"Champion! Champion! Champion!"
The creature that strode confidently into the arena had once been something else. Long, long ago, so far in the distant past that he no longer remembered, he had once walked the mortal plane. He had laughed and cried, celebrated and mourned, built up and torn down. He had been loved. He had been hated. He had been feared. He had fought great battles. He had borne a great name, famous throughout the Empire. Now he was known only as the Champion of Ba'al, and as he swept the glittering hooded cloak from his elven shoulders, he savored the heady exultation of the crowd's cheers like a fine wine before tossing the cloak into the stands. He smiled as a trio of succubi instantly fell to fighting over it, prompting roars of laughter and approval from those around them. Whether composed of men or demons, the lusts of the crowd always remained the same. They wanted blood, they wanted danger, and above all else they wanted to be entertained. He would give it to them.
He always did.
"Champion! Champion! Champion!"
In return, they would give him power.
They always did.
Drawing his sword with a crowd-pleasing flourish, he planted its flawless tip on the sandy arena floor at the precise midpoint between his toes, rested his hands on the diamond-studded pommel, and waited for the next challenger. He hoped this one would be good enough that he wouldn't need to carry the performance for them both.
But he doubted it.
And deep, deep inside him, buried away in a mausoleum of old bones and forgotten memories, a tiny fragment of what he had once been begged again and again for the chance to die.
The arena shook under Revonos' feet with the baying chant for the Champion of Ba'al. The wall against which he leaned rocked from the thunderous stomp of feet, hooves, tentacles, and whatnot else. Revonos' dark-eyed glare bored into the side of Ba'al's shadowy head as if to blast it to pieces through sheer force of fury alone and splatter the prince's throne with the remains. But the glare was only for show. Underneath his surface rage, an unholy glee burned inside the daedra lord. If the Prince of the Daedra thought a preemptive challenge would disrupt Revonos' plans, he was badly mistaken. The Beast was ready. Laden with untested new enchantments, true, but Carcarak had shown great ability to learn on the fly before. He would adapt. And if he didn't, well, Revonos would just have to skin him again and start over. There was always next time.
"Champion! Champion! Champion!" came the roar and Lord Revonos allowed himself a smile.
Let the crowds chant. They would be chanting something else soon enough.
"Champion! Champion! Cha-"
Motion at the top of the arena caught the Champion's eye just before a deafening banshee wail cut through the chant with the brutality of an axe blow. Part challenging howl, part furious roar, part ear-grating scream, it hacked at the minds of all who heard it like a blunted shovel to the base of the skull. Old traumas revived, buried phobias exploded to the surface, and instinctive terrors broke loose of their chains. Weaker minds in the crowd succumbed to panic and riot, trying to get away, but the majority rode out the storm and broke into a cheer of approval and excitement. A dozen giant dire wolves, each soaked in blood and gore, stalked down the stairs from the stadium rim. Bared teeth snapped at any who did not make way fast enough, while the closing ring of glowing golden eyes promised a slow and painful doom.
The sword in his hand whispered to the Champion of Ba'al which one of the wolves was real, already tipping his opponent's hand, but the daedric elf made a show of glancing about with just a hint of worry. With that deception done, he closed his expression down into one of carefully controlled boredom. So this is the mighty Beast of Revonos. I'll give him this- he knows how to make an entrance. That impression was only reinforced when the eleven illusionary wolves and the one real wolf bounded into the arena, uniting into one in midair before slamming down, battle-ready, on the arena floor. A wave of hellfire flared outward like an impact shockwave, ruffling the Champion's hair as it passed before splashing and dissipating against the arena walls. He denied it any further damage, refusing to believe that it had touched him, and so it did not. The sword made it so.
He was the Champion of Ba'al, the holder of the Sword of Lies.
The Beast of Revonos planted its feet and started to inhale, and the Champion flipped his sword up into a salute to the High Throne. In the process, he also flicked a small rock up into Carcarak's mouth. It bounced off the wolf's soft palate, making him gag and choke, and the blast of ice he'd been building up came out instead in a flurry of snow-spitting coughs. "Pay your respects," the Champion of Ba'al snapped, "or the next one chokes you dead. I don't have to miss." He pitched his voice so it wouldn't carry over the laughter from the crowd, depending on his opponent's canine ears to catch the command.
Carcarak scowled and spat the rock at the Champion's feet, where it shattered into flash-frozen dust. Then he half-turned to face the High Throne of Ba'al and his master beside it, bowing his head and forequarters. He tipped his head to the side to reveal the blackened mark of Akkala... and the Champion of Ba'al immediately took advantage of the periphery of Carcarak's vision by hurling his sword, sidearm, at the Blood Wolf's head.
