Campaign of the Month: March 2008
The Nemedian Chronicles
Cuana Chapter 9 Entry 1
We had ridden a long way, the stink of Ianthe and the rudeness of her people far behind us as we guided our horses along the Road of Kings into Aquilonia. It was a beautiful day, as were most that we’d spent on the road so far – a gentle breeze blew across a rolling landscape dotted with the occasional farm house, orchard, or field of crops busily tended by laborers. Every so often a horse-drawn wagon or an ox cart would roll by, their passengers by all appearances being typical hard-working rural folk out on routine business. We had been making camp for ourselves sheltered in wooded the areas here and there along the way, hunting or fishing for our dinner as our rations had long since been depleted. We were now well into Aquilonia, a nation that held a great deal of intrigue for me, since it was historically the greatest adversary of my homeland, Cimmeria, which lay immediately to Aquilonia’s north. For many generations my people have successfully defended our lands from Aquilonian aggressors who were constantly seeking to expand their borders into Cimmeria, whether for land, timber, enslavement of my kin, or even in an attempt to wipe my race from existence, I never learned. What I do know is why the invasions stopped. It was some time several years ago that rumor came to us that Aquilonia had a new king, and if the tales were true this new king was a Cimmerian.
Since leaving my homeland for a life abroad, I have heard tales of this Cimmerian king of Aquilonia. His name is Conan – from where in Cimmeria he hails or what clan he belonged to is unknown to me. It is said that he killed the previous king to gain the throne, some tales going so far as to claim that Conan usurped the crown by strangling the king as he sat upon his throne, his stunned court in attendance to witness the act. If this is true, then this king Conan has my undying respect for both ending the raids into my homeland and for stealing the throne in such an audacious fashion. Aquilonia will indeed be an interesting place for me to see.
These were the thoughts that preoccupied me as I was breaking camp and loading my gear onto my horse. Xacksmith and Tullweim were similarly engaged, while Dhak was grumbling in his bedroll about wanting to sleep, his arcane studies keeping him occupied through most of the night. Tullweim picked up the Stygian’s bedroll and dumped him out onto the grass, and I was openly laughing at Dhak’s virulent curses as he fought to untangle himself from his robes when I heard someone calling out from further back on the road. I saw a man approaching on horseback, dressed in the robes of a priest of Mitra, a large axe belted at his side. He was waving one arm over his head and hailing us in the manner of a friendly stranger when the others turned to get a look at him as he drew near. Recognition dawning upon his face, he called out to us. ‘Tullweim? Cuana? Is that you?’ he said as more of a statement than question. ‘What do you here upon the Road of Kings?’
It took me a moment to realize that this was Daphnis, a priest of Mitra that I had only brief contact with months earlier in Numalia. His manner was very friendly, and he seemed to be genuinely delighted to see Tullweim again, treating him as he might a dearly missed old friend. His manner quickly changed though, asking us if we had been involved in or knew aught of the ordeal in Ophir involving Al’Kiir and his followers. We told him in brief of our success in ousting the evil god from the world and how he was now sealed away where he could no longer have influence here. ’Not entirely so’ he told us. ‘There is still a lurking evil upon the land, and I ride to a conclave in Tarantia for council on the matter’. We invited him to ride with us and began to introduce him to our companions. His manner was all warmth and civility when introduced to the Xacksmith, but as soon as he saw the Dhak he withdrew his hand, eyeing us with an expression somewhere between surprise and alarm. ‘But- this man is a Stygian! They worship Set and cannot be trusted!’ the priest exclaimed. Tulleim and I vouched for Dhak, explaining that on many occasions the Stygian had proven his good faith and trustworthiness. Daphnis backed off his accusations, but unconvinced, kept a watchful eye on our Stygian comrade. Sure, the Stygian can be as pleasant as a cesspit in a leper colony at times, but I’ve trusted him at my back many times over the last few months and he’s proven to be a powerful ally. To his credit, Dhak took the priest’s rudeness in stride, even attempting a gesture of friendliness to the priest, which Daphnis ignored. Dhak in turn ignored the slight and Daphnis settled into silence as we mounted our horses and returned to the road.
We rode the rest of the day without incident, enjoying the beautiful weather and the crisp coolness of the air. Daphnis still shot the occasional furtive glance toward the Stygian, but maintained his silence. We halted our horses by a wooded area as the sun began its speeded descent toward the horizon, and soon found a small clearing within the woods where we made our camp. Tullweim and I both went foraging for food, the Nordheimer sought game while I looked for a stream where I could get fresh water and hopefully catch a few fish. After about an hour I gave up my fruitless search, and returned to the camp to see the Aesir dressing an antelope he had caught and raising a bemused eyebrow at my own lack of success. He’s obviously a better hunter than I because this happens all the time – I return empty handed while he comes back with a stag, a doe, an antelope or whatever. I suspect that were I to return with large game such as a stag, the Nordheimer would stroll back into camp with a lion, an aurochs, or an elephant over his shoulder. Perhaps the beasts mistake the waftings from his befouled codpiece for a mating scent.
