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Tag: daring_escape

Fortress of Bones Part 13: The Dark Lady
A voice from the hall and the sound of armored feet interrupted the heroes' immediate plan. “Kathrik! What has happened here? Where is my Aunt Xerena?” A dark-haired young nobleman with an aquiline nose who was clad in fine silks with a steel saber at his side was there, along with a bald man in robes clutching an obsidian orb. A pair of thuggish half-giants and two of the house guards accompanied them. “You!” He laughed. “The very ones my aunt was after! The ones who killed my brother Dahak in the desert! I am Abaddon of House Haxtes and I will deliver your carcasses to Aunt Xerena!”

“Yeah, we've heard that before,” Gurthmore rumbled, “and killed everyone who said it. That makes you next!” Abaddon sputtered, drew his saber, and sprang at the heroes. He slashed at Arshaka, who met the nobleman's lunge with a solid punch to the nose.

“You dare lay hands on me!” He shouted as Gurthmore circled him and slashed with his axe. The noble barely evaded the stroke, returning three of his own as his footwork carried him back into the hall. “Hold them here!” He yelled to the guards, “I will bring reinforcements!” The bald man turned out to be an adept of the Way, though the heroes' mental defenses proved strong enough to withstand his power. Gurthmore meanwhile had slammed into the half-giants and the guards, staggering them as Jin dashed through the opening to engage the fleeing Abaddon. Sark, Chuka-Tet, and Arshaka followed them out into the halls as one of the guards fell back and opened another door.

“Get out here! Invaders are in the house!” But the time he took to call reinforcements left him open, and he was soon cut down. Sark and Arshaka unleashed their magic on their foes, causing the half-giants and the guards to freeze. The orc mage stunned the adept with a word as Arshaka distracted them, allowing Gurthmore and Jin to cut them down. Jin caught up to Abaddon, narrowly avoiding the noble's blade before placing him under a spell. The dominated noble helped cut down the adept before falling to the heroes' blades.

But the battle was far from over. Chuka-Tet glanced into the door the guard had opened. Beyond he had heard the sounds of butchery, and the smell of dead flesh and rot almost overwhelmed him. He saw nothing but horror. A massive ogre with a leather hood wielding a huge steel cleaver was dismembering a body as a pair of large men in simple loincloths hauled discarded parts towards a large pit in the center of the room. Both of them moved with an odd, stiff gait and their bodies were covered in stitched scars, as if they had been cut apart and sewn back together. Two bloated jhakars with heavy bronze chains and collars were positioned to either side of the pit, gobbling up what bits of flesh fell their way. A large, hollow statue of iron lined with spikes sat in a nearby corner, and dried stains around its base suggested a sinister function. Feeble cries reached the thri-kreen druid's antennae, and he could see a handful of human prisoners in cells with hardwood bars on the far end of the vast room. Worst of all was the horrid, four-armed humanoid in stained robes standing over another table on the far side, madly cutting and stitching body parts to a writhing figure strapped to the wooden surface. It had four bone knives with obsidian edges and used hooks on the bronze chains wrapped about it to stitch as it whistled and hooted a cacophony of tuneless sounds. It looked up and what must pass for a chilling, toothy smile crossed its face. “Ah, more flesh to work on. The lady is kind!”

A vicious melee ensued as the ogre made its way into the all. It traded blows with Gurthmore, though the mul gladiator held fast. Jin and Arshaka vanished, reappearing in the room, and the pale-skinned warlock kicked over a table covered with alchemical and necromantic supplies, catching the four-armed demon-spawn in a fierce explosion. One of the shambling, stitched men entered the hall while the other engaged Chuka-Tet. The druid's spinning staff sent one of the jhakars into the pit at the center of the room, while the other pounced on him. Sark blasted lightning at their foes, sending them staggering back, as Gurthmore and Jin felled the ogre. Arshaka's song sent the demon-spawn stumbling forward into the pit, and the wounded fiend opted to retreat out one of the narrow waste drains. With their foes defeated, the heroes caught their second wind and prepared to confront the dark lady in her private sanctum. They opened the doors at the far end of the hall and stepped into an ancient cavern.

