The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “James Clayton”

Part 22 – Death Drives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, you are done, Magebane. Die…’

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

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

‘The Whelpslayer?’

***

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

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

‘Jala!’ cried the Star Witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 - Death Drives

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

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Magebane Must Die

And thus ends our two-part special. The climactic conclusion of Jala’s showdown with Magebane, the mysterious swordswoman who seems to be behind so much of the ill that is blighting the northern lands. But despite her prowess Magebane proved to be no match for the towering inferno of Jala’s rage. Now Magebane lies bloodied and broken on the floor of the great hall of Castle Solaris and entirely at Jala’s mercy. Judgement is coming, justice shall be meted out, an end will be made.

21 - Memories

Our next instalment will be unleashed into the wild and untamed lands of the internet on Monday the 5th of May. The next portion of our tale will spring forth from the mouth of James of Clayton, the Dreadest of all Dread Warlocks. From the untamed void he will use his dark eldritch magics to conjure forth words that will cut through your mind like a hot knife through butter. His telling will scar itself onto your very soul, marking you until the very end of your days.

This will be a lot more fun than it actually sounds. See you next Monday.

It Awakens…

In the far and distant realms of the High North, the icy grasp of winter has finally relinquished its hold on the land. The snows have melted, shoots and buds of green life appear where once there had been only whiteness and death. Now that the passes are clear, we can at last depart from Working Barbarian Towers and retake our place in the world. That is our official excuse for being gone from your browsers for nigh on 4 months and we’re sticking to it. Our absence is most certainly not the result of a slide into indolence, or a growing affinity for the hedonistic joys of lying on the sofa like a loppy dog while pouring gallon upon gallon of tea into our collective faces. A warrior cares not for these things! So even if they might be entirely true and accurate, could you please just pretend we’ve been off fighting dragons or rival tribes of belligerent northerners? As a small gesture of our contrition, the next instalment will be a bumper two parter!

Since it’s been such a long while since the last instalment of Jala’s saga it’s more than likely that some, if not all of you, will have forgotten the deeds and events that have thus far transpired. But worry not my hale and hearty friends! The great Skaald James of Clayton has prepared something to jog your memories a little.

Read more…

Part 18 – Drastic Acts and Delay No More

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, and Jala’s kind were characteristically kind of cruel. Charity was not a popular concept in the Northern wilds and her tribe didn’t celebrate it as a beautiful principle worthy of mention in traditional folk songs and bedtime stories. Their children were not brought up to be benevolent, generous beings and sympathetic dispositions were often scratched out before sentimentality took too strong a hold and rendered the individual unfit to stand the hardships of life.

The Northern young were instead moulded to be as hard-hearted, hard-minded and hard-bodied as possible. Babies who mewled and appeared weak were routinely whipped. Those who suffered from eczema and asthma had their ailments beaten out of them. Sappy littl’uns who offered food – a precious commodity in winters of scarcity – to their hungry pets were left out in the snow until they caught frostbite.

Life is hard and you can’t expect anyone to fight against adversity for you. Those were the principles pounded into the thick skulls of the folk of Jala’s homeland. Now stood in the centre of a bathhouse bloodbath – a tableau of death, despair and devastation – Jala felt that pounding again. Life is hard.

She looked at the wide watery eyes of Satra. A shred of compassion started to crystallise and grow but then it was checked and choked by an internal growl. The voice of Jala’s inner Barbarian spoke up and called out with the biting aggression of the bitter Northern winds – ‘Too many bloody delays!’

In a moment her mind was made up. She had things to do – a Star Witch to find, a Sablemagus Guildmeister to find, a crock of indigolily flowers to find and purchase with her pilfered gold. She had had quite enough of all the hold-ups and distractions that the city of Stellastelathororn had presented. And she had definitely had enough of the stench in this den of depravity. The internal monologue instructed her quite clearly – ‘GO’.

‘Sorry…’ Jala sighed, her dead determined eyes staring down the quiet little pretty village girl doomed to dance in seedy dives. ‘You and your baby… you can look after yourselves…’

And with a turn of her boot-heels Jala was off and gone, or at least she would have been had her progress not been brought to an abrupt halt by a shocking ‘HYYYYYYAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIKKKKK!’ noise.

It was the distraught dire squeal of Satra. Her teary angel face had cracked, now convulsing chasmic apoplexy, pitiful sorrow stoked up and transmuted into red wroth.

‘YOU BIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH!’ she howled at a pitch that would trouble nervous dogs and disorientate any of the Darksiren Sea’s sabre-dolphins who happened to be hanging around Stellastelathororn’s harbour. Before Jala had time to be surprised by the sudden explosive volume emitted by the hitherto meek creature she was defending herself from a flurry of fury-blows. Satra had sharp fingernails and teeny-tiny pointed teeth. The flesh on Jala’s forearms prickled and with flickers of fresh crimson the barbarian realised that her assailant was drawing blood.

The inner voice groaned again – ‘Too many bloody delays!’ – and, upon hearing it, Jala decided that her Barbarian voice was right. (The Barbarian inner voice is always right.) Taking a stride back from the dancer-turned-devil, she unsheathed her sword and with the speed of lightning landed two fast slashes.

