by Max Barry

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by The Wandering City of Eisenstern. . 12 reads.

Do you hear the bells toll?

By order of the Guild Council

The following document is restricted to Guild Personnel with Spectrum-level clearance

Viewing by an unauthorized party will result in immediate sanction enforcement, by means of an Aetheric geas.
Sanction enforcement extends up to, and encompasses, immediate imprisonment and/or termination.
Do not proceed past this point without the required soulbound counter-geas.

It was not a particularly nice castle. Hardly the sort to be featured in the average, consummate-day fairytale - no glittering spires or marbled archways in sight. The corridors were dimly-lit, nigh-windowless and constantly cold… not to mention all the bits of monster now adorning various fixtures and alcoves. Faded carpets, recently stained with sepia dust and stale blood.

Muirin Grimsever kicked open the door to the throne room, his blade at the ready. His hauberk was torn, and his brow bloodied, but the look in his eye was one of defiance. He made his way into the darkened, echoing chamber - behind him, the remainder of his party wasted no time in entering. Weapons were drawn, and though their wielders looked nigh-universally battered, they seemed wholly ready to continue the fight they had so very clearly just been through. In the hallway behind them, one could glimpse the motionless form of what had once been a towering Bone Colossus - its head, very clearly missing.

Stepping forwards, Muirin called out into the gloomy expanse.

“We have bested your armies, slain your champions! Show yourself!”

In reply, there came naught but echo. He stood in awkward silence for a few seconds more - and there, just as he began to inhale once again…

One by one, the torches lining the room were set alight. The flickering glow spread through the hall in a blazing chain - first the walls, then the central pillars, and finally the grand chandelier, flickering to life as if by… magic. And as the shadows receded, a few of the room’s peculiarities came to light. The windows - almost floor-to-ceiling, and yet covered completely by thick velvet drapes. An intricate mosaic on the floor, depicting some long-forgotten deity. A throne - quite simple, as far as thrones went, hewn from marble, and adorned with rather tasteful engravings.

Finally, the figure. It didn’t quite sit on the throne - perhaps “lounged” would be a better term. One lithe leg had been swung over an armrest, while the other merely dangled off the side. Garments seemingly not of cloth, but of pure, cthonic darkness - voluminous, and yet making no secret whatsoever as to the figure’s gender. Raven-black hair, flowing down past a propped-up arm, in sharp contrast to the alabaster face it supported. Frigid, pale eyes, and a faint smile.

“Took you long enough. Ah, heroes.”

The woman hopped off her resting place, stretching.

“You’re lucky I didn’t bother with a second colossus - looks like you’ve had enough trouble with just the one. Now…”

She cast her arms wide - temperatures that had merely been bone-chilling now plummeted far, far further. Frost began to spread over the surrounding floor.

“Not exactly hard to surmise why you’re here. So let’s make this one for the history books, shall we?”

A flick of the wrist, a flash of frigid light, and then there was… a sword. A wicked, rapier-esque thing of crackling, blackened ice. She grasped it with one hand, bringing it to bear upon the intruders as easily as one would wield a kitchen knife.

“Have at you!”

She dashed towards them, bringing the blade around for a wide swipe. As the assembled heroes raised their weapons, Murin… did not. Lowering his sword, he merely stood in the face of the swing - as the sword was brought around, he simply called out.

“No! We have not come to fight!”

The blade of ice had halted, a mere inch from his neck. He dared not move - though his postured didn’t betray fear, it was most certainly felt by every fiber of his being. There was no reason for her to not simply continue the swing. And yet…

“How novel. If this is a trick, it isn’t a very good one.”

“It is not! To fight was never our intent!”

“You did just slaughter your way through all the minions. Those were a pain to raise, by the way. Talk about mixed signals.”

“They struck out at us - we had no choice but to fight back!”

She seemed bemused for a moment, scratching her head with her free hand.

“Aye, fair enough. They are a tad mindless, aren’t they.”

The frigid blade was withdrawn, and Muirin started breathing once more. His compatriots cautiously lowered their own arms - though they seemed distrustful, they would not lash out. As their would-be-opponent walked back to her throne, she tossed the sword aside - hitting the floor, it erupted into a flurry of snowflakes, and was no more. Seating herself once again, she turned her attention back to the party.

“So. What do righteous little buttercups such as yourselves want with the wicked old witch? Come now. You’ve gotten this far. Might as well hear you out.”

Muirin cleared his throat.

“We come bearing a message from Lord Colenso!”

“Ah, him. I think I vaguely remember. Little kingdom to the south, right? Felmire, or something.”

“Felmere. Technically, this castle is within his domain.”

“Oh yes, and I’m the Queen of the Frelgard. He can contest his claim with the undead army I’ve got around the place, once I re-raise it. Thanks again, by the way. Oh! How did he like the village raids? Actually the first time I’ve pulled out Dreadwraiths for anything other than just plain scaring people. Were the casualties acceptable?”

