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The Mystara Chronicles XXIII: "The Hag"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
Alternately flying on their translucent wings, hopping from branch to branch, and running across a forest floor caked with pine needles, the fairies guided the company a short distance through the mountains to a place where the ground dipped to form a natural hollow, shaded by the evergreens. The friends realised that they could no longer hear the discordant tinkling of the chimes, for which they were very grateful.
The pixies stopped and held out their tiny, hairy palms to the group. "Here you'll stay, if stay thou wilt; safe you'll be."
"Stay?" Varis asked, confused. "But how will we find the raven-haired woman? How will we dispel her curse?"
"At evening-time she leaves her glen," one said. "'Tis then we'll seek for magic to mend."
"What magic?" Fyodor inquired, clutching the hilt of sheathed Bastard-Slayer. "Is it this 'magic music' that you spoke of earlier?"
The pixies smiled their unsettling smiles and gently batted their wings. "In her home, by magic's law, a magic key in music's form. There you'll find it, thence you'll take it, thither you'll make, when sun has faded."
"Not much of an answer," Boldar grumbled.
"Good People," Thalaric piped up, "can you tell us anything else about this mistress of the chimes? Why do you need our help to break her hold on Bertrak?"
The pixies did not respond at first. Instead, they both whisked off their caps and made deep, long bows to the company. "We must keep watch on oaken grove and deathly glen, for only then can we decide the time to strike when it is nigh." With that, the two simply disappeared.
"Great," Boldar said, sitting down with a humph.
One of the pixies popped back into view. "Don't...go...anywhere," it said slowly and deliberately before promptly vanishing from sight again.
The companions were silent. They looked at each other, everyone trying to discern his friends' thoughts, all the while feeling acutely his own uncertainty. It did not help their discomfort that the forest was almost completely quiet save for the wind rustling through the trees and the occasional call of a bird. What ever compelled me to leave Dengar? Boldar thought to himself. Disgraced or no, what a fool I was to leave the lands of my people!
Finally, Thalaric spoke in hushed tones. "It is not often that the Fair Folk deal with mortals in this fashion," he said thoughtfully. "They must really be in need of us for some reason."
"But why?" Boldar whispered in response. "They seem to know everything about this creature- whatever it is- while we know nothing at all. Magic chimes? Bah..."
"Chimes in the wind," Fyodor said quietly. "Did you hear what the fairies said? The music will spread to Eltan's Spring and make all of them mad like Bertrak if we don't do something about it-"
"Says who?" Boldar said, a little bit louder than perhaps he should have. "Says a little chipmunk with butterfly wings? Nay, I know what is going on here: we are being pixy-led. I heard tales about these folk when I sojourned in Highforge. They are having a little bit of fun with us, no doubt. In fact, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it were they who were responsible for Bertrak's madness, that they themselves are in league with that...." He struggled to find the right word. "...witch."
"No," Thalaric said, shaking his head vigorously. "Pixies are playful by nature, true, but they are not malicious. Do you remember what we saw in Bertrak's house? They would never take part, directly or indirectly, in such brutality. No, they are trying to help him, but they obviously cannot do it alone for some reason. They need us just as we need them."
"Again, why?" Boldar hissed. "Why do we listen to them? Why do we not just find this woman and cut her down ourselves? For that matter, why don't we just go back to the priest's grove and tear the chimes off of the tree?"
"Believe me, Boldar, I understand your point of view," Varis interjected smoothly. "I myself don't comprehend everything that the fairies said, but then again I'm not a Guildsman either. I have no training in the magical arts and have no knowledge of magic's laws." He looked to the elf. "But you do. Do you think that we are pursuing the right course of action?"
Thalaric looked back and forth between the dwarf and the human. "I am only a novice magician by anyone's reckoning, but what the pixies have told us makes sense to me. Like is often related to like, so it should come as no surprise that music is called for to counter music." He turned to Boldar. "And about removing the chimes, remember their words: 'Her spellcraft is too great by half.' My guess is that some spell binds the chimes to where they are placed; they most likely can only be removed by this key of which they spoke."
Varis nodded. "Your word is enough for me, Thalaric. What do you say, Boldar?"
The dwarf shrugged. "He says it." Boldar did not seem truly convinced.
The philosopher chewed his lip thoughtfully, oblivious to the looks being exchanged by the dwarf and the elf. "Now if I may speculate for a moment, I am beginning to suspect that our adversary may be a hag."
"A what?" Boldar grumbled, not liking the sound of that one bit.
"Women that are not women," Fyodor said in hushed tones of realisation. "Kaegnai, we call them, spirit-priestesses of the Black Prince who dwell in forsaken areas. They look like women but are in truth evil spirits in cloaks of flesh. It is said that they...serve their lord, if you know what I mean."
"Serve him?" Boldar whispered, his head cocked with confusion. "Do you mean..." He made a lewd hand gesture.
"Yes." Fyodor nodded seriously. "It is also said...wait a moment. Wait, Varis...Halav, I just remembered...Haradraith's Keep...do you remember what Ilyana said? Before we started fighting?"
