The Shadowy Chantry
Blood dripped from more wounds than most men could sustain as the Nordheimer, Tullweim, towered victoriously in the nude over the corpses of monstrous snake-men. Past the corridor in Cuana’s bedchamber, Xacksmith quested for a trigger which would open the secret panel the adventurers had seen the Cimmerian drug through. The Aesir recovered his wolf-head helm from his room when he heard movement from further down the lane and dashed into the alcove Xacksmith labored in. With teeth bared, Tullweim pushed the bed against the door as he urged the Hyrkanian to search faster, for they would again be in the company of ophidian men. Wrapped only in cloth bedsheets, Xacksmith brokenly remarked he was looking as fast as his laudanum poisoned limbs would allow him, when his hand pushed against a stone which depressed into the wall revealing a tunnel. The borderer cried out his success as Tullweim stacked the remaining furniture in the room against the bunk’s main portal. The 2 adventurers followed the passage several hundred feet to a seemingly dead end. Knowing there was at least one other exit from the aisle, Xacksmith uncovered a catch which opened another panel to a desperate scene.
The lights of braziers flickered in the cavity beyond, revealing a pool surrounded by 6 hideous obelisks of sinuously cut stone. In the shallow basin was clasped a nude, dusky-skinned young woman, with strikingly straight features, who struggled vainly against the iron grip of 2 Stygian bruisers. 4 more warriors stood at the ready around the pond. While beyond, Cuana and another man of Nemedian blood were each chained to an obelisk across from one another. Beqai Neb Temu was poised menacingly above the young prisoner with a ceremonial dagger of two flint blades shaped like the fangs of serpents. The wicked rector muttered a brief apology to Set for not sacrificing the doxy beneath the festival moon, and readied his blade to bite as the adventurers burst in. Xacksmith haltingly tugged back his bowstring, and cast 3 shafts at the Setite priest, all grazing the hawk-nosed Stygian. Tullweim carved the closest warrior, who held the sacrificial captive, so viciously his torso sailed from his legs in a spray of crimson. The Setite priest hurled a glass globe which burst into flames when it struck Tullweim, searing the fresh wounds on the barbarian’s hide. All the Stygian warriors dropped their human visages with wiry shifting of their face’s flesh, causing a surge of panic to threaten the Aesir and Hyrkanian. Whether discipline or providence allowed the adventurers to beat down the quivering dread threatening to overtake them, they stood their ground as the serpentine battlers around the pond stormed at them.
Both men took grievous wounds and retaliated as the Stygian prisoner struggled with her captor and the chained Nemedian woke. Beqai cast another globe, taken from his belt pouch, at Tullweim singing the barbarian’s skin. Cuana roused seeing the Aesir slaughter another of the serpentine horrors, as Xacksmith backed some feet from the melee and fired at the abomination assaulting him. The mad priest blew Stygian tomb dust into Tullweim’s eyes, blinding the barbarian. Snake-men devastatingly barraged Tullweim, who still stood despite the vast collection of fresh wounds acquired. With a blinded rage the Aesir charged into a leap at the priest of Set. But just as his blade would make contact, a violent blast of arcane pressure flung Tullweim, the Stygian girl, and the creature who held her, turbulently out of the pool. With a great eruption of water the hideous soldier was pounded into the hard corner of a near wall. The Aesir managed to control the maddening spinning his form was subject to and roughly fell to the ground with his breath stolen by the impact. The young woman was dashed violently upon the turf close by and did not move, though whether she was dead or simply unconscious was unknown.
Xacksmith released 3 more bolts at the blasphemous snake-men as Tullweim again instinctively charged where he believed the Stygian priest was positioned. The barbarian crowed in victory as his greatsword heaved terribly through Beqai’s gut, lifting the priest several feet in the air, who then slid to the hilt of Tullweim’s blade with a pronounced splatter of ruddy fluid. The priest eviscerated so, the severely bleeding Nordheimer stumbled clumsily toward the stacked equipment by the altar at Cuana’s and the chained Nemedian’s urging. The call to watch his back came too late as a bronze khopesh tore through Tullweim’s midsection imparting the Aesir to the earth. Cuana roared at the sight of his fallen companion and the Nemedian struggled vainly against his bindings, hollering to Xacksmith to grab hold of a key on the altar near the secret door the Hyrkanian had entered from. The archer blearily gauged his remaining foe and was about to pounce towards the pedestal when Xacksmith’s eyes rolled back into his head and he plummeted to the landing with the laudenem still festering in his system.
