The Streets During Festival
The massive python advanced menacingly towards the adventurers, the scales of its bulky trunk scraping the cobblestones in its wake. Its neck arched threateningly, but before it could dart Xacksmith charged the beast, the Staff of Ibis raised above his head. The Hyrkanian brought the blade down upon the serpent’s crown with a sickening crunch. In the same moment Cuana’s greatsword flashed in the street’s dim torchlight, opening a gaping wound on the python’s flank. Tullweim followed the Cimmerian’s attack with a leaping charge, twice slicing through scales and scoring flesh. Ambrose closed the distance between himself and the giant beast, his sword seeming to dance in his hand as he searched for an opening. The Nemedian’s blade whirled and spun before he lodged its point through the serpent’s right eye, impaling the orb to the hilt of his arming sword. The adventurers wrenched their armaments free and sprang clear as the great body knotted, looped, and whipped terrifically in its death throes.
In the moment the party stood staring in morbid fascination, the only sound was the thud and swish of the snake’s tail against the stones. Then from the shocked masked votaries burst a terrible cry: “Blasphemers! They have slain a sacred son of Set! Slay them! Slay! Slay!” Stones whizzed about the party as the crazed Stygians rushed at them, shrieking hysterically. Tullweim waded into the masked acolytes and carved an arm off the closest, trailed by an arcing swath of death to the next. Cuana matched the Aesir’s stride, tearing through the 2 Stygian’s before him, flinging their heads and torso across the shadowed lane. Xacksmith brought the Staff of Ibis down on the remaining acolyte, caving in the Stygian’s left side. The masked priest of Set flung his dagger about in a panicked frenzy. The eyes behind the priest’s facade were wide in terror, for none would expect those in the streets to fight back, let alone butcher those doing Set’s will during the Old Serpent’s festival. The Stygian priest’s gaze waxed as Ambrose made a swift gesture of power through the air and cast his blade into the Setite. As the fiendish vicar floundered against the wall, the Aesir strode forth and drove his greatsword through the Stygian’s gut, stilling his curses and cries.
The corpses of men were hurriedly drug out of sight and stripped of their ceremonial gowns and masks. The torn and bloodied robes were donned with the visages placed over the adventurer’s already covered foreign faces. Tullweim remarked on their fortune for their masquerade as the garments were already stained with crimson, and sighed sullenly at the thought of those lives brutally ended that black night. The adventurers skulked upon flagstones which were cleaned nightly, but on that eve the walkways of Khemi were splattered with scarlet gore. Screams, both distant and near, tore through the night as more died in the name of their perverse serpent god. The merchants, soldiers, guests, and nobles stayed locked indoors, safe from the terrors that ruled the roads. A long line of chained virgins, brought into the city on moonless nights for the Festival of Set, was herded past the counterfeit rectors. Beyond the palms, a black triangular bulk looming against the shadowed sky was spied, and before it was the wagon the men-at-arms sought.
Belts of huts and groves were passed, and if any man saw the curious processional, he was careful not to show himself. The huts were lit as the sounds of music and drunken revelry seeped into the cacophonous night. Outdoors, the din of sacrifices, cries for release, and slithering death filled the night air. Behind them the black towers of Khemi rose gloomily against the stars mirrored in the waters of the harbor; ahead of them the desert stretched away in darkness. The quick-passing sandals of the silent adventurers made no noise in the sand. They might have been ghosts, moving toward that colossal pyramid. Their hearts beat quicker as they gazed at the grim black wedge which stood etched against the stars, and their impatience to close upon the wagon in whatever conflict the meeting might mean was not unmixed with a fear of the unknown. No man could approach one of those somber piles of black stone without apprehension. The very name was a symbol of repellent horror among the northern nations, and legends hinted that the Stygians did not build them; they were in the sands at whatever immeasurably ancient date the dusky-skinned people came into the land of the great river.
As the adventurers approached the pyramid they glimpsed a dim glow near the base, which resolved itself into a doorway, on either side of which brooded stone lions with the heads of women, cryptic, inscrutable, nightmares crystallized in stone. 2 men wearing the livery of royal guards each carried large rolls of rugs and made straight for the bronze doorway, in the deep well of which was seen a shadowy figure. As each belabored soldier passed through the gloomy portal he was halted briefly by a guardian and something passed between them, some word or gesture not even the Hyrkanian’s keen eyes could make out. All the masked priests with chained sacrifices followed, all challenged the same way. The disguised adventurers joined the queue in the hopes they could slip inside and seek out Princess Raia and King Ctesphon within. As the line progressed, Cuana and Tullweim observed the guardian at the entrance gesture curiously with his left hand as each man came before him. In response, the masked priests made the same sign with their right hand. With that knowledge whispered among them, the adventurers managed to bluff their way inside.
