I wish I could see my interrogator. It would be nice to see anything, for that matter. It’s an awful risk we’re taking, giving them control like this. I hear screams from nearby. At least the slave we took from them is sticking to his story; there's a stroke of luck.
“Why are you here?” The voice rasps out from beside me in Undercommon, close but not close enough to make a grab for him. Not that that would be advisable in this situation. I make no reply, simply shaking my head.
My interrogator must have gotten the hint, because he repeats "Why you here?" in halting Common. Good, he isn’t fluent.
"We escorted your kinsman back to this location after eliminating a magma ooze that had assailed his party." I speak quickly, confidently. The less he actually learns here, the better.
There’s a slight pause, and then “How big ooze?” hisses from my other side. Two of them? Or is he just circling to attempt to keep me off-balance? Regardless, I face straight ahead, gripping my staff tightly in my left hand, trying not to show how tense I am.
"Its circumference approached that of an aseliak tree, and it was perhaps three xaqil in height." If this cretin knows far eastern flora or the Ignan measurement system I’ll turn in my spellbook.
“And how many it kill?”
He knows the right questions to ask, I’ve got to give him that. Not that he’ll get me to answer them. “We only recovered the one survivor.”
Another pause, longer this time. “How did you get a dragon skeleton?”
It is time for a gamble. “After my companions and I fought and slew the dragon Snadrathsen, I raised its skeleton to do my bidding.”
“Where did you kill him? How?”
“We tracked him down in the mountains and killed him with a multitude of powerful magics and physical might.”
“Where you go from here if we let you leave?” Now he’s behind me. Definitely just trying to unsettle me.
“A conference between my fellows and I would be required before I could declare an objective with any certainty, but we are in search of other travelers in these catacombs who may be in peril, and in all likelihood we would continue on that course presently.” Choke on that; you can’t even get basic tenses right.
“Where you find the dragon's wealth?”
“We scoured the nearby terrain and found a small stash in a secluded region of the mountains, which we took to be his.”
There’s a quick flurry of speech in Undercommon directed at my questioner, too soft for me to make out. Then, soft footsteps leaving in the direction of the Council seat. Moments later, a hand grabs my arm, and I limp behind my escort through the darkness.
Master Korag stood up once more to announce it. “Laelah Vrenn!” She stood, ready, hands at her sides. She would be paired with Desh Ka Redeem, a mage originally from somewhere in the South who specialized in Conjuration magic. She would save her Dispel for whatever nasty thing he summoned, and retaliate with a summon of her own, complimented by Web and her damaging spells.
“I will be your dueling partner this evening! Come! Julian will adjudicate!”
The students’ fervent whispering--many were interested to see what Laelah would choose, and if she would manage to be the only student to defeat an instructor--died on their lips. An eerie hush fell over the crowd as Laelah walked forward, her mouth dry, her hands suddenly trembling. She made her way toward the arena, was standing by its entrance when the Master Instructor, standing by the weapon rack, called to her: “no weapons, Miss Vrenn? Do you intend to face me armed with magic alone?”
Laelah doubled back to the weapon rack, mind racing as she tried to formulate a new strategy. Her boots on the dry earth were the only sound. She looked up as she reached the weapons, to see Sus Korag in front of her, holding her favorite hand-and-a-half sword, hilt towards her. “I know you prefer the bastard sword. Shall we?”
Numbly, she took it from his hands; her mind elsewhere. “Something the matter, Miss Vrenn? Come, everyone is expecting a show! Look!” Indeed, the entirety of the assembly was watching her ardently. She picked out familiar faces, locking onto them. Fwzltzrgh looked eager. Iya was smug. Nari looked worried.
Laelah followed Master Korag into the arena. He took up position at the far side, exactly sixty-five feet from her position. Julian gave the first announcement: “Combatants! You have tens seconds to prepare yourselves starting... now!”
Sus stood there, watching, as Laelah first cast Heroics, then Mage Armor, and held her scroll tight as the familiar lightning danced through her nerves and over her skin. Her very body gave off a faint red glow, and she breathed deeply, enjoying the sensation. Sus Korag did nothing. “Duel!” declared Julian.
Laelah immediately cast Nerveskitter to give her the extra timing edge, and began reading from the scroll. Sus slowly advanced on her, but he got only a short way before Laelah’s spell completed, and a snarling, blistered, horned wolf the size of a horse appeared in front of him. As it attacked, tearing into the Master Instructor’s greaves attempting to draw blood, Laelah drew her sword and began to advance, eyes alight with battle lust and limbs suffused with driving, irresistible energy.
