The only battle for Bradanes occurred some time after its fall, on
the fields of Metamor. No one was killed, and every survivor emerged victorious,
all for the fallen of Bradanes.
-- Emery Glendancer
Training Paula had become more and more involved for Lois. The former assassin pushed her as hard as she could handle, and she was beginning to respond to the training more and more successfully. She was already giving him some good fights, but Lois was becoming worried. If she became too used to just his one combat style, varied though it was, then she would have trouble adjusting to other opponents. With a change in pace long overdue, Lois took Paula to the training fields early one afternoon. He had expected just to find a few men that he could recruit to help him show some variety to Paula, but what he found was that the fields were being overtaken by some sort of hubbub.
Lois looked on quietly, Paula following just off of his tail, watching the odd scene on the training fields. Three men stood on a trio of barrels which had been pushed together in a makeshift platform, calling out to different portions of the small crowd as questions echoed from all sides. Just visible to one side, written in legible, if not particularly elegant, script, was a notice of a small pugilism tournament. The writing made reading it more difficult, but after a few moments, Lois finally made it out.
"All fighters to the rings to-day!
Crown the King of Fighters!"
A smaller notice written below read.
"Contributions required for participation, the first half to the winner, and the other to remember the Fallen of Bradanes."
Lois raised a brow at this, but he noticed as he turned back to the trio of men on the makeshift platform that Paula had already made her way towards their perch. Lois stepped closer, and was able to see after a brief inspection that the well-worn hat in which they were collecting contributions had two or three coppers in it so far. The small crowd was interested more to hear the men parading atop the barrels than they were in actually participating.
The ermine walked to one side, to where a fast-talking hare in patched clothing was quickly announcing to his portion of the crowd why they should consider joining.
"How much for two to enter?" Lois called above the muttered questions of the gathered throng. The hare jumped down, pointing towards Lois.
"Aye, there's a man whose spirit will take him places! Sir, the entrance fee is what you wish to pay. We ask at least a copper for the pot, but if you could add more it would be a certain grace for us."
"By your accent I would wager that you're not of the north," Lois observed. "And freshly Cursed, too; your clothes have not been tailored correctly for your form."
The hare nodded. "Correct on both counts, sir. As for my accent, it may differ by degrees from that of my countrymen, as I have traveled abroad for some time, but all of us have come from the once-great, now-plague-ridden city of Bradanes. We were cursed to die there, now Cursed to live here." He smiled at the irony, showing his buck teeth. "For myself and my fellows here today I can say that our lot has been easier than most. Here with our families intact we are, but burdened now with the knowledge that there remain those not so lucky. We seek through any means possible to ease the lives of those so stricken, and with no goods to peddle, we have turned to a competition for worthy men and women to twice prove their worth: in battle, and also by helping those needier than themselves."
Lois pulled out a pair of silvers from his pouch, making a show of the amount to the speaker. "Thank you, sir. For my entrance I wish to give one silver, and one to you for your most helpful information."
The hare snapped a large foot to the ground quickly enough to raise a small cloud of dust. "Not so, sir! I have no need of silver. If you wish to give two, apply the second to your entrance as well."
Lois feigned insult. "Is my money not for me to do with as I please? You have aided me by answering my question, and I wish to pay you for it."
"I will not accept, sir, not while there remain hungry mouths to feed among my people," the hare replied, now scowling at the ermine's suggestion. Lois could have sworn that the temperature had lowered in the area, but he smiled to the hare all the same. He was always suspicious of anyone who claimed to perform charity in such a way as this, but the man's reaction convinced Lois of one of two options. Either he was earnest, and the money would be used well, or the hare was an excellent actor, in which case he had earned the coin by his performance alone already.
Smile still intact, the ermine expertly tossed the coins into the hat, both landing solidly within its small circle. “That is all I needed to know, sir. Get yourself a larger hat for the pot, you may need it in a few moments.”
Paula had returned to his side, smiling wryly at him. She had caught onto his intentions, and seemed quite amused by them. Before she could comment, however, her mentor suddenly dodged into the throng of interested Keepers. She heard a few words exchanged between him and another Keeper, and suddenly the man was loudly proclaiming how he would wipe the confident grin from the ermine’s face. Lois prodded him further, and the two began to scuffle until one of the men atop the barrels stopped them.
“Gentlemen! There will be plenty of time for that in the ring, and far more to gain from it!” It was the hare, regaining his elevated voice and eager theatricality.
The man that Lois had prodded seemed to consider before shouting in affirmation and throwing a whole crown into the hare’s hat.
Suddenly, the two men were everywhere at once, challenging others to fight for everything from the pride of their country to revenge for slights others had made to their mothers. Before long, most of the crowd had thrown in, tossing coins from their purses into the hat so quickly that the three men were nearly overwhelmed. Although the other two began to have trouble coming up with words, the hare continued to throw the full weight of his quick-spoken words behind the cause.
In less than an hour, the men were forced to call a halt to the entrants so that they would be able to handle it all. In far less time than it should have taken, the men had set up dueling pairs in a tournament, with the hare scrawling quick notes on the back of the sign he had set up an hour beforehand.
Lois grinned to his partner in crime as he handed him two crowns in recompense for his help. The ermine was not often so free with his money, but those two crowns had earned back far more than their own worth in the hat. He was so busy smiling that he failed to notice the mousy old woman who crept up beside him. She had been Cursed with the form of a mouse, but she wore the form well, down to the twitch of the whiskers she gave as she smiled up at the ermine.
“Thank you for that,” she said in a quiet, creaky voice.
Lois turned back to look at her, surprised at her sudden appearance. “For what?” he asked innocently.
“I saw what you did there. I thought when those three took it into their heads to do something so foolhardy as this that it would end in failure, and I warned them. I guess sometimes it pays to be a fool, and young Emery is quite the example of that.”
“The hare?” Lois inquired. The mouse nodded.
“He was born in Bradanes, and raised most of his life there. When he claims that he lost no family to the plague, it is because he had none left to lose. They all died when his house caught ablaze, and when we found him he was being cradled in his mother’s arms.
He grew up swearing to leave the place to escape those memories, and leave he did with a traveling carnival. By the time he returned, Bradanes was a city of dying men. We were poisoned and disfigured, waiting to die. Emery returned to find it in such a state, and rather than leave he swore to save it. Few knew of him; one brave voice among the hundreds of suffering was easily drowned out. Those who heard his messages scornfully asked what he knew; he had not succumbed to the poison, he could only watch as the city withered and died.”
