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Fading Light - A Like Minds Tale

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#1 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 03:58 AM

Please note that all chapters are going to be posted sequentially in this thread. And hopefully, I will one day finish it too!

#2 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:03 AM

Chapter 1

The chanting of the crowd filtered down even to here, their bloodlust so blatant one could taste it if they chose. Based on the ventilation construction, it was obvious that the intent was so that the warriors who prepared beneath could do just that. Revel in it. Bathe in it. It took all her will not to succumb to its siren song, to throw back her head, laugh and drink it all in.

A very forceful tug at the strap of joining her right pauldron to her cuirass brought her back from the precipice and forced her eyes forward. There they met a set of familiar but not familiar eyes; once green, now red. The ebony skinned face before her frowned, her brow furrowing and in a very familiar clipped tone said, “Veldira, I again strongly recommend against this course. There is no need for such risks.”

“Zathera, I am fully capable of defeating whatever warrior they throw at me,” Veldira, no Aleria, replied.

Zathera/Jaheira tugged a snow white braid. “I did not speak of combat. I spoke of …”

“Enough,” Aleria cut her off. “My decision is made. I will battle these Drow. And if nothing else, I will make the world a better place by removing a few more of them, no? None can argue that.”

“No, of course not, but still…”

“And you forget Zathera, our patroness will be in attendance today. She told me herself,” Aleria said, cutting her off. “And if we are to succeed in Ust Natha, we will need her patronage. You said so yourself.”

“Indeed,” Jaheira replied, her mouth puckering as if she had tasted something foul. “But there are other ways than subjecting yourself to this blood sport. You are still mortal, you know.”

“I am aware of it. But I have decided. Now enough of this quibbling.”

“Quibbling?” Jaheira’s composure began to crack. “You are talking about pit fighting. Gladiatorial combat. This is not you… Veldira. It is not.”

“Perhaps it is not, but I am not me. Not after what He did to me,” Aleria replied, her voice like cold iron. “But this is my choice, Zathera. And I will not back down.”

Jaheira opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. “Very well. I cannot stop you, only argue for greater wisdom.”

“I understand.”

A heavy set Drow in ornamental armor stomped in, a darkly amused grin on his face. “Two minutes, Veldira. The last participant has nearly been scraped away.”

“Excellent. I would hate to lose my footing on some inferior worm’s entrails,” Aleria replied, her voice cold and haughty.

“I like you Veldira,” the Drow organizer laughed. “I think I’ll even wager on you.”

“Your amusement warms my heart,” Aleria replied, voice leaden with sarcasm.

“I definitely like you. And you,” he said, pointing at Jaheira. “You need to get up to the stands. Only participants now.”

Jaheira nodded and the two women clasped forearms. Jaheira gripped tightly and locked eyes before saying plainly, “Win.”

“I intend to,” Aleria replied, gripping Jaheira’s forearm back.

With that, Jaheira disappeared out of the preparation chamber, leaving Aleria alone with the other Drow. She stared at the heavy, black metal elevator she would ride up into the arena. The bars were twisted like blades on fire, an obvious homage to the fires of battle. She could feel those fires building in her now as she moved and twisted to loosen up her muscles.

The other Drow laughed. “Don’t worry. This one is young and full of himself. A braggart of a male from a minor house. You’ll spit him easy enough. Just give the crowd a bit of a show. They like that in the early rounds, and you’ll get better seeding.”

Aleria turned to him, an eyebrow ensorcelled snow white arching. “You offer advice to all the warriors?”

“Only the ones with spirit. The ones I wager on,” he said with a wide grin.

“Well, I’ll do my best to make you coin.”

A horn blasted from above.

“That’s your cue,” he said, pulling a lever to swing open one of the elevator doors.

Calmly, Aleria stepped forward and into the elevator cage. She caressed the metal with one gauntleted hand, tracing the fine intricacies of the metalwork. It was so strange how a race so brutal could produce such beauty.

The feeling only lasted a fleeting moment before the cage began to move. As it did, the roof above opened, spilling in the sound of the lusty crowd. And the stench of fresh blood. It poured over her like a waterfall, drenching her with its power. She let her head roll back to drink it in better, savoring it like a fine wine.

The tainted blood of her ‘father’ was all she had left since He stole her soul.

Today, blood would have blood.

#3 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:05 AM

Chapter 2

She settled into a plush chair in one the luxury boxes reserved for those exalted by House and position. Her House’s box was empty, the other principals of her House too busy with their preparations for war on the darthiir. A war for which the only positive she could think of was that it allowed her privacy, something rare enough for one of her rank to rate as a luxury. At her beckon, a properly cowed slave delivered her a goblet of wine and she took advantage of her privacy to reflect on where she found herself.

This place was truly the heart of the maelstrom. She sat in the sickened and twisted beating heart of a city gone utterly mad. All around her, her people cheered and screamed for gladiators to entertain them in the Arena below. And below them, on blood soaked sand, more of her people battled in lethal combat for power and prestige. There, some of Ust Natha’s best and brightest warriors battled and died for the cheering of the crowd.

She watched as one gladiator spilled the guts of another, and a very fine surfacer wine soured in her mouth. It was not the sight of blood and entrails that fouled the taste. She had performed all the sacrifices, blood would never bother her. No, it was the sheer waste of talent and strength going on before her. It was bleeding Ust Natha white.

However, it was nothing like the foolishness her mother was embarking upon. Slaughtering their hated cousins above was nothing she minded, something she could even endorse. But waging war on behalf of that cold mage and his abomination of a sister was sheer wasted effort.

A few days before, he had come before the Matrons and offered them a chance to shatter the temple honoring her people’s defeat and destroy Suldenessellar. They had dangled the perfect bait in front of her mother and the other Matrons and they had snatched at it like so many trained spiders. Within days, they were mobilizing the city for war, summoning in even House forces. The sheer number of troops they were willing to throw into this mad scheme made her question the already tenuous grasp of sanity her mother and the others had.

The mage had talked them into throwing the combined might of Ust Natha at their hated cousins, the darthiir, in one tremendous push. One he would support with his magics. They would shatter the Temple guardians and then destroy even Suldenessellar’s renowned armies. From there, he promised that even the magical defenses of the city would fail and the darthiir would fall before their blades.

A bold but reckless plan, and she had hoped the Matrons would have rejected it for what it was. But then the cursed wizard produced the ‘surety of his intent’; the eggs of thrice cursed Adalon. With those in their possession, the Matrons fell into step with that mage like they were obedient slaves not the rulers of one of her people’s greatest cities.

Now they were committed to this lunacy, a plan that would either win them a victory not even the fools of Menzoberranzan could achieve or lay them so low that even the svirfneblin would be able to crush her city. And if that madness was not enough, the Matrons had the gall to call for the Games before hand. What better way to prepare for an all or nothing battle but to have your best warriors battle each other instead of the foe!

With a growl she hurled her goblet at the far wall, sending wine and stonework shrapnel skittering throughout the box. A slave promptly appeared and started mopping up the ruin with the usual well trained efficiency. It was enough to make her wish for a new goblet just to throw it at him. She lived in a city so foolish that a shattered wine goblet was quickly cleaned up but an army would be slashed and gouged before it could even be used. Such waste.

She cursed again, mixing in her native tongue with some of the choicer surfacer curses she’d heard. They had a certain harshness that appealed in such a situation. Her temper forced her to the edge of her box where she gripped the edges with white knuckled ferocity and glared daggers to the Arena floor.

A horn sounded and the reason that she had even forced herself to attend this foolishness began to appear. The warrior from Ched Nasad, the outcast who had fled her city to Ust Natha began to rise from the elevator shaft. Veldira of Ched Nasad, a female who had proven herself an experienced warrior and an extremely useful ally. Far more reliable than Soulafein or any of the other warriors she could call upon. And the only one who had loyalties only to her. Only to her patroness.

