The Tower of Nihalistrix the Black
Ethne watched the carnage taking place below with an entirely affected disinterest. She had never understood the reason so many of the recruits had to die in this process, and it only seemed to grow worse with time. Nevertheless, she was not the Mistress, and if Nihalistrix chose not to share the internal workings of her mind, well, her Fourth Thane and preferred mouthpiece would not commit sacrilege by asking for them.
It was a gruesome scene, the gnolls savage and predatorily cunning, their maws open and dripping with saliva, and in many cases, blood. The sickening crack of bones breaking and agonized howls of the dying punctuated the undertone that only a few could hear, the distinct purr of the Mistress’s enjoyment. Ethne swallowed, but otherwise remained as still as stone, reminding herself that the Dragon Lord she served was wise beyond her ken, and brooked no questions, or argument.
Instead, she took to picking out happenings of interest where she could see them, knowing that when the time came, the Mistress would seek her input. Glancing down at the dossier still held loosely in her hands, she attempted to attach faces to names and information. That one, the dark elf darting around, he was the one that claimed to be the shadowdancer. Ethne decided that whether or not he actually fit the grandiose moniker he gave himself, he was likely a competent-enough assassin. Of course, he was presently being attacked by another of his kind, so perhaps he would not survive long enough for it to matter.
Nightmarians were few and far between, but this moth appeared to have little combat training. The elf was unsure whether or not she should be surprised by this, having little experience to base her judgment upon. A cloud of reddish powder issued from the woman’s wings, notably slowing the gnolls in the immediate area, and confusing them enough that most of them picked new targets. Wait a moment… Ethne squinted, then blinked in obvious surprise. The woman was weaponless? Had she been disarmed already or was she simply a barehanded fighter? Either way, the fact that she was still alive in such a state warranted consideration.
Shaking her head and pursing her lips, the elf moved on. A few harpies flew above the carnage, diving in and out of the fray, but only one of them was cackling with wild abandon. Sleekfeathers, she supposed, as there was a small note at the foot of the dossier that indicated possible mental instability. This was not a categorical disqualifier within the ranks of the Children, especially not Nihalistrix’s own brood. She watched a gnoll fall, skull crushed, and made another small tic in the loosely-bound sheaf of papers, unaware of the fact that one of the creatures, apparently possessed of rare intelligence, had launched herself off the back of an orc and was on-track to drag the harpy earthward.
A halfling gutted a gnoll mercilessly, while an elf of at least seven feet in height mauled two others with the graceless fury of a berserker, axe in one hand, shortsword in the other. That one must be Weylin.
As loath as she was to admit it, that human knight was acquitting himself rather well, alongside the fighter Dresinil. Gritting her teeth, she narrowly avoided grinding them together, and made another two marks in the dossier, glancing back up to note that the swath they had cleared in the gnolls was forcing the more wary creatures back, circling the two men with obvious caution. Suddenly, a group of five lunged for the pair of warriors simultaneously, apparently aware that their best advantage would come from their numbers.
So engrossed was she in watching to see what would happen that she scarcely felt the Silenced connect to her mind. When the man informed her of the Mistress’s question, Ethne tore her gaze down to the dossier. Weylin, Dresinil, Cassius, Yulni, Oraun, Noda’Razzr, Pylarea, Salakor, Sleekfeathers, Thorne, and… Garethson. A similar question was doubtless being relayed to the other Thanes present, but even Ethne wasn’t exactly sure what happened next. This was, after all, the first time Nihalistrix had used this particular method of examination.
Feng leaned casually against one of the sides of the stone structure, ostensibly paying attention to the goings-on and watching for people trying to escape. Something else was happening next, he just couldn’t remember what. Glancing upwards, he caught sight of those twelve people with black-hemmed robes standing next to the dragon, and two red-robes. Who were they again? Shaking his head, he decided it didn’t matter.
The doors, please, Captain. The voice inside his head sounded tinny, far away, as though heard from a great distance. The voices that weren’t his always sounded like that, though, so he didn’t really notice.