Lois turned back to watch the hare, who was energetically speaking with another of the refugees who had joined him in the endeavor. “He seems quite driven,” he commented.
“You don’t know the half of it. When the bitter insults began to fly at him, he did the only thing he could think of to respond to them. He drank of the poisoned water himself.”
Lois’ mouth went dry. The hare he was watching had barely entered his adulthood. Had he really been willing to cast away what remained of his life to better help others? What did that say of him?
“We destroyed the wells and left Bradanes not long after, but when we did he came with, us, covered in rags to hide his own plague-distorted face.” She smiled. “He was a handsome fellow, it was good to see the Curse graciously returned some of that to him.”
Lois was almost tempted to call the whole story a bluff, but as he watched the men who were rapidly putting together the bracket for an impromptu tournament he could not bring himself to believe the suspicion. It was unlikely, but the way the men were quickly separating the pot into two halves, one for the winner and one for their cause, he could see on their face an expression of joy. It wasn’t the pleased, scheming look of men who had made a haul through deception. It was instead the faces of men who had set out to accomplish an unlikely work, and somehow it had come together despite the odds against it.
He nodded and smiled to the mouse beside him. “I am glad to have been able to help, ma’am. Now if you will excuse me, I believe that this tournament is about to begin.” He gave her one last smile before heading towards the rings where the hare was beginning to summon those who had joined the competition.
Paula was waiting, her expression uncertain, even if she was already prepared to fight. “What was that about?” she asked simply, not even bothering to watch his approach. Her clairvoyance had given him away even in the sea of moving people.
“It was an older woman from Bradanes. She was giving me some background on these young men.” His eyes followed the hare, who was currently consulting quickly with his companions, one an impish boy who seemed to intentionally keep his age young for charm’s sake and the other a sturdy young man who seemed to be built for the fight himself.
“What did you find out?” Paula inquired again. This time she turned to look up at her mentor, face expectant and hopeful.
“I found out that there is at least one person who will vouch for my intuition here. She collaborated their story of their intentions for the money.” He left out quite a bit, of course, but Paula nodded and turned back towards the ring. The men had finished consulting, and the hare was bobbing with excitement, moving just outside of the circle of one of the rings. He seemed to be daunted slightly by the number of Keepers that had joined but, with a winning smile, he began to speak, somehow projecting enough to be heard above the milling crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you all for your contributions and for your spirit of competition here today. We are sorry for the delay, but I believe that we are prepared to begin!” He held an arm up as if to cue his audience, and a few took initiative and cheered or clapped. The crowd was hardly a match for those seen in similar competitions during the major festivals, but they were in good spirits, and they put a voice to their enthusiasm as the hare encouraged them.
He lowered his arm again to signal that he was about to speak again. “We wished to make as many bouts available for all to see as possible, but we have far more entrants than we had expected. To move things along, we will be using these three rings,” he indicated which with a wave of his paw, “to move this competition along for the first few rounds. Once we are past the larger rounds, however, we will reduce our area to this, central ring.” He indicated the one around which he was patrolling.
The crowd clapped politely once again, a few egging the hare on with a few joking calls for him to get along with the games. The hare grinned and bowed graciously to those few before speaking again. “Let us begin!”
With those words, he immediately began to read off the names of those competing. The number of rings meant that not all of the participants were able to fight in the first three bouts. Lois was one of the excepted few, but Paula smiled confidently to him. “I’ll see you once I take down this first one,” she quipped, clearly intending for it to take very little time.
“Don’t overestimate your skills. You’ve come far in a few months, but you have much to learn.” He spoke these words chidingly, but not to discourage her. He still smiled to her as she stepped into the ring, and she rolled her eyes and smiled back.
Lois was interested in some of the other bouts, but something akin to duty stayed him to watch Paula’s first fight. He barely needed any time to assess her opponent. Clearly he had been one of the few that had thrown some coins in, hoping that the good feelings associated with his generous donation would result in a few easy battles he could brag about later. He was an animal Cursed Keeper, bearing a form Lois could not identify. Based on the way the man moved he assumed that the creature was a sort of predator, but the man himself lacked the killer instinct that any such creature should have.
The bout was quick, as Lois had predicted upon seeing Paula’s competition. The man struck quickly a few times, but a combination of Paula’s supernatural reflexes and her training kept any of them from landing, and the last one was caught around the wrist by the ermine’s pupil. She turned the hand at a painful angle, using her body to lever the man into a position he could not support by himself. He growled and tried to pull loose, but Paula smoothly changed her hold until her competition had twisted himself out of his chance to compete. He struggled for a few moments after all of the onlookers knew the inevitable conclusion, but even he could not delay it for long. He spat a few choice words that hardly sounded threatening from his position but then was forced to relent. Moaning and shaking his hand, he walked out of the ring with a scowl back at Paula.
The young woman smiled impishly at Lois. “One down,” she taunted quietly.
Lois sighed and turned his attention to the other fights. One was progressing much like Paula’s, but the other was quite interesting. Two men were locked in a good old-fashioned wrestling match, and neither seemed to have a clear advantage. By the time the one had pinned the other, there had already been several bets made on the winner. The man who had won clapped the shoulder of the other with hearty enthusiasm, and the two shared a laugh as they left the ring.
The assassin’s bout was somewhat more interesting than Paula’s. By this point, the hare had taken to calling out the blow by blow description of the fight, and he introduced the fighters by name. Unfortunately, he was not well-acquainted with the fighters and, seeing a name like Lois, he assumed it belonged to the ermine’s opponent, a wiry female coyote that bobbed around the ring like a drunkard. Lois almost laughed himself to tears while to hare corrected himself, somehow managing to work the crowd for some support even while going completely red in the ears.
The fight was also entertaining. The coyote dodged deftly between strikes, and forced Lois to fall back and reconsider his attack strategy several times. It seemed mostly even until Lois landed a nasty right cross to the coyote’s muzzle. While she refused to go down so easily, her weaving was now more due to being punch-drunk than by any design of her intention.
When she finally collapsed under her own power on a badly off-target straight punch, Lois caught her and made sure she was all right. She was checked quickly by a healer, but all he had to say was that she needed to be off of her paws for a little while. She wanted to continue the fight, but when she tried to stand up she quickly began to agree with the diagnosis, and went to sit in the crowd.
