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Final Exam

By Guy · Sep 29, 2013 ·
  1. Just a short story I wrote some time ago. The world is of my own making and the Amazons in it are not those of Greek myth. They are their own race, in the same way dwarves and elves are their own races.

    Tatyana and her three mentors were the only people in the large, dark training hall. Blue incense smoke rose from a brazier that stood between student and masters.
    “Your training is nearly complete,” Aisha said to Tatyana. Aisha was her eldest mentor, her long braided hair more grey than brown, her build lean and sinewy. “There is but one task left.”
    “What task is that?” Tatyana asked.
    “Every candidate for Morriganian must face her own unique challenge,” said Ilsa, the youngest of her mentors. She had dark red hair and dark eyes.
    “What is mine?”
    “Go and wander the mountain passes,” Kassa told her. She had a net of scars covering perhaps a third of her face. Consequently, she had many suitors. “You will know it when you see it.”
    That had been several weeks ago. Tatyana was now on the eastern side of the Ophirees Mountains and her patience was wearing thin. She’d completed all requirements to win the title of Morrigania except for this final task that stood between her and her goal, and she was anxious to conquer it, like a race horse pawing at the starting line. Screams drew her attention. Some sounded doomed. Others sounded joyous. She rounded a bend and saw their source.
    A band of travelers had come under attack. Indeed, the attack was still underway. The attackers were a small group of bandits, six men wearing a hodgepodge of scavenged armor and brandishing a variety of weapons. As she drew closer, Tatyana saw the caravan’s armed escort had been too few in number. Their bodies were strewn about the wagons, killed by axe and sword. The six bandits cavorted about, exulting in the helplessness of their victims, all of whom were wearing simple grey vestments.
    Her mentors had been maddeningly unspecific about her final challenge, but she felt a certain pull towards the scene before her. She studied the situation as she devised a solution as to how a single warrior could best six. She held a short spear in her hands, about two thirds her height, a weapon her people called a brynthvari, a short, heavy thing with a four edged head that tapered to a nasty point and was meant for stabbing rather than throwing, its weight meant to help it penetrate armor. Sheathed on her back was a double-bladed battle axe, its blades long and wicked, and a large fighting knife was on her right hip. She wore simple leather armor, for she’d been in the snowy mountain passes, where steel armor would simply freeze her that much quicker, though her armor was white to help her blend in.
    To the seven hells with it, she thought as she hefted her spear and started forward.
    She was perhaps fifty feet away from the nearest bandit when they noticed her. They immediately stopped what they were doing and focused entirely on her. It was difficult not to. They saw a woman who towered a full seven feet in height, her hair long and blonde, and her large yellow eyes had vertical feline slits for pupils. She smiled a greeting at them, revealing a mouthful of wicked porcelain fangs.
    “An Amazon,” spat one of the men. He had black hair, a black beard, black eyes and a black expression.
    “Then her head will be worth a sack of gold!” another cried and came for her.
    Tatyana’s position was deceptive; her spear was pointed behind her and the iron shod butt was pointed at her enemy. Certain he’d caught her off guard, he came sailing in on a great cloud of confidence, his sword coming in to cleaver her forehead. Tatyana used the butt end of her spear to knock his blade aside, the motion naturally swinging her spear blade into the side of his skull with enough force to spin him around before dropping him.
    She stepped around him and advanced on the next one in line. He swung the spiked ball of his flail at her, but she jerked herself out of the way, moving with a speed and suppleness he thought her size made impossible. As the heavy head of his weapon jerked him out of position, she stabbed down at him with a powerful overhand stab, the four edged blade ripping through the links of his mail armor, entering him through his right shoulder blade and emerging from his left rib cage. She got his body off her spear by swinging her weapon over her shoulder. His body slid off and flopped to the ground ten feet behind her. She stepped forward and brought her raised weapon down on a third bandit’s skull, smashing both his helmet and the head it failed to protect.
    She advanced on the next one, who was armed with sword and shield. He raised his shield as she came. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips as she thrust her spear forward. It smashed right through the planks of his shield and into his chest deeply enough to graze his spinal column. Her spear had done its job too well, though, and was lodged in his body. The remaining two meant to catch her before she could pull it free.
    Tatyana would need a second to free her spear, but that would be one second too many. She released the haft and drew her axe, advancing on the one on her left. He tried to cleave her skull, but she caught his blade between hers and twisted, wrenching his sword out of his hands. She then stepped to her left, around him, and placed him between his companion and herself before she brought an axe blade down upon his shoulder, cleaving into his chest. As he fell, Tatyana faced the last man.
