The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “The Star Witch”

Part 29 – The Tyrant’s Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then tell me what you know.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” asked Jala.

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

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

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

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

“What happened to him?”

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

Jala turned back to Sonja’s prone form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was killing her.” She sobbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“I’m not ready for this.” Said Jala.

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

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

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

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

“I’m scared Kru.” Said Jala

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

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

A smile touched the lips of the Star Witch.

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

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

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

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

~ Fin ~

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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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 23 – Cooler Heads Prevail

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.

And yet…

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.

“Er-“

“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?”

Kru nodded.

“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.

“So.”

“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.”

Jala sighed.

“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?”

“What?”

“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?

23 - Cooler Heads Prevail

The poll closed on Sunday 25th of May. If you cannot see a poll above, please try a different browser or enable cookies. If problems still persist seek out any local priests, shamans, hermits or holy (wo)men and enquire as to whether you have recently offended any gods, deities or major spirit world entities.

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…

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!

Part 18 – Drastic Acts and Delay No More

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, and Jala’s kind were characteristically kind of cruel. Charity was not a popular concept in the Northern wilds and her tribe didn’t celebrate it as a beautiful principle worthy of mention in traditional folk songs and bedtime stories. Their children were not brought up to be benevolent, generous beings and sympathetic dispositions were often scratched out before sentimentality took too strong a hold and rendered the individual unfit to stand the hardships of life.

The Northern young were instead moulded to be as hard-hearted, hard-minded and hard-bodied as possible. Babies who mewled and appeared weak were routinely whipped. Those who suffered from eczema and asthma had their ailments beaten out of them. Sappy littl’uns who offered food – a precious commodity in winters of scarcity – to their hungry pets were left out in the snow until they caught frostbite.

Life is hard and you can’t expect anyone to fight against adversity for you. Those were the principles pounded into the thick skulls of the folk of Jala’s homeland. Now stood in the centre of a bathhouse bloodbath – a tableau of death, despair and devastation – Jala felt that pounding again. Life is hard.

She looked at the wide watery eyes of Satra. A shred of compassion started to crystallise and grow but then it was checked and choked by an internal growl. The voice of Jala’s inner Barbarian spoke up and called out with the biting aggression of the bitter Northern winds – ‘Too many bloody delays!’

In a moment her mind was made up. She had things to do – a Star Witch to find, a Sablemagus Guildmeister to find, a crock of indigolily flowers to find and purchase with her pilfered gold. She had had quite enough of all the hold-ups and distractions that the city of Stellastelathororn had presented. And she had definitely had enough of the stench in this den of depravity. The internal monologue instructed her quite clearly – ‘GO’.

‘Sorry…’ Jala sighed, her dead determined eyes staring down the quiet little pretty village girl doomed to dance in seedy dives. ‘You and your baby… you can look after yourselves…’

And with a turn of her boot-heels Jala was off and gone, or at least she would have been had her progress not been brought to an abrupt halt by a shocking ‘HYYYYYYAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIKKKKK!’ noise.

It was the distraught dire squeal of Satra. Her teary angel face had cracked, now convulsing chasmic apoplexy, pitiful sorrow stoked up and transmuted into red wroth.

‘YOU BIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH!’ she howled at a pitch that would trouble nervous dogs and disorientate any of the Darksiren Sea’s sabre-dolphins who happened to be hanging around Stellastelathororn’s harbour. Before Jala had time to be surprised by the sudden explosive volume emitted by the hitherto meek creature she was defending herself from a flurry of fury-blows. Satra had sharp fingernails and teeny-tiny pointed teeth. The flesh on Jala’s forearms prickled and with flickers of fresh crimson the barbarian realised that her assailant was drawing blood.

The inner voice groaned again – ‘Too many bloody delays!’ – and, upon hearing it, Jala decided that her Barbarian voice was right. (The Barbarian inner voice is always right.) Taking a stride back from the dancer-turned-devil, she unsheathed her sword and with the speed of lightning landed two fast slashes.

Satra’s right arm dropped to the ground with a pffftmp. The other slash had cleaved right through the girl’s ribcage and, after a few seconds of indecision, her left lung decided to fall out as well. It too hit the ground with a pffftmp.

Jala had already left, out the back door and out into the amber early evening that was now hanging over Stellastelathororn. Her smote challenger fell dead upon a floor caked with viscera, gristle and various bodily fluids that are better off not being identified.

Before she passed away, Satra reached to her dissected chest with her remaining left arm. She grasped at a neckchain and yanked loose a locket, the clasps opening to reveal an inside stencilled image of a baby.

‘Avenge me, my baby…’ she memo-ed, the locket glimmering with a supernatural lustre as her lips made the shapes. ‘Avenge me…’

***

Krung Nak To contemplated her navel, let out a forlorn sigh and then raised her head to look at the Stoat who was, in turn, looking at her expectantly. She rolled her eyes around the her chamber of incarceration. ‘We can’t just stay trapped in here, hanging on to see how things pan out,’ offered one of her many internal monologues. The others hummed in agreement. Out of the hubbub one spoke clearly and decisively. ‘It’s definitely high time we did something very, very drastic’.

‘Fine, fine,’ she groused out loud, grimacing as she sought to emphasise that her upcoming proactive effort was one done under duress. “Listen Stoat – I will keep this as brief and simple as possible…”

Marek looked at her with increased expectancy. Little stoaty eyes blinked with careful concentration.

The Star Witch wriggled in her bonds. “You are aware that I have certain talents… certain gifts that come entirely natural to me that more mundane beasts may regard as being of the “supernatural” variety, yes?’

Marek nodded, eyes even wider with expectancy.

‘I and other corporeal entities similar to myself owe a great many of those gifts to a gland. Its names are many. Its names are hard to pronounce. For that reason we refer to it in the common tongue as the Mage Gland. Most mage-types have this gland. Some are born with it and others have it inserted into them at a later date. I will spare you details of these operations. Really, it’s not a pretty picture you want present in your imagination…’

Kru winced, but the even-more-expectant Marek nodded and urged her on. ‘Please… please continue.’

‘Well, the difference between having a Mage Gland and not is a little like this – a dull person walks down a dirt footpath in the forest and is aware of the dirt footpath and the forest. With the gland, however, there is awareness of the dirt footpath, the forest and its composition of various forms of flora, the age of said flora, the mood of the flora, the spiritual alignment of the flora, the entire eco-system supported by the flora across a radius of at least twenty acres and what the majority of the creatures in that eco-system had for breakfast and how they’d rate it on a scale of one-to-ten.’

‘Incredible…’ remarked the stoat.

‘Oh, it is credible and it may be the key to us getting out of this situation,’ assured Kru with discernible tetchiness. She was on edge, mainly because she was about to mess with something she’d vowed never to mess with.

‘Usually, when you’ve got a gland you can tell who else is similarly endowed. It leaves a non-visible tint. It’s like a beacon or an alarm gong sounding without tone or timbre, but it’s there all the same. Empathy. A telepathic link that can be tuned into if you listen carefully enough and heed your ninth sense. Do you follow?’

