Several months had passed since the horrors of Stygia were left behind. Ambrose, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith returned to Messantia without incident, receiving their much deserved reward from Saevio. Having already tired of the wonders in the City of Riches they were eager to find adventure which would take them away from the metropolis. The party encountered a one-eyed Argossean, called Kalamos, who needed a ship to carry him, and crates of goods to the southernmost port-city of Kush. Few men would brave the waters of the Black Coast, but Kalamos promised ample riches for the task from a man named Rand Artelios. Artelios was known as an exiled merchant who had fled Argos to make his fortune in Kush. Kalamos told of how Artelios had married into the ruling class of Zabhela and seemed to be paying vast quantities of silver for safely bringing the cargo to the port-city. And so, the party used some of the coin acquired to hire a crew, lifted anchor of the Stygian galley captured from Ankh-Psamtek which they’d re-christened the Crimson Wolf a year prior, and rode the waves for leagues, battling Stygian war galleys and pirate ships through the southern waters of the Western Ocean to Kush.
The adventurers braved the notoriously dangerous waters of the Black Coast and arrived at the bustling seaport docks of Zabhela on a hot, humid day. The streets were packed with dockworkers, foreign merchants, sailors, and slaves. As landfall was made, hagglers, beggars, and hungry children besieged the men disembarking from the ship for food, coin, and sales. Kalamos left the ship for the Upper City, promising to meet the party at a smokey local tavern called, “The Sailor’s Folly,” to deliver the pay from Artelios and arrange for his men to pick up the cargo. A young Kushite child with a pet monkey tugged on Ambrose’s arm, begging for food. Nearby, a tall Stygian slaver and his Puntish bodyguards offered to sell a medly of young women who had all been captured from nameless tribes among the Black Kingdoms. In the distance, a circle of sailors and locals formed around two men who had at last met to settle a blood debt; each man attempting to bleed the other with wickedly curved blades. In the midst of all this, a nearby vessel attempted to load an immense cage, which hung precariously from a block and tackle. Pacing back and forth within the cage were a pair of lions, which moved with nervous fury at their fate. The loading ship hailed from Stygia, where the lions were most likely destined for the gladiatorial pits.
As the adventurers took in the scene and tried not to be separated by the passing throng of bodies from countless nations, the Nemedian glibly scolded the young Kushite beggar to leave him be or risk a cuff to his crown. No sooner had the words left Ambrose’s lips did the scholar’s sharp eyes catch the child’s pet furtively reaching for his coin pouch. The Nemedian grabbed the monkey and forcibly lifted the pilfering primate into the air. Ambrose tossed the screeching creature at the boy and was about to threaten the fledgling thief to leave his sight when the pulley ropes holding the lion’s prison in the air snapped, shattering the cage on the dock. The enraged beasts burst free in a flurry of violence, gutting their nearest captor. The remaining Stygians fled, leaving the lions to assault the terrified crowd. A woman, not more than 18 summers, fell beneath the stampeding mob and sensing easy prey, the feral creatures closed on the helpless doxy.
Cuana and Tullweim wasted not a moment as they barreled into action. The Cimmerian drew his greatsword on the run and brought it down upon 1 of the lion’s flanks with an arcing slice. The Aesir barbarian pulled his great blade from its sheathe and viciously struck twice into the second predator with a leaping charge. Xacksmith drew his Hyrkanian bow and let an arrow fly at the beast the Nordheimer had bled. Ambrose rushed towards the creature Cuana had wounded, slashing the great cat with a finessed flashing of his arming sword. The lion the Aesir battled with clamped its razor-toothed maw on the barbarian’s arm and brought him to the ground with a savage ferocity. The beast Cuana squared off against attempted to do the same, but the Cimmerian dodged the lion’s snapping jaw. Cuana hacked his sword twice into the beast before him, caving in much of the lion’s side. Tullweim struggled desperately against the feline pinning him down, his mighty thews strained to their breaking point to get the furious beast from his throat. As the Aesir kicked the creature away from him, Xacksmith launched 3 bolts in a rapid flurry, all landing deep in the lion’s hide. The Nemedian twirled his blade in his hand bringing the point down upon the beast before him’s neck, silencing its primal rage. Tullweim swung his greatsword devastatingly at the second feral creature and the lion’s head separated from its body in a swath of crimson, rolling off the edge of the dock.