The hare was becoming quite good at his self-appointed task, and soon had the crowds reacting more to his commentary than to the bouts themselves. Everyone was in high spirits, even those who went on to lose their fights. A few left with harsh words, but most were sporting, even in their defeats.
Two rounds passed, leaving sixteen fighters still competing. Paula had won her second fight in a far tenser affair than her first. She had even be leveled by a one-two punch that she only partially blocked, but she had returned to her feet before her opponent decided to press his advantage. Where the coyote had been shaken by Lois’ strong strike, Paula only seemed more determined to win afterwards. She took several more hits throughout the fight, but more and more she seemed to allow them in order to set up an opening for her own offensive push. Finally, she finished the battle, not with a resounding knockout punch, but with a series of crippling strikes to her opponent’s knee. He attempted to continue, but yielded as soon as the leg folded as he attempted to face down a barrage of quick strike rained on his defenses by Lois’ protégé.
The ermine smiled and nodded to her as she walked past, but she didn’t return the gesture. She was clearly exhausted, and she would not have so much time to recover after the second round. Lois had already fought, having taken down his opponent quickly. He followed Paula, setting a paw on her shoulder as she took a moment to breathe.
“Are you all right?” he asked. She nodded, too busy breathing to respond with words. The ermine eyed her warily. She had only ever faced him using the techniques that he passed on to her, and he could see the beginnings of bruises on her arms, and one high on her cheek. She was bound to look as though she had been dragged under the wagon after this. Lois sighed. If he fought first again, he meant to do what he could to buy her time in the ring.
He was indeed called into the ring before she was, and as he stepped in against his opponent his eyes widened. Winning a long fight was going to be difficult; winning a short fight would be nearly impossible. The man before him was the winner of the wrestling match in the first round, still apparently going strong after his second round battle. He smiled at the ermine as they entered, quickly preparing to make the battle another wrestling match. He clearly expected to be able to win it if he was successful, and Lois tended to agree with him. Fighting so far outside of his weight level seemed like a fool’s errand.
The man’s features were strong from head to toe; his broad shoulder led to arms that were as large as the legs of many of the spectators. He grinned as though he expected an easy win, his long, braided beard bouncing under his chin as though to make up for his bald scalp. Many battle scars were visible on the top of his head; this man was not just a fighter, he was a soldier who had seen his share of battles.
Emery rapped his foot along the ground to call for attention at the beginning of the match. “A match of contrasts, my friends! The quick-footed ermine against a true man of the north, bred thick and strong as the trees that surround this very Keep!” Some people laughed and cheered at this description, and the hare smiled and continued his introduction. “Is it a battle of brains against brawn, or do these two have hidden depths to bring to the battlefield? Ladies and gentlemen, Balrog vs. Lois!”
The large man raised an eyebrow at the introduction, but neither of them left their initial positions until the hare cried for them to fight. When he did, the two of them moved quickly, even the large human who showed quite a bit more reflex than anyone expected. For his part, Lois dodged the man’s initial lunge for his leg, and began to circle carefully, dodging several testing reaches from the larger man while keeping his own body low. He attempted a few strikes himself, but Balrog brushed them all off as though he didn’t feel them at all. He smiled again. In an instant, Lois suddenly found himself in a struggle to keep his balance. In the time it had taken Lois to notice and react to the man’s strange expression, Balrog had finally managed to catch his leg. Lois braced against the larger man. Victory from this position seemed unlikely at best.
Thankfully, Lois’ new form was far more flexible than his human form had been. He struggled for balance for a few moments, and then realized that the man was relying on him falling to one side, something that was certain to happen if Balrog had a human in this sort of position. Unfortunately for him, Lois could bend at angles that would snap a normal man’s spine. He let the man lift him up as though to drive him into the ground, but he twisted midair before the man could finish the maneuver. As Balrog nearly met the ground face-first, Lois simply snaked out of the hold like the weasel he had become. The man was so stunned by his opponent’s sudden disappearance that he was barely ready when Lois pivoted on one paw and threw himself back onto his opponent, grabbing and twisting the man’s arm behind his back. Balrog grunted, but he wasn’t about to allow such a simple hold to keep him down.
To his credit, Lois did hold him for a while, but there was only so much that the ermine could do with leverage alone. Once the hold had been broken, Lois and Balrog returned to their original positions, Balrog again smiling like an idiot and Lois too focused to care what his expression was. This man irked him. Lois had fought others who used this manner of attack, but he had not fought one so powerful in years.
The two of them battled between holds for several minutes, switching grips each time another one proved useless. All the while, Balrog’s grin grew, while Lois became more frustrated. The ermine was at least able to slip through the man’s fingers at some points, but these opportunities just kept him from having to yield prematurely. As he stood and circled his opponent again, he was almost convinced that there was no way to keep the stubborn human down.
The man lunged again, going for a hold on Lois’ head. Lois simply dodged at first, but as the man failed to find his purchase, Lois realized that he had an angle. He slipped around under the man’s arms, twisting in a way that would have been extraordinarily painful in his original form. He managed to pull the man off balance and down into an improvised chokehold. Lois was certain that Balrog would usually have been able to get out of the hold, but the strange position that the ermine managed to keep while constricting the man’s windpipe kept his unsure of where he could go to escape the hold. Lois heard the man grunt in discomfort as he tried to pull free, but Lois stayed steady as well as he could. He did his best not to show stress himself; if the man wasn’t certain of Lois’ stance, he might not also realize that it was quite uncomfortable, even for an ermine.
Fortunately, Balrog was never able to recover. After a few moments of mutual discomfort the large man finally slapped the ground with a bit of a grunt, coughing a bit once Lois released him. Both of them fell to the side as the bout finished, giving each other a respectful glance as each tried to regain their breath. Emery was yelling something, but neither man noticed. They carefully maneuvered back to the sidelines, still catching their breaths as the next two moved into the ring.
Paula gave Lois a sarcastic grin. “I bet you though I was having trouble,” she commented. Lois shrugged her off, but he kept his eyes on his opposition. The man had been given a waterskin by a respectful spectator, and he dumped the better part of it over the back of his head before taking a small swig and giving it back. Some words were exchanged, and Lois could hear Balrog’s raucous laughter from where he sat. Paula kept her eyes on Lois, trying to decide why he continued to watch the man.