It took the philosopher but a moment to recall it; something about Fyodor's voice triggered the memory in his mind as clear as if he were experiencing it for the first time. "Oh Valerias," he said. He had dismissed it as an off-the-cuff remark, born more of insanity and the anticipation of slaughter than of anything else, but all of a sudden he saw everything in a new light. I have been initiated into mysteries older than this world, Ilyana had said. I have fucked the Black Prince.
"Varis...do you think..." the young Traladaran was at a loss for words.
The philosopher just shook his head as the dwarf and the elf watched the two in silent confusion. He breathed deeply, trying to concentrate on what was known, what was certain, hoping to build thereby an instrument to consider logically the facts of the situation and then to act accordingly.
Hags...the name itself was more folk nomenclature than anything else, strangely fitting seeing as they occupied an unusual place in the bestiary, halfway between the fables told by grandmothers and the all-too-real forces of the Dark that lurked in the shadows of Karameikan forests. They were not concrete somehow, not like goblins and orcs, not even like giants and dragons. It was as if they belonged to a world that was not quite the one that Varis knew and loved, as if they were visitors from nightmares, from the waking dreams of children, from the fantasies of occult practitioners. Because of this, the philosopher would not even have entertained the possibility that hags existed if it were not for the persistent and bothersome fact that there had been such a quantity of reliable reports of encounters with them.
As for what they were, that was a matter open to discussion. Most commonly it was said that they were some kind of lesser demon, terrible but mortal servants of Alphaks and Thanatos. But there were other claims, more consonant perhaps with Traladaran legend, that claimed that they were women cursed by the Immortals for fornicating with demons, left to rage in the wilderness as a testament to the evils of unnatural copulation.
Varis felt his mind being dragged in many directions at once: thoughts of the Dark Powers, Ilyana, and the people of Eltan's Spring grabbed at his attention, demanding contemplation of him. The latter proved the strongest, and Varis could not shake the unsettling feeling that the town of Eltan's Spring was involved in something dreadful. They too have mated with those not of their kind.
"Varis?" Thalaric asked quietly. He wasn't sure what the humans were so upset about, but he knew that it had to be something fearsome to strike both of them dumb.
"I...I don't know what's going on," the philosopher said finally. "Some say that hags have mated with demons-"
"Ilyana was a kaegna, Varis," Fyodor said with a tone of utter certainty. "She said it herself. And now there's another one..." His lips were quavering, his hands shaking uncontrollably. When he spoke it was barely over a whisper. "He's here," he said. "The Black Prince has returned to Traladara."
"Now hold on just a minute," Boldar said, palms raised. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves." He was becoming genuinely frightened.
Fyodor was breathing rapidly, his eyes wide and his knuckles white on the hilt of the still-sheathed Bastard-Slayer. His lips were soundlessly mouthing the names of the Blessed Three: Halav is my King, Petra my Queen, Zirchev my Guide; Halav is my King, Petra my Queen, Zirchev my Guide. He barely heard the dwarf speaking.
"Fyodor, we must not jump to conclusions," Varis said even as he was struggling to prevent himself from doing just that. "What do we know of hags? Just some stories of travellers who escaped their clutches. That's all. We don't know that they mate with demons-"
"Yes we do," Fyodor snapped back. "It's in 'The Tale of Rytham'. Rytham sees the hag Gogayfilay mating with the Black Prince in a vision sent by Zirchev."
Damn it, Fyodor, that's just a story, Varis thought but dared not say, his anger and fear getting the better of him for a moment. He took another deep cleansing breath, praying for guidance as to how to comfort his friend and calm them all. He had just sent forth his petition to Viuden, Koryis, and Donar when the answer suddenly came to him. "You mentioned Ilyana just now. But remember, she and her priest- what was his name? Oh yes, Bernal. Remember, they were worshippers of Alphaks, not the Goat."
Fyodor looked up and met Varis' gaze. "I remember," he said, his voice still barely a whisper, but stronger now.
"And do you remember what she said after that? She said that she had made him- the Black Prince- her eunuch. Do you remember? Fyodor, she was babbling nonsense, hoping to frighten us...and because she herself was mad." Varis was warming up. His rhetoric was greatly aided by the fact that he was convinced that he had this wisdom directly from the Light. "And even if the pixies are right, and our current adversary is not a human woman but a hag, does this mean that the Black Prince has returned to Traladara?"
The young Traladaran smiled a guilty, childish smile. "I guess not."
"There," Varis said as he sat back down in the hollow. "We have enough to worry about without making ourselves crazy, thinking that the demons are walking among us."
"I still don't feel any better about this," Boldar said, his arms crossed.
Fyodor smiled again, the embarrassment at having made such a scene still lingering on his face. "Don't worry, Boldar. Varis is right. And when nightfall comes, we'll be led to the hag's lair and we'll sneak in and find this magic music that will free Bertrak. And then...well, if Rytham could overcome a kaegna with Sun's Wrath, then surely I...er, we can with Bastard-Slayer...and all of your weapons, which are really good too." He nodded enthusiastically as he stumbled to the end of his sentence. Boldar made a rumbling noise in his throat.
"What tale is this?" Thalaric asked in a whisper.
"Oh, you've never heard 'The Tale of Rytham'? It's a good one." Fyodor said solemnly.
