The Ancient Path
Malleus coughed and gagged as he painfully expelled the remaining saltwater from his lungs. Hollan once again shouted curses at the sea, livid the siren had again vanished from their grasp as Abizar and Cortos warily cast their eyes about in case the demon reappeared to bewitch them again. When the Cimmerian steadied himself the adventurers quickly discussed their options. Malleus pointed to the forested ridge to the south of the larger island which terminated at a sheer cliff with a rope bridge spanning the distance to a smaller isle. It was decided they would take some of the wreckage of the beached Stygian ship along with several of the tall trees to use as a raft and cross the harbor to the larger island. Hours of heavy labor passed and the party was able to craft a crude vessel which would carry them and keep their bodies out of the shark infested waters. The adventurers held their breath as they launched their raft into the waters and silently prayed to Crom, Set, Ymir and any other god they could think of to keep the ghost whale from surfacing. They did not care if the gods answered their prayers or if their craft was too small for the undead leviathan to bother with as they landed their vessel on the large island’s shore.
The air was thick with moisture and from the beach of the island the adventurers could see nothing but crowded jungle. The ground was dense with creepers, ferns, and brightly colored blossoms. The tropical surroundings were much like those the adventurers had seen in their travels through the seas but the past encounters earlier in the day left all apprehensive of the alien nature of these islands. The parties’ goal was to reach the cliffs on the island where a rope bridge connected to a third island with sheer peaks on all sides. Despite their nervousness the adventurers pushed into the jungle in the direction of the cliff. After a bit of travel the party was surprised to find fresh water and an obvious trail. Abizar warily tested the water and found it to be drinkable with no obvious threats guarding it. The Stygian filled his waterskin as the Aesir, Cimmerian, and Hyrkanian examined the path. The trail looked as if it was a road thousands of years ago, but now the jungle had overtaken it. No signs of recent human passage could be found along the road and the adventurers believed following it would take them to their destination. After drinking from the pool the party set out onto the road surrounded by jungle, the chattering of monkeys and the cries of birds.
The ancient trail wound up the ridge and finally surmounted it, terminating at the end of a huge rope bridge. The ropes of the bridge were ancient, but thicker than five men tied around. The petrified wooden boards were as old as the ropes, but for the most part were stable. The length of the bridge looked to be 300 feet and the drop into the shallow and rocky water below was at least as far. The wind blew forcefully at the heights the adventurers stood and they all held onto the ropes tightly to steady their steps. Moments later the party was on the smaller island. They saw the old road took up again towards a cave entrance surrounded by strange and curious symbols not even the Stygian could understand. Intrigued by the thought of what mysteries laid inside the cave the adventurers wished to explore it but had no source of illumination with which to pierce the thickly hung veil of darkness. Cortos and Malleus decided to travel the span of the bridge again and tear down limbs from some trees to use as torches as there was no vegetation on the sheer cliffs of the smaller island. When the adventurers crossed they’d realized they’d not eaten the entire day. The barbarians and borderer all went out to search for whatever food they could forage before the light of the day left.
As the sun’s gaze set, a meal of game and roots was had. Afterwards, Malleus took in the spectacular view of the islands in the dimming light. The Cimmerian was surprised to see a small ship moored on the siren’s island. Malleus called attention to what he saw and the adventurers briefly argued whether the boat had previously been there unseen, or if it had landed at the beach sometime during the day. Whatever the case, they knew it was another possible way off the accursed islands they were stranded upon. The party decided it best to set watches as they planned to sleep on the cliff by the bridge. Malleus drew first watch and it was not long after the others had drifted to a well deserved sleep when danger struck. The only warning the Cimmerian was given was a low, menacing snarl. Malleus turned just as a leopard pounced on the barbarian in a fury of slashing claw and rending fang. The Cimmerian struggled mightily as he heard a second guttural growl moving towards his companions. Malleus called out a warning as he wrestled with the leopard and tried to maneuver himself into an advantageous position.