“Looking for a rematch?” she asked sarcastically. Lois turned an exhausted glare at her, but she simply raised a tin cup full of water to hide her face and glanced innocently away. Lois huffed, still trying to regain his breath.
“Not remotely,” he managed to reply. “Balrog… I know the man. I just didn’t realize he was still here.”
Paula glanced back at the large man, who had draped himself over several adjacent seats, causing some good-natured protests from those in the area and some joking applause from elsewhere in the audience. He looked like he could have been from the timber crews, but she could not say she recognized him.
“He looks like many of the men here in Metamor,” she noted with a shrug.
“I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘He looks like many of the men here in Metamor used to look.’” He turned to watch Paula’s expression from one side as she looked back at the man. She started to say something, but couldn’t quite manage it. Lois continued. “I’m certain there are those formerly women that were Cursed to be men that have amassed a great number of scars since their change. I would note, however, that there is a surprising lack of fresh scars around his head area.”
Paula nodded. He had a point. If the man had once been a woman, she must have had quite a rough life. She could not think of a situation that would cause so many injuries of that sort. Metamor had been one of the first to allow women to work in many of the same capacities as men, but those reforms had taken place mostly after the Curse had made so many of the Keep’s best soldiers into the fairer sex. Balrog’s scars looked like the scars of a warrior; especially, as Lois had noted, along the man’s scalp. Almost all of them were straight like the cut of a knife.
“That is… odd,” Paula mused quietly. Lois nodded in agreement.
“If you like, I can tell you about how I know him later.” He got the man’s attention with a wave and started to move in his direction. “I’m going to try to get a drink with him; catch up on some lost years.”
Paula watched him go, but did not have time to follow after as her name was called, and she was once more back into the ring.
Her opponent was a ferret, who stepped into the ring opposite her as though he hadn’t taken a punch all day. Indeed, he looked like he had come through the day entirely unscathed so far. He stretched out his limbs quickly as he stood across from her, waiting for the hare to signal the beginning of the fight. He nodded to Paula, smiling softly, but genuinely, as he did. She could see when he did this that he had taken a bad strike to the muzzle at some point in the past. He was missing a tooth, and his smile seemed slightly off-kilter as though a broken jaw had mended incorrectly in the recent past. She wondered why the man was putting himself in a situation to fight when he had already clearly gotten someone’s best.
“On this side of the ring, winner by two of the cleanest knockouts I’ve seen in or out of the ring, Master Garigan!” the hare crowed proudly. “Opposite him, Miss Paula, owner of two masterful takedowns of her own. Only one can step out of this ring as the victor. Which of these will move on to face the winner of our last bout, Master Lois?”
Paula smiled to herself. All she had to do was get past the man in front of her, and she would be able to prove her skills against her master in the ring of honor. Lois was tired; if she could get past this opponent she might very well have punched her ticket into the round of four with little effort.
Garigan seemed built for a fast, flexible method of combat, but his stance belied this assumption. He bobbed a little bit in his stance, but he seemed to be setting up to fight towards a strong approach, rather than a flexible method of combat. As Emery the hare announced the beginning of the fight, Paula recalled Lois’ advice for such an opponent and loosened her stance. She could strike with some strength, but she would be far better served if she was…
A quick first strike from her opponent broke through her introspection, and she found herself reeling. She kept her stance feet on the ground, but only just barely. The strike had not only been fast; it had been stronger than any punch she had faced in her life. She only just barely turned it away from her face, but even as she danced around the border to discourage a follow-up punch she could feel her left arm going numb. There would be a nice bruise there before long. Of course, if she didn’t manage something quickly, she would have far more bruises in far more concerning places.
Paula steadied herself, but another strike came quickly. She managed to dodge to the side and struck a punch of her own, but the ferret blocked her punches as though he were the clairvoyant one. Paula realized her concern now. She was not only being forced to fight defensively, she was being forced to fight in a situation she had never experienced before. Even as she blocked another strike, the truth became clear. Her clairvoyance could not give her enough advanced warning. Her supernatural reflexes would be no help here.
She managed to dodge around another punch and made some contact with her counterattack, but any satisfaction she might have realized for this success lasted only as long as the remainder of the fight.
The next thing Paula knew, she was staring at the sky, wondering how she had gotten there. A healer was crouched beside her, waving a finger before her eyes and watching her reaction. When her eyes tracked it flawlessly he shook his head.
“You’re lucky you got your arm in the way,” he commented drily. “I might have had to treat you for a concussion if that had been a direct hit.”
Paula groaned and sat up, shaking the cobwebs out of her head and immediately regretting it as a headache seemed to spring up from nowhere. She groaned, pinching her eyes shut and hoping that the gongs that were pounding behind her temples would be silenced soon. The healer, a regressed boy who appeared about twelve years of age, helped her up and waited while she steadied herself on his shoulder.
The ferret was beside her a moment later. “Are you feeling alright?” he asked. The concern in his voice was genuine.
Paula nodded. “You’re quick,” she managed to note, although she hardly heard her own words over the ringing in her ears. She grunted and waved him off as he offered to help her to the sidelines. She smiled at him all the same. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Thank you for the offer.”
Lois was waiting for her at the sidelines. He shook his head. “You did well to last as long as you did,” he offered. She glared at him.
“Was that encouragement?” she asked sarcastically. Her mentor shrugged indifferently.
“Take it as you will; to me it was simply a statement of fact. He is fast, far faster than anyone you have faced before.”
Paula nodded, still shaken from the fight. “How about you?” When Lois didn’t answer she turned to look up at him. “Is he faster than anyone you’ve ever fought?”
“Not everyone,” he mused quietly. “He will be a challenge, however.”
Paula smirked and shook her head. “Better you than me,” she muttered.
Lois watched impatiently as the next few fights progressed. His eyes wandered back and forth from the ferret, who still looked as though he had not faced an opponent yet, and Balrog, who was still loudly trading jibes with the men and women seated around him. It would be interesting to speak with the man again; he had already arranged a meeting in the Deaf Mule once the tournament ended. That did leave Lois with the task of staying something healthy and whole until that point, but he had done reasonably well with that task up to this point, at least.
Several of the fights went longer, now that the tournament had naturally dealt with the less skilled fighters, but it still seemed like a short time before Lois was told to enter the ring alongside the ferret that had beaten Paula. Lois spent most of the time trying to plan an attack strategy. A man that fast was difficult to defend against when Lois was at his best. The added complication of the man’s strength made it even more difficult to see a reliable method of fighting the man.
