The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “Magebane”

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 28 – The Hall of the Listeners

Jala eyed the hilt of the dagger warily.

“My body…” she muttered darkly. Wojji nodded gently.

“It’d be a dreadful shame to let it go to waste,” he said. “When the last of your breath has fled your lungs and your eyes have caught their final light, your soul would be able to depart knowing that your body would be going on to a purpose greater than feeding the worms and the grubs of the earth.”

A high price indeed – and yet, was it really? The necromancer did not propose to slay her on the spot, merely to use what would no longer be hers to use when the time came. A lump of flesh and bone, the image of Jala but not the warrior essence of Jala.

Jala reached towards the hilt of the dagger, and for a moment thought she saw a look of intense avarice and greed cross the face of the man offering it to her. At the last moment, her arm dropped to her side.

“You are a man of business,” she said flatly. “Let us negotiate.”

Wojji’s face fell dramatically, but he recovered smoothly.

“It was worth a try,” he said, tucking the dagger away. “The barbarian tribes of the North don’t often come by these parts, and I fancied that perhaps you were the one who would… no matter. Negotiate. Indeed, let’s.”

Kru leaned over, her lips brushing against Jala`s ear and her voice soft and low.

“We have nothing with which we can negotiate,” she said. “Yet.”

Jala nodded in understanding.

“Master Wojji,” she said, “I cannot give you what is not mine to offer. I do not know what fate I pursue, and to what ultimate destiny my body will go. Perhaps I am to perish in the belly of a dragon, as a vision I have had seemed to show, or perhaps I am to be obliterated into starstuff. I do not know, and so I cannot promise that I would uphold my end of the bargain were I to promise you my body.

 “I can, however, offer you something that I know I will have. I can offer you the body of the Whelpslayer himself.”

 The necromancer raised an eyebrow.

 “You really feel you can deliver on such a promise?” he asked.

 “I feel the truth of it in my bones and in the heft of my blade. I make you the traditional honour-bound oath of my tribe : Under the moon, under the stars, above the crisply fallen snow and amongst the deep dark pines, I so swear that I shall have the corpse of the Whelpslayer to deliver unto you, or that I shall die trying.”

 Wojji blinked.

 “That’ll do it,” he said, spitting into his palm and holding it out. Jala eyed his moist hand.

“That’s disgusting,” she said. Wojji shrugged.

“Fair enough,” he said, extending a pinky. Jala wrapped her own pinky around it and they solemnly shook, sealing their pact as Kru looked on with a knowing smile.

“Right,” said Wojji, wiping his hand on his clothes, “now that that’s taken care of, drink up – we’ve got a Listener to bother.”

*

 Jala and Kru were led through winding canyon tunnels until they came to a stop before a simple wooden door.

“Is this the fabled Hall of Listeners?” Kru asked, a note of disappointment creeping into her voice. Wojji shook his head.

“It takes two to access the Hall of Listeners,” he said. He pushed the door open and they stepped through into a small antechamber. It looked like a sort of clinic, which would make the elderly woman who occupied it a sort of doctor. She initially did not notice that she had visitors as her arms were elbow deep into the chest cavity of a zombie which lay on a table before her, watching her work interestedly.

Wojji cleared his throat. The woman glanced up, irritated.

“What?” she snapped. “I’m in the middle of an operation, Wojji. Would it kill you to knock?”

“Yes, but not for long,” he replied with a smile. To the others, he said, “This is Yarla, one of our more hands-on members.”

Yarla snorted and returned her attention to her patient.

“Funny man,” she said. “I’d love to see you patch a perforated spleen sometime.”

“I’m confused,” said Jala. “Are your workers not risen and driven by magical forces? Why would the state of their organs matter?”

Yarla sighed and pulled her blood and ichor stained arms out.

“That’s correct in principle,” she said, “but long story short a machine with missing parts is hardly an effective machine. Our workforce is no good to us if it’s dropping to bits all over the place.”

“Necromancy is a many-faceted art,” Wojji explained. “Some of us are better at the act of raising, overcoming the most stubborn of bodily inertia. Others take a more resorative path.”

Yarla held her hands over the gaping hole in the zombie and muttered a few words. A cold breeze seemed to pass through the room as dead flesh knotted together before Jala’s eyes. The zombie stumbled to its feet, good as new though still quite clearly dead.

“And that’s that. Now, then. As wonderfully lovely as it is to see new people, to what do I owe the dubious pleasure of interruption?”