Phaere had quickly realized the usefulness of the Ched Nasad refugee. Her skill and competence was the key she needed to halt this destructive foolishness, to save her city. And what had she done? The fool female had volunteered for the Pit. She had no need of it for fame or honor. She had promised her a place in House Despana, a place of honor as her chief blade. But no, Veldira had to prove herself in the Pit. Had to volunteer for the Games, putting not just her cursed life on the line but all of her carefully laid plans.

It was enough to make her want to spit blood, Veldira’s blind obedience to the tradition of the Arena. And if only she could countermand her, she would, but tradition and law allowed for any free Drow to enter the Arena unhindered. Any attempt to circumvent it would draw her enemies notice, and so, she found herself here, watching the key to all her carefully laid plans risk it all.

As she glared down, something caught her eye. Someone else who found the entire proceedings to be a foolish waste, revealing herself just by the set of her shoulders. She looked closer, and yes, it was, what was her name. Zathera. Veldira’s second. Her impression was that of an extremely practical if exceedingly dour female, one who realized exactly what Veldira risked on the floor.

She felt a moment of kindred spirit with the dour female. Sharing this madness with one who felt the same way might keep her from making too much of a spectacle of herself. And, if Veldira should fall, she would have her second handy. Yes.

She turned to the slave who was filling a new goblet for her. “Summon the female Zathera to my box. She sits there, in the lower levels. Bring her up here at once.”

“But Mistress… she is not…”

“I did not ask for your opinion, slave. I gave you an order. And unless you would prefer sacrifice to slavery, I would fulfill it now.”

With a little squeak, the slave scurried off. The cowed scamper actually managed to bring a fleeting smile to her face. She settled back into one of her plush chairs. Yes, having Zathera in attendance would ease her mood. Too much of their fates were intertwined in that one female.

If it were to be their doom, at least it would be shared.

#4 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:07 AM

Chapter 3

As her cage rose from the depths of the underworks, the wave of cheers died down to a dull roar. She looked up at the growing light, surprised at the sudden change in volume, as there seemed to be no end to the Drow lust for blood. A booming voice reverberating down the shaft silenced such thoughts, however. “Two more warriors rise from the depths to do battle for the Honor of Ust Natha. Two more gladiators, hungry for blood and victory come to do battle. From the Ice Shaft comes Tsoras, a young blade eager for the kill. From the Fire Shaft comes Veldira, a female of dark cunning and power. In Lloth’s name, I call these warriors forth to battle!”

As the voice faded, the crowd’s cheering soared to near deafening levels as the cage emerged from the shaft and came to a surprisingly gentle stop. An eyebrow arched involuntarily at the smoothness of the elevator’s operation as she reached out to push open the door. As soon as she stepped out onto the gravel and sand floor of the Arena, she would be committing herself to the match.

Doubt reared its ugly head. Perhaps Jaheira had a point, perhaps this was not wise, that their mission could be accomplished without putting herself through Drow blood sport. However, that was a false choice at this point. She would dishonor herself, show herself a coward before this entire city. And fear was weakness, something she dare not show to these foul Drow. It was like breaking a wild horse. If you showed fear, it would buck you off and do its level best to kill you.

She could not allow that to happen. She owed Him the Debt of Justice. He’d stolen her soul and Imoen’s and for that, He would feel Justice. Yes. He would feel Justice and know that it was her that brought him down in his pride and power.

All emotion drained from her face as she stepped out of the cage. Around her the crowd roared its wild approval. It washed over her again, slamming into her like the force of a cavalry charge, sweeping away her previous doubts. Yes, she would answer the call and demonstrate her prowess on this battlefield. Through the dance of blades she would illustrate her usefulness to her patroness, and through that bond, accomplish her mission.

And if she had a little fun and rid the world of a few of this city’s best and most able warriors, so much the better.

She bent down and gathered some of the sand and gravel and let it run through her gauntleted fingers. It was an excellent mix, stable enough for solid footing while loose enough to let the blood sink in and not pool. She let another handful sift through her fingers as she studied the Arena itself. It was a large, flattened oval. The walls separating her from the audience were near 10 feet tall and lined with rather cruel looking spikes. Four massive square columns ringed the center of the Arena, soaring to a ceiling lost in the darkness. There were only four exits, the two cages that brought the warriors in and two gates at either end. One she knew as the Victor’s Gate. The other was where the bodies of the losers were dragged out.

Dusting off her hands, she stood and drew the Flame of the North from its shoulder scabbard. It was a fine weapon, blade almost crystal white and with a fine edge and balance. She’d grown accustomed to the blade, but she missed the heft and perfect balance of Carsomyr. Still, Adalon had a point, such a holy artifact would draw the Priestesses of Lloth like moths to a flame and doom their mission to failure. So instead, she had substituted that mighty weapon for this one. It would suffice.

Blade held in first guard position she strode deliberately towards the center of the Arena. For the first time, she studied her opponent. He had not moved from his cage position, obviously waiting for her to move first. That sign of wisdom and intellect was wiped away by the rash haste he showed by rushing toward the center of the Arena.

He moved fluidly, with the grace of a wild cat in his light plate. The armor was too showy and ornate, possessing spikes and extrusions that would cause the wearer more problems than it would solve. He carried a spiked, circular shield and wielded what looked to be a finely crafted long sword. A long sword he was actually twirling around as he moved.

It was a foolish and showy move. The crowd roared its approval of the show of such bravado, just as she felt her lips curl into a mocking smile. This one was extremely cocky, showing off with obvious intent to intimidate and insult. Any chance such maneuver had to succeed were dashed as his attempt at flair demonstrated not just his arrogance but glaring deficiencies in his technique as well. His wrists were strong but at maximum extension they were weak, showed by the stutter of his sword twirls. And it seemed his gauntlets were restricting his hand movements, because she caught at least two distinct wobbles in the arcs as his grip slipped.

He did appear the showy but ill trained braggard the Arena coordinator had described him as. However, she did not feel like putting on much of a show for the audience, even if they did demand it. There was little sport in crushing one as inexperienced as him. If his technique was as sloppy as it seemed, it should take little more than five strokes to fell him. Less if he was as inexpert with that shield as he was with the blade.

“Are you so afraid to face me that you must dawdle like an old woman?” the Drow youth taunted, interrupting her train of thought. His words drew a different roar from the crowd, this one of laughter.

Her smile faded into a thin line. “Are you so eager to die that you must run to face me?” she called back.

Laughter and cheers reverberated throughout the Arena as the haughty smirk cracked on the youth’s face. Sneering, he fired back, “We shall see whose blood will be spilled, barbarian. And why do you use that oversized toothpick? Do you think such a clumsy toy would intimidate me? Is your intent that I would laugh myself to death?” He smiled cruely, “Or perhaps you are so ill used that an oversized hunk of metal is the only way you know pleasure!”

She felt her lips curl into a sneer as she closed the remaining distance and stopped at her starting position between the two south columns. “At least I am no weakling, unable to carry such a powerful weapon, jaluk.”

“I will show you strength, female. I will spit you on my blade and show you my power. I will have you begging before me, asking for my mercy!” he shouted back, emphasizing his point with a hip thrust.

The crowd roared with laughter and anticipation. They wanted a little theater with their blood. Smiling even more, she decided she would give it to them and teach this little fool one last lesson. Cocking her head to the side, she laughed, “Ahh, I understand it now, young one. You see my blade and you burn with envy. You wish that you possessed one so mighty, instead of carrying only the tiny, inferior blade you do. It must be such a terrible burden for a male to be so…” She grinned wide. “Under equipped.”

