Mother of Witches: Part Seven
Fair Elena’s Betrothal
“The Flanaess is not wide enough to hide her from me!” Zagig Yragerne declared. He was wrong. He employed all means at his disposal—magical, abyssal, and otherwise—to locate his prodigal apprentice and avenge his wounded heart, but Natasha knew his methods and his means. She disguised herself cleverly, wrapped herself in scrying wards, and made her way through the wild ways until she came upon the dancing hut where she found Fair Elena feeding the scraps to the cackling geese.
“How is it that you have dared to come to this place again?” Elena demanded sharply. “Should our mother find you out, she will not deal gently with you this time.”
“I have come for your sake, my sister,” Natasha protested innocently. “My conscience pricks me, and shame goads at me. Was it not cruel and unkind of me to steal away Zagig’s heart as I did? Surely I was a jealous fool. But if you still want to be the old man’s wife, you only need to play it in the manner of the game we played with the Sultan’s son. You take my name and my face, and he will come to find you at once, I am sure. I promise you, after he has claimed you for his own, he will never let you go.”
Elena’s countenance darkened. “Oh cruel, cruel fate of Istus!” she sighed. “Too late you have come! Mother has pledged my hand to another of her disciples: a dweomer-master nobleman who dwells far off in the Northern Reaches. I am soon to go to him and to be wed to him.”
“Console your sorrowful heart sister,” Natasha said gently. “I shall go for you to the Northern Reaches and wed this dweomer-master of yours. He shall take me for you, just as Zagig will take you for me.”
Elena danced with delight among the cackling geese and laughed, “I know the reak well!” She threw arms around her sister and pulled her close in tight embrace. “Sweet sister. This kindness surpasses all others you have shown me. Please let’s not quarrel again over poopnoddies!”
Count Dahlvier and North Reach Farm
To escape Zagig’s scrying eyes, Natasha concealed herself in a new identity under the name Louhi and set off for the Northern Reaches. Those dark and lawless regions between the Opicm River and the Fellreev Forest were a place of refuge for bandits and amoral noblemen who did not wish to be found or to live among decent folks. Elena’s betrothed was one such nobleman, a necromancer of no small talent. Louhi (for so she now called herself) found him dwelling in a fine estate and lording himself over a small population of surfs.
“Are you indeed the daughter of Baba Yaga who is to be my wife?” the nobleman asked her.
Louhi regarded the prickmedainty fashions of the man’s hat and coat and the foppish manner of all his finely cut apparel with approval. He accessorized smartly and looked every part the necromancer: a golden skull-amulet hung around his neck, white gloves concealed his hands, a black cape with skulls embroidered on the hem swept behind him ostentatiously. She had only to peer into his milky-white sickly eyes to see that this man made his home in the valley of the shadow of death.
“Are you dead or alive or something in between?” she asked him.
“I am Count Dahlvier, heir to the great Lord Vecna!” he exclaimed with aplomb. For this brash claim he could offer her no evidence whatsoever, but he insisted on it fastidiously. He boasted, “I have made a deal with undeath and dedicated myself to the service of Nerull. I have already undertaken the Ceremony of Endless Night and the rites of Becoming—all the preliminaries necessary to rise again. Only one step remains.”
“Well, you certainly know how to impress a girl!” Louhi said without hint of sarcasm.
“Become my bride and join me in my quest for death and undeath,” he enticed. “Die with me and you will rule at my side over my grandfather’s restored kingdom. Imagine how they will fear us! The daughter of Baba Yaga and the son of Vecna! Together we will make good our vows to Nerull and live on forever in undeath and undying love.”
With flattering words like this, Dahlvier captivated the witch’s heart. Indeed! She glopped up his promises. How they burned within her! He wed her under Nerull’s blessing on Nerull’s day—not the first time Natasha had married her sister’s suitor in her sister’s guise.
