The choice loomed large in Jala’s mind, shouting down all other thoughts. A deeply passionate voice, screaming white-hot with rage, was demanding a swift and bloody resolution. ‘Strike at the heart of the beast!’ it howled. ‘Quick, decisive action! Kill! Kill!‘
She was tempted to listen to this voice, oh so tempted. With Magebane’s blood still cooling on her blade, her warrior soul thirsted for more. More blood, more carnage, more bodies piling up around her calves. The feeling was fading fast, but the bloodlust was strong, just as it had been when she slew the illusionary beige dwarfs in the depths of Kharäzdhuin.
Another, calmer voice prevailed. It spoke in a quiet hushed tone, a gentle caress. It wound its way through Jala’s turbulent thoughts, soothing and sedating. The voice urged caution. The voice recommended strategy, patience and smarts. The voice was the touch of ice on a fevered brow.
“We head South,” Jala declared, “to the Necromancers beyond The Gash. Let them pry the truth from this bitch’s cold bones.”
Then she pitched forward onto her face and gave unconsciousness a try for a while.
She awoke in a soft bed. This confused her greatly, as she’d never really experienced a soft bed before. A soft bedroll on the hard frozen ground, certainly. But a soft bed? Goosedown quilt? Duck feather pillows? She felt uncomfortably comfortable.
She looked around herself. The room was sparse but welcoming, not gaudily decorated or stuffed with lavish unneccesities. There was a dresser and a mirror, a wardrobe, a bowl of water, a stoat sitting on a chair beside the bed, some nice curtains.
“You’re awake!” Marek cried happily. Jala nodded. Halfway through the action she remembered her wounds and expected the sharp stab of pain – but none came. She lifted the bedcovers and took an appraising look at herself. As expected, bandages everywhere – but the dressings were clean, no sign of blood.
“How long did I sleep?” She asked. Marek looked uncomfortable.
“You slept fitfully, Jala,” said Kru, “for the Bastard Sword cuts deeper than flesh.”
Jala jumped. The Star Witch had appeared from nowhere, in her damnably sorcerous way.
“Don’t do that,” she said sternly. Kru smiled.
“I’m glad you’re recovering your strength. You’re going to need it. The journey south will-“
“How long did I sleep?”
“You have been out of action for almost a week, madam warrior,” said Calathor, stepping out of a shadowy corner that Jala was certain he hadn’t been standing in just moments before.
“Gods, I wish you mages would walk about and open doors like normal people,” Jala grumbled.
“That wouldn’t be much fun, would it?” asked her erstwhile companion the Guildmeister from her bedside. She glowered at him. “In fairness, I came in the window while you were looking at Calathor just now.”
“Lovely,” she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Anyone else planning on materialising in front of me? Is the turnip man going to pop out of the wardrobe at me next?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Mark cleared his stoaty throat.
“Erm, are you sure you’re up for a long trip, Jala?” he asked. Jala sighed.
“He wasn’t a real turnip man, he was only dressed as- look, never mind. I feel fine.” To demonstrate this, she climbed from her bed and fell onto her face. “Mfee? Mfine,” she said into the carpet.
The Guildmeister helped her to her feet.
“You’ll be right as the proverbial rain in a few hours once you’ve had a good stretch,” he said. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
“What is our plan?” she asked. “I trust things have been set in motion as I lay in recovery?”
“We join a southward-bound merchant caravan in three days. It will take us as far as Alkathum, the Ghormish capital. From there, we strike out to the Gash and beyond. My suggestion is that we hire a guide and a mercenary or two on our arrival in the city.”
Wonderful. Another city. A desert one this time – in addition to bustling crowds and noise and stink, Jala would have to put up with oppressive heat and choking dust. Still, it would be worth it. Worth it to squeeze information from Magebane. Worth it to get closer to this Whelpslayer and avenge Freya’s village. Worth it for other reasons, the calm cool voice from days ago suggested…
She shook herself. “A good plan,” she said. “When you say ‘we’ join the caravan…?”. Kru smiled.
“Well I would hardly let you journey alone, would I? Certainly my city needs me, but the stakes are higher than we ever thought they could be. This Whelpslayer … well. Let us suffice to say he has delusions of grandeur, but also the ruthlessness and drive to achieve his ambitions if left unchecked. As for the rest of us, well, I can’t speak for Marek-“
“You can if you say ‘Marek will be coming with us,'” said Marek.
“Apparently I can speak for Marek. Marek will be coming with us, of course. We would do well to have a representative of this guild…” at this she glared at Calathor and the Guildmeister, who both had the good grace to look uncomfortable. Jala got the impression this had been an argument that had lasted over the days she’d been out.
“Er, well, lots of things to do-“
“Grave goings-on afoot-“
“-rebuild the city-“
“-arcane mysteries and such-“
“-got to weed out Magebane’s supporters, very political stuff-“
Jala sighed and grabbed the Guildmeister’s collar.
