The smell of urine was the first thing to assault her nose. The sound of chittering rats was the second. Both pulled away the fog in her mind and Eleesa slowly opened her eyes. She turned her head; her gaze falling on a large rat staring at her a foot away.
Eleesa held her breath, eyes wide, and scrambled to sit up. The lingering numbness from the quill’s poison greeted her, and she fell onto her side. An odd hissing sound came from behind her. Was someone laughing?
She repositioned her right arm, leaned on her palm, and pushed against the cold stone floor. Straining, Eleesa righted herself and pressed her back against the wall. The lighting of the cell was poor and probably purposely orchestrated. It was hard to make out if anyone was in the other cells.
Captured anyway! Brilliant work, Eleesa!
She reached for her Iron Hand, pulling it across her lap. Eleesa frowned, it was worse than she thought. The hoses, wiring and elbow joint were all mangled. The housing was still intact, but the pistons controlling finger function were likely warped from strain.
The soft crimson glow of the firestone gem sent a wave of relief washing over her. It was still secure in the setting on the back of the hand itself. Gently, Eleesa caressed the gem. Its crimson light brightening before going dim.
“You’re awake,” a gravelly voice chimed in, breaking the silence.
Eleesa touched her temples. The sensation was strange, but she was certain he had spoken to her mind. “I am, though obviously they arrested me.”
The odd hissing returned. He was the one laughing!
“You’re that Sauratian.”
“Uxalen,” he replied.
Chains rattled, the sound drawing close, and she turned to her left. In the middle of fighting for their lives, Eleesa hadn’t imagined Uxalen was so big. He was taller than an orc at six and a half feet with the frame to match. The poor lighting, mixed with the shadows they cast, made his reptilian features more intimidating.
Their captors had him thoroughly bound, from the iron mittens covering his hands, to the metal muzzle on his jaws. Chains covered the rest of his body, limiting his movement. The combined weight of his bonds had to be impossibly heavy.
“Welcome to the gladiatorial pits, Eleesa.”
Eleesa frowned, her fingers still stroking the firestone gem. Its crimson light brightened briefly before dimming.
“It’s precious to you, isn’t it?” Uxalen asked.
“It was my mother’s,” she replied. “Firestone gems are illegal in some places. Mostly because of their ability to absorb magic. Some feel it’s too dangerous. The higher quality of the gem, the more powerful the magic it can contain.”
“Yet, you use it to power your arm.”
She nodded. “Firestone gems are hard to come by and highly sought after by Makers like myself. We don’t understand them, but they stabilize our creations, preventing them from malfunctioning.”
“In my travels I heard that goblins were the originators of the school of Artifice,” he commented. “Among their own kind, though, they are often killed.”
“They were and are. One ancient Charnoan king saw the value in what goblin tinkerers could offer and gave them sanctuary to practice their craft. Many came from all over Elanthar to escape their tribes. Along the way, we humans refined their madness, though we still struggle with the unpredictability artifice occasionally offers.”
“There are many who fear artifice because of that. Your king must have been strange, even for a human,” he said. “To me, the craft sounds like another form of magic.”
“In some ways it is, and others it isn’t,” Eleesa replied. “Honestly, I think goblin tinkerers are the Forger’s joke to Elanthar. He’s a fickle Immortal to be sure and unpredictable, like fire.”
“Fire isn’t predictable, Eleesa. It’s purposeful. It does what it needs before burning out once that purpose is fulfilled.”
Eleesa smirked. “You sound like one of the Great Library’s Custodians.”
“My travels have taken me to many of your nations over the years,” he replied. “Though, I find Absion a bit… distasteful.”
“You and everyone else. Absonians are a distinct people,” she said. “They are warriors at heart, driven and unyielding. Honor means everything to them.The nation had its pockets of dissonance, but as a whole, law and order is what they live by. It’s how they see the world.”
“And how do you see the world, Eleesa? For that matter; you’re a long way from Charnoe.”
Eleesa softly touched her Iron Hand, picking at a mesh hose, to see if it was salvageable. “My people have their own way of things,” she replied. “I simply decided that it wasn’t for me. We work to better our nation, through craft and community. My mother worked for the royal Steel Smiths before she died in an accident. After that, I chose to forge my own way.”
Eleesa touched her left cheek, locking her jaw.
“Eleesa, don’t hold back,” he said. “There is no shame in shedding tears for those you love.”
Eleesa wiped her eyes. “What about you, Uxalen? I feel your story is worth hearing more than mine.”
“All stories are interesting, some are full of woe,” he replied. His chains rattled as he moved to seat himself next to the bars. “My story is the reason I am here.”
His eyes were full of sadness, the black slits at their center dialating. Eleesa tested her body. The numbness and tingling she felt was fading. She braced herself against the wall and pulled herself up, then moved closer to the bars where he sat.
“So an Inquisitor sensed your crime and arrested you.”
He nodded. “Though, my crime happened before I had even hatched.”
“That makes no sense. How can you do something before being born?”
“As you have seen, I have abilities. It was this power that took the lives of my clutchmates before we hatched. I can only assume I wasn’t going to make it and through survival instinct, I stole their lifeforce.”
Eleesa leaned against the bars of the cell. How can you blame someone for something they had no control over?
“A rational person might think such things,” he replied as if reading her thoughts. “But lives were taken as part of a conscious act. That, is what made the Inquisitors I encountered aware of me when we crossed paths.”
