Diodonnas’s Bow

by Tim Gibson

          For her 18th birthday Diodonna asked for a few days off to travel to Ghyst, the minor city to the west. It would take 5 days to get there and the problem with traveling through grasslands was that reptiles could sniff humans a long way away. Her parents paid some female adventurers to take her to Ghyst and there Diodonna drank, gambled and ate boa steaks that had been seared to perfection. Giant boa constrictors occasionally came out of the Turquoise Forest to consume humans and it felt right to return the favor.

          As per their agreement the 4 female adventurers – muscular, fit, tanned and outfitted in spiked armor for getting close in with constrictors – took her back home. Home was a collection of small huts on the east shore of the continent, too small to warrant large sinraptor raids and too poor to be eyed jealously by raiders, pirates or rats. Her family took their boats to sea in the morning, fished, returned home in the evening and sold their wares to the caravan that arrived once a week.

          Career advancement left little to complain about. A young man could save his fish up and buy a hollow tree trunk or he could grow vegetables and sell them in Ashilo for some liquor to help him forget about the world for a few hours. If she didn’t want to go out in a boat a young woman could stand on the shoreline, her line in the water, and hope that she didn’t have to fight whatever she fished up. Saurians had been making stronger forays onto land as of late and they often showed up in chainmail, boots, helmets and melee weapons. Marriage was an option too. Not to the Saurians – they were bent on extinguishing mankind and would have made surly husbands – but to other young men of the village. To Diodonna the idea of spending the rest of her life in the village among people that secretly wanted to drown themselves lacked merit.

          The four female adventurers refused to take her with them. They were going to Xonda to hunt in the Forest of Grief and didn’t want a kid with them. “If you want out of this life,” one of them said as she hugged Diodonna, “kill a sinraptor, take his sword and become an adventurer. If the reptile kills you, you were not meant for this life.” Diodonna gave the battle-scarred, muscular woman another hug, just in case they never saw each other again.

          To keep her parents happy she went out in the boat one last time with them, explaining that she would not be returning home any time soon. As they hauled in nets full of fish they found a rainbow squid in the mix. Transparent, multi-colored and very much alive, the rainbow squid stared at Diodonna before speaking in a female voice. “If you choose this path you will never see your parents again and you will face much pain.”

          Diodonna laughed. “Threats from a talking squid?”

          “I am Slodessa.” That would be one of the ocean goddess. There were several of various powers and temperaments. Created by mankind’s prayers, fears, hates and loves from the dark matter in the planet’s core, gods and goddesses were currently arming up for what looked like a big, awful war. Gods walked the surface of Imtrund and persuaded mankind to join them as clerics, paladins, healers, artisans or warrriors. It was clear the members of the firmament were girding for war. “I am the goddess of the ocean and I speak through this beautiful squid.” The squid waved a strawberry/yellow/blue tentacle at her parents and turned its baleful eyes back to her. “If you do as you are thinking, you will travel the breadth of Imtrund, have many adventures and face much suffering. Much of it will be alone.”

          Diodonna had heard the gods could sometimes see a bit into the future. “Let me guess. I can avoid all that if I worship you?”

          The squid laughed in a girl’s excited voice, its multi-colored tentacles whipping the fish bed upon which it lay. “No. That path brings its own pain with it. If you get married to one of the village boys you will embrace a sad life of bitterness and regret. If you become an adventurer I see hardship, pain and suffering in your path. If you become my paladin you will at least fight in one last great war before dying.”

          Life was hard on Imtrund. The village boys were variously lunatics, scabbed, noxious, or dim and in one wonderful case had all 4 traits. Humans were a minor species on Imtrund, comprising about 1 percent of the living creatures on land. The rest were reptiles, minotaurs, tigertaurs, Red-Shelled Snappers, etc. If one included the Saurian Dynasty below the waves the percentage got even worse. For a human female to find happiness was a difficult thing – hence many girls selected a god to worship and do battle on behalf of. Diodonna had a plan – she was going to disarm or kill a sinraptor and take his weapon. Swords were too expensive for anyone from her village to purchase and Ashilo weapons were mostly low-quality spears anyways.

          Still it did not bode well to anger the gods. “I will consider your words, great Slodessa. But I fear I would give up my freedom were I to bend my knee to a god, even in exchange for a paladin’s powers.”

          “Then I bless thee with a good harvest, young one. One day, be you near water, call my name and bend thy knee. You will make a most excellent paladin of the Ocean. And please release my child back to the sea.”

