Chapter 2 - The Crucible

Chapter 2 - The Crucible

To your relief, you do wake up the next morning. The night of sleeping did good by you, and the last dredges of the fog have completely vanished. To your surprise, someone managed to come into your room while you were sleeping and managed not to wake you. There’s a flagon of bear and a modest helping of dried meat, wrapped in leather hide, sitting on top of the trunk at the foot of your bed.

Slowly, you scoot to the end of the bed and cross your legs, sitting and feasting on the breakfast. Like many of your memories, you’re uncertain of when you last ate. Your stomach grumbles with hunger. Any thoughts about possibly saving some of the meal for later vanishes when the first piece of heavily seasoned and faintly spicy meat touches your tongue.

You’ve only just finished the last of your meal when the sound of a bell ringing echoes through the hallway. Curious, you creep to your door and use a few fingers to push the curtain aside. Others are doing the same thing.

Falkin is standing at the end of the hallway, holding a metal bell. “This way! This way! Let’s go, my fellows! Let’s go!”

He’s oddly cheerful. Along with the others, you follow him first into the hallway and then into the main room from before. Rather than staying there, Falkin leads you into a different corridor from the main hall. A different rune marks the keystone of this path.

“First, I must know if you are strong enough to help me. Oh no, not experience, or power; that you will gain, but mettle. That is what I must test.” Falkin explains as you walk.

Your gaze seeks out the woman from before, but you’re not able to spot her. There are too many people in the corridor, and the lighting is too dim.

Falkin leads you down what seems like an endless corridor. Sconces of stone holding small flickering flames are spaced evenly down the path on one wall and seem to go on for ever as you peer in to the distance. On the other wall are small alcoves spaced evenly. In each one you see a small plinth supporting an ornately carved figurine of stone. Each one is different and each carved so precisely and so lifelike you can almost see it move.

You recognize most as you progress down the corridor. First a Kobold, then a Humanoid dressed like a bandit. You see Goblins, Skeletons, Zombies and Wolves. On and on the figures go. Under some you see brass plates affixed to the wall, eulogizing comrades that have fallen to these beasts. Finally, you notice a smaller line of alcoves that runs the full length of the wall. Those that are not empty contain more crudely carved and colored figures. Falkin explains, “I am sure that many of you have noticed our markers.”

For the first time since waking up, you’re able to speak. You ask, “what are they?”

“It’s the way of the guild to mark ones progress in the trials,” explains Falkin. “We are not a cruel sort, but we are a sort of traditions. The strong will die. The brave will die. But legends will live on forever. And to legends, we cling too. These are the legends of all those who have joined the Guild.”

It makes you even more uneasy. Is he saying that all of these people have died? Or… are they the victors, and their history has been memorialized? Somehow, you don’t think that he would answer even if you asked.

Falkin stops 20 feet in to the corridor and turns to you. “Yes, yes. This will do. Now choose. If you would like an easy test, I suggest this, for they are few and you are many” Falkin points to a statuette of a Bugbear. “For a challenge.” He steps to the next alcove. “The goblins, for they are many and can easily overwhelm you.” He pauses before revealing the next alcove holding the stature of Ogre. “Only should you truly wish to prove yourself, for this beast can kill in a single hit.” Falkin’s features form a challenging grin “Of course, I do reward those who are prepared to challenge themselves.”

You glance around at your companions for the first time, only two others stand with you. Wait. Weren’t there more people just a moment ago? Or – maybe not. Maybe it had been shadows. Whatever the case, there are only three people with you now.

Before you can order your thought, one of your companions steps forward and seizes the figurine of the goblin. He considers it for a moment and thrusts it in to Falkin's hands.

"The challenge is accepted." Falkin grins, and it shows off all of his teeth. The man who so openly grieved for the fallen Guild is gone. It’s harder to pity the Dwarf now, knowing you are about to face down goblins at his bidding.

You are lead to a set of great wooden doors, each the width of a cart. They open to reveal an impossibly large stone arena with 8 stone pillars in a ring around the center. The walls of the arena rise and disappear in to a ceiling that you can not make out. If you did not know otherwise, you would swear that you were standing under the stars.

Along the walls of the arena you see black scorch marks roughly 4 feet high, and in line with the pillars.

On the walls behind you and to either side of the entrance are great stone wheels embedded in to the walls. Each with eight smaller holes spaced evenly around them. At the far end of the arena you count ten stone goblins in ranks of three in each corner, and four directly in front of you.

The moment you hear the wooden doors close behind you, the goblins begin to shimmer and glow. The dark stone turns to skin before you.

The human that has joined you in the ring wears the clothing of a cleric. He shakes his head. “This is impossible. Why would you pick goblins?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” you tell them. “Look! They’re waking up!”

It’s true. The goblins have fully come to life… but it’s quickly made clear that isn’t your biggest concern. Before the goblins have even reacted to their newfound ability to flex and move, you hear and feel the entire arena shake and move. The great stone wheels in the walls emerge from their frames then turn forty degrees before sinking to sit flush with the walls again.