Besides Muirin, a figure clad in heavy plate tightened its grip on its greatmace. He held up an arm, signaling for it to stay back.

“Many innocents lost their lives, yes.”

“I’d contest you on the “innocent” part, but hey. Good to hear. Anyway, what’s this message of yours?”

Drawing a scroll from within a leather pouch on his belt, Muirin cleared his throat once more. Before he could speak, however, the witch interjected.

“You should really have that looked at. You’ve got a party cleric, right? Bronchitis can be nasty. Granted, the temperature is more or less my fault, but… hey. It’s my castle you’re invading. In any case - yes, continue.”

“You are humbly called upon to assist the armies of Felmere in their ongoing campaign of domestic defense. A caster of your skill and-”

“You’re losing your little war, aren’t you.”

A moment of silence. The witch smiled.

“Of course you are. And I’m not buying “domestic defense” as a pretext - a defensive war it may be, but old Colenso’s certainly done quite a bit to draw local aggression. What with all the resource skirmishing and religious persecution.”

Another pause - Muirin seemed somewhat taken aback.

“I’m not actually stuck in this castle, you know. I like to keep myself up to date. In any case, you’ve screwed up. And now you’re on the defensive, and in your desperation you come to the woman who’s already cost you a few dozen adventurers, because your alternatives have run dry.”

Once more, the plate-clad paladin lunged forwards, only to be halted by Muirin’s outstretched arm. This time, a mailed hand was lifted to remove a faceplate, revealing a surprisingly delicate face. The woman’s voice, by contrast, was full of fire.

“Don’t you dare act so haughty! You’ve no understanding of the suffering you’ve caused! The countless lives you’ve destroyed with your reckless conduct! You who-”


Muirin shot his compatriot a dead-set glare. The woman on the throne, meanwhile, had not ceased smiling.

“Well now. Looks like this wasn’t quite a unanimous decision. Not that I’d expect any less - I am the de-facto enemy, after all. But… ah. While I’ve gotten the gist of what it is you want from me, you’ve yet to explain why I should do it. What’s stopping me from just adding you lot to the bodycount, and letting your little kingdom be overrun?”

“Lord Colenso is willing to provide generous remuneration. Riches, beyond imagining-”

“Money’s not really very helpful. Not much it’ll buy me, and I’ve little interest in the treasuries of a hinterland kingdom anyhow.”

“A noble title, alongside the accompanying-”

“Got this castle already. And titles are just expensive bits of swagger. No point to them.”

“His son’s hand in marriage, as well as-”

He had to pause once more, because the woman practically fell from her seat with laughter.

“Oh me oh my! How considerate! Old spinster that I am. Really brings a tear to my eye, that one. Anything else?”

“...access to the Library of Kalech?”

No interruptions this time. For once, she seemed to perk up.

“Now that’s interesting. I thought you didn’t have the key?”

“The outer chambers were recently breached. Though a large portion remains sealed off, there are materials already available for study.”

The witch sat back, tapping her fingers on the throne’s armrest. Her cloak seemed to ripple and swirl, despite the air being wholly devoid of a breeze - Muirin fancied that he could hear a faint, indiscernible whispering.

“You want me to fight.”

“Correct. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“On behalf of a cause that means nothing to me, alongside forces I have actively antagonized.”


“And you are doing this because you have no other options.”

Silence. His expression told her enough. Slowly, her smile widened - it had gone from seemingly-genuine mirth to something... rather unsettling. She stood once more, and cast her cloak wide - for a brief moment, it resembled a pair of monstrous, shadowy wings. Muirin could swear he saw black feathers in the un-cloth.

“Very well! I’ll accede to your little lord’s game. Truth be told, this place was getting a tad stale - not much to do up here, save fighting off adventurers.”

The smile had returned to its previous… not warmth. Somehow, that descriptor didn’t seem in any way applicable to the woman. But her expression had morphed back into something that at the very least resembled genuine, human joy. She waved her hand towards the windows, and the drapes slid apart - untying themselves, and receding, to allow for an influx of afternoon sunlight. Heat began to seep back into the frigid stones.

“Lead the way then, herr...”

She tilted her head quizzically at the head adventurer.

“Muirin Grimsever.”

“Somehow less pompous than expected. Guess I should reciprocate the favour - Celena Notario, at yer service. You’ll hear no fancy epithets from me.”

She curtsied. From her, the gesture seemed almost obscene.

“Lead the way, then. I’m guessing you’ve got horses?”

“A cart, actually.”

“Ooooh. It’s been ages since I’ve ridden in a proper cart. This’ll be fun.”

And so they set off, back down the frost-strewn corridors of the castle. As the witch passed, the braziers and chandeliers winked out in her stead - soon, the doors would shut behind them. And darkness would reign once more.