Flickering red flames from a massive stone brazier set before a pyramidal stone platform topped by a squat, stained, toad-like statue cast eerie illumination over the vast cavern before them. A sinister-looking pool of inky black liquid sat in the center of the cavern, before the brazier, and it was lined by crude altars fashioned from broken stalagmites. Parts of the ancient cavern had been worked but the rest was smooth, as if the tread of countless thousands of feet had worn down the stone over countless thousands of years. Vile-looking mushrooms clung to bare rock in places, and the crumbling bones of ancient sacrifices still littered the floor.

Two tareks clad in armor fashioned from braxat carapaces stood near the stone brazier, their eyes blazing with demonic fire. A pale-skinned, dark-haired, coldly beautiful woman wearing diaphanous emerald silks and gold ornaments was near the stone platform speaking with a well-dressed male tiefling whose horns had been decorated with gold foil. Both turned as you enter. The tiefling had a sardonic look on his face, while the woman's contorted with cold fury.

Lady Xerena was not amused. The heroes would either have to apologize or just kill her.

“You!” Lady Xerena sneered. “Do you really think breaking into my home surprises me? You have done it before after all, though with far more charm and wit. Now you come in as assassins, seeking to murder me? Fools! You have only delivered yourself into my hands. While I would take great pleasure in your demise, I will take greater joy in turning your broken bodies and souls over to the Shadow King.”

Toranda smiled, “Friends, I do not wish to intrude, but this matter could simply be resolved if you simply agree to surrender. I am certain the lady of House Haxtes would be willing to lend me guards enough to ensure your safe arrival at the Naggaramakam. The Shadow King could use such powerful servants. What say you?”

“I say it's time for you to die, defiler!” Jin shouted and his icy blade appeared in his hand. He and Gurthmore charged across the cavern, evading the tareks and Lady Xerena as they went after the traitorous tiefling. Xerena would not have this however, and as Toranda barely dodged their furious blows, chains of infernal fire wrapped around the barbarian and the warlock. Toranda vanished into shadow and was gone.

“You will have a chance to change your mind, friend Jin!”

But Xerena was not compelled to show any restraint. “Servants, come” At her command, winged, demonic shadows rose from the inky pool. They swarmed Sark and Arshaka, and one poured into the orc mage, possessing him. Chuka-Tet found himself slashed at by one of the tareks' burning swords, as the other engaged Gurthmore. Xerena was sent staggering back by Arshaka's words, and fell prone next to the pool. Enraged, she turned her magic on Gurthmore, turning the gladiator into her infernal puppet. He struggled with her control, and fought back with strokes of his enchanted axe. Jin unleashed his eldritch bolts on the shadow demons, tearing them apart, even as Sark expelled the one possessing him. The tareks fell, giving their lives to protect their mistress, until only Xerena was left.

She was almost more than the heroes could handle. She vanished in shadow and numbing cold, unleashing bolts of hellfire on the heroes. Her command of shadow and fear were unmatched, and it took everything Chuka-Tet and Arshaka could muster to keep them all alive. Sark had tapped into the demonic power inherent in the squat, toad-like statue and unleashed torrents of power on the dark lady. Gurthmore and Jin were caught in darkness, about to die, when Chuka-Tet sprang on her from behind. Channeling all of his primal power into his staff, he drove it through her back like a spear, killing the head of House Haxtes.

Nearly collapsing from exhaustion, the wounded heroes did not even have a moment to catch their breaths. Without warning, the great cavern began to shake. An unearthly laugh echoed from all around them, and the pool of black liquid at the center of the ancient temple started to bubble over, flooding the place at an alarming rate. Scrambling up onto the stone platforms, they saw that Xerena's body had risen into the air. Her form convulsed as inky clouds of shadow poured from bloodless wounds, destroying what was left of her finery, cloaking her in darkness. Her eyes snapped open, and they were hollow voids revealing only blackness. Shadowy tendrils extended from her back like wings, and she alighted on the black liquid. It seemed as solid as obsidian to her. Xerena pointed an inky, claw-like finger towards the wounded companions.

“Death is not the end for me. It is only the gate through which I step to be reborn! I now see what life blinded me to! I live as part of the darkness...and the darkness lives as part of me. I am the Child of Dark, and I will rise and claim my throne. You? You will now die!”

