Had he known that it was Sabal who wanted him dead, he might have been less inclined to ignore the woman. After her small defeat in acquiring the pouch full of gems, and the loss of one of her best slave-girls, she had decided to make the young male pay for threatening to expose her thieving. Dishonesty and rampant theft were expected among their people, even encouraged by the chaotic goddess most drow revered. It was hardly unheard of for a drow merchant to sell an item at a high price, then have the buyer murdered shortly afterward, and take the item back to sell again. Such practices were considered just part of the risks of doing business in a dark elven city.
When she discovered that her assassin had failed, Sabal was furious. She had personally followed the lad to see which room he went into, and then had told the number to the Dagger. She had been amused by the irony of sending one of the guild’s members to murder the boy, knowing full well that no one would have expected a Dagger to slay a relative of their organization’s own founder. Of course, had the assassin known who his target was, he might have balked, fearing the wrath of his leader should he be caught. Knowing this, she had not told him the target’s name- only his description and the room number.
Now, several hours after the boy and his companions had left, she sat contemplating her next course. Her plot had failed, and the arrogant boy still lived. She still wanted him dead, of course- even if not for the enticement of the gems, the blow to her pride was enough in her mind to justify murdering him. Males had become far too bold and ambitious of late, to her mind, and though she was not of the Venom Queen’s clergy herself, her House was among those still faithful to the old ways. Fortunately, the assassin had been slain before he could reveal anything about his employer, which meant that she was safe for the time being. Yet this was not over; no, it was far from over….
The next evening, Lothir joined his friends at the fest hall again, though he kept his silver dagger on him at all times, along with two more blades concealed in his boots. He did not relish the prospect of fighting, and was even less keen on killing any would-be attacker, but he recognized the need for self-defense, and though he did not expect another attempt on his life so soon, he wanted to be ready. Paranoia, it seemed, was contagious.
Though there had been other attempts before- always by fellow students jealous of his status- this felt different. It felt more personal. For that reason, he kept his guardians close for once, hardly daring to set foot outside the compound walls without them following close behind. By now, their true purpose was a more-or-less known fact among his clique, but no one ever mentioned it, and the others seemed to take it as simply a sign of his status that he was allowed an armed escort outside the Academy’s walls. Since they stayed mostly out of the way and unseen, none of the youths thought much of it. To them, it simply meant that their noble-blooded companion was less vulnerable than their peers in case of treachery on their parts- a fact which they did not take lightly, and made them less likely to attempt any harm toward him.
When they entered Webdance, the three guardians followed at a discreet distance while the youths took their normal place near the musicians, and then took places of their own further down the table from the minstrels. All three looked about with alert eyes, scanning the crowds for possible signs of a threat to their charge. They need not have bothered. The first assassin had failed, and so the unknown conspirator had not yet had time to form another plot.
Lothir took his place in the pit when the wizards entered, anxiously awaiting the signal for the nedierra to begin. Over the previous weeks, he had grown steadily better, and now he was beginning to get a feel for how and when the music would change, and thus was learning to anticipate the changes to keep up. As soon as the drums started, he felt that familiar surge of something indefinable flowing through him, as if there was a voice within the beat that only he could hear. It called to him, a sweet siren song of pure joy and beauty, and he closed his eyes as he began to move to it, letting it envelop his soul. He embraced that feeling, for he suspected he knew its origin. Each time he had entered the contests, he had thought he heard- or rather, felt- the echo of the song the Moondancer had sung on that long ago night. This was his tribute to her, his holy prayer and sacrament.
On this particular night, he felt it stronger than ever, and when the music began in earnest, he threw back his head and howled out his exhilaration with the rest of the competitors. A high, ululating cry rose up from his throat, which was echoed by a hundred voices. Watching from the sidelines, six pairs of eyes took note, brows raised in curious puzzlement over the strange expression of emotion which none of them understood. And so it went. Minutes passed, beats changed, wound in and out, sped and slowed in an ever more intricate spiral, the frenzy building and ebbing with each new rhythm or tempo, always weaving a complex pattern of sound.
