Withered crones in Stygia speak of the mysterious Atlaians, giants among the fiercest tribes of the Black Kingdoms, dwelling in stewardship over the ruins of an empire so ancient they cannot even name it. Great armies led by chief-kings gather before crumbling temples stretching like mountains into the sky. They participate in harrowing ceremonial battles in honor of the powerful Orisha who rule the lives of these mysterious people. It is through their war-torn lands Ambrose, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith traveled as elite men-at-arms of Artelios’ caravan. The Argossean exile led the troupe and brought Kushites acting as guards and caravaneers. The shackled Nemedian scholar lamented despite the numbers of the caravan, they had fallen victim to a fierce raid. Members of the feral Tibu nomads could not resist a plump Kushite wagon train and the men who had left Zabhela weeks ago were now captives or lay as corpses amid the savage land. A powerful Ghanata captain called, Orafa, stripped all in the caravan of their armor, weapons, and rations. He had also taken Artelios’ coveted map.
The adventurers walked chained on a hot, arid track of land, a great cloud of dust hovered in the still air as dozens of shackled feet shuffled along a dry river bed. Ambrose felt thirst, hunger, and sunstroke far worse than his barbaric companions. Even Xacksmith stoically trudged along, the accomplished woodsman showing none of the ill effects of the forced march which threatened to rob the Nemedian of his senses and vitality. Fierce masked warriors on horses rode back and forth, periodically goading the chain of the captured men onward. Occasionally, a slave collapsed and did not get up again. A Tibu raider stopped only to remove the iron shackles and jab a spear through the dying man’s ribcage in a rare act of mercy. Though there were perhaps 100 slaves, the 30 Tibu warriors and their fierce Ghanata captain more than made a match for the road-weary, sun-beaten prisoners. Whispers among the slaves, who were a mix of Zamballan peasants and Kushite caravaneers traveled up and down the line. The troupe had been mercilessly pushed onward for three days now, continuing east with amazing speed. Not ten minutes gone, the Ghanata captain road ahead with three scouts, to the crest of a jagged hill overlooking the basin. In the distance, the party’s keen eyes spotted an additional rider, with whom Orafa seemed to be discussing business.
The chain ground to a halt when a signal was given at the ridge. As the prisoners collectively sought to lay down for a much needed moment of rest, something startled a nearby horse. The Tibu warrior upon it suddenly flew from his saddle, a lengthy javelin protruding from his chest. From the nearby brush along the dry river, war cries echoed through the basin and a hail of spears felled both rider and prisoner alike. The raiders had been ambushed! Ambrose and Cuana both saw the key ring to their shackles on the belt of the first warrior to plummet from his horse. Wasting not a moment, the Nemedian rushed towards the fallen Tibu and grasped the item triumphantly as a javelin pinned to the scholar’s side. Tullweim charged after Ambrose and beheld his prized wolf great-helm, worn by a passing rider, as spears fell around him. Cuana was about to follow the Aesir when his attention was caught by a Tibu rider whose horse reared as a harpoon plunged into the beast’s flank. Though it was not the mare’s plight which held the Cimmerian’s eye, but the great blade strapped to its saddle which drove the barbarian after the horse, straining his thews to burst the manacles which kept his hands bound. Not even the falling skewers, which ripped into Cuana’s hide, could stall the indomitable Cimmerian from pursuing his goal. Xacksmith too was struck by the javelins which darkened the sky, and rushed to the Aesir’s side, shouting at the Nemedian to unlock his manacles as he gathered a dagger from the fallen Tibu man.
Ambrose freed Tullweim as Artelios approached, with a Stygian named Kophethu, who the Argossean insisted join the caravan in Zhabela, at his side. The sky rained death and with his hands freed, Tullweim let his rage boil over as he charged the man wearing his helm, knocking the Tibu slaver from his mount, sending them both heavily to the ground. Cuana also let the indignity of being held captive fuel a frothing fury, bursting the manacles which had chaffed his wrists for days and knocked the rider on the panicking horse off his saddle. The Cimmerian desperately tried to grab hold of the now empty saddle, but the crazed beast threw the barbarian, who reflexively grabbed hold of the familiar greatsword he had won in Ophir years past, and was drug skipping along the basin as more spears fell. Xacksmith caught sight of his bow on another horse whose rider had just been impaled by a javelin. Without waiting for Ambrose to free him, the Hyrkanian ran after the horse, deftly loosing the restraint which held his prized weapon.