Bracing themselves for a battle that would no doubt be their last, the heroes were surprised when a sudden boom echoed through the cave as the doors flew open A dozen armored half-giants carrying obsidian-edged halberds entered. They were escorting three figures – Toranda, a half-elf woman in diaphanous black silks that you recognize as High Consort Djena, and none other than the Shadow King himself. The goliath guards moved in and formed a half-circle about the heroes. “Stay there, my friends,” Toranda said with a grim smile. “I would not want to see you...hurt. That would be not be fortunate. And you are, you know, fortunate indeed. After all, you are about to witness the birth of a new age. And as I recall, one of you has also received the Shadow King's blessings.”

Gurthmore had raised his axe, a defiant snarl on his lips even as Jin readied his blade. But with a mere gesture from the Shadow King, the tattoos on the mul's broad back animated, becoming chains composed of pure darkness. In an instant, the heroes were restrained. He remembered accepting the sorcerer-king's blessing after the battle of Altaruk, and cursed inwardly. As the tiefling spoke Djena paused by the guards, a look of fierce exultation on her face. “My lord! It is as you had foreseen!”

“What is this?” The Child of Dark hissed. “You come to challenge me? I have grown far more powerful than even you could have ever suspected, Shadow King! Do you think I was blind to your machinations? Even you will kneel before me!”

Wordlessly Nibenay moves toward the creature that was once Xerena, and as he did his form blurred and changed. He grew to nearly twice the height of a man and his head, neck, and limbs elongated. His features became like those of a drake, and his skin darkened into purple, reptilian hide. His hands and feet became claws and a long, spiny tail sprouted behind him. He was still clad in his night-black toga and gold jewels, which appeared to have grown in size along with the sorcerer-king. He became a blur of motion and acted almost faster than the eye could see. Wordlessly he plunged the talons of one massive hand into the Child of Dark's chest, ripping forth her heart, before even she could react. Soundlessly she fell, darkness spilling forth. The Child of Dark's corpse lay there, the shadows that still clung to her form now formed a shroud.

He looks like this but he still has, what, a few hundred wives? You wish you had that kind of mojo.

“Yes! Yes! The prophecy was true! Xerena was the Child of Dark! And now,” he reaches down and tore the darkness away from the body, which writhed and twisted into a crown or diadem that the sorcerer-king placed atop his head, “I claim that mantle!” He stood and the darkness blazed about his snake-like head like a halo. “All hail Nibenay the Shadow King, Child of Dark, and savior of Athas!” With a tremendous roar the black liquid drained from the cavern and back into the small pool.

“No!” Gurthmore shouted, and with an act of supreme defiance he sundered the chains of shadow with all his strength. The rest could see horrible scars burn into his back as a result of tearing the magic free from himself. As he staggered, Chuka-Tet grabbed him.

“Run!” He clicked, and the others did not argue. They ran up the back stairs, the new Child of Dark's laughter echoing behind them. Fighting their way past what guards remained, they ran out the front gates and to the Serpent Tower. Down the winding structure they ran, Gurthmore staggering but alive.

“When I can no longer stand long enough slay,” he growled through swings of his axe as he hewed down the janissaries foolish enough to block their path, “it's time to die!” They made the base of the tower and ran towards the gates, where a cart was waiting.

“Inside! Quickly!” Nemeia and Callides were waiting, and with luck on their side they managed to slip out the gates along with a group of woodcutters headed to the Crescent Forest ere the alarm could reach the guards posted there.

They were alive. One enemy was dead. But now a far worse one had risen in her place...
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Fortress of Bones Part 12: Out of the Arena and in to House Haxtes
The heroes' flight from the arena continued as they ran down the steps to the labyrinth beneath. The remaining janissaries and the last goliath guard were all hot on their heels. “Run, I will slow them down for a moment!” Jin laughed with reckless abandon, and the pale-skinned warlock vanished. The rest made their way into the tunnels and saw the path split in twain. Arshaka was there waiting for them, and the obsidian bard said, “I have prepared a way out for us! We must first get past the gate ahead.” He pointed down one corridor where they saw a wooden platform with a lever in front of it. The other had a large, closed gate. Before it there were four large men in heavy hide armor wielding pole-arms ending in open crescents set with inward-pointing blades. They were attempting to wrangle a three-headed, winged beast with features like that of a drake, a goat, and a lion, and they swore as the heroes came charging down the steps. To the other side, they saw one of Nibenay's templar brides accompanied by several janissaries armed with spears enter from a door atop the wooden platform.