Thalaric's eyes lit up, a childishly excited look on his face. "Tell it!"
The young Traladaran settled himself down into the soft earth and wiggled about until he was as comfortable as he was going to get. "Very well. It began when a star fell from the sky..."
Varis did not listen, too consumed with his own thoughts. He saw Fyodor telling the story to the dwarf and the elf and was amazed at how just a minute ago the thought of this tale had filled his childhood friend with dread. The philosopher continued taking deep, even breaths. Is it wrong that I am still afraid?
* * *
As they had not expected to be gone for more than a few hours, the companions had packed only a little bit of bread when they left Eltan's Spring; consequently, their stomachs started to rumble around noontime. Their hunger was exacerbated by their impatience and their unease at having been left alone for so long. There was little to break the monotony, as Fyodor had grown tired of telling Traladaran folk tales, and the others, even Thalaric, had grown tired of hearing them. And so, hungry and silent, they spent their afternoon, waiting anxiously and with a bit of anger for the reappearance of the pixies.
It would not have been so bad if the friends had a better idea as to what it was exactly that they were getting into, if they had a clearer sense of what they had to do to free Bertrak from the chains of madness or what this "magic music" was that could counter the influence of the chimes. Varis had begun to suspect that the cryptic comments of the pixies revealed that the fairies themselves did not know any more than they had said. The philosopher surmised that the "Good People" were aware only of some kind of arcane necessity, of some magical law of cause and effect that dictated that magic music must be the cure for magic music, a mystery perhaps familiar to the Magicians' Guild but one of which the philosopher knew nothing. Maybe Sarala, born in sorcerous Glantri, would have some valuable insight here, flickered through his mind before he chased the errant thought away.
Thalaric was the only one of the group not in a dark mood; instead he was as happy as could be, delighted by the prospect of a nighttime raid on the hag's lair and especially by their encounter with the pixies. He was increasingly of the opinion that the Good People had been watching them from afar ever since the party had left Eltan's Spring. This certainly would account for the strange feelings that he and the rest of his companions had felt, the sense that eyes were boring into their backs, that something was being prepared for them. At the time, he hadn't suspected that the Fair Folk could have been the cause of these strange sensations, any more than he could have expected that when the brotherhood left this morning they would find themselves at odds with an inhuman adversary with designs to enslave Eltan's Spring.
While the elf alone waited with excited expectation for the return of the fairies, Boldar became more and more uncomfortable with the entire situation. Although Fyodor and Varis seemed to him to have recovered from their burst of occult paranoia earlier in the day, their words had left a surprisingly deep impression on the dwarf. Goblins and orcs he could deal with; even seven-foot tall hyena-headed gnolls like they faced in Haradraith's Keep he did not fear. But the prospect of meeting something that might or might not be the mate of Karr himself was a different matter entirely. This fear, not to mention the pixies popping in and out of sight, was almost too much for a dwarf to take.
"First Ilyana, then this hag," Boldar said quietly to no one in particular. "If they want to rule these empty lands, I say let them have them. They could share rulership with Eltan's Spring and all those who don't have the sense not to mate with those not of their own kind."
"Cruel words," Thalaric replied, overhearing, "but part of me agrees with your sentiment: how do you think I feel about elvish seeds sowed in human soil?"
Boldar smiled at that, although he quickly caught himself. "We invite the attack of goblins," he said, stroking the shaft of his axe. He rose to his feet.
"The goblins are not welcome in this country," Thalaric quickly replied.
"What do you mean?" Varis said, eavesdropping on their conversation. "Darokin has just as many problems with goblins as Karameikos."
The elf turned to the philosopher. "We are not in Darokin, friend. We are in their country, the country of the Fair Folk. It is a country without borders, a country near mortal countries yet very, very far indeed from it. I do not know about hags, but goblins and their ilk dare not enter it. Do not worry, my friend. Be glad that we have been allowed to see the Good People and be honoured that they...what on Thendara is that?"
Varis spun around to see what the elf was pointing at with wide-eyed amazement. Fearing that either Bertrak or the raven-haired woman had found them, his right hand had moved to rip his sceptre from his belt when he saw that Thalaric was pointing only at Boldar, taking a piss by the side of the hollow.
"Thalaric, you almost scared me to death!" Varis chided the elf. "Why did you have to...O sweet Valerias." The dwarf had done a half turn to see what the matter was, and as he did so his elephantine phallus swung into view.
Fyodor immediately started to laugh, although to his credit he quickly caught himself. "Boldar, that is tremendous!" he said, barely containing his mirth.
"What, this?" the dwarf said, looking down at his colossal manhood. "Well, I'm not called Boldar Shieldcracker for nothing!"
Now it was Varis' turn to painfully hold back eye-watering laughter. "I...I thought it was your family name!"
Boldar, smiling beneath his black beard, tucked himself away inside his breeches. "It is the custom among my people to give themselves a name to commemorate a great achievement."
"And what shield did you crack?" Thalaric asked, grinning foolishly.
The dwarf's eyes twinkled. "Wouldn't you like to know."
