Seeing the undead hordes, the girls turned and ran back down the far side of the mountain, past the giant's cave, down the cliffs, and back to the village of Varawa as fast as they could through the snow, rubble, and gathering dark, the earth trembling all the while.
"Hoar's bloody coin!" Hot Flanks exclaimed when the got back to the small village. "Did you see the size of that force?"
"It would appear that the Squire is out of our league," Don't Fail agreed. "Raising and commanding an undead army of that magnitude would require magic of godlike proportions."
"So what, we just quit?!" Battle Cry sounded angry and incredulous.
"No," Don't Fail said. "We return to Phlan as quickly as possible and inform Councilwoman Bivant of what has occurred. An army like that can only mean that the Squire has declared war on all the good peoples of the north. This is no longer a personal matter, tens of thousands of lives are at stake."
"Gods," Had Enough groaned, "there were more undead there than the entire population of Hillsfar, Phlan, Melvaunt, and Thentia combined. There is no way the Council could raise an army large enough to oppose that..."
"All the more reason to warn them as quickly as possible," Worthy of Armor said. "The Council may be able to send to Cormyr, Sembia, or Glister for reinforcements. If not they'll need time to evacuate."
"I'll come with you," Hira remarked. "They were heading north into the Ride. That army will have to swing out past Lake Longreach, and then probably follow Toranth's March rather than the pass, so Varawa should be safe. If we hurry down the river, we should beat them to Phlan by a matter of weeks."
Don't Fail nodded, "It's decided then. We leave immediately."
They borrowed what food and mounts they could, sturdy ponies from the steppes north of the mountains, and rode out in a hurry.
Only an hour out they ran right into the teeth of a powerful snowstorm. Luckily Hira knew the area well and was able to use the guidance of her goddess to avoid getting lost. They rode through the night and well into the next day before making camp in a sheltered glen near the riverbank. They took only a short rest to feed and magically rejuvenate the horses before mounting and continuing on. The snow did not let up for three days and each day their progress became slower.
On the fourth day, even with Hira's magic protecting them, the cold and fatigue was starting to get to the girls again. They neared Lake Kuto and Hot Flanks reminded them of the forge they had found in the woods and suggested that they take advantage of the warmth and try to get some serious rest. There was some mumbling about the urgency of their journey, but the cold won and they all agreed to stop by the forge for the night.
They rode into the glade where the forge lay in the early afternoon. The snow had stopped, but the ground around the magically heated forge was a muddy mess. Battle Cry, in the lead, muttered a loud "Woh!" as everyone approached, calling for them to stop and pointing to large, sinuous furrows in the mud, as if a gigantic snake had repeatedly circled the site. Curses were muttered, weapons were drawn, and the girls fanned out to make sure the area around the forge was secure.
As they started looking around, there was a rush of air, a slight roaring noise, and a cloud of intensely cold ice particles suddenly filled the clearing around the forge. The cold of the ice cloud tore through their clothing, shattered the protections laid on them by Hira, and chilled them to the bone.
Hot Flanks spun into the face of the wind and spotted a massive beast, like a huge pearly-white snake nearly forty feet long, with a covering of downy fur, two scrawny fore-claws, and a large crocodilian head, crawling from the it's mouth open wide to exhale its icy attack. She looked disdainfully at the creature, despite her shivering and shouted, "There it is girls. Kill it with fire!" She glanced to make sure none of the others or their horses were near the creature, leveled her club at it, and, true-to-form, unleashed a fireball at the wyrm.
The flames rolled over the beast and it laughed, a deep and pleasant, "Oh, kill it with fire? How original. How very droll...I believe I shall enjoy this." The huge creature coiled itself, ready to spring at Hot Flanks.
"Oh, it's on!" Battle Cry said thrusting a hand into the sky and summoning forth a shimmering hawk-shaped construct of magic force which whirled up into the air, ready to dive at the giant snake-thing. Hira began casting a spell to restore the party's protection against cold. Had Enough shot the thing with her crossbow, then tossed the weapon aside and drew her sword.
Worthy of Armor sighed, pulled out her katana, and charged, shouting a powerful "Kiai!" She jumped at the last minute, reversing the blade and putting her full weight behind the strike, plunging the full two and a half feet of steel into the creature's bulk. Then wrenched the sword free in a spray of blue-white ichor.
"Ummm...dragon..." Don't Fail managed to say before the thing's tail whipped around, sending her sailing through the air to slam into a tree, unconscious. The creature's jaws then descended on Worthy of Armor, biting her clean in half, swallowing her head and torso without even bothering to chew.
The girls stared at the monster in stunned silence.
