The Fire of Ungdomma

Guðrún, and the many witches she had contacted over the crystall ball network, had run out of options. Earlier, she had almost managed to forge a mental link with the baby, who had hit her in the face with a double whopper of pain and exhaustion.

Gu∂rún is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It was clear that only a surgeon would have been able to rescue the baby, at the expense of the mother's life. However, the castle had never retained one.

"Give up," said a voice in Guðrún's head. "You've done all you could. Let them rest."
"No!" said another voice. "There's one more thing you can do. It will be hard, and costly, but you can save both of them!"



Bouncing and pinging.

"I'll do it!", said Guðrún. And precisely at that moment, three of the crystal balls in the room lit up, bouncing and pinging. The first ball spoke with the voice of Elspeth, Queen of all witches.

"I forbid you to-." but before the Queen could finish, the ball shattered.

A moment later, all but two of the other crystal balls in the room burst as well. Finally, a small goblet, from which Guðrún had administered potions, cracked with a ping.

One of the two remaining balls showed the face of Atra Cambrensis; the other that of Krakatoa Heklúdottir, whose mastery of crystal ball networking was second to none.



Mundus stet.

"Friends," yelled Guðrún, "Glad you're here. We must- " But the others had already started the spell that Guðrún had in mind.

"Lex Naturalis non dura!," yelled Krakatoa, in the impeccable Latin she had drilled into her head at Wittenberg.
"Tempus fugit! Sumus Exemptae", drawled Atra, with a Clwydian accent that could lift a heavy horse.

"Wait!" muttered Guðrún under her breath while pawing at her dress. This was one spell that absolutely had to be performed skyclad. However, she had to finish the spell before the other witches' contributions expired.

"Mundus stet," she yelled, and as soon as she had finished, her dress became as rigid as rock. Carefully, she wormed out from under the unbending cloth, which stayed in the air where she left it.

Time had stopped. Whatever happened, there was no turning back.



There was no time in which the door could open.

Two hours passed for Guðrún, but not for anyone else in the castle. The silent world was cold and uncomfortable, and while she could force her body not to sleep, she could not stop it from feeling hungry or thirsty.

Finally, there was a knock on the door. However, Guðrún could not open it because for the door, there was no time in which it could open.



Corpus refractum! Separandi atomae! Engagemento! And there she was.

She talked to the new arrivals, who obviously had to be Krakatoa and Atra, through the door.
"Transportation spell!" she hissed.

They got the message, because a few seconds later, the words drifted through the door.
"Corpus refractum!" Krakatoa's voice.

"Separandi atomae!" Atra's voice. She wasn't quite getting the grammar right.

Guðrún completed the spell. "Engagemento!"

And there she was, on the other side of the door.



Testing the security is what she calls it.

"How did the two of you know what I was planning to do?" asked Guðrún.

"Well, I hadn't heard from you for 10 hours after you first contacted us," said Atra. "The entire witch community in Clwyd-Rhan was on the ball all the time, but no definite news. And that meant that things were probably going badly."

"Uh," said Krakatoa. "I was, uh, testing the security on Queen Elspeth's internal crystal ball network, and overheard her worrying that you might - "



We are not amused! OFF with her HEAD!

"You WHAT?" Guðrún was absolutely startled. "Do you know what the Queen does to people hacking into her network?"

Kra stood up and did a surprisingly good imitation of the Witch Queen. "We are not amused! OFF with her HEAD!" she sniffed haughtily.

The other two couldn't help laughing.

"You should get a job at TCN - they always need good imitators!" said Guðrún.

"So..." said Atra. "And what are we in for now?"



Whirly knotwork composition: Atra, Ragna,Gudrun,  the Oven of Ungdomma, a Fire Elf, Krakatoa, a Slime Demon, and Atra again. I really enjoyed drawing this. By the way,

Another few pseudo-minutes of silence followed. Atra was the first to speak.