Into the Black Pyramid
Within the ancient precipice were eight rows of massive black stone columns supporting granite beams and the ceiling. The pillars nearly filled the room, with no more than a 10-foot space between them. The grand chamber was dark and shadowy, lit dimly by torches set high on the columns. Between the gargantuan columns a steady stream of slaughter was made by priests as acolytes cleaned and sharpened sacrificial daggers betwixt the gruesome murders. Some of the Stygians were bowed, chanting to their dark god for favor, power, and wealth. The 2 royal guards were seen speaking with a masked Setite vicar who led them into one of the dark archways flanking the entry hall. None challenged the adventurers as they passed through the grisly scene of carnage and human sacrifice into the egress the guards had taken.
The party ventured warily down the corridor, toward what doom they did not even try to guess. They had not gone far when the adventurers halted, baffled. The corridor split in two branches, and they saw no sign pointing where the masked priest and royal guards had taken the rolled canvasses. Ambrose and Xacksmith strained their ears for a sound which would betray their quarry’s course, but none was heard above the din of anguished cries of those helplessly slain in the pyramid and the loathsome chanting in reverence to Set. A decision was made to take the left path and the chosen passage’s floor slanted slightly downward and was worn smooth as by many feet. Here and there a dim cresset cast a faint nightmarish twilight along the party’s journey. The outlanders could only guess for what purpose the colossal piles had been reared, in what forgotten age. This was an ancient, ancient land. No man knew how many ages the black temples of Stygia looked upon.
Against the stairs, narrow black arches opened occasionally to right and left, but the party kept to the main corridor. Even with the start the men had on the adventurers, they should have overtaken them by that time. The silence was like a tangible thing, and yet there was a feeling they were not alone. More than once, passing a nighted arch the party felt the glare of unseen eyes fixed upon them. Then the sound of a furtive footfall in the gloomy halls was heard. A girl stood at the mouth of a smaller tunnel, staring fixedly at the men in bloody and torn robes. Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family, and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her hair a great pile of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby. But for her velvet sandals and broad jewel-crusted girdle about her supple waist she was quite nude. “What do you here?” she demanded. The Cimmerian’s alert gaze looked into the shadows behind her and found them empty. But Cuana kept his blade sheathed as there might have been hordes of fighting-men within her call.
The Nemedian replied in Stygian, they were in the pyramid for the festival. The scholar then asked the woman to come out into the hall. 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 advanced towards the Nordheimer, apparently without apprehension though with suspicion, her breathing deepening as she neared. “You are not priests,” she said. “You are fighting-men. Even with those masks that is plain. The bouquet of fresh blood clings about you. By Set!” she exclaimed, halting suddenly, her eyes flaring wide. "You are not even Stygian!” As the woman stood before them her nostrils flared and bosom rose and fell in a manner Cuana found disconcerting. Tullweim approached the doxy as the Cimmerian realized the Stygian woman was not truly breathing, but going through the motions as if driven to act in a manner almost forgotten by her.
Ambrose asked the mysterious, supple Stygian, if she had seen Princess Raia or a party of men bearing rugs. She claimed she knew, nor cared not. The Cimmerian and Nemedian began moving back the way they had come when the woman exclaimed, “I can help you! For many years have I drifted amongst these passages. I know where the priests store their wares.” All in the party had gathered a collection of gashes and wounds through their travels, and the suggestion of something which could help mend them was too tempting to refuse. Cuana whispered to Ambrose to mark their path with his chalk as the Stygian woman led the adventurers to a storeroom with many clay jars, urns, pots, and other receptacles of wondrous liquids. She lifted a pitcher and poured its contents into bowls which she passed to each man. Ambrose inspected the bowl, first sniffing then dipping his finger in it and believed it to be a restorative, though he could not say for certain. Tullweim quaffed the fluid without hesitation at the Nemedian’s words, and when Ambrose warned of possible ill effects from the draught the Aesir took his bowl and downed it as well.
Seeing no harm come to Tullweim, Cuana and Xacksmith likewise imbibed the potions offered by the woman. The adventurers felt astonishingly refreshed by the drink and some of their vigor lost through their many trials was replenished. The men were so taken by the euphoric feelings from the liquid they did nothing to keep the heavily breathing Stygian woman from approaching as she stepped to Tullweim and flung her arms about the Aesir’s massive neck. Her upturned, beautiful countenance showed a fearful fascination in the barbarian, cold and ravenous. “Love me!” she whispered, her head thrown back, eyes closed and lips parted. “Give me your blood to renew my youth and perpetuate my everlasting life! I will make you, too, immortal!” She pressed her dark head down against Tullweim’s mighty breast, and he felt a sharp pang at the base of his throat. Stunned, the barbarian pushed the feral woman from him with an oath. The Aesir touched the blood which flowed from the bite on his neck and asked the fiend what she was. She laughed and shook back her burnished locks, spreading her arms sensuously. “I am Akivasha! I am the woman who never died, who never grew old! It is in the shadows that mortals find immortality! Ten thousand years ago I died to live forever! Give me your lives, strong men!”
