The cave was silent. The darkness complete. They stood side by side, bloodied, battered, proud. They were the rogue, Areia. She who must not be serious. Andril, the mage, sarcasm wrapped in a raggedy cloak. Thrak, the strong, who loved it when fingers were pointed at him. And Lord Haryk, soldier, man of action. A veteran of battles and adventures in the name of the King, now in his own name.
Side by side, they peered into the darkness, awaiting the sounds of the second hag approaching them from her lair above. Their once friend. Inara Goldpetal she had called herself. Lured them to their near deaths here in this Ket hole. Darkpetal they now knew she was. A wicked hag. One of three. A coven of incredible power. For who knew how long they had been here, waylaying poor souls, luring them to their deaths. Tonight, it was kill or be killed. And luck was not on their side.
They saw nothing. What they should have seen through the darkness, they could not. And Areia knew it was wrong. Wrong, wrong. It was also too quiet, but in a strange way, as if the cave with it’s slithering things, and it’s drippings were seen alive with noise, but not in the darkness ahead of them. As if these sounds were masked. The sounds from the lurking hag who was coming for them, coming to pilfer their supposed dead bodies. Where had the footsteps gone? Why were Areia’s eyes not working in the dimness as they always had,? Andril smelled the fine touch of ancient magic. Something that masked sight and sound. And he knew, it was time.
“Duck,” said the mage.
“Duck,” said the mage again.
“Loose!” said Haryk. “Now Andril, NOW Andril!” The fighter himself, weaponless could only stare down the end of his imaginary pistol (as he called it), but next to him, Andril was staring down the end of his finger. The tip of which was glowing with hot energy.
Thrak was watching the finger and if she had seen it Areia would have burst out laughing and the story that you are now reading may have been quite a bit different (and quite a bit shorter let me tell you). But no one could see this in the darkness, and so what happened ultimately saved their lives. All of them.
“I cast magic missile!” snarked the mage. And thin bolts of sizzling energy shot from his fingers, zipping around Thrak. You see, while they were shouting “duck”, the lizard-man once again thought that this meant there was an actual duck he could eat. Thrak was craning his neck side to side sniffing in the darkness for a meal to quell his aching gut, and luckily his legs and tail were in such a position because of this looking around he was doing that Andril’s spell could zoom through them. Instead of hitting his backside! The result was that the bolts whizzed through the air, past Thrak, for several yards, striking a form in the darkness. As they struck, they lit up the target’s chest area, and illuminated her face. At first, the face looked like their old friend Inara! But just as quickly, it twisted into something deformed, something green and ghastly. Her wides were wide with surprise but just as quickly they turned to something savage, and evil. She lifted her hands and her fingers, like Andril’s, glowed with bristling energy, but she never completed the spell!
“Hello, Inara Darkpetal,” hissed Areia and with wicked stealth, she whipped through the cavern, stealthily maneuvering over and around the cave boulders. Within an instant and because of the shock of Andril’s bolts, she was atop the hag, striking her with the dagger she had found. The hag’s own blade she sang in her mind. I’m killing this evil witch with her own blade. She zipped from a crouching position in a half circle, and slashed the hag’s guts wide open! Before the wicked thing had even fallen, she withdrew the blade, and spun to face the others. The darkness, although still so manifest, withdrew slightly. Andril knew that the hag, the second of the coven, was dead.
“Nice work, thief,” he said. “But coven’s aren’t the only thing that come in threes.”
“Oh right, like wishes and triple rainbows, how silly of me,” sighed Areia. Not being able to help herself she added, “Other things come in threes too Master Mage, for example, I’ve now seen your backside three times tonight. Magical!”
“How are we still alive with her running around giggling at everything?” sneered the mage.