The deep human blinked slowly, though he did spot the doors in question; a massive set at the end of the arena opposite from the ones the initiates had entered through.What about them? He felt mental hesitation, and then the voice came again, this time sounding strained.
The Mistress says you are to open them. Oh. That sounded vaguely familiar, now didn’t it? With a shrug, Feng darted over to the arched portcullis in question, deftly weaving through gnolls and initiates without any trouble. No surprise. They were all so busy with each other; who’d take note of little old him? Laying his palms evenly on the smooth stone, he pushed, and the enchanted gateway gave with little protest.
Nihalistrix watched the fray below with one large eye, unblinking, her head turned to the side so as to widen the angle of her perception. It pleased her that they all fought so very hard for their lives, for soon their lives would be hers, that effort turned to much more useful purposes indeed. The red-robed Silenced next to her continued to funnel information into her vast draconian mind, and she took note of each Thane’s recommendations, adding them to her own until there was a list of about a hundred and ten.
The arrival of her favored hatchling distracted her for a moment, though she did not move. Instead, she chuckled, a sound like stones grating together, and spoke for the first time she’d bothered that day. “You shall have fifty, to add to those already yours. The strange one will accompany you to lead them, and you may have your choice of two Thanes as well.” It was a rather large commitment, actually, but unlike her kindred Lords, Nihalistrix had the personnel to make it wise rather than a foolish risk. When Aesr mentioned the crazed harpy in the air, she continued. “Yes. 'Twould be a shame to Silence such a… musical sound, no?” Generally speaking, the youngest of the remaining Lords had a hatred of spellcasters that ran deep, but this one was particularly amusing to her, and for this reason, she was willing to spare Zulii the fate that awaited the other magic-slinging initiates.
By this point, the gnolls were thinning out in number, as the initiates recovered from their surprise. The latter had the superior numbers, of course- she did not desire them all to die yet. Feeding the list to the casters that flanked her, she chortled low in her throat when the two used spellcraft to lift the chosen and whisk them through the doors Feng had opened. Some of those facial expressions were amusing indeed. Once the hundred and ten she’d accounted for were all through, she waited for the doors to slide closed, then slowly began to rouse herself.
The movement of a creature as large as Nihalistrix was always an event, and her Thanes were smart enough to get out of the way with all due haste. One of the Silenced, a halfling male rather new to the position, was not, and an errant sweep of her tail sent him careening into the arena. It didn’t much matter to her. Looking down at the remains, gnolls and initiates alike, her reptilian lips pulled back from her teeth, a gruesome caricature of a smile. Her jaws parted, and she snaked her massive head down over the lip of the bowl. The expansion of her chest and ribcage indicated that she was taking a deep breath, and the unholy conflagration was pouring out of her mouth before any of those below had a chance to do any more than realize what was headed their way.
If the screams of immolated men, women, and gnolls were sweet music to the imbalanced dragon, Ethne tried her best to ignore them as she stood before the remainder of the candidates. She hadn’t been expecting this, but then it was not often that her Mistress deigned to share the majority of her intentions. Those still alive now stood in a long, bare stone hallway, broken up by round columns running from floor-to-ceiling at regular intervals. There was a raised dias on the end, which at some point Nihalistrix would occupy alongside herself and the other eleven Thanes. For now, though, she at least stood firmly on the ground before the initiates.
“Open-field combat is one thing,” she began, enunciating carefully so as to avoid letting any sign of unease show through. “But our enemies are many, their tactics varied, and you will not always have the luxury of direct confrontation. Nor will it always be clear to you what the enemy’s true objective might be. Here, you will be divided into groups, and your opponents will be each other.”
It was bound to be confusing, as everyone was dressed the same. In fact, they were not expected to retain their sides at all, merely to survive by whatever means they came up with. Ethne wasn’t sure why, but supposed that the Mistress must know. As it turned out, her recommendations were all kept together, added to another, similarly-sized group that she presumed must represent a different Thane’s opinion on the best of the lot.
