Author’s note: This post is another artifact of a scheduling snafu, and is nothing but the last half of the previous chapter. Go back a page and use the links I provided in the chapter body to reach the next real chapter!
The journey overland from northern Viridill to the wild territory in which the “kingdom” of Mathenon sat took nearly two months on foot. The party was prevented from acquiring mounts because Rann refused to use any feet from his own for spiritual reasons, and Shizaar approved this, as it suited her own inclination to scout ahead and to the group’s flanks as they ventured into the wilderness. Eidelaire bemoaned this delay and discomfort, but Arachne seemed to have no opinion one way or another.
Only a few days from the town, just out of sight of the mountaintop Temple complex itself, they were intercepted and pursued by about twice their number of Narisian drow, ultimately taking shelter in an abandoned shrine to some forgotten deity driven away Avei’s worship long ago. It conveniently was made of sturdy marble and had only one door. Arachne was able to put a barrier across this which held against the drow’s attacks, magical and physical, without seeming effort.
They were only besieged a few hours before being rescued by four Silver Huntresses and three times that number of soldiers from the League of Avei; the drow, ever pragmatic, fled at the first sight of a significant force rather than waste their numbers in a losing fight.
Ultimately, they spent the night at the shrine, along with their new friends, with whom Shizaar eagerly exchanged news. The troops seemed leery of Rann, but the stoic orc never gave anyone cause for hostility. From this encounter, they learned that the pass they had intended to use was blocked by a rockfall; efforts were underway to clear it, but this was likely to be the work of months.
The obstruction meant they had to go around the mountains rather than through them. They were already near the edge of the Viridill range, but this still meant a wide swing to the east and back, which added weeks to the journey. Shizaar became increasingly stingy with provisions; she hunted game for them nearly every day, and Rann foraged skillfully for edible vegetation. They never faced real hunger, nor thirst, even as they left the foothills behind and set forth into the prairie, for Arachne was able to conjure water at need. It tasted flat and stale, but hydrated the body when natural sources couldn’t be found.
North they traveled, with the forbidding black peaks of the Wyrnrange rising on their left. The mountains provided some shade as the days wore into their hottest hours, which came as a blessing, as the heat of the prairie was fierce at this time of year. Rann’s magic could soothe bodily aches, and he offered herbal salves against sunburn; Arachne could summon small clouds to provide shade, and even cooling mist at times, though she reserved this luxury for extremely hot days. Throwing arcane magic around, she said, was a sure way to attract the prairie’s denizens. The mage felt she could probably reason with plains elves, but if centaurs fell upon them there would be nothing for it but to fight.
Despite the roughness of the travel, the group made good time, none of their number holding them back. Shizaar and Rann, of course, were hardy and well accustomed to the outdoors; Eidelaire, despite his foppish appearance and mannerisms, walked without complaint or apparent discomfort, even entertaining his companions with songs and stories as they went. Arachne described herself as a “city girl,” but even so had no more trouble with the pace and the elements than any of them. She did complain, but only periodically, and in the good-natured manner of someone who just liked the sound of her own voice.
For the most part they did manage to avoid conflict. Three times bands of plains elves appeared in the distance; on each occasion, Arachne placed herself between them and the party, and the groups always retreated back into the prairie after several hours, and without coming close enough to be clearly seen. Arachne insisted they were within the range of elvish eyes, though, which was the point. Avoiding parties of centaurs was a more serious matter, and whenever Rann’s invisible (except to him) spirit companions warned of their approach, the group cut westward toward the mountains.
Though this worked well enough most of the time, they were twice pursued. Both times, Arachne and Rann’s magics proved sufficient to drive the small bands away before they came in range of Shizaar’s bow. An entire herd veered toward them midway through their journey, however, forcing them to retreat right into the foothills, where the centaurs would not follow, but which held their own dangers.
The Wyrnrange was so named because it was known to be dragon territory; only gnomes passed through the mountains with impunity, and only because they treated dragons politely and had been taught draconic etiquette which they did not share with outsiders. There were rumored groups of dragonsworn deep in the mountains, of entire villages devoted to the service of one wyrm or another, though of course the party never progressed far enough in to find any such.
All in all, the journey was an adventure, though a minor one by the standards of all four of them; Eidelaire didn’t consider any of their encounters worth composing a song about. It served them well, however. Despite the fortunate lack of reasons to fight, they did learn to get along and anticipate one another’s movements to an extent, and were not a group of complete strangers when their destination hove into view.
Once they veered back onto the plains, it was only another six days of walking before the dark battlements of Zanzayed’s arena appeared on the northern horizon. Now began the true adventure.
It was a lonely scar upon the prairie. Made of the dark volcanic stone of the Wyrnrange, the arena was distant enough from even the foothills that hauling its pieces out here had to have been a significant effort—though not so much as that represented by the massive timbers which also went into its construction. They were clearly of Wyrnrange pine, but those grew even deeper into the mountains. Harvesting resources from land patrolled by dragons was an ominous prospect indeed. The arena was roughly made, sturdy but clearly not intended to be a great edifice. It might well last the test of ages, though, simply due to its solid construction. Its sheer size would have represented years of work by mortal hands, or perhaps weeks of work by a combination of such hands and the magics of a blue dragon.
