Darksong- Warning, mature content.

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Tue Sep 07, 2010 11:55 pm

He left the next morning, after breakfast, after stopping briefly in the kitchen to gather supplies for his journey. Gruchak was there, and the pudgy goblin eagerly ran to help him find what he wanted. The ugly creature remembered his previous generosity, and was anxious to please, hoping he would be rewarded once again.

“Greet yous, young Master! What can Gruchak gets yous?” he asked excitedly.

“I need more fish- enough for at least a week- and some journey rations. And a basket with a lid, as long as it has holes in it, and some sort of latch. Can you get me those things?” he replied. He disliked dealing with goblins, as they were usually poor at remembering multiple tasks, but there was no help for it.

The goblin scratched his scraggly-haired head, thinking. After what seemed far too long, he nodded, flashing a sharp-toothed grin. “Yous wants, I gets!” he said, and shuffled off to find the requested items.

He came back several minutes later, with a basket and two large sacks. One was bulging with salted fish, the other held strips of rothe jerky, boiled lizard eggs, some mushroom stuffed crabs wrapped in kelp fronds, and several rolls made from lichen flour. He held out the prizes with a wide smile, drool dripping from his yellowed fangs, and looked up at the drow hopefully.

“See, Master? Gruchak get fishies, and big basket. Lot’s of good eats, too! Good Gruchak, help Master!” His head bobbed up and down, as he grinned stupidly at the youth.

Lothir simply gave him a reassuring smile and nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Good help,” he answered, and took the supplies. “Thank you. You can take an extra bowl of soup at dinner.” The goblin seemed pleased, and hopped up and down happily at that, grinning.

“Oh, thank yous! Master is good master! Gruchak happy!” came the excited reply.

The drow sighed, and left the House compound, making his way down to the beach. After a brief struggle to get the albatross into the basket- for he knew of no other way to carry it- he took it, and the two sacks tied together over one shoulder, along with his small travel pack of clothes, bedroll, and a few small items for survival, and slipped through the low, narrow crack that led out to his secret domain.

His first stop, of course, was to visit Shelatchka. He sang a merry tune Ravyn had taught him as he approached her lair, in part to let her know it was him, though it was a song he had always liked. She changed to her dark-elven form as he entered the small cavern, and greeted him with a sultry smile. As always, he trembled slightly at the sight of her shape-shifting, and took a step back warily when she came near. He still did not entirely trust the wily female spider, in spite of her promise not to harm him.

“So, I see you survived the Blooding, my little sweetmeat. Was it difficult? And what is that?” she asked, gesturing to the basket he carried. “Did you bring me another gift? Careful, little man, or I might begin to think you were trying to court me!” She laughed softly, a low, almost purring sound, and moved closer, her bare hips swaying enticingly.

Lothir gulped, and shook his head quickly. “N-no. It’s nothing for you. I found an injured bird, and I’m taking it to my valley Above. It can’t live down here. I took my prey for the Blooding there, too, so no one would find him. I’m giving the bird to him to take care of.”

She gave him a flirty pout, one hand reaching up to stroke his left ear seductively. She moved closer still, until her soft breasts brushed lightly against his shirt-front. “You’d give it to someone else, but not to me? Truly, I’m hurt, handsome morsel!” she purred huskily against his cheek, leaning over him. Her other hand traced a path down his chest to his belt; he jerked away, alarmed at her amorous advance.

“Do you mind? That’s really creepy, you know. I don’t even like spiders- no offense. Besides, him, I trust not to eat it. You? Not so much.” He pulled her hand away, and gave her a warning stare that made the aranea laugh.

“And who is this mystery enemy? Why did you not kill him as tradition demands? You are quite a puzzle, little drow. You tried to kill me in my own home, yet let a chosen foe live? Such a strange little morsel you are!” She laughed again, teasing him.

Lothir scowled, annoyed. “It was a dragon- a silver. And he’s not really my enemy. I didn’t want to fight him any more than I wanted to kill you. I only fought you because you tried to eat me, you know.” He stared up at her defiantly, as if daring her to argue the point.

Shelatchka stepped back from him, surprised, and cocked her head in thought. She could not decide whether he was lying, or if he truly had faced a dragon. Perhaps she had grossly underestimated this particular young drow. She knew well enough how determined and clever he could be- was he brave enough to face down a dragon? She studied him for a long moment, and decided that he was, indeed.

“Well, I’m impressed! That must have been quite an encounter! And you showed him mercy, even as you did with me. No wonder you helped him to hide! No doubt your Matron would have fits if she knew!” She chuckled, and finally shrugged. “Well, since you won’t let me have it, I shouldn’t keep you from your journey. But do be careful. It would be a shame to lose my only real visitor.” The aranea flashed him an amused smile, waved to him before transforming back to her arachnid form, and scuttled back up to her web, chittering in mirth.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Tue Sep 07, 2010 11:58 pm

Some time later, he came to his geode cavern. He poked his head inside, and cautiously cast a small mage-light on one of the crystals, but found it empty. However, he could see that Sivestrik had been there, for the floor was cleared of all the broken crystals, and he noticed that several large ones- beryls and various quartzes, mostly, with a few corundum and rough topaz stones as well- had been removed near the entrance. He grinned to himself, knowing that the dragon had helped himself to the gems in order to begin his own hoard. Indeed, he had brought along a few obscure items from his family’s treasury as a gift for his friend.

The offering consisted mainly of a small bag of coins, rings, and a silver trinket box, as well as a pair of matched gold-hilted daggers, a magic missile wand, and a spellbook taken from the former House Mage’s collection. He understood that wyrms were fond of such things, though he had no idea why. Magic of any kind especially fascinated them, as did gold, in spite of the fact that they had no real use for it that he knew of.

It was late evening by the time he finally climbed out of the hole beneath the oak tree and called out to Sivestrik. When he finally heard an answering shout, he had nearly reached the clearing at the end of the forest trail, and the sun was beginning to set. He saw the dragon come winging down from the sky, the rosy sunset turning his gleaming scales to silvery-pink fire. The young drow stared in awe of such a sight; only twice before had he beheld anything so wondrous and beautiful- and one of those had been a goddess!

He waved to the dragon as he landed, his eyes bright with unabashed joy. Sivestrik had obviously been out hunting, for he carried the carcass of some large animal in one taloned foot. As he approached, he nodded to the drow, and set it down on the ground near the clearing’s edge. Lothir soon realized that it was one of the slender-legged creatures he had seen on earlier visits to the valley. This one had a set of many-pronged horns on its small head, and he remembered that Sivestrik had called it a deer, and that the horns meant that it was male.

“Ho, drowling! I did not expect to see you again so soon! You are just in time for dinner! I hope you like venison.” He flexed his huge wings, and shook his frilled head, the tall crest of spines shimmering in the fading light.

Lothir crouched down to examine the animal. He had seen the creatures before, but only from a distance. He touched the dead buck’s soft neck, amazed by the feel of the short, smooth fur. Creatures in the Underdark generally did not have fur. The few which did usually were covered in thick, shaggy coats, like the rothe.

“It’s beautiful,” he said softly, touching the velvet-covered prongs on its head. He could not help feeling a pang of sadness for its death, though he knew the dargon needed to eat. He heard a strange crackling sound beside him, and looked up to see Sivestrik changing to his elven shape. He wondered for a moment why anything so powerful would enjoy spending so much time as a much smaller and weaker creature, but said nothing.

“Since you brought the food last time, I suppose it’s only fair that I share mine. How are you at cooking?” The silver-haired youth asked, grinning.

The drow shrugged, and shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”

“Are, what good are you, then?!” teased Sivestrik with a chuckle.

<<As much good as an elf who can’t use a sword,>> Lothir retorted, speaking the dragon’s tongue without even thinking. Then his head shot up in surprise as he realized what he had done. He blinked, wondering how he had even known the foreign tongue.

The dragon seemed to be wondering the same thing, for his head suddenly whipped around to stare at the drow boy. <<I thought you could not speak my language, drowling,>> he said, his emerald eyes narrowed.

The dark elf stared back in confusion, and shook his head slowly. “So did I,” he said, this time in auld elvish once more. “I’ve never been able to before- but somehow, I just knew how…” He thought for a few seconds; slowly it came to him, as he remembered flashes of though and words, memories of ancient lore that were not his, in tomes written in tongues he had never known.

Yet now he not only knew them, but could speak them. It was the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of Rythiel, the elf-mage’s parting gift. The gem had instilled knowledge of new magics in his mind, as well, though some were still beyond his present abilities. He decided that he would take time during his visit with Sivestrik to practice them. Among them was a spell to alter the sounds within an area, creating any sounds he wished, from the din of a battle to a soft murmur of whispers, or the roar of a dragon. There was even a simple cantrip to clean his clothes. That one made him smile to himself, for he had often been chided by Ravyn for returning from his forays with his clothes dirty and his hair full of dust.

“Surely such learning did not come on its own,” the elven lad replied at last, still skeptical. “Where did it come from?”

“Well,” he said finally, frowning. “It must have been the gem. I found my father’s Telu’Kirra in the vaults, and I put it on. I saw….” He paused, uncertain whether to tell his friend about the terrible things he had discovered.

“A Lore Gem? I see. Those are rare. I’m surprised a dark elf would even have one. Consider yourself lucky you were able to access its wisdom at all. At least now we can talk in more than one tongue!” Sivestrik smiled, and the drow grinned back and nodded enthusiastically.

With that, they both set to work making a small campfire to cook the meat. Lothir volunteered to skin the deer, since he had more skill with his dagger, while the young wyrm went off to find wood for the fire. There was some difficulty getting it lit, as neither had much experience with making fires, but between them they eventually managed it. By the time they had done that, it was well and truly dark. When the deer was roasting over a crude spit, they sat and talked for a while. Lothir told him of what he had learned, though he almost wept from shame and sadness more than once.

“Don’t feel so glum, my friend. He chose his path; at least you chose to follow a better one. Surely the Dancer will smile on you, and all will be well. Things have a way of working out, where the divine is involved.” The sliver-haired elf smiled, and clasped his friend on the shoulder with a smile.

“Do you think so? If only I knew why she came to me,” came the drow’s reply. “She was singing a song that seemed familiar, but I’d never heard it before. What do you think that means?” He looked over at his friend- and he realized that the dragon truly was his friend- hoping he might have an answer.

“Who can say?” Sivestrik said with a shrug. He glanced at the roasting carcass above the fire, and suddenly grinned. “But if you want to know what I think- I think our dinner is ready! Let’s eat.” There was little that Lothir could say to that, so he agreed, and they were soon feating on roast venison.

A short time later, the pair climbed back up to the small cave from his previous visit, and they settled down to sleep. He watched from the entrance as the moons rose, and wondered what it would be like to live under them as his ancestors had. A small part of him felt bitter resentment for the punishment that had cursed him to a life beneath cold stone, though he had done nothing to deserve it. If only, he thought, if only the Banishing Rite had only cursed those who earned it! For just a moment, he understood why his people felt such hatred and anger toward their fair kin- they felt the bitterness of loss, the rancor of a judgment that indiscriminately marked the innocent with the guilty.

He wanted to ask the gods why he had been made to suffer their fate. He wanted to yell at them for such cruelty,but even so, a part of him understood why. Long ago, many of the traitors cursed in the First Banishing had made pacts with evil powers. Worse, some had even gone so far as to breed with demons and other vile creatures of the netherworld. It was how they had received their so-called “gifts”, such as darkvision and levitation, after all. Their very blood became tainted with evil, and even their children became aberrations in the sight of all elves. His own father had made such a pact, And he knew well enough that his mother’s family was among the oldest of drow Houses- meaning, of course, that they were one of the first families to be banished, though no one ever spoke of it.

So he sat silenly lamenting the fate of his people, wondering if there could ever be a healing of the rift that separated them from their light-skinned cousins. He knew it would likely never happen, but still…. Perhaps if more of them could see the Moondancer, he mused, they might know what it means to feel joy again. But until then, he would simply have to endure, and hope there was something better- somewhere.

The next morning, he woke to the smell of something cooking, and rose to find the cave empty. He strolled back down to the campfire, and discovered Sivestrik warming what was left of the deer. He had changed back to his true form, and was now contentedly crunching a large chunk of the head and neck for his breakfast. The dragon heard him approach- or perhaps he had smelled him, since his new boots made no sound- and turned to greet him warmly.

“Vendui, abbil,” Lothir returned, giving the wyrm a slight bow.

Sivestrik cocked his huge head, his snout set in a slight scowl. “What does that mean? You speak my tongue now, but I know nothing of yours.”

“It means ‘greetings, friend,’” he answered with a smile. “Abbil is our word for friend- or at least the closest word we have for it. It means an ally, or one who is not an enemy.” He shrugged, for the first time realizing how woefully inadequate such a word was to what he felt. He decided that perhaps it would be better to use a language that could encompass such concepts better.

The dragon thought that over, and chuckled. “It sounds as though your folk don‘t have many friends,” he said ruefully.

“They all think friendship and love make one weak,” Lothir replied sourly. “Compassion and kindness are for fools, and affection leads to betrayal. At least that’s what they teach us.” He went to open the basket and drop in a couple of fish from his bag for the albatross, while the dragon ate contentedly. The crunching of bones was mildly disconcerting, though he had begun to grow used to the great beast’s size and strength.

“More fools they, then. Why are you different? I’ve never heard of any Mori’Quessir who thought as you do. I did not even know such a thing was possible.” The drow glanced up, noting his friend’s use of the more formal term for his people. It was what they called themselves, “the Dark People”. Other elves rarely if ever called them such, however, considering them to be no longer even of the Quessiri at all. For anyone familiar with elven custom, it was considered an honor to be included among their kind; he gave the wyrm a grateful nod for the compliment, and sat back, gazing up at the sky for a long time before he spoke.

“I’ve always felt different. I don’t know why. Maybe it was Ravyn’s teaching. Or maybe I’m just not one of them. She said once that she thought it might be that I’m like my father might have been once. I don’t believe that, though. What I saw in that gem showed me that he was always heartless. Perhaps the gods made a mistake. Do you think that’s possible? That he was bon into the wrong skin, and I was too?”

Sivestrik frowned thoughtfully, his tail idly thumping the ground softly in what the drow realized was an equivalent of finger tapping. “I know little of the ways of the divine, but I suppose they are not infallible. More likely, I think you are simply unique- shaped by all that, and more. Perhaps you have been touched by some fate you do not yet know.”

He had no answer for that, and so he sat silently staring out across the clearing. After a few minutes, he felt restless, and went to let Quilan out of the basket, though he placed him in a safe spot in the back of the small cave. After giving the bird a few fish, he went back outside to join Sivestrik. They shared a brief breakfast together, and afterward they spent most of the day exploring the small valley. Sivestrik changed to his elven shape, and Lothir even began teaching him a few basic fencing moves with his saber. For the first time, he was on his own; he watched butterflies sipping from blue trumpet-shaped flowers climbing the rocks and trees, and small black and yellow insects buzzing about, darting from flower to flower in an awkward flight. He sat by the pond, watching the long-tailed insects Sivestrik had called dragonflies- though the drow saw little resemblance- zipping over the water to catch tiny fish and the little croaking frogs.

They discovered a deep, spacious cavern whose entrance had been partially blocked by fallen boulders, and which was covered by thick vines, and inside they found the mummified remains of a large feline that had died of old age in its den. It had resembled the displacer beasts that some drow kept as pets and guard animals, but had no tentacles on its back, and only four legs instead of six. The young wyrm told him it was an old black tiger, probably from the dense jungles near Bangala- a land far to the west near the mainland’s southern shores. Lothir wondered how it could have gotten so far from its home, but then he remembered that sometimes the raiding ships would find and capture large and dangerous beasts to hunt for sport, much as they had done to his friend. Perhaps one of them had wrecked, and the creature had escaped. He wondered what it would be like to be so far from one’s home, and alone. Eventually, they decided to give the old cat a decent burial, and dug a hole beneath an overhang near the clearing’s edge.

So the day passed for them, with the sun shining brightly above. It made the yound drow’s eyes ache and water, for they still had not grown used to so much light. He doubted they ever would. They were made for seeing in the lightless world below, not the bright light of day. He was grateful when the sun finally set and he was able to see without keeping his hood up and squinting.

As before, he was amazed by the colors he saw, and watched until the last rays of the sinking sun had faded into a pleasant blue-black. He continued to watch until well after all three moons had risen, and walked in the quiet, dark forest alone for a while after his friend had gone to sleep. He found that he liked the night; it was peaceful and held a soft beauty that daylight masked with harsh light. The forest seemed more alive, with many tiny creatures skittering about, rustling amid the leaves of the trees. He heard a familiar hooting sound, and discovered that Snowfeather had somehow found him. He smiled when he saw the white owl, knowing somehow that She had sent it to watch over him.

For the next three days he stayed in the Maiden’s Vale, as they decided to call it, laughing and talking with Sivestrik, teaching him to use the sword and speak his language, while they both explored every rock and crevice of the valley. They swam in the pond, fished, and even flew together at night- for he had warned the silver of the other dragons living on Tyrant’s Isle- to discover more of the island’s secrets and wonders.

On one such flight they landed upon the top of one of the mountains that reached above the valley, and he had his first real sight of snow. He was surprised by how light and soft it felt, and laughed when the dragon rolled and burrowed about in it like an oversized cat in a patch of bliss-weed. The silver even changed to his elven shape, and showed him how to shape things in the snow, and lie in it to make silhouettes of celestials.

On the third day, as they splashed and swam in the pond, Lothir playfully dove deep into the sun-warmed water and came up beneath the elven youth to grab his foot and pull him under. The silver came back up sputtering, and they tussled briefly until the wyrm took his true shape and slipped his tail under the drow to flip him up into the air, and fall back into the water again with a great splash. He swore loudly in his native tongue, complaining teasingly that the dragon did not play fair, and laughed as he tried to avoid a wing-slap that sent water spraying everywhere. At last he declared the water-battle uneven, and climbed out onto the bank, laughing as he fell back into a bed of sweet clover.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Tue Sep 28, 2010 3:39 am

It was only then that he realized he had never had such fun before, nor ever had a real friend or playmate. There were no other young children in Argos Hall, even among the lesser members of the house. Morganna was the only one even close to his age, and she hated and bullied him. He thought briefly of Ravyn, but he was no longer certain what his feelings for her truly were. Too often of late, he had felt those strange and disturbing stirrings of the flesh when she was near, or even when he simply thought of her.

As the third day came to a close, he reluctantly told Sivestrik that he had to leave, lest someone begin looking for him. In truth, he was dreading the return home, knowing as he did that all too soon he would be going away to train in Telamurin D’ Thalack. But there was little choice if he wanted their friendship- and the valley- to remain secret. He gave Quilin to the dragon to care for until it was fully healed, before they said their goodbyes and parted at the hole beneath the old oak. It was with a heavy heart that he finally trudged his way back through the twisting passages and silent caverns that wound homeward. In his heart, he knew he would be a long time returning to his friend. And that, more than anything else, made him long to stay.

The return trip took longer than usual, as he tried to delay as long as he could. He was almost glad when he came across a trio of recently-hatched carrion crawlers, if only because the encounter meant he would be able to postpone his return home a little longer. They were smaller than the pair that had scavenged the cave fisher he had killed, yet no less dangerous for all that. One touch from their paralyzing mouth tentacles and he would be helpless prey.

Fortunately, their small size made for a much shorter reach, for they were only about two feet long. They were fat and sluggish from the remains of a recent meal, as well, a fact that he found both heartening and slightly worrying at once. Though they would be easier to kill for it, the simple fact that they were there at all meant there had been a mature female in the area, and likely there were more of the young crawlers still about. He raised his sabers- the one he had kept and the replacement for its mate- and began hacking at them fiercely.

He was careful to keep the three monstrosities in front of him, thankful for the relatively narrow tunnel. He knew better than to let them flank him in such tight confines. His first swing took the first two pairs of legs off of the leading crawler. It reared up, its twelve hind-most legs clicking on the hard stone. It made no other sound, but came on, too unintelligent to know fear. The other two swung their heads toward him, hunger driving them. Each had eight slimy mouth-tentacles that writhed and whipped at him. He danced back from them, slashing at the appendages. The first one lunged at him, and he dodged aside, crossing his swords down to block the paralyzing attack.

He continued to slash and hop back out of reach, until two of them fell to the ground with heads severed, and the third had been cut into several chunks. Only once did any of the tentacles brush him, and then only from a severed appendage that flopped around and touched his leg, sending a dead numbness up it until his limbs would barely obey him. When it wore off several minutes later, he tied the two mostly intact ones together, and began to drag them down the tunnel, his latest- and likely last for some time to come- gifts for Shelatchka.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

User avatar
Aylstra Illianniis
Posts: 1932
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2009 12:51 am
Location: Texas

Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Oct 18, 2010 3:27 am

Several hours later, he crawled out of the fissure into the mushroom grove in the cavern of Argos Hall. He was dirty, tired, and sweaty from walking so far through damp tunnels riddled with steam vents and fissures into deep molten flows. The moment he ducked into the entry fissure, he pulled his hood up over his head to activate the cloak’s invisibility, and slipped carefully across the mushroom grove and back to the House compound, keeping himself invisible until he was inside once more.

It was while wandering through the winding stairway up to the library that he stepped up onto a landing and came face-to-face with Morganna. The older girl saw him, and for just a moment looked startled- then suddenly snarled at him angrily. “Watch where you’re going, waele! And where have you been? Father was looking for you! He wanted you to go down to the docks and learn how to work the rigging or some such. He’s furious.”

Lothir gave her a puzzled look, frowning. “But he said I could do whatever I want until it’s time to leave! Why can’t this wait?” He wanted to run back down the steps and back out into the wilds, back to his secret haven. He could only guess at what sort of punishment lay in store for him if the Patron’s ire had been roused. He had always feared his sire, if only because he understood instinctively how little tolerance Aldan had for failure or disobedience of any kind. Though he had never been unfortunate enough to incur his elder’s full wrath, he knew from having heard the tales of punishments his father had meted out to others just how severe the cruel pirate King’s fury could be. The fate of Belkris had shown him that much.

“You’re going to get it, little brother. I hope he whips you like a pack-lizard, mal’ai!” Morganna sneered down at him, her violet eyes full of spite. “If you’re lucky, he may only make you scrape barnacles from the hull of the Executioner with a spoon.” She taunted him coldly, glad for any excuse to lord it over her younger sibling. Even more amusing, she could see that he had been somewhere out beyond the cavern walls, and she knew well that no one had ever seen him leave through the outpost gates. He had obviously found some way past all the sentries, or some secret means of travel that others did not know about. She had yet to discover it, of course, but she knew it was only a matter of time before she learned his secret.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

User avatar
Aylstra Illianniis
Posts: 1932
Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2009 12:51 am
Location: Texas

Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Oct 18, 2010 5:18 am

He groaned softly to himself as he turned and made his way slowly back down the stairs, and out to the docks where the two great ships of the House were moored- the huge black Executioner, with its ominous black sails and red trim, and the blood-red dagger entwined by two emerald serpents on the mainsail, and the Iceheart, which in theory was Lady Ardra’s ship, but upon which she almost never set foot. It was slightly smaller, painted the black and purple of a priestess’s robes, and less heavily armed than the behemoth beside her. The other two ships that made Aldan’s personal fleet- the small, sleek sloop Sea Spider, and the larger brigantine called the Darkwater- were both off on raids at the moment. There were others, of course; the fleet that Aldan could muster at any given time numbered nearly two score, though most were in the hands of his allies among the other male-led noble Houses.