With the dust and panic settling, Tullweim helped the young woman to her feet and took in her form with an appreciative eye. The maiden’s bruised and scratched figure was voluptuous and covered with little more than a silken skirt. Her face held a strikingly beautiful countenance, and all the adventurers found the woman’s presence difficult to ignore. Her sandy brown hair was topped with a silver tiara, around which fell long braids framing a facade colored by Kushite and Stygian features. Ambrose and Xacksmith recognized Argossean traits in the young woman’s bearing as well. After assuring the party she was not severely injured, the woman gratefully thanked the men-at-arms for their bold actions. The Aesir promptly introduced himself with all the titles he had acquired through the years and the woman responded in kind. Her name was Tarethis and she was of the Chaga class, the ruling caste of Kush.
Tarethis offered the adventurers 20 silver as a reward for rescuing her. Tullweim initially refused the coins and declared saving the alluring woman’s life was all he had hoped to achieve in the endeavor. Ambrose and Xacksmith were not as quick to refuse adding more silver to their woefully light pouches and the Hyrkanian gladly took the offered bag. The Nemedian was curious of the woman’s traits and used his introduction to reveal their business in Zabhela, with the delivery of goods to Rand Artelios. Tarethis smiled at Ambrose’s words, told of her being Artelios’ daughter, and promised to put in a good word with her father for them. The woman then gave thanks again and said she still had business to attend to with the Stygian vessel anchored next to the Crimson Wolf. With the fervor of combat over and the exotically resplendent lady leaving them, the party decided to squander their time in the tavern Kalamos was to meet them in.
The Folly of Sailors
As dusk arrived, night in Zabhela proved to be as humid and hot as the day. The adventurers arrived at The Sailor’s Folly, where they looked forward to a night of drinking and revelry with the pay the one-eyed Argossean had promised to retrieve. The tavern was a melting pot of races from across the continent. Gallah girls danced, clothed only in wisps of silk wrapped around their hips, entertaining the Hyborian, Stygian, and Kushite patrons as drums and flutes gave rhythm to the sensuously swaying performers. Many games of dice and mumblety-peg were in progress by the drunken, sweating sailors and traders. A quick glance about the tavern showed no sign of Kalamos, but the night was yet young. Tullweim and Xacksmith decided to try their hand at the games of skill being played after ordering tankards of ale. Ambrose and Cuana sat on the tottering benches at the bar and engaged those who likewise drank and told lies for any rumors or gossip of Zabhela. They were not disappointed after purchasing drinks to loosen the tongues of the sailors and merchants around them.
Even though the Cimmerian spoke to them in Kushite, several of the southern men and Hyborians found Cuana’s barbarous accent difficult to grasp. Still, he was able to glean tales of the priests of Jullah moving through the streets of the Shanty telling of horrible terrors in the night. Ambrose had better luck and was able to learn the clerics of Jullah were once widely respected. After nervous gulps of ale, the men related that of late the priests’ practices had turned to kidnapping and slaughter. Indeed, a local tribal elder named Eshiba was angered, for his son’s twin daughters had been stolen away by the cult of Jullah and his heir died trying to save them. Meanwhile, Tullweim and Xacksmith were losing horribly to the sailors playing mumblety-peg. The local grog had stricken the Hyrkanian so, that his dagger slipped clumsily from his usually steady hand, dashing out an open window into the nearby harbor. Swearing in his native tongue, Xacksmith searched the throng for a mark with a heavy coin purse, but found little among the sailors.
Tullweim noted the night had grown long and Kalamos had still not appeared. As Xacksmith was about to make due with a light purse dangling from a passed out Zingaran, he was pressed by several of the crewmen of the Crimson Wolf. Suspicions had risen among the crew and they spoke of the one-eyed Argossean dogging them out of their promised pay. The Aesir rose from the table he leaned against and was urging patience when a sudden shout from the docks drew the attention of all in the tavern. A ship in the bay was on fire! Every patron of The Sailor’s Folly pushed out to the street and a bucket brigade was quickly formed. The adventurers neared the water and gazed at the Stygian galley anchored next to the Crimson Wolf ablaze. Worse still, as they arrived to the docks heaving cumbersome casks of water, they cleared the buildings which had blocked their view and witnessed in horror as the fire must have jumped from the galley to their own ship!