There was a sudden shout of "Gotcha!" and a strange wild-eyed, metallic-skinned, spike-covered woman burst from the trees, sprang on the dragon's back, wrapping her arms and legs around its neck. At the same time, Battle Cry's magical hawk dove, gouging at the dragon's eyes with its nearly invisible talons. Then the metal girl drew a long, bloody smile across its neck, right beneath its jaws, with a short-handled spear. The dragon reared back, opening its jaws as if to roar or unleash its breath, but neither sound nor its frigid winds came forth. "Yeah, suck it! No breathing for you Nanabolele!"
The dragon slumped to the ground, dead. The girls stared at the monster, the new one that had just assassinated a dragon, in stunned silence...
The metal girl continued to cling to the dragon's neck for a few moments, her form changing to that of a lovely dark-skinned girl with neat corn-rows and a flowing blue cloak. "Thanks girls! I've been hunting that bastard for weeks," she said, finally letting go and casually stepping over Worthy of Armor's still twitching legs to walk over to them. "The name's Thákane," she said extending a hand to Hot Flanks, "but you can call me Dragon Bait."
|Image and character concept courtesy of Jason Porath|
at Rejected Princesses
The tension broken Had Enough finally stammered, "D-d-d-did anyone notice that that thing just BIT WORTHY IN HALF?!"
Thákane looked back at the dragon, "Ouch, yeah...sorry about your friend..."
Battle Cry walked up to the dragon and knelt beside what was left of Worthy of Armor. She said a prayer dedicating Thákane's slaying of the beast that killed Worthy to Hoar's vengeance, then turned back to the others. "Do we have the funds to raise her?"
"Not at all," Don't Fail said. "It took every last centime we had to bring Princess back after the Squire's pet killed her."
"AND," Had Enough interjected, "someone here insisted that we had to hunt down the Squire for free after that. So we're not getting paid any time soon."
The girls decided to give Worthy of Armor a funeral. Thákane helped them vivisect the dragon, extracting the remains of her torso, wrapped her arms around her daisho, and carefully carried her torso and legs and placed them both into the forge, stacking all of her possessions save her magical scimitar and bokken with the body. Battle Cry then said a few words sending her spirit on to her god as Hot Flanks stoked up the forge (with an extra fireball for effect), reducing it all to a pool of molten metal and a whiff of carbon.
Meanwhile, Had Enough found a small, haphazard pile of coins, gems, and weapons (though still not half enough to have repaired and raised their friend) half-buried in a snowbank near where the dragon had appeared from, and Thákane in cutting up the dragon, found a pair of magical rings on the beast's scrawny arms.
They checked one more time to make sure the dragon did not have friends, then settled down to pitch their camp and get some rest. Thákane treated them to some surprisingly not-very-filling dragon steaks, over which they got to know the strange dragon-slayer. The Amazons then explained their situation. Thákane seemed inappropriately excited by the thought of fighting an army of a hundred thousand undead, as well as Phlan's other troubles, and agreed to accompany them to the city.
The rest of the trip back to Phlan was uneventful, but slow. It snowed intermittently, but the blizzard of the previous week had piled up drifts as high as five to seven feet, forcing them to take long detours and walk most of the way, beating or digging paths for the ponies they had brought with them from Varawa.
They reached Phlan eight days later, shortly after dawn on Midwinter Day. Thákane, mounted on Worthy of Armor's horse, Mfara, and Hira seemed simultaneously horrified by the squalor of the humans living in the slums to the west, and fascinated by the battle lines drawn along the riverbank between the New Phlan in the south and the monster-held older city on the north bank. Given the urgency of their mission, and the delays they had already suffered, the girls did not allow much time for sight-seeing. They headed strait to the Council Hall and demanded an audience with Councilwoman Bivant and any other council members that would listen.
The Council was not in session, but the guards sent for Lady Bivant, who joined them less than an hour later in the Council's chambers. Elissa listened patiently as they described their encounter at Kryptgarten, their trip north, the earthquake, Princess's banishment, the Squire's legion of undead, and Worthy of Armor's death at the hands of the dragon.
Elissa seemed deeply saddened by the loss of their sisters and concerned by their tale of the Squire. She said she would summon the Council immediately, and that they should rest, recuperate, and take as much time as needed to train and prepare themselves for the coming battle against the Squire's armies. She dismissed the girls with letters for the administrators of the Training Hall and the Bitter Blade Inn, informing them to charge all of the Amazon's expenses directly to Lady Bivant. "You have done us a great service in bringing this news, anything you need to prepare for the coming battle will be provided."
As the girls walked out, Had Enough stopped them. "Hey...I've had enough of this..."
"Pun intended..." Hot Flanks quipped.
"I'm serious. Cold. Starvation. Weeks of walking through snowstorms. Undead armies. Dragons the bite people in half. Getting knocked halfway across the kingdom by every monster we meet. I was expecting to be on highly paid guard duty, not fighting giant monsters for pennies." Had Enough shook her head, "I'm out. I'm done. I'm taking my share of the cash we found at the forge and I'll be on the next boat south..."