Louhi (for so she now called herself) soon regretted her haste. “Isn’t he something of a feather-head after all?” she thought to herself. She found life with Dahlvier to be a tedious affair. Every day, Dahlvier pestered her, “Make your vows to Nerull as I have done and undertake the Ceremony of Endless Night.”
She always put him off, “I must first complete my studies.” To pass the time, she busied herself with summoning up minor fiends, terrorizing the local population, and combing through the books she had stolen from the library in Castle Greyhawk. The peoples of the lands about learned to fear the Countess of North Reach Farm, and she entertained herself by exercising cruelties upon them.
Lost Ruins of the Felreev Forest
Among the books she had stolen from Zagig was a certain tome called Encyclopedia Magica. It provided a guide to magical artifacts and their probable whereabouts. Wherever she went in all of Oerth, she consulted the tome to see what magical treasures she might acquire to add to her collection. While penned up as bride of Count Dahlvier at North Reach Farm, she did the same and discovered an entry of interest. The tome described an ancient elven city of significant magical potency that had once been nearby beneath the boughs of the forest now called the Fellreev. According to the lore contained within Zagig’s book, an Oeridian army razed the city to the ground and slew all its inhabitants eight centuries now past. The precise location of the city had been forgotten to time, but if it could be rediscovered, the book said, certain powerful artifacts might be obtained and the city’s magical potencies might be harnessed. Louhi related this tale to the necromancer and suggested that, since the ruins were alleged to be near at hand, she would pursue the location of the forgotten city.
Count Dahlvier readily agreed to this and praised Baba Yaga for raising such a wise and insightful daughter. “You are indeed worthy to rule by my side in undeath!” he exclaimed.
“Truly, as you say,” Iggwilv agreed. “But what’s the hurry? Let me first undertake this quest.”
“In that case, this quest is in our common interest. I will accompany you,” the count insisted. The unhappy couple hired a fearsome band of mercenaries called the Blood-Seekers to assist them in the effort. They searched the forest, leaving no pile of stones untried, until they discovered what could only have been the ruins of the city they sought between the western Fellreev and its southwestern spur. Today that same place falls within the County of Dahlvier, and upon those ruins stands his castle, but in those days, a tribe of Celbit orcs controlled the vale, a pack of dire wolves hunted in those woods, and a family of trolls lived among the ruins.
The count and countess set up a small cantonment on the ruins, and they employed the mercenaries to protect them while they conducted their arcane investigations. The ruins appeared to be little more than a tumble of moss-covered stones overgrown by tree and brush, but beneath the broken stones they opened buried passages and cellars of collapsed palaces from a magnificent city that once was. The Blood-Seeker mercenaries assisted them in the hard labors of the excavations and they fought beside them in the frequent battles with dungeon denizens that occurred during the deep explorations.
Lerrek and Louhi
Over the course of these adventures, it happened that one of the mercenaries found favor in the eyes of Count Dahlvier. The Blood-Seeker mercenaries were heroes of evil, adventurers and warlords whose barbarity and temerity had won them a fearsome reputation for savagery. The killcows had acquired for themselves fame and fortune in the service of many an evil lord and lady of those lands. (Indeed, they came to the count with approbations and letters of recommendation.) Second in rank among them was a handsome strong priest named Lerrek. This mally magsman served the detestable god Erythnul—a vile deity of hatred and slaughter normally revered only by gnolls and ogres and the like. Count Dahlvier fawned over the man, flattered him, and told him, “You could be at my right hand, as Kas stood at the right of Vecna. Follow me on the path to immortality and you will live forever.” The count waxed on ceaselessly of the adlubences and ecstasies of the Ceremony of Endless Night and the Rites of Becoming. Lerrek listened patiently and politely only to placate the death-obsessed nobleman, but all the while his eyes strayed to lovely Louhi.