Satra’s right arm dropped to the ground with a pffftmp. The other slash had cleaved right through the girl’s ribcage and, after a few seconds of indecision, her left lung decided to fall out as well. It too hit the ground with a pffftmp.

Jala had already left, out the back door and out into the amber early evening that was now hanging over Stellastelathororn. Her smote challenger fell dead upon a floor caked with viscera, gristle and various bodily fluids that are better off not being identified.

Before she passed away, Satra reached to her dissected chest with her remaining left arm. She grasped at a neckchain and yanked loose a locket, the clasps opening to reveal an inside stencilled image of a baby.

‘Avenge me, my baby…’ she memo-ed, the locket glimmering with a supernatural lustre as her lips made the shapes. ‘Avenge me…’

***

Krung Nak To contemplated her navel, let out a forlorn sigh and then raised her head to look at the Stoat who was, in turn, looking at her expectantly. She rolled her eyes around the her chamber of incarceration. ‘We can’t just stay trapped in here, hanging on to see how things pan out,’ offered one of her many internal monologues. The others hummed in agreement. Out of the hubbub one spoke clearly and decisively. ‘It’s definitely high time we did something very, very drastic’.

‘Fine, fine,’ she groused out loud, grimacing as she sought to emphasise that her upcoming proactive effort was one done under duress. “Listen Stoat – I will keep this as brief and simple as possible…”

Marek looked at her with increased expectancy. Little stoaty eyes blinked with careful concentration.

The Star Witch wriggled in her bonds. “You are aware that I have certain talents… certain gifts that come entirely natural to me that more mundane beasts may regard as being of the “supernatural” variety, yes?’

Marek nodded, eyes even wider with expectancy.

‘I and other corporeal entities similar to myself owe a great many of those gifts to a gland. Its names are many. Its names are hard to pronounce. For that reason we refer to it in the common tongue as the Mage Gland. Most mage-types have this gland. Some are born with it and others have it inserted into them at a later date. I will spare you details of these operations. Really, it’s not a pretty picture you want present in your imagination…’

Kru winced, but the even-more-expectant Marek nodded and urged her on. ‘Please… please continue.’

‘Well, the difference between having a Mage Gland and not is a little like this – a dull person walks down a dirt footpath in the forest and is aware of the dirt footpath and the forest. With the gland, however, there is awareness of the dirt footpath, the forest and its composition of various forms of flora, the age of said flora, the mood of the flora, the spiritual alignment of the flora, the entire eco-system supported by the flora across a radius of at least twenty acres and what the majority of the creatures in that eco-system had for breakfast and how they’d rate it on a scale of one-to-ten.’

‘Incredible…’ remarked the stoat.

‘Oh, it is credible and it may be the key to us getting out of this situation,’ assured Kru with discernible tetchiness. She was on edge, mainly because she was about to mess with something she’d vowed never to mess with.

‘Usually, when you’ve got a gland you can tell who else is similarly endowed. It leaves a non-visible tint. It’s like a beacon or an alarm gong sounding without tone or timbre, but it’s there all the same. Empathy. A telepathic link that can be tuned into if you listen carefully enough and heed your ninth sense. Do you follow?’

The stoat did not quite follow but he squeaked affirmatively all the same. ‘So what are you saying?’

‘What I’m saying is this – if I massage and exercise my Mage Gland I will almost certainly attract the attention of others who share this rare anatomical feature. That would include members of the Sablemagus Guild and perhaps magicians, witches, warlocks and other beasts who may possibly be sympathetic or useful to us…’

She thought a moment. ‘… or also entities who may not be sympathetic or useful to us, but that’s the chance we take. Even if no one feels the throbbing of magic through the æther, I won’t be able to control my reaction to its excitement. No one will be able to stand the racket and let it go unaddressed…’

‘So what do you have to do to get your Gland going?’ asked the Stoat gripped with suspense.

‘Stoat,’ the Star Witch commanded with a half-sigh of surrendering resignation. ‘Rip the front right off of my dress…’

***

Survival instinct kicking in, Jala had paid close attention on her journey from the marketplace to the bathhouse. She’d memorised the route and now retraced that route, zipping through the dinghy, darkening streets of Stellastelathororn’s rougher nether regions with great urgency.

There was reason for rushing with night closing in and the heavy purse of loot hanging vulnerable on her belt. ‘No more bloody delays!’ kept sounding out in the background and she pushed on through the alleyways and filthy streets in a vigorous blur, shoving any and every obstacle aside with little care or compunction.

On a lane of fishmonger stalls she elbowed past several workmen. She thrust herself in between two idle touts who seemed to be arguing over a piece of string. She marched on with fierce fervour and knocked over a round man who rolled over onto the cobbles and hollered out with a theatrical flourish, ‘Spare me! I am but a humble turnip!’

Upon hearing the phrase Jala came to a stop. She remembered those words. She’d heard them in her vision – the projection of her destiny she’d experienced back at the Fountain of the Meek when Kru had spat out scattered fragments from the future yet to be.