Arshaka telepathically shouted “Hold the line here! Let them come to us!” His song caused several of the janissaries to stumble forward in a heap, falling on their own spears. The way to the lever that, no doubt, opened the gates was clear. Chuka-Tet took advantage of the opening and charged the wooden platform.

“I'll open the gate! The rest of you draw them in!” The thri-kreen druid buzzed as he slammed the lever down, unlocking the gate, and smashed part of the platform. Gurthmore was right behind him, and with a mighty blow from his axe, the mul barbarian collapsed the platform sending the templar and the janissaries to the floor in a heap. They rose, and the mul batted aside their spears as Chuka-Tet moved back. The templar bride unleashed a bolt of darkness at him, a curse on her lips.

Meanwhile Rokkon, Arshaka, and Sark held the line. The orc mage unleashed fearsome phantasms on the beast handlers and the chimera, slowing them for a moment. As the rest ran forward, Stonedarr slashed away at them with his axes and sent them flying back towards the enraged beast, which tore into them with its fangs, claws, and horns. Two of the beast handlers goaded the creature forward and commanded it to attack. Its drake head spewed burning venom even as the rest gored, bit, and tore at anything that moved. More janissaries ran down the stairs behind the heroes, slashing away at Arshaka and Jin. The obsidian bard used his mastery of language and inflection to copy the beast-handlers' commands word-for-word, and goaded the chimera into attacking the soldiers of Nibenay! With the chimera distracted, the heroes surrounded the beast and cut it down in short order. The rest of the beast-handlers were cut down and the janissaries fell to Chuka-Tet's primal magic as the templar fled to gather reinforcements. But by then it was too late, and the heroes lost them in the maze. Gurthmore broke open several cells and yelled to the gladiators and slaves below, “You are free! Pick up your weapons, fight through all who would stop you, and run for the exit!” Many took the mul champion up on his offer.

Exiting into the Western District, the heroes ran into Nemeia near the gladiators' entrance to the great pit. The tiefling warlock quickly presented them with cloaks and crude disguises, and they simply walked off as part of the confused mob leaving the arena under the janissaries' watchful eyes. Reaching safety in an abandoned potter's shop nearby, the heroes gathered their wits and planned their next course of action. Callides was hurt, but ready to flee the city-state, and Nemeia agreed. But one bit of business had to be taken care of first. “The sending stone I used,” Callides explained, “can be used against the whole of the Veiled Alliance. The Shadow King and his servants can use it to track down the members I have been in contact with, even use magic against them from afar. It must be recovered. From what I know, it still lies within House Haxtes.”

“We have unfinished business with the lady of House Haxtes,” Arshaka communicated. “We can deal with her as well. They will expect us to run, not to go into the estate of our enemy. We should strike now.”

“We need some rest,” Stonedarr countered. “Do we have time?”

“With this,” Nemeia said, “you do.” She presented Arshaka with a scroll that contained an ancient fey spell, one that raised up a tree that opened into a restful space in the Lands Within the Wind. Only an hour had passed, but for the heroes it was as if a day had come and gone. Rested, they decided on a course of action. Nemeia and Callides would wait near the West Gate for no more than three hours while the rest entered House Haxtes' estate. Arshaka used magic and his skills as a performer to disguise himself as none other than Djena, High Consort in charge of the Temple of King's Law, while the rest were disguised as janissaries or, in Stonedarr's case, a goliath guard of the king. Sark used his spells to call forth giant vultures, as he did long ago on the plains of the Crimson Savannah, and cloak them in clouds and shadow. They flew forth, over the Serpent Tower, to land on the upper balconies of House Haxtes' estate in the Cliffside District.

A pair of surprised guards stammered out a fearful welcome as the now-disguised bard strode forth majestically from the back of a giant vulture and commanded, “Take me to Lady Xerena – now!” The guards called up one of their captains, who nervously explained that the head of House Haxtes had not returned from the arena yet. The heroes would be escorted to a salon below to await the lady of the house. Dismissing the slaves left to serve them, the heroes hit on a plan. As the sending stone was not here but, as the captain of the guard explained, held below in the lady's private sanctum they would have to descend the Cliffside estate to reach the dungeons below. Arshaka remembered them well from last time, and knew they would have to somehow get past the guards, slaves, and lesser members of the noble house before Xerena returned. Climbing down the outside balcony to one more than sixty feet below, the heroes slipped back inside the estate. Using a combination of brazenness and bullying, they pushed their way past all until they reached the entrance to the lower levels. Quietly making their way down the stairs, they discovered something they had missed their first time through – a secret door at the end of the stairwell!

