Taking the Scepter
Cuana, Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith managed to avoid the looters and few city watchmen who attempted desperately to maintain a semblance of order in the darkened streets of Ianthe. The mercenaries returned to their headquarters on the Street of Crowns, ate a quick meal of Fabio’s and went to the chimney where they removed their armor and covered themselves with soot and ash. Once their pale skins were sufficiently darkened, the sellswords moved about the cities’ labyrinthine alleyways towards the Royal Palace. Their movement was silent but for a single misstep by their Aesir leader, who knocked over a pile of refuse with a loud crash. Shortly thereafter, hushed voices and heavy footfalls were heard from the streets, headed towards the parties’ location. The watchmen shone a torch into the alley, barked out a challenge, but did not see anyone and deemed not to enter. They were putting their lives at risk just wandering the streets that night and did not wish to tempt fate further. One of the watchmen decided it had been a cat that made the noise and they backed out into the street to continue their patrol. After the watch were gone, the mercenaries stepped out of the shadows, sheathed their blades, and stole into the night towards the Palace.
Once the Palace walls were in sight the sellswords found the gates barred, the portcullis down. Amid the rising blood-red full moon they maneuvered to the rear face of the wall and Cuana quickly scaled the 40 feet to the top with Xacksmith’s silken rope over his shoulder. The Cimmerian crouched low, he could see the torch lights on the wall the guards carried in the distance, and in the nearest tower he heard two men make nervous conversation behind a closed door. The barbarian quickly uncoiled the silk rope, wrapped it hastily around a merlon, and threw it down to his companions below. Xacksmith grabbed the rope and climbed up, getting about halfway before the loose knot Cuana had tied came undone. The barbarian attempted to catch the rope before it fell but was not quick enough and the Hyrkanian plummeted 20 feet to the hard ground below. Xacksmith was agile enough to twist himself in mid-air and roll with the fall, and received little more than a few cuts and bruises. The Hyrkanian picked up the fallen rope, saw no cut on it, and looked up with an annoyed expression. Cuana could not quite make out his allies in the darkness but saw the rope Tullweim tossed back up and caught it. The Cimmerian wrapped the rope around a merlon but did not attempt to again tie it. Instead he held onto the rope and braced himself while his companions climbed up.
With everyone on the wall, the party looked for patrols below. None were seen and the Stygian speculated that perhaps bestial guardians hid in the shadows. The gates were well-guarded, and dim lights shone in the towers. The rest of the palace was black and appeared empty. The place smelt of fear, of men trapped and besieged within their own fortress, deserted by their commander. Iskandrian had taken nearly the entire garrison with him to crush the nobles. The sycophants which surrounded the king had vanished, fearful lest they be caught in the coming holocaust. The Throne Room’s gold dome glinted palely beneath the moon. Xacksmith saw a guard on the wall, near an opposite tower, who was about to turn to patrol the sellswords’ location and spurred the adventurers to action.
Dhak pushed a pouch into Cuana’s hands and instructed the Cimmerian to cast it into the nearby room, close the door, and take care not to breathe in the dust or risk succumbing to madness. The Stygian grabbed an arrow, slathered extract from the Upas tree he’d gathered months ago, and let it fly at the lone patrolmen. The arrow was stopped by the guards’ hauberk and he looked up to see Xacksmith let loose an arrow of his own and Tullweim charge the man-at-arms, ending his life with a thrust of the Aesir’s greatsword. At the same time the Cimmerian did as he was instructed and cast the grey lotus dust into the room with the 2 guards conversing. The guards coughed and gagged as the dust filled the room. A moment later, Cuana heard tittering laughter come from the room followed by a hate-filled roar and the sound of steel cleaving flesh over and over again. Meanwhile, the Aesir barbarian and Hyrkanian thief had dispatched the patrolmans’ partner inside the opposite tower as Dhak approached and urged the party to move down the stairs into the gardens below. Tullweim accompanied the Stygian while Xacksmith made his way to Cuana, just as the Cimmerian leapt over the side of the wall and climbed down. The Hyrkanian was about to descend as well when the nearby door opened and a wide-eyed, growling, blood-stained watchmen stood in the moonlight. The thief did not wish to cross swords with a man affected by lotus and jumped down to the gardens below, tumbled at the last second and added to the collection of bruises he’d acquired that night. The crazed guard stood on the edge of the wall with bloody sword raised and leapt down, howling like a beast the entire way. The weight of his armor caused the guard to hit the ground with a sickening thud, bones snapped and his life spilt out onto the cobblestone walkway.