The Nemedian undid his bindings and dropped the keys for Artelios and the Stygian to free themselves as the scholar gathered two water skins the dead slaver at his feet previously carried. Meanwhile, Tullweim beat the man wearing his helm with the chain of his manacles in a savage rage. Cuana ripped at his sword in its sheathe, attached to the runaway horse, with a crazed look about his brow. Xacksmith spotted another Tibu warrior with an arming sword strapped to him, and used his Hyrkanian bow to vault into him, the raider’s spear narrowly missed the borderer as Xacksmith kicked the man off his steed. Ambrose spotted a half-dead warrior, who likewise carried an arming sword, gallop past and the Nemedian used the arts taught to him by Asuran mystics to draw the weapon from its encasement to his open hand. Tullweim retrieved his helm and then jumped onto a riderless horse, barely managing to stay atop the panicked creature. Cuana again tore at his sword, fraying more of the decorated sheathe which kept it from him as he was violently yanked through the crazed scene. Xacksmith plunged the dagger taken earlier, into the warrior he’d knocked down and freed the sword from the corpses’ belt. Ambrose fled the scene as more javelins struck him, decrepitly making his way towards the far end of the riverbed. Tullweim spotted his own greatsword on a fleeing, mounted Tibu raider and rammed his horse into the slaver’s steed, causing both beast and man to tumble to the cracked floor. Cuana finally tore his blade free and followed the Nemedian out of the ambush with Xacksmith close behind. The Aesir abandoned the horse he’d ridden which had broken one of its fore legs in the charge, retrieved his blade and hastily fled from peril.
The party reconvened beyond the cries of raider and slave several moments later with Artelios and his Stygian servant. Tullweim and Xacksmith attempted to obscure their trail as they withdrew. Once the adventurers had cleared the range of the ambush, they realized they were in obviously hostile territory, with no idea where to go to seek refuge. Artelios bemoaned the loss of his prized map, and Tullweim suggested they wait for dark and return to the site the train had been waylaid at in search of any sign of the slaver who now possessed the leather parchment. When darkness fell, the party guardedly returned to the dry riverbed where they’d trod chained. They found no living foes amidst the bodies which littered the ground, but did uncover the path Orafa had taken when he fled his doomed caravan. The slaver’s route headed towards a mountain range called Ogun, according to Kophethu, named after a local Atlaian god. It was decided they would make towards the peaks as quickly as their weary limbs could carry them.
The adventurers knew they would not be able to travel far under the dusk-filled sky, but to cease Artelios’ whines, they pressed onward until the rumblings of their stomachs forced them to search for nourishment. The Cimmerian saw a pair of large fowl, unlike any bird he’d ever before gazed upon. The creatures were the size of a grown man, with pale plumage, and Cuana could not imagine they could take flight. The barbarians prepared to pounce on the giant birds when Ambrose suggested they loan him their weapons and promised he would fell the beasts. It was agreed and the Nemedian scholar pronounced arcane words which caused the great blades to fly from his hands and impaled themselves to the hilt in the beasts. The Nemedian smiled in triumph, but was plagued by the knowledge he needed the barbarians to achieve such a feat. A fire fueled with scat was risked to cook the enormous birds, and the party feasted better than they had in many days. Their troubles momentarily forgotten with their bellies full and their weapons again on their persons, the men-at-arms split watches and rested until morning.
Journey Through Atlaia
As they traveled through the wilderness, the party covered their tracks, stayed clear of any paths they crossed, and kept wide of evidence of Atlaian villages. They foraged for food, but found drink much harder to locate in the drought-ridden lands and the 2 skins Ambrose had collected were quickly drained. Fortunately, 2 days after the doomed slaver caravan had been ambushed, they stumbled across the most precious of resources, a wide, shallow muddy watering hole. The watering hole was the congregation point for a wide variety of animal species, most of which none in the party had ever seen before, but all enjoying the water while mutually ignoring each other. The adventurers attempted to retrieve refreshment without disturbing the animals. The water was bemired, but still refreshing as most of the predators eyed the party as they cooled their sun-baked faces and parched throats. A sudden commotion from the south caused many of the animals to flee in a panic. The adventurers turned and gazed upon a pair of bulky beasts with dark hides and a single horn on each of their snouts. The creatures had an aggressive manner about them and the party was prepared as they charged.