    He was quick. He drew his dagger and threw it at her face. She smacked it aside with the faces of her blades, but the man was coming right behind his knife, his sword thrusting for her belly. With one hand near the base of her axe haft and the other up under the blades, Tatyana used the haft to shove his blade aside, her blades low and the butt of the haft high. She stepped around him, her long stride and the momentum of his charge conspiring to place her behind him. Her axe edge struck the man in his left shoulder and stopped in his left hip, lodging in it so when he fell his body nearly wrenched the weapon from her grasp.
    Tatyana recovered her weapons and used a piece of a dead man’s tunic to wipe her blades clean, regarding the people she’d rescued as she did so. There were a dozen of them, all men. They looked back, openly gawking at her.
    “Is what he said true?” one of them, a tall gangly scarecrow of a man, asked. “Are you an Amazon?”
    “I am,” she nodded as she watched him.
    “I thought Amazons were smaller,” he said suspiciously.
    “The Durganians are,” Tatyana told her. “I’m a Veranian. We are mountain folk, and we’re a bit more robust than our Durganian sisters of the steppes.”
    “I never heard of Amazons travelling alone.”
    “Morriganians travel however they please.”
    “You have our thanks, whatever race you are,” another said as he came forward. He had short blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard. “Might we have the pleasure of the name of our rescuer?”
    “Well met, Tatyana. I am Gannon.”
    “What manner of expedition is this? You’re all dressed alike, no women or children among you. Who are you?”
    “We are Piatist priests, travelling to the west to preach the holy word.”
    Tatyana’s face hardened.
    “Your order is none too fond of my people.”
    “Be that as it may, we need a guide, and you seem to know these mountains. Could you help us get through the passes? None of us have ever been this way, and with our escort gone I fear we wouldn’t survive the week.”
    “Gannon,” the scarecrow said, “have you gone mad? How do we know we can trust her? Who is this… this creature who simply appears out of nowhere to help us and asks nothing in return? Just what does she have in mind?”
    “Perhaps you think you’ll get a better offer today,” Gannon replied.
    “I’ll take no barbs from you, Gannon,” the man said. “First she said she was a Veranian. Then she tells us she’s a Morriganian. She’s a lying demoness leading us into a trap!”
    The others stopped what they were doing and looked at him.
    “What he says is true,” one of the others said. “She did say that. And why is she so eager to help us? And she demands nothing of us?”
    “The sacred texts tell us to beware, for the Kingdom of the Lie is subtle and ceaseless,” the scarecrow continued. “She demands nothing of us because she will lead us into a trap! Perhaps she has a place of sacrifice in those mountain passes and means to offer us up to Neferseth himself!”
    They shuddered and made signs of protection. Tatyana sighed, none too thrilled with the thought of sharing the company of those who actively preached against her people. She knew the task she would have to achieve to become a fully-fledged Morriganian would be challenging, but she’d had visions of fighting some grand battle or a mighty foe, not enduring a long, steady dose of simple aggravation. She fixed her gaze on the gawky speaker. The man’s large Adam’s apple bobbed. He had huge ears that begged to be grabbed and a huge nose that cried out to be smashed by a rising knee. She could not begrudge them being cautious about strangers, but being suspect even after she’d saved them kindled her anger.
    “Veranians are a race of Amazons” Tatyana told him. “Morriganians are a class. And if I wanted you dead I hardly need trouble myself with plots of leading you off into some lonely mountain pass. I could just kill you right now.”
    “You see? She threatens us!”
    Tatyana silently regarded him, her anger was further stoked, before she replied.
    “I have passed tests that would turn your guts to cold gruel, little man. I have no need to prove myself, least of all to a yapping dog like you. I must return through the mountains, so either come with me and have me as a guide and guard, or stay here to freeze or be butchered by the next party of bandits to come along. It matters not to me.”
    “You must forgive Fisk,” Gannon told Tatyana. “He is a man of rather strong passions.”
    “Of course he is,” she sighed.
    Do I truly want to saddle myself with these people?
    “I beg of you, Tatyana. Please help us. We have no one else.”
    She did not know what mechanism decided the challenge a Morriganian candidate would face, for it was a closely guarded secret, but whatever it was it had been pure genius in this case. Mighty foes and desperate battles she could cope with. Indeed, she embraced them. She had no patience with zealots, and she despised ingrates as she despised cowards and traitors.
    But she was on the threshold of achieving her dream. Every little Amazon girl dreams of becoming a great warrior. Tatyana had dreamt beyond that. She dreamt of becoming a Morriganian. But one cannot volunteer. One has to be chosen for the honor, and she had been chosen and endured training that turned other Amazons pale. She had done all that was required. She had only this last challenge keeping her from her dream.
    “Very well,” she said at last. “I will guide you. Gather only what you need and what you can carry.”
