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Rise of the Blade

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Chapter One

A chill breeze swept across Waterdeep's habour. The leaves had already started to turn colour for the autumn and the birds were heading south early. Today, in every inn, tavern and pub lining the many streets, alleys and boulevards of the great city, bards were singing a different tune.

In the harbour the flags flew at half-mast and nothing moved. The crowds were still there of course, plying their wares, but an unnatural silence had crept across the city. To many eyes this was perhaps a good sign, Waterdeep's populace humbled in an obscure way, to others it was a slow down in the market with the exception of the number of white wine sales that went up.

There was a sharp splash from the single ship in the harbour and Doctor Pierce O'Hiram closed his eyes as the body of his friend disappeared beneath the waves. Today was a day of mourning for a respected adventurer and, until recently, a little known Harper: Witter. The silence that followed the departure of his friend chilled the doctor to the bone and as he looked about the ship he could feel the grief of his comrades.

The cowled figure beside him spat and lit a cigar. Pierce glared at the elf for a moment, and then sensed the guilt surrounding Marque Draque as the mage threw the cigar overboard without a word. He didn't have to say anything and he didn't as he went below the deck.

Looking about at his fellow Harpers, Pierce understood that the majority of them were thinking of the death of their friend, whereas the people on the shore were thinking of the death of a hero. Yet Pierce knew this was only temperary, the people of Waterdeep would soon forget the name of Witter. Oh sure, they'd remember how the ranger had died in defense of the city, but his name would be lost in the history books.

Pierce swallowed and remembered the feeling he had when he rode out of Waterdeep with Witter as a comrade on his first adventure. He had been a rolemodel back then, he had studied under the warrior, learning his fighting style the twin sabers, how to control a horse with simple leg movements and fight at the same time, but perhaps it was the noble heart of the man Pierce had wished for, the sheer disregard for his own life in favour of everyone else. The man had been pure virtue. The warrior sighed and shoved away the memories that brought tears to his already wet cheeks.

It was time to finish unfinished business.

In what passed for a broken down hovel on Waterdeep's waterfront sat a short pudgy man with freckled cheeks and a bulbous nose holding a monocle in front of his left eye. For a semi-retired ruffian, he had done well considering his rich, yet food stained, clothes. He looked up across his desk suspiciously, some sixth sense that kept him alive in this business told him he was no longer alone. He reached down for the blade hidden in his belt.

The sudden scrap of metal on wood warned him too late and he looked up at a three foot blade of blue steel posed at his nostrils. The monocle fell off his nose and he swallowed as he stared up with blurry vision at the tall, broad figure with dark brown hair and greying temples. He looked down at the distinctive antique bronze breastplate and managed a vague smile.

"Please sit down Dr. Pierce," he rasped and gestured with a hand to the empty oak chair across from him. "To what purpose do I owe this visit?"

Pierce sheathed the saber and sat, promptly pouring himself a drink from a dusty bottle marked elvenquist. He spat it out quickly and smiled. "What makes you think I have a purpose?" he asked, knowing full well what Jimox thought. He threw the bottle casually at the wall beside him.

Jimox placed his monocle back on his nose. He stared at the reckage of the bottle and the rat that scurried out of the cracks in the tiled walls to lick at the spilled wine. "You always have a purpose it would seem. You never just 'stop by'. Although I simply must ask why you just fed part of my wine collection to Waterdeep's rat population?"

"Well, for starters it was watered down, and secondly the crooked merchant you got it from laced it with a nasty liquor called hemotoxin." The Doctor smiled knowingly.

The ruffian raised an eyebrow. He had learned in the past that Pierce enjoyed exercising a superior knowledge of practically everything. How he learned such things however was open to question.

When the ruffian did not reply, the warrior explained. "Poison. Death in roughly two minutes starting with intense stomach pain, vomiting, fever, heart pains, your skin turns purple or pale white and your heart eventually slows and stops," Pierce said in his usual nonchalant manner.

Jimox pursed his lips. "I'll have to remember that." He glanced at the already dead rat. He swallowed his saliva and thanked his pride that he refused to drink the rot gut he served his guests. The ruffian looked back up at Pierce. "So?" he said slowly. "What will it be this time?"

Pierce smiled. That same annoying, knowing smile. "Just a name."

Valentino d'Or the IVth felt as secure as any smuggling lord could feel when he learned that a whole cargoship of smokepowder had been hijacked by Harpers and subsequently blown up. Which wasn't that good. Indeed, he was deathly afraid his associates, the giffs, would send an assassin to his pathetic looking old caravel that hadn't moved from the harbour in over fifteen years.

One wouldn't have guessed the derelict contained life at all, even the rats avoided its rotting boards. Any food that had been present here had long since rotted away along with parts of the ship itself. Flotsam and algae clung to its sides thickly and small fish swarmed its sides in schools, eating the algae. The area this ship was docked in wasn't even worth noticing, just a bunch of leaky fishing boats that had been discarded. Those few people that inhabited the streets currently weren't planning on staying there either. This would be one of the roughest parts of the city were it not so underpopulated.

The smuggler sat amidst the rubble of the broken down cabin, trying to pour himself a drink of gin, his hand shaking constantly. Tears of frustration ran down his cheeks and he kept casting worried glances out the window at the empty docks, half expecting a small army of giffs to appear, knock down his door, and demand payment for their lost smokepowder and arquebuses. Payment he simply didn't have.

Or rather, his family had the money, but they were too proud to bail out one of their own. Better to let him die rather than take the whole family down with him.

The rickety door did come crashing down a moment later, its rotting boards splintering and making a huge mess, but not under the great weight of a nine foot tall, eight-hundred pound giff. He was almost relieved to see only a six-foot-two soldier dressed in antique bronze armour.

Armour that shone brilliantly in the midmorning light, the sun's rays reflecting off the muscular breastplate and playing strange tricks on the eyes.

Valentino's heart stopped. He dropped the bottle of gin and it rolled across the floor spilling spirits on the rotten boards to stop at Pierce's leather riding boots.

The smuggler began praying that the giffs would rescue him. Dr. Pierce's ranger friend Witter was the Harper who had single handedly executed the hijacking of Valentino's ship, despite dying in the explosion that rocked the harbour and could be heard over a forty miles away.