The stoat did not quite follow but he squeaked affirmatively all the same. ‘So what are you saying?’

‘What I’m saying is this – if I massage and exercise my Mage Gland I will almost certainly attract the attention of others who share this rare anatomical feature. That would include members of the Sablemagus Guild and perhaps magicians, witches, warlocks and other beasts who may possibly be sympathetic or useful to us…’

She thought a moment. ‘… or also entities who may not be sympathetic or useful to us, but that’s the chance we take. Even if no one feels the throbbing of magic through the æther, I won’t be able to control my reaction to its excitement. No one will be able to stand the racket and let it go unaddressed…’

‘So what do you have to do to get your Gland going?’ asked the Stoat gripped with suspense.

‘Stoat,’ the Star Witch commanded with a half-sigh of surrendering resignation. ‘Rip the front right off of my dress…’

***

Survival instinct kicking in, Jala had paid close attention on her journey from the marketplace to the bathhouse. She’d memorised the route and now retraced that route, zipping through the dinghy, darkening streets of Stellastelathororn’s rougher nether regions with great urgency.

There was reason for rushing with night closing in and the heavy purse of loot hanging vulnerable on her belt. ‘No more bloody delays!’ kept sounding out in the background and she pushed on through the alleyways and filthy streets in a vigorous blur, shoving any and every obstacle aside with little care or compunction.

On a lane of fishmonger stalls she elbowed past several workmen. She thrust herself in between two idle touts who seemed to be arguing over a piece of string. She marched on with fierce fervour and knocked over a round man who rolled over onto the cobbles and hollered out with a theatrical flourish, ‘Spare me! I am but a humble turnip!’

Upon hearing the phrase Jala came to a stop. She remembered those words. She’d heard them in her vision – the projection of her destiny she’d experienced back at the Fountain of the Meek when Kru had spat out scattered fragments from the future yet to be.

A predestined moment had come to pass. Fate had followed through to deliver her the occasion when the sentence ‘Spare me! I am but a humble turnip!’ occurred in the unravelling of her life. It was an irrelevant aside of little importance in isolation but, considering the wider context, Jala felt a panic at the actual realisation of a preordained moment.

She shuddered as she recalled the visions of her destiny – the most traumatic being the rising dragon lifting itself above the wasteland of burning skulls, swooping down upon her on dread wings of certain death.

She gulped and stared into space, the revived fear freezing her on the spot.

The round man, now recovered and upright again, mistook Jala’s expression for confusion and spoke out in order to explain himself. ‘You see, it’s all a bit of showmanship, see? Just to drum up business, see?’

Jala snapped out of her nightmarish daydreaming and turned to eyeball the man. ‘What?’ She discovered that the round man was actually round because he was dressed up in a costume.

‘I’m a turnip!’ He grinned and Jala observed that, actually, it was a pretty impressive turnip costume. ‘Tunpeth’s my name and vegetables are my trade! It’s hard doing veggie business in a seafood city like this, see? Need some promotion, see? Just some theatricality, see?’

The inner Barbarian voice unleashed itself and bounced around Jala’s cranium once more. With ‘Too many bloody delays!’ ricocheting around and impetus firing up afresh the Northern Barbarian turned and marched on at even greater speed.

Tunpeth sighed, slightly hurt that she hadn’t even said goodbye. Looking down at his bulbous turnip body, he began to feel a bit silly.

***

The Turnip Man‘Are you sure?’

Marek wanted to ask politely in order to keep up semi-dignified appearance and not impose himself as a disrespectful pervert of a rodent.

‘Of course I’m sure! Now delay no more! Rip this tunic right open and bare my midriff if you want to get out of here!’

He didn’t need asking twice. Tiny rodent feet bounded across the chamber and with a mighty leap the stoat flew through the air and landed on Kru’s torso. With a swift slide and a flash of claws he split the Star Witch’s dress down the middle and landed gracefully, the falling fabric billowing around him.

He looked up at the naked feminine body, dazzling white and amazing in its subtle myriad shifts. It seemingly never settled in one fixed form but, through some strange magic, moved through ages and cosmetic characteristics. If the Star Witch were ever to act as a life model for art students they would find their portraits inaccurate as soon as they’d left a mark on the canvas. No one would be able to describe the nude witch’s body because it altered several times every second.

At least that was true for the parts of the body you don’t tend to share in polite society. Only one private area stayed solid and stable. Voyeuristic stoat eyes soon spotted it and Marek lingered on the oddity, realising this outstanding protuberance was.

‘The Mage Gland?’ he guessed and, yes, he guessed correctly.

Pulsing just to the lower left side of her perpetually re-shaping bellybutton, the gland was a visible tumescent lump. It appeared to be laughing. It was ready to have some fun.

‘Yes, that’s my Mage Gland,’ Kru corroborated. ‘I haven’t looked at it in a while. It looks pretty happy…’

‘Yes,’ the Stoat agreed.

‘Well, let’s ruin its day and hopefully further our hopes of finding a release. Marek, please bite my Mage Gland.’

‘What?!’

‘Just do it,’ smiled the Star Witch with a viscous, forced grin. Half her mind was really reluctant to go through with the humiliating ordeal but the other half – well, it was feeling pretty thrilled at the prospect.

Naked and waiting, the gland pulsating prouder and prouder, she pushed the Stoat. ‘Just do it! Bite it! BITE IT!’

‘Your wish is my command, Witch.’ And the rodent stood to attention, moistened his lips with a swish of his tongue. He exhaled an eager squeak then dashed forward and clambered up Kru’s legs. Marek arrived at the lump and embraced it enthusiastically, attaching his teeth to the flesh around its edges and then clamped down.

It tasted like a sweaty strawberry. He also noted a hint of vanilla.

As the Stoat gnawed and chewed and worried at the Gland, he started to feel a powerful momentum. He got into a groove. Vivid colours and visions coalesced in his mind and he began to feel a euphoric surge. Then he heard her.

She was groaning with pleasure and pain, except it was louder than commonplace groaning. It was immense – an orgasmic and terrible cacophony on a colossal scale. The Star Witch sang. The Star Witch screamed. Her duet of ecstatic moans and tortured cries reverberating around the small room and surely transcending the confines to echo out into the city, the continent, the world and, indeed, the cosmos beyond.

Marek looked up and saw Kru’s face shimmering between a picture of bliss and a study in agony. She was experiencing mystical titillation and spiritual scourging that couldn’t possibly be comprehended by the limited minds and spirits of more ordinary beings. He presumed that the pushing of this particular spot was the most overwhelming experience available to gifted folk like Kru. He chewed even harder.

Bite, gnaw, suck. But then he heard another sound marking itself out amidst the mighty moanings of the Star Witch.

In his peripheral vision Marek noticed that the door was rocking. Someone was beating on it, struggling to find the handle and get inside.