Or perhaps mortals had not been involved at all.
It had entrances on three sides, apparently—each cardinal direction except west. The main gate on the east side, through which they passed, opened onto a dirt road which cut through an improvised huddle of inns, shops and lean-to dwellings, with tents scattered around their periphery. Three years on, some few of the buildings were starting to take on a little permanence, though none looked like they would survive a significant storm. There was another town within view to the northeast, and another small road leading to it. The arena’s little community lay along a path to the old dwarven trade road which ran nearby, from which most of its commerce flowed.
Deciding not to do anything so overtly suspicious as circle around the walls studying them, the group from Viridill had bought their tickets—four coppers apiece, to Rann’s utter disgust—and made their way in. They had to pause almost immediately in the welcome shadow of a long tunneled achway while Eidelaire attempted to shmooze the gate guards for information.
“I want to punch that guy,” Rann growled, glaring at the roughly-armored guard who had taken their money.
“We all want to punch the guy,” Arachne said soothingly, patting his shoulder. “Patience.”
“Because he is part of an utterly villainous scheme, or because the tickets are overpriced?” Shizaar asked dryly.
Rann grunted. “Second one. People caught up in villainous schemes are usually just trying to survive. Four coppers, though? Robbery.”
“Not the friendliest staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with,” Eidelaire commented, swaggering back over to them. “That fellow gets no tip, just in case anyone was tempted.”
“Damn,” Arachne said, deadpan. “Now I have to recalculate my whole budget.”
“You weren’t able to learn anything useful?” Shizaar asked.
“Oh, I very much doubt he knew anything useful,” the bard replied with an eloquent shrug. “I was looking for an in, but this isn’t a friendly, talkative sort of guard. He’s more the ‘not my bloody job’ kind of guard. To play that angle I’m going to have to hunt down somebody in some degree of charge. Ah, well! Shall we?”
Almost everyone they passed gave them curious looks; they were an interesting-looking party. Orcs were a rare sight in this region, as were wood elves, and Eidelaire’s lute and flute case drew eager smiles. Everyone was happy to see a bard, even if their entertainment was already being provided. At least they were focused enough on the games that nobody stopped him to ask for a song. Shizaar drew more than her share of suspicion, as was only to be expected, considering how she kept her hood drawn well over her face. It wasn’t really optional, though. Considering what was going on in this arena, any sign of a Silver Huntress would immediately be taken as a threat.
They climbed a flight of broad stairs along with the other spectators ascending, mostly an easily-distinguishable mix of beaten-down-looking farm folk from nearby and better-dressed traveling merchants and members of their retinues. The steps led to the actual seats of the arena—nothing fancy, of course, just rising rings with low benches. They had a roof, however, shading the spectators and leaving only the arena floor to be beaten upon by the prairie sun. People milled about, sitting, talking, watching the show, some lurking in dark corners at the rear of the stands, clearly up to no good.
To avoid the appearance of being up to equally no good—for those shady characters were getting scrutiny both from fellow customers and the guards that occasionally passed through—the party took seats at the very front, after traveling far enough to find a spot where they had no neighbors within earshot. There, they set to studying their environs.
Banners hung from the pillars holding up the roof, decorating the arena; they were plain blue, with no device. Two especially long ones flanked the box which perched on the western side of the stands, walled off from the common seating areas and furnished much more extravagantly, to judge by the scraps of curtain and carpeting visible. It had its own blue silk awning, positioned to shade the box and also protect it from view; its occupants sat well back from the edge, deep in the shadows. Arachne peered at this through narrowed eyes for a while, her elven vision apparently enough to penetrate the gloom, though the others didn’t press her for details at that time.
Interestingly, the rare guards were all female, and wore leather armor that, while clearly ceremonial (it was designed more to display than to protect) was well-fitted to each of them. They carried spears and short swords which were starkly functional, and though they strutted a bit, each of the women were muscular and held those weapons in a way that suggested they were acquainted with their use.
“Apparently there’s a career to be had here even if you don’t win,” Eidelaire murmured.
“That’s not what my intelligence suggested,” Shizaar replied.
Below, there were several things going on, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Three separate pairs dueled on the arena floor; around its periphery was set up an obstacle course, with women running it at various stages. Looking from above, it wasn’t obvious where the thing began or ended, and nobody seemed to be supervising.
As they watched, a girl who couldn’t have been out of her teens was knocked backward by her opponent, who appeared little older but had a full head of height on her. The taller woman’s spear made good use of that asset, particularly against her sword-wielding foe.
The younger woman tried to rise and got a jab in the chest with the butt of the spear for her trouble. She rolled nimbly to the side, evading another such jab, but as she finally bounded to her feet was immediately sent crashing down again, her legs swept out from under her by the long haft of the weapon.
The spear-carrier stomped hard on her foe’s hand, forcing her to drop the blade and eliciting a shriek of pain, audible even over the mix of groans and cheers from the half-filled stands. Grinning savagely, the taller woman raised her weapon overhead, point aimed downward.
“Alethia,” a voice rang out, its tone mild but its volume clearly amplified by magic, “you know my rules. Control yourself.”