          Diodonna picked up the rainbow squid and held it, the cephalopod staring into her eyes while she cradled it against her chest. It stroked her cheek gently, using one of its tentacles, its mouth moving and only a whisper emerging. Figuring it wanted to say something without her parents hearing, she cradled it over her shoulder. “Be brave, child,” it whispered. “After a rainstorm of sorrow will come a spring of happiness.”

Well that wasn’t good.

          She lowered the cephalopod into the water and it swam off, Purple-Shelled Snappers falling in beside it as if some sort of honor guard. Looking for all the world like bipedal lobsters with lilac shells – steel battles swords at their sides – the Snappers and the cephalopod disappeared into the water.

          Soon fish leaped into the boat. Whatever caused it didn’t seem to realize that the rickety vessel could only hold so much before capsizing. Dio’s parents threw the less valuable fish overboard, keeping the fat, fleshy trout and tossing out the river runners and bottom-feeding whisker-heads. Soon, as more oceanic denizens jumped into the boat, Dio and her parents threw out the trout and kept the pink angler-fish, a wonderful species that normally never went near the surface.

          Soon the 3 of them expelled the pink anglers in favor of the scintillating leafy dragonfish, a weird and valuable specimen caught only once or twice a year. Centuries earlier, as the reptilian god Skandakor slept, he dreamed of being surrounded by thousands of fish and when he awoke they were real, scattering to the far sides of the ocean to hide among rocks and crevices. Extraordinarily rare, their flesh would provide food and vitamins for the whole village. Enough fish of every description flopped in the bottom of the boat that when an octopus tried to climb in the boat Dio’s dad raised his oar menacingly.

          “No,” said Diodonna. The octopus shrugged and slipped back into the water.

          They returned to shore and Dio could not wait to put her plan into action. She would procure a sword, one way or another, from the Turquoise Forest and her career as an adventurer would begin. As she helped her parents haul their catch in a trio of young men approached with wilted flowers. She gently turned down the village idiot, telling him she only wanted someone to discuss math and philosophy with. The citizens of Imtrund had a long history of books – rat catchers could discuss combat theology and peasants debated the difference between a quandary and a dilemma while harvesting spine carrots. As a soon-to-be adventurer she had no reason to hurt anyone’s feelings.

          The pustule-eyed boy and good old frog-licker came next, offering flowers that sagged in the heat. She accepted the flowers, turned the 2 boys down and sniffed the bouquet. A bee flew out and stung her and the two boys retired to an empty hut to console each other in their own private way.

           She hugged her parents, took up a good fishing spear with a wood tip and headed northwest toward the Turquoise Forest. The sun set and she plodded on through knee-high grass, her pretty face covered in perspiration as the grasslands gave up the heat they had taken in during the day. It wasn’t safe to sleep outside in the grasslands. In the forest she could climb a tree and would have a measure of safety.

          The 3 moons came out and bathed her in the light that was so beloved of moonlight magicians, those amazing sorcerers that could raise towers of moonlight only to have everything crash down with the first rays of the morning sun. Crickets chirped, birds winged past her and a spine troll wandered by, drinking messily from a bottle of Ashilo Red – a good brand and perhaps wasted on a monster. With mankind a minority on Imtrund many vintners produced whatever the local monsters liked, some farmers growing screaming insect-larvae and selling them to the pig heads that seemed to increase in number every year.

          Diodonna reached the Turquoise Forest. It was clear she had not thought this through. In her haste to escape the bitter life of a fishing village – and because of her desire to be alone – she had rushed into things. Exhaustion drooped her eyelids and the night forest seemed terrifying with its shadows, weird sounds and animal calls. Finding the largest tree – easily a hundred feet tall – she climbed halfway up, jumping from branch to branch, and settled in for the night.

          She had just drifted to sleep when from below her a voice whispered in the cool night air. “Dio, come down. Come down.”

          At the base of the tree was an unpleasant creature called a nightmare chimera. With the body of a lion and three snake-heads it was feared across Imtrund. The chimera whispered to its victim in their dreams, luring them out and letting them sleep-walk into its jaws. Every chimera was the descendant of a minor god and each hungered for human flesh, feasting on the fear of the dying mortal and on his flesh. Dio started to climb down the tree until she tore her calf on the rough bark and woke from her sleepwalk. She was lucky to have woken up – a glance below showed the 3 snake-heads writhing and flexing, eager to satiate their divine hunger on her terror as she died.

          She returned to her perch and settled down, hoping it couldn’t climb trees. As a precaution she climbed a few branches higher, the moonlight barely slipping between the branches, as the nightmare chimera described the unspeakable things it was going to do to her body when it caught her. She smiled and went back to sleep. If she grew old and rich she would write a book about her adventures and the first page would be the description of her encounter with the chimera, exaggerated a bit to increase sales of course.

