Finally, the seven companions
reach the edge of the desert. The ground begins to be less sandy, capable of
supporting life. There are patches of grass here and there, and the farther
they travel. The more frequently the grassy patches appear, and the larger the
patches become. Soon they can see trees in the distance.
Princess Ariel seems to be in a better mood since the fight with the slavers. Apparently a little bit of violence is just what she needed to bring herself out of her slump. She's not 100% her old self just yet, but it appears she's on her way to beginning to heal. Perhaps a few more conflicts with Wrath-Amon's minions, or better yet Gideon himself, and she should be well on her way to being her old self again.
The companions cross a great meadow and come to the edge of a great valley. The trees are great and lively, several species all about. Maple, birch, fir, pine, hickory, willow, and scores more. The air is heavy with the scent of their aromas, as well as those of cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, wild blueberries, and a dozen other smells. Multicoloured butterflies flutter about, so many of them the whole valley looks to be alive. Princess Ariel sits on her mare in awe at the sight.
"This is The Valley of Bones?" She asks.
"Aye," says Conan.
"How did such a glorious place get such a frightful name?"
"A great battle took place here, long ago," explains Grey Wolf, "Centuries ago, before the oceans drank Atlantis, a company of Atlantean soldiers were marching down this valley, a thousand strong. They were ambushed by Stygian knights. Taken by surprise, surrounded, and outnumbered ten to one, the Atlantean infantry shouldn't have had a chance. But the Atlanteans were among the finest soldiers in the known world of their day. They fought the Stygians to a stalemate. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Both forces were reduced in number from thousands, to mere dozens. The ranking officers of both sides agreed to a truce, and the two armies ceased hostilities and went about burying their dead. They turned this valley into a giant graveyard. It is rumored that the valley is haunted. That the spirits of those slain soldiers battle each other on the valley floor, to this very day."
"Bah!" Scoffs Thundarr, "Superstitious fairy tales. I have no fear of the dead. It's the living I worry about."
And with that, the blonde barbarian leads his white Stallion into the valley. Conan laughs, and urges Thunder to follow his friend. Jezmine and Zula follow Conan. Grey Wolf and Princess Ariel come next, with Ookla bringing up the rear.
Miles away, in his scrying room at The Temple Of Set, Wrath-Amon watches the heroes enter The Valley Of Bones in his scrying pool. The evil wizard let's out a frustrated hiss as he witnesses his most hated enemies entering the valley.
"You are wrong barbarian," he says to the image in the pool, his voice dripping with venom, "You most certainly should be worried about the dead. For very soon . . . you will be joining them!"
With that, Wrath-Amon turns and stalks away. Slithering close to his heels is Dregs.
"Wrath-Amon," says the naga, "Where are you going? What are you going to do?"
"Glasya and her kin have failed me," replies the wizard, "Twice! I shall send someone I have far more faith in."
"One who will be virtually invincible in The Valley of Bones," replies Wrath-Amon.
"You don't mean . . ."
They enter a great chamber, in which a stone coffin rests on a large dais in the middle of the room. Wrath-Amon points his Black Ring of Set at the sarcophagus and unleashes a beam of green energy. The stone coffin glows, and the lid slides over to one side. Dregs cowers behind Wrath-Amon's legs as a skeletal figure rises out of the sarcophagus. It is dressed in ancient armor, wears a horned helmet on its head, and has long straggly white hair clinging to its skull. It steps out of its coffin and walks up to the wizard, dropping to one knee in servitude.
"Skulkur," says Wrath-Amon, "Conan and his friends are traveling through The Valley of Bones. Destroy them all, and bring me their weapons."
"As you command," says Skulkur in his raspy, hollow voice.
The undead warrior turns and marches away. He climbs aboard his chariot, takes up the reins and snaps them, sending his team of skeletal horses galloping through the air. Dregs shivers as he watches Skulkur fly away. The naga never learned to become comfortable around Wrath-Amon's undead minion. Likely because he's a constant reminder of the consequences of displeasing the dark wizard. But also because of the simple fact that, Skulkur is no longer alive.
In The Valley of Bones, night has fallen. Thundarr pushes the group as far into the valley as he can before even one as stubborn as he has to admit that it's too dark out to ride any farther. They set up camp and build a large fire to keep the darkness and the night's chill at bay. Needle peaks his head out of Conan's shield and looks around.
"Needle not like this place," says the little phoenix, "It's spooky."
"It looks much nicer during the day," replies Conan, "Fear not. We shall be on the move again at first light."
Ookla growls something to the little phoenix. Thundarr laughs and pats his friend on the shoulder.
"Aye, old friend," says the barbarian, "Ookla says that you have nothing to fear with all of us here to protect you."
"Really?" says Needle.
