The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “John Steele”

Part 29 – The Tyrant’s Shade

Jala was torn. So much of her time here in the south had been spent making difficult choices, not the hard choices she was used to. One might think that a difficult choice and a hard choice are the same thing, but they are not. A hard choice is one which you do not want to make, one which will bring you pain and grief, but one which you make all the same. A hard choice is made in the blink of an eye, in the hair-thin gap between breaths. In the north you make hard choices so that you do not die. So that you and your tribe might live. You might not like making the choice, but it is far, far better than the alternative. They are clear-cut: right and wrong; good and evil; death and life; black and white. The difficult choices of the south are different. They have no right answer, there is no black and white, there is only a sea of stormy and conflicted grey. A sea where there is no land in sight and whose waves pull you to and fro and threaten to drag you under into the cold, crushing depths. With a difficult choice you simply have to pick a direction and strike out in the hope of land, not knowing if you’re heading to right way, or even if you will ever reach it if you are. Difficult choices are the sort of thing you linger over even when you do not have the time. Especially when you do not have the time.

Mere moments stretched out into aeons. Sonja’s eyes still blazed with their brazen, yet cold and lifeless golden light. Jala’s heart yearned to speak with Freya, to hear her voice, and to ask for her forgiveness, and most importantly of all to tell her that she was sorry. But that was not the reason which had brought Jala and Kru across the barrens and to the Heldrakai. There were far greater things which needed to be asked.

“Magebane.” Jala whispered. “I want to speak to the spirit of Magebane.”

Both the jewel on Sonja’s brow and her eyes flared like the dawn sun cresting the horizon, as if their previous light had been but a prelude to something grander. The hall was filled with the sound of whispers, the half heard words of thousands of unnamed and unknowable voices. The air began to chill, breath steamed and hoarfrost began to form on the jewel upon Sonja’s head. She spoke, but the words and the voice were not her own. They were those of the Tyrant of Stellastelathororn.

“Why do you disturb my spirit Jala, daughter of Quyren? Was my death alone not enough for you? Must you torment me even beyond the veil?” The voice was unmistakable Magebane’s, though it was devoid of the malice from when Jala had last heard it, and it echoed as if she were speaking up from the depths of a great well.

“I would have you tell me the Whelpslayer’s plans.” Replied Jala.

“I suppose you have earned that much.” Said Magebane “Though the knowledge will do little to aid you.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

Sonja gave a deep shuddering breath, her small body seeming to shake like a leaf as Magebane’s knowledge flooded into her sleeping mind.

“The Whelpslayer stokes the fires at the heart of the Dragonkeep of Raderock and dark things stir in the depths of that dread caldera and nightmare sharps swarm through the catacombs. The Whelpslayer is building an army.”

“He’s planning to invade the southlands?” Jala said with a furrowed brow.

“Would that it were something so harmless and innocuous.” Replied Magebane’s ghostly voice. “He is preparing for His return.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jala.

“He seeks to revive his long dead master. Every ounce of his will, every drop of blood he spills and every life he takes is bent toward pulling but one thing from the realm of shadow, the shade of his God-King: Aagb, the baddest of men.”

The faces of Wojji and Yarla paled, both of them glance at each other with worry in their eyes.

“But Aagb is a myth, he’s just a story we tell to scare children.” Said Jala, turning towards Kru.

“Not so long ago you thought the same of me” replied Kru with a stern glare. “Trust me, he is very, very real Jala. I faced him only once, when I was a mere slip of a girl. It was Aagb who took my eye.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was defeated by heroes far greater than myself. Exactly what transpired in that battle has always been a mystery.”

Jala turned back to Sonja’s prone form.

“And you’re certain The Whelpslayer’s plans will succeed?”

“If I wasn’t I would not have agreed to serve a monster like him. I only wanted to be on the winning side.” Answered Magebane.

“Fat lot of good that did you” said Jala with a snort.

“True.” Replied Magebane “Very true. Fear of failure and of him led me down a very dark path and ultimately to my ruin.” Magebane paused with a sad sigh.

“Can we get in the Dragonkeep unnoticed?” Jala asked.

“Perhaps.” Replied Magebane “There is a small cave on the seaward side of the island, barely large enough for a rowboat to navigate, it is hidden behind a pillar of green sea-stone. The cave leads to a small postern dock. It should be relatively unguarded.” Magebane sighed once again.

