Friday, October 13, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 55

Captain Bruin Hilda crouched behind a rock, peering across the darkness towards the smokey red glow on the far side of the Sever River. She was cold and wet, like everyone else, and it didn't help her mood that the wind was howling wildly through the canyons, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. Her loyal Lieutenant, Kerrington, stood beside her, scanning behind them over the crowd of refugees as they huddled among the rocks.  He noted the flickers of light on the horizon that suggested the war at Panguitch was still raging and wondered how the humans were faring.  One thing was clear; as long as the war was ongoing it meant the Lizardmen of the Manticorian Army had not prevailed.  He took comfort in this thought. 

It was close to midnight. Gregorian chanting could be heard echoing across the waters.  Beyond the glowing pit known as Hell Hole, she thought she glimpsed a gigantic face emerge momentarily from the shadowy haze, but it vanished into the mist before she could get a bead on it. She told herself she had imagined it, and continued scanning. Surrounded by billowing smoke and noxious fumes, the Hell Hole was a wide crater, within which was a bubbling pool of magma that cast an undulating red glow and giant wavering shadows over the nearby cliffs. 

Four knights stood at cardinal points around the pit, each gripping an iron chain that crossed over the magma and attached to the corners of a bejeweled chest suspended above the lava pool. Occasionally, the magma would erupt, violently slamming into the chest, dragging the knights towards the fiery pit within a shower of flaming globules.

She took out her Federation binoculars and turned the Mode nob to the night-vision setting.  The scene became much more vivid in bright and dark green.  There was no trace of the monstrosity lurking in the shadows, but she didn't find that especially reassuring.  She watched for a minute or so and then swung around to scan over the crowd of refugees, huddled among the rocks, wet and exhausted from their flight across the river.  She zoomed in and made a careful sweep, but saw no sign of Wilard, the little mutant rat-druid person whom they'd picked up along the way.  She knew he was nearby, lurking with his rat horde in the vicinity, as he had left piles of lizards and frogs as food offerings to the refugees each morning since they left Panguitch.  She felt cautiously optimistic that he wouldn't actually cause any harm, but her Lieutenants were far less sanguine about his following the caravan.  "No good can come of it, Ma'am," Kerrington had said at the start.  But she didn't have the heart to chase him off, given that he was so eager to provide help and could provide ample amounts of foraged food.  Frog-snake-lizard stew wasn't a bad thing as far as she was concerned.

She considered logistics.  They had eight hundred refugees needing care.  Everyone was hungry, wet, cold and frightened by the terrifying events across the river.  It seemed that wild spirits had invaded the sky and were howling on the winds.  She glanced upward to look at the clouds, which at the moment were concealing the moon.  To the north she could see the rainbow bands of scintillating ionic radiation like a river flowing over the upper atmosphere.  It crackled audibly, and she could see flickers of red lightning along the edges of the band.  Always disturbing.  She looked away. 

"Lieutenant Kerrington," she said, "We need to help the refugees."

"I'm here, sir - ma'am!" he replied coming out of a daze.  "What do you need me to do?"

"We just lost two jeeps on the river crossing. We need to find out what supplies we need, and start some fires to get these people warmed up."

"I'm on it," said Kerrington, and he turned to head off through the darkness to the new encampment.  He found Tom Hanks, the accountant.  Tom had been very good about helping to maintain the supply chain.  He kept track of how much food Wilard brought, how much of it was conserved, and taken care of rationing, as well as requisitioning equipment and resources for the refugees.  He kept careful track of everything, and was an all around good man to have on hand.

"How are we fixed on supplies at the moment, Tom?" he asked.

"Sorry, sir," answered Tom with a shrug, "but when the crowd bolted across the river, they didn't think to carry supplies with them.  Pretty much everything is still on the other side of the river."

"Oh, yeah," replied the Lieutenant as he gazed tiredly over the dappling waters.  The Sever River was deceptively deep in areas.  He glanced over at the two jeeps laying sideways, nearly submerged in the middle of the swirling waters.  They'd started out from Panguitch with seven jeeps.  They were down to four.

"Well we lost some of our weapons and ammo, but we still have whatever was in the other jeeps," thought Kerrington out loud.

"The only food we have is what people had in their pockets when they ran," commented Tom.  

"And how many people exactly do we have with the caravan?" Kerrington asked.

"Eight hundred and thirteen," answered Tom, "Including that odd fellow, Wilard," he added.