Both vessels were ultimately lost despite the best efforts of the men, though the bucket brigade prevented other docked vessels from catching fire. Sailors who served aboard the Crimson Wolf were furious and approached their officers, demanding to know if they would get paid and how they were to return to Messantia. With the cargo aboard their ship lost and no sign of Kalamos, there was little the crew could be offered. Other men would have quaked and quailed at the threatening figures, but Tullweim used his natural leadership to remind the crew he had lost far more than they. For he had a contract to deliver goods to Artelios and he had not only lost cargo but his own ship! Ambrose aided the barbarian by assuring the men that in a city such as Zabhela, which was heavy with trade, they would no doubt find a new ship to serve on and return to their homes to the north.
While his companions were dealing with the frustrated crew, Xacksmith noticed a shadowy figure watching the smoldering ships sink beneath the lapping waves. The Hyrkanian used the confusion in the dusk to move like a wraith towards the figure. Indeed, the man had no idea the practiced woodsman and thief was upon him until Xacksmith’s blade was across his throat. The man the Hyrkanian threatened was obviously from the Black Kingdoms and Xacksmith bade him speak his name and what his purpose was. The man pled for his life, stating he was called Anubar and had seen the flames while stumbling home from a brothel. He had come to help, but had arrived too late. Though the Hyrkanian’s naturally suspicious nature screamed at him to make Anubar utter what he wanted to hear, he could not deny the man’s words rang true.
Cuana had seen Xacksmith steal away towards the figure and left to join him as a bulky Kushite approached the group with a message. The large man asked the adventurers to come with him to the estate of Lord Artelios on a matter of great urgency. Tullweim frowned at his companions and said the Argossean likely wanted to know of his cargo. The Kushite offered to guide them to Artelios’ manor. The Aesir just wanted to get his obligation to Artelios over with, when he noticed Cuana and Xacksmith were not among them. Ambrose spotted where the Cimmerian had gone off to and the three men went to the alley where Xacksmith held Anubar. The Hyrkanian archer told his sword-brothers what he suspected of the man, but again the Bamulan denied any wrongdoing. Ambrose and Tullweim believed Anubar’s tale and told Xacksmith to come with them, for they were to meet Artelios. Still chafing from the loss of their ship, the Hyrkanian reluctantly released the Bamulan and followed his companions.
Kalamos’ Bloody End
The Kushite slave led the party through an unusual route, passing through the seedier quarters of the port-city. As ramshackle buildings and flimsy shacks were passed Tullweim asked the slave where they were going, for a noble like Artelios couldn’t possibly reside in the Shanty of Zabhela. The Kushite promised he was taking them through a safe route to the Artelios estate. The adventurers were then led to an obelisk in the heart of the Shanty. The obelisk was one of many ancient artistic remnants of Zabhela and was covered by centuries of cryptic graffiti and etched prayers. The party followed the Gallah to the obelisk square surrounded by 1 and 2 story huts with mud halls and thatched roofs. As the adventurers followed the servant into the plaza they spied a man slumped against the obelisk, struggling to get up.
When the figure saw the men-at-arms, recognition dawned on his face and Kalamos begged piteously for help. It was evident the one-eyed Argossean was near death, a death made certain by a terrible chest wound. Kalamos’ right arm appeared to be shattered and useless, as if a great beast had toyed with him, and blood streamed down his face from a gash on his forehead. “They want us all dead!” he cried. “You must warn all of the sailors, all of them! They came for her, they did! I escaped, but they hunt me even now!” With that, a terrible shriek was heard, as a wave of ferocious warriors, each wearing little but green bands wrapped around their arms, came rushing down each street and alley leading into the plaza. Ambrose returned his adversaries’ battle shout and spilled one of the attacking Gallah’s guts. Xacksmith moved to the alley opposite Ambrose and drove his arming sword through a foe’s gullet. Cuana rushed to Kalamos’ prone figure, unsheathing his greatsword on the move, and readied his blade to strike at any enemy who closed upon him. Tullweim moved towards Ambrose, placing his back to the Nemedian’s.