“You have you answers Jala, let me return to the ageless sleep of death.”

“Very well” began Jala “and thank you.”

“Ha!” Laughed Magebane “As if I had a choice. There are no secrets in death…” her voice trailed off, drifting further away and into silence.

The golden light in Sonja’s eyes began to fade and the dusting of white frost around her began to melt. Sonja’s breathing began to slow and her eyes began to close, as she drifted back into the wizard sleep. Wojji reached down to pick the jewel from her forehead. As his finger touched the polished surface of the jewel it the fading golden flashed into a cold and baleful blue, the colour of ice, ancient and forgotten. To behold the gems was to feel your eyes burn. Wojji snatched his fingers back and quickly as if he had touched a fire.

“This… This is not supposed to happen” he stuttered.

Sonja’s eyes snapped wide open, filled with the same eerie blue. Her back arched and from her lips came a long and tortured howl.

“She is here! The Stranger in the Strange Land! Interloper and intruder! She has risen from the depths!” Sonja wailed. “I’m scared. She is moving towards the conduit… Help me! Help…” Sonja’s words died in her mouth. The temperature dropped and the air itself iced. Frost crackled across hair and stone alike, dusting every surface with a fine, white rime.

“Jala!” a voice cried out. It was the voice of a young girl, but it was not that of Sonja.”

“Freya?” asked Jala with a quaver in her voice.

“I’ve found a way out Jala. I know how to get back home. I just need you…”

Whatever Freya’s remaining words were, they were cut off. Yarla grabbed the jewel on Sonja’s brow. The flesh of her hand blackening, steaming and cooking with the cold of ice-fire. She tore the gem from Sonja’s brow and hurled it to the stone floor where it shattered, boiling away into dust. Jala grabbed the necromancer by the scruff of her robes and began to shake her.

“What did you do? What did you do!?” Jala screamed.

A soft whimpering came from the bed. Tears began to well up in Yarla’s eyes.

“She was killing her.” She sobbed.

Jala let go of the necromancer, letting her slump to the floor.

Wojji leant over the sobbing girl. Curled up in the rumpled sheets, she looked so small and vulnerable. Wojji gently stroked her hair, shushing and cooing as he did so. Through ragged sobs Sonja whispered something to Wojji.

“What did she say?” asked Jala “Tell me!”

Wojji turned to Jala, his face a stern amalgam of worry and fear.

“Wytchwood.” He said “She said Wytchwood.” Wojji sighed heavily.

“It would be best if you left the hall.” He said, gesturing towards the door. “One of the acolytes will see to your needs.”

Jala and Kru began to make their way towards the exit from the hall.

“And Jala.” Said Wojji “Know that even we do not make deals with the shades of the dead.”

*

As the light began to fade Jala sat on a balcony high up on the canyon wall. The golden-red rays of the sunset slanted over the lip of the Gash and set the room aflame with light. But despite the appearance of warmth, the air had a chill to it. The slow and gentle wind had the sting of night to it. Once the sun had set it would only grow, until the barrens had been consumed by the harsh and unrelenting cold of the desert highlands without their sun.

Jala’s eyes gazed off into a middle distance which contained no object or person, just an out of focus nothingness. On a small table next to her sat a small clay cup, untouched and filled with tea that had long since gone cold.

Behind her came the soft padding of feet and of rustling silk.

“I’m not ready for this.” Said Jala.

“No one ever is.” Replied the Star Witch.

“Do you think we can defeat him? The Whelpslayer?”

“Perhaps.” Said Kru “Perhaps not. Only time will tell”

The balcony fell back into a silence disturbed only by the sighing of the wind and the far off howls of the scavenger beasts of the barrens.

“I’m scared Kru.” Said Jala

“I’d be worried if you weren’t. The Whelpslayer will be a formidable foe. And I dare not think what he will do to us if we lose.”

“I’m not scared of what will happen if I lose, Kru. I’m scared about what might happen if I win.”

A smile touched the lips of the Star Witch.

“We can cross that bridge should we ever come to it. For now I think it’d be best if you got some sleep. Perhaps things will seem less grim in the light of the morning.”

There was a swish of silk and the Star Witch was gone, leaving Jala alone with her brooding.