“Memorize the faces of your comrades. They may be the only things that keep you alive.” She cocked her head to one side for a second, then nodded in acknowledgement of some silent order. “Also, as is only fitting, if any one of you kills the captain, you have his place in the ranks.” This at least was standard; it was how Tao had ended up a captain in the first place. He didn’t look surprised, but then she didn’t really expect him to. He was not to attack until aggression was made against him, for it was always possible that none would have the cocktail of ambition and foolishness needed to take on a fully-fledged Child in single combat.
Stepping back onto the dias, Ethne and the other Thanes waited in silence. There would be no signal to begin; it was up to them to decide how much time they spent in strategy, and how to balance that against the advantage of attacking first.
Neira casually dropped the blue-faced man as she caught the first flash of white from the corner of her eye. A smile, genuinely pleased, bloomed across her tattooed face, and she turned to her subordinates. Though all were covered in blood and a few were nursing injuries, not one had yet fallen to kiss the earth below, and this was something she took great pride in. These men and women drilled with her, and each of them was pushed to their very limits in training, something that was clearly paying off now.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she paused for the guffaws that would follow from her troop, not one of whom could call themselves a lady or a gentleman without lying through their teeth, and then continued. “The evening’s entertainment is here.” Whilst her mannerisms and attitude had unnerved several of them at first, they had since found that it was something of a confidence boost. Never once had she let them rest, and never would she expect them to fail. Quite the opposite, actually, and there was an unusual sort of morale in it.
“Do avoid the gouts of flame. I’d hate to have to replace you.” So saying, Neira herself shot forward, lancing the first Child in sight with her mind, causing him to turn on his heel and bury his axe into his closest comrade, who screamed and fell, blood gushing from her chest. Realization dawned on him shortly after, but not before Neira had plunged her hand into his back, sharpened exoskeleton doing the work of tempered steel. That may as well have been the signal, for the rest of her unit surged forward behind her, and the fight was on.
Superhuman strength knocked the next man, a monolith in armor, back into the two ranged units behind him, and the arrow intended for Karthak never flew. Lenaluin and Miramel, the twin elven skirmishers, moved as one to engage another knot of Children, backed up the nightmarian mantis Vin’athar and the poleax- wielding dark elf Daethor.
Shaking the excess gore from her hand, Neira met the eyes of a tower of an orc and winked. “Shall we dance?”
It was a fortunate thing that Talae had always been very good at waiting, for that seemed to be what her job mostly consisted of these days. Rolling her shoulders, she felt the familiar weight of her new hand-and-a-half shift on her back. It was a well-made weapon, much more so than her last one, and had its name etched into the crossguard. Special-ordered with her new commission, actually, though ironically she’d have less opportunity to use it now.
Abel. Seemed fitting enough, didn’t it? A small tribute to a long-fallen comrade, and the memory of learning how such a blade felt in her hands.
But it didn’t do to dwell overmuch on the dead, so instead she shifted her focus to her squad, ten members of which were currently riding with her in this supply wagon. Of these, all were asleep, and she managed a half-quirk of her lips when she noted that Asera was snoring lightly. So many of them were so young still, though really that yet applied to herself as well, especially considering her race’s longevity. A pity she hadn’t felt like a youth since before the Day of Falling Ashes.
Allowing her thoughts to wander for a bit, she wondered how her partner was doing. They’d both been placed in charge of their own units by now, so it would be a rare occasion indeed before she and Kisikoni were again watching each other’s backs on the same field, but that sort of trust didn’t just leave a person. Nor did the concern, given the battered condition the deep human seemed often to find himself in, and the… stranger things, the ones she couldn’t explain. Then there were the latest recruits, who’d be seeing their first major battle right about now, and Alistair the harpy attempting to gather the clans against the dragons, to say nothing of those comrades who were to lead the prison infiltration. Sometimes, things happened so quickly that you didn’t need years to feel that much older, merely months.
But the cart was trundling to a stop, and there was work to be done. Carefully, Talae roused the others, pushing all her anxieties and reminiscences to the back of her mind, where they would remain until she could again open that Pandora’s Box with something like safety.