Seeking Elder Counsel
With little else to go on, Ambrose, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith again entered the Shanty, the squalid home of the Gallah. There they learned even the locals were being terrorized by the frenzied cultists of Jullah. Many young women had been kidnapped and a few men as well, the males’ partially devoured corpses found on the outskirts of Zabhela. An elder, called Eshiba, had taken up arms against the followers of Jullah for the kidnap of his daughter, son’s wife, grandchildren, and the death of his son. It was this man the adventurers sought, though the instructions given them led only to an empty household. The party questioned 2 Gallah men and a woman, found near Eshiba’s abandoned home, about the whereabouts of the Kushite. The Nemedian noticed whenever Eshiba’s name was uttered the Gallah became nervous. Ambrose spoke to his allies in Nemedian, stressing the need to avoid repeating the moniker of the man they were seeking. One of the Gallah swains stated the elder Kushite had left the city and now dwelled in Shemanza, a farming hamlet near the coast. Tullweim was curious as to the cause of the nervousness of the frightened locals and they babbled of how Eshiba was a powerful shaman not to be angered. The Kushites feared anyone risked drawing the elder’s wrath by saying his name. With the knowledge of where to find Eshiba, the adventurers left the Shanty.
The journey to Shemanza was mostly through lush, cultivated farmland dotted with the huts of peasant farmers and shepherds. The men-at-arms arrived at the village after a few hours’ walk. From there, Zabhela was all but invisible in the distance, swallowed by the dense tree line, with only a handful of spiraling towers from the Upper City still seen. The scent of the sea hung thick in the air as the adventurers arrived at the village. No children were seen playing games, no farmers hocked their produce, no craftsmen mended tools and no shepherds tended their flocks. The village was eerily quiet and only a few furtive souls moved about, mostly men, who quickly slammed shut doors and barred windows. In the center of the community was a great object not unlike a maypole, its base surrounded and decorated with dozens of human skulls. At the top of the post hung a body, strung up by its legs. The pole was red with the crusted blood of the hanging corpse. Cuana noticed the fastened cadaver was naked but for an armband of the cultists of Jullah.
An elder man approached the party, calming the villagers as he passed. He was ancient, tall and powerful, wrapped in a deep red cloak adorned with sacred talismans and etched bones. His face was painted white and his gray hair wild and unkempt. The elder shaman said nothing as the men-at-arms introduced themselves. The adventurers told of the slaughter at the Artelios estate and Cuana’s contempt for Rand Artelios brought a smile to the Kushite’s face. When it was revealed the men-at-arms had been hired by Erithemes Artelios to rescue her daughter Tarethis, the shaman introduced himself as the very man the party had been sent to find. Tullweim spoke of Lady Artelios telling of Eshiba being able to aid the adventurers in locating the cult of Jullah. The ancient Kushite nodded in response. Cuana then said he had heard of Eshiba’s family being attacked and asked when the assault had happened and why. The shaman’s face grew grim as he revealed his tale.
“Once, I was an initiate of the Jullah worshipers. I spent many years in the cult’s service. The people of Kush value Jullah, for while he be a god of the apes and son of the great Jhebbal Sag, the ape god is seen as a protector of the people of Kush against the Set worshiping Chaga. Two decades ago, I left the cult to marry a woman and had a son and four daughters. I raised great family. Five years gone, my son married and his wife birthed twin daughters of his own. A week past, my family was destroyed by the sect I once served. They raided my home in the city, slew my son. My eldest daughter, who was to be wed in a month, was also taken, as were both of my son’s daughters and widow. Now, I wish vengeance.” Ambrose stroked his chin as he wondered aloud what could have caused the once revered Jullah cult to act so. Eshiba responded, “Something has gone wrong with the Jullah worshipers. The women be taken to appease the great god. For those who see, know the beasts express Jullah’s rage. I know not why the god be angry. But those who serve the god seek to fulfill a ceremony from before time began by finding a virginal bride for the god, to quell his anger.” Tullweim asked the shaman if he would reveal where to find the women and cultists and Eshiba nodded, saying, “I know of temple, hidden from all outlanders, where the marriage to Jullah may be. I take you, if you give your word you save those women held, my daughter, my son’s widow, and my grand-daughters.” The Aesir stated their goals were aligned with Eshiba’s and was anxious to leave.
