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