“You,” she said. “You’re with us.”
The Guildmeister looked unhappy for a moment, then his face went blank. Jala wondered idly where his mind went to when he did this, then found she didn’t care. She poked him in the belly.
“Oi,” she said. “I said you’re with us … er … I don’t think I caught your name,” she finished lamely. The Guildmeister returned to the physical plane with a bump.
“I don’t think I dropped it,” he said. “My name… is unimportant.”
“No it’s not,” said Marek, “we can’t call you ‘Oi’ or ‘that fellow with the noisy cloak’ can we?”. The meister sighed.
“Very well,” he said. “There are some who call me … Tim.”
“Tim.” Jala said flatly. Tim looked embarrassed.
“It’s short for Timammon, and it doesn’t do a lot to help cultivate the air of mystery that a competent Sablemagus needs to project so I’d rather we just dropped it or changed the subject, ok?” he answered hotly. Jala shrugged.
“Very well, Tim, as you wish.”
“ANYWAY” Kru interrupted loudly, “I think we should let Jala get her rest. We have many preparations to make for the journey.”
Jala, suddenly tired, nodded. It would be a long journey, no doubt fraught with peril. They all seemed to be. The world was growing ever bigger, and the threats it held grew bigger to match. She only hoped she was up to the challenge.
They made their way to the caravan offices on the night of the third day. The caravan was due to set off long after the sun had set. Apparently this was the best way to travel through a desert, and the caravan master liked to set the sleeping pattern from the outset of the journey. It made no difference to Jala whether she slept when the sun did or with moon. Her blade would be ready.
The caravan was taking them on as both passengers and guards. A reasonable rate was agreed, and once the caravan master met Jala he agreed that she was certainly at least as capable as his own guards. They outfitted her with a new sword, a clumsy weapon but one that would do the job. The Bastard Sword made them nervous, and she could hardly disagree with them. She kept it wrapped in furs with her personal possessions. She knew she would use it again, when the time was right.
The caravan was a series of small wagons and several laden down beasts of burden. These were the strangest creatures Jala had ever set eyes on, and she’d once seen a Frost Hare with three ears. They were coarse, lumpy and misshapen, with saddles crammed between their back bulges and an offensive odour that followed them like a cloud. They eyed her viciously and spat in her direction.
“What in all the hells are those things?” she asked a passing young merchant. He pushed his spectacles up his nose and squinted through them at her.
“What, the camels? They’re … um … well, they’re camels.”
“Camels? Will we not be travelling by horse?”
The young man laughed. “Well, we could do,” he said, “but they’d all be dead by the time we got there. Horses from these parts don’t fare well in the desert.” He shoved his hand out at her. “I’m Hervel.”
Jala stared at his hand.
“Jala,” she said, turning back to the camels. Hervel dropped his hand awkwardly.
“So,” he said.
“First time with a caravan?” he said? Jala nodded. “It’s my second run, to Ghorm at least. I must say, I’m glad you and your companions seem like the sort who can handle themselves. On the last journey, we were set upon by giant scorpions, lost two wagons to quicksand and were attacked by a marauding raider party. It’s a tough run.”
“Of course it is,” she said, feeling an uncharacteristic tiredness and heaviness in her limbs. “We wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Sometimes it seems my whole life is a series of choices, each resulting in more violence and bloodshed than the last. I set out to seek my destiny, now I wonder if it is simply to be a lightning rod for danger.”
Hervel said nothing, but he took out a book and started scribbling in it.
“What are you doing?” she asked warily.
“Just getting that down, it’s gold!” he said happily. “The readers will love it. Don’t worry, I’ll credit you properly. Is it ‘Jala’ with one ‘l’ or two? Any apostrophes?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, I suppose I didn’t introduce myself properly. Hervel Macaloon, roving journalist and cataloguer of adventure and derring-doo. The readers of the Stellastelathororn Chronicle just lap it up. Live vicariously through the peril of others and all that. Where are you from?” he asked abruptly.
“From? I am from the tribes in the mountains to the far North, beyond-“
“Oooh, a barbarian warrior!” he cooed. “As strong as she is beautiful, as cold as her homeland. She is the wielder of the Bastard Sword, she is the slayer of Magebane. She is vengeance, she is death! Ah, it’s too superb!”
“How did you-“
“Please! Oh, please, Jala, would you let me … interview you?”
“Over the course of the journey? It’d be a character piece, a human interest piece. What spurs the noble warrior to leave her homeland, righting wrongs, avenging deaths? It’d be beautiful, I’d write it beautifully for you, it’d be my best work. Oh say you will!”
His face shone with youthful excitement and fervour, his grin almost wider than his head. He seemed so earnest, so young, so like another companion she’d once had.
How could she say no?
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