The spear-wielder flinched, then paused, halting her attack, and said something to her foe which was lost in the noise of the crowd. She apparently didn’t like whatever response she got, for she spun the spear to reverse it and slammed the butt down on the swordswoman’s midsection.
The younger girl curled up on herself, retching and gasping, and the victor stepped back, raising her weapon overhead in both hands and pumping it up and down, grinning up at the roar of approbation from the crowd. She finally turned and planted it point-down in the dirt, bowing deeply toward the box, from which came no audible response.
“Now that is interesting,” Eidelaire said, pointing; the fallen swordswoman was being helped up by another woman in a pale dress. Though all the contenders they could see, either dueling or running the obstacle course, were human, the one now helping the defeated combatant limp from the arena was an elf. “For several reasons.”
“She’s local,” Arachne said. “Or relatively so. A plains elf, anyway.”
“How can you tell?” Rann asked curiously. “Tribal markings?”
“It’s the shape of the ears, old fellow,” Eidelaire said with a wink. “Wood elves have ears that stick straight up, like our companion’s, here. Plains elves have horizontal ones, like that. Out to the sides. More immediately, I noted that they don’t seem to be big on killing, here.”
“At least not in these games,” Shizaar murmured. “They seem rather…preliminary. Disorganized at least.”
Arachne flagged down a vendor who had been shouting about hot wine, bread and sausage.
“The fights aren’t to the death?” she asked him casually as she handed over coins and accepted snacks for the group.
The man brayed a laugh, revealing a mouth only half-full of teeth. “Haw! Waste of good womanflesh, that. The master, he ain’t the wasteful type, see? Nah, the girls get their exercise, and them as gets too bloodthirsty, they gets disqualified, see? The Big Z’s after a dragonmother—wants a good fighter, not a crazy bitch. ‘Ere, now, you plannin’ on steppin’ into the ring?” He eyed her up and down, which made Shizaar stiffen, but his look was more curious than lustful. “Dunno much ’bout elves, beggn’ yer pardon. You don’t look too scrappy, but mebbe that’s just how your kind is.”
“Up to a point, yes,” she said dryly. “What about the elf who helped that gladiator off?”
“Aye, the menders is all elves. A plains tribe what helps out the Master. You lot enjoy that, now!”
He moved off, hawking his wares again.
“This is terrible,” said Rann, who had already eaten half his share.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve had worse,” Eidelaire said with a grin.
“Hn,” the orc grunted, nodding. “It’s better than I was expecting. Better than most arena food. Still crap.”
“It seems your intelligence was in error, then,” Arachne commented to Shizaar, who was holding a piece of bread-wrapped sausage without making any move with it toward her face.
“Indeed. This is why we do recon before attacking anyone.”
“We’ve learned some interesting things already,” Eidelaire commented, watching another injured gladiator being removed by elves. This one was fully unconscious, and had to be carried off by two of them, one male, one female. “For the time being, I suggest was park it here, get a feel for how the games proceed. Perhaps we’ll hear some more from our scaly friend, too.”
“Mm,” Arachne murmured. “For now, sure. Later, though… Are we staying in the town?”
“In the village,” Shizaar said. “I don’t trust the inn nearby. We can lay more plans there, but at the moment, our talents might be better used splitting up.”
“Quite so,” Eidelaire commented, discreetly nibbling around the gristle in his sausage. “I’ll get myself into circulation anon. Everyone talks to a bard.”
“And I’ll slip below and have a word with the staff,” Arachne said more grimly. “I would very much like to know what the hell elves think they’re doing participating in this nonsense.”
“Rann and I had probably better remain up here,” Shizaar said, getting a grunt of agreement from the orc. “There’s little acceptable excuse for us to be poking around below, and someone should stay and try to learn the rhythms of these…games. That being the case, though, I think you two can get started as soon as possible.”
“In a bit,” Arachne said distractedly, then leaned forward over the rail, shouting. “Oh, come on, hit her! You’re not even trying!”
The village was easily visible from the arena, but distance on the prairie was deceptive. It was a good hour’s walk to reach it, and they didn’t set out until near dusk when their various investigations were complete. It was dark by the time they arrived, and then they had to find an inn with space available. Fortunately the little town had multiple inns, due to its proximity to the trade route; unfortunately, due to the arena and the presence of several merchant caravans, there was not much space to be had. Eventually they had to settle for a single room, at a price that made Rann grind his teeth.
Once there, though, they saved money by eating the remains of their provisions around the room’s little fire and talking in privacy, Arachne having warded the walls against eavesdroppers.
“It’s pragmatism, not any particular desire to participate,” the mage was saying. “At least according to the two I spoke to, and I see no reason to argue with them. The dozen or so elves here feel they can do some good by making themselves useful, mostly as healers; their tribe is staying out of sight of the caravan route, but they’re nearby. Close enough to be fetched by runner within a few days. They aren’t about to go toe-to-toe with the dragon, but… Both of them hinted broadly that if somebody turned up with a plan and a worthwhile chance of bringing Zanzayed down, they’d be inclined to be helpful.”
“Allies, then,” Rann grunted.
“Possibly,” Arachne said, frowning. “There are a lot of uncertainties, there. Depends on what they’d consider a worthwhile chance…and even so, what they’d be willing to do. Elves are cautious as a rule; any plan that involves attacking him outright isn’t likely to impress them. Let me emphasize that I got hints, not promises.”
