The Secret Valley
A cobblestone road led from the cleft to the pyramid, but was overgrown with dense foliage from the wild jungle within the valley. The stirrings of feral game dwelt in the primeval forest within, which was crossed by numerous small streams and ponds. The pyramid towered in the middle of this valley and appeared to be many miles from where the party stood. Xacksmith noted Erishka seemed unsteady on her feet from lack of rest through the harrowing mountain passage. The Hyrkanian helped the young Atlaian woman along as Artelios and Kophethu tiredly limped behind. Like the borderer, Cuana and Tullweim were untroubled by the relentless trekking through the Atlaian bush. If not for the many gashes and hastily sewn stitches on their bodies, the northron men looked as if they had had a full night’s rest. But all the combat had aroused a voracious appetite, and it was decided hunting for food and fresh water would be their next move before closing in on the looming pyramid’s face.
Among the many sulfurous hot springs, the Cimmerian was able to locate a shallow pond of fresh water. The Aesir located a brace of hares, and with the alacrity of an accomplished woodsman, trapped, gathered, and skinned the lot. Xacksmith knew they could not risk a large fire, but was able to scavenge materials to warm coals and cook the meal. With the rumblings of their belly quieted, water quaffed and splashed upon their faces, the party pressed on. Before long, the temple at last reared high above the adventurers as they stealthily broke through the jungle line to a clearing around the great edifice. The massive pyramid stood 200 feet high, with nine successive layers cut through by a great staircase leading to a colonnaded temple at the top. Great stone braziers rested at each of the four corners of the base and the top, along with smaller braziers along the length of the staircase. Midway along the staircase rested a large stone entrance, from which two double doors were spread wide open. All of this was most impressive, but the matter most concerning to the men-at-arms was four dusky-skinned soldiers, dressed in silks and holding scimitars. One of the men carried an ivory horn at his belt, suggesting there were more warriors nearby. Cuana growled at the sight of the men, who were from a race he found to be wholly despicable, for from their features it could be seen these men hailed from the cursed lands of Stygia.
The Stygians had not spotted the adventurers, and Cuana motioned for his companions to shadow the path of the patrol from a safe distance. The party followed the warriors to another ancient structure on the pyramid’s flank. It seemed the patrol was checking in with somebody in the building, and not wanting to risk being overwhelmed by superior numbers, Xacksmith suggested they move to the opposite side of the pyramid, climb to the top, and see what a greater vantage would reveal. Erishka was dismayed at the foreign invaders and declared they must be the reason she had been sent to the Ogun Mountains in her visions, to cleanse the temple of the Stygians. She stated the anger Olorun had shown his people through the drought may, in fact, be because of the Stygians who must be responsible for the slaughter of the priests who tended and kept the temple. She begged the men-at-arms to help her in repelling the invaders from this holy site. Xacksmith comfortingly assured the Atlain that the adventurers had fought many Stygians in the past, and would expel them from the pyramid. The Hyrkanian though, did not like the chances the bruised and battered party had, but he did not let that show to the young woman. Climbing the temple proved difficult for the drowsy members of the party, but the Cimmerian easily scaled the walls like a mountain goat. The others took to it slow and steadily, reaching the top after almost an hour of climbing.
The Olorun Pyramid
The top of the 200 foot pyramid consisted of a small colonnade, inside which was found a deep, hollow pit running straight into the center of the massive structure. The colonnade itself appeared to have been used for a variety of purposes and included a single throne at the far end, facing the staircase entry point. Each of the pillars was carefully sculpted in the image of strange, half-human beasts. Erishka elaborated that each column depicted an image of one of the great Orisha. Cuana and Xacksmith noticed one column, behind the throne, had been defaced and it seemed to be the only such column to have any damage at all. When the Hyrkanian inquired about it, Erishka explained that the column belonged to Eshu, the messenger, and that one should not speak of that god lest he appear. Tullweim looked to the pit in the center of the colonnade, which was eight feet in diameter and had smooth masonry, with few easy handholds. The Nordheimer barbarian could not fathom why the stairs simply ended at the pit, and the bottom was invisible from above, but the Aesir believed it was an unguarded entrance to the temple. Knowing Erishka, and the 2 worn civilized men would be unable to make the climb, each adventurer handed the individual they would be carrying their blade and instructed them to hold onto them as they cautiously made their way down.
