Here’s the next chapter of ‘Tabula Avatar’. It’s only been a week since the last chapter but I’ve been writing at a tremendous rate even though I’ve been at work for almost all that time. It’s a huge chapter too; 9,200 words. Rating R. Previous chapters can be found HERE.
Summary: AU from some point during Tabula Rasa, when the crystal doesn’t get broken but instead falls into the hands of The Trio. They insert the trapped memories into the computer game ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn’ and the Scoobies join the Bhaalspawn and her companions on a quest that leads them into deadly peril. When we last saw our heroes the Faerûnian group were about to infiltrate the drow city of Ust Natha; back in Sunnydale Warren had been badly injured…
“Who goes there?” The gate guard stared at them with suspicion evident in his expression. “You are drow, or you would have been slain before you reached this point, but you are not the patrol that we expected. Identify yourselves!”
“Stand down, male,” Sorkatani ordered. Her haughty tone was modeled on that used by Viconia to address ‘inferiors’. “I am Dynefryn of Ched Nasad. I am expected.”
“There is indeed a party from Ched Nasad expected,” said the guard, “but the name we were given was Veldrin.”
“I am Veldrin, male,” announced Viconia, from two paces behind Sorkatani and Buffy, “but I am not the leader of this company of the Flickering Flame. Stand aside for Dynefryn of the Blades and Qilafae of the Iron Arm.”
“My apologies,” the guard replied, bowing his head slightly. “I did but do my duty in questioning you. You are welcome to pass. You are late, however, and this has delayed the plans of Solaufein. Enter, quickly, and seek out Solaufein of the Male Fighters’ Society. He will instruct you on your duties in Ust Natha.” He stepped aside and let the party pass.
The city beyond the gate was a remarkable sight. Despite its subterranean location it was an elevated metropolis. The vaulted cave was dominated by towering stalagmites and rock columns. Windows set into the stone revealed that these were hollow, with the city’s dwellings and places of business being inside them, and walkways of metal and stone formed a network connecting the colossal pillars. A second set of walkways repeated the network high above their heads. Occasional lower stalagmites were crowned with circular platforms, presumably the equivalent of town squares, bustling with drow going about their daily lives.
“Well, we’re in,” Buffy, alias Qilafae, muttered to Sorkatani as they made their way along the first of the walkways towards the city proper. “So far so good, as the guy who fell off a cliff said as he passed the half-way mark.” She had broken from her usual custom and was wearing a short jerkin of drow adamantine chain-mail. The Hammer of Thunderbolts was at its usual place at her hip but a drow longsword had taken the place of the Blade of Roses. A drow crossbow was slung at her shoulder. “I just hope that getting out again will be as easy.”
“Put such thoughts out of your head, Qilafae,” Sorkatani counseled her. “We must play our parts with total conviction. Think arrogant and selfish thoughts.”
“No problem,” said Buffy. “I have a role model. I’ll just keep thinking ‘what would Cordy do?’ and that will keep me on the right track.” She glanced down at her hands, where her fingernails were discolored by traces of dried demon blood, and grinned. “I guess that right now Cordy would be demanding a hot bath.”
Joan’s hair was damp and she smelt of bath oils. “I should have been there,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Couldn’t have known, pet,” Randy tried to sooth her. His hair, normally slicked down flat, was disheveled and also damp. “Don’t blame yourself.”
“If I had been there I could have done something,” Joan went on. “Have you told Katrina?”
“I called her first,” Alex confirmed. “Well, actually I called his mom first, but I called Katrina right after.” He frowned at Joan. “Where were you two anyway? I thought you were going to the Bronze as soon as you finished patrol.”
“A vamp threw me onto a headstone,” Joan explained. “My back was bruised and I thought a hot bath would ease the pain. I didn’t think that half an hour would matter. Except that Randy joined me and we kinda lost track of time.” The muscles in her jaw stood out as she clenched her teeth. “I should have been there. How is he?”
“A depressed skull fracture,” Alex said. “He’s in the ER right now.” He shook his head slowly. “They’re not telling me all that much, on account of me not being a relative, but it’s not looking good. From what I’ve picked up his heart stopped twice.”
“Ah, you are the newcomers that have been sent my way,” said the male drow warrior. His armor was plain and unadorned, its matt finish making it appropriate for stealth missions rather than for guard duty or the parade ground, and the grips of his twin short-swords had the patina of much use. “As if I do not have enough to accomplish in a day without having to look out for the welfare of the weak. You will find that there is no ease to be taken in Ust Natha. We pay for our existence here in blood and you shall do the same.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Spike. “Anybody’s blood in particular?”
The drow glared at him and made no direct reply. “My name is Solaufein,” he continued his address, “and for now you will do as I say to prove your worth to the Matron Mothers. Failure is death. And just because you are females,” he said, fixing his gaze on Sorkatani and Buffy, “do not presume to challenge me. You are foreigners here and no better than slaves until the Matron Mothers decide otherwise.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “What is your problem, male?” she said, channeling Cordelia. “The gold that was promised to the Flickering Flame for our services was not to buy slaves. Just show us who we have to kill. It’s what we do.”
Solaufein’s eyes narrowed. “Your reputation in your own city carries no weight here. If you wish respect you will have to earn it. Have you names, or shall I just call you ‘annoying females’?”
“I am Qilafae,” Buffy said. It meant ‘Foe-slayer’.
“I am Dynefryn,” said Sorkatani.
“And I am Veldrin,” Viconia added. She had laid claim to that name because it meant ‘Shadow’. She made a gesture behind her back, indicating silence, and the rest of the party took heed.
“Why did you bring slaves with you?” Solaufein asked. His gaze swung from the towering bulk of Minsc, whose distinctive blue tattoo was now hidden by a draconic glamour, to the short and squat figure of a duergar version of Xander.
“Because these slaves are very good at killing people,” Sorkatani said. She gave no further explanation and Solaufein did not press the point.