Cuana and Tullweim took the initial attacks as the large beasts lifted the men off the ground with their savage horns. Ambrose closed on the creature which assailed the Cimmerian and swung his sword with great finesse, opening a gaping wound in the animal’s rind. Cuana recovered his bearings and delivered 2 vicious blows with his greatsword to the beast which had charged him. Xacksmith flashed his arming sword and cut deep into the creature which had mauled Tullweim. The Aesir followed suit, his first swing went wide of the enraged animal, but the second found purchase above the creature’s shoulder. Again the horned beasts attacked the larger men, stealing the wind of the barbarians they struck. The Nemedian sliced into the creature engaged with Cuana, and the Cimmerian finished it off with a roar and devastating swing of his greatsword. Xacksmith viciously struck the remaining beast and Tullweim pressed the attack, driving his blade clean through the armored brute’s gullet. With the battle over, the party tended their wounds as best they could and refilled their water skins before continuing towards the distant mountains.
The next day, the adventurers gazed upon a desolate track of land by the base of a hill near a dry riverbed, on which a bloody conflict had ended only in death for those involved. The festering corpses of men from both sides lay everywhere while vultures, jackals and hyenas fought over the remains. The party quickly realized this was an opportunity to loot the area for weapons and equipment. The battlefield was strewn with discarded gear, including spears, daggers, long bows, javelins, hide armor, shields and even some intact water skins. As they pilfered the fallen warriors, Cuana and Xacksmith heard a distant rumble which sounded as if it was getting closer. After a minute, the din was loud enough for all to hear. The Cimmerian shouted for his allies to seek cover under an overhang as cresting the hill, a large water buffalo appeared, followed by several more and then an entire stampeding herd. With thunderous noise the beasts came down the hill in a great wave! The mass of wild cattle roared by, taking no more than a minute or two to pass the area. After the buffalo passed one lone beast with a broken leg stumbled after the herd. Seeing an opportunity, the adventurers slaughtered the easy target and began preparing it for a meal.
As the beast was cut up, Ambrose noticed movement beyond a barren stretch of cracked earth. The Nemedian called attention to a lone figure walking, who stumbled and fell. Tullweim moved towards the prone figure and on closer inspection, found a young Atlaian woman, dressed lightly for travel, with empty water skins and a single spear. The woman sported long, beaded hair, thin but pretty features and a muscular frame. The doxy appeared to have passed out from exhaustion, but on being revived she was at first startled by the adventurers’ presence, then grateful for their intervention. After the party introduced themselves the woman told of herself in the Atlaian language, which only the Hyrkanian and Stygian understood. “I am Erishka, daughter of Agabundah, the king of the Adja clan of Atlai. I am on a quest to the Temple of Olorun, where I will offer myself to the great Orisha, that he might cease his anger and lift the drought upon the land. You have no doubt seen the remains of the warfare between clans, which has grown out of control. My brother, Ebar, left our home, as is our custom, to the temple earlier this year and found it desecrated. Though my horse was slain while fleeing the Yaraba, I make my way to the temple, to appease Orisha and fulfill my destiny. Though it seems impossible with no water and no mount.”
At the young princess’ words Kophethu whispered to Artelios and the Argossean nodded in agreement. Not entirely trusting their employer, Tullweim approached Artelios and asked what business they discussed. The Argossean was by this point used to the barbarian’s lack of manners and simply stated he wished to aid Erishka in her task. None in the party had any objection to this as all saw the Atlaian woman could be a valuable source of local lore in the harsh lands they traveled through. Xacksmith relayed the men-at-arms intent to escort her to their destination, and feebly attempted to woo the woman into sharing the stretch of earth he would be sleeping upon that night. Though the woman blushed in a flattering manner, she insisted she must stay pure in order to give herself to her god. The Hyrkanian’s companions began making camp by a nearby copse of trees. The usual preparations were made and the party rested peacefully until the morning.