A side quest of the Cursed Eight
Accipiter G. Goshawk
Finally we return to the Cursed Eight!
The story continues from where it left off in SQ2: The Blackheart Arena …
“Well done, well done! The prisoners have passed the first three trials, but the Blackheart Arena still has one last surprise. Are you ready?”
The figure hidden in the shadows leaned forward, and Zal’tat was almost sure he caught a glimpse of its blood-red eyes swerving crazily. Shainarra had almost reached the covered dais; she paused, looking back at her companions standing in a sea of cheering spectres.
“We are ready!” proclaimed Siloqui, unsheathing her two short swords.
A mad cackling erupted from the figure, and once again the party disappeared from the stands, only to materialize in the centre of the arena. The trees had vanished, and now sand covered the floor once more. The group quickly spread out, keeping a watchful eye on the barred gate opposite them.
Shainarra glanced wistfully upwards at the dais.
“I almost had her,” she murmured under her breath.
“Shh! Can you hear that?” breathed Lohar, staring at the darkness behind the gate. “I think something is coming.”
A moment of perfect silence fell over the arena, as even the ghostly spectators stopped their cheering.
Then, the gate exploded outwards in a shower of sparks, lightning and molten metal, as a massive creature came rushing out at them.
“Dragon!” roared Siloqui, quickly leaping out of the way of the creature’s thrashing tail.
“Really?” said Zal’tat, as he ducked under the beast and flung a stream of fire at its belly. “Are you sure?”
The creature roared, lifting its blue horned snout and bringing its claws down to slash at the gnome. The crowd cheered and then booed as the sorcerer barely managed to avoid being skewered by the deadly razors.
“Etchraz rkiotossa!” snarled Quarij, thrusting out his staff. A blast of familiar violet-green energy spat out of the tip and exploded into the dragon’s side, showering the area with blue scales. The creature roared in pain, and turned angrily towards the dark elf. His grin faded as a low crackling noise began to shake the beast’s form.
“Out of the way, it’s about breathe out!” yelled Nala, running towards the elderly elf.
She shoved him roughly out of harm’s way, leaving herself in the path of the dragon’s lightning breath. A terrible buzzing erupted from the centre of the arena, and Zal’tat watched in horror as countless bolts of lightning collided into the dragonborn’s form, sending her smashing against a far wall.
She didn’t move to get up.
“Somebody help her!” yelled Shainarra, as she brought her two daggers shearing down into the monster’s sensitive wing webbing.
“I’m on it, I’m on it…,” murmured Lohar, quickly evading the rampaging creature’s deadly spiked tail. The cleric slid to a halt next to the unconscious form of the silver-scaled warlock. As he got to his knees and propped her up, he unstoppered a small potion vial.
“This ought to do the trick,” he whispered to himself, as he poured a gold-red stream into the dragonborn’s open mouth.
Behind him, the battle raged on.
Taking advantage of the damage Quarij caused, and of a particularly well-thrown javelin on the part of Grell, Siloqui had delivered a debilitating blow to the gigantic monster. Gaging the rhythm and reach of the dragon’s swinging tail, she chose her moment and struck.
Leaping into the air, she executed a flawless pirouette over the sharp spines and brought both of her swords down into the exposed flank of the wounded creature.
An ear-rending shriek erupted, as it attempted to shake its attacker off, flailing wildly left and right. The plains-elf held on for dear life, as the dragon careened around the arena, carrying her with it. Her eyes filled with sand, and for a moment she considered letting go.
Then, all movement stopped.
Siloqui opened her eyes and gasped in amazement and horror, as dark tentacles emerged from the ground, wrapping themselves around the limbs of the monster, holding it in place. She quickly leapt off, her eyes finding the now-standing figure of the silver-scaled dragonborn.
“I don’t appreciate being shocked,” she snarled, as the dark tendrils of magic followed the movements of her hands and curled tighter around the dragon’s struggling form. A small drop of blood ran down from her nose, as she struggled to control her magic without falling unconscious once more.
“Time to finish this!”
Zal’tat dashed forward, his hands glowing hotter with ever stride he took towards the struggling beast.
“Hey thunder-breath! Choke on some of your own medicine!”