The men wearing the green armbands closed on the adventurers. One Gallah grappled Ambrose as another brutally pummeled him. Xacksmith was similarly flanked and beaten by the clenched mitts of the men surrounding him. Several opponents engaged Tullweim, though the indomitable Aesir barely noticed the paws which struck him. Cuana was stunned by a surprise strike from the very Gallah who had led the party into Zabhela’s Shanty district. A group of nude men advanced on the northron, their fists flew, jostling the Cimmerian violently between them. Tullweim cut down the man who held Ambrose, allowing the Nemedian to mystically fling the 2 arming swords he carried into the Gallah who pinned Xacksmith. Enraged at the treacherous Kushite, Cuana swung his blade through the servant, then cleaved into the 4 men surrounding him, bringing an end to every one of their miserable lives. As they saw their brothers fall, the nude assailants retreated into the alleys they’d emerged from. Tullweim caught one as he fled and carved the man’s skull to the teeth.
Cuana checked for breath from Kalamos, but the Argossean had succumbed to his many wounds. The Cimmerian saw that the one-eyed corpse clutched a leather parchment in his left hand. The dark-haired barbarian pried the odd scrap from Kalamos’ death grip. Cuana felt the leather was unusually supple and had been well kept in oil, suggesting it had recently been removed from a proper scroll case. The Cimmerian did not understand any of the glyphs carved on the parchment and handed it to Ambrose to decipher. However, neither the Nemedian nor Hyrkanian could glean any meaning from the text as it was scrawled in a language none in the party had ever encountered. The adventurers determined the shapes on the scroll obviously formed a map, though of what location was a mystery. With no other clue to be had at the scene the men-at-arms decided to make haste to Artelios’ compound, spurred on by Kalamos’ dying words.
The adventurers made their way to the Upper City of Zabhela, a walled complex atop an ancient plateau. The tall, defensible embankment and battlements stood between the party and entry into the Chaga’s district, and all the men knew no sentry would allow entry to those without papers from one of the nobles. But the party was surprised to see there were no guards present and the bulwark stood barred. Xacksmith scaled the wall easily and Cuana was ready to follow when Ambrose asked to be carried. The Cimmerian could not help but laugh at the small Nemedian’s request, stating the scholar would not have survived in the bleak hills of the north without being able to conquer a simple enclosure, such as they faced. Cuana then grabbed hold of Ambrose and climbed with ease. Tullweim had the most difficulty reaching the top, as he slipped, slid and made enough noise in his efforts to be heard by all his companions on the other side. Finally, the Aesir found his footing and leapt from the top to join his fellows below.
Artelios’ compound was not difficult to find, as the adventurers recognized his crest on the main gates of the estate, which were wide open when they arrived. A handful of frightened slaves fled out of the manor’s grounds, screaming futile prayers of mercy and forgiveness to something called Jullah. Tullweim stopped one of the slaves and Ambrose ordered him to describe the situation within. The Kushite babbled on and on about how they had been unkind to the great lord Jullah and his kin. The Gallah slave continued on, stating he and his kin must seek obeisance as soon as possible for working in the house of a foreigner. Unable to get any knowledge of use from the panicking man, Tullweim loosed his grip and noted the clamor of violence from within. All found it strange none of the city’s watch had responded to the battle which sounded from the estate. The party made their way into Artelios’ manor grounds entering a resplendent courtyard accommodating a pleasant garden with an elegant fountain sculpture of Mitra. The courtyard was littered with cadavers and a handful of Hyborian guards were locked in battle with double their number of nude Kushite men.
The men-at-arms noticed the house guards moved sluggishly, often missing their targets as if drunk. The adventurers spread out, moving over and through the manicured hedges, towards the large statue of Mitra where they could engage the Gallah assailants and aid the out-numbered guards. Several of the green-armband wearing warriors attacked Cuana and Tullweim as they passed, drawing blood with their ram-like fists. When the Cimmerian reached the Mitran statue, he unleashed hell with scything swings of his greatsword, felling all who approached. Xacksmith unleashed arrows into one of the men assaulting a guard, who gurgled bloodily as he was dropped. Tullweim struck another savagely, removing the Kushite’s right shoulder and arm from his torso. Ambrose finished the last of the nude men off and Tullweim questioned the sole surviving house guard. But his questions were left unanswered as the man was delirious and could not form a coherent sentence.