As Lois stepped into the ring alongside Garigan, they exchanged glances, and Lois nodded respectfully. The ferret returned the nod, and both waited patiently for Emery to announce the beginning of the fight.
Lois didn’t listen to the hare’s admittedly interesting introduction this time. Instead he took note of how Garigan set his stance. He kept the same combat style that he had used against Paula, strong but not without considerable flexibility. The ermine waited until the fight had begun to select his stance, and when Emery called for them to start, Lois immediately began weaving like a drunk, his stance close to the one used by his first opponent. He bobbed his head around the first few strikes from his opponent, not actually making physical contact with him until the fourth punch of the battle. He blocked that strike and used it as an opportunity to deliver two innocuous blows to Garigan’s upper body. They barely hurt, and didn’t hamper the ferret’s movements at all, but he the ermine smiled. He had proven that he could get through his opponent’s defenses.
Lois and Garigan continued their circle for several more minutes, patiently awaiting openings between short flurries of combat. Lois took a good strike to the chest, but he didn’t think it had broken anything and the pain had settled to a dull sensation he could ignore before long at all. He continued to deliver repeated blows whenever he could manage, not going for quality so much as quantity. He even took one opportunity to intentionally pummel his opponent’s arm. Garigan simply brushed him back, but his expression was full of consternation. He was having trouble figuring out what Lois was doing. The ferret’s arm was unlikely to even bruise from the peppering of strikes.
The ermine dodged another punch and attempted to go around for a few more strikes, but Garigan turned quickly and landed a solid punch in Lois’ gut. The ermine stumbled back, wheezing for breath, but Garigan pressed his advantage. For the first time the ermine was forced to block the full force of one of Garigan’s punches. He winced as he caught the strike, the force of the blow stinging all the way up his arm and into his shoulder. He grunted and spun away, but not without unleashing another hail of strikes to the ferrets back. He nearly earned a backhand for his effort, but was able to dodge underneath it, deliver two more strikes, and dance back to a safe distance before Garigan could counterattack again.
The ferret steadied himself again, but he narrowed his gaze at Lois. The former assassin was still catching his breath from the earlier attack, but he flashed a confident grin towards the younger fighter.
Garigan struck more quickly this time, quickly enough to clip the ermine even when he tried to step aside, but Lois landed a few more short strikes even while his momentum carried him into the ferret. Seizing the odd opportunity, Lois locked him in a tight embrace, trying to squeeze the breath from his opponent. The attempt only lasted a few moments, and Lois was rewarded with an elbow barely above the belt. If it had been at full force he would have been floored, and even so he was still gasping as the two reset. As he returned to his stance, he quickly realized that his plan had worked. Unfortunately, his plan had involved goading the ferret into abandoning his cautious, quick strikes in favor of more powerful, constant barrage of attacks. After losing his breath twice within a few moments, it was all he could do to turn away most of the oncoming attacks.
He kept his defenses up while Garigan tried to break through them with aggressive strikes, gasping at the lancing pain in his arms every time one landed. Thankfully, he was able to walk the chalk of the combat ring and escape the barrage entirely after a few moments. He flexed his arms and moved his fingers, happy that he could at least still move them all. He probably would not be able to the next day, but for now he had an outside chance of winning.
As Garigan continued his aggressive blows, Lois slowly started making progress. Dodging through one, he landed a strike just under the ferret’s collar. Ducking another, he caught his opponent’s arm and twisted it at a nasty angle, an action he broke off just in time as Garigan slipped away and tried to turn the attack to his advantage. Every time one of his attacks failed, the ferret’s frustration grew. His anger made his already powerful blows even more crushing, but Lois finally had his feet under him. He learned that blocking the attacks was inadvisable quickly, and was able to instead turn to dodging and counterpunching.
The end of the fight was somewhat unexpected, but appropriate. The two continued to exchange blows until Lois finally took most of a blow across the jaw. Even as his body was turned to the side by the force of the attack, however, Lois managed an extra strike between the ribs of the ferret. Lois spun down to his knees, working his jaw to make sure that it wasn’t broken, while Garigan stumbled back a few steps, trying to compose himself. As both of them tried to recover, the crowd began to shout a variety of things towards the ring and the organizers. It took a few moments for the two men in the middle to realize it, but Garigan’s right foot had stepped over the outside line of the ring.
The crowd was yelling mostly for the hare to allow the two to continue the fight, but as he left the decision to the fighters, Garigan just laughed and waved him off.
“I’ve had enough,” he announced. He flashed a grin towards his opponent, who was still crouched in the ring. “Good fight,” he said by way of compliment. Without waiting for any confirmation from the hare or response from the ermine, he walked towards the sidelines, grunting as he held his freshly-bruised side. Lois stood back up, spitting a little bit of blood to the side of the ring before returning to his own place in the stands. Paula was shaking her head and didn’t say anything as he approached, instead watching Garigan limp to the side of the ring.
“Didn’t expect me to give him a fight?” Lois asked breathlessly.
Paula grinned as she turned back towards her mentor. “I’m still not entirely certain you did. He folded; how much longer would you have lasted if he had stayed in?”
Lois coughed and gasped as he sat beside her. He hoped he would have some time before he had to stand again. “Not long. He could have beaten me by knockout if it had taken much longer.” He again flexed his sore muscles, already noticing how much more difficult it was than it had been during the front. “I hope this doesn’t take much longer,” he mused aloud, “I’ll need a drink to take my mind off of my bruises.”
Paula just shook her head and settled in to watch the next pair of fighters.
Lois stood stiffly when he was called to return to the ring. He groaned as he saw his opponent. The black wolf showed some signs of fatigue, but he did not seem to be nearly as badly handicapped by bruises as Lois was. As the fight began, it became clear that the man was a very smart fighter as well. He perhaps lacked the raw skill or grace of any of Lois’ earlier opponents, but he intentionally struck Lois where his bruises were deepest.
It was apparent from the beginning that this fight would not have the result that Lois had hoped. Before long at all he was on his knees panting as he tried to will himself to any position other than all four paws. He also briefly considered attempting to fight from the more feral position, falling back on instincts where training failed him. As he looked up at his opponent, however, he realized that he had no strength left. He raised one paw exhaustedly, calling in a painfully slurred voice that he had taken enough. The assassin had yielded.
