The metallic screech of metal upon metal jarred Kaio from her restless sleep, and on instinct, she pressed herself back, away from the noise, just as every other dirty, too-thin body did.
That's all we are to them, she thought glumly as the tramp of many pairs of boots approached down the stone stairs. Bodies. Things.
Light began to leak around the only door to the room, but it held no warmth or hope for the room's occupants. Some even moaned in fear.
The rattle of keys.
The click of the lock.
Another scream of metal scraping past metal, and blinding light from the corpse-blue lanterns of Kaio's captors, causing her and the other dozen-odd occupants of the small, cramped cell to shield their eyes or look away, just as the other groups in the other three still-filled cells did. Three cells out of eight.
There was a whimper. The sound of liquid hitting the stone floor. An acrid stench. By Aulir's grace, how does anyone still have enough water in them to wet themself? Kaio wondered, glad for the small fortune that whoever was pissing themself in fright wasn't in her cell.
The thought of water made her lick her own lips, though she grimaced as her nearly-dry tongue merely chafed her cracked and bleeding lips.
The four guards, each wearing muted scale mail armor and a mask-like helm, looked between the three cells, only their dark, shadowed eyes visible. Words were exchanged in their elegant, scathing tongue, and what little was left of Kaio's hope shattered as one approached her group's cell, keys rattling in his hand.
She almost laughed at herself, but didn't have the strength to waste on such a frivolous activity. I was going to die here anyways, she thought to herself as the guard opened the door, then barked at the prisoners in the cell, more alien words that she didn't know. I'd just hoped it would be of starvation or thirst in here, rather than by whatever fate awaits me outside.
Kaio dragged herself to a standing position, then shambled out of the cramped cell with her fellow captives. Stumbling up the steps, she felt a tiny tear collect in the corner of her eye, too little to fall. I just hope my death is quick, she prayed. Please, Aulir, let my death be a short affair. Don't let these cursed dark elves gain too much entertainment from my suffering.
Irelk Blothudry glared out the carriage window, his jaw resting upon his knuckles as the vehicle floated through the streets of Kly Nocc. His light grey skin, dark purple hair, and nearly black eyes marked him as one of the Zathauin - one of the snow elves, or dark elves if one referred more to their deeds - and his fine clothes further marked him as a noble.
"I believe, as your noble mother is not present, it is my responsibility to tell you to, ahem, 'wipe that dour look off your face, as it does not suit a noble of Kly Nocc," Ielkrun's companion, Nyyra said, her voice a unique mixture of respectful and teasing that Ielkrun had only ever heard his mother's favored handmaiden pull off.
Irelk favored the olive-complexioned, green-haired and -eyed high elf with a glare, his pointed ears twitching his annoyance for anyone to see. "I thought you and mother disapproved Shuldre's little 'parties' as well."
Nyyra gave her mistress' son a pointed look, even as she adjusted in her seat, her back arching significantly. Irelk was too irritated to notice, however. "That's Dutchess Nokhes to us, Master Irelk, and the bitch better not hear you refer to her in any other way, or there'll be Zathau's own Hell to pay, from both her and your mother."
Rebuke delivered, the woman sighed, her posture wilting only just, though she immediately tensed, shivered, and then shifted in her seat until she was seated nearly on one hip, her waist bent quite fetchingly. "But you aren't wrong," she continued, her voice just slightly breathy. "Dutchess Nokhes is far more cruel than many of your kind, and I hear she's emptied a whole cell of slaves for this little 'event' of hers. And while they are just slaves, needless and pointless cruelty is wasteful."
Irelk grunted noncommittally, but did as Nyyra had suggested and wrestled his expression into one more akin to boredom than annoyance. Most who would be at Shuldre's - rather, Dutchess Nokhes' - party would probably prefer to be elsewhere, but no noble of the Zathauin would express such in the presence of their peers and betters, lest they brought down the wrath of said betters. And Shouldre's wrath was well-documented to leave little behind.
As the carriage left the walls of Kly Nocc, Ielkrun's mask of indifference slipped up again. Because it wasn't the waste of perfectly good slaves that truly bothered him. Certainly, it was a waste, and he didn't see the point in it - slaves should be kept for as long as possible, and while treated to the whip, brand, or whatever other punishment and torture as much as was necessary, a good pat on the head and the occasional, more substantial reward could eventually mould a slave into a loyal servant. Like Nyyra.