We roasted the antelope over a large fire, carving ourselves chunks of meat and washing it down with wine that Daphnis had brought. Dhak sat alone, but Xacksmith and Tullweim joined me in relieving the priest of his wine, and I soon faded away into a pleasantly besotted slumber.
I don’t think I slept for very long, because I was still very much feeling the effects of the wine when I was kicked across my legs by an obviously drunken Tullweim. He slurred something about someone shouting an alarm in the forest somewhere, while trying to strap his scabbard back on and kicking the Hyrkanian awake as well. Neither Dhak or the priest were to be seen, and for the moment I assumed that they were a few steps ahead of us, investigating the source of the hollering. Trying to shake the cobwebs out of my skull while running through the forest, I stumbled and fell over something large lying in my path. As I landed I heard a grunt of pain bearing a distinctly Nordic accent sound from beneath me, and I had to laugh as I heard it again as I tried to stand. We had both barely stood up when we were narrowly missed by Xacksmith as he came pounding through the trees after us. As we continued to hasten forward in the dark I realized that the voice raised in alarm belonged to Daphnis, and I caught panicked words like ‘devils’ and ‘serpents in your camp’ in his cries. We emerged into a small clearing and found Daphnis pointing an accusing finger at Dhak, who was seated by a fallen tree on the other side of the clearing engaged in one of his rituals. This was what we were awakened about? This crap again? Xacksmith charged into the clearing and bull-rushed the priest, but received the butt of an axe in his face in doing so. I could see the others were thinking much the same as I, Tullweim giving voice to his irritation at having been awakened, the Hyrkanian glowering at the priest and rubbing at his sore face, and Dhak rising to his own defense, justifiably angry at the priest for disrupting his meditation. Disgusted with the situation, Xacksmith returned to our camp to go back to sleep while the rest of us continued to argue with Daphnis. I was angry by this time, angry at having been dragged from my sleep, angry at having to deal with the effects of the wine, and angry at the bull-headedness of the priest, when there suddenly came bursting from the trees a small pack of howling, gray-skinned creatures. They came right at us, their strides quickening as they broke into the clearing, murderous intent in their eyes and fanged mouths slavering.
I had heard of the ghouls that roam in packs in this part of the world, but had not expected to encounter any this close to Tarantia. We were all taken by surprise at both their sudden appearance and their hideous visage. We were all without our armor, desperately grabbing for our weapons as their charnel stench filled our nostrils. I was struck across the chest by the claws of one of the fiends but managed to avoid his other claw as it swung toward my face, it’s teeth clamping down on empty air only inches from where my shoulder had been before I moved to draw my blade. The clearing was a chaos of blades, blood, and ichor as teeth rent and blades slashed, creatures howled and humans cursed. I cut one nearly in two and moved to take on a second creature who’s slashes just barely missed me. I dropped that one as well, glancing to my companions and seeing both the Nordheimer and the Stygian being literally chewed upon by their antagonists. One of the creatures was trying to sink it’s teeth into Daphnis, but he seemed to be holding his own fairly well. I moved in on another ghoul and he quickly fell to my greatsword. Taking another quick look around I saw Tullweim had freed himself and was assisting Dhak, so I ran back to the camp, where the terrified cries of horses under attack nearly drowned out the cries of help from the Hyrkanian.
I burst into the clearing and saw Xacksmith lying motionless, partially tangled in his bedroll, with one of the creatures bent over him and gnawing on his flesh. A glance showed me that two of our horses were down, long tears rent into their flanks, great chunks of flesh torn away. A third horse was under attack, the ghoul latched onto it as it shrieked it’s pain, it’s eyes rolled back in sheer terror as the bloodthirsty abomination sank it’s teeth and claws into the poor beast’s hide. All this I took in without slowing my pace, and as I moved in on the ghoul that had Xacksmith in it’s clutches my sword was already swinging. The blow didn’t kill it outright, but it released it’s hold on the Hyrkanian and turned to meet me. As I was engaging the foul creature the others came running back into our camp, Dhak and Tullweim attacking the ghoul that had already killed two horses, and Daphnis attending the ashen-faced Hyrkanian who lay still as death in his bedroll, his blood seeping out and pooling about him. The Nordheimer and Stygian destroyed their ghoul at the same time I dealt a death-blow to the creature I faced, splattering the whole area with bits of gray flesh, gore, and repulsive-smelling ichor. No sooner had Daphnis finished with Xacksmith when he immediately picked right back up again with the accusations against Dhak, more stridently than before. Claiming that the ghouls were summoned by Dhak to kill us all, the priest refused to listen to anything we had to say in the Stygian’s defense. Believing that Dhak had us charmed, he finally abandoned his attempts to sway us, mounted his wounded horse and left to travel the rest of the way to Tarantia alone.
After taking a few moments to stitch our more badly wounded, we relocated our campsite about a hundred yards further up a gradual hill away from the stink of the ghoul corpses and the smell of fresh horse blood. Luckily, mine was one of the horses that had escaped being torn to shreds, so I loaded some of the gear belonging to those whose horses were slain to take to the new site. Once situated we kept regular watches throughout the night, then spent the next day in recuperative rest. Afterward, we were finally back on the Road of Kings for the half-day ride into Tarantia.