"I see, yeah.  It has been a bit of a cattle run here," he commented wryly.

He thought about their forces.  There were four Lieutenants, and about twenty privates who had volunteered to leave Panguitch and help the refugee caravan make their way north.  Most of them probably would have preferred to stay there and fight, but the refugees needed support, and they were good folk who had a sense of duty.  He called the soldiers to him.

"Ok, gentlemen, we just left our supplies on the other side of the river.  We need volunteers to go across and bring back as much as possible," said Kerrington.  "I'm not giving orders.  I'm only looking for volunteers.  If you volunteer, please step forward."

Ten men stepped forward.  They all liked Kerrington, and he was considered something of a leader among them.

"All of the volunteers, go to the jeep and grab an extra clip of ammo each.  I want you all to come back alive.  You are heroes in my eyes," he said, to everyone's approval.  The soldiers wore expressions of determination as they went to the jeep.  They carried Springfield rifles and Brownings FN pistols, and grabbed clips for both.  Then, girding themselves for the unknown, they waded into the waters with their rifles over their heads.  Some of them were in water chest high.  The water was viciously cold, and the current strong.  A few slipped as the waters swirled menacingly around them.  One soldier got caught in the current and almost got carried down river, but he was helped to the shallows by another.  Eventually they all made it across.  Kerrington watched as they vanished into the darkness on the other side.  He trotted back over to where the Captain was positioned.  She was looking out across the waters with her binoculars at the proceedings around the Hell Hole from between the rocks of a small outcropping.  He kept a low profile as he made his way towards her in order to report.

"Okay," said Bruin Hilda when Kerrington arrived.  "I've been looking for brush and grasses that can be used to start a fire.  The whole area is covered in brambles and dried grass.  Get some men and start setting up campsites for the refugees."  It wasn't difficult to gather enough kindling and start fires.  The refugees crowded around them.  Soon there were dozens of fires dotting the rocky landscape.

She hefted her binoculars and took another look across the river.  The night-vision mode gave her a good view of the Hell Hole.  Again she thought she could make out the face of a giant in the smoke on the far side of the pit, but it was elusive and quickly vanished.  The knights were struggling with the chains that held the bejeweled chest above the center of the pool.  She estimated that it must weigh a great deal by the way the knights were struggling.  The lava was bubbling at this time, and plumes would rise up and heave the chest upward, dragging the knights with it.  With iron wills and grim-furrowed eyebrows they held that chain.  The jewels on the chest glimmered and sparkled in the fiery glow of the magma.  It was an impressive sight.

Bruin Hilda couldn't say that the lava had gotten stronger, but she felt it had.  In the winds she heard strange sounds of chanting, moaning, the cries of distant coyotes, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up on end.  When the sounds would waft over the crowd everyone would suddenly go quiet and there was a hush.  She didn't like it.  No one liked it.

"My priority is the people," she said to herself.  As she saw no immediate threat, she thought she would go walk among the refugees, try to calm nerves, and provide any first aid that might be needed.  But at that moment, as she looked through her binoculars at the knights performing their fascinatingly mysterious ceremony, an enormous belch of lava burst upward, dragging one of the knights so that his left foot stepped into the magma pool.  He skidded to a stop, and hurled himself backwards, never for a moment letting go of the chain.  His foot was on fire, and Bruin Hilda guessed that it must have been badly burned and exceedingly painful.  But he gripped the chain and struggled with it on one knee.

Having completed his tasks, Kerrington picked his way over the rocks and came back to where she was.

"Ma'am," said Kerrington, "I sent ten of the soldiers over the river to gather supplies, and the encampment has plenty of fires. No food to speak of, but the men all made it across and will come back with whatever they can soon."

"I want you to calm the people down, get food in their bellies, and let's hope we'll be able to hunker down here for the night."

Kerrington saluted and turned to go.

"Actually," she said, stopping him, "I saw on the other side of the river, one of the knights got dragged into the magma pool and injured his leg rather badly.  I'm thinking of going over there to see if I can provide some medical assistance."

"Oh, Sir, I mean Ma'am, are you sure that's a good idea?!  I mean to go alone?  Why don't I go with you?" asked the loyal Lieutenant.

"Um, yeah," said Bruin Hilda.  "I could use your backup. That's true. Just make sure you tell one of the other Lieutenants to feed the refugees and we'll get going."

