A side quest of the Cursed Eight
The is story picks up from where we left off in SQ1: The prisoner of the Blackheart Gem…
Their steps took them over the plain of purple sand and all the way to the outskirts of the crystalline forest. Siloqui was the first to make out the small opening that was to be their path forward into the eerily quiet geological formation.
The companions quietly ducked underneath the shadows of the gem-like trees. The silence became oppressive as they pressed onwards into the alien forest. From time to time, a small shattering sound would ring out from either side of the path, as hulking figures moved in the underbrush.
“Mr. Quarij?” hissed Lohar, padding forward to walk next to the dark elf. “We seem to have company…”
The drow chuckled drily.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about our hidden guests, cleric. They are simply the guardians of this place. They are mere constructs, built out of the same substance as all the rest of this infernal prison. They will do you no harm…not that it would matter.”
The dark elf stalked forward, leaving Lohar staring worriedly into the depths of the crystal forest.
Sometime after, they emerged on to another plain of glassy sand. On both sides, they could see where the branches of the trees had fallen off and had started to erode under the combined effort of the cold breeze and the whirling grains of crystal.
“Behold,” said Quarij, raising his staff to point towards the horizon, “the doors of the first trial.”
“By the Twelve…,” murmured Shainarra.
“Woooooww…,” said Grell, letting his axe drop slightly in his grip.
At the far edge of the plain, set right against the faceted sky, was a titanic gateway. As the companions moved forward, they could see that the door itself was made of a different material than the rest of their prison. White marble arched into the sky and spiralled to shape the two massive statues holding the pillars on either side of the gate. The one of the right had been carved to resemble a powerful man. He had carved to appear clean-shaven and bald, with stern features and a benevolent smile. He wore nothing save for a simple loincloth and his left hand was placed over his heart.
The statue on the right was so different, that the contrast was profoundly disturbing. The woman, which had been carved out of the same marble as her counterpart, was utterly maleficent. Every line in her face, every contraction of the muscles in her twisted body spoke of unhinged fury. Crazed eyes glared outwards at the approaching companions and her grin was that of a predator. Long nails curled out from talon-like hands and seemed to reach towards the other statue.
Above, the arch curved gracefully upwards and ended in the glorious shape of howling wolf’s head.
As his eyes fell on this last detail, Grell felt a shiver of awe rush up his back. Reflexively, he clutched his chest, searching for something that wasn’t there.
“It’s glorious!” said Lohar in awe as their steps brought them underneath the gigantic archway.
“It loses its charm after you’ve walked through it a few thousand time,” said Quarij smoothly. The dark elf stared at the cleric pointedly, until the latter felt forced to lower his gaze. A small smile flashed across the drow’s features, immediately replaced once again by an inexpressive mask.
“So what now, elf?” asked Nala, observing the empty white space beyond the gate. “We just walk in and the trial begins?”
“In a way,” answered Quarij mysteriously. He stepped forward into the light and was gone.
“Son of a kobold!” cursed Shainarra. “He abandoned us!”
“I don’t think so,” said Zal’tat walking lightly forward. “And even if that were the case, we could just wait until he dies again and comes here to try to escape, no?”
He stuck one hand experimentally into the gate and pulled it back out.
“Also, I disapprove of that expression,” he said wagging a finger at Shainarra. “It’s very disrespectful; some of my best friends were kobolds.”
“I-,” began the rogue, but the gnome had already entered the portal.
“Well, I guess we’re doing this!” said Grell and he dashed forward into the silvery surface.
The four remaining companions looked at each other for a long moment. Then, they shrugged and preparing their weapons, entered.
* * *
They had appeared on the steps of an arena. All around them, a phantom crowd cheered as gladiators hacked each other to pieces in the arena below.
“Now this is my kind of show!” said Zal’tat appreciatively looking around to see if he could make out a bookie somewhere in the chaos.
“What are we supposed to dohere, drow?” said Shainarra, a little menacingly.
“Don’t worry, thief. I doubt we’ll have to wait very long before she makes her entrance.”
“She?” murmured Nala curiously.
Suddenly, the arena fell silent. Nala, Zal’tat and Lohar all cringed as a monstrous wave of magical power reverberated around them, curving space and time to focus on the box set in the arena wall opposite them.
A shadow settled in a dark throne and a long-nailed hand slashed the air once.
Immediately, the arena burst into a wild cheer; phantoms jumped to their feet, howling and clapping their hands together.
“What-?” managed Lohar.
“Blackheart Arena! Welcome to another trial by combat! New contestants have joined our old favourite, Quarij!”
More howls punctuated the dark elf’s nod and raised middle finger.
“Given the number of contestants, today I have prepared three fights for you! The first shall be a trial of arms, the second of magic and the third shall test the strength of our challenger’s comradery! Prisoners; whom shall be your first fighter?”
The party looked at each other and then, all eyes moved towards Grell.
