A dozen adventurers gathered in the Hall of the Unicorn, the temple to Mielikki, Nature goddess, in Elventree. Loreena Stormwind looked around at the others without being obvious. There were paladins and a cleric in shiny armour from a holy Order, there were also the famous Heroes of HIllsfar – including Cundall the folk hero that many knew; Marie the famous wizard that some called “Beholder Slayer”; Zelda, the tall athletic elf with the wondrous bow called Shadowsong; and the fierce halfling named Minimus, ex gladiator of the Hillsfar arena who was said to inspire fear in anyone who faced him in combat. There were also a few others – like her – that were not well known at all. These included a strong looking human male in armour and shield, a dwarf cleric of Torm, an unusual choice of deity for a dwarf; and an oriental looking woman in lacquered armour and a long, curved blade. The expression on her face was impassive although Loreena thought she detected a faint edge of bitterness.
‘She looks like she just bit a lemon,’ Loreena thought, ‘and is trying to hide it’.
Loreena did not know why the Lords’ Alliance faction, to which she belonged, had called her to Elventree; only that it was of great importance and utmost secrecy. Facing them was a small group of people that were known as the Moonsea Emergency Council. Among its members were a couple of female elves; a female gnome; a human male; a male drow who was obviously a spellcaster of some type; a couple of half orcs in polished armour; a dwarf Loreena knew to be Dornal Whitebeard – the senior Lords’ Alliance agent in the Moonsea region; and a hooded figure.
One of the half-orcs – a cleric in plate armour – stepped forward to address the assembly.
“I’m Dargol-Rend, Battle Chaplain of Tempus and Vindicator of the Order of the Gauntlet. We’ve received news from our…uh..allies… that agents of the demon lord Graz’zt are abroad. As we speak, they’re preparing a blood ritual to feed their Dark Prince. We’re going to stop them.”
The robed figure stepped into the torchlight. He had the bearing of the fey, though a hood hid his face. He removed his hood and everyone could see he was drow, older than the other on the council, but straight of back and a fierce determination in his eyes.
“In the Abyss,” the older drow said, "they called them the Crimson Trinity. Their corruption has swept through the Underdark to consume my home, Szith Morcane. Tomorrow, two arena battles will occur: one here in Hillsfar, the other deep below, in the colosseum of Maerimydra. The Crimson Trinity is behind them both. They plan to sacrifice all who die to the demon lord.
“I am Solom Ned’razak. I am indebted to some of you already, and to those of you to whom I am not, I will be soon. I ask for your help to win back Szith Morcane and destroy the Crimson Trinity.”
Dargol held up his hand to silence the sudden outbreak of murmuring, some of it excited, some grumbling about helping the drow.
“Enough! We’re going to smuggle some of you into the two arenas as bait. If you can hold out, it’ll keep the Crimson Trinity divided between Hillsfar and Maerimydra. That’ll give the rest of you a chance to hit their leader in Szith Morcane, and shatter the ritual. Questions?”
Once questions were answered the group were divided up. The team of paladins and the cleric of the holy Order – Loreena was not sure which it was – would be going to the Maerimydra colosseum to ensure the incubus Oromoth did not make it back to Szith Morcane to help with the ritual. The Heroes of Hillsfar were to travel to Szith Morcane and disrupt the ritual which would convert the deaths in the arena and colosseum into power for Graz’zt and kill Vehloc, the leader of the Crimson Trinity, and it seemed that herself, the oriental woman, the strong looking man and the dwarf cleric of Torm, were to be smuggled into the Hillsfar arena to delay or kill the incubus Gheriot, the last member of the Crimson Trinity.
Dargol-Rend, the cleric of Tempus, came over to their group. Loreena knew of the half orc – one of the few non-humans allowed to stay in Hillsfar because he fought in the arena frequently. ‘And because he is popular and forceful,’ Loreena thought.
The half orc spoke to them, much more softly than when he had been addressing the entire group.
“Well met. I know you all, or know of you at least. Let me tell you what you need to know. Gheriot – incubus and member of the Crimson Trinity – has been appointed Master of Ceremonies to infiltrate the First Lord’s court. The gladitorial games scheduled for three days hence have been advertised far and wide and have drawn crowds from across the Moonsea. The games will reenact the downfall of the “Red Tide”, an armada of notorious Moonsea pirates. Gheriot has flooded the arena for the event. A host of vagabonds, criminals, and non-human slaves face trial by combat, facing professional gladiators, many of them affected by the madness of the land. Before the games begin, you will be smuggled in to assist the side that are expected to lose – the Red Tide. I am to fight alongside you. If we can hold out, we’ll delay Gheriot in Hillsfar. This will give the Heroes of Hillsfar a better chance to stop the blood ritual and hopefully kill Vehloc. If we get the chance we must slay Gheriot."