He looked up in trepidation as he reached the pier where the great warship was berthed, hesitant to approach the boarding plank. Her enormous bulk rose out of the black water like a menacing predator- which, in fact, she was. Four full masts, near sixty ‘gunns”, and two ballistas with grapples mounted at the bow made her the match of any ship in Anterris. At the moment, she sat high in the water, empty of cargo and waiting for her next voyage. The Iceheart, moored just across the wide pier from her, was only a dozen feet shorter than her larger sister, and with only forty-eight of the massive cannons. Both ships were further equipped with the magical figureheads that made them such a fearsome threat. For slipping silently over the waves at night, shrouded in darkness by the magic of the figureheads, Aldan’s ships were nearly invisible against the dark backdrop of sea, even if the moons were bright. With no sails visible, they could pounce upon most ships almost before they were seen. During the day, they could surround themselves with fog, giving them the advantage over other vessels.

As last he heard a shout from the Iceheart’s poop deck, and looked up to see his father glaring down at him angrily. “Where in the Abyss have you been, boy?! I’ve had half the garrison out looking for you! Get your arse up here, and be quick about it!” The elder male snarled, his pale blue eyes blazing.

His legs carried him swiftly up the boarding plank, and onto the warship’s quarter deck. All around, he could see the course, rough warrior-sailors who made up her crew going about their work, preparing the ship for her departure. Some were over-seeing burly orc and bugbear galley-slaves as they loaded the supplies for the voyage, while others scrambled around in the rigging checking lines and reefs, mending sails, or repairing and resealing the ship’s hull. He stepped out of the way of a goblin who was scrubbing the deck, and ducked under the heavy load of a huge orc carrying a cask of water down to the hold. He continued to the steps that led to the wheel just in front of the bonaventure mast on the poop deck, where his sire waited impatiently.

“Where were you, boy? No one’s seen you for near three days!” Aldan snapped, cuffing his ear.

“I was out in the tunnels. I wanted to learn my way around them better, so I can go with the patrols.” Lothir replied, keeping his eyes lowered before his father’s cold gaze. “You did say I could do as I liked until it’s time to leave for Terrillis.”

“Aye, I did, but you told no one where you were! Next time, I expect you to inform of us before you leave! And why did no one see you go out?!” The Patron yelled, drawing stares from the crew at his tirade.

“I was using my piwafwi. I wanted to see if I could sneak by without anyone knowing. Forgive me, I didn’t mean to worry anyone.” He answered contritely, head lowered in deference. He waited, wondering what would happen next. He received another hard slap to the head in reply. He winced, but did not cry out, knowing that it would only make him appear weak.

“Humph. At least you’ve managed to learn something useful, even if it means my men have been lax. That will shortly be remedied. Now, go see the bo’sun, and have him show you around and teach you the terms and functions of the ship. You’ll need it in a few days. And until we leave, you are not to go out there again, unless you let one of the garrison guards know. Is that clear?!” The stern face of the House Patron left no doubt that he would tolerate no disobedience. He pointed toward a short but muscular drow with a ledger taking count of the various supplies as they were brought on board, and over-seeing the cleaning of the small swivel guns on the rails.

“Yes, Patron, I understand,” he said softly, and turned to do his bidding.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Thu Oct 28, 2010 6:26 pm

He spent the next four hours learning every inch of the ship, from the bowsprit to the tiller and the galley. He learned the location of the ship’s armory, as well as the proper way to load the cannons, and the bo’sun explained the various sails and their uses as well. Through it all, the young drow was expected to memorize each detail, and to recite back what he was told. And all while constantly dodging sailors working at their appointed tasks, and trying to hear over their shouts and the noise of loading the ship.

Eventually, the bo’sun- whose name was Quiltran- showed him how to tie the many knots used throughout the rigging and elsewhere on the vessel. By the time he was allowed to leave and had learned the name and purpose of every last inch of the ship, his head was spinning from the sheer volume of what he had learned. And he had yet to learn how to perform any of the tasks required, except for loading the gunns.

The next day, he was awakened early by a feeling of someone watching him. He opened his eyes to see Morganna standing by his bed, staring down darkly. He sprang up, the silver dagger in his hand, and glared at her. He sat crouched on the bed, holding it out at her.

“What are you doing here? Get out!” He said, his hand shaking a little. He had never heard her enter, a fact which disturbed him greatly. She simply stood silently, a slow smile spreading on her lips.

Finally, she turned and calmly moved toward the door, and tossed a cold, vicious look his way. “I just wanted you to know that I could kill you easily. You’re pathetic. I don’t know why he chose you. You don’t have the guts to rule.” She tossed her hair, laughing, and walked out, slamming the door behind her.

“Crazy elg’caress,” he muttered when he was certain she had left. He breathed a sigh of relief, and put the dagger back under his pillow. Then he rose to get dressed, knowing he would never get back to sleep. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, though he kept glancing all around every now and then- as if worried that she might slip up behind him.

As the remaining days passed, the young drow found himself wandering out into the main tunnel several times, though of course, he made sure to inform whoever was guarding the outpost gates of his departure. Each time, he would jog to the worm-burrow, and from there make his way to the surface to visit his friend. When he was not spending time with the dragon, he was on the Iceheart, learning to tie sailors’ knots, mend sails, and use the strange gnomish weapons called pistols. He knew a little about gnomes- mostly that they were short, industrious folk with large noses and often bald heads, who loved tinkering with all manner of inventions and strange alchemic formulae- but he wondered how his kin had acquired the devices. He was soon appalled to learn that the ships of his people sometimes sailed across the unknown sea to a land far across Anterris, and there they would raid gnomish settlements for skilled slaves and for the valuable weapons.

He had finally resigned himself to the knowledge that his home was nothing more than a den of rapacious cut-throat thieves, with every intention of pushing him into their ranks. It seemed the days passed in a blur, and at last he woke to his last morning at home for many years. The young drow had packed a few clothes and personal items for the voyage, and little else. There was no need. He had little to call his own, and in any case, there would be no room for extra belongings where he was going.

It was with a heavy heart that he trudged down the stairway from his room to the front foyer of the main tower. He looked around for Ravyn, hoping he would see her before he left. Yet he had little chance to do more than look her way a few brief times during breakfast, as she busily went about serving the meal and the drinks. She returned his gaze each time, and gave him a few encouraging secret smiles, but neither could acknowledge their sadness at parting for so long.

In the end, he was forced to simply go down to the docks without saying goodbye, which left him feeling vaguely empty as he stared sullenly up at the tall masts of the Iceheart. Her ebon sails were being unfurled for the voyage, like the ominous black wings of a bat. Painted onto the mainsail was the symbol of Lady Ardra’s family- a blood-red scorpion with a sword and a purple shield in its pincers. The vessel’s name was written in crimson letters in the ancient drowish script on her stern, and her spider-shaped figurehead clung to the bow as if to its prey.

At last, he heaved a heavy sigh and strode up the boarding plank, then crossed the quarterdeck to the door that led into the officers’ cabins, where he had been given one of the tiny rooms for his bunk. He had only just come back out again when he felt the distinctive lurch of the ship getting underway, as the anchors were winched up, and the galley rowers began to maneuver the great vessel out into the open waters of the cove, in preparation for the ten mile trek through the tunnel that led to the sea.

The ship slowly pulled away from the pier, her timbers groaning slightly, the sound echoing in the cavern like the moans of the dead. The sound sent a shiver down his spine, and he began to wonder if it signaled some dire portent. Even worse, his legs felt unsteady beneath him, the gentle rocking motion of the galleass making him feel queasy. After only a few minutes of this, he staggered over to the port gunwale, and leaned far out, heaving over the side. He heard a chorus of laughter behind him from some of the sailors, but he ignored them. In any case, he was too busy letting go of his breakfast to notice.

When the last of the lizard eggs and mushroom bread had vacated his stomach, he slowly pulled himself back upright, shaking profusely. He turned to find a particularly large drow with silvery-hued eyes and a row of silver rings through one ear standing behind him with a vaguely disapproving look on his sharp face. He was dressed too finely for a common sailor, most of whom went about in little more than a pair of baggy breeches and perhaps a loose tunic. This one held himself like a noble, cold, arrogant, and aloof.

“So, you are the heir to my liege. Not very impressive, I must say. I rather think you will not be of much use on my ship if you continue in that manner. Do try to get over that quickly. I doubt your sire will be over-tolerant of such nonsense.” The drow turned, without even giving his name, and strode off to ascend the steps to the wheel, where a younger and very heavily muscled drow with one ear missing was steering the ship out toward the tunnel entrance.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Sun Oct 31, 2010 8:36 am

In a move that was faster than was prudent, given his condition, he rushed up the steps to the foredeck, and felt his stomach make another flop. There was light ahead- a bright, shimmering light reflecting off of the water. He could see the end of the huge sea-cave ahead, and more rocks beyond, strewn about the entrance as if they had been tossed there by some giant hand. He heard the winds whipping into the opening to make a strange moaning sound, and the crash of waves against the cliff face. He heard another sound, too, like some sort of cry from many creatures, echoing into the tunnel as the great ship finally neared open water.

His first glimpse of the open sea was breath-taking. It also brought a stabbing blindness to his eyes. He stumbled toward the bow, as he heard the bell clanging out again, and then the ship was out into the salty spray and the chill wind. He heard curses from some of the sailors, as they too were overwhelmed by the brightness of the early morning sun. Although Lothir had seen the sun before during his trips to his hidden valley haven, the sunlight sparkling on the water was much worse. Some of the sailors must have been unused to its brightness, as well, for many of them tried to cover their eyes, and some cried out in pain from the glare.

He heard his father’s voice shouting his name, and spun around to find the stern ruler striding toward him, with three young warriors right behind him. None of them even remotely resembled the usual rough, scruffy-looking seamen typical of the crew. Rather, they appeared to have been culled from the standing forces of the House proper, most likely from among the elite troops, by the looks of them. One was wearing a set of plate armor- odd for a sea voyage, where wearing armor might easily result in death if the ship sank- the second was in simple leathers with half his head shaved, and the third was a thin fellow with a pair of hand-crossbows and a curved double-bladed dagger at his belt.

He squinted in the harsh light, and noticed in passing that the three warriors were doing so as well. They seemed not to have had much experience with the surface world, either. Aldan strode boldly up to him, as usual dressed in his customary attire of black, with the ever-present red sash, his piwafwi trailing behind him, whip and cutlass at his sides. The Patron stopped just a few feet away, eying his son with a cold detachment that left the youth wondering if he had done something wrong. The trio behind him halted and fell into a line, standing utterly still. Lothir looked up at his sire, and for a moment, he was reminded of the calculating killer whose memories he had seen in the Lore Gem; at that instant, he would have given anything to be able to gut the ruthless kin-slayer with his own blade.

“I have come to a decision, boy,” the pirate lord began without preamble. “Your general lack of notable progress in your training has led me to the conclusion that you need protection. Therefore, when we reach Terrillis, these three will accompany you to the Academy, and will remain with you as guardians until such time as I decide you are competent enough not to need them.” His statement was clearly a command, leaving little doubt that he would brook no refusals. Yet that did not stop the young prince from protesting, however unwisely.

Protection?!” he blurted, before he even considered the consequences of his words. “Why do I need protecting?! I’ve already fought a dragon! I don’t need them!” He waved a hand toward the three warriors, and glanced over at them in obvious contempt. “I’m not dragging a bunch of oafs around with me! I’ll be a laughingstock!” He spat angrily, hardly even aware that he had just shouted at his Patron. Never before had he dared to do so- and for just an instant, his outburst shook the powerful older male, taking him by surprise.

But only for an instant. Before the boy even realized what was happening, he was struck by a hard backhand swing of his sire’s hand, which half spun him around, and knocked him sideways to the deck. Aldan’s face was a mask of fury, and for just a moment, the younger E’Terrin’dar thought he saw his own death in the enraged face of his Patron. He started to back away, scrabbling like a crab on hands and feet, but was swiftly grabbed and hauled up by his elder, who lifted him nearly off his feet as he held the boy up close, snarling like a caged displacer beast.

“You dare question my authority?! Don’t try my patience, boy, or Ardra turning you into one of her pets will be the least of your worries! You will obey me in this, or else!”

Lothir shrank back at the open threat. He hung in his sire’s grip, limp and cowed, all thought of retribution and defiance gone. In that moment, he was paralyzed by fear. He lowered his gaze, shamed by his own cowardice and weakness. He blinked back tears of bitter self-doubt, and finally managed to nod weakly.

“Y- yes, Patron,” he whispered softly, trembling with fear as Aldan shoved him back down roughly. He stumbled to the deck, and simply sat there with his head hanging in submission. He stared at the hard wood beneath him, and at last he swallowed and said in a contrite tone, “Forgive my insolence. It won’t happen again.”

“It had better not.” came the curt, stiff reply, and he glanced up in time to see his father spin on his heels and stalk back toward the door into the sterncastle, his cloak swirling behind him. He stared up at the three warriors, and noted the impassive looks they gave him, devoid of pity or approval. They finally turned away, leaving him slumped on his knees on the deck, feeling lost and alone.

When he finally managed to pull himself back up, he looked around, uncertain what to do. He still felt sick- even more so now, after incurring his father’s wrath- and had no desire to remain out in the open with so many staring eyes. He knew they were watching him; how could they not? It was in their nature to size up any potential rival, and he knew they likely were deciding whether they would remain loyal to the successor to Argonia’s new throne. He could have saved them the trouble of choosing, however. He knew hey would seize the chance to turn on him if he ever ascended to rule. Already they viewed him as weak, easily controlled. A drow who submitted so quickly was little better than a slave, in their eyes, no matter his lineage.

With a soft sigh that almost turned into a sob, he turned and shuffled to the door his father had gone through, and slipped into his tiny cabin to curl up on the cot, feeling sick in more than just his gut. Eventually, the rocking of the ship lulled him to sleep, though it was a troubled one, at best. He remained in the cabin for the rest of the day.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Nov 08, 2010 7:45 am

He woke to the sound of water lapping outside his tiny porthole window, and the soft rocking of the ship as it surged over the waves. His first act on waking was to stagger to the jakes bucket and fall to his knees over it, though after a full day of having eaten nothing after vomiting the first time, he could do little more than dry-heave. Feeling miserable, yet knowing he needed to eat, he wiped his sleeve across his mouth, and stumbled to the door, heading for the galley- and never mind that his wrenching case of sea-sickness made the prospect of food dubious, at best. It had grown dark outside, which was fortunate, as he had little desire to face the blinding glare of the sun again.

He made his way unsteadily down to the gunnery deck, the rolling motion of the planks beneath him making the footing more precarious than it should have been. Never before had the simple act of walking been so difficult. He lurched in short bursts to the galley in the bow of the ship. The near-perfect balance he had always prided himself on seemed long gone, replaced by an almost infantile lack of coordination that was disconcerting in the extreme. He wondered how he would survive the voyage in such a state, even as a waft of stale, salt-laden air blew through the gun-ports, sending him into another fit of stomach flutters.

After what seemed an eternity- at least to his tortured gut- he made it to the front compartments where the galley and food stores were. He gazed around the cramped cooking area as he pulled open the door, and quickly wished he had left it closed. The stench of pickled and salted fish and stale sweat assailed his nose, along with mold and some sort of rancid meat. He spotted a rat in a corner, nibbling on a wheel of cheese that had surely been meant for the crew, and suddenly began to seriously rethink the notion of eating anything prepared in the tiny galley. A pot sat over the fire in the small cooking oven, a sort of thin gruel that smelled utterly unappetizing in the bottom; he lurched inside the compartment to look for anything edible. After a very brief inspection, he decided that the only thing safe in this kitchen would likely be the barrel full of wine-soaked mushrooms, or perhaps a crate of hard-tack lizard strips. He gathered up a few of each in a cloth that appeared reasonably clean, and turned to go back to his cabin.

The drow had taken only a half-step when he found himself face to face with a large half-orc, with beady black eyes, and wild, unkempt hair. The half-breed scowled at him, a rusted but still fairly sharp cleaver in his meaty grip. He had two small tusks poking from his lower jaw- typical of orcs- but his face appeared more human.

“What are you doing in here?” asked the hulking brute. He did not look pleased to see the drow, and clearly had not yet noticed that Lothir was dressed as a noble. He stood staring down at the youth with a dark grimace, the dried reddish-brown stains on his crude apron adding to his intimidating appearance.

“I was looking for dinner. I don’t suppose there is anything here that hasn’t rotted or been gnawed by rats?” the drow asked hopefully. He still was not certain he wanted to try anything of the half-orc’s making, but food was food- he hoped.

“You’re too late. The evenin’ meal’s already been served, little rat. Better luck tomorrow.” The burly half-breed growled, pointing out the door.

“But I’ve been in my bunk all day with the heaves!” He protested, indignant. “Besides, do you even know who I am?” He gave the half-orc an annoyed glare, folding his arms across his chest.

The cook frowned, eying him up and down. At last his gaze settled on the young drow’s eyes, and he gave a slight gasp as he noticed the hue. He took a step back, tossing down his cleaver.

“So sorry, milord! Thought it was just one o’ the scum filtchin’ from my stores! Don’t whip me- You can take anythin’ you like!” He backed away, bowing in apology.

The drow rolled his eyes, and let out an impatient sigh. “Fine, but is there anything edible here besides the jerky and mushrooms? And when’s the last time you got rid of the vermin in here?” He replied, wrinkling his nose.

The orc-blooded man scowled again, and shrugged. “Better the rats than the maggots,” he said, and the thought of maggots in the food almost made the boy gag again.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” he muttered, and turned away in disgust. He sighed, shaking his head, and decided that the mushrooms and dried meat were the closest he was going to get to a decent meal. He carried his prizes back up through the hatch and into his cabin, where he sat nibbling cautiously at the food. He still felt queasy, but somehow managed to keep it down, which did much to improve his mood. When he felt well enough to handle the open air again, he slipped back out on deck, mindful of the rolling motion- to which he still had not yet grown accustomed- and wove a wobbly path to the port side, near one of the dinghies that comprised the only means of survival in case the Iceheart had to be abandoned.

The cool velvet darkness of night, with its sprinkling of stars and gentle moonlight, was far removed from the harsh brilliance of the sunlit sea. The moon glow glimmered off the water’s surface like diamonds, mirroring the stars above, and the sound of the waves lapping the ships hull was soothing and peaceful. He breathed deep of the fresh sea breeze, and gazed up at the stars and the two moons rising over the waves like huge pearls.

A few distant clouds drifted across the sky, obscuring stars in their path, but otherwise, the night was peaceful. He listened to the men on the night watch muttering to each other in low voices while they sipped mugs of grog and laughed over simple games of chance.

He hummed softly to himself, a low, sad tune coming unbidden to his thoughts, with no words, only the notes of a melancholy song of farewell. He did not realize it, but he sang an evensong, the simple wordless song of personal sentiment that was a tradition among followers of the Dancer. Even had he known it for what it was, it would hardly have mattered. The melody was more than an expression of feelings; it was an offering of praise and devotion, and a purging of pain and sorrow.

One of the sailors paused in cleaning the hand-cannons which were mounted on the port gunwale, glancing over to listen curiously to the melody, and for just a few moments, a look of what might have been sadness passed over his features. He moved closer, still listening, and sighed when the tune ended, as if some half-remembered emotion had crept into his heart for that brief span. As much as the drow might wish to forget it, a few of them still sometimes felt the loss of their elven heritage, their love of beauty and life. For those few, it laid buried, deep in their souls, waiting only for something to awaken it.

The young prince finally let out a soft sigh, and leaned out over the rail to gaze down into the water for a time, wondering what lay beneath the surface, deep in the dark and mysterious fathoms below. The ship cut through the water like a knife, and he saw shapes following in its wake, like silent shadows in the water. A distinctive triangular shape sliced through the surface, and he recognized the fin of a shark, fierce predators of the deep. He remembered hat they sometimes followed the ships for the scraps of garbage thrown over, and for the occasional corpses of those who were slain.

With little else to do, and still feeling ill, the young drow soon went back to his cabin, and sat down to read one of the few books he had brought from home for comfort. It was an account of ancient legends from the lands of Gaellaigh, a region of small, warring states ruled by High Lords. It was the legends that fascinated him more than anything, of course. Tales of an ancient treasure lost beneath a forgotten mountain fortress, or of deadly wailing spirits who haunted old castles, or of the occasional sightings of a colossal dragon which sometimes appeared to terrorize the region, then disappeared again for decades- some said to a distant lair beyond the Borian Mountains.

Eventually, he fell asleep again, boredom having long since lulled him into a dull stupor. The night passed without incident, and it was not until the next morning that he became aware of hunger gnawing at his insides. This time he was in time for the early breakfast the burly half-orc served out of his pot. Weak stew with hard biscuits and salted fish were on the menu, and Lothir nearly lost his innards again over the quality of the fare. He secretly wondered if it was possible to die from disgust, but it seemed not, as most of the hardened sea-dogs of the crew ate with far more gusto than he ever would have thought possible. In spite of his hunger, however, he still was unable to abide even the smell of the fish, which was uncooked and still on the fin, as it were.

Another day came and went, with little change in his condition beyond the fact that he had finally begun to acquire his “sea-legs”, as one of the dark elven brigands had jokingly put it. He spent much time helping to measure out ropes for the shrouds and gammons, though the harsh sun kept him squinting until he was forced to retreat below again due to light-blindness, as the bright afternoon sun reflected off the water. By the third day, he had finally resorted to using his cloak, constantly keeping the hood up to shade his eyes, though it led to a number of small mishaps as sailor ran into him while he went about some task invisibly.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Nov 08, 2010 8:34 am

By the fourth day, the drow had more-or-less grown accustomed to the heaving of the deck, though the sun still left him half-blind most of the time. There was little to do about it, however, as he had been ordered to assist in the duties, and even to take his turn at watch. Fortunately, his watch-shifts were set for the twilight hours, allowing him to not only see the sun’s setting each day, but provided much needed relief to his eyes. A week passed in this fashion, and he gradually settled into the routine of a life upon the sea. The monotony was broken on the tenth day, however, as a shout went up early in the morning, just as the crew was taking its breakfast.

Lothir hurriedly finished the unappetizing gruel and pickled herring he had been choking down, and ran up to the quarter deck at the sound of the bell clanging out an alarm. He scowled in confusion, for there were no obstacles in this region, no sandbars or shoals, or even a rock to damage the ship. What, then? He wondered. The answer came all too soon. Far behind the ship- yet somehow closing fast- was a large, dark shape, which was accompanied by hundreds of bubbles that rose to the surface and made the water appear to boil. More strange still, the sharks which had been the vessel’s constant companions for the last few days were absent, as if something had frightened them away.

Orders were given to pull out more canvas for speed, yet even as the drow in the fine attire gave the command and took over from the helmsman, there was a sudden lurch in the ship’s movement, as if it had run aground. Or rather- as if something had stopped it. The young drow raced over to the starboard side, and looked down toward the rudder, wondering what had jerked it to a dead stop so quickly. A long, thick tentacle shot up from almost under his nose, rising high above the rails and even up as high as the main top-gallant. It was at least as big around as a giant mushroom’s trunk at its base, tapering into a point at the end, and one side was covered with huge round suckers.

