I paused for a moment to take in my new surroundings. The scale and beauty of the amphitheatre was breathtaking.
All manner of beings and beasts were assembled on the circular stepped terraces that overlooked a stone stage at the bottom. A narrow stepped path lead from where we were standing downwards to the stage, splitting the seating in two. Single paths on the outer edges of the seating allowed further access for the audience to take their seats.
Mikon nudged me forward to allow the others to come in behind us. Both coyote escorts remained by my side and sat down. The rest of our procession split up to find their own seats.
The architectural mastery of amphitheatres never ceases to impress me. The near perfect acoustic setting allows every audience member to hear music or actors’ words from the low level seats at the front to the last row up by the Gods where I was standing. I’ve enjoyed many a theatrical performance in my time and this spectacular amphitheatre did not disappoint.
The tops of the tiered seating were covered with soft, lush grass. Not only did the turf cushioning offer a comfortable perch for spectators, it serves a functional purpose too. The soft grass creates a sound dampening effect, absorbing much of the excited chatter of the assembled while the hard surface of the limestone terracing deflects the music from the stage, like a ricocheting bullet, sending it upwards with splendid clarity. I could only guess at the number of rows of seating, easily upwards of fifty. Most of the seats were already taken.
The upper perimeter was lined with tall Greek looking stone pillars, each topped with elaborate scrolls. Statues of deities from just about every ancient culture and myth I could recall watched proceedings solemnly from their stone plinths. Burning torches on sconces provided low lighting, adding a clandestine ambience.
The roof was open to the stars, providing a spectacular canopy of twinkling moon dust. The full moon shone down through three gaps in the high stone wall immediately behind the stage, illuminating the platform like a lunar spotlight, flooding the area with an ethereal white shimmering light. Three bulky dark figures sat motionless on centre stage.
“Looks like we’re just in time.” Mikon whispered in my ear.
I felt my blood stir and my heart rate quicken as the sound of tribal drumming drifted tantalizingly up the steps to greet us. The drum beat was steady and fast, a variety of tones and rattles with a rhythmic chirp of what sounded like an anvil being struck. I could sense the collective vibration rising from everyone around me. A few of the dispersed coyotes, now seated, began to yowl softly in an irregular chorus.
I looked down towards the stage to find the source of the music. A group of forest trolls sat spellbound, their thick set bodies glistening with sweat as they hunched over their drums. They sat in a ring around a large rock fire pit pounding out their hypnotic pulse with slaps of their gnarly hands. As the beat continued to build, the flames licked higher and higher. Soon flickering images began to appear at the base of the fire. Bright sparks flew from the tip of the flames, shooting upwards into the night sky.
Suddenly there were gasps of delight from the audience and a ripple of excited applause.
Feminine and writhing, slender figures stood slowly upright, hands joined, pulsating back and forth in time to the beat. Their fluid movements almost spilled outwards like molten lava escaping a volcano but returned gracefully back to the centre each time. Their long flowing locks were billowing plumes of yellow flames, wafting around their heads like living clouds of burning gas. Their eye sockets were intense glowing white orbs. Orange and yellow flames licked up their bodies, rippling over their naked forms harmlessly. They revelled elegantly at the sight of each other.
The Goldfire elementals had arrived, emerging from the flames seductively and were treating the audience to an enchanting dance of fire.
A blast of heat swept up the amphitheatre as the temperature began to rise. I looked upwards, immediately grateful for the open air design, it was already a warm summer night without the addition of a fire display. Fearing my beautiful fur might be singed, I shrank back from edge of the step. The coyotes did not seem to notice or care.
The Goldfire elementals’ hands and arms were now free from one another and were undulating rhythmically from their shoulders. The effect was breathtaking. It looked like a mighty rippling fire breathing dragon was circling the dancers and moving with them. The five dainty figures interwove fluidly with belly dancing gyrations, throwing in a variety of twisting hip rotations, shimmies and pulsed their torsos agilely with hip rocks and drops. Their hands and arms rolled upwards and downwards creating loops of fire in the air. Their spines arched unnaturally backwards in a display of extreme flexibility.
The coyotes’ yowls were sounding more frequently I noticed. The beat of the drums got louder and faster and suddenly with one almighty bang, they all stopped at once. The fire dancers immediately slumped forward, disappearing into the root of the fire pit.