The shaman held his hand up and said he believed the cult of Jullah would wait for nightfall, as the god resided on the dark of the moon. Though the trek to their lair would be long, Eshiba said the adventurers would need all the aid they could gather, and offered to perform a ritual which would give them an edge over the servants of the beast god. All in the party agreed to the Kushite’s offer and preparations were quickly made. The shaman chanted as several young Gallah men and women apprentices covered the adventurers with ceremonial war paint. After the second hour of the sorcerous rite, talismans of bone were gifted to each men-at-arms. Eshiba instructed the party to keep the fetishes, etched with cryptic glyphs of sorcerous power, visible on their person. The adventurers tied the phylacteries to their hair and armor and when finished, the shaman urged movement saying “It be time to go.” The elder Kushite lead the men-at-arms south down a forgotten path which meandered along the cliffs of the coast.
In the dwindling light of the sun, the adventurers heard movement coming from surrounding jungle. 3 panthers, black as pitch, stalked onto the path, the beasts’ mouths frothing. The party was drawing their weapons as Eshiba squatted to the ground and sketched a symbol in the dirt. The astonished party witnessed as the beasts stalled their advance, standing still before them with fury in their eyes. Though Ambrose’s broad knowledge of the mystic arts could not unveil the exact spell cast by the elder Kushite, he gleaned it to be from the paths of nature magic. Without a further word, Eshiba motioned the men-at-arms to follow as he again led them onward. As darkness fell, the party reached an overlook jutting along the coastline and the ancient sorcerer stopped to examine the rocks. Cuana and Xacksmith struck flint to light the torches they had brought with them and kept their eyes open for crazed beasts or men as Ambrose and Tullweim watched the aged man uncover and follow a series of pictographic marks etched on the rocks. Eshiba then revealed a crude, nearly invisible set of stairs leading down the steep cliffs. “It is here,” the Kushite sorcerer intoned, “that those who worship Jullah take their victims to appease the angry god. Steel your nerves and ready your weapons,” he ordered as he began the journey down the steps.
The Temple of Jullah
Eshiba led the party down a 200 foot dangerous cliff face overlooking a rocky expanse of the Black Coast under a moonless night. The man moved as if he’d been down the precariously narrow, chiseled stairs many times, and the adventurers knew they would not have found it that dark night without the elder Kushite’s aid. During the party’s descent, fierce winds gusted up from the west and threatened to sweep the men-at-arms off the stairs, into the jagged rocks a hundred feet below. Eshiba, Cuana, and Xacksmith pressed through the gale while Ambrose and Tullweim stumbled, though did not fall. The adventurers made it to a slight ledge, which opened up to a gaping hole in the wall, around which the maw of a great ape had been chiseled. Entering the ape’s open craw revealed a trail, which ended abruptly 10 feet in before coming to a heavy, sealed iron door. The door looked as if it could be forced open, but before the men-at-arms could act, Eshiba exposed a hidden lever off to the side, along the cave entrance. The great door opened noiselessly as the shaman pulled the bar. The party figured the joints and hinges of the precipice had been oiled and well cared for.
