The Drowning City
Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith arrived in the outpost of Aurik during a prolonged rain. Indeed, it was as if the great drought that covered so much of the northern lands did not reach this far south, and here the rains seemed never to stop. As the tributaries of the River Styx swelled to a bursting point their waters ran white as they picked up speed, their currents and eddies roared with primal fury. The waters continued to rise and the adventurers narrowly entered the main road to the city before the waves flooded over as many took refuge in Khitan-style stilted huts. While much of Aurik rested above the flood plain, many of its roads appeared washed out, and the migratory population had become temporarily besieged by the forces of nature. Amid the buffeting rains, the welcoming glow from a crowded tavern proved irresistible. Foreign prospectors, slaves, traders, and mercenaries gathered, with several bare-fisted skirmishes under way as the men-at-arms entered the smoky confines of the tavern.
Cuana and Xacksmith made the rounds around the alehouse. While the Cimmerian was met with scowls and warnings about his questioning of the Scarlet Hand, the Hyrkanian searched for a fat coin pouch which could be liberated from a drunkards’ belt. Xacksmith found little to pilfer, as the cooped up patrons of the tavern were little more than wanderers and tradesmen spending their last coppers on drinks and shelter from the torrential rains. After the better part of an hour trying to get answers and silver exchanged to loosen tongues about the Scarlet Hand, Cuana learned of a Wadai ruler, High Chief Haza, who dwelt in the Red Citadel. It was believed Haza’s adviser, Quaridan, was the real power behind the throne, and the Scarlet Hand was said to be controlled by the High Chief’s mysterious council. The nervous merchant then directed the Cimmerian to speak with the barkeep, a dour Iranistani named Sharam. Cuana thanked the tradesman and approached the bar with his questions. Sharam asked why the Cimmerian wanted to know of the Scarlet Hand and Cuana responded that the cult had taken something of his, and he would have it back. The barkeep nodded in understanding and reinforced the tales the barbarian had heard of the cult already, but then added a name to the mix, Watabbi.
Apparently, this man Watabbi was the former bodyguard of High Chief Haza, and was exiled from the Wadai tribelands some years ago after questioning Quaridan’s influence over the High Chief. Finding refuge in the walls of Aurik, Watabbi now served as a guide to those brave, or foolish enough to journey into the surrounding jungles. Sharam continued, ‘He confided in me once, when he was particularly drunk, that he had discovered a hidden network of secret passages beneath the ruins on which the Red Citadel was founded. Tell him that I sent you. I am certain he will be willing to help, as he has no love for Quaridan, or his Scarlet Hand.’ Cuana thanked the barkeep and related the information to his companions. It was decided to not waste any time and seek Watabbi out immediately. And so, the adventurers slogged through the flooded, muddy streets to find Watabbi’s hut. As they walked into the torrential rain, the Cimmerian and Hyrkanian noticed a figure in the distance, running down the street away from Sharam’s tavern. The party knew it could just be a citizen of Aurik seeking cover from the downpour, but something suggested a more sinister purpose to the man’s haste. The furtively moving figure was too far away to catch, but his fresh prints were easy to follow in the muddy path. And follow the party did, as the trail led to a gloomy alleyway formed between two deserted hovels.
A feeling of tension ran through Cuana as the party entered the narrow lane. The Cimmerian’s fingers wrapped around the hilt of his greatsword when 3 Ghanata men emerged to block the opposite entrance. A shallow sound was heard from behind as 4 more Ghanatas barred the path the party had just entered from. Xacksmith cursed in his native tongue, spun around as he drew his arming sword, and drove the point through the gullet of one of the 4 which had flanked him and his companions. Tullweim unsheathed his great blade and severed a second assailant in twain. The Ghanatas closed in around the adventurers, lightning crashed, and the thug’s eyes, teeth, and flashing blades gleamed eerily. Though they out-numbered the 3 men-at-arms, their curved blades were easily parried and dodged by the adventurers. Cuana followed the assailant’s attacks by carving into one of the Ghanatas with a slicing arc of his sword. Leaving the man for dead, the Cimmerian slashed into a second, and then a third. The barbarian was a whirlwind of death to the 3 foes he fought, and only quivering corpses with missing heads and limbs remained around him. Xacksmith flanked one of the last 2 Ghanatas and swung his sword with artistic finesse, opening the thug’s throat. Tullweim used the flat of his blade to bring the final opponent low. Cuana ripped shreds of cloth from the Ghanata corpses and used them to bind and gag the unconscious man. Wiping their blades clean, the party decided to continue on to speak with Watabbi.
