She was one of the last. She breathed as if each inhale would invite the attention of the great snake. She had come, though not alone. And she would have gone a different path if she had known what awaited her at the end. A vicious fate.
She had traveled to Undrogal Swamp with a company of mercenaries, with the intention of slaying a great snake, a task which had already snuffed out the lives of five men. Good men — warriors of the highest skill. She was one of the last, for only three others were left to face the great snake, and the thing it kept as a pet. They trembled beneath the ground, waiting for it to make its next move, hoping it would not find them.
She was one of the last.
And her mind raced, running through the events which had brought her to where she now was. And she wondered if Ishteth would extend his hand of death to her — she prayed it would not be painful, she prayed it would not be drawn out.
A party of nine set out from Manalothel Landing, hired by a cloaked lizard-man. They were given a sack of gold to start and promised more upon their return. The mercenaries left the city with items of secular and blessed variety, for they knew not whether the great snake was of the natural world or some cursed daemon. However, they did not thoroughly inspect the gold coins which were in that purse, but if they had, they would have seen the snake-head icon which was engraved on each; in myth, these coins were used as an annual payment — a sacrifice — along with a dozen lizardkin, or other swamp-dwelling race, to a terrible and potent witch — one with shapeshifting abilities. In myth.
But on they tread, whether fools at heart or brave in spirit.
They came to Undrogal Swamp, which lay hundreds of miles west of Manalothel Landing, and its stinking waters wafted to their nostrils. This was the place where their contract would be fulfilled. The swamp’s trees had branches which bent low, with dark-green leaves which touched, and were devoured by, the waters — murky waters, stagnant and pungent. And they waded through waist-high waters (for there were scarce few portions of land to walk on), unsure of where the great snake would be found.
It was on this quest into the swamp that they saw a great many wonders: giant insects of crawling and flying variety. Great and terrible lizard-like creatures, some which walked on two legs, others on four, and still others on six or even eight; some of the great lizards were covered in feathers, others were scaled, and some had leathery hides. There were also giant, featherless birds, with thick, leathery bodies, long, leathery wings (having large claws halfway down each), and elongated, beak-like mouths. And far off in the distance, poking above the droopy trees, was an incalculably high tower, which was narrow, having a flattened top, and even from afar, the leathery wings of the terror-birds could be seen as they flew above the tower. These things were of great interest, and brought fear, to the company of nine.
Of the company, there was a retired watchman of the Paradrin Post, who was of the proud high elf race (whose cities were scattered throughout southern isles, their skins various hues of crimson), and his arrows were needed when the fangs of giant, flying insects thirsted for the company’s blood. His ears could hear the creeping insects, and his eyes could penetrate the fog of the nights, giving the company an advantage against the bloodthirsty swarms.
There was a burdened creature of nature, a star gazer of the southern plains — a satyr. He was like a goat, having a torso similar to a human, and his staff was touched by the spirits. He was a witch doctor of his people, attuned to nature, allowing his hands to mend minor injuries, and giving him authority over roots, branches, and thorns to snare his foes. And scarcely did he go long without a puff from his large pipe, which was stuffed with various herbs from his homeland.
There was a great hunter, a dwarf of Khethot’Aroz, whose bolts from his crossbow felled many insects and tore into the hides of leathery terror-birds, and whose falchion sliced the heads off of many creeping insects. And his joy did ever grow with each kill.
There was a master of fighting, a freed pit fiend (of the gladiatorial pits in the Iron Empire), a man who was known as a barbarian — a vicious, merciless killer. He had many scars and wore the skins of the many beasts which had fallen by his hands in the pits. During his time in the arenas, he drank the fresh blood of his enemies — and though he was human, his skin was colored gray. He was an unstable man, quick to anger and slow to understanding, but he slew his share, if not well-over it, when the fighting came. And he alone ate the raw flesh of terror-birds and terror-lizards.
There was a mortal of intellect, who was shorter than three feet in height — a gnome. His mind could crack the secrets and riddles of a sphinx, and he was a master of strategy and tactics. The two shields he wielded were just as effective at killing as a sword, and his gnomish ways of sneaking about were unmatched, as was his ability to slice a throat without being seen or heard. And very few knew of the gnomish poison darts, one of which could bring down a terror-lizard in a matter of seconds.
There was a young woman, she who used to be a shiphand on Vrykul Krev. She was aboard the ship when it was wrecked by the frost queen, Aźulwyn, and she, as well as the man with her, survived the great distance the captain’s cabin flew over, thrown by the mystic arts of that wretched queen. She was thought to be dead, along with the man, though in truth, she spent two weeks at sea before being found by a merchant ship, which later returned her and the man to Manalothel Landing.
The companion had lost his memories when their flying cabin hit the water, for his head had dashed against the wood as he held the woman for her protection. She had told him his name when he came-to, for he could not remember it. Together, they had tried to find information of where he had come from, but their efforts ended with no fruit. Presently, he acted as her protector, just as he had done as they flew two hundred miles from where the ship had been wrecked. However, they could not have asked for a better life since, for they had formed an unbreakable bond, and no trial was too great while they were together.
Perhaps the strongest among the party was a man of simple garb, who wore a cloak adorned with large raven feathers, and pauldrons of raven skulls and feathers. Slung around him was a great ram’s horn, and many tomes were kept on his belt, hung by chains. He was a learned man, knowing spells, languages, histories, and philosophies. None knew where he came from or who he was, but legend told of a child from the Iron Empire who had lost everything to become a great and feared wizard, and there were some who matched that story to the man known as Nostrorem Saladren. Nostrorem led the party of nine through the wild country of Undrogal Swamp, and ever did his companion follow him, the man called, The Mute Knight, or, The Black Knight.
Lastly, there was The Black Knight, named so because of his obsidian plate armor, which left nothing of his flesh to be seen. None had seen him without his armor, and he never talked — he communicated in nods and grunts. His weapon was a two-handed mace, and he slew any hostile mortal or beast which came for Nostrorem, the man he followed.
And after many battles against the fauna of the swamp, from which many arrows and bolts were lost and blades were dulled, the nine came upon a gray, wooden shack.
The shack was built atop a large mound of land, and this miniature island had many glowing runes etched into its dirt. The shack had no windows, and it looked large enough to house a group of twelve.
The party wished to examine the shack and find out if anyone lived there. So they went to the door of the shack, and Nostrorem knocked thrice.
The gray wood made no movement, nor was there sounds from within.
Nostrorem could see the faint glow of yellow light creeping from beneath the door, and thinking it was candlelight, he knocked again.
The door opened, and the dull glow of a lit hearth emanated from within, and a beautiful woman stood in the doorway, cautiously looking out at them. She looked as if she was in her thirties, and she had blond hair, eyes that were colored jade, and crimson lips. Her skin looked soft and colored the faintest pink, and her cheeks shimmered, as if the tiniest specs of silver were embedded in them. She wore plain clothes: boots that fit small feet and reached her knees, a tunic made from brown cloth, and a leather belt. Her eyes flashed at the group outside her door, demanding attention.
