Campaign of the Month: March 2008
The Nemedian Chronicles
Ambrose Chapter 12 Entry 6
Xacksmith, emboldened perhaps by the relic of Ibis he had claimed rushed to the fore and lay into the trunk of the massive snake, shattering scales and drawing first blood. The Son of Set hissed its displeasure, but was not swift enough to avoid the barbarians’ charge. Cuana and Tullweim put their great blades to their intended purpose, hacking into the trunk of the ophidian, further distracting it from my own approach. I could see that their blows, though mighty indeed, would not finish the snake before it could mount a counterstroke – one that would surely fell at least one of our company. Capitalizing on the great beast’s distraction, I avoided altogether the hardened scales that served as its armor, timing my stroke and thrusting through the monstrous eye and into the brain beneath. The Son of Set shuddered in its death throws, its tail thrashing against the bloody stones of the streets of Khemi before it finally lay still.
The silence that followed lasted half a heartbeat, before the stunned priest and acolytes who knelt prostrate nearby – having been meekly awaiting the judgment of Set – gained their feet and began crying for our blood, their voices echoing weirdly from behind bestial masks. I was nearest to the enraged Setites, but before I could blink, Tullweim was beside me, carving the arm off of one of the acolytes. Arterial blood sprayed the pair of us as the man fell, and his sword barely slowed as it buried itself into the next acolyte, ending his wicked life. I could tell that these deaths had put the heavily injured Aesir in a better humor than before. Cuana circled around the acolytes and murdered the last acolyte standing beside me before decapitating his nearby partner. Only the priest and one acolyte remained in the street to accost us, but I knew it was only a matter of time before others might come to their aid.
The Hyrkanian slew the remaining acolyte with a might swing of the
Battleaxe Staff of Ibis, and then the priest swung wildly about with his dagger, but blooded it not. Making a gesture of power taught to me by my brothers in faith to Asura, I threw my blade at the startled priest, and the blade impaled him, but not lethally. He did not have time to wonder over the minor miracle, however, as Tullweim advanced a step and made an end of him. Thinking to upgrade our disguises, we stole and donned the tattered and bloodied robes as well as the masks. We then abandoned the site of our blasphemy, continuing toward the center of the city, past a long line of chained virgins and all manner of horrid scenes of human sacrifice on all sides.
I report truly brothers, when I say the atrocities committed during that festival dedicated to Set in the center of the priests’ power defies all descriptions I have ever read concerning such rites. My heart wept that I could do so little to oppose these perpetrators of human sacrifice as is the charge of all true members of our faith. The realization that there was only so much a man can do in the face of such wholesale slaughter, even in the company of such mighty companions as I had met in that dark Stygian hole. I took some solace in the deeds we had accomplished in spite of the odds, the slaying of the great snake and the priests of the Old Serpent so far.
It still seemed a blasphemy that we were working to save a king who supported and reveled in such misery, but I had to believe that men were still better than demons, despite the evidence before my eyes. And the princess was yet an innocent – as strange as that seems. Perhaps I could do little for the hundreds – or thousands – being slaughtered in the streets all around me, but I would be less than a man if I did not do all I could for Raia, after giving my word that I would see her safely to her father.
We drew nearer the colossal black pyramid that denoted the center of Khemi, the dark heart of Stygia’s priesthood. And then we found the wagon. It was empty, but nearby we saw a line of masked priests and sacrifices leading toward the base of the dark monolith. We joined the queue in the hopes that we could slip inside and continue seeking out the princess within. As the line progressed, Tullweim noted that guardian standing near the entrance made a gesture with his left hand as each man came before him. In response, the men made the same gesture with their right hands. With this knowledge, we managed to bluff our way inside.
The macabre celebration of human sacrifice continued unabated in the darkened confines of the entry chamber. Across the way, Xacksmith saw a pair of the king’s guards speaking with a priest with two men carrying large rugs over their shoulders standing nearby. The five men exited the bloody foyer by way of a darkened corridor. We crossed the chamber – my soul reviling bearing witness to the sacrifices in such close proximity – and entered the black hall ourselves.
