The wilderness stretched ahead, mountains stabbing towards a dark sky, topped off with ominous thunderclouds. With the bag of money, they’d managed to scrounge up the needed supplies, and even buy some decent rations, rather than the usual rats, spiced and dessicated. Three of them rode, Semari managing to keep up on foot, even wandering off to explore the occasional ruins they passed, remnants of past attempts to settle the wilderness before monsters or bandits had broken through their defences. Most of the hills were topped with a shattered keep or broken tower, slowly getting worn down by time into broken stubs. Shadows rustled in woods and bushes, but the beasts were savvy enough not to seek out a fight, at least not by daylight.
After having spent most of the first day slumped in an entirely disagreeable hangover, Stathis was now recovered enough to have recalled the few legends she knew of the Dragon’s Veil – ancient, magical, vaguely powerful in irritatingly non-specific ways. Karilimanath of the Blazing Flame, one of the ancient dragons of lore that had allegedly shaped half the continent, was the last known possessor, as well as the alleged ancestor of several of the noble families of note. Quite how that worked was something Stathis was trying not to think about. Was there actual physical contact, or something with eggs, or…?
She shook her head, trying to concentrate, ideally on something other than how a 60-foot dragon could have children with a person, without rather extreme discomfort being involved. From what they knew, they’d have to travel through the mountains, into a lost cavern containing Karilimanath’s body, and, more importantly, their horde of wealth, claim the Veil, and as much of the horde as they could carry, and then make their escape. The mountains were home to the usual monsters; storm elementals, griffons, ice wights, the usual sort of things; unfortunately nothing that had particularly valuable body parts to harvest. Dark forest covered the lower slopes, broken stone ruins peeking out from underneath the foliage, only a few more seasons before they completely vanished, returning back to the woods.
Up ahead, the track forked, one path leading to a bridge crossing a river before vanishing into a forest, the other heading straight on, towards the mountains. A lone figure stood at the junction, clad in impressively bulky black armour, their face hidden within a full-face helm, the front forged into the howling face of a demon, a massive double-headed battle axe held at the rest.
Stathis eased her sword in its sheath, just in case, even though the figure hadn’t yet moved to attack. As they approached, the armoured figure spoke, voice loud and booming.
‘Greetings, travellers.’ The axe was swung towards them, in a disconcertingly easy, single-handed motion. ‘I am the Knight of the Black Axe, guardian of this bridge! All whom wish to traverse bridge must face me, in single combat!’ The axe sliced through the air, whipping up the nearby leaves.
‘OK, thanks for the heads-up. So, Parth, do we need to go that way?’
Parth tilted her head and considered for a moment. ‘No. Straight works.’
‘Thanks.’ She turned back to the knight. ‘We don’t need to cross over, so no duel today.’
There was a long, awkward pause before he responded, voice somewhat less loud now he was off-script. ‘You cannot go that way! There are dread monsters on that path, an ice reaper has slain many travellers this month. But this path is safe.’
‘Well, other than yourself. But an ice reaper? Thanks for the tip.’ Stathis twisted in the saddle again to talk to Janaxia. ‘Ice reapers are those things that have all the shiny bits, their teeth, scales and claws, right? Didn’t you say there’s a fashion for them right now?’
‘Oh yes, very much so. All the nobility are clamouring for them, and they have become quite hard to find. For an entire corpse, we could expect around a thousand gold, I would estimate. If we don’t damage it too much in the fight, of course, so do kindly go easy with your blade.’
‘A thousand! Wow. Parth, Semari, you feel up to hunting a reaper? We’d have to go softly, but I don’t think they’re that powerful.’ They rode away, the knight standing there dejectedly.
Several hours later, they were back at the crossroad. The knight wasn’t there; as they approached the bridge he could be seen, hurriedly putting his armour back on before approaching at a jog. As he approached, Stathis spoke.
‘No Reapers, unfortunately. Pass is blocked though, so you might want to pass that on, if anyone else comes this way. So what are the rules for this duel. One-on-one, first blood, usual things?’