“Just tell us what you mean, Andril.” said Haryk coming to stand over Inara. He like the others, kicked her body to make sure she was dead. They had stopped taking chances a long time ago with such things. Their enemy, the hag of the wild, Inara, looked now like a skinny and putrid green bag of bones. In death, a bit different than she was back in the inn where they first met her. What magic can make something so ugly all over, so beautiful on the outside? Haryk wondered.
Thrak’s interrupted his thoughts, “Well, mage?”
“First, Darkpetal’s dead. Finally. yeah.” He twirled his finger in the air sarcastically, waving a little energy along with it for emphasis. “Second, our bag is here. It doesn’t look as if any of our major gear is in it though, but our extra supplies are!” Again the trace of sarcasm.
“Axes?” panted Thrak like a dog.
“Yes, Master Thrak,” said Andril. He removed axes for the lizard-man. Thrak grabbed them tightly. He swished them around, pretending to chop off the last hag’s head. Andril passed out other weapons, not their personal gear. That was still taken from them by the hags. These were simple yet each made the bare hands of this motley crew feel better.
“With a weapon in my hand I have a chance,” said Haryk.
“So what’s the third happy thought here?” said the thief.
Areia could see well in the darkness. Without answering her, she watched Andril blindly pull robes from the bag. He pulled them over his shoulders and tried to tie them together, but they were too clearly too small and wouldn’t fit across his waist. Parts of his anatomy were still showing and he knew it by means of his hands finding skin instead of cloth in certain places. She giggled to herself watching Andril scoff to himself but still keeping the robe on, not knowing she could see.
“Well,” said Andril, annoyed by the robe, but trying to keep it to himself in the darkness, “The magic that Darkpetal used against us, masked the sounds of our battle as well. That means the last of this coven doesn’t know we’ve survived. Possibly.”
“So let’s not ruin the surprise,” whispered Ariea.
“What’s the surprise?” asked Thrak.
“I’ll let you know pal,” said Haryk patting him on the scaly shoulder. Together, they then crept up towards the hag’s lair.
“She’s waiting for us. There’s nothing for it but to hack her to shreds and hope for the best,” whispered Haryk. He stared ahead at the small pinprick of light. They were pretty sure it was the morning sun coming down through the cave. But it wasn’t the light that told them the lair was close. It was the smells of their cooking. The thoughts of which they edged from their minds. They crept as close as they could, and found a small place to hide right next to a dimly lit area. It smelled like boiled meat, and they could hear something bubbling.
“If we take the back exit with the ogres, she’s sure to attack us then. We’d be engaged with her and her dreadful children,” breathed Areia, “and I hate beating up a parent right in front of their kiddies. But if we just walk in on her lair there, who knows what we’ll encounter. I remember the cauldron bubbling, and the hanging skin bags! Nobody wants that, right?” Areia shuddered in the cold, and it was a real shudder. Rare, but they happened. She had been in some pretty bad situations, and recently too. But this one, was misery incarnate, and she was running out of hope they’d make it out. She looked over to Haryk who was wiping away blood from a wound on his arm. Thick dark blood pooled around the makeshift bandage he had applied to himself. Andril was wearing a robe that looked like a child’s garment, and yet in his desperation he had kept it on. Poor fellow just can’t find a decent robe she mused to herself. They were all in terrible shape. This was a fight for their lives, and for those bodies that might still harbor life, hanging from the ceiling in bags made from human skin!
“We know then what we have to do,” said Thrak gripping the two axes he found in the bag tightly. “This is our greatest battle yet! Victory is for the bold. Let’s die fighting my friendsss!!”
“To Ket with this day!” Yelled Areia and before they could yell themselves, they were following the rogue out into the lair, in the middle of which boiled the hideous cauldron. From the ceiling hung the many bags of decomposing skin! The four of them roared their battle cries and they ran in, weapons drawn!
But the lair was empty!
“Where are you, foul witch?!” Yelled Thrak. He twirled around, his tail striking a cooked hand which stuck out from the cauldron. The flesh was boiled, the skin crusted and blackened.
