Campaign of the Month: March 2008
The Nemedian Chronicles
Cuana Chapter 12 Entry 6
Nothing that I have ever seen in the natural world equals the cold malignancy found in the depths of a serpents gaze. Both ancient and eternal, it is as if those lidless, slitted pupils hold wisdom and secrets as old as the universe – wisdom that should be beyond the ken of any reptilian mind. The beast moved directly for us, the scales of its massive trunk scraping on the cobbles, its giant, wedge-shaped head looming directly above. The Hyrkanian and the Nordheimer were still badly battered from the battle below the oasis, and I wasn’t in much better shape than they. Knowing that our only hope of survival was in a swift victory against this Son of Set, we attacked. Xacksmith and I struck nearly simultaneously, Tullweim leaping in to cut a massive gash across the creature’s hide. In one of the most stunning attacks I have ever seen, Ambrose deftly switched the angle of his attack in mid-swing and buried his arming sword to the hilt in the monster’s eye, the blade driving straight into the serpent’s brain, killing it on the spot. The giant coils lashed about in the street, smashing into buildings and threatening to crush anyone close enough to be caught in the serpent’s death-throes. Screams of ‘kill the blasphemers!’ erupted from the nearby acolytes, who were up on their feet again and throwing rocks at us. Not wanting to spend any more time out in the open streets than necessary, we rushed the group of Stygian holy men, the serpent’s body still thrashing about behind us.
They were no match for us. Tullweim and I each killed two of acolytes with our first two swings, the head of my second victim sent rolling across the cobbles. Xacksmith brought the double-bladed staff of Ibis down on another, and as he wrenched his weapon free, Ambrose sent his sword flying directly into the acolyte’s chest, killing him as well. I turned to see the Aesir bring his sword down upon the only priest of the group, slaying him where he stood. Quickly, we dragged the bodies out of sight and stripped them of their robes and ceremonial masks, donning them as disguises to allow us to travel more freely through the horrors, assaults, kidnappings, and sacrificial murders that were Khemi on this darkest of nights. Clusters of priests and acolytes dragged victims – virgins, the infirm, the elderly, the unwanted and unpopular – all those that had been barred from their homes or made their homes in the streets – dragged them off to be slain upon the altars that had been erected for this night. Pools of coagulating blood stained the cobblestone avenues everywhere. Screams, both distant and near, tore through the night as more died in the name of their perverse serpent god, as everyone else stayed locked indoors, safe from the terrors that ruled the streets and alleyways.
For all the horrors they suffered, I couldn’t find a scrap of pity in my heart for these people. Perhaps if this nightmare was the result of some usurper of the crown exacting his vengeance on a victimized populace, perhaps then I could feel pity for them. But this was not the case. No, this was apparently a yearly event, a tradition. What utterly foul people these Stygians are. I was half-tempted to set a few houses afire as we walked the street, just to see those within flee into the night, to be captured and slain atop their vile altars. Such were my thoughts as we suddenly caught sight of a wagon a short way ahead that looked like the one that Raia had supposedly left her father’s palace in. Measuring our pace so as not to lose sight of the wagon, we continued on our way toward the massive pyramid.
All around the base of the edifice were sacrificial altars, with hundreds – possibly thousands of victims – being methodically herded along as beasts to the abattoir. Onto the altar, the blade arcing down into their chest, then dragged aside to make way for the next, one victim after another died. The stench of death was nearly overwhelming, and there were many, many more doomed to die this night. Priests and acolytes were filing into the pyramid, each meeting a keeper at the entrance before being allowed admittance. In line to enter were men dressed in the livery of Tamuneb’s palace bearing what looked like two rolled-up carpets. Moving quickly so as not to lose them, we got in line to enter the pyramid. I noticed that it looked like the doorkeeper made an odd gesture with his left hand to each person wishing to enter, and that the person wishing to enter replied by making the same gesture, but with their right hand. Xacksmith saw this too, and he quietly informed the others. Once at the door, we each replied to the keeper’s gesture and suffered his piercing scrutiny before being allowed entrance. For a moment I feared he would recognize us as foreigners, but our disguises worked and he waved us through.
