The crow’s cry echoed through the bustling streets, cutting through the bubbling hubbub of market traders and pushing away the sonorous drone of the thronging masses. Jala was torn, but she knew she had to make a choice. Whole nations can turn on a choice like this.
“Ah soddit…” Jala muttered under her breath.
She was more than sure that the infamous Star Witch could look after herself. Jala on the other hand was going to do what they came to this city to do: Find the Sablemagus Guild and squeeze them for answers. Literally or metaphorically, it didn’t matter to Jala. What did matter was carving out some small measure of vengeance for Freya. Especially now she was gone. Jala could only hope that the wails of those who slaughtered the young girl’s village would sing her to her rest in the world beyond this.
The Arch of Souls loomed above Jala, dominating the unassuming alley in which it resided. The panoply of unearthly carvings seemed to twist and writhe within the deepening shadows, the runic shapes danced through a thousand languages and the very stone itself flickered through colours. First blackest basalt, then purple veined marble, then weathered sandstone. And yet, despite all of this, the common folk passing by the mouth of the alley barely even noticed it was there. The crow was perched on the arch’s keystone. It crowed again with its harsh and ominous voice, then flew away.
An amorphous shape detached itself from the darkness beyond the archway, pooling and flowing like spilt ink. It sidled and slithered its way up to Jala’s feet. With a sudden crack like summer thunder the pool was gone. In it’s place was the Sablemagus Guildmeister, his cloak thrashing and billowing, all angry and tempestuous. His face seemed stern, utterly devoid of that sly hint of playfulness and mischievousness that had characterised it when last they had met.
“Jala” he began “events move quickly and beyond our control. We fear The Star Witch is in grave and terrible danger. You must come with us, we will likely need you aid in this.”
The Guildmeister hustled towards the mouth of the alley, clinging to the shadows and then vanished around the corner. Without a second thought, Jala hurried after him.
And with that, the wheels of fate began to spin an awful lot quicker.
“Believe it, Lady Charmfingers…” came a voice from the shadows of the doorway.
“Why in the nine hells did it have to be you?” asked the Star Witch, her voice thick with disappointment.
Out of the shadows stepped a men with a brushy moustache. Though he was cowled in a thick black cloak Kru could see, poking through hem, a pair of leather bootikins and hear the telltale click of greatly elevated heels. Marek dropped to the floor and hissed.
“Now I’d love to chat, but I’m afraid we don’t have much time.” He said as he walked towards Kru.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
Bootikins began to unfasten her restraints.
“To cut a long story short, I’ve been looking for you since I handed you over. I am not the happy and willing collaborator that your captors believe me to be. I am here to break you out and deprive my erstwhile employers of their prize.”
The restraints clicked loose and Kru was free. She rubbed the raw skin of her wrists, trying to massage some feeling back into her hands.
“So you’re a spy then” Kru said “But who for?”
“Why, the Sablemagus Guild of course” Bootikins smiled.
“Castle Solaris” the Guildmeister muttered to Jala “First among the stars. They have a great deal of gall to keep her there.”
Before them sat a wall of smooth and featureless granite, behind which rose an imposing edifice of towers, turrets and keeps.
“So we have to get in there I take it?” asked Jala
“Regrettably.” replied the Guildmeister
“Can’t you…” Jala waved her hands vaguely at the mage “magic us in there?”
“I fear that they would sense my arts and move to respond. It would be too risky.”
“Then we go in through the front door.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” said the Guildmeister, furrowing his brow.
“Wise? No. Necessary? Apparently.”
The pair of slowly made they way towards the gatehouse of Castle Solaris, hugging the shadows, darting from alleyway to alleyway and generally sneaking through the gathering gloom like a pair of thieves.
