On the Trail of Orafa
As Cuana awoke from his slumber in the early morning light of the jungle wastes of Atlaia, he took stock of the camp his companions drowsed in. All seemed well among the sleeping forms of Artelios, Erishka, Kophethu, Tullweim, and Xacksmith. Though the Cimmerian became alarmed when he did not see the Nemedian, Ambrose, who had taken the last watch of the night. The barbarian roused the rest of the adventurers and all set their gaze to their surroundings, searching for any clue as to where the scholar had gone. The Nemedian’s gear was no longer in the encampment and Ambroses’ tracks led west, away from the men-at-arm’s camp. No other marks were found, and it seemed the scholar had simply gathered his things and left. The Aesir shrugged his shoulders, stating the civilized man could no longer bear the trek through the jungle towards the unknown the men had embarked upon and likely wished to return to the harbor of Zabhela, where he could purchase passage to Argos, and from there, his homeland. At a loss to further explain the departure of their sword-brother, the men cooked a meager meal and set out again towards the Ogun Mountains, to close the distance on the rogue, Orafa, and retrieve the map stolen by the Ghanata slaver.
Along their path, the party came upon the carcass of a horse saddled in the same manner as the Tibu raiders which had ambushed them, with a wooden spear jutting out the slain beast’s side. Xacksmith uncovered tracks from 2 mounts nearby, 1 appeared to be carrying the burden of 2 riders. The adventurers hastened their pace, and few hours later discovered another lifeless horse, though no injury was found among its cadaver. Tullweim opined that the beast had died from exhaustion and noted their quarry’s steps were fresh. Artelios insisted the party catch up to the Ghanata quickly, or risk losing the map they sought. At midday 3 men, 1 on a horse, 2 on foot, were spotted several miles in the distance. 1 of the men shambled along with a limp as the brute beside him mercilessly goaded him along. The rider stalled his horse to wait for his companions to catch up, looked back upon the trail they had trod, spotted the adventurers and spurred his troupe forward towards a thick copse of trees.
The men-at-arms barreled through the tall grass of the savannah, weapons in hand, murder in their eyes, and bloodlust in their hearts for the head of the man who had put chains round their wrists. The trained woodsmen covered the distance with a galloping pace neither the Argossean, Atlaian, nor Stygian could keep up with and tore into the trees their foe had fled into. As the party scrambled into the bush, all was quiet, with no call of birds, or skitter of vermin observed. Without warning, a dark shape burst from the foliage, knocking the Nordheimer off his feet, and quickly followed by a second form which rammed a spear into the Cimmerian’s flank. Cuana rounded on the Tibu savage who assailed him, arcing his great blade twice into him, bloodying the slaver but not bringing him down. Xacksmith charged Orafa with his arming sword, but the Ghanata parried the Hyrkanian’s slash. The Tibu warrior plunged the point of his spear into the Cimmerian, and with a roar the raider pushed the shaft through Cuana until the Tibu’s hands met the barbarian’s abdomen. Orafa twice sent his long, curved knives into Tullweim’s chest, causing arcs of crimson to splash the surrounding vegetation. The Aesir responded with 2 reaping gashes of his greatsword.
A ruddy haze of agony washed over Cuana’s field of vision as he pushed the Tibu savage away with a wild swing of his blade. The slaver laughed as he took a step back and made to grab the hatchets hanging from the sides of his belt. The Cimmerian felt blood pouring freely from both the entrance and exit of his wound, and the sight of the savage prancing about, grinning as he waved his hatchets in anticipation of the kill, unleashed a fury in Cuana seldom seen by civilized eyes. Every ounce of strength the Cimmerian could muster went into his slice, and as the greatsword came down upon the Tibu’s shoulder, the sound of his gurgling death-cry was drowned out by the snapping of his sternum and at least five ribs. Xacksmith hemmed round Orafa and sunk his arming sword deep into the Ghanata’s back. The slaver turned his attention to the Hyrkanian, viciously plunging his blades into the borderer. Tullweim growled as he carved his sword at the distracted opponent, splitting Orafa’s head like a ripe melon.
As the Aesir tugged at the spear in Cuana’s back, Xacksmith spotted movement among the trees where Orafa had launched his attack. Tullweim’s hands slipped from the blood encrusted shaft as the Cimmerian howled in pain. Almost blacking out from the torment, Cuana pushed the rod out, causing a fresh gout of blood to spill forth. The Hyrkanian cast the branches aside and found a wounded Zamoran cowering on the ground. The borderer asked who the injured man was and he stated his name was Alam’Enshadar. Alam explained that he was a simple merchant who sought to buy goods and slaves from Orafa when the raider’s train had been ambushed. Alam’Enshadar continued, saying he had no part in any of the Ghanata’s plans, and had in fact feared for his life while in the slaver’s company. Xacksmith found what the Zamoran said to be quite believable, but a frightened scream stole his attention before the Hyrkanian could inform his companions of Alam’Enshadar’s presence. Cuana pushed out of the trees to see what was happening beyond them and was greeted by a javelin with a bloodied mass tied to it. As the Cimmerian yanked the spear from his leg, he stared in horror at the grisly disembodied head which was the remains of the Nemedian, Ambrose. Tullweim bellowed a war-cry at the figures which moved towards them in the tall grass and the adventurers dove into the waves of green at the Atlaians.