Xacksmith joined up with Dhak and Tullweim but none saw any sign of Cuana. Separated from his allies the Cimmerian did not know they planned to meet up with him below and had moved further towards the golden dome of the Palace after he descended off the wall. As he moved through deep shadows next to an impressive keep, Cuana was startled by a metallic sound that broke the night’s stillness. The barbarian froze and looked about in anticipation of an attack. Not seeing anyone and with curiosity piqued, Cuana decided to round the corner. He explored a side of the keep he could see in the moonlight and found a barred window. Knowing he couldn’t breach the heavy iron bars he moved further along the keep to a shuttered window. He put his thews to use, ripped off one of the shutters and climbed into the keep. Inside, the Cimmerian found himself in a corridor with doors on either end and a single sconce with a lit torch, which he procured for his own use. Cuana tested one of the heavy doors and found it to be locked. The barbarian then went to the opposite door and easily opened it revealing an office of some sort. A single desk and several chairs furnished the scroll-lined room. The Cimmerian sifted through the papers on the desk and found a ledger with a list of names and dates. From other papers he gleaned that the office belonged to the Royal Torturer and the names in the ledger were people brought to the dungeons at the King’s pleasure. Only one name in the ledger was not crossed off, but the name ‘Agatho’ was unfamiliar to the barbarian. He searched for keys to the locked door when he heard heavy footfalls sound from an opposite door.
Meanwhile, Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith approached the golden-domed Royal Palace where King Valdric was said to lay in state for 10 days. Unchallenged thus far as no alarm had yet been sounded and the majority of the remaining guards were on the walls or patrolled closer to the gate, the mercenaries scaled up 30 feet to a window in the Palace wall. Before them laid the splendor of the Ophirean throne room, one of the most opulent in the Hyborian realms. Tapestries hung from the walls to a height of 20 feet. Ornate scroll-work stretched up to the domed ceiling. The throne was of solid gold, carved with leopards and eagles. The beasts had ruby eyes and held emeralds in their talons and claws. On the throne laid the scepter, the Staff of Avanrakash, encrusted with rubies and emeralds. There were no guards to be seen, no sounds to be heard. King Valdric laid on a bier next to the throne. Tullweim and Xacksmith dropped to the tapestry 10 feet below and climbed down to the marble floor. Dhak had a bit more trouble as he lost his hold on the tapestry and slid down hard. Tullweim helped his Stygian ally up and they moved towards the scepter. Xacksmith was overcome by the wealth on the throne and attempted to pry precious stones loose as Dhak held out his hand, muttered ancient words which levitated the scepter to his hand. Unbeknown to the Stygian there were the thinnest of threads connecting the scepter to the throne which snapped upon the staff’s movement. This triggered a mechanical catch which opened up a door under the throne. 5 foot-long scorpions moved out of the darkness and scuttled menacingly towards the thieves.
Back in the keep, Cuana set the ledger and torch down on the desk and quickly moved to the side of the door just as it opened. A rotund man entered the room and gasped as his desk was quickly being alight with flames. Before he could act, the Cimmerian slashed the man across his back which staggered him to the floor. The Royal Torturer turned with a snarl on his face, uncoiled a whip at his side and expertly entangled Cuana’s legs with it. The smile on the fat man’s face quickly fell as he tried in vain to trip the barbarian. Cuana roared and swung his greatsword which split the torturer’s head like a ripe melon. The Cimmerian quickly searched the body and found a ring of keys, one of which he hoped would open the heavy door down the corridor. Then the barbarian tended to the fire which had quickly consumed the scrolls on the desk and had spread to those on the shelves. Cuana lifted the dead jailer and slammed him onto the desk which smothered most of the flame and filled the room with a foul shroud of smoke. The barbarian grabbed the barely lit torch, then stamped out the remaining scattered embers and moved out to the corridor. After several tries, he found the key which unlocked the door and entered the dark stairs down.
Beneath the golden dome of the Royal Palace, Dhak declared, “Black balls of Set!” and cast flame powder at the scorpions. The powder lit upon contact, the flames burned the scorpions and the fine rug underneath. Near death but enraged, the scorpions rushed towards the adventurers. Xacksmith, still in his reverie of the wealth in front of him barely noticed the vermin as one of the scorpions drove it’s stinger into his leg. Tullweim swung his sword and killed one of the creatures, but two more were upon him and one stung him as well. Dhak tried to keep his distance, but the many legs of the scorpion carried it within reach of the Stygian and he too suffered a poison-filled sting. Tullweim and Xacksmith’s fortitude was such that even though they felt the poison course through their veins they did not succumb to it. Dhak was not so lucky. His face lost it’s color as he felt some of his vigor leave him, though not enough to rob the Stygian of his life. The scorpions were not so fortunate as Tullweim and Xacksmith crushed those they faced. Dhak had another fate in mind for the creature which had struck him. He again muttered alien words and the animal writhed in agony, twitching painfully into unconsciousness. The Stygian then grabbed his cloak, carefully wrapped the creature in it, and secured it with a tight knot. With that threat dealt with the mercenaries were now free to deal with the next, the flames that had traveled across the rug and lit King Valdric’s corpse! Tullweim muttered that there would be hell to pay if those in power ever learned of the desecration they had caused while stamping out the fire with a torn tapestry. After the fire was put out and with scepter in hand Tullweim ordered Dhak and Xacksmith back out the window. There was a battle yet to be fought and they could not waste time. Dhak inquired about Cuana, to which Tullweim replied, “The Cimmerian’s either captured or already gone. Either way he can handle himself. Now move!”