Carcarak was not so easily suckered. Treachery was a cardinal virtue of Revonos' ethos, and in his time under the daedra lord's care, the Beast of Revonos had learned it very well indeed. The instant that he heard the whisper of fabric in motion, he exploded into a sprint... in twelve directions at once. The crowd roared with delight as the thrown sword sliced through two of the running wolves, revealing them as illusions, then arced around and sliced through two more before returning to the Champion's hand. Hard on its heels came the ravening pack, and the Champion of Ba'al dodged and danced as if he couldn't be sure which was real and which were not.
He knew, though. The sword told him which attacker was the true threat amidst the storm of chaos and misdirection. Pirouetting aside from one attacking wolf only to wind up directly in the path of another, he flipped his sword around and stabbed backward. Slavering jaws closed on his face and passed through harmlessly. His own attack was not so kind, and would have skewered its target through the heart if the beast hadn't swerved hastily aside in a spray of sand. The Champion of Ba'al followed after, sword whirring as it flipped back right side forward, but when he slashed down on his opponent, the blade passed through without effect. Another illusion?
No. The sword whispered the answer. The illusions had flickered just after Carcarak dodged aside. The Champion of Ba'al drew back into a ready stance, as did the pack, milling and circling just out of range, each assessing the other anew. "You're quick," the Champion complimented. "Teleporting from illusion to illusion? Very clever."
Three of the wolves snarled in reply and attacked. He dodged two and cleaved through the third, again striking air. He followed up with a kick to the one he'd just cleaved, just in time to connect with Carcarak's very real ribs. At the same moment, the wolf's teeth slid through a gap in the Champion's golden armor and opened the elf's calf from knee to ankle. Both stumbled away, one bleeding, one gasping.
The crowd rumbled. "First blood to the Beast of Revonos!" an incautious incubus shouted over the din, and was promptly shouted down by the home crowd.
"Very quick," the Champion amended, leaving a blood trail in the sand as he drew back. He allowed a moment of respect to cross his face, then slid it into a vicious smirk. "Too bad you weren't fast enough to hit me." The crowd cheered as the gash down his leg undid itself, as if the injury had never happened. The blood in the sand blew away like smoke. Returning to his ready stance, he beckoned with an open hand and a triumphant smirk. "Care to try again?"
After that, the tide of the battle turned smoothly, inexorably against Carcarak. How could it not, when his enemy armored himself with limitless disbelief and foreknowledge of Carcarak's plans the moment they were conceived? On top of all that, the Champion of Ba'al had trained for millenia with that sword, and it showed in his effortless dance around the larger beast's lunging fangs and slashing claws. Only two things kept the war wolf of Revonos within shouting distance of a chance at survival, much less victory: lightning-fast reflexes and tenacity bordering on fanaticism. Still, the strikes and slashes mounted in tandem with the frenzy of the crowd, and if Carcarak's fur had not already started the match dripping blood, it would be doing so now. "Champion! Champion! Champion!" screamed the crowd, but the Beast fought on.
The shadowy figure of Lord Ba'al sat back in his throne, openly pleased with his champion's impeccable-as-always performance. "I'm impressed with how much you've managed to achieve with this mortal." His compliment to Lord Revonos came with an undertone of princely condescension, and yet still remained genuine enough to not be a complete slap in the face. "It's not going to be enough to best my Champion, but still... well done. I would not have thought you capable of doing so much in such a short time."
Revonos snorted. I expect to surprise you many more times today. He held that eager ambition unspoken behind gritted teeth and glared down at the two combatants in the arena below. "The fight's not over yet," he growled, even as Ba'al's champion slashed deep into Carcarak's right foreleg at the shoulder.
Ba'al waved a dismissive hand as the crowd cheered. "It will be soon enough."
It didn't take long for the prediction to bear fruit. Hobbled as he was, Carcarak's advantage in mobility significantly diminished, and Ba'al's champion strung him along a bit more before following up on his crippling strike. Carcarak's severed foreleg thumped to the arena floor, and Carcarak crumpled in a heap one short teleport away. The crowd thundered its approval as a spreading pool stained the sand, and the Champion of Ba'al grinned and beckoned to them for more volume. They readily complied. He cupped his ear and they grew louder still.