Nevertheless, the city's bards somehow got hold of more specifics about the explosion and pretty soon every bard from the dandy Danilo Thann to the drow violinist Valeska Ko'Ragur were singing the tale of Witter, turning him into some kind of martyr against arquebuses. Within a day everyone had been talking about Witter's courageous sacrifice, giving his life to the city he loved. They portrayed him as a poet, a leader, a commoner, a saint. Every story exagerated the facts, trying to make out that Valentino's crew had wanted to obliterate Waterdeep, which was entirely false.

And now, looking up at the steelblue eyes of Dr. Pierce, Valentino could only think of the punishment he would receive. He closed his eyes, waiting for the deathblow that would send him spiralling into blackness. He waited and heard movement but felt nothing.

"Any rumours you've heard of me having a temper are entirely false."

His heart started beating again. He peeked open an eye and saw the man seated crosslegged across from him in the filth. He lifted a hand to his neck, glad it was still there and finally let out a breath, realizing he had holding his breath.

Pierce smiled. "It's not you I want Valentino, although you will be useful."

Valentino wasn't stupid, and he was more sober right now than he had been in a long time. He could guess what Pierce was thinking. "For what? Bait?"


Valentino saw the silhouette of the nine-foot tall giff and his twelve bodyguards walking down the length of the ship factory. The huge hippo headed giff stood out most of all, his ears appearing to be horns from this distance. They approached silently with a speed that left the smuggler feeling vulnerable in this dark and lonely place. All around was unfinished parts of a new schooner still in process of being built. "Why this place?" he whispered into the darkness.

"Its a Harper building owned by Waterdeep," Pierce replied from the shadows of a pile of slabbed wood. "The ship is being specially built for a number of purposes."

"Pirates or us smugglers?" Valentino glanced around the factory, his vivid imagination making him think he could see the Harpers hidden in the shadows all around him, ready to spring.


The smuggler shifted his feet nervously. "You know, I don't understand why we can't sell arquebuses in the first place. You can still kill a man with a sword you know. Why don't you outlaw swords?"

"I don't make the law, I just preserve it. Lets just say that we want to prevent a future in which whole armies would march into battle carrying arquebuses. It would be a bloody mess."

"No more bloody than our current wars." Valentino grinned with a sudden thought. "Smuggling is just the transportation of such goods. Whats wrong with that? Your own father buys smuggled drow vodka I understand."

"My father was a boxer. The bloodsport has been banned for a long time too. Do you really think he worried about getting caught with smuggled goods back then?" Pierce stepped back farther into the shadows and put a finger to his lips.

The hollow sounds of boots came closer and a giff's hippo-like head loomed into view, his face illuminated by the cracks in the roof. "Company halt!" the giff barked. The monster straightened his brown and green uniform and glanced at his bodyguards in a quick inspection as they formed into a line. He surveyed the shadowy surroundings and finally his eyes rested on Valentino. "Why did you choose this place?"

Valentino shrugged and his face flushed red. "Privacy. Now I'm sure that you've heard about the explosion rigged by my men-"

"Rigged?" barked the giff in fury. His huge hands clenched and he took a step closer. "You deliberately blew up a whole ship of smokepowder?"

Valentino smiled as best he could. "The smokepowder wasn't even on the ship. You can tell your kin that they have nothing to worry about. That was a magical explosion meant to throw the Harpers off our trail. It also provided my men a distraction to move the smokepowder to a new location."

The giff narrowed his large black eyes. "And where is the smokepowder? Or rather, where is my payment?"

"All in due time," replied Valentino. "My agents haven't sold off the bulk of the powder yet. We've had to be extra quiet since the explosion. Everyone has been talking about it and people have been very wary and suspicious around smokepowder dealers of late. I'm planning to sell over half of it tomorrow for a huge profit." One thing was for sure, the smuggler thought, Dr. Pierce was no muscle-bound idiot. His excuses were almost flawless in every detail.

"I want the gold now," spat the giff. His biceps bulged against the sleeves of his tailored uniform-like shirt. "Or else my troops here will find a new way to dispose of your pathetic body."

Valentino swallowed and reminded himself that he was surrounded by a small army of Harper agents. With growing courage he wet his lips. "You know, I could have you killed at any moment now. I have about fourty men hidden around us as we speak. More than enough to start a small war." He smiled at his own cleverness. "But we wouldn't want that would we?"

The giff sniffed his huge nose and drew a hand arquebus, pointing it straight at Valentino's head.

The smuggler only grinned and for a moment the giff looked uncertain. "You'll have your money in two days time."

"I want it now!" barked the giff.

"Perhaps you should wait awhile," said a hollow voice from the shadows to the giff's left.

The huge monster turned to the left, his hand ready to pull the trigger. And saw only the hollowed out piece of trunk. It took a second for him to realize what had happened, and by the time he turned back to face Valentino, the smuggler was gone and replaced by the downward stroke of a blue-steeled saber.

Pierce took a step back as the monster screamed. He watched as the giff dropped his pistol and clutched the wound that ran down the side of his face. He didn't even look to either side but immediately ducked under the swings of two bodyguards, and rolled backwards across the floor to come to his feet in a crouch, saber ready before him.

Ten bodyguards walked forward between the two piles of wood planks, in groups of two. Pierce reminded himself that the remaining two would soon find a way around the piles and come up behind him. He drew his other saber and stepped forward into the first rank of bodyguards.

"That's your small army!" screamed the giff. "One man? That's it?"

Valentino swallowed and cowered farther into the darkness. He hadn't known Pierce would try and take them all on. Or perhaps the fighter hadn't been expecting a fight, what with all those logical excuses he had provided. He wondered if he should make a run for an exit.

But Pierce had most definitely been expecting a fight. He had expected every detail of this meeting. Knew the exact words the giff would use ten seconds before he used them. Knew the bodyguards' swings before the bodyguards even thought of them. The good doctor, not only an incredible fighter and having earned the title of a doctorate of combat, making him possibly the greatest fighter in all the realms, was also blessed with foresight.

That ability, and that alone was what had kept the warrior alive and well in the adventuring lifestyle. Combine that with an excellent physical prowess and quick learning. Or perhaps, as Pierce himself thought of it, he was simply destined.