Kru had been right to assume that her strong response would attract someone or something’s attention. But whose?

The Stoat felt another swelling compulsion and sucked on with vigour. Halfway through a lovebite he suddenly found himself shocked out of reverie by the rending of wood and steel as the door broke apart.

Marek loosed his lips from the gland. Kru ceased her groaning. The pair looked to the door and took in the surprising sight of the strangers now entering the aperture…

Exhausted by her exertions, the Star Witch barely managed to catch her breath before gasping, ‘Oh, I don’t believe it…’

The retort from the shadows of the doorway – ‘Believe it, Lady Charmfingers…’

***

The sky was on the cusp of pitch blackness and the lanterns of Stellastelathororn had been lighted. The City of Stars, it appeared, was a city that never slept for the market traders appeared to have no interest in packing up their goods and closing upon the coming of night.

Jala strode on through the dirty milieu and allowed herself a moment of optimism as she spied the gateway to the tent-packed square ahead. Inside she’d find the flower stall and with a purse full of coin she’d be able to buy the indigolilies. Chant Kru’s name three times over its petals and then the magical flower would bloom and guide her to her lost companion’s location.

A bird’s bright call acted as fitting sound effect to the thought of reunion. Jala looked skyward to see if she could spot the creature in the evening dark and, sure enough, there it was with its sleek wings shining in the lantern-light.

The large, majestic crow glided overheard, calling out to announce its arrival before it came to a rest on a grand archway sequestered behind a dry fountain at the side of the street. Jala was intrigued and veered sideways in order to get a closer look at this hidden portal. Its facade was quite spectacular – a writhing panoply of runic shapes and pictures carved into deftly sculpted basalt, adorned with smatterings of quartz.

Then she read the words inscribed over the top of the aperture that lead into what looked like nothing more than thick purplish fog clouds. The words read ‘Arch of Souls’.

The crow crowed and Jala recalled the last words of the Sablemagus Guildmeister before he abandoned her in the marketplace. ‘Meet me at the head of the Arch of Souls when the crow, err well, crows.’

This was the place and the moment, but what about the indigolily flowers? Could she trust the Guildmeister to keep his appointment or should she return to the market and procure the artefacts that would reunite her with the Star Witch?

With the crow crowing, the dark darkening and frustration at too many bloody delays bothering her Barbarian temperament, Jala resolved to make a decisive choice.

18 - Drastic Acts and Delay No More

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Part 17 – Everybody Lives

‘That,’ said the man, ‘Is a thong and a garter. The tools of my trade.’

Jala picked up the objects. She had held larger seeds. She looked from the scrunched fabric to the optimistic face of her potential employer.

‘So,’ she said eventually, ‘You want me to display myself?’

‘Yes please.’

She stared at him.

‘It pays well, if you’re good.’

‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Sequious. Mr Ovith Barquock Sequious. A great pleasure to meet someone as striking as yourself.’

Sequious bowed his head slightly. Jala’s hand twitched. When his head rose again she had put on her least threatening smile.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘How could a girl say no?’

 ***

Kru’s city was like her child. Not literally, those whelps could go hang for all she cared (in fact, one had, by her hand).

What do-gooders and idealists never understood was that the shadowy organisations who ruled over the lives of the many did so for the greater good. Ends justify the means, and an absolute, objective morality was about as practical as a chocolate arsehole. Kru loved this land unconditionally, its successes were a reflection of her, and so she wanted it to prosper. That this generally brought happiness and well-being to the inhabitants was merely a convenient by-product.

Not one of them would be able to point her out in a crowd. She could, for someone so striking, be difficult to recollect precisely. Despite this, she had many lovers, but she also had many enemies. The Venn diagram of these was a tad embarrassing. It also meant that there were quite a few people with the potential to find and trap her like this. She was fairly certain she would have remembered her captor, had she seen them before. This led her to conclude that either she was working for someone else, or she was capable of similarly powerful magic to Kru.

Kru really, really hoped it was the former. She knew of no-one approaching her equal left alive in these lands – though admittedly she had been out of the picture for a while – so the potential for it to be a stranger was troubling. They could well have her at a disadvantage, knowing the limits of her power as she remained ignorant of theirs. She was relying on Marek telling her something, anything that could improve her situation.

She, Kru Nak To, was relying on a stoat.

How times had changed.

As if in answer to her cynicism, Marek limped back into the room, squeaking feebly, before settling himself in the corner and doing a big shit.

“Can’t do stairs,” he explained. Kru forbade him from hiding in her dress.

In hindsight, she thought, it might have been a mistake to wish for a minor accident to befall him.

There were two options left to her: to wait and see how things panned out, or to do something very, very drastic.

 ***

The outside of the building advertised it as a bathhouse. Inside, however, no plumbing could be found (There was a well out back, apparently). The main room was long and low ceiling, with timber supports at a good height for Jala to hit her head. At the far end was a small platform, almost like a gibbet without the overhanging beam. To the side were numerous small rooms, often containing a single stool, and something to sit on.

There was a room behind the stage. In it were four women, listlessly applying make-up and squeezing themselves into view on the small, cracked mirror-glass that hung slovenly against the wall. They noticed Jala being led into the room and sized her up. The pouting one dismissed her instantly, but the dark-skinned woman, bronze rings binding her strangely long neck, offered a smile. The tall blonde one waved. The short brown-haired girl offered a hand in greeting. A friendly group, they took Jala in and asked her what her act would be. The pouting one, it turned out, was mute. She could not tell them her name.

‘I haven’t decided,’ said Jala, ‘I’m not really sure I want to do this.’

‘That’s how we all felt,’ said Krista, the blonde woman. ‘After the first time, it got easier. Not, y’know, easy, but easier.’

‘Some nights it’s fun,’ said Altryz. She had been a Gombodian priestess, but bandits had dragged her across the seas and into servitude. Relatively speaking, she was better off than she had been in a long time.

Satra, a slight, pretty girl from the villages on the other side of the mountains, said nothing.

‘Wait til you see her dance,’ said the others, ‘She’s got them then.’ Satra blushed, and mumbled something inaudible.

Jala waited. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.

 ***

 Sequious waited by the door, eyeing them and the customers up. Jala suspected the grease on his body would be enough to maintain the hinges on these doors for decades.

‘Not changing?’ he asked her.

‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘A slow removal of clothing, perhaps, might be the way to proceed?’

Sequious giggled, then clapped. ‘Yes. Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Tantalise them. And me, of course. You will be on third this evening, after Altryz.’

‘Am I last?’

Satra’s voice barely carried to the doorway. Sequious’ face creased as he tried to work out what had been said.

‘Yes,’ he said, breaking into a smile as it clicked, ‘Yes, of course. As always. Keep the best til last.’

He turned to Jala.

‘You may have to go into one of the booths when Satra is on,’ he said, ‘I hope so. It means they like what they see.’