“Oh you’re tasty!!! I haven’t had lizard soup in forever!” came an old shriveled shrill cry. It reverberated around the cavern, but it’s origin, that they couldn’t guess! “And lookee here, we got a mage in a little teeny tiny coat. Old mage in a little coat….old mage in a teeny coat,” sang the voice.
“SHOW YOURSELF DEMON!!!!” Yelled Areia. She crouched below one of the swaying skin bags. “I want to see if you’re uglier than the other two! We’ll save the songs for your passing.”
“Oh, I’m the prettiest you little urchin! You’ll see!!!”
“How…how did you..?” gasped Areia. She hated revealing her emotions like this, but she couldn’t help it. How had this hag known anything about her?
“Your little pal Inara told me all about you Areia. All about ALLLL of you!” cooed the voice. It began to talk in a sing song voice once again. “I know all about the lizard with the sack named Thrak, about the clever old mage with the inside rage….’bout the poor little urchin who couldn’t save her little frien….”
“WHERE ARE YOU????” seethed Haryk and Areia at the same time. She had had enough. Few things got her this upset, but a witch cooking people invisibly talking about the death of her childhood friend was one of them. “Show yourself!”
“Show yourself!” called Haryk again. “Or by the Light I am going to find you!”
“Find me, will you? Oh Lordy Haryk!” the voice grew from something playful almost to that of a yell, nasty, spiteful and evil, “Oh let me find you, oh man of action!!!!”
“Great everyone, she’s an evil hag and a feminist too!” Cried Haryk. Suddenly though, he began to lose his voice just as he was crying out! A dark cloud began to appear around his upper body and his hands went to his throat! The cloud looked like a swarm of flies, dark and thick in the little light that streamed through the cavern entrance. Like buzzing flies around meat, it moved over and around Haryk’s face. It was fetid and loud. The tiny dark fliers began to blow into his mouth! Haryk tried to close it. His eyes wide, he soon realized he couldn’t! His abdomen, which was exposed without his full gear began to bloat outwards. Thrak watched, his axes twirling, his eyes squinting waiting to fight something that he could see. Haryk’s eyes filled with darkness. He moaned and tried to cry out but never did, the cloud was gone, inside of him, his hands to his throat. He fell over and slumped to the ground. His body convulsed and then went limp!
“Blast you witch! Let’s fight darkness with light then!” hollered Andril. And throwing out his arms, his tiny teeny robe blowing all around him, the sunlight through the cave revealing his pale, yet bloodied and filthy body, he let loose a spell that sizzled the air in a wide area, where Andril thought the evil villain might be hiding invisibly. His spell blasted several of the bags of skin and charred the walls of the cave, knocking bones around like leaves in a wind. They heard the hag cry out and become visible! She dropped to the floor from the ceiling like hot glue melting from a candle. Quickly she hid amongst the rocks in the cavern. But the spell broke open some of the leathery bags as well! Several bodies dropped from them. One of them, was Fritz! The other, a woman, a woman from First Isle. She was one of the Ata’uhn no doubt. And then, as if by some miracle, from broken bag, dropped their possessions. Thrak’s magical shield, and Andril’s magical wand. Areia’s flute and Haryk’s pistol, as he called it.
“My wand!” howled the mage, who then bent over and pointed it at the hag, who was now sneaking behind the cauldron. “Blast it!” Shouted Andril. “Someone get her!” He tried again but couldn’t get a proper aim. Areia snuck around the other side of the cauldron. Later, she laughed that she had been sad that from her vantage point she couldn’t see the mage standing there like that, with his teeny tiny robes fluttering around his naked torso, his bare arse out for the whole cave to see. The largest moon, lit up by the morning light.
“Trust me, your wand isn’t all that impressive now that I see it well enough, oh man,” cackled and laughed the fiend, and her rough evil voice changed then to sultry and sweet. Andril smelled the tell-tale signs of magic. “Khretch! Tibrah! Mommy needs youuuuu!!!!”