A deathly silence fell upon the audience. With the light and heat from the fire all but extinguished, a single sharp point rose slowly in the shape of a dark pyramid. When the movement stopped, I could just make out the forms of the elementals grouped together, backs facing outwards, arms outstretched upwards with all of their fingers touching to form the pointed tip of the pyramid. With the flames now doused and the base reduced to red smouldering embers, their bodies had been transformed into beautifully exquisite golden statues.
A lone troll began to slap a new beat, much slower than before. A buzz rattle joined him, adding an electrical jolt quality to the sound. One by one the Goldfire elementals peeled themselves away from each other and, joining hands, stepped daintily over the jagged rock perimeter of the fire pit. Slowly they ascended the narrow stone stairs up to the main platform.
It was like watching a phoenix rising from the ashes.
These beautiful beings were perfect in their form. Their naked bodies shimmered and glistened in smooth gold. Reflections of nearby torches bounced off the shiny surface of their flawless golden skin. Their long flowing tresses, now extinguished, spilled down over their shoulders and around their breasts in thick disheveled golden layers. Their eye sockets were now black.
But this was not the end of the dazzling show.
Now on centre stage, they released each other and circled the three dark motionless shapes. In unison they sank down on their hunkers, bowing their heads in deference and brought their hands up to their faces as if in prayer.
“Shanti!” The cry came from the crowd.
The golden figures extended their left hands and a flame ignited in their palms.
“Shanti!” The cry came again, louder.
The golden figures reacted immediately bringing their lit palms to the floor.
The third cry, louder still, rang in my ears. Goosebumps raced up my spine.
Five points on the floor ignited with tiny blue flames that raced towards each other at incredible speed. From my vantage point up in the Gods, I could see clearly what was forming. And I was very impressed.
A five pointed star now blazed on the stage surrounding the dark figures. The sign of the Goddess.
Unable to contain themselves, the entire audience jumped to their feet clapping in ovation. It was utterly deafening. I sat transfixed, my heart racing in fright.
The golden figures walked to the front of the stage. They stood side by side and joined hands once more.
The troll drummers struck up a frenzied beat. The audience, filled with energy, danced where they stood. The five golden figures remained still. Once again the drumming headed for a crescendo. The trolls began to sing, I couldn’t make out their words but at the end everyone roared. The golden figures threw their hands straight above their heads, long spiky fingers outstretched. For a split second we were plunged into darkness. The drumming and roaring continued.
I felt uneasy and leaned against one of the coyotes for support. He chuckled but allowed me rest against him.
Suddenly the flames on the pentagram flared, the light from the torches grew brighter and there on the stage were the golden figures only now they looked very different. Their perfect bodies had black warrior markings in stripes and strange jagged shapes. Their golden skin had lost a lot of its lustre. Their long hair was now smooth, straight and black. They continued to dance but their movements were much more erratic and hostile than before.
Slowly but surely their skin began to darken. As they gyrated aggressively around the flaming star on the floor, their bodies turned black. They looked like beautiful obsidian statues brought to life with a touch of gold relief. All that was left in gold was the tips of their fingers and toes, their full lips and eyes rimmed with elaborate golden markings like an Egyptian queen’s makeup.
Mikon leaned over to my left ear.
“This is how Goldfires look until they return to the fire. We call them Nightshades.”
“They are so beautiful.” I sighed.
“They are ruthless and cruel, do not be fooled by their beauty. If one were to touch you, you would surely die.”
The Nightshades made their way down the stone stairs to the fire pit. The audience applauded in ecstasy. One by one, the Nightshades leapt over the rocky circumference, arms folded over their chests and vanished from sight as if dropping into a glowing pool.
I gazed around the audience. The steady beat of the music kept them jostling where they stood chatting in clusters animatedly. They were a curious mixed bunch. It has been a long time since I’ve seen anything like it.
Humanoid guides with animalistic features draped in robes with leather and feather adornments were deep in conversation to my left. Canine, feline and reptilian faces chattered excitedly, a solemn nod of acknowledgement in my direction the only departure from their private exchange.
