The Oasis of Manithlal
Tullweim took a long drink from his water bag and wiped the seemingly endless stream of sweat from his brow. The Aesir could not fathom how anybody could live as the nomads do in the desert wastes of Shem. From the looks of Grimnir, the fellow Asgardian who traveled with them, and his wolf, Tullweim was not alone in these thoughts. But mounted on his horse in a sea of desert with no other signs of life as far as he could gaze, there was little else to do. Xacksmith chuckled at the sight of the two sun baked northmen, though even he frowned at how light his supply of water felt. The Hyrkanian asked how Tullweim always seemed to get him into a situation like this. The Aesir answered that he had not forced Xacksmith’s hand to ready his mount when they left Argos. But the barbarian could not help but remember the events which had sent the three of them into these badlands. It started with a farewell to a friend Tullweim would have died for, followed by the separation of a long-time ally he no longer trusted.
The Aesir remembered the day clearly. It had only taken few weeks for the riches and women given for saving Argos’ king to feel trite and transitory. Cuana had left the group, saying he could no longer stomach Dhak’s vile company. Tullweim was nursing an aching crown owed to one last night of drinking with his Cimmerian friend, when a servant informed him of a visitor. The Argossean man presented to him was not what the Aesir was expecting. The man introduced himself as Saevio, a follower of Ibis, and wished to hire the adventurers. Tullweim told the Argossean he would rouse his companions, or what was left of them. Grimnir and Xacksmith came out of their quarters looking similarly in pain from a night of revelry. Dhak, however, remained in his chambers. Tullweim didn’t have the will to force the Stygian to hear whatever Saevio had to say and told the Argossean to speak his matter anyhow.
Saevio told of a priest of Ibis, Ishlan, who had traveled into the deserts of Shem seeking the lost city of Kaetta. The city was an abandoned ruin for 150 years and legend had it the people of Kaetta had incurred the wrath of the immortals. Others claimed Stygian sorcerers were enraged at a Mitran temple so close to their ‘holy’ land. Whatever the case, the great city was destroyed and the people with it. Merchant and caravan routes were changed over time to avoid the cursed city and it was there Ishlan braved to uncover a sacred relic of his god. But Saevio fretted for his friend’s safety as he traveled so close to the River Styx and offered the adventurers a large sum of gems and silver to find and protect Ishlan. All who heard the Argossean’s tale were interested, whether by a lust for adventure or the rewards offered. The three agreed and Tullweim said Dhak would accompany them as well. Saevio thanked them and left to allow the adventurers time to prepare for travel.
Later the same day, Grimnir, Tullweim and Xacksmith were ready to leave the city of Messantia but Dhak had still not risen from his chambers. Tullweim pounded on the Stygian’s door but no answer came. When the Aesir opened the door he found all of Dhak’s items gone and the room laid bare, save a note. It read, “It is time our paths part,” signed, Dhakometri. Xacksmith, ran back into the house the adventurers had borrowed from a thankful noble when he heard furniture breaking. After the Aesir was calmed down and the Hyrkanian was informed of Dhak’s leaving, they both agreed they should convince Cuana to rejoin them. However, this was a pitiless endeavor as the Cimmerian had not said where he was going and seemed to not want to be found. Tracking Cuana down keeping the diminished party from their own task was also on their minds. They left word with the servant to send Cuana to Saevio if the young Argossean saw him, and traveled for a month on horse back into the merciless wastes.
The party’s mood was full of melancholy enhanced by their parched throats and weathered skin. Tullweim cursed Xacksmith for being right about not being able to wear metal armor in the desert, but thanked the gods for the lighter load his leather armor gave. After several days of hard riding across the savannahs of Shem and the desert bordering the River Styx, the adventurers saw a scattering of trees. As they kicked their mounts closer to the haven they could see the remains of ancient outbuildings and way shelters, half covered by the desert sands. Between the shimmering waves of swelter, several white tents were seen and the braying of camels heard. The adventurers dismounted and led their horses to the oasis when 4 men, armed with scimitars and spears, stepped from behind the trees. All of the men were dressed in desert robes and kaftans, and appeared to be of Shemitish descent.
The largest man advanced and spoke in Shemitish, which only Xacksmith understood. The man introduced himself as Barouz, a trader from Shushan and told of he and his son’s caravan being waylaid by bandits. They were forced to flee into the desert to avoid being murdered. Barouz then said the gods smiled on he and his sons as he recalled the old tales his father had spoke of. Of an oasis near the dead city of Kaetta which they risked the burning deserts in hopes the stories were true. The Shemite continued, saying they’d been at the oasis for the last 6 days and were planning on leaving soon. Barouz welcomed the adventurers into his camp as long as they meant he and his sons no ill. Xacksmith relayed all he was told and Tullweim nodded his head, and told the Hyrkanian to say, the only thing he cared to do at the moment was drink the water and lay in the shade, but they would gladly escort Barouz back to Shushan after they’d finished their business. Barouz responded with a large smile and exaggerated salutation and told his sons to lead the party’s horses to the cool water.