Cortos and Hollan woke instantly at the Cimmerian’s alarm and both quickly grabbed their weapons. The second leopard lunged at the Aesir and brought both claws and fang to bear on the bearded barbarian. Though bloodied with the effort, Hollan was able to keep the beast from fastening its jaws onto him and Cortos fired a bolt which flew wide of the creature. Abizar awoke to see the plight his brothers were in. The Stygian grabbed his arming sword and swung with great finesse at the great cat followed by the Aesir, who struck the leopard in its flank with his greatsword. After a spray of arterial blood shot into the air the beast moved no more. Malleus wrapped his hands around the the throat of the leopard which he grappled and squeezed. The feral creature thrashed with a fury of claw rakes and lacerating bites. The Cimmerian’s thews were taxed to their breaking point in holding the leopard when the rest of the party brought their blades to bear, bringing the creature to the ground with a heavy thud. Unknowing what other dangers hid unseen in the night the adventurers decided they could not risk lighting a fire. With no light to see by, the tending of wounds could not take place. Malleus declared his turn at watch over and painfully laid himself out on the ground to rest after the hellish day.
Dawn came too quickly for the battered party and they couldn’t keep the light from lancing through their eyelids. Still tired and aching from the previous day’s troubles they rose and discussed a plan of action. Malleus looked out upon the siren’s island and was relieved to see the boat still beached upon it. But the adventurers did not wish to leave the islands empty handed so they gathered the branches collected for torches and moved towards the cave’s mouth. The adventurers entered the carved tunnel and with their torches could see the strange carvings continued into the dank cavern. Hollan discovered animal bones and it was believed the cave had been the lair of the 2 leopards which the party had fought the night before. Stepping with great caution the adventurers neared a point of light which shone in the distance. When they exited the cave-tunnel they found themselves in a bowl shaped valley, upon which stood the grand ruins of a fantastic city beneath the shimmering arc of a rainbow. The tropic humidity seemed to keep the air moist in the bowl and the staggering city of tall purple towers laid ruined among the encroaching jungle. The adventurers followed the road which ran from the cave exit to the gates of the city with a cautious step.
The jungle crowded road was full of strange flora of a type none of the adventurers had ever seen, even on the nearby islands. As the party closed in on the ancient cities’ purple stone gates, Cortos and Malleus became afflicted by a sudden drowsiness. Their heads grew heavy, their sight grew dim and they crumpled to the ground. Abizar and Hollan managed to fight back the miasma which hung in the air. The 2 drug their companions closer to the gate in hopes of escaping the malign influence. Meanwhile, Cortos and Malleus found themselves in a dream-like stupor. Their minds were full of visions of the Acheronian city, not ruined and dilapidated as it stood now, but full of life as it had been in its former days of glory. The buildings were dressed in flags and awnings and were surrounded by tended gardens. The Acheronian people, which were recognized by the feral glint of their eyes, went about their daily routines, ruled by a powerful sorcerer named Nakhtnebef.
Nakhtnebef had woven powerful spells to create the city in the bowl of a volcano and in his tower had placed strange symbols centered around a glass bowl. To the two adventurers the visions in their heads showed a great expanse of time passing. The iron fist of the sorcerer had pushed the laborers and pirates too far. Factions of Acheronians fought amongst one another and the order of sorcerers who held power hid among their towers. Finally the scholars called up their magics to end the petty squabbling but at a great cost of lives. The last days of the Acheronians were witnessed through the visions and soon, the cities’ ruler Nakhtnebef died in his tower, alone with his prized glass bowl. Cortos and Malleus’ dreams ended when Abizar and Hollan shook them out of their reverie. The adventurers stood before the massive gate of the city. The ruined ingress was ominous in its appearance but the party did not pause in forcing an entry. Both barbarians pushed against the massive door which had likely not been opened in 3,000 years. The gate groaned and creaked but finally gave to the Aesir and Cimmerian’s might.
There were no signs of living occupants in the ruins beyond the gate and all was still in the humid, tropic air. Cortos and Malleus shuddered from the memory of the visions they’d witnessed of the city in its prime contrasted with the reality of the ruined edifices which surrounded them. The feeling of emptiness throughout the twisting roads and paths of the impressive ruins was profound. The Hyrkanian suggested the party head towards the large tower which rose like a prehistoric temple to a primeval god of unwholesome aspect at the heart of the ruins. Hollan muttered complaints of how warm the ground felt and expressed his inability to understand why anyone would want to live in a place which had never known the fall of snow. Suddenly, a small section of building broke off and plummeted to the ground. The Aesir’s uncanny reflexes saved him from being crushed by the purple stone. Picking himself off the ground, the barbarian chuckled, saying he would keep his criticisms to himself. After navigating the winding paths through the deserted streets the adventurers arrived at the ominous tower.