“What is it you seek?” she said timidly.
It was a strange sight: a beautiful woman living deep within the swamp. And none among the party could point to why they found her odd.
“You’re not alone, are you?” Borazen, the man with no memory, said.
“No!” the woman snapped, a tinge of fear flushing her face as she recoiled, about to close the door.
“Ma’am, we aren’t here to bring you harm,” Nostrorem said with a hand held out.
“We seek a great snake, milady,” the dwarf said, bowing.
“To rid these lands of its vile influence,” the high elf said loftily.
The woman relaxed. “Surely, your snake would be far away from here,” she said. “For how could I survive if such was wandering amongst these trees?”
“Right you are,” said the barbarian of men. “We should leave you now to find and slay the beast!”
“Oh,” she exclaimed, surprised, and the party hung on her every word. “You don’t have to leave right away, do you? It’s warm inside, and you all look just famished; your clothes would have a chance to dry, too.”
The nine looked down at their dirty, wet clothes.
“We really should be —” Nostrorem began to say, wanting to finish the job they had been payed to do.
“No, milady,” the dwarf said. “We could spare some time for one as lovely as you.”
The woman blushed, and the silver in her cheeks shimmered with tides of pinks, blues, yellows, and reds. “Come on in,” she said shyly. “I’ll get something for you all to eat, and, if you wish, I can perform a few readings, too.”
She was a queen of bones, cauldrons, star gazing, and tarot cards. She had taken up the theory of runes, learning what combinations of lines, shapes, and inks would draw power from which energies, and the effects they would have. In short, she was a witch.
She was respected and feared, but only few of her subjects knew that she was the one they worshiped. For hundreds of years, she had a constant diet of those who lived in her swamp. She was a holdout of a legion from an age nearly forgotten, one of few such terrible remnants, scattered when they failed to enslave the world through death and witchcraft — the legends tell that the Titans broke their vows of non-intervention to end the slaughter.
She could read fates, though they always told of brutal killings. She could see the signs of the stars, though they always spoke of forbidden woes. She could decode a palm, though death was always seen in the lines. She practiced pyronulgy, the sacred art of seeing the future within dancing flames. And she could throw the bones and read what they foretold.
She could have been a fraud, but she was perhaps the truest fate reader to exist, for those who came to her quickly found their end, and she found a nice meal.
The hissing was all around her, seeming to come from within the very walls of the cave, that place of safety she had found — they had found. The snake was somewhere above, or perhaps she — it — was in the caves, too. The thought made her shudder. She, Songbird, yes, she was called that once, and it seemed like fifty years had passed since. Now there was a snake which wanted to swallow the bird, and her feathers would fly from the reptilian mouth if she was caught.
Borazen stirred beside her, and she put an arm around him — he did the same. And she felt safe. His arms were big and muscular, and she knew he would stand between her and the snake — Ishteth, don’t let that be our end.
But her feelings did not bring light to the cave, nor did they dry the damp rock. And the drip, drip of water dropping into little pools was insufficient to mask the ever-present hissing of snakes. It sounded as if there were a thousand of them.
She held Borazen tight, and she closed her eyes, the darkness of the inside of her eyelids barely darker than the cave.
Why did we go inside? she thought, though it was a question of futility. They had gone in, and nothing could change that. Nothing could undo their great folly.
She welcomed the nine in, enchanting their eyes to overlook the large hole in the right corner of the shack, which had many slithering, emerald snakes poking half their bodies from out of it. The snakes were feeding on a single corpse, though it was mostly bones by the time she let the party in, but the mortals would not see this wretched sight, for their eyes had been touched by the witch’s magic. And when the party entered the shack, the snakes retreated down the large hole, slithering backwards as if they were one — as if they knew to stay out of sight — taking the corpse down with them.
The party gazed upon the room, seeing the books, scrolls, diagrams, candles, herbs, bottles with queer liquids, and the shelves with animal bones and jars with preserved eyeballs, organs, and blood.
“You know your craft,” the satyr said in awe. “True fate readers are a rare sight these days.”
“You know of my calling?” she said, a slight tremor in her voice. She forced a smile, though the mortals would see it as a natural, welcoming one, full of nurture.
“I gaze upon the heavens, beholder,” the satyr said. “Though I only dabble in tellings and interpretation. I’m no master as you surely are.” He sold himself short, for he was a great star gazer in his land.
“You flatter me,” she said, blushing — waves of pinks, blues, yellows, and reds washed over her cheeks.
“Is is so exceptional to stumble upon a witch living in the swamp?” the gnome said, unimpressed. “Is it not said, where waters rise, there witches die?”
The witch recoiled at the phrase. “Yes,” she said with hate in her voice. “But that’s because your dwarven rulers drown their witches.”
“Whatever ends their perverse practices is fine with me,” the gnome said, smirking. “I’d drown them, myself, if I were permitted.”
“You think yourself clever,” she said. “But you’re not nearly as intelligent as you think you are. Witchcraft is embraced by those of us with real intellect — everyone else cowers with envy and fear.”
“Or perhaps, those of us of lesser intellect are wise enough to stay away from the perverse arts,” the gnome shot back.
“Perverse or not, you still fear what your mind cannot comprehend,” she said.
“You should count yourself lucky The Ten Hammers are three-thousand leagues away,” the gnome said. “I’d report you at a dart’s speed.”
“Gantnolt!” The satyr said, his voice raspy. “That is no way to speak to our host.”
“Don’t you worry,” the witch said. “His little heart would give out should he betray me, and his precious laws can’t touch me, not here.”
“I for one am inclined to agree with Gantnolt’s opinions of witchcraft,” the dwarf said. “But so long as milady ain’t hurting no one, I’d say she should be able to pursue whatever she desires.”
“Thank you, dwarf,” the witch said, and she began to prepare the night’s meal.
Songbird shivered from the cold; even with Borazen’s body heat, she was cold. The cave was far from light and the wet only made the cold worse.
“Saralene,” Nostrorem whispered, daring to speak.
She opened her eyes, though she could only see crude, shadowy figures. Her leader and The Black Knight were both huddled against the cave wall a few feet away. She knew not how long it had been since they retreated down that hole, the one which seemed to appear from nowhere when the fighting began — like magic. The thought made her angry.
“What?” Saralene whispered back.
“We can’t last in these caves long,” Nostrorem said.
The Black Knight grunted in agreement.
Saralene knew that his visor was secured over his face, even now, when there was precious little sight to be had.
“He’s right,” Borazen whispered. “We all saw that thing up there. It won’t be long until it finds us.”
“Won’t be long indeed,” Saralene whispered. “Because we’re making enough noise to wake a deep-sleeping giant.”
“We can’t keep going down,” Nostrorem whispered. “At some point, we’ll have to face that thing again — we might as well give up if we don’t. There’s no knowing what’s further down. We could find these caves have an end, serving ourselves up to the thing without contest, or they could go on forever.”