“This must be the way,” Arshaka surmised. With more luck and muscle than skill, Gurthmore managed to pry the hidden lock open and slide the stone door back. Creeping down the steps, the heroes reached what must have been the estate's cistern or reservoir. The chamber itself was roughly circular and more than sixty feet across. A narrow wooden bridge led from the cramped entry to what appeared to be an arched door and a spiral stair beyond. Wood-and-rope mechanisms on either side of the far ledge were doubtless used to carry water up to the estate proper. As they crossed the bridge, Chuka-Tet and Arshaka saw numerous, tiny, bat-like reptiles clinging to the ceiling some thirty feet overhead. It wasn't until the halfway point that the Thri-Kreen sentinel realized the water was clean, crystal clear, and free of droppings. At that moment, something rippled in the water below. Without warning a massive, translucent worm-like creature with a serpentine hood and multiple, grasping tentacles lunged out of the pool in a spray of water! Screeches and the rustling of hundreds of tiny wings were heard overhead as a swarm of the small, flying reptiles descended.

“A cistern fiend!” Stonedarr yelled. “Beware its tentacles!” Though the creature stayed back, Arshaka's trilling song pulled the fascinated beast forward. That was all the opening Gurthmore needed. The mul slammed his axe into the side of its head, lifting the gelid bulk halfway out of the water to flop onto the bridge ahead. With a word, the bard teleported him to the other side of the cistern fiend. The cistern fiend retaliated with its lashing tentacles and blasts of psychic energy that inflicted horrible pain. Sark blasted the flying reptiles and the monstrous aberrant creature with searing flames, weaving them about his comrades with his mastery of the arcane arts. As hundreds of tiny bodies sizzled and fell into the water below, Chuka-Tet swung about with his staff, knocking more of them out of the air even as he pulled up a wall of water to protect his comrades against the stinging tentacles.

Though the fiend fought back, Gurthmore and Rokkon slashed away with their axes, spilling the gelatinous mass of the creature's organs back into the water. Despite a number of venomous stings and bruises from where the cable-like tentacles had lashed them, and lingering pain from the creature's innate ability with the Way, the heroes were in good shape and pressed forward. Descending the second set of stairs, they entered a long, wide hall dimly lit by a pair of guttering torches. On their left the heroes heard chopping and tearing sounds along with an occasional mad cackle, and a draft of air that carried with it the smell of an abattoir or mortuary. To the right they heard a low, monotonous chanting and caught the whiff of burning flesh and cloying incense. Doors were on either side of the hall, and a set of double doors at the end spoke of something great beyond.

“That must be it,” Arshaka said as he and his companions moved to the door on their right. Sark nodded, adding that the chanting sounded much like a ritual to cast a curse on enemies from afar. Gurthmore barred the other door temporarily with his spare axe, and the heroes burst into the other room.

Obscene chants and vile utterances echoed down the short hall to this large chamber. Down a short flight of stairs the companions saw a huge room. A circle of strange symbols was scribed into the floor and there were several robed figures around it, chanting and dancing in unison. A male tiefling in robes stood on a raised platform on one end of the room, to the left side of the entry, and a robed woman was standing next to him. Two other robed men crouched in alcoves on the opposite end of the room, one trilling an eerie-sounding flute and the other banging a brass gong. Incense smoke hung heavy in the air, and a nude body was bound to an altar atop the platform. Blood was running off into a brass bowl on one side, and hot irons were in brazier on the other.

Gurthmore charged into the room, his axe levying a terrible toll on the cultists. Though the fanatics struck with their obsidian daggers as they fell, the mul gladiator left few standing. Chuka-Tet was beside him in an instant and he and the mul cut down the warlocks with the flute and gong shortly thereafter. Stonedarr engaged the tiefling, who shouted “The Child of Dark returns! She will make you pay for this violation of her temple!” Despite his skill with sorcery and the blade, he proved no match for the goliath ranger. Sark had engaged the defiler witch, and unleashed a phantasm so terrifying she threw down her staff rather than risk what she thought was certain death.