Didn't really matter as far as the Harper was concerned, his sabers ripped through one bodyguard after another as he slowly retreated back into an open area, instead of waiting for the two bodyguards to come up behind him. He retreated slowly, his blue adamantite sabers cleaving through armour and bone until there was only six bodyguards remaining. And they all were quickly coming to the conclusion that this man wasn't even getting tired yet.

They tried to attack but his saber was already there before they made their stab, parrying it easily and dodging past their defenses to jab through the holes of their chain mail to find flesh. When he didn't deflect their attacks, they simply bounced off his bronze armour without so much as a scratch. When he attacked, it was flawless, slipping past their weak defenses and biting into their skin.

Four remaining. His right saber took a head off while the left parried a blade away and disarmed the man. He dodged the third man's thrust and the fourth's blade clanged harmlessly off his breastplate.

Three. The disarmed man threw up his hands and backed away.

Two. The bodyguard on the left raised his bastardsword for an overhead chop at Pierce's head with both hands, when it came down however his one arm was missing and the swing went awry due to lack of balance. A quick saber thrust to the neck ended his surprise.

One. The last man screamed in defiance and hacked at Pierce with sheer ferocity, his blows were strong and could not be ignored. Pierce brought a saber up to block a swing in a test of strength and lifted the other until it was posed under the man's neck.

The warrior, his face red and sweat running down his face wanted to swear and his frustration was evident to even Valentino hiding in the shadows.

A strange silence followed as the giff came forward at last, and pointed his arquebus at Pierce. "You annoy me Harper. You, and Valentino will die."

The doctor never blinked, instead he kneed the warrior in the crotch and turned to face the giff, sabers lowered.

The gun dealer snarled and pulled the trigger.

The greatest thing about arquebuses, reflected Pierce was the fact that only nine in ten shots actually worked. The other one was when the gun either backfired, or didn't work at all. In this case it didn't work at all.

The giff tried again and nothing happened. A hollow click.

Pierce advanced on the giff who tossed down the arquebus and held up both hands in a pair of fists. No weak monsters were these, and a giff's punch was as good as a hill giant's. Pierce tossed down his sabers and held up his own fists to the nine-foot giff.

"How about I introduced myself? I'm Doctor Pierce O'Hiram. I admit my father, the boxer Hiram wasn't as famous as I am, but he still taught me how to box."

The giff frowned, which looked strange on his huge chubby face. Pierce's name was known all over the realms and even a giff from the south knew and feared his name. They also knew that Pierce was rumoured to have slayed the tarrasque, a monster so great and vicious that even dragons feared it. Every giff dreamed of being distinguished as a mighty fighter and ever since the rumour of Pierce being the Tarrasqueslayer had begun years ago, many a challenger had sought that title. Which Pierce had defended time and time again. And now, instead of fear of the great warrior, the giff charged ahead, wanting the title for himself.

Pierce sidestepped easily and watched the giff slip on his fallen sabers, slide across the floor and impale himself on the unfinished foremast of the great schooner. A pool of blood dripped down off the giff's uniform and formed on the floor

The remaining bodyguard dropped his hands from above his head and stepped forward into the light, staring at the blood that flowed from the giff's wound. He turned slowly to face Pierce in awe.

"Eleven men," said Valentino as he too emerged from the shadows, staring at the fighter as he sheathed his sabers. "And a giff."

"Its not going to make any ballads I'm afraid," Pierce spat, who didn't like the constant awe surrounding his name. "People are still making up stories of how I killed the tarrasque."

"Did you?" asked the bodyguard.

"No," the Doctor said sharply. He sighed and muttered under his breath, "Stupidity rules."

Where the merchant district met the rich estates of the nobility, there was a building surrounded by a marble wall twenty feet high. Beyond that wall and its bronze gates was a garden maze of rose bushes, maple trees, and a vast assortment of plants in every size and shape. Beyond the maze and rolling lawns stood the proud white marble of the Academy of Combat. The stairs led up to the massive westwing, past marble pillars and ended at its heavy bronze doors. Soaring a hundred and fifty feet into the air was the dome, the central piece of the Academy with four wings extending out from it like a compass.

The Academy of Combat, the premier school in Waterdeep for teaching the arts of single combat was also one of the greatest feats of architecture in the city's history. The domed ceiling, inlaid with a multitude of windows to let the light in, was crafted by dwarven marblesmiths had been a feat alone where many dwarves claimed that it wouldn't hold and would collapse. That was before they learned that a powerful cleric had been hired to cast a dweomer that would help hold it. And so they built it and stood by it with confidence.

Only then did Pierce, as headmaster and founder of the academy, tell them that there had been no such cleric aiding the structure, rather it was the single column in the centre of the domed amphitheatre that held it. When the dwarves inquired about the nature of the column, the doctor assured them it was not witchcraft that made it so strong, but a substance stolen from drow mines.

Platinum they had asked. Mithril? Titanium? Pierce shook his head and drew his famous sabers. "Adamantite," he answered. A metal so imposible to break that it might as well be considered indestructable.

The dwarves had nodded, all knowing the value of adamantite. They wouldn't dare try to steal the blades though, and the hundred-fifty foot tall column of pure white adamantite wasn't about to be stolen. Unless you really wanted several hundred tonnes of marble dropping down on your head.

Rather, the statues that stood around the domed amphitheatre between marble columns, were worth far more. Each represented a famous fighter in the history of the realms, many of them from Waterdeep. Today, a new addition to the collection was a statue of Chev, the head bodyguard of the immensely wealthy d'Or merchant family. The warrior had lived over a hundred and fifty years ago and died, presumably in defense of the city or the family. The statue was considered to be one of the greatest due to its sheer amount of detail right down to the sweat on the warrior's face plus its heroic defensive pose with his sword held out in front of him.

"A little overdramatic for my taste," said Marque Draque, his thoughts betraying his true feelings. Even he couldn't refuse that it was by far the greatest statue he had ever seen. "Who made it?"

Pierce turned to face the drow mage. "No one knows. The donator was the family of d'Or. They said it was carved by one of their ancestors although Valentino said it was probably a bastard child raised by the family yet never truly recognized in their family tree." He chuckled and remembered the very thankful Valentino insisting on the present.

"Its magical," Marque Draque said abruptly, surprising the usually unsurprisable O'Hiram which happened often when he daydreamed.

"Really?" blurted Pierce, although he already knew the answer.

