faith. Throughout life you go into innumerable decisions, more or less, completely blind. Rather unsurprisingly this gives rise to a plethora of unforeseen consequences; the mystery; the unknown; the veritable spice of life. And once a decisions or a choice is made, there’s no undoing it. Like it or lump in, you’re just going to have to live with it. That’s just the way things are.

Part 8 - The Star Witch Awakens

Jala made a choice. She decided that she was going to trust a woman who is perhaps best known for turning children into soup. Perhaps not the most prudent of decisions, but the Star Witch claims it’s all just a case of misunderstanding and institutionalised sexism. Which, if we’re honest, is a pretty reasonable excuse. Whether this turns out to have been a good choice? Only time will tell.

Part 9 of our ongoing saga will arrive upon your screens of scrying on Monday July 29th.  It will come from the acurséd quill of Warlock James Clayton. Recently returned from a dark and nefarious sojourn to the twisted, nightmare vista of the nether realm. What foul majicks have his journeyings yielded? What dread spell shall  he weave over our minds using nought but word and song?

Better come back next Monday and find out.

Part 8 – The Star Witch Awakens

Freya let the Star Witch’s words wash over her. The Star Witch. The actual Star Witch. She remembered the tales her mother used to tell her before bed. Tales of a foul and hideous hag who used to boil bad children into soup and make the crops go bad. Could she, Freya, the blacksmith’s daughter really loose the Star Witch on the world? But the Star Witch knew things. She knew about the runes, she knew about Jala, she said she could help them. Freya wasn’t a medicine woman or a shaman or anything. She still had niggling worries about Jala. Was the moss really going to help? Would she be okay? They’d only known each other for about a week but Jala had already done so much for her. For Jala, it was worth the risk.

“Fine, I’ll let you out.” Said Freya. The Star Witch smiled. “But only if you promise you’re not going to do anything evil.”

“I do not do evil little girl.” The Star Witch replied coldly.

“Promise!” Freya said in the most commanding voice she muster. The Star Witch sighed.

“I promise not to do anything evil. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” The Star Witch said wearily. “Satisfied?”

“It’ll do.” Said Freya crossing her arms and trying to look all stern and grown up.

“Now if you’d be so kind…” The Star Witch muttered impatiently, her head slowly turned, keeping her single solitary eye of fiery blue locked on Freya as she circled the box, looking for the best place to open it. There was anticipation in that cold stare.

Freya knelt at the edge of the strange and arcane box, braced her hands against the lid and began to push. At first nothing happened. The lid didn’t budge an inch, so she pushed harder. That was when the runes started to glow with the same blue light that seemed to permeate everything in the cave. The harder Freya pushed the brighter they became. She pushed with all the strength she possessed and the rune-light swelled to an eye-searing intensity. Then, suddenly, the runes winked out, their light gone and along with it, any trace of the runes themselves. Freya sat back, a look of abject confusion writ large over her young face. Her hands felt cold and gritty, like they were coated in a powdering of fresh snow. Before her eyes the box containing the Star Witch started to dissolve. The thick plates of icy glass turning to a fine snowy mist that was scattered away by a breeze which almost wasn’t even there. And then the box was no more. All that remained was the prone form of the Star Witch, though she did not remain prone for long. Almost as soon as the box had vanished her body began to rise as if on strings before pivoting upward until she stood, proud and tall on the table’s top. Her pale, greyish skin steamed in the cold air as it slowly warming into a blush of life. The flesh on her limbs grew thicker, her cheeks filled out and the gauntness of her deathless sleep left her face. She was no longer a desiccated husk. She looked like a living breathing thing. The phantom breeze that had blown away the box began to surge and storm, whipping and tearing at the fabric of her dress.

The Star Witch gazed down at Freya and smiled. But this was not the same smile she had given while she had been in the box, all full of predatory hunger. This smile was different. It was serene and genteel. The Star Witch raised her hand.

“I think it’s time we went outside, don’t you?” she asked.

Her palm flared with light and then room filled with the sound of thunder and shattering glass.

