We arrived in front of two half opened stone doors at the end of the tunnel.
The cheers and screams were deafening, and I could even feel the heat coming from the opening. It reeked of sweat and alcohol.
The red-haired woman put her hand on my shoulder. I glanced at it, then looked at her.
“Be careful and ignore whoever tries to get your attention,” she said as she took her hand away. “Just keep your head down and follow Tabu. I’ll make sure no one gets too close.”
She motioned for the young warrior to lead us and we entered a den dedicated to violence in its most vulgar form.
It was a semi-circular stone theater, even bigger than the Undermine’s nave. The tiered seats were filled with people shouting and raising their fists at two warriors facing each other in a large rectangular pit between the stage and the seats.
“Da hell you’re waitin’ for!? I put my coins on you bastard!”
Contrarily as to what one would assume from the urging of the spectators, the fighters weren’t idle.
They were barehanded and didn’t have any protection besides their gauntlets. The speed of their movements and the impact of their aura powered attacks caused shock waves I could feel in my chest, all the way up to where I was standing.
These were beastkins warriors being serious. If all the surrounding warriors were close to them in terms of skills…
I have a long way to go.
Only a single fight could happen at a time in that arena, but it seemed that it was all that was needed as a focal point to the frustration and aggression of the viewers. Insults and money were exchanged according to how the fight was progressing.
There was a short and pudgy man on the stage, playing the role of announcer. Probably due to a skill or the effect of some item, his nasal voice was powerful enough that no one present could mishear his opinion on the fighters, or how he pushed the viewers to quickly place their bets. Bets that the people surrounding him seemed to be in charge of supervising. He was like a little conductor and this brutal blend of screams, blood and money was his orchestra.
My guide nudged me out of my reverie and we moved in the passage behind the last row of seats, the fighting area only visible when we would walk past one of the aisles leading down.
My eyes would go back to the stage each time, and now that I wasn’t so focused on the atmosphere I realized that this wasn’t a theater, or at least it wasn’t one originally.
This great hall used as a fight club was once a throne room, or something very close to it.
There were a few flights of stairs that went from the arena to the “stage”, and at the center of it was the stone block the announcer was standing on. It looked like what remained of a throne belonging to whoever reigned over Bunker.
A long time ago the imposing columns were probably covered with emblems and insignia, now they were vandalized and covered with soot from the torches.
Someone got on the stage, ran to the announcer and whispered to his ear. The litlle man’s eyes immediately started scanning the crowd.
He can’t be-
His gaze fell on us and he smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” his voice boomed. “I have a special treat for you! Today I have the exclusive pleasure of welcoming someone I am sure you’ve all heard about! The wrath of the mine! The terror of the night! The unmistakable… prodigy of the temple!”
As he said those words his hands shot in our direction and everybody, the whole theater, turned in our direction.
I felt very compelled to keep my head down and increase my pace. Something had been going on while I was asleep.
“Look at how refined he is!” the announcer said, though with the strange nature of his voice I couldn’t be sure if his words were complements or veiled insults. I opted for veiled insults.
“How overbearing! Does he have any equals among his peers? Who among them dares to challenge him?”
“Overbearing?” someone laughed. “Brat looks like a princess who never got taught a lesson!”
There were laughs in the audience.
“Let him face one of the kids in my group. I bet twenty silvers on his defeat!”
“Two silver on the princess!”
“Just keep moving,” I heard the woman behind me say.
We were heading to a small guarded door that – I figured – lead to one of the private boxes that overlooked the theater.
“Yo, she’s runnin’ away!”
The announcer cleared his voice.
“Will the challenger step in the arena, please? Lots of coins to win, much glory to earn!”
Two men emerged from the crowd and placed themselves between us and the door.
The one that came forward was a full-blooded bull beastkin with massive spiraling horns and a black coat covered with bright paintings. Or were those brandings? He seemed oddly restless and his eyes were bloodshot. He snorted steam at my sight and, for a moment, I thought he would charge at us.
“The crowd demands a fight,” he said as he rolled his muscles. “Get down there boy!”
“We can’t care less about what your crowd wants, Balrosh,” the woman at my side said. “Move or be moved.”
The men that were at the door edged closer, hands on their weapon. But far from being threatened, the bull let out a guttural laugh.
“And who is it who will move me?” he said. “Is it this child who should still be on his mother’s lap, or is it you, Maberu of the Red Crosses?”