Stepping from a torchlit night into the torchlit antechamber, our eyes immediately caught sight of the guardsmen we sought speaking with a Setite priest, still bearing the rolled up carpets that must surely hold both the princess Raia and Stygia’s king. Nodding to the guards, the priest turned and led them through a darkened archway. Shooting furtive glances around the room, we ducked through the archway after them.
The incredible age of this place could be felt, as if the massive stone blocks of which it was built whispered of the passing aeons they had seen. We were in a long, shadow-darkened corridor that sloped down into the bowels of the place. Deeper we went, passing darkened alcoves and doorways along the way. More and more we began to feel as if we were being watched by eyes unseen, causing us to move with greater care as we sought to catch up with the liveried guards and the Setite priest.
A sound from one of the darkened doorways – a footfall perhaps – caused us to stop and turn. Standing in one of the doorways was a woman. She was Stygian, but her skin was very pale for one of her race, unusually – maybe unnaturally so. She instantly recognized that we were not truly priests or acolytes of Set, and her nostrils flared as she said she could smell all the blood on us underneath our disguises. Something I noticed about her was very disconcerting – she did not appear to actually breathe, but instead move her chest as if pretending to do so. As has become routine, Tullweim approached the woman, his voice full of flirtation as he addressed her. She offered us aid if we would but follow her, and against my protestations and better judgement, we followed. As we went, I asked Ambrose if he would make note of the route were took, as she led us first one way and then another through a maze of passages and finally into a room full of clay pots, jars, pitchers and similar vessels. She offered each of us a bowl of clear liquid with which to refresh ourselves, but my suspicions wouldn’t allow me to simply comply. Since we followed the Aesir, I decided that I would wait until I saw him drink before I took so much as a drop of mine. He sniffed at it, dipped a finger into it to take a taste, and finally upended the bowl into his mouth. To my surprise, not only did he not fall writhing to the floor, but his face broke out into a big grin as he exclaimed that he could feel some of his strength returning. Satisfied that my suspicions had been incorrect, I too drank the contents of the bowl and soon felt much revived myself. She kept speaking to Tullweim, and he moved forward and met her embrace. She asked him to stay with her, that she would make him immortal and they could dwell beneath the pyramid forever. Her name, she said, was Akivasha, and she had dwelt beneath the pyramid for thousands of years. Latching onto the Aesir, she buried her face in his chest, then bit him in the throat. To my utter disbelief, he held her gently and allowed her – actually allowed her to feed on his blood! As I was sliding my greatsword from its scabbard, Tullweim attempted to turn her head from his neck, but she had latched on like a leech, and he just barely managed to pry her off of him. She threw back her head, blood streaming from the corners of her mouth, and a wave of fear washed over me that threatened to overwhelm. Only barely was I able to keep my nerves in check.
Crying out that she meant to extend her longevity by feeding upon each one of us, she caught Tullweim in her grasp again and began draining his blood. The Aesir tried to break free of her grasp, but she held him fast. I delivered a wicked slash to her back, but she continued to feed upon Tullweim. As she did, we could see the wound she had suffered begin to mend itself. The Hyrkanian struck her, sinking the bladed edge of the staff he carried into her exposed back as well. The Nemedian also attacked, but was unable to hit. I swung again, twice this time, both swings opening up massive gashes in her undead flesh. At that, she broke off her attack, and I thought she was going to turn on me, but she instead fled for the doorway. One short step brought me in range to strike her again, but both of my attempts failed to strike. Tullweim, finally angered enough to slay this undying Stygian gutter whore, managed to step up alongside me and strike her with his blade. Recoiling from his attack, she fled into the maze of corridors through which she had led us.
the Nemedian had marked our passage well, for we had no trouble quickly tracing our steps back the way we had come. Back out in the sloping corridor, we discussed whether we should continue downward into the depths of the place, or try to find a way into the upper portions of the pyramid. Shouldn’t we have already overtaken those guards by the time we encountered the vampire? I began to think that we might have missed a passage or that maybe were going the wrong way. The others convinced me otherwise, that we were indeed heading in the right direction, so we stepped up our pace in order to catch the King and princess before they were slain.