“This will not be done in a day,” Shizaar mused. “I am reassured that women are not being slain over this frivolity. We have time, at least, to lay plans.”
“Doesn’t that change the entire character of the matter, though?” Eidelaire asked. “Don’t hit me, Shizaar, but… If he’s not killing women, is this really something that needs to be stopped?”
“It’s a lot less urgent,” Arachne said before the Huntress could reply, perhaps luckily for Eidelaire. “Yes, he’s contributing to the economy and providing entertainment…”
“From what I learned,” the bard said, “the gifts victorious girls bring back to their own families are substantial. Perhaps trivial to a dragon with a solid hoard to his name, but beyond the dreams of peasant folk like these. Only those who make the semifinals and above win anything, but still, that’s a significant boost for each family affected and a lesser one for everybody with whom they do business. I ask again, if he’s not killing the girls, where’s the harm?”
“I wasn’t finished,” Arachne said sharply. “The harm is that he’s training all these people to be dependent on his handouts, to pursue this foolishness instead of their own livelihoods, to judge the intrinsic value of their sisters and daughters by their youth and physical beauty. These are the first steps toward completely overthrowing a society. In settled places, there will be temples, governments and cultural institutions to counteract the influence of people like Zanzayed; out here, he’s going to become some kind of savage warlord this way. Bad enough if that’s his intention; worse if means to just fly off when he has what he wants and leave everybody to welter in the barbarism he’s fostered. So, yes, it’s less urgent. Maybe not a matter that was worth rushing across the countryside to put an immediate stop to. Still something that deserves to be addressed, however. I might not have agreed to come if I’d known this was all we’d find, but we’re here, and I think this is still worth doing.”
“Zanzayed seems the kind of asshole who needs to be stopped,” Rann said. “But perhaps not the kind who needs to die.”
“Well said,” Arachne replied with a grin.
“Have you ever studied Avenist theology?” Shizaar asked the mage. “You explain some of its points very clearly.”
“That’s a discussion for another time,” Arachne said evasively. “More urgently, can we go back to the very first suggestion I made, back in Viridill? Zanzayed isn’t depraved enough to be murdering women for his amusement; perhaps he can still be talked down from this idiocy.”
“It’s worth considering,” Shizaar allowed.
“Tael nae d’Wyrn,” Eidelaire quoted, grinning.
“Stop saying that,” Arachne snapped.
“Anyway,” he went on, “if we’re agreed this doesn’t need to be resolved in any crashing hurry, I’ll have time to do some more poking around. I might even be able to get an audience with His Blueness himself!” He winked. “Like I keep telling you guys, everybody loves a bard.”
“Everybody who hasn’t traveled with one,” Rann muttered.
“That being decided,” Shizaar said, standing, “I am going to return to the arena.”
“What?” Arachne frowned. “Now?”
“It is dark, and will be relatively empty,” the Huntress said, already moving toward the window. She pushed open its shutters, peering out. “I am more than capable of moving stealthily, at need, and this is a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the layout. I might learn something useful, besides.”
“There’s stealth, and then there’s stealth,” Arachne warned. “The elves don’t sleep there, but they keep odd hours. I’m no expert on the magic of plains elves; I won’t promise they can’t detect you creeping around.”
“They may also be willing to aid us, you said,” Shizaar replied calmly. “I will be careful, Arachne. I consider this a risk worth taking; it is not my intention to confront anyone. Meet me in the stands tomorrow.”
With that curt farewell, she vanished over the sill. There wasn’t even a sound of her hitting the ground below.
Eidelaire sighed, getting up to pull the window shut. “Well, I guess she’s getting out of paying the entrance fee tomorrow. If we’re going to be around long, we should see if there are season passes available.”
There were a variety of games being played at any given time. There were the straightforward gladiatorial bouts, of course, and even those came in different types. Duels were crowd-pleasers, especially when taking place between two popular gladiators, but there were also wider melees with multiple combatants, and engagements of small teams.
In addition to the hand-to-hand combat, there were timed races, both of foot speed and through the obstacle course. Athletic contests of various kinds also occurred; archery and javelin-throwing, unsurprisingly, were popular, but there were also displays of weight lifting, high-jumping and various other feats which amounted to little more than party tricks.
The arena never allowed spectators to forget its true purpose, however. While shows of martial prowess predominated, they never went long without pausing for displays of feminine beauty. Contestants danced to the sound of a small group of musicians, posed in various states of undress, and wrestled. Nude. In mud.
“It’s degrading and exploitative, to be sure,” Arachne mused, rubbing her chin as she stared thoughtfully down at two lithe, barely-clothed young women having what could only be described as a dance-off. They alternated playing to the crowd with showing very aggressive body language at each other. She’d seen a few exotic dancers in her time, but rarely any so lean and muscular. “Still… It almost seems churlish to complain about that when women elsewhere are being forced into prostitution and all manner of subjugation.”
“However all this ends, Zanzayed is going to leave behind more than a handful of young women who are less likely than most to be dragged into a corner by some thug.”