Kerrington went to give the Lieutenants and soldiers the Captain's orders.   He looked across the river and hoped the men there would be smart enough to fire up the school bus they'd taken from Panguitch and bring that over, but he wasn't sure they'd want to risk it.  He'd have to leave it in their capable hands to decide.  There was a Lieutenant with them, so hopefully he would figure out the best plan.

He went back and met with the soldiers.  As it happened many of the refugees had been wounded either during the crossing or by the many cacti that dotted the landscape.  They had long pointy needles and quite a few people had suffered piercings, and some seemed to feel they had been poisoned by the barbs, though that seemed unlikely to Kerrington.  

"Ok, well, give them first aid, and see what you can do about feeding people," he told the soldiers.  "I need to go with the Captain back across the river.  I'll see what I can do about helping the men with foraging for supplies, since I feel I should have gone with them in the first place, but the Captain saw someone injured at the pit over there, and of course she wants to help him.  I'm going with her. Ration out what you can.  If anyone has extra food, if they're willing try to store a supply of food for later.  Try to keep everyone calm, and tell them we are trying to get them out of here as soon as possible."

"Kerrington," said one of the Lieutenants, "if you can get some medical supplies over there, we could use them.  The bus has the medical supplies in it."

"Right," replied Kerrington.  "We'll get the bus across the river, if we can manage it.  In the meantime, do what you can.  We'll be back soon."

And with that Kerrington met Bruin Hilda by the river bank.  She was standing in front of a patch of reeds and cattails, trying to find a good crossing point.  The river was roughly two hundred feet across at the closest spot.  It was flooded from a recent rain storm.  Depending on the spot, the water was pretty deep, in some places waist high, in some knee high.  The jeeps had slid from a sand bar into an underwater ditch and gotten sucked down by the fast swirling waters.  She watched the river carefully and noticed there were a several frothing lines that zigzag across to the other side.  She figured the frothing was caused by shallows, and those areas might be able to see a jeep across without too much risk.  Maybe even the bus, if they were lucky.

"Perhaps we should try to take a jeep, and use it to find a clear path across," offered Kerrington.  "Losing a jeep is preferable to losing the bus, I'd say," he added.

"Okay, let's try it," she agreed as she began to haul the weapons stash off one of the jeeps and pack it into another.  She didn't want to risk losing any more weapons in case the jeep couldn't make it across.  She grabbed the mechanics kit, and loaded that off, but kept the medical kit in case she needed it on the other side.    

As Bruin Hilda walked along the embankment to get a better view of the shallows, she heard a splash, and hiss and then there was a sudden dart of movement at the river's edge in front of her.   It didn't sound like a snake.  She jumped back a step, planning to pull out her broadsword and confront the creature.  She was not fast enough.  Something came scrambling at her from the water.  It was too dark to see what it was, but she could hear it hissing as it darted towards her.  She felt a severe bite on her ankle.  

As she leapt backwards away from the water's edge, the creature scrambled back towards the reeds and vanished into the shadows.  The pain was excruciating, and she worried that the creature, whatever it was, might have a disease.  Within a few moments, however, she felt the pain in her leg diminishing, and guessed that the poison was numbing her up for the kill.  She was a nurse, however, and knew what to do. She pulled out her 2700 LM flashlight and set it at 2 lumens to inspect the wound.  She was expecting to see a nasty bite with signs of poison, but in fact her environmental suit had covered over the wound with a cluster of tiny purple veins.  The translucent purple bubbles seemed to be sucking the poison out.  It was fascinating, and perhaps a bit disturbing.  She wondered again where she had gotten this strange purple bubble environmental suit.  She couldn't remember at all, other than vaguely thinking that she had obtained it at some point while on the moon. But how, and under what circumstances she hadn't a clue.  Perhaps, she thought, she might have found it in the UFO they'd captured to escape the moon Nazis. None of which mattered at the moment, but she was glad and relieved to see the suit healing her.  She even went so far as to thank it, silently, and then something made her feel as if the suit had responded.  It was an odd sensation.  She wondered if the suit was actually alive?  What surprised her the most, perhaps, is that she felt no anxiety about the suit at all.  In fact, if anything, she felt friendly towards it and glad to have it with her.

Captain Bruin Hilda turned up the lumens to 30% on her flashlight and shone it towards the reeds.  Amid the shadows cast by the bright beam she caught sight of a large heavy-set rat with dark gray fur peering at her.  As soon as the light hit it, the rat dove into the water and swam away into the dark eddies of the river.  She stared after it with her lips pursed and a raised eyebrow.     