“Perhaps there are worse things down there than what’s above,” Borazen whispered, arms still holding the woman.
The Black Knight grunted, agreeing again.
“Precisely,” Nostrorem whispered.
“Very well,” Saralene whispered, reluctant to go back the way they had come. “Lead the way.”
The witch baked round loaves of bread, and after they rose, they were stuffed with meat and potatoes, a common meal in the Iron Empire known as, panmeso. She made a sauce to pour over five large yellow-squashes, locally known as, camgolti. And she brought out a large pitcher of wine, which seemed to never empty, no matter how much the dwarf guzzled down.
The satyr mentioned that the stuffed bread was too meaty for his tastes, for satyrs ate little meat, but he quite enjoyed the wine and camgolti — the dwarf reprimanded him, apologizing to the witch on the satyr’s behalf.
Everyone ate and drank until they were filled, and there was plenty of food left over.
And when dinner was finished, the witch sat at a small, round table, which had two chairs placed across from one another. And she welcomed any among the nine to join her, so she could read what was to be their fate.
Gantnolt profusely rejected the offer, but the dwarf was not entirely opposed to it, which shocked and appalled the gnome.
Nostrorem also turned down the witch’s offer, for he had experience in darker magics, and he knew there would be a terrible price to pay for the grim curiosity of his youth. But he did not want to know what that price would be.
The barbarian, whose name was Wor (though the name was not of his birth, but rather, the name given to him while he fought in the pits), was the first to sit across from the witch, so she could tell him what fate he would find.
She took the man’s meaty, gray hand, examined his knuckles, looking intensely at each bone, and she flipped his hand over, revealing his palm to her eyes. She quickly licked the gray palm, and its lines began to glow blue. “Your Mier Rasz tells that you will die at peace, in your sleep,” she revealed.
Wor was displeased. “I would’ve hoped to die a bloody death, for the Great Father and the fatherland.”
“And your Cie Rasz reveals that your end will be during your thirty-fourth year in this world,” she said.
“I’ll be thirty-four in less than six months!” Wor exclaimed, eyes wide.
“Do you want to make an appeal to the cards?” the fate reader said. “They might show you a way to avert your death.”
“Yes,” he said. “Anything! Great Father, don’t let me die so young!”
She reached for a deck of long cards, having black backs, trimmed with a sliver of gold, and having three symbols in their centers. She shuffled them and drew the bottom card, placing it face-down in the middle of the table; the symbols shone out at the man — three symbols, all gold, the first, an open-palm with an open eye in its center, the second, a closed eye, the last, a clawed hand. She then drew the top card, placing it face-up (just below the first). “Cava de Glor,” she said, announcing the name which went to the image on the card — a man on a horse, with a spiked helmet, wearing a tabard with a silver star over plate armor, wielding an elegant, golden sword, and holding a spiked shield, which covered the length of his body, and the card was trimmed with orange. Four queer circles were about the card, one on top, one on bottom, one left, and one right; the top had the closed eye, the bottom was a brown circle, the left had an up-pointing triangle, and the right was a black circle — these were key aspects of each tarot card, though the symbols differed.
“What does it mean?” Wor said, eyes wide.
“Patience,” she said, flipping over the next card of the deck’s top and placing it over, but halfway down, the other revealed card. “El Soral.” The card had the image of a yellow and orange burning sun, with a face, surrounded by a blue background for the sky, and its rays squiggled as they reached the gold-trimmed edges of the thick paper. Its four symbols were a closed eye, a crimson circle, a diamond, and a nine-pointed star.
“Well?!” Wor said anxiously, sweat forming over his forehead.
“El Soral is a good match with the star of Cava de Glor — they both point to the sky,” she said. “Either would have been better matched with El Lunaz or El Strea, but you get what the fates give. What I can’t tell yet is whether or not your days of glory are all spent, but the man sitting before me was clearly one of renown, famous as a heralded warrior. This is El Teramonto, the first pair.”
“Byyk gondolik,” Gantnolt said under his breath, which was a grimy profanity in his own tongue.
The witch carried on with her reading. She cut the deck in two, placing one half to the right of the two face-up cards, while the other half was placed to the left. She drew the bottom card of the left deck and placed it face-up to the right of the two. “Scurneric,” she announced, for the card that was pitch-black, bordered with bronze, having four symbols around it. And she took from the top of the right deck, placing the card face-up, halfway down the black card. “El Despectru. This does not look good for you; your days of fame are clearly behind you, and a darkness, or a spirit of doom, hangs over you. This is what I see from El Kumonia, the second pair.”
Wor’s eyes looked as if they would pop out of his skull, wide with fear. Those of the Iron Empire were highly superstitious, and the witch’s reading was nearly more than he could bare.
She took the top card of the left deck, placing it face-up and to the left of the four other revealed cards. “El Protontost,” she said of the card with the image of a drunkard, sitting on barrel of wine and drinking from a bottle of some other alcoholic drink. She drew from the bottom of the right deck, placing it face-up, halfway down the drunk’s card. “El Sangkre.” The card was trimmed with dark-green, and in its center was an image like a drop of rain, but it was crimson.
The witch’s eyes flashed as she looked over the six cards, reading their meaning. “There is little hope to change your fate — the seventh card will reveal this to me. It is clear that your days of glory are behind you, a doom hangs over your head, and you will make an unwise decision that will do harm to your life. Do you wish for me to flip the seventh card?”
Wor did not know what he wanted, but he needed to know if his fate could change. “Flip it,” he said, beads of sweat falling down his forehead.
She turned over the card in the center of the table (the first card she had drawn). The image was that of a human skeleton, with three skulls for heads — all hooded, cloaked in tattered, black robes, and holding a long, curving scythe, blade at his feet, and a crescent moon was above his heads. “Apexalto de Vulga, the head of El Prinabel de Segcerarda — Segcera Mayaz.”
“What does it mean?” Wor said intently.
“You will die,” she said.
Wor stood from the chair, eyes emptied, mind churning. “Thank you,” he said. And he sat in the corner of the room, and his eyes were still enchanted to ignore the hole in the ground which he sat next to.
The witch smirked for the briefest of moments. “Who’s next?” she said.
The four, led by Nostrorem, walked through the cave, headed back the way they had come. They had gone through the cave, following its winding paths far below the surface, passing many tunnels which led this way and that way. But they made their descent as straight as the cave would let them, making their way up easier to follow.
The Black Knight’s armor rattled with each step, though he moved in such a way to minimize noise.
She still heard the hissing all around the dark way, and she feared the thing would find them because of their movements.
That wretched thing — Saralene did not want to see it again. The way it came at them, the way it ate her friend — she had to force herself not to scream. Think on other things, she thought.
But she could not.
It was as if the thing had haunted the walls of the cave, haunted her very mind. She would have sang if she could, but she knew her singing was useless against the thing and its master — her gift would only serve to bring the gheist closer. However, she did chance a song in her mind, hoping the haunt would not hear.
