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The Future of the Heldannic Knightsby Bruce Heard
In the wake of their ignominious defeat at the hands of the leonine rakasta, leadership of the Knights feels the need to commune and atone. Perhaps with age and wisdom, Rolf von Klagendorf and his closest officers begin to feel a need to review their ways. A sentiment of failure seems to prevail among them. Bad moral among the Knights has begun weakening faith and discipline.
Herr Rolf summons his commanders. Following a ceremony of communion, it appears to them that they need to refocus their goal and redefine their philosophy. Up to now, the Heldannic Knights have been driven by the desire for colonial expansion and territorial conquest, regardless of the nature of their opponents, their right to the land, and the realm's legitimacy. Although they have expanded their military power, they have not strengthened the influence of their faith among the people of Mystara. In fact, they have accomplished quite the opposite. As it turns out, Vanya's ways have become increasingly alien to the ideals of the Heldannic Knights. The latter picture themselves as disciplined and rational. Their Immortal patron on the other hand has been more of a Chaotic Neutral influence. This is becoming more evident to Herr Rolf and the Heldannic commanders, and everyone agrees that the Order is at risk of suffering a dangerous schism. On one side are the ones with doubts about Vanya and a sagging faith, on the other are those blinded with faith and loyalty to the Order. The word "reform" comes up often during the endless palaver among the Knights.
And Vanya listens, quietly, through an unknown avatar. She broods. Dark clouds gather above the Order Sanctum Sanctorum.
The Knights break up their talks for a day of meditation and prayers. Word of the malaise at the top slowly filters down to the troops. The warriors are restless. Over the ensuing days some unrest flares up, at first in the Citadel of Freiburg, slowly rippling toward the outposts. Commanders rally their troops, priests summon their disciples for a day of prayer at the temples, but already some defection takes place. Initially, a few isolated cases take place among garrisons. But then one of the warbirds involved in the great battle against the Simbasta, "Das Sturmkondor", breaks off contact with the Order. In all evidence, it has fallen victim to the unspeakable. The news of a mutiny hit Freiburg like a roll of thunder.
Herr Rolf summons his commanders once more. The talks begin anew. A decision must be made without delay for the sake of the entire Order. Tempers and threats flare up. Swords are drawn. Herr Rolf suddenly invokes a column of flames to strike the centre of hall. Everyone steps back, in awe and fear. The flames disappear as quickly as they came. Herr Rolf addresses his commanders.
"My Companions and Brothers, this dispute has gone far enough. The time for change has come. Our quarrel will serve only to destroy the Order. Put back your swords and your words of anger, for I know now what Our Path shall be."
A lightning flashes outside the citadel's great tower. A storm begins to blow in from the sea. Vanya is restless. She replays in her mind a meeting in Pandius, moments ago. Ixion had summoned her there, along with a few other Immortals. She remembers his words when she came in, "It would seem that your pawns are giving you grief, Vanya. Perhaps we should talk?" They had discussed about the chaos that a break-up of the Heldannic Order may cause in the Known World. Entropy would have a field day, and if nothing was done, Vanya would lose the Heldannic Knights anyway. So it was decided Vanya would still be the leader of the Knights in matters of war, but that other Immortals would help balance the Order. The goal is to set the knights as a counterweight to the chaotic schemes of Entropic Immortals in particular. Following the Great War between Alphatia, Thyatis, and Glantri, it had become clear that fiends were even more at work on Mystara than ever before. The Knights would make it their goal to seek them out and oppose their evil plans wherever possible. If this meant war, so be it...
Her Rolf, enlightened during his days of communion, reveals his plan to the Knights. The scribes rewrite the Order's charter. New laws are edicted almost overnight. What comes out of the reform is an order that is more clearly aligned toward Lawful-Neutrality (just plain lawful for basic D&D). Their patron is still Vanya -- but in name only. In fact their faith becomes a generic philosophy that answers to a pool of Immortals, including Vanya. What motivates the Knights is the destruction of chaos- spawning creatures (such as lycanthropes, undead, and assorted tanarri for example -- just plain fiends in basic D&D terms). What means they use for this remains irrelevant, which leaves it open for the Heldannic Knights to use fire against fire (these aren't exactly your paladin types). This may cause the Knights to start a war if they feel there is a good reason for such. For example, if a distant nation is thought to willingly harbour chaos worshippers of Entropy, it would validate a move to conquer its land and forcibly convert the local faith to that of the Order.
Meanwhile, Herr Rolf and several top commanders begin a great quest for atonement and to reforge their new faith in themselves and in their "new patrons". They and a retinue of a few veteran knights leave Freiburg on the illustrious "Blitzenadler", heading for the Savage Coast. They have had visions of an exceedingly evil creature, a dragon called Pyre. Their quest is to prove their worth and their mettle in destroying Pyre and bringing her possessions to Freiburg. For this, the Knights obtain Glantrian amulets to resist the effect of the Savage Coast's curse. Herr Rolf leaves behind a trusted and able caretaker whose mission is to purge the Order of its unstable elements, and recapture the runaway "Sturmkondor".
Its crew has landed the ship and hidden it, expecting its levitating powers to be cut off from its artifact source (which happened a few days after it ceased to communicate with Freiburg). They have secured support from Glantrian wizards to enchant its hull so the Sturmkondor can fly independently from Vanya's artifact. Meanwhile, they search for those who left the Order, trying to enlist their services to oppose the Heldannic Order whenever they can. In their eyes, it is a soul-less and basically evil military organisation. Their mission is to create problems and divide the knights as much as possible. They begin making overtures to heads of states who have had problems with the Heldannic Knights in the past.
So Herr Rolf leaves aboard the Blitzenadler, westbound to the Savage Coast. He and his companions have all been chosen for their visions of Pyre, an evil dragon, a notorious spawn of chaos known to reside somewhere in a thick, ruddy forest. The Knights pieced their visions together and they now know enough to set sail toward Eusdria, a distant nation with whom the Knights have had prior contact.
At last they reach Othmar, the capital city of Eusdria. The Knights' clues allude to several possible locations where to seek Pyre. Leaving a token force on the Blitzenadler, the knights part ways, each investigating leads fanning out from Eusdria. Months go by.