The hole descended 80 feet, opening up from the ceiling of a grand chamber. The warriors grit their teeth and their aching thews saw them safely to this opening. The center of the room below contained a large bowl, a stone cauldron of sorts, which was positioned directly beneath the hole in the ceiling that led to the colonnade at the top of the pyramid. The dim light that made its way down the shaft provided just enough illumination for the adventurers to see by, which allowed the party to witness a gathering of Stygians in the heart of the structure. Large stone columns, six on each side, served as the primary support for the high-ceilinged chamber, with 2 Stygians standing at guard before each pillar. Even with half of the pyramid above it, the architecture of this chamber was strong enough to sustain such a large open area. The room was divided into two sections, the lower area, its floor decorated with ancient mosaics depicting the glory of the ancient empire, was occupied by at least 20 Stygians dressed similarly to the guards outside the pyramid. Overlooking this was an elevated stage, with two staircases by which to reach it, upon which was found a large, ancient altar carved of black stone. The image of the altar was reminiscent of an immense clawed hand, rising from the earth, to clutch at whatever terrible gift had been placed upon it. Behind the altar rested a large throne, with a similar style of design, as if the giant’s other hand offered a place of rest for a powerful high priest. Resting on the throne, breathing deep a narcotic lotus burning like incense on the altar before him, was a Stygian general who appeared to have taken control of the pyramid. The general was an imposing figure, with a large frame of wiry muscles, a bald head decorated with serpentine tattoos and a suit of mail to accompany the wicked curved sword at his side. Unlike the traditional notion of the unscrupulous Stygian scholar, this was a man bred for war.
Seeing no other way down, Tullweim urged his companions to leap past the cauldron to the floor below. The strain of the plummet was enhanced by the people the adventurers carried, and not even mighty Cuana could hold back a painful exhale as he landed. The startled Stygians immediately drew their weapons but the general on the throne laughed heartily at the sight of the invaders and had his guards restrain themselves from attacking. With a lethargy of body brought on from inhaling lotus, the general rose and stated with much pomp and bombastic boldness, ‘I am Kephros, a general of Kheshatta, glorious capital of the south. Welcome, travelers, to the domain of the new Empire of Atlaia, of which I am the rightful heir. I greet thee and I invite thee into my kingdom.’ His eyes stared with an odd glimmer, as if he was seeing far more than the torn and tattered party standing before him. It was, some would say, the glimmer of madness. Erishka was beside herself with rage at the general’s declaration of rulership. She accused him of killing all the priests of Olorun, to which Kephros laughed and denied that there were any priests there at all when he arrived. ‘This temple was quite empty,’ he said, ‘and even if a few local savages did come here to worship, they were all gone when we arrived. You are surely mistaken.’ Erishka responded with an oath, which spurred the adventurers into action.
Cuana wrenched his greatsword from Artelios’ grasp and moved towards the Stygian soldiers near the chamber’s entrance. Tullweim retrieved his blade from Kophethu and rushed towards Kephros with a battlecry. Xacksmith took his arming sword from Erishka and closed in behind the Aesir. Kephros gibbered unnervingly in a lotus-fueled ecstasy and brandished his broadsword as he moved to the top of the stair. Kophethu drew the dagger the Hyrkanian had previously given him and moved behind Tullweim with Artelios following. 1 of the Stygian soldiers Cuana had closed on charged the barbarian with a flash of his scimitar, which the Cimmerian deftly dodged. Then a rain of arrows was unleashed by the dusky-skinned soldiers with many of the barbs finding purchase in the barbarian’s hide. The Cimmerian slashed his greatsword across the abdomen of the Stygian who had charged him and the smaller warrior’s guts spilled out in a wash of crimson. Cuana then savagely cleaved at 5 of the closest archers in a whirlwind of fury leaving only death in his wake. Tullweim rushed towards Kephros frothing in a battle rage and brought his great blade arcing down, but the Stygian general’s training moved him to action, despite the lotus in his system, and Tullweim’s attack was expertly parried. Xacksmith tumbled past Kephros’ reach, flanking the general in a defensive stance. Kephros swung twice at Tullweim, the first slashed wide of the Aesir, but the Stygian grinned as the second carved into Tullweim’s left arm. Kophethu tried to press the assault, but his slim dagger was easily turned aside. Artelios and Erishka stood nervously as the other soldiers in the room, not engaged with Cuana, closed in. But most of the Stygians’ attention was focused on the Cimmerian. Arrow after arrow sang through the air, most were dodged by Cuana, but the few which hit bit deep.
