Lights glared, dancing sharp shadows around the gambling hall. Tin cups and glasses clanked together. Feet stamped; fists were raised. Bets were taken at a small table in the corner of the full room. The uproar focused on the circle where the two fighters stood, a sword in each hand.
Under the heat of the lamps, sweat already glistened on the new challenger’s tall, muscular body. Her long black hair was pulled to the nape of her neck while strands of bangs stuck to her forehead. She unbuttoned her shirt and rolled her sleeves. Determination furrowed her brow.
Her sword was almost as tall as the returning champion of the gambling den’s ring.
On the opposite side of the loud circle stood the much smaller woman. Thick, light brown hair was tied in a knot high on her head. The line from her cheek to her chin was as sharp as her sword. Sweat seeped down the chest and back of her tunic. Still, her breathing was steady, even in this last round, and her hand rested easy on the sword that was only as long as the other woman’s forearm.
“Back for more, Daria?” the woman chided, her thin mouth curling. “I thought you’d have to wait a month to have enough money to enter again.”
Daria raised her longsword. “Leave it to the ring to decide, Itzel,” she growled.
Itzel didn’t react to the stance, only nodding to the time keeper that she was ready.
Daria lunged. Itzel dodged lazily.
She shook her head at the advance. “This isn’t going to be much of a fight if you didn’t actually improve.” Even though the fight was easy, her pulse picked up, rising as the cheers grew louder. Her golden eyes shone.
The challenger yelled and spun wildly, cutting into air, chasing in vein after the nimble figure. Raising the sword over her head, she dropped it down heavily. It sunk into the dirt ground.
“Make contact!” Daria snarled, dragging the sword out. She whirled again.
Finally, Itzel parried, metal clanging, then kicked the other woman in the chest, sending her back into the crowd. “As you wish, sweetheart.” Sword poised, her eyes glinted.
Cheers shook the rafters. The crowd stomped, rattling the wooden beams. The sharp lights were caught in the dust kicked up from the dirt floor.
Daria had barely lifted her sword off the ground when Itzel scooped under her arm and jabbed her elbow into the other woman’s stomach.
Her rival doubled over. Daria whirled her sword around, missing the impossible woman.
Itzel blocked the feeble attempt. In a fluid movement, she jumped on the woman’s back and vaulted off, flipping over her head.
The crowd roared at the display. The small woman grinned, raised her hands to encourage the cheers louder.
Growling with rage, Daria charged on Itzel’s back.
Expecting it, Itzel ducked, swiped her leg out, tripping the larger woman.
Before Daria could recover her senses, Itzel touched her blade onto her forearm. A line of blood dripped out of the scratch.
The noise was deafening. People clapped and hollered. Some booed, others cheered.
First blood. Itzel had won.
Itzel walked over to the betting table once everyone went home. The quiet was only broken by the shuffling of chairs and sweeping. She leaned against the table.
“Tonight was a good night,” the bookkeeper said, preparing a wad of cash for her.
“With most of the challengers I had tonight, I’d hope so.” She rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck.
The bookkeeper handed her the winner’s cash.
She winked. “Can’t keep me away from a good payday.”
Outside the gambling hall, she counted her money as she headed home.
“Itzel!” a voice shouted.
“I challenge you to a fight!”
Across the street stood a bulky man surrounded by four other people.
Itzel didn’t recognize the loud, dark haired man.
“You’ll have to come back tomorrow, dearie. I only fight for money.” She spun on her heels and walked away.
“What if I bet twice what you won tonight?”
Itzel stopped, thin eyebrow raised, hand rested on the hilt of her sword.
The man showed a clump of bills. He flicked through them, showing the amount in the dull street light.
Itzel changed her tune. Now that was a gamble she’d be up for. After such a good night, the prospect of doubling those earnings buzzed in her mind. “When and where?”
“Baker’s Dock, half an hour.”
Itzel walked straight to the docks. She sat on a stack of crates while sharpening her sword. Shink. Shink. The sound of rock-on-sword reverberated in time with the waves that crashed against the stone walls that held the dock’s together.
She stood, but didn’t find the man she expected.
A hunched figure waded towards her. Feet shuffled over the docks, causing the boards to groan every few feet. Itzel scrunched her nose as a pungent smell of body odor and spoiled spices diffused through the air. Under the cloak, she saw a small nose surrounded by wrinkles.
“Hey, you!” she yelled.
The figure clutched her heart, stumbled back and fell.
Itzel cursed. “Old woman. There’s about to be a fight here. Spend the night somewhere else.”
“You–you startled me–” the ragged woman stammered, shaking.
“Yes, yes.” Itzel fought the urge to roll her eyes at the obvious.
“This is no place for you right now.”
The woman stretched out a shaking, smelly hand.
