Conan the Cimmerian is black haired and sullen-eyed; a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, who came sword in hand to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.
Willow Rosenberg is a red-haired Jewish lesbian wiccan who thinks that eating a banana before lunch is an act of wild rebellion.
Together, they fight evil sorcery.
Revenge of the Red Witch - Chapter Three
The sun rose over the forest with the promise of a fresh morning, and Conan arose from sleep to instant wakefulness, after the habit of his people. Willow was less fortunate. By the Cimmerian's standards she was soft and city-bred, and wholly unused to riding. So now, the morning after her first day on horseback, every muscle in her legs screamed out in pain. There were tears in her eyes as she struggled to her feet and tottered down to the stream, and when she returned she stammered out to Conan that maybe he should go on without her.
That was of course exactly what he'd thought himself the previous night, and he felt a flare of guilt as now the words came from her own mouth. He gruffly told her not to be silly, and promised her that her muscles would soon harden with the exercise; but when he saddled the horse he took the blanket and folded it over the beast's neck to provide a little extra padding for his passenger.
And so they began their second day's journey together. Conan could practically hear the girl gritting her teeth to keep from whimpering, so he kept the horse's pace easy as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Their path wound through the forest, gradually rising higher as they climbed towards the pass that led to Koth. Every so often there came a gap in the trees, and in the distance Conan could see their objective gradually coming clearer into view. Around noon he checked the horse, helped his passenger to dismount to stretch her legs, and then took her up a raised bank of rock that gave a good view over the surrounding trees.
"There it lies, girl. The tower of Takla Kron."
"Eww. It doesn't look much like a wizard's castle. I was expecting - I dunno, tall towers and banners and maybe an imprisoned princess looking out of a high window?"
In truth the keep was low and ugly, squatting like a black toad on a rock that raised it above the forest canopy. Beautiful it might not be, but the Cimmerian's war-practiced eyes could tell it was strongly built. Entire armies could break upon it and fall back - and that paid no account to the wizard's sorcerous defences, which he already knew were far stronger than the merely mundane ones. As they set off again, Conan began describing to the witch what barriers he had already encountered; which he had penetrated and which finally defeated him. She listened, and he could almost see the cogs of her brain whirling round as she planned her strategy.
But as they neared the place where Conan knew they must forsake the road and head directly into the woods towards the castle, he suddenly reined back the horse and muttered a savage curse. His sword was straightaway in his hand, and he looked around himself keen-eyed for any sign of the danger that might lurk in the surrounding trees. But no sound or sight of peril met his senses, and so he slowly moved towards the scene of carnage that had triggered his reaction.
There was a cart; that was the first thing that met the eyes. It was overturned, its cargo of crates and bales scattered around the path. A horse lay dead in the traces, a cloud of flies buzzing around its corpse in the warm afternoon sun. And scattered around the wreckage lay the small, tumbled bundles of rags that could only be human bodies. Their blood still lay red on the ground around them, and the signs told Conan that their death could not have been more than an hour gone.
He leaped from the saddle, sword still in hand. Fighting from horseback might give him the edge if the killers should return, but he had his companion to think about. Holding her in front of him as he fought would only hinder his movements; dropping her from the horse would be unthinkable. Besides, if he was attacked on foot she could ride the steed to safety. So with a muttered "Stay here" he prowled forward towards the battlesite.
And then there was a thud and a muffled cry of pain as Willow half-slid, half-fell off the horse, and without another word she was running past him towards the closest of the fallen victims. He cursed her for her foolish impulsiveness, but she merely glared at him wordlessly then knelt at the man's head, placing her hand on throat and chest, searching for signs of any life that might still linger. There were none. Conan, veteran of a hundred battlefields, could have told her that already, but she was determined to check for herself. Shrugging to himself - and secretly impressed by her determination - the Cimmerian turned his mind to other matters: the source of the attack.
Carefully he quartered the ground, studying the tracks on the blood-soaked earth, the small indications of the tragedy that had happened here. To his wilderness-bred eyes the picture was clear enough; and yet he frowned in sullen anger, because what he saw made no sense. He continued his search, moving out in a circle around the clearing, hoping to find evidence to prove his first impression false.
A low moan of pain brought his attention swiftly back to his companion. The witch now knelt beside a young man whose body was half-hidden under the upturned cart, and as Conan watched his eyes fluttered open and he tried to lift his head, only to fall back with a second groan of agony. So there was a survivor after all...
But not for long. Conan saw the wound in his abdomen, the terrible bloody slash that had torn through clothing and flesh alike and laid bare the glistening coils of his bowels, and knew that only a lingering painful death awaited him. The only mercy a friend could offer now was a swift knife to the throat and an quick end to his suffering, and he was already pulling out his dagger as he stepped forward. But before he could act Willow had placed her hand over the man's stomach, and a warm rich light shone out from her flesh and seemed to wash gently over him. The young man trembled as life and awareness returned to his eyes - but with it came fear and urgency, and a desperate question.
"Adala! Where's Adala, is she--?"
The witch seemed to be pouring all her strength into the spell, and had none left over to speak; but she met Conan's eyes briefly with a bleak look on her face. The Cimmerian squatted down beside the pair and shook his head sympathetically.
"I'm sorry, lad. You're the only one left living."
