Episode 5. The Art of Making Enemies.
If you are out to make enemies, make sure to pick the right ones...
Zaknafein Do'Urden (personal communication)
Zaknafein did not have to look about; he did not have to see a single face to know that he was lamented. For he was the one of the lowest station, the Academy had ever known to accept. Even a deem rumor of his liaison with a powerful female could not counterbalance the fact that he stepped from the fighting pit in catacombs under the domed ceilings of Mele-Mathere. Zaknafein of House Gallant was not worried about his station, however.
Zaknafein had started with another fifteen fighters, all significantly younger and majority being noble-born. Only three other than he, were common solders, one from Baenre, one from Hunnet and the last from obscure House Andrae, the 35th House of Menzoberranzan. Those three, reasoned Zaknafein, would try the most to demonstrate their despise to him, since Lloth forbid, the nobles would equate them with Zaknafein
Zaknafein had heard many times about the first day battle trial, which defined each student’s standing in the Academy for the reminder of the year.
Five Academy instructors met them in large hall, which was decorated with randomly placed stairs, pieces of stalactites and stalagmites, columns, piles of uneven boulders and heat obscuring screens… in short a miniature Underdark. For every battle, the setting was prepared anew. Zaknafein found it to be rather silly.
The students were given few minutes to scan the surroundings and to pick up their opponents or allies. Zakanfein counted himself lucky, since none offered him to pair up or to join a budding allegiance. Now he can surely treat everyone as enemy… Zaknafein smiled: at least he would not have to watch out for his ally changing of heart and a snick attack.
The rules were simple: their weapons will be magically sheathed, so the balance won’t be compromised, yet serious wound will be almost impossible: blunt weapons were prohibited. A choice of blades was offered to the fighters who were improperly equipped. After the fight starts, a tap on the shoulder from any of the instructors meant that the fighter is pronounced dead. Once half of the students will “fall”, two junior instructors will remove themselves from the scene; the senior instructor will supervise the combat between two best students directly.
A robed tall figure – the mage - came forward and chanted. Zaknafein saw a spider’s net growing around his swords thicker and thicker, until the blade was covered by a sufficient layer to dull the edge.
The senior Instructor, Nalcor, gave a sign to start. Zaknafein dashed for the far corner of the room, fully excepting half of the class to go for him. He was slightly wrong. The whole group did. Former gladiator flew over few piles of debris. Storming a slope of yet another one he felt that the excitement of the chase finally made his closest pursuer distracted enough for him to attack. Zaknafein thrust his right hand backwards, slashing the sword against the opponent’s head. The blow was sliding, but stunned the would-be winner. He hesitated on the uneven surface for a split second…too long when facing Zaknafein. Low left-handed thrust took the male’s footing away, and launched him onto the another two who followed closely.
For a moment, it was easy. Zaknafein run down the pile gave each of them a quick hit into a vital area before they found any measure of balance, noted that the instructor counted them as dead and started circling the pile fending off another attacker. The luck was with him that day, because this one was and never would be any good. Caring not for finesse, but for quantity he would score before he gets overwhelmed, Zaknafein jumped and simply knocked the unfortunate drow out with his booted foot. By that time a unified charge against Zaknafein played itself out, some looking for easier targets, some finding a sudden opportunity to attack opponents at hand. Sidestepping the fallen body, Zaknafein made sure to give it a “fatal” wound while switching his full attention to the next fighter.
This one was wearing a shield and Zaknafein ran backwards up the pile, parrying hits from the pursuer automatically, and listening intently for sounds from above him. Someone was waiting at the top… Zaknafein yelled, fell flat and rolled downhill, seeing a jumping drow to plunge into the shielded one… Now they had some business to discuss among themselves, snickered Zaknafein.
Up came his swords crossing in midair, catching a lowering blade and pushing it away. Zaknafein came up following his swords, and, to his surprise, he found himself engaged against the only other surviving student. Valas DeVir. Now, being so close to winning, Zaknafein felt mounting excitement filling his veins… He could be the best. The opponents circled each other and DeVir took his chance to spit on the ground and mumble “Dirt” under his breath…
Zaknafein did not attack. He waited for DeVir to loose his nerve first, and to define how long the drow needed to recover from previous battle. Zaknafein’s breath had already steadied and his muscles were able to perform at it’s fullest after deflecting a heavy frontal blow from DeVir, when Valas made his first swing.
DeVir was not underestimating the gladiator any longer. His rained a series of quick and hard hits upon Zaknafein. Zaknafein deflected every attack. Something other than DeVir’s swords alerted Zaknafein.
Senior instructor. Zaknafein prepared to fight against two, for he immediately figured out that in a battle of DeVir against Zaknafein Gallant for the first standing in the Academy, Gallant should loose. The Instructor however, followed the procedure for now and outlined both students with magical flames, so others, settled in the far corner may benefit from studying their movements. In that weak light Zaknafein caught a shine of DeVir’s sword. Then he felt a burning sting on his thigh after a hit he took, trying to dodge Nalcor’s pass. DeVir’s scowl left no doubt. The noble was perfectly aware of his unsheathed sword and was quite pleased by it. Zaknafein now was fighting for his life, not for a token standing. No novice at that, Zaknafein only smiled.