The passage cut deeper into the cliffs, exposing a series of caverns formed countless years ago. Perhaps made at a time when the sea level was higher or the cliffs were submerged, allowing the waters to form a network of grottoes and tunnels through the earth. The tunnels were polished and smooth, with ornate pictographic images of the beast god and his sacred rites painted in yellow, black and red along the walls. Many paths branched through the network, but the party stayed close behind Eshiba, following with a singular purpose. The Kushite stopped before an opening and motioned for the adventurers to douse their torches, which was quickly done. The men stalked to the opening of an immense chamber, flanked with large bundles of tinder which kept the room aglow, in the center of which was a great open pit. Nearby barrels of salted fish and grain were being carried from the wall to be lowered down a heavy pulley and lever system by 6 Jullah cultists. Xacksmith’s cat-like eyes saw a massive, barrel-chested figure keeping watch over the work in front of one of the 2 egresses opposite the adventurers. It was at that fearsome shape the Hyrkanian let loose a shaft from his bow, causing a furious roar to erupt from the creature.
Ambrose moved into the room, but kept his distance from the cultists as his companions charged into the fray. The burnished-hued bull ape loped with its knuckles closing the distance towards the adventurers. The elder cultist bellowed out an order for the initiates to slay the infidels. Cuana was already upon the acolytes of Jullah before they could release their burdens on the block and tackle. The Cimmerian struck too quickly for the eye to follow, blood and brains spattered as a cultist’s corpse let go of the rope holding the barrels above 100 women held in the pit 40 feet below. With a vicious cleave the Cimmerian severed a second cultist, causing the remaining initiates to be drug on the ground towards the crater as the platform they held dropped half the distance towards the bottom. The screams of terror from the women below echoed up to the battle, spurring Eshiba to leap at the rope holding the plummeting scaffold. Tullweim moved along the opposite route round the pit, hoping to attack the gorilla from the rear. The Jullah elder withdrew towards the great ape and told the acolytes to release their cargo. The cultist nearest the Cimmerian barbarian did as he was ordered and delivered a furious blow to Cuana’s jaw. The 2 remaining cultists flanked the Cimmerian, pelting his body with their closed fists. Ambrose flashed his blade at one of the Kushites assaulting Cuana, wheeling cat-like, and thrust murderously into the man’s groin.
Cuana’s great blade lashed down, splitting the skull of one of the Jullah cultists upon him. The Cimmerian’s keen weapon slashed again and again into the second, licking through flesh and bone; his head fell one way, his half-sundered torso the other. Xacksmith drew his arming sword and sheathed the point in a Kushite’s throat. The bull ape turned towards Tullweim and roared its fury as it charged, slamming its colossal mitt across the Aesir’s brow, drawing a stream of blood as Tullweim was knocked to his knees. In response, the Nordheimer barbarian lunged at the beast with two arcing slices. The elder cultist screeched with a fighting madness, lifting Ambrose’s chin and bringing stars to his eyes. The Nemedian spun with the momentum of the slug and swept his blade cross the Kushite’s abdomen. Eshiba cried out for aid as the platform he held had drug him to the edge of the precipice. Cuana rushed to the shaman’s side and grabbed hold of the rope.
The Cimmerian and Kushite’s thews were taxed to their breaking point as the women beneath the platform scrambled atop one another to avoid the dangerously swaying scaffold. The tremendous weight on the rope ripped the cord from Cuana and Eshiba’s grasp, sending the platform crashing upon the women who could not clear the way. The bull ape grappled Tullweim into its tree-trunk sized limbs and the Aesir howled in agony as his frame was pressed in. Xacksmith flanked the elder cultist without the Kushite noticing and viciously plunged his blade into the elder’s side. Ambrose ceased the Jullah cultist’s harrowed cries, his sword shearing through the Kushite’s skull as through a ripe melon. Tullweim struggled to free his right arm and grasped at his dagger. Furious at his failure but with no way to aid the wounded women, Cuana turned his attention to the struggling forms of the Aesir and ape. With a leaping charge the Cimmerian tore through the great beast’s hide. Tullweim pressed the distraction and plunged his dagger through the bull ape’s eye, sending the slain beast crashing to the floor with a heavy thud.