Meanwhile, Otton Waldmarck, the caretaker of the Order in Freiburg pursues his mission with growing zeal. At first, deserters are hunted down and punished. The poor fellows are branded on the forehead with a red-hot iron. Then they receive a life sentence of hard labour at the holy citadel in Davania to atone for their lack of faith. Then Herr Otton conducts further purges, rooting out those suspected of weak faith. Everyone is watched. Paranoia prevails where zeal doesn't.
Elsewhere, a new Order is born. Under their new leader, Dalgaard Gustavson, the Wolves of Heldann swear to overthrow the Heldannic oppressor from the ancient Heldann Freeholds. Using untold treasures in the Sturmkondor's hold, they pay off Glantrian mages royally for a new enchantment of the warbird's hull. They lift anchor to seek out those the much hated Otton hasn't yet tormented or eliminated. Slowly, they weave a web of intrigue around the Knights.
In the Savage Coast, one by one, the Knights find their lead to the Pyre's lair. One at a time, the Knights fall before the dreaded wyrm. Herr Rolf finally arrives, as Pyre takes her time to gloat over the fate of a fallen Knight. As she prepares to strike the final blow, Rolf surprises here. He had been ready, poised to strike with magic and the finest steel that man can forge. He knows of Pyre's Ebon Eye and avoids gazing at Pyre's head. The dragon is badly wounded and escapes. Rolf summons the Blitzenadler at once to pursue the beast.
In Othmar, early that morning, another warbird had appeared over the city's hazy skies. The Blitzenadler's crew noticed the arrival and flew the welcome pennant. Suddenly, foreign colours rose at the visitor's main mast. It was the Sturmkondor. It dove on the Heldannic warbird's berth. The crew had little time to react as the Sturmkondor's blightbelchers ravaged the Knight's ship. Eusdrian archers attempted as best as they could to shower the swooping aggressor with flaming arrows. Alas, the Blitzenadler was soon reduced to an unsalvageable wreck. None of the crew survived. The Wolves of Heldann left as quickly as they had appeared. It was only days later that three more warbirds appeared, tracking down the path of the rebel ship. They learned of the Blitzenadler's fate, and decided to return to Freiburg and report. There were no news of Herr Rolf and his companions in Eusdria since they had left.
Otton learns of the Wolves' attack in Othmar with great anger. Sputtering in his rage, he has the crew of the three warbirds cast in iron to pay for their incompetence. He then orders a ceremony to pay homage to the fallen comrades... including Herr Rolf and his companions whom he assumes have perished in their quest. Soon thereafter, he contrives to become the new Grand Master of the Order.
Herr Rolf, meanwhile, gathers some of Pyre's treasures and hides the rest. He is intent on pursuing his quest, alone if necessary. So he moves on, without contacting the Knights. In his prayers he learns of Pyre's location. She has fled to the Wyrmsteeth Range. With his newly acquired wealth, he books passage on a gnomish flying city by the name of Serraine. He leaves the gnomes at the foothills of the Wyrmsteeth. While exploring the mountains, he unveils what seems to him like a city of gigantic proportions. Soon the truth dawns upon him that its citizens are dragons. He stays clear, knowing death would befall anyone entering. Instead, he quietly explores the outskirts for weeks, driven to the limits of human endurance by his quest. The weeks turn into months. His priestly magic allows him to survive the mountains' terrible hardship. Everything else, he steals from unoccupied lairs, including several items peculiar to dragons. He learns much the ways of the dragons while in these lands. He knows Pyre is nearby, but still can't find her.
In desperation, Rolf comes up with a scheme he hopes will force Pyre out of the Wyrmsteeth Range. He knows that a young dragon, Kindling, lives nearby. He also knows that this dragon is the son of a powerful dragon liege in these lands. Rolf had been observing the comings and goings of Kindling for some time. Following a hunch, he decides to stalk the young Kindling as it heads east, toward Norwold lowlands. Soon after reaching the foothills of the Wyrmsteeth Range, Kindling lands and assumes a human shape. Rolf decides to approach the dragon on the following day. He tricks Kindling in sharing food, which he had heavily laced with a powerful substance stolen from a lair. The substance caused Kindling to enter into a sleeping trance lasting several months. Rolf hides the body, returns to the Draconic City's outskirts, and leaves a note underneath a shiny trinket. Surely, a dragon would see this fairly soon.
The note said this: "I, the Grand Master of the Heldannic Order, Lord of Freiburg and the Holy Citadel, accuse the dragon nation of the Wyrmsteeth Range to harbour and nurture a spawn of Chaos by the name of Pyre. She has committed crimes against humankind and she must pay the price. People of the Wyrmsteeth, I command you to expel the one Pyre and submit her to the justice of those she so hideously wronged. I, Grand Master of the Order, speak in her victims' behalf. Should you refuse, be it known to all that I hold Kindling as a hostage. No harm will be done to this young dragon but he will be held until Pyre is delivered to Freiburg to receive her judgement."
Herr Rolf quickly leaves. Outside the Wyrmsteeth Range, he secures a mount, loads the human-shaped body of Kindling, rolled in blankets on a mule, and begins his voyage back south to Freiburg.
Soon the dragons discover the note. Honour among their kind prevents them from complying with Rolf's note (provided they could even force Pyre at all). A large number of dragons take off at once for Freiburg, hoping to intimidate the Knights. The population of Freiburg, in terror at the sight of several hundred dragons, flees and all directions. The dragons seem to lay siege to Freiburg, as they land outside the city. Herr Otton, puzzled by the sudden arrival, summons all warbirds to the capital. Several warbirds already hold their position above the great citadel, blightbelchers ready for battle. Herr Otton sends out a messenger to inquire about the dragons' presence. He ends up speaking with younger dragons lurking close to Freiburg. The messenger returns with various sarcastic or nonsensical answers about "spawns of chaos" but nothing constructive. Believing this to be a test of the Immortals and the dragons minions of entropy, Rolf rallies the troops for a sortie. He orders the warbirds forward as the heavy cavalry thunders out the city gates toward the closest dragons. The knights charge, singing their battle hymn. A short but brutal battle follows as the warbirds badly wound several dragons with their opening shots. Their elders order them to retreat, fearing retribution against Kindling whom they believe to be imprisoned inside the citadel. The younger, hot-headed dragons at first ignore the commands of their elders and engage these upstart humans. The knights suffer many casualties before the dragons break off contact and pull back.