She slid down to the stone floor and reached through the bars, placing her hand on the metals gloves covering his. “How many died, Uxalan?”
“Twelve in total,” he replied. “My mother was distraught and overjoyed all at once. No one in my tribe had ever seen anything like it before. While my egg was solid black, like the others, it was the only one not shriveled and withered. They viewed my hatching as a miracle.”
“Do you think it was a miracle?”
“No, I don’t. The Marshes are a dark place and shadow magic permeates the bogs and swamps,” he said. “I think some of it got into me.”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “My people are warriors and aren’t known for their magical prowess. Everything I know, I’ve had to learn on my own.”
His words cut deep. More than thought linked them through the magic. Eleesa sensed his feelings. Inside Uxalen, a yawning loneliness lurked. One that spanned decades.
Looking at him, perhaps for the first time, she noticed a mark on his forearm. It was carved into his thick scales; the divots showing someone had branded him. In shape, the mark was the likeness of a serpentine dragon biting its own tail.
“The Brand of the Outcast. The serpent biting its own tail symbolizes that I have no beginning or end to my journey. I will wander forever without a place to call home.”
“How could they do this? You didn’t kill your clutchmates…”
“No, but as my abilities grew and the dark magic inside manifested, my tribe’s opinion of that day changed. Originally, they believed the war trolls responsible. There are those among them who practice the Shadow Arts.”
If only my hand were working… I would break these bars and your chains Uxalen.
The Sauratian laughed. “The sentiment is appreciated, Eleesa, but the Inquisition can’t hold me. In time you will see.”
The audible groan of metal on metal drew her attention. Light from the doorway chased the shadows further away and three centurions entered. One stepped toward her cell door and produced a set of keys, unlocking it.
“Put these on,” he said, throwing a set of manacles onto the floor.
“Go with them, now isn’t the time to fight.”
The difference in temperature was noticeable upon entering the chamber. Eleesa shivered from the sweat clinging to her. It was a wonder the centurion, and the guards, hadn’t passed out from the humidity in the halls. They didn’t appear to have an ounce of sweat on them.
The assortment of books lining the shelves carved into the wall caught her attention. There was a portly man standing near them. He was browsing the tomes with a passing interested.
The tables arrayed in front of her caught Eleesa’s eye next. Each was littered with gears, springs and an assortment of parts. While rudimentary, the parts would make it easier to repair her prosthetic.
“Good, you seem to have survived your ordeal.”
Eleesa tore her attention from the tables to the man by the bookshelves. His pallium or robes looked expensive. It was red, with hem and edges embroidered with gold thread. They weren’t something a commoner would wear. His hair was bright blonde, probably dyed. He wore a thick gold chain about his neck and her eyes went wide at the firestone gem set into the pendant on the chain.
“Leave us,” he commanded. The centurion nodded and left with the guards following behind. “I hope these are suitable to fix that,” he said, pointing to her Iron Hand.
“It will be a start, the damage is severe.”
He frowned, showing concern. “I see. Then if you will be so kind to make a list, I will have it made.”
Eleesa pursed her lip, her eyebrows pressing together. “Why?”
He smiled, the ends of it curling slightly. “Because I can’t have a broken gladiator running about my coliseum,” he replied. “It would disappoint the crowd and I have a reputation to maintain.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry my arm is such an inconvenience, your Grace,” Eleesa commented. “We can’t disappoint the people after all.”
His jaw tightened, and his expression hardened. “Let me put it another way, Charnoan. Your will fix your arm, because if you value your life and survival there is no other choice for you.”
Eleesa scanned the parts. Uxalen said to be patient. “I need an ink, quill. And several sheets of parchment.”
His stern expression broke into a warm smile. “Excellent, this will be your workshop. Mind that you don’t get the books dirty. If any come to harm I will feed to you the dragon.”
“Just who are you?”
“My name is Saetrum Gennias,” he replied. “I am the coliseum’s Arena Master.”
“So you bought me then?”
“I did and at a hefty price,” he said. “I found the inn you were staying at and confiscated your effects.”
“My tools are with my things, I can’t fix my arm with out them.”
I will have them brought here, minus your weapons. Those we will reserve for your fights.”
“So am I your slave? That’s most Absonians do.”
He moved over to the closest table and sliding the parts aside, seated himself on it. “You are my guest, in the sense that unlike others, you can win your freedom. If, you cooperate and play your role.”
“I’m an entertainer, I make my living providing sport for the people. There are expectations that I must meet. Every show must have a story. So, you are paired with the sauratian, for now that is your role.”
His smile and body language were both hard to read and interpret. The man was serpent, but he didn’t come off as a liar. “What of Uxalen? What happens to him?”
“Oh, My hands are tied on that creature. The Inquisition will never let me set him free.”
Eleesa frowned. Somehow, I doubt you would even if you could.
“So do we do this politely, or barbarically?” he asked.
“I have your word, you will set me free?”
He nodded. “So long as you behave and play your role.”
“And if that role requires me to kill Uxalen?”
“That, my dear, depends on the story of the day, doesn’t it?” he replied.
“I’m not one to waste precious resources, but I am a slave to the people and their needs.”
“Then I will play your game, for now.”
He smiled, his eyes lighting up with delight. “Then you shall have all you ask for, but try to escape, or deceive me, and I will feed you both to Firespite.”