In the Shadow of the Mask

Into the Belly of the Beastly Arena

The fireball above Garth’s head twisted and pulled about as the air continued to flow deeper into the cave. The walls were smooth to the touch and grey with small flecks of quarts that glittered in the dim light. It might have been a pleasant sight if they were there for the scenery. Aja lead the group. She knew where she was going. She had been the one that explored the underground tunnels that lead to the old arena. Sparrow had wanted her to stay behind with her dog, but Aja insisted that she was the only one that could lead them through the maze underneath the Crucible. Her dog, still weak from his battle with the Troll, wanted to come, but knew he would just be in the way. Sparrow looked back on the occasion to see his outline waiting at the mouth of the cave until it could no longer be seen. It was for the best or so she thought.

“Why did you come down to a place like this again?” Reaver asked as he twisted his nose in disgust, “Was it really all that important?”

Garth rubbed his nose, “I agree. The air is moist and has a strange smell to it.”

Aja smirked, “I’m an explorer. Places like this thrill me and finding the original arena where Heroes use to test themselves against one another is truly wondrous and important to the history of Albion. As for the smell,” she looked over her shoulder, “it is from the Arena… it’s the smell of old decayed blood.”

“Oh,” Garth rubbed his nose once again.

“No wonder it’s so foul,” Hannah had to agree.

“I don’t smell it,” Reaver shrugged his shoulders.

Sparrow really wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. She was concentrating on what she and the others would be facing very soon. Theresa’s vision said that he would be down here… that he was waiting for them… with John.

She stood there, barely, with the young girl in red holding her up. She looked like she would fall over at any moment. Though she looked weary and tired, she was determined to be there.

“Bring me… into the chamber… the Will of this place is still strong… it will help me,” she slowly walked in.

Hannah gently took Theresa and helped her to the center of the chamber. With every step she seemed to grow stronger. Though the Will of this place had diminished, there still was a pulsing that filled the air and stone.

“I feel it… the Will of the Earth is still very strong here,” Theresa seemed to revive a little as she came to the center of the chamber.

“You should be in bed,” Sparrow came to her side, “You need to rest.”

“I can rest later,” she whispered, “For now, I must tell you of what I have seen…”

Sparrow looked down at the weary blind seer. Like her, Theresa had something to do… something important. She knew that there wasn’t much she could do, but at least she could do this.

“I have seen where Jack is hiding…,” Theresa started to speak, “It is under the earth where blood drips from the top and has soaked through to a field that is already saturated with it… He has gone to a place where he was once celebrated as a Hero…”

“Jack of Blades… a Hero?” Hannah curled her lips in disgust.

“It was a different time my dear,” Theresa half smiled, “But he is there,” she looked up at Sparrow, “A young man with brown hair is with him. He cries out for someone to help him…”

“Who…? Who is with him?” Sparrow questioned.

“I feel a name… John,” Theresa closed her eyes.

“John!” Sparrow’s eyes went wide, “Theresa please! Please tell me where he is! Is he still alive? Is he injured?”

“I do not know,” she shook her head, “My sight is nearly gone and I only see a little. I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help.”

“You’ve done enough already,” Sparrow put her arms around her, “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to protect you from Jack. I should have gone to you first.”

Theresa shook her head, “It would have ended the same. He had me for quite some time. I held him off as long as I could, but he proved to be stronger. But you came and saved me before he consumed me entirely. For that I am grateful to you.”

“Thank you,” Sparrow could feel a tear run down her cheek.

“I hate to interrupt,” Reaver cleared his throat loudly, “But time is ticking away and I grow bored.”

“Reaver!” Hannah hushed him.

“He is right… about the time part,” Garth had to agree, “We need to find Jack and the sword, whichever is may be, and defeat him as soon as possible.”

“Is there nothing else you can tell us?” Sparrow released Theresa.

She shook her head, “I’m afraid not. My vision is not clear enough.”

“I know where he is,” Aja spoke up.

Everyone looked to her.

“Where?” Sparrow asked.

She smiled, “The bloodiest place in Albion, a place where fresh blood trickles down into the soil and stains it red. It was built upon the place where Heroes were once celebrated and then murdered in fear and envy…”

Reaver snorted, “Please don’t hold us in suspense.”