I was suddenly aware of some jerky movements to my right. I turned to see a yellow scaly being giving me the once over. Although quite androgynous in appearance, I got the distinct sense she was female.
Her head darted quizzically and her eyelids blinked from side to side over deep green eyes. Her scales though mostly yellow, had olive green exotic markings. The dark scales were raised like tiny pearlescent bubbles. Two rows of thorny spikes ran from the centre of her brow, around her head, behind her ears and merged into the nape of her neck giving the appearance of wearing a crown.
Surprisingly, despite the thorny spikes, her face had delicate features including tiny holes for ears. Large olive rings encircled her eyes and dark scales defined an angular jaw line.
Twitching and fidgeting constantly, her jerky movements made me feel quite nervous. She wore a semi transparent yellow sarong draped loosely around her hips. She was not in the least bit bashful as she caressed her upper body with her extremely long bony fingers with dark talons. She inspected me some more before turning to her companions with a smirk. Her long skinny fingers curled around her mouth as she whispered something then giggled.
To my sheer dismay, I realized her companions were Avian. I have a real thing about birds or beings that are birdlike. They make my skin crawl. Those cold beady eyes. The twitchy movements. Those bony toes and claws. Those stiff feather wings to beat you with. And worst of all, those sharp pecking beaks! I shuddered.
I have no problem at all in taking down mice, but birds are a completely different matter. I’ve been on the receiving end of vicious pecking a few times. The worst time was when I was imprisoned in a small cage and hung from a tree. Scavengers came and tried to take my eyes. I tried not to think about it.
The two Avians were looking directly at me. One was all black with vivid flat feathers in green, yellow and orange. She was hominid in nature, as they all were. She did not have a beak but having any feathers is a deal breaker for me. She raised her fluffy orange eyebrows in surprise, fluttered her green feathery eyelashes and her large yellow lips formed a silent “Oh“.
Her friend was much plainer in comparison, fawn coloured with black stubbly feathers on the side of her head. She had a thick mantle plume of black feathers on top of her head like a parrot. Her irises were the colour of mustard with black slits for pupils. Her eyes were rimmed thickly in black. Her face looked smooth like soft leather. But there was that beak. A small beak I grant you but a beak none the less. She was definitely Avian. I wanted nothing to do with them.
“But she’s so small.” I heard one of their voices say.
“Indeed, most insignificant.” Another voice agreed.
“I’m telling you, that IS her.” The yellow being insisted.
I turned away from the three of them and tried to manoeuvre past my escorts but was stopped dead in my tracks by Mikon.
“You cannot leave now.” He hissed.
“It’s those Avian creatures, I can’t stand them, they give me the creeps.” I whined.
“They’re just being curious, don’t be so rude.”
Rude? I was about to launch my protest when the first horn sounded. I looked back toward the stage. Three trolls were holding great ram horns and blowing them loudly.
When they had stopped, a deep voice boomed, “ALL RISE!”
The coyotes on either side of me stood abruptly to attention and, when I did not do so immediately myself, moved tightly together, crushing me between them and forcing me to stand.
“Hey, watch it!” I snapped, feeling my ribs pinch under the unexpected pressure.
Mikon stepped down onto the first stone step in front of me.
“Gather yourself.” He said softly as he moved past my ear.
All attention was now drawn to some activity at the bottom of the stone stairway off to the right of the stage.
The audience bowed respectfully as two large and particularly ugly trolls walked in slowly carrying long sturdy wooden poles on their shoulders. As they appeared out of the shadows, I could see that they were followed by a covered carriage perched on top of the poles and another pair of equally ugly trolls emerged into the light of the arena carrying the end of the poles behind. I say trolls, for that’s what I assumed them to be although they were much larger than the forest trolls playing the musical instruments. They looked more like stunted bald ogres.
All four were heavily muscled and thick limbed. Wearing only white loin cloths and gilded cuffs around their wide wrists. Two tusk like teeth protruded from their lower jaws and the rims of their large gnarly ears were adorned with rows of golden hoops. Tiny dark eyes peered out from under heavy set brows. Moving slowly, they carried their cargo with care and precision. Onwards they glided until they reached the centre of the front row and gently swung out from under the poles, carefully lowering the covered carriage to an allocated spot. The best seat in the house.