The young Drow fumed while the spectators howled with laughter and approval. She’d won them over and she could feel their power humming in her limbs. Oh yes, she would give them a show.

Moving her blade into the second guard position, she smiled and asked calmly, “Is there something wrong, jaluk? Or do you need some time to come to grips with your inferiority before we do battle?”

That arrow seemed to hit the mark as he let out a wordless howl and charged, his long blade held high. She braced and met his initial charge, blocking his first wild blow with a simple feint. Ignoring the early opportunity for devastating riposte, she countered his second blow and third.

What the young warrior lacked in skill, he was substituting for vigor and speed. Aleria began to give ground, maneuvering to avoid blows and countering others. His attacks were uncomplicated and easy to block, and due to either inexperience or anger, he seemed incapable of stringing strikes into coherent series. But his attacks did come quickly, forcing her to focus on the task at hand. It would not do to let such an inexperienced whelp actually injure her. Plus, it also gave her an excellent chance to work on some of her simpler blocks and counters, eschewing her more complicated moves for the moment. No need to show her full range of skills to her future opponents until she needed them.

Slowly, she let him drive her back towards the walls and their cruel spikes. She did not need to and could have redirected their flow of battle at any time. But instead she let herself be driven backwards. She could see the confidence grow in his eyes as he drove her back. It was obvious he did not realize he was outmatched and was taking her retreat for weakness. She looked forward to disabusing him of that notion. In fact, she wanted exactly that. She wanted this annoying little runt to know just how badly he was outmatched before she claimed his life.

Finally, they danced their way back to the walls and the roars of the crowd had subsided into murmurs and muttering. She could feel their unrest. They wanted blood and entertainment, and instead had received neither. The battle of blades had not matched the battle of wits. That was something she intended to correct shortly.

As he launched his most complicated combination of the match, two overhands with quick reestablishing slashes, he taunted, “So much for your words, female! Soon, you will have to choose between my blade or the spikes of the wall. And then I will cut out your black heart for a trophy!”

“Well, if those are my choices…” she laughed as she countered the second strike hard enough to knock her opponent’s blade wide. “I believe I’ll take the third option.” Sidestepping, she brought the Flame around in a vicious arc neck high. “Claiming your head!”

He barely managed to get his shield up in time, the Flame slamming into it with a resounding clang. The reverberation of the blow brought the crowd back to life, cheers flooding down upon her. Grinning, she pressed forward, pulling the Flame back and slashing out again, this time exchanging power for speed. Once again, he got his shield in position again, this time avoiding losing his legs at the hip.

He danced back, his shield dented and covered in frost from the Flame’s power. She could see surprise tempered by determination in his eyes, his mind trying to process the sudden change in the flow of the battle. She had no desire to allow her opponent to cope and blade high, she leapt to the attack.

She launched a series of quick strikes, bringing the powerful Flame down in a series of overhand blows with low recovery slashes. His speed was still serving him well, allowing him to twist away from her strikes but with increasing difficulty. His shield was beginning to dent and pucker under her blows, frost patterns marking a spiderweb pattern across the once gleaming surface. Twice she’d managed to slide through his guard and strike him, but neither blow managed to do real damage.

Frustration with her inability to land a solid strike began to build. He was ably compensating for the suddenness of the reversal of his fortunes. Her pressure kept him from mounting any offense, but that didn’t mean that it was impossible he could time some of her simpler moves and counters.

No, she’d have to actually beat him with something else other than the simple moves that were amongst the first Jondalar had taught her. Unfortunate, but necessary. So, she shrugged and redoubled her attack.

Now he was dancing and dodging with all of his skill and speed as she lashed out with some slightly more advanced techniques. He barely avoided the eviscerating downstrike of Mountain Lion’s Leap with an unbelievable body twist and sheer luck saved him from the side slash of Storm in the Woods as he managed to get his blade into the proper block for it.

Still, despite these lucky breaks, she was now making contact with more than just his shield and blade. His shield was now seriously scored and she’d dented his greaves at mid thigh with a blow that somehow didn’t shear through mail. However, a few other blows had found flesh. Blood trickled from his shoulder and stomach, its sweet tang reaching her nostrils.

As the blood began to color the sand, the crowd began to cheer madly. The scent of blood and the power of the crowd was a heady mix, driving her forward and giving her extra strength. Laughing, she pressed the attack against her flagging and failing opponent.

His movements were slowing as the task of avoiding her blows took its inevitable toll. Of more interest was his eyes. All of the cockiness and confidence had drained from them. Even the determination was cracking as fear blanched the red from them. She watched the realization that she’d been merely playing with him dawn on him. His movements were faltering and his counters were weak. Each time their blades contacted, his was the one being driven back.

She brought the Flame down in a powerful overhand strike. He barely managed to get his shield up and this time, her blade stove in the rim, puckering the metal badly and staggering him. His footing faltered and his guard collapsed.

Now was the moment.

Charging forward, she brought the Flame around in a killing arc. She watched as her opponent tried to bring up his shield one more time, tried to dodge her blow. Even weakened and battered, he nearly managed to do it.


The Flame’s edge struck him right below the left pauldron, finding the seam between the shoulder and upper arm plates. The frost blade tore through flesh and bone, severing the arm just below the shoulder. He screamed in agony as hot blood sprayed from the wound, drenching her blade in steaming crimson. Some of the spray even splashed on her cuirass and face.

He reeled backwards, his howls of pain being drowned out by the approving roar of the crowd. She wiped the blood from her face and followed him, keeping her pacing deliberate and her blood stained blade held in guard position. She locked her eyes on his as she brought him to bay.

Blood pumping from his shoulder and eyes wide with terror and pain, he screamed wordlessly and charged once more. He slashed at her with all of his remaining strength, putting his full body into one final blow, one final attempt to take her with him.

She simply sidestepped and countered, driving his killing stroke into the sand and gravel. Before he could raise his blade once more, she swung the Flame in a fully extended upwards stroke. She caught him just above the gorget, the heavy blade slicing neatly through his neck and sending his head spinning into the wall.

As his headless corpse collapsed to the sand below, she raised her blade aloft in triumph. She turned around slowly, staring up at the crowd and drinking in their adulation. She could not imagine anything greater than to be the focus of so much passion. It ran through her like a river of fire and tasted like the finest wine. She felt whole, she felt alive.

For right now, they were hers and she was theirs.

It was good.

#5 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:12 AM

Chapter 4

By the time the slave succeeded in summoning Zathera, the battle between Veldari and Tsoras had begun in earnest. Tsoras had scored points with his insults but Veldari had countered with a so far unseen biting wit and actually provoked the younger Drow into charging her. She assumed that was Veldari’s intent, but from the way that Tsoras was driving her back, it seemed her words were inopportune.

She had already downed one goblet of wine watching the female so vital to her plans being bested by some brat barely old enough to hold a blade. She didn’t even note the way the slave scurried to refill her goblet and quickly duck away, she was so intent on the battle unfolding beneath her. In mid drink, she heard the door to her box open and she whirled toward the intruder, ready to flay them alive by tongue or rod.

The woman standing in the entrance returned her glare with frustrating equanimity. It was summoned second of Veldari, the disturbingly calm Zathera. She wondered if the older female was truly Drow or if some wizard had replaced her blood with ice. Eyes narrowing, she snapped, “You answer summons slowly, Zathera.”

“I came as soon as I received your summons, my lady,” Zathera replied plainly. “If your servants are inefficient, it is not my problem.”

“Your words tread dangerously towards insolence, Zathera,” Phaere growled.

“No insolence was meant, my lady. I just do not intend to take the failure of another as my own,” Zathera replied calmly.

