Princess woke up cold, sore, and wet. Again. It was dark, save for the flickering light of a campfire, and, judging by the thick, cloying smell of smoke mingled with damp earth, they were in a cave. Great, she thought, I just love sleeping on the cold, hard, wet ground. She looked around and saw that her “sisters” were all there, more or less. Hot Flanks sat tending the fire. Had Enough and Battle Cry were in their bedrolls. Worthy of Armor was leaning over Don’t Fail with a worried look on her face.
Princess tried to move, wincing at the sudden tingling in her extremities. What the fuck?! Frostbite? she thought with the mixture of anger and anxiety that was all too common in her chosen profession. And to think that I could be in the nice warm south, married to some thick-headed, chisel-jawed bro-fo right about now. Instead of freezing to death in a monster-infested wasteland trying to help my “sisters” take vengeance for an attempt to kill me which didn’t stick. “Fuck that!” she said aloud, drawing a surprised smile from Hot Flanks.
Pushing through the pain, she sat up, shivering unconsciously. “Where are we? When are we? How are we?” she said hurriedly.
“Where: In a cave that was until very recently occupied by a she-bear, just south of Lake Kuto, about a thousand paces into the treeline. When: night time—a full day since we got jumped by those wolves. How: not good.” Hot Flanks replied. “We have a lot of horse meat, and wolf meat, and bear meat, but most of the rest of our food got burned up in the fight. Ditto for most of our other gear—tents, horses…”
Princess’s immediate thought was that “got burned up” was just Hot Flanks’ way of saying, “I nuked our food and blankets with a fireball.”
“…Battle Cry woke up around sundown, but is still weak. Don’t Fail was frozen solid and nearly got her leg ripped off. Worthy says she probably won’t wake up for a couple more days, and likely won’t be walking any time soon.”
“Actually, after the salve I just put on her, she should be fine,” Worthy of armor said. “And once I’ve rested I should be able to get you and Battle Cry back on your feet as well.”
Princess’s stomach growled and she thought about the available options. “So, horse meat?” Hot Flanks handed her a bit of well-done flank on a wooden skewer. It was surprisingly tasty, if a little charred. Beats the food at my dad’s palace any day, she thought as she laid back down on her smoky bedroll. “Tomorrow then,” she said and rolled over, trying to get comfortable.
In the morning, as promised, everyone was back on their feet and, if not completely whole, at least free of the worst of their wounds and able to travel. After Worthy of Armor laid hands on her feet, the tingling stopped and Princess was able to get up. “Where to then?” she asked, really hoping the answer would be ‘Back to Phlan.’
“North,” Battle Cry said stoically and emphatically. “We need to find whoever summoned the thing that killed you and tear his heart out.”
“I got better…” Princess said, trying to reason with her revenge-happy friend. “We really don’t have to…”
“It cost our entire take from the last three jobs to get you raised,” Hot Flanks reminded her.
“And we promised Lady Bivant that we’d deal with the Squire and his miscreant friends,” Don’t Fail added.
“And…VENGEANCE!” Battle Cry concluded, or something similarly ridiculous.
“Right…” Princess assented. At least Hot Flanks makes some sense. “So we just keep trekking further into the snow then?”
“When I last communed with Assuran, our quarry were still on a mountaintop, almost due north of here,” Battle Cry insisted. “So we go north, through the forest, towards the mountains. When we stop tonight I will contact Lord Assuran again and try to get more detailed directions.”
“So who rides?” Princess said.
“No one,” Worthy of Armor insisted, “Mfara and the mule will carry our supplies, so that we don’t tire out, but with only the two of them, everyone will have to walk on her own two feet.”
The rest of the day was quiet, cold, and miserable. They hiked through knee-deep snow and pushed their way through ice-crusted brambles and tree-limbs. Around noon, as their path neared the Stojanow river, they saw a passel of white-skinned trolls basking on an ice flow. Luckily Princess spotted the trolls while the girls were still safely ensconced in the trees and they were able to back up and take a different path.
In deep winter in the north, it gets dark far too early. Only five hours after they set out, Princess could barely see a foot in front of her.
“We need to find shelter for the night,” Don’t Fail said.
“What are you complaining about, you can see in the dark!” Princess was, to say the least, a little jealous of her friend’s elven heritage.
“That doesn’t change the fact that it is cold and it is night,” Don’t Fail replied.