The Cimmerian walked down the stairs and came to a dungeon. All manner of instruments of torture were spread throughout the catacombs. Some, the barbarian knew well, others he could only imagine the sort of pain meant to inflict. He then came to a row of cells. All were empty save one. In the occupied cell sat a man in tattered clothing. The man had a boyish face with fat lips and appeared to have seen at least 30 winters by Cuana’s reckoning. The barbarian called out to the man as he searched for a key that would open the cell. The man did not respond in the least. Cuana opened the cell door and entered, he grabbed the man and asked if he was Agatho. Still no acknowledgment but a blank stare. Cuana saw the man’s eyes were rolled up into his head, but appeared to have not suffered the hot poker or any other form of abuse. Knowing that time was being wasted in the cell and not wishing to linger any longer, the barbarian grabbed the wretch and slung him over his shoulder. He carried the prisoner out to the Palace Wall and climbed the stairs in the tower. The Cimmerian knew he would not be able to carry the man and climb down without aid, so he searched the two nearby towers for rope. He found a 10 foot length of rope in the alarm bells of both towers, the rest he improvised by tearing the tunics of the dead men-at-arms.
The Last Battle
Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith returned to the Crimson Wolves headquarters and donned their armor. With the scepter in hand, the Aesir addressed the mercenaries and announced that they were to go to battle that night. The response was less than enthused as one of the Nemedian Adventurers declared the folly of following a barbarian with orders from a woman to meet a stronger force in the dead of night. Tullweim addressed the concerns, held the royal scepter aloft, and reminded the men of the silver their woman patron had paid as well as the glory they’d already found and that they were assured in the coming onslaught. The speech roused the men’s spirits and they mobilized for combat. Within a half hour they marched on the streets of Ianthe and traveled to the Gate of Avanrakash. As they arrived they met up with 50 cavalry that wore Countess Synelle’s colors and were ordered to join the company in battle. Together they rode out through the gate, Valentius’ men on the wall cheering them. They rode through the night, with scattered clouds above, and felt the spur of battle bite deep into their hearts. The old urge for combat rose. As they rode over a spur of the Tor, the fields beyond stretched into sight. Two armies waited for the clouds to clear the moon, unsure what the night’s fortunes would bring. The Crimson Wolves flashed by the outriders and saw Valentius’ and Clavanedes’ main body of troops. A thousand infantry, almost as many men-at-arms and cavalry stood ready for the order to ring doom throughout the valley.
After climbing down from the Palace Wall, Cuana made his way back to the house on the Street of Crowns. When he arrived he found the house completely empty. He set the prisoner down on a bed, donned his armor, mounted his horse and made his way to the Gate of Avanrakash. Once he arrived, Valentius’ men on the wall informed him of his companies’ earlier passage and they told him where on the field they could be found. The Cimmerians’ steed raced through the night, heedless of any dangers in his path. Cuana arrived at the crimson cloaked free company before the battle had yet been joined. He rode up to Tullweim as the Aesir received orders from one of Count Clavanedes messengers. The messenger told of a shortage of unit commanders as many had been assassinated in recent weeks and of Clavanades’ desire that Tullweim lead his troops in routing the enemy. The Crimson Wolves and Countess Synelle’s cavalry were on the right flank of Iskandrian’s army. Both sides faced each other across the field south of the Sarellian Forest. As soon as the light of the moon hit the field the battle was met.
Tullweim roared like a lion, held the royal scepter high over his head, which spurred the soldiers behind to charge. Iskandrian’s men were beset by cutthroats of renown in blazing, crimson cloaks. The Wolves’ banner inspired the soldiers around it and the two armies crashed upon each other like opposing waves in an ocean of blood and carnage. Iskandrian’s cavalry met the full force of the Crimson Wolves’ cavalry where men and horse alike fell by scores. Iskandrian’s archers harried the Crimson Wolves, opening up slight avenues for the royal cavalry to penetrate the line. Dhak distanced himself from the opposing cavalry and cast a great curse on them, causing horses to panic and swordsmen to miss. Cuana and Tullweim led their men straight into death’s maw without a care and hacked in twain all who stood against them. Xacksmith maneuvered to the edge of the forest trees for protection from the archers and then flanked the enemy, crushing them between an unrelenting swath of greatswords. The infantry of both sides then met, steel clanged on mail hauberk and bone. Death screams rang out through the night. The battle moved to it’s midpoint, with neither side having a decisive advantage, when chaos erupted.
Suddenly the ground shook beneath the combatants feet. The troops staggered drunkenly; horses stumbled and fell. Ghostly lights glowed high atop Tor Al’Kiir, and the moon shone blue. The fighting paused. Some of the troops on both sides were seized by terror, threw down their weapons, and ran away. The eerie sound of a supernatural horn-blast cleaved the silence. Slowly the battle began anew, but not with the same fervor of a moment before. Iskandrian’s men could not re-form their line with the great loss of men and courage which caused them to be bloodily routed from the field. Tullweim then took stock of the men left after the battle. Only 19 of the 50 men the company had come into Ianthe with remained and where triumph should have been on the survivors’ faces, there was only apprehension and fear. For atop the Tor flashed the witchlights, heralding menace and a great evil. The clouds gathered quickly together and a torrential rain began to pour down. Truly, the work that night was not yet finished.