Phaere chose not to unleash a choice and devastating riposte. Not that she wouldn’t have enjoyed slicing through that staid demeanor, but it served little benefit in either the short term or long term. So, instead she waved Zathera to one of the seats in the box.

“My lady, I would not be so presumptuous,” Zathera deferred.

“And you are not,” Phaere said, waving to a plush seat next to hers. “I have invited you to join me and your failure to do so would be a serious insult. So sit and drink some wine with me Zathera. We will watch and see if your Veldari will have any greater success with this whelp than my slave did in finding you.”

Gingerly, Zathera sat down next to her, all the while her body tensed as if expecting a sudden betrayal or attack. Watching her lean body coiled like a spider ready to spring brought a smile to her face. That reinforcement of her power and position combined with the aesthetics of Zathera’s physique to add a heady spice to her wine. She smiled over her goblet, sipping the dark red liquid and waving her slave to deliver a goblet to Zathera.

Zathera accepted it with some hesitation and only by careful observation did Phaere spot the older female’s quick study of the drink. She was a cautious one, and one who knew her business. Considering the recklessness of her leader, it seemed an excellent combination. An eyebrow arched as she fitted that revelation with others ferreted out by her intelligence operatives. That was quite interesting.

A particularly loud clash of weapons severed that particularly interesting line of thought and brought her attention back to the battle below her. Tsoras was driving Veldari back further, pressing his advantage and herding her to the spiked wall. Her temper flared again as she watched her supposed champion being so soundly beaten by an upstart.

Flicking her eyes over to her companion, she could see Zathera shared her feelings on the subject by the thin line of her mouth and the slight tightness of her eyes. As a sweep of Tsoras’s blade came dangerously close to Veldari’s head, she sucked down a quick draught of wine to wet a suddenly dry mouth.

“Veldari appears to be in a great deal of trouble,” Phaere observed with the practiced calm of the heir to a Matron Mother.

“She is in a great deal of trouble, yes,” Zathera replied, her voice flat and her eyes fixed on the form of Veldari below.

“She has seemed a far more skilled warrior before. One who battled the ithillid with such ability should have no trouble with such a child as Tsoras.”

“She isn’t having any trouble with him,” Zathera said grimly. “She’s playing with him. Dragging this fight our longer than need be. He is no match for her.”

Phaere arched an eyebrow and took a sip of her wine. She took a moment to study the combatants more closely. She was no student of war and could not see exactly what Zathera saw, but the conviction in the older woman’s voice rang true. Looking over at her, she said, “I take it you do not approve of such showy displays of power.”

“They are inefficient and foolish and give the weak a chance to strike, and even the weak can be lucky once,” Zathera replied harshly.

It was perhaps not the classic Drow belief, but one she shared. Flashy demonstrations could be useful on occasion. However, she believed it was better that the threat of your power was so implicit that there was no need for displays. However, she did not believe that was the sole motivation behind Zathera’s statement. She smiled as another piece of the puzzle of the two female’s relationship appeared.

“I would agree, usually,” said Phaere evenly. “However, she may have other reasons. Or she could be overmatched.”

Zathera snorted derisively. “Against him? You must be jesting. Veldari could have cut him down twice in the last minute. No, she is dragging this out.”

“So you…”

The shouted taunts of the two combatants interrupted her. Tsoras had backed her against the wall and had proclaimed his victory and part of Phaere’s stomach sank at the prospect. That is until Veldari had countered with tongue and blade, filling the Arena with a resounding clang.

Now it seemed Tsoras was on the defensive. Veldari was driving him back and Tsoras was giving ground much faster than Veldari had. He looked far more desperate, twisting wildly to avoid Veldari’s heavy, barbaric blade. As she watched that massive sword crash against Tsoras’s shield, she shook her head. For such a well mannered female, Veldari carried such a crude blade. It was a contradiction she had not puzzled out yet, but looked forward to unraveling.

Turning her attention back to Zathera, who was now sipping her wine and studying the unfolding action with less disgust and more interest, she said, “It seems your analysis was correct.”

“Thank you my lady,” Zathera replied, not taking her eyes off the action.

“He seems to be holding his own,” Phaere replied.

“Yes and no, my lady. He is countering her strikes, yes, but all of them are very simple attacks. She is a far better swordswoman and still avoids strikes that she is capable of but would require advanced techniques.”

“Disguising her true ability, perhaps?”

“That would be the soundest reason for it,” Zathera replied calmly, but the few lines of concern still crinkling eyes and mouth. There was another reason that troubled Zathera, one she would have to discern. It was likely the anxiety over the loss of status, but it could be worry over the loss of the female herself. It was a very interesting puzzle.

“Understandable. She has many more matches to fight this day. However, I would like if she would just dispatch this runt,” Phaere said between wine sips.

“I think you are like to see that soon,” Zathera said. “He is beginning to panic.”


War she did not know well, but fear was a boon companion, and Zathera’s assessment rang true. Tsoras’s movements possessed the jerky, edgy motions of a being facing a fearful end. It was something she was intimately familiar with, having seen it in sacrifices many times.

It took only a few more moments for Zathera’s prediction to come true. Veldari moved suddenly, twisting her body in a way that she could not completely understand, and then brought that massive sword down on Tsoras’s shoulder. With one swift cut, she deprived him of his arm. Arterial spray doused Veldari and the Arena floor and predictably, the crowd went wild. This was the moment they loved, the moment when one conquered the other.

She sat back in her chair and watched the inevitable. Tsoras made a last, foolish charge and Veldari cleanly deprived him of his head. As the head bounced, she mused that in this case, Veldari might have done her race a service. That one was overly proud and foolish; a combination that so often had brought destruction to her people. This time, it was only to himself.

Veldari lifted her arms aloft in victory and the crowd rained down their adoration upon her. Such adoration was short lived and fickle, loving only success and spectacle, but for now she had delivered it to them. It was a microcosm of her race, the crowd, and served as an excellent reminder. Though she had the best interests of Ust Natha at heart, failure would bring the city down upon her head.

As Veldari marched off through the Victor’s Gate, she looked over at Zathera. Her face was still, but there was the expected relief there. She would prove an excellent weathervane for the upcoming matches, giving her insight into how it might play out. Information that would help her maintain a calm demeanor should Veldari win.

And a useful scapegoat should she fail to.

#6 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:12 AM

Chapter 5

Once again, she found herself in the underworks, awaiting her next match as she had four times previously. Four times previously, she’d stood here, listening to the cheering of the crowd and the clash of battle. Again, Jaheira shared the preparation chamber with her, assisting her while delivering a glare that became exponentially harsher each time they were reunited.

She’d yet to suffer any significant injury, although if the looks Jaheira was giving her could wound, her lifeblood would be pouring out in torrents. The older woman yanked hard on a cuirass strap, tightening it with far more force than necessary. Ribs already sore from a lucky mace blow groaned under Jaheira’s ‘gentle ministrations’. Grunting, she glared at Jaheira and griped, “There is no need to abuse me and my armor so.”

“No?” Jaheira replied, voice dangerously sardonic. “You need no aid? Then I will return to the box and spend more time with our generous and kind patroness and leave you to your preparations. You obviously need no further assistance from me.”

Aleria put a hand on her old friend’s forearm. “I did not mean it like that.”

Jaheira’s eyes flashed and her voice cracked like a whip. “Then how do you mean it? You indulge in this foolishness, injure yourself and then have the temerity to complain how I tend to you?”

“They have not scored a significant hit on me, Zathera,” Aleria replied, trying to placate the older woman while feeling her temper fray. “Two of them barely rated a challenge. Tsoras was barely more than a training dummy and Kvarin? The fool with the spear? I don’t even know how he survived the first round.”