A predestined moment had come to pass. Fate had followed through to deliver her the occasion when the sentence ‘Spare me! I am but a humble turnip!’ occurred in the unravelling of her life. It was an irrelevant aside of little importance in isolation but, considering the wider context, Jala felt a panic at the actual realisation of a preordained moment.

She shuddered as she recalled the visions of her destiny – the most traumatic being the rising dragon lifting itself above the wasteland of burning skulls, swooping down upon her on dread wings of certain death.

She gulped and stared into space, the revived fear freezing her on the spot.

The round man, now recovered and upright again, mistook Jala’s expression for confusion and spoke out in order to explain himself. ‘You see, it’s all a bit of showmanship, see? Just to drum up business, see?’

Jala snapped out of her nightmarish daydreaming and turned to eyeball the man. ‘What?’ She discovered that the round man was actually round because he was dressed up in a costume.

‘I’m a turnip!’ He grinned and Jala observed that, actually, it was a pretty impressive turnip costume. ‘Tunpeth’s my name and vegetables are my trade! It’s hard doing veggie business in a seafood city like this, see? Need some promotion, see? Just some theatricality, see?’

The inner Barbarian voice unleashed itself and bounced around Jala’s cranium once more. With ‘Too many bloody delays!’ ricocheting around and impetus firing up afresh the Northern Barbarian turned and marched on at even greater speed.

Tunpeth sighed, slightly hurt that she hadn’t even said goodbye. Looking down at his bulbous turnip body, he began to feel a bit silly.

***

The Turnip Man‘Are you sure?’

Marek wanted to ask politely in order to keep up semi-dignified appearance and not impose himself as a disrespectful pervert of a rodent.

‘Of course I’m sure! Now delay no more! Rip this tunic right open and bare my midriff if you want to get out of here!’

He didn’t need asking twice. Tiny rodent feet bounded across the chamber and with a mighty leap the stoat flew through the air and landed on Kru’s torso. With a swift slide and a flash of claws he split the Star Witch’s dress down the middle and landed gracefully, the falling fabric billowing around him.

He looked up at the naked feminine body, dazzling white and amazing in its subtle myriad shifts. It seemingly never settled in one fixed form but, through some strange magic, moved through ages and cosmetic characteristics. If the Star Witch were ever to act as a life model for art students they would find their portraits inaccurate as soon as they’d left a mark on the canvas. No one would be able to describe the nude witch’s body because it altered several times every second.

At least that was true for the parts of the body you don’t tend to share in polite society. Only one private area stayed solid and stable. Voyeuristic stoat eyes soon spotted it and Marek lingered on the oddity, realising this outstanding protuberance was.

‘The Mage Gland?’ he guessed and, yes, he guessed correctly.

Pulsing just to the lower left side of her perpetually re-shaping bellybutton, the gland was a visible tumescent lump. It appeared to be laughing. It was ready to have some fun.

‘Yes, that’s my Mage Gland,’ Kru corroborated. ‘I haven’t looked at it in a while. It looks pretty happy…’

‘Yes,’ the Stoat agreed.

‘Well, let’s ruin its day and hopefully further our hopes of finding a release. Marek, please bite my Mage Gland.’

‘What?!’

‘Just do it,’ smiled the Star Witch with a viscous, forced grin. Half her mind was really reluctant to go through with the humiliating ordeal but the other half – well, it was feeling pretty thrilled at the prospect.

Naked and waiting, the gland pulsating prouder and prouder, she pushed the Stoat. ‘Just do it! Bite it! BITE IT!’

‘Your wish is my command, Witch.’ And the rodent stood to attention, moistened his lips with a swish of his tongue. He exhaled an eager squeak then dashed forward and clambered up Kru’s legs. Marek arrived at the lump and embraced it enthusiastically, attaching his teeth to the flesh around its edges and then clamped down.

It tasted like a sweaty strawberry. He also noted a hint of vanilla.

As the Stoat gnawed and chewed and worried at the Gland, he started to feel a powerful momentum. He got into a groove. Vivid colours and visions coalesced in his mind and he began to feel a euphoric surge. Then he heard her.

She was groaning with pleasure and pain, except it was louder than commonplace groaning. It was immense – an orgasmic and terrible cacophony on a colossal scale. The Star Witch sang. The Star Witch screamed. Her duet of ecstatic moans and tortured cries reverberating around the small room and surely transcending the confines to echo out into the city, the continent, the world and, indeed, the cosmos beyond.

Marek looked up and saw Kru’s face shimmering between a picture of bliss and a study in agony. She was experiencing mystical titillation and spiritual scourging that couldn’t possibly be comprehended by the limited minds and spirits of more ordinary beings. He presumed that the pushing of this particular spot was the most overwhelming experience available to gifted folk like Kru. He chewed even harder.

Bite, gnaw, suck. But then he heard another sound marking itself out amidst the mighty moanings of the Star Witch.

In his peripheral vision Marek noticed that the door was rocking. Someone was beating on it, struggling to find the handle and get inside.

Kru had been right to assume that her strong response would attract someone or something’s attention. But whose?