“The real problem here is economics. None of the prizes he’s paying out compare to what he rakes in. Especially when the bookies work for him, which I’ll bet my ears they all do. Admission fees alone are exorbitant, and what the shitty food costs… The brilliance of it is he’s got a total monopoly on entertainment in the whole area. The locals have nothing to do but farm and contemplate their grim futures, and the caravaners and adventurers love having something to stop and watch in the middle of this wilderness.”
“If half of what Eidelaire’s heard this morning is true, Zanzayed’s gradually drawing in every musician and artist in the kingdom, not to mention monopolizing the blacksmiths, leatherworkers, stonemasons, healers… He’s suborning the entire economy bit by bit, and Mathen can’t do a damn thing about it. I wonder if Blue boy is doing this on purpose, or just doesn’t care, as long as it gets him what he wants.”
“It’s believable he’s having trouble conceiving. Dragons don’t breed easily, and most of the ways they have around it are the province of the greens. Arcane magic doesn’t lend itself readily to biological effects.”
“Either way…he’s going to leave the economy of this whole region in tatters when he leaves. If he leaves. Do you suppose that’s worse than him actually overthrowing the kingdom? Dragon-led nations have existed, but they tend to attract all manner of violence from their neighbors.”
“I wonder… If we chase him off, we’ll be doing a lot of that damage ourselves. Makes you stop and consider, doesn’t it?”
She glanced up at him and spoke more gently.
“She’ll be all right, Rann.”
The orc’s broad shoulders swelled in a huge sigh. “She should have met us long since.”
“She said ‘tomorrow.’ It’s still tomorrow.”
“It’s past noon!”
“Shizaar can handle herself as well as any of us,” the elf said, patting his shoulder.
“This place is simply not big enough for an experienced scout to take so long to investigate it,” he growled. “And now, and for half the day, it has been active. Something has gone wrong. What do your ears tell you?”
“A great deal of irrelevant minutia,” she said, removing her gaze from the dancers below to scan the stands. “The thousand tiny dramas that occur whenever you get this many people under one roof. There’s a dead spot, though, over there.” She nodded across the way at Zanzayed’s shaded box. “Silence from within, and I can feel the magic laid over it.”
“That’s where she is,” Rann growled, starting to rise. “She’s being held—”
“Stop!” Arachne snapped, yanking him back down by the shoulder. She hadn’t a fraction of his muscle; he clearly sat because he chose to, but at least he did. “There’s no reason to think Zanzayed is planning to entrap us. A sonic dead zone is a very basic privacy measure when he’s clearly taking women to bed and has a staff consisting partly of elves. Besides, not hearing Shizaar doesn’t particularly worry me, either; I can’t hear her half the time when she goes off scouting. I’ve noticed that with other Silver Huntresses. Some gift of Avei. It’s not time to panic yet, Rann.”
“Then when will it be time?” he muttered. Abruptly, the orc stiffened. “Something is about to happen.”
“Something?” She looked down at the arena floor again, then around at the stands. “What?”
“The rhythm. Can you not see it? These two days there have been general entertainments, usually multiple events at once. When they all lead toward a conclusion, there is always a change of venue. See?”
Indeed, the dancers had finished their performance, to a chorus of hoots and whistles from the audience. There were also a few runners staggering to a halt at the end of their track, looking slightly winded and more than slightly annoyed; their event had clearly not been the center of attention while the dance was going on. A pair of duelists had just finished up and one was being carried out, the winner looking as cheated as the racers; a last duel was still in session, but obviously coming to an end, one woman limping and being chased in futile circles by a more agile opponent.
“Eidelaire’s coming back this way,” Arachne murmured, cocking her head to listen. The bard was not yet in view.
Rann nodded. “He saw what I saw. Bards are sensitive to these rhythms.”
“Rhythms in general, I should think.”
The reaction from the crowd stole the show from the dancers when the wounded, retreating gladiator suddenly sprung forward from her “injured” leg, slamming the pommel of her sword into her opponent’s throat and decisively wiping the victorious smirk from her face. The other woman went down, gagging and clutching at her neck; the victor brandished her blade, grinning despite being unable to stand up properly.
“Nothing?” Eidelaire asked under the cover of wild cheering as he rejoined them.
“Nothing pertinent to us,” Arachne replied. “Did you see that? I’m thinking of financing one of these arenas myself. That was awesome.”
“I’ll refrain from telling Shizaar you said that,” he promised solemnly.
“If we ever see her again,” Rann growled.
“It’s about at the point where I think we can start worrying,” Arachne said grudgingly. “I have trouble imagining what could keep her from reporting back to us by now.”
“I think we passed that point a few hours ago,” the bard replied, frowning. “The question becomes, what to do about it? Whatever she ran afoul of was either the dragon himself or one of his agents. Something that we should hesitate to challenge.”
“It would be wise to hesitate,” Rann said. “That doesn’t mean we should.”
The roar of the crowd had diminished notably, but at its sudden swell, all three of them turned to see what the source was.
Zanzayed the Blue had finally made his appearance.
He had stepped up to the small balcony on the front of his shaded box, and now stood with his arms spread, smirking smugly as he accepted the adulation of the crowd. There was enough adulation that he didn’t look at all foolish in the process; clearly he was a popular figure here. He could have passed for a half-elf, if not for his jewel-like eyes and cobalt hair. He was also extremely effeminate, and not merely because of his delicate features. His hair was waist-length and brushed to a glossy sheen, held back with extravagantly jeweled combs; he wore a rich blue silk robe so thoroughly embroidered with golden thread that the overall effect was nearly green when one squinted.