Most of the dancers were counted out within the first two or three tune changes, as some stumbled or slipped, others were left breathless and unable to continue, and a few simply found that they could not keep up. Minutes passed, the melody changed again and again in an ever more complicated play of tones and beats, and the crowd thinned as time went by. Yet still the young prince held his own, perhaps even began to rise higher in creative skill than the rest. He leaped, twirled, swayed, and dipped in a display of artistry that even those cavorting in their own exhibitions of physical dexterity soon began to envy.
After nearly an hour and a half, only a dozen or so were left. Three changes later, there were only eight. When the last four were left, it slowly began to dawn on the lad that he was now competing- though he did not think of it that way- with the best of the best. Valdra was still going strong not far from him, and two others on whom he had wagered in the past were all that remained. Another new rhythm began, and it seemed as if his feet found the new beat almost effortlessly, slipping from one pattern to the next as if it were a part of his very being. His clothes were damp with perspiration, his hair fell into his eyes, completely mussed and hanging limp in places where it stuck to his neck. His breath came in quick heaves, heart hammering in his chest like the pounding of a rothe’s hooves, but he did not care. He was lost within the drums and the melody, caught up in some primal, beautiful emotion that had no name.
Suddenly the music built to a frenzied, dizzying crescendo, more intricate and faster than ever. One of the three others- a male in a tight pair of dark green cannons and a matching vest, with a bald head and rings on every finger, as well as necklaces, arm bands, and ear and nose rings- lost his footing on the sweat-slicked floor, and was immediately lit by a judge. The next, a small, lithe female in a long gown studded with pearls, faltered a few moments later, and she too was eliminated. It was down to himself and Valdra now, and the older woman was amazed- and more than a little jealous- to see her own student suddenly her greatest opponent.
She spun toward him, kicking out with one leg high above her head, hoping the unexpected steps would startle him into loosing the rhythm. Instead he only mimicked her, and did so again when she side-stepped into a spinning leap. Impressed, the drowess tried every complicated step she knew, yet he kept pace, mirroring each one as if he had done it all his life. They continued in that way for two more changes of the beat, each coming faster and harder until they were both heaving near to exhaustion. At last, Valdra spun close to the lad, reaching out to swing him in an arc, deciding to turn the solos into a duet in hopes of throwing him off.
She was quickly disappointed when he spun away, and then came back quickly in an aerial kick that brought him neatly beside her, and took her in one arm to dip low with her before coming back up into another pivot and kick-step. Surprised by his move- one she had not taught him- she slid on the slippery floor as he dipped her, and kept going- right down on her rump. A pale white glow engulfed her, and suddenly, the competition was over. She looked back in astonishment, as she realized that the boy had won.
Only when the music stopped did he come out of the odd euphoric state and discover that the contest was over. He slowed to a stop, as he heard a wizard from among the judges announce him as the winner, the throng of dark elves who had either already been eliminated or who had been betting on the outcome all let out yells of mixed anger and smug amusement, depending on their position. As one, all twelve judges floated down; a thin, frail-looking older mage with a balding head and a strange clawed hand strode over to give him a polite congratulation, along with the evening’s prize, which was a set of three potion vials, each containing the valuable sleeping poison which dark elves frequently used to capture enemies alive for use as slaves or sacrifices.
Lothir muttered a brief acknowledgement of the praise, before returning to the table and his companions. He pulled his cloak from the bench, put it back on, and sat wearily down to rest, while his astonished fellow students congratulated him and offered him a cup of wine. He drank it in one swallow, and leaned back to enjoy the heady feeling of exhilaration and fatigue after having completed his first competition. The thrill of his victory was singing through every vein and nerve, as sweet- as addicting- as any drug.
He sat and listened to the idle chatter, nodding now and then at some inane comment from the others. After a while, however, the euphoria began to wear off, and he found the conversation less interesting than it should have been. Somehow, after having felt the touch of inspired triumph, of pure joy, nothing else could ever compare. He knew he had heard the song of the Moondancer in his blood, and now it ran like fire through his soul, burning away everything else.
He was interrupted in his reverie by a nudge from Durnozz, who was looking at him strangely. “Hey, high-nose! Did you hear me, or are you too busy ignoring us low-borns?”
‘’Huh- what?” The young noble shook himself out of the blissful obliviousness to look at his companion. “Sorry, I was just- thinking.” It was a weak excuse, but he knew they would never understand what had happened to him on the pit floor this night.