Neither had the priest escaped the notice of the countess. The strong young bandit made the cadaverous and morbid Count Dahlvier seem pale by comparison. Indeed, he was pale, for he had been courting his undeath for many years. Louhi would not flirt like a bedswerving drossel, but she locked the gaze of her dark Kettite eyes with the eyes of the priest for long lingering moments while the count looked away. Lerrek’s blood ran hot and he swore to Erynthul that he would steal the woman’s affections away from the necromancer. This he did easily with only but a modicum of persuasion. The count remained never the wiser.
“I could never choose betwixt the two of you,” Louhi told her lover. “You must never betray our secret. Swear it to me.” Lerrek agreed to the terms, but in his heart, he began to think about how to one day ride himself of his rival.
Meantime, the work continued. Lerrek and his mercenaries slew the trolls, hunted down the dire wolves, and drove away the orcs while the witch and the necromancer explored the ruins, seeking artifacts of forgotten olven magic. The dweomer of that place created a confusing maze of unnatural design which seemed to shift and reshuffle, ever turning them in circles and frustrating all efforts. After many months without success, the count and the countess began to brangle.
“I am weary with the task, weary of these dismal woods, and weary of these broken stones. I will stay no longer,” Louhi told the necromancer. “I grow tenterbelly with child, and I will not bear my firstborn in this place of miserable elvish trickery.”
“Why give up our quest so quickly? We are close to unlocking what powers be bound up in this place. I will use them to build our citadel upon these ruins. Surely you cannot leave me now that you carry our child.”
“I have better prospects in other places, and I tire of your company,” Louhi sniffed. “You stink of death.”
Spuddling Count Dahlvier blanched at that insult (true though it was), and his voice grew shrill, “Leave then and take your unborn brat with you. Loyal Lerrek and I will continue this worthy work without you, and we shall enjoy the rewards of the labor. We have no need of you!”
This sudden shift in the conversation alarmed the priest. He spoke up and tried to steer things aright. “The elves have long memories,” he faffled tentatively. “Eight hundred years is merely a generation passed for them. Let me fetch you some elves and put them to work for us. They will know where their treasures are hidden, if they are here at all.” Lerrek had no real interest in finding some arcane trantles, but he did have an interest in keeping the countess near at hand.
“Why go to all that trouble?” Louhi snapped. She glared venomously at the corpse-like count and spoke to the priest as if her husband was not present. “If the count is a necromancer, as he claims to be, let him call up the ghost of some ancient soul that knows the way to the treasuries. Let him summon a wight or some shade. Ever are the dead quick to give up their secrets.”
Count Dahlvier rejected the suggestion, “Only elves would know, and over the spirits of elves I have no power, nor do they walk in Nerull’s domain. But if you are a summoner of the metal you claim, call up some tanar’ri who knows how to solve this riddle for us.”
Fire from the Abyss
Louhi could not countenance mockery, nor could she resist a dare. Consulting the Tome of Zyx which she had stolen from Zagig’s library, the pregnant witch prepared the ceremonial elements, drew the circle, conducted the vile sacrifices, and opened a portal to the Abyss. As soon as she opened the way between worlds, terror swept in like a cold winter wind through an open door. A flaming shadow-winged horror smoldered through the open gate like rolling smoke rising from an oven. A great Balor prince drew himself up from the smoky shadows of flame, fixed a contemptuous gaze upon those present, and wordlessly demanded, “Who dares to call me up?”
“I adjure you. Reveal to us the hidden magic in this place,” Louhi replied, but even as the words left her lips, she realized something had gone amiss. She had mistakenly left the portal open, and all the Balor prince’s retinue followed him through it. Working quickly, she invoked powerful spells and incantations that should keep the tanar’ri lord under her power, just as her last master had taught her. Then she turned her attention to close the portal before all the Abyss passed through it. As she did, she lost her hold on concentration and, with it, control over the Balor prince. Flames combusted up around him. He cracked his whip of many tails. It’s fiery thongs wrapped around her and tore open her flesh. He dragged the countess screaming into the flaming aura that surrounded him. The hungry fires leaped up to greet her.