“Are we all enjoying the show?” the dragon asked, his voice a calm and conversational tone which nonetheless boomed throughout the arena.
The crowd roared even more vigorously.
“I think,” Eidelaire noted, “if we end up having to fight this guy, we won’t be able to count on much local support.”
“Let’s try not to fight the dragon,” Arachne said. “If he won’t see reason, we’ll work out how to assassinate him.”
“I’m glad to see so many faces here today,” the dragon said, grinning. “Because I have a special treat for you all!”
“I have a terrible feeling,” Rann muttered as the crowd brayed around them again, “that I know what’s about to happen.”
Four women had appeared from floor-level doorways next to Zanzayed’s box and paced toward the middle of the arena, where they took up positions roughly encircling its center.
“You know the front-runners in the tournament, I’m sure,” the dragon said, “but I think these ladies have more than earned an introduction! From the sunny shores of the far West, she has come in search of…”
“He’s actually quite the showman,” Eidelaire commented as the dragon continued, pausing as the first gladiatrix’s introduction concluded to a roar of approbation from the spectators. “You don’t often see that in these ancient, powerful immortal types. They rarely have a need to impress anyone.”
“How ancient is he?” Rann asked, scowling. “He behaves like a self-important youth. From the dress on down.”
“Something happening in the middle, there,” Arachne said as the introductions continued. “He’s setting up a spell right between the four of them…”
“A spell?” Ran frowned. “What kind?”
“Mm… Oh, I see, it’s actually a few woven together. Basic teleportation spell; he’s about to deposit something in the center. You don’t usually see that set up in advance, but he’s woven some visual effects into it. You’re right, Eid, he’s got a flair for the dramatic.”
“Yep,” the bard said, his attention below. “And it looks like we’re about to see the main event.”
“…any of them stand up to what I’m about to show you?” Zanzayed was crowing, having whipped the crowd into a veritable frenzy. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we? For the arena has a new contender, an agent of far-away enemies sent to sabotage your fun, my good people, and now destined to be part of it: A real, live, in the flesh Silver Huntress!”
Arachne and Eidelaire grabbed Rann by both shoulders, barely preventing him from lunging to his feet and vaulting over the rail into the arena itself.
Sparks and jets of blue flame flew; smoke billowed forth, then formed into elaborate patterns as it drifted upward and faded. When the flash and flare had subsided, standing in the center of the arena was Shizaar, her hood gone, revealing her tattooed face to the crowd.
She appeared unhappy, but unhurt. Her wrists were chained together behind her back and she’d been dressed in a pale leather outfit that was clearly of plains elf design, though someone had embroidered it with flashy golden eagle icons, clearly demonstrating her affiliation.
The crowd booed obediently; the four gladiators held their weapons at the ready, glaring at the Huntress. Shizaar turned slowly, ignoring the crowd, and gave each of them a short, calculating look before turning her gaze on Zanzayed.
“How ironic are the twists of fate,” the dragon said, grinning. “Who knows, my dear Huntress, you may find yourself winning my little tourney. I can’t help thinking you would be a splendid mother.”
“You are beyond contemptible,” Shizaar snapped, her voice echoing clearly. The onlookers jeered.
“Okay, new plan,” Arachne said, releasing Rann. “Subtle is now off the table; we’re not leaving her down there.”
“She can probably take those four—”
“That is utterly irrelevant, Eidelaire,” the mage snapped. “He is not going to do this to one of our companions. I will hold the asshole’s attention. You two get everyone out of the arena.”
“What?” Rann exclaimed. “Why? How?”
“Because any means I have at my disposal of holding his attention are going to result in widespread damage,” she said grimly. “Let’s not have any slain bystanders on our consciences if we can avoid it.” Below, Zanzayed was still chattering at Shizaar, working the crowd again.
“That leaves how,” Eidelaire remarked.
“You’re a shaman with spirit companions and a freaking bard. If you can’t move a bunch of frenzied, half-drunk idiots, I have no hope for the world.”
With that and no more ado, Arachne leaped over the rail, landing nimbly on the packed dirt below.
The tone of the crowd changed, confused murmurs rising, as the elf strode toward the gathering in the center. Zanzayed broke off mid-exhortation, turning his attention on her.
“What’s all this? I’m sorry, darling, but there is a procedure if you want to compete. Speak to the guards for an escort to the barracks. This is a scheduled event.”
“Schedule’s changed,” Arachne announced, her voice echoing throughout the arena the same way his was. Zanzayed lifted his eyebrows at that. “I have had enough of this nonsense. The Huntress is with me; you will release her immediately.”
“And why on earth should I?” he asked mildly. “I frankly resent her imposition here. Do I send agents out to meddle with Avei’s love life? Then again,” he added with a smirk, “perhaps if she had one we’d have no need for this conversation.”
The laughter from the stands only deepened Shizaar’s scowl.
“I was just wondering,” Arachne snapped, “whether the point of your operation here is to throw the economy of the whole region into shambles, or if that’s simply a side effect you don’t care about. What happens to this place when you get bored or get what you came for and leave? What happens to all these people? These women?”