The pain from the many freshly suffered and re-opened gashes blurred Cuana’s vision, the Cimmerian had no illusion that he was close to death, but this certainty only fueled his battle rage as the barbarian howled and leapt unto the stage to join his brothers in slaying Kephros before they themselves fell. Tullweim growled and swung twice at the Stygian general, the first attack was again parried, but the second arcing slice opened a gaping wound. The Hyrkanian followed the Aesir’s vicious attack, which Kephros could not counter flanked as he was, and a shriek of agony escaped the Stygian as he fell to one knee from the arming sword driven into his back. Kephros swung his broadsword wildly at the Hyrkanian, ferociously chopping into Xacksmith, but the general’s second slash missed his mark. Kophethu looked for an opening and desperately stabbed with his dagger, but again the long reach of Kephros’ broadsword prevented any harm. The Stygian soldiers slung their bows and closed upon the adventurers with their scimitars drawn. Several moved up the stairs at Tullweim, their edged blades slashing and hewing the Aesir in a relentless flurry. Artelios too suffered many wounds from the troops who could not reach the Aesir.
The Cimmerian was unsteady on his feet from the loss of blood which streamed from his massive frame. Cuana swung at Kephros, but even deeply wounded as the Stygian was, he had the strength to keep the barbarian’s attack from landing. Tullweim turned his attention to the swarm of Stygians who threatened the Aesir from the stairs. The northron barbarian launched two bloodied heaps into the air with pendulum-like swings of his greatsword. Still flanking the Stygian general, Xacksmith plunged his blade to the hilt into Kephros’ chest, the soldier’s eyes glossed over as a fount of blood poured from his dying lips. The men-at-arms which had accompanied the general who claimed divine providence over the lands of Atlaia stood dumb with disbelief. With the fury of battle still raging in his breast, Tullweim shouted at the Stygians there one chance to live was to leave the temple that very moment. Without their general driving them to pursue an expansion of their empire, the Stygians dropped their weapons and ran out the main entrance, but many of them stopped short of the open doors.
Erishka took in the carnage around her and proclaimed it her destiny to restore the priesthood of Olorun in the temple as a priestess. Cuana and Tullweim barely heard the Atlaian woman’s words, not that they would have understood them anyhow, as they moved to see what barred the Stygians from fleeing. And they did not like what met their eyes. Out in the valley leading to the pyramid temple stood several armed forces, several thousand strong. A tense stand off was taking place between the armies which postured threateningly opposite one another. Erishka showed great surprise at the forces amassing outside, but also delighted that her father, King Thamaug and her brother, the Prince Ebar’s, banners flowed in the wind at the head of the Adja forces. The Atlain woman suggested sending a messenger to meet the heads of the forces and parley for peace. Erishka’s words were cut off by Xacksmith when he asked where Artelios and Kophethu were. Then the adventurers saw an egress in the wall past the thrown Kephros had recently ruled from. With an oath it was decided the armies poised for battle would have to wait as the party followed the path and drops of blood dropped by their Argossean employer.
The hidden path stopped at a pit which descended 50 feet and ended in a smooth passage, adorned with ancient imagery of the Emperor Azag. The depictions were divided into three parts. The first murals were of an ancient, fabulous civilization, eventually torn down by barbarian invasions. The second mural showed the rise of the Old Empire and a war against what could well have been ancient Acheronians. It was in this second mural that a great emperor could be seen, accepting a scepter from an inhuman, serpentine humanoid. The third mural revealed the end of a great conflict and a beautiful sword plunged into the heart of a six-armed giant. The final mural displayed the form of Azag in death, surrounded by mourners, with the scepter in one hand and the sword in the other. The passage ended in wide double doors, with a simple message written in three tongues, which only Xacksmith could decipher any of; ‘Azag, steward of the last true men of Atlantis.’
Once through the door, the adventurers exposed the rather modest chamber in which the ancient Emperor Azag was entombed. An ancient war chariot too desiccated for use but with decorative gold plating, rested along one wall. The rest of the chamber contained thousands upon thousands of gold lunas worth of treasure, in the form of goblets, urns, jewellery, coins of ancient mint filling three huge coffers, and dozens of finely crafted weapons. The mummified body of Azag sat upright on a throne at the end of the chamber, holding a long, flawless iron broadsword across its lap but no fine scepter in its right hand. But what caught the party’s attention was on the floor before the mummy. Artelios laid sprawled in a pool of widening scarlet, mortally wounded with a dagger in his gut. As the men-at-arms approach, the dying man lifted his head and hoarsely whispered, ‘Kophethu took the scepter. He…has allied with…the Scarlet Hand. Retrieve it, get it back so my daughter might have something…from her father’s…dying…quest!’ he shrieked and then died with a rattled gasp. Cuana swore an oath against the Argossean for trusting a Stygian as Tullweim decided they would be best served by quietly escaping the pyramid and hunting down Kophethu. Xacksmith did not like the idea of leaving Erishka behind with two armies ready to clash arms, but could see no way of aiding her. And so the party fled the temple as quietly as they had arrived.