22/04/10 – The Arena

There is dust on the ground and the tang of blood in the air

The party is standing on a rising circular platform, watching as above them a gap in the ceiling begins to expand. It is hard to know when they first become conscious of it, but with the gap growing wider and the platform higher, sound begins to be heard from the world above, a ferocious, all encompassing noise, like a raging river or the wind blowing a gale. As the expanding mechanism locks, as the platform rises to meet it so neatly that you can hardly see the crack, the noise resolves itself into a wall of baying voices, their words indecipherable but their message clear. There is dust on the ground and the tang of blood in the air. The companions have entered the arena.

They are standing in the middle of a wide circular space, bordered by high stone walls. Above the walls they can see the stands, full to the brim with bloodthirsty spectators, and at one point atop the wall is luxurious looking tent, its form deliberately conspicuous and its occupants just as deliberately hidden. Looking back to ground level, they can see four dragon statues evenly spaced around the arena, carved so that they glower with malevolence. And they can see what everyone can see, the focus of this spectacle, six figures locked in battle. An elf stands in the centre of a group of five gladiators, the floor of the arena is littered with bodies whose garb resembles hers. Azura calls to her, “Sister, what has happened here?” The elf turns in surprise at her voice, but she has no time for long explanations. “Help me!” she says, then turns back to the fight, firing off an attack and injuring two of the gladiators. But they are still advancing, all five closing in around her.

Azura swings into action. A swarm of insects clouds the air around the head of the nearest gladiator, biting him freely about the face and neck. In anger he turns, leaving the elf he runs at Azura, who searches vainly for some concealment on the arena’s desolate surface. She considers hiding behind one of the dragon statues, but with no time to reach them, and the justifiable feeling that they may be more than just statues, she instead turns to meet her enemy head on.

Stout runs to her aid, but misses, and her anger at her own incompetence grows. The gladiator swipes at Azura, who hisses in fury and stamps her foot. The ground beneath her splits and the gladiator howls in pain as a jagged crack snakes below his feet and lava scorches his legs. He turns and runs towards the nearest dragon statue, and for a moment all Azura’s fears seem about to be confirmed. But Stout, screeching curses so foul they may not be repeated, charges at the gladiator, swings her axe and is overjoyed to feel the blow connect, and the iron bite heavily into her enemies flesh. Now almost too weak to stand, a final attack from Azura flies over Stout’s shoulder, and the Gladiator drops like a stone.

Even as Azura was worrying that the dragon statues might conceal some secret menace, on the other side of the arena Texh and Oriana were seeing that fear come to life. Moments after Azura had summoned the first swarm that enraged her nearest gladiator, Texh had sprinted towards the two furthest gladiators, who were standing by another of the dragon statues, both armed with tridents and nets. Texh unsheathed his two swords, their blades flashed in the sunlight, but his first strokes went awry. In response one of the gladiators drove his trident through Texh’s foot and into the ground, pinning him to the spot. Seeing Texh in trouble Oriana charges over, snarling, and sinks her teeth into the gladiators arm. He howls in pain, and while he is distracted Texh manages to free his foot, then swings his swords upwards as one, slashing deeply at his chest. The gladiator falls, dead, to the ground.

But as Oriana and Texh look up in triumph they see that the cold stone eyes of the dragon statue have been turned to face them. They just have time to notice the second gladiator, not mourning his companion but grinning manically as he operates some mechanism at the statue’s rear, then suddenly the world is filled with flame. Oriana manages to dodge the stream of fire shooting from the dragon’s mouth, Texh is not so lucky. But his scorched limbs only give him more incentive to prevent the gladiator from firing again, and the two companions quickly converge on the lone gladiator and take him out before he fires another shot.

Meanwhile in the centre of the arena, Wry and Dugery are dealing with the final two gladiators, who are still locked in battle with the lone elf. Wry runs over and begins a charm offensive; he flirts with the elf magnificently, and goads the gladiators with ease. But unfortunately he seems to have a little trouble actually, you know, hitting anybody. Dugery, watching from a safe distance, sighs with amusement and frustration and keeps firing, now bolts from his magic crossbow, now vials of healing admixture to stop Wry’s flailing from getting him killed.

At this point we shift perspective, and see the world through the eyes of these final two gladiators. Until now they have been too absorbed in their own battle to take much notice of those going on around them, but at this point they look up, and see warriors advancing on them from all sides. On the right is Oriana growling menacingly, and Texh battered but grimly determined. From the left comes Stout, ecstatic that she actually managed to hurt somebody, and Azura fierce in defense of her kin, tail lashing to and fro. They see Dugery firing healing and hurt in equal measure, and are startled as Wry, whose foppish antics had been the stuff of ridicule, suddenly begins to do damage. But most terrifying of all is the elf, Fuoca, who has watched her friends die in this dreadful arena, and now the tables have turned. She is vengeance personified.

Where did these gladiators come from? Have they too, at some point in the distant past, ascended fearfully on a rising platform into a dusty world of violence and death? Have they lived since that moment in constant fear that this day would come, when they would be beset and bested by a superior foe? In these last moments, as memories of previous battles with different endings come rushing back, enveloping them like a thick and choking fog, can they have seen their deaths coming? Known who struck the final blows? Can their deaths, in the end, have been anything but a relief?

As the last of the gladiators falls, the cheering from the crowd increases. Although the companions loathe these bloodthirsty animals, the exaltation in their cries seems to sing in their blood, and the party stands triumphant. But then, above them, they hear the beat of wings. The arena goes dark for a moment, as something flies across the sun. The companions look up and watch as through a miasma of howling winds and swirling dust, a silver dragon lands on the ground before them.

The dragon lands gracefully and with a ground shaking thump. It screeches, it breathes a blast of cold wind that chills each companion to the marrow. Each member of the party, now terrified, already exhausted, searches within themselves for the last of their strength. Stout, Wry and Oriana charge at the dragon which, despite its size, writhes as nimbly as a snake, evading their blows and seeming little injured by even the deadliest of their strikes. Azura’s summons her hawk, the ground bristles with Dugery’s fiendish contraptions, and yet the dragon still lays about it with deadly accuracy, swiping with its claws and freezing the companions with the malevolence of its glare. In desperation, Fuoca tries to teleport the dragon to a weaker position, but succeeds only in bringing it closer to her. Azura runs to one of the dragon statues and attempts to fight cold with fire, but is unable to engage the controls. Then, when all seems lost, Texh sneaks up behind the dragon and strikes at its back with his fearful killing blow, know as the Jaws of the Wolf. The dragon feels Texh’s blade biting deep, and blood running down towards its tail. It takes flight, then hovers above the arena. The dragon looks at each of the party in turn; they brace themselves for another attack. But instead the dragon lowers its head and dips its wings, it bows, and then it flies away. The companions look at each other in confusion, but the head of the spectators turn as one to the floating tent. A hand emerges from the shadowy entrance, fingers clasped, thumb extended to the side. It pauses a moment. Then the wrist turns, the thumb is raised, and the companions know that the fight is finally over. The reasons behind the fight, and their kidnap, and the true provenance of the elven stranger they have rescued are, like the figure in the tent, still shrouded in shadow.



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