Itzel scrunched her long nose. “Come on now,” she grabbed the craggy hand. “Let’s get you—”
A sharp pain shot through her arm like hot iron. She pulled back, but the old woman’s grip tightened, making it impossible to let go.
The old woman rose, her ragged cackling transforming into youthful chortle.
Itzel’s hand was released and she stared up from her knees into the bright gaze of a beautiful witch.
“Wha—?” Her vision blurred. She could barely make out a symbol that burned white on her tan skin.
“Sorry dear. It’s just business.” The witch jingled a bag of money in her face before disappearing.
“Itzel!” a male voice shouted.
She turned to see the last-minute opponent. Swiftly, she unsheathed her sword.
An impossible pain shot up her arm, even more painful than when the witch had touched her. The white tattoo changed to red. She gasped, dropping the sword.
Rubbing her hand, the tattoo went back to being white.
The man laughed, and the people around him joined him. He brandished his own sword and advanced.
“You won’t be making a fool of my sister anymore,” he said. The gang surrounded her.
Of course. The black hair and thick built. He was Daria’s brother.
“Fair and square.” She glanced nervously at the five people around her, wishing for a wall to her back. “Unlike your sorry a–”
Two swords swung at her. She dodged, losing bits of her shirt in the process. She grit her teeth. These idiots mean business. She tumbled and grabbed her sword, parrying an incoming jab.
She blocked a few more swings before her hands were numb from the curse’s pain. She knocked out two of the gang before a quick swipe sent her sword clattered away from her. Landing a desperate kick sent a third member down, but suddenly, she was facedown on the dock from a blow to the back.
Unable to gather strength to lift herself, she gazed up to the coward who started this. He picked up her sword, gazing at it.
“You won’t be needing this anymore,” he said.
A hit from her own sword’s hilt to the face, and everything went black.
Itzel didn’t remember the rest of the beating, but after regaining consciousness, she felt everything. Bruises on her stomach and face, cuts on her arms. Even her legs ached. Her money was gone along with her sword. She cursed cowards and magic.
A board creaked.
Barely seeing out of her left eye, Itzel saw the witch had returned.
She spat. “I thought helping witches gave you a blessing, not a curse.”
The witch shrugged. “Fairytales.”
“Change me back!” Itzel painfully pulled herself out of the trash heap.
“That’s not how I work. My services are bought, and don’t change unless a price is met.” The witch’s eyes crinkled in amusement.
“We can make a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” Her fingers flexed, wanting to punch the smirk off this witch’s face. She was in no mood for games, even the betting kind.
“If you bring back my pendent, from Berzark Castle, the curse will be broken.”
That’s it? Itzel wondered. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. A warlock on that castle has my pendent. I want it back, but only non-magical people can get past his barrier.” “There’s no way I can take out a warlock. Especially like this!”
“So you won’t do it,” the witch pouted, and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Itzel exclaimed, pulse rising. She needed her abilities back.
“I’ll do it.”
Before Itzel could step away, the witch grabbed her hand. Light flashed all around them.
Once Itzel blinked the spots in her vision away, it was morning.
Already the docks were bustling with workers loading ships. When she stepped forward, her body ached, but it felt like a week’s healing was done. Her arm was bandaged, useless, but it didn’t matter since she didn’t have her sword anymore.
Guess the witch thought it worthy to heal her proxy before sending her to her death, she thought morbidly.
Now to get to Berzark Castle.
Four days out from the town, Itzel was closing in on the warlock’s castle. She had to steal a horse because she had no money. The brown mare walked away with her for a carrot (which she had also swiped), and Itzel was in love.
“Almost there, Sunny,” she told her companion. They were almost on top of the ‘X’ on the map. If she didn’t hold the map with her cursed hand, though, the ‘X’ disappeared. Some trick the witch had put on her to find the castle. Which was good, because no town along her travels had ever heard of Berzark Castle.
All her hair stood on end as though lightening was about to strike. She halted Sunny and looked around, only seeing trees. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw little sparks. It’s the barrier, she deducted. As she moved forward, it felt as though they were going through a static-ridden fleece blanket.
The trees broke open and the static stopped when Itzel came upon the area where the map marked the destination.
Nothing was there.
Before her, an overgrown green meadow spread. Birds chirped and fluttered about. She heard the bubbling of a stream somewhere in the thicket. A twig cracked. When she glanced at the source, she didn’t see a warlock, but a pair of bunnies hopping about.
The woman looked back and forth at the map and the meadow.
There was definitely no castle here.
She crumbled the useless map and shoved it in her pocket.
“Sunny, over here.” She lead her horse to the sound of water, grumbling about useless witches.
While the horse drank, Itzel wandered. She circled around the meadow, spiraling in until she walked over every inch of the clearing. No castle. Not even a castle made invisible by a powerful warlock.
“This is completely worthless,” she said as she sat on a rock.