"Absolutely," replies Ariel, "After all, we owe you our lives. Had it not been for you, some of us would still be under the succubi's spell. And some of us would be dead."
Needle flies over to Princess Ariel and lands on her lap, snuggling down to make himself more comfortable. The sorceress chuckles and pets the magical bird's plumage. The baby phoenix closes his eyes and enjoys the attention. Thundarr smiles at the sight. If Needle were a cat, the barbarian swears he would be purring right about now.
Just as the group of travelers are settling down for a good night's sleep, they're aroused by the clamoring of what sounds like heavily armored soldiers. Thundarr and Conan both leap to their feet, their swords in hand and ready to take on any foe. Grey Wolf takes up his staff and steps between Princess Ariel and the approaching sound. Jezmine grabs a shuriken from her bracer and prepares to throw it. Zula takes out his bolas and begins twirling them overhead. Ookla grabs his mighty mok bow and knocks a stun arrow, prepared to fire as soon as it's necessary. None of them were prepared, however, for what they saw.
Marching three by three down The Valley of Bones, are the ghostly apparitions of the Atlantean soldiers who died there so very long ago. They look exactly as they did in life, except that they were completely transparent. They marched right past the campsite, not even registering the existence of the seven companions.
"Lords of Light!" says Thundarr in surprise.
"Crom," says Conan.
"Mitra," whispers Jasmine.
Ookla howls in his bestial tongue. The marching specters continue to ignore the camping travelers. As the ghostly soldiers march past the companions, suddenly, without warning, the spirits are attacked by an unseen enemy. Translucent arrows fly through the air, cutting down the Atlantean troops. Then, out of the bushes, come the spirits of the Stygian army. Thundarr and Conan swing madly at the attacking soldiers, only to find their blades pass harmlessly through the attacking phantasms.
"Thundarr! Conan! Stop!" cries Ariel, "You can't harm them! They're only phantoms! Spirits doomed to relive their last days on Earth over and over again! For all eternity,"
Sure enough, the spirits fight each other. Their ghostly weapons penetrating each other’s phantasmal bodies. But otherwise, causing no major disturbance in the surrounding valley.
"Demon dogs!" Thundarr curses, "Why do these spirits fight each other so, after all these years?"
"They're trapped," explains Princess Ariel, "They're doomed to relive their final battle over and over again until one side or the other is victorious. But because historically they fought each other to a stalemate, they can never end this vicious cycle they're stuck in."
So the seven companions sit back and watch as one of the greatest battles in Hyborean history replays itself right before them. And just as the legends say, the two armies battle it out to a draw. Each time a spirit is impaled by an enemy spear, or slashed by an enemy sword, it would collapse to the ground as though mortally wounded. Conan shakes his head in sorrow at the horrid sight.
"By Crom, this is madness," he says, "Fighting the same battle over and over again. What do they hope to accomplish?"
"Victory," replies Thundarr, even though the question was rhetorical in nature.
"Conan's right," says Jezmine, "It's madness."
"On our world we have a saying," says Princess Ariel, "it goes, 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result each time'."
"What does that mean?" Conan asks.
"What you just said yourself, my blood brother," replies Zula, "That these spirits fighting a constant war which they can never win is madness."
After what seems like hours, the ghostly apparitions cease their conflict and fade from view. The companions hope that this is the last they see of The Ghost War, as they have come to think of the night's events. Once more they settle down for a good night's rest. Luckily for them, nothing else disturbs them for the rest of the evening. The next morning they all set out for Wyrm Mountain once more. Needle leaves Conan's shield and flies about their heads, quite happy to be free of that hot and dusty desert. Not that the heat really bothers him, being a phoenix and all, but no trees means no pomegranates. The companions barely travel a whole mile before they hear the sound of hooves galloping towards them. Thundarr turns to Grey Wolf for an answer.
"More ghosts?" he asks.
"I'm not sure," admits the wizard, "Perhaps."
"I thought the ghosts of this valley only came out at night," says Ariel.
"Maybe they can come out whenever they want," says Jezmine, "Hardly anyone ever comes here who can tell us for certain that they can't."
"Needle look and see!" says Needle, "Be right back!"
And with that, the excitable baby phoenix flies off around the bend. In only a moment or two, he comes flying right back, a look of panic on his face.
"Skulkur!" he shrieks, "Skulkur is coming! Skulkur is coming!"
Ookla growls a question.
"I don't know, old friend," replies Thundarr, and he turns to his new friends, "Who is Skulkur?"
Conan draws his sword and points it down at the road ahead.
"That is Skulkur," he says.
Up ahead, Skulkur drives his chariot into view, his skeletal horses slowing to a stop. Skulkur draws his sword and points it at the ground between himself and the seven adventurers. A red beam of light leaps from the tip of his blade and strikes the ground.