As the day ebbed on, Tullweim and Xacksmith basked in the oasis lazily. Grimnir went to an isolated spot and wove sorcerous arts to know all which lived around him. He sensed only himself, his friends, the traders, and various natural flora and fauna in the desert. While the shaman continued his ritual the others noticed peculiar things about the camp. Not seeing Barouz, nor his sons when Grimnir returned, the Aesir and Hyrkanian signaled the shaman to meet on the far side of the oasis from the camp. When they felt hidden, Xacksmith spoke of his belief Barouz’s camp was more permanent than just 6 days. Tullweim nodded in agreement and spoke of the foul odor which occasionally blew through the camp with the desert breezes. All 3 men had smelled the pungence but none knew the source. They decided to confront Barouz about these oddities, but when they returned to the camp in the last rays of the sun they found no one else there. No fire was lit and the trader’s camels were still harnessed to trees. Tullweim and Xacksmith searched as they could in the dwindling light while Grimnir lit a fire. As the sun set and the lengthy shadows crept across the desert dunes, the only human tracks found around the camp were from when the party had first entered the oasis. Several animal prints seemed to leave the oasis but those were ignored by the adventurers as they could not belong to a man. It seemed as if the desert sands themselves swallowed any track or trace of the Shemite and his sons.
Unknowing what became of their host, the adventurers cooked a meal from Barouz’s wares beneath a waxing moon. Xacksmith took a torch into the Shemite’s tent and thoroughly searched for anything unusual, but found naught but clothes and personal affects. With their bellies full and nothing left to do the party divided the night into watches with Xacksmith at the first, then Tullweim, then Grimnir. When his watch ended, the Hyrkanian roused the Aesir barbarian out of Barouz’s tent then went to one of the other tents to sleep. Tullweim put on his armor and stoically watched the fire with his greatsword across his lap. It was at the midnight hour the Aesir noticed the gleam of red eyes in the faint illumination beyond the fire’s light. He rose and called out an alarm as 4 hyenas charged snarling. The hyenas bit Tullweim’s legs and drug him to the ground. The barbarian’s sword swings were clumsy while prone and he could not land a hit on the largest hyena which seemed to laugh at his attempts. Tullweim cried out in agony from the snapping jaws which ripped and tore at his flesh. Grimnir and Xacksmith arose and quickly gathered their weapons.
The Aesir shaman charged with his war sword and ordered his wolf to attack. The wolf bit one of the smaller hyenas but could not bring it down. Grimnir swung at the largest feral beast but it dodged his every blow. Xacksmith entered the fray with his arming sword and shield drawn, striking one of the smaller hyenas. The hyena the Hyrkanian hit turned and clamped its fangs down upon his leg. The beast then yanked the leg from beneath Xacksmith and the thief fell to the ground atop Tullweim. The other hyenas continued to rip at the Aesir barbarian’s struggling form. The Hyrkanian tumbled out of reach of the beasts and Tullweim attempted to rise. The hyenas flashed their snarling maws and each bit once again. But despite his grievous injuries none could bring the Aesir down once more. Grimnir shifted his focus to one of the smaller hyenas and slashed twice. The shaman swore when the downed beast altered into one of Barouz’s sons before his eyes.
Tullweim shouted at the largest hyena, “We have slain one of your sons Barouz. We shall slay you all!” The barbarian swung twice at one of the two smaller hyenas and Xacksmith finished it off, shuddering when it morphed into its human form. Grimnir’s wolf bit into the neck of the remaining son and the shaman delivered a slash which tore the beasts snout from its head. The adventurers then turned to the remaining were-hyena. Tullwein’s legs were unsteady and Barouz slammed into him with a vicious snarl. The were-hyena could not topple the Aesir though and Tullweim responded with an arcing slice which cut deep. The were-hyena bloodily withdrew from the combat and ran out into the dimly illuminated dunes. The barbarian fell to his knees declaring his watch over and Grimnir did what he could to bind Tullweim’s wounds.