There were five interested in having their fates read by the witch, but after hearing Wor’s fate, none were as sure as before.
“Surely, your fates are not all intertwined,” the witch said assuringly. “Come, come, don’t be shy.”
Not one of them moved.
“This is pure silliness,” she said, getting up. She crossed the shack and went to Nostrorem, who had planted his back against the wall, The Black Knight standing next to him. “Come, I’ll read your fate next.”
“No, woman,” Nostrorem said. “My fate is not a book to be read, for it would be too terrible for any to witness — play your game with another.”
Wor trembled as he sat in the corner.
“Very well,” she said. “You shall be ne —” she placed a hand on The Black Knight’s forearm, touching his obsidian-colored plate armor — she recoiled, eyes wide. “You! This one has already tasted death.” She looked to the knight’s master. “I see now.” And she went back to her table, saying nothing more, her eyes staring at the table’s center. She looked as a reprimanded child.
Nostrorem eyed the woman with a dark gaze, but she did not return it.
And the satyr stepped over to the witch, his hooves clopping over the gray wood. He moved the chair opposite the woman and squatted where it had been. “Beholder, I would hear what the master reads of my fate,” he said.
The witch looked up at the goat-like, shaggy-furred head of the satyr, her eyes pools of despair. “I can’t, kindly creature,” she said. “I have lost heart.” She looked away.
“I understand that you only peer into fate,” the satyr said. “And you would not do me harm. Please, I would see you work your craft.” He held out his hand.
She then agreed to read the satyr’s fate, and she studied his knuckles and turned over his hand, licking it, as she had done to Wor. The process was the same as with the human, though satyrs have massive hands, with two fingers and a thumb, and their nails are more like long claws. She seemed to have a hard time reading the creature’s palm, but she eventually said that he had lived long — or would live long — she did not know which, for she had never read a satyr’s fate before.
However, the satyr was giddy, no matter how uncertain the reading, for he thought her to be infallible.
And she shuffled her cards, placing one face-down in the center of the table (from the bottom of the deck), just as she had done with Wor. And she drew; the first card was trimmed with gold, a shaft of yellow wheat in its center, and a dark-blue sickle at its bottom — El Cosoltwa. The second card was trimmed with crimson, a crimson heart in its center, a white crown above, and a black sword below — El Orazoim de Sabidro.
“You are an honest worker,” she said. “An honorable pursuer of your craft.”
The satyr smiled, though his goat-like face made an awkward show of it.
“You have gained great wisdom from your work,” she said, and she drew the next pair. The first card was trimmed with bronze and a child was in its center, half girl and half boy, a doll in one hand and a stick in the other — El Ninopil. And the second was trimmed with silver, having the picture of a fire-breathing dragon — El Balaurok.
“You are not blind like the old man,” she said. “For you have a child’s spirit, and you will use innovation to slay a great dragon — perhaps, you have already.”
“I’ve come across no dragons,” the satyr said, amused.
“It doesn't have to be an actual dragon,” she said. And she drew the final pair. The first was trimmed with gold and a bearded man was in its center, whose gaze was upon the babe he held in one hand, his other hand held up, his first two fingers pointed to the sky — El Padrejh. The second as trimmed in the same as the first and had four swords lined up, two pointed up and two pointed down — Orahin.
The witch was surprised by this. “You are aligned with the spirit of order,” she said. “It seems you have a child’s imagination and a father’s order — strange.” She then flipped over the final card, revealing it. It was also trimmed with gold, having a planet in its center, colored blue and green — El Lumund.
The witch looked the cards over one last time, though she did not like what she saw — the company’s eyes would see that she was pleased. She then read the satyr’s fate. “It is clear,” she said. “You are destined for greatness, and the world will be your reward, giving you its best.”
The satyr was pleased with what he heard, thanked the witch, and returned the chair to its original place. “I do have one last request of you,” he said, smiling shyly.
“Request away,” the witch said, though she boiled with wrath inside.
“I would ask that you search the stars,” the satyr said. “I would love to see one of your quality read from the dark and light as my people do.”
The witch put on a fake smile, saying: “I will gladly read the skies for you.” And the two of them left alone, for reading the stars was a private affair.
And when they returned, the satyr looked all the more happy.
And the next of the group sat down across from the witch.
It started with Wor and ended with me, Saralene reflected, as she marched over damp rock in the darkness. We should never have come.
But she could not comprehend the forces which brought her and the company to the witch’s lair. Indeed, something great and powerful compelled their minds and bent their steps, all to converge at the strange road’s end which was that shack. Was it possible to escape fate?
Saralene wondered why her god was bent on baring his poisonous fangs into her flesh. It seemed to her that her life had been one terrible circumstance after another, the most recent being the great shipwreck and this encounter with the snakewitch and her pet. Did I do wrong in my childhood to provoke Ishteth to anger? She could think of no other explanation to the why of her fate being so foul.
Yes, Ishteth was furious with her, that was clear. After all, was it not he who determined the fates of men? It was indeed. And the witch had showed me what my fate would be. And fate can not be averted, not when Ishteth holds its reins.
She was close behind Borazen, the only good to come out of her fate for a long passing of time. And with him in mind, she thought her fate was not so bad.
The dwarf was next at the table, ready to hear what the tarot cards spoke of him.
The witch was willing to continue her readings, and she began to flip. She drew the first card and placed it face-down. Next, she began to draw the three pairs, and the first card was El Mielor, trimmed with bronze and a complacent, white sheep in its center. The last of the pair was El Colmiti, a card trimmed with black, having the open mouth of some monster in its center, the beast’s fangs white and deadly. The next pair began with El Strea, a card trimmed with bronze and having a nine-pointed, yellow star in its center, and it was followed by Scurneric, a card of complete black besides the bronze trimming and the four symbols. The final pair began with El Hamod, a card trimmed with gold, a bat-winged daemon in its center, and it was followed by El Sarpaen, a card trimmed with green, having a coiled, black snake in its center.
The witch pointed to the pair, El Strea and Scurneric, and said: “You have been like a star in the darkness, and perhaps you will continue to shine when lights are dim. It is clear you are brave.”
The dwarf blushed.
“Though,” she continued, pointing to the pair, El Mielor and El Colmiti. “Your death will be like the devouring of the sheep by the lion.”
He was visibly unnerved by that.
“Yes, it is sad,” she said. And she pointed to the final pair, El Hemaod and Sarpaen. “This will be your doom — look at it well. It is some great serpent, or perhaps an entity of daemonic power.”
“And the last card?” the dwarf said, voice shaking.
“Are you certain you want me to reveal it?” the witch said, a glint in her eye — she wanted to see it.
The dwarf thought for a moment, and as he was about to answer in the negative, the card was flipped over. He gasped.