The gatehouse itself was the sort of building which makes architects want to take a cold shower and causes hardened siege engineers to break down in tears. Either side of the grand and portcullised entryway stood two towers, each a lofty four stories tall and both festooned with arrow slits, turrets, crenellations and a motley assortment of murderholes. The square before the gate was a grand expanse of cobbles, and through the milling crowd of workers, hawkers, merchants and vagrants Jala saw four guards covering the entrance. Each of them dressed in burgundy, lamplight catching the edges of chainmail and flashing across little brass buttons which she just knew would have a little fist stamped on their face.
“How do you propose we circumvent the guards?” asked the Guildmeister.
Jala chewed at the corner of her lip. It was a fair question. She had little doubt she could make short work of the guards, the problem would arise when their friends decided to voice their objections. She could hardly take on the whole garrison. Jala tried to crane her head to get a better view of the gatehouse. As she shifted her weight she felt a gentle, jingling slap against her leg. The reassuring weight of the purse she had liberated from the possession of Sequious earlier that day. That was when she had an idea. She teased open the mouth of the purse and took a hefty fistful of golden coins.
“Get ready to run” Jala whispered to the Guildmeister.
Before he had time to parse a response, Jala hurled the coins overarm and into the crowd in the square. They fell like rain. At first nothing much happened. Then a few people looked down to see what had just whizzed past their ear or hit them on the arm. For good measure Jala hefted another two handfuls into the perplexed crowd. It was just before the third salvo of coinage struck the cobbles that the riot started.
The four gate guards and a smattering of their friends from beyond the gate itself moved into the fray, hoping to quell the disorder in the way that only a strong swing to the head with a stout truncheon can. The guards were the sort of people who took great pleasure in mercilessly clubbing civilians and as such, they were far too occupied with their work to see a fair-haired woman and a black cloaked old man slip through the gate and into Castle Solaris.
In a dark place beyond seeing and sight, in a transient nether-realm, in the spaces between spaces, something stirs, something thrashes. A beacon beyond the cloaked and ephemeral veil does blaze like the sun itself. A cry once impotent is now thunderous, it echoes throughout the unspace of the notworld. It knows what waits. It knows what is to come. It now has purpose. It now has drive.
“Jala” it cries. “I’m coming Jala!”
“You ruddy Sablemagi just get everywhere don’t you?” Kru groaned.
“The dictates you set down at our founding were very specific on that front.” Replied Bootikins with a smirk.
“Less of your lip sunshine!” snapped Kru. Then she let out a great sigh “I’m getting too old for shenanigans like this.” She swept her hand up the front of her tattered dress. Icy blue sparks trailed in its wake, suffusing the fabric and knitting it back together at the speed of thought.
“What’s your name?” Kru asked.
“Calathor.” Bootikins replied “Calathor Oakenknock.”
“Right then” Kru said, looking pleased with herself and giving a little twirl. She whistled sharply at Marek.
“Come on you two, we’re busting out of this joint.” And with that the Star Witch stamped out through the door, a brewing storm of fury following in her wake.
The trio stalked their way down dark and dreary corridors. The floor was stone, the walls were stone, the ceiling was stone. All of it flat and unadorned save for sporadically placed sconced torches that guttered with an almost greasy light. At a corner they stopped and prompted by a gentle nudge from Kru’s foot Marek scampered around the corner to scout the way ahead.
“Where exactly are we heading?” Whispered the Star Witch into Calathor’s ear.
“If we keep heading downwards we’ll eventually reach the cellars. From there we can make our way into the old crypts.” Bootikins replied
“Why the crypts?” asked Kru.
“If the guild’s information is correct there should be a way into the sewers down there. And the sewers can take us pretty much anywhere.”
“Sewers? Sewers!” Kru hissed. “If that’s your plan I’ve half a mind to blast my way out of here with fire and flame.”
“They locked you up once, what makes you think they can’t do it again?” said Calathor with a snort. Kru harrumphed in response.
“Just who are these people anyway? You’ve been working for them. You must know.”
Calathor puffed out his cheeks.
“We don’t really know…” he added.