The rain poured down in a deluge and the streets were flooded with 2 feet of water as the adventurers approached Watabbi’s hut with the bound Ghanatan being drug behind. A short, stocky, middle aged native answered the party’s call with venomous annoyance at being woken in the middle of a dark and stormy night. The man gazed hard at the 3 men standing in his darkened doorway and asked, in a number of tongues, if they were in need of a guide through the jungle. When Xacksmith made their real purpose known, the Wadai man demanded the men-at-arms leave. The native was quit adamant about ridding himself of the adventurers and was about to slam his door in their face when the Hyrkanian mentioned that Sharam had sent them. The Wadai’s tone changed, he confirmed he was indeed Watabbi and he suggested the party meet him later, where it was safe. He told the party to meet him at noon in the market square, though he did not explain why before closing his door.
Cuana suggested they take the Ghanata back to the alley they’d killed his fellow assailants in to glean whatever information the thug knew. After awakening the man by splashing water onto the thug, the barbarian asked his questions, but the bound man simply glowered back. The Cimmerian did not speak any tongue the Ghanata man spoke, and the barbarian shook the man thinking he was simply stone-walling. The thug spat in Cuana’s face, which caused the Cimmerian’s eyes to narrow in a frenzied rage. Without a word the barbarian lifted the bound Ghanata by his legs, and brutally dashed the man’s head against a wall until the smashed orb lolled limply on a broken neck. Tullweim and Xacksmith simply gaped at one another, then shrugged and suggested they get back to Sharam’s tavern to sleep out of the rain. The Iranistani charged a single piece of silver for each of the party to spend what was left of the night in the tavern’s common room. Despite the seeming tranquility of the tavern, with those patrons remaining either snoring in the corners of the common room or having packed and left for a hovel of their own, it was decided to keep watch. Cuana would keep his eyes open first, Tullweim would take over, and Xacksmith was fortunate the party did not need a third watch with the few scant hours remaining before dawn. Whether because of the precautions taken, or having no foes left, the rest of the night passed uneventfully.
Killing Time in Aurik
Noon, in the marketplace of Aurik, brought out a small crowd of merchants, peddlers and customers, despite the continuing rain. Unlike other quarters of the town, the market was built on an elevated platform of crumbling stone that was once a great coliseum. The platform was high enough to keep the markets safely away from the persistent flood waters. Watabbi was found eating grapes and figs from one of the market stalls. When he saw the party approach, he motioned them out of the rain and under the cover of an abandoned awning. There, he sat down and invited the men-at-arms to sit with him. ‘We are safer here,’ he said, motioning to the jabbering traders and hawkers. ‘Where many watch over us. The Scarlet Hand are not so bold as to make a move in such a public place.’ As the adventurers settled down Watabbi got right to the point. ‘You must make me an offer for the information I have. Betraying High Chief Haza, his villainous sorcerer or the Scarlet Hand is certain death for me. Why would I help you?’
After relating their tales from Zabhela to Atlaia truthfully, Watabbi seemed more willing to help the fearless party who had, already, braved so much savagery and mummery. The Wadai man explained that there was a hidden way into the citadel, a passage built into the ancient ruins that later architects were unaware of as they rebuilt the citadel’s defenses. It opened out into the heart of the citadel, bypassing all of the guarded outer walls and the inner compound. It was the safest means of entry and Watabbi’s only fear of the tunnel was that it was said to be haunted, though he had never encountered any of the ghosts that supposedly prowled the dark passages. He concluded his story saying if the party was willing to brave that path, Watabbi would happily lead them to the Red Citadel.
Into the Jungle
Watabbi suggested the adventurers gather whatever supplies and trappings they needed and meet him on the southern outskirts of Aurik as soon as they were ready to leave. When everybody had arrived he led the party into the primeval forest. The overgrown underbrush and monsoon weather made the jungle trails treacherous and the guide cautioned the men-at-arms not to wander from the path as they headed into even thicker bush where the chattering calls of unseen creatures came from all sides. During their passage, Watabbi took countless precautions to cover the men’s scent and from being noticed by predators. The guide told of the troupe having about 30 miles of unrelenting wilderness and undulating terrain to cover before reaching their goal and estimated it would take 3 days of travel to push through it all. Cuana and Tullweim agreed to press more swiftly through the jungle and make the trip in 2 days, despite Watabbi’s warnings of attracting attention from the native beasts.
