The snow fell softly, drifting lazily through the crisp mountain air before settling to the ground with nary a sound. Deep within an ancient forest, at the edge of a frozen tarn, a young girl plays around a roaring fire. In her hands she wields a thin branch, with it she slices at the falling snow. Her wild cuts fill this soft and muted world with sharp chorus of thwip, thwip, thwip. The thwips are interrupted by the crunching sound of footsteps. The girl turns towards the approaching sound and sees a woman emerging from the trees. The woman carries something over her shoulder.
“Mummy! Mummy!” The girl shouted running towards her “You were gone for ever!”
With a grunt, the mother heaved a mass of fur and blood from her shoulder, letting it land with a flumph in the soft snow.
“I ran into a very uncooperative boar.” She replied “Come on, give mummy a hug.”
The girl and her mother embraced, squeezing tight, not wanting to let go.
“Mummy?” the girl asked “Why are you shaking?”
“Things got a bit hairy towards the end love. The brute almost got me.”
“But you won in the end Mummy, because you’re the best.”
The mother smiled weakly.
“If only that was enough to see me right. Sit, it’s time I dispensed some of that sage, motherly advice that the elders are so found of.”
The girl sat herself by the fire and pulled her knees up under her chin.
“A fact which all hunters should be aware of is that there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal. Now some animals are always dangerous. An ice serpent, for example, is always going to be trouble. Fangs as long as your arm and scales like iron, if it’s at all humanly possible you avoid them like the plague. Because like as not, they’ll tear you to pieces no matter what. Now most animals aren’t like that, not until you force them into a corner and don’t give them a way out. Then something snaps inside their heads. When the threat of death closes in, even the most placid of deer will change into a wild and furious monster. If they’re staring death in the face, fighting wild and crazy makes a sort of sense. Chances are they’ll die anyway, but if they’re lucky they might take someone down with them, maybe they’ll even escape. The important thing to remember is when they’re in that position, they don’t have anything to lose. Do you understand?”
The young girl nodded.
“Now that little nugget of wisdom isn’t just a warning, it’s advice. Because it’s not just animals who get like that, people do too. One day you’ll find yourself with your back against the wall, with nowhere to run and no way out. When you’ve taken a good old-fashioned lumping and you’re out of options, you’re allowed to go a little bit mad, you’re allowed to take the big risks and do the stupid things. It’s important that you go down swinging. But fighting alone might not always be enough to see you right. You’ve got to reach deep inside yourself and grab hold of your anger. Now just hanging onto your rage isn’t going to be good enough. Anger is like a wild horse; sure, you might hang on for a while, but soon enough you’ll get thrown and like as not you’ll wind up dead. You’ve got to have the strength not just to hold your anger, but to wield it. For rage is a weapon that burns both hot and cold, it is the greatest of all blades and naught is proof against its edge. You wield that anger right and it’ll make a sword look like nothing more than a stick.”
“Wow…” whispered the girl.
“Now I want you to make me a promise” said her mother.
“What?” asked the girl.
“Promise me you’ll always go down swinging. Promise me that when the time comes you’ll take as many of your rat bastard foes as you can into the cold embrace of death.”
The young girl was silent, unnerved by her mother’s request.
“Promise me Jala! Never give up, never surrender!”
Stinging flashes of pain began to rouse Jala from the blackness which had swallowed her. As she returned to consciousness Jala could feel a burning in her cheeks, a burning which was quickly followed by a hard slap to the face. Her fingers tightened around the totem within her pouch.
“Wake up you bitch. I want to see the life leave your eyes when I kill you!”
The voice sounded familiar to Jala, but she couldn’t quite place who it was, nor why she instinctively felt such malice toward its owner. Something had happened between the two of them. A disagreement? An argument? No, it had been a fight. That would explain why so much of her body hurt. She felt groggy, unsure of where she was or what had brought her to be here. Her mother’s voice still rattled around her brain never give up, never surrender. Jala was sure there was a reason why they had sprung to mind, why those words were important. More slaps assailed her face.
“Wake up! WAKE UP!” The screaming continued “No one defies Magebane!”
Magebane… the name struck a chord somewhere within Jala’s mind. A single clear, ringing bell that banished the fug and confusion. In an instant everything came rushing back. Stellastelathororn, Castle Solaris, Magebane, the fight, her fall; clarity and context. Go down swinging.