“They are here to see Sonja,” Wojji replied.

Yarla whistled and wiped her hands on a nearby cloth.

“I see. Well then, let’s not waste time. Stay here,” Yarla instructed the zombie. It slumped into a corner looking almost dejected as it watched the others leave the room.

“Will it be alright in there?” Jala asked. Yarla rolled her eyes.

“It’s a zombie,” she said. “It’s not even one of the smarter ones. It won’t need food, warmth, rest or company. I think it’ll be ok standing in a corner for a while, don’t you?”

They continued in silence until they came to an impressively large door of silver and steel, covered in runes and ornate symbols. This, it seemed, was the entrance to the Hall of Listeners. Wojji and Yarla waved their hands over the door in an elaborate pattern, causing the runes to flare brightly then fade away into nothing. Slowly, slowly, the door swung open.

The Hall was a massive chamber that seemed to stretch away to the distance in all directions. The room was filled with nothing but beds, rows upon rows of beds in which lay the prone forms of the Listeners.

Wojji led the into the room, walking silently and reverentially down the aisles between the slumbering folk. Eventually they came to a bed in which lay a young girl, fair of hair and fast asleep like all the rest.

“This is Sonja?” Kru said. “She’s but a child!”

“She may be a child but she’s the best damned Listener we’ve ever had,” Yarla snapped.

Jala gazed down at the girl, fascinated at the thought of the power she had despite her tiny young frame. Wojji pulled a jewelled pendant from one of his many pockets and polished the inset stone thoughtfully.

“You will have but 10 minutes,” he said, “for even as strong a Listener as Sonja cannot maintain a direct relation with the dead for longer. Think carefully of your question, Jala; be sure of what you want to know. Are you ready?”

Jala nodded and Wojji pressed the pendant to Sonja’s forehead. It glowed a deep rich golden colour, and Sonja’s eyes flew open, eyes of the same glowing lustre. The girl lay unmoving, stared fixedly up at the ceiling.

“The conduit is open,” she said in a sing-song voice. “The dead speak and but few listen. Would you hear what we hear?”

“We would,” said Wojji gravely. He looked at Jala. “Whisper into her ear. Tell her what you want.

Jala leant down, her lips resting by the child’s ear.

28 - Hall of the Listeners

The poll will closed at noon BST on Sunday 10th of August. If you cannot vote, or if you cannot see a poll above, please enable cookies or try a different browser. Alternatively travel into the depths of the most ancient and loneliest forests of the Old World. At their heart, where no light penetrates their canopy and all is shrouded in darkness older than man. There you must light a fire and speak your choice. Then run. Flames anger the trees…

Part 27 – Secrets of the Heldrakai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, sit.” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” asked Jala

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

“And your point?” asked Jala.

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

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

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

Jala snorted with derision.

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

“How much?” asked Kru

“Hmm?” replied Wojji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we have an agreement?” he asked.

27 - Secrets of the Heldrakai

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Oh How Far We Have Come…

And yet we sill have so far to go, but the exact length of our road remains to be seen…

Since our saga returned in April we have had five thrilling instalments, tales of courage, intrigue and bloody violence. It has been nearly three months since our last recap, that’s one-quarter of a year. That’s quite a while. The minds of men are fragile and fallible things, not like they were in the Old Time. And thus we forget. Things we once knew drift into the fuzzy miasma of obscurity, they pass out of memory and into myth, or legend, or into a vague nagging feeling that there’s something you were supposed to do but you can’t quite remember what. So come, sit down by our fire and let us remind you of that which was and that which has been.

Elder Linna

Magebane

Magebane

Read more…

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…

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.

Part 21 – Memories

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!”

*

Frozen Tarn

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.

21 - Memories

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Part 20 – Showdown

Jala charged. There was no battle cry or guttural scream, she hurtled towards Magebane with nothing but silence, just the cold and stoic inevitability of death itself. Her sword arced up in a furious backhand stoke. It was an obvious opening gambit. One which Magebane read easily and moved in to parry. The sound of ringing steel filled the great hall as the two blades connected. But for all of her preparation, Magebane was nothing if not proud. After all, how could a grubby, northern savage provide any real opposition? She did not expect the crude swing of a bold amateur to have so much force. Jala’s attack sent Magebane reeling, sword arm flying upwards under the impact and leaving her guard wide open. With her opponent on the back foot Jala swung in with a left hook. The punch connected hard with Magebane’s jaw and elicited a sound of popping sinew and grinding teeth.

