Almost Like Wearing Nothing at All

Tanya looked down at the battle wearily. It was always like this, men covered head to toe in armour swinging giant swords at each other. They would fight all day. Most of them would walk away alive, maybe injured, or captured and ransomed back to their liege lord. The ones who stayed away from the berserker at least. He was surrounded by layers of armour clad men, his naked flesh cut in hundreds of places. He would die, eventually, but hundreds would fall before his ax first. Well, she didn’t fancy dying in the battle, so she was staying away from that guy. She had a problem though. Her stomach was cold, not to mention her breasts. Sure, the armour plate that covered her nipples was tight, tight enough that they only popped out once or twice a battle, but still it was metal, and it was the only thing on her breasts. Still, that was better than the complete lack of anything covering her stomach, her thighs, most of her back, her shoulders, her long flowing blonde hair. Hell, she wasn’t even sure why the smith had bothered to complete the piece.

She’d said to him, “Make me a suit of full plate, I want it to cover me completely. I want a helm with a visor that can be raised, but provides full coverage. Top of my head to below my chin, with an eye slit. The chest pieces should continue up my neck, so that it goes above the bottom of the helm. Exactly like a male suit of armour in every way, except fitted to my body.”

When she’d returned she instantly knew it had gone wrong. Not like this was her first try, but this guy was supposed to be the best, an armourer who did custom pieces fitted for any frame. He was grinning at her like he’d solved hunger, like a happy puppy seeing the return of its master. “Come this way milady, I have your armour ready for you. I had to modify it a bit, but I’m sure you will agree that it’s the finest armour any warrior woman has ever worn.”

She knew exactly how far wrong it had gone before she even saw the armour. It shouldn’t have been able to fit in that box. Hell, the gauntlets shouldn’t have been able to fit in that box. 

“Alright,” she said with a sigh, “show me what you made.”

He opened the box. What was inside really couldn’t be called armour, not by any reasonable standard. There was a steel demi-bra, fringes of chain mail hanging off of it, and another piece of metal designed to cover her pubic mound, it narrowed into a thin strip on the back, to slide between her butt cheeks. There was bit of sheer fabric that attached to that piece, giving her a tiny, tiny bit of visual coverage. She wasn’t sure whether it was more or less modest than actual nudity. Still, it did provide slightly more coverage than the chain mail bikini she had. At least you wouldn’t be able to see the colour of her pubic hair or the exact size of her nipples while wearing it. With a much, much larger sigh she said “You know that’s not what I asked for right? Not even slightly like what I asked for.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wanted armour that covered my body. This doesn’t cover my body at all. I might as well be naked wearing this.”

“No, it’s very modest. Your breasts are covered wearing this. Your… lady pieces are also covered.”

“I’m not paying for it. No way in hell.”

“I worked night and day on this,” the smith said, a touch of a whine sneaking into his voice, “it’s the finest metalwork in the land. The steel is a Dwarvish and Elven alloy that has the best properties of both metals. There is nothing like this in the entire land.”

“Okay, I understand, but you have to understand that I don’t really want to be stabbed in the stomach. My femoral artery is absolutely as essential to my survival as a mans, and I am often engaged in battle, swords trying to pierce me in different places, all that.”

“Well, I’m not remaking it, and if you don’t pay me for it I will have you arrested for breach of contract.”

“Dammit. Not paying full price at least. You gave me ten percent of a suit of armour, I’m only paying for ten percent of a suit of armour.”

So, she bought it. Turned out that it was so form fitting she couldn’t even get a thin layer of cloth under it, so no coverage there, and because of the mail fringe it didn’t work under anything. She could wear a cloak, but no real clothes… so once again she was wading into battle nearly naked.

People joked all the time about how her outfits must distract her opponents, but it hadn’t ever worked out like that when she actually went into battle.

A tall warrior wearing black leather armour with various weird studs and spikes, his shoulders draped with fur for some reason, closed on her. He had two large swords, and he was swinging them in intricate patters. Tanya thrust her single long blade between the whirling steel, catching the man in the sternum. His leather caused her blade to skip to one side slightly, but then it hit one of the weird studs, steadying it. She pushed harder, really getting her weight behind the blade. It pierced the leather, reluctantly, and then the man underneath the leather. He let out a gurgling sound, traces of frothy blood staining his lips, then he fell to the ground. Well, as stupid as his armour was, hers was worse. At least she had the good sense not to swing her sword around like some sort of spastic. Well, that and carrying a buckler. The shield might not be as large as she wanted, but it was better than a second sword for not getting stabbed.

A knight in full kit, on horeseback, was bearing down in her, lance pointed at her. She waited until the thundering hooves had brought the armoured behemoth almost to her, then she rolled on her shoulder, crossing her sword and buckler on the ground. The knight dipped his lance, hitting a small mound of earth, which ripped the lance from his grasp. As Tanya stood she thought, “Fuck. Guess I’ll put my nipples away after the battle. Damnit.”

Her breasts had popped out of the metal bra as she rolled. Well, it wasn’t like she hadn’t expected it.