The knight took a moment to answer, having to catch his breath. ‘It is to death or surrender! The loser, should they live, must forfeit their arms to the victor.’ He was rough and scraggly looking, face hidden behind a mess of a beard, and generally in need of a wash.
‘Let me confer with my colleagues.’ They huddled together, the knight shuffling awkwardly away so as not to be accused of eavesdropping. ‘Right, I’m guessing no-one else wants to deal with this?’ Everyone shook their heads. ‘Right, I’ll go in then. If it looks to be going badly, then I’m trusting you to deal with him. Try not to kill him, he doesn’t seem that evil. Although if he turns into a werewolf or something, then blast away.’
They broke apart, Stathis strapping her shield on, limbering up for the fight. As she approached, the knight moved onto the bridge, then settled into a fighting stance, axe at the ready.
They swung, weapons locking against each other, breaking apart, then coming around again, as they took each other’s measure – he was strong, but swung in front of her, as though inviting her to block. They pushed against each other as he whispered under his breath. ‘You swing wide, and I’ll sell it.’
Stathis drew back, launching an exploratory counterattack. ‘What? Do I know you?’
He swung the axe around his head, lashing the air into a storm as he bellowed. ‘I shall defeat you and claim your weapons for my own! Taste my steel, villain!’ As soon as he was close, their weapons clashed again. ‘It’s me, Taymar. From the Academy? Look, I need a favour. I’m stuck here until a warrior of noble blood defeats me in honourable combat.’ He stepped back, shouting again. ‘You fight with skill and bravery! But such shall not be enough to defeat me!’
Once they were close again, Stathis hissed back. ‘I’m adopted, dammit!’
‘Close enough. Look, just make it look good, I’ll throw some gold your way when I can. I signed up with the damn Serpent Queen, though she’d have a palace or something, not just a load of rocks. And she’s got a bloody spirit watching, so I can’t leave until I’ve been properly defeated.’
‘OK, fine. Remember pattern number 38? You go high, I’ll go low.’
They separated, both falling into formal stances, more suited for the practice ground than any real fight. Glancing over at her companions, at least deceiving them shouldn’t be hard – Parth was engaged in studying a bush, Janaxia was checking herself in a handmirror and Semari seemed to have fallen asleep. So much for watching her back! She raised her voice. ‘Foul fiend! Today you shall perish, nevermore to harass innocent travellers again!’
‘No, it is you that will die this day!’
They bought the axe up for an overhead swing - showy, impractical and slow, as Stathis lunged, neatly pushing her sword under their arm, then pulling back. They staggered backwards with a loud groan, flinging the axe aside. ‘I am undone! Doom! Alas, now I perish, defeated in fair and honourable combat by…’ Stathis gave him a kick, punting him off the bridge before he raised any questions about her heritage she had no interest in answering.
There was a series of crashes and bangs as they bounced off the stone walls, before splashing into the (hopefully deep) water at the bottom, but not before flashing her a quick ‘OK’ hand sign, sinking out of sight in the murky water. Well, he always had been a good swimmer.
Stathis twirled her sword before re-sheathing it, just in case someone was watching. ‘Right, anyone want an axe?’
Parth picked it up, staggering under the weight, swinging it and taking a slice out of a rock. ‘Heavy.’ Semari took it, spinning around and around, getting perilously close to the edge before letting go, the weapon soaring through the air, and hopefully not landing atop it’s wielder.
Janaxia, apparently now satisfied with her preening, snapped her mirror shut. ‘That seemed rather tiresome. I was hoping for at least a Deathknight or somesuch – something with a bit more style, rather than poorly kept facial hair.’
‘I quite like being alive, so am thankful it wasn’t a Deathknight. Those guys are well above our pay-grade! And normally guard fancier places than a bridge in the middle of nowhere. Oh, he said something about a Serpent Queen, so watch out for snakes with crowns, I guess. That enough style for you, Janaxia?’
If there was something like that out here, would probably turn out to be a relative or something. But could be some money in it, or at least somewhere to stay. As if on cue, it began to rain, a soft, miserable hissing cutting through the rain, that prompted everyone to move, at least for the cover of the trees.