Jala pressed the attack, moving in with another stroke towards Magebane’s chest. But for the second attack she was prepared, fully aware of the force behind the incoming blow. Jala’s sword skittered across blue wood as it met with a raised shield. With that simple block Magebane recovered her poise. Jala’s attacks came thick and fast, falling like lightning from the sky. But each and every one of them was met by a well-timed parry, deft block or graceful dodge. Then the tables began to turn. Magebane started to probe Jala’s defences. A quick flick here, an arced thrust there. Searching for a chink in the armour, a weakness to exploit and they were many, and varied. For Jala did not have the same grace and skill at parrying as her opponent. A fight in the North was over in seconds, because that was the way it had to be. One quick slice to a nice fat vein and then let the bastard bleed a bit, stove their head in with a rock and move onto the next foe. Precious few of Magebane’s strokes were met with a sword, for Jala favoured the more logical and practical school of “getting out the bloody way.” A dance with such fast and rapid steps is hard to keep up for long, even more so when you’re unsure of who is leading and you have to keep guessing where you’re supposed to be. In such a dance a misstep is inevitable. Magebane feinted an upward swing, Jala leaned backwards pulling her head out of its expected arc. With a fluid flick of her wrist, Magebane turned it into a thrust. Off balance, Jala had nowhere to go. The Bastard Sword bit deep into Jala’s armour, the blade slicing through leather and cloth and into Jala’s flesh.

Pain swept through her body, like her very nerves had burst into flames. Muscles contracted, spasmed and seized as eldrtich agony poured through every fibre of her being. Jala’s head and arms raised to the sky, almost pleading. A rapidly spreading cloud of inky blackness began to creep over Jala’s vision, like a falling shroud and the cold end. Thoughts of anger and rage and hate evaporated away into a thin and intangible mist, all reason and tactics boiled away like the night ices of the Old North. All things fled before that one, lone undulating scream that echoed from the very pit of Jala’s soul.

With her arm still out-thrust Magebane smiled, her lips creasing into a dark and perverse mockery of a smile.

“It hurts doesn’t it?” she whispered “An exquisite symphony of pain and nightmare.”

Jala’s eyes began to roll back in her head, her mouth still held agape in an unending howl.

“Goodbye little barbarian, it’s all over.”

The words of Magebane slowly drifted through the soupy sea of Jala’s pain, being swept up in the maelstrom of her mind like leaves in a hurricane. They did not reach the conscious and thinking being that was Jala, daughter of Quyren, for that creature was being rent and shredded by the arcane sufferings of the blade which had wounded her. Instead the words reached something else. Something deeper. Something primal. They reached the hot and angry core of that which was Jala. The place where the dark rage and cold fires of hate slept, caged beneath the congenial necessities of the human condition. The words reached the monster that dwells within all of us, and it did not like what it heard. Not, one, bit.

Magebane was close to Jala now, slowly sawing her blade into the wound it had made a hair’s breadth at a time, savouring the moment before the kill. Jala’s snapped her elbow downward, trapping Magebane’s sword arm and the blade it held tight against her side. With great effort Jala lowered her head and met her gaze. Shock was writ large in Magebane’s eyes and the slight gape in her mouth. This was not supposed to happen.

“It’s over, when I say it’s over.” Hissed Jala through clenched teeth. Quite without warning Jala brought her forehead down upon Magebane’s nose with all the thundering force of a falling mountain. Jala could feel the cartilage tear and bone shatter as her skull crushed into Magebane’s face. The faint feeling of wet jelly beneath the skin, the yielding of flesh. They were good feelings.

Magebane’s staggered back, sword limp in her hand as she instinctively reached out toward her ruined nose, touching tentatively at the blood flowing down her face and over her lips. She gazed back towards Jala with something approaching fear. There was nothing human in those Jala’s eyes now, just a bestial hunger, a feral madness. She let out a guttural roar, the noise was hungry and entirely animal.

20 - The Fight

Blow after blow, Jala laid into Magebane with a fury not of this earth, for the Blood-fever was upon her. She lashed out with a hail of limbs and steel too fast for the eye to follow. Her sword licked across Magebane’s flesh, leaving a criss-cross trail of welling blood; it gouged at her armour, tearing great rents at the leather. Jala’s blows hammered down upon Magebane’s shield, the wood bucked and shook, but refused to splinter.