“If I have to,” she said in a tone that couldn’t have been more indifferent if she had been talking about paint on a wall. “Though I doubt you ready to face your owner in case of defeat.”
He took a step forward, completely disregarding Tabu. To his credit, the young tiger didn’t budge in front of the mass of muscles towering over him.
The bull pointed a menacing finger at me.
“You know very well that Genoneva has been looking for him all-”
“As I’ve already said,” Maberu interrupted, “we can’t care less. Move.”
Balrosh narrowed his eyes.
“You believe that you and your band of cripples-”
There was a blur followed by a gust of wind, and before anyone could react, Maboru’s petite figure was perched on the bull’s shoulder, her sword sparkling with red aura right under his chin.
There were shouts and the sound of weapons being drawn. But I found myself unintentionally smiling. Because even if it had been incredibly short, she had been dancing.
And it had been exquisite.
“No,” I heard her whisper to him. “Go on, keep blabbering. Give us a reason to cleanse this rotting city with sand.”
The muscles of Balrosh tensed, but he did nothing.
“She will have what she wants,” he said in a much calmer tone.
He sidestepped out of our way, moving as if Maboru was weightless. Tabu and I walked past the guards who had opened us the door and went up a flight of stairs.
“It seems that our young challenger is less bold than we thought!” I heard the announcer say behind me in a merry tone. “But do not fret dear patrons, we have lots of events prepared for your entertainment!”
Tabu opened another door at the end of the stairs, letting a cloud of thick smoke escape. He let me go in then closed the door behind me.
I was mildly surprised to sense carpet under my feet.The pleasant scent in the air informed me that the source of the smoke was incense.
The only light source in the room was from the window that allowed to watch the fights, and it was obstructed by thin pieces of red cloth. Adding the smoke to the mix, it would take a few seconds for my eyes to get used to the darkness, but I could tell there were other people with me. Several others.
The smoke. Can it be a drug?
I didn’t feel any different but, even ignoring my current status, it could be something that took time before showing results. Something they had grown immune to. It would explain why Tabu didn’t enter.
“Hmm… He’s really wearing the old shuari’s garb,” a raspy voice said. “Haven’t seen those in many years. Complete too.”
“But his belt is identical to the Korok clan’s!” said a different one.
“Well, a modified version of it. Say kid, where’d you get that belt?”
There were many of them, at least a dozen sitting in a circle. Old to middle-aged men and women lounging on comfortable cushions. Some full beastkins, others mixed. They all wore vastly different clothes, but I noted that there always was a bright red article in clear view. A turban. A shirt. They looked very different from the other people of the city, or from anyone I had ever seen.
They all exuded power. Not in the same manner as the fighters beating each other to the rhythm of the audience’s cheers. In an extremely refined way. It was as if all of their short movements were calculated and performed according to a unifying design.
A design dictating their movements… A dance?
Another notable fact was that almost all of them seemed to at least missed one limb. An arm or a leg.
Only Bokwen, who was looking at me with a serious expression, and a much older woman sitting by the window, who seemed more interested in what was happening down in the arena, seemed to be only missing fingers.
“Not something you’ll know,” I finally said in a neutral tone.
There were chuckles.
“Good, good,” nodded a one-legged old man sitting next to Bokwen. “It’d be a shame if you were too meek.”
My eyes went to Bokwen.
“I am here,” I said. “I don’t know what this is about, but while I am not from Nashran, I am in a hurry. So I would appreciate it if you forgot about me.”
Another round of chuckles.
“We know you are not from Nashran, Edward” Bokwen low voice’s said. “Well, I knew from the moment I saw you, but some of my seniors weren’t convinced, so I had people ask around and it was confirmed.”
He leaned forward and made his chin rest on his hand.
“You literally came out of nowhere,” he said. “The first person to ever see you was my own adoptive daughter, which is a fact I find very amusing. Would you mind enlightening us about your origins?”
“Yes,” I said without missing a bit. “I would very much mind that.”
It seemed that the smoke wasn’t supposed to make me compliant, at least.
“If you already know I’m not from Nashran,” I continued, “why did you get me here?”
“Because you are a delver and, more importantly, a sword dancer.”
I need to figure out if this a lost cause or not.
“I do not understand,” I said.
“You do not understand my words?” he said.
“No, I do not understand what me being anything has to do with you.”
There was a shift in the air, and I smelled the familiar scent of danger.