Sus laughed, getting a firmer stance as the wolf rolled powerfully, trying to bring him to the ground. “A very good choice, Laelah! But I want to see your skills!” Giving the wolf a boot to the face, Sus took a step back and began to cast a complex spell. Laelah recognized it: it looked like a Dispel Magic, but this was much stronger, more absolute somehow. Nari got it first, yelling out just as an invisible hemisphere eliminated the front two-thirds of the summoned wolf: “Laelah! Your magic!”
Sus advanced, sword drawn, the hemisphere sweeping across the wolf, which disappeared entirely and reappeared in the same spot once the swordmaster was a good distance past. “Let us have a duel of purely martial prowess: I do not think that I have seen that from you this year. Am I right?”
The wolf leaped at Sus from behind, but disappeared entirely when it tried to get anywhere close. Laelah stepped forward, into the field she now recognized. As she did, she felt the magic drain from her body as she knew it would. What she wasn’t ready for was how much it would hurt. The loss was total. The glow vanished. Her body, which had been so filled with radiant, beautiful light, was now utterly, crushingly empty. The Weave, with which she shared such an intimate bond, was gone. She fell hard to one knee in front of Sus, barely managing to keep a grip on the sword.
“Get up! Got a little null arcana shock? That’s nothing to what people--regular, everyday people--can do to you with a simple piece of non-magical steel on a field of battle! Defend yourself!”
The sword came crashing down, and Laelah barely got her own up in time to turn it aside. The shock sang down her arms as the tears welling behind her eyes burst forth. Forcing herself to her feet, she thrust aside another swing and took a step back, out of the Antimagic Field. The surge of energy revitalized her, and even as Sus yelled, closing to come at her again, Laelah did all the damage she knew she could: a mere cantrip, a first-year spell, she fired off her Acid Splash while she was still outside the field. The tiny green orb hissed on contact with the Master Instructor’s shoulder, eating through fabric and burning the skin. Then she steeled herself for the loss to come.
It was no better for the preparation. Laelah managed to keep her feet this time, and met Master Korag head-on. Without the spells to guide her body, Laelah kept both hands on her sword and struggled to recall the tactics she’d been taught. She willed her body to employ them, while her mind concentrated on staving off the old veteran, but she was using every ounce of her strength and still falling short. A cut opened on her leg, another across her unarmored stomach. Not deep, but she was bleeding--she realized that the effect of the mage-duel arena that made all violence non-lethal did not function inside the Antimagic Field. I could die right here, she thought with a shock. He could kill me. He’s going to kill me.
Laelah put every ounce of her strength into her parries, attempting to knock his sword wide to make an opening, fighting for her life now. You’re an old man! How are you this strong? She swept his weapon out of the way, just enough, she thought, but when she went for the offensive sweep to the knee, his blade returned impossibly fast, from underneath. The grip twisted in her sweaty hands and then the sword spun away altogether, landing with a dirty crash on the ground some distance away. She felt steel--real, unmitigated steel--touch her throat as she came to her knees for the second time in moments. “This contest is over!” Master Korag declared, holding the blade to Laelah’s jugular. The whole duel had taken only thirty seconds from start to finish.
“There are two lessons here,” the Master Instructor continued as he took a step back from Laelah--not far enough to let her regain access to the Weave, nor to allow her to take her eyes off the tip of the blade hovering inches away. “First and foremost: we do not allow magical enhancement to be used during martial training! You all know this! But some of you, including Miss Vrenn here, have chosen to disregard that rule, thinking that if you got away with it, there was no harm done! Now you know that you were wrong. As you can plainly see, she cannot even wield her weapon of choice properly without magical crutches!
“The second lesson is this: Do Not Ever enter a battle without a failsafe, or you will lose. Do not carry a sword you cannot wield without magic, and do not rely on magic unless you know that you will be able to use it. This means keeping spare spell components, foci, spellbooks. Have backups, and be able to use them even in dire circumstances. Otherwise, this is all you are: quivering flesh, waiting to be impaled on some peasant’s spearpoint.” He shook his sword toward Laelah, spattering tiny drops of her own blood across her face.
“The war against the Shadovar is over. Do not think there will never be war again. I want every one of you to report to the Palace tomorrow at daybreak. Welcome to the Spellguard.”
The Master Instructor Sus Korag dismissed the Antimagic Field; the wolf did not reappear, its duration having long since expired. Laelah, kneeling still, was flooded with anger, with despair, with relief, but most of all, with the blessed Weave. It filled her, restoring her body, calming her tears. She didn’t notice as the arena was dismissed, and Nari rushed to her side, followed quickly by several of the other students--those who didn’t think she needed to be knocked down a peg, anyway. Rojeil stood impassively nearby, watching. Nari produced a cloth to dry Laelah’s eyes. “Sweet gods, you’re hurt! Is it bad? Medic!”
“No,” Laelah replied calmly into the turmoil around her. “It’s not bad anymore.”