He let the three spattering spears of light fly: one found the dragon’s mouth, the other two his eyes. Magic seared through it and erupted within its skull, boiling away flesh and soft tissue, until all that was left was a gaping mouth and two empty eyes sockets.
The crowd cheered and leapt to its feet, as the companions moved closer to the carcass. Like the other trials before, it faded away, leaving behind a simple heart carved out of wood.
As Nala picked it up, the figure on the dais rose to its feet.
“Well done, prisoners,” it spat distastefully. “You have succeeded in passing my trial. Three more await you. Walk through the doors and be on your way.”
The spectators slowly melted away, and soon the arena was empty. The opening opposite had changed as well: now it resembled a smaller version of the first gate they had stepped through, with the two statues staring impassively at the party.
“Well that wasn’t so hard,” said Zal’tat, throwing the owl mask up into the air and catching it.
“I…I must thank you,” said Quarij. His voice trembled, and for a moment, Shainarra thought that she could almost see an emotion hidden beneath his rigid features. “This is the first time I have succeeded in the Arena. Thanks to you, I may yet be free.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Nala, as she moved towards the gate.
“So, if this was the combat portion of the tests, what awaits us next?” said Siloqui, as one by one they stepped through the portal.
“Something where we’ll have to use our brains, I imagine,” said Shainarra.
“Aww nuts!” growled Grell sullenly, kicking a bit of sand into the portal before entering.
* * *
“I’m so confused…,” mumbled the half-orc sometime later as they exited yet another portal.
“About which part, Grell?” asked Zal’tat kindly. “The puzzle-room, or the mock trial?”
The child looked up at him for a moment, lost in thought.
“All of it,” he said finally. Shainarra groaned silently as she stepped past.
“Well,” began the gnome patiently, “the puzzle-room was easy. We just had to put the masks on the right statues and align the lights to open the door.”
Grell scratched his head. “We couldn’t have just smashed the door? That’s the thing that’s been bothering me.”
“I don’t think it would’ve worked,” said Nala, smiling kindly at the small barbarian, who shrunk a little and said nothing.
“And the trial was just matter of finding out how the man had died. The demon-judge – Jud’rax – wanted us to believe that one of the girls did it, when in fact it was he who was responsible all along. Luckily, Siloqui has a keen eye for detail…a little better than Lohar’s medical skills anyway.”
“I was distracted, all right?!” snapped the cleric as he emerged through the doorway. “I’ve never conducted a medical examination on a time limit and in a pocket universe designed to test me. I’m feeling a little stressed.”
Grell stared at him, struggling with something.
Finally, he gave up. “What does ‘stressed’ mean?”
The cleric groaned and trudged along, pretending to ignore the sorcerer and the warlock’s barely suppressed-sniggers.
“So, what now, Quarij?” said Shainarra, eyeing the misty path in front of them.
“As I have already mentioned, I am utterly unfamiliar with any trials after the Arena,” said the dark elf testily. “If I were to hazard a guess however, I would say that we are fairly close to the exit. We just have to try not to get lost.”
“Ok then. Everybody stick together,” said Siloqui taking the lead.
They crept forward, letting their feet find the path beneath the swirling mist. For a long while no one said anything.
Then, the ranger stopped, peering into the pearly soup in front of them.
“I think I see a crossroads up ahead. Come on, and keep close.”
The air seemed to clear the closer they got to the rickety wooden signpost, until they found themselves at the meeting point of four roads winding through a dead forest. Behind them the mist swirled ominously.
“Which road should we-” began Nala but was immediately cut off as a terrible cry went up from the path to their right. She turned just in time to see a group of five dwarves begin to beat a lonely goblin into the ground.
She didn’t stop to think, but immediately rushed to the right, followed by Zal’tat, Siloqui and Quarij.
Grell and Lohar remained motionless, their gaze lost in the path straight in front of them, at the end of which they could see the hallway of the Temple of Gerotil in St. Vornias.
“Bane!” exclaimed Grell rushing forward and leaping into the portal, followed shortly after by Lohar.
Unnoticed, lone figure crept through the shadows, slowly making its way along the path to the left. A heap of gold glimmered at the end of the road, and the yellowish tinge reflected in the depths of Shainarra’s eyes as she moved forward, disappearing into darkness.-
The story continues in SQ4…