Tension woke me early the next morning, for my first task today would likely be the most challenging. How was I to convince a noble paladin and a loyal barbarian to support an unabashedly tyrannical politician when they knew how much was at stake? No doubt the fighter would simply side with Malakar whatever his choice, as he was easily swayed and the barbarian was a kind and natural leader. Bronn was a lost cause from the start, there are no shades of grey in the mind of a holy warrior. Malakar, however, would do anything to ensure the survival of his tribesmen. If I could mislead him into thinking the election of Kathull would be in their best interests he would play directly into my hands.
It was with the beginnings of a scheme in mind that I joined my companions for breakfast. I found them huddled around a table downstairs, wiping the sleep from their eyes over hot tea and biscuits. The advantage was mine if I caught Malakar unprepared, so I forewent a more companionable greeting and cut to the quick.
“So I’ve been thinking” I announced as I pulled up a chair next to the drowsy barbarian, “as far as the candidates for counselor go, the correct choice might not be as obvious as we initially thought.”
“One of ‘ems a good man, the other’s a scheming evil maniac like you” he grumbled back, sharper than I had anticipated. I opted to ignore the insult for the present, mostly because he was right.
“That much is true” I conceded politely, “but have you given any thought as to who the people of the city might deem a more palatable choice?”
“Way I see it, the dwarves want Soluth, and all the noble types want Kathul” he reasoned, I could see him second guessing himself, “that’s a half and half split, yeh?”
“Not quite” I clarified, “the sides might be split fairly evenly, but Kathul’s supporters carry more weight in status and wealth. It will be much easier to sway favor to him because he represents the status quo. If we support him, he will win faster than his opponent. If we are to stop a bloody revolution from breaking out, Kathul is the obvious choice to stabilize this city quickly.”
“But Kathul is ruthless, if he is elected many will suffer” Malakar countered.
“If we take too long, everyone will suffer” I replied, setting the final trap, “including your precious tribes who rely on these people for trade.”
“The tribes of Falcon and Salamander have no business with this city” he retorted indignantly, “only the northern tribes rely on Amolar.”
“You’re right” I conceded as the trap closed in around him, “how ignorant of me. I was under the impression that you cared for all the tribes.”
Though he was much more intelligent than your average barbarian warrior, Malakar was still no match for a professional negotiator of my status. Having won his favor, the fighter fell into line just as I had anticipated. Only Bronn failed to join my cause. He sat quietly as I argued with the barbarian. As a dwarf of this city, I assumed he would be seething in anger and frustration at my success. If he was there was no sign of anger on his face.
“I cannot assist you in this deed” he said finally, “and I beg you to reconsider. My people will suffer and evil will have won if another noble sits on the council.”
I spoke quickly, before Malakar could reconsider, “our decision has been made. You came to us wanting to lend us aid and we have allowed you to keep our company, but your code does not dictate our actions.”
My harsh words did not infuriate him as I had hoped. He stood up from the table and gave me a calculating smile, “then I shall rejoin you after this matter has been dealt with.” With that, he departed from us.
After breakfast we set out to establish ourselves as Kathul’s allies. His offices were difficult to find, and there were armed guards outside. The blank faced defenders refused to let us pass, informing us that only those who had proven their loyalty to Kathul’s cause were permitted to enter. They initially refused to answer any further questions, but our persistence won out. Normally supporters proved their loyalty by representing their chosen candidate in the city arena: a bloody spectacle attended by nobles and peasants alike. Success in the arena earned the trust of the candidate.
The prospect of a day of arena fighting enthused my companions more so than it did me. Words were my weapons, and I wielded them with deadly effect, but the language of swords and blood was not one in which I was fluent. Still, it put my companions in a more favorable mood on our walk to the arena. They took precious little notice of me as they discussed tactics and strategy in excited tones.
It was decided that I was to stay out of their way during the fights. Based on my performance in previous skirmishes, I was not to use any offensive spells. Rather, I would stay behind my team mates and provide defensive support. I tried to argue that it would take only a few seconds to perform the full extent of my protective magics and that I might be of some use in short range with my claws. Instead Malakar pressed a crossbow into my hands and very conscendingly taught me the basics of pointing and shooting. It was during this humiliation that Bronn rejoined us briefly on our walk. I was right to worry that I hadn’t seen the last of him. The nosey dwarf seemed to have followed us from as far back as the tavern. He refused Malakar’s offer to join us in the arena, still staunch in his opposition to Kathul, but he offered us good will and good luck in our fights. Resigned to impotence, I began to follow my team mates into the arena. Bronn caught me by the shoulder before I could enter.
“Keep your guard up in there, yeh?” He muttered to me with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve seen more casters get smashed to bits in this competition than anything else.”