Though Jala’s gaze was vacant, it was not without target. It stared out beyond the rim of the Heldrakai’s canyon and out across the dusty barrens and its scrub bushes and wiry dogs. It looked out beyond the searing sandwastes and scorching dunes of the desert of Cairnobàs. Beyond even the spires of Stellastelathororn. It was fixed on a point amidst the waves of the Darksiren Sea with its pods of sabre-dolphins, shoals of scuttlefish and its slumbering sea dragons. Her gaze looked out the stony manse atop Radgerock; the isle of forgotten fire, and to the dark halls where The Whelpslayer dwelt; an enemy as uncertain and nebulous as the future itself.

Jala looked upon destiny, and it did sit ill with her.

~ Fin ~

I have Magebane for you on Line 1

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

28 - Hall of the Listeners

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

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

Part 26 – Into the Barrens

The silence hung heavy in the ashen air, stretching out and punctuated only by the whistling of the wind. Hervel and his horde made no move towards Jala or Kru. They simply waited, staring at the pair with their dead empty eyes. Waiting. To Jala it all felt more than a little absurd. The feeling started deep in her belly, bubbling up from the depths like a spring gushing forth from cracked rock. It started as a snort. Derisive in tone, manner and timbre. The snort soon become a chuckle, the quiet sort which hangs under the breath. The dead looked on impassively and Hervel cocked an eyebrow. The feeling within Jala kept growing, now loosed there was no holding it back, it came unbidden and unstoppable; a thing with a mind of its own and a will to break free from the depths. Jala’s chuckle built and rose to a glorious peal of laughter, a hearty belly laugh. Tears tinged the corners of her eyes and she bent double, struggling to catch her breath. Whole oceans of pent-up angst, unfulfilled rage and nervous tension found its vent in those laughs.

“What” began Hervel “is so funny?”

Jala choked back the laughter, slowly mastering herself.

“It’s just that you’re so…” Jala’s words words were lost in another snort of laughter “just so… so” and then the giggles took over again

“Just so what?!” fumed Hervel.

Jala straightened and wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes, the laughter finally receding and slinking away with a few parting snickers and chortles.

“Oh you’re just so precious” Jala sighed.

“W… what?” stuttered Hervel.

“Getting all puffed up and throwing out those big ominous ultimatums like you’re the ‘big man’ who everyone needs to take seriously.”

“The Heldrakai do not take insult lightly. We will not suffer your mockery!” blurted Hervel.

The Star Witch glanced at Hervel and then to Jala

“But it’s not a ‘we’ is it? You’re just an apprentice after all.” She said.

“Exactly.” Jala replied with a smile “We willingly came seeking the Heldrakai, we didn’t need any threat or coercion. And despite that, and everything you know about us; the things you know full well we can do, the foes you know full well we’ve defeated. Only yesterday you and your friends saw me drive off a whole pack of those sandworms without so much as breaking a sweat. But still you’re putting on airs and making threats like you’d even slow us down. I’m mean look at you lot. You’re barely even a man and your horde looks like it’s about to drop to pieces.”

One of the on looking dead groaned in protest.

“I supposed precious is the only word for it, isn’t it?” said Kru. “You’d think by now we’d have earnt at least a modicum of respect. There’s the temptation to set his bones on fire.”

“Or sever all his major tendons and stake him out in the desert.” added Jala

“Oooo” cooed Kru “That’s a good one. Or there’s a spell I know that peels people’s skin off. It’s very slow. Quite elegant magic if I’m honest.”

“That does sound pretty fancy.” replied Jala.

Hervel’s face was growing pale and his facade of pomp and bravado long since shattered. He stood gulped, as it dawned on him that he might have made a terrible, terrible mistake.

“Oh stop looking so glum.” Said Kru to Hervel “We’re not really going to kill you.”

“We just wanted to remind you that we could.” added Jala

“If we wanted.” said Kru.

Jala looked Hervel in the eyes and said “We’ll go with you Hervel, but not because you asked.”

“Only because we want to.” finished Kru.

The two women turned away from Hervel and his looming dead and began to walk in the direction of the cliffs beyond the city.

“Your sword!” stomped Hervel.

“Hmm?” said Jala, turning back towards the apprentice necromancer.

“I asked you to lay down your sword!” shouted Hervel.

