* * * RUSTY RAPTOR * * *
Captain Blackfeather turned the Rusty Raptor again almost as soon as they left the dungeon. It looked to Bolithico as if he was trying to skirt the dungeon in hopes of avoiding the attention of admiral Hellwing.
Bolithico shook himself free of his stupefaction and started to set up his analyzer on deck. Leemanda watched over his shoulder as he cast the spell.
Lee drew in her breath sharply in shock, while Bolithico paled. What their analyzer was telling them was almost unbelievable. The flow of life energy was staggering. Thousands of sapients must be involved. The only way those numbers could be correct was if—
“Oh Gods! Look—” exclaimed Poliarkos as she pointed at an area of disturbed red tinted ocean to the south west.
“That looks like there’s a major battle going on somewhere under the waves,” rumbled their tank. “I’m even catching the smell of blood,” remarked Fertadacto.
“With your nose that’s not surprising Ferty,” grumbled Polly.
“Gods above and below!” Exclaimed Bolithico as he suddenly looked to the north. He licked suddenly dry lips.
“Did – did the analyzer just jump when Hellwing’s squadron entered the dungeon?” asked Lee staring at Bolithico’s analyzer with wide eyes.
“Yes it did Lee. Which means...” Bolithico trailed off.
“They belong... We have to be extra careful when we contact this dungeon, this goddess rather,” sighed Lee.
“No time like the present,” interjected Polly as she watched one of Hellwing’s airships come racing up to them flashing the standard challenges given to merchant shipping.
They heard Captain Blackfeather bellowing orders, followed by the whistle of escaping steam as the Rusty Raptor let off steam from its straining boiler. Their propellers lost speed and feathered to a stop even as the approaching warship slowed rapidly.
The guild party collected around their leader, they all kept shooting looks at the growing bloodstain to the south west. But mostly they watched the cutter that detached from the sleek warship and headed their way. Bolithico’s eyes narrowed as he made out its crew, they were all beastfolk even the officer.
Captain Blackfeather was visibly taken aback, he kept glancing at the flag flying proudly from the airship behind the boarding party and then back at the approaching uniformed inspection party.
Blackfeather turned to them looking exasperated, “Damn it! ya done told us’ns that they was drow. They aren’t!”
“That is the Balancer’s flag nonetheless. And the Balancer is the lesser drow goddess,” replied Bolithico flatly.
Blackfeather returned his attention to the cutter and watched with reluctant approval as the cat ’folk officer and two sailors jumped down from their cutter.
* * * SHAG’RILAN * * *
Tsomo Ryatem was roused from his gloomy thoughts by his grandson. The young scamp came bursting into his office screaming with excitement. “Granpa come quick! There’s a shiny airship coming over the twins.” Then Sil grabbed his grandfather’s arm and was trying to pull him to the door.
Tsomo smiled almost reluctantly and allowed himself to be led out of the house. The whole story was ridiculous, nothing could come in over the twins. Those two peaks rose to incredible heights and were bitterly cold, not to mention that the air near their peaks was too thin to support life.
But the plaza was filled with people looking up at the twins, and, sure enough a glittering airship was floating majestically over the twins. It was obviously slowing and only wisps of smoke were coming from its twin funnels.
Still holding Sil’s hand Tsomo accompanied the crowd as they made their way to the landing field. ‘I wonder what this means. Who worked out how to fly where the air is too thin to support life? And just how much liftwood does it take to lift that crystal palace of an airship? And how can it have a closed lift chamber?’
The crowd watched silently as the strange airship, the Morning Pride settled onto the landing field. It was the first passenger liner the villagers had seen and it carried more turrets than any warship that had visited them previously. A wide gangplank appeared from a slot under the main entrance and slowly extended itself until it was resting on the ground. The doors withdrew silently into the hull on either side with a subdued hiss revealing two elven guards, and of all people, Lhekshey Oratem.
* * * CONIMBRIGA * * *
Silaana el-Fordoran despaired as she heard the cell door crash open. She curled up around the pain in her stomach. Hiding as best she could in the far corner of the cell and hearing the despairing whimpers of her cellmates.
“You! Red!” barked the voice from her nightmares, “lay hold of her ladyship and come along, the boss wants the two of you.”
She wailed in despair as the burly half-orc seized her by the neck and dragged her towards one of their worst tormentors.
* * *
Mesca Fraamos jerked awake when his cell door crashed open. “Come along you!” snapped the turnkey even as the ill-favoured guard slapped his club into his hand with a sadistic sneer.
Mesca swung his feet to the floor with a muted clang from his manacles. Then he stood half bent to avoid the low roof. Reluctantly he shuffled towards the open door, even this careful movement made his head swim as the failing mage collar he was wearing pulsed with his every movement.
The guard lost patience with his slow movements and slammed his club into his back. “Move scum. The nobs are waiting.”
Mesca jerked and the collar spiked at the sudden movement. The spike of pain dropped Mesca to the floor all but unconscious.
The turnkey looked at the grinning guard with a jaundiced eye. “Look if you want to carry him keep triggering the collar. I’m not touching him till he’s been deloused. And the boss won’t be best pleased iffen you kill one of the only mages we have.”
“They can always buy one. What’s the difference?” sneered the guard.
Shaking his head in disbelief the turnkey snapped back, “This one’s free, a mage slave is expensive and this lot aren’t expected to survive. The boss doesn’t like to waste money. Use your head. Now get him to his feet.”