Paula was a good sport to her credit. Rather than taunt the ermine over his loss, she gave him a few words of encouragement and actively avoided any physical contact with him. He sagged into his seat to watch the last few bouts, although he seemed less concentrated on the progression of the combat than he was in watching the last two pairs face off in the ring.
After a few moments he did offer a few words to Paula. “The wolf who beat me is a dangerous fighter,” he mused.
Paula scoffed. “He didn’t seem very threatening. I think I could
have beaten him if it had fallen to me.”
“I would not assume,” Lois chided her softly. He looked her in the eyes to demonstrate his seriousness. “He did not have any of the strength or speed that Garigan had, it is true. If you two had fought it would not have seemed as difficult as your battle with the ferret, but I believe that you would have lost. My reason for believing that is that he did not just rely on my weakness to beat me. He observed me, knew where I had been injured during my earlier battle, and immediately attacked me at just those points. His combat philosophy is much the same as my own in that way, actually.”
Although Paula smiled in a disbelieving way in response to her mentor’s assertions, she certainly appreciated the technique that the wolf had shown. She picked him out of the crowd now, standing on the opposite side of the ring, and noticed as he watched the second semifinal bout that he was observing each of the fighters carefully. She was surprised when she saw him tapping his claws on each strike point that the opponents used against each other. He was certainly a more active observer than any other man in the arena.
Lois stood for the last few moments of the second semifinal, muttering something about being able to move in the morning. Paula let him go, but she began to emulate the methods that the black wolf was using, noting where each blow fell and trying to figure a way to exploit each injury in turn. She was quickly overwhelmed by the number of strikes that landed in the melee, but even as her concentration wavered, the wolf on the other side of the rings continued to watch, even crouching down as the combat came to its last blows, with one fighter attempting to continue from a compromised crouch. The battle ended soon after, and the wolf remained crouched where he was, smiling in a predatory manner as he waited for the hare to announce the final battle. He seemed quite confident of his success.
The battle was delayed for the benefit of the second finalist, with the decision quickly made to give the man as long as he wanted. The wolf gave this idea his full approval, and bided his time waiting for his opponent by conversing quietly with some other spectators on the far side of the ring. He seemed good natured enough, if somewhat reserved.
The final two fighters faced each other in the ring at long last, and Emery wasted no time beginning the combat. He called for the battle to begin and looked on as the wolf and his opponent, a strange sort of lizard whose tongue flicked out at intervals, began to round on each other.
Before anyone had a chance to react, the battle was over. The wolf drove straight through one of the reptile’s arms, a gap that had been created by a vicious haymaker in the previous fight, landing a precise punch that followed straight through his opponent’s right shoulder and rocked the lizard into taking several steps back. He hissed, attempting to recover and step around the next drive, but the wolf followed the first blow by forcing the issue to the scaled Keeper’s right side, repeatedly striking blows along the arm. The lizard cried out in pain by the third such strike, and Paula winced as she saw the shoulder joint bend at an impossible angle. The wolf backed off as the reptilian fighter assessed his injury, and he never got a chance to continue his barrage; his opponent rasped for a healer, ending the fight prematurely.
Over cheers and ovations from the crowd, Emery managed to announce the winner. Although the crowd was small, they still managed a spirited celebration of the fine fight. A few called out congratulations to the organizers as well as the winner, but Emery just smiled and bobbed his ears. His companions had long since left the speaking to him, and they now took the initiative to deliver the winnings to the wolf. He thanked them graciously, and then was swept along by a crowd that seemed destined for the nearest bar. No doubt the losers still hoped that the wolf would buy them a round in celebration.
Paula found Lois speaking to Balrog to one side. They had just finished agreeing to avoid whatever bar the other revelers were going to when she reached them, and the large man smiled at her approach.
“Hello, young lady,” he greeted her. His voice was gruff and carried what might have been an accent or a growl behind it, but it was unmistakably friendly. “Lois was just telling me that he had found quite a talented protégé here in the Keep. He managed to leave out the fact that you are quite lovely.”
Paula blushed; she was still uncertain as to how to handle those who flattered her Cursed form. Part of her wanted to accept it graciously as she was indeed a woman now, but another was afraid that if she did not resist any such compliment she would be leaving the door open for men to take advantage of her, much like…
The young woman shook herself out of her reverie before it was too noticeable. “Lois is a fine mentor,” she replied, turning the subject from herself as quickly as possible. “His style suits me well, and I hope to be at his level quite soon.”
Balrog laughed loudly, unashamed of the fact that it might be received as rude. “Lois has seen more battles than I hope you ever face,” he commented once he had finished. “You may one day, perhaps soon, surpass him in a ring here. Until you have experience on the battlefield, however, Lois will trump you in any serious battle.”
“And where does that leave you?” Paula’s tone was no longer entirely civil; she had to admit that this man’s rather free tongue was beginning to grate on her.
The man was fortunately aware of the sudden, rather chilly shift to her tone. He quickly moved to do something about it. “Now, I mean no insult by it. You show great talent, especially if you have, as Lois suggests, been training for less than two months under him. I have worked with Lois in the field, however, and I know how dangerous he is. Stay close to him and he’ll keep you safe.”
Lois seemed somewhat embarrassed at the suggestion, but he didn’t oppose the suggestion even while he gave a chagrined smiled. “If neither of you mind, I would like to get a drink before all of my joints seize up,” he commented.
Balrog seemed especially fond of the idea, but his idea differed from Lois’ own. “I have a keg in my Keep apartments,” he announced as though it were the most normal thing to keep beneath his bed. “A bit of ale in private around my table will give us just the setting we need to catch up on lost time away from…,” he cast about in an overly-dramatic fashion, “…prying ears.”
Lois rolled his eyes, but he was not inclined to argue. He turned to Paula. “Does that sound all right to you?” he asked.
Paula froze for a moment. She had drunk some ale before, as it was the cheapest form of purified drink available to non-mages, but the suggestion meant that she would be in a private room with two potentially drunk men. Balrog she did not know at all, but she was uncertain of her ability to even trust Lois that far. Still, her mentor watched her expectantly. He had mentioned that he knew Balrog from before, and the prospect of discovering the secret behind the enigmatic man intrigued her. Hesitantly at first, but with more conviction as she made certain her choice, Paula nodded.
“I will come for a little while, at least,” she replied. “My father will doubtless want to know where I am before it grows too late, however, so I cannot drink much.”