“No matter. One of the Matron Mothers has taken an interest in your arrival. She has sent a Handmaiden to speak with you at the entrance platform to the city. I shall go there as well to shepherd you on your mission like a nursing mother. Quickly, now, the Handmaidens are notoriously impatient.” He swept his arm around, drew a circle in the air, and stepped through it.
“I don’t think I’m gonna like that guy,” Buffy muttered. “Show-off jerk. Well, two can play at that game. Beam us down, Scotty.”
Willow became visible and she duplicated Solaufein’s gesture, as did Imoen, and the party disappeared. A second later they materialized on the specified platform.
Solaufein was speaking to a female drow. “I have commanded the mercenaries to present themselves to you, Handmaiden,” he said. His tone was deferential.
“And here we are,” Buffy said from just behind his shoulder. She was gratified to see him jump.
“I did not know you had mages amongst you,” Solaufein said.
“And why should you, male?” Buffy allowed a sneer to creep into her voice. She turned her attention to the Handmaiden. Presumably she was someone of authority and arrogance would be a big mistake. This wasn’t like talking back to a teacher; the punishment would be decapitation rather than detention. Now, what was it Viconia had said? Oh, yeah. “We are at your service, favored of Lolth,” Buffy addressed the woman. “Command us and we obey.”
Her words must have been well chosen. The Handmaiden gave her a tight little smile that would not have been out of place on the late Maggie Walsh’s face. “Greetings, Veldrin of Ched Nasad,” she said.
“Your pardon, honored Handmaiden,” Viconia put in, speaking in tones more humble than Buffy had ever heard from her before, “but I am Veldrin. There was a change of plan. The two greatest warriors of our society heard of the invitation from Ust Natha and decided to accompany me. I was obliged to relinquish command.”
“Oh?” The Handmaiden’s eyebrows rose. “The greatest warriors of the Flickering Flame, you say? Such a claim will have to be proven. Your names?”
“They are…” Solaufein began.
“Silence, male! My question was not to you,” the Handmaiden cut him off.
“I am Qilafae,” Buffy answered.
“And I am Dynefryn,” Sorkatani said.
“I am Imrae,” said the Handmaiden. “Explain what has occurred, Solaufein, and be quick about it. The Spider Queen demands my attention.”
“As you command,” said Solaufein. “You know of the Devourers, of course, Qilafae?”
Buffy frowned. Devourers? Oh, yeah, that’s what Viconia had called those icky squid-headed things that had – briefly – barred the way to the gnome village. “Of course. We killed three on our way here,” she told him.
“Good,” said Solaufein. “Perhaps you are not entirely worthless.” He ignored the glare that Buffy gave him. “A Matron Mother’s daughter fell afoul of them while scouting,” he continued. “Her foolish escorts fled, or were slaughtered, and she was taken captive. They know a prize when they have one, these devourers, and they are taking her to their city. Once they have her there then she will be lost forever. With our army being… otherwise engaged, there are no other forces but ourselves available to perform a rescue. We must go to the entrance to their caverns and intercept them.”
Buffy and Sorkatani nodded in acknowledgement. The Handmaiden, obviously satisfied that her instructions were being obeyed, turned on her heel and walked off without any word of farewell.
“Handmaiden Imrae has given me a blessed item of Lolth that will disrupt their astral travel before they reach their destination,” Solaufein went on. “That is where we must pounce upon them. The Matron Mother has no desire to see her eldest daughter become a snack for the devourers and so we must not fail. Do you understand, Qilafae?”
Buffy seethed inwardly. Who did this guy think he was? He was more patronizing than Quentin Travers. Almost like a cross between fresh-into-Sunnydale Wesley and Principal Snyder. She gave him a high-grade eye-roll. “We wait outside the devourer caverns, kill the devourers, rescue the Matron Mother’s daughter,” she said. “Check. So, where are the caverns?”
“They are to the south-east,” Solaufein said. “A rock face bars further progress in that direction. Hold your course and you cannot miss them. I shall scout ahead. You have but to join me. I presume you can manage that?”
Buffy was so infuriated that she did not trust herself to reply.
“Yes, male, we can manage that,” Sorkatani said in her stead.
“It is too early as yet,” said Solaufein. “The devourers are not due to travel for some time. You are free to rest and restock your supplies. I shall not give you directions to the taverns. Mercenaries, in my experience, can locate taverns even if they cannot find their posteriors with both hands. Meet me outside the devourer caverns in not more than twelve hours from now. Do not be late or you will suffer screaming torments on the rack before being dispatched to the Demonweb Pits.” He made the hand gesture for Dimension Door once more and vanished.
Buffy glanced around. The platform held a small marketplace, a guard station, and a massive translucent cylinder resembling an oil storage tank. There were some two dozen drow in the vicinity, shopping or walking purposefully to unknown destinations, but none of them appeared to be paying any attention whatsoever to the strangers from Ched Nasad.
“Vi-Veldrin,” Buffy said quietly, “you’ll have to guide me on the customs here. What would happen if I ripped Solaufein’s head off and rammed it up his ass?”
“Arrogant jerk,” Buffy grumbled. “Shepherd us like a nursing mother, huh? I am so gonna make him eat those words. ‘Do you understand?’ ‘I presume you can manage that’. Who does he think he is?”
“Ho there, strangers!” A male drow broke into Buffy’s tirade. “Which way did the surface bitch go? ‘Tis fine sport, but she’s quick on her feet.” The speaker was a drow male. His mail shirt was richly decorated and a gilded insignia adorned his helm. He held a finely wrought spear and stood at the head of a party of six other males in slightly less impressive armor.
“Hello? In the middle of a conversation here,” Buffy said, treating him to a medium grade eye-roll. “Don’t interrupt.”
“I shall interrupt as I please, stranger,” the drow replied. “I am of House Auvrindar, Third of the city, and I say again, female, tell me which way the surface elf went. Our Hunt grows tiresome and I would finish it. She ran to this junction. You could not have failed to see her.”
