D E M O N W I T C H
(A Novel by Robert Arvay)
The Legend of Tarok and Kattaroon
According to the Hidden Scroll
“Where are they?” she demanded to know. Her mere presence darkened the room, and her voice seemed to chill the air within its grey, stone walls. “When I send for my advisors, I expect them to appear at once. How dare they tarry at such a moment as this!” The slave girl cowered in dread beneath Kattaroon’s seething rage. And well she did, for no rage is as deadly as that of a demonwitch cornered in her lair, even if that demonwitch is temporarily reduced to mortality. For, in such a one as this, even mere earthly evil undertakes its most dread and potent form. But mercifully for the trembling slave girl, she did not have to speak in reply, did not have to be the bearer of the bad news which would surely enrage the already dangerous woman. The guardsman answered the question instead. “Your sorcerer, Kharakh, ascends the spire stairs even now, dark madam. And the serpent Thilgol is not far behind him. They will both arrive shortly.” Kattaroon turned her attention from the terrified maiden, and faced the armored guard. She glared in reply to his report, his most unsatisfactory report. “Only two?” she raged. “And what of the others? What delays them?” “Death,” answered the guardsman. “Death delays them. For all your other advisors lie dead beneath the sword of Tarok. Of all your commanders and conjurors and potionists, only these two remain alive, Kharakh and Thilgol.” The guardsman’s tone was emotionless, with a fearlessness only the dead themselves could achieve. For dead he was, bewitched by the curse of a witch who could trust no armed man within sword’s reach of her blackened heart. But the witch herself was anything but emotionless. Her smoldering impatience burst into the flame of outrage at this further, bitter news. “Dead, are they? All of them burning in Hell, no doubt. Not for their sins, but greater damnation yet, for their failure.” The demonwitch had all but snarled as she whirled to face the window, toward the radiant sunlight which shone inward from it. The window was the only vantage point afforded by the stone enclosure, the turret, atop the tall spire into which Tarok and his armies had forced her retreat. Then, the witch spoke with a quiet fury, but quiet with the menace of a serpent. She uttered a curse that terrified her maiden into tremors. “Damnation be upon that warrior--- and upon all who follow him. Wretched souls they are, and wretched shall they be.” As she spoke, Kattaroon stepped with angry cadence toward the windowsill, and reaching it, looked downward upon the military spectacle far beneath. Rows and columns of enemy soldiers surrounded the castle in formidable array. The air bristled metallic with their spears and swords. Colored banners fluttered in the breeze, seemingly as numerous as the blossoms of a meadow in full bloom. Bright yellows and brilliant shades of red were punctuated by darker blues and regal purples. But if each battle-flag were a flower, it concealed beneath its single bright petal, thorns of deadliest poison. For each banner marked a separate regiment of swordsmen and archers. Such a sight would have struck fear into any ordinary mortal so besieged. But Kattaroon knew no fear. Proud and contemptuous, as cold and as hard as the castle itself, she fended off all spears of doubt. The witch’s upper lip contorted into a sneer and her eyes darkened with vengeful malice. “Enjoy your puny victory while you can,” she spoke with quiet defiance, knowing that none below could hear her even had she shouted. “But soon your exultation will turn to terror, your battle-cries to lamentation, and your hopes to despair. For here I make my final stand, a wounded lioness, defending her last redoubt. By day your victory seems certain and ordained. But be assured that, when nightfall comes, my powers, which were spent in killing your comrades, will return to me. And then you will share their fiery fate. All of you.” At this time, the slave girl forced herself to speak, though her blood seemed as water and her bones as straw. “Dark madam,” her voice wavered as she forced each word. “Please, step back from the window, I beg you. Surely they have archers, and even atop this tall spire, their arrows can reach with brutal force. I fear for your safety.” Of course Kattaroon knew that the slave girl had no fear at all for the safety of her evil mistress. What the girl did fear, was not to feign concern. For well the maiden knew that her unwilling duty was to tend a dangerous nightcat, one that devoured its servants at the very first and very slightest hint of their disloyalty. Even though the maiden’s pretense was transparent, it was necessary. For, to remain silent would unmask the slave girl’s fond, desperate hope that the demonwitch would fall mortally wounded, releasing the spell of terror that bound the maiden more tightly than any chain ever could. To remain silent was to evoke a deadly curse from the hand of the demonwitch, a clawed hand that had power and willingness to kill, even without sorcery. So the maiden did obeisance and pretended to fear for Kattaroon’s safety. The witch knew it was a lie. But for Kattaroon, lies were sweeter than truth. Just then, an arrow did indeed clatter off the stone near where Kattaroon stood, cracking violently at the edge of the window. The deadly missile would have surely been her death, except that the slightest breeze had wafted it astray in its failed quest for her evil heart. The once hawk-like arrow, broken and frustrated in its mission, fell harmlessly like a wounded dove, to the ground far below. Begrudgingly, the witch did step backward a pace, away from the daylight, into a safer, more familiar refuge, becoming a shadow among shadows once more. Ordinarily, no arrow, no spear or sword could have touched her. But the earlier battle at Gur-Molkn had required her to exert all her powers, powers of darkest sorcery, in a futile attempt to defeat Tarok’s army. There, treachery within the ranks of her own troops had proved fatal to her hopes, and with her forces decimated, retreating and scattered, Kattaroon had barely escaped alive into Castle Ki-Rori, where now she must make her last and final stand against mighty Tarok. Here, this day, this night, one or the other of them must reign victorious. For the loser, death awaited, death or worse, infinitely worse. With a sound of wood scraping against stone, the oaken door, which sealed the turret from the spire stairway, yielded. The man who stepped through the semi-oval opening seemed almost as lifeless as the armored guardsman who ushered him in. Lifeless this new arrival was, but through no curse of any witch. A sorceror curses himself first of all. And no more powerful curse has any man, than that by which he curses himself. “Kharakh!” the demonwitch uttered to him who entered. “Do you dare tarry when we are encircled by the armies of our foe? I should---” “Have patience with me!” the sorceror pleaded. “You can see that I have suffered this day. I am weakened, as you are. Only Hell’s favor has spared me alive. All my conjurors have met their doom, and I alone remain.” Kattaroon spat in disgust. “And what delays that serpent Thilgol? Does that lizard fancy itself immune to my reproach?” The sorceror gave a slight shudder. “Do not contend with Thilgol this day, my lady. Rage has seized its heart. And as you know, when Thilgol is enraged---” The witch’s sudden display of her own rage silenced the sorceror.