The Stoat felt another swelling compulsion and sucked on with vigour. Halfway through a lovebite he suddenly found himself shocked out of reverie by the rending of wood and steel as the door broke apart.

Marek loosed his lips from the gland. Kru ceased her groaning. The pair looked to the door and took in the surprising sight of the strangers now entering the aperture…

Exhausted by her exertions, the Star Witch barely managed to catch her breath before gasping, ‘Oh, I don’t believe it…’

The retort from the shadows of the doorway – ‘Believe it, Lady Charmfingers…’

***

The sky was on the cusp of pitch blackness and the lanterns of Stellastelathororn had been lighted. The City of Stars, it appeared, was a city that never slept for the market traders appeared to have no interest in packing up their goods and closing upon the coming of night.

Jala strode on through the dirty milieu and allowed herself a moment of optimism as she spied the gateway to the tent-packed square ahead. Inside she’d find the flower stall and with a purse full of coin she’d be able to buy the indigolilies. Chant Kru’s name three times over its petals and then the magical flower would bloom and guide her to her lost companion’s location.

A bird’s bright call acted as fitting sound effect to the thought of reunion. Jala looked skyward to see if she could spot the creature in the evening dark and, sure enough, there it was with its sleek wings shining in the lantern-light.

The large, majestic crow glided overheard, calling out to announce its arrival before it came to a rest on a grand archway sequestered behind a dry fountain at the side of the street. Jala was intrigued and veered sideways in order to get a closer look at this hidden portal. Its facade was quite spectacular – a writhing panoply of runic shapes and pictures carved into deftly sculpted basalt, adorned with smatterings of quartz.

Then she read the words inscribed over the top of the aperture that lead into what looked like nothing more than thick purplish fog clouds. The words read ‘Arch of Souls’.

The crow crowed and Jala recalled the last words of the Sablemagus Guildmeister before he abandoned her in the marketplace. ‘Meet me at the head of the Arch of Souls when the crow, err well, crows.’

This was the place and the moment, but what about the indigolily flowers? Could she trust the Guildmeister to keep his appointment or should she return to the market and procure the artefacts that would reunite her with the Star Witch?

With the crow crowing, the dark darkening and frustration at too many bloody delays bothering her Barbarian temperament, Jala resolved to make a decisive choice.

18 - Drastic Acts and Delay No More

The poll closed at noon BST on the 8th of December. If you cannot see a poll above, please try a different browser or enable cookies. Alternatively wait until the next full moon and journey out to your nearest stone circle. There you must perform the dark and sacred rites of the long dead kingdom of the Fey. Seek the wisdom of the shades and wraiths who will appear before you. They will know what to do…

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.

Part 15 – Unsure and Obscure

Trust the Star Witch was becoming something of an unspoken mantra for Jala. It made sense. Though she would always stand enigmatic as a highly questionable character, Kru had proven herself as an astute travelling ally throughout the odd journey so far and – dare she think it – as a friend.

It was obvious. She knew Stellastelathororn. She was worldly, experienced and far more aware and knowledgeable of the ways of strange southern societies than the young northern barbarian. Out of her comfort zone and far from home in an unfamiliar place, Jala did as instructed and followed Kru’s lead.

‘Erm, yes,’ she stuttered, attempting to summon up a convincing acting performance. ‘I didn’t know her at all before today when we, errr, met upon the road…’

The guards – a ring of them all wearing wary, judgemental looks on their visages – looked back and to from Jala to Kru Nak To to Jala to Krung Nak To again.

‘Really?’ muttered a burly man whom they assumed to be the highest ranking of the horde. He had a brushy moustache and the heels of his leather bootikins were greatly elevated whereas his colleagues’ footwear was flat-soled. Jala noticed that upon their armour all of the men wore a little golden brooch with a fist symbol stamped into its centre.

‘Yes, yes!’ Kru interjected.

‘I was, ah… wandering down near the mountainside and then found her around, erm… those parts!’ Jala cut back in. ‘We warmed to each other immediately. We’d been wandering on our own so long that we welcomed each other’s company…’

‘And, because I’d wandered astray, this kind young lady of the North decided to guide me. Thus, we find ourselves here but, now, alas we must part…’

‘So, she’s not with you?’ asked the suspicious looking lead guard.

‘Oh, ah, no,’ Jala answered. ‘I have my own business to attend to. I need to find a swordsmith, and some summer clothes and, erm, someone who can sell me devices that I might torture despicable sorcerous dwarfs with…’

Jala sensed that she was the subject of some curious glances so quickly added…

‘… I may also be in the market for a pack-mule. Honestly, the dwarf torture was just a joke…’

‘Ha! What a spunky, spirited young woman she is!’ Kru came forward to save the situation and brought Jala into an intimate embrace. ‘Well goodbye, my child. And here, a token of my gratitude…’

The Star Witch reached into her bosom and pulled a clutch of flowers from out of her dress. Jala remembered – she’d ripped those flowers right out of an indigolily shrub back beside the Fountain of the Meek all that time ago.

