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Learning Curve

Learning Curve

Bugbears are among the three largest of the Hard Races, their nearest rivals being Ogres and Trolls. They usually start at eight feet, and it is not unheard of for a bugbear to reach eleven feet by the time it has fully matured. They resemble graceful orcs with snub nosed hyena faces, broad noses, thick teeth and a fine dusting of fur entirely covering them. They have definitive manes, and males and females appear almost identical to outside races.

In bugbear culture, the only time gender is important is during the spring breeding season and while a female lactates. While they are cultured and sentient enough to allow for individual relationships and females always initiate and terminate relationships, the best fighters and biggest males tend to sire the most cubs. Once born, despite the fact that the race’s sense of smell is acute enough to pinpoint exact genealogies, all of a dens young are raised in collective.

Fiercely territorial, bugbears leave the den to make their money at the age of between twelve and fourteen. At this stage, most are only six feet tall, though they fill in to their proper eight feet by the time they reach eighteen. Any race they have not encountered by this age they react to with intense hostility and suspicion. In addition, if a bugbear cub, even from another den, cries out in pain or fear, all bugbears who hear this sound will become highly agitated and aggressive.

Most bugbears wear three layers of clothing. The first layer is a thin, soft leather with fur facing inward, followed by a layer of leather with large scales of metal sewn into place. The final layer is a loose fitting leather with many pockets, straps and extra folds. When they feel completely at ease, both males and females will wear only a thin layer of leather over their legs and usually a loose fitting vest.

Ptielieren was hauled back inside the cave and bound with the rest of the prisoners near the entrance. He sat mutely as they asked where Niequesyllaine and Natia were. He didn’t know where the human was and he didn’t want to talk about what he’d just seen.

His ward edged over and Ptielieren turned to him. Duty pulled him from the fugue his mind wanted to protect him with and he made himself check the injury to the young elf’s hand. He gave a satisfied tsk, seeing it properly bound. In the absence of proper magical healing it would take several months for the damage to fully recede but Ptielieren knew it for a better job than he could have done.

“Ptailierensylvcois, what is the plan? Do we make for an escape tonight?” The worry in his ward’s voice lay in sharp contrast to the fierce trust in his eyes. He spoke in the Elvish of the highest priests back home that the inquiry not be understood by even the other prisoners. Ptielieren had required his ward learn this four years prior and the knack had allowed the two to pass unmolested through the temples in their most recent bid to escape the coup. It paid not to trust those who would be called peers.

The lad trusted no one fully but accepted that Ptielieren had one of the best minds for survival. Traisyelianiel had been assigned as his ward at fourteen and the two had been through a lot together. That was eighteen years now, and the lad had survived an unfair number of attempts on his life. It was a marvel either still drew breath, yet there was always that professional distance. Traisyelianiel still refused to call Ptielieren by his familiar name. It was a matter of honor that the lad chose to call him by his proper family name and Ptielieren smiled at this old remembrance.

“No, we are too highly guarded at this juncture. It appears that we will remain here for some time. Regain your strength. When the moment is right we will make good our escape.” Ptielieren tried to put into his words all necessary confidence. Watching Niequesyllaine die had sapped him of more than he could afford to lose. He sighed and looked at the bindings on his wrists and ankles, glaring darkly. First he would need both himself and his ward to slip their bindings. He’d need the rest to run as well. The weakest might well be caught but their capture could buy his ward time. His mind flew as it sought means to this imperative. He needed to get his ward to safety; all other concerns were inconsequential.

What he needed was for the bugbears to let down their guard. He glared at the entrance to the cave and forced himself to regain a sense of calm. This could be done. The little mouse haired human came over with a crude basket and started handing out dried vegetables. Ptielieren accepted his calmly when she tossed it to him and waited until he figured no one was watching to hand it to his ward. Traisyelianiel accepted it with all the royal bearing that was his birthright. He even made eating the poor fare look regal.

Ptielieren sighed and tried to enter the Daiseiziellule Faireaneail, the proper Elvish trance. The image of Niequesyllaine painted itself across his vision as he started to enter the trance and he sighed. He’d have to deal with night terrors, but it was nothing he could not overcome. He tried a few more times to meditate and found his mind restless. He rubbed his arms and glowered at the world, keeping his chin high despite his low spirits.

A few hours passed before anyone interacted with himself or his other bound prisoners again. When they did, it was not with tenderness or affection. Rather, a bugbear came up to him with some finely diced vegetation and growled. Ptielieren glared up at the beast and tensed, ready to fight. Another bugbear suddenly grabbed Bieyshiealelleinue and ran a knife a quarter inch into his fellow guardian. Ptielieren felt his gaze harden but he flicked his hands in an Elvish gesture of acceptance.

