The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “The Ghormish Barrens”

Part 26 – Into the Barrens

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

“What” began Hervel “is so funny?”

Jala choked back the laughter, slowly mastering herself.

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

“Just so what?!” fumed Hervel.

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

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

“W… what?” stuttered Hervel.

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

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

The Star Witch glanced at Hervel and then to Jala

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

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

One of the on looking dead groaned in protest.

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

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

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

“That does sound pretty fancy.” replied Jala.

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

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

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

“If we wanted.” said Kru.

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

“Only because we want to.” finished Kru.

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

“Your sword!” stomped Hervel.

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

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

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

Hervel didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a necromancer?” asked Jala

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

“Well…” began Jala

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

“But…” began Hervel

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

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

“Hervel?” he asked

“Yes Master?”

“Where is the Guildmeister?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Explain.” said Kru with a frown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Naturally” said Jala

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

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

Part 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…

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