After a hard half day’s trek the adventurers stumbled across the crumbling ruins of some ancient city, part of some once grand, and now forgotten empire. Those ruins showed their great age with the jade green color of the mortars still standing, looking as if nature itself had claimed it, with crumpled walls mingling with jungle creepers and vines. In places, it was impossible to tell where the ruins ended and the bush began. Amid great pools of collected, still, water from the recent rains; Xacksmith noticed several leaning structures, which would provide as resting areas for the night. Cuana suggested they search the area, in case some creature used the ruins as a habitat. As the Cimmerian stared into one of the weathered edifices, impressed with the vast size of the ruins, he uncovered an effigy of a leonine-headed creature, doubtless a revered symbol to the builders of that place. But nothing about the statues seemed suspect, and the barbarian left the artifacts to stand as they had for centuries. With no threat exposed, the party decided to set up watches and rest.
Xacksmith was on watch, his arming sword in hand as he listened to the rhythmic falling of the rain. Lightning flashed, and the Hyrkanian thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly, the darkness was pierced by another crash of charged electricity, which revealed a towering horror in the ruins’ entry. A lumbering ape, with matted grey fur and a vicious pair of tusks, charged Xacksmith, washing its ivory crimson with the Hyrkanian’s blood. The Hyrkanian cried out as he set himself in a defensive stance, but could not dodge the wicked claws which ripped viciously into Xacksmith’s hide, and the great beast grappled the borderer with primal arms the size of tree trunks. 2 more grey apes revealed themselves, each goring the sleeping figures of Cuana and Tullweim. The Cimmerian awoke to agony from the tusk which ripped into his flesh. Cuana instinctively grasped his Akbitanan greatsword, bringing the blade down with brutal ferocity and then following the attack with a rending back swing. Tullweim too awoke violently, with his barbaric instinct bringing his blade to the creature which attacked him in 2 arcing slices.
The Hyrkanian struggled in vain to break the grapple the grey ape held him with, as the beast pinned Xacksmith in its crushing thews. The second tusked ape again slammed its head into the Cimmerian, ripping an anguished cry out of Cuana. The third ape slashed at Tullweim with 2 pairs of claws the size of daggers. The loathsome creature then wrapped its mighty arms around the Aesir’s chest. The Cimmerian turned his attention from the feral beast attacking him to the one squeezing the life out of Xacksmith, and drove his blade to the hilt into the ape, wringing a strangled cry from the monster. Unable to use his greatsword, Tullweim dropped the blade, drew the Ghanata knife taken from a previous fight, and plunged it into the ape, drawing a scarlet swath in the grey fur. Now freed, the Hyrkanian slunk away from the battle, wheezing as he held his aching side. The beast Tullweim wrestled with, tightened its grip on the Aesir, pinning him amidst its massive limbs in a vice-like embrace. The ape Cuana had ignored, rushed past the Cimmerian towards the wounded Xacksmith. Cuana slashed the beast as it passed him, but could not stop the grey ape from raking its claws on the Hyrkanian and gathering him towards its gaping maw.
The flurry of combat caused a portion of the ruins’ ceiling to fall, slamming down amidst the Cimmerian, who deftly dodged the falling debris. Cuana then leapt towards the ravenous creature holding Xacksmith, bellowed a furious war cry, and separated the apes tusked crown from its mammoth body. The Aesir pressed his knees into the monster who held him, and pushed his thews to their limits, successfully breaking out of the apes crushing grip. The Hyrkanian tumbled towards the last ape standing and struck a glancing blow with his arming sword. The enraged beast missed Tullweim with its first claw, then sunk its second deep into the Nordheimer’s shoulder. Cuana shook off more falling stone, then split the last apes skull straight between its tusks. As the creature fell with a thunderous crash, Wattabi crawled from behind the rocks he had hid behind, and cheered at the adventurers’ victory. The Wadai man then helped tend the party’s many lacerated and bruised limbs.