The carriage itself was taller than it was long, allowing its occupant to be seated upright rather than to recline. It had a pointed roof and was swathed in thick white fabric, completely obscuring the occupant from sight. The four corners of the cubicle were given structure with black wrought iron poles, the tips of which pierced the white fabric and were topped in an elaborate scroll design. A lavish plume of red and black feathers sprayed from a black goblet at the apex of the roof. Long gilded fringes hung from the cushioned seat under the drapes and large golden tassels swung from the top of each of the iron poles.
Two curtains were draped over each other to conceal the entrance to the carriage. Both were edged with a deep black and gold border in a Greek key design. Two of the trolls stooped forward and ceremoniously eased the curtains apart, cinching the weight of them behind iron hooks on the front poles. All four made their way to the front of the carriage. Standing shoulder to shoulder they bowed deeply before taking their place, two on either side of the carriage, each kneeling on one knee.
A solitary gong note sounded and all faces turned expectantly upwards to where we were standing.
Taking his cue, Mikon started proudly down the stone steps as the note began to fade.
The two coyotes moved forward together, forcing me to go with them. They eased off slightly as we stepped off the first step but remained close to me as we made our descent towards the stage.
The pall bearing trolls remained motionless facing the stage. All other faces bar one were staring at me as I descended the steps.
One by one they nodded their respect as I drew level with each row. For as much as I normally crave and love attention, I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable. What the hell was going on here?
My heart skipped a beat when I recognized the head that faced forward, stubbornly refusing to look at me, showing his disrespect in an act of defiance. Ezran. I recognized the torn ears, the large shoulders and the scraggy coat. Clearly he was still harbouring a grudge from our fight.
My toes twitched again at the sight of him. Electrical charges tingled lightly up my ankles. As I drew alongside his row, he slid his eyes sideward without moving his head. Aware of my presence, he curled back his lip and bared his teeth in contempt.
A cold jolt shot through my heart. I had not expected to see him again so soon. I quickly turned away in an attempt to recover my composure. This brought me face to face with another curious creature clearly vying for my attention.
A feral black and white tom cat was sitting on the aisle to my right, clearly he was quite full of himself.
“Hello my Queen.” He said giving me the eye and a cheeky wink.
I was stunned. How dare he? Here I am with all my fine breeding, extensive pedigree and stunning good looks, not to mention my superior intelligence and supernatural abilities. And him a filthy commoner! I could have anyone I want. Just who did he think he was? There’s a protocol to such matters and he ought to be reminded that I am way out of his league.
“Only in your dreams.” I tossed my nose in the air and prepared to move off.
“Every single night sweetheart! Be seeing you.” He chuckled brazenly not in the least bit discouraged.
I groped for some witty retort but failed. There was something attractive about the brute but there was no way I was going to admit it or reward his impudence.
“For the sake of the Goddess, keep your dignity will you.” Hissed Mikon.
“That. Is exactly what I intend to do!” I said as I flounced down the remainder of the steps. My escorts had to quicken their step to keep up.
We were shown to a separate seating area on the front row close to the covered carriage. While the three of us took our seats on the grass covered terrace, Mikon trotted over to the front of the carriage. He bowed low in respect and there was an exchange between him and whoever was inside, however, I could not make out what was said.
Being such a curious creature by nature, I kept trying to steal glances into the carriage. I could see dark shadows moving around inside but could not see in far enough to get any kind of idea of who the occupant might be. I leaned forward as far as I could go and was just about to stretch out my neck when the second gong note rang out.
This time, being so close to the source, I could feel the ripple of the sound wave pass through my chest. It snatched my breath. I almost fell over in fright.
All eyes were now on the three dark shapes on the stage. They had remained completely motionless the entire time, throughout the performance and the heady music. I assumed they were rocks. Turns out I was wrong.
The three figures stood slowly facing each other in a triangle. Their bulky shapes were swathed in dark floor length hooded cloaks. The hoods were oversized and draped over their faces entirely. One by one they pulled a cord at their throats and threw their hands upwards to the moon in unison. The sudden movement of their arms caused their robes to slither to their feet in crumpled heaps.
The three of them stood there skyclad.
The crowd cheered.
I averted my eyes.
Have you ever seen a troll hag naked?
Trust me, it’s not pretty.