“You don’t really know?!” said Kru, raising her voice perhaps just a little too loudly.
“Nope.” Replied Calathor. “Whoever’s in charge is really tight-lipped about everything. Even with the folk who ostensibly run most of the organisation. The guild’s just taken to calling them The Fist. All we really know is that one morning, fifteen years ago they just rolled up on the docks and started taking everything over.”
“And you didn’t think to stop them?”
“We tried, but whenever we attempted to confront them directly they went through our mages like a knife through butter. We lost a full score of mages and four of the seven Guildmeisters within the first year.”
Kru let made an impressed whistle.
“They don’t muck about do they?” she added.
“No. No they do not.”
Marek poked his head back around the corner and squeaked.
“Best be on our way then.” Said Kru, to no one in particular.
Having snuck through the gatehouse, Jala and the Guildmeister had fled the open expanse of the courtyard by diving through the first door they came across. Together they dived into the warren of stone that was the innards of Castle Solaris.
“Why do you southrons insist on living in these mazes of stone?” Jala muttered.
“Pardon?” Asked the Guildmeister.
“Just talking to myself” Jala replied “Do you know where they’re holding her?”
“Exactly? No. But I would assume she is either in the dungeons or one of the high towers.”
“I am beginning to wonder what purpose a wizard like you serves.” Said Jala, scorn dripping from her words.
Their hushed argument was interrupted by a guard rounding the corner at the end of the hallway. He was staring right at them and there was nowhere for them to hide and nowhere to run to. A knife was in Jala’s hand so quickly that from the guard’s perspective it seemed to have simply coalesced from thin air. With a smooth overarm snap, Jala flung the knife down the dank passageway. The knife buried itself up to the hilt in the guard’s throat with a meaty thwoomp. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth and with a long, drawn out gurgling, he slumped to the floor. That was when she heard the sound of panicked, unsteady footsteps coming from beyond the turn. The sound of someone running away, followed by shouts muffled by stone and dust. Jala dashed towards the dead guard, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever had witnessed the deed. If she was lucky she could still catch them.
But the corridor was empty. She knelt over the guard’s body and pulled her knife from his throat, the wound spurting weakly as it came free. This post-kill silence was shattered by the sound of a bell. A bell being rung without rhythm over and over and over.
“Shit…” Jala grumbled.
“Looks like the cat’s out of the bag then.” Said the Guildmeister, giving a little shrug “Suppose there’s no point waiting any longer then.”
“What are you talking about?!” Shouted Jala “We have to move, they’ll be on us in minutes!”
The Guildmeister reached into the voluminous and abyssal folds of his robes and pulled out a little whistle made of a lustrous red metal. At least Jala assumed it was a whistle. It twisted and coiled in ways the eye couldn’t quite follow; flaring here, bifurcating there; all leading to a thin mouthpiece. The Magus put the strange whistle to his lips, and blew. The whistle made no sound, none that Jala could hear at least. But she could feel something, deep inside her. It felt like the very marrow of her bones was turning to water and dribbling away.
The ground beneath their feet trembled, the air was filled with the sounds of thunder, the crack of splitting rock and the unnerving smell of scorched flesh. The corridor behind them flashed white with fire, searing Jala’s eyes. She blinked furiously, and when she finally regained her vision the way they had come was filled with smoking rumble and melting stone.
“What in the name of the spirits was that!” Jala yelled over the tempest of sound.
The Guildmeister gave another little sanguine shrug.
“The cavalry.” He said.
The thing about alarm bells is that they are made to be heard. Be it over a howling gale, the hungry crackle of a city-wide conflagration or the clashing sound of steel on steel. So even though an orgy of all three was occurring beyond the walls of the castle, the bells still reached the ears of Kru and Calathor on the other side of the castle. The sound of it set Calathor shaking in his bootikins.
“Shit…” he whispered “Someone’s sounded the alarm.”