The horse wheeled around, carrying its rider back to her. The knight has no more lances, so he drew his sword from his back. It got snagged. They always did… why in hell anyone carried them that way baffled Tanya. It never seemed to negatively affect the bearer, at least when they weren’t fighting her. Their opponents always gave them time to get the weapon ready. Tanya though, she was pretty sure she was an asshole, but an asshole with a pulse. She closed and slashed the saddle straps, leaving the knight slowly tilting off his horse as he wrestled with his sword. The knight fell to the ground at her feet, so she took her sword and slammed it up under the neck of his helmet, where he was protected by light mail, driving the blade into his brain. The horse looked at her for a moment then trotted off, looking for some grass to eat.

Off to Tanya’s left she could see that the berserker had finally fallen. Well, that was good. She wasn’t even sure which side he’d been on. He seemed to have been killing anyone who got in range, regardless of affiliation. A great asset if he was the only one in your army, but questionable in a chaotic battlefield like this one.

At the end of the day Tanya had  a dozen kills, and two prisoners. One of the prisoners was a squire, and he kept trying to sneak a peak at her. She was being especially careful not to have any more slips now that she was around the nobility. After all, they paid her salary, and she wanted them to take her seriously.

After the battle King Renauld summoned many of the warriors to his throne room. Those who had done something outstanding, the ones with great deeds of valour, the ones who would be sung of by the bards. Tanya was one of the summoned. Each warrior was summoned to approach the throne, and asked what boon the kind could grant them. Finally it was Tanya’s turn. “Welcome, fair warrior maiden. I believe this is the first time I’ve had a woman in this position. What kind of boon can I offer you?”

“What I want, above all else in the world, is a proper suit of armour.”

“What do you mean? Any fool can see that you are wearing armour right now.”

“Well, part way through the battle my tits popped out of this bra thing. I’m pretty sure if I lift my leg above knee height anyone looking can see my snatch. Also, as you can see, I have a dozen or so cuts on my body, all of which would have been avoided with proper armour. So, yeah, I want armour. Armour that covers all of my body, not just my nipples and pubes.”

“Please, lady, watch the language. This is my court and I prefer people to keep a civil tongue. I’m afraid I can’t help you. Are you certain you wouldn’t like the princesses hand in marriage? I have a fifth daughter who doesn’t have a suitor. Of course you aren’t exactly what I had envisioned, but she’s a fifth daughter.”

“No, thank you. Not gay. Still a woman. If you can’t help with the armour directly, is there any chance you could point me in the right direction maybe?”

“I’ll consult with my advisers. It does seem a reasonable boon, so I will do what I can.”

Three days later King Renauld summoned Tanya back to the throne room. “We have been giving your request some thought, and Maester Jonas has some thoughts.”

An elderly man stepped forward. His skin was a map of wrinkles, his eyes were rheumy, pale, filled with cataracts. He trembled as he moved, wattles of flesh quivering on his neck. “I did hear a legend fair lady. The hermit at the top of Dagger Mount is said to be a mighty wizard, capable of great feats. He would be able to do whatever you need. He will grant a wish to any who bring him the head of a basilisk. Do that and you will surely get what you seek.”

“Okay, I don’t see why this is so fucking hard… excuse my language your majesty, but if that’s what I have to do that’s what I have to do. Any pointers on where I could find a bloody basilisk?”

The wise men supplied her with a map to a temple on a remote island, the temple of the basilisk. It was said that the primitives who lived on the island worshiped the basilisks as gods. Apparently they were extinct everywhere else.

As Tanya left the throne room she said, “Bloody ridiculous. Should take a good blacksmith two months at the outside to get this done. Half that if they modify someone else’s suit,” quietly under her breath. She wasn’t normally given to muttering, but it had been a trying meeting.

Chartering a ship was a challenge. Tanya found the captain of a likely vessel drinking at a dockside tavern, a tavern wench on each arm. “See, here’s the thing. Women on board ship are bad luck.”

“I have lots and lots of gold, I’m willing to pay, handsomely.”

“If it was just me, of course I would charter you a cabin. But I have the men to think of. Also, Basilisk Island is hardly on the trade routes. It’s a long way off course for us. We can’t do it.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll find someone who does want my money.”

The next captain was worse. “Look honey, I’d love to take you on… if you were willing to entertain my crew.”

“What?”

“A girl like you. I could practically charge the men to come onboard if you were waiting for them below decks, you know what I mean,” he said with a wink.

She refrained from using violence on him. Mostly. She kicked the legs out from his chair and punched him in the face, but she completely avoided decapitating him. As she moved on to the next ship she congratulated herself on her restraint.

A dozen ships later and she found one that was heading near Basilisk Island, deep in the south seas, that was willing to take a female passenger for a fee that was merely exorbitant. Even better, she got a small cabin to herself. Tanya was new to sea travel, and quickly discovered a level of misery she had heretofore not imagined. Food was the enemy, even plain broth would not stay down.

Finally, off in the distance, the Island appeared. The temple was plain, even from far out at sea, a giant crown shape sitting astride the island, a weed strangling the land below. The verdant green of the island reached to the shore, tendrils of green dangling into the salt water. The island cast a dark shadow across the blue water, lending menace to the perfect day. The boat was gently rocking in tropical breezes, the sound of waves gently kissing the salt stained wood. The slight motion, bright light, sounds of waves, all of it was enough to send Tanya over the edge again, the light broth she had tried to eat evacuating itself into the pristine blue water.