The next half an hour was one of the longest of Jala’s life. She tried to summon up the part of herself that let her deal with situations such as this, and found it tired and unwilling after her trip through the mines. She barely noticed as she walked on stage, an encouraging whisper (probably) from Satra as she left, and a wink from Krista as she was led into one of the side rooms of the hall.

The stink of beer, sweat, and…yes, other fluids pervaded the bathhouse. Jala tensed as she surveyed the room. Men of all ages, sizes and colours filled the room. Two women, at the back, in deep hoods, not wanting to be obvious. Then, at the side of the stage, grinning hugely, was Sequious. He was shouting to the audience, building them up, encouraging their lusts and imaginations. A huge bellied man with a moustache like a lazy bat slapped his thigh in anticipation. It kept moving.

She heard her name being hollered, and it was then that the lust consumed her too.

Jala undid the clasps on her jerkin slowly, ignoring the hooting and the lobbed tankard that ensued. She turned around, her back to the audience, and continued. She caught Sequious’ eye. He looked back, not trying to hide his arousal.

Jala danced. Jala spun. Jala cut his purse, balls, and bulb off with her knife. He screamed, and then passed out.

The mustachioed man was pinned to the bench, and the rakish scholar had his palm broken through. Limbs were slashed at, muscles snapped, and blood spilled across the bathhouse floor like dirty water.

A tiny, tremulous voice interrupted the silence that followed.

‘Does this mean I’m not going to be dancing?’ asked Satra.

‘You can if you like,’ said Jala, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s in the mood to appreciate it.’

The booth doors opened. Krista, Altryz and Nameless stood agog as their customers ran for it.

‘Holy fuck,’ said Krista.

‘What have you done?’ said Altryz.

Nameless said nothing, but her eyes widened. She ran to the final door on the left side of the hall, and emerged with heavy looking bags of coin, before running back to the changing room.

‘You’re free to go now,’ said Jala.

Altryz glared at her, and walked back to the changing rooms. Krista headed for the cash, stopping only to hug Jala. When she let go, her skin was speckled with crimson. She returned fully clothed and grinning, saying that Sequious had been cleaned out.

That left only Satra.

Satra stood crying behind Jala. The warrior walked closer to hear her murmurs better.

‘…my baby…’ she said. ‘How…how will I…?’

Jala felt the weight of the purse in her hand.

17 - Everybody Lives

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Part 16 – Obey Your Meister

Somewhere, somewhere dark, something, something ethereal, moves. It is a world, but not a world. It is a place, no, not a place. It simply is. And through it there is movement, and what moves, moves towards a point, a beacon, a failing attempt at light in an infinite darkness. A flower. And as there is movement there is a cry, a cry without a voice. It calls out impotently through barren, through empty, through nothing to the beacon, through the beacon and to the world, the real and actual world, that lies beyond.

 “Jala,” it cries. “Jala, I’m here! Don’t leave me!”

 *

Jala stared at the indigolily flowers lying discarded on the floor, like a forgotten tribute to a tragic death. Jala could not explain why, but her thoughts were suddenly pervaded by a barrage of images of the dead girl. Jala had done the right thing, she was sure, even if the agency had not been her own, the girl would not have survived anyway. Yet as she stared down at the failing petals she could not assuage her feelings of guilt, as though the girl was with her still, crying out to her, and she hesitated – a moment too long. As she watched, a string of heavy, and mostly poorly kept footwear trampled the lilies under foot. They were quickly torn beyond recognition. The haunting feeling of the child died away and Jala’s mind was made for her. With the random, violent swings of the baying crowd mere inches from her person, the barbarian took up what of her possessions were still within reach and fled to follow the Sablemagus Guildmeister through the window and away.

 Jala dropped down onto the street below just in time to see the hooded cloak of the Guildmeister swoop around a corner in the alleyway ahead. Jala had a great deal of experience with cloaks. Leather, cloth, fur – the North grew deathly cold at times, and a good understanding of suitable attire stood a warrior as well as her weapon could. But this cloak was different to her, unique. For a start, it did not follow the wind as it billowed behind its owner, nor did it strictly follow sensibly the motions of the Guildmeister. Rather, and Jala could not really credit this, it appeared to flow, at all times, in whatever way might bestow the greatest mystery to the situation and the Guildmeister. It followed the flow and the force lines of Drama. And this in turn imbued on the cloak its second characteristic of which Jala had never before had experience. As it snapped round the corner with a whip like crack, Jala would have sworn that the cloak – not its master, but the cloak itself – was getting impatient.

 Jala got to the turning the hooded figure had taken and again caught just a glimpse of trailing melodrama. A second and third turn and the Guidlmeister was always just out of reach. On the fourth turn, Jala instinctively looked far ahead for the man’s tails, paying no heed to what went on in the foreground, and was rewarded by being upended and lain flat on her back in the dusty mud of Stellastelathororn.

 The Guildmesiter and his cloak flapped in the abscence of breeze above Jala, his arms folded, a look of magisterial scorn on his face. The dramatic garment seemed almost out of control, it waved around with such ferocity. Jala attempted to move back on to her feet, but was hindered by more than one crack across the face from the rough fabric of the Guildmeister whirling cloak. Finally she managed to right herself to face this bizarre man on equal footing.

 “Where are we…” she began, but was cut short by a loud snap of cloth on air on cloth.

 “Where…” SNAP!

 “Whe…” SNAP, SNAP!

 “Look, can you do something about that?!” Jala finally got out.

 The Guildmeister turned, his cloak turning with him, and mysteriously somehow never once striking him the way it struck Jala. He bowed his head towards raised, pointed fingers pressed together and muttered what Jala took to be some impressive and secret mystical words.

 “If you don’t cut this out right now,” the Guildmeister muttered to his over garment. “I am going to douse you in oil and use you as a firelighter. Do you understand?”

 Jala watched in awe as the – rather animate – object appeared to obey the Guildmeister’s very whim and the great dramatic noise of cloth simmered down into the same slick, fluid motion that she had first seen from it in the tavern. Clearly, this was a powerful man, if man he was at all. The barbarian was about to speak when the Guildmeister seemed to anticipate her perfectly.

 “Follow me!” he exclaimed and raised himself nimbly from the floor to a nearby ladder that led to the rooftops.

 *

 Consciousness returned to the Star Witch in short, dual-slitted bursts, and with it came a string of half seen images. A hallway, a room, a table, shackles, a figure. At last, Kru manage to hold tight to this mortal coil and open her eyes fully. Before she even saw her companion, she knew she was not alone. Kru went to speak but her throat was dry and hoarse and her words came only as the whispers of the wind. The figure moved round from behind Kru to stand before her and finally, with something to focus on, Kru began to realise her situation.

 The Star Witch was strapped upright to a table that lay vertically in the centre of a large stone room, the tall, curving walls of which gave her the impression of a tower’s interior. Before her, Kru could see a large window, through which one could behold the atrocious sight that was modern Stellastelathororn, the dirt and the squalor in every corner, the scent of corruption on the air. Between her and this woeful vision, the figure of her gaoler resolved itself.