 A castle on the east edge of the Lithic Plains

          In the morning she climbed down and gingerly stepped over the corpse of a tigertaur. A tiger’s head on a man’s body, this one was orange and black with a long tail. Its back was twisted backward as if it had a broken spine and its face was frozen in a rictus of fear as if it had died of fright. A quick search of the corpse turned up no coins or weapons.

          She moved lightly through the forest as the heat rose. Water droplets slid off leaves and flowers. Jungle birds with curved beaks called to each other and once she had to stop while an army of tiny frogs marched by, easily a thousand of them on some amphibian pilgrimage. A puddle held a 1v1 battle between a pixie swordsman and a tiny Clawstacean, the enemies fighting to the death. A hollow tree trunk held a tiny castle filled with imperceptibly small humans, defending their home from a swarm of insects. The head of a giant boa constrictor emerged from the thicket, staring at her and sniffing the air with its tongue. Terror filled her mind as the snake-head slowly withdrew and she swore to herself she would never freeze in fear again.

          Finding a sword was harder than she thought. By day she fought insects, some as big as her. She learned to never touch one of the slow-moving fungi-men after seeing a forest-gryld touch it, inhale the emerging spore cloud and collapse. She couldn’t even steal the fallen octopoid’s trident – the fungi-man picked it up and carried it away.

          At night she found a measure of peace. In the old days she had laid her head down each night with the sure knowledge that the next day held nothing but fishing and rowing. Now she slipped into sweet slumber knowing that as soon as she was armed her adventure would begin. Imtrund held relics, weapons and magic items from thousands of years of war. In the fantasy novels she had read as a child no one had had trouble finding a decent weapon. She would acquire one soon.

          The forest was a big place. It was about 80 miles in width and while the sinraptors were the apex predators it was home to green slimes, giant amoebas, green frogstrocities, minotaurs, giant spiders, Saurian Knights, vampiric crocodiles, false dragons, alligator-headed snakes and clerics from any of the new demi-gods not ready yet to reveal themselves.

          With her iron-tipped spear in her hand she traveled deeper, pushing through muddy streams, tangled thickets of poison apple trees, vines that encircled her waist and tried to lift her into the jungle canopy, patches of weeping cacti and a tangled mass of mangroves growing in brackish water. In the knee-deep water a group of forest Grylds were pulling apart a live Saurian and she quietly went around them.

          The Gryld were known to do business with humans. Looking like any octopus, they walked on 6 tentacles and fought with the other 2. Most of them were excellent swordsmen, wielding 2 blades with more dexterity than most humans could wield one. Many grylds were magicians and some were clerics, dedicated to Skandakor. Despite their evil nature they could interact normally with humanity, at least in the big cities. In the wild they tended to behave more like murderers.

          For a time she was a prisoner of a Saurian. It had captured her while she walked along a jungle trail. Finding a well of strength she never knew existed, she survived starvation, ill-treatment, dehydration and the creature’s constant boasting about its magnificent undersea garden. It got to the point where she wanted to hang herself, not to escape captivity but to avoid hearing one more time just how big its undersea cucumber patch was.

          The Saurian picked a fight with a vampire crocodile and while her reptilian captor was being drained she ran, her hands tied behind her back, not stopping until nightfall. Scrapping her hands against the bark of a poison apple tree freed her and she curled up in the top branches, bereft of her spear and hungry.

          After stuffing a bunch of poison apples in her bag she pushed through the forest, knowing from childhood books which mushrooms to avoid and which berries to eat. Nuts, fruits and sugary flowers grew on trees and she refilled her water skin at the next tributary. The girl inside her grew excited by the collection of brightly colored seashells in the shallow water. Sifting through the silt and mud turned up shells, copper coins and human skulls. Keeping only some orange sea shells she moved on.

          The unmistakable indentation of sinraptor tracks cut across the forest floor. Following them with as much stealth as she could muster she came to a cave. More human skulls lay about, along with more death detritus: rusty swords, human ribs, old helmets and half-buried copper coins. A sinraptor emerged from the cave.

          Known locally as running reptiles, sinraptors had an interesting history. They evolved over millions of years as fleet, long-legged reptiles that walked and ran horizontally. Unlike Saurians, which were bipedal lizard men, sinraptors were essentially fleet and muscular lizards, about the size of a small horse, that kept their bodies horizontal. Unlike their larger carnosaur cousins with their odd, tiny arms the sinraptors had long limbs and clawed hands to fight with and pass chunks of flesh into their mouths.

