news\ Sep 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Tales of Conan - Retribution is a cold mistress

August 28, 2008

Age of Conan - Fictional Story Series - #10
by Michael Lafferty presents another in a series of original fictional stories by Michael Lafferty stemming from the massively multiplayer online world of Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures. The following story was written with the permission and cooperation of Funcom, the developer of the game. This tale continues a series of stories that deal with the world, the characters and the lore involved in Hyboria. Some of these stories may contain spoilers for quests, so by Crom, be forewarned!

Retribution is a cold mistress

The Eiglophian Mountains seemed to descend like the stabbing fingers of an Hyborean god, thrusting violently into the northern lands, jagged and rough, capped with the crisp clean snows of heaven bleeding into the browns and greens that dominated the valleys.

But despite the seeming harshness, this felt like home. The crispness of the high mountain air, the way the breath crystallized inches in front of the face, dancing in an evaporating lace of ice, the coolness on the face … it was a gift from the mountains, a feeling for renewal, of being clean again. Ainya had not felt that way for a long time. Her horse skittered nervously on the sharp stones of mountain path. Her hand patted the long neck; her voice was low and soft. “I know, boy, I can smell the worms as well. They are not what we seek, though.” They had been skirting the main infestations of the dragon-esque snow worms, looking for a cave and a piece of a riddle that had brought the Cimmerian ranger to this place.

The path had been a long one, a dream … no, a nightmare. Ainya had woken from a dark sleep and found herself on a path that had tracked through dying civilizations. Archeron had tainted her flesh and the only salvation seemed to be part of the Atlantean artifact she carried with her.

After leaving the Barachan isles, she had ventured back to her homeland and met a kinsman named Rhiderch, who was more than a self-involved wayfarer. No, he was a sage, gifted with knowledge arcane and with the ability to see from past to future. He seemed elusive at times, enjoying the sound of his own voice, and feigning superiority until the growl in Ainya’s voice hinted at a lack of patience. It was then that he started to tell her that which was most important to both her and the lands around her.

“In your possession is the most powerful echo of ancient Atlantis – the Phoenix Medallion, their final treasure, forged hours before their kingdom drowned. Dread forces guard against anyone restoring the whole medallion,” Rhiderch said. Yes, the medallion could help her but the obstacles were huge, including the most powerful magic force the lands had ever known – the Stygian Thoth-Amon. But Rhiderch rebuked Ainya’s presumption that Thoth-Amon coveted the medallion.

“Then why does Thoth-Amon fear the medallion?”

“Looking into the possible futures reveals no answer to that question,” Rhiderch replied. “I know not, yet. I seek the truth, just as you do. I’m not the seer my father was and I curse the day I learned I had his ‘gift,’ but these are answers I seek as fervently as you do.”

Ainya had already met and defeated one guardian that Thoth-Amon had set in place to secure another piece of the medallion. But this time the stakes were a little higher and the one guarding the medallion was one that Ainya had met before …

“As I said,” Rhiderch stated, a cruel smile beginning to twist his mouth, “Thoth-Amon sent an old enemy of yours to make sure you never take the northern shard of the Phoenix Medallion. The good news? It’s that bitch, Mithrelle. I know she crossed you in the past. My guess is that it’ll be more than a little satisfying to run a blade across her throat, eh?

“That bitch and I have unfinished business,” Ainya said. Her mind vaulted back to Tortage in the Barachan Isles, the first land she touched after the undead Archeron soul was torn from controlling her body. Mithrelle, Thoth-Amon’s right hand in creation of the army of undead souls, had been behind her enslavement. Mithrelle, the serpent-worshipping sorceress, had been behind the evil that hung over the streets like a blanket, smothering the people and starting Ainya on a path marked by blood. While the ranger knew there were many to pay for what had happened to her, she was working her way through the list, leaving a trail of bodies behind. Mithrelle was on that shorter list, and – if what Rhiderch was saying was true – then the time for retribution was at hand.

Rhiderch seemed to know what Ainya was thinking. “In my dreams I’ve seen fragments of your feud with her,” he said, with the hint of a smile, then added, “You’ll find her in the Eiglophian Mountains, no doubt spitting like a kicked cat after being sent there as punishment for her many failures. You’ll have to slay her to claim your prize, but I imagine that only sweetens the deal.”