In the center of the arena you see each of the eight pillars slide in to the stone ground. They halt once fully submerged, before raising again in place. You notice that the ordering of the eight pillars has changed.

Upon reaching their full height, three pillars surged with a magical energy, each pillar ejecting a fiery arrow from its 4 faces. Most arrows slammed harmlessly in to the sides of the arena, adding to the scorching on the walls. Some coming perilously close to you, but not striking you or your party. The goblins were not so lucky. One arrow struck the largest of the goblins directly in the chest causing it to shriek with pain.

Blood flows from the wound, and the goblin scrabbles at its chest before its legs give out. It hits the ground, dead before the battle even truly begins.

“Be careful,” you tell your companions. “I think the arrows are going to be an even bigger threat than the goblins.”

A bright light centered on another three of the pillars starting as a pin prick in the air above and expanding to a sphere almost twenty feet across. This light engulfed two groups of the goblins causing their skin and armor to glow. To your horror one of your party members, caught in the glow of a nearer pillar also begins to emit the same faint glow.

It’s the cleric! Your eyes widen. “Be careful!”

But it’s too late. The two remaining pillars groan and shake, before releasing two balls of energy. They’re small, white things that seem to be made from star glow. They don’t crackle or spark but shoot through the air like fireflies, straight towards your glowing companion and the group of goblins.

The cleric, Luis, staggers backwards trying to get away from it – but there’s no escape from it. The balls slam into them and then vanish, seemingly absorbed by those trapped in the glow.

One of your companions, the halfling, asks, “are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” admits Luis. The glow is still clinging to his skin, but not quite so brightly. The goblins have finally gotten themselves oriented and move forward, striking out with crude swords. One of them is twice as large as the others and carries a massive mace. Every time the wheels make a full turn, there’s a click and the pillars release their weapons.

Three of them shoot out fire arrows to the north, east, south, and west. Those that are captured in the glow produced by three of the other pillars appear to be engulfed in some sort of a tracking spell making them stand out in the fray. The final two pillars produce a blessing aura, which gives anyone caught in it, friend or foe, a greater accuracy with their strikes.

There are nine goblins now and their larger, mace carrying boss. You’re terrified. Have you ever fought before? It doesn’t feel like you have. Still, you’re desperate and not looking to die. You grab the rusted sword from the goblin that was felled by the first wave of arrows and take off swinging. The others move with you, Luis peeling off to one side of the arena and tackling 5 Goblins and the Boss. Uldrich heading in the other direction taking on the other 4 Goblins.

The third player, in Falkin’s game, is named Hawthorn you quickly learn, and he has managed to procure a bow and arrow from somewhere. He shoots with a deadly accuracy. Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk. The arrows lodge themselves into the limbs and trunks of the goblins, piercing deep into their skin.

You move to join Luis, striking out at one of the goblins. There’s a clang as your swords meet and then bounce off each other. “This isn’t working. We need to try something else!”

“I’ve got it! Cover me,” says Luis, moving towards one of the nearby fire pillars.

“Cover you? I can barely cover myself!” All the same, you move to try and keep the five goblins and their boss distracted. Luis, it turns out, has a few tricks up his sleeves. He mutters something under his breath and streaks of gray start to form in the air around him. The wispy fog builds up around Luis like a shield and then, with a sharp wave of his hand, shoots out to cover the arena. The fog is so thick that you can barely see through it.

Krsh! A streak of glowing fire cuts through the fog, sizzling it away! The fireball slams into the chest of a confused goblin and the creature hits the ground screaming. You’re quick to finish it off with the blade of your sword. The fog makes you a little dizzy as well, but it leaves the goblins totally open.

“Good job,” you shout, moving to help Luis try to pick out the goblins while they’re lost in the fog. While you’re at a disadvantage the same way that the goblins are, Luis stands at the very edge of the cloud, waiting for the simple-minded humanoids to stumble out.

Still, it’s not enough. While they’re able to pick off most of the goblins, the fireballs quickly disperse the fog. Still two goblins and the boss remain.

Uldrich says, “we have to end this, now!”

There’s blood staining the front of his tunic, and a deep cut on one of his arms. You’re not in a much better state. A nasty fall that you took earlier left the side of your temple not only bruised but split, and an arrow lodged into the back of one thigh making you wince as you move.

The boss goblin laughs and swings his mace tauntingly.

Hawthorn says, “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t. We can still win this!”

“Damn right we’re going to win this,” bellows Uldrich. Faster than anyone could predict, Uldrich takes off, luring the final enemies in the line of the fire pillars, he skillfully avoided an attack from a goblin that would have otherwise knocked him unconscious or killed him. The wheels start to turn. Ka-thunk! Hawthorn looses an arrow!

It jams itself into the locking mechanism of the wheel, stopping it from turning any further. The pillars click a few times but unable to shift they let loose their burning arrows. The gambit worked. The remaining goblins fall to the ground, dead and sizzling.

Stunned, you say, “we did it.”