“Lady Xerena's sanctum lies beyond that door,” she said, pointing to a simple door on the other side of the altar. “She will return at any time. Let me live, and I will tell you what you need to know.” Spying the sending stone on the floor in the center of the magic circle, Arshaka grabbed it.

“We have what we came for,” he said “but we have a chance to end the Child of the Dark's evil here and now. I say we take it!” The others agreed, and prepared to move forward...
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Fortress of Bones Part 11: Champions of Nibenay
In the steely, pre-dawn light the heroes were awoken by a familiar figure – Jin, returned from his sojurn to the Lands Within the Wind. “Enjoying a late snooze, I take it? Come, we have work to do, tyrants to overthrow, and a world to save!” With that the rest rose for the day and quickly shared what had transpired. With their plan of action set the heroes made their way to Nibenay's arena, forgoing any disguises. Though the sun was just creeping over the horizon as they arrived, the heroes saw that many of the city-state's citizens were already jostling for entry to the arena.

“Many more will attend the games during the course of the day,” Gurthmore said, “those arriving now – trusted house slaves and the poor – will generally be pushed out of the arena by mid-afternoon as merchants and the like arrive. Entry to the games is always free during the big festivals, though merchants, nobles, and the like can pay for seats on the lower levels, closer to the action. We should not have that problem.” He pushed his way through the line, stopping to offer a brief intimidating comment here and there. “Ever try and get blood off an axe?” He asked a large fellow standing in his way. The fellow quickly moved.

Guards stood near the upper entrance to the arena, shepherding the mob to their seats. The arena itself was a massive pit, more than a hundred feet deep, excavated from the bedrock beneath the city. Terraced ledges were cut into its sides, though the lowest levels were reserved for the nobility of Nibenay alone. One of the guards spoke in a bored tone as the heroes approached, no doubt repeating his words for the hundredth time. “Make your way in an orderly fashion. Seats are free for all.”

“What about for competitors?” Gurthmore asked brusquely, towering over the startled guard.

“Uh, the competitors have already been decided. The noble houses and merchants have paid to have their stables fight. Even some big names from other city-states have arrived. I'm afraid there's no...” he stopped as another, wide-eyed guard grabbed his shoulder and whispered in his ear after forcing his way over through the mob. The first guard's eyes went wide as well. “Ah, just a moment.” He ran off, and returned no more than a moment later with one of Nibenay's templars. The woman cast a shrewd eye on the large mul, and nodded.

“That is Gurthmore the Executioner, fool!” She snapped. “He is an arena champion. He and his team are welcome to compete in the games. Escort them to the entrance for gladiators.” The guard complied, and though the heroes were suspicious at the ease of their entrance, they followed.

“No doubt the Shadow King expected our arrival,” Arshaka whispered to the rest in their minds. “This could be a trap. Or perhaps an opportunity. I will separate myself from you and hide in the crowd. If the time comes, I will provide you with a way out.” With that his image wavered and changed, and he appeared to be no more than another merchant making his way to his seat for the spectacle. The rest were led to the readying chambers in the labyrinth beneath the arena after descending a long series of stairs. They were introduced to a stocky, one-eyed, white-haired human slave named Zanto. Gurthmore could tell that he had been a gladiator in his day, and allowed the gruff old man to help them get ready.

As Gurthmore had been named as a champion before, he and his so-named team were seeded higher in the matches and would not fight until the afternoon. Jin took the time to scout the arena, speaking with the slaves and attendants working to prepare the matches. He learned they would be facing a team from Raam to the north, a tiefling gladiator of some renown and his hand-picked team. An exhibition match against a pair of two-headed giants would follow, then perhaps another match against a seasoned team from Nibenay...provided they survived their exhibition match, of course. The winner would go on to face Abaraxas, said to be the greatest champion in Nibenay's history, brought back out of retirement by the Shadow King himself. Gurthmore had made his way through the barracks as well, talking with the gladiators who survived the opening matches, learning more about who they would face. He also saw the giants being led into the arena by a mysterious gith clad in hooded robes, and heard tell of a three-headed beast the other team would face, one with the heads of a kirre, a drake, and a goat. Stonedarr attempted to learn the layout of the arena in order to prepare for a hasty exit later on, only to become lost. The others managed to find him in time for their first match however, and soon found themselves headed into the arena.