The Aesir and Cimmerian leapt amid the 6 savages, the madness of battle overtaking them, red rage clouded their vision as they attacked. Cuana struck twice, crumpling his foe to the ground, a ruined and bloodied mess. With a savage cleave, the Cimmerian smashed his blade into a second, his sword skipping lightly on the brute’s hide. Xacksmith dropped his arming sword, drew his bow, and sent a bolt into one of the Atlaian’s throat. A spear-wielding warrior buried his weapon into Cuana as his 3 tribesmen assailed Tullweim. Though the Aesir suffered several punctures, he swept his sword at 1 of his enemies, lopping off both the savage’s arms. An Atlaian’s eyes grew wide in fear as the indomitable Cimmerian, who in his fighting madness was oblivious to the pain from his many lacerations, brought his sword down upon the savage’s crown. Cuana then delivered two quick slashes with his greatsword at another adversary, splitting his belly and sending his intestines splashing out onto the trampled sward. The enraged Cimmerian rushed to the last Atlaian and drove his greatsword through the man’s gut. Cuana then fell to his knees, his body swaying among the grass until his head hit the ground with a thud.
Erishka rushed to the fallen Cimmerian and used her lore of the plants surrounding them to bind the barbarian’s many wounds and keep infection from setting. Alam’Enshadar meekly presented himself to Artelios and Kophethu as Tullweim walked up to where Orafa had fallen. Barely considering the Zamoran, the Argossean shouted after the Aesir, inquiring if his map had been uncovered. The Nordheimer lifted the scrap of leather parchment from the Ghanata’s still warm corpse and responded that he had found it, but stated he would hold onto it while his wounds were being tended, which Xacksmith quickly went to task at. When Cuana was revived, he and Erishka returned to the rest of the party with painfully small steps. The Cimmerian regarded the Zamoran suspiciously as the Aesir said the wounded man could travel with them so long as he did not slow the adventurers down. Not wanting to be left in the wilds of Atlaia, Alam’Enshadar agreed. Judging the Ghanata slaver to be close to the same stature as himself, Cuana unceremoniously tore the leather jerkin from Orafa’s body and weakly set to cleaning it. The party then moved themselves into the shelter under the trees and decided to make camp to rest from their battles and recover some of their strength.
Once there, Artelios insisted Tullweim hand the Argossean his property. The Aesir held up the parchment and Erishka gazed in wonder, stating she recognized the map drawn upon it. Artelios sputtered at the woman’s words and his Stygian companion arched a curious eyebrow. The Aesir asked if Artelios wanted the Atlaian woman to decipher the text on the parchment for him, and after a long silence, the Argossean responded he did. Upon looking at it, Erishka explained that the map was written in the language of old Atlaia, the ancient empire which founded all of the cities that are now in ruin throughout the land. ‘The scroll provides the map to the temple,’ she stated, ‘as well as instructions on how to enter and find the Lost Emperor of Atlaia.’ The young woman spoke further of how it would be truly glorious if the lost emperor was found, for he would be able to unite the kingdoms of Atlaia once more, thus ending the cycle of war. It was evident that she believed this emperor was not dead, but merely waiting to be released. The adventurers got a suspicious chill at this notion, but it mattered not, for how could such an ancient king be anything more than a spectral remnant of himself? With the unsettling, but promising knowledge, the party lolled in the waning sun of the day and rested.
The Passage of the Mountain God
Two days after the skirmish with Orafa, the adventurers at last arrived at the foothills of the Ogun Mountains. With the map in their possession and Erishka to translate it, they had the means by which to locate the hidden passage up the rocky cliffs. The passage was a steep, narrow incline of slight steps chiseled into the rock. As they ascended, the steps gradually grew broader and easier to climb, until at last they appeared to be full, wide steps carved by giants. And upon the large stair they get a better view of the land beyond. The bush they had spent uncomfortable days wading through ended at the lower hills and cliffs where the pathway began, and those hills were dwarfed by the jagged summits surrounding them, looking like teeth from a dead god rising in defiance to the heavens. Xacksmith’s hawk eyes caught site of a line of warriors moving through the grass to the general area where the pathway began, and near the limits of his vision he spied another war party closing in from the opposite approach, adding tension to the possibility of unwelcome company.