The half orc gestured to a the gnome, who walked over quietly. Loreena knew her to be Seranolla the Whisperer, the senior member of the Emerald Enclave faction.
“Well,” she said quietly, in fact so quiet they had to strain to hear her, “there is another task we must ask of you. The elves of Cormanthor recently petitioned First Lord Torin Netheral to repeal the law that outlaws non-humans from his city. His response was to hurl their envoy into the arena. Arias Goldthorn is the Emerald Enclave’s chief contact in the Elven Court, and we want him back alive. He shouldn’t be difficult to find. Oak here,” she patted the tall, strong man on the arm, “knows what he looks like.”
Oak nodded and turned his steel grey eyes to the rest of the group.
“I am Oak,” he said, “member of the Emerald Enclave.”
Loreena saw this as the time for introductions. “I am Loreena Stormwind, archer and citizen of Hillsfar, member of the Lords’ Alliance.”
“Thain Grimthorn,” said the dwarf, “priest of Torm and member of the Order of the Gauntlet.”
All eyes turned to the oriental woman.
“Sakura,” she said, simply and returned her lips to a thin line. Her accent made her name sound like a curse. If she was a faction member Loreena had no idea which one. ‘Probably Zhentarim,’ she thought, which would explain why she did not want to state her faction. The Zhentarim would not be well regarded in this company, although she knew that at least one of the Moonsea Emergency Council would be a Zhentarim member.
Soon the four of them accompanied Dargon-Rend onto a cart Dargol-Rend calls your company forward. You fasten your weapons and gear, and clamber onboard a convoy of ox-carts and began the two day journey to Hillsfar. On arrival in the pre-dawn early morning they were waved through the gates by the Red Plume guards after a small pouch of coins had changed hands. Slowly, the carts trundled through darkened streets to the arena. Arena guards waved the convoy inside the slave pens. Before the slave masters could question their new arrivals, the wagon drivers cut them down with crossbow fire. They dragged the corpses out of sight, and pulled on their uniforms.
Dargol-Rend ushered the party of four into the slave pens, where they were stared at by dwarves, drow, elves, halflings and humans, some obviously suffering from the demon madness. Inside, flooded passages led to the arena gates. Dargol-Rend pointed to an armada of warships moored up in the passages.
“All aboard! Dawn comes, and the crowd soon bays for blood. By Tempus, let it not be ours!”
The party chose a boat at random and boarded it. Dargol-Rend handed Loreena a smooth stone with runes engraved on it.
“This is a sending stone,” he said. “We can communicate through it, as I will need to be on the flagship,” – he pointed to a larger boat with two sails. “Remember, where possible you are not to kill anyone, as this will just feed the ritual. Bash them unconscious if you can, but only kill if you must.”
Loreena was sure she heard a faint, disapproving sniff from Sakura.
“We will, Battle Chaplain,” said Loreena.
There was a couple of hours wait while the slaves were released and assigned to boats. While their boat had a single sail, a deck under the maindeck held eight slaves who would row. Sakura was to attend the helm and call down orders to the oarsmen, Loreena was to be the leader, and Thain and Oak would operate the large ballista on the forecastle deck. The weapon had five thick shafted bolts each of which had a wedge shaped iron head to split the sides of the enemy ships. There was also provision to set the ballista bolt aflame before firing it, so that the enemy ship had a chance of catching fire.
The worst part was the waiting. However within a couple more hours the sound of the spectators was loud enough to be heard. Then drums thundered as the gates ground upward. Sunlight sparkled on the arena’s flooded surface, and spectators thronged the grandstands. In the royal box, an obese nobleman rose to address the crowd. With a sweep of his arm, the Master of Ceremonies gestured to five rafts decked out as fortresses. On each, a band of gladiators guarded a fluttering pennant.
“Behold the cities of the Moonsea!” Gheriot said, his voice amplified by magic. “It is the tenth century, and our neighbors quake beneath the onslaught of a foreign armada. Citizens of Hillsfar, I give you… the pirates of the Red Tide!”
Lorrena could feel the roar of hatred that washed over them from the crowd. On one of the platforms, a trebuchet cranked into readiness.
“Only one city could muster the ships to defy them,” continued Gheriot. “Only one navy had the skill to defeat them. Beloved citizens, I give you… the glorious armada of Hillsfar!”
Gates opened on the far side of the arena, and a fleet of warships emerged into the sunlight. The fight was on!