In today's thrilling installment, our intrepid heroes finally approach the outer defences of the tower of the evil wizard. What perils await them there? Read on to find out!
2394 words, rating 15 for violence and danger. Chapter One is here, Chapter Two is here, Chapter Three is here.
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 Four
The horse had been left back aways, where hopefully it would be safe. Conan had packed light, the rucksack on his back mostly empty; but a coil of rope was slung over his shoulder and various other useful supplies secreted about his person. The witch had a small bag full of oddments she'd collected in the forest, leaves and twigs and smooth round pebbles. It seemed mere junk to the Cimmerian, but she had selected each piece as carefully as a warrior might pick out his weapons -- and in her hands, they might prove as deadly as any weapon.
They were ready.
He checked the balance of the sword at his belt as he strode forward, the witch at his heels. Just a short step further through the forest and they would come to the wizard's tower. Conan pushed aside the bushes... and saw his horse standing there placidly cropping the grass. He cursed sulphurously.
"Uh, how did that get here?"
"It didn't. We've been turned around." He crouched to study their tracks, looking for broken stems of grass, the disturbed vegetation. "We've walked in a circle."
"How do you-- never mind. So, some kind of mind-controlly concealment spell, you think?"
The Cimmerian shivered involuntarily. "Curse all wizards and their cowardly ways!" Willow cleared her throat meaningfully, but he continued. "Afraid to face their opponents in honest battle, they hide behind spells. Can you break this enchantment, lay bare his lair?"
"Uh, probably. But it would use up a lot of my power, and I'd rather, y'know, save that for the actual battle. Not got too much to spare right now. But you didn't mention this before. You said you got right through to the base of the cliff, you didn't mention this barrier. Is it new? Does he know we're coming?"
"Crom! That's not a reassuring idea."
Willow smiled apologetically, then frowned in thought. "Maybe it just didn't affect you before. Did you - were you doing anything differently this time around? You don't have any magic charms or amulets you were wearing before, or anything? Did you go by a different route?"
"Nothing like that. In fact I was watching my steps carefully just now, looking out for the landmarks I remembered to make sure I followed the same path."
"And you weren't before? Looking where you were going, I mean?"
The Cimmerian grinned. "It was pitch dark beneath the trees, the best time for thieves to be abroad. I used my sense of direction, not my eyes."
The witch bit her lip thoughtfully - then suddenly her face was lit by a huge grin. She turned until she was facing the direction they'd just come back from... then closed her eyes and covered them with her hand. She walked confidently forward, a hand stretched in front of her - then gave an 'ow' of pain as her head hit a low-hanging branch. Conan did his best to smother a chuckle, but she just lifted her hand higher and moved forward rather more cautiously.
A few minutes later, he heard her voice shouting his name, followed by "What are you waiting for? Just keep your eyes closed!" He shrugged, but did as she instructed. After pushing his way through the undergrowth, he felt the sun on his face and opened his eyes again. The witch was sitting on a rock at the edge of the wood, grinning at him.
"See? Just an illusion affecting your eyesight. Trust your instincts instead and you don't even know it's there. I think that's one point to us." She jumped off her perch and looked north, where the great grey crag of rock loomed up in front of them. This close, the wizard's tower itself was hidden from them by the angle. Between their position and the base of the hill the ground sloped gently downwards to form a shallow bowl-shaped depression where no trees grew.
"So, I take it that's the next barrier?" She pointed to the innocuous-looking valley.
"That's right. The first of his real defenses. Fortunately I've encountered something like this before, away in the mountains of Vendhya to the east, so I recognised the signs straight away."
Conan pointed to a small, huddled grey lump lying on the grass near the lip of the depression. "A dead rabbit. There are more like that, all around the edge; dead animals of all kinds."
"Okay, eww." The witch had turned green with nausea, but she also looked angry. "It's irresponsible, is what it is, setting up those kind of defenses. You can't just go around killing things all willy-nilly, it's... it's evil. Which, yeah, obvious since we already know he's evil, but he's got to pay for this!"
"For killing rabbits?"
"Among other things. *Ahem*. So, then, mister, how did you get across?"
Conan pointed across the valley. "See that outcrop there? If we can reach it, we climb up and we'll be on the same level as we are here. Above the miasma that kills these creatures."
"So it's just a heavier-than-air poison gas, huh? How do you know it's that and not a magical forcefield of death or something?"
"There are dead animals, but no dead birds. Whatever it is that kills, it only affects those things that walk on the earth."
"So, we just hold our breath, huh? It's a long way to walk."
"Here." He pulled a strip of cloth out of his pack, torn from an old shirt, and handed it to her. "Tie it round your mouth and nose." He brought out a second strip for himself, then watched as the witch took their waterbottle and soaked the cloth before tying it around her face. She seemed to know what she was doing, so he imitated her.
"Hold my arm." Then standing on the rim of the depression, he took several deep breaths, filling his lungs - then with a nod to his companion, set off down the slope.
It was easy at first. He matched his pace to his companion's shorter legs, but forged steadily forward. The sky looked no different; the sun shone as brightly, the grass underfoot looked as green. There was only a faint taste to the air that made his lips pucker, his eyes water a little.
They walked on. The pressure in his chest, behind his throat, was growing worse, but he ignored it. The rock wall in front of them was getting closer.
But not close enough. He kept his pace steady, step after step, fighting the urge to break into a run that would only use up all the air in his lungs faster. His chest burned like fire. The urge to take a breath was overwhelming.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt. The cloth over his mouth would protect him; maybe. Or maybe not. He'd done this before, he could do it again, fight through the pain by sheer willpower, and...
The girl at his side suddenly clutched desperately at his arm as her foot hit something half-buried in the grass. It gleamed white as it rolled away: an animal skull. She flailed for balance, landed hard against his body...