Kru leaned in close as she handed over the plant. In the blackness of the witch’s hood she spied the two shining small eyes of Marek, keeping his silent peace for the present. Jala’s eyes fixed on the face of Kru and listened in to the riddle her guide whispered without moving her lips…

The friend you’ve lost, far out of sight,

Thrice named on the flower, blooms reunite.

‘I think I understand,’ said Jala as Kru withdrew to join the entourage of guards.

‘I think you do,’ the Star Witch smiled in return. ‘I will be seeing you soon enough again, my sweet, I’m sure. Now men, take me where thou wilt and where I need to be…’

And with that the guards stood to attention, the leading figure gestured down the street and they marched off in slightly formal fashion. With Kru and Marek gone Jala stood alone – alone and uncertain on the mean streets of Stellastelathororn.

***

The streets were filthy. Kru didn’t remember them being this dirty the last time she was in the city. It was true that she hadn’t stalked the alleys and avenues of Stellastelathororn’s lower city for decades but still, she thought as she dodged a puddle of what looked like vomit and discarded fourth-hand bathwater, it definitely wasn’t this mucky in the old days.

As the guards bustled her down a particularly tight byway the Star Witch began to ponder deeply. Something was amiss here. Her escorts were laconic and giving off unfriendly vibes. The streets were quiet and they saw few people as they marched ever onward into the metropole’s depths. The atmosphere was odd, ugly even. It was an atmosphere similar to that of a party where someone has had a tremendous upset or died and everyone carries on, though it’s clear that they’re carrying on under the shadow of the great white rhinophant that’s in the room.

At a turn to the left over an exposed sewer, the group came upon the darkest walkway they’d yet encountered on their ramble. Why have we left the more illustrious and appealing parts o Stellastelathororn? one of Kru’s many internal monologues wandered. Surely, we are going the wrong way, if we mean to head to the university. The men moved ever nearer to her and as the armoured elbow of one of their number smashed into her hip the Star Witch started and, all at once, panicked at the uneasy peculiarity of her current situation. Okay, enough, came the cry of another of her internal monologues. Find out why we are being frogmarched through the deserted and dirty back nether regions of the lower city slum districts and find out now!

Kru opted to comply with that cry. Before speaking, she considered the gang of seven around her and tried to rummage back through her memory to recall the last time she had encountered agents of the Sablemagus Guild.

‘So,’ she piped up, shattering the sharp silence. ‘Quite conspicuous these days, aren’t you? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find the Guild so easily upon arrival in the city. Way back when it used to be that you’d have to hide in dark corners and wait for the oh-so-elusive acolytes of oh-so-elusive Sablemagus Guild to reach out to you…’

The head guard turned to Kru and eyeballed her with a touch of amazement, his brushtache poised in a position that spoke of acute incredulity. ‘Honestly, you really think that we’re from the Sablemagus Guild?’

Something deflated deep down inside Kru’s torso and she came to realise that she had made a hideous error. Such errors were rare and, thus, hugely traumatic to a Star Witch with such an inflated sense of self-assured mastery. ‘Ah,’ she sighed. ‘Not from the Guild…’

‘No,’ came the response with a smug smile. The six other guards reflected the smug smile and thirteen eyes all honed in on the helpless witch with greedy, mocking malice.

‘Well, I was hoping to see the Sablemagus Guild and, well, it’s actually quite important so if you don’t mind…’

But a sword swiftly unsheathed from a scabbard stopped her in her tracks as she sought to move away. ‘No you don’t, my dear,’ said the leading guard, his moustache raising itself as a forbidding barrier.

This angered Kru. ‘I do not like being called “my dear” and I do not like…’

‘Oh, my dear, I care little for what you like,’ he retorted. ‘To be honest, I’m actually surprised. What of the wisdom, eldritch intelligence and sharp wits of the fabled Krung Nak To, the legendary Star Witch, the lauded Lady Charmfingers…’

‘Only one woman is allowed to call me that!’ came Kru’s incensed rejoinder but the tached tormenter dismissed her rising wrath with a casual shrug and a chuckle.

‘Well, I personally was expecting something far more challenging when we were tasked to apprehend you. Now if you don’t mind, somebody wants to see you and it is our duty to forcefully escort you.’

‘Who wants to see me?’ It was one of those uncommon occasions in Kru’s life where slivers of fear and shades of absolute uncertainty crept into her conscious awareness and started to eat away at her nerve ends.

‘That you will find out soon enough,’ replied the guard as he reached down into a satchel hanging off of his utility belt. He retrieved a set of chained metallic rings and, with a nod, ushered his colleagues forward to grab a hold of their captive before she had time to defend herself properly.

Kru struggled against their grips but it was hopeless against so many men. Her arms were forced forward towards the advancing head guard who grinned with great relish as he placed the catatonic fingercuffs over her digits.

The last she heard was the muted sneer of ‘How do you like the fit of those, Lady Charmfingers?’ before she faded from consciousness and swooned into a sinking stupor.

As she drooped, Marek moved further down into the depths of her cloak, determined to remain undetected. He stifled a fretful squeal and clung tightly to the inside of Kru’s armpit as the seven armoured men dragged her comatose form away.