We rounded a bend in the road and gazed down a long, gentle slope to a sight that took my breath away. The sheer size of Tarantia was staggering – a massive, sprawling city that far exceeded my preconceived imaginings of the place. Giant, shimmering towers, domes, and buildings of all shapes and sizes stretched into the sky from behind the massive walls surrounding the city. Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands peopled this place, and I realized that the farmland we had ridden for so long through must extend for miles in every direction around the city walls. Even the others with me, who were much more familiar with urban life than I, were momentarily breathless at the sight of such a place. And one of my countrymen ruled here? He must be an extraordinary fellow indeed to become the ultimate power in a place such as this. We continued on, down the gently sloping road to the city gates where we were admitted to the city in cordial fashion. One of the guards was kind enough to suggest the Stag and Whistle to us when we asked after a decent inn nearby, so we followed his direction and soon found ourselves there.
Once inside I ordered myself a couple tankards of ale, secured a room for myself, and then went out in search of a place where I could restock my depleted rations. My first impressions of the people in this city was that while being typically suspicious or wary of strangers, the more metropolitan nature of Tarantia when compared with Numalia or Ianthe exposed the natives to a greater cross section of races, softening their prejudices somewhat for people of foreign lands. I caught a few furtive glances or furrowed brows here and there, but it was nothing like the antagonistic and open hostility I experienced from the Ophireans.
It was still early in the evening when I returned to the inn, the others gathered in the common room and talking about what to do for the evening. Not surprisingly we decided that an evening spent whoring would do us all some good, but that was impossible with us being as poor as we were, so Xacksmith offered to raise a little coin for us if we’d be good enough to supply him with a little assistance. It didn’t take us long to come upon a merchant who was an easy victim, but his coin purse was lacking sufficient funds to accommodate us all in our desire for carnal distractions. Just as quickly we spotted another merchant, this one flaunting gold chains, followed by two bodyguards. The three were easily distracted and the man’s ample coin was soon ours, providing us with the means to enjoy one of the many brothels in the city, which is exactly what we did.
We were on our way back to the Stag and Whistle when we saw a figure, slouched and clutching at a wall for support, emerge from an alley into the street. We hurried to the figure, who it was now plain to see had the feathered shaft of an arrow protruding from his back. The man turned toward us as we closed, and we looked into the face of our erstwhile companion, Daphnis. That he was mortally wounded was evident in the ashen pallor of his face, and he stumbled to all fours, bubbles of bloody spittle on is lips as he gasped out a string of words which went something like ‘treason …heresy …midnight …Devlyn …cemetery’. Gasping out the final word, he fell dead, face down in the street. It was nearly midnight now, and not knowing where in this massive city the Devlyn cemetery was located we were at a loss as to what to do. Not the Stygian though – he stooped in front of the dead priest, his thoughtful expression not quite concealing a malignant gleam in his eye. He spoke a few arcane words and the priest’s eyes snapped open, met Dhak’s gaze, and he screamed. It was a blood curdling scream of pure terror as the priest’s soul was pulled back from it’s journey to whatever afterlife awaited it. Despite its obvious usefulness, this type of foul necromancy makes my flesh crawl. I slowly backed away, leaving the Stygian to enjoy his inquisition of the doomed servant of Mitra.
Once Dhak had gleaned all he could from Daphnis, he led us quickly to the Devlyn section of the city, a seedy, run-down area of town a few minutes away. We arrived at the cemetery, and seeing no one about, went in to look around. We immediately saw a group of five or so cloaked, hooded figures huddled in a circle. We crept in to get a closer look and saw that one of the figures was raising a dagger, and that a victim was stretched out before him over a gravestone or slab of some sort. There was no time for us to close the distance and engage them with our blades, so Xacksmith drew his bow and quickly prepared to shoot the figure holding the dagger. What happened then is without doubt one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, and likely the greatest feat of archery ever witnessed.
The Hyrkanian loosed two arrows very quickly, one right after the other, each one thudding home directly into an eye socket of his victim. The shriek of pain caused by the first arrow had only begun to form on the robed killer’s lips when it was immediately cut off as the second arrow pierced his other eye. Dagger flying from his hand, a throaty gurgling as his last breath left his body, the mysterious figure toppled to the ground. The stunning assault caused enough confusion among their ranks to allow us to cover the distance and attack them before their victim could again fall into their clutches. As I was closing, I saw their leader begin to rise on unsteady legs, arms outstretched and groping at empty air, the arrows still protruding from eyes that appeared to weep blood. The girl that was to be their sacrifice was screaming in terror at the sight of her would-be killer risen from death, moving about with an awkward, mechanical gait. I fought down a rising surge of panic at the sight, cleaving about me with my greatsword, the sounds of combat issuing from all around me. The fight was over almost as quickly as it had begun, all the robed figures lying in the grass, their blood leeching into the soil of the unkempt cemetery, the occupants of which had now been increased by five.