“They must have noticed that we’re missing.” Replied The Star Witch
“No, they couldn’t have. Not yet…” Calathor’s words were cut off by a sky splitting crack that they didn’t so much hear, as feel when the wall of sound started crushing the air from their lungs. Calathor turned a milky white as all the colour drained from his face.
“The Final Push…” he said with panic rising in his voice.
“Does you cocky bravado drain away so quickly Oakenknock?” said Kru, the imperious tones of The Star Witch creeping into her voice. “Have you never had a taste of war?”
“The Guild…” he rambled “They’re assaulting the castle. They’re going to raze it to the ground! We need to run. We need to run now!”
Kru folded her arms and looked unimpressed, underlining her feelings with a particularly derisive snort. Before Calathor had a chance to impress upon her the exact urgency of their situation, Marek barrelled down the corridor squeaking:
Sure enough, trailing behind him came five heavily armoured burgundy clad soldiers.
“We tried your way Calathor. Now we try my way.” Said Kru. The empty socket of her eye flared from a faint and misty powder blue to a raging fire of baleful azure light. The guards stopped and levelled their polearms and spears at her.
“Surrender Witch!” The leader shouted.
Kru strode purposefully towards them.
“And why would I do that?” she asked. Then with a casual, almost disdainful, flick of her wrist she punched the skeleton clean out of his body.
“The Great Hall!” Shouted the Guildmeister over the rising din of battle.
“What?!” Jala shouted back at him
“We need to get to the Great Hall. It’s where they’ll be organising the counter-act from!” said the Guildmeister, leaning closer to Jala to make himself heard.
“And probably where they’ll take the Star Witch if they want to keep an eye on her.” Jala nodded in return. “Do you know the way?”
“It has been a long time since I visited the Great Hall of Solaris but I think I can find our way there.”
The pair of them made their way through the passageways of the castle, Jala following behind the Guildmeister, sword in hand. Ready. Waiting. Despite having been the cause of the alarm, the guards now seemed far more occupied by the Sablemagi’s “cavalry.” The castle seemed disconcertingly empty. Occasionally they would hear the echoing sound of stampeding feet, but wherever they were going they seemed to be uninterested in the side passages to which Jala and the Guildmeister clung.
Eventually they came to a small, rickety looking wooden door. The magus turned to Jala
“Wait here.” He whispered “If I have need of you sword, you will know.” With that he eased open the simple metal latch and stepped into the great hall.
The hall was a wide and imposing space. A cold expanse of stone flags and regal columns draped in the opulent trappings of power. Thick red carpets, stained glass, velvet drapes, gold leaf. But it couldn’t quite hide the rough brutality of hewn rock that lay beneath.
The Guildmeister looked around, but he saw none of the bustle or controlled panic of a war room. He saw only an empty hall. Empty save for one other soul. They sat on a golden throne surmounted with a jet black fist against a red sunburst. A woman clad in fighting leathers, adorned with simple metal fixings, tightly bound hair and skin like liquid shadow. She lounged in the throne, her booted legs resting over the armrest of the gaudy chair. She looked bored. At least until she saw the Guildmeister. That made her smile.
“So the last of the Guildmeisters finally comes to meet his death.” She laughed and rose from the throne. She scooped up her sword belt and fastened it around her waist. From the side of her seat she retrieved a shield and slipped it onto her arm.
“So the blight on the City of Stars has a face. But does it also have a name?” asked the Guildmesiter.
“So bold. Yet so stupid. I will take your head mage. And I will add it to my collection.” She smiled, her teeth standing stark against her skin. A smile like a cat. The smile of a predator.
“Name or not, I will take my vengeance upon you and be satisfied with your end alone!” roared the Guildmeister.
His hands thrummed with the power of the raw, untempered æther. Bolts of white fire sprang from his fingers and raced down the hall towards the mysterious woman. With a casual nonchalance she raised her shield. At it’s heart sat a large red stone, cracked down its centre and glimmering with its own light. The Guildmeister’s spell crashed onto its surface and simply melted away. The mage fire flowed over the tattered blue wood of the shield like nothing more deadly than a gentle summer’s rain.
