The Wolf Among Rats
"Experiments?" I echoed.
Her insane stare fixed itself to me. "Yes! In truth, I had prepared to release you as soon as you grabbed my attention for this very reason. I was required deceive the priests into believing I had greater plans thanks to our political relations. Sol's will and all that."
Oh so that's why she freed the others even with their shoddy reasons. But it doesn't help me figure out what 'experiments' means.
Wal growls a question. "Are we special in some way? Could you not have simply hired others to fill our role?"
Wal, I swear if you mess this up I will kill you.
She waves her hand dismissively. "Father won't hire demi-humans in the castle. 'A waste of our coffers' he claims. Prisoners, however, won't consume our coffers. All parties benefit. Now then!"
She snags a journal from a desk along with a quill and prepares to write. "I need your names before we continue. I'll begin. Greetings. I am Aroura, princess of Solaris and academic of all things unknown!"
She places her scar-cloaked fist on her waist and puffs out her chest. "I study all manner of scientific and mystical enigmas. Often, the two are directly related."
Okay, well she's obviously not going to kill us. She's probably going to use us to study her mumbo jumbo and even though she's human royalty she's trying to be friendly. I suppose I should return the pleasantry. "I am called Kar'Desh your majesty. Heretic of the temple and antagonizer of templars. Often, my two titles are directly related."
She quickly scribbles in her journal before excitedly glancing back up waiting for the next introduction.
Naz stamps his foot proudly. I only just noticed how short he is. He's only as tall as my waist. "Naz, dwarven lorekeeper and elder! My two titles are directly related."
"Maheed. Uhh. Heretic and... Jarcoba? Often, my two titles are directly related. Well, that's not true. Uhh-" Wal started his introduction before Maheed could continue. Good try Maheed. You gave it your all.
"Zuwald'Xith. Wal to humans." Of course he didn't even try to continue the joke. We'll have to work on that.
Aroura, having held back her excitement long enough, descended on Naz. Grabbing his head, twisting it around, and doing the same to his arms all while making observations. "Such stout figure! Dwarves dwell in cave systems yes? Is that why you possess a figure so stout? Can you preform echolocation? I had thought dwarven beards were truly something to behold? Yet yours is no more than an average man's!"
Naz ignored her other questions and somberly explained that he spent his whole life growing his beard only to have it cruelly hacked off by his torturer. He went on to describe it's incredible length blah blah blah. Is... Is he crying? No way. There's no way his beard was that important to him. It's a beard! Over top of him, Aroura made her observations.
She then left without any of her questions answered and flew over to Maheed. Hey, look at that. They're the same size. She then circled Maheed like a wolf around it's prey. "Such a striking resemblance to canines! With your spindly frame and the presence of a stifle and hock you must be extraordinarily fast!"
He makes the mistake of attempting to answer her ramblings when he yelps. She clutched his bushy tail and continued her questions. "What purpose- Ooo, soft. Does your tail serve you? Can you see? How quaint! Why does your hair fall! It covers such cute eyes!"
What do his eyes look like? Now I'm curious, but of course she just drops his mane and moves on. Maheed desperately tries to answer any of her questions, only to stammer and get confused once she asked the next. Before Maheed could make sense of what was happening, the princess pounced on her next victim.
Wal stood perfectly still... Like a wall.
Don't do that.
Agreed. When he stands straight, he's as tall as I am. He stood still and silently as Aroura carefully stalked each scale. "Such cold resolute scales. Your natural armour is a wonder. Surely your ponderous attributes and massive tail render most attire impractical."
Which is true. The clothes we were given earlier flows unnaturally around his malformed legs and tail. Then his tunic is already ripped from his bulk. She goes on to describe his powerful jaw and 'beautiful' reptilian features.
A few more random observations and it's my turn.
She walks around me, looking me up and down with her finger to her chin. Looks like she only comes up to my chest. "The differences between elves and humans appear largely superficial."
Tsk. Nothing but praises for the others. But she immediately compares me to humans. "The greatest disparity seems to be their ears. Tell me. Do they allow- eek!"
She stopped in front of me, reached up for my ears, yelped and jumped away. Uhh... My ears aren't that weird are they? Is she insulting me again? She stares at me and her eyes gradually fall into what I can only call curiosity. "You know magic? Why didn't you tell me? What kind of spell is that? Who taught you?"
What? I put up my hands defensibly and answer honestly. "I didn't even think magic was real until recently. I don't know what you're talking about."
She goes through quite a few states of confusion as she absorbs my words. After a good minute she rushes back to me in her crazy state. Only now she's more excited. "Are you considered different from other elves in any way?"