* * *
It was closing on nightfall when the two fairies finally returned. The mountain air was getting colder, and the friends, by this time weak from hunger, had just completed a whispered yet insistent fight over whether or not they ought to light a fire. The idea (Thalaric's) was decisively vetoed by Boldar and Varis, who feared the attack of goblins and did not find persuasive the elf's argument that they had been led into a safe haven of land claimed by the High King of the Fairies. They did not even believe in the High King of the Fairies, and that was worst of all to Thalaric, who pouted and wished that he had brought his wolfskin cloak north from Threshold as he rubbed his arms for warmth and sat in silence. Yet he brightened when the pixies flew into the company's midst and alighted on the ground. The elf leapt to his feet, wondering at what news they would bring.
"Where have you been?" he asked, questioning them not scoldingly but genuinely.
One of the pixies spoke in a low, almost mournful voice. "The sun it sets, the time is here."
"Why?" Boldar asked brazenly. He had been nurturing this question in his breast ever since the fairies left earlier today. "Why do we sally forth in the shadows of the night?"
"When evening's shadow paints the peaks of black in black from black she picks her path to Bertrak's side," the other pixie replied.
"What the-" Boldar blustered.
"So your counsel is to search her lair while she visits Bertrak in the night," Varis mused, tapping his finger to his lip. "I admit, it seems less like folly than any other course of action."
"Tell us plainly: what are we dealing with?" Boldar interjected. "Is it a hag?"
The pixies shared a look as the companions waited with bated breath, dreading the answer. After an awkward period of silence, one of the fairies nodded. "'Tis true, she is, a mighty fiend, bound to dark divinity."
"Tell me then," Varis said slowly and quietly. "How can we hope to defeat it?" He put a restraining hand on Fyodor's arm before the young Traladaran could indulge in heroic braggadocio.
"You cannot; but Bertrak might." The pixies looked almost apologetic for a moment before they took to the air. "Go we must."
* * *
The shooting star blazed across the sky from the northeast, its red trail sparkling like brilliant rubies against a backdrop of black velvet. Thalaric caught a glimpse of it first, through the pine trees. "Look!" the elf said, dumbfounded, pointing at the celestial messenger.
Fyodor could scarcely believe it. "It's just like 'The Tale of Rytham'!" he exclaimed, forgetting himself in his excitement. This was too good to be true, too remarkable to be a coincidence. "It is a sign from Zirchev!"
Varis and Boldar said nothing, awestruck by the fiery star. Only a few hours earlier Fyodor had told the tale of how the doomed champion Rytham had found the enchanted axe Sun's Wrath at the spot where a star fell to the earth. Could Fyodor be right? Varis thought to himself. Is there some connection between this ancient giant-slaying Traladaran hero and us?
"Come, friends, brothers," Fyodor said, a huge smile on his face. "We have been chosen for this!" He turned to the pixies. "It's true, isn't it. You are children of the forest: Zirchev has commanded you to lead us to defeat this evil. We are continuing the work of Rytham!"
The pixies looked at each other, then smiled at Fyodor. "O chosen mortal, born for glory, child of light, you tell the story true to us who are mere servants, humble guides enthralled in service to the hero and the hero's friends, to him, therefore, our knees must bend." And, with that, the two fairies solemnly sunk to their knees before the young Traladaran.
Boldar's eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets; his jaw went slack in utter disbelief. He and the rest of the party were at an absolute loss for words. But then first one, then the other pixie began to smile, then titter. Confused, the companions watched as the two rose to their feet and covered their faces with their hands. Fyodor, realising that they had been making fun of him, ground his teeth in anger, and for a brief, sinful moment considered sweeping them both away to hell with a single swing of Tyrant's Blight.
Thalaric put his hand on his friend's shoulder, fearing- even though the elf was quite amused at the joke- that Fyodor would do something rash. "Do not be offended," he said quietly. "Mirth is in their nature. They live estranged from the Immortals, having no gods of their own, and so they find your sensitivity to such matters doubly amusing."
"No matter," Fyodor said, turning his furious gaze from the pixies and directing it towards the shooting star. I know what message you have for me, my Guide, he thought. I will obey just as Rytham obeyed, but I will keep my pride in check. I will succeed where he failed...
The fairies once again conferred in their fey tongue; then, for some reason, bowed deeply to the companions before they turned and continued into the forest. Spitting in disgust, Boldar turned to the rest of the brotherhood. "I have half a mind to turn around and walk right back to Threshold."
"You'd lose your way in the dark," Thalaric responded with a crooked smile. "Remember, we still have a great deed to perform this night."
"Great deed..." Boldar mumbled, kicking at the ground in his displeasure. "To be honest I'd prefer a haunch of mutton, a bowl full of baccy, and a handful of pints to go with them." Nevertheless, he pressed on after the winged sprites with the rest of his party, reflecting on what a mad couple of days this had been for them.
They had been travelling for about an hour through the ever-darkening mountain forest when the pixies stopped suddenly. The pair of fairies had been leading the friends tirelessly, but now the two, having spoken to each other quietly and briefly, took to the air and alighted on a branch. They turned to the companions and one of them spoke in little more than a whisper. "At last, at last, her very glen, darkest as the darkest fen; umbral cloud-mist cloaks the ground. To there we go, without a sound."