“I’ll be fine” I spat at him, as I pushed past him. His presence was a bother and I had no reason to be kind to him.
Inside we were greeted by a weasel of a man in a top hat, the tournament coordinator, who helped us enlist ourselves on the roster. We were made to wait with our competitors in a wide hall. The room was packed with gritty fighters, monstrous contenders like harpies and half orcs, and the odd wizard. Towards the back, out of sight, were prisoners in chains. Barbarians and other ruffians who had been arrested and sentenced to public execution for the pleasure of arena goers.
“Gotta swell line up this afternoon, boys” the man-weasel announced to the room at large, “hope you lot are ready to die horribly! The crowd loves a good spectacle.”
It occurred to me for the first time that I might die here. Bronn’s talk of dead casters began to weigh heavily on my nerves. I couldn’t fight! I shouldn’t be here! I was going to get myself and my friends killed because I never bothered to hone my battle casting skills.
I was suddenly surprised at how worried I was for my companions. They were still bristling with anticipation, ready to take on whatever foes they faced. I had certainly never done them any favors in the past, nor had they done much to win my affection, but all the same I had grown comfortable with them. I knew their weaknesses, how to argue them into submission, how to ruin them. I knew that Howard was fair minded and a determined fighter. I knew that Malakar was loyal, brave, and terrifying in the heat of combat. I hadn’t realized I was growing attached to them. I used this realization to strengthen my resolve. If I was the single most skilled negotiator in this terrible, weak and pathetic land, if my employer was the most cunning and powerful magical force I had ever known, and if that thrice damned paladin was the most annoying person the world would ever see, then by the left testicle of Asmodeus these two idiots were the most dangerous martial force in this competition and we were going to win!
“In this corner, fighting for the favor of councilatory candidate Kathul: Malakar, Howard, and Kepesk!” The announcers voice boomed against the screaming crowds as we took are place in the arena.
Oh god oh god we’re all going to die.
“And, fighting for his own glory, the wizard Damien and his incredible construct of ice and fury!”
I summoned magical armor for my team mates as a terrifyingly huge ice golem plodded past the wizard to stand against us. A bell rang and the fight was on. I watched lamely as Malakar roared in defiance and threw himself at the monster recklessly, his legendary sword caught the sunlight as it sliced into the monster’s side. Howard slid into position beside him and hit with his own blade. I froze in fear as I witnessed the mighty golem turn to face Malakar, hitting him squarely in the chest with one mighty frozen arm.
“Do something” I told myself. I fumbled with the crossbow Malakar had given me, but in my fear I couldn’t remember how to use it. I wracked my brain for ways I could help, observing the golem carefully. Golems are constructed by wizards from different extra-planar materials. Useless. Probably vulnerable to fire as are white dragons. Useless. Slowed by electricity. I don’t remember where I heard that, but okay! I summoned my courage and cast a simple spell, sending a jolt of electricity whizzing toward the construct.
Like I hoped, the golem’s movement slowed just long enough for Malakar to dodge another devastating hit. Howard took the opportunity to hack at the golem’s foot, tripping it and sending it to the ground with a crash. From there it was a simple matter of beating the brute to death, which my friends managed with ease. Cheers went up from the crowd as the wizard screamed in defeat. We were declared victorious.
My companions were empowered by our victory, pumping their fists high to the applause of the crowds. I scanned the audience, not all of them were cheering. Screaming loudest were the nobles, drunk with wine and adrenaline in the balconies far from the bloodshed. In the lower levels, commoners booed us, equally drunk. Somewhere among the commoners I spotted Bronn, clapping along politely. He caught my eye briefly, the corner of his mouth turned up in a cheeky grin. I glared in defiance. He was wrong, I wasn’t dead yet.
My defiance was short lived. As soon as we retreated from the arena floor I had to run to grab a bucket to vomit into. I was shaking, my nerves were shot. I reminded myself that I was a powerful sorceress, an agent of the mirror realm. I stood against ancient societies, I treated with dragons, I should not be completely crippled by the thought of entering physical combat.
But I was, and I spent the hour and a half of rest we were allowed between matches desperately trying to compose myself. My companions had the good sense to leave me alone. Malakar had been wounded badly. It took half of the potions he had bought yesterday to heal him back into fighting shape, but he grinned through it and let no one see his weakness. His bravado did nothing against the remaining three rounds we had left. At this rate our supplies would not last long enough to heal us fully after each match.
It was all too soon that the weasely coordinator came to retrieve us for our next fight. As we entered the ring we faced two harpies. One had her mouth sewn shut, the threads tore through the nearly healed puncture wounds, giving way to fresh blood as she scowled at us. She was equipped with a mace. The other was unarmed. The announcer called out our names to the cheering crowds, the bell rang, and the fight was on.