Other than my hair, no. I shake my head with my hands still up. She grabs my arm and shudders. "You're not doing this!?"
I look to the others for help, but they're just as confused as I am! When I turn back, she's about a finger's length from my face waiting for an answer! "What am I doing?"
She drops my arm and paces in front of us, throwing her arms about wildly. "Incredible! Simply fascinating! What sort of lineage could elves have to develop such a trait?"
She rushed back to me and took my hand and pointed to it. "You drain mana! All things have mana, however minuscule, and elves naturally drain it! Oh, the possible implications of this!"
What on Kalth is mana? Before I can ask, she runs her finger tips up my arm and across my torso while laughing. "How bizarre. As though a supernatural siphon-"
"Uhh. Princess?" She yelps and jumps away again. I don't mind attractive women touching me, but this was getting weird. Well, I guess I don't mind that either. I have the most fun with girls who want weird things done to them. Especially Freala. Oh man, is she freaky.
The princess has certainly shattered my expectations of her, but she's still a human. We can only trust her as long as we keep our use. Besides, she happens to be the daughter of someone who could kill me with a passing word. 'My daughter's taken a liking to you, has she? That's wonderful news! Kill him.'
She bows slightly as she says, "Apologies. You must understand. You are simply fascinating to me."
The princess apologizing to me? While I enjoy the sight, I don't think the character for 'Son of Solaris' would allow it. I overplay surprised and say, "Oh there's no need to apologize princess. I just thought you'd want to carry on."
She relents. "Of course. And Please. Call me Aroura. You're all my greatest friends after all."
I look to the others and share glances of confusion before Naz turns to the princess. "We are? Yer sure?"
She shook her head an fell into a relaxed stance. "Without qualm. Hearing 'princess' and 'my liege' time and time again grows trite."
How would my character respond to that? Would she actually notice a difference? I suppose I'll play it safe until I know more about her. She may have given us more room relax, but we can still fall to our death if we slip up. She whips around and begins marching towards the ladder at the edge of the room. "Now! Accompany me. We've much to unravel!"
Ah, I see. A friend who grants orders. The best kind of friend you can get. We've no choice but to comply so we follow her up the ladder. It leads to a circular room with what I could only call contraptions scattered about the many tables around the room. Unmarked journals lay open next to contraptions of metal, glass, bone, or all three. Tools and storage chests line the walls while countless materials both organic and not, are seemingly haphazardly spewn about the various tables. I can't even begin to imagine what all this could be used for.
Aroura stops in the middle and raises an enormous bloody knife from the table. "I require your blood. Please seat yourselves."
I gingerly look towards the balcony ready to hop over the fence of maidservants while Aroura explains that she'd heal us with magic after gathering a sizable sample. Magic can heal too? She points the now clean knife at me. "Kar'Desh! If you would, I'm most anxious for your blood."
She taps the chair with her knife. "Please sit."
I bargain with Aroura to cut a non-vital spot so I don't just die. I don't trust this healing just yet. She begrudgingly accepts and makes a cut on my outer forearm. The scars on her face twitch in excitement and her terrifying yellow eyes follow each drop.
Once the container is filled, she pops a cork in it and places her hand over my arm. Her hand glows in a pale green light and to my amazement, the cut on my arm mends itself. So she's not looking to kill us just yet. Good to know. She continues to give us various demands for a long while.
We answer her endless questions which mostly prod into our past. I think only Naz gave her truthful answers. And maybe Maheed, but definitely Naz. Apparently he's a nomad who was in Solaris making money by teaching the dwarves history and reading. Usually he travels back to Valentia, a south-eastern city, to give his children all his money.
We're taught how to move mana which feels like dozens of tiny needles pricking my hands. She wanted us to move our mana into rosy metal orbs that she would use later. Looks like the same metal the templar armour is made of. So, I guess mana is a magic thing? Does that mean I can do magic? Can anyone do magic? I wonder how. I was going to ask, but I don't want to interrupt her and she endlessly asks questions.
We're well into the night when she finally sits down with us. She plops her head down on the table. "It would bring boundless joy to my heart if you could remain here unrestricted. Unfortunately, there are political implications to consider. Sol's will and all that."
Wal spoke up for the first time in a while. "Unrestricted? What are the restrictions?"
Without raising her head, she answers. "Service. As heretics, your only chance at freedom is absolution. And as Sol dictates, your only chance at absolution is combat."
Her head rolls so her face is laying against the table. She groans. "My time would be severely wasted should you hunt other heretics. Perhaps we could find-"
She shoots straight up. "Rangers!"