“Do I look like someone who would pay attention to some random slave?” Buffy cranked her eye-roll up a couple of notches and then turned her back on him. “Any luck spotting a tavern yet, guys?”
The drow put his hand upon Buffy’s shoulder. “Do not turn your back on me, outsider female,” he snapped. “You arm your own slaves well. Do you…”
Buffy broke his wrist, seized him by the throat, and forced him backward across the platform. She transferred her grip to his uninjured arm, lifted him over the railings, and dangled him above the precipitous drop to the cave floor far below. “Interesting city you have here,” she remarked. “I wonder how high up this walkway is? Hey, why don’t I find out by dropping you and counting the seconds until I hear the ‘splat’?”
Two of the other members of the hunting party stepped forward to intervene. Jaheira’s spear-point dipped to point straight at the stomach of one of them and he froze in his tracks. The other one came to an equally abrupt halt when a razor-sharp short-sword was placed against a sensitive area of his lower anatomy by a young and pretty female.
“Please, mistress, do nothing rash,” the hunt leader gasped out. “I abase myself. I did not know that you were a mighty warrior. Return me to the platform, I beg you, mistress.”
“Now that’s how I like to hear a male talk,” Buffy said, grinning, and she lifted him back over the rail. “Okay, I’ll let you live. Now find somewhere to be that’s not here.”
Giles raised an eyebrow as he watched the former hunting party scurrying away. “You certainly seem to be getting into the spirit of the role, ah, Qilafae,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to let them catch that elf girl,” Buffy told him, equally softly. “Hunting people for fun is just sick.” She raised her voice to its normal level once more. “As I was saying, before those guys butted in, has anybody found an inn yet? I could use a bath and, hey, maybe a drink.”
“Welcome to the Mos Eisley Cantina,” Xander said, gazing around the tavern. “I see a bar, and dance floors, but I don’t see any rooms. Maybe they’re upstairs, or maybe this place is just for drinks and entertainment.”
“They are not dance floors, Zander,” Viconia told him. “They are fighting pits.”
Xander raised his eyebrows. As he was currently four foot three inches tall his brows didn’t go up very high. “Oh. That figures.”
Buffy approached a male drow who she took to be the tavern manager. “Hi,” she said. “We’re new in town.”
“Greetings, lovely female,” he responded. “I am Szordrin, the manager of this fighting pit. Entertainment for all and a chance to gain Lolth’s favor.”
“Oh,” said Buffy. “That’s… nice, I guess.”
“You seem a hardy type,” Szordrin went on. “There are several dread beasts that have been captured and await your death-blow… if you dare.”
Buffy’s instinctive reaction would have been revulsion at the idea but she controlled herself. Viconia’s briefing had been thorough. She contented herself with a raised eyebrow.
“You are the Nasadrans, yes? Recently arrived? It is said that you are ferocious warriors. There are many here who would desire to see if you fight as well as is claimed.” His upper lip curled. “Of course, if you are pale and cowardly, you need not make the attempt. The Spider Queen, however, respects only those who are strong.”
“Right,” said Buffy. She knew that she couldn’t back out of Szordrin’s challenge without losing face; and, from what Viconia had said, losing face amongst the drow was the first step on a rapid journey to losing your head. “Okay, male, I’ll fight in your pit. Bring on those dread beasts.”
“It is gratifying to see such steel in you, female,” said Szrordrin. “You shall first battle an umber hulk, a creature of not inconsiderable size. It is… angry.”
Buffy tossed Lilarcor back to Minsc. She barely managed to stop herself from thanking him for the loan. “Take back your weapon, slave, it has served its purpose,” she said instead. Whosoever wielded Lilarcor was immune from magical Confusion. Without an edge from that innate ability the umber hulk had lasted less than twenty seconds against Buffy.
“Yay, great fun!” Lilarcor called. The sentient sword had also been a recipient of the dragon’s spell and his words were in fluent Drow. “Slashing and hacking, I don’t believe in slacki…” His cheerful chant was cut short as Minsc thrust the sword back into the scabbard.
“The glory is yours, female,” cried Szordrin. “Here is your prize.” He handed her a purse of gold. “Now, should you wish to further display your prowess, there is another dread beast that awaits bloodletting at your hands.”
“Sure, why not?” said Buffy. The tavern patrons had gathered to watch the spectacle. Fighting monsters seemed like a good way to gain a reputation for toughness and thus gain status. Status would mean more freedom to move around the city and search for Irenicus, if he was still here, and for dragon eggs.
“A dreaded nabassu of the lower planes,” Szordrin went on. “Captured by the Handmaidens for defying a Matron Mother and sentenced to fight in the pits. Do you dare to face it?”
“Be sure to get its heart,” Willow called. “I could use a spare.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Oh, great, I get to stick my hands in a demon’s chest again. At least I haven’t had a bath yet.”
“Okay,” Buffy said, “so what’s next?” She handed Willow a squishy leather pouch and then turned back to the manager of the fighting pit.
“Your lust for battle is impressive, Qilafae of Ched Nasad,” Szrordrin said. There was a note of respect in his voice that had not been there when he first spoke to Buffy. “If you dare to continue there is a prince of the shark fiends, the ones called ‘sahuagin’, for you to face. A strong one that was captured, with some difficulty, in a raid upon their city.”
Buffy felt the smile freezing on her face. A sahuagin prince? Villynaty? No way was she going to kill that guy. He might be a hideous shark monster but he was honorable, courteous, and all-around nicer than a whole lot of humans that she knew. Maybe she could knock him unconscious or something. “How long have you had the shark fiend?” she asked.
“Perhaps a year,” Szordrin replied. “A strong fighter. It has fought many times in the pits. Several strong drow have fallen before it. Do you dare to challenge it?”
Buffy was so glad that the sahuagin couldn’t possibly be Villynaty that she beamed in delight. The watching crowd drew entirely the wrong conclusion from her glee and a ripple of conversation filled the tavern. The lust for battle of this Qilafae of Ched Nasad was truly outstanding!
“Well, duh,” said Buffy. “Of course I dare. Bring out your sharks.”