“Oh that’s not going to happen.” replied Jala “Though you’re welcome to try and take it from me if you want.”

Hervel didn’t say anything.

“No.” added Jala “I didn’t think you would. No get a move on, we’ve still got quite some way to go today.”

The assembled dead shuffled nervously in the ashen dust, looking toward Hervel, waiting for him to tell them what to do.

“Ruddy barbarians.” he muttered, before scampering after Jala and Kru.

*

They journeyed on in a strained and angry silence. Up the tight and stony, switch-backed ravines of the cliffs and into the Ghormish lands beyond. The plateau of the Barrens stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was a tundra of dry and stunted scrub-grass poking thin, razor edged stalks out of coarse grey sand, poked hither and tither by great marble tors the colour of bleached bone. Jala and Kru trailed in the wake of Hervel and his band of dead as they beat a relentless pace across the desolation, heading towards The Gash. They first glimpsed the fabled place on the dawn of their fifth day from Cairnobàs. The Gash itself was a great rent in the barren plain, a knife wound in the ground, angling away towards the horizon. It was nearing dusk before they finally reached the mouth of The Gash and made the descent down the steep slope into the heart of the subterranean valley. The walls of the canyon rose straight and sharply about them as they travelled further down into the depths. But despite their descent further and further beneath the surface of the plateau, the canyon remained light and airy, with the light of the setting sun drifting down from above. But despite the warm reddish-yellow of dusk tinting the white walls of the Gash, it felt still and cold, like a temple nave, and as the slope began to flatten out, there came the sound of ringing metal. The gentle and sonorous sound of bells and gongs.

The base of the knife-slit canyon began to widen out, and as it did so two enormous statues loomed out of walls, looking down at the canyon floor with the gaze and visage of death. Empty sockets of great and lidless eyes, skeletal jaws and fingers worked in creamy stone. One of them held and hourglass, and the other a pair of scales. The two statues were wrought with such skill and precision that you could even see the weave of the robes that garlanded their thin frames. They looked as if the slightest breeze would send the cloth a-fluttering.

At the base of one of the statues sat a man on a small wooden stool. He had skin the colour of burnt umber and he wore a light blue shirt with smart black trousers, the sort with creases you could probably shave with. He had about him an air of jovial impatience as he waited for Jala and the others to reach him.

“You’re late” he said before standing up and brushing a speck of dust from his trouser leg.

“A thousand apologies great master!” said Hervel slumping to his knees.

“Oh get up you idiot and stop grovelling, it’s most undignified.” Replied the man in the blue shirt shaking his head. “And these must be our guests. I am Master Wojji of the Heldrakai, it is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” He finished with an elaborate and flourishing bow.

“You’re a necromancer?” asked Jala

“Yes of course.” Replied Wojji “What we you expecting? Some sickly, pale-faced wraith of a man in black robes spouting cryptic riddles and nonsense?” Wojji finished with an easy laugh.

“Well…” began Jala

“You did it again didn’t you?!” shouted Wojji turning to Hervel “You decided to be all ominous and dramatic, thought it would be a good idea to ‘put on a show.’ Do you have any idea how hard it is to shake off all the negative stereotypes associated with Necromancing?”

“But…” began Hervel

“No buts. I asked you to escort our guests here from The City of Stars. No pageantry or embellishment. This is why you’re still an apprentice.”

Wojji pinched the bridge of his nose and let out an exhausted sounding sigh.

“Hervel?” he asked

“Yes Master?”

“Where is the Guildmeister?”

“I err… lost him.” Said Hervel nervously. Wojji let out another sigh.

“Do you have any idea how many business opportunities a meeting with an actual Guildmeister could have afforded our sect? No of course you don’t because you never think things through!” said Wojji, his voice rising to a shout. “And look at that zombie!” he continued, striding into the crowd of dead.

“They’re all tatty and dropping to bits. Just look at that missing jaw? I can’t fix that now can I? It’s almost as if you don’t have any respect for the dead! I must say I am very disappointed Hervel.”

Hervel’s face was downcast, his eyes firmly fixed on the toes of his shoes.

“Now Miss Jala, Ms Krüng Nak To, if you’d please follow me we’ll see about dealing with your enquiry.” Said Wojji, beckoning the group through the gap between the statues. They all made to follow before Wojji interjected.