"No..." He groaned and fell back, defeat etched into every line of his body, and for a moment Conan was sure he was gone. But then his eyes opened again and he gripped the Cimmerian's arm with urgent strength, gasping out a warning.
"Came out of nowhere... so much blood... couldn't fight, couldn't...I tried, but... that noise...silver bells, and blood... So much blood..."
His final word was choked out, ending in a coughing rattle, and before his limp hand had even fallen away from the Cimmerian's arm Conan knew he was dead. But then the white light that still glowed from the witch's hand and linked her to the dead man's body seemed to flare up then turn cold and livid, and she snatched her hand back as if it had suddenly been dipped in acid.
So abrupt was her motion that she tumbled backwards to the ground, and she lay there scrubbing her hand repeatedly against the grass, back and forth, back and forth. Her eyes when she looked at the Cimmerian were two black holes in the grey-white oval of her face, and she tried to stammer out some words - then barely managed to turn away from him before she was vomiting the remains of her lunch onto the ground. As she knelt there, supporting her weight on her arms and heaving her stomach out, Conan prudently decided it would be an opportune moment to go and recapture his horse.
When he returned, he silently offered her the water bottle he'd brought from the horse's saddle. She gave a watery smile of thanks that didn't reach her eyes before taking a long mouthful. Her expression was bitter.
"So I screwed up again. I couldn't even save him, how can I expect to be any help against this wizard?"
Conan had secretly been wondering the same thing, but he decided it would be wise to hide his doubts. Instead he said mildly, "His wound was already fatal. It seems you took away his pain before the end, at least."
"Wow. Yay me. I could have healed him, you know? Before I came here, when I still had all my powers, I could have just, uh, said the words and he'd be alive now, he'd be healthy, he'd be all right but now he's dead and I might as well have killed him myself. 'cause I--"
"You didn't kill him." The Cimmerian spoke sharply, hoping to head off the imminent emotional meltdown before he was left with a helplessly sobbing woman on his hands. "You didn't kill him, but I know what did."
She blinked up at him. "I assumed the bandits--?"
"I thought so too at first. I was wrong. Come and see."
He gestured to her to follow, and curiosity warred with self-recrimination in her face for a moment before she set her mouth in a determined line and stood up, all business once again. Hiding his relief, Conan led her to a patch where the ground had been softened by the spilled blood, and still showed the tracks clearly.
"It's a footprint. So - wait a minute. It's a bare footprint. Whoever did this didn't even have shoes?"
"Look again." When he saw her puzzled expression he set his own booted foot down beside the print as comparison. Conan was no small man, but the bare footprint was longer than his own. Longer and yet thinner, almost spindly. As light dawned in the witch's eyes Conan pointed out to her the small extra sign that was clear only to an experienced tracker - the small dimples in the ground just ahead of the toes that marked the indentation of claws.
"They were killed by demons?"
"One demon, as I mark the signs. Just one. It must have been moving quickly; it seemed to dance from one to the other and slay them before any of them could even move. Did you notice, only two of them even had time to draw their swords?"
"No. Uh, gulp? Big gulp. If we're fighting some super-fast demon then... oh Goddess. I wish Buffy were here."
"Buffy is one of your fellow witches?"
"What? No! No, she's - uh, it would take too long to explain. But listen. Do you think the demon has anything to do with the wizard we're going to kill?"
The Cimmerian shrugged. "Who else in this benighted forest would be summoning demons?"
"Right. Yes, good point. So, uh, I guess we probably will meet it, which means I'll have to think of a spell to slow it down. Then you can do your slicy-dicey stuff with your sword. Right. I can do that."
"Are you sure?" The Cimmerian couldn't quite hide his scepticism. "Your powers seem rather unreliable at the moment, and if we're going to confront the wizard in his lair, I need to be sure you're ready."
"Hey! Just you be ready yourself, mister, and don't worry about me. I may not be at my full strength but I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve!" She seemed to hesitate a moment. "Okay, so I couldn't --- But healing magic, not easy! There's not one witch in a hundred could even have done what I managed to do before he, he died, and when I get my powers back, I'll--"
"You've said that before, that your powers are gone. What happened to you? Why do you think taking on this wizard will help you get them back?"
"Damn it, girl, this is not the time for secrets! If we're going to face an evil sorceror and his demon minions, I need to know who will be standing at my back. Do you understand that? I must be able to trust you!"
She seemed to be about to snap back an angry response; then swallowed it and sighed heavily. "Maybe you're right. Okay, but it's kinda embarrassing. I came here looking for, well, someone to teach me certain magic spells that I'd heard people in your dimens-uh, people in your country know. But as soon as I arrived, I fell straight into the simplest trap, like some dumb magical newbie. It was a spell, and it sucked away most of my power before I could break the link and get free of it. So now I've got all the words in my head, but I haven't got the power to use hardly any of them."
"And you think the wizard did this?"
"I know he did. I cast that locator spell last night, remember? He's got my power, and he's - eww - probably feeding off it. Like some big creepy spider, sitting in the middle of his web, sucking the life out of this whole country. So we need to kill him, before he does it to any other witch who comes along."
"And you think you can manage that?"
"With the help of you and that big shiny sword, sure." She tapped the side of her head. "It's all in here. The only problem is working out which of the spells I know I still have the mojo to cast... but since we know what we're up against now, I can start the prep work straight away. One spell for slowing down superfast monsters coming up."
She smiled at him. "Then the rest is up to you."