Jala’s eyes snapped open and gazed straight at the ruined face of her opponent. In one smooth motion she ripped her hand from the pouch on her belt, her totem still tightly grasped, and plunged it into Magebane’s thigh. Nearly a foot of razor-sharp ivory pierced through the flesh and muscle and out the other side. Jala wrenched it free from her enemy’s leg, leaving a ragged, red hole. Magebane howled, staggering backwards, her hands trying in vain the stem the flow of blood from the wound.
Jala’s arm slumped back to the ground, the ice serpent fang falling from her hand with a clatter. She let out a short laugh that quickly became a wet sounding cough.
“No one puts Jala in a corner and gets away with it.” She whispered.
Magebane continued to wail and moan as Jala began to slip back into unconsciousness. Sure, Magebane could still kill her easy enough, but now there was at least the chance that she might not see out the night, at the very least she’d never walk properly again. Jala could live with that. No one could argue that she hadn’t gone down swinging. One last surge of effort to drag her foe down with her, and now she was spent. She felt tired, so very tired. She just wanted to close her eyes and let sleep wash over her.
She could still hear her mother’s voice, an unending litany of “Never give up, never surrender.” But the voice grew quieter with each passing moment. Jala felt cold, as if lying in a snow drift, with hoarfrost or soft rime forming on her skin and armour. She let out a long rattling breath and she could have sworn it fogged the air as it left her lips. Her mother’s voice started to sound different; younger, much younger, like the voice of a girl. An echoing and distant voice, as if shouting up from the bottom of a deep well. The voice began to grow in strength as the chill deepened. Then the words changed. Gone was the previous litany. The platitude gave way to simple instruction.
“Get up!” it shouted “Get up Jala! You have to fight!” The words filled her blood with white fire, an icy chill of rage and a keening wail for justice.
The voice sounded like Freya’s…
The words rolled her to the side like unseen hands, just as Magebane’s sword hit the flagstones with a harsh clang. The words dragged Jala to her feet. A vital force seeming to flow through every inch of her being. Gone was the confusion, the lethargy and the waiting for death. Even the hot, wild rage had left Jala, what dwelt within her now was something sharp and calm, a murderous and clinical hatred.
Magebane turned sluggishly towards Jala, her face pallid and drawn, her breathing slow and heavy. She limped towards Jala, dismay writ large upon her battleworn face. She swung at Jala with a sluggish, almost languid, lateral stroke. It was a clumsy and imprecise attack born more out of desperation and despair than anything else.
Jala stepped inside Magebane’s guard before the blow had chance to land. She moved in close, almost as if to embrace her foe. Instead, she dislocated the shoulder of Magebane’s sword arm. The sword fell from Magebane’s hand, her mouth held wide for a scream that couldn’t quite bring itself to arrive. With her foe now disarmed, Jala grabbed Magbane and tossed her to the ground like a farm hand would toss a sack of potatoes. The once proud and mighty tyrant hit the ground without grace or dignity. With both one arm and one leg rendered useless, she lay on her back unable to right herself, gasping like a landed fish. Against all odds, the proud and mighty Magebane had fallen.
Jala towered over Magebane’s prone and vulnerable form, standing tall and strong. She was, in this moment, wrought from Old Stone quarried from the roots of mountains; hard, immovable, unyielding; a titanic weight pushing down on the skin of the world. The heady thrill of victory had not yet set in. Jala was still in the thrall of the fight, for though the outcome now seemed a foregone conclusion, the fight was not yet over. Even on the cusp of victory things could change, a certain thing could disappear in a puff of smoke just before you could grab hold of it. The very same thing had after all happened to Magebane mere moments ago. Jala clenched her fists till her knuckles turned white. The cold hate within her was warming quickly, warming into a simmering rage that threatened to boil over at any moment and swamp reason and logic beneath a red tide of vengeance and retribution.
Magebane lay at Jala’s mercy. It would be so very easy to put an end to her plans and schemes and general all-purpose maleficences. One quick thrust and it would be over. Freya, her family and all who had been lost in the village would be avenged, justice would be had. It would be easy, but would it be right? The notion warred within Jala. As much as she wished to enact her own justice in Freya’s name, there were surely others who had been wronged. Others whom Magebane had made suffer, those weighed down by the yoke of her tyranny, those laid low by her cruelty, and those murdered for her own desires. The Sablemagus Guild had bled at Magebane’s hand, that much she knew, and so surely had so many others in the city. Was it right for Jala to take vengeance away from them, just to slake her own thirst? A choice was to be made.
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