“Oh, yes!” said the small half-orc, whirling his axe through a phantom.
“Your choice is made! Grell Islander shall face off against the arena’s reigning champion, Captain Hujid!”
There was a small pop as Grell vanished from the stands and reappeared in the centre of the arena. Opposite him, a large metal grate slowly rose, revealing an opening to the pits. A hobgoblin dressed in chainmail marched out from the darkness and bowed.
“It is my honour to fight you this day, little warrior. Glory to the last man standing!” he exclaimed in a heavily accented voice. He drew his sword and saluted smartly.
“Uh…yeah, you too,” answered the half-orc, gripping his battle-axe tightly.
“Begin!” screeched the voice from the box above.
The hobgoblin dashed forward and aimed a deadly blow at Grell’s head. However, the young barbarian was already gone, dancing away, his feet raising sand as he avoided the larger warrior’s powerful slashes.
“Quarij,” hissed Shainarra drawing close to the dark elf, “can we help the kid in any way?”
“I think that would be seen as cheating,” answered the drow carefully peering at the shadowy figure in the box, “and I doubt that she would take to well to that.”
“We’ll see about that,” said the rogue, flitting away purposefully. As she moved through the ghostly crowd, she drew her daggers, keeping the throne in her sights.
Below, the hobgoblin had just barely managed to avoid being skewered by a javelin Grell had aimed at his chest and was now harassing the smaller fighter by charging him with his shield. For his part, the much lighter barbarian was having no trouble avoiding the oncoming jabs, but he was finding it difficult to get any of his own attacks past his opponent’s impressive armour.
As the hobgoblin was preparing for his another charge, Grell saw his opening.
“Hey, you really should be more careful!” he said as the larger fighter sprinted in his direction. He quickly sidestepped and pushing with all his might, leapt into the air.
“If you keep pulling stunts like that you just might lose your head!”
Steel flashed and the crowd cringed in horrified appreciation as the hobgoblin’s head was cleanly separated from his body by the half-orc’s perfectly timed swing. The body crumpled to the ground and immediately disappeared, leaving in its place a simple mask, carved to resemble a wolf’s head.
Still breathing heavily, the half-orc picked it up and immediately found himself back in the stands.
“Well done, Grell Islander! Now for our next challenge! Two must fight in this contest of magic; who will it be?”
The crazed screech almost gave Shainarra a heart attack as she made her way towards the box. She glanced backwards at her friends, to see who would go next.
“Well, magic is kind of my thing,” said Zal’tat getting up and stretching. He turned towards the dragonborn.
“Would you like to accompany me, Lady Zarg?”
Nala smiled warmly and snapped her fingers, causing a small spark of eldritch magic to pop off in the direction of the arena.
Immediately, the two found themselves in the centre of a very different arena than the one Grell had fought in. Sand had been replaced by grass. All around them, tall oaks swished ominously, hiding the purple sky.
“Please welcome Nala Zarg and Zal’tat Spindlefoot! They shall be facing Elthenthera, mistress of the forest!”
The trunk nearest Zal’tat shifted and a woman emerged from within. Her skin was green and leaves rustled in her twig-like hair. She bowed once.
“This should be eas-”
The gnome’s phrase was cut short as he felt his whole body lock into place. He grasped for his magic but found nothing. The dark pools of the dryad’s eyes had rooted him to the spot and he found himself powerless to resist.
“Zal’tat!” yelled Nala as she ducked behind a tree, barely avoiding a wooden projectile aimed at her chest.
“He’s enchanted!” cursed Lohar, punching the air angrily.
Quarij peered out from under his hood at the shadowy box and for a moment, he seemed lost in thought.
“I think I may be of assistance,” he whispered and softly murmured a few words under his breath.
Below, the dryad moved towards the defenceless gnome, barely avoiding a searing blast of energy that Nala had aimed her way.
“I think you die this day, forest child,” she said almost mournfully, stretching a bark-covered hand towards Zal’tat. Suddenly, the magic dissipated and the sorcerer staggered backwards under the surprised gaze of the forest spirit.
“Sorry, but I have plans,” he said as an angry spat of magic flashed from his hand to set her hair on fire. The sylvan creature screeched in terror and stumbled backwards, trying to escape the flame-wielding gnome.
A blast of green magic exploded from behind a nearby tree and crashed into the dryad, pulverizing her on the spot and causing small flecks of ash to start to rain down on Zal’tat’s confused face.
“You’re welcome,” said Nala as she emerged from behind the tree.
“I almost had her,” said the gnome, a little frustration leaking into the phrase. “But thanks,” he added, smiling.
He squinted, eyeing the odd shape peeking out from within the pile of ash. His hands closed around the smooth surface and once again, they were in the stands.
He looked down at the owl-faced mask in his hand and his forehead creased, but weather in curiosity or worry, it was impossible to tell.-
The story continues in SQ3…