 The woman that stood before Kru had a formidable look about her, and that was precisely why the Star Witch did not fret. The long, tight boots, the dark colours, the metal fixings, the tightly wrapped hair over her pure ebony skin; it was all a bit too impressive, it reeked of insecurity. Perhaps, Kru thought to herself, this could be used. The Star Witch attempted to speak again.

 “Whhaa..” was all she managed.

 “Beautiful, is it not?” came the mocking chocolate tones of her gaoler as she indicated the view to Krung Nak To. Kru did not think it was. She thought the sight of the failing city hideous and she could not reckon it to how she remembered the place, from so many years ago.

 “What have you done?” she finally managed to force from her lungs.

 “What have I done?” The gaoler laughed as she spoke, a cruel joke at the expense of Kru’s ignorance, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and Kru was the only one not to be in on it. “Why,” the gaoler continued, leaning into Kru, whispering softly into her ear. “I have captured the Star Witch. And all it cost was one little village.”

 “Bitch!” the Star Witch thought to herself. This lackey before her didn’t do this. Krung Nak To was not had by any mere mortal. She knew this, but kept her cards close to her chest. Marek squirmed somewhere in the depths of the Star Witch’s garments, but Kru calmed him with her mind. Now was not the time for action. “No,” Kru said. “What have you done to my city?”

 “What? Oh, I see?” the gaoler replied. “Yes, yes I suppose it is, isn’t it. Stellastelathororn, the city of Stars. Star Witch, Star City. Yes. Lovely is it not? Dark is it not? Dank is it not? So much better than when they would celebrate the light. Yes. Let me tell you just what I’ve done with the place.”

 *

 “The city of what?” Jala asked her new guide, certain she must have misheard him. She rubbed at her hands after the climb onto the roof, her fingers still stiff from her injury in the dwarven mines.

 “The city of Stars,” the Guildmeister replied. “That’s what they used to call it. At night, it used to shine so brightly, right about this time, just as dusk was turning, there would be shining beacons all over the rooftops; a prayer to the stars for the morning’s safe return.” Jala stared incredulously at the old man (for this was how he now appeared in his deep reminiscing, aging and grey), but he just chuckled at her doubt. “Not anymore, eh?” he said. “Now it’s just dirt and blood and mud and… and shit! Yes, the City of Shit, eh?” The Guildmeister smirked at Jala, proud of his little jest. Jala met his mirth with a dead steady gaze.

 “I’m not calling it that,” she explained. The Guildmeister hesitated for a moment and then thought better of the argument.

 “Fair enough,” he said instead. “Come on!” And off he sprang again, this time his cloak wafting with full force. The mage hurtled headlong towards the side of building and promptly plummeted off the end. Alarmed, Jala followed to the roof’s edge and looked over the side to the streets below. To her amazement she saw, stood upright on the ground beneath her, the Sabelmagus Guildmeister, not a scratch on his person, cloak flapping triumphantly about his starch straight shoulders. He waved up for her to follow him. Unable to believe her own foolhardiness, Jala closed her eyes, took a breath and jumped.

 As she felt the cool air rush swiftly over her outstretched limbs, Jala waited patiently for whatever magic the mage might be using to take her and carry her gently to the ground. She was not kept waiting long, but then, it was not a long drop. A mere second after she had flung herself so trustingly into the soft embrace of nothing, Jala came to realise her mistake. Solid ground brought her quickly back to reality as she hit it – hard! For a moment, all the warrior could do was roll around on the floor, failing to scream expletives at her guide from winded lungs. Finally, once the searing pain of the fall had subsided somewhat, and she had managed to conclude that she had, by a miracle, broken no bones, Jala brought herself to her feet and stared death into the core of the Guildmeister’s soul.

 “What?” he asked, with a look that only perfect ignorance of a problem can give.

 “I thought,” Jala wheezed. “You know. Magic, or something?”

 “Why?” the mage giggled, as though Jala had said something excessively foolish, which only threw oil on the flames in her eyes. “What?” he asked again, the ignorant smile still pursing his lips.

 “Nothing,” Jala finally conceded. “Lead on.”

 *

The Star Witch stared in dismay at the scene from which she could not turn, left before her as a torment befitting ancient lore. With her gaoler gone, Kru released Marek to allow him some air and freedom. The stoat ran amok around the witch’s shackled limbs for a while before finally settling down to work at the bonds that chained Kru’s powerful, charming fingers.

 “No wait,” Kru interrupted Marek’s ferreting. “Not yet. The time will come little Marek, but for now we must study the enemy as closely as possible. And we couldn’t be much closer than this now, could we?”

 Marek hesitated for a moment at the witch’s words but was clearly uncomfortable with inaction.

 “I shan’t just sweat away in your dress while that demon tortures you!” he exclaimed with great forcefulness, for a stoat.

 “Nor would I ask you to, little Marek,” Kru explained. “You wouldn’t find out much in there. Well, not much that I think either of us wants you finding out, anyway.” Marek tried to hide a little sneer at what he had already seen and wished hard that he could forget.

 “Go on, my little spy. Spirit yourself into the walls. See what you can dig up around here.” Marek gave what Kru imagined was supposed to be a salute, and scampered away towards the wall before the Star Witch. A quick hop and he was upon the sill of the window then round and away to whatever it was he might find in the enemy stronghold. With Marek gone, Krung Nak To turned her attention back to her forsaken city and, silently, she shed a tear.

 *

Jala followed her guide around a sharp bend between two tall, yet dilapidated buildings and out into an open courtyard. At least, it might have been described as open had there been even one square inch of the place unoccupied. As it was, the only word that could truly capture the feel of this square, its atmosphere and its ethos, was ‘full’. Full of tents, packed end to end to end to end, row upon row upon row. And the tents were full of items, all items. Anything that Jala could try to bring to mind, and a great many more things she had never before known, was displayed and handled, swapped and discarded. But what the place was most full of, the thing that threw Jala the most and raised within her the greatest feeling of unease – the square was full of people.

 As her guide pushed his way into the crowd, barely making a Guildmeister shaped hole big enough for him to squeeze his not miniscule self into, he beckoned her to follow and her stomach turned at the thought. Jala was used to a far more solitary existence than this market had to offer. She had never considered the problem of personal space before, as she had never encountered enough persons to truly threaten hers, but now she thought long and hard about how she wanted a good couple of feet between her and everyone else in the world.

 “Come on!” the mage said, growing impatient at her hesitation. Jala stepped forward and took a deep breath and then another step. It felt like immersing herself in frustration. Elbows, knees, the points of swords, all found their way into the soft, fleshy parts of herself that she would have rather kept private. Never had she felt quite so off her guard, never had she been dealt quite so many unwanted blows. The Guildmeister ploughed on through the heaving mass, his hand on her wrist, oblivious to her sufferings, until he found a small pocket of air that seemed to exert its own unknown pressure on the crowd to keep itself from collapsing.