"Yes, although I believe the magic is there to keep that blade from breaking off too easily. Its amazing it hasn't broke already."

Pierce nodded and turned around completely, heading for the kitchen for he knew in a minute that his stomach would be growling at him. Marque followed quietly, taking out a cigar and lighting it with a minor spell. "Are you going to commission that statue of Witter from Tadd Rurik or aren't you?" asked the drow abruptly.

Pierce glanced at the dark elf, whose face was normally the ebony black of the drow elves was that of a Moon elf due to his constant illusion. Pierce knew the illusion was for good measure against the mobs of Waterdhavians who would rip the mage apart before one could say so much as a hello. The only drow elves Pierce knew of who could freely walk Waterdeep was Drizzt Do'Urden and Valeska Ko'Ragur, and even then they walked quickly and with a quick eye for trouble. Drizzt Do'Urden was a warrior who fought alongside the piratehunters, and thus a hero. The drow violinist Valeska however was another matter as she was constantly getting into trouble and ducking the guard, becoming quite the infamous bard for her ability to evade capture.

He paused and delved deeper into Marque Draque's subconscious thoughts, past the plans of making an improved version of his Vampiric Blades spell and the modifications on the Exploding Cigars spell, Pierce found what he was looking for: an image of Witter, or rather a statue of Witter sitting upon a sculpted warhorse, one hand on the reins and the other clasping the hilt of a saber.

"The dwarf is asking too high a price and we still haven't completed building the eastwing. I was wondering if you should be the one who sculpts it," Pierce said at last.

"Me? I can't sculpt!"

"You've never tried. Although, with your magic skills you should be able to accomplish the feat better than that greedy dwarf could."

The drow conceded that fact with a nod and didn't say anymore, his mind already going through the random possibilities he could take advantage of to make a sculpting spell.

Pierce stopped at one of the many doors and looked at the new sculpture adding to an already huge collection. He wondered what it had been like two hundred years ago, the merchants of the coast fighting for control, the constant chaos and intrigue. Certainly more interesting than teaching students how to kill, which in theory was not Pierce's goal.

The Academy's goal was to give the adventurers who followed him a fighting chance. Something many of his dead friends hadn't had. Many of his friends he had gained over the years had left at one time or another after some great quest. They only very rarely returned.

Pierce closed the bronze doors of his bedchamber behind him and looked about the room. For a moment his mind drifted back to when he had first opened the Academy back in the spring. The very first night he had spent here had been quiet. Deathly quiet.

Tonight he could hear the sound of the wind in the trees outside. The trees weren't very big, but they had grown a lot in the last six months thanks to Marque Draque and Rambertz's magic. The bulk of the birds had went south for the winter with the exception of the noisy chickadees and a few cardinals.

"I spend too much time with Rambertz," Pierce muttered to himself, recognizing the cry of a loon coming from the direction of the small pond in the south-east corner of the grounds. He had become attached to his druid friend over the summer and a week didn't pass that Pierce could not be found out in the orchard talking philosophy with the secretive druid.

On a whim, the retired adventurer went out to the balcony and opened the glass doors as he stepped outside. He instantly caught the distant, yet distinct sound of blades crossing. The students should all be in the dormitory which meant only one thing.

The orchard of the Academy's grounds was a favourite spot for a midnight jousting match, the moon's white light filtering down with an almost magical feeling. Two youths fought back and forth fiercily, a pair of blades flashing in the cool autumn air, their movements only broken by the sharp sounds of metal scraping on metal and their breathing and stress an enjoyment. They had never felt more alive.

The two youths broke apart for a moment, breathing heavily. A rustle in the leaves off to the side alerted the two and they turned to face the shadows, blades posed before them. It was against the rules to fight without a referee on the basis that a fight can get very personal and pass beyond a simple joust, and they were certainly breaking the rules.

The grizzled face of an old gardener appeared out of the darkness, carrying a rake. "Ye lads shouldn't be out here ye know! 'gainst thee rules!" He brandished the rake at them. "I oughta teach ye yipper snappers a lesson!"

"Bring it on old man!" replied Mitch and bared his blade confidently.

The old gardener smiled, twirled his rake, and swung slowly. Mitch parried easily and the blade caught the rake between its teeth. The student suddenly found himself without a weapon, whereas the gardener now advanced with both a rake and a sword.

"What the-?" cried Brek, desperately trying to parry off the combined attacks of both sword and rack, only to lose his weapon in a similar fashion. His blade flew up in the air, and fell twirling in the light.

To land easily in the hand of the elven mage Marque Draque. "Lads, do you have any idea what Pierce would do if he caught the two of you out here? You know its against the rules!"

Mitch stammered a reply about his father being a wealthy merchant to which the elf answered by levelling a blade at the student's neck. "Doctor Pierce is no fool, and doesn't take bribes, bantling!" He spat on the ground. "He doesn't give a damn about money and you'd be wise to learn the same."

Brek looked at Mitch and the pained expression that flashed between their eyes was clear and simple: They were going to get a speech. Brek wished he had an egg timer on him.

"Listen lads, when I was your age, which was quite some time ago since I'm an elf, I was all hyped up about adventuring too! I wanted to go out and make a fortune killing dragons! But I'll tell ye frankly, I have never met any man who can single handedly take down a dragon with a weapon. It takes team work." He grinned and clapped both lads on the backs, leading them away. Both winced when they learned the elf was stronger than he looked. "Or a really big fireball," he added.

They walked past an elm tree and turned onto the cobble walkway leading to the barracks in the north wing. "But that's besides the point! I learned very young that magic in general is meant for long distant fighting. You can't throw an ol' fireball at a guy five feet away unless you want to be roasted too! Thus, I became a rarity amongst elves: a fighter and a mage. A master of both trades." A cigar floated up out of his pocket, lit and he took a quick puff. He let go of the youths and opened the door to the barracks. "In you go you damn bantling!"

They hurried in, not sure what to expect next.

"By the way, I will confide with you two that I also became a master in a different trade." The elf smiled and held up their belts. "I'm quite the thief!" With but a word their breeches fell around their ankles and became stuck there as if glued. They cried out in protest but it was too late as he slammed the door shut and spoke another word of magic to lock it tightly.