Uh oh thought Thrak. He was injured and tired, and he knew he’d be dead soon. But then he remembered his magical potion in his gear. Quickly he streaked to the place where the items had fallen. There wedged between two femur bones lay the bottle. He grasped it in his claws, moved to Haryk and holding his mouth open, he poured the magical serum into his mouth.
Haryk’s eyes shot open! He coughed and gasped. He looked around as if wondering where in the world he was. Thrak answered by placing something familiar in his hand. Haryk seized it, his fingers finding the familiar grooves in the wooden grip. The metal trigger, still charged. “Let’s kill this friggin’ witch, lizard man!” bellowed Haryk. Thrak helped the soldier to his feet, and they both turned to face their foes.
“Mommy calls Khretch!” came a monstrous voice from outside the cave.
“No, Khretch. Mommy calls to Tibrah!”
“Move to the back of the cave you Celns!” called Haryk, and just in time he lunged himself as the light from outside was temporarily dimmed. A spiked club the size of a tree, perhaps made from the trunk of an island palm, thrust into the cave at Haryk. He ducked, just in time as it hit the cavern wall, sending bits of rock flying outward.
“Duck!” yelled Andril.
“Duck!” yelled Areia, moving around the cave and disappearing among the shadows of the hanging bodies. The huge club moved sideways over her crouching position, searching for a target.
“Where?!!!!” yelled Thrak, who had taken a place beside Haryk out of reach of the ettin’s club. “Where?”
“Loose!” yelled Haryk, and his weapon “fired” sending a burst of flame out from it’s end. The two headed monster beyond the club, had entered the cave as much as it could. Both heads snarled and roared as Haryk’s weapon sent a metal ball and buried it deeply into it’s chest. Blood splattered out from the wound, and the head of Khretch roared! Tibrah’s arm swung around and knocked Haryk with a mighty swing. His body flew against the cavern wall and slumped once more to the ground!
Thrak roared and moved into range but the giant’s backhand caught him unexpectedly. Large spikes made of bone that ripped out from the club ripped into Thrak’s scales. He dropped to his knees, and looked around at the others in confusion and anger. They often had wondered during their many battles what a lizardman feels when he’s injured. Does he hurt like a Celn? Did he despair like one, knowing he would die soon? Thrak’s face gave no answers. His squinty eyes closed, his body fell to the floor of the cave and lay with arms spread out. His axes fell upon the ground. Lifeless, he didn’t move.
Time seemed to stop for Andril then. Within the space of a few seconds, he saw Haryk and Thrak fall lifeless to the cavern floor. Whatever he had thought of them, he knew without their mettle, he wouldn’t make it. Kretch’s head hung to the side of Thimbrah’s. It’s eyes stared blankly and it’s tongue lolled out, as the giant tried to shoulder it’s way further into the space.
Time resumed, and Andril stepped forward then. He called forth the last of his magical preparation and sent bolts hurtling towards Thimbrah’s snarling face. He nearly whooped when he saw the giant drop, scattering bones around the room, knocking over the cauldron and it’s foul contents. The sounds of water trickled into fissures unseen below the cavern floor.
Andril heard a noise behind him that shouldn’t be there, and his moment of celebration had now cost him dearly. An icy finger touched his shoulder gently. His legs went limp, his mouth, a protective spell frozen on his lips, went still. He stood there, trying to look behind him, but the rest of his body wouldn’t move.
The witch ran her wrinkled and warted fingers lovingly over his neck and down along his collar. She stepped out from behind him, her rotten face and features pressed into his. “Hello, oh man. How powerful you will make me.,” she whispered in a sultry voice. With her arm still around the mage, her eyes glowed dark green and she looked out into the cave. Green beams of light pierced the darker shadows of the space, searching for the last of her invaders.