          A sinraptor had a large skull, metallic green scales, curved teeth, a long snout and a long neck. Adapted for speed they avoided combat with larger creatures and dominated most of the forests of Imtrund. Dumb and unevolved, sinraptors were hard to tame and generally just killed adventurers trespassing through Imtrund’s forests.

          The specimen facing Diodonna was bigger than most, saliva dripping from its jaws, its crimson eyes locked on her, its clawed toes cutting into the soft forest floor as it padded toward her. She tossed a poison apple between them and the sinraptor crushed it, its reptilian jaws snapping in rage as it advanced. A human could never outrun one of the sleek reptiles so she turned and ran through the densest part of the tangled mangroves, a species of thorny tree famous for its vines, creepers, thick foliage and snakes.

          Serpents hissed as he ran through their nests, the sinraptor in pursuit. A quick scurry up a tree saved her and the reptile clawed the trunk before losing interest and retreating to its cave. She knew from books what is favorite food was: fish.

          Descending an hour later she explored until she found a small river and a little lake, about 50 feet wide. No one fished better than her. She broke one rock against another and used a fragment to sever and sharpen a branch, making the tip into a 2-pronged fork. With her stone fragment she dug and collected a bunch of worms. After tossing them onto the surface as bait – the equivalent of some winged messenger of the Firmament dangling a human from a rope over the ocean to lure some aquatic dragon to the surface, which had been done a few times – she waited with raised spear.

          Her first cast was true and the spear impaled a fat trout. With her stone fragment she slit open the fish’s belly, removed the innards and replaced them with poison apple slices. Diodonna smiled. Roving packs of sinraptors occasionally had emerged from the forest to thin the ranks of the humans, the two species hating each other and the softer pink ones unable to do much about it. Time to fight back.

          She carried the fattened fish to her people’s old enemy and knelt before the cave, fish extended, her heart pounding against her ribcage. The raptor emerged from the darkened cave, maintaining steady eye contact and flexing its large claws. It seemed bigger now that it was coming at her. Forest animals went quiet. Birds quit their constant singing and stared at the slaughter they thought was about to happen. Even the wind quit, making for an unusual stillness, and Diodonna heard her own heavy breathing.

          The prehistoric beast took the offering and withdrew to his cave, eating the fish in 3 large bites. It was over soon. As much she hated the sinraptors for their predations against her village, she hated to see its death throes. Poison was not the smooth kill she had expected and to put away its pain – it writhed in agony – she crushed its head with a large rock. A ghostly image of the raptor pulled out of the body, flexing its incorporeal talons as it was sucked up to the firmament.

          She explored the cave. Crystals grew from the wall, mostly orange quartz with a smattering of pinks and whites. Mushrooms grew in the damp areas, the edible kind. She ate her fill and replaced the last of the poison apples with edible fungi. At the back of the cave were some human skeletons, most of their bronze weapons rusted and beyond use. A sword with an upwards-curved hilt was in reasonably good condition, aside from the pitting of the blade and handle. Digging through the soft loam, fungi and moss she uncovered a golden bow bereft of a string.

          It was a beauty. Curvacious, elegant and light, the gold bow had a workmanship that she had never seen before. Better she find a string for it and put it to good use than some stupid raptor play with it. It reminded her of the only time in her life she had ever stolen anything. As a child she had been in Ashilo with her parents as they tried to sell a live armored octopus to a collector. While the adults negotiated Diodonna had pocketed a shiny copper coin, telling herself it was better she buy food with it than the bazaar owner waste it on books or something like that. In the end the guilt had been enough that she gave the coin to a beggar in the street but even then something felt wrong about the transaction, her child-sized brain unable to figure out exactly what was bothering her about it. Never again did she rob one man to give to another.

          Crystals were common on Imtrund but there was a chance the Ashilo-Xonda caravan would take them off her hands for a pretty price. Using a rock she knocked several crystals from the cave wall – they grew back as she stared – and put the most beautiful specimen in her bag. With her sword she killed a fat tree snake, cooked it over a fire and retired to her cave for the night. At the back of the cave she rested with eyes closed, dreaming of hoofing it across Imtrund, slaying monsters, rescuing rich merchants, righting wrongs and becoming princess of Imtrund, master of all she surveyed.

          The fantasy almost killed her. Just a few feet away from her a forest gryld stepped on a ripe mushroom and the fungi burst with an audible pop. Instantly she was on her feet, the mottled green cephalopod poised a few feet away, walking on 4 tentacles and 4 blackened iron morning stars in its other tentacles.