“Kraken!” The cry went up like an alarm, as all around the Iceheart, more of the gigantic tentacles rose from the waves. The water churned below, and there was another jarring impact as a tentacle curled up over the bowsprit. Lothir fell to his rear on the planks at the sudden impact, and simply sat staring up in shock as one of the arms swiftly coiled around two drow and picked them up, squeezing them tightly about the middle. The two hapless sailors screamed, and tried to hack at it with their weapons; one hacked at it with a hand axe, the other with a pair of daggers- to no avail. It whipped them up higher, and squeezed harder still; suddenly, there was a snapping sound, and both dark elves went limp, dropping their weapons to the deck below as they slumped forward. It had snapped their spines like kindling.

“Battle positions, men! Get your arses moving, now!” Aldan shouted, dashing from somewhere- the boy did not remember seeing him before- to one of the enormous tentacles to begin hacking at it with his cutlass. He had pulled out a dagger from his belt, and was using it as well, stabbing the thing with it while he slashed with the cutlass.

A high, bone-chilling chant was heard over the shouts and clamor, and he turned to spot a drow woman in black and purple robes holding up her arms on the poop deck. She spat out the last words of her spell- for such it was- and a bolt of black fire shot out of her hands to engulf one of the tentacles. The monster slammed it back into the water, even while another rose up to sweep three seamen over the side and into its waiting mouth. The priestess began another spell, and a beam of eldritch energy streaked out, causing the arm to disintegrate, leaving a stump.

Lothir scrambled to his feet, just in time to avoid being smashed against the deck by another tentacle. He yanked out his sabers, and leapt on top of the arm which had just crashed down where he had been sitting. He brought both blades down on it, only to have the huge appendage flip upward, flinging him into the air. He yelped, and grabbed for the blades sticking out of the kraken’s arm, barely catching it. It thrashed, as he held on with all his strength, praying he would not be dashed onto the deck below. Elsewhere, he heard a scream, and saw another drow go flying into the mizzenmast, hitting it with a wet thud before sliding down, leaving a long crimson streak on the wooden mast. The body flopped to the planks, its head cracked open.

Desperate, he called upon his natural levitation, and floated down to the deck, swords in hand. He immediately went to work slashing wildly at the nearest tentacle again, for all the good it seemed to do. The hide was tough and rubbery, nearly impossible to slice into. He cursed savagely, blades flashing in the early morning light, but doing little real damage. Another, larger blade joined his own weapon, and he looked up to see one of the three guardians Aldan had assigned to him, joining in the battle with the broadsword he carried. Yet even that did not appear to deter the creature. In frustration, he glanced around in search of a better alternative, and spotted one of the ballistae at the bow.

He tossed down the sabers, ducking under the tentacle as it lashed across the deck, ripping off one of the foremast yards. “Come with me- I have an idea!” he yelled, hearing another warrior scream as half his flesh was ripped off by the suckers of another of the kraken’s arms. The young warrior followed behind, his armor clanking noisily as he ran.

“Help me turn this thing,” the prince shouted, pointing to the ballista, and began loading one of the grapple harpoons onto it and drew back the rope. The armored warrior pushed it around, while Lothir attempted to aim it downward. At last, the young drow pulled the lever to fire the grapple. It streaked down beside the ship, into the huge black eye of the beast just below the waves. The kraken’s huge, beaked maw opened, letting out a strange gurgling noise like a roar, and the creature’s arms thrashed wildly, tightening their hold on the Iceheart’s hull.

A few seconds latter, a massive blast sounded, and the ship rocked from the recoil of twenty-six cannons firing at once. Two tentacles had massive holes ripped through them by cannon shot, and three others were riddled with smaller holes from grape-shot. The kraken released the galleass, which heeled hard over to port, sending men sliding across the deck before she righted herself. Yet the beast continued its attack, picking up another sailor and dropping him into its beaked mouth. The drow disappeared into the gaping jaws, with a scream that was cut brutally short.

The dark elves fought on, as the huge monster tried to drag the ship down by the bow, cracking the bow-sprit and tearing several sails in its attack. Lothir was stunned that it could withstand so much damage- even the harpoon in one eye had not stopped it, though it was leaking blood and fluids into the sea- and he wondered if the Iceheart was doomed. He loaded one of the small hand-cannons, taking aim at the kraken’s remaining eye, but the shot missed, striking only the side of its massive beak. Undaunted, he reloaded the weapon and fired again- and was surprised by the tremendous roar that it created, and the rocking of the ship which followed. It took a moment before he realized that the cannons below decks had fired again.

Then the other ballista fired; apparently Aldan and one of the other officers had loaded another harpoon, which now stuck out of a tentacle like a splinter in a giant’s finger. The monstrous creature made its strange gurgling roar again, and slapped at the ballista, smashing it into pieces, and managing to dislodge the harpoon in the process. Swearing a string of curses, the Lord Patron raced down below, disappearing for several minutes, while the rest of the crew continued to whittle away at the kraken. The situation was dire, and the young drow realized that the beast might very well take them down with it.

Suddenly, his father reappeared, carrying something large. He leapt up onto the starboard gunwale, slicing through one of the windlass ropes near the bottom. Aldan’s roar of fury could be heard as the pirate lord swung out over the side, a cask clearly visible under one arm. He dropped it onto the kraken’s head, and swung back up into the rigging. The cask struck the beast, and a moment later, the creature let out a roar of pain as the cask- a powder-keg which Aldan had set alight- exploded, turning the rest of the kraken’s already wounded mass into chunks.

A shout went up, as the tentacles suddenly fell limp into the water, floating for a few seconds before the corpse of the beast sank below the waves, leaving billows of crimson foam before disappearing from sight. Lothir breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that the battle was won. Yet as he looked around the quarter deck, he saw dead and wounded warriors all around, blood splattered freely on the decks, rigging and sails in shambles. The port ballista was a complete loss, and several of the small hand-cannons had been smashed flat, utterly useless. It was only when the crew began hefting up the bodies of the fallen, removing any useful items from the corpses before simply heaving them over the side, that he realized just how lucky he was. The crew said no prayers for the dead- in fact, some joked and even spat on their fallen comrades- and he understood that they felt no grief or sorrow at all.

“Good work, lad- you may amount to something, after all!” He spun around with a start at the hand that clamped down on his shoulder. He came face-to-face with the fine-dressed drow he had come to know as Szellfyrr. Szellfyrr was, from what he knew, an uncle from his mother’s side of the House, who had been one of the first to throw in with the then Weapon Master of Ardra’s former Matron Mother. The boy had never actually met him, however, so he felt no kinship to the older male.

He did not know what to say to the relatively young commander of the Iceheart, so he merely nodded, before wandering off to find his sabers and help clean up the wreckage from the kraken’s attack. As usual, his own sire had paid no notice of him at all, a fact which he found disheartening. One hint of approval or concern- that was all he had ever wanted. It was not to be, it seemed, for Aldan simply began barking out orders to the crew, as if nothing had ever happened, and spared him not a glance. After a brief look toward his sire’s indifferent back, he finally decided he would get more praise from a rock, and stalked off to bring up some extra ropes to repair the rigging.

It took nearly two days of hard labor to repair most of the damage. The ballista was a loss, which required the Iceheart to detour from her intended course to the city of Che’el Zze’il to replace the ballista and the ruined hand-cannons. Outfitting the new weapons onto the ship took another day, during which Lothir had wanted to go out into the city to explore, but Aldan adamantly refused to allow it- even in the company of the three bodyguards- on the grounds that the young prince needed to assist with the work of getting the Iceheart underway.

The ship set out again , and the remaining two weeks of the voyage were relatively uneventful, though the Icehheart stopped for a dew days just off the rocky islets known as the Guardians to hunt for seals. The furs sold for a high price in the markets of Terrillis and other cities, so Aldan had decided to make the journey more profitable by adding a few extra days to the trip.

Lothir went out with the first hunting party onto a small rocky atoll, armed with a crossbow and a net, to hunt the sleek, black-furred seals who came ashore to give birth to their pups on the islets. At first he had been excited to see such creatures up close, and to explore the tiny islands, which were little more than large outcrops of sand and stone with a few sparse bushes and grasses. Yet after only a few hours, he discovered much to his disgust that it was brutal, bloody work. The Iceheart’s crew seemed to enjoy it, some of them intentionally leaving the animals merely wounded, simply so they could finish them off slowly- usually by staking the creatures’ flippers to the ground, and then cutting them off so that the creatures bled to death, unable to escape their tormentors, or worse, skinned them alive and left the helpless animals to die.

The young noble himself found such crude entertainments disturbing at best, and preferred to make a quick, clean kill, if only to avoid causing the creatures unnecessary suffering. In truth, he would have preferred not to kill them at all, yet he had been ordered to join the hunters, so there was little choice in the matter. He knew that if he did not at least appear to do his duty, there would be Hells to pay. Distasteful as it was, he knew that there were far worse things his father could command of him- and he was bound to obey.

He was grateful when the ship set sail once more, now carrying a fresh load of seal skins to sell in the dock-side market in Terrillis. After nearly three weeks at sea, he had begun to grow bored with the routine of a sailor’s life. Certainly there were diversions to be had- the ship’s cleric, the priestess who had aided in the battle with the kraken, seemed to take an interest in the young drow, even whispering to him one night after the course dinner of salted rothe and stale biscuits that she wished to join him in his cabin. She was a younger half-cousin of Ardra, and no doubt hoped to elevate herself in the family hierarchy by becoming his consort. However, attractive as she was, he could not help a slight feeling of dislike for the ambitious female. He had seen her gliding about the ship in little more than a thin gown, ordering the crew around and lashing them with her scorpion-tailed whip as if she was a Matron, and he found her superior airs annoying in the extreme.

At long last, the stark white cliffs and low marshes of Storm Island came into view, the distant peaks of the island’s high mountains shrouded in the fierce black clouds which gave it its name. Though not the largest of Argonia’s islands, it was easily the most hospitable, with fewer large predatory beasts living on its surface. The island boasted a few small settlements of primitive human and orc tribes, as well as a permanent surface outpost of drow and deep dwarves for the purpose of trading valuable materials which could not be had underground.

When the galeass sailed into the deep, narrow harbor which held the entrance to the gigantic sea-cavern in which Terrillis had been built, a cheer went up from the crew, for many were eager to reach the city and visit the taverns, brothels, and gamboling dens of the city’s dock ward. Even Lothir, who had some cause for trepidation, could sense the excitement of the crew at nearing Argonia’s most prosperous port. He stood on the poop deck beside Szellfyrr at the helm, watching the gaping opening into the long access waterway to the city draw nearer with each passing minute. He was somewhat relieved when the great vessel finally passed from daylight into soothing gloom, for the voyage had been painful on his eyes. The Iceheart furled her sails, and he scrambled up the mizzenmast to help secure the stays and top gallants for the last leg of the trip. Down below, the slaves at the oars began to row, occasionally lashed by the “cracker”, a more privileged bugbear slave whose task was to oversee the rest and punish those who slacked off. Their rowing was accompanied by a shanty-chant to keep time, ensuring that each oar would stroke the water at the same speed.

The ship rowed for the last dozen miles into the sea tunnel, finally bursting out into a massive cavern alight with the soft glow of fairie-fire of every color. The harbor alone was nearly a mile across, twenty fathoms down at its deepest point, and a half-mile from entrance tunnel to the many wide piers. The drow stared in amazement at the sight before him, realizing that he had finally arrived at his destination- the city which would be his home for the next two and a half decades. This was Terrillis, the crown jewel of Argonia’s dark elven society.

Viewed from the ship, the city seemed an almost magical place. It sat within a huge cavern filled with more spires, towers, and wall-dwellings than he had thought could exist. Though deep within the earth, miles from the outside world, the city was far from dark. Flickering fairie-fire lit up most of the formations in which the drow and their servants lived, giving the cavern an eerie glow that shimmered over every surface, and reflected off the water in a rainbow of dancing flames. At long last, Iceheart reached the docks, the great ship’s timbers creaking slightly as it drew up to a pier situated near the end of the long line of docks on the large outcropping which formed the city’s port. Aldan called down to a purser, and was greeted with a salute and immediate permission to dock.

So it was that he arrived in Terrillis, the de facto capital of the Argonian Empire. As he climbed down from the shrouds back onto the poop deck, he felt the ship lurch to a stop as the massive anchors dropped. He heard the order to tie off, and quickly raced to his cabin to gather up his few belongings in preparation for disembarking. There was little enough to pack, for he had only a few changes of clothing, a few books, and his personal items, including a large pouch he had filled with crystals from his secret cavern. He had been informed that there were many diversions in the city, and he wanted a chance to experience them all. Of course, it would be some time before he would be able to try any of them, as only older students were allowed to leave the Adademy compound, but when the time came, he wanted to be ready. When he finally came back up on deck, he found the three silent guardians there waiting for him, and grimaced, but he squared his shoulders, and ignored them as he strode passed, eager to be back on land.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Fri Nov 19, 2010 3:42 am


His first real sight of Terrillis brought him to a complete standstill, for the cavern that housed the city was larger than he could ever have imagined. Two miles and more long, and more than half as wide, with hundreds of spires and pillars sprouting like mushrooms from both ceiling and floor. Two-thirds of the way to its far end, a great chasm split the chamber, with a dark, rushing river flowing through it, and three massive stone bridges spanning its width to link the main city with the higher plateau on the other side. The spires there were the largest and most exquisitely carved; he knew they belonged to the greatest of the noble Houses in the city. The largest structure by far, though, was a huge dome of smooth, perfectly black stone that rose in the center of the main city. It had been built over the ruins of three large Houses, the outer pillars of which still formed a massive fence surrounding the main structure. That, he knew, was the Hall of the Venom Daggers.

Dagger Hall, as it was commonly called, was the stronghold of his father’s army of allied Houses. It was a bristling fortress that was a combination of a Guildhall and military keep, which housed well over a thousand warriors, assassins, and murderous thieves. It was the home of his organization and the main source of all his power. Aldan had had it raised on the site of his first great victory, the three Houses that had been the first to fall to his allied force of dissatisfied noble males and common soldiers. Now it stood as a testament to his power and influence, a reminder to all the other Houses of exactly who was ruler of the city.

Lothir stared in amazement as he surveyed the size and scope of the city. He had known it was big, but never had he dreamed of anything like this. And it was teeming with life. Everywhere he looked, he saw dark elves going about their business- never mind that said business, as likely as not, was dealing death to rivals- slaves of every race he had ever heard of running errands for their masters, and merchants of various Underdark races busily trying to outstrip their competition to make the best deals. He heard a din of noise around the docks such as he had never believed could exist, with ships being unloaded of cargo, repairs being made, others being supplied for voyages out onto the open sea- all done with harsh shouts of command from every throat, it seemed. And more than that, he heard some of them singing out in shanty chants, the work songs that kept time for the tough, brutish sailors.

He felt someone shoving him from behind, and remembered where he was. He had been about to cross the gangplank onto the pier, but had stopped less than two steps across, overwhelmed by the sights around him. Everywhere he looked, the city was aglow with the lights of faerie-fire. It covered every possible surface, from balconies to statues, doors, windows, stairs, bridges, and arches, and shone in every hue of which the illusory flames could be made. Violet, blue, white, and red, and even a few in gold or green- nothing had been left untouched by the work of stone-smiths, and nothing left unlit by the radiance of magic. He crossed the plank, and stood for a long moment in confusion, wondering what he was supposed to do now.

He knew he was supposed to go to the compound that made up Telamurin D’ Thalack, but had no idea where it might be. On the north side of the city, he seemed to recall hearing, but where, exactly? He looked around for someone to ask, and finally found a bugbear servant hard at work unloading crates from another ship moored nearby.

“You, sir- do you know where the War College is?” he asked, hoping the huge, furry creature could at least speak a language he knew.

“Humph. Up there, on the North side,” the bugbear replied with a grunt, without ever pausing in his work.

The young drow grimaced. That was no help. He thought to speak to the bestial worker again, but decided it would get him nowhere. He went a little further, and tried again, this time with a goblin whose spindly arms were loaded down with boxes.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where the Academy is?” he asked the smelly goblin, but it seemed to ignore him. Annoyed, he moved to block its path, and let the goblin plow right into him, dropping several of the boxes, before it saw him. It was obviously about to berate whomever it had run into, but stopped cold when it saw that the offending individual was a drow, and one dressed in a noble’s finery, at that. He dropped his over-sized load, and fell to his knobby knees in supplication.

“Me’s sorry, oh master sir! Did not see you- please not beat me!” the goblin whined. The drow only shook his head in annoyance. Of all the races his people kept as slaves, only kobolds were more self-deprecating and annoyingly subservient.

“I’ll forgive you- if you can tell me how to find the Academy!” he replied in a stern tone, knowing it was the only thing that ever seemed to get a slave’s attention.

“Not punish?” the goblin asked hopefully, though it fully expected to be flogged or at least kicked for its lack of attention earlier.

“Not this time. Just tell me what I want to know, and you can go on your way.” He sighed; this was going to be a long day.

“It be up along the North wall- half-way to river. Big it is, many spires! Big walls, too! You know it by giant crossed swords for arch!” the goblin said, gesturing widely with its arms. It grinned up at him with its sharp-toothed mouth, thin lips dripping with drool. Lothir made a slight grimace. At least it was something.

He sighed again, thanked the goblin- not that it mattered, but he was used to showing courtesy even to slaves- and started off into the city. He was so intent on his purpose that he almost forgot about the escort. He soon felt a large, strong hand gripping his shoulder from behind, and whirled to see who had restrained him.

“’Ere, now, lad- where you wandrin’ off to, eh?” said the tall, lean drow. He was still young- not yet out of his first century- but had the hard look of a warrior about him. His head was shaved on one side, the other woven into several long, tight braids, and he was dressed in simple black studded leather, with a mace at his hip and a brace of daggers across his chest.

Lothir struggled to remember his name; the tall warrior was one of the trio of bodyguards Aldan had sent along to keep an eye on him, which to the young drow seemed to defeat the purpose of learning to defend himself, but he had never been one to argue with his father. He knew better.

“Oh, Nymvayas, is it? I was just going to find the Academy. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” He shrugged, and turned to continue on his way. The other held him back.

“Not wit’out us, you’re not. We was told to keep watch on ye’, and that’s what we aim to do.” He was soon joined by the other two. The first was a whip-thin male with odd pink eyes and a perpetual scowl on his sharp face whose name the young prince seemed to recall as Sezvyll. He was perpetually armed with a pair of hand-crossbows at his hips, and a peculiar sort of double-bladed, curved dagger. The other was a stocky drow with close-cropped yellow-white hair and a serious demeanor who wore a suit of full armor as if it was a second skin. He carried a sword and shield, which Lothir had not seen more than two steps away from the warrior during the entire journey from home. He was called Dorl’avin; Lothir was surprised to have even learned his name, as he had barely spoken more than three words to the young prince.

“Alright, if I have to have you three follow me around everywhere, then at least try to keep up, would you?” he said, exasperated. He already knew the trio was going to cause him trouble, and his first day in the city had barely even begun! He found himself seriously beginning to question his father’s wisdom in sticking him with this lot, but what could he do?

He pulled away from the over-protective Nymvayas, then left the docks, and soon found himself trying to wind his way through an area of small shops and wooden stalls. He had heard someone mention the place as being the Bazaar, a perpetual marketplace where nearly anything could be had for a price. He passed shady-looking merchants plying questionable goods of all sorts, everything from exotic foods to slaves, and all manner of weapons and devices that he was certain were meant mainly for torture. One stone tower he passed seemed to house a slave market; another apparently held a drug den, from the odd smoke rolling out of it, and the vacant stares of many of the patrons leaving. He shuddered at the thought of such decadent immorality; then again, he wasn’t really surprised that his people would sink so low into depravity.

Eventually, the bustle of the Bazaar gave way to a slightly quieter and less seedy region of semi-respectable shops and businesses. He passed a large structure that looked to be entirely constructed out of solidified webs, supported by several tall, narrow stalagmites, and glowing with intricate lines of faerie-fire in an eerie red. A large flat stone at the entrance proclaimed it to be the Spider’s Den, which he took to mean it was some sort of tavern. It sat high above the ground, and the only way in seemed to be a set of stone and web stairs.

A little further down, he saw a most intriguing place that had been shaped into a large octagonal dome set on thick pillars of black marble with walls of polished and carved obsidian. The dome itself was one solid piece of black marble with a natural web pattern within the stone, which was lit up with delicate lines of blue-white faerie-fire. The walls and entrance were carved with images of wildly cavorting dark elves and spiders, many of the drow with serpents coiled around their bodies. The word “Webdance” was carved elegantly above the doors, blazing with more of the cold blue flames. He paused at the sight, wondering what sort of place it might be.

“What is that?” he asked the trio suddenly, pointing up at the building. The three just stared at him blankly, as if not understanding the question.

Finally, Sezvyll answered. “Oh, that place. That’s the fest-hall. Nothin’ of interest there- just a horde of bored Nobles with too much time on their hands, and too much wealth. So they spend them both in there, throwing huge parties to impress each other, getting intoxicated on every substance known, and vithin each other’s brains out,” he gave the youth a sour look, as if he found the whole idea disgusting.

“Oh,” Lothir said, disappointed. It had looked interesting, but now he supposed it was just one more example of the sort of debauchery his race was so well known for. Still, he wondered what such parties would be like, for there had never been one in his home, and he thought it might at least be exciting. He wondered if he would have a chance to find out.

They continued past the fest-hall, then past a large temple of simple spires, with statues of various sorts of undead adorning the columns at the entrance, and finally came to a complex of five pillars around the base of a massive edifice that had been raised directly from the ground into a three-level hall and arena. The whole of it was surrounded by tall spires that formed the anchors of a high wall, which was made of solid sheets of calcified webs that were magically enhanced to make them impossible to cut or pierce. Between two of the spires he saw a gate whose arch was shaped into a pair of gigantic curved swords made of solid obsidian. This, then, must be it, he realized. This was the place that would be his home and training ground for the next twenty-five years.

They entered the gates into a courtyard, where young males were engaged in various exercises, or practicing together in small groups. A pair of guards stood at the gates, but they only eyed the newcomers warily as the party strode into the compound. The four made their way to the huge steel doors at the entrance before anyone stopped them. There, a second pair of sentries stepped in their path, holding glaives up menacingly.

“Hold, strangers,” said one, in a gruff tone. “What’s your business here?” The other remained silent, but watched the quartet with narrowed gaze.

“Lothir, of House E’Terrin’dar, sir. I’m a new student. Could one of you direct me where to go?” he asked politely. He had no desire to anger anyone on his first day, so he had decided to treat anyone he met here as if they were a ranking House member. The two sentries exchanged glances, leering at one another. “First Year,” said the second one with a sneer. The one who had spoken first nodded, grinning.

“And who are they?” asked the first one, pointing to the three protectors with his weapon. “Those three are too old to be recruits- they look more like graduates,” he said pointedly.