But no, the real issue about Shuldre's party was that it was - for whatever Zathau-damned reason - being held outside the city, in the Gloomwood. It was, of course, far beyond unlikely that the Dutchess was planning to kill any of the attending nobles - at least, not at the party, though it would be foolish to wander off - but such a strange venue was unsettling in the least.
Irelk grit his teeth, and mentally stretched, checking for the umpteenth time to make sure his sword was secure in the dimensional pocket he kept it in on such occasions. He probably wouldn't need it, though. Probably.
His companion's fidgeting brought Ielkrun's attention back within the carriage, and he narrowed his eyes at the slave. She just couldn't seem to get into a comfortable sitting position...
"Nyyra," the young noble began slowly, his voice dripping with amusement. His mother's handmaiden looked up, a hint of embarrassed worry on her face. Irelk smirked. "Stand, turn around, bend over, and pull up your skirt."
The aulithir slave blushed, her ears drooping in embarrassment, but she did as her owner's son commanded, revealing... Irelk laughed softly as the amethyst-bejeweled buttplug shined from where it was nestled between the handmaiden's pale asscheeks, and above the wet lips of her cunt. "Did you misbehave? Or did mother just want you to remember your place while you're away from her?"
The handmaiden trembled slightly as she leaned against the wall of the carriage, her arms stretched out in front of her. "It's my reward, Kheol," she said, using the term for one who was her master, but not her owner.
"Mistress had me please her this morning while I edged myself - she told me I did exceptionally well, and that I was allowed to cum as many times as I wanted from having the plug in... without touching."
Irelk snorted. "And how many times have you cum?"
A whimper. "Three, Kheol," she replied, her voice barely a whisper. "Once from being plugged, again when we first sat in the carriage, and the third just a minute ago."
"Such a lewd aulithir my mother owns, can't keep her sloppy cunt from cumming itself from a plug up her ass," Irelk said, shaking his head in mocking condescension. "And you call yourselves 'high elves.'"
Nyyra whined. "M-Mistress coated it in Sweetwhisper nectar!" she protested. "And she put it on my nipples and clitoris!"
Irelk barked a laugh. "Sweetwhisper nectar is only a mild aphrodisiac, you pathetic Aulithir slut. To a well-trained slave like you, it should barely even register. I think, perhaps, you 'high elves' are really all just snobby, repressed whores. No wonder slavery suits you so well." Then, with a bored sigh, he slouched back, loosened his trousers, and pulled out his cock. "Here," he ordered, snapping his fingers.
In an instant, Nyyra pivoted, took one step across the carriage, and knelt smoothly, eagerly taking her charge's cock in her mouth and lavishing her attention on it, tongue swirling as she hungrily sucked. Irelk sighed and allowed the tension to leech from his body, basking in the slave's masterful ministrations. Nyyra had belonged to his mother for decades, and Countess Blothudry had made sure her prize handmaiden was prepared to serve any of her betters in any way necessary - even those that the Countess herself could not directly enjoy.
As the Aulithir served him on her knees, Irelk returned to gazing out at the surround. Only now, instead of a glower, a small, lazy smile pulled at his lips.
Dutchess Nokhes' villa stood an appreciable distance down the road from Kly Nocc - about three hours by carriage ride. That alone was enough distance to put it just below the permanent snowline of the Moontooth Mountains, where the evergreen forest began to thicken. The villa itself was built in a clearing atop a cliff, looking out over the vast Wintersoul Forest below.
Once the carriage had come to a stop, Irelk got out, took a brief moment to scan the area - which was only party to about a dozen nobles of Kly Nocc - then strode inside the villa, Nyyra a respectful step behind and to his left. The cold wasn't bothersome - neither to Irelk in his comfortable tunic, trousers, and boots; nor to Nyyra, in her shortly-cropped, loose top, knee-length skirt, and sandals - but rather Irelk's impatience drove him indoors.
The villa was of a rather standard construction, with a hexagonal doughnut shape around an open-air atrium, which doubled as a garden and a meeting place. Irelk made his way directly to the atrium, ignoring the slaves in the vestibule and main hallway who were offering food, drink, and oral relief. There he found that a small stage had been constructed, and noted with a small hint of concern that there seemed to be more guards than usual surrounding the place, though they kept mainly out of sight behind the arch pillars of the walkway surrounding the atrium.