"Well, Ragna is close to death, right? We need to buy her time."

"And the problem is," Kra continued, "that she's too old. She should be younger to have a child without problems. That suggests that she needs Fire from the Oven of Ungdomma, which is guarded by a Fire Elf and which it is illegal to even think of using."

"Yeah," said Atra. "The Queen will probably light our pyre herself."

"But," Kra resumed, "Using it on her will make the baby disappear altogether. Unless..."

"Unless we protect it with the Salamander spell. A highly-illegal spell that can only be carried out with the help of the Slime Demon, who all witches are under a standing order to destroy on sight, on pain of..."

"Yes, yes," said Atra. "The Queen will have to bring us back to life to execute us again."



Apparently there's no fanservice to come for the time being.

"Well then," said Atra. "There's nothing to it. Let's get cracking."

"Uh-uh," said Guðrún. "There's one more thing that we need to do first. We need to go to the Trove of Timeless Treasure!"

The other witches gave her blank looks. "The what?"

"The Trove of Timeless Treasure. A collection of tools put under the same spell we are under. They are placed outside the normal flow of time, so we will be able to handle them. Surely, you didn't think I was going to fight demons naked, did you?"



Is this even legal?

"Is this also illegal?" asked Atra, as they were walking through the castle grounds. There was considerable activity going on, even if all of it was frozen. None of the witches noticed a man who seemed to have been fretting over something.

"Probably not." replied Guðrún. "But it is pretty dangerous. Timeless artefacts have a way of letting you down at inconvenient moments, slipping back into normal time. Also, there's the TreasureKeeper."
"Dangerous?"
"Not really, but he's one of those irritating bastards who-"

Comprehension dawned on the faces of Atra and Krakatoa.
"Oh no! Not a riddle!" said Kra. "I hate those."



Me and my pals from Wittenberg, Potzenmacher and Weselherz.

But a minute or so later, Krakatoa looked perfectly happy with the idea of facing a riddling guard.
"You know," she said, "this really reminds me of my days at Wittenberg. Me and my pals Potzenmacher and Weselherz did this all the time, exploring caverns below the school, playing with demons, breaking all the rules. We couldn't keep ourselves out of trouble for a single day!"

"Potzenmacher," mused Atra. "The name sounds familiar...."

"Yeah. He made the news a few years ago, the poor guy. That last Archdemon was too big for him."
At that, she fell silent for a while as they trudged on.



I am the Keeper! I riddle in rhyme, for that is the best way to waste all your time!

Working in a timeless environment makes certain other spells more effective, so after a short walk, they were within Transportation range of the Timeless Treasure Trove. Materialising at the gate, they were greeted by a demon who looked vaguely like a crocodile. The witches didn't waste any energy on asking the demon why it had chosen this shape. Instead, they let it make the first move.

"I am the Keeper! Before you proceed,
Tell me exactly, what do you need?"

Krakatoa rolled her eyes.



Crocodile demon doing the poetry slam thang

"You may enter the chamber, one at a time,
To get your desire, but do heed my rhyme.
When picking your outfit, do not be misled
One color is timeless, one kills you stone dead.
Your tools should be those that were born with your trade
Stay clear of those that by mortals were made.
For weapons, consider the people you've been
And whether your fight will be dirty or clean.
Now go in, in order, and that you may find
The way to accomplish the plan on your mind."

" I suppose," said Guðrún, "that means I should go first. Right, Atra? Atra?"
The look in Atra's eyes could make a sauna freeze over. Shrugging, Guðrún went in.



It never does.

The room was filled with gold, archeological treasure and the debris of a thousand royal weddings (an area in which history tends to recycle itself more than usually), but there were also other things; caches of arms, collections of artisans' tools, and a small wardrobe in the back. The wardrobe contained many items of clothing including dresses that could have been fashionable at any time in history. Strangely, though, the clothes came only in two colors - red and black.
"One color is timeless, one kills you stone dead."