Mesca felt himself hauled to his feet and stood swaying even as he digested the previous conversation. He felt a mix of despair and hope as he resumed his shuffling progress.
He watched with half-opened eyes as with a clash of steel the gates at the end of the damp tunnel opened and he was led through. This tunnel was much cleaner and they waited as just ahead another gate was opened and another turnkey accompanied by two guards led forth a big red haired half-orc woman who was half carrying a bedraggled girl wearing nothing more than a bloodstained loincloth.
Mesca breathed evenly doing his best to feel nothing as his collar pulsed again. Then he was being shoved into a small bare stone floored room, and his rags were being stripped from him. He heard the big woman complain and the smack of a club hitting flesh.
The next few moments passed him by as his collar objected to the sudden deluge of freezing water that inundated the room. When he woke next he was sitting in a bare wooden room, no he quickly realized, it was the back of a cart. And with him were the two women and three others. They were all naked and shaved bald. He checked himself unbelievingly. He was only left with stubble and a few shaving cuts.
“What... what’s going on?” he asked.
The big grey skinned troll looked at him with pity in his eye. He rubbed one curved rams horn and replied. “We’re the sacrifices to procedure. We are all now members of the adventurer’s guild of Conimbriga. You missed guild master Bartold Kennings swearing us in and keying our lifestones.” The troll made as if to spit in contempt, but realising where they were didn’t.
“We are about to be sealed in the rogue dungeon. They told us our equipment would be waiting for us in the first room. Barty the Ass told us you were our mage and that the key to your collar would be with our gear. Me, I’m supposed to be the tank, a role for which I’m grossly unqualified. You can call me Grey. Lia is supposed to be one of our warriors along with Ax.”
The half-orc woman raised her hand when Grey said Lia as did a dull eyed scarred man to Ax.
“Ana is supposed to be our thief,” Lia added pointing to the curled up girl. “And lastly Fingers is supposed to be our archer.”
A skinny yellowish skinned needle toothed goblin lass grinned at him. “I haven’t ever touched a bow in my life, I’m a fair hand with a pair of daggers and a skilled dip. Not bad at locks and traps. Mind you not bad does not mean I’m good at it.” She shrugged.
Ana uncurled slightly. “I was taken for embezzling. So yes I’m a thief. Just not the right sort,” she said tugging at the silver plated collar that was fastened round her scarred neck.
They fell silent when the wagon jerked to a stop. They watched with trepidation when the door was pulled open. To show they were in a large room. The air smelt acidic which told them they were both indoors and in a building with poor filtering spells. Several iron collared masked soldiers were watching them.
“Come on out. You’ll soon be free.”
The newly minted adventurers slowly filed out of their transport and huddled together under the impassive eyes of the slave-soldiers.
“Right,” barked the sergeant. “Listen up. Your lives will depend on you understanding me.
“One: You will hurry through that door and cross ten yards to the dungeon. I advise you to hold your breath.
“Two: You will enter the dungeon. You will find your gear. You will equip yourselves and explore the Arena of Blood.
“Three: You will not be allowed to leave until one full day has passed. If you are found in the entranceway during that time you will be killed.
“Four: After one day six breathers will be left in the entranceway and you will be allowed to use them. The city will take a fifty percent toll to allow you to pass. You will be handed a free pardon for your services.
“Now move your asses jailbirds. You have five minutes.”
* * *
Mesca shuffled his way into the dungeon, he read the legend above the door with a twisted, resigned amusement.
Strelitzia and Frog invite all and sundry
To visit the Arena of Blood
Welcome to Hell!
It seemed horribly appropriate, but somehow he found the sense of humour it displayed to be somehow heartening. They might have a chance, however slim.
When he rejoined his fellows they were examining a heap of cheap shoddy gear, that is all bar Ana who was dropping a key and hurling her collar against the wall. She looked at him with a grimace and offered him a key. “This one didn’t work on my collar. It should be yours.”
Mesca took the key with a muttered thanks and slipped it into the lock on his collar. It was stiff and rusty but after a bit of a struggle it turned. His collar dropped to the floor as he gloried in having an unshackled mind for the first time in months. He felt the manna flood into the core of his being and he sighed in satisfaction.
He looked in disdain at the blue robe with tacky stars and moons embroidered around the hems and sleeves. He completely ignored the conical hat with “mage” embroidered on it. At least his spell book was present. He hugged it to his chest and then looked through it with relief.
Grey was eying a breastplate and massive two-handed mace. “I’m a priest of Ustraldis. I’m a pretty good healer but I have no warrior training. I guess I can hit things with this mace. I am strong. What about you lot.”
Mesca blinked. Grey didn’t sound like any troll he’d ever heard off. Far too well spoken.
“My lady has blessed me by removing the bloodlust. I regenerate. I can Tank,” offered the still naked Ana. “I won’t need weapons,” she added as she started sprouting fur and bulking up.
Mesca spoke up after donning the cheap robe, “I really am a mage. I specialise in wind spells.”
Lia donned a studded leather hauberk and picked up a shield. She was examining her longsword somewhat dubiously. “I was in the militia at home. I do know how to use this thing.”
Ax had an identical hauberk and shield to Lia’s. However instead of a sword he had a battleaxe. “Was a gladiator. Won the wooden sword. Can fight but not smart.”
After a wary look at Ana Fingers busied herself using the werewolf’s discarded tunic and belt to fashion a sling. “Guess I’m the scout.”