The young drow nodded. “These three are with me, by House orders.” he replied, glancing from one guard to the other. I knew they were going to bring trouble, he thought sourly. But what could he do? His father had ordered them to accompany him, and to remain with him in the Academy as permanent guardians.

“Over-privileged Nobles can’t do anything for themselves,” muttered the second guard, stifling a snicker. The first one coughed. The young drow tried to ignore the jabs.

“Excuse me, but I don’t wish to be late, so if you could just tell me where to report to?” he asked impatiently.

The first guard scowled. “Listen, arrogant Noble brat, maybe you don’t know how things work here, but you’re only a First Year, and that makes everyone here above you. It means you’re nothing. Fresh meat.” he replied, emphasizing the last three words. He glared at the young prince, as if daring him to dispute his words.

Lothir was surprised by the other’s superior tone, but he was quick enough to realize he was being tested. If he backed down, then all those present would think he was weak, and they would never give him any respect. So he stared into the sentry’s hard amber eyes coolly, determined not to let himself be intimidated.

“I’m not a First Year yet,” he said slowly, his eyes never leaving the other’s. “Right now, I am still a prince of the First House, which means that unless you wish to face the wrath of said House, you had better tell me what I want to know- else I might have to let my friends here turn your insides into your outsides. Understand?”

Both sentries paused at that, suddenly backing away a step and giving each other an uneasy look. They knew better than to annoy a Noble who was not under their own authority. Finally, the first one nodded sullenly. “Alright. Take the corridor to the left and go all the way to the last door. That will be the Lore Master’s chamber.”

Lothir nodded. “That wasn’t so very hard, was it?” he asked, and strode toward them. They parted before him, and did not protest when the trio of bodyguards followed.

He followed the path the sentry had suggested, and soon came to a heavy iron door with images of drow fighting various creatures engraved into it. He knocked loudly, and the door quickly opened for him. He stepped through cautiously, not certain what to expect. The others crowded in behind him, and he found himself wishing yet again that they would simply leave.

“Vendui, sir, I am-” he began, bowing to the imposing male who sat in a large chair behind a low desk. A quill and parchment lay on the surface before him, half-written on; the young prince frowned, realizing he had interrupted the older drow’s personal affairs.

“Silence, boy. I do not care who you are. What is the purpose of this intrusion?” answered the seated Master. He rose, and Lothir could see that he towered over any other male he had ever met, except for his own father, who had been born a surface elf, which he supposed did not count. The Master was heavily built for a drow, too- more like a human, really. His face was long and narrow, with deep-set eyes, a long, beak-like nose, and hair swept back in a high top-knot. He reminded the youth of a large bird he had seen pictures of once, called a hawk, which lived on the surface and hunted small creatures, much as his owl friend Snowfeather did.

“I- I am here to enter the Academy, sir,” he said uncertainly. No one had told him what he was supposed to do, and he felt silly for not knowing what was expected.

“New recruit? I see. And what of these others- I’ve seen them all before, and I seem to recall that they all graduated years ago.”

“Our most esteemed Lord Patron bid us look after the boy, he did. We’re ‘is ‘Honor Guard’ ye’ see.” said Nymvayas, bowing slightly. The others nodded.

“Honor Guard? What sort of joke is this?!” barked the Master, a look of annoyance forming on his already intimidating visage. Lothir quailed, realizing he had gotten off to a bad start.

“It’s no joke, sir- my Lord Patron insisted. This wasn’t my idea, I assure you.” he said, holding up his hands in a gesture of supplication.

“Let me make one thing perfectly clear, boy. This is not some place for idle young fools to play games- this is a training ground for warriors. There will be no privileges here, no special treatment for Noble birth. They leave, or you may not remain here.”

Lothir was about to ask what he should do with them, when Sezvyll stepped forward, cutting him off. “What about our orders, sir? Lord Aldan will have our heads if we don’t do our duty.”

“That is hardly my problem, now is it?” the older male replied. He started to dismiss them, when suddenly Dorl’avin spoke up.

“Perhaps you have need of a few extra guardsmen? The patrols always lose one here and there, and then of course there are the ‘accidental’ casualties here on watch duty. We would be happy to sign on.” All eyes turned to the third guardian, who had remained silent until now. Even the Lore Master seemed to regard him thoughtfully.

“Hmm, your words have merit. Very well; officially, you will sign on as members of the Darkswords. I will arrange your guard duties so that if you wish to keep an eye on the new student, you may- so long as it does not interfere with his duties here.”

“As you command, sir,” said Dorl’avin, bowing politely. He stepped back again, leaving Lothir to sigh in relief.

“Now, then, what was your name?” the Master said, turning back to the youth.

“Lothir, sir. Elderboy of House E’Terrin’dar. Er, Lord Aldan is my father.” he replied, bowing.

“Oh, lovely. So the upstart Patron has sent a son for training, has he? Well, boy, I certainly hope you know how to handle a blade, or your time here will be very short. I am Solvyr Barrimtor, Master of Lore- and I will be your main instructor for the first three years of your stay- if you manage to survive. Now, take the corridor to the right of the main foyer to its end, and report to the Arms Master. He will show you to your quarters and explain what you may expect while you are here. You are dismissed.” He nodded curtly to the four, and waved them all out without another word.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

A link to my tales, including my Marvel hero!:

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Thu Dec 23, 2010 5:32 am

Lothir sighed as he made his way back down the long passage, wondering just what he was getting into. He had hardly been here ten minutes, and already he seemed to have gotten in over his head. He felt trapped, lost, and lonely. He missed Ravyn terribly, and he had only been away for three weeks. The journey on the Iceheart had been enjoyable enough, but the excitement had worn off after only a few days, leaving him cooped up in a tiny cabin with hardly any room to breathe for much of the trip.

The only thing that had made it bearable was his father’s insistence that he act as part of the crew while on board. After the first day or two of blinding light and intense sea-sickness, he had gotten used to ship life enough to try to help with the work. The labor had been hard, and left him weary at the end of each day, but he enjoyed it all the same, for it gave him a feeling of purpose. And there were unexpected benefits, too. The tiresome work and fresh air had made him stronger, even after so short a time. Even the attack from the kraken and the seal hunt had provided a bit of excitement, which was generally lacking in his life.

Yet now, the endless waves and star-lit skies were behind him, and he was back in the dark, cold caverns of his people. And no matter how hard he tried, he could not shake the feeling that, even surrounded as he was by teeming masses of his own kind, he was more alone than ever. The thought was depressing, to say the least. Even more so was the knowledge that he was stuck here for the next quarter century, at least.

When they came to the Arms Master’s private chambers, he was surprised to find the door open. He had expected to see another cold, hard-faced warrior, with a similar manner to the Lore Master. Instead, he was greeted by an older male, in his fourth century, by his looks, reclining casually on a low open-backed seat with his feet up, reading a large, thick tome. He looked up at the intrusion into his domain, but did not appear in the least bit bothered. He nodded to the quartet, and set the book aside, rising to meet them.

“Vendui. I am Arms Master Serath Mel’ana. You may call me Master Serath- I’m not much for formalities. Do come in, please. Is there something I can do for you boys?” he asked. Lothir was taken aback by his almost friendly demeanor. The Arms Master had a calm, almost serene face, with what might have been a hint of humor in his silver-gray eyes. He wore a full chain shirt over his tunic and leggings, tight-fitting and belted at the waist. His hair was short, close-cropped at the top and sides, with only a single long braid on either side of his face, with small black beads strung into it near the bottom.

“Y- Yes, sir. The Lore Master sent me to see you. He said you could show me around? I’m a new student, sir.” He did not know why, but he somehow felt more at ease in this Master’s presence than he had with the other one. He belatedly remembered to bow, then waited for the Master’s reply.

“Ah. Yes, of course. And you three?” he asked, waving to the others.

“Master Barrimtor said we was to take up positions with the Darkswords, sir. Our Patron sent us to keep ’is lad ’ere out of trouble, so we’re to have posts where we can watch ’im.” Nymvayas answered, once again beating the young prince to a reply. Lothir gave him an annoyed look, and nodded when the Arms Master glanced at him for confirmation.

“I see. This is- highly unusual. What House sent you?” The older male asked, a curious look on his features.

“E’Terrin’dar, sir. I’m sorry for the trouble, but my father ordered them to come. Apparently he thinks I need a nanny.” He shrugged, giving the Arms Master a sour look.

He was surprised to hear the other laugh. “Ha! So, our revered leader sends us an heir in need of training, does he? And with his own personal retinue of guards, no less! Well, I doubt you’ll have much need for them here- unless you plan on making enemies of your classmates. Not that you won’t end up doing so anyway, most likely, but I do find it rather amusing. Very well then, lad. Come along, and we’ll find a place for you. There are five towers for students, divided by class order. All First through Fifth years stay in the Initiates’ Tower. That will be your home for the first five years, assuming you live that long, of course.”

He beckoned all four to follow as he strode out of the room; Lothir gaped at the casual way the Arms Master mentioned the possibility of death. This was the third time someone had spoken of death. It did not bode well, considering what he had heard so far. He looked up at the Arms Master with a questioning frown, as he walked along beside the older male.

“Forgive my ignorance, sir, but what did you mean, before? About living for more than five years, that is.”

“You mean no one told you? Hmm, I can’t say I’m surprised. Such matters are usually considered minor details, at best. Then again, most trainees come here with some knowledge of the workings of city life. It’s very simple, really- we lose at least a few students every year to rivalries and such, and of course, a few die of natural causes, usually in their sleep.”

“Natural causes?” Lothir asked. He wondered what could cause young warriors to simply die in their sleep.

The Arms Master turned to regard him casually. “Yes, well, having one’s throat slit in bed will naturally cause one to die in one’s sleep. A peaceful way to go, or so I’ve heard, though a bit messy. Depending on how many rivals and enemies you acquire, there are bound to be at least a few classmates who will try to, shall I say- eliminate the competition. You can probably expect to encounter anything from ‘food poisoning’ to the more traditional method of a knife in the back. And then there is the old saying- ‘those who watch their backs usually meet death from the front’.”

The youth gaped, stopping dead as he tried to discern whether the Master was joking. One look at the older drow’s face told him that he was in earnest. Lothir tried not to think about the possible implications of such a pronouncement, and reluctantly continued following Master Serath. He began to wonder if he was truly even ready to face such a trial. But then he remembered his promise to Ravyn, and resolutely decided that he would see this through, no matter how difficult or dangerous his situation might become.

“I- I’ll try to remember that,” he said after a moment. The Arms Master merely glanced at him, and nodded.

“Don’t worry, lad. I have no doubt you will bring your House honor. If you are anything like your father, then those who strike out against you had best beware.” He chuckled, and tossed the young prince a meaningful grin. Lothir stifled the urge to protest that he was nothing like his father.

The barracks were austere, each being little more than a large cylindrical room with a double tier of beds on the inner and outer walls, with small chests by each one. Each tower had five levels, one for each class rank; each level had bunks for up to fifty students. Serath led him into a room at the top level of the Initiates’ Tower, where all the First Year students lived. The older students were assigned to descending levels toward the bottom of the towers, closer to the mess hall, bathing rooms, training ground, and lecture hall. Lothir took a bunk near the door leading into the long spiral stairway, so that he would have a clear path out if needed. If what Serath had said was true, he might need a quick escape from trouble.

He did not even bother to unpack, but instead simply tossed all his belongs- admittedly, he did not have much besides a few changes of clothing, his weapons, and a few books- into the chest at the foot of the bed. He took the key that Serath gave him, which had been hanging on a ring the Arms Master kept on his belt, and locked the chest before he followed the older male out of the room to explore the Academy.

Finally, after they had finished their tour of the compound, Master Serath directed him to the main hall to join the other new students who had arrived. When all were assembled, the Lore Master entered the hall to begin the day’s lecture. Lothir quickly found that he was both bored and angered by Master Barrimtor’s endless diatribe of hatred for the various surface-dwelling races, not to mention his repeated assertion that theirs was the greatest of all people. Privately, the young E’Terrin’dar had his doubts about that. If the dark elven race was so superior, why were they forced to live underground in dark caverns, burrowing in the ground like worms? Why had they been driven to seek haven beneath storm-wracked, treacherous islands filled with all manner of ferocious beasts? It made no sense to his questioning mind.

He did, however, notice that most of the other students seemed to take the Lore Master’s word on faith- either that, or they were afraid to question the belief in drow supremacy. As Master Barrimtor continued, hour after hour, snarling out promises of future ascendancy to their rightful place in the world above, standing proudly on battlegrounds littered with the bodies of their vile surface cousins, he became increasingly uncomfortable at the thought of such hatred and naked ambition. His only consolation was the knowledge that his kindred spent far too much time fighting and killing each other to ever truly unite against a common foe long enough to conquer the surface world.

Still, he knew that his own father had begun taking steps to change that. Aldan’s dark dream of leading a massive drow army to sweep across the lands of his former home might one day become a reality, if the powerful and charismatic Lord had his way. If that day ever came, Lothir wondered if he would have to fight. More importantly, which side would he fight for? He felt his loyalties suddenly divided between duty to family and his feelings for Ravyn. He did not think he could ever truly fight against her kind, for were the Sylvaeren not his own kin as well?

By the time the first day of lectures and tactical lessons had ended, he was glad to get away from the almost rabid fanaticism exhibited by his fellows. He had little interest in making war on hypothetical enemies that he might never meet, nor did he feel any animosity for people who lived far away in lands he had never seen. Why the others all seemed so eager to destroy anything different from themselves, he did not understand.

The afternoon meal came and went, and he soon found himself growing ever more depressed by what he found in the students all around him. Everywhere he turned, his fellow students postured and intimidated one another in a pointless pursuit of a pecking order, each trying to outmaneuver his classmates for position within their sequestered little world. It was no different than the political and social fencing of the great Houses, whose families constantly vied for more power and prestige over their peers. He felt disgusted with it all, and wondered if this was all there was to life.

The meal- which was little more than simple stew and mushroom bread- was over too soon, and then it was time for the afternoon work assignments; he was reminded of the years he had spent cleaning the family chapel and serving his mother and the rest of the family when he was still very young. He had drawn kitchen chores as his job for the first week, washing the dishes from the meal and helping the cooking staff with various tasks. Surprisingly, he did not really mind such menial work, for it was simple and did not take much effort. It also gave him a chance to observe how the servants lived, and he listened quietly to their idle talk as they went about various chores. The chatter was enlightening in many ways, as he learned the private thoughts of some of the servants- at least those who spoke a tongue he could understand.

He was amazed at how many races were present- he watched a balding duergar scrubbing the huge stewpots, grumbling all the while in Undercommon about wasted food being tossed out for the riding lizards of the city patrols. Another servant- a halfling female who had seen many years, to judge by her graying hair and the many frown lines on her pale face- endlessly scampered about, gathering ingredients for the evening meal later that night.

Lothir found himself mildly amused by her crude attempts to speak drowish when she wanted him to do something, and patiently corrected her when she used the wrong word for an item. Instead of being angry, she seemed grateful for the help with what was obviously a foreign speech to her. Her masters had taught her barely enough of their speech to get by, and no one else had ever bothered to help her learn. He soon learned that her name was Delrina Thistletoe, and that she had been captured on a raid while she was visiting an elven village in Whisperwood. She had been sold in the slave market as a cook for the Academy, and had spent most of her life within its walls. He said nothing, but felt a vague unease on discovering that she had known nothing but servitude for most of her life.

The duergar, he learned, was called Durik Blacksteel, and he had once been a merchant who had angered a drow trader and been taken captive when he demanded payment for his wares. The drow had simply confiscated all his goods, and forced him into slavery rather than pay. Lothir was appalled that such a thing could happen, but he knew that his own people were frequently prone to such whims of brutality, and there was little he could do about the plight of the servants.

In the end, he was relieved when his duties were finished, and he was able to retreat to one of the small study rooms with a small volume of ancient history for the short rest period before dinner. He was lost in thought when he heard the door open and glanced up at the intrusion. He was surprised to see the Arms Master, who stared at him for a moment with a puzzled expression, as if he did not quite believe what he was seeing. The young drow shot up from the small table and chair where he sat, snapping the book shut in his haste to come to attention before the instructor.

“Good evening, Master Serath. Do you wish me to leave, sir?”

“Please, don’t mind my intrusion. By all means, go back to whatever you were doing. I was merely doing the rounds, checking up on the students.” The older male waved absently, giving the youth a slight nod. Then he noticed the book, and smiled. “A scholar? How interesting. I thought there was something different about you this morning. I’m pleased to see you are at least capable of some intelligent thought. Too many students here are little more than useless fools who will likely get themselves killed from sheer stupidity the first time they actually see battle.”

Lothir looked up at the instructor uncertainly, surprised to hear his opinion of the majority of the students. “Sir?” he began hesitantly, not certain if he should speak his mind. “Why do you think that? Isn’t learning how to fight why they are here?”

The Arms Master laughed heartily. “Ha! Well spoken, lad. That is true enough, as far as it goes, but I find that most of them do not have enough of a mind to understand what it means to be a true warrior. They would all blindly follow orders and throw themselves into battle recklessly for the sake of glory and power, even if it is obvious that they are being led to their own doom. Very few ever learn to trust their own instincts and think for themselves. And why should they? Their Matrons and commanders do all the thinking for them.”

“I noticed that during the lecture this morning, sir. Everyone was hanging on Master Barrimtor’s every word, like a bunch of blood-hungry steeders. They never even questioned anything he said. Er, with all respect, Master Serath.”

The other smiled, and nodded. “I see you have a keen eye. Aldan was wise to send you here. You might make a good warrior one day, with such a perceptive understanding of your fellows. A commander must be able to see beneath the surface of things, to know his enemies as well as he knows himself. So, what is it that had you so enthralled?” He nodded toward the book, and Lothir gave him an embarrassed look, and shrugged.

“It- it’s a tome of history from…” He trailed off, uncertain what the Arms Master would think of his reading stories about the surface world. Such lore was usually considered taboo, if not forbidden outright. When the other gave him an encouraging nod and wave, he flushed, and looked up at him with an almost sheepish smile. “It’s from my Patron’s former homeland- before he was- well, you know.”

“Cursed?” finished Serath bluntly, and he chuckled when the young lad nodded guiltily. “I see. So you’re not afraid to seek answers for yourself. Does he know about this?”

Lothir shook his head slowly, though he knew he could be severely punished for even daring to seek knowledge of the surface world. “He doesn’t even know I exist, most of the time, much less what I do,” he admitted at last. It was a bitter truth, but there it was. Unless his sire had need of him for some purpose, he might as well be a fly on the wall, for all the notice the Patron took of him.

“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about that, then. I take it you have little interest in the ‘family business’, then.” Serath waved absently, which was odd, considering the fact that he was the head of one of the three largest and most powerful establishments in Terrillis. As a male, it would have been all the Arms Master could ever hope to achieve, if the Matrons’ stranglehold on their world had remained intact. With Aldan’s rise to power and the subsequent overthrow of many of Lothrenya’s priestesses, many males were finding new paths to power.

“None, sir,” the young prince said sourly. “I don’t rightly know what I want, but I do know it has nothing to do with spending months at sea to pillage the ships of harmless human merchants.” He looked up at the Arms Master cautiously, wondering if he had said too much. He was surprised when the older male laughed.

“Ha! And he’d not approve that sentiment, no doubt. Well, he’ll not hear it from me, lad. As you were, then,” he said with a wink, and turned to walk out, leaving Lothir wondering about the strange behavior of the head instructor.

All too soon it was time for the students to turn in for the night. He returned to his bunk in the barracks tired but grateful for the chance to rest. As he entered the room full of beds, several of the students gave him wary looks, as if sizing him up. He had never been around any other drow his own age before, and wondered whether they might be friendly, though after the fanatic response to Master Barrimtor’s lecture, he somehow doubted it. In the end, he had decided simply to keep to himself and not deal with any of them any more than he had to. It seemed safer that way. After what the Masters had said about rivalries, he had come to the conclusion that if he chose not to interact with others, then they would have no reason to wish harm on him.

He woke early the next morning to the sound of a large gong being rung. He blinked and looked around sleepily, for a moment forgetting where he was. He saw the others students already rousing and dressing in clean clothes- there was no official uniform, though all were required to keep their attire neat and in good repair. He sat up, and tossed on his only other suitable garb, then looked around to see what he should do next. All of the others were busily making up their bunks, so he quickly began to do the same.

Several minutes later, he stood at attention along with all the others while one of the five Tower Masters moved through the room to inspect the students and their bunks. The Master found little to fault any of the students on, and they were quickly dismissed to breakfast. The meal was as unappetizing as it was ordinary- a small piece of over-cooked rothe roast in a bland lichen sauce, with lizard eggs and milk that appeared on its way to becoming cheese. Lothir had eaten little, deciding that he would sneak something from the kitchen later when he helped with the day’s dishes. Thus began his second day of life in his new home, and it set the tone for all the days that followed.

The second day also brought his first session of weapon drills. He found that he enjoyed them more than the lectures, for Master Serath’s patient methods of instruction were far different from the harsh rebukes and whip-cracks of Master Nalvir. He took to the practice sessions with enthusiasm, and discovered that he truly enjoyed learning the art of swordsmanship. He found himself looking forward each day to the hours spent learning various styles of fighting, for there were as many styles as there were kinds of weapons, and each student was expected to become familiar with them all.

This suited the boy fine, for he threw himself into his lessons with a focus and desire for understanding of what Serath had called “a true warrior’s path” that bordered on obsession. His determination and desire for perfection did not go unnoticed, either. Soon he became one of Master Serath’s favorites, often being called on to demonstrate a technique that others had barely begun to learn. Before a month had passed, he found himself becoming used to the routine, and soon, the boy had surpassed most of his fellow students.

Yet this did not endear him to his classmates, for many grew jealous and resentful of what seemed easy success for the young noble-born. After his first week, he discovered that he had already acquired several rivals. Still, he paid them no mind, beyond keeping his eyes open for the attacks that Master Serath had warned him of. Weeks turned into months, with little change in the daily routine of lectures, drills, sparring matches, and chores. As the first year came to a close, he grew excited at the prospect of fighting in the Grand Melee, a free-for-all battle with wooden weapons to determine the rank of each student in the class. There was only one rule- win. Anyone who lost a fight was counted out, and the competition was fierce and vicious, with many combatants resorting to traps, alliances, and sneak-attacks against their peers.

When the day finally arrived, he went into the task with gusto, eager to prove himself in the mock combats against his peers. The Melee proved every bit as difficult and exciting as he had hoped, and he was forced to use every shred of skill and wit he possessed during the battle. In the end, he was one of the last to be called out of the fighting, having been defeated by a pair in training as future assassins, who had teamed up in order to thin the ranks. From a field of over three dozen young warriors, he finished the battle with only four others ranked above him.