A card trimmed with purple, having the symbol of a clawed hand on top, a blue circle on bottom, a nine-pointed star on its right, and a down-pointing triangle on its left. But all the dwarf saw was the child in its center, holding his intestines in both hands, his knees bent, blood gushing to the grass, watching with dying eyes and a pale face as his life slipped from him.
“El Patrovicer Ninopil,” the witch said, awe in her voice. She regained her composure. “This does not look good for you.” And she was greatly relieved.
“At least I will die with honor,” the dwarf said, his eyes pointed straight but not seeing anything. He got up and sat by the wall.
Saralene went over to comfort the dwarf, as she saw the next of them step forward to have his fate read — Borazen. She wanted to scream, no! But that would not help.
“I knew you’d be next,” the witch said, the corner of her mouth tugged by a smirk.
“Did you?” Borazen said, curious.
“Well, I certainly wanted you next,” she said, and a hint of a hiss came out as she did. She shuffled the deck of cards and drew from the bottom, placing it face-down. She then drew the first of the pairs, pulling from the top of the deck and placing the card face-up a little ways below the first.
“El Laero,” she said of a card trimmed with black and a sword-wielding man in its center. She flipped over the next, placing it halfway down El Laero. “El Leun.” This card was trimmed with orange and in its center was a roaring lion. She was surprised by this pairing. “Never in all my years have I seen such — I know not the exact meaning. Perhaps you are as fierce as a lion, or maybe you’re a slayer of lions, a great warrior to be certain.”
Borazen looked back at Saralene, smirking. “Perhaps,” he said sardonically.
She then cut the deck, putting one half to the right and the other half to the left, drew the bottom card of the left deck, and placed it face-up to the right of the revealed cards. A brief smile lit her face as she saw the card, though it was gone too quickly for any to notice. “El Hamod,” she said of the same daemon-card that had been drawn for the dwarf. She drew the top card of the right deck, placing it halfway down the daemon-card. “El Sarpaen.”
The same pair, and drawn in the same order, as was drawn for the dwarf.
“You, too, will fight a great monster,” the witch said, hiding her joy. She then drew the top card of the left deck, placing it to the left of the revealed cards. “El Argan Tarcut.” The card was trimmed with orange and a silver shield was in its center. She drew the bottom card of the right deck, placing it halfway down the shield-card, face-up. “El Cotantas.” Her eyes were queerly wide, surprised by the final pair.
“What does it all mean?” Borazen said confidently.
“You… I cannot know,” the witch said, frustrated. “Not without the seventh.”
Borazen gestured to the face-down card, the first card — the last card.
The witch flipped over the seventh, horrid expectancy in her mind. And her heart nearly gave out from the tremendous anxiety — she gasped as she saw the gold-trimmed card with the white skull in its center. “Muarte,” she said, regaining her assuredness.
Borazen knew nothing of the cards, and he sat there without a care in the world.
“It means death, my friend,” the witch said, though she was far from a friend. “You will face the great snake, and a great warrior you will prove yourself to be; you will act as a shield for the one you love; but you will die for her. Death is coming.”
Borazen nodded, as if he had always known. He stood up and joined the dwarf, but more importantly, he joined Saralene.
It was the high elf who sat down next, eager to hear what the next thousand years would have for him.
The witch went straight to the cards, shuffling and drawing the way she had done with the others. The first card was drawn from the bottom of the deck and placed face-down. Then the pairs were drawn, and the first of the pairs were, El Ninopil and El Putrido, the latter having an orange and crimson flame in its center, trimmed with green. The second of the pairs began with El Tarcut and ended with El Vijilaros, which was trimmed with dark-green and had a man attop a high wall, looking out to the ocean. And of the final pair, El Veasca de Vetrava was first, a card trimmed with black and having a silver goblet in its center, dark-green liquid within. And ending the pair was El Sangkre. And the final card was revealed to be El Veasca de Razura, which was trimmed with bronze and had a bronze cup, filled with water, in its center.
“I am sorry, great elf,” the witch said. “But your fate is clear.”
The elf looked at her, hope in his green eyes.
“You were a child of the flames,” the witch said. “A faithful servant of your people’s gods. This led you to become a shield to the race — el rakza.”
The high elf nodded, knowing these things already, knowing that el rakza was a popular term in the Iron Empire tongue, referring to the preference of their own.
“But you will drink of the cup of poison,” the witch said. “And it will course through your blood — I’m sorry to say. This is clear, for your final card has revealed that you will drink poison as if it were water.”
“I would never do such,” the elf said in protest. “Do I look like a southerner lord? One who would drink poison in a tournament? No! I will never do such!”
“It is not in my power to change what the cards say,” the witch said. “I only look and tell what I see.”
“It is false!” the elf said, outraged. And he stormed off, leaving the chair vacant.
And the final reading would soon begin, the reading of Saralene’s fate.
I never should’ve let her see my fate, Saralene reflected, as she followed their leader through the caves. Perhaps that was the greatest mistake of all. No clarity came of it, and it only served to make the witch more anxious. Ishteth be praised, I brought about our terrible fates. At least, the witch became more hostile after that, more weary of our presence — she resolved to kill us swiftly after my fate was told.
She still heard the hissing in the walls of the cave, and they soon came upon the blockage in the cave. A pile of stone and wood was piled to the tunnel’s ceiling. A wooden door once stood there, with stones around its frame. But the door, and the stones, had been torn down by the snake.
And Saralene felt a deep shudder run down her body, remembering the way the witch had looked at them after the door fell. And a sudden rush of sickness came over her, as she looked over the wreckage for the body of her friend — gone, the stones rearranged from how they had fallen.
“He’s gone,” she said, pointing at the place where blood stained the rock.
Borazen held her. “Shh,” he said.
“She must have come for him after we left,” Nostrorem said. And he pointed at the wreckage — The Black Knight grunted and stepped forward, ready to bash and haul the stone and wood away.
“How’s your hand?” Saralene said.
Borazen lifted his right hand to his face — it glowed queerly, a dark-green. “It throbs,” he said. “But it’s not bad.”
Saralene kissed the back of his hand, and they watched as the knight cleared away the rubble.
Saralene sat across from the witch, and the older woman smiled at her, sending a chill down her spine. She should have known then to walk away, but a greater force drove her on. She needed her fate spelled out for her.
“What would you have me read?” the witch said, staring into the queer eyes of the pale woman before her. “Your palm? The bones? The stars? The cards?”
“I would have you consult the cards,” Saralene said.
Nostrorem shifted his body, watching the witch with defensive eyes.
“As you command,” the witch said, and she began.
The cards were drawn — one face-down, two face-up, followed by the second and third pairs. What was drawn was El Okeara and Rigal de Femeik, Muarte and El Toretu de Nebura, El Sankre and El Sacrasado, and ended with El Veasca de Kosesa.
But when the witch looked over the cards, she could not find a clear message within them.