“The shark fiend is destroyed,” Szordrin declared. “Many weak drow were slaughtered by the beast. It is good to see it put in its place. You have proven yourself, Qilafae of the Iron Arm. Take this purse of gold and know that you are worthy of Lolth’s favor.”
Buffy accepted the pouch. Her winnings guaranteed that local currency for board and lodging wouldn’t be a problem no matter how long they were stuck in this place. “So, what else have you got?” she asked.
“There is no need to continue, Qilafae,” Szordrin said. “The only fighting beast remaining is one that no-one has ever been able to defeat. It would be a waste to see such a warrior as you killed to no purpose.”
Buffy gave him a fairly restrained eye-roll. “Oh? What makes you think it could kill me, male? What is this beast?”
“It is an eye tyrant. Nemesis of the Underdark,” he told her. “Captured four years ago by a party of vengeful drow and it has never been defeated in the pit. It has many deadly powers. Only the bravest warriors have dared to face it and all have perished. There is no need for you to face it… unless, of course, you wish to.”
Buffy felt as if she was on a roll. The watching drow were silent in hushed anticipation. Instant reputation coming up. “Sure, I’ll fight it,” she said. “Hey, Iimzyne, lend me your cloak.”
“You have killed the eye tyrant,” Szordrin gasped. “Truly you are worthy of adulation. Mother Lolth must be proud of you indeed. Here, take this purse of a thousand coins. I can see now why House Despana sought your services. Nasadran or no, a female of your prowess would be a worthy addition to any house.”
“Whatever,” said Buffy, as she handed the Cloak of Mirroring back to Imoen. It seemed that it did indeed reflect the eye beams of beholders.
“Unfortunately there are no more battle beasts left in my pens. None that would be a fit match for you, at least, and it will be a long time before I can restock my collection.”
“Drat, and I was having fun,” said Buffy. She closed one eye. “Hey, are there any dragons around here?”
“Dragons?” Szordrin opened his eyes very wide. “I… surely not even such a warrior as you… but yes, I see others in your company wearing armor of dragon scales, so perhaps...”
Buffy extended her arms and drew his attention to her dragon-skin bracers. “Yeah, we’ve killed dragons. Any around here?”
“Rumors of dragon-kind come and go,” said Szordrin, “but the only one we know for sure of, here, is the fearsome silver beast that hunts the drow parties that even go near the sunken passages of our ancient descent. For longer than I have been alive she has barred the way from the surface to all but small groups operating by stealth. If you could slay her you would win honor beyond compare… but I suspect that you are too late. House Despana sent armies marching to the surface and the dragon interfered not. Now all Houses have sent contingents to join the invasion and still the dragon is absent. Perhaps she is dead.”
“So somebody else has killed it already? Oh, well, it can’t be helped,” said Buffy. She had found out what she wanted. The reason for the dragon’s passivity was not common knowledge. The stolen eggs would not be anywhere that was publicly accessible. House Despana had been the first House to take advantage of the window of opportunity and that made them the prime suspects. “Anyway, it’s been fun, but really I only came in here to look for a hot bath.”
“Oh,” said Szordrin. “The baths are upstairs. Next to the Lust Chambers.”
The route to the staircase lay past the other fighting pit. A male drow in red robes stepped in front of them as they approached.
“Welcome, warriors of Ched Nasad,” he greeted them. “I am Sondal, master of the dueling pit. I trust that you have come to my arena because you have grown tired of watching mindless monsters put to death in the name of sport.”
“It’s more fun than hunting slaves through the city,” Buffy said.
Sondal nodded. “True. A skilled female such as you will know that the only opponent worthy of a drow is another drow. I provide the opportunity.”
“That’s interesting,” said Buffy, “but I was planning on a bath.”
“You can delay a short while, surely? The next contest is about to begin. It should be a fascinating match. An inspiring display of skill from our most illustrious competitor.”
Buffy held back a sigh. She really wanted a bath; but she knew that it would be most uncharacteristic for a drow to show no interest in a fight.
“Very well, let us see this duel of yours,” Sorkatani said, taking the decision out of Buffy’s hands.
“Of course. It was held back because of the exploits of your leader in the other arena,” Sondal said.
“Joint leader,” Sorkatani corrected him.
“Oh? I ask pardon, female, I did not know. You, then, may also watch from this vantage point alongside Qilafae the monster slayer. Your hirelings and slaves must take their places in the public gallery. Once they have removed themselves I shall give the signal for the contest to begin.”
When the spectators were arranged to Sondal’s satisfaction he addressed the crowd. “If I might have everyone’s attention, with the permission of our most distinguished females and our hardiest males, I would direct you to the pit at the fore. The pride of the males of the Third House, the most illustrious weapon master Lasaonar, has accepted an unusual challenge. Four members of the Male Fighters’ Society have answered a slanderous comment with a demand for blood. Lasaonar has shown his contempt by answering them all at once!”
A murmur of comment came from the crowd. Sondal paused for a moment and then continued. “Watch now, as all concerned place their lives in the pit, and their fates in their blades. As always, the equipment of the vanquished becomes the property of the victor.”
Four young male drow strode into the arena and took up positions at one side of the ring. They were clad in chain mail and wielded pairs of short-swords. Their opponent, a mature male in adamantine full plate, bore a long blade with a hand-and-a-half hilt. He raised it in salute to the crowd and then adopted a guard position.
“In the name of Lolth,” Sondal called, “fight!”
The younger drow rushed forward. Their attack was uncoordinated and followed no clear plan. It was easy for the experienced Lasaonar to ensure that he met only one attacker before the others reached him. The youth flailed with his short-swords, striking with both at once, and was wide open when Lasaonar side-stepped and then lashed out with the bastard sword. The blade tore through the chain-mail and ripped into the young drow’s chest. A flare of flame erupted from the wound as Lasaonar pulled his sword free and the mortally wounded opponent collapsed to the floor.