After making another brief scan, Irelk beckoned a slave to him with a quick crook of his finger, then took a delicate glass of wine from the tray strapped to her waist and supported by delicate chains connected to rings in her nipples. Her arms were tightly bound behind her back in an armbinder, and a bit gag wrenched her jaw open. The slave herself was a blonde, pretty human with sea-blue eyes that darted between his face and the floor fearfully.
Irelk was about to dismiss the slave when he noted that her collar had a pair of gently-glowing gems inlaid - one a soft pink, the other lightning blue. Smiling, he reached out and gently tapped the pink one three times, causing it to brighten three times, then tapped the blue one once. A soft whimper escaped around the slave's gag as her hips twitched, a faint pulse of magic traveling from the two gems down towards the girl's cunt, which was hidden behind a leather strap connected to her armbinder in the back and to her collar in the front. Only then did Irelk dismiss the slave.
"Most generous, Kheol," Nyyra commented softly, her voice not carrying past Irelk's ears.
The Zathauin grunted. "Pleasure in enough quantity is hardly a gift, as you well know. And for as fresh a slave as she was, the pain mixed in with the pleasure will be enough to see her keep diligent."
"I was not referring to you providing her with three times the pleasure as pain, Kheol," Nyyra replied in amusement. "I was referring to you providing her with any pleasure and leaving it on."
Irelk's carefully-schooled expression of boredom slipped up for a second as he glared around at his fellow elven nobles. "Few of my compatriots are likely to provide her with any just reward, and what pleasure I gave her should help to keep her out of trouble. The lash without a potential treat is a lash wasted."
The two fell silent, and passed the next several minutes in quiet, subtle observation. Among the Zathauin nobility, insults - real or imagined - were often responded to poorly, with poison, a word in the wrong ear, or a knife in the dark. And watching too closely was usually perceived as an insult or threat. Therefore, everyone among the nobility learned from an early age how to watch without looking. A 'casual' glance around the room that soaked in every detail. Reading every little clue that peripheral vision could provide.
Irelk was interested to see that nobody else present of the twenty-or-so nobles seemed to know what, exactly, Shuldre had planned. While the average noble had a bit more control of themselves than Irelk did, he caught more than one casting concerned glances towards the stage, or covertly eyeing the too-numerous guards
If Nyyra heard right, the Zathauin mused, and Shuldre did in fact empty an entire cell of slaves - so, something between one and two dozen - that would explain the extra guards. He made another quick scan of the atrium, pausing for a brief moment in surprise when he saw...
"She's here," he murmured, snapping his attention to his nearly-untouched wine glass. Insulting any given Zathauin noble would be bad. Insulting Dutchess Nokhes at her own party would be fatal. Painfully fatal. Or a good way to end up as a slave, the rest of one's family either dead, exiled, or also in slavery.
Watch as the Dutchess of Nocc strolled through the atrium from the corner of his eye - as every other noble did - Irelk took a moment to appreciate the bitch's beauty. Pale violet skin; thick, silky calf-length midnight blue hair, held back from falling in front of her eyes by an ostentatious circlet; and piercing red eyes were her defining traits, along with perfectly angular, noble, elven features, though she was unusually petite, her lithe body nearly two feet shorter than most Zathauin women, but she was rather generously proportioned for such a small woman.
Most striking of all - though hardly surprising, given the bitch's personality - was that she was appearing in her battle garb, which consisted of very little physically: a severe black line of metal that rested around her hips as a belt, with two tendrils reaching up asymmetrically to wrap around and cup her voluptuous breasts, the end of each tendril just barely covering her nipples. Another two tendrils wrapped down her legs, though they trailed off at her ankles. Two dark red cloth panels were draped from the belt portion to give some slight modesty, though neither reached her knees.
The entire outfit was a statement, besides being actually effective at protecting the Dutchess. It was likely that she had enchanted it herself, and it was rumored that Shuldre Nokhes was a prodigy enchantress, even among Alth; and all elves stood head and shoulders - and often even chests and waists - above all other races when it came to enchanting. The fact that Shuldre wore her scant metal 'armor' into battle, and was better protected than a dwarf in full mithril plate behind a tower shield was a compliment to her prowess as an enchanter.