The captain said, “Are you sure you want to go ashore here? It will be at least two months before I can come back this way. I could take you to Yaculba instead. They have temples, good food, hotels you could stay at.”

“Get me on solid ground. Now.”

The broth was threatening to make another appearance, even though Tanya was convinced all of it had come up already.

“Okay. Your money. I do need the money for the return journey, just in case you get eaten while on the island. I’m going out of my way to pick you up.”

“Half. That way you have incentive to come get me…”

“Okay, and I want to say that I’m deeply hurt at your lack of trust.”

Tanya made her way gingerly into the skiff, careful to put her weight right in the centre of the small boat. One of the crew members rowed her to a sheltered cove. A small crescent of white reflected the sun back at Tanya, a barrier between the rich green of the jungle and the pure blue of the ocean. The skiff left, leaving her with a decent set of supplies. Enough food to last, with careful rationing, until the ship returned, flint, steel, some tinder, a small ax, assorted things to help her establish a place to stay. It was going to be two months on this island – she needed to be prepared for a long haul.

Establishing herself a good shelter was Tanya’s first order of business. She trudged through the jungle, scratches accumulating on her torso as she went. Finally she ditched the armour, threw it in her pack and put on some reasonable clothes.

The jungle was reluctant to give up its secrets to her, hiding sources of potable water and level ground. Finally she found a spot that was flat enough and proceeded to attack the vegetation with abandon, until she had chopped down enough of the wildlife that she could make a modest shelter. The insects were swarming her, turning her flesh into a mottled patchwork of red welts. She was new to the jungle, and had never experienced insects like this before. She worked frantically, trying to get some respite from the constant buzzing, the constant biting. After she had a rudimentary lean to set up she built a fire. She sent spark after spark into the bundle of tinder, each time thinking this was the one. Finally, exhausted, she crawled into her lean to and went to sleep.

Over the next week Tanya built her little camp into a home. Fire came on the second day, finally. She banked wood up next to it, drying it out. After the fire the mites started biting a little less. By the end of a week she was well set up, and it was time to start scouting the temple.

Tanya started early in the morning. Just after dawn and the air was so full of moisture she felt like she was swimming. The jungle sounds surrounded her, strange beasts crying strange sounds. The green, so much green. In her homeland green was a brief visitor, showing up for short moments in the late spring, and vanishing into yellows and browns shortly thereafter. This green was an affront, a wall, impenetrable and deep.

Up. The temple was up. It was so easy to see from the ocean, but here under the canopy it was impossible to keep track of which direction she was even moving. Up was the best she could do. She trudged for a day, deep, deep into the jungle. At times it might as well have been night. Tanya was an experience adventurer, she’d raided a hundred dungeons, so she knew to mark her path well. When darkness feel she wedged herself into the V of a trunk, tied in with vines, and did her best to rest.

Morning came, as it tends to, and brought with it people. A group of men, dressed in saffron coloured robes, were trecking through the jungle. They were headed down, but not quite on her path. The men were speaking, melodious voices, a kind of singsong accent. Tanya didn’t understand a word of it. After the men passed Tanya jumped out of her hiding place, and started along their path. It was still slow going, but much, much easier. After several hours the gloom thinned, lightened, and then the sun hit her full in the face. 

The temple loomed ahead of Tanya. It was white stone, bleached in the sun, and larger than she could have imagined anyone building here. A giant crown, sitting on this small island. The land around the temple was clear, grass trimmed short. A few goats wandered, bleating. There were statues dotting the landscape. A strange variety, some were of people, seemingly caught in the moment. Dotted among them were animals, all of it was the most intricate craftsmanship and attention to detail that Tanya had ever seen. Every individual hair was carved, every thread in their clothing, a vicious looking cat statue had drops of stone drool sitting on its teeth.

Tanya wandered the fields around the temple for a few minutes, looking at the bizarre statues. Many of the people seemed to be warriors, much like her, weapons drawn or half drawn. Some seemed to be hundred of years old, based on wear and weathering.

The day took hold of Tanya, she started to get lost in the warm sun on her skin. Even the insects seemed to be lazy here, ignoring her completely for the first time since she had arrived on this island. From one side she could see out over perfect blue seas, azure sky a dome meeting the sea, dotted with wisps of white cloud. It seemed perfect, a paradise. The air moved gently around Tanya, banishing the humidity. She found her eyes getting heavy, sleep taking over. At that moment she heard voices. Ducking behind the statue of a large animal she had never seen before, Tanya kept an eye on the source of the voices. More men in saffron coloured robes, heads shaved. They were talking, but they had their eyes bound, blinded to the world.

The blind monks walked across the grass, avoiding the statues, and entered a hidden nook in the base of the temple. That had to be it, the home of the basilisk. Well, now that she knew the location, it was time to go home, prepare to raid the temple. No reason to go off half cocked.