The other two witches waited outside, Atra still fixing a frosty glare on the demon. Then Guðrún came out, carrying two dresses in what she hoped were the right sizes.
"I've always thought black never goes out of style," she said.



Professor Simianus.

Kra's turn was up next.
"Your tools will be those that were born with your trade..." What did that mean?

When was witchcraft born?

A long-forgotten lecture from the history teacher at Wittenberg drifted into her mind.
"... early man looked at the stars, and considered..."
"When men realised that they, too, would die..." (Professor Simianus was a woman-hating weasel as well as a crashing bore).
"...men endeavoured to speed the hunt, scratching symbols on the walls..."



Well, what are you thinking?

Krakatoa emerged from the vault carrying a skull and a bundle of twigs.Guðrún said nothing, which probably indicated that she had no opinion at all about the wisdom of Krakatoa's choice. Probably.

It took a while to get Atra to remove her gaze from the reptilian demon, and take her turn in the vault. When she finally did, she had a look in her eyes that the others hadn't seen before. They watched her amble into the vault with a great deal of worried anticipation.

"Whether your fight will be dirty or clean," muttered Krakatoa. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Atra came back, the pockets of her new dress stuffed with



Return of the comic's oldest running gag.

"Soap!" bellowed Krakatoa to Atra who smiled vaguely back at her. "What were you thinking, you old-"
"That's enough, Krakatoa," said Guðrún. "You really should have more trust in the, uh... most experienced witch in the group".

Later, as they were walking through the dark underworld towards the next suitable location for a long-range Transportation, Guðrún asked, in Atra's ear, "What was that staring match with the demon about?" But Atra refused to be drawn.



It's... a bit of a dump, frankly. The best thing you can say about it is that it's not very overgrown.

Their next jump took them to Iceland - to a castle that the three had left in a hurry less than a year ago.

"The fire of Ungdomma is here?" said Krakatoa. "Alcydia's castle?"

Alcydia was the witch responsible for Guðrún's forehead scar. She had tried to swap her own brain with Guðrún's as one of her many schemes to become Queen of all Witches instead of the Queen of all Witches. Tamlin's gang had saved Guðrún, leaving the castle in a disarray that had yet to be repaired.



Timelessness and twigs

They did find the library, but then had to face yet another problem.
"We can't open these books! They're in the normal timestream!"
They thought about this for a while. Then Krakatoa spoke up, beaming.
"I think all good books are timeless!"
Atra sneered. "That kind of thinking might work in the Timeless Treasure Trove, but... not in here."

"RRRight," said Guðrún. "Let's see what we can do with those twigs."



No, it's not a book burning.

Scratching marks into the floor in the manner of their forebears turned out to be impossible for the same reason; the dust on the library floor had no time in which to be dented.

However, they found that they could burn up a few of the twigs, leaving them tipped with timeless charcoal and ashes which did stay on the floor when placed there.

Having drawn a circle and placed the skull in the middle, they performed the Index Liberiorum, which turned up a passage from the memoirs of Countess Antigeria (357 - 691 AD).



And lo and behold, the skull did speak, albeit in a droning voice.

The skull read the entry out aloud.

"All but one of the fire elves were dead. The tangy smell of their hot blood reminded me of bath time - not that I would ever need one of those baths again.
"The last of the fire elves was in chains of iron, writhing with pain-
"

"Shit!" interrupted Krakatoa. "Kel wears iron on her chest every day! She must be-"
"Ssssh," hissed Guðrún.
"Kel is only half Elvish," whispered Atra. "And besides, she stopped wearing it when she got pregnant. Don't think she'll wear it again until the baby's weaned."

The skull droned on.



Countess Antigeria gets what she wants...

"My old retainer, Steinvulf, helped me into the oven. The agony was undescribable - I kept this in mind in case I ever needed to punish someone. After an eternity, the pain ended and I gave the signal. Steinvulf opened the door and helped me out, leading me to a mirror."