The dagger dug in a touch deeper before another bugbear with worn armor said something in their native tongue and Bieyshiealelleinue was released. The bugbear in front of him knelt on one knee and caught his hair, forcing his head back. Ptielieren balanced his wrists on his knees and stiffened his neck, fighting to keep his mouth closed.

Eventually the bugbear got one of its compatriots to force the issue. Ptielieren did not lash out but he certainly did not make anything easy on his captors. Eventually he swallowed the food and did not try to regurgitate it. His captors shook their heads and stalked off. His fellow prisoners left him well enough alone and tried to rest. He tried not to look on their compliance with scorn. Bruises spread across most of their faces and Ptielieren pitied them.

Two hours later, food was forced down his throat again. This was repeated until the dawn broke the next morning. Ptielieren felt absolutely miserable but his body was grasping at the nourishment. His ward tried to rub his back and he shook the lad off. It was undignified that the thirty two year old heir should tend to him. The rest of the prisoners were hauled out and the two that had been feeding him walked up to him. He sighed, cast about for witnesses, and did not resist nearly so much as when his struggles meant something to his fellow prisoners. The two pried open his mouth and pushed food down his throat. This time they did not hold him after and he licked his lips in irritation, hating how sore his throat was and how much his body wished to betray him. One of the bugbears reached out and ruffled his hair.

Ptielieren glared up with pure venom. The two laughed at this and walked off. Ptielieren waited until they were a fair distance away before dropping his head again and trying to get a few seconds of sleep.

This proved an exercise in futility as the gnome he had spotted earlier wandered over, the halfling keeping pace with him. The two sat outside of Ptielieren’s range and began talking to each other.

“So, whatcha think, Tamachat, this one gonna last to the end of the week?”

“Heh, he’s already survived insulting the Boss to his face. I kinda think he might be proof against harm.”

“Heh, I doubt it. He’s exactly the reason his race is doomed to extinction.”

“Now that’s a little harsh, Boloborolo . I mean, I’ve met a few elves that weren’t all high arrogance and fluff.”

“In all your dealings with all the downright dirty yet humble scum of the world, how many elves did you meet who were fun to talk too?”

“Two. Still, it’s more than one, right?”

“Ah, Tamachat, no, that’s bad. How many of the race were way too haughty for their station then?”

“I dunno. Couple hundred at least.”

Ptielieren narrowed his eyes into slits. The gnome was missing its eyebrows and the halfling’s arms had a decidedly singed appearance. He sat up straight and looked down his nose at the pair. They ignored him and continued to idly insult his race for about an hour while he pointedly refused to engage with them. Finally the two seemed to grow bored and wandered outside again.

The elf started to nod off again and another of the monsters wandered close to him again, jarring him back to wakefulness. He wondered if the brutes were deliberately depriving him of sleep and dismissed the notion. There was little enough chance that they held such a degree of intelligence, let alone such tactical foresight nor cognitive design.

A few forced feedings later, he was hauled to the back of the cave again. He did not lash out but neither did he cooperate in any notable measure. He would fight in any way he was able. The only thing that stayed his violence was the threat against his fellow prisoners. That they were not proud enough to fight for themselves was something they would have to live with through the centuries. He just wanted his ward safe and it seemed only random chance that had killed Niequesyllaine and not Traisyelianiel.

He struggled and writhed and slammed his head into a nose. It was surprisingly dense and abrasive along the edges. He did not throw any kicks nor any punches, however, and considered himself to have upheld his end of the non-verbal agreement to behave in a somewhat more tractable manner.

The two bound him again, forced some sort of liquid down his throat and left him in peace while he glared after their retreating backs. After a few minutes his vision grew blurry and the lights seemed to swim. He realized with a start that he had all but let himself be drugged.

Ptielieren straightened his spine and sat up straight. He blinked his eyes repeatedly as he mentally tried to force the toxin out of his system. He refused to let his captors see him so weak, absolutely refused. After about three quarters of an hour the duo came back. He glared back up at them, careful not to move much. Any sudden movements threatened to send him reeling and sprawling on the ground. The elf was not certain he would be able to sit back up if he so fell.

The two reached down and Ptielieren found he couldn’t track on their hands. He gasped for breath as his head was wrenched around. A little bit more of the liquid was forced down his throat. He glared and tried to lash out again. The two laughed in slow motion and their hands moved supernaturally fast to block his blows. He glared as the added drugs took their hold and the world spun. His spine failed him and he fell to his side. He heard his shackles being struck and the sound was deafening.

As the fifth bolt clanked loudly he tried to twist and bolt. A hand pressed down on the small of his back and the force was too much. He struggled but his hands didn’t move; his arms didn’t even tense. He blinked fiercely and couldn’t shake the toxin. After a few moments the world swirled and shifted, moving like waves on the seas of chaos. He realized distantly that he had been thrown over a bugbear’s shoulder.