As I readied my crossbow, resolute to actually use the thing this time, the second harpy flew forward. She opened her mouth and began to sing beautifully. My nerves melted away and I began to walk towards the mesmerizing sound, only partially aware that I was being controlled. I felt Howard fall into step beside me and we both stopped in front of the harpy. We seemed to stand there for ages listening to her. I could have easily fallen asleep right in the middle of the arena.
I had just began to daydream about flying with the dragons I had known at home when I lived in the south when a horrific screech brought me back to my senses. Malakar was a few feet away, his sword dripped with the blood of the mute harpy. Her sister had cried out in grief when she fell from the sky.
I summoned my dragon claws reflexively as Howard lashed out at the grieving harpy, slicing off a wing and sending her plummeting to the ground. Malakar ran and slashed at her with his legendary blade and I plunged my entire hand deep into the harpy’s chest.
As the crowd cheered, I got a feeling I hadn’t anticipated. I was finally in my element. I scanned the crowd for the drunken nobles I had noticed earlier. If they wanted a spectacle, I could give them one.
In one swift motion I jerked my hand out of the dead harpy’s chest, pulling her severed heart with it and letting the body slump to the ground. I held it high to the cheering nobles as blood dripped down my arm. The crowd ate the scene up, even the commoners were cheering. I had probably ruined my robes, but if I played my cards right it might be worth it. I strode purposefully off the stage, leaving my befuddled companions to follow after me.
During our break I found my way into the stands and up to the high balcony where the drunk nobles were, harpy heart in hand. Rich people were always particularly good targets for a fleecing. I was recognized immediately and another cheer went out to greet me. I found one stumbling drunk elven man who eyed the heart greedily.
“I’m looking for some healing potions” I said casually, “perhaps if you had some we could make a trade?”
“Yesh, gimme that an’ you cun have these” the man slurred, producing three potions that I recognized from the potion master’s shop as cure serious wounds.
I made the trade, glad to be rid of the stinking flesh. It had been disgusting and kept warm from her body heat for much longer than I felt comfortable with. I didn’t bother to wash off, better to remind the audience and my opponents what I was capable of. Lets see the bastards pound this spellcaster into the ground. I met back with my companions. Malakar had been wounded worse than I realized. I supplied a potion of cure serious wounds to him with a fiendish grin.
“Turns out I’m good for something after all.” I mentioned as he uncorked the bottle.
“I’ll drink to that” he replied.
We went into the next round with confidence. My nerves were all but gone, tucked behind pride. As I stood behind my companions I took a moment to appreciate the potential of this situation. If we kept up our winning streak I could very easily make some powerful friends among the nobles. Good connections were worth more than enough to cover the potions we were using.
We were to fight a group representing Soluth this round, an important fight to be sure. This was our first chance to catch Kathul’s eye and win his favor. Our competitors were a band of brothers, of comparable composition to us. They each wore armor, although only two brandished weapons. A wizard in chain mail waited in the back. Hopefully the armor would hinder his spellcasting long enough for us to deal with him. The opponents were introduced, the bell rang and the fight was on.
Immediately Malakar and Howard met blades with the fighters. I started looking for weaknesses, but got nothing useful other than the fact that they put their caster in chainmail. So not very bright. The wizard tried to cast a spell, but failed in a sputter of red sparks. I recognized it as a devastating fire attack. My opponent was certainly more skilled in the arcane than I was, but not so skilled that he could afford to cast that particular spell more than once or twice.
I grinned at him from across the field as if to say, “That’s why you don’t wear armor, idiot.”
The fight seemed to be leaning in our favor for the time being. I ensure that my companions kept up the magical armor I cast on them earlier and fired a crossbow bolt or two at the fighters. All seemed to be going according to plan until Malakar swung too wide and missed his opponent. The fighter was quick to jam his sword deep into the barbarian’s side. He went down hard. I didn’t have time to wonder if he was still alive as the fighter moved to confront me. I summoned my claws and engaged him.
In the end I didn’t have a chance. Howard saw me lash out at the fighter, raking my claws along his face, but I was too easy a target. No sooner had I hit him than he sliced into my chest with his sword. Another second and a magic missile from the wizard knocked me off my feet.
I could feel the opposing spell caster’s satisfaction. “That’s why you wear armor, idiot” I imagined him gloating. I reeled backwards and in an instant all my fear returned. I was going to die. I saw Howard widen his stance to face both fighters at once. I hit the ground painfully and winced as darkness started to overwhelm my vision. I fought to stay conscious. To reach into my bag for a potion, so close but so far away. To cast another spell. To do something! But I was useless again. As I sank into unconsciousness I thought I heard a familiar voice shouting a battlecry in front of me. I must have been hallucinating because through my clouded vision I could have sworn I saw a man fighting at Howard’s side.