Tanya found the trek back through the jungle much easier, accomplishing it in a few hours, now that she had a path. Her camp was not empty when she arrived. A large cat of some sort was standing next to her tent, teeth bared in a snarl. “Well, fuck,” Tanya said, as she drew her sword.

The beast snarled, and launched itself at her. Tanya rolled to one side, lashing out with her blade. The tip of the blade caught the great cat in the shoulder, opening up a deep gash, blood spraying over the ground. The cat let out a yelping noise and ran off. Tanya set about cleaning up the camp, the cat had made a mess of things, getting into her food stores and eating most of the dried meat.  As she picked the scattered remnants of her food stores off the ground she noticed a burning feeling in her shoulder. She reached back, and felt wetness. Her hand came back covered in blood, drying and sticky. The pain hit a moment after that, four lines of unimaginable agony, raked across her bare shoulders. As she passed out from the pain her last thought was, “If I had proper armour this never would have happened.”

It was dark when Tanya woke. Her bladder was full, and her shoulder hurt like hell. Worst of all, her fire had gone out. It might have been a few hours since she passed out, and it might have been days. From how thirsty she was, she thought days was more likely. She stood up, peed a lot, and then drank as much water as she could manage. Luckily the cat hadn’t messed with her water storage, so she still had a bunch of clean water to drink.

She noticed that her clothing, normal everyday clothing, had shredded to the point where it covered her body even less than the ridiculous armour she wore. It was almost as if she couldn’t enter combat without showing off her body.

Now Tanya was thoroughly filthy, and the biting insects didn’t seem to notice her nearly as often. Her long blonde hair was matted with blood, she looked like a jungle creature of some sort. Only the pale blue of her eyes stood out. She needed to hunt. Her bow was sitting in its case, so she got it out and tried to fire a test arrow. The string snapped on the first draw, it was only then that she noticed the green tendrils snaking their way across the braided fibres. The jungle humidity betraying her.

Without a bow she had limited choices for hunting. She found several straight trees and chopped them down, carving off all the branches, and leaving them with sharp tips. Then she rebuilt her fire, easier this time because she had a stash of dry wood. It still took hours. Finally, fire hardened spears in hand Tanya set out to kill a pig.

Tanya spent the next weeks healing. Her resolve was steelier than ever. Damnit, she would get armour that allowed her to be more covered than the average tavern wench. Not that she had anything against her sisters in the service industry of course, it’s just, the right clothing for the right job. Heaving bosoms might be great for tips, but they didn’t add anything at all to her performance on the battlefield.

Eventually, recovered and familiar with the island, Tanya went back to her original mission. The temple on the hill.

Tanya watched the temple for days, snacking on meat she had dried in camp. She felt more animal than human. Monks came and went, always blindfolded. Maybe there was something to that. What was a basilisk exactly? Probably something she she should have asked earlier. Oh well, She couldn’t ask the monks, they didn’t seem to speak the common tongue. Mistakes had clearly been made. Still, maybe whatever was in that temple was something you didn’t really want to see. She had heard of creatures that could paralyze with a gaze. It clicked. Turn to stone with a gaze. Well hell, that put a different spin on things.

How could she kill something if it could turn her to stone? She assumed that it did so by meeting its victims gaze, because of the monks and the blindfolds. Maybe indirect would work, she’d heard a myth about someone using a mirror to kill a monster with similar powers. That didn’t really make any sense, but magic was often like that. On the other hand, she had pretty good hearing, and no mirror. However, there enough left of her shirt to fashion a blindfold. So, that was the plan then. Use a blindfold and hope she was able to finish the basilisk without seeing. Terrifying. She just hoped the damn things was small and weak. No reason it shouldn’t be. With that set of defences it shouldn’t need anything else.

The monks too. She had to take them into account. Well, best to deal with them out in the open, where she didn’t need the blindfold.

Tanya prepared herself for battle. In her case that mostly involved putting on her “armour” and drawing her sword. War was her life, her training started when she could walk. So, she stripped out of her ruined clothing and into the ridiculous metal underwear she was for some reason forced to wear, and stepped out into the clearing.

Two monks were walking from the opening to the jungle. She called to them, “Hey, fellows. What’s up with the blindfolds?”

They said something she didn’t understand and then charged towards her, pulling of their blindfolds as they ran. She’d really hoped they had some sort of code of no removing blindfolds during fighting or something. No such luck. The didn’t seem overly inclined to talk, drawing long knives from inside their robes. Knives. What were they thinking? Didn’t they see she had a sword?

The first one reached her a fraction of a second before the second one. He swung his knife at Tanya’s head. Well, at least they weren’t some sort of militant order, not with those fighting skills. Tanya dropped her blade, drawing it back across the monks thigh. It bit deep into his femoral artery, sending a spray of blood across the green field, drenching her from head to toe. That was one down. Uh oh, a dozen more coming out of the building. From watching she thought that was close to all of them. Between the identical clothing and the shaved heads it was hard to tell them apart.

Tanya ran for the jungle. Easier to pick them off when she had terrain to work with. They chased her, foolishly thinking that their superior knowledge of the jungle would keep them safe. They had no idea who they were dealing with. Too bad the supposed distraction effect continued to not apply. Oh well, maybe someday she would get into combat with someone who was stupid and horny enough to be distracted by her tits. Today was not that day.