    That was easy enough, for they had little enough in the way of worldly possessions. Brynthvari in hand, Tatyana set off west, back the way she had come. She soon had to stop to let her party catch up. Her stride was long and her lungs were acclimated to the mountains, but her charges were gasping for breath, and even the tallest of them, Fisk, was still a good ten inches shorter than Tatyana and still too short to match her length of stride.
    She located a small copse of trees that was somewhat sheltered from the wind perhaps half an hour before sundown. They used the day’s last light to gather firewood. It was full dark before they finished their small meal, wrapped in blankets or furs. Gannon sat next to Tatyana.
    “Exactly why did you help us?” he asked. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but you can see we’re poor, so you can’t expect payment, and you obviously don’t crave our company.”
    Tatyana spent a moment gathering her thoughts.
    “Amazons are widely renowned warriors, but among them are Morriganians, elite warriors superior even to other Amazons. Elder Morriganians keep a close watch on all the warriors and carefully select those who could join their ranks.”
    “And they chose you?”
    “They did, but I am not yet a full Morriganian. I have completed my training, but to be awarded the title I must meet a final challenge.”
    “What challenge?”
    “It varies. Every Morriganian undergoes a challenge unique to her. My mentors simply told me to wander the mountain passes until I found it. They told me I’d know it when I saw it.”
    “And you think guiding us is to be your challenge?”
    “I knew it the moment I saw you. I was expecting some epic battle against an invincible foe, but I suppose that wouldn’t be a proper challenge. We love things like that. They don’t frighten us. The only possible outcomes are victory or glorious death, both of which Amazons crave, whereas -”
    “Must we continue to listen to this childish boasting?” Fisk sighed.
    “ – enduring zealots and ingrates” she gestured at Fisk, “without payment or the pleasure of hacking them into pudding certainly is a challenge.”
    “If your order was so grand it would require no boasting,” Fisk sniffed. “The Kingdom of the Truth never does, only the Kingdom of the Lie.”
    “I asked her a question, Fisk,” Gannon said. “She was merely answering.”
    “And you believed her? How can you? Look at her. No servant of the Kingdom of Truth could look so demonic. Obviously she serves Neferseth and the Kingdom of the Lie.”
    “I cannot serve something I don’t believe exists,” Tatyana pointed out, suppressing her natural irritation with Fisk.
    “How can you say such?”
    “Because I don’t walk your path, Fisk. The gods of my people are Asura the Sky Father and Bahna the Earth Mother. Neferseth does not fit into any of that.”
    “You do not accept the Blessed Father as your master? You do not accept Piat as his one true prophet?”
    “Who is this Blessed Father? Does your god not have a name?”
    “To name him is to place limits on him,” a young Piatist with dark hair and eyes spoke up. “It would be blasphemy.”
    “Well answered, acolyte,” Fisk said, like a man praising his dog for fetching his slippers.
    Tatyana’s brow furrowed.
    “Your god refuses to do you the simple courtesy of giving you his name because he fears you might place limits on him? What sort of god fears mortals?”
    “The Blessed Father owes no mortal any explanation,” Fisk replied stiffly. “Faith is our duty.”
    “Oh,” Tatyana said. “Well, to answer your original question, no, I do not accept this Blessed Father as my master. And my people have no need for prophets.”
    “Anyone who does not humble himself before the Blessed Father is not of the Kingdom of the Truth. Therefore, you must serve the Kingdom of the Lie. So Piat has spoken.”
    “So Piat has spoken,” echoed the others.
    “Asura and Bahna have been good to my people, and they don’t require us to toss aside our dignity. And any god that doesn’t trust me with his name doesn’t deserve my devotion. Indeed, a being that requires people to crawl before it while it won’t even give me its name sounds like something a servant of the Kingdom of the Lie would do.”
    They stirred and muttered, like a hive about to swarm. Fisk’s face turned red, then darkened to purple.
    “You dare spew such blasphemies!”
    Tatyana smiled.
    “Outrage is the only counter you have to my argument?”
    “You impudent, blasphemous wench! Such insolence can only come from the spawn of Neferseth himself! How dare you –“
    “And that,” Tatyana said, returning her attention to Gannon, “is the challenge: saving necks I’d rather slit.”
    Gannon smiled at her.
    “And so Piat also says to love all, forgive their mistakes and in so doing usher them into the Kingdom of the Truth.”
    “You’re saying you forgive me for not believing as you do and allowing me to save your lives? Gods be praised! Now I may sleep well tonight!”
    “No, Tatyana,” he replied, laughing. “I’m saying perhaps you’re more like a true Piatist than you know.”
    Tatyana’s face hardened.
    “That, Gannon, is nothing to joke about.”
    “Is it such a grand insult?” Gannon asked her.