Just then Had Enough pointed off to their right, deeper into the woods. “What’s that glow?”
“No!” Princess said, “I’m not going chasing after will-o-wisps in the middle of a fucking snowstorm.”
“It hasn’t snowed in hours,” Hot Flanks snapped, “and she’s right, it looks like there is a light over there. I don’t care if its goblins or ogres or what-have-you, if they have a fire, I want it.”
Worthy of Armor wordlessly turned in that direction, drawing her katana and leading the way. The light, it turned out, was not a campfire, but a smith’s forge which had been left unattended and burning under an old stone lean-to-like structure in the middle of the forest. The warmth put off by the massive thing was wonderful, though it made the ground in the small clearing a soggy mess of melted snow.
Everyone spread out and searched the area, but found no signs of other creatures—no tracks in the mud, no scraps of food, nothing. Don’t Fail pointed out that the forge radiated fairly strong magic, and likely was of a variety that could never be put out, and thus may have been sitting their unattended for years, decades even. The only tools left at the forge were a pair of tongs and those two large to be moved—anvil, bellows, and the forge itself.
Magic forge, blah, blah, Princess thought. At least its shelter, and heat. “Awesome,” she said, “dibs on the bed closest to the forge!” She gave the bellows a pull and the forge brightened.
They set to work pitching their camp. There was, in fact, enough room under the eaves of the smithy for them all to have a relatively dry place to lay out what was left of their bedrolls. Had Enough began warming up some bear, and they drew straws for watches, all except Don’t Fail, who said she wanted to examine the forge, and Battle Cry who was planning on staying up all night praying anyways. Princess grumbled as she drew third watch, we meant waking up in the middle of the night and probably not getting back to sleep.
The night was uneventful save for a lone, curious deer who wandered by their shelter, and, as expected, Princess was not able to get back to sleep after her watch, so she sat and listened to Battle Cry bemoaning the injustice of her death, however brief it had been, the crimes of Squire Grimnir, and the woes of having to pay the Tyrrans to get her raised. That last one was a little annoying, it wasn’t her fault she had died after all. Even more annoying when she looked at her empty purse. I sure hope this Squire has some cash on him after we kick his ass. She stabbed into the open air with Handsome Prince, “That one is for my empty purse…”
The next morning Don’t Fail informed them of some interesting properties of the forge, particularly that she thought it might be able to resize and reforge magical weapons and armor without risking the loss of their enchantments. “Nifty,” was all Princess could say to that, especially since they had no tools and none of them knew the first thing about smithwork.
“Maybe once this is over we can hire a smith to come back here with us and see about reworking some of the magic armor we found so that it will fit us,” Don’t Fail said.
“Yeah,” Princess piped up, “there’s that ugly guy, Jack, in the slums. He’s good at making all kinds of things, works cheap, and even has that magic hammer he uses as a chandelier in his store.”
“Sure, but first…” Battle Cry began.
“Yeah, yeah, VENGEANCE!” Princess grinned, mocking her friend.
“Our quarry are still in the mountains, north and a little west.” Battle Cry explained, “I saw two peaks, with a ruined city running along the ridge between them. In the middle of the city was a glowing stairway leading up into the sky.”
“That can’t be good.” Hot Flanks quipped.
“Oh, come one, it’s not like you didn’t suspect that our big, bad, demon-summoning ex-noble was going to hole up in some ancient ruin with some kind of interplanar gate.” Princess rolled her eyes, and made spooky oohing noises. “It’s probably got a whole mess of undead guarding too, and I bet some horde of demons is going to come down the magic staircase…”
Had Enough glared at her, “You’d be annoying if you weren’t probably speaking the truth.”
“Yeah,” Worthy said. “They must have gone to the mountains for a reason, since we know they left before the announcement. That ruined city must have something that the Squire wants, and its likely connected to that staircase.”
“Yeah, it’s just so….cliché.” Princess said, “Though I guess that’s what you get when you’re in the vengeance business.”
“Let’s go then,” Don’t Fail said simply, tightening a strap on the mule’s pack, “we’re losing daylight.”
By midday the girls reached the foothills of the Dragonspines, which Had Enough informed them were called the “Ticklebelly Hills”, which elicited some much needed laughter from all of the party. They veered down to parallel the headwaters of the Stojanow, scrambling over icy rocks and getting their horses hung up in an occasional snowbank. The going was, unsurprisingly, very slow.