The Star Witch Awakens

Freya felt dizzy. Really dizzy. And her vision seemed all fuzzy and unclear. Slowly it came back, as if the world were coalescing around her. She found herself sprawled on the ground near where she had hidden Jala. She sat up and coughed, rubbing at her eyes and trying to work out what had just happened. The Star Witch stood hunched over Jala’s still sleeping form. She was muttering. Freya couldn’t hear all of what she was saying, but she caught snippets of chuckling “Moss. Ha! Never underestimate the power of moss”

“Is she going to be alright?” Asked Freya

“She will been fine.” The Star Witch replied “Eventually. But events have begun to move quickly. I can ill afford such a wait.”

The Star Witch passed her hand over Jala’s wounds, a gentle blue light emanating from her gnarled finger tips. The wounds closed and the flesh knitted together leaving only thin silver traces of the letters F and U. Jala began to stir and opened her eyes.

“I suspect you both have many questions.” Said the Star Witch, smoothing down her dress and sitting herself down, cross-legged on the ground.

“Who are you?” asked Jala sleepily.

“In the old tongue they called me Krung Nak To” she said looking at Jala’s uncomprehending face “The Star Witch. But you can call me Kru if you like.”

Jala stiffened slightly and her hand crept towards her sword. This jolted Marek from his stoaty sleep and he dashed over to Freya, hiding behind her legs.

“Oh simmer down. I mean you no harm. My reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the passage of the years. Heavens knows that the common folk simply cannot abide a woman of power, so the small-minded fools paint me as a banshee, a harbinger of doom and a general all-purpose bogeyman.”

“Freya…” Jala said, turning towards the young girl. “What’s going on?”

“I found her in a cave beneath the fountain.” She began “She said she’d help us if I let her out of her weird ice-coffin and ended her slumber.”

Jala’s brow furrowed with suspicion.

“Why were you asleep?” she asked.

“I am not as young as I once was” Kru sighed “Nor will I live forever. Things were quiet and my enemies vanquished. There were no more battles left to fight. I could have settled down to a quiet life and waited for death. Stars knows I was tempted. But instead I chose to sleep. Until the day came when I was needed again. When once more there were monsters to fight and dark forces to purge.”

“Why didn’t you get the Whore to wake you?” Jala asked.

“The inheritors of Ingunna have fallen from his lofty ideals of honour.” Began Kru “I would have been weak upon my awakening, and the Whores of this day and age are wicked and dark creatures. He could not have been trusted. So I did not permit him entry into my lair.”

“Tell me about the runes!” Interpreted Freya “You promised!”

“Yes. Yes I did” replied the Star Witch. “As you are aware the runes on the gates of your humble town were carved by your great-great-grandfather. What you do not truly know, is why. Your distant grandsire was a dear friend of mine, perhaps the dearest friend I have ever known. We travelled far and wide in our day, fighting many a great evil. It pained me to part from him, but he understood my reasonings. He knew that when I finally awoke he would be long dead and that there was the risk that the knowledge of my lair could be lost over time. That there would be no one left to wake me when evil’s cloak finally came and shrouded the land once more.” She paused, a sad and wistful look in her only eye.

“So he caved the runes upon the gates of your little town. They were to point the way. So that I could be awoken to fight whatever foe had reared its head.”

“But what about the Waterfall of Fire?” asked Freya “Why did the little wood lady mention that place if you were here?”

The Star Witch smiled knowingly.

“My lair is everywhere and nowhere, its true location a secret I have told no one. But…” she raised a finger, punctuating both her words and the air. “There are many entrances to it. If you know where to look that is.”

“Why the table with bones in it?” Freya asked, her curiosity bubbling straight out of her mouth.

“My, my. You’re just full of questions aren’t you?” Kru smiled again “It was a prize from the horde of some frost giants I slew long ago. I thought it pretty and amusing, in a macabre sort of way.”

Marek slowly edged out from behind Freya’s legs and towards the Star Witch and sniffed at the hem of her dress. Kru reached a gnarled and withered hand and gently scratched him behind the ear.