A bellowed command cut through the din. "STOP PLAYING AROUND AND END HIM!" Heads turned and a murmur of unexpected surprise rumbled through the crowd as the shouter was identified. Was the Lord of Rage demanding the destruction of his own champion?
The Champion of Ba'al snorted a laugh. "You hear that, doggy?" he teased, looking to his own master for the signal to finish the fight. "Even your own master wants-"
The sword warned him an instant before the flame wave hit. When he brought his arms down from shielding his face, he found himself encircled in an arena of hellfire. Opposite him, Carcarak stood renewed on all four limbs, ash falling away from his regenerated injuries. Fire licked through his fur without harming it, burning the blood in his fur to soot. The blackened wolf tipped his head up and howled, and every creature in earshot with even a hint of canine derivation immediately went mad. Snarling hellhounds snapped their chains. Werewolves burst into lupine form and slashed into those around them. The crowd exploded into chaos. In the midst of it all, the War Wolf of Revonos reveled in his foe's surprise, gleaming eyes and swishing tail broadcasting his savage laughter.
The sword's warning came only an instant before a stunning impact from the side knocked Ba'al's champion sprawling. A quick denial restored him to his feet, only to immediately get knocked down again by another lightning-fast charge from a different angle. Each time, teeth grated across armor, but didn't make it through. Okay, he's very, very quick, the Champion amended, and rolled to his feet rather than set himself up for the attack he felt threatening. Carcarak flashed in anyway, a blur of motion, and the Champion's heel met the wolf's chin in a rising side kick.
Most of the kick's force wasted itself on an illusion, but enough landed before the war wolf could teleport away to buy Ba'al's champion a second to get his feet under him and get set. Only a second, and barely that. The attacks came in with the fury of a hellborn hailstorm, from all directions and with barely a fraction of a second between thought and deed for the sword to warn him in. As far back as the Champion of Ba'al could remember, no enemy had ever pressed him with such an ongoing frenzy, and he was forced to rely on all his reservoirs of skill to keep up while he adjusted to the new tempo. Almost against his will, a genuine smile found its way onto his face. Finally, a proper challenge!
Deep, deep inside, the fragment of what he'd once been almost dared to hope.
Few eyes could follow Carcarak's blitzing speed as anything more than a blurring streak, and fewer still had any chance of distinguishing the distracting illusions from the real threat. Only one spotted the red-hot glow starting to spread down the chain from his collar, and that person had the advantage of holding the other end. In far too much of a hurry to nurture his champion's ability to fully power the enchantments with which he'd been gifted, Revonos had turned the chain into a link for energy flow. Though Carcarak's current efforts poured out energy like the great Nagiara Waterfalls of the mortal plane, they were but a raindrop in the ocean to a daedra lord. That Carcarak was nevertheless drawing more than twice what he was using did not bother Revonos... as long as the wolf won. If Carcarak lost, well, Revonos would enjoy wringing every last drop of essence back out of the wretched beast.
The Lord of Rage leaned back against the wall and smirked. He loved a win-win situation.
Somewhere inside Carcarak, something buckled and gave way, but not completely.
Something else socketed in to take its place, but not properly.
Jagged shards tangled and jammed. Broken edges locked and fused.
The Champion of Ba'al was just about to regain the victorious momentum when the sword failed him. On the cusp of his victory, its whispering voice suddenly cut off with a sense of baffled confusion, and the War Wolf of Revonos ripped through his unprepared defenses with contemptuous ease. For as long as he could remember, that voice had been there, far-sighted eyes that had underlain his every plan and stratagem. Now, he was struck suddenly blind. A hurricane of crushing blows and slashing fangs closed around him, and he lashed about wildly... and futilely. A shoulder like a steel wall slammed into him, knocking him aside, only for another to bash the wind from his lungs as the hidden shoulder clasps of his chestplate tore loose, severed by adamantite-coated teeth. The sword was suddenly gone from his hand, ripped loose and- he was airborne, shoulder wrenched in its socket from the beast's-
Erick, adopted son of Ander, wandering outcast from the elven glades, seeker of glory and adulation, famous (and infamous) gladiator of the late Suielman Empire, looked down at the winterkeen sword blade protruding from his chest, dripping crimson... and smiled. His lips moved, barely a whisper. "Free." Then his lungs filled with blood and his bisected heart gave its last quivering twitch. His head fell forward on his chest, and he died.
Carcarak was not satisfied. This was far too paltry an end, too faint a praise for his mighty victory. The crowd, shocked into silence, needed something to stir it again, and he knew exactly what to do. Inhaling deep, he blasted the corpse with ice, pinning it to the wall even more firmly than the sword embedded hilt-first in the stones had. He breathed until the ice was a foot thick over his defeated enemy... and then reared up and shattered him into gory, frozen pieces with a single slap of a forepaw.