“The ocean paired with a royal woman,” the witch complained. “Death paired with a tower of folly. Blood paired with a priest. And all of it wrapped together with a cup of nightmare.” She looked up at the woman across from her, confusion like a fog over her face. “Your fate makes no sense.”
And the witch spent a long passing of time trying to break the great mystery that was Saralene’s fate, but she had to give up after a time, all of her conclusions more outlandish than the last.
And once the witch gave up, all of the readings were finished, and she offered for the company to stay the night, telling them they would be safer inside her shack than out in the darkness.
Nostrorem rejected her offer, for he did not want to overstay their welcome, nor did he want to sleep under the roof of one he did not know, no matter how welcoming she had been.
And when the party began to leave, the dwarf noticed that Wor had fallen asleep in the corner, and when prodded to wake, the gray man would not. So, regretfully, Nostrorem took up the witch’s offer, and the party slept in her shack.
The witch lit crimson candles about the room, saying they would give the company a more refreshed rest. And she retreated to her room, closing its door behind her.
It was early, though long before dawn, when that hole in the corner (which was not seen by the company) came alive. And long, emerald snakes poked their heads out, slithering over the wooden floorboards, and no matter how far out of the hole they came, their tails did not appear, for they were curiously long. They first came upon Wor, whom they ripped apart — he was under a powerful spell of sleeping, so he did not wake, not even when their bodies slithered up the inside of his ribcage, ever eating his flesh, lungs, and heart.
It was the man, Nostrorem, who first awoke, though only because The Black Knight shook him to waking. And when his mind grasped what was happening, he said: “The great snake! It’s here!”
Gantnolt awoke in a panic, for his sleep had been plagued with night-terrors. And he was horrified when he saw the long snakes. “Gondolik!” he said.
The room came alive, as the company was awakened by the cries of their mates. They reached for their weapons — and all were equally surprised by the hole in the corner, equally fearful at the sight of Wor’s fate. But this was no time for grieving.
“That's not just one great snake,” the dwarf said, distressed as he cocked back the string of his crossbow. “That's a whole knot of ‘em!”
“It matters not how many there are,” Nostrorem said, hands glowing green as he shot balls of fire into the horde. “Just kill them all!”
The high elf shot arrows at the heads for a time, though when the snakes became too numerous and came too close, he drew his longsword and fought by the falchion-wielding dwarf’s side. They cut down emerald snake after emerald snake.
Gantnolt bashed the snakes that slithered his way with his two shields, slicing into their emerald skins with spikes and crushing bone.
Saralene was at the reer, and she had started to sing, for her song could bend the minds of men, though she had never tried it against beasts — it did not sway the snakes. But aside from her voice, she only had a dagger, and she drew it, ready to slice into any snake that came near her.
But the blade was not Saralene’s only weapon, for a massive wolf fought for her, his claws and fangs standing between the woman and the snakes. Borazen battled with all of the ferocity of his beastial form.
The Black Knight smashed with his great mace, the black metal cleaving snakes and shattering the wood of the shack wherever it hit.
The satyr used the practices of his race to summon roots from beneath the shack, the gnarled and twisted wood used like rope to pin and choke the snakes.
But for each snake felled, three more slithered to take its place, until the walls, ceiling, and floor were covered by the long snakes, no tails in sight.
“Get behind me!” Nostrorem said to his comrades.
And six of them rushed behind Nostrorem (The Black Knight stood at his side, swinging his great mace at reptilian heads), and he summoned a wall of flame, splitting the shack in two, the snakes on one side and the company on the other. The fire burned through any snake fortunate enough to be caught on both sides of the wall, both halves falling limp to the ground on either side. The remaining snakes stared at the group, as if they expected the flames to die.
“Very good,” the witch said, coming out of her room.
Gantnolt was the first to see her, and she had changed. Her once smooth skin was now covered in pale-white scales, and she now had six arms, her hands clawed. Her beautiful smile replaced by rows of venomous fangs. Her long, blond hair now alive with locks of pale-white snakes. And where there was once the waist and legs of a human, there was now the long, thick tail of a snake, bending behind her.
The gnome ran at her, a shield in each hand, ready to run her through with the many metal spikes covering the shields’ faces.
The witch reacted by extending one of her six hands and putting voice to words she had read in a tome — a spell able to obliterate anything it touched, melting flesh or metal or wood. She threw a bolt of energy at the charging gnome.
Gantnolt lifted both shields, leaving no gap between.
The magic slammed into the metal with a great crash and a flash of pale-blue light.
The witch was shocked, seeing the gnome still standing, his shields intact.
“Warding,” Gantnolt said, smirking as he clinked the two spiked slabs together. “Protection against magic.” And his shields glowed a pale-purple.
“No matter,” the snakewitch said, and she extended all six of her hands — a great wave-like wall of purple energy shot forth.
Gantnolt raised his shields again, but his small body was thrown back this time, his back smacking hard against the wall.
The witch laughed.
“I’ll keep the snakes back,” Nostrorem said, his hands raised to keep the wall of flame up, the snakes waiting patiently on the other side. “Focus on the great snake.”
Borazen shot forward, the first to the fray, arrows and bolts flying past him, shot from bow and crossbow of high elf and dwarf. The Black Knight ran alongside him for a brief time, but he surpassed the armored man. And he saw a stream of dark-green energy whiz over his head, coming from the three-fingered hands of the satyr. He looked into the eyes of the snakewitch, and a great terror rent his mind, but he heard the soft voice of Saralene at his back, and his fears melted away, for her song could lift the most forlorn of men; she was possibly the worst fighter alive, but she did not need to be a warrior, and he prefered that she was not.
With a smirk, the snakewitch whirled one of her hands and a circular shield of energy appeared before her, arrows and bolts turning to pink rose-petals as they passed through, and petals were not as deadly as an arrow. And the petals fell to the ground at the witch’s long, snake tail. Another of her hands extended and took hold of the satyr’s beam of energy, her hand glowing a sacred color, smoke rising from the point of impact.
Borazen slammed against the witch’s scaly body, claws ripping and fangs bearing down.
The Black Knight gave a queer wail as he swung his mace at the witch.
She of cards and magics swiped the air with one hand, as if she were smacking a man’s face, but her hand hit no one.
Instead, The Black Knight’s mace was redirected, forced to hit an unintended target — Borazen.
The massive wolf flew through the air, struck hard by the thick metal — he hit the wall, falling to the ground. His side cried out in unbearable pain, but he forced himself to get back up, determination in his eyes.
The dwarf and the high elf put aside their ranged weapons, unsheathing their blades and running at the witch as one.
The high elf swung his longsword, hitting the snakewitch, though she was able to dodge a deadly blow, and the metal hit her scaly tail, barely scratching her. And the elf saw the rage flame in her eyes — he swung again and again, the witch too quick to deal a fatal blow.