“And what of the others? That shaved headed one with the mace?” she growled, thumping her fist into Aleria’s sore side.

Grimacing as Jaheira’s fist unerringly struck the center of bruise, she fired back. “He actually had some modicum of skill and talent. And he only managed the one lucky strike. Need I remind you how well he fared after that?”

Her words seemed to fly wide of the mark as Jaheira crouched to adjust her greaves, now dented in a few places. She looked up at Aleria and deadpanned, “And your last opponent, he was no challenge either, correct?”

“Not exactly.” Aleria grimaced again.

“No. He certainly wasn’t,” she stood and moved to Aleria’s back, checking her armor from behind. “He nearly had you. Twice.”

“Once. The other time was a feint,” Aleria replied hotly.

“Of course it was Veldira. I’m sure it was all part of your plan to have him nearly take your head,” Jaheira fired back, her voice dripping in sarcasm.

“That overextension cost him his footing. It allowed me to counterattack, chase the bastard back and crush his knee.”

“And even on one leg, he was still dangerous,” Jaheira said, finishing her checks and walking around to face Aleria. She gripped the taller woman by the shoulders. “Even one legged, he nearly got you. You can lie to yourself, but I saw how close he got to sliding that blade into your stomach.”

“It was not that close,” Aleria fired back. “He didn’t even get mail.”

“No. He did not. But I know you. I’ve been fighting alongside you for three years now, I know your technique better than anyone except… except…” Her voice quavered and then she shook her head. “I know how you fight, and there was no way that he should have managed to get that close. You had your chance to finish him earlier, but you didn’t take it. You were dragging it out, playing to the crowd.”

“I did no such thing,” Aleria rejoined hotly, her words even sounding hollow in her ears. “I was maneuvering for a better strike. You saw how skilled he was…”

“No, you weren’t,” Jaheira replied calmly, locking eyes with Aleria. “We both know that.”

Aleria glared back, meeting Jaheira’s flinty stare. Angry retorts and strident denials withered and died, left unspoken. They would find no purchase against the implacable granite of Jaheira’s certainty and even uttering them would be a waste of breath. Those red eyes that should have been moss green bored in, slicing through her justifications and rationalizations like they were made of paper.

Jaheira was right. She had been toying with her opponent, playing to the crowd. When the Flame crushed her foe’s knee, she could have finished him off. One simple thrust of the Flame while his guard was down and Vorenifen would have joined the list of those Drow she had conquered. Just one simple thrust.

Any other day, she would have taken that expedient. All her training spoke to efficiency and effectiveness, it all demanded that she should have run him through right there. And yet she did not. She had pulled her blade back, shifting not for a more effective strike but for a showier one. A choice that nearly proved to be fatally foolish.

Why had she done it? Vorenifen had been an extremely accomplished fighter. He was devilishly fast with that blade and lightening quick on his feet. She had been sorely tested by him, barely avoiding a number of his strikes. It had taken all of her skill to counter him, and if he had been more familiar with her style he could have emerged the victor.

Why then, when she had the easy kill did she not take it? Why not finish him instead of positioning for the overhand stroke?

A dark voice echoed from the depths of her mind. If truth was to be had beneath Jaheira’s stern gaze, then it should be the full and unvarnished truth. She had not taken the quick stroke because it would not have been dramatic enough. The crowd wanted more than simple victory, they wanted a spectacle. A thrust through the chest would have placated them, but beheading a crippled foe as he struggled to rise would have thrown them into frenzied cheers. Cheers she wanted, cheers she craved. They made her feel alive again, made her feel whole and vibrant again. Their passions flooded her and filled the gaping hole in her, the hole torn through her by Him.

She closed her eyes as pain flared at her temples. It had been pure folly, pandering to the crowd like that and risking her life and those of her companions unnecessarily. Reveling in their bloodlust was no better than following the urgings of her corrupted blood.

She was not like that.

Opening her eyes, she looked back at Jaheira and watched as the granite shifted. Once again, the older woman read her like a book. Jaheira smiled slightly and said with relief, “You do see it, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she replied, her voice leaden.

“Good. I was worried you’d taken complete leave of your wits,” Jaheira said with a slight chuckle.

Aleria’s lips thinned. “Complete leave of my wits?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “I could not believe it was my … Veldari,” she chuckled, “down there in the Arena. It was like watching an utter stranger. A doppelganger.”

“So I am just a false image of myself now, is that it?” Aleria retorted.

“No, no. Of course not,” Jaheira replied, her eyes flying wide.

“Really?” Aleria replied flatly. “That seemed to be just what you were suggesting. I clearly recall you calling me a doppelganger. I can think of nothing so false as one of those twisted creatures.”

“It was only a metaphor, Veldari. An extremely poorly chosen one at that,” Jaheira replied quickly as she nervously tugged at the pauldrons of Aleria’s mail.

“Of course. Just an example of how much a stranger I am to you now,” she replied, her voice as cold as the Flame. “I mean, there is nothing different about me now, so I should be exactly as I always have been, correct?”

“No, of course not. But…”

“But what?” she cut Jaheira off with a voice that was barely a whisper. “What do you know of what I suffer through? What do you know of a life that is so empty and hollow that every moment is constant pain? You know what happened to me, what He did to me. No wonder I seem a doppelganger to you.”

“You are not the only one who suffered at His hands,” Jaheira shot back, releasing Aleria and balling her hands into fists.

“No. I am not,” she replied icily. “But have I accused you of losing your wits? Have I called you stranger? Doppelganger? No. Yet you do so freely. And it even amuses you to do so.”

“What?” Jaheira fired back. “You think any of this amuses me? To see you risk yourself so foolishly? You endanger your life, our lives, for what? The cheers of a crowd drunk on blood and wine?” She took a step forward, stopping so her face was just inches from Aleria’s. “Tell me how those are the acts of the woman I know.”

“I do not have to justify myself to you,” she said flatly. “I never have. Now, get out of my face before I move you.”

Jaheira blinked and stared wide eyed at her. Grimacing, she stepped back and said, “No, you do not.”

Aleria pulled her gauntlets out of her belt and began tugging them on, all the while keeping her eyes on Jaheira’s. “That is correct. Now you should return the box. I must finish my preparations for this coming match. I would not want to fail, seeing what is at stake.”

“Indeed. There is a great deal at stake here.”

“Of that I am perfectly aware,” Aleria retorted sharply.

One eyebrow arched. “Are you?” Jaheira asked, her eyes searching Aleria’s.

Aleria glared at her. “Yes. If I fall, we are all doomed. I think that is rather clear.”

Jaheira frowned, her face falling. “Truly.” She stepped forward and adjusted Aleria’s helm. Swallowing hard, she let her hands fall to her sides and said, “Be careful.”

Aleria rolled her shoulders, settling her mail a little more evenly across her shoulders. “I intend to. I have no intention of falling this day.”

“Then win.” She locked eyes with Aleria once again. She gripped Aleria’s shoulders tightly and said earnestly. “Just win.”

Aleria nodded. “I will.”

Jaheira nodded and squeezed Aleria’s shoulders once more. Then without another word, she left, quickly disappearing up the ramp towards the seats. Aleria stared at the empty walkway, feeling a bit surprised. Jaheira never backed down so easily. After a moment, she shrugged. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. She had a battle to prepare for.

A few moments later, the now familiar voice of the Arena organizer asked, “You ready Veldari? The last match just finished up.”

She turned to look at him and smiled. “Yes. Of course.”

“Good,” he chuckled. “You missed a pretty good match, but I figure yours is going to be something spectacular.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. Great match up you’ve got going. Two exotic styles, should be exciting. Plus, the two of you have flair.”