The last standing bestial figure of madness called out in its sibilant tongue to those the adventurers had heard in the above hall. The serpentine butcher raised its khopesh and stalked towards the hobbled Cimmerian who frothingly bellowed his fury. Neither of the still conscious men had any illusions what their fate would be as they stared into death’s fanged maw. But hope sprung forth as the Hyrkanian regained his wits and snatched the key from the altar. Xacksmith leapt to Cuana and awkwardly unfastened one of the Cimmerian’s massive limbs. The serpent-man rushed forward with his blade raised but was caught by Cuana’s gorilla-like paw. The sounds of bones crunching were heard as the serpent hissed and was brought to its knees in agony. Xacksmith reached to one of the fallen fiends retrieving a khopesh which he held out for the Cimmerian. Cuana kicked the beast to the ground, grabbed the sword, and made a swift end of the creature beneath him.
The Hyrkanian quickly freed Cuana and the Nemedian plead to be liberated as well, swearing loyalty to his would-be saviors. Xacksmith complied, asking what the Nemedian was called, and the man responded with the name, Ambrose. Meanwhile, Cuana was relieved to hear faint breath from the Aesir who had been left for dead. The Cimmerian put what meager tools he had to work with to stop the gushing of blood from the Aesir’s still form. The sound of fast approaching enemies spurred those adventurers who could act to gather their equipment, their fallen friend, the young girl, and flee the chantry through another passage. As Ambrose carried the youth, he noted she was radiantly statuesque in appearance and could not have seen more than 19 summers. The adventurers departed the compound and stumbled upon a stable cleverly hidden by foliage and rock formations. There they found blankets, saddlebags, and camels, which they rode into the desert. The party pressed through the dawn, stopping after a few miles to tend their many wounds. Tullweim was treated and roused as was the young Stygian woman. When lucidity returned the girl looked to each of the men’s faces, her obviously practiced bearing betrayed by the tears streaming from her eyes as she thanked them for rescuing her from Beqai’s sacrificial knife.
The girl presented herself as Raia, the daughter of Khemi’s Prince, Tamuneb. She beseeched the party to escort her back to the port city before the full moon, when the Festival of Set would begin. When asked why she wished to travel to Khemi with such heedlessness, Raia answered, “I…I was…taken from Khemi days ago, perhaps a week. I cannot say for sure as I have not seen the sun…sniff…but my family is hosting King Ctesphon IV as the guest of honor for their gala on the evening of the Festival. As I was being taken by the serpent-men, I overheard them say that by the time the Festival of Set was over, the King would be replaced and Stygia would belong to them again. In my captivity I have prayed for deliverance. That Set would send me champions so my king might be warned, and here you have arrived. Please, with all haste, take me back to Khemi!" The adventurers agreed with grim faces, knowing they may not survive such an adventure.
Few rests were made but food from caught game and water found helped replenish the party on the road to Khemi. In those brief moments of resting and eating the Princess asked many questions, amazed at what the adventurers told of the lands and people north of the River Styx, for all she knew of them was what the priests of Set had told her. Ambrose glibly corrected whatever notions about the countries he’d traveled through along the journey to Khemi and Raia marveled at both what he told her of and his impertinence at disputing the words of priests she’d been subject to her entire life. The Nemedian then noticed The Staff of Ibis Cuana carried. The Cimmerian passed the ancient relic when Ambrose asked and the scholar recognized the text written along the petrified length of wood as belonging to the Valusian tongue, though he could not read it. When asked who the Valusians were, the Nemedian answered they were a powerful race thousands of years ago. Few artifacts still existed from those times, and all held their secrets. Xacksmith became more interested in the staff than he had throughout the deadly trek to return it. The Hyrkanian took it from Ambrose and sat before it for an hour. Though he could not read the script he recognized symbols he’d seen in past scrolls and tombs. The only meaningful phrase Xacksmith could decipher was a simple declaration, “By this axe I rule!” Without telling his sword-brothers what he’d gleaned, the Hyrkanian announced he would relieve Cuana of carrying the staff and the Cimmerian conceded.