A few yards in, the passageway branched and we could find no trace of the men. The echoes of the wicked chants and screams in the corridor gave us no clue as to which direction they might have gone. With one direction seeming as good as another, we started down the corridor on our left. The passageway began to slope downward, and we passed a number of side passages. After a time, I got the distinct impression that we were being watched just before we heard a footfall from somewhere in the darkness.
Tullweim called out and was answered by a female voice. Stepping out of the darkness of a side passage came a nubile Stygian woman, wearing little more than her pale skin with a bearing that implied noble birth. Despite her cold beauty, there was an aura of menace which she wore like a mantle. She knew that we were not priests, despite our costumes. Still, she did not cry out for guards or priests to come capture us and devote our sacrifice to Set. In point of fact, she seemed to have no fear of us whatsoever!
Having lost the track of our quarry, I asked the mysterious young woman if she had seen Princess Raia, or a party of five men bearing rugs. She claimed she knew not, nor cared either, and so Cuana and I began to continue down our path, but stopped short when we realized that our companions had not followed. She was promising them riches beyond imagining if they would but follow her. That and knowledge that might lead us in some useful direction enticed the Cimmerian and I to follow our companions in this folly. If only we’d known!
At Cuana’s bidding, I took note of the turns we took from that intersection, so that we could find our way back from wherever the Stygian wench was leading us. The path ended in a storage chamber, its walls lined with shelves filled with urns and other clay receptacles. These contained potions of varying colors, which the girl offered to us. I examined the one she’d handed to me and performed a few rudimentary tests in order to identify its general properties. It appeared to be a restorative, and that was enough for Tullweim, who downed his in a single gulp. I finished my thought, stating that I knew not what side effects the draught might also possess. He laughed gustily after finishing his elixir, then took mine and downed that, too. I admit that he seemed rejuvenated, and I hoped that there would be no ill effects to follow. Cuana and Xacksmith likewise imbibed the potions offered by the woman.
And then things took a turn. The girl approached Tullweim and wrapped her long, pale arms around his neck sensuously. In a husky voice she said, “Love me, give me your blood to extend my life.” He balked and tried to push her away, but she sank her teeth – suddenly she possessed long fangs! – into the bottom of his bull neck and lapped greedily at the blood that began to pour out of it. In horror, he shoved her roughly away, but she laughed. Then she identified herself – Akivasha! A nightmare ten millennia old if the legends were true! We filled our hands with steel as the horror in girl’s flesh leapt once more upon the hapless Aesir!
While he struggled, Xacksmith and I pushed through the primal terror that Akivasha’s presence inspired and hacked futilely with our weapons. Only Cuana’s mighty thews seemed up to the task of giving injury to this abomination made flesh, and even those gashes began to knit shut of their own accord within moments of their creation! Still, it must have been enough to impress the fiend, because after another sip of Tullweim’s blood, she broke their bloody embrace and withdrew to the doorway, making ready to flee. Unencumbered by the giant Aesir, she proved capable of evading the Cimmerian’s heavy blade. The Aesir got in a parting shot around the corner before Akivasha fled into the darkness of the corridors beyond.
With no better idea of where to find Raia, we discussed briefly what to do before deciding to descend as far down into the bowels of the pyramid as we could. These were not Setites intending to sacrifice the princess and her king, so we reasoned that they would want their rite hidden from any prying eyes. And so we made our way through the darkness following the downward sloping passages whenever possible.
We eventually came into a long-neglected chamber with a number of large pillars along the walls. Five humanoid figures, four with the serpent heads of the demons we have almost become accustomed to facing in this fell nation, stood around an altar, swaying as if in a trance. The two nearer ones wore the black leather of the king’s guards. Upon the altar lay Raia, senseless, and upon the floor near the altar lay a man I did not recognize. From his rich clothes and regal features, I inferred him to be Ctesiphon, secular ruler of all Stygia, and if we had anything to say about it, he would continue to be.