The snakewitch used magic and speed to deflect and dodge the attacks of the dwarf and the elf and the knight, ever absorbing the satyr’s magics with her own, but she saw the wolf charging her, and the gnome had gotten up, his shields upraised as he ran to her. “Enough of this,” she said, her words barely audible over the sounds of battle and fire. She extended five of her arms, palms open, claws bending forward, and she began to hiss the words to an ancient spell — a horrid circle of energy was drawn in the air before her, glowing dark-green. Lines were drawn within the circle, forming shapes. And when the magic circle was complete, she hissed another word.
The wolf and the gnome had almost reached the snakewitch when the full force of her spell was unleashed — a thrashing, writhing nest of giant snake tails rushed forth from somewhere within the circle, like an untamed beast from a cage. The tails were colored like mud and had black blotches all over, with dark-yellow underbellies, and though they did not have eyes, they seemed to be guided to their targets.
The Black Knight was the first hit, and it took three of the snake tails to hold him still, though he fought their hold on him.
The gnome was hit second, a massive tail slamming into him from above, pressing him into the ground.
A tail twisted around Borazen, the magic too strong to fight. It kept him in the air, as he failed to break its hold.
Another tail bashed into the high elf as the nest burst forth, sending him flying — he hit a wall, and a tail was quick to find his falling body, wrapping around him.
A tail wound around the dwarf, raising him into the air, his falchion dropping from his hand.
The satyr saw the tails coming at him — his goat eyes went to the petals on the floor. And he summoned the might of nature, the strength of his race, and the petals flew to his aid, like streaks of pink fire. They cut through many tails, though one tail broke through the flowery assault, slamming into the satyr. He burst through the front door, breaking through it and flying into the swamp, hitting the stagnant water face-down and unconscious.
Saralene avoided the swipe from a nearby tail but was not as fortunate when a second flanked her and wrapped around her.
And when Nostrorem saw the writhing knot of snake tails rushing to meet him, he split his focus on the flame wall and sent a vertical pillar of fire at the nest. Four snake tails were hit, a queer shrieking coming from them as they withered away, turning to smoke, consumed by the magic flame. But just as soon as they went, a horde came to replace them, and try as he did, he could not burn them all, not while part of his concentration was bent to keeping the many snake heads behind the wall of flame. The tails lunged forward, crashing against him, knocking him to the ground. He twisted from pain on the wooden beams, and the wall of flame vanished.
Victorious hissing came from the heads which were prevented from feeding just seconds before, and they slithered over the ground and along the walls and ceiling, turning their corner of the room emerald. They slowly went to claim their food, and no matter how far they came out, their tails were not seen.
“Fate has given me favor again,” the snakewitch said, and she beckoned the tail holding the dwarf to come to her. The tail was obedient, carrying the dwarf through the air and making him look upon her face. “It was read in the cards, dwarf.”
The dwarf’s lips trembled, as his body was crushed by the raw strength of the tail coiled around him. He could see its tip curved over his head, though it began to shake rapidly, as if it was excited by something, and that was when he knew. His eyes went to the snakewitch, the slits of her eyes meeting his, and he tried not to think of the knot of snakes that she had instead of hair, all twisting about and staring at him.
The snakewitch hissed, low and guttural, as if angered — perhaps full of gluttonous lust. “I will gorge on your flesh,” she said, her voice husky and sensual. “You will die a hero, a payment for this world’s protection — fear not, little one.”
The words were nothing to the dwarf, and terror filled him as he saw the scales of the snakewitch’s stomach parting. Those scales split, the hole growing from one-foot to two, then three, and four, becoming larger than him, and three rows of long and razor-sharp fangs were within, jutting out as if they were desperate to escape. He screamed — it was cut short as the tip of the tail which gripped him went into his mouth. Speechless, he stared into the queer opening in the snakewitch’s stomach — a horrid mouth, angled vertically, two green, forked tongues snaking out to greet him.
“Do not fear,” the snakewitch said from the mouth on her head.
The dwarf’s eyes went wide, his scream muffled but audible, as the tail moved closer to the large mouth. He began to wriggle, trying to worm out of the iron grip of the tail — then his eyes saw black, as one tongue wrapped around his neck, the other twisting around his right arm, reaching his shoulder.
The snakewitch devoured the dwarf whole, eating the tail along with the mortal, her large mouth becoming covered by scales again. She felt satisfied, sated of her hunger, full. She scanned the room and realized she had been too preoccupied with her meal to exude control over her spellwork — the magic tails had become limp, and their charges were able to escape.
“Die, daemon!” the high elf said, as he ran at her.
“Aldantar, no!” Nostrorem said, seeing what the elf did not in his rage — the snake heads were closing in, becoming a barrier for the witch.
Saralene sang, bolstering the spirits of the demoralized men around her.
Aldantar, formerly a high elf of the Paradrin Post, realized his folly when he heard a crash from the corner of the room where the snakes came from. He, as well as the rest of the company, looked to the corner and saw the floorboards were bent and broken, shattered, and the seemingly endlessly long snakes all converged and connected to one large body.
The thing had a hundred heads at least, and its body was large and thick as it forced itself through that once small hole. It hissed from its many heads, as one stubby leg broke through the floor, one long claw at its end; another leg opposite the first broke through, and the thing was able to pull the rest of its body from below. It had one thick tail which broke into three halfway down. Those two legs were the only limbs it had, and their single claws scraped against wood as the thing moved toward the party.
“We weren’t paid enough for this,” Aldantar said, eyes wide.
“What is it?” Saralene said.
“It’s a gorgolik hydra,” Nostrorem said. “Which marks our witch, our great snake, as one of the last gorgoliks.” He looked at the snakewitch — the gorgolik.
The gorgolik laughed with mirth. “Clevor human,” she said. “But knowing a thing doesn’t give you the power to kill it.”
“You’re right,” Nostrorem said. He then looked to his remaining mates. “Run!”
The gorgolik laughed louder, as she watched the company head for the entrance of her shack, only half a door clinging to the doorway.
The gorgolik hydra’s heads were at the opening before the company could reach it, its legs working to move its body closer to the place the satyr had flown out of.
They fought the hydra, slashing and striking the beast, but for every head it lost, two or three more replaced it.
Gantnolt retrieved his blowgun, the secret of the gnomes, and he fired a dart at one of the head’s necks. The dart was crimson, tipped with black and fletched with green feathers — it pierced the hide of the snake, the beast hissing in pain from the shot. And under the snake’s skin black began to spread.
The head went limp, falling to the floorboards with a thud. The other heads took notice, and they turned on the fallen head, biting into its own flesh, tearing at the hit neck as the poison spread. But before the black could reach the hydra’s body, the heads tore out the poisoned neck, letting it hit the ground, emerald replaced by black. Two heads raised up from the point of decapitation, necks growing at a horrid rate, eyes full of sick malice.
The heads converged upon the company. One of the heads sank its fangs into the elf, and he screamed; another head bit into him, and the two heads pulled him from the ground; ten more heads bit the elf, one of which was one of the two new heads. But the party was able to cut down the heads which clung to the elf, and he fell to the ground, twelve mouths still biting into him, inky tendrils dancing beneath his flesh where the fangs broke skin, poison spreading through his body. And for all their efforts, the party could not cut down enough of the hydra to break through to the other side of the door.