          Known in her village as devil octopi, a gryld was an octopus that walked on land when it had cause to, able to breathe both air and water. Murderous, villainous and without mercy, the oceanic grylds were currently at war with the Saurian Dynasty for control of the ocean. Both sides had their gods, their knights and their sorcerers, making for some epic battles. The forest gryld could only breathe air and was a mix of light and dark green, a good camouflage for an arboreal specimen. Its 4 morning stars were of gryld make and very valuable.

          She took up her sword and stepped forward, trying to remember what some older men had taught her about sword fighting as it attacked The battle was fierce and frightening. The 4 iron morning stars – rigid shafts with a spiked ball on the end – spun through a complicated pattern, faster than her eye could follow and impossible to block. She swung a few times, her blade brushed aside with a clang each time. The gryld laughed, an evil, hissing sound from the tooth-filled mouth.

          Diodonna turned her back to it for a second and executed a spinning swipe, hoping for a decapitation. The gryld knocked her sword out of her hand and advanced, one of the morning stars raised over its head. Ripe mushrooms popped under its tentacles as it padded forward. Scrambling back to the cave she decided to bluff her way out of it.

          She took up the bow, pretended to grab an arrow from the mossy floor and raised the weapon menacingly. Her plan was to pretend to pull the string back at the last moment. “No arrow of mine has ever missed, devil octopi.” Technically that was true – she had never fired an arrow before.

          “Lay down, child,” hissed the gryld. “Death comes for us all. Something will one day consume me and some beast or god will consume him. The cycle of life and all that.” It took another step forward.

          “My first arrow ends your life,” she said in a steady voice. “If you wish to return to your forest cave and intertwine tentacles with some slimy female, turn around and tell your family that you brought a morning star to an archery duel.”

          In response the gryld spun the 4 morning stars in the same complicated pattern, flexing its boneless tentacles faster and faster. The spiked heads of the 4 weapons orbited each other without making contact, a skilled maneuver perhaps designed to flick away any arrow she fired. If she had one.

          “Make your first shot a killing blow, child,” the gryld hissed. “Or I will lay in my hollow tree and relive the memory of this murder every evening for the rest of my life.” It took a step forward, the spiked morning star heads moving faster.

          “Last warning,” she yelled. “Stay back!” She pretended to draw the string back and a glowing arrow and string of light appeared, along with a low hum from the bow. She released and the arrow of pure light flew true, slipping through the monster’s defenses and sinking into its soft mantle. It fell backward, cursing her species and swearing like a sailor.

          She cooked and ate it – that’s what the gryld would have done to her. The morning stars were much heavier than they looked – there were some dense metals on Imtrund that only mages-artisans could forge – so she buried the 4 of them in the back of the cave for when she was able to return one day. Testing out the bow she found that the string of light appeared every time she pantomimed drawing the bow, along with an arrow of light that looked almost like a brightly-lit diamond.

          As a test she drew the string back to her cheek and brushed the light arrow against the cave wall. The arrow scraped a slight furrow in the stone. When released the shaft moved as fast as any from the most powerful bows she had seen over the years.

The castles of Imtrund were full of treasures.

          She left the cave, a big orange quartz cluster in her bag, the sword in her belt and her new bow in hand, happy to be free of the place she had almost died in twice. Like a vampiric shark that smelled blood in the water and was hooked, she knew she could never ever return to a life of fishing or some sort of quiet marital bliss. The excitement of combat had been like nothing she had ever experienced. For the first time she had felt alive.

          Walking through the forest she feared no snake, no gryld and no reptile. When a pack of sinraptors attacked, circling her, she fired rapidly and accurately, their muscular, clawed limbs no match for her bow skills. The raptors fell, arrows protruding from their flesh for a second before fading away, only the wounds remaining. A pack of vulture demons confronted her, first requesting an alliance, then threatening her, then offering to make her princess of Imtrund in exchange for helping them destroy the city of Xonda. She had heard rumors that the demons knew one’s secrets – they could not read minds, only discern one’s innermost dreams. It gave the vulture-headed demons enough of an edge to make alliances with mages, kings and knights.

          Not her. She slew them all, putting arrows into their snouts and necks. They turned to maggots when they died, their blackened souls – ghastly shadow replicas of their former bodies – rising out of the maggoty piles and up to the firmament.

          It was a time of running through the forest and killing, sinraptors falling at her feet, dying in mid-leap. It wasn’t that the bow was any more powerful than the longbow of the Xonda palace guard. Her light arrows glanced off the armored carapace of a carnivorous snail and she had to strike the exposed neck to kill it. Later her light arrows bounced off the armor of a pack of wolf-men, her shafts scattering into mini-rainbows for a split second as the white light of the arrow split into the various hues of the color spectrum. The only reason she didn’t die under the blades of the wolf-men was that she got a few lucky shots in at their unarmored areas and the rest fled.