Meanwhile, faraway from the battlefield, a spy reports to his master. "Heldannic Knights are greatly weakened, Katayama San. The Order's numbers have dwindled in the past months. Simbasta tribes defeated the Knights in the southern continent. The knights have also started a war against the dragons." The rakasta lord, playing with his whiskers, seems to smile as he listen to the spy's account. "Perhaps is it time to reclaim the ancestral domain, for the greatest glory of Myoshima! First, the Knight must be destroyed, as their ships may threaten us."
Ito Kanakada, an experienced samurai and a veteran general is appointed to command the vanguard of the Myoshiman invasion. Enhanced magic enables his flying tigers to transport his warriors and their supplies to the surface of Mystara. General Kanakada knows that this is a one way trip. The flying tigers can easily slip through the Skyshield -- and back out, unlike the humans' airships. However, his honour and that of his warriors is at stake. They have all sworn to die rather than retreat. Reconquering the ancestral world is at stake as well as the eternal glory of Myoshima.
Herr Rolf, at last, reaches the mighty fortress of Freiburg. He finds the city deserted, save for the occasional looters who scamper off at his arrival. Signs of a battle are evident outside the city. Some scorched marks on the ground seem all to frequent in a desolate scene of broken trees, demolished cottages, and dead cattle. Rolf silently curses at himself for being so slow to return. He reaches the main gate.
"Sentry!", he hails. "In Vanya's Name, open the gate at once!"
"Eh? Who goes there?" answers a voice behind the battlements.
"I am Wulf von Klagendorf! Are you blind, soldier?"
A head appears behind an arrow slit and quickly withdraws. "Sure, and I am the Queen of Dragons!" the voice says.
"Open the gate, I say! Or I'll open it myself and use your sorry self as ship ballast!" responds Rolf, angrily.
"Begone, vagrant! Or I'll have the watch throw you into the dungeons!" orders the voice. Herr Rolf, puzzled, wonders what is going wrong. He realises he looks nothing like a Knight, his tabard tattered and in shreds after the months spent in the wilderness. Long hair and a thick beard covering his face make him appear as a madman. He turns around and heads toward a tavern.
A few hours later, he returns to the fortress, this time clean-shaven and presentable... Moments later he is allowed into the fortress. Knights suddenly surround him, swords drawn. Their commander orders, "Stand still, stranger, or die!" In the back, Rolf sees Otton approaching. He observes Rolf carefully. Suddenly, Otton casts a spell. Surprised, Rolf fails to shake off its effects. He remains speechless as he tries to use his own magic. The area is silenced. A score of knights suddenly lunge forward, pull Rolf down to the ground, and tie him up in good order. As the Knights carry off Rolf and his sleeping captive, Otton says
"Good work, sentry. This man is an impostor. Everyone knows the Great Brother died in the west. Lock them up. I will deal with them myself." Both are quickly thrown into a dark crypt, deep inside Freiburg's dungeons.
General Kanakada heads first for Davania, where he plans to rally the Simbasta to their pan-felidian cause. From there and with the help of the Simbasta, the Myoshimans expect to take the Heldannic Holy Citadel and ground the Knights' warbirds for good. Should they succeed, the main body of the Myoshiman invasion force will follow, striking directly at Freiburg -- the heart of the brotherhood. Lord Katayama, the invasion's overseer, otherwise opposes a massive invasion of Mystara, fearing the Knights' lethal warbirds. Should this be the case, he would favour a slower strategy of taking over the nomadic rakasta of the Savage Coast, and other communities elsewhere on Mystara. At last, the rakasta land among the Simbasta and request to speak with their leader at once. A Simbasta warrior approaches the Myoshiman messenger, and stares down at the puny felid. Undaunted, the messenger stares back, stiff and haughty.
"Cursed be this Otton!" mutters Rolf. "To think I entrusted him with the entire Order!"
His face rubbing against the muck on the crypt's floor, he twists and turns angrily, trying to slip out of his bonds, only to feel them tightening up further. He kicks off a large, fat rat sniffing at him. The rat squeaks, leaps up, and comes closer. It attempts to nibble at Rolf's ear. The Knight rolls over and furiously bites the plucky rodent. It squeaks and hisses angrily. Despite his feet tied together, Rolf leaps up and hops around, trying to stomp his mighty foe into submission. The two seem to dance around until soft chuckles rise from the back of the crypt.
"Oh come now, Meinherr Wulf. Surely you can do better than this," says the amused voice. "Feeling naked without your lance?"
The rat stops dead in its tracks, and promptly darts off in the opposite direction. Cringing, Rolf hops around to face the voice, expecting the worst. A long yawn comes from the dark, followed with the sound of ropes snapping off. A large, scaly hand sticks out of the dark, as its owner stretches its body from a long sleep. "Nice place you have, Meinherr Wulf. A bit small, but nice. Now, tell me why I shouldn't just tear you to pieces. I do feel a bit peckish." Rolf had not known how long the potion would affect his dragon captive. It seems fate was turning the tables around. Panting and sweating, he tries to find a solution to his hopeless situation. "Perhaps we should talk..." he ventures with some hesitation.
"Perhaps we should!" answers Kindling. Although a young dragon, Kindling easily stood three times Rolf's size. "What did you hope to accomplish with this escapade?
"Your kin harbour a creature of chaos among them," answers Rolf.
Kindling smirks, "Truly? Well, I suppose this wouldn't be the first time. I could think of many more, and probably worse ones too. But then, what does this have to do with me?"
Rolf continues, "Her name is Pyre. She has done great harm to humankind and other races. She brings nothing good to dragonkind either."
"Well, you do have a point here, Meinherr Wulf," says Kindling in a long yawn.
"I have no choice. She must be destroyed! Vanya, my patron demands nothing less of me. I must not rest until the deed is done," declares Rolf.
"Oh, her again..." mutters Kindling, scratching his wingpit. "Well, we can't just hand her over to humans, can't we? Provided we even could. She's a treacherous and powerful one, that Pyre."
Rolf bows his head, sombre. "Then it's war. Humans against dragons. The Order will perish for sure, but you know the conflict will spread. Many of your kin will die. No one but Entropy will win." Kindling then snaps his scaly fingers. "I've got an idea!"