She did a quick stop, turning and extending her blade. The lead monk didn’t have time to stop. The sharp steel slid through his throat, choking him on his own blood. Eleven left. Tanya pulled her sword loose, jerking it through the falling monks neck, and kept going.

There were cliffs ahead, she’d climbed them many times in her exploration of the island. Tanya ran, full speed, for the edge of the cliff. It was hundreds of feet down to jagged rocks. She grabbed a branch that hung out over the drop, her arms felt the shock as her weight dragged down. She held on, barely. Three of her followers weren’t so lucky. They flew through the air, arms windmilling, saffron robes flying up in the wind. They died screaming. Tanya used her momentum to swing around further on the path. It was all about picking your terrain. Well, that and being much, much better at killing than the people chasing you. Luckily she was.

It kept going like that, one or two at a time, until finally it was just her and two of the monks. Tanya turned around, not bothering with tricky moves, looked at them, and said, “Boo!”

One of the monks fell over backwards in fear. The other one rushed her, heedlessly. Tanya dropped to her knee and raised the blade. One left and he was already lying down. She walked over to him and cut off his head, a bit sad, but without being able to speak his language she didn’t even know how to accept a surrender, or if he was surrendering at all. There was a small satisfaction in having taken down a dozen men, even if they weren’t very good at this stuff. Time to see if she could kill the lizard. She had no idea where it was in the temple, how big it was, if it could do anything other than turn things to stone, if it could even actually turn things to stone.

It was near dark by the time Tanya made it back to the temple. The sunset threw pinks and reds over tropical waters, silhouetting palm trees. Tanya stopped for just a moment to appreciate the beauty around her, just in case it was the last thing she ever saw, then she walked into the darkness.

Inside the temple it was lighter than she had expected. There were torches spaced out along the corridors, flickering pockets of flame, with only brief stretches of darkness. It was also a very, very simple layout. Tanya didn’t know who designed most of the dungeons she explored, but they seemed to have either an infinite pool of labour, or infinite. Money. These guys on the other hand didn’t seem to have created a labyrinth for no apparent reason. The corridors were well polished stone, as dry as was possible in this place.

She heard it before she saw it. Claws scraping damp stone, rustling scales. It wasn’t small. So, a blindfold and then she had to fight a giant lizard. Without proper armour. Tanya tied the scrap of cloth around her eyes and rounded the corner. The air was filled with a deep hissing noise. Smells, so many smells, rot and decay. Old meat. Moss. Excrement. Tanya focused her attention, all of it, more than she would have thought possible, on hearing. There it was, under the hiss, the scrabble of claws on the stones, to the left, moving towards here. Another sound, to the right. It was charging right at her. She feinted left, dropped low and to the right, slashing with her sword. She felt resistance, heard a strangled cry. More scrabbling. The smells were overshadowed by the copper of fresh blood now.

She felt claws rake across her stomach, burning pain overwhelming everything else. It almost took her down, almost ended her will to fight, but only almost. She took a deep breath, almost gagged on the copper taste it brought, and swung her sword at the direction of the hissing noise. There was another noise, a new one. A soft squishing noise, then a scream, more horrible than anything she had ever heard. Finally, a thud, a loud one, something heavy hitting the ground. The hissing noise stopped.

Tanya ripped off the blindfold, breath held deep in her stomach, muscles tensed and coiled, ready to pull it back down again if the beast so much as twitched. She had hit it in the left eye, her sword pushing through gelatinous tissue and into brain. The creature still had its right eye open, but she didn’t turn to stone. Apparently it lost that power when it died – if she was even right about what the power was. Time to take the head… that was what the hermit wanted after all. The creature was large, not the giant she had thought it was. It measured about twelve feet from nose to tail. The strangest feature was the crown. A bony crown grew out of the lizards head, exactly the shape of the temple itself. Damn weirdos made a lizard head temple.

Her blade cut through the lizards neck in no time; she had the head!

The next few weeks were spent checking for the ship, making sure the head was preserved – she had a barrel of salt among her supplies for the purpose, and surviving the island. Finally, the ship came in sight. Tanya lit a signal fire, letting them know she was there and ready for them.

The journey back home was just as bad as the journey to the island, if not worse. The captain greeted her with surprise, “I didn’t think you’d be here. Thought the rest of that money was lost to me for good. Guess I’m glad you didn’t die. You got what you came for?”

“Yeah, the temple is safe now. This island has no risks anymore. It’s a pretty nice spot. Excuse me, could you pass me the buck-“

The room was filled with a loud retching sound. The captain decided he didn’t need any more information, and allowed Tanya to be alone with her misery.

As before, the journey was a nightmare for Tanya. She vowed, repeatedly, that this was her last sea voyage. By the time she reached shore she had lost any excess weight her already slim frame held.

Shore meant time for recovery. Sure, she wanted to get on with it, to visit the hermit and get her armour (she really hoped the basilisk head didn’t need both eyes to be eligible for the boon).

