Ambrose Chapter 12 Entry 5

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I awoke to madness, with the coppery stench of blood in my nostrils and the screams of the dying assaulting my ears. I found myself bound to a thick stone obelisk in the bowels of a Setite temple, where a thick-thewed Aesir barbarian was set upon by a number of snake-headed warriors and the priest of Set who had offered me sanctuary from the desert storm. My head ached with a laudanum hangover, and I knew then that I had been drugged. My instincts had been against trusting a Setite, but my hunger and thirst after the sandstorm that had separated me from my fellows were such that I scarcely had a choice but to accept his hospitality.

Taking in the scene without drawing too much attention to myself, I noticed that I was not the only prisoner. Across a sacrificial pool, I saw the unconscious form of a giant Cimmerian in similar straits as me. A dusky-skinned Stygian woman with a noble bearing was held by one of the snake-men while the priest threatened her with a stylized blade. A yellow-skinned Hyrkanian seemed to be supporting the northron engaged with the Setites from a secret hallway with his bow – arrows protruded from the wicked priest’s side and neck. Still, these men were outnumbered, and I doubted they could long stand against the opposition set against them.

I struggled in my bindings just as I fought against the drug I’d unwittingly ingested. Though I managed to stay conscious, I found that my wrists were firmly bound to the pillar, and no manner of struggling was likely to change that. As the combat raged on, I looked across the chamber and spotted my salvation – a key! It rested upon an altar near the Hyrkanian, and I cried out to the man in the Stygian tongue, reasoning that if he had come to this foul country, he’d had the wit to learn the language first. It seemed he understood my request, but then the unthinkable happened. For no apparent reason, he slumped senseless to the stone steps upon which he stood.

While I struggled the Aesir (as well as the woman and one of the snake-men) had been blasted by the priest’s magic. The giant raged blindly, having also had a horrible dust flung into his eyes by the Setite, but even so, he managed to put his enemies down. Once he eviscerated the priest, he staggered toward the altar at my urging and that of the Cimmerian, who had since come around. He slew all but one of the remaining snake-headed warriors before he was finally felled, and I lamented the apparent loss of such a stalwart fighting man.

But then hope sprung forth again as the Hyrkanian regained his wits and snatched up the key from the altar! He apparently knew the Cimmerian, for it was to the giant that he brought freedom first. And after seeing the result, I cannot but trust his wisdom in this matter! The hulking northman latched onto the snake warrior and held him down until the easterling could retrieve a weapon for his ally. Once handed a blade, the Cimmerian made a swift end of his foe and the chamber was silent for a few critical moments.

I pleaded to be released as well, offering my loyalty and assistance to these capable men without reservation. The Hyrkanian complied, and once freed I retrieved my meager belongings from beneath the altar. Introductions were made: the unconscious – not dead! – Aesir was Tullweim, the Cimmerian Cuana, and the Hyrkanian Xacksmith. The latter instructed me to help him carry the woman out while Cuana slung his barbarian friend over one shoulder. With more Setites bearing down upon us, we fled the temple through another secret passage.

We’d stolen camels from the stables above, and I slung the woman across mine. Among Cuana’s belongings was an oddly shaped staff made of petrified wood with a metal head. I recognized it from my readings as a Staff of Ibis, an artifact of that cult from an ancient time. It had writing etched into it that I could not read but knew to be Valusian script, a writing form that had been dead some millennia. Fascinated, I handed the artifact over to Xacksmith, who looked upon it with great interest. He claimed the artifact for himself until they could deliver it to their employer, and no one gainsaid him.

We rode for a time before she regained consciousness, and then Fate handed me a sour hand indeed. The woman Raia claimed to be a Stygian princess, no less than the daughter of the governor of Khemi, Prince Tamumeb! She offered her gratitude and promised a reward beyond measure if we would deliver her back to her father’s house in time for a grand festival scheduled to take place in two days. When asked what was so important, she claimed to have overheard the snake-headed abominations speak of assassinating the king of Stygia and taking control of the nation.