Suddenly, the ground gave way. Itzel cried out as she pitched backwards, falling into a dark hole.
When the dust cleared, the woman found herself in what appeared to be a hallway. On the walls were tapestries hanging by threads to their railings. Highly ornate, but broken, chairs and tables lined the walls. Even a long rug covered the floor.
Well, this looks like a castle, she concluded. As irritated as she was at this whole situation, an underground castle was an impressive new development.
Sunny nickered above her.
Itzel coughed and brushed the dust off her. “I’m fine, girl. You stay up there. I’ll be back in a bit.”
She hadn’t been blown to bits just yet, so her rude entrance hadn’t alerted the warlock. Slowly, she made her way though the maze of hallways and chambers, going deeper into the underground castle.
The place was dim. The daylight above was forgotten and exchanged for lanterns set at irregular intervals. A weird, yellow dust hung in the air, threatening to make her sneeze.
After wandering through the dusty corridors, Itzel was getting impatient. Other than structural decay and plant overgrowth, this place seemed deserted.
A door covered in wooden planks caught her eye. The wood was rotting and falling away from the nails that held it.
Having nothing else to go on, she kicked at the boards. The wood splintered and fell. Even the wooden door chipped away under her feet. One final kick and she fell through the doorway, landing on gravel that pinched her feet.
Gathering her balance, she realized that it wasn’t gravel at all. She gasped as she took in the mounts of spoons, coins, and other objects made of silver that filled the entire room. All of them were polished to a shine. The light of the lanterns set throughout the chamber bounced off the silver creating a starry sky on the stone ceiling.
“What does a warlock need with so much silver?” Itzel muttered. Not that I’m an expert on how to do sorcery, but… A mirror caught her eye. Its handle had vines wrapped around it with pink roses around the glass. That would catch a pretty penny. She reach down.
The ground shook. Dust from crevices fell over Itzel. A smell wafted from the other side of the chamber. With a full nose of it, she finally realized what the yellow dust was. Sulfur. She scrambled. A shadow poured into the chamber. She hid behind a pillar just before the creature appeared.
The woman blinked and attempted to rub the sulfur’s mirage out of her eyes. Nope, it was definitely a large, red, scaly dragon, complete with bat-like wings. In the center of its chest, a stone glittered. A pendent.
Itzel grappled for her nonexistent hilt. That is NOT a warlock, Itzel thought, cursing the witch under her breath.
The dragon cocked its head, listening. Itzel clutched her chest.
Could it hear the ringing in her ears?
Deciding nothing was out of the ordinary, it dove into it horde. The objects parted like a silver wave as they clinked along its scales. Sulfur now filled the room–Itzel covered her mouth and tried not to sneeze.
How do I get a pendent off a dragon? she contemplated as said dragon rolled around like a cat, even flicking its tail. It would’ve been an adorable display if the creature in question didn’t have foot-long talons and the ability to fry her skin off.
The glimmer of lights on the ceiling caught its attention. The large dragon leapt at the flashed. The entire chamber shook under the force. More dust floated onto Itzel.
Before she could control herself, she sneezed.
Green eyes, rimmed with black, snapped in her direction.
Flames shot at the pillar, melting the stone into chunks of lava. She was tripping over silver teapots and out the door before the dragon rampaged after her, roaring at the intruder to its horde.
Itzel raced through the hallways. Every corner she turned was a narrow escape of flames shot from the charging dragon. The entire castle heated up. The vines that crawled across the walls and through the cracks sizzled.
The dragon slammed into the walls. The ceiling crumbled around Itzel, forcing her to dive into an open doorway.
She gasped. How am I supposed to defeat a dragon? she wondered incredulously. Even if she got close enough to get the pendent off, there was no way she’d managed to escape in one piece. Losing body parts wasn’t a part of the deal, she seethed.
When she set her hand down, it touched something smooth. Looking at it, she realized it was skeleton. Her pulse rung in her ears as a single, flittering lantern illuminated the rest of the room full of bones. Some had charred armor hanging on their shoulders. Ashen circles created a negative shadow of the fallen warriors, thieves, and unlucky folk.
Swords were all around her. Her sweaty fist clench as there was no way the curse would let her wield one, even with her life in peril.
The heavy footsteps of the lumbering dragon came closer. Itzel scrambled to find a hiding place, but the room had no other exit and everything in it was charred and useless.
I’m supposed to die by the sword, not a blasted dragon! She cursed silently.
Unconsciously, she grabbed for her sword again. Instead, her fingers wrapped around the mirror from the dragon’s horde.
The ground trembled, hailing impending death.
Itzel raced at the lantern, grabbed it, then braced herself against the wall with the doorway just before the dragon’s snout loomed outside the room. She grasped the mirror tighter.