The next day, the Aesir barbarian refused to leave his bedroll, saying he needed to recover at least some of his vitality before moving on. Grimnir tended to Tullweim while Xacksmith went out into the desert to uncover the source of the foul smell which still wafted into the oasis. The Hyrkanian traveled to an outcropping of stones about a mile from the camp where he found the source of the strange smell. Many human bodies laid in various states of decay and was obviously Barouz’s storage for whatever travelers he killed. The thief searched the bodies but found nothing but bloody remains and tattered clothes. He knew the trader must have done something with the dead traveler’s belongings and ran back to the oasis. Xacksmith tore into Barouz’s tent again, spending an hour searching. Finally, the Hyrkanian uncovered a strongbox buried under the tent floor. Xacksmith examined the lockbox and saw a poison needle trap built into the receptacles’ lid. The thief disabled the trap then put his picks to the lock. A satisfying click was heard and the box opened revealing a collection of valuables and trinkets. 155 gold pieces of various mints, 246 silver pieces, 2 jeweled talismans of ancient Zamoran design covered in spider images, 3 gold necklaces, 22 semi-precious stones, 3 rare stones, 2 jeweled daggers with gold scabbards, a dark blue robe made of Khitain silk, a set of thieves tools made in Arenjun, and one onyx prayer statue of Derketo.
The Dead City of Kaetta
After 2 days of rest Tullweim was well enough to travel. The road was struck again and the ascent up to the dead city of Kaetta was free of trouble. A large ruined city was seen in the distance. Very few buildings still stood and most appeared to be hollow shells of brick and mortar which creaked and moaned in the wind. A broken, cobblestone path is all that remained of the city’s main thoroughfare. As the adventurers moved through the winding city streets, they all noticed that many of the alleyways and paths were pitted with cracks and holes. Grimnir guessed the entire plateau was unstable and possibly hollow. Xacksmith noticed a small wisp of smoke coming from a partially intact two-story building near the heart of the city. As they approached the building, several men armed with crossbows came out of hiding and shouted, “stand where you are and make no quick move or you shall be slain!” A tanned, 6-foot tall, middle-aged man, who appeared to be of Nemedian blood with a shaven head and no facial hair, moved forward and asked in Shemitish, “What do you in the dead city of Kaetta and by whose order do you it?”
Tullweim responded in Nemedian and spoke of the adventurers mission. The middle-aged man smiled at the Aesir’s words and opened his arms in welcome. “Lower your weapons. Our blessed god, Ibis, has sent us aid through my ally Saevio! I am Ishlan, servant of Ibis and seeker of what is lost. Come into our camp, my friends, humble that it may be, and slake the thirst and dusts of travel.” The party followed Ishlan as their horses were taken by some of the priest’s men. Water was passed and the Nemedian related the tale of how he came to be in Kaetta. He told of the long journey from Numalia to the merciless deserts of Shem. The harried riding through the heat, the parched lips with little in the way to abate them, the bandits who chased them from haven to haven was expected and prepared for as well as could be.
Ishlan’s voice took on an ominous tone, “And then we arrived to the dead city of Kaetta to begin our quest in earnest. Despite the legends, I do not believe this decrepit city was destroyed by gods or some vengeful sorcerers. I declare the city was built upon the remains of an ancient fissure or tear in the earth which had nothing to do with magic but was formed from the aged ground beneath us. Kaetta’s prosperous growth was actually its downfall. And with its fall, too fell the temple of Ibis which tales place in Kaetta over 150 years ago. It is in the temple I’ve risked all to find, to bring back…” An ear-splitting roar interrupted Ishlan’s story, startling the man and the camp followers. The Nemedian immediately jumped up and ran to the nearest window. His men made their way downstairs with their weapons drawn, as a man’s scream was heard from outside, followed by the resounding roar of a lion. The party was not slow to act and beat Ishlan’s men outside. The men gathered around a grisly carcass of what used to be one of the priests followers.
The priest of Ibis said words for his dead follower and told his followers to prepare a burial site. He then turned to the party and said since arriving in the ruins over three weeks ago, their camp had been attacked every three or four days by a lion, though none of Ishlan’s men had seen the beast. Ishlan was sure it was a lion attacking them from its roar and the claw marks on its victims. The camp had been too busy searching and excavating the dead city to hunt the rogue lion down. Tullweim offered himself to hunt the beast with Grimnir and Xacksmith agreeing to do the same. The party set to tracking and traces were found which lead towards the western part of the ruined city. Eventually, the tracks ended at the remains of what was once a tall and ancient tower. The debris, even after a century of decay, remained in a large pile about thirty feet tall to the top, its stones and masonry still showed sharp and clear edges.
The lord of the lair leapt down from the highest part of the pile. It was no lion which roared its hatred at the adventurers but a creature of nightmares and lunacy, with the body of a lion, the wings of a giant bat, and the head of a wild man. Its tail sported several large, sharpened spikes, and stood straight up swaying before the party in a threatening manner. The tail launched 6 spikes with a sound like many darts blown from reeds. 2 sailed through the air at each of the adventurers. Tullweim and Xacksmith were both struck and could feel the venom violating their blood, but both were able to overcome the poisonous filth and all charged. Grimnir advanced with his sword and shield raised and struck the beast a vicious blow. The shaman’s wolf followed suit and bit one of the fiend’s legs. Xacksmith flanked the creature and plunged his arming sword into the monster’s side. Tullweim then brought his greatsword to bear and his blade bit deep. The monster was quickly being overpowered by man’s fury and naked steel and its wings lifted it into the air. All three adventurer’s were able to get a parting shot in before the beast left their reach.