The adventurers arrived within view of the harbor city late in the afternoon, scant hours before the evening fell and the Festival of Set began. Before them rose Khemi, Stygia’s greatest port, and at the time her most important city. The king dwelt at more ancient Luxur, but in Khemi reigned the priestcraft. If the mighty River Styx was the embodiment of Set, as some wise men spoke, then black-walled Khemi was Set’s never closing eye and the city’s fortified southern peninsula its fang. Still miles off, Raia bid the Nemedian slow his camel and told of the low-arched entrance to the city called the Crocodile Gate. But she did not know how to get past the portcullis as no foreigners were allowed admittance into the city without a pass, which few were granted. Ambrose asked if she knew of any way to bypass the guards and she could only guess at their chances of being smuggled in unseen. The Nemedian then inquired if she would not have been traveling with servants out of the city. The Princess responded she would indeed, but if the adventurers were to gain entry they could not let a glimpse of their features be seen and would have to be completely covered.
The party passed through acres of clustered, low, flat-topped mud houses and palm groves arranged in belts around the city as they approached the Crocodile Gate. And so the adventurers stopped at one of the many hovels and shanties outside the city gate. A Stygian man in his middle years was approached. Words were exchanged to purchase any blankets, kaftans, robes and shawls the dusky-skinned man could part with, but the Stygian glared at the foreigners with baleful eyes and asked for a ridiculous sum of gold. Tullweim disembarked from his camel and glowered at the man as Ambrose and Xacksmith haggled. Though Cuana couldn’t understand the utterings traded, he recognized the tone of his companions, and dismounted as well, glaring menacingly as he approached the Stygian with his hand on his sword. The man’s tone immediately became anxious, almost frantic as he waved his hands disarmingly in front of him, and adopted a more reasonable stance. One gold piece from Cuana’s coin pouch was paid, which all in the party knew was still robbery, but they had been left with all of the things required to masquerade as Raia’s servants.
Ambrose asked Raia if she would normally speak to the guards or if one of her servants would and she replied those of her status only exchanged words with guards when they were needed and it was typical of a servant to announce her presence. When the concealed wanderers reached the gate, 2 soldiers dressed in linen kilts, each armed with a bronze khopesh, steel cap, and antique large shield, barred their way. The Nemedian spoke to the 2 guards, presenting Raia with his best Stygian accent, such as it was. The guards responded that they had been told to expect Princess Raia to enter the city that day, which the adventurers found disconcerting, but could do little about as they were escorted through the gate unmolested. Beyond the bulwark laid clusters of low, flat-topped mud houses and palm groves. Past the palms was a somber, black-stoned pyramid rising colossally out of the murk of the desert. A broad avenue seemed to connect the Gate Ward to the Temple Ward, which was full of activity as a constant throng of dark, inscrutable temple Elders and lesser followers of Set carried offerings of gold, silver, jewels, fine silks and other goods before the altars. Several lines of chained prisoners were led into the temples, there for the sole purpose of giving their lives to Set that eve. The altars themselves were being prepared by acolytes for the upcoming sacrifices.
Raia led the party through the long, dim, snake-infested streets of the main part of the city. All stalls in the Bazaar District were making their final sales before closing at dusk. As the sun faded, the only man-made lights were torches set at wide intervals. Fewer people were seen as the shadows lengthened, and those that were seen moved silently and in haste. Great black stone walls rose on each side of the streets. The architecture was grim and massive, giving an overpowering and oppressive atmosphere to the ward as the adventurers made their way through. From the Bazaar District, they were taken through the Avenue of Asps, renowned for its towering mansions. Past the mansions the party traveled through what Raia called, the Fangs of Set. Great black fortified castles towered above them on the southern point of Khemi’s bay. Immense structures, including crenellated towers, great walls of black stone, imposing barracks, storehouses and other military buildings were passed. Serpent prowed gondolas sailed from these castles, each filled with naked, swarthy women with red blossoms in their hair, calling to incoming sailors arriving for the macabre festival.