The other three challengers fell upon Lasaonar with their blades. A short-sword glanced harmlessly from his heavy armor. His bastard sword gave lethal answer. Again a spurt of flame sprang up as the blade struck home. He shrugged off another blow and chopped down upon an exposed arm, shearing it off just below the elbow, and the fiery sword cauterized the wound even as it was inflicted. The young drow staggered back, leaving his comrade fighting alone, and Lasaonar slew that luckless soul with two brutal strokes.
The surviving drow youth, terribly injured as he was, brought up his sword and returned to the attack. He swayed on his feet as he advanced. His breath came out in ragged gasps and his blade wavered in his grasp. Lasaonar laughed, smote down upon the young drow’s sword and knocked it to the floor, and then raised his long weapon high for the finishing blow.
“Stop!” Sorkatani’s voice rang out loud enough to be heard clearly over the din of applause and chatter.
Lasaonar held back his stroke and looked up at the girl on the balcony. “Why should I, stranger female?”
“You have defeated him,” said Sorkatani, “and slaying him serves no purpose. He is brave, to fight on with such a wound, and one day could be a great warrior. Unlike you.”
“You dare insult me?” Lasaonar hissed. “How can you deny my prowess?”
“Prowess, male?” Sorkatani’s eyebrows soared. “I see only a coward with heavy armor and an enchanted sword. Without your adamantine plate you would have been goblin meat.”
“Dear Lord,” Giles muttered under his breath. “What is she doing?”
“She will not let B– Qilafae outdo her,” Jaheira said softly. “Fear not, she knows what she is doing. I think.”
Lasaonar was almost shaking with fury. “Insolent foreigner! I shall chastise you as you deserve. Face me in the pit, female, and learn the error of your ways.” He sheathed his sword and his fingers went to the buckles of his armor. “I shall fight you without armor, arrogant one, and if you survive long enough to surrender I shall make you a slave in my bedchamber.”
“Dream on, male,” said Sorkatani. She began to unfasten her own armor.
“Hey, T– Dynefryn, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Buffy hissed.
“Hey, no problem,” Sorkatani assured her. She stripped off all of the dragon-scale armor, retaining only her boots, and revealed her black silk shirt and dark breeches. She knotted her sash about her waist and slipped the scabbards of Malakar and Celestial Fury into position. Below her, in the dueling pit, Lasaonar had removed his plate armor and awaited her.
“Come, then, and meet your fate,” Lasaonar challenged.
Sorkatani smiled and vaulted over the rail. It was a twelve-foot drop but she landed lightly, bending her knees to take the shock, and recovered her balance instantly.
Lasaonar’s eyes narrowed. “You have some athletic ability, it seems. Perhaps you will indeed survive long enough to surrender.”
“In your dreams,” Sorkatani said. She put her left hand on the scabbard of Celestial Fury, with her thumb against the gilded guard, and stood waiting. Lasaonar drew his bastard sword, raised it in both hands, and looked up to Sondal on the viewing platform.
“We have another contest,” the dueling master announced. “Lasaonar, easily victorious in his encounter, is now challenged by…” he turned to Buffy and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Dynefryn,” Buffy supplied.
“Dynefryn, a mercenary from Ched Nasad,” Sondal completed his introduction. “You are ready, contestants? In the name of Lolth, fight!”
Lasaonar took a step forward. There was a flash. Something wet hit Sondal in the face. He blinked, raised a hand to his face, and wiped away moisture. Looking down at his hand he saw that it was red with blood.
The dueling master returned his gaze to the pit. He saw the arrogant female from Ched Nasad sliding her sword back into its scabbard. Beyond her he saw Lasaonar prone on the floor. A hideous gash ran from his left shoulder to his right hip, almost severing his torso in two, and a spreading pool of blood surrounded the body.
“You… you killed him!” Sondal spluttered.
“Well, yes,” Sorkatani said. She shrugged. “I thought that was the idea.”
“But… he was a weapon master! Of all the males in the city only Solaufein of the Male Fighters’ Society could outmatch him.”
“Indeed? Then it was bad luck for him that I am no mere male,” Sorkatani said. She bent and picked up the fallen warrior’s bastard sword.
“Yay for girl power,” Dawn called out.
Sorkatani scrutinized the sword. “This is mine now, by custom and by right of conquest, is that not so? A clumsy thing, fit only for a male, but it may be useful for disposing of trolls.” She pulled the scabbard from Lasaonar’s corpse, inserted the sword, and threw it up to the platform. Buffy caught it, inspected it briefly, and tossed it to Spike.
Sorkatani stooped, picked up the severed arm that still lay on the floor of the arena, and strode towards the exit. “Come, male,” she ordered the youth who sat, huddled against the wall, cradling his injured arm in his remaining hand. He stood up, a grunt of agony escaping his lips as he did so, and followed her up the steps that led out of the pit.
“Micar’lae, Jhaelirae, heal him,” Sorkatani commanded in imperious tones. Tara and Jaheira rushed to obey. Sorkatani handed the severed limb to Tara and walked away to join Buffy.
“Seared by the flame blade,” Jaheira observed, as she examined the injury. “It will not re-attach in this condition. The wound must be opened.” She drew a knife from her belt.
“The same w-w-ith this,” Tara said, grimacing as she held the grisly appendage. “We’d better do it first and then his… stump. That way he won’t lose too much blood.”
Jaheira nodded. She scraped her blade across the cut surface of the arm, removing the burned layer and causing blood to ooze out, and then turned back to the young drow. “Bite on this,” she told him, placing a piece of hard dried meat in his hand. He nodded and did as she ordered. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as she took hold of his arm. He jerked convulsively as she applied the knife and his eyes rolled wildly. He swayed on his feet and uttered a muffled moan.
Blood flowed from the newly opened wound. “Drink this, and quickly, male,” Jaheira ordered. She pulled the jerky from his mouth and thrust a potion bottle into his hand. He was trembling so much that he almost dropped it; but he managed get it to his lips and then began to gulp the potion of Regeneration down.