The closest inn was The Boar and Dragon, a standard place. There was a bard, a serving wench with ample assets, swords above the mantle. The sort of place that felt homey and familiar to Tanya after years of campaigning. It didn’t matter if she was high in goblin country, or in a village with three families, some variation of this inn would exist. In fact most of her work came from places like this… somehow she always found someone who needed a dungeon cleared out, or a temple full of undead cleansed. Sure enough, in the corner, a dangerous looking man with large blades, a dwarf with an ax, an elf of ambiguous gender with a longbow, a figure in a robe covered in mystical symbols, and of course the inevitable diminutive thief. It brought her back to when she was still a fresh adventurer. These days she was able to rely on her agent to get her bookings. Too bad nobody told new adventurers about agents. In fact… “Hey, you guys mind if I join you?”

The warrior said, “Sure, feel free. You look like a seasoned warrior,” as he visibly stared at her chest.

“Yeah, been doing this for a while. How long you guys been adventuring for?”

The thief said, “Oh, we just joined up a few weeks ago. Took out a small orc keep in the North. We’re looking for work right now. You have anything?”

“No, not really… well, maybe, but I mostly wanted to give you guys some advice. Something I wish somebody had told me back in the day.”

The elf said, “We would love advice from someone of you obvious experience. What should we know?”

“Get an agent. Most adventurers guild offices have a few agents working in them. These places, dingy bars, they only give you the bottom of the barrel quests. How much did you make from that orc keep?”

The dark robed one spoke, face still invisible beneath the hood. His voice cracked slightly. “We did extremely well. We pulled almost a hundred gold, and some orc weapons.”

“Okay, so you cleared a horde of orcs, and basically protected a town for a quarter the budget of the town watch in a month. That saved them probably several years worth of effort. Lose anyone?”

“Well, Jax, the cleric. We’re looking for a new cleric right now, but they seem to be in short supply.”

“Yeah, so one of you died… and the rest of you split a hundred gold between you. Look, the good quests, the really juicy ones, a good agent will know about them.”

“But don’t we have to give them money?”

“Of course, but it’s a percentage. They get you a gig that nets you ten thousand gold pieces, they get fifteen hundred on average. Yeah, it’s a lot, but you get to split seventy five hundred, not one hundred. Look, do what you want, but I haven’t hung out in an inn like this because I had to in years. I come to these places to drink, not to drum up business these days.”

“Thanks,” the warrior said, “now, what was that about maybe having some work?”

“I have a quest – I have to get an item to the hermit atop dagger mount. My understanding is that it’s pretty heavy orc country, and I could use a stalwart band of adventurers to back me up. It doesn’t pay great, mostly because I’m a bit low on funds right now. Had to charter a ship recently, cost a bloody fortune. However, since there’s not temple it is cash on the barrel not you get to keep what you take. two fifty plus meals. Should take a few weeks.”

“Two fifty? Holy crap. Yes, of course!”

“See, that’s why you need an agent. Never take the first offer, you have to haggle. Names?”

The warrior said, “I am Conrad Orcsbane , our elven ranger is Tanselot Goldenbloom, the dwarf is Angus McHandless, the halfling is Breckenforce Traugridge, and of course our mage is Bob.”

“Hey guys, Tanya Fireborn. Meet me here in the morning, we head out around nine-ish.”

“Not first light?”

“No, I like my sleep, and it’s always good to start with a decent breakfast. Just be ready around nine in the morning.”

Tanya went to bed, questioning her life choices.

The next morning dawned bright and early. Sometime after that Tanya got out of bed. Time to go and see what this head was worth. After a quick breakfast of mead and eggs she joined her new companions. The Hermit was rumoured to be on the highest point of Dagger Mount, a long and hard journey from the gentle lowlands where folk lived.

The first days on the road were lazy, pleasant days. The weather was warm, and the companions made for a much lighter trip, after Tanya’s recent solitude. The leader Conrad or Connie as Tanya kept calling him, much to his disgust, proved to be a good match sexually, so she used him for everything he was worth as they traveled. The country got rougher as time went on, and soon the companions were riding over rough roads, giving way to potholes and rocks. The soft lush forest land was replaced by scrubby undergrowth, and the signs of orcs started to show up by the side of the road. There were crude shelters built into the rocks, more cave than home, but worked. Most of them had bones around the outside, and lots and lots of flies buzzing around. Orcs were never careful about putting the midden far from the shelter.

The orcs were keeping out of sight, which was normal. They tended to be nocturnal, and would avoid any group that seemed large enough to provide an actual challenge, especially during daylight. It didn’t make Tanya relax. Orcs always seemed to live in areas where there weren’t enough resources for them to survive, and they didn’t do agriculture, which left them eating parties of adventurers for the most part. Not exactly a sustainable food source. Their population levels made no sense at all. They really should have been extinct a long time ago.

They set watches at night, and took all the usual precautions – it wasn’t until a full week in that an orc party tried to attack. Bob was on guard at that point, last watch. Mages always seemed to need more sleep than everyone else. He called out, “Up and at em, we got orcs!”

Tanya leapt out of bed, knocking Connie on the floor. She grabbed her ridiculous armour and her great sword and barreled out of the tent only to be confronted by a half dozen orcs. Six. “Seriously,” she thought to herself, “why did I even bother getting up?”