His status within the class allowed him to choose his bunk before most of his classmates the next year, and to have more freedom to move about within the compound than most, as well. And so, time passed in a monotonous progression of lectures, drills, and chores- a slow but steady march of days that blended into months and eventually into years. Lothir continued to excel in his studies, always placing within the top four or five ranks. And slowly, he grew in both knowledge and stature.
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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Thu Dec 23, 2010 5:40 am

The first five years were difficult, being confined to the compound, forced to endure the petty jealousies and derision of his fellow students, who saw his single-minded dedication and lack of interest in joining in their diversions and clever repartee as being too pretentious. He had heard the talk of many of them behind his back, the whispers that he was nothing but a spoiled noble playing at being a warrior. Yet he ignored the mocking voices, the cold stares, and the inevitable attempts at intimidation and even assassination. More than a few times, he woke to find fellow students creeping up beside his bunk, dagger or garrote in hand, or even a poisoned needle or cloth. He always managed to foil the attempts, however, for he had long since perfected his use of illusions to make himself appear to be sleeping in his bed when in fact he was under it. Because he often stayed hidden from his would-be murderers, he was never able to see who was behind the attacks, though he had his suspicions. There were plenty of students who would have been more than happy to reduce the competition by one over-achieving noble.

Nymvayas and the other bodyguards kept to their own parts, of course. He never even knew about half of the attempts on his life, for the three would quietly dispatch those who were foolish enough to do so within their sight. After the first two years had passed, many students even began to whisper that he was somehow protected or blessed, for they had noticed how those who moved against him simply turned up dead or missing a short time later, leaving the prince unharmed. Even more baffling were the stories of those who claimed that he was some sort of ghost who could not be touched. Some speculated that he had a demon or other fell creature aiding him, and so they gave him a wide berth, watching warily whenever he was near.

For his part, Lothir was indifferent to most of his fellow students, feeling neither hate nor goodwill toward them. In truth, he simply didn’t care. He was surrounded by his peers, yet he felt more alone than ever, having no one that he felt he could trust. He continued to pursue his lessons with a tenacious devotion to duty, as well as to his promise to Ravyn. He knew that if either of them was ever to be free from the harsh world around them, it would take all his courage and skill. So he built a wall around his heart, keeping it hidden from those who might seek to take advantage of it. He locked it away behind a door as strong as stone. Only one living soul held the key to that door, or ever would, he believed.

Even so, he sometimes wished there was someone to confide in. What he wanted most was a friend. Never mind that the idea of friendship was virtually incomprehensible to most drow; the closest thing most of them ever came to true friendship could best be described as an amicable association. In a society built on deceit and betrayal, alliances were broken as often as they were made, and a friend one day could become a deadly enemy the next, simply out of greed, envy, or a rivalry between Houses. Such thoughts left the young drow feeling cold inside. Each night, as he retired to his bunk after a day of hard practice and exercise, as well as the daily tasks assigned to him, he would find himself wishing for a friendly voice, a warm smile, or even just a pleasant conversation with anyone at all.

Then came a day- shortly after his class had been promoted to the Apprentice Tower- when he returned to his bunk, only to find that one of his classmates was sitting on it. He gave the intruder an annoyed grimace, and stared right at him as the interloper looked up at him with a smirk, as if daring Lothir to object to his presence there.

“Well, if it isn’t the spoiled little Prince. My friends say you think you’re too good to associate with the rest of us. They also say you spend all your time practicing because you’re trying to suck up to the instructors.” He said, casually twirling a thin lock of his long yellow-white hair around a finger.

“What do I care what they say?” Lothir replied with a shrug. “Your name is Taztran, right? Get off my bed.”

The other only grinned at him. “Make me.”

Lothir let out an exasperated sigh. “Is there a point to this? Or are you simply being a we’ha?” The last bit got a dark glare from the larger youth.

“Well, is it true? Is your nose too high up to look at us, First House?” Taztran asked, rising up to stand in front of him. He had insulted Lothir intentionally, hoping to provoke some response to his accusation. His amber eyes dared the young prince to deny it, as he tried to stare him down.

“I don’t concern myself with anyone here one way or the other. I’m just here to train- nothing else. So you can tell your friends that if they think I give a damn what they say, then they obviously don’t know anything about me. So back off, and find someone else to annoy.” He glared back at the other coolly. He knew very well what Taztran was doing, but he really didn’t care. Let them think what they would. It was nothing to him.

His reply only seemed to anger the sneering young tough. He was no older than Lothir himself, but seemed to feel the need to dominate him, perhaps out of jealousy. The prince recalled that Taztran was from some minor House, not even a noble. Arabana, he thought it was. A merchant House, of middle size, but no real power. If he had not been sent to the Academy, he would most likely have never even come in contact with a drow of Taztran’s station. The Arabana youth was being trained as a House soldier, which meant that he was little better than a common servant to his House, even if he was a member of the family itself. Secondboy, at best.

He was ready for the punch that came at his jaw; in fact, he had expected it. As the would-be bully drove his fist at Lothir, he calmly evaded it, flicking the small silver dagger from his belt as he did so to hold it just above Taztran’s navel. “If I were you,” he said evenly, “I would step back and walk away before things get- messy.”

He was bluffing, of course, but the young thug had no way of knowing that. He was no doubt used to threats being carried out, and probably assumed the prince meant it, especially considering the rumors that had been tossed around regarding him. He paused, glancing down at the dagger, and swallowed. He drew back slowly, his golden eyes never leaving the blade.

“Huh. Maybe you’re not as weak as you look, after all.” He said after a moment. Lothir shrugged, taking a step back to sit on his bed, still casually flipping the dagger end over end in his hand.

“Would you just leave me alone?” he said, annoyed. “People like you are the reason I don’t talk to anyone here. It just proves that there’s no one in this place worth my time.” He was getting bored with the other’s puffed-up sense of power and bravado. He had faced a dragon- a dragon, of all things! And this bigheaded, muscle-bound oaf thought he could intimidate him, when Taztran had probably never slain anything worse than a rebellious goblin? It was almost laughable.

“And what the Hells is that supposed to mean?” asked Taztran, glaring at him angrily. He knew he was being insulted, even if he didn’t quite grasp how.

“It’s simple. You come over here, try to start a fight, and the minute I show a pair of calesset, you back down. Clearly, there’s no reason I should waste time on a coward like you. And if all the others are anything like you, then it’s pointless to associate with any of them. It has nothing to do with breeding- just simple respect. And I see no reason to show any to any of you.” He stared at the bigger drow impassively, waiting for him to respond, though he was certain the result would not be pleasant.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, First House,” Taztran replied, though he refrained from making a move.

“I have a name.” Lothir answered icily. “Pray use it, if you don’t mind. Just because I had to obey people treating me like iblith at home, doesn’t mean I’m going to put up with it here. So just go away, and go find a goblin to bully.”

“Oh yeah?” shot back the other. “What would a pampered little runt like you know about being treated like dung? You probably had slaves to do everything for you.” He sneered back. His tone was bitter with envy, which didn’t surprise the young prince in the least.

“More than you do, I’d bet,” he said simply. “And no, I didn’t. My family hardly ever even noticed I existed, when I saw them at all. The rest of the time, my mother was just like every other Matron in this city- she treated me like a slave because she was annoyed that she didn’t give birth to a daughter. So there’s your ‘pampered’ life, ruzzo’iso-t’zarreth (dumb-a$$).”

That made Taztran pause a moment. He obviously had not considered that the young Noble-born might have had anything but a life of luxury and comfort.

“But- yours is a male-ruled House, isn’t it?” he finally asked, as if confused by the reference to Matrons.

“You obviously don’t know much about my family,” Lothir replied sourly.

“Your Patron went and named himself king, I know that much. Your Highness.” Taztran spat with mocking rancor, bowing sarcastically. That did it- the young prince suddenly burst out laughing at the irony of the commoner’s retort.

“Oh, yes! The King of Thieves! And pirates, don’t forget that. Yet he doesn’t even know half of what goes on in his own House! Some king,” he said acidly. “As if I’d ever want to lay claim to that crown! He can keep it, for all I care.”

Apparently, that was not the response Taztran had expected, for he suddenly gave Lothir a puzzled look. “You’re saying you don’t want to rule? You could have more power than most of us ever dream of, and you don’t care?”

“In a word- no.” That answer only seemed to confuse the bigger youth further, for he sat down on the next bunk, staring at the prince incredulously.

“Now I see why you never talk to anyone here. You’re insane.” he said after a long moment.

Lothir just shrugged. “So what if I am? Does it really matter?”

Taztran had no answer to that. Several minutes passed, while the two eyed each other warily. At last, the bigger youth held out a hand in a gesture of truce. Lothir eyed it warily for hidden weapons, then finally clasped it cautiously.

“So, why did you come here, then, if you don’t want to rule? I would have thought someone like you could do whatever he pleased.” Taztran asked at last.

“As if I ever had a choice?!” Lothir scoffed. “My family is like every other, at least in that respect. If I don’t prove myself useful in one way or another, I’m likely to end up on Lothrenya’s altar. Just because he doesn’t follow that bitch-goddess, doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t. My mother is a high priestess, and she would like nothing better than to have a reason to be rid of me. It’s fortunate my dear father hasn’t yet sired any daughters, or she might have had reason enough already.”

Taztran cocked his head, trying to take all of that in. “So they sent you here to become a warrior. You don’t act much like a fighter, though- you‘re always reading when you’re not in the practice room. Sure you’re not in the wrong school?” he queried, smirking as he implied that the son of the First House should have gone to Telamurin’s sister academy, Magthere D’ Faer (School of Magic).

His veiled insult was ignored; instead, the young Noble shrugged, rolling his eyes. “Humph. And you said I was stuck-up! You think I’m not good enough to be here? I’d wager I can best just about anyone in our class. Including you. I’m not afraid to fight, and I’ve faced creatures you can’t even begin to imagine. I spent a lot of time practicing out in the Wilds, back home. So don’t even think you can intimidate me- not when I’ve killed everything from cave-fishers to hook horrors.” He stared back at the bigger boy, smiling at him smugly. He was rewarded by a look of open-mouthed awe and disbelief from Taztran.

“Liar,” the other said, thinking he was trying to impress him. “Where’s the proof? And how did you go out on your own? No Noble ever goes anywhere without guards.”

“Proof? Here’s your proof,” Lothir answered, pulling a small pouch from around his neck. Most drow carried their House insignia in such pouches, but his contained something else entirely. He opened it to reveal a three-inch ivory tooth, and a handful of small silvery scales, along with a large claw and a piece of some sort of chitinous plate. Souvenirs of past battles, all.

Taztran stared down at the small trophies, and slowly took one of the scales from Lothir’s hand. “What is that?” he asked, holding it up in the light as he turned it one way, then another to examine it.

“Dragon scale. I took it off its owner after my Blooding.” Let him chew on that, he thought smugly.

He was rewarded with a look of utter astonishment from the hulking young dark elf. “Dragon? But this- it looks like silver…” Taztran said, awed. “You- you fought a silver dragon?!”

Lothir merely folded his arms over his chest, and smiled. It hardly mattered that he had cheated on his Blooding- Taztran did not need to know that any more than his family did. Better to let them all think he had killed the wyrm, and keep the secret of Sivestrik’s existence to himself.

“Maybe there’s more to you than meets the eye, First House. Would you like to go out with us tonight? A group of us are going to the Spider’s Den for some- entertainment, if you catch my meaning. They have the best wines and slave-girls in the city. The food is not bad, either. We were going to play a few rounds of Eight-Legs and maybe have some Queen’s Venom while we enjoy a nice massage in the steam room. I would be pleased if you came. Interested?” Taztran asked hopefully. He had decided that the young Noble was not such a bad sort, after all. Aloof and cautious, perhaps, but not as arrogant as the other students had all claimed.

There did seem to be something peculiar about the quiet prince of E’Terrin’dar, but he shrugged it off as a simple lack of ambition. What need did the heir of the self-proclaimed king have for seeking more power and wealth when he already had everything a male could ever wish for, right in his own lap? In spite of what the soft-spoken boy had said, Taztran did not believe that his life had been at all hard. Even the least privileged of nobles had more rights and choices than a commoner. If the prince had been sent to the Academy, it was only so that his House could claim another skilled warrior in its ranks. He was likely being groomed for the eventual position of Weapons-Master, or even to become captain of his own warship. The burly drow youth was envious of his classmate’s rank and wealth, for it far outstripped anything he could ever hope for, unless he managed to acquire a ship of his own and establish his own House, as King Aldan had done.

“Why do you want me to go? I thought you said my nose was too high,” Lothir asked suspiciously. He could not help being wary of such an offer, coming from one who had already professed himself to be jealous of his status as a noble. Still, the chance for companionship was tempting, and he was lonely. Besides, it would give him an excuse to get out and see the city, something he still had yet to do. He recalled seeing the place Taztran spoke of on his first day in Terrillis, on his way to the Academy. He was eager to learn more about city life, and this was probably as good an opportunity as any.

“Maybe if you ever bothered to come out of the practice room, people wouldn’t think that way. Surely there must be something you enjoy?” Taztran said slyly, hoping to persuade him.

The young prince fixed him with a sharp gaze, wondering if he should trust the offer, or if it was merely the prelude to some trick. He was already familiar with betrayal, and had no wish to become the victim of some elaborate prank or trap. At last he nodded slowly, his need for a friend, no matter how untrustworthy, winning out over suspicion.

“No one’s ever asked me what I like, before. Perhaps I will go. But one question- what is ‘Eight-Legs’?” he said, utterly baffled. Taztran stared at him blankly for a moment, then suddenly laughed.

“You really do need to get out of that practice room once in a while!” he said, clapping the young noble on the back. “Let’s go- I think you’ll like what I have in mind.…” He laughed, and led Lothir from the barracks, grinning.

Several minutes later, the two had joined up with a small group of students who were waiting at the gates of the compound, all of them chatting jovially, though there was clearly an undercurrent of competition and distrust among them. They all turned at the pair’s approach, and suddenly Lothir found himself the recipient of several openly hostile stares, as the entire group ceased their chatter. It was obvious from their angry glares that he was unwelcome among them.

There were five youths in the group; one was a small, wiry lad with a long, narrow face that resembled a weasel, with tiny red eyes that gleamed with keen intelligence. He seemed to continually shift his gaze about, as if paranoid that one of his companions might be planning to attack him- which they might very well have been. He kept fidgeting with some small metal object, flipping it over and under his fingers, occasionally switching hands or tossing it up and catching it again. Lothir watched for a moment, and soon realized the object was a small, flat piece of steel in the shape of a jagged-edged star. A small pouch at the other drow’s belt apparently carried more of the unusual weapons. He had seen a few of the tiny throwing weapons before, but he was surprised to discover that one of his fellow students used them. He made a note to keep an eye on the small rodent-faced lad.

The second was an average-sized drow, who wore his hair in a multitude of long, thin braids, with one on either side of his face dyed blood-red; his face, arms, and hands were heavily tattooed in strange white markings that the young prince quickly recognized as arcane symbols. He carried only a pair of daggers at his waist, and two more in sheaths strapped to his forearms. Lothir’s brows shot up as he realized that the tattooed youth was a Nightblade, a rare combination of mage and assassin that used his own body as the focus for deadly arcane power to infuse into his blades.

The next two were mirror images of each other, both tall and stocky, with their pale blue-white hair cut short and spiked on top. Each had a short sword and a crossbow at his hips, and both had green eyes the shade of sea-foam. Lothir decided they must be twins, for even their movements seemed to mimic each other. The overall effect was of observing someone standing before a mirror.

The last youth was short and slender, his hair dyed as black as his skin, so that his red eyes seemed to stare out from a shadow. He was dressed all in black, his simple tunic and trousers of close-fitting silk. The young Noble found himself wary of that one, as well; anyone who was trying that hard to make himself blend with the shadows had something to hide.

“What in the Nine Hells is he doing here?!” asked the one with the black-dyed hair. Lothir scowled, struggling to remember whether he had ever heard the speaker’s name. Nymtyr? Of House Hlarret? He thought that was it, but as he had paid little attention to the doings of others in the Academy, he could not be certain. He knew that House Hlarret was mainly a house of oyster-divers, who made their living pulling the valuable shellfish from the sea.

“Relax, Nym- I invited him. He’s not such a stuffy lout after all. Come lads, we’re wasting time! The Spider’s Den awaits!”

“You invited him? Whatever for? The last thing we need is some stupid noble lording it over us. Especially from the First House. Lot of useless squabbling fools if you ask me.” This came from the tattooed lad, as he gazed at the newcomer scornfully. The others nodded their assent, the twins sneering at him as if he was some sort of vermin.

“I am standing right here. Did your Matrons teach you such manners? Or would they flog you for insolence toward a superior?” Lothir asked pointedly, staring at the tattooed boy with a look that said he thought such behavior to be disgraceful.

“What are you going to do about it, high-born? You certainly don’t look like a Matron to me,” shot back the weasel-faced boy with a cold glare. Lothir remembered his name- G’eldreth Teken’ghym. Another minor common House, as were all of them, apparently.

“Ignore G’eldreth- he suffers from permanent celibacy, seeing how his Matron had him castrated when he broke a sacred statue.” Taztran turned to the wiry G’eldreth with a nasty grin. The other took a step toward him, a throwing star in hand, but paused when he remembered there were others watching, and backed down with a dark glare.

“I’d sleep with my eyes open if I were you, Taz- you never know when you might find yourself choking from a wire around your neck in the middle of the night.” G’eldeth’s open threat brought gaping stares from the others; it was considered rude and arrogant to so blatantly reveal one’s intent to slay a rival.

“Guess that means we all know who to stick our knives in, now don’t we, boys?” commented the tattooed male. The two green-eyed drow exchanged looks and grinned wickedly.

“Right as usual, Durnozz,” they replied in unison. Lothir found it oddly disturbing that they seemed to mimic one another so completely. All he knew of Durnozz was that he was the son of a minor priestess, and that Maemtor was a small but relatively wealthy merchant house, but had never met him before today.

“And the two parrots there are Kethan and Filas,” said Taztran, turning to Lothir, unconcerned by the threat from his companion. The young noble-born tried to think of their House name, and finally dredged it up from his memory. Zaundar, a house of lizard-breeders. “They’re a little creepy at first, but you get used to it after a while. It’s easier if you just remember that they only have one brain between them. So, are we going, or what?”

The twins glared at him, exchanging another glance, before they finally shrugged and nodded. Only Durnozz and G’eldreth seemed to balk.

“I’m not dragging some spoiled noble brat along,” protested Durnozz. He stood unmoving, arms folded over his chest, and shot the newcomer a look as if daring him to argue the point. Lothir looked from him to Taztran and back, trying to decide if it was truly worth seeking their company. They clearly thought little of him, and he did not really blame them. After all, most of them were from minor Houses that had no noble blood and little status. He knew they were jealous of his high rank and the assumed privileges that went with it, but he wondered just how they would feel if they knew what his life had been before entering the Academy. Still, he was lonely, and this seemed the closest he might ever get to having friends. But he knew he would have to prove he was one of them first.

“Very well- Durnozz, was it? How about a wager? If I win, I get to join your little outing. If I lose, I’ll do all your duties for a week. Fair enough?” The young prince stepped in front of the scornful Durnozz, standing straight with his head high in defiance. His sky-blue eyes bored determinedly into the ruby orbs of the other drow, knowing he could not reject the challenge without loosing face.

Durnozz eyed him warily, no doubt believing his wager was a trap of some kind. “What do you have in mind?” he asked after a long moment, his crimson orbs narrowed dangerously.

“A simple contest- we go down to the docks, dive off the end of a pier, and swim out to the first buoy and back. First one to touch the pier wins. Oh- you can swim, can’t you?” he said, giving the tattooed drow a smirk. The others all glanced at each other, as if confused. From the looks on their faces, they had been expecting a fight or weaponry skill match.

“Swimming? You’re joking, right? What kind of contest is that?” Durnozz replied dismissively. Lothir only smiled, and shrugged.

“Why not? Every sailor on the docks can swim- are you saying you aren’t better than a sailor? Or are you afraid to try?” he gave the boy a taunting smirk; the proud look in the tattooed lad’s eyes told him that Durnozz had taken the bait. Lothir stared him in the face as the other finally put his hand out to confirm the wager with a clasped arm.

“I’m going to make you regret this, high-born. I hope you like scrubbing floors- that’s the duty I pulled for next week,” replied Durnozz, smirking.

“We’ll see,” was all the young noble said as they all headed for the gates.

They had gone only a few feet, however, when they were stopped by an authorative bark from behind.

“Halt! Where are ye’ lads off ta, now? No Initiates beyond the gates!” All seven students whirled at the order; Lothir saw Nymvayas and the other two bodyguards striding purposefully toward them, and stifled a groan. He had hoped to avoid running into them, but now it was a lost cause.

Taztran stepped forward, bowing slightly to the three guardsmen, but with a haughty look of annoyance. “We’re not Initiates, we’re all Sixth Year. Apprentice Tower, which means we’re allowed to go out on leave after work duty.” He smiled with satisfaction as he saw the three stop short. They ignored him, however, instead staring past him at Lothir. He sighed, realizing that the expedition might be shorter than he had expected. There was no way he would ever get a chance to go with the others if the three idiots decided to tag along. He would be humiliated in front of the others, and they would never allow him to join them then.

“Aye, then, we’d best provide an escort- the streets be dangerous, eh, boys?” said Nymvayas, as Dorl’avin and Sezvyll quietly took up flanking positions behind him. The burly Dorl’avin gave Lothir a slight nod, but said nothing; apparently, he understood his concern, and seemed content to pretend their only purpose was to perform their duties as members of the Darkswords. Evidently, Nymvayas seemed to realize the delicacy of the situation, as well, for he had said nothing to the young prince, nor had he brought any unwanted attention to his young charge yet.

“That- won’t be necessary, sir. We all know our way around. We’ve been out before.” G’eldreth spoke up, once again idly playing with one of his small metal stars. It seemed to be a nervous habit with him. He stared pointedly at the leader of the three guardsmen, as if daring him to protest. Then Taztran stepped up, turned to the others with a shrug, and grinned.

“You know, it couldn’t hurt to have a little extra muscle with us in case of gangs. They’re thick around the docks, and even down near the Spider’s Den. Besides, these three might be able to show us a few diversions we haven’t tried yet. I say we take them.”

The others glanced about at one another, but having no other objections, they all simply nodded agreement. Lothir alone seemed hesitant to include them, but could not truly voice his opinion without bringing attention to himself. That was, of course, the last thing he wanted with this bunch. His position among them was tenuous enough already.

“Fine, we take them, but if we’re going down to the docks, we’d better hurry. I don’t want to spend the whole evening showing this spoiled gol’ssinss how much of a lame lizard he is.” Durnozz tossed back over his shoulder as he headed for out of the gates. The others followed behind, with Lothir sticking close to Taztran, for he had already decided that Taz was the one most likely to support him in the contest- which was to say, he was the least likely to try to stab him in the back. The three guardsmen came last, following along at a short distance.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to reach the docks, for they had to weave their way through the ever-bustling area of the Bazaar. At last they found a pier that was unoccupied by any ship, and stopped at the end of it. Lothir looked out over the murky water, noting the small waves that rolled up to the shore, and the height of the piers above the water. He smiled to himself, for though the small harbor was fairly choppy, he was well used to the sort of currents and eddies that were common in deep water.

“There,” he said, pointing out to a buoy nearly a hundred yards out. “We swim to that, and back. Fair enough?”

He saw the others all glance nervously at each other, and knew he had them. Even Durnozz looked uncertain now, eyeing the distance warily. For all his bluster, it was clear that he had little experience swimming, if any. The young noble wondered briefly if he truly even knew how. The only one he was worried about in the group was Nymtyr, who might be a more adept swimmer than the others, due to the profession of his house.