"You're sure about this?" Don't Fail asked.
"But what about Ven..."
"Don't even." Had Enough said, cutting Battle Cry off. "Your weird religion is also not my problem."
"Have a nice life then." Hot Flanks said, giving Had Enough a tentative hug.
"Alright," Don't Fail sighed. "Let's see if we can sell those gems so you're at least getting your fair share..."
They walked down to the docks and found a money changer, then said their good-byes as Had Enough went to book passage out of town. After she left, they headed to the Bitter Blade, took out rooms, signed up for classes at the Training Hall, and settled in to start preparing for war.
The next tenday was quiet. There were flurries, but none of the great snowstorms of the previous month. No travelers came to Phlan, no refugees, and no other signs that the largest undead horde the world had ever seen was marching across the northlands--maybe the snows had stalled them as well. The girls dedicated themselves to their training, and steadily grew more comfortable with Dragon Bait's company.
By the 10th of Alturiak, the snows had stopped and the sun once again shone upon the northern Moonsea. Hira informed the girls that she needed to get back to Varawa, and make certain that the undead had not attacked her people. She bid them fairwell, loaded up the five ponies with all the goods they could carry--having stocked up on provisions to bring back to her village--and headed out.
When the girls returned to the Bitter Blade after wishing another friend farewell, Don't Fail remembered that she had the other half of Princess's scroll of communication. They wrote to find out that Princess was, as expected, in her father's palace in Threskul, apparently betrothed to a not-entirely-objectionable nobleman from Soorenar and kept under close guard by her father's men. When they told her about the Squire's army and what happened to Worthy of Armor, she promised to try to speak with her father and see if he could raise some forces to send to Phlan's aid, and to try to escape to join them, though she said it would probably have to wait until after the wedding--she suspected that if she played the dutiful daughter and fiance until then, her new husband's security would likely be more lax than her father's.
As spring came on, rumors began to trickle down from the north of a massive army of the undead being spotted north and east of the Quivering Forest. Settlers fleeing to the safety of Phlan's walls told of rank upon rank of marching skeletons tearing through the forest. Despite the girl's repeated warnings, the Council seemed to be moving slowly in mustering it's defenses.
The girls sought out all new visitors coming into the city for any news. Varawa, it seemed, was safe, and no undead had been seen in the vicinity of Dragonden Pass. The army also seemed to be giving farms and homesteads wide berth, and, other than a wide path cut through the fey forest towards the river, there was no reports of burning, pillaging, or conflict. The undead needed no supplies and seemed content to simply intimidate settlers with their numbers and let them flee before them.
Then, word of the horde simply stopped. Settlers reported that they had seen the undead to the west of the forest, near Sorcerer's Island...then, nothing. Settlers merchants continued to come in. Eraka merchants rode down Toranth's March and reported no sign of the army. It was as if the entire force, all of the hundreds of thousands, had simply...vanished.
The girls, for their part, continued training, not trusting that the army could have simply ceased to exist and sure that the Squire was planning some kind of surprise attack. Phlan also continued on its way: new homes were built, walls were raised, the north shore of the river was pacified, and repairs began on the recently reclaimed Cathedral of Tyr.
During the weeks of training, Dragon Bait spent some time working the forge at the Training Hall. When the girls saw that she was rather handy, Don't Fail explained her theories regarding the magical forge they had found in the Quivering Forest. Dragon Bait, who was less in need of organized training than the others, said that she'd like to try the forge--and also hinted that a trip to the forge would give them a chance to scout on the undead army for themselves, since it was last seen not far from there. Don't Fail, having finished most of her training with Professor Manabu, agreed to accompany Dragon Bait on the combination scouting and research mission.
The two of them rode out, Dragon Bait on Mfara, who had taken a shine to the new girl, and Don't Fail on a horse purchased from Ernst's Livery, who she named Hope for Success. They took the hammer taken from the giant they had fought in the Valley of Thorns, as well as many of the party's extraneous magical swords, including an annoying talking one they had found with the dragon, hoping to construct something powerful enough to stand against the Squire's apparently god-like power over the undead.
The ride to the glen in the woods was surprisingly peaceful. They found some signs of the undead army's passage, a few downed trees, muddy tracks beaten into the formerly snow-covered ground, but no actual undead to oppose their passage. They stopped on the shores of Lake Kuto. Here they found real signs of the army, including hundreds of corpses--both ancient humans and strange lizard-like and fish-like creatures--and signs of others having recently been dragged into the water. They spent a day searching the shores and the nearby woods, but the army, it seemed, was gone, maybe even destroyed by whatever had been in the lake. Stranger still, the waters of Lake Kuto, that had only very recently been black and toxic, looked almost clean.