Eventually they found the mouth of a wide valley known as the Valley of Thorns or, alternately, Dragonden Pass, and a rough trail running along beside the river, which allowed them to cover more ground. Battle Cry pointed to a pair of tall peaks off to their left, near the north end of the pass, “I think those are the mountains I saw in Hoar’s vision.”
Worthy shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow. “If this path continues all the way through the pass, we should reach the base of them in another day.”
“According to the people in Phlan, Dragonden Pass used to be a major trade route,” Don’t Cry said. “There is supposed to be a pair of villages or waystops, one at either end of the valley, that should still be operational. If we press on, we may find shelter for the night at the near one.”
So they pressed on, lighting brands gathered in the woods to see the path, and shortly after nightfall heard the roaring of a waterfall ahead. The path veered to the right and sharply upwards, circumnavigating the falls, and leaving Princess quite annoyed that she could not get a good view of the falls in the darkness. A cold wind, laden with snowflakes blew into their faces, but they saw lights shining out of windows near the top of the falls.
With a faint, “Woohoo,” Princess practically ran for the buildings, followed by her friends. A small village was nestled between the high slopes of the valley, stone buildings insulated by an extra layer of deep snowdrifts. Smoke poured out of chimneys and warm light leaked from wood-shuttered windows.
Princess led the way towards the largest building, which looked like an inn or caravansary, with an arch leading into a central courtyard and a sign over the arch proclaiming “Song and Ale” in the trader’s tongue. They tied their horses up under the shelter of a sloped wooden roof that had been erected over the courtyard, clearly a temporary accommodation of the winter, and stepped into the inn.
Inside they found people of all ages crowded around two large fires, set in open hearths in the center of the room. An armed guard, a big burly Eraka with a heavy broadsword, stood just inside the door. He looked them over then grunted something incomprehensible and waved them in. With massive sighs of relief, all six girls huddled into the space between the two hearths and just stood their, basking in the warmth for several long minutes.
Eventually a woman, blonde-haired and in her early thirties with blue robes and a staff topped by a blue crystal, approached them. She introduced herself as Hira, a priestess of some local goddess none of them had ever heard of, the Lady of Blue, and manager of the waystop. She offered them drinks and food, which they gladly accepted, and had stools brought over for them to sit on as they dug into the warm stew and stout ale which she brought them. She then, of course, asked where they were headed and why.
Don’t Fail explained about their quest in general terms, hunting fugitives from Phlan, and asked about the two peaks on the north-west end of the valley and the ruins between them.
“We do not go there,” Hira said.
Of course you don’t thought Princess, why would you.
As if reading her mind, the priestess continued, “The near mountain is the home of a terrible frost giant. He lives in a cave at the peak and has terrorized our sister-village, Rhund, for nearly six years. The far peak is claimed by the Eraka tribe of Verdigris, and is most easily reached from that village, which lies just north of the pass. Though you would need their permission. They also do not travel that way, for they say some great evil lives on the mountain, which they call Duvan’ku.”
“What kind of evil?” Worthy of Armor asked, and Princess couldn’t help but think of her earlier speculation about cursed ruins and undead hordes.
“I do not know,” she replied. “On the ridge of Duvan’ku is an ancient city, old and forgotten even in the stories of my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother. The warbands of the Verdigris tribe on occasion challenge each other to spend a night on the mountain as a way to prove their bravery. Most do not return.”
Princess resisted shouting ‘I told you so!’
“The mountain’s name, do you know what it means?” Don’t Fail asked.
“No, it is not a word in either our tongue, nor that of the Eraka, nor the dwarf clans. I presume the name it is some remnant of whatever culture built that city.”
Hot Flanks turned to Battle Cry, “You don’t suppose that cave with the giant in it is the one from your first vision?”
“Shit,” was all Battle Cry said in response.
“Is there a room where we could sleep?” Don’t Fail asked. Hira nodded and showed them to one of many small rooms kept by the waystop, complete with a small iron woodstove and several piles of furs on the floor for sleeping. “Alright everyone, rest up, we’ll tackle the mountains in the morning…”
“I’ll commune with Hoar to confirm the location of our prey.” Battle Cry said, stifling a yawn.
Before closing the door, Hira remarked that she had business in Rhund and could accompany them as far as that northern waystop. Don’t Fail thanked her and the ladies all flopped down onto the furs to rest.
To be continued…