“I said, why don’t we all go to see the Games? There isn’t much else going on here. Besides, we made quite a few coins off of you tonight. I say we all celebrate.” Durnozz held up his glass of the dark crimson wine known as Spider Blood, and waved a mock toast.
“Gladiators again- what is it with you wanting to see people killing each other for sport?” Lothir rolled his eyes, wondering why the group’s nominal leader was so bloodthirsty.
“Speaking of killing- who do you think sent that assassin after you?” Taztran asked suddenly. “Maybe it was a rival for the top spot in the Melee.”
The young prince shook his head. “I doubt that- I’ve never been higher than fourth. It’s not as if there isn’t anyone higher-ranked than me to go after. Besides, it wasn’t one of the students, and if any of them wanted me dead, they would do it themselves, not hire someone else.”
Taz let out a harsh laugh. “Don’t be so certain! You’ve been here long enough to have heard of the rule of denial. If it can’t be traced back to you, you can’t be held accountable. Every weanling knows that.”
“He’s right, you know. Anyone could have greased that Dagger’s palm for the job. Know anyone you might have annoyed enough for them to want to kill you?” G’eldreth asked.
Lothir shook his head, wondering who would have reason for taking such subtle measures. If Taztran had not killed the assassin, he might have learned the employer’s identity, but now he might never know. “No. I can’t think of anyone,” he said at last.
“Hmm, well then, why don’t we shelve the discussion for now in favor of having some good bloody fun, shall we?” Durnozz replied.
As usual, Kethan and Filas agreed- as they always seemed to do, being little more than toadies to the tatooed youth- and even Nymtyr nodded enthusiastically. Taz merely shrugged, having nothing better to do. G’eldreth waited for Lothir’s response, having long since become, next to Taztran, at least, his staunchest supporter Having no better suggestion, he finally agreed, and G’eldreth followed suit. With the matter settled, the band of friends rose and headed for the door; the trio of ever-present guardians followed discreetly behind, always keeping their charge in sight, and their hands near their weapons in vigilant readiness.
A half hour later, they had taken seats in a comfortable box in the stands of the massive Battle Dome, which consisted of a fighting pit more than a hundred paces long, and half that distance wide, surrounded by tiers of long benches for the common masses, with rows of enclosed viewing boxes at either end. The pit was nearly twenty feet deep, carved right out of the cavern floor. A roof of calcified webs supported by magically altered spires which curved inward toward the pit covered the entire arena. Eight entrances were placed at intervals around the outside, each with steps leading up the stands for access.
As he sat waiting for the next match to begin- they had arrived between bouts- Lothir looked around in morbid curiosity, taking in the throngs of rabid fans of the so-called “Games”, which were really nothing more than forced battles between slaves trained just for that purpose, as well as condemned souls who were considered unfit for use as sacrifices, but had earned their deaths for committing sacrileges against the Venom Queen or who had been disgraced from their houses. Most of the unfortunate combatants were surfacers or the stronger slave races, but occasionally, a drow of exceptional skill at arms who wished to make a name for himself would enter voluntarily in hopes of improving his status in the city. Those who did were almost always given an unfair advantage over their opponents, of course.
On this particular evening, a match had been scheduled between a well-known rising dark-elven gladiator and a half-dozen captured surface elves from Whisperwood on the Anterrian mainland. The fair-haired elves were led into the pit in chains, by a heavily-armed escort of drow warriors, and only when they had been unchained and a pile of weapons and a few shields left on the ground before them did the escort leave and slam down the gates of the pit behind them.
As they scrambled to arm themselves in what they must have known was a futile attempt at defense, a dark elf entered the pit from a gate at the far end. He was easily taller than any other drow the young prince had ever seen, and wore nothing at all above the waist. He was built like a large human, wide of chest, with limbs whose girth was larger than any two other drow. Though dark elves were generally smaller and shorter than their surface kin, this one dwarfed even his opponents.
Stranger still was the huge two-handed sword he held as easily as if it weighed almost nothing. He stalked into the middle of the arena with a deceptively calm expression. The captive elves all stood close together, wielding swords, or in one case, a bow, and eyed the drow warrior warily. One, a female who had clearly been harshly used before being sent into the arena, glared at the dark elven opponent with hate and vengeance in her green eyes. The others were all males, and all bore the marks off torture and battle.