***

The mean streets

The streets were filthy. Streets were still a relatively new phenomenon to Jala but she was pretty sure that Stellastelathororn’s public highways were in a poorer condition than standard. It seemed that everywhere she stepped there was a pile of abandoned waste, a puddle of foul liquid or the corpse of some kind of creature. It was true that she was in a busy trading district near the city’s harbour but still, the gross uncleanliness of the environs seemed excessive.

Strolling solo through the strange new world that was Stellastelathororn, Jala had found herself repeatedly wishing that she hadn’t parted with Kru and Marek. The Star Witch would undoubtedly have been able to navigate her way through the perplexing labyrinthine lanes and direct her straight to an auspicious destination. Even accepting that Kru knew best and that separation was necessary, it would have been nice to keep Marek if only for some company.

Overwhelmed by the urban immensity of Stellastelathororn, Jala had wandered dazed and with no idea of what she was doing or where she was going. She had sort of hoped that if she just moved around with the ebb and flow of the city eventually she’d hit upon someone or something she could stick to. This had not happened and so, feeling evermore like an aimless outsider, she’d ended up slipping through the insalubrious areas. Her eyes were wide open and she stayed alert as she walked around attempting to get a firm appreciation and of the big southerly city’s daily life.

Daily life in these sectors was dirty and loud. Up above the elevated upper city with its temples, palaces and university buildings stood aloof and serene, overshadowing the lower city with its dockyards, its merchant markets and its sooty slum dwellings.

Jala had meandered around these parts, somehow failing to find a route that took her near to the prestigious rise in which the likes of the Sablemagus Guild must surely reside. Having never before seen any sort of sea, she had nervously avoided the harbour and doubled backed every time she’d caught a glimpse of the great, terrifying blue beyond. All she’d discovered in the residential slums were ugly, unwelcoming looks and, altogether, this had encouraged her to try and stick around the busy public areas full of trade and labour activity.

Now under a brooding late afternoon sun she’d come to a befuddled halt in a lively plaza. Colourful market stalls and even more colourful characters thronged around a set of weathered sea creature statues. All ages, races, creeds and personality types seemed to be here and to Jala’s mind – a mind that only really knew the open wilderness of the sparsely populated North – it looked like an elaborate battle scene that refused to play by the rules of conventional combat. There was certainly blood, for the rough tiles of the market square swam with the entrails of fish in addition to various clumps of used hay, excrement and whoknowswhatelse.

It was disgusting. Jala began to feel sick, dizzied by all the movement and the blur of faces. A woman dragging a giant wolfhog by a rope shoved past and knocked the poor traveller hard against a slime-coated wall. Picking herself up again, Jala caught sight of a child selling ferret fur sashes from a barrel and she began to think of Marek, wishing once again that she hadn’t been left alone in this unnerving alien realm.

Spinning round she came to see an obscenely obese man gobbling down a half-dozen live eels for the entertainment of a small circle of enraptured onlookers. Seeing this and catching a whiff of the rank salt-seasoned air, she started to dry-retch.

She was weary. She was lost. She was feeling terribly unwell and insecure and now she simply longed for rest and a quiet space to gather her thoughts.

Turning aside from the plaza into a sidestreet she spied a wooden sign over a doorway that was decorated with an inviting picture of a waving jolly golden giant. Making out the words ‘Goldengreet Tavern‘, Jala’s mind was made up in an instant. She stumbled towards the bright yellow doorway and forced herself inside, shunning the smell of fishguts and sea salt for an indoor reprieve.

It was an eerie place. The lights were dim and the clientele appeared to be even dimmer. A lone barmaid was measuring out queer-looking coloured liquids without any apparent rhyme or reason. Jala clocked a couple of papers pinned up behind the bar that were stamped with a fist symbol similar to that gracing the golden badges of the guards she’d met earlier.  The only other people in the tavern were a gang of brutish men who’d commandeered a couple of benches in the centre of the room. Jala could tell from the number of empty flagons that they’d been here a while and their raucous manner – all rowdy joshing and loud boozy boasts about Gütte Ragworm’s mother – confirmed that they’d been drinking heavily.

Creeping up to the bar, Jala tried to summon up the courage to order a drink but found herself voiceless. She tried to cough out some words but upon meeting the gormless frown of the barmaid she shrank back embarrassed. Rasping out something that resembled ‘I’m sorry, just give me a moment’ she withdrew to a corner booth and dumped her exhausted body down onto an uncomfortable wooden seat.

So much for reprieve. It was as if all her northern fortitude and barbarian strength had deserted her upon venturing into this forsaken city. Arrival in Stellastelathororn had not been the grand experience she had anticipated and now, isolated and ignorant of the way that enormous foreign settlements worked, she felt tremendous uncertainty and anxiety.

Her body shut down. Utterly forlorn, all thoughts of the journey so far and all its ordeals flashed through her tired mind. It seemed absurd that she’d been through all that just to end up as a sad, solitary husk hanging hopeless in a dim drinking hole in the shabby lower parts of the glorious city of infinite promise. What about her destiny?