Hawthorn rushes over to Uldrich. “You’re a fool! You shouldn’t have done something like that!”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Uldrich counters. “Maybe you should be thanking me!”

The door leading out of the arena slides open. Falkin applauds them and lets them step back into the hallway, where they’re allowed to watch a different group take on the same task… but with a far more grim fate.

Falkin clucks his tongue. “Not everyone is able to fully join the Guild. But you four, I have a good feeling about. Tell me, would you take on another trial? If you manage to beat the Ogre, you’ll be greatly rewarded.”

Hawthorn, Uldrich, and Luis speak among themselves. You decide to let them make the decision – and they agree unanimously. “We will.”

 

Once more, you find yourself in the middle of the arena. Have you ever seen an Ogre before? Honestly, you aren’t certain. The monster that stands before you is a massive thing, with a heavy wooden club. Falkin is right. One hit from this thing is going to be enough to kill any one of you.

And yet the group seems to have no problem with it. Luis takes command of the battle, launching himself towards the center of the arena the moment that the slamming of the wooden gates behind you announces the start of the fight.

Hawthorn notches an arrow. “What are you doing?”

“Trust me,” shouts Luis. He waves his hands through the air. The magic shimmers into being. It’s Sanctuary! The spell forms a shield around him, glittering in the torchlight. “Come on, you ugly oaf. Get over here and strike me down!”

The Ogre roars and charges, but when the beast raises his club to strike – the spell stops him. Each time that he tries to strike out, the magic manages to confound and befuddle him. It sends the Ogre into a true fury. The rest of the companions all but vanish from the Ogre’s thoughts. He is only focused on finding a way to strike Luis down.

It gives Hawthorn a chance to let loose a volley of arrows. Though you are not a particularly good archer, you grab one of the bows from a fallen combatant. Uldrich does the same. Together, you start shooting at the Ogre. It seems unable to feel the arrows. At first, you’re concerned that means the arrows aren’t enough to damage it through its thick hide… but as the blood begins to run down the Ogre’s limbs and its attempts on the Sanctuary sphere grow slower and further apart, you realize that’s not the case.

The Ogre’s blood lust is simply clouding its mind.

It’s only once the Ogre is on death’s door that it seems to realize what has happened. The club slips from its grip, hitting the ground with a heavy thud. It lets out a roar, staggering sideways, and makes to strike out with one massive arm. You barely jump out of the way in time, losing the grip on your bow and tumbling across the arena floor.

You scrabble to grab it up again – but it ends up not mattering. Almost before your fingers have fully curled around the finely polished wood, the Ogre is swaying on its feet. Crash! It hits the ground, the impact shaking the arena so badly that Luis, right beside the Ogre, falls to the ground as well. The Sanctuary shield vanishes as Luis’s focus is interrupted, but it doesn’t matter.

The Ogre is dead.

Out of breath and weary from using so much magic in one go, Luis asks, “did we really do it?”

“I think we did,” says Hawthorn.

Uldrich, determined to know for certain, creeps towards the Ogre. He kicks the monster’s hand with one foot and then leaps backwards. The Ogre doesn’t so much as twitch. A bell rings. The doors that lead out of the arena slide open, revealing Falkin once more.

There’s something almost manic behind the fire in the Dwarf’s eyes. Can you trust him? You aren’t certain. In that moment, trust means very little. You and your companions are exhausted. You stagger out of the arena and back into the hallway. Another group of contestants is crowded around three of the statues, debating on which they will go and fight.

You can’t focus on them. Their features are blurred in the shadows, making it impossible to tell who or what they are. One of them might be the woman with the darkly braided hair, but you aren’t certain.

Falkin clears his throat. “I am thrilled to see that you were able to defeat the Ogre. Many take on that challenge and few succeed… and yet you managed to escape the fight with nary a wound!”

“We want our reward,” says Uldrich, brazenly.

Falkin nods, waving both of his hands at Uldrich. “Yes, yes, and you will get it! But first, you must rest. I can see it, the way that exhaustion tugs at your very souls!” He gestures to a passageway behind him. “This will lead you to your new rooms. You will share a hall. There is food already waiting for you, brave warriors.”

“That’s not what you told us earlier,” argues Uldrich.

Hawthorn puts a hand on Uldrich’s shoulder. “Let it go, Uldrich. Look at Luis. He’s used up too much in that fight. He needs to rest… and so do I.”

For the first time, you notice that Hawthorn’s hands are shaking, and that two of his fingers have seemingly been split open by the bow string he’d been using.

You agree, “we’ll claim our reward later. I don’t think that arguing with Falkin will get us anywhere, anyway.”

“And you would be right about that,” says Falkin, cheerfully. “Go on, then. Eat! Drink! Make merry and rest! You will need your energy in the coming days. Of that, I’m certain!”

It’s ominous. Before Uldrich can continue to try and argue, the Dwarf moves over to the other group of contestants and takes their statue, leading them to the arena… to doom or glory.

Your gaze lingers. It is the woman from before. You hope that she lives.

 

 

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