As Cuana helped his injured friend stand, Ambrose and Xacksmith turned their attention to the pit of wailing women. The Nemedian made note of the pictographs on the walls as he passed them, showing the foul god, once summoned, was expected to enter the pit and do as it would with the women below. Eshiba said someone would have to scale the crater’s walls to return the rope if they were to use the scaffold to retrieve the women. Ambrose shook his head and told the Kushite that would not be necessary as he held his hands in a bowl shape and levitated the fallen cord. The adventurers each grasped the rope and pulled the platform off the women, telling the other captives to clear the wounded from beneath the scaffolding. After their order was accomplished the party hauled the damaged women from the pit and sent it back for 8 unhurt prisoners to be lifted out as well. The men-at-arms questioned the women if Tarethis was among those still in the crater. One Kushite doxy replied that Artelios’ daughter had been taken from the pit a short time ago, and they believed she was to be sacrificed to Jullah. Eshiba urged the adventurers to save Tarethis and he handed an object, carved out of what seemed to be meteoric iron in the image of an ape’s skull, to Ambrose, explaining the artifact would instantly shut the portal to the outer dark and dissipate the incarnation of Jullah if it had already materialized. The Kushite shaman then gestured to one of the 3 egresses from the chamber and told the party the ritual was likely already under way, and they must stop it with all haste. The men-at-arms left the shaman and women to haul the rest of the prisoners out of the chasm and entered the passage to the temple of the beast god.
The tunnel opened to an immense, cathedral-like chamber, lavishly decorated in wicker tapestries, wall paintings and human skulls. But the party was not alone in this chamber, as before them prowled an enormous white ape they recognized as the very one who stole Tarethis from Artelios’ estate. Past the fearsome guardian were closed doors from which ominous, primeval chanting could be heard. Suddenly a frightened scream erupted in the distance and the adventurers pressed into the room, determined to get through the fearsome sentinel which barred their path as quickly as they could. Ambrose and Xacksmith closed upon the ape, but dared not face the creature without their 2 barbarian allies in front. Cuana did not disappoint as he charged the great beast with a fleetness of foot none in the party could match, furiously slashing through muscle and sinew. The white bull ape roared as it slammed its hammer-like fist into the Cimmerian’s shoulder. Tullweim closed as well, but could do nothing to aid Cuana other than cheer him on. Ambrose moved around a column to engage the creature, stopping just out of reach of the ape’s flailing fists. The Cimmerian dodged a devastating blow, but was caught by the second swing of the white beast, knocking the breath out of Cuana. Staggered as he was, the barbarian twisted in time to avoid the feral snapping jaws of the ape. Tullweim finally reached his companion, but the creature took the opportunity to batter the advancing Aesir. Blood poured from the Nordheimer’s mouth as Tullweim’s sword hacked through flesh and bone and the white bull ape fell heavily to the floor with a strangled cry. The adventurers moved towards the closed entrance the chanting and screaming poured forth from.
The door gaped open to a temple of Jullah, which was filled with 12 priests, all wrapped in the ecstasy of the ceremony. Guarding the priests were 12 cultists, who trembled and bowed fearfully before the swirling essence of a shimmering, otherworldly portal that opened above the black altar atop which the naked Tarethis was strapped. One Kushite sorcerer held a staff with a skull atop it, and wore a half-bestial mask surmounted by ostrich plumes, intoning blasphemously by the altar. But the party’s knees quivered not at the men before them, but at three black, hairy tentacles tipped with skull-like heads, which extended long, slavering green tongues as they protruded from the portal, slowly surveying the temple chamber. One moved closely to the bound Tarethis, who screamed piteously as it ran its tongue along her belly. Another remained close to the chanting form of the high priest. Cuana knew time was of the essence and let his rage boil over into a fighting madness as he bellowed a war cry. The barbarian was a whirlwind of death as he slew the closest cultist, then cleaved savagely into the next, slashing into another and another. Cuana’s blade continued to meet death to all before him until 13 corpses littered the ground, their blood coalesced in a great pool of crimson. Xacksmith launched 3 arrows from his Hyrkanian bow, each bolt ending a cultist’s miserable life. Ambrose used his mummery, learned from the paths of Asura, to hurl the iron artifact into the blasphemous portal. One of the tentacles reflexively swatted the skull-shaped meteor from its gateway. Tullweim charged the masked high priest in a scarlet mist of fury, his greatsword tore through the cultist’s breast and heart. The Kushite gurgled in disbelief as he died at the Aesir’s feet. 3 of the Jullah worshipers closed on the Norheimer, battering him between them with their closed paws. As many cultists surrounded Cuana and likewise brought their fists to bear upon the Cimmerian. Bewildered by the sudden destruction the cult faced, one of the Kushites grabbed the artifact which had rolled by his feet. The remaining follower of Jullah slammed his mitt into Ambrose, the Nemedian careened into a column, his limbs weary and eyes bleary from the constant abuses of combat. Two of the monstrous vibrissa bashed the Aesir’s bruised form, rivulets of blood flowed from Tullweim’s many wounds.