“Fine, but I say we all do it. Just so there’s no question when you lose that you were fairly beaten. Right, boys?” Durnozz turned to the others, grinning wickedly. “If you lose, you do the chores of whoever wins.”

“Agreed. But if I win, then whoever comes in last does my chores for a week,” Lothir shot back, before any of the others had a chance to protest. He knew that if he sealed the deal, they would have no choice but to go along, or else be thought weak for backing out. So much the better for me, he thought. Now they will know just how tough and smart I am when they discover that they’ve all been played for fools. His main concern was still Nymtyr, though had he known that the Hlarret youth had a minor phobia of swimming due to an unfortunate encounter with an aggressive moray eel when he had been very young, and had barely gone into the water since, he might not have worried so much.

Just to show that there was no doubt he intended to go through with the deal, he moved to the edge of the pier and tugged off his boots, then swiftly removed the rest of his clothes. Then he turned to the others, waiting for them to do the same. “I’m ready,” he said smugly, with a little smirk. The others glanced at each other again, and quickly began to strip down as well. Only when all seven youths had undressed and moved up to the edge of the platform, did anyone pause.

“Wait, who’s going to be the judge?” asked G’eldreth suddenly. “Someone needs to watch in case of a close finish.”

“”Ere, lads- we’ll watch.” Nymvayas replied, stepping up. He had been listening to the conversation, and seemed to understand that there was some sort of competition going on. More to the point, he realized that it had something to do with his charge gaining the respect and acceptance of the others. If it would prevent a few attacks on the boy’s life, he had no qualms about allowing the game to play out.

“Sounds good to me. You call the start!” Lothir shouted back to the bodyguard, his relief evident. He had noticed the guardsman’s quick response, which had forestalled any thoughts of backing out from any of his peers. He had raced against others many times before, but rarely against so many at one time. This was a challenge that he was eager to take on, for he knew he would have to get ahead of them quickly to avoid being crowded and possibly losing valuable advantage.

All seven drow stood on the last plank, tensed and ready. Lothir took several deep, slow breaths to prepare- then Nymvayas let out a sharp shout to start, and seven naked drow bodies launched into the air before slicing down into the dark water below. Almost at once, five of them rose back to the surface, and began stroking their way toward the buoy. G’eldreth came up last, for he was the least experienced swimmer of the group. Yet the young noble was nowhere to be seen, as he had not resurfaced with the rest.

From his vantage on the pier, Nymvayas frowned, wondering what had happened to the boy. He was even more worried when the lad still had not come up several seconds later. He was about to call a halt to the race, when he saw- unbelievably- a small spot of white pop up several lengths ahead of all the others, and realized that the young prince had not only been swimming beneath the waves, but had easily taken the lead in doing so.

Lothir came up for a breath, already well ahead of the others, and dove back down a few feet below the surface, where the water was less turbulent, and the waves would not drag at him. He knew how to use the currents to aid him, both in using less energy, and in increasing his speed. By the time he came up for his next breath, he was far ahead of all six of his opponents. Even Durnozz, who had been leading the pack, was more than ten lengths behind now. He paused to watch them, and chuckled at their obvious lack of knowledge of what, to him, was pure instinct. At last he dove below again, moving as easily as a fish toward the goal.

Several breaths later, his hand slapped against the buoy, and he pulled himself up, shimmying onto its side to sit for a moment, while he waited for the others to get there. Already he could see that G’eldreth was tiring, and Nymtyr and Taztran were trailing far behind Durnozz. Only Filas and Kethan came close to keeping up with the tattooed youth. After a few seconds, G’eldreth stopped, looking up to see the slender form of the noble sitting casually on the buoy, and gaped. He glanced at the others, and shook his head, turning to go back to the pier, for he realized he had already lost.

Lothir waited a few seconds more, then shouted out over the waves. “Hey, slugs! What’s taking so long? See you back at the pier!” He laughed, then filled his lungs again, and dove back into the brine. He grinned to himself as he passed beneath Durnozz going the other way, and startled both twins when he popped up for air right in front of them, waving as he continued back to the pier. Already Taztran and Nymtyr were slowing, but they continued on, finally nearing the buoy even as Durnozz finally started back toward the docks. He passed them by, and heard the curses of the twins as they paused at the buoy to look back. He smiled to himself again, knowing there was no way he could lose now.

By the time he finally came up again, touching one of the posts holding up the pier, he was panting from the effort of what had been his longest race ever. G’eldreth was already back on the pier, heaving and staring at him in disbelief. Lothir let a small wave carry him to the ladder on the side of the dock, and scrambled up it to tumble onto his back, dripping and exhausted, but laughing happily. The three guardsmen looked down at the two drenched boys, shaking their heads.

“’Ere now, that was quite a swim, lad.” Nymvayas made a low whistle, impressed by the speed and endurance of the young prince.

“Yeah, tell me about it. First time I ever tried it that far. That was fun!” He laughed, still panting hard. He looked back out at the others; Nymtyr and Taz were finally catching up to Durnozz and the twins, who had all slowed as fatigue began to take its toll. Lothir watched for a few moments, dangling his feet over the end of the pier, and saw the tattooed youth now being passed by the twins, who were still determined to finish. He smirked, realizing that the Maemtor boy had used up most of his energy early in the race, in his determination to beat him.

Then he was passed by Taz and Nymtyr, and Lothir began to sense something amiss. While the two had been tiring, they were still going at a steady pace, and seemed to have found a second wind. Durnozz, on the other hand, was beginning to flounder, his strokes weaker. He made a few more yards- now less than twenty yards from the finish- and suddenly seemed to lose all strength. His head sank under the water, and the young noble suddenly realized the tattooed boy had become too exhausted to stay afloat. In a flash, he leapt up, taking a deep breath as he dove back in after the other drow. It never occurred to him not to go after him- in his mind, it was the only choice.

He stroked hard, diving deep as he shot through the murky water to search for Durnozz. He was vaguely aware of the other four shouting at him as they finally reached the pier, but the water muffled the sound, and he ignored them. He could barely see more than ten feet ahead, but he forged on, knowing that a life was at stake. Several frantic seconds passed when he thought he had lost Durnozz completely; then his hand touched something solid, and he grasped onto the other boy’s wrist. He pulled hard, and kicked for the surface, his lungs ready to explode for need of air. The Maemtor youth was heavy, but he struggled on, desperate to save him.

At last he broke the surface, and slipped one shoulder under the other boy’s arm, holding his head above the waves as he awkwardly paddled back toward the pier. By then, all the others had climbed up, and were shouting at him to hurry.

“I could use a little help here!” he shouted back, huffing from the strain. Durnozz looked unnaturally pale, his skin gone a worrisome shade of gray. Finally, Taztran threw out a rope, and he grabbed hold of it and slipped it around the other boy’s chest, then tied it, and held the unconscious boy’s head above water as Taz and G’eldreth towed them in.

When they were up on the pier, he rolled Durnozz onto his stomach and began to pound on his back hard, while he slid one arm under him and pressed upward, to try to push the water from his lungs. A small amount came out, but the other drow lay still. Desperate, he rolled him back onto his back, and pushed down on his chest; then he opened the other’s mouth and tried blowing into it. He didn’t know how he knew to do that, but after several breaths, and more frantic pounding, Durnozz suddenly coughed, and spit out a mouthful of water in his face as he was about to blow into him again. The others all stood staring in disbelief, for they had been certain their companion was dead.

After a long silence, Taztran spoke. “Where did you learn to swim like that?” he asked. Five pairs of eyes looked to him expectantly, while Durnozz still sputtered and heaved, trying to recover from his near-drowning.

“What did you expect?” the noble-born said simply. “My House controls the most powerful fleet in Argonia, and my father commands the largest ship of any House, and we have our own private cove, and you have to ask me that?” he laughed, grinning smugly. “Guess you lads forgot who you were dealing with.”

By this time, Durnozz had finally staggered to his feet, and now he glared at the young noble angrily. “You set us up,” he growled, baring his teeth. “You knew none of us could keep up for that long! You tried to kill me! You intentionally made the race too long!” He yelled, and bulled into Lothir furiously, knocking him to the planks and coming down atop him to slam his fists into the smaller drow.

In an instant, he found himself fighting the tattooed youth in a savage bout of punching and kicking, rolling about on the dock in what had become a contest of who could take the most hits before surrendering. He gave as good as he got, of course, though he soon had a bloody nose, his left eye swollen shut, and a split lip before Nymvayas and Dorl’avin finally broke up the fight.

When at last the three guardsmen had managed to calm the two struggling boys to a semi-rational state, he looked over at Durnozz, and stared him straight in the eyes as he spoke. “You’re wrong. If I had wanted you dead, I would have let you drown, mal’ai. I did make the race long on purpose, but only to prove you couldn‘t beat me. It’s not my fault you over-exerted yourself trying to win. In case you didn‘t notice, I just saved your life.” He folded his arms across his chest, blood still trickling from his nose and lip, and stared Durnozz down defiantly. The tattooed youth glared at him silently for a long moment, then slowly nodded.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve doing that, high-born. But you tricked us all squarely. You’re more cunning than I would have given you credit for.” He stepped toward him, one arm held out, and gave Lothir a long look. His own mouth was swollen, and he had several small scrapes and cuts on his face from the other lad’s fists. At last he grinned. “You’re pretty tough for a spoiled noble brat.”

“Next time you throw a punch at me like that, I’ll show you just how tough,” the young prince grinned back, and clasped his arm. “And since I had to go back out and save your sorry hide, I’d say that means you get to do all my chores for the next week. Hope you like privy-duty. Compared to that, doing your chores would have been an improvement! Now, where were we headed again? Taztran mentioned some place called the Spider’s Den.” He cocked his head, nodding toward Taz, and the other youth nodded with a chuckle. Lothir tossed a quick look at the three guardsmen; Nymvayas turned to wink at him, a slight smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He knew the lad had just won more than a bet- he had won their respect and acceptance.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Fri Jan 07, 2011 9:04 pm

A short time later, the seven dark-elven youths arrived at the entrance of the place he had seen on his first day in the city the, which seemed to be made of hardened webs. He followed the others inside, and there he discovered that he was in what appeared to be a tavern of some sort, but with a distinctly dark and dangerous air about it. In fact, as he noticed several scantily-clad females of various races sauntering about- most either carrying trays of drinks or taking orders from the predominantly male customers, he suddenly realized that it was in fact a brothel. The air was sweetly perfumed and he heard soft music playing somewhere, and those seated at the various tables all appeared to be lounging in as little clothing as was considered decent- which, to a drow, was very little, at that. He noticed a doorway leading back into what must be several private rooms, and a large area curtained off with steam coming from the spaces around the edges of the thick drapes. A steam-room? He had never been in one, but knew that some drow enjoyed such luxuries.

A buxom half-drow girl in nothing but a skirt that was little more than two narrow strips of cloth in front and back, with her long silvery-white hair hanging enticingly over her bare breasts to just barely cover them, approached the group with a sultry smile.

“Vendui, boys. What would be your pleasure this evening?” she asked, her eyes darting over each youth to quickly size up which of them was the most likely to earn her a goodly sum of coin. She seemed to settle on Taztran and Durnozz, for she quickly slid between them, rubbing against the two young males in such an obvious fashion that Lothir decided she might as well lie back on one of the tables and spread her legs for them right then.

They quickly found a table, and the others began pooling their coins for a bottle of the potent wine Taztran had called Queen’s Venom, while Lothir’s eyes darted all around the main room with its dark corners, seductive music, and occasional risqué statues outlined in red fairie-fire. The three warriors stationed themselves in a shadowy corner nearby, close enough to deter trouble if any occurred. Not long after the drinks arrived, G’eldreth pulled out a deck of cards, and began passing out hands to each of the companions, while Taztran explained the workings of the game to the young prince. He listened carefully to the rules, and after only a few hands, he was playing as if he had been doing it for years.

After the first few rounds of cards and drinks, the others were grumbling about being low on coin, so he offered to pay for the next bottle. When he opened up his belt pouch and pulled out a small rough garnet, the boys gaped. He handed it to the serving wench, whose eyes lit up and suddenly regarded him with an almost hungry look. She came back several minutes later with three more bottles of wine, as well as a large platter of food, and told the boys that they were welcome to any service they wished.

Taztran grinned wickedly at her offer, and slid a sly sideways look her way. “Any service?” he asked, and wiggled his brows meaningfully. The half-drow girl giggled, and nodded at him with a coy wink. He suddenly stood up, poured himself another glass, and gulped it down in a hurry. “’Scuse me, lads, but I do believe I’m going to avail myself of some of those services. Don’t wait for me- I might be gone all night!” Then he took the girl’s arm and practically dragged her off toward the private rooms.

“Well, lads, looks like we’ve lost one. Anyone up for another hand?” said G’eldreth, shuffling the deck idly.

Durnozz shook his head, and looked around thoughtfully. “Nah, I think I’m going to enjoy the steam room and a good massage. Anyone want to join?” He stood up, and the twins nodded and followed as he made his way back to the curtained area. Filas grabbed one of the bottles as he passed, along with a large chunk of roast rothe and a wedge of cheese from the platter.

Lothir watched them leave, and finally turned to the two remaining youths. “I suppose it’s just us, then,” he said, shrugging. “At least they left us most of the wine.” He opened one bottle, and poured another glass. He noticed that the other two had said nothing, and refilled their glasses, as well. He was surprised when Nym spoke, as he seemed the type to keep silent most of the time.

“Where did you get that gem? Not many people pay with those, you know. It’s dangerous to go waving things like that around.”

“I happen to know of an entire cavern chamber full of them, back home. Not to mention every other kind of crystal you can name. It was like a huge geode with a floor made of solid obsidian.” He told them of his private discovery with pride, though he realized that it might be wiser to keep knowledge of the gems to himself in the future. He had enough problems with would-be assassins as it was.

“Uh-huh, and you expect us to believe they just let you have as many as you want? Your family can’t be that rich!” Nym said cynically.

“Actually, they have no idea that cavern exists. No one does. I found it on my own, out in the wilds, and I never told anyone about it before. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s only one way in, and it’s difficult to get to even for someone our size, much less anyone bigger. Besides which, there are some dangerous creatures in those passages, so I doubt anyone could even live to get to it, even if they could find it.”

“Oh really? And just how did you find it, then?” said Nym with a smirk, thinking he had caught the noble-born in a lie.

“I know where all of the really dangerous ones are, so I can avoid them. And I’m on good terms with one of them, so she lets me by. Not many creatures would mess with an aranea.” He shrugged and gave Nym a smug grin, and was pleased to see the stunned expression on the other youth’s face at his reply. To be left unharmed by an aranea was considered a blessing from the Venom Queen, for few could boast of such good fortune. The children of Lothrenya were known to be as capricious and unpredictable as the goddess they claimed to be descended from, and those who earned their favor, were believed to be well in hers, as well.

The others had nothing to say to that, so they continued with their game, and soon enough it was time to return to the compound for the curfew. When he finally slipped into his bed that night, he used his cloak to make himself invisible; then he left an illusion in his place, for he was fairly certain at least one of his new “friends” would try to steal his pouch, or even kill him for it. Needless to say, he was rather surprised when nothing of the sort happened, and he woke the next morning chilled from spending the night on the floor, but glad that the others had not betrayed him- yet.

As days passed, Lothir began to spend the evening hours in the company of Taztran and the others. He soon discovered that Durnozz was considered the unofficial leader of the small gang, since the rest usually deferred to him in most decisions. They spent most nights at the Spider’s Den, playing games of chance- which he discovered he had a natural knack for- and sipping wine or enjoying the brothel’s many other pleasures. For his part, Lothir avoided those, except for the steam room and the occasional massage, which he enjoyed greatly.

It was on one of these forays that he noticed that one of the wenches kept eyeing him from across the room, and smiled whenever she noticed him looking. It did not take much imagination to understand why, for by now, most of the girls there knew about his generosity in paying for the group’s food and drinks, and sundry other pastimes. Not that he minded, of course; the attention was quite flattering, to his way of thinking. It was on this particular evening that he noticed her staring once again, and whispering to one of the other wenches.

She was a human woman still in her early prime, with long black hair and bright green eyes, an ample bosom, and milky pale skin. She reminded him for just a moment of Ravyn, with her soft, wavy tresses and slender build. He felt a pang of yearning for Ravyn, for her warm embrace and soft voice. A few minutes after he had first seen her, the woman approached, her softly rounded hips swaying invitingly. He realized he was staring, and quickly downed his glass of elven rose wine, which had been imported at great expense from Whisperwood- which meant, of course, that it had been plundered from an elven settlement and brought back by a pirate vessel.

“May I be of service, Master?” she asked, her breasts straining at her skimpy green bustier as she drew a deep breath. He felt heat rising in his face, and quickly moved his eyes up to meet hers.

“Ah, no thank you, miss. I’m fine here,” he stammered quickly, feeling strangely nervous. She gave him a coy smile, and leaned against his seat, bending down low so that her ample chest was right at eye-level. He knew she was doing it intentionally, yet somehow he could not seem to keep his eyes on hers, where they should be. He was almost tempted to suggest a service she could provide, but bit back the thought.

“Mistress Sabal said that you are always welcome to anything you wish here. Why don’t you come with me, handsome? I can provide any ‘service’ you like. Mistress Sabal has only one rule- no permanent damage to the goods. She dislikes having to replace slave-girls.”

He scowled, reminded instantly that the woman before him was, in fact, a slave. He shook his head, suddenly less interested in her offer. “No, thank you. Tell your Mistress that I’m content with enjoying the wine and the massage room.” He started to wave her aside, only to see her turn toward a drow woman in the far corner, with an almost apologetic look on her face, shaking her head. The dark elven female scowled back, and she turned back to him, her expression pleading.

“Oh, but she insists! Please, my lord, she will punish me terribly if I do not keep you happy!” As pleas went, it was not an especially compelling one by drow standards- most of his people would have simply left her to her fate, without caring in the slightest. Yet Lothir felt pity for the woman- he remembered all too well the times that he had seen slaves at home beaten or worse for displeasing the masters of the house.

He glanced toward the drow woman in a long black gown with a v-cut neckline so low as to be indecent- if she had belonged to any other race- with her pale yellow-white tresses coiled up atop her head in a a perfectly-coifed cascade of curls. She was festooned from ears to naval with silver jewelry, all of it with spider motifs. He saw her cool stare, and realized she was waiting for something. Why was she so adamant about the slave catering to his private needs? He quickly grasped the reason as one of the serving girls sauntered his way, with a well-laden tray of food and a fresh bottle of wine. <Damn,> he thought, suddenly wishing he had not been so generous on his previous visits. The drow woman was setting him up to be robbed by the slave. <Two can play that game,> he thought after a moment, and suddenly held up a glass to her with a grin.

He looked back over at the anxious slave woman, and smiled. “On second thought, perhaps I will take advantage of your charms, miss. Is there a private room available?”

She seemed only too happy to lead him back toward the private rooms, amid cat-calls and whistles from his companions. He ignored them, and followed the woman to a small but sumptuously furnished lounge with room for about ten people to engage in whatever delights they might wish. She waited until he had entered, closed the door behind him, and began to strip even before he could speak.

“Ah, you can leave those on,” he said, as she unlaced her tight bustier, smiling at him provocatively. She paused, and suddenly frowned.

“But, I thought you wanted me to serve you?” she said, clearly confused.

He sighed, and shook his head. “I only said that to keep your Mistress from getting angry. I know why she sent you to me- you were going to wait until I was distracted, and rob me, weren’t you?” He asked, eyeing her candidly.

She gave him a frightened look, and suddenly went to her knees. “Please, don’t hurt me! She ordered me to do it- Lady Sabal wanted me to steal the gems you always carry! She knew you wouldn’t dare accuse anyone here, because it would be too embarrassing to admit to being tricked. She thought you would just pretend it never happened!”

He gave her a long look, and realized that she was telling the truth. “Then she’s an idiot,” he said, shrugging. “Why would she risk loosing a good customer, and annoying a noble, for a few shiny rocks? It’s not like I wouldn’t have spent more of them here, anyway.”

“She’s greedy, and not as clever as she thinks, either. My mistress was going to keep you quiet by offering my services any time you come, and letting you do whatever you wanted to me. She doesn’t do that for anyone else.”

“A bribe?!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “What kind of fool did she take me for?!” He shook his head, annoyed that the Mistress of the brothel would assume he would be such an easy mark- or that his silence regarding such a theft would be bought so cheaply. Then he paused, and suddenly laughed. “Ha! You know, I just might take her up on that offer, at that. With one small difference,” he said, fishing out three small gems from his purse. “You give her these, and tell her that I will keep silent about her scheme, instead of ratting her out to everyone here, on one condition. I want to buy you from her outright. As of now, you belong to me alone- no other customer can lay a hand on you, without my permission.”

“But, you attend the Academy, yes? Do they allow students to keep slaves with them?” she asked, incredulous.

“No, they don’t. You will still remain here, but as my personal full-time server. Think of me as having a part ownership here, because I will be checking in frequently to see to it that she keeps her end. Incidentally, tell her that if even one coin comes up missing from anyone else here, I’ll spread the word who’s responsible, and she’ll loose her customers faster than she can say ‘yachlol’.” He smiled like a cat that had just caught a mouse, and raised one brow; there was no way the brothel owner could refute his offer, without loosing everything she had.

The human woman simply stared at him in shock, and then slowly nodded.. “Yes, my Lord. I- I mean, Master.” She gave him a low curtsy; then she tucked the gems into a small pouch she carried, and moved closer to him, as if submitting herself to whatever he might have in mind. “What would you have of me, Master?” she asked, kneeling before him with eyes averted, as was the rule.

“What?” he asked, before realizing what she meant. He took her hands, pulling her up and moving over to one of the cushion-covered couches, and sat down with her beside him. “You don’t have to do anything- All I want is for you to keep an eye on her for me, and continue to bring the drinks or whatever when I come in. And as soon as I find a good place, you can have a home of your own, with no one to hurt you.” He gave her a reassuring smile, and looked down at her hand in his. She reminded him a little of Ravyn, and it had made him sad to see a lovely and helpless woman treated so poorly, or made to serve in such a way.

“You- you don’t want me to…” she began, confused, her other hand trailing down to his thigh. The woman leaned close, her half-unlaced top showing far more of her generous cleavage than he was comfortable with.

“No. Well, yes, er….” He stammered, suddenly more than a little embarrassed. Of course he was interested in what she was suggesting, but only in a purely physical sense. It felt wrong, somehow, and he was loath to ask her to do anything she did not wish to. “I would like that, but you don’t have to. I’m not going to order you to do anything you would not do of your own will.” He knew of no better way to explain his intentions, for he did indeed feel a faint stirring, brought on by her obvious wish to please, and the nearness and attractiveness of her shapely form. More than that, her vague resemblance to Ravyn had stirred emotions he had nearly forgotten.

“I am yours to command, my Lord,” she whispered, and her hand slid higher, even as the other finished unlacing her bustier. It fell open, revealing a pair of perfect, round breasts, pale as milk from years spent living in the shadowy world of her masters. “Let me please you,” she said softly, and he let out a ragged breath as her hand found his belt and deftly unfastened it. As much as he wanted to protest, he suddenly found himself tongue-tied, unable to speak.

