Many dark rumors surround the Hexfell tribe. People say they are all witches, kidnappers, Umbra-worshippers, and practitioners of deceitful magic. And those people would be right.
But it was the quieter rumors that brought the Ironhoof tribe to the Hexfell swamp. Rumors that one of the Hexfell witches knew powerful voodoo incantations that could keep even the most gravely wounded warrior alive and strong. And with the Mountain Lions preparing to eliminate the Ironhoofs, such a power was needed.
Adawale Ironhoof was the leader of the tribe, and it was his idea to lead his people here. He was quite out of place, too—a large, golden antelope with powerful twisted horns inside a noxious bog. Secret eyes peeped at him from between dangling reeds and lily pads. Even worse was the rickety swamp-side huts made from splintered bone and ragged scraps of hide, all of them “decorated” with blood-red paintings of tribal sigils. For all Adawale knew, such signs would cause his people to be hexed for eternity.
He had little choice other than to press on. But his people need not risk it.
“Stay here,” he told those that followed him. The tribe was made up of sheep, antelope, bush pigs, and goats, about sixty in total. A small tribe, and one that has been getting smaller for years.
Adawale was tired of being picked off by stronger tribes. “Survival of the fittest,” the Zennegaran law, was never in their favor. Only magic could save them now.
“Where will you go?” Lupita, an antelope doe, asked. She was Adawale’s right-hand warrior, sinuous and swift.
“I see eyes,” Adawale said. “And I do not trust the symbols of blood. I will find this Juju myself and return soon.”
Lupita and the others looked nervous, but they obeyed.
Leaving his people huddled in fear at the edge of the swamplands, Adawale continued onward, navigating the muddy land between murky ponds. The secret eyes followed him. He was tempted to draw his sword, but he didn’t come here to fight.
“I am seeking Juju the Voodoo Incanter,” he said, trying not to let his fear affect his voice.
Black-feathered ducks waded in the swamp and paid him no heed. A crocodile sat half-camouflaged at the water’s edge, similarly ignoring him. Each animal was garbed in bone and painted red with similar sigils as the ones he saw earlier. Were these the stolen daughters of Zennegar? The Umbra-worshiping witches of myth?
“I seek the witch Juju,” he called, louder this time. Continuing through the swamp, he could no longer hear his tribe behind him. The noxious green mists of the bog hid everything. He coughed every time he breathed too much of it in.
“Juju!” he bleated. “My people need your assistance!”
Still no answer. Eyes watched him like bubbles from the water. Adawale wasn’t sure if they belonged to several witches or one giant sea beast, but he could swear he heard distant cackling. Everything inside him pleaded for him to flee, but he kept his hooves grounded. If he ran away now, the Mountain Lions would savage his tribe anyway.
“Juju!” he bleated again, desperately. Why wasn’t anyone—?
“No more bleating, silly goat,” came a croak from nearby.
Adawale turned to the source of the voice, but saw only green mist at first. As if by magic, the fumes cleared away from a lone lily pad in the pond next to him.
There, he beheld a truly hideous figure. Bloated and bulbous and garbed in feather, bone, and claw, sat a bored-looking female toad. She opened her huge mouth to yawn, her fishbelly-white chin bulging. Then, without warning, her tongue snapped out and snatched a dragonfly from the air, pulling it into her waiting jaws almost too fast to see.
“Now,” she rasped, crunching down on her snack, “what can Juju do for Adawale Ironhoof?”
Adawale was taken aback. “You know of me?”
“The spirits whisper many tales to those who care to listen,” Juju said dismissively. Her round eyes narrowed on Adawale’s notched horns. “You have been fighting. And losing.”
“My people need help,” he said, ignoring the comment. “I cannot protect them on my own.”
“Why do you not join a stronger tribe?” Juju asked, dipping her toe into the swamp and stirring the water. Her lily pad was gigantic—it had to be, to hold her weight—and there was a reed sticking out of the water with small skulls tied to the end.
“Better to be the strongest member of a weak tribe than the weakest member of a strong tribe,” he said.