“How is that possible?” gasped the Guildmeister in surprise.
The woman lowered her shield and something shot forth from her hand, a whirling blur of metal and chain. It slammed into the Magus. Heavy balls of lead trailing wires of black steel behind them coiled and wrapped around him. They pinned his arms and bound his legs. With an unceremonious thump, the mighty Guildmeister fell to the hard stone floor, immobile and defeated. He strained as hard as he could against his bonds, trying to conjure forth eldritch fire and arcane energies. But the magic would not come. Its flow choked off and stifled.
“Who are you?” he wheezed
“I suppose since I’m going to kill you there’s no harm in telling you now.” She replied. She sashayed across the hall towards the prone mage, her boots clicking on the flagstones. An ominous countdown to the Guildmeister’s demise. When she reached him she knelt down and forced his head back so she could look him in the eye.
“I am Magebane” she began “First among the dread lieutenants. I am the hand of the Whelpslayer.”
“No…” The Guildmeister choked.
“And my master wants your city baaaaaad.” Magebane said with a smirk “I make way for his coming. And he will come, mark my words. He and his horde are on the move, and together we will glory in the corruption of this once mighty city.”
Jala still stood behind the door, peering through a crack.
“Is that mage could for anything?” she mused to herself. She pushed open the door and moved towards Magebane with grim purpose. This was the one who had ordered the slaughter of Freya’s village. Who else could it be? And if the wizard could not deal with her, then Jala would gut the bitch herself. As sure as the north is cold.
Magebane turned at the sound of Jala’s footsteps.
“Oh how sweet” she said mockingly “The Guildmeister brought a little friend.”
Jala moved into a fighting stance, her sword angled down and behind her, ready for the upswing.
“Oh and she’s got a sword. How quaint!” Magebane laughed. It was a nasty laugh, the sort used by bullies and the drowners of puppies. Rage burned within Jala. This Magebane had no honour. A true warrior respected the enemy, right up until you saw the life vanish from their eyes.
“Tell me girl? Do you really think you can match me?” Magebane asked. From her belt she drew her sword. It had but one edge, straight and clean; mirror bright and so keen that it seemed to split the light that fell upon it. The blade was set into the curve of what looked uncomfortably like a man’s spine, but wrought from a metal that was far too opalescent to be just mere gold.
“Do you know what this is girl?” asked Magebane.
Jala remained mute and ready, staring down her opponent.
“This is The Bastard Sword.” Magebane continued, stroking her fingers across the flat of the blade. “The stories say that it was forged in the Old Time by the Sword Bastard himself. If you believe the tales it was fashioned from the spine of an angel and that its smithing wasn’t complete until the moment of the divine creature’s death. It is said that its continuing suffering burns the soul of any mortal being it cuts.” Magebane drew her finger along the edge of the sword drawing blood. She let out a squeal of delight.
“And let me assure you” she said breathlessly “It really does burn.”
Jala remained motionless, as if a sentinel wrought in stone. She did not care for these theatrics. Such simple charlatanry would not unnerve a daughter of the north.
“So who are you little girl? Who are you that would challenge Magebane?”
Who are you? The words sank into Jala. She was Jala, daughter of Quyren, but was that all she was? Her mind drifted back to the visions the Star Witch had bestowed on her. When she had seen comets and nebulae and galaxies and seen the faces of gods old and new, alive and dead; when she had seen forever. Back to the visions of dancing flames and skulls piled as high as mountains, to the wasteland of charred bone and blackened flesh. She knew who she was, deep down.
“I am the north.” Jala began “I am the end of all things. I am your death.” And with that, Jala charged.
And so ends The Working Barbarian for the year 2013. Now our tale will slumber through the winter night until it awakens in the new year. Until then: Merry Yule you filthy, blood-soaked animals!