She pressed against him, her bared breasts rubbing against his soft lizard-hide jerkin as she nuzzled his neck, her warm breath sending a pleasant sensation surging through him. That was all it took. With a soft groan of pleasure, he wrapped one arm around her waist, drawing her tight against himself. “No, let me,” he whispered huskily, and gently held her head as he kissed her deeply, fingers tangling in her long sable tresses.

He leaned back, pulling her down with him as he settled into the pile of cushions on the couch, spilling them onto the floor. She let him tug off the bustier, baring her upper half to his gaze, before she slowly began to unbutton his jerkin. The drow looked up at her with his blue eyes hot with awakened need, letting his hands roam over her body in a tender caress. Long dexterous fingers played over her skin as lightly as a feather, sending shivers through her. The woman sighed, pleasantly surprised by the gentle touch. Most of her clients never bothered with such small courtesies. They paid no heed to her feelings, instead slaking their needs with hardly a thought to whether she took any pleasure from the act.

Not so this one, she realized. He seemed eager to give as much as he received, hands and lips heatedly seeking out her most sensitive places, working her slowly into a passionate frenzy. She was hardly aware of it when he rolled over to pin her beneath him, swiftly tugging off the jerkin and tunic beneath to expose a lean, taut chest of satiny onyx. His body was unblemished, and though still growing, was clearly built for flexibility and agility, all compact muscle and lithe shape.

When he slipped her simple skirt down off of her hips, she was surprised to discover that he was well versed in the arts of oral gratification. She heard him murmur a strange, almost musical verse while wiggling his fingers over her, and suddenly each touch and caress increased in pleasure until she felt as if she might climax at any moment. She gasped, writhing with an aching need, and he rose up, an oddly pleased expression on his face, swiftly removing his tight leggings. She gazed at the full- and rather impressive for a half-grown youth, she decided- member standing proudly erect, and let out a soft moan as he lowered himself down over her again, his hard shaft quivering as if in anticipation. She was only too happy to comply when he nudged her legs apart with one knee, kissing her breasts.

The drow groaned in absolute bliss as he slipped inside her silken thighs, and for once, felt no qualms or hesitation at being with a female. Before, it had always felt coerced, an obligation to learn what Shiallin wished to teach. Now, however, it was completely his own idea, with a woman who was obviously quite happy to enjoy his attention. This was a new and intriguing feeling, one he wanted to explore further. The simple yet effective spell he had just cast had been an experiment, something he had found in one of his former tutor’s books, but had never had reason to try. He was well pleased with the result; apparently, it was not called “Touch of Rapture” for nothing. The human woman clutching at him hungrily was clearly enjoying its effects. For some reason, that made him happy.

He took her slowly, tenderly, savoring each wave of electric pleasure, letting the sensations build and ebb until they were both breathless and slick with sweat. His hair hung down, plastered to his neck and shoulders- it had grown longer since leaving home, and now fell to just below them- falling into his eyes, and even brushing against her skin when he kissed her neck. At last, when she could stand it no longer, he quickened the pace, until they were both crying out in the throes of passion. He uttered a single word- the name that had been in his thoughts from the moment he had first seen the human. He finally collapsed atop her, gasping for breath, spent yet oddly contented.

She opened her half-glazed eyes, and smiled up at the youth who had just shown her more passion and kindness than any who had come before- and there were many. “Thank you, Master,” she murmured, reaching up to caress his sweat-slicked chest. “I hope I pleased you as much as you have pleased me.”

“Yes, very much,” he replied, and placed a brief kiss on her brow. “But please, do not call me Master. You are no slave of mine, wenress. I do not wish to command you. You will be beholden to no one. Not as long as you are under my protection.”

She stared at him, puzzled, uncertain what to make of his words. “Protection? But did you not say that you wished to buy me from Mistress Sabal?”

“Yes, but that does not mean that you are to be my slave. I intend to buy your freedom. I will find a small manor here in the city, and it will be your home. You may do as you wish in it- I will make no demands.”

Surprised by the strange offer, she looked at him curiously. “My own home? Free? Why? And who is this Ravyn whose name you said?”

Stunned, he bolted up, rolling over to plant his feet on the floor, and sat staring down, shamed that he had made such an inadvertent blunder. In truth, he had not even realized he had spoken her name aloud. “Forget you heard that name. It was nothing,” he muttered, shaking his head with a pained look on his face. “Yes, I wish to set you free. It is wrong that anyone should be bound to another in servitude. I would free every slave in the city if I could, but that is impossible.”

She sat up, watching the young noble for some minutes in silence, wondering why he was so unlike any other drow she had ever bedded. It surely was not his appearance- for although certainly handsome, he looked little different from any other dark elf, save perhaps those arresting light blue eyes- it was something in his manner and voice, which hinted at depths of feeling unknown to most of his kind. And more importantly, he acted not at all like Sabal or even the course and brash youths who always accompanied him to the Spider’s Den. He was- different. Soft-spoken, quick to smile, and with a calm, even disposition, unlike so many who were swift to anger- and to punish.

“She is someone important to you, isn’t she?” His head whipped around at the question, an almost fearful look on his face. She knew she had been right when he looked away again, as though ashamed of revealing his feelings. She saw him nod silently, and moved to sit behind the drow, her legs slipping to either side of his, feet dangling over the side of the couch as she began to lightly stroke the young noble’s back. She frowned as she felt the tense, stiff muscles beneath, wound tight as a bow-string, no doubt from anxiety over his blurted secret.

She began to massage the tension from his shoulders, and after a moment of going utterly stiff, he began to slowly relax, and sighed as she worked her fingers deeper into the knots. She leaned against him, her soft bosom pressed to his back, and left a trail of light kisses over one shoulder. The drow was surely a strange one, for what sort of dark elf disapproved of keeping slaves? For that matter, what sort of drow would ever admit to caring for anyone? She found it an intriguing enigma, one she would enjoy exploring, if she ever had the chance.

“What is she like?” the woman asked, curious. “She must be someone very special to be so dear to you. She doesn’t know how you feel, does she?” It was only a guess, to be sure, but something told her that she was right. From the young drow’s reaction, she could see that he had never revealed his true feelings to anyone before.

“No, I- can’t tell her. You see, I can’t be with her. It’s forbidden.” His admission came as a surprise, for there was only one reason she could think of why a noble would be forbidden to take a lover- if the object of desire belonged to another. He held out one hand with palm up, and uttered a sing-song verse while waving his other hand over it. The air above his open palm shimmered, and a small image appeared, of a beautiful elven woman with long, blue-black hair and eyes like perfect amethysts. She sat with a book in her lap, and the image sang a lovely melody in a voice that was sweet and soft.

The human glanced at the young drow, amazed by the small display of magic, and even more so by his marvelous voice as he sang along softly with the miniature image. She smiled, and realized that he must have learned the song from the elven woman. She sighed, leaning against his back, still kneading the taut muscles there.

“She’s lovely,” she murmured quietly, “I can see why you care about her. Strange though, I never thought I would see one of your kind actually care about anyone. I will do anything you wish, my Lord- I am glad to serve you.” She reached around to kiss his cheek, leaving the startled youth to turn in surprise, the small illusion dissipating into nothing.

“What? No, you don’t have to- that is…” He stammered for a moment, and then gave a frustrated huff. “All I ask is that you swear not to tell anyone of this. If others found out, it would spell my death. I want to free her, too, but I don’t know how. She belongs to my father, and he has the key to her collar.” He grimaced, thinking again of all the times he had wished for some way to free Ravyn from her endless suffering.

“I won’t. And thank you for being so kind. I will never forget what you are doing for me,” she whispered, and slid off the couch, to put her clothes back on. “I do hope you will return soon, my Lord- I look forward to it!”

He sighed as he rose, replacing his own attire. “Well, it’s not as if I have anything better to do with my free time. Oh, what’s your name, anyway? I’m sorry, I suppose I forgot to ask.”

She laughed. “It’s Arianna. Pleased to serve you, Master.” She curtsied, smiling.

He ignored her insistence on calling him master, and simply gave a slight bow. “Lothir E’Terrin’dar, and I’m pleased to meet you, Arianna.”

She stared in shock at the revelation of his identity, then suddenly burst out laughing. “Oh, my! I had no idea that Mistress Sabal wanted me to steal from the First House! Well, as you said, she is a fool. She should know better than to cross the King’s own kin!” She smirked, still giggling at the absurdity of what she had been ordered to do. The drow sighed, rolling his eyes, and strode to the door with a sour expression.

“Perhaps after you give her my message, she will think twice about attempting it in the future,” he grinned suddenly, then winked at her as he slipped back out into the corridor, whistling as he made his way back to the table where his companions still sat enjoying their latest round of drinks and cards. Taztran looked up as he approached, and nudged G’eldreth, who smirked and gave him a lewd wiggle of his brows. The others turned to stare as he took his seat, leaning back casually.

“Well, look who finally came back. You look like someone who just had a good vith,” said Nymtyr, leering wickedly. Filas and Kethan grinned at each other and snickered.

“Stuff it, Nym,” said Durnozz, rolling his eyes. “Least now we know which way his sword points,” he continued with a smirk. “Pay up, boys.” Curses were uttered by the twins and G’eldreth, while Taz just chuckled. Nym made a crude gesture at the tattooed youth, but dug into his belt pouch, and pulled out three orbben.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lothir asked suspiciously. “What’s going on?”

“We had a wager over whether you preferred jalilen or jaluken,” replied Taz with a chuckle. “Looks like Durnozz and I just won,” He grinned, as the other three pulled coins out and piled them on the table.

The young noble stared at him slack-jawed. “You were betting?!” He exclaimed in disbelief. The others simply laughed, and he glared at them in disgust, and grabbed a half-empty bottle of wine from the table and took a long swallow. “I should make you pay me back with those,” he said when he lowered it again. Durnozz just shrugged, and tossed three of the coins across the table to him. He picked them up and pocketed them, as Taztran grabbed the deck on the table and dealt the next hand.

He glanced over at the proprietress, who had just been given the three stones by the slave-woman Arianna, and saw her turn to glare at him angrily. He simply smiled back, holding up the bottle of wine in a mock toast, and the drowess made a grimace of fury and turned on her heels, storming off into a private chamber with the gems clenched in her fist. The young noble chuckled, knowing she had just discovered that she had been outplayed. The human woman turned to glance at him with a grin, and he nodded to her with a smile of his own. Satisfied, he turned his attention back to the game, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the banter and debates of his companions.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:24 am

Several days later, he was wandering in the bazaar, exploring- after ducking into a side-alley, the hood of his cloak pulled up, to escape from the eyes of his ever-present bodyguards- and watching the crowds of commoners and slaves going about their various tasks. He was searching for someone who could find him a suitable small manor spire for Arianna, for he fully intended to keep his promise to her. Besides, he reasoned, it would be nice to have a quiet retreat to go to when he wished to be alone.

Two drow haggled over the price of a pair of daggers beside a weapon smith’s, while further down the avenue, a halfling slave followed his master, carrying his owner’s purchases as the drow perused the wares of several merchants. A kobold street-cleaner picked up refuse, darting out of the path of a drow noble on a riding-lizard, who scowled at an orc who carried a wine cask, who had not moved fast enough. The lizard-rider pulled out a whip, and lashed at the orc several times, to encourage the brute to move faster.

He moved unseen amid so much chaos, both amazed and disheartened by the things he saw. He wandered past a shop with a sign labeling it as an alchemist’s, and another that sold various surface vegetables and other exotic foods. A dark elven woman strolled out of a clothier’s, her stout duergar servant laden with boxes of garments for her mistress. The young prince continued past the many shops and stalls, growing more and more angered by what he saw. Everywhere he looked, drow walked with heads held high, while all around them, so-called “lesser races” groveled in fear, abused and filthy. His own people were the undisputed rulers of all they beheld- even the lowest of them had more rights than a gnome or human in this harsh place. The commoners were mostly from poor houses with no standing or significance- yet even they could order about a goblin or a dwarf. The half-blood drow- those rare offspring of some drow’s dalliance with a human or surface elf- were the lowest of the low, little better than slaves themselves, yet they too were afforded more respect and status than a kobold or half-elf thrall.

A Matron on a floating chair followed by her entourage of guards paraded along the street. He slid the hood of his piwafwi down as they passed, deciding that he was far enough away from his unwanted escorts to risk being seen again. He let it fall, and winked back into view, just as the Matron’s levitating chair glided past him, resplendent in her robes of rich black spider-silk trimmed with blood-red and purple- the sign of a High Priestess of the Venom Queen. She was positively dripping with silver jewelry with various spider motifs, a long thin arm band in the shape of a coiling serpent, and a narrow diadem with a blood-red ruby of immense size in its center. She had taken little notice of her surroundings, hardly glancing to either side save to occasionally glare at a commoner who did not keep his or her eyes low enough. She glanced his way, and saw the young male with his head up, gazing directly at her instead of lowering his gaze respectfully as all the others on the street had done.

With a raised hand, the noble woman stopped her drifting seat. Behind her, the honor guard of warriors halted, standing perfectly at attention while they awaited their Mistress’s command. She glared darkly at the youth, and her seat lowered to the ground. She rose, one hand moving to the writhing whip of serpents at her side, and pointed at him.

“You there!” she growled. “Insolent male- bow your head before a Matron!” Lothir stared back at her for a moment, startled by the command. He backed away a step, yet did not take his eyes from the female. Although used to being ordered about by his own mother, hearing a stranger speak in such an imperious tone had left him momentarily stunned into immobility.

Incensed that the youth did not obey her order, the drowess strode boldly toward him for several feet, then stopped and flicked out with her whip, the six- six!- viper heads hissing angrily, picking up their Mistress’s agitation through the mental link that allowed her to wield the living weapon. The young prince flinched back, suddenly realizing his mistake, eyes wide in fear. Yet a part of him wanted to rebel against her arrogant treatment. After all, he was heir to the most powerful noble family in the city- even of all Argonia- was he not? Why should he be forced to grovel like some common goblin to some woman from a lower House?

Still, he decided it would be better to play it safe. He dodged a second strike, then quickly went down to one knee, as if to pay proper respect. “My pardon, noble Lady, I was distracted. Please forgive the oversight.” He said, keeping his eyes on the ground at her feet. It galled him to do so, for every instinct urged him to look her in the eyes with pride and confidence, though he knew that would be a grave error.

She glared at him, her ruby orbs narrowed as if gauging his sincerity, then finally huffed and spun around to return to her mobile throne. After a moment, however, she paused, turning back to regard him again. “Who are you? What is your House affiliation, boy?”

Lothir looked up cautiously, careful not to meet her gaze directly. “E’Terrin’dar, my Lady. I am Ustdalharn of the First House. Vendui, Jabbress.” He gave a slight bow, still kneeling, and was almost pleased when he heard her gasp of surprise.

“Prince of the First House? Here?” She stared incredulously, then slowly turned to move gracefully back toward him once more. “Well, this is certainly a surprise. I did not expect to find such a marvelous opportunity here in the bazaar. What luck!” She exclaimed, clapping her hands, with a look of delight.

Lothir lifted his head, wondering what she meant, and suddenly had a sense of foreboding. <Should have kept my mouth shut,> he thought sourly, as he recognized the almost hungry expression that came over the noble female’s face. Her robes were tied with a mithril cord at her waist, but it was obvious that she wore little, if anything, underneath. She gave him an appraising look, and he realized what she was thinking. He also remembered the warning Shiallin had given him- that as a male in the city, away from his own home, he was subject to the laws and demands of the Matrons and any other noble female in Terrillis. She was giving him that same predatory look he had seen in the priestess aboard the Iceheart.

“Come with me, young Prince. I have need of a companion for the evening. It’s fortunate that you are here- I had almost given up looking for a suitable partner for this evening. You do understand what I wish of you, yes?” She did not wait for his reply, but simply waved him to follow her as she returned to her seat. It rose up, and she turned a cool gaze on the youth, as if slightly annoyed by his hesitation. “Well?!” she said, vaguely irritated.

“Y- yes, Jabress. I understand perfectly.” He rose and bowed slightly, and then fell in just behind her as she continued on her way, the warriors following behind in silence. <This is going to be a long night….> he thought to himself, scowling at the thought of being treated as nothing more than a plaything. He hoped that she would not prove too demanding, but he somehow doubted that would be the case. As it turned out, he was right.

It was several hours later before he managed to make his departure from the sumptuous tower boudoir of the amorous Matron. By that time, it was late, and he was thoroughly exhausted from the exertions of the evening. He was hardly surprised to find the trio of guardsmen waiting at the gates to the Academy when he tried to slip inside unnoticed. Dorl’avin merely stood silently, while Sezvyll smirked on seeing his disheveled appearance and slightly uncomfortable gait. Nymvayas shook his head slowly in disapproval, one brow raised.

“’Ere now, lad. How’re we supposed to guard ye’ if ye’ keep runnin’ off wit’out us?” he said, annoyed. “Ye’ll have yer Patron thinking’ we’re not doin’ our duty.”

“I don’t need any bodyguards. Just stop following me around, would you? It’s embarrassing and annoying. I can take care of myself.” He growled back, wishing they would simply leave him alone. He hated having them shadow his every move outside the compound. Not only was it getting harder to explain their presence on his outings with his fellow students, but their insistence on watching him in the Academy itself was wearing thin, as well. He felt like an animal trapped in a cage, a wizard’s lab subject, to be studied and kept chained. It was depressing, to say the least.

“Ye’ know we can’t leave ye’ alone, lad. Lord Aldan would have our heads, he would.” The warrior replied, grimacing. “If t’were up to us, I’d let ye’ be, but we have our orders.”

“Fine, whatever. Just don’t expect me to wait around for you three. And could you try a little harder not to be so damned obvious about it? I’m tired of trying to make up reasons for you three always tagging along.” He rolled his eyes at the trio, shaking his head in disgust, and continued on into the compound, slipping silently through the halls and stairs until he reached his bunk, and fell into it with his boots and cloak still on, too tired even to take them off.

The next morning Taz and the others gave him a good ribbing for his late return, though he was fortunate that none of the Masters had caught him out after the curfew. So long as students returned to the compound before the last gong, they were allowed to spend their leisure hours as they pleased, but woe to the student who was caught out after hours. The most common punishments for such infractions was to scrub lichen and moss from the walls in the training room or to dredge the bottom of the bathing pool. Privey duty was common as well, with the most severe punishment of boarding before the other students reserved for those who were repeat offenders, or who were caught stealing or fighting.

So it went for several weeks, with the routine of daily weapon drills and sparring, lectures, and chores, before being allowed to enjoy a few hours of freedom outside the gates of the school, most often in the company of Taz and the others, but occasionally wandering out into the city on his own. They had become accustomed to spending their evenings in the Spider’s Den, or at one of the other taverns of the city, though they could just as frequently be found taking in the sights of the bazaar or relaxing in a bath house.

On several occasions, the young prince found himself in the awkward position of being commanded by some noble female to spend a few hours in private, and he found it increasingly difficult to do as they wished without wanting to immediately scrub the taint of corruption from his skin afterward. At first, he passed the feeling off as nerves, or a simple case of insecurity, but as days went by, he began to realize that he despised the noble women for their air of superiority, and especially for their insatiable and often questionable appetites.

After the first few times, even the flattery wore thin, as he soon found that word got around quickly, and that noble ladies were a gossipy lot, even if they were constantly trying to stab each other in the back. Even more unsettling was the fact that his outings with his fellow students were becoming well-known, which meant that the tales of his skills were no longer confined to the Academy training rooms or mess hall. Before long, it seemed that females were going out of their way to seek him out. And there was nothing to be done about it but to try to make the best of the situation.

There were a few benefits, fortunately. With each new encounter, it seemed that his standing among the other students grew a little, until most had learned to stay out of his way out of a certain sense of awe at his ability to go anywhere in the city without hindrance. No House was closed to him, it seemed- least-wise none which were home to bored and promiscuous noble women. And then there were the bits of information he was able to pick up, such as which house was on alert for an attack from its rivals, or which family was plotting against an enemy. And of course, a few of the noble ladies rewarded his “services’ with what could only be considered bribes. Or payment, if he wanted to be perfectly truthful. This was, of course, part of the problem- they treated him as if he were nothing more than a plaything, an attractive ornament with which to impress others or to use and toss aside at whim.

After the first few weeks of such brief liaisons, he began to wonder if this was all he could look forward to in the city. The diversions of his friends- if he could truly call them that- were shallow at best, and often crude or decadent. Likewise, being amorously pursued by grasping, ambitions females looking to propel themselves up the social ladder- or perhaps just claim bragging rights in bedding the most eligible young noble in Argonia- was leaving a sour feeling in his gut. Days passed, and the young drow began to grow more miserable by degrees.

Thus, even as he accompanied the other youths in their frequent bouts of carousing and generally enjoying themselves, inside, he had become more despondent than ever. Even on the crowded streets, he was alone; kicking back with his companions, he felt like an intruder in a world where debauchery was the norm, and all other considerations were ignored. Before long, he began to wonder what the point was to living in such a world. It was with a heavy heart that he finally realized one day that he was lonely. After thinking back on the few happy moments of his life thus far, all of them seemed to be connected to one name- his dearest Ravyn.

After several months spent in a dull routine, at last he threw down his hand of cards one night, and stood up in disgust. “Enough of this,” he spat, looking around at the others with what might have been distain. “I’m bored. Is there nothing better for us to spend our time on than this?” He waved his arms, indicating the familiar décor of an upscale tavern called the “Blackhawk Inn.” It was a relatively exclusive watering hole, mostly filled with idle nobles and a few wealthy commoners. The furnishings were tasteful, yet disturbing, featuring the typical drow art in the form of macabre paintings and sculptures, mostly featuring spiders or scorpions devouring screaming humans or elves, or demons tearing into mortal bodies. Interspersed with all of this was the crest of the House which owned the inn, images of a black raptor stooping at a white dove, with bloody claws extended.

“What’s that, now?” Taztran turned, one brow raised in query. “Sit down and have another round, oh Royal One. It’s your stake.” He waved a hand absently at the noble’s discarded cards, as he intently studied the cards in his own hand.

“Of course there isn’t. What else would you rather do?” shot back Durnozz casually, a glass of expensive imported surface wine half-way to his lips. “If you’re so bored, we could always go see a battle in the Grand Arena. I hear there’s a very talented gladiator on the rise.”

“Gladiators?” Lothir sneered. “Why would I want to go watch some fool get torn to pieces by wild beasts, or cut up in a duel? I’m bored because all we ever do is sit around and make drunken fools of ourselves, or get dragged into the private chambers of every Matron and priestess in the city!” He rolled his eyes, as the twins stared at him in open dismay, while Nymtyr smirked, and G’eldreth simply eyed him coolly. By now it was no secret that the eunuch harbored a desire for him that was almost obsessive, yet he kept his distance, knowing that the young prince had no interest in such a coupling.

“Come on, high-nose, at least give it a chance before you start deriding the Games,” said Taz, shaking his head. “You might even enjoy it.”

“No thank you, Taz,” Lothir replied. “I just feel like we’re trapped in a chasm, and every day is the same. I’m tired of always doing the same things, going in circles. I need some excitement!” He slammed his empty glass down on the table, nearly bending the stem of the silver cup in the process.

“If it’s excitement you’re looking for, we could always wander over to the fest-hall,” Nymtyr’s reply from the corner startled nearly everyone into staring at the black-haired youth in surprise.