“The Crucible or,” she started to walk towards the doors, “what lies below its blood soaked arena. The Witchwood Arena… a most fitting place to have a battle…”

The Witchwood Arena… a place where Heroes from all across Albion would come and test their strength against others like themselves. They were cheered and swooned over with every strike and blow. The most celebrated Heroes would be honored with a statue of them.

“It took on a more sinister purpose when the Age of Heroes was starting to fade,” Aja continued her history lesson, “The Heroes had become lazy and self-important. They did very little to improve the world around them and only performed tasks by the highest bidder. The people of Albion grew tired of these Heroes and decided to put an end to it all. Many were killed the night the Guild was burned,” Aja shook her head, “any that survived and were found out were forced to fight in the Arena for their lives. Though… many died no matter what.”

“You mean that they were thrown to the Trolls and Balverines,” Hannah gulped, “and even if they won, they were still killed?”

Aja nodded her head, “Yes. It was a tragic time for the Heroes, but one can’t say that they didn’t deserve it. When a Hero no longer perform task for the good or evil of the world, then they are useless.”

“But what about us?” Hannah came up next to her, “We are Heroes. So some must have survived.”

“Yes. Only those that were able to hide their abilities or didn’t know they had Hero’s blood running through their veins were able to continue the lines,” Aja smiled, “It was actually good for the world… well,” she thought for a moment, “Not the death part or so many dying…”

“Look there,” Sparrow interrupted the conversation, “the tunnel is widening.”

Aja hurried her steps, “Good. We are at the main entrance to the Arena.

“How much farther is it?” Sparrow came up behind her.

“I’ll have to look for my marking from the last time I was down here,” Aja pointed to four tunnels on the opposite of the large carven like room, “Two lead to the Arena. One is a dead end and the last goes out to the beach. I can’t remember off hand which was which.”

“Then let’s go,” Sparrow wanted to run as quickly as she could to the Arena.

“Hold on,” Aja grabbed her shirt, “Patience.”

“Let go,” Sparrow pulled from the old explorer’s grip, “We have to hurry.”

“To our deaths?” Aja snorted, “We have to proceed with caution from now on. Things are unstable from this point,” she looked around, “The Crucible if very heavy and puts a lot of pressure in the walls down here. If we aren’t careful, we could collapse the entire place. So no one do anything stupid,” she warned them.

She was right. There was no point in rushing if they were just going to get themselves killed before they could even reach the Arena. She would have to slow down and be vigilant. Being reckless would bring her no closer to rescuing John or taking on Jack.

They slowly made their way across the great room.

“What are those?” Hannah noticed large figures that seemed to line the room.

“Those,” Aja had a sad look in her eyes, “Are tributes to the great Heroes of the past. They are the statues built in honor of the greatest Arena fighters ever.”

Sparrow glanced over at them. She couldn’t make out any of the finer details, but then again, she really didn’t care. Something caught her eye though. It was a statue towards the end of the room. She seemed drawn by it. She could not feel her feet. It was like she was gliding over the floor towards the statue.

“Sparrow?” Hannah called out, “You okay?”

She didn’t answer as she stopped in front of the alluring statue.

“Figures,” Aja came up behind her.

“What?” Hannah asked.

Aja cleared her throat, “This statue is dedicated to the first and greatest female Hero of the Witchwood Arena, Scarlet Robe,” she turned to Sparrow, “The mother of the Hero of Oakvale and your ancestor.”

“Wow,” Hannah stared at the lifeless statue, “She’s beautiful.”

“I see where you get if from my sweet,” Reaver eyed Sparrow.

She just ignored him. She was too enchanted by the statue of her long dead relative. It was true that she did look a lot like the Hero of old. Long straight hair, a light build and nose that both she and her dead sister shared.

“I… recognize this one,” Garth was looking at a nearby statue.

Sparrow tore herself away from the stone image, “Who is it Garth?”

“Him,” Garth brought up the fireball closer to the statue’s face.

Instead of a face there was a mask made of stone that only had two eye holes and a bump where the nose should go. It was him indeed… Jack. Sparrow curled her lips back in disgust as she looked upon the statue. He looked so noble standing there with his two daggers out stretched and displayed with pride. The air of arrogance was about his lifeless, stone face. She quickly looked away. She could not bear to look at it any longer.

“He shouldn’t be here,” Hannah growled as she tightened the grip on her hammer, “He doesn’t deserve to be amongst these true Heroes. He’s nothing but a,” she raised the heavy weapon above her head, “Lying,” she swung it at the statue’s lags.