The gladiators had shifted their focus to her, now, seeming not at all impressed by her concern over their futures.
“A shambles, is it,” Zanzayed said, grinning openly. “Tell me, my friends, do you feel you’re in shambles?”
A swelling tide of cheers rose up all around them—and was suddenly silenced.
Arachne held one finger in the air, staring at the dragon, who appeared startled. “I am speaking to you, y’little hooligan. All of you, shut up for a minute.”
She lowered her hand and the sound from the stands abruptly returned, though now it consisted mostly of confused, frightened whispering.
“Well, well, well,” Zanzayed purred, grinning down at her. “I do believe this is an even better prospect than the Huntress. A mage, and an elf at that! One doesn’t often see the combination. How odd that I’ve not heard of you before, my dear! Tell me, do you have a name?”
“You might know me as Arachne,” she said, folding her arms.
“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows. “Oh! Arachne! Actually, I have heard of you!”
“Damn right you have,” she said smugly.
“Yes!” Zanzayed cried, leaning forward over the balcony and grinning down at her. “You’re that screwloose elf who tried to sacrifice a sacred bear on an altar to Shaath and unleashed a plague on half the Stalrange!”
Her smirk vanished. “Unleash—half—it was one valley! There was hardly anyone there, and that is not the point!” Arachne pointed at Shizaar. “I’m taking my friend and leaving.”
“I think you’ll find that a difficult—huh,” he added as Shizaar vanished in a faint blue crackle of light. “Well, that’s annoying. Ladies, why is nobody stabbing this wench?”
The gladiators managed barely a step forward before all four of them went flying bodily in different directions, skidding across the ground to roll up against the walls.
“I do say that seemed rather unsporting,” Zanzayed commented. The booing crowd clearly agreed.
“This is ridiculous,” Rann muttered. “I can unleash fear into the spectators, but not without something to work with. Emotions don’t just happen.”
“Wait,” said Eidelaire. “If I know our girl, they’ll have cause to fear in just a moment.”
“Unsporting?” Arachne said, sneering. “That is not a word I expected to hear from a guy in a fruity dress who needs to build an edifice and pit the available female population against each other to have a chance of getting laid.”
The silence was astonishing. For all the people there and all their love of good drama, it seemed everyone present was keenly aware they had just seen a dragon viciously insulted to his face.
Everyone except the guy in the back who burst into gales of tenor laughter.
“Jealous, are we?” Zanzayed asked with a thin smile.
Arachne threw back her head and cackled. “Oh, come on now. Really? Seriously? ‘Jealous?’ That’s like admitting you have no rebuttal. In fact, you could probably save more face if you’d just say that! Really, who the hell are you, anyway? Zanzayed the Blue? I’ve never heard of you, and I’ve been around. Is this your first time out of the den? Are you accustomed to daddy bringing you women, already beaten compliant?”
The sounds from the stands now were shuffling and footsteps as people began discreetly moving toward the exits.
“I believe we’re irrelevant here,” Rann commented.
“Hang on,” said Eidelaire. “Can your spirits induce calm? We may need to forestall a stampede in just a minute…”
“I’ll tell you what, Arachne,” Zanzayed said with a bite in his tone. “I prefer my partners relatively enthusiastic, but if you are hellbent on scaring away all the other prospects, I guess you’ll do. Unless you would like to take yourself out of my arena, now that you have extracted your friend?”
“Well, I’ve come all this way,” she said, grinning openly and planting her fists on her hips. “Seems like it’d be a waste of the trip to slink off without kicking your scaly ass first.”
“What is she doing?” Rann whispered in horror.
“Being a distraction, and clearing the place out.” Eidelaire said. “Quite effectively, too. Really, be ready with some calming. Somebody’s gonna get trampled otherwise. I really hope Shizaar had the sense to keep going, wherever she ended up…”
The exodus from the stands was accelerating, and picked up speed further when Zanzayed stepped onto the rail of his balcony and from there jumped out.
He shifted in midair, forcing Arachne to step rapidly backward to avoid being crushed. In his full form, an enormous display of cobalt-scaled muscle and spiny wings, he filled almost half the arena floor; when he stretched up to his full height and spread his wings, the tips brushed the roof on both sides.
“I beg your pardon,” the dragon rumbled, his voice recognizably the same but now with a deep resonance that seemed to make the floor vibrate, “but you will…what, exactly?”
“You see this hand?” Arachne said, holding up her right one, palm forward.
Zanzayed bent down, bringing his nose to within a few feet of her, and grinned, displaying a terrifying arsenal of teeth. “Just barely.”
Arachne made a swatting motion, and a wagon-sized hand of blue light appeared in midair and struck him on the side of the face. The dragon squawked as his neck was whipped around, and stumbled sideways, one wing flailing awkwardly into a section of the stands that had already been cleared.
“That wasn’t the one you should’ve been looking at,” Arachne said smugly.
“Now is a good time,” Eidelaire began.
“Yes, yes,” Rann snapped. “I have been asking the spirits. This crowd is trying to panic and I cannot hold it back for long. Luckily they will be gone from the arena soon. And we should be, too!”
“But…can’t we help her?”