The hopeless nature of their attempt struck Nostrorem, and in a spark of mad genius he ordered his mates to follow him.
They ran the opposite way of the door, passing the large body of the hydra, dodging the strikes of its tails, and diving into the hole in the corner, which was now three times larger than it had been when the heads first came through. They helped the elf all the way, though they all knew he was doomed to die, for his death was foretold.
They heard the snakewitch’s laughter following them as they ran down the tunnel.
“I knew she was foul,” Gantnolt, the gnome, said.
“She would have cast enchantments over us,” Nostrorem said. “The gorgoliks were an ancient race, competent in spellwork, creating words of power and spell language before the dawn of other races. Their time has passed, and though much of their knowledge is not known to us, the remnants of their race still remember. A company like ours stood little chance against her.”
They passed many tunnels to their left and right, but they went as straight as the tunnel would allow. And they came upon a wooden door, with many stones forming a its doorway.
Borazen tried pushing the door open — he cried out, pulling his sizzling hand back. “It’s been warded,” he said, wincing from the pain.
Saralene came up to him. “Let me see,” she said.
“It’s too dark to see,” Borazen said.
Nostrorem inspected the door, his hands glowing as he ran them over the surface without touching it — a dark-green circle with magic lines lit up the door as his hands hovered over it, with patterns similar to the spell the snakewitch had used to summon the tails. “This is strong warding,” he said.
“Can’t be as good as mine,” Gantnolt said, raising one of his shields.
Nostrorem looked at the gnome, inspiration striking him. “Give me your shields!” he said, one hand held out.
“Are you mad?!” Gantnolt said, his arms recoiling. “Why do you want them?”
“I think you know why,” Aldantar said as he sat against the tunnel wall, his voice weak, his green eyes glazed over with a darker green, a noxious green.
“He means to break my wards and use its power to destroy the door’s warding,” Gantnolt said. “Aye, I know — he’s mad!”
Aldantar coughed blood.
Gantnolt saw it oozing out of the elf’s mouth, thick and darker than it should have been. “Fine,” he said, handing over his two shields to the man.
It took a long passing of time before Nostrorem was able to break the warding on the shields, but when he did, the power was his, and he channeled the purple magics through his hands and to the door. And with a great crack and a wave of tingling energy, the warding on the door was destroyed.
That was when the party heard the hissing. It came from all around them, as if the tunnel walls were just hallow cages with snakes of the other side — but it really came from behind.
“What have you done?!” the snakewitch said, her voice trembling.
And at that, Aldantar’s heart burst in his chest, a queer mixture of the poison and his terror ushering him to death’s arms. He drank poison like water.
“What have you done?!” the snakewitch said again, her voice all fury now.
With wide eyes, Nostrorem said: “Further down!”
And one by one the company ran through the open door. First Nostrorem, then The Black Knight, then Saralene, followed closely by Borazen, and Gantnolt last.
The snakewitch wailed, a sound like a banshee, and an ear-splitting crash followed it.
The tunnel briefly rumbled. Then the snakewitch’s scream was muffled.
Nostrorem looked back, and he saw the doorway had collapsed, stones and wood all in one pile.
Saralene ran to the rubble, seeing the tiny form crushed by the weight of the stone. She cried.
“No tears for me,” Gantnolt said, half of his chest and one arm outside the collapsed stones, his head bloody, one eye swollen.
Nostrorem put a hand on his hair.
“She… she pulled it down,” Gantnolt said — a burst of blood came from his mouth. His eyes went wide. “The witch tore it down — why?”
Saralene shook her head, having no answers, not wanting to believe. She then felt a queer thing in her stomach, as if all of the eyes of the world were trained on her. She looked up, and though the doorway had been thick and the collapsed stones covered much, there was a hole that gave unrestrained sight from one side to the other. And she saw the eye on the other side, staring at her, swaying back-and-forth as the serpentine body moved. Though she could only see the eye, she knew the snakewitch was smiling with the lips on her head, pleased with her work.
The Black Knight had moved all of the stones and planks, and the party of four continued up the tunnel, not out of want but out of need.
It was as if they were visiting a cathedral of Ishteth, for they dared not utter a word. They would soon be upon the hole in the tunnel’s ceiling and the witch’s shack. They had no plan. They only had a fool’s hope that something would happen to their advantage — perhaps a hope driven by fate.
And like a ghost in the distance, they saw the faint glow of lit candles; they also heard a low voice — a woman’s voice, a witch’s voice. That voice would never leave their minds — so sweet, so innocent, so vile and deadly.
It was not until they could touch the broken beams of wood, where the hydra had burst through, that they heard what the witch was saying. And Borazen was bold enough to peek into the room — what he saw gave him a chill down his spine.
The snakewitch had taken on her human guise. “There, there, Valdraedojh,” she said, as she stroked the great hydra’s back.
The gorgolik hydra’s heads were swaying as the witch pet it, both master and pet facing the door. The door!
It had been replaced, the room appearing as if no fight of life and death had taken place. How long had they been in those tunnels?
“You’ll have a better meal when the froads give their sacrifice,” she said, looking up at the beast with kind eyes. “They’re good to eat — you like them. And their time is only a few weeks off. So don’t —”
The witch was cut short by knocking upon that door, the new door — knock, knock, knock.
Borazen looked down to the others — all except The Black Knight had wide eyes, all wanted to warn the visitors away.
Knock, knock. The sound seemed to say, we’re weary travelers, and we’ve come to eat, drink, sleep, and die by the fangs of a monster — would you obliged us?
The witch would blush, her cheeks sparkling many colors and say, why, of course, all are welcome to die under my roof.
But it was not that straightforward.
The witch opened the door, enchanting the witnesses’ eyes to overlook the massive thing in the middle of the room — the thing that would be their end. “What is it you seek?” she said timidly.
“We don’t mean to bother you,” a man said, his voice strong, like Wor’s had been. “But we’ve come far and could use rest.”
“I don’t like this,” a woman muttered.
“Shh,” another man said.
“We should go,” yet another man said, his voice queerly accented like Borazen’s. “We don’t have the time to stop.”
“Oh,” the witch exclaimed. “You don’t have to leave right away, do you? It’s warm inside, and you all look just famished; your clothes would have a chance to dry, too.”
“Calm yourself, brother,” the first man said. “We have time to satisfy this fair lady’s charming offer with our presence. We have come far, after all.”
“Well, all are welcome,” the witch said. “Weary travelers especially. Come in and eat — I can even do a few readings of the cards if you so desire.”
“This is a mistake,” the woman said. “The lady says that the cards are vile magics.”
“It’ll be fine,” the first man said. “When was the last time a few card tricks hurt anyone?”
Footsteps over wood, the closing of the door, and this fresh party sealed their fates.