She explains to us that rangers are the duke's personal band of warriors who venture into the wilderness to accomplish various tasks. And in times of war they're used as specialists. We're going to become Aroura's personal band of warriors? Not sure how I feel about that... Although. 'Venture into the wilderness.' She may have just secured our escape from Solaris. Oh Aroura, you naive fool. I have to thank you. Later though. Once we've actually left.
She finishes describing her thoughts to us with, "Under the pretense that you're hunting for heretics, you would actually scavenge the world for mystical materials! We could fulfill political implications and conduct our research in peace!"
Her finger gently lands on her lips and the scars on her face twitch into an innocent smile. "A secret kept between dear friends. Oh, what fun."
Apologies princess, but you don't know how friends work. And I shall take the secret of friendship with me to a new city. She turns to the servants, who have been patiently awaiting orders, and points to the elderly woman in the middle. "Servants! Prepare uniforms for the Eclipse Rangers. And summon Sir Andre. He shall train them in the arts of ranging."
She turns back to us. "Go with them. They shall feed and shelter you. Until we meet again my 'penitent' heretics."
I bow and the others do the same. We then follow the servants through gradually less lavish corridors into the dungeon. Our cage is empty save for the shackles and pillories attached to the wall, but easily large enough for us to lay out. The servants deny my request for hay to sleep on and leave. Once they're gone, Naz settles into a corner and asks, "You queer lad? I had ye pegged for a lady's man, but ye turned away her touch."
I scoff. "Not attracted to humans. Besides I have an image to uphold. Just for a while longer anyway. I don't know if you caught it, but we can escape Solaris."
Wal says, "Though I'm eager to be rid of this over-zealous city, I have debts to pay. I'll assist in your departure but I won't join you after."
I raise an eyebrow to that. "If you leave the city, how are the debt collectors going to find you?"
He stares at me with a side-long glare before stating, "My debts are not ones that can be paid with money. I'm sure you would abandon those that've saved you, but I intend to repay my saviours."
He added an extra bite to that last sentence that infuriates me. "I owe nothing to the princess. I've lived my entire life in her shit-hole of a city, giving her family my hard-earned money. And look where that got me."
He turns his full attention to me now. "A criminal has no ground to protest his cell. You have betrayed your city by disregarding its laws."
I stand in protest. "What kind of hypocrite are you? You're in the same cell as me."
"I am here due to a mistake. You have no one to blame but yourself. Tell us. What exactly was your crime?"
"The only crime I've committed is being born in the wrong city."
Naz finally stands between us. "Alright alright, cool it ye two. Whatever the reason we're in this together."
He turns to face me first. "Wal obviously has stone-set morals, yeah? He's indebted to you for now so let's leave 'em be."
I click my tongue in irritation. "I'm not an idiot Naz. I can see that."
He waves his hand dismissively which only stokes my ire. "Right right, so set yer pride aside for now."
He turns to Wal and continues. "The kid's had a hard life Wal. We've no right to assume anythin' but ignorance. He and the temple don't get along and that's that. I don't get along with them neither. Any idea's where we could go to escape 'em?"
Wal releases a growling snort before saying, "We're ignorant because he decided we should be. But yes. Most of the cities North and South are disconnected from the temple's influence."
Apparently our discussion is over. What an asshole. While Naz prods Wal about his knowledge of surrounding settlements, Maheed inches closer to me and whispers, "I agree with you. Or I mean I understand."
He nervously plays with his fingers, avoiding eye contact with me. I sigh. "Thanks Maheed."
Since Wal and Naz have actual experience outside Solaris, they discuss places we could actually go to escape the temple. The Temple of Sol holds jurisdiction in plenty of kingdoms along with the other human temples. I believe there's seven of them? God of the Sun, Moon, Kalth, life, death, water, and air. According to Wal, the temples grow in power the further East you go. They even have their own cities and armies. Entire cities run by the human temples? Sounds like a shit show.
Wal and Naz continue to discuss various cities and I throw in a few questions to try and gauge the city still keenly aware of our argument. I'll set that straight later. As it turns out, a lot of places aren't as opposed to elves and the other races as Solaris. Honestly, I don't believe it. Guess I'll find out later.
For now, the servants arrived with food. I swear, if I see another atel, I'm going to ransack the castle for food. They've brought us pig's slop. A collective sigh fills the cage as I coldly thank the servants and take the slop. Never mind, I already miss atels.
With nothing left to do, we decide to just sleep in our own corners of the cage.
I'm awakened early by the door slamming open. "Let's get this over with."