          Laying in the bough of a tall tree that night she stared up at the stars, reliving her battles and smiling at the carnage. She was a good person – kind, honorable, loyal, polite, well mannered and thirsting for combat. It was a contradiction, sure, but there was no denying her true nature. A friendly, courteous woman who brought death to the denizens of the forest that had hunted her kind in the past.

          What she needed was a dragon. A nice female orange dragon, the kind gods feared, to take her back and forth over Imtrund. She would outlaw war and destroy any army from dragon-back before it could march on another city. As princess of Imtrund she would establish a new city from scratch and fill it with glass statues, secret gardens, spiraling staircases, columns, pillars and majestic, slender towers that bulged at the top where the people lived. They would love her and she would ensure humans became the dominant lifeform on Imtrund.

          Morning came and she was irretrievably lost. She could not see the sun, so thick was the verdant foliage and giant fronds. Around her were mostly giant ferns, bereft of the branches required to climb them and so there was no way to rise above the forest canopy and see where the sun was. Smiling – telling herself there was nothing she couldn’t handle – she picked a random direction and walked, pushing past dew-laden flowers and yellow flowers that hosted one hummingbird after another. One day she would return to her village, rich and spoiled, a retinue of guards beside her. Never again would her parents have to fish.

          She strode through the forest and her arrogance got the better of her. A single female knight faced her on the trail, her entire body covered in silvery armor. Diodonna could tell that it was a woman from the slim waist, wide hips and curvy breastplate but the visored helmet hid all other details.

          With her bow in her left hand and her right hand at her side, Diodonna felt capable of taking on the world. “Hail, lady knight. I am princess Diodonna.”

          A deep, husky female laugh issued from the helmet. “I didn’t know Imtrund had a princess. Are you spoiled? If not, then you are no princess.” The armored figure walked toward her, the women about 10 feet away from each other.

          “Yes I’m spoiled,” replied Diodonna without thinking about it. “What is your name?”

          “I am Yatrista, granddaughter of Lord Ixo.” The armored knight walked closer, pushing past the fronds, creepers and damp vegetation.

          “Lord Ixo? Isn’t that a demon lord?”

          “It is,” snarled the woman. Diodonna’s bow was knocked from her hand and both women drew their swords. Diodonna swung rapidly to compensate for her lack of skill while the knight blocked with a series of expert maneuvers. Dio had no chance. The female knight was strong, skilled and quick. Hoping for a thrust through the silvery armor, Dio put everything she had into it.

          The female knight grabbed the incoming sword blade in her mailed grasp and slugged Dio with her other hand. With her hands tied in front of her and her bow and sword in the other’s possession, Diodonna was marched through the forest to a nearby encampment where 8 other female knights finished packing up. There Dio was tossed into the back of a wagon with a few humans, a tightly bound Forest Gryld and a tigertaur female. She was beautiful – her entire body covered in orange fur with black spots, tall and majestic. She too had her hands bound in front of her and looked like she had had the fight knocked out of her.

          The wagon was pulled by 4 sinraptors and with a crack of the whip it moved through the jungle, the 9 knights always on foot and never seeming to tire. 9 was a magical number on Imtrund – a god could have 9 knights and would die upon taking a 10th, mothers always died after giving birth to their 10th child, a person would truly die if he or she ever had the same dream 10 times, etc. These female knights just might be the servants of a demi-god or something of similar stature. At least they threw her bow and sword into a pack carried by one of the sinraptors pulling the wagon.

          Days passed and Dio never gave up. A daily cup of water, a steak every other day and dreams of freedom kept her strength up. Occasionally, at night, one of the prisoners would be taken out of the wagon, hung upside down and their throat slit. The 9 female knights placed a bucket under the corpse to catch the blood and they drank from it, passing it around until it was empty. Diodonna caught a glimpse of their faces for a split second and saw some beautiful women with luminous eyes, elongated ears and fangs. From the crest on the shields some of them carried Diodonna guessed they were paladins or clerics of Skandakor.

          Another week passed and they broke out of the forest, Diodonna still in the wagon, bound as always, thinking of her beautiful new bow. The wagon trundled past Ashilo and none of the travelers crossing their path offered to help in any way. Imtrund was a hard world and most people were preparing for the coming war. A few human clerics of Skandakor passed by, offering their blessings to the demon knights despite the fact that everyone knew that the reptilian god was arming the Saurians and helping them push mankind out of their cities and towns.