Kerrington was making his way across the rocks to her position.

"I just got bitten... by a rat," she said.

"Ma'am are you okay?  Where?  What happened?!"

"I'm okay.  The wound isn't bad," she replied, not mentioning the suit.

"Did you say a rat?"

"Yes. A rat," she repeated.

"Where is Wilard?" he asked glancing in all directions.  "Isn't he on that?" 

"Yes, he is," she replied with foreboding as she scanned the area with her binoculars.  "Whatever power he has, the fact that a rat bit me is disturbing," she said.  

"Well what should we do?" asked the Lieutenant.

"We need to get to the other side of the river," stated the Captain, not wanting to allow whatever machinations Wilard might be hatching to interfere with her helping the wounded knight.  "I want you to be aware of what just happened and keep an eye out."

"I definitely will, Ma'am," affirmed Kerrington as he glanced around the darkness.

They drove the jeep down to the river bank, rolled carefully into the water, and slowly over the shallows.  They had no problem crossing, to both of their surprise.  Bruin Hilda scanned the area with her night-vision binoculars.  The old camp was dark and empty now, except for the ten soldiers poking through the tents and carts looking for useful supplies.  The wind was howling with an undulating pitch.  She spotted the bus, and it looked like the soldiers were almost up to it in their foraging.  Kerrington suggested that they leave the jeep on the edge of the river as a marker for the crossing and walk over to the men.  She agreed, and so they left the engine running with the lights on, and directed their feet toward the bus.

As soon as she stepped out of the jeep she noticed a very ominous sensation come over her.  Perhaps it was that the sounds on this side of the river were louder?  She heard the wild wailing of spirits in the winds, but then they would die down and the Gregorian chanting would suffuse the atmosphere again.  These two soundscapes warred in the airs around them as they walked. Kerrington noticed it as well, but said nothing while his eyes darted in all directions as they travelled.  They strode towards the bus in silence, heading to intercept the men as they arrived at the bus.  Then she heard a piercing wail in the air, like a distant shrieking.  Then the chanting returned and she felt calm again.  All the sounds were in the distance, and yet each was capable of instantly seeming very close.  It was quite strange, indeed.

Bruin Hilda was a practicing Catholic, to the best of her ability given the circumstances. To her mind the entire situation had become bloodcurdling and deeply religious.  The rise and fall of the spirit worlds as they waged war was both terrible and wondrous, and she was struck by the beauty and terror of it as she watched the half-moon emerging from the clouds overhead.  She turned around to look over towards the pit, now due north of her by a half mile or so.  She could see the knights grimly struggling with the chains, trying to keep the bejeweled chest in the center of the Hell Hole.  Why they were doing this, she had no idea, but whatever the reason, they believed whole-heartedly in their cause.  One of them was badly wounded and struggling to keep the chain under control as he knelt with one leg forward bracing him on the rocks. Though badly wounded he still held himself with dignity as he gripped the chain and held his portion of the chest aloft.  The other knights were equally grim, holding on at other three corners as the priests by the wagon chanted and read verses from the Holy Book.

Bruin Hilda and Kerrington walked to the bus.  The men gathered around.  She explained about the shallows and told them they'd be taking the bus across the river at the spot where the jeep was pointing.  

"Are you taking the jeep back across, then?" asked Lieutenant Johnson who had come over with the other soldiers as troop leader.

"No," she explained.  "I noticed that some of the knights have been injured so I'm going to go over to the pit there and see if there's anything I can do to assist them.  Then we'll head back to the other side of the river with the supplies."

Lieutenant Johnson looked at her with raised eyebrows.

"Ma'am, is that a good idea?" he asked.  There was a pause while Bruin Hilda thought about it.

"I mean, we can all see what's going on over there," he added quietly.  She could tell that the strangeness was starting to get to the young man. 

"Yeah, well, I saw one of them get serious injured, and I want to see if I can help them.  I'm not going to just give up and discard them like that."

"I mean," Johnson pressed, "I'm, um, well, I mean they weren't very friendly to you earlier, were they?"

"No, they weren't, but as a medic, and practicing Catholic, I can't use that as a reason not to help," she answered patiently.

The Lieutenant sighed, "Wow.  Okay, Ma'am. It's your call."

"Thanks," she replied quietly.  "Oh, one more thing.  A warning. On the other side of the river I got bit by a rat," she said.  Johnson again raised two eyebrows. 