He puffed on his cigar and walked away, enjoying the night air and the sickly sweet pleasures of a good smoke. Being a drow, he slept or stayed in doors a lot during the day, and only came out at night if he could help it. In the day the sun hurt his eyes and effected his ability to cast spells, fight and otherwise.

Why did he always refer to it as otherwise? He had made a fair profit thieving in the past. Was he growing restless again? Perhaps, he conceded and blew some smoke through his nose, feeling the burning sensation in his nostrils. Were it not for the fact that his favourite spell required cigars he would have stopped this habit long ago.

Well, maybe not. No point being dishonest with himself. He truly liked how confident he felt when the opponent was casting spells furiously, whereas he puffed away, waiting for the last possible second to throw his cigar almost dart-like. And then take out another cigar and light it on any ashes that were left of the person.

"A pleasant evening isn't it?" A large seven-foot tall figure loomed out of the darkness. Eight spider-like feet clawed the ground and a horribly twisted figure became distinct. It looked to be half-drow half-spider.

The supple drow, all reflexes and grace looked even now upon the grotesque figure of the drider with disgust. He pushed away his feelings and looked the drider in the eye despite the monster's good foot of extra height. "Good evening, Rambertz." He gestured to the grounds with his cigar. "How goes your gardening?"

"Very well now that those pesky bantlings are gone," the drider's deep baritone voice replied, the sound echoed in the chill night air. Normally, a drider was a bloodthirtsy creature, quite mad and most definitely dangerous, but Rambertz had been spared that fate, and perhaps that fact had made his change even more torturous.

As they are raised, the drow elves undergo many tests of servitude towards Lolth, the spider goddess. If they fail, they are punished by being misshapened and cursed to live on in the madness of being a drider. Most of these tests are purposely made by priestesses of Lolth, others are the result of fate. Rambertz passed his tests, it was fate however that had decreed that he would become a drider.

Priestesses hold power in the Church of Lolth, but Rambertz belonged to a special order of monks. Vowed to silence, obedience and to be the fodder of the Church, the young drow monk was eager to kill in servitude to his merciless goddess. Then came the fateful day he led a troop of men on a raid to the surface. In the confusion of the raid, he was separated from the soldiers

He was left behind. He was afterall, only a male, and in drow society males ranked just above slaves.

When the sun came up, he saw a beauty unknown to his underdark eyes and quickly forsook his vows to Lolth, pledging new vows to Lathander Morninglord. It was that day, his first day in the overworld, that would change his life, his outlook on it, forever. It also cursed him, for when his drow kin found out and dragged him back to face punishment, he was perverted magically into the mindless monster: a drider.

Then on a day many years ago, the madness subsided, the spell warped. Something had went wrong with the spell that had held him in servitude. With a cry of vengeance, Rambertz surged forth and killed his captors before fleeing to the surface. He could only thank the Morninglord for his sudden release.

That strange twisted path shone in the sadness that poured from Rambertz eyes. Even now as he tinkered away at night, giving the plants of the academy compound new energy through his druidic magic, he felt the pain of his curse. He stayed hidden during the day and only worked at night, the prime reason why people weren't allowed to be outside at night. During the day he transformed himself into a creature of the sun and forest, usually an eagle so he can fly around the city and feel the glory of the sun on his wings.

Despite that, his shapeshifting skills were limited and the drider was always forced to return to his cursed form. He had tried many times to remove the magic of his transformation but the dark rites that had changed him were too powerful and even the strongest of mages and clerics could only offer temperary relief.

Marque Draque too had sought a cure for the drider, but not out of friendship, but out of pity for the beast and his own hatred of looking upon the misshapen form. Rambertz saw the hatred of his form every time he faced the drow and saw it in his eyes, tried to ignore it but couldn't help but wonder where this hatred stemmed from. What had happened to Marque in the past?

Only Doctor Pierce knew, and Rambertz was glad of that fact. He really didn't want to know where Draque's hatred sprung from.

Hiram passed through the swinging batwing doors of the kitchen carrying a wooden spoon, and a bowl of nuts mixed with dried bits of fruit. He walked through the halls lazily, his broad shoulders and shaved head causing the students, both young and old, to stand aside. He was not a large man, rather he was of average height and built like a moose. His skin was a weather worn leathery hide and many a student was scared of his hardy visage.

Hardly the image of a chef, but he didn't care. No one poked fun at his apron unless they really wanted to get in the boxing ring with him. His glare alone could chill hot chilly, so whispered the rookies.

He passed several dwarven carpenters working on a window. It seemed like there was always something being built here at the Academy. Whether it was fighting arenas, more gardens or refining the current buildings, there was always something. So long as they didn't touch his kitchen he was happy.

Munching on his breakfast, the ex-boxer wished he had added some fresh milk or even some cream. Recently he had found he was getting pickier with his food, desiring to spice it up more, alter it somehow. Maybe its just the cold weather getting to me, he mused.

Entering the amphitheatre, he took a place along the wall and leaned against it, eating his breakfast and studying the anxious rookies fighting back forth, blades flashing in the air. The sun streamed down upon the combatants from the windows and mirrors placed strategically in the domed ceiling so that every part of the amphitheatre was lit. He smiled up at those windows knowing that a druidic dweomer was at work amplifying its brightness.

A scream from the floor and the one of the youths crumpled to the ground, his hand going to his chest. His opponent and referee rushed to his aid, as did many others who turned and ran for help.

Hiram hurdled seats and ran up to the quickly drawing crowd of people just in time to see the youth stand and knock his opponent's blade away and pin his neck with a rapier. A sudden silence followed. A simply acting ploy perhaps but that last move had been amazingly quick and was no small feat of finesse.

"I withdraw," the youth's opponent said quickly, taking several quick steps back, feeling his neck to make sure there was no blood there.

Hiram drew closer to the youth, a fiery red-headed boy of seventeen winters. He didn't look like much more than a pretty face and yet the chef knew better than that. This boy had the look of one of the rich brats that hang out in the slums just for the excitement.

"You think so eh?" Pierce glanced at the youth from across the grounds. He smiled at his own words and looked back at his father. He knew exactly what his father was thinking.

Hiram nodded and went back to munching on his cereal. "He's enroled as a commoner and yet I'd swear he's had formal training. That's not something you come across easily unless your father happens to be a fighter."