This revelation caused my new companions to exchange dark glances, and Xacksmith explained that they had seen murals in the tomb of Hepthnon depicting the snake-headed men committing all manner of atrocity. Such depravity eclipsed even that of the current human rulers of Stygia and would spell doom for the world – or so the Hyrkanian claimed. Then Tullweim, barely clinging to consciousness, assured Raia that we would deliver on this request. Xacksmith backed him, and though Cuana initially protested that no Stygian could be trusted, he too relented. Even so, he could not prevent himself from glaring darkly at the princess, and I cannot honestly say that I blame him.

I knew then that I had entered the company of madmen.

We rode without sleep, stopping to rest the camels as little as possible to prevent the beasts from dropping dead beneath us. As we neared the city, it occurred to us that we would need disguises to enter, as no foreigners were allowed within the walls without the chains of slavery. Raia suggested that we could pose as her servants, but to do that we needed to acquire appropriate garb – particularly for the still-naked Aesir. We came upon a number of outlying huts, and after a time managed to find a Stygian willing to trade with us. Only Cuana had any coin on him, as the others had had to leave their money behind in order to affect a rescue in the first place. When diplomacy failed, the blades and threatening looks of the two large barbarians cut the asking price down to a single gold luna – still a king’s ransom for a handful of moldy outfits.

When we came to the gate, I spoke to the guards, announcing Raia in my best Stygian accent, such as it was. The guards claimed to have been expecting her to enter the city, which I found most disconcerting. I was not alone in my unease at this revelation, but we passed into the city of Khemi without further complication.

We delivered the princess to the gates of her father’s estate, riding past a massive temple where countless unfortunates were being prepared to be sacrificed to the Old Serpent. She pointed out a window on an upper floor and bid us make our way to it across the gardens, as the guards – king’s men – would not allow us into the manor. We agreed and left the gate behind us, seeking a hidden place to cross the outer wall.

After some effort, I made it to the top of the wall, and Cuana warned us from below – having gone ahead – that broken glass and pots awaited us at the bottom. Not trusting my ability to leap clear of the jagged debris, I bid him catch me as I descended, and he reluctantly agreed. Once we were all down, we hid in the outer garden while the guard patrol passed, and waited for a time until we were sure that the coast was clear. As we drew near the inner wall, we saw that it was covered in vines, which gave Tullweim pause for some reason.

As Cuana neared the flora, the vines reached out for him, a startling sight to say the least! Xacksmith swung his staff like an axe, and the metal “blade” shore through the thick trunk of the vine system, rendering the entire plant inert. This alarming sentinel destroyed, we crested the inner wall and entered the jungle-like second garden.

True darkness had fallen, and we crept through the dense foliage, having been warned by Raia of some fell guardian that supposedly prowled the grounds. We encountered no resistance as we came to the wall of the building, then followed Cuana up the side of the building. We came to the balcony that the princess had pointed out to us, and the Cimmerian pushed the curtain aside.

Within, Raia lounged on a divan and at the sight of us screamed for the guards. Outraged by this apparent treason, I readied to make an end of her before making good our escape. Xacksmith beat us all to the punch, rushing forward with the Staff of Ibis raised high. To his credit, he warned her to be silent as he approached, and when she did not comply he brought the weapon down, ending her life. As she fell, she reverted to one of the snake-headed creatures we’d seen in the Setite temple!

Clearly, the princess was in just as much peril as before, but we could hear the heavy footfalls of soldiers approaching. Cuana tossed the body in front of the door so that they would immediately see it, and the others lay in wait for the men to come. When they did, they were stunned at the sight of the monstrous corpse and four foreigners lurking in the princess’s bedroom. Xacksmith and I attempted to explain the situation, but the guards only insisted that we would have to surrender to a cell before we’d be allowed to speak with the Governor. Alas, that was an unacceptable condition.

Five of the six guards fell before my companions’ blades before we made good our escape from the castle and its grounds. We saw a wagon ridden by a pair of guards in the royal black exiting the gates of the palace and entering the city. The Hyrkanian suggested that Raia might be brought to sacrifice a second time at the culmination of the festival, and so we made our way toward that unholy ground, with an eye toward following the wagon. Unfortunately, the path we chose coincided with that of a Son of Set, a massive snake that slithered through the streets and devoured citizens as it chose fit. The Stygians sat by passively as the beast passed judgment upon them, but I knew that we would not go so quietly…

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Ambrose Chapter 12 Entry 5

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