Tara thrust the severed part of the arm against the bleeding stump and held it in place. Jaheira joined in as soon as she was sure that the drow was managing to swallow the potion. Together they aligned the two pieces of the limb to match the original shape of the arm. Once she was satisfied that it was properly positioned Tara released her grip, leaving Jaheira to maintain the pressure, and cast a Heal spell upon the drow.
“Thank you,” he gasped out. “I shall not be a cripple.” He wiggled his fingers and smiled, somewhat shakily, at the two women. His gaze then turned to Sorkatani, who had rejoined Buffy by this time, and who was donning her armor once more. “What a warrior! She is amazing.” He sighed. “I did not catch her name. I was somewhat distracted at the time.”
“She is Dynefryn of Ched Nasad,” Jaheira told him. She frowned at his expression of rapt adoration. “Put aside thoughts of her, male, she is far above you.”
“One day, perhaps…” the youth mused. “Dynefryn. The Perfect Champion. Truly she is well named.”
“Just keep your mind on your arm. Don’t try to do much with that hand for at least half an hour,” Tara advised him. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want it to fall off. Uh, male worm.”
“Show-off,” Buffy accused Sorkatani.
“Oh? And you weren’t showing off when you played at slaying monsters?” Sorkatani countered. She pulled tight the last buckle of her breast-plate.
“Hey, I just wanted to ask directions to the baths,” Buffy said, grinning. “It’s not my fault if he wanted me to fight a few monsters.”
“That’s her!” The voice sounded vaguely familiar. “The one who dangled me over a hundred-foot drop and laughed as she did so.”
Buffy turned to face the hunt leader and rolled her eyes. “Hi,” she addressed him. “Did you catch that slave, male, or did she have two brain cells and outsmart you?”
The male drow was not alone. He was accompanied by a female, tall for a drow, whose chain mail armor was made up of links so finely wrought that it clung to her body almost like soft cloth. She glared at Buffy. “Know this, stranger,” she said in icy tones, “the humiliation that you have inflicted upon a male of our House shall be avenged. I am Chalinthra of House Auvrindar and I shall teach you what it means to offend us.”
“Oh, great,” Buffy moaned. “That’s a fancy way of saying that you want to fight me, right? I’m gonna have to wait even longer for my bath.”
“Indeed, insolent child, I am challenging you to face me in the dueling arena.” Chalinthra waved a hand in that direction. Her gaze followed her gesture and fell upon the slaves who were carrying the bodies of the fallen from the pit. “Know that in mere moments you shall be…” Her jaw dropped as she recognized one of the bodies. “Lasaonar! But how… who…?” She swung her head back to face Buffy. “You slew Lasaonar?”
“No, that would be me,” Sorkatani informed her. “He was the victim of a tragic misunderstanding.” Her lips curled in a smile. “He didn’t understand that he just wasn’t good enough.”
Chalinthra spun on her heel and strode off to examine the body. When she returned her brows were low over her eyes and her lips were set in a tight line. “He is beyond the reach of a Raise Dead spell,” she said. “Only a full Resurrection could revive one with such a terrible wound. How did you breach his enchanted armor?”
“She tricked him into taking it off,” the hunt leader, who had been questioning spectators whilst Chalinthra was looking at the corpse, informed her.
“You shall suffer for that, bitch,” Chalinthra snarled. “Lasaonar was my favorite male. After I have humbled your associate I shall deal with you.”
“You want to fight Qilafae and then me?” Sorkatani raised an eyebrow. “Certainly, but you’ll need a way of raising yourself from the dead. A difficult trick. We’re not going to waste any of our spells on you just to give me a little exercise and you another thirty seconds of life.”
“I shall Raise her,” a new voice put in. A female drow emerged from the crowd of spectators and walked towards the prospective combatants. She wore a gleaming black breastplate, sculpted to emphasize breasts that were ample by drow standards, and flowing robes of blue-grey silk. “I’d enjoy seeing Chalinthra killed twice.”
Chalinthra’s lips curled back to expose her teeth. “Your services will not be required, Evelintra,” she said. “I shall crush these mercenaries one by one.”
“That’s ‘Matron Mother Evelintra’ to you,” the newcomer said.
“Matron Mother of the weakest House in the city,” Chalinthra sneered.
“True,” Evelintra conceded, “but two minutes from now we shall be the second weakest, as House Auvrindar no longer possesses a weapon master and is soon to lose its strongest warrior priestess.” Her eyes seemed to twinkle as she smiled. “I’ve seen these girls fight.”
“Bah! Your childish attempts to unsettle me are useless. I know my own prowess. My victory is assured.” Chalinthra turned her back on Evelintra and stalked towards the arena. She wore a short-sword and a flail at her belt and a black shield strapped to her arm. Her hand rested on the flail for a moment, as she stared at Buffy with narrowed eyes, and then moved to the sword. She drew the weapon and adopted a guard position. “Come then, Nasadran, and feel my wrath,” she challenged. Her lips began to move in the words of a spell.
Buffy’s nose wrinkled. “I’m sure that’s cheating,” she complained. “We’re supposed to wait until MC Bloodsplattered there says ‘In the name of Lolth, fight!’.”
“A minor infringement, but there would be nothing to stop a contestant buffing up before issuing the challenge, after all,” Evelintra said. “I could bestow a blessing upon you, if you wish.”
“Thanks, but no need,” said Buffy. She recognized Chalinthra’s chant; she had heard the clerics of her own party using it before. Draw Upon Holy Might. It would make the drow faster, stronger, and tougher than usual. It might even make her faster than Buffy. It wouldn’t be enough.
Buffy made her way into the fighting pit and held her hammer with both hands. “Okay, ready when you are,” she said.
Sondal made his announcement of the challenge and then called out “In the name of Lolth, fight!”
Buffy sprang forward and lashed out with her hammer, swinging it from right to left, aimed at Chalinthra’s shield arm. The drow didn’t try to block. Instead she swayed back, just enough to avoid the blow, and the hammer whistled past harmlessly. Buffy had missed.