“Sister Hannah, don’t!” Aja tried to stop her, but it was too late.

“Cheating,” she swung once again, “Murdering,” again the hammer hit the statue, “No good,” the statue looked like it could take no more, “MONSTER!” that was it.

The statue began to crumble from the mighty blows of the Hero of Strength. Cracks formed and chunks began to fall to the floor. Everyone jumped back as the stone image crumbled to the ground. The only thing that remained in one piece was the stone mask. Hannah, without a thought, brought up her hammer one more time and smashed it to bits.

“Feel better?” Aja growled.

“Yes…,” Hannah rested her hammer on her shoulder, “I do. Did you want a shot?” she looked to Sparrow.

“I’m good,” she kicked some rubble across the room.

“Are you mad?” Reaver looked at her in disbelief, “You could have caused the entire place to come down on top of our heads!”

“Well it didn’t,” Hannah snorted, “Besides, it needed to be done. A… a fiend like Jack doesn’t deserve… Huh?” a small stone fell in front of her.

They all looked up to see that large cracks were starting to form in the ceiling. The creaked and raced along the roof. Small stones started to shower down on them.

“I think we should hurry,” Aja stated the obvious.

“Which tunnel?” Garth looked to each one.

“I don’t know,” she started to run towards them, “I have to find my markers!”

Ducking and weaving out of the way, they made their way towards the tunnels. Aja was just out ahead of them, while Sparrow was just behind her. Garth, Reaver and Hannah were starting to split off from them. The falling rocks seemed to be forming a barrier and dividing the group into two.

“This one!” Aja pointed to the tunnel second to the left, “Everyone head for that one!”

They were almost there. The rocks were falling harder and faster as the ceiling collapsed. Sparrow looked to see where everyone else was. Reaver was close, but still not close enough to the tunnel they were heading to. He seemed to have no problems moving through the falling stones. Garth was just behind him and defecting with his energy swords. Hannah was last, but the falling stones didn’t seem to bother her. They only had to move a little bit closer and they could make it.

BOOM! A huge stone fell between Sparrow and the others.

“No,” she wanted to run towards them, but another boulder size stone fell, forcing her back towards the tunnel.

She covered her face from the cloud of dust that blew into her face. Someone grabbed her by the shirt and pulled her back. The rumbling and crashing continued for a few more moments, until it sounded muffled and far. Slowly, Sparrow opened her eyes, but she could only see light.

“Can you get a light going?” a weak voice asked.

“Aja? Is that you,” Sparrow stood up slowly.

“Yes… but the other’s aren’t here,” Aja sounded worried.

Summoning a fireball, the place was instantly illuminated. The mouth of the tunnel was now blocked by a pile of stone.

“Hannah? Garth? Reaver?” she looked around for them.

“Sparrow…. Sister Aja…?” a small voice seemed too echoed through the rubble.

Sparrow came to the pile, “Hannah? Can you hear me?”

“Barely,” she sounded so far away.

“Is everyone alright?” Aja came up next to her.

“We’re all here,” it was Garth, “We made it to the third a tunnel, but it’s now blocked by stone.”

“I’ll just knock it out of the way,” Hannah exclaimed.

“NO!” Aja yelled, “You could cause further structural damage. We should just head down the tunnels and hope that we meet up. There was about a 70% chance that you’ve ended up in one of the tunnels that heads to the Arena or to the beach.”

“And what if we needed up in the one that’s the dead end,” Reaver didn’t sound to happy, “If it wasn’t for you,” he directed his anger at Hannah, “we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

“It had to be done!” Hannah shouted back, “He is a monster and doesn’t deserve a statue!”

“I see that you’re as hard headed as that hammer of yours,” Reaver snorted, “I also see why they call you Hammer. You’re as stupid as one.”

“Why you!” Hannah yelled.

“Stop it you two!” Aja growled, “Just head down the tunnel and see where you end up. Hopefully it will be with us. Now stop the arguing and let’s keep our heads about us.”

It remained silent for a moment, but Garth broke the quietness.

“We will meet up with you soon,” Garth sighed, “Be safe.”

“We will,” Sparrow called out, “See you soon.”

“Come on,” Aja urged her, “It can’t any worse.”

She only nodded her head in agreement. There was nothing she or the others could do. Both she and Aja hurried down the dark tunnel. Their footsteps echoed and bounced off the walls. It was almost deafening.