Pierce nodded in agreement. "I'll meet you in the cafeteria for dinner okay?"

Hiram never answered and simply waved over his shoulder as he walked away.

Walking across the grass Pierce arrived at the training rope, which was, essentially, a large, braided enchanted rope that dangled from an ancient maple. Students swung at it with wooden swords, learning a rhythm as the rope fought back, trying to tangle up its opponent. To win, the student was required to either tangle the rope up in the tree's limbs or impale it on one of its holes knotted into the rope.

"Ignazio d'Or?" the Doctor said more than asked. He had to remind himself to ask these questions. Too often in the past people started to catch on to his powers. He hid them on the basis that he didn't like being separated from the crowd. It was lonely being the only one.

The red-headed youth turned, batting away the rope without even looking. He stepped closer and looked up at Pierce. "Yes, but its Ignazio the Fourth. Yes milord?"

"I'm not a lord," Pierce said with a grimace and leaned against the tree. "But you didn't tell your instructors that you've already had formal training."

Ignazio nodded. "My uncle Valentino suggested that it would be better if I was enroled as a commoner so as to not appear too fancy." He looked up, his thoughts betraying his admiration for the warrior before him. "My family isn't very rich, Sir, but we do maintain certain disciplines." His voice trailed off and he recited mentally the family motto: Pride Is All There Is.

"I know your family well," Pierce said quickly, drawing the Ignazio's attention back to him. "They would sooner have let Valentino die rather than admit to his mistake." The youth's face flushed as he agreed with him yet his pride demanded that he fight back against the insult to his family. "Yet," the Doctor said quickly. "You and I both know someday your family will shine again." He paused. "Thats why you want to adventure right?"

Ignazio swallowed and nodded.

"Well then lets get started," Pierce said abruptly. He stood up straight and drew the silver longsword that had been his mother's. He took several steps back and gestured with his left hand to the youth's swordbelt lying on the ground. "You're going to need a good instructor for the amount of wealth you desire, and I'm the best there is."

Eyes down, yet mind reeling, Ignazio stooped and drew his rapier from the embroidered sheath. When he raised his eyes it was accompanied by a fierce swing and follow up thrust.

Which could have killed Pierce were not the warrior expecting the thrust. He deflected the boy's attacks effortlessly, all the while he was assessing the boy's strategy. Which was non-existent, he quickly concluded. Everything was pure hack and slash, all the speed and agility was there, but it lacked any form of plan.

A plan. Pierce had learned that so many years ago, but he hadn't learned it until his father had put him in the boxing ring and showed him what boxing was really about. Strength forged of guts and intelligence. If you lost either intelligence or guts you'd soon be knocked senseless and the rest of the fight would be wild swings, and thus miss.

Pierce almost yawned as he deflected another attack effortlessly. "Lad, you have got to start planning more. My father told me of that acting trick you pulled in the amphitheatre. That was a good move but you still need to strategize each and every swing."

"Every swing? I can't do that! I can't even pull that acting trick since you won't swing back!"

"You want me to swing back?"


Pierce shrugged and tossed the longsword to his other hand and brought it down in a half swing. He waited for Ignazio to move to deflect it, then he rolled his shoulder and brought the blade into a thrust from the side, ripping the youth's shirt. He pulled back on the thrust, not wanting to disembowel him.

He gave a quick stretch, knowing he would need it or else risk putting a really bad krink in his back. He feinted up and then dodged under Ignazio's parry, his blade snagging the shirt once more and shredding the back of it.

Many thoughts of awe awakened him to the fact that there was many people watching now, pausing in their own fights to watch the excitement. He took two steps back and knelt as Ignazio turned quickly.

And tripped on Pierce's outreached foot. Before he could even fall Pierce had caught him and levelled the blade to his neck.

Ignazio ignored his anger and tried to smile, albeit feebly.

"You'll do okay," Pierce said with a smile, letting the boy go and sheathing his longsword. "Keep practicing but keep in mind: Strategy is all." The connection to the d'Or family motto was obvious and Ignazio wouldn't be able to forget it now, so closely it was tied to his pride.

Very little moonlight crept through the clouds overhead and darkness once again swept over the compound, sleep taking its resident students. Except for two youths who once again had decided to forgo the warnings of Marque Draque. This time they crept into the domed amphitheatre, their way lit by Mitch's magic longsword which glowed a light blue.

Pierce sat in a dark corner of the huge domed room, waiting for them. Rich brats, dandies, he surmised as they entered. Always thinking they could get away with breaking the rules so long as their families paid for the fines and bail. He sighed and sat back to watch for awhile.

Brek drew his own blade, an elven sword, its quality obvious to Pierce's keen eyes. It too was magical, but not as much as the other. Elven steel was hard to come by at all and usually had to be a gift. Brek's father was a wealthy merchant and had ties with elves obviously.

The veteran warrior looked down at his two favourite blades, Tarrasqueslayer and Sidekick. Dwarven sabers fashioned of adamantite and then enchanted by Marque Draque. Strapped across his back, he wore his mother's longsword, which was also magical with special properties against elementals.

It was true that the first saber had killed the Tarrasque, or rather chopped its head its off. The great beast would have regenerated and returned had they not found a way to dispose of it. It was immune to fire and acid was the only other form of destroying it. There had been no lakes of acid present however and the only solution came from Marque Draque's portable hole, an extradimensional magic hole that he stored his belongings in. They had gathered up the tarrasque's regenerating remains with the aid of an air elemental, and shoved it all in the magic hole. Draque tied the hole shut and Pierce used Witter's saber, Planereacher, to destroy it.

That encounter had not been without a cost, he recalled. He reached up and plucked at his gray hair. Marque Draque's numerous spells he had cast that fateful day on him had aged him a couple years.

Forcing his mind back to his friend Witter, his mind wandered to the weapons adorning his bedchamber. Spitzer and Planereacher, two sabers of incredible magic power, yet only a portion of the power of Tarrasqueslayer and Sidekick contained. He really needed a new name for the left saber. Sidekick sounded so demeaning to a sword that was actually the more powerful of the two.

For some unknown reason he felt that the sword had feelings, an intellect of its own, yet hid its power from its master. For many years now Sidekick had become a trusted friend, the magical and psionic powers invested in it amplifying his own powers of telepathy and foresight.