The companions didn't need the pixies to tell them that they drew near to their destination; they could already feel it in their bones. And they were beginning to see it too, to see how the forest was growing darker than it should have, too much, too fast. Varis withdrew Aralic's gem from his pouch and let its divine light beat off the darkness. The philosopher sighed with relief, but to his surprise the pixies spun around instantly and shaded their eyes. "Burning is the light," one said anxiously. "Protect us will the night."
Thalaric nodded his head solemnly and rested a hand on the philosopher's shoulder. "Yes, put it away, Varis. Trust them to guide us to where we need to go."
Varis reluctantly dropped the gem back in the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. The fairies smiled their oddly menacing semi-circular smile and resumed their advance. But as they did so, a fog- not delicate and mystical as Threshold's morning mist, but dark and cloying- began to ooze through the trees. And then, as they pushed ahead, weapons at the ready, they began to see that there was a source of light up ahead. But instead of the cozy orange and red of a campfire or an oil lamp, it was sickly and green and cold.
"Be at ease," Thalaric advised in a whisper as he saw his friends' discomfort. But as soon as he spoke, he heard a foreboding sound uncomfortably near, something like a cross between a howl and a hoot, and he jumped in his skin.
"How can we be at ease?" Varis hissed back at the elf. "What on earth are we going to do when we get there?"
Before Thalaric could answer the pixies suddenly stopped in their tracks. "The time for blades is nigh, is nigh," one spoke sharply. Both drew their tiny blades and vanished.
"By Kagyar," Boldar cursed under his breath as he hefted his axe and shield. His night-sight was made inactive by the ghostly green light, but his day-sight could detect well enough the moving shadows all around them. "Put your backs together!" he cried, testing the grip on his weapon.
Thalaric had seen the shadows too, but before he could say anything the figures burst from the fog. "Goblins!" he shouted, batting away the firsts' spear thrusts with his sword.
Fyodor and Varis had the hardest time seeing in the dark, and consequently their fear was greatest. The young Traladaran protected himself and his friend with huge whirring sweeps of his enchanted blade, while Varis wrenched his sceptre free of his belt; a charging goblin, knocked aside by Fyodor's blade, found its end on the blunt head of the iron mace.
"I thought you said we were in another country," the philosopher said over his shoulder to Thalaric. The elf didn't reply, being too busy spearing one of the creatures through the neck. "That's what I thought," Varis said beneath his voice, holding his sceptre in front of him in what he hoped was a self-assured manner. At his side, Fyodor was laying into the beasts with his usual lethality. One was already dead at his feet but more pressed in. Varis, realising that he was unable to hide behind his warrior friend, decided instead to go on the offensive, trusting that the goblins would be unable to find the chinks in his plate mail with their wooden spears.
A goblin came right for him. The philosopher knocked away a spear-thrust but his following strike was easily dodged by the agile camel-faced thing. "Halav!" Varis cried in a loud voice as he prepared to make a swift follow-up strike. But before he could do so, he saw the most amazing thing: a thin slash suddenly opened in the goblin's throat and its left eye popped, oozing jelly. The goblin dropped its spear, clapping it hands to its injuries. Blood and liquid spurted from between its fingers, a horrible gurgling sound emanating from its throat before it dropped dead to the ground. Varis was at a loss as to what happened until suddenly the two pixies popped into view, hovering in the air, their tiny blades covered with gore. "Our help you have, lest there be fear, but that name shall not be uttered here." And then the two saluted Varis with their swords and disappeared once more from sight.
The tide had turned. After Boldar slew a goblin with an exceptionally vicious uppercut swing of his axe, the remaining goblins called out for a retreat in their tongue. "Oh no," the dwarf said, struggling to remove his blade from the dead goblin's rib cage. "Not again." The escape of their assailants at the rope-bridge had wounded his pride, and he was not going to allow goblins another chance to escape alive. The race-hatred went back in his blood too many generations for that to happen, to the earliest battles between dwarf and goblin and orc. And so, with a cry, he charged after them into the fog.
"Boldar!" Thalaric cried as he saw the dwarf begin his pursuit. The elf sighed. "Stay here," he told the humans. "My sight is better in the dark. I will bring him back." And Thalaric bounded off after him, his passage both silent and swift.
Varis and Fyodor looked at each other, frightened and uncertain. Without a word, they stood back to back, their weapons in hand, their eyes straining against the gloom.* * *
Boldar caught up with the first goblin, a weakling thing with a limp. That earned it no mercy, and the dwarf's axe cruelly took it from behind. He did not stop to glory over his kill, but immediately began the pursuit of another that he spotted through the trees. Cursing the difficult terrain and the dense trees, he sped deeper into the forest. Through the menacing fog, he faintly saw the retreating form of his quarry. Boldar chuckled to himself. These beasts do not know whom they have angered.
The goblin knew the land better, but the dwarf's will was the stronger. His heavy boots carried him with surprising speed through the trees, and it was not long before his axe overtook the humanoid. It too would not live to see its descendants grow mighty in the Black Peaks.
Moving as silently as a shadow, Thalaric was suddenly upon Boldar. The dwarf nearly split him in two in his surprise, but stayed his hand when he saw his companion. "Come to help me, elf?" the dwarf said, wiping the goblin's black blood from where it had splattered on his face and beard.