“Not if the rest of your tribe is merely prey for the predators,” said Juju with the dry cackle of an old crone.
“With your help,” Adawale said, “we need not be prey.”
Juju burped, sending a stray dragonfly wing sailing through the air. Adawale cringed. The witch’s fly-crusted teeth jutted from her ample lips, and slimy drool ran down her chin. Everything about her was repulsive, but Adawale couldn’t help noticing the elixirs dangling from her belt. If he could just pay for those, he could be on his way.
“I have gold,” he said, producing a pouch of shining coins.
“Does Juju look like she cares about gold?” Juju asked, her lips curling upward. “The goat does not know what he seeks.”
“I am not a goat,” Adawale said, again resisting the urge to reach for his sword. “And I am seeking magical aid. Elixirs of health and strength. Hexes for my enemies.”
The toad looked up at the sky. The Zennegaran mountains blocked much of it, but the light of Illuna peeked over the cliffs.
“Illuna shines tonight,” Juju said. “Umbra will take her place soon. Then Illuna will return, then Umbra, and forever the two shall dance. It is the great balance of the cosmos. Life and death is much the same.”
Adawale put his gold away. He didn’t have time for this. If the witch wasn’t going to help him, he needed to get back to his tribe.
But Juju went on. “Death feeds life. Life causes death. And then there are the spirits—and Juju—who remain in-between.” She looked down from the sky and grinned at Adawale. “Voodoo is spirit magic. It can give life, but to do so it must find balance. A temporary reprieve. Abuse it, and it will take life just as soon as give it.”
“I did not come seeking philosophy,” Adawale said. “If you will not accept gold for your so-called spirit magic, what will you accept?”
Juju reached out for the skull-decorated reed sticking out of the swamp. Her arm was much longer and slimmer than her body would suggest. With a sharp tug, she pulled the reed out of the water, the skulls atop it rattling like they were filled with loose teeth.
They probably were, Adawale realized.
“What does Juju want…?” she mused, standing up to a precarious balance on her lily pad. “Juju wants to help the goat.”
“I am not a—”
“But,” Juju went on, holding up a finger, “should the goat forget to heed the balance, Juju takes his bones.”
Adawale blinked. “My bones?”
“And your horns,” Juju said, stroking her huge chin. “Possibly hooves. Blood and fur, too, if it do please Juju. Adawale Ironhoof, if the balance tips against you, Juju will have ownership of your corpse.”
It was a morbid thought, but Adawale knew that if he died it didn’t much matter what happened to his body. The Mountain Lions would surely make a meal of him, so why did it matter if this witch made a rug of him instead?
“Will your magic save my people?” he asked. “Is it powerful?”
“It is powerful,” Juju nodded.
“Then I accept.”
The Ironhoof tribe met the Mountain Lions at noon the following day.
In a broad meadow among the roots of the mountains, Adawale’s tribe stood armed with bows and spears. Across the field, the Mountain Lions, made up of leopards, lions, and panthers, stood armed with hammers and axes. The Ironhoofs were outnumbered three to one.
But Juju stood behind them.
“Keep us alive, witch,” Adawale told her.
“Juju is merely an agent of balance,” she croaked, looking uncomfortable out of her swamp. She rattled the skulls on her reed staff. “But she will see that the balance is in the goat’s favor.”
“They are moving,” said Lupita. Adawale could feel it in the earth as nearly two hundred beasts bore down on them. The Mountain Lions closed the distance between the two tribes in seconds.
And just like that, the battle raged.
For each deep gash in an Ironhoof’s side, a shining spirit rose from beneath the earth and crashed through them like water, causing their wounds to close up instantly. Adawale should have been killed a dozen times over, but Juju’s magic kept him fighting. Countless Mountain Lions found themselves stabbed in the back from Ironhoofs they thought to be dead.
Juju targeted the largest lions with voodoo hexes that turned them into young toads, small enough that even the weakest sheep could squish them underhoof. Soon the Mountain Lions’ numbers dwindled to match that of the Ironhoofs’. A balance.
That was when Juju stopped healing.