His foresight interrupted his thoughts and told him that something seriously wrong was about to happen. He looked up to the two combatants. They were locked in a test of strength, trying to wear their opponent down. They broke apart suddenly and then swung back at each other, two magical blades striking in the middle ground between the two.

Pierce had risen to his feet and was in the process of hurtling seats when the two blades met. An explosion caused by breaking a magical weapon was rare indeed for the chances of breaking a magical weapon were quite slim, combined with the random effects depending on what part of their magical enchantments buckled under the strain.

"Marque Draque, where are you?" the Doctor demanded as the fiery explosion threw the two youth's apart, singing their skin and burning their eyebrows off. They collapsed to the floor, more in shock than in pain.

A relative silence followed as Pierce ran across the marble tiles and stooped at Mitch's body. He drew his mother's sword and swept it over the boy's body, the magic blade's powers quenching the fires that lingered on his clothes. Next he moved to Brek, who had survived the blast quite well with the exception that a large portion of his hair had been burnt away and would take many weeks before he looked even half-way normal again.

Still something wasn't right and every defensive instinct told him he was missing something. He looked back to the two blades. The elven blade had snapped and was glowing red hot. Mitch's sword was nowhere in sight.

He stood and scanned the room. In the darkness and only slightly illuminated by the faint blue light of the magic sword, a figure was crouching and looking about. Its thought patterns were fast, confused and filled with images of a woman.

Pierce stepped closer. "You there! Who are you?"

The figure turned to face him, his eyes shining in the darkness. He lifted the blade abruptly, taking a defensive posture. "I might ask you the same thing," replied a deep voice. His thoughts were still a jumbled mess of images.

Pierce did his best to ignore the confusing messages he was receiving, recalling Marque Draque once speculating that the human mind processed several million ideas in a single day. An elf, being more intelligent and having more memory due to a longer lifespan processed even more and the number of ideas a gnome had in a day went into the billions. This man before him was undoubtably into the billions and Pierce simply couldn't keep up.

"I'm Doctor Pierce, the headmaster. What are you doing in my Academy?"

The dim light showed the man sneer. "Well, I'm certainly not one of the statues," came the vague reply. He advanced on Pierce with unexpected ferocity, swinging the longsword in with startling speed.

The Doctor moved to deflect it with his mother's sword but his grip hadn't been ready and when the stranger twisted his blade upward it caught the hilt of Pierce's sword and he disarmed him easily.

Pierce dodged backwards, the next swing bouncing harmlessly off his breastplate as he drew both sabers and held them before him. Pushing away his thoughts, he concentrated on a simple goal: disarm his opponent.

Sparks flew as he struck out against the stranger and Tarrasqueslayer slid off the carbon black buckler covering the man's arm.

The Doctor's problem was that this was no beginner he was up against, and as their blades met, he found the stranger twisting out of his swordrange and avoiding Pierce's disarming tactics. Even when faced with two sabers instead of one, the stranger parried them both away with a simple swing and pressed his own attack.

Pierce deliberately stepped into the thrust and the blade slid harmlessly off his breastplate to the side. Over many years he had deliberately trained himself, like his father had in the boxing ring using his fists as shields, to use his armour to full advantage. Using both sabers he swung in twin arcs towards the stranger's neck.

And was kicked backwards onto the floor, his blades never reaching his foe. He raised Tarrasqueslayer to block a chop that would have sliced his leg off but the stranger's strength proved superior and the saber was knocked from his grasp. Even so, the magic blade still sliced his leg.

A candle flickered and a tiny creature composed of glowing blue flames leapt out of the fire onto Marque Draque's onyx scroll-top desk. It ran across the desk to the slumbering wizard, and pulled a cigar from the mage's pocket. The burning figure lit the cigar and then poked it gently into the drow's cheek.

"Ouch!" Draque yelped and stood quickly, rubbing his face where he had been burnt. He glared down at the fire faerie. "Whats wrong? Whats happening?"

The faerie sprouted wings of orange flame and flew towards the door, tugging on the handle. It looked to Draque anxiously.

The drow grabbed a large glowing emerald and followed the faerie towards the dome.

Instincts flew into action and Pierce rolled to the left, coming to his feet in time to parry aside the stranger's swing. He backed away cautiously from the man now carrying both Tarrasqueslayer and Mitch's longsword. Foresight in hand, he jabbed out his foot, caught the crosspiece of his mother's sword and flipped it upward into the air with his toe.

Even before it landed in his hand his attention was focused on parrying away Mitch's sword and ducking under the reach of Tarrasqueslayer. He dodged backwards with a smile, foresight telling him once more that Marque Draque's warning spell had went off and the drow was on his way.

The stranger, his face lit by the glowing magical blades, sensed that something was wrong in Pierce's new tactics and backed away towards the doorway.

A moment later another oak door opened with a bang and Marque Draque entered, his way lit by a fire faerie. He smiled and placed a cigar in his mouth, giving Pierce's foresight time so the warrior could run for cover. He held up a hand, pointed two fingers and twin arcs of blue-white light flew towards the stranger.

The first struck the man in the chest, throwing him backwards into a heap. Whereas the second struck Tarrasqueslayer and travelled up the warrior's arm to shock him even more. Dropping the hot blade, he rolled through the doorway out of sight.

"How badly are you injured?" Draque demanded, running towards the Doctor.

"Just my leg, I've got two of them," Pierce spat with a half-grimace, half-smile, realizing how much it stung as the pain finally started to register in his brain. As always he was a little annoyed at how motherly Draque was at times. Even when they had first started out adventuring together, Pierce's foresight had been a mystery to the mage and they had went through many experiments to determine its range, strengths and weeknesses. "And even should I lose it, I'm sure you could replace it."

Draque ignored him and ripped the arm off his tunic, using it as a crude bandage which he tied quickly with a cantrip spell even as Pierce ran across the domed amphitheatre and scooped up Tarrasqueslayer. "I'll alert the guard and wake the rest of the barracks," he shouted after the Doctor. "Keep your wits about you!"

Pierce grunted and ran down the hallway in pursuit of the stranger's footsteps.

Taking a scroll from his belt marked 'Display', Draque looked up at the windows in the domed ceiling with a wicked smile. The spell, designed by a colleague was actually several spells bound together into one big explosion of magical energy. The problem Draque had found however was that it took so damn long to learn. Using a magical scroll solved that problem when it came to emergencies such as this.