          The wagon finally stopped and some human men came in to examine the prisoners, checking for broken teeth and bite marks on their necks. Diodonna had none and was sold to village simpleton number one. During difficult times she had always made up names for people and that one fit perfectly. A deal was made for the weapons and the prisoners. Dio was hauled out of the wagon and untied. The brigand told one of the younger men to put the stringless gold bow in the storage building.

          Beside her was a crater, about 200 feet wide. The sides had been terraced with stone blocks to form concentric rows of seats, some of which were occupied by humans, lizardmen, saurians and a smattering of various taurs and humanoids. The bottom of the crater had been flattened and covered in sand. 20 marble columns rose from the center in a grid pattern. A staircase led down to the arena floor and a few buildings stood nearby. The people running it looked like typical human brigands.

          Dio was untied and her fighting skill tested. Her sword-fighting skills were poor – she had forgotten to train before becoming an adventurer. By now the demon knights had been paid in gold coins and left, off to get more slaves and weapons. Dio smiled – no brigand/village-idiot/weird smell generator was going to keep her bow. She just had to think it through.

          She asked for a bow and they gave her a light wood short bow. After impressing them with her archery skills they explained the situation to her. By signing her name to their book she would enter 1 year of slavery. In exchange for occasional fights in the arena she would receive a year of training, one weapon of her choice from the storage building – at that point they had her – and beer, food and water. She would be in the one building for females only which was guarded by 2 muscular female brigands. Dio met them and they eyed her up and down, promising to protect her if she entered into the contract.

          Life on Imtrund was not going well for humanity. Mages wielded awe-inspiring powers, the rivers were full of amphibians, some of them vampiric, and the Saurian Dynasty made no secret of their ambition to conquer Imtrund’s single continent.

          “I can pick any of these weapons?” she asked while eyeing the collection inside the storeroom. Her gaze slid over morning stars, jagged scimitars, shields, spear, a crossbow, various blades and her stringless bow.

          “Pick your weapon and sign the book,” said the female guard. “If you are still alive in 1 year you keep your weapon and receive 10 gold pieces. You will be a gladiator at that point and can open your own weapons school, train the King’s men, become an adventurer or anything you like. You just have to survive occasional battles for a year.”

          “What if someone wants to steal the weapon I choose?”

          The female guard laughed. “I won’t let that happen. One of the reasons we have so many applicants is that we enforce our rules. You keep the one weapon you choose.”

          Diodonna smiled and took her stringless gold bow off the shelf. It was warm and hummed slightly in her hand. She signed on the dotted line, relieved that she would receive a year of expensive training for free. They handed her a bowstring which she put in her pocket. In truth she had no fear they would steal her bow after she signed her name to the book. Breaking 9 promises killed the oath-breaker, so strong were the rules of magic on Imtrund. A man had once gained healing powers after pulling 9 people out of post-quake rubble and a woman in her old village had gained the ability to speak with fish after catching and releasing 9 deep-sea octopi. People on Imtrund, of all races, rarely broke an oath.

          Diodonna bathed in a wide wood barrel, combing the brambles out of her thick hair with a little jade comb they provided her with. Once clean she pulled on a simple white velvet shift, a leather belt and white satin gloves. They handed her a short sword in a filigreed scabbard which she secured to her belt.

          One of the female bandits approached, introduced herself as Svetlanakos and offered to spend a few minutes giving her the gift of love, just in case Dio died in battle later. There was something off about Svetlanakos – smooth skin, no missing teeth, no scars like the other women, no oversized muscles from a life of banditry and fighting. The woman’s eyes were a strange light purple, bright and beautiful. Then Dio realized what she was facing – a Sadness Succubus. To spend the evening with it was to endure several days of sorrow. Dio shook her head and the succubus turned away in disappointment.

          In one year, just one year of occasional arena battles, Dio would be a gladiator. She beamed with excitement, at least until she figured how they broke a promise without triggering the naturally occurring retribution of Imtrund. The word occasional meant something different to everyone and was vague enough not to qualify as a broken oath. Diodonna learned to never again accept such vague language in a contract.

          A few minutes after bathing and girding for war she entered her first battle. They pitted her against 3 men with long swords – smiles on their faces as they watched her take up position with a stringless bow. The men sauntered forward, laughing, their long blades over their shoulders. She raised her bow, pulled back the imaginary string and both an arrow and string of light appeared. The first man took an arrow to the thigh – she would not kill them if they would but run.

          The remaining 2 men charged, screaming with anger and fear, both of them taking an arrow to the chest before they reached her. A few seconds later the light arrow disappeared from their bodies. The 1 man she let live was dragged off by the succubus Svetlanakos.