Further into the depths of this evil place we descended. Past darkened doorways and shadowed alcoves, until we heard voices raised in a dark chant that grew louder as we continued. The chant was coming from a chamber just ahead. Looking into the room, we saw that it was longer than it was wide, with two rows of pillars along the length of the chamber. Giant serpents were painted on the walls, and at the far end of the room was a raised dais with an altar atop. Behind the altar was the Setite priest we had seen above, and standing around the altar were four of those hideous snake-men wearing the livery of Tamuneb. Atop the altar, lying prone and unmoving, was Raia. To the left, slumped against the wall was King Ctesphon. Despite my loathing of Stygians, I couldn’t accept letting Raia and her King be gutted by these inhuman fiends. I removed the robes I wore over my armor to prevent them from being too stained with blood to wear as a disguise back out of the place, drew my sword, and ran to the altar, feeling the adrenaline-fueled madness of battle pounding in my temples. A few paces before reaching the dais, I saw the kopesh of one of the snake-men fly from its grasp toward another one across the dais. The others were on my heels as I reached the altar, one of the horrors nicking me with a dagger while the other attempted to sink its fangs into me. My leather armor prevented the bite from hitting me, so I leaped over the altar and attacked the priest, tearing him open and dropping him in a bloody heap where he stood. I struck at one of the snake creatures, wounding it, so I struck again, killing it. I struck at another, my blade shearing clean through it. Its body fell one direction, while its head, neck, and one shoulder fell the other. Looking for another to strike, I turned to see Xacksmith kill the last one. It was done. We stood for a few moments, the frenzy of battle easing as the adrenaline ebbed from our systems.
No amount of shaking, slapping, or other urgings would revive either the King or the Princess. They appeared to be in a deep, drug induced sleep. Not knowing what else to do, we rolled them back up in the carpets in which they had been hidden, donned our disguises once again, and carried them back up the long, sloping passage toward the surface. There was no further sign of the vampire, and nobody stopped. questioned, or even so much as glanced at us. We still needed to get the King and Raia back to Prince Tamuneb’s palace, and if we could find the wagon they had been brought here in, the easier it would be to accomplish. Up to the ground floor, through the antechamber, and out the doorway we went. But we didn’t go far.
Waiting for us outside the pyramid was a cluster of Stygian men, all wearing black robes, for foremost of which regarded us expectantly with lambent, red eyes. ‘You are to hand over the King and the Princess, and be gone from Stygia by mornings light’, he said. He spoke not as if he was giving an order, but rather stating a fact. These were magi of the Black Ring, powerful necromancers whose reputation for evil was known across the world. I began to get a very bad feeling about this – if even a fraction of the rumors of them were true, we were as good as dead men. To my surprise, he answered our queries, and though I don’t understand a single word of the Stygian tongue, it was evident in both his tone and demeanor that he felt as if he was patiently explaining something obvious to young children. It had been he who had my friends hired as agents to aid Ishlan. He had sent that small army to chase us in the direction of the bridge from Shem into Stygia to make sure we were on the correct path to find the staff. He had even raised the sandstorm that claimed Grimnir for the purpose of driving us to the oasis where Beqai held the princess. We had been puppets the entire time, moved about to suit the ends of this dusky skinned corpse-fondler. As much as I wanted to behead this bastard Stygian where he stood, I knew I would never have a chance to strike, that I would be dead – or worse – before I could finish unsheathing my blade. I have been in the presence of some mighty sorcerers, but none like this one – you could literally feel power radiating from him. Dark and unspeakably evil, but incredible power nonetheless. I had a terrible sinking feeling, for there was a name associated with these dark wizards that rose above all the rest in all the terrible tales ever whispered about these fiends. I asked Xacksmith if he would ask this mage his name, because I just had to know. As he answered, it seemed those glowing red eyes looked straight through me. ‘My name’, he said, ‘is Thoth Amon’.
I will be in Shem well before morning.