“Not you Hervel, you can stay here and think about what you’ve done.”

And so Jala, Kru and the shambling horde of dead made their way deeper into The Gash, leaving Hervel sitting on the little wooden stool, all alone. Down the length of the canyon words drifted back to him from his departed Master, a snippet of a conversation.

“I’m really terribly sorry ladies. Honestly you just can’t get the staff these days.”

*

 “I feel I must apologise for Hervel.” Said Wojji as he led Kru and Jala deeper into the Gash. “Two hundred years ago he would no doubt have made a fine necromancer. But times change and so we must change with them. If we are to keep our place in the world we must modernise, regrettably there are some more conservative members of our sect who haven’t quite let go of the old ways.”

“How exactly do you modernise necromancy? It always struck me as a fairly iron-clad setup.” enquired Kru. Wojji’s eyes flashed with delighted passion and a grin split his face.

 “That is exactly what so many of my forebears thought, but even the time-worn craft of necromancy is ripe for innovation.”

“Explain.” said Kru with a frown

“Necromancy has always been inherently transactional so it made sense to commodify what we do. Other brands of wizardry have been doing it for centuries, why not us?” replied Wojji.

“Because necromancers are have a reputation as dangerous, menacing and unsavoury characters meddling with forces which should be left well enough alone?” said Kru with a smile, clearly not buying into that opinion herself.

“Surely the same can be said for all wizardry? The only obstacle was a matter of perception and public relations.”

“That does not sound like a small thing to surmount.” Added Jala suspiciously.

“No it wasn’t so we started with politics and money.” Said Wojji with a flourish. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, the barrens are not really conducive to habitation. Only the far west of Ghorm can support life on a large-scale. Yet the barrens’ mineral wealth is extraordinary: Iron, gold, stone, gems the size of your fist. But extracting it was never cost-effective to extract it.”

“So you used the dead to extract it. Clever.” Said Kru.

“They don’t need breaks, they don’t need paying, they don’t need food, or water, they do exactly what they’re told and since they’re already dead any usual fatal accidents do not result in the usual loss of life. They are a fantastically reliable and efficient workforce.” Wojji smiled again.

 “After we’d gained a solid economic foothold in the Ghormish marketplace we made a few ethical changes to our ways of working, diversified our business interests and public opinion of the Heldrakai in Ghorm changed almost over night.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘ethical changes’ Master Wojji?” asked Jala

“Oh it’s quite simple. We started paying people for their dead instead of robbing graveyards and tombs. It went down surprisingly well. Every zombie, mummy and ghoul in Heldrakai Incorporated is a consenting and willing volunteer. Even the poorest man in Ghorm knows he can leave something behind for his family if he donates his corpse to us. After all, it’s not as if he’d be using it once he’s dead.”

 The canyon began to widen out from the straight and narrow defile which they had been traversing and into broad valley. The steep stone walls were pocked with carved windows and grand facades of fluted pillars and elaborate porticoes. All hewn out of the white stone of the Gash itself. But for all its elegance it still felt uncomfortably like a mausoleum.

 “Welcome to the home of The Hedlrakai! Is it not a sight to behold.” said Wojji, throwing out his arms.

 To Jala’s eyes it did seem a grand and magnificent, far more pleasing to the eye than the dank and grimy spires of Stellastelathororn. There was one thought that stuck in Jala’s mind, like a nut shard trapped in your teeth which despite repeated prodding and probing, she couldn’t quite shift.

 “Master Wojji?” Jala asked “How did you know we were coming?”

 “For all our new business dealings we have not forgotten our more ancient powers.” He replied seriously. “Are you familiar with the expression dead men tell no tales?”

 “Naturally” said Jala

 “Well it’s bollocks. They simply won’t shut up. And the things they know…”

This week I invoked my editor’s privileges and decided to split the next instalment into two parts. As it was starting to get a bit on the large side. Subsequently there is not poll this week, so check back next Monday for the concluding section of this impromptu two-part special, where Jala and Co. will return in “The Secrets of the Heldrakai.

Part 19 – House Call

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:

“Guards! Guards!”

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.

Magebane

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.

She laughed.

“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!

Prior Commitments

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

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

18 - Drastic Acts and Delay No More

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

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

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

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