Then the elves called out as one with a battle-cry to their gods, and the archer among them let fly an arrow at the drow, as the others began to rush at him, perhaps thinking that they could overpower the lone drow. They were wrong. The arrow struck home, but he had already begun to dodge its flight, so that it merely embedded itself into is upper left arm. Grinning like a madman, the drow’s eyes took on a wild, almost demonic look, and he roared in fury, as he rushed to meet the charging elves.
Lothir watched in horrified silence, as the drow swung his huge blade at the leading elf, a lean fellow with coppery red hair using a pair of short swords. The fair-skinned combatant raised his blades to block the attack, and was promptly thrown back by the force of the blow, stumbling as he lost his footing. Surprised, he was almost cut in half by the return swing, but managed to hop back out of the way just in time.
A second elf joined him, stabbing at the drow with a rapier, a dirk in his off hand for defense. Unfortunately, he had not accounted for the strength in his foe’s arms, for the huge blade shattered his dirk as he raised it to ward off the back-swing. A look of fear spread over his face, and he spun away to try to attack from the side, while the female joined in with a long sword and a shield, slashing out at the drow’s legs. Her attack was stopped short when he rushed straight at her, narrowly avoiding the second swing from the red-haired elf, and causing the one with the rapier to lunge at empty air. He bowled into her like a wild boar, and her shield was all that kept her from being cleaved in half as he brought the over-sized blade down. She fell back to the ground, rolling aside instantly, while the dark elf spun around with a mightily swing of his sword that took the red-haired elf by surprise as he turned to face his foe.
The blade sheared through his middle easily, slicing through spine and flesh like butter. The elf went down with a scream, his entrails spilling out onto the hard stone floor of the pit, along with his life’s blood. The archer let loose another arrow, which stuck in the drow’s right buttock, but seemed hardly to slow him down. The last two closed in then, one armed with a spear, the other with a net and a katar, which was more commonly called a punching dagger. He maneuvered around to come up behind the drow, while the golden haired elf with the spear thrust at their enemy from just behind the female.
Lothir stifled a gasp of horror when he saw the first captive slain, and almost became ill. For a moment, he had dared to hope that they might overpower the dark elven warrior by force of greater numbers, but now he realized that the enemy the captive fighters faced was no ordinary opponent, but a rager. He had ignored both wounds from the archer, and had used a strength almost unheard of to shatter the dirk and cleave through the elf who now lay dead. With a low growl of primal fury, the rager swung again, only to be met by the female’s shield. She stabbed at him, her blade thrusting into his left thigh, but once again, the drow only seemed to grow more angry, and continued as if he felt no pain.
Now he was wounded in several places, yet still he fought, slamming the pommel of his sword into the stomach of the elf with the rapier. The elf doubled over, nearly dropping his slender blade. Seeing a chance, the one with the net threw it at he drow, hoping to ensnare him for an easy kill from the others. He was utterly astonished to see the drow’s huge blade shear through the strands as if they were no more than thin silk. Undaunted, the elf punched with his katar, landing a glancing blow to the drow’s side.
Lothir was growing more uncomfortable with every moment, realizing that unless one of them managed to land a fatal blow, the elves in the pit were all doomed. The drow down there with them would not stop until he was dead. They suddenly seemed to understand this too, for they began to attack more cautiously, each one darting in from a flank, only to retreat when he spun to retaliate. This had two effects; first, it began to wear him down little by little, and second, it drove him into an even deeper rage. At last, panting and dripping with blood and sweat, he launched himself at the one who had thrown the net, his sword smashing down to literally disarm the surprised elf, who cried out in fear, and scrambled back cradling the stump of his now missing hand.
The drow kept coming after him, in spite of a spear-thrust to his back. He swung out at the defenseless captive, who could only drop to the ground and roll away, then dash toward the pile of weapons in an attempt to defend himself once more. He came up with a shield, bringing it up in front of him just as the drow charged at him with his sword raised over his head. The dark elf brought it smashing down at him with a yell of fury, and the power of his attack cracked the shield in half. The others, hoping to save their friend, attacked him from behind- only to have him bring the blade angling down in a wide arc that turned sideways, as he swung it in a full circle at them. Two of them fell to his sword without even a chance to block it, their heads being severed even before they could make a sound.