“Well, then I suppose we should leave the crowd waiting. Don’t want to disappoint.”

“I doubt that. Let’s go.”

Eyebrow arched, she followed the heavy set Drow towards the elevator. She could ponder the confrontation with Jaheira after the match. Right now she had more immediate concerns.


#7 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:14 AM

Chapter 6

She dined on a few light snacks as she awaited Zathera’s return from tending to Veldira. The match that had just finished below her was of little interest, but by the roar of the crowd, they much approved. She had observed parts of the battle, but every time she did, the sheer waste of it aggravated her.

Here were two of her city’s best warriors and they were spilling their blood needlessly. She could not even feel any pleasure that the loser had deprived one of her keenest rivals of one of her best retainers. The now eviscerated Farath had been a skilled warrior and tactician, and if her intelligence operatives had it right, the male had also been a favorite lover.

She flicked an empty steamed shell against a wall, frustrated that she could not even take pleasure in the weakening of the bitch Reanara. Snatching up her goblet, she drank more of the spiced wine, silently cursing the Matrons and the waste going on below her.

At least there was only one more of these foolish matches she would have to endure this day. Veldira was scheduled to appear next, to compete in her quarterfinal match. So far the female had acquitted herself admirably and she felt confident that she would win this match as well. Of course, that would mean two more matches tomorrow, but the alternative was to see a key part of her plans bleeding to death on the sands below.

That wouldn’t do. As the corpse of Farath was cleared from the sands, she reclined in her chair and massaged her forehead. This day had been long and frustrating and it was beginning to take its toll. She wished to be back in her own apartments, relaxing in her bath or being tended to by Drua’s exceptionally gifted hands. Those hands could purge all the tightness out of her shoulders in just a few minutes.

Drua’s hands would banish the foolishness of Veldira and the madness of the Matrons, at least for a little while. Her hands could probably even make Zathera’s rather cranky presence more bearable. For all the insight she’d gained into the relationship between Veldira and Zathera, even the respect she was developing for the practical mind of Zathera, the other female still managed to irk her. It was unfortunate she was still necessary.

She was debating sending one of her slaves to fetch Drua to her when Zathera reappeared in the box. All thoughts of relaxation fled with just one look at the face of the other female. The set of the jaw, the thin line of the mouth and the tightness around the eyes, all pointed to great disquiet. The fact that the tightly controlled Zathera was displaying any such emotions, especially in her presence, spoke volumes.

Something deeply disturbing must have transpired between Zathera and Veldira. If only she could have planted spies into the Underworks, but such things were impossible. Well, at least difficult enough to make it virtually impossible. The Arenamasters protected the ‘sanctity’ of the Underworks with more fervor than the most rabid Matron protected the Temple.

She silently cursed the Arenamasters. If only she knew what had spurred such a display. Such information could prove to be a powerful wedge between Veldira and Zathera. And splitting Veldira away from the dour female could be of great use to her. Especially if her suspicions about the two were correct. Even a weakening of that bond could allow her to more tightly bind the warrioress to her.

How very interesting.

Arching an eyebrow at the dour female standing at the entrance of the box, she waved her in. Zathera made the proper obeisance and entered. A slave quickly delivered a goblet of wine to the dour female and she accepted it before returning to the seat designated to her.

Zathera took a deep gulp of wine and Phaere found her eyebrow arching just a little more. So far the female had been abstemious in her drinking and had always checked her goblet for poisons. Her failure underlined how truly great her distraction was. Now Phaere found herself wishing that she’d had the slave doctor the wine with one of the more minor truth agents.

Sipping her wine, she studied Zathera from over the rim of her goblet. The other female took another deep drink and she could see some semblance of composure starting to settle over her face. Timing her barb, she lowered her cup and asked, “All fares well with Veldira, correct?”

Her dart struck home as Zathera snapped her head up towards her, her face momentarily clouded with emotion. However, the flash of fire in the female’s eyes was quickly swallowed by the ice of her blood. Still, the single flash told her that all was not well between the two females. She squelched the smile of discovery as Zathera replied, “She is well and fully prepared for her match, my lady.”

“Excellent, I am glad to see all is well,” she said, hiding the sardonic edge she so desperately wished to add. But it would not do to let Zathera know the extent of her knowledge until she was ready to strike.

“Indeed, my lady,” Zathera said in her more usual clipped tones. She was well practiced in the masquerade, for none of the emotion she’d seen before now shined through. Not as practiced as herself perhaps, but Zathera was no green child despite her uncivilized manner.

“Good. Now, what are your thoughts on the upcoming quarterfinal? Veldira should have no issues defeating her next opponent, correct?”

Zathera frowned. “I believe she has an excellent chance against Vardoth, my lady. However, their difference in styles does put the outcome in some doubt.”

“How so?” Phaere prodded.

“His dexterity and twin swords are formidable challenge to Veldira’s more strength oriented skills. Plus, dual swords of a similar length is rather exotic. The offhand weapon is usually much lighter. The difference in styles can be very difficult to counter, especially with a lack of familiarity,” Zathera stated.

“That is true about all conflict, Zathera. And couldn’t the same be said about Veldira’s combat style? That huge sword of hers is certainly more unusual than his twin blade style.”

“Indeed. Neither is entirely familiar with each other’s styles. Adaptability will be key in this match.”

“You doubt Veldira’s ability?” Phaere needled.

“No. I do not,” Zathera said quickly and heatedly.

“Yet you are concerned?”

“Are you not, my lady?” Zathera replied flatly. “Why else would you question me so intently?”

“I would dislike losing a female as useful as Veldira. But my understanding of martial affairs is somewhat limited, as I have other duties than prosecuting war,” Phaere replied coldly. Her eyes narrowed at the other female. She was impudent and obnoxious. She might have to have her dealt with sooner than later. “Therefore, I have been interrogating you, as you seem to have a greater knowledge of war.”

“I see,” Zathera replied. “In that case, I believe Veldira will prevail, but the outcome is far from certain. It is up to chance and skill.”

“Indeed,” Phaere replied, watching the other female closely. It was delicious seeing the iron control of the other female cracking. The taste was bittersweet, for the cause of her concern was the source of her own concern.

Both were concerned over the fate of Veldira in the next match. For different reasons assuredly, but it was unmistakable. She knew she felt concern, even though she was utterly confident that she’d shown none of it like the lesser female. But the fact that Zathera was so concerned only made hers worse.

She sipped at her wine, its spice losing some of its bite. Zathera’s proclamation that the match was up to chance and skill still rung in her ears. She hated chance and believed in eliminating as much of its effects as possible. And now, blasted chance was rearing its head again.

Bloody minded female and her need for battle. Endangering her best chance for control in over a decade.

And all she could do is sit and watch. She took another long pull of wine. Damn her. Damn them both.

Lloth protect Veldira and give her victory.

#8 Guest_VigaHrolf_*

Posted 07 January 2008 - 04:15 AM

Chapter 7

Again she found herself standing in the Fire Shaft elevator of the Arena. Her gauntleted hand caressed the finely wrought stylized flames as her thoughts bubbled. The confrontation and the harsh words exchanged with Jaheira weighed heavily on her heart. As frustrating as the woman could be, she had an annoying habit of being right. What if she was losing herself in this, that her reasons were nothing more than carefully constructed rationalizations? What if their fight was just another attempt to hide from the truth, something she strove never to do?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the elevator’s smooth ascent and the opening of the grates above. The loud rumble of the crowd, once held at bay by the heavy metal doors, poured into the shaft. The sudden force of it stiffened her spine in shock and her troubled thoughts were washed away by the lusty, wild cries of the crowd.