 “Warrior,” the mage started at Jala. “I must go now. There are things to which I must attend.” Jala was going to protest but the Guildmeister held up his hand to prevent it. “You’ll be safest here, I assure you. The authorities, such as they are, stay clear of this place. It’s too much effort to even move here, and besides,” he said, with an air of only half humour. “If you started on every little misdemeanour around here they’d be at it until doomsday.”

 “What do you mean?” Jala asked.

“Well, it’s precedent isn’t it! Arrest one pickpocket and you have to arrest them all. Before long and they’d be no one left on the streets at all, and then where would we be?” Jala couldn’t help but think that they’d be a lot better off that way, but she held her tongue for the time being. “Right, listen young barbarian and listen well.” The Guildmeister leaned in closely as his cloak began to flap with a very slight but persistent motion that gave the impression of dynamic intrigue. “We are not unaware of the plight of your companion,” he said.

 “What plight?” Jala said, concerned.

 “Shhh, will you please be quiet. I am trying to bestow on you a mysterious yet vital confidence!”

 “Sorry,” Jala said.

 “That’s ok, now, what was I saying? Oh, I’ve lost my train of thought now,” the wizard moaned.

 “Something about my friend’s plight?” Jala offered.

 “Yes, yes, your companion. Look. Meet me when the crow, err well, crows, at the head of the arch of souls.” This was all. Before Jala could question him further she was jostled rudely by a small urchin (who was quite put out at Jala’s empty pockets) and upon turning her head back to her guide he had vanished.

 Left alone, the oppression of Jala’s surroundings became unbearable. She could not discern a single noise from the cacophony around her, every new image that burnt into her eyes blurred in with the last and the world was a fog of dusty colours. Soon, sight and smell and sound all blurred together, the world spun and spun until Jala could no longer keep her footing and she collapsed to her knees. And there, an inch from her nose where she had fallen to the floor, cast askew on the end of a stall, almost as though it were forgotten, was the object that Jala could focus on to bring her head back to the stable, solid world; a small bunch of indigolilies.

 Invigorated by her new find, Jala sprang to her feet with the flowers safely in her clutches. But from here she was at a loss as to how the locals went about doing business. Fortunately, her saviour was not long in coming, in the form of the stall keeper. Unfortunately, this was not her world and the request that followed only threw Jala into further disarray.

 “Two duckets!” the keeper barked at her over the din of the crowd.

 “Two what?” Jala asked.

 “Duckets! Two duckets! You wants the flowers, you pays the money!” Jala moved her hands about her person in dismay. She, of course, had none of their money.

 “Might you accept,” Jala started, still searching. “Ah, this knife?” she concluded, pulling the weapon from a concealed place about her person.

 “Hey, hey, hey. I don’t want any trouble now miss.” The stall keeper backed off and moved his hand to his own weapon. Jala realised her mistake and shifted her grip on the knife to a less automatically offensive one.

 “To trade,” she explained.

“No barter!” the stall keeper yelled. “No monies, no flowers!” And with that, he snatched the indigolilies from her grip and turned away.

Jala fell back from the stall, as far as she might in the pulsating body of folk, and moped. She had no money, and no idea how to get any. This city was too much for her and she longed once more for the thrill of the hunt. Just as she was deepest in her reverie of times gone by, a hand landed gently, disturbingly gently, on her shoulder. Jala turned to see a sickening sight. A man, half grease, stood before her rubbing his hand and licking his lips. He was short and repulsive. Jala took an immediate dislike and mistrust to him before he even opened his mouth.

“You need money, huh?” he postulated. “I can get you money. Got a job for you. For someone of your…” The man looked Jala up and down, smirking. “…talents.” Jala trusted him even less having heard his serpent speech, but she had little choice and so followed the man as he led her to his place of business.

The creep led Jala to an area slightly removed from the main market, which she was very grateful of, where there stood the most rundown of all the stalls she had seen that day. It seemed cloaked in must and shadows fell about it where there ought to have been none. Jala noticed a small sack of coins on a table beneath the battered tent, which the man patted as he moved past it. She regretted it instantly, but she couldn’t help but consider how easy it would be to just take the money and run. This snivelling wretch would put up no sizable fight. Still, she thought she should hear him out. She may have entirely misjudged the man after all.

“So,” she began. “What kind of work are you talking about?”

“Oh, it is easy. No problem. And the pay is good.” He began to rummage about under his clothes in a way that made Jala decidedly uncomfortable. Finally, he extracted his hand with some new object of mystery within in it. “It is this,” he said as he placed an exceedingly skimpy looking piece of leopard skin cloth down on the table before Jala. It looked like just enough to cover the ‘essentials’.

“What the hell,” Jala complained, incredulous. “Is that?!”

16 - Obey Your Meister

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Part 15 – Unsure and Obscure

Trust the Star Witch was becoming something of an unspoken mantra for Jala. It made sense. Though she would always stand enigmatic as a highly questionable character, Kru had proven herself as an astute travelling ally throughout the odd journey so far and – dare she think it – as a friend.

It was obvious. She knew Stellastelathororn. She was worldly, experienced and far more aware and knowledgeable of the ways of strange southern societies than the young northern barbarian. Out of her comfort zone and far from home in an unfamiliar place, Jala did as instructed and followed Kru’s lead.

‘Erm, yes,’ she stuttered, attempting to summon up a convincing acting performance. ‘I didn’t know her at all before today when we, errr, met upon the road…’

The guards – a ring of them all wearing wary, judgemental looks on their visages – looked back and to from Jala to Kru Nak To to Jala to Krung Nak To again.

‘Really?’ muttered a burly man whom they assumed to be the highest ranking of the horde. He had a brushy moustache and the heels of his leather bootikins were greatly elevated whereas his colleagues’ footwear was flat-soled. Jala noticed that upon their armour all of the men wore a little golden brooch with a fist symbol stamped into its centre.

‘Yes, yes!’ Kru interjected.

‘I was, ah… wandering down near the mountainside and then found her around, erm… those parts!’ Jala cut back in. ‘We warmed to each other immediately. We’d been wandering on our own so long that we welcomed each other’s company…’

‘And, because I’d wandered astray, this kind young lady of the North decided to guide me. Thus, we find ourselves here but, now, alas we must part…’

‘So, she’s not with you?’ asked the suspicious looking lead guard.

‘Oh, ah, no,’ Jala answered. ‘I have my own business to attend to. I need to find a swordsmith, and some summer clothes and, erm, someone who can sell me devices that I might torture despicable sorcerous dwarfs with…’

Jala sensed that she was the subject of some curious glances so quickly added…

‘… I may also be in the market for a pack-mule. Honestly, the dwarf torture was just a joke…’

‘Ha! What a spunky, spirited young woman she is!’ Kru came forward to save the situation and brought Jala into an intimate embrace. ‘Well goodbye, my child. And here, a token of my gratitude…’

The Star Witch reached into her bosom and pulled a clutch of flowers from out of her dress. Jala remembered – she’d ripped those flowers right out of an indigolily shrub back beside the Fountain of the Meek all that time ago.