“But enough questions for now. It is only fitting a hero should receive some kind of reward for their labours: a mighty foe vanquished; a sleeping damsel rescued from her slumber.” She smiled again, her teeth sitting like tombstones in the ruined graveyard of her mouth.

“But what to give you?” She tapped at her chin in thought.

The Star Witch stood and ambled over to where Freya’s big wooden stick lay on the ground, the one she had used to save Jala. Kru picked it up and cast her baleful blue eye over it.

“Yes” she drawled as she picked up the stout wooden branch “This will do nicely.”

The air grew at first chill and then cold. A thin hoarfrost began to form on the surface of the branch. Soon it blossomed into a whole forest of jagged ice crystal. Through the field of frost Freya could see the wood began to darken from its natural brownish white. As the ice grew and thickened so did the wood darken until it was the colour of the blackest, darkest night, leaving the ice looking like shards of obsidian. The Star Witch pursed her lips and blew onto the staff. The ice flaked away, vanishing in flares of white fire. When the last shard of ice was gone what remained was a length of wood which looked like a living window into the night sky, complete with pinprick twinkles of cold starlight.

“This, young Freya, will serve you much better.” Said Kru, handing the stick to Freya.

“What does it do?” asked an awestruck Freya.

The Star Witch merely smiled

“You’ll see” she said and turned towards Jala.

“But what can I offer a brave and mighty barbarian of the distant north?” Kru let the question hang in the air. “What do you want Jala?”

Jala bit her lip and thought. What did she want? What did she really, really want? There was really only one answer to that sort of question.

“I want to find my destiny” Jala replied sternly

The Star Witch folded her arms in front of her and looked Jala up and down. Her eye weighed Jala, judged her, appraised her.

“Are you willing to trust me?” she asked.

Part 8 - The Star Witch Awakens

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Rise and Shine…

With the arrival of today the burden of responsibility passes once again to me. Returned from my wanderings, the barbaric mantle of chiefdom once again drapes my wide, yet largely insubstantial shoulders. During my absence Ali, The Scourge of Words, acquitted herself with honour and has brought much glory to her house. Today we see her mighty works come to fruition. Today a decision has been made and the fates of Jala and Freya laid out before us.

Part 7 - What Freya Did Next

For good or for ill Freya has elected to stir the Star Witch from her icy slumber. Will the Star Witch turn out to be kind, helpful and true to her word? Or will she turn out to be properly evil? Who knows? Well, I suppose I do since I’m the one going to be writing part 8, but who says I’ve even made up my mind yet? I am fickle and capricious. I am a devious trickster god who delights in toying with your emotions and expectations.

Return to this place upon the noon of July 15th to see what happens when the Star Witch awakens! I’m reasonably certain it won’t involve lots of grumbling and a futile search for a cup of coffee.

If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

Once more the Gods of Old have rolled their dice and the fate of Jala has been made to dance to their whims. The riddle of the runes is behind her. Whether her choice was the correct one remains to be seen. The decrees of fate were less than unanimous. Only a single vote decided tipped the scales in a decisive direction and shifted us away from dead-lock. Clearly it was not an easy decision to make, and even with it made the future remains in flux; a roiling sea of possibilities; a frothy squall of potentia.

5 - The Riddle of the Runes

The 17th of June shall herald Jala’s departure into the woods in search of the fountain of which the diminutive creature spoke. What awaits Jala there? Who can really be sure? Only time will tell.

Our next instalment comes from the pen of Andrew Blair dread Warlord of the far and distant north. His horde of ravaging berserkers will sack the greatest and mightiest of cities, carrying off their most prized literary work and most prolific and skilled wordsmiths. They will be dragged by his band of terrible warriors beyond the mountains to the lost and forbidden word mines of the Old Empire. Here the wordsmiths will be clapped in irons, chained to writing desks and under the brutal ministrations of heartless overseers, be forced to create fiction to bring glory and power to the Clan of Blair. At least until Amnesty International here about it and start and aggressive leafleting campaign to bring him to justice.

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