August 3, 2000
The roar of the crowd echoed off the walls of the small, stone chamber. I had just finished a trade run and was weary from the journey. A rest in the Pitch Bucket had rinsed the road dust from my mouth, but my mind was still groggy from the trudge from DeRah Villadom. I had just been contemplating a walk through the streets to see what action was brewing, maybe to redeem my reputation as an evil warrior by knocking over some of those holier-than- thou priests from the Cleric's Quarter when I heard Pite, the bartender, announce that the Pet Wars was on.
This was just what I needed. I hadn't taken my little buddy Squint for a round in far too long. He is the feistiest little thing on five legs. As soon as I had entered the Pet Wars arena, faithful Squint was right there. He hopped up into my arms and playfully chewed at my trading sleeves. I scratched him behind the ears and brushed back his fur. The nasty scar across his scalp had healed cleanly. Curiously, his fur grew back bright yellow along the scar line, adding a distinguished contrast to his otherwise rust- colored pelt.
The air was buzzing with excitement, and standing here in the entryway wasn't what little Squint had in mind. His nostrils were flaring and his sharp claws where scoring my breastplate. I figured we better get in to the action before he turned my breastplate into a cheese grater.
We passed through a stone archway into a large, domed cavern. The air was stifling hot and the stone walls reverberated the noise of the rowdy crowd back tenfold. A wispy layer of smoke hovered over the room, the result of clashes and discharges from fireshields. The smell of ozone tingled in the back of my nose. The closer we got to the crowd, the more frantic Squint's squirming and clawing became. He climbed his way up my chest and perched high on my shoulder, snurfling the air and chortling in his own peculiar little way.
We edged through the crowd, elbowing our way to a rail running around the room. The polished wooden railing was scarred and burned by the multitude of spectators and battlers alike. I leaned on the railing and peered down into a wide pit.
The pit was some ten feet deep and a good thirty feet across. Several small doors were set in the walls of the pit. Each was closed tight. Tufts of fur, feather, scales and other bits of pet were scattered around the dirt floor of the pit. Puddles of blood, slime and ooze were slowly sinking into the sandy soil. At the moment, something that looked like a poodle was savagely attacking a mutated iguana in on one side of the arena while an ostrich and a cockroach were sizing each other up. The shouts and cheers for the combatants below were deafening. When I thought it couldn't get any louder, the poodle dove under the iguana and with a backward kick, which sent the iguana crashing limply against the wall. The cheers that rose threatened to shake the rock down over our heads.
Hovering over the center of the pit was a regal figure. He would swoop to and fro over the crowd, taking pieces of paper from some, jotting notes on a pad and delivering the slips to others. This was the quest god, keeping the battles going smoothly, queuing the pets and maintaining their rankings and statistics.
A quarter of the way around the ring I spotted a friend from the last time Squint and I were battling. His little dragon, Puff, was barely a hatchling when I had met him. His little wyrm had been far too young for Squint to battle fairly. But we talked as we watched the battles and I had given him what pointers I could. By the looks of his lizard, the tips, combined with a lot of effort on the little dragon's part, had paid off. Puff was now a formidable looking foe with a fine pair of horns sweeping back from the plating over his skull. Crisscrossed scars along the lizard's body were evidence that they had been busy while I was gone. I looked over to Squint, perched on my shoulder, and saw that he was appraising Puff even more thoroughly than I was.
"What do you think, Squint? Think you can take him?" I asked my partner.
After another moment of careful consideration Squint nodded enthusiastically and chortled in the back of his throat.
I laughed and began working my way around the ring to where my friend was standing. He recognized me as I approached and smiled broadly. "Hi!" he called over the roar of the crowd. "Long time no see! How've you been?"
"Ohhh, been pretty good. Just got in to town from a DeRah run." I answered, shaking his offered hand.
"Yeah? How'd it go?"
"Not too bad. 420,000 gold and a band of kobolds. Nothing major."
"Good to hear. How's your little friend doing?" He was eyeing Squint carefully.
"Oh he's as tough as ever. We haven't fought in a little while, but something tells me Squint here has been keeping in shape. I see your little snake's been busy." I pointed to Puff.
"Yeah, Puff's been working his little tail off. And I mean that literally. A few rounds ago a minotaur pet took his whole tail off with a bronze sword. Of course it grew back, but the pride takes a little longer than the tail."
I chuckled. "I know that story. So you think Puff is up to a challenge? Squint here needs a warm-up."
My friend gave Squint one more look-over before grinning slyly. "A warm-up, you say? Well, Puff here can give your Squint more warm-up than he wants, in more ways than he expects."