The ice crunched as he ate it, and it hissed whenever the white-hot chain hanging from his collar brushed across an overlooked shard. For a few long moments, that was the only sound in the entire arena. Then, by ones and twos, then dozens, then hundreds, the crowd began a new chant.
"Carcarak! Carcarak! Carcarak!"
Lord Ba'al, Prince of the Daedra, sat back in his throne in stunned disbelief. How was this poss-
A sword appeared at his throat, jagged, cruel, and blood-soaked. At its other end stood Lord Revonos. "It seems you've grown rather weaker than expected, Ba'al. I think it's time for a change in leadership." The chain, still glowing white hot, materialized in his hand and he gave it a jerk. "Heel, boy," he commanded with a triumphant grin.
The Sword of Lies vanished from the arena wall into which it had been jammed, and reappeared in Lord Ba'al's hand... several feet behind Revonos. The daedra prince stepped from the shadows across the room, and the creature at swordpoint on the throne dissolved into nothingness. His expression was scornful. "Did you really think I would allow you, the master of betrayal, anywhere near me with even the remotest possibility of a weapon? It seems you've grown more foolish than expected. This time, it will cost you. The chain is broken."
The links of chain hanging just below Revonos' hand shattered. The sword made it so. Iron shrapnel hissed through the air, but dissipated into smoke before it could strike anyone as the spell unraveled. The remainder, still linked at the other end to Carcarak, dropped unmastered to the floor and vanished.
Furious at being outmaneuvered so easily, the Lord of Rage slashed out with his sword. Ba'al parried it with a single word. "Gone." In the hands of its true master, the Sword of Lies banished the usurper's blade as if it had never been. "You have other problems."
"What-" That was all Revonos got to say before a runaway wagon full of quarry stone slammed him to the floor, in the shape of a murderously enraged war beast. Titanic paws pinned Revonos down, and Carcarak's slavering jaws slammed to a halt barely a foot from Revonos' face. They halted not through any will of their own, but only because Revonos had managed a desperate grab, one hand on each jaw, holding them apart and away from his face. Flush with power, Carcarak strained against his former master's grip and for a moment the two seemed in balance. Then Revonos began applying his full strength, and the wolf's jaws were forced slowly, incrementally wider, fraction by fraction. Frost traced down the dark lord's gauntlets, but did little to delay the inexorable promise of-
Golden eyes gleamed. Carcarak twisted his head aside... and then clamped his jaws down on a gap that had opened between Revonos' gauntlet and armguards. Cleaving through the perfectly targeted weak point, his teeth snapped shut with a spray of blood and a crunch of bone. Revonos screamed, rolling away clutching his arm as Carcarak blurred to the far side of the room, a dripping prize in his mouth that he hastily extricated from its gauntlet and bolted with savage glee. Calculating eyes fixed on the Lord of Rage, and ravenous ambition burned behind them. I've gotten one part of you now... how long before I get the rest?
Two guards moved to intercept the beast. On Lord Ba'al's direct orders, they had not interfered with the contest of the two high lords, but this was a new threat and a dangerous one. Twin poleaxes rose to attack, but then something unexpected stopped them. Lord Revonos laughed.
The severed stump of his forearm bound and clutched tight to his body, the master of treachery rocked the room with his laughter. "That's my boy!" he exclaimed. "He did exactly what he was supposed to do: take the advantage that was given him. Leave him alone. He's mine to deal with."
Lord Ba'al's eyes narrowed. "That 'deal with' had better involve getting rid of him, Revonos," he warned as the Lord of Rage got to his feet. "Your dominion over him is at an end, and I'll not have Klepnos' prophecy coming true. Throw him out. Now."
"Without his going away present? Not a chance. Get over here, dog!"
Wary suspicion warred with torture-trained obedience, but obedience won. Carcarak approached, teeth bared but head lowered submissively. Revonos seized the wolf by the scruff with his remaining hand, his left, and pulled him up and twisted until the two were eye to eye. "I know you were waiting for something. Hoping for something," he intoned, ensnaring the beast's mind with a geas. "Find it." Uncaring of the consequences and knowing it would ensure all of the aedra were watching, he ripped open a portal from the Ninth Hell directly to the mortal realms. He didn't bother with choosing any particular destination. "And when you find what you're looking for... kill it."
Then he flung Carcarak through.