Rather than continue on, they turned and rode back to Phlan with what they had discovered.
On the seventh of Ches, Lady Bivant invited the Amazons to a party hosted by her husband on the newly opened patio space on the rooftop of the Bitter Blade. Many people were in attendance, including a strange halfling epicure who her husband had taken a shine to.
The girls agreed to take on Finds Them and Abyssinia as new members, and chatted amiably for several hours, learning about their new companions skills and interests. Finds Them and Battle Cry in particular hit it off. There was some considerable discussion about what to call Abyssinia, which finally settled, with some reluctance on her part, on the phrase with which she had first introduced herself: "I don't shake hands" or "Doesn't Shake" for short.
Once the party was in full swing, and all the introductions had been made, Elissa called the girls together again, along with Faelana, the assistant clerk of the council, and presented them with a new adventuring charter. The new documents, specially drawn up for them, identified the Amazons as official agents of the Council, reporting directly to Councilwoman Bivant, and gave them full and open access to the Council Chambers, free to come and go whenever they chose, so as to provide Councilwoman Bivant with intelligence in as timely a manner as possible.
Late in the afternoon, the strange halfling, one Monsieur La Bouche, called everyone over to the edge of the roof nearest the river, and directed their attention to a huge white-capped wave that was suddenly rushing downstream. Ahead of the wave the river was as black and polluted as ever, but behind it, the waters were clean and fresh. When the wave had passed, all of the pollution that had choked the river had been pushed out into the bay, where it quickly began to disperse into the sea.
There was a mixture of cheering and stunned silence from the people crowded on the roof watching the river. When the wave had passed and it was clear that the river was, in fact, clean, Elissa's husband, Markos Mondaviak made his way over to La Bouche to congratulate him and offered to personally escort the halfling back to the Council Hall to see to his payment. Elissa and the assistant clerk excused themselves, having to attend to Council business, leaving the girls to look down and marvel at the river.
With still no reports of undead hordes marching on Phlan, Don't Fail called the girls together the next morning and once again proposed making a trip out to the forge in the woods. This time describing a new theory. The forge, she said, clearly had the power to take the powers of multiple magical devices and fuse them into one. It also had the power to unmake magical intelligences, she said, effectively beating the brains out of sentient items.
Don't Fail hypothesized that by combining all of their talents, the girls might be able to make the forge do the opposite, imbuing a sentient soul into a new item. More specifically, she suggested that since they had cremated Worthy of Armor on the magical forge, along with her ceremonial weapons and armor, some fragment of spirit might still be tied to the metal. By combining Hoar's, and therefor Battle Cry's, ability to create revenant spirits, Hot Flank's ability to tap into other beings' minds and emotions, and her own research with the power of the forge, she suggested that they might be able to bring Worthy of Armor (or some fragment of her personality) back in the form of a sentient weapon--thereby allowing her to continue her work in this world.
The girls, especially the two worshipers of the Vengeful God, were all for that, and so they gathered up what they thought they would need (as well as provisions for several weeks of work) and rode out to the forge. The newest Amazons, Finds Them and Doesn't Shake, while not knowing Worthy of Armor, accompanied them out of curiosity--offering their own magical talents to the experiment.
With the weather finally in their favor and the way clear of undead menaces, they reached the forge late that evening and immediately began setting up for the ritual Don't Fail proscribed. Dragon Bait collected the still molten mass of metal from Worthy of Armor's swords and armor from where they still rested on the forge, along with the pair of sentient blades they had collected: Weasel and Corthalis and began the process of smelting them together (to the accompaniment of much complaining from the two swords), heating them in the magical forge, beating them with the frost giant's hammer, and cooling them in the still icy blood of the months-dead linnorm.
Late on the night of the 7th of Tarsakh, after weeks of work, under the bight, clear, first full moon of Spring, they finished. Finds Them and Kills Them sang prayers to Mielikki, goddess of Forests and Maidens, for guidance in a place of her power and work done by her daughters. Dragon Bait hammered out the final edge of the new sword she had forged. Hot Flanks scribed runes of rage and triumph, victory and vengeance into the blade. Don't Fail and Doesn't Shake worked spells of hardening and binding over the forge. And Battle Cry called out to Hoar-Assuran, decrying the evils of foes left unvanquished and work left uncompleted, and invoked Ishtar-Inanna, Worthy of Armor's goddess of love and warfare, pleading for them to release her soul to continue to do their work in the world.
Suddenly, the girls voices were silenced and all other sounds ceased. A wind rushed down into the clearing and the fires of the forge flared brighter than ever before. Then it subsided and the new sword that sat resting on Dragon Bait's anvil, forged in the likeness of Worthy's own blade, glowed a brilliant red and spoke, introducing itself as Worthy of Vengeance.