As Ironhoofs fought and were cut down, no spirits rose from the earth to heal them. They had to rely on quaffing the numerous elixirs Juju passed around before the battle to give them the strength to keep fighting.
“Why do you stop, witch?” Adawale bleated, locked in combat with the panther leader of the enemy tribe.
Juju rattled her staff and watched the battle dispassionately. When Mountain Lions outnumbered Ironhoofs, she used her healing magic until the scales balanced. She knew that for the life she gave, suffering would follow. Too much life would inevitably lead to death. And no doubt the Ironhoofs preferred life.
The panther sliced Adawale’s left eye with her axe, half-blinding him and sending him reeling.
“Heal me, witch!” he cried, deflecting a follow-up attack with his sword.
“I have healed you enough, Adawale Ironhoof,” Juju called back. “Any more and the after effects will be devastating.”
“I can already feel it,” he groaned. It was true—his healed wounds were opening up again slowly. “I just need—ugh!”
The panther roared as she slashed Adawale’s sword away. He reached for one of the elixirs Juju gave him but found himself empty. She’d given him just enough, and he’d downed them all in a matter of minutes.
With another great slash, the panther slashed deep into Adawale’s arm, nearly severing it. Adawale cried out for Juju again, but the witch merely kept her eyes on the balance of Ironhoofs and Mountain Lions.
“Does Adawale Ironhoof demand power at the cost of his life?” she asked.
Adawale ducked an axe-swing meant for his neck and dove to the nearby corpse of a fallen friend. Filled with rage, he found one of Juju’s elixirs at the body’s belt and tore it free.
“It seems he does,” Juju cackled.
Adawale quaffed the potion in one gulp, and all at once his wounds stitched back together. He rolled to the side to dodge another axe swing and picked up his fallen sword. Even healed, though, he wasn’t strong enough to face a panther.
So Juju performed a special ritual. She shook her reed staff and began singing in the lost language of the spirits, her eyes locked on Adawale. He swept away every furious attack the panther brought down on him, and as Juju continued her chant, Adawale’s muscles found new vigor. All his fatigue vanished. He moved more swiftly than before, knocking away the panther’s axe before it could reach its full momentum.
And so it went until the panther, exhausted from her wounds and the exertion of combat, brought her axe down a second too slow.
She found Adawale Ironhoof’s sword plunged deep in her heart as a result.
When the remaining Mountain Lions saw their leader fall, they scattered. The law of Zennegar valued survival above all. And they knew they would not survive if they stayed.
The Ironhoofs cheered for their leader, who pulled his blade from the panther’s chest and raised it to the sky. Adawale let out a mighty bleat of triumph—until his voice cut short.
His wounds kept opening. Worse, the cuts spread farther than their original tears. Too far to heal, with magic or otherwise.
He coughed out a spray of blood and fell to his knees. Blood poured like waterfalls from his many gashes.
“What is wrong with him?” Lupita asked as she reached him. “What is happening?”
Juju slowly ambled up to them, her staff rattling gently. “The scales tip back,” she said. “Adawale Ironhoof, you sought too much power. For that, you will not survive. And your tribe will not survive another attack without more aid. But they survived today. Let that be a comfort as you join the spirits who kept you alive and fighting all this time.”
Adawale couldn’t speak. He’d lost too much blood. With one last sigh, he collapsed to the grass. His people hung their heads.
Juju didn’t wait for their pity. She took the antelope by his horns and began dragging him away.
“What are you doing?” Lupita asked. She moved to intervene, then gasped and clutched at her side. The healing Juju gave her was wearing off—and poisoning her.
“Accepting my payment,” Juju said. She stopped dragging Adawale for a moment and gave Lupita a long stare. “Your tribe will not live through another attack,” Juju said. “Now you know the cost of temporary power. Sooner or later the law of Zennegar catches up to all of you. Sooner or later everything balances out.”
The Ironhoofs said nothing. The after-effect of their healing made them too weak to protest. All they could do was watch the witch take their leader back to her swamp.
Just another spirit for her to weave into magic, replacing the ones she lost. An endless cycle. An endless balance.
-Written by Kyle Hubbard