Magebane fled before Jala’s relentless advance, scant moments before she had victory within her grasp, but now she was being driven across the Great Hall as if she had never held a sword before, stumbling past tables and staggering around columns. She sent out short, darting flicks with the tip of her sword, as if trying to whittle away at Jala. The blows sliced thin little cuts into Jala’s forearms and the meat of her thighs. Each cut seared into the barbarian’s body like hot iron, Magebane could see the slight wincing in Jala’s eyes. Yet still she came on, The Bastard Sword’s sting barely slowing her pace.

It took every ounce of Magebane’s skill to prevent her losing a limb. Jala had no skill or finesse to her strokes but sometimes you don’t need to. After all, no amount of riposte, parry or daring quarter circle slices are going to save you when faced with a herd of stampeding rhinos. Her skin was slick with blood, everything stung and her vision was still blurred from the breaking of her nose. Magebane knew that if she were to survive past the next few minutes she would have to get an edge, any sort of edge.

The point of Jala’s sword swept across her face, missing her eyes by nothing more than a breath. The swing went wide, the edge clattering into a pillar and raising a shower of sparks. As the steel skittered across hard grey stone, before it could even rebound, Magebane slammed her shield onto the flat of the blade, pinning it to the column. The blade flexed and twisted as Jala sought to pull it free, but it was caught, its edge trapped within the crack of the great red jewel at the heart of Magebane’s shield. With a great heave, Jala tore her blade free, but not all of it came loose. As the sword twisted in Jala’s hands the metal gave, finally buckling under intolerable strain, weakened by a lifetime’s worth of nicks and notches. It shattered, leaving Jala with less than a foot of broken, jagged metal in her hand. Her maddened eyes gazed at the broken blade, confused and not quite comprehending what had just happened.

“Not so tough with a broken sword are you?” Panted Magebane.

Jala glared at her and slashed out with the stump of her weapon. The jagged fragments of steel cut through the flesh of Magebane’s cheek, tearing a ragged groove across her face all the way to her forehead.

“Bitch!” Magebane screamed “Bitch! Bitch! BITCH!”

The wounded tyrant lashed out wildly with her shield, the hard metal of its rim slamming into the side of Jala’s head. It sent the northern barbarian reeling, like a ship caught in a storm. The battle-fugue that had gripped her mind began to lose its hold on her. Her head spun, she struggled to stay on her feet, her balance lost and her skull ringing like a thousand bells.

Still she fought on, but her blows were slow and sluggish, easily avoided by an opponent who looked like nothing more than a fuzzy blur. Magebane waded in with long overhand swings, slowly slicing away at the dazed barbarian. Jala lashed out at every twisting shadow and dancing blur. But with her sword so shortened, Magebane had the advantage of reach, easily staying well clear of Jala’s desperate, frenzied swings.

The blow came in without warning, slamming hard into the steel of her armour. Plates buckled, caved in by the force of the swing and as they failed, they took with them the ribs they protected. A howl of tortured metal, a cracking of bone. Stunned and gasping for breath Jala’s frenzy finally died. Shakes over took her arms as her adrenaline fled from her and the toll of blood loss began to make itself known. Her broken sword fell from her hands, clattering to the ground with a deep, sonorous clang. Thought and humanity returned to her eyes, and they were met with a hearty kick to the chest.

It drove what little wind was left from Jala’s chest and sent her into the air. Falling with a thump, then sliding and rolling across the cold flagstones. Jala lay on her back, prone and immobile, each breath a wet rasping gulp. Everything hurt.

Magebane coughed and spat a thick, mouthful of blood onto one of rumpled carpets. She grinned slightly, her bright teeth now stained a pale pink. Slowly and wearily she trudged towards Jala, her arms loose and heavy.

“Time I put you out of your misery girl.” Magebane wheezed.

The footfalls echoed through the Great Hall. Slow, steady and inevitable; the oncoming portent of death. Jala’s aching fingers reached out across the cold floor. They reached out for anything. Anything she could hold or swing. A candlestick, a chair leg, she would even settle for a spoon right now. But they found nothing. Her questing fingers retreated back, sliding into a leather bag on her belt and gripping what was within. The fingers found comfort, and memories.

Everything went black…

Our special two-parter concludes next Monday. Same barbarian time, same barbarian channel.

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!

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