In the air, the manticore flew clumsily and roared, snapping its tail again. Grimnir deflected both spines with his shield and Tullweim’s armor absorbed the puncture meant for his flesh. Xacksmith was struck but fate allowed him to once again ignore the venom. The Hyrkanian pulled out his bow and fired at the creature but missed with both shots. Grimnir and Tullweim sheathed their weapons and scaled the large pile of rubble to reach their foe. The beast fired once more and Xacksmith was again hit. The Hyrkanian grit his teeth and unleashed a volley of arrows at the fiend, this time 1 found purchase in the beast’s hide. Grimnir and Tullweim continued their ascent as the manticore dove towards Xacksmith raking its claws across the Hyrkanian’s back. Tullweim leapt from the rubble and unsheathed his greatsword in the air, bringing it down upon the creatures neck, removing its head and showering Xacksmith in a spray of crimson.
Tullweim planned to take both the body and head back to Ishlan’s camp and it was decided they would mend their wounds there. Xacksmith searched the rubble for anything of value and found a cache of 45 silver pieces, 34 bronze trade pieces, a silvered mirror with gold trim, a broken rod with a gargoyle figurine on top, and a blank journal of elephant hide with 36 vellum pages. The adventurers figured the creature had likely collected the items from past victims and the 2 barbarians lugged the carcass back to the camp. Ishlan and his men were aghast at the site of the creature and he begged the men-at-arms to drag it out of sight. Afterwards, the priest of Ibis opened the last remaining bottle of wine he had carried with him from Nemedia. Ishlan told of how he’d been saving the wine for when the Staff of Ibis was uncovered, but felt the day’s victory deserved it. The party gladly partook of the food and wine offered and the night was filled with lies and songs.
The Lost Temple of Ibis
The next day, Grimnir again wove his arts to learn of all the creatures which inhabited the ruins. He sensed himself, his companions, Ishlan and his men, and various lizards and vermin. He also read the presence of hundreds, nay thousands of something he could not identify. Whatever they were, they did not live, and were gathered in a great multitude beneath the city. On the fourth day after the adventurers arrival, close to the noon hour, Ishlan rushed to the party in a state of great excitement, “Arise…huff…arise my friends! A lost…huff…temple has been uncovered! And beneath it…huff…must be the temple of Ibis. Come, lend me your aid in digging out the ruins.” The party rose and gathered picks and shovels to assist the excavation. 2 laborious days passed when an old staircase was uncovered. Ishlan insisted he be the first to descend the stair into what was once a holy place of Ibis but found resistance from Xacksmith. The priest stressed he must step first and the Hyrkanian compromised, stating he and his fellows would be right behind Ishlan. The priest smiled and said of course the adventurers should join him in this most holiest of moments.
Xacksmith held a torch as the party walked down the darkened stairs. A strange, sulfurous smell assaulted their senses when they neared the bottom. The torchlight revealed a ruined basement and Xacksmith noticed wisps of smoke emanating from cracks in the floor. The Hyrkanian leaned over to investigate the smoke and almost fell over from the miasma which struck him. Tullweim ordered everyone back up the stairs and said he would look about the basement. Ishlan did not wish to leave but relented when Tullweim stated he wasn’t asking. The Aesir searched the room for an hour, but his great fortitude never succumbed to the nauseating vapors. Tullweim cried out in success when he discovered a secret door triggered by one of the torch sconces which opened into another chamber. His companions rushed back into the room and Ishlan called out for equipment to be brought down and for his men to hold their breath while in the first room. Xacksmith said the men should stay at the stairs to ensure no surprise from without and the party would aid Ishlan in the temple.
The temple chamber was large and the walls extended far past the torches light. The room was littered with rock and other debris and several large cracks were seen snaking across the floor. Ishlan immediately ran to a section of the wall, where several wooden shelves could be seen buried under earth and stone. The adventurers moved the largest pieces of debris and the priest gathered several ancient books and tomes in various stages of decay. Ishlan encouraged everyone to continue clearing the rubble in an attempt to salvage as much of the ancient lore they could. Several minutes into their work, Grimnir saw the fiends he sensed days earlier. Creatures which were once men but had died and somehow still moved, crawled out of the crevasses with slow, methodical motions. Despite the horror of the blasphemous creatures, the shaman noticed the dead were dressed in different kinds of clothing and accoutrements from any Shemite he’d seen. He guessed they were the perished citizens of Kaetta and raised his voice in alarm.