Thalaric shook his head. "Nay. We cannot allow our friends to face the shadows alone."
"You'd rather follow pixies than kill goblins?" Boldar said, amazed. "Aye, I suppose you would." The dwarf's eyes lit up. "Another!" he shouted, and bounded off after a figure in the mist. Thalaric sighed and followed dutifully.* * *
Fyodor held Bastard-Slayer in front of him, warding off the oppressive darkness. He hummed a sacred song associated with Zirchev, realising that he was doing so only when Varis nervously nudged him. The friends stood back-to-back, anxiously awaiting the return of their companions or the reappearance of the pixies. What kind of "good people" would object to the name of Halav? Varis thought as his fingers anxiously gripped and re-gripped his sceptre. And what was Boldar thinking, running off like that?
"Four there were, but two there are." Fyodor and Varis turned and saw the two pixies standing nearby, barely visible in the fog-filtered light. Their hands rested on the hilts of their drawn blades, the points resting on the ground.
"Where are our friends?" the young Traladaran asked expectantly.
"We are here," Thalaric called softly in his clear voice as the elf and the dwarf emerged from the shadowy woods.
"We got three more," the dwarf said in proud yet hushed tones, "but the rest escaped."
"Congratulations," Varis snapped. "Can we move on now? Remember, our task is to free Bertrak from his madness, not redress centuries of grievances."
"More like millennia," Boldar grumbled as he adjusted his armour. The dwarf knew that the philosopher was reacting more to their unusual and dangerous situation than to his deed. He didn't think that Varis actually minded that the goblins were dead.
"Shall we go onward, Good People?" Thalaric asked the pixies politely. The two fairies sprung into the air, their translucent wings flapping as quickly as butterflies'. Without a word in reply they began to fly away slowly, directly at the noxious green light.
The companions, shooting comradely glances at each other, followed with care. Almost swimming through the slimy fog they drew nearer to the glow. The pixies were silhouetted in front of them, their wings creating ripples and eddies in the mist. The tension grew with every step. The friends felt lost, out of place, out of touch with their lives and very far away indeed from their homes. Not one of them gave a thought to the set of circumstances that had led to this strange nighttime excursion, at how the hopes of so many had come to be pinned on them.
* * *
They saw the fence first, and did not believe their eyes. "Is that...bone?" Fyodor whispered with horror. A waist-high fence obstructed their path, made of lashed-together bones, macabrely topped with human skulls at semi-regular intervals. A path marked with large flat stones led through a gap in the fence, through a small clearing billowing with fog, to a cottage about the same size as Bertrak's. This modest wooden structure was the source of the eerie green light that permeated the forest; it shined through the windows, flickering as torchlight should. The trees both within the bone fence and immediately outside it were dead.
"Past this point we cannot travel," one of the pixies said. "Alone her charms you must unravel."
"What are you saying?" Varis hissed. "You're not coming with us?"
Both of the fairies shook their heads. "She dwelleth on unholy ground."
"It's a trick," Boldar growled, hefting his axe. "They are delivering us up to the hag."
"No, no," Thalaric said quietly, waving his arms in a calming motion. "He does not mean what he says," the elf apologised to the pixies. "I understand, do not be concerned." He turned back to his friends. "They are not deceiving us. The Fair Folk cannot enter ground consecrated to a god...I will explain it all later, but now we must go forward."
"We shall wait for your return," one pixie said as the other stuck out its tongue at Boldar. "Remember: while she's away the cat's her eye. Be alert."
Thalaric bowed politely to them and turned to Fyodor. "Come, friend: let us lead the way." The young Traladaran nodded his assent and fixed the pixies a stern glance before hefting Bastard-Slayer and bravely proceeding up the path, striving to keep his mind on the Blessed Three and his body alert to any sign of the hag.
I can't believe I'm doing this, Varis thought as he followed, resisting the urge to scratch as his itching scar. If it were up to him, he would have returned to Threshold and beseeched the matriarch for a contingent of Griffons rather than dare this horrible place alone. Political consequences be damned, he thought, realising immediately that he needed to control his fear if he hoped to help Bertrak and Eltan's Spring.
Boldar followed with a purposeful stride right on the heels of Fyodor and the elf, hoping that his eager gait would make him seem braver and more resolute than he felt at the time. The dwarf had no desire to appear a coward in front of his friends and especially in front of the pixies. He turned to see if he could see them, but the fairies were nowhere in sight. He swore under his breath. Disappeared again, he thought.
Closer and closer the company drew to the thatched cottage, alert to any sign of danger until at last they stood at the very entrance to the hag's abode. Thalaric gestured to Fyodor to open the door. The young Traladaran nodded, took a deep breath, and raised the latch with his sword hand, pushing the door open with his foot once the bar had been lifted.
Inside was revealed a sight that seemed to fight with reality. Just looking at the interior of the cottage made the friends dizzy. The angles did not seem right, somehow; walls should not have been able to fit into the ceiling the way that they did, the light should not seem to come from everywhere at once the way that it did. Fyodor bravely took a step inside, and started when he felt the floor move under him. Expecting a trap of some kind, he immediately withdrew his weight, backing into Boldar.