"I was restored to youth, beauty and health. Steinvulf had thought to provide a small, hand-held mirror as well, and a quick examination confirmed that - "

"Skull," said Atra. "Tell us what happened to the oven."



A quick singeing with the torch, and then to bed.

"Steinvulf refused the full treatment, but did allow a brief singeing with a torch lit by the oven's fire. This took some twenty years off him. With his vigour restored, we then set about moving the oven to the fireplace in the master bedchamber."

The witches picked up the remaining twigs and ran off.



Sweet Balder, Cernunnos and Jesus!

The oven was still guarded by the last of the fire elves, but it looked emaciated and defenceless. It was in fact manacled to the oven, next to which it crouched listlessly.

"Sweet Balder, Cernunos and Jesus!" exclaimed Krakatoa. "It must have been here for 600 years, the poor thing!"
Atra, however, gazed on it without pity. "It's a demon, just like that crocodile. Let it rot."
"I've always thought the Fire elves got a bad deal," said Guðrún.

"They're pretty savage all right, but most of the things you've heard about them are lies told by the Douards, who enslaved them for thousands of years."



Krakatoa, this is bad news for you. Stay away from these flames as far as you can.

They stuck some of their twigs in through the grating in the oven's door.The elf snarled impotently, much to Krakatoa's surprise. "It can see us?"

A brief spark struck Guðrún on the cheek, smoothing out a wrinkle.

"I think," she said, "that Atra should carry this. And Krakatoa should stay as far away from it as she can."



Fire is liberated and a promise is made.

Atra took the slowly burning twigs. The fire seemed hardly to need any fuel. She led the way, apparently eager to be away from the Fire Elf.

Guðrún and Kra lingered, talking to the chained creature.
"We'll be back," said Guðrún. "We can't remove your chains now, but we'll be back to help later."
"Wait!" said Krakatoa. "The elf snarled at us. It must be able to interact with us..."
"Yeah, but... can you magic iron? We need something more physical to get it out of these chains."

The elf raised its head.

"Alcydia," it croaked.



A revolting, newt-like being materialized.

Back in the library, the witches immediately got to summoning the Slime Demon. Atra seemed to be in a particular hurry; her hair had darkened where sparks from the Fire had hit it, and she felt a hot flash coming on.

"Nunc," said Guðrún, and slowly, a revolting, newt-like being materialised.

Deftly avoiding another spark, Atra tossed a bar of soap at each of the other two witches.




It dribbled yellow goo out of its mouth with every word.

"Foul fiend," said Guðrún, stifling a giggle. "You will come with us to assist in a Salamander Spell".
"And if I refuse?" asked the demon, a stickler for proper procedure. It dribbled yellow goo out of its mouth with every word.
"We will return you to your egg!" yelled Guðrún, pointing at the flaming bundle of twigs. Although the flame burned very slowly, the twigs were now largely blackened, and appeared to be at snapping-point.

"Hah!" spat the demon.

"For goodness' sake!" said Atra, shaking her long, silver-streaked brown hair impatiently. "We don't have time for this. Do you want to find out how it feels to have your mucus washed off, newt?"



"Our mission, " explained Guðrún, "is to rejuvenate the mother without it affecting the child." They had Transported themselves to the birth room, which was still motionless. Guðrún gave the newt a brief run-down of what she knew about human reproductive anatomy, describing bodily fluids in somewhat greater detail to keep the repulsive demon interested.
"I'll want some of that," it drooled. It seemed genuinely keen on getting on with the job now.

With a simple "Tempus resumat", the witches returned to the normal flow of time. The Timeless artefacts they had brought, including those they were wearing, did not resist, as it is in the nature of all things to exist in time. Guðrún's old robe dropped to the floor.



More Latin spells. Why not Phoenician?

Laying its hands on Ragna's belly, the demon concentrated as the other witches spoke the words of the Salamander Spell.
"Protego corpus!"
"Ignus non penetrandus!"
"Foetus salvatus!"