Cuana’s greatsword hewed roughly through a cultist, then cleaved murderously into all 3 of the Kushites surrounding the Cimmerian. Ambrose shouted for Xacksmith to stop the cultist who had swiped the iron meteor. The Hyrkanian fired his bow, the arrow glanced the cultist’s arm but did not bring him low. Ambrose followed Xacksmith’s attack by waving his hand to sorcerously fling his two arming swords into the Kushite, slaying the man and causing the artifact to drop from his grasp. Tullweim swung his greatsword, shearing one of the tentacles assailing him. The great bulk would have crushed Tarethis had it not collapsed into an ectoplasmic pile of wretched matter. The Aesir’s blade swished by a second palpus but went wide. The tentacle coiled around Tullweim, pinning him as the last barbel champed into his shoulder, rending the Nordheimer’s flesh. Cuana and Xacksmith rushed towards their grappled companion but could not reach him before Ambrose lifted Eshiba’s artifact with his mind, sending it into the ethereal gateway. The mystic portal abruptly dissipated and the remaining tentacles turned to sludge, covering Tarethis and Tullweim with pale goo. The Aesir barbarian broke the binds which held the Chaga woman and collected her in his arms. The party then left the chamber of horror and ruin and returned to the pit which had served as a holding cell for Zabhela’s women.
A medley of foreign and Kushite women stood with Eshiba, lifting the last of the prisoners from the crater. The Kushite shaman laughed heartily at seeing the adventurers return victoriously. Eshiba tasked the men-at-arms with escorting the women back to the port-city. The shaman said he would stay behind, for he realized he must remain in the temple to rebuild the cult of Jullah and help those led astray by the mad visions of the dead high-priest Ashanata. Seeing the nervousness on the adventurers faces, Eshiba reminded them of the Gallah’s dependence on the followers of Jullah to balance the tyranny of the Set worshiping Chaga. Ambrose inquired if Ashanata was responsible for Jullah’s rage. Eshiba responded, “Something has profoundly disturbed the beast god, but it rebels against an even angrier spirit, that of the primal god, Jhebbal Sag. I cannot say what has caused this distress among the beast gods, but sense the issue cannot be resolved by a simple virgin sacrifice.” With that said, the adventurers left the shaman and led the women back to Zabhela in triumph.
Once they returned to the port-city the heroes were widely regaled for the return of the populace’s wives, sisters, and daughters. Artelios was amazed 4 men could have conquered the cult which had slaughtered his guards and expressed gratitude for rescuing his daughter. Erithemes held her daughter tightly, thanking the adventurers repeatedly and paying them their promised reward. The governor of Zabhela held a festival to honor the men-at-arms, and at the banquet Artelios offered the party an opportunity to travel east to Atlaia with a caravan the Argossean would lead. The merchant promised enough wealth to allow the adventurers to purchase a fleet of ships if they wished. All agreed, even Cuana, who still harbored ill feelings towards Rand Artelios, could not refuse the excitement of adventure and gold.