“There!” Aja pointed ahead.

The tunnel was starting to widen and a light could be seen. They skidded to a stop at the entrance. They didn’t know what they would be running into. Jack had summoned terrible creatures before to fight for him. He has also just stood alone.

Sparrow directed the fireball just a little bit out ahead of them. The place appeared to be much larger than the room with the statues. Instead of a stone floor, there was red sand. It was musty and the air was stale. A great stone wall encircled the sandy surface. There where strange splattering on the wall. They were red like the sand.

“Is this… the Witchwood Arena?” Sparrow looked up into the empty stands that surrounding the center arena.

“Indeed,” Aja scanned the area.

“Is… Is someone there!?” a timid voice asked meekly.

“Up there,” Aja noticed something on the stone wall across from them.

A figure hung between two posts. His arms were stretched out; chained at the wrist. He wasn’t standing… just hanging limp by the wrists.

“John? John!” Sparrow ran to the figure.

Without even pausing, she jumped up to the hanging figure. Her fireball caught up with her and she was able to see him better.

“John,” she gently cradled his head in her hands.

He opened his eyes. A smiled formed on his face as he looked deep into her eyes. They were still so full of life.

“Hello my dear Lionheart. It has been quite a long time, hasn’t it?” he tried to move his arms, but the shackles jingled as the kept them in one place.

“Not now,” she stroked his face, “We need to get you out of here first.”

“Hurry,” Aja called from below, “He may return at any moment.”

“Right,” Sparrow started to pull at the locks.

“Auntie Aja? Is that you… ouch,” John flinched in pain as she pulled on the chains.

“Sorry,” she apologized, “I’ll try to be gentler.”

John could only smile, “I knew you would come for me. I knew that you would come. The man in the mask said you would be too frightened to come, but I never lost hope…”

“Oh John,” Sparrow smiled.

“How sweet,” a voice echoed in the air.

Aja made a low growling noise, “I’m getting tired of this…”

“Know the feeling,” Sparrow ignored the ominous voice.

The air became thick and a chill ran up everyone’s spine. Sparrow’s fireball seemed to flicker and fade, though she tried to keep it from going out. She felt a heaviness on her chest that made it difficult to breath. She looked to John, who also seemed to be having difficulties breathing. He gritted his teeth, but motioned that he was okay.

“Oh… you’ll never get those chains off with that kind of light,” the voice mocked, “Allow me to illuminate your world.”

The fireball above Sparrow’s head was snuffed out like a candle. It was pitch black for a moment. She wanted to call out to Aja, but she feared that would make her a target by an unseen foe. A glowing ring started to form above them and settled on the upper deck above the ring. Slowly Sparrow’s eyes adjusted and she could finally see the Arena in all of its entirety.

“Amazing…,” a voice whispered in her ear, “So much death took place here…”

She quickly turned around, but only John was there and he looked scared.

“Keep your head about you,” Aja stood calmly in the ring.

“Your death will be a nice addition,” he was behind her.

She tried to react, but everything was moving in slow motion. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw his burning eyes. He had placed his hand on her should and was holding a long dagger. It was pulled back and ready to pierce right through her. She tried to move, but her body was numb.

“I said… I’m getting tired of this!” Jack was suddenly pulled away from her down into the ring.

“Auntie!?” John watched the scene play out.

Aja had taken hold of Jack’s red robe and threw him through the air to the other side of the ring. She landed in a roll, but came out on her feet. Her sword drawn; she was ready for combat.

“Aja!” Sparrow was about to jump down into the ring.

“Stay up there,” she warned.

“I’m not leaving you to fight him again!” Sparrow landed on the shifting sands.

“No,” Aja slowly stood up.

Rotating her arm behind her, she pointed her out stretched hand in Sparrow’s direction. It was like a massive unseen wall hit her. The next thing she knew, she was flying through the air and landing somewhat hard next to where John was being held. Slowly coming to her feet, Sparrow tried to jump down into the ring once more, but this time there was something blocking her.

“Aja!” she banged on the invisible bubble, “Please! I promised Scythe that I would protect you! That I would not let you fight Jack again!”

Aja looked over her shoulder up at her and sighed, “Foolish boy. He can’t protect me forever or expect you to do it in his stead… I will fight,” her voice changed.

“Aja?” Sparrow stepped back in surprise.

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