Chapter 17: Jaws and Tentacles Time
There was nothing wrong with her now. Jallana stretched on the hard stone, free of pain for the first time in what seemed like forever. All of her hurts were healed!
She tried to rise, but many claws and tentacles shot out to hold her down.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring at the ring of monsters. “And… what d’you want of me?”
A hulking, bear-like monster worked jaws that quivered and slobbered with the effort, emitting little growls, until Jallana could make out grating words among its noises. “We… the losers. In the wars of sorcery. Trapped here in Staelghast, in beast-shape… centuries. Watching you.”
“You adventurers. Exploring. Getting closer. Closer to freeing us.”
“Freeing, from… so you’re free now?”
“Not yet. Now you will… do that. Do our bidding and we… free you unharmed. Betray, and we tear you apart. Slowly. Your passing will not be gentle. We know pain well.”
Jallana stared up at the ring of beast-faces. “Do your bidding how?”
“We cannot undo spells… trap us in these shapes. We can guide you. You undo. Come.”
The tentacles and claws that held Jallana down on the table plucked her off it as if she weighed nothing, and carried her into darkness.
Room after passage after chamber she was hurried through, carried along in a strong-smelling flood of beasts for a long time, into… a room she knew.
Straight down it they headed, toward a door at the end that made Jallana try to struggle for the first time.
“’Ware—there’s a trap! A stone block falls—”
A thing like a gigantic snake with many arms stretched out its tail and tapped a certain flagstone, the stone block plunged down with a rattle of chain, brown with old blood, only to be caught by scores of tentacles that wrestled it to the floor, off to one side, and waved her past.
“Door safe,” the bear-beast grunted, obviously urging her to open it. Claws and talons stood Jallana upright and shoved her at it.
Fetching up against it, she smiled, shrugged, and opened the door.
Inside, darkness glimmered into a soft blue glow, as a spell detected her presence and awakened.
The glow was coming from a large circle graven into the floor, which seemed to be fashioned all of a single piece of dark and gleaming stone.
The very air seemed to sing and tingle as Jallana stepped forward. And stopped, reaching for a sword she no longer had.
“Go on,” the bear-beast snarled from behind her, and a long tentacle ending in barbed claws shot over her shoulder, raking the back of her hand in a burning instant as it withdrew again.
Jallana cursed, clutching at the gash it had left. Blood was welling up quickly.
“Let it fall only in those pits. There. And there.”
She saw runes etched into the floor in two places along the outer edge of the circle, each of them circling a small cup-like depression in the floor. She let blood stream into the first. “How much?”
“Cover bottom, both, then stand away.”
Jallana Stormbright looked up at all the beasts crowding in at the doorway to watch her, met the bright yellow gaze of the bear-beast, nodded, and let her blood fall.
When the first drops struck the second pit, something that looked like a ring of flames rose from the floor on all sides of the room, well outside the graven circle, and the watching monsters sighed and shuddered in unison.
She was still bending over the pit, shaking her hand to get the slowing blood to fall, when something like a wolf with man-arms and a snakelike lower body shouldered her aside, slithered into the circle, shuddered… and sank down into the blinking, trembling form of a man, naked and hairy.
An exulting roar rose from monster throats all around, and the bear-beast snatched Jallana aside as a bestial menagerie charged past, crowding into the circle to be transformed back into humans—folk covered with filth and matted hair, who staggered around the chamber weeping and shouting in glee.
The bear-beast rushed toward the circle—and then came back to Jallana in a grisly rain of ursine parts when the circle exploded into a huge column of flame.
Shielded by the bear yet sent tumbling, Jallana beheld her second screaming whirlwind of burning, charring dying things in whirling, momentary glimpses as she went head-over-heels.
Before she stopped, the whirling column burst, hurling hairy transformed humans in all directions.
A few of them were still groaning feebly as wild Oroon laughter rang out—and its origin came swooping down out of the darkness and into Jallana, overwhelming her mind in a furious instant.
She was back out the door and gone in the next instant.
Three Staelen were on their feet by then—the only three who could rise—but only two of them ran after her.
“Let her go,” the third and older one snapped. One heeded, but the other gave up the pursuit after a few moments, and came back panting.
“She’ll be out of Staelghast as soon as she can,” the elder Staelen said grimly. “To fight her now would mean our doom. Let us regain our spellbooks, our abrinth-shields, our rings, our wands. Then let us go hunting Oroon. They ruled us once, but she bears only one of them. Let us cleanse these halls of all others.”
A fourth Staelen came shuffling out of the smoking carnage around the ring, nodding. “It is Onlokh Oroon who rides her. He is lazy, his spells weakest among his kin. He can master only one body at a time… and if we all don abrinth, ours can never be among them.”
The Staelen who’d run a few steps after Jallana frowned. “If he is wise,” he warned, “Prince Onlokh will let the woman go, and ride a new body before we can scry him.”
The eldest Staelen smiled. “Well it is for us,” he said, touching a wall that became a bright eye that showed them a distant Jallana Stormbright scrambling over a crumbling wall into the full sunlight, and leaving Staelghast behind, “that Onlokh is not wise.”
So ends this tale.