"Prepare for battle!" orders General Kanakada. These magnificent warriors on their flying tigers had circled around the Heldannic Holy Citadel, preparing to dive down from the rising sun. As the rakasta adopt their standard assault pattern, Kanakada reviews in his mind the last events with the Simbasta, not quite understanding what had gone wrong. "Didn't it make sense that these primitives should accept Myoshiman leadership?" he thinks to himself. "Why wouldn't they join the glorious cause of the rakastan hegemony on Mystara? Well, at least we have the element of surprise. The Heldannic Knights will not measure up to Myoshiman superiority." Kanakada shrugs off these thoughts, dismissing the Simbasta as ignorant and pretentious savages. The time of the assault has come. Brandishing his ancestral katana, General Kanakada then declares to his troops,
"Warriors of the Skies, raise the battle standards! Myoshima will prevail! The glory of victory will be ours alone!" Then pointing his sword down toward the holy citadel:
"Hey, you! The impostor! Wake up!" says Otton, kicking Rolf in the ribs.
Rolf, sits up slowly and, gazing back at Otton, says, "I am not an impostor, Otton. It's me! For Vanya's Sake, can't you tell?"
"Prove it!" snaps Otton.
"Look, I have no time to waste with such foolishness. Let me out. Now!" says Rolf.
"Or what? You don't scare me. I can tell a servant of chaos when I see one."
From the darkness of the crypt, Kindling hunches down over Otton, his scales glistening in the torchlight, and asks, "Oh? Can you really?"
Otton stands there, with a gaping mouth, unable to move.
"Undo my friend's knots if you please," adds Kindling.
Trembling and shaking, the caretaker frees Rolf who grabs him by the scruff of the neck. "Now listen to me," begins Rolf. He proceeds to unveil a list of personal details about Otton's past life in the brotherhood, which only the Grand Master would have known, proving to him that he is Wulf. Otton falls to his knees and begs for forgiveness. The hardship of the work has mislead his thoughts and actions he claims.
Soon afterward, Kindling quietly takes his leave while the two knights return to the citadel's main court. Otton has the watch sound general quarters. The knights form impeccable lines in the court, readying themselves for an inspection. Otton then declares Rolf's safe return among the Order and transfers all his authority back to him. Rolf then orders the commanders to call out all their troops, individually. As the knights' names are called, they walk across the court, forming another line.
When everyone on the rosters has been called, Rolf then declares, "Those remaining, drop your weapons and remove your equipment. We all know who you are! Step out through the front gate and fly back home. You will not find Kindling!" These remaining knights, cursing and grumbling, obey the order and one by one return to their true draconic form as they leave Freiburg.
"What are you doing here, little one?" The voice hisses and rumbles and the large female stares down at Kindling. "You should know better than intruding upon another dragon's dwelling."
Kindling sits, coiling his tail around his paws as a sign of peace and also one of hesitation and worry. Pyre was indeed enormous and frightening. She kept her left eyelid down to cover the infamous Ebon Eye. It is an artifact that she had stolen from the druids of Robrenn. Ever since one of the druids destroyed her left eye, she had felt a deep hatred of humans in particular. She later placed the black wooden orb into her empty eye socket, using the artifact to turn her enemies into statues of ebony. The wound in her eye never really healed, causing it to fester around the orb.
Kindling, fearing for himself, bows his head, avoiding her gaze.
"I do hope you will pardon my visit Pyre, but there is something we should discuss. The urgency warrants my intrusion."
Bringing her foul-smelling muzzle close to Kindling's, Pyre rumbles "Speak up, little one." Kindling continues, "The Knights had captured me, hoping to force you out of the Wyrmsteeth Range. Their master has gotten it in his head that he has one of those quests the humans favour so much. His quest is to bring you harm. I'm sorry to point this point, but he and his knights will not stop until they reach their goal. Surely, he will die along with his knights. But this means all the humans will go to war against us. Many of us will suffer in this. I have a plan that could prevent such..."
Pyre hisses loudly. "And what makes you believe I care?"
Kindling answers cautiously, "Well, you are one of ours."
Pyre thunderous laughter echoes against the large cave's vault. Bats fly out in terror. "I am so close to mastering my entry to the world beyond, I couldn't care less about your petty little kingdom of worms! You are so bright and yet so naive, as are all the young golden ones. Too bad the knights failed to keep you. I will have to finish the job myself". With an earthshaking roar, Pyre lunges at Kindling.
The order is repeated as the Myoshiman warriors plunge toward the holy citadel in Davania. The rakasta warriors quickly land on the battlements and towers. Riding his flying tiger, General Kanada observes the assault. "Complacent humans!" he mutters to himself. "No sentries guard the walls. They must all be sleeping inside their cosy fortress. Indeed, who would attack them so far from their lands?"
But the truth quickly emerges as a warrior reports. "The fortress is vacant, Kanakada San! The humans fled just before sunrise and left everything behind. They must still be near." The general returns his sword to its sheath. "So be it," he decides. "They shall be dealt with later, them and these treacherous Simbasta. Send searching parties into the fortress's vaults at once. There is an object that must be found."
In a fit of rage, Pyre stumbles forward as she finds out she was speaking to an image of the young gold dragon. He had tricked her, the mighty Pyre. She rushes out of her lair, catching a golden glint in the sky as Kindling flies away. She immediately dives off the side of the sheer mountain cliff, slowly gaining the speed needed to support her towering body. Her powerful wings pushing hard against the icy cold air, she utters a spell to augment her speed.
Soon she catches up with Kindling who frantically begins to dive and roll to avoid her claws. Surprisingly for a dragon this size, Pyre swoops near Kindling and catches one of his wings. Enraged by the young gold's earlier trick, she rips the skin of his wing, sending Kindling spiralling into a dark, narrow gorge. She hovers for instant and for a chance to gloat before diving and finishing off the helpless young gold, when she sees a pair of older white dragons flying nearby. They just noticed her presence and turn around to meet her.
"Greetings, Pyre. Hunting an early prey this morning?" asks one.
"I've been restless lately. This story about Eruptaar's son abducted by the humans. It just makes my blood boil!" answers Pyre.
"I agree. We should not pander to these humans requests, regardless of the price," says the other white. "It's an invitation for others to do the same."
Pyre considers his words and adds, "We should destroy these knights and especially their master. It's too bad for Kindling. I'm sure they will kill him, regardless of what we do. The humans must pay for this!"
The first white wonders, "All this talk of humans makes me hungry. So, what you got down 'ere?" he asks, peering down into the gorge below.
Pyre quickly answers, "Nothing. I just want to be alone now. Go away..."
The two big whites wheel away as one adds glancing back at Pyre over his wing, "There she goes again, keeping the all mountain goats for herself. Pfeh."