The female and her remaining companion scattered, as the archer raised his bow to aim once again, and suddenly found himself the object of the drow’s attention. He had forgotten the one with the missing hand for the moment, and now focused on the two remaining threats. He charged at the archer, who had time to let fly his arrow before he threw down the weapon and ran. He had nowhere to go, but that hardly seemed to matter. He simply did not want to be caught by that deadly mountain of enraged dark elven might. He passed by the pile of weapons, and grabbed a javelin, and turned briefly to throw it. He missed. The woman yelled in anger, and charged up from the drow’s off-side with a wild swing, but he turned at the sound and shoved his blade deep into her ribs. She looked startled for an instant, then dropped her own weapon, and slumped to the ground without a sound as he yanked the blade back out again. A cry of elation went up from the spectators, all of them overflowing with bloodlust.
By now, the last two had retreated to the gate, pleading loudly to be released. The crowd jeered and snarled down curses at their hated cousins, laughing as the frenzied warrior advanced on the helpless pair. With all of their friends gone, they knew they had no chance left. Still, they turned to face the drow valiantly- one with only a broken shield and one hand, the other with no weapon. They moved to tackle him and wrestle him down bare-handed, but he proved far stronger, and knocked the one-handed one aside with a hard blow from his elbow to that one’s jaw.
He dropped his huge sword, and grabbed the second elf by the throat, yanking him off his feet. Lothir heard the crowd cheering as he squeezed, and there was a sickening snapping sound; then the elf went limp. The last one screamed as he tried frantically to escape his fate, and made a fervent plea for mercy. His cry was ignored. The drow came on, and picked him up over his head, struggling and screaming in terror. Then he went down on one knee, and brought his squirming victim down over his other knee, snapping his spine. The elf’s scream of agony was cut short, as the drow picked him up, still barely alive, and slammed him against the spikes of the gate, pinning him to it with a half-dozen iron spikes poking out of his body.
Lothir stared, stricken by the brutality of what he had just witnessed. “They never had a chance…” he said softly to himself, while his companions cheered and hooted at the vicious warrior’s victory. He hardly heard the shouts of excited drow who had bet on the hulking warrior to win, nor did he pay attention to his friends as they clapped each other on the back in jubilation. In truth, he could not see what was worth cheering about.
At last, he sighed, and decided that he had seen enough. How anyone could enjoy such cruel “sport” was beyond his understanding. He rose, and left the box without a word to his companions. As always, the three guards followed him out, as he wandered along through the bustling streets, unable to shake the images of the deaths from his mind. Though he had long known how brutal and cruel his own kind could be, this was the first time he had seen it first-hand; somehow, though, he doubted it would be the last.
After a while, he realized that his steps had taken him almost to his private retreat, and he paused, uncertain whether to continue to the small manor, or to turn away to avoid the trio of guardians discovering his best-kept secret. Thus far, he had been careful not to be seen coming or going, so that no one would connect him to the shop Arianna had so recently opened, with the help of Giselle. The young halfling girl had taken to Arianne quickly, as he had known she would. Within only two days, the pair had become almost like sisters, and had even agreed- albeit reluctantly- to his suggestion that they both wear their collars whenever they went out to do errands in the city markets. He had given them the keys, of course, so that they could remove them whenever they wished. In that way, they could do as they wished and none would dare challenge them, for he had sanded down the symbols of their previous owners and replaced them with that of his own family.
Suddenly, he dashed into a side-alley, and pulled up his hood to become invisible; then he levitated up onto the angled roof of a small shop, and raced silently across to leap onto the next. He smirked as he heard the trio cursing down below, and ran on, leaping from one stone rooftop to the next, until he had come to the end of the winding avenue where his private manor sat. He slipped in through the narrow door at the front before finally pulling off his hood- which startled the two women where they sat together chatting as they sewed an elegant if somewhat revealing gown- and striding up the few stairs to the small suite of rooms he had claimed as his own. He said not a word to the pair, who simply stared after him in puzzled curiosity, but did not attempt to follow. They both understood that he did not wish to be disturbed. The drow stayed there all through the night, silently contemplating all that he had seen, and singing softly to himself in prayer to the Moondancer for the fallen elves. Only when he heard the first gong of the morning from the nearby temple to the goddess Ocarina- the dread Lady of Bones- did he finally leave his small chapel and return to the Academy.