"Arise!" says Skulkur, "Arise! ARISE!"
Suddenly, the ground seems to come alive around them. Great mounds of earth start bulging up from the valley floor. Then skeletal hands begin digging their way out of the mounds. Soon skeletons, dressed in ancient and corroding armor, rise up from the earth. They draw their ancient rusted swords and take up their old and beaten shields. Their armor still bears the standards of the Atlantean and Stygian armies.
"ATTACK!" shouts Skulkur.
At their master's command, the skeletal army attack the companions.
"Demon Dogs!" cries Thundarr as he takes out his Sunsword and ignites the blade.
The blonde barbarian cuts down every skeletal soldier that gets within reach of his Sunsword. Two skeleton soldiers try attacking Ookla. The mok simply reaches down, grabs the two of them, then picks them up and smashes them together. The skeletons fall to the ground in pieces. Several skeletons try and attack Princess Ariel. She blasts them with balls of magical energy, reducing them to piles of bones. Grey Wolf smashes several of the skeletons with his magic staff, also reducing them to piles of bones, and then blasts some that are further away with his magic.
Conan cuts down every skeleton that gets near him, his Star Metal blade turning them into piles of bones. Zula whirls his bolas about him, using them as a makeshift flail for striking the skeletons that get too near, and then hurling the weapon at those that are farther away. Every skeleton warrior struck by the Star Metal bolas collapses in a heap. Jasmine hurls her shuriken at the skeletons, one after the other. Each throwing star that strikes a skeleton reduces it to a pile of unmoving bones. The shuriken return to their owner, who immediately throws them again.
"Lords of Light!" cries Thundarr in surprise.
All of the skeletons that he, Ookla, and Ariel had destroyed have all reanimated, while all those struck down by Conan and his friends remain just piles of bones.
"My Sunsword cuts them down, but they keep getting back up!" cries the barbarian as he cuts them down again.
Ookla howls as he smashes one skeleton after another to pieces, only to have them reform moments later.
"Even my magic can't keep them down!" says Ariel as she keeps blasting away at the skeleton army.
"Star Metal!" cries Conan, "Only Star Metal can undo the magic that animates them!"
"Then what can we do?" asks Thundarr.
"Their power source is the one who animated them!" says Grey Wolf, "Defeat Skulkur, and you defeat his army of the undead!"
"Then what are we waiting for?" asks Thundarr, "Ookla! Ariel! Follow Me!"
And Thundarr charges his white stallion at Skulkur, cutting his way through the skeletons standing in between them and the undead captain of this skeletal army. Ookla and Ariel follow right behind the fearless barbarian. Princess Ariel raises her hands above her head and unleashes a flurry of magical bolts, blasting any undead soldiers that get in the way and further clearing the path between them and Skulkur. Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla all leap from their mounts and square off against Wrath-Amon's servant. Just as they are about to attack this new adversary, thousands of spirits fill the road, walking out of the trees without a whisper of a sound. Thundarr's not sure why, but somehow they seem more sinister, more dangerous, than they did the other night.
"Demons of Darkness! What now?" asks Thundarr.
Two of the spirits approach
Thundarr, Ookla, Ariel, and Skulkur. They appear to be the generals of the two
armies who had died here long ago. They point at the four individuals.
"You have disturbed the rest of those who dwell here!" they say in unison.
"Not us!" says Ariel, "It was him! We were only trying to pass through peacefully when he attacked us unprovoked!"
"We know," say the generals, "We have been watching. You and your friends may pass unharmed. We will deal with this one."
The spirits of the slain soldiers attack their reanimated bodies. Every ghostly warrior who runs a skeleton through with his phantasmal spear, or cuts one down with his spectral sword or ax, causes that skeleton to burst into flames and crumble into ash. And for every skeleton that bursts into flame, one ghostly warrior vanishes. The two generals turn their attentions to Skulkur. Wrath-Amon's undead puppet gets back into his chariot and flees, with these two specters hot on his heels. Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel head back to rejoin the others.
"That was too close," says Jezmine.
"We are lucky that the spirits of this land are honorable," agrees Ariel.
"We had best be on our way," says Conan, "Who knows what surprises Wrath-Amon has in store for us."
"And I don't want to be around if those spirits decide to change their minds," adds Thundarr.
Ookla howls his agreement with the barbarians.
"Then let us make haste," says Zula, "If we hurry, we can be out of this valley by nightfall."
So they all mount their horses and ride off as fast as their steeds can carry them. Unbeknownst to them, Glasya, Gideon, and Delilah are all watching this entire affair from the tree tops.
"You're right, my dear Conan," says the demoness, "Wrath-Amon does have more in store for you. Much, much more."
Then she and her two demonic companions take to the air, flying to set their next trap for the companions. In The Giant Wood.