"Well now, that sounds like a challenge!"
He winked at me and scribbled something on a piece of paper, then held the paper over his head. The quest god glided over our heads and snatched the paper from my friends hand. After a moment, the god handed me the paper. I marked it with the word "ACCEPT." And that settled that. Squint was about to get busy.
I turned around and set Squint down on the ground. I tightened the leather straps of his leather breastplate and checked all his claws. Everything looked in good working order. I scratched him behind the ears again, much to his pleasure, and checked that the hilt of his little silver sword was in easy reach. "Okay, little buddy," I told him. Win this one and that gold sword is as good as yours. "
Squint bobbed and bounced, whether warming up his muscled or in anticipation of that shiny gold sword, I'm not sure. "Now listen up," I said in a lower voice close to his fuzzy ear. "Puff was just a little thing when we saw him last time. But you can see for yourself he's getting bigger."
Squint peered around my knee at Puff, then looked up at me. He bared his needle-like teeth at me in a fierce grimace and I fought back a laugh. It wouldn't do to put him off his hype right now. I rubbed his shoulders and went on: "Now they were talking about a warm-up, and they got a funny look in their eye when I said that. I think Puff's going to come out fireshielded. So let's use a few extra points and get you sanc'd." I scribbled out the word SANCTUARY on a piece of paper and held it over my head. A moment later the quest god plucked the paper from my fingertips and gave me a nod. That should settle that.
I patted Squint on the shoulder and stood up, saluting him briskly. "Go to it, pal!" And with a puff of purple smoke Squint vanished. I barely had time to turn around to the railing before Squint and Puff emerged from doors on the sides of the pit. A cheer rose from the crowd as the two pets moved to the left center of the arena. As I had suspected Puff was surrounded by a deep red shield of fire. This would mean some extra damage for Squint. But the shimmering white aura around Squint would help absorb a lot of that.
Squint and Puff squared off, moving slowly around each other, looking for openings. I looked over to Puff's owner and winked. He smiled and winked back. Did he look nervous? I hoped so. He should have been. He didn't see what Squint had tucked in behind his breastplate.
I returned my attention to the pit just in time to see Squint reveal his surprise. With a lightning-quick jerk, he swept his silver sword from its sheath nestled behind his breastplate. With four quick slashes he drew a tic- tac-toe grid across Puff's chest. The slashes were deep, causing Puff to reel backwards, wings flapping. The fireshield flared brightly, burning the hair around Squint's eyes and ears. He let out a pint-sized snarl but kept his blade up to fend off the worst of Puffs slashes.
With a quick dodge, Squint maneuvered past Puff's flapping left wing, raising his sword to tear through the leathery membrane. Puff let out a bellow twice as big as his own body and charged head-first at Squint, pinning him to the walls of the pit with his sharp little horns. I caught my breath, watching to see how Squint would recover from the damage.
Brave little Squint puffed up his chest and kicked with all his might, sending Puff rolling in a tumble of wings and claws. He pressed after the tumbling ball of scales, slashing swiftly with his little silver sword. Four quick slashes later, Puff staggered to his feet, one wing dragging. But I have to give the little dragon credit, he made on last press, keeping Squint on his toes.
With a wild spin, Squint twirled and swung his little blade, biting deep into Puff's neck. The flare of Puff's dying fireshield singed all the hair from Squint's right arm, but that would heal fast. Puff, on the other hand, had deeper worries. The geyser of greenish fluid sprouting from his neck didn't last long, and the brave little dragon was still.
Squint tilted back his head and let out a savage little cry of victory before being engulfed in a purple cloud of smoke. Squint was announced victorious as he was returned to my side in a purple puff, his wounds already healing. I petted the soft new fur around his ears and squeezed his little shoulder.
"Way to go, little guy, that just clinched you that gold sword!"
Squint beamed with pleasure, the rush of battle still stark in his eyes. I hoisted him over my head while he squealed a barbarian little war cry. I set him on my shoulder with pride and we made our way through the crowd to Puff and his owner. Puff was recovering fast, already fanning his mended wing and nuzzling his horned head against his master's thigh.
"Good fight," I said as we approached. "Puff has come a long way."
"Your little Squirt is a wild one, too. I thought Puff's fireshield would do him in."
"You ready for a rematch?" I asked. Squint bounced excitedly on my shoulder.
"No, I think we're about done for now."
Before I could answer, the quest god swooped down and handed me a note. I glanced at it, then across the ring to a tall lady in a dark cloak. She held a massive spider at the end of a leash. She smiled at me and winked. I shuddered. I wondered if Squint hates spiders as much I do.