The rakastan messenger comes running into the palace's main hall. He falls to his knees and bows his head before Lord Katayama. He hands him a message from General Kanakada.
"My lord, the Davanian citadel has been secured and the knights have fled. The magical item has been secured. The invasion can begin."
"At last," smiles Katayama. He walks out to a balcony overlooking the main courtyard. Hundreds of warriors stand there, their individual flags fluttering in the breeze, waiting for a word from their master. Thousands more wait outside the palace.
He finally announces, "Warriors of Myoshima! The time has come to reclaim the ancestral world. The House of Katayama will be the first to land. The honour is ours forever!" The warriors all hail the awaited news. Their commanders then shout the orders to ready their troops and prepare for the voyage to Mystara.
Pyre glides over the gorge, searching for Kindling. She spots a large boulder spattered with blood amidst the rushing water of a mountain river. Large, icy boulders and cliffs line the sides of the river where it soon turns into a series of hazy, thundering cataracts. A sheen of ice covers everything near the waterfall. No other sign of Kindling. Pyre considers the waters below and the jagged rocks emerging, and decides Kindling fell to his death. If not, it would take him too long to interfere with her plan. She takes off.
Several hundred knights are slowly walking across the savannah, as the sun rises higher into the sky. Vultures slowly fly overhead. During their failed campaign against their Simbasta liege, the knights have learned to lighten their armour and wear flowing white linen over their helms to lessen the Davanian sun's cruel bite. In the middle of their column, bearers pull a large, ornate chest mounted on wheels, under the watchful eyes of mounted guards.
Ahead of them, two tall, lanky figures quickly scout the path ahead. The two rakasta stand easily above the taller knights. One of them walks back to the knights and says, "So far, no sign of the Myoshiman invaders, sir." The commander of the knights answers, "Good thing. We're helpless in the open against a flying enemy. Good thing too you could run this far and this fast to warn us about their attack. We would have never been able to evacuate the artifact otherwise. I guess we now owe one to your Simbasta lords."
The rakasta smiles and adds, "Well, you do pay tribute regularly and you have sworn loyalty to them. Why should the Simbasta not defend you? Besides, the Myoshimans proved too arrogant to get along at all with the Simbasta. You know what I mean..."
The knight laughed, "Yes, we all do. I just hope the Myoshimans don't discover our subterfuge too quickly."
"So, you have a problem with the knights, do you?" says the old man. He sits across the table from the one called Dalgaard Gustavsson. He looks a bit like those Minaean pirates. Smells like one too. He wears an eye patch on his left eye. At times, an odd, slimy ooze seems to roll down from behind the patch, which the old man quickly wipes off his cheek with the back of his gnarled hand.
"I know just the medicine you need," he adds, pausing when an innkeeper serves two beverages. As he leaves, the innkeeper pulls a curtain behind him, closing off the booth.
"See, there be dragons from the mountains. Lot's of 'em. And they be ready to attack, see. But the knights be holding one of 'em in the dungeons below. The dragons, they won't attack to avoid risking the life of the prisoner, see. If we could just get in, and pour this Thyatian oil I have, I could set the whole dungeon ablaze."
Dalgaard carefully considers the old pirate. "I've heard the news of the dragons too. What do you have against them, old man? And what will the fire accomplish?"
Pointing at his eye patch, the old man says, "One of 'em did this to me. They killed my crew and sunk my ship. I want 'em to pay. I want to get in and do this before I be too old for revenge, see."
The old pirate lowers his voice and leans forward, "I be sure the captive is already dead. One of my partners inside told me so. You'd have to start the fire in the dungeons to rise up into the citadel's shafts and destroy it as well. Most of the beams and floors above be made of wood. If they see fire, the dragons will know the captive be dead, see. Then, they will attack."
Dalgaard scratches his beard for a moment and then asks, "Should be easy enough for dragons to get into the castle. What's stopping them from freeing the captive themselves?"
"Ay," agrees the old man. "But they be smarter lately, these knights. They be changing their ways since the clash with 'em dragons outside the city. Now there be magical wards betraying spies and intruders. And the entrance to the dungeons, it be locked with special magic, see."
Dalgaard empties his ale and declares with a grin, "Fine. It's your plan. Here's a way to get in..." Dalgaard draws a map on a piece of parchment, explaining how to get around guarded areas he knows of. There was a well-hidden escape tunnel.
Standing up, the old man finally says with a different voice, "Why, thank you, human. This will be very useful. Look up here, now."
Dalgaard stares in disgust at the ugly festering wound as the old man lifts his patch. Suddenly, the old warrior's eyes turn black, followed with his veins and his finger nails. He opens his mouth to cry out in pain. But he quickly stiffens on his chair as the rest of his body turns jet black. Soon afterward, he becomes a statue of ebony, his awareness and soul forever locked in a blind and deaf paralysis.
One by one, the Myoshimans quietly slip through the Skyshield, watching carefully for signs of the dangerous vortex. They had spread out on several miles to facilitate entry into the Mystaran atmosphere. Lord Katayama, chose an area above a large storm to mask their arrival to onlookers.
Already, they ride the storm toward Freiburg, as the living portents of a fate to come. Great balls of lightning rumble in the clouds beneath them, flashing eerie, bluish glows. Thousands of warriors sing their war songs and beat their drums to honour the Divine Winds that carry them toward their glorious destiny. It wouldn't be long now before they would reach the second objective of the invasion.
A messenger flies up to the general and shouts in the raging wind, "Katayama San, the dragons will not attack. Their leader, Eruptaar, fears for the life of his heir. The knights hold him in the dungeons. He said the dragons would support Myoshima if we could safely return the captive. They will stay in the hills until then."
Lord Katayama smiles. With the Heldannic Fleet pinned down and no one to help the knights out, it made no doubt that he could secure the fortress and strike a fatal blow to the knighthood.
Today Freiburg, tomorrow Thyatis!
Slowly, painfully, the young dragon stirs himself back to consciousness. The deafening roar of the cataract overhead is almost dizzying. Overcoming the pain of his wounds, Kindling drags himself out of his cache, behind the main waterfall. He knows a small refuge nearby where he can heal his wounds and soothe his pain. An old draconic altar lies there. He had planned to make a stand against Pyre, the place being repulsive to the likes of her. He hadn't expected her to fly so fast. If he could just avoid slipping on the icy rocks. The numbingly cold water is slowing his every moves. Must move on... Just one more step...