Tullweim struggled furiously against the vampire while Ambrose and Xacksmith pushed through the primal terror Akivasha’s presence inspired and futilely swung their blades. Only Cuana’s greatsword gave injury to the abomination made flesh, and even those gashes began to knit shut within moments of being received. Akivasha again latched onto the Aesir, licking the wound on his throat before piercing his flesh. To the disbelief of his companions, Tullweim held the creature gently and allowed her to feed on his blood. Perhaps the Aesir had been so close to death’s embrace for so long a time he no longer cared, but whatever, Cuana delivered a wicked slash to Akivasha’s back, and like a leech the vampire held on, continuing to drain Tullweim of his vitality. The Hyrkanian sunk the bladed edge of the staff he carried into the ancient Stygian’s exposed back with a furious cry. Barely keeping his nerves steady, Ambrose attacked, but was unable to land his wild thrust. The Cimmerian struck twice, opening massive gashes in the vampire’s undead hide. Recoiling from the attacks, Akivasha broke off from the Aesir and fled for the entry back into the maze of corridors through which she had led the adventurers.
A moment was taken to look for movement in the halls from any alerted to the skirmish, but their path seemed clear. The Nemedian had marked their passage well for they had no trouble retracing their steps back the way the adventurers had come. The trail the party blazed led deep within the pyramid. Along both corridor walls were open portals which led into vast rooms. The chambers were lit by torches and contained several large sarcophagi. The walls were decorated with fantastic murals of the beyond. On the ceiling of each room, a giant painted snake stretched into the center of the room as if looking down on those within. Finally the corridor the adventurers followed terminated in an immense vault with large columns supporting the black stone ceiling. The room looked as if it was once a temple, but was now stripped of decoration and suffered from deterioration and neglect. A soft, implosive, chanting of fiendish voices slithered from the far end of the gloomy chamber. 5 forms swayed sinuously around a primordial shrine shrouded by dense incense, no beguiling guise masked their serpentine natures there. Upon the ancient altar rested Raia, stripped of her skirt and cleaned from her travels. Laid against a nearby low wall was King Ctesphon IV. Both captives were comatose and unobservant of what occurred around them.
The adventurers removed the disguises worn, drew their blades, and ran to the altar with the adrenaline-fueled madness of battle pounding in their temples. A few paces before reaching the dais, Ambrose waved in the air and one of the snake-men’s khopeshes flew from its scabbard into an adjacent ophidian horror. The copper sword glanced across the demon’s spine, and it hissed its displeasure a moment before Xacksmith’s arrow imbed itself in its scaly shoulder. Cuana’s long stride took him to the altar between the two royal guards. One flashed its maws at the Cimmerian and bit, but Cuana’s armor saved him from its venomous fangs. The flanking snake-man slashed the barbarian with its khopesh, scoring a scraping wound. 2 more snake-demons advanced a step, ready to take the place of the guards should they fall, while the priest chanted in an unrecognizable tongue. Tullweim charged in a fighting madness, but his blade clanged sharply off the still-armed serpent-man dressed as a royal guard.
Ambrose advanced upon the disarmed snake-guard and stabbed with his sword, finding a soft spot between the terror’s scales. In response, the wedge head snapped forward and sank its fangs into the Nemedian’s shoulder. Ambrose cried out in agony and staggered as the poison burned in his blood, threatening to turn his thews to water. Cuana leapt over the altar, ignoring the slashes of the guards and cleaved through the priest’s torso, making a swift end of the creature’s miserable life. The Cimmerian used his momentum to advance another step and viciously hacked into the side of the closest false acolyte, killing it. Cuana struck another serpent-man with a frothing frenzy, its body fell one direction while its head, neck, and shoulder fell another. The melee raged wildly, and Ambrose ignored the fire in his veins long enough to spin around his foe. Caught between Tullweim and the Nemedian, the creature could not defend itself as the Aesir’s blade carved into its gut and Ambrose’s arming sword pierced its heart. Xacksmith charged the remaining fiend, lopping the creature’s loathsome head from its neck.