"And I have not seen Wilard for a while," she continued. "He may be lurking around. Don't trust him until we find out what's going on, okay?" 

The men all looked around nervously.

"If Wilard turns against us with his rat horde... we'd be in serious trouble," said Lieutenant Johnson, pulling on his collar with a shaky finger.  The others all looked into the darkness and thought that down.

"Yeah, well, it was just one rat," said Bruin Hilda.  "so don't let it get to you.  We'll find out what's going on soon enough.  If it was that bad, we'd all be dead already.  Just keep an eye out, and be careful."

"Yes, Ma'am," said the Lieutenant.

The men began to heap the bus with as much food as they could.  Bruin Hilda climbed aboard and took a quick inventory of the medical supplies.  Everything looked in order.  

"Ok, Lieutenant Kerrington, ready to earn your day's pay?"

"Yes, Ma'am, I am," replied Kerrington, "but to be honest, I probably should stay with the men and make sure we get over the river alright.  We don't want to lose the bus, now, do we?"

And so Kerrington stayed to help the men load the bus, and when they had everything aboard, he took the wheel.  

Seeing as how the pit was a half mile up the road, Bruin Hilda decided to take the jeep after all. She noted that the moon had come out, and it was light enough for them to see the frothing line across the river. Time is of the essence when someone is wounded, and so she revved the engine, and took off up the slope toward the road.  

Kerrington didn't want the men to all cluster onto the bus.  He explained that the path across the river was along the frothing shallows.  "We'll have five onboard, two in front ahead of the bus, and three behind.  Everyone watch all around.  We'll go slow," he said.

"Kerrington," said Johnson, "why don't we tie ropes to the bus.  We can tether to it."

"Good idea," he replied, and they followed suit.  He looked off in the direction of the road, and figured they'd probably cross the river by the time she got there to Hell Hole.  He shook his head and focused on the task at hand.  Driving across the river.  Since she had taken the jeep, the river crossing spot was a little harder for Kerrington to make out.  He drove the bus down to the river's edge and tried to align with the frothing path.  It zigzagged across the river, so it was a bit difficult to follow in a bus.  About halfway across he hit a slippery spot and the bus began to slide to the right and tilt.  Then there was a bang, and the bus was stuck.  

"You two in front," called Kerrington out the window, "go get one of the jeeps from the other side, and bring it here so we can use the winch to pull the bus out."

Bruin Hilda, meanwhile, drove up to the pit and parked the jeep.  Things had gotten very strange.  She thought she saw visages of weird beings floating and whipping around in the streams of smoke.  The sound of the wind was loud and pitched high as it screamed over the canyon cliffs above her.  In the smoke ahead she thought she saw a winged man with a birdlike face fly past and vanish.  Out of the corner of her eye she thought she caught sight of another winged bird-man wearing armor, and whose face had eyes like burning coals, and he carried a glowing sword.  

The chanting rose and fell, and rose to an even higher crescendo.  Weird stuff was going on.  She had no idea if she was hallucinating, or being pulled body, mind and soul into the spirit world.

She contemplated using a special power known as "Indominable Will."  It was a power that would allow her to ward off all kinds of psychic attacks, such as fears and confusions.  However, it came at a hefty cost.  If she wanted to heal that poor knight with the burnt leg, she'd have to use another power known as "Hymn of Healing", which was only slightly less taxing.  And the idea that she might need to use it more than once gnawed at her.  She'd not have the energy to use it twice, unless she forsook the use of the "Indominable Will."  

She walked towards the kneeling knight with her eyes fixated on his wounded leg. 

She felt that the spirits were buffeting her, and should she lose focus she might veer from her path, but the fears and confusions failed to have any appreciable effect on her attitude or actions.  Forward she strode, determined to help the wounded man.  As she was not being deterred, she decided against using Indominable Will, as she had a will of her own and was nearly at her goal already.  She continued walking towards the knight on one knee, ignoring all else around her.

She passed through a ring of burning braziers, and came to the wagon where the priests were chanting. There was the knight on one knee, gripping the chain with all his strength, sweat pouring down his face, his burned leg still smoldering, charred black with terrible blisters.   The winds were whipping against the wagon, the horses neighing wildly, while fiery sparks sailed in long streams upward towards the heavens where they flickeringly vanished.  The howling winds and the Gregorian chants fought fiercely that night.