Kru leaned in close as she handed over the plant. In the blackness of the witch’s hood she spied the two shining small eyes of Marek, keeping his silent peace for the present. Jala’s eyes fixed on the face of Kru and listened in to the riddle her guide whispered without moving her lips…

The friend you’ve lost, far out of sight,

Thrice named on the flower, blooms reunite.

‘I think I understand,’ said Jala as Kru withdrew to join the entourage of guards.

‘I think you do,’ the Star Witch smiled in return. ‘I will be seeing you soon enough again, my sweet, I’m sure. Now men, take me where thou wilt and where I need to be…’

And with that the guards stood to attention, the leading figure gestured down the street and they marched off in slightly formal fashion. With Kru and Marek gone Jala stood alone – alone and uncertain on the mean streets of Stellastelathororn.

***

The streets were filthy. Kru didn’t remember them being this dirty the last time she was in the city. It was true that she hadn’t stalked the alleys and avenues of Stellastelathororn’s lower city for decades but still, she thought as she dodged a puddle of what looked like vomit and discarded fourth-hand bathwater, it definitely wasn’t this mucky in the old days.

As the guards bustled her down a particularly tight byway the Star Witch began to ponder deeply. Something was amiss here. Her escorts were laconic and giving off unfriendly vibes. The streets were quiet and they saw few people as they marched ever onward into the metropole’s depths. The atmosphere was odd, ugly even. It was an atmosphere similar to that of a party where someone has had a tremendous upset or died and everyone carries on, though it’s clear that they’re carrying on under the shadow of the great white rhinophant that’s in the room.

At a turn to the left over an exposed sewer, the group came upon the darkest walkway they’d yet encountered on their ramble. Why have we left the more illustrious and appealing parts o Stellastelathororn? one of Kru’s many internal monologues wandered. Surely, we are going the wrong way, if we mean to head to the university. The men moved ever nearer to her and as the armoured elbow of one of their number smashed into her hip the Star Witch started and, all at once, panicked at the uneasy peculiarity of her current situation. Okay, enough, came the cry of another of her internal monologues. Find out why we are being frogmarched through the deserted and dirty back nether regions of the lower city slum districts and find out now!

Kru opted to comply with that cry. Before speaking, she considered the gang of seven around her and tried to rummage back through her memory to recall the last time she had encountered agents of the Sablemagus Guild.

‘So,’ she piped up, shattering the sharp silence. ‘Quite conspicuous these days, aren’t you? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find the Guild so easily upon arrival in the city. Way back when it used to be that you’d have to hide in dark corners and wait for the oh-so-elusive acolytes of oh-so-elusive Sablemagus Guild to reach out to you…’

The head guard turned to Kru and eyeballed her with a touch of amazement, his brushtache poised in a position that spoke of acute incredulity. ‘Honestly, you really think that we’re from the Sablemagus Guild?’

Something deflated deep down inside Kru’s torso and she came to realise that she had made a hideous error. Such errors were rare and, thus, hugely traumatic to a Star Witch with such an inflated sense of self-assured mastery. ‘Ah,’ she sighed. ‘Not from the Guild…’

‘No,’ came the response with a smug smile. The six other guards reflected the smug smile and thirteen eyes all honed in on the helpless witch with greedy, mocking malice.

‘Well, I was hoping to see the Sablemagus Guild and, well, it’s actually quite important so if you don’t mind…’

But a sword swiftly unsheathed from a scabbard stopped her in her tracks as she sought to move away. ‘No you don’t, my dear,’ said the leading guard, his moustache raising itself as a forbidding barrier.

This angered Kru. ‘I do not like being called “my dear” and I do not like…’

‘Oh, my dear, I care little for what you like,’ he retorted. ‘To be honest, I’m actually surprised. What of the wisdom, eldritch intelligence and sharp wits of the fabled Krung Nak To, the legendary Star Witch, the lauded Lady Charmfingers…’

‘Only one woman is allowed to call me that!’ came Kru’s incensed rejoinder but the tached tormenter dismissed her rising wrath with a casual shrug and a chuckle.

‘Well, I personally was expecting something far more challenging when we were tasked to apprehend you. Now if you don’t mind, somebody wants to see you and it is our duty to forcefully escort you.’

‘Who wants to see me?’ It was one of those uncommon occasions in Kru’s life where slivers of fear and shades of absolute uncertainty crept into her conscious awareness and started to eat away at her nerve ends.

‘That you will find out soon enough,’ replied the guard as he reached down into a satchel hanging off of his utility belt. He retrieved a set of chained metallic rings and, with a nod, ushered his colleagues forward to grab a hold of their captive before she had time to defend herself properly.

Kru struggled against their grips but it was hopeless against so many men. Her arms were forced forward towards the advancing head guard who grinned with great relish as he placed the catatonic fingercuffs over her digits.

The last she heard was the muted sneer of ‘How do you like the fit of those, Lady Charmfingers?’ before she faded from consciousness and swooned into a sinking stupor.

As she drooped, Marek moved further down into the depths of her cloak, determined to remain undetected. He stifled a fretful squeal and clung tightly to the inside of Kru’s armpit as the seven armoured men dragged her comatose form away.

***

The mean streets

The streets were filthy. Streets were still a relatively new phenomenon to Jala but she was pretty sure that Stellastelathororn’s public highways were in a poorer condition than standard. It seemed that everywhere she stepped there was a pile of abandoned waste, a puddle of foul liquid or the corpse of some kind of creature. It was true that she was in a busy trading district near the city’s harbour but still, the gross uncleanliness of the environs seemed excessive.

Strolling solo through the strange new world that was Stellastelathororn, Jala had found herself repeatedly wishing that she hadn’t parted with Kru and Marek. The Star Witch would undoubtedly have been able to navigate her way through the perplexing labyrinthine lanes and direct her straight to an auspicious destination. Even accepting that Kru knew best and that separation was necessary, it would have been nice to keep Marek if only for some company.

Overwhelmed by the urban immensity of Stellastelathororn, Jala had wandered dazed and with no idea of what she was doing or where she was going. She had sort of hoped that if she just moved around with the ebb and flow of the city eventually she’d hit upon someone or something she could stick to. This had not happened and so, feeling evermore like an aimless outsider, she’d ended up slipping through the insalubrious areas. Her eyes were wide open and she stayed alert as she walked around attempting to get a firm appreciation and of the big southerly city’s daily life.

Daily life in these sectors was dirty and loud. Up above the elevated upper city with its temples, palaces and university buildings stood aloof and serene, overshadowing the lower city with its dockyards, its merchant markets and its sooty slum dwellings.

Jala had meandered around these parts, somehow failing to find a route that took her near to the prestigious rise in which the likes of the Sablemagus Guild must surely reside. Having never before seen any sort of sea, she had nervously avoided the harbour and doubled backed every time she’d caught a glimpse of the great, terrifying blue beyond. All she’d discovered in the residential slums were ugly, unwelcoming looks and, altogether, this had encouraged her to try and stick around the busy public areas full of trade and labour activity.