I advanced on the altar, close enough to use my sorcery, and plucked one guard’s khopesh from his belt to fling it at his fellow. The blade made only a glancing blow along the demon’s spine, and it hissed its displeasure a moment before one of Xacksmith’s arrows imbedded itself in its scaly hide. Cuana’s long stride took him up to the very altar between the two demon guards. The one I’d disarmed tried to bite the Cimmerian, but his armor saved him from its venomous fangs. The other flanking him slashed with its khopesh, scoring a superficial wound. The other snake-demons advanced a step, ready to take the place of the guards should they fall, while the priest kept chanting in an unrecognizable tongue. Tullweim charged in a fighting madness, but his blade clanged sharply off that of the still-armed false king’s guard.
I advanced upon the “unarmed” guard and stabbed with my arming sword, finding a soft spot between his scales. In response, the demon’s head snapped forward and its fangs sank into my shoulder. I could feel the poison burning in my blood moments later, threatening to turn my muscles to water. Meanwhile, Cuana leapt over the altar, ignoring the slashes of the guards and cleaved through the priest’s torso, making a swift end of him before using his momentum to advance another step and hack into the side of the nearest false acolyte. The melee continued wildly, and I ignored the fire in my veins long enough to spin around my foe. Caught between Tullweim and I, it could not defend as my blade pierced its heart. The barbarians each killed another demon, and then Xacksmith rushed up and used the Staff of Ibis on the remaining fiend. It bit him once before the Aesir killed it, though the Hyrkanian seemed to shake off the poison. Then all was silent.
The prisoners had been drugged – likely with laudanum – and there was no rousing them. After some discussion, we wrapped them up in the rugs and made our way out of the pyramid. The priests in the entry chamber paid us no more mind than they had those who had brought the rugs inside.
When we got outside, we were met by several guard’s in the king’s black armor flanking a man with burning red eyes and the robes of a Lord of the Black Ring. His very presence made my flesh crawl and my stomach want to empty itself. If the stories are true, and standing before this man as I did, I have no reason to believe they are not, this was the most powerful sorcerer in all of Stygia, if not the entire world! This was Thoth-Amon, the royal Vizier to King Ctesiphon!
And then he spoke.
The words that held no meaning for any of us, but once he had finished speaking them, he bid us – in Stygian – to repeat them. I did my best to mimic the phonetic syllables he had pronounced, and so did my companions. That appeared to satisfy the man, and he informed us that only true men – and not demons – could speak the ancient words whose meaning were lost even to one such as him. He stated that we had served as fine instruments of his will, and for that we were to be granted one opportunity to escape Stygia with our lives. He instructed us to hand over the King and the Princess to the men in black armor and flee Khemi before the sun rose.
Xacksmith had the nerve to ask the question burning in my mind but which I could not give voice: Why? Why did a man as powerful as Thoth-Amon need men such as us to thwart this attempt on the king’s life? In his arrogance, all of it well deserved, the vizier deigned to answer the Hyrkanian’s query. He’d grown suspicious of one of his priests, whose actions were sometimes hidden from even the great sorcerer’s lotus-fueled divinations. Thus he set these mercenaries upon the path to Stygia to invade the traitor’s temple and discover what he could not see. I had been swept up in these machinations by the sandstorm he’d created to drive the northerners and their easterling friend to the place Thoth-Amon needed them to be.
And as he’d planned, the traitor now lay dead, his scheme come to ruin. The rewards promised to Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith by their employers still awaited them, and that proved a sufficient point to satisfy the mercenaries. I was only too happy to be quit of Khemi and the dark, snake-haunted sands of Stygia, as well. I tell you now, brothers, that there is much work to be done if we ever intend to uproot the corruption of that fell nation. For now, I sail with these bold men south to the Black Kingdoms. My pilgrimage continues.
Brother Ambrose Mavros, Acolyte of Asura