"What is it?" the dwarf asked, trying to peek in around the others who were in front of him.
"The floor..." Fyodor responded, puzzled. He tentatively stepped again into the cottage, and once more was rewarded with the same strange feeling. "It feels like I'm on a boat," he said, struggling to maintain his mental focus. Mastering himself, he entered the cottage completely, fighting back his nausea.
Although he seemed to be at war with his senses, the young Traladaran forced himself to examine the room. Now that he was inside, he could tell that the noxious light did have a source: a small cauldron. Fyodor took one step towards it but the floor pitched unexpectedly and he stumbled, striving to maintain his footing. Cursing, he sat down heavily on a bed on the opposite side of the room as the fireplace, his head in his hands. He had already vomited once today, and did not wish to do so again.
The others had entered the cottage by this point and were themselves trying to come to grips with the confusing angles and the dizzying sensations that they felt. They noted that on the far wall there were many shelves containing books and scrolls of varying sizes. In the centre of the room was a wooden table completely covered with glass containers filled with strangely coloured liquids. Some of the substances seethed and bubbled of their own accord, as if they resented their captivity. Also on the table were old books, bundles of papers, and even a few candles, lit, whose light mingled locally with the overbearing omnipresent green glow. The room was filled with a horrible stench, a stench that reeked of corruption and decay.
Slowly and carefully, Varis made his way to the bookshelves that lined the far wall. The characters on the spines of the books were like nothing the philosopher had ever seen before. Nevertheless, he took one down off the shelf at random and opened it, hoping to find some illustrations or anything that would help them in their current situation.
It was at that moment that he heard the cat's cry, not so much a curious meow as a malevolent scream. Startled, dizzy from the peculiar geometry of the place and the shifting floor, he cast his gaze around the room until he saw it: a large black cat perched like a gargoyle atop one of the bookshelves. Its back arched, it hissed at the companions.
"The cat!" Fyodor called out in panic, remembering the fairies' words.
"Out of my way!" Boldar cried out as he shouldered the companions aside in his haste to reach the cat. The animal hissed again at the approaching dwarf and then leapt down from the bookshelf, scurrying across the floor. Boldar grabbed at it but it moved too quickly, away from his grasp and under the table. As the dwarf swung around to try and get his hands on it, his shoulder slammed into the table, the force of the impact knocking over one of the glass containers with a loud crash.
"Careful!" Varis warned, too late. The cat slithered through a hole in the wall just big enough for it to fit through. "It got away," he said, both disappointed and terrified at what that might portend.
But the dwarf was staring at the floor, not listening. The bottle that he had broken had been full of some type of viscous liquid that was now bubbling away, giving off a dreadful stench as it ate away at the dirt and rushes. The sharp, acrid smell of the fumes made Boldar pull away, fearing that they were poisonous. "Look at this," he called out to his companions, but as he turned and stood up, he tripped over a table leg. Stumbling to one knee, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, another beaker fall from the table. It hit the ground at the same place where the acid was bubbling, and promptly exploded.
The friends threw their hands in front of their faces as the room was suddenly filled with acrid smoke and shards of flying glass. The companions managed to avoid breathing in the fumes too deeply, all except Varis. The philosopher, unluckily, had just been inhaling to speak when the explosion occurred, and he felt a sensation like a noose tightening around his throat as the smoke entered his lungs. Panicking, he dropped everything he was carrying and clawed at his neck as his vision went black. Blessedly, the fumes vanished within seconds, dissipating into the air, and Varis found that he could soon breathe and see again. He vomited.
"Damn it, Boldar!" Fyodor shouted uncharacteristically as he drew out the shards of glass that had embedded themselves in his right hand. He felt that others were stuck in his face but ignored them, moving instead to the side of his friend Varis.
The dwarf was not concerned with the young Traladaran's rebuke because he was too dazed, sitting on the floor, spitting to remove the vile taste in his mouth, idly picking at the shards of glass stuck in his legs. He thanked Kagyar that he had not been seriously injured or killed. He felt a clumsy fool.
"Is everyone okay?" Thalaric asked with concern. He had, on the whole, avoided major injury from the dwarf's blunders; some pieces of glass had stuck in him, but he had somehow managed to be spared from being pierced by any of the larger pieces or inhaling the fumes too deeply. He could see that Varis had it the worst. Fyodor had ushered him to the hag's bed, where the young Traladaran was trying to remove a large piece of one of the beakers that had lodged itself deeply into the philosopher's leg. Varis was gritting his teeth and his complexion was white as his friend laboured over him.
"Here, let me help you," the elf said, stumbling over the strangely shifting floor to his friends, the thought flashing briefly through his mind that Varis and Fyodor were likely sitting on the very spot where- if their tales were to be believed- this hag copulated with a demon. It didn't seem like the kind of thing that would be helpful to say considering the circumstances, so he kept his quiet.
Between the two of them, they managed to draw forth the piece of glass. Thalaric continued to tend to the wound as Fyodor surveyed the damage. He caught the eye of the dwarf, who nodded to him, indicating that he was basically well. The young Traladaran nodded in return. He realised that, injuries or no, they had to complete their search of the cottage as quickly as possible. He had not forgotten the cat, the words of the pixies, or everything that he had heard concerning the might of the kaegnai.