Balrog dismissed her last comment with a wave of his hand. “Nah, I’m no good company when I’m drunk anyway. I’ll be certain to keep the grog watered down until after the both of you have left.”
Paula smiled. That certainly did seem much safer. She thanked the man and the three of them made for the upper Keep, Balrog and Paula at a reasonable walking pace, and Lois with a protracted limp. Paula sighed. He would doubtless be seeing a healer about his bruises before the night was over.
Conversation sputtered sporadically on the journey to and through the Keep to Balrog’s room, but once the three were seated around the modest table that was the only piece of furniture in the man’s main room it began to move again. The large man left to fetch the ale, and ended up bringing back two kegs on his return. It ended up that the one had been filled with water will in advance of their arrival, so the three of them would be able to dilute their drinks to taste as they talked around the table.
While Lois sat gingerly and Paula slumped slightly to get comfortable, Balrog outright collapsed into his chair, dropping his mazer, which he had already prepared, with a splash onto the table. Lois took a little of the ale straight for his pain before drawing his own cup full, but he mumbled something to himself about a good Scotch, whatever that was.
Paula settled her glass, filled mostly with water and barely touch with ale, on the table before her, having taken a few good drinks already. “So, Balrog, how is it that the two of you are previously acquainted?” she asked.
The man turned to Lois with a mischievous look on his face. “Say, captain, how is my ear looking?”
Paula squinted add the odd question, but Lois chuckled slightly to himself before steadying his painful ribs with one of his paws. He turned back to Paula after receiving a confirming nod from Balrog. “We worked together after my time as an assassin. We called ourselves bounty hunters…”
The large man across the table huffed indignantly. “Most of the time we were glorified pest control. Good pay, though. And good ale.”
Lois gave him a longsuffering glance before turning back to Paula again. “I was the commander of the party, and Balrog was my… enforcer.”
“I made our team’s points for us. A show of force in the right place can convince a farmer to toss a few coins in your hat to keep his crops and livestock safe.” Balrog stopped when he saw Lois’ withering glare. “What?”
“Stop leaving things half said! If you didn’t want me to explain it, you should have done it yourself!” He laughed to assure his guests that he meant the words in good humor, but his gruff voice made it seem far more serious than it was.
Lois continued to stare at the man for a few moments before turning his resigned gaze to Paula’s waiting face. “Our numbers changed from time to time, but Balrog and I remained together from the beginning of the venture until the end of it. It lasted a few years I believe, and it paid the bills handily for as long as we were active.” He turned back to look at Balrog for a moment to the man’s immediate indignation.
“I haven’t said a thing!” he protested.
Lois rolled his eyes and pulled a finger back from the front of his ear to the back, causing him to flick it in annoyance. Paula thought it was odd, but quickly realized that it was meant for Balrog when the ermine did it again with an insistent look on his face. Balrog waved him on.
“Well, even the best-built illusions do not last forever,” he commented. He smiled impishly when the phrase had the desired, confusing effect on Paula. “You see, there was one evening when we were all making camp that I was awake alongside Balrog and a few of our companions, before the first watch. I began to notice something odd about Balrog’s ear. The rest of the men were too tired or drunk to pay it very much attention, but it bothered me too much to leave it be. I called him aside into a tent where no one could see us, and I told him ‘Your ear is showing.’”
Paula was completely lost by this point, and she turned to Balrog for help. He shrugged innocently and turned back to listen to the ermine, who had paused for effect while Paula tried to decipher the odd sentence he had left her with.
“It was a small flaw in an otherwise flawless illusion,” Lois finally continued. “Perhaps the spell had been weakened somehow, or perhaps Balrog had simply forgotten to recharge it on the appropriate schedule. Whatever the cause, his illusion no longer covered his right ear. He certainly tried to play it off for a few moments, but at the end there was only one way for him to fix the illusion, and that was for him to remove it completely.”
Lois then turned to look towards Balrog expectantly, and Paula followed his eyes. The large man had reached down and fished out a talisman from where it had been hidden underneath his jerkin, and as Lois finished he pulled it over his head.
The change that overcame his form left Paula’s mind reeling. The scars that crisscrossed the top of his head seemed to melt and slide. Some were still evidently scars, while others joined together, twisted and danced about each other until they lay in a unified, arcane pattern that snaked over the man’s bald head, down his neck, and continued along the necklace of the talisman in flawlessly patterned runes. They glowed briefly, an impossibly white light against the man’s tanned skin, until the spell was completely dissolved and the illusion fell away like curtains being pulled away from a looking glass.
For the first time since she had met the man, the real Balrog sat before her. The illusion had exaggerated his height by a few inches and his strength by a little less, but the man who sat before her was still clearly strong. He was also clearly not a human.
Paula’s eyes grew wide as the illusion melted to reveal a dark green skin tone underneath. The man’s braided beard was shorter in reality, but the braids were perhaps more complex and ended in strings of dark bone beads. His teeth were more predatory than any humans, although they still managed a passable smile. Tattoos ran the length of each arm, the left arm unique from the right in its patterns. Although Paula had never seen one at so close a distance, she instantly recognized the visage of a lutin when she saw it.
She nearly reached for her daggers, but Lois arrested her movement with one glare. “Balrog is a friend,” he insisted. She flinched when she saw that he had his paw on his daggers as well.
“It’s alright,” the newly revealed lutin said. He smiled in a somewhat unsettling way, if only because a man’s jaws simply did not quite work that way. “I wasn’t expecting Lois to understand when I revealed it to him, either. We had a standoff that the captain just barely managed to keep from revealing my secret to the entire camp.”
Lois nodded. “You were quite convinced that I’d be running you through at any moment.”
“As it turned out, your mentor was more than a little interested in learning my language.” He snorted. “A good pupil as humans go. Didn’t know too many words, but what few he knew he perfected.”
Lois responded with a short tirade of some lutin dialect, at which Balrog laughed. “I’ll refrain from translating that with children present.” He winked at Paula, who couldn’t help but smile at the disarming statement, even if she did feel somewhat insulted. “Even Lois could never quite get my name right, though.”
“Let’s see, that’s one I’m not certain I remember. Ba’al… Ba’al ne th’Niraug?” The ermine licked his muzzle as though the words had tasted odd on the way out.
The lutin roared with laughter at Lois’ attempt at pronouncing the phrase. “That’s better than you’ve ever done!” he insisted with a chuckle. “Maybe the Curse did your stiff tongue some good.”
