Those who Delve in the Dark
Ishlan cried out triumphantly in the gloom and held up an ancient tome unearthed from over a century of debris. Xacksmith held his torch closer to the opening in the floor the priest of Ibis was rummaging through, when he heard movement coming from a nearby tear in the earth. In the same moment, 10 yards away Grimnir bellowed a battle shout which thunderously echoed in the fallen temple beneath the sands. Tullweim spun pantherishly at the Aesir shaman’s alarm and witnessed Grimnir and his wolf, surrounded in the dim torchlight by shambling horrors dressed in the decrepit tatters of men. The northern soldier was held fast from aiding his friend by skeletal arms which rose from one of the open maws snaking throughout the hidden temple’s floor. Xacksmith swore, shoved the lit torch into Ishlan’s already full hands, and drew his arming sword.
The Hyrkanian borderer tumbled past emerging arms, drew his large shield as he stood, and shoved his blade through the gullet of one of the horrors. Grimnir slashed his war sword across the gut of one of the risen dead as his wolf drug another down to the broken temple floor. The Aesir barbarian swung his two-handed greatsword in his crimson mist, like a pendulum of devastation, lopping off arms of bone, and kicked the still moving carcass back into the darkened abyss. But for every shambling terror which was stilled, 4 more rose from the cracked earth’s crust to threaten all who lived. Grimnir was quickly surrounded by groping shapes who yearned to add him to their army of corpses. The Aesir shaman bellowed again and struck one of the denizens of the dark, shearing bone from raked flesh. But those horrors which surrounded Grimnir struck in retaliation, bony caresses of death and hatred lacerated the northman’s hide. The shaman’s wolf was also in dire straits as the risen dead the beast had brought to the ground grappled the wolf. And with 5 unliving terrors assaulting it, Grimnir’s wolf let out an agonized, dying yelp, pulling long strands of withered flesh in its teeth from one of the creatures as another delivered it a mortal blow.
Grimnir cried out in fury and grief as he lashed out at all around, uncaring of any risk to himself. Xacksmith tumbled as close to the shaman as he could and swung his blade, calling for his friend to come to him. Tullweim flung his sword to and fro, but could not thin the advancing horde, as Ishlan cowered with his back to the wall behind the Aesir. The towering Nordheimer took waves of gashes from the groping arms of the dead but held. The priest of Ibis cried out in pain as he was slammed into the broken wall by another of the undead beasts which emerged from the ground. Tullweim called for his sword brothers to fall onto him. If nothing else the fighting men would have their backs to the wall and at least one direction would be free from assault. Xacksmith cleared the way to Grimnir and had to pull the shaman back to Tullweim as Grimnir bellowed his anguish and swung again and again at the horrors surrounding him. Finally, the 3 warriors were pressed tight against the wall. All possible exits were closed in by the ranks of the unliving. The warriors panted heavily as their swords flashed in the torchlight and their enemy approached, in seemingly endless waves.
None of the adventurers could tell how long they held the encroaching dark at bay. They could not advance through the host and knew their arms would eventually give to tiredness. With the thoughts of a last stand plaguing their minds, the 3 fighting men were resigned to their fate, but would take as many horrors screaming back to hell with them as they could. As the risen pressed again a barbarous cry was heard from the secret door into the temple. Though even Xacksmith’s cat-like eyes could not pierce the shroud of darkness, the Hyrkanian knew the shout well. Cuana could not witness the specifics of the peril his friends were in, but he could see them in the torch light Ishlan held, and knew it was there he must go. Flashing eyes from the creatures in the dark threatened the Cimmerian. Several times Cuana was struck by cold, unyielding hands as he ran, drawing blood as the barbarian’s flesh was scored, threatening to overwhelm his resolve and send him fleeing in panic. Instead, Cuana went into a fighting madness and fell into the mass of unholy fiends, cutting an arcing swath before him.
Cuana roared as he struck, over and over, again and again. The risen dead fell before the Cimmerian’s blade and his trapped companions surged forth from the wall. From all directions the fiends came, wave after wave, clutching, grabbing, their putrid claws seeking out flesh, grasping at weapons, trying to wrench them from the adventurer’s hands as they kept coming, inexorably, their strength lying in their overwhelming numbers. Ishlan cried out in pain as he was struck another nasty blow, staggering him and threatening to plunge the room into utter blackness as the torch wavered in his grasp. The Hyrkanian shouted, urging the party to fall into a formation where they could fight their way back to the room’s entrance while protecting the priest of Ibis and all he carried. The men-at-arms took up the task immediately, the two Nordheimers leading the way, with Xacksmith and Cuana covering their retreat.
As blades ripped through one shambling abomination after another, releasing nauseating clouds of dust, more would take their place, moaning, and scraping their way across the dusty floor. Inch by inch, the party fought their way across the chamber. Tullweim pushed through the horrors while Cuana waded among them, cleaving into five at a time, over and over. The creatures fell, more took their place, and then those fell too. The adventurers were bleeding from a score of wounds where taloned hands had raked flesh, scoring multiple gashes from which rivulets of blood ran freely down battered limbs. Finally, the party was able to gain the doorway and escaped the chamber. One at a time, back into the room of gaseous fumes and flickering torchlight the adventurers fled. Once inside, Xacksmith closed the door, the pounding and scratching from the other side a clear indication that the undead had not yet given up their onslaught.
The party pressed up the stairway, past the questioning workers, and back into the the blessed sunlight. Shouting for aid in their task and working for the next hour, the adventurers pushed the surrounding rubble back into the stairway, preventing the fiends from reaching the surface. Staggering back toward the encampment, the party rested for a few moments. Grimnir and Xacksmith staunched some of the more grievous wounds suffered and the rest of the day was spent catching up on recent events and introductions. Tullweim and Xacksmith were glad to have their Cimmerian ally with them again and Cuana felt as if he was back where he belonged. Grimnir was in a sullen mood full of melancholy and sang a dirge for his fallen companion. After the Cimmerian barbarian was caught up on what the party was doing in the ruins of Kaetta in Shem and the Aesir shaman’s pained heart was cooled, the camp was readied for nightfall.
Later that night, Ishlan jumped with excitement from his reading through of the recovered books. “I have found a passage relating to the missing artifact of Ibis! The Staff of Ibis is mentioned within this ancient text!” The Nemedian’s demeanor quickly changes from excitement to sadness. “But…woe be unto me! The tale tells of the staff being stolen by an ancient Stygian lord who called himself, ‘Hepthnon.’ But perhaps our time has not been ill spent. I know of ruins by the same name, which lay just across the River Styx, not more than three days travel from Kaetta. But that may as well be on the other side of the world for followers of Ibis such as myself. If we were found in Stygia we would be unspeakably tortured at the hands of the priests of Set. Though you have already done much for my cause, may I charge you with this most important task? To cross into Stygia, uncover the ruins of Hepthnon and return with the Staff of Ibis?”
The party was reluctant to further their dealings in the wastes as they were hired only to return Ishlan to Messantia. Sensing the unease in the adventurers, the priest brought forth a brown bag and poured its contents unto the floor. The bag contained several uncut opals which glittered in the firelight. Ishlan informed the party he’d planned to take the sack back to Nemedia for the temple coffers; however, he believed the Staff of Ibis to be worth far more and would be willing to trade the bag of gems for its return. Xacksmith quickly appraised the gems and nodded approvingly. Tullweim agreed to the priest’s task and Ishlan called on his men to gather 7 days of food and water for he insisted the adventurers leave with the dawn. The priest of Ibis told the party that on the morrow they should follow the lost road out of the southern part of the city into the desert wastes.