The adventurers found numerous corpses as they moved into the Argossean merchant’s household, most of them with shattered bones and terrible bruises, but almost all of the victims’ hearts were ripped out. It appeared as if no weapon was used to make the cut and even the bare handed fighters which had been dealt with could not be strong enough to commit the carnage seen. There were a number of carefully barred private residences passed, their occupants cowering within as a couple of guards stood drunkenly to defend any who should attempt to gain entry. Tullweim asked where the guard captain was and the barely standing man disjointedly waved towards the barracks. More Hyborian corpses were found within the guards’ quarters. It appeared the majority of the men laid dead at a dining table, with no sign of violence upon their forms. Poison was suspected to have brought the guards low, though whether from the wine or food on the board was unknown. The sounds of battle spilled from the floor above, and the adventurers made their way up the stair in the hall outside the barracks.
A large colonnaded wing containing a private bath chamber was entered and 6 Gallah Kushites, wearing green armbands, fought with 2 men who did not wear the house guards’ livery. Cuana and Xacksmith recognized one of the men as Anubar and the other bore an uncanny resemblance to the Bamulan. The adventurers engaged the nude warriors and with the numbers even, the armed fighters quickly overtook their foes. Ambrose noted the bath chamber’s window overlooked a beautiful view of the eastern walls of Zabhela, against which the compound was built. The Nemedian removed the grappling hooks which held ropes from the window’s sill with the hopes no more of the deranged men they’d fought would enter the compound through that route. Cuana and Xacksmith asked what Anubar was doing in Rand Artelios’ compound and the Bamulan answered, “we are leaving.” A woman’s scream from further down the hallway prevented the Cimmerian and Hyrkanian from pressing the matter as the four sword-brothers charged down the passage.
The party passed a guard, whose head had been ripped from his shoulders, laying by a shattered door which opened into a wide chamber filled with silken tapestries and the fragrance of incense and perfume that mixed with the odor of blood. But with nobody to fight or save, the adventurers pressed on, following spatterings of blood and strange, claw-like scrape marks which lead down the hall. When they arrived, the men-at-arms gazed into a chamber containing a beautiful but morbid sculpture of Derketa, resting on a seat of human bones while studying a mirror. Around the shrine to the dark goddess was a desperate scene. The last of Artelios’ guards lay slain about the room with shattered bones and their hearts removed from their open chests. A man of Argossean blood was crumpled on the ground and matched the description Kalamos gave of the patron who was to pay for the shipment to Zabhela. He was either unconscious or dead. A dozen cultists stood in awe at a great white ape holding a hysterical young woman the party recognized as the very girl they had rescued from the lions earlier in the day.
The immense ape was poised to leap from a balcony which provided a view outside the city, for that side of the compound was nestled against the outer walls of the Upper City. An older woman with a striking resemblance to the young girl in the great ape’s paws was collapsed on the ground, near the large beast, begging for the girl’s life. “Take me!”’ she pled. “Not my Tarethis, she is so young. No!” With a powerful blow, the beast sent the woman flying and leapt from the balcony with the girl, disappearing down the steep wall into the shadows. The cultists cried in triumph as the tableau exploded into action. The party cried out with murder in their eyes as they stormed past the chamber doors. The captivating statue of the goddess of death seemed to smile as more bodies were added to the heap of skulls at her feet.
Cuana waded deep into the Kushites’ ranks. Several of the nude men landed brutally powerful blows on the Cimmerian with their bare fists as he passed them. One fell before Cuana, the barbarian’s sword protruding from between his shoulder blades as his heart was sliced in two and cleaved into those men who stood around their fallen brother. Tullweim struck the next cultist dead to the floor, his shoulder completely shorn from his body. Several Gallah attempted to grapple the adventurers, with most failing to pin them. Their eyes glazed over as Ambrose and Xacksmith disemboweled them. The room stank of bodies, blood, and guts, firing the adventurers’ rage to a fever pitch. Two more Kushites fell, gasping wet, bloody cries through ruined faces and gaping throats. One of the cultists managed to wrap his arms about the Cimmerian, trying to pin his sword-arm to his side. Cuana broke his grasp and smashed his face, sending the Gallah man staggering into Tullweim’s waiting blade. In just a few moments of breath, the entire horde of naked cultists were slain, their corpses a fitting end in Derketa’s shrine.