...and gasped in an involuntary deep gulp of air as she was winded by the impact.
Instantly she started coughing, a violent hacking, choking noise, her hands around her throat, her face red, her eyes streaming tears. She reeled back and would have fallen had Conan not grabbed her around the waist. Her eyes above the scarf were panicky, and the Cimmerian did not hesitate. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder, then set his face towards the rock wall and began running.
His lungs were screaming in his chest. His eyesight was turning dim, his head felt on fire. Each footstep drove agony through him. When he reached the base of the outcropping he barely retained the reason to know where he was, but some instinct prompted him to throw the girl up onto the top, then scramble up behind her. Then he sank to his hands and knees and breathed deeply, not caring any more if the air would kill him or not.
It didn't. They were safe.
Or at least he was. He turned to his companion, as she lay there where he'd tossed her. She was bruised and bloodied and her skin looked grey, but her eyes were open and she was still breathing. An ugly tortured sound, but breathing nonetheless. Her gaze met his and she even quirked a small smile, before breaking into another fit of coughing.
"Tha-*koff*-thanks for saving *koff* my life. But couldn't *koffkoff* ya have been gentler about it?"
He smiled with relief to hear her lucid and able to communicate. "I'm sorry. Can you stand? Are you ready to go on?"
"Gimme a mo. *koff* Got any water left?" He handed her the bottle. She took a sip, started coughing halfway through and almost choked, but mastered herself and then took another gulp. Some of the colour was returning to her cheeks.
"Whew. I'm glad we won't have to do that again." The Cimmerian mused that they'd still have to return afterwards, but forebore from mentioning it. Instead he stood and studied the rock wall in front of him.
"Here's where we'll need your skills, girl. This is as far as I got myself."
"The sheer rock face. Huh. Didn't you realise you'd need to climb it? I mean, I'm not a mountaineer type person myself, but there look to be plenty of handholds."
"There seem to be, aye. And girl, I'm from Cimmeria. I was climbing mountains as steep as this one before I was eight summers old. But watch."
He jumped up, his hands and feet unerringly seeking the cracks in the cliff-face that would give him purchase - but met only solid rock, and slid off down again.
"See? Another of his tricks for the eyes. It may look like it's climbable, but that cliff's as smooth as polished marble behind the illusion. You'd need to be a lizard or a spider to climb this wall."
"I hope you're not expecting me to turn you into either of those, 'cause icky. Also difficult to carry clothes and weapons and stuff."
He shook his head. "Get this rope to the top and secure it, and I'll be able to climb up with no problems."
"Oh, that's easy enough. Heck, if I still had all my powers I could carry you. But as it is..."
She took the rope from the barbarian, slung it over her shoulder, and grinned at him....
...Then shot upwards into the air, flying as easily and gracefully as a swallow. A couple of minutes later the end of the rope came tumbling over the edge of the cliff towards him. Conan caught it, gave it a hefty tug, and then experimentally swung his whole weight against it. He trusted the witch, but it was his own life he was risking here.
The rope held, so he began walking up the face of the cliff, his iron-thewed arms bearing his weight as the rope creaked above him. But it held, and soon after he was swinging his body over the top of the cliff and looking about him.
The witch was slumped against the bole of a tree, the same one whose trunk the rope had been lashed around. She smiled at him wearily.
"Sorry. That kind of took more out of me than I'd expected, especially after the whole near-death experience just now. Mind if I rest for a bit?"
"Go ahead, we'll need to be ready for anything when we enter his tower. That was impressive stuff, girl. I've seen wizards fly before, but they used enchanted rugs or other sorcerous aids, not just their own strength of will."
"Flying carpets? Seriously? I'd love one of those. You could just lie back and relax as it wafted you to your destination."
He grinned. "Maybe we can steal one from the wizard."
"Good plan. So what sort of test do you think we'll face next?"
"I don't know. You wait here and rest, I'll scout on ahead."
Moving quietly as a ghost, the Cimmerian slipped through the small copse of trees that clung to the edge of the cliff. He dropped flat as he reached its boundary, inching forward to look what was beyond.
The black stone walls of the tower rose up in front of him, casting a shadow that darkened the air around. Leering gargoyle faces seemed to peer down from the battlements; they looked to be mere carved stone, but long experience and caution taught the Cimmerian to be wary of them all the same. The tower's gate was not in sight, but there was a pathway visible off to the right, winding around towards the top of the mound. Dark marble columns stood beside it at irregular intervals, each one marked with sorcerous runes.
He took in as much of the lay of the land as he could, judging distances and cover with an expert eye, then returned to his companion. She was still sat where he'd left her, but was now happily munching on an apple she'd acquired from somewhere. His stomach rumbled, loud enough for her to hear; and she suppressed a giggle then pointed upwards.
The tree she was sat under was an apple tree, and the apples were ripe. Conan reached up to pluck one for himself, then sat down next to her.
"Apparently even evil wizards have orchards. Who knew? So, what did you find?"
He described what he'd seen, and she nodded in agreement at his suspicion of the gargoyles. She frowned at his description of the path, though.
"So maybe there's an easy way up? Perhaps hidden by illusion from the bottom of the cliff. What do you think the columns do?"
"Nothing good, I wager."
"Maybe. Or, y'know, maybe they're just evil decorations. Like the gargoyles. Bought from an evil wizard home supplies depot."
"Er, right. Are you ready to go, or do you need more time?"
"Nope. Ready for action, mister wizard-slaying Tomb Raider guy. Except, y'know, without the Lara Croft style gravity-defying boobies. Unfortunately. And you have no idea what I'm talking about, and I should just shut up now. Come on."