His fingertips brushed against the hilt of a dagger and he tried to will his fingers to close. His hand was close when suddenly the world lurched and he was on the ground staring up at the sunlight. He blinked fiercely and his body wanted to respond, wanted to turn his face to the side, away from the light but could not.

The world swam as he fought to focus on some point in the constantly changing panorama. His mind rebelled and he sank into the myriad colors. He felt a pressure on his back by his shoulders and a face whorled into view directly in front of him. Words were spoken like a question and he tried to track on them.

The world turned again and his face was suddenly pitched forward. It was only distantly that he was aware his body was dry heaving. When it was finished he didn’t know, all he could fathom was that he was looking at the sun again. He blinked and fought to focus on anything at all.

There was a sudden sensation of coldness, like free falling into hole in the ice. The strangest part was that the coldness all seemed to be coming from his neck. He struggled for breath, ignoring the chill as the sun turned blue and froze. He gasped and knew his hands finally clawed at the world around him.

And then, of a sudden, the world unfroze. He came back to himself in a moment of crystal lucidity. His soul had been capped, his arcana blocked from him. He clawed at his neck, trying to pull the obstruction clear. His whole being fought this binding and he knew the force of his will would tear apart his body.

He struggled and the world began to swim again. He knew in a distant part of his mind that, had he been sober, he’d have fought this sensation until it killed him. Instead, the drugs took hold again and he couldn’t seem to focus his will properly. Finally he just lay still and concentrated on the sensation of the coarse sandstone under his cheek. The world around him spun as he clung to the only thing that seemed real.

Ptielieren came down from the drugs slowly. He knew black veins ran from his neck halfway down his chest and could feel the raised edges of them running up his face. He felt shaky and weak and disoriented in ways that had nothing to do with chemicals and everything to do with the silence where his natural arcana had previously pulsed. He felt... void.

Several of the young bugbears were gathered around him and a few petted his face as he slowly regained his strength. He sighed and pointedly ignored them. For all that they were savages, they were also innocent. They did him no harm in their curious pawing and he found he didn’t much mind their collective touch. He was of a superior race; it was natural that they would want to get as close to him as possible. They might even learn a thing or two of dignity.

When an adult herded them away he sat up slowly and deliberately. About half way to vertical his body decided it was done. He overrode its horizontal directive and sat up anyway, balancing with his spine rigid. Said adult was heavy with child and squatted down awkwardly in front of him. She was the same yellow orange as most of the rest with a dark brown mane. He turned his head away. He would not harm a pregnant woman either.

She reached out and moved some of his hair away from his face. He stiffened and pulled back, shifting to glare his outrage at her. She chuckled. He felt his face flush with wrath and spat expletive rich phases at her. His voice felt pinched and the words distant but this did not slow their outpouring. She sighed and stood, backing away and returning to watch the cubs.

Ptielieren reached up with a trembling hand and fingered the leather collar about his neck. It had two stones embedded in the thick leather with some sort of smooth gem near the center. There were runes of some unclean arcana etched into both the leather and the stone. He tugged at it but it did not budge, instead seeming to tighten about his neck. He knew the sensation was metaphysical and in no way changed the size of the collar but he ceased tugging at it anyway. After a long while the collar seemed to stretch back to its original size.

One of the bugbears that had flanked their leader when Niequesyllaine had died came over and knelt down close. Ptielieren set the back of his wrists on his knees and glared straight forward, gritting his teeth. The creature reached forward as though to catch Ptielieren’s hair. Ptielieren reached up an arm and blocked the monster’s hand. It looked at him for a moment before striking him in the nose. Ptielieren felt it snap and knew it instantly to be broken. His head snapped backward and he mentally stabilized himself to keep from reeling, catching his weight on a binding to counter the inertia. His stomach lurched and it was pure luck that it didn’t gain sway over his desire to sit tall.

He settled, sitting straight and proud, and looked directly ahead. He was a scion of the X’Faineinzealeanii line, a true prodigy and the pride of his mother and truly cultured sister. He would not let anything truly break him. Nothing. He hardened his gaze and the bugbear suddenly surged forward and pinned him sharply, rolling him onto his stomach and then wrenching his head back and around to peer into his eyes. The bugbear moved its finger one way and then the other and Ptielieren pulled toward it briefly before surging backward, trying for a headbutt. He managed it but there was no force in his blow.

The bugbear slammed Ptielieren’s head down into the stone and the elf felt suddenly unmanageably dizzy. His shackles were struck and he was dragged from the cave at speed. He was hauled to the lip of the cave and thrown such that he rolled down the hard sandstone. At the end of the roll he sprang to his feet and hit the ground again as a fist met his rise.