The orcs charged, a mass of weapons and muscles, smelling, as orcs usually do, of rot and horrific body odour. Bathing, like agriculture, was not a thing their species had discovered.

A large orc swung his large ax at Tanya ‘s head. She ducked under it, but he lashed out with a foot, catching her in the stomach, dropping her to the ground. The pain took her breath away, and there was a grinding feeling when she moved the wrong way. Well, so much for her ego about orcs.

Bob was chanting something, and as he did so dark tendrils formed under two of the orcs, pulling them down and doing… Tanya didn’t want to think about what the tendrils were doing. The orc facing Tanya drew his blade up in the air, then let out a hollow, shuddering noise, and fell to the ground. Breck was standing behind him, short blade covered in dark orc blood. Tanya said, “Thanks.”

“No worries.”

It took the group a few minutes to deal with the orc threat. A minor interruption to their sleep schedule. Bob was muttering something about disrupted sleep messing with his spells, but no harm done except to Tanya’s ribs.

Connie said, “Normally I’d just get Jax to heal you up, but he’s still dead.”

At that moment a figure wearing a heavy travel cloak came around the bend in the road. He had a large holy symbol around his neck on a chain, and carried a heavy mace. “Hoy, fellows, lady, elf. I’m a wandering cleric, looking for a group of adventurers to join. Do any of you need healing?”

It was strange how often this sort of thing happened. “Yeah, my ribs are pretty busted up. Can you take care of that?”

“Sure,” the stranger laid his hands of Tanya’s ribs, “I’m Tavish, a cleric of Gorm, the god of healing.”

“Well met Tavish,” Connie walked over, holding out his hand, “we could use a healer in our group. Welcome to our party.”

“Wait,” Tanya said, “doesn’t that seem a bit sudden?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, no offence to Tavish, but you just met him like literally thirty seconds ago. You have no idea who he is, what his abilities are, what he’s like as a person. He could be a pedophile, a serial killer, a republican. Are you really sure you want to commit to a long term arrangement here? Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk things over, see if he’s a good fit, see if he has a skillset that meshes well, a belief system you don’t find abhorrent?”

“Oh, that’s a good point. Let’s chat for a few minutes Tavish.”

Connie and Tavish walked off a bit and started talking. After a few minutes they came back and Connie said to the group, “Yeah, so Tavish won’t be joining us. Um, I feel like I have to re-evaluate my approach to HR going forward. Anyway, please leave you disgusting piece of… I can’t. Even.”

Tavish walked off, back down the road the way he came. Connie looked at him, face wrinkled in disgust. Finally the cleric was out of sight and Connie said, “That man has some serious issues. If you ever see him again hit him with something large and heavy.”

Finally Dagger Mount came into view. A narrow, knife like point piercing the heavens. A narrow path traced back and forth up the nearly sheer rock face, until it was lost to sight in the low hanging clouds. Tanya stepped through a pair of standing stones and started walking up. The rest of the group followed, but were stopped by some form of invisible barrier, unable to walk forward. “Hey, Tanya, we can’t get through here.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Bloody wizards. Bob, can you do anything about this?”

Bob concentrated for a moment. “No, it’s far, far beyond my meager abilities. I’m afraid you’re on your own.”

“Well, I expect you to take half payment. Can’t complete the mission, you don’t make full buck.”

“Let’s talk when you get down,” Connie said, a frown on his face.

“Okay. But you better hope I’m in a better mood when I get back.”

With that Tanya turned back to the path and started walking. Her equipment was mostly on the groups pack horse, leaving her with a cloak, her ridiculous armour, the bag with the basilisk head, and her sword. At least she head a flask of water. It looked like it was going to be one hell of a walk.

Several hours later Tanya was exhausted and cold. The weather, so warm on the ground, became much colder as she climbed. Darkness was setting in, the sky turning a deep red, tinged with pinks and purples. It was beautiful, but Tanya didn’t have the energy to appreciate it. She was shivering from the cold, her breath making trails of white in the air. Sleep seemed like a bad idea, so she kept hiking up the trail, drinking as she went.

Full night fell, stars twinkled in the night air, wisps of cloud passed above, and later some of them were even with Tanya, and even later some were below her. It was dark, the moon a small sliver in the sky. There, on the path ahead of her, was a slight orange glow. Distant, but warm, firelight glowing on rocks. Tanya felt a tiny spark of life return to her numb flesh, lending her legs a tiny extra moment of strength, enough to let her walk ahead. The head was so heavy, it was like carrying a bag full of lead at this point.

The mouth of a cave came into view, the firelight spreading out from it. Only minutes away. Step after grueling step, and then the cave was right there, the heat of the fire radiating weakly even here outside on the path. The path which ended inches ahead of the cave, a sheer drop hundreds of feet onto jagged rock. The top of the mountain was in sight above her, less than a dozen feet away. It wasn’t as sharp as it appeared from the ground, there was a small plateau, maybe three feet by five feet.

The mouth of the cave was low, low enough that Tanya had to stoop to enter. As she did she saw an old man, long grey beard and long grey hair covering the simple tunic he wore. His feet were bare. “Hello, I’m The Hermit of Dagger Mount. Welcome to my cave. How may I help you?”