The roar of the crowd echoed off the stone walls of the great pit that formed Nibenay's arena, drowning out the sounds of the city beyond. The cloying scents of blood and sweat hung heavy in the hot air. As they stepped out on to the sand of the arena floor the heat of the sun pounded down on them like a hammer. The crowd roared again as the doors on the far side of the arena opened. A team of tiefling gladiators clad in the armor and linen kilts of Raam, armed with wicked-looking khopeshes, and flanked by a par of enormous slate-colored hounds with large, pointed ears and eyes blazing with fire entered and moved towards the center of the arena.

As the heroes moved forward, a group of slaves carried out large ceramic jars, spilling a thick trail of salt behind them, forming a crude ring at the center of the arena floor. Salt landed on one slave's arm and he screamed, his flesh searing, and one of the others quickly grabbed him and dragged him off to the tunnels below. The rest carefully placed the large jars, leaving the heroes and the other combatants in the center of the ring. Djena, High Consort of the Temple of the King's Law and mistress of the games, stepped out on to the balcony of the king's box and spoke. “Let this next match between these brave souls and the cursed warriors led by the diabolic Volkanth of Raam begin!” The crowd roared again, hungry for blood.

A fierce contest followed. The tiefling gladiators danced around the ring to the command of their leader, Volkanth, champion of Raam. The great hounds tore at the heroes with slavering jaws and spat flames, and the champion himself blasted them with fire and shadow as he slashed away with his double-bladed obsidian sword. But in the end they proved little match for the companions. Gurthmore and Rokkon tore into them with their axes as Jin vanished and appeared seemingly at will, stabbing exposed backs and flanks with his icy blade. Sark moved around the ring, blasting his enemies with fire and lightning. Chuka-Tet stood in the center, his staff a whirling implement of destruction. The last of the tieflings was disarmed and he fell to his knees, asking for quarter. After a glance at the crowd and the nod of the High Consort, Gurthmore offered none and struck the devil's head off with one blow of his axe.

The heroes were escorted from the ring back to the chambers below the arena to rest while the next match got underway. A slave arrived shortly after the match, carrying a small box. “Compliments of my master, Giovvo of House Shom. He won a considerable sum betting on you, and would like to give you these. He also offer ten thousand coins worth of credit at his emporium in the Sages' District.” There were two fruits in the polished hardwood box, and Chuka-Tet realized they were enchanted with healing magic. Before long though, they were ready to head back into battle.

Cheers greeted them as they stepped out on to the arena floor. On the far side they could see a pair of two-headed giants with leathery gray skin armed with spiked clubs lumber forth. A single gith clad in a leather harness moved behind them, as if the giants were on an invisible leash. Disturbingly, the gith had a second, vestigial head sprouting from his neck and his gait indicated his limbs are malformed. The heroes noticed that a pair of thirty foot deep pits had opened in the arena floor. Djena, the High Consort in charge of the games, spoke again. “And now, for the pleasure of his majesty, the Shadow King, an exhibition. Should this group of gladiators prove victorious where the blood of others has stained the sands, they will go on to face the greatest champion in Nibenay's history – Abraxas!”

Battle was joined and the heroes charged the monstrous, two-headed giants with axe, staff, and icy blade in hand. The mutant gith stood firm as the ettins stumbled about, bashing at the heroes with their spiked clubs. More pits opened as the match progressed, dropping in a sudden rush of sand. The heroes nimbly avoided them, though Chuka-Tet took a mighty blow from one ettin and was knocked head-over-forelimbs into one of the pits. He staggered to his feet however, and quickly rejoined the battle after Jin used the bond they shared to rouse him. Though the gith blasted at their minds Jin used a lost treasure they had found, a tiny black bead that exploded into a globe of force, to imprison him for a moment. The gith blasted the sphere apart, only to find himself surrounded. Though he lashed their minds, the gith quickly fell to their massed blades. The ettins were felled as well, for despite their size and strength, they proved no match for the faster gladiators. With the match finished, the heroes were allowed to rest. They quickly found out their competition did not survive their match against the three-headed beast, and that they would face the champion of all champions for the greatest of prizes – a favor from Nibenay himself.