          An hour later she was back in the arena, facing a pack of wild dogs, the half-starved animals stalking her, staying behind the pillars, advancing behind cover and providing more of a challenge than the men from earlier. Killing dogs made her feel awful but they hungered for her flesh and would have killed her.

          Word spread. The next day saw the amphitheater half-filled with citizens of Ashilo, men and women eager for the distraction of another’s death. A cage was dragged in and a slave inserted a key, opened the door and ran. Sadly, his legs did not carry him fast enough. A slick tongue shot forth, stuck onto his naked back and dragged him back into the cage where he was devoured by a Ka’vodga.

          The oversized amphibian – they normally didn’t grow that big – emerged from the cage on muscular legs and tasted the air with its tongue. By staying behind the pillars it was able to get close to her without being impaled by her arrows. Diodonna moved backward, keeping the distance between them, the amphibian and the girl maneuvering as one tried to advance behind cover and the other tried to maintain the separation. Eventually the Ka’vodga emerged from behind the pillar and advanced in leaps and bounds. Dio put a score of arrows into its neck and it fell at her feet, croaking audibly while its long tongue lay in the sand.

          There were no swordsmen that could best her as long as she held her gold bow. Despite little formal training she was a natural with the weapon. They put her up against 5 female archers the next day, all human and all too beautiful to die. The battle lasted hours, the crowd roaring with delight as the women dueled, firing arrows and ducking behind cover. The pillars were pockmarked from the battle, even her opponent’s regular arrows digging into the marble. A hot wind blew sand over them while they fought for their lives. One by one Diodonna killed them, slaying those that could have been her sisters if not for the desire of each of them to acquire fame and wealth.

          At first the arena masters were angry at Dio for costing them money each time she killed her opponents. That changed when the amphitheater was filled and the arena masters were flush with coin. Dio saw her parents in the stands and they cheered as she slew one wild animal after another in a 3-hour long war against wolves, emaciated sinraptors and snake-headed men.

          Later that night, while Dio lay in her bed, a female guard that had become friends with her sat in the darkness and talked.

          “Where do snake-headed men come from?” asked Diodonna. “I’ve heard conflicting stories.”

          “My sister is a cabalist, studying under some mages in Xonda,” said the guard as she stretched, her muscles bulging for a few seconds. “They cut the head off a prisoner. They cut a snake in half. They stick the snake-head in the human neck and an evil cleric casts a healing spell. If successful a hybrid is made. I’ve seen captured clerics of Obeliskos cast the healing spell, to save the life of a friend.”

          “What is the difference between a cleric, a paladin and a knight?” asked Dio, remembering when a minor ocean goddess offered to make her a paladin.

          “Knights are the most powerful. A god can only have 9 of them. Once, a major god thought one of his fallen knights was dead and took another. The god died. Even they can only have 9. A good thing, perhaps, as knights gain strange powers, unique to each god. Paladins can exist in any number but don’t have as much power, mostly healing spells and killing spells, depending on if you serve a good or evil god. Clerics and witches are more for either healing, summoning elementals and speaking to animals, that sort of thing.”

          To Dio the conversation was no info dump – she loved learning about the world she lived in. They talked late into the night and when Diodonna fell asleep the guard pulled the blanket up to her chin and crept out.

Some of the gladiators had become wealthy and displayed their treasure

          The next day – her parents in the stands, watching her, waving her favorite childhood stuffed animal – she fought the Scanthi Marauders. About a year ago 11 men from Scanthi – the small town northwest of Ashilo – grew tired of tilling the soil and took up arms instead. They roamed the empty wastes of Imtrund, preying upon their own people, stealing coins from their victims and killing the various groups sent to apprehend them. One of them built a temple to Skandakor, knelt in supplication and received some decent powers from the reptilian god dedicated to wiping out humanity. That bandit could heal or kill with a touch. Eventually they found their way to the arena and the fight between Dio and the Scanthi Marauders drew a huge crowd.

          By now Diodonna – confident, relaxed and vain about her burgeoning physical beauty – had trained for several weeks and easily took them out with trick shots. She shot swords out of their hands, she shot a man’s mahogany bow and snapped it, she shot multiple arrows out of the air in mid-flight and she put a few arrows into the eye slits of their steel helmets.

          The next day Diodonna slew 20 men in an epic, 7-hour battle, the combatants moving in and out from the cover provided by the pillars, the men firing crossbows at her and throwing knives. Diodonna fought resolutely and earned a considerable amount of money for her masters. Realizing the money maker they had on their hands, they had a minotaur – Solanus, from the Forest of Grief – teach her sword combat. Diodonna and the minotaur became friends and soon fought side by side, protecting each other in the arena. Something told her they were going to have many adventures together.