Then all was silent as the party stood for a few moments, the frenzy of battle easing as the fury ebbed from their systems. The warrior’s most grievous wounds were quickly tended and when they could not rouse the King and Princess they again wrapped them in the rugs they had been smuggled into the pyramid with. The adventurers planned to get the royal members of Stygia’s court out the same way they’d been brought in. So they donned their stolen attire and retraced their steps to the entry hall amidst the screams and cries of the dying. None of the occupied priests or acolytes paused their slaughter even an instant to see the 4 men, taller than most Stygians, carry 2 rolled carpets out the bronze entry. The guardian did not question them as they walked past the gruesome statues down the steps to the desert sands. The men-at-arms gripped their weapons as they left the steps and saw their path barred.
The Lord of the Black Ring
Standing before the battered adventurers was a somber giant wearing the ceremonial robes of a Lord of the Black Ring. The vulture-like man with dusky skin and malevolent eyes, which burned red, was flanked by 6 men of formidable build dressed in the livery of Stygia’s royal guard. The tall magician cryptically uttered, “Ka nama kaa lajerama.” The words were unfamiliar to the apprehensive adventurers; they were of no language they had ever heard-and yet-somewhere they had heard them. "Repeat the words I have spoken.” The fighting-men did their best to mimic the phonetic syllables the Stygian had pronounced, and found the words came to them with unnatural ease. “Aye, you remember,” said the sorcerer. “For the Words that Unweave have come secretly down the grim and bloody eons, since when, uncounted centuries ago, those words were watchwords for the race of men who battled with the grisly beings of the Elder Universe. For none but a real man of men may speak them, whose jaws and mouth are shaped different from any other creature. And none of Ishiti’s children can bear to hear them recited. Their meaning has been forgotten but not the words themselves.”
Ambrose asked the sorcerer what he wanted and he replied, “I am to return his highness the King, and Princess Raia to chambers where they can rest comfortably. You will hand them to the royal guards. After you do, you shall flee Khemi and be out of Stygia by dawn’s light." Seeing no other choice the party agreed and the tall man said, “Splendid. You have made fine agents, serving me, and Stygia itself, well. Keep whatever baubles you have plundered from Hepthnon’s tomb and the tri-temple of Besh-Bessu. Return that blundering priest of Ibis, Ishlan, to Messantia and collect your reward from Saevio. I shall ensure it is ample coin.” The party asked who the man was and how he knew so much and he replied, “I, am vizier to King Ctesphon IV, and Lord of the Black Ring. I am the bind which holds this ancient nation from swallowing its own tail. I, am Thoth-Amon." All 4 men knew well the black reputation of the the Lord of the Black Ring and stood nervously as the royal guards collected the King. Xacksmith could not be satisfied just leaving all they had experienced with no answers and asked why they had been used so. The sorcerer responded in a tone of a learned man speaking to a child.
“Because I led you to every convergence on the road to Khemi. I had become suspicious of Beqai Neb Temu when I learned he would not be in Khemi, for the Festival of Set, months ago. His manner had changed since last we spoke and though he was excited for the almighty Serpent’s festival he would not reveal what he planned to do in his meagerly staffed temple. Abominably, he had molded barriers around the oasis chapels, which kept my lotus fueled visions from peering in. Beqai was a priest of Set and Seshet, so I could not raid his chantry with the king’s men or even the Black Ring. I needed outside instruments and called out through the black of night to an Argossean agent in Messantia. You know him by the name, Saevio. The Argossean told of the recent doings of champions who sprung Argos’ king from doom’s grip. He sent you where I bade him to. Did you not find the amount of the reward for such a menial task odd? No matter, with the Black Lotus nourishing my visions I gazed upon Ishlan sending you to Hepthnon’s tomb. A company of Stygian soldiers was sent to Shem to herd you across the River Styx."
“I must admit, I had not known of Hepthnon’s plan to rise from his tomb a mirror of the Children he wished to relinquish Stygia to. Fortunate for this dominion Set graced Hepthnon’s mausoleum with sand to prevent those who were to raise him from doing so centuries ago. And it was this very sand I cast up into the sky for leagues across the desert. For I could not have you return to Shem so soon after arriving. With the scathing dusts I whisked you to the oasis of Besh-Bessu to confront that which I could not know. I scryed upon you leading Princess Raia from the oasis. This I found naturally odd, as I had arrived early in Khemi to ensure the palace hosting my liege was fit, and had spoken with the Princess that very day. When the true Princess revealed what had happened to her I knew you would have to enter the city. So I sent a missive to the gate captains and ordered the guards expect her highness’ arrival, regardless of the company she kept. And you have now fulfilled all I required of you. So begone, our game is concluded.” As the bewildered adventurers left the grisly black-walled city of annihilation and the dawn broke on their track, the glistening light shone upon the harbor fed from the sewers. Red plumes of blood poured forth from the night’s sacrifice of thousands and turned the entire bay of Khemi a deep scarlet. The bay fed the Styx and for weeks the river would blaze crimson as a barrier or warning to the lands north.