The wall quaked as dragon fire flew through the doorway, singeing her arm hair.
Its long head slithered through the door and long talons scratched the ground with every step. Its sharp eyes looked for its smoldering prey.
Itzel set the mirror behind the lantern. A small circle of light glinted onto the ceiling.
The dragon saw it and paused. Itzel’s body turned cold in the hot room. What if it looks for the source of the light?
Instead, the large, deadly dragon lunged at the twinkle one the ceiling. It looked at its talons, expecting to see the shiny, but found nothing.
Itzel flickered the reflection to the other corner. The dragon chased after it. As they played a game of tag with the light, Itzel slowly stepped towards the creature’s back, dodging its spiked tail.
After taking a deep breath, she threw the lantern to the side. The crash caught the attention of the dragon, and Itzel bolted up its back.
She escaped detection until she was climbing between its wings. The dragon roared and tried to grab her. The talons missed her by a hair length. Just as the creature pitched itself backwards, she clasped the pendent’s chain and swung around its neck. Before its body smashed against stone floor, she unhook the pendent.
A shockwave erupted, crumbling the skeletons and knocking out windows. Itzel was slammed against the wall. Looking up, green and gold lights swirled around the dragon. The room hummed with energy as the dragon’s figure shrunk.
When the magical display disappeared, a small creature landed on her stomach.
Itzel stared at a multi-colored, dazed cat.
Before she could comprehend what was before her, another flash of light erupted followed by the smell of spices. A figure appeared and leapt at the feline, hugging the confused dragon-turned-cat.
“You!” Itzel exclaimed, recognizing the witch.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” Still holding the cat, the witch shook
Itzel’s hand vigorously. The white tattoo of the curse dissolved into the air.
Butterflies filled her stomach, her hand itched towards her hilt, but, of course, the sword was lost.
“What’s the deal, witch?” Itzel exclaimed, glaring at the witch. “This wasn’t part of the deal. I was supposed to get a pendent back from a warlock!”
The cat meowed and peered at her.
“This is Warlock,” the witch explained, mischief in her eyes. “That’s his name! So yes, you had to get the pendent off a warlock.” She rubbed her face in his fur. She cooed, “You won’t be getting into my cursed pendent collection again, now, won’t you?”
Itzel garbled for words, but found none that could articulate her anger towards the witch. In her head, though, she thought, For the love of… Once I get my sword back, I swear…
After a deep breath, she said, “Here’s your stupid pendent.”
“Oh, I don’t need that,” the witch said, snuggling with Warlock. He purred loudly.
“What do I do with it, then?” Itzel asked incredulously.
The witch shrugged. “Whatever you want.”
Before Itzel could insist anything else, she had to cover her eyes as a blast of light filled the room. When it dispersed, cat and witch were gone. The faint scent of spices was the only indication they were there at all.
“You’ve to got to be kidding–”
Abruptly, the castle groaned. The damaged pillars, weakened by the shockwave sent out by the cat’s metamorphosis, collapsed. The ground heaved, sending Itzel to her knees. Cracks shot across the surface.
Itzel scrambled to her feet and tore down the hallway. The floor gave way to create deep caverns. Rocks bombarded her. She crawled up the overgrowth, fighting for the surface. The structure collapsed around her. Debris hit pelted her hands and soon her fingers slipped.
Something soft brushed against her cheek. Slowly, Itzel raised a stiff hand and touched a long, soft head.
“Sunny,” Itzel realized, opening her eyes.
The mare snorted and pushed at the small woman to get out up.
Obliging, and sore, she groaned as she heaved out of the rubble.
The castle was gone, buried under itself. Its treasures were lost except for any desperate soul who wanted to ransack the place. A crater was now in the middle of meadow.
The pendent weighted in her hand. She examined it. Red runes were carved onto a white stone set in a gold chain.
She wanted nothing more to do with it. Spinning it like a sling shot, she tossed it towards the middle of the crater. It skipped like a stone on water until it hit a crevice and disappeared into the crumbled castle.
The full moon peered through the clouds, brightening the area in a soft glow. An owl hooted, wholly undeterred by the day’s changes to its home. Trees leaned towards the crater, but were otherwise also unfazed by the events.
Itzel absently stared at the scene until the mare licked her face.
“Okay, okay!” She smiled as she pushed the horse away. She caught of whiff of sulfur off her sleeve. “Ugh, I need a bath. Let’s get to a town.”
She hopped onto the mare’s back.
After a bath, she thought wistfully. I think a visit to Daria’s brother would be just right.
Itzel smirked, liking that idea very much.
A concentrated attempt to write for the Sword and Sorcery genre when the Sword and Sorceress anthology was taking submissions. I’m not familiar enough with the S&S style, though, and it shows. The editor was really cool and said it was a fine story, just not what they were looking for.
I’m happy with it, so I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for reading!