Cortos checked the door, discovering strange symbols which seemed to have been defaced by a blade’s edge some time in the distant past. A few turns of the Hyrkanian’s lockpicks and the portal was flung open, revealing a large entryway with a staircase which spiraled around the inner wall of the tower, climbing upward into the darkness above. Seeing nothing else of interest, the party lit one of their make-shift torches and made their way up the stairs. No landings or other rooms were discovered throughout the ascent until the adventurers reached the summit. Before them stood a door with a grotesque demonic head carved into its center. Impatient to discover what lay on the other side of the door, and unable to see any other way of entering, Hollan reached into the mouth of the demon’s head in search of a trigger to clear the way. As the Aesir’s hand fumbled within the monstrous head, the maws of the statue began to contract around Hollan’s hand. Panic quickly turned to relief as the Aesir found a switch inside the mouth and though his hand was caught in the door, it had not torn the barbarian’s hand from his arm, and had opened. With a bit of prying Hollan was able to recover his undamaged hand and the party passed through the vile obstacle.
The stairs continued beyond the demon-headed door and Cortos noticed a small, crystalline stone set into the wall. Seeing no trap associated with the stone, the Hyrkanian braved a touch and was rewarded with a cool green glow which showed the way up further than their torch. Immediately at the green light’s end was another stone, and beyond that stone’s light was yet another stone. Each stone was touched when passed and the adventurers continued their trek upwards until their path was blocked by another door with a similarly carved demon’s head in its center as the first door. Cortos thrust his hand inside the demon’s mouth and searched for the latch. The Hyrkanian’s hand brushed along a trigger and the demon’s maw snapped around the thief’s hand, who cried out in alarm. The demonic statue’s snarl seemed to grow more malign as its fangs pressed down on Cortos’ hand, drawing blood. Malleus rushed past the others and tried to pry the head open but his thews were powerless against the levers and gears of the ancient trap. A clanking sound was heard every time the fangs of the demon’s head bit deeper and Cortos found the latch opening the door mere moments before the demon’s maw sealed it’s horrific grin. The door was swung open and the clanking sound was again heard until the demon’s mouth was again open.
To the adventurer’s relief there was not more stairs but a chamber beyond the door. Four large statues were positioned around the room, each facing in towards the center where a large glass bowl sat upon a carved pedestal. A circular opening in the ceiling let the day in, which showed the bowl as a centerpiece for some long forgotten ritual. Malleus gazed uneasily at each of the four statues, only able to make out their features of tentacles, talons and fangs, as the large statues receded beyond the light’s caress. The Cimmerian did not like the looks of the statues and chose to remain on the stairs as his 3 companions entered the chamber.
When the party stepped within 10 feet of the pedestal one of the statues turned its deformed head. Cries of alarm rose from within the chamber as Cortos and Hollan stood their ground while their Stygian ally could not contain his terror. Abizar fled out the door, past the Cimmerian, gibbering incoherently in a panic from the sight of the foaming blasphemy which menaced his companions. Inside the chamber, the creature of nightmare hissed malevolently as it reached out with its talons, which changed to tentacles which grew teeth to rend the intruder’s flesh. Hollan dodged one of the many changing appendages but was struck deep by another. The Aesir unleashed a crimson frenzy upon his anthropomorphous foe with little care to his own safety and though chunks of gelatinous sludge spattered the walls the fiend still advanced. Malleus called for his friends to grab the glass bowl and exit the room. Cortos tumbled past the creature and grabbed the bowl, withdrawing from the combat with Hollan at his back. Malleus grabbed the door and slammed it shut without a word. The party quickly gathered their wits when the Cimmerian heard a sound coming from the room they’d just left. It was a quiet sound, such as a series of clicks and he thought it traveled down the entire building but his companions had not heard it. All four of them stood for several minutes straining their ears but no further sounds commenced.
The Arrival of Ankh-Psamtek
Down the long spiraling staircase they went, intent on leaving the tower as soon as they reached the exit. When they reached the last few flights and the entry chamber was within their gaze the outside door opened. Into the entryway strode 6 men. 5 of the men carried bronze khopeshes, a large shield of a design drawn from antiquity, and a steel cap upon their head. The last man was adorned in black and purple robes which had a sigil Abizar recognized as that of the Stygian Black Circle, a cult of Stygian sorcerers whose hearts and deeds were black as pitch. The sorcerer saw the adventurers and advanced upon them with his armed retinue. The sorcerer’s eyes never seemed to leave the glass bowl which sat in Cortos’ arms. He introduced himself as Ankh-Psamtek and claimed he was after a, ‘rogue’ named Khonsardais who stole a map of this island from him. The sorcerer then claimed the glass bowl was rightfully his and the adventurers would be wise to hand it over to him. Abizar responded in a fawning manner of respect, with hopes of one day being inducted into the Black Ring himself, and told of Khonsardais’ death the day before. He agreed to turn over the bowl if Ankh-Psamtek would give his party passage on their sloop. The Black Ring sorcerer agreed and the bowl was handed to one of the soldiers who flanked the sorcerer.