All these thoughts, memories and mental images thrashed around and burned and blazed in her brain until, all of a sudden, she felt a strange and shooting chill surge and whistle its way through the inside of her skull. Jala raised her head, her gaze drawn to an opposite corner of the tavern. The loose form of a figure – a figure she had not previously been aware of – came into vision. He had a loose, fluid shape and his black hooded cloak was blacker than the blackest black. He came closer. In an ethereal fashion and with a motion that didn’t seem to be in sync with regular time about him, all blurred at the edges.

‘Hello…’ echoed a high-pitched, sonorous voice. ‘May I take a seat here?’

Jala blinked at the shape. ‘Erm, yes…’ she replied, hardly thinking of her wish for some company and more answering in kind because she had no idea what else to say.

‘Thank you,’ echoed the gentle, lilting reply. ‘I see that you are a person of interest… a person who has travelled far in search of answers to many mysteries…’

‘Yes.’ Jala murmured, slightly dumbstruck.

‘Good…’ and at this point the figure leaned forward over the bench. His face peered out of his hood and Jala came to see the beatific vision of beaming serenity that suggested advanced years, advanced wisdom and advanced compassion. Compared to everything else she’d seen today, this was a pleasant sight to behold.

The serene man’s forehead flapped and for a split-second Jala could have sworn that another eye appeared above the brows. She blinked rapidly and, coming back into focus, she found that her new acquaintance was breathing quite heavily, whistling as he ate up the air as if he was desperately trying to ingest something in order to attain some sort of euphoria.

‘Ah… ah… Jala… I see you seek so many answers and are so very lost…’

‘Wait, how do you know my name?!’ she cried out, perhaps a little louder than she intended to.

He leaned back and continued to suck up the air. Jala looked him up and down and then marking the man’s darker than dark cloak it hit her. ‘The Sablemagus Guild?’

The man stopped and relaxed down into a smile and an uncanny congratulatory expression. Before he had chance to say anything though a wild, hostile scream shattered the relative calm of the tavern.

A flagon flew through the air and smashed against the Guildmeister’s right shoulder. He shook and wriggled to his feet (if he had feet) then turned swiftly to face his assailants. Advancing across the room in an alco-fuelled frenzy the gang of brutes were approaching the blacker-than-black cloak shape with palpable bloodthirstiness. Surprised by the sudden rush of activity, Jala heard a holler of ‘Smash ‘im up!’ followed by a roaring ‘Get the weird dark’un!’ and then a whole brace of emptied drinking vessels battered their corner as the mob came in closer.

It all happened so quickly. The hooded figure turned to Jala, winked at her with his third eye and sang softly and sweetly ‘Jala… come with me my child…’

Next thing she knew her new acquaintance had whirled around and with a faint woosh was leaping through the window above their booth, the grimy glass shattering in spectacular fashion.

She rose to follow him but stumbled as she attempted to gain a footing on top of the bench. Slipping, she dropped the knapsack that she’d been clutching at hard for comfort. She scrambled to scoop up her things but then saw that the fistful of indigolily flowers that Kru had given her had fallen just out of reach onto the floor.

The flowers. The Blooms reunite invocation riddle. How could she have forgotten the flowers that, if she’d understood correctly, could lead her back to Kru whenever she desired?

She dropped down flat on the tabletop hoping to get her hands on the precious gift but it was too late. The gang was now upon her and she wouldn’t be able to retrieve the flowers and follow the footsteps (if he had feet) of the Sablemagus Guildmeister.

She had to make a choice – Should she flee and chase the mysterious Guildmeister who may be able to give her answers, leaving the only link to Kru behind? Or should she let the Guildmeister go and stand her ground to fight off the attacking throng of thugs here in the tavern?

15 - Unsure and Obscure

Voting closed at noon GMT on Sunday 27th of October. If you cannot see a poll above please try a different browser. Alternatively climb to the peak of the tallest mountain you can find and wail mournfully into the sky. The wind probably won’t carry your answer to our ears, but it might make you feel a bit better.

Do as you’re told

Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and put your trust in something else (be it fate, god, destiny or another person) and then hope like hell that they know what they’re doing and that it’ll all come up roses in the end. Jala decided to do just that. Kru’s a centuries old Witch with the power to turn a man inside out and set fire to the sky. She obviously knows what she’s doing. With all that great and terrible power how could she not? What could possibly go wrong? I mean, she’s already trusted Kru once right? And she survived that.

14 - The Mean Streets

Quite a lot probably. But for whatever reason the masses are unanimous, with a landslide in favour of following the Star Witch’s hastily constructed plan. But we would do well to remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. There will almost certainly be “hiccups” and “unforeseeables.” Because that’s how the world works.

Part 15 shall appear in the form of your strange electronic glyphspeak on Monday 21st of October. It will spring forth, fully formed, from the mind of the Lord Lexical, first among the ancient vox-smiths, James Clayton; Warlock; Conjurer of Dreams; Scion of Tomorrows; Bane of Deadlines and dapper wizard about town.  He will bring us words, words which will make our eyes bleed and our brains boil. It’s going to be, as the “yoofs” of the southlands say, The Shit.