The witch cackled and called out to the last of them then. “You killed my beautiful boys!” She feigned a little cry, but then cackled once more. “But I am merciful today child! I am Chlamydia, you noble hero.”
Areia who had used an old trick from her urchin days, was laying next to one of the bodies that fell from above when Andril had cast his spell. “Their power will be all I need to start a new coven. Come with me, child. I have another, and together, we three will build a coven once mroe. I will show you what you’ve always wanted. No one, and no man, will ever put you down again! You will rule this island and never be a victim again Areia!!!”
Areia stood then. She dropped her daggers upon the floor, and faced the witch. Her eyes looked up as the beams of green light illuminated her face, making her eyes look green as well, matching the eyes of the hag across from her. In front of them both lay bodies scattered around like cordwood. The cauldron was tipped over and the remains of various others, bloated and boiled made the sight unbearable. She stared into the green eyes. “You’ve come to your senses, child. Good. Good. You will make a powerful ally, you and the island girl.”
Now Squeaks whispered Areia and just as she had spent the quiet parts of the voyage to the islands doing, she sent the small command to her trusty pet, who climbed up the hag’s legs and bit her behind the knee!
“I’ve had enough Chlamydia already, you fucking bitch!” yelled Ariea, and with the split second she had gained, she rolled downwards, snatched up her dagger, flew up and outwards with the momentum and plunged the weapon into the breast of the hag!
Chlamydia shrilled and cried out. Her eyes burned hot and green. Quick as lightning though she reached out and seized the elf by the wrist, bending her down to her knees with ghastly strength someone of her stature shouldn’t have. Her body seemed to elongate and her features darken. Areia’s wrist broke, snap! It no longer resembled a woman at all. Now it was a creature, with bony features and monstrous fangs. It grabbed the hilt of the dagger, and pulled it out dripping green blood like mucus. Smiling hideously, the hag creature turned it outwards and brought it down towards Areia’s neck!
Fritz didn’t remember much about his imprisonment by the witches. He did remember that he had been on the ship and was going belowdecks to check on something. The storm was fierce and the water was flooding certain sections. The ship was in danger of sinking at some point. When he walked into where the bilge was being operated though, he found several members of the crew dead, and then he saw his friend, Chlamydia. Beautiful, elegant, sophisticated. Everything he had ever wanted in a woman. She had destroyed the pumping mechanism, but that didn’t seem to bother Fritz at the time. In fact, he helped her do it. When her friends arrived to help them run the ship aground on the beach, Fritz knew that he would never want to leave her anyway. He couldn’t imagine then any one wanting to leave some one so lovely.
As if in a fog, he opened his eyes. Something had woken him from his dream, and into this nightmare. First he felt a warm liquid spreading beneath him, it made him cough and gag, flooding the cocoon he was wrapped in. Cocoon? No, he told himself, this isn’t a cocoon, and it’s not a blanket either. It’s a bag. I’m in some sort of a bag. It brushed against his skin like leather would, but Fritz knew through the stink and the burning from the hot liquid and the stench that it wasn’t leather. And then, he suddenly remembered other things.
He remembered the screams of his soldiers, the stench of their cooked flesh as the witches convinced them one at a time to enter the burning cauldron. He remembered watching them smile as their flesh fell from the bone, as their facial skin melted like hot wax. As the three bloated, disgusting hags fed off their bodies, even while some still lived.
And while the memories flooded him, and the pure horror of what he’d been made to do, made to see, hit him like a battering ram, he called upon the only power that he knew could bring him back to the light. He prayed for the Flame to cleanse his mind, his soul. Even out here in the isles, so far from the temple mount in Cillandar, he knew it was his only chance. While the power of the silver flame flooded his chest, flooded his mind, the dark thoughts crumbled away. That cleansing was so powerful that it radiated out from him at that moment to all within the cave.