The very walls of the arena shook with the thundering roar of the crowd. As they stepped out onto the arena floor they saw all of the spectators save the Shadow King himself were on their feet. High Consort Djena stepped forward on the balcony of her liege's box once more, her voice audible even over the shouts of the mob. “This is the final match of the Festival of the New Moons! Here we have brave heroes, champions one and all, ready to stand and face the greatest warrior ever to set foot in the arena of Nibenay! Abraxas, the breaker of wills! The winner receives the largess of the Shadow King himself! Let the match begin!” The doors on the far side of the arena opened and a powerfully-built man clad in armor crafted from the shell of a braxat emerged. The gladiator carried a steel sword in one hand and a whip studded with shards of obsidian in the other. He drove a small mob of feral humanoids on rawhide leashes ahead of him with his whip. His helm hid his face but his eyes blazed with controlled fury. Gurthmore had learned that he did not slay all his foes, but rather chose to break their minds, turning them into savage beasts in human form driven forward by his will alone.

“Gurthmore Spikefist,” he growled at the mul barbarian, “I have heard of you. I will take pleasure in making you no more than a beast.”

“Just try,” Gurthmore countered. “My axe says otherwise!” With a roar, the battle began. Rokkon danced around the frenzied, broken thralls of the gladiator, knocking one prone, before engaging Abraxas. He took a slash across the face from an obsidian-edged whip, but his axes struck home and drove the champion back. Gurthmore was right behind him, but Abraxas had already slashed at the goliath ranger and driven him back into a nasty surprise. A stone post covered with whirling obsidian blades had sprung up near one column, and Rokkon had stumbled into it. He unleashed a barrage of mental bolts that nearly blistered the air, staggering the thri-kreen druid and the orc wizard. Jin vanished and appeared near the champion, but the gladiator moved as if he could see the pale-skinned warlock, dodging his thrust handily. Chuka-Tet stayed back, composing his wits, as Sark blasted Abraxas and his thralls with ice and flame. The battle became a game of slash and parry, thrust and dodge, whip-crack and axe-blow as Abraxas and the axe wielding barbarian and ranger maneuvered around the arena floor. Jin and Chuka-Tet put his thralls down, mercifully, until at last Abraxas stood alone. Despite their wounds, the mul and the half-giant rallied, driving him back against the arena wall, until at last Stonedarr finished him with a flurry of slashes. Abraxas laughed as the last took his head. It was over. They had won.

Dusk had fallen and the heroes were escorted back to the torch-lit arena floor by several of Nibenay's janissaries. The Shadow King rose from his onyx-inlaid, throne-like chair and strode majestically to the balcony overlooking the arena. He was as tall as a half-giant and the oiled ringlets of his beard and hair cascaded over the night-black silks he wore. His eyes were pools of shadow and the black diamonds on his tall crown glittered coldly under the torchlight. His voice was at once a sibilant whisper and a bass roar. “You stand triumphant. Ral and Guthay have hidden their faces in awe of your prowess. The world lies in shadow. Champions, name your boon.”

Gurthmore rose his axe and spoke. “I want to strike the head from the traitor, Callides, with my axe! I am loyal to Nibenay, and would see his head roll!” Smiling coldly, the sorcerer-king assented. A stone platform rose from the arena floor via hidden mechanisms, and slaves brought out a set of wooden stairs. A small group of janissaries escorted Callides to the execution platform, and one of Nibenay's shadow brides walked behind, flanked by a pair of armored half-giants carrying obsidian bladed halberds. Callides was forced to his knees, and Gurthmore stood over him, axe at the ready.

“I regret nothing,” Callides spat, “except for freeing you from your chains in the arena, mul! Let us finish this!”

Gurthmore laughed as he hefted his axe – and swung it full into Nibenay's templar, driving her back into her half-giant guards with a horrid gash in her side. Chuka-Tet conjured a wind that swept Callides off the platform and into his arms. “Any regrets now?” Gurthmore asked, laughing as carnage ensued. The rest of the heroes were ready, and blades struck home as Sark rained ice down on the steps, slowing the soldiers of the Shadow King.

The templar cast a spell that attempted to imprison them in her shadow, but the wound had thrown off her concentration. Jin appeared next to her and plunged his icy blade through her heart. He yelled “First Tyr, now Nibenay! Down with the tyrant! Down with the Shadow King!” Driving their foes back, the heroes dashed into the entrance to the labyrinth tunnels beneath the arena. Arrows rained down from the stands, and the janissaries gave chase. The heroes would either find a way out or perish, there was no going back now...
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