Finally, the men-at-arms reached Prince Tamuneb’s coastal palace of black stone, the tallest and most spired of all the dark structures on the southern peninsula. A wall, pierced in one place by a set of grandiose metal gates decorated with a leering serpent’s head protected the palace and was manned by 6 warriors in black linen kilts and leather armor. Raia sighed, saying those were King Ctesphon’s royal guard, likely there to inspect the guests as they arrived. The Princess would be allowed to enter through the gate, but the party would have to find another way. The supple young woman pointed up to a window in the palace and told of her bedchamber. Raia stressed the party would have to find a way over the wall and meet her there. She wished to present the adventurers to her father, and the King himself, in private to attest to what they had witnessed in the temple at the oasis. Before the Princess left, Raia warned to be careful in the gardens. Though she did not know what dangers patrolled, she did know she had never been allowed off the main path which led from the gate to the palace entrance. With no other words, the young Princess left the party and approached the compound’s gate.
The adventurers followed the length of the palace’s outer wall away from the main gate. The wall itself was only 10 ft. tall and 3 ft. thick, and made from neatly cut jet black stone. Thick shrubbery grew all around the outer wall, but luckily no guards were near enough to hear the rustling of leaves as the party made their way through. Cuana easily scaled the barrier and jumped to the ground on the other side, but when he landed he had to stifle a cry as shards of broken glass and pottery had been placed to injure intruders. The Cimmerian whispered a warning to the others, who were all able to make it over and avoid the trap. Prince Tamuneb’s outer palace garden was carefully manicured and tended, a trimmed sward of grass with trees and shrubs which each stood in a puddle of water. The sound of four tinkling fountain pools were heard softly throughout the neat garden, the beauty of their music a stark contrast to the perversity of their gruesome design. The ground sloped uphill slightly towards a second wall, some 50 feet away, separating the outer garden from an inner garden.
A patrol of 2 guards was spied bearing in the general direction the party stood. All 4 men slunk near the fountains and avoided being detected. Once the way was clear the party moved towards the inner wall. It too was made of neatly cut black stone, ten feet tall and three feet wide, though it appeared taller when viewed from the street outside the outer garden as it sat at a higher elevation. Unlike the outer wall, however, the inner wall was festooned with thickly interwoven vines. Tullweim did not like the look of the vines but Cuana said they could be used to help scale the barrier. None noticed the light scattering of small bones from birds and cats on the ground close to the wall’s base. As the Cimmerian approached the barricade the cursed vines lashed out at him. Cuana barely twisted out of their reach, glowering at the Aesir as he chuckled under his breath. The Cimmerian barbarian drew his greatsword, and tore into the vines, hacking away a large section. Xacksmith followed Cuana’s attack with the double-bladed staff of Ibis which he used as a battle axe, shearing away the large stem of the devilish vine, which crumpled to the ground. Cuana and Tullweim both shuddered at how the Hyrkanian treated the ancient relic they were supposed to return to Ishlan in the dead city of Kaetta, but made no protest as they scampered onto the wall.
Beyond the wall was a thick garden in a vague pool of shadows, where low bushes and feathery trees spread and waved in the sea breeze. The adventurer’s wary souls felt the aura of waiting menace which brooded there and the burning glare of unseen eyes. As they dropped into the inner garden the hairs at the nape of their necks instinctively bristled at the thick shadows and the scent of danger they concealed. Ambrose marked the side of the wall they’d entered by with chalk he carried so the adventurers would know the way they’d come by. Whatever guardians awaited them were avoided as the party moved with cat-like motions, disturbing barely a branch with their passage towards the palace. Cuana scaled the palace walls with ease and the rest of the party followed behind. As the Cimmerian pushed back the silken curtains from Raia’s balcony, he saw the Princess sitting in an opulently decorated chamber. Marble columns surrounded a bed which rested in the center of the room, filled with silken cushions and pillows. Exquisitely manicured plants sat in pots of colorfully delineated clay ringed with bronze. Murals painted by master artisans stretched to the full sweep of the walls. Raia appeared almost a different woman from the tired traveler dressed in blankets she was on the road to Khemi. She had obviously been bathed and clothed for the night’s festival in the short stretch of time since the adventurers had parted with her. The Princess acutely gazed into a polished mirror and attended herself on a divan next to the bed when the Cimmerian moved in.