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

Polls close at noon BST on Sunday 4th of August. If you cannot see a poll above please try a different browser. Alternatively write your choice on a clay tablet and bury it within the tomb of a recently deceased King, Chieftain, Emperor or Elected Official. Someone will unearth it eventually.

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 3 – Something Rotten

Shunning the pathway that snaked its way into the ancient trees of the dark eastern woodlands, Jala opted to walk westward and head to the settlement. She checked her weapons and tightened her load then strode onward away from the point where the trail split. Her resolve was like Kubavarian iron and her curiosity was piqued by the promise of the town that lay before her.

It was a promise of shelter and food – a place to perhaps gather supplies and rest weary bones after her weeks of hard travel through the wilderness. Jala was tenacious and resilient but now, drained by her travails across the expansive northern icelands, she felt tired. A chance to take stock and re-stock would definitely be welcome and with a spring in her step she walked along the westward path to reach the dwelling.

The settlement also brought the promise of contact with other humans, for it had been a long time since she had set eyes on one of her own kind. Since the dawn of her departure from the camp she had only come across the birds and beasts of the wild and they were rare sightings indeed in the frigid north.

Unlike Fyůlra – the mercurial roving druid who roamed the regions she once called home – Jala didn’t understand animal tongues. What’s more, she had no desire to converse with the prey she hunted. Her hunger drove her to bring quick death upon the animals she slew with axe and dagger and forming false companionships with indifferent creatures was a futile endeavour. She was not a fool like Fyůlra and those of his ilk – she was a hunter and she intended to keep hold of her pragmatic nature no matter what she might encounter as she ventured into the unknown.

Nevertheless, in spite of her determination Jala had found herself lonely at points on the road and she had looked ahead to the settlement with optimism. Even as an eternal loner, she knew that she would benefit by associating with other people awhile.

It would make a pleasant change after days of silence pierced only by the odd stab of birdsong or the howl of the chill northern winds. What’s more, Jala had to her surprise found herself gradually becoming interested in encountering the folk of the foreign lands. What were they like? What were their customs and were they in any way similar to her own people?

Raised on numerous tall tales and myths of the men and monsters who resided in regions over the mountains, Jala was keen to investigate further and find some firmer truths. She hoped that the settlement might provide her with some answers or at least a better understanding of the world beyond her own limited comprehension. The weeks on the road had shown her just how huge that world was and how insular life in the camp had been. This was, indeed, an epic adventure and, her eyes and mind opened wide, Jala now longed for experience.

Looking to learn and find a few comforts, she’d trudged on down the path towards the wooden walls. It was quite a small town – a solid encampment ringed by thick palisade, forbidding spikes pointing skyward. Only a few thatched roofs and wooden towers were visible from outside, for the fortified circumference prevented any clear idea of what lay within.

The Western Settlement

As she had gotten closer to those stake-walls Jala had begun to feel an acute sense of unease. In Elder Linna’s stories the great towns and cities of the southlands had always been bustling, busy places of noise and clamour. This settlement, however, sat serenely and presented no obvious signs of active life. Only two smoky tendrils climbed upwards from the inside of the fort and slowly wisped their way to the clouds above. The hubbub she had expected – the sounds of daily life in a habitation or the sight of travellers coming and going – were entirely absent.

Treading warily onwards, Jala had also noted a disquieting odour on the air. Looking around she saw that patches of grass around were discoloured. Studying the flora of the vicinity she’d observed that the few plants were shrivelled and that the bark of the trees was moulding and rancid.

The combined effect was that Jala’s hopeful optimism had swiftly been replaced by worried concern. Coming around a bend on the path and passing by a rotting orchard, she came within view of the town’s gateway and what she saw only increased her circumspection.

The gateway was clearly the main thoroughfare into the settlement and was the only evident, open means of egress and ingress. Moving in closer Jala had been struck by the detailed ornate etchings and rune sigils written into the wood staves around the archway. The craftsmanship that characterised the entrance was outstanding – a jarring proposition that stuck out from the overall austerity of the environs.

The great gate, studded with bolts of faded bronze, was slightly ajar which further increased Jala’s puzzlement about the eerie place. What kind of a settlement – especially one with walls as strong and fortified as this one – doesn’t keep its doors barred or, apparently, guarded?

The ramparts were clearly unmanned but as she got nearer Jala espied a solitary figure scrunched up and propped against the stake-wall by the gateway. This sentry, if he was a sentry, was clearly not on duty or was not performing his duty well. With his head buried in his chest and a helmet covering his vision, Jala knew that she had arrived unseen.

She’d crept stealthily closer to get a better look. The man-made no movement and still silence echoed around. Something was definitely not right and Jala had steeled all her nerves and readied her wits. Intuition and gut feeling guided her cautious footsteps towards the entrance and the slumped sentry. She could not be certain if the man was dead or merely sleeping. With uncertainty rippling through her mind and the weariness of the journey now bearing down upon her body, Jala braced herself and realised she would have to take a bold step and find out what was happening here.3 - Something RottenVoting closed at noon BST 12th May

This instalment of our ongoing saga was written by James Clayton

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