Then, grinning more toothily than she had done in decades, Atra lowered the burning twigs over Ragna. One of the twigs snapped, sending sparks across the toom and coaxing a hearty "woof!" from the old, fibrous linen.



Ooops...

"Drat drat drat!" piped a girlish voice after they had put out the fire. A baby wailed. Waving away the smoke with the blanket she had used to stifle the flames, Guðrún looked for the others.
"Krakatoa, is that you? " she yelled at a dazed girl whose face was hidden by the smoke.
"I'm here," said Krakatoa from somewhere behind her. If she was any younger than she had been, it didn't show. She was, however, covered in slime.
"I hid behind the big newt, she said.", pointing in the direction of where the demon was last seen. It had vanished.
"But then... oh my..."

Now that the smoke was clearing up, the girl's figure was outlined more clearly. She was more heavy-set than Krakatoa, and shorter than Kra or Ragna.
Standing in front of the other witches, looking no older than eighteen, was Atra Cambrensis, mother of ten and voted 'Crone of the Year' at the 997 Mudslope Sabbath.



Of course, Gu∂rún HAS a mirror at home...

The baby wailed again. On the birth bed sat Ragna, looking ruddy and clutching the baby to her chest. Someone or something had cleaned the newborn thoroughly. "Guðrún! And Krakatoa!" she said. "We've made it! I feel like a million Clwyds!"
She looked it, too. The Fire must have taken at least a decade off her. Guðrún felt a strong urge to stand naked in front of a mirror.

"Who's the young lady?" asked Ragna. "And why are you fading?"



Oh yes, this is Royal trouble...

The witches materialised in the great hall of the Undercity's Royal bunker - Queen Elspeth's court.
"Our dear cousin," spoke the Queen. "And young Krakatoa too!"
"Should we kneel?" asked Krakatoa.
"I think it's a little too late for that," answered Guðrún laconically.
"It has come to our attention," the Queen continued, "that the Clwydian Town Crier Network has use for skilled impersonators. It would be a shame if your talent went to waste."
"And this must be Atra. That dress must be pretty chilly - would you like me to light a fire for you?"



Chopping off your heads would not make the slightest difference.

"So," said Guðrún, "You know everything, right?"
The Witch Queen boomed: "We know that you know exactly which laws you were making these two... girls... break! And what penalties said laws prescribe!"

Guðrún said nothing.

"However, since we are an absolute and arbitrary ruler, we hereby pardon you. You have already been burned, after all, and we can only conclude from your actions that chopping off your heads would not make the slightest difference. Besides, we think it has all turned out nicely, don't you?"

Guðrún's attempts to keep a careful pokerface were rendered futile by the sighs of relief from her companions.



The Queen is all-knowing. Probably.

"Indeed, in your rejuvenated state, you may be able to do things for us that were not previously possible.We estimate that you, Guðrún, have lost some 10 years, and you, Atra, forty to forty-five. However, you will both keep that a secret for now. Dismissa."


At this, Atra bristled."How can we - "



Use your illusion. Or someone else's.

But they were back in Guðrún's castle.

"Atra!" said Ragna, as the others stared at the eldest witch. Atra herself looked down at her own flabby arms and her wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.

The illusion was a good one, but if she concentrated, she could just about see firm muscle and smooth skin.

Krakatoa made her excuses. "I really need a bath right now." She still had demon slime on her.
"Me too," said Guðrún, remembering the large looking glass that was in the bathroom.



I like the sound of that name...

That left Atra and Ragna alone with the baby.
"It's a boy," said Ragna.
"Have you got a name for him?"
"Well... only the names that Tamlin and I thought up together. I don't think..."
"Karakatoa helped us with the birth - helped save both your lives. She.. she told us about a friend who died fighting demons. Harold Potzenmacher."

"Harold... I like that. "
Ragna held up the baby.
"He looks like a Harold."