“That’s right- the revel season is just starting,” mused G’eldreth, grinning. “There is almost always a party being hosted by some Noble house or other. And you know what that means…” He trailed off, a wide, wicked grin on his face.

“Time to enjoy some ‘high class’ fun?” asked Taz, raising one thin brow. The others snickered, while Lothir looked on in puzzlement.
“I’ve never been to a party before,” he said curiously. “What are they like?”

The others simply turned to each other, and laughed. After a few moments, Taztran looked at him with a wicked gleam in his eyes, and stood up, clapping a hand on his back. “Oh, I think you’ll enjoy the fest-hall. There’s plenty of excitement, and the best part is, once we’re inside, you can have or do almost anything you want! In fact, why don’t we go check it out right now?”

Kethan and Filas nodded in unison, and Durnozz rose, gathering up the cards. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all night,” he supplied, and all the others muttered assent. At last, Lothir shrugged, not knowing what else to do, and agreed. They quickly took their leave of the inn, wandering back down to the other end of the city to the fest-hall, talking and laughing among themselves.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

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Aylstra Illianniis
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Postby Aylstra Illianniis » Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:33 am

As soon as he set foot inside the fest hall, he knew that this was a place unlike anything he had ever seen. The outside had given no hint to what the place was truly like. He walked into the main room, and was amazed by the display of finery and beauty all around him. Like their surface kin, drow were fond of art in all its forms, and expressed that love of refinement in many ways. Yet where the true Quessir kept their arts understated and subtle, the drow were given to decadent opulence in all their endeavors. That was especially evident here.

The walls were draped in long curtains of black velvet and shimmering silver silk, with statues of dark elves in various states of scanty dress engaged in dance or more intimate pursuits spaced around the corners of the huge octagonal room. The web-like pattern of the marble roof was visible inside as well; a huge obsidian spider whose legs ran down to meet the walls as slender roof supports graced the center, its round body hanging down slightly. The spider was limned in faerie-fire of ever-changing hues, green one moment, then gold, or blue, or red, violet and even pure white at intervals. The middle of the room was a huge, shallow pit with steps leading down into it on all sides, large enough for at least a hundred or more drow to move freely. Around the pit were long tables with benches between them and the walls. The tables were laden with platters and bowls of all manner of delicacies, both those native to the Underdark, as well as more exotic surface fare.

Lothir glanced around at the buffet-style dinner, and noted boiled crabs, whole sides of roast rothe with mushroom sauce, edible fungi and lichen salads, and even plates of the delicate yet sometimes deadly pyrimo. Other foods he could not identify, such as the odd orange-colored round objects sliced in a bowl, or the platter piled high with chunks of some pink and green things that appeared both spongy and over-flowing with some sort of juice. He wandered over to the table, and picked up a pink one, sniffing carefully. It smelled sweet and heady. He nibbled it, and was surprised to find it luscious, sweet, and cool.

Encouraged, he tried several more of the exotic and unknown foods, and was particularly pleased by the thick, sweet amber liquid that sat beside a plate of mushroom bread. And there were more kinds of spirits than he had ever seen. After several minutes spent sampling the fare, he turned his attention to the other patrons of the establishment. There were more dark elves than he had ever seen in one place before, all dressed in expensive finery, many in styles that just barely covered their bodies. Most wore excessive amounts of jewelry, as well, and he was certain that much of it was magical, as useful as it was attractive.

There were more females than males, he noticed; which made sense, in a world where the women held most of the wealth and power, and therefore could do as they pleased. He knew that most of them were nobles of the Great Houses, of higher rank and station than the common rabble of the city- else how would they have the leisure to attend lavish parties?

The one thing that was most evident, however, as that whether male or female, every one of them moved with an air of suspicion. Taztran had said that the fest-hall was a place for plots and intrigues as much as for entertainment, and the young prince could well believe it. Everywhere he looked, he saw richly dressed nobles whispering in pairs or trios. Where there were larger groups, each stood slightly apart, speaking in vaguely suggestive innuendos or well-disguised code with their peers, each taking stock of his or her fellows. The thin veneer of civility and merriment hid a dark undercurrent of paranoia and cold ambition.

He moved slowly through the crowds around the edges of the room, and saw that a few came and went through two doors on either side of the large foyer just before the entrance to the main room. Curious, he wandered into one, to find a long corridor with several smaller doors on either side. The ones on the inside were little more than large alcoves fitted with curtains across the front for privacy, while the outer doors led into small, cozy rooms with full accommodations for food, seating, and even more exotic uses. Many were occupied by couples, and he could easily guess from the sounds within what was taking place in most of them.

Eventually, he wandered back out into the main room, wondering if he had made a mistake in coming here. The place seemed like little more than a gathering of decadent and promiscuous bored nobles and their servants, each trying to seem more important and wealthy than the next. There seemed to be little of real interest; he began to think that Taztran had been wrong in his assessment of the fest hall as a place of excitement and amusement. He had almost made up his mind to simply leave, when he spotted a dozen drow in wizards’ robes entering the room, each with a slender crystal wand tucked into the cord tied around his waist. They fanned out into a ring around the pit in the room’s center; behind them, several slaves of various races entered, as well as a couple of half-drow, all bearing musical instruments.

Almost at once, those who were gathered around the room stopped in the middle of their conversations, and a light applause broke out. Many of the drow who had been in the private rooms came out into the main area, some even shedding clothes as they did. In moments, nearly half the patrons had congregated in the large pit area, as the eight musicians took up a place on a small raised platform at the far end of the pit, the only place without a table.

Lothir glanced around, and finally spotted Taz and the others seated in a position near the musicians. He hurried over to them, and found a seat at their table. He eyed the group of musicians curiously, wondering what was going on. There were two flutes, a trio of lutes, two drummers, and a fiddle in the small band. He noticed that the two half-drow were the only ones not in chains, but all were well-fed and groomed. This meant only that they were especially favored, but slaves just the same.

“What is all this?” He asked G’eldreth, who was nearest him on the long bench.

“They’re getting ready to start the nedierra,” said the weasel-faced lad, picking up a glass of mushroom wine. “It’s half the reason anyone even comes to these parties. Everyone gets in on it- if not by participating, then by betting on who wins.”

“It’s a contest?” Lothir asked, suddenly wanting to know more. “What do they do?”

“Of course it’s a contest!” Nymtyr shot back, rolling his eyes. Lothir glanced at him, startled. As usual, he had not even noticed his presence until he spoke- a fact which Nym seemed to take advantage of all too often. “It’s a kind of dance. One of the few non-lethal forms of competition, but every bit as fierce and dangerous as any arena battle, with all the rivalries that pop up.”

“Dangerous? How can a dance be dangerous?” The young noble wondered. Dancing did not seem to be a particularly hazardous endeavor, as far as he knew.

“Oh, it’s not the competition itself that’s dangerous- it’s all the back-stabbing, betting, and sabotaging that goes on before. Not to mention the jealous fights and bet-hedging afterward. But most of the contestants are only in it for the prizes anyway, or for the bragging rights- it’s all about being seen.” Durnozz said, idly playing with one of his daggers.

“And don’t forget the fun later,” snickered Taz, leering wickedly. Filas and Kethan nodded, grinning.

“Fun? Do I even want to know?” Lothir turned a skeptical look on Taz, one brow raised as he crossed his arms over his chest. He knew all too well what his friend’s idea of fun was.

“It usually turns into a huge orgy when it’s over,” explained G’eldreth, looking mildly disgusted as he plucked a piece of some strange red fruit off the table. “He just wants to get in on that.” He bit into the fruit, smirking at the larger youth.

“And you’re just jealous because you can’t!” Taz sneered back. He gave G’eldreth a smug look, knowing the wiry youth could hardly refute his claim. G’eldreth glared at him, but said nothing.

“I should have known,” muttered the young noble, shaking his head. Taz had earned a reputation for having an almost insatiable appetite for carnal pursuits, no doubt as part of his never-ending effort to raise himself above the meager rank to which he had been born. “Please don’t tell me that’s all we came here for. We could just as easily have gone to the Spider’s Den for that.” He was seriously considering leaving. As much as he enjoyed the company of the others, he hated their obsession with status and power. Having been born to the most powerful and feared of all the Great Houses, he saw no point to it all. It was nothing but a never-ending, vicious cycle of death and betrayal, with no real gain to anyone.

“Of course not. We came for the other major entertainment of these little revels.” Kethan and Filas answered together, as they nearly always did. Blue eyes met two pairs of sea-green ones, and he wondered, as he often did, whether Taztran’s assertion that the two shared a single mind might actually be true.

“I almost don’t want to ask,” Lothir sighed, though he could probably guess.

“There are always plenty of intoxicants, if one knows who to talk to,” G’eldreth replied casually. He was fidgeting with one of his stars again, a habit the noble found slightly annoying. What was wrong with all of them, he wondered, that made them constantly feel the need to have a weapon at hand?

“Oh, wonderful. Next you’ll be telling me we came all this way just to get drunk and vith everything in sight.” The young prince was fast growing bored with this outing; apparently the rest of his little clique found even the most banal of pursuits to be entertaining. He almost wished he had not even come tonight.

“No, just those three. The rest of us came to bet on the nedierra.” Durnozz shrugged, and speared a large chunk of roast rothe meat with his dagger, and began to nibble at it.

Lothir was about to reply when the drummers suddenly struck up a beat, and all the drow on the floor fell to stomping out the rhythm. A wild yell rose up from the throng, as the first eerie notes of a plaintive, unearthly tune began. It began slowly, while each dancer took up his or her own swaying, twisting motion. He turned to stare at the spectacle, even as the robed wizards all rose into the air as one, pulling out their wands, levitating above the crowd.

“What are they doing?” He asked no one in particular.

“Those are the judges. Anyone who loses the beat gets eliminated- just watch, you’ll get the idea.” Taz stated absently as he motioned a tall, well-dressed older male over. “Five orbben on the female in the black and silver gown there to make it to the final ten,” he told the stranger, who nodded, glancing over at the drow woman in question.

“Ah, Lady Inistra Maer’taryn. Always a good choice.” The stranger said approvingly. “I’ll take that wager, and go one better. That fellow in the red silk vest with all the rings in his ear is Kaelen Eilssek, who happens to be one of the best dancers here. Ten orbben on him to finish higher than Inistra.”

“Done.” Taztran clasped his hand, and the newcomer sat down beside them to watch.

Lothir noticed all this almost as an afterthought, for he was entranced with what was taking place out in the pit. The music had been slowly building in tempo, the beats becoming faster, occasionally changing rhythm, and the tune wound and flowed in and out of it, fast and frantic one moment, slow and seductive the next. The dancers on the floor moved with the beats, each finding a rhythm of their own. Some gyrated wildly, their bodies moving in a primal, savage cadence. Others dipped and swayed, and a few were engaged in what could only be described as some sort of acrobatic kicks and leaps. Here and there, one of the floating wizards would point his wand at someone, and that person would light up with white fairie fire, and leave the pit. He wondered what the significance was, until he saw one dancer stumble over another’s out-flung foot, and immediately be illuminated.

At last, he understood. If one was hit by the magical light, he or she was out of the game. He smiled, and suddenly became far more interested in seeing what constituted elimination. As near as he could tell, any misstep or loss of beat would get someone counted out. He wondered how the wizards could tell whether someone had actually faltered, or had simply changed step in the middle of a move. As he watched, a smile slowly spread over his face, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

He listened to the music, and was soon tapping along to it, unaware. After several minutes, and just as many changes in the beat and tempo of the music, he turned his attention to the players, and studied them for a while. The flutes in particular drew his interest, for he still remembered the little silver one that he had tried to learn to play before leaving home. He watched the fingers of the halfling playing one of them, swiftly memorizing each move of the musician’s hands and the note that it produced. He edged closer to the stage where they played, hoping for a better view.

The young drow stared intently at the musicians, next turning his gaze toward one the drummers- one of the two half-drow among the players. The drummer’s hands tapped out a complex beat on his two small drums, which the noble youth began to imitate almost subconsciously, his own hands tapping the same rhythm against his thighs. His keen ears picked up every shift in beat, every pause and change in emphasis. Though he was hardly aware of it, he heard and remembered each tune the musicians played, storing them away in his sharp mind for later. Already he fairly itched to get his hands on one of the drums- or even better yet, a flute. He wanted to try them, to produce those same sounds on his own.

After a little while, he glanced back over to the pit, and discovered that over half the dancers had been eliminated. He noted idly that both of the ones Taz had wagered on were still going. He watched the female for a while, and began to study her movements. A part of him wanted to try this, too. Something in the music tugged at his soul, making him want nothing more than to join in the wild, exultant revel. Never before had he seen anything like this, and it excited him in a way that he had never known before.

Then his gaze fell on another female on the floor- a sultry beauty in a long, web-patterned dark blue gown with an open back and a slit on one side that ran almost to her hip, with long silvery hair in a cascade down her back. Lothir watched her dance, and was amazed. She appeared more graceful by far than either of the two Taz had wagered on, and in fact, he was fairly certain that she was better than any of the others remaining.

“I put ten orbben on that lady in the blue gown, with the long hair,” he said loudly enough for Taztran to hear. “I say she takes it all.”

“Lady Valdra Arken’ate? Hells, man, you’ve got a good eye! She won the last two nedierras. I’m game. Ten says mine beats her, though.” Taz nodded, and reached across G’eldreth to clasp his hand to seal the wager.

“Done,” Lothir replied, repeating the affirmation Taz had used a few minutes earlier.

It was some time before they could discern any potential winners. Though most of the dancers had been eliminated within the first hour or so, it soon became apparent that those who remained were far superior. With each elimination, Lothir found himself more excited and pleased, for his choice remained, even after the male the stranger had bet on was called out, and he had grudgingly paid his bet to Taztran and slipped off for a drink.

The young noble was enjoying the music and the spectacle immensely, in spite of his earlier reservations. He watched the female he had chosen to win intently, reminded vaguely of the beautiful goddess who had danced in the moonlit clearing of Sivestrik’s sylvan vale. He wished fervently that he could see his friend again, to tell him of what he saw here. He was certain that the silver wyrm would appreciate such a sight.

After a while, there were only a few dancers left on the field, and even those were beginning to tire, with many covered in a light sheen of sweat, their hair hanging down limp and dripping in their faces, clothes sticking to their skin provocatively. At last, the contest came down to three- Taztran’s choice, the woman in the blue gown, and a male whose nearly naked form was covered in web-tattoos and silver jewelry with blood-red gems that flashed and jingled as he moved.

After a few minutes more, it became clear that although all three of the final competitors were becoming exhausted, the female he had picked was certain to win. That assumption was quickly borne out when the male and Taztran’s black and silver clad pick spun into each other as each moved to sweep past the other female in what was a subtle attempt to make her falter. Yet even as they stepped into her path, she gracefully spun to reverse course, leaving them to collide as they realized too late that they were in each other’s way. And with that, both were eliminated, and Lothir turned to his companion with a wide grin.

“Looks like I won. Pay up, Taz,” he said with a chuckle. The other youth grimaced, and opened up his belt pouch. He counted out twenty orbben, and slid it across the table.

“You got lucky. If you’d picked anyone else…” he said, shrugging. He leaned back against the wall, sipping at a glass of wine while they watched the crowd scatter around the room again.

The noble youth laughed. “Oh, don’t be a sore loser- can I help it if I know how to pick ‘em?” He said, grinning. He opened up his own pouch, and scooped the coins into it. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll pay for the drinks next time we’re out.”

“I’m holding you to that,” muttered Taz with a scowl.

A few moments later, Nymtyr excused himself to slip off into the crowd, and came back within a few minutes, holding a small bag, and looking quite pleased with himself over something. “Guess what I got,” he said, shaking the bag.

“A brain?” quipped Lothir. He heard a snicker from the twins, but Nym and Durnozz only glared at him. He grinned sheepishly, and shrugged apologetically at the black-haired youth.

“Mushrooms, and I’m not talking about the ordinary edibles, either. These are ultrinnan,” he stated emphatically. At that, Kethan and Filas glanced at each other, their sea-foam eyes lighting up.

“Ooh, I want in on that,” said Taz, sitting up. He slid a side-long look at the noble, and grinned. “Why don’t you try one? You’ll love them,” he said, an odd gleam in his eyes.

Lothir frowned as he watched Nym pulling several small caps out of the bag, and his brow furrowed. They looked like any other mushroom he had ever seen, though perhaps colored differently. They were pale with a slight bluish tinge, and with a blue underside. “What’s so special about them?” he asked, holding one up to examine it. It was certainly not any type of edible fungus he was familiar with, but neither did it resemble any of the poisonous ones he knew of.

“Just eat it. Believe me when I tell you it will be the best you’ve ever had,” Still that peculiar look was on Taztran’s face, and though some inner sense warned the young prince that something was amiss, he saw no reason not to do as his friend suggested, especially once he saw the others all reaching for one and popping them into their mouths with eager looks. Finally, he shrugged to himself, and did likewise.

The taste was almost enough to make him regret it. He looked around frantically for something to wash it down with, and spied a half-empty bottle of wine. He grabbed it, and downed a long swallow before anyone even realized what he was doing. The others all turned to stare at him in shock, with incredulous looks on their faces. After a long moment, Taz finally spoke.

“Oh, Hells. You shouldn’t have done that…” he said, shaking his head.

“Ugh, I thought you said those were good?” The prince replied, wrinkling his nose. “That tasted horrible. And what do you mean?” He continued, frowning at his friend. Suddenly he hiccupped, and realized he was feeling slightly dizzy. Which was odd, because he should not be feeling any drunkenness yet, and in any case, he was usually much better at holding his drink.

“You’re not supposed to drink wine with those- it makes the effect five times as strong! You’re going to be wasted in a few minutes…” The last came from G’eldreth, who was looking at him like he had just committed some terrible sin.

Suddenly Lothir began to suspect that there was something they had not told him. “What effect?” he said, his eyes narrowed. “What did you just give me?” He stared hard at Taztran, who simply stared back, unfazed by the almost dangerous coldness in the young noble’s tone. The dizziness was worse now, and he felt as if his skin was tingling all over. Not in a bad way, certainly, but his vision had gone slightly blurry, as well, which was surely not a good sign. Had he been poisoned, after all?

“Just let go and enjoy it, abbil,” said Nym, leaning back with an oddly serene expression. His eyes appeared unfocused, and he was studying his own hand as if he had never seen it before.

Lothir staggered to his feet, and backed away from the table in shock. It suddenly dawned on him that he had eaten a mushroom that was hallucinogenic. Already his vision was off-kilter, as if he was walking on a sideways slant. He turned, and lurched toward one of the side corridors, searching for a safe place to wait until it wore off. Yet halfway to the nearest doorway, he spotted a drow woman whose face appeared to have elongated so far that it almost seemed to be melting, sliding down to vacate her head entirely. This seemed such an odd occurrence that he stopped, forgetting his own dilemma, and approached her, tapping the obviously wealthy female on her silk-covered shoulder.

She turned to regard him with a look of annoyance, which was only increased when she saw his apparently inebriated state. “What do you want, jaluk?” she snapped, scowling at him, her red eyes boring into him.

Lothir looked again, and now her face had disappeared completely. He glanced around for a moment, searching for it, but it was nowhere to be found. “Ah, forgive me, Jabbress, but you seem to have lost something,” he replied, trying not to stare. Where her face should be there was only a blank space. He wondered briefly how she had spoken without a mouth, and how she could see him when her eyes had slithered off to parts unknown.

“And what might that be? I still have all my jewels,” she said, checking to be sure just the same. “If I have dropped something, tell me what and where it is!”

“Well,” he answered uncertainly, “It’s your, uh, face, you see. It’s gone.” He shrugged, and gave her an apologetic gesture.

“What?!” she screeched, drawing the stares of several others nearby. “Has Faeryl cast a spell on me while I was not looking? Where is that conniving little wench?!” she shrieked, and stormed off across the room, presumably to find the guilty rival, he supposed.

After a moment, Lothir shook his head, and his brow furrowed briefly as he tried to remember what he had been doing. He glanced at one of the long tables, and decided to have a bite to eat, for there was an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He moved toward the table, for he had noticed a large wheel of cheese, along with a platter full of stuffed crabs.

He picked up a small knife to cut off a slice, but soon found that the cheese would not cooperate. In fact, it was trying very hard to avoid the knife, wiggling and sliding away like a mustard jelly when he tried to cut it. At last, frustrated, he simply stabbed it in the middle- then dropped the knife in horror as he heard it scream. He quickly glanced around to see if anyone had heard, but saw only the many revelers busily getting soused, rubbing against and stroking each other, and plotting each other’s demise.

He stared down at the cheese for some time, then sighed and decided to try the crabs instead. He reached for one of the seafood delicacies- only to have the first one he grabbed pinch his hand and skitter off the platter sideways. Annoyed, he reached for another, but it simply raised its eyestalks and waved its claws at him, then scuttled off down the table after its companion. Then one by one, the rest of the crabs stepped off the plate and tottered off to avoid being eaten. Many of them were even imitating the moves of the dancers from earlier. He shook his head, confused by the departure of the dancing crabs, and decided he was better off trying something with less attitude.

“Well, that’s just lovely,” he muttered sourly, and stared down at a roasted head of a rothe with some sort of fruit in its mouth. “I don’t suppose you have anything to say about this?” he asked, plucking the small red fruit from its mouth and taking a bite. It mooed in answer, but said nothing more intelligent than that. “You’re not being very helpful, you know,” he replied, and sat down on one of the steps down into the dancing pit.

A moment later, he thought he saw one of the crabs peeking up at him from under the table, hiding under the cloth. “Ha! Thought you could get away? Come back here!” He exclaimed, and dove under the table after it. He lifted the table covering off his head to look around, and found himself face-to-something unmentionable with a rather shapely pair of female legs, with only a transparent silken skirt hanging down between, which left nothing at all to the imagination.

The young dark elf froze, gaping slack-jawed at the sight before him, having completely forgotten the irksome crab. He felt heat rising in his face, for the female shifted in her seat, and he nearly fainted from shock, for he could see quite clearly that she had a small silver ring through her nether parts. He blushed, and then frowned as he felt something tickling his left ear. He turned to see what it was, thinking a stray thread from the cloth had fallen down. What he found instead was a pair of reptilian eyes staring at him from the head of a black viper, its long forked tongue flicking in and out at him. It was the tongue he had felt in his ear, he realized, as the snake opened its mouth to hiss. Four more heads joined the first, their bodies writhing and swaying until they all twined together toward their tails into a long narrow adamantine handle on a belt around the female’s waist.

Startled, he tried to jump up to get away from the dreaded snake-whip- for such it was, and one belonging to a powerful high priestess, at that- only to slam into the table with the back of his head. The drow let out a yelp of pain and panic, as he shook his head to clear it. He put a finger to his lips, and whispered softly, “Shh, don’t tell her I saw!” The snakes hissed a warning, and two of them suddenly struck out at him. He felt the sharp pricks of their fangs; then the venom, combined with his exposure to the wine and the mushroom, caused him to fall face-first to the floor, out cold.
By the Dark Maiden''s grace do we meet. May she guide and protect us.

"Where Science ends, Magic begins." -Spiral, Uncanny X-Men #491

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