I woke up to the world’s most annoying dwarf standing over me, force feeding me a potion. I gasped back to life in his arms, breathing heavily. The two fighters lay dead a few short feet away and the wizard had been killed where he stood a few yards further. Malakar was just getting up, dusting himself off like nothing happened. It finally hit me that the crowd was screaming uncontrollably. Some booed, but the majority cheered. I looked to the paladin for answers.
“Didn’t I tell you to be on your guard out here?” he chided as if we were friends, “c’mon lets get you out of here.” He took my arm and helped me out of the arena, I was too weak to protest.
As Malakar and I tended to our wounds, Howard filled us in on what had happened after I went down. When he saw that we were losing, Bronn flung himself into the ring with a mighty bellow. He took the fighters so by surprise that he cut one of them down before he could react. They doubled up on the second fighter and made short work of him. It seemed the wizard never did get off that powerful fire spell and they made short work of him once his brothers fell.
Bronn was in the corner talking to the coordinator who was gushing about how “amazing” he had been, how the crowds had never cheered louder in all his years of running this arena, how Bronn “simply MUST stay on for the last round.” The paladin was grinning sheepishly and nodding his head. It seemed as if he would be joining us after all.
It took two of our three cure serious potions to restore Malakar and I to any semblance of fighting form, and five cure light potions besides. Before our break was up we were approached by representatives of Kathul’s campaign, telling us that we had proved our worth to the counselor to be and that they were honored by our support. If we managed to slay the final challenge, some exotic monster of legend captured specifically for this event, that we would be welcome in their offices.
We didn’t have a choice in whether or not we wanted to face the final fight, it was implied by our registry and our participation would be enforced by the city guards. The people would get their spectacle. I asked around for information on the challenger, but no one was forthcoming with information.
As we entered the ring, the crowd grew uncharacteristically quiet. A massive gate to the left of us creaked open ominously and four men pulling chains emerged from within. At the end of the chains was a young white dragon. I ached for the condition he was in. Its wings had been cut down to nubs, the part of its throat that facilitated his breath weapon had been gouged beyond repair. At some point the crowd started cheering again, but I was too shocked to hear them. The dragon roared in rage as the handlers let go of his chains, and he swung his massive head to the side to catch one of them as he fled. He gulped the man down in a single swallow, which made me smile. A dragon would not be “handled” by any man. My shock gave way to fury at the thought of abusing such a creature. I must kill the beast, but I could at least give him a clean death. More than I could guarantee the screaming on lookers who spat and threw rocks at the dragon below. It solidified my resolve to burn this city to the ground and force its inhabitants screaming into the mirror realm to become fodder for my master’s endless war.
The fight was on as soon as the dragon was released, my companions rushed forward to attack. I wondered if they knew that this dragon wasn’t able to use its breath weapon. It made no matter, as I ran to join them. I was out of spells so I summoned my dragon claws, a fitting weapon.
The fight was hard, as every blow Malakar struck with his legendary sword sent the beast into fits of rage, it clawed at us and sunk it’s fangs into the barbarian’s chest. Howard hacked at the dragons legs in a miserable attempt to trip the beast. Bronn’s weapon shone with holy magic that enraged the dragon ever further. I was knocked back at some point in the fight and forced to use what little ranged weaponry I could manage.
The dragon kept us on the defensive, almost backing us against the far wall where we started. Just as it reared its head back to deliver a killing blow to Malakar, Howard finally managed to knock the beast off balance. It fell with a thud to the ground and each of us in turn delivered one last blow before the beast stopped moving.
The crowd cheered stupidly. I put them out of my mind as I went to offer a silent tribute to the fallen dragon. Bronn joined me, I suppose being a paladin he had an inclination towards reverence. I put a hand on the dragon’s noble snout as Bronn said some kind of prayer. It was inappropriate, but I made no action to stop him.
When we returned to the hall to collect our reward, the coordinator slapped us each on the back in turn. “That was the most amazing fight this arena has ever seen!” he exalted, “No one has ever beaten the dragon before! You guys were incredible!”
We accepted our rewards, 500 platinum pieces each. I allowed myself to celebrate our survival and even our victory. The drunken noble from earlier tracked me down to shake my hand and slipped me an extra 200 gold pieces. I thanked him while imagining what he might look like as a smear of blood reflected infinitely on every surface of the mirror realm.
This inane distraction was finally over and the real work could begin. I graciously declined Malakar’s invitation to join the rest of the group for a pint and retreated to the inn to clean myself up in preparation for our meeting with Kathul. If I had my way, we would be rid of this place as soon as possible.