“It’s a simple quest, really,” the witch told Jeralzine Stewpot as she conjured a portal of shimmering shadow just beyond the outhouse. “By way of preparation, the Princes require certain artefacts of power. You and I will recover one from the Foetid Swamp.”
Jeralzine Stewpot, a recent newcomer to the business of professional adventuring who still held out hope for an induction manual, shrugged her backpack on. “Artefacts, your…er, Witchliness?”
“No need for titles, my lovely,” said the witch, who wore very un-witchlike tweed hiking clothes and tied her hair up in a sensible bun. She looked more like a stable mistress than a malicious curesebringer. “Call me Tammy.”
She waved her stout walking-cane at the swirl of necrotic darkness staining the mountain air. At her gesture, it widened to human dimensions. “Our objective is to recover the Kindred Crystal from the Rot Giant Hurgomath.”
A collective gasp rose from Jeralzine’s various accoutrements. Her sturdy marching boots whistled in delight, exclaiming, “Old Desoldra’s Kindred Crystal? What a prize!”
Jeralzine’s scimitar had a wicked curve matched only by its wicked purr. “Hurgomath? They say after he was exiled by Princess Naomi, he developed a taste for thieves and betrayers. He builds his house from their bones.”
Jeralzine’s ribs ached as her breastplate bellowed, “What in Kurq’s name are you all talking about?”
Voxxas, Bruyalle and Friedland had been Jeralzine’s companions – or at least her employers – until the hazards of their adventurous quest had caught up them. Powerful pact magic had bound their dead spirits to each other’s equipment, until finally only Jeralzine remained. Her boots and armour might not fit, and her scimitar too large to swing easily, but they made themselves useful at times.
“That’s a good question. Voxxas?”
The wizard Voxxas the Potent, in posthumous footwear form as in life, could never resist an explanation. “The Kindred Crystal was forged by the Warrior-Queen Desoldra centuries ago. With it she created a thousand duplicates of herself. The One-Queen Army’s conquests led to the original formation of the Gleaming Principalities.”
“Okay, cool power, and a bit of historical significance helps with the resale value,” interjected Jeralzine’s armour plate, which had once been Friedland the Mighty. “And scrapping with giants is marvellous fun. I say do it, Jerzy.”
Tammy gestured toward the portal with an amused expression. “You’re the embodied one, dear. It’s your choice.”
Jeralzine’s breathing felt constricted, her sword belt chafed and her feet were swollen and sore. “I promised to help,” she sighed, and stepped into the darkness.
The Foetid Swamp was worse than she imagined. Dank, reeking and bubbling like week-old gruel. The Rot Giant’s lair spanned the marsh as far as she could see in either direction; an enormous beaver-dam assembled from decaying swamp trees, gnawed bones and badly-tanned gator hides.
“You say Hurgomath eats thieves?” asked Jeralzine nervously.
Tammy splashed to one wall and began to climb. “We’ll go in through the roof,” she said, sounding more amused than ever. Jeralzine, never a strong climber, followed awkwardly.
“You do realise,” muttered Voxxas the Boots as Tammy disappeared around the dam’s overhead curve, “that the Crystal could be used to restore our bodies? If we kept it for ourselves, that is. We need only say a Word of Potency and-”
“Shh,” hissed Bruyalle the Crafty. “She’ll hear you.”
Jeralzine caught up with Tammy on a flat expanse of the uneven rooftop. Tammy pointed at a nestlike patch of interwoven branches and femurs. “If you wouldn’t mind doing the honours, dear.”
A lifetime of assembling twigs beneath cauldrons had prepared Jeralzine to solve this puzzle; within moments she had unpicked a hole in the roof large enough to climb through. The vast space beneath was spacious, well lit and remarkably drier than the outside, not to mention being carved from white stone rather than swamp trash.
“Giant magic,” observed Tammy. “They seem fierce but they adore their comforts. Where to, I wonder?
The sword jerked in Jeralzine’s hand and pointed down a corridor. “That way,” said Bruyalle confidently. “My instincts for loot never lie.”
Sure enough, after negotiating a few giant-sized corridors, they reached a bright room with crystal cabinets, tasteful plinths and a rack of glossy brochures describing the various priceless artefacts on display.
“Is…this how giants usually hoard their loot?” asked Jeralzine as Tammy followed the guide to a display, opened the door and pulled out a purple stone the size of her head. “With exhibit notes?”
“It’s quiet now but I turn a brisk trade during the tourist season,” gurgled a voice resembling a company of cavalrymen being sucked into quicksand. An enormous moss-covered man with protruding green teeth appeared behind them. “It’s a highly reputable collection, if I may say.”
“Hurgomath!” exclaimed Friedland the Mighty, loud enough to shake Jeralzine’s ribs. “To arms, Jerzy!”
“Thanks for the distraction, lunkheads!” exclaimed Voxxas, kicking Jeralzine’s booted foot out at the Crystal in Tammy’s hand. The enchanted gemstone popped into the air and landed, precisely controlled, on the toe of the boot. As Jeralzine hopped helplessly, the wizard Voxxas spoke a Word of Potency.
Instantly, Jeralzine was barefoot and a thin, splendidly-bearded man in blue robes stood beside her, wielding a wand.
“Freesias!” Another Word of Potency froze everyone on the spot, leaving only the newly reconstituted Voxxas to caper gleefully. “Lucky me! I’ve got my body back, and all the priceless treasures I can carry!”
“Lucky me,” replied Hurgomath. “I’m immune to wizard magic and you just betrayed your friends.” He leaned forward, mouth alarmingly wide, and swallowed Voxxas in one gulp.
The others all unfroze. Tammy nodded respectfully at Hurgomath. “Payment in full, Master Curator. One treacherous worm as requested.”
Hurgomath bowed deeply as he withdrew. “I’ll do my part when the Princes call, Highness.”
“Highness?” said Jeralzine, confused. “Who-?”
Tammy handed the Crystal to Jeralzine. “I’m glad you weren’t the one who was tempted, dear. Restore your friends. They’ll be needed soon.”
“For when the Gleaming Principalities go to war.”
We haven’t looked in on the Gleaming Principalities since The Witch of the Forlorn Edifice, so I thought it was about time we saw what’s going on over there. Fans of the Mafia Bunnies – all three of you – will be happy to hear they have been keeping busy and will be back in due course.
Around the middle of the year, assuming nothing goes wrong, this project will hit one hundred stories. I’ve given myself a deadline to wrap up the handful of ongoing narratives I’ve been following on and off over the past eighty-something weeks.
I’m not necessarily planning to call it quits after I get to the century, but I will be taking stock and thinking about what will happen next. It makes sense not to have unfinished projects lingering about and complicating the process.
Don’t worry about that for now, though. It’s months away. In the meantime, I still have plenty of stories to tell.