“I’ll be back.”

“Good hunting – and don’t come back without that artifact! A wall of ice conceals a cave, and at nights the villagers below can hear a woman sobbing or screaming with rage.”

And now she sat on her horse, staring at what certainly must be the cave, Ainya felt the rage building within her. She tried to settle her spirit, in much the same manner as she had tried to gentle the horse’s nerves. But it was not working. This was a target. That Mithrelle was suffering for failing Thoth-Amon was not enough. One of them would die, and in that regard, the suffering would certainly end for one while the other would still be chased by the demons of the past.

The cave’s dark entry was replaced by the lure of light deep within. There was almost a tangible barrier of warmth that repulsed the cold of the Cimmerian mountains – no doubt the handiwork of the Stygian witch.

The cave itself was crawling with life. There were Archeron slaves patrolling the outer chambers and at the heart of the floor, in front of the pedestal upon which the Medallion shard rested, there were a handful of ice worms. A figure sat above the main chamber, on some sort of ledge.

‘That would be Mithrelle,’ Ainya thought. Her mind then began to work in other ways, plotting a course that would lead through the guards and then, first to Mithrelle, and lastly to the Medallion piece. She knew she would not be able to pilfer the piece of the Phoenix Medallion from under Mithrelle’s nose, and besides, this time she would make certain the witch died. She had had an opportunity to do just that in Tortage, but the Resistance forces did not wish for her to do so – and she was much weaker then. This time, though, there were no voices telling her not to kill the witch; this time the path would lead either through Mithrelle’s body or end with her own death.

She worked through the outer fringes, letting her bow do most of the work. She cleared the lone guards with almost-silent sniping. For the guards in pairs, she hit them with crippling shots, then driving arrows deep into their chests. Only twice did a guard manage to reach her. The first was stabbed in the throat by an arrow. The second found out that Ainya was carrying steel as well as the bow.

Mithrelle seemed oblivious to the commotion, seated on the stones on a precipice that overlooked the floor of the main chamber. Ainya finished with the minions of the desert witch and then cautiously approached the mage, keeping near the wall and the natural shadows.

She was well within bow range when Mithrelle’s eyes suddenly opened wide.

“I can feel you,” she said, her eyes starting to look about as she stood.

“Then feel this,” Ainya whispered, her bow coming up, leveling, an arrow notched and then released. It was a chest shot – or supposed to be, designed to penetrate the breast near the heart. But a ward was in place and the arrow was deflected away. Mithrelle’s dark eyes narrowed and she hissed, then began mouthing a spell of destruction.

Ainya quickly fitted another arrow and let it fly, this time straight for Mithrelle’s head. She knew that it would also be deflected but hoped that it would break the building rhythm of the spell. Then another thought occurred to her. She fitted another arrow and let it fly, but this time at the rocky surface inches in front of Mithrelle’s feet.

The arrow aimed at the head did nothing. The witch did not even blink. But the arrow shot downward had unexpected rewards. It hit the stone floor, the metallic arrowhead absorbing the impact and then deflecting the arrow upward. It went under the ward and scraped through flesh above the ankle. That did get Mithrelle’s attention. She stopped the incantation and instead stared down, her face a mixture of shock and disbelief.

Ainya fired off another, this time on the run, closing the distance to the Stygian as quickly as possible. The arrow grazed Mithrelle’s left upper arm. The witch’s eyes narrowed in anger, and her left hand came up, fire forming on the fingertips. Ainya was closer now. Wielding her bow like a stave, she swung it from the inside out, pummeling Mithrelle’s wrist and knocking the hand wide. She barely saw the trail of fire arching outward, hitting the wall and blasting a black hole in it.

The bow was released and Ainya pulled a sword and dagger from their guards on her belt. She spun a tight circle, blades leading, their cutting edges inches apart. Mithrelle saw the blow coming and smiled, even as her head fell from her neck, hit the rough stone and then tumbled over the edge of the ledge upon which she had stood. The body sagged and hit the ground. For a moment, there was silence … and then there was laughter – Mithrelle’s laughter. Soft, eerie and echoing in the rocky chamber.

“Another debt settled,” Ainya murmured, then retrieved her bow and headed to collect the northern shard.

Other stories in the Age of Conan fictional series can be found here: Tales of Conan - Fictional Stories index.

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