The conversations in the atrium continued as the Dutchess slowly made her way to and up the stage, though every noble present was aware of their host's arrival. When she wanted their attention, she would have it, but before then it would be beyond rude to think to disturb one's better without a matter of exceeding importance.
Luckily - as far as Irelk was concerned - the wait was rather short. Only a few seconds after she had taken her place on stage, flanked by a pair of her slightly less scantily-clad guardswomen, Shuldre spoke. All other conversations instantly ceased the moment her voice was heard. "Noble Zathauin, this event will be rather unlike any you have attended in recent memory. In fact, such an event has not been held for several centuries, much to my dismay."
Shuldre paused for a moment, allowing a wave of silent confusion to spread through the gathered nobles. "You see," she continued, "what I have planned for today is, I believe, something that truly demonstrates what we are, fellow Zathauin." With a grin, she gestured to one side, and everyone turned to see nearly two dozen emaciated, dirty, rag-wearing or nude slaves trundle into the atrium, herded onto the stage by a number of guards. "Today we shall be holding a slave hunt!"
Polite, if hesitant, applause greeted Dutchess Nokhes's proclamation, along with confused, soft murmuring. She basked for a moment before turning to the slaves, selecting one at random, and yanking her - a totally nude wood elf female - forward by her hair, the Dutchess' grip twisted to force the girl into an arched position with her neck wrenched back. "We have here twenty-one unbroken, untrained slaves of all sorts; simple humans, sturdy dwarves, our Aulithir and Vaulari cousins," she gestured to the slave she was currently holding, "and if you've a keen eye, perhaps one or two more... exotic specimens."
Irelk did a quick scan of the slaves - and saw a reptilian Izaril, a feline Thrikt, and even what looked to be a cambion - but what had caught his eye right away was the Vaulari that Shuldre had pulled forward on display. The girl was somehow even shorter than Shuldre by an inch or two, though given her emaciated state Irelk couldn't tell if her petite frame was genuine or just evidence of malnourishment. Her dusky green-blue hair was knotted and unkempt, and her pale green skin smudged with dirt, but she was still incredibly striking despite her sorry state.
Further remarkable was her Vaula - her Mark of the Forest. She had three, in fact: a small crown of stag-like antlers atop her head, each only about six inches long from base to the furthest tip; a doe's tail poking out from behind her ass; and furred, digitigrade and hooved legs, starting at her mid-thigh.
"The rules of the hunt are simple," Shuldre continued, pulling Irelk's attention away from the small Vaulari. "We shall release these slaves into the forest, with vague directions to the nearest non-Zathauin settlement. After an hour, you honored few of Kly Nocc's greatest houses will be free to give chase, and do whatever you wish with whichever slaves you catch. Anything... at... all. The hunt itself can be carried out using anything short of direct scrying magic."
More murmuring, but this time it sounded approving, and the applause, while still polite, was much more enthusiastic. Even Irelk, disproving as he was of his fellow noble's likely intents to needlessly torture whichever slaves they caught, found himself anticipating the hunt. His gaze was fastened to the Vaulari, still caught in Shuldre's grasp. He watched, jaw clenching, as the Dutchess grinned maliciously at the slave, then sensuously leaned in and slowly licked the girl's neck before shoving her back into the group of slaves. She then jerked her chin at the guards. "Take them to the forest's edge, and give them their directions in their crude languages. The time starts once they've been released."
The guards nodded, then herded the slaves out of the atrium. The nobles watched, and Irelk knew that, like himself, they were all picking out their favored prey. And he knew - and feared - that his favored prey was likely the prize of the hunt, even if it was only because Shuldre randomly chose her as the display piece, at least partially.
Once the slaves were gone and Dutchess Nokhes had descended from the stage, muted conversations began throughout the room, the current of eager anticipation stark. Irelk glanced around for the nearest unoccupied slave, then waved him over. "The villa has magical chambers available for noble use, correct?" he asked. The slave nodded demurely in response. "Lead me to the nearest one," Irelk commanded, then followed as the slave swiftly walked towards one of the exits from the atrium. Less than a minute later they stopped outside a door in the wraparound indoor hallway.