Between avoiding DeVir’s attacks and unfair pat on the shoulder Zaknafein moved around the hall until he finally made it as close to the audience as he could. He heard the Senior Instructor to grit his teeth in frustration. Apparently, he would not dare to misjudge in front of the crowd where at least half thought themselves to be unfairly removed from the fight. He counted seconds between DeVir’s attacks and found them slowing. He slowed as well. DeVir did not notice. That was a good sign. DeVir had fallen for measured rhythm…but in a sudden disaccord, Zaknafein twisted away, and in a long, sweeping move, obvious and spectacular hit his sword against DeVir’s neck. After a pause, Senior Instructor slowly tapped Valas DeVir on the shoulder. DeVir thrown his blades (magically sheathed anew) to the floor and crossed his hands on his chest in drow’s sign of peace. So did Zaknafein. But he read a clear message in DeVir’s eyes. It was not a peaceful one.
Zaknafein quickly left the hall, trying to conceal a limp as much as he could. Alone in his quarters, Zaknafein examined the cut. It was rather deep and still bleeding. Squinting, Zaknafein bathed and dressed the wound, put his hands over it and started a simple healing chant. Then he shook his head in denial. Zaknafein was within the walls of Mele-Mathere, where he could not ask Elistaraee to heal him without risking to reveal different divinity presence. He’d rather bleed to death than pray to Lloth. Zaknafein shrugged. He was young and strong and he would have to heal naturally.
If anybody ever got interested in Zaknafein’s time in Academy and asked him to summarize his experiences, he would get a single word from the drow: “boring.” He was above rivalry, which consumed waking and even sleeping hours of every other person surrounding him. Zaknafein was always the one to learn on his own, so elaborate training in the Academy did little to improve his fighting.
The main entertainment of his first weeks in the Academy was anticipation of DeVir’s attack. He thought it would be rather an ambush than a challenge and for the first time in his life, he had adopted paranoid ways of his kin. To his relief, the expectation was not that long. DeVir with two others waited in a long corridor leading from fighter’s quarters to the storage rooms. Zakanfein recognized Valas, and one of his elder brothers, who was staying for a short practice in Mele-Mathere, before finishing his wizardly training. The third person, to Zaknafein’s surprise was Andrae’s solder. Nevertheless, it dissipated quickly as he considered that Andrae was a rival House to Gallant.
“Zaknafein,” DeVir was moving towards him, flanked by Andrae, “I do not know the rules of the catacombs, but here, in the Mele-Mathere, scum like you is an offence to any noblemen senses. So I took it upon myself to correct a mistake our directors made by allowing you an entry.”
Zaknafein did not bother to reply. He was preoccupied by the role of the mage in DeVir’s scenario. Certainly, he could not use the deadliest area spells, such as fire or lightening without frying up his own. In addition, the release of magical energy would likely attract the instructors, always on the look out for duels and fights among the students. “Do not get caught! “ was the rule here just like in Mezoberranzan proper. “A supportive role?” mused Zaknafein, “may be a small trick, like blinding me? Or missile?” he peered at the mage, trying to discern if he had a custom drow miniature crossbow, with a set of bolts filled with sleeping draught. Again, the dart was as likely to hit Zaknafen as his opponents. He had no time to think about the wizard though. The charge came.
Zaknafein stood in the middle of the corridor, swords at the ready and made no move for the wall, as they of course expected. He was aware, that narrow space was already taking away some of his advantage, restricting his maneuverability, so he could not afford restricting it even further, by placing a wall behind his back. DeVir stayed a pace back, letting Andrae to lead the charge. “Typical,” thought Zaknafein, “whatever you think about the cooperation with DeVir, my dear, the only honor you get is being a cannon fodder..” He disabled Andrae, by severing a joint on the back of his knee… Too wicked a wound even for a drow elf to keep standing. Andrae tumbled by Zaknafein’s feet.
Suddenly, Zaknafein understood the purpose of mage, as movement-binding spell fell over him. He watched Valas to slush Andrae’s throat open with his own sword and heard the school guards approaching headed by Nalcor.
DeVir was loudly telling how he and his brother came across the duel between Gallant and Andrae, how they tried to stop them with spells and still were too late. Zaknafein is a very good fighter after all. Very quick… A pity to waste.
Valas, elated about his apparent success led guards towards Zaknafein. It was a moment of his triumph, and he intended to make the best of it. And stopped short as the beautiful mithril blade cut through his armor and its tip pierced his heart. The last thing Valas saw was a dark blue pommel gemstone. Zaknafein thought he heard the wizard laugh softly behind his back. He did not know if the spell just wore off, or if it was disspelled. After all, if his last (quite predictable) action pleased anyone else, but himself that should have been the mage. Now the elder DeVir had one less rival, the rival who has first standing in his class at that, to worry about. Unfortunately, Zaknafein had no time left to get to the mage. He was led away by the guard to his quarters and placed under arrest. The only remaining question about his fate was whom: Andare or DeVir would get the privilege of executing Zaknafein Gallant.
Zaknafein stood tall in the middle of his small chamber and said the single name he loved: “Ellistraee…”
Zaknafein faced the Senior Instructor squarely. To his surprise the Instructor dryly, but courteously bid Zaknafein to resume his classes. Valas DeVir, was resurrected by Matron Ginafae and had withdrawn from the Academy. Gallant paid off Andrae for their lost soldier. By rumors the ransom was gigantic. The mysterious patroness of Zaknafein became a reality. He was suddenly famed as a lover of a powerful female in everyone’s eyes. In fact, Zaknafein suspected that all knew who she was. All, but him.
Episode 5. The Art of Making Enemies.
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