Cuana entered the Princess’ chamber as Xacksmith reached the balcony behind him. The Cimmerian spoke simply, “we are here.” Raia’s head whipped around at the barbarian’s words, a look of pure panic on her face, and she let out a long, piercing cry of alarm. Cuana was stunned for a brief moment, then his anger boiled over at the treacherous Stygian. Tullweim and Ambrose were clamoring onto the balcony as Xacksmith approached the young woman warning her to still her tongue. But Raia wailed on like a banshee and the Hyrkanian brought the blade from the Staff of Ibis straight down upon the Princess’ crown. Xacksmith was amazed at how easily the axe split the woman’s skull, as if the curiously alloyed blade hungered for the young girl’s flesh. Raia’s lifeless body slumped to the floor and her face shifted into that of a fiendish serpent-woman like those encountered in the oasis, the illusion of humanity it had cast dispelled with its death. Cuana swore at the change and wondered aloud if the girl they had traveled with had been a serpent the entire time intending to entrap them, or had been replaced by one since they separated at the palace gate.
But there were more pressing matters at hand, as the tell-tale pounding of sandals with a soldier’s rhythm sounded from the hallway. The adventurers looked grimly at one another, all had little rest in their sprint to Khemi, and Tullweim was still badly wounded from the fights beneath the oasis. Cuana threw open the chamber door Tullweim and Xacksmith flanked. The Cimmerian cast the body of the serpent imposter onto the floor between them and ordered the Hyrkanian to act as interpreter for Cuana’s words. The soldiers arrived to an open portal showing a lifeless abomination surrounded by foreigners. The barbarian spoke in a loud, menacing voice, demanding the guards hold as he spoke of the horror masquerading as their Princess and implored the soldiers fetch their Prince to stop an assassination on their King. Xacksmith translated the Cimmerian’s words and the guard’s expressions were first of outrage, then uncertainly aghast at the sight of the beast laying on the floor. One guard pronounced the adventurers would have to surrender themselves before they would be given any audience with a member of Stygian royalty. Having seen what prisoners in Khemi were destined for that night already, the adventurers refused and drew up their arms.
One by one, the guards entered, their khopeshes singing through the air, and one by one they fell with strangled cries. All fought and died as human, which gave promise that not every Stygian was a snake wearing man’s flesh. But the sounds of battle had reached the ears of more guards who were heard racing towards the adventurers. Back out the Princess’ balcony the party fled, beneath a gloomily pale moon as deep, eerie notes sounded from every tower in Khemi, marking the beginning of the Festival of Set. At a loss of what could be done, the adventurers followed their path back over the 2 walls like panthers in the twilight. When they reached the main gate the party observed a wagon, driven by 2 royal guards, leaving the palace grounds and headed into the city. Tullweim grunted and ran after the wagon and his confederates followed. The cart moved faster than the barbarian could hope to catch but he sped like a leopard after it to see where it would go.
The Streets During Festival
All doors and windows passed were closed tight during Festival. The building occupants drank and feted, all the while denying the horrors going on outside their doors as priests of Set hunted down sacrificial victims in strange processionals wearing horrific, half-bestial masks. Meanwhile, the unpopular, the diseased, and the foreign found themselves locked outside, much like the adventurers were, as waiting sacrifices. The sounds of slaughter filled the streets as altars open to the air consumed prisoners, captured virgins, and anyone else on the street who came across a Setite priest. The Hyrkanian breathlessly suggested Raia might be brought to sacrifice a second time at the culmination of the festival. The wagon was seen winding its way further into the city and the outlanders decided it would either go to the temple district or the black pyramid. Neither a welcoming locale for those such as they.
And suddenly a low scream from a woman on the other side of the street was heard. Somewhat ahead, a naked courtesan wearing the tall plumed head-dress of her class shrank back against a wall, staring across at something the adventurers could not see. At her cry a processional of priests halted suddenly as if frozen. That same instant the foreign warriors were aware of a sinister slithering ahead of them. Then, about the dark corner of the building they were approaching poked a hideous, wedge-shaped head, and after it flowed coil after coil of rippling, darkly glistening trunk. The Stygians within sight fell to their knees, men and women, and passively awaited their fate. One the great serpent would select, would lap in scaly coils, crush to a red pulp and swallow as a rat-snake swallows a mouse. The others would live. To a Stygian, that was the will of their gods. The python glided toward the party, its attention probably attracted by the fact that they were the only humans in sight still standing erect. It halted before them and reared up horrifically in the flickering torchlight, its forked tongue flicking in and out, its cold eyes glittering with the ancient cruelty of the serpent-folk.