The knights were suddenly engulfed in yellow light as the magma rose up high and once again heaved into the bottom of the chest, carrying it irresistibly upward, and the four stout warriors with it.  Again they were nearly pulled into the broiling lava in their determination to maintain their hold on the iron chains that bound the chest, and again they evaded disaster by the skin of their teeth.  The knight on one knee managed to hold his ground, and miraculously had not budged.  Around her she could now see quite distinctly, ethereal bodies of winged devils with their smokey beaks and burning read eyes, wavering like ghosts in the wind.  Round and round they wildly winged their way. They were significant spirits, thought Bruin Hilda. Winged creatures of the darkness.

She felt that the spirits had somehow not quite noticed her.  She moved between braziers towards the knight on one knee.  Ahead of her she could see a ditch that had been scratched or dug into the ground around the lava pit, a single long furrow.  She would have to cross it to get to the knight on one knee.  

She crossed over the ditch with her head bowed forward, grimly pushing against the winds to get to him. Once inside the circle she might have, but did not, perceive that the inner circle had an aura of calm that emanated from a greenish colored stone cube laid on a short white pillar in front of the wagon, around which the priests were chanting.  

Nevertheless, she, the stalwart that she was, began to sing.  The Hymn of Healing!  The song was good and her voice strong.  Light shone down from somewhere above, and the knight lifted his eyes and beheld her for the first time.

The moment she began to sing the spirits suddenly took notice of her.  Their rage boiled over at her interference.  But her voice blended so beautifully with the Gregorian Chants, the knight stood up, bathed in light.  He looked bravely into Bruin Hilda's eyes for one moment with heartfelt gratitude, and then heaved the chain once again with his full might.  And across the lava pond the chest was once again secured at the center.  The lava was driven back.  Through the smoke Bruin Hilda thought she saw a giant's face, with dimly glowing indigo eyes, gazing towards the depths and scowling from the cliff tops, but it could do nothing at that moment except rage at her, so strong was her voice. All around the winds weakened, and her song carried far and wide.

The spirits went from wild to frenzied.  She had caused the spirits harm, and now they circled her with their grimacing faces, their eyes filled with the fires of damnation.  It was exactly midnight.

Meanwhile, across the river, Kerrington was wrangling the bus.  The two forward soldiers dashed across the river to get the jeep.  They revved the engine, drove it to the water's edge, put on the brakes and ran splashing to connect the winch cable to the bus.  In a few minutes the bus was rescued from the dark eddies of the Sever River.  Once on the other side Kerrington drove the bus to the center of the encampment and the soldiers began doling out food, and administering medicines.

Kerrington caught sight of a silhouette near a rock outcropping next to the river, not far away.  It was a man, and some large beast-like rat with him, slinking in the shadows among the rocks.  The Lieutenant thought it looked suspiciously like Wilard. He took two soldiers and walked over to the river's edge.  But when he arrived the figures were gone.  Not a trace.  Just the dappling moonlight dancing on the river water.

"Wilard, if you're going to play games, the next time I see you you're going to be in handcuffs," shouted Kerrington into the darkness, but there was no reply.  He spent the rest of the evening patrolling the river bank, while the soldiers tended the wounded and fed the hungry.

Back at Hell Hole, at the height of the Ceremony, shortly after Bruin Hilda had begun singing, the chest with all of its dazzling jewels was carefully lowered into the magma, and as the final tones of the Gregorian Chant completed, it sank into the boiling pool along with the iron chains.  With a final wisp of smoke, it vanished below the lava line.  The lesser spirits wailed, defeated, shrieking as they fled, curses flying like bats from their lips as they faded away one by one.

Time had gone by, and the battle had been won.  Bruin Hilda's Song had caused panic among the greater spirits, and in disarray they spent their fury against one another, and a war between themselves broke out, instead of against their foe, because they perceived the foe was stronger than they.  With Bruin Hilda's aid the knight on one knee had been healed, and this tipped the balance so that the knights were able to complete the ceremony.  It was dawn by and the light of the rising sun was casting its glow across the tops of the cliffs.  The winds had subsided and a chipmunk could be heard chirping from a tuft of grass nearby.   

Bruin Hilda, having stayed through the night in case anything else might have happened, tended to the knights as they came wearily back to the wagon, exhausted, and covered in sweat and grime, and burns.

The leader of the Knights, who had gruffly brushed her off when they first met, now looked at her with respect and gratitude.  