"Lady, we've got the mother of all messes on our hands!" shouts the fiery Immortal. "And you... You have plotted this out since the beginning! It was your idea, this silly quest against the dragon. I should have seen it coming! I don't know what prevents me from annihilating these knights right here, right now! The Hollow World, that's where they belong..."
The warrior princess, with a half-smile, responds, "Oh, come now! We're not to meddle with the mortals. You said so yourself."
Hammering his words, Ixion shouts, "We CAN'T have a war between the dragons, the humans, AND a whole world's worth of fanatic rakasta, all at once!" He sputters on, "The Entropics will have a field day!"
With a broad smile on her face, Vanya muses, "Oh, I don't know. I personally find this terribly exciting. It all seems so glorious and extravagant! It's almost romantic!"
Sending spirals of flames across the room, Ixion snaps back, "You... You... Go fix this mess. NOW!"
Once again, the last sentry responds to the nightwatch call, and all is calm. His voice almost gets lost in the early morning's fog. The glow from the port's lighthouse tries in vain to pierce the thick and still air of the night. Sad and lonely, the distant complaint of a fog horn announces a coming storm. Thunder rolls over the sea.
Some of Freiburg's townspeople have returned since the last battle. Most have found their houses plundered and vandalised. But life goes on as the market folk already set up their booths and prepare their goods before sunrise.
Large spikes of steel and barbed hooks dominate the battlements of the Knights' fortress. Expecting attacks from the dragons, the Grand Master rushed the erection of such defences to maim, trap, or slow the large flying lizards attempting to land inside the fortress. Wide mantles of wood, painted in the Heldannic colours, have been mounted above the towers' ballistae and blight belchers.
The storm reaches Freiburg. It should have swung further north, missing the Heldannic city, but the winds had shifted. A sheet of rain now moves into the city as the storm grows more intense. Trying to protect himself from the downpour, a knight holds up a thick blanket over his head and continues to watch the west. His eyes wide open in sudden surprise, the sentry slumps forward. A long arrow shaft sticks out of his armour.
"Sound the Alarm!" another guard has time to shout. He raises his shield in a futile gesture as another arrow pierces the shield's metal and almost nails his head against the door behind him. Already, several horns are calling the Knights to the battlements. Troops come pouring out.
In the sky above the fortress, archers from the House of Katayama decimate their targets, one by one, with well aimed shots. Riding on the back of their flying tigers, the archers carefully aim their great Daikyu bows, seeking out Heldannic commanders. With their strength and the advantage of height, the long arrows seem to defeat the best-made armour. Not even the mantles protecting the ballistae seem able to stop the deadly shafts. But their first success proves short-lived. The pouring rain takes its toll on the tigers and the bows, and soon the elite archers withdraw to land inside the city. Immediately afterward, the Myoshiman warriors mass over the fortress and prepare to dive. Samurai, ronins, and house retainers all hail the House of Katayama and begin their assault against the Heldannic fortress.
At last, the Knights fight back. Quarrels and javelins, propelled by the ballistae, try to defeat the weight of the pounding rain and meet the diving warriors. Many find their mark. Suddenly, the unthinkable occurs. A lightning strikes one of the metal spikes protruding from a tower. Several Myoshiman warriors are caught it its blinding path and fall to their death. Knights standing near the spike suffer an equally deadly fate as the lightning arks out to their storm drenched swords and armour. The rocks and mortar sealing the base of the spike break apart. Loose stones and the heavy metal pole fall off the tower and comes crashing down into the fortress's courtyard, crushing several more Knights.
The blight belchers release their lethal breaths, cutting wide swaths among the ranks of the diving warriors. The rakasta try to avoid the large defences erected against the dragons. The nimble flying tigers avoid most of them. But it isn't long before several roaring beasts and their courageous warriors find themselves entangled among the barbed hooks or impaled upon the sharp poles. Deprived of their archers and forced down under the raging storm, the Myoshiman warriors land wherever they can to continue the battle on foot. Many land outside the fortress. A bloody melee spreads out to all battlements and the courtyard.
Behind the massed, fighting Knights, their clerical brethren take position and begin chanting holy verses to glorify Vanya. Galvanised by these songs, younger Knights at the heart of the battle charge forward, blind to the dangers of the battle and often at insane odds. The priests' magic conveniently bolsters the Knights' valiant defence of the fortress. Where a gate is breached, whirling blades appear and block the enemy's advance. Where Myoshiman warriors concentrate and threaten to break through the Knights' positions, columns of flames descend from the sky to strike the rakasta. The searing flames hiss and steam in the rain. On the Myoshiman side Wu-Jens respond in kind, causing holes to form in the walls and casting their own lightning bolts. Magic clashes, steel meets steel, and the raging battle grows even more furious in the storm. The bloody struggle inside the fortress proves murderous to the Myoshiman warriors. In some areas of the fortress, the disciplined Knights unexpectedly retreat before the rakasta, leaving them exposed to hidden blight belchers. Many of these magical weapons, placed behind murder holes or slits in the main tower, guard strategic areas of the fortress. As soon as their lethal magic disperses the attacking warriors, the retreating Knights suddenly charge back forward to great effect.
From a distance, Lord Katayama observes the assault. He stands on the terrace of a mansion, near the fortress's imposing main gate. His messengers signal the warriors engaged in the battle with flags and direct them as required. Lord Katayama frowns. Losses are heavier than expected, much heavier. He curses the Knight's blight belchers. With great pain however, his warriors secure the main gate and the entrance's barbican. The gates slowly open, allowing the rest of his troops to charge in.
"These Knights fight well. They were well prepared," observes Katayama. "Something went wrong. Where is General Kanakada?" he wonders while scanning the stormy skies. "The Houses of Tomistu, Kojima, and Do should be arriving now. It will turn the tide of the battle."
"There!" he shouts, pointing toward the east. "Tomitsu and Kojima!" A messenger lands near Katayama and reports. "Katayama-San, the army of the House of Do has been ambushed before reaching the Skyshield! Unidentified skyships forced them to regroup on Myoshima. The ships were not Heldannic Warbirds. Too many mages were on board and they could not be defeated. They retreated into a field of asteroids and contact was lost."
Annoyed, Katayama lets out a sigh of frustration. "Send the main body of Tomitsu against the fortress at once. Resistance there must cease! Kojima remains in reserve in the city." The messenger bows and blurts out the traditional response, "Hai..."