Now under a brooding late afternoon sun she’d come to a befuddled halt in a lively plaza. Colourful market stalls and even more colourful characters thronged around a set of weathered sea creature statues. All ages, races, creeds and personality types seemed to be here and to Jala’s mind – a mind that only really knew the open wilderness of the sparsely populated North – it looked like an elaborate battle scene that refused to play by the rules of conventional combat. There was certainly blood, for the rough tiles of the market square swam with the entrails of fish in addition to various clumps of used hay, excrement and whoknowswhatelse.

It was disgusting. Jala began to feel sick, dizzied by all the movement and the blur of faces. A woman dragging a giant wolfhog by a rope shoved past and knocked the poor traveller hard against a slime-coated wall. Picking herself up again, Jala caught sight of a child selling ferret fur sashes from a barrel and she began to think of Marek, wishing once again that she hadn’t been left alone in this unnerving alien realm.

Spinning round she came to see an obscenely obese man gobbling down a half-dozen live eels for the entertainment of a small circle of enraptured onlookers. Seeing this and catching a whiff of the rank salt-seasoned air, she started to dry-retch.

She was weary. She was lost. She was feeling terribly unwell and insecure and now she simply longed for rest and a quiet space to gather her thoughts.

Turning aside from the plaza into a sidestreet she spied a wooden sign over a doorway that was decorated with an inviting picture of a waving jolly golden giant. Making out the words ‘Goldengreet Tavern‘, Jala’s mind was made up in an instant. She stumbled towards the bright yellow doorway and forced herself inside, shunning the smell of fishguts and sea salt for an indoor reprieve.

It was an eerie place. The lights were dim and the clientele appeared to be even dimmer. A lone barmaid was measuring out queer-looking coloured liquids without any apparent rhyme or reason. Jala clocked a couple of papers pinned up behind the bar that were stamped with a fist symbol similar to that gracing the golden badges of the guards she’d met earlier.  The only other people in the tavern were a gang of brutish men who’d commandeered a couple of benches in the centre of the room. Jala could tell from the number of empty flagons that they’d been here a while and their raucous manner – all rowdy joshing and loud boozy boasts about Gütte Ragworm’s mother – confirmed that they’d been drinking heavily.

Creeping up to the bar, Jala tried to summon up the courage to order a drink but found herself voiceless. She tried to cough out some words but upon meeting the gormless frown of the barmaid she shrank back embarrassed. Rasping out something that resembled ‘I’m sorry, just give me a moment’ she withdrew to a corner booth and dumped her exhausted body down onto an uncomfortable wooden seat.

So much for reprieve. It was as if all her northern fortitude and barbarian strength had deserted her upon venturing into this forsaken city. Arrival in Stellastelathororn had not been the grand experience she had anticipated and now, isolated and ignorant of the way that enormous foreign settlements worked, she felt tremendous uncertainty and anxiety.

Her body shut down. Utterly forlorn, all thoughts of the journey so far and all its ordeals flashed through her tired mind. It seemed absurd that she’d been through all that just to end up as a sad, solitary husk hanging hopeless in a dim drinking hole in the shabby lower parts of the glorious city of infinite promise. What about her destiny?

All these thoughts, memories and mental images thrashed around and burned and blazed in her brain until, all of a sudden, she felt a strange and shooting chill surge and whistle its way through the inside of her skull. Jala raised her head, her gaze drawn to an opposite corner of the tavern. The loose form of a figure – a figure she had not previously been aware of – came into vision. He had a loose, fluid shape and his black hooded cloak was blacker than the blackest black. He came closer. In an ethereal fashion and with a motion that didn’t seem to be in sync with regular time about him, all blurred at the edges.

‘Hello…’ echoed a high-pitched, sonorous voice. ‘May I take a seat here?’

Jala blinked at the shape. ‘Erm, yes…’ she replied, hardly thinking of her wish for some company and more answering in kind because she had no idea what else to say.

‘Thank you,’ echoed the gentle, lilting reply. ‘I see that you are a person of interest… a person who has travelled far in search of answers to many mysteries…’

‘Yes.’ Jala murmured, slightly dumbstruck.

‘Good…’ and at this point the figure leaned forward over the bench. His face peered out of his hood and Jala came to see the beatific vision of beaming serenity that suggested advanced years, advanced wisdom and advanced compassion. Compared to everything else she’d seen today, this was a pleasant sight to behold.

The serene man’s forehead flapped and for a split-second Jala could have sworn that another eye appeared above the brows. She blinked rapidly and, coming back into focus, she found that her new acquaintance was breathing quite heavily, whistling as he ate up the air as if he was desperately trying to ingest something in order to attain some sort of euphoria.

‘Ah… ah… Jala… I see you seek so many answers and are so very lost…’

‘Wait, how do you know my name?!’ she cried out, perhaps a little louder than she intended to.

He leaned back and continued to suck up the air. Jala looked him up and down and then marking the man’s darker than dark cloak it hit her. ‘The Sablemagus Guild?’

The man stopped and relaxed down into a smile and an uncanny congratulatory expression. Before he had chance to say anything though a wild, hostile scream shattered the relative calm of the tavern.

A flagon flew through the air and smashed against the Guildmeister’s right shoulder. He shook and wriggled to his feet (if he had feet) then turned swiftly to face his assailants. Advancing across the room in an alco-fuelled frenzy the gang of brutes were approaching the blacker-than-black cloak shape with palpable bloodthirstiness. Surprised by the sudden rush of activity, Jala heard a holler of ‘Smash ‘im up!’ followed by a roaring ‘Get the weird dark’un!’ and then a whole brace of emptied drinking vessels battered their corner as the mob came in closer.

It all happened so quickly. The hooded figure turned to Jala, winked at her with his third eye and sang softly and sweetly ‘Jala… come with me my child…’

Next thing she knew her new acquaintance had whirled around and with a faint woosh was leaping through the window above their booth, the grimy glass shattering in spectacular fashion.

She rose to follow him but stumbled as she attempted to gain a footing on top of the bench. Slipping, she dropped the knapsack that she’d been clutching at hard for comfort. She scrambled to scoop up her things but then saw that the fistful of indigolily flowers that Kru had given her had fallen just out of reach onto the floor.

The flowers. The Blooms reunite invocation riddle. How could she have forgotten the flowers that, if she’d understood correctly, could lead her back to Kru whenever she desired?

She dropped down flat on the tabletop hoping to get her hands on the precious gift but it was too late. The gang was now upon her and she wouldn’t be able to retrieve the flowers and follow the footsteps (if he had feet) of the Sablemagus Guildmeister.

She had to make a choice – Should she flee and chase the mysterious Guildmeister who may be able to give her answers, leaving the only link to Kru behind? Or should she let the Guildmeister go and stand her ground to fight off the attacking throng of thugs here in the tavern?

15 - Unsure and Obscure

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