“Well, I would really, really like some armour. Decent stuff that covers my mid-section.”

“I see. Have you brought me anything?”

“Yes,” Tanya took the bag from her shoulder, “I have the head of a basilisk right here.”

“Oh, yes, that is something I’ve been looking for. I don’t know how much I can help you though.”

“What do you mean? This isn’t that complicated surely? Hell, a blacksmith should be able to do it in around the same amount of time it takes to do a normal suit of armour.”

“I’m afraid the problem lies with the gods. There are many rules to nature, most people have not read them, but they are written down. I have the book right here,” the old man stood and walked over to a shadowed corner of the room. From that corner he pulled a giant leather bound tome. It was the most beautifully bound book Tanya had ever seen. “Right, the book of the gods, chapter nine hundred and seventeen, paragraph five. ‘No female warrior shall wear clothing that covers her midriff, upper thighs, or shoulders, nor that covers the upper inner quadrant of her breasts during any battle. This definition includes armour and all forms of clothing’, so, you see, it is a fundamental law of our reality.”

“Is that why whenever I enter battle wearing regular clothing it rips?”

“Yes, yes it is. I’m terribly sorry. The gods were quite young when they defined these rules. It was a different time, and they had their own ideas about how to do things.”

“So, is there truly nothing I can do?”

“I’m sorry, no. Nothing at all.”

“Okay, well I guess I’ll just take my basilisk head and be heading back down the mountain.”

“Wait, I really do need that head,” the Hermit said, “let me think about this for a few minutes.”

“Sure, I’m kind of enjoying the fire anyway.”

“Well, I have to agree with the gods. It would be a shame to cover a lovely body like yours,” The Hermit said with a leer. Tanya felt a sudden and intense desire to take a hot bath, with lots and lots of scrubbing.

“I’ve got it. It will take a great deal of my energy to cast this spell, so I will need to inspect the basilisk head before I begin. However, this spell will allow you to be protected in battle.”

“So, I can wear armour?”

“No, of course not silly woman. It’s more of a hack – the spell will reverse the properties of your armour.”

“Reverse the properties?”

“Yes, that which is uncovered will be as impenetrable as steel to any weapon.”

“Okay, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Let’s do it.”

The Hermit spent the next two days preparing his spell, after determining the basilisk head met his requirements.

Finally, all was ready. There was an inner chamber to the cavern, a massive space. The Hermit had scribed dozens of arcane symbols on the ground using various fluids that apparently he had stored around his cave. Tanya had to ask, “How do you get all this stuff up here? You don’t exactly look like you are making the journey too and from town all that often?”

“Teleport spell. Works great. Gets me too and from the capital about once a week.”

“So, I didn’t have to come all this way?”

“No, of course not. Most don’t. I must say I was impressed when you made it up here. Most give up and go back down way before they reach my cavern.”

“Oh.”

“Now, my dear, you have to strip naked.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, yes. I’m afraid it’s a requirement of the spell. Not a single thing on you at all.”

“If I have to,” Tanya said as she removed all of her clothing, all of her jewelry, then lay down where The Hermit told her to.

As The Hermit started to chant an arcane light filled the air. Tendrils of energy wrapped around Tanya, passing over and then through her flesh. The Hermit was sweating, eyes glassed over, white and sightless. The timbre of his voice changed, became guttural, beastlike. The swirling vortex of energy intensified, sped up, then all of it vanished, sinking into Tanya’s body. The Hermit collapsed, sobbing and gasping from the effort.

“Did it work?”

“Did it work?” The Hermit said, “Of course it worked woman. If I say I can work a spell I can work that spell.”

  Tanya drew walked to where her sword was and drew it. The Hermit said, “Sorry, that was rude… I apologize for my tone, no need for the-“

Tanya ignored him and slammed the blade into her naked stomach. It stopped, as if it was hitting full plate armour. “So, this spell is on me, not my armour then?”

“Well, yes… armour doesn’t last forever and it made very little difference which I enchanted.”

“So, if I go into battle naked I’m completely protected?” 

“Well, yes, I guess so. I just assumed you would want to wear something, like your metal bikini there or something. I mean, for modesty’s sake.”

“Yeah, after years of having to go into battle wearing just a bikini I’m pretty much over the modesty thing. Thanks. Not quite what I had in mind, but it does the job. Any chance you could teleport me back down to the bottom? My guys are waiting. Also, what’s with that gate?”

“Sure. I need a nights sleep first. Yeah, the gate. Only allows a single person to enter at a time, other than me of course. I figure that way I still get supplicants from time to time, but nobody is sneaking up en mass and slitting my throat. There are other wards that work on people who try something.”

The next morning The Hermit  teleported Tanya back to the ground, true to his word.

Epilogue:

“sixty three years. It’s been sixty three years since the cave, and I still don’t have a scratch on me. Guess the hermit was as good as his word,” Tanya thought to herself. She stripped off all her clothes, pendulous breasts that had suckled a half dozen children bare to the world, her wrinkled flesh on display for all to see. “Well, I don’t think he was expecting this.” She charged, fully naked, into battle once again.

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