She had thought the first cheers were something physical, something wildly potent. They had picked her up and made her feel again. These cheers - these cheers were something else entirely. They weren’t just anticipatory, calling for a hopefully entertaining match. These cheers were for her. For her performances for them. For the blood she had spilt, for the warriors she had crushed beneath her skill and might.

The first cries had been intoxicating, these were something beyond. Their voices, their passions roared over at her, beating at her like clubs. They swept her up in a grand torrent, hurtling her down through the rapids, smashing her against the rocks yet still gifting strength. She felt like she was drowning in them but also that she could still breathe.

The sheer bloodlust, no the sheer lust, in those upraised voices were unlike anything she had ever felt. Her blood sang in her veins. Jaheira’s words and the doubts she’d planted withered and died under its relentless heat. The fire in her veins scorched her mind, setting it aflame. Words and feelings long held down crept forth, illustrating the power that these Drow were giving her. Showing her how she could claim it, make it hers.

She knew she should resist those words, those intoxicating blandishments of power and strength. These were not her thoughts, but thoughts borne of her Sire’s tainted blood. The part of her that knew the truth screamed their warnings, screamed of betrayal of trust, betrayal of the self to give in to their temptations.

However, those voices spoke only of Duty. Of service. And they seemed pale and weak compared to the power, the lust, the sheer energy being given to her by this crowd. Duty had cost her everything. Her life, her Imoen, her very soul. Perhaps this power could seize them back. Perhaps this power could help her get her vengeance on Him.

And, as her Father always maintained, was not Truth a three edged sword? Your view, theirs, and the Truth? That someone dedicated to seeing the Truth always had to be willing to step back and see the whole picture. And this crowd’s lust certainly showed a different image, and a rather appetizing one.

They would give her their adulations, their worship and with it, their power. All she had to do was deliver them another fallen challenger. Gripping the Flame of the North’s hilt, she stepped out onto the sand and gravel mix of the Arena floor. Holding her arms aloft, she threw her head back and drank in their adulations, a feral smile splitting her lips.

The booming, amplified voice of the announcer snapped her back from her ecstatic reverie. “Now comes the culmination of the First Day of the Battle for the Honor of Ust Natha! Warriors, both great and powerful have battled for the Honor of our great city and for our entertainment! Blood has been spilled and the weak culled from the strong. Now, only eight of the many who lusted for glory remain. Eight warriors of undeniable skill and cunning! The first of these Eight now battle for your pleasure!”

“From the Ice Shaft comes the famed Vardoth! Much honor has been heaped upon his name, the Scourge of the Darthiir! Many of their cursed kind have been sent screaming to the Spiderpits beneath his twinned blades!”

The voice paused as the frenzied cheers of the crowd drowned out even his voice. The leather clad warrior across the Arena raised twin long blades above his head and bowed, acknowledging them and drawing even more cheering.

Once the cheers died down enough, the voice continued, “And from the Fire Shaft comes his challenger, the brutal and beautiful Veldira! You have watched her carve her way through her competitors, her heavy blade cleaving through all that would dare stand against her!”

As the crowed burst into another round of frenzied cheers, she thrust the Flame upwards, point aimed at the roof of the cavern. Once again, the voice waited for the cheers to soften before booming, “One now will fall and one exalted! And now, in Lloth’s name, I call these warriors forth to battle!”

As the voice faded away, the crowd began to chant her name and Vardoth’s with near religious fervor. Smiling cruelly, she silently promised them that in but a few minutes, the only name on their lips would be hers.

She strode towards the center of the Arena, taking a moment to truly study her opponent for the first time. Vardoth was tall and slender. He wore no helm and long white braids trailed out behind him. Red eyes behind a coldly handsome face matched with hers, speaking of absolute and utter confidence. Something she looked forward to disabusing him of.

He moved with an elegant grace that his elven cousins would envy. He didn’t seem so much to walk as to dance, flowing from step to step. But the grace of his movements were stained with the twisted nature of his armor.

The fit of it was perfect, it seemed as if it was a second skin. And the dark staining of it only emphasized that. The obscenity of it came from its stylings. The leather was sculpted as if it was living muscle. That enough would have been disturbing, but the cuirass was far worse. It was done as a series of screaming faces from neck to groin, all clearly the faces of his elven kindred and all of them contorted in agony.

A good ten feet away, he halted and crossed his twinned long swords over his chest in salute. A sardonic smile cracked his face as he studied her. “If you wish it, I will take pity on you. Drop that foolish weapon and I shall make your death painless.”

“Such a kind offer,” Aleria replied, lips curled into a small smile. “But I must simply refuse.”

“I was hoping you would say that. I was looking forward to testing your skill first before I claimed your life,” he said pleasantly, uncrossing the blades and dropping into a combat pose, one blade high and the other in a low guard.

“Well, then I am happy to oblige you in the first. As to the second,” her smile grew wide and feral as she moved the Flame into First Guard, “I fear I will have to disappoint you.”

“Ahh,” he sighed dramatically. “Life is always full of little disappointments.”

“Only for a few more minutes,” she replied.

“Indeed? How exciting!” he laughed.

In mid laugh, he struck. Blades moved in a blur, one thrusting for her belly while the other point reached for her throat. It would have been a vicious and brutal beginning and end of their battle if she hadn’t been expecting it. A small tightness of his eyes warned her of the coming strike and she simply stepped out of the way and unleashed her own counterstrike.

Blood singing with the joy of raw combat, she whistled the Flame in a short, vicious overhand arc. Vardoth sensed the attack just in time, twisting away in almost the nick of time. Her blade missed flesh, but she did score a palpable hit, for the heavy, frostfired blade sliced through a few of his long braids. As the long white braids fell to the sandy floor of the Arena floor, the crowd howled in mirth.

He danced out of her reach, one hand reaching up to touch his shorn locks. Eyes narrowed, he fired back at her, “How sad that you could not even do the job evenly.”

Smiling, she raised the Flame in a sardonic salute. “My apologies, Vardoth. Please, come closer and I shall do my utmost to make a far more even and artistic cut.”

Her riposte drew a smile, a smile that cracked not an inch as he leapt to the attack. Once again, she twisted away from his strikes. They came like lightening, but she simply either countered them or just sidestepped them. His smile cracked and faded as she avoided blow after blow.

As she sidestepped a swing that would have eviscerated her, that is if it had managed to make contact, she laughed and swung back. He raised a blade in defense and the two blades met with a fantastic clang. He staggered back a half step from the force of the blow and blinked.

“Surprised that a female could be so much stronger than you, Vardoth?” Aleria laughed as she lashed out with another strike, this one aimed at his chest. He leapt back, the frozen point slicing just a few hairs’ breadths from him.

“Surprised?” he countered with both words and steel, knocking her blade down and away. As she brought her defense back up, he lashed out with the second blade, narrowly missing her shoulder. “Perhaps, but pleasantly so. It is rare to actually face someone worthy of killing.”

“Such a noble sentiment, male,” she laughed, striking out again. Once again, she narrowly missed but followed with a lightening quick recovering strike. This one actually struck home, the blade slicing into the armor on his left arm. A trace of blood trickled from the cut and another roar burst from the crowd. She flicked the blade as if to shake off blood and laughed again, “But I think that you will be falling today.”

“A mere scratch,” Vardoth countered through gritted teeth as his counterattack blunted itself against the magic hardened steel of the Flame.

“Well, if I must, I will take you a piece at a time,” Aleria laughed. With almost negligible ease, she shoved him back, clearing the Flame for a follow up attack. Dropping low, she lashed out, swinging the heavy Flame with speed more appropriate for a short sword.

Vardoth leapt backwards, somersaulting in midair, to avoid the silvery streak of frosted steel. He landed with artistic grace, rolling through the gravel mix and popping up on his feet just a few feet away, drawing many loud cheers. Dropping into a low crouch, he flourished his swords and studied her.