Lois flicked him with the end of his tail. “It’s given me a few interesting new tricks,” he confirmed with a smile.
Balrog grunted his amusement and returned to their original topic of discussion. “It’s a horrible name, even for my own people,” he said of his lutin name. He rattled it off, also showing an odd reaction to the end of the word. “It’s a blend of different languages; the reference to Ba’al is as adopted as half of the words in our language. The rest is something that my father evidently picked up on his tours in Nasoj’s army, perhaps a year before he also picked up the plague. He claims it is some traditional oath to the Daedra.” His huffing laugh at this made it clear that he harbored no particular respect for the Pantheon. “Regardless of where he found it, no human I’ve ever met has been able to say it correctly. That’s why I coined my human name. It raises eyebrows, but results in far fewer twisted tongues.”
Paula was still recovering from the shock of Balrog’s revelation, but she managed to attempt the odd name herself. The lutin raised an eyebrow and nodded, sending his beard bobbing.
“Not a bad attempt, you certainly have a good ear. You’re missing the last sound though.” He repeated the name, final grimace and all, and left Paula to attempt it once again.
She blinked. “What final sound?” she asked. “I don’t hear anything after what I already said.”
Both Lois and Balrog laughed quietly. The ermine spoke first. “The sound is impossible to pronounce without the rest of the word.” He tried the name once again, drawing it out so that she could hear each individual sound. Blinking, the young woman suddenly realized that the odd grimace was intentional. Somehow, it managed to produce a sound that was unique enough to be recognizable.
For the first time since the revelation, Paula managed to laugh without feeling remotely awkward. “I think I’ll leave my attempt where it is.” Even though she said this, she caught herself immediately trying to mimic the odd pronunciation, only to shake her head in frustration. Balrog and Lois both chuckled slightly, but offered no further pointers.
“Well, as we were saying, Lois made a deal with me. He’d keep me on and keep my secret so long as I agreed to teach him our dialect by bits and pieces. That’s the honest reason for why we were the only two members of the group that stayed on until we dissolved it. I made for the North not long after that. I had hoped that perhaps my tribe had changed its political balance in my absence. As I am now living here, I am certain that you can guess how that went.”
Paula nodded. “A lutin in human territory, though? They’ll rip you to pieces if they ever find out.”
“Let me say it this way,” Balrog said slowly, taking a sip of his almost-forgotten mazer. “I am entering my twenty-first year, fifteen of which I have lived in human society. Of my clan, only one has lived as long as I have, and that is our matron, curse the—” he trailed off into words too impolite to say at full volume. “I am in the eyes of many of my people reaching old age, yet today I am able to wrestle as easily as I always have. I cannot be beyond my prime years in all honesty. All that just to say, I have lived longer among those who wish me dead than I would have among my own people.”
Lois nodded. “Lutins see age differently from humans. Old age is not when their hair turns grey or when they are too feeble to move on their own. It begins from the time they lose their first battle. At that point they are either dead or dying. The society will not give them full time to recover from their injuries, so their first loss signals the beginning of their decline.”
Balrog chuckled. “According to my people, I have probably lost about ten battles in my lifetime, but I live among humans. When I am injured they allow me to rest until I am healed, and I return to battle a little the worse for a lack of practice, but not so close to death as a lutin in the North.”
“I am truly sorry for your people,” Paula said quietly.
“HA!” Balrog’s laugh punctuated the irony he perceived in the sentiment, and not anything he found truly funny. “My people joined forces with Nasoj and his rotten schemes. Our people are predisposed to war, we multiply too quickly and will overpopulate our territory without infighting to cull the progress. Nasoj has used this to turn my people into his personal army. I refuse to feel any pain for them until they realize that they are killing themselves for a war that isn’t their own.” Although they carried a powerful conviction as well, his words showed a true sorrow for his people, and it made Paula feel even more regret for the plight of the lutins.
“At least the tide is turning slowly now,” the lutin sighed. “Some lutins have realized that Nasoj is a curse, and they have turned to other alliances in self-preservation. I only seek the day when the leaders of the tribes realize that their combined forces could raze Nasoj’s dark tower despite his magic.” He snorted. “Some dream.”
Paula fell silent, and the rest of the table agreed to let that silence stand. The ale was recalled at long last, and they each took several droughts before anyone spoke again.
“Thank you for inviting me here and revealing your secret to me,” Paula said at long last. She had finished her mug and set it down. She hoped to be leaving soon.
The lutin nodded in acknowledgment. “I trust Lois’ judgment; he’s saved my life too many times for me not to. He told me that you should know; that means you have a rare trust from him.”
Lois turned his head away, but the human girl could see some red around the edges of his ears. She smiled and turned back to Balrog.
“Unfortunately, I need to return to my home before my father begins to wonder. He is… unpleasant when he does not know what is going on.”
The lutin nodded, deftly picking up the talisman and replacing it around his neck. The reintegration of the illusion was disorienting, as the visible runes quickly bled into one another and became recognizable only as scars on a human man’s head. Paula blinked herself out of a mesmerized stare. She stood from the table, nodding to Lois, who seemed to be feeling his wounds again.
“Will I see you tomorrow, master?” she said, only partially in jest.
The ermine’s glare was enough answer for her. She could not help a grin as she stepped towards the door. She had never seen Lois so badly beaten before, and it was almost pleasant to be assured that he was merely human. She could surpass him yet.
Her host saw her out the door with a courteous smile, and she pondered how much like a gentleman the lutin acted. Perhaps it was something to do with his interaction with human society. Regardless, Balrog was more patient and tolerant than many men she had met before. He was certainly doing his part to be as human as possible.
Balrog turned back towards the table once she had left, ready to propose that the two remaining men open the ale in earnest. He frowned when he saw his friend gripping the side of his face in clear pain.
“I don’t suppose you could see me to the Healer?”
Coe was used to working late nights, but he still sighed when the door was knocked. Some undoubtedly well-intentioned men had decided that a pugilism tournament was an appropriate way to help raise funds, and he had been mending the results all day. Still, most of the injuries were easy enough to treat. It was the quantity that truly annoyed him.
He disengaged the lock and slid the door open to see a familiar ermine leaning on the shoulder of a larger human. He sighed again when he saw the bruises through the ermine’s white fur, and noticed that the man was holding his jaw. He released it long enough to say a single word.