"We would not have succeeded were it not for you," he said plainly. "We are grateful."

"I saw one of your men get injured, and I am here to help heal the people.  Even yours."

"The world needs more healers like you, my Lady."

"I appreciate your words," she said, glancing back towards her jeep.  She very much wished to get back to the encampment.

"You have a gift," he went on.  "You shouldn't squander it."

"I do not feel that helping others is squandering my gift!" she said, annoyed by his implication.

"Not at all.  I agree with you," he said quickly.  "But you could do more." 

"There is always opportunity to do more," she replied, not quite sure where he was going with this.

"I wish to present you with the opportunity, if you wish, and are willing," he said.

She looked towards the other side of the river where there were eight hundred refugees huddled among the rocks in the early morning light.  She could see the school bus there.  People were milling about, and fires were lit and there seemed to be calm in the camp.

"Those people are hungry, and tired, and they need me now," she said.

"Indeed they do," he agreed solemnly.  "The gift before you is an invitation to join the Golden Crusaders. You need not come with us now, but instead you ought to lead and protect the people.  You need only accept the Ceremony, and swear the oath of he Order sincerely, as a loyal and true soul.  With that you will transcend and be a Warrior of the Golden Crusader of Christ Lion, and will from then on wage war against evil with us.  You be a Warrior of the Army of Light, and will obtain the same powers that we have to fight the spiritual darkness, wherever we may go."

There was a long pause.  She wondered if there were any reason for her not to join. She couldn't think of a single one.  

"I, Bruin Hilda IV, would be honored to join this battle with you."

He gazed into her eyes with a solemn look, filled with congratulations and respect.

"You should know that joining the Crusaders is a grave responsibility.  It is not easy.  You will be asked to wage war against spiritual darkness.  We need Warriors against spiritual darkness in this time.  We have not yet made it to the light.  But we will.  And we will conquer, and we will succeed.  But we need your help.  If it seems good to you, we can bring you to The Gate of the Golden Lion.  When you pass through, you will be transformed, and you will be a Guardian of the Light, as we are.  And you will be able to obtain the same powers as we have.   And you will be always welcome where we are, and you will be welcome in the battles and wars that we must wage. Other than that, we ask that you always remember to give alms to the poor, and we ask that you heal the sick, and that you protect the innocent.  That you eschew corruption, and that you keep an honest word upon your tongue.  Can you do these things?"

There was a pause.

"I, in my heart, hope and desire to always live up to these ideals.  I will work and pledge in my heart to keep these rules."

"Good. Priests come forth. Let us perform the Ceremony of The Golden Lion of Christ as the dawn graces the horizon."

The chanting of the priest was inspiring beyond anything she'd ever known.  She was at one with the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion.  

She was transformed.  Her mind and body had been perfected.  

Then, once the Ceremony was completed, Geoffrey explained to her what the Ceremony of the Chest the night before had been about.

"In the chest we had captured and imprisoned the Chain of Thanatos.  The same one that had been lost by Captain Samwise back in Page, Arizona.  And now, finally, after so many ages, we have sent it back to Hades from whence it came, and where it belongs."

"I think there is a manticore who will be very pissed off to hear that," she commented wryly. 

"Indeed, there will be.  But we shall deal with that when the time comes," answered the Crusader warmly and with confidence.  He smiled.  She smiled.  They obtained a perfect understanding.

"In the meantime, the war continues," said Sir Geoffrey.  "And you must continue on your quest to bring your people to safety.  If you will follow my advice you will bring them to the town of Ely.  It is the safest area in this region.  It has good farmland.  And pure water.  There are settlements there.  The townsfolk of Ely resolve to never use a technology that was invented after the steam engine.  And further west, in the hills, live several bands who resolve to live like our ancestors in caves as primitives.  They are all good people striving to keep the earth whole, and wishing to heal the planet.  Your people will find friendship there."

Bruin Hilda thanked him.  And he thanked her again, and sent her off with his blessings, and those of the priests and the other Crusaders, all of whom saluted her.

"If you ever find yourself in the township of Page, Arizona, you can look us up at the Church of the Crystal Light.  We will be delighted to see you again."

"I would be honored," she replied.  "May I ask what is the next step in your mission?"

 "We will go to the mountain and we will pray.  The next step in our mission is to wage war against the Shadow King, whom you call the Manticore.  We bid you farewell.  May all blessings be with you."

And with that the Crusaders got on their horses and rode off into the dawn.