Unrolling the scroll, Draque glanced at the fire faerie who flew up to provide the mage with light to read. Speaking the arcane words, he lifted his hand to an open window. His smile spread as he felt the warm glowing feeling of power building within him and travelling up his arm, ready to be released.

The sharp bang and crackling explosions that followed woke up more than half of Waterdeep and alerted the watch that not only was there something wrong at the Academy of Combat, but it was also a pretty impressive display of fireworks. Among those who heard the call to arms was a bald drunk named Martinez, a warrior who despite his frequent bouts with the bottle was a Harper who had fought alongside Doctor Pierce on more than one occasion.

Hefting his longflail, a weapon that was more quarterstaff than flail, in one hand, and giving out a belch that sobered him as much as he ever was these days, the warrior charged down an alley way and spat out a word of magic that made him airborne as he used a spell that allowed him to ride the wind. A normal mage would have realized that the wind was heading the wrong way but then again, a normal mage wouldn't have been a sailor in his youth and would know how to tack into the wind and still use it to his advantage.

Help was on the way.

It was incredibly, Pierce's thoughts whispered to himself. This warrior, a stranger totally unknown of, was a superior warrior than he. He found it hard to believe. True, he had never set out to become the best of the best, but he had also become accustomed to being the best, and therefore, unbeatable.

He stood corrected as he ran through a doorway into the foyer and was kicked in the side. Tucking his sabers into his sides so as to not stab himself with the sharp blades, Pierce rolled across the length of the foyer dodging slashes before getting to his feet to view his opponent.

Sparks flew as Mitch's blade missed again and hit the marble tiles. The stranger loomed into view, lifting the longsword before him defensively.

Pierce swallowed and held his sabers ready out in front of him. "Who are you? An assassin sent by the giffs?"

The confusion of the stranger's thoughts told him no, but one word did ring out in his thoughts that clarified the situation: Chev.

"Chev," Pierce blurted out loud and dodged backwards as the warrior swung at him, knocking over an ancient vase that fell to the marble floor with a crash. All of the sudden it was crystal clear. Chev, a bodyguard once belonging to the d'Or family. Reputed to be Waterdeep's greatest warrior over a hundred years ago. And still was Waterdeep's greatest warrior now that he had been somehow released from his magical statue.

"We don't have to fight. I'm not your enemy-"

Chev didn't hear him as he swung again. He feinted and then stabbed at the same time kicking pottery up at Pierce like a boy kicks snow at a beggar in cruel delight.

The Doctor stepped backwards, arms going up to shield his face from the flying shards. Instinctively, he angled his breastplate towards Chev's stab so the blade slid across his breastplate. Dropping his arms down, Pierce clamped them onto the blade and wrenched it away from the warrior at the same time bringing down Tarrasqueslayer in a slash to the warrior's leg.

And was blocked once more by that annoying buckler. Pierce turned to face the man and received a headbutt to the forehead.

Falling backwards into the shadows of a doorway, Pierce lifted his sabers ready for Chev's next onslaught as the warrior picked up Mitch's longsword. "Chev. I'm not your enemy."

The warrior merely spat and swung down, his blade aimed to knock the saber out of Pierce's hand. Instead, he went flying off to the side into another vase. A new prescence was in the room and Pierce struggled to retain his wits as Draque had told him so he could understand the nature of this new person.

A weathered face with a balding head came into view. He kneeled and held out a hand to the fellow Harper which Pierce quickly took.

Standing, the two faced off against Chev as they had once faced off against the Tarrasque fourteen years ago. Pierce reminded himself that Martinez had once been the greater warrior, a man awed by all as one of the best, if not the best of the best. Even Witter had looked up to Martinez who at that time had been the captain of a famed elven cavalry despite being human.

Martinez took his longflail in both hands and twirled it like a quarterstaff. Taking the first step in he allowed Pierce a quick moment to breathe as he tested Chev's defenses whiched proved to be flawless.

It was Martinez, although quite sober now, who couldn't keep up with Chev's superior speed and he fell under a quick stab to the leg, limping backwards, blocking the warrior's attacks as best he could.

Pierce stepped in with renewed vigor. The smell of blood was hot in the evening air and the adrenaline pumping through his veins was like warm cider to a sore throat. He exchanged slash with slash, ignoring the scratch along his forearm that Chev managed, pushing the warrior backwards out of sheer determination with a little help by the burning desire to end this fight.

Never before had he felt the power in his heart pounding blood through his ears so loud it was hurting. Never before had he wanted to win like this. Always before it had been the adventure and the enjoyment that came with a good fight. Now, for some strange inexplicable reason, it was personal.

Chev saw that hatred in the pale moonlight as he backed onto the marble stairs leading down to the main gate. He knew that with Pierce at an elevated position and with his own strength starting to sap he could not last long. He took a quick step forward into what Pierce thought might be a charge but instead it was leverage for a backflip that sent the warrior flying through the air and landing in a roll at the base of the stairs.

A moment to breathe calmed Pierce's nerves and his momentum was lost as he relaxed. He realized how tired he was, the fatigue and strain bearing down on him. Looking back at Martinez limping through the door he knew that neither of them could follow Chev when their legs were slowing them down.

He bit his lip as he thought furiously. He didn't want Chev to get away yet had no choice in the matter. He thought frantically for something he could use but knew ahead of time, like he always did, that nothing would help him.

But Chev didn't know that.

"Leave Chev." Pierce said quietly and the warrior at the base of the stairs looked up at him strangely. "Get out of my home!"

With a peculiar salute with Mitch's longsword, Chev turned and charged to the gates. They were locked but the warrior was far from weak, as many legends had told, kicking the gates open with one heavy boot. He disappeared into the darkness.

Pierce collapse to the marble stairs, leaning on a saber to keep himself upright.

"Don't it just piss ye off?" asked Martinez, spitting out a wad of blood and spittle. Pierce knew the warrior was refering to not being able to run after Chev. He sat down beside him and uncorked a bottle of whiskey. He took a quick drink and offered it to Pierce.

The Doctor took the putrid tasting stuff and took a long drink. He sniffed the air and frowned at his sabers. "Yep," he said with a sigh as he glared up at the heavens.

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