With that the baleful beings loosed upon all of them. A tremendous battle ensued. Louhi struggled through the flames to close the portal she had opened. Lerrek and the Blood-Seeker mercenaries fought to protect her as she worked her magic.
The Balor rampaged and raged through the ruins of the elven city, and the fires of the Abyss engulfed all that stood in his path. The once fearless mercenaries of Lerrek’s band died as they fled.
The Balor loomed over Louhi as she searched through the Tome of Zyx for incantations. Flames ravaged her again; the hair of her head curled and singed away; her flesh cracked and popped. Only the magically warded pages of the book refused to combust. Louhi sheltered herself behind the book and beseeched the Balor, “Mercy my prince! Cast your eye of strict judgment upon this proud necromancer who fancies himself a summoner! He is the fool that called your Awfulness up from the depths of the Abyss!”
“Fie on you witch!” Count Dahlvier spat. He unleashed a battery of powerful spells against the Balor and made to flee. Too late! Lerrek grappled him and tossed his fragile frame before the flaming fiend. The thongs of the Balor’s whip wrapped around Dahlvier’s cadaverous body and dragged him up into the flames. Lerrek watched in satisfaction as the Balor thrust a jagged sword into the necromancer’s chest. The same blade pierced through and exited from the man’s back. The fiend lifted the impaled count and held him dangling aloft by the hilt of the jagged blade, displaying him to the other fiends as a grotesque and gruesome trophy.
“Not like this! Not like this!” Count Dahlvier quetched with his last breaths. The world grew dim around him.
Louhi completed her incantation. The Balor roared and shrank away. Count Dahlvier’s body fell to the ground unceremoniously. The Balor dissipated along with the retinue of demons attached to him. The whole lot of them fell back through the portal like smoke sucked up through the stem of a pipe. With a pop and a snap, Louhi’s spell closed the gate after them.
The countess dropped the book and collapsed samdead to the ground beside her husband. Smoke still curled from where the fires had charred away her lovely pale flesh, and what was not hideously disfigured or burnt away showed the wheal and stripe of the Balor’s vicious whip. She struggled against unconsciousness, fearing for her life and that of the child she carried, but all her strength had been spent in the fight. She could not find breath enough to articulate a simple healing spell.
Lerrek hurried to the side of the dying witch and invoked the rare mildful power of Erythnul lest both mother and child perish upon the ground beside his hated rival. He closed her wounds and smoothed away the welts, wheals, and burns upon her flesh, restoring her comeliness to his satisfaction, but he could not heal the disfiguring scars left etched upon the woman’s soul. He wrapped her in the pelt of a dire wolf and nursed her back to health.
“We will leave this place at once and never return,” the countess told Lerrek after she had recovered her strength but a little. “Do not concern yourself with burying your companions. Let the dire wolves feed, and let the necromancer sort through the bones when he awakens from his slumber. We must not be found here when he does.”
That same day she left behind the Northern Reaches and the name of Louhi. She wrapped the pelt of the dire wolf about her and took upon herself a new identity, calling herself by the name of Iggwilv, “Lest Zagig come looking for Tasha or Count Dahlvier comes seeking for Louhi.” Lerrek and all those that remained of his killbuck mercenaries became her private guard. They swore their allegiance to Iggwilv and worshiped her.
Iggwilv led her retinue to her holdings in Lopolla where she avenged herself on the Ketites that had driven out Hura a generation earlier. In that place she assembled an army hidden away in the Bramblewood Forest, and she made Lerrek the captain over the growing host. When the fullness of her days came upon her, she gave birth to a squalling child. The midwife said, “Behold a daughter dark and lovely like her mother!”
Lerrek boasted, “Surely you have borne me a fine daughter!”
Iggwilv only quipped, “What use for a daughter have I?”
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