The leader stood present and shook its hand, loosening the joints. “Wisdom will keep you on your back, ya xiezjiit.” Ptielieren rotated his legs and came up with fast with his fist angled for an uppercut. This he could understand, even clinging to the harshness of reality as he was. A martial contest he could manage in his sleep, on the brink of death and heavily drugged. Combining all three such factors was a bit much but he managed to find a kind of footing. The bugbear seemed to anticipate his movements and Ptielieren was suddenly back on the ground, this time catching his weight on his knees.

“Ah, you are not so wise, my golden xiezjiit elf.” The monster began to circle him. Ptielieren watched with slitted eyes before launching another assault, this time going for the blade in the bugbear’s tall and tightly laced thick leather boot. This ended with a shin boring into his face and the bugbear smashing a foot into his chest. Ptielieren took a few seconds to catch his breath before repeating this process as the blood flowed unfettered from his nose.

It seemed hours passed before Ptielieren had to admit defeat. He was covered in bruises and two of his ribs were probably broken, as was one of his fingers. His collarbone had held up through some sort of miracle but was about as close to being broken without crossing that line as it was possible for it to be. He suspected a few dozen hairline fractures but they were not true breaks. He looked up at the beast and put one hand up with a slight flourish. It was not truly shameful to admit defeat to a worthy opponent. While he was clearly not given an even chance his opponent had abstained from the use of weaponry and had allowed him to catch his breath if not his feet each time he had fallen.

The gesture was painful as he forced his broken finger to comply. He looked fiercely into his opponent’s eyes and the bugbear stepped back and waited. Ptielieren wondered if the beast even understood what he was being offered and determined that the beast did not. He sighed and climbed slowly to one knee, balancing awkwardly and keeping the gesture as he matched gazes. He straightened and offered a lowered forehead as well, raising it again to lock with the bugbear’s eyes.

It was a great honor he was offering. He felt a sudden flush of anger that the beast did not acknowledge the gift and knew his steady gaze was turning into a glare. He steeled himself against an undignified display and waited patiently. He could wait. He could wait for a hundred years if need be.

Unfortunately, his body disagreed. It finally staged a coup against being held in such a pose for so long. He had to lower a hand to catch his balance as he started to pitch to the side. The bugbear stepped close again and Ptielieren had to crane his neck to see the beast’s face. When he could crane his head no farther the bugbear stopped. “If you’ve had enough for now, put your cheek against my boot.”

Ptielieren felt his wrath embolden him and he dropped his hand to the ground, trying to stand. The bugbear let him. He turned sharply to give a low spin kick and the grudge match continued. About the eighth time he hit the ground his body begged for him to listen. He held the stone beneath him and coughed up blood while his opponent waited patiently for him to rise again. The bugbear stood like a noble thug, his aura of command unmistakable.

The elf sighed. He had just been instructed in how this culture acknowledged a superior combatant. It was a vulgar, undignified display, true, but perhaps, given the circumstances, it was acceptable. Diplomats did uncouth things all the time, and this was simply acknowledging a loss within the given parameters. He stood slowly, painfully, putting his hands up and trying to walk in a straight line. He refused to crawl toward his opponent. The bugbear crossed its arms and stood taller. Ptielieren got within striking distance and the beast shifted its weight slightly. The elf flinched somewhat at the reaction and the bugbear gave a small chuckle. “Heh, what are you planning, elf?”

Ptielieren started to kneel and threw a hand out as his legs buckled under him. The bugbear stepped forward aggressively but pulled his blow short as Ptielieren hit the ground. The authoritative monster stood tall again and chuckled softly, a slight smile creasing his eyes. Ptielieren pulled himself back up to his knees and contemplated how he would do this. Had his opponent so much as wiggled a toe he would have a backed away and tried for an honorable death through engagement. Instead, as he leaned down he pitched somewhat forward and caught himself on his opponent’s legs. The bugbear didn’t so much as twitch. Ptielieren settled his head down slowly, resting it against the bugbear’s shins. He paused like that for a long time before the bugbear finally shifted somewhat.

“Little elf, you are somewhat too high still. If you wish a few more rounds before you call it for this day I am happy to oblige.” Ptielieren tried to look up but his body rebelled and he slipped farther down. He finally just resigned and his head slid down to the ground.

“Ah, my knife-eared pet, you are now too low. Put your head on my foot and I will let you rest with your little friends.” Ptielieren forced his head up and then just dropped down again. He was resting on the boot. His nose curled at the scent of the bugbear but he was too weak to do more than imagine pulling away. “Heh, good enough for a start.”

The bugbear above him knelt on one knee and reached its fingers around the back of Ptielieren’s neck. The elf tried to struggle but suddenly there was no blood going to his head. The claws were pulled back and the fingertips dug into his veins just above the new collar. The world faded into shadow and he felt his body welcome its voyage into oblivion.

Next Chapter: Chapter Three:  Progress and Regression