As neither Lord nor Lady could be roused, their wounds were tended to as best as the battered adventurers could and the party placed them in their bed chamber. The men-at-arms secured the rest of the estate, locked the gates, divided watch shifts and claimed rooms, which were not too fouled with blood, for themselves to rest the night. They all slept uneasily, with the day’s troubling events playing themselves out in their dreams. The next morning, each adventurer was roused and brought to a study in the south wing of the estate. Inside the chamber was a vast collection of old tomes and scrolls. As the party entered, they appraised a man sitting behind a desk with his chin resting on his left hand and his right hand drumming impatiently upon an untitled book. When the Argossean rose offering a greeting, the adventurers saw he was a tall man with an overly large gut, somewhat muscular frame, mustache and goatee. Though he had long been exiled from Argos, he still wore the emblem of his native country’s royal crown on his breastplate and carried a finely crafted broadsword at his side. Artelios expressed his gratitude to the adventurers and inquired as to who they were and why they had arrived to his home when not even the city watch could be bothered to.
As the men-at-arms introduced themselves, they revealed they had arrived to Zabhela on the Crimson Wolf, to deliver cargo to the noble. Artelios expressed sorrow when he learned the cargo now sat at the bottom of the harbor, but said he would keep the party on retainer for 50 silver each to cover their lost pay and as thanks for their daring arrival. The Lord then questioned the adventurers of Kalamos’ fate and if he had given them a map. Artelios explained it was of great import, may have been the reason for the attack the night before on his compound, and might be necessary to negotiate a ransom for his missing daughter. Cuana sensed the Argossean’s motives were not entirely honest, especially as it seemed his stolen daughter was not his main concern, but Ambrose presented the map readily. The noble offered an additional 50 silver to hand the map over, and after the Nemedian exchanged a look with Xacksmith, he shrugged and placed the leather parchment on Artelios’ desk. The Cimmerian then inquired what was to be done about the merchant’s stolen daughter. The Argossean’s countenance turned dour, emphatically describing that even with the adventurers he only had 7 guards left, not enough to risk a rescue from the cannibalistic cultists of Jullah. The noble shook his head, stating his few remaining resources could not be squandered in a futile attempt to recover his daughter, who was likely already dead.
Cuana was furious at the civilized man’s refusal to bring the fight to his foes and grabbed the noble, lifting him from behind his desk. Artelios’ face turned red in rage as his eyes widened in panic at the massive barbarian. The Argossean said the adventurers were not fit to serve him and ordered them to leave his estate. Though Cuana appeared close to bloodshed, his companions calmed him and they left to the chambers they’d slept in and began gathering their things. While they did this, Lady Artelios had risen and was sobbing at the loss of her daughter. The fury the Chaga woman frothed at her husband was heard throughout the compound as she confronted him behind closed doors. Lord Artelios then stormed from his study and left his estate, muttering something about investigating his loss at the docks. Shortly after Rand Artelios left, and before Tullweim had followed his companions out the front gate, one of the few servants who remained in the household asked the Aesir to meet Lady Erithemes upstairs.
Erithemes, who was badly bruised from her encounter with the great ape, begged and pleaded for Tullweim and his companions to rescue her daughter. She offered 100 silver each in exchange for Tarethis’ return. She also intimated she was suspicious of her husband, for his lack of concern for their daughter had her deeply troubled. “I have sought the guidance of Derketa,” Erithemes said, “and have seen only death should I rely on my husband to save our daughter. I implore you, find her and bring her back to me. I know not where you can find her, but I have knowledge of a man who might. He is old, but wise and some say he once walked the path of Jullah in his youth. His name is Eshiba and he dwells in the district of the Gallah. Go to this man and tell him I ask now for my favour. He will understand and he will help you.” With those cryptic words, she offered the Aesir an additional 100 silver pieces to aid in equipping the party, as well as buying their immediate loyalty. She asked him not to speak with her husband on the matter, for she was afraid that Artelios would pay them more not to find his daughter. Tullweim agreed and left the estate, seeking his friends at The Sailor’s Folly to inform them of their new job.