The rakastan onslaught gains a sudden momentum with the arrival of the House of Tomitsu. Already the Heldannic lines buckle and step back toward the main tower. Many of the Knights are trapped on the battlements, regrouping around banners, ballistae, and priests. None surrender, for today they fight before their Immortal patron. Towers at the battlements' perimeter slowly fall in enemy hands. Whenever possible surviving Knights disable their blight belchers, as they fall before the blinding whirl of Myoshiman katanas.
"General Kanakada!" shouts Lord Katayama with relief. Fifteen majestic warbirds slowly descend through the clouds. But no. The clouds reveal proud sails bearing lions of sable over fields of argent. A great cry of relief mounts from the fortress as the Knights see their warbirds arriving at last. The General had failed to capture the warbirds. Realising the terrible truth, Katayama immediately orders the House of Kojima against the warbirds.
The warbirds adopt a box formation. Three layers of five ships protect each other from the fierce waves of Kojima attackers. Well-coordinated blight belchers aboard the warbirds cut through the Myoshimans swarms. It is a bloodbath for scores and soon hundreds of attackers. With horror, Lord Katayama observes the carnage among the assaulting waves. Nevertheless, the proud rakasta push on. Retreat is not an option. No sooner than Myoshimans set foot on the first warbirds, scores of Simbasta come roaring out from the decks below. The courageous assault turns into savage butchery aboard the ships, opposing Knights and their Simbasta allies against the rakasta and their tigers. In shock and disbelief, Lord Katayama falls to his knees, staring at the disaster in progress.
Already, the lower-flying warbirds land at the city's gates, unloading the Simbasta. The powerful Davanian rakasta quickly gather and move up the city streets. Brutal skirmishes oppose the Simbasta against Myoshiman archers hiding in the houses. One after the other, the Simbasta secure the nests of archers with fearsome roars and displays of blood lust. Despite their great skill, archers slowly fall back toward Katayama's vantage point. Hesitation and doubt overcomes the Myoshiman commander. His messengers stare at him, awaiting orders. He turns his attention toward the fortress.
Suddenly, thick smoke starts coming out of the main bastion's arrow slits. The blight belchers hidden inside the fortress finally mute their odious sound. A roar of joy echoes in the fortress, as the Myoshiman press on. Lord Katayama stands back up, shouting "Yes! The Immortals are with us!" Flames soon shoot out of the main tower's openings. Knights are in disarray. The bastion's garrison comes out in the open, surrounding their Grand Master. Rolf raises his sword and rallies his troops. "My brethren and companions. The moment of truth has come. Follow me. Today we prevail or die!" Gathering their last energy, the Knights pursue their brutal combat against the Houses Katayama and Tomitsu, shouting the name of Vanya.
Not far away, Eruptaar and his dragon subjects observe the battle. The main tower is now engulfed in flames. Pyre lands near the dragon king and says, "Well, your majesty, it would seem the humans destroyed their own fortress out of spite. Your son is inside, dying. What now? Will you just sit back and watch?"
Eruptaar suddenly takes off and roars, "Kill the humans!" Like a gigantic flock of birds, the dragons take flight. Moments later the bulk of the dragons, shrieking and roaring, plunge into the formation of Heldannic warbirds. Sails are torn, masts are broken, and many fires begin. The skyships quickly break formation, trying desperately to manoeuvre and avoid the fury of the dragons.
Nearby, Eruptaar swoops by an amazed Lord Katayama. Simbasta have already reached his building. Archers and his personal elite guard of samurai bravely fight back the Simbasta. Eruptaar ignores the scene and continues on with his followers to the fortress. Without warning, the furious dragons rush into the main courtyard. The spikes of steel do their deed, cruelly wounding several dragons. Eruptaar and the others land inside, seeking out the Grand Master of the Knights. Combat stops, as the rakasta quickly retreat out of the way, and out of the fortress. Suddenly, the knights all shout the name of Vanya as their last hurrah, and charge forward, Rolf at their head. Immediately, spells go off and breaths are released. Eruptaar meets with the Knight's commander in a terrifying duel.
"Father! Wait!" The voice of the young gold fails to pierce the clamour of the battle. Kindling, just reaching Freiburg from his icy refuge of the Wyrmsteeth, circles above the fortress. He hesitates to approach its wicked defences. Beneath him, at the centre of the fortress's courtyard, Eruptaar and the Grand Master of the Order are locked in a combat to death, no longer paying attention to their surroundings.
"You! Again," hisses the cold, raucous voice of Pyre. The old dragon quickly catches up with Kindling. "I should have known that you had crawled under a rock, like the worthless, little worm you are. Now, I shall crush you for good."
Kindling, smaller and more agile than Pyre, and now very much aware of Pyre's speed dodges her attacks as best he can. Several times he narrowly shakes off her magic. Not willing to leave the site of the battle, Kindling manipulates the huge dragon into a series of spiralling dives bringing them dangerously close to the fortress's metal poles. Alas, the young gold is unable to avoid a series of barbed hooks onto which he remains stuck. Pyre realises the danger, but too late. In her momentum she crashes into the side of the main tower. She roars horribly at the pain when she discovers a metal pole piercing straight through her shoulder and threatening to rip through the leather of her wing. Hanging precariously on the side of the tower, she tries to unhook herself while her tail whips through the air toward Kindling. Under Pyre's enormous weight and frantic efforts, large rocks fall off the blazing tower, crashing near Rolf and Eruptaar. The king of dragons glances up and discovers the scene.
Kindling calls out again, "Father, the Knights are not at fault. Pyre tried to kill me and have the Knights blamed for it! She wants war between our people and the humans!"
Roaring from her pain and anger, Pyre realises her plan failed. She finally breaks free and falls into the courtyard under a shower of stones and mortar. She coils back to her feet and ends up face to face with Eruptaar. "Yes, stare into my eyes!" she hisses. She opens her purulent left eye. Surprised, Eruptaar glances at the ebon eye. The world seems to stop around them, as dragons and knights alike cease combat and observe the two huge beasts.
"Yield now or die!" rumbles Eruptaar, shrugging off the effects of the nefarious Ebon Eye. "Never!" she hisses. Suddenly, she disappears.
"Great dragon!" hails Rolf. "My quarrel is not with your kin but with Pyre alone. It was I who abducted your son. Of this I am guilty, but never did I plan to hurt him." He throws his sword to the ground and says, "Do with me as you please, but spare my warriors. Enough blood was shed today."