    “In my experience Piatists have no love or compassion for anyone or anything not of their creed, never mind anyone who isn’t their species. They are fanatics. Fanaticism requires willful ignorance and deliberate stupidity, neither of which I can abide. I see no reason why I should have anything but hate for those who hate me.”
    “Yet you help us.”
    “I’ve explained why.”
    “Yes,” Fisk said. “You wish to gain admittance to your dark sisterhood, not from any desire to help us.”
    Tatyana shrugged. “The final reason anyone does anything is for gain. Did you ask me to guide you because you love my company? No, you needed something I could provide, and I was there at the time. Likewise, you were available to provide something I need.”
    “We serve only the Blessed Father,” Fisk assured her.
    “Why? Because…”
    “Because you fear eternal punishment if you don’t. Or you fear the disapproval of your people. Or it helps you assure yourself you’re a good person. But ultimately, like everyone else, your motives are selfish.”
    Fisk shook his head as he said, “Only a creature of the Kingdom of the Lie could believe such rot. But what can we expect from someone whose very race is an affront the Blessed Father’s holy word? Women taking up arms, enslaving their men, devouring them in orgiastic feasts.”
    Tatyana could only stare at him in baffled incomprehension.
    “Where,” she finally said in a voice dripping with contempt, “do you get such bizarre notions?”
    “It is common knowledge,” Fisk said with a dismissive wave.
    Tatyana looked at him, her yellow viper’s eyes glittering in the firelight. Fisk tried to be bold.
    Courage, he told himself. You wear the armor of the Blessed Father.
    Still, he couldn’t help shrinking a bit before her inhuman gaze.
    “You were misinformed,” Tatyana finally said. “Our men gravitate towards quieter pursuits; scholars, sorcerers, priests, administrators. We love and value them. They are our husbands, our fathers, our sons and our brothers. They offer us their seed to grow strong daughters and wise sons. They guide and teach us, and we hold them in highest esteem.” Her eyes wandered over them. “But I can’t help noticing the total absence of women in your group.”
    “Women are too soft-headed for the priesthood,” Fisk told her. “They are slaves to their passions, and influence men to be the same. They lack discipline and wit.”
    Tatyana could only look at him. His words were like the yapping of a small dog, a simple thing that went right up her spine and pricked her every nerve.
    How could someone so oblivious survive to adulthood, she wondered. Everything about him made Tatyana want to apply her axe to him, vigorously and repeatedly. She sighed as she sat back, gazing at the sky.
    It would be so easy, some part of her mind whispered. I could simply get up and walk away and to the seven hells with them. Let them freeze, let the beasts devour them, let the ravens pick their bones.
    No, another part of her answered. I’ve come too far, endured too much, passed too many tests that would’ve destroyed lesser souls to quit now. No, she thought, her spirit sinking its grip into granite-like resolve. It is time for this to end and for me to be dubbed a Morriganian. Nothing short of the end of the world itself will stop me, least of all these gadflies.
    She was the first one awake the next morning. She got a fire going and woke the others.
    “Eat quickly,” she told them. “We’ve no time to waste.”
    “Why the hurry?” Fisk asked, suspicious.
    “You’ve waited too long to cross the mountains. Winter will set in soon, and believe me, little man, you do not want to be caught in the passes when the snows come.”
    “Yet you’re wandering alone up here,” he pointed out, his suspicions undisguised.
    “For one thing, I know how to survive winter in the mountains. More importantly, though, I am on the threshold of being inducted into the elite of my people. I’ve only this one task to complete. I’ll certainly not run and shame myself now.”
    “You’d risk death to win this goal?”
    “Gladly,” she replied, pride briefly flaring in her eyes. “But if we keep blathering winter shall come and you would be in far more jeopardy than I, so let us be on our way.”
    They continued on, Tatyana being forced to hold their pace to what she considered to be almost suicidally slow. Tatyana insisted they eat their midday meal as they travelled to make up for their slow pace. She chewed a piece of dried meat as she watched the grey skies, trying to gauge their chances for making it through the passes before the snows came.
    “Wondering where your fellow demons are?” Fisk asked. He’d seen the calculating look in her eyes. Tatyana looked from the sky to him, resisting the urge to strike him.
    “Fisk, if you truly find my company so objectionable, then, by all means, leave and go your own way. No one is holding a blade to your throat.”
    Fisk wavered, considering it. Then a snowflake drifted down between them. Both of them looked up and saw more flakes coming down. Tatyana returned her gaze to Fisk.
    “Well, Fisk, what is it to be?”
    He didn’t move. Tatyana gave him a mocking laugh.
    “So, despite all your lofty judgments, my demonic company is acceptable when your neck is on the chopping block.” She turned to the others. “We must hasten.”


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