Areia stood there, waiting for the blade to strike her down. She knew it had been close. Close, but no treasure chest she nearly said out loud. And just as the blade was about to strike her own chest, dead centered on her heart, she became more than she was. A loneliness left her. A fear of being the last victim, gone. And slicing through the air, the hag laughing and smiling behind it with the joy of defeating her foes, just like that the blade stopped against her skin, without leaving a single drop of blood.
And wouldn’t budge.
Areia looked into the eyes of the hag, those gleaming green eyes of an inhuman beast, a creature which had tricked and charmed and lured and lived off of the goodness that makes up a person. And in those eyes she saw confusion, and she saw fear.
The rogue kicked up and the knife went flying out of the witch’s hands. It sailed across the cave but never struck the ground.
For Thrak snatched it from the air. “Lookssss like you’ve loossssst your fancsssy dagger, thieeeeefff,” he snarled.
“Don’t worry Areia, here’s another,” said Haryk. For the flame had brought him back from the dead as well, and he too stood behind them.
“At usual you all stole my thunder,” muttered the mage who even at that moment was using his hands to prepare his magical missiles aimed at the witch’s heart!
The four of them struck her nearly at the same instant. Haryk’s bullet. Andril’s magical missile, Thrak’s axe sailing through the air on the way to it’s mark. Areia’s clenched fist. But none found their mark. With a final smile, and a mocking curtsy, the hag disappeared, in the blink of an eye.
Like smoke drifting from a campfire. She was gone. Poof. Just like that.
The cavern was quiet at last. Except that is for the sounds of those waking, and those who were still dying, coming from the bags at their feet.
“Treasure!” Yelled Thrak. “A treasure beyond comparison….” He looked at the gems and items below the cauldron.
Andril cast a spell and every item there glowed brightly. Squeaks, ran into the pile, but found nothing to eat. He glowed too. “Guess, we’ll have to find something else for you, buddy,” said Areia. She went to find some fresh water for drinking from outside the cave for those they had rescued. Careful and cautious she came back in and poured it on the young woman with dark skin. She moaned, her face still in agony as if she were having a nightmare, and unable to wake up. Next to her lay several others. Some they recognized. Some they did not. Some were Celns, one was an Orstman. There was Fritz, although he was yet woke. Thrak realized then that this was the second time they had saved the commander. He reminded himself to to remind the paladin. And there was another, a man, large, bulky. Bushy hair like a mane stuck out from his head and neck. They would figure out this lot later she reasoned. For now, let them sleep. All would be made easier back on board Galline’s Pride.
Then, the woman with the dark skin opened her eyes. Like waking from a nightmare, she looked around, startled, frightened.
“Who are you?” asked Areia. She held out more water in a waterskin for the woman to drink from. At first unsure, the woman opened her mouth, and parted her cracked lips . She closed her eyes. The sweet liquid ran down her throat. It felt like the first water she had drunk in ages. When she had swallowed her fill, she looked up at Areia with gratitude.
“I am Ulua,” said the dark haired woman. Even through the pain, the filth, the grime, they could she was beautiful, serene. She radiated a dignity that even this terrible ordeal could take away.
What strength she must have when the others were still comatose!
They knew Chlamydia was gone, and yet the morning sun began to rise. Without a word between them, they all knew it was time to go, time to get away from this foul place. Back to the ship and away from this terrible isle. They discussed how to move the rest of those still alive, those they could save and bring back to the ship for proper treatment. They knew the journey would not be easy and decided to keep them asleep. For now. Ulua insisted on walking, in fact, she would help guide them back. She was a huntress she told them. Walking out of the cave, she felt the sun hit her skin, drying the mud and slime and filth caked on around her. She knew then, like the mud, this too would dry, and some day, it would flake away, leaving only something better underneath.
The mage who had found modesty at last in his trousers and magical robe, came to stand beside her. “So how did you come to be here?” he asked.
“Destiny,” she replied, and walked off into the jungle, downwards, towards the two beached ships in the distance.