A triumphant smile formed on Chalinthra’s face as she swayed forward again to lunge with her sword. She assumed that ‘Qilafae’ would spin round in a complete circle, riding the momentum of the hammer rather than fighting it, and before the move could be completed Chalinthra would have driven her blade deep into the Nasadran’s back. “Victory!” she cried as she struck.
Unfortunately for her Buffy’s intention had never been to rotate through a full circle. She turned her wrists over, twisted her hips, and the hammer-blow’s arc curved down and then up again. The direction of the strike was reversed faster than Chalinthra could have believed possible. The Hammer of Thunderbolts struck the drow’s arm, breaking it and sending the short-sword flying across the pit, and then drove on to crash into Chalinthra’s chest. The magnificent chain mail deformed under the impact and the hammer head drove into Chalinthra’s ribs with barely diminished force. Bones cracked. The drow was lifted from her feet and thrown across the arena to bounce from the surrounding wall and fall to the floor.
“Victory? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” Buffy said, as she walked toward the fallen drow with her hammer raised. “Unless you meant my victory, of course.”
Chalinthra tried to get to her feet. She managed to raise herself to her hands and knees but then her broken arm gave way beneath her and she collapsed again. Bloody spittle showed on her lips as she tried to cast a Heal spell. Buffy kicked her, not with anything like her full power but hard enough to disrupt the casting, and held the Hammer of Thunderbolts poised over Chalinthra’s skull.
“Now, we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way,” said Buffy. “You can surrender, in which case you can patch yourself up and then get your ass kicked by, uh, Dynefryn, or you can keep on trying to fight. In which case I’ll smash your skull and that nice Matron Mother will have to Raise you before Dynefryn gets to chop you into little bitty pieces.”
“I… yield,” Chalinthra gasped.
Buffy grinned at her. “So you’re not totally stupid. Good. Now, if you want to prove you’re really smart, you’ll surrender to Dynefryn in advance and save her time and trouble. And save yourself a really painful death.”
“Never!” Chalinthra hissed. She clawed a potion bottle from a belt pouch and began to fumble at the stopper. It wasn’t easy with only one working hand. Before she could get it open Buffy reached down and snatched the bottle away.
“Naughty, naughty,” Buffy scolded, as she examined the flask. “According to the rules of the arena the winner gets the loser’s equipment. That means you’re trying to drink my Potion of Regeneration. And, hey, I’m not gonna let you unless you ask real nice.”
Chalinthra replied only with a hate-filled glare. She croaked out a Cure spell, choosing a minor one first because she had only one Heal spell left and didn’t dare risk losing it if the pain from her broken ribs distracted her. Once the spell had eased the pain she recited the words of the far more powerful spell.
“You were lucky,” Chalinthra said as she climbed to her feet, her injuries now completely healed. “Your time will come. First I shall destroy your sister.”
“If you even lay one finger on her I’ll smash your head into paste,” Buffy hissed, with such venom in her voice that Chalinthra recoiled, but then Buffy’s expression changed. “Oh. You mean Dynefryn. Feel free to try. Hey, I’ll even let you borrow my armor. And my shield and my flail.” She scooped up the fallen short-sword from the floor and examined it briefly. “Or this sword, if you like.” She let the sword drop and it clattered on the ground.
Chalinthra cringed as she realized what her conqueror meant. For an instant she considered discarding the armor rather than suffer the humiliation of accepting the arrogant mercenary’s offer; but she remembered the immense wound disfiguring Lasaonar’s corpse and changed her mind. “I will hand them to you after I have slain Dynefryn,” Chalinthra told Buffy. “Her armor will be compensation for the loss of mine.”
“Whatever,” said Buffy. “Just hurry up already. I want my bath.”
Two minutes later Chalinthra faced Dynefryn. The first fight had been over so quickly that the Draw Upon Holy Might spell was still in operation. Chalinthra was confident that she would prevail over the swordswoman. There would be no harm in adjusting the odds, however; although her most deadly spells were unsuited for a duel – using Earthquake within the confines of the tavern would see her executed in an extremely prolonged fashion should the wrong person suffer injury as a result, for instance – she still had a few useful tricks up her sleeve.
Even as Sondal was making his announcements Chalinthra was already chanting the words to her first spell. As the dueling master cried ‘In the name of Lolth, fight!’ Chalinthra spoke the final syllables. A Flame Strike lashed down from the ceiling and enveloped Dynefryn in a column of fire.
The tower of flame advanced towards Chalinthra. A blade emerged from the inferno and struck out. Chalinthra took the blow on her shield. She raised her flail but could not see her target well enough to strike. Instead she backed away.
The flames died out and Dynefryn could be seen clearly once more. She was completely unharmed. “You didn’t notice the red dragon armor?” she asked, grinning broadly, and then sprang to the attack.
Chalinthra was forced onto the defensive as the mercenary delivered a rain of blows with twin blades. Her adamantine shield served her well, however, and before long she saw a chance to strike back. Her flail lashed through the air. The Nasadran parried the blow, her left hand sword coming up to connect with the flail’s chain, but the head swung over the blade and the sword was caught. Chalinthra smiled in triumph and pulled to disarm her opponent.
Something struck her legs hard. The next thing she knew she was sitting on her backside on the arena floor. She was empty-handed; the flail was still wrapped around the sword. The Nasadran mercenary flicked her hand and the flail slid from the blade and shot away across the pit. Her leg lashed up and she kicked Chalinthra in the face. Hard. Very hard. Chalinthra’s head jerked back and her helm flew off. Her mouth was full of blood once again, this time from smashed lips and a dislodged tooth, and her vision swam. She brought up her shield by pure reflex; in the nick of time. A sword clashed against the metal. Had she been an instant slower it would have cleaved through her skull.