The stone staircase gradually ended at the entrance to a great cleft in the mountains, forming a narrow valley that cut through the rocky expanse. It seemed much of the stone around the adventurers had been worked by the hands of man in the distant past, but was now so weathered and worn through the ages they appeared to be nothing more than fanciful bluffs, buttes and cliffs. Petroglyphic runes and strange symbols dotted the surfaces around the staircase, with odd sigils vaguely suggestive of inhuman forms. As they stared at ancient scratchings in the cleft, the party heard eerie notes reverberate through the stone, but whether the blasphemous sound was the wind whipping through the divide or something diabolical was unknown. The men-at-arms pressed on and the narrow cleft in the mountains was rough and uneven, save for a crude path that ran down the center of the passage. More of the evocative rock art, as well as the strange sense that the whole expanse of the mountains was some worn monument to a forgotten civilization, continued to persist. As they passed through the mountains, Erishka began to murmur a quiet chant under her breath. When the Hyrkanian inquired as to what the repeated words the woman spoke were, she replied, ‘There are Orisha in the mountains. You must have their permission to pass.’ Fear was evident in her eyes and Xacksmith began mimicking the steady drawl the Atlaian uttered.
Step after step the adventurers got the sense they were being watched by unseen entities in the dark places between the ore. The cragged pathway through the rocky cleft took the rest of the day to traverse, and night fell before the party reached the end. Erishka grew more frightened than ever by dusk, as Tullweim lit a torch near an overhang which would have been suitable for camping. ‘We should continue,’ Erishka said, ‘the guardian Orisha do not like trespassers at night.’ All agreed and pressed onward, inadvertently looking over their shoulders with every footfall. Moments later, Cuana noticed Alam’Enshadar’s head nervously darting to and fro at some unseen presence above him. The Cimmerian whispered to the Zamoran to tell him what he saw, and Alam pointed to an odd twinkle in the distance above him. Cuana steeled his gaze and witnessed what looked like dull red pairs of stars which moved up and down the cliff walls, pacing the party from somewhere overhead. The Cimmerian halted the Aesir and pointed out what he spied. As the group stopped their gait, Xacksmith heard the sounds of skittering feet and clicking claws along the rock, along with an occasional inhuman grunt. Erishka’s eyes widened as her voice grew hoarse with her crude mantra. The reflective eyes stopped moving with the adventurers, but did not advance from their perches far above. Tullweim simply shook his head and motioned the party to keep moving.
Close to midnight, the waxing orb in the sky was covered behind somber clouds and a total gloom filled the narrow canyon. A sense of preternatural dread choked the party as a dozen beasts howled into the night, baying at the darkness and the loss of the moon. A sudden rush of sound in the black, followed by a horde of terrible, limber, half-human beings with jackal-like heads and bodies covered in coarse fur, descended the walls upon the adventurers. As the beasts dropped down, all but Artelios fought back the urge to curl into a whimpering ball, Cuana’s barbaric rage boiled over, and like a cornered animal, the Cimmerian instinctively flashed his greatsword at the closest abomination, crumpling the horror’s snout. Cuana pivoted to a second Orisha, swinging his blade and rending the creature’s torso from its hideous legs. The barbarian growled and cleaved into a third beast, goring an arc of sanguine fluid, but not felling it. One of the monstrosities slashed wickedly into Alam’Enshadar’s gullet, violently removing the Zamoran’s head from his throat. Another monster raked its claws into Kophethu’s back, badly wounding the Stygian. 3 of the terrors assaulted Cuana, ripping and rending the Cimmerian’s flesh with jagged talons. Tullweim was similarly assaulted by 5 of the menacing Orisha, buffeted between the howling jowls and tearing claws. Curiously, the guardians ignored Erishka and Xacksmith, who continued to wail out the mantra of protection. The profusely bleeding Aesir dropped the torch, viewed his assailants through a crimson mist, and savagely struck 1 of the creatures twice. The Hyrkanian ceased his gibbering ululations, tumbled towards the Orisha Tullweim had wounded, and sunk his arming sword through the beast’s vertebrae, ending its miserable life.
In a flurry of ruddy motion, Cuana swung his blade like a pendulum of death, slaying creature after mongrel creature, until his twirling form dashed 3 tattered corpses to the ground, and bloodied a fourth. The 6 remaining beasts bayed frenziedly at the men, 1 brought Kophethu to his knees with a vicious slam, 1 ripped into Xacksmith, 2 scored Tullweim’s hide with monstrous hooks, 3 hacked and gashed agonizingly into the Cimmerian. The Aesir responded with a carving chop of his blade to either side, which dropped 2 of the horrors to the rocky ground. The Hyrkanian sliced into another as Cuana again wheeled steel annihilation into 3 Orisha, splattering sinew and gory carrion around him. The clouds above broke, and as the moon again shown down into the pass, the remaining creature fled back up the side of the mountain. Tullweim retrieved the sputtering torch and leaned against a wall to steady his faltering legs. Xacksmith rushed to the Aesir’s side and staunched his many wounds. Erishka similarly aided the Cimmerian as Artelios finally lifted his fingers from covering his eyes.
Four hours after the battle, the secret valley marked on Artelios’ map now loomed before the party and in the heart of a lush, deep jungle-filled volcanic basin was seen an immense ziggurat. In the early morning light, the adventurers saw great braziers surrounding the temple at the top of the pyramid, pouring forth fire and smoke. Erishka seemed surprised, for she stated her brother had told that the priests of the temple were all dead and the temple stood empty, save for the angry spirits of the past. Thus arose the new mystery of who now occupied the temple.