The orc stood, grabbing the bard by the arm and beginning to march him toward the stairs, following the last of the now-screaming onlookers. “She knows what she is doing. Hopefully.”
Zanzayed straightened up, his lips drawing back to display even more of his fangs, and opened his mouth wide, inhaling deeply as he glared down at Arachne. Flames and sparks flickered at the edges of his jaws.
Then he began choking and gagging as a huge clump of dirt struck him full in the throat.
“My, my,” Arachne said, amused. “You really are new at this, aren’t—”
She broke off, quickly throwing a sphere of blue light up around herself as the dragon’s cough turned into a gout of fire that left her standing in a patch of molten glass.
That was the last Eidelaire saw before Rann dragged him into the stairwell.
The evacuation was anything but orderly. Fortunately, more than the bard and the shaman were interested in keeping things from degenerating into chaos. The arena’s own guards, both the armored women and the slouching local men who manned the gates, had apparently been the first to flee, but there were also soldiers attached to various merchant trains present, and their efforts to keep their employers safe at least directed the crowd, if they did nothing to slow it.
People fled first into the inns and shops in the little village outside the arena, but even that began to clear out at the cacophony of roars, explosions and unidentifiable noise and flashes of light that started to emerge from within. By the time the story of what was going on in the arena had spread, luckily, most of those who seemed inclined to flee the area were already on the road, clearing room for the little pseudo-village to empty itself.
Most folks in local attire streamed either toward the little town in the near distance, or on the road north, toward Mathenhold. Merchant trains were getting underway as soon as oxen could be yoked, and elves discreetly slipped out into the tallgrass of the prairie. Clearing most of the bystanders from an area that size took well over an hour.
Fortunately, Shizaar found them outside, and the three were able to set themselves up about halfway to the village while Rann made a more involved communication with his spirits, sending them out to hurry the crowds along. With space to work and concentrate, he managed to keep relative calm among the evacuees, even while goading them to get away.
Eventually, though, what could be done had bee done, and there was nothing else for it but to retreat to the town, watch the arena, and wait.
The show never stopped.
Most of the distant noise was meaningless to them, but every few minutes would come something more identifiable. Multiple times lightning slashed down out of the clear sky into the arena floor. Gouts of unmistakable dragonfire flared up regularly, along with flashes of light the distinctive blue of arcane magic. The whole time, as the hour stretched out toward two, the arena steadily disintegrated, till parts of its walls were lying around it in chunks and more of the roof and timbers had burned away than still remained. Smoke drifted up steadily, marring the clear prairie sky and dimming the intermittent displays of energy from within.
At one point, a streak of fire and black smoke roared down from the sky, slamming into the side of the arena and half-collapsing its north wall.
Still, the conflict continued. Those in the village who deemed this far enough to be safe stood around with the party from Viridill, watching in silence. Everyone else had already fled. The only comfort the three companions could hold to was that as long as the action was still going on, Arachne was still alive and kicking.
Eventually, though, it wound down. Not with a bang, but fading gradually as if both combatants were simply growing tired.
“Can’t believe she said fighting dragons was a bad idea,” Rann muttered. “How many times did she say that?”
“What I want to know is why we kept running away from centaurs and elves if she could do this,” Eidelaire replied.
Shizaar just shook her head.
When the silence descended, they didn’t trust it at first, taking it for just another lull in the action. It stretched out, though, growing heavy and ominous. Around them, villagers and refugees began retreating into their homes and inns, leaving only the three and a few especially curious souls staring across the plain at the smoking, half-broken arena.
The sun had descended behind the mountains, bringing the early dusk that always fell on this region and leaving the remaining sky stained red when movement finally occurred again. In the dimness, an enormous shape rose up from the smoke, only growing distinct as it glided out from the dark haze.
The dragon was heading straight for them.
People screamed, fleeing into buildings; others fled out of buildings as the shouts spread, pelting off up the road northward.
The companions held their ground, Rann clutching his totems, Shizaar brandishing the two sabers she had somehow acquired, her own weapons having been confiscated during her capture.
Even in the darkness, the blue tint of his scales was clear. Zanzayed settled to the ground relatively gently, some ten yards distant, his azure eyes glowing in the twilight.
He was a mess. His scales were charred, one of his wing sails was torn, and his left eye seemed swollen partially shut.
And amazingly, Arachne sat perched on his neck, just before the shoulders.
The dragon knelt, then lowered himself fully to the ground, allowing her to slide down. She, too, was in visibly bad shape, her dress scorched and ripped away above the knee, showing ugly burns on her lower legs. Her hair was much shorter and badly singed; she had an impressive black eye, and her right arm was swathed in a makeshift sling.
For a moment, the dragon and elf glanced at each other, then he straightened up and coughed, emitting a puff of ill-smelling smoke.
“We’ve been having a conversation,” Zanzayed said.
“We saw it,” Shizaar replied, not lowering her weapons.
He shuffled his front feet, looking almost abashed. “Yes, well… It occurs to me that I’ve been a trifle… Inconsiderate.”
“Holy shit,” Eidelaire whispered. “You can tell the Wyrm.”
“Well,” said Arachne, pacing toward them and looking equally parts exhausted and self-satisfied. “I don’t know if you can.”