Eruptaar considers Rolf's words and the scene of carnage and utter devastation. The smouldering ruins of the main tower finally collapse behind them in a thunder of falling debris and smoke. The dragon then answers, "You have paid your debt, human. You and your kind will now stay out of the Wyrmsteeth for good." Moments later, several dragons manage to bring down the squirming Kindling. The huge gold then announces, "It is time to end this senseless war. Knights of Heldann, ready your swords and follow me outside!"
At Eruptaar's signal, the dragons all rush out through the fortress's massive main gate, before the startled eyes of the rakasta waiting outside. On the dragons' heels follow a horde of screaming madmen, triumphantly brandishing sword and banner. With dragons apparently fleeing before the crazed knights, the astounded rakasta panic and turn around. Many take off on their flying tigers to seek cover in a nearby forest, while the others retreat back to Lord Katayama's mansion. There, the Simbasta and the Knights quickly surround the remnants of the Myoshiman forces.
The rain finally stops as Lord Katayama stares down at the two armies. Now silent, they gaze at each other, poised for the final assault. Katayama's aides hold his flying tiger and beg him to flee before it is too late. He angrily grunts back at them, ignoring the insulting offer, and instead pulls out his ancestral katana.
Rolf appears among his Knights, riding a warhorse. He hails Lord Katayama's warriors. "People of Myoshima! Put back your swords, take your wounded, and return to your homes! This land will never be yours. There is no dishonour in this, for you have fought well. We, Knights of the Heldannic Order, pay homage to your skill and to your courage! No harm will be done to your people as you leave here, with your weapons and your heads up high!"
Lord Katayama gazes silently at the Grand Master of the Order. He glances down at his beleaguered troops, exhausted and wary. Slowly, he returns his sword to its sheath and gives an ever so brief bow of the head toward Rolf. The rakasta form their ranks and head out of Freiburg.
The dashing wizard salutes the empress and announces, "Mission accomplished, Your Imperial Majesty. The Myoshiman rear-guard was forced back to Myoshima, and the attack on Freiburg failed. The remainder of the rakastan army is now returning home. There are no Alphatian losses to report."
"Well done, Admiral" responds the empress. "Maintain watch over Myoshima. Their disturbing the order on the surface may eventually spill over to the Hollow World. We can't afford any such possibility."
"As you wish, your majesty." The wizard salutes the empress and takes his leave with his body guard. On the way out, the wizard glances over to his feline follower and adds, "Yes I know, Myojo. This is a very unfortunate affair. I am sorry to have dragged you into it."
The rakastan guard responds, "It was my duty to stand at your side, Haaken-San. There will be long days or mourning on Myoshima, but I know them all too well. They will return, some day."
"What now, my lord?" asks an old Knight.
"The Order has prevailed," answers Rolf. He takes a tattered banner from the hands of the old knight and climbs on top of the smoking ruins of the castle. There, on the highest pile, he plants the banner and declares, "Only the best of best remain. Our faith and strength have been forged anew, in blood and in fire. We are now a greater brotherhood and a finer knighthood. But first, let us heal our wounds and rebuild."
"Rebuild!" The old knight looks up at Rolf in disbelief. "Look around, my lord. Our fortress now lies in ruins and our fleet is in shambles. We don't have the finances to replace all this!"
Rolf leaps off his pile of debris and laughs at the knight. "You've won a battle against an army of the fiercest rakasta! You've fought another of dragons and lived to tell about it. And yet, you seem eager to give up! Come now. We haven't said our last prayer yet. I know just where to get the treasure that will pay for it all: an even greater fortress, a more glorious temple, a new fleet, with plenty of leftover to repay the good people of Freiburg for their own losses and hardship. The most precious part of Pyre's treasure lies hidden where even she would not find it. Onward, brave Knights! Cobble together what can be salvaged of our warbirds and let us sail to the Savage Coast at once. There is gold to be had."
"Where is General Kanakada?" fumes Lord Katayama.
The samurai under the General's order are kneeling before their lord shogun, bowing their heads. Embarrassed, the older one reveals, "Sadly, General Kanakada has refused to return. The Simbasta ambushed our forces in a forest, using the humans and the true artifact as bait. Most of our forces were captured before we could send out news of our fate. General Kanakada was gravely wounded and unconscious. The remainder of our forces retreated to the Heldannic citadel, but several warbirds intercepted them. The great shaman of the Simbasta healed General Kanakada. When we were allowed to leave, the General requested the right to cleanse his family honour, which the Simbasta agreed to. His ashes have been returned to his family with his armour and sword."
Suddenly, a messenger runs into the palace hall. Out of breath and bearing a wound across the face, he drops to his knees and hands before the shogun, his forehead nearly touching the floor. "My lord, the Houses of Miyashika, Tokanawa, and Taikoku have rebelled. Several others are vacillating. The fortress of Kojima has fallen. The Houses of Do and Tomitsu are requesting reinforcements at once!"
The shogun walks quietly to the balcony and looks down at the palatial courtyard, now empty. "How ironic," he observes. "We, who sought to bring war to Mystara now have to fight it on our own land. So be it. Again, war it is!"
Aboard the Sturmkondor, the crew pays homage to their fallen leader. They built a box made of fine wood and painted with gold. Inside, wrapped in silk and velvet lies the ebon statue of Dalgaard Gustavson. Since no priest stands among them, the senior warrior of the Heldann Wolves reads an ancient Heldann saga. At the end, all aboard vow to find a way to return him to life or avenge his fate. The lone warbird sets sail toward the setting sun.
"This was a close call, lady!" concludes Ixion. "Much too close. If this Pyre had had her way, she would now be one of us. The neighbourhood is bad enough as it is, we really don't need one more like her! What about this knight of yours?"
Vanya smiles and responds, "I've removed his quest against Pyre. He has proven to me his worth and his faith. They will be quieter now. This should erase the risks of another confrontation between the knights and Pyre. She now pursues other goals, but it will not be long before she resurfaces as an even greater peril on Mystara. Now, about these knights..."
Ixion sighs, "Oh well, fine. You can have them back. But! I don't want to hear from them for a long time. Am I making myself clear, dear lady?"
Vanya bows her head in gratitude and leaves. As the large doors of bronze slowly swing shut behind her, she closes her fist, pulls her elbow back, and whispers triumphantly,