Frantically Chalinthra scrambled away. The flail was far out of reach, and she had lost track of where her sword lay, but she still had a card to play. Harm. One of the most deadly spells in a cleric’s repertoire. A single touch would injure Dynefryn so grievously that a shield-bash or even a slap would finish her off. If the innate magic resistance of all drow didn’t protect the Nasadran, of course, but that was always a possibility. She had to hope that Lolth would look upon her with favor. Chalinthra chanted the words of the spell and then struck. She didn’t even rise to her feet but drove out her hand from where she sat. She only had to touch the mercenary’s leg and…
Agony seared through her. She froze and stared with horrified eyes at the sword transfixing her arm. It twisted, forcing her to bend over, and from the corner of her eye she saw the other sword, the one with the hilt of red and gold, blurring through the air and she couldn’t get her shield up in…
Chalinthra’s head bounced on the ground and rolled away. Sorkatani stepped back to avoid the fountain of blood.
“Hey, what took you so long?” Buffy called.
“I didn’t want to damage your armor,” Sorkatani replied. “It wouldn’t be much use if I cut a great big slice through it, would it?” She glanced briefly toward the announcer’s platform and then flicked the blood from her swords. Sondal realized too late what she was doing and cursed as he was once more splattered with gore.
“Like I’m gonna wear it now,” Buffy said. “It’ll take ages to clean all that blood out of the links and hey, undressing a corpse? Not my favorite occupation.”
“It would be my pleasure to have it done for you,” Matron Mother Evelintra offered. “You have given me a great deal of enjoyment.”
“Uh, thanks, but there’s no need to go to any trouble,” Buffy said.
“It will be no trouble,” Evelintra assured her. “It’s not as if I’ll be getting my own hands dirty, after all.”
“Yeah, right, what else are minions for?” Buffy glanced down at her hands. “That reminds me. I’m still covered in demon blood. Time to take that bath. Upstairs, people. And hey, Iimzyne, stay out of the Lust Chambers. That goes for you too, Dhaunae.”
“I might have known,” a familiar voice groaned behind her. “I tell you that you will have time to rest and resupply and what do I find you doing? Brawling in a tavern. Huh. Mercenaries.”
“Hello, Solaufein,” Buffy greeted him, without turning round. “What are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’ve managed to get that stick out of your ass and decided to come have some fun.”
“I fail to see what is ‘fun’ about engaging in pointless violence for nothing more than entertainment,” said Solaufein. “I am here to summon you. There has been a change of plan.”
“Hey, you said we had twelve hours,” Buffy complained.
“Such was our information,” Solaufein said, “but the diviners now say that the devourers are planning to travel very soon. We must hasten or we will be too late.”
“Crap,” Buffy moaned. “So, no bath.”
“I take it that this is an important mission?” asked Evelintra.
“It is indeed, Matron Mother,” Solaufein confirmed. “I hope that these… undisciplined thugs from Ched Nasad are equal to the task.” Buffy turned her head to glare at him.
“I think that they may surprise you, Solaufein,” Evelintra said. “They are extremely capable young ladies.” She smiled at Buffy and Sorkatani. “I shall look after your acquisitions in your absence, Qilafae and Dynefryn. The armor and weapons shall be cleaned of blood and stored safely for your return.”
“Thank you, Matron Mother,” Sorkatani said.
“Thanks a lot, Matron Mother,” Buffy agreed, flashing Evelintra a smile.
“It is a shame that you are contracted to House Despana,” Evelintra remarked. “I could have used you to better purpose. Alas, House Zaughym does not have the resources to hire such redoubtable warriors and, to be honest, I did not think of it. If you find time between your tasks, warriors, call upon me. A meal, perhaps? Failing that, we shall no doubt see each other here. Perhaps our paths might cross in the Lust Chambers.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Buffy. “Maybe.” She had no intention of crossing anyone’s path in the Lust Chambers at all. Even though the fights had made her horny. Lust Chambers, so not the answer. No way.
“But Solaufein grows impatient, and so I shall not delay you further,” said Evelintra. “Farewell.”
“It’s Faith all over again,” Giles said, shaking his head. “That’s all we needed. As if things weren’t difficult enough.”
“I do not follow your meaning, Gelfein,” Jaheira said. She was ninety-nine per cent certain that Solaufein was out of earshot but used Giles’ drow alias just in case she was wrong.
“This, ah, desire by the two Slayers to outdo each other,” Giles explained. “I’ve seen the same thing before. A second Slayer turned up in… our home. At first there was a degree of… mistrust, perhaps even hostility, between them. That was bad. However they became reconciled to each other and their relationship grew into friendship. That was worse.”
“They began to compete,” Giles said. “It all ended badly.” He began to give Jaheira a brief potted history of Faith’s career in Sunnydale. Before he could finish he was interrupted by Solaufein bringing the party to a halt.
“We are here,” the drow warrior announced. He pointed at an opening in the nearby rock face. “That is the entrance to the devourer city. From that dread place none ever return. I hope that we have not come too late.” He withdrew a small metal gadget from a pouch and scrutinized it. “Ah. My fears are groundless. The devourers have not yet passed. I shall begin the ritual that will disrupt their astral travel and bring them forth in this spot.”
“How long is it going to take?” Buffy asked.
Solaufein shrugged. “The travel plans of the devourers are beyond my control. Perhaps minutes, or perhaps hours. I will continue performing the ritual for as long as it takes. There is nothing for you to do at the moment except to wait.”
“The operation was successful,” the doctor said. “We’ve relieved the pressure on the brain and his vital signs are good. He’s breathing normally. Now we just have to wait for developments. We’ve done everything that we can. He might recover consciousness in a few hours. It might take days.” He looked down at the floor, avoiding the eyes of the patient’s mother and girlfriend, and swallowed before speaking again. “It might even be weeks.”
“But he will be okay, right, doctor?” Warren’s mother tried to smile but her lip trembled as she spoke. Katrina stared up at the doctor in silence, her eyes wide, her mouth set in a tight line.
“I sincerely hope so,” the doctor said, “but I can’t give you any absolute assurance. Only time will tell.” He sighed. “You might as well go home. We’ll be in touch the moment his condition changes. There isn’t anything more that we can do except to wait.”