Aleria smiled broadly. Vardoth truly was a worthy opponent, one whose defeat would draw even more of the crowd’s adulation. His skill and his showmanship only added to the challenge. His posing, his style, had drawn their love, their lust. And to take that would require a finish worthy of the him. A simple sword thrust would be insufficient. He had to die with flair.

The smile turned into a mocking smirk. So be it.

Raising the Flame in mock salute again, she laughed, “Vardoth, I think you have me at a disadvantage. I did not know you could fly like one of those caged birds of the darthiir. If I had known, I would have brought a net instead of a blade.”

Vardoth’s return smile showed signs of strain as he slowly circled her, studying her defenses. “I assure you, I am full of surprises.”

“Indeed? Excellent! Would you care to share them?”

“Of course. But I believe they are best shown, to truly illustrate their power,” he said with more of his usual aplomb.

“But of course. Well, we shall just have to open you up then so that we can all see your surprises!” She resumed her attack with the last words fresh off her tongue, stutter stepping to the left to draw him towards her. As soon as his weight shifted to meet her attack, she pushed off that foot and changed directions, bearing down on him.

She closed the distance in a blink of an eye. A look of surprise flittered across his face at her speed, but he quickly recovered to bring his guard around. The Flame smashed against his upraised blades, the ring of magic hardened steel filling the Arena. For a few moments, it seemed as if he would be able to contain her attack, to meet it and counter it. But he could not match the sheer ferocity and speed of the attack, forcing him to steadily yield more ground.

Aleria pressed the attack, throwing skill and strength against the slighter Drow male. Her muscles sang with her surging blood, driving her onwards. In her hands, the Flame was like its namesake, a bar of living flame, an extension of her strength and will.

All around her, the chanting grew louder, the cheering more frenzied. Her blood screamed along with them, driving her onward. She could feel herself grow stronger and faster as she battered at her opponent. He was purely on the defensive now, barely able to counter her strikes or even disengage.

Joyous laughter ripped from her throat. She felt so alive, more alive than she ever had. The knowledge that this feeling could always be hers appeared in her mind. All it required was blood, blood of villains like Vardoth.

It seemed a light enough cost for such power, for such a tool. Perhaps it came from her sire’s tainted blood, but that did not mean she couldn’t use it for good. Villains and traitors walked free to prey upon the weak. Betrayers wreaked havoc upon the innocent. Dark mages used their powers for infernal purposes. Now she could counter them all. Bring them low.

Even He would be broken by this new strength. It would serve as the tool of her personal Justice, to repay Him for the way he had violated her. With it, she would reclaim what He had so foully stolen.

However, she first had to dispense with her opponent. With a negligent flick of her blade, she countered a complicated attack, beating it back like his blades were straw and not steel. He recovered and lunged, blades slicing high, moving like quicksilver. Again, she swatted them aside, sending him staggering backward.

As he regained his footing, she flashed him a bright, toothy grin. “Problems, male?”

He backed away, body coiled like a spring and his eyes slightly wide, “Problems? No. But your persistence is starting to become mildly annoying.”

“Oh. I am so sorry that your complete inability to even touch me is frustrating to you,” she deadpanned, flourishing her blade in a swift, tight arc.

“Your apology is accepted, of course,” Vardoth replied tautly.

“It is heartening to see such graciousness in the weak. A true sign of their acceptance of their inferiority, of their place. A lesson you were in dire need of,” she raised the Flame in salute, pressing her helm to the hilt. “I am glad to have been the one to provide it.”

A chorus of mocking laughter rained down from the stands as the heat blossomed in Vardoth’s cheeks. His jaw clenched and his hands tightened around his hilts. She could smell the rage streaming off him like steam, its bouquet like a fine spiced malmsey. Eyes flaring a bright red, he replied in a tone as cold as ice, “So many fine words, so little action, female. Though, if you keep up your prattling, I may just die of sheer boredom.”

“Oh, I can assure you that your death will be anything but boring,” Aleria replied matter of factly, smiling mildly.

Then, without another sound, she struck, leaping forward and lashing out with the heavy blade of the Flame. Startled by the suddenness of the attack, Vardoth could barely bring up his blades to deflect her blow. He brought them high to protect his head, sliding her blade down to his left.

Which was exactly what she wanted him to do. She decided it was time to add a healthy dose of injury to her insults. Allowing the counter to twist her around so her seeming vulnerable side faced him, she twisted her blade to lock his and drag down his guard. Stepping inside, she coiled and drove her armored foot into his midsection.

His breath burst from his lungs with a terrific gasp as her foot bent him double. His guard still down, she spun back to face him. Without enough room to bring the Flame’s blade to bear, she slashed the Flame’s stylized pommel across his face. The stylized flame tore a jagged rent through unprotected flesh, spraying her with hot blood.

Gasping, the wounded Vardoth staggered back, one hand flying to the ruin of his face. The damage was horrific, his left cheek a jagged ruin and his nose broken. Voice shrill, he screamed, “You will pay for that, you bitch!”

“Such sweet blandishments, male, but such attempts at flattery will not save you now.” Aleria added blade to word, lashing out with the sharp edge of steel and tongue. The Flame described a vicious arc, the heavy, enchanted steel smashing into Vardoth’s weakened guard. Blades entangled, she ripped his left hand blade from his grasp with a quick, powerful twist of her wrists.

He countered with his remaining sword, trying to slide it through her guard. She slithered away from his strike, slamming the Flame down on the exposed blade with all the force she could muster. The two blades met in a terrific crash, shattering his blade midway up its length and sending a numbing shock up her arms.

The crowd went silent, quiet enough that the tinkle of shards of steel against the gravel floor could be heard. Vardoth stood slack-jawed, staring incredulously at his shattered sword. Her eyes were drawn to the jagged ruin as well, almost as surprised as he was.

The sense that this was the moment burned through the fog of shock. Drawing back, she lashed out with near inhuman speed, aiming the heavy blade at his now exposed left side. Still shaking himself free of his stupor, he simply could not avoid it in time.

He tried to leap backwards, but he could not clear himself of the deadly arc of the Flame. The frozen blade tore through his leathers, ripping through the stylized screaming faces. A gurgling scream bubbled from his throat as he grabbed his belly, trying to staunch the blood streaming from the deep wound. He took a half step forward, and then legs weakened, he fell to his knees into an expanding pool of his own blood.

A trickle of blood dripping from his mouth, he looked up at Aleria, eyes still defiant even as he tried desperately to keep his insides in. Arm leaden, he raised the jagged ruin of his blade, perhaps to try for one last strike or to claim some last vestige of honor. Either way, Jaheira’s words of avoiding unnecessary risks rang in her ears. It wouldn’t do to have her victory marred by what was left of her opponent scoring even the lightest of hits.

So, with a simple swipe of the Flame, she deprived him of both blade and hand. As a howl of anguish ripped from his throat, she shrugged. Now Vardoth could not mar her moment of triumph.

As the crowd cheered and screamed, he stared at her, still a flicker of strength in those fading eyes. Sneering, he spat at her, a wad of bloody spittle spattering against her left greave. As she flicked her eyes down at the mess, he cursed, “Just end it, you axsa elg'caress.”

“So be it.”

She lifted her blade in mock salute, patterns of frosted blood frozen on the blade. His eyes never left hers, locked on hers as she brought the Flame around in one final, deadly arc.

As head and body landed in the blood stained gravel, she lifted the Flame aloft in triumph. Around her, the crowd cheered and roared. Their power surging through her, she let out a terrific cheer of her own.

She felt alive.

She felt whole.

She felt powerful.

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