Malleus was not happy with the exchange which took place and as the party followed the Stygians who made their way out of the tower he inquired in Aquilonian whether the Stygians could speak it. There was no response, so Malleus shouted again in the flower of the West’s tongue, “hey, you tail of an ass, I’m speaking to you.” The Stygians stopped dead in their tracks at the Cimmerians words and Malleus was about to continue hurling insults when Ankh-Psamtek turned on his heel and told the ill-begotten spawn of a sheep to quiet his tongue or have it torn out. The Cimmerian darted towards the sorcerer, his greatsword ringing free of its scabbard, with a look of murderous rage upon his face. Ankh-Psamtek quickly voiced words of power to curse Malleus but the Cimmerian’s will proved too strong. Abizar lividly cried out for the barbarian to stand down but there was no stopping Malleus. His greatsword swung through the air and came down upon the sorcerer’s collarbone just as a rumbling sound echoed throughout the valley. Tremors in the earth were felt by all as Cortos sent several arrows into the Stygian soldiers and Hollan bellowed a war cry. The Black Ring sorcerer was hurt, but not undone, and he produced a small glass globe from within his robes, hurling it at Malleus. The Cimmerian did not dodge the orb and when it broke upon his leather armor it released flames which engulfed his body. The barbarian cried out in agony, and seemingly with his howl the tremors in the valley reached a crescendo. Violent fissures broke the ground, releasing rancorous bouts of magma throughout the ancient valley.
The Stygian soldiers flanked the 3 adventurers which still stood and swung their bronze khopeshes with a trained hand. Abizar was struck brutally as was Cortos. The wounds Hollan received were not enough to give the Aesir pause. He roared out and lunged at Ankh-Psamtek in a fighting madness. A swing from his greatsword split the Stygian scholar’s head like a ripe melon. Abizar used sorcery and brought one of the soldiers into a ball of anguish on the moving ground. More magma fired up, and the tremors brought some of the buildings in the valley down upon their foundations. The adventurers could barely keep their feet but Cortos was able to fell the Stygian soldier who carried the glass bowl of Nakhtnebef with two arrows in his neck. The last remaining soldiers tried to flank the Aesir and though their khopeshes pierced flesh the indomitable barbarian ignored the wounds and delivered split guts to both. With the human danger defeated, the adventurers attention then came to the volcanic activity within the valley. Lava was already pouring onto the main road as Hollan threw Malleus over his shoulder and Cortos once again retrieved the glass bowl, which he thanked Bel had not shattered when it had fallen from the soldiers grasp.
The party rushed through the chaos exploding around them as quickly as they could. Several times their path was blocked by a stream of hot death and they had to find another. The valley’s tremors increased and the city came down around the adventurer’s heads. The heat which poured forth from the ground was unbearable and all their vision began to blur from the furnace which grew around them. When the party reached the ancient gates of the city they thought all was lost as the gate had crumbled from an open fissure and lava flowed all through the small opening which remained. Cortos then spotted a ruined building which looked as if it was tall enough to reach the cities’ wall. The adventurers ran towards the building and all made it over the wall just as the tower which had held the glass bowl of Nakhtnebef for 3,000 years tipped and fell. Quickly through the cave tunnel out of the valley the adventurers ran. About halfway through the tunnel the volcano erupted in fiery fury. A river of magma poured from the valley into the cavern and the adventurers doubled their efforts to flee the passage. They reached the exit and turned from the opening just mere seconds before the lava poured forth. With a giant flow of the liquid spouting from the top of the volcano the party was left with no choice but to jump into the waters below and pray they would not be dashed upon rocks and left for sharks.
The Missing Chronicles
Know, O prince, that there is more to this tale, though the ravages of time have withered away some of the scrolls and others were stolen from the great hall in Numalia. Nemedian scholars put the activities of Abizar, Cortos, Hollan, and Malleus, shortly after these known events, in Messantia, where they were met with conspiracy, intrigue, and fiendish horrors. Perhaps some day these scrolls will be uncovered and the records can be set right.