Fyodor stepped carefully across the room to examine the cauldron. The iron pot was bubbling with a horrific-smelling green liquid, a concoction that cast forth sickly burps of light. He didn't want to think what the substance could be.
"What's that?" Boldar had come to stand behind the youth. The dwarf was pointing at an object in the fireplace, just out of reach of the flames.
Using his sword, Fyodor drew it towards him. "It's a shoe," he said, examining it with interest. "Why is a shoe in the fireplace?" He touched it tentatively, finding it to be warm but not unpleasantly so to the touch. The shoe sure looked normal enough to him, of the sort that Thyatians were accustomed to wear. A thought occurred to him. "I wonder if this belonged to the third messenger Aleena sent," he said with restrained excitement. On the one hand he hoped that they were on the right track, but at the same time he did not want to appear to be thrilled by a find that could only mean that the shoe's owner was dead.
The young Traladaran flipped the shoe over and glanced inside, seeing to his surprise a small crumbled piece of parchment shoved nearly all the way into the toe. "What's this?" Fyodor drew the paper out and smoothed it down while the dwarf looked on with interest. Written on the parchment was a single word, scrawled in blood. Although it was smeared and obviously hastily written, both of the companions could easily make it out.
"'Horn'," Boldar said, stroking his beard. "Those little insects said that we would find magic music here," the dwarf mused. "But where?"
Fyodor shook his head as he picked a few shards of glass out of his face. Then something caught his eye. "What do you think's in here?" He pointed to a long case sitting on the mantle above the fireplace.
"Open it," Boldar replied. He turned to the others. "I think we've found something. Come here, if you can stand the smell."
Varis had just finished invoking Chardastes and receiving the grace of healing contained in the staff when the dwarf called. The wound in his leg had been quite deep, the piece of glass large and stubborn. Once it had been wrested free, the wound had been revealed to be both deep and bloody, and the philosopher had begun to feel faint both from loss of blood and from the ill effects of inhaling the insalubrious vapour. The holy effects of the staff, however, soon had him feeling right as rain, although his trousers were soaked with blood.
When Fyodor called, he and the elf made their way over to the fireplace, wrinkling their nose as the already nearly unbearable stench got even stronger as they drew nearer to the cauldron.
"I can't get it open," the young Traladaran was saying as he struggled with the clasp.
"What have you found?" Varis asked.
Fyodor looked up. "We found a shoe, I think one of Aleena's messenger's. There was a note in it that said 'horn', written in blood. I don't know what this is," he pointed to the box, "but I found it on the mantle."
"Move aside," Boldar commanded, drawing his axe from his belt. The others gave him a wide birth as he swung the heavy blade with pinpoint precision, shattering the lock. He threw open the box and immediately made a sound like he was clearing his throat. "A horn."
Revealed inside, cushioned in velvet, was a rather short, straight horn, shiny with brass. "Magic music!" Fyodor said excitedly. "Just like the pixies said!"
"What is written there?" Thalaric said, pointing with a slim finger to an inscribed plaque on the inside of the case. "'Plagentius'," he read. "Is that this instrument's name, I wonder?" The elf picked up the horn and examined it. "I hope that the Good People are right, that this instrument will mean the end of-"
"The hag!" Varis shouted in panicked alarm, pointing out the window. Through the dirty glass could be seen the figure of a woman approaching through the mist. Her long black hair shadowed her face, concealing her features, but the companions could make out what the two large round shapes dangling from her belt were: they were human heads, and from the looks of it, they had been recently wrested from a pair of unwilling necks.
"What do we do?" Fyodor asked, filled with such a rush of fear that he nearly dropped Tyrant's Blight. Somehow, in the midst of his panic, he had recognised that the severed heads- one with white hair, the other with an eye-patch- once belonged to the Iron Ring agents who had delivered the threatening message in the Juggling Ogre and had followed them north from Threshold. He did not think for a moment that this dispatching of their enemies made this creature of evil any more sympathetic to their position for a moment. For some reason the memory of Kavorquian came to his mind, but the recollection fled from his probing thoughts like a butterfly from a net.
Before he had time to attach much significance to this, the door suddenly swung open, as if by a gale, seemingly before the hag could have had time enough to reach it. While the company was still struggling to get themselves into some kind of defensive position, there, revealed in the doorway, was the witch. She cast back her head and her hair cascaded away from her face, the green light from the cauldron illuminating her features for the first time. Her skin was black with the slightest hint of blue and covered with warts. Her left eye was bigger than her right by half, and her nose was crooked and long. Her fingers were topped not with nails but with claws that looked like they were made of iron, glimmering with a venomous sheen.
The hag laughed when she saw the party, clearly unintimidated by the sharp steel that they held before them. "Not so fast, my little burglars," she spit with unrestrained hatred. "Impotent mortals! I think I'll take my horn back and throw you in my larder." Varis noted to his horror that the witch wore a pendant about her neck: the head of a goat with the horns of a ram, the unholy symbol of the Black Prince, the demon also known as Orcus. It's true, he thought with a mixture of sadness and anger. It's all true.